“When I talk to people about sadness and depression, as I often do, one of my suggested strategies is really internalizing and absorbing good days and ‘banking’ them as antidotes against future storms of sadness. Not because they will make you less sad when the storms come, but because those good days came after other days that felt like rock-bottom before, and the resilient memory of the good days will give you hope that such good feelings can come again.
Today was one of those days. A banking day. I was incredibly productive at work and had good energy there all day, a day after having a migraine and almost going home early. I went to yoga (3rd time in 4 days), took a class that was about 80% of what I was doing at my peak and it just about destroyed me. I almost gave up halfway through, but I pushed through it and completed it and talked to the great instructor afterwards about how to do better. I felt amazing afterwards, though, healthier than I have in over 5 years. And then I went to Bring Your Own Story and “earned” (via rock-paper-scissors) the Wildcard slot to tell an old classic while hearing a lot of other great tales.
Banking this one. Remind me the next time the chips are down.”-Facebook post, 10:47 pm, April 2, 2014
Like so many good things in my life (Brandeis, Counting Crows, David Foster Wallace), yoga was introduced to me by a girl. She was barely “a girl” in the sense that I mean it – we went on a few dates of little consequence before she made it clear she wasn’t interested romantically, but still thought I was an interesting person. It’s hard to say how much of it was that I was a few months into my marital separation and how much was that she just wasn’t into me that way, but I’m sure both played a role. We kept hanging out for most of that year, though – periodically hiking and meeting up at weekly yoga and getting the occasional meal. She was a deeply dissatisfied grad student at Rutgers who echoed my frustrations with the state of New Jersey, insisting that Buffalo, New York was more like the West and the South than it was like the East Coast. After a year, she took a leave of absence, went on a Birthright trip, made aliyah, and joined the IDF. Seeing Facebook pictures of her in the IDF uniform, toting weaponry, just months after making fun of Israeli policy, was so unsettling to me that I stopped responding to her e-mails, mostly because it reminded me too much of someone else with what I would call a “cult-follower’s personality”. I still feel bad that I didn’t respond to the e-mail she sent in the midst of this transition, questioning the speed of her changes, asking me for spiritual guidance. I just couldn’t. The ruts were too deep and painful, I didn’t have the strength. I went to yoga class, thought about it, and let it go.
I had long been into meditation, my interest first sparked by an Eastern Thought class in high school, taught by one Ken Hause, who taught me (among other crazy things) that it was safe to eat chalk, something I would later employ in a critical debate round my senior year at MIT. He was a truly crazy man, someone deeply unexpected to be found at Albuquerque Academy, and he took part of his class to teach people basic meditation practices, including pranayama breathing. I had a vivid dream of him dying in 1997, but he was alive and well as of this 2012 Journal article, which makes me happy. He seemed like one of those people that one could discover was actually partially responsible for the Earth’s rotation.
After that, I meditated for a long time, just on my own, and always felt that yoga was a little unnecessary as a guided meditation. It felt like creative writing classes always seemed – like the very nature of involving a teacher and a guidance interrupted the nature of a solitary creative exercise in the first place. How can you concentrate when someone is in there talking, telling you to concentrate? It didn’t make much sense.
But I had no real understanding of yoga until I started it, getting brought along by that girl to a grad student yoga class at Rutgers that her friend was starting up. I had no idea it was so athletic in nature, that the stretching was a kind of physical activity and advancement in itself. That the guidance was vital to learning the practice. That my body was capable of postures and balances that I never would have found on my own. It was amazing.
The class was once a week, on Tuesday nights, two blocks from debate practice and ending half an hour before it, and I quickly found that I came with a different, better energy to Tuesday night practice once I’d gotten into the yoga habit. I was calmer, less focused on my pain, more able to have that “away energy” that is so lacking in the clash and conflict of debate rounds. And I began to notice changes in myself. I developed stomach muscles for the first time in my life. I felt stronger, more flexible, more energized. It probably didn’t hurt that I was trying to bounce up from the terrifying weight of 115 pounds, the direct result of the traumas of the summer before and an early fall when I was deciding whether to stay on the planet or not. I already had a pretty typical yogi body; I just needed to add the strength.
I became reliant on this weekly endeavor, this moment to recenter my place in the universe, to feel good about existing and to stop fighting everything. I bought my own mat. I got good at crow pose, a crazy gateway to inversions where one has one’s entire body piled on one’s hands, arms fully extended, knees into elbows. I sang the praises of this concentration and focus and physicality to anyone who seemed open to it.
And then, slowly, I stopped going. I forget whether the class actually stopped or I felt sheepish about going without my ambassador friend. I had technically attended, entering the grad student lounge to which I was otherwise uninvited as her “guest” even on weeks where she didn’t make it. No one really cared and the yoga teacher welcomed me every time, but that was just the sort of thing for me to overly worry about. We don’t ever lose our grade school instincts sometimes. So I decided I could do my own home practice, that I knew enough of the moves and the order and the flow. And that was great for a while. I kept it up, sometimes 45 minutes a day, practicing even more often. And then it became 30, then 15, then 5. And then it became easy to skip.
The weird thing about yoga is that I don’t think I ever looked forward to it, but I always felt great about it afterwards. It was hard and demanding and sometimes bordering on painful. It interrupted the rest of life, wherein thoughts and arguments and internal dialogues are constantly bubbling around. I like my critical brain, I like evaluating and judging everything, trying to distill potential narratives and improvements. Yoga got in the way of all that, a big giant timeout, but one that always made me so grateful for the opportunity afterwards. I would never exactly look forward to it, but I would never skip when I was attending the group practice either. And I would often feel exuberant the rest of the night, even extending into the next day.
So I lapsed and stopped and life happened again. And that was that, until recently.
Turning 35 triggered something in me. It’s funny how people talk about age like it’s nothing, like your birthday doesn’t change anything. I think that’s true, innately, but there’s something about marking the passage of time that impacts our self-image. And 35 hit me like a ton of bricks, it felt like a real turning point. I guess it’s the birthdays ending in 0 that are supposed to make us freak out like this, but I was in a perfect place in my life when I turned 30, wouldn’t have changed anything, and couldn’t have been happier. Thirty didn’t freak me out because I felt like I’d come to the balance I’d always been hoping to find. And then, of course, everything changed overnight, and I stumbled along in ruins just trying to get through another day. In some ways, with all the twists and turns of those years in Jersey, it felt like I didn’t even come up for air until this February.
The first manifestation of this freak-out about being 35 came 7 days after the birthday, when I posted that I wanted to revisit my Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim Grand Canyon trip at 40 to mark 20 years since I first did it. I remembered a promise I’d made to myself at my last GC visit that I wanted to be a person who could always hike there, who was in sufficient shape that the beauty of the Canyon wasn’t lost to me. The day I turned 35, I was as far from that as I’ve ever been, over 160 pounds with a big gut and having spent most of the last two years sitting, either at poker tables of judging debate, not even walking to work anymore. I know that I wasn’t actually really overweight the way that I felt, but these things happen when we’re not paying attention to them and suddenly one wakes up in middle age. I’d gone through enough of a metabolism shift and readjustment at 27 to know that I don’t want that to be me. I like my naturally thin build. I like being physically active all the time. It’s easier to be happy, or okay with life, when one is playing basketball or doing yoga or even just walking regularly. And having a goal of getting back to the R2R2R trip by 2020 is focusing for that.
So it took a week where Alex was out of town (home for Spring Break) to separate me sufficiently from inertia to get down to Wild Lotus Yoga six blocks from my house and start practicing again. This was literally four and a half days ago and I’ve been three times already and I already feel like I’ve been back on the horse for months. The centeredness, the awareness, the peace, the burgeoning strength. I can’t recommend it enough. And I look like such a walking stereotype with my bright teal mat and my ponytail and my skinny arms, but sometimes tropes exist for good reason. Of course a regular yoga practice is my natural home. Its spiritual roots, its basis in India, its focus on peace and awareness and living in the moment. Yeah. It’s kind of where I always should have been.
Maybe it’s not yoga for you, though you really should try it if any of this sounds intriguing. But so much of our lives gets hijacked by obligations and time-wasters. Pretty much all of the big inventions of the last half-century – TV shows, the Internet, cell phones – bring this enormous dump of time that is the nourishing equivalent of greasy potato chips. (Yes, I’m conveying this critique to you through the Internet.) But getting onto the yoga mat or out on the trail reminds us of our purposeful animal roots. We are creatures in this lifetime, we are meant to go and do and be. Huddling in front of screens serves its purpose and has a value, if only to connect with other people. But sometimes we also must connect with the Earth itself. If only to remind ourselves that it, like us, is precious, and not merely an obstacle to getting to where we want to be.