(about a 4-minute read) In 2016 I unexpectedly needed to take over supervising my father’s healthcare and finances. As he was in the midst of ongoing cancer treatment, it was a lot of details and responsibility loaded on top of my already full plate. To say I wasn’t prepared is the understatement of all time.
As my father’s health grew more and more precarious, I began remarking to my husband and my sister how “small” his world had become. His life revolved around the small triangle of doctor appointments, his lunch outing, and sitting on his lanai to smoke. Sometimes this routine was interrupted by caregiver issues, being over-medicated, or trips to the emergency room. And then the goal was to get him back to his safe and small little world.
As his healthcare supervisor, my world got smaller too. My attention was consistently pulled away from my work and diverted to caregiver problems, transportation logistics, and other mundane details. Going out of town for more than a couple of days required intense coordination with siblings. The daily drama was exhausting and made me too tired to socialize or participate in things I normally enjoyed. I couldn’t even concentrate enough to read a book. As many of you witnessed, I struggled a lot with this forced contraction of my life. The hardest part was not knowing how long it would last.
My father passed away on December 14 last year. As much as I miss his gentle presence, I’m grateful he didn’t have to have his world made any smaller by COVID-19. But even though he would have hated it, he would have handled his loss of daily restaurant outings with grace, as he handled everything life threw at him. It’s a quality that I wish I’d inherited more of.
After the past three-and-a-half years of intense focus on my father’s life, I had figured 2020 was going to be my year of stepping back out into a larger world. We planned two out-of-town trips. We bought plane tickets and concert tickets. And, well, the universe seemed to make other plans, so here I am once again with the forced contraction of my world. Like everyone else.
It’s hard to see the benefits of something uncomfortable when you’re in it, but now I think the time of contraction I experienced while I supervised my father’s life was like a training ground for life during the time of coronavirus. Now my “small” world revolves around the triangle of home, the yoga studio where I film and livestream yoga classes, and curbside grocery pickup. Plans are on indefinite hold. Tickets are non-refundable. 2020 is not going to be anything like we all thought it would. And while I’m sad and I grieve for all that was lost, I’m by-and-large okay with waiting a little while longer to step back out into the world, because I want it those steps to be safe ones. Like before, we don’t know how long this will last, but I know the tide will eventually turn because I appreciate the notion of Spanda.
Spanda is a Sanskrit word translated to mean “to move a little." In Tantric yoga it is regarded as being the pulsing, radiating energy that comes from the absolute or Supreme Consciousness (Brahman). Additionally, it is the personal energy that manifests itself in every single thing one does, and the joyful impulse to create harmony and enjoy life. Tantra teaches us that there is a unifying continuity between our physical bodies, the activities of our mind and emotions, and all forms of interior awareness.
In the words of Christopher Tompkins, M.T.S., M.A., the primary teaching on Spanda is the 9th century Kashmiri work known as the ‘Teachings on Vibration.’ In those texts, “the supreme vibration (Spanda) unifies and encompasses all that has emerged from it, and continually re-enfolds the manifest totality of all that exists back into the supreme light of consciousness. The very energy (Śhakti) of consciousness flows into condensed expressions of itself in waves of contraction (nimeṣha) that we recognize as the constituents of the world around us, including bodies, feelings, and thoughts. When Śhakti seeks to again expand (unmeṣha) into its infinite potential, to identify with more expansive levels of awareness of itself through our own intention, we practice yoga.”
In other words, yoga is what we do in the short term to experience expansion in a time of contraction. Yoga is defined not just as asana, but the stretching we can do to learn about things or study what we never had time to explore before. Yoga is the reaching out we do to others, via the phone and internet, through volunteering and activism, or even in the form of donations to worthy causes. Yoga is any of the ways we can discover how to be involved in our communities while staying home and self-isolating for the good of everyone.
My theme for this week’s yoga practice uses pose/counterpose to emulate Spanda, the creative pulsation of the Universe. Through the contraction of our physical bodies, we hope to become more comfortable in a time where there is economic and social contraction. Through the lengthening of our muscles and our breath, we aspire to appreciate the ways in which expansion is still possible, even if it’s different from how we had planned. When I think of Spanda, I think of how a jellyfish swims. It’s contractions and expansions pull it through the water. It’s slow, but it’s beautiful. It makes visible progress, but the destination is not the apparent goal.
Prolonged contraction is uncomfortable, believe me, I know. Bored with self-isolating, many people are flocking to stores and beaches and restaurants. As a result, the number of new COVID-19 cases in Florida is rising to an alarming rate. I feel a mix of shock and sadness that so many people are incapable of tolerating the discomfort and have no ability to assert impulse control. I fear for our future. I wish everyone would practice yoga.
Since my father’s death, I’ve been repeatedly visited by an osprey. I call him “Dad Bird”. I like to think that after all that time he spent in a wheelchair and tethered to an oxygen tube, my father’s spirit is now free to fly and soar unencumbered. He didn’t love having his mobility restricted, but he knew he needed to in order to be safe.
On Sunday I will be sending my father’s day greetings to the heavens instead of over the phone. I feel closer to him now in some ways than when he was alive because I feel his spirit everywhere. My wish for his happiness is as boundless as the sky where the ospreys fly.
I hope that yoga is providing you with ways to resist the urge to expand in a way that is not safe. Pick up the phone, donate to some worthy causes, adopt a child (I sponsor a girl named Sofia in the Philippines), take up a new cause or a new way of volunteering (I read a great article in the New York Times about the new friendships made between volunteer callers and the elderly). This time of contraction will eventually result in a period of unprecedented expansion. The hardest part is just not knowing how long this part will last.
Until the time we can all spread our wings and fly, keep on practicing. Now more than ever, it’s the sanest thing to do!