Israel, from Desert to Sea
People often ask why I travel so much to teach yoga. The long plane rides push my body’s limits: 23 hours to Hong Kong, anyone? Nutritional challenges come up as well: why can’t I find cooked greens in Copenhagen in October? And luck can turn in a moment, bringing mishaps that make me want to go home: I still recall a bathroom flooding, foretold by me and ignored by the concierge, that had me perched for hours on the lumpy bed in a quaint Paris hotel). It’s difficult to explain why I travel. Yet something compels me to do so, as though I’m trying to learn a lesson that remains tantalizingly out of reach.
Last November, I finished my travel year in Israel: first at the Moa Oasis just north of the southern port of Eilat, where the dry heat was intense. Dust infiltrated the filaments of my bronchial tubes, coated my eyes with chalklike insistence, and wove itself so expertly into the fibers of my clothing that everything I wore was sepia-toned. We practiced therapeutic sun salutations as the sun rose, in an outdoor tent lined with Persian rugs. Each day we ended at noon when the heat shimmered visibly in the air, obscuring the neighboring arm of Jordan which rose up like a fist beyond the nearest mountain range. I then traveled north to Tel Aviv and taught to a beautiful studio nestled on a boardwalk alongside the Mediterranean Sea. Looking back now, I think this teaching trip was more a barter. I taught yoga therapeutics to an overflowing room of enthusiastic, insightful yogis, while they schooled me about life and love on the edge of safety.
The Israelis share freely about the lack of security they feel on even the most basic physical level. Every young man and woman enters the army at age 18—I see these baby-faced soldiers everywhere I go. They also admit to living with a constant and chronic sense of anxiety. The collective nervous system of Israel functions in ‘alarm mode,’ as though there’s a constant and elevated humming of circuitry in the background.
Emotionally, the Israelis liken themselves to the sabra fruit: prickly on the outside, even a bit off-putting. They interrupt a lot, refreshingly. They’re direct with their feedback: “Is that a zit on your chin?” they might demand, or “Why do you look so terrible today?” They don’t hesitate to let you know what’s going on internally: as an Ashtangi in my Gut Wisdom class asserted, “I need to move right now– I’m getting anxious.”
Many Israelis describe themselves to me as as emotionally “hard.” And to the polite, perhaps repressed Western exterior, even coffee talk can resemble an encounter with a klatch of porcupines. Yet while the sabra fruit may be thorny on the outside, it is soft and pliable on the inside. And with the slightest digging, I uncover a deeper truth: just beneath the surface, the Israelis are an incredibly open-hearted people. They catapult themselves into the moment. They love deeply and passionately. During my visit, many friends were engaged in relationship dramas that caused my heart to stutter in worried sympathy. One day they were soulmates, planning the rest of their lives together. The next day they’d broken up, ceased all communication, and demanded the return of house keys. And the day after that, as I readied myself to offer support, there they were, caught up once again in the solid, sticky webbing of connection.
I’ve learned a lot about teaching and life while on the road. Language, even the dialect I speak with myself, evolves in response to the need to distill my concepts into digestible terms. And cultural surprises help me to teach more effectively. In Hong Kong, for example, I discovered in my third workshop of a conference that no one knew what Restorative Yoga was. And I learn from other cultures’ observations about the impact of yoga therapeutics: the Israeli yogis astutely observed that our system of yoga includes a wealth of hands-on bodywork. And there are frequent cross-cultural revelations: in Italian, the word pancia refers not just to the core body’s physical structure but to the gnosis it contains.
The Israelis taught me a lesson I need so often to relearn: Security does not exist. The more we try to build security, the greater our fear becomes–and the stronger our barrier to intimacy. And self-protection is an illusion. The more we bolster self-protection, the thicker our armor grows–and the more it hardens like a shell to enclose the true and vulnerable self which turtles inward.
In the desert of the heart, there is no safety. We can search, instead, for nourishment in the compassion that dwells just beyond it. And in the wilderness of the body, there is no insurance against injury and decay. We can seek, instead, the moment-to-moment tumult of sensation, investigation, and change that we often mistake for the body’s betrayal. And in the dimly-lit environs of the mind, there is little true reassurance. We can listen inward, instead, for alternatives to the default mental patterns that define us. What might this searching, seeking, and listening look like? In the midst of a compelling mental narrative about the shortcomings of a colleague, we can dive instead into the isolation and self-criticism that wait underneath. In the face of injury or illness, we can give the body time and space to veer off our time-stamped, linear path to recovery. And in the wake of a breakup, we can soften enough to feel the suffering of our beloved, while holding gently and with kindness our own suffering self.
We can move faster, and believe ourselves safe from self-inquiry. And often we do just that, building a strong “brand” for the self which we market so tirelessly that from the outside, at least, we look put together. Or we can stay frozen in place and think we are protected. And we often do, narrowing our repertoire of experience so it looks like we’ve mastered our world. Yet no amount of speed can help us outrun difficulty. No measure of immobility can guarantee us safety. To inhabit the body and mind deeply, to contact the deep tones of spirit that vibrate within us, requires an uncomfortable degree of raw vulnerability.
Recently, a colleague asked for support during a major trauma. He was in full crisis mode, coming up for air between fits of sobbing on his living room floor. He missed his partner, who’d left him for a woman. He doubted his worth, and believed he’d never be loved that way again. Why didn’t I see this coming? he wondered. What’s wrong with me? Some days he practiced yoga and listened to his body’s need for rest, good food, and support. And some days he abandoned self-compassion, drank too much, recounted his story in detail to anyone who’d listen, and neglected to eat in a manic quest for spiritual purification. His biggest struggle was an overwhelming desire to keep up appearances, to maintain full teaching mode. Overcome with “Sudden Repulsion Syndrome” at the vast, yawning need of his students, he was at the same time distressed to realize he had nothing left to give them. He struggled to accept that his quest for momentum was leaving a vulnerable part of the self behind. Unaddressed, this self would demand his attention in more and more serious ways. It’s a balance, isn’t it, between building our brand and addressing the self that waits just behind it, longing for some kind of recognition?
Life does make us some promises. Among these: our hearts will be broken by people we love. Our bodies will fall prey to injury and loss. And our spirits will fracture, a little or a lot, in the wake of these happenings. These fissures of the spirit are boons. They’re not just the cost but the reward of abandoning our quest for safety and security, of laying down our arms and surrendering to the experience of being human. I think this is why I travel: to relearn again and again, right down to the cellular level, something I keep forgetting about the very marrow of our existence.
We are, all of us, travelers. Sometimes we find sustenance on the road, a satisfying meal or extended moment of profound connection. At other times we go hungry and feed on the fuel of our energy reserves. We can feel so misplaced that our home as we knew it seems not to exist. And we can feel so ungrounded that we seem to disappear, to not belong to anyone anymore. And this is when the magic happens.
The rawness of these times can crack us open; it does for me. This cracked-open and a little surrendered state calls forth my truer, less-rehearsed qualities: a deep gratitude for the gift of a pregnant host, who meets me for coffee with at the end of a long day. The presence of my own heart, bursting forth like a St. Bernard. Sudden emotion while standing in front of a Botticelli at midday. The need to receive from others, such as the cab driver who insisted on guiding me into the airport in Tel Aviv, where my luggage was searched for what seemed like hours, until he knew I was safely on my way. And the spontaneous joy of discovering connective tissue “signaling” on a boardwalk abutting the Atlantic Ocean.
And the thing is that gradually, over time, these truer qualities ink themselves wetly onto the surface of my at-home and in-control self. And they sink in. I’ve worked for so long at security, only to learn that it keeps me from moving at all. And I’ve tried hard at self-protection, only to find that it guards against intimacy, too. Travel is one of the things that breaks me open, bringing a long-lost self to light.
And whether we learn this in the comfort of our own backyard or the novelty of someone else’s, our only guarantee is the direct experience in which we live and the true self it calls forth: wild, ever-changing, unpredictable, and rooted in love. Thank you, Israel.