The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.
Cessation of Mental Fluctuations: the Sandhill Cranes and the yoga of undoing
A couple of weeks ago my family again joined our dear friends on a pilgrimage to Jasper Pulaski State Park to witness the migration of the sandhill cranes. It was a beautiful, chilly Saturday morning, and I was giddy. My son, on the other hand, trudged down the path, completely disregarding the “Sandhill Cranes – True or False?” quiz placards we had so eagerly read together the year before.
He tossed his football so high it grazed the tree branches overhead. “Why can’t we just stay at the campsite and play football?” he said, missing the catch and running after his ball as it rolled erratically through the golden brown carpet of leaves. “They’re just a bunch of birds!”
As we continued up the path towards the observation tower and the familiar sight of 100 or so people perched on railings overlooking a massive field of cranes, I realized I had been pondering the same question. Why do so many of us keep coming back to watch a bunch of birds who are completely indifferent to our presence? What would happen if we were all just too busy with work and family stuff to bother?
I pictured the tall wooden observation tower empty, the cranes themselves the only witnesses to this natural phenomenon, and was comforted knowing that nothing would be different in that scenario. The cranes would still make their Mary-Poppins-style landings, do their flapping dance, and communicate with their incredibly resonant honks.
As I leaned on the railing and watched these gorgeous animals move and interact, I was overwhelmed with the pure joy of doing just one thing. Emails, status updates, schedules, and everyday aggravations fell away and it occurred to me that this one-pointed focus I had dropped into was not some kind of amazing feat. It was just who I am when I peel back the layers of busyness.
By the time we left I was brimming with the imagery and poeticism of the trees, the fallen leaves, the earth, and the sky dotted with birds and stars.
Back on my yoga mat last week after our return, I practiced a variation of crane pose, balakikasana,to cultivate some of that simplicity despite have been thrust back into the challenges of daily life. After 17 years of hearing yoga’s definition translated as “the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind,” as I flapped my wings, moved with my breath, and steadied my gaze, I began to understand it in a different way.
In savasana I imagined a river flowing from my head through my trunk, arms, legs, and out my toes. I visualized that the flow of this river was my true, unchanging self, ease and wellbeing. It’s the part of me that is just waiting to be found if only I can stop distracting myself with things that seem important when I let myself get too busy. Whenever a thought popped into my head, I imagined that thought was a small stick or a golden leaf falling into the river, and I’d watch it float downstream.
Yoga is an undoing. It's not about wishing to stop the thoughts or mental fluctuations any more than a river wishes the sticks and leaves would stop falling into it. Thoughts, those little sticks and leaves, are not the problem.
When I visit the cranes, spend time outside, or simply practice being a mindful, breathing human being on a yoga mat, I’m clearing the river’s pathway so it can flow, as per its nature. I’m witnessing the delicate fall of sticks and leaves, watching the thoughts come and watching the go. I’m not the sticks or the leaves. Rather I’m the river that carries them, I’m the cranes that fly and honk and dance regardless of whether they have witnesses or not. I’m the stuff beneath my stuff, the steadiness beneath my busyness. I am right here, wherever I go, despite the layers of multi-tasking or distraction I sometimes choose to cloak myself in.
In the field beneath the observation tower my son sprints and dodges, clutching the football with a determined grin as he goes for the touchdown with his friends. The cranes honk, the perfect spectators, neither approving nor disapproving of his alternating successes and failures. He’s shed his coat, hat, and gloves, and his cheeks glow red despite my worries that he’ll be cold.
As a kid who’s relatively uncloaked in the layers of distraction, he doesn’t need the cranes in the same way I do. The sunlight fades and my husband goes in for a friendly tackle, then they tumble over each other in the grass, laughing.
I want to tell my son he's right, they are just a bunch of birds. I tell myself, remembering, we're all just a bunch of birds.