I love yoga’s tree pose. From the clear mind it requires to its hip stretching potential, holding tree connects me to my practice more deeply. It involves: choosing a non moving focal point and concentrating your gaze there, placing the sole of one foot on the thigh of the other leg so that you’re balancing with the grounded foot, and pressing the knee of the elevated leg back such that your hip opens without your torso turning. Also, you should be able to lift the toes of both feet from their respective positions to prevent yourself from gripping instead of balancing. That last bit is what still throws me off sometimes, turning my graceful tree into a timber pile. It seems so much easier to grab hold than to trust clarity to come, to exert energy versus letting go. I’m learning more and more though, that when one relaxes, opens their mind, and becomes fully present, balance comes.
For my first few months in Tandjouare, I clung to what I perceived as my identity like a scared child would to their security blanket. If I relented, and changed who I was to fit in, I thought I'd be sacrificing some essential part of who I am. As though the man I’d become could be erased and replaced with someone I no longer knew. I introduced myself as Matthew to everyone I met and treated the local name I’d chosen, Kombat, as a joke. I refused to wear pagne, the brightly colored and patterned local fabric popular among Togolese, and rocked my American clothing at local functions. I preferred speaking in broken French for all interactions, despite it being their colonial language and one I barely felt comfortable in, instead of even attempting Moba. It felt as though I was still the same American me, albeit a much less satisfied version. The work required to copy and paste Minneapolis Matt onto Togo was taking its toil and I was often unhappy, grasping at every chance for a taste of my America. Misery made me grip memories so hard, they began to lose their meaning. And then, I let go.
If everything in the present is constantly compared with the past, especially that which has passed under very different circumstances, it may never measure up. If you live in the moment however, relax and let the new introduce you to unexpected people and places, I think you’ll find joy in what comes your way. It took me four months to realize that my Togolese life will never equal my American existence by the standards I carried over, but that, when taken on its own with an open perspective, it offers as much or more fulfillment than anything else I’ve experienced. By waking up every day and truly trying to integrate, be it through language, clothes, or deed, I haven’t lost anything about who I was. Instead, I’ve become someone better: more adaptable, more empathetic, more pragmatic, stronger. As I’ve opened up, the world’s reacted in turn. My first few outreach projects have been successful, and more work opportunities are presenting themselves. I’ve become closer friends with other volunteers and people in my community, so I’m never without someone local to share experiences with. The days are passing much faster, and I often recall a favorite saying of my first grade teacher, "Little by little the days go by, short if you sing through them, long if you sigh." I’m delighted to be here, and excited to see what the next year and a half will bring.
Focus straight ahead, through the window and on the cement courtyard outside. Left leg lifted and pressing into right thigh, hip open without a torso shift. Morning sunlight bathing the room and sweat, glistening, drops from body to floor. Finally, no toes touching Earth, hands at heart center, and balance on the ball of the right. There’s no wind today and my tree could stand for ages if allowed. It’s growing, enriched by each African day’s unknown potential.