Thursday, January 24, 2013

Excelsior - A Yoga Retreat in Las Galeras

Set Scene: Wave roll.
"As you exhale, lift your left hand towards the sky, finding that gentle twist in your spine."
Set Scene: Waves crash, gentle breeze tickles my face and arms.
"Inhale. Reaching arms over your head. Lengthening through your spine."
Set Scene: Kevin, our yoga musician, plucks each guitar string gently creating beautiful music for our yoga practice.
"Opening your chest and heart, feeling your body stretch and extend."
Set Scene:  The sun begins to peek out of the morning clouds and Kevin's fingers, though they create their own original music, start to strum a familiar song, "Here comes the sun - doo doo doo doo. Here comes the sun and I say... it's all right." I smile a smile as though I have a secret with only myself.
"Release your hands back down and with it the weight of your life."
My yoga mind breaks concentration - if only it were that easy. To release my hands and with them the weight of all of my worries, all of my judgements, all of my negative emotions, all of my criticisms?

But why can't it be?

As in all things yoga, this statement - the idea of releasing the weight of the world - is a bigger idea; it transcends an 8am yoga class.

I think about this, about other "yoga truths" as I rest in child's pose - a pose that has become much harder to relax in with a belly 30 weeks full of baby. For some time, I've been feeling the need to reduce my stress, to be lighter with worry. Why? I often ask myself, do I stress myself out and sweat small things, when we are living the life of our choosing? Is it ever possible to just be?

Think about a mantra and repeat it silently three times as if it is already yours, Instructor says to us. So, for example, if your mantra is "love" than you should silently repeat I am loved. I am loved. I am loved. 

The first thing that comes to mind is Excelsior.

Having recently seen Silver Linings Playbook you would understand the reference. The title refers to Bradley Cooper's character trying to find the positive - the silver lining - in any situation, what he calls "excelsior." Since seeing the movie I have found myself using trying to use some "excelsior" in my own life, so when she instructs us to find a mantra, it just makes sense.

I repeat to myself three times silently I find silver linings. I find silver linings. I find silver linings. 


Armed with Excelsior and the realization that our yoga practice is like a Leo Leoni book, an allegory - a story that tries to convey a larger lesson or meaning to life - I start to see that while yoga is good exercise it is actually a deeper philosophy for living life.

Wow. Deep.


"It's not about the pose but about finding your place in the pose." 

When Instructor shares this little gem with us, I just about fall out of my current pose - dangerous for a third trimester baby holder. I've heard it before. There is nothing new in what she says but for the first time I really hear it. For the past few months, I have been wondering if I will ever be satisfied with where I am. Will I always need to keep moving, searching, writing, changing (list continues), to be happy?

I realize at this moment that life is not about the situation (the pose) but about finding my place within that situation. I could resist it or sink into it. I could judge myself on how I'm doing it or be proud that I'm doing it at all. I could allow myself to think I'm a bad mother everyday I leave the house to write or stand true and tall that I am following my dreams, and in doing so, teaching my daughter to do the same especially when it's hard. I could let others try to make me feel guilty about my choices as a parent and our openly easier lifestyle here in Dominican Republic of having a nanny and a maid or decide that my choices as a parent to set up an easier lifestyle are what is making my family stronger.

It is about finding my way, my place in this pose of life.

"Give into gravity and the other things in life that you can't control."

And that is a lot. I don't get mad when I jump up high and come back down to the ground. I don't curse gravity for being what it is. So why do I curse the things that just are the way they are? Because I want to control them. Because I want things to be "fair." Because I want things to be different. But they aren't. Gravity will always bring you down. That is the job of gravity. Just as the sun will rise and the rivers will run.


Our dog, Jersey will throw up on the carpet instead of the tile floor. Every. Time. Traffic - especially in this city - will happen. The guard dog behind our apartment will bark passionately and mightily at the wee hours of the morning, waking up an already lousy sleeping pregnant me. The rules will be broken and exceptions will be made for me sometimes and not for me at other times. In-laws will always be a struggle. Marriage will change. Children will grow up. I will get older. My mother will always drive me crazy and be my favorite person at the same time. And I have no control over any of these things. If I remember this, really inhale and deeply breathe the idea that I have no control over changing someone else or making some situations different than maybe I could let them go and just keep moving forward.


"Let go of the notion of right and wrong. The ocean doesn't say This wave is wrong, it just moves. It lives. It breathes." 

In alignment with my cusp birthday (January 20 falls in some calendars as the last day of Capricorn or the first day of Aquarius), I am a mystery. Capricorns are known to be stubborn (or strong-willed if you want to say it nicely), confident, reliable, and calm. While Aquarius' are known to be witty, inventive, original, clever, and flighty. Husband will tell you that my "cuspness" makes perfect sense since often times he has NO IDEA how to figure me out. 

The Aquarius in me wants to let go of being right or wrong but the Capricorn in me has a hard time letting that happen.

Most times I am harder on myself than I am on anyone else. It's why our apartment is organized with labeled bins and designated spaces for each item. It's why clothes in my closet are color-coded and arranged by sleeve length. It's why I make my bed instead of having the maid make it. It's why when the maid does make the bed, I go back and rearrange the pillows in the order that I like them. If I'm not careful, I will be diagnosing myself with OCD very shortly.

Sometimes, and many times I am aware of these moments, I have to allow myself the space to be wrong or for things to not be exactly as I think they should be. I have never liked being wrong. It's not something I do graciously and luckily not something I do often - insert wink (^_-). So I gather my sources. I think and rethink. I decide the best way to handle any situation, including the ones that haven't happened yet. I have a plan of action for everything so that when something happens, I'm ready.

Being prepared, gathering information, thinking aren't bad things but it'd be nice to remember this idea that the ocean doesn't judge the rightness or wrongness of its waves. It doesn't have time to judge itself so harshly. The ocean, like us, does the best it can.

Inhale deeply.

"Wherever you decide to go from here is perfect."

Instructor moves us through different positions always reminding us that everybody's body is different depending on so many factors of our life: skeletal system, experiences, injuries, emotions. We are not all in the same place. We do not all sit in poses in the same way.

I discuss this idea with some people afterwards. Think about all of the things you have endured in your life. Heartbreaks, knee surgeries, marriages, asthma, taking care of your sick father, backaches, curvature of the spine, shoulder surgery, childbirth, hiking the Appalachian Trail, car accidents... how can we possibly think that what we look like will be the same as what someone else looks like doing the same pose? How can we think that anyone will react to the same situations in the same way when we come from such different places? Impossible. We have to make our own way, choosing our own perfect direction based on where we are coming from and where we need to go.

Our friend, Mary confidently tells us that her biggest strength in yoga is power and endurance. I think back to knowing that she played on her high school soccer team... as a beast I'm sure. She's a tough lady. Gina and I took dance our whole lives. Would it surprise you to know that our biggest strength in yoga is flexibility? Johanna, the choir teacher's strength... steady breathing.

"In your journey," Instructor says, "as long as you're moving in truth, you are exactly where you should be and going exactly where you need to be."
What an idea! That my journey and someone else could seemingly look alike but be different and that wherever I go and whatever choice I make is perfect because it's mine, my choice that I made while I was being true to myself and only myself.

What's right for you? What's true for you? As long as you're asking yourself this and answering it honestly, how can you end up in the wrong place?

Major Exhale. 

"Remembering that everything but breathing is optional."

Instructor instructs us through bends and tells us to find deep twists. She tells us to lift our arms and chests to the sky, to find connections and balances, to move to and from poses, to weave our arms behind our legs. 


Through all of this she tells us that we can stay in one pose or move to the next, that "either option is a beautiful option." She allows us the freedom to choose our pace and to choose what we want to do next or right now. Whichever. 

The only option we do not have is to breathe. Breathing is not optional. Both in yoga and in life, breathing is essential. No matter what position we are in we have to breathe. Inhale. Exhale. Isn't that what people tell us when we're bawling our eyes out. Breathe. When we're so mad we want to punch a wall. Breathe. When we're delivering a baby. Breathe. When you're terrified of doing something. Just breathe


Isn't that the foundation of it all? Breathing


After my delicious yoga retreat weekend, I think about all of the things that I took away in my time away. Through many moments alone and many moments surrounded by original, intelligent, strong women you can learn a lot.

I take away that what matters is not ever 100% perfect and that perfect doesn't really exist because my perfect isn't your perfect. Your perfect downward dog might not be my perfect downward dog. My perfect husband who leaves me reasons that he loves me in hidden places around our apartment for me to find might not be your perfect. On a few days he's not even my perfect. Your perfect apartment might include a fireplace, mine a reading and writing nook. It's all relative. Perfect is an idea that rarely exists but that always holds you back. Ask any writer that has ever suffered from writer's block due to trying to find the perfect sentence or scribing the perfect paragraph. Like our yoga poses we are ever-changing. "Perfect" today isn't "perfect" tomorrow.

Only at this moment, as I'm finishing writing this post and looking Excelsior up in Wikipedia do I find out that Excelsior translates to "ever upward." I smile to only myself because it's been a long time since I have thought that a coincidence is only a mere coincidence. It's never a coincidence.

Finding a silver lining. Moving forward. Striving for more. Heading up. Not looking back. The perfect mantra...

... at least for me.

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