Grieving, Yoga, and the Art of Healing

Originally published on LiveTaos.com.

In October last year I followed Mirabai Starr to New York City, where we boarded a train that meandered upstate along the Hudson River, through trees and rounded rock, into the softening age of Autumn in the Hudson Valley. I was joining Mirabai as a yoga teacher for a week-long retreat she was leading on Loss and Longing at Old Stone Farm in Rhinebeck, NY.

The studio there is the original 18th-century Dutch barn on a 350-acre farm which is now devoted to the owner’s love for horses. In the early morning I would attempt to cross the grounds in the dark through the intense howl of wind in the East Coast trees, to practice yoga myself before teaching the others and then spending the day in writing, discussion, contemplation, ritual for lost loved ones, and holding witness to everyone’s mourning. Some days I was too afraid to go for my own practice, my imagination of ill-tempered witches in the trees suddenly seeming real, and I would return to bed; other mornings I’d be brave. In either case, it was suggesting the way a waking dream will that as the week progressed and the depths were stirred, I was finding connection with my own elusive and indomitable grief, like something I hadn’t known was really there and so hadn’t believed in.

Mirabai and I were both delighted, but not surprised, at how yoga practice dovetailed effortlessly with her work. Mirabai, who is an internationally acclaimed author and teacher, shared interspiritual teachings from the mystics like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, Rumi, Goethe, and Hafiz, and so many more, all of whom expressed how the healing balm for loss was in the very longing itself. By going compassionately into our irretrievable loss we find something bright, and beautiful, ecstatic and irresistibly our own.

If one were to draw an umbrella explanation of the teachings of yoga, it could possibly be that the object is to be present within our own body, mind, and heart. By bringing awareness to what we experience physically, mentally, and emotionally we begin to glimpse our body’s own mystical quality and our ability to transmute suffering.

In yoga asana, we allow the body to intelligently hold all that we are, including the gems that show themselves when we are present with loss. We take ourselves by the hand, as it were: this here is my body, this my breath, this, what I can’t believe, and this my heart being undone. We allow things to surface, deep emotional patterns that when given attention via breath within form become something else.

This is how we started the day at the Rhinebeck retreat, with gentle and considerate reverence for the body and the presence it held for us to guide the energy of sorrow. After breakfast we would reconvene with a meditation led by one of the participants, a long-time Buddhist practitioner. Then we would find that same contemplative presence, in witness to each other, as Mirabai guided us through readings from the writings of the mystics and piecing through our own web of understanding. It was an exquisite becoming, as created by everyone there, an art that unfolded gently and with tremendous grace as we went along.

And so of course, it was only obvious that we should do this in our own beautiful community in Taos. We’ve created a weekend retreat, Yoga and the Broken Heart: September 18-20, 2015, at Casa Gallina-An Artisan Inn. Delicious meals will be catered bringing in hand-picked greens from the Casa Gallina gardens, and we’ll have music and kirtan Saturday night to the sweet voice of Kirry Nelson.

For more information please check us out at: www.jenniferbellammann.com. For Mirabai’s website: www.mirabaistarr.com. For Casa Gallina: www.casagallina.net. To register, please email: yoginininja@gmail.com.

The Barn

A Poem

 

Because I saw you once in an old forgotten barn,

on the edge of a wood

with tall grass growing wild in the foreground,

through the grainy lens of a Russian film

the dark light captured in a European vestige

that no one lives in

except the air that has been collecting cultures

for thousands of years

and leaving them quietly

to whisper in the moving grass.

 

I recognized you then

in the wooden architecture of a window frame

at dusk

the glass like melting sugar

over a small table with chairs

in an empty and darkening room

I could see in there,

in this demonstration of what isn’t visible,

the knowledge of a lover who maybe just didn’t exist

 

So then when we found each other

and were both neither old nor young,

I saw in your face what the wind was saying in the grass

And felt in our skin what the window reveals: that existence is timeless.

I saw why the barn had seemed full with nothing in it

and the tall grass was not lonely from having been abandoned

And I knew how to regard ourselves:

like passing histories

like the ones we both come from

which, once their players and deeds are gone,

still saturate the Earth and sky.

 

Jennifer Ammann. June 2015.

The Waters of Breath

This blog post was originally published in Diana Rico’s blog, HOLY WATERS, July 2011.

I can remember a day at the ocean when I was seven.  My father, whose work caused him to travel outside the country and so whose presence was generally intermittent and brief, walked into the water with me until it reached my shoulders. He squatted down in front of me and told me to hold on. I wrapped my arms around his neck and he took me out, far from the beach, my mother and sisters, my boundary. I imagined that on the other side of the ocean were the places he went, and I was excited, and I surrendered. A moment of family connection, love, and trust, uncovered by the enormous ocean. I continue to seek opportunities for passionate surrender, and that draws me perpetually back into my yoga practice. In yoga, the element of water manifests as one of the primary movements of the mind within the body. Water, earth, air, fire and ether, or space (through which sound moves), are considered the five elements constituting the natural world. In Ashtanga Vinyasa practice, there is much discussion of the fire, called tapas, or austerity, that comes from the intensity of the mind when it focuses on the context created by the body. Fire is also the radiance that comes from that kind of regular practice. Too, the elements of space, air and earth as mental patterns in the body are all constantly active, allowing one to settle in and simply watch Nature unfolding moment to moment. When you stand in samasthitihi, the “even-standing” pose–or simply stand upright, feet together and arms by your side–with your shoulders resting on your back, you can allow yourself to release backward into the kidney area and muscles of the midspine without losing the openness of the heart. With the kidneys breathing gently yet fully to the back, the tailbone can be released from the sacrum down and in, and even the backs and insides of the heels drop deeper into the ground. The toes let go. The energetic quality is that of flowing down, letting go off the tip of the tailbone like a waterfall, pooling in the calm depths of one’s self. That very release reinvigorates a sweet brightness that lifts with subtlety up through the heart. The breath, the obvious conduit of air, also resembles water in an endless wavelike pattern between the fullness of an inhale and the emptiness of the following exhale. If you slow down, drawing the breath patiently through the body so that the lungs really fill, then at the height or the end of any breath you can watch the graceful arc of one extreme rolling over into its opposite. And with the lips closed, breathing through the nose creates a sound like that of the ocean from a short distance, maybe when you’re still on the other side of the dunes. The spine itself, the structural foundation for Yoga’s internal form, is an undulating wave reminiscent of the S curve delineating the Taoist symbol of yin and yang, the opposites within the other, swinging back on itself when it reaches what isn’t an end. Quite simply you are dropped back into the breath, swimming in the movement of your self, watching the flow of your mind as a natural quality of life.

 

Pranayama: Giving Breath to Life

This article was originally published in elephant journal, November 2013

As an Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga instructor, I teach that Ujjayi Pranayama (the Victorious Breath) is the single most distinguishing aspect of our practice. I tell people to just think how inhaling is the first thing we do when we’re born, and exhaling our last breath is the final thing we do before we die. To me, the breath is magic, a direct conduit to another frame of mind that simultaneously transforms the conscious moment. Within asana, the breath draws the limitless nature of mind through the body and animates it while also healing the mind’s otherwise neurotic compulsion to know, to understand, to draw conclusions, to make life safe.

From the moment I began Yoga practice over twenty years ago, I felt sensitive to the divisive gap drawn by cultural bias that keeps practices like Yoga only marginally accepted in the West. Even though Yoga is now being practiced much more widely than when I started in the 90s, the essence and depth of it seems largely untouched and unnoticed. In recent years, the scientific community has begun researching how these beautiful practices transform our being on a physiological level, not only confirming what yogis have been experiencing for a long time but making these practices accessible and respectable to the Western mind.

I have long known from personal experience the impact good Yoga practice has on depression, health, sexuality, and creativity. As a young woman I encountered crippling depression, and although it took me several years to have enough will to accept a friend’s invitation to a Yoga class, I discovered immediate liberation from my mental oppression, a respite of joy. The health benefits, from strengthened immunity, and sensitivity to the body’s needs throughout life, to longevity, vitality, and even positive impact on our DNA structure, are not only evident but are now being scientifically confirmed. The refinement of the mind and body connection uncovers subtle and sensual awareness, allowing us to move beyond the confines of conventional thinking, and bringing us more completely into the experience of our sexuality and creativity as quite simply connected with all things.

My experience of breath is that it skillfully frees the mind of its own shackles. At some point in a practice, we begin to see how everything we experience in our body is a function of our mind within it. Of course that suggests the mind is neither separate from Nature and the stages of life nor the emotions that run as currents throughout us. Although, as far as I know, there haven’t been studies yet to demonstrate how it occurs, my supposition is that by freeing the mind of what it knows, or believes to be true, on the vehicle of breath, the mind’s limitlessness creates endless possibilities in our body and experience.

Yoga, ultimately, is a philosophical and spiritual discipline, or way of life, that values the physical world as an intimate and intrinsic aspect of our understanding. The physical world is the mirror in which we see ourselves. If you like philosophy, you can be engaged to your deathbed with completely nourishing material. Pranayama is discussed in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and the Yoga Taravalli, to name a few classic Yoga texts. In practice though it is also the simple awareness of experiencing life, the physical form as the container for the boundless.

When I was giving birth to my third child I unexpectedly witnessed the marriage of the mystical and physical, the deep intelligence of the practice itself, and particularly pranayama. I was having twins, and my first baby of that day was born. About forty-five minutes afterward, the fetal heart monitor indicated that my unborn baby’s heart rate was dropping quickly. I had stopped having contractions right after the first birth, and because I was thoroughly engrossed with my newborn, I had almost forgotten there was another. When they took my nursing son from me and whisked me into the operating room, I was relieved–I didn’t know if I had it in me to have another baby.

While waiting for the Caesarean to begin, the anaesthesiologist bent down and asked me my normal body weight. After I told him and he walked away, I asked my doctor why he needed to know that. She explained there wasn’t enough time for an epidural and so he’d be giving me general anaesthesia. Having never been under and for the first time grasping the urgency of my unborn baby’s circumstances, I became intensely afraid. There were many people in the room doing things but only my doctor was there, quietly waiting with me. Even my husband, who’d already put on his mask and scrubs, was somehow not right there. Without thinking, I did what my teachers and the teachings had professed–I dropped in to pranayama, to what I knew, what had given me ground when there had been none so many times before, as a way to deal with intense emotion. I began to do ujjayi pranayama, dropping my exhale, and with it whatever awareness I felt I had within my grasp, to my little baby. The immensity of the fear channeled into breath and I focused entirely on my baby, that he would be well, because it was all I knew to do.

After several rounds of breath, my doctor put her hand on my knee and the two of us had a quiet conversation:

She said, “Whatever it is you’re doing keep doing it, because his heart rate is going up.”

I said to her, “I think I’m getting a little contraction, what should I do, should I push?” She said, “You use whatever you’ve got.”

Because on my third breath, I started feeling a contraction after not having had one since the birth of the first, and at the same moment his heart rate increased. I assume he was getting oxygen and improved circulation, but also the birthing process kicked in. Deep breathing with concentration is an excellent tool to calm the mind, generate wellbeing, and deepen sitting practice, but pranayama is something else beyond that. Pranayama shows the mind its vehicle, like waking up from a dream. Through pranayama we are given access to the central axis of the body. Listening to the sound of breath at the back of the throat, the gateway to our internal knowing is opened and we are given an unbridled view of ourselves. We can watch ourselves intimately as we notice how Nature and its patterns move through us. We can experience the mind in a non-judgmental state simply observing what is, be it vibrancy, fear, the thought process, emptiness. With pranayama we can use what is in the field of our conscious awareness, whether thought, emotion, or sensation, as the gateway past the very limitations those things present.

Pranayama, which denies no one, blended with the power of my fear to bring attention to the moment. And so this refined and esoteric practice which for thousands of years has been the domain mostly of men and monks, quietly and easily weaved its way into one of the most feminine of experiences, and perhaps the most common. Inside this most clinical of settings I took a long, sweet breath, savoring the moment, knowing that nothing else existed but this beautiful quiet right now, and with everyone’s back turned except my doctor’s, my little baby was born on a wave of pranayama.

“Everyone stop,” she said, “we have a baby.”

 

Yoga and the Broken Heart: September 18-20, 2015

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Casa Gallina

A Weekend Retreat of Yoga and Contemplation on Grief as a Spiritual Path

with Mirabai Starr and Jennifer Ammann

Casa Gallina in Taos, New Mexico

 

In this gathering we will share interspiritual teachings from the mystics of various traditions that illumine the connection between loss and spiritual longing. We will explore both their writings and the mystical quality in our own bodies to transmute suffering through asana practice, and see how beautifully they tie into the Heart’s deep longing.1491308_10153008910759928_2873433709752688007_o

Many of us who have suffered profound loss experience a palpable sense of the sacred filling the atmosphere and flooding our hearts. Sometimes we are afraid to speak of this numinous gift for fear that we will seem as if we are not “sad.”  But our beings are vast enough to hold brokenness and exaltation in the same shattered container.  When we investigate this state with curiosity and compassion, we may find that the pain of loss is intimately entwined with our deepest yearning for connection to the Divine.

The teachings of the sixteenth century Spanish saints, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, show us how we may approach the radical mystery that often accompanies profound loss as a spiritual opportunity rather than as a problem requiring a solution. By engaging a contemplative in favor of a cathartic approach, we cultivate an environment of emotional safety and deep peace. With Yoga asana, we allow the body to intelligently hold all that we are, including the gems that show themselves when we are present with loss.

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Our time together will include morning Yoga asana practice and meditation with poetry from the mystics of all traditions, deep dialog, writing exercises, interspiritual chanting and contemplative silence in the afternoon. Lunches on Saturday and Sunday, and dinner Saturday night will be catered with delicious, vegetarian meals drawing hand-picked greens and vegetables from the Casa Gallina gardens. We will enjoy kirtan after dinner Saturday night, and there will be time during the day to sit in the late Summer weather under the trees at the Inn.

$250

 

To register, please use the contact form below or send an email to: yoginininja@gmail.com. Lodging is not included–for information on guest rooms at Casa Gallina, please visit: www.casagallina.net.

 

                    

 

What Matters Most

The story is not what we think it is. When I was a teenager, I wrote. By the time I was nineteen, I had abandoned it.

 Then in my early twenties, I discovered Yoga. My friend brought me to the Yoga Workshop in Boulder, CO on a Sunday morning, and we took a class with Richard. The room was quiet and warm, and packed with people, and there was a sense of unoppressive reverence in the air that intrigued me. I liked this place, it had my attention. But I knew at the time I couldn’t confront what so dynamically started to surface in me, and I stopped going to classes after a few months. Two years later, I stood on a street in Kathmandu looking at a little temple that was sagging back to the Earth, and I thought, with a simple easy consideration for my life’s purpose, that I needed to study Eastern Philosophy–and not in Nepal or India but back in Boulder at the Yoga Workshop. Within two years of that day in Kathmandu I had returned, and committed myself to Yoga.

 In 1998 I moved to New Mexico. I gave birth to three children, a set of twins and one before them, all boys. To be sure, there was beauty in it. The children were healthy and adorable, we had a garden of flowers in the front and vegetables in the back of our old, rambling adobe that was built by two Jewish sisters who had survived Germany during WWII and sought renewal here, we had a fortunate life under the sun, relatively free of urban stress and the endless momentum of modern American life. My husband’s business provided for us. He kept me laughing with his wit, we gave each other time for our creative necessity (he would write, and I would practice Yoga), we would go to sleep at night discussing how wonderful the next morning’s coffee would be. My intention was to integrate practice into my daily life, my relationships with my husband and the children, how we raised the boys. Somewhere though there was a miscommunication between him and me,  my clear intention for happiness didn’t mirror so with his, and something had shifted, irretrievable. A few months before my twins’ fourth birthday, their father and I parted. We’d been together ten years.

 Raising children is hard, doing it alone is ungodly. The loneliness at times is unfathomable; the responsibility, made worse in the hours pre-dawn, is mind-splitting. As people accurately describe it, one has to be both a mother and a father, and does neither completely nor well. As a member of a professed emancipated society, the single parent in fact is still totally marginal. For me, like for so many, there has also been the financial struggle. If during those years I arrived with a smile to teach Yoga, it was not because I had perfected grace amidst the despair of samsara, conditioned existence, but because being there gave me joy, a remembrance of a path I felt I had once been on and hoped to find again some day. And yet I knew it could be so much worse. It took about one year for me to drop my sense of myself as the mother I had been and adored, four years to lose my connection with sangha, another two and a half to recognize that what was left was nothing–no practice, no lover, no secure direction or occupation, no devotion to Yoga, no tether. Except my boys. My boys–the reason I moved here to begin with, away from sangha and the gentle studio in Boulder. Having finally surrendered to the thoroughness of my loss, the air shifted rather quickly, the light became something different, and I was at ease. To me it felt that within nothing, you need nothing, and you are complete. It became bliss, both humbled and raw. And too, when all had been stripped bare to what to me felt like zero, my boys were in the next room. How wonderful to go to them, with nothing.

 When I was a teenager, I wrote. For almost thirty years afterward, I wrote a little bit more than not at all. I didn’t know then what I know now which is that the written word is a pathway to mysticism. Back then, like now, it was a conduit to my mind. Without doubt, I just did it.  Some subterfuge was at work, though, and by the time I was nineteen I had stopped; until this summer, that is, when I was fortunate to go to Tuscany and Umbria with my teenage son. We were in Florence on a hot evening in July, and I watched him taking in Italy. We had dinner outside on a narrow street and he said about his entree what I was thinking about my glass of chianti, “This plate of spaghetti is changing my entire perspective on life.”  Good, I thought, that’s why I brought you here. Florence, he said the next day, is a place he thought he could live; he could write at the cafes, read his books, be a musician. Here I am, I thought, on these beautiful streets in Italy, walking alongside my un-jaded companion whose heart is in one piece and who happens to be my son, and he’s telling me how to write.

 I see now that perhaps what I had wanted with my family did actually materialize. I had demanded a Yogic lifestyle with my boys, and I got what I asked for. We do not live in a world of rigid formula, there is no way to do so, but one of authenticity. Practice has brought me to here despite my tenacious protest, my egregious rejection of the sadness I’d been handed, a failed family I had tried so beautifully to uphold, for which what great sacrifice I had made.

 What matters most is simple–the unadulterated absence of longing for anything other than what is, the truth in the moment, the people in it. The Autumn this year has been spectacularly sunny and warm, with very little wind. Now that I’ve washed my windows we can see the changing sunsets on the horizon and the light on the valley in the morning. It snowed the day before Halloween and I sat under my portal with a glass of wine watching the snow fall in the night, talking to my sister on the phone from New York about the impossibility of costumes. I make dinners again, the way I did when I was married, with as much sensuous satisfaction as then. We talk. We are a whole family. The story is not what we think it is.