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On My Mind

Safe

During savasana, there is meditation, tonight “loving kindness.”

First, we were prompted to generate a sensation of safety in our bodies. The teacher urged us to picture someone or some place where we feel secure and say to ourselves, in brains and in cells, “May I feel safe.”

After that, we worked through “May I feel happy” and “May I experience my life unfolding with ease.”

This kind of stuff is not my jam, as a rule, too woo-woo really, yet the first time we went through these steps in the yin class — months ago now in this year that’s lasted a decade — I found surprise in the meditation. Tears slipped down my cheeks when we were asked to apply these thoughts to someone in our lives who is difficult for us. Oh, Mom.

Turns out I am moved both by loving and by kindness.

Tonight I knew the script and, thus, relaxed into it. A feeling of safety? Not hard to generate as a white woman in a white city. Definitely not hard as a person well matched in steady partnership.

I lay on the living room floor next to him under a blanket I’d draped over us minutes before. He was almost asleep — I could hear his breath shifting — but first: he put his forearm and hand over mine, an anchor.

I felt safe. Side by side, a meditation.

Except.

I’d been on Twitter too much today. And this morning — almost two hours of coverage for that press conference, hair dye streaming down sepulchral cheek, false narrative gasping for life. The unchecked power grab horrified; it just keeps horrifying.

Snoring now, Byron was going nowhere. His forearm weighted my anxiety to the floor. Still, I wished:

May I feel safer.

Please.

And there they were, one to my left, one to my right, snuggling in between Byron and me — four of us in a row now on the rug my parents bought at an auction in the 1970s, back when Mom rubbed my back if my ear ached.

Four of us on the rug — Barack, me, Michelle, and sleeping Byron — together there, each reassuring the next.

I didn’t cry, but I felt love, and I felt kindness. All it took for me to summon the sensation of safety was 21-years of marriage, two yoga mats, four pillows, a hardwood floor, a quilted blanket, a laptop, a gifted teacher, his skin on mine, and the Obamas.

Later, while he made dinner, I unpacked for him, in a five-minute story, all 20 seconds of my personal “May you feel safe.”

Then I asked, “How about for you? I know you were awake for that first bit. What did you think of for safety?”

Just as my response to the prompt told the story of my psyche, so did his. He turned on a burner to reheat the potatoes and said, simply:

“The forest. I’m safe in the forest.”

Grabbing a dish towel, he moved to the oven to pull out the meatballs, his happy life continuing to unfold with ease.


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Five in Five

Five in Five: Friday, February 2

And I’d been sleeping so deeply, too.

But then came the moment when my bladder was so full my brain started to surface, and my body’s first impulse, a sort of readying itself to stand, was to roll over.

Holy mother of lightning in the fascia. 

Pain radiated from seven different places in my right shoulder — the shoulder I had NOT been sleeping on all night. If I put my arm to my side, pain. If I curled my elbow, pain. If I tried reaching above my head, pain. If I pushed upright to seated, pain. When I reached for toilet paper, pain. 

The location of the pain was familiar. Infrequently but regularly throughout my lifetime, I’ve suffered from a pinched nerve in my shoulder and clavicle. Usually, it lasts for a few hours, rates about a 2 on the pain scale, and then recedes. Always, I have dismissed it as a side effect of boob poundage being harnessed through straps cutting into my shoulders. So, y’know, the pinched nerve has always been a thing that’s not a thing.

But the other morning, with that roaring wake-up, that holy mother of lightning in my fascia at dawn, I experienced that familiar pain magnified by a thousand, a 6 or 7 out of 10 on the pain scale, if a 10 is a baby’s head crowning.

I took some ibuprofen. I tried to stretch and move to loosen up. But no, no, no. It hurt too much. 

Twenty minutes later, the pills took the edge off enough for me to fall back asleep, but when I awoke again a few hours later, the gnashing heat beast in my shoulder and arm was raging. I took two more ibuprofen, texted Byron that, no, I didn’t need a ride to the doctor or anything but that I wouldn’t be meeting him at yoga over the noon hour. 

Fuck me, but this was dumb. Thanks to the ibuprofen, my shoulder felt okay, but I figured I shouldn’t tax it with Downward Dogs and slow eases to the floor. As I went for a run later that afternoon, I tried to riddle out what might have triggered such a bizarre “Hello, this is Jocelyn’s shoulder, and I hate you” episode. Nothing. I had done nothing hard or unusual that might have caused such pain. Naturally, it took about three leaps of thought before I decided maybe I was developing a “frozen shoulder,” and I didn’t even have to visit WebMD for that diagnosis. The same way I often become convinced I have colon cancer the morning after eating beets, I was well able to self-diagnose myself into misplaced hysteria without the aid of technology. 

Fortunately, in the happiest story I’d lived since the time my cousin set me up with a tall blonde guy, once the ibuprofen took over, it pretty much solved the problem. The next day and the day after, I had only residual soreness — kind of like I’d been in a car crash, had my head jerked back dramatically, and then felt that trauma bone-deep for a few days afterwards.

By Thursday, yoga actually seemed recommended, as a means of getting the soreness to dissipate. Body perked, “Let’s toss out a few warriors, Jocey, and show that shoulder who’s in charge of the ligaments!

Yoga. was. great. It was the perfect remedy to the stunned soreness that lingered — because yoga does that full-body stuff so many other activities neglect. Fifty minutes on a mat puts the body through its full range of motion, which is the only way to take stock of what’s really going on in there. For me, it was shortly after the teacher made some nominal announcements, did an easy warm-up, and started moving us slowly through Sun Saluation A that my body sent a shouted message: HEY, LADY IN CHARGE OF THE LIGAMENTS, ARE YOU NOTICING HOW EVERY TIME YOU DO CHATURANGA AND EVERY TIME YOU STEP BACK INTO WARRIOR ONE, YOUR EXACT SORE SPOTS LIGHT UP AND CREATE A LINE FROM YOUR NECK, THROUGH YOUR SHOULDER, DOWN YOUR BACK, PAUSING IN THE HIP FLEXOR BEFORE OOMPHING INTO YOUR SCIATICA? DID YOU NOTICE HOW YOUR SHOULDER PAIN IS ACTUALLY LIVING IN YOUR BUTT? HUD, DIDJA?”

Body has a terrible indoor voice, but Body was right. What I had perceived to be localized shoulder pain was, in fact, a long line of connected pain running through the right side of my body. Yet. Each time I moved through another Sun Salutation, each time I stretched and held and focused, some of the soreness released — oozing out of me to the corner where it slid around the floor lamp in a slow-motion ring-around-the-rosy. 

By the end of class, nothing had changed. Everything had changed. 

This has been the case for the past twelve years, ever since Byron and I started attending yoga classes at the Y together. The kids were finally old enough to tolerate the Kids’ Club sometimes, so we would toss them towards the toys and dash upstairs to sit in a darkened room and slow our breathing. Over the years, I’ve gotten stronger — despite the set-back at one point of, yeah, shoulder surgery — and I’ve gotten better at balance, which is essential to graceful aging, and I’ve learned that all the woo-woo talk about “the breath” isn’t bullshit at all but is some powerful woo-woo ju-ju that has gotten me through root canals without slapping the endodontist like he deserved.

Yoga is alive for me because it changes as I change; it mirrors my life back to me in unexpected ways; it challenges me to challenge myself; it provides me a safe place — that mat the same length as my body — in a mean, mean world. 

Along the way, I’ve had five yoga teachers, each of whom has had a different impact (MY DUDES: LOOK AT ME GETTING TO FIVE THINGS IN THIS “FIVE IN FIVE” EXERCISE):

1. There was Julie, with cascading red hair and a silver bell voice, young, newly married, deeply into the Yoga Fit training she’d recently completed. Julie was our first, and Byron and I shared a glorious crush on her. Julie’s class was one of the few spaces just for me during those years when the kids were small and dominated my body as their own. She taught us the “Breath of Fire,” she took time to make us relax our jaw muscles, and her teaching nurtured me into accepting the clear weaknesses in my abilities. 

2. After Julie moved away, there was Laura, sister-in-law to a kinda-famous musician guy. Her husband was in the Coast Guard, which usually means “passing through,” but still, her whole being felt rooted. Did I like Laura? I’m not sure. But I respected her knowledge and serious focus in the studio. And one day, when she audibly passed gas while we were doing Wind Release pose, I felt we could be friends.

3. Once Laura’s husband was assigned a new post, we started going to classes offered by Amy, teacher at the charter high school, sister to a renowned snowshoe runner, and yes, I realize it’s a very specific place in the world where snowshoe runners can be renowned. Amy’s classes were hard, and while she tuned into many of her students, I didn’t register with her at all. During this time, I was particularly dumpy and big, just trying to get through days with little kids without crying, and so it felt okay to remain in Amy’s shadows. Eventually, she got pregnant and stopped teaching at the Y. Nowadays, I see her in group fitness classes or running around the track with her now-elementary-school-aged daughter, and I know her exactly while she recognizes me not at all.

4. Then we moved into attending classes with Kristin, a wonderfully trained and detailed master teacher, but someone who intimidated me terribly for a years because I initially perceived her classes as cliquey; all my adolescent demons cackled during Kristin’s classes, jeering that I couldn’t touch the floor in Half Moon Pose, thumbing their warty noses at my lack of the classic “lean” yoga body. But then this thing happened where I just kept going to Kristin’s classes, and I just kept being okay with me, and even when Byron broke his wrist and stepped away from yoga for a few years, I just kept going and getting okayer and okayer with looking at my strong, capable body in front of that mirror, and eventually I realized Kristin had been awesome all along; the problem was me. When I had that shoulder surgery a couple years ago, my physical therapist asked me to articulate some benchmarks that would help us decide when I was “done.” Easily, emphatically, I told him, “When I can start going to yoga class again, I’ll know I’m back.” 

About a week before I was ready to try yoga again, I ran into Kristin outside the locker room at the Y — certain she didn’t know me, despite my years in her classes — and, bless, bless, bless her, she stopped and said, “You ARE still around! I thought maybe you were one of those people who disappeared because she got a job somewhere else and had to move.” Nope. Shoulder surgery. And getting back to her classes was a kind of finish line for me. After I filled her in, she smiled and said, “I love having people in class who are recovering from something. They teach me so much.”

5. Alternating with Kristin is a newer teacher, Kerry, a man who was a student in Kristin’s classes alongside me for years. At some point, he disappeared — turns out he’d gone to Sweden to eat candy fish, study yoga, and complete teacher training. Now he’s back, and it was this week as I entered the yoga studio with worry about my zappy shoulder in my head that I was able to experience Kerry as a teacher for the first time. He’s earnest and connected to the people in the room, sometimes miscuing, laughing when he catches himself, and I enjoyed the ease in the room.

In that dim studio with Christmas lights dotting the dusky corners, Kerry, my fifth yoga teacher, is learning teaching at the same time I’m learning to face myself in the mirror without flinching, to tuck my shoulder blades into my back pockets, to come to yoga as I can, to get from it what it gives, to nod as I realize the power of this thing is the slow burn, where I walk into the studio again and again, year after year, my children small to grown, my husband next to me or not, my self-esteem increasingly intact, my aches and pains flaring and fading, the stresses of family and students and money all set aside for that hallowed hour when the only thing I can control, the only thing I have power over, is myself on the mat.

———————-

Typing: 55:46, so you can see how there are two 5’s involved, which makes this true to “Five in Five”

Editing: 16:04

 

 

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Five in Five

Five in Five: Tuesday, January 23

In an effort to get myself writing — writing anything — I’m going to try to type every day: five minutes of freewriting and brain dump followed by five minutes of cleaning up the dump. The results will be random, but at least I’ll be making myself get words out. I have no idea how long I’ll keep up with this challenge (probably just today, knowing me and my interest in challenges), so don’t bet the house.

  1. I love having bright blue toenails when I go to yoga class because every time we do a forward fold, it’s like I’m diving into shards of the sky;
  2. Those twins on Season 16 of Project Runway were insufferable; I realize this is not breaking news to fans of the show, but we’ve only just gotten through the whole season, and so it’s only now that I’ve watched the reunion episode that my annoyance is complete. They remind me of a set of twins I had in class a few years ago who fed each other’s drama and upset the entire energy of the room. One of those twins, in finding out her final grade in the class was a “D,” petulantly told me “When I become a nurse, if you’re ever in one of my rooms, I’m going to give you poor care”;
  3. In the latest installment of my eternal battle with having a body that is both puffy and slack, I have been revamping what I eat. A few months ago, my pal Maggi told me about what she eats most days now that she’s following an anti-inflammatory diet, and it is from her that I got the idea for a daily breakfast of sauteed greens topped by a poached egg. Additionally, I add a tablespoon or so of a nice grain (all hail quinoa and farro!) to sop up the egg yolk, and it’s at the point now where I can’t wait for breakfast each day;
  4. Last week, I had about four days of eating sauteed mustard greens as part of that breakfast, and I tell you, my sinuses have never been so clear;
  5. While I am not purposely adopting an anti-inflammatory diet, I had this moment the other night where I realized that I hadn’t been taking ibuprofen during the day or before bed, as I have for quite some time. Like, it hasn’t even occurred to me to want or need ibuprofen. All this leads my sleuthing brain to wonder if staying away, for the most part, from bread, beer, and other carbs while eating more greens and lean proteins has yielded a surprise revelation: that I have not been a person who suffers from being both puffy and slack but, rather, that I’ve just been INFLAMED;
  6. Okay, all that typing in #1-5 actually took me six minutes and thirty-four seconds, so I exceeded my rule of five minutes. GOOD. I like to do things my own way, so thank you for showing up, #6! You are a welcome violation.

Check back tomorrow for further violations. Maybe I’ll take up two parking spaces or let my imaginary dog run off-leash within the city limits.

—————————-

 

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kids

Preschool Pom Poms

Out of the cacophony of Facebook, good things can emerge. Tips, recommendations, friendships, support, connections, networking — all of these have come to me through Facebook. But my favorite Facebook moments happen when a thinking person uses the platform for storytelling. My friend Ellen is a master at maximizing the Facebook space for sharing vignettes and insights from her days. As someone who teaches yoga to children, she has endless material and inspiration. Below is one of her stories.

Every time I read her posts, I get to love her more.
IMG_20160518_112619

Today in preschool yoga we played “The Popcorn Game.” It basically involves me putting pom pom “kernels” in a pot, pretending to “pop” them, and then throwing them all over the room for the kids to pick up and put back in the pot.

Let me tell you, it is a thrill. Seriously. Most requested activity by far in every age group. The sentence I hear most frequently in class? “Are we playing the popcorn game today?” Some kids even peek in my bags, and yell out, to cheers, “SHE BROUGHT THE POM POMS!!” (Best $2.69 I ever spent!)

When I play it with big kids, they have to pick up the pom poms with their toes, no hands allowed.

But for preschoolers, it’s enough to run around without smashing into one another, to organize their bodies to gather the little fuzzies and get them back to the pot.

Today I took out the pot and the pom poms to the usual cheers.

Except for one little boy I’ll call Charlie. Charlie was sad and worried, remembering that last time, he “didn’t get any popcorn.”

It’s true. But it’s not because the other kids were grabby or hyper competitive. It’s because Charlie’s nervous system was so mesmerized, so overwhelmed by the mere visual WOW of seeing pink and green pom poms all over the room, all he could do was stand in the middle of the room, grinning with every muscle north of his toes. He. Was. In. Heaven.

Until all the popcorn was cleaned up and he hadn’t gotten a single pom pom. And then tears.

So today we had a pep talk before class. I walked everyone through the steps. Find a pom pom. Bend down. Pick up a pom pom. Bring it back to the pot. Repeat.

Charlie was still very worried. You could see the worry on his face and also in his sadly clenching and unclenching hands and toes.

The pom poms flew, and Charlie’s joy took over for a few seconds, dancing him up and off his mat and into the game. There he stood, pointing at the other kids, telling me in a very sad voice, “They are getting all the pom poms!”

“Charlie, sweetie!” I encouraged him. “Look down! There are pom poms right there, next to your feet! Get them!”

But his focus was on the other kids and on his lack of pom poms, and he had no extra brainspace to coordinate the next step.

“They have lots of pom poms, and I don’t have any.”

“Charlie! Bend your legs! Bend down! Touch the ground! THERE ARE LOTS OF POM POMS RIGHT THERE BY YOUR TOES!!” I coached him, in as gentle and patient a tone as I could muster.

Meanwhile, well-meaning, cheerful kids were closing in on his ankles, and…..GONE! Pom poms were all back in the pot.

Tears.

So we tried again.

And again.

And on the third try, with some help from me levitating a handful of pom poms halfway to Charlie’s hands, SUCCESS! Charlie put some pom poms in the pot!

VICTORY!

My takeaways:

1) The preschool nervous system is very much a work in progress, and some kids need LOTS of time to figure out what seem to us like the simplest of tasks. Kids need time and space and patience and for things to be broken down into the smallest steps.

2) Worry about failure can be so big that it consumes the resources we do have to see what’s in front of us, to take the next step, to see how close we are to success.

3) My next book will be entitled Who Moved My Pom Pom? I’ll have Charlie write the foreword.

———————-

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therapy

The Third Floor

PLUM2G

Her tears wet my shoulder. I hardly knew her.

Three minutes earlier, we’d been standing next to a cement pillar, talking quietly but intensely. Our bodies were close, the conversation intimate. An onlooker would have guessed we’d known each other for years.

Yet I’d only spoken to Molly a couple of times before–in the locker room, maybe once in yoga class after she moved her mat to make room for me. Nothing in our limited history paved the way for this conversation. It had started with me asking, casually, “How’s life?” while we gathered and laid out our equipment for the Core Challenge class that was about to start.

That’s all it took. As she answered, we stopped fussing with body bars, stability balls, hand weights. We stopped rustling up props. We stopped traversing the wide expanse of the third floor of the YMCA, where group exercise classes are held. We slowed our hustle, stood by the pillar, and turned our faces towards each other.

“My son’s been having a hard year,” she confessed. “Before high school, his grades were good, and he did well socially. But now he’s depressed and can’t focus, and he’s having trouble with friends. We’ve got him on the wait list for Amberwing. We’re all counting down until that can happen…”

I interrupted: “What’s Amberwing? I’ve heard the name, but I don’t really know what it is.”

“It’s a mental health program for kids. Once he’s in, he’ll go there instead of to school; he’ll still do his work and everything, but he’ll also have the support and counseling he needs. After three weeks, he’ll transition back to ‘regular’ life,” Molly explained.

“Don’t you love a world where your struggling kid has options like this?” I asked. “I mean, he may not be in any state to feel appreciative about it, of course, but, man, if he’s in a tough place, and you feel like it’s bigger than you and your husband can handle, it’s terrific that this resource exists. How does your son feel about going into a special program? I can imagine it might make him feel stigmatized or something…?”

“Oh, no, he’s actually really excited about it,” Molly clarified. “He knows something needs to change, and he has hopes that this will help him. He’s just trying to get through the days until he’s off the wait list. We all are. Things at home aren’t helping…because…well, it looks like my husband and I are getting divorced.”

Although she tried to announce it casually, a flood of tears overtook her. “It’s all so…”–casting about for words, she wiped below her eyes, trying to preserve her eyeliner. The director of an important community organization, she had a meeting later. Trying again, she managed, “At home…it’s just not…” before another wash of tears filled her eyes. Crumpling, her face was full of agony as she choked out, “And he doesn’t understand…I’m the bad guy…but I’m so unhappy…and he just…”

Oh, hell. This poor woman. Although I was sweaty from working out before the Core Challenge class, I moved in and grabbed her, hard.

Swaying quietly next to our mats, our hug marooned in a sea of hand weights and stability balls, we stood together, her head on my sweaty, exposed shoulder, her mascara dotting my freckles.

I whispered to her,”Oh, honey. I’m so sorry. What a crappy time for both of you. Damn.” A fresh wave of grief poured out of her. At the same time, the third floor was filling up with other class participants; awed–or made uncomfortable–by the unexpected display of public emotion, they averted their gazes, flowing around our embrace, grabbing their equipment, tightening their hairbands, pulling up their socks, readying themselves for the warm-up.

Then the teacher walked to the front of the room, oblivious, completely unaware that the premiere episode of a new daytime drama entitled Tears by the Pillar was airing. “Time to get started!” she called out. “Let’s begin with some squats. I hope you’re all good with the eighties mix I’ve got going on the iPod today!”

Pulling back from Molly, I looked at her eyes. “You okay?”

“Yea. This is kind of how it goes these days. I have random breakdowns, and then I get back to life. I’m fine. We’d better do some squats.”

With that, I stepped onto my mat, faced the teacher, and bent my legs. In an unprecedented move, I had just turned my back on a crying woman. Behind me, Molly dabbed at her eyes as she, too, squatted to the beat of Dexy’s Midnight Runners.

After four squats, I couldn’t take it. Breaking form, abandoning my mat, I stepped back to Molly and acknowledged, “Okay, this is really weird. Like, you’re telling me your life’s woes, and we’re having a moment, but then, in a split second, I’m all ‘Buh-bye! Time to squat!’ It’s just bizarre.”

Agreeing, Molly said, “It’s super weird. You’re in front of me, though, so I’ll pass time during class by hissing ‘I’m gonna kick your ass’ every time you bend over.”

Sixty minutes later, her tears replaced by perspiration, Molly’s face was shining. As we carried our body bars to the rack, I picked up the thread of our earlier conversation. “So we know that your son has something to look forward to. Thanks to Amberwing, he feels like he can escape the pain of his current situation. But what about your current painful situation?”

There was no protecting her eyeliner. Tears smudged the black while Molly provided details of her marriage and divorce, admitting that she initiated the break-up; that her husband was a decent man who, romantically, did nothing for her; that his sadness blinded him to hers. She wiped her eyes and described the sensation of watching life leave her behind. More than anything, she didn’t want the years to pass with a grind of “I’m existing” but, rather, with joy and energy; at the same time, she was struggling with guilt over pursuing divorce when her marriage was “okay enough.” Beyond the sadness and guilt, she was grappling with her parents’ potential reactions. Knowing how deeply committed they were to Catholicism, she feared their judgment. As a result, she was avoiding seeing them or telling them of her decision.

Our equipment put away, knowing she had to get to a meeting, I dared quick counsel: “Only you can hunt down your own happiness, and if a divorce is necessary for you to be happy, then you’re doing the right thing. If you get stuck on everyone else’s reactions, you’ll never move your life forward into what you want it to be. I don’t think you should feel guilty. You should congratulate yourself for having courage–because that’s what it takes to blow up your life so that it can become a better thing. Don’t view yourself as weak or bad or wrong. Give yourself credit for handling your problem. I respect people who look the tough stuff in the face and deal with it. Oh, and one more thing before you zip off to change clothes: tell your parents. Once you tell them, then they can show you who they really are. So long as you avoid the conversation, you’re conjuring their reactions, which isn’t fair to them. Take their reactions out of your imagination and let them handle reality.”

With one last hug, she headed back to work. We both felt lighter. In myriad ways, that’s what The Third Floor does.

PLUM2G

——————-

The next day, I was again on the third floor, running around the track, when I noticed a friend, Flynn, doing yoga on the wooden floor.

As I passed him, I pulled out an ear bud and called a quick “Hiya, Mister.” Sheepishly, he laughed as he greeted me and explained, “I feel silly doing yoga in front of the mirror like this, but I really need to see how my Warrior Three looks. Something about it isn’t feeling right.”

“Dude,” I affirmed, “we all need to see how our Warrior Threes look. Not to mention our Trees, Lotuses, and Crescent Warriors. A mirror is so helpful. I always think I’ve got my hips down and my shoulders tucked in, but then I glance in the mirror and it’s a big ‘Uh-oh’ moment of adjustment. A mirror is your friend, so have at it. Also, what I mean to say is, ‘Gollee, but you’re vain. I’m so sure you’re doing yoga in front of a massive wall of mirrors like some sort of insecure super model.'”

Laughing again, ever jovial, he revealed, “I actually did used to be vain about yoga. You know, I started practicing back in the ’70s, before it was the big trend. I just did it by myself, never going to a class, but I got pretty good at it. So I was the 1970s guy who’d do yoga and then go to a party. Everyone would be drinking, swallowing pills, getting high, and I’d pull out my headstand. I’d pop up into it and dazzle everyone. It was the best party trick!”

Supposing it was his excellent party tricks that first attracted his wife, I shifted the conversation into asking after her–and for an update on the apartment they’d been radically rehabbing over the past few months. Continuing to stretch on his mat, Flynn admitted that he’s glad he married the woman he did; she’s a force in all the best ways, particularly when it comes to home renovations. “She’s so gifted at overseeing all the work that I call her ‘Commander,'” he told me, grabbing his ankles and lifting them into the air. “But then we look at her mother, and we all have to concede she’s the real Commander, what with having raised that huge household of kids. Maybe my mother-in-law is the ‘Master Commander’ while my wife is merely ‘Commander.'”

Nimbly leaping, the conversation segued into the idea of families with lots of children. I told Flynn, “When Byron and I met, I wanted three kids. Byron, though, was a proponent of Zero Population Growth and insisted we should replace ourselves, nothing more. Ultimately, we shook hands, exchanged rings, and agreed that we’d take it one kid at a time.”

Flynn, a holder of public office and jailed Conscientious Objector during the Vietnam War, empathized with Byron’s concern about the future of an overpopulated planet. “Fortunately, the Commander and I both knew we only wanted a couple of kids, so we didn’t have to debate the issue.”

I nodded. “Yea, as it turns out, two kids has been exactly right for us. I wasn’t completely sure after Paco was born, but then the eminently logical Byron put it to me this way: ‘At the end of each day, do you feel like we have more time, money, and energy to give? Or do you feel, with the two kids we already have, that we’re tapped out?’ Basically, when he asked me to consider those things, it became clear that I’m completely tapped out just taking care of my own self–I mean, some days just getting into a bra is a seven-minute endeavor–which means I’m beyond tapped–suffering from negative tappage–after factoring in two kids. So we sent him off to the doctor to get a surprisingly traumatic vasectomy. But that’s another story. All you really need to know is that it ends this way: our bathroom was smeared with blood, there was a four-hour emergency surgery, Byron lived, and we didn’t have any more kids.”

As I spoke, I peered over my shoulder to see if any other runners were coming around the track, and in the process I caught a glimpse of Flynn in the mirror. Although in his sixties, his neck still smacked of the 18-year-old draftee he’d once been. His hair, adorably curly, had to be one of seven hundred things the Commander loves about him. However, for me, a member of the public he serves, it wasn’t the body I saw in the mirror that held the most appeal. Rather, it was his laugh, a velvety chuckle rolling across the open space of the third floor, that made our conversation feel like a heart-opening yoga pose.

“All right, my friend. I should let you do your thing,” I said, regretfully, tucking the bud back into my ear.

“Yea, I only have a few minutes for this today, and if I don’t do it, my back goes out. These days, I stand at a lot of my meetings, in fact. My back gives me such problems, but most days, I can’t find time to do the stretching and yoga that keep it functional.”

Wanting to continue my streak of unsolicited counseling, because I’m nothing if not willing to intrude where I haven’t been invited, I raised my eyebrows and noted, “Now, I know I’ve given you this mini-lecture before, but let me reinforce it one more time before I twirl off into the dim recesses of the third floor and your mind: if you step back and consider your life’s priorities, I’m sure the usual topics surface–family, work, health. But if you really stack those three things in order of importance, I’ll wager work isn’t ranked higher than health, is it? I’ll bet, at the end of the day, at the end of your life, health and family come before work. So live your every day accordingly. Schedule an hour each day that is devoted to yoga and doing the things that preserve your back’s health, and set that hour in stone. It is non-negotiable. Then, when someone from work says, ‘Let’s have a meeting at 1 p.m. Wednesday,’ your answer will be, ‘I’m sorry. I already have a commitment at that time. I can meet at 2 or 3 p.m., though.’ Here’s the thing, Flynn: the second you start scheduling work first and then try to fit exercise around the work hours, the exercise doesn’t happen. Schedule exercise first, if only because a healthy Flynn is a gift to his family, which is your other top priority. If your back goes out, and you’re immobile for days, then you’ve just put a burden on the Commander and those who love you. You don’t want that, right? So take the steps that keep you healthy, and that will then help your family, and it will also make you more effective at work. A hunchy, limping Flynn isn’t doing anyone any favors.”

True to form, Flynn chortled throughout my entire lecture, smiling and nodding. “You should become a motivational speaker, Jocelyn,” he noted.

“I appreciate the compliment, but the truth is that I’d need to end every talk in anti-motivational fashion. I’d grab my audience by their shoulders, shake them soundly, and then slap them across their faces, à la Cher in Moonstruck, while yelling, ‘SNAP OUT OF IT!'”

With that, I gave Flynn a wave and started trotting around the track, calling out, “I’m leaving now so I don’t slap you.”

———–

And then there’s the Japanese woman, Aiko, who is a special Third Floor pal. Our friendship grew out of commonality: we two are always racing in at the last minute, frantically pulling off our snow boots, twelve layers of fleece, and a dusting of down to reveal sassy tank tops. A few days after I chatted with Flynn, I was hanging out with Aiko after a class where we’d been in the same group while doing circuits. Together, we’d jumped sideways over hurdles, carried thirty-pounds in each hand while race-walking around the track, panted shoulder-to-shoulder during cross-body mountain climbers on upside down Bosu balls. Even though our verbal exchanges had always been quick, how could we not be intimate after sweating, side-by-side, unable to speak for lack of breath?

That day, as Aiko jammed her feet into her boots after class, I lingered to tell her I’d seen her the previous week at the store, but she’d seemed busy, so I hadn’t said hi. Scanning her memory, she recalled that outing, explaining, “I have new job as home healthcare aid. My client like me go Co-op with her. We choose teas and oils. It fun!”

“That does sound fun,” I agreed, suddenly entertaining thoughts of work as a home healthcare aid. “I thought you worked as a translator, though?”

“I do that, too,” she replied. “Actually, I have get home now for translating. Last night, very late, I received court document that need translating. They need it today.” Then pulling her hat snugly over her ears, she added, “With court document, I have look up every word. It take long time!”

As Aiko and I were talking, a third woman, Kiera, chimed in from the sidelines. Kiera has gorgeous porcelain skin and a fluff of yellow hair; her affect is gauzy and drifty, and whenever she floats around the third floor, from weight bench to water fountain, she reminds me of a handful of dandelion fluff wafting through the air on a lazy summer afternoon.

Two days before, Kiera and I had started talking after class while she was stretching. When I raved that she smelled amazing–one of my finest pick-up lines, startling in its simplicity–and told her she was essentially a human Aveda salon, she went to her bag and pulled out a tin of salve. Apparently, during her late teens, her period stopped, and she went two years without menstruating. Instead of embracing the interventions of traditional medicine, she researched holistic options and discovered a company that sells natural, homeopathic treatments. Since then, she has applied this amazing-smelling salve all over her body every day, even in her hair. Her period returned, her skin looks fabulous, and I have to restrain myself from nuzzling her arm pits whenever she’s next to me during class. Not only does she lead with a tang of peppermint when she arrives late and races to clip her stretchy band on to the Core Pole, she ripens sweetly once the sweat begins. As an added bonus, she is now a distributor of these products, so “…if you ever want, for $50, I can get you a tin of your own salve.”

Thanking Kiera for the generous offer, I grabbed my gym bag and head for the stairs while thinking,”I’m leaving now so I don’t slap you.”

She’s actually quite lovely. But The Third Floor is my special place. I don’t take my wallet there. I am not a consumer there. Rather, I’m a mover, seeking the detoxifying cleanse offered by an honest sweat. I chat; I smile; I rock out; I become stronger. The Third Floor is my version of The Third Space.

The concept of The Third Space was presented in the late 1980s by author Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place. This book notes that most people have two social environments: home and work–but Oldenburg also looks at the “other” spaces that provide us with a sense of place, that contribute to our feelings of community and engagement. In previous centuries, many civilizations had informal meeting places, say, the town square or the public baths, but nowadays, people have become more deliberate in seeking out Third Spaces. For some, The Third Space is the local coffee shop, maybe the library, perhaps a bar. The Third Space could be a center where volunteer work is done. No matter how it manifests in one’s life, The Third Space is an anchor of social life, community building, and creative interactions.

For me, The Third Space is The Third Floor, an open expanse where rich interplay happens twenty feet from a punching bag. Nowhere else in my life do I carry out conversations in close proximity to medicine balls. There are mats, then talk. There are weights, some disclosures. There are stability balls, rolling about unattended while tears are shed. There are two-minute exchanges that keep my brain working for hours.

It’s a unique spot in my life, The Third Floor.

There, we exchange deep intimacies and then ignore each other. We are there for each other yet expect nothing of each other. The interactions are authentic and simple–clean in a way that much of life isn’t.

So I spend seven minutes getting myself into a bra. I tighten the laces on my Mizunos. I park in the ramp next to the Y. I trudge up the stairs, dropping my bag with a thump at the top. Then I look around and see the familiar faces, feel the buzz of anticipation, tap my foot to the beat pulsing through the speakers. I catch eyes with someone. I ask, “How’s it going?”

And we’re off.

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and if there's a name for that spot is there a name for the little dent between my nose and lip? why is yoga funnier than anything?

Vigilantly Constricting

Tree Pose YogaThen there was the time I hotfooted into yoga class ten minutes late and discovered that, uncharacteristically, the teacher had taken some time for talk before movement. Hoping to illuminate the theory behind the practice, she’d explained a few terms and their role in the various poses we’d be doing.

By the time I slunk in, the class was well into its sun salutations. Much like when I was in college, I tried to fake my way through having missed the lecture.

Thus, whenever the teacher instructed us to “tighten in mula bandha,” I sucked in my rib cage, figuring mula bandha probably meant abs. What else could a person be tightening?

As someone who largely bluffed her way through college, I remain a curious being, however. My brain’s aware of its deficits and hopes to plug at least a few of them. Thus, massaging my tender abdominals, I later took a minute to look up mula bandha.

Well now.

So the yoga teacher had been telling all of us to clench the spot between our sex organs and our anuses.

In addition to feeling quite sorry I’d missed the presentation of that definition–what if there had been a pie chart? infographics? a laser pointer?–I also felt sorry that I’d missed out on the chance to use mula bandha to make A Special Place sore through repeated willful compression.

You see, I embrace new experiences. Every hour is an opportunity, friends, and it’s an intrepid woman who rushes forward, arms and anus open, to greet possibility.

After some consideration and online training, I decided to undertake an independent study; I spent the rest of the day tensing, contracting, and clamping in mula bandha. Not to cast aspersions on lovers past, but my nethers had never before experienced such focused concentration. By nightfall, I had managed to create in my privates an unsatisfied ache.

Ultimately, then, this is a story of how yoga taught me to be both my best and my worst lover.

 

——————-

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yoga kept me from screaming in public

Conscious Sedation

Yog and beer

The other night, as I was sipping the head off my third beer, I started to contemplate the complex relationship I have with my yoga teacher—even though she only knows me as Beefy Lady in the Colorful Headband. Although I have recently discovered subtleties in my relationship with this woman, mostly I’m afraid of her.

For one thing, her aura is cloudy.  I suspect that if I were walking in front of her down a sidewalk on a rainy day, and I slipped in a puddle and fell with an ignominious splash onto my gluteus maximus, her reaction would be to stop, stare condescendingly, and then, after a scornful beat, say, “GEEZ. Get up already. What are you? A whiner? The longer you sit, the wetter you get.”

Sometimes, during yoga class, I fear she might belittle my hamstrings.

She’s not a harpy. That’s not what I mean. But she’s toughlike an over-salted T-bone steak grilled for ten hours on a well-stoked hibachi in the middle of August in the hottest part of Death Valley. There is no nonsense brooked in her yoga class, and woe to he who comes late, locks his elbows while in Plank position, or refuses a clearly-necessary foam block to bolster the buttocks during Pigeon pose.

These feelings about my teacher don’t align with the general woo-woo vibe of yoga and the ways in which those pursuing their practice generally regard their instructors. Yoga practitioners want to wax on meltingly about how nurtured, safe, and harmonized their yogi leaders leave them feeling.

Tree Pose Yoga

I’m well acquainted with this brand of chakra-opening yoga teacher love because I’ve experienced it. Ten years ago, when my husband, Byron, and I first started attending yoga twice a week, we went into the initial session as skeptics, with Byron threatening, as he entered the studio, “There better not be incense. That’s all I’m saying.” Five minutes later, a lovely young woman with long auburn hair floated in, unrolled a mat in the front of the room, and asked winsomely—her voice tinkling with silver bells—if anyone had allergies, as she didn’t want to trigger them when she started burning incense. Smitten, Byron extended his hand toward her, a lit match pinched between his thumb and forefinger. Moments later, as she picked up two small cymbals and sent their tone ringing, I felt all tension leave my body, and when she announced, “Let’s begin with the Breath of Fire,” Byron and I exchanged a glance that said, “Yes, yes, let’s do start with the Breath of Fire! Whatever that is!” At the end of the hour, warm, cleansed, full of peace, we staggered out of class, leaned into each other, and hummed a new mantra: “Yummmmmmmmmm.”

Silver Bell Teacher cranked up our woo-woo something fierce.

In contrast, my current yoga teacher gives the impression that she could order All the Positive Energy in the Universe to go sit in the corner and think about what it had done, and APEU would comply with no sass, no backtalk, not a single protest of “But I didn’t even….” What’s more, my current yoga teacher has a cadre of regulars she knows by name and with whom she shares insider “I like you more than the others” talk. Her no-nonsense attitude, coupled with the implication that she prefers certain pupils, is intimidating in a way that leaves me feeling guarded instead of flooded with ananda, that blissful feeling of utter joy that is—DUH—an essential quality of the ultimate Reality.

So why is she my teacher? Why do I attend her classes?

She’s really, really good. That’s why. Her classes are challenging, no doubt, but she knows her Sanskrit, and her cues for each position are detailed and clear. Over the years, I’ve realized that it’s her natural speaking style that makes her seem terse. The way the words come out of her mouth doesn’t accurately reflect who she is inside. In fact, she laughs and chats easily—even though I still quiver and brace for a slap as she socializes. My perception of her is as much about my own insecurities as it is about what she’s emitting. She’s a nice person. I just don’t think she’d have much patience for tears at the dinner table.

Having such knotty feelings about this woman, I would never have predicted that I’d rely on her—heavily—during some grim and painful hours.

You see, I had a root canal a few months ago.

This is the point where Third Beer Brain is tempted to send my yoga teacher into the endodontist’s office so that she can startle him with a brusque command to set down his barbed broach and step away from his reamer. Third Beer Brain wants Yoga Teacher to defy my 220-pound endodontist, a bit of a crabby beast in his own right, to attempt Standing Half Moon pose right there in the office. When he gives it his best shot, she’ll clip out, “This. is. not. a. side. bending. pose. This. is. a. side. stretching. pose.”

The thing about Third Beer Brain is that it’s not buzzed enough to be dishonest. My yoga teacher has never met my endo, much less barked at him in a way that would result in a strengthening of his core. With my luck, if the two scaries ever do meet, Yoga Teacher will suggest he release his ego, at which point they’ll devolve into fits of laughter at the very thought and, in the space of three minutes of friendly giggling, realize they have much in common, for they are both deep tissue practitioners. A week later, I’d encounter them when they’re out on a date having chai, and the ensuing shock and distress at seeing my life’s most-frightening people at a table together would result in a need for therapy I can’t afford.

Clearly, it’s a good thing Third Beer Brain is a regular Abe Lincoln when it comes to probity.

Anyhow, having had a root canal a handful of years ago, and having found it fairly traumatic, I headed into this recent procedure plagued by nerves. The night before I went into the endo to have him open the afflicted tooth, I was chatting with a friend on the phone, attempting to explain my trepidation. This friend has never had a root canal, but she was sympathetic to the sustained and invasive awfulness of the process, noting, “I can only imagine what it’s like to sit there and have part of your skull scraped out with a drill and a baby toothbrush. I’m pretty sure I’d have to cope with the whole thing by doing yoga in my mind.”

Wazzat, Harmony Borealis? You’d have to huh?

As we say in the Midwest: real good then. You go right ahead, honey, and imagine you could visualize your way into a sun-dappled mental state, a place where chataranga dandasana trumps three hours of dental dam. Realistically, though? Having a team of professionals pour bleaching agents into a well that’s been drilled into one’s gums isn’t something a person can tune out.

Of course, nothing is more familiar to me than a feeling of superiority being brought sharply to heel.

Because, um, well, you see, the next morning, er, well, uh,

the endodontist had to give me twelve shots before my mouth would go numb (which was in NO WAY related to my body’s well-developed tolerance for painkilling substances, so hesh up your observational thinking already; if you want to be such a smarty pants, maybe go read the studies that prove redheads require more Novocain before they feel the effect and lay off my love of beer… and wine… plus the odd vodka-gin-rum…). After the twelfth injection, when finally he was able to get down to serious drilling, I felt my innards trending towards panic.

Tree in Tooth

As hysteria was cresting, my yoga teacher’s firm voice floated into my head, and BAM, just like that, my consciousness detached from the drilling and traveled onto a mat in a darkened studio illuminated only by strings of Christmas lights. For the next three hours, every time my nerves started to rise, Yoga Teacher would lead me through a sun salutation or set me up in a balance pose. She reminded me to find a drishti and keep my eyes focused on that point; she reminded me to breathe so that my ribs expanded out to the sides; she reminded me to tuck my shoulder blades into their sockets like wings. She got me through.

I was entirely on my own over the following weekend, however, when my opened tooth abscessed, and my face swelled up with pus so that I looked like Eric Stoltz in Mask.

After calling the endodontist to establish that the size of my face was abnormal, I went in that Monday morning to have him look at it. One glance and he pulled a syringe out of his hip holster: it was time to numb again. As the first shot slid into my cheek, the pain was so intense it made me long for an un-anaesthetized C-section, simply so I could hurt a little less. Agonized moans and sobs rolled out of me and echoed throughout the office.

In the waiting room, my husband put his head between his knees, but in the examination room, the endodontist took enough of a break to issue a quick, firm talking-to: “Listen, there’s no way around this. I have to give you these shots, and, quite simply, it’s going to hurt”—as if I could control the anguish.

When he leaned into my mouth with a needle once again, admonishing me that naturally I was sore from the twelve shots a few days before, I mentally lifted my arms to the sky, did a swan dive to the ground, planted my hands, jumped my feet back into Plank, and slowly lowered to the floor, tucking my elbows into my ribs. There, resting in Cobra pose, I heard my yoga teacher’s voice overtake that of the endodontist, drowning out his scolding as she cautioned me to raise my chin, for if my gaze was lowered to the floor, my breath would be impeded. My chin lifted. My breath flowed. The doc inserted yet another needle. I moaned and sobbed. Then my yoga teacher’s voice slid in again, with the instruction to raise myself up and push back into Downward Dog. She left me there, resting, for five breaths. By the end of the five, my face was numb, and the endo was making an incision into my gums so that he could insert a drain.

I left the doctor’s office that day understanding that his gruffness protected him from his own feelings about being the instrument of someone’s pain. Perhaps more importantly, I left his office that day with a prescription for penicillin, a desire for a long nap, and a respect for the virility of oral bacteria.

When I went back a few weeks later to have the endodontist finish cleaning out my canals before jamming a filling into the hole in my head, I told him that I had been worshiping at the altar of penicillin and was infinitely grateful to have been born post-WWII, during the age of antibiotics. In reply, the endodontist pointed out that all the penicillin in the world wouldn’t have helped without his work lancing and draining the abscess.

It’s a marvel that man can walk without tripping over the hubris swirling around him. Wanting to be done with my time in the chair, I cast about for an ego-massaging reply. Fortunately, at that moment, it was Yoga Teacher who gave me voice, who was tough as an over-salted T-bone steak, who helped me slurp out a response:

“Definitely, it was your expertise that got the pus out of my face. I was just giving credit to everything that aided in my recovery, including that prescription. I’ll tell you what, though, in the interests of absolute honesty: there are two things that are going to help me long-term much more than the excellent lancing you gave my soft tissues.”

Beer Yoga

The endo raised an eyebrow and snapped the dental dam onto my back tooth as he asked, incredulously, “Oh, yea? What would those be?”

Grinning and enunciating as clearly as the dam would allow, I informed him, “Yoga. And beer.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Huge thanks to Byron for drawing images to accompany this story. If you like his work, you can visit his blog at: www.layingfallow.com.

 

 

 

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