how to preform open-heart surgery

Practicing yoga feels like this: my body is on an operating table. My consciousness is the surgeon. I open up my chest, and there’s my heart. I have full permission to look at every corner of it, learn about how it works, see its insides. There is a bright light above my body that I can shine wherever I’d like.

I know what’s missing from Western yoga and spirituality practice. It provides us with the operating room, a pair of scrubs, and a scalpel. And then, with a pat on the butt and a “go get em Tiger,” we are expected to know how to operate. We are on our own.

So, we go into these spiritual quests without a clue about how to navigate something as tender and complex as a human heart. We can feel that, so we glance back at our teachers and guides with a look of fear, but somehow if we don’t keep going it is because we are not brave enough, not loving enough. So our hands shake as we take the scalpel, make an incision that we’re a little weary might hurt us because we don’t know what we’re doing, but no, don’t go back, keep being brave, and then we feel brave for a moment so we keep going and eventually rip our chests open wide.

And there is it. Your heart. You poke and prod at it, having no idea if what you’re doing is safe or helpful. You take it in your hands, examine all parts of it, and things are getting a little too scary so you call it a day. You put your heart back in your chest, but aren’t sure which way it goes. You attempt to sew yourself up, but you’ve never been taught how to do that. So you wing it. You winged the whole thing.

And then for days afterwards you feel different, worse. It’s just part of the process, you tell yourself. You’re told to always keep going towards your heart, to keep looking at it even if it’s hard. So, day after day, you repeat the process of tearing yourself open, taking a look around without a map, and then attempting to put yourself back together again.

I haven’t gone to a yoga class in a very long time, but a few weeks back I went to a three-hour long workshop on a Sunday. It was held in a basement of a very nice woman’s house in San Francisco. I’m not sure what made me go, but I did. It has been a challenge for me to write about what happened that day in a way that makes a lot of sense. But I’ll try.

It was the first time in a very long time that I was not encouraged by the teacher to just rip myself open. Instead, I was being taught how to go about opening myself in a way that is safe and loving. I was being taught how to look at something as delicate as my heart, and how to navigate its dark, turbulent waters. Instead of being disoriented, I finally felt like I had my bearings. I was given a map and step-by-step directions, without the pressure of using any of that information immediately or even any time soon. But, sure enough, in those three hours I had cut myself open, looked around, and sewed myself back up again. It was different from usual though. The cuts were clean and precise, I hadn’t knocked a bunch of things over when I was looking around, and I closed the incision in a way that could heal properly. There was such a gentleness to the whole thing.

This is what scares me about pop-culture yoga, about spiritualism being the next cool thing, about how easy it is to obtain a certificate that qualifies you to teach yoga, or meditation, or energy/bodywork. This is serious stuff we’ve made into an industry that breathes off money. We are dealing with matters of the heart.

This is why I haven’t taught yoga in so long. I wonder if I am qualified and have enough knowledge to teach people how to do this stuff. After hundreds of hours of training, all I’ve been taught are things like how to pronounce paschimottanasana and what poses you shouldn’t do if you’re pregnant. I have no idea how to guide someone through the light and dark areas of their being. I am still learning how to do that myself.

There is this thing that happens when you start doing yoga or any kind of spiritual practice–you start judging the hell out of yourself. You take a good hard look at yourself, see all of this darkness, and then tell yourself how ugly is it, how inconvenient it is, how those seven years of yoga haven’t done any good at all if you’re still dealing with this kind of stuff. Really? We say to ourselves. Anger? Jealousy? Insecurity? Are you seriously still dealing with that? Have you really not forgiven that person yet? Really?

The whole practice becomes abusive, the opposite of what it should be.

I remember the early, early days of my yoga practice. I would hold on to the darkness I found within myself so tightly, I would play with it like Kitty used to play with the mice he killed. I would bite down on it, fling it across the yard, run after it and pin it down with a paw, shake it as if to simulate life. I didn’t know what else to do with it. I didn’t know I could place it in the palm of my hand, speak to myself about it like a mother would a child: “Oh George, you did your best, you’re so good,” and then give it a kiss goodbye.

The majority of my teachers never told me that. And that worries me, because I think that should be the first thing we’re taught.

As we reach the winter solstice and a new moon, (this might sound all astrological and bullshitty but I think a lot of people can feel it) the season calls for us to go deep within ourselves, to walk towards our darkness. Recently I have forgotten to do this in a way that isn’t mean. It is so easy to be mean to ourselves during this time of year. We must do this with love and so much gentleness because we are so precious. We can’t just rip ourselves open, we have to go slowly, with a little bit of a smile, and a voice that is like how we would talk to a child or our lover: “Oh babe, you’re alright. I’ve got you.”

I’m not a religious girl and I don’t really know the whole story behind Christmas but what I’ve taken away from the holiday is that something really beautiful was birthed in a time of darkness. This didn’t happen on accident. It happened as a way to give us hope, joy, and most importantly, we were offered a map, a guide, someone to light the way as we walk through the depths.

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joshua tree is a skeleton

Joshua Tree is a skeleton.

It is not like other places, where the energy of the landscape is contained within the living things that make it up. Here, the spirit of the land roams free, and is not restricted by a requirement to exist within something physical like a tree or a rock or a flower–in fact, it is not contained by anything at all. It walks alongside us.

The plants and animals that live here are simply a structure. They are not even a map. They can move without their physical bodies tagging along with them. Things don’t even need a body here. They can be ghosts. There are no rules. There are no limits.

I remember standing on top of a formation out in the Wonderland, last climb of the day. It was dusk and November, so the light was leaving fast. We heard a pack of coyotes yipping and howling, they could have been right next to us their calls were so loud. The three of us looked in the direction that their sounds seemed to come from, and then scanned 360 degree circles around us. They were nowhere to be seen. Like ghosts. We all turned toward each other. Let’s get out here, my friend said. I wanted to stay, but I didn’t say so. Too weird.

I’ve never seen the coyotes in Josh, but I hear them almost every evening I’m out there.

Being in a place where bodies are not boundaries, your own self, so accustomed to existing within your physical parts, seems to like this idea of being able to come and go as it pleases. It is terrified and incredibly curious at the same time. That’s what freedom always feels like.

I drove down to my Dad’s house in Rancho Mirage alone, wanting to write and be quiet for a few days. I thought, how perfect, I’ll write something marvelous about loneliness in the desert. I’ll just go out there and let it all in.

It was midday as I drove into the park yesterday. The rain had kept me from climbing for a few days, so I was itching to get out. I decided on a boulder problem out in the Barker Dam area that traverses for 80 feet or so, it doesn’t get more than a few feet off the ground. This was perfect–something I could work on without having a partner.

I trotted along the sandy trail that led to the bouldering area and realized that the last time I walked this path I was carrying my friend Chris, who had broken his ankle from a fall. I could still hear the primordial sound he made when his initial shock and adrenaline wore off. It was still there, echoing off the rocks and tangled in the yucca.

As I arrived at the boulder, I pictured Chris now, a few years later, running and climbing with a healed ankle. But despite my knowing that, I could still hear that sound, his yell. Like the cries of coyotes, it could not be seen but it was definitely there, supported and held by the skeleton of the land.

I sat on a small boulder as I pulled on my climbing shoes. Okay loneliness, I thought to myself, I’m ready for you. I’m all alone in the Mojave desert. I’ve been alone for four days now. I know you’re out here somewhere. Come and get me. But my invitation was declined. In fact, I felt less lonely than usual. I decided I was weird and started climbing.

The sun dipped closer to the horizon and the shadows of the Joshua trees stretched their arms out long. I kept making big links on the traverse, squealing with joy when I got to the fun stemming section, smiling as I slowed my breath at the rests, laughing at the wild feeling that comes from exhausted hands and forearms. It was time to rest, time to go for a walk.

I scampered up a gully. I wanted to stand on top of something. My tired arms hung heavy at my sides as I hiked up to the highest point of the formation. I sat on the boulder that served as the peak. The palms of my hands started to tingle, they became hot. My arms stretched out as long as the Mojave is wide, my legs puffed up like a balloon that would never pop. My hair fanned out like Medusa and my torso was a few miles West. It was all uncaged, my body knew of no limits. Several ghosts sat right there in front of me, in a row. It took me a moment to realize that they were all mine. Some of them weren’t as scary as I thought. I even loved a few of them. Others, I didn’t want to look at, but they understood. They were all so heavy. And like that, they moved away, dissolving into the landscape.

Loneliness never came, because loneliness is not about being away from other people. Loneliness is self-abandonment, it’s denying the dark parts of you, it’s being afraid of your ghosts. And you can do all of that when you’re surrounded by a million people.

My body was back, definitely lighter, but it still felt the same. Chemically, those ghosts changed me. And that was, and still is, totally fine. In fact, I kind of like what they did. I like their imprints. I think that is the opposite of loneliness.

The desert has a way of turning things over, exposing their dark underbellies. It’s not like a dim, comforting forest. Even standing on the desert floor is exposing–you don’t need elevation to see for miles or to experience the infinite space that always surrounds us but is rarely realized. Joshua tree is a skeleton. It’s brutally honest, there is nowhere to hide, spirits roam free. But it is alive, full of blood, and breathes off our darkness.