Thursday, January 29, 2009

22/29 - If you try sometimes, you just might find...

8:15 with Amy

Tonight was another in a series of tough classes.  My stamina seems to be getting worse, and I can't figure out why.  I'm either in a slump of some sort, or maybe I've got some low grade illness that is not otherwise apparent.  Somewhere around the third breath of pranayama, I get a sense of impending weakness.  By the end of the first set of Awkward Pose, I start looking forward to Eagle, because that's not so bad.  Then, I try in Eagle and I can make it because party time is coming.

Then the balancing series ends up being sort of a break, mostly because my lower back is tight, and I fall out alot.  I've gone backwards in all of these poses recently, and I think it's really from some tightness in my lower back which will work itself out.

Then comes the Separate Leg series.  The first pose used to be a rest, but I've really been trying to open up my hips recently, so spreading my legs really wide, and it had become one of my harder poses.  Triangle I still like, because I can do it.  It's hard, but very satisfying, and then, because I tried so hard in Triangle, the Head to Knee pose becomes a real struggle.  By the time I get through it, I have been feeling wiped out recently, sort of like I felt the first couple of weeks of practice.

Then the floor series is better, if I don't start cramping up.  Today, I didn't.  I had some exhaustion issues, but for the most part they didn't get in the way of what I was doing.  And I got all the way down for the first time in a long, long time in Fixed Firm.

Today's meditation was more like a much needed pep talk.  Basically the idea is that in the long run, a spiritual practice has much bigger payoffs than any of us anticipate.  Basically, Gate's is putting a really positive spin on the Rolling Stones line "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need."   For the most part, we don't really know what is good for us, and Gates insists that spiritual practice will deliver what is good for us, which may be much better than the things we think we want.

The caveat on this is that spiritual practice means more than doing your poses, or meditating.  It means acting right, trying to follow the yamas and niyamas.  The hopeful part is that, according to Yates, every right action, every step in the right direction, gives more energy and makes it easier to take the next step.  I guess it sort of acts like a snowball rolling downhill.   I've found that to be true about being honest in general.  The more honest you are, the easier honesty becomes, largely because you realize you don't need to protect yourself with lies (and lies don't work that well anyways).   I don't have any reason to doubt that this applies elsewhere as well, but I can't vouch for it yet, either.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


10:30 am with Danielle

It was just a nice class today.  I stayed strong throughout, and didn't have any of the nagging problems I've had the last few days.  Then, I cramped in my right foot in the final breathing exercise, but it was not big deal.

Danielle was explaining how Bikram smashed his knee in a weightlifting accident and then cured himself with yoga, including Fixed Firm.  She then said he did that when he was in his teens, and now he's OLD, like in his sixties.  I started laughing and gave her a look, so she immediately shied away, and said that she didn't mean that 60 was old, just that it was older and he'd been doing yoga for a long time.

Of course, she did mean that Bikram is old now, and there's nothing wrong with her saying that.  I was laughing, not offended.  I would have liked it much better if she had something along the lines of:  "Hey, I'm only 20, and I just spent 9 weeks with Bikram, and to me, he's old.  Maybe when I'm older I'll think differently."  I think that that sort of clarification is the kind of thing Gates has been talking about.  I don't think it should really hurt anyone's feelings that someone in her early twenties might thing a 60+ person is old.  I know I did back then, and its amazing how much younger 60 gets every year.

Gates today talks about the specter of success in America.  This one doesn't resonate with me personally.  I've never fallen too much under the spell of material success.  I certainly didn't come to yoga to get away from the allure of success, or to find something more, as Gates says many people do.  I agree with him that American's, for the most part, are way to driven by the desire for success, advancement, status, and the accumulation of things.  And if Yoga helps break that spell for some, then more power to it.  Just yesterday, Lenette was talking about how tragic it is that people spend their entire lives getting more and more, and then end up getting sick, lonely, and bitter in their old age, but still just trying to patch over all their dissatisfactions with more stuff.  I certainly agree, but I'm fairly confident that that is not a trap that will catch me.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

20/27 Conundrums

10:30 am with Lenette

Going in my left hip hurt even more than yesterday, and my back was still very stiff.  But I had a much better class than any of the last four, and I felt like I was working through some of those problems.  Since class, I've felt much better.

Lenette hit on two topics that have come up here recently.  First, she said that the one thing that will stop your practice in its tracks is fear.  The trick is to learn to distinguish between fear and respect.  But the key to making real progress is to let go of your fears.  

The second thing she brought up was "wanting" as the source of all conflict.  We get into trouble with others, and with ourselves, because we want too much.  I would have used the word "greed," but I don't think there's much difference in the central point.  Here, she emphasized that ridding yourself of greed is not incompatible with setting goals for yourself.  The distinguishing point, I suppose, comes from your attitude toward the goals.

One brief comment on actual poses:  In second set of Standing Separate Leg Head to Floor, she had us slide our legs apart as far as we could until our head hit the floor.  I'm still not there, and this pose is definitely the one that is throwing my hips through the ringer.  And so this is the one where I'm really going to have to learn the line between fear and respect.  It's easy to sort of do this pose and just hang out, but I really do need to open up the hips to make progress here, and yet I have the lingering doubt that pushing too hard is just going to flare up the sciatic pain again.  So, from once being just about the easiest of poses, this one has gradually become just about the most difficult for me.

Gates talks about how discussions of satya at yoga workshops, and how these invariably lead to trying to solve conundrums, like is it OK to lie to someone to spare their feelings?  or is it OK to avoid telling your boss what an idiot he is? etc...   The Sutras, and other yoga texts, of course, don't answer these questions.  Yoga isn't a detailed system of thoughts and rules.  And Gates says its easy to use these conundrums as a way to delay doing the work that needs to be done, or to avoid it altogether.  The point is that it's easy to get started on the path of being truthful, and the more you do it, the better you will get at it.

There's another point that Gates doesn't make, but its one that most lawyers, at least, will appreciate.  (And, yeah, I know some people will consider it odd that I bring up lawyers in a discussion of honesty.)  The conundrums are abstract cases.  They are the sort of thing a court would not decide, because they are simply hypothetical.  I think the same apples to the idea of truthfulness here.  The important thing is to apply the principle to real situations as best you can, and to improve at doing it over time.  If you can't solve some hypothetical case, who cares?  It's just not relevant, and shouldn't be seen as any sort of obstacle.

19/26 - The Eyes of a Child

8:15 with Danielle

This was the fourth tough class in a row.  My stamina was back, and that felt good.  But I was also really tight, even for me.  The hamstring, knee, and hip I injured in the last challenge are all starting to complain, and I was not as flexible in my left leg as I have been for the last several weeks.  On top of that, I started cramping again toward the end of the class, in my left foot in Rabbit, and then in my calf in the first half of the Spinal Twist.

It looks like I'm either going to have to ease off a bit on the frequency of my classes, or be much more careful about intensity during the classes, especially in the forward bends.  I thought I had learned my lesson last time, but now it's looking like I learned from the past, and I now know how to repeat it exactly.  

Gates quotes a line from Proust which is remarkably similar to the line from Thomas Hardy I paraphrased a couple of days ago:  "The real voyage of discover consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes."  He talks about the value of a retreat, for whatever time period, to get a fresh look on ordinary life.  With a refreshed, or refurbished, awareness, it becomes possible to again see what he called "the hugeness of the ordinary."

There are lots and lots of ways to achieve this.  One of the reasons I love the movies is because the world itself becomes a different place after seeing a really great movie.  Everything looks, sounds, and feels different and somehow fresher.  The same thing happens, for me, after a really good music performance.  

And, its also one of the reasons I love the heat in the Bikram studios.  When I get wiped out, totally beat up, and feel like I've left everything I could on the mat, then after class the whole world feels calmer, more still, and I feel more at peace with myself and everything else.  The funny thing is, for the most part, the peaceful feeling comes after the "tough" classes.  And while its nice to really be on top of it during class, it often doesn't end up being as satisfying later. 

On a higher level, this thought connects with a passage of scripture that I know best from a paraphrase from a Sidney Lanier poem called The Symphony:  "Never shalt thou the heavens see, save as a little child thou be."  To a child, the world is perpetually new -- everything is new and exciting.  In practice, it helps to try to continually take the attitude of a beginner, in part I think because this attitude opens the way to discovery.  The retreats that Gates talks about, I think, facilitate the ability to look at things as though they were fresh and new.  They allow us to experience the ordinary again with the fresh eyes of the child.  And this in turn may give us glimpses of heaven.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

18/25 - Humility

Day Off

Yes, I blew the challenge today.  And I did it deliberately.  Yesterday, I caught myself looking at the sign-in board, seeing who had missed days already.  Then it hit me that I was getting a bit competitive about that sort of thing again.  I don't want to do the 60 days to impress anyone else, or even to impress myself.  And I don't need to prove to myself anymore that I can do it.

Instead, I just want my practice to improve.  And my knees and hips are asking for a break.  So I decided to take a day off.  Now, I don't have the challenge to live up to anymore.  And I may end up going to every day from here on out.  But I won't feel like I HAVE to go, and that by itself makes class better.

In an odd way, I think this decision fits with the humility Gates discusses in today's meditation.  By skipping this day, and blowing the challenge early, I was trying to take pride out of the equation.  Now that I'm not going to end up with 60 in 60, I can just do the classes, which is all I really want in the first place.

Gates brings up another interesting idea about humility.  He says that humility should be an aspect of truth or honesty.  Of course it tempers pride and ambition.  But it should also temper fear and avoidance.  Basically, he's saying that a false humility can act as a sort of pride as well.  Thus, a person might avoid trying a pose because they aren't built that way, and won't be able to do it.  Their self image tells them that the pose is not possible, so they don't apply themselves.  But the humble person in the same situation will think, even though I might fail, I will still try as best I can.

18/24 --Pretense

Saturday 9:30 am with Amy

As Amy likes to put it, Saturday's was a "drippy" class.  That means the humidity was way up and the humidifier didn't come on a single time.  The heat was up pretty high too.  I came out of class seriously drained, but I didn't feel quite as beaten up as I had in the couple of classes before.

Six days in a row has exposed several areas of tenderness.  My knees are feeling a little weak.  My hips and butt are sore.  My back is tight between the shoulderblades.  And surprisingly, I'm feeling some tightness in my breastbone area.  The last is pretty encouraging.  It feels like something is about to give, and I suspect that might help me in backbends and in the opening breathing.

Class was crowded, with 45 students.  And only a handful were people doing the challenge.  The weekend attendance has been really good so far this year.  It's pretty clear that a bunch of people put yoga as one of their resolutions, and I hope its one that they can keep.

Gates talks about another side of honesty, or non-lying.  Not only does it involve not telling any lies, but at a deeper level it means stripping away pretenses -- daring to be uncool.  Of course, it doesn't mean being uncool just for the sake of being different, because that can be just as much of a pretense as any other.   As I see it, there are a couple of different types of pretense.  The easy variety is to identify is the posing that a person does to impress others.  There's a flip side to this, typical in adolescents, where a person puts on a pose to repel, or put off, others.  I think this type of pretense is pretty easy to spot, in others and usually in oneself, and not that hard to get rid of.   

The deeper pretense comes from a person developing a harmful self-image.  You start to think of yourself as this or that KIND of person, and then let this image of yourself drive your behavior.  This kind of pretense can lead to all sorts of problems, from eating disorders in insecure girls, to unbearable righteousness in the insecurely religious zealots.  

There's a yoga version of this that I've seen as well, but fortunately not at my Bikram studio.  I've encountered yogis who hit you over the head with their "spirituality".  What I mean is the person who seems wound up very tight in their own spiritual "path."  But at the same time,  you don't get any real sense of them connecting or relating with other people in a genuine way, and they don't even really seem to care.  As I said, this has definitely not been a feature of Bikram, which in many ways seems to be more down to earth. 

Friday, January 23, 2009

17/23 continued -- Truthfulness

The second yama is honesty, non-lying, or truthfulness.  Again, it applies in thought word in deed.

Gates notes what he considers a strange process.  By willfully applying this principle, we can gradually strip away tendencies to deceive, and eventually what took much effort becomes effortless.

I don't think this is as odd as Gates seems to.  For the most part, people lie to protect themselves.  Or at least they think that they are protecting themselves.  Being honest is much easier and more natural, but people stray from either fear or greed.  When you start to strip away the various deceptions you've become accustomed to using, you find that nothing terrible happens.  There was no real basis for your fears.  And with that realization, I think it becomes much more natural and easy to strip away the next layer of deception.  (Of course, this may be harder for some than for others.)

In my life, I can't remember a time when telling the truth (even when it seemed hard and scary) did not come as a relief.  In high school, I panicked on an exam once and copied a few answers from the girl sitting next to me.  The teacher spotted the similarity, and marked both our grades in half.  When I found out that she had been punished as well, I went to the teacher and told him to give her the full score and do whatever he wanted to me.  I don't remember how he punished me.  But I do remember him being pleased with my simply coming forward, and my being enormously relieved at having told him.


8:30 am with Danielle

I'm only on the 5th day of this challenge and already I'm feeling beaten up and a bit exhausted.  Maybe I'm getting a little sick.  Maybe I need more sleep.  Maybe I'm not hydrating enough or getting enough electrolytes.  But for the second day in a row, class was a struggle, and unlike yesterday, today I could not simply decide to pull myself out of it and turn the class around.  I tried, and it maybe helped a little.  But it was still tough.

I had a new experience today.  My mat was near the window and the morning sun was shining through.  At first, this was really nice.  Then the window started to fog a little with sweat, and those beads of water seemed to focus the sunlight, which also started to shine more directly on me.  So it got hotter and hotter right where I was.  That may have had something to do with my not getting my energy back in the floor series.  Anyway, from now on, I'm going to think twice before setting up for an early morning class by the window.

In yesterday's meditation, Gates talked about how you only hear and understand lessons when you are ready to learn from them.  I don't think this would come as a surprise to any Bikramite.  I don't know how many times I've suddenly heard, or realized something, about the dialogue only at the point when my body was ready to do that thing.  

There was a phrase I particularly liked when he was talking about his own practice, he was learning to get "glimpses of the hugeness of the ordinary."    Thomas Hardy once said something to the effect that there are no boring landscapes and no boring towns, and that becoming bored by such showed a character flaw, a lack of imagination.  I think this is the sort of thing that Gate's is getting at when he talks about the hugeness of the ordinary.  It goes back to his first definition of the practice of yoga as "celebrating what is".  The idea is to become open and involved with otherwise everyday things.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


Wednesday 8:15 pm with Amy
Thursday 10:30 am with Lenette

Last night's class was the toughest I've had in a long time.  Starting in half moon, I got short bursts of lightheadedness.  I lost my breath after Triangle and had to sit out the first set of Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee.  Then, I nearly lost my lunch in the back strengthening series.  (Important safety tip:  no more mexican food for lunch before a yoga class.  I know better by now, and yet I still do it sometimes.)  And even the winding down part of the class was a bit of a struggle.  I left feeling as drained as I have in many months.

So this morning, I went back with some reservations.  And those reservations, by themselves, I think hampered the first part of the class.  I went into the first postures with a bit of trepidation, just feeling like I was not up for another struggle.  So then, somewhere around Triangle, I decided not to struggle.  And from there class got better and better.  The heat wasn't oppressive any more.  I paid really good attention to my form in the standing series.  And I came out of class feeling great.  Mostly the change was a change in attitude.

Which brings me to yesterday's meditation.  Gate's says that the only thing we can control is our attitude.  That's not quite true:  we can also control, to a large extent, what we do.  But the important point here is that attitude is a matter of choice.   For today's class, I had two big choices to make:  First, whether to go at all.  Signing up for the 60 day challenge definitely tipped the bar on this one.  Last week I would not have gone.  It would have been so much easier, and as Gate's says, it is very easy to "say it is too difficult to make the hard choice today."  Actually, in some ways, that was the easier choice to make in practice today.  The other choice was whether to wallow in feeling bad, to ease into a suffering class, and to take some pity on myself, or whether I could decide to make the best of it, and to accept today's limitations.  And amazingly, by making that decision, everything improved.

Gates generalizes this idea.  He says that the obstacles that we encounter are the path itself, and that we continually face choices between life and death, between love and fear.  Continuing with yoga practice, especially when its easy to find excuses not to do it, is choosing life and love over death and fear.  And as he said in an earlier meditation (the one I skipped), the more we turn to the light, the more we choose life, the easier it becomes to continue to choose it, on and off the mat.

I'm still a day behind on the meditations.  I haven't even read Day 22 yet.  I will try to post again later.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

14/20 Connection with others

Tuesday 8:30 am with Lenette

I missed posting yesterday because we went on a road trip: a five hour drive to Fort Worth, followed by a wonderful piano recital by Yendi Li who won the Chopin Competition a few years back, followed by the five hour drive home -- getting back at 3am.  On top of that, the leisurely trip tensed up a little when we got a flat tire about half way there and then discovered that the spare was also flat.  Roadside assistance managed to get us off the road, plug the spare well enough to make it barely roadworthy, and get us moving again.  We opted to try to get to Fort Worth and made it with 10 minutes to spare.  And the spare tire had only dropped in pressure from 32 to 20 lbs.  We got home OK, filling the spare only twice.  The good news is that I managed to stay calm despite the road troubles, the tight squeeze in making the concert, and having no dinner.  I think, in substantial part, I owe that calmness to yoga.

Class in the morning was good.  Lenette gave me some good pointers on Standing Separate Head to Floor.  She showed me how to bend one knee at a time to grab the outsides of my feet even with my legs spread really wide.  She then pointed out the spot in the middle of my back that I need to concentrate on lengthening.  This help made for an unusually deep stretch, and combined with the Yanzi's car seat (which I detest) and ten hours of driving, I was really feeling it in my hips by the time we got home last night.  

I've got to be careful in this pose:  its what caused the sciatic pain before.  And yet, I'd really like to start making some progress with this pose as well.  So there is a tension there between caution and desire that I need to puzzle through.

The high point in class was Lenette's reaction to my Fixed Firm.  She looked at my feet and said "That looks really good, Duffy."  I've been working really hard on getting my feet to point to the back in this pose, and its nice to hear that the efforts are visibly paying off.

In Gates' meditation, somehow non-harming has morphed into the connected nature of all people (and perhaps more).  Here's my guess as to how this leap comes about:  as you practice non-harming you also begin to focus on what it means and what effects it has.  One of the main things that comes about through this process is the realization that we should not harm others because we are connected to them.  This calls to mind the buddhist vow:  "I shall become enlightened for the sake of all living things."  And also the christian idea that we are all one in the body of Christ.  The same idea probably crops up in other interesting places as well.

Two other thoughts from today's meditation:  Gates talks about how his fear of rejection has sometimes hindered his ability to connect with strangers.  As a basically shy person, this is something I can relate to very easily.  It's not easy for me to engage with strangers, and I think this is partially out of fear.  And, as he noted earlier, the fear is in some ways mingled with a sense of pride.  Sometimes, with strangers, I feel like the teenager at a dance who stands alone or with a friend or two off to the side, not dancing and feeling "above all that," but really not dancing because we were scared shitless that any girl we might want to dance with would say no.  It would be a blessing if the practice of non-harming could help to exorcise that small demon .

The last and most optimistic part of todays meditation is the idea that observing the yamas and niyamas, which might seem onerous before you start, is actually much easier to do than most people think.  And its easy because it fits with us -- because it is right, it feels right.  Or, borrowing from the Messiah - its yoke is easy and its burden is light.  I can't say at this point whether I agree with this point or not, but it certainly makes it easier to give these ideas a chance.

Monday, January 19, 2009

13/19 Nonharming

Sunday off.
Monday 10:30 with Danielle

We started a new 60 day challenge today.  I took yesterday off as a day to rest before embarking on another challenge.  I haven't decided yet how I will go about this challenge.  Donna, who also did a full 60 classes last time, says that she doesn't know yet whether she will do the full 60, or do the "wimpy" challenge.  That would be shooting just for 40 classes in 60 days.  That's enough to get the free two weeks as a reward, but I don't think I could do that and accept the reward.

Today's class was very nice.  Danielle is getting better each week in her ability to encourage people, and in giving corrections and guidance between the poses.  She keeps a fairly high level of energy in the class.  The only "problem" I have with her is that her classes regularly run about 10 minutes short.  It only feels that way in some of the standing postures, notably Awkward and Triangle.  And I still feel good after class, so its not really a problem.

In the last two days, we finally get to the first of the yamas: non-harming.  The first thing that strikes me is how broad and seemingly vague the concept is.  The yamas, as far as I know, don't come with a guide to their interpretation.  How to interpret them is largely up to the practitioner, and this means that there will be lots of room for disagreement.  For example, for some the idea of non-harming leads to being a vegan.  Others don't draw that conclusion.  

In a different way, Gates seems to think that his competitive past is somehow contrary to this principle.  And perhaps it is for him.  But there have been asana competitions in India for a long, long time.  Gates may get so involved in his competitive spirit that he sees no distinction between winning and destroying his competition.  Personally, I don't have that problem, and have been able to compete at many things without engaging in any harmful thoughts or activities.

Another point that I think is interesting is that the principle applies to actions, words, and thoughts.  That makes me wonder how thoughts can harm.  From a Cartesian, dualistic perspective, that idea seems strange.  But, of course, Yoga seeks a unity of mind and body.  In that unification, harmful thoughts will hurt yourself.  And that's something I can easily relate to.  Just getting angry or impatient with a stranger, even if the stranger doesn't notice it, can set me back for awhile and can interfere with how I deal with other people.  

The more difficult question is how one can actually observe the principle of non-harming when it comes to thought.  It's easy to control what you do, and what you say, but not so obviously easy to control what you think.  This reminds me of a guitar lesson I had a long time ago, where I was learning improvisation.  At a certain point in the improvisation, I played a blue note, and it sounded really good.  My teacher stopped me and asked me what I had played, and why I had played it.  I couldn't say what note it was, and I told him I played it because I "heard" it.  He said fine, but remember, when improvising you can control what you hear.  If that's true of musical thought, why not about the attitude of our thoughts in general?

I haven't touched much on the Day 19 meditation, which deals with light and darkness.  Perhaps I will take that up tomorrow.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

12/17 - Love in Action

9:30 am with Connease

No breakthroughs, but a good class anyways.  I mention no breakthroughs because I predicted one might be coming based on yesterdays soreness. I've still got the soreness though, so there's still hope.

Class started cold and humid, which never bodes well.  I bailed on one standing posture (Separate Leg Head to Knee, second set), and on one third part of Locust.  It was also fairly crowded, with 39 people.  

A crowded class always makes me happy.  It means Amy is doing well, which is good for everyone, because that means the studio will stay open.  I often wonder about the economics of the studio.  About a week ago, Amy said that she needs an average of eight people to keep a class.  Recently I haven't been in a class smaller than 15, and thats really good.

Gates postpones getting to the yamas and niyamas for at least one more day, while he makes another small, general observation.  The quote that precedes today's passage is  1 John 3:18:  "Let us not love in word or thought, but in deed and truth."  Gates says that the purely practical aspects of yoga -- yamas, niyamas, asanas, and pranayama -- are nothing more than love in action.  This is a pretty amazing idea.  Again, there might be good reason to be sceptical of this idea.  But, as I said before, its a purely practical thing -- either it will work or it won't.  This is just the sort of thing where I think Pascal's Wager actually does apply:  if you try it and it works, you gain so much.  If you try it and it doesn't work, you lose hardly anything at all.  And without trying, you certainly gain nothing.

On top of this, there are two other amazing ideas today.  The first is that yoga shuns failure: as long as you are honestly trying, you are on a path toward redemption, of mind, body, and spirit.  This doesn't mean that everything is OK, just that when you do stumble, its perfectly to get up and try to keep moving in the right direction.  This fits very well with the early emphasis on the pointlessness of punishing ourselves.

The other idea that is amazing is that the practice of yoga generates positive energy, and that this positive energy makes it possible to generate even more.  I've certainly found that just going to class gives me more energy in general.  It also tends to make me more efficient, and to want to be more helpful and productive.  And from what he says, it appears that I'm just scratching the surface.

Friday, January 16, 2009

11/16 Digging Deeper

10:30 am with Miranda

I'm not sure what I did, but I must have been working really hard today.  My upper back and shoulders are tight.  My neck has cracked a few times.  And I've got a deep soreness in my butt.  Otherwise I feel really good.  I've been told before that a new stiffness like I feel in my shoulders is often the sign of a breakthrough coming.  One can hope.

I tried the Manduka mat again today.  It definitely makes it harder to balance, and makes Fixed Firm more difficult.  I still can't decide if this is a good or bad thing.  Basically, I like the mat.  And I think that the surface shouldn't matter that much.  So, I think that if I learn to balance on the harder mat, then I will be that much better at balancing.  But I still haven't made a final decision.

Today Gates talks about people feeling something missing in their practice and trying lots of new things -- postures, styles, routines, etc... -- to fill the void.   Instead, he says the problem is often cured by introducing people to the yamas and niyamas.  These are yogas "do's and dont's", a loose analogue to the ten commandments.  Instead of constantly digging new wells, he encourages us to dig deeper.

When I first picked up Meditations from the Mat, I didn't have any feeling that something was lacking.  Rather, I was overwhelmed with the changes I was feeling in the early phases of my practice, and I wanted to read more about yoga in general, so I could maybe put what was happening to me into a larger framework.

What's interesting to me, however, is that I decided to change the emphasis of this blog precisely because I had the nagging feeling that something was missing.  I focused so much on the minutiae of the postures, and on making physical progress, that I felt I was holding myself back.  And I had the feeling that I was losing the bigger picture.  So I decided to turn to this book.

It turns out that I was taking Gates' advice about digging deeper, without even remembering it.  Perhaps I did learn something the first time around.  

There's one other point about digging deeper that I find very encouraging.  Many people complain that they ultimately become bored with Bikram because its the same 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises.  I've heard that Emmy Cleaves, who has been teaching for over 30 years, wonders how someone could get bored when there are TWENTY SIX postures and TWO breathing exercises.  There's so much there, she says, that she could study it in more depth forever.  I think that's part of what going deeper means.  

In some ways, its like Chinese and Japanese artists, who may paint the same painting thousands of times.  The quest isn't to find something new or original, but to get to some sort of ideal form using a time-honored, classical approach.  In Yoga we may be doing the same thing with our bodies and these classic poses, digging ever deeper to approach some idealized form.  But to get there involves more than just a flexible body.  It requires the cooperation of mind and spirit.  And that's where the yamas and niyamas will play a role.


Day off.

Gates talks about using our senses, directing our gaze, to become present.  Lenette is the only teacher I have who really concentrates on where, and how, we are looking.  Again and again, she says, "Your eyes, your eyes in the mirror."  And she will call people out if they start looking around at how other people are doing:  "Yoga is not a spectator sport."

The part of Bikram that this passage reminds me of is Savasana.  Here, we are told to fix our eyes on one point on the ceiling.  Ours is nothing but hardened sprayfoam insulation painted a really ugly shade of brown.  There was a time when I tried to find funny faces in the swirls of foam, sort of like picking out figures in the clouds.  But I've given that up, and now I just pick a blob and stare, when I can manage to stay that still.

We keep our eyes open through Savasana to remain present.  The goal is to be aware of our senses, and still at the same time.  Gates likens this practice to the training of Crazy Horse on the prarie.  That makes me wonder whether it is harder or easier to "see what is there" when you have lots and lots of sensory input, or when you are just focused on your own eyes or on some brown blob on the ceiling.  On that point, I honestly don't know.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

10/14 The Importance of Rest

10:30 with Lenette

I pushed really hard today, and I'm feeling it a bit now.  Every once in a while I get a tender feeling in my hip which screams at me to back off or face some more sciatic pain.  So, I need to be a bit more careful about my limits tomorrow.

Lenettes classes are always fun.  Today she was talking about laughter and being silly.  She mentioned a "lecture" by an accomplished yogi from India where the yogi did nothing but tell jokes and get everyone laughing.  The jokes didn't have deep spiritual meaning.  That meaning came through the laughter itself  -- when we are genuinely laughing, we also tend to be more completely present.  Laughter involves an inherent union between mind and body, and thus its a particularly good gateway to yoga.

Having said that, if there are a few laughs in class, it definitely makes the time pass better.  It also seems to make it easier to focus when in the postures.  The laughter acts as a break, a respite, from the serious work of the poses.

And that leads to today's passage.  Gate's talks about the importance of rest on a purely practical level.  If you are having a tough time, take a knee.  Think of that rest as part of the practice.  There's nothing wrong with sitting out when you need to.

I don't think Bikram practitioners have any problem with this.  Yes, there are times when I push too hard and don't sit out a pose when I probably should.  But the rule I've been following is that I must sit out if I can't control my breath.  That rule has been working pretty well for me.

Also, Bikram builds rest into the practice itself.  At the beginning, Lenette was pretty fond of saying that the Savasanas on the floor, between each pose, were one of the things that set Bikram apart.  Unlike other forms of yoga, Bikram's series builds active rest right into the program.

Gates also talks about resting during a pose.  He says if you are pushing too hard and get overwhelmed in the pose, then simply back off some, hang out, and then push it again.  On its face, this seems contrary to Bikram practice.  In Bikram, as I understand it, you are either in or out.  There are no half measures.  Being in means pushing as hard as you can while still keeping control of your breath.  Out means taking a knee, or going into Savasana.

I'm thinking that the difference may stem from Bikram poses not being held that long.  In Sivanandra classes, we held the seated forward stretch for as long as five minutes.  In Bikram, that would be several eternities.  When the pose is held that long, perhaps it makes sense to find a way to rest in the pose, and then to increase the intensity.

Another possible difference is that Bikram does two sets of each pose.  Thus, in the series itself, there is already the idea that we will ease up on the pose, and then try to go deeper again in the second set.  In this way, what Bikram has us do looks similar to Gate's idea of resting.  Except we don't rest in the pose itself.  Instead we rinse and repeat.

The practical question I have about this is whether people in Gates' classes regularly go so deep in poses that they lose control of their breath.  So long as breath in in control, I don't understand why there would be a need to rest in the pose.  I think, on this point, I must be missing something.

And without further explanation, I'm going to stick with my teachers' advice: in or out, no compromising in the pose.  Then rest during the rest times.  Perhaps when/if I try another school of yoga, I will be able to see more clearly what Gates means here.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

9/13 Going Meta

10:30 am with Danielle

Toward the end of the standing series, I thought the class was going too fast.  Danielle is a new teacher, so I thought she was holding the poses too short.  Then I looked at the clock, and it turned out we were right on schedule.  At that point, I re-evaluated and decided I was having a really good time.

That lasted until near the end, when I got a wicked cramp in my right foot.  Usually, if I cramp up, it will be either in Fixed Firm or maybe Camel.  Today it was in the final stretch, which I had to sit out for awhile to massage my foot.  I didn't feel like I was working that hard, so I'm not sure where the cramps came from.

Also, I used my spiffy new rubber mat from Manduka for the first time.  It was a Christmas present, and its really heavy and thick.  I used my sisters on the hard wood floor when I practiced in NY.  Today, I found I had some of the same difficulties that I had then.  The mat is so thick that it tempers the softness of the carpet.  This, for me, made it harder to balance.  And it made it harder to go as deep in Fixed Firm.  In an odd way, I think the extra difficulty is probably a good thing, especially in Fixed Firm  I felt a deeper stretch in my feet.  Of course, that may have led to the cramping.

In today's passage, Gates warns against being too harsh in self judgment, especially in judging your judgments.  Getting angry with yourself over your anger, getting frustrated with your frustrations, becoming disappointed at feeling disappointed -- these can all lead to an endless spiral of negativity.

One of the goals we strive toward is to "be present."  Judging yourself, whether positively or negatively, takes you one step away from that goal.  So judging your judgment takes you two steps away, and so on.

The other point is that chastising yourself for your negative feelings simply won't work.  You don't get rid of negative feelings by punishing yourself for having them.  Rather, that way just leads to more negativity.  Instead, Gates suggests that the answer is to observe these feelings and let them go.   

Then, out of nowhere, he says that instead of shutting out the negative parts of yourself, spiritual practice should turn on the light of love.  This introduction of love is very striking.  I think its the first time he has mentioned it, and I'm not quite sure what he means, but I'm pretty sure we will be hearing much more about it. 

Monday, January 12, 2009

8/12 Fear, Pride, Judgment

Day off

I had an exchange of emails today with my sister and brother.  My sister just started Bikram, and she says that she loves it even though she stinks at it.  Even though I know what she means, and from that standpoint I pretty much stink at it as well, I answered that being good at Bikram means nothing more than trying your best and making gradual improvements.

So today's passage was especially fitting.  Gates says that he sees beginners all the time coming to class with the same obstacles: fear and pride.  Pride sets a standard, and then we pass judgment on ourselves and approach the practice with fear that we won't live up to that judgment.  I've noticed again and again that athletes, and experienced yogis from other disciplines, tend not to return.  I think they get beat up more than their pride can stand, and decide its not for them.  On the other hand, people in terrible shape tend to come back more frequently.  Here, I think we (since I was one myself) come to Bikram with very low expectations from ourselves.  Even with those low expectations, we might fail to live up to them.  But the benefits are so immediately obvious, that it also becomes easy to overcome our disappointment with ourselves.  So we come back for more benefit, and perhaps learn either to discard or live up to our expectations.

Gates says that discarding expectations is the key to long term success.  That's one of the reasons I changed the format of this blog:  I had the feeling that analyzing each posture, each day, was getting in the way of my progress.  Worse, it was making the yoga itself feel a bit stale.  Since I've switched the format, I'm starting to see the classes again as part of a bigger picture, and I look forward to them much more.

Having said that, its really tough to let go of expectation and judgment.   It can happen in some moments.   I'll be in a pose and everything is going nicely, and then I realize its going nicely, and that blows the moment.  The "ah-ah" moment, the moment of being pleased with what I've done, actually seems to dampen the pleasure.  

Of course, this is much less a problem than getting frustrated or down on myself for some shortcoming.  For that problem, the best advice I've gotten is from Bill Johns, who sold us our pianos and first told my wife about Bikram.  He said that the most important thing to do is to "be kind to yourself."

Sunday, January 11, 2009

8/11 Practice and priorities

2:30 pm with Miranda

We set a new record today -- there were 57 people in class.  It was packed., with about 4-6 inches between mats.  In Full Locust, I nearly took the eye out of the guy to my right.  And it started out really cold, like 80 degrees, but did warm up.  And the cold wasn't so bad because the energy level in the room was so high.  Well, my flexibility was a bit off, especially in poses like Fixed Firm and Camel.  But other times when it's been so cold, its taken a mental toll.  Today, I felt fine and was able to adjust my practice to the conditions.

Today's passage has two big, and probably interrelated points.  First, practice is whatever we do with regularity, and without regard for what's happening externally.  Gates puts it in these bare turns, but then he says its a matter of priorities.  He talks about winos who manage to get liquor even though they are destitute.  And he says that yogis are people who have turned to a practice of spiritual growth.

I like this, but I think there's a difference between practice, in the sense he means, and purely habitual things or pastimes.  A practice, combined with the sense of priority, becomes a matter of devotion.   At the start, going to class was partially a matter of will (and guilt).  I forced myself to make it a priority.  At some point, devotion seems to have taken over, and making it a priority is no longer a question at all.

The interesting thing about this is that it now becomes very hard for me to think of ways to persuade others that they should also make it a priority.  I can tell them all about the benefits.  But if they say they don't have the time, all that means is that the benefits don't mean that much to them -- they aren't that high a priority.  In the end, the best I seem to be able to do is to tell them to try it and see for themselves.  And, where the talk should work and doesn't, the yoga often speaks for itself.

7/10 Continued

The tenth passage reflects a bit more on renunciation.  The main point is that before a person is ready to renounce something, it seems pointless; but when ready, it is almost effortless and rejuvenating.  In some ways, this is like only one psychiatrist being needed to change a lightbulb, but the lightbulb really has to want to change.

I think Gates gives a good description here, and it may help me to understand what happened.  And he's basically saying that renunciation either feels right, or it is impossible.  For it to feel right, the groundwork must be paved beforehand.  But he doesn't address here how you pave the way.  So in the end, he seems to be describing a process much like a dog losing its puppy teeth:  the adult teeth are already there underneath the lost teeth.  Or like a butterfly shedding its cocoon.    The description is fine, but for some reason I don't see the power in this passage that he seems to think is there.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Friday 10:30 am with Miranda
Saturday 9:30 am with Amy

I missed posting yesterday, and its a bit more problematic with the daily passages from Meditations from the Mat, but I'll press along as best I can.

Yesterday's class was really nice.  My balance was good, and I felt very focused throughout.  I managed not to fall out of Standing Head to Knee for the first time in a long time.  I've backed up a bit in this pose recently.  I typically don't try to kick out in the first set, making really sure that I'm keeping a solidly locked knee.  I felt good in the other poses, and I even picked up both hands in Toe Stand for a microsecond.

This morning was one of those cold, sweaty mornings.  The humidifier never went on and it was still like 60% humidity.  The heat wasn't that high, but that never seems to matter when its that humid, at least not for me.  I sat out one set at the end of standing series, but otherwise was fine until Rabbit, when I just seemed to run out of air.  I came out of both sets of Rabbit early, then caught up with my breath and was fine again.

The high point today was Fixed Firm.  I got down all the way on my back.  Then came out of it because my knees were wanting to lift up, and I'm really trying to be careful on this one.  I also got a compliment from Amy on the first backbend, of all things.  I never get compliments on this pose, so that made me feel really good.  And I got a "beautiful" for my Triangle.  I wouldn't have gone that far, but it is looking better these days.

The last two days present two difficult passages.  The first passage basically has two thoughts:  1) shit happens and your practice isn't going to change that; 2) a commitment to your practice will help you when shit does happen; and 3) the commitment doesn't come through strength of will or determination, but rather through engaging in the practice itself.

The third idea I think is the most profound.  In some ways, what I think he's saying that the practice and the attitude that goes along with practice becomes a habit of being, and the more you engage in it, the more firmly rooted that habit will become.  This accords some with my limited exposure.  Before doing the first 60 day challenge, it seemed like it would be an enormous commitment, taking lots of determination.  There's another challenge coming up, and I may or may not do it, but doing it would only slightly push me beyond what I'm doing now.  

And I don't think this is because the yoga gets easier.   From what I can tell, it does not.  Instead, it seems like its just becoming a part of me, so the ease or the difficulty of it may not be relevant anymore.

I'm going to think some more on the Day 10 passage and post about it later...

Thursday, January 8, 2009

5/8 Stripping away the unnecessary

Day off.

Renunciation, it turns out, is at least partially a process of letting go things that are not needed.  Bikram emphasizes this quite a bit in our practice.  Bit by bit, we try to do without all the little things we think we need for comfort:  our little fidgeting, wiping sweat off our bodies, adjusting our towels, drinking too much water, bending forward to gasp for air.  Even in an environment where there are no props, where we are basically naked, and there is little external distraction, even there it is so easy to invent "needs". 

It turns out that stripping away what's not needed may be a pretty good idea in general.  This one is a bit tough for me.  I've been a collector at heart for many years.  If I decide I like a musician, for example, it is easy for me to get obsessed with getting everything the musician has recorded.  Same goes for books, for camera lenses, etc... It's so easy to invent needs, and easy to take comfort from Shakespeare's "O reason not the need..." speech from King Lear.  But then, Lear's needs ultimately forced him into a lonely, mad death.  So as much sense as his speech may have made, it didn't lead to any good result.  Maybe there's a message there.

In some ways, instead of being like Lear, I think this passage makes me think of myself as being more like Steve Martin at the end of The Jerk, where he's lost his fortune, his wife and everything else and says he doesn't need any of it.  And with the ease of google, I found it:

And that's it and that's the only thing I need, is this. I don't need this or this. Just this ashtray. And this paddle game, the ashtray and the paddle game and that's all I need. And this remote control. The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that's all I need. And these matches. The ashtray, and these matches, and the remote control and the paddle ball. And this lamp. The ashtray, this paddle game and the remote control and the lamp and that's all I need. And that's all I need too. I don't need one other thing, not one - I need this. The paddle game, and the chair, and the remote control, and the matches, for sure. And this. And that's all I need. The ashtray, the remote control, the paddle game, this magazine and the chair.

So, I understand what Gates is driving at.  In my practice, I've even made some strides in this direction.  And, to a certain extent, I've done the same at home.  For example, a couple of months ago I gave away about seven boxes of books.  Thus, I feel it safe to declare that I don't need any of my day to day trappings ... except this ashtray...

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

5/7 Changing the World One Camel at a Time - Redux

8:15 with Amy

Great class tonight.  I felt really with it all the way through, and pushed harder than usual through standing series -- so hard that I had to sit out one set of Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee.  Everything just felt right today.  The class was smallish, with 10 people, but everyone had really strong practices and the energy was very high.  

Amy's exuberance and enthusiasm was also refreshing.  It's been a while since I've had her class.  She has a natural effervescence that is infectious.  So even though her classes tend to be on the hard side, they usually wind up being very satisfying.

Several months back I made a post called Changing the World One Camel at a Time.  It was in response to some things that Lenette said.  Basically how each posture brings with it the opportunity to improve your attitude about the world, and how the world of the happy man is different from the world of an unhappy man.  So, by doing your yoga, you basically get the power to change your world, from the inside out.

Today's passage reminds me of that.  There are three basic points here:  First, heal yourself before you start to heal others.  That happiness and joy are naturally contagious:  happy people tend to make others happy as well, and vice versa.  And finally, that yoga is the means by which you can heal yourself.  Every step on any of the eight limbs of yoga will naturally increase your own happiness and peace of mind, which in turn will spread to others.

The philosophy major/critic wants to pull apart these ideas, largely because there are so many ways that a person can fool himself about the direction he's moving in.  So how would you know that you are going the right way.  The great thing about yoga is that it's almost purely practical.  You just do it, and things get better.  There's no need to be hyper-critical, because the test is whether its working.  

The last nine months have given me ample proof that, at least so far, it works.  I'm happier than I've been in a long time.  I am much less prone to argue just for the sake of arguing.  I am more likely to be helpful with friends or strangers.  And there is absolutely no arguing with how much better I feel because of the physical benefits.  And I still feel like I've just touched the tip of a very deep iceberg.   So I see no point in being critical about this passage.  It's so much easier to tell someone just to try it and see.  If they don't see, that's too bad for them.  But there really is no need to convince anyone about this with argument.   The practice proves itself, especially after a class like tonight's, where everything seems absolutely right.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

4/6 Practice and Renunciation

8:30 am with Danielle

Class was mostly good.  I'm making gradual progress in Fixed Firm and on my left hamstring in the final stretches.  Balancing was better, but my toe was still bothering me.  For the most part, I kept a pretty good focus.  But there were times when I caught myself planning my day.  I don't usually have that problem in the morning.  But for some reason, early on, my mind was prone to wandering.  I settled down somewhere in the balancing series and things got better from there.

Today's passage puzzled me.  Gates talks about practice and renunciation.  One point he makes I think is exactly on target.   If you plan to renounce something, and then don't back up the plan with clear action (practice), then you are almost bound to fail.  This seems pretty obvious to me.

Another point he makes has become clear to me more recently.  He says that habits that seem to drop out of your life when you start yoga may not actually be quite so hard to break.  The practice by itself may not be enough to break the old, bad habits.  I dropped a bunch of weight when I started Yoga, simply because I had, sort of miraculously, found out that sometimes I wasn't hungry when there was food before me.  I also drank lots more water, and didn't snack so much.  But I didn't do any of this with any conscious effort.  Gradually, I've found myself slipping into some old habits as I've gotten more used to the yoga practice.  I'm not leaving stuff on my plate as often, and I am snacking more often.  It hasn't had any ill effect yet, but I can see that it might.  So, here is an example where the practice might have to come together with some kind of renunciation.

On the flip side, I deliberately gave up soda last February.  I think the yoga practice has helped me keep this commitment.  And I also tend to think that I haven't slipped here because I made a clear commitment not to do it anymore.

Now, for what puzzles me.  Yesterday, the idea was not to focus on being negative.  In some ways, renunciation seems to me to be a very negative idea.  I'm thinking of the "If thy eye offends thee, then pluck it out" sort of renunciation.   So yesterday, I was stoked by the idea that you just ignore your bad habits, and focus on the positive, and the bad stuff melts away.   Now I see a different message, and one that shows there is hard work ahead.  Maybe it wouldn't sound so negative if Gates used the other word he says is a substitute: non-attachment.   Committing to non-attachment seems much more neutral (but also less active) than renunciation.  I guess the trick here is to learn how to renounce some bad habit or attitude without also beating yourself up, or punishing yourself, over it.  

Monday, January 5, 2009

3/5 Accentuate the Positive

Day Off

Today's lesson is to redirect towards positive actions whenever you catch yourself doing anything negative.  Gate's says its a kind of universal prescription when you find yourself going astray.

The Gershwin song says "Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, don't mess with Mr. In-between."  But that's not right.  Instead, Gates says to accentuate the positive, and just don't mess with the negative or Mr. In-between.  Acknowledge it, and let it pass by.

The thing to avoid is beating yourself up.  It's productive of anything.  That's why I'm not chastising myself for not going to class today.  Or did I just do that, by mentioning it?

The odd thing is that for people, we consider this idea to be kind of unique and spiritual.  And yet, its entirely second nature now in the world of animal training and positive reinforcement.  My sisters would reduce this idea to:  "You get the behavior you reward."  You get positive behaviors from animals by consistently rewarding it.  And you get rid of negative behavior by ignoring it.  And the way to stop an animal from doing something you don't like, but it finds rewarding, is to redirect its energy to something it finds even more rewarding.  Punishments have gone out of style because they are less effective, and because they tend to kill the relationship between the trainer and the animal.

So, it looks like what works for animals could work for people as well.  I'm not surprised.  And taking my side of the analogy a step further:  if punishing an animal can kill your relationship with it, then just imagine what we do to ourselves when we punish ourselves over little things.  

Gates also talks about how he learned to redirect his energies to the positive by asking "How can I help?" instead of "What's in it for me?"  This is a great idea as well, though I suspect there are many other ways to redirect energies in a positive way.  What strikes me is that the nature of the question he decided to use seems to have determined his later direction in life.  He started asking "How can I help?" and became a teacher.  Pretty interesting.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

3/4 -- Keep Paddling

2:30 pm with Miranda

The room was really crowded today.  We had 45 in class, which may be a record, at least while I was there.  In some ways, its amazing how little difference a crowded room makes.  By the time we get to Eagle, there is me, the person on each side, and one or two people behind me.  Then there are shapes of bodies, and for the most part, that's all the other people in class register as.  And of course, there's Miranda's voice, coming from above, so that I can't even really keep track of where she is in the room, since her voice always comes from the same place.

The new wrinkle in today's class came from a new injury.  Not a yoga injury, but a sheer stupidity injury.  Getting into the shower this morning, I jammed my toe pretty badly.  I didn't realize that it was so bad until I took my sock off going into class.  The middle toe on the right foot is about twice it's normal size, and a nice shade of violet.  When I tried to wiggle it, I thought it might be broken.  It isn't, I don't think.  But it doesn't feel very good.

It had some strange effects on the practice.  I almost fell down in half moon.  That was fun.  I had no idea that I was grabbing so much with my toes to keep my balance in the side bends.  Balancing on the right foot was a bit tricky.  Going up on my toes in awkward was not pleasant.  But all that was basically manageable, until Rabbit.  I also was not that aware of how tightly I wrap the towel around my feet in the set-up.  This was the only thing in the whole class that actually caused some real pain -- go figure.  Otherwise, it was a fairly solid class.

Gates talks about three things that really grabbed my attention today.  First, he says that the mat is a place where it's OK to let go of control.  Zeb used to say at the beginning of class "my mind and your body"  and I think he may have been getting at something similar.  This is tough for me to do.  To me, it seems a bit contrary to the idea that we are seeking to unify body and mind.  It seems counter-intuitive that the way to link mind and body is to let go of the mind.  But then, on matters like this, what do I know.

The other part of this that's a bit troubling is: How do you let go?  Here it's a bit like talking about faith.  I've never been convinced that a person can simply choose to believe something.  Nor is it obvious to me that it is a simple matter just to choose to give up control.  In this way, I think the dialogue might be a big help.  I may not be able, right now, to just lose control.  But I'm perfectly happy to let someone else steer the ship for awhile, and maybe that's a start.

Gates says yoga is like a river, and our mats are like canoes.  If you hit whitewater, keep paddling.  If you get into still pools, keep paddling.  Here the idea is simple, and its something I've said before.  The cure for most of the ills that yoga causes seems to be more yoga.  The best way to get out of a rut in yoga practice is by doing more yoga.  So, here is advice that I've already discovered on my own.  But I like the way he puts it:  keep paddling.

Finally this from a Hopi elder:  "[W]e are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves, for the moment we do that, our spiritual growth comes to a halt."  Lenette is fond of Bikram telling people to kill themselves in class.  The idea being that you kill your self (ego) so that you can discover a truer self.  Gates asks us to give up control, which I think is a way of losing yourself in what you are doing.  And the Hopi elder says to take nothing personally.  All three point in the same direction, and the direction is clear.  But even so, I still feel a bit as though there is a signpost on a road leading towards a river, but the bridge is out.

2/3 -- Everything, all the time

9:30 am with Danielle

It was a hot class today, and crowded.  I was running on too little sleep, a little less than 6 hours, and also a bit dehydrated.  Despite that, I felt pretty good through the standing series.  Then I began to wear down in the floor series, which is a bit unusual.  My mat was in an area with no circulation, and somewhere around Cobra I started to just feel hot.  It wasn't quite oppressive, but I also could not just let the heat wash away either, and it stuck with me through the end.  The biggest outward sign, I think, was that I came out of one of the Rabbit poses too early.

Today's passage confirms what I was thinking yesterday, but in an even broader way than I had thought.  Not only is the path not linear, but Gates says when we are doing yoga we are always pushing are way down each of the eight paths at once.  Thus, every posture involves or can involve breathing, concentration, meditation, etc...  Not only that, but Gates insists that we can take what we learn from the "lab" of our mat, and bring it to every part of our life.  

Thus, in the end, we come to practice yoga always, in all things.  It's a great thought.  But, honestly, on days like today I'm thankful if I'm practicing some part of yoga through short stretches of the class.  And when class is tough, it can be that much tougher to just let it wash over you that the person in front of you at the express line has 30 items, a bunch of coupons, and is going to write a check but not have the check cashing card in her wallet.  Part of me understands the theory, but I'm more and more beginning to see why it's a practice.  And for now, its little things, sometimes.  And perhaps with more application, it will grow into something closer to everything all the time.

Friday, January 2, 2009

1/2 - Action to Knowledge to Liberation

6:30 pm class with Miranda

For the new year, and the new plan for this blog, I decided to start a new running count.  In part, this will help me keep track of which day I'm on in Meditations from the Mat.  So from that standpoint, it's purely practical.  But it also shows a new beginning, which is kind of what I'm after anyways.

For anyone who wants to keep a running tally from the beginning of the first 60 day challenge, just remember to add 169/195 to the new tally.  169 and 195 are easy numbers to remember, so there shouldn't be much problem for anyone keeping score.

Class was fun today.  The heat was way up, starting about 106, but it came down a bit during the class, and it just sort of melted through me.  Class went quickly, and I worked hard while keeping my smiling happy face for the most part.  I felt better in Balancing series than I have in a while.  The back strengthening was good, if still painful.  I'll know I've really hit onto something good when I start looking forward to those four poses.

Today's passage outlined the eight spokes of traditional yoga.  Four are spirituality in action:  the yamas, niyamas, asanas, and pranayama.  The yamas and niyamas are kind of like the yoga analog to the ten commandments.  Asanas and pranayama are the obvious stuff that goes on in class.  These are the more physical, and accessible, aspects of yoga.

The other four spokes are pratayahana, dharana, dhyana and samadhi.  The first is drawing inward, the second is a kind of concentration, the third is meditation, and the last is union with the object of meditation, enlightenment, oneness.  As near as I can tell, and that's not very much, I think the last part is basically ineffable and a bit mystical. 

Again there are two parts today that especially struck me.  First, Gates says that following this eightfold path leads one from action to knowledge to liberation.  If so, then I'm definitely on the "action" side of this route right now.  But its pretty clear to me that this is not a linear course.   I think, from time to time, I get some glimmering of understanding about what I'm doing and why.  And I've even occaisonally, as I noted yesterday, had a few classes, or parts of classes, where time seemed to vanish and everything seemed right.  I'm assuming that that's a part of what Gate's means by liberation.  And as I said before, its the promise of reliving those moments that, in part, keeps me going.

The other comment that struck me is Gate's insistence that all is needed when one starts a yoga practice is a willingness to grow along spiritual lines.  I have a hard time talking about spiritual things, so this part of the program will challenge me.  I came to Bikram from a gym because I liked the yoga classes there, and wanted to try something a bit more intense and more authentic.  Like most people, I came looking for a workout and some health benefits.  I was very surprised about the way the practice changed my thinking, my attitudes, the way I treat others on a day to day basis.  I first thought of it as a side benefit.  Now, its looking like my original objectives may be the side benefits.  But I suspect that at some point, I might really understand that there is no "side benefit" at all, and that it's more like a package deal. 

Thursday, January 1, 2009

161/197 Celebrating What Is

New Years Day Off

There was a 2:30 class today, but its my wedding anniversary and I spent the day with my wife.  So, right off the bat I killed any chance of doing 365 classes in a row this year.

Meditations from the Mat starts off with some general thoughts on why yoga is taking off in the west.  In keeping with his optimism, Gates thinks it comes from westerners trying to retreat from unbalanced ways of life and trying to find a return to something that is balanced.  I'm not sure I agree about that part of it, but it is a very positive way to look at it.

Two things particularly struck me here.  First, he compared yoga to the Wizard of Oz.  He said that yoga is a journey that leads you home.  Like Dorothy in Oz, the way home was always there for her, and the journey and her adventures were just a way for her finally learning to accept that.  Just a few weeks ago, Lenette also made the Wizard of Oz connection, by quoting the America song, Tin Man:  "Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn't, didn't already have."  The idea is that everything that you need for your well being has already been included.  It's about as hopeful thought as I can imagine.

The other quote that I loved from this first day is the simple definition of yoga:  "Yoga is the practice of celebrating what is."  There have been a few classes that have simply flown by, where I have been absolutely happy to be in the room, sweating my butt off, and doing my best at the poses.  One of the reasons I keep going is in the hope that that I will again have that sort of magical experience.  I think Gates here is saying that yoga is the practice of gaining that sort of experience on a regular basis, and then perhaps applying that same thing both on and off the mat.  If so, again I think its an extraordinarily hopeful statement. 

161/196 Happy New Year

9:30 am with Lenette

Only my second day back after break, and I was back into the form I left with.  It also just felt good to be in the room.  It was hot, the energy in the class was very high, and Lenette taught another great class.

Today, she was encouraging everyone to take the special kindness that they bring to the Christmas holidays and simply to extend them as long as we can through the New Year.  She said she was talking to someone who told her that he felt guilty because he just gave some money to a homeless person.  Not that that was wrong, but it hit him that he passed the same guy probably countless times the rest of the year, but only thought about doing something for him now.

Class went quickly.  I didn't sit out at all, and I managed to keep a "smiling, happy face" through most of it.  I got a good correction in Toe Stand.  To me, its pretty impressive that I can attempt to do Toe Stand at all now, since it was out of the question a short while ago.  Now I have to try to sit with my heel more toward the center of my butt, especially on the left side.  And I got a compliment in Camel.  Lenette has encouraged me to push the hips forward just a bit more.  I'm getting close to where they are supposed to be, and today with just a slight bit of encouragement I got the hips vertical over the knees.