Sunday, April 4, 2010

What It Is: First Post to a New Blog (Happy Spring!)

(This blog is going to be a challenge to illustrate! I may have to draw.)

Welcome to the first official post of this new blog. It's spring, Passover, Easter, the season for starting new things.

As always, I start with something casual in mind. I'm not composing a draft of this in Word—I'm typing right on the screen. Usually things proceed to get more complicated.

What's on my mind today is that my shoulder hurts, which is alarming given that soon I'll be going off on a yoga retreat, and I think I better try to take a break from yoga for a few days.

I'm going to try some herbal patches from my acupuncturist, who says they may ease inflammation and circulate qi. Once I might have been inclined to dismiss such remedies, though that now seems kind of dumb.

This morning my neighbor K. said, "I get more and more open to alternative methods as the years go by. What do we really know about the world?" I agree.

K. also said of my shoulder: "As we get older we really have to face that our body can't do all these things any more. It's hard to get used to."

I still don't think of these stresses and strains as age, though I probably should. I never did these things before, so I don't generally sense the fall-off in performance.

I've spent the week thinking about athletes, and how incredibly hard it must be to have your entire fortune resting on your body. One pulled hamstring and you're out for the year. (It's the first day of baseball season, by the way.)

This is one thing that fascinates me as I go ahead with yoga: the fact that I'm always leaping from the specifics of what happens in class or to my body to larger thoughts about the world.

That seems appropriate, in a way—yoga isn't just about physical poses, I gather, it's about using the body to get to a mental state where you can appreciate the great Oneness, or God. So moving off the body into the realm of ideas makes sense.

On the other hand, what about that body? My mind or will is definitely involved in my practice, telling me to stay still when I want to move (or vice versa) or directing my attention to one area or another.

What about that body? When she teaches, C. often talks about how yoga is about learning to feel our own bodies. And really, it is. I'd never appreciated the way my joints moved, or even known about certain muscles. I've been living here all this time and I had no idea!

How do you talk or write about this? I've only begun to look at the yoga literature, but so far I've seen on the one hand books that offer instructions on how to get into the poses and on the other books that talk about the spiritual results of the practice.

Is there a way to monitor what happens in between instruction and enlightenment? Is it too hard to put movements into words? Are physical experiences too individual to translate broadly?

Is it boring to talk about what happens in our bodies?

For the most part, I'd guess, we talk about the body largely in the context of growing old. My 85-year-old friend R. calls this the "organ recital." She talks about this dismissively. I feel embarrassed when I talk about how I can't read subways maps and menus anymore—that wasn't supposed to happen to me! Do yoga instructors go mad with the tedium of students complaining about their various strains and injuries?

What about the whole universe of physical sensation that accompanies the aches and pains? I remember when I first started developing callouses on my feet. For some reason the sheets on my bed felt so wonderful and luxurious on my hardening soles. I didn't want to forget it, because now I don't notice that any more.

I have felt that something is happening with my circulation. One day I talked to my friend G. about caffeine and alcohol, how suddenly I could feel it actually moving through my system, the rush of it. Was my body more sensitive or was my awareness heightened. Was it yoga? It turned out she was experiencing the same thing.

I've spent a lot of time just trying to feel my heart. It hadn't even known where it was in my chest—like a lot of people, apparently, I thought it was on the left. What about connecting that metaphorical "heart center" with this genuine organ? What's that heart going to feel like six months from now?

G. also remarked that lately she was in touch with a very young part of herself, and she thought perhaps it was because she'd been caring for an aging parent. I've had that feeling, too—but I have a sense it connects with yoga.

The other night C. was describing happiness as petting a cat, among other things. Someone else laughed, "You sound like you are five!" It made me wonder if my own deepest pleasures have really changed much since that age.

I often feel about five at yoga—for me, it occasionally feels like play, and that induces a feeling of physical delight that I think I also experienced as a child, but had almost entirely forgotten. This is a joy that seems to operate under the radar of my mind.

I've been reading lately about attachment theory, and how some of our first experiences are somatic—might yoga have a role to play in getting us back there? I wonder.

And then there are the asanas themselves. I did my first handstand, albeit with my feet resting on the wall, last week—hooray! (And maybe that's why my shoulder hurts!) The truth was, for the first time in doing a pose, I felt scared—not when going up, but on coming down!

When I arrived on my hands and knees, I felt shaky. I felt as if I'd fallen off a horse and better get back on before I could never do it again. Why did that happen? My friend K. broke the handstand barrier that week, too. What was it like for her? I could ask these things. Track the course of handstand, and all those other things.

Anyway. No such thing as a short item for me. Ideas for a half-dozen posts in here, I guess. If anyone got this far and has ideas about any of this, comments welcome. Have a lovely day, whenever you read this.

P.S. What's with the weird initials? Where's the blogger book of ethics? Don't want to steal quotes or quote people by name without their asking, but it's hard to imagine asking everybody first...what to do? Assign all new initials? Don't do it? Don't be lazy and get the okays? Input welcome here, too. This kind of writing offers so much pleasure and freedom precisely because it doesn't have to abide by all the rules that some "professional" writing does, but there's no escaping the issues....

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Yoga Chronicles: Who's Yer Daddy?

“This practice can handle you.”
—Carla Stangenberg, director, Jaya Yoga Center

As I remember it, those words sounded like a challenge, playful but serious. “You think you’re so tough?” she seemed to be saying, to each of us. “Well, you’ve met your match.”

The phrase has stuck in my mind.

As so often in yoga, the teaching involves a discreet disruption of the conventional perspective. My usual question is whether I can handle yoga, not whether it can handle me.

C. herself once talked of a time when she repeated, like a mantra, “I can’t handle this! I can’t handle this!” Someone finally told her: “You are handling it. You’re just not handling it well.”

What does it mean to turn this idea on its head? To think of being handled—and not even by another person, but by a physical practice?

In a way, yoga is remarkably accommodating. Instructions for the poses, or asanas, are specific, but you’re still in the game if you can’t follow them well. It’s not like baseball; you don’t strike out.

If I’ve got extra energy, I can infuse each asana with vigor. If the effort is too much, I can sink to my knees in a child’s pose and let it all go. Everything counts.

Most days, it’s not my body that’s causing trouble—it’s my thoughts. Like lots of other forms of exercise, yoga has a way of clearing the head.

One day I came to class angry. Directing my ferocity into every lunge and twist, I discovered an unexpected sense of mastery. It made me feel powerful to vent my outrage in postures that also demanded such control. I got so absorbed in the feeling that my fury dropped away. (I was almost disappointed, at the end, to discover I was no longer mad.)

I think that’s one form of handling. Of course, the frustrations of the outside world aren’t the only things that yoga has to contend with.

As C. was perhaps saying, many of us may also, consciously or unconsciously, fight with yoga itself. We resist the demands of the poses, the limits of our bodies, the challenges of the teachers.

As the instructors keep pointing out, the ego gets involved, and that can be grim or it can be funny. Think you can stand on one leg? Splat. Think you can twist your arms into a bind? Yes, but what’s that ripping in my shoulder? Why can’t I do what I want?

You can be as defiant as you like, but still: this practice can handle you.

You can get mad and leave it, but it won’t go away. It doesn’t care if you are young or old; it can vex you either way. It will wait out your laziness, your overexertion, your arrogance, your fear. In between child’s pose and corpse pose, it offers a million ways to stand on your own two feet (and your hands, too).

In this sense, committing to this or any practice may offer all the benefits of believing in god, which I happen not to. (Maybe god is a practice.) I met a woman once who’d been devout all her life, and then her daughter died.

She got angry. She raged at god, she stormed, and she stopped going to church. Eventually she came back. Whatever god she knew was still there, unyielding and forgiving, a perfect friend and adversary for all the epic struggles of her life.

It seems that god and yoga may be handling us in much the same way. Bit by bit, they teach us that we can handle ourselves.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Yoga Chronicles: Say What?

“Come to your senses.”

So said J., the yoga teacher, guiding her class into a brief meditation. What can you hear, touch, smell, taste? What can you see, even from behind closed eyelids?

I was flabbergasted. The meaning of J.'s inviting phrase, most of the time, is “to regain one's good judgment or realistic point of view; become reasonable.” That definition couldn’t have anything to do with noticing the truck noise seeping into a peaceful studio on Eighth Avenue—or could it?

That’s what I like about language as well as yoga—how subtle shifts in emphasis open up whole worlds of inquiry.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, by the way, the earliest recorded use of “come to one’s senses” was in 1637, when it meant “to recover from a swoon.”

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Yoga Chronicles: Yes, Ma’am!

I’m sitting happily on my mat, awaiting the start of a basic yoga class. Roving around the room, still helping to settle the newcomers, C. begins the litany of the commands that will lead us into Sukasana, an easy version of sitting cross-legged.

“Extend your legs.”

I’m anticipating her instructions just slightly. By now I’ve done this many times, but I love getting told what to do. It’s like taking a test when you already know you will get a perfect score—very satisfying.

“Bend your knees. Flex your feet. Externally rotate your right leg—if you don’t know what I mean, you can look at what K. is doing,” C. says.

K. is me! I sit up a little straighter. Indeed, I’m extremely pleased to be mentioned, at least until my buddy R., a sixth-grade teacher, emits an emphatic noise from the mat to my left.

“Brownnoser!” she hisses.

I turn to R., roll my eyes, and laugh. Ha, ha, very funny! I hope that for a second we’re like two kids passing notes in the back of the class—you know, infinitesimally disruptive. Not teacher’s pets. Not brownnosers at all.

As class begins in earnest, I’m thinking that later I’ll set R. straight about how I’m really a rebel. (Not now, because C. just told us to close our eyes and focus quietly on our breath.)

I never do, of course, because by the end of the session I’ve realized that in a way what R. said is totally true: when it comes to yoga, I love following the rules.

* * *

That thought is a surprise. It shouldn’t have been, I suppose, since I’m seriously law-abiding, but then again: our lived reality and our internal experience don’t always jibe.

In my mind, I’m not malleable. I’m defiant. I live in a perpetual state of resistance. I’ll do what I’m told, I think, but I don’t have to like it.

How come, in yoga, I do?

It may seem weird to leap from the simple matter of accepting a teacher’s guidance to the whole matter of oppressive ideologies, but that’s where it goes for me.

I grew up with parents who’d spent their formative years fearing Nazism, McCarthyism, and religious fundamentalism—terrible things. All may have begun with an assertion of shared and ostensibly positive values, but they swiftly morphed into intolerance, and worse.

As I understood it—and mind you, these were simply the interpretations of a wide-eared child, with no comprehension of nuance or hyperbole—my father believed that social movements by their very nature consisted of people who had subordinated their individual will to some larger, collective imperative.

These people were sheep, but potentially very dangerous sheep. Before long, these they would be hard at work trying to impose their shared values and their rules on you.

My father opposed the Vietnam War and supported civil rights, but he did not seem to be in favor of antiwar rallies, protest marches, churches, politicians, team spirit, community activism, Ralph Nader, or block associations.

(Theater, movies, books, wildflowers, trees, houseplants, butter, Lorna Doone cookies, sorbet, shrimp curry, some dogs, and Thoreau were okay.)

A better child than I might have emerged as an impassioned foe of injustice and intolerance, but I emerged with a deep suspicion of group activities.

I had no idea what was safe to believe in. I had no confidence in my own moral fiber. I was afraid that even the smallest act of participation might be enough to lead someone as weak-willed as myself to a life of blind following.

I was terrified by what faith in anything, particularly if others believed in it also, might make me want to do. I might start telling other people what to do. I’d be a brownnoser one day, and a brownshirt the next.

Why not defy the group? To me, even the mildest sharing of divergent views felt like confrontation. I had no idea how to negotiate. Melting into the shadows seemed like just the ticket. Avoidance made me feel strong.

It can feel very lonely if you never allow yourself to care.

* * *

Almost from the very start, yoga has been able to trick me out of my ambivalence toward authority.

For most of my life, I believed that my refusal to really join with others was a sign of strength. Now, of course, I can see that defiance can also be a great mask for fear.

To me, almost any set of collective standards represents a form of coercion. If you want to play with the group members you’ve got to acknowledge their standards—and once you do, you’ll be using their lens to see how you measure up.

If you don’t measure up, then you fail. And if you do measure up and feel good about it, what about everyone else who doesn’t?

If you don’t want to fall into this type of self-hating quagmire, you simply refuse to join.

My first significant encounter with yoga came in the early 1990s, when I took a class taught by Roberta Schine at her Karate School for Women. “Be a C student,” she used to say, over and over.

I could hardly believe my ears. I was never a C student. Not only was I being given permission to fail, I was being given permission not to try!

The voice of authority was telling me it was just fine to ignore her. I could yield to my limits or my fears or my soreness and still be okay in there.

Yeehaw! From then on, I did everything she said. I loved her, and I adored those classes. Suckered by reverse psychology, or liberated from expectations, I gave the experience my unprecedented all.

That yoga experiment didn’t last long, because Roberta closed her school and went off to teach yoga to cancer survivors, but the legacy of those weeks lives on. For me, yoga remains an arena where it seems possible to obey without having to submit.

* * *

A basic yoga class, I sometimes think, is like a game of Simon Says—but without that malicious trickery! It feels like a safe place to surrender. Basically, I trust these people. It’s pretty clear that the last thing they want is for us to get hurt.

Once I’ve lowered my defenses, it turns out I can actually enjoy taking orders.

When C. says, “raise your arm,” I try. If I fall over, there’s no time to brood—there are more directions coming.

The commands run right through me. I don't think; I obey. We execute a whole sequence of postures on one side and move on to the other.

Sometimes a teacher may send us into a pose with our left leg bent, and later forget to repeat it on the right.

Most often, there’s a student who’ll call out the omission, sometimes to a chorus of mock groans.

Half the time I don’t even remember what we did the first time. I’m not attuned enough to my body to notice the imbalance, and my mind seems completely absent.

For me, the mix of arduousness and precision is often absorbing.

I am, in a strange way, fully in the present of each step. My brain seems to have no record of whatever movement just took place. There is no past and no future.

I wonder sometimes if this isn’t part of what’s so relaxing.

* * *

In the long run, yoga may provide an interesting illustration of a familiar point: that you have to know the rules before you can break them.

I don’t think I’ll always be able to let the teacher function as a surrogate consciousness, no matter how delicious that may feel.

Eventually, it seems, the—er—brownnosing would take a new shape. A devoted student would go home, practice the poses, and absorb the routines into memory.

I imagine with this kind of progress there comes a new level of responsibility: to know yourself and to take care of yourself. If you couldn’t achieve the positions the yoga schools dictate, you might have to adapt the asanas so that they would work for you.

One of the teachers, J., told us that new poses are still being developed; as she remarked, “the book of yoga is not yet closed.”

All of which could in fact make it exciting to absorb the rules. Because you could feel confident you’d never be confined by them.

(What’s scares me still, at least in prospect, is the thought that I might actually become a true convert. I might end up as a vegan ascetic wearing a sheet!)

If practice is supposed to teach you something, I guess what I’m learning is this:

It takes openness and discipline to accept and apply the rules that help—and courage to reject the ones that don’t.

Just as that serenity prayer says, the wisdom must lie in discerning the difference.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Yoga Chronicles: The Year of the Cow

As 2008 came to a close, I made a New Year’s resolution to start taking yoga classes. Much to my surprise, I kept it—and several other resolutions, too. Go figure.

Ten months into 2009, I was struggling with a whole bunch of questions about what to do with my new practice. In lieu of a job, I’d spent the summer training for a bike ride. When that was over, I dumped all my anxiety and ambition onto yoga.

I wanted to advance, but before now I’ve rarely undertaken a sustained effort to get better at anything. In between feeling that progress was unlikely and unrealistic and besides a daydream of the ego, I wondered if I could become a yoga teacher.

Having tied myself into mental knots, I’d plan an arduous schedule of more advanced classes. I’d skip other acts of exercise to conserve energy for my proposed foray into the intermediate level, but then, week after week, I’d bypass the yoga classes, too. They were at all new times. When would I eat?

Anyway, I didn’t want to leave the basics classes I so love, or the people in them.

I wrestled with my ambivalence until the New Year drew nigh, and then abruptly settled on two 2010 yoga resolutions that I hoped would be simple and doable.

1. I would aim for two intermediate and one open class per week. Any basics classes I took after that would be purely for fun.

2. I would bring the spirit of a cow to my practice.

* * *

It’s the heifer part that really matters to me.

First and foremost, I thought I could use that cow image to shut my mind up. Get placid. Just stand by the fence and chew my cud. Swish my tail from time to time. Mooooo is practically Ommmm sung backward.

(Obviously, I’m not thinking of the kind of cow that gets tortured in industrial farming. I’m thinking of the apparently contented dairy cows I still sometimes see by a country road. )

Not surprisingly, I’d arrived at my notion of bovine inspiration while working through repetitions of cow pose, which is one of yoga’s basic moves for warming up the spine.

You start on your hands and knees, but then raise your head and neck at one end and your “sitting” bones (aka ischial tuberosities) at the other. Your spine drops and stretches into a shallow curve between the two elevated points.

The pose that alternates with this is cat pose—still on your hands and knees, you curl your back like a Halloween cat.

photos: Yoga Journal. Cow left, cat right.

As an aside, let me note that I often experience a fair amount of confusion while cycling through these two poses, and it almost always starts with the word arch.

Yoga may be all about the body, but there’s still plenty of room to get tripped up by language.

To me, an arch is something that goes up—the McDonald’s arch, the St. Louis arch. But to lots of people, it seems, an arch can also curve downward, like the smile in a happy face or a jump rope waiting for action.

As a result, about half the time when a teacher says “arch” I rise into cat, while everyone else descends into cow.

(This moving in the wrong direction is fairly typical for me in yoga, though it usually involves right and left.)

One of the things that I’ve come to love about yoga classes is the way in which coherent collective action and distinct individual experience are able to coexist.

To me, this often creates a wonderful sense of mystery.

The teachers are trying to invent language that communicates to the body, and we’re all absorbing the dozens of literal and metaphoric instructions in different ways.

I have no idea what is flashing through all the other students’ minds as they engage the stream of images that is likely to be invoked in the course of any given class.

(Lawn mowers, snakes, parachutes, jellyfish, sails, ferns, flags, Slip ‘n Slides—the list goes on and on.)

When somebody says “cow,” do all the other city people get excited?

Cows have big bony haunches, and when I envision them I get a little flamboyant about spinning my own pelvis so that my sitting bones feel hugely wide and very tall in the air. (If I were doing this as a human, I’d probably be a lot less exuberant.)

When I raise my head, it’s because I’ve had my neck comfortably lowered for gazing, but then I calmly raise my head to see what’s passing by. (Big brown eyes. Mmmmm. Look back down.)

It’s true I picked cows as my mascot because they didn’t seem like the types to indulge in overthinking. But there was more to it than that.

As I contemplated my intentions for the year ahead, one of the underlying questions was this: How can I stay with yoga for the long haul?

I knew that I wanted to cultivate discipline, to learn to work hard and to visibly try, but at the same time I feared it might be counterproductive to fight so hard at every step of my practice.

As much as it conflicted with every macho fantasy I’ve ever had for myself, I thought I should aim for something steadfast and gentle, like I imagined a cow to be. Something sweet.

Lately, C. keeps emphasizing that yoga is all about feeling in the body, and therefore about touch most of all. I buy that, and I’m fascinated by the idea of developing an interior sense of touch, but I’m surprised to discover that yoga has opened up other senses as well.

When I think of it, sweet can be a quality of movement—I’d certainly aspire to that—or a taste. But I was thinking of a particular scent, one I’d inhaled years ago during a magical day in the badlands of North Dakota.

The grasses were unusually lush and green, the sky pink and blue, and the breeze danced with the sounds of meadowlarks.

I could remember how amazing the fragrance of that prairie was, and I knew what it was like, but I simply could not bring it back to mind—not enough to use it in yoga.

What had it been like? After a while, I realized it was kinder, gentler, more nuanced version of cow dung—which made sense, since both scents came from grasses. I could readily conjure the perfume of cow dung.

Yes, at the risk of seeming ridiculous, I wanted my yoga practice to contain the smell (and smelling) of manure. How alert do I feel when I am capturing an unexpected scent? How delicate does my sensing have to be? How smoothly does the aroma flow through me? Can I move like that?

The associations went on from there. I’d first encountered cow dung while exploring the dairy farm that bordered the very first house I’d lived in.

I’d wade across the creek, squeeze through a slack, rusty strand of barbed wire, and stand daringly in the cow pasture. The fact that the manure coiled into a perfect circle—the proverbial cow pie—was totally amazing to me.

A while back I wrote about visiting the neighbor’s farm to watch the cows come in for their milking (see postscript). My sister has since told me it turned out it was off to the cows I had gone when I disappeared one afternoon and my father got so frantic he jumped in the old well to look for me.

So my cow idea has acquired another layer—a fresh narrative about the child who wants to explore and is loved at the same time. That childhood daring feels very much part of the world of yoga for me, along with the notion of being cared for, in a sense, by the teachers and the practice.

* * *
I’ve only invoked the cow a few times so far. As the Jaya newsletter said recently, I’m constantly remembering that I’m about to forget I ever had the idea at all.

I tried it once during the extended period of time in which we held a hip-opening stretch.

Head down, forearms on blocks, eyes watering, hands clasped in prayer, I began to imagine what it must be like to be a cow walking toward the barn with a swollen udder. Oh, those bones must ache. Was the cow in a hurry? Was the cow complaining? No!

(Speaking of hip openers, I’ve discovered that they bring up a lot of what the yoga teachers like to call “sensation.”

One of our instructors, A., told us with a smile that she’d once held ankle-to-knee for so long that she could taste the tears she’d shed on her fourth-grade playground. Once again, yoga had moved beyond touch, to memory and taste.

Apparently I’m suggestible, and there must be something about that pose and salt. The next time I tried ankle-to-knee I could have sworn my saliva was flavored with blood from my endless childhood sessions at the dentist.)

I'm not sure any of this is what you are supposed to be doing in yoga, but for now it’s fun anyway.

I realize a cow may be too clumsy and plodding and earthbound to serve as a lasting source of yogic inspiration, but for now those are my attributes, too.

And of course, there’s always that cow that jumped over the moon.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Pool Cue

Sometimes I feel like I don't have a thought in my head.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Yoga Chronicles: A Teacher's Notes

A while back, Ruthie Streiter began her class at Jaya Yoga Center by saying she’d been on the phone with a friend the other night, talking about what it took to be a good yoga teacher.

I liked this right away. It was a pleasant reminder that there are people trying to be good yoga teachers just the way I am trying to be a good yoga student. I felt in that moment all of us in the class had a common cause.

Unfolding a piece of paper, Ruthie read out a list of four key tasks for the instructor.

Sitting on my mat, I half listened and half began working feverishly to concoct an acronym by which to remember the four items. Later, of course, I could recall the acronym, but not what it stood for.

I emailed Ruthie, and she was kind enough to send me the list, which she said should be sourced to her friend, Kimberly Johnson. Here it is, partially (but I hope responsibly) paraphrased:

The Four Key Tasks for a Yoga Instructor

Instructors should help students to:
1. Connect to the breath.

2. Visualize. Visualization helps students to focus, sharpen observation skills, tap into creativity, learn how to use imagination to create and move energy and feeling, and awaken the inner senses.

Understand that there is constant change—or, in other words, to grasp the inevitable truth of impermanence. If we know that things are changing all the time, then we won’t cling or grasp as much; it’s easier to let go.
At the same time, teachers should:
4. Hold a higher vision for students even when the students don't or when it is difficult for them to keep it in perspective.

* * *

I’m not a teacher, but it occurred to me that this list might contain useful ground rules for any kind of instruction.

The ideas about breath and impermanence (1 and 3), for instance, are among the core teachings of Buddhist philosophy, and obviously these have wide applicability.

It seemed to me there was a lot to chew on in point number 4.

I'm sometimes envious of yoga teachers and therapists—who often promote enormous personal progress in the people they work with, but in ways that rarely leave their student clients feeling judged or criticized.

(It may sometimes help that students may as yet have no clue whatsoever about the ideal they are shooting for—it may take years even to know how far we are falling short!)

In both fields, I suspect, the pace of the project depends largely on the motivation of the student. What this means for the guides, I imagine, is that faithful adherence to a higher vision may require a great deal of patience.

Is there some way to integrate gentleness with higher vision if you’re in a field in which you must apply specific standards or there is some period of time in which the student must show improvement?

What if you’re a teacher who has to give a grade? Or an editor who feels the piece won’t be publishable if you don’t overhaul a sentence?

I don’t know the answers, but I’m no longer thinking about the question in quite the same way.

Above all, it was the point about visualization that hit home for me.

I’ve read about athletes envisioning a brilliant performance before the big competition, but I’d never played sports or thought that was something I could do.

As for visualizing where I wanted to be in five years, or imagining what kind of tree I might like to be, forget it.

It is very different, somehow, to be asked to behave like a tree.

If somebody asks me to stand like a gnarled old oak, I’ll give it the old college try. And if someone asks me to move like a willow, I’ll do something entirely different—especially if my eyes are closed and nobody’s looking.

This kind of visualization (through enactment, in many instances) is going on in yoga all the time. The English names for some asanas, like plank or corpse pose, already contain images.

It’s not unusual to be asked to imagine your heart as a flower or to breathe like a jellyfish or to think about grass blowing in the wind or the waves on the shore.

Much to surprise, I find myself actually building these images, experiencing them, somehow feeling that I can live them in my body.

It does feel like an act of creation—a path forged by metaphor, or simile, or analogy, or whatever it is. One begins to embody so many different things.

When she came to visit, my friend L. remarked that she’d never written so much fiction as when she was regularly taking yoga. Focus, observation, creativity, imagination, moving energy and feeling, awakened senses—it makes sense to me.