The saddest part about fall is the disappearance of blueberries. Thankfully, this loss is tempered by the return of hot soup and warm bread. Nature gives and nature takes. And we are a part of that give and take. We are Nature.
Which I sometimes forget.
Setting aside theologies of incarnation for a moment – having a body feels so mechanical. Unnatural even. As if this flesh and bone is not the true way of things but rather an amalgamation of found objects fused into arms and legs, and given a glitchy computer chip for a brain.
Perhaps this is why I am so in love with asana. Perhaps this is why I began as a dancer. There’s a sensuality to asana, to moving prana with breath through muscle and lymph. There’s a capability of rhythm, a syncing up with the Nature so readily acknowledged outside of myself. With asana, my body is the instrument and my breath the song.
Having a body is hard. Having a body that works well takes effort. And Grace.
But really, like so much of life, caring for the body is about listening and responding. Listening with the remembrance that the body is a part of Nature and thus exists in rhythms and patterns the same way the rest of the natural world does.
And so we arrive at Autumn, the season of gathering and of letting go. Gathering our energies to prepare for the dark days of winter. Reaping the harvest of our labors, and letting go of their results.
The cooling fruits that balance Summer’s heat give way to squashes and greens that ground energy and ever so gently warm and keep the inner digestive hearth burning. My body loves this wisdom. Does well when it is cared for with the produce of the season. And with the comforting herbs and spices of cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. It feasts on Sabbath time and the continued exploration of the forest. It does well when the glitchy brain is reminded that its body is a partner of and with Nature.
St. Benedict’s brain remembered this when he wrote his Rule. He provides for a shift in the daily rhythms of work and prayer that allow his monks to get enough rest. During the long, dark nights of winter the community goes to bed at nightfall and arises a little past midnight to pray. In the summer, still going to bed at nightfall, they arise later to accommodate for the longer day and the shorter night. The body and soul are cared for in rhythmic harmony.
Given my druthers I would sleep until daybreak. And sometimes I do. But the realities of a modern schedule necessitate that in Autumn and Winter, if I want to fall in love with my asana that day, I must get up well before the sun. This is much easier in Spring and Summer when the sun and I get up at the same time. I wish I were a night owl. I wish I could extend my day in the evening but my decades have taught me that I may do so sparingly and to possible detriment. So I partner with my Nature by going to bed earlier.
This works for me.
As does saying goodbye to fresh blueberries until next year and saying hello to butternut squash and chai and the occasional pumpkin latte. The chocolate will just have to stay. And maybe the cheese. We’ll see.
So, with the approach of Autumn I invite you to settle in and listen to the ways your body and soul are moving with the change of the season. Try these questions as a way to enter this listening.
Several years ago my family and I went tubing down a clear mountain river in Saluda, NC. I remember noticing, perhaps for the first time, the number of currents in the water. Some hugged the trees growing on the banks. Some meandered in the middle, and some brought a little spin to my inner-tube. Staying on course was an unexpected challenge. I often fell behind the rest of the group.
Perhaps I was trying too hard. Perhaps not.
That was also the day I unequivocally knew I was ready to have a child. Three months later I got pregnant. Then miscarried. Then the dog died. Two months after that I was in a car accident. My period went wonky and I became anxious that pregnancy wasn’t going to happen.
At day 40 in the 28 day cycle (sisters, you know how yucky that feels) while at a women’s retreat on the coast, I looked out over the water and said a prayer. I felt a pulse beating and pulling up from the center of the earth. A powerful wave crashed at my feet. My period started. Two weeks later I was pregnant with my son.
During that time in between pregnancies, during those days of grief, and injury, and frustration, I finished the first draft of my novel, Decoupage. I taught 7-9 classes a week as well as an online course in Ayurveda. I found my way back to church. Turmoil was everywhere. And so was equanimity. A sense of balance ran deep as I was graced with a visceral connection to an ineffable current, an underground spring. I was “in the flow.” But when am I not? When are we ever not?
Flow is a curious concept and one that carries the unfortunate new age connotation that if we just stop resisting, stop swimming against the current and go with the flow everything will be good. Life will unfold as we like and struggle will cease.
I’d like to interview Jesus, the disciples and all the folks in the bible who answered a call. Who listened and had the courage to say “yes.” Who experienced the first influx of their work unfolding with synchronicity and relative ease then watched as everything fell to pieces. I’d like to ask them the yogic questions, “How did your breathing change? What happened in your shoulders? Your digestive system. How did your attitude toward a situation shift the feeling in your belly?” I’d particularly like these answers as they pertain to the experience of crucifixion.
After giving birth to my son I had this notion that on a primal level I understood the crucifixion. Every moment of labor drenched me in sweat and insecurity. And yet I breathed. It hurt. God it hurt. And still I surrendered to my breath through contraction after contraction after contraction.
There was a moment during the transformation stage that I didn’t breathe. I tensed. I screamed. And I felt my pelvic bones separate like a violent earthquake. I did not resist again. I yelled, I shouted my readiness to be done, but I still breathed. The flow of labor was not tranquil. It was traumatic.
The crucifixion is not the end. It is followed by resurrection. And neither is the whole story. They exist together. As part of one current. Labor is followed by the sweetness of a newborn and the intense challenge of the post-partum days, months, years. White water rapids give way to peaceful waters that may soon cascade down the face of a cliff.
I mention all of this so that you will know what I mean by ease within the flow. I do not mean easiness. I do not mean the end of hardship.
I mean partnership. I mean the Breath as Grace. Grace as the deep current of equanimity guiding the river along its course even as the surface spins out of control. That power that pulls you – pulls me – back from the edge when life is just too much. An unfolding. And an enfolding.
To be in the flow, to find ease in shifting tides, is to answer the call to walk hand in hand with the forces of nature no matter how turbulent. Or tranquil. To swim with the current of Grace.
Three days into my family’s yearly vacation at Kanuga Conference Center in Hendersonville I noticed I was in the mountains. At the same place we go every summer. The same cabin, the same embracing forest, the same dear friends, the same food cooked with too much oil.
Why did it take me so long to realize where I was? Familiarity.
It’s so easy to miss the majesty of what is in front of me everyday. Beauty and wonders abound on the short drive from our house to the Y where I sit writing this piece. And yet I missed the moment when the Crepe Myrtles bloomed. If three-year-old Cole hadn’t pointed out a little footbridge over a pond between two apartments, I would never know it exists. I’m embarrassed to note that at first I didn’t believe him.
“We’ve already been under the train bridge, love.”
“No! Over there!”
In a recent interview Christine Valters Paintner, PhD of AbbeyoftheArts.com mentions four principles of a contemplative life: silence, pause, wonder, and presence.
In my experience practicing these four principles leads to, among other things, an experience of flow. Of the undercurrent moving beneath, in, around, and through all of life. It shows up in the cycles of birth and life and death. Of forward movement and backward reflection. Of the change of seasons and the phases of the breath. And its ever present nature makes it easy to disregard.
“How is it September already?” we ask. “When did my child grow up? When did my skin start to lose its elasticity? Where does the time go?”
Back in the Anusara days we talked a lot about flow in the context of currents of Grace and attention. Vinyasa defined as moment to moment awareness. Asana as a seat in the heart. I still like this.
From the Kulanavara Tantra ~ “Shakti-nipata- anusarena sishyo’anugraham-arhati.”
“Flowing with Grace (anusare- na) we experience our inner worth, we align our bodies, our minds and hearts in the current of the Divine flowing through us, we celebrate life itself as we touch the Divinity who pulsates within us as our every thought, feeling, and experience.” ~ Dr. Douglas Brooks
When I pause, get still, and marvel at the presence of the natural – the Bleeding Hearts in bloom in the courtyard at church, the pudgy softness of my son’s wrists, the cicada emerging from its shell by my doorway two hours after I booked a much longed for trip to New Mexico – I step into the current of Grace, align my conscious awareness for just a moment in the flow of life outside my self-centered anxiety.
This takes practice.
As we begin the powerful transition of seasons, over the next few weeks I’ll be posting a series on flow. We’ll explore how it affects health, how it looks in nature, how it shows up in contemplative asana, and more.
For today, begin by taking a look at the color of the leaves. Notice the depth of their hue. Their heaviness. And the few already kissed with crimson. Watch for the sap receding back to the core of the tree. Sense the moment when they, when you, in your silence, pause, and stand in wonder at the presence of Grace.
Grace in the familiar you. As the familiar you. All around the familiar you.
For about eight months now my three-year old has been doing yoga with me. He’s pretty proud of his Downward Facing Dog. He can put his hands together in front of his heart and balance for a second or two in Tree Pose. Warrior Three is a new favorite. Headstand II (I hold his feet up) is a particular joy.
Now that I have a clock in his room that glows green – because green means go – when it’s time for him to get out of bed, he’s only present for the tail end of my asana practice. Which is pretty helpful for me because it’s difficult to saturate a pose with breath while engaging in conversation and saying ineffective things such as, “Please don’t dump all the paperclips on the floor.”
But we still get to have “yoga cuddles.”
A yoga cuddle is where he climbs or sits on me while I’m in a seated forward fold or twist. It’s beyond sweet, and sometimes a great assist for rooting the thighbones in the hip socket. Who needs goat yoga when you have a pre-schooler?
He’s started expanding his repertoire of poses and when he sees something he likes, he smiles and tries to replicate it. The other day he tried for a hand-balance and didn’t care one bit that he couldn’t do the pose without my help. I like to rest my forehead on a block when in Wide Legged Seated Forward Fold so he too reached for a block and put it under his forehead while sitting with his legs wide.
The Sanskrit for Wide Legged Seated Forward Fold is Upavista Konasana. I’m no expert but it’s roughly pronounced “Oopa –Vishta – Cone – Aaah – San – A.” Since his verbal skills are increasing in nuance and complexity, I thought I’d try and teach him the Sanskrit name for his poses. It came out:
“Oopa – Veeta – Kan – Ooo – Sana.” Followed by more and more giggles.
Next he and I sat in Baddha Konasana – Bound Angle Pose. “Ba – dah – Cone – Aah – San – A.”
Which became: “Bad-Ha – Koon – Ooo – Sana.”
I love this so much.
He’s so tickled with himself. Tickled by the sounds of new words. I slow it down and try and teach him the correct-ish pronunciation and he just keeps on going with his “oos” because its fun and makes us laugh.
I’m considering refreshing my French or learning Spanish – you know, in my spare time. It would certainly be useful and I’ve always wanted to be bilingual. But I find myself already embarrassed at the ways I will probably butcher the pronunciation, and have thus found one more reason (other than time) not to begin.
In Buddhism and yoga we talk about the idea of a “Beginner’s Mind.” The concept is meant to teach us to approach each moment as fresh, with little assumption so we are open to the reality before us. I imagine Beginner’s Mind to be a place of nervous insecurity. Watching my son, I wonder if perhaps I’m wrong about this. Perhaps I’ve missed the point.
St. Benedict begins his Rule with “Listen carefully, my child, to my instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from one who loves you; welcome it and faithfully put it into practice.”
Beginning anew brings us to a place of vulnerability where the not knowing tests our precious assumptions that we need to already know in order to be good enough. But as St. Benedict reminds us, each moment is saturated by the one who loves you. Perhaps this is what it means to have a beginner’s mind.
Perhaps without knowing it, this is what my son is teaching when he giggles through his Sanskrit. “Listen carefully, my child . . . with the ear of your heart.”
Begin with love, laughter and delight.