Beyond the Visual / by Lily Greenberg

I conclude each day with a Vinyasa yoga flow at a small studio in downtown Petaluma. My favorite instructor, who seems to just exhale profundities, once led our class through a typical flow series, but instructed us to keep our eyes shut. No instructor to watch, no neighbor to compare to—just movement. He responded to our hesitation with, “Seeing is not the only way to experience.”

I have been mulling over this statement, peeling back layers of meaning. The San Francisco Bay Area is certainly a sight to behold, but the more that I reflect on my summer here so far, the more that I begin to delve into the sensory experience of being here, and what it means to interact with this area of the United States. Autopilot is an easy default. On familiar turf, I seem to just tune out. Passively, I weight the gas pedal, taking no notice of the paved roads. I don’t even feel my feet stepping on smooth sidewalks. I eat the food that is given to me, never bothering to ask of the origin. I operate within a structure of sleeping, running, eating, and working. Sure, I engage with the minds around me, and find life in conversation, but when it comes to the environment and my own body’s relationship to the land around me, there typically remains a disconnect.

But this summer in Petaluma has awakened my awareness of surroundings, has poured water over my drought-ridden understanding of embodiment.

Each morning, while the air is still crisp, I slip on my faux leather jacket and swing my legs over the bright red bicycle that I have claimed for the summer. Right on St. Francis, where the wind blows back towards Granny’s house, always opposing my pedaling feet. Sometimes the wind is so fierce, that I am forced to pedal furiously not just up the hills, but downhill as well. Left on Caulfield, where I huff and puff up the overpass, inhaling the smells of licorice that hang like invisible ornaments. Right on Payran, where I weave around the crumbling road until I slide over to D Street, entering downtown Petaluma. I know which houses have evening band practices. I know which trees provide resting places for the homeless. I know the elderly men that take a stroll each morning, hands waving with enthusiastic conversation. I know which houses emanate with the smell of marijuana. I know which trees drop ripe plums onto the sidewalk. I know this town better than I have known Franklin, Tennessee, or Wenham, Massachusetts, or Leakey, Texas—though I have been here in Petaluma for the least amount of time. And for that, I have my bright red bicycle to thank.

 The telltale hills

The telltale hills

I am convinced that Northern California is one massive Farmer’s Market. Somewhere every day, there’s a park in this town or the next one over with a long line of tents, selling fruits, vegetables, bread, coffee, honey, jewelry, Kombucha, and the list continues. “Local” is a buzzword, a stamp of approval. I visit a Farmer’s Market almost every day, sometimes filling my bike basket with fresh nectarines, other times just sampling through the tent line, tasting and chatting. In our tiny kitchen, Granny and I can identify the exact origins of most of our produce and bread, and maybe even give names of farmers and friends who served as the go-between. Sometimes we hand over one-dollar bills, and other times food just seems to flow from hand to hand. Granny’s friend Freddie, who looks like a sun-dried raisin, brings us endless bags of vegetables from her garden—not just free of charge, but thanking us for taking them off of her hands. And then there’s my friend Juan, who seems to have more fruit in his backyard than he knows how to manage. I am always happy to help. Knowledge of source has altered my experience of eating, has flooded my consumption with keen perception.

 Cheers to you, Juan--thank you for the fruit!

Cheers to you, Juan--thank you for the fruit!

The first time I went into San Francisco, I hiked to the top of Lombard Street, the famous citywide view. I considered this more of a rite of passage than a tourist destination (though perhaps it is some sort of combination). Now, about a month later, what I remember about Lombard Street isn’t really the overlook. What I remember is the winding sidewalk, how I felt every single step reverberate through my body, sending fireworks of energy up my calves. I didn’t just see the view from the top of Lombard. I squeezed it between my toes. I pressed it under the balls of my feet. The telltale hills of the Bay Area call for a level of attentiveness that I have never encountered in quite this capacity. There is no space for passive strolls through the city, or the countryside. I have to work. Vision no longer suffices as the only vehicle for experience, just like the wise words of my yoga instructor. And, because of this necessary attention, I have yet to get lost (which, if you have any experience traveling with me, is a miracle). I wander and wander, but the meandering feels different, as if this pressure that my feet must give in each step, makes way for a peculiar sense of memory.

 Lombard Street, the windiest street in San Francisco

Lombard Street, the windiest street in San Francisco

And so, I have become keenly aware of this California land, through biking, powering through hills, eating with the knowledge of origin. But to gain understanding of land is not enough. I have to know my relationship to the land, what it means for my feet to press against gravity. Yoga has been an entryway for me to connect the dots, to not just let the awareness wash over me and subside, but instead to become a sponge and absorb. Each evening, I begin my practice with the invitation to “check in” with my body, to just notice where it’s at on that particular day. And then, I move with my breath through a Vinyasa flow, always responding to signals from my muscles and joints. Appreciation of embodiment is integral to any yoga practice. It inverts the culture-wide sense of shame that we feel towards our bodies, that pushes us to starve and run and trim, to alter and “better” our bodies. The yoga tradition buzzes with the message, enough. The invitation to just be exactly where we are. 

And here I am, not just seeing Northern California, but touching, tasting, hearing, smelling—being.