It was Day One and I was already exhausted. Four hours of yoga, two hours of lecture, the thin air of high altitude, plus weeks of sleep deprivation before I'd even arrived. By that afternoon, I had already danced, shook, laughed, wept, skipped, jumped up and down, and it wasn't even three o'clock yet. This was Wanderlust Squaw Valley. My home. My Mecca. My people.
The room was stuffy and hot. The patchouli and earth-friendly deodorant had collectively failed to keep up with the demands of the hundreds of yogis who'd downed their dogs all day in that room. I instantly wanted to leave. I wanted to go be in the fresh air. The classes from the early morning had gutted me and had left me as a raw, open wound of heartbreak. I didn't want to be with people anymore. I wanted to be alone. Silent. I placed my mat in the back row and laid down, thinking I'd sit this one out and maybe just listen or, if unbearable, I'd leave early.
Sweet-faced, kind-voiced and turban-adorned -- Gurmukh sat at the front of the conference room. She was the reason I'd been crying all day. I'd never done Kundalini yoga before her class that morning. I'd heard warnings about the intensity and spiritual power that Kundalini unleashed, but I'd just kind of chalked that up to something of an yogic urban legend.
But let me tell you, Kundalini is no joke.
And neither is Gurmukh. My hunch is that her primary purpose as a teacher is to completely demolish your ego, making sure there is no resistance left in you, leaving you completely vulnerable to unfiltered love. She unlocks every emotional cage, every prison you've built for yourself, every door you've closed and then beckons you with a wink and smile saying, "Come out and play. You're not as stuck as you think you are."
And then you're left in the cage with the door wide open and the haunting realization that liberation is out there, but maybe you're too old, or too resentful, or too ashamed to let yourself walk away from the bondage of your own making. Or maybe you're just stuck because you're too afraid not to be.
Or perhaps that was just my experience.
So picture me: last row, laying on my back, staring at the ceiling, wiping tears from my eyes, my chest a wide-open gash of heartache. The cage door sprung open and me: too scared to walk through the metaphorical door.
And then Gurmukh said, "We are going to partner up for this class, so please find someone near you to pair up with."
I needed to disappear. Fast. I flipped over to roll up my mat in stealth so that I could exit quietly out the back. But before I could escape, a kind face caught my eye. Through her side-bangs, she looked at me and smiled.
"You?" she said with her eyes.
We were asked to sit cross-legged with our knees touching, holding hands while doing this weird arm thing that kind of looks like we're peddling a paddle boat with our hands. All the while we were to take turns chanting a mantra that I had already forgotten. Partner one says the first four syllables (me: blah-bleh-meh-blah) and partner two says the last four (her: blee-blah-blee-blah). Back and forth.
Oh, and we were also supposed to look into each other's eyes. Without blinking. While doing this. For eleven minutes.
Let me be clear here, this kind of thing isn't high on my list of fun activities even on the best day. On this particular day, though, I couldn't have thought of something that sounded more horrendous.
"Before we get started," said Gurmukh, "introduce yourself to your partner."
I was knee to knee, holding hands with this sweet girl and I really just wanted to make a joke. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to be sarcastic. I wanted to be anything but the real me, here in this moment, touching a stranger.
"Hi," I said, "my name is Meadow."
She smiled, "Hi, my name's Freedom."
I looked at the ceiling, shooting God a are-you-fucking-kidding-me look and strained a smile back at her, holding back the tears that threatened to roll off the ledge of my eyelids.
"Nice to meet you, Freedom."
And then we began. We chanted, and peddled our arms and smiled and looked away and then tried to hold the gaze for longer. And then smiled some more. I held back tears.
I couldn't think about her name. I couldn't let myself go there. All day long, I'd been looking at the prison that had become my life. There were so many beautiful things to be grateful for, so many pieces that I loved, so many parts that felt inspired, real and alive. But there were other parts -- big parts -- that felt suffocating and loveless. I had become smaller and smaller to try to fit into the cage I'd built for myself. I tried to become what had been asked of me. Not overnight, mind you. These were little compromises, tiny seemingly-harmless shape-shifty-things. But over time, I'd backed myself into a corner of a very small cage. And I wasn't okay in there. I wasn't happy. And something needed to change. I'd spent all day flooded with the grief and the broken heartedness of it all.
I took a big breath and held Freedom's gaze. I gave myself permission to cry. I gave myself permission to just do this thing that was being asked of me.
Focus on loving Freedom, I told myself. The irony wasn't lost on me. I can love Freedom. I can look at Freedom. I can look into Freedom's eyes.
I repeated this to myself over and over for what seemed like a thousand eternities. It had been two minutes.
Just look at Freedom. Look at freedom. Just look at it. Look at her. Freedom isn't scary. Freedom is nice. Freedom is your partner in this. She wants to help you. She needs your help too.
I held her gaze. I repeated the mantra. I looked at Freedom. I could feel her arms getting tired. I strengthened mine to hold her up. And I kept looking at her.
Her eyes became my daughter's eyes.
I can love Freedom.
Then her eyes became my mother's eyes.
I can look into the eyes of Freedom.
Over the next forty years of my life (probably another two minutes), Freedom's eyes turned into every person's eyes that I had ever loved. Old friends. Old lovers. Old teachers. My own.
I can love Freedom.
I saw her. I saw Freedom. I saw her spirit, her soul, her heart, her joy, her grief. And in hers I saw mine.
I can look into the eyes of Freedom.
Cages vanished and all I could see was Freedom. All I could see was how free I really was. How free she was. How free we both were.
After another few life times, Gurmukh told us to close our eyes and to keep going with our arm-mantra-peddly thing.
The privacy was a welcomed reprieve. I could feel her fidget to give her back a break. I could feel her as she shook the hair off her face. I could feel the rhythm of her breath. I could feel Freedom.
At some point in time, my defenses dropped. My heart opened. I cried. Not sobby-hiccupy tears. No, I cried tears of freedom. Tears of liberation. Tears of permission. Tears of gratitude. I realized that I could stay with Freedom for as long as we needed to do this thing together. I didn't care how stupid the arm thing was. I didn't care that I couldn't remember the mantra. I didn't care that my knees were touching hers. I didn't care that the room stunk. I didn't didn't care about anything but Freedom. Freedom wasn't a stranger. She was me. She was everyone.
I can't tell you for sure how long I sat with her, it definitely wasn't eleven minutes. Gurmukh said it was thirty-five minutes but it felt like I lived at least three life-times holding Freedom's hands.
I walked out of the room, back into the alpine summer's evening and I knew things wouldn't be the same. They couldn't be the same. There were no cages left.
And all I could see were the eyes of freedom.