Keep going

It was not only the pain that surprised me, but its staying power. For a full week my hamstrings ruled my life, keeping my strides short and slow, the unexpected ache a reminder that life was unpredictable. That the choices we make have ramifications beyond our awareness.

I had done 108 sun salutations in a row on a prompt from my yoga teacher. And I could barely walk. There had to be a lesson in here somewhere.

The practice had something to do with the equinoxes and solstices and a new age yoga tradition, our teacher said, as she announced at the beginning of class that that was what our next hour (or more) would hold. It felt like a dare, or being brought in on a secret. Since that day I have been wondering if I would do it again today, the summer solstice.

What is it about a dare? We dare ourselves to test our strength or will, accept challenges for our own entertainment or self-evaluation. Am I strong enough, determined enough, curious enough to try something new and complete it? And while yoga is not supposed to be a competition, I admit that is embedded in this practice for me, too – am I as strong in mind and body as others who complete this? (When my husband climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, those had to have been some of his motivations – to test his strength and determination, to satisfy his curiosity, and to harness his competitive nature with the powerful knowledge that Martha Stewart had summited the week before.)

So yes, each of these questions pushed me to start and kept me going when I wanted to stop. Then I waddled around in pain for a week wondering how something that in smaller amounts felt soothing and restorative could hobble me so? Too much of a good thing? If I repeat the practice today, will it lose some of its power because I have done it before? Our yoga teacher reminds us that every day we show up different. Some days our work or relationships flow, other days are more of a struggle.

So, yeah, I’ll try it again. I want to see what I’ve got today. My mind is not as set on success as it was the first time. That may make it harder to get there. I may need to take it in chunks of eighteens, or nines, or even threes. I may be reminded that there are many ways to complete something that feels too big, so big you might as well not even try. These are the lessons I anticipate, to be reminded that there is nothing too big, so long as we determine to keep chipping away at it, or building it, inch by inch, whether writing a book, or starting a business or repairing a relationship. The only way to find that rhythm, that flow, is to start. Feel your way, stretch yourself, breathe, rest, sip water, be gentle and forgiving, keep going.

Balance

The earth proceeded through the vernal equinox this weekend — the moment when day and night, light and dark, are balanced. Even in southern California, it is definitively spring. The air is cool, the light is new. There is an undeniable feeling of rebirth. We are coming out of a year-long winter, a drawn-out season of anxiety. We are collectively rediscovering our balance.

I learned this weekend that yogis mark the vernal equinox by practicing 108 sun salutations. 108!

Why 108? Well, according to The Wellness Universe blog, the number 108 is auspicious in many religions and wisdom traditions: there are 108 names of Buddha, beads on a Catholic rosary, and 108 is a multiple of “chai” – the Hebrew word meaning both 18 and “life.”

I heard about this equinox practice during a “Zoom Shabbat.” Our wonderful Rabbi Amy Bernstein, who had been put through this practice earlier in the day by our mutual yoga teacher Nicole Sherman, noted an essential lesson she learned from her ordeal of 108 sun salutes: Life gives you hard things; you do them. You don’t have to tell yourself a whole big story about them. You get through them, moment by moment.

Listening to meaning she drew from the experience, I wondered, Could I do 108 sun salutations? What would it feel like? What might I learn? I resolved to try it.

During the 90 minutes it took me to get through them (twice as long, I might add, as our yoga teacher reportedly took), I jotted down the lessons that popped up for me. I wrote them down because I sensed that they would apply as much to life, and writing, as to yoga:

  1. No matter how well you think you can multitask, you cannot. (Don’t think you can keep count in your head.)
  2. Simple tools can help manage your task. (In this case, tally marks saved me).
  3. Take breaks if you need them.
  4. A change of venue can recharge you.
  5. Slow down; pay attention.
  6. Take lots of deep breaths.
  7. Everything is better when you can be present in the moment.
  8. You have the power to re-value something bad into something good (e.g. “I am so freaking tired I can’t keep going” can become “I am getting stronger.” Or, “this draft sucks” can become “I am one draft closer to getting it right.”)
  9. Don’t panic if you get lightheaded.
  10. Notice where things gets bumpy, and try something different next time it happens (and there will be a next time).
  11. Celebrate milestones on your way to a larger goal.
  12. Find new things in the familiar. (When days feel the same, small tweaks can make them unique.)
  13. Get lost in flow.
  14. Find strength in community — other people are on this path with you.
  15. As you near the end, each moment feels more precious.
  16. Drink plenty of water.
  17. Reward yourself for your accomplishments.
  18. Nothing, I mean nothing, beats a hot bath after a hard day.

Wishing you a week of balance and strength for whatever tasks you face.


Book Recommendation!

To bring this piece full circle, I must recommend Claire Dederer’s bestselling memoir, Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, which I recently discovered while taking Claire’s online memoir class offered by Hedgebrook. (Hedgebrook offers many excellent online course, which you should check out here.)

Praise for Poser:

“Poser is a powerful, honest, ruefully funny memoir about one woman’s open-hearted reckoning with her demons.”–Dani Shapiro, The New York Times Book Review

“Why did Claire Dederer take up yoga? Short answer: for the same reasons that Elizabeth Gilbert changed her life in Eat, Pray, Love and to much the same funny, charming, self-deprecating, stealthily inspirational and (quite possibly) best-selling effect.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“Funny, well-observed, and ultimately inspiring.”–People (four stars)

“Let me be honest about something: I love yoga, I live for yoga and yoga has changed my life forever — but it is very difficult to find books about yoga that aren’t incredibly annoying. I’m sorry to say it, but yoga sometimes makes people talk like jerks. Thank goodness, then for Claire Dederer, who has written the book we all need: the long-awaited funny, smart, clear-headed, thoughtful, truthful and inspiring yoga memoir. To simplify my praise: I absolutely loved this book.”–Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love

Authenticity

Faces gathered in my computer screen from writing rooms across the world. An “accountability check-in” — poets, memoirists, academics, novelists, and essayists, all sharing their day’s writing goals (along with the local weather report during this latest polar vortex) before getting to work.

One writer, after describing her distant view of snow gathering on the Cascade Mountains, explained how her previous day’s work had pleased her; she had “found her way into the magic,” a road not so well marked, and her goal for that day was to find it again.

All heads bobbed up and down in our squares. I have known the absence of that magic. Last summer I felt stymied in my draft memoir. My paragraphs sounded like blah blah blah bullet points. I had forgotten how to sound like myself. Would I find my way again?

Enter our cross-country RV odyssey, a chance to get some distance from the writing project by focusing on getting my family virus-free across the Rockies in a 27-foot house. I did not look at my manuscript once. Instead, I took photos and wrote blog posts, unearthing the seemingly miss-able moments that together add up to life. The new settings after months of sameness, the lack of pressure, and my self-imposed daily deadlines, unexpectedly led me back to the voice I had been missing. Hello there, me! Long time, no see. It was such a relief to find that road again.

There’s a connection between finding that authentic voice in one’s writing and in one’s being. Both can get hidden under obligations and distractions, lost behind the wreckage of mistakes and missed turns.

“Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity,” said Coco Chanel. Maybe that explains why the word “authenticity” sizzled in my ears during that writing group check-in. The past year has held some of the hardest times of my life. I have needed to know more than ever who I am, and where I stand. For people like me, accustomed to pleasing, compromising, and getting along, authenticity means finding the terra firma from which you do not waver. Owning your truth. Recognizing and resisting the swirling external forces that try to sway or dissuade you. Holding fast to your authenticity — i.e. reality, honesty, faithfulness, trustworthiness, truth — no matter how it threatens those who hold fast to a misguided mirage.

It takes practice, and thankfully practice comes in many forms. Meditation, which starts with putting your feet on the ground to feel a connection to the earth. Or yoga. My teacher, Nicole, watches us through zoom and cues us to take the position of Warrior I and gently reminds us, “your back foot will want to pull away. Press down, and feel the mat press against your whole foot, grounding so you can reach your arms strong and high.”

Authenticity breeds authenticity. Finding it in myself will not guarantee its appearance in my writing, but it helps me recognize when it appears, and when something lesser is trying to butt in. And I know where to look for help: in breaks from the ordinary, in nature, in reading the voices of my favorite writers who sound only like themselves — Anne Lamott, say, or Aimee Bender. Like these authors do for my writing, we can do for each other in living: “When you show up authentic, you create the space for others to do the same.” (Anonymous)

May you honor your authenticity, and surround yourself with others — at a safe distance, virtually, or on the page — who bring it out in you.

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P.S. Book recommendation: The Authenticity Project, by Clare Pooley

I learn more about human nature from a good novel than almost any self-help tome, and in searching for a book on authenticity, I came across a New York Times bestselling novel I can’t wait to read: The Authenticity Project, by Clare Pooley. What happens when six strangers decide to tell their truths in anonymous journal entries written in a single green notebook? Something that looks like happiness. It is a “feel-good book guaranteed to lift your spirits” (Washington Post), and a “warm, charming tale about the rewards of revealing oneself, warts and all” (People). Warmth, charm, and lifted spirits sounds right to me.

(I link to Bookshop.org, which supports indie booksellers and gives readers a discount, but you can also find this title wherever books are sold. wink wink.)