Every week I find myself walking around the Woman's Shelter, in essence recruiting residents to join me for a yoga practice. I may find myself teaching a chair session with 6 participants, or a mat-based class with 3, or even offering a one-on-one depending on the week and who is present that week at that time. This teaching is at the core of a compassionate practice. When I ask, "Why do I come here every week?" my own answer comes immediately: "To be here and breathe with you." When the ladies present are droopy, disinterested in using energy to any purpose, disheartened about their situation, emotionally stirred up over something, or suffering physically from any number of troubles, I continue to seduce them with humor and encouragement. Why? What is all this really? What's in it for them after all?
Actually, there is nothing in the practice beyond integrating awareness of being with an acceptance of being present. This might mean literally accepting the pain in a left shoulder and simply allowing the breath to invisibly open the ribs gently without lifting the arm. This compassion towards oneself without self-pity or blame, without attachment to goal or judgment of self in comparison to others, this is the path of healing and joy, of being fully. "It's too hot," says one slumping figure. "Are you breathing?" I ask with a laugh. She laughs too, "yes, I am," and sits up a little more fully, watching with interest what might come next. This bit of self awareness has already lightened her load.
I set up chairs in the middle of the huge recreation room, the periphery of chairs and tables occupied by nearly a dozen women. "Don't give up on that hip!" I exclaim, as I lift my right thigh with my hands and gently explore the range of motion in the hip. Setting the foot down, I exclaim, "Wow that's heavy, I think I'll let the earth carry that weight." I hear a soft "amen" from one side of the room and a "that's right" from nearby. Ankle circles provoke my loud public comment, "Keeping circulation in the whole leg, and helping with balance." Gradually a couple of the women begin imitating my movements from right where they are. I begin breathing through my arm movements, speaking "Inhaling open, Exhaling release," rotating my shoulders, taking gentle rib twists, explaining as I go. I hear the soft sound of coordinated inhaling and exhaling from a table behind me. "Beautiful breathing," I say, turning and grinning at the now smiling woman who pushes her chair away from the table so she can continue with the leg movements I've begun to introduce.
And so it goes on this particular day, I am sitting in the middle of an empty circle of chairs with 4 participants who, in spite of their lethargy, fear, pain, sense of displacement, have begun to breath and feel enlivened by that breath, while in all parts of the room attention is riveted on me. Nothing else need be promised, yet all can be gained. After my hour session is over, I approach two women who seem sorry that they were not fully active. "I'll be back next week," I say. "Oh my back hurts so," says one. I hold her gaze steadily and say, "Do I know what you are feeling? No, I don't, but you do. You are the one living in this body and you are the one who can be kind and attentive to what your body needs. You can gently stretch that even before you get out of bed, staying out of the range of pain, and gently encouraging openness and relief just with your breath." Then I lay down on the floor and gently show her some suggested movements. Both women are nodding and attentive, sitting quite beautifully balanced and breathing steadily along with me. I put my shoes on and wish them all well. May your body be safe; May your heart be strong; May your mind find peace; May you be free. I will see whoever may be present next week. I know that I can do nothing more than be present to breathe with them.