Saturday, February 28, 2009

43/59 - Farewell to the Yamas

9:30 am with Connease

To begin with, the room was a bit cold and clammy -- 93 degrees and 46 humidity.  I've had trouble with those conditions before, so I told myself I wouldn't push too hard.  I don't know how many times I've told myself that I would take it easy, then only to get caught up, pushing harder, and ending up exhausted.  Today was no different.  I wiped myself out by Triangle, and had to sit out a set.

It's funny how that works.  Because I was going to take it easy later, I decided to push things just a bit harder than usual in Pranayama.  Why not, since the rest of the class would be easier, and it would help to make up for the early cold temperature.  Then, I managed to ease off a bit at the beginning of Half Moon, but that felt good, so I pushed at the end of the pose when encouraged to push.  And then I threw myself into the back and forward bends.  And from there on, I was probably going harder than usual, all thoughts of holding back basically having fled.

Then, toward the end of class, I got the feeling that Connease was skimping on Savasana to make up for lost time.  A few other teachers have done that, and it makes the end of class very draining.  I tried to stay with things, but ended up coming out of the last few poses just a hair early.  Overall, not a great day for my stamina.  I did, however, manage the class without water again.

Today, we hit the end of Gates' discussion of the yamas.  He says that they are only five words, but these words define a saint, and encompass a lifetime's worth of work.  They are simple but not easy.

There are some important aspects to the yamas that I think bear repeating:

1)  They are practical, not theoretical.  The idea is to try to live these principles as best you can, not to try to test them with puzzles and conundrums.

2)  They don't come with a guide to their interpretation.  One person's application of the yamas to a situation might differ from another persons.  And there is not necessarily anything wrong with that.  

3)  They are phrased as negative injunctions:  non-harming, non-lying, non-stealing, moderation, and non-hoarding.  But, I think each of them can embody a paired positive value as well:  love or caring, honesty, generosity, balance, and open-mindedness or lightheartedness.

I haven't talked at all about the positive aspect of non-hoarding.  As it applies to thinking, the point of non-hoarding is not to cling to ideas that are doing us no good.  I think the positive value of this is being open minded.  Then, thinking more about it, I decided that a spirit of openness in general was what counters the clinging, clenching aspect of hoarding.  And I can't think of a better way to describe that general openness than as a lightness of heart.

4) The yamas all apply to thought, word, and deed.  This idea flows naturally from yoga being the union of mind, body and spirit.  Because of this union, in the end there is no sound distinction between a thought, a word, or an action.  I still think a harmful action is worse than a harmful thought, if only because harmful actions hurt others while a harmful thought will primarily only hurt yourself.  On the other hand, if you managed to cleanse yourself of harmful thoughts, you probably wouldn't be committing many harmful actions.  

The yamas are only the first limb of the sevenfold path.  So, in some ways the starting point is living a life of caring, truth, generosity, and balance with an open and light heart.  That's a pretty good start.  Gates says that in striving to do this, we cease to take counsel from our fears.  So, yes, its only five words.  But they are five pretty good words.

Friday, February 27, 2009

42/58 Yoga Everywhere

10:30 am with Miranda

For the second straight class, I've made it through without a water break.  Today, I really felt the difference.  Through the entire floor series, my head was clearer and I felt more alert than I typically do.  I didn't slog through the transitions from pose to Savasana and back.

There's a downside that I noticed as well.  Everything is much clearer, including some of the unpleasant sensations.  So, for the first time in a while, I felt overwhelmed coming out of Camel.  In Rabbit, the difficulty breathing was perhaps a bit more difficult.  And the pain down the back of my legs during the final stretch was even more exquisite than usual.

On balance, I will say that I like it.  My head aches slightly now, so I will have to watch for that.  And I don't intend on becoming militant about it.  In some ways, I think people can become just as attached to the "no water" idea as they do to the crutch of drinking.  I'll bring my bottle in and drink if I feel like I need it.  But I'm not drinking at the breaks anymore just because it's party time.

I love the opening paragraph of today's meditation.  Gate's pairs the great myths with the plot of TV sitcoms and says that we find yoga in each.  The analytic part of me wants to say that when we start finding something everywhere, that probably means that we are projecting it there.  But in the case of yoga, is that such a bad thing?  And does it minimize what we find?  Yoga involves unity, balance, love, truth, generosity, temperance.  There's a lot worse that we could do than that.

And then, Gates basically puts himself into the lyrics of a Lynyrd Skynyrd song.  His writing is beautiful, but I've never much liked Skynyrd.  In high school, a friend of mine brought over one of their albums and I disliked it enough that I put it up on my dartboard while he went to the bathroom, and we played who can hit "Freebird" first while he was out of the room.

I like the idea of becoming a simple man.  There is a wonderful Flaubert story called Un Coeur Simple (A Simple Heart).  It's about a servant woman who has a truly pure heart.  She might be a simpleton and she might be a saint.  It's hard to distinguish her simplicity from some form of divine inspiration.  This image has much more appeal to me.  And as a result, while I think simplicity is a noble goal, I don't think it makes one easy to understand.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

41/57 - Open Hands

Day off.

Today, Gates compares the clinging or hoarding that we engage in to keeping a clenched fist.  He suggests that, in our practice, we search for the fists that we are holding throughout our body and to open them up.  An open hand is ready to receive gifts.

It's easy to see the excess energy that we would waste by walking around all the time with fists clenched.  But there are people who do just that, or something similar.  My wife is constantly telling me to not "scrunch" my eyes.  It appears that I have a habit of holding tension there, and mostly, I am completely unaware of it.  I, on the other hand, tell her to stop squeezing her feet and toes.  Some people grind their teeth.

Yoga helps make us aware of all the ridiculous places we hold tension, and helps us to iron it out.  Just the first two exercises in Bikram are wonderful examples of this.  In Pranayama, gradually, over time, we learn to open up our chests and to let in the air.  On good days, I can feel my chest stretching, and get a delicious painful sensation between my ribs.  

And then in Half Moon, there is the whole issue of holding your arms straight over your heads.  So many people, myself included, have shoulders that are little more than perpetually clenched fists.  I'm really pleased with the progress I've made in the set-up in Half Moon.  And it is for me the easiest way to spot a newbie from a veteran.  For some reason, new students either can't straighten their arms, or they perhaps refuse to believe that that part of the pose is important. 

And then, the clenched fist stands as a pretty good metaphor for being bound by dogma, by prejudice, and by received ideas.  To let go of these ideas, to stop this kind of hoarding, we have to open up the ideas that we have clenched onto.  This mental tensions we cling to are probably deeper, and less obvious, than the mere physical ones.  And the real work is opening up each of these fists, perhaps one finger, or even one knuckle at a time. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

41/56 - Money and Freedom

8:15 pm with Miranda

Tonight I was fully back in the swing of things, back to the sort of form and focus I had toward the end of my try for 100 days in a row.  I only took two small sips of water, and I didn't really need them.  I held really still, except when I needed to blow my nose.  And, if the class didn't fly by, it was very pleasant and I felt on top of things all the way through.  Better, I didn't have a single moment of feeling sorry for my poor, beleaguered body.

It's funny, because in terms of how deep I went into the poses, tonight was nothing special.  I felt better than usual in Half Moon.  I felt really strong in Awkward and took my sweet time about both going down and coming up.  And Triangle and Rabbit were both really good.  But my balance was middling, as were most of the rest of the poses, especially back strengthening series.  But none of that really mattered, because I had the feeling that I was trying my best and pushing to my edge, and all the time I was close to keeping my "smiling, happy face."

Today's meditation is about the connection between non-hoarding and materialism.  I've known some very wealthy people, especially at the law firm where I started.  If asked, they would almost all say that the main advantage of wealth is that it brings freedom.  I always thought this was funny because, to a man, each one of them was so obsessed with accumulating wealth that they had become slaves to their practices, their clients, their calendars, and to any device which might make them richer.  Once upon a time, I think, they might have tasted the freedom that wealth can allow.   But somewhere along the line they mistook the means (money) for the end (freedom), and they sacrificed their freedom in order to maximize the money.

There are many, many other examples of the same mistake.  We own our house.  It's not that big, but its very nicely decorated and a very, very comfortable place to live.  We have lots of friends who have moved into houses that cost a million dollars or more.  They have empty rooms, or rooms with cheap "sets" of furniture.  Many of them have to cut down on other activities, or even skimp on their food budgets, to pay for their houses.  And they have to work even harder to keep up with their mortgages.  There's even a name in America for this sort of person:  "house poor". 

Of course there can be freedom that comes from an access to money, provided that there is also a willingness to spend it, and the moderation to spend less than you make.  So that is one path to freedom, but it is one that can easily get out of control.  

The simpler path to freedom is simply controlling our desires for more.   Of course, it would be nice to have the Pioneer Elite Plasma TV.  But would it really make the Iron Chef on the Food Network look that much better.  And I would always love the latest, greatest computer system.  I just know that it would make my internet surfing and emailing that much more satisfying if I had 32 gigs of Ram backing it up.  And don't get me started on stereo equipment.  You really haven't lived until you've heard your system set up with the gold plated cables that cost over $500/ft.  

All of these things might be nice to have (well, maybe excepting the stupid cables).  But its also not that difficult to be satisfied with much, much less.  The non-hoarding is another step toward conquering the twin enemies of fear and desire.  The fear aspect is the sort of miserly quality that comes from the insecurity that the money you make will never guarantee you the freedom you want.  This fear puts people on the treadmill of continually having to make more.  And the desire aspect comes from the artificial creation of a need for the latest, the greatest, the most expensive.   Let go of both of these,  and a true taste of freedom might follow.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

40/55 Making Room for the New

10:30 am with Danielle

The room started at 108 degrees and 35% humidity, and I thought that might cause some problems.  But Danielle got the heat under control pretty quickly.  And the class settled into a nice, hot, fast paced class.

I got the stretch through my sternum again in Standing Bow, so that wasn't a fluke.  I also came into class a little bit concerned about my knee, because I can feel the outside tending starting to rub a little again.  In Fixed Firm, I made extra sure to get my feet pointed further back, and didn't go all the way down.  It put an intense stretch again into my ankles, and even my knees, so I think its probably a good correction for now.  And I'll go all the way down again sometime later.  This pose is definitely one where ambition and desire can be the ruin of me.

Today, Gates says that one of the main reasons for clearing out clutter from our lives (both stuff, and mental clutter) is that it clears the way for new stuff and for better ideas.  I think a farmer would likely have an intuitive understanding of this -- Gates is basically saying that we need to clear the field before we can sow it for new crops.

This is obvious when it comes to cleaning out closets and drawers, but less so when dealing with ideas.  When I was in ninth grade, our math teacher made an offhand comment about how some result was pretty obvious so long as parallel lines didn't meet.  But if they did meet, then the problem was much more interesting.  I remember how viciously hostile everyone in the class was to the idea that parallel lines might meet.  Of course they don't meet.  How could he possibly suggest that this was not some sort of eternal truth?   Our little ninth grade minds could not even entertain the idea that this "truth" was just an assumption or a definition, and that we could assume or define the idea of "parallel" in other ways.  But when you can entertain the other possibilities, then other types of math become possible, and this leads to a kind of freedom in this realm of ideas.

Of course, I don't think theoretical math is the stuff that is foremost on Gates' mind.  A similar move can happen simply through travel and the experience of other cultures.   When I first went to China, I was disturbed by the public toilets being little more than holes in the floor.  But why not?  The are easy to clean and cheap.  The main obstacle for me now is simply a cultural one:  Westerners don't rest by sitting down on their heels with feet flat on the floor for hours at a time.  But you can see Chinese people doing this in front of just about every active storefront in any smaller town.  So, in the end, our preference for chairs, which causes all sorts of back problems, also makes us think of toilets as "right" and other alternatives as somehow backward or primitive.  This is an area where it was pretty easy for me to shed off my prejudices, but it also I think points in the direction of the sort of thing that Gates is getting at.

The question of course is, if I was a bit inflexible about plumbing when in my late early 40s, and totally inflexible about basic math "truths" when I was 14, then what other myriad ideas, both large and small are holding me spellbound in ways both important and unimportant?

Monday, February 23, 2009

39/54 - More Forgiveness and Hoarding/Non-relinquishing

Sunday Off
Monday 10:30 am with Lenette

I haven't been that good keeping up with my water drinking.  I still drink lots, but I'm not thinking about it as much as I was when I first started yoga.  And since I took yesterday off, I also slipped a bit on the water intake, and felt a bit dehydrated, and consequently anxious, heading into class this morning.  But despite my worries, everything went pretty well.  It was still a fairly good reminder to keep drinking water all the time, even on days off.

A few things worthy of note in todays class.  I pushed pretty hard in the standing series.  My balance was good, and I felt something utterly new for me in Standing Bow Pulling:  twice I felt a pretty deep stretching down the front center of my chest.  I've felt stretches in lots of unusual places with this pose, but this was the first time I could feel it really opening my chest. 

Then, toward the end of standing series, I didn't know whether I was going to have to sit out, and felt pretty beaten up.  I stuck with it, and in Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee, I felt like I was just dying, sweat pouring down my nose and into my eyes, almost unable to breath. Then, Lenette says, out of nowhere: "Good Duffy, that is really beautiful form."  I almost cracked up, and felt really, really good about this compliment -- because I was really right on the edge, and still managing to hold the form together and doing it in a way that Lenette did not see any of my internal misgivings.

Next high point came somewhere in the back strengthening series.  By this time, I was feeling hot, oppressively hot.  The class had hit a turning point, and I was either going to fade into misery or I was going to turn it around.  I was at the point where my skin started to feel like it was burning, and all of my attention was going right there.  And then, out of nowhere, I simply turned it off.   I could still feel the heat on my skin, but somehow, the misery that comes with the heat was gone, and I felt like I could just do it.  And from that point on, things were really good.

Next high point (it was a really good class) was Fixed Firm.  I went all the way down for the second class in a row, and this time after a day off.  No complaints from the knee, and I've felt good since.  The danger now is becoming complacent about the form in this pose.  I still need to work to get my toes pointed straight back.  But the recent progress here is very encouraging.

And then the best part of class came in Camel.  In the first set, I felt pretty good.  And then Lenette put a towel around the middle of my back and told me to relax my shoulders and hold onto my heels while she pulled up on the towel and lifted my chest and back.  The feeling of my middle back opening up and my shoulders relaxing was incredible.  It was a great help -- I could feel for the first time some of the areas where I've been unnecessarily holding tension.  And in the second set, I did an OK job of repeating it without the assistance.  (These assists I get from time to time make me wonder how much faster I could progress if I had a partner to help from time to time.)

Now onto the meditations, in what's already a sort of long post.  Gates says that underlying the need for forgiveness is the basic interconnectedness of all people.  I see his point, but unlike the practical aspects of other things, these thoughts sound a tad theoretical to me.  The one thing I will add to his comments is, that if he is right, then my idea of apologizing to people instead of forgiving them makes even more sense.  Because if he's right, then other people's wrongs are also our wrongs, and thus we need to apologize for them.  

Today's meditation hit close to home.  There are two aspects to hoarding that come easily for me.  First, is the obvious one: collecting.  When I develop an interest in something, I tend to try to collect all of it.  Thus, as a photographer, I have an irrational desire to get all of the Canon lenses, whether I need them or not.  When I discover some new music, I start to go out and get everything that the artist recorded.  And so on.  This one is pretty straightforward.

Today's meditation is about another part of hoarding:  keeping things.  I've been an irrational keeper of things for most of my life.  I have all of my school notebooks in storage.  That's dating all the way back to the 10th grade.  I have all the papers I ever wrote, all the letters I've ever received.  Some of this seems reasonable.  But how about this:  on my last go through of this stuff (mostly crap), I finally gave myself permission to throw out my multi-variable calculus homework from my freshman year of college.  You never know when that will come in handy!!!

So yes, I have problems giving up things from my past, whether reasonable or not, and this passage might inspire me to have another go through, and dump some more worthless treasures I've got cluttering up my drawers and closets. 

Sunday, February 22, 2009

38/52 - Forgiveness

Saturday 9:30 am with Amy

Another good class.  Afterward, a friend of mine who is new to Bikram said that Amy is his favorite teacher so far because she is always so happy, and her happiness is infectious.  It's true.  And she gets very caught up in how well people are doing.  Sometimes class almost comes to a halt, because she's just admiring something.  Today, after Floor Bow, she started talking about how we all think we stink when we are doing the pose.  She can tell by the look on people's faces as they come out of it.  And then she says that we are wrong, that the class looks great, and that she should really bring a camera in, just to capture the beauty of everyone doing that pose together.

I felt good and strong throughout the class.  I got a nice compliment on Locust.  I really need to ask someone how far I'm going up in this pose -- I have no idea, but it feels like I'm getting higher than before.  And I got fully into Fixed Firm for the first time in several months, and this time I did it with my feet pointing the right direction -- I think.

Yesterday's meditation, I think, is quite amazing.  It introduces forgiveness as a species of non-hoarding.  The idea is that we harbor anger, resentment, ill-will,  and other bad feelings about others.  Over time, we become attached to these feelings.  We cling to them.   What we need to do is forgive the people against whom we hold our grudges. 

I've always had a problem with the old saying "Forgive and forget."  If you forget, then the forgiveness doesn't amount to much because there  really is nothing to forgive any more.  Gates has made clear what's behind forgiveness in a way that I have found lacking in others.  The idea is to cleanse or purge ill will from yourself through forgiveness.  That doesn't mean you have to forget at all.  All you do is take the pain away from the memory, and what you are left with is a form of redemption.  Your memories can stay with you, but they become transformed and through the transformation, they become powerless against you anymore.

There is one small quibble I have with the idea that I should start personally forgiving people.  It strikes me that, in many cases, the ill will we bear toward others may be unjustified.  Or even if there is some cause for it, the other person may not be aware of it.  Going around forgiving people might actually cause some problems.  You say I forgive you, and they say "But I didn't do anything wrong."  And all of a sudden they might start to have a problem with you because you are forgiving them, and they don't think they need forgiving.  I haven't really worked this one out yet.  

But it seems to me that a better tactic would be to go around apologizing to people, if possible.  If forgiving people is an act of letting go, then so too is apologizing.  And others, I think, would be much less likely to take offense.  And, on top of that, in many cases where we could forgive, we also bear a decent share of the blame, and thus could apologize just as well.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

37/51 - Outdated Ideas

Friday 10:30 am with Miranda

I'm going to post twice today because I don't want to collapse the meditations for the two days into a single post.

Yesterday's class was wonderful.  For the first time, maybe ever, I breezed through the back strengthening series.  I was going at least as deep in the poses as I usually do, and deeper in Locust and Bow Pose.  But for some reason that I can't put my finger on, it felt effortless.  And as a result, instead of trying to recover from a beat-down for the rest of the class, I pretty much sprang from pose to pose, and was really happy to be there.  

The ease of the floor series, the feeling of being completely in tune with what I was doing, so overshadowed the rest of the class that I now remember basically nothing from the standing series.  And its weird, over time I've come to realize that not remembering anything about class is generally a good sign.

Yesterday's meditation goes deeper into the idea of not getting attached to your ideas.  In some ways, this whole concept seems very foreign.  We're taught from a very young age to admire people with convictions, with principles.  But it sounds here like its better for us not to be attached to our convictions.

Of course, the line between conviction and dogma is very fine, and sometimes which is which is simply a matter of whether you stand on one side of the line or the other.  And, each of the yamas has been trying to instill a positive value, one that I think Gate's would say is worth believing in: love, generosity, etc... 

So, the trick, I think, is to find a way to separate the truly valuable ideas from the "outdated" ideas.  But, then it occurs to me that I'm probably wrong about this as well.  Like other spiritual parts of yoga, I suspect that this one is a) very practical and not something to do in the abstract, and b) a process that will prove itself over time.  I think the idea is to allow yourself to entertain doubts about all your ideas, to not grow too attached to any of them.  If you can do this with honesty and humility, then the ones that are not worthwhile will simply fall away of themselves.  And in the end, the proof of this process will be in the results.  The cool thing about this, and one that also seems to be a bit contradictory, is that it raises skepticism to a kind of spiritual virtue.  I like that idea quite a bit.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

36/50 - Namaste and Non-hording

Wednesday Off
Thursday 10:30 with Lenette

Lenette led another really strong class today.  People stayed together, and the energy in the room was really high.  It was really hot, especially to start.  And I almost blew myself up in the standing series -- I had to skip out of the first set of Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee.  This is happening more and more, and I'm on the fence about what it means.  It's hard for me to believe that I'm really losing stamina.  Maybe it shows that I'm pushing even harder in the earlier part of the standing series.  That, at least, is the optimistic way to view it.  Anyway, the classes are good overall, so I'm not going to worry too much about it.

Yesterday's meditation was about acknowledging the spiritual light or the divinity in yourself.  This reminded me of the yoga greeting and farewell: "Namaste."  I've been told that it literally means "The light in me bows to the light in you."  For a single word, I think this is just about the coolest and most powerful greeting.  I wish there was some simple, and non-dorky, way of saying something similar in English.  Instead, we get "Howyadoin?"

The other thing Gates brings up again is how exercising the light within you is like exercising a muscle.  The more you do it, the easier it gets.  Lenette has said the same thing about commitment -- that its a muscle and needs to be worked to make it stronger.

Yesterday's meditation, I think, runs contrary to certain kinds of Christianity.  First off, there is the idea that we are devine and fundamentally good.  Some Christians insist that man's natural state is that we are basically dust infused with original state, and that we can only improve through God's grace.  Moreover, these same people (I believe) would insist that all grace is a favor from God.  Taken to its extreme, this leads to the Calvinist idea of predestination and the elect.  Gate's says instead that we can bring ourselves to the light by taking the right first step, and that taking each step makes the next one a bit easier. 

This tension doesn't worry me, but I do find it interesting, partially because its the first thing that I've noticed in the book that seems like it might run afoul of any mainstream religious teachings.

Today's meditation lands us safely back in the yamas, by introducing the last of the five yamas: non-hoarding.  In its most narrow form, this would seem to apply to possessions.  We've made it a practice in our house to get rid of things that we don't use anymore or no longer need.  Just a little while ago, I took this a step further, by getting rid of about 10 boxes of books.  Until then, I had basically kept every book that I had ever read since junior high school.  For me, it wasn't that easy getting rid of the books.  But they were simply cluttering things up and not doing any good.  I don't know that this made any big change, but I have noticed that now that I no longer have EVERYTHING I ever read, I'm much more likely to lend out or simply give people the books that I do have.  And I think that's a good thing, because the books certainly weren't doing anyone any good by just sitting on my shelves.

Later, I'll have more to say about non-hoarding, or non-attachment, as it applies to our ideas, and not just to our stuff.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Monday 10:30 am with Danielle
Tuesday 8:15 pm with Amy

Yesterday's class was really good.  I felt strong throughout.  I pushed to my limit by Triangle, and then managed to stay with it through the end of standing series.  I felt like I hit a new high in Locust, but I can't say for sure because I can't see myself.  But for the first time in a while, I felt like I had some real control over myself throughout that pose.

Today's class was a bit different.  I had a big lunch of Chinese food, including Peking Duck, a wonderful spicy fried eggplant stuffed with shrimp, and sauteed soft shell crabs.  It was a great lunch, but Chinese food doesn't always vanish after 20 minutes like they say.  So tonight, I could feel tightness from the start because of the food, and sure enough, I had trouble keeping it down in Locust and actually had to bail out of part of the pose.

Other parts of tonight's class were really great.  I locked my knee out in Separate Leg Head to Knee, on the right  side.  I haven't done that in a while.  And I felt much looser on both sides.  I went deeper in Camel than I have in a while.  And I got all the way down briefly in Fixed Firm.  I also really pushed myself at the start of class, and lost my breath and went down in the second set of Triangle.  So overall, tonight's class was a mixed bag.  It was really challenging, but I also had the feeling at times that I am making some real progress.

I don't have much to say about yesterday's meditation.  Of course, all glory is fleeting in one sense, so I take his point about the winners at the Oscars, and perhaps about the Bulls, who I didn't really care about anyway.  But then I think about my 1969 Knicks, with Frazier, Barnett, Reed, Debusscher (sp?), Bradly, Cazzie Russell, etc...  That team was magical, and there are several moments from that season that I will live in my memory forever.  Of course, I was only 10 at the time, and basketball was probably more important to me than food.  But there is a certain kind of glory and artistry that lives on long after the moment of the championship, especially in the eternal mind of a child.  So, Bill Bradley coming around a screen deep in the corner and getting fed with a pass and effortlessly making a shot while fading out of bounds.  Or Walt Frazier making the extra pass on a break for an even easier lay-up.  Or Dick Barnett making that crazy kick with his legs and calling out "Fall back, baby" while the shot is still in the air.  Or Willis hobbling out on the court in game seven, and then nailing his first two shots and totally inflating the atmosphere of every person in the Garden.  These are some of the many moments of glory that I think Gates may too easily dismiss.  

Having given all of that praise, I will also say that in one sense I completely agree with Gates.  The Knick's team was unique, partially because I was just a kid, but more because they played the game absolutely right, and together as a team.  More than any team I have ever seen, in any sport, that team for that one season showed the complete power of unselfishness.  And in that unselfishness, they also showed the pure joy that can be had from a group of people playing mostly (or at least seemingly) for the love of the game.

In today's meditation, Gates mentions a military saying that its always 3am, its always raining, etc...  To me, this brings to mind the hot room.  Bikram calls it the torture chamber.  As Lenette has said several times, a big part of yoga is getting comfortable with the uncomfortable.  The hot room is just another thing there trying to mess with our minds.  If we can deal with the discomfort of the poses, the sweat, the humidity, the lack of air, the barking instructor -- if through all that we can focus and meditate, then everything else in our lives should be that much easier to deal with.  Thus the Bikram studio I think approaches the same idea in a somewhat different way. 

Sunday, February 15, 2009

33/46 Injuries as opportunities

Day off.

Today's meditation is something I've thought about quite a bit over the last several months.  The basic idea is that injuries give us the chance to pay more attention, and ultimately can lead to even greater improvement. 

I've dealt with two injuries from yoga so far.  Both stem from the same two basic causes:  excess ambition and bad form.  My guess is that most yoga injuries come from these problems -- although there can be many reasons for bad form.

First was some tendonitis in my knee.  It came and went, then came back even stronger.  It took me a while to nail down what really was causing this.  For a while, we chalked it up to simply being a realignment in my body causing temporary discomfort.  That was fine, until it came back the second time.  It turned out that I was going back to far in Fixed Firm while still having my toes flared out a bit to the side.  And on top of that, my leg would twist out a little when I locked my knee, instead of continuing to point forward.  Paying close attention to these details has worked wonders for my knee ever since.

The second injury was my sciatic pain.  It's still lurking just over the horizon for me, but I almost always have it in check now.  This one came from the same thing -- pushing too hard with bad form.  Here, the bad form came as a result of overdoing what the dialogue says in Separate Leg Head to Floor.  We are told to stand with our feet wide apart and pigeon-toed.  By over doing the pigeon toe, combined with pushing too hard in all of the forward bends, I pulled the periformis muscle in my left hip, and this in turn aggravated the sciatic nerve.  Sticking to keeping my feet parallel instead of over-pigeon-toed, took care of this problem.

When I had these injuries, I learned how to do Standing Bow.  I couldn't push that hard, because my hip hurt too much to allow it.  As a result, I started really concentrating on the form and doing what I could as well as I could do it, without worrying about how deep I went.  It made no sense to worry about depth, because it was impossible anyway.  From this, I got a better idea of what good form in the pose felt like, and the pose has improved by leaps and bounds as a result.

Thus, while we shouldn't be looking to injure ourselves, they do present opportunites for improvement.  And they are almost always an invitation to pay closer attention.  

Saturday, February 14, 2009

33/45 Action and Results

Friday 10:30 with Danielle
Saturday 9:30 am with Janna (?)

Friday's class was good, and I felt great all day afterward.  I can't remember anything specific about the class now, which is always a good sign.  I do remember that it flew by.

Today we had a teacher I haven't seen before.  She was subbing, and taught regularly at the studio before I started, but is now in graduate school.  She had a very good pace, and a good tone.  I liked her.

The class however, was really tough for me, especially at the beginning.  I started feeling bad around awkward pose, and basically toughed it out.  In triangle, I really felt like going down, even though I wasn't breathing that hard.  So I resisted, and made it through the whole standing series.  Then, on the floor, everything opened up and class got much better.  In the end, I felt good about the whole class, because it was one where I really felt like bailing out for an extended period, but I managed to keep myself together throughout.  Just doing that let the yoga work its magic, and I've felt much better for it through the rest of the day.

In some ways, this connects with Gates' meditation for yesterday.  Basically, he emphasizes the practical aspect of yoga.  It almost reduces to the Nike slogan: just do it.  I've said before that no matter how bad you feel, you can still do the Bikram class.  You just do it as well as you can given how you feel.  Today, I put that to the test, and it worked out well.

In yoga, action comes before theory.  You don't learn alot before starting to practice.  You don't have to put yourself through any kinds of preparation.  You prepare for it by actually doing it.  And I think, in the end, that practice and theory are supposed to become one.  That means, if you aren't feeling well, like today, the answer is not to wait until you feel in the mood to do yoga.  Instead, you do it and, at least for today, it puts you in a better mood.

Today's meditation seems to go on a different track, but its actually remarkably similar.  Gates talks about becoming too attached to your goals.  When I'm having a bad day, or don't feel like being in the room, I can still practice.  The key is not carrying the same image of where I should be in the poses to every class.  Fixed Firm has taught me about this more than any other pose.  I never know beforehand how far I'm going to get in this pose, and I've learned to deal with the variability.  I still get tremendous satisfaction on the days I can get all the way down.  But, I'm slowly learning to take satisfaction from  a day like today, where just getting my hips near the floor gets a really big stretch in my insteps.  

And, on the days when the entire practice seems really hard, I can take satisfaction simply from doing my best, and feeling better afterwards.  It's taken me almost a year to start to learn this, and I will bet that I need to relearn it from time to time, because its so easy to really want to make progress in a pose.  But, as Gates says, over-attachment to progress and results is a sure-fire recipe for injury and burn-out.  My sciatic nerve, my left knee, and my hips can all attest to that.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

31/43 Karma and De-aging

Wednesday Off
Thursday 10:30 am with Danielle

I took yesterday off in keeping with Gate's idea that sometimes we should take off when we want to go.  The other half of that I have down pretty well:  I don't have much problem forcing myself to go when I don't want to.  So for the day yesterday, I just felt good.

This morning's class was very good and strong.  I got all the way down in Fixed Firm, in both sets.  It's funny, but that pose is the one where I change the most, either for better or worse.  I've had stretches, like now, where I can go all the way down.  But if I hurt something, then I basically lose everything in that pose.  Other poses aren't like that.   For weeks, and even months at a time now, my Half Tortoise, or my Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee poses are pretty much the same, or at least they vary in a much smaller range.

Yesterday's meditation introduced the idea of karma, and connected it with the idea of moderation.  Karma is basically the idea that good and bad acts perpetuate their own rewards.  From the standpoint of moderation, this means that eating too much, or drinking too much, or giving in to an addiction, brings its own punishment.  On the flip side I suppose, being generous, kind or loving makes your world a better place and brings its own reward.  In this view, this idea is not so much a law of destiny, but more connected to a person's inner workings.

Today's meditation talks about how yoga stips away our age by giving us back a younger body.  First, Gates talks about how he recently decided to be more moderate about food, lost some weight in the process, and how this has had a big impact on his practice and made him feel younger.  It's tremendously encouraging to learn that someone as advanced as Gates can still undergo this sort of radical transformation.  In the last year, I've literally peeled off a few layers myself (over 40lbs worth).  And I've been basically in a holding pattern now for about 4-5 months.  So its great to get an assurance that its possible to break out of this holding pattern, if I start to focus a bit more.

The de-aging process, from a physical standpoint, is one of the first things that people seem to notice.  It can be something as simple as not having to push youself out of a chair with your arms, which is one of the first things that happened with me.  Or, being able to dry your feet comfortably after showering, which is something my sister noticed after her first week.  The feeling of fitting better in your own body has an almost magical effect, both on the body and mind.

There's a side to this that Gates mentions that I have not yet encountered.  He says basically that some of our physical defects are actually put in place as defense mechanisms, as a kind of armor.  I mentioned a similar idea the other day about obesity.  If you are obese, then you can take refuge in the idea that you are unloved because you are fat (which is an accident), and not because you are essentially a bad person.  Yoga, by correcting the physical defects, may make a person confront emotional issues that they buried in their bodies.  Thus, Gates says that the de-aging process of yoga can actually force people to confront some of the turmoils of their youth and adolescence.  

I see his point.  But he says that he had understood this intellectually before, but just recently got hit with the revelation on a visceral level.  I haven't experienced anything like this yet, so my understanding is at best just intellectual.  But it's a very interesting idea.  I've heard reports of all sorts of emotional breakdowns happening at teacher training.  I've had strange ideas pop into my head, especially doing backbends.  But no breakdowns so far.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Tuesday 8:15 pm with Miranda

Last night's class was very nice.  The heat in the room felt good, especially with a crazy storm outside.  I felt more flexible than I have in a while, and even though I could still feel the tightness under my shoulderblade, it didn't seem to hinder what I was doing.  And my stamina was up, I made it through everything with no problem at all.

The yamas so far have had a positive aspect that grows from the negative.  Thus, non-harming transforms to caring and love.  Non-lying becomes honesty and truthfulness.  With non-stealing, it is generosity.  Today, Gates shows that moderation or temperance is simply an aspect of personal responsibility.

First, he talks about how we are responsible for all the little details of our practice.  This is something that a few of the Bikram teacher's emphasize.  Don't get too attached to any one spot, any one side of the room.  Last week, Lenette said that instead of always pushing in Standing Bow until I fall, I should sometimes get to the point of return and just stay still, enjoying the feeling of just being still, right there.  Gates makes the same point:  sometimes he pushes really hard, and other times he allows himself a bit of rest.  The idea is that if you feel like you have started doing something because it has become a habit, or simply because you've become attached to doing it that way, then step back and think about doing it some other way. Falling out of Standing Bow is good because it pushes the stretch and shows I'm pushing my limits.  But staying at the point where I can hold the pose is also good, because it inculcates the idea that I can succeed.

There are two other ideas here that are very interesting.  First, he says that if he dislikes a teacher, that means the teacher reflects some aspect of himself that he has not yet made peace with.  Fortunately, I like all of our teachers, and always have.  The broader point is interesting, and I'm not sure if I agree with it.  In film school, I took a strong dislike to another of the students, and the feeling was mutual.  A while later, one of my friends told me how strange he thought it was that we hated each other so much, since we were so much alike.  I thought about that for a long while, and finally admitted that it was true.  Though, at the time, it didn't do anything to cure my feelings for the guy.  So, on that level, I can easily see some truth to this idea.  But I also think its at least possible to dislike some things because they are truly bad.  But maybe I'm wrong on this, as well.

The other great idea from this meditation is the idea that we will never graduate.  Of course, most graduation ceremonies are actually called commencements.  They should mark the start of a new phase of life, not the end of study.  Unfortunately, that's not the way many, if not most, people look at graduation.  In America, people think of a black belt in karate as being a master. In Japan, a black belt is what you get when they have decided that you are ready to begin.  It is not a symbol of mastery.  Instead, a student with a black belt is ready to start serious study. 

On the simplest level, I don't think I have to worry about being complacent because of my mastery of any of the asanas.  Sometimes, when I hear the "one day, eventually, in the future" language in class, telling me where I will ultimately get to in a pose, I think "so this is where Bikram squeezes in the Hindi idea of reincarnation."  But I've talked to people who do seem to do the full expression of some poses, and they all insist that it remains challenging and they still find new things in the pose all of the time.  So even if that "one day, in the future" arrives in this lifetime, even then it won't mean that I've graduated and can move on to something else.

Monday, February 9, 2009

29/40 Prayer and Addiction

Sunday off.
Monday 10:30 am with Bikram CD.

Lenette got rear-ended on her way to class this morning.  She's fine.   Her car may not be.  So we had no teacher and got treated to the Bikram CD instead.  It was fun, but I wouldn't want to make a steady diet of it.  His tone was much kinder than I would have expected.  I thought he would come across more like a drill sergeant.  But his repetitive exhortations weren't loud -- nothing like Miranda's, for example.  Instead, they were quietly insistent, and strangely musical.  Also, there were a few points in the second set of things where I missed some cues.  In the second set of Half Tortoise, I was the only one in class who heard the cue to exit the pose.  The rest of the class stayed in the pose until he called for the Sit-Up following Savasana.  Somehow, I don't think that would have happened if it had been Locust or Camel.

My postures were OK.  I pulled something under my left shoulderblade in Saturday's classes, and it hampered the compression poses.  But otherwise, I felt good.  And there were times when I managed to pretend that Bikram (or the spirit of Bikram) was really pushing me.  But overall, I think one of the main benefits of using the CD is that it shows how much interaction there really is between the teacher and the class, even when it sometimes seems like they are just following the dialogue.  It turns out that they aren't, and that having a real person tell you to push harder actually helps.

Yesterday's meditation was on the power of prayer.  Thankfully, Gates doesn't subscribe to the idea of prayer that Janis Joplin skewers so beautifully:  "Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz."  I now think of that as being the Joel Osteen school.  (If you are lucky enough to not know who Joel Osteen is, he is the preacher here in Houston who bought the Compaq Center, and has services with a congregation of 20,000.  In his services, he basically talks about how God is gonna make you rich, and nothing else.)

Gates idea is that prayer is a form of surrender.  It's a plea for help with our shortcomings.  This simple act -- acknowledging where we fall short, and asking that "thy will be done", is enough to give us energy, to put us on the path toward redemption. 

Gates takes a thoroughly non-denominational approach.  He says it doesn't matter if you don't know who, or what, you are praying to.  Because nobody else knows for sure either.  Like other aspects of yoga, the proof of the power of prayer comes because it works.  And he's not saying that it works in the Janis Joplin/Joel Osteen sense.  It works in a more important way.  By acknowledging where we are lacking, and asking sincerely for help in those areas, we put ourselves on the path toward that help.  Like other spiritual aspects that Gates describes, this one is also purely practical.

In today's meditation, Gates talks about moderation as a path out of addiction.  Basically, he says that addictive/intemperate behavior stems from a perceived emptiness.  People turn to addictive behavior to try to make themselves whole.  But the balance they are looking for can't be had from without.

On all of the above, I think he's basically right.  What he doesn't acknowledge, even though I'm sure that he's aware of it, is that the addictive behavior does seem to make things better for awhile.  For example, suppose someone takes to eating too much because they are dissatisfied with their love life.  This has two effects:  first, the excess eating feels good itself for awhile.  Secondly, getting fat lets the person blame the unsatisfactory love life on something that's at least partially external:  they aren't loved because of an accident (their being fat) and not because of something about themselves.  The food provides temporary relief, and the fat provides an excuse.  But in the end it doesn't work, and things just get worse and worse.

The second point that Gates makes is that moderation takes courage, but it is the path that works.  Going back to the food problem:  diets don't work because they basically substitute one form of obsession with another.  Fad dieters become totally focused on their dieting.  It consumes their lives.  But the diet cannot be sustained long term.  So when its done, the obsession with food remains (either too much, or none at all, or no fat, or no carbs).

The solution according to Gates is simple, but takes courage.  If you are stuck in a hole, stop digging.  With food, this means stop making food such a big deal.  That's easy to say, but much less easy to do (or at least it has been for me).  Here, the Bikram practice has truly helped:  it put me more in touch with the sorts of things that I actually craved -- fruits for example, and who knew???  My body telling me what I want has changed my eating habits pretty radically, and my non-dieting through yoga and moderation has worked wonders that a bunch of diets could not.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


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

I had another 180 degree shift in just two days.  Friday's class was cold.  I felt stiff all the way through.  I started the class with a fair bit of anticipation, because I had a slight headache.  The class cured the headache, but I never really felt with it.  For the first time in a long, long time, getting my head to my knees in Rabbit was problematic, at least in the first set.  Of course, I left feeling better than when I came in.  But I still had a lingering feeling of dissatisfaction, from moving backwards or sideways at best.

Then today's class was really great.  The focus was there.  My backbends felt really good (I still have no idea how they look).  The room was hot and I was in an area that had completely still air, but it felt great.  And the energy in the room (with about 40 people) was really high.

Before class, I meant to ask Lenette about some soreness in my right shoulder.  But it went away during class, so I didn't know how to show her where it was. 

Somehow I got mixed up in the numbering of Gate's Meditations, and I'm not going to go back and try to figure out what, if anything, I missed.  Today, he is talking again about temperance or moderation.  He basically talks about how our culture takes passion and intensity to be overriding virtues, and doesn't do much to praise moderation.  

I think he's got it right to a certain extent.  The romantic movement put a very high premium on excess and passion.  And that brings a line of heroic figures like Keats and Byron, flaming with energy and youth and then dying young.  The same spirit in part lies behind the fascination with people like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, etc...

But I think that only looks at part of the picture.  J.S. Bach lived a long, happy life.  He had 23 children, and he was no slouch when it came to writing moving music.  And he's not alone.  Of course James Dean was cool, but no cooler than Paul Newman or Clint Eastwood or a host of other actors who aged gracefully.  So on this point, I understand Gates' point, but I think he's selling our culture a bit short.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

26/36 Temperance

Wednesday - 8:15 pm with Miranda
Thursday Off

The fourth yama is temperance or moderation, and in observance, I took the day off.

Yesterday's class was interesting.  I really did not feel like going at all, felt a little bit sick, and was concerned that I might not be able to get through it.  And about 15 minutes in, I was getting even more concerned.  And then, all the troubles just melted away, and the rest of the class simply flew by.  I felt better and better as the class went on, and felt great by the end of it.  It was one of those days where the class gave me about a 180 degree change in attitude.

In yesterday's meditation, Gates talks about yoga as a kind of homecoming.  Basically, the idea that yoga reacquaints us with our youth -- with what used to feel right and can feel right again.  For Gates, the magic moment came in his first class, when he could feel something opening up in his back.  I get little moments like this all the time, from being able to touch my toes, to standing up from a chair without using my arms, to not waking up at night with heartburn. 

I've often said to people that, inside, I basically still feel like I'm in high school.  And step by step, yoga is making my body more and more like it was back then as well.  Without dieting, I'm back to wearing the same size jeans I wore then.  More important, there are times when I feel myself walking with the same sort of bounce in my step.

Today's meditation introduces the idea of temperance.  This is another yama that is tied in with the idea of non-attachment.  Basically, you could reframe this yama as non-obsession.  Whenever you become overly preoccupied with anything, it's a good idea to let go a little and put things back into perspective. 

I first felt this aspect crop up naturally in my attitude toward food.  For the first time in a long, long time (maybe forever), I could feel when I was full and actively wanted to stop eating.  So I was no longer continuing to eat just because there was more on my plate.  That's the main thing that led to losing 40+ pounds, and it's mostly a result of natural (not willful) temperance in action.  

The same basic principle can apply in all sorts of areas.  The intemperate person is never satisfied.  The goal is to get enough control of yourself in any area to be able to say "That's enough, I am satisfied."  

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

25/34 Neverending Posture

Day off.

Gates mentions a lesson he's learned from the flow style of yoga he teaches.  It's basically that the posture doesn't end:  the transitional phases are just as important as the poses themselves.

Part of me wants to laugh.  When I "crash land" out of locust or full locust, it's pretty clear to me that a posture has ended.  But of course, I've concentrated pretty hard over the past few months on developing a quiet attitude between poses.  In the floor, we are continually told that the Savasanas are at least as important as the poses themselves, because they are where we reap the benefits.  And in the standing series, it's much the same with the emphasis on remaining still, focusing on your eyes in the mirror, and low slow flow of breath. 

Ultimately, the class should become a 90 minute moving meditation.  I've certainly never achieved the result for the full 90 minutes, but I become more and more aware that that end might be possible.

Gates takes this further.  He says that the same attitude should extend outside of class.  Every moment is an opportunity for what he calls a "holy interacton."  I can see glimpses of this.  The peacefulness that comes from practice does bleed over into everyday life -- sometimes more and sometimes less.  And of course, more is better.  

Monday, February 2, 2009

25/33 I Was Sick

8:15 p.m. with Miranda

I guess sometimes you don't really know that you are sick until you get better.  There are two times in the past when I've had a similar experience.  I went to the doctor to get some vaccines before going to Europe, when I was nineteen.  He looked me over, asked me if I had had any recent pains in my joints.  Then he asked me if I had been around any pregnant women, because I had had German Measles for the second time.

The other time, which was more dramatic, was when I had my first root canal.  My left bottom molar broke before I went to the dentist.  I had heard terrible things about root canal work, but for me it was an unbelievable relief.  I had not realized how much pain I was in, until the dentist took it away.  It had made me irritable and angry for months, but I was not really aware of it as pain until it was gone.

Today's class was a minor revelation of the same sort.  For the first time in a week, I felt really good, and class just felt right.  Feeling again how great a good class can be, I also realized that there must have been something wrong with me the last week, and it culminated in last night's headache.  Now, thankfully, it appears to be over.

There were no breakthrough's tonight, but there was a feeling that breakthroughs might be possible, and an overall feeling of grace.  And I wasn't the only one.  Several times Miranda commented on how good the class was, and toward the end she said she thought it was the best class she ever taught.  Everyone was strong, moving together.  Noone sat out.  You could feel the stillness between poses.  There was some laughter.  It was just a great class.

One lesson from this is that for the last week I have not been following what Gate's talks about in today's meditation.  He says that his approach to pain, both mental and physical, has become simpler as he has become more honest.  Pain gives an opportunity to pay more attention to what we do, and to have some faith in the power to heal.  I was somewhat lacking in that faith.  I had certainly been paying attention, but I had also been allowing myself to become  a bit frustrated with what were, after all, only minor and temporary setbacks.  Mostly, I was afraid that the yoga was not really working.  On the contrary, there has been some really nasty stuff going around recently, and I may have just caught a glancing blow of some bug.  If anything, its more likely that the steady yoga practice has kept me from being more knocked out than I otherwise would have been. 

24/32 Non-stealing

Saturday 9:30 am with Connease
Sunday 2:30 pm with Miranda

Both classes were pretty good.  Today's was hot and crowded -- with 55 people.  The mat next to mine was two inches away, which made Full Locust interesting.

I don't have much to say because, for unknown reasons, I have a splitting headache.  I'll have more tomorrow.

In the Meditations, we reached the third yama: non-stealing.  Each of the first three yamas gets translated in a negative fashion -- non-harming, non-lying, and non-stealing.  But it's clear that the negative aspect is just a start.  They all represent a positive virtue when taken beyond the simple prohibition.  Thus non-harming becomes caring or love.  Non-lying becomes honesty or truthfulness.  And non-stealing becomes generosity.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

22/30 Therapy for Soles

Friday Off

I took Friday off and felt much better for it.

Gates talks about how, when he started Yoga, his teacher told him he wasn't ready for it, and would not be until he cured his flat feet.  It took him almost six months to get to the point where he could start to feel some muscles moving in his arches, but eventually, he overcame being flatfooted.

Every time I get cramps in my feet during Yoga, I think of this lesson, and take some hope from it.  It says that with time, perseverance and patience, yoga can accomplish the seemingly impossible.  With my feet, the problem isn't fallen arches (at least not so much) but with bunions.  And of course, bone is probably even a tougher nut to crack.  When I started, both of my big toes pointed strongly inward.  By the end of about three months, my right foot had already started to correct itself, and it now looks basically normal, though there is still a fair sized lump on the outside.  The left foot was, and is, much worse.  To begin with, I basically could not move my big toe at all.  I can now get it to separate from the others, and its almost wanting to point in the right direction again.  For a few years I'd been putting off surgery on it, basically because I didn't want to go through the pain, and because bunion surgery doesn't solve any structural problems:  it just makes the pain go away until you build the excess bone up again.  Now, I'm not thinking so much about surgery, because I think in several years I may actually solve the problem itself.

And of course, the underlying message here is that if yoga can accomplish what seems impossible on your soles, then why not on your soul as well?