Monday, March 19, 2007

Church Signs: "Grace: The Home God Makes"

Seven months ago, I made a commitment to myself and to the universe that I would embark upon a Year of Healing. I would make my own wellness the only priority in my life. I would pursue health on all fronts, spare no expense, accept no excuse, and follow all leads for one entire year.

Early on in the Year of Healing, I found my way to a twice-weekly yoga class taught at my alma mater. As an alumna, for a small flat fee, I have access to an unlimited number of classes. Despite being weak and sick and frequently overwhelmed, I made a promise to myself that I would be unswerving in my devotion to these classes-—and I was. I never missed a one-—and toward the end of the first semester, I even added a third weekly class.

In the beginning, I hated my teacher. I hated the poses. I hated the room that we practiced in. I hated everyone around me. I was angry at my limits, at my pain and discomfort. I was angry at my breath. I was filled in those first few classes with a white hot fury that made me want to kill my teacher for asking me to do these things that were impossible to do. I was confused, and I raged against my incomprehension, my lack of coordination, at all the impossible details she rattled off to us at once. I despised her for talking us through our poses instead of showing us the way. I needed to see the poses to get them; what kind of stupid yoga teacher just walks through the room issuing instructions like "press into your ridge tops" and "stretch out through your bones?" She should be showing us what to do.

The year before, I had tried to take a pilates class, but I got so angry at the teacher, I actually yelled at her and stormed out of the room. I know…it's so embarrassing in retrospect, but I share this with you so that you will understand how all-encompassing, how tsunami-like, was my rage. It swept all before it, destroying villages, with me scowling and red-faced atop its frothy crest.

Last September, I tried again. This time, it was not pilates but a crowded yoga class in a dreary space with very little natural light, dank industrial carpets, and a tiny little curly-haired teacher named Amy who was so perky it was hard not to hate her on sight.

I had tried other forms of yoga before: Bikram, Iyengar, Hatha, Ashtanga. But none of them really worked for me. It was a chore to do. Repeating sun salutations was so tedious. And in the case of Bikram, I passed out or nearly passed out in every class. I just couldn't take the intensity of the work in that heat.

Amy's class, I soon learned, was a relatively new branch of Hatha yoga, called "Anusara." And on that first day, our chipper little teacher talked to us about how we could bring our hearts into the practice. She told us that whatever we bring to the practice is beautiful, and that we should go with it. Fear, fatigue, stress, excitement—whatever we had was real, it was part of our practice, part of us, so it was beautiful.

Somehow, amidst the down-dogging and the conscious breathing and the dizziness and the strain, I understood this. Some deep and good part of myself, a part that often sees the good in others and makes kind and sensible decisions, took in this knowledge fully. So when my anger rose up that first day and threatened a full-out revolt, this other part of me sent a message: it smiled. It offered warmth and good humor and most importantly of all, acceptance.

"If what I have here today is anger, then what I have here today is anger," it said. It gave my anger room. It gave my anger tolerance. It loved my anger and didn't try to change its mind, and together we made it all the way through that first class without yelling or storming at anybody.

In the next session, Amy again reminded us that whatever we brought to the practice was worthy. That everything about us was honored in this space. That we could expand our breath—our life—into whatever we were feeling. And I discovered that while my anger was a storm, I was not the storm. I could witness the tsunami, and be there with it, and genuinely love it for all its crazy destructive power, but it didn't have to toss me about in the mayhem of its waves. I discovered that I could have a feeling—an intense feeling--without being consumed by it. I was me and the anger was just one beautiful part of me.

During the third week of classes, we were doing balancing poses that are very difficult to hold; it's easy to lose your balance and fall over, or to have hips too tight to open all the way. In other words, it's easy for someone like me to feel frustrated and like they are failing when they are doing balancing poses. But the funniest thing happened--as I was trying to maintain strength in the one leg I had planted on the ground, and open my hip, and keep my foot up, and turn my inner thigh inward and my upper palette upward and the million other things I was instructed to do as part of the pose—without falling over--I suddenly noticed I was smiling. Not even just smiling, I was giggling—I was having fun. I felt connected to a joyfulness that came up from the ground and partied around in my insides and then rose on up through my crown. It was beautiful—and it was fun. The imperfection of my pose was part of what made it glorious. I wasn't trapped in a rigid expectation of right and wrong; I was free to play around with my body and enjoy the attempt. I started to understand what Amy meant when she said we could "rock out" in a pose.

Towards the end of the first semester, I was still struggling with a deep and pervasive emotional pain and depression. I felt an intense loneliness that nothing I did seemed to cure. One day, around the holidays, Amy spoke of how she often used to feel incredibly lonely, especially around her family, but that through yoga, she has found a joy that fills her up. It completes her. After class, I asked her…how did you do that? How did you find that feeling?

And she shared with me that she had had some very painful, very hard times. I could sense the intensity of her struggle, the weight of what she had carried. And she said that through a lot of therapy, a lot of difficult work, and yoga, she had found a way through, a way to be fully in herself and be joyful.

She said that in yoga, there is a concept, an idea, that when one feels this way—this loneliness and agony--it is because there is dirt on the mirror of one's soul. That our true state of being is one of loving and light, but that when we look in a mirror that is cloudy, we cannot see how beautiful and loved we truly are, and this causes us to feel despair.

It spoke to me, this metaphor, this idea that my true self is beautiful and never alone, always loved and loving because I am, at my center, love and light. That the problem is not with my reality, my state of being, it is with my perception of my reality. I went home and I began to practice gently cleaning my mirror. I could picture it vividly, covered with mud, so I held a hose up to it, one that was full of the cleanest, purest water in the world, and I let it gently run down the face of the mirror until it was clear and shining.

At first, I could only focus on the mirror itself, on doing the work of cleaning it. It was too much to try to look into the mirror and see a true reflection of myself. It was too beautiful to look upon, and I wasn't ready. But in time, my loving care for that mirror brought me to a place where I felt ready to see what it could show. I looked into the mirror and I gazed upon a sight that warmed me through and through. It was a never ending cycle of loved and loving, loving and loved. It was the most beautiful, everlasting light that could ever be seen.

Since then, I have only rarely felt lonely; I can barely recall what it is like. I am kept in good company even when I am only with myself (which is almost all of the time).

I still take my Anusara classes with Amy twice a week. Sometimes I still burn with anger, especially when she asks me to do a pose I cannot do because of the strange and chronic pain in my knee and other places, and I still try to welcome that feeling and love it and let it be. And I often feel an irrepressible joy shining out of me and up through my fingertips, especially when we do triangle pose or warrior pose.

The Year of Healing has one basic goal: to learn to fill my own cup. I am learning to tap into my own source. From this place, all other healing—all good living—is possible; it is how I can access my strength, my power, my grace.

In my life, I have attracted a stunning number of people who were not really able to give. I have lived in what has felt like a constant state of deprivation. Recently, it was suggested to me that this is because people who are not comfortable receiving, attract people who are not comfortable giving. So, I am making a clear and intentional effort to open myself up to receiving gifts of all kinds, with grace. It is, I am finding, as awkward for me as those first standing poses or my earliest downward facing dog. But I have said out loud to the universe that I am committed to learning how this is done, and I am a woman of my word. I have opened myself up to grace.

Since then, among other things, this is what has come:

"Hi, Naomi, I hope this letter finds you well and enjoying this delicious foggy morning. I am writing because last night I wanted to extend to you the offer of a free private yoga lesson, but you left before I could catch up with you. I feel confident that a private lesson will allow me and you to tune into your body in a more focused way and better understand how to use the Principles of Alignment to at least work with, if not alleviate your pain. If you feel uncomfortable with the offer of a free lesson we can discuss trade or reduced payment.

What I really want is for you to feel empowered by the yoga, not diminished and frustrated by it. Of course I also think that the latter feelings have their appropriate place and should be honored in their own time.

Also, just in case you couldn't feel it (but I bet you could) your body/asana looked totally different last night, you looked stronger, and more vibrant, like you were holding more energy. I hope you could feel the difference, because I definitely saw it, inside & out.


I am hoping that she won't mind that I have posted her letter to me here. I wept just now, again, as I read it. I have accepted Amy's offer. I have welcomed the generosity of her gift.

Grace is the home God makes. And I am moving in.



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