Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Why I Practice Yoga, and How I Got Here

I tell people that I’ve been practicing yoga for almost 20 years. That’s true and it isn’t true.
I started practicing yoga in 1992, in high school. The only class around was an Iyengar practice at a local health club. Yoga was still fringe in Connecticut. You couldn’t just go buy a yoga mat; you had to already know where to find one, usually in earthy-smelling, slightly fetid health food stores, piled up under a table of wheat germ. Wheat germ was as weird as it got in 1992.
I did yoga off and on through college. When things got tough, I hit the mat. Weeks would go by when I would repeat my Patricia Walden videotape over and over, sometimes twice a day. It was a 22-minute practice and seemed endless to me; it took all my discipline to just finish the “stress relief” practice. There were also months when I hardly unrolled that blue sticky mat. It started sticking to itself, and got pretty yucky, so it got tossed into a dumpster behind my little garden apartment in Boulder. When life was OK, that videotape just collected dust, or got pushed behind my VHS copy of “The Lost Boys”.
Yoga was what I instinctively turned to when life got rough, sad, or miserable. So, even though I didn’t practice consistently, I did consider it my lifeline.              
Which is what I needed when Max was born. Max was a colicky infant, and a needy and miserable toddler. He didn’t sleep and couldn’t be disciplined. We had sticker charts, expert consultations, long meetings, and expensive assessments. By the time Max was two, and my second child, Henry, was born, I was a wreck from the inside out. I felt like my nervous system was on the outside of my body and up in flames.
The closest yoga studio to my house was a “Hot Yoga” practice. The teacher looked exactly like Jennifer Garner, and had trained with Bikram Choudhury himself. She gave minimal instructions through the 26 postures. She’d say, “bring your left foot up to your right hip crease”, and we’d stay there in Tree, noisily offering ujjayi breathing until she told us what to do next. She rarely made physical adjustments or offered anything spiritual at all. Occasionally, she’d drop a pearl from the master himself, “Bikram always said…”.
The class was perfect for the raw nerve that I was. It was predictable, with no music, and no changes, ever. After a few classes, my body knew what would come next before my brain had to think. I could completely check out mentally, watching my body fold into postures from above. I practiced like that for a few years, going to several classes per week. My favorite class was “Follow the Yogi”, which included no directions at all. The teacher would lead the practice through the sequence, just quietly uttering “change” when it was time to move to the next posture. It never occurred to me to practice at home.
Then things changed at the studio, and I had to move on. The Jennifer Garner clone had reportedly gotten divorced (I never knew she was married) and the studio was sold to a less reliable, and very different teacher. She was wild, emotional, all yogic philosophy, and talked through every moment of every posture in the class. I couldn’t handle it.
I tried to practice Bikram at a different studio, but it wasn’t the same. A teacher suggested we “look at the person on the mat next to you and try to do better than them”. I was done with Bikram right then. Up until then, I had rarely noticed that there was anyone next to me at all. It was jarring.
 So I went in search of a new yoga, and found a gorgeous Vinyasa studio, with rock-star Amazon teachers. With dark wood floors and saffron walls, it was everything I ever wanted a studio to look like. At my first class there, I received extensive attention from a beautiful teacher eager to get the Bikram out of my postures. I felt like a newly baptized initiate of the Church of the Skinny and Bendy. I lapped up the attention like milk, and began coming to classes a few times a week, breathing in and out on command. I chaturanga’d, and down-dogged and sweat and stretched. I felt my hips and shoulders open in a way I never had in Bikram. I developed incredible biceps and deltoids. I looked for more ways to show off my back muscles. I was leaner than ever.
I felt like the vinyasa was hardening me, which I needed. Max had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was bouncing in and out of pediatric psychiatric units. I was being bossed around by a parade of young, unmarried, and childless social workers, who accused me, almost simultaneously, of breastfeeding for both too short and too long a time.
Yoga was my defense through all of this. The social workers would tell me that I was anxious, and therefore causing Max’s problems. One suggested I start doing yoga. I told her that I’d been practicing for years, and was currently practicing several times a week. Baffled, she said quietly, “that’s good”.
Classes at the Vinyasa studio were always full to bursting, with an occasionally celebrity sighting. The Connecticut Gold Coast clientele was always decked out in the latest Lululemon, hip bones jutting aggressively against black size 2 yoga pants. You could almost smell the Botoxed discontent. We were looking for something in that room. I never found it, though. I loved the practice, wanted to be this practice. But there was always a call for “more, more, more”, an almost macho demand that I put out in the form of one more Wheel than I could really handle. The practice dominated me in the studio, but never asked me to take it home for more.
And then I spent a long weekend at Kripalu, a yoga center in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. I went for a three-day seminar on Digestive Health, having been suffering with gut pain for years. I had been meaning to go to Kripalu for a long time, just to retreat and practice yoga, but had never made it my priority. But now Max had been diagnosed with autism as well as bipolar disorder, and there was nothing but will holding me together. I needed to fix my body so that I could try to hold things together at home.
At Kripalu I discovered the sources of my belly pain, gluten and dairy, but I also found my yoga. This yoga was one of inquiry. I found myself more open to my practice than ever. My thoughts became less critical of my body, and more interested in it. Instead of wishing the my heels would touch the floor, and criticizing my own flexibility during down dog, I found myself thinking, “I’ve never done this down dog before…it will only exist once, so I might not want to make assumptions about it”.
I had always been really resistant to using props. In my vinyasa practice, they seemed to be looked-down upon, and I felt pathetic when I needed them to make a posture more comfortable or accessible. But then a teacher named Grace said, “I was resistant to accepting help, but found that once I was willing to take help on the mat [by using props], I was more willing to accept help off the mat, too”. Tears sprang to my eyes. This was my truth, too.
When I came home from Kripalu, I began a daily practice. It’s never long, only 30-45 minutes, and it isn’t always elegant or good-looking. As my favorite yoga teacher taught me, “this isn’t ballet; it doesn’t have to be pretty”. Sometimes it’s well-balanced with standing postures, sitting postures, balances, and inversions, and sometimes it’s just backbends. But it’s totally mine. And always interesting. And I conclude with a 10-15 minute savasana. Because it’s a gift I can give myself.
This is my yoga. And I accept that it isn’t everyone’s yoga, or isn’t everyone’s yoga at every point in their lives. When Max was small, and life was chaotic, the order of Bikram was soothing, and when I needed a hard shell, vinyasa helped me build it. But when I was ready to be authentically myself, to be curious, and playful, and sometimes serious, it was Kripalu yoga that brought me home to myself.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


I'm trying to make my life full without letting it overflow; this is my balancing act. It's a lot of missteps, really. A lot of attempts at adding things, then a period of over-scheduling, a clearing house of the dust-bunnies that are made of unnecessary meeting and un-fulfilling volunteerism.  Then, I start over.

In yoga, the balancing postures look as though they're all about the strength of the standing leg.  If my standing leg is straight and strong, I shouldn't fall over, right? And, if I do, I can blame myself for being weak.  That's a common trope for me, believing that I'm weak.  The trick about balancing postures is not the standing leg; that's an illusion. Balancing postures are about the breath.  breathe in, breathe out.  repeat.  If I'm clinging to an idea about how it should look, I fall over. If I try to muscle my way to stay upright, I fall over. If a stray thought intrudes, I fall over. But if I just breathe...it's beautiful, perfect, just how it should be.  Not too tight, not too loose, as they say.

So, here's the balancing posture of my daily life. I want to move every day...some yoga, some walking, some deep breathing to clear out the inner cobwebs. I want some quiet time, and I want some time to fold laundry, drink tea, and watch dumb TV shows without interruption. Breathe in, breathe out. Stop grasping at what should have been might have been, could have been. The postures are imaginary; they don't look like anything until my body is in them, so why am I all bunged up about their form? I am their form.  Let go a little more, and find that I've always been in that posture just right. There is no wrong way, no wrong form for my body to take.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Truth is Complicated

Okay, so I'll admit that I thought of writing this post while watching Covert Affairs with the kitten on my lap.  The notion that the truth is complicated applies to plenty of us who aren't in the C.I.A.  The "truth" I'm talking about is this:
There's another reason why it's so hard for me when someone asks, "how's Max?".  The truth is, I don't actually know how he is.  That's not an easy thing for the mom of an 8 year old, and sounds very existential, or like I mean it has something to do with autism.  But I mean that I literally don't know how he is.  Dave and I talk to him about every 2-3 weeks, and we write to him a few times a week. 
He writes us a letter every week, but that doesn't help me understand how he is.  The first letter he wrote, on a scrap of paper that had obviously been balled up a few times, said "Dear Mom, I hate this place. I have no friends. I'm having even more fits than at home. I love you. Max B.".
So what do I do with that? The second letter was about 2 sentences, as well, on an equally abused piece of paper. I don't know how he is.  I'm like the anti-helicopter mom.  I don't know what he's eating or wearing, and I don't know how his school day is going.  I don't know what he's doing this afternoon....soccer, board games, hiking? No idea.  For all those moms who are out there over-achieving at this mom gig, I am pulling the average back to the middle by having no clue what my kid is up to at any given moment.
Now and then I talk to friends with kids who are thinking about where they might go to high school, and I always mention the wonderful Quaker boarding school I attended.  I think that boarding school is an amazing option, and allows growth of adolescents in a way that rarely happens at home.  I didn't choose to have an eight year old who needed this option, but I was always open to it for him later.  I just don't have words for what it feels like when someone says, in regards to their almost high-schooler, "but I could never just send my child away". 

It must be nice to have choices.

Monday, September 20, 2010

It's not just a cat

Over the weekend, Dave and I found two stray kittens in the woods near his parents' house.  Not really strays, I suppose. They'd obviously been abandoned there, close to a park.  We tried to rescue both, but could only manage to get one of them.  A beautiful black kitten, about 8 weeks old.  Tiny, really, and certainly not able to care for herself in the woods.

Henry was initially terrified, wondering what the heck we were thinking putting wild animals in the car, but he quickly came around.  I don't write about him much.  After all, he's the normal kid, the neuro-typical kid, the regular kid.  Whatever you want to call him, he's the collateral damage in our house.  When Max is home, he gets virtually no attention, and I spend the rest of my time trying to make up for those deficient, lean times.

But then Henry came around, and named the kitten Rosie.  We stopped to buy her a bag of kitten chow, some milk, a litter box.  We didn't really think we'd keep her.  I carefully avoided using her name, just saying "the kitten".  Henry has asthma, some allergies.  And did we want a cat?  Henry's been begging for a pet since Max left for boarding school a year ago.  We've been saying no all along.  Too much work, not enough time...the usual excuses.  We just didn't feel ready to take care of another living thing.  But then there she was.  Was this the way we'd get a cat?

We told Henry we would consider it, and then he started sniffling, sneezing, with itchy eyes.  Perhaps we couldn't keep the kitten.  A friend said that some people get used to the cat dander after a week or so.  So maybe we'd keep her...see how it goes.  Henry was...happy.  I don't want to make it sound like he's an unhappy kid, because he isn't.  He's generally okay, satisfied, happy-ish.  He's not the kind of kid who overflows with happy.  When I ask him how his day was, he always says "good-ish, bad-ish" no matter how great it really was.  It's like a daily hit in the gut, that this poor kid can't just enjoy a great day at his wonderful school, but it's a hit in the gut I've gotten used to.  How happy could I expect him to be, really?  His brother has been virtually taken away from him, and he's not any closer to making peace with that than his father or I am.

He went off to school just delighted.  Bouncing in his booster seat all the way to school.  He brought a photo of Rosie to show his classmates.  I was feeling good today, like a great mom, like I let the universe decide something for me by dropping a kitten in my lap, and aren't I clever?

Then the phone rang.  It was Henry's school.  He'd been wheezing, and needed his inhaler.  I tried not to assume that it was due to the kitten, even though he hasn't needed his inhaler over a month.  Bad luck?  His inhaled worked just fine, and he got on with his day at school.  I picked him up from school at the regular time and he just couldn't wait to get home to see Rosie.  He was going to play with her, and tell her a story.  He wanted to read her the book he'd brought home from school, all about colors.  He just seemed so relaxed, like Henry at his best.

But while we played with the kitten this afternoon, Henry started wheezing again.  He's never needed his inhaler twice in a day.  It felt ominous.  How do I reconcile these things? I feel like Henry's happiness hinges upon this kitten, but his asthma is a mess, and I do need to keep the poor kid out of the hospital.  I talked to Henry, and explained that we might need to find the kitten a different home.  He nodded solemnly, and said he was going to go watch TV alone.  Later, he cried in my lap, and told me that he just needed a pet so badly, and that he just had to have one.  If not Rosie, then maybe a dog? A guinea pig?

Damn it, I don't want a dog or a guinea pig.  I want to keep this kitten.  It feels unfair, AGAIN.  Why do my kids have to get the short straw over and over?  Why can't Henry just breathe like a regular kid?  I have so little to offer him.  I can't make his brother normal. I can't always protect Henry when Max lashes out.  I want him to be happy.  Not deliriously happy, not happier than anybody else.  I just want him to stop suffering such terrible losses and not feel so alone in this world.  He already feels like he's lost a brother...he's certainly lost anybody's idea of a brother.  Why does he have to lose this kitten too?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

This Time of Year

As anyone who has seen me around has surely noticed, I am not myself.  I'm feeling flat.  Not happy or sad, or angry, or fed up, just sort of flat.  Max is up at his new school, so the daily chaos has receded.  Henry's school has just begun, and I'm grateful that he's in a place that values him so thoroughly, and understands what he's been through.

But, really, we're always in it, rather than through it. The Jewish holidays are hard for a totally atypical Jewish family like ours.  I don't miss Max...that would imply that I wish he were here, and I certainly don't feel that way.  If Max were here, I would not be able to go to synagogue on Rosh Hashana, or enjoy a holiday meal with our family.  Of course, presently, I don't really feel like going to synagogue.  I will be surrounded by families, intact families with parents arguing with their children over going to the kids' programming, everyone complaining that kids should stop running in the hallways.  I'll be reading the prayers, wondering if I should really say these words that I don't believe.  I don't really feel that any deity has helped me out, and I certainly won't feel (on Yom Kippur) that I have anything to atone for.  Why should I atone when I'm already being punished?  Because if there is a G-d like the one we pray to on these High Holidays, then I want nothing to do with Him.

Mostly, the prayers of the High Holidays force me to imagine G-d as Star Trek: The Next Generation's Q
And then it doesn't feel like religion or faith anymore, it just makes me think about Will Wheaton and how damn funny he's been on Big Bang Theory.  But back to the synagogue experience.

I'm faced with everything my family isn't.  And people kindly ask about Max.  Many are shocked that I haven't brought him home from school for the holidays, which shows how much they know.  People ask how he is, but only give me about 4 seconds to respond.  It takes a few minutes for me to say how Max is.  I want to approach it slowly, and really tell them.  But hardly anyone actually wants to know.  I wish that I didn't know.  So, I give my usual answer, "well, you know" or "he's doing his thing".  I act like I'm all cool with how much THIS SUCKS.  Because hiding my feelings is key to being the cool chick that I am.  I act like I'm all philosophical.  I say stupid things about people having their own way, and Max being a different kind of person, blah blah blah.  But I'm in synagogue, and I'm supposed to be not angry at G-d, especially at the holidays, which is the only time I see most of these people at shul.

I'm there plenty, for Shabbat mornings as well as Board meetings, which is how I know that this idea of G-d isn't working for me, not at all.  For a while, I had some faith in it.  And then I stopped having faith, but I felt like I could fake my way through it, and maybe if I said the prayers, every word, maybe I'd get something in return.  But when I read Shemoneh Esrei (http://www.chabad.org/multimedia/media_cdo/aid/1036241/jewish/Amidah-Shemoneh-Esrei-1.htm) I feel like a liar.  I feel like I don't believe any of what I'm saying, and then I wonder if I should really be saying it.  Particularly this part, "You sustain the living with lovingkindness, you revive the dead with great mercy, you support the falling, heal the sick, set free the bound and keep faith with those who sleep in the dust."

I know I'm not the only one who struggles, but I'm just not getting good answer on addressing my struggle.  The more time I spend at shul, the more aggravated I become.  So if you don't see me after the first day of Rosh Hashana, you'll know why.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

In Honor of Tara, Dayna, Lenore, and Alix

The above mentioned are the glorious members of my "committee".  If I was the kind of chick who used the word "girlfriend", they'd be it.  But I'm not that kind of chick.

They've been through it all with me, and they continue to amaze me.  I've dropped Henry off at their houses when I've had to hospitalize Max.  I've called them and invited him for sleepovers at their houses.  And I've interrupted their vacations to see if they can take Henry.  That's what I did today.  I called Tara to see if Henry could invade her day. 

Max, Henry, and I were on our way home from a reasonably successful trip to Danbury Mall.   The trip home wasn't reasonable, though.  It never really is, and I always swear to myself that I'll never drive them anywhere again.  We're alive because we've gotten lucky, but that's about it.  Max punched Henry with a huge closed fist about 20 times today on the ride home, then he took Henry's seatbelt off.  I leaned forward to avoid a flying water bottle and then veered right just in time to miss a huge white Escalade, whose driver had every right to lean on the horn.  How much should I let Max hurt Henry? How many times will we be lucky in the car?  So I called some committee members.  Lenore wasn't home.  Tara answered her cell phone, but she was in Boston.  Home tomorrow, she said.  Don't think I wasn't planning on taking her up on that unspoken offer.

I had recently called on both Dayna and Alix, so I decided not to bother them.  Figured we'd just make it through, somehow, like we always do.  We were only 10 more minutes from home, and Max wanted to watch Return of the Jedi, again.  I figured I could isolate him up in my bed watching that, and maybe Henry and I could catch a break.

That's when my phone rang.  It was Dayna, who had heard that I could use some help.  Tara had called her to let her know.  Did Henry want to come to the pool with Dayna and her boys? Sure, she could pick him up. 

I wanted to cry.  So grateful for friends like these.  I am not that girl with millions of friends.  But I have what I need.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Max and Oliver Sacks

We've just come back from 4 days at the beach.  We rented a fabulous Arts and Crafts style house for a week in Seaside Park, NJ.  It was steps from the beach, and even with lousy weather, I was in heaven drinking coffee on the porch at 6 AM every day.

But Max wasn't.  After 4 days, he was done.  He pitched a huge fit, screaming, throwing things in our rented house, biting my arm and scratching me so hard his fingernails bent and broke in my right wrist.  When he calmed down, he was able to explain to me that every night when he goes to bed, he forgets all about the house we had rented.  He forgets where things are, and how to operate the TV remote, and what chair is comfortable.  Every night, he said, he "forgets this house".  And when he wakes up in the morning, "I have to start all over again," he said.  This description (of what is some serious brain dysfunction) could not be ignored.  I wondered what Oliver Sacks would think.  Then Henry confessed he was home-sick, and willing to come home, as well.

So I gave Max his meds, fed him some dinner and stuck the boys in front of the TV while I packed up our well-stocked beach house in about an hour.  Then we started for home.  I tried to be angry, or depressed, or feel like it was unfair.  I didn't really feel any of those things.  I am not hopeless, but I am without hope.  This is just my life, and I can do nothing to improve or change it.  This is as good as it gets, and mostly, as bad as it gets, too.

It was a long drive home, in some light rain.  The kids slept and watched movies, and I just drove, thinking about as little as I could.  Thinking isn't any more helpful than therapy is, most of the time.  What if I realize that this sucks.  Sucks so much that it isn't a life unless Max is somewhere else.  What might that mean?  Max goes to school on September 2, and the Jewish holidays come shortly after that.  He'll be away for them for the second time, which means that I'll actually have the ability to attend services on my own terms.  Which is tough, because I am not on speaking terms with G-d right now.  I don't much feel like atoning, since this life feels like a punishment much of the time. Am I supposed to feel sorry for things I've done, even before Max's scratches into my arm have had the chance to heal?  I'm not sorry.  I'm kind of proud I haven't done worse, given what's come my way this year.

I miss the beach.  Even in the rain, I loved it.  I loved the house, the unfamiliar coffee mugs, and the few blocks I had to walk to get a taco.  I've always wanted to rent a beach house, and now I have. Sort of.  Dave and I will wait until the kids get so big that they won't want to come, I guess.  And then I'll sit on my rented porch and drink my coffee at 6 AM.