My first granddaughter was born in Naples, Italy, in August, 2011. I stayed on with the family for a couple of weeks and then boarded a flight to London, with my yoga mat slung over my shoulder. I was about to begin a TTC: teacher training course, at the International Sivananda Vedanta Center. I was 60 years old.
A hired driver met me at Heathrow. This was a good plan because I had a lot of baggage, too much to drag on buses or the underground across London. It was dark when the driver deposited me in front of a yellow row house in Putney. A swami from Germany greeted me and led me to my room on the top floor.
The room was in a newly renovated part of the Center. It had two single beds, two rolling closets, and a shared dresser. I dumped my belongings and followed the swami back through the entry/reception, through a courtyard and into the kitchen/dining area where she gave me a plate of food she’d set aside. It was a delicious Indian meal. I was surprised to be fed, and grateful for the swami’s thoughtfulness.
Back in my room, I made up the bed and took in the view from the window. Roofs with chimney pots in varying shades of gray and terracotta totally charmed me. I found my way to the bathroom on the floor below, and met my roommate on coming back. Catherine was young, about 24, very focused on her path, and also very pretty. She was a sevite (volunteer) at the Center, working in exchange for classes. She rose later than I and came to bed later, too.
I soon discovered that one had to get up very early to beat the rush on the showers. One student in particular, a guy from Liverpool, was my chief competition at 5:00 a.m. We were expected to show up, dressed in our white yoga pants and yellow TTC t-shirts, for morning satsang at 6:00. At that first meeting, I studied my fellow teachers-in-training with curiosity. I was by far the oldest, save for an exotic-looking man, Omar, in his late fifties. The rest were mostly women, some men, and all around thirty years old. They came from all over: Ireland, Senegal, Spain, Greece.
Satsang included meditation, chanting, a talk, and announcements. There was a short break. Our first yoga class began at 8:00 a.m. At 10:00 we had our first meal of the day. Then it was karma yoga (chore) time. I was assigned to the laundry room, where I ironed whatever was needed. Sometimes I pressed the swami’s shalwar kameez (tunics and loose pants). Sometimes I ironed the brocade garments that the statues wore, sometimes the more elaborate altar cloths.
I liked it down in the laundry room. The washing machines and dryers kept the space warm. People came down to do their laundry, so I got to chat. I studied my vocabulary and practiced the chants we had to learn.
At noon we were back in class for kirtan or the Bhagavad Gita. From 2:00 to 4:00, we had the main lecture in philosophy or anatomy. At 4:00 we were back for more hatha yoga, asanas and pranayama. Dinner was at 6:00. We washed our metal dishes and utensils in cold water in the courtyard. By the satsang at 8:00, I was craving sleep. But no, it was meditation, chanting, and another lecture. Students vied for a place against the wall. At 10:00 they finally let us go to bed.
I cried for the first two weeks. My particular nemesis, other than the rigorous schedule, was the headstand. In retrospect, the main problem was that I lacked the core strength to hold the pose, or even to get into it. We were not allowed to practice near a wall. Falling out of headstand was scary for me and resulted in a neck injury. It felt like my cervical vertebrae were compressed like an accordion.
Another pose that literally caused me grief was shoulder stand. Every time I pushed up into that asana, I’d start to cry. My tears leaked down into my ears. Perhaps it had something to do with the compression of the lungs, because they are “the seat of sorrow.” I contemplated quitting the course and going home.
One morning, my favorite swami stopped me as I rushed to get to class on time. He was an extremely tall Midwesterner who had somehow slid into monkhood via music. When he played the harmonium for chanting, his eyes rolled upward in bliss.
“How are you doing?” he asked.
“I cry all the time,” I answered, tears welling up.
“It’s a common experience,” he said mildly.
For some mysterious reason, that short acknowledgment strengthened me.
We were blessed with a half-day of freedom once a week. I wasn’t interested in touring London, or even visiting a museum. My joy was to wander the high street of Putney, poke around in Sainsbury’s, and eat something interesting at the noodle restaurant. The swami teachers kept the yoga studio fairly cold, so I went into Marks and Spencers and bought leggings to wear under my cotton yoga pants.
The first two weeks passed by in a sort of fascinating, exhausted agony. But, when day fourteen arrived, I was still there.
“Where have you been?” you might ask, when I tell you about the amazing singer/songwriter/violinist Gaelynn Lea. I know, I know– I’m a little behind when it comes to cultural trends. She’s been around for a while, on NPR and Ted Talks.
In the car, waiting for my husband at his appointment, I tuned in to the On Being podcast. Krista Tippett was interviewing Gaelynn Lea. In her introduction, Tippett mentioned that Lea had a genetic disorder (osteogenesis imperfecta) that made her bones brittle, even before birth, and that she’d been in a wheelchair since age three. As they talked, I was captivated by Lea’s music and her realistic, spiritual take on life.
Lea won NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Contest in 2016. You can watch that performance here:
Lea is also an inspirational speaker. When I got home, I listened to her talk on why she chooses Enrichment over Progress. She’s an advocate for people with disabilities as well.
It’s been a long time since I’ve wanted to listen to any contemporary music, but I bought Lea’s album, Learning How to Stay, that includes the songs I want to hear again: Bound by a Thread, Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun, and Moment of Bliss. I’m intrigued by the way she uses the “looper pedal” to build a whole backup for her voice. Her lyrics offer sparks of beautiful language.
Our love’s a complex vintage wine All rotted leaves and lemon rind I’d spit you out but now you’re mine
-Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun
Check out Gaelynn Lea, if you haven’t heard her already, and let me know what you think.
Thank you for subscribing to my blog. As I am already an introvert, the isolation of caregiving and hiding from the corona virus have really impacted my opportunities for connection. So—you’re readership is greatly appreciated.
The most important things in life are the connections you make with others.
In this time of COVID-19, it is especially helpful to attend to the breath. Breathing exercises have many benefits, one of which is strengthening and cleansing the lungs to make them more resistant to illness.
About three months ago, when social isolation and reduced activity began to affect my emotional state, I resumed practicing hatha yoga daily. I’ve been doing various styles of hatha yoga on and off for many years. The practice I do now is taught by the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers. I studied this style in 2011, when I became a certified yoga teacher at the center in London. It was one of the most challenging months of my life.
But back to pranayama.
In the yogic tradition, the breath is seen as the outward manifestation of prana, or vital energy. Gaining control of the breath by practicing breathing exercises—pranayama—increases the flow of prana through the body, which literally recharges body and mind. Aim to practice pranayama for up to 30 minutes daily, before or after asana practice.
-from p. 178, Yoga, Your Home Practice Companion published by the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center
Sivananda-style yoga originated with Swami Sivananda (b. 1887) who was a medical doctor. He gave up his medical practice to become a renunciate, eventually settling in Rishikesh and entering monkhood. He opened the Sivananda Ashram, established the Divine Life Society, and started his teaching organization, The Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy. His disciple, Swami Vishnudevananda, brought the teachings to the West.
But back to pranayama.
I do two types of breathing exercise. Anuloma viloma (alternate nostril breathing) is good for balancing the nervous system. Kapala Bhati cleanses the respiratory passages and increases the capacity of the lungs. I like this exercise because I can actually feel my lung capacity improving.
Here is a good tutorial for Kapala Bhati:
Pranayama is not hard to do and doesn’t require a lot of time.
A last word from Yoga, Your Home Practice Companion:
Although the language and imagery of pranayama may appear quite mystical, in practice its effects are concrete. Whether you are a beginner or a more advanced yoga practitioner, pranayama trains the respiratory muscles, develops use of your lungs’ full capacity, and improves your body’s supply of oxygen while reducing its carbon dioxide levels. It also helps to relax and strengthen your nervous system, calm the mind, and improve concentration.
Last week my wrist wasn’t working right, so I took my arm to the Body Shop.
“What seems to be the problem?” Dr. Scott asked.
“It hurts when I start in the morning. Sometimes it just locks up completely. I’m having trouble lifting things and opening jars.”
Dr. Scott manipulated my wrist. “Hmm, I’ll need to get in there and have a look,” he said. “We’re kind of backed up here today. One of the techs called in sick. Can you leave the arm until tomorrow?”
“Uh, not really. I kind of need it for holiday cooking. Can you give me a loaner?”
“Sure can, but this is all I’ve got left,” Dr. Scott said. He reached under the counter and brought out a man-sized arm. It was covered in curly black hair. The underside was tattooed with a skull and lightning bolts.
I eyed it with distaste. “That’s all, huh?”
Dr. Scott shrugged. “Yeah, sorry.”
He helped me snap the arm into my shoulder socket. My sweater barely stretched over the bicep. A few inches of hairy wrist stuck out below the cuff. I had planned to stop at the deli on the way home, but decided to avoid the embarrassment.
At the house, my husband was reading in his recliner.
“Well, did he fix your wrist?” he asked without looking up.
“Not today. He gave me a loaner. Look.”
“Whoa, that is some heavy duty arm you’ve got there,” he exclaimed. “Cool tattoos.”
“Not cool,” I said. “I’m off-balance.”
“Hey, let me see you flex that thing.”
I obliged with a scowl.
He grinned. “Wow! That’s some bicep! I bet you could help me replace the bathroom faucet,” he said, pushing out of his chair. “Let’s try it.”
Sure enough, the loaner arm had more than enough strength to loosen the rusty bolt. We fixed the faucet. Then I hefted three forty-pound bags of water conditioner salt from the car into the basement. I poured one bagful into the tank. After that, I carried the thirty-pound frozen turkey from the basement freezer into the kitchen.
“I don’t know, honey,” my husband said, “that arm is pretty useful. Maybe you should keep the loaner.”
“Right,” I said. “And I bet this arm can strangle a spouse pretty well, too.”