The bamboo is swaying, the rain is blowing sideways and the soaking wet chickens look like a new hybrid species as their feathers are matted to their skin. It’s a wild, bold and beautiful day. The air vibrates with excitement and possibilities. I feel I could stand still and breathe forever. Right now, living on the edge of a hurricane, I am wishing this day would never end.
I have never lived in the tropics before, so this is my first hurricane. Tornadoes and earthquakes are old friends, but hurricanes are new. I know of them only from the stories of the devastation and suffering that they have caused. I am fortunate. The island of Hawaii, more commonly known as the Big Island, has experienced torrential rainfall and flooding, but here in Maui it is merely a big storm.
As I sit in the safety of my covered lanai, my heart goes out to all those who have suffered from the destructive force of a hurricane. But for a few shifts in the winds, I could be experiencing the same thing.
Inhaling the fresh air, mesmerized by the swaying branches, I am reminded of the multifaceted Hebrew word yir’ah. Usually translated as ‘fear,’ this word appears often in the Bible in the phrase yir’at adonai; the fear of God. However, this quick translation does not do it justice. Yir’ah also incorporates a sense of wonder, awe and reverence. It has a depth that I find easier to feel than to define. My teacher, Rabbi David J. Cooper describes yir’ah as, “the intensity we feel when we encounter something of power, and when we fully appreciate the power before us.”*
Being on the edge of this hurricane is definitely a yir’ah moment. It is like standing on the precipice of existence; feeling the vitality of life while being acutely aware of being close to the edge of death. It lasts for a flash and at the same time continues forever.
As I watch yet another squall of driving rain, I ponder the theme of my blog series – “Reflections on Life and Movement.” I am asking myself: When have I experienced yir’ah through movement? I’m not particularly inclined toward extreme physical activities. I’ve never had the desire to bungee jump or free climb. My most vivid memory of yir’ah is from a soccer game with two of my closest friends; a few perfect passes led to a glorious goal where time stood still. I’ve also entered into yir’ah while hiking in Yosemite and singing as part of the Oakland Interfaith Community Choir.
These experiences were all exhilarating but I’d like to share with you one that seems to be an outlier. It occurred in the seated forward bend, Janu Sirsasana. In this pose one folds the torso over a straight leg while the other leg is folded to the side. This position is generally considered to be calming and restorative.
I was practicing this pose on a humid summer evening on the rickety floors of the old Piedmont Yoga Studio. I exhaled fully and my body folded more deeply than ever before. As I felt my heart beat on my thighs, I began to feel as if I were on the precipice of something new, scary and wonderful; a sensation of yir’ah. I felt my body illuminate. It was exhilarating to fold deeper and deeper into the pose. I stopped to listen. I could hear a voice saying, “Test the limits of your flexibility, go further, go deeper; the answers are just a little bit yonder.” I heard another hear voice saying “Don’t go further. Stop right now. It’s dangerous; you might cause yourself harm.”**
I chose to set those voices aside and listen to my breath. I trusted its wisdom. My breath told me to slow down, to spend more time with the exhalation, to observe and just be with the EXPERIENCE of yir’ah. I didn’t need anything else. I ended the practice with a restful savasana. I don’t remember anything particularly extraordinary happening. after that. I think I went home and returned to my routine the next day. However, whenever I visualize myself in that MOMENT, I still feel—in every cell of my body—a sensation of radical amazement.
Today hurricane’s wind feels like the breath of the world. I don’t have control over its breath; I just need to let it flow. I can feel its freshness brush against my skin as I watch the bamboo being whipped side to side. It appears Maui will be safe. The eye of the hurricane will stay west. Sitting safely on my lanai, I have great reverence for the forces of the natural world and look forward to an evening of experiencing the wonder, awe and joy of feeling fully alive.
*Click here for more about Yir’ah by Rabbi David J. Cooper.
**Note: I remember reading a scientific study that suggested that the high people feel from deep stretching is actually a protective response to acute trauma. According to this theory, going into a deep stretch causes tissue tears that lead to an immediate release of adrenaline. This adrenaline release is a mechanism that masks pain so we can quickly flee from a dangerous situation. In a yoga class, instead of directing this protective response to our chance at escape, we experience this spark of energy as momentary euphoria.