When you get my age (63) most people have survived numerous periods of devastation in life. I personally have undergone major crises and upheavals enough times to know, at least on some level, that this too will pass. As I walked through the grounds of Heartwood surveying the damage in the aftermath of hurricane Ian my yoga has never been more valuable. The level of destruction on the grounds was heartbreaking. Over a dozen huge trees down, fences shredded, bent, and blown down, electrical cables severed, huge bamboo toppled, my garden destroyed, and some damage to roofs. The very real issue of how we might possibly come up with the resources to put things back together plagued my mind. At the same time, yoga has taught me not to allow myself to wander down the rabbit hole of worry and to be careful not to invent a false narrative of how the repercussions of this storm will break us (a mindset it is easy to slip into when we can’t see what the future holds so we imagine the worst).
The news programs allowed us to witness how the devastation destroyed our neighbors to the south, ending lives and livelihoods. I know we have much to be grateful for. We lost dozens of huge trees that careened to the ground making it impossible to do anything but climb and crawl to the buildings and the astronomical price of removing them now feels like an insurmountable hurdle I have no clue how to cross. And yet, none of the trees fell on the lodge or the house. One did fall on our pavilion, but only minor damage was result, and David can take care of that. Another fell on our two RVs, now totaled, but that is the one and only thing our insurance will cover, which means we just need to be creative with lodging until we deal with the insurance and replace them. We had 8 students visiting when the storm hit, and no one was injured. More remarkably, they maintained the best of spirits and showed us compassion and support rather than expressing their own worry or disappointment that their training was interrupted in such a stressful way. They stayed until the airports reopened, positive and making do, despite our not having electricity for 5 days and their cars being trapped on the property by fallen trees so they couldn’t get out even if they wanted to. How honored am I to work with such practical, patient, and compassionate yogis?
I thought back to when Hurricane Irma hit us on Sept 17, 5 years ago. The next day students began showing up with rakes and gloves and smiles. They put hours of laborious work into raking the debris. Today, students started showing up just as they did before, some the very same faces revealing the durability of true friendships. During Irma, I entertained real thoughts of selling the property and ending Heartwood. It was just too much work for someone getting older every day. I also remember that the efforts of those that showed up are what made me stay, reminding me of the value of the work I did and how privileged I was to have created a community with such decent, loving people. Storms such as this are a good reminder we need not be attached to the fruits of our labors and living your dharma means doing the work you are born to do without attachment to results. Even when it’s hard. Even when you are exhausted emotionally as well as physically. Yoga is why I put Heartwood back together and stayed after Irma, for yoga was stronger than any of my worries or resentment or fears.
I did not entertain thoughts of giving up this time, but I was still sad looking at Heartwood’s newest problem to solve. To begin, my normal resilience was somewhat tapped out. My father’s funeral was Friday before the storm, and I still carried grief over his loss. On the day of the storm, I received news of my brother’s serious cancer diagnosis and due to other health complexities, a sad prognosis for his future. I had a major heart attack last Oct. and now, stress causes a piercing heartburn in my chest, which was going off as I assessed damage. I wasn’t alarmed that the pressure meant I would keel over, but it did remind me I have to take things slowly and keep my heartrate in a particular zone and stress at bay. Denver kept watching me, asking if I’m OK. She worries about me now in a way she never had before. I felt badly about that too. The collective weight of so much to emotionally handle at one time can make stalwart strength (a trait I’m known for) hard to generate. All you can do is breathe, right?
But breathing is not all you can do. More powerful yoga practices can shift how we react to the world. Vitarka is a negative thought. Pratipaksha bhavanam is the action of replacing that thought with a positive one and cultivating the opposite in heart and mind.
This doesn’t mean I can just say to myself, “My brother will be fine. Trust the universe,” or “I won’t have another heart attack, so stop worrying.” Or even, “The repercussions of this storm won’t hurt Heartwood.” Because while these thoughts are positive, they simply are not true and deep down I know it. Bad things happen. Forced change happens. Loss is a part of life. What I can do is shift my thinking towards acceptance and trust and remind myself that whatever comes is a part of karma and one more powerful life experience to add to my ever-unfolding story. I can’t control any of the things happening. I can, however, control how I view and react to what is happening. Surrendering to whatever the future holds and reminding myself that all things are impermanent is the yogic response to life’s losses.
My thoughts as I walked around Heartwood observing the crisis took new shape as my yoga mentality overrode my small self. My father is gone, but he is with me still, evident in the way I grabbed a rake and started doing what had to be done and was able to not make the devastation about “me and my stress”. I found the words to assure everyone things will be OK, even made a joke or two, to reinforce peace and acceptance rather than drama. (He gave me that.) My brother may be suffering and may not survive, but beautiful and poignant revelations often are unearthed when we face our mortality and I trust his life journey will continue to unfold with moments of beauty and love as he faces his personal crisis. My heart and body are speaking to me when I get that burning sensation, reminding me to practice self care and to not deny the evitability of aging and how this impacts my productivity. A heart attack demands I pace myself without frustration, judgement, or disappointment in what I’m capable of. Positive thoughts don’t mean being in denial of what is happening, but being in acceptance, with gratitude and trust, for life’s lessons, no matter how difficult they are in the moment.
The Heartwood grounds will get cleaned and nature always recovers. The landscape will shift. The lack of shade means many of our ferns will wither, my garden was destroyed and needs a total makeover and later, when things are sorted out, I can mourn the trees that have stood here for almost a hundred years and have met their end. I had such a connection and sincere affinity for those marvelous works of art created by mother nature. I will miss them more than anyone could know. The money required for this massive cleanup will be found one way or another and one day this upset will be another story of challenges overcome in Heartwood’s interesting story.
I thought a lot this week about a time in my life when everything I held dear was lost. In 2010, my business, my marriage, my home, my career, my savings, my relationships with friends and my children were demolished. It took time and no small effort to put life in order again, but from those ashes a beautiful new life immerged. The loss led to my opening Heartwood, finding, and marrying my beloved David, and a deeper, almost profound sense of connection with my children that includes deep respect and shared sensitivity for what we all went through. What couldn’t be saved from that time, just wasn’t meant to be saved. While I still mourn some losses, they also taught me to appreciate what I have today in a sincere way. A lot of profound good came from that dreaded crisis.
Yoga teaches us that every crisis is a gift. Losses provide a platform for deeper introspection and a chance to put our priorities in correct order. We learn what we are willing to fight for and make sacrifices for. We are reminded of what is truly important, and our spiritual path is awakened and deepened by challenges, whether we meet them successfully or experience failure.
I was hit by a storm this week. Like little tornadoes that pop up during a hurricane, I was hit with other life heartache simultaneously, as if to test my yoga fortitude. But yoga provided me with shelter from the storm and now shows me the path out of the mess. (The mess within me and the mess around me.)
I believe in what I teach. It is nice to know that under pressing circumstances, I practice it too. My hope is that everyone we have ever trained has gone home with these tools and that they keep nurturing and developing a deep relationship with yoga for times like these. In the end, Heartwood is not the trees or the garden, the buildings, or classes. Heartwood is the teachings, kept alive by those who embrace and practice them. That can hold up to a storm of any size.