Monday, June 27, 2016

Llittle Things

I sit before the computer and ask myself if perhaps I no longer have anything to say.  Perhaps it is time to stop writing, or attempting to write. 

Little thoughts pass through my mind that in some way are connected to yoga if only because the thoughts or observations come during my practice:

The beauty of lying on my yoga deck in the morning looking up into the branches and leaves of the oak tree, remembering Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Native American botanist who speaks of living in the Maple Nation in New York state.  Here, we live in the Oak Nation. 

Watching the four ravens who land one by one on the utility pole nearby as I practice.  They peck the pole and preen and have a conversation with such a variety of sounds I wish I could understand.

Watching the two quail families with what seems like twenty babies between them feeding here and there.  What do they find to eat in this dry grass? 

I remember funny and poignant moments in yoga class:

“My gluteus is at its maximus.”

“From downward facing dog, bring your hands into prayer pose.”

“What does ‘Om, shanti, shanti, shanti’ mean anyway?  For all I know we could be saying, ‘screw you, screw you, screw you.’” (It means Om, peace, peace peace).

Someone crying through class because her dog just died and she needed to be there, and some of us crying with her.

Someone crying though class because she came straight to class from being with her friend as she died and all she could think was, “I need to get to yoga.”

Sending people off to surgeries with hugs. 

Sometimes I tire of words.  Sometimes I simply want to stay in the quiet that I think Patanjali must be speaking of with the second yoga sutra: “Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.” Sometimes there is nothing to say.  Sometimes it is enough to watch the way the light plays on the leaves or feel the breeze gentle against the skin. 

Sometimes it is just enough to be.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Unpredictable Bones

In a little funk recently I decided that people in general rarely do what they say they will, that they/we are generally unreliable.  Then I realized it is really through no individual fault.  Life is unpredictable and therefore people, who are impacted by life’s unpredictability, will naturally also often be unable to follow through with plans as originally verbalized. Life is constantly in flux and we are always shifting and adjusting in response to that flux.  No matter what I might think in my funk, we want it that way. It is the constant change that brought us forth as living beings and provides the foundation upon which we continue to live.  

I realize my thoughts are nothing new but rather have been taught in various spiritual traditions, including yoga, well before I entered this world.  It is obvious really, if one is paying attention. Even our bones, something we might think of as solid, unchangeable and fixed, even these bones are continually changing. The collagen in our bones is constantly replenishing so that every seven years we have a new skeleton.  It happens on such a small level that we are not aware of it, at least not consciously.  Inside our bodies (outside too if those distinctions are actually meaningful) exists a whole very small world that is always in motion and always changing. If I understand anything about quantum physics it is that we cannot actually measure things predictably.  The smallest of worlds that we cannot see are unpredictable.

Bones seem so stable, a bit like rocks of the body. Bones, like rocks, last far beyond our death.  Rocks, it turns out, change too but their timetable is one that is almost beyond comprehension, making our lives seem like the blink of an eyelid.  Rocks and bones both tell stories to those who have the patience to learn how to read them such as a paleontologist – origin stories, stories of extinction, and stories of our ancestors. The stories can be surprising.  I recently learned that scorpions are one of the first creatures to move from the ocean to land and are hence our ancestors. From childhood, we are fascinated by dinosaur bones and the creatures the bones speak about.  We want to know why they became extinct and imagine their lives.

With the capacity to sequence DNA these stories become ever more precise and yet so very incomplete and full of mystery.  Mary Oliver writes of discovering the ear bone of a pilot whale.  She feels she is close to “discovering something:”

“For the ear bone
Is the portion that lasts longest
In any of us, man or whale…
And I thought: the soul
Might be like this-
So hard, so necessary-
Yet almost nothing”

Humans have 206 bones, twenty-six in the feet and fifty-four in the hand and wrist.  The femur bone in the thigh is the longest and the strongest.  The three smallest bones are in the inner ear.  Without them we would be deaf.  Thanks to their shapes, these small ear bones are informally called the hammer, anvil and stirrup and all three could easily fit on a penny. When struck by sound waves they vibrate and strike a thin membrane, thus transmitting the sound waves from the air to the fluid of the ear. 

Then there is the hyoid bone, the only bone that is not attached to other bones.  It is located at the base of the tongue and anchors the tongue.  Elephants have five bones in their hyoid apparatus.  They are able to make sounds too low for humans to hear.  These sounds are transported to other elephants through the ground for up to 2.5 miles. 

For those of us who are not paleontologists, though we might be fascinated by dinosaur bones, tend to be more concerned with the health of our own bones so that they might carry us into old age still dancing, as I am sure Myrtle does in the middle of the night. I suspect I am fairly unique in receiving a life size skeleton for my fiftieth birthday from the yoga studio.

In a recent article in the New York Times, Science Section (December 22, 2015), Jane Brody reported on a study done on yoga and bone health by Dr. Loren M. Fishman.  He found that yoga was safe for those with bone loss and helped prevent increased loss and fractures.  Plus, he said, the “side effects” include “better posture, improved balance, enhanced coordination, greater range of motion, higher strength, reduced levels of anxiety and better gait.”  Dr. Fishman argues that “yoga puts more pressure on bones than gravity does.” By opposing one group of muscles against another, the osteocytes – the bone making cells – are stimulated to do their job. 

Much of the conversation around yoga in our modern western world tends to be on how yoga helps our health.  While this is wonderful, it is not the whole story.  When we practice yoga, we want to align the bones so that the posture requires less muscular effort, or less effort in general so that we might begin to enter another more mysterious place where the mind settles a bit from its frantic planning and jumping from one thing to the next.  I hope I am quoting accurately B.K.S. Iyengar as saying that when we practice yoga asana (postures) and focus our mind on all the many subtle aspects of how we are in any particular pose, we are aligning with the soul. 
The soul is about as mysterious as it gets.  We can measure the tiniest of particles. We know many of the stories of how our bodies function though we also know very little.  But we cannot measure the soul.  Many argue there is no such thing.  I hope we can never measure the soul.  I hope rather, that we continue to write poems, like Mary Oliver, finding hints of the soul in the ear bone of a pilot whale.  I hope we stay unpredictable.  I hope Myrtle dances to her hearts content every night she wants to. 

Friday, September 11, 2015

Listening to the Corn

While reading a book on the history of physics, Pythagoras’ Trousers by Margaret Wertheim, I encountered a bit about Barbara McClintock. If you do not know about her, she is a woman scientist who was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.  She lived from 1902 to 1992.  Through her study of corn, she found that the genetic code of an organism is not a static blueprint.  It is a flexible, dynamic code responding to the surrounding environment.  This discovery, called “jumping genes” revolutionized genetics although at the time she was working, her research was rejected.  She however, kept working in obscurity for forty years, believing in her own work even though as a woman scientist, she was often dismissed.  Like many other scientists, she was so far advanced that others could not believe her. She says this:  “If you know you are on the right track, if you have this inner knowledge, then nobody can turn you off…no matter what they say.”

McClintock says that she knew her corn plants intimately and found great pleasure in knowing them.  She also says that she came to her ideas by “listening” to her corn plants and seeing the world from their perspective. 

I have a painted gourd an artist friend gifted me many years ago.  It is Corn Woman watching hercorn kernal grow.   Whenever I look at it, I am reminded of this process McClintock is also speaking about – of listening/observing so closely.  The corn woman also reminds me of time, of the time it takes to observe and listen.  It took McClintock forty years. 
corn grow.

I write this on a bad smoke day from the rough fire.  Perhaps by the time you are reading it, the fire will be more contained and the skies clearer.  In addition to the discomfort of smoke and heat, the fire raises deeper thoughts and emotions around the collective human contribution to a landscape that is in trouble, as we all know and live with all the time.  One thread of that is the drought.  Last April I made a kind of pilgrimage to Cedar Grove to see the many ponderosa pines that are/were dying – weakened by the drought and then overcome by the bark beetle.  As the fire burns through the mountains around and toward Cedar Grove, these dead and dying trees are fuel. 

As far as I understand what I read and listen too, though droughts are a part of California history, this one is made worse by global warming.  I share human responsibility then, in part, for the intensity of the fire even as I am uncomfortable from the smoke. 

And so I ponder the perspective, not unique or original with McClintock, but beautifully articulated by her life, of listening to trees and water and animals – of continuing, as so many have already begun, to attempt to take into myself, my very being, a sense of what something might look like from their perspective. 

Listening in this way seems an almost lost art in our modern world.  While I don’t know that yoga, as it was practiced by our yoga ancestors, saw such listening as an obvious goal, I do think the practice lends itself to the kind of listening I am speaking of.  Asana, though only one of the many ways one practices yoga, does, I believe, begin to develop listening tools.  In the repetition of postures over a long period of time with attention to alignment one begins to integrate the postures into the body on a cellular level.  When practicing asana, one is observing and listening constantly to the body if the practice is done with careful attention. In this way we train our minds toward focus and attending to – toward listening.  We also train out some of the clutter or movement (vrittis) in the mind so that clarity and space are available to observe and listen from.

Barbara McClintock, Bear and Tiger
Recently I was sitting in my morning meditation on my outdoor yoga deck. I heard footsteps in the grass that were louder than the quail I am used to hearing.  I opened I my eyes to find myself looking straight into the face of a bear about eight feet away coming toward me.  I convinced her/him to go another direction with some hand clapping and my loud voice.  But the experience has lingered in my mind.  Over the next few days I learned that after a period of not seeing many bears in Three Rivers, there have been a lot of bear around the last few weeks.  It seems they are coming down from the fire and the drought.  What is the perspective of the bear if I were to be able to listen carefully enough and what might that mean in my own life?

A story comes into my mind about a Buddhist monk who was walking through the forest.  He came upon a mother tiger and cubs. They were starving.  He gave his life to become food for them so that they might live.  Do not worry, dear reader, I have no plans to give my life up to the bear coming down from the drought and fire but I do wonder what it might be like for humans to give up something of our lives for the animals or trees, to keep them more fully alive and healthy. How might we listen to the many species who are dying out every day?

Monday, June 22, 2015

“The Quietest Place in the Universe”

This title of an article in Harper’s magazine naturally caught my attention.  I have studied the yoga sutras, read the commentaries, memorized a few of them, chanted some of them (though I make no claim to being anywhere near a scholar of them) and I always come back to “yoga is the stilling/quieting of the fluctuations of the mind” as the sutra that calls to me most.  I like the simplicity and the invitation to something both difficult and mysterious. I also remember as a child being quite taken by the Psalm: “Be still and know that I am God.”

Lead, South Dakota is at almost the exact geographic center of the United States.  In Lead, there is a deep hole, possibly one of the deepest in the world.  Once a gold mine, it is now a center of scientific study on neutrinos and dark matter.  Neutrinos are subatomic particles that have been around since the birth of the universe. They are not very well understood and in fact, are rather mysterious.  They are able to pass through matter and so pass through the earth, and us, all the time. 

Deep underground, the theory goes, the rock will filter out background radiation noise from other sources so the path of the neutrinos might be recorded. It is as if one is moving from above ground being like the sound of applause at the Super Bowl to a place where one hears only one hand clapping or perhaps, a single breath or the “residual sweep of neutrinos from the Big Bang, like the movement of air inside a newborn’s lungs.” 

The author of the article, Kent Meyers, says this:  “I began to think of neutrinos and dark matter as whispers: the most intimate messages of the universe’s voice, carrying its closest secrets to ears that are all but deaf—or, perhaps more accurately, immune, because so other-natured.” 

It is so incredibly difficult to filter out the busyness and consequent noise of our lives and our minds.  And yet, I suspect, that filtering out of noise is one of the important paths for us to collectively and individually find another way of living with the earth and all the beings we share it with—what Thomas Berry the myriad ways the Divine communicates.  Yoga may be part of the change we seek, a way of bringing something back into balance – the yoga that brings us home to our bodies and quiet to our minds so we can hear the whispers of the breath of the universe as we listen to the whispers of the breath of our own bodies. 

Kent finishes his article with words that deeply touched me.  He describes this research as a kind of science of introversion and withdrawal, “setting up the conditions of silence and waiting for the smallest voice of the universe, the voice of its conception.”  Telescopes reach out into space in search of information and images just as our eyes reach out into our world and take in information that is sent to our brains.  The research in this deep cut in the earth, originally dug in an attempt to gain wealth in gold, is now a place of withdrawing and listening. 

“Part of me is excited by the possibilities of neutrino and dark-matter research, the sci-fi glitz of better heath and medicine, longer and richer lives, interstellar travel.  Another, quieter part of me, though, wonders.  What if we arrived at knowledge that we cannot mine or turn into something—arsenic, dynamite, trucks—that helps us mine something else and in so doing produces, always, another thing we cannot get our minds around?  What if dark matter and neutrinos are so out of reach that all we can do is think about them, not manipulate or change them or mix them into new combinations?  Of the many revolutions science has offered us—and challenged us with—that could be the quietest and the largest and most interesting of all.”

When we sit and quiet the fluctuations of the mind, or filter them out perhaps, we are also setting up the conditions of silence and waiting for the whisper of the universe. The yogis and other ancients who explored and developed the practice of meditation have given us a great wisdom. We do not need science to confirm it but the parallels are fascinating and quite beautiful as they overlap and interweave with each other. 

If you are interested, I highly recommend this article in Harper’s, May 2015: The Most Mysterious Particle in the Universe (on cover), The Quietest Place in the Universe. 

Also, Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Zero Phase

Zero phase, in Manual Lymphatic Drainage, is the moment when the hand is touching the skin but there is no pressure.  During the training, our teacher would come around and ask the one on the table receiving if the giver was getting their zero phase. Very often, they were not. The lightness of touch requires enormous concentration.  How fascinating that the resting of the hand is the most difficult to master. 

The hands make many different movements in many different sequences. All of them must be memorized and the hand must learn to make the movements skillfully.  With every movement, there is a zero phase.  The movements are repeated with deliberate slow monotony. The skin is stretched as far as possible (often not far at all) and then returns to the zero phase. 

The initial lymph vessels are found in the skin.  They open, drawing fluid, proteins, fats and other small bits into their lumen (space).  They close again, causing the fluid, now lymph, to move on into other transport systems that will carry it to the lymph nodes.  The hand movements cause these tiny initial lymph vessels to open and close faster.  They close at the zero point.  Closing is as important as opening.  It is the rhythm of the two that matters: open and close, movement and zero.   

I don’t know when I have had to work so conscientiously to not move, to rest my hand with no pressure, to stop before moving on.  How much easier it is to push or pull the skin, or a muscle, or a hand or leg.  Or in a moment when I am troubled by something, how much easier to push at the thoughts, trying perhaps to uncover something that will ease my disturbance.  What if I could find a zero phase? What if I could ask my mind, like my hands, to rest without pressure until something small closes for a moment and then opens again?

Hildegard, our teacher who is 85 years old and has probably the most experienced MLD hands in the world right now, tells us that dancers often do well with MLD.  There is a quality of rhythm and grace to the movements - after you have learned them each with painstaking attention to technique - that reminds one of dance.  I have always been rather a clumsy dancer and painfully self-conscious but as my hands learn the techniques and sequences well enough to actually find the zero phase, I believe I feel this dance with the fluid of the body.  When I draw my hand back to the zero phase, that place of touch with no pressure, I feel the buoyancy of the fluid underneath the skin and sense, at least in my imagination, the rhythm of the opening and closing that I cannot see.  My hands then seem to move with greater ease and possibly find their dance.

The zero phase reminds me of my pranayama (yogic breathing) practice.  There is the inhalation and the exhalation.  Then there is the inhalation with a pause when breathing stops, and then the exhalation.  At the end of the exhalation there is pause when breathing stops, and then the inhalation.  These pauses are referred to as breath retention. Breath retention is written about in most of the major sources within the yoga tradition and  there are numerous accounts of yogis being able to suspend their breath while buried alive for days and reactivate normal breathing practice afterward. Patanjali writes of breath retention in the Yoga Sutras (II.49-53) as a way to find greater clarity and quiet in the mind. Some translations/interpretations refer to the later stages of pranayama as a place/time where prana (life force) permeates everywhere and is the path to a place of bliss. 

The practice of pranayama shares a difficulty with zero phase.  One must release all pushing or pulling for the breath will not be forced or hurried.  Dancing with one's breath asks for the lightest of touch and requires enormous focus.  I doubted my capacity to find zero phase as I often doubt my capacity with pranayama and yet, there are moments, when I feel the dance show up as an unexpected gift.

During my first week of training, I had the honor of working on a woman who agreed to be a model for us.  She was also in her eighties and had been an MLD therapist for many years.  She said two things to me: “Imagine you are skipping though a field of daffodils.”  And then, “Do it with abandon.”  I am certain there is mystery and magic to be found through the portal of the zero phase. 

Photo by Ginny Wilson