Yoga as Tension
“happiness depending on external circumstance is desire”
~~ Patanjali, Yoga Sutra II.VI
“The Best thing about London is Paris.”
~~ Diana Vreeland
Paris. Early May 2018.
I arrived in Paris during the last week of April after spending an unhappy few days in Tuscany fighting crowds, being grateful I know that the underground gateway to the beauty of those ancient hills can be easily found in winter, when most people sensibly head to warm beaches for holiday. Even the Uffizi Galleries fade when swarmed by the selfi-obsessed.
The arrival was, as it is more and more, a homecoming more than a visit. Stepping out in the 10th that evening to the noisy blend of drunken Parisian hipsters (they are the same, in case you wonder, as those in the U.S.) and stoned West African immigrants closing up their odd storefronts of cheap clothes, nail salons, and discount travel agencies, my body relaxed as a body only can when sensing some primordial Return.
Consider: the French verb for “to become” is venir.
the French verb for “to return” is revenir.
How resonant this root: one must return to the most basic, raw Self (whatever that may be – an illusion, a wish, an invention, or a mosaic of all three) in order to find, or create, an authentic life. Returning, becoming, returning, becoming: it is rather like the Ujjayi breath of Ashtanga Yoga. Exhale, return to the home, the midline of the heart and core of the Self. Inhale, expand and become, reach into space with the outer lobes and limbs, only to find they are all the same: world, midline, Self, Other.
For whatever reason, I experience home, both the essence of return and becoming, only in this city. Even when my three children, who at birth took my heart and placed it in theirs, like a helix, are many thousands of miles away, I feel the truth of home here, in France, in Paris. It has been true for me since the silly and tender age of 12, when I made the decision that the day after graduation from high school I would travel to France. I kept that promise to myself, and I loved the country as much as I intuited I would.
After experiencing a long, brutal assault in far Northwestern China when I was 18, it was to Paris, and then Antibes, I traveled. I was ashamed to go to Denver, Colorado. But more than that I knew, like an animal, that I would be safe, embraced among strangers who did not feel like strangers to me. Or perhaps, as out of body as I was, it was the singular Light of the sea that drew me.
(A memory: one evening I sat on the beach, wearing the smallest of bikinis, my hair long, sun-lightened salt-tangled, a cigarette dangling from my mouth, writing, as I have since childhood, in a journal. A ridiculously vulnerable image of exposed girlhood. Two aggressive men approached me, and in one abrupt lightning flash of affronted and protective anger an elegant old woman dressed in white was upon them. She shamed them away in the most aggressive and proper French I have ever heard, and then turned to me and said in perfect, clipped English, “These boys. Whatever is wrong with them?” Then she smiled and walked away. I continued to smoke and look out over the sea. Safe.)
I count in my inner life three mysteries, which through therapy are not all that difficult to solve, though the Key, if there is one, remains just out of reach:
~ Why I did not pursue a professional career in dance, when my heart, gifts, and body were so obviously meant for the dedication to this Art.
~ Why I did not become an academic.
~ Why I did not move to France when I could.
The former two at this point are navel-gazing; I’m done with those regrets.
Where and how one lives, however, particularly for those who are acutely sensitive to culture, beauty, environment: for us living in a place that does not feel like The Place forms a wound that is akin to a sickness, an absence, a death.
The rather grotesque differences between where I live and where I feel I need to live in order to Live is almost comedic, and reveals to me the uncomfortable truth that most of my existence has been ruled by fantasy and fear, which often are the same thing.
One afternoon after a long but awakening Ashtanga class with Kia Naddermier, an otherworldly teacher and woman who serves more and more to me as a beacon of practice, I wandered for many illuminated hours throughout the city. I walked slowly, like a flaneur, all the way from the 11th to the tourist choked Rue St. Honore, through the brilliantly green Tuileries, over Pont des Arts and into the 6th, stopping only to take photos and stare. Particularly along the river, the city is too beautiful: no amount of looking will take it in. It is never enough. For the wide skies above the Seine I am insatiable.
It was in Paris I realized my marriage was over. It was in Paris I grieved my marriage, missed my children, and realized I would have to create a life in a city I loathe living by myself in a culture (tech, fitness addicts, bros, hipsters, Mommy-Land) utterly alien to me. It was in Paris I met the astonishing woman whom I knew on sight would be my next teacher, and it was in her shala I sensed an instant thread of profound, unfamiliar yet somehow comfortable connection with fellow practitioners.
My root teacher, Richard Freeman, speaks often of the Jeweled Net of Indra: an invisible but palpable web that ties us together, even when thinking we are most apart. In Paris I see more clearly the Net, and in joy want to stay for all my remaining days of existence in this incarnation.
I cannot pick up with my three little children and move to Paris. And so there is a fixed tension in my heart: my home is where my children are. My home is not where my children live.
It is not here, in dry, colorless, over-developed Denver, Colorado where I will ever experience a sense, existential or spiritual, of returning: this is not a place that aids in lowering my soul into the depths. The becoming, however, is up to me.
And is this not Practice? Is this not Yoga? The understanding that it is not location, or beauty, or Place, or preference that creates faith and Unity with the selfless Self. Nothing in the Yamas or Niyamas of the 8-Limbed Path dictate one must live in harmonized beauty in order to evolve.
There is no evolution without tension. Tension – of desire, of the wants of the ego, the great but illusory needs of the Heart – is a tool that, if used with skill, helps to sculpt and shape a spiritual practice. Discomfort is part of the dance. Karma is too: we live with our choices, and all those many years ago I made a choice to turn away from what felt like home.
I’ve been an exile all my life.
Perhaps it is the life of the exile that will help to guide my children toward wholeness.
And that is worth an infinite Paris springs.