My dear friend Caitlin is leaving Austin for Berlin, and while I have not reconciled to this fact yet, still some manner of merriment was in order before her departure. What better excuse to break my lenten fast than to bid farewell to my girl who is moving to the land of sausage and wheat beer? We chose Enoteca’s as the site of our farewell repast.

I don’t think I’m managing my fast too well: I know I’m lacking in protein, and feel certain that this is why my cravings have been so strong. I don’t recall ever wanting to eat so badly a burger or steak (or better yet–a burger AND a steak!) in my life. For days before our lunch date I was ogling and drooling over the online menu, getting a head start on what would surely be an agonizing decision between the pressed mushroom panini and the open-faced bacon, avocado & tomato sandwich.

I had the panini. It was delicious, Cambozola cheese oozing seductively out of perfectly grilled slabs of white flour. But soon after the first bite I got a distinct WTF? memo from my body. Exactly what was I expecting it to process? While I didn’t utter the words low-prana food–and I totally could’ve, Caitlin being that rare sort of person in my life with whom I can discuss such things as sattvic vs. tamasic foods with our mouths stuffed with pasta and cheese, which is why I cherish her–they did occur to me, and I certainly felt as though I was ingesting dead, if delicious, food. (For a more in-depth discussion of the energetic properties of food, please read this article.)

The night before lunch at Enoteca’s, I made a lovely dinner of rice, lentils, garden kale, everything smothered in caramelized onions. It was a feast of such simplicity, the only seasonings being olive oil, salt & pepper, garlic, lemon, and red pepper flakes, yet its delicate earthiness, its manifold flavors, almost literally made my body sing. It was sooo good–good, clean food. I enjoyed it again just as much as leftovers for dinner after the Enoteca lunch.

Be careful what you let in the door, folks. Vegan diets, however temporary you originally intend them to be, might just end up unpacking their bags and staying for good. At the very least they are quite likely to muck up your enjoyment of a perfectly delicious mushroom panini, rendering the eating  much less pleasurable than the longing for said panini. But, since the longing itself doesn’t break the fast, I suppose it’s fair game to keep indulging in that.

At the end of the meal at Enoteca’s, I asked the waitress to bring me the most intensely almond-flavored almond cookie in the joint. The amaretti she brought me was divine: both intense and ethereal, soft and crispy, a sighing, lip-smacking delight to the very last crumb.

So, moral of the story: just let me have my longing, my lentils and my cookie, and I’ll be a thoroughly happy lady.

Bluebonnets. Cattle egrets. Springtime returns to Central Texas in pinks and yellows along the increasingly green ditches, in great flowering carpets on the side of the highway. This is my second real spring here, the second to follow a full winter in Texas, and it is as suprising to me as last year’s.blue-bonnets

The winters here are mild, and moderately green. It only freezes for a handful of days a year, and then, never hard. The dominant tree in the region, the live oak, is an evergreen, shedding its small round leaves, hard and slick as leather, in the spring as the new year’s leaves come in, and so keeps its green mantle the whole year round. It’s such a surprise, then, when the pale electric green of new growth sprouts in March, to realize that the eye has been starved for green. But spring here is no less a relief for following a mild winter–the whole body sighs with relief at the sign of the whole creation show kicking off another year’s performance of renewal and regrowth.

I have observed a very similar phenomenon in my own practice this past week. The prior week had been all dullness and drudgery, rote or skipped practices and the like. But last Saturday I returned to the mat eager, full of fresh energy, and emerged grateful. Though my practice had been in dormancy for just a few days, that fresh new growth made me feel just as joyful as I have been in years past, greeting spring after a long, hard Canadian winter.

Happens that I don’t realize until sated again how deeply starved I have been for green, for new growth, the freshness of wildflowers, riotous songs of birds, or real deep time on the mat. It is such a profoundly happy fact that the cyclical nature of seasons, of practice, always will bring you back home, where the old is new again.

My practice sucked today. I am afflicted with some form of low grade allergy/cold, which causes my nose to run like a leaky faucet. Really, it’s only a minor annoyance, but I find that whenever I feel the least bit poorly, the experience heightens and worsens when I get on the mat. It’s been a drag-ass sort of morning–to be honest, it’s been a drag-ass several days–with a quiet, overcast sky. It took quite a bit of willpower to get to the mat at all, and when I did, it was to soon feel very crummy. It wasn’t too long before I ditched my flow plans in favor of viparita karani (elevated legs-up-the-wall) with extra chest-opening action to help me breathe more freely. That worked pretty well. There was no way I was subjecting myself to alternate nostril breathing, so instead I just settled into meditation. Well, I settled my body into a seated meditative posture. Though I likely looked calm and collected on the outside, the rest of me carried on feeling crummy. The heart-opening action of viparita karani allowed me to get in touch which the fact that along with feeling sickly, I also feel stuck and sad. The impulse to bolt from the cusion was strong, but instead of giving in, I convinced myself to just stay there, and to soften around the feelings that were coming up. I bolted out of there gratefully when I heard the chime announcing the end of my meditation time, but still, I had stayed the course. It might seem like a very puny victory to have successfully sat on a zafu for 16 minutes, but I’ll take it.

I am a passionate knitter.  There are several kinds of knitters, the two main types being product-oriented knitters and process-oriented knitters. Product-oriented knitters are primarily driven by the thought of having finished projects to wear or give away. As a process knitter, I am more interested in being engaged in the act, the process of knitting. I had a conversation recently with someone who is married to a knitter, and said that it shocked and hurt him to watch his wife rip back dozens of rows when she’d found a mistake. All that work for nothing! But to the process knitter, after the initial short pang of pain when one realizes the mistake, ripping back is no big thing because although it may appear as though we wasted time knitting all those rows that will be lost, the whole time we were knitting we were enjoying the activity, enjoying the process, and this cannot be lost.

A yoga practice can be much like this. There are days, sometimes whole weeks when it feels like ripping back rows. But, like the process knitter, what the yogi or yogini wants is to be engaged in the process of practicing yoga. Great practice days are just that–they are great. But we trust that the process is larger and more important than what happens on the mat on any given day. Ninety percent of a successful practice is showing up and being present to what you encounter on the mat. On a day like today, dragging myself to the mat, being easy on myself, and being present to my runny nose and feelings of stuckness and sadness is my practice. Not that it really feels like it. But I am grateful for the lessons of knitting, that I can at least talk myself (and write!) into believing that it is so.

At the beginning of my classes, I invite my students to set an intention for their practice by contemplating the following questions: Why did you come to a yoga class today? What compels you to continue seeking out this practice of yoga? One of my teachers, the extraordinary Mark Uridel, says that he asks himself this very question, Why am I here?, each morning as he steps on the mat. It is an extremely important question, because figuring out what brought you to this place will determine where you go next.  Sometimes it is necessary for us to retrace  our steps in order to find out how we arrived in a particular place: often I’ll find myself having premature senior moments, having walked from one room to another only to discover that what was originally a clear purpose is now completely obscure. Usually, if I walk back to my starting point, I’ll find my way again, and can keep on going.

I’m not sure exactly what initially compelled me to start practicing yoga.  As with another of my life’s passions, knitting, I think that,  as long as I had been aware of it,  I had a sense that it would be part of my life someday .  The first classes I took were a 6-week beginner’s series in the spring of 2003, which I enjoyed very much, but at that time I wasn’t financially able to keep up with the classes. When I went back to yoga classes in May of 2006, it was after a long, frustrating spring of trying and failing to return to a regular running routine. What had been just a year before an energizing and exhilarating practice had turned to drudgery with each and every step.  I remembered then that I had always meant to return to yoga, and thought it might be an effective and enjoyable way to get my body moving again.

I was immediately hooked on my classes with Ty at the Victoria Iyengar Center. They were held on Sunday mornings, and as we started class by chanting the Invocation to Patanjali,  we could hear the church bells from nearby Christ Church Cathedral. I was not aware of it at the time, but my life was beginning to undergo a quiet but radical transformation.  Yoga allowed me to be fully alive in my body in ways I had never imagined possible. Under Ty’s tough but tender tutelage, I was accessing muscles I never knew I had–and they hurt! The French have a saying, when an apprentice to a woodworker or blacksmith has aches and pains as a result of their work, that it is the trade entering the body. For me, in those early days of practicing yoga, it was awareness entering the body. Yoga filled in what I perceived as a gap in the Christian tradition that informed me: how can we use the body as a tool for spiritual practice and transformation? For years I had been trying to figure out how to be present to my life just as it was each day, in each moment, and while the Christian faith provided a useful framework for this, it was yoga that proved to be the final and crucial piece of the puzzle. I knew very early on that I had found my life’s work, and that I would one day train to be a teacher because I could not imagine a better way to occupy the days and years of my life than by sharing what I had found with others.(I entered Teacher Training at Yoga Yoga in Austin in the fall of 2007.)  A lot of yoga practitioners struggle to start and maintain a home practice, sometimes for years: I was practicing nearly everyday, almost from the very start. I often describe that period as “falling down the rabbit hole” of yoga: it was a deep, complete surrender to the pull of the practice, and there was no going back.

What got me hooked at first is what keeps me coming back even now. Occasionally there are new insights, but for the most part what I experience on and around the mat is a deepening and broadening of those insights that were present from the very start: how to be alive in every pore and sinew of my body; how to breathe through and soften around difficulty;  how to be present in this very moment, this very breath; how to listen deeply; how to befriend myself. I believe I am a better person because I practice yoga, and I am fairly certain my husband would agree. I definitely find more ease and enjoyment in my life as a result of practice.

It is good to reflect on these things. Too often I get mired in concerns such as what poses or areas of the body to work on, what kind of practice to develop, etc. These are useful and potent questions, worthy of honest and deep evaluation. But, in order to answer them with integrity, I must  remember the path that brought me to the mat in the first place, and honoring the original intention for my practice always simplifies what comes next: knowing where I have been, I can have a clear idea of where to go.

This Saturday, my husband D and I drove into Austin early to visit the Austin Zen Center for their beginner’s program and service. We had a lovely time during temple work: we were assigned to the task of picking up twigs on the gravel meditation path. This alone taught me more about Zen than all the bells, chants and dharma talk I’d heard that morning. Questions ran through my mind, such as How many twigs are we expected to pick up? What size twigs do they have in mind? Exactly how twig-free does this path need to be? And then, it hit me: the purpose of picking up twigs is to be picking up twigs. There is no end goal. It’s the perfect Zen task. So I just settled into it, enjoying the proximity of my beloved as he also picked up twigs, the softness of the morning air and the lush scent of mountain laurels wafting from a nearby bush. Coming back into the temple, placing my shoes on a rack by the kitchen, I noticed a pile of free magazines. On top of the pile was an issue of Shambhala Sun from 1998 with Julia Cameron on the cover, and also containing articles on Natalie Goldberg and by Pema Chodron. It was there for me. I slipped the magazine under my shoes and went to find a place to sit in the zendo.

In 1995 I visited New York City with a group from college. My friend and I were hanging out at this bar where a live band was playing. I found myself in conversation with the bassist’s girlfriend, and when she heard I wanted to be a writer she suggested I buy this book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. The next day I picked up a copy at the Border’s near our hotel (this was the World Trade Center location). In this book, Cameron outlines principles and tools for aspiring artists to follow. The basic tool is the Morning Pages: three pages of longhand writing done first thing in the morning. No stopping, no crossing out, no re-reading, no censorship. No purpose, either: the Morning Pages are another perfect Zen task–the point of doing Morning Pages is to do them. Period. I remember I picked up the practice at the time, and was faithful to it for a long time, writing in purple and green ink in series of Clairefontaine notebooks.

For years, I primarily identified myself as a writer. I had no doubt that this was what I was put on earth to do. I studied English and Creative Writing in university. I filled dozens and dozens of notebooks. Later on, I published a chapbook of poetry, wrote on a blog. But then, my writer’s identity got quiet. D and I got married, and there wasn’t as much solitude to explore my own mind or tortured thoughts to hash out on the page. I was happy. I wrote less. I wasn’t particularly worried about this. People asked me where my poems where, where the blog posts were. I didn’t know. I didn’t care so much.  I figured that this was a fallow period, and that writing would find its way back to me somehow, at some time, if it needed to. Then I discovered yoga, started practicing and studying in earnest, and this became the thing I did, the main thing that defined my purpose and pursuits in this life. I still wrote in my journal consistently, but even this took a bit of a backseat. It began to take longer to fill a Moleskine notebook (now the vehicle of choice), from 2-3 months to about 6 months.

Enter the present. Having to stop work for some months, I decide I want to explore writing again. I start this blog–I stick with it–I like it. One Saturday morning at the Zen Center in Austin I find a connection to what it meant to me to be a writer all those years ago, and rediscover this practice of Morning Pages. Writing as a practice totally makes sense to me now.  All this time studying and practicing yoga allows me to return to writing with more clarity and focus.  It fits. I’ve been writing Morning Pages for a couple of days now, unable to limit myself to just three pages. It just flows. It’s the best way I can think of to start the day with clarity of intention. In the gray light of dawn, the windows open, songs of chickadees drifting in, clear as bells, I make a practice of writing. The purpose of writing it to write. It makes me very happy.

Here are two books that have made their way into my daily ritual this week: Comfortable with Uncertainty by my beloved Pema Chodron, and Haiku Mind by Patricia Donegan. Both are collections of 108 short readings, perfect to have alongside my green tea and vitamins in the morning.

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As part of my Lenten observances (read about them here), I can choose to celebrate one Feast Day a week.  While they are traditionally observed on Sundays, I have decided to make mine moveable feasts (sadly no connection to the lovely book by Hemingway), as I will often be in Advanced Studies on Sundays over the course of Lent. In discussion with my mentor and teacher Ana Pilar, we have envisioned Feast Days as days when I could choose to break from my abstentions (wheat, dairy, meat & eggs) and  soften my regular sadhana practice in favor of a more restorative practice.

I took a Feast Day on Wednesday. It didn’t go so well. My sleep had been disturbed through the night, and I slept in late to make up for it.  A good friend of mine who is working on her PhD was coming over for a work date in the morning, and there was no time for me to practice before she arrived.  No worries I thought, I’ll just take a Feast Day. I don’t know whether it was the lack of sleep or lack of practice, but my mind was scrambled tofu all day.  I could not get focused or motivated. I barely knew who I was or what I was supposed to do with myself. I started and scrapped a blog post, and our “work date” quickly devolved into a lot of knitting, eating of rice noodles and talking about Neko Case. After my friend left in the early afternoon, I could not even get myself together enough to do a restorative practice–as it turns out, you do need to find motivation even just to go lie down on your yoga mat. I watched some episodes of Hell’s Kitchen online instead. In the evening, I broke my vegan vows with a huge bowl of buttery popcorn and Lost. It was a comfort to watch that show and have a tangible, outward source to blame for my inward confusion.

The moral of my first Feast Day? Since the intention behind these observances is to live my days with a deep sense of purpose and awareness, then I should be as deliberate with my times of rest as I am with my active days of practice.  I should regard Feast Days as a way to enhance my regular practice instead of as simply a blessing to go off the rails, because I really do love and treasure my practice time. I do not wish to take a break from it, and am clearly worse off when I do.  And why would I want to take a break from rice noodles?