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Genetically, I’m a lumberjack. I might not look it at first – female, 5’8” and 120-ish. But my shoulders. They’re a size 42 men’s suit coat. When I raise my hands overhead in tadasana they go wide just in case I happen to have an axe in one of them (it’s best to swing an axe outboard of one’s body).
My dad was a very part-time lumberjack, but a lumberjack nonetheless. He worked stumpage with his dad in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan as a boy. (Stumpage is not an unfortunate placement of an axe, but the ownership of the timber on someone else’s land.) My great grandpa worked the lumber camps, felling white pine for months at a time. I’ve always found a simple beauty in the clear sense of purpose that comes from the work my great grandpa did.
Action: whack the tree.
Purpose: make the tree fall down.
Action directly connected to its purpose. Clear, simple, not aggrandized.
Growing up, I was always looking for clear purpose. And I didn’t see the purpose in a lot of things. I told my first date, “I don’t know why people even date if they’re not old enough to marry each other.” (I did not hear from him again.)
I went to an engineering college because I got a scholarship. I got an engineering degree because I went to an engineering college. And I got an engineering job because I got an engineering degree. Purpose continued to elude me.
After college, I worked for an automotive company in suburban Detroit. I designed little bits that do little bits in your car you’d never even think a little bit about. Then I got a job hobnobbing with tattooed guys on the line. It was the mid-90’s, though, when union-management tensions were escalating, and in the five years I was there, there were three shootings in the plant. I quit. My husband and I moved to Iowa to work for an agricultural equipment company. There, I witnessed a union-management relationship that was remarkably respectful. I saw people working at whatever they did with a strong sense of purpose that I hadn’t seen in the Motor City.
I worked a couple years, had a couple kids, then I resigned from my job. I wanted as much time with my kids as I could… stand. I applied myself to raising my kids mindfully and writing about it irreverently, publishing a few pieces here and there.
Then, my part-time lumberjack dad, with his deceiving full-time lumberjack physique, was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. He was given a six month prognosis. I was devastated. Staying at home at the time with my two preschool-kids, I had nowhere to go for support. Mornings were no different just because my dad was dying – my kids still went all Oliver Twist on me – “Gruel again?!?” Hell, their world wasn’t crumbling. They didn’t understand, they couldn’t, and clearly they weren’t going to let up on me. So sometimes I’d come out swinging the proverbial axe. Roaring. Then regretting.
After an acquaintance witnessed one such incident, she suggested I might want to get my ass to yoga. So I did. Once a week for six months: Hey, where’d my 15 post-baby pounds go? Twice a week for six more months: Hey, where’d my flash temper go? Then traveling for weekend workshops, trainings and conferences for six years: Hey, where’d my huge ego go?
Soon, I began teaching yoga. Periodically, I’d run into engineers I had worked with, and they’d often react in a “wtf?” kind of way to my new occupation. In our culture, the status of an engineering manager exceeds that of a yoga teacher. Or any teacher, for that matter, but we won’t go there. I’m no engineering flunkie. That’s not it. It’s that I knew that my purpose was deeper than what could be realized within the corporate engineering framework.
I could have re-entered the engineering field, beholden to my ego and nothing more, and basked in that status. Or, I could find my real purpose. Purpose is found at the intersection of aptitude and passion. This is akin to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory, just substitute the word flow for purpose. For each of us, that intersection occurs at a different place – some in a testing lab, others in front of a canvas, in a garden, in a white pine forest, on a yoga mat. It is completely focused motivation. When you are in the zone.
I met my guru, Devi Das (the name she was given when she was initiated into the tradition) Karina Ayn Mirsky, in 2007. It was clear to me that she, for lack of a better word, rocked. After my first day of formal training with her, I told her how much I appreciated her teachings, how very purposeful she was. Purpose – full. Full of purpose. She set me down a path inside myself that didn’t stop at the body or the mind. I couldn’t impress her with my lumberjack strength. I couldn’t impress her with all the little bits I figured out. She required me to stop trying so hard to be strong or to figure things out. To let go of some of the Paul Bunyan and the Dilbert. To look inside to a place deeper than the body, a wisdom deeper than the mind, for answers that had always been there if I’d been able to listen. Yoga continues to teach me this – to listen.
In January, 2010, I opened the doors of my community’s first yoga studio. And the funny thing is, I didn’t want it. Or, in more yogic terms, I had no attachment to opening a yoga studio. A few years before, I had fantasized about it. Then, through studying with my teacher, I let go of that attachment, and focused on action in the present. Action like caring for myself and each student as best I could. And so, it was an incremental birth, formed by an accumulation of simple actions. In the process, I found action directly connected to its purpose.
Action: nurture the person.
Purpose: the person gets up.
Both in contrast to and in harmony with:
Action: whack the tree.
Purpose: make the tree fall down.
Nurturing myself, not whacking myself anymore, was essential to my finding balance in life. It is, truly, essential to wellbeing. And so I taught my students to stop beating themselves up. “Don’t put your energy there, into that thing, feeding it. Put it in the 90-99% of yourself that is on the right track. Have gratitude for this. Then this will grow, and that thing will fade.”
The Bhagavad Gita takes place 3,000 years ago on a battlefield called dharmakshetra. This literally means “field of dharma.” The place where one’s life purpose can be sorted out. Although there may be axes on that field, we don’t come out swinging them at whatever habits and patterns we may be locked into that keep us from connecting with our life’s purpose. Yes, we have to clear some timber to make space for what we were born to do. Yoga helps us do this systematically, no axes required. And when we are in the zone of our purpose, no matter what it is, its effect is beneficial to our community. Humanity benefits. And life comes into balance.