teacher feature – danielle polen

A few weeks ago, I was seated on a rickety bench, in front of the Esperanto Cafe on MacDougal Street in New York City. The intersection of MacDougal and Bleecker Streets used to be one of my favorite NYC people-watching haunts. There were four slightly eccentric cafes to choose from—one on each of the four corners—and for the price of a cappuccino, one was guaranteed hours of entertainment, just watching the Greenwich Village crowd stumble by. The cafes are mostly gone now, having been replaced by lesser establishments, and the corner will never again be what it once was. But on this particular sweltering August afternoon, my boyfriend and I stumbled across the Esperanto Cafe, not far from my once-favorite corner, and went in for some AC and iced coffee. Duly refreshed, an hour or so later, we got up to leave when BF decided that he needed to use the facilities. So I sat outside on the aforementioned rickety bench to wait.

As I was sitting there, strategizing as to how I was going to make it appear to BF that we had just “happened to stumble across” the Strand bookstore (and its “18 miles of books!”) on our trek back uptown, a very disheveled older gentleman, with rheumy red eyes and a pungent, post-Thunderbird-binge odor about him stopped in front of me and, swaying slightly from side to side, pronounced, “I’ll bet you can’t guess who you remind me of.” When I assured him that I couldn’t, he giggled and hacked a bit before squawking (and pointing to my pigtails), “you know, Dorothy, from the Wizard of Oz …. Same hairdo!” Trying to avoid the cigarette smoke that he was now also blowing my way, I replied that his Dorothy comparison was pretty right on, since, like her, I too was just trying to get home (although not until after I dragged BF through the Strand and made a few more iced coffee pit-stops on the sweaty trek back uptown to the bus stop).

Holding onto the side of my bench for support, my new friend burped, and then clicked his heels together three times in an admirable display of continued verticality. “You just gotta do that,” he mumbled, in rhythm to his back-and-forth swaying. And before I could do that, or anything else, he’d spryly bent over and planted a slobber-ridden kiss on my left bicep. Unfortunately, he’d chosen to do so the very moment that BF was emerging from the café, dukes up like a lucha libre wrestler, after having seen the bicep buss.

No match for my Mexican macho, the “Wizard of Oz” put his hands up as if to surrender (or ward off a gang of flying monkeys), and then meekly extended a hand, in an attempt to shake BF’s; the latter merely took my arm, and pulled me off the bench and up the street (unbeknownst to him, and happily for me, in the direction of the very bookstore I’d been angling to visit!). He also insisted I pull out my travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer and swipe my bicep (as Auntie Em would say, “better safe than sorry…”).

Later that night, wedged into the rear-most seat of the Bolt Bus headed back to Washington, I pondered my MacDougal Street Wizard and was reminded of a quote from the James Agee classic A Death in the Family: “How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves. You can never go home again.” One interpretation of this quote might be that, once we grow up and have our own lives, we may physically return to our childhood home, but we can never really return to the same feelings that we experienced there because we’re different people. It’s never quite the same “home” that it once was. Indeed, this realization had hit home for me just weeks earlier, upon my return to El Paso, Texas for my 30th high school reunion.

And yet, in a deeper sense, we do have the ability to come home. Our practice of yoga, among many other things, assists us in developing the capacity to simply be attentive—to be here, now, in the words of Ram Dass. When we practice moving our body in a particular way to perform the postures, we’re not only developing our physical powers, we’re honing our mental energy, as well. We learn to focus, to distinguish sensations, to pay attention, to concentrate and, ultimately, to be fully present in the moment. As such, body-based practices such as yoga are a wonderful doorway in to the deeper development of insight, and when we develop insight into our true nature, we have, indeed, come home. As poet Mary Oliver writes, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”

In sum, yoga deepens our capacity for awareness. And as my teacher John Schumacher notes, “[t]o be aware is to be awake, and to be awake in this way is to be alive in the fullest sense of the word. This is the goal of yoga.”


Dorothy: “Oh, will you help me? Can you help me?”
Glinda, the Good Witch: “You don’t need to be helped any longer. You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas.”
Dorothy: “I have?”
Scarecrow: “Then why didn’t you tell her before?”
Glinda: “Because she wouldn’t have believed me. She had to learn it for herself…”

There’s no place like home.

6 thoughts on “teacher feature – danielle polen

  1. Anonymous

    October 1, 2009 at 9:14pm

    Danielle always meets the most interesting drunken people.


  2. Anonymous

    October 1, 2009 at 11:00pm

    that’s because she listens with her heart. and god knows what happes then, when you stop to listen this way, no amount of hand sanitizer can clear that up! it stays with her and somehow, in an essay, a yoga practice, some other inspired manner, it comes out. and it’s beautiful. that’s danielle.

  3. Anonymous

    October 1, 2009 at 11:57pm

    loved this! it made me miss new york so much! but it’s true – every time i return feels less and less familiar, less and less the home that it once used to be.

  4. Anonymous

    October 3, 2009 at 4:40am

    great writing!!!

  5. Anonymous

    October 5, 2009 at 4:34pm

    Anyone who can use the phrase “admirable display of continued verticality,” followed by a “bicep buss,” is, in my heart, an admirable writer. As in her joyful yoga classes, Danielle inspires with her beautiful, creative display of verbal prowess.

  6. Anonymous

    October 5, 2009 at 6:48pm

    having just finished “wicked: the life and times of the wicked witch of the west” you have quite a bit of elphaba in you when seen through sober eyes:))

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