Sunday, February 28, 2010

Off the Cushion...

It’s easy to be happy while sitting on the meditation cushion, breathing deeply. It’s easy in that moment to think about feeling compassion for all sorts of people. Oh how connected we all are over my chai latte and a deep resounding ommmm. It’s easy to feel joy and gratitude watching the red sun dip into the horizon. Easy, happy.

Then we get off the meditation cushion and live our lives. The breath quickens, the traffic’s jammed, the person in the next cubicle is so annoying. This is the hard, and essential, part. To transform adverse conditions into positive experiences. I know what you’re thinking. What the fuck, Melissa: A bad day is a bad day. But it doesn't have to be. It's possible to be free of our emotional and mental reaction to what we consider problems. It's a tough practice (for me at least), but so worth it. Who doesn’t want to be happy all the time, regardless of what happens?

It’s like Shanti Deva said:

When things are difficult and there’s something we can do about the situation, we shouldn’t worry, because we can change it.

When things are difficult and there’s nothing we can do about the situation, we shouldn’t worry, either. It is simply and purely what it is. Worrying about should or could have been won’t change it.

So, we’re happy when things are going well for us, right? We’re peaceful when we’re chilling out on the meditation cushion? Not so happy when we bicker with our significant other, are late for work, get a bad grade on a test, blah blah blah. But these adverse conditions are only adverse because we think of them that way. See, my adverse conditions may not be your adverse conditions. A monk considers his robe falling off his shoulder to be frustrating. That’s certainly not an issue for me, though I can relate to the muffin top over skinny jeans frustration. So if it’s only a problem for me, is it really a problem? Or is it just a problem in my head?

And if I can change my mind, I can change my ideas about what’s a problem and what ain’t.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Seasick, Part 2

(we last left off with me crunched inside a mangrove, munching on a cold gray branch)
So much for a zenful day on the crystal blue gulf.

Luckily, two other kayakers get stranded near me, lodged into strips of shrubbery. At least I’m not alone. Apparently our boss has been blown so off course the leader had to go fetch him. But, much to my fragile ego’s dismay, one of the young girls in the group is still paddling in the open water. In control. As if it were just another day at the fucking beach. She glides by coolly, telling me and the other stuck ducks we’ll have to wait here until the wind dies down to move. I slam my oar into the bright green thicket and use every iota of power to shove off the mangrove and into the gulf.

We clumsily paddle downwind into a nearby alcove, protected from the currents by a wall of thick foliage.

“There’s no way we’ll make it to Shell Island with the weather like this,” the leader says, climbing out of his kayak and standing in the knee-high water. “We’ll just have to have lunch here.” The leaders pull an assortment of food bags and a metal folding table from the storage compartments of their kayaks. There’s no beach to park on, so we dig the metal poles into the soft sand underwater and huddle around the table in the lagoon. The water is cold against my legs but it feels good to stand after being in the cramped cockpit.

We munch on pita bread, lemon hummus and oranges. I have to pee. Peeing is impossible. There are eight folks around, and I’m too embarrassed to wade off into a nearby corner, squat into the chilly surf and relieve myself.

But my bladder is the least of my worries. Just how in the hell am I going to get home? I have to climb back in that godforsaken plastic boat and face the furious gulf again? Excuse me?

The leaders explain our new route to return to the launch point.
“Can we just call the coast guard?” I ask, half joking, half dead serious. But no. I must do this. I love the outdoors, don’t I? I’m a hippie chick, a veritable wilderness woman, I should be able to handle this. Why can’t I handle this? For all my talk of wanting adventure and the wild core of nature, I’m pretty disappointed in my meager performance.

Reluctantly I suit back up and head off into the cruel waves. My arms feel like limp linguini. My feet are numb. My sandy, tangled mess of hair flings into my face like a defeated flag. Let’s do this. Deep breath in, deep breath out. I am a zen master. I am one with this water. I can do this.

Slam. Wave after wave knocks me farther away, turning my stern/bow the opposite way I need to go. I’m violently pawing at the air with my oar, thrashing against the elements. My boss and I lag behind the rest of the group. My boss’ shoulder is injured badly, and he’s in the lightest kayak. Two very good excuses. My shoulders are dandy, and my kayak is a perfectly average weight. The trip leader hangs back with us, trying to talk us through. It ain’t working.

There are mansions dotting the landscape: giant, ostentatious, MTV-Cribs style abodes on the waterfront.

“Why don’t we paddle over to that house, shore up and the others can pick us up from the road?” my boss yells over the windstorm.
“I’d rather not if we can avoid it. It’s trespassing,” the leader yells back.

I remain quiet in my wobbling boat, every single muscle clenched to avoid flipping. I’m even squeezing my eyeballs.

“I don’t think they’re home,” my boss yells and begins to paddle over. The leader shakes his head and paddles after him. I follow clumsily. Minutes later, my kayak slams into the dock. I’m grateful to be out, but frustrated that I couldn’t even finish the route. The peaceful kayak trip has turned into an ego trip. Or, hopefully, an ego lesson.

We drag the unyielding boats to the side of the road. Sprawling mansions flank us on both sides. We’re marooned on an ultra modern home with glass rooms jutting out of the third story and a red rooftop patio. Thankfully my boss was right; they don’t seem to be home. I doubt these rich folks would be too happy to find three water-logged, sand-whipped kayakers traipsing around their fancy backyard.

The leader treks down the road to meet the others at the launch site. We don’t know how far that is, maybe a few miles, and my boss and I hang back on the side of the road to watch the kayaks.

He digs through his kayak’s storage bin (I’m sure there’s a nautical term for this too—a hull?— of course I don’t know). He pulls out his beach towel and flaps it down on the front lawn of a mansion across the street. He groans and lies on his back, saying “I’m so sore! But, wow, this is a nice neighborhood, huh?”

I cautiously sit on the curb of this multi-million dollar neighborhood, worried some snobby homeowner walking her poodle will shoo us away, send us back into the perilous gulf.

An hour and a half later, the van collects us, soggy and exhausted. Still better than not going kayaking, though.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Seasick, Part 1

I’ve been anticipating the USF English Department’s kayak trip for months. I imagine my fellow instructors and I elegantly slicing our oars through shimmering Tierra Verde waters…what could be a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon? Zoning in front of another America’s Next Top Model marathon, you say? Ok, that’s a close second. I’ll be zening in a kayak, sun on my face, seaspray misting the air, discussing good books and philosophy with like-minded souls, thank you very much.

The plan is to kayak out a few miles off the St. Pete coast to Shell Island. I’ve even offered to teach the group a mini yoga session once we hit the beach. Ah, how glorious the day will be. So what if I stayed up until 5am that morning drinking red wine from the bottle and chainsmoking Marlboro’s on my balcony with a bunch of boys I barely know? We were playing an intense game of Saved by the Bell trivia. But, being the pinnacle of discipline that I am, I ushered the lovely gents out at the stroke of 5 to rest up. Gotta be centered for a venture into the blue wild.

The kayaks are lined up on the sand, translucent water lapping at the sterns (or maybe it’s the bows…I’m not too keen on nautical jargon). Pure energy pulses through every cell of my body, carried in by the topaz breeze. We suit up in life vests (the guides use some fancy name for it, which I should probably know, like I should also know the stern or the bow or whatever) and these goofy plastic skirts that Velcro around our waists and hook around the rim of the kayak’s cockpit. Being that it is January and the water a bit chilly, these skirts are supposed to keep waves from crashing into our boats. Off we go.

Sun glints off the water’s surface. Mangroves line the perimeter of the beach, green blooms of inlets and islands we paddle past. It’s wonderful out here, breathing deeply, meditating as I coast over the Gulf of Mexico. My mantra is om shanti. To Buddhists and yogis, Om represents the audible representation of the vibration that struck the world into being (more on this later), and shanti is Sanskrit for peace. When combined, I like to think they mean peace for all beings on the earth, and for the earth itself. If you don’t get down with meditating (though you should really consider it, all the cool kids are doing it these days) you can just understand that I am wholly, utterly relaxed and at peace in this moment. The inner and outer worlds have struck a balance. Ah. Sweet.

Now would be a good time for a confession. Two, actually. The first being that I’ve only kayaked three times my whole life, the last two in double kayaks, with muscley boys doing most of the grunt work. The first time was during a triathalon at karate camp when I was 16. It was a single kayak, and it wasn’t pretty. I flubbed around in the middle of the murky lake, not understanding the physics of paddling straight. I circled around like a fish with one fin as my competitors gracefully soared to the other shore and completed the race. It got so desperate some onlookers had to slosh into the dark water and pull me out. Needless to say, I came in last. Ten minutes behind everyone else. What a fond memory, that is.

Ok, confession number two, which sounds even worse after my triathalon tragedy. Even though I’m a total novice at kayaking, I still expect to be great at it. Worse than that, I expect to be better than my fellow ’yakers. How enormously egotistical is that? I’m the youngest of the crew, and I’m a yoga instructor, for chrissake. I should be like a dolphin out there. If dolphins could kayak.

So it completely throws me off center, literally and figuratively, when the wind picks up. But not your average, easy breezy refreshing type of wind. More like a big old GO FUCK YOURSELF from Mother Nature herself.

The fierce currents unleash punishing waves and push me away from the rest of the gang. I slam on the left foot pedal in my kayak to steer the rudder and jab at the relentless water. My breath quickens. Every second wasted is another second pushed farther out. The airstream won’t let up. I’ve skidded completely off course, and now slam on the right foot pedal and outrigger the left side like a spastic hyena. But my pathetic piloting skills only end me up zigzagging and getting hurled upstream. I’m expending precious energy—my shoulders and arms are on fire right now—because I don’t know how to properly steer this damn floating banana. I have a flashback of the karate camp fiasco at 16.

One of the group leaders paddles over and around me, literally herding me in the right direction. I’m like the lame sheep in the pen who can’t figure how to get out and graze. Even worse, the poor guy has to do this three times with me because every time I just get blown the opposite way by unruly waves. I try shouting apologies to him and cracking bad jokes over the heavy winds, but he’s not amused. Frustrated, he paddles off quickly and adeptly, yelling something about a rope.

Alone now, I try to reason with nature.

I can do this, I am not afraid of you, I tell the water. It laughs in my face, sending a shocking cold spray in my cockpit, drenching me. The weird Velcro skirt I’m wearing caves in instantly under the pressure. So much for that.

I will master you, I am strong! I proclaim, panting. A huge wave rocks my kayak. I wobble but steady before I flip.

GGGGRRAAAAHHHH! I grunt-scream as I dig my oar deeper, getting nowhere.

I’m launched into a patch of mangroves. The branches crunch and scrape against the kayak’s stern/bow. My body in the cockpit is next. I’m literally wedged inside the mangrove. I have to crane my neck back awkwardly to avoid a branch in the eye. Thick leaves dangle in front of my face. The waves still keep coming, shoving me deeper and deeper into the upgrowth. I open my mouth and bite down on a cold gray branch, my teeth gnashing against the brittle bark. Just for fun.

So much for a zenful day on the crystal blue gulf.

to be continued.....

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Ego Yoga

I walk into room and six women stare at me from the floor. I smile awkwardly and turn to grab a strange foam mat laying haphazardly to my right.

“We usually use the big mats against the wall,” a short, older woman tells me.

I thank her and head over to the big mats.

“The instructor unlocks them once he comes,” she says as I stand there considering the lock guarding the precious yoga mats.

I assume the mats need to be bolted down because this class is at the University of South Florida rec center, where broke undergrads may be inclined to steal the black slabs for added bedding, dorm room area rugs or nouveau sleds (even though it never snows i
n Florida). It’s the first time I’m attending this class, and this mamacita has made it clear she knows the ropes. I regret not bringing my own mat (I have three in my car) but the trek across the ninth largest campus in America wasn’t worth being late to yoga.

This is how it goes in many yoga classes. The students who’ve been there a while relish the seniority they feel in the room — and they want to make everyone else know they’re no downfacedog virgin. Of course, I’ve just established myself as the newcomer, fumbling with the whole imprisoned mat situation, which pisses me right off because godamnit, don’t these inflexible muscle spasms know I’m a yoga teacher?

And there it is. Ego in the yoga studio.

Now, where to sit. This may seem like an insignificant thing, but trust me, in the world of group fitness it isn’t. I’ve gotten into unspoken zumba battles when other students have cha-chaed their way into my personal space, fighting for prime mirror real estate. It is vicious on that hard wood floor.

If I sit up in the front, I’ll look arrogant because they now all know I’m new to this class. And I surely don’t want these strangers to think that I think I’m better than them, even though a deep dark part of me, that I don’t even want to admit to, does.
That’s the bitch about Ego; it exists underneath the surface, just out of sight or feel. It’s the skein rooted in our nerves that makes us want nice clothes, a nice car, a nice lover who loves us for all the wrong reasons.
So I sit in the back corner, as my own personal ‘new classmate protocol’ dictates. I intend it as a sign of respect, a deep Japanese bow to the other warriors, especially mamacita who’s already established herself as the guru, the one who belongs.

The instructor is late, and no one is stretching out before the class, as most of my own students will do. I’m a bit tight, so I start doing some simple seated stretches, making sure I don’t look like I’m showing off even though my dandasana is oh-so-deep. (But don’t be mistaken, I’m no yoga pro — my salamba sirsasana is nonexistent.)

For many of us, Ego is a constant internal struggle. We don’t like feeling unimportant, or even worse insignificant, because Ego is rooted in Pride — my precious pride! I keep thinking, ‘Check out my sweet spinal twist!’ This is when I have to mind-slap myself. Thwack. Forget those superficial thoughts, Melissa! ‘But I’m wearing my awesome new yoga pants!’ Smack. Nobody cares!

During the class, which focuses on retreating into the deep, expansive inner space, my brain keeps buzzing back to the other students. Do they see my fantastic posture? I keep mind-slapping myself, and am floored at the vice-grip Ego holds upon me. I invest so much time and energy reading about these various emotional states, and I’m quite aware of them, but yet still not strong enough to relinquish the Ego.

The saddest part is that this is all going down in a yoga class, where I’m supposed to train my frenetic, material-based mind to tune into my own inner wisdom. I am slowly, very slowly, tapping into the part of me that knows it’s poisonous to care so much about what the other yogis think of me. As the class continues, the lights dimmed to deter any Ego-based glances around the room, I feel the knots in my brain untangle. I detach from my clinging “me-ness” and reconnect to that space that knows it’s all ok; that I’m imperfect and perfect at the same time, just as everyone else here, and everyone else everywhere else, too. Who cares about my awesome new yoga pants.

I suppose that’s why it’s called yoga practice.