Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

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A couple of weeks ago my family again joined our dear friends on a pilgrimage to Jasper Pulaski State Park to witness the migration of the sandhill cranes. It was a beautiful, chilly Saturday morning, and I was giddy. My son, on the other hand, trudged down the path, completely disregarding the “Sandhill Cranes – True or False?” quiz placards we had so eagerly read together the year before.

He tossed his football so high it grazed the tree branches overhead. “Why can’t we just stay at the campsite and play football?” he said, missing the catch and running after his ball as it rolled erratically through the golden brown carpet of leaves. “They’re just a bunch of birds!”

As we continued up the path towards the observation tower and the familiar sight of 100 or so people perched on railings overlooking a massive field of cranes, I realized I had been pondering the same question. Why do so many of us keep coming back to watch a bunch of birds who are completely indifferent to our presence? What would happen if we were all just too busy with work and family stuff to bother?

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I pictured the tall wooden observation tower empty, the cranes themselves the only witnesses to this natural phenomenon, and was comforted knowing that nothing would be different in that scenario. The cranes would still make their Mary-Poppins-style landings, do their flapping dance, and communicate with their incredibly resonant honks.

As I leaned on the railing and watched these gorgeous animals move and interact, I was overwhelmed with the pure joy of doing just one thing. Emails, status updates, schedules, and everyday aggravations fell away and it occurred to me that this one-pointed focus I had dropped into was not some kind of amazing feat. It was just who I am when I peel back the layers of busyness.

By the time we left I was brimming with the imagery and poeticism of the trees, the fallen leaves, the earth, and the sky dotted with birds and stars.

Back on my yoga mat last week after our return, I practiced a variation of crane pose, balakikasana,to cultivate some of that simplicity despite have been thrust back into the challenges of daily life. After 17 years of hearing yoga’s definition translated as “the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind,” as I flapped my wings, moved with my breath, and steadied my gaze, I began to understand it in a different way.

In savasana I imagined a river flowing from my head through my trunk, arms, legs, and out my toes. I visualized that the flow of this river was my true, unchanging self, ease and wellbeing. It’s the part of me that is just waiting to be found if only I can stop distracting myself with things that seem important when I let myself get too busy. Whenever a thought popped into my head, I imagined that thought was a small stick or a golden leaf falling into the river, and I’d watch it float downstream.

Yoga is an undoing. It's not about wishing to stop the thoughts or mental fluctuations any more than a river wishes the sticks and leaves would stop falling into it. Thoughts, those little sticks and leaves, are not the problem.

When I visit the cranes, spend time outside, or simply practice being a mindful, breathing human being on a yoga mat, I’m clearing the river’s pathway so it can flow, as per its nature. I’m witnessing the delicate fall of sticks and leaves, watching the thoughts come and watching the go. I’m not the sticks or the leaves. Rather I’m the river that carries them, I’m the cranes that fly and honk and dance regardless of whether they have witnesses or not. I’m the stuff beneath my stuff, the steadiness beneath my busyness. I am right here, wherever I go, despite the layers of multi-tasking or distraction I sometimes choose to cloak myself in.

In the field beneath the observation tower my son sprints and dodges, clutching the football with a determined grin as he goes for the touchdown with his friends. The cranes honk, the perfect spectators, neither approving nor disapproving of his alternating successes and failures. He’s shed his coat, hat, and gloves, and his cheeks glow red despite my worries that he’ll be cold.

As a kid who’s relatively uncloaked in the layers of distraction, he doesn’t need the cranes in the same way I do. The sunlight fades and my husband goes in for a friendly tackle, then they tumble over each other in the grass, laughing.

I want to tell my son he's right, they are just a bunch of birds. I tell myself, remembering, we're all just a bunch of birds.

 

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Sure, it was going to be an amazing experience. But how could I possibly step away when life was so busy?

A couple of weeks ago, my family was supposed to join our friends for a camping trip in Indiana to witness the annual migration of the sandhill cranes. We had every reason not to go this year. The computer at the studio died the day before the trip, our garage door was on the fritz, and from the way things looked on weather.com, it seemed just a little bit crazy to think of spending two whole days outside.

Secretly I was hoping that the weight of all these little headaches might be just enough to force us to call off the trip. I wasn't sure if I was capable of stepping back from my stress and busyness.

One thing I've learned from the past 8 years of running Bloom: when you say you're too busy to do something that will be fun or relaxing or will take you out of your everyday routine, you definitely are too busy.

But you need to do it anyway.


So we packed up the car and the kids and headed towards Indiana. As we left the city limits, I noticed my jaw had unclenched. By the time we were driving past cornfields, the ache in my upper back was gone. When we rolled into the campsite and freed the kids from their carseats, they immediately communed with the fallen leaves, rolling around, throwing them, swishing their feet through them and making the most delightful sound. We ran to the playground and romped about on the swings and the see-saw, then I took us all for a whirl on the old-school spinny ride. As I went around and around, looking up at the trees and the sky and enjoying getting just a little too dizzy, I was literally unwinding, unloading the burden of my daily routine.

That afternoon we headed to Jasper-Pulaski State Park, which the cranes use as a stopping point to feed and rest on their journey to Georgia and Florida. While our friends have been going to see the cranes for more than fifteen years, it was only our third year witnessing this amazing wildlife spectacle. By this point, we knew what we should expect to see. Thousands of birds, as many as 10,000, would be flying in over our heads as sunset rolled in. Though we had seen it before, it would still be an unbelievable thing to see this many birds in one place, to witness their fabulous dance and hear their unique call, and to know that it's been this way for millions of years.

Kind of makes my unanswered emails seem insignificant.

As we pulled in to the parking lot and exited the car, we looked up in the sky and didn't see much of anything happening. In past years, from the moment we arrived there were groups of cranes flying in from all directions like planes approaching the runway. But this time, we struggled to spot ten cranes in the sky at any one time.

So there were were: cold, with kids who (predictably) didn't find this particularly interesting, wrestling with our own expectations and our attempts at being patient. One hour in, we had seen a few dozen more, but we couldn't help commenting at how in past years there had just been so many more cranes. The others who gathered, including some birders who had been coming every year for 20+ years, were all talking about it.

We were here. Where were the cranes?

Migration is nature's built-in self-care and survival mechanism. When the weather changes and the cranes' quality of life is affected by it, they instinctively make a long journey for their well-being and the well-being of their family. It's no small thing, and it requires some work and a sacrifice. But migration keeps the cranes alive and well.



"They're probably too busy to migrate," I joked to my friend. "I blame the internet."

"Yeah," she said. "Maybe they tweeted a different landing location this year."

Could the cranes really override their survival programming? What would happen to them if they did?

Though I was perplexed by their relative absence and disappointed not to get to see their amazing spectacle, in a small, weird way it was validating and enticing to think that perhaps the cranes were just too busy this year to make a big deal out of the whole migration thing.

It was a very familiar rationale, at least in human terms. What if despite the knowledge that this was the one thing they needed, the one thing that would keep them healthy and safe, they opted out because they were busy and it was too hard leave their current situation?

As human beings we do not instinctively migrate, and we unfortunately possess immense power to override our body's signals. When my body showed signs of stress earlier that day, instead of recognizing that I needed time away to extract myself from the metaphorical cold front that was rolling in on my life, I nearly decided to just put my head down and power through.

When you unknowingly choose stress over self-care over and over again, you pay the price for it. Stress-related disease is on the rise, and the pace of life seems unlikely to slow down any time soon, so we must learn to override societal messages in order to better tune in to the biological ones. Our bodies and minds crave the break of metaphorical migration, we need a better balance of activity and rest, and yet it can be hard to know how to achieve that short of taking off for a warm-weather vacation.

Another thing I love about yoga: while it has been proven that many forms of movement and exercise provide health benefits, built right into the fabric of yoga's philosophy is this balancing act, the knowledge that 'active' doesn't necessarily mean 'healthy' unless it's balanced with sufficient rest and relaxation.

Deep down we humans know this, but in the flurry of external stimulus from work and media and busy schedules, we often forget. I was beginning to wonder whether the cranes had forgotten, too.

Hour two rolled around and we were getting colder and more discouraged, but I wasn't ready to give up on the cranes. I needed to see them come. As the sun went down a few more flocks started rolling in, and gradually the sky began to appear littered with them. They were coming as they did every year. Despite our computer problems and busy work schedules and minor home repair issues, we could depend on the cranes after all.



They flew in, proof of what is real and what is not. The need to be warm in the winter, the need for food and water, the need for social connections, for the support of a group - these are real. The other stuff, though it occupies our days and provides entertainment, is more of a construct of reality than reality itself.

That weekend we spent two days outside, bundled, huddled by the fire, focused mostly on our basic needs of eating, drinking, sleeping, and staying warm, and it was the medicine I needed. It was a reminder that it was safe and necessary for me to get away and escape the constructs.

The miserable notoriously love company, and in busy patches of my life I've often found myself seeking out my own kind. "Are things super busy for you, too?" I'd ask those around me, hoping. If others were experiencing the same thing, it validated and normalized what I was going through, and made me think that maybe it was just inevitable to grow more and more stressed each year.

But I've decided to stop asking that question of others, and have come up with a new answer should someone ask it of me. "I'm not super busy. I'm making time for rest and taking good care of myself."

It's time to say 'no' to busyness. It's time to normalize well-being, to take a lesson from the cranes, and stop overriding the body's signals to rest. Whether that means some yoga to start the day, a walk to clear your head, or simply time away from the computer, now is the time to take better care.

Like the cranes, we can only survive if we learn to listen to the body's signals. We can only thrive if we regularly choose to migrate, to fly away from stress in order to return home to that warm, sunny place called rest and relaxation.

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