Lenten Ashtanga

New Moon-Art-GeorgeT


This year Ash Wednesday fell on the new moon, when our yoga studio does not hold morning Mysore practice. Later in the week my daughter tells me that the new moon is a time for setting intentions. Everything competes for morning time: writing, yoga, study. I did not set an intention on new-moon, Moon-day Ash Wednesday. And this year I did not go early to have the ashes touched to my forehead in a cross.


Instead, I went to the yoga studio where our teacher Meghan gave a talk about the branches of Indian thought that have led Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga she studies and teaches us. Hard-to-translate Sanskrit names make up an ancient embroidery of psychology, spirit, mythology, and energy. It is a system trying to help us live this particular life in this particular body—and to move toward the next life in the next body, a concept I’ve consciously put to the side for years, but this morning decide that I do not need to control. Meghan explains categories of perception that include not just the senses, but also the ways we move through the earth over time, including giving birth and excreting, which would, of course, be the only ones I remember…


The Eastern-ness of this system of thought refreshes my mind and body 58 years in.  Instead of God and man, she talks about the watcher or witness of life and the actor. Ancient mystics caution us actors not to confuse the two. As Meghan delineates the very specific categories that follow, I remember the bar mitzvah wisdom of my agent’s son. He might not apprehend precisely who or what God was, Zach said, but he knew at least that he was not!


The Christian liturgical season of Epiphany that precedes Ash Wednesday and Lent was when Meghan had sat down next to me one morning for the Marichyasana D posture.


“I think you can do this today,” Meghan said, and an obedient puppy-dog spirit within me wagged its tail, stood by the bank, and made ready to jump.


There’s a half-lotus with the left leg; the right knee bends, heel plants in front of right hip, and the body tips forward. Then there’s getting the shoulder on the outside of the bent knee, wrapping that arm around, and sweeping the other arm around the back to catch, or as yogis say, bind, it. Oh, boy.


Meghan smiled, with insistent compassion and humor. “Now breathe,” she said.


But, since that was clearly impossible, the voices began, like a suffocating comedy routine: Breathe? Where?  How?  What’s the point?  Just wait out the five supposed “breath” count!  Hold your breath! They don’t call it a bind for nothing! How can a bind free the spirit?


“You have to breathe.”


Nah, baby. Not me. I did asthma in second grade with Mrs. Zuckerman. I did School Reform Commission till midnight with no inhaler. Almost drowned at 14. You may have to breathe. I can fake it.


“Breathe into here.”  Meghan cupped the area in the upper back that was most compressed. It’s a deep, brick well with pain at the bottom. I throw things into it like colonial people threw broken crockery and rusty straightening combs. It has hurt for years. Usually, therefore, I don’t feel it. It’s where the lynching scene came from in my last book. It’s where the video of slavery runs and runs and runs. Who could breathe into that? How do you sing Rusalka in a straight jacket?


“We breathe into the places where it feels most constricted.”


Damned if the fool puppy spirit doesn’t try. And then some air, something, some that-ness happens where there was nothing before but constriction. My torso turns, and the hands bind, as if controlled not by me, but by this breathing that comes into me as a triumph of discipline over good sense.


“Wow,” Meghan said, getting up to help someone else.  “That’s great.  Do five breaths there. That’s what we do in yoga.  We make space in the body.”


Well, here comes the comedy routine again, Milton Berle and Kevin Hart, together at last, talking over each other. Oh, we do, do we? Space in the body. Remember pregnancies? Now that was making space! But what’re we working with today: one heart, two lungs, one stomach, spleen, guts…and, sweetheart, hate to mention it, but, like 30 extra pounds. So, let’s face it, Boo,  you’re lucky to get this far.  And, by the way, what are WE making space for, anyway?


Shhh. Shhh. Shhh.


Hips and shoulders rotate in opposite directions, a taste of flight, on earth as it is in heaven. I hear a sound like Nana’s last breaths as my daughter Zoë and I sat, holding her cold hands.  My breath is dry and angry, afraid, to be sure, but not my last.  I am still breathing. I will still enjoy hot tea and warm muscles and the resurrection of an old, tired body that almost gave up more than once and will do finally, for sure, only God knows when, but not yet.


And then I hear it: neither sound nor writing, but perfect communication, from the bottom of the well: “You make space in the body for God.”

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