Yoga Can Stretch Memories of Kite Flying in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park

“Try not. Do or do not, there is no try”….Yoda; Star Wars

“Baseball is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical.”….Yogi Berra


        I confess that I see the world through the corrective lens of education. Every waking moment is for me, a teaching and learning opportunity. We are (all of us) always teaching; we teach by what we do; and by what we fail to do. We teach volumes by what we give to those around us; and by what we withhold from them. And I suspect that the really smart and successful people know that they are always teaching.  They “decenter”, and are like good classroom teachers able to step outside of themselves and see themselves teaching, as if they were sitting in their own classroom. But great and wise teachers are constantly aware that at every moment of their lives they are also students. The goal is to achieve a state of learning to be excellent in every aspect of one’s life (spiritual, relationships, professional, creative gifts, etc.). But excellence is like reaching infinity via the number line. As soon as you reach the highest number imagined; you realize that by just adding the single digit 1 means there is another higher number. Does the seeking of excellence sound like a meaningless journey and effort?  Not quite, the true meaning and purpose of the effort, is in the effort. I would think that if one actually was able to obtain excellence; that state would be meaningless, and boring; for it is our imperfections, short comings, and incompleteness, undiscovered and underdeveloped gifts, which make both us and life interesting. The “trick” is to be every ready to receive the ever-present lesson. The best Learner is not distracted by the age, race, gender, educational level, credentials, social status, material wealth or titles of the teacher. What they are intrinsically attracted to, is the ultimate value for growth from the lesson. Settings can also be misleading; as some of the best and most important lessons take place outside of formal educational settings.  The best Learners see the entire world as just one big classroom.

              One of my first out of school learning experiences occurred  during the 4 years I worked the 12: AM-8: AM shift at the post office, and attended college full time. The many Black American “mail-handlers” I worked with had every reason to be bitter and not wish me well. Many of them were intellectually capable to go to college but opted to take care of their families by securing a “safe” civil service job; many indeed had college degrees but were unable, because of racial discrimination, to obtain jobs in their fields of study. But the opposite happen.  These men collectively willed me to gather strength every day to travel after work, up to CCNY and take a full day of classes. I needed all of the support and encouragement I could get since I faced moments of extreme exhaustion, and often said: “I can’t do this”. On one of those days I did something I had never done before, or since. We were unloading a truck full with heavy bags of mail, loading the bags onto skids that would take them to other trucks. While dragging a bag to a skid; I felt more tired than I had ever felt in my life. I was thinking about all of the class assignments I had to complete and in particular the demanding work of the “Clark Brothers”; I was taking a class in history with John Henrick Clarke; and a psychology class with Kenneth Clark. They both demanded nothing less than your best; it was just impossible to fake a “weak” paper pass these brilliant professors; they were both masters in their fields of study.  All this is going through my mind as I am (as least believing to be) dragging this heavy mail bag across the floor; when suddenly I hear a loud: “Johnson!” it seemed; that I had actually stopped, and had fallen asleep standing up. The guys told me to get off the floor before I injure myself.  I was sent to the “swing-room” (locker room) to get some much needed rest. “We will cover for you”; just make sure you do something with that schooling, and help somebody”.  I have never forgotten their lesson of kindness, or their charge for me to use my education, not to make money, but to be able to perform a service for others.  I was thinking about them this week as I started the first session of my Yoga classes. I find joy in things I have not already accomplished and mastered.  I am also interested in noble efforts, where there is a strong possibility I can lose or fail (or why bother?). But as I attempted to do some of the powerful stretching positions in the class, my age “told on me”. I thought: “I can’t do this”. I was struggling to even get into a position that looked similar to the one being demonstrated by the instructor. I have learn over the years to give myself permission for a few moments of regret at the beginning of a challenging effort;( knowing that my feelings of regret are on a limited timer) I thought: “What was I thinking about when I signed up for this class?” and, “Why did I let my “exercise fan” doctor; who thought yoga was a great idea; talk me into this. What am I doing here? I am feeling ancient, but not in the wisdom sense. The younger folks around me seem to bend and twist into the many simple yet complex positions with much less psychological and physical effort then I was expending. Ten minutes into the class I said to myself; that if I can escape from this alive I will never come back again; “this, is killing me”. I was stretching and exercising muscles both known and unknown; and all the while the sister teacher kept saying: “Now watch, and manage your breathing”. “ Well”, I thought hoping she could not hear my thoughts; “Whenever I am able to catch my breath, I will indeed try to watch it”. I thought at some point: “I am making a complete fool of myself; and that I really need to “act my age”. But paying attention to your own breathing; mentally observing the resistance and surrender of your own muscles, forces your thoughts to go inside of yourself.  Quite honestly, I always thought Yoga wasn’t “that much”. After all people aren’t running for miles, shaking their “Zumbas”, or lifting heavy weights. They are not “moving around that much”; and so how hard can this be? It was hard, very hard. At that moment I felt as if I was receiving some type of cosmic pay back for all of the dismissive thoughts I had about Yoga.  A sister yogi next to me,  surrounded me with encouraging words; she help to  carry me through what seem like an entire day (1 hour) of exhaustive, strenuous exercise. She gently, graciously, quietly and softly encouraged me forward even as I made a physical mess, and an unintended mockery of just about every Yoga position. She was at that moment the Black women of my youthful church, who encouraged the children in every, public speaking, every Shepherd (with towel around head) role in the Christmas plays, recitation, publicly reading scripture, or memorization and presentations of the books of the bible. It never occurred to us kids that even when we made a mistake in our presentations, we still received the same standing ovation, the same wonderful encouragement. When I look back, the tremendous praise and adulation of those mothers of the church was like my Yoga sister probably more than I deserved. But they knew what they were doing; they were insulating us against self- defeat, and against a world committed to defeating our sense of self-hood.   The instructor (Anacostia Yogi) is a wonderful teacher; and having evaluated teachers for so many years, I know good teaching when I see it. All excellent teachers seem to have the similar quality of effortlessly delivering efficacy while making the student feel welcomed and worthy of the teachers hard work. She both pushed and carried us to do our best.  Her persistent encouragement along with my fellow classmate reminded me of my 70’s post-office buddies (without the salty language of course). If we are to be successful human beings; we are in many ways the end results of encouragement, both internal and external.  When we feel tired we need the strength of another, to see our own strength. When we are unwilling, or our will is weakened by a perceived or real limitation; the kind words of another can will us forward to a different possibility. And, as often is the case, when we feel we don’t have enough of what is needed for the moment; a great teacher, and a caring fellow student can gently push us into our unrealized strength. You then feel obligated to succeed based on the pact you made through their inspirational and emotional investment in you.  And at some point in the class something interesting occurred.  I became less conscious of my struggling self, and more aware of another less conscious self.  I was no longer concerned about what I could not do; and felt very powerful in what I was able to do. I felt powerful and accomplished when I made even the smallest progress. I became aware of myself improving at every moment.  I compared myself to myself at the start of the class, and to where I was now in the present moment. Progress can be known, and had form one minute to the next; the key is to continue to move forward.  At the end of the class I felt I had been on a spiritual journey; like an earlier version of myself who went mountain climbing in Canada (Oh, didn’t know that?). It is that time; after you reach the top, and leave the total concentration of the physical climb behind; that you look down and realize that you are both the mountain, and the climb; at that moment your entire life comes into focus. After spending more than 35 years in high stress positions; the last meditating position we assumed in the class put me into a relaxing state that took me back to my adolescence. I could see myself in my youthful activity of kite flying. We young Brooklyn aviators made our kites climb and sour to the clouds over Prospect Park (and we believed the planet earth itself). At some point in kite flying (and kite flyers will fully appreciate this); there is a moment when there is no distance between you and the kite, you are tethered to something great, high and wonderful; you are magically attached to the freedom and power of the sky; or you forget you are holding the string; and you feel yourself, and not the kite dancing just below the canopy of the clouds. The kite soars, you soar, the kite descends, and you descend. When the kite returns to earth; you mentally plan the necessary repairs; and all you can think about on the walk home is the next flying date. The moment the yoga class ends; is the moment I begin; in all of my fleeing exhaustion, to miss it. A strange feeling for an I, who for so many years found himself not missing much of anything outside of working in education.  I begin to feel; “There is a life, after (or alongside) a life”; hidden from us; but accessible; reached by Kite or on this particular day, Yoga.

           Driving home from the class I was amazed at my vivid memory of the details and techniques of childhood kite flying.  Where had that memory gone for so many years? Perhaps you can only find your deepest childhood memories in a safe space; a place where you are relived of the heavy burden of managing a image. That night after the Yoga class I experienced a powerful sleep; a deep sleep; the type of sleep I last felt many years ago; when a very tired 20 year old was pulling a mail bag across that post office floor; back then nothing, and I mean nothing in the world existed at that moment, except sleep.