Hold This Emptiness

In my Saturday morning yoga class, lots of things happen.  Joints creak, palms sweat, and the mind rarely quiets down.  I am in love with my yoga instructor, Super Y.  First, because Super Y is an excellent teacher.  She explains every pose in simple English rather than abstract Yogic language.  “Put your left foot forward and turn whole body to side.  Make sure hips are squared.  Bend down.  Open chest to ceiling.  Trikonasana pose.  Five breaths here.”  Second, because Super Y is Russian.  She’s part full of grace like a Bolshoi ballerina, and part tough as nails like an SVR agent.  Third, because in her other life Super Y is a badass PhD doing biomedical research, much like I did during my PhD.  I think I want to be her when I grow up.

Practice starts with breathing exercises, sitting cross-legged with eyes closed and taking progressively deeper breaths.  “Elongate your breath.  Make it deep and sound.”  And so I exhale through my mouth with my mouth closed and make a guttural sound.  I sound like a croupy dragon with obstructive sleep apnea.  It feels wonderful.  “Exhale for count.  One, two, three.  Hold.  Hold this emptiness.”  By that point my left hip starts to tingle a little but I exhale all that I had breathed in and hold.  In that very moment, because there is nothing to hold on to, the mind and the heart are still.

I started taking this class last June.  I was still pretty deep in post-separation depression and looking for a way, any way, to release tension.  During the first class, I was so focused on the technicality of each pose that I didn’t think about anything else for an hour.  I felt pain in strange places like the arches of my feet.  I was reminded of the tensor fascia lata muscles I had learned about in anatomy but hadn’t stretched in years.  During shavasana, a picture of a waterfall came to me as soon as I closed my eyes.  I wept and shivered under my blanket.  It was the best release I had ever experience.  Super Y hugged me afterward.  I don’t know if she saw me cry, but I suspect she did.

Half-way through yesterday’s standing sequence, Super Y led us into lizard pose, a serious hip opening exercise.  Sometimes I use a block for support, but yesterday I felt good so I got my elbows to the floor and stretch the hell out of my butt.  “Three breaths here”.  Three excruciating long breaths.  At one point I felt a sharp pain, as if my hip, pelvis and sacrum were dislocating in one fell swoop.  Simultaneously I was overtaken by two intense feelings: bottomless grief for a wee patient I had taken care who recently passed away and the absolute certitude that I had to go to Seattle for residency training.  At the same time, my recent visit to Seattle flashed before my eyes in vivid colors.  Was I dying of pain?  As soon as I released the pose, the feelings were gone, the mind now pulled in a particular direction, praying for my hip and pelvis and sacrum to be in one piece – they were.  The rest of practice was routine.  Shavasana was nice, but uneventful.  I only managed to bring my mind down to a dull chatter.

I don’t know much about emotional pain and physical pain, but I believe in the mind-body connection.  What happened today is why I love yoga practice.  A space to get in touch with what swims around in the mind but may not manifest itself consciously.  I never know when emotions will well up.  I cannot will my mind to bring important thoughts into focus and at every yoga practice.  But when the release occurs, a peaceful emptiness sets in the second the thoughts or emotions are acknowledged and let go.  And so I get out of bed on frigid Saturdays mornings.  To give inner peace a chance.

Earlier this week I reflected on feeling like life is on hold.

You betcha I’m going to hold this emptiness.

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