My first “real” yoga teacher (by “real,” I mean the woman from whom I learned the philosophical support structure of yoga, not just the postures) taught me that the truest purpose of the yoga postures is to practice, in safety and comfort, how we hope to be in life. So in Warrior Poses, I practiced remaining open-hearted, expanded, aware. In Tree Pose, I practiced grounding, focusing, and balancing. And in Downward Dog, I practiced reaching, lengthening and breathing comfortably.
It was this same teacher who claimed that Savasana, despite all efforts to simple it down to nothing more than a glorified relaxation pose, is and always will be a practice in learning how to deeply let go. Even how to die. Savasana translates, after all, to Corpse Pose.
While other teachers may play music or read poems during Savasana to uplift our spirits and calm our stresses, this woman turned off all outer distractions and gave us the space, time and encouragement to learn how to let go. Muscle by muscle, thought by thought, breath by breath, we practiced what we will all one day have to do: die. Why pretend, after all, that Corpse Pose means anything else?
After Savasana, we would, bone by bone, nerve by nerve, re-enter our body, reclaim our breath and collect our belongings: our thoughts, beliefs and finally, our identity. Slowly, we would climb back into “our” cars, drive back home to “our” homes to live “our” lives. But once in a while, we left something behind. Something that we no longer needed. Something that no longer fit. Something that we had finally shed. Perhaps a pair of sunglasses, an old sock, a worn sweater, but perhaps something less tangible, like a belief, or an idea, or something that mere moments earlier had seemed intertwined with us.
For over ten years, I practiced, and then taught, Yoga. Inspired by my teacher, I too never shied away from sharing the deepest purpose and gifts available in Savasana. But in truth, in economic terminology, I was still in the “accumulation” phase of my life: debt, children, a house, a yoga business, credentials, new sets of dishes, a couple of puppies. So admittedly, what I was learning — even teaching — remained mostly theory.
Now, at 43, I see that my life is slowly shifting, still in economic terms, ever so slightly towards the “distribution” phase. I turned over my yoga business three years ago. I am watching my children, now 15 and 13, grow up and, inch by inch, away from depending on me. We moved from a large house in the suburbs to a small, cozy home in the city, which required us to give away truck loads of furnishings and “stuff” we no longer needed. Even the new Ayurveda business I tried to water and grow in Minneapolis lasted but a year before I let that slip out of my grasp, too.
Hoping to turn this (should we call it a mid-life crisis?) phase into something positive, I turned inward and inquired of my Soul — a process that lasted months and involved retreats, journaling, and all kinds of painful inquiry — what now?
Travel!” I eventually gleaned from my Soul’s cryptic messages.
I interpreted this to mean “Let’s have some fun life experiences!” Yes, I returned, traveling sounds like fun! Traveling sounds like living! Let’s do it. And I followed my Soul to TripAdvisor.com
Over the last two years, I’ve followed through and accomplished a fair amount of traveling; both with my family and solo, both within this country and beyond. By far the most life-changing, however, was my solo trip to Southeast Asia in October, 2014: Myanmar. It was in this trip that I lost, never to be regained, my childhood sense of invincibility and felt deeply into my human vulnerability. The idea of travel as being a non-stop adventure began to unravel, and I began to wonder what my Soul might’ve truly had in mind when She suggested we travel. Because while this trip to Myanmar provided many fantastic adventures, it also demanded a kind of courage I had yet untapped. It required a kind of trust in and dependency on others I’d never before had to consider. But I untapped, I considered, and I grew profoundly as a human being.
Earlier this year, I planned another international trip, this time with my husband. Since both my girls were, separately, signed up for Student Ambassador trips to Spain, Italy and France, (what’s good for the goose…) we too would head to Europe. Why not? A time to travel without the responsibility of kids sounded amazing. But as the time for all of us to depart crept closer, as we dropped the dogs off at the kennel and placed sheets on the furnishings to prevent the cat from getting too comfortable, I began experiencing anxiety and fear. I am not a stranger to these feelings. I have always been prone, as a “thinker,” and as an “emotion-full” woman, to what-if scenarios that can build into raging firestorms in my mind. These thoughts asked me, am I crazy? Traveling to Europe while my kids are away? I should be home, holding down the fort, waiting with bated breath for them to come home! After all, my anxiety said to me, if you forget to worry, and something happens, it’s your fault! Anxiety has always touted this particular non-truth to me, and I’ve yet to pull it up by the root and be done with it forever. So for now, it lives within me. I accept that.
No, I told myself, and my anxiety, what’s booked is booked. My Soul, for Her part, agreed.
There is no doubt that traveling is a wild ride. Now home, I have fantastic pictures of trip and all our adventures, smiles, and unique experiences. Here are some:
But I’ll tell you what I don’t have pictures of. The look my husband and I exchanged in the taxi ride with the driver from hell who nearly killed five pedestrians in our fifteen minute drive from one hotel to another. Neither did we snap a picture as we roared from Paris to Amsterdam in a high-speed train that, while efficient, left us both feeling like a vanilla shake when it was finished (recommendation: unless you are in a hurry, find a more peaceful journey!) We also failed to capture the moments of waiting in long lines, getting lost in Paris Nord, and a host of other to-be-expected traveling hassles. No one takes pictures of those things.
And I sure didn’t reach for the camera when, about a week into the trip, I experienced a panic attack, brought on, I imagine, from days, even weeks, of mild to moderate anxiety. In the middle of the night, I woke up realizing that the only way for our family to all be back together again was for all of us to once again board long, trans-atlantic flights flown by pilots I had not had an opportunity to personally vet out. I mean c’mon, I vetted out my kids’ teachers, babysitters, and friend’s parents, and I can’t interview the pilot who is going to carry them halfway around the world? And me, too? What’s wrong with this picture?
I haven’t always had flight anxiety. In the past, I curled up with a good book and the hours “flew” by. So this is a new, and very unwelcome, addition in my life. I trace it back to a frighteningly turbulent flight in Myanmar. But it doesn’t matter how or when it began; it is a reality for me now. Suddenly, in the midst of this panic attack, the entire idea of of anyone flying in a metal tube over the vast ocean seemed utterly ridiculous. Who does this? my anxiety asked me, and I shook awake my husband for answers.
“What a stupid idea this whole flying thing is, anyway. Human beings shouldn’t be doing this!” I said.
“Everything will be OK, it’s all going to be OK,” he comforted.
“You can’t guarantee that!” I spat back at him. “Not you, not anyone can!”
He had to agree. No one can guarantee anything.
But then, as the panic attack faded and as the sun came up on a new day, new smiles, new friends, the anxiety released its grip, and I reminded myself that if I was going to make it home in one piece, I had to figure out how to let go — Savasana style. I simply could not endure a panic attack each night and hope to put myself back together again when I get home. My body could not go through that. It’s then that it hit me: I was no longer practicing at life. I was no longer in a Downward Dog, practicing letting go of my hamstring muscles. I was in my life, learning how to relinquish control over my own, and my children’s, lives. Everything I had thought I had understood “on the mat” was mere child’s play compared to the kind of letting go I was being asked to do. No, not asked. Required. Breathe, and let go, I asked my body. Breathe and let go. This is hands on. This is full on. I’m no longer in safety and comfort; I’m on the course of life itself, and it’s “go time.”
How did I do? Well, I’m here, writing about it. That’s good enough for me. Each day following that panic attack, I had hours of real peace and trust and faith and happiness. While the anxiety would sometimes flood back in during the evening hours, it never did escalate into another panic attack. I consider that a win. And I gained a momentous insight as well:
As a student in yoga classes, I practiced through the active poses how I wanted to live. Separately, in Savasana, I practiced how to die. But now I see, living and dying are not separate from each other. Because in learning how to die (let go, surrender, relinquish control), we learn better how to live. And in living acutely and mindfully, we are always and forever letting go, shedding skins, and dying to the old ways, beliefs, and routines. Someday, perhaps, my flight anxiety (and associated panic attacks) will fall away as sneakily as it piggy-backed onto me.
Until then, flipping through these pics, I smile, knowing we had one helluva fabulous adventure. But look closer to the deeper me and you’ll see more than a woman on a European vacation. You’ll see the woman who is mindfully — and even painfully — present, mixing together living and letting go, learning and growing, evolving and shedding, every single crazy train or cab ride along the way. I am no longer “practicing” living and dying. I don’t need a yoga mat anymore or a yoga teacher or a yoga business to teach me these things. I have my Soul, I have my choices, I have my life, and I am IN IT. Mid-life crisis? How about mid-life evolution.
Onward we go.