Pinocchio. George Washington and the cherry tree. The boy who cried wolf. Many stories exist to tell of the perils of lying and the beautiful purity of truth. These tales tend to present Truth as a fairly simple duality—right over wrong, good conquering evil—but as we age, the complexities and conditional aspects of this realm make themselves...Read More
The following piece was written by Maggie Gavin. Maggie has been teaching yoga for The Perri Institute for Mind and Body for five years. She is currently pursuing her MSW at Fordham University to learn how to support mental health through yoga. Catch her class at Steps on Broadway: Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10 AM and Fridays at 12 PM.
It’s time for me to stop pretending I hate winter. I love winter. If my love for winter means I buck the tide of popular opinion, so be it. Winter feeds my introverted soul. I get to cozy up on the couch with my love and my favorite cup of tea, because the cold provides the perfect excuse to stay in. I get to sit in front of a fire and sip hot chocolate because going outside means my body is working hard to stay warm and should be rewarded for its effort. I get to enjoy my favorite outdoor activities – skiing, snowshoeing and ice-skating – coming home the best kind of fatigued. I get to sleep soundly through the long, dark nights. And then, when winter ends, we get a slow thawing. We get to reemerge, hopefully better rested and more thoughtful from our months of hibernation. Winter becomes not just a time for rest, but for reinvention.
I recently came across Thomas Hardy’s poem, "The Darkling Thrush". In the desolate winter landscape, there’s one voice of joy and hope. Though the thrush is battered and frail from its winter battles, its song reminds the speaker to keep the faith. Winter won’t last forever.
So here I am. Let me be your thrush, cutting through the bleakness with a joyful song. As we look forward and hope for the rising temperatures of spring, savor the rest of what winter offers. Give yourself permission to hunker down. Enjoy the quietness while it lasts.
The Darkling Thrush
By Thomas Hardy
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
Photography by Maggie Gavin
I’m writing this now from the comfort of my parents’ home in central Indiana, where I’ve been spending the bulk of my time the past week resting, reading, and spending time with loved ones. What I love about being here, especially this time of year, is the very real sense of light and dark.
Nighttime feels different to me in the winter than in summer. There is something more permeant about it, as if the darkness can actually penetrate your body. Instead of the warm, luscious movement that I feel in the air of summer evenings, nighttime in winter seems to beg for stillness. When I visit the rural countryside of my childhood home near the winter solstice, the time of year when night is longest, I am always struck by how different I feel here than in the constantly lit atmosphere of New York City. With nighttime gently wrapping itself around the house from all directions, I don’t seem to have the stamina or the desire to disrupt the natural order of night and day by staying awake long after dark. It might just be that the chance to relax and recover from the fatigue of my normal life is all too needed, but I deeply relish the opportunity to turn in early, to lay awake in bed for a few minutes in a completely dark, still room, allowing the night to swallow me up until I fall asleep. It feels both luxurious and simple at the same time.
When I think back on my childhood, especially on memories of holiday celebrations and rituals, this sense of light and dark is very present. While I wasn’t a child who was particularly afraid of the dark, a sense of reverence for the mysteries of the night were common themes in my world, and indeed, I think many stories that people are told in childhood reinforce this idea that late night hours are magical, mysterious, or sometimes even cause for fear.
For instance, take one of the most basic tales of contemporary childhood: Santa Claus. Children are told that they must go to sleep in order for Santa Claus to bring them gifts and that if they don’t, if they try to stay awake to see him, he won’t come. Now, for obvious reasons, parents need their children to be asleep in order for “Santa” to do his work, but this is just one example of reinforcing a sense of magic or possibility that only occurs in the deepest of night, when ordinary humans are fast asleep and unable to disrupt the mystical transformation that takes place between night and day. When we wake up the next morning, somehow the world is different than it was before. Transformation happens.
One of my favorite childhood memories is of Christmas Eves spent riding in the car late at night, when my father drove us home from my grandmother’s house or sometimes, from a candlelight church service. This was one of the few nights of the year that I was allowed to stay up until midnight, and I truly loved it. It was thrilling and mystifying. In the backseat of the car, I would press my nose to the cold, slightly foggy window and stare up at the sky. I could see twinkling stars and moonlight shining on snow. The world seemed both old and new. We would go home and often sit in the living room in the dark, with nothing but the lights of the Christmas tree on. Eventually, I would happily go to bed, not wanting to risk my chances with Santa Claus by trying to stay awake. That was our ritual, and while some details have changed, Christmas Eve to me is still very much about honoring the night.
I held on to my reverence for the night for a long time, and I remember very clearly the first time I stayed awake through the night until the sky began to brighten with sun. Looking back, a teenage slumber party seems hardly worthy of the occasion.
As we grow older and eventually stay awake at all hours of the day and night, we begin to lose this sense of mystery about the dark. As adults, we push through our bodies’ natural biorhythms, pull all-nighters in college, travel across time zones, experience that 3am back spasm or sudden illness, and then the uniqueness of each daily cycle of light and dark begins to fade.
Not typically one for New Year’s resolutions, my hope for 2015 is to attempt to regain a glimmer my childhood appreciation for the dark, and in so doing, bring a better sense of balance to my life. From the practicality of needing regular, good quality sleep in order to be healthy, to the spiritual dimension of honoring nighttime rituals, inviting darkness into our lives and yoga practices is especially necessary when we live in the City that Never Sleeps.
As adults we run the risk of becoming jaded and cynical, immune to the mysteries of the life that we once thought magical. We experience disappointment and heartache and stress and worry that keep us up at night, and on top of it all, we bombard our senses with nonstop input in the form of the internet, smartphones, incessant email and texting, and the never-ending glow of artificial light upon our eyes. In short, we don’t often give ourselves over to darkness. This darkness, while sometimes frightening, is also a necessary part of healing, learning, and the creative process. The contemporary FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) has overridden our instinctive sense of when to turn off and rest. Our desire to learn and do and constantly input information has led us to forget how to lean on ourselves for comfort, for inspiration, for the simple satisfaction of being on this planet and being alive. We fear silence and solitude because we don’t trust our minds to go somewhere that might be uncomfortable to us.
I am an only child, so my best friend growing up was my imagination. I had an insatiable belief in possibility and hope for the adventures of my future life, and while of course I have matured into my adult self, I am beginning to wonder if honoring the cycles of night and day, of darkness and light with greater rigor can return a bit of this magic to my daily life. Winter is the perfect time for reflection, rest, and ritual. In the heart of winter we can prepare for the blossoming energy of spring where we can produce, create and teach with renewed energy that we found in the dark of the previous months. We just have to invite the natural darkness of the season to run its course.
I’d like to end with a poem I discovered through one of this community’s favorite podcasts, On Being. Enjoy, and Happy New Year.
The Winter of Listening by David Whyte
No one but me by the fire, my hands burning red in the palms while the night wind carries everything away outside.
All this petty worry while the great cloak of the sky grows dark and intense round every living thing.
What is precious inside us does not care to be known by the mind in ways that diminish its presence.
What we strive for in perfection is not what turns us into the lit angel we desire,
what disturbs and then nourishes has everything we need.
What we hate in ourselves is what we cannot know in ourselves but what is true to the pattern does not need to be explained.
Inside everyone is a great shout of joy waiting to be born.
Even with the summer so far off I feel it grown in me now and ready to arrive in the world.
All those years listening to those who had nothing to say.
All those years forgetting how everything has its own voice to make itself heard.
All those years forgetting how easily you can belong to everything simply by listening.
And the slow difficulty of remembering how everything is born from an opposite and miraculous otherness.
Silence and winter has led me to that otherness.
So let this winter of listening be enough for the new life I must call my own.
This past month I’ve been taking a course on American literature in the early twentieth century. Recently, I was assigned an essay by T.S. Eliot titled “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” In this essay, Eliot proposes a new way of looking at the relationship between the past and the present of poetry. He argues that the past and the present are not so separate, and that it is impossible to write in the present without engaging with the past. Of this “historical sense”, as he calls it, he writes the following:
…the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. (1877)
Basically, when an author sets out to write something new, he doesn’t do so by tossing Shakespeare and Homer into the river and announcing to the world that he’s starting from scratch. Instead, he creates something new by engaging with these past authors and texts, and either furthers their cause or perhaps branches out in a different direction. What is important is to acknowledge the continual presence of the past, because without the past there could never be the present.
So what does all this have to do with yoga?
Yoga is an ancient tradition—a practice that has traveled through time to exist at least as prevalent today as it did in the 2nd or 3rd century, when Patanjali codified the practice and wrote the yoga sutras that we know and love. Way before we were calculating our weekly cardio requirements and discovering the physiological benefits to twisting and bending and lengthening, our ancestors were doing sun salutations, inversions, and standing balances. Pretty cool.
In the centuries that span when yoga began, and when yoga filled the role that it does today, we’ve learned a lot about our bodies. We’ve discovered—and named—every muscle that contracts and lengthens in the transition from downward dog to plank. We are clued into our skeletons and the alignment of our bones, which has allowed us to better understand how to work safely within our bodies. We’ve even invented fantastic props like blocks, straps, and bolsters that allow us to reap the greatest benefits from our practice. Even as we continue to make these discoveries and the yoga practice continues to grow, though, we continue to be in conversation with yoga’s past. An ardha chandrasana with a block underneath the bottom hand isn't a new invention—it is a pose from the past that is executed with a tool from the present.
In his essay, Eliot wrote, “Some one said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.” (1878) It feels as though we are in an age of incomparable innovation—and those of Eliot’s generation felt the same. We look back onto those who communicated via letters, and marvel at how they ever maintained relationships. We read textbooks that assure us that yes, once upon a time people did believe that the world was flat—and we understand with superiority that we know better now. But fifty, seventy, one hundred years from now—what will our children’s children say about us? They will know what we cannot know about ourselves now, just as we know what our predecessors could not know then. If we have more knowledge about the body than ever before it is because we are able to reflect upon the knowledge of those before us, in a way that they could not reflect upon themselves. We are none the wiser on our own—we are the wiser thanks to them. In a time when we are so intent on pushing forward, it is critical not to lose the knowledge of where we’ve been.
Living in the present moment is an essential part of the yoga practice. We use the breath as a tool to keep our mind focused on the here and now—which is why this “historical sense” that Eliot refers to lends itself beautifully to the understanding of yoga as a tradition. Just as the poet who “lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past” (1882) in regards to poetry, we as yoga practitioners ensure that yoga’s past exists in our present. Every time we fold forward into our uttanasana, or bend back into our ustrasana, we carry the yoga tradition’s past right into its present. We are like time travelers who choose not to journey back, but choose instead to allow the practice to journey forward.
Eliot has “the conception of poetry as a living whole of all the poetry that has ever been written.” (1879) In the same way, as teachers and practitioners of yoga, we too are a part of all that yoga’s history encompasses. It is a humbling and electrifying notion—and what’s even greater is that the practice excludes itself from no one. Anyone who steps onto the mat is an upholder of this ancient practice, and so long as we stay connected with the nature of the poses, the impact of the breath work, and the timelessness of the lessons within the yoga sutras, we are exactly as Eliot desires: present-day thinkers who engage the past in our present.
- Brianna Goodman
The quotations from T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” denote the page numbers in a larger anthology: The Heath Anthology of American Literature: Volume D, edited by Paul Lauter.
As I left the last in a series of “first” yoga classes taught by my fellow Mind Body Dancer trainees and took my seat on the subway home, I found myself falling right into a subtly profound moment. Seeing that a seat had opened up as I stepped onto the train, I set down my bags and casually looked at the poster to my right, only to find a poem entitled Graduation, by Dorothea Tanning. It read:
He told us, with the years, you will come to love the world.
And we sat there with our souls in our laps and comforted them.
This poem was already serendipitous in the fact that I’d worked for the print and web design company that had drafted Dorothea’s latest website years earlier (though it took me 24 hours to figure that out – delayed serendipity!). In the moment, the poem seemed perfectly poignant in view of my having graduated from my first yoga teacher training that same week. And it seemed even more fitting for those trainees who were not only embarking on their yogic journey but also beginning their adult lives, free from the structures and safety of school. To leave all that they have known and to start fresh – new apartments, new jobs, new colleagues… this clean slate, while thrilling, can lend itself to much fear. Such an onslaught of the unknown can be overwhelming to the nth degree. This poem’s regard for both comfort and faith could be really powerful for them too, I thought.
I suddenly realized that each of us members of the “real world” could stand to hear this poem, and not just in times of graduation. Even if we moved on from school years ago and have secured apartments and jobs, we constantly are met with situations that trigger and prolong stress. Stresses come and go just as thoughts and feelings do, but when they accumulate it can feel as if we are losing control, as if the stress is overtaking our lives, eating up what little energy and head space we have left. In these kinds of moments it could be helpful to take a look at the souls in our laps and recognize their need for comfort, our need for comfort.
There are plenty of ways to deal with the stresses of everyday life. In lieu of Dorothea’s poem, I’d like to propose one such solution: instead of letting our stresses snowball us into complete chaos, why not stop, take a breath, and consider the wonders – both big and small – that surround us? Such a search can be challenging in tough times when we sequester ourselves in a cave of negativity. I certainly don’t want to promote false hope or cheesiness, but instead suggest we open our eyes and our ears, our minds and our hearts to the beauties that pop up around us. Is it not worth it, to take a minute or two to crack ourselves open, place our vulnerabilities out on the table, and engage fully with the beautiful and ugly world and welcome in all possibilities that may be in store for us? I would imagine that living like this could really lead us to love the world, or at least quite a few aspects of it. Dorothea wrote this poem when she was 93 years old. I’ve got to believe she wrote it for a reason.