There were times during this winter when I went deep into the woods to escape my problems. Sometimes I would escape, or think I did, but usually what I found is that the only real conflict is inside myself.
When December arrived the days squeezed short until even the sun was too weary to clear the pines. My dog Zoë and I often walked before dinner, and one night as we looped back toward the farmhouse my flashlight conked out. The path was wide and we weren’t far from home, but the silence felt oppressive. Twigs cracked underfoot and Zoë’s paws hammered a staccato rhythm as she sprinted to me. A fox yapped like a cracking whip. Zoë froze and raised her snout to scent the wind. I figured it was our usual neighborhood fox marking his territory. But was he just over the knoll or further away? Should I take the shortcut? Yap! He seemed closer now. Zoë began to bark and run circles around my legs. I was frozen with indecision.
Earlier that month I had also become overwhelmed; but this time with my social media feeds. It seemed each time I logged on there was another opinion about how Yoga should be practiced, shared, or taught. As the thoughts of other people layered deeply, I became unable to figure out what was useful for me. I was so focused on trying to parse what others told me to care about, that I forgot to listen to the wisdom of my own heart.
While I stood in the dark woods my confusion cleared; as if the thousands of voices of my lineage cheered me forward. “Om Shanthi” I sang to the woods, “Om Shanthi, Friend Fox, we are leaving!” A mantra that embodies peace seemed like a friendly place to start.
December rolled by and January arrived with a deep freeze. One night on our walk the cold squeezed tears out of my eyes. Overhead the pines cracked as the wind shoved their frozen bones. I jammed my hands into my pockets. Zoe ran off into the woods in pursuit of a deer. A gust of wind blew my hood back and chilled my ears. The temperature that day with windchill was -9°F. I quickly pulled my balaclava and hood up. Cinching the hood, I muttered the Norwegian phrase “no bad weather, only bad clothes.”
Zoë, satisfied the deer were no threat, sprinted back and curled around my legs, alternating lifting her paws off the frozen ground. I grumbled and complained and moaned as my arthritic knee creaked and my arthritic neck popped. I turned toward home, but Zoe stared longingly at the woods.
“Hey kid,” I said, “You’ve got fur everywhere and no exposed skin. This cold is brutal!” As I trundled home it occurred to me how I focused only on challenges; with zero gratitude for what worked. I had a warm coat, functional legs, a cozy farmhouse with sweet potatoes in the oven, a happy dog. Even while pampered there seemed no escaping my habit of bleak negativity.
Then February arrived with an illness that sank the cold into my bones. Not Covid—mercifully—but an upper respiratory infection that left me huddled in front of the space heater, blankets heaped on top of me, as I shivered so hard my muscles ached for a week.
After a while, I had recovered enough to return to Hatha Yoga practice, but even with gentle practice I couldn’t seem to move forward. Each morning I tried to coax myself to hold poses a bit longer; perhaps do a headstand or maybe try a plank pose. But something in me locked. A fear that by moving forward I would overdo things and become ill. There was no enemy in that moment; just an unfounded fear trying to keep me safe. Following the wisdom of my teachers and my latent understanding developed during thirty years of practice, the Hatha slowly rebuilt my strength and equanimity.
And now March has arrived with her mercurial attitude. A storm yesterday heaped snow in the morning, drizzle in the afternoon, then overnight froze the world into an ice sculpture. In the late morning, the thaw began. Water plopped and dripped, trickled and ran with a sound like woodland fairies. I stepped onto the deck and turned my face to the sun. It warmed my cheeks as the ice melt streamed over my clogs. I inhaled the sharpness of ice but also a hint of warming soil.
Was my winter darkness ever about my social media overwhelm, my lack of gratitude, or my fear of moving forward? Or were these challenges really the spiritual path itself—their darkness as perfect as their resolution. The sage Patanjali states that for practice to become well-established it must be done for a “long time, without a break, and with enthusiasm.” (Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.14)
Practicing—both formally and informally—seems to be cultivating my inner understanding of Yoga. My conscious mind practices informally as I find the sacredness of ruminating in the dark woods, on social media, and during illness.
My subconscious mind is explored during formal Yoga practice as I root out the underlying limiting beliefs that keep me trapped in suffering. The Integral Yoga practices that I cherish and enjoy so much help me stay connected to my heart as I look inward. The mantra sung to a fox, the bhakti devotional offering of gratitude on a cold walk, the physical Hatha practice of embodying ease, all are the wisdom of the lineage of Yoga that flows with the clarity of grace.
About the Author:
Gita Brown is a wellness activist, musician, and writer. She is a certified Advanced Integral Yoga® teacher and licensed Yoga for the Special Child® practitioner. Through her “Yoga with Gita courses” and podcast, “The Gita Brown Show,” her mission is to teach her students how to adapt the traditional practices of Yoga to bring more ease, wellness, and joy into everyday life. Gita started Yoga as a teenager, when her love of Yoga grew in tandem with her career as a classical clarinetist and music therapist. For three decades, she has taught Yoga, wellness, and music courses at colleges, schools of music, community schools, private studios, public schools, and hospitals. She is currently finishing final revisions to her memoir. The story is about how she repurposed her wedding vows into a yogic vow to live love as a way of life—a pilgrimage that endured even as her husband and childhood sweetheart battled end-stage alcoholism. She offers Yoga to students of all ages and abilities through online programs and in person at her home studio at Three Dog Farm in Kingston, Massachusetts. Learn more about her services by visiting: https://www.gitabrown.com