Yoga, Myopia, and the Monkey Mind


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This piece is from my archives, but I’m enjoying it again.


After Jake dumped me, I signed up for hatha yoga classes.  I figured I needed to do some deep breathing and stretching. Maybe I’d even meet a single yoga guy and we could do pranayama and who knows what else together.

            By the third week of yoga, I knew the routine.  I had my own purple mat and my favorite place in the back corner.  On the third Thursday, I spread out my mat in my spot.  I put my glasses carefully in my carry bag. Then, following others’ examples, I lay down and stretched.

            We began with a short invocation and then some breathing exercises. When I opened my eyes after the pranayama, I looked to my right and my heart lurched. Jake Murray was sitting one row and two spots away.  Without my glasses, I stared at his back. That certainly was the bulky, teddy-bear body I knew so well.  His curly brown hair wreathed the bald spot on his head.  If I squinted my eyes, I could see the black hair on the back of his neck that I’d touched only three weeks ago.

            Jake!  What was he doing in my yoga class?  What a lot of nerve!  Wasn’t it enough that he was constantly in my mind?  Now he had to show up in my yoga class, the class that I chose to help me get over him.

            I hyperventilated remembering that day I waited for him to call.  We had planned to go for a hike together before his conference in Rhode Island.  I waited all morning and then finally I called and left a message.  It was a casual message, a message I rehearsed several times so that it would sound light and unconcerned, like I had plenty of other things to do than sit around pining for his company.  “Hey, I thought we were going hiking today.  Give me a call.”

            To my shame and fury, I did wait around all day.  Waited and wondered and imagined.  Well, he’s a doctor, maybe he had an emergency.  Not likely, since Jake had told me that Dr. Bill was on emergency call this weekend. But you never know with doctors, right?  The phone only rang twice that Sunday, and neither call was for me.

            When I was in bed that night, the phone did ring and it was Jake.  “I ran into Barbara at a restaurant,” he said. “We decided to give it another try.”

            I stopped breathing for a moment while my brain replayed the words.  Then I said, “That doesn’t feel very good.”

            “No, it doesn’t.” he said.  “I’m sorry.”

            “Goodbye, then,” I said, and pushed the END button.

            I called my best friend and cried. 

            “What a chicken-shit, doing it on the phone,” she said.  We lambasted him for a good half hour.  She was on my side, and it helped–a little.  Still, I wept myself to sleep, feeling worthless and unloved.

            During the following weeks, I kept busy after work. I raked out dead leaves and planted more perennials.  I even started a new flowerbed in the back yard. My teenaged kids called it “Dr. Murray’s grave.”  That made me laugh.  Yet every time I shopped in the supermarket, I feared that I might bump into him. 

            And now here he was invading my yoga class.  What will I say to him? I wondered.  Or should I just ignore him?  No, that’s too childish.  I can’t pretend he’s not here.  I must be calm and mature.

            “Oh, hello Jake.  How are you?”    

            “Hello, Jake.  Do you like the class?”  Maybe a simple, neutral statement was best.  But wait, questions were a bad idea.  Asking him a question would force us into a conversation.  I didn’t want to talk to him.  Did I?

            While we moved through the poses of salute to the sun, I glared at Jake’s back.  I was hot with fury at his presumption in showing up at my yoga class. This was another one of God‘s weird jokes.  Or maybe it was a spiritual test, to see if I could remain detached and calm in this unwelcome encounter.  I peeked at him doing the postures.  He was lousy.  He couldn’t touch his toes at all.  His belly got in the way when he tried to grab his ankles. 

As if reading my mind, Beth, the teacher, said, “Remember that this is your yoga, not anyone else’s.”

For a moment, I felt guilty.  But only for a moment.  Then my petty, picky monkey mind resumed its gleeful chatter.  Ha!  You fatty, you can’t do yoga.  Shut up, that’s mean, I scolded myself, but the enjoyment of his ineptitude remained like a tiny, tickling flame.  Hee hee hee, look at that slob, he is sweating like a pig and this is the easy stuff. 

            When the class was almost over, I finally decided to be friendly and breezy, “Oh, hi Jake.  Great class, yeah?  Got to run, bye.”  Something like that. 

            And then he turned around.

            It wasn’t Jake. 

Hanuman the Monkey God and Caregiving

In the pantheon of Hindu gods, Hanuman is the deity with a monkey body.  He is the devoted servant of Ram (Rama), an incarnation of Vishnu.  Vishnu (if you’re following this) is one of the main deities of Hinduism. As part of the Hindu trinity (Trimurti), Vishnu is the Preserver, Brahma being the Creator, and Shiva, the Destroyer.  Rama, as Ramachandra, is the seventh incarnation of Vishnu, the embodiment of chivalry and virtue.  And Hanuman is Rama’s servant.

Why am I writing about Hanuman?  In the legends that recount Rama’s heroic adventures, Hanuman plays a significant role.  His devotion and service to his lord is unwavering.  In a peculiar way, Hanuman serves as a model for me in my daily struggles to care for one man with dementia, my husband of almost eighteen years.

Perhaps Hanuman’s most famous heroics appear in the Ramayana, an epic tale of good versus evil.  The demon Ravana kidnaps Sita, Rama’s wife.  Hanuman discovers where Ravana has hidden Sita and tells Rama.  In the ensuing battle between Rama and Ravana, Hanuman destroys several demons and then brings Rama’s brother back to life. Hanuman is the ultimate devotee, willing to risk everything to serve Rama.

I am no Hanuman.  Surely the monkey god never gripes about his situation.  We never hear him say, “This is not the life I would have chosen,” or “When do I get some me time?” or “I need a break!” Unlike me, Hanuman never complains. He probably never has a bad day.

He is, however, someone to emulate.

In the morning, while I do yoga, I like to listen to Krishna Das’s album Flow of Grace.  This is a collection of six versions of the Hanuman Chalisa, a devotional chant to Hanuman.  Here’s one to listen to:

Though I am far from embodying a model caregiver, I look to Hanuman as a reminder that service to others is a virtue.

Focus on the Breath: Pranayama

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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.

Try it!

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Blessed Breath

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Blessed breath

sustain me

past the virus end,

not mine.

Blessed breath

hold me steady

in warrior pose

while the world

struggles through

Saturn in Aquarius.*

Blessed breath

fill these lungs

with compassion.

Ease judgment.

Blessed breath,

sacred air

that swirls and curls,

breathe me

from the dark

into the light

all these precious days.

*Saturn enters Aquarius on December 17 until March 2023.  In the airy climate of Aquarius, Saturn turns its slow and steady gaze outward, reordering structures and boundaries in order to make connections, distribute information, and develop innovations…Altogether we can expect deep-seated changes in our underlying values and the way they manifest into aspirations in relationships and work.