What we’ve quickly learned, 3 months into living in the country, is not to squirm when walking into the sticky traps of spider webs, not to balk at the stench of chicken shit, not to recoil when opening a damp box of clothespins only to be met by an explosion of earwigs. The ants are determined to invade our kitchen, and we learn to pinch them between bare fingers and feed their tiny corpses to the compost. Now all the big city vegans may start shouting AHIMSA! at us for that, but living in the country is teaching us that taking life is part of giving life. In the city we are allowed to forget that humans take up space—and in the Western world we take up a whole lot of it. The city allows us to forget that our concrete existence is no hospitable home for a multitude of birds and bees and creepy crawlies. But out here in the country, to carve out a space means to fight for it, to wrest it away from the cobwebs, the dirt, the mice and raccoons, the ever-persistent ants. We are learning that in the circle of life, we are big animals, and predators at that. That is the nature of things. To take up this space for our own lives is to take it away from something else.
And yet to take up this space is to create the possibility for life. We tend to the scarlet runner beans and the sweet strawberries on our porch as if they were our own brothers and sisters. The garden is teeming with all of the seeds that will nourish and sustain us through the fall and into the long, hard winter. We have learned to walk this land with gratitude seeping from our feet. We have learned to kill the ants because they are destructive, but we let the spiders live. When a large moth flaps into our lit kitchen, or a neon green caterpillar hitches a ride into the house on Liz’s shirt, we carry them back out as delicately as we are able. And so we share this space the best that we can.
Our diet shifts here too—becomes heavy with organic milk from the local creamery and fresh eggs from our own backyard. We consider our choice to be vegetarians and wonder if it’s the choice that makes the most sense. The more we sit inside this natural world and interact with all its complexities, the more we understand that, above all else, eating local is the most healthful thing we can do. For ourselves and for the planet. We’re not sure how exactly we’ll feed ourselves throughout the year—although we’re certainly excited to experiment with fermenting the goodness of the garden, Roland is becoming something of a master bread maker, and those thick golden eggs will keep on coming. But we do find ourselves disassociating from the vegetarian label, and reaching towards something more like “flexitarian.” We’d like in any given situation to be able to eat the things that are produced or procured most in harmony with a healthful environment. Which might mean abundant greens from the garden through summer, and fish when we visit Roland’s parents and celebrate our next The Groove Festival: Urban Edition in northern coastal Germany later this year. And it might mean a little meat, when those long, hard Canadian winters settle in.
A student of ours wrote recently to ask if we were still teaching, or just mucking about in the garden full time. We are, of course, still teaching, but hoping too that our teaching becomes infused with the wisdom of this land. We will continue to teach asana and share the stories and traditions passed onto us through that lineage, but we hope too that our teaching evolves to create space for broader discussion and reflection about how we might best live in this wide and complicated world.
What goes up…
The year still feels fresh and crisp around the shoulders, and yet it’s already been full of momentous peaks. We packed up our sweet little apartment in Cologne at the end of February and said goodbye to life in Germany, dragging overly heavy suitcases to the train station amidst the glitter and vomit of Karneval revelry. It was a good weekend to be heading out.
CGN-DXB-KTM. A million times through airport security, snatching snippets of sleep at every awkward angle until we are finally spit out into the gnarl of Kathmandu traffic. We kick off The Groove Yoga Gathering--a yoga retreat and trek in Nepal—with five days of meditation, yoga, and exploring Kathmandu’s rich and baffling culture.
And then we climb. The first days of the Mardi Himal trek are through mossy, mist-shrouded forest straight out of a Grimm brother’s fairytale. We catch only a few glimpses of the far-off high peaks of the Annapurnas before the grey clouds swallow them up again. Each night is colder than the last. On day four the first feathery flakes of snow fall throughout the morning as we trudge up to Low Camp for a lunch of thin dhal and ginger-lemon tea. As we climb the final leg to High Camp—the highest point of our journey—a blizzard sets in, thick snow blocking out the view beyond a few meters. We stagger through the fresh banks, carving the trail as we go, believing we are in the Himalayas, but not able to see more than the bright jackets of the guides ahead.
Overnight the weather shifts, and we stumble out from the nest of our sleeping bags to watch the full moon sliding off the sheer face of Machupichare, and then the sun coming up on the wall of Annapurna IV, snow blowing off her crest like fine strands of hair. It’s difficult to describe how small you feel against the mountains, 3700m above sea level, the thin bite of the air just satisfying your lungs. And yet how enormous the gravity of your existence; how impossibly fragile, and therefore, precious this life is. We felt a kind of truth up there, something you might call god, so close you could taste her.
…must come down.
We want to go higher, defy Newtonian physics, climb up and up the beckoning peaks. But we have schedules and promises to keep, and so we descend. Down through forests of rhododendron trees, their fallen blooms gathered in the melting snow like spills of blood. Down through lush tea gardens and ancient stone villages, down into the dusty heat.
KTM-DXB-YYZ. 30 hours of travel to Toronto, where Roland passes bleary-eyed through immigration with little fanfare. Another peak. At our new home just outside of Kingston, Ontario, we wash the stench of wood smoke and must out of every piece of clothing we have. We rinse Kathmandu’s grit from our hair and lungs and the folds of our skin. We are reminded of the Zen proverb after enlightenment, the laundry. Even after the most profound, truly alive moments, there are still dishes to do, errands to run, accounts to balance.
Jack Kornfield writes “It is as if deep down we all hope that some experience, some great realization, enough years of dedicated practice, might finally lift us beyond the touch of life, beyond the mundane struggles of the world. We cling to some hope that in spiritual life we can rise above the wounds of our human pain, never to have to suffer them again. We expect some experience to last. But permanence is not true freedom, not the sure heart's release.” We must always come back down the mountain.
And so we fold the crystal clarity of Annapurna into our hearts, and are caught back up in the everyday magic of making a life. We feed the chickens, pour over seed catalogues for this summer’s garden, throw a fresh coat of paint on the house, dig sawdust and dirt from under our fingernails. We make messes and clean them up again. We do more laundry. Joy is discovered in the mundane, in the simple comfort of knowing we have arrived at home. Out in the apple orchard the blue jays and gold finches are pecking about in the black-knuckled trees. Each day milder than the last and spring just around the corner, so close you can taste it.
Our ancestors were people who could make things. Roland’s grandfather was a master baker who could whip flour and sugar into crumbly golden butter cake and heavenly clouds of jelly donuts. Liz’s grandmother could sew just about anything by hand, her perfect stitches like tiny doll’s teeth. Our parents, too, can make things—raise chickens, brew schnapps, build dry-stone walls, quilt blankets.
We are of a generation who knows how to buy things, and how to throw them away, a generation who has traded manual intelligence for digital dependence. While we’re grateful for many of the conveniences and tools that modern technology affords us, we’re not sure we want the whole progress package.
We want to know how to make things. And so we are moving to Canada, to Liz’s beloved family farm in rural Ontario, where we intend to plant gardens, raise goats, and make cheese. And while we will continue to teach in Europe and beyond (see the beginnings of our 2017 schedule below) we plan to become the kind of people who can carve children’s toys out of blocks of wood and concoct herbal remedies for colds and aches and knit reindeer-patterned sweaters. We plan to dig our bare hands into the soil to unearth some of the wisdom of our elders that the world seems to be forgetting too fast.
This will be a year of lessons and challenges. But we hope, too, a year of gathering close to the fire and sharing stories, a year of stargazing. A year of less screen time, less stuff, less traffic, more trees. A year of curiosity and amazement. We wish the same for you.
Roland has been reading up on anarchism—Emma Goldmand’s Anarchism & Other Essays, Erich Mühsam’s The Liberation of Society from the State, Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid stacked up by the bed—and while this newsletter was never intended to get political, it seems the only conversation at our kitchen table these days is: how do the systems and mechanisms of our current society detract from our ability to be happy, or sane, and how do we get out of the capitalism trap?
One big lie of capitalism: everything depends on staying ahead of the competition. You’ve gotta act quickly if you want to get a piece of the pie. Your success depends on the failure of others. Wealth is not measured in how much you have, but in having more than your neighbours.
Fall incites us to slow down, snuggle up in bed a little longer, let the rat race rage on without us.
Fall reminds us of the bounty of the earth. The farmer’s markets overflow with Buddha-bellied squash, massive green flags of chard, potatoes still clinging to thin coats of soil. It is a season of feasts and the pie is big enough for everyone.
We find abundance not just on our dinner plates, but everywhere in our lives. An abundance of friendships and places, of experiences and discoveries.
At our most recent Groove Yoga Festival on the magnificent Hvar Island in Croatia, we are joined by two volunteers who spend the weekend sleeping on the beach in an unused lifeguard shelter. By charm and sheer ingenuity they make it through the festival weekend without spending any money. What impresses us is not so much their resourcefulness, but the lack of entitlement with which they receive all that is offered up to them.
We are reminded that we need so little and have so much.
A second lie of capitalism: exponential growth is always possible. Act as if natural resources are unlimited. Take what you want of the earth and line your deep pockets with cash.
And so Nestle is allowed to buy the ground water from under our feet. And so Monsato is allowed to kill off the bees. So that a handful of elite can hoard strings of ones and zeros in virtual bank accounts. So that a precious few can crumble the futures of a great many. So that the economy can live on, for awhile.
We are learning to believe that less is more. We are learning that by stripping away material layers we allow our spirits to stretch wide.
We are learning to believe in trees, and the sweet bite of dropping temperatures and the whoop of wild geese. To believe that happiness lies in a small slice of nature and the promise of a warm bed.
We believe that abundance is lived not in the excesses of fancy vacations and five-star hotels, but in the in-between moments, the mundane routine of waking up in the half dark to catch the last faint smudge of the moon, in the sharp whistle of the teakettle, in the knowledge that we have been gifted a whole new day.
We are reminded that change begins at home, at the dinner table. We change the system by paying attention to what we eat—who coaxed it from the earth? Who delivered it from the farm into the nucleus of our tiny kitchen? How many times did the food exchange hands? How can we exchange more directly with the source? (The obvious answer: plant a garden.)
We change the system by giving deep thanks for the nourishment proffered by good food and good friends. We change the system by sharing our wealth with those around us, by trading and exchanging and breaking bread together.
We are reminded that most of what is valuable in our lives is free and unlimited: love, laughter, kisses, companionship, creativity, imagination, possibility.
We are social animals. Those of you who know us well will catch the irony here—we are uncomfortable in dense crowds, we ache to get out of the city, we are most often in bed by 10pm. We ain’t exactly the life of the party. But because we are human, we are bound to the wisdom and the company of others. Like everyone else, we are seeking connection. It’s in our DNA.
So we’ve been thinking lately about communities: how to build them, how to belong them. This past month has been a kind of case study, as we’ve travelled around Canada, teaching in Vancouver and Ontario, nestling into the ample branches of Liz’s family, and reconnecting with some of the friends who inspire us most.
Towards the end of June we celebrated our third annual Groove Yoga Festival on Liz’s parent’s property in rural Ontario. As the festival drew near the number of guests swelled at dinner time—we were six, then eight, then twenty teachers and musicians and artists packed around the dinning room table with all the leaves pulled out; there was too much of everything: an abundance of voices, of stories, of laughter, an abundance of food. We ate leftovers for days, fed the leftovers of our leftovers to the chickens. What the chickens would not eat we fed back to the compost, back to the earth to be made whole. We were reminded that the problems of the world are not problems of scarcity, but problems of distribution. While we gathered we caught glimpses of a joy enormous enough to satiate the world, if we could only figure out how to share it.
On June 26 we celebrate our first wedding anniversary. A year of being in community with each other; 365 days as the nucleus of a family. It’s a Sunday: we go into communion with the woods. We walk the Salmon Lake Loop in Frontenac Provincial Park, a 17km trail through solitary forest. And although we are alone in the woods, we belong still to the web of things. We are in community with the enthusiastic ranger who greets us at the park office, with the curious border collie who nuzzles our hands at the trailhead. We are in community with the relentless deer flies, and the snakes startled out of dozy S curves, and the trees who yield but do not break. We pause to rest in a sun dappled clearing where the lake laps at the shore; Liz drafts this newsletter, while Roland plays the harmonica, while the butterflies take up the harmony and spin it out on the wind with their delicate feet. We are in communion with spirits both ancient and alive and we are learning to listen so that they may show us the way.
“And I will show you how I struggle not to change the world, but to love it.” ~Oriah Mountain Weaver
We are struggling. We are struggling with Donald Trump and the unfairness of being black in America. We are struggling with neo-Nazis; with the signs of segregation festering in small-town Germany; with the increasing impossibility of putting local, wholesome food on the table; with the endless damp skies of another strangely mild winter. We see the environment around us shifting, crumbling under the concrete weight of capitalism and we feel anger. The world streams into our kitchen through the vast portal of the Internet and we feel rage. We see, although we wish to look away, the brazenly hateful headlines of cheap German tabloids and we feel afraid.
What is the true path of a yogi? Should we take to the streets in protest? Should we be more rebellious, more provocative? Should we take our politics into our teaching? Or does this only further divide where we seek to unite?
Perhaps we should remove ourselves from all that is broken and retreat to the woods; renounce all modern comforts, like the Buddha or Thoreau, and find a quiet spot of green to live out our days.
And yet, we find ourselves wanting to belong to this messy beast.
So we don’t know what to do about racism. We don’t know what to do about climate change. We don’t know what to do about the colossal number of children in this world who are being raised on a steady diet of bullshit and sugar. It doesn’t feel right to fight. It doesn’t feel right to flee.
Meanwhile, spring is undressing in Germany, throwing off winter’s cumbersome layers. We take Sunday walks in the park and stop to marvel at slender-necked geese herding cotton-puff goslings on wobbly legs. We rejoice as strawberry and asparagus season arrives, and as we pause to let these fresh, vibrant flavours roar in our mouths we remember that everything must die so that everything can live. We observe the unwashed dishes, our unmade bed, the laugh-lines deepening at the corners of our eyes, and we measure these not against make-believe stills of a perfect Instagram account, but as snapshots of a wild life in process. We marvel at the words “husband” and “wife,” which after nine months of marriage are still strange and beautiful jewels as they roll of the tongue. And each time the world seems too enormous and unruly, and a yoga teacher too small a force, we remind ourselves anew: our purpose is not to change the world, but to love it so fiercely that others may be inspired to do the same.
Don’t promise yourself you’ll lose weight, give up chocolate, spend 5 mind-numbing mornings at the gym every week. Don’t promise yourself you’ll finally start flossing, stop biting your nails, get that raise you’ve been chasing after, climb Mount Everest, call your mother. Just don’t.
Make this the year a year of stripping away the excess, the stuff that gets in the way of you being more of you. Eat the chocolate anyway, and notice how it really makes you feel. Slowly start to learn that you don’t really want the chocolate—you want a hug, or a kind word, or a tall glass of water. Or that sometimes you just really do want the chocolate.
Be too busy to call your mother, and notice that too. Notice how it really makes you feel. Maybe your priorities naturally start to shift, no resolution required.
Do your job, one day at a time, and learn to see the small rewards. Be enraptured by each moment of satisfying work. Make each task a kind of offering, a prayer. And keep doing whatever it is you’re doing.
Don’t resolve to create better packaging: a better body, a fancier house, a higher degree. Let yourself unravel so that your beauty can unfold.
A year is an arbitrary way of creating the illusion of endings and beginnings, but while we’re in the business of taking stock, 2015 was our year of big love. We rang it in on the beach in Mexico, freshly engaged. We were married in Canada in June, at an intimate ceremony with the people we most adore. We traveled to Croatia to scout a location for The Groove: Island Jam, Austria to teach at the Yogafestival Kitzbühel and gape at the Alps, and to India where we ran the first Groove Yoga Festival: Retreat Experience; we connected with old friends and newly-made friends; we wormed our way through a heap of inspiring books; we continued to be influenced by and study with Roland’s teacher Tsakpo Rinpoche; Liz spent a week attempting to become more mindful at Thich Nhat Hanh’s Zen monastery in France; we burned many candles and took frequent baths. Liz ate chocolate. All of these experiences opened our eyes and our hearts so that we could see more clearly who we are and how we want to be in this wide wild world.
Our wish for 2016: more of the same please.
Liz and Roland's rich teaching is rooted in their own intensive practices—profoundly spiritual, and at the same time playful. They skillfully guide students in discovering and understanding the physical body, creating a potential for mental and energetic transformation. Their teaching is infused with fierce love, joy, and laughter.
©Liz Huntly 2015