September 16, 2012

Sometimes We Need the Ugly. ~ Lana Seiler

The things in life that are difficult or uncomfortable are what actually enable us to see the truly beautiful…

Out of nowhere last year I stopped crying and  laughing; that’s the really strange thing about depression. I’ve always been a loud, throw-your-head-back sort of laugher. But then I just stopped. The last time I cried my eyes out was two years ago. I found that I had stopped feeling much of anything; I didn’t even realize that I was so deep in it. I guess it’s like water, you know? Clear, deceiving, like staring into a body of water with no way of seeing how far down it actually goes. My default became melancholy, mild, almost glassy sadness and cold was my normal temperature.

That says a lot for someone who has always run hot. I’ve always been heated; hot to the touch and hot in temperament. I’ve been known to heat up a bed sometimes unbearably, fought in public to the extreme that I’ve been threatened by police officers, loved so hard it felt like my flesh and bones turned themselves inside out to get just a little bit closer, and been impassioned to things I want to do to the point of utter and complete poverty. I’ve stood fully behind it all—I regret very little.

Then, this way I’ve always been slowly cooled, dried and darkened into something foreign and mysterious. It was so slow, I didn’t even notice when it clicked over from just sad sometimes to not feeling anything at all. I sort of stumbled through life this way for a while; blinking, dispassionate in the daylight and glazed over during the nights, tending bar or sitting in the company of people I could barely even hear over the hum of my own thoughts.

Then last summer I finally started crying and laughing again. Oddly, that happened in a brick-walled yoga studio in the east village. I had no idea that I would cry so much inside the walls of that studio, or how powerful and important that summer would prove to be.

I mean, no one can just say to you, “Okay, now you have to break it all down, get really, really uncomfortable.

Feel terrified and frustrated, your body trembling and pouring sweat until you melt into a puddle on a rubber mat.

Feel your heart breaking open because your hips are screaming, your stomach wailing because your back is bending, your chest moaning open because someone is kneeling on you.

Feel exhausted and completely spent until you cry and let it all out, then cry some more—in class, in front of strangers, the hall, the hot studio—so much that you finally learn to laugh again; so much that you learn how to stop choking up in your throat.

Give in and find humility while crawling on your knees, then try to figure out who you are and slowly come back together and be okay.

Ready? Go!”

It seems that we have to be brought to these things; the physical body can be a means of getting down to deep emotions. It works. Believe me.

A friend of mine suggested I go to a donation-based yoga studio to relieve some stress. I hadn’t practiced yoga in three years, but was sure that if I didn’t do something I would absolutely explode. It’s a recession; NYC can brutal. I hate bartending and can’t do anything with an undergraduate degree in political science except default on student loans (which I do quite well, actually. My phone rings easily 13 times a day with calls from debt collectors and I feel like I can’t open my eyes in the morning without digging myself deeper into debt).

So I went to this studio on St. Marks and third-avenue with my worn out mat. I put a dollar in the donation box and laid my mat on the floor by the exposed brick wall. I mused at how lovely the studio was with huge windows at the front, plants in the sills and huge a Tibetan singing bowl on the teacher’s bench. I thought about how nice it felt to kneel on a clean wooden floor and have space around me. I sank into child’s pose and prayed.

The owner of the studio was teaching that class. I was totally blown away by the power of this forgotten practice. I sweated out so many things on so many levels I could barely keep track. Every muscle in my body burned and flushed. I felt so cleaned out that it seemed like there ought to have been cobwebs and emotional debris left on the floor underneath me. It felt so desperately needed and I was so grateful that I had to go up to the man and thank him.

Afterward, he asked me if I was interested in their teacher-training program that was starting the next week. He told me to send an email to the studio and fill out the application form, that there were two spots left. I went home that night and rushed through the application and sent the email.

I stepped into the studio on the first day thinking how hard can this possibly be? I came in as I had been: totally walled up from the city, the cold, disappointments and struggles of growing up and not becoming rich and successful—all the things that we live through and try to protect ourselves from, right? I sort of snubbed the other students in a very disgusting New York way. I had grown accustomed to being very distant and a little judgmental, just like everyone else.

If anyone would have told me I would find myself sobbing in the hallway of the studio, or in multiple group practices during this training surrounded by these same people and being completely supported, I would have said no way am I doing this and walked right out the door.

Thank God no one told me that.

The facilitators of this training did say that it would be challenging at times, but I thought that sounded great. I mean, I can handle a challenge. I’ve done yoga before. I can talk to anyone all night long at the bar. I can totally teach a class. No problem.

I found out quickly that you can’t really lead a class and connect with people and be any kind of help in the room unless you are absolutely uncovered as a human being. Um, what?

I discovered that it isn’t really about being able to talk people through asanas. I learned that here has to be a certain rawness and openness available to let in enough energy and strength to hold a space for people to practice and open up in.

It’s no joke. Let me tell you that right now.

The thing about it is that you can’t fake it; you’ll just fall flat. I couldn’t bar-talk my way through teaching, or put on eyeliner and heels and charm my way into connecting with students. It was a full overhaul of my ways of operating and being. Truthfully, it ripped away all the padding and masks and magic tricks I had developed over the years to convince myself that I was good, better, capable.

I won’t go into all of the specifics but I will say that over the course of ten weeks I have gone from barely fooling anyone to stripped down, emptied. I sobbed, screamed, pounded, bent forwards and backwards, fell over & got back up, and fell over again. I wept and trembled in a 108 degree room while staring at my reflection in the most unforgiving mirrors, suffering under the weight of all the undeniable truth staring right back at me. I went from shaken, stretched and expelled to ever so slowly put back together strengthened, loosened and quietly brought to honest.

It led me to eventually starting to see that I am really good, better and capable—at least I have the beginning of faith in that.

Let me also say, not always fun.

Something about realizing that all the safety nets you had placed underneath you are worthless, and being pushed to total physical exhaustion and muscle fatigue over and over causes a series of emotional eruptions. I knew that we carried emotion in our bodies. We carry it as stress, backaches, headaches, fatigue, irritability etc. We know that.
What I didn’t know is that we also carry emotions deep in our hip joints and the vertebra of our spine. It comes out after holding poses for long stretches and forcing the mind to stay present in the face of uncomfortable sensations, being with stillness and bringing back the focus of the mind every time it tries to disassociate or run away.

Emotion comes out when we are forced to sit with ourselves and examine.

Let me tell you something else: that sort of breaking is the real deal. I mean, sweating and sobbing in frog pose or backbends or hour long arm exercises or chair pose is opening and exposing and honest like I’ve never, ever experienced in my life.

What also isn’t fun is the humility. I went in there feeling like I could stand out and be above average. I thought that I could breeze through and fake it on some level. Instead I found myself faltering miserably. It was because I wasn’t connecting with any kind of authenticity nor was communicating the practice from a real place within me. At the time I was just floored, frustrated and taking it all out on myself. I was so freaked out that my methods weren’t working that I just started panicking; I couldn’t think or remember anything. I just kept falling lower and lower into self-criticism and feeling like a failure, kept drying out with self-loathing.

I still hadn’t cried or laughed.

One day about five weeks into this madness I was at the studio, had been there all day. I was tired of feeling inadequate around the other teachers, of trying to find a voice that was authentic, to find a place of truth to teach from. I was tired of being shown up by people ten years younger than me, and I was just plain tired from taking two or three classes a day only to realize that the more I learned about my own practice the more I saw I had so much room for improvement.

On one of the first really hot days of summer I finished the two pm class; the room was steamy from all the hardworking bodies and surging energy. I opened the big window and climbed out onto the fire escape in the hot, humid air to hang the sweat-soaked mats out to dry (as I had been doing nearly every day). For the first time since training started I was feeling fed up with dripping from sweat all the time, with lugging around disgusting sweaty mats, with feeling like I’m never doing enough or being enough and starting to second guess this decision to try to teach.

The sky was a little overcast as I was hanging out the 30+ drenched mats and I hoped that I wouldn’t have to turn around and lug them all right back in if it started to rain. As I was hanging out the last few, I felt drops on my head and back and I cringed as I thought to myself, you’ve got to be kidding. I can’t take all of these back inside. I’m through, I just won’t. I won’t do it.

Pissed off, I looked up to confirm and curse the oncoming rain and to my absolute horror, I saw that it wasn’t rain at all. The studio has three floors and I was feeling the sweat dripping off the mats that had been hung out on the fire escape above me.

I was hot, depressed, grossed out by people ,bodies and yoga, and then showered by mat sweat. I felt like I had made a huge mistake. I just closed my eyes and yelped out a scream. I leaped into the studio and stuck my head under the faucet of the sink. I felt the emotion welling up inside of me riddled with frustration and uncertainty but it was stuck. It was all hot and red and stuck like a ball in my throat.

I was trying to figure out what the hell I was doing there. Later that day, after a particularly awful run through of the dialogue where it was made very clear that I had better work harder, I just lost it completely for the first time.

I guess it was the first real opening because after that I cried almost every weekend. That day I finally reached the limit of my defense mechanisms. I let it go as much as I could. I wept so hard my eyes were swollen. At first I thought I was crying because of yoga, then I thought it was about being poor and uncertain, then I thought it was about failing, or being lonely and a little hopeless about love…but then I realized it was about me not knowing me.

It was about being disconnected from the spark, the fire, the prana (yes, I just said prana). I was sobbing in realization that I was starting on a journey to rediscover that vital force within me and accept that I might not be this thing that I had created to cope and survive.

That is a profound thing to look at. As a matter of fact, it was a bit of a profound wail that day in the hall.

After that, every time I cried I felt closer to getting it all out. Every camel pose or chair pose or half pigeon hip opener that had me shaking and crying pulled up that same hard-to-describe sadness and emotion that was bubbling to the surface and still, very often, getting caught in my throat and wrapping around to the nape of my neck. It felt like a hot, swollen, tourniquet choking off the path leading out of my body; keeping inside these infectious emotions and old defenses.

I discovered that I was still trying and fighting valiantly to seem okay, to still be pretty. I found myself holding tightly to the little sniffing and gentle tearing movie camera cry, with the exception only of that first explosion. You know, the kind of cry that barley ruins your eye make-up? I was keeping so much inside that it became painfully obvious. I’d be doubled over in a deep opening pose and bitterly trying to just cry pretty. Finally, one of the women who worked at the studio called me out. She sat down next to me and looked hard into my eyes one day after a long difficult class in the heated studio. She said, “Lana, you need to ugly cry.” I looked at her like she was totally insane and had just told me the meaning of life.

Ugly cry?

That day I realized finally that it’s not about what things seem to be. It’s not about how well planned out or how good things look on paper. It’s more about getting to the truth, the bottom, the ugly—because, life is sometimes ugly. I try so often to cover up the ugly, to make it look better, seem safer, or be disguised but it doesn’t work at all.
In fact, we need the ugly.

The things in life that are difficult or uncomfortable are what actually enable us to see the truly beautiful. I couldn’t laugh again until I learned how to cry again. That’s the heart of it. But the great thing is, the laughter came. That’s the promise. The laughter, the light, the newness, it all comes.

I sat cross-legged on the wooden floor wearing a little black dress over some yoga shorts during the graduation ceremony at the end of the program and I listened to the teachers explain to all the friends and families of the graduating group the highlights of the ten<<10 weeks, the brief overview of what we had all experienced, and I had to keep myself from laughing. I thought of how absurd it was to think that anyone other than those who had experienced something similar could possibly understand what it was like. We all got certificates of completion, applause and a photo. It felt so surreal and comical.

But it was nice to finish and begin the long road of incorporating our new-found truths into our lives. Taking the first shaky steps in what felt like an entirely new body into my old life looking for a new direction. All the grad school applications I had sweated over and agonized about seemed like a lifetime ago. I found that all the problems I brought into that very first class all piled on my shoulders were still there but they looked so different now.

I sat on that same floor that I had kneeled on, sweated on, cried on and hated, loved and ran away from and ran desperately to, and surveyed the shifts of value and priority that had taken place during these two summer months and was astonished.

I looked at my body that had so patiently endured so much effort and morphed into a markedly stronger and more elastic version of its former self, with gratitude. This body had endured really for the sake of my mind and my soul. The practice had honed my musculature, balance, flexibility and stamina. But at the root, it opened up channels in my soul. It took hold of my screaming mind and quieted it. It took my fears and disengaged them. It shined a light on a purpose that had been hidden from me.

I walked out of the studio that night and narrowed my vision on the street. I moved with slightly surer and more centered steps, I breathed deeply into more expansive lungs and knew that I had a fire again. My flesh was running hot and I had passion and a mission. I knew I would begin from here to find a way to hold space in this insane world. I knew how to clear the air and use this internal fire to support a space where people can find the courage to breathe through the uncomfortable and the terrifying, look deep into vicious and honest mirrors, feel the tremble of openness, fall into tears and laughter, dig down and offer up and find humility in order to see real strength, discover beauty, and finally stand up and face the ugly.


Lana Seiler is a yoga teacher and grad student in Delray Beach, FL. Terminally loyal, tragically romantic, sometimes manipulative, usually charming, has been gullible to the point of absurdity (most often involving love), deeply passionate, intense, and okay sometimes funny.



Editor: Jennifer Townsend

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