Wednesday, April 29, 2009

83/118 - The Fall, The Holy Spirit, and other Easy Ideas

Tuesday off.

The day 117 meditation breaks down into three parts.

First, Gates talks about A Course in Miracles and its interpretation of Genesis story of the fall of man.  There are two points that Gates emphasizes.  First, that man's expulsion from Eden came when man lost his sense of oneness with God.   This interpretation would more easily persuade me if I had a good sense that there was a strong sense or feeling of oneness with God before the fall.  The only support I can find for this is in the idea that Eden itself was a paradise.  Maybe that's enough, but I'm certainly aware of other interpretations of this passage (notably ones emphasizing sex as original sin).

Gates second point here is that God created the solution to all man's troubles at the same time that he created the problem.  The solution is the Holy Spirit, which Gates (or perhaps the Course in Miracles, which I haven't read) says was created simultaneously with the expulsion from Eden.  I don't know where this is from.  Part of me wonders how this squares with the idea that Jesus came a few thousand years later to provide the solution.  If the solution to all our problems was already there, then there's something that I simply don't understand:  why the need for another solution.

Anyway, this theological discussion paves the way for a point about Yoga.    Gates wants to compare spiritual ignorance and clear seeing to the introduction of man's problem (lack of oneness with god) and the solution (the Holy Spirit) in Genesis.  He says "The moment we become willing to believe in a power greater than ourselves, or in a a reality more complex than the material world of our own imagination, we find ourselves to be embraced as intimately by the true as we have embraced the false." 

I don't buy it.  I know many, many people who not only are willing to believe these things, but they profess actually to believe them.  But many, if not most of them, are simply groping around like the rest of us.  Worse, if the distinction is between being "embraced by the true" or "embracing the false", I'm pretty sure that alot of these people are doing the latter. 

The other difficulty I have here is in the simple idea that belief can so blindly follow the will.  The other day (yesterday?), I talked about Descartes first meditation.  The first big problem I have with his idea of universal doubting is that it just doesn't have much to do with what doubting actually is.  There's a difference between saying "I doubt X." and actually doing it.  And Descartes rests way too much of his project on these purely theoretical doubts.  If anyone sincerely entertained the doubts he leads us through, that person would never be able to even get out of bed, and would likely get put away.

I feel similarly about belief.  Saying you believe something isn't enough to create a belief.    So the question for me then becomes what Gates means by someone being "willing to believe".  On the surface, it sounds like an easy thing to do.  But maybe its not as easy as it sounds.  Can someone simply decide what they are willing to believe?  Is that a just a matter of choice, or is something more involved?  I'm thinking there must be more to it, or else all the people I know who say they believe in God but not in organized religion would be beacons of spiritual enlightenment (not to mention all the pigheaded religious zealots).

The last part of the meditation consists of a remarkable description of what happens once a person puts spiritual commitments first.  Here, a big point is that the practice of yoga starts to extend everywhere, on and off the mat.  The other point that really interested me was the idea that a spiritual person lives on another plane -- one whose "rules can only be perceived by the heart."  For the most part, I'm pretty sure that I'm not there.  I think the metaphor is powerful, but part of me wants to pin this idea down, and yet I realize that by its very nature, the idea is not subject to pinning:  that would be asking to perceive the rules through some other organ, and that's out of bounds.   Oh well...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

83/117 - The Five Year Plan

8:15 pm with Sherie

Tonight's class was fantastic and just alot of fun.  We had severe thunderstorms, so the class was small, only eight students.  Sherie kept the pace going, with just the right mixture of humor, motivation, compassion and just being a hardass.

She says that the mistake that we westerners make is that we always want to push to go deeper into the poses, and we are in a rush to get there.  If you are in a rush, she suggests not going for depth but for frequency.  According to her, two classes a day every day for five years should do the trick.  Apparently, that's what she did, and I'm just in awe.  She admits that Bikram himself recommends two classes a day for two years to heal any serious injury.  But five years?  The mind boggles.

Later, when talking about breathing, she mentioned that for nine months of that time, she was practicing with nine cracked ribs.  She said that will really teach you how to breathe in the poses.  I started laughing at that, and she then said, "We don't offer rib breaking here, that's for the advanced class only."

I was incredibly strong during class.  I didn't even feel fatigued toward the end of standing series.  Instead, I was just overflowing with energy, and everything seemed to come easily.  And it wasn't because I had held back at all.  I just felt better for some reason.  

And I got my best compliment ever in Triangle.  Going into the first set, Sherie said that my movement was beautiful, and then went on to say that she had taught four classes that day, and the way I went into Triangle was the best thing she had seen all day.  And to be clear, she wasn't praising the pose itself.  Rather, it was the focus, concentration, and precision of how I moved into it that she liked.  And that just made my day.  Especially since at the time, all I was doing was listening to her and following along.  That's exactly what I've been trying to do, and its so nice to hear that it's working sometimes.  And it pretty much stoked me up for the rest of the class as well.

The Day 116 meditation in some ways retreads the same ground as the previous day.  Gates focuses more today on how people mistakenly define themselves with external things, or even worse, with their faults.  Thus, some people are their jobs or their ambitions or their relationships or their educations or their hobbies.  These external definitions are all screens that get in the way of discovering the true self.

In some ways, the process of stripping away the false definitions sounds dangerously like DesCartes first meditation.  Descartes makes a laundry list of all the things he can doubt, stripping away everything, until he's left saying that the only thing he can't doubt is that he doubts.  Thus, Cogito Ergo Sum (I doubt, therefore I am.).

I'm not saying that this is exactly what Gates does.  The question I have is how does one distinguish between describing oneself, and "defining" oneself.  There can be lots of true descriptions about a person.  For example, I tend to overanalyze things.  But that's not "who" I am.  It's just something that happens to be true about me.  Ultimately, I don't think "who" I am, or anyone else is for that matter, is subject to definition.  And its not because there is nothing left when you strip away all the descriptions.  Rather, what is left when you strip away the descriptions cannot, by definition, be described.  Therefore it cannot be defined -- it is ineffable.  (And maybe that is our ultimate connection to divinity.)

In the end of the meditation, Gates describes how the process of coming to know yourself works off the mat (just as yesterday he gave a glimpse of how it might work on the mat).  It's pretty much the same, a moment of stillness brings peace and the feeling that things will be all right.  If this is so, then it goes a long way to explain the spiritual growth that seems to come naturally to people through asana practice alone.  It's the emphasis on practicing stillness that seems to be the key.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

82/116 - The Still Center

2:30 pm with Connease

Whatever was bugging me the last couple of days was gone.  I intended to try to stay in the room.  Instead, I stayed with every posture, only coming out of Locust early in the first set.

My right knee was bothering me some.  I think its my worn out shoes, and they are going in the trash tonight.  I had some extra tension on the inside of my right knee.  It didn't interfere with very much, and I was surprised at the two poses that it did bother.  First was tree pose.  Lowering my right knee down was a challenge, and I had to treat it very gingerly.  And then, in the final seated head to knee pose, I had problems pressing my right foot into my left thigh.  So the tension comes when I bend my knee and push it out to the side.  I can't think of any way that I could do that in yoga, and I've noticed some imbalance in my feet from my totally worn out sneakers.  So I think I'm going to see what a change of shoes does before I try anything more drastic.

From an objective standpoint, I think I would say that class was pretty ordinary.  No breakthroughs, but it was a nice, focused practice.  And I stayed alert and together throughout.  Given what I was expecting, it was thrilling to just do the postures well and not get wiped out.

The day 115 meditation is basically about how we come to know ourselves better on the mat.   Gates says that through the asana practice, we from time to time let go of our fears, our desire to excel, our frustrations, etc...  And in those moments of letting go, we come face to face with a point of stillness around which all the rest whirls.  And by becoming acquainted with the still point at the center of the whirlwind, we come to know ourselves better.

I like this idea.  It would explain why so much of yoga practice is devoted to letting go.  Let go of your daily worries.  Let go of your desire to finally get your head to the floor in Standing Separate Leg Head to the Floor.  Let go of the fear that you are gonna topple over if you push the first backbend any further.  Let go of the frustration that might come because the woman next to you has plopped her water bottle down in the path of your arms.  And so on.   

It also explains why there is so much emphasis on discipline and stillness between postures.  The stillness is partially to help with rest and recovery.  But even more, its to help with the meditative aspect.  It is an aid to coming in touch with the still center.  If you can not wipe, not shuffle, not adjust your costume or your towel, etc.  If you just focus on yourself in the mirror and your breath, its much more likely that you will happen upon the still, peaceful point at the center.

For me, this is a now you see it, now you don't sort of idea.  On a day like today, when everything seems so easy, and when being still was simply not a problem at all, I can easily see the point Gates is making.  And I'm grateful for this part of the yoga.  (As an aside, a little while ago I started taking Gates up on the notion of saying a short prayer of gratitude during the class.  I've been doing it just at the end of the standing series, before the long Savasana, and it definitely seems to help in calming things down, and sometimes in finding a real point of stillness.)

But, on the days when I'm at war with myself, where everything seems a struggle, its hard for me to get anywhere near this still point.  It might be there, but that seems like a thoroughly abstract idea at those times.  I suppose its nice to know (or believe) that there is a point of stillness, but getting there is a different story.  Bikram says:  "Don't let anyone steal your peace."  It's great advice, but it sometimes seems very hard to put into practice.

81/115 -Becoming Yourself

Saturday off.

My joints hurt.  Mostly my knees, but if I focused my attention anywhere else, it hurt there as well.  That pretty well explains Friday's killer class.  I'm going to give another try this afternoon, but I'm going in with the goal of a person on their very first day:   just stay in the room.

The Day 114 Meditation is about how yoga teaches us to become ourselves.  In some ways, the whole idea of "finding you  rself" is about the most trite cliche to come out of the new agey kimd of spirituality, so I balk at the idea of even approaching it.  B.K.S. Iyengar talks about having faith in yourself and in your ability to improve.  I like that idea much better.

The meditation then comes to the idea of following your heart.  Again, I think this idea is a bit dicey, but this one hits much closer to home.  Take a very simple thing like I was talking about yesterday:  you get to Triangle pose and feel wiped out.  Part of you is saying you've had it and you need to take a knee.  Part of you is saying not to be a wimp.  What to do?  Is the answer: "Follow your heart"?

Maybe yoga teaches us to follow our hearts, our instinct, in just this kind of situation.  And by gradually learning to exercise that capacity, it can then extend to areas off the mat.  Maybe just that silly situation is one of the reasons that yoga has such a spiritual effect off of the mat.

The troubling thing is how you are ever to know that you are following your heart, and not just making the sort of mistakes that arise from ignorance.  Here, I think the call for certainty, or at least certainty all the time, is a mistake.  Sometimes you will just know.  Other times, you try to be honest with yourself and do the best you can.  

The important point is the one that Gates puts so beautifully in the last line of the meditation:  "Grace begins when we dare to allow our prayers to be answered."  I can't improve on that thought and I'm not even going to try. 

Friday, April 24, 2009


10:30 am with Lenette

Today I had the sort of punishing class that I anticipated yesterday.  I was pretty much wiped out by Standing Bow, and from that point on I was running mostly on determination and ego.  And yes, I know that we're supposed to kill ourselves, meaning to kill our egos.  But in a class like this, I get to certain points where there is an internal war:  part of me is screaming to just sit out, that it won't make any difference in the long run; and another part of me is saying shut up, I can do this.  Except the "I" in "I can do this" should be about seven or eight times as big as it appears on the page. 

Anyway, I made it somehow.  I only sat out a set of Triangle, although I probably should have taken more rest.  In the floor series, there were a couple of poses where Lenette prodded me to push harder.  In Camel she told me to push forward more with the hips, and somehow I did.  So again,  it looks like I was doing a pretty good job of hiding my struggle.  And it also shows that there really are more resources available even when I think I'm totally drained.

Again today, I had a really good balancing series.  Today, Standing Bow was the star.  I had good form, good depth, and held it for much longer than usual in each of the four sides.  And to top it off, I was in the back row today.  Usually, in the back row, I have a hard time finding my balance.  Today, it was fine.    Then, by Tree, I was so wiped out that I fell out a couple of times, and I never fall out of tree.

I'm wondering again what causes these killer classes.  I think I was hydrated enough, and I didn't feel thirsty.  It wasn't the heat, I don't think.  It was just that everything seemed harder than usual, and my stamina just wasn't there.  Perhaps I'm fighting off an illness.  Or maybe it was just a hard day.

The day 113 meditation is about the types of spiritual ignorance.  According to the Yoga Sutras, the ignorance arises from different mistakes that we make:  mistaking  the transient for the permanent, the impure for the pure, pain for pleasure, and that which is not the self for the self.  The sutra packs an awful lot into very few words.

For example, mistaking pain for pleasure.  That pretty much sums up lots of bad habits that people fall into, from overeating, to wasting away beautiful days playing video games, to all sorts of minor addictions, etc...   Its also this sort of thing that leads athletes to overtraining injuries.  When I was riding my bike, I would look forward to the pain I might feel after a long, grueling ride.  It meant I was pushing myself harder, making things better, and it was a testament to my ability to endure.  Almost inevitably, this attitude would lead to a bigger breakdown of some sort, or to illness.  And that's just the tip of the iceberg on one of these four categories.

And now that I think about it, isn't that exactly what I was doing today.  I was taking some perverse sort of pleasure in being able to continue, and fighting through the poses.  So was I simply mistaking pain for pleasure here.  (And I admit that this is a weird kind of pleasure, because it was painful.  But again, I came out with the satisfaction that I endured it.)  I need to think on this some more, because I really don't know whether I should have sat out more or not on a day like today.

Gates doesn't go into detail about these four categories.  Instead, he draws an analogy.  Imagine we are in a dark room, and each of these kinds of mistakes is a hot stove in the room.  We keep blundering around, burning ourselves on the stoves.  And then we hear a voice to turn on the light.  The light is spiritual enlightenment.   

I basically like the analogy, but think that it must be incomplete.  To complete it, the room should not only have hot stoves, but other good things in it (storage containers, maybe?).  The good things are things that are permanent, pure, true pleasure, and the self.  We blunder around in the dark, drawn to the heat, and as a result, we get burned.   After getting burned a few times, we might stop blundering around, and become more or less paralyzed, afraid to touch anything since it might be a hot stove.   And then we start to hear the call to perhaps turn on the light and stop blundering.  That's how I might complete the analogy.  And I still think that there's something not quite right about it.  But I don't know what.

80/113 --Spiritual Ignorance

10:30 am with Connease

Class started out really hot.  Connease doesn't mess with the heat, so I pretty much decided that it was a good day to get the crap kicked out of me by the heat.  And that's just the way it was developing.  People were already dropping by Standing Head to Knee.  And I had pretty much convinced myself that I was looking forward to a really tough struggle. 

Then Connease turned the heat down.  She said she almost never messes wtih the heat because its better for people simply to adjust their practices to whatever is thrown at them.  But she said today it was just too hot, so she was making an exception.  The odd thing is that, because I had built up some anticipation over the heat, cooling things off actually threw me off for a little bit.

I had the best balancing series I've had in a while.  I think I fell out of Standing Head to Knee once.  I kept my standing leg locked, and kicked out three of the four sides.  The other time, I missed her calling for the class to kick out.  And I'm getting better at simply following along with what I hear, so not having heard it, I didn't do it.  I don't know whether I missed the cue, or whether she did.

The other difficulty today was simply keeping my mind in the room  For whatever reason, I was thinking about stuff outside of class more than usual.  Recently, I've been pretty good about driving away the stuff that ordinarily flies through my mind.  But not today, and I'm not sure exactly why.  I didn't really settle in until sometime in the middle of the floor series. 

The day 112 meditation introduces spiritual ignorance as the first aversion.  According to the Yoga Sutras, this is the source of all of our pains.  Gates says that all pain can be avoided when we know what we truly are.

It seems so simple.  If ignorance is the problem, then knowledge should be the solution.  But what kind sort of knowledge are we talking about here.  Let's take two different examples of knowledge:  knowing history and knowing how to play the piano.  Most people think ignorance is ignorance of some information or facts.  So a person can be ignorant about history simply because they don't remember the facts.  I don't think ignorance applies in the same way to something like playing the piano.  When a person knows how to play the piano, the knowing involves something deeper than facts.  

So what sort of knowledge are we talking about here?  It's certainly not just an ignorance of facts.  I can read what Gates says about spiritual knowledge, and still not "know" what he's talking about in a way that does me much good.  This may be a part of the knowledge involved, but its not all of it.  Nor yet, do I think its the skill of a technically accomplished pianist. 

In music, its fairly common to draw a distinction between a skilled player and a great musician.  The musician will have the technical skill that passes for "knowing" how to play an instrument.  But he also has a deeper connection to the music.  This sort of knowledge is much deeper than knowledge of facts, or just a mere skill.  It involves a real feeling for, and commitment to, the music itself.

I think that the knowledge Gates is talking about must be something like that, only perhaps even deeper.  

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

79/111 -- "Forehead to Knee" in 8 languages

Tuesday 8:15 pm with Sherie

Another amazing class with Sherie.  Amy really needs to everything she can to get Sherie to stay (and I know that's probably impossible since she wants to go the Phillipines).  I probably laughed more in class than I ever have before in a Bikram class.  I can't remember all the reasons I laughed.  It was just a happy, high energy, class.  And Sherie deserves alot of the credit for that.

In Half Moon, she told me to calm down my breathing.  I always breathe through my nose, and I had thought that that was basically enough of a check on my effort.  Apparently not.  I can take really big, strained breaths through my nose, and I tend to do this both in Half Moon and Awkward.  This one small warning took back the effort level in the class just a bit, and it made everything better.  By not pushing quite so hard, I think I actually went deeper in some of the poses than usual.  (Later on, after one of the Full Locust sets, she said "Yes, I can hear you Duffy."  That served as another caution, and also cracked me up.)

She was having a hard time getting one student to follow with the dialogue.  So she asked the student if she was Japanese, and then started giving the student a fairly lengthy correction in Japanese.  Later to test whether we were paying attention, she would sometimes pause in the dialogue and see who would move on to the next step simply on auto-pilot.  It was nice to have someone put a real premium on actually listening.  ("If you don't listen, you will never learn.")

Later, in Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee, she gave a correction in Japanese again, and then said "I know how to say forehead to knee in eight languages, because no matter what language you try, people still don't listen."  The eight languages actually shows that she's taken full advantage of the bohemian lifestyle that a younger Bikram teacher can have, especially one that is any good.

I learned some more about the set-up to Triangle today.  First she had us lean back a little bit after the lunging leg hit its ninety degree angle.  Then she had us look back along the arm away from the forward leg, basically getting the chin into position before moving the arms.  From there, it was a matter of simply moving the arms.  In first set, I had a little problem with balance using this set up.  In second set, I followed the dialogue exactly, and got a great compliment on my form.  So I sneaked a peek, and the line from foot through hip through the head was perfectly straight, without any little notch at the hip.  It felt better, and the twist in the spine was a bit more evident.  Just a few weeks ago, I would have said this was one of my best poses (and I would have been right), so I'm pretty dumbfounded at how easy it was to make a fairly radical improvement.

Today's meditation (Day 111) introduces the five afflictions, and says that he will now take up these afflictions one at a time before proceeding to the Asanas.  The first time I read the book, I was really anxious to get to the Asanas (which seem like the most immediate and obvious manifestations of my yoga practice), and was thus a little bit disappointed by this "detour."  This time around, I'm very curious about what he has to say.  (Is my poor memory about stuff like this a good thing? because it shows that I'm living in the present?)

The afflictions are: ignorance, pride/ego, desire, aversion, and fear of death.  Gates says that fear lies at the root of each of the afflictions.  I'm not convinced.  First off, one of the afflictions specifically invokes fear.  But if fear causes all the afflictions, then why single out one sort of fear?  Then, it seems to me that aversion may be a bad reaction to fear.  But that doesn't mean that fear is the root of the aversion.  So I wonder whether its possible to experience fear without aversion, and if so, is the fear such a bad thing?  It seems to me that fear, tempered with moderation and honesty, could lead to a healthy sort of respect.   Of course, its possible to say that that's not fear at all.  So I'm very curious what Gates will have to say about these things.

Finally, Gates says something about asana practice that really rang true for me today.  He says to check at the end of practice and see "if you do not feel more at home in your body, more at home in your life, more at home in your spirit."  We've just started a remodeling project.  Today, the subcontractors put in 10 new custom windows into our sunroom.  Otherwise the room is a gutted wreck.  My wife said she didn't like the windows and was very disappointed in what was happening.  Going into class, this problem was causing me much anxiety.  Changing the windows would involve a several week delay, and a pretty stiff additional cost.  It would create some tension with the contractor, which is not a good idea at the outset of the project.  And I had doubts about how much of a difference getting slightly bigger windows would make. 

So going into practice, this was bothering me -- the options, all seemingly bad, running again and again through my head.  By the first forward bend, I had completely knocked any thought of this out of my mind.  And the whole problem didn't enter my head again throughout the class.  That's not that big a surprise.  After class, however, the answer seemed clear.  The windows just didn't matter that much to me, and whatever my wife wanted to do with them -- whatever was going to make her happy -- that was just fine.  I probably would have reluctantly arrived at that point anyways.  The yoga class, however, snapped the priorities into place with no struggle.  The problem, going into class, simply was not a problem coming out of it.   And I think Gates explanation that I was simply more at home with myself is as good as any.  And, for me, that's part of the true miracle of asana practice.

Monday, April 20, 2009

78/110 -- Imagination?

10:30 with Danielle

Another strong class.  The heat was perfect.  I'm back to no water (at least for today), and I stayed strong, focused and alert throughout.  For the second class i a row, I got a compliment in Rabbit.  That makes me think that something must have happened with that pose, but I don't really know what.  It's nice to know that I'm doing something right, even if I have no clue what the difference is.

I did notice one big difference today in some poses.  I've recently had some soreness in my shoulders and shoulderblades.  I wasn't sure what it was, and today it became clear to me that they are finally opening up some.  In Half Tortoise, I felt like I was reaching further forward than I'd ever thought possible.  Just reaching up over my head, the alignment of my shoulderblades feels different than it ever has.  Even just swinging my arms into position in Eagle felt different, almost startlingly so.

While class was rolling along smoothly, and I was having a great time, I still sometimes felt a bit rushed.  Danielle's pacing was a little faster than usual today.  I'm slower than most people as it is.  I tend to go into Fixed Firm at a near glacial pace.  Today, by the time I was ready to go back onto my elbows, we were told to start coming out of the pose.   

Now, I know I shouldn't let a little thing like this timing bother me.  But knowing it isn't always the same as doing it.  So, while having a great class and feeling really strong, I still find myself wanting the poses to be a bit longer so I could be more wiped out (and then complain about getting wiped out).  Go figure.  Even when I'm satisfied, there's no satisfying me.

After class, a woman introduced herself to me and asked me if I was "the one with the blog."  Needless to say, I was flattered.  I have no idea how many people in my studio read my blog, or are aware of its existence.  She said she's only done Bikram for a couple of weeks, and found the blog through a google search.  And like Navin Johnson, I can't help thinking:  " A google search!  Millions of people look at google everyday! This is the kind of spontaneous publicity - your blog on google - that makes people. I'm in google! Things are going to start happening to me now."

Today's meditation raises an interesting idea.  Gates says that imagination is one of the chief obstacles to peace.  In the past, he's discussed the perils of both fear and desire.  And since both fear and desire involve what might happen in the future, they both necessarily involve the imagination.  So, if you free yourself from your imagination, you will also free yourself from fear and desire.

Gates also makes the more challenging assertion that most people spend most of their daily lives living in their imaginations and not in the present.  People tend to be ruled too much by their fears and desires, instead of simply experiencing what happens.  And I suppose there's alot to be said for this.  

And yet, while its perfectly happy to admit that the entire point of imagination is to pull you out of the present, I still have some hesitate to say that that's all bad.  I think there's much to be said in praise of daydreaming, for example. That sort of imagination also pulls a person out of the present, but is detached from either fear or desire.  It's imagination for the pure pleasure of being able to imagine.  The same goes for all kinds of art.  (And then I wonder if I'm right about this.  When I'm reading a great book, and I'm totally sucked into it, I of course am using my imagination.  But sometimes, I get so aborbed into the book that I can get the same feeling of stepping out of time.  So is it possible to become fully present in a state of imagination?  I won't say for sure, but my guess is that that is exactly what happens to some artists.)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

77/109 -- Intro to Asanas

Day off.

The meditations now arrive at asana practice.  Gates discusses the ideas that people have about the purpose of asanas.  Some say its preparation for meditation.  Some say it prepares for mediation and has physical healing.  And some say that asanas are an end in itself.  My guess is that all three of these notions are probably wrong.

As for asanas and meditation, it may well be that asanas help some people prepare for other types of meditation.  When asked why no meditation is included in the Bikram sequence, Bikram answers that there is.  Which part?  "All of it."  He insists that one of the goals of his practice is to make the class a 90 minute moving meditation.  

On this, I take him at his word.  I haven't come anywhere near having a full class that felt like a meditation, but I've had some moments, and even some longer stretches.  I also haven't gotten anywhere near getting my head to my knee in Standing Head to Knee.  At first the idea of the class as being a 90 minute mediation seemed laughable to me.  Now, it seems more plausible than the idea that I will ever get my head to my knee in that pose, or do a split in Standing Bow.

As for the physical benefits of asana:  I think they are a wonderful byproduct of the poses.  I suppose its possible to prescribe a series of asana to someone to help with a physical problem.  But just because they are wonderful for you physically does not mean that that is their driving purpose.

And I certainly don't think of them as an end in themselves.  To me, that sounds very much like people who see asana practice as being just another form of exercise.  It brings to mind the little shudder I get in my spine whenever I hear someone after class talking about what a good "workout" Bikram is.  Yes, it often wipes me out.  But I don't even really think of it as exercise anymore.  For exercise, I'd still go ride a bike.  Yoga is more a way to help with alignment, of mind, body and spirit.  The exercise now, at least for me, is incidental.

Also, its not an end in itself because its so clearly connected to learning to breathe (pranayama), and as I said above to meditation.  Moreover, its a laboratory for working on the niyamas.  It's so easy to see how purity, contentedness, self study, zeal, and devotion work in action during class.  Purity just in the discipline of holding still between poses, keeping posture good, breathing in slowly and trying not to be a mess.  Then learning to be content with staying within the form, yet having the zeal to push to the edge of a pose.  Self-study comes in learning where that edge is, and not pushing beyond it.  And devotion just from being thankful and grateful at having the opportunity to do all of that one more time, the opportunity to make an effort to improve yourself.  

Similarly, I think asana practice gives opportunities to practice the yamas.  Certainly non-harming, moderation, non-hording, and honesty.  (I'm less sure about how non-stealing works with asana practice).  So, since asana practice connects so readily with the other paths in yoga, I reject the idea that its an end in itself.  On the contrary, the amazing thing to me is how thoroughly it draws people into the spiritual aspects of yoga, even when they are otherwise unaware of the spiritual side of yoga. 

Saturday, April 18, 2009

77/108 - Patience

9:30 am with Amy

After a series of really tough classes, today's was nearly perfect.  A good night's sleep helped, together with some better care about drinking water yesterday.  Instead of feeling wiped out, and struggling from pose to pose, I just felt composed and peaceful.  I was enjoying each pose, even the tough ones for me, like Locust.

I thought it might be that the heat was lower.  And it was, maybe, just a bit.  But after class some people were complaining about how unusually hot and sweaty it was.  Humidity outside was 88%, and Amy never bothered to turn the humidifier on because it was so wet inside.  So, I don't think I can put too much on the heat.  It was just a good day, and let it go at that.

The high point may have come in the final forward bends.  I got the back of my left knee on the floor for the first time in just about forever in the separate leg compression poses.  I've been slowly working to recapture this since I forced it last summer, and hurt my leg in the process.  So, as long as its taken, this still shows that I'm making some gradual progress in the forward bends.

Amy complimented me twice: on the first set of Locust.  I went up easily today, and it felt like I got up further than usual.  Again I have no idea how far.  It's amazing to me how, when I do this pose best, it also feels easiest.  And she also complimented Rabbit.  I liked to hear this, because its been ages since I've had any feedback on Rabbit and its another pose where I have basically no idea how I look.  (I guess very few people do.  You'd have to have someone take a picture of you, and I'm not sure I want that.)

I usually read and think about the days meditation a while in advance.  Today, I didn't read it until now.  It's fantastic, and completely applies to my recent run of classes.  

Gates first talks about the initial burst of healing that comes early in a practice.  Everybody sees different benefits, but the initial benefits tend to be remarkable and startlingly fast.  In my case, those early benefits were mostly medical -- from heartburn to plantar fascia-tis.  I have a friend who started Bikram just a few months ago.  Yesterday he was walking barefoot in a park, and noticed that his footprints showed he had arches.  He's been flatfooted for as long as he can remember.  Yoga has already started to cure this.

After the initial infatuation period, you start to notice the sticking points.  Again, this was definitely true for me.  I was used to getting amazing breakthroughs just about every class, then about once a week.  Then the big breakthroughs slowed down so much that it felt like they stopped.  At that point, its easy to start to get discouraged.  And Gates says that, at that point, a setback can kill a person's whole practice.  Fortunately, I avoided that.  I managed to work through a few minor injuries, and in that process learned the important lesson that often the cure for yoga injuries is simply more yoga.

Then comes the point of the meditation:  that after the initial infatuation, the important thing is to learn patience and faith.  These will carry you through the difficult times.  The initial burst of benefits can help alot to instill the faith you later need.  The key is to believe that as long as you continue to show up, healing will happen.  That's what keeps me coming back even after a series of killer classes like I've had the last week.  I have enough experience now to know that it will get better.  I also know that the killer classes, even if they aren't the most fun, are probably the most healing.  And then, on a day like today, I get the reward:  a class where everything seems just right, where the poses feel good even when they are really hard, and when its clear that after all, everything is right on course.

76/107 -- End of the Niyamas

Friday 10:30 with Danielle

Temperatures were closer to perfect Bikram weather today, but my stamina was still off.  I only got about 5 hours sleep, and I still am not drinking as much water as I should, and its really taking its toll.  It's a bit crazy, really, because I absolutely do know better, and yet I let little things like this slip anyways.

Danielle has started breaking away a bit from pure dialogue, and is now adding some personal praise and corrections.  She corrected my hand and chin position in Triangle (after saying how good I was doing in the first set) and the small change in rotation in my neck made a big difference through the neck and chest.

It's really nice to see her coming into her own style.  She still rushes the poses just a bit for my taste, which makes for a somewhat less strenuous class.  But her confidence has improved alot.  Her timing is consistent, and pretty solid.  And the corrections she is giving seem spot on.

The postures were a mixed bag.  Decent balancing series.  Good Triangles, and then a good Toe Stand.  In general, the standing series was pretty strong.  The main trouble was that Sherie, the amazing teacher from last week, was practicing behind me to my left.  Her practice is incredibly strong, and I found it hard not to watch her.  But even with that distraction, I did pretty well.

Usually, for me, its all downhill once we hit the floor.  This class was very different.  I just kept feeling hotter and hotter.   By Floor Bow, I felt like the left side of my back, and only the left side for some reason, was on fire.  And from there, I pretty much soldiered through.   I tried my best not to let the heat interfere with what I was doing, and perhaps I made a good show of it.  After class, Danielle complimented me on having such a strong class.  

If it looks strong to others, then I must be getting fairly good at hiding my discomfort.  A few months ago, I don't think I could have had a class like this one without everyone in the room knowing something about how bad I was feeling.  So at least I've toned down the gasping, groaning and grimacing.

The day 107 meditation winds down the Niyamas.   Gates gives some good suggestions for how to approach them.  Basically, the idea is to pick one and work on it for a set time.   They end up being pretty interrelated anyway.  So when practicing contentment, for example, its likely that you will also be working on non-harming, non-hording, honesty, etc..    

Thursday, April 16, 2009

75/106 Part 2 - Love into Action

I broke today's meditation (Day 106) into a separate post.

Gates clarifies why he isn't all that concerned about what you chose as the "higher power" that is the object of your devotion.  Basically, he says that it doesn't matter where you start.  The devotion is a process, and he has faith/confidence that no matter what you chose, the paths will lead in the same direction.  This attitude fits pretty squarely with his earlier idea that it doesn't matter if you don't know what you are praying to, because nobody else really does either.

Then, he discusses how to put love into action.  He says that he decided that the best way was to treat everyone as he would treat the children of a neighbor's friend.  For some reason, this comment makes me want to go to Boston and take a few of classes, simply to see exactly how he carries out this idea.  (Actually, I'd like to attend some of his classes for more reasons than this, but that's the thought that struck me when reading this.)  It seems to me, from what he's said before, that practicing the yamas and niyamas, by itself, puts love into action. 

Finally, he draws an amazing connection between asana practice and putting love into action.  He says that asana practice teaches us to cherish each breath, to cherish every cell in our bodies.  Here, I think he is exactly right, and its one of the main differences between asana practice and other forms of exercise.   

75/106 -- Saying Yes, or No, to Love

Wednesday Off
Thursday 10:30 with Janna

Getting through the full class without sitting anything out is an accomplishment.  But recently, I've been making too much of it.  I'll push really hard in standing series, and be completely at my edge going into triangle.  The question then is whether or not I'll be able to get through the next two poses, because from there its all downhill.  More often than not in the last couple of weeks, including today, the answer is no.  And that should be OK, but for some reason I can't just let it be OK.  Every time I take a knee, there's a slight feeling of disappointment.  In the back of my mind, I can't quite let go of the idea that sitting out at that point is a tiny failure, a hint of weakness.  And I also know that its stupid, because the reason I'm sitting out largely stems from the huge effort I've already put in.  The victory should come simply in honestly getting to my edge.  But I want more -- I want to be the guy who toughs it out, even though I know better. 

And this leads to one of the great yoga paradoxes:  what I'm seeing is that I'm not content with my current stamina, and, more tellingly, I'm dissatisfied with my discontent.  I come her thinking that I need to work on my contentment.  And, of course, I know that is the wrong way to go about it.  Instead, I simply need to let go of my desire to make it through everything, and simply stay within the rules that I set for myself (Breathing through the mouth? then rest.)

Today's class started off as another scorcher.  I'm gradually getting used to the extra heat, but its amazing what an extra five degrees can do to stamina, and the way it messes with the mind.  For a good part of the class, I was really with the dialogue, doing exactly what she said.  I noticed this especially in one part of the final Seated Head to Knee pose.  I stayed with her, but she forgot to give the instruction to put the forehead to the knee, and I only realized a bit later that we were further along in the dialogue, and I was supposed to put my forehead down.  For me, this miscue is actually encouraging.  I have a tendency to think ahead too much, which leads to anticipation and allows me to re-enforce some bad habits.  I'm working now on trying to stay much more in the present and just doing what I'm told, and the miscue and my failure to notice it for a while, is a pretty good indication that I'm on track.

We are coming to the end of the niyamas in the meditations.  Yesterdays mediation was on the quotation: "God is love."  Gates says that in yoga, the practice of love is through the yamas and the niyamas:  caring, honesty, generosity, moderation, nonhoarding, purity, contentment, zeal, self-study, and surrender/devotion.  Then, he says that through yoga, we learn to reside in stillness, and to the truth in us and to the truth in all beings.  So it looks like love and truth, in this way of thinking, are the same.  Perhaps, but at this point I feel like I'm swimming way over my head.

Then, he moves from this very high level of absraction to ask the reader to undertake a perfectly practical exercise:  Observe when you are saying yes to love, and when you are saying no.  Try to discover what it is that makes it hard to say yes sometimes.  And then, when you do say no, ask yourself what would happen if you said yes.

I can't say that I've tried this yet.  And I'm not 100% clear what the difference is between saying yes or no, but I suspect that learning that is part of the exercise itself.  But even without having tried it, I can see how useful and powerful it might prove to be.  I suspect that I'll have more to say about this later.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

74/104 -- Love and asana

Tuesday 10:30 am with Lenette

Some days, the reason it feels so hot is because its just hot.  Class started at 111 degrees, and it just kept getting hotter and hotter.  I think the heating control may have been broken.  By Triangle, it was getting really bad and people were dropping all around me.  (I dropped soon afterwards for one set.)  Then, just before Tree, Lenette shut down the heaters for good.  I don't know how hot it actually got, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was 115 or even more.

Despite the heat, it was a pretty good class, and had one great bonus perk for me.  In Half Tortoise, Lenette came over and basically put all her weight on my back, pushing forward to lengthen my spine while flattening my back.  It felt amazingly good, even if it was a strong indication of how far I still have to go in the pose.  Afterwards, I thanked her, and she said that she would stay in Half Tortoise forever if she could just have someone lay down on her while doing it -- that's how good it feels.  And she's basically right, its so simple but amazingly satisfying.

Other than the heat, and that little episode, it was a fairly routine class.  My good poses were all good.  The troublesome ones remained a bit troublesome.  I may have gone deeper in the first forward bend than I have in a long time.  It felt much better, and my back felt longer than it usually does, which is a good sign.  I held Standing Bow better than I usually do, and did pretty well in Balancing Stick as well.  And Camel felt really good again today, with a very deep stretching feeling across the front of my chest.

Gates' meditation begins with a quote from Victor Hugo, "To love another person is to see the face of God."  This is a wonderful and profound sentiment, but part of me wants to say that it must also be wrong.  Loving another person is common.  I tend to think that even the worst people the world has ever known have probably loved someone.  So have we all seen the face of God, but somehow just not recognized it?

The meditation leads to one tip that I think totally worthwhile:  Gates suggests that we cultivate the same open attention to those we love as we bring to our asana practice.  It's fairly commonplace to say that marriage (and other relationships) take work.  But what does the work consist of?  Here, I think Gates is really onto something.   The attention we pay to ourselves in asana practice requires us to look deeply into ourselves, without judgment, and without taking anything about ourselves for granted.   Now simply imagine looking deeply into someone you love, without judgment, and without taking anything about the person or your relationship for granted.   It seems to me, in this light, all the petty disagreements, the little tensions that accrue through day to day life, would likely fall away into nothing.

Monday, April 13, 2009

73/103 - Discovering Ignorance

10:30 am with Janna

I was borderline on whether to go this morning or put it off until tonight.  I'm glad I went this morning.  When I walked into the room, I was hit by a blast of heat.  At first, I thought it might be just the effect of taking a day off.  The thermometer said otherwise -- we started at 110.  I read about other classes where people are in hotter conditions, like 116 and 65% humidity.  I don't know how they do it, but I guess I might figure out a way given some time.

Class was strong.  I got a deeper twist in Triangle than I have before, thanks to Janna's care in the set-up.  She emphasized keeping the back straight and the hips really forward so the chest is opened up before moving the arms into position.  It made a big difference -- I felt a strong opening in my chest and actually got my chin on my arm, something that is usually lacking.

After standing series, I took a slightly longer pause to give thanks for the series before taking Savasana.  This very simple thing seems to add a level of organization, or even peace, to what follows.  I have no idea why this works, but it seems to have a subtle positive effect.  Then again, why should it's mystery be any different than the mystery that surrounds the rest of yoga?  I basically don't know why any of it works, but I'm convinced that it does.

Floor series was great, until Rabbit.  I had a strong and steady back strengthening series, felt great through Camel.  And then I hit some sort of wall.  I came out of the first set of Rabbit a little dizzy.  Then it got hot for me all of a sudden, and I just dragged myself through the end.  I don't know what hit me, and it didn't last.  By the time we got to the second set of the breathing exercise, I was fine again.  But for a little less than 10 minutes, an otherwise great class became a deep struggle.

Often, when I think I know where the yoga practice is going, it throws me for a loop.  Today, it turned on a dime, twice.  I've had other classes where I thought I was not going to make it by Awkward Pose, only to have everything turn around based on some small word of encouragement from the teacher.  I've had days where I felt great going in, and basically wiped out less than 20 minutes in.  And other days where I was afraid that I would not make it before class started, only to have one of my strongest classes, or to make new, unforeseen breakthroughs.

This uncertainty connects with today's meditation.  Gate's says that the road to spirituality begins with an acknowledgment that you know nothing.  Being self-satisfied with what you know is an obstacle to growth.  My practice continually shows me my ignorance.  Continually, when I think I know what I'm going to get, my practice shows me I was wrong, that I was ignorant.  These lessons in ignorance, in an odd way, are one of the reasons I like this yoga so much.  They remind me again and again that the way I will truly make progress is by letting go of my anticipations, taking on the mind of a beginner, and simply listening to the teacher and doing what she says when she says it.

I'm also amazed that Gates writes about embracing ignorance and learning to listen to truth, and he seems to be totally unaware of Socrates.  The one thing that Socrates continually insisted on was that, if he was wiser than anyone else, it was only because he was so deeply aware of his own ignorance.  The way Plato writes the dialogues, its easy to get the sense that this is false humility -- a kind of put on.  But even so, something of its genuineness shines through.  I always had the feeling that Socrates himself probably embodied a true spirit of humility, but that Plato esteemed him so highly that he had a hard time completely honoring that humility.

72/102 - Devotion and Samadhi

Easter Sunday Off

The studio was closed.  The day 102 meditation discusses Samadhi as being the end for which devotion or surrender to God is the means.  I'm not going to minimize the importance that he is putting on this niyama.  But there are seven parts to the path of yoga, and most of what I've read points to advancing on each of these limbs at once.  If I took Gates seriously here, it might mean that I could give up all the yamas, the other niyamas, asana practice, pranayama, meditation, etc...  What's probably closer to the truth, is that at a certain point, each of the practices starts to embody all the others.  And that's why it sometimes sounds like Gates is collapsing some aspects into others. 

Samadhi is complete union with the object of meditation.  In other terms, it is full communion with the devine.  Gates notes that many people have a hard time accepting this notion:  its simply not compatible with the notion of God they learned as children.  His answer is that if you are alienated (which means not in union with) the God of your childhood, then try finding another God.  Here's another way to put this, one that does not sound so harsh and heretical:  Let's assume that the two notions are truly incompatible with each other.  Then, from what I know of yoga, you can still adhere to your old views and take the practical steps that might one day get you to experience Samadhi.  If that is all that its cracked up to be, then it must be a pretty good thing on its own.  That gives you the best of both:  whatever it is that your original faith brings to you, and the benefits of the end/goal of yoga.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

72/101 - Connectedness

9:30 am with Lenette

It was a very strong class, and I feel like I'm on another upswing.  For the last few classes, I've felt better and better.  Today, for the first time in about a week (although it seems like ages) I didn't skip on anything.  Even better, I didn't skimp on anything either.  

The high points were probably Fixed Firm and Camel.  In Fixed Firm, I've been really careful about keeping my form, and I did that again today.  But in addition to having really good alignment with my feet, I also managed to get down into the full expression of the pose.  Of course, I can easily get back all the way with a subtle cheat, but I always feel that in my knee later on.  Today, there were no cheats and my knee feels just fine.

In Camel, I've been focusing on really pushing my hips forward.  I realized yesterday that I had been compromising my grip a bit when doing this.  (That's one of the small things I learned from Sherie.)  Today, I got a proper grip on my heels and started pushing forward, and I just kept going forward with my hips throughout the pose.  I got a really nice compliment from Lenette on this. 

I also seem to be making some progress on my foundation in Standing Head to Knee.  I still have a tendency to fall out to the outside, but not as frequently.  And my weight is more to the center and/or front of the foot.  I kicked out on both sides today and managed to keep there for most of the set.  And on the right side, I pulled myself back to the foundation without falling out at all.  

In today's meditation, Gates says that an advanced mystic knows that God inheres in all things.  I doubt a mystic would say any such things.  The difficulty with mysticism is the idea that what is important can't be said, or known for that matter.  And when one tries to put the mystical experience into words, the best you are likely to get is something like the Zen koans.  Nonsense, but perhaps telling or helpful nonsense.  

Then he makes a much better point, which is that a wise person can act as though God inheres in all things.  This point underscores the connectedness of all things.  Adopt the conviction that all things are connected through the spirit of God, and I think the yamas will seem more natural.  It's much easier to be generous, to care, etc..., with this attitude in mind.  Because if the spirit connects all things, then they are all worth of respect, of caring, or generosity, of our honesty, and so on....

Friday, April 10, 2009

71/100 - Devotion, Joy, Reverence

10:30 am with Sherie

Sherie is either new or just visiting.  I don't know if that is decided yet.  I really hope that she is new.  She taught a great class and had tons of energy.  And, as often happens with a new teacher, she showed me a bunch of new things about the practice.

The first thing, which I find amazing with many of the touring Bikram teachers, is that she seemed to know everyone's name.  I know that there is a fairly simple memory trick that Jerry Lucas teaches in his memory book, but I've always been terrible with names.  So I get blown away when a new teacher immediately knows everybody in a class of 30.

And then there were the corrections.  For me, the first came in pranayama, where she prodded me into stretching my elbows a bit more forward on the exhales.  This is a part where I can fairly easy get a bit lazy, and I was delighted to be called out on it.

The little, telling, comments continued.  She paid me a nice compliment in the third part of Awkward, saying my pose was "beautiful".   Then she caught me going too early into one of the Eagle sets and joked that I was just gonna have to stay in the pose longer.  That prompted me to make more of an effort to actually listen and stay with the class.

On it went.  After the first set of Standing Separate Leg Head to Floor, I picked up my water bottle and heard:  "Not between sets, Duffy."  I dropped the bottle, laughing.  And she added that it was obvious I didn't need it.  And she was right, I didn't.  Later I found out that she had studied for a fairly long time with Mary Jarvis, who discourages any drinking in class, and that explained much to me about the approach.  She gave a talk in Savasana about how, when we think we need water, we usually are starved for air.

I haven't gotten so many corrections, little bits of encouragement, and small insights into the poses in a while, and it was very refreshing.  And I wasn't getting special attention, I think pretty much everyone received there share of corrections, encouragement, and just general comments.  (And the corrections extended to the two teachers who were taking the class, who got reminded that while taking class they were students like everyone else.)  Moreover, she seemed to really know her stuff and I think she would make an amazing addition to the studio, if there's any way that Amy could contrive to keep her here.

On day 100, Gates raises another seeming contradiction in yoga.  The last niyama is devotion to God.  But, at the same time the Yoga Sutras seem to say that belief in God is not necessary.  This seems odd to me, but perhaps no odder than the seeming tension between zeal and contentment.  

Gates submits that it doesn't really matter much whether the  of devotion is God, Christ, Allah, nature, science, human potential.  He says that what matters is that we "embody reverence."   I don't have a problem with any of the examples he gives, but even so, I think it could lead to a false conclusion.  At some level, the object of devotion has to matter.   Just think of what happens when people worship at the altar of the almighty dollar.   Similarly, I don't think that terrorists, right wing religious zealots, Hitler youth, or Khmer Rouge were lacking in devotion.  Instead, they were devoted to the wrong things.

The niyamas seem odd in this respect - zeal, contentment, and now devotion all seem particularly vulnerable to perversion.  In service of things which already are good, I have no problem with them at all.  But standing on their own, it seems to me that they could lead just about anywhere, to the worst evil as well as to great good. 

Enough with the criticism.  At the end of the meditation, Gates makes  a wonderful suggestion:  "if there is not a dance for joy in your yoga, you can put one there."   The idea is that by putting devotion and reverence into the yoga practice itself, you can turn the practice into a dance for joy.  I don't know if this is true.  I've gone through periods where the practice seemed a truly joyous experience, and other times where it was anything but.   If this advice can make the "joyous dance" of yoga a more regular thing, its certainly worth trying out.  

And here's one way I can think of to start.  Before the long savasana, several of my teachers tell us to take a moment to acknowledge the work we did in the standing series.  I have never taken this very seriously.  And I think, based on this advice, I will.  I will try to take that moment to give a sincere bow, and to express some gratitude for what I just did.  That's a small start -- but more and more I'm seeing how this practice is a kind of long accumulation of small starts and restarts.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

70/99 Part 2 -- As if You Trust Your God

OK, I'm finally caught up.  The meditation for day 99 is on advice Gates received from one of his deeply spiritual friends:  "Act as if you trust your God."  This advice has very deep meaning for Gates, and somehow, I think that the examples he gives don't begin to comprehend the depth of the meaning he sees in it.

And for me, its like he's talking another language.  "God" here is standing in as a shorthand for something, and its on exactly this point where I think Gates sees a huge landscape packed with meaning, and where I simply draw a blank.

For Gates, this means not only asking for comfort, but also taking responsibility for making others comfortable.  And that's fine, though I don't really see how he gets there.  I can imagine other people talking about having trust in God. or the Lord, or Allah, or whatever, and coming to very different conclusions about where that trust leads.  I don't understand these lines of thinking, because I simple don't understand the starting point. 

In this case, I don't disagree with the conclusions Gates draws.  And I don't doubt his sincerity or his depth of belief in the starting point.  It's just one of those things that doesn't get me anywhere.  I remember how relieved I was when he said "if you don't know who or what you are praying to, don't worry, because no-one else does either."   Here I'm having trouble seeing how this meditation squares with that one.

Let me put it another way.  This meditation, to me at least, sees to veer toward defining God.  As I understand it, defining God means trying to put some limits around the idea.  (That's what definition is:  it makes things finite and thus understandable.)  I want to say that that can't be done.  God can't be defined, and that's why all talk about Ged ends up being nonsense -- quite literally -- it doesn't make sense, because it can't.  I would love to hear a convincing or persuasive explanation of why I'm wrong on this.

70/99 First Religion?

Day off.

In the day 98 meditation, Gates closes with two questions:  What was your first religion?  and What is your religion now?  He talks about how his first religion grew up out of the spirit of sports and competition:  "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."  I think I will try to answer these questions.

My first religion was probably numbers, math, and logic.  I remember when I was way too young, I used to like to recite the powers of 2 as far out as I could - 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128 etc out to the hundreds of thousands and even the millions, all done in my head, and at the age of six or seven.  I guess I was mesmerized by the order I found there, and I liked it because I was good at it. 

In fourth grade, our teacher gave a test on a math unit before teaching the unit.  Two of us in class got 100% on that test, so the teacher gave us the books and set us free.  We raced with each other, and by the end of the year we had finished 4th grade through 9th grade math.  No one in elementary school could teach us anymore, and the school wanted to advance us a couple of grades.  Thankfully, my parents realized that being social is more important than being a math whiz, and they refused.

I fell out of love with math as I got more sucked into philosophy in college.  At the same time that I was getting into questions about the foundations of math, I also started to hit the wall doing math itself.  For me, there were basically two levels in math -- unbelievably simple, so that it was basically intuitive, and impossible.  Until junior year of college, everything I ever did in math seemed like child's play, literally.  And then, in some areas, I just couldn't do it.  Then there were other areas where I had reached the point where I could do the proofs, but I didn't have any idea what they meant.  (That was part of what pulled me into philosophy.)  

I lost my religion in math because I started to sense chaos behind the order.  Many mathmaticians are natural born Platonists.  In some ways, I think that's the religious aspect.  More and more, I thought the "absolute", even in math, didn't have any foundation at all.

My other first religion was the movies.  Here, I can trace it back to a couple of things.  When I was really young, I remember seeing The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston.  Actually, I don't remember much of seeing it at all.  What I remember is waking up with nightmares after having seen it, because of the parting of the red sea.  So that's the first incident -- I knew on a very visceral level the power that movies had, because they held sway over my dreams.

During easter week, one year in my early teens, the TV stations ran the usual array of religious movies:  The Robe, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Quo Vadis, Ben Hur, etc...   After one of them, I forget which one, my father asked me rather pointedly, "Do you believe in God now?"  I doubt I answered him, but I distinctly remember thinking, "No, but I do believe in movies, and I want to make them."  

With movies, I was pretty precocious as well.  I could remember complete dialogue from my favorite movies (and this is before the VCR), and I also would vividly remember shot sequences , every detail shot by shot.  In some ways, movies were more real to me than day to day life.  At college, I was seeing probably 6-10 movies (in what passed for campus theatres) per week.  It got even worse in film school.  I spent entire days watching Psycho and Band of Outsiders and some other favorites, again and again.  Sometimes just watching the same sequence twenty or thirty times in a row.  I did this partially because I was learning, but I also felt that movies were a kind of magic.

Hollywood cured me of the movies.  I love the art form, and I think its a real shame that the entry cost is still prohibitive for any individual.  The business of making movies, however, is completely broken -- and its destructive to people.  So, I lost my movie religion for movies at a point where I had almost made it into the clergy.

As for my religion now?  It's much harder to say.  I reject any religion that depends upon a prescribed text.  I just can't imagine a benevolent God who damns entire groups because they didn't have access to his "word." 

And there's another reason:  suppose a book did contain the word.  How is someone supposed to know that its true?  Well, the book might tell you so, but the whole point is whether or not one should believe the book, so I wouldn't take a books word on this point.  Some religions point to the origin of their book as proof --  the prophet was illiterate, or not well enough educated, so the book he wrote must have come from God.  Again, or maybe its just a sham.  In the end, it seems to me that the only way for a person to discover the "truth" underlying scripture is through prayer.  And if prayer works in the first place, then maybe the book isn't as necessary as one thought at first blush.

What have I gotten from this sort of prayer?  Nothing at all.  I can't pretend that I'm very good at it.  But any of these approaches to an established doctrine, or to any variety of fundamentalism, simply leave me cold and a bit puzzled.

If pressed, I would like to tell people that I am a reluctant but hopeful mystic.  I tend to think that the more important a thing is, the less likely that it can be put meaningfully into words.  A few years ago, my brother asked me if I'd ever had any religious experiences.  I told him that I didn't know -- but that I came closest to believing in God when listening to music by J.S. Bach.  Now, I might add that I also thought of as a religious or spiritual experience  the feeling of being outside of time, which I sometimes stumble into, but can never deliberately recapture.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

70/98 -Learning from Dogs

10:30 am with Lenette

The room was fairly crowded for a mid week morning.  I took a spot in the front right, away from the window and the fans.  It was 109 when I put my mat down, but it didn't worry me because I know Lenette always keeps a merciful lookout on the heat.  Sure enough, she opened the doors toward the end of the standing series, and I think the heaters went off for good somewhere around Camel.

Overall, practice was OK.  I sat out one set of Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee.  For whatever reason, I seem to be on the downward side of a spiral right now.  My stamina isn't really there.  My flexibility is a bit off.  But at least today, I felt really on top of the class mentally, even if I could wish for more in the poses.

On the plus side, my balancing was very good again today.  I kept the foundation strong in Standing Head to Knee.  Then I had two very solid sides in Standing Bow.  On the last part, I managed to hold the pose for the duration, and went as deep as I ever had (possibly deeper but its hard to tell).

Back strengthening was a bit weak.  I got a foot cramp in Cobra.  Worked that out in Savasana, just with breathing.  And then I forced myself into a remarkable cramp across my entire upper back in Full Locust.  I didn't feel like I was up as high as I have been recently, but maybe I was doing it with better form.  I got a good compliment from Lenette on the pose, and then my whole upper back just seized.  I know that the pose is supposed to get to your upper back, but this was ridiculous.  I managed to get myself together and continue, but the rest of the back strengthening suffered quite a bit because of the aftermath of that cramp.

I love the day 97 meditation.  First, it introduces the last of the niyamas:  surrender to God, or devotion.  Letting go is so much a part of the method of yoga, and to this point it only really appeared as a corollary to non-hoarding.  And here it is in its own self contained principle.  At first blush, I take it that this niyama will have two components -- the first is letting go and the second is faith.

Gates says that he learned much about this principle from watching animals, particularly his dog.  Dogs are amazing animals.  They, like people, are one of the few animals that plays as an adult.  They also react directly with the world.  They are capable of pure joy, pure love, and overwhelming exuberance.  When they are mad, they are extremely direct, but then amazingly quick to forgive. 

I spend lots and lots of time with my dogs.  I have spent countless hours over the last several years watching and taking pictures of dogs playing with each other.   I know lots of people who have wanted a pet for companionship, or to guard their house, or to appease their children.  They tend to attribute human motivations to their dog's behavior, and they try to figure out how to make their dogs act more like well behaved people in their households.  When asked, I try to explain to them that instead of trying to teach the dogs to behave like people, they would be much better off if they could watch and learn to behave more the way dogs behave.

If you are interested, you can see some pictures of my Samoyeds, Boon and Papa here 

Gates says that animals are perfect examples of samedhi, and thus I suppose also of surrender to God.  Some people will object, on theoretical grounds, that lacking free will, an animal can't surrender at all.  I understand the point, but in the end I've decided I disagree with it.  Animals make decisions, just as people do.  Their reasons may be less complex, but they choose just as much as people do.  

And even if they don't, that doesn't mean that we can't learn from their example.  When I see the pure joy of my dog's chasing each other through six inches of muddy water, moving with an ease that shows that absolutely everything is right with the world, its hard for me to cling to some philosophical objection.  There's nothing wrong with aspiring to that sort of joy, that kind of connectedness to the environment.  And in the end, I doubt that I'm projecting human attributes onto the dogs; instead, I think I'm searching for a way to strip off my own human qualities and simply BE, the way my dogs are so effortlessly capable of just BEING.

69/97 - Self Study Everywhere

Tuesday 10:30 with Connease.

Today, Connease had the temperture at a relatively mild 106-7, and I was just fine with it.  After class, I commented about how hot it had been the night before.  She said she was from the "old school,"  when they didn't have any clocks or thermometers in the room.  In some ways, maybe that's better.  But I think having the extra information is only harmful if you let it be.

The comment also explains something that I had suspected about Connease.  Unlike alot of other teachers, she doesn't pay much attention to the heat.  Early on, I had some classes with her that were almost chilly, barely cracking 90 degrees.  And then yesterday, she set a new record for me in heat endurance.  And ultimately, the range is because she takes the health attitude that, so long as its basically hot enough, the heat shouldn't be an issue.  As a practical matter that means where I am pretty sensitive to the temperature, and function best in a range of about 101 to 106, a Connease class is likely to veer into areas that are a bit more challenging for me.   And that's probably a good thing.

Anyway, in yesterday's class the weather was fine, and I felt pretty good throughout.  I still skipped one set of triangle.  And I collapsed out of Locust the second time around.  But my balancing was pretty good.  Connease really nailed me on Standing Head to Knee -- telling me at least four times to contract my thigh.  This is more of an issue in my right leg than my left, and I'm going to really have to start working again on the foundation in this pose.  My kneecap lifts, and my thigh looks contracted to me.  But when she says do more, I'm capable of doing even more.  And as Libby says:  "If you can, you must."

I remember nothing from the floor series, which is always a good sign.  Lenette was practicing next to me.  She had just returned from a wedding in New Jersey, and was fighting through lack of sleep, jet lag, and several days of eating alot of bad food.  In standing series she was popping up and down like a jack in the box.  Then she ran out to get some coconut water and settled down some.  After class, which I thought was pretty ordinary, she thanked me for pulling her through with my example.  It was a really nice compliment, but I take it to mean that I was showing a much better front to others than I was actually feeling.  But I'll take whatever compliments I can get.

 In the day 96 meditation, Gates talks about how self study happens not just reading, or in appreciation of the arts, but how every moment can provide an opportunity for self-study depending upon our attitude.  The attitude that he favors is trying to be kind.  At first glance, this struck me as sort of a disconnect, but the more I think about it, the more powerful it seems to be.

When I first started the 60 day challenge, a friend told me the best advice he could give me for doing Bikram was: "Be kind to yourself."  It's great advice.  But before you can be kind to yourself, you have to start to learn what things are kind, and which are cruel.  That's not as simple as it might sound, and it involves a great deal of self-study.  For example, take a day when I'm on the fence about whether to go to class or not.  In the end, I want to make the decision that is most kind to myself.  But just knowing that means getting to the bottom of why I might not want to go, or it means figuring out what is making me feel guilty about taking a day off, and it may mean looking closely into variety of aches or other physical things.  And it also might just mean allowing myself to trust a gut feeling.  And all of those things involve some level of self-study.

But what about being kind to others.  Often, showing kindness can mean some form of sacrifice.  Knowing that you are giving something up, deciding that its really not so important to you, and then willingly doing without, all of that involves a kind of self study.  So does acknowledging other obstacles to being kind  -- anger, impatience, stubborness, etc... -- and then letting them go.  Often, being kind brings a deep feeling of satisfaction.  Simply feeling that satisfaction, and realizing how it came about -- basking in the glow of having done something, however small, that was not selfish -- that in itself is a wonderful sort of self-study.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

68/96 - Blindly Following

Monday 8:15 pm with Connease

I forgot to bring water.  But I've made it through lots of classes now with no water, and I felt well hydrated, so I didn't think it was a big deal.  Then, putting down my mat, the room felt a bit stifling.  I checked the thermometer:  110 degrees and 39% humidity.  Yikes!  So that made me a bit nervous about the lack of water.

OK, the lack of water wasn't a physical problem.  It was just another thing that I allowed to nag at me in the oppressiveness of the heat.  Some days, I might have been able to handle it with that level of heat, but last night wasn't one of them.  I tried to stay calm, to stay within my breath.  I sat out one set of Triangle, then a set of Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee.  Then I skipped out the last part of Locust.  And I still felt like I was absolutely pushing my limits, and that just getting through the class was going to be a victory.

One person left.  Two others left the room for a short break.  That was really tempting.  By the end of the standing series, more than half the class was sitting out.  Afterwards, everyone was whispering to each other:  "Was it hotter than usual?"

As for the poses, I felt more flexible than usual in the flexibility poses, and much weaker than usual in the poses that demand strength, with greatly reduced stamina.  My balancing was off, which I guess is lack of focus.

Afterwards, I felt good to have made it through, without any real complaint.  Sometimes its difficult for me to tell whether I'm really pushing myself as hard as I could/ought.  It gets even harder in conditions where its so easy to start feeling sorry for yourself.  In the end, even skipping as much as I did, I think I can say that last night's was a fairly solid effort.

The day 95 meditation discusses how, once you absorb scripture (whichever scriptures count for you), you must eventually put them away.  Ultimately, following the dictates of another leads to an avoidance of responsibility.  In the end, the important thing is deciding for yourself.  Thus, over-reliance on any scriptural guidance can become a crutch, which over time actually acts as an obstacle to walking properly.

Like others before it, this meditation focuses on the process of moving from being a student to a person with some sense of mastery.  The hard part, I think, is trying to figure out the point when you can say to yourself:  "Throw down your crutches and walk."  It's easy to see in others the signs of over reliance on a teacher, or on some set of dogma.  It's a much trickier thing to acknowledge it in yourself.  

One thing that I like about the yamas and niyamas is that they are so sparse that they force individual interpretation.  And they don't necessarily resolve into rules or propositions.  Instead, we are left with a set of words that stand for values:  caring, truth, generosity, non-attachment, moderation and purity, contentment, zeal, self-study and devotion/surrender.  Starting just with those words, I don't think it leads to a question of blindly following.  Even if you tried,  there is just too much room for interpretation, and the application of these requires too much thought.


Monday, April 6, 2009

67/95 - Choose your Scripture

Sunday Off

Gates starts each meditation with a quote.  They come from a wide variety of sources, from the Yoga Sutras, to the Gospel, to Twelve Step programs, to Woody Allen, and he even quotes himself at least once.

Which scripture to follow?  He says that he has quoted from many sources to underscore how strongly, and how often, they agree.  I think if you are looking for agreement, you are likely to find a surprising amount.  But it's also tremendously easy to find disagreements, with the right frame of mind.

There's been quite a bit of news in the last few years about putting statues of The Ten Commandments in various places.  Preacher's from various sects now seem to claim that the ten commandments are part of some common "judeo-christian" culture that we all share.  It wasn't always so.  There were violent disagreements between early Protestant's can Catholics about graven images and idolatry, and these disagreements were, at least in part, behind a great deal of violence and perhaps even some wars.  (Another irony, as an aside, is that many early protestants would have violently opposed a statue of the Ten Commandments precisely because it was a graven image and smacked of idolatry.)  My basic point here, is that sometimes people blow up there differences with each other, especially when those differences might seem very small to outsiders.

On the whole, I think there's probably some truth to the idea that where many spiritual texts are in agreement with each other, they may be onto something important.  I also tend to think, in these matters, that age counts for more than innovation.  Ideas that have withstood the test of time are more likely to be worth time and effort.   

Saturday, April 4, 2009

67/94 The Distance Between Heaven and Hell

9:30 am with Amy

It was a strong class today.  I felt particularly good in the balancing poses, though I still fell out at least once in each set.  The nice thing is that in Standing Bow my foot is starting to appear over my head, instead of out to one side.  And the bend feels deeper than it did before.

Other than that, I can't remember much about the class, which is always a good sign.  There were a ton of first time students again.  But they were interspersed in the class fairly well and class was very crowded, so they weren't weighing in on me, like they were in the last class.  

The general consensus this morning was that it was really hot and humid.  And I didn't notice.  That goes to show how personal peoples' reactions to the heat can be.

Today's meditation (and I'm still one behind) can be summed up as follows:  the distance between heaven and hell is however long it takes to stop fighting life.  The secret is stepping back from what Gates earlier called our "war with reality," and simply letting go.  Put this way, it sounds like the simplest thing in the world, and maybe it is.  But it's also a very radical idea, and simplicity doesn't necessarily come easy.

Friday, April 3, 2009

66/93 -

10:30 with Danielle

We had six first time students today.  And there were several more who were either in their first couple of classes, or who had just returned after a long break.  The first timers all had their mats behind me, so they were all I could see.  My first impulse was to move.  That many suffering people around was likely to suck all the energy out of my practice.

Then I looked around and realized that if I moved, they would have no-one in front of them to act as an example.  Now, I don't consider myself the ideal example -- far from it.  But still I'm better than nothing at all.  So even if it was going to put a damper on my practice, I decided to stay put.  You could say I was practicing the first niyama: non-harming or caring. 

I also decided it would be a challenge to stay focused on myself and not let the newcomers hinder me.  And it was a challenge.  For the most part, they did great.  But there was one woman in the back who was an unending parade of smirks, sighs, shaking head, towel wiping, not listening to instructions, and it was genuinely hard not to let that bother me.  I had middling success with that.  On the other hand, by holding myself up as an example, I think I pushed a bit harder than I might otherwise have done, and I stopped myself from sitting out when tempted.

Recently, I haven't had as much trouble in Locust as before.  Today I realized why.  I've been going up a bit higher than before, and I think I'm not fairly consistently going beyond 45 degrees, and by going more vertical, the pose is actually getting easier.  These days, the challenge in the pose is not so much forcing myself to stay up, but actually trying to figure out how to get more of an arch in my upper back so I can get a bit more vertical.  I still don't really know how far I go in the pose, but my sense is that I've made some great improvement gradually, and I'm just now noticing it.

Yesterday's meditation had two remarkable ideas.  First, Gates talked about how so many people make their livings off the entirely intangible.  Lawyers certainly fall into that group (except Gates refers to the intangible stuff as a kind of wisdom, and with lawyering I think the point is debatable).  Even so, its remarkable how much of our lives is tied up in the ethereal or the completely intangible.  I'm thinking of things like religion, marriage (at least as an institution), contractual relationships, promises.  And in the simply ethereal, there's this blog, for example, and the internet, and books, etc...  

The other remarkable idea is that self study entails a form of humility.  Off the mat, we bow to others who have come before us and who know better.  The more remarkable aspect is that he says that he finds humility on the mat because he finds himself in the "presence of the miracle of creation."   Self-study on the mat leads to being present, to living in the moment.  I think that that kind of presence can lead to the timeless feeling that I've talked about before.

Then Gates either waxes poetic, or runs the topic a bit off the rails.  He talks about experiencing things like a fish in fish pose, like a child in child pose, like a tree in tree pose.  Who am I to say that he doesn't actually have this kind of experience?  But I can't even begin to imagine the "wisdom of a tree."   And to a certain extent, I think people make way to much of the poses names.  Why is Camel called Camel?  Most likely because some yogi a long time ago decided that it looked something like a camel's hump.  I don't see it.  I like my owh theory, which is that camel's are nasty animals that bite and are hard to tame.  But I don't think I get any "camel-like" experience from doing the pose.  

Thursday, April 2, 2009

65/92 - Riveting Truth?

Day off.

I'm a bit disappointed with myself for taking the day off today.  I was undecided about whether to go.  I didn't have the energy for it in the morning, and then I ate lunch too late to allow for a decent evening practice.  I have been telling myself that I'm going to start doing 3 days on/ one day off.  But telling myself and making myself seem to be two different things.

Yesterdays mediation was about truthfulness.  Gates says that self-study is an aspect of truthfulness.  I don't buy it.  Non-lying, or truthfulness, is one of the yamas.   It may be that in practicing truthfulness we will also be doing some self-study.  And conversely, it may naturally follow that any good practice of self-study will also involve not lying.  But I don't think this means that one is an aspect (which I take to mean a kind of subset) of the other.

The other idea that is very interesting is that listening to the truth is inherently interesting.  Here again, maybe that is so, but I think it also will depend somewhat on the truth involved.  Gates talks about his experience in 12 step programs.  There, I believe, the process is mostly confessional.  There is something interesting about that.  However, I've seen trials and depositions where people are sworn to tell "the truth."  And for the most part they do.  Also, for the most part, these proceedings are extraordinarily dull.  In the end, I think there's a difference between telling various bits of truth, and telling "the truth."  Maybe the latter is riveting, but the former can be as dull as it gets.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

65/91 -- Information Pollution

8:15 with Amy

The biggest achievement today was just going to class.  I've had trouble sleeping the last two nights.  Between both nights, I've had maybe 9 hours sleep, so I was worried that I wouldn't have energy.  On top of that, I've had meat fests for lunch both days.  Yesterday, we ate at a Brazilian steakhouse, where they keep coming by with endless varieties of meat:  Garlic Beef, Beef Ribs, Lamb Chops, Filet Mignon, Ribeye, Leg of Lamb, Pork Ribs, Sausage, Wings, and much more.  On top of that, there is a fabulous salad bar (one that has satisfied one of my vegetarian friends).  And then today, we switched countries, when friends took us to an Argentine steakhouse.  So, I felt bloated and a bit afraid of how my stomach would react going in to class tonight.

My stomach was fine.  My focus and balance were terrible.  The balancing series was pretty much a joke.  I was having a hard time keeping my balance on two feet.  I think it was all that meat shifing around inside.  And the lack of sleep made it hard to focus.  But I didn't let it get me down.  Then I lost my balance in Triangle, of all things, and ended up sitting out a set.

Fortunately, balance isn't as much of an issue on the floor.  And despite having told myself that it was OK to take it easy, I pushed really hard on the floor and salvaged the class.  I got a nice compliment on Locust, in second set.  Amy actually was taking directly to me when she was doing her end of pose encouragement, and it got me to push even harder. I may have hit a new peak in the pose, but there's no way for me to know that.  But it felt strong.  I finished off strong and collected.  So my fears going in probably ruined the beginning of the class, but I pulled myself through the fears and ended up with a pretty solid class.

Today, Gates discusses the flip-side of self study.  We live in an age of information overload.  And in addition to the tons of totally meaningless information we see and hear everyday, we also get overloaded with advertisements.  They tell us that things will be great if only we use X.  The pervasive sales pitch is trying to sell people on the idea that they can find happiness externally, so it is the complete opposite (and damaging to) the process of self-study, which aims to reveal how we already have everything that we need.

A few decades ago, Excedrin announced that it had invented a new disease:  "The blahs...."  and proclaimed that Excedrin was the cure for it.  Since then, it seems like the drug industry has more and more focused on developing new syndromes, and encouraging people to consult with their doctors for the cure.  Every time I see one of these ads, I wonder where things went so horribly wrong.  It used to be that people felt bad and went to their doctors, who then recommended a course of treatment that might make them better.  Even that was a terribly flawed system.  Now, we get people who become persuaded that they have some problem because they saw a commercial, so they go to their doctors to demand a drug, which the doctors will give or else lose a patient.  It's a very perverse, and unhealthy way to deal with medical problems in my opinion.  

But I think that problem follows from the pervasive desire to find solutions outside of ourselves.  First, you promise that you can treat every problem with a pill.  And then for the people who don't have problems, you invent new ones and try to persuade them that the new pill for the new problem will be the ultimate answer. (And then give a breathless list of the side effects, and a quick disclaimer that your results might "vary.")  Very sad indeed.

64/90 Part 2 -- Staying Inspired

Stay inspired.  That's the sum of the Day 89 meditation.  One of the great goals of self-study is finding inspiration.  This necessarily means returning to your sources of inspiration, anywhere you find them: in books, music, movies, the arts, your work, a craft, or any place else.

Gates goes on to talk about how he was then finding inspiration from Gladiator.  I take that as proof that it doesn't matter where your inspiration comes from.  What does matter is what is inspiring to you.  For me, Gladiator just doesn't do it.  But, for movies, how about The Godfather, Chinatown, North by Northwest, My Darling Clementine, Bringing Up Baby, The Good The Bad and The Ugly, Seven Samurai, Hour of the Wolf, Stolen Kisses, and I could go on and on.  And for me, its even easier to find inspiration from music, but I won't trouble you all with another list.

What I like most about this meditation is that it makes inspiration part of the practice.  It's not something that simply happens.  Instead, its something we should actively be seeking.  Too often, its easy to remain complacent.  This meditation is a pretty strong reminder that there is no need to stay that way, because almost everyone know something that will inspire them, and from there its simply a matter of staying in touch and diving in deeper.