Yoga for Duckhunters

from the studio to the tidal flats

Category: actually about yoga

true north

The winter swells churned up sand further up the beach, but the gentle waves in the lagoon were broken by a rock barrier in the water and rolled across the sand and over my bare feet and legs. The next exposed land from where I sat on Maui’s North Shore was over 3,000 miles away across the North Pacific where my English setters were resting near a wood stove, and I imagined only Hugo looked out the window over the vast distance through birch trees and darkness. He did that sometimes, look out with a focus that betrayed there were no objects in front of him except for his certainty, whether it was a bird that would appear where it had once been or I would be coming home soon. It was hard to guess what was on his mind.

“He misses you,” my partner said. It was hard to tell from the photo on my phone. His open jaws seemed to be smiling and his eyes illuminated with the animated life I can only recognize as human. “He looks like a person in that photo,” I said. And, after saying good night, I put the phone back in my beach bag and felt alone. I knew the ocean waves weren’t travelling all the way from Alaska to my feet, but it appeared that way. And, although the water hadn’t moved except for up and down, it transported energy in a way technology could not. I had unplugged for a month to attend a yoga teacher training and feel the health and harmony of the islands. So I would feel it, damnit, I thought. But I missed my dog.

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This is why you do it, I reminded myself. The warm surf lulling at my feet telling me that no amount of balmy weather or flowery air or abiding beautiful place was ever as sweet to me as the middle of nowhere that was home. Its cold waves hitting the deck of fishing vessels, its morning winds working down the mountain at sunrise, its dangerous expanses of water and mountain country that threatened to destroy us or set us free. The wild of one place is the hell of another.

Be where you are, I reminded myself. And just then, a young pit bull ran down the beach and stopped at the water’s edge. He watched a young boy, his boy, stand up on a board and tumble into the water. He charged out and stopped again to watch. There was a connection between wolves and humans. It was a dog. For three weeks in the studio, I had practiced yoga postures and breathing. We studied anatomy and philosophy and ate healthy food. I was freed from the artificial rhythm of my workday life and addiction to social media and instead invested in a skillful use of a routine meant to bring balance.

In anatomy we learned our bodies are made up of cells. The qualities of a cell are sthiram (steadiness) and sukham (ease). A balance between these qualities is also what we are looking to cultivate in our practice as well as extend into our daily lives. A focus on this balance is a way to remind us that it is not the attainment of a perfect form that matters as much as the effort and ease we put into the result that has value. It was something I believed before reading the yoga sutras. I saw the way the dogs were able to “resolutely abide in a good space.” It was called a point. And it looked like a yoga posture: firm, strong, steadfast, resolute and also easy, gentle, joyful, and good.

I sat on the beach alone and watched the waves. There was something coming ashore and drifting away at the same time. I felt like I was in a good place, even if it wasn’t home. My housemates were somewhere behind me on the beach, and they were practicing, too. We were all on the same path more like waves than walking, moving energy not space in our minds and time on our wrists. Whatever we were seeking was always ours, but we needed to learn it anew, so we could go out there again and maybe teach it to others. We would all go home soon, but we had realized the moment together. We had experienced where it begins in every second and in each of us no matter what direction we faced.

I’m home now, and Hugo still sits in the middle of the room looking out. It feels so good to sit next to him and look out past the snow-covered birch trees and across the ocean to a good place.

20160218_193814_resizedLokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu

(May all beings in all worlds be happy and free)

 

pause

winYears ago, my yoga practice focused on poses. I balanced on bones. I let muscles fall away. The allure of the outdoors took me away from the studio. The diversion filled me with a desire to find magical places that exist in the heart – those powerful images from the field. They were more than a vision. They were a feast of visions and sensations. They were hard-won battles my body suffered and celebrated.  I pushed myself to the edge and peered over. There, I saw vast and endless valleys and a lifetime of adventure. I would never go back to the mat, I thought. Not with this much life to live.

The meditation that allows me to escape from the human condition is in both places – the field as well as the studio. It’s there in the exotic force of nature, but it’s there in the empty hollow of it, too. Ten years ago, my shoulders rested on the mat, floor or “earth.” Reaching forward, I felt my edge: the boundary of my physical ability to stretch, the inner limit of my range where I hesitate. Ahead of me was the mirror not the mountain. Ahead of me was the boundary and the boundless, same in the studio as in the field, but also different.

The sight of a white and black English setter hunting the side of a mountain valley is partly a painting in progress with brush strokes working fast to capture a memory of a place in time. Partly, it is a ballet in which the body of the dancer embodies the meaning of the dance. Partly, because to watch and create at the same time is not possible. My part is only visible like it is in a dream. My mind takes in my place and, if I’m any good at dreaming, the effect is one that turns the visible world inside out. The secret world of imagination, emotion and memory spins on its axis, and I wake up. I didn’t hear the shot. I don’t remember the finer details – they escape me like smoke. Ahead of me is the mirror, a photograph, a scrap of time and not time itself.

I returned to yoga because I found myself observing too much. My time in the outdoors was exchanged in too many words, too many shared photographs, and too many thoughts on the subject. I had started to hover, as if in a dream. I had waxed too poetic. I wanted to feel my weight again. I wanted to push the inner edges of myself again. The bare walls of the studio gave me no distraction from the constricting force of my own nature. It was the wall around me I worried about more than the limits of my outward experiences. This invisible wall was built out of fear: a physical fear of pain, a psychological fear of suffering, and a spiritual fear of intensity.

The visible world holds everything that we see, that moves us and touches us through our senses. The invisible world holds everything within us, and those valleys are just as vast. When I go to the edge outdoors, I’m working the outside edge, so to speak. It is the frontier of myself – my small self in an environment that is so much bigger. When I go to the edge in yoga, I work the interior edge. No one can see the work I do with intention. What the two worlds – visible and invisible – have in common is a moment of hesitation and wonder. Then, there is the desire to push through it, to discover more. They’re both life in practice and action. Both living.

As much as I’ve sometimes believed that “he who hesitates is lost,” there is something of value in the pause. It’s a moment of creation. It’s not an expression of doubt to take a moment. It’s the subtle exchange between two worlds, self and other. It’s a communication that slows down time and stretches not just our bodies but our lives. That was the difference, in coming back to yoga ten years later. I’d grown in my time away, and learned it isn’t the posture – the visible form of a pose – that holds the most value, but the stillness within it.

 

mind the gap

grassStaring out across the space between the boardwalk and the ocean, the hungry scream of seagulls flashing white above the duck grass appeared to be the only life form. Then movement low on the horizon caught my eye. All at once a group of duck hunters dragged up from the ponds in the distance. The setting sun was behind them and they carried wet ducks in their fists and duck calls around their necks. They were loaded down with bags of decoys, wetlands camo covered in mud, and a soaking-wet chocolate lab beside them splashed through the marsh ready for a meal.

Standing there in office attire at the end of a work day, I appeared as out of place as the boardwalk and the road. The field that stretched out before me was a landscape. The wind blowing through my hair was slightly cold and salty. But nothing in my experience of life had told me the grassy tidal flats were anything more than a natural cow pasture. Nothing had told me that cranes, blue heron, geese, and ducks hid in the marsh or that there were even caribou, moose, and brown bear camouflaged in distant polar grass. Nothing had told me that even a cow pasture is full of life.

My own existence had never been harmless, but my dependence on life forms to live was made invisible by the comforts of civilization and I did what I could in the form of recycling and buying free-trade coffee beans. There was a gap in my understanding bridged by highways, dining establishments, and espresso shops. Being on the road was my sense of freedom. Pulling over to stand on a boardwalk took no daring, but it was like peering over a precipice. Suddenly, the spotting scope and interpretive panels seemed ridiculous. The only way to find out what was between me and the ground was to jump.

There was no way for me to go into that marsh environment and not get mud in my hair. There are duck hunters who manage to stay clean, but they go for a half-day or they are careful not to step off the trail or let their bare hands touch warm feathers. To understand that my life required the death of other creatures and to hunt in a manner that honored the life it took to live, I had to go “all in.” It wasn’t a tourist experience of duck hunting or even the food I was after to start. It was just to understand the primal urge to rise up out of mud with a fistful of ducks.

DSC00286 (2) blind

“The Chicken Coop” Blind pre-season on the Kenai River Flats

I had a chance to go along with an old duck hunter who had just come back to duck hunting after a career and family had taken him away and a life-threatening surgery had brought him back. We sat in a duck blind a mile out on the same duck flats I’d watched from the board walk. The grass itself seemed foreign. It was the long grass in Africa. Instead of an imaginary lioness stalking me through the yellow leaves it was a real ermine peering at me through the slats of the blind. The old duck hunter scooped up a handful of river mud and painted his face with it. My nose must have curled involuntarily because he said, “Nothing in nature is dirty.”

Modern duck hunters have been accused of entering public lands en masse and shooting competitively at every flock. They’ve been accused of using too much technology in the form of duck calls, decoys, camouflage, semi-automatic weapons, and even hand warmers. But, the tradition of duck hunting tells a different story, and I would learn it trade by trade, from the art of wing shooting to calling ducks to carving wood decoys to training water dogs. I would eventually spend a week living out of a duck shack built on piles and eating teal until I had no doubt that the best meals in my life were had outdoors and the best friends I’d ever had were duck dogs.

After my first year of duck hunting, I looked behind me to see the tracks my hunting partner and I had left in the marsh. The frost covered grass turned dark where it was pressed into the wet earth below. Our two tracks ran beside each other from the board walk all the way to our blind. The blind resembled a rabbit hutch nested in by birds. It was a handmade fort and invisible from the road. We sat down and I looked back across the flats. The morning flight of seagulls screamed and flapped across the sky from the ocean to the river, and in the distance I made out the heart beat of wings that were ducks.

pintail

Pintail Landing. Photo by Steven Meyer

off the mat

“It is their destiny to ride the wind

That carries them to faraway places…”

~H. Albert Hochbaum in To Ride the Wind

Coot Yoga by nartreb (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Coot Yoga by nartreb (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In the days before ever hunting wildfowl, I found the same solace I was seeking from the public life on the yoga mat. At the studio, the environment is controlled.  The temperature, sound, and austere surroundings and even the space in which we practiced our postures –the mat– are proscribed. Our instructor walked the room – his voice a calm reassurance that we would all achieve a benefit for our effort. The benefit would be physical, spiritual, and mental. He was right, all of us in his class walked away feeling cleansed of the disorder we felt in our lives. I often walked away hungry for something more.

As much as I wanted to perfect my life, as much as I wanted to restore order, I knew it wouldn’t be enough for me to practice my yoga skills on the mat or even off the mat, in the grocery line – standing in line was what I wanted to get away from. I wanted the ultimate escape, the ultimate experience of nature. I couldn’t find “it” in the studio, as much as I enjoyed the exertion and my own practice. As much as the calming voice of my instructor echoed my deepest values – effort and achievement, it was another voice that invited me duck hunting. If it had happened at any other time in my life, I wouldn’t have gone.

The weather was cold and unforgiving my first day on the flats. The nearest escape from the misery of damp cobwebs and the flesh of rotting salmon was a four hundred yard crawl away. Mascara dripped into my eyes as the sky opened up with rain. I took the lead, my friend positioned behind me, and we began a long crawl. The borrowed shotgun was heavy, and I used it to break my trail. When we reached the edge of the pond, two widgeon glanced at me from the sides of their heads. Their bodies broke from the surface, shedding pond water and lifting into the rain-filled sky.

I heard the voice behind me tell me to shoot, and I pulled the trigger without fully mounting the gun. I watched the pair of widgeons fly into the distant clouds. Their wings carried an untranslatable story – a sound like the rushed beating of my heart if it pumped wind instead of blood. Beside me, a spent 12 gauge shell lay in the marsh. My friend picked up the shell and held it up to his nose. “This is what fall smells like to me.”

Until that moment, the only thing that fall ever smelled like to me was school supplies. The misery of the swamp – its pungent smell, the grainy river mud, the cold, wet environment – was also full of life. The river delta teamed with life in forms that could never be seen from a boardwalk. These were the creatures feared in the house – spiders, shrews, insects. And off in the distance, gently gliding on a pond, were the ducks. I didn’t know anything about them or their distant journeys on the wind. I only knew that they were why we were in the muck. The opening of the shotgun’s action and the empty shells ejecting backward, and then the smoke emptying out of the barrels, was the ultimate exhale. I was hooked.

Instead of returning to the yoga studio, I purchased an over/under 20 gauge shotgun made for the field. The CZ Redhead was lighter than the borrowed 12 gauge, and its satin chrome finished receiver and chrome-lined barrels would weather the salt of the tidal flats. I forgot about going to yoga class. The opportunity to practice yoga was replaced by a recreation that asked more of me than a back bend.

Having at one time attempted vegetarianism and contemplated the impossibility of surviving without harming other “sentient life,” the thought of becoming a hunter was a remote possibility. Hunting waterfowl forced me to recognize my dependence and responsibility to survive at the expense of another creature. It was not many years later that I was standing in waist-deep duck grass and surveying a vast flat covered in duck ponds. Cheyenne, my newest chocolate lab, bounded toward me with a single widgeon I’d shot from the sky and that I would have for dinner that night. It was the last duck I’d take at the end of a week-long hunting trip on the west side of the Cook Inlet. I wasn’t hungry for something more, it had been a day filled with the sight of thousands of ducks and geese, lucky or skillful shooting, and the dogs working the sloughs retrieving birds.

I still practice yoga as it provides physical, spiritual, and mental benefits.  It “empties the cup.” But, I also practice trap shooting and duck hunting and, although it could be argued that hunting does not follow the unattainable tenant of “non-violence,” it is not violence. The intention is not to hurt life, but to sustain life. Both can be said to be an art – the Art of Yoga and the Art of Duck Hunting. They both provide physical, spiritual, and mental benefits. Yoga is like the cup being emptied, duck hunting is like the cup being filled, but for either to achieve the ultimate benefit, someone has to drink the whiskey.

A Stretch in time... by Keven Law (CC BY-SA)

A Stretch in time… by Keven Law (CC BY-SA)

 

The photos used in this post are licensed under the Creative Commons or used with permission and do not represent an endorsement or support by the photo’s creators, Coot Yoga by nartreb, Mallard Poser 2 by Dave Weddell