“Now no matter, child, the name
Sorrow’s springs are all the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed.
It is the blight man was born for.
It is Margaret you mourn for.”
--Gerard Manley Hopkins
Last week, I went to teach with lead in my heart. I had just learned that my parents were on high alert and ready to evacuate their house in North Carolina. The wildfires from Georgia and South Carolina burned just a mile from their door, and my parents had been housebound for days. After only seconds outside, the smoke burned their eyes and throats. It’s easy to catalog these disasters, along with mudslides, tsunamis and outbreaks of cholera as “things that happen to other people,” but this fire was at my parents’ backs. I could feel its heat, the roar as it devoured brush and trees.
“We put everything we could in the car,” my father said, “but Ed’s statues were too heavy to carry.” Ed was my parents’ best friend, a brilliant sculptor and the gentlest of men. After Ed died, my father tracked down these two pieces from another collector, female nudes in rich oak; the afternoon light turns their curves to honey-gold. There’s always a detail upon which all the meaning comes to rest and this was it: my father, still recovering from a total knee replacement, leaving the sculptures alone to burn.
My parents have lived for decades in the woodland where I spent my summers as a child. They have shaped and nurtured the land, and it has shaped and nurtured them in turn. Their homestead is the green heart of our family, the place that creates our best and simplest selves: my mother canoeing in her bathing suit and a ponytail, the children chasing after salamanders instead of Ipads, my sister and I making endless piles of sandwiches that will taste so good after a walk and a swim. On summer nights, the woods vibrate with the kirtan of the katydids, and in the winter pileated woodpeckers punctuate the morning silence. One of the few temperate rain forests in North America, these woods are so green, so wet, so lush. Envelops seal themselves shut and cookies go stale in fifteen minutes. But last week my parents couldn’t see the sun or the lake fifty feet from their living room. They weren’t outside hiking or gardening. They were inside taking inventory of what to keep and what to leave behind.
My parents designed their house with a friend, and it took two years to build. A lifetime adorns it: my mother’s collection of native American baskets, ceramic pieces from a talented friend, folk art, watercolors painted by my college roommate’s father, the marble sculpture of a crane my mother bought when her father died. Their art is a testament to the quality of their attention and the yoga they taught me as a child: look at the petals on that flower, the light against that cement wall, the pattern in this weaving, the face of that woman in this photograph. Around these aggregates of beauty, are the woods, my parents’ constant companion throughout their lives. The thought of adding the destruction of this place to the greater calamity of the Trump Presidency struck me as unimaginable. At 78 and 79, my parents’ entire world, inner and outer, public and private was on fire. If it all burned, what would be left?
With these thoughts I arrived at the shala, the key cold in my hand. Crossing the threshold into the practice room, I wondered how I would stay focused on the students, how I could be the one to hold the space. But people arrived and unrolled their mats and once more I witnessed how the practice holds the space and that equanimity is born of silence. I learned again that, beyond the details of external or internal rotation, mula or uddiyana bandha, we practice to see what comes up and then to see it fall away. I remembered the words of Richard Freeman, who says that yoga means holding up our own true face and not some contrived image of who we’d like to be. And so I let a few discreet tears fall as I moved amongst the practitioners, breathing alongside them, attentive to their presence and to mine. I was reminded of how the practice allows us to be intimately aware with our emotions without being swept away by their force. I also thought of Pattabhi Jois and how he grieved for his wife Amma after her death, weeping onto students as he adjusted them in Paschimattanasana. Non-attachment is easy in theory, he would say, but so difficult in practice. “She was here yesterday!” the great yogi cried, “Now gone!” A truth as obvious as it is incomprehensible.
I’m a young teacher, not in years but in experience, and I feel a humbled when I occupy the teaching space. I am increasingly moved by the silence, the presence in the body, the students’ trust and the stillness (amidst all the movement) that holds us together. Some people believe that yoga teachers are more highly evolved beings (they probably don’t know very many), that we are free of attachment and beyond the mundane. The truth, I would argue, is that we are simply luckier than most; we spend long hours in a sacred space and immersed in practice: our own, that of the students we accompany and the teachers who have come before us. If we are the company we keep, this is very good company. Over time it polishes us like the oak of Ed’s sculptures. It allows us to shed a tear without self-pity, to feel the pain of loss without confusing it with annihilation.
Between adjustments, I checked my phone from to see if my parents had been evacuated. In one of those passes, I received a loving message from Mary Taylor, a person sometimes identified as “the wife of Richard Freeman.” But for her students, Mary is a bodhisattva, a light in the dark, a great strength in a tiny package. Mary is the person who answers the emails, gives the hugs, keeps track of who has children and who has injuries. She also assists in asana with a surgical precision and her knowledge of the yoga tradition is embodied and profound. It’s easy to reduce her partnership with Richard to a simplistic duality: the renowned man and the woman who sustains him, air and earth, the Samadhi and Sadhana Pada (Richard himself makes this joke), but Mary is made of the densest sinew of wisdom and compassion that, as Patanjali says, “overcomes the play of opposites.” Together these two are perfect, purna, full and real.
When I attended in their Teacher’s Intensive, we participated in two anatomy classes with human cadavers. For many of us, this was the most powerful and illuminating moment on the course. After years of trying to understand certain muscle systems, we were able to hold them in our hands, to see the diaphragm’s diaphanous colors and the surprising girth of the psoas. But, most importantly, we saw death with startling proximity. All the conversations with Richard about impermanence became flesh in the second the anatomist revealed a human shoulder separated from the rest of its body. In Spanish, we joke about the dead as “cold cuts,” and this was all I could think as I looked at the grey muscle of a flayed rotator cuff. It turned my stomach and then my mind.
Before we arrived at the lab, Mary had been helping the teacher to arrange some desks and create more space; a wooden flap swung loose from one of the tables and collided with her forehead. During the following weeks, the egg-shaped bump we saw that day became a great bruise, travelling across her face and changing color until is occupied most of her forehead and an entire cheek. Like everything that seems to befall her, she carried this mark with humor and dignity. It was as if she had received the full impact of our discomfort in the anatomy lab, our collective fear of death blossoming in her face.
Mary works every year with Roshi Joan Halifax in the program Being with Dying to help medical and mental health professionals accompany their terminal patients with compassion and grace. She has dedicated significant time to sitting with the reality of death and she teaches others to do the same. In this deep spirit, Mary does not gloss over that which is uncomfortable or painful. She also doesn’t complain. She is a living example of the Buddhist ideal to “see things as they are.” In the weeks after the anatomy lab, as her skin turned from purple to a greenish grey, there was no mistaking her mortality and our own. The true face she held up to us was a disquieting reminder, brave and vulnerable.During the course, Mary shared several personal stories with us, difficult moments: injuries and disappointments, the conflicts inherent in a life on the mat. Like my father, Mary has also had a total knee replacement, in her case after a skiing accident. She wasn’t naturally endowed with great flexibility, either. When she first met Pattabhi Jois as a practitioner, his comment was “Why is it so stiff?” All of this occurred alongside a man whose body and mind are possessed of a seemingly unlimited plasticity. More recently, Mary has developed rheumatoid arthritis, an illness that she describes as a great teacher, though I’m sure she’d rather not have to learn in this way. During the Intensive, Mary described the onset of the RA and the moments in which her entire practice consisted in raising her arms above her head as she breathed. This simple motion awoke in her the deep comfort that Surya Namaskara provides to longtime practitioners. Breath and movement. A vinyasa of the heart.
Mary reminded us, time and again, that this practice is something that we can do until our dying day and that students at the Yoga Workshop have witnessed her practicing both very sick and very injured. These slow, modified and nearly unrecognizable-as-ashtanga practices, she assured us, have been the true teaching moments of her career.
Her husband Richard likes to quote the last sloka of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika which says that if we haven’t experienced the practice in our inner core, that all of the prior discussion of nadis and chakras, of pranayama and bandhas is merely the mindless babble of a madman. In this same vein, yoga invites us to conjugate our great fires (of forests and marriages, family and work, sickness and political upheaval) with mindful breathing, a steady gaze, presence in our bodies and silence at our center. This is the practice that I have learned from Mary Taylor, and though I’m not there yet, I know it’s possible. As teachers, we don’t have to hide our injuries or choke back our tears. We can stand before other practitioners, chant the invocation and watch what arises. This does not mean we should our guts to our students and burden them with our drama; it simply requires that we accept our lives with grace and transparency. We can take refuge in this practice, without using it as a hideout. We can receive its blessings by lifting our arms above our heads, grateful that we still can.
The fire near my parents’ land is me a rehearsal of their passing, a reminder that I am no longer a child and that the universe, as Richard cheerily likes to say, is one giant death machine. If the forest burns today or in 10,000 years, it is still going to be swallowed by “the great devourer” of time--as, of course, are we. Yoga cannot save our bodies from this fate, but, just as the woods in which I played as a child will live forever in my heart, just as my parents will walk eternally through their garden, this tradition tells us that the Self cannot be made wet or burned. “It stands” the Bhagavad Gita says, “On the motionless shores of eternity.”
So, even with lead in my heart, I am going to stand on my mat and follow my teachers. I am going to raise my arms over my head like Mary Taylor, and, in the words of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, “Do rechaka and puraka as much as possible.” We can wear our bruises bravely, recognizing them as the proof of our humanity and the gift of our vulnerability. After the fire, the flood, the death of those we love, we can still feel the afternoon light on the statues and the spirit that shaped them, the invisible presence that pervades us all. What remains is everything.
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