Monday, July 28, 2014

Peeling Back the Layers

Is it dawn?

The light is that soft, seeping glow that makes you wonder if it truly is going to be a new day, or if there is just some bright lamp outside.

I open the tent and see, yes, it is dawn, and on cue, the birds all around me start their morning chants.

I make my way to the lookout, a wooden structure with two levels and lots of patio furniture. As I climb the steps, I am so excited that I almost trip.

The sun is up now, and I can see all around me. I decide that it's here that I want to practice yoga.

I move the furniture with the help of my two cohorts, and we unroll our mats. I pause in the first pose and find my breath, whispering the chant that always reminds me that the practice is dedicated to something bigger than me. I extend my awareness all around me and feel a sense of connection to the ground far below.

As I reach my hands up, I follow my fingers and gaze at the sky - the African sky, and I feel a sense of dislocation. I am here, in my body, in my breath, practicing the movements and poses with the same issues of strength and concentration as I have for years, but it's all different. I am in Africa, I think, as I sweep my arms out and dive my chest towards my legs, being careful not to overexert on this first big stretch. As I flow through the poses and into Downward Facing Dog, I sneak a peek to my left.

Liwonde National Park, July 2014
In the tall grass only 20 feet away, there is a family of elephants grazing. I only see the top half of the two adults and a dark outline of the baby's back, except when it reaches its trunk up, tentatively, for taller grass. Nearby are two other adults who are busy stripping bark from the trees that grow on the other side of the river. All five elephants converse with each other using low bass tones, high trills and all sorts of snorts. What I never hear are their footsteps. I decide to be as light-footed as them as I step and jump between the poses.

My practice vacillates between my inward work - bandhas, muscular contraction, breath awareness - and my outer world - birds, animals, sun, wind. I pause several times during this practice to feel gratitude, to marvel at the world around me and to simply feel the moment sliding past, like the currents in a stream.

This is one of the highlights of my trip here in Malawi.

Peeling Back the Fear Layer

Ten months ago, my friend Joanne looked me straight in the eye and said, "I think we should do this Africa yoga service retreat together and bring our teenage daughters along. What do you think?" The truth was, I had been thinking of this trip, but I hadn't thought about bringing my daughter. I knew she wanted to start traveling as soon as possible, but it just hadn't occurred to me. I didn't know where Malawi was. I wasn't sure about the service work. I was, in short, afraid. I didn't want to get to the other side of the planet and be with a miserable child, having a miserable time. I did what I have always done when I'm afraid: I researched.

I called my friend, Mel, who I knew had lived in Africa and asked her about Malawi. It turns out, that's where she lived! She allayed so many of my fears about food, safety and culture. My very supportive husband was also encouraging me to go, and my daughter was excited.

I wish I could say that I had no doubts during the ten months leading up to the trip, but I was actually more distracted by so many other projects that I didn't really have time to worry until the last minute. As my daughter started asking more and more questions, I realized I didn't have any answers. I like having all the answers, which made my fear layer solidify a little.

The weekend prior to leaving, I was at one of the coordinator's house, sorting the donations into manageable piles to distribute into everyone's bags. She mentioned that many of us were traveling on the same flights, and my fear softened a little.

Underneath that fear was the unknown. As I was asked over and over, are you excited? I realized that I was, indeed, thrilled to be stepping into that unknown.

Peeling Back the Ego Layer

Our first few days in Malawi were mainly focused on acclimatization: different language, culture, time zones, etc. We were eager to begin the service work, we had a plan and the expectations began to build. The first day that we spent near the village was more of a tour of the areas than work. We soon realized that "Africa time" meant that our expectations had to refresh often, like a slow internet browser. Along the tours of various clinics, schools and farms, we met the villagers. The politician who was with us would scold the young girls who were obviously not in school; most girls do not get the privilege of going to secondary (high) school, because they are needed at home to make bricks, fetch wood, water, work in the fields, cook, clean or tend to the children (who are sometimes their own).

My emotions ran high on this day. Girls younger than my daughter were already married with babies, repeating a cycle of life that I wasn't sure that they were free to choose. So many people were asking for help: sponsorship for school, a new farming tool, or simply holding out a hand and waiting for these 20 white women to elevate their lives in some way.

Schoolchildren from Tukombo
performing a welcome dance
It is seductive, that feeling of fixing things for another. It feeds my ego.

I could quit my job, go to school as a nurse and come here to help out the clinics, I thought to myself. It was a fleeting thought, one that vanished as soon as I caught sight of my daughter. My work is not here, I reminded myself. My work is at home, doing the mundane chores and making the hard choices that come with the life of a householder yogi.

I was so grateful the next morning when our leader pulled us together and shared the new plan: while some of us would build a brick wall, some would install lighting, others would play with the kids and others would interview people of all backgrounds, so that we could all get a better picture of what would really be helpful.

Stepping back and assessing without all the emotion was exactly what I needed: equanimity. I once heard that co-dependancy is the addiction to fixing others - with the added benefit that it means you don't have to examine yourself, because you are so busy "helping" others who might not need your help after all. When I, citizen of a first world, visited Malawi, a third world, I felt the definition of co-dependency strongly. I wanted to fix it all. I wanted to be everyone's champion, hero, savior. I wanted to eliminate all their suffering because it made me feel uncomfortable to see it. The truth, as it turns out, was that much of the suffering that I saw was my own projection.

When our leaders asked us to look through the lens of equanimity, to see others with clear eyes and as people, not needy objects, we saw better how we could be of service. Offering money was not the answer, at least, not long-term. By the end of the trip, we had some clear ideas on how to help in the short-term, and some plans for ongoing assistance. I am so grateful that we stepped back and really saw with clear eyes - or, as clear as we can get.

Peeling Back the Doubt Layer

Just as it is false to believe that I am a savior, it is also false to believe that I cannot effect any change. Both of these lies hinder my ability to be true and useful in this life.

Along the Shire River
I could have easily gotten caught up in all the need that I saw in Malawi. It felt endless, and I felt small. When I looked up at the starry sky in Liwonde National Park, I saw so many other planets and worlds, but they all glowed brighter than I ever saw before. Solar is the main source of power, so there isn't much electro-pollution at night. I felt closer to the sky, and the lights from the stars felt warmer than they ever had.

I knew that if I picked just one thing, something that I could accomplish, I knew that I could make a ripple, some small change. I wanted the young girls (and boys!) to see us women installing the solar powered LED lights and realize that they could do this, too. I felt good that we, as a team, voted to donate our funds to buy a small ambulance to save lives. And I felt sure that this is not the last time that we will see and work in Malawi.

I can make a difference. It may be small, but that's all the spark that's needed.

As we were leaving, my daughter turned to me and said, "We're coming back in three years, right?" She'll be 18 years old then. Who knows how this adventure will have changed her.

I'm curious to know how I have changed. I'm still in my body - with all its challenges, and my breath - with all its wildness, but my mind keeps drifting back to that lookout. I keep hearing the crunching of bark and tall grass, and I'll keep peeking out during Downward Facing Dog to see just who or what is quietly living nearby.