The morning fog embraced the land, sun rays slowly colored the horizon a stripe of orange just above the mist as I drove eastward. My car gently swerved along the curling river road as I moved toward the sunrise. My eyes were drawn to the ever changing light show while my mind circled, organizing a sequence for my upcoming yoga class this early Thursday morning. As my plan coalesced, occasionally I lifted my eyes to the changing sky, each moment the color merging, shifting, now more red, more pink, a slice of gold just above the misty mountain ridge east of me. I drove, window down, breathing in the bracing early fall air. I love teaching morning yoga, the flow of the class moving with the morning light, and to offer this class felt like a blessing. Nestled among twining maple trees on a quaint historic downtown street in a small valley town north of Seattle, the Mariposa Day Spa was my destination for Yoga Bliss: Yin yoga and Yoga Nidra, one of my favorite classes to teach.
Arriving in town, I gathered my supplies, locked the car, and quickly hustled down the sidewalk, then down the concrete stairs to the lower level of the hundred year old brick building hulking on the corner of First and Maple.
The mist hung low and full around this lower level, and as I got to the end of the stairwell I jumped a bit, startled by the soft snoring of a homeless man asleep on the concrete just at the end of the stairs. I looked toward the doorway of the Spa, encircled by beautiful ceramic pots, a large fountain gently bubbling, inviting lounge chairs facing the trees at the end of a long patio. My heart pounded in my chest with a primal body fear of lone woman in the dark with a possibly unpredictable male. I hurried to the door, shoved the key in the lock, pushed my way in, locked the door behind me. I am the first one here, alone in a dark room where no one will hear my scream. Possible crackhead 50 feet away. As this drama thought zipped through my head, it was quickly followed by a flood of guilt at my lack of compassion. All my Zen-like qualities of Yoga Teacher failed me now, I was just a woman terrified, anxious, and now as I quickly set up my class, angry.
Should I call the police? Call the owner? Pretend he isn’t there? Yell at him to leave?
I hated the police sweeps of the homeless in my town, so calling the cops was a no-go. Funding disappeared for mental health advocacy in our county, so there were no other numbers to call. This is the pain of a broken system. Here I was, right at the frontlines of inequity, inside a beautiful place of ease and privilege, outside cold concrete and suffering.
Its so hard to stand in this place. My heart hurt, and anger at everything flooded my body. I stepped outside, clapped my hands, calling, “Hey, excuse me, can you leave please?” The man lay there, deep asleep. I stood there for a second or two, breathing heavily, my hands gripping the doorframe. His shoes were lined up beside him, a blanket folded neatly under him. I turned quick and went back inside, locking the door again.
Well, this isn’t working. Maybe I will text the owner.
I did, explaining the situation, ending with ‘just thought I would let you know.” Feeling a little relieved of responsibility, I turned back to get ready for my class, laying out mats, blocks, blankets, supplies to help my students release, let go, expand joints, muscles and bodies. The irony of what I was doing juxtaposed with the irritation and anger in my head was not lost on me. I felt adrift in my own anxiety, judgement, and guilt. Who to blame? How to help? What to do? What not to do?
I started my playlist of meditative flute music, and my body softened. A little. I stood by the front door, staring out through the glass, intent on the stairs, so I could quickly unlock and open the door when students arrived. I still hoped the man would leave before anyone arrived, but that looked doubtful. As I stood, looking out through the large windows at the man sleeping on the concrete, I swayed a little with the music, thinking how he was in the same position we purposefully choose at the end of a yoga class— Savasana, corpse pose. A reminder of the transitory nature of our human existence, that each day we rise, changing with every moment, just as the light changes in a sunrise, and then we lay ourselves down, resting, bringing rejuvenation to bodies, minds, and hearts as we ‘sleep’ in this yoga shape.
The grip of anxiety loosened as I focused on my breath. Slowly, I felt my mind shift, as it does with a mindful breath. A slow rise of my own inner sunrise. The words of a loving kindness meditation called Metta practice began to flow, “may you be free from suffering, and the causes of suffering, may you be at ease, peace, feel safe, and protected.” Over and over the words flowed out of me, in time with the lilting flute. My body continued to soften, and now I realized that as this man had so carefully placed his belongings around him, he had only one sock on, and his blanket was up around his middle. I stared at that bare foot. I looked down at my own bare feet. My feet were bare on purpose, to help me connect energetically with the healing power of the Earth. Every class I talk about active compassion, that the authentic purpose of self-care is to care for ourselves first, so that we have the capacity to serve others; integrating love at a cellular level. When we are grounded in compassion, loved hearts and hands move more easily into truly compassionate action. Not just fixing something to make our own discomfort go away, or ignoring—pretending we just don’t see.
In that moment, my awareness shifted again, a flood filled my chest, an ease and spaciousness. I walked back into the yoga studio and picked up one of my warm Mexican blankets and quietly took it outside, draping it over his feet. All the while, I continued the blessing; may you be well, may you be free, may you be safe and at ease.
He continued to snore.
I felt more ease, less anxiety, more kindness, but still I hoped my students wouldn’t notice him as they entered the Spa. I still felt like a hypocrite.
Students claimed their spots, I locked the door, and we started class. We flowed, we moved, breathed, and relaxed, but I wasn’t feeling bliss, all I could think about was the man outside. He was still there when the students left, and the owner arrived. He said the man had been there a few nights, and was told he needed to leave by morning, but how do you keep track of time when you live on the street? As I loaded my supplies in my car, I considered the possibility of just going home, letting this be someone else’s problem. There are many ways to extend compassion, and finding the way in any particular moment that feels truest, for the greatest good—means having a conversation with my heart. Sometimes I can trust a quick intuition, but sometimes it takes a conversation. So, I sat, in my car, a hand on my heart, closed my eyes, turned inward, and asked.
What is my deepest heartfelt desire in this moment? What serves my path of compassion?
It takes courage to face discomfort, lean into it, cradle it kindly. Just about no one wants to feel uncomfortable, and needing to fix, manage, blame, or judge ourselves or others is the first response to inner or outer conflict and turmoil. I sat with my heart, and rejected the need to ride my own fight or flight reactions. That dance takes effort.
As I watched the morning traffic, I sighed. I couldn’t sit there forever. True self care has a trajectory; I lean in, so I can extend out. Love is, as Eric Fromm wrote, “the will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing own’s one or another’s spiritual growth.” Each time I face my patterns of fear and judgement, I claim the opportunity to love myself a bit better, so that I can reach outward in active compassion.
The owner of the Spa came into my head, a wonderful man trying to offer varied healing modalities, over burdened with a new business, running it himself. I realized the triad of need in this moment was too much for one person to equitably meet; this is the suffering of living in an unbalanced, painful system that does not support the business and the house less man equally.
The street was waking up, now filling with dogwalkers, moms and strollers, business owners. I got out of the car, quickly walked to a coffee shop down the street, purchased a breakfast sandwich and a cup of coffee, and headed back with determination in every step. I could do this. I have been chased and screamed at by unstable people before, and survived, I would survive today. As I walked down the steps I gathered my composure in deep, full breaths. Coming back to my center, over and over, was what kept me from drowning. As I exhaled, I remembered the many positive interactions with houseless people I have had through the years.
My heart pounded as I stepped down the stairs, my breath fast too. I held the coffee and sandwich out in front of me, as I leaned down. I spoke clearly, a bit loud— “Excuse me, good morning, I have coffee here for you.”
He shook his head as he rose up, confused, and only partly awake. “Good morning,” I said, “My name is Terra, I have breakfast for you? Do you like breakfast sandwiches with sausage and egg?” I could hear my rambling as he slowly sat up, gathered the blanket closer with one hand and took the coffee from me. I placed the bakery bag beside him, he looked at me over the coffee cup. I smiled hopefully.
“You can’t stay here, friend. This is a business for many women, so you need to find another place to rest. Can I help you move your things?”
He sighed, ran his hand through his tousled hair, scratched his chin. He looked at me again while I continued to chat about the Spa, how much I loved working there, the wonderful people. He reached into a pocket, pulled out a hearing aid and wiggled it into place.
As I watched him adjust, my resolve to be a ‘sweeper’, even a kind one, began melting. I repeated myself, “My name is Terra, what’s your name?”
He opened the bag, “Carl.” He pointed to his ear, “I’m deaf. My truck died, I think it needs an alternator, or something…” His voice trailed off as he bit into and chewed the sandwich.
I nodded, “That’s frustrating, when cars break down. Do you have bus fare? Is there someone who you can see about your truck?” I felt like such a fraud. A few threads of thought in my head; maybe I could call a repair shop? Give him a ride? Do I know a mechanic?
He answered, his voice soft and muffled by the food, I leaned in a little closer to hear, focused on his face, but distracted by my thoughts. I nodded, not quite sure what he was saying, not wanting to hurry him, hoping he felt heard.
Carl chewed his sandwich and sipped his coffee. I looked around the patio. “This is a lovely place, isn’t it?”
He nodded and looked up at the patio roof. “Dry place to sleep. Be great with a hot tub over there maybe,” he pointed to the edge of the covered patio, near the trees. We sat for a moment on the cold concrete together, imagining a beautiful bubbling hot tub, friends gathered. Sadness started creeping in with cat feet, scratching at the edges of my heart.
“Carl,” I stood up, “please let me help you, I can get bus fare for you if that will help.” He nodded, pointing at two small plastic bags, “I need a larger bag.”
“Ok,” I said, slightly relieved to be able to meet this smaller need, “ I will be right back, anything else?” He shook his head, I hurried up the stairs to my car. I rustled around to find whatever change and loose bills I could find, grabbed a shopping bag from the back seat and ran back down the stairs.
Carl was standing, now with shoes on, folding up blankets. I noticed trash beside him. “Can I get that for you?”
“No, I got it.” He took the bag, stuffed the blankets in. I handed him the change, “For a few bus rides?”
He nodded. I felt a wash of sick in my belly that I couldn’t offer more than this, but I needed a healthy boundary, I would offer what I could, I would release what I couldn’t.
I shifted foot to foot, feeling awkward and helpless. I talked fast, “Thank you, Carl, thank you for moving. I hope you find the support you need.” Not wanting to stand over him, I smiled weakly and started up the stairs, hoping he would follow soon. I got into my comfortable, warm car and held the steering wheel. My mind felt a little numb from this encounter that could have gone sideways, I sat and breathed. Sometimes I just want to crawl into bed and not come out. I called into my head the serene faces of the women in my class, the grateful look in the spa owner’s eyes, but Carl’s furrowed brow was there too. I looked at my rear view window, Carl came up the stairs and turned right. I watched him move down the street, my shopping bag banging against his leg.
May you be well, may you be free, may you feel comfort and ease.
My head wasn’t convinced, but I repeated this over and over on repeat, imagining waves of light flowing from my heart to his, to the whole street now lit with morning, with all it’s stories of anguish, delight, frustrations, love, guilt, remorse, gratitude—all of it. I turned my car to the left, and drove home.