Ol Doinyo Lengai
I really only know one thing for certain: everything, everywhere will change all the time. As a human this will often seem unbearable, but take a closer look at the way this earth operates and you may find it to be the only true standard of health - A river is not a river unless it is flowing; traversing the landscape in a constant state of change. Likewise, a forest is deemed resilient only by the number of different species that are able to grow, and therefore change, within its borders. Why then is it so very difficult for us humans to accept that we too must change?
I grew up between the endless rolling hills of Nebraska, the deep hollers of rural Appalachia, and the wide open foothills of Colorado. As a tiny human in a bumpkin christian community, I rocked the black (or maybe rainbow) sheep role both at home and at school. If you ever meet my mother or sister, they will be all too eager to tell you my tails of scaring the neighbors in my high heels and lipstick. Although I was generally unaware that I was different, shame was the monster in my closet each night and the lens through which I saw each day.
Change happens. Sometimes it comes as a gentle offering to walk through a new door. And SOMETIMES it comes through brute, thundering force that cracks us wide open.
Joy was not something I discovered until adulthood, on the top of Ol Doinyo Lengai, watching the sun rise over the Serengeti, and feeling the earth tremble from the volcano below. As I pulled myself up over the edge of the crater rim, it hit me in the same way a wave slaps you when you have your back turned to the ocean. New earth was forming below my feet, the cosmos were transitioning from night to day, and change was vibrating through each cell in my body. A second later I met joy, and for god only knows why, I found myself walking on my hands around the rim with my fellow wanderers.
But that was just the crack that began to let the light in. It seems that any time I begin to learn something new, I spend more time unlearning than I do taking in the new information.
I was lighter after that righteous morning on the mountain. My old oppressive ceiling of possibility had opened up, but soon a new pressure began to build from below. The Universe was demanding I grow, to shed the narratives and beliefs that kept me ruminating in grief and shame each night. And as I am sure you know, dear reader, shedding these heavy monsters is a life’s work.
What is it about grief, shame, and toxic behaviors that are so damn luring? Is it that as a society we have endured so many centuries of them that they are now ingrained in our DNA as some kind of sadistic normal? Or maybe it comes back to our resistance to change - is the devil you know better than the devil you don't? I reckon it is a healthy dose of both. As I returned to my life off that mountain, the weight of my shame and grief became unbearable, and yet it was also the only thing I really knew.
Then 3 things happened in sequence:
I supermaned off my waterski at about 70 mph, blessing me with my 5th concussion, a jaw so out of alignment that it only came together on two points, shoulders with so much bursitis I could not breathe while exercising, and as a little cherry on top, my neck and toes became arthritic.
I found a therapist that took me spelunking into the gnarliest of caves to find my inner child, and to learn how to really feel emotions, not in the ridiculous way society teaches us to do, but in the way my body and soul needed.
I began to practice yoga, everyday, as a way to manage pain and inflammation. To my “delight” my body also began to release years of trauma. I grew a full inch, and yoga became my greatest teacher and healer.
Change happens to us whether we are active participants or not. The thing is, if we decide to embrace the flow we end up more satisfied with the journey and we might have more say in where we go. If we try to fight it, misery is all we create. Like a chinese finger trap, the harder we resist change, the stronger the grip misery takes over us.
It was yoga that taught me how to accept change. The year I went through yoga teacher training was the year I had my heart broken for the first time. Although not my first relationship, it was the first time I had loved fully. I lost a lot of myself trying to be a person I thought would make them happy, and of course it did not. My training offered a way to grow through the grief and shame yet again, and at the same time I began to uncover what might be the greatest fallacy of modern medicine: presuming there is any separation between our mind and our body. Our thoughts and emotions are physical processes which can in turn create physical maladies when left unfelt, unmanaged, or when we are unwilling to allow them to pass through us.
I discovered that true rage resides in my hips, but if I could breathe into it, sink a little deeper, the cause of that rage was almost always grief and shame. I’d take a few more breaths, sink a little deeper, the tears would flow, and then suddenly the space that was once taken up by such heavy emotions, that caused so much physical pain in my daily life, was then free and I was lighter.
To embrace change is not simply accepting that something new has happened, it requires that we also align our whole self, mind and body, past and present, to the new path. Of course, the first step is to accept that yesterday life was moving in that direction, and today it is headed in another. But the real work is to then arrive in the present moment, again and again, which most often requires that we settle any unresolved issues along the way. This will always be the hardest part, because who are we without our past? Yoga would say we are Purusha, but that is a subject for another day.
Disentangling memories from their emotions that keep us ruminating in the past is messy, lengthy business. Our beautiful brains have such intricate connections that a single memory can host an abundance of emotion, and may require innumerable trials to untangle. The real work is arriving in the present moment, again and again, for a lifetime.
The years that followed my training were a wild amalgamation of hustle, discovery, and burnout that spanned the globe. I returned to Ol Doinyo, and naturally it had changed too. Multiple new eruptions had transformed it into something new. The vague path that I had climbed before no longer existed, and when we reached the rim, the wind and fumes prevented any sense of safety, much less walking on our hands. Her gift had been given years before, and who was I to ask for more.
A few years later, real love, almost as if it had spanned multiple lifetimes to reach me, grew with velocity. As the love grew, my body began to change yet again, not because of the love, but because of all that was still unresolved in me from years past. As it turns out, stress and burnout coupled with a brain hardwired from trauma, eventually turns into disease.
Addison's Disease to be specific. It took 3 years, 7 doctors, and more labs than I can count to figure out what it was. In that time shame and grief found me on all the days where I was stuck in bed canceling plans and missing work, missing the life I expected to be able to live. Yoga was and still is my path through. On the lowest of days, when I couldn't move my body, meditation and breathwork transported me into a world where I could feel peace. And on the days I could move, asana provided relief from pain and inflammation, and was the only form of exercise that did not put me back in bed.
It was through yoga, and the encouragement of the world’s greatest clients, that the idea for Onward was born. Change had arrived, again and again, and it was my responsibility to show up in the present and walk the new path. My former job, my old way of being in this world no longer works for my body, but yoga does.
Yoga perpetually offers a dependable path to flow alongside change. It provides a practice to bring us into the present moment, again and again, and it is accessible whether we are experiencing the symptoms of chronic illness, injury, or simply trying to figure out how to manage the stress of living in the 21st century. Yoga is not something we do once. It is a way of being throughout all areas of your life, and the physical practices (the asana, meditations, and pranayama) are meant to be incorporated into our daily lives. They are tools to help us operate our bodies in a way that opens up the most opportunity for peace, joy, and wellbeing. Yoga is a way to feel lighter and is the most dependable path to flow through change.
So welcome to Onward, a community born from change, for people like you and I to practice yoga as a way up the mountains to come.