I stumble with trying to get a few pennies out of my change purse with this awkward cast on my hand. I sigh in frustration.
I had a bad accident over a week ago where I sliced a tendon in my thumb. I had surgery, something I had never experienced before and wasn't exactly on my bucket list. Wasn't on my To Do List for the week either. Actually, since returning from my retreat in Guatemala, the universe has handed me a bucket of unexpected blows, one after another. Leave it to say it's been rough. So this accident was the crappy store-bought icing on a generic grocery store cake. No, in desperate moments, that kind of cake is just fine. This accident has no cake status and wasn't part of the plan for my fall season outdoor activities and travel.
"Oh? You think you have a plan?" the universe laughs.
Right. Got it. There are no plans.
Try and tell a girl who lives unbound and free that she can't be that way right now.
Try and tell a girl she needs surgery for an accident that didn't make sense.
Try and tell a girl she can't sweat for two weeks to avoid infection, a girl who chases dragons up mountains so she can slay them.
Try and tell a girl she has to postpone her idea to hike a piece of the Colorado Trail this month, that she shouldn't go out west by herself to look at real estate, that backpacking this fall may not be a good idea.
Try and tell a girl who had so much energy, enthusiasm and excitement to do something big that she has to put that momentum in a cage. That she cannot fly.
Try and tell a girl she has to ask for help, because she is cold and doesn't have the dexterity to put a sweater over her arm.
Try and tell a girl she has to wait, that she can't do what she wants. That she can't have what she wants, even though she was so, so ready.
What happens when you try and tell a girl this?
Really f******g loud.
That's the sort of conversation I've been having with the universe these days.
Back to the grocery store.
"Please bear with me," I ask the woman at the cash register. "I've broken my wrists three times in the past, but this new injury is a challenging one."
She gasps as she raises her hand to her mouth.
"Oh my! If you've done all of that, you must live a very interesting life then."
I drop my change purse. I sigh again.
Then somewhere from inside, this crazy little laugh comes out.
"Yea, it's been real interesting, I'll tell ya that," I snicker.
I feel really guilty then, because who am I to feel crappy about a bucketful of bad luck and troubles when all around me stuff's going down? People all the time are dealing with suffering, way bigger than mine. Mother Nature is pissed off about something, that's for sure, and the wildfires out west and the earthquake in Mexico City and storms in Florida and Texas can tell me all about it. Who am I to complain about anything?
But maybe it's ok for me to feel. Because if I have the capacity to feel hurt, I understand you can, too. Maybe this is how we can connect in compassion with one another. Because we all have hard moments, big and small, in scales relevant to our own lives. And with that shared understanding we can take someone else's hand sincerely and say, "What you feel matters. I feel you. And I'm here for you."
It's a good thing there is no one behind me in line, I think to myself. It's one of those pauses we all need once in awhile, to relate. The reason we're all here.
"Tell me," I say softly as I pause, "Are you happy with your life though as it is?"
"Well, I'm happy I haven't broken any bones, but I don't think it's that interesting," she replied thoughtfully.
I pay for my items, smile half-heartedly and leave the store. I sit in my car in the parking lot. I think about what deems a life interesting, and what is happiness really? I watched a documentary called 'Happy' the other night which said this: we can train ourselves to be happy, just like we can train to run marathons or play instruments. It's a skill that comes from attitude and how we shape that. Happiness doesn't really come from status or money; it comes from connection with purpose, community, and doing more of what you love with who you love.
I think about a few messages I received earlier in the day offering me positive words post accident. One was from my dear German friend, Christina. She wrote:
"And you know, life is not about how much you get hit, but about how often you are moving forward. Finding a better way, if one is closed. And you know that you have to stand up one more time than you fall. Just one more time."
Then my sweet Kim's words:
"There is so much fun and happiness in the world, but sometimes it is not so obvious."
And finally my other German sister, Amelie:
"Daya, Think positive: What was the best of your day today?
Take your time, be happy, you are alive!"
What was the best of my day? The fact that I'm blessed to have so many people like these in my life. That's happiness. That's love.
About a week into my thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, I was climbing up to a bald near the Beauty Spot in Tennessee. I was excited for the view, but suddenly the skies darkened, the winds surged, and before I knew it I was putting on my rain gear to prepare for a storm. In an instant I was being pounded by rain and huge chunks of hail, coming at me in all directions, whipping me across the face.
That same crazy little laugh of mine came out then as I continued to charge up the mountain.
"Really? Am I about to get taken out by hail hitting me in the eye on May fifth?!"
By the time I got to the top of the bald the storm subsided, as passionately as it had come to slap me around a little bit. A hard and fast quickie; it had no time to linger with me and whisper sweet nothings.
Sometimes I get the most out of those intense moments, because they stain a color that does not come out in the wash.
Again that crazy little laugh took over, and I looked up to the sky and across the horizon to the chain of mountains peeking at me through the mist, like a lover teasing me. I waved my poles in the air and yelled,
"Is that it? Is that all you've got? You're not going to take me off this trail, I'm going to Maine! I'm still here! I'm still f*****g here!!"
"...it is about how often you are moving forward...stand up just one more time..."
"There is so much fun and happiness in the world..."
"You are alive!"
That bumper sticker I saw in the parking lot years ago that repeats its message to me again and again when I need to remember it:
"What are ya gonna do, stay down there and bleed? Or are ya gonna Cowboy up and ride on?"
Well dang, I'm gonna Cowgirl up and Ride Out.
"You are alive!"
"Dear, it's your hybrid battery. It needs to be replaced," my mechanic friend, Chris informed me.
Gulp. Dollar signs danced with wild ferocity in my head.
My brain felt cloudy, due to the stress of simply getting the car to him. The evil 'triangle of death' light I had been told about in Priuses came on only about an hour into my drive back from my brother's house at the beach. All sorts of other warning lights came on, too which added a hint of more spice to my oh so pleasant situation. I had five more hours left to drive to Asheville. There were more miles to get in that day.
Miles I prefer to hike than drive.
Do I pull over? Do I keep going? Who do I call? What if it blows up?
I've taken bigger risks before. Some of them I got away with. Some of them I didn't.
"Just let me get there," I whispered to the Ganesha that hangs from my rear-view mirror.
The car was driving fine, no different than before, which told me I would make it. I may take risks, but I'm not stupid. Sometimes you have to know when to read the signs and stop.
"Tell me, Chris, if I fix this, will the car be more attractive to sell if I want to? A brand new hybrid battery in a lowish mileage Prius in Asheville? Or should I write it off as a loss and sell it as is?"
"Asheville's hot for Priuses, craft beer and yoga, you know that, girl. Plus, you get a three year warranty for a new battery that's covered nationwide. You can drive this puppy wherever you want to go. You can go anywhere you want with it," he winked at me.
The wheels in my head turned a little more smoothly again as I sank into what he said.
"Anywhere I want to go you say?" I laughed. "Chris, you know this car can't take me to all the places I really want to go."
There are some places I've touched inside that no car or airplane can take me. I want to go there.
"I need to think about it," I say to him as I try to shrug off the fact that I just bought this car two months ago and now had to deal with this.
"You want a ride?" he asked as he continued to tinker on a car door.
"No thanks, I wanna walk. I need to hike," I told him.
Chris nodded. He didn't question me at all. He had known me for over two years so he understood that piece of me. Chris primarily works on Volkswagens, which was how I found him when I had a Passat. I dug him right away: his long dreads, trucker hat, and the sound of his voice when he said, "Groovy." His shop's yard was strewn with old VW buses and vans, some of them for parts, others that possibly had life left in them. I liked coming there sometimes with a six-pack of beer, to wander the lot and ponder the stories some of these vehicles had. To admire the bumper stickers, the faded paint, the tapestry-covered back seats. To think of the shows and festivals they went to, the national parks, the sunsets they witnessed, all the roads taken. A bit of my own nostalgia. A bit of my own story.
I had called Chris from the top of a mountain when I finally got service in Maine on the AT, because my friend who had my Passat was having issues with it while I was on trail.
"What's your Trail name?" he wanted to know. "How's the hike? Kick-ass that you made it to Maine!"
That's how it is with him. People first, car dilemmas second. That's why he understood why I wanted to walk.
I made a make-shift backpack out of one of my cloth shopping bags to put my things in for the couple miles of walking ahead. It would be a mix of roads and paths, mostly climbing. I wanted those hills. I wanted to push. I wanted to sweat my frustration away.
"Tonight as we write together by candlelight, I want you to cultivate the mood of desire," Aimee cooed to us in the circle during my Guatemala retreat. "Write what you really want."
As I started walking uphill, I remembered the first sentence I scribbled in my journal. Then another many statements down, and another.
"I want to climb that mountain once and then again in another way that scares me."
"I want to go to my edge and not run back."
"I want to create a space where women hikers come to re-claim their place in the woods."
"I want to say 'Yes!' to my life's adventure, but not know where it's going."
These are the places I have touched inside. The hunger for challenge. The awe in my passion. The faith and trust in the sometimes crazy mystery.
I got to my house and just walked past it, to keep going. Sometimes you just don't want to stop when you get there, and there's always another destination you can discover.
Inside of you or outside.
It wasn't really about the money to fix the car, although Prius batteries aren't cheap. It was more about what it represented to me. This stupid thing I don't even know if I want. This stupid piece of machinery I can't count on.
What can I count on?
I looked down at them as I walked. They have taken me more places than I can name. On mountains, rocks and yoga mats. They don't quit on me.
I don't quit on me.
The next morning I called Chris at the shop.
"So did you get some answers on your hike?" he asked.
"Nah baby, I don't really get answers when I walk. But I do get centered and then I know what to do," I replied.
"So whatcha gonna do, Daya?" Chris said into the phone.
"Fix it. Fix it as soon as you can. I'm gonna give that battery a run for it's money because I'm gonna take myself all the places I want to go and it's gonna come along for the ride."
I only have 21 quetzales left, which is about three US dollars. I peer up at the menu in the airport cafe, the one I have been sitting at since 5am because I foolishly read my flight departure time incorrectly. Instead of the dreaded 4am shuttle I took from Antigua to Guatemala City, I could've easily rode in the 7:30 to catch my flight. I kicked myself when I arrived and looked at my ticket, that it leaves 2 1/2 hours later than I thought. Never in all my traveling days, in all the flights I have taken, have I screwed up a departure time before.
"You're slacking, Heather," I shake my head. "Get on your game."
There is one solitary cafe that is open. I trudge in, eyes still half open. Two customers sit at their respective tables drinking coffee and watching the news. I come slightly alive when I hear a familiar bachata song on the radio and instinctively start to move my hips and feet. I sway to the counter and ask the woman working if I can hang out awhile and order something a little later. She smiles warmly. I am welcome and that relaxes me.
I've spent many occasions in various airports passing time. I know how to wrap my backpack around me so I can sleep. Sometimes I find a little corner to hide and practice yoga. Other times I people-watch. So I don't really mind that I have hours to be here. There is always a way to fill space, or to not fill it all and be with that experience, too.
After awhile I want to buy something. I'm not a coffee drinker so that's out. The Guatemalan tipico breakfast is 21.95 quetzales, but my change purse tells me I'm short. I approach the counter and ask in Spanish what the meal includes. The same woman from earlier lists the delights of the meal and when she mentions coffee or tea, I think I can tell her to leave that out for the price difference of what I'm lacking.
Here's this hippie girl with feather earrings presenting her case, pouring her heart out about her flight issue, her 21 quetzales remaining, trying to configure all the right wording and grammar in Spanish since she is exhausted from two weeks of barely any sleep. But she is smiling and laughing, and that can be infectious.
The friendly woman tells me not to worry, that I can still have coffee or tea, or even juice if I wish. I am touched by her kindness. I can't help but think this would not happen at any airport eatery in America, unless I was lucky and it had out one of those random penny dishes for spare change.
I see those less frequently these days, the ones that read, 'Need a penny, take a penny. Have a penny, leave a penny.' It's too bad, it's a nice model of an idea.
I think of a man I knew once who used to say, "I have what I need when we have what we need."
Did this dear Guatemalan woman sense that what I really needed in that moment wasn't breakfast, but a feeding of compassion and love?
Ayurveda teaches that meditation is the first way we can be fed each day, and if we taste that sweetness of presence, we are well satiated before food even touches our lips.
You've heard me say that I believe all actions in life can be in meditation, when we are present and connected, in the great stream with ourselves and others. The late Michael Stone put it in a way that deeply resonated with me, "Meditation is feeling your life."
I found an open table and she brought me my tipico Guatemalan breakfast of warm tortillas, beans, crema, salsa and fried eggs. I got out my faithful spork that comes with me everywhere and broke into the yoke of the eggs.
"Uh-oh, I'm in trouble," I giggled.
The eggs were super runny and this type of breakfast is the kind you get into with your hands, dipping the tortillas or building mini wrap creations, as I like to do. I am notorious for being an extremely messy eater, but joyfully so. This was going to be a pleasurable disaster.
My feast began and my hands were covered with goodness. I couldn't help but think of Daniel then, how he would always marvel at how we could be eating the exact same thing, but our technique was so different. And then the state of our hands at the end.
"Daya, how do you manage to get it everywhere?" he would say as he shook his head and laughed at my fingers.
I would smile and give my classic shrug at the same time, completely engaged with my doner kebab or my hummus and avocado on rice cakes. I looked down at my slimy hands and I missed him in that moment. For the ways he has fed me without food.
I think of all the things in life that feed me, and how some of them may also nourish that woman behind the counter. I reflect on the retreat I was just a part of on Lake Atitlan, where I sat in sacred circle with seven other women, expressing our deepest desires and passions and those creative impulses that feed us. The things we are hungry for. The things we need. The things we can give to each other and want to receive.
I remember a yoga class I went to last winter in Asheville taught by one of my favorite teachers.
"For me," he expressed, "the definition of love is presence. Think of how grounding that can be. To know someone is listening to you and feeling you and there with you in that moment. Being present with you fully. That's the real love. Not this romantic notion of it or the stuff filled with conditions. Nah. Love is presence."
I glanced down at my now empty plate from breakfast and then looked up to see my Guatemalan amiga behind the counter again. We caught eyes for a moment and conversed in that way, as if saying to one another,
"I have what I need when we have what we need."
"How deep will I have to dig to find that guidebook?" I muttered to myself as I opened the large bluish-teal bin, the one I have been lugging around the country (and Canada) for years.
I was looking for one of my guidebooks on Latin America for some notes I made about Guatemala. I knew it was there, along with all my other travel guides. Almost twenty years worth.
And my journals, countless journals. I handled fancy leather-bound ones that held equal worth with the simple notebooks with pictures of soccer players on the front, from when I was in South America. Books on yoga, notes and papers from hundreds of hours of teacher trainings. Maps of treks in Annapurna, Nepal. Guides of trekking in the Patagonian and Central Andes. Programs from BaliSpirit Festival. Drawings of myself handed over to me from artists when I did nude modeling for life-drawing in college. I even stumbled upon a large envelope with my McGill diploma in it. I took it out to see it, I probably had only done that once before. I didn't make it to graduation. I was already living in Oregon on the coast and just didn't see why it was necessary to be there. Maybe I felt I had gotten what I needed out of that experience and it was time to move on.
The story of my life from age twenty was in that bin. You could pull together all the pieces, create a colorful collage, and get a pretty good picture.
I thought how I'd like to look more closely at some of these things, read some of my writing, flip through some books.
"I'll do it another day, when I have more time." I promised myself as I continued to search for that guidebook.
I've said that before. Haven't you? And there it sits, and we move on to the next thing.
But then I saw it. The folder. The folder that reads, 'My Odyssey' on it. My first cross-country trip from the summer of 1998 lives in there. I was twenty years old.
I smiled fondly at it and lifted it out of the bin to set it on the concrete basement floor, next to all the other parts of my life strewn about.
Make the time.
I just had to look. I sat cross-legged on that floor and opened the folder to read the Story About a Girl. A Girl who had decided she wanted to go and see what was out there in the world. I saw calendar pictures from National Geographic that I had ripped out, places I dreamed to see. Maps of national parks I visited to hike and camp. Browning newspaper clippings from towns I went to. A handwritten 'itinerary' I created, listing all the places I'd go and when, how many miles to drive in my Isuzu Trooper in between. Mesa Verde, Arches, Canyonlands, Kings Canyon, Yosemite, San Francisco, the Medicine Wheel in Montana...to name a few.
I remembered the hippies I hung out with in Hot Springs, Arkansas, with our feet dipped in the warm water in the town park. Skydiving at Hoover Dam outside of Las Vegas, because what else is a twenty year old going to do in Sin City? Seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time in my life and crying tears of joy to have made it all the way from the east coast to be there. Doing my first backpacking trip into Point Reyes National Seashore and failing miserably when it rained and I didn't have the right gear.
Standing in the Redwoods and peering up at those massive, mother trees and in great awe, thinking,
"I am so small."
"But I am so, so powerful."
People ask me what has been my favorite trip, or my most loved place in the world. How can I answer that really? Every place I've been I treasure for different reasons, for what I've learned and experienced. But I do know this: that first trip across the United States set the groundwork for so much of who this girl came to be.
It was all new. I was new, my eyes wide-open to everything. Curious, confident, filled with energy and enthusiasm. Awake. Appreciative. Alive.
I didn't think twice about venturing somewhere by myself; fear had no place in my bones. I often told people who expressed concern because I was a young girl traveling alone,
"I feel safer out here in the woods than I do in a city, I'll tell you that!"
We feel an invincible spark deep in our gut when we are young, until someone tries to take that away from us.
I've fought hard to keep that sacred fire burning, to not let anyone take it away from me. In my gut, and in my heart.
No one ever has taken it from me.
It hasn't always remained a bright flame. Moments when the spark was dim came to my mind. Times when I was confused, trying to figure it all out, that question of, "Who Am I Supposed to Be When I Grow Up?"
When I came back from nine months traveling in South America, I was visiting with my friend Caroline and her family. Her Step-Dad, Dave, asked me how I was doing.
"Oh good, just trying to figure out what I'm doing with my life."
He looked at me strongly in that moment, but said kindly,
"Heather, I think you're doing it."
It took me years to really understand what he meant.
Some time after that, a previous partner of mine got in touch to see if he could give my contact information to a young woman he worked with.
"She's getting ready to travel abroad and study yoga, to go on a big trip. She reminds me of you when I first met you."
He didn't intend for it to mean anything, but at that time it slapped me across the face. That girl he had met when she was twenty-two, still passionate, excited and driven. Somewhere over the years I spent with him she faded in and out, lost because she was unsure of her place in the world, where to be and who to be. She forgot how to listen. She forgot how to be.
Me. Just Me.
After about ten years of mostly living, working and traveling abroad, I came back to America in spring 2015. Overwhelmed and too hard on myself for not re-integrating as fast as I thought I should, I slipped to a place where I wondered where the Story About a Girl had gone. I didn't recognize myself in many ways; the spark was dying.
I had to do something to re-ignite it. Despite the dark I was in, I knew deep down my power was still there. Covered, but there.
"But I am so, so powerful."
I got on trail. The Appalachian Trail. The moment my feet touched it, I knew I was back. I knew I had never really left.
My friend Amah sings,
"May you walk in beauty, and remember your song."
Somewhere along the way I figured out what Dave was trying to tell me years before.
I remembered my song.
I'm living my life. The purpose of life, I believe, is to experience it. Fully. With curiosity, enthusiasm, passion, excitement, wonder, gratitude and grace.
And love. So much love.
Eventually I found the guidebook. I travel back to Guatemala soon for two weeks to teach yoga for my dear friend's women's writing retreat.
Another chapter for the Story About a Girl, who once upon a time walked in beauty and remembered her song.
I was eating cake. Perhaps not typically what you'd find someone doing at a Latin Dance Social event, but it was another dancer's birthday celebration and well, I like cake.
I needed a little break anyway since I had been practicing salsa and bachata for hours at this lively party. This particular event happens once a month in Asheville, where people from all over North Carolina come to dance together.
A guy I had met recently at another dance came over and sat down next to me to talk. He gave me something like a 'newbie-protection chat' with the low-down on how some men will see a new dancer (me) and put a few extra moves into the dance, ones that may not be real moves, if you get my drift. Because it's all so new, I may not know the difference, he implied.
I continued to eat my cake.
"You see, I'm going to be frank with you," he said.
"You've got boobs."
I stopped eating my cake.
I looked around amidst all the other women dancers, being twirled and spun about by their leads. Yep, it appeared that they too had the same round, fleshy mounds that I had on my chest, in all shapes and sizes. So what made me any different?
It was five dollars at Goodwill. I tried it on and it fit me like a glove. A rather low cut halter, but classy. I bought it the day before the dance, to dress up a little. I was kind-of excited about that, since I spend most of my time with dirt and sweat thick on my body while hiking, or these days doing landscaping work in a client's yard. And I'm cool with that; I'm probably most comfortable and happy sweaty and dirty. But I do also like to play with the side of my femininity that likes to remember when I'd wear sparkle glitter on my body in college, or slip on an attractive dress.
I do wear a rainbow-unicorn hat when I long-distance hike, you know.
I did it for me, because I liked to feel good. For me. I remember that was the core of what it came down to.
But I caught myself the day after the dance, when I was excitedly telling Daniel, my first salsa dancing teacher, about my evening.
"Until I get a bit better, maybe a good outfit can help the practice opportunities along," I wrote.
Sounded innocent enough. And I didn't think much of my comment till later that night, when for some reason it came back to me. I thought about the guy who warned me of inappropriate dance moves. I thought about how when I was walking to my car afterwards, another guy coming from somewhere else in downtown Asheville stopped me to say, "Wait. You're beautiful. Did you know you look like an angel in that dress?"
What was I supposed to say to that? Or feel about it? Am I to be flattered by a compliment? Or annoyed because I can't just walk down the street?
I'm naturally very friendly. Smiling is second nature. Sadly I find though, often when I meet men out in the world, they misinterpret my kind and friendly nature and think I like them more than I do. I don't really want to change my personality to come off as a bitch, can't I just be nice with no strings?
I remembered being at a concert this past January, in another nice dress. I was in my own jam, groovin' away, when suddenly I felt arms and hands wrapped around me from behind. It had such a familiar feel to it, I thought it must be a friend I hadn't seen yet, saying hello.
Nope. It was some random man with his paws all over me.
"Would you like to dance with me?" he said with a smile.
Actually, I didn't. I was rather content in my own space.
More thoughts flooded my mind in reflection...
"If you dress like that, you'll get in trouble."
"You're asking for it if you look good."
"How can you hike there alone as a woman, you're more at risk than a man!"
"You are going to travel in that country by yourself? Solo?"
"I wouldn't walk down that street by yourself as a woman."
"You better not fall asleep on that bus, you'll probably wake up with a man's hands on your body."
I have the right to dress how I like. I have the right to go into the backcountry or travel wherever I wish. Just because I'm a woman, there's nothing I can't do. I believe that wholeheartedly, and a lot of what I've done and experienced is because I've lived my life that way.
But even if my intention was pure with dressing up, because I wanted to have fun with it, I don't wish to perpetuate the notion that it will help me get more practice dance partners while I'm learning salsa and bachata. It shouldn't make a difference at all. I don't want it to make a difference. I don't want to buy into the idea that because I have boobs, I'm at risk or I have to watch it. Yes, I have to be smart and watch my back because not everyone thinks as I do, but my words and actions can be the groundwork to support what I believe.
I went out dancing again last night. I wore jeans and a halter top. I was just myself; friendly, smiley and kind. No hidden agenda, no intention other than that I was a woman who wanted to practice Latin dance.
We all have that ability, to use our power for the better good and reflect what we want to see in the world.
Or on the dance floor.
The two women were slowly but surely coming up behind me as I labored up the fourth and final climb of the day. It had been a continuous stream of up, up, and more up in this section of Maine's Hundred Mile Wilderness on the Appalachian Trail. Despite only being nine miles, it was nine miles of consistent, focused effort as I made my way over Gulf Hagas Mountain, West Peak, Hay Mountain and finally White Cap.
I had been alone all day, having camped in a hidden spot off the trail the night before and setting out early for the work before me. The day had a different feel to it since it was shrouded in light mist with soupy haze and fog that covered the forest and mountains. I barely had any rain my whole walk of what turned out to be six months on the AT, so this was a bit unusual, and welcomed. How I have always savored variety and change. There's a certain hidden magic the forest holds in this kind of weather, a time when I like to fantasize the wood sprites and fairies come out to play.
I like playmates.
But I also like to be alone, so I was content in my wanderings as I carried my heavy, laden pack onward and upward on the fourth day of my eight day stretch that would take me out of the famed Hundred Miles. Sure, I could've hiked it faster than in eight days, but at that point in my journey, I wanted to savor and really take my time to relish what I had busted my tail for to get to Maine, so close to tasting Katahdin.
I was in my own groove, with my own stride's rhythm as I ascended up White Cap through the misty woods while being kissed by a soft drizzle. I chose to send my ipod home for this part of the hike, to attempt to completely immerse in my present surroundings. To pay attention. To wake up.
Or something like that.
Would I get an answer about the direction of my life? Would enlightenment fall upon me?
There's an interesting energy in this section of the AT, because many people get on trail to figure something, or everything out in life. They think at the beginning,
"OK, I've got five or six months to put it all together. So I don't need to look at that stuff now, I'll do it tomorrow, or next week. Or next month. It'll come."
By the time you're in the Hundred Mile Wilderness, the summit of Katahdin's mighty close and you realize,
"Dang! I better figure that crap out now!"
Some are calm. Some panic. This is why there's a bit of a buzzing hum toward the end of a thru-hike; there's a potent amount of inner electricity to work with.
For me? Well, I was a Flip-Flopper, meaning after I reached Katahdin, I had to get back to where I began in Hot Springs, North Carolina to finish my hike south to Springer Mountain.
That meant I still had time to get it sorted.
Because I didn't have music on, I sensed her coming. She was smooth and even in her pace, and I heard her breathing. Clear as a bell, rhythmic and pulsing.
For a moment I thought I was listening to soft porn. Except this was real and not made up to sound good for an audience. Her breath was sensual and full of pleasure, as if in those highlight, peak moments of love-making or hot sex. Her breath was labored, but it lacked any element of discomfort or pain. You often hear of people complain about tackling the hills, and you hear them moan and groan in utter yuck in order to just get to the top and get it over with.
Oh, she was moaning and groaning all right, but there wasn't an ounce of a wish to get this climb over with. She was in it, fully.
And enjoying it. That was for damn sure.
I turned around to behold this woman in perhaps her late fifties with the most brilliant, bright blue eyes. They sparkled in a way I dream to shine. I caught her smiling as she took another step, and then looked back at her sister below.
I set the pace for us women, and returned to paying attention to my own breath. I often did this when I walked; it was a reminder of that other part of my life. Even if I wasn't practicing hours of yoga poses like I used to do while teaching all day, I could be present with my breath all the day long as I hiked. That's the real yoga.
I thought of the earlier days on the AT when I would bust up a mountain and suddenly needed a moment to lay back on my pack against a rock and stop, to catch my breath. I would feel my heart almost burst out of my chest, like rapid gun fire. Eventually it would even out, smooth like a crisply ironed shirt.
"It's all gonna be OK," I'd tell myself. "It's already OK."
I thought of my fascination with the breath of my past lovers, to hear them breathe, that life force that moved them, what they were made of.
What am I made of? Do I know?
Child-birth. What's that like? I have no idea. But I'd like to know. As I hike before these two women as we labor in pleasure with our breath, I consider labor and having a baby. Nine years ago when I was dead-set against having a child, I asked a girlfriend about her experience, whether it was as horrible and painful as I imagined at that time. She replied,
"Heather my sister, how could the greatest thing I've ever done in my life be horrible or painful?"
Sometimes the most incredible and rewarding experiences of our lives take work. Effort. Endurance. Challenge. Love.
To birth. To create. A life, a vision, an idea.
Or simply to climb to the top of a mountain while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.
The sexy, sultry, erotic breath of this bright, blue-eyed woman reminded me that even the hardest moments can be so, so sweet.
I reached the top of White Cap. The clouds were pregnant and heavy still; there were no views. All that work for nothing some would say. I always laugh at that. Is it ever just about the destination?
It didn't matter to the sisters, as they happily arrived. They asked if I would take pictures for them to support their celebration. We introduced ourselves and they told me there were section hikers walking the Hundred Miles.
"We always went backpacking with our husbands and children, but never did it by ourselves. We wanted to show we could do it, that we were capable of coming out here on our own without them," the blue-eyed beauty told me.
I applauded their accomplishment and they recognized mine, how far I'd come in these months. Funny, it didn't seem far to me, I was just walking. It's what I do.
A woman who likes to walk.
Maybe that's a piece of what I'm made of. Maybe I do know. Maybe I did have it figured out before Katahdin.
Maybe there's nothing really to figure out. Maybe I'm just breath. Beautiful breath.
I said goodbye to the sisters and started to walk again.
Panting with pleasure.
I walk in at 10am on a Saturday and the gym studio is packed. There's a flashing, colored disco ball lighting up the room and the super-fly instructor strikes up some Beyoncé and we all begin to groove. Yep, it's Hip Hop Fitness in the house and I feel like I'm training for a music video.
But that's just it, I don't feel like I'm training at all. I'm having a blast, shakin' my booty, circling my hips and waving my hands in the air like I just don't care, like I did back in my regular club days when I'd spend all night with my girls dancing. I felt the same way when I started taking Zumba classes again a few weeks ago, smiling and pumped to hear Latin music, reminding me of all the time I traveled in South and Central America. Suddenly in these classes I can be transported to my late teens and early twenties once more in the club. Except without random guys hitting on me when all I want to do is dance, and not having to worry about slipping on spilled, sticky drinks. Oh, and no need for that fake ID I had made on 42nd Street in New York City because I certainly couldn't wait till I was eighteen to go out and dance.
I find I go through phases with wanting to learn new things and experience something different. I love the rush, the high. This shouldn't sound surprising, since I change my location or go on adventures more often than I brush my teeth some would joke. So what's it been: rock climbing, surfing, snowboarding, hula-hooping, mountain biking, guitar, harmonium...to name a few.
Salsa dancing. Daniel started teaching me toward the end of our travels, and I got hooked real fast. Of course I wanted to be the best salsa dancer ever in the matter of a few lessons, which is often the fierce determination I bring to all the fresh endeavors in my life. And that's a bit too much I've realized, too much pressure on myself to be good at something right away. Who cares how good I am and how quickly? Am I enjoying the experience? Am I laughing and having fun? Am I learning a new way to move my body that I'm passionate and excited about?
That's the difference between being Inspired and being Motivated. Inspired is when we just can't wait to practice something or get into a project, when we are filled with so much creative juiciness to get into it and do it. To Be It. Motivated, on the other hand, is when we have to conjure up the energy to make ourselves do something, maybe even force. To use that evil word, 'Should.' Where is the joy and creative zeal in a sentence with the phrase, "I should go out dancing." Nope, not there.
The other night I went to a Blues Fusion Social Dance at a local dance studio here in Asheville. I had no idea really what this style of dance was, but I decided to give it a whirl. It started with a lesson and I happened to have a most cheerful partner from Cambodia, which made me feel right at home because we could talk Southeast Asia together. We were all taught the basic steps and directions of movement, and Won and I picked up quickly. Actually, Won was a regular there so he was quite good. When the song ended, the instructor pointed me out to say,
"Heather, the way you're moving your body, it's called 'disconnect', the way your upper body goes one direction and lower goes the other."
Disconnect. Oh boy, that didn't sound good.
"Is that wrong?" I inquire sheepishly.
"No! It's just right! I was wondering if you were doing it intentionally and if you could show the others how to do it?" he assured me.
"OK, I'll keep trying to be disconnected," I cheerily told him. I don't think I've ever said or thought that before, but it actually felt quite liberating, to know it was alright to be disconnected. How often in yoga lingo is it emphasized to be connected to all parts of the body at once? Well, what if I want to groove this way, but a part of me goes the other, and then my mind is over there and my heart is someplace else? Does that make my practice bad, because it is less connected? Maybe to be in flow is simply feeling intuitively how all of this fits together in some way that, in that moment, feels good and works.
When the Social Dance started, I had the opportunity to try out my moves with a bunch of partners who asked me to dance. My Cambodian buddy Won was my patient teacher, telling me to put in my own flair, and spinning me about. When the best dancer in the room approached me and asked me to dance, I was so nervous.
"I'm rather new at this style," I shyly told him.
"I can tell you love to dance, don't worry, just be cool," he encouraged me.
And in that moment, I relaxed more. I love to dance, that's enough. I didn't need to focus on the moves so much and think. I just wanted to feel the music, feel the person I was with, and feel myself.
I was there because I wanted to be dancing. No 'should' about it.
Those other activities I mentioned earlier, some I still practice, and some I don't. But there are three in my life that have stayed with me, like faithful friends, there with me always.
Hiking, dancing and yoga.
I went back to Hip Hop Fitness tonight and felt more familiar with the moves and steps. It didn't matter though really; I probably will not be asked to be in a music video ever in my life. Well, I guess you never know, but what mattered was that I was happily shakin' my junk with a bunch of other people in the room.
Ice cream. It's what drives us to go on. We dream about it as we walk, as we sweat our way across the sandy cliffs of the Rota Vicentina along the coast of Portugal.
Don't get me wrong, we both love long-distance hiking for all the moments of awe and wonder it brings, but sometimes it's freakin' hard and you just need a little pick-me-up to keep on keepin' on. Yes, I admit it: sometimes when I'm baking in the sun as I hike I venture out of the present moment to keep me sane and fantasize about eating ice cream in the future. Call me a bad yogi, whatever.
We usually find somewhere to buy ice cream everyday, whether it's a fancy grocery store in a bigger city with a plethora of selection, or a simple mini-mercado in a small town with not so much to choose from. We do not discriminate and happily accent whatever comes across our path, literally. We take turns buying by alternating each day, and normally whoever buys gets to choose what we eat. I'm often guilty of hinting to what I'm in the mood for even on my non-purchase days, so I'm told.
"Don't you think mint chocolate chip sounds so good today?" I sweetly suggest.
Daniel will shake his head at me and smile as he goes into the store, and being the good man he is, he usually comes out with it.
So I guess you can say Daniel and I take ice cream pretty seriously. This particular day was no different, discussing flavors as we walked into a small town to ravage the freezer of the mini-mercado.
"Can you just stop for a minute?" the man who fervently approached said to us. "Can you just slow down and stop? Can't you see she's trying to tell you something and is struggling to keep up?"
We stopped in our tracks.
The man was disheveled, holding a pen close to his ear, fidgeting. I think he sounded British. He continued to go on rambling.
"You shouldn't walk and talk, it stresses the body. I see this all the time, a man who walks faster than the woman and leaves her behind, not really listening to her or paying attention."
I look at Daniel, but he has sunglasses on so I can't tell his reaction to this odd man. I decide to shut it down.
"Actually, we often walk at a different pace and we're fine with that. Have a nice day," I say as I begin to carry on toward the grocery store. Ice cream is waiting after all.
But we were in a bit of shock. My reaction went something like this as we both took a few minutes to rant:
"Walking and talking stresses the body?! Oh, good to know. I can go back to carrying a heavy pack again and my body will hold up great, but just don't walk and talk. Got it, all good."
"Who is this person to judge our hiking relationship in the five seconds he saw us?!" Yea, Daniel is a Speedy Gonszales, but that's ok. He'll come cruising up along side of me as I haul up a hill, munching on a bag of potato chips as he smiles and hops along past. Sometimes we walk together, and sometimes he's ahead of me. I don't worry about it, about keeping up.
Not anymore at least. In that moment I flash back to an 18 day trek in the Cordillera Real in Bolivia, back in 2006. Sven and I never did the guide thing, but the route we came up with was pretty remote and we couldn't carry enough food for 18 days ourselves. So we hired a guide, Cesar, and a mule with his mulator, Don Alberto.
All of them were faster than me. Well, maybe not Don Alberto, because I secretly believed he held on to his mule's tail and it pulled him up the mountains. But in appearance, all were quicker than me, even as I busted my butt up those 18,000 ft. peaks.
I would get so angry with myself. "Why aren't I quicker? I'm strong and fit, yet I can't push anymore. What's wrong with me?" All of these self-defeating thoughts would flood my mind and I remember one day I cried my way up the mountain.
"But I'm supposed to be enjoying myself," I sadly realized.
That was it. I rehearsed in my head in my best Spanish how to explain my feelings to the guys, and at camp later on I blurted it all out. Cesar said it was okay, that I was very tough and not that slow. Don Alberto just nodded. Sven went off silently and climbed a ridge to be alone, and later came back down in tears and hugged me so tight.
This is how I learned to walk. My way. I decided I no longer needed to compare myself to anyone else's speed, or rush, or tell myself I was 'less' because my pace was different. Maybe I like to pause more or look around. Maybe I like to stop walking when I eat because food sits better with my body this way. Maybe my little legs just don't climb hills as rapidly. Maybe I don't need to explain any of these reasons because I still get there in my time in my way in my amazing, power-house body that doesn't quit.
Daniel put in his two-cents, mainly on how he was pissed off that this guy thought I was merely following him, that I was incapable of walking solo. I was pissed off that the guy judged Daniel to be something like a power-driven, dominant male. Oh please. My hiking companion had just finished listening to Betty Friedan's 'The Feminine Mystique' by audiobook.
As we wandered the aisles of the store, Daniel suddenly paused, looked at me and said with slight concern, "Are you sure? Are you sure you don't feel I do that, cause you stress if I'm ahead? That I run away and don't listen to you when we walk?"
I had another flash back to the first day I met him on the Camino de Santiago. We were sitting in a small town's central square, whining that the high route to Roncesvalles, the Napoleon Route, was closed. 'Closed' meant that if you got caught going that way, you'd get hit with a 15,000 euro fine. Ouch. We both knew it was the better path with all the views, and views are what thru-hikers crave.
Like ice cream.
Daniel pulled out his phone. He showed me a map, pointing out another route he wanted to take to get there, with no fine involved, but also across a ridge. He told me I was welcome to join him.
Despite being a bit flattered, I politely declined. Not because I didn't want to go, but because I was afraid I couldn't keep up. I had learned earlier in the morning that this big-bearded dude in generic running shoes not only had completed the Triple Crown of the famous long distance hiking trails of America (AT, PCT and CDT), but he was now in the mist of a gigantic thru-hike from the northern point of Europe in Norway to the southern point in Spain. He had been walking for months and I hadn't put a pack on in three, having finished the AT in mid-November. It was my first day hiking again, I was massively jet-lagged from flying and a full day of bus travel to reach Saint Jean Pied du Port. In the albergue-hostel that morning I felt discombobulated as I packed, feeling unfamiliar with my gear, where each thing had its new place. I could've packed my bag blind-folded by the second week on the AT, but today I felt off; I needed to get my groove back. I just didn't believe I had it in me, to keep up.
I reflected on this some time later on the Camino as I walked with Daniel the rest of the way to Santiago, then together on the Camino Portugues, all the way to here on the Rota Vicentina. I never said no to climbing up another mountain on or off trail with him again. Eleven years after how I learned to walk in Bolivia and there I had been in a moment of self-doubt. That cute Mr. Triple Crown was better than me, that I wouldn't be fast enough, blah blah blah.
My self-deflating thoughts. My harsh inner critic. Never once did this kind man make me feel bad when I was five or twenty minutes behind him as he casually waited on a bench or at a trail junction to make sure I was still trodding along. Never once did I feel he didn't want me there with him. Never once did I feel he didn't give me his attention when I spoke. Never once did he make me feel my outdoor pursuits in Nepal, India, Morocco, Latin America and Southeast Asia were any less than his. If anything, Daniel recognized my feats for their greatness, even when I tried to downplay them, comparing what I did to spalshing in the baby pool and his swimming with the sharks.
If ever I felt stressed about being behind him, that was my doing, not his.
I warmly assure him not to worry, that we can keep walking the way we do, and keep being the way we are with each other.
The only thing that needs to change is those occasional moments I poop on myself when I don't believe I've done enough to create a super cool life of curiosity, adventure and determination. When I forget that even if I don't share the same pace, I still keep up, in my own way. Yea, that attitude needs to change, for good.
It's my turn to buy the ice cream, but we jointly choose a new flavor, taking a chance. We sit on a park bench overlooking the dramatic cliffs that envelope the sea, assessing its quality, ice cream connoiseurs that we are. We begin to walk again, together at first, until that natural, easy moment when Daniel's stride takes him ahead of mine.
I smile as I watch him go. Somewhere along his way he learned how to walk, too.
And that suits us just fine.
It's mid-day and the heat of the highway radiates into my feet and continues up the rest of my body as I walk. We are somewhere between Lisbon and the coast, our feet pounding pavement for three days as we cook in Portugal's spring heatwave. I'm melting like an ooey-gooey chocolate chip cookie in the oven. I welcome the large trucker rigs coming toward me with full force, because I know their size and speed will afford me a rushing breeze. I chase patches of shade like an addict, for a fleeting moment of cool relief, just a small, fast hit until I reach the next.
As I rush to that next patch of treasured shade, I see her. She is sitting in a plastic chair at the end of a dirt road spitting out onto the highway. Her blond hair is pulled back and she is decorated with make-up, a black mini-skirt and leopard-print platform shoes. I smile warmly at her and she smiles back before she returns to looking at her phone. I guess I'm not that interesting.
As I walk on, I think about her a litte bit. I assume she must be waiting for a ride, but such an odd place to wait off of the highway. She receives perhaps a minute of my imagination until my attention span needs something else to entertain it, or I have to focus on not getting hit by a speeding car.
Eventually I reach Daniel waiting for me under a haven of trees and I ask, "Did you see the woman in the chair?"
"Yes, a woman of the night," he replies. "I was told to look our for women sitting in chairs on highways in Spain, but it might be the same in Portugal."
My mind drifts back to her as I resume walking under the sweltering sun. I wonder about her life, her story. Does she like salad and ice cream just like me? Hot baths and live music? What did she think of Daniel and I as we passed? He as a potential client and me as the reason he was not?
What does anyone who sees us walking by think? People in their camper vans or cars who wave and honk, giving us the peace sign. Are we living a dream of theirs, or have they back-packed before and feel nostalgic for those days of freedom? Do we fill a minute or two of their conversations as they drive, amusing themselves with pondering our stories? Do they look past Daniel's large, bushy beard and cowboy hat to even consider he went to Yale Law School and then after played the game of corporate lawyer, until he realized there are other games he prefers to play? What about me? Could I also be the traveling yogini who wears feather earrings and sometimes likes to meditate in caves while trekking in the Himalayas?
And this is how it goes: we know nothing of each other, yet a whole world of fantasy or judgment can be conjured up just by how we look, the profession we practice or how we choose to get from here to there. Are we really that different, or does it even matter that much? Maybe Daniel and I choose to walk our dreams rather than drive them, but we are no better or no less than those who do otherwise. We're all just people doing what we do.
Or being what we be.
As I hike on, I transform from ooey-gooey chocolate chip cookie to a crispy, burnt one that someone forgot about in the oven. I reflect again on the woman in the chair and silently wish her well.
"You be you," I whisper.
And I'll be me.
I have a pouch of inspiration-theme cards I made years ago. I stick my little fingers in there and pull one every morning. I pulled one on New Year's, to set the tone for the year, and it was the 'Forgiveness' card. I had no idea where that came from...was pretty sure I'd be getting one of my favs, like 'Sensual', or 'Joy'. Go figure. I decided to pull another one (they are my cards, I make the rules) and got 'Peace.' Ah.
I stopped by Montpelier, Vermont to visit some sweet loves of mine in October, on my way south to finish my AT hike. I rolled into town by a hitched ride, and stopped a girl on the street to ask directions to the Co-Op (of course I would, I needed kale). After I thanked her, she asked where I was coming from and what I was doing...I had my pack on and all. I told her I had been hiking the Appalachian Trail since late April, and she exclaimed, "Wow! So are you like Cheryl Strayed from the movie 'Wild'?! I laughed and replied, "Not quite..."
When I got back on trail, I thought about this some, me and Cheryl Strayed. We all get on trail for different reasons: to work something out and heal, to live in the outdoors, to change patterns, to adventure and be free. To be real. Wild. I certainly have my own array of reasons and definitely had the whole gamut of feelings while out there. But I often reflected on a scene from the movie where she's in the woods and realizes,
"What if I can forgive myself? For everything I've ever done that I thought was wrong or a mistake. What if I can let it all go and realize that every act I've made has brought me right here, in this moment now?"
Mark Nepo writes, "It is useful to realize that the word 'forgive' originally meant both to give and receive--"to give for." In keeping with the original meaning, we can see that the inner reward for forgiveness is the exchange of life, the give and take between our soul and the Universe."
Perhaps Forgiveness and Peace are the perfect pair, intertwined like sweet lovers. Can I be as sweet to myself as I am to a lover? Can I give and receive in that same way?
There's also a scene with a line that keeps running through my head these days,
"There's a sunrise and a sunset everyday. And you can choose to be there for it. You can put yourself in the way of beauty."
But you know what? It's a lot harder to do that if I (we) don't forgive and make peace, with myself and others. Because we get all caught up in taking things personal and assuming, all the mental blah-blah, and we miss it. Beauty over. I learned A LOT while on trail, but one of the top things was if it didn't have to do with my survival, just let it go.
I am sharing these musings because I know I'm not the only one that feels them. There are days we bask in light, and days we dance in the dark...and so it goes. But there is a sunrise and sunset everyday. And I don't want to miss that, so I'm going to keep choosing to 'give for' so I can feel peace.
Yea, I pulled those cards on New Year's for a reason; it always loops around at some point. Today I got 'Laughter.' What will tomorrow bring?
Guess I'll find out after the sunrise.
For those of you who know me well, or those who have been to my yoga classes, know that I really change it up with my music offerings. Sometimes I just want to kick it with some Pearl Jam or Jay-Z. Just sayin'. Today I felt like I really needed some of that vibe, so I went to take my Mama Bear yoga teacher Steph's, 'Hot Ashtanga Mix' class. It's a tough class in a super sweaty hot room, and I really just wanted to kick my ass...in a loving way. And I wanted to see her, one of my mentors, and get a big 'ol hug. I walked into the room and she warmly embraced me as I growled a bit about feeling funky, and she laughed at me and said, "We're just gonna let that go."
Damn right. That's why I came to class, to breathe it out and let it go. That's why I show up to my practice in some form every darn day: to be with what is, breathe it in, breathe it out and to accept and allow.
We started to flow and how stoked was I that the first track was old school Nirvana. Then we had some Violent Femmes, 'Blister in the Sun' (which I sang along to as I shook my booty in down-ward dog) and that awesome song from when I was in high school, 'What's Going On?' by 4 Non Blondes. Yea, we even heard 'Gold Digger' by Kanye and that sure was a rockin' tree pose for me.
Steph's wacky and nuts and crazy in class, jokingly busting on us all as she calls out super hard arm balances and other wild poses that she just says, "Come on ya'll, that shit ain't hard!" She makes jokes with the music, like when Kool and the Gang was on and she told us to "celebrate that ass!" as we bounced our butts in something like a bridge pose. I loved it, I laughed and smiled a lot. Yoga isn't meant to be taken so damn seriously. Nor is life.
At some point, Steph was telling us to fly up into handstand from some pose, and as she lovingly shouted, she said, "Just Try." Suddenly I flash-backed to one of the many yoga teacher training programs I've done with Asheville Yoga Center and Steph. It was like a mantra I remembered she always said to us about approaching a pose in a new way, or a challenge. "Just Try," she'd smile and say.
I carried that away with me, and there have been countless classes I've taught where I've uttered the same words, to encourage people to explore their bodies in exploratory and creative ways. Or their minds...or their hearts. To just see what happens when we open up to try. To get out of our patterns and habits and see what comes up and out when we try something new. Why don't we try sometimes? Fear. Fear of what? Fear of falling or getting hurt. Fear of busting Ego. Well, so what if that happens? We just get up and try again. It reminded me of a bumper sticker I read a long time ago. It said, "What are you gonna do, lay down there and bleed? Or are you gonna cowboy up and ride on?"
I had been in the ladies room before class waiting in line to pee, and I happened to read a sign that I've seen a billion times. The second line read, "Try everything once."
These past few months I've been holding another mantra close to my heart that was shared to me by a dear friend. "Risk Joy." It seems to resonate with, "Just Try."
Last night I was at a bookstore planning my next adventure, and I came upon this piece of writing by William Ward. I think it wraps up everything I'm trying to say here.
To laugh is to risk appearing a fool
To weep is to risk being called sentimental
To reach out to another is to risk involvement
To expose feelings is to risk exposing your True Self
To place your ideas and dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss
To love is to risk not being loved in return
To live is to risk dying
To try is to risk failure
But risks must be taken.
Because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
The people who risk nothing may avoid suffering and sorrow,
but they cannot learn, feel, change, grow or really live.
Chained by their servitude, they are slaves who have forfeited all freedom.
Only a person who risks is truly free.
C'mon ya'll. Do it with me.
My first solo road-trip. It gives me goose-bumps simply thinking about it, feeling it. I was the ripe young age of 19 in the summer of 1998 and ready to take it all on my own, just me and my Isuzu Trooper (fondly known as, 'Troop'). It was a cross-country trip and my first stop was Great Smokey Mountains National Park in Tennessee. I hiked 8 miles round-trip to a beautiful waterfall along a trail in full bloom with greenery in early May.
I was recently back in Great Smokey Mountains National Park this October, and I remembered. There were moments the Appalachian Trail looked the same as that particular path did 19 years ago, at least in my memory. The roots on the earth, the parts where the trees hung low as I walked down the aisle. My aisle. Memory Lane.
What I sensed deep in my bones as I hiked the last leg of my thru-hike was this: how all those years ago, that young girl knew then that she wanted to be free. Footloose and Fancy-Free. Without all the fluff, she just aspired to play in the woods and be in nature. And I'm still there, as often as I can be.
That maiden voyage cross-country trip took me 10,000 miles in a month. I went here, there and everywhere through the parks, back-roads and anywhere else that I had dreamed up seeing from the pages I ripped out of a National Geographic Calendar and a book on sacred land sites my brother had gifted me. I embodied such a sense of freshness, of new possibilities and a courageous spirit of adventure. There was no fear of what was to come at me. I felt confident, strong, curious, and in love with all around me.
Just like how I felt on the Appalachian Trail. Just like how I feel right now.
There is something very special about any First experience: living somewhere different, a first kiss, trying a different sport, a new yoga pose to experience . I will admit there have been moments when I don't really notice or take for granted what I'm doing, because it's not new any more. Yep, I've seen a billion street food stalls, been on hundreds of chicken-buses and hiked a ton of giant mountains. But I've got to tell you this: those moments of not noticing are few and far between these days because I'm committed to being 100% present to the wonder of my life. What can I notice that makes this occasion unique? How can I savor the various nuances of what's around me? How much more can I live my yoga by paying attention to each detail and then becoming one with it? We have the ability to keep that bright feeling of freshness and newness no matter how many times we've come to the yoga mat in that same pose, or walked the dog down that same path, or made love to the same person. It's about perspective, attitude and that zeal to be doing what you're doing, in the now.
What I also reflected on was how every step I've taken in my life had brought me to that place where I was on trail. That summer of 1998 opened several pertinent doors for me, with who I met and would later co-create with. Actually, my introduction to the AT came over that summer, a seed planted by a co-worker named Vince who I hiked in the rain with close to Poughquag, NY. And then there were other seeds nestled into my being relevant to thru-hiking the trail later on in my life, all related to working with Vince and who I met through him. It all syncs up, and isn't that magical?
I got a fortune cookie some time back when I was in a bit of a funk that read, "Love what is to come by learning to love what has come before." Yes, even the hard stuff. Could I see the merit in all of my life experiences, in how each one was part of the grand tapestry of my life?
Every wound I've bled has taught me something I value. Every triumph I've had has graced me the gift of tasting joy. Every time I've fallen I learned how to get up again. And every time I got up, I felt damn grateful for remembering what I'm made of.
I'm made of it all. And I love it all.
Just like My First.
One of my favorite flics of all time is the animated holiday show, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Yep, I'm a Christmas baby and Rudolph's my main squeeze. Anyway, there's this scene where Hermie the Elf meets Rudolph in the forest and they talk about how they're both misfits. Hermie, in his determination to make it on his own, affirms his independence. Rudolph likes the sound of this independence concept, because he's tired of being made fun of for his red nose. In their new friendship, Hermie says to Rudolph, "We can be independent together!"
I always got a kick out of this scene. How can you be independent together?! I remember when I was trekking in Nepal and met my boys Dave, Maarten and Marek and we always called ourselves, "independent trekkers"...yet we met up everyday and planned all our activities together. But for some reason we had to assert this sense of autonomy, despite the fact that we did things for each other all the time and loved each other's company.
The other day, I opened up to a new someone in my life about how I've always been extremely independent and self-reliant...maybe a bit too much so. I told him I never want to feel I have to depend on anyone for anything. He listened to me share, and then this is what he said to me:
"I depend on people everyday, in all sorts of ways. And I want people to depend on me."
Bam. That moment when the light bulb goes on. Dependence doesn't have to carry this negative connotation. Perhaps I need to look at it more like 'interdependence' or 'connectedness'. Is it possible to ever be fully independent, I wondered? I thought about my experience recently hiking the Appalachian Trail. All of us thru-hikers like to think we're so independent, but are we really? We hitch-hike into towns for re-supply, we're given trail magic, we're offered places to stay, we're provided with networks of support to give a hand to us on this epic journey. I couldn't have done it without all of those people, the infinite acts of kindness and the other hikers who did it with me. We all lifted each other up. We all depended on each other.
Over this past week of reflection on this, I've thought about my wish to surrender more. To let someone else do for me, purely because he or she wishes to do so. To take a step back, loosen my reins, and say, "Yes, please and thank you." I don't need to do it all, even if I can. Today with the Winter Solstice, in this time of going inward, I put out my intention to yield. To be more Yin. I often used to think that I didn't want to bother anyone or be a trouble, so I would just insist I could do it myself. Or I wanted to assert my strength and capacity. Well damn, that can get mighty tiring, I realized. It also blocks the energy of another who truly desires to be of service, to give, and to feel depended on. To give and receive...isn't that what love is?
Hey, I've got your back, and I know you've got mine. We can be independent together, just like Hermie and Rudolph.
Now that's the real Christmas spirit.
I was sitting next to a fascinating guy with the trail name of 'Doctor C', drinking yerba mate at a warm campfire one morning back in May. Doctor C's brain was packed full of deep, philosophical thoughts and I was enthralled with listening to him.
"Donate means to 'do naturally", he told me.
I chewed on that for awhile and really loved that definition of the word 'donate'. Here I was at Trail Days weekend in Damascus, Virginia, a weekend where Appalachian Trail hikers of past and present come together to be in community and celebrate the joys and trials of this great trail that stretches 2,189 miles from Georgia to Maine. And all around me people were in this spirit of 'donate'.
I can only begin to tell you how touched and moved I've been by generosity and the pure acts of unconditional kindness while walking this trail since April 27th. Church groups who offer 'hiker feeds' where they cook gigantic meals to feed us hungry folk. Going into the post office to find a box of toiletries and snacks for hikers coming into town. Jugs of water at road gaps where the trail has gone dry. People who have picked me up hitch-hiking and given me a much needed ride so I didn't have to walk any extra miles into town to re-supply. Being offered a place to sleep, shower and do laundry on multiple occasions by kind souls who literally knew me for 5 minutes only. Seeing dear, old friends who spoiled me with care, and meeting new extensions of trail friends and family who wholeheartedly welcomed me into their home. Gear reps and companies who have gifted me hundreds of dollars of product because they stand behind their goods. And finally, the way we all watch each other's backs out their on the trail: us hikers who listen to one another, cheer each other on, check for ticks, tell you where there's water and not, and share with you their last bar of chocolate just because.
I like to think I've always been a giving person, but living on the trail these months has increased my wish to give even more. And to give in a way that has no attachment to wanting praise or anything back, to just give in the spirit of karma yoga. But in truth, don't you feel you automatically get something back when you give? You know that awesome high you feel when you're helping someone out? I may not want any praise or thanks, but dang, that natural high that comes with it just comes automatically! When you know in your heart you are assisting someone walk their path and fulfill their dreams. What is the way to enlightenment? Serve people. Give.
To donate, to do naturally...because I want to, not because I have to. I see this repeatedly on the trail and by the communities around it. No one is forcing these trail angels (as they are called) to pick up dirty hiker trash (as we are called) and warmly offer them a place to stay. These acts of kindness are known as 'trail magic' and not a day goes by that I don't feel the fairy dust sprinkled upon me. There are a plethora of ways to give: not just material things, but with one's time, actions, words and presence. My trail name is Daya; it was given to me by friend in India while trekking together. It's a Sanskrit-Hindi word that means kindness, compassion and mercy. Everyday on the trail when I hear my name called, it's a constant reminder of those traits I wish to embody and share.
To donate. With my fairy wand of magic.
I was on the ferry in late afernoon leaving the island of Koh Pha-ngan in south Thailand. I kicked back and admired the sea view for sometime, but then I felt drawn to look in my bag. I remembered my very special Tulsi necklace from Vrindavan, India that had broken about seven weeks ago when I set out for Laos; it snapped when I took my backpack off too quickly. “Ah, another reminder to slow down, “ I had thought while laughing at myself.
The Tulsi tree is revered as sacred, as a form of the Goddess. To wear Tulsi is said to carry the blessings and mercy of Radha, Krishna’s consort, with you always; to be protected and filled with her love and compassion. The Hindi name my friend Ajay gave me while trekking in Ladakh, ‘Daya’, translates as ‘kindness, mercy, and compassion’. When I wear Tulsi, I believe I am filled with these traits even more. I pulled out the simple strand of beads and examined it in my fingers, considering if there was a way I could fix it.
So I began my task at hand, to mend my necklace. I got out my needle and thread and began to very mindfully work on the current project before me. I didn’t know if it was possible to fix it, but I was putting my best effort forth, fully immersed. While tangled up in thread, I suddenly had a little light go off in my head which reminded me that I was embodying a recent Zen teaching about ‘purposelessness.’ I wasn’t attached to whether I fixed the necklace or not; I enjoyed the work I was doing and was giving it my all. There was no sense of purpose behind my action, to get something right or achieve, but I knew it was important to offer all of my efforts to my task in the moment. For me, this is similar to the essential teaching of the Bhagavad Gita: give and act, but do so freely, that you are not attached to the fruits of your actions.
Many of us often get caught up in having a purpose with something; I definitely know I have. We equate purpose with drive and determination, to get something done. We feel good when we succeed. Well, but then what? We find something else to do and accomplish. Yet consider the things you have set out to do and didn’t get done, for whatever reason…you realized you’d like to stop and direct your energy elsewhere, someone cancelled the project you were working on, you lost your job. You may feel pretty bad, that you failed or messed up. Does that mean everything you did beforehand was a waste of time? Is it actually possible to waste time?
Ah, that is another topic I’ve been musing on…the idea of wasting time and whether that’s possible. I used to get really hung up on making sure I wasn’t wasting time and would be angry if I thought I was: wasting time in the wrong relationship, the wrong job, the wrong place to live. Wrong, wrong, wrong! But nothing is wrong, it’s all in how you look at it. It absolutely doesn’t matter what happens, it’s in how you react to what is happening. Often we view something as wrong if we see it won’t benefit our vision for the future or we think it created a past we aren’t pleased with. So we think we’re wasting time. Notice that these two thoughts are based on the future and past, which don’t really exisit; they are fabrications of the mind. Maybe time as we know it isn’t real, but rather something that was established to maintain order and organization for society, to base events around a clock. Yet time is infinite and eternal if you are living in the present moment; it never begins or ends, it is one continuous stream. So if time is infinite and eternal, it can’t be wasted. Therefore, nothing you do is ever in vain! Yet…it also doesn’t have a purpose. Now chew on that.
I’m not saying here that purposelessness supports the notion that life is pointless and we shouldn’t do anything at all. This life is a gift and we should act, do and give fully. But the key is to not get so caught up in doing something in what we usually deem a ‘right or wrong’ way that we miss the present moment while in it! If we can approach each action we take with enthusiasm for the benefit it brings in the present moment, we still maintain that same drive and determination I spoke of in terms of purpose. But we take out the need to satisfy Ego by letting go of the wish to feel reward or acheivement for getting something done. Then our actions are no longer tied up: we don’t feel those crushing sentiments of disappointment or that we wasted time if plans get altered and what you were dilligently working on changes. There is no ‘plan’ really, at least that’s what I’ve come to realize. And let me tell you, I feel so much more free because of this. All of that time I thought I was wasting time with the ‘wrong’ was really just wasted energy, in missing the Now.
So I don’t do that anymore. I move much slower (or I try to), I let things unfold as I do them. Opportunities come up, I jump into them wholeheartedly, and if something changes, I roll with that. I plan very little. I’m more comfortable in the pause between action and non-action. And if something I used to label as ‘adverse’ happens, I observe how I feel and just see it for what it is. There is no right or wrong. Since it’s all in how I choose to react, my reactions are more calm and even because of this practice of awareness. Then I see from there whatever may unravel next.
“Out beyond ideas of of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” --Rumi
“I am the experience of this moment”, my dear muse Anja said recently. I asked him to define ‘experience’ and in trying to give it words, he stated, “experience is when consciousness is present and two things touch.” I really liked the way he put that; it spoke to me, and for some reason I feel it fits nicely with this piece I’m writing now.
As the sky began to fill with brilliant shades of cotton-candy pink and the scarlet red of a blushing school girl’s cheeks, I actually managed to mend my necklace. It brought me great happiness to put it back on, next to my other strand of Tulsi from Ananda Ashram in New York. Sure, there’s a chance it will break again, but I won’t consider what I just did as time wasted. In this present moment, I am the experience.
Jai Sri Radha!
When I was traveling in South America years ago, one of my favorite past times was to sit in El Parque Central and watch life go by. These parks were often the pulse of the town or city, where people gathered to meet, play and just relax. I could sit for hours on end watching the man squeeze fresh oranges for his juice cart, or the pigeons pecking at crumbs, the tango dancers moving in sync, the artists painting face caricatures, the children eating drippy ice cream cones and the homeless lady who talked to herself. So much life, so many expressions.
These days I find I still like to just watch and listen, even more than I did back then. I reflected on this the other day while housesitting for a friend who lives in a beautiful little space perched on stilts above a lily pond in the jungle of Thailand. I'm often mesmerized with the scenery surrounding me as I lay in the hammock, not knowing which view is the best: looking out at the coconut palms as they sway in the wind, to the fields where cows peacefully graze, or the brilliant pink flowers that grow in the pond. I listen to the night sounds as they sing me songs, tell me stories. So much life, so many expressions.
I used to be fixated with trying to get a lot done, with big 'to-do' lists. I judged my worth by my accomplishments. I was the queen of multi-tasking because I was taught that the more you could do at once, the more adept I was. I've given that 'skill' up by now and try to practice a belief as taught by the Shamata tradition in Buddhism. This tradition teaches there are four essential things in life: 1) Food 2) Water 3) Shelter 4) One Pointed Focus. It's taught that to do something with your entire attention brings a level of depth and clarity to what you are doing. It's a mindfulness practice of meditation and can be very grounding. Multi-tasking often would leave me feeling scattered and depleted because I was caught up in whirlwind of too much at once. One pointed focus helps me to feel stable, clear and present.
When asked what my biggest fear is, I used to say, "Not getting to do all the things I dream to do before I die." Well, I've come to realize that it's just not possible to do everything, not in one lifetime at least. I used to have this urge that I couldn't waste time because there was too much to get done, to see, to do and to be.
To be. That's often what I was missing. While running about, I didn't experience the fullness and perfection of those moments just as they were, because I was trying to get to the next thing. I skipped the being and got wrapped up in the doing. Certainly not all of the time, I've had many moments of pure peace and contentment in the moment, but I recognize now there could've been many more.
The point though is not to dwell on how we feel we could've lived the past differently, but rather to be grateful for what we now know and how we can live today. I've let go of those big 'to do' lists and plans. Maybe my biggest accomplishment in life is to relish every breath I've been granted. I've slowed down a lot: my pace, my speech, my attitude. Heck, maybe I've become more Thai! I look around, I listen and I feel. More and more I go with the flow. When I do something, I try to focus on giving it my full attention. One pointed focus isn't just a meditation technique, it can be applied to everything. Then life becomes one incredible movement meditation of presence and awareness.
I listened to someone speak today on 'Essentialism'. This is based on the idea of weeding out all the things that are non-essential in your life. When we multi-task and over do, we get run down and burn out. Ask the question, "What is essential in my life? What is most important to me?" Then choose to limit or let go of the activities that don't support your answer. I find I feel better when I do less, when I consciously choose to not do everything. I'm quite content playing in nature, looking around and listening. I spend as little time as possible online because it's not a medium that really suits me; I'm better off dancing with my hula hoop. We all walk to the beat of a different drum, so ask yourself what your needs are, what makes you feel good and how can you focus your energy in these directions.
So much life, so many expressions.
"How much to buy one rose, please?" I asked the Thai woman who had buckets of red roses.
"10 baht," she replied (about 33 cents).
"This is the god for love, yes?" I inquired. "People pray for love?"
She nodded with a smile. "Kah, for love. For husband. You pay 10 baht for husband?"
A wide grin came across my face as I laughed. "Oh, I suppose I'd pay 10 baht for love, kah." This is a wee bit funny to me; you couldn't have paid me to even consider the idea of having a husband a few years back. But now, the idea sounds ok...maybe, don't quote me. Alas, I meticulously chose my rose and walked back to the shrine for the second time today.
It was a hot day (go figure, I'm in Bangkok) and I'm downtown. There are several things I love to do whenever I find myself in Thailand's capital (eating often tops the list), but I also like spending time at a few of the Hindu shrines in the city. I visit them to people-watch. In a land that is primarily Buddhist, I enjoy seeing how some of the Hindu deities have been accepted and honored as part of Thai culture for good fortune and prosperity.
I found myself at the Trimurti Shrine. Trimurti represents the three main deities part of the Hindu trinity: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. I watched as Thais of all shapes and dress offer roses, incense, red-colored soda pop and pink garlands to the statue of Trimurti. It's a beautiful place amidst the downtown shopping area, with the shrine mounted above a pool of water. I left after some time, but find myself drifting there later in the day on my way back to the canal taxi. I watched two young women who bought huge bouquets of roses they offer to the shrine. "Geez, they must really want a husband, or some form of booty-shakin" I think to myself. This goes on for some time, me watching everyone else ask for love. Until I decided to do the same.
With my solitary rose in hand, I approached the shrine. I closed my eyes and humbly placed it between my hands and pressed its' petals against my Third Eye, and then my heart. Then I listened to what my heart whispered about my recent time in Nepal trekking with three magical guys who reminded me of how pure love can be.
A month of trekking in the Annapurna region of Nepal, that's how I spent my time in May. From the early days of the walk, I had the unexpected blessing of meeting three brilliant dudes who animated my trip with energy, curiosity and down-right fun. I laughed in the deepest, fullest way possible; I swear, my abdominal muscles were sore for weeks! The stories we made about our adventures, our quotes, our antics...I vow to have a book written on it all someday. We became quite the family, the "Three Musketeers and Her" as I called our group. We didn't always walk together because I would take my time plodding along, but they would be there at our destination village with everything sorted for me: the room, dinner, where we were going the next day, everything. It was such a treat for me to be able to surrender and be taken care of in such a sincere, caring way. And it was a joy to have some raw, uncensored 'dude time'. Island Yoga gets a lot of female traffic and I miss just being able to hash it out with the boys. You get to know people pretty deeply when in the mountains and we learned to read one another's needs very well. Each of them represented an aspect of the Trimurti Gods to me, and I got to play the respective Goddess consort. I'll break it down:
Dave from the USA was Brahma, the Creator. Dave got us all going as the motivator: he was always the first one ready to leave in the morning, and often had the plan about where to go and what to do. He was madly in love with the mountains, knew them all by name and would speak to them as if they were sweet lovers. Dave often set the mood with his excellent music collection and I got to play Saraswati, the Goddess of Music and the Arts. As we sat bundled up playing cards at night, I would describe my mood to my lord Dave and he'd always master finding just the right music to suit it perfectly. He paid attention to me, always noticing when I showed up with a new flower in my hair or remembering something I said. Dave loved by listening.
Marek from Slovakia was Vishnu, the Preserver. But Marek was in Vishnu's form of Krishna: with flute in hand, he wandered about telling stories, charming all those he spoke to. Marek was definitely one of the funniest blokes I've ever met. Yet despite his wit and humor, he had a quiet, soft side that loved to discuss philosophy, spirituality and the amazing treasures we witnessed in nature. With Marek, I got to be Radha, Krishna's beloved Goddess. Just as they would dance together like peacocks, Marek twirled me about by making me both laugh shamelessly and reflect on how good life is. Marek loved by dreaming.
Maarten from Holland was Shiva, the Lord of Clearance. Wild, passionate and untamed...this was Marty. Raw and real, all the way down to the scent of his armpits I got to know so well. Maarten was the instigator of our group, devising plans that may or may not have gotten us killed...but we followed him anyway, because he was Shiva. With him, I got to embody Parvati, the Goddess of the Himalayas, and we engaged in the lila of Shiva-Shakti. Now Shiva has many forms, and Maarten reminded me of Nataraj. Shiva as Nataraj is the dancer of 'Ananda Tandava', the dance of bliss and liberation; this was Maarten. But he also reminded me of Shiva as the Lord of the Yogis. Pensive and thoughtful, kind and endearing, Maarten would come fetch me for breakfast so it wouldn't get cold. He would always be the one waiting outside for me at the next village to make sure I arrived safely and found him. I knew he was there, even if he wasn't. Marty loved by being free.
With the rose in my hands, I smiled. I walked to the water pool and placed it there, floating freely. I already have all the love I need; I was filled to the brim with it from my time in Nepal. I've been blessed and filled with it my whole life actually. Love has always been all around me, in so many forms. I don't need a husband for that. Sure, if it comes in that way someday, so be it. But I don't need to buy love. It's free for the taking, I just have to give and receive.
As I left the shrine, I reached into my pocket for another 10 baht. I bought some fresh pineapple from a street vendor, just like I've done for years.
Have you seen the movie 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?' In a nutshell if you haven't, there's a guy who visits a doctor who has a machine that can erase memories of the past that are now too painful for him to remember. The machine erases history from the mind, as if it never happened. At first I thought this was such a terrible mistake to do--so sad to want to bury and erase a part of your life, I thought--but now I very much understand why one would wish to do this: because you just want the hurt to go away.
Today at the end of yoga class, we were seated with our hands in prayer when the teacher said, "Have gratitude for the wisdom and resilience of the heart."
Resilience of the heart. Hmmm. What if your heart is displaying no signs of resilience? What if she is ripped up, broken and confused? What if you've tried to mend her but she continues to bleed as a part of you slowly dies? How do you heal the most open wounds you've ever felt in your whole life?
There is a story from India that says there was once a king who was very picky and whiny when he was away from his throne. He would get very antsy and agitated, making it challenging for him to rule his empire, until he could sit upon his perfect seat. This is the same way with the mind. The mind will remain unsettled until it is joined with its true nature, the throne of the heart. There it will rest in peace. But what do you do if the mind and heart-throne are both out of whack? How can you get the mind to be tame if the heart has no velvet cushion for it to sit upon, just some lame-ass ghetto chair made of plastic?
I'm writing this because I don't know and don't have the answer. Do you? That's what I seem to express in this blog, I write when I struggle or when I muse. I don't write much when it's peaches and roses--what sort of substance will I, or you, get out of that? And quite honestly, I question those who seem to only write about the good and make their lives appear picture perfect. I'm a real person like you and just because my study of yoga often has the answer of what to do, it certainly doesn't mean it's easy and that I can fully live it all the time. But I try. The true purpose of yoga is to manage the fluctuations of the mind and to better be able to handle all the punches that come at you in life. One yoga teacher I took a workshop with recently said, "I've been doing yoga for many years but I didn't really start practicing until my life fell apart and it got hard. Then I came to know yoga; that's when I needed it most."
I have been jumped and beat up in Honduras. I have gone out to surf waves that were way too big for me in Morocco and almost crashed to my death against sharp rocks. In Thailand I've climbed faces with craggy spears all around me and thought not much of it. I have been threatened by men with big sticks in Vietnam when I stood up to them for robbing me. I trek alone in the mountains, navigate through cities where I don't know the language and have very little fear.
None of these things have ever really scared me. But this pain in my heart is the most terrifying and scary experience I've ever had because I don't know how to grow any stronger to make it go away.
I guess my yoga practice is being put to the test now. A friend told me a little while back, "Heather, to really surrender means acknowledging that you may never understand. The mind wants answers it may not receive, but don't deny the heart its peace. Let it be." Some days I think my heart is doing better, that maybe the duct tape remedy is working, but then that sticky stuff unravels. As a traveler who always carries some of this amazing substance and believes duct tape can fix anything, I suppose in reality it is just a temporary bandage. I need some freakin' surgery.
For me, my yoga is the surgery, especially the practice of Bhakti Yoga when I sing. The heart and mind don't always speak the same language. Positive talk can boost me up and let me think it's alright, but sometimes my heart just doesn't process the message. It doesn't get it. I have to speak another tongue to my dear heart and chanting is this language. There is no explanation needed when sound and vibration enter me and ease the scars; this my heart understands.
Later today while we were in student-teaching groups, I happened to lay down in a spot in the room that was touched by sunshine. It felt so nice and warm and I couldn't help but think of the many places in the world I've been where I happened to sit and bask in a brilliant moment of sunshine: sunrise at Torres del Paine in Chile; on a white, sandy beach in Colombia; sitting at a dock on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala; perched high on a peak in the Himalayas of Nepal. In this room today, I had that familiar sense of feeling safe and secure when the sun embraces you, a sentiment I haven't felt in a long time. My heart was soothed, just a little bit.
Maybe there is something to be said for the love and light talk heard in yoga classes all the time. Maybe you just have to let the light shine in and it'll be OK...eventually. Slowly, slowly and day by day. Every morning when I wake up and the anxiety attack begins, I say to myself, "Something absolutely magical and amazing can happen today in your life. It can all shift in an instant." I also reflect upon how everything that happens in our lives takes us one step closer to fulfilling our greatness. Again, I KNOW this, but it's a different story to feel it. This is perhaps where faith and trust come in, at least that's what I'm hoping for.
So the King and I both wish for the mind and heart to be one. I've never wanted to rule an empire though, I really just want to live with simplicity, purpose, contentment and joy. That's the real yoga empire.
I read in a book recently, "Time doesn't heal all wounds. Love heals all wounds."
Eternal sunshine of the spottED mind.
In this five week yoga training course I'm in right now, after 'school' class is over I like going to the yoga classes of one of the teachers. I go to listen. I go to move with my prayers so they are better heard. I go to sing, because that's what gives me peace.
The teacher is quite the ideal yogi-dude: plays a ton of instruments, has an incredible singing voice, speaks and reads Sanskrit, leads kirtan, is an encyclopedia of knowledge about everything under the sun it seems (yet has great humility), meditates daily, teaches an awesome yoga class and constantly speaks about how much he tries to be considerate and loving toward his wife. (Yes, all the good ones are already married, I know.) Anyway, what I really like is that he (also called 'Mr. Right' for the rest of this blog) starts every class with chanting. He usually tells a story of some sort from his life and relates it to the big picture--the world and us. He's not one of those preachy teachers who over talks and over does the whole 'love-light' thing that is a wee bit saturated in the yoga world, in my opinion. He's on the level and knows life can be hard. Don't many of us come to yoga just for that reason, so we can remember how to breathe when it is just so freakin' hard?
Today Mr. Right is talking about change. "Suffering is caused by wanting things other than how they are right now," he calmly states as he plucks his guitar. "We suffer because we resist change. Change is constantly happening and when we deny this, we get attached and that's when suffering comes. Yes, sometimes change can hurt and causes pain. Pain is inevitable, but how you react to it is your choice. Suffering is optional."
We go into a sweet chant to Shiva, the Lord of transformation and change, and my voice and heart sang loudly to be heard. One of my friends in class the other day said to me when we were in the bathroom, "Heather, your singing inspires me to sing louder, to give it all I've got. I can hear your love." This was one of the greatest compliments I've ever received, in the toilet no less. I told her how I've been taught that the louder you sing, the more blessings rain down upon you.
Yes, bless. Please bless.
Back to change. We start flowing and Mr. Right has this gifted way of dropping little nuggets of inspiration back to his theme through the class; again, not in a preachy way, but in a very poignant sentence or story. He tells this story as I cruise through yet another Sun Salutation since this is a Jivamukti class: "I have a meditation teacher who was asked for a mantra to accept change and he said, "IT'S LIKE THIS NOW."
Bam. That's a new one. IT'S LIKE THIS NOW. You know how some words just rock you. Well, I was rocked, somewhere between chatturanga and down-dog. This is my life, right now. Don't fight and don't wish for it to be any other way. Be with it fully.
I've been working a lot lately with the concept of santosha, which is contentment. I've struggled many a time in my life with knowing the difference between contentment and complaceny. I've often gotten myself out of a situation or complained about it because I thought I was settling and being complacent. I'm pretty fearless and can get up and go easily, so that's what I often do if something's not groovin' for me or if I think I can do better...I just go. I may have recognized some of the good in where I was at, but didn't see all of it because I was dreaming about what to do next. This cycle caused me inner distress and discontentment, not a nice mix.
Most of the time we tell ourselves three stories that prevents us from experiencing santosha and peace. One: "My life would be better if I still had this in it or if that never happened." Story One is wrapped up in the past, which is over. Two: "My life would be better if only it were like this now or if this wasn't happening to me." Story Two is wrapped up in wishing to change the present moment. Three: "My life will be better when I finally achieve that." Story Three is wrapped up in the future, which could potentially never even happen.
So does this mean we can't have goals to dream toward or recognize we aspire for transformation? No, not at all. But can we at some point realize we have enough? Can we see that there is so much good in what is happening right now? And if we deem it not good, can we feel the santosha there too, even with the disappointments? Can we find contentment in just what is? Because it's like this now. And that's that.
Change has been teaching me a great deal about santosha. Acceptance of the constant of change, the ebb and flow of life, can bring contentment. When we fight change and get overly nostalgic or clingy, we lose our santosha. We obsess on the past, mess with the magic that can be experienced in the present and wish for more in the future. This makes for a rough ride. If I want a rough ride, let me just get on a bus again on the Death Road in Bolivia and experience it for real, rather than in my head.
It's time for Savasana, the final rest pose. I try to settle in but my mind keeps racing toward the past. Mr. Right really is just a mouth that God speaks through I think because somehow he knew. "Now if you want a really bad Savasana," he says, "go ahead and keep thinking about what you did or didn't do then. Keep blaming yourself and being hard on you. But if you'd like a good Savasana, how about you just let it all go and find the peace in what's before you right now, as you things are in this moment. Perfect."
Bam again--it's a double whammy in this class. I quietly began to cry. Santosha right here and now, baby. I prayed for my tears to drift down the river of change and flow. I prayed to get off the ride. That's my choice.
I see the sun rise and set every day as I cruise on my bike going back and forth to class. It shines over the Blue Ridge Mountains and the French Broad River, colors the clouds and breaks through the mist. Every day it's a new picture and something different for me to take part in. Just like life. Because it's like this now.
No, it's not that 'V' word. But read on anyway...
Authenticity has been a huge theme with me over these past few years as I've made a strong commitment in learning how to be real to myself and others. No fronts, no facades, no games. No B.S. is what it comes down to.
Since I've come back to the States, I've been playing with the dance of how Authenticity and Vulnerability meet. The dictionary tells me that the definition of Vulnerable is 'being susceptible to physical or emotional injury'. Geez, Webster makes it sound a lot more dangerous than I had thought. I had been relating vulnerability to an attitude of surrender. By letting go of the need to control everything, I allow myself to be vulnerable. I don't need to constantly protect. And yeah, I guess that means I can get hurt. But sometimes the hurt is what reminds us of what is real and true about ourselves and others. The hurt can be a profound mirror of what we need to see, to realize how far we've come and grown. To recognize what we want and don't want.
I took a yoga workshop recently and heard this: "Vulnerability means you may love without being loved in return...and that's alright. You put yourself out there with all of your heart; your real, authentic being shows up fully and you just love. Just love. Even if it hurts. Because isn't it better to know that than to never know love at all."
Sometimes I go into the gift shop here at Ananda Ashram and shuffle through the deck of Osho Tarot cards that sits on the table. I pose a question from my heart, shuffle the cards in my elementary way (I'd never rock being a dealer in Vegas, I'll tell you that) and pull one. Yesterday I drew the card of 'Postponement'. Basically, it was encouraging me to listen to Nike and Just Do It: make that decision today rather than tomorrow; tell that person something rather than keeping it inside; live now versus later. Don't postpone joy. Don't hold back.
I remember someone telling me that he didn't believe in reincarnation. He wrote, "One life. Make it good."
So I've been saying what I feel without holding back. Acting out rather than keeping it in. What do I have to lose really? At the end of the day, do I want to regret what I didn't do or say? Why not try? Why not be honest and admit when I was wrong?Sometimes we hold back I believe from a place of ego. We want to keep up the front, to appear strong and in control. We don't want ego to get damaged by being rejected. Rather than take the risk, we suppress our feelings and hide a little bit, or a lot. Is that living authentically? Perhaps in order to live in a very true way, we have to be willing to be vulnerable to some degree. To be open to the flow of what comes when you just say, "Here it is and here I am. And that's that."
Sure, in my vulnerable space I may get crushed and have glimpses of feeling like a tool. But if I disconnect from ego and know I'm coming from my heart, there is no judgment. I heard Dr. Lad, the renowned Ayurvedic doctor, say, "Judgment comes when mind is involved. If you silence the mind, there is no judgment. There is only heart and this is when you really see, love and accept people and situations just as they are." I really needed to hear these words a long time ago, but I'm grateful I now finally get it and aspire to live it.
The same person who doesn't believe in reincarnation has a motto he lives by: "D.T.A.--Don't Trust Anyone." Often I use this as pretty sound advice while keeping my street savvy traveling the world and living on the road. But I'm realizing that sometimes in order to experience, you have to put yourself in a vulnerable place...or else nothing can happen! When you lock yourself (and your dear ego) up in this little hole and throw away the key in order to 'stay safe', what is that doing for you?
The other day I was guiding a yoga class and time came for Savasana. I encouraged everyone to lie down and release into 'raw nakedness.' I like this idea. When we're naked there is no covering, no layering: nothing to get in the way of just what is, what we are truly. We can be comfortable in our nudity, to the idea of totally exposing ourselves, to let it all go so there is at least the possibility of something amazing happening.
Rather than nothing at all.
I hit a little bump in the road recently. I guess you could call this a bit of a difficult situation, or a challenge. Something to process. At first I was quite startled and reacted rather sharply, with feelings of nervousness and anxiety. When you realize someone in your life who you always thought would be there isn’t there anymore…someone you always felt comfortable with and trusted, who you now suddenly realize you no longer feel safe with. Someone who hurt you in a big way, left the most sour taste in your mouth and changed so many perceptions you’ve had about your time together…yeah, heavy stuff. This can be quite a rude awakening to say the least. During this jolt to my world, I remembered the words of one of my Maha teachers, Shiva Rea, who shared how Tantra Yoga looks at every challenge as a “creative opportunity for change”. Such a nice way to put it, like sugar-coating. In the West, we often get bummed out by challenges or when we get smacked around by difficulties, or when something is hard and makes us sad. But you often find Hindus offering thanks for these obstacles, giving praise to the elephant deity Ganesh who is both the remover and presenter of these hindrances we face. There is the attitude of, “What can this obstacle teach me? How can I grow from it and evolve on my path?”
So I looked at this situation and how it made me feel as a prime way to devlop in my yoga practice. How I could meditate and watch my emotions, rather than become them, which was my initial reaction when thinking mind took over and went into monkey mind-over-analyzing mode, a state of being I’ve worked dilligently to release. Instead I used these tools I’ve cultivated over the years of practice to embark on a commitment to stay calm and breathe through the hurt, confusion, and even the anger. And in a beautiful way, gradually I watched my feelings shift and melt to compassion and peace over time. Acceptance of how things don’t always remain the same and we move on.
A dear, old soul who lives at Ananda Ashram, where I currently am, gave me a slice of advice to chew on the other day. When I briefed her on my “creative opportunity for change” as she played in the swimming pool, she advised with that New York accent in a wise yet nonchalant way, “Heather, meditate twice a day and take it all as it comes. Believe it’ll all be taken care of.” It was as if that would be her piece of advice to any situation and it would fit just right, a ready-made solution for everything. So simple, right?
But that’s what I’m learning: we make it all too complicated in this life. Trust in the divine plan and go with the flow. We think too damn much. And that’s where judgment comes in. When we feel and let go of thinking mind, we’re in the heart space. This is what’s real and this is where I now want to live from. I spent a lot of time over the past number of years forgetting how to totally immerse in love, especially for myself. And there really is no greater meaning in life than love, in all ways. Accept, allow and love, and have peace in that. Have faith that the choices you made at that particular time were the right ones—you can’t change them anyway because they’re in the past, so you may as well be OK with them. If something is meant to be, it’ll work itself out that way in some manner down the line. No regrets.
I still do feel hurt and confusion with this recent bump, and even some anger, but I also feel peace because I don’t want to torment myself anymore. I also feel a humble pride because this situation let me really see how the dedication to my yoga practice over the years has brought this positive change in my life, of how I can deal with supposed negative situations and transform them into positive. Letting go and surrendering to what is feels so much better than the poisons of anger and control; there’s a real freedom in this. I am not anger, I know I am love…that’s the ambrosial nectar I’m made of.
And perhaps now I can let someone else taste that sweetness of me because it’s full and ripe and overflowing. You have to love yourself before you give yourself to someone else. Have to take the time to look at your dark secrets and both accept them and put in the effort for them to change.
A creative opportunity for change.
There is a stillness that hangs in that space between something being and beginning. This pregnant moment that is very full, when people wait for what is to birth. I feel this often as I sit with my eyes closed before I begin leading a yoga class. I can feel there are some friends content with the moment, and some wondering and waiting when I'll speak. I've learned to love moments like these in my own life, as I wait for what it is to unfold. Not planning, not anticipating. When I have to wait for someone or something to happen, I'm forced to slow down. I watch what's actually happening in that present moment. I listen. I like that I can catch up with myself, check in and settle down.
I'll be leaving Island Yoga and Thailand on April 24th to head back to my beloved Nepal for a few months. All I wish is to wander in the majestic mountains and be fully present in the daily rhythms of life. The Canadian blood inside of my longs for the cold weather after being baked in the heat since last May. After that, I don't know what I'll do or where my feet will take me. And that's OK with me right now. I'm not really one who ever makes too detailed of a plan, but there's often been a loose framework. I've decided I don't even want that anymore. And over this past week when I've sat with this realization, I've felt extremely safe and free. I'm tired of taking forever to make a decision, hemming and hawing this way and that, weighing out this choice versus another. Blah blah. To put it plainly, I'm sick of being rational. I want to feel what I should do in the moment and do it. Sure, I know sometimes you have to think things out a bit, but I always have a gut-sense of what's right, what I REALLY want, on the inside. I just get it all complicated with excess thinking mind rather than being with what source is telling me.
Sven and I were in India a few years back and we met these two travelers who told us a story. They had been sitting somewhere with a guidebook for perhaps an hour, deliberating where to go and what to do next. An Indian man watched them during this time. Finally he approached them and said, "Three minutes." They stared at him quizzically. "Three minutes is all the time you should give any decision in life."
They were stunned. And I was floored as I heard this story. Three minutes. Wow. Can I give those super big decisions at least five?? I thought about all the times I've sat with pen and paper, writing out pros and cons, looking at finances, possibilities, thinking about what would happen if I go down that road, the other one...damn!! And honestly, most of the time the supposed choice I make gets completely distorted anyway when the flow takes over and moves things as they're meant to go in my life.
I feel pretty good now with the fact that I really have no idea how anything is gonna go. I'll just go where my heart directs and my feet follow. I'll wait for something to happen, and rest in those big pauses of simply being and becoming.
That was determined in three minutes.
Spider-woman. That’s who I feel like. My legs pressed against the limestone cliffs, my fingers slip into a small crack…and then I glide on up. Repeat. I feel extremely light, like a dancer as she twirls. Playing with air element but also firmly grounded in earth. Then there’s the fludity of moving my body like water, yet it’s all charged up with fire by my strength, willpower and heat. I want to become the rock. The best high of it all though is that I’m totally out of my head and completely present with my body; this instinctual connection to the moment and a passionate intensity to climb up this face. Yoga on the Rocks, baby.
Ironically the first (and last time) I had tried rock climbing was back in 1999 on my first trip to Thailand, at Railay Beach. I loved it then, but for some reason I didn’t pursue it in other travels or while living in the US. Climbing isn’t something you can easily just do on our your own, like when I head out solo to swim, cycle or hike. But the island I’m now living on here in Thailand, Koh Yao Noi, is known for its’ climbing, so it makes perfect sense for me to get back to it. The owner of Island Yoga has been an avid climber for 30 years and he’s always telling me that climbing is his number one form of yoga practice. Daniel, our Swiss volunteer at Island Yoga right now, has been climbing for 23 years and he’s become my motivating trainer and friend at the crag. He’s a brilliant light and I adore how he could guide me in either English, German, French or Italian. Together we ride the motorbike on a rough, dirt road and hike through the jungle to hang from rocks.
I have a lot of fire in me, always have. When I put my mind to something, I see myself doing it and there we go. Over 13 years of yoga has also created a very keen connection to focus, breath and body awareness. These days I don’t have much fear when it comes to things in Mother Nature, so being high up against a cliff with my life in Daniel’s hands below doesn’t worry me. Maybe yoga helps with that too—I trust and know when it’s my time, it’s my time.
The cliff is like a puzzle and I’m the piece. But I’m a mobile piece; I try to fit myself into it, against it…but I don’t commit. I keep moving on and up. Hmm…kinda sounds like the story of my life. I was feeling a little unsettled about this lately, a wee bit perturbed with my nature. “Why do you always want to go somewhere else? Can’t you stay put? Is there something wrong with this place or is it me? What else is out there? Ugh!!” This was my inner-ranting and it pissed me off. Then one morning while watching the sunrise as I danced with my hoola hoop on the beach, it dawned on me that this IS my nature and that’s what makes me who I am. I’m meant to roam. I’m a mover and a shaker, a dancer and a fire-starter. That’s what is beautiful about me: that I am fluid, adaptable and I love change. Last year I listened to a teacher in Guatemala say, “The only thing constant in life is change.” Well, I’ve got that life lesson down real good; one gold star for Heather on that one. I realized maybe I’m not meant to be established anywhere…ever. Or at least not yet. And I should accept that about me rather than fight it. I do have a greater sense of santosha, which means contentment, in my life over these past few years than I’ve had before. When I come to live in a place, even if I know it’s not where I’m meant to remain, I love it for what it is and all the gifts it offers my self-development. In this I find peace rather than fault-finding, which is what I had done with places or circumstances in the past. So many times I found what was wrong or missing in a living situation rather than seeing all the good. I’m thankful I woke up and started appreciating the present. I think I understand now that there’s a give and take with all these amazing places I’ve lived or traveled: in Melaka, Malaysia I had a wealth of Hindu temples to pray at, but no nature to play in. In New York I lived in the ‘bhajan belt’ around Woodstock which was a chanting yogi’s paradise, but I wasn’t fulfilled in my work and missed living abroad. Here I’m blessed to live my love by teaching yoga and managing an affordable, heart-based retreat center immersed in abundant natural surroundings, but there’s a lack of a greater yoga community (like I had in Asheville, North Carolina, and Bali) for me to learn from. I’m never gonna have it all and that’s not the point. The point, I’ve learned, is to feel happy with what you do have now in the moment. This is enough. And when the time is right, I’ll move again and it will change. Life is flow. Perhaps my ability to flow also teaches me non-attachment, since I am transient in nature. Either way, I’ve come to see that my attitude of impermanence may be permanent, and that’s OK.
I get to the top of this climb without having to rest or fall and I was high on that feeling of success. “Look at the view!”, Daniel shouted from below, to remind me. I’m high above the sparkling Andaman sea with stunning views of limestone cliffs sticking out of the water. They appear to me like other fragmented puzzle pieces, checking me out. “Yes, this is a very good place to be…for right now," I think to myself as I look around.
For right now.
This morning I woke up in a lush, over-sized bed high in the sky looking out to palm fronds, leafy trees and a delicate painting of sunrise set above the sea. A little slice of heaven. For some reason I had this sudden intense, yet soft, feeling of appreciation for this precious life and this breath I'm granted everyday. The feeling came at me so clearly, it was as if a message was being sent to me that I had to hear. Shiva Rea, one of my teachers, spoke once about how before getting out of bed, draw in one very present God or Goddess breath. I often say this to sweet yogis when it's time to come out of savasana pose. It's about having the awareness of being alive today, and how it's not to be taken for granted.
Perhaps this profound message I felt that struck me this morning was stirred because I lost a friend recently. I feel I can call him a friend, even though we knew each other more by face recognition than name, because we shared a connection through Bhakti yoga. Many times I sat in the prescence of Shyamdas, so inspired by his kirtans, joining my voice with his in celebration of that pure love that lived inside of us and we recognized in all. I would be entranced by this man, who lived half the year in Woodstock, NY and the other half living in India, as he wobbled his head while playing the harmonium. We would get high on chanting the names and be drunk on love. A very, very good feeling.
Shyam was killed in a motorbike accident in North Goa, India last week. I spent some time living in South Goa so I could picture the scenery, the windy roads. His 60th birthday was coming--still young. I was told he felt peace in his life, but I don't think he was ready to die. But we don't really have that choice, do we?
My companion of almost 7 years, Sven, came to call me 'Precious' very early on in our relationship. It became something like a pet name I guess you could say. Sometimes I even got called 'sweet precious'. At that time it wasn't a word that I heard very often and it touched me. Today when I reflected on the sunrise, this day and that big Goddess breath I drew in, the sentiment of 'precious' came to mind. What does precious mean? I looked it up in the dictionary and one definition was: 'of great value; not to be wasted or treated carelessly'. It also carries this feeling of delicateness, that it needs to be cared for. Or maybe it will go away.
I don't know how my cards are written. I live a life filled with many adventures, risks and chances. And I love that, so I won't change it. But I can remind myself every waking day of how freakin' precious this life is.
The other evening at sunset I was swimming laps in the Andaman sea, as I often love to do, on my new home of Koh Yao Noi in Thailand. As I was paddling my way into shore, the sky was lit up in crimson...cotton candy clouds. I paused in the shallow water, feet squatting in the sand in malasana with hands in prayer, my heart beating fast as I gazed upon the jungle dotted with color. "This is my life", I realized. And what a life it is! It is extremely full right now with teaching transformational yoga at an affordable yoga retreat center in rural Thailand. I'm not only teaching yoga and offering private sessions on personal empowerment through yantra yoga, mantra and mindful manifestation, I'm the yogi host and administrative coordinator extraordinaire. What this means is for the first time in my life, I spend a lot of time on a computer replying to emails, dealing with bookings and spreadsheets. I also welcome and love every single being that arrives here to spend time on retreat with me, David and Akiko (the two other dynamic forces of Island Yoga). The Trinity of Us is this: Akiko balances you with her Tibetan Singing bowl healing treatments; David gracefully introduces you to Chi'gong and then brings you out for 'Yoga on the Rocks', where the inner journey of yoga meets the outer experience of rock climbing; and I invite you to sing your heart out chanting mantras and dance up what needs to creatively flow.
We're partnered up with a Thai family that I adore. I spend time laughing with sisters Ning and Ma in the kitchen as we cook meals, the two of them infatuated with patting my yogi-ass while speaking in Thai...which I am slowly coming to understand. I teach Ulma, Ning's 5 year old, how fun it is to lick the plate with chocolate frosting on it. She offers me sticky rice with mango. Ning and I spend countless moments looking at our reservation book, finding homes for yogis in our humble, yet sweet bungalows that Ma tirelessly cleans. When guests check in, I proudly tell them, "We're not the Ritz and we don't want to be. We give you an experience of real Thailand on a still untouched island where you can get to know this wonderful family and be a part of spiritual, heart-based yoga on a retreat that's actually affordable." Bam. That's us. And I love it. I'm living my dharma, what I've been meant to do for a long time. The gift from Source inscribed upon my heart.
I live in a precious bungalow hidden away on the property. At full moon, the sea comes to visit me, right to my porch. I chant and sing in the morning as part of my practice and the other day I overheard one of our guests say to another, "This morning I had a treat...I heard Heather sing."
I'm busy, really busy. And for the first time in my life, the monkey-mind within me is having trouble turning off when I'm not 'working'. There's the saying: you never work a day in your life if you love what you do. Ah, this makes me think of one of my favorite Rumi quotes, "Let the beauty you love be what you do." Yes, right on! I'm living that fully and wholeheartedly now!! But I still need to slow down and turn off at times so I can be in my practice and give a whole lotta love to myself, too.
So the other night when I sat squatting in the ocean at sunset and I paused, I realized how necessary it is to be present in all of the fullness around me. To dance it, as one of my friends says. Those pauses when they arise can give such amazing insights when they are revealed at just the right time. That is, when you take the time to just stop, yield and Be. Here. Now.
I've been working with my own little internal battle lately and yesterday I had a light bulb epiphany about how to resolve it. Here goes my musings...
So here I am, blessed and fortunate to be teaching yoga as my 'job' to an amazing bunch of Malaysians who come to Inner Living studio. They are eager, dedicated and open to learning all I have to offer. It elates me that I can share chanting, guided meditation and other juicy tastes of the heart of yoga beyond asana.
But then there are days I sense this current that seems to be very strong for the Asian population with their connection to yoga: the concept of 'sweating it out'. To 'sweat it out' equals: you get exercise, drip puddles of perspiration on your mat and nearly pass out due to heat exhaustion. This is in fact considered a good thing, a good yoga class. And this is when I take a deep sigh and cry a little inside.
Before I go on though, I should state for the record that this is certainly not just an Asian phenomenon that has bypassed Western culture. We all know yoga has boomed around the world and for many, it's a form of exercise to get in shape. I remember one private session when I asked what the woman wanted to do and she said, "Kick my ass." Then there was one of my retreat guests who thanked me for helping her arms look like Madonna's after mad chatturanga-action. So yes, the chase for 'yogaerobics' is everyewhere. But for some reason, it seems more apparent and socially acceptable here. Western yogis hide their ulterior motives a little, cover the ego a bit more. They would happily tell you that they love how yoga helps them to relax...but never tell you that they're at that Bikram yoga class to drop a few pounds post savasana.
Some people probably think that yoga teachers are positive and chipper all the time. And then some of you know this just ain't true. We are human just like everyone else and we know how to get down (and that's not just down-dog). But because of my practice, I'm much better now at watching myself fall, and then I can consciously turn my mood around...or at least work toward that point. So that's what I kept trying to do each time I felt my heart sink because of this desire for cardio-yoga. How can I make them understand yoga is so much more than strong asana flows, how can I create classes that honor the integrity of asana in a challenging, yet pranified way? How many times will I have to gently explain that the yoga class is not where you go to trim the wee bit of joyful Buddha belly you may have?
Whoa. Wait a second now. Hold up Miss Heather, who the heck are you to judge anyone for why they practice yoga?! And why don't you just take a look in that magic mirror of yours into the past, say circa 2003 or so, and see yourself as that yogini who wanted tough classes so you could feel you were getting stronger and more fit due to your practice. Yup, life situations have this fantastic way of being mirrors if you are brave enough to stare into the looking glass.
This is one of the epiphanies I had. The other happened when I was journaling and I reflected on my role as a teacher. Actually, I don't really like the term 'teacher' because that implies some sense of otherness from my students. More often than not, they are the greatest teachers to me, helping me evolve on my journey. Shiva Rea refers to us all as 'mitras', or 'friends on the path'. It's mutual, baby. I dig that. For me, teaching is very much an act of service; how I can serve others to act as a guide and friend on their path with yoga. When I was writing, my thoughts began to flow on paper something like this: service...self-less service...without attachment to the fruits of my actions...the Bhagavad Gita...Yes!! That's it! I'm Arjuna on the battlefield, chillin' with Krishna and hashing out how I should not be attached to the results of my actions. It is my dharma, my gift from the Divine inscribed upon my heart, to share yoga and inspire others to connect with their own inner experience of Self. I offer and live out my dharma from my wish to give; this could be called the spirit of karma yoga. I am teaching yoga out of the pure joy of sharing these practices, yet I'm not attached to what others interpret or think in their own reflection. That is their path, their way. This doesn't imply that I don't care what people feel or think as they play yoga with me, it just means I know it's not my position to attach to why they practice. If I'm here to serve, I can give what they would like to receive (sweaty, strong flows) balanced with what I think they should receive (heart-centered, creative flow). Here we merge. If my full awareness is present and I have right intention, right action will naturally follow. I don't try to convert or push or even look for praise, I just give...and then let go. The rest isn't up to me.
We all come to yoga for different reasons, and one is not better than the other. Who has the right to say that the person who comes to yoga for stress-relief and meditation is more 'yogic' than the person who comes to sweat it out and detoxify their body? Certainly I'm in no place to judge and I don't want to; that's not my job. But perhaps if I keep giving of myself authentically...maybe, just maybe, a seed I plant on something other than asana will take root and one day bloom. Maybe someday that seed will grow from the trunk of hatha yoga into another one of the branches of the majestic yoga tree. Or maybe not. That's not my job either.
I just keep giving love because I love to give.
And so the battle ends.
Joe is teaching me to play Indian Classical Guitar, with vocal instruction. So far the only Indian-ness of my elementary learning is #1: Joe is Indian, #2: he's teaching me the Indian Tamil scale, #3: we exchange the classical Indian head-wobble when we talk and play, which can mean either 'yes', 'no', 'maybe', or, 'you're screwed' (this Sven and I learned quite well while in India).
When Joe and I first met, I told him I wanted to learn to play guitar so I can chant mantras with an instrument. Why not the harmonium you ask? Well, it's a lot heavier to lug around when traveling, so I figured guitar was a good second choice. Plus, there's always been a part of me that wants to wail like Ani DiFranco. Ani meets Hare Krishna--yup, that's my plan.
Joe is suave and super cool, Joe-cool I call him, with wavy hair to his shoulders, flip-up shades over his eyes and that charming-cheeeky Indian smile. He is a music master-ji, playing not only guitar but keyboard, tabla and flute. I just assumed Indian Joe would be Hindu and that he would know all the mantras I sing. I had happy visions of us singing to Shiva and Ganesha, engaging in deep talks on Hindu philosophy, with incense burning and jasmine garlands wrapped around our necks. I sit in his car and see the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus looking across at me on the dashboard. But that's the fantastic thing about many Indians; they understand there are many paths to the Divine and it's all good. Joe doesn't mind who I look to for Light. Namaste, man.
He asks how I know about the Hindu deities and chanting, and I explain I'm a traveling yoga teacher who feels most in love when I sing and chant the names. Joe ponders this. "OK, now what is your financial situation being?", he asks me with the head-wobble. I tell Joe-cool that I'm not rich and I'm not poor, I'm just a gal who lives simply so I can travel around the world. "So you are wanting to learn to play guitar so you can sing from your heart, not because you are wishing to be famous person?," he reasons. I smile. "Well then Ma (as he affectionately calls me), I can not charge you a fee for my teachings. God brought you to me and it is my duty to teach you to play." I'm floored. Here I am sitting with a man who went out on a limb to work for himself and teach music he loves, praying he can get by...and yet he tells the American-Canadian yoga teacher with a sparkly bindi she doesn't have to pay for lessons. Sure, I travel and live on a budget, but I honor the exchange of teachings and know I can certainly afford to pay for his time. I affirm I will be paying him and Joe says, "You give donation, you give what you can." I thank Jesus, Allah, Krishna, Buddha and any other Divine Force I can think of for bringing me into contact with such a light here on earth.
With guitar in hand, I am a real beginner at something again. This I'm thankful for because it helps me relate even more to my new students in yoga class. I've always maintained the belief that we're all beginners in yoga; every time we come to the mat we begin again with a fresh day, a new body, and another present moment to breathe into. Yet there are different levels of experience and I'm humbly reminded of the newbie's struggle on the yoga mat as I learn guitar. I'm brought back to my first Ashtanga yoga class many years ago that kicked my ass; how I threw my body this way and that to keep up, and I left feeling exhausted, depleted and pissed off. Not very yogic. Yet I went back (not so many Ashtanga classes though), evolved and here I am, a million down-dogs later.
One of my beautiful yoga teachers, Stephanie, talks about how when she figured out the breath with yoga, then it all really came together with her practice. I had this epiphany while practicing my guitar with Joe one afternoon. "Ma, why are you so tense?", Joe whines at me. "You are yoga master (he likes to believe this), you are flexible in so many ways, why no with guitar? You must relax Ma, you must breathe from the belly when you sing and play."
Whoa now...hold those sacred cows. I know all about belly-breathing, chest-breathing, breathing into the back-body, sending my breath wherever I want it to go, breath retention, breathing like a lion out of my mouth and shooting snot out my nose sometimes by accident in skull-shining breath. Now Mr. Joe-cool is talkin' my language. I now 'get' the breath when I sing and play; I begin to practice with energized relaxation, that which I teach in yoga. Every time I come to practice my guitar, it's a yoga lesson; a way I can apply all of the teachings in yoga to my playing and singing.
Somedays I catch myself frustrated when I make mistakes, that I want to be 'better' than I am right now. But then I take a deep breath and remember that I'd miss the journey if I hopped from novice to Ani-Krishna level right away. Everything I tell my fellow yogis in class comes right back at me to reflect upon in my guitar practice. And I love this, every second of it. Everything I preach, comin' right back at me off the mat to see if I'm living it. Patience. Acceptance. Inner-peace. And then how do I deal with those not-so-nice feelings, too? Life as full-spectrum. I truly see first-hand how these 13 years on the path of yoga has brought me to where I am right now: so much more able to relate to the world around me and all I embark upon from a place of calm strength, relaxed determination, fearless love and grounded faith.
One day during my lesson, Joe says, "Ma, you are not making nice sound. You are playing rough, hard. You must make romance with your guitar. You know, romance. You try this."
Right. Romance my guitar. I scan my brain and try to remember what it's like to romance anything, let alone my guitar. I give it a go and don't get very far before I hear Joe's familiar words of, "Wrong, wrong," said in his very Indian way. "Why wrong?", is always my very American reply. "OK Ma, look at her. Play as if you want to make nice for her."
Joe is looking at my image of Saraswati, the Goddess of wisdom, speech, learning and music. She's my muse and I often look up at her when I get annoyed that I'm not a master-ji of Ani's song "Shy" yet.
Right. I don't scan my brain this time looking for romance, I look to my heart. My relationship to romance may be a bit morphed right now, but my connection to love is blazing strong. I know I can play for Saraswati; I know I can play with pure love. I can play for that light which lives in me and that which I offer out to all the other lights in the world. Namaste, man.
The notes flow, my vocals float and Joe makes his "mmmm" sound with a kind smile that he does when he's pleased with me. All good. I have a memory of being in Bali at a kirtan and it was said sweetly that, "Like water, Saraswati is the one who flows."
By her grace, so do I.
With sweat slithering down every inch of my skin, I profusely bang the little gong that my new friend, Madame Sita, instructed me to do. She's smiling at me, nodding her head approvingly as she also goes at it, ringing a bell loudly. I'm at Aarti at the Ampaji Hindu temple close to my apartment in Melaka, Malaysia. There are only three of us here: Madame Sita, Kunjar the priest and western-tourist-yoga teacher who likes to wear a bindi, me. I wonder where all the other Hindus are in Melaka, but it's Friday night and maybe not everyone wants to sweat it out out at the temple like I do.
Aarti is a beautiful ritual performed morning and night at the temples. "Aa" means "towards or to", and "rati" means "right or virtue" in Sanskrit. The purpose of performing aarti is the waving of lighted wicks before the deities in a spirit of humility and gratitude, wherein faithful followers become immersed in God's divine form. It symbolises the five elements: 1) ether (akash), 2) wind (vayu), 3) fire (agni), 4) water (jal), and 5) earth (prithvi). Aartis also refer to the songs sung in praise of the deity, when lamps are being offered.
I've been present for aartis before, and they are practiced differently, so of course I have to look around and follow Madame Sita's actions for my first time here. After the priest offers me the light to bless myself with, I follow Madame Sita to the little entrance way where the Shiva lingam lives. Shiva is the deity of clearance and transformation in the Hindu trinity, and an aspect of his potent male energy is honored in the form of the lingam. Facing this room, there is a statue of Nandi, Shiva's bull. I watch Madame Sita fall to her knees as she creates a mudra (hand gesture) where she places her pointer and ring fingers on Nandi's horns. She then lays her head on Nandi's backside and starts whispering to him. She gets up, gives me the classic Indian head-wobble-nod, and prods me to do the same. "Now you are placing your head on Nandi and you are whispering to him all of your worries... and he and Shiva will make them go away. You do now."
So I do. I drop to my knees, create the mudra with my hands and press my face on Nandi's bum. And I am empty. Blank. Not a single worry comes to my mind. Nothing to cry over, nothing to ask for guidance on, nothing to worry over. Now if Madame Sita had had me do this six months back, Nandi's butt may have become permanently attached to my cheek as the list went on. But in this moment, I felt empty. Yet this emptiness was one of the fullest sensations I've had. A sweet feeling of peace poured into me and I surged with gratitude. Gratitude because perhaps I had finally released what I needed to in order to come to this point in my life. Maybe my wisdom-body had come to understand that all things are impermanent, and this includes feelings. So perhaps there is never anything to cry over or worry about, at least not long-term. Yes, I'm learning to sit with any and all of my feelings and fully be with them. I know the full spectrum of emotions; we all do. It's easy for us to rejoice in the 'good' ones, but do we know how to be with the 'bad' ones as well?
I can be impatient, and sometimes I rush. OK, I have other flaws too, but this is enough for right now. I'm learning how to watch my impatience when it happens and simply observe it. Then I get down and dirty into it, try to source out where it comes from. And at the end of it all, I just turn back to my breath and come back to this moment, because the one where I was impatient or rushed is over already. And so it goes with when I'm super lit up and happy about something; that passes, too. Just another moment in the present.
I remember reading a quote by Lama Surya Das, it read: "Enlightenment is not about becoming divine. Instead it's about becoming more fully human. It is the end of ignorance."
As I peeled my sweaty face off of Nandi's touche, I thought perhaps I got a little hit of that buzz of enlightenment. It wasn't anything abstract or overtly blissed-out, it was just Heather feeling more connected to the vast range of everything that she, and the Universe, are.
I bowed to the Shiva lingam. When I turned around, Madame Sita was smiling at me, with all of that Goddess wisdom shining through her. I bet she knows that it's an enchanting experience to have a glimpse at true freedom while you're pressed against a bull's bottom.
Just got back from two amazing weeks of yoga retreat and training with Shiva Rea in Nosara, Costa Rica. If you ever have the chance to go on retreat to bring in the New Year, I highly recommend it. There's something so powerful about sincerely reflecting on your past year, honoring it for what it was, letting go, and then moving to a point of excitement about what this new year holds. Those seeds, the bijas, that can be planted and nourished. I love the ritual fire ceremony I have every year to release the past and then ignite the new year. It just feels good to burn stuff. This year we had a massive beach bonfire followed with kirtan and yoga trancedance--so good! A long cry from my high school days of what classified a new year's party, but this seems to make a lot more sense to me. Why would I want to start the first day of the new year hung over and not even remember how I spent the last night of the year before?
I learned a lot about myself on this short trip and I'm thankful to all those beautiful people I met who helped present mirrors for me to reflect on. I am especially grateful for the kirtan sessions with Dave Stringer that brought my bhakti yoga practice to such new levels. I don't know what I would do if I couldn't sing! I really appreciated Dave's honesty when he spoke: that yoga and life isn't always happy and roses. There is darkness with the light and there's a time for both. He affirmed how he too can get a bit sick of all the yogis who act happy-happy-joy-joy all the time. You know, the ones who are always offering blessings and saying how wonderful everything is. Please don't think I'm insulting my fellow brothers and sisters who are probably just on a higher plane than I am, but for me, sometimes I'm in the Kali phase working out my stuff that's raw and not so Yoga Journal-ish. Authenticity is something I really want present this new year so when you hear me in Om Shanti mode that's who I am, and when you hear me roar like the Goddess herself, that's who I am. Full spectrum and real. Yes, it's definitely important to try to stay positive and be up, but if you have to work something out; get on your mat, sing, run, yell, make love or do whatever you need to to be real.
I read a collection of short stories while on retreat, and one of the stories shared these three thoughts that deeply hit me. You know how sometimes you read or hear exactly what you need to at the right time? Well, that's what these were for me. These words have been the mantras I've repeated to myself everyday during my practice and any other time I've needed them. I've been sharing them with everyone I can so I wanted to place them here, too.
"Learn to Love Yourself."
"Find the Humor in your Life."
"Have Compassion for your Imperfections."
2011, Bring It On!
Whenever I come out of a yoga immersion or retreat, I'm high as I kite. "I can do anything!" is my attitude. I like to ride this wave for as long as I can to see what it's like when I'm truly living up to all the amazing potential I possess. We forget this though (by 'we' I fully mean 'me' here as well). I walk in ways that I live my truth. I listen to my intuiton. I believe in myself and take big leaps. I radiate light and I can tell when it streams into others; I can see my Shakti breathe into them. This out-pouring of authenticity that gets me even higher.
But then sometimes I crash. Maybe a week later, maybe a couple months. I let my core power get smacked a bit and I can't take the hit. I've always described my yoga practice as this visualization I have: imagine your center as a ball. Your Center Ball. This Ball is at times maleable because stuff comes at it. This stuff we also call Life. When I'm connected to my practice, the stuff bounces off. I can accept, allow and move on. Maybe it makes a very slight indentation, but my Center Ball is strong. When I'm not connected, my Center Ball becomes like a ballon with multiple holes, getting pushed in and ending up sunken in. No good. It can be very hard to blow up your Ball again when it has holes in it. But I do. I mend them. I do this with coming back to the teachings, coming back to the practice. I come home to my inherent nature, my center that is unharmed. I practice yoga so that when the hits happen, I don't crash. Sadie Nardini, a fantastic teacher I did a Core Strength Vinyasa Yoga Immersion with this weekend, said that you can look at the situation and say, "It is what it is. Now what are you going to do about it?" Look at your 'stuff' and move from a place of heart to transform if that's what needs to happen. Act with your power! So much more empowering than shriveling up and giving up, don't you think?
Right now I'm working on turning something around when I deem it 'negative'. How can this teach me? How can I learn here? The Universe placed this situation before me for a reason, and I should be thankful for it. Ganesha is the remover AND presenter of obstacles in the Hindu tradition. So I'm in the practice of bowing to Ganesha and thanking him for this supposed obstacle, this building block and opportunity to grow in life. Hard sometimes? Yes. But what's better: griping and moaning about it or saying, "It is what it is. Now what am I going to do about it?" My new mantra.
The other night at work I was shining wine glasses with a co-worker, musing over thoughts about what he was planning for the future. He told me he was thinking about joining the Peace Corps. "I really think I'd like to press the Re-Start Button. You know, a clean slate." He talked about how in America, he feels very conditioned and there are a lot of expectations or ways you're 'supposed to be'. "But if I go somewhere less developed, maybe the true person I am can come out without any preconceived notions," he said. I thought this was brilliant, this Re-Start Button. He wasn't saying he wanted to Re-Do or that he regretted anything (something I often fall into. I'll admitt), he just wants to begin again. It reminded me of when I first went to Nepal at age 20 and one day it dawned on me that I could just drop anything about me that I wanted to from my past. Drop anything I didn't like about how I acted, behaved, etc. I could begin again; I could be re-born. Not re-born into someone different, but rather re-born into my true self that got a bit muddled over time with emotions, ideals and all that other junk. I was free to be me. Rock on! Maybe that's why I love traveling so much: I can continuously come into the present and begin again. I'm free.
The first of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras states, "Atha Yoganusasanam." This translates as, "Now, after having done prior preparation through life and other practices, the study and practice of yoga begins." The practice of yoga begins now. Today. I like to think of this sutra sometimes when I'm in a funk because it reminds me that even though there are times I feel I slip up and I'm not living my yoga, I can begin living it NOW. I can begin again. Re-Start Button, please. All of the things I've done in life, both good and bad, have brought me to this moment. They are a part of me. But if there's a time I want to let go of some of these characteristics that hinder my growth or no longer serve me, I have the power to start fresh. I have the ability to tune into my true self and let the light shine through, the REAL light of who I am without labels that are created by others or even by me. Just pure love and goodness, because that's the essence of who we are.
I hope my friend joins the Peace Corps. And I hope he spreads the word about the Re-Start Button.
I love ice cream. Adore it actually. And I'm not really a purist either; I like it as funky in flavor as possible, with as many chunks and delights possible for me to savor. Last summer with one of my yoga surf retreat groups in Morocco, someone posed the deep question to us all: "If you were an ice cream flavor, which would you be?" What wonderful dinner discussion, I thought! There were fantastic answers; I particularly liked one yogi who said, "I'd be chocolate because all girls love chocolate." My reply was that I'd be Ben & Jerry's Tri Flavor concoction of New York Super Fudge Chunk/Peanut Butter Cup/Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. My rationale for this: I'm a little bit of everything all mixed up together; you get a lot of flavor with me!
But lately, I've been really into Vanilla. Just plain Vanilla (well, Vanilla gelato or French Vanilla or Vanilla soft serve from Holy Cow...yummm). Honestly, I've always found Vanilla rather boring and looked down upon this too simple flavor which just didn't satisfy me. These days though, Vanilla is just what I need. I haven't been feeling all jazzed up and sparkly like I often am. I haven't quite been Cherry Garcia or Phish Food. I've been fighting these feelings as I re-adjust to a lot of changes happening in my life right now: why aren't I blissful, why do I feel blah, why aren't I living my yoga?? I've been down-right hard on myself in my frustration of not wanting to be exactly where I'm at. But the other day when it dawned on me at how much I've been enjoying Vanilla ice cream, it dawned on me that I could also be savoring this time. This time when there's not a lot of new stimulation from travel in my life. A time when I don't have immediate access to Bubble Tea, my favorite South East Asian treat that surpasses even ice cream. My dear friend Kim says we both struggle at times from having been over-stimulated with all the travel and living abroad we do. This makes it hard for us to find a sense of place when we return to something we once knew. There is a different sort of stimulation here with the fast-paced, iphone, work-work-work mentality that I can't grasp. I want to fit in but don't know how. So I begin to work-work-work and I forget how to relax and live the simple life that I treasure so dearly, a life of valuing the present. I end up feeling a bit stagnant and blue rather than recognizing that this can be a time where I can sit with Santosha, one of the Niyamas or Observances of the Eight-Limb Path of Yoga. Santosha is Contentment, being content and feeling complete with what you have. If I can feel Santosha, I can also honor the other feelings I have and let them pass. I can remember to breathe and relax. I can feel okay with being Vanilla.
My life doesn't always have to be a gigantic swirl of flavor with lots of hot fudge and sprinkles. We all have our ups and downs and I'm not afraid to say it. There's nothing wrong with feeling a little Vanilla-ish once in awhile. Vanilla does go with everything; it's very adaptable. It's an accent flavor. It's content with complimenting anything it's added to. So that's what I'm here to do: add myself to to my surroundings wholeheartedly and see what happens. Living my yoga can also be when I learn to embrace the dark with the light, celebrating the Kali in me. Another one of my beautiful friends, Lex, wrote me this today: "Learning to flow with the grace of a divine force is as much about falling on your arse as it is about perfect alignment. When both are executed with acceptance and humility then both become the actions of a god." Right on.
When I was on my most recent trip to Nepal, I walked a 30 day trek in the Everest region. Everyday I looked around me, surrounded by gigantic, snowy peaks and I would think, "I am so blessed to be here in this moment. But at some point this moment is going to end and I won't be here anymore." So I would savor every second: every breath of fresh air, every Sherpa I saw, every time I walked on snow, every incident I almost killed myself slipping on a frozen squat toilet, each and every yak dung fire that kept me warm before dinner, and every stupa with the Buddha's eyes that I was honored to circumnavigate. My days were heaven. I would wake early to meditate and practice pranayama. I ate breakfast. Then I walked and walked and walked until I arrived at my destination. My daily cleansing ritual of washing my face. Yin yoga. Writing, reading, sitting by the fire before dinner. Talking to Nepalis who had summitted Everest more than once! Sleep. I loved how relaxed I was, how each simple act I did was the most important thing I did. Each step taking me to Base Camp. Arriving there was such a dream I had had and it was definitely a moment I wanted to taste for a long, long time.
Now I am far, far away from Nepal and the Himalayas. I dream of them all the time, just as I long for dal bhat, prayer flags and even power cuts in Kathmandu. But this pining I do, this isn't so good for me. What about this moment I'm in right now? Tonight I went for a walk on the country road I live on for the time being in New York. It was late in the sunset and the sky's palette was painted crimson, then orange, then gold. It began to get dark and the fireflies came out to dance. So quiet it was, I saw a deer watching me from in the woods. The air had that summer eve smell to it, the one I remember of the pine trees and freshly cut grass at my childhood home on 1 Pinewood Rd. It dawned on me that all the time I spend missing my life abroad has me miss the time I spend here. I watched the fireflies play and I realized I've never seen them in any other part of the world besides the US. I thought, "How blessed am I to be in this moment right now, sharing this dance with the fireflies?" As much as I love India and all her madness, I have to say that it was a joy to walk on this road without encountering a single piece of garbage.
There is good everywhere we go, but sometimes we forget this and then the moment's over. We miss the goodness. And where's the yoga in that, where's the yoking with the present and being in the now, in whatever experience you're in? I can have snowy peaks and fireflies in my life...maybe not at the same time, but I can appreciate them both in their place and in their moment.