There were several years where I forgot how to breathe. This was between 2006-09 or 10. I seemed to be suffering from a kind of detached semi-consciousness. My life bounced from moment to moment, place to place. I’d take things up, and just when I got good at them, I’d stop. Usually quite suddenly and move on to something else. I wanted to be a writer. I went to graduate school, immersed myself completely in the craft, wrote three books and hundreds of poems. Lots of scholarly essays. All within a very short time. For some weird reason, my work was celebrated, I won some awards, was named one of the best new American voices of 2008 by writers and professors who published anthologies and made pronouncements about such things. It all felt unreal, outside of me. So I quit.
I took another deep breath that I never really exhaled for a few more years.
I had trouble breathing the whole time. I needed grounding, but I didn’t know that at the time: Connection. It was like there were strange currents beneath me, neither guiding me nor revealing anything specific to me. Suddenly I’d be in San Francisco with a bunch of people I didn’t know, who were college buddies of the girl I was with, who I didn’t really know, looking around, completely baffled. Like out-of-body experience bafflement where I watched the scene unfolding, with me in it, but I had no real connection to any of it. Or else I was in a phone booth somewhere along the Aleutian Island chain, calling home for the first time in a year to let my mom know I was a thousand miles off course.
Drifting is easy and requires no mindfulness. You just float.
I met this guy. Thanksgiving, 2007 or so, in Santa Cruz. He was on a plane with my father-in-law, Bruce. Bruce was returning from one of his lectures. He brought the guy home to share Thanksgiving dinner with everyone. Totally random. It was a real party! The man was in the states to promote, of all things: Breath. He had a profound effect on me. At the time he held the world record for the deepest free dive in recorded history. Something like twenty-two minutes, holding his breath, to a depth of 600, 650 feet. He was an interesting guy, from Finland or Norway. Super blond toe head, tall and lanky. His English was lousy but I found him very easy to understand. He told me human beings have no idea how to breathe. That this was/is a collective world-wide malady; that we’re all suffocating. That got my attention. He said we gasp at these shallow, insufficient little bits of air because we’re in discord.
And because we’re in discord, he continued, we’re between two states of being, committing to neither. I told him I couldn’t seem to hold any connection to the world, and that as my failures mounted, I’d spend a lot of time in my familiar semi-conscious state. I told him that being in that place seemed to suck the breath right out of me.
He suggested I try yoga.
I’d prefer to avoid any grand, cosmic pronouncements about the practice of yoga. Except to say that when I took it up it felt like a homecoming. There are a great many books on yoga written by people who have forgotten more than I’ll ever know on the subject. But I will say that my personal practice has grounded me to a deeper, more conscious understanding of my life; of who I am; my spiritual capabilities, and of who I’m in the process of becoming. I look forward every day to getting on my mat. I look at it as an opportunity to express and challenge myself to be present in the moment, breath to breath. No past, no future.
Be Here Now.
I think people have a desire to move through the world where their momentum propels them forward. Where it feels effortless, even though it’s not. Where the push and pull of gravity is their ally and not their enemy. I design my practice so that the movement between asana is physically logical, unified, and that a new student taking my class for the first time will consciously register that the movements they are doing, where their breath is in relation to their physical body, and that this movement makes sense.
I pull much of my practice from the western Ashtanga school of teaching. My goal is to someday drop all the western Power Yoga stuff and adhere strictly to the traditional eastern practice, but I’m not there yet. There’s still so much I need to learn, so I end up pulling a lot of things from various schools and forms. It’s a vigorous practice, but you don’t have to have achieved an advanced status to enjoy my class. The sequence is fairly set but can be written in water. Because I’ve learned yoga in the west, I’ve merely learned a variation of a form of meditation whose roots and mysteries are infinite. I forgive myself that I can only do what I can, and I take heart that I’m always trying to go deeper into it. I think of it as the architecture of the class stays consistent, but the asana we pour into that foundation, and of course, the sequencing, has fluidity. I’ve found that Bikram yoga shares many familiar characteristics as Ashtanga yoga, not just in the poses utilized, but in the logical, physical progression of the yogi’s movement between them. The repetition eventually establishes understanding, and then that’s where the fun begins. Unlike Ashtanga and Bikram, my practice avoids the strict rigidity of a set sequence. But my class will always have a number of sequences that my students can recognize, and this recognition will begin to make sense on an intuitive level.
The Sun Salutations are central to the practice and are foundational pieces throughout. There will always be a handful of inversions, back bends. There will be a series of core postures where our focus will be on the functional movement between balance and re-balance. Some days we might hold a plank for 5 minutes and focus on where our ears are in relation to our shoulders; where our hips are in alignment to our heels. What do your feet do when you inhale, drawing your navel in to your sternum? These small micro-movements are your body responding to a command that seems innate. Most days we’ll use light weights in the warming phase of the flow while we move into the peak series of postures. I like my students to feel like they have arrived at a place during our practice that was their destination all along, even if they didn’t know where they were going when we first started out.
On very good days, we’ll tap into something where our focus, intention, our breath, elevates all movement, and we’ll literally flow as though our bodies are a unified a current of air. That’s my dream class, where I cease queuing and everyone just moves, nothing but the fluid sound of our breath in the air. We’ll be above our breath. We’ll be totally conscious. We’ll feel strong. It should feel tribal. It should throw light on the mystery, but only enough light that we can keep seeking something that stays bathed in shadow. It should connect us to people, and transform us into the kind of person who knows what empathy is. It should make us better fathers, husbands, mothers, wives, brothers, sisters. The world is a beautiful place. Our lives are gifts. That gift’s agent is breath. I think we should exalt in every breath we have left.
And love. It should teach us love.