Thursday, December 31, 2009

231/365 - I'm Back

Sunday Off
Monday 6:30 pm with Rohit
Tuesday 6:30 pm with Libby
Wednesday the 23rd through Monday 28th Off (Merry Christmas!)
Tuesday 10:30 am with Lenette
Wednesday 6:30 pm with Rohit
Thursday 10:30 am with Rohit

This is by far the longest I've taken without posting. My apologies to any of you who were anxiously awaiting what I might next say. The Wednesday through Monday break was also the longest I've taken off with no yoga at all. I'm not entirely sure why I didn't make it to a class while on Long Island. Maybe I didn't feel like it. Maybe its proof that I didn't really like the studio there.

I'm not going to summarize each or the last five classes in any detail. I learned something fairly big in each of the first two. First, Rohit said I'm falling out of Standing Bow the way I am because I'm charging forward before I've gotten all I can out of the backward kick. He's getting to be more and more of a stickler on this point, and his advice really helps me. The idea is to kick back with your leg (creating the back arch) until you can't kick back anymore. Then you start to kick up, and its that kicking that drives your body forward. It's not simply a matter of bending at the waist. Rather, you should have no choice but to bend at the waist. This tip has since helped both with the stretching feeling in the pose, and in my ability to hold it. Of course, my new improved Standing Bow doesn't look as cool as the way I was doing, but it will get there.

In the second class, Libby called me out a few times for not locking my elbows. I make a very big deal about keeping the elbows locked in Half Moon, and I can do it pretty well. But there are so many other poses that call for the locked elbow, and its so easy to relax the idea in these poses. First Backbend, Balancing Stick, Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee, Half Tortoise are the main ones, but I may be missing something. This is very similar to the same point that Janna has been making about Half Tortoise. It's obviously one of those things that I "know" yet forget with such ease.

As for the three most recent classes, I've had some real stamina problems, especially in the second class after the break. I dropped a set each of Triangle, Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee, Tree!!!, Camel and Rabbit. I wanted to drop even more. This morning I did better, but still lost a set of Triangle and Tree. I've never skipped tree pose before, and I think its related to my blood pressure. Coming out of the tuck in the earlier pose, I get a little dizzy, and I think that may be a sudden drop in blood pressure. And then I can barely balance on two feet, much less one.

The only other thing is another, and different, pain in my left knee. This time it's on the inside at the back and I don't think it has anything to do with any of the earlier problems. My calf has some related tightness, so I think I must have just pulled something a bit carrying luggage and stuff up and down stairs. This time, I can't fully flex the knee at all. Japanese sitting position is impossible. Third part of Awkward is a major challenge, and I can't go all the way down. Fixed firm is a pipe dream, and Half Tortoise and Rabbit don't get the set-ups they deserve, and suffer pretty badly as a result.

After class this morning, a tranplant from Los Angeles who is new to our studio said that I was "really intense." I'm taking that as a compliment. I do think it's a bit odd that other people see me that way.

The day 295 meditation talks about doubts cropping up over meditation. It's so easy to doubt meditation. As soon as you ask yourself whether you are meditating properly, or even whether you are meditating at all, then you aren't. And at the start (where I am now), thoughts like that crop up all the time.

Once again, Gates assures us that it's not rocket science. There isn't any great body of knowledge needed to start meditation. Rather, like so much else in yoga, you just let go of the doubt and do it. The nice thing to hear is that asana and pranayama are already forms of meditation, but they are in some ways more difficult. With the meditation he's talking about, all you need to do is focus.

On a personal note, I've found one very nice bonus to my recent blood pressure worries. I've got a wrist monitor that may or may not be accurate. The doctor told me to take readings in the morning and the evening. The monitor suggests resting for 10 to 15 minutes before taking the readings. Voila! This is an instant time set aside for meditation. And I've got to do it anyway for other reasons, so I've been trying to do it right.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

226/352- Doing It

Friday 10:30 am with Janna
Saturday 9:30 am with Connease

Janna really wants me to do Half Tortoise correctly. It's so easy to ease off in this pose -- to think that Fixed Firm and Half Tortoise are both well deserved resting poses after cramping my entire back for the last 10-15 minutes. (Is back strengthening series really that short?) In this class, Janna told me she was going to guide me through the corrections in first set, but I had to do it on my own for the second.

Here were the corrections: Thumbs crossed, and use them to squeeze the hands together. Only pinkies on the floor. Straighten the neck even more. The last was something of a surprise. With my neck straight, both my forehead and my nose pressed flat on the ground. I didn't know I had that in me, and thought I was doing the pose fairly well because I was getting good contact with the forehead. The really cool thing about these corrections is that they seem to have stuck, at least through another class. And that's a start.

In general, class was good. I've been reading up on blood pressure symptoms, so now I'm getting all of them. It's a good thing I didn't go to med school. I would have had every symptom known to man. Anyway, I felt a bit lightheaded after Standing Separate Leg Head to Floor, and skipped a set of Triangle. Otherwise, it was a nice solid class.

Today's class was tougher. I think it might have been hotter, at least in the Standing Series. Or maybe I've just honed my psychosomatic skills. I started feeling a bit weak in Awkward. By Balancing Stick, I didn't know if I was going to make it. Then I skipped a set of Triangle, and then a set of Standing Separate Leg head to knee.

The parts I did, I did pretty well. Standing Bow is getting better, both in terms of how high I'm kicking up, and in how long I can hold it. The real stretch right now is underneath the shoulder blade of the arm holding my leg. I feel like I could get much deeper into this pose if my shoulder blades would just open up some more. (Same goes for Floor Bow and Camel.) In fact, after class I'm feeling the most in that area right now. It's getting hit in just about every pose these days: Half Moon, Standing Bow, Balancing Stick, Locust, Floor Bow, Half Tortoise, and Camel.

Another interesting note. I took my blood pressure after yoga both of these days. On the first day it dropped 20/15 points. Today, it dropped to normal -- 122/80. It's not permanent, but it does seem pretty miraculous. Maybe I should just do five classes a day, and I'll keep it down for most of my waking hours.

The day 294 meditation applies a lesson we learned about asana to meditation. It's pretty simple. Don't worry so much about doing it perfectly, and just do it. Sit still and be quiet for 15 minutes a day. Just try to focus and be still during that time, and don't worry too much if it's not going "right." The important thing is doing it. The rest you can let go.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

224/340 - Pi/e (and Sloth)

Tuesday 6:30 with Libby
Wednesday 8:15 with Rohit
Thursday off.

First, some housekeeping. I need to look back over my post titles. My day count is at 340, and I think there are 14 days left in the year. Did someone change the calendar this year? Or (perhaps more likely) I goofed on the count somewhere? (Edit: Oops, strike that. I goofed with this post. I went from 347 to 340. Doh! I will keep the title of this post as it is, and get back on course with the next post, maybe...)

This raises another interesting question: Why am I bothering with a day count at all? At one point, the days were going to match the meditations in Gates' book. Now, instead, they serve as a reminder of how far off the track I've gone. At this point, I think I'm doing it just to do it. And also, it gives me a convenient title for a post when I can't come up with anything cute. But random numbers would serve that purpose just as well. Hence the name of this post. (BTW, I have a nasty habit, when people try to get to think of a number between one and ten, of choosing either pi or e.)

I had three really good days of classes in a row. Libby's class was inspiring. I found new things in several of the poses. Most notably, I discovered how to go even more deeply into my shoulders in Half Moon. Here's the strange, but typical, discovery I made. I can get a much deeper stretch in my shoulders in the pose by paying even more attention to locking my legs and making sure that the inside foot is bearing the weight it should. That's just another example of how totally connected different parts of the body are in these poses.

Mostly, what I did in this class was pay even more attention to the set-ups. More and more, I'm impressed with the importance of the set-ups for every pose. The more attention that gets paid to following every detail, the better the pose. It's pretty much that simple. After the set-up, everything is a matter of breathing and determination.

The class itself was great. There were eight of us, and Libby had us all move to the front row. This means that there was basically no-one in my field of vision. But still, the energy was really high, and several times Libby complemented us on how we were staying together. Part of the reason, I think, is because the studio is in the holiday doldrums. For the most part, the only people who are coming are the ones who are very committed. And it makes for small, but high energy classes.

After two really good classes in a row, I thought about taking a day off, but decided to push my luck. At the last minute, I grabbed my stuff and headed for class. The only reason I had for not going was that I didn't really feel like it, and that's not going to be a good enough reason anymore.

Class was really good. Again there were about eight of us, and the class was strong and together. During Triangle, Rohit commented that it was the first time where he had nothing to say about anyone's Triangle during a class. Then in Floor Bow, he mentioned how no-one in class dropped out of the pose early. It's been that kind of week in these classes, and its really cool.

The day 293 meditation visits an old friend of mine: sloth. As Gates talks about it, sloth is basically whatever gets you to say that you don't need to practice today, that you can do your meditation sometime later, that tomorrow will be as good as today for starting some project. I think there's some difference between procrastination and sloth, but it's probably not worth mentioning.

As Gates notes, its pretty to overcome sloth with Asana practice. Once you get involved in your practice, its relatively easy to let yourself become completely involved. I think that's just the nature of the poses. Of course, in Bikram, the dialogue delivery has something to do with it as well.

He also notes that sloth is a bigger obstacle in meditation. This seems kind of counterintuitive to me. In some ways, when you are meditating, you aren't really doing anything. So I would think that meditation and sloth would make fairly good bedfellows. But here's the rub. Meditation requires focus and concentration, and sloth doesn't particularly like to keep company with them. So it will constantly try to bring you away from your focus, to turn you away from the meditative state and bring you back to the "comfortable" area where thoughts just sort of flit about as they will.

Monday, December 14, 2009

222/347 Doctor, Yikes!

Friday through Sunday off.
Monday 6:30 pm with Sherry

I had a check-up today and I'm mostly fine. The blood work hasn't been done yet, so I may be jumping the gun. And he wants to x-ray my knee, but mostly because I complained about it.

But... I've definitely slacked off about my weight. I haven't weighed myself in almost a year, I think. And my clothes still fit, but may be a bit more snug than the were after my big challenge last year. I knew that. According to the doctor's scale, I've regained 25 pounds of the forty plus that I lost. OK, I can deal with that, and I basically know the adjustments I need to make to get things back on track.

Now here's the scary part. My blood pressure this morning came in at 175/116 !!! I thought I had it licked, and even went off my medications and had no problems a year ago. I had a headache this morning. And the doctor says its possible that the headache, or whatever caused it, also caused a spike in my blood pressure. But it's also possible, and more likely, that the high blood pressure is actually causing my headache. This little problem puts a bit more urgency into shedding a few pounds. My guess is that going back to the weight I should be will significantly lower, if not eliminate the blood pressure problem. And if it actually is as high as this morning's reading indicates, then its a VERY serious problem.

The headache stayed with me, until about Triangle in tonight's yoga class. So there is one thing I'm wondering. I get these headaches pretty regularly when I skip a day or two of yoga. So, you might ask, why do I skip these days? Because even smart people can be really stupid about some things is the best answer I can come up with. I'm definitely going back to 5 or more days a week, and maybe to every day. I would join the 100 day challenge that's beginning on Jan. 1, all accross the country, but I know I'm going to miss a bunch of days in mid February from travel. Maybe I'll join anyway and try to make up those days as best I can.

Class tonight was very pleasant. The temperature was perfect. I didn't skip a pose, but crash landed early out of Locust. I came in with the headache, and had it completely disappear. I kicked out and held it for a full set on both sides in Standing Head to Knee. But the best thing about the class is that I felt alert and with the dialogue the whole way through. It was one of the most satisfying classes I've had in a while.

The day 292 meditation recommends a 15 minute meditation in the morning. I really need to start trying this. First off, there's the benefits. And then, of course, its kind of silly for me to be writing anything about this stuff unless I've dived in. The meditation also has a beautiful quote from Shakespeare, which stands on its own:

And this our life exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

The quote is from As You Like It, which is one of my absolute favorites. It's never gotten a good film version, as far as I know, but the two stage productions I've seen of it were extraordinary and delightful. I had never considered the retreat to the forest as a kind of meditation, but here again, Shakespeare proves that he simply knew more than most people had ever imagined.

Friday, December 11, 2009

221/343 - Ferdinand the Bull, and Devo

Monday off.
Tuesday 10:30 am with Sherry
Wednesday off.
Thursday 6:30 with Sherry

Tuesday's class was going great. I felt good and flexible, and my knee felt as good as it has in a long time. I even thought about doing Toe Stand, but refrained. I did, however, go back on my elbows in both sets of Fixed Firm.

Then, after the first set of Rabbit, I spun around, and something popped in my right knee. I really wish I knew what was doing it. It seems that getting comfortable with a healthy knee is an almost surefire recipe for reinjury.

I took Wednesday off to give it a rest, used some herbal patches, and after last night's class, its basically back to where it was. So it ended up being more of a scare and a reminder, than anything serious. (And now that I've said that, I'm probably going to tweak it again.)

Last night's class was one where the room seemed hotter than it was. I skipped a set of Triangle, but not for lack of stamina. I went into the first lunge and my knee felt like it might give out. So I took a breather, and took more care in the set-up of the second set.

I also had a realization about one of the songs that repeatedly pops into my head during yoga classes. The song is "Praying Hands" by Devo, of all things. There are several lines of this song that haunt parts of the yoga class, but the realization came over the following "Roll over, play dead. Get spiritual minded." Take away the Sanskrit, and that's Savasana in a nutshell. (And the Devo song is most decidedly not about yoga, or at least, I wouldn't have thought so before. But somehow I had made the connection without realizing it.)

The day 291 meditation gives a practical exercise as the first step in meditation. The idea is simply to take the first step toward eliminating distractions and into concentration. It's not much different from pranayama. All Gates requires is to sit up, on a chair or cushion, and count your breath or simply focus on it, for 10 minutes. That's it. The cool thing about this is that it makes meditation seems so simple. And the instruction is pretty clear as well: focus on something and let the distractions slide away.

The rest of this meditation reminds me of Ferdinand the Bull. Gates says that part of turning inward stems from the truth that we already have everything we need, that we are already in heaven if we would just let go of our fears and allow it to be so. And that's pretty much the message of taking time to smell the flowers. The idea, at least as I am drawing the connection, is that meditation can help open the gateway to appreciation and gratitude.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Friday 6:30 pm with Rohit
Saturday off.
Sunday 9:30 am with Rohit

Rohit took a drink during Eagle and I started laughing. He asked why. "No drinking before party time, " I squeaked out, managing not to fall out of the pose. The between poses, I said I was laughing because he had managed a three-fer. No drinking before party time. No drinking during a pose. And no drinking while people are balancing. After that it became a running joke for a little while. For me, that kind of humor lightens up the class, but I also suspect that some others might not appreciate it. I did notice that I was the only one laughing.

Class was good. I skipped nothing, and managed to avoid getting stuck at any of my sticking points. Instead, I got the hiccups again, this time during the end of Full Locust and the start of Floor Bow. And I went back on my elbows in Fixed Firm again.

A half hour before class today, the room had heated up to 72 degrees. By the time class started, it had zoomed up to 76. And by the end of class, it had climbed gradually to 90, with the humidity holding steady at around 60%.

The condensation in the room was pretty incredible. We're told to focus on our eyes in the mirror, then on our knee, etc... In this class, there was no focusing in the mirror at all. I would have expected my balance to suffer, but it didn't. Rather, not having the mirror interfered most with half moon. It seems that I've got a pretty good internal compass about how to balance and where everything should be in the other poses. But in half moon, I rely very much on the mirror to gauge hip and shoulder alignment.

As expected, the strength poses were much easier today -- Awkward, Triangle, and Back Strengthening always benefit from a cold room. If they could somehow turn the temperature down 10 degrees before Locust, I might be able to overcome my reflux problems and my mental block for the pose. Today's Locusts were the best I've done in recent memory.

I've heard lots about the benefits of the heat. No doubt it improves flexibility and depth in stretching poses. It also makes strength poses more challenging. And it often presents a mental challenge all on its own. But I still have some doubts about the long term physical benefits from a very hot room. If the room is 90 degrees and you push a stretch to its edge, is that stretch really less effective for you than a somewhat deeper stretch that you do to your edge at 103 degrees? I don't really know the answer to this, and I have my doubts about whether anyone else knows the answer either.

Ultimately yogis in all disciplines tend to get really flexible. They also improve their strength. I don't question that there are other benefits to the heat. It speeds up the warm up. Sweating tends to be a good thing. It can add a challenge on its own, simply by providing another distraction. But I really don't know about any lasting physical benefit.

The day 290 meditation talks about three stages in practice. First, there is the decision to improve yourself or to try again. According to this meditation, that is the part where "turning inward" comes into play. Then there is the honeymoon period, where dramatic changes happen. And then there is maintenance.

I'm sure his description applies to a great many situations. For example, it surely takes a certain amount of courage for an addict to give up an addiction. And it takes courage for a person to try again after some significant failure.

But I also think that it's possible for the turning inward to come later. How many people come to their first Bikram class with almost no idea of what to expect? Or come because they've heard that it's a good work-out. And then the changes start happening. And for lots of people, I think, that's all that ever happens. The turning inward never happens, and they get lots of benefits from the Bikram class, but it remains an exercise program, a hard work-out.

And then other people go through the same thing, and a light goes off. They start to learn how to forgive themselves. They start to focus and approach class with discipline. Their breathing cleans up. They start noticing that they are nicer to people generally, that they have adopted better eating habits for no particular reason. And that awareness, at some point, starts the turning inward. I think that that probably more closely describes the process in my case.

Friday, December 4, 2009

217/336 - Snow! and a Recipe for Happiness

Wednesday 6:30 with Sherry
Thursday off.

It's snowing and has been since early this morning. In some places, the ground has accumulated as much as 1/4". Here in Houston, that's incredibly rare and enough to make people wonder whether they should brave the traffic. The radio stations are all reporting many minor accidents. It makes me wonder whether there really are more accidents today because people are freaked over the snow, or if they are just reporting accidents that they ordinarily would ignore so they can make the snow out to be a big hazard.

Anyway I can't wait to take my dogs out for a romp. They are snow dogs (Samoyeds) and they have never seen what they were born for. And then I might just dare the treacherous roads for another Bikram class.

Wednesday's class was good. My stamina improved and I made it through standing series without even wanting to sit out a set. And then I got stuck with the hiccups of all things between the Camel sets. I made it through Rabbit without coming out early, and Sherry tends towards long rabbits. With her timing, she manages to give long holds in most of the poses, full Savasanas, and still finishes a few minutes early. I don't know how she does it -- maybe the laws of physics are different in her classes. (Maybe at home she can make magic grits -- and bonus points to anyone who gets the reference).

The other first in Wednesday's class was a hamstring cramp in the right leg when trying to pick up my foot in Standing Bow. The foot would go up, I would grab it, and then CRAAAMP. So I extended it, and tried again. Fortunately, the stretch you get in the leg when its actually the standing leg worked things back to normal, and I was fine from there on out. I don't know what caused the cramp, but I'm taking it as a sign that something is happening in my hamstring, and that's probably a good thing.

The day 285 meditation focuses on an incredibly powerful and challenging thought: "To become happy, we simply have to stop making ourselves unhappy." My first reaction was that it can't really be that simple, and the next thing Gates says is that most people don't think that it can be that simple. So I guess, at least at first blush, I was in the majority.

Studies (and I don't have any cites off the top of my head) show pretty consistently that happiness has very little to do with wealth. These studies exclude the truly destitute. But for people who have the basics, meaning food and shelter, the rich don't tend to be any happier than the poor or the middle income groups.

The next thing that seems to be true is that happiness depends much more on a person's attitude than on circumstances. And perhaps that means that happiness is more of a disposition than it is a result. In yoga, contentment is one of the things that we should practice. Once again, being content is an activity, its not something that happens to us.

Give all the above, I think there's probably a world of truth to the idea that the way to become happy is to stop making ourselves unhappy. In class, I've certainly learned that I can turn the class around with a smile. I can make a bad class better by refusing to dwell on how much things hurt, and in its stead, start telling myself how grateful I am for the opportunity to be there. And if I can do it in class, then why not elsewhere. I think I will try it out this afternoon by tolerating the drivers who simply can't deal with the idea of a little snow in Houston.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Sunday off.
Monday off.
Tuesday 4:30 pm with Rohit.

I planned to go on Monday, but our plane from New York arrived late. Before boarding, they told us that we had to make a stop in Birmingham to refuel because of bad weather. I'm not sure I like the idea that my plane can't hold enough fuel to handle a little circling. We got home at 3 instead of 12:30, and that meant I would have to go to yoga without eating anything at all. And then there was my cold.

I went into Tuesday's class wondering how long my cold was going to drag on, and how badly it would effect my practice. The answers: It hung around until about Cobra, and after class it was like I never had a cold at all. And it had a big enough impact that Rohit left the room during the long Savasana to find some tissues for me. The amazing thing, and its happened before, is coming into class with symptoms of some illness and leaving with them gone. The only difference today is in how dramatic the contrast was. From coughing, runny nose, and some sneezing to nothing at all.

As for the class: I skipped Triangle only. I still stuck at some of my sticking points. I crash landed out of Locust, dragged myself into Camel set-up behind the rest of the class, and came out of a set of Rabbit way too early. On the plus side, my butt hit the floor in Fixed Firm for the first time in a while. Standing Head to Knee was also better than its been in a while. I came out just a bit early once, but otherwise held the pose for the duration and kicked out for most of the time -- at least on the right side, the left side side not so much.

The day 288 meditation opens with an Indian fable. When the star Svati rises and it rains, the oysters come to the surface of the water and open their shells. They know that if they can catch a raindrop, it will become a pearl. Once they catch some of the rain, they close their shells and hurry back to the bottom to develop the raindrops into pearls. The one telling this fable then says we should be like the oyster, first opening ourselves to experience and understanding, then closing ourselves off and diving deep inside to develop the truth.

I've been trying to come up with some sort of Western comparison to this fable, but I'm getting nothing at all. If anyone can think of something, please let me know. In the meanwhile, I think this fable is a pretty good illustration of the difference in cultures or ways of thinking.

Gates says that when he started his book he also thought he would continue teaching, but that became more difficult than he thought. He took some time off, wandered around in the woods, watching fish in the river, and as he did this the book began to take shape for him.

I really like his description here, partially because it describes the way I worked when I was a student. Before writing a paper, I would first read everything I needed for it. Then would come the time when everyone else thought I was either procrastinating or goofing off. I would wander around campus, chat with people, listen to music, while everyone else was busy writing and re-writing their papers. And then, I would write. Using this "method", I once wrote a 10 page paper in less than an hour. At the end of my senior year, I wrote three 25 page papers in a day and a half. I would tell people that I was composing the papers in my head while wandering around, but that wasn't really true, at least not on the level of sentences. I can't really describe what I was doing, but I think this fable gets it about right, I was taking what I needed it and turning it into a "pearl", even if in my case they were sometimes more paste than pearl.

This process was fine until I started working at a law firm and had to bill by the hour. It's one thing to tell your friends that everything is alright while you seem to be procrastinating. But how do you bill the ruminating process? So I gave it up, and its too bad, because the work I did with it, I think, was much better than anything I did with the drafting and re-drafting process that makes bosses so comfortable.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

215/331 - Pain masked as pleasure

Friday off
Saturday 8am with Lara

I went to a non-affiliated Bikram class on Long Island. The owner is one of the early teacher trainees. As I understand it, their certification gives them considerably more latitude than the current teacher trainees get. There were a number of fairly startling differences.

First, the studio was not carpeted. I've been in non-carpeted studios before, and it generally is not a big deal. The only difference it makes in the series is in the separate leg portion. Except, the wood floor gets slippery. I discovered that in Standing Bow when I fell forward off the front of my mat, and nearly slid onto my butt. It was a precarious, but funny moment, and there was no harm done.

The teacher used music during class. I noticed it a little at the beginning, but quickly shut it out. Then I noticed again during the long savasana. I've been in Yoga classes with music before, but never a Bikram class. Since I didn't hear it at all during the poses, I have a hard time saying whether it made a difference or not, but probably not.

The big difference was in the noise. There were 22 people in a room that could hold maybe 23. And there was no carpeting, no fans, and a passive heating system. That all meant that breathing became very audible. Pranayama was great, very loud and very energizing. The rest of the class varied somewhere between being entertaining and annoying. There were six other guys in the class, and they grunted alot. They held their breath, and then gasped for air. Some did something like uji breathing, making an audible throaty sound with each inhale. I've never heard anything like it before, and was a bit surprised that the teacher didn't say anything about it.

Then there were the differences in the poses. Hands behind the back was an option in the first backbend. Bridge was offered as an optional substitute to Fixed Firm. In Standing Head to Knee, many people stopped with their leg lifted and thigh parallel, without bending over to grab either the knee or foot. I don't really understand the point of any of these modifications. It seems to me that they are unlikely to lead to significant progress.

As for the class itself, I discovered that I'm on the verge of being sick. I had a hard time staying with the breathing in Pranayama. I started off OK after that, but lost my stamina very quickly. I sat out a set of Triangle, then a set of Standing Seperate Leg Head to Knee. That's happened before, but then in Tree I got dizzy and had to come out early.

The floor series was about the same. Lara was running behind, and either she was cutting savasana short, or they don't do twenty second savasanas on the floor at this studio. By Camel, I decided to take my savasanas whether the class did or not. That meant missing a set of Camel and a set of Rabbit. They only did one set of Fixed Firm, and then one set of the Final Stretching. Overall, I'm happy I went to this class, but it was definitely not one of my best classes.

The day 287 meditation talks about our being "embedded in pain masked as pleasure." I can think of perhaps no better description of the ridiculous holiday eating that has gone on here for the past few days. Wednesday night: a wonderful, huge meal at a very fine French restaurant. Thursday; turkey feast. Friday: turkey feast redux. Does anyone actually feel good an hour after Thanksgiving dinner. Then, another great but enormous meal out, this time at a seafood house. Of course, I volunteered for it all. And nothing compelled me to continue to eat and eat and eat. But it surely is pain masked as pleasure, and the pleasure really does not last all that long.

According to Gates, pratyahara (turning inward) is the decision to stop hurting ourselves with this kind of pain. Maybe so, but I have to say that this is not the first time I've had this realization about Thanksgiving, but the realization and the decision not to do it again hasn't worked before. So I can't say with any confidence that I won't be back at the trough next year too. What that means, I guess, is that there are decisions and decisions.

Friday, November 27, 2009


Tuesday 6:30 pm with Libby
Wednesday off
Thursday (Thanksgiving) off

Tuesday's class went well. I was a bit worried beforehand because I had pizza with lunch. (This is one of those lessons that I seem to refuse to learn.) It caused some havoc in one set of Locust, but otherwise I was just fine. I felt especially good in the backbends. In the first backbend, I think there is some point of relaxation that I simply don't get, and that if I could just figure out what it was and let go of it, I would get much deeper.

My knees are gradually improving. I'm still slightly hampered in the second and third parts of awkward. No bouncing like a motorcycle ride for me yet. I am almost to the point again where my hips touch the floor in Fixed Firm, which is some real progress. And I don't really feel any other big limitation from them anymore. I'm thinking maybe a month or two before I try Toe Stand again.

I thought about going to a studio on Long Island on Thanksgiving morning, but I only got two hours of sleep the night before, so I opted to sleep instead. I hope to get one or two classes in while here on Long Island. But there is also something to be said for simply vacationing once in a while.

The day 286 meditation discusses turning inward in a bit more detail. According to Gates, pranayama gives the experience of having one foot planted in the external and another in the internal world. Part of the attention is on sensation and physical technique, but because this attention is on the breath, we can't help but at least partially focus inwardly. The next step is to turn completely inward.

Gates says we should first try this in asana practice (for me this means tomorrow morning). The interesting thing is that he asks a series of questions, and one of them is "What resistance do you have to letting go of the past and the future?" To me, this seems to show that either turning inward, and being present, are the same thing. Or, maybe its that being present is in some way a prerequisite. I'm not even sure if there is a real distinction there.

The other point Gates makes is that this is not supposed to be hard work. That's nice to know. Maybe its sort of like those magic eye posters, the ones that look like nothing but a mess when you first look at them. But if you learn to look at one the right way, a three dimensional object emerges from the mess, and sometimes the image is quite extraordinary. Maybe there is a similar "trick" to turning inward -- so that its not hard to do once you learn how, but learning how might be a matter of either getting the knack or finding it to be impossible, with no middle ground.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

213/326 - Unwinding

Sunday Off
Monday 6:30 with Sherry

I remember Thursday's class as being one without high points, and without any real difficulties. I didn't skip anything. I remember being somewhat distracted by other people lying down. I don't mean someone sitting out a set of Triangle. But sometimes I simply don't understand when I see someone out for the count in second set of Fixed Firm, or in Half Tortoise. I think this must show how vastly different peoples' experience of the series must be. It's hard for me to imagine being so wiped out at those points that I would need to sit out. But obviously it happens, and to people who seem to have a pretty strong commitment to their practices.

The day 285 meditation ends the "external" limbs of yoga. It's time to turn inward, which it turns out is the translation of pratyahara. Gates compares the process of turning inward to the first couple of days of vacation -- the time where you have already arrived at your destination, but your mind and your rhythms are still back at home. Often, over the first couple of days of a vacation, there is a process of easing into the vacation itself, of unwinding. So it is with turning inward, but instead of getting used to the rhythms of a new place, you become attuned to your own internal rhythms.

This is a point where the navel gazing stereotype of the yogi might seem preferable to a Bikram practice. But even here I'm not so sure. In Bikram, the dialogue might be seen as a distraction. So too the heat. But there's no music. The poses don't change. The room doesn't change. And what you are left with is you and your reflection in the mirror. When class is going well, that's pretty much all there is. How much you get out of the class often depends solely on how much you can focus on yourself, how deeply you can turn inward.

And in some ways, it may even be easier to turn inward during this practice. For example, in Standing Head to Knee, I think it might be impossible to do the pose while having your attention elsewhere. It almost demands this kind of shift of attention. The same goes for some of the longer strength holds. Here, its possible simply to tough it out. But, if you can focus on your breath and learn simply to enjoy the sensation, then you can find ease in these poses.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

212/324 - Putting your eyes out

Friday Off
Saturday 9:30 am with Lenette

The cool thing about Lenette's classes is that, while basically every other teacher says how good I'm doing Awkward, Lenette almost always finds something to correct. This time I was down too far in the first part, and she had me come up just a half inch or so. It didn't make much difference for my thighs, but it did allow me to actually get more of a backbend feeling than I usually do.

Back strengthening was as good as its been for a long time. I felt composed in control in Locust, which is pretty much a rarity. Otherwise it was just a nice solid practice. I had to skip out a set at the end of standing series again, but otherwise I felt strong and good. And following my moaning about the third part of Wind Relieving, I just pulled in tighter and held on, and I made it through without losing the grip. But I still need to be a bit more mindful about food...

The day 284 meditation is the last on pranayama, but it doesn't have much to do with pranayama. Instead, Gates talks about advice from his mother. No matter what he wanted to do, his mother would likely object that someone had died from doing that. After a long, long time and seemingly endless hours on the mat, he finally realized that he might be better off not asking his mother for advice. But, of course, the voice still lived inside him.

This story reminded me of an uncle/caretaker who played a big part in raising us up. We called him Unk, but he wasn't a relative. Instead, he met my grandfather the day he arrived in the U.S. in a bar in downtown Manhattan. They got drunk together. Eventually my grandfather asked him where he was staying, but he didn't know anywhere, so my grandfather said it would be OK to stay the night, and he ended up staying for the next 60 plus years.

That's all beside the point. The point is that whenever I had a new small toy that I was playing with, Unk would assure me that "You could put your eye out with that." For the most part, what he was saying was preposterous. I mean, I suppose a really determined kid could put his eye out with silly putty, but I doubt it's actually happened more than a handful of times. Yet, even to this day, I have a kind of irrational fear about putting anything near or in my eye. Watching people put their contacts in makes me shudder. And this meditation made me remember and realize that that fear almost certainly came from Unk.

Now that I know where that irrational fear comes from, does that mean that mean it will somehow vanish? I doubt it. But since this fear has never been all that troubling, especially since I still don't need glasses, much less contacts, it is amusing to realize where it came from.

Friday, November 20, 2009

211/322 - Breathing and Non-Violence

Wednesday Off
Thursday 6:30 pm with Rohit

I pushed really hard in the standing series, and then had to skip a set in Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee. I've thought for a long time that, no matter how conditioned you are, you should be just on the edge of your stamina limit by the time that pose rolls around. If not, then you probably have left something on the table. And if you push too hard, like I did this time, you have to sit out.

Getting it just right can be elusive. Some teachers can convince me to go on when I'm certain I need a break. I'm not always the best judge of my own limits, though I think I'm gradually getting better.

Recently, one of my hardest poses has been the third part of Wind Relieving. For a while this seemed pretty easy. Now, when I grab my elbows my legs start to slip out of the grip. I try to hold on, but then I start tensing up in my upper back. I'm not sure what's causing this, but I think its a pretty clear sign that I my belly has gotten bigger and I need to be a bit more mindful about food. That's a nice thought with Thanksgiving just around the corner...

The day 284 meditation is about the infectious nature of nonviolence. Gates says that people and nations continually respond to violence with violence in return, and then wonder why peace is so elusive. I don't know if non-violence as a response to violence would always work. At the extreme, I have doubts about whether any non-violent approach would have stopped the holocaust. So, on one level, its hard for me generally to accept the idea.

Having said that, in many, many more cases it seems to me that non-violence is the much better approach. And I think that that's true almost universally in my personal life. I've also noticed that its been much easier to refuse confrontations since I started yoga.

Gates also talks about non-violence in the yoga practice itself. This is a point that I'm still developing. If I push myself to the point where I lose my breath, as I did in this class, then I've slightly crossed the line . And that, I think, is one of the central points to this meditation: learning to breath comfortably is learning non-violence. And from learning to breath, all the rest can follow naturally.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

210/321 - Oz Revisited

Saturday Off
Sunday Off
Monday 6:30 pm with Sherry
Tuesday 6:30 pm with Libby

I skipped two days again. Sometimes I feel like I'm really slacking off.

Sherry's class was good, but I can now remember almost nothing from it. I was next to a noobie and trying pretty hard to set a good example. I don't know if I actually did or not, but I didn't skip anything and I was paying pretty good attention to both form and dialogue. I still couldn't find my breath in Rabbit, but otherwise everything went pretty well.

Libby's class was great. There was lots of energy, and it was just good fun. Plus, I got lots of nice compliments and good corrections. Here's a short rundown on the compliments. First, in the set-up to half moon. I've worked really hard on getting my elbows to lock, hands together, and arms back behind the ears. This was the first class where a teacher commented on it and it was surprisingly gratifying to hear the compliment, even when I know that I'm doing it pretty well.

Then the great compliment came in Standing Bow. She said I was doing perfect form and that I was definitely competing next year. I laughed and she said "What are you laughing about?" I was laughing because the main goal for me right now is fixing my knee, and if my form is any good its because of my bad knees. After class, I told her and she said "Aren't the injuries like a gift?"

There were some other compliments along the way, but those were the real high points. On corrections, she told me to keep my chest up in Standing Head to Knee. I was at the second step, just kicking out, and apparently I'm arching/rounding too early. This was a good tip, and the posture was easier to hold after the correction. (It was one of those few corrections that did not make the pose harder.)

And then in Rabbit, she said to get my heels together. Concentrating on doing that actually allowed me to get through the pose, even though I still had no breath. Maybe all I need to do in this pose is focus on something other than not getting any air.

The day 282 meditation reminded me again of The Wizard of Oz. At the end of the meditation Gates says that pranayama "confirms the central message of yoga -- that we have already arrived, that we are already home, that we must simply wake up from the dream that this is not so." And that could be straight from the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy had the power to go home from the start, all she had to do was believe it, and that would wake her up from her dream. And as Dorothy says "But it all seemed so real." And I guess the same could be said for all the baggage we get rid of, a layer at a time, through yoga practice.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

208/317 - One Thing

Thursday Off
Friday 6:30 am

I left the house a minute later than usual but then hit every light between here and the studio and had slow traffic on top of that. I've only been late to class once before. This time, I got into the studio halfway through the first set of pranayama.

That's not that big a deal, and I know what I should do so I rushed into the room and threw my mat and towel on the ground and started in. Rohit immediately pointed out that I was directly in front of someone in the back row. Oops! I usually consider myself to be both considerate and observant, so I was a little mortified by this. I moved away a bit sheepishly. And that shows a bit how out of sorts being late made me.

The other thing was that I had been planning on using the bathroom before class. Then I thought I might be able to make it through in my rush to get inside. No such luck. As soon as I calmed down a bit, my bladder started to complain. I left the room after Eagle, but didn't miss anything. Instead, I just blew up part of the point of warming up.

Once things settled down, it was a very nice class. In Rohit's classes, it seems easier for me to strike a balance between working really hard and finding some calm and peace in the practice itself. In this class, the room was very hot. I worked really hard and pushed myself through without taking any breaks. I did a solid back strengthening series, without bailing on any part of either of the Locusts. I came out of Rabbit early on the second set, but that's because I still can't figure out how to breathe in that pose, at least not when I'm really compressed.

But despite the huge effort I was putting into the poses, I always felt composed and confident. I'm not sure what it is about his classes, but I definitely like the effect. (I like other teachers classes as well, but often for different reasons.) So lets just say that this class just hit the spot. For what I needed on this day, it was just right.

The day 281 meditation begins with a quote that I find quite surprising:

Those who really want to be yogis must give up, once and for all, this nibbling at things. Take up one idea; make that one idea your life. Think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body be full of that idea, and just leave other ideas alone.

I hear all the time that yoga aims to strike a balance. This quote sounds like it involves a single-mindedness that crosses the line towards obsession. If one picked the wrong idea, then wouldn't the pursuit of it lead to disaster. Weren't the great megalomaniacs doing exactly what this quote recommends? So I have some initial doubts about this quote.

Gates says that for him, the idea he took up was "God." And this makes me wonder too. Very often, I think that peoples idea of "God" is basically an infinite vessel into which they can pour all things that strike them as being good. And yes, I admit that that's my projection and may not be what others do. But it makes me doubt about whether God really is a single idea in the way that is meant by this quote. For Gates, it may be, and so much the better for him.

It also occurs to me that I saw this same idea expressed in a more popular form. It's the scene in City Slickers where Curly explains that the secret to life is just "one thing." Stick to that one thing and everything else "doesn't mean shit." What's the one thing? That's up to each one of us to figure out. The problem I have with this quote is that it makes it seem like it might not matter what idea one chooses to adhere to.

I still have reservations about whether this type of single minded focus on one idea is consistent with what I've come to understand about yoga over the last year and a half. Is it unbalanced, or does the focus on one idea provide a platform from which someone can find balance? I don't know the answer to this.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

207/315 - Transcendent Breathing

Tuesday Off.
Wednesday 6:30 with Sherry

What a contrast from the last class. I went in with the same trepidations, perhaps more. But very early on, that all melted away and the class was a pure joy. Easy, focused, strong. I skipped nothing. I had really good focus in the balancing series. I felt on the outer edge during the spine strengthening series but managed to hold things together.

I'm not sure how Sherry times her classes the way she does. I swear that she holds the early standing postures for longer than most. In Standing Head to Knee, for example, you could easily squeeze in five or six forevers in the first set alone. Half moon is always a full, honest minute. But somehow, even with these full holds, she finishes the standing series with 45 minutes left. This leaves lots of time on the floor, so there is never any skimping on the savasanas. And she also holds the floor poses longer than many other teachers, since there is no need to rush at the end trying to catch up.

The timing is great, and I'm thankful for no skimping on the savasanas. But it also makes for a seriously challenging class. And I'm still not sure how she manages it. Is she saying less dialogue? Spending less time on the set-ups? Giving less time between poses in the standing series? (I don't think so on that one.) She doesn't spend much if any time between poses giving general corrections or demonstrations, and that might have something to do with it.

The day 280 meditation talks about "transcendent breathing," breathing that is "effortless and non-deliberate." Gates says that this is the point where breathing actually becomes meditation, and that most people have their first encounter with it during asana practice. He also says that he's felt it at times while training for marathons.

This is the point where effort ceases, and the person crosses a threshold. At this point, we are "no longer the doer." The breath and the action becomes effortless, our minds find stillness, and we start to experience our still center: "inaction in action." Here, we are revisiting the idea of losing yourself in the moment, finding the place where the music plays the band.

Gates says that we are likely to first experience this in asana. I first experienced this sort of thing playing basketball. And then again, at some times, playing music. And I've also had moments, and even whole stretches, in Bikram classes where I think I may have crossed the threshold. Still, this kind of meditation either makes me yearn for something I've been missing, or it gives me hope for what is to come. Which one depends upon my mood.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

206/313 - Married to your Breath

Sunday Off
Monday 6:30 pm with Connease

Often I will go into the room 5-10 minutes early. This lets me do some of the pranayama exercises Gates recommends, and also lets me get acclimated. And that's what I intended yesterday. I lay down on my mat and settled into some deep breathing. I still wasn't feeling all that well, and wasn't at all sure how I would respond to class, so the acclimatization seemed even more important.

I woke up as Connease was just starting Pranayama. I had fallen utterly asleep, and came awake with the kind of start that I remember from school days, where the head starts to drop and then BAM -- awake again, and startled all at once. The jolt basically killed the gradual relaxation I was looking for. And then, I had to consider whether I would rather take the class or simply go back to sleep on my mat.

Class was hot and hard for me. I skipped a set of Triangle, and still felt like I had nothing left by the end of standing series. Floor series was one of those classes where I alternatively felt totally exhausted, and then felt like a bit of a slacker. In short, there was very little balance or ease in the class. I had a good set of Standing Bow, and did nicely in Standing Seperate Leg Head to Knee. Otherwise, I simply felt off, and I think that all stemmed from still being a bit sick.

The remarkable thing is that after class I felt really good. No traces of sickness, lots of energy, no pain in either of my knees. So, even though the class pretty much sucked, it also turned out to be exactly what I needed.

Speaking of my knees, I have a new theory. I recently noticed that my knees are not quite as bow legged as they used to be in the resting pose. And my elbows get a bit closer together behind my legs in the first forward bend. I think my legs may be getting straighter, and that's what's causing the shifting pains in my knees, from one knee to the other, back and forth. When I first started, I had fairly constant pains in my feet, even though my plantar fascia-tis went away very quickly. These pains were definitely the result of my feet getting better and stronger. Now, I think the same sort of thing is happening in my knees, and this makes me think there is nothing seriously wrong with them.

I love the day 279 meditation. Gates says that when we start asana practice we take marriage vows to our breath. But its a strange marriage, because the fighting comes first, and then we get the honeymoon. In my experience, the relationship is even stranger than that. In some poses, breathing is quite easy and natural from the start. In others, with some understanding of the pose, its pretty easy to develop an easy breathing rhythm, at least most of the time. For me, poses like Triangle, Awkward, and Half Moon fall into this category.

Then there are the poses where it's just hard to figure out how to breathe. For me, this includes Rabbit, Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee, the first backbend, and Locust. I'd love to get to the point where I could even call on my breath to help me out in these poses, but more often than not, breath simply eludes me in these poses -- especially Rabbit and Locust.

Amy has always told us, breath first, then form, then depth. Gates reminds us here that we may often need to remind ourselves to return to a relaxed, regular breath. And makes me think again how brilliant the floor series is for adding the savasanas between poses. Each one of these is a call to bring your breathing under control. To make it natural and flowing. To slow down.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

205/311 -

Friday Off
Saturday 9:30 am with Lenette

I was feeling off, and maybe a little bit sick, before class. By Eagle, all the ill feelings were gone, and class was simply nice and pleasant. The heat felt perfect. I didn't skip anything, and I didn't lag behind as the class wore on.

It's been a while since I've had a Lenette class, and its always fun. She made a big point about discipline somewhere towards the end of class. Her two points were: if you come in late, be a bit meek about it and hurry up and get into the class. A latecomer is an energy pirate.

And, if you are in the front row, you have taken it upon yourself to act as a leader. That doesn't mean your poses are perfect. It just means you are committed to sticking with the dialogue, trying your best, and staying still between poses. Even those can slack off some. Everyone has bad days. But if you are shifting from foot to foot, wiping yourself constantly, fidgeting in Savasanas, going into poses late all the time and coming out early, well, then maybe you should think about going to one of the other rows in your next class. (Thankfully, she wasn't talking about me. And besides, I was in the middle row this class.)

Libby hits on discipline from time to time. Amy is just too nice to call anyone out. At the most, she will make the most general suggestion to people. The other teachers tend simply to ignore discipline "problems." I tend to think that the discipline is a part of the practice, so I'm perfectly happy to hear people reminded about things like not drinking water at the wrong times, or lying down with the feet toward the back.

On the flip side, everyone's practice is their own. And if someone really thinks they need to wipe their sweat, or readjust the towel on their mat, there's no reason why it should bother me or anyone else. So I'm glad we don't have any true "drill sergeant" type teachers.

The good feeling that came along with practice didn't stick with me. I actually did get sick, but maybe not so sick as I otherwise would have. The Texas Asana Championships were today, and I was really looking forward to going and cheering on the folks I knew who were participating. I barely slept at all last night, and woke up feeling rotten. So I stayed in instead, and am pretty bummed that I missed these championships for the second year in a row. Oh well.

The day 278 meditation is both short and dense. I think I'll quote the whole thing:

The physical and mental calm that comes over us with pranayama practice makes it possible, often for the first time, for us to perceive the pain we are in. Rushing through our days, we feel only hints of the deep waters that swirl beneath our surface. In the stillness of practice, we dive right in. What I have found is that I have held the present a prisoner to my past. As I breath into my body, into my life, I glimpse an alternative reality, one in which I simply am.
I don't understand the first sentence. If pranayama brings us into physical and mental calm, how does it make it possible for us to perceive pains for the first time. I can understand how the absence of pain that one feels while in pranayama might make one more aware of the pain that they otherwise are in. But pain and calm don't generally go together.

When I was in my twenties, I lost a filling and had a back molar break into several pieces. My tooth had rotted away from underneath the filling. It led to my first root canal. I was very close to having an abscess, and my mouth was a swollen mess. The dentist did the first steps of the root canal in one visit, and after he was done, he apologized for any pain that he might have caused. But quite to the contrary, the very short sharp pains of the visit were nothing compared to the relief I felt afterward. I simply had not realized how much pain I had been living with for the past few months -- a nearly constant pain in my mouth and head that I had pretty much managed to ignore (at significant cost to my moods, as I soon realized). For me, that was a vivid example of becoming aware of a pain by removing it. And it's by thinking about this, that I can best understand what Gates might be trying to say here.

The deep waters that swirl beneath our surface are what I'm thinking of as suppressed pains. We do a much better job of suppressing past emotional hurts, those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, than we do in ignoring a true physical pain. But the lasting damage from them is probably at least as great, if not greater, and I think its that kind of damage that Gates is referring to when he talks about being a prisoner to the past.

Friday, November 6, 2009

204/309 - Alternate Nostril Breathing

Tuesday Off
Wednesday 6:30 pm with Sherry
Thursday 8:15 pm with Amy

Wednesday's class was pretty strong. I don't think I missed any of the poses. I had some trouble with the last part of Awkward pose, but felt better in the second set when my knee finally cracked. I'm also having some congestion problems, and it's having an impact on the forward bends and the spine strengthening series. Sherry brought me some tissues, which was a trifle embarrassing, and at another point, I was really stuffed up and having trouble with breath, and she asked whether I was OK, so it must have been really obvious.

Tonight's class was better, but harder. It wasn't actually hotter than usual. But it felt it, and I wasn't the only one feeling it. People were dropping all over the place. I cracked up in second set of Standing Bow, because Amy was encouraging people to turn it up at the end of the pose, and then she said by name "John and Duffy" because we were the only ones still trying at all. And then I laughed so hard that I fell out early too.

Instead of nasal congestion, tonight I had a slight cough. I still think its probably allergies, but sickness has been going around, so I'm not dismissing the possibility. This took a real toll in back strengthening. The cough became reflux, and I was basically spitting up liquid from Cobra through Full Locust. Not fun.

On the plus side, I had a really strong Triangle, even though I was feeling beat at the time. Sometimes, if I nail the set-up, the pose itself just seems to fit and becomes almost effortless. Or at least it seems effortless until its over, and I suddenly realize how hard I was working. And then, I did my best Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee in ages. Both legs straight and locked, back nicely curled, arms straight, and the posture felt good.

The day 278 meditation introduces a fourth breathing technique: alternate nostril breathing. Seated, with one hand on the lap, you put the other hand by your nose, so that the thumb can close one nostril and the fingers can close the other. This is just another aspect of the miracle of having opposable thumbs. Close the one nostril with the thumb, inhale. Switch the pressure so the thumb valve is open and the finger valve is closed. Exhale and then inhale. Switch the valves again. Exhale. That's one cycle. Do 10-20 cycles easily.

If feels really odd at first, but its not actually difficult. Gates says its a great way to gain focus, concentration, and relaxation. I wonder why. Maybe the strangeness of the feeling of breathing only through a single nostril makes it that much easier to center your attention on your breath. The very strangeness of it makes it an aid to concentration? This is another one I need to do for a while with some seriousness before i can really comment on it. I've tried it before when reading about it in books, but never for more than a minute or two.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

202/306 - The Music Plays the Band

Sunday Off
Monday 10:30 am with Janna

My knee hurts. And it's the other knee! It's not so bad this time, and it doesn't look swollen at all, but it feels a bit like I have a brace on it. Japanese sitting position was impossible at first, but that got better. And Fixed Firm was a joke. I spread my feet apart, but did not go down at all and probably ended with my butt 5 inches off the ground.

Other than that, class was really nice. I skipped one set of Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee, and because I was a bit worried about the knee, not because of stamina issues. I did very well in the balancing poses, and really pushed in the back strengthening series. I think I might have pushed harder there because I thought that the later poses where you are on the knees might end up being a bust.

Janna gave me some gentle prodding in Half Tortoise that worked wonders. She slightly pulled/encouraged my hands forward and together. Then touched the back of my head, reminding me to get my nose to the ground, and then lightly touched my hips, which gave me a clue as to how to get them further down. These were really good corrections for me, and I think they stayed with me for the second set.

After class, I felt better and my knee seemed to have improved. I also noticed that Janna seemed to have changed her timing. In the past, I've noted that she has tended to skimp on the Savasanas. Today, the standing series seemed to go more quickly, and then she allowed us to luxuriate more on the floor. The differences can probably measured in mere seconds, but it made the class more enjoyable -- at least for me.

I think this is one of the things that is probably really hard for a teacher. Very small changes in timing can make very large differences to the students experience. I've joked before about how many "forevers" its possible to fit into a single 90 minute session. And I've found myself frustrated more than once with a teacher correcting someone on the triangle set-up while I'm trying and failing to hold the lunge with some degree of patience. All those small timing changes can make a world of difference. And to complicate the matter further, the changes have a different impact on different people. If the teacher decided to hold the first part of Awkward for an extra fifteen seconds, or Camel for however long, I might not even notice the change. But other people would start wilting.

The day 276 meditation expands on the idea raised in the last -- that we breath with intention but without taking control. And it does this in a way that makes a bit more sense to me. As my brother suggested, it seems like this is another way of saying that the goal is to arrive at a place where you lose yourself in the exercise, where "the music plays the band."

As Gates puts it: "...watching the ocean tide of my breath, I let go." And then "[f]loacting on my breath ... I want to be the channel, I want to be the witness, I want to be grateful." I love the way he starts with the image of the breath as an ocean tide, and then sees himself first as floating along, and then as simply being the channel through which the ocean flows. Not only is this a beautiful image, but I think its something I can try to imagine myself. It's something I can work with.

The last part of this meditation leaves me a bit in awe. Gates seems to be saying he can put himself into this state pretty much at will. The idea boggles my mind. I might fall into this state from time to time. But I can hardly even imagine getting there with any regularity.

One other thing about this idea of letting go and losing yourself. I think this is one of the areas where the Bikram dialogue can be a great aid. First, we're told again and again that pranayama "sets the tone" for the rest of the class. One of the ways that it sets the tone is that it gives the first opportunity to lose yourself in the dialogue itself. And then, maybe you can stay with the dialogue, maybe you can get to the point where it seems like the dialogue itself is moving you without any intermediary. As Zeb used to say, "My mind, your body." Using the dialogue in this way, I think, can lead to exactly the sort of thing that Gates has in mind. And in the Bikram class, you don't really have to think about it. Instead, you just do it, and if you are doing it right, eventually the magic will happen.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

201/304 - Intention vx. Control

Friday Off
Saturday 9:30 am with Connease

It was another humidity feast, and during the floor series I just hit a wall. It was probably my fault. I came in with too little sleep and maybe a bit dehydrated. But then I was stoked for the class because Sherie was practicing behind me. She's on a Bikram binge, preparing for the Asana Championships next sunday. And I haven't seen her in a while, so I was just happy that she was there, and I was expecting maybe to feed off her energy some.

That worked fine for most of the standing series, and I thought things were going along pretty well. But maybe I pushed just a bit too hard, because Triangle was a real struggle, and then I had to go down for the first set of Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee. And then, I was disoriented. I almost interrupted Connease, telling her she had skipped a set of Triangle (probably because I was sitting out, and I'm supposed to sit out Triangle, so what was she doing skipping ahead?). I caught myself on time, but that was a signal of things to come.

Then, during the long Savasana, Connease shut the fans off. I don't know why. Sometimes the fans go off when its too cold. But it wasn't too cold at all. I'm thinking that maybe she was trying to control the humidity by cutting back on the sweat evaporation. The reason doesn't really matter, and neither should the fans have mattered. But they did, in a big way. I was in a perfect mood to blame all my woes on the lack of air circulation. And, I just reacted badly.

I struggled through the back strengthening series, and did a fair job of it. Then the resting poses just got to me. In Half Tortoise I felt like I couldn't breathe. I skipped the second set of Camel. I felt even more disoriented after one set of Rabbit, and then I limped through the home stretch, but made it. All in all, it was a class just to get through.

Afterward, I felt fine, but as the day went on, I got one of those dehydration headaches. So that was definitely one of the problems. In general, I think I've become a bit too complacent about my out of class water, and it's taking a subtle toll. So, for the next week or so, I may start apportioning a water intake at the start of the day, and just drink it whether I think I need it or not.

The day 275 meditation draws a distinction that I don't really understand. It's all the more troubling because I also get the sense that its a very important distinction. Most people go through their lives without paying any attention to their breath. I would have thought that it was fair to say that they simply let their breathing happen. Pranayama is breathing exercise. When we do pranayama, we focus our attention on our breathing. And I would have thought that, if anywere, it is in pranayama that we take control of our breath.

Apparently this is wrong. The goal is not to control the breath, but to ride it. The goal of pranayama is to let the breath happen, but it happens in accord with our intention. And that is the distinction I don't understand. We intend something to happen, and it does, but we don't take control of it. To me this is simply a puzzle at this point.

It might be simply that there are different levels of control that Gates is getting at. But that's not what he says. He's quite clear that we simply start with an intention and then "let go and let the universe respond." On this, I'm not sure I have a clue what he's getting at. It's definitely not something that I've experienced in any pranayama -- certainly not in Bikram. And I don't really have any idea how I would go about doing it, either.

In some ways, it sounds an awful lot like the endpoint of meditation to me. That there is a kind of unity going on, so that there is no longer an "I" that is controlling the breath. But I really am not sure if that is the idea here or if I'm simply missing the point.

Friday, October 30, 2009

200/302 - Taming the Bull

Wednesday Off
Thursday 6:30 pm with Connease

I was expecting a really hard class. It was pouring outside. The humidity soared. Just sitting out in the lobby, I started dripping sweat. Then, when I went to put my mat down, the temperature showed 107 degrees. Gulp.

And once again, I got something totally different from what I expected. I felt strong, focused, and together. I flowed with the dialogue for the most part. I made it all the way through without skipping any parts, even when I wanted to go down at the end of the standing series. Right now, most of the wanting to go down is just a newly formed bad habit.

Overall, it was one of the more pleasant classes I've had recently. I got a good correction in Balancing Stick -- not pointing my toe enough. And a nice compliment in Triangle: Connease said she could feel me stretching through the chest in shoulders just by looking at me.

For a while now, I've been feeling a bit self satisfied about my arm position in Half Moon. But a couple of days ago I demonstrated for someone how far back Rohit gets his arms by his arms, keeping them totally locked. Most men don't do this, so I think men might come to think they have something of a pass on this one.

Anyway, while demonstrating, it occurred to me that if I could demo this form, then I should also really be doing it in class. No excuses for slacking on that. I really tried harder to focus on the arm lock in this pose, and I can still feel it through my shoulder blades. It's not like I was doing it badly before. But as Rohit says, these poses really are bottomless. The surprising thing is that I thought that paying attention to this aspect of the form would hurt the overall depth. It didn't. If anything, I was going maybe a little deeper than normal.

The day 174 meditation begins with a quote about taming a bull. First you bring out the whips. As the bull learns, he becomes naturally tame. Eventually, the restraints come off, and the bull willingly follows its master. The bull is the mind. At first, we have to use the will and all of our focus to get the mind to stop bucking. Then, over time, with practice through pranayama and asana, the mind starts to become a bit more naturally tame. And, according to Gates, with the passage of months and years, eventually the mind will follow its master.

On this progression, I'm still beating myself into submission. But I like the analogy. And I have had relatively tame classes, and relatively tame days. But it still feels like the fully tame mind is a long, long ways away.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Sunday Off
Monday 10:30 am with Sherry
Tuesday 6:30 pm with Rohit

Monday's class was basically good. I skipped one set of Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee, but otherwise held in and through my "sticking points." The only other stuck area was one set of Rabbit, where I felt like I couldn't breathe, and came out early.

I held myself back on Monday by getting stuck on something else. For some reason, I became acutely aware of other people coming out of the poses early. Sherry tends to count down at the end of poses -- Five, four, three, two, one, release... In half moon, I noticed that nearly everyone was popping up somewhere between two and one. This bugged me, and I couldn't stop myself from paying more attention, and the more attention I paid, the more it bugged me. By Camel, I saw people in my peripheral vision popping up somewhere between five and four.

I know this shouldn't bother me. If people want to cheat themselves, well, its their practice. But it bugs me all the same.

After class, Sherry asked what I was laughing about during class. She said that I came out of Camel one set and I was laughing. The really cool thing is that I didn't even remember it, and I don't think I was aware of it. The best answer I could come up with is that sometimes you've got a choice between melting or laughing at yourself, and if I can, I try the laughter. That's how I usually feel about it, but I can also usually remember those times. I think this was something different and much better. Apparently I was just really happy to be doing Camel, or coming out of it.

Today's class had a different satisfaction. Libby took class, and just before she asked where I had set up and parked her mat next to mine. I always like practicing a teacher, so that was cool enough on its own. But I was also flattered and a little stoked by her wanting to practice next to me. It's as nice a compliment as I've received in a while.

And practicing next to her made class fun. I always like being next to someone with great focus, and I felt through the standing series like I was feeding off her energy. I didn't skip any poses for the first time in a while. And after class, Libby thanked me for pulling her through, which I thought was funny because I was thinking exactly the same thing -- that she had pulled me through. I guess that may be what it means for people to feed off of each other's energy, and for the sum to be greater than the parts.

The challenge in this class came from drinking too much iced tea at lunch. I started thinking about leaving the room around Standing Bow, but I put it off. It got really bad in the floor series, and peaked in Floor Bow, where I could feel painful pressure in my bladder. By then, I thought it would be silly to leave, and nothing else really puts direct pressure on the area, so I stuck it out. I hate leaving for any reason, and in this class I really don't know if I made the right decision or not.

The day 273 gives us a third pranayama exercise. Rather than pause halfway on the inhale, Gates suggests pausing halfway on the exhale. So this one goes: Inhale, pause, exhale half, pause, exhale remainder, pause, repeat... The other advice here is to pay attention, be mindful, notice the differences between a good day and a bad day, etc... I haven't tried this at all.

The last exercise is much harder than I thought it would be. Taking long breaths is just an extension of what we do all the time. But pausing in the midst of an inhale is not something I've done very much at all. It takes a great deal of focus and control, and even then it doesn't feel at all natural. I've noticed that the first part of an inhalation tends to come deeply from the belly. Then the second half seems to involve the chest more than the stomach. I have no idea if that's how it should be, but that's what I'm observing.

I'm looking forward to the double exhaling. I'm guessing that I will find it easier than the interrupted inhale. We do double exhales on the sit-ups. And the final breathing exercise is a multiple exhaling exercise. Those may provide a connection for this exercise. I'll try to report on it later.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


Thursday Off
Friday Off
Saturday 9:30 am with Amy

Before class started the humidity was almost as high as the temperature. So, at least at the start, the heat wasn't a problem at all, but breathing through all that water presented some difficulty. I've said it before, but I would trade heat for humidity any time at all. The point of the extra humidity is to make sure that people sweat. No Pratt has ever had a problem sweating. I can't think of any other benefit to the excess humidity. It's not like it loosens anything up. As near as I can tell, that comes from the heat only.

I parked in the back row because the front was all taken. And from where I was, the front row looked like a big game of WhackAMole. The first one went down in Half Moon. Then the one next to her dropped in the first part of Awkward, just as the first was popping up again. Then a third one dropped in the third part of Awkward. And so it went, up and down at odd intervals all through the standing series.

The popping up and down annoyed me at first. Then it just became funny. It made it impossible to draw energy from the rest of the class, so for that, I was on my own. And I did an OK job of things. I still skipped a set of Triangle, one of my sticking points. But on the other sticking points, I showed a bit of progress. I fell from the balancing poses, but I stayed with them as long as I could, so it was falling without giving up. And I did a very good floor series.

The day 272 meditation is instructional rather than meditative. It introduces the concept of "place" to breathing. The place is the place where the breath is retained. The exercise Gates gives is a variation on the original pranayama exercise he gave us. As you might recall, that was deep inhale, pause, exhale completely, pause. Now, on the inhale, he says to inhale 50%, pause, then inhale the other 50%.

I'm going to try this a few times, and probably should refrain from commenting until I get a better idea of what its actually like. From the description and the few tries I have made, its very clear that this exercise will help quite a bit with control. It's also the first exercise he gives that stands on its own. I can do the others, for example, while in asana. I'm not sure I would want to be trying to deal with this while I'm doing asana. What I'm not sure about, however, is what this exercise teaches about "place." I will have to try this some more and see if I'm noticing anything about where the breath gets retained while doing it.

Friday, October 23, 2009

196/294 - Is Prana Amoral?

Tuesday Off
Wednesday 8:15 pm with Rohit

Before class, Rohit said that the 6:30 class had been a decent size -- 24 -- and that it was all women. I've had a few classes that were all women except for me, and it's never bothered me. It hasn't even bothered me in classes where Lenette has used the generic "ladies." Even if I did think about it, how often do women have to live with the generic "guys" to talk about men and women together.

Anyway, the late class was only 12 and we had 5 guys, which is the closest I've ever gotten to a class with half men. Did it make a difference? Not that I noticed.

I've been thinking recently about sticking points in class. There are some predictable points in class where I lose focus, or energy, or otherwise fall short of what I should be able to do. Falling out of the balancing poses. Sitting out a set of either Triangle or Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee. Losing it in one or both sets of Locust. Coming out of Rabbit early and wiped out. For me, these are the most common sticking points.

On the one hand, I know that judgment is bad, and that I shouldn't beat myself up over these moments. And for the most part, I don't. But I can't help but wonder when not beating myself up veers into being too easy on myself. I'm not sure exactly what to do about this, but I think I may have to start concentrating on one of these sticking points at a time, and just bring a bit more focus to it for a few classes in a row and see if anything changes.

There's another oddity that amuses me. For me, Locust is always the hardest pose. It's the only one that actually brings up a bit of fear. And yet, I think if you asked my teachers, they would probably unanimously say that the third part of Locust is my best pose. I'm not sure what to make of this. If I could identify an easiest pose, I wonder if it would also be one my teachers thought of as my worst? Happily, I can't think of an easy pose.

The day 271 brings up some thorny, but ultimately not very practical, questions of philosophy. It starts with a quote from Mother Theresa. She compares us to light bulbs. Her idea is that we are the wires, and god is the current. If we let the current flow through us, we can light up the world.

Gates has a slightly different take on this. He talks about prana, the root of pranayama. It means "life force." Gates says that there is enormous potential in prana, but that it is neither good nor bad. It simply is. Gates thinks that people minimize the prana available to them because they are afraid of what they might do with it. I take this to mean that people shut themselves off from prana out of a fear of the evil they might do. He goes on to say that's why surrender to God is so important -- because it allows us to open ourselves up to the potential of prana.

I wonder if Gates has this right. It sounds to me like he has the priorities wrong. Surely, if surrender to God is important, its not for some instrumental reason. If there is a priority to these things, I would have thought that it worked the other way around -- that opening yourself up to prana is worthwhile because it ultimately makes it easier to surrender to God.

In some ways I think this whole discussion is utterly impractical. And it bears a strong resemblance to the Euthyphro, a dialogue where Socrates tortures some poor student with arguments about whether the something is good because the Gods approve it, or whether the Gods approve of it because its good.

But a similar, and interesting, question arises from this meditation. Could someone use the techniques of yoga -- pranayama and asana and mediation and such -- and powerfully put them to bad purposes? Here, Gates seems to suggest that its possible to put prana to evil uses. From everything I've read so far, I would have thought otherwise. What I've admired so much about yoga so far is that just doing it tends to make people better, both in body and mind. This makes me wonder whether I've misread this meditation. It does seem to go against quite a bit of what Gates seems to have said consistently throughout the book.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

195/292 - The Gold Ring

Sunday off.
Monday 8:15 pm with Rohit.

I haven't been to the late class for a while. It's been long enough that Rohit expressed surprise at seeing me so late. I don't know why exactly I haven't gone. It turns out that I really like the class. I have more flexibility at that hour, which is always nice. And there is something really soothing about having the sun set during class. But mostly, what I like about the class, especially at this time of year, is the cool, fresh feeling the evening air brings when I step outside. That early autumn feeling (and its only a fake feeling here in Houston, but I'll take what I can get) just gets amplified by the sweaty satisfaction that comes after a nice Bikram session.

Class was good. I dumped out of a set of Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee because I balled myself up so tight in the set-up that I started cramping in the abdomen. I couldn't keep the pose together, keep my breath, and deal with the cramp all at once. Otherwise, things went smoothly. I had a nice smug feeling in first part of Awkward, when Rohit said "Everyone go lower, unless your name is Duffy." And after Rabbit, Rohit turned to me and said: "You see, I made it through the entire pose without telling people to "pull" once." I really like a class that has some humor in it.

In the day 270 meditation, Gates suggests a new mantra, sort of. He opens with this quote:

The goal cannot be anything apart from the Self, nor can it be something gained afresh. If that were so, such a goal cannot be abiding and permanent. What appears anew will also disappear. The goal must be eternal and within. Find it within yourself.

Gates suggests internalizing the last two sentences as we try pranayama. As he puts it, let the energy of this statement intertwine with your practice. I haven't tried this yet. But I will. For a long time I've been haunted with a similar thing expressed in the closing lines of Crazy Fingers, a Grateful Dead song with lyrics by Robert Hunter. I may have quoted these before, but if so, they are worth a repeat:

Midnight on a carousel ride
Reaching for the gold ring
Down inside
Never could reach it
Just slips away
And I try....

The connection is pretty simple. Life is like whirling in circles at midnight, which is "everything apart from the Self". The goal is the gold ring down inside -- after all, gold is eternal. What I like better about the song than Gates' quote is that the song acknowledges how difficult or rare it may be to actually achieve the goal. And the song is not at all despairing. Instead, I think it has an odd kind of hopeful resignation -- of letting go, if you will.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

194/290 - Easy yoke, light burden

Friday off.
Saturday 9:30 am with Amy.

I'm in an every other day habit these days, and its serving me fairly well. Still, I can't help but feel a bit like a slacker. I've slipped on the frequency mostly because of my knee. But being perfectly honest, I have to say that there are days where I could go to class, but I just don't for whatever reason. I think I will probably try to do every day between Thanksgiving and Christmas break. And I'm sure Amy will have some beginning of the year challenge to jump start the New Year. But for now, I'm pretty content with the every other day routine I've fallen into.

One thing that I've noticed, however: no matter what routine I fall into, it seems to be something that seems to fit. I've gone every day, five days a week, now every other day. They all seem good. And the only time any routine seems like a burden is actually during a challenge.

Class was good. There was lots of strong energy in class today. I worked really hard at the start of standing series, and knocked myself out of a set of Triangle and Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee as a result. But what I did, I did well. I got a nice compliment for coming down really slowly in the third part of Awkward pose. It turns out that the extra care I use going down, to make sure that I don't blow out my knee, is also just what you are supposed to do.

Floor series was very nice. It feels like a luxury being able to spin around without worrying too much that it will lead to something popping. And I can keep up with the class for the first time in weeks.

The best thing in class actually happened right afterward. There's a regular who has been coming to Amy's studio since she first opened, and been doing this yoga for five years with strong consistency. He's in his mid-60's (by my guess), and is in really good shape for his age. Today, after class he announced to Amy that he got his butt on the floor for the first time ever in Fixed Firm. He was beaming. He had the attitude and delight of a six year old. He said when he first started, he couldn't even sit on his knees, and he was positive for years that he would never get his butt on the floor in that pose. The progress is amazing, but even more amazing is to see the effect that this breakthrough had on him -- the joy, astonishment, and the pleasure in just being alive and having a body that works. It's truly amazing, and inspiring stuff (there's that breath word again).

The day 269 meditation starts with the quote from Matthew (and one of the greatest parts of Handel's Messiah): "His yoke is easy, and his burden is light." Gates describes the typical day of a woman he knows who teaches yoga. She too is in her 60s, but has the body of a 30 something and deep wisdom. She works hard at her practice, but the work is also a joy, and it has led to results that are much, much easier than the alternatives.

Gate's example is pretty easy, and I don't have any quarrel with it. It may not be all that the quote from Matthew means, but its a pretty good start. I've actually hit on this kind of meaning twice, at least, in this post. First, I said that regular practice only starts to feel like a burden during a challenge. And that burden is more mental than physical. The actual work of going to class is really hard, but in the overall scheme of things it makes daily life so much better that its an easy burden to bear. Second, it took five years for his butt to hit the floor, and there was some real work involved in that process, and I can imagine that there were setbacks along the way. But just feeling the satisfaction radiating out from him, because its actually possible to fulfill the promise of the yoga, and you can see that the burden of it was extremely light.

Friday, October 16, 2009

193/288 - Learning attention

Wednesday off
Thursday 6:30 with Rohit

Thursday's class was a joy because it was simply a normal class. My knee wasn't limiting me at all. I was properly hydrated. No reflux problems. The temperature in the room seemed perfect. And I just stayed with the dialogue (to the extent that Rohit does dialogue), and stayed with my breath.

I didn't skip anything. I worked hard in Triangle, and still had gas in the tank to finish standing series. Floor series was challenging, but good. Locust was particularly strong. And I finished without fading. All in all, just a very pleasant class.

The funny thing is class was that, for the second class in a row, the teacher mentioned my question about pulling in Rabbit. I checked the dialogue, and my problem isn't in the dialogue. Once you are tucked with your head on the ground, the dialogue simply says to keep the elbows straight, and says nothing about pulling. Most of the teachers I've had say that you pull with your arms, even when your elbows are straight. And this is simply not possible. There might be tension in your arms, but if you are pulling and your elbows are locked, then you must be pulling with something other than your arms. (Moreover, in all the other poses where you are told to pull with your arms -- first forward bend, Standing Separate Leg Stretching, Wind Relieving -- its quite clear that your elbows are bent and your are pulling with your biceps.)

The day 268 meditation discusses what is so important about learning to focus the attention. In several of the backbends, we are told to look up and back as far as possible, because the head will go where the eyes go. Wrestlers learn to pull someone down from the neck, because where the neck goes, the body follows. A similar thing happens with attention. When we focus our attention on something, that thing grows bigger for us. It becomes more present. There's a trivial application of this idea -- we have the ability to focus and concentrate on something far from us, excluding other stuff from our attention. With practice, we can isolate everything else out and simply pay attention to what we want. This ability to focus makes it possible to read things at a distance, to pick out small details of color or expression.

Everyone does this to one extent or another. But few people actively practice this kind of focus. That's one of the things pranayama is for. It teaches us how to pay attention to something specific, and to make the object of our attention grow and become more present for us. Once we learn to get better at this ability with breath, we can apply it elsewhere -- increasing our focus, our ability to be more present with anything we want to concentrate on. So, just as our head goes where our eyes go, and our body follows our head, so too our minds follow our attention. So it's best that we actually learn to pay attention.