Spontaneous Serenity

When I finished a long run at Caballo Lake State Park, I was so reluctant to leave the bliss state of immersion in nature, I did my yoga practice on the small brick patio behind the visitor’s center. Its adobe-brown stucco walls and an L-shaped stone bench were my props. Balancing poses in the wind became open-skill activities, challenging and unpredictable. The views of the mountains and a cute little cactus with bright yellow thorns provided a change from the familiar views of my apartment and my outdoor teaching space, making my inner space feel different as well. Savasana on a hard stone bench, listening to the wind, was deep peace.

Then I took pictures. While I may never be much of an artist as photographer, the effort makes me appreciate even more the work of those who are, and helps me reconnect with the extraordinary serenity of that moment.

 

Space to Breathe

I’ve been teaching yoga outdoors for two years now, renting the patio and back yard of a friend’s Airbnb property on weekdays. Hot yoga in the summer, windy vata yoga in the spring with weights anchoring my mat, blissful perfect-weather yoga in the fall, and slightly chilly yoga in the winter. It’s not bad at midday as long as we’re in the sun. Bees still hum in the ice plants, low-growing succulents that bloom year-round.

I’ve come to appreciate the spaciousness of being under the sky and hearing the sounds of the world around us. Not only the bees, but the birds fluttering in a tree next door and for some reason occasionally whacking into the metal fence. Neighborhood noises such as a passing car or a barking dog. Life surrounding us. I don’t miss being in a studio. Where I teach now, people who see my yoga website or get a referral from someone in town have to ask for directions, and I get to know them on the phone before they come to class. I can check with them privately about health concerns.

Of course, it’s the pandemic that moved my teaching outdoors, and not all my former students have wanted to do an outdoor class. I have to accept that. Will I ever teach indoors again? Will they take my classes again? Perhaps. But I don’t fantasize going back to everything the way it used to be.

I heard an interview with a man who volunteers to help at disaster sites like the recent tornadoes in Kentucky. He said people often tell him, “Nothing will ever be the same.” He doesn’t deny it. But he also says, “That doesn’t mean it will be bad.”

 

Space

Part of the appeal of the recent pictures of Mars may be the emptiness. No people. No buildings. Just rocks and dirt. It looks a bit like New Mexico. I’m fortunate to have access to open space, places where I can run alone and in silence.

My yoga teacher often guides savasana by reminding us to enter the spaces between the thoughts. One method of meditation is to attend not only to the breath but to the space between, the unforced transitional pause that’s neither inhalation nor exhalation. Likewise, there are spaces—small but deep—that are neither one thought nor the next.

When the to-do list is long and the calendar is full, spaciousness is still possible. The space between.

 

Carport Yoga

After a long hiatus, I finally taught yoga. Not in a studio or a spa like I used to, though. Group fitness classes are specifically not allowed under current public health orders in New Mexico, a decision I support. But personal training is allowed. I taught a private outdoor class in a student’s carport, twelve feet apart so we could be unmasked even with deep breathing and with my voice projecting. A typical New Mexico carport is a detached shade structure, open on all sides, not part of the house, so the breeze blows through. Perfect for outdoor yoga. The cat walked through, giving us a humans-are-weird look. It was the first class I’d taught since early March, and she hadn’t taken a class since the end of February. I look forward to doing this weekly, the exchange of positive energy that is teacher and student.

Moments

In Jon Kabat-Zinn’s classic on mindfulness, Full Catastrophe Living, he quotes an elderly woman reminiscing. I can’t find my copy of it to cite the passage precisely, but she says something along the lines of, “Oh, I’ve had my moments. And if I had it to do over again, I’d have more of them. Because that’s all we have, really. Moments.”

Writing this made me stop and perceive my apartment in a new way. There’s no sound but the faint hum of the humidifier gently battling the total dehydration that is April in New Mexico. I look at my furniture, the quality of early evening light—all beautiful for being so ordinary.

Despite the shrivelingly-low humidity and frequent high winds, the desert smells like flowers. I can’t figure out which ones produce the scent, but I run through it in delight. Tiny yellow flowers grow wherever they can, in hard soil, in dust, in pavement, between rocks. Creosote bushes and claret cup cacti are blooming.

One day on my run, I noticed a peculiar shadow in motion near me and looked up to see a trio of huge black shiny bees flying in a sloppy little V. Another day, another trio. A bee-o. My inner Dr. Seuss can’t help rhyming this: Big black bees/ fly in threes.

I took my car out for her weekly workout to keep her battery charged. I drove her to a trail just outside of Elephant Butte Lake State Park, as close to my beloved park as I could get while it’s closed, and took a walk to see if it was a potential running trail. It wasn’t—too much lose gravel and then extremely soft sand—but it was a lovely walk. The deep soft sandy part of the trail was partially overgrown with flowers I’ve never seen before, purple clusters that sometimes curl over like fiddlehead ferns. The unique landscape of Elephant Butte is quite different from Truth or Consequences, just a few miles away. More gray rocks than red. More twisted, shaggy-barked junipers, fewer creosote bushes. Greater earless lizards rather than checkered whiptails. Sand rather than dust and dirt. The trail dropped off sharply into a dry arroyo, and I turned around, content with my exploration

On the days I would normally teach yoga, I’ve been doing my practice as if teaching, talking to myself with the cues I would give students, treating my own need for alignment , relaxation, and engagement as those of a student I was observing. It sounds crazy, but it makes me pay full attention. I can’t think about anything but the moment, as my body and my words meet in my focused awareness.

After today’s yoga immersion, I gazed out my screen door at the waving, rustling green leaves at the top of the tree that invaded our water line back in February. It’s a beautiful tree. And I have water.

*****

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Social Distancing, Reading, and Writing

Seriously, I want to hug someone. Not touching is strange, and it makes me feel a bit disoriented, not quite myself. I socialize by taking walks with friends rather than going to coffee shops, restaurants, or the brewery. No blues dancing on crowded dance floors for now. A friend I hadn’t seen for two years came to Truth or Consequences for a few days of camping and bird-watching. We met—and parted—with elbow-bumps.

I’ve been teaching yoga without using touch for guidance, and now the studio is going to close for the rest of the month. Art events, music events, the life-blood of my town … I’m not going. It’s difficult, but I can see the wisdom in doing things this way. Prevention.

Fortunately, running in the desert is still an option. And since I have less of a schedule and less of a social life, I can do more reading. E-books don’t even involve going to a store. I can’t run out of them.

And of course, I’ll get more writing done. I’ll probably be writing scenes in which people hug.

*****

The Calling is free on all e-book retailers though April 23rd

Reversals

The obstacle isn’t necessarily in your path; perhaps it is your path. I took a New Year’s yoga class in which the teacher used this theme. We can’t always remove our obstacles. Sometimes we learn to work with them and learn from them.

During my run a few days back, I heard coyotes singing.  Then they started yipping and growling, as if there was some kind of scuffle going on. They weren’t far ahead of me, and I remembered that a friend had once been followed by a pack of coyotes when she was hiking alone. Though coyotes almost never attack humans, running past this pack, whatever they were doing, seemed like a bad idea. Maybe there were just two—it’s coyote mating season—but maybe it was a fight with an outsider to their territory.  The noise stopped, and through the gaps between shrubs, I spied them trotting silently toward the section of the trail I was headed for. When in the presence of predators, I told myself, don’t act like prey. I turned around.

Danger is exciting on the page, but even the smallest danger doesn’t appeal to me in real life. Reversals, however, are interesting in both cases. I saw the landscape from a different perspective, since I usually go up the long hill rather than down. The same place can look quite new from the other side. And I ran further, since I had to retrace my steps.

That evening, my work in progress was so stuck it was putting me to sleep. Not a good sign.  I wasn’t sure how to fix it, but I told myself I was going to push through and not go out dancing that night, though there was a musician I would have enjoyed hearing at the Brewery, and I can walk there in five minutes or less. Still stuck, I gave in and went. My favorite dancing partner was there, and an acquaintance who is a mystery fan. I danced a few songs with one, talked story structure with the other, and then headed home, ready to write.

The problem lay in being too linear, telling the story step by step. I need reversals, a surprise, and something as energizing for the reader as a wild dance with a strong partner.

Retreat

As a professor, I welcomed the holidays as time off. After the busyness of the fall the semester, what I wanted and needed most was a chance to go inward. When people would ask me, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” I’d answer “As little as possible,” and then explain that I used the day as a retreat. I gave the same answer for Christmas. My family long ago stopped buying gifts and switched to supporting each other’s favorite charities. I love visiting them, but not in the winter. That’s not the time to go to Maine. Spring or summer visits are our tradition, not holidays.

My personal tradition of using the major holidays as retreat days carries on in retirement. I’m normally busy, outgoing, and social, not at all the stereotype of the introverted writer, so I still need such days. Aside from walking to the yoga studio to teach a class on Thursday evening (yes, a couple of people chose to come), I didn’t go out. I did my own yoga and meditation practices, and I finished the first draft of a book. Perfect.

The only hard part of this is explaining it to people who think it’s sad or weird, when I’m actually happy not “doing” the holidays. When I do explain, I find quite a few people who like the idea, but others still seem to think it’s a bit pathological. We have Scrooge and the Grinch, after all, among our seasonal archetypes. One Thanksgiving in Virginia, some well-meaning neighbors anonymously left a huge aluminum pan full of turkey and stuffing on my doorstep, not knowing me well enough to realize I’m a vegetarian. I guess they saw that I didn’t go out and felt sorry for me. I never knew which neighbors did it. I wish they had known my day of inwardness wasn’t lonely or depressing, but liberating. Soul-nourishing.

I have friends who do the big family gatherings, and that nourishes their souls. I heard the community pot luck at the brewery was packed, and I imagine it was fun for everyone who went and gave them what they needed from the day, also.

Black Friday passed, and I didn’t shop. However, I hope my friends in T or C who run stores had good sales, and that those who did shop supported small businesses and found meaningful gifts.

My neighbor across the street put up her Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving. Though she intended to make herself wait, she couldn’t resist. She had creative fun, and the display is quite entertaining. (The pink flamingo is wearing a holiday bow.) I don’t own any ornaments and like it that way.

Today, I walked to the river, hoping to see water birds. The cormorants or coots—I still don’t know for sure what they are—have returned, and they were making their odd noises, peeping and croaking as they fished. On the opposite bank, where I’ve never seen any humans before, a man in a plaid shirt and denim shorts sat in a small, sunny clearing, perfectly still. Fishing or contemplating? I couldn’t tell. The sky was New Mexico Blue over Turtleback Mountain, and a blue heron perched on a for sale sign on a piece of land I hope no one ever buys, even though one of my yoga students is the realtor. The man on the bank moved just enough that I could see his fishing line catch the light as a fish stirred his meditation into new awareness, the present moment tugging on his hook.

His attire on a fifty-five degree day made me suspect he was a snowbird, one of the Mainers and Canadians who escape to T or C and think even our cool days are warm. If so, he has escaped to a town without a mall. What better place to spend the season? It was good bird day. Heron, cormorants (or coots), and snowbird.

 

Outdoor Yoga and Bushy Neurons

I’m still exploring Hare Brain Tortoise Mind at a tortoise pace, and I came across this concept in it: Animals that live in highly stimulating environments grow bushier neurons in their brains. That is, the neurons develop more dendrites, make more connections with their neighbors, and become capable of new and varied patterns of interaction. They can get out of a rut.

I think of T or C as a bushy neuron kind of place. A friend who visited from Virginia tried to explain what she found so remarkable about it. She said I’d described it well in my books, and yet those descriptions hadn’t captured a certain aspect of its vibe, something she struggled name or explain. Then she finally realized what it was. “There’s no pattern.”

While she was here, she mentioned how odd it was to look down an alley and see not only a dirt alley with dumpsters, but also an explosion of murals—not graffiti, but murals. The town kept surprising her. And it can still surprise me.

She’s right; there’s no pattern, unless the two blue-and-purple houses on my block constitute a pattern. But one has a moon goddess on it and the other has a Kokopelli. On the same block are trailers and the stucco-and-stick-fence gated wall of a spa that will never be built. For some reason, someone bought the lot quite a few years back and began construction, although you can’t build anything that size in this location. It’s a nice wall, though.

Doing some volunteer work that takes me all over town, I recently discovered a section of Juniper Street I never knew existed. The street has three disconnected parts, and I’d only known about two of them. This third part is around a hidden curve. From there it suddenly drops down, becoming so steep no one could ever ride bike up it and so narrow you’d hate to meet another car on it. On one side is a great wall of wind-and-water-sculpted red dirt and on the other side, two residential streets, one with little houses, and below that, one with super-bright crayon-colored trailers. When I’ve looked down at the town from the water tower hill, I couldn’t figure out where the street with those trailers was and how one got to it. That third leg of Juniper was hidden by the wall of dirt.

In other neighborhoods, I’ve food an orange-and-blue building, stone buildings, a yellow house with Lady of Guadeloupe murals, little hidden cottages behind other houses, magical gardens, art gardens, hoarder yards, collapsing houses, yards with so much trash in them I worried how people could live that way, serene little adobe apartments with winding paths and desert gardens, and many of these coexist on the same streets. No pattern. The appeal of T or C to artists and musicians makes sense. It’s not neat, cute, or pretty, but it makes your neurons bushy.

The recent exposure to so many new off-beat places seems to have broken my habitual perceptual patterns. I discovered a perfect spot for outdoor yoga in the courtyard outside my apartment that I never noticed as such, though the small square of bricks was always there. Smooth and flat, partly shaded, it faces the autumn-yellow fig tree and a tall purple aster. Yoga feels more spiritual under the open sky with nature around me, even if it’s nature in the courtyard. And the shapes of the fig tree and the flowers reminded me what the novelty was doing for my neurons.

*****

Read more of Amber Foxx’s essays on this blog and in the collection Small Awakenings: Reflections on Mindful Living.

 

Small Awakenings

Although I’ve made numerous changes in my life over decades of yoga and meditation practice, I’ve never felt astounded, enlightened, amazed, or shaken. I’ve processed some deep emotions and I’ve had moments of quiet clarity, but I’ve never had a dramatic spiritual experience. Instead, I’ve had aftereffects from my practice. Not flashes of divine light but little soft lights that I might miss if I weren’t paying attention.

  • Natural beauty turns off the static in my mind.
  • My pause-to-check reflex is better. I catch myself when I’m about to act or react, and I and stop, realizing I don’t have to say that, do that, or feel that.
  • My awareness of little nagging thoughts that need attention is better.
  • My awareness psychological discomfort and how it can be based on false perceptions as well as accurate perceptions is more sensitive, motivating me to think differently or let go. It’s like being aware of my body in yoga. If there’s discomfort, how can I address it to create a healthier version of the pose? Or of the thinking?

Each of these changes is barely a ripple on the surface—or under the surface—of a day, and I can credit aging with much of it. Statistically, older people are happier than young people, and though there are exceptions, we often age out of certain anxieties and into better impulse control. Life itself is a series of small awakenings.