Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Car sick



Probably the most frequently uttered words from my mouth over the last 15 years have been, Inhale, let your belly rise. Exhale, let your belly fall.  I speak those words multiple times daily when I teach Yoga, and for the last ten years, I have used them in a bedtime ritual for my daughter Lucia.

Last week my family went to New Orleans for my partner Nancy's father's 75th birthday celebration. Their big Sicilan family had multiple parties including an all-day craw fish boil, a wine soaked, rich, meaty meal at an Argentinian steak house, and a 30 person celebration for St. Joseph's Day where we all ate way too much Pasta con le Sarde.
Usually we stay in New Orleans, in the French Quarter or the Garden District, but this  time we stayed at Nancy's brother's new house in Mandeville which is on the North Shore. For those of you who've never been to New Orleans, The North and South Shores are separated by Lake Pontchartrain. The way to get from one shore to the other is via the Causeway Bridge, which is 25 miles long.

On our fourth day in New Orleans, after four days of too much rich food and drink, we headed back over the Causeway to the south shore for one last party before our evening flight back to Seattle. Nancy drove and her brother Billy sat in front. I hunkered down in the back seat with the ten year olds--Lucia and her cousin Kaye.

From a young age, I have always been prone to motion sickness-- cars, boats, planes-- I don't do well, and back seats are never a great idea for me, but there was no way I was going to squeeze Big Billy into the back seat of our mid-sized rental. I'm really used to getting car sick. Nancy and Lucia have a hilarious imitation of my deep breathing, eyes closed technique that I regularly employ on turbulent take-offs and landings.

The Causeway is one straight line with ritual bumping for 25 straight miles. By the time we reached land, my head was hanging out of the back seat window like a hound dog, eyes closed, hair blowing. While Nancy and Billy chuckled good-naturedly in the front seat about my sorry situation, Lucia took matters into her own hands.

On this last stretch of the drive, I felt Lucia patting my back, "Inhale, let your belly rise. Exhale, let your belly fall", she said over and over as she patted my back. She spoke very softly and it was hard at first with the wind blowing in my ears to hear what she was saying, but then I heard her clearly. Oh yeah!!! My breath. I can use my breath to get through this drive. And so I did. As we drove those last few miles, I listened to Lucia's voice, felt her little hand patting my back, and focused on those two things. Before I knew it, we'd arrived at Nancy's parents' house on the South Shore, ready for one more party!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

What would Stephen Hawking do?



Last week I saw the movie The Theory of Everything, the biography of Stephen Hawking. As most of you know, Hawking was struck with ALS when he was twenty-one years old. The syndrome eventually rendered him wheelchair bound, debilitated to the point of essentially living in paralyzed body with virtually no effects on the mind.  Now Hawking, in his seventies, he has defied all odds in surviving this long with ALS.

My family went to see this film at the request of my 10-year-old daughter Lucia who is all about math right now. My partner Nancy, Lucia, and I sat in the movie intermittently shoving popcorn in our mouths between bouts of sobs. Even Lucia cried throughout the movie.  After dinner, over sushi, we talked about Hawking and how clear his mind was, how amazing his long life has been. In our iPhone research at the sushi counter, we learned that the average life span of someone diagnosed with ALS is 2-5 years, with five percent living twenty years or more. Hawking has surpassed even the small number of people who survive longer than a handful of years. Why?

There was, of course, the deep deep love and commitment of his wife and family, the energy and support he received from his academic community, his motivation to learn more about time and space. But even with all of this love and support, I am astounded by how much mental and emotional strength Hawking must have to have lived and worked for as long as he has.

Whether I am practicing or teaching Yoga, I am aware of the inherent conflicts that exist between the body and the mind. Sometimes you feel ready mentally to kick out in Standing-Head-to-Knee; you've made your plan for the day's practice and kicking out is on the docket. But when you do it, your body says no to balance or your stamina disappoints. Other days you are completely unmoored mentally and/or emotionally and, even if your body is ready for it, you can't muster the motivation to go for the kick. 

My advice to myself and to my students when conflict in practice arises is to "be where you are", to make space for all of it. If you can't balance, it's not because your body is failing you, it is because, in this moment, you can't balance. If we can accept that moment in time and move on from it, let it go, then we step away from the conflict that comes from wishing we could balance or hold the posture. Ultimately it's not unbalance that creates the conflict; it's the unmet expectation. Solution- get rid of the expectations.

Stephen Hawking slowly, consciously, painfully watched his body succumb to limitation after limitation until ultimately, his physical body was rendered useless, just a shell to house his brilliant mind.  When I think of him, I imagine much of his long life has been an exercise in reconciling the conflicts between his body and his mind. While his body was shutting down, his mind was thriving, vibrant, brilliant. If Hawking had spent his energy fixating on the evolving presentation of limits to his body, could his mind have grown as it did? I imagine not.

Yoga practice is a place where we can learn and grow, physically and mentally, ideally a space where we can be at peace, free of conflict. It is a time where we enter into a different space. Leave your expectations at the door. As you lay down your mat, make up your mind to open your mind to whatever comes to you that day. And, as Stephen Hawking tells us, you might "really appreciate what [you] do have."