Tag Archives: Berkshires

The Harmonious Breath

We all have experienced moments, in locations, at events that have happily converged, leaving a profound effect on our consciousness. These aren’t usually the predictable sorts, such as rote observances; the calendar-year celebrations that are repeated rituals, touchstones that reinforce who we are and who we connect with. What I am talking about are the more unexpected happenings that surprise us, sometimes rendering us breathless. And leaving us desirous of them happening again.

These confluences, these special combinations of space and time – a place, a state of mind, the weather, nature and, sometimes, dollops of human-generated creativity – are brought together as momentary and ephemeral circumstances that can cause us to glimpse something out of the ordinary, pressing our noses to the glass between us and another realm of well-being. That’s what makes them so special. Really unduplicatable. And perfect. Instances like these can come out of nowhere or can occur within the context of a planned circumstance, but are still unpredictable things – “aha” moments that are surprising in their impact, unforeseen. We do not control these occurrences. We yearn for them but can’t generate them. We are lucky if we recognize them. And they can’t be recreated because, mostly, they are not of our making.

In this blog, we try to describe such instances of awareness, openness, being in the moment; e.g., sunlight glancing off wind-borne glitter, the meaningful placement of art in nature, magical discoveries of abandoned places, the interaction of architecture and its site, sounds that transport us to another place or keep us stupefied in this one. Our attempt is to be in tune with all that surrounds us. Open to the possibilities. Looking for the moments.

So, when the potential for such a convergence presents itself, we try to be there so that we are in a place of possibility. This time it was in a place that is full of seekers – Kripalu, a center for yoga and integrative health, nestled into a majestic site within the Berkshires. The workshop that spoke to us was “Zen and the Art of Harmonica Yoga,” and it proved to be an exhilarating mix of mindfulness, breath work and music. Imagining that this could be a recipe for placeness, we were hopeful.

Most of us don’t breathe – not well anyway – either because of vanity (holding in those abs), or fear, or hesitation, or the inhibitory power of stress. And, anyway, why would we want to breathe deeply in most of the environments we inhabit? It can be counter-productive. The mindfulness was meant to be used as a coping strategy, learning to be aware of our indicator lights that trigger anger and stress, and being able to control them, mostly with our breathing and, ultimately, by creating sound and music.

So, these elements of breathing and mindfulness can be coalesced into the act of  playing the harmonica – a seemingly small creation in the pantheon of musical instruments: the mouth harp. The breaths can be a little heady, the sounds can be soft and soothing, or bluesy-raspy. You can find your inner rhythm and clear your mind. Oxygenation and notes produced. Sometimes you become aware of your own voice. Other times you feel the combined energy of playing with others, a cacophony of breaths made resounding. In, out, in, out, in, out, in. I hear the beats in my head, the sounds in my ears, a quickening pulse, beautiful noise. Long in-breath, I feel dizzy. I am not used to this quantity of oxygen in my lungs. The other time I felt this way was when I went with a few people to an oxygen bar – I left floating. But that was delivered via a plastic tube; this is self-generated. Headier stuff.

I am not even all that good at harmonica playing, but I am getting better at breathing. I am in the moment, thinking about a moment past, of my first breath – the one that brought me consciousness. But this time it is different because I am aware of it and I can savor it. This time, this breath is not just reflex or survival instinct; it is spiritual, cosmic, poetic. In this setting, it is communal, contemplative, soulful … and necessary. It is experiential. That’s me floating overhead, playing notes, making sounds that come from my diaphragm. The harmonious place of life and sound. The zen and art of harmonica yoga. Arslocii.

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Mountain Time

Unwittingly, even ignorantly in topographic terms, we took a turn through New England and were surprised by the “range” of mountainous terrains. (And mountains don’t exactly sneak up on you. Besides, they are indicated on maps.) So, stupidly and simply, wow! Truly, though, it is hard to get a physical sense of such things on a map. This trip had its own built-in quests that were calculated and planned and full of expectations. Sometimes the joy of discovery is the anticipation, the imagining followed by the actualizing and, finally, the measuring of the two – a balance sheet of whether the thinking about is better than the doing, or vice versa. But the unanticipated joys, either large or small, can often be the most memorable part of travel. Like finding mountains.

For someone who purportedly loves mountains, I had no idea what was in store for me. Living in the mid-Atlantic region, I tend to think of the coastal states as being flat-ish lowlands, floodplains, sandbar shores intermingling with the sea. Maine disabused me of that notion. (As did Mark Twain; stopping off at his Hartford home, we were reminded that he wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”)

Maine’s mountains meet the water on their own terms, spruce and pine emerging from speckled granite; the rock/paper/scissors game comes to mind, especially when the logging trucks come toward you on highways (yikes!). In Acadia National Park there are more than twenty mountains, individually named but lacking a range name. The tallest is Cadillac, at 1,530 feet. We didn’t set out to do this, but we climbed it. The views are well worth it. This climb turned out to be a highlight (no pun intended) of the trip. Especially on the descent, when we attempted the rarely used, barely accessible and minimally marked west trail. It set forth challenges and we became intimately involved with the mountain, both on top and on its varied flanks. One of us has a bruise to remember it by. Both of us have a sense of accomplishment, a memory of pounding hearts and a deeper understanding of the landscape and nature’s power.

New Hampshire’s White Mountains are awesome and rugged, comparatively. Also, very much higher, considering that they have numerous four-thousand-footers and that those are then towered over by the renowned Mt. Washington, of bumper-sticker fame. As does its namesake, the tallest mountain seems to wear the same white wig made of clouds, preventing one from ever viewing its summit. And that explains its reputation for consistently having the worst weather in the States. These White Mountains possess a breathtaking beauty that can be matched only out West, yet in New Hampshire their presence feels more compressed and dense, adding to their intensity. In the East, you don’t have the same distant vistas of mountains before you enter their domain. (Kind of the same idea as when seeing whole trains out West and only partial trains in the East.)

Generally, when driving, our choice is to avoid interstates – the eunuchs of roads – but instead traverse the state routes and parkways, the older byways that knew what a road’s purpose was: to delight and surprise the occupants of the vehicles and to find unique approaches for going through and around things like mountains, as opposed to just slicing straight through, all in the service of connecting you in a less intrusive and more tangible way to the countryside. The most spectacular road of our journey was New Hampshire State Route 3, now partially eaten up by I-93, skinnying through Franconia Notch – happily unable to be widened further. Literally a mountain pass, for 12-15 miles I-93 is a parkway that winds between the cleavage-like high peaks of the Kinsman and Franconia mountain ranges much like a log flume. The road reveals that the lower parts of mountains can be as spectacular as the tops on our roller coaster ride along nature’s splendor in tandem with human engineering.

Vermont’s Green Mountains are comparable in stature to the Whites (except for the one), although they appear a bit mellower, softer, rounder than their neighbors to the east. Surprisingly, they are, as are some of the other ranges mentioned, part of the Appalachian Mountains. Their greenness, it seems, is because of the density of coniferous trees, creating a rolling rise and fall with fuzzy edges. The softer flow of this group makes for a picture-postcard photo-op, as houses and small villages live in harmony with the surrounding topography; and these natural limitations make for a saner balance of man(made) and mountain. The intrusion of bare lawn swaths of ski slopes are a little dismaying, as if a large-toothed, sharp-edged comb had raked down the mountainsides – the visual counterpart of fingernails dragged over a blackboard. In situations of nature versus nurture in this country, one has to have a sense of relativity: ski slopes are better than the wholesale timber trade which once denuded entire mountains. So, even with the bizarre grooved effect, it is preferable to scalping.

Going through the Berkshires and on to the Catskills, we are descending in size and scale, as well as latitude, but we are ascending in esteem. This area is considered a plateau, and whatever its codification, there is nothing more beautiful than the Catskill range in juxtaposition to the picture-perfect Hudson Valley. The mountains’ perspectival palette of greens into blues, sometimes going to purples with hints of yellows are so lovely as to leave one dumbstruck. The entirety looks moss-covered, a kind of giant Japanese-garden woodland. There is an appearance of comfort and calm in their curvaceous form and a magnetism that is inescapable for some of us so attuned. In the New York Highlands, just below the Catskills, gumdrop-like mountains erupt as guardians along the Hudson Valley. And, once again, we find ourselves climbing – Schunnemunk Mountain this time, our second ridge this summer. (Funny, considering that we have climbed zero up until this year.) With its unusual “pudding stone” and long and graceful waterfalls, and views of the Hudson that rival Maine’s coast, it is a long hike but worth it, nearly 1,700 feet. At this rate, maybe next it will be Mt. Washington.

All the mountains are sculpted earth; shaped uniquely by upheavals and slow compression, they are lovely, awe-inspiring, some maybe a bit fear-inducing. Their special placeness must be a result of genius loci, they and their settings creating a powerful arslocii.

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