The Yoga of Deep Dreamless Sleep

14 Aug

Sleep is a precious commodity these days. So much so that eight hours of uninterrupted rest seems like a luxury reserved for holidays and the odd weekend. And it’s not just the new moms, students, professionals, and workaholics I’m talking about; everyone I know seems to be running at full tilt—even the yoga teachers and artists.

The truth is we cannot survive without sleep. When we lack quality sleep, we quickly become irritable, fuzzy-headed, and depressed. Our stress hormone levels increase, reaction times and accuracy decrease, and everything just plain hurts. Studies have also linked sleep deprivation to serious diseases such as fibromyalgia, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even psychosis.

Interestingly, not all sleep is created equal. There are two basic sleep states, the dream state (called swapna in yoga circles and REM Sleep by scientists) and the state of deep, dreamless sleep (called sushupti by yogis and Slow Wave Sleep by scientists). Dreamless sleep is of particular interest to us because it is during this state that our bodies heal themselves and our minds come fully to rest. Theosophists refer to deep sleep as a spiritual reservoir where the soul receives profound nourishment by connecting to its source.

As a former insomniac and someone who cherishes her rest, I now treat sleep as both a physical and spiritual practice, and I’m admittedly a little superstitious about my nightly ritual. Before settling in for the night, I use Lotus Wei’s Quiet Mind line to clear the space and set the mood, then I establish my intention to sleep deeply and connect to Source for the benefit of all beings, consciously relax the body, down-regulate the nervous system and settle the mind. Sleep experts would call this establishing good sleep hygiene; I call it snooze-asana.

When sleep is occasionally elusive and I find myself running on empty, I make a concerted effort to make up for the lost rest by taking the advice of a teacher and nourishing myself on other levels. This includes eating and drinking as virtuously as possible, breathing lots, meditating, practicing yoga nidra and cultivating an attitude of hope.

Bliss in a Blender

19 Jun

This time last year, I was hanging out in Thailand with my main squeeze. It’s a magical place, Thailand. The people are gracious, the landscape is lush and the cuisine is vibrant, nourishing and utterly fresh. Think mangos and coconuts still warm from the sun; think aromatic ginger, lemongrass and lime leaves; think potent green chilies that whirl up your inner fire. It was pure paradise for a yogini seeking to recharge and renew.

Recently, I asked raw, vegan chef Matthew Kenney for a post-yoga smoothie recommendation and—to my absolute delight— this is the recipe he sent along:

Thai Green

2 cup Frozen Mango
1 cup Young Thai Coconut Meat
1 Date
handful of Spinach
1 teaspoon Spirullina
2 tablespoon Agave
1 tablespoon Lime Juice
1/2 Thai Green Chili (seedless)
pinch salt
1/2 cup Thai Coconut Water
1/2 cup Raw Almond Milk

Blend well, at least 1 minute, until smooth.

I might add, sip slowly while contemplating your next, big adventure!

Pick up one of Matthew’s amazing raw cookbooks online or at your local bookstore. Your body with love you for it.

Ain’t That a Kick in the Head

8 Jun

Getting kicked in the head is one of the occupational hazards that come along with teaching yoga. Yup, it happens all the time. Just ask anyone who instructs headstand, handstand or forearm stand on a regular basis and they’ll tell you. Although I exercise a reasonable degree of caution when assisting students in topsy turvy poses, I’ve certainly had my share of knocks to the noggin.

Turn the human body upside down when it’s not accustomed to being there and the usual response is fear, panic and flailing legs. Master Patanjali calls this knee-jerk reaction abhinivesha, or fear of death, and he states that this brand of fear is one of the five main obstacles to our practice of living lives that are happy and free (see Yoga Sutra II.3).

Because it can trigger abhinivesha, the yoga asana practice is one way we can bring our deeply seated patterns to light. As my teachers like to say, it shows us where we are tight and where we are uptight. And so we deliberately work on the mat with poses that push our buttons to reveal the hidden contours of our suffering.

The amazing thing about getting kicked in the head during a yoga class is that, while it can stun and smart, it doesn’t trigger an emotional response the way the same action would in another context. Many times, in fact, the incident barely registers at all and I have to remind myself of what happened when my husband asks about the shiner.

I wonder if this is what Master Patanjali means when he says, “the practitioner will cease to encounter hostility from others by practicing kindness and non-harming (Yoga Sutra II.35). Sure, a hoof to the head is still a hoof to the head but the key is that it’s not perceived as hostile. It’s nothing more than an accident and it’s the very same thing I did to my teachers who repaid me by holding me extra tight and turning the other cheek.

By the way, you can purchase the vegan shoes shown above at MooShoes.com

Samskaras and the Road Less Travelled

21 Oct

This time last year I was on an extended road trip that took me through four time zones, eight cities, three national parks and countless truck stops. Truck stops are fascinating places, worlds unto themselves, really. They’re populated by road warriors who congregate there to refuel, eat, wash-up, and relax between long stints behind the wheel. The interesting thing is if you look carefully, you will see at most truck stops a video game room, and in that room you will see racing games, and at those games you will see glassy-eyed drivers seeking to alleviate the pressures of the road by getting behind a toy wheel and swearing a blue streak as they burn virtual rubber.

Strange as that may seem, I know I’ve repeatedly done the same sort of thing in my own life. Years ago when I was a junior lawyer, for example, I would relax after a tough day in court with takeout in front of the TV, and my shows of choice were, you guessed it, Ally McBeal and Law & Order. More recently, I’ve had days where I’ve practiced yoga before heading out to teach yoga and then, at the end of the day, responded to the question, “what do you want to do tonight?” with the word “yoga!” And what about this one: have you ever caught yourself taking a break from that document on your computer screen by clicking over to Facebook or pulling out your iPhone? Yeah, me too.

So what’s up with this compulsive, repetitive behavior? According to yogic philosophy we create subtle impressions, called samskaras, with each thought, word and action. These samskaras are not unlike the grooves our feet make on the earth when we walk the same path over and over again. Habitual behaviors continually reinforce our samskaras until the ruts becomes so deep and well-worn that we forget what it’s like not to be in them. The result is we become totally conditioned to continue along the same trajectory we’ve always traveled, even when the path is self-destructive or a waste of our time.

Each time we step onto the mat, we bring with us all of our samskaras, good and bad, liberating and binding. Some of us bring our perfectionist tendencies along for the ride and scrutinize each breath and movement under the microscope of self-criticism. Others push themselves to the extreme, striving to go faster, harder, better as they seek to conquer the next spectacular inversion, hand balance or backbend. Others yet hang back in their avoidance of all discomfort and physical exertion, convinced their cool disengagement is safer than actually putting themselves out there and risking failure.

Now, because our samskaras are etched into our bodies and minds, we can approach our time on the mat as an opportunity to see and work with the deeply ingrained habits and patterns of our lives— patterns that are often hidden in plain sight. This is good news for those of us who are willing to trade comfort and complacency for happiness and freedom.

In my experience, good yoga teachers do more than call poses, count breaths and give alignment cues: good yoga teachers also teach us in ways that alert us to our samskaras. They are willing to ask us to go against the grain. They might ask one student to ease up while asking another to get the lead out. Consequently, the best yoga teachers tend not to coddle their students and they may not win any popularity contests either. As my teachers like to say, the yoga practice shows us where we are tight and also where we are being uptight. This means the resistance that shows itself within the microcosm of our mats is not something to be suppressed or negated. I dare say it’s the very point of our practice.

Don’t forget that “the path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alternation of old beliefs.” (John Dewey)

Photo by Alex Lin

A Well-Rounded 90 minute Practice

1 Oct

Spritz Fritz

Let me tell you a true story about egoism, disgrace, and a bottle of perfume. It was the late 1990s, I was fresh out of law school and I had just spent the longest year of my life working as an articling student at a downtown law firm. It was a good year in some ways: the money was outstanding, I learned lots, and my parents were brimming over with pride. The experience was also pivotal because it confirmed a growing suspicion that the legal profession was not for me. Call it negative research, if you will. And so I walked away from the firm’s job offer, applied for unemployment insurance and broke my parents’ hearts.

The thing is, while I had some clarity on what I didn’t want, I still hadn’t figured out what I actually wanted to do with my life. It wasn’t unlike that feeling you get when you’ve left Mr. or Mrs. Wrong but you don’t have much faith that Mr. or Mrs. Right will come along. It was a groundless and edgy time. In the meantime, my rent was due and I started to have anxiety-filled dreams about the mountain of student debt I incurred to become a lawyer.

Around this time, a friend’s mother took pity on my situation and offered me a job to tide me over while I plotted the next step on my career path. She was an upper level manager at a swanky department store and the job she offered me was almost too good to be true; it would’ve paid more money for less work than my legal job, but there was a major catch: the department store was located in the same commercial complex as my former law firm and the job would have had me standing in a conspicuous location holding a bottle of perfume while my former colleagues walked by. I could just imagine their pitying looks. “Poor thing,” they would say to each other as soon as they were out of earshot, “she couldn’t cut it as a lawyer. Just look at her now.”

The perceived tumble from lawyer to perfume spritz girl was too much for me to handle. My poor, fragile ego couldn’t deal with the shame, the disgrace, the loss of face, and so I turned down the job. What happened next? Well, pride goeth before the fall, as they say. I don’t mind admitting that I spent another six months or so broke and in a minor funk. I lost touch with my yoga practice, sat in front of the TV for days at a time, and had nothing to show for the time off but a pile of bills and a few extra pounds. In the end, I took another lawyering job out of necessity and spent another five or six years figuring out what I already knew—that I wanted more from my life than financial security and an impressive title.

In hindsight, the perfume spritz incident was a stark lesson in something Master Patanjali calls egoism (asmita). In book II, sutra 3 of the Yoga Sutras, he says egoism is one of the five major obstacles to true happiness and freedom. The others are ignorance of who we really are (avidya), excessive craving (raga), excessive aversion (dvesha), and fear of death (abhinivesah). He implies in this list that our ignorance of who we really are causes us to over-identify with our ego selves and that misidentification causes us to chase our selfish, petty desires, on the one hand, and cower from anything that challenges our ego identities on the other hand, especially the death of the body.

One of my teachers says we spend the first part of our lives acquiring our ego identities and the remainder of our lives defending them at any cost—even when it hurts us and the people we love. Does this mean we should abandon our egos and adopt an egoless existence? Good luck—that’s like asking the mind to stop thinking—it’s next to impossible. As yogis, it’s incumbent upon us to cultivate beautiful, graceful egos, in the same way we build strong, flexible bodies and elevated minds. Let’s make our egos our allies, rather than our enemies, and use them to assist our movement towards greater happiness and freedom. And don’t forget that when push comes to shove, you are not your mind, you are not your body and you are so, so much more than your job.

High on Yoga?

11 Sep

Did you see the story on Ganja Yoga in the Globe and Mail this week? This interesting and controversial article describes a “cannabis-enhanced yoga” class taught by Toronto yoga teacher Dee Dussault. The monthly bring-your-own-ganja event is open to the public for $15—less than the cost of an average class in the city. Proponents of the practice say it makes them less competitive and inhibited, and more mindful and aware, while critics voice the concern that it may open the door to injury or even pollute body and soul.

Like it or not, the fact remains that the practice of yoga asana has been linked to the consumption of cannabis for as long as India has had sādhus (mystics, ascetics, and wandering monks and yogis). If ganja fueled yoga is a fad, then it’s a fad that dates back thousands of years and has its roots in the very birth place of yoga. It’s also one that is very much alive today for certain sects of yogis.

How do you feel about the use of cannabis in conjunction with yoga and meditation practices? How about alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, Asprin, ginko, flower remedies or any other “legal” plant-based substance? Should cannabis should be legalized for spiritual purposes? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

Suggestion Box

28 Jul

I’ve been voting a lot with my feet lately—you know, boycotting retailers, service providers, and even entire countries that are accused of illegal, unethical, or just disappointing practices—and, to be honest, I’m not sure it’s such a good thing. You see, this behavior fits with a long-standing pattern of spinning on my heel and leaving sticky situations (jobs, relationships, hair dressers, you name it) at the least provocation. For years I thought the tendency towards snap decisions and abrupt endings was a “grrl power”-thing, but now I’m not so sure.

My teachers often speak about the importance of “going against the grain” in your spiritual practice. They’re absolute masters of this approach: when I’m feeling sleepy, they crack the whip; when I’m feeling over-eager, they slow me way down; and when I want to leave the room for a bathroom break during handstand practice, they ask me to hold my ground—quite literally.

So what’s a girl with a stubborn streak and sore feet to do? Well, part 1 of the plan is to insert a little space between the “oh crap” and the “I’m outta here.” And, to make this a real yogic practice, I’ll do my best to fill that little space with the most lucid, compassionate and constructive communication I can muster. I imagine it might take the form of emails asking for clarification, voice messages expressing my feelings and well-written notes in suggestion boxes, among other things. Part 2 of the plan is to celebrate the good guys and to let them know just how much I appreciate their efforts.

On the topic of suggestion boxes, I am officially hanging my own virtual suggestion box out there. Please send me your questions, comments and any requests for new yoga podcasts—I’m long overdue with my next class and I’d love to hear your ideas…

Black and Red Blues

27 Jun

The travel advisory for Thailand warned us to “avoid all non-essential travel” due to violent clashes, between the anti-government protestors known as Red Shirts and heavily armed troops, that left dozens dead and downtown Bangkok smoldering. And so we changed our plans because, as Kenny Rogers would say, “you got to know when to walk away and know when to run.”

It’s too bad, I thought, that gentle Thailand, once known as the Land of Smiles, happened to turn all struggle and strife just as we arrived in the neighborhood, but hey these things happen… It’s nothing personal right?

Well imagine my surprise when we returned home this weekend to a G20 Summit and stark scenes of smashing, burning, pillaging and general chaos in the streets of the city we know as “Toronto the Good.” According to the media, the Black Bloc, a faceless group of black-clad protestors, is to blame for much of the mess.

Hmmm… Black Bloc versus the police. Red Shirts versus the military. Is it just me or is it “same, same?” Suddenly, issues that seemed to exist a world away are coming home to roost where I live and work, and I can’t help but take it personally… personally in the best possible way.

The ability to take a hint and to perceive the teachings that are around us and within us at all times is an important yogic skill say my teachers. They explain that it’s even more important to apply these teachings to our lives in a meaningful, constructive way.

According to yogic wisdom, the outer circumstances of our tumultuous human lives provide precious opportunities to see and work on what’s going on inside. In book IV, sutra 15 of the Yoga Sutra, Master Patanjali goes so far as to suggest that our mind-stuff is directly responsible for the way we understand the world: “Each individual person perceives the same object in a different way, according to their own state of mind and projections. Everything is empty from its own side and appears according to how you see it” (translation by Sharon Gannon and David Life). It follows then that the macrocosm contains valuable clues for those interested in exploring the microcosm.

The practice of applying the lessons of the macrocosm to the microcosm of the self is not for the faint of heart. We live in a culture of finger pointing and this paradigm bending approach asks us to take universal responsibility for the problems we see out there. This practice involves a dizzying logical leap, I know, but we yogis take it with eyes wide open.

I might add that I’ve found it’s good to catch on early, while the personal messages inscribed on the world are still subtle. Too many times I’ve left things until the lessons start to hit closer and closer to home; until they became much harsher and harder to ignore. Trust me, it’s no fun when the Red Shirts manifest in your personal life or the Black Bloc shows up in your body or, worse yet, your mind.

So, assuming my recent experiences of conflict are an opportunity for inner work, the questions I’m posing to myself this rainy night are:

■ In what ways do I, in the pursuit of a happy state, hold rigidly to polarized notions of “the good” that, in practice, cause suffering to myself and others?

■ How can I best clean up the mess?

I sure am looking forward to some better news tomorrow.

Nāda Yoga

21 Apr

Have you ever gone mushroom hunting in the woods? I always find the mushrooms you’re looking for are a little elusive, that is until someone who knows them better than you points them out. In an instant, you acquire the magical ability to see them too and, as it turns out, they’re absolutely everywhere. My introduction to nāda yoga, the yoga of sound and deep listening, was a little like that.

I first heard the word nāda yoga at my yoga teachers’ summer home in Woodstock. While waiting out the rain one day, I came upon a book in their rather extensive library called The World Is Sound: Nada Brahma: Music and the Landscape of Consciousness, and I made a point of asking about it. “Oh, that’s a very important book on nāda yoga,” said Sharon with a gleam in her eye. “Sting was so impressed by the copy we gave him, he went ahead and bought a whole box of them to gift to his friends.” Enough said, I was intrigued.

In the weeks that followed, nāda yoga was everywhere: I overheard conversations about it at yoga studios; I was surprised to see it while rereading the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, an ancient yoga manual that lives on my nightstand; and, most significantly, I was introduced to a bona fide nāda yoga master, Laraaji Venus Nadabrahmananda while out for dinner in New York’s East Village with a yoga teacher friend.

Every now and again, you meet people who are extra shiny. You know the ones: they seem cheerful and grounded and authentic to such an extent that it charges the very atmosphere around them. If I’ve learned anything in my spiritual life, it’s to seek out these special people and to stick to them like, well, something sticky. And so, having met one of the shiniest people I’ve ever had the good fortune to encounter, I immediately invited Laraaji to come meet my yoga tribe in Toronto.

That was five years ago and Laraaji has been visiting Toronto ever since. When he’s here next week he will hold a concert, give laughter workshops, play music for yoga classes, and offer therapeutic gong baths (ask me if you don’t know what this is yet).

So, what do yoga, music, laughter and healing have to do with one another other? Well that’s where the subject of nāda yoga comes in for those of us who are interested in learning more about what my teachers call the “fast track” to all you seek. And this is where I point knowingly to Shri Brahmananda Saraswati’s important booklet, Nāda Yoga, before falling silent.

Pay attention, listen deeply (both outside and in) and you’ll hear exactly what has always been there.

Om

I’d Rather be in Savasana

19 Feb

I love savasana. I love it so much I’ve even contemplated buying one of those “I’d rather be in savasana” T-shirts. And, really, what’s not to love? At the end of a sweaty, intense yoga practice, nothing feels better than surrendering the body to stillness in savasana, or the corpse pose. No more movement, no more fancy breathing, just a moment of profound repose before rejoining the flow of a busy life.

Despite the outward simplicity of the pose, we yoga teachers are forever stressing the challenge of getting savasana just right. “Corpse pose is a real yoga pose, no different from triangle, tree and cobra,” we insist; “in many ways it’s the most important one of all.” Speaking in dramatic tones, we describe savasana as a death meditation and characterize the practice of yoga as nothing less than a training program for living and dying with grace.

Being a reasonably diligent practitioner, I figure I had more than 3,000 corpse poses under my belt when I tried ayahuasca for the first time; yet it wasn’t until I took savasana on a thin cotton mat in a jungle hut assisted by the Amazonian “vine of the dead” that I really began my tutelage on the subject of my own death.

The “vine of the dead,” or “vine of souls,” as you can imagine, is not something to be taken lightly. The ritual around the sacred plant medicine in South America encourages reverence, introspection and careful intention setting. A yoga teacher friend, who had lived in Peru while studying under the guidance of some of its most respected ayahuasca shamans and curanderos, gave me some practical email advice on the eve of my first ceremony: “The spirit of ayahuasca will speak to you, so get ready to hold up your side of the conversation.”

If I had to put into words my reasons for traveling to Peru, I would say I was there “to let go and let God,” as the expression goes. I knew I was carrying emotional baggage and I was ready to set it down. “Take from me all that is not free,” I prayed as the shaman bathed us with flower water at sundown by the Amazon River, leaving petals in my hair and a scent that deterred biting and stinging insects. “Take from me all that is not free,” I prayed as the shaman blew clouds of mapacho, sacred tobacco, to offer protection from enemies and negative energies. “Take from me all that is not free,” I prayed as the shaman blessed a small cup of ayahuasca for me with an icaro, a medicine song, whistled under his breath, “…and please don’t let it be too scary.”

As the syrupy medicine gurgled its way through my system, I emitted a series of small burps and farts and blushed hotly in the dark. How mortifying: I was hoping for a transcendent experience and here I was preoccupied with my hominid digestive tract and an overblown sense of propriety. “Stay a while,” I pleaded with the medicine, hoping I wouldn’t be the first to throw up. Embarrassed, anxious and suffering, I suppressed the mounting nausea—until the big guy to my left liberated me by purging noisily. As soon as I let go too, all feelings of self-consciousness gave way and I heaved a lifetime’s worth of tarry goo into a plastic tub at my side, writhing and churning to get it out.

Relief.

I was so light after the purge I could have twirled around the ceremonial hut kissing and high-fiving all of the lovable beings in attendance that night. As my concerns receded on an outgoing tide, the self formerly known as me became sublimated into its component parts—breath, DNA molecules, carbon atoms and skittering electrons. The cloud of my awareness continued to grow and dissipate into an immense, glittering dance that was already underway. “Oh my God, it’s so beautiful,” I exclaimed. “It’s like… like… like Dippin’ Dots!” No joke, it was all cheerful, gem-colored Dippin’ Dots-including me. As this was clearly something worth celebrating, I gleefully danced myself out of existence, at least in my mind’s eye.

The next time I experienced my own dissolution, it happened during a ceremony with the Santo Daime, a Brazilian neo-Christian Church that uses ayahuasca, or Daime in Santo Daime parlance, as its sacrament. Because it was my first time, I was asked to sign a contract agreeing not to leave during the lengthy daytime ceremony, and was assigned a chaperone. My chaperone was an earnest, middle-aged woman with the meticulous dress and demeanor of an airline stewardess. Her job was to station herself by my side and guide me to stand, sit, sing, dance, and drink, as appropriate.

She led me to the women’s side of the room where we sat facing the central altar. As per the instructions circulated before the event, I was wearing a modest white dress and shawl purchased just for the occasion. The men sitting across from us, also in white, looked uncomfortable, as if their suits were on loan for the day. Perhaps I wasn’t the only one who thought white clothing was an impractical choice given the fact that ayahuasca stains?

The congregation sang a folksy hymn in Brazilian Portuguese as we lined up for the first of three cups of Daime served that day. It was thinner and more acrid than the jungle brew. When the sacrament began to work in me, less than an hour later, the room took on a magical patina. The church members transformed into figures from a Rembrandt painting while, miraculously, a framed image of the Virgin Mary began to breathe and come alive. She was divine with those soft, understanding eyes, and we gazed at each other for what felt like an eternity… that is, until nature called. I stood and woozily made my way to the bathroom where there happened to be a large mirror in a gilt frame. Goodness, the reflection in the mirror was something to look at—apparently white is my color. I hate to admit it but I got stuck in the mirror for ages making doe-eyes at myself… that is, until I remembered the contract and my chaperone. When I dutifully returned to my seat and met the eyes of the Virgin once again, she gave me a secret, knowing look. In that moment I understood that the hymns were also meant for me, the newest member of the Queen of the Forest Club. I smiled beatifically.

After the second cup of Daime, I couldn’t wait to get back to the bathroom mirror, but the next time wasn’t so pretty. You see, I appeared to have developed a disconcerting superpower: let’s call it microscopic vision. The face in the mirror was monstrous. I could see every freckle, crease and zit, every hair, pore and flake of skin. My heart sank as I watched the imperfections march across my face like an advancing army of mold in a time lapse film sequence. Soon there was nothing left above my shoulders but clumps of hair and decay.

“Easy come, easy go,” came my father’s voice, bringing with it a strange sense of perspective. I cautiously re-opened an eye and watched as I continued to fall apart, piece by piece, until I emerged, finally, as an elaborate cathedral of bone. Think Tim Burton meets Gothic architecture meets the Flintstones. Rather than stepping onto the set of a Tim Burton movie, I had become the set of a Tim Burton movie. Still, I could feel the breath, familiar and reassuring, as it blew through my hollow form. I knew I had seen this place before and I knew I would see it again. I stepped in closer, pressed my forehead to the mirror and tried a gappy, jack-o-lantern smile.

The cathedral of bone is now a regular stopping point for me during ceremonies. It feels like a vestibule, or maybe a mudroom, of sorts; it’s a place to put down my material concerns before entering the non-corporeal world. I can’t truthfully say that I like it and I don’t often linger there, but I do bow my head and lower my eyes on the way through as a gesture of respect.

Ironically, the one time I came to ceremony seeking direct access to the realm of the dead, I was denied the privilege, or so I thought. The private ceremony took place in our living room on the night of the spring equinox, just days after my grandmother died. Distance and ugly family politics had kept me from her funeral and, although I was twisted up inside about the loss, I just couldn’t cry. My husband and I reached out to a friend, a local shaman, who had coincidentally lost his mother-in-law that same week, and we agreed to hold a ceremony to honor our mothers and our mother’s mothers. How perfect, I thought, since ayahuasca is generally understood to be a female spirit—some even call her Mother or Grandmother Ayahuasca. Who better to help me commune with my departed grandmother?

As the ceremony opened, I accepted the medicine without my usual trepidation. It was much easier to swallow knowing my grandmother had swallowed more than her share of bitter pills during her long and tumultuous life. I sat up straight, got focused, and waited for the familiar feeling of lift-off, but nothing happened. The first cup didn’t have any noticeable effect, aside from making my innards sensitive. Hoping to reach escape velocity, I jumped at the opportunity to take a second cup. It was a doozey, and I braced myself for a hyperspace flight to the bardo, the liminal realm of the afterlife.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I landed with a thud on a dark, rain-soaked city street. Looking around I saw parked cars and street lights and traffic signs. I knew where I was, and it was definitely not the bardo. This city was I place I knew intimately but hadn’t seen in more than a decade. I was confused: this place couldn’t have been further away in my mind from my grandmother. “This can’t be right,” I thought, and tried to refocus my intention. But, try as I might, the medicine kept plopping me down in the same old place, a place I had defiantly left behind at the end of a shitty relationship.

Have you noticed that some relationships are more real than others? More sharply defined somehow? This was one of those relationships. Okay, it was really, really good but it was also really, really bad, and the combination of the two made for an impossible situation. What do you do when the love of your life has a bad day? What do you do when the love of your life has a bad year, or four? What do you do when the love of your life, thrashing wildly in distress, shouts and shoves and breaks and hurts? What can you do, really, when you come to hate the love of your life?

The relationship was painful; the break-up was not. After years of struggle, I mechanically packed a small bag one day, bought a train ticket and walked away from my former life without turning back — without so much as a tear. It felt good to start over: new place, new job, new clothes, new friends. Simple. At the time, I thought it was the easiest break-up of my life.

That night, during our living room ceremony, a badly overgrown retaining wall in my mind gave way, and I found myself deep in the mess I assumed I’d long since left behind. I had no choice but to be in it. There, I was in it. I was there in it. And the tears came. My God, how I cried. I cried for myself and for him; I cried over lost hope and ruined plans; I cried over the ways my heart had hardened around the experience of unacknowledged hurt; I cried about the coming of loathing, false strength, and cool composure; and I cried about the stony distance that crept into all my relationships thereafter.

That night in ceremony, I also cried for my grandmother, a rock—no, a gem—of a woman who survived a war, lost a child and buried not one but two husbands who treated her like a second-class citizen. I cried for my grandmother who suffered in silence; I cried for my grandmother who never had the freedom to walk away; and I cried for my grandmother who was finally free. In the end, I cried tears of gratitude for my grandmother and for Grandmother Ayahuasca who, by allowing me to mourn what was lost, freed a part of me too.

I’ve noticed that at the end of good yoga classes, the students tend to leave things behind: mats, jewelry, and even shoes on occasion. I used to think forgetfulness was a side-effect of the endorphins. Now, I wonder if it’s not an outer manifestation of a deeper letting go—a letting go of the need to hold it together so tightly, a letting go of dogma, and a letting go of fear. One of my teachers likes to say about savasana: die today and you’ll live the rest of your life free from the fear of death. I’d very much like that on a T-shirt.

This article by Padmani originally appeared on Reality Sandwich.

Image by Morgan Maher, used courtesy of a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.