A few more than a handful of us are meeting for a dozen days in the old, fort and mill building. It seems poised there on the edge of the Androscoggin River near the rusty, mint-green bridge with the water beneath it—wild with the recent onslaught of heavy rains. We enter the lobby with the engineers and lawyers, radio DJs and baristas, making their way into the various offices and shops, tucked into that ancient place like chambers in a beehive. We take the elevator to the third floor—some of us climb the stairs, taking them two at a time, our hearts racing to unwind. We walk down a long, carpeted hallway to a room at the end on the left with honey-colored, hardwood floors and a ceiling two tall ladders up. Later we gaze up at exposed pipes and sprinkler spouts, our soft eyes catching site of the hinge of a window covered over with vanilla paint.
On some days, upon our arrival, we can see that nests have been built—plush with blankets and bolsters—awaiting us like a warm meal after a long day. The exquisite comfort of being received. On other days we shuffle around in our wool socks retrieving props to support our bodies in twists that will usher in greater mobility, long-armed stretches that will undo our tendency to curl forward in response to the frigid winds.
The far side of the room is replete with windows beginning about thigh high and sprawling all the way up to the ceiling. The sill is lined with white candles and there are blinds that can be raised and drawn as needed, sometimes casting shadows across the room.
The scene outside rotates like a kaleidoscope revealing all variety of moods and weather from vibrant sunshine and small-town charm to the sensation of being suspended within a snow-globe in a Dickensian tale. On our first day together, the sky is gray with low cloud cover. I can just make out a steeple in the distance with what seems like a tiny cross at the top that in reality is likely the size of a small person. Our teacher shares her affinity for the bleak aura of the day which seems in such contrast to her light-hearted disposition. It is so rare to find someone who appreciates these dreary days in the way that I do, reminding me how we are all seeking to balance ourselves with our surroundings.
The sun can come pouring in like a warm shower of light too, compelling us to shed our many layers along with the frenzy of the season. It feels like an act of rebellion to move so glacially slow in a time when our to-do lists are growing exponentially, like a child’s wish list to Santa. An hour of micro-movements and the filling up of our bellies with breath seems an outrageous contrast in these times—as if we have gathered in the eye of a raging storm and taken shelter.
On one morning, a woman with very-cool, unicorn leggings, shares that she feels like a cat basking on the mat in the sun. I imagine that after our time together, we all know a little more about what it feels like to be feline—better in touch with our right to repose, stretched and relaxed from neck to tail.
If we have one goal with our time, it might be to accomplish a restoration. A return to the original integrity of our bodies, relieved from all of our tendencies toward gripping and shortening, knotting ourselves up with worry and wanting. Some of us might have also come to reclaim our internal landscape as a place of refuge—a protective harbor to reside in regardless of the weather passing through.
A theme of the practice is letting go. It’s lying on the ground and imagining that what we largely consider to be a release (perhaps, like the results of a deep inhale and exhale of breath) provide only a glimmer of what is possible. A more profound disengagement of our grasp—in both our bodies and in our minds—can be experienced by giving over our rapt attention to the subtleties of what it means to occupy a body.
Imagine a feather bed piled high with a mountain of blankets. Allow yourself to fall into it—and wait. Once the many layers of the covers have settled, imagine each blanket slowly melting away beneath you, your body sinking a little further into the bed. Imagine surrendering more and more into the space that holds you until the mattress itself has melted away and you are cradled into the tender cushion of the very soil of the earth itself.
As we move ever so slowly between postures and are still, I come in and out of thought.
I’m planning for the ingredients for Christmas cookies hoping everything will all go just-right for Jonah and Adrian. A few days later, I smile inwardly at the fruitless outcome of my planning, remembering the scene in the oven as the snowman’s frosting began bubbling and burning seeming as if he were belly-breathing.
A recent memory of Adrian flashes through my mind on several occasions. It seems to be an offering of soothing in some way softening my face once again. We had been playing a board game and Adrian had been very successful in a given moment. He celebrated by doing a little dance where he twirled his index finger above his head slowly while rotating his lower body in a little circle in the opposite-direction like he was hula-hooping. For him, these motions seemed to be like walking and chewing gum and so he did them carefully—almost in slow motion. His face was lit up and he seemed to radiate from within like a being from another world.
Sometimes the conscious breathing works its magic and I can feel its impact all over my body, from the unbinding of tension in my chest to the expansion of space within my abdomen. I am most taken though with the affect these practices have upon my mind. My brain becomes like a super-highway, luminous with energy moving throughout, working out any breaks in flow. A few days in, while experiencing this unencumbered flow, the streams of energy suddenly move beyond the usual pathways and begin forming a different shape. At first, I’m uncertain of the form, and then in my mind’s eye I can see the creation of two loops weaving together in the configuration of an infinity symbol. I follow the light and energy in this endless connection and rhythm for as long as I can.
Canvas straps can aide in stretching into places where our arms cannot reach. Lying on my back, I loop a strap around the ball of my foot and raise my leg straight up into the air, holding it there for a while. I think of things and notice the various holes on the slatted ceiling and close my eyes, dropping down into the more-still place inside. Eventually, we allow the strap to guide our leg outward to the side and then pause, holding it there. Having done this posture many times, I am not expecting my leg to become tired so quickly, but it does. It begins shaking. I can feel the vibration of my leg along my spine. I attempt to relax more deeply by recommitting to my breath. It doesn’t stop. I experience a sudden insight. I imagine the agitation in my leg is the shaking loose of unwanted things—fragments of old pain, fears that are no longer warranted, limiting beliefs. All of this rising to the surface to be disrupted and released. It feels like I am sifting sand in a stream and discovering nuggets of gold.
The drive in, on the weekend, feels less hurried. I notice a flock of sea-gulls in the big field usually occupied by geese or wild turkeys. They are all vying for some poor thing and go swooping up into the air and diving back down for another shot at it. Ahead of me, a shiny black raven swoops across the road, clearly on a mission. A few miles further down the road, around the bend, I see two crimson cardinals dipping in and out of tall, dried-out wheat grass, apparently in search of seeds. I think about how early weekend mornings can be such a quiet time for humans—slow sips of coffee and long reads of the newspaper—and such a bustling time for birds.
Occasionally there have been times for sharing, for checking in with each other before we begin. Many of us are wondering how we might continue in this way going forward. How we might remember to carve out space for tending to our hearts and loosening our grip and coming into our environments contagious with a slower-pace. We are envisioning a world in which everyone has the opportunity to consciously engage their breath—to heal their bodies and discover the inextricable link with their minds.
On one morning I share about an experience with Jonah. I had raised the shades early that morning and gotten everyone ready for school before our usual time. We ended up with a few extra minutes before needing to leave. I brought out a pack of nature-inspired, oracle cards to the dining room table and we each drew one to receive a message. After we were finished I went to clean up the dishes and unbeknownst to me, Jonah continued looking at the cards. He discovered one with the image of a wolf and a message—Instinct—written across the top. Knowing this was an important animal to me—my spirit animal, if you will—he devised a challenge for me. He walked over to where I was working and laid out five cards on the counter, faced-down, and asked me to pick one. It was immediately clear that he had one card in mind that I was supposed to be able to choose.
I closed my eyes and let my hand hover above the cards. I immediately felt connected to the second card from the right, but I didn’t pick it up. I moved my hand back and forth briefly considering picking the card second from the left as if my first instinct couldn’t have been right. I do this sometimes. Eventually I went back to where I started and finally I picked up the first card I had been drawn to. When I turned it over, I saw the beautiful image of the wolf.
Jonah smiled, broadly, and looked at me with both knowing and amazement. I knew you could do it.
With practice, my breath becomes more integrated. It begins flowing from the inside out, rising out of the deep well of me instead of siphoning from the outside world where a cup can run dry and nourishment can be scarce. My sense of gratitude expands like arms cast wide open for a long-sought embrace. I grow increasingly more excepting of what is. I bow down to all who are vulnerable in the service of growth and give thanks to those who graciously hold space for the rest of us, paving the way for healing. I live in awe of the many layers of us, the seemingly endless strata from which to expand.