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May 2012 – The Accidental Yogi
Dear Yoga Friends,
Last Saturday I was about to enter a yoga studio when I heard an extremely loud metallic thump, almost like an explosion. I turned my head and saw a car completely upside down in the middle of the road, windows shattered, roof partially smashed. I looked in disbelief. Cars behind had stopped and everyone around, including myself, seemed to be experiencing some momentary hesitation and shock, wondering what to do first. I approached the vehicle slowly, crossing a lane of traffic and a median strip, thinking to myself that someone inside was most likely seriously injured or even dead, and I would be the first on the scene.
Before I had a chance to think any further, a woman popped up on the far side of the overturned vehicle, walked around the front of it, and began walking in my direction towards the median strip. I turned her around away from the traffic, and another yoga teacher who was leaving the studio and I had her sit down on the curb to collect herself. She said that she was the only one in the vehicle. I called 911 and then found that the most useful thing I could do was direct traffic around the dramatically upside-down vehicle. The police and paramedics soon arrived, and to be on the safe side, they began treating her for potential spinal injuries even though she could stand and walk and appeared fine. I became peripheral to the situation and left to do my yoga thing.
What to make of this? Being of the opinion that meaning lies where one chooses to find it, I began to muse, first, on how lucky this woman was. This experience will no doubt change her life; I wondered in what way. Then I began to realize that the experience had changed my life. There is this ever-present hairline boundary between life and death, between health and sickness, that we live with. For sanity purposes, we are conditioned to ignore it most of the time. For many people in the world (e.g., living in conditions of war, extreme poverty, or natural disaster) this boundary is painfully visible on a daily basis. I'm coming to the realization that yoga practice actually plays along this boundary in a unique way. What if we were aware of this boundary all the time yet not constrained by it? We would not waste a minute of our life.
Popular culture positions yoga as some blissful activity in which we are oblivious to our surroundings. Quite the contrary - yoga is a practice that encourages a heightened state of awareness that can open us up to emotions and sensations that we'd like to run and hide from. The psychology of my daily practice can run something like this: "I'm going to do a 10 minute headstand today." I go up. One of my shoulders starts to complain. I start thinking about another pose I'd like to work on. "Well, actually a 5 minute headstand would be just fine." I come down. I start the other pose. "This pose feels great, just what I need right now." A few seconds go by. "I really should put the clothes in the dryer before I get too immersed here." I come out of the pose and go to the basement. These are not the thoughts of a man staring death in the face.
I came to yoga much by accident. Perhaps I have mentioned that I took my first yoga class because it was being offered for free during lunchtime at a place where I was working, and I thought it might be a nice complement to sports and outdoor adventure pursuits. I was still a bit young to have a sense of mortality or a keen awareness of that hairline boundary.
The other way to practice respects the hairline boundary. In headstand, I think "You want to come down, but you had this impulse to do a long headstand today. Why? What did you want to work on? What state of mind is required and what state of mind would it lead to? Can you focus and stay with it? What actions would alleviate the discomfort you are feeling? Next pose. I think about the clothes in the washer, but say to myself, this is a thought sent to you by the part of your brain that is lazy and wants to skim the surface of life. Go deep right now. Forget the laundry. Take advantage of your precious time before it's really time to get to the rest of the day's work.
Yoga is like a lab where you grow the culture of awareness of life's magical qualities and potential. If you succeed there, can you hold on to that awareness and bring it out of the lab?
Hope you are well and that your vehicle is for the most part right-side-up. Your thoughts and reactions appreciated as always.
Road Warrior / Truck Doing Dog Pose