Savasana is not my favorite. So many of my fellow yogis express delight as they nestle onto their mat, fatigued from the practice and looking forward to a nourishing rest. My own inner squirrel cringes at the thought of lying still for any amount of time.
I recently attended my first yoga retreat ever on a small island off the west coast of Ireland. The first afternoon session of the retreat, Jack Harrison, folklorist, musician, yoga teacher extraordinaire, invited everyone to lie down on their mats to begin.
Despite my desire for movement, I lay still and quiet on my mat in a room full of people on a tiny island off the west coast of Ireland. Windows open, a breeze blew softly through chiffon curtains with shiny sequins.
When I heard a string of words being spoken, I felt a spark of recognition.
I went down to the hazel wood because a fire was in my head.
I was later to learn that these were the words of a poem from Yeats, but in that moment those words were meant only for me.
I went to Ireland to escape from my life. My entire being was aflame with stress and tension. Just that morning, I had told my husband that I felt calm and happy for the first time in a long time, so much so that I felt tears well with relief. The night before I had fallen asleep in blissful quiet without the aid of a sleep remedy.
The fire has hit me from the outside in the past year and a half, but there is also a fire that lives with me. Tempestuous by nature, I am a literal flame. From the time I was little, I expressed my wants and needs quite fervently (and often, I am certain I confused one for the other). I always wore flaming red shoes (which in hindsight I actually think was for the grounding). Beware the being that stoked my inner flame. I would turn the full power of my fury onto them. There were a lot of parent-teacher conferences in my youth. I did not enjoy being contained or inhibited by another person’s rules and regulations.
My fire expresses itself in everything from the wild, unkempt hair atop my head to my temper and capricious behavior. I wonder if this inner fire is the reason I am so drawn to the water. The wind and the sea soothe the fiery beast that resides within me. Immersing my self in the water offers temporary respite from my self. I can imagine an actual sizzle as my burning body meets its liquid opposite. Stepping into the water, my whole being can exhale, my temperature diminishing in steam escaping through the pores of my skin. With the water enveloping me in its cool embrace, I can float. Buoyed and protected, I can let go completely.
I have spent a lot of time working on my Self, and it is no easy feat. The work itself is difficult, peeling back the many layers of external expectation, doubt, fear, and so on to get to that tenuous inner flame. When I began this work in earnest during my time as a doctoral student, studying the concept of sustainability as it pertained to an individual life, I discovered my own inner fire only to find it sputtering, at great risk of going out altogether.
In thinking about this now, I wonder if this sputtering has been caused by years of suppressing my true, authentic self. I spent several years, working for the government as a seasonal park ranger with the hope of earning a permanent position (because then all of my troubles would disappear). To attain this dream (I thought) required that I do everything that was asked of me, work hours overtime, always say “yes,” never complain, and become an indispensable cog in the backward, political machine.
Essentially, I came to believe that I had to work continuously against my inner nature, avoid and ignore my instincts, and keep my inner fire at bay. Fire requires oxygen to stay alight, and I became very good at cutting off all oxygen.
It should have come as no surprise when I began to experience emotional outbursts, intense depression, and difficult breathing. But I was surprised. I thought I was out of control. I began seeing a therapist, who explained that when a person is under great stress it only takes something very little to completely shatter their composure.
My composure had been bought at an exorbitant price—my essential Self.
So, in Alaska while moving through divorce and the daily onslaught from abusive management at my job, I began to take the steps toward reigniting my own inner flame. I kept a daily journal, writing and responding to questions like:
If I could be anything, what would I be?
If I could go anywhere, where would I go?
If I could do anything, what would I do?
These are dangerous questions, and asking them is just the first step. Finding the answers comes next. Deciding to embrace and embody the answers requires some serious chutzpah (courage) or craziness (maybe, both?).
Discovering that my authentic self is a fiery beast and embracing that beast is tricky. For one, being on fire all the time is not particularly comfortable. I get overheated, and if I’m not careful I can spontaneously combust over every little thing. The more oxygen and fuel I pour onto the fire, the more urgently I need the water. Just dumping water on fire does not always have the intended affect either. This can serve to agitate the flames, which may choose too surge even stronger. Sometimes, it might more efficacious to throw a heavy blanket to begin the cooling process by banking and dampening the surging flames.
But I lose myself in metaphor, and I digress.
Suffice it to say the process of revealing one’s inner self (particularly, a flaming one) came make other people uncomfortable as well. The more aware I have become of my own self, the less desirous I am to dampen my spirit.
Now that I have spent the past several years stirring my authentic, fiery flame, I find that I am burning brightly but suffering acutely at the same time. My whole being is a flame to the point where I feel out of control. Every little volley the universe sends my way seems to only further agitate and enliven my fire. I am incredibly sensitive; I have no defenses to protect myself against violent energy from other people; and I thus have great difficulty maintaining balance.
Being out of balance is as uncomfortable as being on fire, for me at least.
And so, I went down to Inishbofin because a fire was in my being.
In Ayurvedic yoga, there are three doshas to describe people’s personality propensities. I like to think of it as the Meyers-Briggs of Indian, yogic philosophy.
Of the three doshas—Vatta (air), Pitta (water), Kapha (eart)—I am a combination of Vatta and Pitta. Makes sense. Air breathes life into fire. Water cools.
Within these doshas, there is also a tendency for the doshas themselves to become out of balance. An out of balance Vatta experiences a loss of control and groundlessness, absent-mindedness, a desire for constant movement to purge nervous energy, and anxiety. At least, this is my own understand and interpretation based on study and the practice of identifying what I feel in my body as I try to stay tethered to the earth as my being attempts to float away into the ethos.
Though not as strongly as water, yoga speaks to my desire for balance. The practice of yoga was devised as a means for preparing the body for meditation.
Water is an easier solution because he effects are felt immediately and definitely. The challenge with water is that the soothing lasts only as long as I am in the water. Once out, I return to a state of groundlessness.
Yoga requires work. As Jaye Martin says, practice takes practice, and I need a lot of practice to rein in my runaway flame before I set fire to everyone and everything around me.
I looked in my journal from Inishbofin this afternoon and found a line I wrote down during one of the sessions led by Benita Wolfe Galvin.
Balance is the key.
How do you keep fire in balance? It is unpredictable and unstable by nature.
Maybe, water is the answer. I spent a lot of time immersing myself in the Atlantic during my time on Inishbofin. Each time I dove into the cool depths and lifted my head back above the water, I was filled with a delirious joy.
Since I do not often have the option to run with abandon into the ocean, I find other ways to create a sense of grounding. I spend a lot of time looking at my feet. When the world gets crazy, I follow Jaye’s advice and make sure I stand well with feet parallel. I root my feet firmly on the earth, even as my wild mane dances in the wind.
Yoga, Jaye told us on the retreat, is about remembering and re-remembering. Even Shiva himself stands atop the person of forgetfulness as a reminder.
It took traveling to a tiny island off the coast of larger island in the middle of the Atlantic to remember what my body needs for balance and to feel grounded. I called my husband my first morning on Inishbofin to tell him about this renewed sense of clarity and calm.
I feel so calm here. I feel happy. I might cry. I am crying.
How is that I have studied sustainability so closely and I forgot what I need to feel calm?
Maybe you didn’t know?
I think I did know, though. I think maybe I just forgot, and it was coming here that reminded me. All of the people and cars and noises and frenetic energy of the city stresses me out. I can still feel it, even in Boitsfort at the very farthest edge from Brussels.
Though I seem to hover just above the earth, I can remember the feeling of being grounded. With yoga, I have learned that I can create the feeling of grounding through practice. I can draw my attention to the feeling of the ground beneath my feet. I can breath into that space, again and again and again. Each time, I build a little more muscle memory so that the next time I forget and feel myself taking flight, fire building as my hot air balloon tugs at the tiny cord connecting it to the earth, I can stop and root down from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet.
I went down to the hazel wood because a fire was in my head.
That evening after class, I texted this line to my dad.
Are you ok? He wrote back, moments later.
Then later, Ah. Yeats.
How did you know that?
You are in Ireland. Who else but Yeats?
Self-work is a funny endeavor. Like anything, the more aware I become of something the less I am able to ignore it and the more acutely I notice its influence on my entire being.
When I was in high school, I went on a three-week tour of the South through the lens of the civil rights movement. The ACLU of Massachusetts hosted the trip, driving several teenagers from the Greater Boston area across the Mason-Dixon line and through the Deep South.
On the trip, one of the leaders (who I greatly admired and who seemed to take a special interest in my ethical development) suggested that I try refraining from eating fast food for a time. After this pause, I could resume consuming this “food.” He explained that I should pay close attention to how my body felt after not having eaten it for a spell.
As I am an overachiever and always want to please my mentors, I immediately began following his advice. For the entirety of the trip, I ate as healthy and vegetarian (another suggestion) as possible. I remember how awful my body felt when I attempted a fast food meal. It was a revelation.
It was also a shift toward awareness.
Awareness is a mixed blessing. If given the choice, I will always choose it. I intentionally focus my life intention on becoming as awake and aware as possible. I think this practice leads to a more deeply meaningful and profound existence. However, it also comes with a price.
Many prices, if I am being truly honest.
One is that once I turned on the awareness switch, it is very difficult to turn it off. I feel it in the ways my mind and body respond to the events of my life. Any kind of containment causes extreme panic. Since beginning this work, I have even had to stop wearing any clothing that closes tightly around my neck and stomach. No more turtlenecks. I even wear scarves wrapped very loosely around my neck so there is plenty of breathing room for my body. I have added extenders onto all of my necklaces so they sit well below my collarbone, and I never zip anything up all the way.
I also have become acutely aware that the path of mindfulness and awake-ness is not the road most followed. It is difficult, if not completely overwhelming, to live in a world where most people seem blithely unaware, not interested in the process of self-reflection, and even less interested in how their own actions affect other beings and the world at large.
The other evening, my husband and I were sitting on our back terrace. We had just finished eating dinner and were lounging, enjoying the breeze.
How do bodisattvas stand to live in a world surrounded by unenlightened beings? It’s maddening!
Side note: A bodisattva is a person who has reached enlightenment and chosen to remain on earth until ever last being has achieved this state as well.
It can be difficult to see some people’s inner light, Jaye told us on the island. They may have a cloud above them so that even they cannot see it.
Perhaps my own inner light is so damn strong that I overpower the other light around me. Or maybe I agitate other people. Definitely the latter.
I do know that fire and light is an inimitable, essential element of my self. Wandering around Galway, I found myself in a shop where I was drawn toward a pendant representing the light and fire of summer.
Something important I have learned on my path to self-sustainability and balance is that the more time I spend nourishing my own being, the more able I am to see the light in other people and to be available, heart wide open, to help them see this light and make it shine. I just need to continue seeking a way to create balance with the volatile elements that make me who I am.
I am not yet a bodisattva, but perhaps someday. For now, I will work on regulating my inner fire and find a way to return to Inishbofin when I find myself burning a bit too brightly.