Heartbeat

“Notice your heartbeat,” I tell my students. “Without trying to predict anything, can you notice what happens when you breathe in… and breathe out?”

It’s one of the tricks I use in my yoga therapy groups — the only classes I currently teach. Ironically, a hospital setting is the potentially the safest place for me to be during this pandemic.

Notice something in the body. Notice if it changes when you take a breath. But don’t try to predict the outcome. Just breathe. Breathe, and notice.

I invite my students to place their hands on their heart — not with palms together, like in a standard yoga class — but with palms directly over their heart. Another trick I picked up along the way — one I gleaned in the middle of a class with a trusted teacher, years and years ago, when my life was falling apart. And I remember placing my hands on my heart like I was keeping it from bursting out of my chest.

2020 has found little and big ways to take away more than it gives.

“Yes, there is no more joy anymore,” my partner says, when I mumble into his chest that I feel like all the joy has been stripped. “There are no more mozzarella sticks in the world.”

“None. They’re all gone,” I mumble.

“And hot showers don’t exist anymore.”

“Nope. Only cold showers from here on out.”

“And there are no more cats.”

“None. All the cats are gone.”

I remember learning a trick from a content creator, about how to combat catastrophizing. You play poker with your anxiety: you see whatever it is that it’s offering and you raise it. Feel like you have no friends? Well you’ve never met a real human in real life! They’re all lizard people! You just up the stakes until it is so ridiculous, so silly, that you have no choice but to laugh. And it is in that laughter where you know there’s hope. Hope that you’re going to be okay.

So you pet the cats (who have all, coincidentally, congregated into the room), you order the mozzarella sticks. You turn on your shower and crank it to the highest setting. You step in and feel the sweet heat against your skin and you cry your eyes out.

“Feel your heartbeat. It doesn’t matter if it’s fast or slow right now, quiet or loud. Just notice. This is your heart trying to do its best to help out your mind and body.”

I’m not that verbose with my students in the in-patient and out-patient programs. I keep it simple with them. Keep the waxing yogic to a minimum. Because that’s not what they need. They need the basics: notice your heartbeat. Take a breathe. Try to notice without predicting the outcome.

I save the longer prose for classes in a less medical setting. And I’ve taught a few in the aftermath of the pandemic lockdown: a longtime corporate client wanted to do a handful of classes online. I was happy to oblige.

Your heart, your breath, your systems’ responses. They’re all just trying their best to help you out with the current set of circumstances. It’s nothing more than a miraculously complex set of programs trying to keep things going.

“Can you just notice, without putting a value judgement on it?”

Hot showers remedy a lot. For a week, we didn’t even have the option of one. Our well pump died for the third time and the journey to get it repaired or replaced was Kafkaesque in its absurdity. And when the well pump was replaced, the showerhead in the main bathroom rusted off.

Because it’s 2020, and 2020 takes more than it gives.

But, at least, this has been fixed. Water runs freely in the house again. Pipes aren’t rattling in protest anymore. Water is potable again, after being too chlorinated to even wash clothing with. Sediment that build up in faucets thanks to the broken pump have been cleared out.

I plunge my face into the water. I run my hands through my hair. I remind myself that I’d rather live vulnerably than play it safe. That I’d rather have skin that is sensitive to the heat than calloused over. That it’s important to have faith in the timing of all things, even when the timing feels absolutely rotten.

I place one hand on my heart. It feels like it’s about to burst out.

“Without trying to predict what will happen, can you notice what happens when you breathe in… and breathe out.”

One of the things I’m trying to do when I teach is to get people to notice — notice without trying to assume they know what they will be experiencing. Notice without anticipation. In some ways, it is practicing neutral observation. Noticing, without putting a value judgment on it.

It’s also practicing being in the present moment. Noticing, genuinely noticing, for that one breath — that’s one breath where you didn’t try to predict the future, worry, anticipate, focus on the past. And if it comes rushing back immediately after that one breath, then at least we got that one-breath reprieve.

Another thing I try to tell my students. If we can give ourselves just that one moment, then that’s infinitely more moments than we would’ve had otherwise.

(And while I don’t say it to them, the second part is: sometimes one moment is all we are going to get.)

The world is dark earlier today than it was yesterday. The chickens are already roosting by the time I come out with food. My foolhardy hope that Persephone would make a triumphant return has proven fruitless.

I have shifted towards making my peace with that, but I don’t regret the hope. Dashed hope is its own personal hell, but hope in the meanwhile at least promises heaven. And in 2020, perhaps that’s the best you can do, and the best you will get.

My hair is still wet from the shower. My face won’t stop being damp for a while. I remind myself it’s just my body trying its best to help out. My miraculously complex programs trying to sort out something more complicated than themselves.

I’ll make my peace with it… eventually. Much like I’ll continue to remember to have faith in the timing in all things, to have faith in whatever trolley tracks I’m on. To trust when all I want to do is assume it’s random chance and chaos.

My skin is still radiating heat from my shower. Even with the set sun, the world doesn’t feel that cold right now. I take that moment, linger outside a little longer.

I place one hand on my heart. I feel it. I notice its beat.

And without trying to predict the outcome, without trying to figure out what comes next, I breathe in… and breathe out.

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