Morning Terrors and Morning Blessings

Prior to my recent trip to Minnesota, I discovered that yoga was being offered at one of my favorite places in the world—Lake Harriet. Not only were there going to be classes every day of the summer but they were looking for volunteer teachers. The thought of teaching at a place I have loved since childhood felt like an amazing opportunity that filled me with joy and excitement. There was only one downside; class started at 6:30 am and ever since I stopped teaching early morning classes at Ironworks, I have found it extremely challenging to get up before dawn.

The pull of yoga at the lake was strong so I decided to set aside my fear of waking up early and contact the organizer to see if it would be possible to teach. To my delight, she gave me a slot about a week after my arrival to town.

On the evening of my arrival in Minnesota, I set an intention to attend the morning class and then I set an alarm. After a long airplane journey, I wanted to participate in a directed practice but more importantly, I wanted to get a sense of the group before it was my turn to teach.

The next morning, the alarm shocked me out of a deep slumber. I jumped up to turn it off and simultaneously felt a surprisingly deep sense of terror. Through a foggy gaze, I managed to stumble to my alarm and then fall back onto my sleeping mat. Dark thoughts and images swirled in my mind. It was as if the thoughts that I usually keep safely behind a locked door harnessed all their strength to push the door open.

With my foggy brain, I decided that the best way to deal with these disconcerting thoughts was to go back to sleep. I lay on my side and held my pillow tight. However, fearful thoughts continued to weigh on my mind and I could only manage a fitful half-sleep. I got up a few hours later and felt sluggish and unmotivated for the rest of the day.

The terrifying feeling faded away around mid-morning and I began to reflect back on my disturbing experience. I love being in Minnesota in the summer. Along with the beauty of the environment, I revel in the company of my family and friends. Why did my mind wake up flooded with fearful thoughts? I was determined to find a rational explanation for this dreadful experience. I tried to convince myself that once I understood what was happening, I could use my willpower to change it.

It wasn’t hard to come up with an explanation for the ruminations of my unconscious. I am in the midst of a lot of uncertainty about my future. Having recently moved away from the place where I had lived for decades, I miss the security of having loved ones nearby and the sense of independence that comes from feeling connected to community. Unfortunately, my understanding of why these feelings may have arisen did not enhance my ability to make the terrifying feelings go away. Using willpower to change the course of my early morning thoughts was futile.

For the next few days, I tried to get up for class. I couldn’t do it. The terrifying heaviness of the morning felt like a steel blanket that reached from my esophagus down to my belly and prevented my spine from moving.

The day I was to teach was fast approaching and I was determined to get up, no matter how I felt. I decided to try a different approach. Instead of trying to push the feelings away, I decided to give them a name. I chose to call them, The Terrors. I’ve learned from my yoga practice that change can happen gently when I let myself observe what is happening. I applied this same concept to my feelings. Before I went to bed, I gently recommended to my upcoming morning self that if The Terrors appeared, I should acknowledge their presence, observe them and continue with a morning routine that would get me to class on time.

The following morning I observed the darkness entering my mind. I felt the fear of my thoughts and noticed the urge to close off my mind by going back to sleep. I acknowledged that desire but instead got up and drove to the lake.

I arrived sleepy-eyed, just as class was beginning. About fifty people had their mats spread out overlooking the shimmering lake. I somewhat timidly picked a spot. I took a deep breath and felt the lake air enter all my cells. I began to feel more expansive. I lifted my toes and felt my feet ground down toward the earth. I then reached my arms up toward the sky. I felt ready for yoga.

The instructor’s rich and welcoming voice led us through a delightful practice. Afterwards, some of the regulars invited me to join them at Bread and Pickle, an outdoor café just a few steps away from where we had practiced. As I engaged in conversation, there was not even the slightest residue of my pre-dawn experience. The rest of the day I was more energized than I had been since my arrival to Minnesota and knew that I wanted to participate more in this delightful community.

The next morning I woke up, blinked a few times and said, ‘hello’ to The Terrors as I watched them float through my mind. The first moments of the morning were still excruciatingly challenging but I managed to get up without wallowing in the difficulty. It was my day to teach! I knew that friendly faces would be there to welcome me. I shared some of my ideas about Deslouchology and taught a sequence that focused on thoracic mobility as a gateway to connect with the front and back of the heart. The warm reception I received inspired me to come back many times.

Each morning thereafter, I arrived to the damp thick grass and continued to be greeted with lovely smiles. It had been years since I attended daily classes and my body began to feel stronger and more integrated. It was glorious to be able practice at my favorite place.

One day a bald eagle fly over the lake as a I came into a lunge. Another day a duck wandered among us. The grass held the freshness of the morning and I liked how the dew tickled my toes.

After about a week, I noticed that my driving route to class took me alongside my other favorite lake—Bde Maka Ska—just as the sun was rising. I stopped and stood in awe. In all my years in Minneapolis, I had never seen the sun rise by one of the city lakes. I was astounded by the beauty and decided that for the next few days I would get up even earlier so I could stop and watch the dance of colors.

As the days passed, I still felt the dreaded thoughts and the pull of the enticing desire to stay curled up in bed in my first moments of morning consciousness. However, as I continued with my early morning routine, I noticed that The Terrors began to pass more quickly.

One steamy morning the air was heavy with moisture. It seemed as if an invisible hand were holding up the sky until the end of class. During the final resting pose of Savasana, a few heavy raindrops began to fall. As we walked toward the cafe, the sky broke into a wild and crazy torrential rain. A number of us stood watching under an open-air roof. While the lightening and thunder exploded, we breathed in the scent of fresh rain and watched the ducks figure out how to maneuver the temporary waves.

I never would have had these experiences had I allowed The Terrors to guide my morning choices.

One day I surprised myself and woke up before the alarm. I’d like to say that I jumped out of bed with a bright smile but that would be disingenuous. I did however, come out of Savasana with a content smile that was lit up by the rising sun. The smile began because of the feeling of ease and comfort in my body but widened because of the joy I felt looking around at my fellow practitioners and knowing that I was one of them.

After about two weeks, I noticed that the fearful feeling was still there but it took up very little space. I looked forward to each morning. My body felt great from the daily practice and I was thrilled to have new Minnesotan friends.

Maybe The Terrors will eventually go away and maybe they won’t. I’m not so concerned about it because I know now that whenever they appear, I can give them a nod and then go about my day.

I am forever grateful to the teachers and participants of the Lake Harriet Yoga Project. Thank you for a magical Minnesotan summer.
Special Thanks to
Tricia Farell, Vance Gelert, Jim Welna, Frank Barr, Marcelline Harrison, Bell Barr, Molly Burgess and Stella who made me feel so welcome.

Post Script:

The Lake Harriet Yoga Practice was scheduled to be held from Memorial Day through Labor Day. I had left Minnesota in mid-August and returned just in time for the last two official classes. The mornings were still glorious but the nip of fall was in the air.

Some folks decided that they were going to continue practicing until the Fall equinox. By now, the morning terrors were no longer an impediment for me. I was getting up fairly early. However, the weather was changing and temperatures in the morning were down to the 50s. I wanted to continue practicing because of the camaraderie but I knew the cold would have deleterious effects on my physical well-being. I chose to continue my practice at home.

I feel whole with this decision. It was not made out of fear but from my knowledge and awareness of how best to take care of myself.

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