This week we lost an amazing writer with an amazing voice, a voice we might very well have never heard. Maya Angelou's story has been told and retold, by herself and others, but the world might very well have never known it, or her, if she had not begun the process by telling her own story.
Maya Angelou, who died this week, spent five years of her young life completely mute, refusing to speak a word between the ages of eight and thirteen. She had been sexually assaulted, just a child, and when she told the truth about what had happened to her, the man responsible for her assault was found dead, probably beaten to death in retaliation by her older relatives.
She stopped speaking, believing she was responsible for his death. "I thought I had killed him," she later explained. "I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone."
Like so many people who have written about Angelou this week, I have been inspired by her life and her words, especially the ones quoted here. Again and again, I have been able to overcome my reluctance to speak my own truth and tell my own stories, and a lot of the credit for my own small amount of courage goes to Angelou's example.
We are nearly at the end of another month of writing and I am looking forward to the start of the summer session at Hopkins where I am enrolled in Fiction Workshop. I hope to workshop at least two or three pieces this summer in that course, but I am also very much looking forward to reading manuscripts from other writers in the class, getting to know new authors, and hearing their stories.
We all have untold stories inside us, stories that the world needs to hear. What is yours?
For more of my photos, see Flickr. As you'll probably notice from my Flickr page, I love taking photos of the moon! The shot above was taken last fall from Dewey Beach, Delaware. If you look carefully to the left of the rising moon, you can see a tiny light from a ship in the Atlantic out along the horizon.
It's a gorgeous day out and I'm spending it in the garden instead of writing about science. I suppose, as a mother, I ought to be allowed the day off to relax, and this is what I like to do - hang out in my yard and take photos of whatever happens to be blooming. Today's favorite shot is of a lovely magnolia blossom, one of the few left on that tree. I hope all you mothers out there are having as great a day as I am!
I spent the weekend immersed in a powerful yoga practice. To a casual observer, it may not have looked like we were doing yoga. I would guess that it looked more like a rock concert than a yoga class -- lots of music and musicians, lots of singing and clapping and dancing, and lots and lots of joy. We were, in fact, singing and dancing, but we were also doing yoga - bhakti yoga, to be precise.
Bhakti is the yoga of devotion and although there are several types of bhakti practices, all focused on expressing devotion, the one we practiced this weekend is chanting.
A typical bhakti chant will feature the name of one or another of the many names of the divine, repeated over and over, as a mantra. The chanting can be done to music, with melodies and rhythms and with the help of musical instruments. This is what leads to the rock concert atmosphere.
The difference is, that while it might look like a concert, it feels like yoga - because it is yoga. The repetition of the holy names is thought to open energy channels in the body the same way asana practice clears blocks to the flow of energy. Chanting can clear these blocks too, and often in a much more powerful, and speedier, fashion than practicing yoga poses.
Many students of yoga will be familiar with chanting, since it is a very common practice to chant the single syllable Om either at the beginning or end of class. Ironically, although the chanting of Om is one of the oldest and most widely practiced techniques of yoga, it is often never really explained, particularly to beginning yoga students.
So, why do we do this? Why do we chant this single syllable at the beginning and end of our yoga practice? There are many ways to answer this question, but I like to look at it as a small amount of bhakti practice inserted into every yoga class. In bhakti practice, we chant the divine names to increase our awareness and understanding of that particular aspect of the divine, especially as that particular aspect of divinity is manifested in our own bodies. We chant Om for the same reason - to bring this symbol of the perfection of ultimate reality into our hearts and minds, so we are fully conscious of it.
Although Om is a very simple mantra, just a single syllable, it holds within it the entire universe. The yoga sutras explain that we chant Om repeatedly because this leads us to the contemplation of the meaning of Isvara, the ultimate reality, pure perfection. This, in fact, is our true nature, so by chanting its name, we raise our consciousness of this fact.
One way to think of Om is as the original primordial sound, the single sound which brought forth everything that is, the entire Universe. When we chant Om it is a way to remind ourselves of our true nature, but it is also a way to increase the likelihood that we will remember this important fact: we are that sound which brought everything that is into existence - even after we walk out of our yoga class and into our everyday life.
It's very likely that we will forget this essential fact as soon as we roll up our mat. And that is why we chant it again, and again, and again. Om Om Om
This has been a busy month and my own writing has suffered, but I have managed to complete all my assignments for my Fiction Techniques course and will turn in my final draft of the new story I wrote for this course next week. So, I count that as a big win for the month of April.
In a couple of weeks I plan to launch my second annual "Story A Week Summer" personal challenge. I did this last summer and was thrilled at the number of story drafts I pulled out and finished, as well as the new stories that got started as a result of this challenge....so I decided to do it again!
Here is a copy of the chart I'm going to use. I have a few ideas for those early weeks, but I honestly don't quite know where this is going to lead me. I'm eager to see what this chart looks like as I begin to fill it in.
Just like last year, my summer has seventeen weeks, since I'm counting from the beginning of May to just before Labor Day. That seems a long way away right now, but I suspect the coming months will go fast. I'll be filing periodic progress reports as the summer gets underway, so stay tuned!
A few weeks ago, a friend forwarded a link to a very interesting video showing a new way to visualize the flight of starlings as they flock around power lines. Later, I located a link to an article in Wired about it, explaining this new way of manipulating video footage.
The resulting movie makes the trajectory of each bird's flight path visible. Take a look! This is totally mesmerizing....
As a yoga teacher, I often tell my students that they really won't begin to experience the full value of yoga until they develop a daily practice. It doesn't have to take a lot of time, I tell them. Even fifteen minutes a day of consistent practice will make a world of difference in the benefits that yoga can produce in one's life.
I say this a lot, so it was with a pang of guilt and humility that I came to realize a few months ago that my own daily practice had taken a nose dive. For years before I became a teacher I practiced every day. I continued that daily practice during my teacher training. As I began teaching, though, my own practice began to change and, before I realized what was happening, had nearly disappeared from my routine.
It was the need to prepare lesson plans that started this change. My own practice began to be geared toward working out sequences through which I could teach certain concepts and ideas in my class. My students certainly benefited from a well-thought-out class plan, but I noticed that my own practice began to become more sporadic and unbalanced.
Apparently, this is a well-known problem that yoga teachers often face, as I found out after talking with several colleagues. We know the importance of a daily practice, we believe in it--but the message quickly becomes, "Do as I say, not as I do."
A few months ago, in December, I had a couple of weeks off from teaching at the same time I also had a few quiet weeks at home, so I took the opportunity to tackle this problem of a terribly inconsistent personal practice. I set an intention to practice asana and meditation every day for those two weeks.
Instead of directing my own practice, I pulled out Judith Lasater's book, "Thirty Essential Yoga Poses for Beginning Students and their Teachers," and followed her Day of the Week sequences. These seven pose collections cycle through all the essential basic poses. Within a week, I had rediscovered the joy of a well-rounded and consistent yoga practice. After two weeks, I was feeling more centered and calm than I had in a very long time.
The new year began and I started to teach again, but by then I was stuck on my daily practice, unwilling to give up this special time for myself each morning. I continued with a daily asana and meditation routine, sometimes using Lasater's book, sometimes dipping into the essential sequences in Patricia Walden's book, "The Woman's Book of Yoga and Health." Occasionally, I went back to my own self-guided practice, but I enjoyed having these two wise and experienced teachers to guide my practice through their writing.
I've been keeping a journal about this, each day writing a short entry, just a sentence or two, about what I did in my practice that day. Recently, I passed the 100-day mark in my journal, and while it felt like a great accomplishment to have reached this number, I knew I was not a bit interested in stopping.
I will keep doing this practice every day, even if I have only ten minutes to do it. No amount of yoga is too small. What is important is the consistency and commitment. This is a truth I have known for a long time and I'm very happy to admit that I am now, finally, practicing what I teach.
We're about to close out the month of March in a few days and with April right around the corner, I've started to think about writing conferences. In trying to decide if I will go to any this year, I've needed to consider all the other obligations in my life, as well as the intent of each conference. I've made my first choice, and will be attending the annual Conversations and Connections conference next Saturday, April 5th.
This conference, organized by Barrelhouse Magazine and sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University Master of Arts in Writing program (in which I'm enrolled) has been going on since 2007. I've attended two or three of these conferences and it was actually at last year's conference that I first began to realize that an MA program might be what I needed to move my writing to the next level.
This insight came during the popular "Speed Dating with Editors" event that takes place over the lunch hour. Participants bring a few pages of a piece--any type, fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction--and sit with an editor from a literary magazine or small press for instant feedback.
Another upcoming conference that I considered attending but couldn't fit into my schedule is the second annual Books Alive! conference sponsored by the Washington Independent Review of Books. That conference is tomorrow, so if you're interested, check it out right now.
There will be more conferences over the next few months. One I won't be able to attend again (since I will be enrolled in a workshop at Hopkins) is the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. This is not actually a conference, but an ongoing series of workshops that takes place over most of June and July. I had a fantastic experience there last summer and would go again if I could work it into my schedule. I highly recommend it!
It is snowing. Again. I took this photo about ten minutes ago, and the flakes are still coming down. The weather service says this will continue for several more hours.
It's about 18 degrees Fahrenheit out there, and expected to drop even further, to around 8 degrees by tomorrow morning. The federal government, my area's largest employer, is closed, as are all the county offices and school districts.
Even the bus system has shut down. All of these events have transformed my neighborhood in Arlington, Virginia, just three miles outside of Washington, DC, into an oasis of utter quiet. No buses trundling by on Lee Highway, a half block away from my house. No cars. No sounds outside at all, except the bluster of the wind as it rattles my windows every few moments.
I could rail against this, point out that we've had just about enough winter already, thank you very much. Or I could dismiss it, the way many of us who have been transplanted to Washington DC react to the inevitable freakout that accompanies every flake that hits the area, saying it's just a little snow and people here don't know what real snow is, not the kind of snow we had back in Idaho and Montana and North Dakota.
Or I could notice how quiet it is. I could notice how relaxed I am, how peaceful it feels in my house, how tasty that lunch was that I just made for myself. Tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich! What could be better? I could notice that the snow is clean and white and beautiful, as snow always is. I could notice that our heat is working because our power is still on. I could notice that I am grateful for this, and for all of these things.
I could also notice that it is snowing whether I want it to snow or not. I could notice that nothing I say or do or feel will change the fact that, today, it is snowing. Again. This is today's truth.
In yoga, we have a set of ethical principles, the yamas and the niyamas, which appear in the yoga sutras as guides to our practice. Among the yamas, which are the "external disciplines," we find satya, which means truthfulness. When we practice satya, we focus on that which is true, that which is--not that which we would like or wish to be, but that which actually exists.
When we apply satya to our asana practice, we are truthful with ourselves about just how far we can stretch those hamstrings or bend that back. We don't pretend that we can stretch farther than we can or bend more than we ought. If we do, we are being untrue, to ourselves, as well as to the practice.
When we apply satya to our lives, we are truthful about everything--we accept the truth of our past and our present, we accept the truth of who we are, and who we are not. And we especially accept the truth of things we cannot control, like the weather.
Among the niyamas, those "internal disciplines" that guide our yoga practice, we find santosa, which means contentment. A verse in the yoga sutras says, about santosa, "Contentment brings unsurpassed joy."
And, thus, we arrive at the essential lesson of these two yogic principles: by letting go of our attachment to the way things ought to be, and accepting the truth of the way things actually are, we will find joy.
February has been, as usual, a short month, and here it is already time for the monthly writing report. I thought I had not been writing much, but I've been keeping track, making note of the time spent each day on writing, and giving myself a gold star on the calendar for each day I spend at least a half hour writing.
Here is my calendar for this month, and it's actually not too bad, despite the way it seemed at the time. The type of writing I've been doing varies from day to day, but this month has been divided between (a) weekly exercises assigned for my Fiction Techniques class at Hopkins; (b) blog posts; and (c) freewriting.
Although I would have liked to see some time spent on the novel I'm supposed to be revising, I do think it's been wise to set it aside for awhile and concentrate on classwork. I hope to begin working through my revision plan for the novel starting in March....but we'll see how that goes next month. Which starts tomorrow!
I have spent a considerable amount of time on freewriting this month, and this was actually a conscious choice. For some time now, I have been working on developing a technique that more intentionally integrates my yoga practice with my writing. When I talk to myself about this, I call these integrated yoga and writing sessions Asana-Freewrite time, because the method involves deliberate focused asana practice (asana means pose or posture) followed immediately by a session of timed freewriting.
I noticed quite some time ago that if I went directly into writing after a period of movement in yoga, the images and characters and ideas that came pouring up were vivid and new and exciting to write about. I got several story ideas this way, many many characters, even an entire novel, but it wasn't until Robin's course that I began to make the connection between the intentional practice of yoga in the process of creating new writing. [By the way, if you are intrigued by this idea, Robin will be teaching the workshop again, at the 2014 Iowa Summer Writing Festival.]
So, I've been working on that for a number of months, trying to find the best way to combine these two core activities in my life. And I haven't wanted to talk about it much, or write about it, because I was just beginning to see what worked for me, and what didn't. I still don't know a lot of specifics, but I do know that I need a starting phrase or two to get the writing flowing once I move off the mat and pick up my pen or sit at the computer.
The phrases that work best for me are ones I learned in a fabulous book by Natalie Goldberg, Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life. This amazing book changed the way I write by showing me how to do freewriting in a productive way. She has many suggestions in this book, but the approach that works best for me is the following: Set the timer for ten minutes, then write the phrase "I'm thinking about...." and put down whatever thought or image or idea is in your head. When you get stuck, write "Now I'm thinking about...." and keep going, for ten minutes. Walk around for a couple of minutes, not speaking or reading or engaging with words in any way, then return to the page. Set the timer for ten more minutes and write "I'm not thinking about..." and continue with this for ten minutes.
By combining Natalie's freewriting method with Robin's "take your writing to the mat" method, I've now got a technique that works for me, both for generating new material when I need it (such as for those all-too-frequent weekly writing assignments) as well as for revising or adding to material I'm already working on.
Some days, an entirely new piece comes to me, which is what happened today. I took some time to type it up and have filed it in my "Beginnings" binder. Some day, I will pull it out and work on it again, but it feels great to have found a way to capture at least a small portion of the flood of ideas that the Asana-Freewrite method unleashes.
Our eyes can detect light (electromagnetic radiation) only in a certain range of energies, and any electromagnetic radiation outside this range is, to us, essentially invisible. Using the instruments of science, though, it is possible to see invisible things--such as heat.
Hot objects give off light, or electromagnetic radiation, in an energy range beyond that of red light, a region known as the infrared. We can't see this with our eyes, of course, but we can "see" it using instruments known as spectrometers that rely on detectors that can pick up radiation our own eyes cannot detect.
A camera utilizing detectors that are sensitive to light outside the visible spectrum was installed on the Hubble Space Telescope about five years ago. It has produced spectacular images, including this one, which is an image of the Horsehead Nebula as it would look to us if we could see infrared light. The detector in this case is a solid-state device made of an exotic material composed of mercury, cadmium and tellurium. When we look at this image we are, essentially, seeing the heat the horsehead nebula emits into space.
Three and a half years ago I started a new blog, Yoga Emergence*. I had just begun a 200 hour yoga teacher training program at Sun & Moon Yoga Studio
in northern Virginia, and wanted a log to record and reflect on my
journey towards becoming a teacher. Now, over three years later, I have
taken another major step in this journey by enrolling in a second
teacher training program, also at Sun & Moon, that will (hopefully)
one day lead to a 500-hour certification. In some ways, I find it hard to believe that I have already been teaching for almost three years, but it's true: my first class was offered in late March of 2011,
and I have been teaching more or less continuously since then. It was
only yesterday, when I attended my first teacher training session of
this new program, that I began to see how much I've grown and learned in
these three years of teaching -- and how much I still have to learn. Some of my instructors in the teacher
training program joke that even though they finished the 500-hour or
700-hour certification some time ago, they are currently embarked on the
5000-hour or 7000-hour training program. It's a good point, since there
always seems to be more one can learn, and you're never really "done"
with your training. No matter how much we teach, we will always be yoga
students. In other news, I am now offering an
"All-Levels" yoga class at the Sun & Moon Arlington studio at 11am
on Friday mornings. Drop-ins are welcome! You can find more info about the class here. Namaste!
*Note: Yoga Monday is a regular column on Complexity Simplified. Posts are published on the first Monday of each month. This post is cross-posted on my other blog, Yoga Emergence, where you can find even more about yoga.
I realized the other day that the fourth Friday of the month, the day I was intending to publish a Writing Report each month, was last week! Better late than never, I suppose. I blame it on the fact that this month has five Fridays, so I got a little confused with my own posting schedule.
My writing had, like most people's, slowed down quite a bit over the holidays, but has begun to pick up speed again this month, as can be seen in this graph of "Hours Spent Writing Each Week," vs. the weeks in November, December and January. Those two low spots, in weeks 4 and 8, are (you guessed it) Thanksgiving and Christmas.
I still have a target in mind of 10 hours per week, so I'm glad that my time-on-task has started to go up, at least, even though I've missed my target every week since I started keeping track. But this is okay, and I know what I'm aiming for, so I'm glad to see the way the line is trending the past three weeks. Onward and upward!
It really IS important to spend time actually writing, but I've also learned how important it is to think about my writing before I actually sit down and work. In that vein, I've made some good progress on the novel I've been working on for some time, thanks to the advice I've recently received from my new writing consultant, Kathryn Johnson. I found Kathryn through her association with The Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD, where I have taken a number of workshops over the years. She is an instructor there, but also a published author of more than forty novels--in other words, she knows what she's talking about, and I got a lot of great ideas and advice from her after she read my current novel draft. I now have a list of things to work on for this book, which is going to keep me busy for quite some time.
The last bit of news for this month is that last week I started my first class at Johns Hopkins University as a student in the MA in Fiction program. It's the first course in the program, Fiction Techniques, and I'm pleased to say I did all the reading for the first week as well as the assignment, so things are off to a good start.
One of the readings from last week was by John Gardner, "Basic Skills, Genre, and Fiction as Dream." I was struck, especially, by one passage in this classic and wanted to leave you with it, since it describes, better than anything I've ever read, just why it is that I am a writer.
Good description does far more: It is one of the writer's means of reaching down into his unconscious mind, finding clues to what questions his fiction must ask, and, with luck, hints about the answers. Good description is symbolic not because the writer plants symbols in it but because, by working in the proper way, he forces symbols still largely mysterious to him up into his conscious mind where, little by little as his fiction progresses, he can work with them and finally understand them.
And this, in fact, is why I write: to put down that image that has stuck with me forever, even though I don't know why, and to work with it, writing around it and over it and through it, until one day I realize that the story I've been telling has explained to me just why I had been so struck by that initial image, and why it would never let me go.
This weekend I have been attending a Medical Yoga Symposium in Washington, DC, which is co-sponsored by Therapeutic Yoga of Greater Washington and the Center for Integrative Medicine at the George Washington University Medical Center.
As a long-time practitioner of yoga, a yoga teacher and a scientist, I am very interested in scientific studies of the effects of yoga and its use in addressing disease and medical issues. I have personally benefited from my yoga practice in ways that have clearly improved my health, but as a scientist I want to understand more about why this is, and am always hungry for information on this topic that is not tainted by the hype and pseudo-science that is so rampant in this field.
I signed up for this conference because the presenters have deep backgrounds in both yoga practice and in medicine and science, with most of the speakers holding MDs or PhDs or, in several cases, both degrees. Speakers on Saturday included Dean Ornish, MD (Preventive Medicine Research Institute), Timothy McCall, MD (author of the book Yoga as Medicine), Richard Miller, PhD (of the Integrative Restoration Institute) and several others. I hope to post a longer article after the conference concludes with more details about the contents of the talks, which cover both yoga as a therapeutic intervention, as well as research reports about the influence of yoga on disease and health.
For some years now, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has funded research on the effects of yoga on a variety of health issues, including back pain, arthritis, diabetes, HIV, menopausal symptoms, multiple sclerosis and as a therapeutic tool for cessation of smoking. The NIH has posted a list of references where you can read more about the results of these and other studies.
Watch for an update when the conference concludes!
Welcome to the first in my new series, Yoga Monday. This post also appears on my other blog, Yoga Emergence, along with a number of other articles about yoga and teaching yoga.
A couple of days ago, I offered a free Introduction to Yoga
class in order to provide an opportunity for all those folks whose new
year's resolution list includes "Take up yoga!" As expected for the
first week of January, there was a great turnout, so many people, in
fact, that we ran out of props for the first time ever. I'm offering
this class again on January 18 (more info here) so if you are in the area, please consider attending! The
folks who attended this special class had a wide range of experiences
with yoga, including several who had never tried it, but also more than a
few who had years of experience. Some were looking for a new teacher
or, in a couple of cases, were just in town for the holidays and away
from their regular class, so dropping in for a visit. It was an
interesting mix of people and I enjoyed talking to the new folks about
what brought them to the study of yoga. It
is often the case that the issue that brings us to yoga is not the one
that keeps us there. In my own case, I was gradually introduced to the
practice through the efforts of a couple of fitness instructors who
were, themselves, taking yoga lessons and trying the moves out during
the stretching sessions at the end of class. I liked those parts of
their classes a lot and tried out an actual yoga class, a free "Intro to
Yoga" session offered by the local hospital. I liked it a lot, too, but
didn't think I had time to add another "work-out routine" to my already
though I was not yet 40, I had a lot of aches and pains, particularly
in my low back, and I finally consulted a chiropractor who advised
doing what I recognized as a move that we had practiced in that intro
class--a simple reclining twist. A light bulb went off. I realized that
yoga was more than just another form of exercise. Here was a method that
might actually make me feel better.
so, I sought out a teacher, which wasn't easy in those days and in that
place (the late 1980s in Indianapolis) but I found her and commenced
upon the more organized portion of my yoga journey. It was to be many
years before my study and practice helped me to fully deal with my lower
back pain, but I quickly learned that yoga made me feel better in many
ways--not just physically, but emotionally and, even, spiritually. If
you practice yoga, what brought you to the practice? If you've
practiced for awhile, have your reasons changed? I would be interested
in hearing your story!
Happy New Year! I hope you are as excited about the coming year as I am. There is much fun and good work to look forward to this year, including yoga classes to teach, writing classes to delve into and science to learn and write about.
Since so many interesting things are beckoning to me this year, I might worry about being overwhelmed. But what do I do? Why, add another activity, of course!
One way I have found that helps tremendously to tame the swirl of activities and interests in my life is to write about it. So, one of my new year's resolutions is to develop a more regular posting schedule, dividing the posts evenly among my three many activities: yoga, science and writing. I will post once per month on each topic according to the following schedule:
Yoga Monday - The first Monday of the month will be a post about yoga. This post will be cross-listed to my other blog, Yoga Emergence.
Science Sunday - The second Sunday of each month will be a post about one of the multitude of interesting science stories that cross my desk every week. There is so much fascinating stuff going on in the world of science these days and I'm always eager to share what I've learned.
Nearly Wordless Wednesday - The third Wednesday of the month will feature a photo or other graphic image, with very few, if any, words. This is not a new feature of my blog, as I love photography and have always had lots of photos to share. Since putting up these posts has always been one of my favorite blogging activities, I'm keeping this feature in the posting schedule.
The Writing Report - The last Friday of each month will feature a
report on my writing activities for that month. I spend a lot of my time
on this part of my life and, as I begin my studies toward an MA in Writing at Johns Hopkins University, I'm especially excited about this new feature for my blog.
Watch for the first offering in my new posting cycle...next Monday, when the first Yoga Monday selection is scheduled to appear. And, in the meantime, best wishes for a fabulous 2014!!