What Hurricane Katrina taught me about yoga

“Purification, Refinement, Surrender. These are the practical steps on the path of yoga.”

– Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra II.1, (trans. by Alistair Shearer)

I’ve gone back to basics lately with my practice, my teaching, and even my thinking about yoga. With over 1,000 hours of teaching, I keep coming back to the same question in my writing and conversation with other teachers: What is yoga, anyway?

My recent study with Doug Keller only underlined that question in my mind. He has a lovely overview of the history of yoga in his book about yoga philosophy Heart of the Yogi. He traces the long history of yoga – philosophy, practice, posture – to reveal there are only a few things that tie them all together: mindfulness and action.

Yoga is sometimes defined as Skill in Action. I like that.

I stayed with my mom over the weekend that I studied with Doug. She doesn’t ‘do’ yoga, so in many ways she’s my best audience. How can I explain yoga to someone who doesn’t already know what it is? I said to her, “It’s kinda like what they say about pornography: you know it when you see it.”

“That is not a good answer,” mom replied.

And she’s right.

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I have been avoiding the anniversary of The Thing this weekend. My teacher Mitchel is in town, and I’m looking forward to his Bowspring workshops and vinyasa classes. I would like very much to go on about my business, and not get sucked in to the ten-year anniversary. But yoga won’t let me.

Purification. That’s what fire does, and it’s why fire is often used as a metaphor to describe the yoga practice. Purification is not a pleasant process, and it usually requires tremendous hard work and a decent amount of discomfort – if not pain. Fire burns away everything that isn’t real.

Water also washes away everything that isn’t real. Water washed away everything that wasn’t permanent, that wasn’t deeply rooted, that wasn’t fully committed.

Refinement. Once the heat of the practice has built, then the true work begins. It’s in the tiny movements in our body that real change happens. We want to find a showy pincha mayurasana to post on Instagram, but we know that’s just the shell. The real work happens on the inside, when we feel those small adjustments starting to reveal huge change. Looking strong doesn’t hold a candle to feeling strong.

The last ten years have been a constant process of refinement. That has meant looking at the things we were doing – as individuals, community, leadership – thing things that were working, and the things that weren’t. Being brave and ruthless about our choices, doing our best to keep the heart of  our city along the way.

As my teacher Heide says: “You don’t learn perfectly. It’s not a straight line forward.”

Surrender. Everybody knows the best yoga pose is Savasana – after 60 or 90 minutes of working, you get to rest. Just rest. And no rest comes easier than the rest after hard, challenging work. Honestly, I MUST work that hard to truly surrender. Because surrender is the hardest part.

Surrender means accepting things as they are, even if they aren’t where you want them to be. Yet. It means yielding to the wisdom the pose has to offer you – letting the pose do you, instead of you doing the pose.

Surrender means being willing to let your life be molded by a power beyond your imagination. It’s a willingness to be humble, to make mistakes, to fail, to learn, and to grow. That is my understanding of yoga.

Yoga is a willingness to be humble, to make mistakes, to fail, to learn, and to grow.

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I want to avoid the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The tenth anniversary of a 17 hour drive to Houston; the tenth anniversary of watching helplessly while my city flooded and idiots on CNN called Elysian Fields Avenue “Elephant Farms Road”; the tenth anniversary of sharing a twin bed in a stranger’s Baton Rouge apartment; the tenth anniversary of a six-week exile from my home; the tenth anniversary of One Dead In Attic; the tenth anniversary of Superdome rapes; the tenth anniversary of watching my city-family being abandoned by a government I had trusted until that moment; the tenth anniversary of deep sense of uncertainty, foreboding, and tremendous loss.

I am not interested in reliving it. It purified me, and for that I will be forever grateful, in a strange, perverted way.

Today, I’m working on eternal refinement – and most importantly, surrender.

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I’ll be at K10 on the Levee on Saturday morning representing Wild Lotus, and the rest of the weekend I’ll be practicing with Mitchel. Come give me a hug. And do some yoga. It helps, I promise.

Katrina + 6

It’s been a quiet week here in New Orleans, my home town…

That’s all I could think today, driving home from yoga.  “It’s been a quiet week here in Lake Wobegon, my home town…” I grew up listening to Garrison Keillor.  I grew up falling asleep to tapes of A Prairie Home Companion.  If you didn’t already realize I was raised by liberal recovering-hippies, well… now you know.

It’s been a quiet week.  And today just happened.  Again.  Six years ago there was The Thing that happened. On the Fifth Anniversary everybody still talked about it and did their mourning and mooning and moaning about how people should stop talking about the The Thing.  But today, on the Sixth Anniversary, nothing happened.

It’s been a quiet week in New Orleans, my home town… the girls and I got together on Saturday, with late brunch drinks (Champagne + Blueberry-Pomegranate is just as delightful as it sounds) and watched My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding (which is actually far more disturbing than it sounds), and I got day drunk and fell asleep at 8pm.  Sunday I made groceries and went to the grand opening of the New Orleans Healing Center.

This morning, I woke up, stopped by the coffee shop, and went to work.  The air’s a little smoky, but other than that it was just another day.  Just another Monday.  It wasn’t even manic.  Our staff meeting was practically calm.

It’s been a quiet week.

And yet, today still feels like the beginning of a new year.  It’s been (whatever 365 times 6 is… 1900 or so) days since Katrina hit and then the levees and all that.  I wonder: will it always be like this?  Will today always be a sacred day, no matter what?  Is this what it feels like when you lose a child or a spouse and their death-day passes and you get mad at everybody who doesn’t remember? And will I always feel guilty about being angry about that?

When will I start measuring years again from January 1?  Or at least from my birthday? Will that ever happen?  My life is still divided into BK and AK.

As I drove to work this morning, I realized 80% of the people I work with didn’t live here during The Thing.  There’s one kid who was in college at the time… But otherwise, it’s a bunch of folks who all lived out of harm’s way who work there.  Even the handful that lived in New Orleans didn’t live *in it*.  I hate that I care about that.  I am on my way to becoming that 70 year-old lady who talks about The Big One, and how none of y’all kids really understand.

But in reality, they don’t really understand.

It was a quiet week in New Orleans, my home town… I suppose I should be thankful for that.

Five Years

nb: Yes, this is the obligatory K+5 post. Deal with it.

5 years ago today, at this moment, I was watching CNN on 2 hours of sleep after a 17 hour evacuate drive to Houston.  I got in at 5 am, and couldn’t sleep past 7 — I couldn’t stop listening to the news or hearing what was happening.  I watched in horror as the 17th Street canal breached.

My whole life, in every movie, at this moment – the critical moment – something came in and saved the day!  We watched it on the TV, and surely these enormous sandbags dropped by helicopter would close the breach and all would be well again.

I think I grew up in that moment.  In that moment that I felt betrayed, devastated, and in shock.  It wasn’t just betrayal by the Corps, who we know now built faulty levees.  It wasn’t just betrayal of the federal government response (or lack thereof) in the coming weeks.  It wasn’t only the devastation of seeing photo after photo, and video feeds of people stranded, radio interviews of my fellow citizens searching for their loved ones.  It’s not just the shock of watching a flawed local administration founder over how to manage this scale of disaster.

I felt betrayed because every other time in my life I had seen something horrible like this, it had a happy ending.  The Germans lost, and Hitler killed himself in the most shameful way possible.  Slavery was ended.  Keanu Reeves found a way to make the bus stop before it killed all the people on it.  But in New Orleans, nothing happened.  No super hero saved the day.  And in that moment, I watched horrified with the entire nation as my city filled with water and my people were left for dead on rooftops.  It was so senseless.  This is not how it’s supposed to go.

Four years ago, I honestly don’t remember what I was doing.  I was still working at my pre-K job, which I was grateful to have.  I had just bought a house, so I was probably painting or tearing out termite damage or tiling the kitchen.  The whole year after Katrina is pretty much a blur.  I attribute this to low-level PTSD and a whole lot of alcohol.

Three years ago, I had just left my safe job at the CAC to start a dream job at Broadway South.  I believed we could remake this city.  I was enamored with the idea of creating a theatre destination in a city that had never had real theatre.  After five weeks, my boss was an evil lunatic and I knew better than to go anywhere with him.

One year ago, we had finished the YLC Gala and closed the most successful season of YLC Wednesday at the Square to date.  Things had begun to be hopeful.  The city was changing.  FEMA and federal recovery money had changed from its trickle to a real flow.  Every major thoroughfare of New Orleans seemed to be under construction.  Ray Nagin was still mayor and had gone the way of so many other Louisiana politicians — if you didn’t laugh about him, you’d have to cry.

And now, today.  My dad told me right after Katrina, as he was leaving the city, that it takes ten years for a city to fully recover from this kind of disaster.  My stepmother had lived through that in Mexico City after the earthquake of 1983.  My dad has lived 76 years on the earth, so I think he knows some stuff.

I look back on the last five years, and am filled with hope.  Because we are only halfway there. In the first half, I became a homeowner.  I found an amazingly fulfilling job.  New Orleans got a new mayor, with a new team that seems to being doing something.  The Saints won the Superbowl.  And now, I have a new job, at Greater New Orleans, Inc. and I genuinely believe that we can change the economic landscape of this city and bring her to her full potential.  With a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.  And help.

But even with the blasted Oil Disaster, and economic crisis, and all the cards stacked against us: I am hopeful.  None of this is worse than Katrina.  And look at where we have come since Katrina?

Five years ago today, I grew up.  I learned there is no super hero.  I learned that I had been lied to all these years about some deus ex machina that comes to save the day.  Over the last five years, I realized: the only person who saves the day is me. We. And we are saving New Orleans, one day at a time.