Eastern Europe, Asana by Asana.
Doing yoga in Eastern Europe has been nothing if not unusual.
I just singed all the hair off my right arm doing something I never thought I’d be doing. I was boiling my socks on the stove. I had to google it to figure out how to do it right. As it turns out, I was going about it all wrong. I drained my puddle of black and white but now gray socks to soap and scrub them and then turn them inside out before tossing them back onto the stove. Borscht, much as I hate it, smells better.
Babushka Gallina—Babs, just between us—had pronounced that socks were unhygienic and could not enter the sacrosanct bowels of her washing machine. My sense of the absurd, usually flapping about merrily on my travels, was piqued. Babs may be the most diminutive of us, but her voice is loudest and all too often I know the battle to be lost before it begins. Then I do yoga.
Doing yoga in Eastern Europe has been nothing if not unusual. While my practice has deepened, I am still learning to tune out certain distractions. I have been interrupted by babushkas doing what babushkas do, showering me with cobwebs and dust, or needing me to hold the washing machine in place while it bucks around the bathroom. The vibrations of my first ‘Om’ are a household cue to come bustle around me while I try to keep my gaze steady on the ceiling rather than the dizzying parade of buckets, laundry and Russian reality t.v. Somehow these endeavors always coincide with yoga; walls that have not been washed since before the fall of Communism suddenly jump to the top of the list. And this is not unique to this three-generation household. This is a phenomenon I have documented in each corner of Eastern Europe I have bounced through. Nonetheless, I persist.
Today, I started my Ashtanga primary series in a foul mood after trying to write the day’s chapter and failing to find words in the face of another strident tirade as Babs tries to wake up her slugabed grandchild. I may not understand the words, but tone translates fairly well.
The parquet floor in the tiny apartment is lovely, but hard to take care of. It is also hard to keep your balance when the little nails have come loose and crosshatched boards wobble and want to ride your sweaty feet out of their moorings.
It has been nigh impossible to find a decent yoga mat on this trip as I neglected to bring a travel mat. Russia, it seems, practices less yoga than Romania. And yoga mats that don’t fall to nubby bits are as hard to find as the Putin matryoshka dolls; you have to look hard to find them and look harder still to find a good one. I have tried rugs, towels, smoothed out gym pants, and foam core to no avail. I gave up my search a month ago and have accepted the permanent bruising on my spine from doing Garbhapindasana, Ubhaya Padangustasana and Urdhvamukha Pashimatanasana without a mat. I have done yoga on cement, tiles, waxed wood and linoleum and have actually come to prefer it. I find that I can dip deeper into Prasaritha and have finally been able to touch my head to the floor throughout that entire sequence!
I now spend one to two hours each day smiling at my toes. By the time I have gotten to Adangusthasana Padahastasana, my practice is its own reward. I discovered yoga last May; I still consider myself a very inflexible person even as I smile as my toes get closer and closer to my face. I credit yoga with keeping me sane, through a breakup, quitting a job after a client in a BTR attempted to kill me, and leaving the United States. I moved to Romania in August and there were times when I needed those minutes of yoga joy, when I stretched farther than I thought possible and held a posture, finally breathing properly and pushing my diaphragm up on the exhale. Measured breath when I took rest at the end of practice made me feel like I was bringing the tides into my body, connecting to something far beyond myself when I felt isolated in a foreign culture. (At least it did after I took down the two clocks on opposing walls that clicked off alternating seconds. That had me almost twitching, my heartbeat trying to echo the ‘snick’ that grew so loud when I had quieted my thoughts that it felt like it was yelling at me.)
Moscow is a pleasant change from Bucharest; this is a city that has proven itself and although censorship is still very much a part of their lives, Muscovites definitely have their own opinions. Visitors reported seeing Russians eating ice cream on the street in the dead of wartime winter, and claimed that that was how they knew which side would win. Russians are proud of their country, their 1/6th of the world, and after decades of empty shelves they shop very enthusiastically. People on the street dress to the nines in all kinds of inclement weather and they find any excuse to dance after work, street musicians pulling in piles of Roubles coated to look like silver and gold while policewomen in stilettos survey the crowd.
Babs is a lovely lady. But once a child of war, always a child of war. She grew up during a harsh time and although she now feeds the pigeons bread and sausage, she was not always so lucky. I try to remember this when my irritation climbs up my throat as I proceed through my warm up Asanas to the tune of her endlessly haranguing her granddaughter, something I am assured is a sacred tradition. I am lucky to be in Russia, lucky to experience being a part of this family, and lucky to have had amazing teachers who allowed me to bring yoga with me.
Happily, my sun salutes are not greeted by rain through the gauzy curtains this morning. The rain followed me from Romania and was happy to clean the candy colored streets of Russia; the bright bright adverts in their neon rainbow colors were reflected off the gazillion cobblestones and made everything look soft and fluffy despite the negative degree temperatures and driving rain. Today, however, looks bright. I will breathe in and breathe out, releasing this tension and opening my heart. Yoga is the gift I give to myself; as I nurture myself I find that I care more for the world around me. Today I will smile at the people in the streets and wordlessly ask them to smile back. Hopefully I won’t get arrested!
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