Bare soul, a sharpened truth

This is a story that actually happened.  

I knew nothing of self respect, let alone self healing.  I struggled through my days. I beat off collapse with empty whiskey bottles.  I did my best to not let any of my physical or emotional pain slip out my mouth.  I wasn't very good at this I don't suppose, but the whole thing rumbled on.  It rolled on like a deprived circus caravan, the kind town after town won't host.  A fringe event.  Cacophony.  Lewdness.

Then I became a yoga teacher.  I dance on my hands upside down. My pain has mostly gone away.  I am happy.  When I look ahead to my life, I am excited.   Sometimes people say things to me: they wish they could do what I do, they wish they had my body, my courage, my life.

I find this confusing.

The story is true.  But the assumption is wrong.  I want to peel apart the truth, like you pull the skin off a clove of garlic.  I want the subtlety to be evident.  This is not something I did but something that happened to me.  It came from the path itself, the mechanism of healing, not myself.  Insight is a thing, in the tradition, that comes to you.

I'm trying to unravel why this confuses me.  1: people ask me how I became what I am, do what I do. People look to me for teaching. I mean they see me as some kind of authority. 2: I am happy. But it's not happiness in the way we’re given to expect. There is nothing to teach. 3. This is the hardest one to give words to at all.  I need a koan; a riddle;  a syllogism: the assumption is false, but the reality under the assumption is real.  There is a way from the unreal to the real.

There are promises embedded in the yoga world.  Be happy and feel excited lead the gamut of assurances of what happens when you take this stuff up.  There are also exorbitant promises of pain ending, weight dropping, and moods lifting.  Some of this we can see right through - the bikini clad hand stander with legs six miles long and brown sugar sand impressed in her delicious and honey toned ass.  Some of this we have a harder time wrapping our minds around - the cross legged sage with an unkempt beard who says he's tasted the unalloyed bliss of god.  I suppose some of it - backed by modern research, lauded by exercise magazines, encouraged by therapists -  is simply an undertone to a wider cultural drone that tells us we need to change.

The earth is loose, these last few days, with spring's first rain and pale, tender growth.

There is also something in us that wants change.  Something that is not cultured, is raw as exposed bone and soft as young roots.  It is tender.  This is subtle. I spent much of my life disparaging and dismissing the outward call to change.  Yet there is in me something vulnerable to it. We are alive, but wonder if we could be alive, differently.  Is there is a way from a to b?

There is. But to express it  I need a koan.  I need a poem.  Excited.  Happy.

The earth is loose.  I sit on my cement stoop before the sun comes up and let the dog sniff around in the yard.  My heels kick out, my knees knock in, and I shelf my elbows on my knees while I hold my coffee cup in both hands.  The looseness of the earth tempted me, and though it was cold, I kicked off my sneakers and wiggled my toes in the sandy mud.  Dog snorted under a bush, then sneezed.  I watch him paw at a bare spot on the ground for a moment.  I think of a conversation I had yesterday.

I want all people to feel this, I said.  

I am happy in the pale blue of pre-dawn.  In the harsher light that will come with actual morning, in the real light of day, I know that what most people feel is not the unalloyed bliss of god.  Not dancing.  The chronicles of human suffering are close and they are constant. They are the news.  They clutter facebook.  Even if you aren't struggling through, you're more likely settling and doing the best you can than you are 'happy' or 'excited'.  Society is nasty.  Harm drones on in ways I can't put words too.  Torture is modern, and present.  Bodies are politics.  Life is unfair.

It is too cold for bare feet.  I call the dog inside and we both leave muddy footprints on the linoleum.  I stand at the sink, rinsing the coffee cup.  I think of this conversation and half a dozen others while I vaguely think about the Saturday morning class happening in a few hours.  I think of what bodies will be there.  What it is I most need to say.  I know how you suffer.  I want all people to feel this.  

These are not opposites.

This conversation I had yesterday was with a young woman who suffers a conflagration of chronic illnesses.  I see her moving through life, singing, playing her guitar, giddy in love and recently engaged.  She takes silly selfies at work, on bicycles, and of her toes in the bathtub.  I see her chronic headaches that debilitate her, hear about her whole body feeling bruised, listen to her struggle with finding treatments or simply a way to arrange her tender bones in a way that doesn't hurt.

In a kind of fatigued and weary way, she cited all the different food options she has tried, the recommendations, the times she's poked her nose into yoga.  It felt good, she said, but like most human beings she has gotten her yoga mostly from the internet, doesn't have the time or money to spend, wouldn't know which studio or gym to go to.  She talked about her attempts to find the right amount of this and contain the negative affects of that.  Exercise helps; too much exercise is immediate pain.  Caffeine helps; too much caffeine is pain.  Vegetarian seems to be better, but some protein alternatives seem to irritate her system right away. She's struggled with the best way to log her flair ups and journal her food.  Endless internet researching.  Superfoods, inspirations, 30 day challenges.  Vitamin this and glutamate that.

In that weary voice, she asked if I could seriously offer her a realistic way to incorporate yoga and meditation.  Let's be real, she said.

I feel my brow furrow as I stand there over the sink.  This is the hard part.  I believe; I am.  There is truth to the promises; I believe and I am proof of that.  There is remarkable power hidden in this stuff.  I can dance on my hands; I'm pain free, I'm happy, I'm excited and the kicker of it is I don't think I've even begun to hit the real depths of it.  It isn't quite the stuff of gorgeous bodies nor transcendental bliss, because it happened to me and I'm still a hot mess, but it is real enough.  I'd trade my teeth on it.  I want to heal war with it.  I want to offer it to every one who is simply world weary.  Let's be real.  I think it would help.  But I don't know what it would do with her pain.  These are not opposites.

I realized something.  

It worked so profoundly, so quickly, gave me handstands and the splits and a yoga teacher career precisely because when I came to it I had nothing to lose.  I dove in with no holds barred.  I went to two to four classes a day.  For years.  I went to teacher training very early on in my practice, and I continued to spend all my money on trainings, workshops, and privates for years after that.  I taught, full time, from the moment I was certified.

That scenario simply isn't real for most folks.

And I’m not saying it right. It wasn’t that I did more yoga than most folks do (although that is true) or that I am more trained and experienced than most teachers are (although that is also true). What was true for me but not for everybody was that I surrendered, completely, because I didn’t have a choice.

There are odd moments that sometimes happens to alcoholics who've managed to sober up; we feel lucky to be alcoholic.  The extremity of how far gone we were mirrors how deeply we appreciate common ordinary life. We tend to have a personal and daily spirituality. Maybe it's not even spirituality.  It's a raw soulfulness. Which is not the same thing as religion, or even faith as it's usually understood.  We're grateful for little things like mornings without jail, injury, discord or blackouts.  Alcoholism directly gives us communities of recovery, which are potent catalysts and sweet relationships most ordinary human beings don't get.  Alcoholism gives us gratitude, forgiveness and the capacity to forgive, a way to let go of the past.

Alcoholism directly gave me the accelerated version of a "yoga lifestyle".

Most people never will stand on their hands or go to teacher training or have the time to spend a few years drenched in experiences.  Most people will never be a full time yoga teacher.  It simply isn't a very practical thing to be.

Yet I don't think the promises are unique to me.  

I don't think I did anything.  I believe that yoga can change common, ordinary lives.  I believe that happy and excited are things a soul is designed to feel.  I don't mean everyone should be yoga teachers, like me, or will experience what I have.  I mean only that there is experience here - tender, soulful, personal experience - to be had.  It rings of healing.  It echos happy, excited.

But this makes me wonder how; how do we peel away the false advertising of the internet, the statuesque legs of bikini clad beauties and twenty year old demigods doing handstands sideways off the walls of buildings?  How do we avoid the palaver - if not the manipulation - of the yoga industry and the yoga studios and social media but still taste the good sweet juice of there being meat?

What does daily spiritual practice actually mean, if you're a modern western adult?  How does healing begin?  Hell - the most of us who DO yoga find after awhile that it goes stale, we hit a stuck point.  Most studios don't offer you anything like a relationship with a teacher or a way to learn anything deeper.  Other than a few more poses for a few more bucks.

What we need - what I need to teach - are real practical things that people can actually use.  We need steps, ladders, maps.  We need actual tools for daily living and continuing to go deeper.

How, realistically, for actual bodies in actual life, can yoga and meditation come in?  What direction happiness, excitement?  I'm trying to discern what it was that worked for me so that I can distill it into a teachable, usable thing.

The most honest answer I have is 'small things'. and let the expectations go. There was - at that dirty screwed up point in my life - no joking about with the false advertising of yoga retreats, lose the fat, get prettier skin or 30 day challenges; all I could summon was what do I do, now, today?  That inquiry became inborn, deep, and absolute: my practice was not a certain amount of asana or particular asana.  It was 'what one or two things can I really do today to make this better?" and doing my damnedest to get them done.

If that question is taken to be a serious question it can't be answered with things like 'i'll feel better when I lose x pounds' or make x amount of dollars or meet the man who is right for me.  It can't be abstract in any way.  There can be no 'I want to be happy' or 'I really need to work through my abandonment issues' nor 'I need to feel more self acceptance'.  

It has to be gritty: what do I feel now and what two things can I do to bring myself back into balance by the time I go to bed?

The practical actions usually had nothing to do with the asana or the mat.  It was a phone call I had to make.  A decision to eat a healthier dinner, to not have the next cigarette, to say 'thank you for your help, can you help me with this other bit?' The mat was there.  It was essential.  The asana developed.  But they weren't the practice; those little tiny decisions and actions were.

Because I was seriously at the bottom of humanity, I was also incredibly humble in those days. I asked for a lot of help, swallowed a lot of pride, was absolutely willing to examine my motives, my emotions, my limits.  

Sic: it was brutally hard to be so willing and humble, to let go of so much, even though I had nothing to lose.  I know that to ask a regular old Joe to do so - without fear of madness or death if he doesn't, just the vague promise that yoga will do something for him if he can manage it - is a tall order.  Ordinary human beings do have something to lose.  But willingness, humility, was key.  It alone had the power to break through my bad habits and propelled me into becoming a better and healthier person.

And I think there was this: I did things I was scared to do.

Again, it wasn't terribly hard for me because I was pushed.  I would either get better or I would die.  But I did things that scared the crap out of me, that I wasn't sure about, and that I couldn't predict the outcome of.  I quit my job.  I left cities I loved.  I dropped friendships that were half assed and sought out people who intimidated me but could help me grow.  I invested a lot of money on this yoga thing, which is a way to say I invested money in myself.  There was never the slightest hint of getting it back.  I let go of the things I was most dependent on and I stepped into wildly unknown territory.  I opened my mouth and said the most honest things I could.  I apologized, knowing I wouldn't be and didn't deserve to be forgiven.  I forgave.  I trembled.  I swore a lot and I wept.

This isn't true for most people most of the time.  For most people, most of the time, doing things we are scared to do just ain't gonna happen.  We're not going to take risks.  We're not going to sacrifice instant gratification for possible, but vague, future self improvement.  We're not going to leave secure finances, relationships, or habits on what might turn out to be a whim.   Comfortable is hard to argue with.  Good enough actually is. We're not going to let go of the way things are for the nebulus 'life you want to be living'.

But I think you have to.  I think you have to, a little bit, in small ways, do the things that scare you.  I think if you don't, yoga stops.

The stream of wishy washy spirituality and body-insane yoga culture streams into my world every single day.  I catch myself, sometimes, and wonder how with a shred of honesty I can associate myself with this stuff. How do I teach when most teaching is such a sham?  How do I ask people to connect with their own flesh when flesh is a loaded word?  I pause, often, when I'm writing and when I'm standing in front of a class; the words I most want to say are so bloody, so honest, so scary I'm not sure I should.  I've been accused of being dark.  My writing as tending to the depressive.  My teaching as being 'pushy' or 'a little crazy'.  Self censoring creeps in.  And when it does, the logical path my mind goes to is questioning the validity of the path itself.  How can it be real, if it's so false?

But then sincere questions from honest, normal human beings come in.  Mildly hopeful neophytes, people who have never really tried yoga and are intimidated to do so.  More and more often, people who do know yoga but who have been hurt or manipulated by teachers, studios, or even the practice itself.  Or folks who felt how good it can be, there for a little bit, but now aren't sure why it doesn't feel that way anymore.

All of this - the trash of the wider culture, the bite of my own truth, the longing I hear from others - gives me the go.  It touches, I think, that tender longing spot in me, that urge toward truth and balance and yes-ness.  I want to rend the fabric of the false.  I want to reveal the sexualized and bulemic matrix, the absurd amalgamation of goddess-nature-ecstatic dance-feel your wildness-new ageism.  I want to show how our attention is tangled in the absolutes, the all or nothings, the goal setting and expectations and how much this hurts. The falsity hurts.

I want to make it possible for yoga to be real because it is real.  Real is its heart.  You can look that up (see: Avidya, maya, the goal of yoga.  See: Stephan Cope's marvelous book Yoga and The Quest for the True Self, chapter 8.  See:  Jung.   See: the four noble truths.  See: any literature or art worth it's salt.  See: the Velveteen Rabbit).  But you can also feel it.  These promises, these texts, this breathing are not metaphor.  They are a poetry, yes - if a poem is a sharpened truth.  But this truth is personal.  The flesh referred to is your flesh.  The story is your story.  The moment - those small things - is a question asked, not rhetorically but of you. It’s asked of you right now.

Either yoga applies to a sinkful of dirty dishes, a middle aged life, a less than enlightened mind, or it does not.  I happen to think that it does.  I think (I believe, I am) this whole transform your life thing is real and can work for any one.  I think we need simple truths that actually work, not vague promises of enlightenment, miracle cure, or sudden advanced super asana.

I answered this girl, this distant friend, this one who suffers, like this: in terms of yoga, find one or two poses.  Get a relationship with a studio or a teacher for your longer practices and to keep learning.  In terms of meditation: one minute.  Start with one minute.  Try different times: before bed, before breakfast, in the car after work, pre or post shower.  Start with one minute and you'll start to know what time of day works best for you.  Sometimes you'll just go for five minutes.  Do that much.

And in terms of the crazy stuff, the food, the ethics, the expectations, the black and whites, the deeper health issues, the deep fatigue, the auto-immune confusion, the conflicts of your soul:

name one or two do-able things you can do before you go to bed to feel better, more on track, or balanced.  Do these things.

She answered me that this was the most reasonable thing she'd ever heard.  It was, actually, encouraging.

I think we are people who desperately need encouraging.  We need how-to.  We need some actual way to move on.  We need to touch on the tender piece of our humanity and channel that into our practice.

Look, it's this simple:

  1. You 'advance' in your asana by practice, over a long period of time. Therefore, your personal practice is really just finding one or two techniques that work for you personally, not committing to an hour long sequence for thirty days or 'every day I will'. Find your couple of poses.

  2. Have a relationship with a studio or teacher.

  3. Meditate for one minute, more days than not. 20 days out of the next 31 is infinately better than any 'goal' or not at all. It's real.

  4. Name one or two little, completely do-able things you can do before you go to bed to bring yourself to a better place. Do them.

  5. Every once in a while, you're going to very clearly be faced with a scary choice. And every once in a while, you're going to have to do it before you feel brave enough or ready. It's going to have to be a bit of a stretch, a big old scary eyes closed jump off a cliff thing. At some point, you have to be willing to fall.

All of this is stuff that has to actually happen.  You don't plan your way to enlightenment. You mostly stumble there.  You mostly flail.

You end up less afraid.  You end up places you couldn't have imagined.  You end up being a better, braver, a sweeter human being than you ever believed yourself to be.  I'm telling you, happiness is.  But you don't know what it is.  Not yet.

Later in the day, walking the dog, the sunlight lay on my skin with a warmth that had weight.  The dog and I walked west and strait at it; eyelashes and the sun tangled, became multifaceted as a jewel, honey colored and yellow as light on water.  A woman, a girl really, passed us carrying her coat slung over her forearm.  The skin of her shoulders was pale and soft.  Tender.  The strap of her shirt slipped over her collarbone, onto her arm.  Loose, like the earth.  Her bones.  The earth is loose, and the ground unstable.  This is a call for bared feet.   A bareness of soul.