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Category Archives: Yoga

Living Backwards & Steering by Starlight

Living Backwards & Steering by Starlight

This fall I’m doing a work-study at Willow Street Yoga. In exchange for working two hours a week, I get one yoga class per week for free. Pretty sweet deal. Not only does this appeal to my frugal side, I also like meeting the people I practice with and feeling more connected to the yoga community.

One interesting thing that Willow Street offers is “Living Yoga” classes. According to their website, in these classes they “combine yoga and discussion, group coaching and self-work, to co-create empowered, expanded self-conception, and supportive, intentional community.”

As hippie-dippie as this sounds, it makes a lot of sense. Westerners tend to think of yoga as exercise, but yoga should also include mental and spiritual components. In fact, I remember reading somewhere that the physical yoga poses were originally created in order to help yogis sit longer in meditation.

This fall, one of the living yoga classes is reading Steering by Starlight by Martha Beck. I’m not taking the class, but I picked up the book at the library out of curiosity, and because I’m a fan of Beck’s memoir, Expecting Adam. I didn’t read the whole thing, but I did like the first chapter, which was about starting at the end.

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In this chapter, Beck says to think about the things you want in life and think about how you will feel when you get them. Then imagine that you already have those things and try to live your life in that “feeling-state.” She calls this “living backwards.” She suggests you actively, vividly imagine that you have gotten the thing you want and then focus on that visualization for a full ten minutes – every day. She guaruntees that you will be amazed by the results.

It sounds hokey, I know, but when I applied the idea to something in my life, it started to make sense. I want to write books that get published by a major publishing house. I think that when this happens I will feel more confident in my writing (and stressing about it less means I will enjoy it more). I will also feel more confident and secure in my life decisions – that pursuing this difficult goal was the “right thing to do.”

So, according to Martha Beck, I should live my life as if I’ve already published books. Who says I can’t feel confident in my writing and confident in my life decisions right now? There’s nothing stopping me except for my own mind.

Beck says that some of her clients push back against this idea, saying things like:

“Well, if I just wanted to feel good by deluding myself, of course I could do it… Anyone can feel good. What I want is to get ahead.”

To this Beck says,

“If you agree that it is better to look good than to feel good, be my guest – stay miserable. But please bear in mind that as a miserable person, you’ll have a much harder time getting ahead.”

And it’s true. When I stress about my writing – Is this good enough? Why haven’t I been published yet? What must people think of me? – not only does it feel unpleasant, but it makes the writing more difficult as well.

Better to start at the end. I will publish books with a major house. It hasn’t happened yet, but it will, so there’s no need for me to stress or lack confidence. I can enjoy my writing and feel secure in my decisions, knowing that I will get what I want in the end. Delusional? Perhaps. But isn’t it a more pleasant way to live?

pasasana

Noose pose.  photo credit.

 

Ironically, when I went for my free yoga class the other day, the teacher talked about starting at the end, too. She showed us a deep twist called “noose pose” and explained that we were working towards a full bind with our arms.

“This is the someday pose,” she said. “You may not be there yet, and that’s okay. There are still a lot of interesting things to learn along the way.”

Beginning yoga students often feel bad about themselves when they can’t get into a certain pose. (And beginning writers often feel bad about themselves when they aren’t published.) But instead of feeling bad (because what’s the use in that?) you should hold firmly the knowledge that someday you will get there, and in that way you will have the confidence to enjoy yourself now and learn a thing or two as you work your way towards “the end.”

Flashback to Shirtless Bros at Yoga

It’s flashback day here at In The Garden of Eva.

I was looking through old blog posts a few weeks ago and found this one about a yoga class I attended back when I lived in Seattle three years ago.  As I read, I found myself laughing out loud, thoroughly entertained.  It’s so great when you can enjoy your own writing!

I hope you guys enjoy it, too!

Shirtless Bros at Yoga — originally published Sept. 5, 2013

The other day, thanks to a recently-purchased Groupon, I ended up going to a class I’d like to call bro-ga. Bro-ga is what happens when guys who seem like surfers or extreme mountain bikers or fraternity brothers (and perhaps they are these things, too) do yoga. Bro-ga involves shirtless dudes showing off their tribal tattoos and competing for who can do the most radical head stand. It seems to be mostly a west coast phenomenon, and if you’re unfamiliar with the type, consider Bradley Cooper’s character in Failure to Launch, a movie in which I happen to make a small cameo*.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS POST, CLICK HERE.

 

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Here I am doing yoga on a birdbath!

 

Faster Isn’t Always Better in Yoga, Writing, Life

Faster Isn’t Always Better in Yoga, Writing, Life

In my never-ending quest to find good yoga classes in my area, I recently purchased a Groupon for a new studio in Bethesda. The website was a tad confusing, probably because the owner (and sole teacher), a Chinese woman named Jin, has a less-than-perfect grasp of both English and website technology.

There was nothing on yelp about the place, so I clicked through the pictures on the website, which were mostly of Jin in various yoga poses, along with a few shots of an empty studio with mats on the floor but no students. It was unclear to me if anyone actually attended her classes, or if this studio was just a converted office space where Jin hung out by herself, doing yoga all day long. I emailed her about using my Groupon, and she wrote back, saying, “Welcome. 5:45pm class is valuable for you today.

One of the pictures on the website. Where are the yoga students?

One of the pictures on the website.  photo credit.  

So, after work, I drove to the two-story brick building that also housed a Smoothie King, an orthopedic shoe store, and a rare coins shop. I walked up the stairs and opened the door to Suite 201. There was Jin, sitting on a mat at the front of an empty room. The floors were shiny wood paneling, and there were several framed photos of Jin in rigorous yoga poses decorating the walls.

“Am I the only one tonight?” I asked, rolling out my mat.

“Maybe more people,” she said, and sure enough, by the time class started there were two more students.

And so we began an hour of very slow yoga. I’m used to vinyassa flow classes where you move quickly from one pose to another, so I was feeling a bit antsy as we stayed in each pose for ages.  Jin would move around the room, yanking on our various body parts and admonishing us: “deep breathing! You must deep breathing!” I sucked in air and wondered how long we’d have to hold this pose.

I have a hard time moving slowly and standing still. That’s why I tend to get frustrated with how slowly the publishing world moves (see my latest frustration). The other day I was listening to a podcast interview of literary agent Brianne Johnson of Writer’s House on The Narrative Breakdown. She explained that she submits manuscripts to editors who she knows personally, and who she knows will get back to her in a reasonable amount of time – “like eight weeks,” she said. What?! I get antsy if someone doesn’t email me back after two weeks… two months is an unfathomable amount of time.

But that’s the way the publishing world works. I had two agents request my full manuscript eight weeks ago, and I still haven’t heard from either of them. (I just sent follow-up emails, and one agent said to please give her more time.) It can be maddening to wait, holding the pose, and explaining to family and friends that no, you still don’t have a book deal. Deep breathing!

Deep breathing!

Deep breathing!

I’ve just started a new project I’m very excited about. It’s different from anything I’ve ever done before, and it’s going to require a lot of research. In fact, I may need to research for the next year before I’m even ready to start writing in earnest. So it’s not just the publishing world that goes slowly; often the writing itself moves at a snail’s pace. In his book You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, Creative Nonfiction guru Lee Gutkind says writers often make the mistake of rushing to publish. He emphasizes that slow is okay: it took Rebecca Sloot thirteen years to write The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, he reminds us, and it went on to win numerous accolades and spend more than two years on bestseller lists.

Arm balance. photo credit.

Arm balance. photo credit.

At the end of Jin’s yoga class (aka, after about six poses and a lot of deep breathing), she instructed us to sit in staff pose with our arms along the right side of our body. “Now, lift butt up, lift legs, balance on arms, like this.” She demonstrated, and the three of us stared at her for a moment.

I didn’t think I’d be able to do it, but I placed my palms on the mat and tried to lift my legs. “Deep breathing!” Jin scolded. “Lift butt up.” I followed her instructions, and for a split second, my legs hovered an inch above the mat. I hadn’t done the pose, not really, but I could tell that with more practice, more patience, more deep breathing, I might be able to.  These things take time.

After class, I asked Jin how long she’d been living in the U.S.  “Since four years,” she said.  She explained that when she first arrived she spoke no English.  She wanted to be a yoga instructor, as she had been in China, but only recently has she begun feeling confident enough with her English to teach classes.  It’s taken her a long time to get to this place:  her own studio, and she seems really happy and proud.

I guess the point is, faster isn’t always better, and patience is a virtue, especially when it comes to yoga and writing… and just about everything else.

Hot Yoga, or, Does a Writer Need to Sweat?

Hot Yoga, or, Does a Writer Need to Sweat?

One of the tough things about moving to a new city is finding a new doctor, new dentist, new hairstylist, new yoga studio, new place where I can lay out in my bathing suit and people won’t think I’m trashy, etc. As far as a new yoga studio goes, I’ve been a bit overwhelmed by the options around here. I decided to give Down Dog Yoga a try since they offer a $49 introductory month for new students, and I’m a sucker for a deal.

I gave the website a once-over and saw something about “sweaty fun,” but I didn’t give it too much thought until I got to the studio and noticed it was a bit warm in the lobby. Was this one of those places that heated their studios? Oh well. I didn’t mind sweating a little. I signed up for the intro month.

“I see you have your own mat,” the boy at the counter said. “Do you want to rent a towel for three dollars?”

Three dollars?! You can buy a towel for that! But all I said was, “Nah. I’ll be fine.”

Then I opened the door to the studio and was hit by a blast of chokingly hot air. This wasn’t just a warm studio. This was hot yoga. And I hadn’t realized it.  D’oh.

Eva doing tree pose by the James River.

Eva doing tree pose by the James River.

I don’t get hot yoga. I mean, it’s fun every now and again to see how much sweat your body is capable of producing, but I don’t get why people feel the need to do it all the time.  I know the heat makes you more limber, but it seems like eighty degrees is warm enough to promote flexibility. No need to crank the temperature to a hundred, which makes it difficult for me to breathe. And I know the sweating is supposed to detoxify you, but aren’t you also sweating out things your body needs? Like moisture and salt? I don’t know. I guess I’m a fan of moderation.  Some sweat = fine.  Gallons of sweat = excessive.

I’d gotten to class ten minutes early, so by the time it started, I was already soaked in sweat. I looked around at everyone else in their expensive Lululemon outfits. Then I pulled off my old tank top and decided to do the class in my sports bra. So what if these people thought I was trashy? I need something semi-dry to wear for the ride home.

We started in downward dog, and beads of sweat dripped from all parts of my body, splashing onto my mat. Maybe I should have sprung for the three dollar towel rental. I was drenched and sliding all over the place on my sweat-slick mat. When I tried to do crow pose, my arms slipped on my sweaty thighs and I nearly face-planted. The summer sun was streaming through the window, directly onto me, raising the temperature in the room even higher. This was what yoga was like in hell.

This is pretty much what the yoga classes in the DC area look like… No joke.  photo credit.

After class, I walked to my car. My skin was slick and smelled sour. If I’d known it was going to be a hot yoga class, I would have brought a change of clothes and a towel so I could shower there. Instead, I had to drape my semi-dry tank top on my seat and hope my stink wouldn’t soak into the car. So much for stopping by Trader Joe’s on the way home.

I’m not sure why people like hot yoga so much, but I have a guess. There’s the limberness and the detoxifying, sure — good stuff. But I bet a lot of people like it because the sweat makes them feel like they’re really working.

I get that. When I was in college, I didn’t think yoga counted as exercise because I went to a yoga class and didn’t sweat. Oh, how little did I know back then.

These days I frequently I go to non-heated yoga classes and don’t sweat (or don’t sweat much). But I can tell by the way my body feels afterwards that I worked hard. Unlike a cardio or spin class, a lot of the movement is yoga is small, and the work is internal. Standing in Warrior II, it may look like nothing much is happening, but the yogi is pressing her back foot into the mat (engaging the hamstring) and keeping her right knee deeply bent (engaging the quadriceps). She is pulling her leg muscles together while reaching out with her arms (engaging the triceps ) and lifting her chest to stretch. She is working on balance and strength and concentration. Even though it seems like she’s not doing much, both her body and her mind are working hard.

warrior2

Warrior II pose. photo credit.

I think some people want external proof of all the internal hard work. And when you leave a hot yoga class, dripping in sweat and smelling like a locker room, ain’t nobody gonna doubt you worked hard.

I can understand that. Not so much with yoga but with my writing life. From the outside I know it looks like I’m not doing much. It’s been three years since I quit my full time job to focus on writing. So where’s that published novel with my name on it? I know I’m working to make that happen, but it might be difficult for other people to see that. Sometimes I really want something external to prove to the world that I’m working hard at this. That I’m not being lazy, barely breaking a sweat.

The thing is, people sweat in hot yoga classes not because they’re working any harder than in a regular yoga class, but because somebody turned up the heat. A lot of sweat doesn’t always mean your workout was more legitimate.  Sure, I could turn up the heat on my writing — give myself ultimatums and chastise myself even more for not being where I want to be — but will it really make my writing practice any better?

Much of the forward movement in the career of a writer is small, and the work is internal. Just because you can’t see me sweat doesn’t mean I’m not doing it right.

Working hard on an arm balance.

Working hard on an arm balance.

*As a side note, I will not be returning to Down Dog Yoga because they really pissed me off. My healthcare provider told me that, due to my medical history, I should not do hot yoga. I ask the studio for at least a partial refund, but they refused, claiming that their practice is “safe for all.” I was really annoyed that they presumed to know what’s best for me, despite the fact that they don’t know me or my medical history and in fact are not healthcare professionals themselves. Plus, $3 for a towel rental? Boo. I say the nay-no to Down Dog Yoga. Whew. Glad to get that off my chest and excited to find a normal-temperature yoga studio.

Full Moon, San Miguel Crystals, and a Good Story

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Full Moon, San Miguel Crystals, and a Good Story

Right now I’m staying in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, which, according to legend, sits on a bed of crystals. The hippie gringos who live here believe that San Miguel is such an amazing and magical place because these crystals attract energy and life force and whatnot… You can see by my use of the word whatnot that I am somewhat unconvinced.

Last week I went to a party populated by many such hippie gringos. It was the night of the full moon, and everyone talked about how this was affecting our energies. I felt pretty normal, though. I drank some organic wine and danced to a funk band and went home fairly early.

I was sleeping soundly, as I normally do, when all of a sudden, at 3:30 in the morning, I woke with a jolt. I felt restless in my own body, agitated. I tossed and turned until I heard the church bells chime four a.m., but I could not fall back asleep. I was bizarrely awake and full of (dare I say it?) energy.

In the morning, I chalked it up to too much wine, or sleeping in a different bed. Except that my housemate, a photographer named Marico, mentioned waking up suddenly and bizarrely at four a.m. and not being able to go back to sleep.

“Really? That exact same thing happened to me,” I said. “I wonder if it had to do with the full moon.” Not that the moon had been bright enough to wake us or anything. It had been covered by clouds all night, plus I’d had my curtains shut tight. I was thinking of something more mysterious and magical: the pregnant moon calling out to us, pulling us from our slumbers like it pulls the ocean tides.

Later, I was talking to my husband on Skype, telling him about my middle-of-the-night wakening. My other housemate, a writer named David, overheard me. “Sorry to interrupt,” he said. “But that happened to me last night, too.”

“Oh my god, really? There must have been something going on! The full moon, or maybe there’s a ghost in the house.”

I turned to Paul on the computer screen. “Did you wake up suddenly in the night?”

“Yeah, at like three-thirty.”

I gasped. “Oh my god! See?”

“But I don’t think it was because of the full moon. I mean, I went to bed at eleven-thirty, so three-thirty is like two sleep cycles for me, and it’s pretty normal to wake up at the end of a sleep cycle.”

“Oh, don’t be a party pooper,” I told him. “I still think it was the the full moon!”

Does San Miguel sit on a bed of magic crystals?

Does San Miguel sit on a bed of magic crystals?

The next day, I went to a yoga class led by a hippie gringo named Fabienne. She was full of opinions about how the moon and celestial bodies were affecting us. “Now is a time of intense energy and upheaval,” she said. “The moon is pulling on us, taking us for a ride. It’s resetting us. It’s rewiring us here.” She pointed to her head. “It’s replumbing us here.” She placed a hand on her belly. “I haven’t had a good poop in a month.”

I wasn’t sure that was the moon’s fault. Still, I asked her about the bizarre way my housemates and I had all woken up at the same time on the night of the full moon.

“Oh yes,” she said. “That happened to me, too. The moon was just like, pow, and I was wide awake and surging with energy.”

There was the confirmation of my theory. Of course, Fabienne also told us that right now our bodies are becoming more crystalline, and that we need to breathe in the colors that the universe gives us, and that earlier that morning she had been doing child’s pose on her kitchen floor because she “got a little turned around.”

So who to believe? My scientist husband who thinks it was just a coincidence, or Fabienne the yoga instructor, who has been “breathing in a lot of red lately.”

Breathe in the colors...

Breathe in the colors…

In the end, it doesn’t really matter to me what’s true. The idea of the full moon having some kind of power over me and my housemates is mysterious and exciting. It makes for a good story, and that’s why I like it.

Tomorrow in my fiction class I hope to talk briefly about fiction based on real events — which is what several of my students are writing. It can be hard sometimes to let go of the facts. You want to tell the events in the order they really happened. You want to make the characters say what they really said and do what they really did. But if you’re not careful, this can make for a story that is boring, or, somehow, unbelievable despite the fact that it’s true. We fiction writers need to worry less about the truth and more about what makes the best story.

It seems to me that a lot of the people who live in San Miguel don’t really believe that it’s sitting on a bed of energy-attracting crystals. But they like to say this anyway. Because it makes for a good story.

I took this picture the other day during a rare moment of calm at the San Miguel jardin.

I took this picture the other day during a rare moment of calm at the San Miguel jardin.

Cari’s 4-Point Plan for Yoga, Writing, or Anything Else

Cari’s 4-Point Plan for Yoga, Writing, or Anything Else

Over the weekend, my friend Cari came to visit, and I thought it would be fun for us to go to yoga together on Saturday morning. I’ve been practicing yoga for eight-plus years, but Cari just started a little over a year ago, and I wondered what level class she’d feel comfortable in.

“There’s a level two at 9:15,” I said. “Or an all-levels vinyasa at nine.”

“I’m fine with level two,” Cari said. “What type of class is it?”

On the schedule it was called Big A&#! Yoga, which I assumed meant a big, challenging class. I looked online to read the description. “This fun, challenging, and inspiring class is designed especially for bigger woman and men ,” I read. “Oh no, Cari. We can’t go to that one.” Cari and I both have rather small asses.

So we went to the all-levels class. Afterwards, we both agreed it was much too easy.

“I didn’t even break a sweat!” Cari said as we walked to my car. “To me, all-levels means they should give easier modifications, but they should also give more challenging modifications, too.”

We decided to go home and do some more yoga on my living room floor.

I led us in a few rounds of sun salutations, followed by a series of warrior poses. “Can you do side crow?” I asked. I assumed she wouldn’t since I only learned how to do the arm balancing pose last summer, but Cari said she did, and then she went into a more difficult version of side crow than the one I was doing.  I’d seen people do it before but never even attempted it myself.

“Oh my gosh, Cari, wow!” I said. I couldn’t believe she’d only been doing yoga for a year.

We moved on to inversion practice. In the past year, I’ve learned how to do a headstand, handstand, and forearm stand. Cari knew how to do all of these poses, as well as more difficult versions of all of them. I was amazed.

For years I thought headstand was impossible.  Then I actually tried it.

For years I thought headstand was impossible. Then I actually tried it.

When I first started doing yoga at the age of twenty-five, I went to a beginner Hatha class once a week for a year. After that, I started sampling different classes at studios in New Orleans, DC, Cape Cod, and Richmond, VA. Because I move around a lot, I rarely got to the point where I was familiar with any particular studio or teacher, and normally I only went to yoga once or twice a week. Most of the classes I took were “all levels,” which tended to mean the instructors didn’t do anything that might scare away a beginner: no headstands, no arm balances.

Occasionally, I would go to a more challenging class where the teacher would, for example, tell us to go into side crow. But I didn’t know how to do side crow, and it looked difficult, so usually I didn’t try unless the instructor gave step-by-step instructions, and often he/she didn’t. Instead of asking for help, I’d just do regular crow or some other pose I already knew how to do. The same with headstands. On the rare occasion that an instructor told us to do one, I might give it a try, but often I felt stupid and frustrated, so I would go into shoulder stand or some other easy pose instead.

It wasn’t until I moved to Seattle and started working at Yogalife that I really took my yoga practice to the next level. Because I worked there, I not only went to the studio regularly for my shifts (we were allowed to take the class after we signed in the customers), but I got free, unlimited yoga. I started going to class four or sometimes five times a week.

Yogalife had incredible teachers and a large selection of challenging classes. For the first time, I started attending Level 2 and Level 2/3 classes. The classes were tough, and the instructors expected us to try new things. They gave us step-by-step instructions for more difficult poses and time at the end to practice inversions and ask questions. And since I went to class regularly, I started to feel more comfortable asking the teachers for help with the things I didn’t know how to do.

In one year, I went from thinking I’d never be able to do an inversion to being able to do a headstand, handstand, and forearm stand.

This is forearm stand.  Mine doesn't look quite this pretty.

This is forearm stand. Mine doesn’t look quite this pretty.  photo credit.

 

And yet, sitting in my living room watching Cari do a series of insane arm balances I had never even seen before, I realized I still had a lot to learn.

I wasn’t jealous like you might imagine. I know (although I sometimes have to be reminded) that yoga is not a competitive sport.  It was more like I felt disappointed with myself. What had I been doing all these years if one year was all it took for Cari to have come so far?

I was sort of ashamed that I hadn’t been seeking out more challenging classes. That I hadn’t been attempting difficult-looking poses and asking instructors for help on how to do them.I felt the way I sometimes feel when I hear about authors who are younger than me writing award-winning or best-selling books. They’ve been at it for less time than I have, and already they’ve surpassed me. Am I not putting forth enough effort?

When it comes down to it, Cari did learn and accomplish an unusually large amount in one year.  The question is, how did she do it?  I think it comes down to four things:

1. She goes to yoga almost every day. 

2. She obviously goes to a great studio with teachers who know her and challenge her and give excellent instruction. 

3. She’s not afraid to try new things. She’s not afraid to fall. 

4. She loves yoga. 

Cari and Eva, drinking beer after yoga.

Cari and Eva, drinking beer after yoga.

I think “Cari’s 4 Point Plan” is a great prescription for how to learn and accomplish a lot in writing as well.  First, you have to put in the time.  Write nearly every day, and you’ll make progress.

Then, at some point, you need good teachers, even if those teachers are just books. Ideally, you need people who know what they’re talking about to read over your writing and point out where you’re not in alignment, where you need more strength. You need teachers who will challenge you.

You can’t be afraid to fail or look stupid. You have to put yourself out there and admit that you’re a writer. (Something I was afraid to do for a long time.)

And, of course, you have to love it. If you don’t love writing, it’s hard to put in the time and dedication you need to really make progress.

I do have these four things when it comes to writing. At least, I have them now. It took me a while to work up to where I am now. I wasn’t always so dedicated. I wasn’t always so willing to put myself out there and risk failure. But I got to this point eventually, and in the past few years I think I’ve made significant progress with my writing career.

It’s the same with me and yoga. I didn’t plunge in head-first the way Cari did. I dipped a toe in and then slowly waded out to the deep end over the course of many years. It wasn’t until this past year that I started putting in the time with great instructors who challenged me. But once I did, I learned and accomplished a lot fairly quickly.

In the end, it’s not about how fast you make progress. It’s about getting there eventually. But if you do want to make great strides in writing or yoga, or anything else, following Cari’s 4-Point Plan is not a bad idea.  And although I don’t want to make yoga into a competitive sport, I do want to challenge myself.  I found a level 2/3 class that I’m headed to tonight, and I’m thinking about signing up for a handstand workshop. Just because something isn’t a competition doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look for ways to challenge yourself and learn new things.

Crow pose.

Crow pose.

Hiking Mt. Rainier & Learning to Pause like a Yogi

Hiking Mt. Rainier & Learning to Pause like a Yogi

*Check out my interview with Jeni Stewart on the Carve Magazine blog!*

The past two weekends, my finance’ and I have gone to Mt. Rainier National Park, a two and a half hour drive southeast from where we live in Seattle.

The first weekend we saw crystal-clear Mowich Lake, the spectacular Spray Falls, and wildflowers blooming in Spray Park. Last weekend, we went to the northeast entrance and saw stunning views of The Mountain and the aptly named Frozen Lake.

Mowich Lake

Mowich Lake

On our second trip, Paul and I had plans to hike the Burroughs Mountain trail, but instead we consulted the map and decided to take the Wonderland Trail from White River Campground to Frozen Lake.  It seemed like a good idea on the map, and we even had plans to continue on after Frozen Lake if we weren’t tired.

So we started hiking uphill through the mossy forest of cedars and Douglas firs. We were the only people on the trail, which surprised us since the parking lots had been jam-packed. But we enjoyed the solitude and the chipmunk sitings as we huffed and puffed our way up one steep switchback after another.

Soon, it became apparent why we were alone on the trail: it was really freaking hard. For two miles did nothing but climb; my thighs and lungs started to protest.

“Let’s take a break for a minute,” I said, pointing to a log. But no sooner had we sat down and pulled out our snacks, the bugs began to attack, trying to drink our salty sweat and dive into the whites of our eyes.

“Do you think you can walk and eat at the same time?” Paul asked. “I’m getting bitten up.” So we continued on without a rest.

“I really hope we get to something soon,” I said between heaving breathing. “A lake, or a view of the mountain, or something.” The old growth forest was nice, but at this point it wasn’t doing much to motivate me up the steep grade.

“I think we’re getting close to something,” Paul said. This was the third or fourth time he’d said this.

But this time, he was right! We came around a bend, and suddenly, there was the mountain, looming beyond the trees. Paul and I stopped for a moment to admire her, but then the bugs found us, and we continued on.

Mt. Rainier

Mt. Rainier

Earlier, on the way to the park, I had been reading out loud from Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions. We were on the chapter about Hinduism, and I was reading about yogis. (Real ones, mind you, not cougar moms toning their abs.)

One of the eight steps to raja yoga, or the art of finding god through psychophysical exercise, is “mastery of respiration.” When a yogi does a cycle of sixteen counts inhaling, sixty-four counts holding, and thirty-two counts exhaling, I read, “there is a stretch during which animation is reduced to the point that the mind seems disembodied. These are cherished moments for the task at hand.”

“Well, yeah,” I joked, “because of lack of oxygen to the brain.”

But it reminded me of something one of my yoga teachers had said recently: “After you breathe out, stop for a moment,” she instructed. “Don’t be in such a rush to inhale.”

I’m always in such a rush to do the next thing, even when I’m breathing. I never stop for a rest between activities. And as it turns out, it’s nice to pause after an exhale; it makes you appreciate the inhale even more.

On the trail from Shadow Lake to Frozen Lake.

On the trail from Shadow Lake to Frozen Lake.

I was not mastering my respiration at all as Paul and I climbed the dusty path towards Frozen Lake. At this point, we had hiked over four miles, with an elevation gain of about 2,500 feet. We were above the tree line now, and despite the eighty-degree temperatures, there were patches of snow alongside the trail.

“Oh my gosh, we’ve got to be almost there,” I huffed. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to Frozen Lake, even though some hikers coming down had told us it wasn’t too much further.

“At least it’s going to be smooth sailing going back,” I said. “I can’t wait to go downhill.”

We climbed one last hill, and then we were there: Frozen Lake. We sat on a rock, eating apple slices and drinking warm water from our plastic bottles. It was one of the first times during our hike that we’d actually been able to stop and rest. Every other attempt had been thwarted by bugs or blazing sun.

On another rock, a group of hikers cracked open cold beers, and I thought about how good that would taste, and how the alcohol would soften my aching thigh muscles. I looked forward to stopping somewhere on the way home and ordering a beer. Then I reminded myself to appreciate the present moment and stop being in such a rush to move on to the next thing.

“It’s getting late,” Paul said. “We should head back.” As much as I thought we should continue appreciating the place we’d worked so hard to get to, he was right.  We had 4.5 miles to hike, followed by a two and a half hour drive. And it was already late in the day. So I took one last picture, and we started down the trail.

Paul at Frozen Lake.

Paul at Frozen Lake.

I used to think that when I finished writing a novel, I would stop to relax and congratulate myself — maybe take a little writing break, but instead I find that every time I finish a novel (because I’ve written several at this point), the next day is nothing special. I move on to the next thing: writing another novel, or revising an old one. Sometimes I’ll even think things like, “I can’t wait until I finish this novel because then I can start on my next idea.”

I rarely take the time to pause between exhale and inhale — literally and figuratively. And I don’t always remember to enjoy the present moment, because I’m already thinking about the next place I want to go.

As Paul and I hiked back down to White River Campground, the going was pleasant… at first. After a couple of miles, though, the bugs found us again, and descending got to be nearly as hard on our legs as the ascent had been.

“I can’t wait to get to the car and sit down,” Paul said.

“I can’t wait to take my boots off.” My feet were throbbing. I reminded myself to appreciate the present moment.  “I mean, I’m enjoying the present moment and this hike,” I amended, “but I’m also going to really enjoy the moment I take my boots off.”

We finally arrived in the parking lot and sat down thankfully in the car. I groaned with pleasure as I removed each dusty boot and peeled each sweaty sock from my swollen feet. Maybe I don’t always take the time to pause, but at that moment, I was thinking of nothing else but how delightful it felt for my toes to be wriggling free in the (somewhat) cool air.

Mt. Rainier Take 2 048

It’s not always easy to do nothing. Nagging thoughts begin to swarm like bugs, and the heat of the day urges you to hurry up and go on to next thing, and then the next.

But sometimes, when the trail has been hard, and it’s the end of the day, you can finally pause and find a restorative stillness in yourself. It’s something I have to remind myself every day: living a good life doesn’t mean I must always be moving. Taking breaks is important, too, and so is appreciating the heights I’ve reached, even if they aren’t as far as I thought I’d go.  Besides, the best views of The Mountain are usually found when you’re standing still.

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The light of a lamp does not flicker in a windless place. — (Bhagavad-Gita VI:34)