After a divisive election and post-election, the world around me was starting to feel like “us vs. them” a lot more than I’m used to. There seemed to be a general sense that we as a whole must eliminate some of our parts in order to be great. This has made me feel surprisingly tender. As I’ve wondered and contemplated my feelings of sadness and agitation, it’s become clear that this world view is at odds with basic principles that I try to hold at my center.
My practice has taught me to view the world has connected or as a whole. Yoga introduces this lesson at the most basic level – our body. We learn to view it as a whole – seeing the connections between our strong legs, stiff back and injured shoulder. Then we step back and begin to sense that we are an even greater whole made up of valuable and profoundly different parts – our mind, our spirit and our body. Next, we realize that our community is put together the same way. In fact, the whole world around us is assembled from an infinite number of wildly different and equally important parts. It’s the very diversity of these parts that makes the whole such a miracle.
As such, my mission within the walls of my home and without has been to find ways to celebrate differences. To realize the benefits of seeking points of connection. To recognize that we can learn from anyone despite differing points of view. Given this, I agreed to take my youngest daughter to the Women’s March in D.C. with some trepidation. I worried about entering into a maelstrom of antagonism. I was afraid I would be joining an “us” that was determined to make others feel like “them.”
I need not have worried. As I moved through the throngs of people, the only identifying factors that made the group feel like an “us” were warm, ready smiles and gentle manners. The police who periodically moved through the crowds were greeted with applause and calls of thanks. A man sat down, feeling faint, and four different groups approached him offering water and sandwiches. Despite being elbow to elbow for hours on end among more than a half million people, it was rare to get bumped or jostled. More often than not, when someone did run into me, they turned immediately with a smile and an apology. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.
The sea of people within which I found myself was made up of a countless members of “them-s” that I’ve been reading and hearing about for months. Gender. Race. Faith. Wealth. Sexual orientation. Generation. Reason for participating in the march (you could tell by the various posters and signs). Even region of the country. In the small group clustered around us were people from Georgia, Nevada, and New York City. Behind me was a gay couple who had been together for almost 40 years. In front of me, a family of three whose husband was holding a sign that said “I’m with her” and had a picture of the smiling toddler his wife was currently carrying through the crowd. To my right was a group of Muslim students. To my left a youth group from a local church.
Indeed nearly every “them” in the book seemed to be represented in the crowd that day. What took my breath away was that “they” were acting a whole lot more like an “us” than they were a group of people divided by differences. In fact, as I stood watching, trying to absorb what felt like an historic experience, that was my biggest take-away. All the “us-es” and “thems” are just people. People who can quite effortlessly come together in a crowd more than ten times the size of a sold-out football game here in Philadelphia to say, “We all matter. We are all important. We are all valuable.” To say, as we heard chanted hundreds of times that day, “This is what democracy looks like.”
I came home re-invigorated and re-inspired by the notions I’ve learned so well on my yoga mat. As often as I might wish away my sore hip or my sticky upper back, this is shortsighted. After all, my body would be woefully incapacitated without either of these parts, no matter how irritating they can be. Similarly, this great country is the miracle it is because of each and every one of us. No matter which “them” we identify with, it’s trumped by a much greater “us.”
And that is what democracy looks like. It looks beautiful. It looks like the melting pot described in the verse on the base of the Statue of Liberty. It looks diverse in beliefs, faiths, wealth, address and a million other ways. It looks like kindness, manners, respect and open hearts. As a whole, it looks like hope.
Some of my fondest childhood memories are from the beach. My siblings and I would body surf day in and day out. The best days were before or after storms, when the waves were extra big. These days could also be a little scary. Each of us could tell you stories about being tossed around more than was pleasant by a particularly vicious wave. We learned that to fight these waves was futile – you would only start to feel panicked and exhaust yourself. It was far more effective to go limp until these waves passed – whether we were being pushed down to the ocean floor or pulled out deeper. Surrendering until the wave let you go was the easiest way to get back in the game. And getting back into the game – and on that next wave – was the only goal!
I hadn’t thought about the lessons I learned in the ocean for a long time, but the beginning of this new year has brought them rushing back. This time, the waves pounding at me were from life rather than the sea. Just as when we were body surfing, they haven’t all been whoppers. Some have been average. Others have been puny – not even worth diving in for. But a couple have been humongous. Looking back, however, it’s clear that the size and frequency of the “life waves” wasn’t the real problem. The real problem was the way I was approaching them.
My husband left for a two-week business trip on January 2. This left me solely in charge of de-decking the halls, shifting the girls from vacation mode back into school mode, moving our son out of his college apartment and hitting the ground running for the annual January spurt in business at my studio. To say I was driven would be an understatement. Remember that old Helen Reddy song, “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar?” That could have been the theme song to the way I was approaching life.
Seriously. I was attacking each wave as if I could defeat it. And continued to do so when bigger waves started rolling in. One of my dogs got deathly ill. Then I got deathly ill. Still I fought on. Until my daughters were in a car accident on the way to school. Thankfully, no one was hurt. Thankfully, we have car insurance. Thankfully, we own other cars. I attacked the labyrinthine process of gathering the paperwork, filing the auto claim and getting my gal to the chiropractor the way I’d been attacking every other wave that came my way.
Only this wave pulled me under. In fact, it slammed me to the ground. The night of their accident, I woke up with a muscle spasm in my hip and low back that left me breathless and crying. I couldn’t sit. I couldn’t lay down. I’d never felt anything so painful in my life (and I’ve had three kids). I was totally crippled. I had no choice but to stop fighting.
I had to surrender to this one. Multiple trips for acupuncture, body work and chiropractic care have helped me to physically “go limp” as I learned to do when in the grips of a wave in the ocean. I also found that had to “go limp” in life. I had to lay on the kitchen floor on an ice pack for 20 minutes every hour for the first two days. When I wasn’t on the kitchen floor, I wasn’t doing much. No walking the dogs. No driving. No prolonged sitting.
It took a few days for this wave to let me go. A week later, the spasm has released and I’m slowly regaining my range of motion. My return to my mat has given me the opportunity to practice surrender in every single posture I take. There are no goals. There is no agenda. There is no plan. There is only my experience breath by breath. Through my healing journey I have found that to fight when I feel pain in a posture leaves me as breathless and teary as the spasm did. So I don’t fight. I surrender to what is and I stay there.
I stay there and I am literally awash in a wave of gratitude for what is. Because I can move and breathe. Because I am feeling better. Because I know that I don’t have to roar. Because I have remembered the lesson the ocean taught me as a child – that, when the waves get big, to surrender (your plan, your agenda, your timeline) is often the wisest thing you can do. In life, as in the ocean, it leaves you in a much better position to get back in the game.
We’ve just returned from a holiday in Belize, a gorgeous country that was about a hundred times more rugged than we expected. When I say rugged, I’m not talking about our adventures in the jungle that were plenty rugged. Mostly, I’m talking about the roads.
The three miles from the tiny village of Hopkins to the house that we rented could hardly be described as a road. Truly, there were more ponds and mud puddles than dirt. The first time we bounced down this road, we were mostly stunned. All of us woke the next morning convinced it couldn’t possibly be as bad as it seemed the night before. As we headed out into the day, however, it was clear when my daughter’s head thudded into the window as we navigated the second gigantic hole, that it was indeed unbelievably rough.
As we drove home that day, we passed the sign in the picture above. “Stop!” I yelled. Confused, my husband put on the brakes. I jumped out to take a picture. “It’s perfect! It will be our vacation theme.” And, for me, it was.
You see, we had a choice in how we spent those twenty to thirty minutes of each of our precious vacation days. We could moan and groan about the potholes, ponds and mud that made up our road. Or we could put smiles on our faces and weave the bumps into our amazing opportunity to explore and experience another corner of the world.
Pretty good life lesson, actually.
It’s a lesson I have the opportunity to practice a great deal on my yoga mat as well. There are postures I’ve been working on for nearly 15 years that, when I’m in them, I still feel very tight. In the beginning, I kept thinking one day, instead of feeling difficult, these postures would feel natural, easy or even comfortable. Years of practice later, I realize that these feelings are the whole point. When my muscles feel stretched or taxed (especially that stubborn “muscle” in my head), it means I’m changing and growing.
Rather than wishing these sensations away, yoga asks us to seek these experiences. On our mats, we’re asked to move into each posture in search of the opportunity to rise to a challenge, to learn something new and to push ourselves just past our comfort zone. As we practice yoga, we learn to breathe evenly and deeply no matter our experience. We learn to embrace growth, even when it’s challenging to do so.
While the metaphorical bumps in the road in my yoga practice are designed not to be avoided, the rental car companies in Belize appreciate it if you avoid as many bumps as possible. But, by making a choice in how we navigated those bumpy roads, we avoided more than potholes. In embracing the country bumps and all, we were able to fully appreciate its raw and wonderful beauty. And to better appreciate some of the “smoother” aspects of life back home.
Challenges can bring us down or lift of us up. How we experience them is our choice to make.