To Be The Listener

Snowflakeby Jeff McMahon

One of the best yoga experiences Chicago offers is Alison Lehner’s class—and you can take it twice, back to back, on Wednesdays at the Zen Garage, as I did today. I find so many reasons to love Alison’s class: her graceful sequences and ingenious alignment cues, her cheerful serenity, the subtle and beautiful satsang she creates.

Lots of yoga teachers offer a dharma talk, a theme, some a sermon…. Alison often begins class with just a few words—succinct and potent—that set a tone and intention for the practice that follows.

As we creep toward the shortest day of the year in this dark and peopled city, winter can seem to crush us in its nefarious jaws. Today Alison confronted winter with the last three lines of Wallace Stevens’s poem “The Snow Man”:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow, 
And, nothing himself, beholds 
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Have you ever noticed that great writers, when they’re great, are sudden yogis?

If I were a teacher and this poem inspired my class, I think I’d reach for the Taoist texts on nothingness and the Buddhist texts on emptiness, but Alison kept it simple.

She asked us to notice that the winter is a separate phenomenon from any misery we may attach to it. By observing, like the listener who listens in the snow, we can behold what is real and what isn’t—the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is. Not just in the snow, but on our mats.

It worked! In the deepest winter of my utkasana I noticed the pose, I noticed the misery I attach to it, and simply by noticing what was really there and what wasn’t, I could suddenly sit in that invisible chair seemingly forever. Or at least until I forgot, again, to still the mind and simply be an observer.

Behold what we discover when we fall still and simply observe the body and mind. Alison’s reading reminded me of this famous line by Albert Camus:

In the depths of winter I finally discovered that within me there lay an invincible summer.

The discovery of the invincible summer within—that’s  yoga.

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