For quite some time I’ve had a shell of a blog written in my queue about tragedy, heartbreak and loss. There has been much of late to break our cumulative human hearts: war, natural disasters, school shootings, and most recently the terror attack in Boston during the marathon. Each time something tragic happens, I’ve wanted to write about it – to offer up something to help the process of dealing and healing going on around me. And each time, I’ve felt like maybe I didn’t have any right to speak to these events, or maybe I couldn’t contribute in any productive way to the healing that needs to happen after these events. Then I was reminded of something my teacher, Ana Forrest, said to me many years ago, “Allison, you have to go into your dark corners and get to know them. You have to dance with what you find in the darkest spaces inside you.” I’ve been dancing with my own darkness ever since – and in moments of deep loss it’s a principle and practice that has brought me tremendous insight, calm, and peace.
When something happens to those we care about, or to humanity on a greater scale, or even to our own private self that triggers a sense of loss, our heart feels it deeply – breaking down, in or open. Consider how you felt when the news broke of the marathon terror attack. Or the last time you lost a loved one. Or when a friend or colleague suddenly stopped talking to you completely. There is a void of darkness that arises when we lose anything. The dark void feels bigger when the loss we feel is bigger.
If we ignore this void, it covers everything in our life with its darkness – like a black fog shifting into the pattern of our life, obscuring what we see around us. I reference the “fogginess” my students reported the week after the Boston bombing. The fog of what they were experiencing literally and physically sucked them in, and made everything else around them: poses, conversations, and words – very unclear and stumbly.
If we dwell in the void of loss, thinking about it constantly or analyzing it, it draws us inside like a vortex – putting our minds in a constant tailspin. We replay each thought, wondering if things could have been different. We reside either in the “what if” of the past or the “what will” of the future. Either way, dwelling in the void took us out of the present and out of the clarity of mind that comes from feeling.
Come back to dancing. If we dance with the darkness of the void of loss, we make it a partner, we bring its facets into the present, we stumble with it, we listen for the rhythm inside the void that is the language of our loss made real. In short, we learn again how to feel within the void created by loss, we cuddle up with our own reaction to loss – leaning our head on its shoulder.
When the bombs went off in Boston, I had friends running, colleagues watching, and students living nearby. My first thoughts were of their safety and then of the safety of those around them. Then my heart went out to those who were obviously not safe, but right in harms way. In the aftermath, there was fear, confusion, terror and seeking that ensued. I myself felt dark, confused, helpless, and above all heartbroken for those who were injured and killed. I wrote on my Facebook feed that day about how at a loss I felt – how hard it was to teach my classes, but how driven I was to teach anyways. In the end, the deep loss I felt reminded me that my connection to feeling is a light within the void of loss. I recalled that I also, as a teacher, help others to stay in feeling so that their own light, their own illuminating nature, burns brighter. I’ve spent the better part of the past few weeks dancing with the waves of emotion tied to this event and many others of loss that have affected me and those around me. It’s been profound in helping me refine for myself the ways I deal with loss and heartbreak – big and small. It’s helped me put on some new dancing shoes.
In a workshop a while back, Ana Forrest told all of us a brief story about her experience participating in a Native American Sun Dance. She described the putting before this ceremony a deep prayer for someone or something, and then dancing to the rhythm of drums and Spirit to provide energy to the prayer so that is could become manifest. The continuous and long physical movements of the dance provide the energy and impetus for the prayer to become real. In the process of this physical dancing, she went through tremendous mental, emotional and spiritual dancing through her own voids to create the reality of what she prayed for with the community of dancers around her and the greater tribe beyond. It is with my dancing with my feelings that I put out a prayer, supported by a community of practitioners – my tribe – that our feelings of loss, fear, betrayal and heartbreak knit us closer together, rather than driving us apart, and help us to reveal our brightness more regularly with one another.
It is by feeling, praying, being present and continuing to move that we not only dance with our heartbreak, loss and fear, but that we learn how to create something out of it. In the words of fellow yoga teacher, Boston native, and writer Rebecca Pacheco of Omgal.com, “Know that solutions and revolutions of good and healing often start inside the very same hearts that are broken open.” So the next time loss rings at your door, let your heart be broken open, stay in feeling, and dance with the very full void of stuff that comes up and out of your loss. I’ll be there dancing with you.
Recently I was assisting Ana Forrest during her Advanced Teacher Training Program in New York City at Pure Yoga. This 9-day program is an incredible whirlwind of breakthroughs and development for the students who take it, and an equally incredible challenge to development for the teachers like me who assist it. Our days began early – 3am to be exact – and ran through 11:30am including a long practice for the assistants and then a practice for the students that we helped with. There was a short break and then back to business for the afternoon until 5:30pm. I’ve taken this course many times and reaped incredible benefits from it, but this was the first time I was assisting it. I was nervous about the schedule, nervous about being a good assistant, nervous about working with new people, and more.
Things started off great: I didn’t oversleep for the early AM practice sessions, I learned new hands-on assists, I met very interesting and kind new students, I worked alongside my mentor and lifelong teacher. It was a great experience.
Fast forward to day 5: in the middle of the day I started feeling quite ill. By the next morning during practice I was feeling much worse. My teacher looked at me and she said, “If you need to go and rest, please go to your apartment and rest.” This might sound like a simple phrase to you, but inside my mind this was revolutionary. In my mind, rest was not an option. If I left, my mind told me the story that I was a failure, that I was not completing my obligation to assist the program, that I was weak, that I was letting Ana/the other assistants/the students down, and that there was something wrong with me because this was the 7th time I had been sick in as many weeks. I was floored – stopped in my tracks – that I was having such thoughts about myself.
In the maelstrom of energy that coursed through me along these trains of thought in a single moment, pulling me down into a spiral of despair, Ana in her wisdom and stepping into Spirit turned back to me and said, “What would you have said to your student if they came to you and were sick like this?” This blew the doors open. I started crying and said, “I would tell them not to worry at all and to go home and rest, and to get better, and I would mean every word.” It’s the truth.
In delving deeper into these issues for myself, I realized that I have trouble resting. I joke about it, but I really have been conditioned throughout my whole life to “just keep going no matter what.” There are a lot of threads weaving into the tapestry of that pattern in my life, but in feeling deeper into the pattern I came up with some wisdom for myself that I hope will help you too.
Fast forwards to coming home to Chicago. When I came back to teaching after being sick for weeks, I was struck by several things. First, that so many sick people were coming to class with full-on influenza, stomach virus, colds, strep, and more. Second, that suddenly I could see very clearly students who were pushing beyond their edges into a danger zone when they needed to back off, but they simply would not stop pushing ahead even though they were in pain and even though I encouraged them not to. Third, that no one seemed to think either of these patterns were odd or injurious, but the opposite: that by practicing while VERY ill or pushing hard and fast ahead they were actually helping themselves….This left me unsettled as I realized I had some of this pattern in myself.
In light of these experiences, I think we need to re-evaluate the yoga practice of rest!
Ana Forrest teaches about discerning when you need to rest by feeling into your current state honestly without getting sucked into your “rackets.” Sometimes when we “rest” in a pose like embryo or child’s pose, we are actually doing it out of avoidance or because we have a story about the sensations that are coming up in another pose. Likewise, when we are in a challenging pose and we keep pushing ahead, Forrest says sometimes the story is that we have to push through the pain to get ahead – and how false and potentially damaging this kind of internal story really is. Using feeling as a discerning tool to sift through the stories we tell ourselves about our practice to get to the truth of the matter will allow us to learn when and how to actually rest. Sometimes this means changing alignment, other times changing the pose entirely, other times staying home from a group class altogether. But feeling into the truth of your state of being is the key to making the decision.
Another of my teachers, Scott Sonnon, talks about rest as active recovery. He has been through a wide variety of instances in which he needed to keep moving to heal from his injuries and conditions. When he says “active recovery” he means tailoring the movement modality to what is actually going on in the body at any given time – whether that is a neck fracture or the flu. He recommends the practice of Intu-Flow (functional joint mobility training) solo to address where the body’s energy is stuck as a result of fatigue, illness or injury. He also recommends neither too much sleep, nor too little, but the amount of sleep that actually helps you to feel your best – and how this is different for everyone. He speaks to the need to eat not only high quality, whole foods, but nutrient dense foods that actually provide what your life schedule and activity levels ask of you as a form of “rest” or replenishment.
From my teachers I walk away with some tips for you:
1. If you are sick with a fever, are just getting over the stomach flu or food poisoning and feel weak, are dizzy to the point of feeling like you are going to pass out, have a bacterial infection not yet treated and cleared by the your doctor, stay home and rest up! Know that you are doing a huge service to yourself by resting. And you are keeping those around you from getting sick.
2. When you are fatigued, know that sitting around will probably make you more fatigued. If you usually take Power Yoga or something kick-your-asana because that is the practice you like, consider taking a steadier or more energetic based practice like Forrest Yoga or Slow Flow Vinyasa to learn about replenishing your supply of Self.
3. When you are in a pose, become finely attuned to your edge: the space where you feel something is happening, but you could stay for a while and not fall over into the abyss of overwhelm and abandon.
4. Reframe the negative internal dialogue that comes up for you related to resting, taking breaks, backing off, bailing out, etc. Congratulate yourself for becoming aware that you are even having these patterns of reactions! Once you cultivate awareness you can finally begin to cultivate change.
I leave you with some final tips!!
Eat well for your body and schedule. Sleep enough for your constitution. Move every day. Give yourself time for silent contemplation. Turn off Facebook from time to time (and Twitter!). Go for a walk instead of surfing the net. Read something that inspires you. Call a friend. Stay home when you are sick and recuperate. Learn your own “rackets” and stories, and be the best writer as you recreate yourself one pattern at a time. Delight in your process of being – this is the only go you get.