Middle Earth

Middle Earth

My favorite New York moment goes back to summer 2016. Still riding the high of my 200-hour yoga teacher training, I signed up with some of my friends to join the Yoga in Times Square event they hold each year on the summer solstice (also the International Day of Yoga). It was a morning class, and we waited on a ridiculously long line that wound through the West 40s all the way to 8th Avenue to finally arrive at a cleared out space right in the middle of the heart of the city. The triangular intersection we typically see packed with honking cars and gawking tourists or New Year’s Eve revelers was completely clear. We yogis poured into the cordoned-off space and lined up our bright orange freebie mats, took off our shoes, and did the thing that all of us did in some form or another in the small corners of the city from which we came. 

The class was very simple—it had to be given the audience, and the fact that the teacher had to broadcast her instructions from far away on a big stage, blind to what the students were actually doing (a Broadway version of yoga if there ever was one!). There were also a lot of distractions—people milling about on the sidewalks staring in confusion, declaring, as if we didn’t know, “Oh wow, they’re all doing yoga”; plus all the lights and signs and buildings and traffic from the side streets that never, never turn off. Staying centered amidst it all was the ultimate yogic challenge, even without any fancy poses. When we reached the end of the class and were led into savasana, I admit I was a little leery. It was bad enough my bare feet were so close to the city streets, but now I had to lay my whole body down here, where tires and rats and all sorts of things regularly traversed? Not exactly relaxing, I thought. 

That savasana was unlike any other I’d had. It was far better than even the most cushy, incense-and-blankets-filled relaxations that had been curated in posh city studios and retreat centers. In fact, it was so amazing I am conjuring the visceral feeling of it right here, right now. Below me, the arteries of subway lines pulsed upward into my body. Above me, there was the biggest, bluest sky I’d ever seen, framed neatly by the pointed tips of the skyscrapers that seemed to curve around us like the rim of a snow globe. In that position, I felt myself filling the entirety of that humongous, epic space, from down below the earth to high up in the clouds. At the same time, I was acutely aware of my smallness within the city that teemed all around me. Coming out of that final rest, I was fundamentally changed. 

This month we’ve been talking all about rising, and how our ability to experience the lightness, hope, and vitality many of us crave right now in the depths of February is dependent on our relationship to the earth. Without a foundation (even if it’s a giant piece of asphalt) to plant roots in, we cannot pierce the sky like the spires of my fine city and all the hopes, dreams, and innovation they represent. It’s important, and fun, to visit these extremes of our world. For a number of reasons, we can become attached, or accustomed, to our lows and highs, for better and for worse. But they were not designed for our permanent residence. Where we belong, as a generalization, is in the middle, held in the watery space contained by earth and sky rather than surpassing their limits. 

Being in the middle is not exactly glamorous. The books, movies, and songs we consume rarely depict the middling parts of human life—the post-happily-ever-afters filled with laundry and sleeplessness, toilets and weird rashes, turmeric stains and houseplants that die all of a sudden. In parts of our society, like here in New York, being in the middle is practically a curse. Tell someone they are “average” at anything and you will see an expression of complete shame, humiliation, and dejection overcome their whole body; because not only are you saying “you can’t make it here,” but they can’t even go back to wherever they came from, because then everyone will know they didn’t make it in the place dreams are made of. 

We avoid the middle at all costs, and yet this state is inarguably necessary for life. What happens in the middle of our bodies—respiration, circulation, digestion—is required, so much so that our mettlesome egos are not invited to the meeting so they can’t get in the way. Whether we pay attention to those systems, though, entirely determines whether our bodies are agitated or suppressed by disease, or if we can float, healthy-ish, somewhere in the middle for a while. Exercise science also reminds us that we are strongest at mid-range; in other words, when you’re not stretching or lifting or running to the point of exhaustion, but enough to sustain the movement and your breath, you are able to fundamentally alter the nature of your cells toward greater resilience and growth. 

My Times Square savasana was an example of this tug-of-war. Sure, there was the glory and rush of experiencing the whole city, its dramatic highs and lows, all at once when I first landed in the pose. But to really be in savasana, I couldn’t hold onto all that for long. In letting myself drift in the middle space of it all, the stimuli and distraction and desire and speed continuing at the periphery, I settled into the core, where the real action took place. Suspended and detached, I transformed for a few moments—and then promptly got up and hurried off the street and back to my office ten blocks uptown where I would be uncharacteristically late for work and Oh My God how many emails did I miss . . .? Yes, the bliss state was impermanent, but still left its impression on me—enough to return to my yoga practice day in and day out, and to remember that particular practice even after all these years.

Yoga and Ayurveda describe the mind as having three states: rajas, or movement and aggravation; tamas, or dullness and inertia; and sattva, or calm and harmonious. The texts say that while we oscillate among all three states regularly, our “natural,” inherent state is that middle one, sattva, neither all riled up nor confined to bed with the curtains drawn. In sattva, we are content with the inherent coherence of our inner and outer worlds, as they exist separately and together. There is a rightness to it all, and whether we taste that rightness for thirty seconds or eight minutes or a decade it is always there, like a banquet table waiting for us to take our seat at.

During the pandemic, many of us have found ourselves being thrown between sky, earth, and center, rajas, tamas, and sattva, in an erratic and destabilizing way. If we’re not terrified or angry or grieving, we’re experiencing a Groundhog Day-life of boring sameness that we used to have means of escaping. It can be hard to know that we’re even alive without the sensations of extremeness, pleasurable or painful, and yet the eons in which the Earth has cycled through her own highs and lows and returned to some sort of baseline is one thing we can have faith in, if nothing else. Our container knows how to regulate us, if we trust that the middle space is safe. 

Whether we’re waiting for spring’s abundance to emerge from the cold winter ground, for the waves of grief to settle, or for the bread we decided to bake a week ago to finish rising and cooking and cooling, we can decide to make the indefinite pause a period of restless discomfort and struggle that disrupts a natural process of change, or cooperate in stillness with the transformation taking place in the middle. Over the course of our quarantine year, I’ve found myself moving into the middle almost unconsciously. As I take my daily walks, somehow the sidewalks that I once clung to for protection, as a sign of order and normalcy, have become uninteresting. In the summer, the heat and anger all around was so potent I couldn’t help walking right down the middle of the streets in my neighborhood (to which my mother replied, in horror, “Get out of the street! You’ll get run over!”).  In the winter, piles of snow and abandoned puddles-turned-ice-sheets make the street actually safer, and a better place to observe the white-tipped trees. Claiming my place in the middle of it all, like I did that June morning five years ago, helps me remember I’m not alone.

None of this guarantees anything, of course. We can be pummeled with more snow even when April comes around, or follow a recipe perfectly and still get sub-par bread. But we can still take comfort in the rhythm of our bodies landing on and rising from the ground, no matter what surface their touching; we can gather the flour and water and salt, be watchful of how they feed each other, and let our patience be the ingredient that turns an average slice of bread into a work of art. 

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