On the longest night of the year, at a time when our country feels like it’s on some crazy rollercoaster of governmental insanity, we all gathered before daybreak Friday.
We brought our muffins, our chocolate-covered coconut macaroons, our brownies and our cowboy tea, and we laid our mats underneath the ceiling tiles painted by kids in the most imaginative ways, all rainbows and horses, stars and smiley faces.
Then, we began our 108.
We did it to celebrate the winter solstice. We’ve done it so many times. Every winter solstice, a crew of us have gathered at a YMCA situated on a corner where an old meat-and-three restaurant used to be.
It’s the Bryan Y perched on the western edge of downtown Greensboro, North Carolina, my adopted hometown. A crew of us who call ourselves the Yoga Dawgs continue a tradition started so many centuries ago halfway around the world.
And why? Well, it ain’t just about the sweat.
It’s because of our yoga teacher, our friend, our sister, Ann. I call her Annie Fitz. It’s also about the number – 108.
First, the number.
We do 108 sun salutations. Now, not to get all woo-woo on you but a sun salutation is a yoga pose intended to pay respect and offer appreciation of the sun. In the words of Street Yoga, the sun is “the life-giving source of our universe and the world around us.”
No wonder George Harrison sang about it, right?
We Yoga Dawgs see that. With a sun salutation, we’re up, down and up again in seconds. We plank it, do the cobra, hit the downward dog, strike a pose like we’re a sprinter ready to bolt, stretch our arms skyward and bring our palms down in a prayer.
Then, we start all over again. Right leg, then left.
But why 108? Are we crazy? Yes … and no.
Yes in that it’ll give your body some kind of workout. You’ll feel it for days. And no because 108 makes sense.
It’s one of those magic numbers of the universe and a sacred number of Hinduism and yoga.
In India, where Hinduism is practiced by millions, there are 108 sacred sites, and in Ayurveda — the traditional Hindu system of medicine, which is based on the idea of balance in bodily systems and uses diet, herbal treatment, and yogic breathing — there are 108 sacred places of the body. It doesn’t end there.
The number 108 and its divisions – 54, 36, 27, 12 and 9 – are big deals in cultures around the world. There are 12 astrological signs and nine planets, and in numerology, 9 symbolizes universal love, eternity and awakening.
So, “Revolution 9” is not just some head-scratching song from John Lennon full of backward loops that make you go, “What the ….”
John is just being … John.
But really, we Yoga Dawgs all started the 108 sun salutations at the winter solstice – and the summer solstice, too – because of our poem-loving, coffee-drinking, pie-eating, Subaru-driving, California-living Annie Fitz.
Before she relocated to the Left Coast two or so years ago, we Yoga Dawgs would gather almost every weekday morning for our hour-long yoga class with our teacher, Annie Fitz.
There we were – the retired banker, the church deacon, and the college professor; the speech therapist, the French car lover and the bee evangelist; the retired dental hygienist, the former Peace Corps member with umpteen first names and the raucous woman we all know as Al; My old newspaper editor, the woman who convinced me to begin taking yoga eight years ago to deal with my daily stress as a columnist, and me.
So many more have come in and out of our crew over the years. All coming to a room with a mirror and a tree growing up a wall beneath the words “Breathe.Be.Namaste.”
We never groused too much about our early mornings on the mat. We embraced them. We knew Annie Fitz would lead us once again through a series of yoga poses that strengthened our body, fed our spirit and made us feel whole.
We learned to laugh, joke and appreciate poetry. In doing so, we became family-close. We supported one another through cancer and knee operations, through family struggles and personal struggles, through Saturday night parties and Sunday morning sermons. Just through all that make up the grist of life.
We worked together to become healthier and happier, and we created a community of first names who could depend on one another through thick and thin.
Thanks to Annie Fitz.
She had this ever-so-subtle way of cementing us together. She was our de facto leader. And yet, not so.
She gave us this power to believe in ourselves in yoga, and even when she moved across the country for love and life, she kept in touch with us here in the city known as the Gate City.
When she came back earlier this month, she brought us together once again. That happened Friday morning before daybreak on the longest night — and shortest day — of the year.
As 45 hurls our country into chaos once again with all this craziness about border walls and keeping people out, we on a Friday morning in our corner of the South welcomed people in.
We found a quiet place beneath the decorated ceiling tiles. We laid out our food to eat afterward, lit a candle in the middle of the room and ringed it with Christmas lights. We stretched out our mats, laughed a little, and of course, complained a little. Well, that was probably me.
Al put on some Christmas jazz, and Bea — our new yoga teacher, the Hong Konger in the group — wore a smile and spritzed something around the room that carried the faint scent of Peppermint.
Then, with 24 of us in a circle, we began.
First 27. Second 27. Third 27. And with the last few clinks of a stone in a bowl, the final 27.
Done. An hour and 20 minutes later.
Afterward, we lay on our mats for shavasana, or corpse pose. We were spent, sweat drenched, hair pasted to our foreheads, muscles singing our own version of the blues.
I felt it in my shoulders. Mark, our college professor friend, felt it in his knees. Someone turned off the lights, and we all wondered I bet about the new aches we’d feel in a few hours and stay with us for days.
Then, in the corner of the room came the first strains of a guitar and the beginning of a song we all know well.
It often comes at the end of every 108 for us.
It’s been a long cold lonely winter
It feels like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun, do do do do
Here comes the sun
And I say, it’s alright.
I had to smile because it was so unexpected — and so right.
As I listened, my mind raced back to a poem Nancy, the plant expert and bee lover in our group, shared with us years ago. It’s “Philip’s Birthday” from Mary Oliver. I have it on my office wall. I do love its last four lines.
the beauty of it
Was a gift.
Do you see what I mean?
You give, and you are given.
On that Friday morning, we were given. Once again.
Like she always does, Annie Fitz brought out a poem at the end of our 108. Before she flew back to California and before we headed out the door, she read 14 lines from poet Joyce Sutphen, one of her favorites.
At almost four in the afternoon, the
wind picks up and shifts through the golden woods.
The tree trunks bronze and redden, branches
on fire in the heavy sky that flickers
with the disappearing sun. I wonder
what I owe the fading day, why I keep
my place at this dark desk by the window
measuring the force of the wind, gauging
how long a certain cloud will hold that pink
edge that even now has slipped into gray?
Quickly the lights are appearing, a lamp
in every window and nest of stars
on the rooftops. Ladders lean against the hills
and people climb, rung by rung, into the night.
It’s called “On the Shortest Days.”
Does seem to fit. Especially for Friday. Especially for our lives.
We do climb, rung by rung, hand over hand, hoping we go up rather than sideways.
We do that every day. But we do it together, we Yoga Dawgs.
You give, and you are given.