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(In late June, I spent 5 days at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Massachusetts. This is another installment in a series of posts documenting the experience.)
My older friend Carrol shared with me the other day that she feels her purpose in life right now is to be in the moment when someone else needs her help, assistance, or general presence. She doesn’t have grand plans to travel to India or Africa to volunteer; in fact, she finds comfort in being of aid in the smaller moments of need.
For instance, she said, she was sitting next to an elderly woman at the farmers market, who, without warning, leaned on Carrol’s shoulder to prop herself up to standing when trying to rise from a chair. Later, a parent left a small child all alone out in the middle of the bustling market, and Carrol gently ushered the child to the shade, in a chair, where the child wouldn’t be in such an open, vulnerable position. When I first met Carrol several years ago, I was impressed when she came to work one day with a giant black-and-blue welt on her arm; she had gotten slammed by a foul ball during a baseball game but said she was happy to take the hit because sitting next to her had been an older woman on one side and a child on the other, both who could have been much more seriously injured had Carrol not been there.
“I just try to live in the moment,” Carrol said, “And by doing so, I feel that I am there when I am needed.”
Our discussion reminded me of the children’s book The Three Questions by Jon J. Muth, an eloquent, watercolor-illustrated, Zen-inspired story about compassion and living in the moment. Throughout the book, the central character, a young boy named Nikolai, continues to ask the three questions for which he so desperately seeks the right answers:
When is the best time to do things?
Who is the most important one?
What is the right thing to do?
That morning, as I sat in her living room, Carrol was once again following her philosophy and in a way answering those three questions: The best time was now; I—the person she was with—was the most important one; and the right thing for her to do was that which I needed: listen, hold the space, and offer gentle wisdom…not to mention chocolate avocado muffins and then, later in the day, a few beers. 🙂
While I was away at Kripalu, there were times I got way too lost in thought in an effort to answer those three questions. Sometimes, instead of just allowing myself to sit outside and admire the mountains, I instead became a disengaged analyzer and interpreter, shuffling through the thoughts and words and images stored in my brain and trying to make sense of them, not really being aware of the landscape around me but more so using it as some kind of pretty, two-dimensional backdrop for my mental games.
It’s amazing how hard it really is to live in the moment, even at a place like Kripalu, where being present in the core of the experience!
Despite my fumbles, I did open myself to several moments of pure mindfulness and attention, and I have found those times when I dropped all the effort and just let things be are the ones that I remember most about my experience.
* * *
During a wild, trancey Let Your Yoga Dance (LYYD) class with live drumming, I peel off my saturated shirt and dance in my sports bra. So many smiles! Glow! Unfolding! Celebration! Joy! When I partner up with others, I sense something new emerge from me that I don’t remember possessing when I was here last: Uninhibited connection, a longing to share this experience with others, the drive to make this a mutual experience and not just MY dance. I can feel how I’ve grown, I can feel it in my feet, my hips, my face. My face, I let it shine, I don’t hold back. Sullen eyes don’t attract energy; radiate, shine, and the rest of the world will light up with you.
As the class wraps up, I sit with the large group in a circle, my sweaty calves and thighs plastered to the bamboo floor, the soles of my feet peppered with bits of sand and dirt, remnants from the few minutes we took our dance outdoors and paraded around the parking lot, everyone’s dance quickly becoming a “walking on hot coals” routine as the hot asphalt scorched our skin. Megha guides us in a series of cool-down motions, everyone’s arms floating to the center of the room, then away. Flowing in, flowing out. I think to myself, “This feels like a painting,” and when I turn my head to one side, I happen to notice that the executive director of the LYYD program, Irena, is taking a picture of the group.
After class, I make my way over to see to Megha, who recognizes my name and remembers me and a letter I wrote her in 2006. In that moment, she is the most important one, and the right thing to do is give her a big hug and let her know that her energy and the influence she has on other teachers (Nikki! Suzie!) is omnipresent. We embrace, and our sweat mingles.
* * *
I sit in the dining hall during silent breakfast, refraining from pulling out a book or my BlackBerry because all I really want to do is feel the crunch of my nutty flax cereal in my mouth and watch the way my hard-boiled egg wobbles around my plate any time I move my tray. In silence and without distraction, I am able to witness so much. The slight bow of the attendant’s head as she greets people into the cafeteria. The musical clink and clank of silverware brushing against each other. A couple sitting across from each other, outstretched arms, hands holding, a silent welcoming into their shared meal. A young man pausing before he eats, eyes closed, slight smile stretched across his lips, utmost and sincere appreciation for his food. Shawls, do-rags, Lululemon, Target, sweaters, tank tops, freshly showered, damp with perspiration, so many people to witness.
At my table sits a young girl in a tie-dye shirt and messy dreadlocks in her hair. It is obvious she is part of the yoga teacher training program; her manual is open, notecards spread across the table. I get a sense that today is the final practice teach day. She stands up to return her food tray; I pull an old page out of my notebook and place it atop her materials. It is a letter I wrote when I was last at Kripalu in 2008; also at a time when a YTT was taking place. I remember feeling so honored to be at Kripalu in the middle of YTT, feeling the ebullient energy emanating from their program room, throughout the halls. I had penned the letter as a fellow former YTT student, giving them my well-wishes, respect, and understanding of the monumental experience they were currently going through. But…I never did anything with the note in 2008. It sat in my notebook for four years. So that morning, in 2012, that young girl in the tie-dye shirt was the most important one, and the right thing to do was to pass the letter along to her.
When she returns to her belongings, she looks at the letter with a quizzical expression; I nod, permission for her to take the note. She reads it at the table, her face filling with emotion as the writing unfolds. Her hand comes up to her mouth, her eyes. We exchange word-less namastes, a slight bow of the head, hands on heart. With that, she turns to go about her day. We never once use our voices, but the silent exchange is one of the most profound conversations of the day.
* * *
I am outside, sitting at a picnic table, watching the way the breeze makes the canopy above me flutter, a gentle whooshing sound. The trees lean slightly with each whisper of wind. There is so much green, and above that, so much blue. Tea mug in my hand.
At the table next to me, a chipmunk comes across a left-behind plate and bowl. Jackpot! The chipmunk nibbles on a cantaloupe rind. Pauses. Nibble. Looks around. Contemplating. Plunges its little furry head right into the bowl and drinks up whatever is left.
The chipmunk show causes me to linger. Someone else joins me at the table, a woman named Radiah who has just arrived for a 5-day qi gong program. “I’m so happy to be here!” she exclaims, before we even exchange hellos. She asks what I am there for, and I tell her about the Embodied Meditation program I participated in. I explain how we talked so much about gravity, letting go of the notion to always be “up and at ’em” and instead find time to sink down, find your roots, be OK with directing inhalations downward. Radiah is taking notes; this is what she needed to hear, she says, explaining that she is working with an artist on an installation titled “Gravity and Grace,” and until listening to me had never really understood the use of the word “gravity” in the title.
So, thank you, hungry chipmunk, for allowing me to stay in the moment, for Radiah was the most important one, and the right thing to do was to give her a new perspective on a concept she had been struggling with.
* * *
To close this post, I feel compelled to share something I heard on a podcast I was listening to this morning, before I sat down to write. The program was On Being; the title “Pursuing Happiness.” The following was shared by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks:
“The Sabbath is when we celebrate the things that are important, but not urgent. And I remember once taking…an atheist…to see a little Jewish primary school…. She’s fascinated by this Sabbath, which she has never experienced. And she asked one five-year-old boy, ‘What do you like most about the Sabbath?’…or…’What don’t you like?’ And the five-year-old boy, being an Orthodox child, says, ‘You can’t watch television. It’s terrible.’ And then she said, ‘What do you like about the Sabbath?’ and he said, ‘It’s the only time daddy doesn’t have to rush away.’ Sometimes we don’t need to pursue happiness. We just need to pause and let it catch up with us.”
(In late June, I spent 5 days at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Massachusetts. This is another installment in a series of posts documenting the experience.)
It was hard for me to leave Kripalu on Wednesday afternoon, pulling away from the sprawling green front lawn on which two students were spread wide in Warrior IIs, a woman in a red T-shirt danced through graceful qi gong movements, and another pair of women stood with notes, reviewing their YogaDance practice teach plans. This is my life, this freedom of expression without judgment or fear. How beautiful to be able to throw your arms up to the sky with a glorious Ahhhhhh!, knowing that you are more likely to have people join you in such celebration rather than shoot you sideways glances.
Kripalu is a place where in my mind the green grass becomes an aquamarine ocean, and I dance like a dolphin or orca through a cascade of waves. People walk by me, cars pass in front of me, yet I sense nothing from them but permission to be. Kripalu is a haven for silent, mutual respect—my dance receives neither cheers nor jeers, and that is all I ask. I don’t want to be shunned, but I do not want applause. With this sense of freedom, I become the mover who has always lived inside of me, dancing in the wide open because it is an expansive space of grass and sky and earth and sun, and the voice in my gut says “Dance.” So I do, and when my movement feels complete, a blue bird begins to fly around me in circles, continuous loops not very far from my body, giving me the sense that this little creature can feel the sacred energy that my being 100% pure and authentic has created.
* * *
I attended a concert one evening of my stay; John Bianculli, the musician who supported the Embodied Meditation program I was taking, was performing as part of a jazz trio. The Main Hall was set up exactly the way I had hoped: backjacks in the front of the room, chairs behind them, and then a wide open space in the back of the hall…room for movement, permission to dance.
When I arrived, a woman was stretched out on the carpet, rolling her spine back and forth, sometimes stopping to just lie in savasana, taking in the music the way her body requested it be processed. I sat down on the floor as well, sitting still in meditation first, allowing myself to sink down and feel the pull of gravity, as we had discussed earlier during our program. I let my senses take over, taking time to feel the carpet under my legs, hear the music fill the rafters, see the room glowing with soft beiges and browns, a hint of sensual red and purple from the stage lights. A light breeze came through the open windows; the long drapes danced, looking heavenly in this former chapel, so strong and fortified with its brick walls yet still so serene.
A couple next to me began ballroom dancing, and their connection and smiles and happiness were just more ingredients in this recipe of wonder. Just as people had done with my “whale dance” on the lawn, I did not stare or smirk or clap after each dip, and I did not feel the need to match their intensity or technique. It just was what it was, and having that there with me only brought more richness and gratitude into the slow and steady movement that eventually began speaking from my hips, torso, neck, and arms.
Jennifer, remember this.
Remember that place where you were given permission to roll on the carpet as a jazz trio played, moving freely, looking up at the window, your eyes fixated on the billowing beige against the unwavering brick wall, your left side moving a sweet song, your right side planted and fixed. So rooted on one side; the other half a weeping willow, a firecracker, a horse’s mane, the flow of shakti.
Remember the following day, when you were back in that same room, at the conclusion of a Shake Your Soul noontime dance class, one hand on your chest, the other extended into the center of the room, feeling the warmth of the group radiate through your palm and into your heart and vice versa, a steady loop of loving energy flowing all around you.
You looked up at the vaulted ceiling, the same ceiling you had stared at so intently in 2008 and first in 2006, when you had sneaked into the Main Hall at 1 a.m. during your yoga teacher training program, dancing in the dark, sad to be leaving soon but knowing that these memories would live on inside of you.
And here you are again, 2012, the chapel ceiling so high but feeling just a tad closer to it this time around, because you have grown and there is still room to grow.
Your two worlds—Kripalu and dance—have merged, and the union makes you weep, smile, throw your arms up, and drink in every last drop of the present moment, surrounded by strangers who seem anything but.
This is freedom.
Let freedom ring.
Let freedom dance.
I haven’t blogged in a while but it’s not because I’ve been living in a vacuum. Stuff has happened, thoughts and ponderings have crossed my mind, but the truth is that I’ve just chosen to censor myself and make y’all believe that I’m living some crazy-awesome-busy life and just don’t have the time to document it.
It’s not really fair for myself or for those who read my blog to write only about the good things in life, the times where I have triumphed, learned a lesson, and moved on with clarity and newfound wisdom. Because, for real, that’s only half of the picture. My husband and I recently started Netflixing Twin Peaks, and what we’re learning is that there’s more to one person than what meets the eye. Not that I have any Laura Palmer-type secrets lying around, but I do have days that I don’t do yoga, don’t dance, act cranky, and forget to breathe. I have days that I mentally scold someone for starting every morning with a complaint and then I come home to my husband and complain about all the complaining. Sometimes I just don’t want to blog, tweet, or decipher the cryptogram that is now Facebook. There are times that I start the day blasting LMFAO in the living room and dancing circles around my husband and then shun him for the rest of the afternoon for no good reason (i.e., today).
One of the take-home lessons I learned during my experience at Kripalu was to acknowledge both the light as well as the shadows. Kripalu is a popular yoga and wellness retreat center now, but several years ago it suffered a PR nightmare when the resident guru was accused of performing unyogic acts with his disciples. Instead of keeping this “secret” under rug swept, my YTT teachers were open about the scandal; they were acknowledging the darker side–the shadows–of the institution. Expanding this philosophy to a personal level, it means to sit not only in your prouder moments but to face your darker ones as well. When the sun is shining and your heart is singing, breathe it all in. When the clouds are black and your heart hurts, breathe it all in.
One of my shadows of late has been my complete and utter lack of energy. It started last month when I could barely finish a 5Rhythms class. Even with being mindful of my movement and using the wall and floor for support at times, I kept sneaking glances at the clock, wondering why on earth this 2-hour class felt like 5. I felt like I was running on fumes, and instead of floating home in a state of post-dance bliss, I kind of just trudged my way into bed. Swimming, my second favorite activity next to dancing, also became a labor of love. Suddenly my normal 30-minute workout sessions were no longer achievable, and I’d call time after 20, 25 if I had coffee beforehand.
Even Disney World, my happiest and the happiest place on earth, couldn’t snap me from my stupor. I know it’s natural to wear yourself out after a day in the parks, but a seasoned Disney World fan girl shouldn’t be caught looking like this in the middle of the day.
After a month of this nonsense as well as some other health-related issues, I finally went to my doctor. A lot of my symptoms were pointing directly at the thyroid as the culprit, and my bloodwork sealed the deal. When I got my thyroid levels tested 2 years ago, they were right on the cusp of hypothyroidism; now, they are most definitely in that territory. I know there is all kinds of controversy out there about what the “correct” reference range is for TSH levels, but mine exceed anything I’ve found online and would certainly explain the uncharacteristic feelings of blah I’ve been experiencing.
Because hypothyroidism affects mood and mental focus as well, perhaps that can explain my mini-mental breakdown last week, when I was left completely incapable of making the decision whether or not to accompany my husband to Philly for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half-Marathon expo. The day before I was all “Yeah! This will be fun! Philly! Athletic gear! Lunch in the city!” Saturday morning, however, was a different story. I knew I needed to study for a work-related exam I was taking the next day, and I was afraid going to Philly would cut into my cram time. Instead of deciding (a) OK, I should really stay home to study; or (b) I can go to Philly, study on the train, and at home when we return, my brain went like this: &**&^&%^$&#$%%&*(*&*!!!!! It was like PMS from hell, complete with crying, sobbing, and throwing of clothes (and punches…in the air). The thing was, I didn’t have PMS; it was a perfectly neutral part of the month. I had checked my calendar just to make sure and was even more upset when I knew I couldn’t blame womanly hormones for my hot mess of a breakdown. It felt like the decision-making part of my brain just shut off, and I was faced with two options that both seemed great and terrible at the same time. And I’m not talking about the latte-versus-frappuccino indecision you face on a 60-degree day in March, but rather a complete numbness of the ability to say yes or no and accept that decision.
(In case you’re wondering, after much consolation from my husband, a shower, and me “working it out” through about 30 minutes of tears, I finally decided to go to Philly and then studied at home that night.)
On a lighter note (meaning, I’m not going to blame my thyroid for this), one of my other recent shadows has been my reaction to the news of Disney planning to open an AVATAR land in the Animal Kingdom park. If it were April, I would have totally thought this was some kind of April Fools joke, but this is for real! I’ve never seen Avatar, but even if it’s super-awesome, does it really require an entire land? At first I was upset that they agreed to partner with a non-Disney movie, but then people brought up Star Wars and Indiana Jones and The Muppets, and OK, I get it, but the key difference here is attraction versus LAND. Also, Animal Kingdom is such a pure park; if Disney is really pushing for this Avatar nonsense, it should build it in Hollywood Studios and reserve any extra space in Animal Kingdom for a future Australia. I cried to Bryan that after him and dancing, Disney is my passion and that any news about a potentially disastrous business decision affects me to the core. I eased up a bit after reading this relatively positive outlook of the Avatar endeavor but then fell back into my sinkhole of misery after reading this one.
Whatever happens, I just hope Animal Kingdom doesn’t face this fate come 2016 or 2018 or whenever everyone has forgotten about Avatar:
OK, I just exposed my shadows. Anything you need to come clean about?