Prologue: I wrote this originally for my brother’s 55 birthday. HIV, AIDS, and cancer have been in my lexicon for many years, and I have the unique position of not only losing one sibling, but two. As with most pieces of writing, I’m pretty guarded about it. But this one, it has a lot more meaning to it, and, as they say in yoga, a lot more gratitude. This was first titled “Why We Practice…,” but I realized I have only pictures of people, and none of the usual scenery. So, the new title seems fitting.
April 24th, 2016
It didn’t start out as a practice, it started out because of the pain. This was the real, visceral pain, ceaseless and all consuming. There were so many times that I’d wished the pain had been physical, because those symptoms can be drowned out, one way or another. I’d been divorced for nearly six months at this point, but we barely living separate lives. Hiking, motorcycles, and running had taken up my new free time, but nothing replaced the emptiness. Summer had ended, a new school year was growing, but the pain wasn’t ending.
I’d picked up the pace of my running. Six miles, eight miles, 10, 15 then 18. Morning runs became evening runs too. Long weekends became longer, but nothing stopped the pain. The miles that had one time cleared my thoughts, cleared ALL my thoughts, were no longer working. Instead of freeing my thoughts, I’d become more trapped in them. A circular argument took over. Processing every step, every action, every word of the previous 21 years. This argument would take another six years to unwind, and at times it would drive everything I would do, but in October of 2010 it was the pain that was never ending, the ceaseless swirling of regret, remorse and anxiety. The thoughts only stopped if I was in front of my students, or when spending time with my sons. But, at any other time, the conversation, the “noise” that was in my head, was deafening. Running didn’t provide the relief it once did; the running was now amplifying the conversation. At any other time in the previous 30 years, running would have unlocked the riddle, running would have finished the sentences just forming in my mind, running would have quelled the fears before they could rise. But not now, running was making it worse.
“Healing” is such a buzzword in the new millennium. It isn’t a bad word, maybe a bit overused, yet it is an accurate word. Yoga can heal, it could heal. I’d seen seen it before, it gave Stephen back his hearing, his strength and balance, but, I needed more. I’d practiced yoga a few times before our divorce. Yoga was different. I didn’t expect anything miraculous, I simply needed and escape. I’m sure yoga could have helped my with my hamstring, my balance, my strength, but what I most desperately needed at this point was for yoga to clear my mind. THAT was the thing I remembered most about yoga, that it helped me clear my mind. And, not because of the transcendence, NOT because of something mystical or enlightening, but something so much simpler; I was awful at it.
Yes, I was awful at yoga. I had no flexibility, little balance and went to yoga for selfish reasons, I needed help. What I remembered the most about my previous yoga experiences was that because I was so awful, I had to focus, I had to concentrate, I HAD to listen to someone else’s story. This is what yoga would ultimately do for me, it would give me someone else’s story. I could focus on those stories for an hour a day, and shut down the voices that were taking over my life away from my work, my children.
Yoga was so awkward at first. The hard wooden floor with the thinnest of rubber mats separating me from it. Boney ankles, knees and elbows dug painfully into the floor. The studio was cold, my feet were cold, and nothing wanted to move the right way. I didn’t last half an hour in the first few sessions. But I went back. I went to a class everyday that first week, and two more each day on the weekend. I took a break from running; this seemed to offer more. In the second week, I could make it through the entire the class. It was mostly a flow, vinyasa in yoga terms. I added a balance class, a few restorative classes, but I continued to go back to the flow. It’s what made sense, it’s what silenced the voice(s). I celebrated my 44th birthday with yoga, a privilege previously reserved for running. But this felt better, this felt like growth, this felt like change, but mostly, it felt like silence.
I would finish work, and get home as quickly as I could. I would find myself sprinting to the yoga studio from my apartment. Barely a breath in between my day, but I would get to yoga, I had to. I had to stop the conversation, and this was working. I could remember the names, I could start to find my balance, and I could remember the stories. I could in fact to the most important thing, I could breathe. I finally had my breath back. Not always, not in all ways. But more than I’d had in the past, especially the past few months.
But things were not going to stay the same; impermanence, it’s one of yoga’s biggest lessons.
I moved to Bailey. I would be three months before I could get back to a yoga practice, consistently. I found Jamie, in Fairplay. I found in her a well of unconditional love. Many Saturday mornings, I sat in her space, feeling another hard, wooden surface, and think that I just needed to breathe, I just needed to be there. Jamie would guide my practices and my patience, helping me to see that I could make the changes I needed to make.
Jamie’s practice and method would give way to a different practice. When I finally was settled in Bailey, I found a different studio, one that was close to my work. A studio that allowed for my “circle” to be closer. With the longer commute I didn’t have the same free time, but I did have the flexibility in my schedule to attend one, then two, the three classes a week. I would occasionally drive to Fairplay, to add a class with Jamie to my week. My practice became stronger, my running gave way completely to the new yoga. It was athletic, AND it was balancing, and it was breathing. In the course of the next few months, the months that lead me to the next summer, I gained in confidence. I could remember these sequences, I could remember these poses. I felt my fitness returning, I felt myself becoming more flexible, and I started to run again. THIS seemed like the healing that I needed, THIS seemed like that change I desired.
The days of pushing myself the most were days that seemed most gratifying. To know that I could follow the sequence, that I could anticipate the pose, that’s what yoga began to mean to me. Getting better, more fit, carrying new experiences into my life, that’s what yoga came to mean. It meant that I could also reclaim some things. With summer approaching, I had goals. I could reclaim some of what I’d left behind. Finishing projects, climbing forgotten peaks, mountain biking, setting myself up in a “new” life. That’s what I needed most. Yoga fell off. I practiced a bit at home. But mostly, I waited for the next school year to think about starting again.
And, that is what I did. I picked up where I left off. I kept running, mountain biking, I attempted to close some old doors, but mostly I walked into the yoga studio thinking I was there to conquer it. The stories that were once important, were no longer so. Now, it was about pushing myself. Yoga was about being not just a better self, but being better than everyone else. More poses, more repetitions, more of everything. Yoga became an end in itself. How much further could I push myself, how many more classes could I get to. I was really practicing for the wrong reasons, I just didn’t see it at that time.
I used yoga to make some connections, to practice other things. It seemed to work for a while. The mania of getting to the next class, then next pose, meeting the next person, thinking I’d found someone to connect to. We practiced together, and laughed, and sweated, but I really had missed something. The stories weren’t gone, I’d just silenced them. I’d taken to yoga to heal, but I’d instead used the practice to just simply push the stories aside. I really hadn’t taken in the stories of yoga, I’d manipulated them. I conflated them. What I’d suppressed came back viciously, ruthlessly. The torment that I found myself in, I still chased the yoga, I still chased my running, I even started to ride a road bike. Exercise was my placebo. I kept thinking it would work, that it had to work; but it didn’t. No matter how far I ran, or rode, not matter how many classes i made it too, the gnawing wouldn’t stop.
The cycle had returned. I would argue myself back into a state of fear and confusion. Every move, every conversation, every pose, every mile became something else. I loaded myself up with self-doubt, with second guesses, and, with self-loathing. And my pace for these exploits, the miles, the poses, the challenges I’d placed in front of me, I pushed and pushed, and I pushed. But whatever it was that I was searching for, whatever it was that was my actual goal, it was insatiable. To say elusive may would indicate that I actually knew what I was seeking, or what I was moving away from. But really, I had no idea what I was doing, what I was running from or towards. “Manic” is all it was. A pure panic, nothing would stick, nothing would stay, I couldn’t grasp anything, I had no ideas or any sense of direction; even the yoga didn’t matter any more. Plans for summer build and fell, Tanner graduated, time was in a blender.
Then, I got a call. The kind of call you don’t want. The kind of call that stops time. My brother was in the hospital, again. We’d gotten these phone calls before, two, three, four times before? But that doesn’t matter. The call like that, stops everything. Five days later he was gone. I was at his side when he took his last breath. This was the stop. It wasn’t a pause; it was the wall. I hit it, full face. All motion stopped. I would be thrown into a whirlwind of events; seven weeks home to honor my brother, to support my family. All the wounds that would be opened, and some reopened, brought so much more grief than I’d ever conceived.
Remarkably, I found my breath again. Actually, it found me. Heidi found me. She was the first stop when I returned home. Her first class, the first time I’d been in the sunshine, the first few poses, in more than many weeks; and I just listened. I started to hear the stories again. I started to hear another voice. Anxiety welled and crashed inside of me. Coping with this loss, couldn’t settle, and wouldn’t settle, completely, for a very long time. But it was always the breath. We’d stopped one day, out driving, playing tourists in our home, when my breath stopped. Strangled by a fear I had not yet known, brought from a pain that was now 20 years old. It took all of my breath. The sobbing, the pain, it shook every part of my being. In the longest pauses, there troughs between each crash of the pain, there was a hand, there was a voice, there was a story, there was Heidi, and HER yoga, reminding me how to move, how to breathe through this, reminding me that if I let it, the yoga could heal.
So, I stayed with it. I stayed with the pain, I stayed in the yoga, I stayed with the breath.
Heidi invited me to Costa Rica. In February, she would be hosting a retreat, and she wanted me to come along, to try it, that stay in the yoga, to stay with the breath. She wanted the yoga to help me move out of the pain. It seemed extravagant, especially coming in the midst of a school year, and it just seemed unlikely. It wasn’t until December that I finally committed to the trip, I finally put my money into it, and bought my plane ticket, and thought that yes, this would be the healing. I’d continued to practice my yoga when I returned home. It was my connection to Steve, to Heidi, it was guarded, but it seemed to release the pain. Each class, at the end, the grief would greet me. It would come out in torrents, in silence, and in shaking. I often stayed after, alone in the room, weeping silently, thankful for the sweat that would cover my sorrow.
One of the gifts I received from Stephen was a fluke. Yes, I real fluke. A pendant, of a whale’s fluke. He’d purchased it the previous winter in California. I’d held onto dearly in the first few months of having it. I tried to wear it, I tried to hold it, I tried to make it mine. But, I could not. I kept it, because it was his, but I didn’t know what to do with it. Then, as the New Year past and my preparation for Costa Rica became more evident, an idea came to me. I knew what to do. I would take the fluke, and return it to the sea. Stephen loved the water, the ocean would make a great voyage, and I could feel complete.
The week, then day of the trip arrived. I took an overnight flight from Denver to San Jose. Heidi was already there, but other members of the group would be arriving and we would be on a shuttle soon enough heading south to Uvita. Worn out from the overnight flight, I was content to sit in the back of the shuttle, and play the part of the wounded traveler. I was taking this trip seriously, I was going to expand my practice, and I was going to use this space to heal. I had an act of grieving to complete, one that would certainly bring me immense relief. I’m a geography teacher, but surprisingly I hadn’t taken the time to learn that much about my destination. This is very unlike me, as I’m often times the one that is over planned. Every detail and secret is revealed, and I’m confident in my space and place, but not this time. We’d been in the shuttle for close to an hour when the conversations passed from basic introductions to where were we and where were we going. I didn’t have a clear image, and as a map was being passed around, someone mentioned, “Playa Ballena.”
I’d mostly been lost on the introductions. Too tired to really follow, and so unsure of what I was really doing, I felt like such an outsider. I’d remembered reading about a marine preserve, where whales gathered in the winter to give birth. I hadn’t made the connection that this was the place that I would be near, and I hadn’t taken the time to really see what it meant. But this name, “Playa Ballena,” it suddenly had my full attention. I finally added my voice to the conversation, and asked to see the map, that the others had been passing about. Heidi’s sister, Heather, pointed out Uvita, and we both saw the shape of the beach on this, a simple tourist map. My breath stopped. I quickly flipped over the map and read about the destination, and this beach. I’d been slapped in the face, again. The unmistakable shape of a fluke.
Playa Ballena is one of the rare places in the world where everything in nature worked out just right. In addition to lush, tropical vegetation, long and sandy beaches, Costa Rica is adorned with volcanoes. And, for the volcanoes that are no longer active, their presence is evident in the long, winding ridges, and the ancient lava fields that dot the countryside. In this case though, the ancient lava field wasn’t on land, it was in the ocean. And, it was only visible at low tide. It is absolutely unmistakable. It is the shape of a fluke, the shape of a whale’s tail.
We finally made it to Uvita, and started the drive up one of the long, winding volcanic ridges. The sun was not far from setting, but the sky was very much alive. The higher we climbed, trees parted more and the hill dropped away to our right; the ocean and bay were now coming into view. We stopped at at clearing, to take it all in, and there it was, a low tide revealing the sight: Playa Ballena, the Whale’s Tail. I sobbed, I shook, I thought to myself, “You didn’t have to send me all this way to tell me you love me… ”
That was a little more than three years ago. I still practice yoga. I still run. I still ride the bicycles and motorcycles, and I’m making more of an effort at swimming. My attitude in and out of class has changed, a lot. As it has on the trail or the path. I’m looking inside a lot more, and worrying less about the outside. Comparing myself to others, that has subsided significantly. What I’ve taken in the most, is that it’s different for all of us. For me, it isn’t about the practice, or strength. It’s about the moment, it’s about enjoying the day, and it’s about being present. The yoga didn’t heal, the yoga taught me how to appreciate the moment. Afterall, next to breath, being present is yoga’s other great lesson.
So here I sit, on what would be your 55th birthday. I’m thankful to you for the gift of yoga. It helped you at one point, and it is the reason why I practice today.