Whenever you step onto the mat, you are a yogi. It simply means you are trying. There is no certificate or benediction – everyone from the least to the most, is a yogi. The most accomplished ones can control bodily functions, like a heartbeat or breath, but there are days when even the fanciest yogi cannot, and days when even you, a novice, can. Some days I can breathe out forever; others not. Doing regular yoga is a measure of your well-being. If today you cannot balance on one foot or get yourself up into the Wheel, there is something subpar about your body – you are overtired, or unwell, or depressed. On other days, you will trudge to yoga class and find that you can do everything that is asked of you and more – your body and your mind are in fine shape. The body is a giant signal of well-being, and doing yoga gives it a way to send that signal loud and clear. Research suggests that imagining little pac-men coursing through a cancerous body can affect the cancer. That sounds like magic or sleight-of-mind, but if you do yoga, you know that intense focus can affect bodily function. Focusing on a sore muscle, and there are numerous techniques for doing this, can soften it. If you are trying to get yourself up into a headstand and you are thinking about what you’re going to make for dinner, you might well not be successful at the headstand. We only use a small portion of our brain’s potential power, and yoga unleashes just a bit more of that power than we ordinarily harness. “Be here now,” says yoga. “Pay attention.” I was raised a Christian Scientist, where mind over matter is all the healing there is (more complicated than that, but that’s a subject for another time). In Christian Science, one tries to elevate oneself above the body, to concentrate on the Divine. In yoga one dives deeply into the body, focusing on the parts and functions that are needed in the moment. For me, the latter is more successful, and anybody can do it, no study needed. When twisting deeply, the yoga teacher may remind you that this helps digestion. When the head is below the heart, blood flow to the brain is increased. When the legs are above the body, lymph flow is reversed and refreshed – lymph does not have a pump like the heart to propel it. Your teacher may remind you of the 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments, 19 muscles and tendons in the foot. The 52 bones in your feet make up about 25 percent of all the bones in your body. Can you lift each toe individually? In the beginning, I could not, but now I can rely on that pinky toe, and have made progress which each of the others. The affects posture, movement, and balance. Knowledge of the body, and a hint of control over it, rests in the subconscious as you walk, eat, and live your life. Feldenkrais practitioners call their classes “lessons” because the knowledge you gain changes the way you move and live, even if you are not actively aware of it. Yoga does, too. A good yoga teacher will provide infinite versions of the same pose because the secret to avoiding injury is not to push yourself past your ability. It is NOT a competition. A few days ago I was affected by heavy humidity and did not have much energy or enthusiasm. I did the most basic forms of several postures which felt out of my reach that day. When I was recovering from a torn rotator cuff, I avoided Downward Facing Dog and any other shoulder-intensive poses for months. Tailoring each pose to your ability each day is essential. You gradually learn to recognize the difference between challenge and pain. Folded into a position which asks the body to do things not done in daily life, you may feel claustrophobic, or the discomfort of an extension or stretch may begin to panic you, but gradually you learn to distinguish between discomfort and pain. You can sit in a twist forever and it will never hurt you, though sometimes your brain insists that you untwist yourself. You should be moving! You can’t control your environment while sitting in this twist! Resisting this insistence becomes easier and easier on the mat and in daily life. Some call it discipline. It takes a while to accept that you have nothing to prove, especially nothing to prove to someone else, and that is a valuable lesson throughout life. No matter what you are doing, whether on the mat or elsewhere, you can never do more than you are capable of – some people will never be able to touch their toes, but they might have the strength of a lion. Yoga is a lesson in humility, and also a lesson in strength. Every time I hit the mat, I do something new, because every day my body and mind are different; my left side is different from my right, my mind is bold or timid, tired or fresh. Every time I take a yoga class, I am invited to push myself past my habits, past my endurance. And that in itself is an excellent habit. In the small accomplishments of your daily life, it becomes easier to do things right. It becomes easier and easier to turn the ordinary, the customary, the easy into an accomplishment. By training and challenging your body, which is very healthy on the purely physical plane, you are also training and challenging your brain, and changing your relationship with everything and everyone around you, always for the better. Embracing the further challenge of stillness and acceptance through meditation is a next step, capable of affecting deep transformation. One step at a time.
I just put down Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison’s 1978 novel/poem, and am still tingling from it. It reminded me of A Hundred Years of Solitude, another magical book in which its protagonist goes on a journey for reasons that hang in the air. Surely, the only books this one should be compared with are on a par with Garcia-Márquez’s, and Morrison’s own, Beloved. Since I’m writing at this tiny pinpoint of history in which the United States Justice Department has decided to spend a couple of million dollars investigating discrimination against white people, I would like to suggest that this book, and a couple of others, including another book I just read, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, be required reading for all parties, including the judge, when those discrimination-against-white-people cases come to court. This book has been reviewed by everybody under the sun, and I won’t add much of my own, except to say that having read it, I feel part of a congregation. Morrison has brought me and her every reader into her intimate company. It’s a wild ride, where the plot doesn’t only have twists and turns, but side trips, ups and downs, and backtracking, yet Morrison keeps the reader on board, clinging by her fingernails. Finishing it feels like an accomplishment, though not an onerous one. On a technical scale, she’s aced everything: the characters are clear, the language is vivid and evocative, the plot is intricate and solidly connected, and requires little suspension of disbelief, though there is magic.The characters have a touch of unreality about them, they are archetypes, but not of any primordial figure that appears in our dreams. We have never known characters who are quite like them, yet they stand there fully human. The story is a little bit like a dream or a nightmare, but it has blood . I’m inspired by her genius. I hope maybe a tiny spark of what’s in her work might show up in mine – maybe in a place where I didn’t even realize I was depositing it.
The Hare with Amber Eyes: a Hidden Inheritance, published by Picador in 2010, was written by a world famous ceramicist, Edmund de Waal, the latter-day scion of an influential and fabulously wealthy Jewish family, the Ephrussis. De Waal’s ancestors fled Poland for Odessa, where they became the pre-eminent purveyors of Ukrainian wheat, fled Odessa for Paris, fled Paris for Vienna, and fled Vienna for England, where de Waal now lives. They ran across history to escape waves of anti-Semitism. The nooks and crannies of the family’s residences, the city streets and country paths where their houses stood, the books they read, the clothes they wore, the people they knew, are one delight of reading the book. It is a unique kind of literature, written by a first-time author who is an artist to his fingertips but has probably never taken a writing course. The unifying focus of the book is a collection of netsuke. Little by little, we learn that these are tiny sculptures created by Japanese artisans and collected during the japonisme craze in Paris toward the end of the 19th century, partway through this history of the Ephrussi family. The vitrine which holds these adorable, exquisite chatskis somehow survives the anti-Semitism of Dreyfus-era Paris, Hitler-era Vienna, wars, rivalries, failures, poverty, unimaginable wealth, and many poor decisions, ending up in the apartment of de Waal’s uncle, who has spent his adult life in Japan – where the netsuke came from in the first place. The meaning of this precious vitrine full of tiny objects is different to the Japanese and to Uncle Ignace. I have read about Parisian anti-semitism in history books and in French class – I know well enough the J’accuse controversy sparked by Emile Zola, but I have never lived vicariously as a Jew in Paris at that time. The Ephrussis live in the Jewish quarters of various cities, but conscientiously assimilate, leaving behind many vestiges of their Jewish heritage, though they marry Jews from assimilated families like theirs. They become well connected and wealthy in Paris, but it all disappears in a moment, ditto Vienna. De Waal presents his family as watching it all in disbelief. Suddenly they are not invited. Suddenly they are threatened in the newspaper, all for being Jewish – surely this could not be happening here. You know about kristallnacht and Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, but have you ever felt, as if it were in your own living room, the suddenness, the turning inside out of everything overnight, the loss of all you had, the being trapped with no escape? De Waal never blames anyone – it is too cataclysmic a loss to figure out exactly who is at fault, or even to count up all that is lost. As a reader, the story and the way it is conveyed struck deep, especially in this time of Trump, when we say day after day, “Surely this isn’t happening” or “He can’t do that.” Yes, Hitler could, and yes, the French courts could, and yes, the Cossacks could arrive in your town, set it on fire, and kill everyone. It is possible for the agile and wealthy to escape, but today one looks around and says, “to where?” De Waal assumes his readers will know what a netsuke is, and the meaning of “flaneurial,” or “incunabula.” He compliments the reader by assuming that the reader’s sophistication is as many-layered as his own; for example, when he says that a 19th century relative is called “le Polonais, the Pole, the waltzing boy,” he references Chopin, the Polish composer of waltzes (among other things), but the well-informed reader will have to make that connection. He throws in dozens of other linguistic and historical words and people; Nobelstock, and do you know who Pieter de Hooch is? I am speaking only for myself, but just reading the book was exhilarating because I was brought into the company of an author who assumed I have the same encyclopedic knowledge as he does. The words and referents are not showy, they are precise to the story being told. The book is a triumph of imagination. De Waal studies family archives and photographs, and travels to the very homes his family lived in, besides becoming exhaustively familiar with the history of those places so he can place his family within them. The photographs help us to re-imagine his family, too. The fact that his family consorted with Proust, the Rothschilds, Emperor Franz Josef and many other luminaries lifts his story into the realm of myth, but really, it could be anyone’s family, moving from here to there to escape failure, disappointment, and problems with the government or law, or to embrace the wonders of their age – a house in the country, or a vitrine or bibelots from Japan. In the hall of my own apartment hangs a silk embroidery bought in 1910 when my great-grandparents traveled to China via the Siberian railroad. It wouldn’t need to be anything so wonderful; it could be a baby’s spoon or a favorite chair. We could all weave a textured tale like de Waal’s about our families, but I doubt that I could make mine quite so exquisite.
My former boss, Min Jin Lee (from the time when I was a legal secretary and she was a lawyer) has written a book that is being widely appreciated, Pachinko. It is an excellent read from cover to cover. The characters come alive, the plot is sturdy and subtle, and the writing is incisive. It is about Koreans in Japan. If you are Korean or Japanese, you probably know a few scraps of this story, but aside from the occasional newspaper article or television report about “comfort women,” for example, I knew little of the enmity of the two countries. How odd that we lump them together in our minds when they are such deeply sworn enemies! Pachinko did not leave me chastising myself for ignorance though, it left me grateful for the insight. Since I was neither Korean nor Japanese, I read this as a cautionary tale. I am American, and inside America, we have the African population and the Native American population who have been treated as cruelly and hypocritically as the Koreans in Japan, not to mention the Italians, the Jews, the Irish, and our most recent targets, Muslims and Hispanics. The comparison is not always apt – there are a lot of differences between America and Korea/Japan, and it behooves us to take the time to note them. In the end, human beings have an irrational need to feel better than others, and that has caused us no end of suffering for no good reason. When you have been callously mistreated, you have several choices – jump lemming-like off a cliff, outwit your rivals at their own game, or stay so far below the radar that nobody notices you. I doubt that Min Jin Lee began her book as a didactic exercise in tolerating prejudice and cruelty – there is way too much humanity in it for that, but we can use it to examine our own reactions to injustice. Her knowledge of both cultures is deep, and whenever a person gets to know another person deeply, enemy or friend, it is impossible to view them without at least a grain of compassion. Her story has bountiful detail, perception, understanding, and conscience, besides allowing us to know several people deeply. They are fictional, but does that matter? I haven’t written much about the writing style because its transparency, skill, management of time and language, including the insertion of Korean terms which become familiar as the story progresses, is masterful. Don’t worry. You won’t put it down. Lee is also a wonderful reader of her own work, and if you have a chance to hear her at a venue near you, don’t pass it up. She is a person of massive intelligence and humor.