Saturday, May 30, 2009

103/149 -Singing in the Rain

Friday 4:30 pm with Danielle

Danielle is leaving us for a while.  She's decided to teach at the downtown studios for a while.  She says its to get some different training.  The owners of that studio are very close to Bikram.  They teach at the teacher's training all the time.  And they have been teaching basically forever.  I haven't gone to either of their studios yet, and think that maybe sometime I should.  

I think this is probably a good decision for Danielle.  Teacher training, it seems to me, gives people enough so they can lead a class.  There's still a wide gap from there to becoming a great teacher.  And if exposure to other styles of teaching will help her, I think it will probably be a great thing for her.  But it's also our loss.

Class was good and hard.  I got off to a rocky start.  I didn't get to eat anything until almost two, and I almost lost it all in the first forward bend.  In the first set I had to decide between literally losing my lunch, or easing off quite a bit on the pose.  I opted not to throw up.  Second set was better, and I thought I was over it.  And then I had a wave of dizziness in Awkward Pose.

With those two warnings, I settled in and started to really focus on nothing but breathing.  It helped tremendously.  And I turned what could have been a total disaster into a respectable class.  Just a few months ago, I think I probably would have been a whining ball of jelly by the back strengthening series if I started with the same problems.   So I'm taking this class' recovery as something of a moral victory.

The day 148 meditation contrasts a walk through the woods in Autumn, with walking through city streets in the dead of winter.  The one brings a feeling of connection to nature and the seasons, and makes Gates feel the workings of eternal recurrence.  The other makes him think that nothing will ever change and that everything will just stay dead.

The interesting thing is how Gates connects this idea to asana practice.  The urban landscape in winter is a rough picture for how we are without asana practice, with things disconnected and out of balance.  Asana practice puts us back in touch with the physical.  It's another way to take the walk in the woods -- to connect again to nature and to the physical.

I was reading just these same thought's the other day.  Hannah posted about A Trip to the Country just a few days ago.  And I think she puts it better than Gates does, so I will take the liberty of quoting:

I wanted to tell my mother this—tell her that there, on my mat, in a strange way, I am in the country, in the great wide outdoors, working my body as I would work the land, listening to my breath as I would listen to the breeze and the bird calls.  Spirited, happy, fulfilled, at peace.  The sky reflected in my cleared eyes.

In the woods, Gates felt a  connection to nature.  On the mat, we get more in contact with what Gates calls the intelligence of our bodies.  Of course, our bodies are simply a part of nature.  But on a cold winter day in the city, most people's instinct is to shut out nature.  

In the end, I don't think this is really a problem with cities, or with winter.   Think of people darting from their cars during a downpour, with their shoulders hunched forward, skirting to avoid puddles, in a mad dash to get out of the weather.  For them, rain is miserable.  Now, if you can, think back to when you were a kid playing in the rain, stomping in puddles, kicking water and mud on your friends, singing, holding your head up to let the water drop directly into your mouth.  If you let it, even now, getting drenched in a downpour can be a wonderful thing.  It doesn't have to be shunned.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

102/148 - Wow

Thursday off.

I couldn't get to class today, and I'm not feeling good about it.  It's the first time I've skipped two days in a row probably since Christmas break.  I feel like a slacker.

And this post will probably feel like slacking to some of you, but I am blown away by the day 147 meditation and don't think I can do better than simply to quote it:

Bring your all to your practice.  Do not use it as a means to control your weight, or your appearance, or the effects of aging, or anything else.  Let your practice be a means to discover your fullness.  Be vulnerable, be sad, be happy, be mad, but be there.  Just let it happen.  Life is about giving, and through giving we receive everything that we need.  Let your practice be about giving -- give of your heart, give of your spirit, give of your virtue.  As Gandhi said, "Be the change you want to see in the world."

102/147 -- The Wisdom of Evolution?

Wednesday Off.

The day 146 meditation may just be too deep for me.  I'm having a hard time figuring out whether I even understand it.  I can say with some assurance that I have not experienced what Gates is talking about, though it sounds cool.

First Gates talks about the subconscious.  He says that we can access the "intelligence" of the subconscious by quieting the mind.  I've read a little Freud, and some other psychology, and I don't think Gate's notion of the subconscious has much to do with Freud (or Jung from what I've read.)  On this point, I will defer to my brother, who actually did study this stuff in some detail.

Even if its bad psychology, I think Gates is absolutely right about yoga naturally quieting the mind.  And I've even had glimmers of the result of this quieting:  a kind of access to some form of reliable intuition.  So far I don't think the waters are either that deep or murky.

Then we get to the parallel idea:  finding peace in the body and accessing the "wisdom of its cells."  I saw Altered States.  I have a very passing familiarity that our DNA contains traces of every stage of our evolution.  Gates seems to say that asana practice gives a kind of tour through our history of evolution.  He then radically jumps from this idea and equates it to having access to the "power of creation."

This sounds an awful lot like the idea that we somehow become a fish when doing fish pose.  I'm not a big fan of names.  Personally, I like the response I heard that Bikram gave when asked why Camel was called Camel:  "Somebody a long time ago thought it looked like a Camel."  So I don't think this is what Gates means.  

But I can safely say that I have not experienced feeling like a fish or a vine when doing these poses.  That may mean that I'm not at peace enough yet.  It also means that this meditation, at best for me, falls into the category of one that I may come to understand sometime later.

There is one point at the end which I fully agree with.  Gates says that we should treat asana practice with the same intention as any other meditation.  My teachers make this point in every class:  its a 90 minute moving meditation.  If you can meditate, still the mind, and find peace in the Bikram torture chamber, then you are many steps ahead of the person who needs a candle, some incense, soothing music and no disturbances to get to the same point.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

102/146 - Effortless

Tuesday 8:15 pm with Amy

I will the title of today's post actually described last night's class.  It was a nice class, but I would still not call it effortless.  More on that later.

Class was solid, and I felt good throughout.  I focused again on breathing and improving form.  There may have been some payoff.  I didn't go as high in Locust as I have been, but Amy said my legs were much straighter than they have been.

My balance was good, better than usual.  I made two full sides in Standing Bow without falling.  I started concentrating harder on bringing my body down even further in Balancing Stick.  It makes the pose more fun, but alot harder to hold balance and composure.  

Camel felt good, as usual, and Rabbit again threw me off.  I get a really nice stretch in my lower back in Rabbit, and it feels like I'm doing it right.  Then I basically have trouble breathing and get impatient with holding the pose, so I tend to come out early.  I may be pushing it too hard.

That brings us to the Day 145 mediation.  The yoga sutras say:  "Perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached."  Gates takes this as a call for us to not push ourselves quite so hard.  I'm all in favor of this idea, and I think its a caution that Bikram practitioners can especially use.  Bikram seems to attract people with a tendency to overdo it.

It's easy to see how this caution relates to several of the yamas and niyamas.  Non-harming:  overdoing it tends toward injury.  Non-lying:  overdoing it stems from a false estimation of our capabilities.  Moderation: this one is pretty obvious.  Contentment: overdoing things can come from judging ourselves to be inadequate.  And I could go on.

But since the idea already seems so well covered, it makes me wonder why there is a sutra devoted to it as it relates to asana practice.  I wonder even more, since there are only three sutras that do relate to asanas.  Even though I agree with what Gates says about not trying too hard, I think that this sutra may be addressing something different.  

When it discusses effort that becomes effortless, it makes me think of what it takes to become a virtuoso at anything.   I'll use the piano as my example, but I think the same idea applies to all sorts of physical activity.  Classical pianists practice endlessly.  The practice can be really hard work.  The years of training involve levels of effort and concentration that are almost unimaginable to me.  But the end product, when its right, is completely effortless.  The performance itself, when its going well, comes to the virtuoso pianist as naturally as breathing.  The ultimate pay-off for all the practice, concentration, and work is to arrive at a performance which is entirely natural, free, and effortless.

I think the sutra here may be getting at something similar with asana practice.  At least, that makes more sense to me.  Thus, I think the sutras point to an ultimate goal of giving full effort and yet having the posture feel effortless.  And that takes more than simply not trying so hard.  It takes a mastery similar to that of a virtuoso in any activity.

Monday, May 25, 2009

101/145 pt. 2 -- Taking the bad with the good

In Day 144, Gates talks about first learning that he would be shipped to Saudi Arabia in anticipation of Desert Storm.  His superior officer told him that "you have to take the good with the bad."  And that's the lesson that he wants to impress upon us.

First, like so many others, he gets this lesson backwards.  You take the bad with the good.  It's the good that you are looking for, and the bad comes along with it.  The other way of putting it just doesn't make alot of sense to me, although I think its the way I hear it more often.  But that's just a quibble.

There's a deeper problem, I think, with this way of thinking.  The meditation opens with this quote from Lao-Tzu:  "The master gives himself up to whatever the moment brings."'  Yes, you could look at this as the master taking the bad with the good.  But I sincerely doubt that Lao-Tzu woul would agree with this idea.  Rather, I think the point is that, while accepting what the moment brings, you aren't looking for either good or bad.  Instead, you are just taking what comes without thinking "This is good and that is bad."  

Learning to take the bad with the good may be a laudatory intermediate step.  But I think the point that Lao-Tzu is getting at is that ultimately the master gets beyond the point of thinking of the moment in terms of good or bad.

Oh, and on thinking about it more closely, I might be wrong about the phrase. Whether the right way to say it is "take the good with the bad"  or "take the bad with the good"  might be a matter of vocal emphasis -- just a different way of parsing the phrase.   

101/145 - Education

Sunday off.
Monday 4:30 pm with Janna

For Memorial Day, it was more crowded than I would have thought.  Janna led a solid, workmanlike class.  In keeping with the recent meditatons, I focused more on quieting the struggle, and keeping my breathing nice and even.  For the most part, this worked really well, and I had stretches of the class that seemed to glide along, even though I was working really hard.  It's still hard for me to think of not struggling in the back strengthening series, and that's where I most lost my composure today.

I also noticed today that I'm at an interesting point in Standing Head to Knee.  If I resolve to stay with a bent knee and a locked leg, I'm almost certain that I can hold the pose for the full length.  But kicking out can totally throw me still.  Sometimes I can kick out, and it feels totally right, and other times I just completely lose my balance.  Given the alternatives, I sometimes don't know what I should do.  I'm pretty sure that how well I can kick out depends on how much I've sucked in the stomach, and therefore how much support I have for the lower back.  But often I don't feel this difference until I lose the pose.  It's something I notice in the breach.  And I also know that I could still stand to develop some strength in the locked knee, especially on the standing right leg.  And this puts me into another situation where I'm basically winging things, and don't really know what I should be doing.   I need to remember this so I can ask Lenette in my next class with her.

The day 143 meditation talks about education, and basically laments that none of the spiritual lessons that Gates learned later in life even get mentioned during a conventional education.  I see his point, but I think it would not make much difference if a standard education did offer this "information."

If I were to start a school, I'd totally change the curriculum.  Right now, education is too focused on information and data.  And the higher you go in education, it seems, the more it rewards cramming and short term retention memory.  In Law School, for example, I'm certain that I could have done well in any course without going to any class.  All I would need was a decent outline from any other student, and 3-4 days to study.   And most of what I would "learn" would be gone in a few weeks.  That process strikes me as almost completely pointless. 

My school, instead of focusing on information and regurgitation, would focus on practices and skills.  I would concentrate on Reading, Writing, Speaking, Art and Performing Art, Experimentation, Calculations, and Athletics.  In a school like this, I could see making great progress by having students do yoga, and thus perhaps learn the spiritual lessons that Gates talks about.   But they would learn it as something they do.  The "information," as a result, might take hold.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

100/143 -

Saturday 10:30 am with Connease

The room was packed.  It could be more crowded, but people are fairly inept at placing their mats, so it felt more backed than it was.  There were about 42 people.  I had a spot in the middle row, near the center, with good circulation from the fans.  That part was fine.  

But it seems I'm developing another pet peeve.  At least three people in the front row went down multiple times in the standing series.  This tends to sap the energy out of the rest of the room.  I know I probably did the same when I was first starting, but these people have been coming for quite some time.  Anyway, its my peeve and my problem.  There are no rules about where people go in our studio, and they weren't actually doing anything wrong.  But that didn't stop me from being just a little annoyed.  Next time, I'll try better to ignore it.

Class itself was pretty good.  Balance was a bit off, but not terrible.  I stayed with everything until Triangle, and then felt suddenly overwhelmed and took second set off.  (This is where my annoyance with the people in front probably got the better of me.  I don't know if I really "needed" to go down, or if I just had a "To hell with it" moment.) 

Floor series was better than standing series.  I got a good correction in the first part of Locust.  I still tend to bend my knees some in the one legged lifts.  I know better, but apparently not well enough yet.  I followed it up with a stronger than usual full locust.  Connease was giving the dialogue directly to me, with eye contact, and the feeling of being directly coached worked wonders.  I got up higher than usual, and felt real work going on in the middle back.  Camel was strong as well, and so were the final stretches.  My knee is almost flat on the floor on the left side in the final head to knee pose.

The first part of the Day 142 meditation talks about what Gates goes through when he encounters a new posture.  We Bikramites don't get that experience, unless we go to an advanced class or to some other discipline.  It's always the same 26 plus 2.  

He ends this discussion with the idea that karma is most clearly demonstrated on our mats.  And that's a point that I can relate to.  It's absolutely clear that I have to work through all the crap that I put my body through for 50 years.  And over time, it becomes more and more clear that I'm also working through crap in my mind as well.   Fixed Firm, for example, sometimes feels like a punishment on the west for having invented chairs.  And other poses are basically screaming:  "Aren't you HAPPY now that you spent all that time hunched over a computer screen?"

The part of the meditation I like most today is where Gates connects asana practice to the yamas and niyamas.  I'd like to think of these ideas as prescriptions:  

1) Nonviolence and surrender guiding us into the posture.  It's taking me a long time to learn this one, and its a lesson that bears repeating over and over.  Forcing yourself further than you can go is counterproductive, and as Lenette said the other day, you get further by surrendering anyways.  

2) Moderation coming out of the pose.  Or as I get told again and again:  No Crash Landings.  Same kind of warning comes repeatedly for coming out of Camel.  Gradual is better.  It builds strength and discipline.  And, again as Lenette says, most injuries occur because people come out of the posture wrong. 

3) Zeal in the middle of practice, contentment at the end.  This one I don't quite agree with.  Certainly contentment at the end.  But there are lots of places during practice to exercise contentment.  I've gained a lot simply by expressing gratitude after the standing series.  That's an exercise of contentment.  More and more, I'm thinking that that may a big purpose behind all of the short Savasanas in the floor series.  As I understand it, these multiple savasanas are fairly unique to Bikram, and I think Gates teaches a flowing style of yoga, which might explain why he says contentment at the end.

4) Nonhording of the stuff we don't need.  This is another continual lessons.  Mostly we don't need water.  We don't need to wipe sweat.  We don't need to fidget, adjust our mats, adjust our clothes.  And it goes deeper.  I certainly didn't need my little peeve about the people in front, and will try better next time to let it go.  And I don't need any frustration when I fall out of Standing Bow for the fourth time.  And I don't need to be thinking about things outside of class, or plans.  Etc....  This little tip is probably the most important, and the most difficult to master.  We are told again and again that Savasana is the hardest pose to truly master, and I think the reason that's true is because when its done correctly, Savansana is our truest expression of non-hording, of letting go.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

99/142 - Eighty percent of success is showing up.

Friday off.

In the morning I decided to go to the afternoon class.  As I was getting ready to go, a client called with an "emergency."  (Clients always seem to have emergencies, no matter what's actually happening.)  So, I missed class.  And on a bad day, since the Woody Allen quote that is the title of today's post is one of my favorites, but today I didn't show up.

The day 141 meditation is about klutzes.  I wonder if Gates subconsciously picked a Woody Allen quote for that reason.  (A lot of the humor in the "earlier, funnier" movies comes from playing on the idea of Woody as a klutz.)  Gates discusses his wife, who thought of herself as a klutz for many years.  She was not comfortable with anything athletic, but came to like yoga, and over time realized that her co-ordination had spontaneously improved.

I wasn't really a klutz, but I wasn't much of an athlete either.  Basketball was my game, and as the saying goes, I wasn't that big, but I was slow and I couldn't jump.  The slowness has been something of an obstacle for me.  When I was a film editor, it was tough simply to keep up with the physical speed that was demanded, especially when putting reels back together or cutting dailies.  This involved cutting. splicing and taping literally hundreds or thousands of pieces of film and soundtrack together, each one a manual operation requiring some hand dexterity -- and I was slow at it.  But ultimately that wasn't that much of a big deal.

Where the slowness really hurt was playing music.  I just never had the hand speed that's required to be a technically great musician, and I've always regretted it some.

Now for the big surprise for me:  Yoga has helped.  We don't do anything specifically for our hands.  But I've discovered over the past year that, even without practicing much, my speed and coordination on both the guitar and piano have noticeably improved.  And improved more, by doing yoga, than they did over any similar period playing scales and exercises.  This was a benefit that I had not anticipated at all.

Thinking on it some, I'm not really that surprised.   Efficiency playing an instrument stems largely from three things -- good posture, relaxation, and the ability to concentrate and focus.  And guess what?  Yoga has huge payoffs in all three areas.  

Woody says "Eighty percent of success is showing up."  Gates picks up on the big point here, which is that most things can be learned, and people will eventually learn them if they apply themselves.  That's definitely true with things like balance, co-ordination, discipline and other things that we sometimes falsely tend to believe are natural attributes.  And as I've recently learned, it is also true, at least to an extent, with something as basic as speed while playing piano or guitar.

Friday, May 22, 2009


Thursday 10:30 am with Lenette

Such a tremendous contrast from Wednesday to Thursday.  The room started out really hot and dry:  115 degrees and 16% humidity.  Lenette played some tricks and eventually got it down to 11o with 28 % humidity.  Even though at times I felt like I was being baked, it never interfered with the practice.  Instead, the entire practice was quiet, peaceful, and delightful.

My balance was good.  I made it through two parts of Standing Head to Knee without falling and with a really solid, locked out leg.  And the rest of the standing series was strong as well.  My stamina was good.  

Locust was the best its been in days.  Lenette said that once you get up as high as I do, it helps to move your chin forward.  This allows the shoulders to press down a bit more, and gives better leverage.  I didn't really get the hang of it, but I will definitely keep it in mind.  The pose has been my nemesis, and I would be delighted if it were the first pose that I pushed to full expression.  (Well, I guess I'm close in Awkward and Triangle, but they were never that hard for me.)

It's hard to put my finger on what the difference was between the two days.  It would be tempting to blame the humidity, but I don't believe it.  Rather, I think that something was off on Wednesday, and whatever that was, it provided an opening which allowed the humidity to get to me.  And whatever it was, it was gone on Thursday morning.  

The day 140 meditation discusses the attitude we bring to the mat.  On the one hand, Gates mentions "cherished fears."  I love this idea, that not only do we have fears, but there are fears that we nurse, that we cherish, that we become attached to.  I've become too attached to fear that I might injure myself, or that I might lose stamina near the end of standing series.  Recently, I've developed something of an attachment to my fear of spitting up.  I've done it before.  It's not the end of the world when it happens, but still I let it sometimes interfere with the entire beginning of the floor series.

Together with the fears, Gates lumps doubts and questions.  These things all interfere with the energy that we should be putting into the postures.  It's like Rohit put it the other night -- struggling (which can include dealing with fears, doubts and questions) saps energy.  To the extent that we dwell on fears and doubts, we are also misdirecting energy.

The answer is both simple and perhaps difficult.  It's simply a matter of faith.  Or as Lenette put it in this class, its allowing yourself to surrender.  She said that the biggest progress comes at surprising points because progress depends on surrender.  When you stop fighting the pose, and let yourself simply BE the dialogue, you will make astonishing progress.  And I've found that to be true.  Gates says that this faith, this surrender, comes simply from remembering that things will work out with time.  This may also be true.  And it does sound simple.  The difficulty, I think is converting this idea from a kind of abstract knowledge into a habit of being.  That's part of the reason why yoga is a practice, and not a math quiz.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

98/140 - Garden, University, Prayer Mat

Wednesday 6:30 pm with Sherry

I haven't taken a 6:30 class in quite a while.  Usually, this is a great time of day for me.  Not yesterday.  Class was one of my toughest ever.  The best thing I can say about it is that I basically rolled with the difficulty and didn't beat myself up - much.

Sherry is Rohit's wife.  She stays pretty close to the dialogue and has more of a "standard" style than Rohit.  I thought she was holding the poses really long, especially in the standing series.  Then I was shocked to find that we ended 5 minutes early.  Maybe I got the impression of long holds because she really held Half Moon for a long time, and the extra energy I spent in the warm-up probably helped to knock me out later.

I missed one set of Triangle.  No biggie there -- that still happens fairly often.  Then I had to leave for a set of Cobra.  When the cold air hit me, I nearly fainted.  I got back into the room, but had to sit out a set of Locust.  That's pretty rare, but after locust, its all downhill, right?  Not yesterday.  I almost sat out of Fixed Firm, but pulled myself together.  Then I almost threw up in Half Tortoise, which I would have said was unthinkable, and sat out the second set.  Then I forced myself through Camel, made it through Rabbit and somehow made it to the end.

After class, other people were saying that they got slaughtered as well.  And I was thinking it was just me.  And then, lo and behold, I left the studio and felt absolutely great.  So, as bad as the class felt at the time, it turns out that it was just what I needed.  (By the way, objectively, the room was hot but not really that bad, at 106 and 50% humidity.)

The day 139 meditation is very short, and basically asks us to take the following quote to heart:

For those who have come to grow, the whole world is a garden.  For those who have come to learn, the whole world is a university.  For those who have come to know God, the whole world is a prayer mat.

I should have read that before going to class.  It might have done me some good.  At its best, the studio can feel a bit like all three.  And that begs the question, what did I come to the studio for yesterday? -- it seems not to grow, to learn, or to know God.  I guess if you come to suffer and struggle, then the whole world is a torture chamber ;)

97/139 - Keeping Practice Special

Tuesday Off

The day 138 meditation is short and simple.  Gates first points out how asana practice works positively on body, mind, and spirit.  Then says something that Bikram teachers say all the time:  that often the hardest part of Asana practice is just getting to class.  Most people can be geniuses at inventing reasons why today isn't a really good day for going.   

One answer to this resistance is to find ways to make Asana practice special.  Gates suggests finding yoga buddies, treating yourself to nice yoga clothes and equipment, taking a yoga vacation, joining workshops.  I think these are all very good ideas.  The book that got me started again, Younger Next Year,  makes a similar recommendation about any exercise activity you start.  The idea is to make it a treat instead of a chore.  One trouble with Bikram, however, is that its pretty hard to lavish nice yoga accessories on yourself with it.  I've got three nice sets of shorts, yogitoes towels, and two mats.  That's pretty extravagant for a Bikram practitioner, and it means that over the course of a year I've spent maybe $250 on yoga stuff.  (Compare cycling, where you could easily drop $250 on one wheel, or on a nice pair of shorts and a shirt.)

I haven't done any workshops yet, but I'm looking forward to any that come nearby.  That's definitely something I want to try.  Challenges in Bikram are another way to keep the practice special.  While the challenge goes on, not going to class is pretty much unthinkable.  And if the challenge lasts long enough, I think you eventually realize that you really can do the practice every single day, and that that is closer to the norm than the exception.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

97/138 - Where Nothing Connects

Monday 8:15 pm with Rohit

Another remarkable class with Rohit.  Again, I felt like I worked harder than usual, and yet I had an easier time of it and the class basically flew by.  There were only nine people in class today, and he was asking us to talk back to him if we wanted, and to let him know before a pose if we wanted some extra help with it.  That sort of thing almost never happens in a Bikram class and it was a very nice change of pace.

I was having stomach issues, and even felt like leaving the room to throw up at one point.  I don't know for sure why, but I got over it.  It made for some especially uncomfortable moments in the forward bends, and then in the back strengthening series.

The backbends, however, felt great.  The first backbend may have been my deepest ever.  I then got a small correction in Camel, after which he said I was doing it just right.  He also said that I had a "great" Triangle.  I know that this is one of my better poses, but its really nice to hear it from time to time as well. 

One thing that I find interesting about his classes is that he seems to spend less time going through the rote of the set-ups for poses.  But, at the same time, he's very keen on emphasizing some detail that makes the pose that much harder.  For example, he really stressed making the legs as long as possible before ever trying to lift them in Locust.  This makes the pose harder, and it does an even better job at isolating the back muscles we're trying to get at.  

Similarly, he was keen on people rounding down tightly in Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee.  This one was kind of funny.  He had just finished explaining to people how they should keep their backs straight when going down in Balancing Stick.  Then, he starts talking about rounding down in the separate leg pose.  And I just started laughing, because I couldn't help wondering why he just didn't say:  "Just go down in this pose like you want to go down when you do balancing stick."  It's really odd, but people seem to naturally bend in the poses that demand a straight back (Half Tortoise, Final Stretch), and then go all straight in the compression poses.  I wonder why?

The Day 137 mediation talks about how asana practice integrates the mind and body.  The part that rings completely true to me is how we can go into class with a catalog of woes -- pain in the knee, stiffness in the butt, troubles with work, residual anger at the jerk who cut me off --, and then reach a point during class where all of that simply melts away and leaves a residual feeling of peace and well-being.  Gates says that that feeling of well-being comes from an enhanced sense of connectedness, which occurs as "the intelligence of our minds enters into and ancient dance with the intelligence of our bodies."  I think this is beautifully put, and its as good an explanation as any that I have seen for the seemingly special power yoga has to make people feel better.

The meditation begins with a quote from T.S. Eliot:  "Hell is the place where nothing connects."  In my early twenties, I came down with a really high fever that only lasted a short while.  It was the only time in my life where I was both delirious and have any recollection of the delirium.  And it was an extreme feeling of not being connected.  I remember having a kind of out of body experience, where I seemed to see myself from above. I remember firmly believing that I was in several different times at once (I don't even know how to explain that now, but it felt like it was true, then.)  I remember locking myself in the bathroom -- nevermind that the lock was on the inside and I could have opened it at any time.  I simply needed to lock myself in.  Why?  Because part of me was also certain that I could make the fever go away and be all better if I just stabbed myself and my parents to death.  Again, never mind that my parents were away on a trip.  In the state I was in, I was also convinced that I'd easily be able to get to them, except I had cleverly locked myself in the bathroom.  I was almost at the point where no idea or fact connected with anything else, where I had ceased to see any connection between even my mind and bod --, where nothing connects, as Eliot puts it.  And, yes, it was completely terrifying, and as close to Hell as I would ever like to encounter.


Monday, May 18, 2009

96/137 - Stillness in action

Sunday off.

The day 136 meditation starts the discussion about asana.

Asana practice starts the trip home.  This idea echoes an earlier idea that yoga returns us to our youth, it de-ages us.  As I understand it, home is the feeling of belonging in our bodies, belonging in our minds, and belonging in our surroundings.

We get to go home by discovering stillness.  Here, Gates says something that I think is very interesting.  For a long while, his practice aimed toward particular results.  That's only natural, most people strive for results, and asana practice makes it easy to throw up benchmarks.  How close to the floor is my head in the separate leg forward stretch.  How high off the ground do my feet get in Locust?  Is the pain in my knee better or worse.  How are my clothes fitting?   There are lots and lots of results to strive for.  Moreover, yoga (at least Bikram yoga) sells itself on its benefits.

Only over time do we start to learn not to focus on results.  One of the main reasons for this shift is that striving for results tends to be counterproductive.  It leads to frustration, injury and discontent.  So instead, we hopefully learn to switch our focus from results to the process itself.

The interesting thing Gates said is that he learned to eschew results not through his practice, but through his teaching.  Here's why.  Gates has said again and again that his primary spiritual commitment  is to serve.  Part of his service is through teaching.  This, it seems to me, that his teaching is probably a more vital part of his practice than doing asanas.  Thus, I think its perfectly natural for him to learn this lesson through teaching and not through asana.  That's where he is probably most driven and spiritually connected.  What I don't understand, however, is how he missed this point.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Friday 4:15 pm with Janna
Saturday 9:30 am with Amy

First the good news.  The studio will offer another class on Sunday.  No more starving until 4 p.m. for me if I want to practice on Sunday.  Even better, the reason Amy has confidence in starting this class is because Rohit and his wife have decided to stay in Houston, and are willing to take the class.  I'm very excited about this.

Friday's class was middling.  I had too much iced tea at lunch I suppose, and had to leave the room during party time for a pit stop.  I've only done this once before, and I had forgotten how bad it can be.  First, there is just the break in concentration.  During class, I'm not all that aware of it, but one thing that the warm-up does is put you in a rhythm.  When the warm-up goes well, it establishes a groove for the rest of the class.  Leaving the room totally throws that off.  Coming back in is almost like starting at square one again.

On top of that, there is the heat issue.  I love getting a slight blast of cold air in the middle of a hot class when, for example, someone opens a nearby door and the breeze passes over.  Going outside and getting blasted by air conditioning is another thing altogether.  It's great when the class is over, but lasting only for a minute, all it did was throw me off.

By the end of the balancing series, I was pretty well acclimated again.  And I had some good moments in class.  Janna was running behind in the floor series, and playing catch-up.  Different teachers have different approaches when the timing goes off.  Amy, for example, will skip one set of the final stretches.  Others will start to cut some of the poses short.  

And then there are teachers, like Janna, who start to skimp on the savasanas.  Sometimes this doesn't bother me, and it shouldn't.  But yesterday was not one of those days.  More and more, I have come to appreciate the savasanas on the floor, and its hard for me not to feel a bit cheated when the sit-up instructions start coming while I'm still taking my second breath.  The odd thing here, however, is that I think I would have rolled with it much more easily if I had not had to leave the room earlier.  I think that short break cast a bit of a shadow over all of the rest of the class.

This morning's class was a bit better.  My backbends seem to be coming along a bit.  I got a compliment from Amy in the first backbend today.  That rarely happens.  And I was still relaxing into it and getting a bit deeper when it was time to go out.  I've been paying even more attention to my arms in this bend recently, trying to keep them closer to locked, with the hands really squeezed together, and trying to lead with the hands.  It seems to be helping.  And oddly, paying attention to this part of the form has made me realize how much this bend depends on feeling secure with the strength of the lower and middle back.

I was in the middle row this morning, in a spot where my body was cut into pieces by at least seven different sections of mirrors.  My balance stunk.  I blame the mirrors.  That's my excuse for today and I'm sticking to it.  I also was acutely aware of all the people around me.  I had no place to fall without starting a domino effect.  And because I was thinking about where I was gonna fall without bumping someone, I was falling all the time. 

Then, oddly, I had a good toe stand.  Well, maybe not so odd.  If I fall in Toe Stand, its a roll backwards, which is no big deal.  And you look on the floor in Toe Stand, so the mirrors aren't an obstacle.  Recently, I've been on and off with this pose because of some tightness (possibly tendonitis) on the inside of my right knee. 

Floor series was good.  I went all the way back in Fixed Firm in both sets.  I'd have to check, but if I've done that before, its less than a handful of times.  Usually, it takes me so long to ease my hips onto the floor that there is no time to go all the way back in the first set.

Locust was pretty good.  Instead of getting a compliment here, which I've sort of expected from Amy, she insisted I really lock my knees and keep my feet together.  I did for the second set, and it really got the near-cramping going in my upper back.  After class, Amy mentioned how high I'm getting my legs up in Locust, so I finally asked how high.   It's somewhere between 3.5 and 4 feet.  Doing some quick trigonometry in my head, that means that I've got just under a 45% angle with the floor.  And today wasn't a particularly good Locust.  That tends to confirm my impression in some earlier classes that I was getting to the point where the muscle support starts to change.

Amy also said that, from what she's heard, the muscle cramps in the upper back are a really good sign.  It means I'm working the right area for this pose.  One day, eventually, in the future, (etc., etc...) the cramps will disappear and I will pop up much closer to vertical.  She says that she hasn't experienced that yet, so who knows.  However, this is one of those poses that I actually think I might get in this lifetime.

The Day 134 meditation feels to me either like a re-introduction, or a re-cap.  It discusses the relationship between the eight limbs of yoga, and its four aims.  Basically, the aims are the big picture -- the forest --, and the limbs are the particulars -- the trees.   Of course, we are not supposed to lose sight of the forest because of all the trees.  And conversely, we should still appreciate the trees themselves and not simply become overwhelmed or spellbound by the forest.

The Day 135 meditation also has something like the air of re-introduction.  It takes on the idea of good and bad (evil?).   Apparently there have been two very different basic attitudes underlying yoga practice.  

On the one hand, the world and everything in it is flawed.  With this starting point, yoga gives people a path by which then may ultimately be able to transcend all the flaws.   Gates doesn't mention this, but from what I've read elsewhere, I think this approach tends toward an obsession with Samadhi.   I've read things from people who regard all the rest of yoga as simply a means to this end.  This approach has always struck me as a form of escapism, and perhaps counterproductive.

The other hand regards the world as already OK.  The purpose of yoga is to lift the veil and to allow the yogi to see this truth.  I'm more sympathetic to this idea, but I'm still attached enough to western ideas to think that there may be a bit too much Pangloss in it.  Even if this idea is correct, there is still at least one part of the world that is not OK, and that is the part that is causing us to hold on to whatever it is that is preventing us from seeing this truth.  And if that's not OK, then I wonder whether it isn't at least possible for some other things not to be OK as well.

Despite these abstract criticisms, I have no quarrel at all with the idea that yoga provides an extremely practical program for improving life in every respect.  As a result, I don't necessarily agree with Gates that you have to take sides on this issue.  Start the practice, and reap the benefits.  Eventually, you might have moments where you realize that everything is OK with the world.  So much the better.  Someday, you might get a feeling of transcendence.  (I can't speak as clearly there.)  Maybe the two feelings are the same.  Frankly, I don't care all that much.  The good stuff on the journey is more than enough to sustain me for now.  And if I ever get to the "destination," I'll be sure to let you know which side of this argument got it right.

Friday, May 15, 2009

94/134 - Liberation

Thursday off.

The last of the four goals/aims of yoga is liberation.  Gates explains that liberation occurs when you put all the work into the other aspects of yoga, and then can simply let go.  Letting go is the key to liberation.  When it occurs, "your struggles with the world will come to an end."

The timing for this meditation is almost perfect, because it basically repeats what Rohit said about struggling.  You put in all the energy and focus into what you are doing, but you do that without struggle.   It's really the same point told from a slightly different angle.  When we are letting go, what are we letting go of?  Mostly, its the struggling and the various forms that that struggling takes.

And both Gates and Rohit were clear that just refusing to struggle was not empty.  You have to first try your best (whether its in the form of a posture, or observing the yamas and niyamas, for example) and at the same time let go of the struggling that typically accompanies trying your best.  The thing now is to remember this idea, and try to put it into action.  

Thursday, May 14, 2009

94/133 -- Enjoying Fruits

Wednesday 8:15 with Rohit

I've seen Rohit a couple of times in studio before.  He and his wife both teach.  They come from Jacksonville, but apparently like to visit the Houston area for extended periods and have taught here before.  Amy told me that she simply assigns time blocks to them, and it doesn't matter to her who does the teaching.

Rohit comes from Queens.  I know because he said he was a Met fan, while complaining about the Yankee logo on one girl's shorts, and then said he grew up under the shadow of Shea Stadium.  It's hard for me to guess his age.  He could be anywhere from 15 years younger than me to a few years older.   He's been doing Bikram for quite a while, and I heard that he got his teacher certification in Bikram's first teacher training.  The yoga background makes me guess that he's probably older than he looks to me, but who knows.  Finally, Rohit is a sanskrit name and he picked it up while living on an ashram. 

I always like taking classes from new teachers.  But even so, last night's class was special.  First, the dialogue was different.  He didn't follow what I've grown used to as Bikram dialogue.  Instead, I had the feeling that there was a true dialogue going on, and he was giving instructions on an "as needed" basis.  I knew I was going to have to adjust to this when, in Eagle, I was waiting for him to tell us to sit down.  He didn't, but everyone else in the class did the squat and crossed their legs.  After a while, it finally dawned on me that we had gone past those instructions, and I really needed to get into the pose.  This may sound like a bad thing, but it wasn't.  It simply meant that I had to co-operate in what was going on, and just that brought a new sort of energy to the class.  I was still following what he was saying, but going on autopilot was out of the question.

Next, he had perhaps the gentlest teaching style I've ever encountered.  From half-moon on, he stressed that we should give full effort and intensity, but that we should never struggle.  As he explained it, struggling actually decreases the ability to give full effort, because struggling almost inevitably misdirects energy.  I had never thought about it that way before, but I think he has a point.  

Another example of the gentleness were some of the new things I heard in the dialogue.  A few times, in the midst of the sort of instructions we hear all the time ("solid, concrete, lampost" or "pull on your heels") he would say something like "Turn up the corners of your mouth."  Said that way, it sounds like a posture instruction, when he's really just saying smile.  The cool thing was that this backward way of saying smile actually made me smile and chuckle a bit.

He was also a hands on instructor, even more so than Miranda.  I got hands on corrections in Balancing Stick, Wind Relieving, and Half Tortoise.  I've always liked this and wish more teachers would dare to do it.  

And I learned some things in class.  In each sit up, he would give us one new thing to concentrate on -- heels on the floor, then ankles flexed, then keeping arms glued to the ears, etc...  Doing this one step at a time gave me a clearer idea of how the sit-up should feel than I've had before.

Finally, despite his gentle approach, I think he got more out of me than I've given in class for quite awhile.  I've got that "opening" feeling in several new areas, especially in my hips, shoulders and across my upper back.  I haven't had such a pervasive, good feeling of soreness since the first couple of months when I started.  I'm not sure why.  

There must be something about Rohit's motivational style that creeps up.  In the middle of class, I would not have said that I was working especially hard.  I never felt wiped out at all.  Quite the opposite, I felt alert and energized throughout.  Only afterward did I realize how fully I had pushed myself.

The day 132 meditation is about kama, which is enjoying the fruits of your labors.   Gates identifies kama with gratitude, at least for him, and he says that it is his starting point.  Here, I'm definitely confused.  I have no quarrel with the importance of gratitude.  But enjoying the fruits of your labors is, by definition, an end.  You labor, you get your fruits, and then you enjoy them.

But it looks like that may be a false model.  Or perhaps there's something lost in the translation.  Maybe gratitude can be both the starting point, and the fruit.  When you've done something hard, and done it well, it certainly makes sense to me that you would both simultaneously enjoy the benefits of what you've done and show gratitude.  A perfect, and simple example for this, I think, is just saying grace before eating.  Gratitude enhances the meal.  

And on another note, I found the same thing to be helping by expressing my thanks after the standing series.  My gratitude for what I've done helps me to enjoy the rest of the class, and it seems to help with the floor series.  Thus, this expression of gratitude is both a starting point, and an end.  Ultimately, I think what Gates may be trying to say is that the point of kama is the enjoyment of the fruits of your labor, and that joy and gratitude are intrinsically intertwined.

93/132 - Physical balance

Tuesday 8:15 with Amy

I've been on something of a roll with Amy's classes, and last night's was no exception.  It was another solid class.  My focus was good.  I didn't quite keep the same concentration on breath as I had on Monday, and as a result class was not quite as satisfying.

Balance was good again, especially Standing Bow.  And I had another really good back strengthening series.  Once again, I pushed really hard in Locust and came near the point of cramping in my upper back.  I'm just beginning to get the idea of what it might mean to really push up with the shoulders in this pose.   To date, I had been rolling forward, pushing down on my arms and arching my back, but it never really clicked for me what it meant to push with the shoulders.  I'm still not sure I've got it, but I began to get a glimmer of some new possibility for movement.  It's amazing to me how you reach a new place in these poses, and they suddenly offer up new wrinkles that you had no awareness of at all before.

The day 131 meditation is about the second goal in life, artha, or balance in the external life.  In the U.S., of course, we tend to equate prosperity with wealth.  That leads to an extraordinary emphasis on making money.  (In economics classes, for example, students are told again and again that the rational actor engages only in wealth maximization.)  Wealth is a component of artha, but only a component.  It also involves family, friends, work, etc...   

The balance to strive for is between abundance and peace.  I like this idea very much.  Too much focus on abundance is likely to corrupt a person into thinking that stuff is everything.  But complete neglect of abundance is also, for most everyone, a recipe for disaster.  Peace requires the fulfillment of some minimum needs, and perhaps a bit more.  There's a Dickens quote that I can't quite remember, but the idea is that someone who makes 10 lbs a year and spends 9 will be happy, while someone who make 10,000 lbs a year and spends 11,000 ends up a wretch.

Finally, this yoga goal seems, like some others, to have a paradoxical flavor to it.  Gates stresses that the point of artha is for your outward and inward life to fit together.  Thus, the point is to have your outward life fit comfortably with yourself.  When it fits, its not something that you should be working hard at.  It should flow naturally.  Thus the goal seems to be more of a byproduct of living correctly, instead of something specific that you work toward.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

92/131 -- Acting on Beliefs

Monday 8:15 pm with Amy

When I come back to an evening class after a string of morning classes, I'm always a bit surprised.  I read in many places that yoga strives for a balance between strength and flexibility.  That idea leads to the (perhaps false) conclusion that strength and flexibility are somehow opposed to each other.  My joking rejoinder to that observation was that before I started yoga I possessed a perfect balance of rigidity and weakness.  For me, the evening classes drive home the point.  Because I always seem to be both stronger and more flexible when I come back to an evening class.  It's always great when it happens, but I also think it can lead to a false sense of progress.

Last nights class, again, was a sheer delight.  The heat was perfect, the energy in the room was high, and I felt alert and focused all the way through.  Standing Bow was as good as it has ever been.  My balance was good, and I was feeling a really good stretch in my hip, butt, and my pulling shoulder.  In the second set, I held it all the way through, concentrating just on my breath, and actually came out of it as I went into it, instead of falling and flailing.  As I was coming out of it, Amy looked at me and said "That's what I'm talking about."

Then, right after, I had a zero balance, total struggle balancing stick.  I still haven't figured out why these poses seem to go in opposite directions from each other.  But it still seems that how I do in Balancing Stick is inversely related to how my balance is in the rest of the series.

The other notable pose tonight was Fixed Firm.  I got a really good set-up for my feet and ankles, sat slowly into it, and then when all the way back and started to arch up.  I haven't been going all the way back much recently, and probably could do it because it was the evening.  Anyway, the feeling of stretch through my quads and the fronts of my knees was quite startling.  I can't remember ever having gotten that deep a stretch through my quads, and I was a little bit worried that I might be overdoing something.  As of now, however, I notice no ill effects.  That's a testament, I suppose, to paying extra care to the set-up -- a lesson I seem to have to learn again and again and again.

In the day 130 meditation, Gates talks about how dharma (the aim of spiritual balance) concerns putting beliefs into action.  The only quibble I have with this is that I tend to think that, if its not put into action its not a belief in the first place.  It' easy for people to say lots of things.  If you want to find out what they believe, then take a look at what they do.  (And I don't think that Gate's says otherwise.  I just think wanted to add my own clarification.  The word "belief" can often be a pretty slippery thing.)

Having said that, I think that Gates idea has some value in the course of learning.  To take a recent example:  I've said many times here that the world of a happy person differs from an unhappy person.   That's why I so much liked Gate's line that the world is a reflection of our hearts.  Or the simpler:  "Have a good day - or not.  It's your choice."

I would have said I believed this a week, or even a month ago.  But simply agreeing with the idea doesn't always have much effect.   I've seen a major turnaround in my practice since reading Gate's reminder about this idea.  To me, that means that although I thought I believed this idea, the belief hadn't yet ingrained itself.  It's that process -- the process of working a belief like this into your core -- that takes continual work, and benefits from constant reminders.  

Monday, May 11, 2009

91/130 - The Four Aims

Sunday off.

I planned to take the day off, mostly because I'd had a few classes in a row and could, and because the Rockets were playing at the same time yoga class started.  Then I heard that Yao Ming was out for the season, but it was too late to get to class, so I decided to sit down and watch them get killed.  Instead, they ended up playing probably their best game of the season, and it was a really good team performance, something that is getting rarer and rarer in basketball.

The Day 129 meditation introduces the four aims of life:  dharma, artha, kama, and moska.  At this point, I pretty much want Gates to start talking about asanas, and this feels a bit like a detour.  But I guess I'm willing to go wherever he's driving.

Dharma is spiritual balance, and it comes largely through observance of the yamas and niyamas.  Artha is external balance, or physical balance.  Kama is basically reaping the rewards, enjoying the fruits of one's labors.  I'm assuming this comes later in life, but that's not made clear.  And finally, moska is liberation.  And liberation comes with letting everything go.  I'm assuming there will be further discussion of each of these aims, since Gates says very little about any of them in this meditation.

Also, for this meditation, and the next three in a row, Gates opens with the same quote from Albert Einstein.  I'm not sure yet why he considers this quote so important, but since he does, I will reproduce it here:

"A hundred times a day I remind myself that my life depends on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give, in measure as I have received, and am still receiving."

Sunday, May 10, 2009

91/129 - Fear of Death

Saturday 9:30 am with Amy

No, fear of death has nothing to do with Saturday's class, or at least I don't think it did.  On the contrary, after a few harder classes in a row, Saturday morning was a sheer delight.  I paid extra attention to staying lighthearted, and more importantly, I really concentrated on my breathing.  Usually, I use hard breathing as a warning signal, following my rule that if I need to breathe through the mouth, then I need to sit out.  But, I realized that beyond that, I really don't pay much attention to breathing, especially in the more challenging poses.  So I took a cue from my blogging friend "Hannahjustbreathe" and I used "just breathe" as a kind of mantra when I found myself losing focus.  It worked wonders.  Not only did it facilitate the harder poses, but it actually made it easier for me to find my "smiling, happy face." 

I'm grateful to both Hannah (for the blog name that sticks with me), and to Gates (for the always timely reminder that the world is a reflection of our hearts.)

I don't remember much in particular about the class.  I got nice compliments in Standing Head to Knee, and then Standing Bow, and then in Locust.  I went up really high in Locust, perhaps my best ever, and  was tempted to ask Amy how high after class.  But it slipped my mind.  

The most memorable moment, however, came somewhere in the floor series.  I got distracted by some thought during a savasana, and when we were coming out of it, I had absolutely no idea where we were in the series.  It struck me that the reason I didn't know where we were is because I had simply been following the dialogue without thinking about anything at all (at least until that distraction), and that meant I wasn't keeping track of the class like I usually do.   
The fifth, and last, affliction is the fear of death.  The yoga sutras say the fear of death arises from our experience of death in past lives.  I've got two main problems with this.  First off, I have lots of problems with the idea of reincarnation.   Today, there are more people living than all of the people who have ever died.  That means that there are many new souls, and as human population explodes, so must the number of new people who never had a previous incarnation.  There's no religion involved in that, its just purely mathematical.  

Diminishing populations present a different problem for reincarnation, because it means that the waiting period between incarnations has to grow longer and longer.  Basically, reincarnation almost requires a belief in a relatively stable overall population.  (The same goes for almost any recycling program, whether its bottles or souls.)

But even if I could buy into the idea of reincarnation, I don't see why that would lead to fear of death.  On the contrary, I would tend to think that the idea that I'm coming back would take some of the sting out of dying.  As Gates notes, in the west we tend to think of life as a one-shot deal.  For us, the fear of death comes, I think, from its finality.  For this, the idea of afterlife should remove the fear of death.

I think its worth noting that, for most people, neither reincarnation nor the afterlife removes the fear of death.  Ultimately, I don't have much to say about this.  I've never understood why either the afterlife or reincarnation actually solves any problem.  Instead, it seems to me that they postpone or prolong them.

I freely admit to having a fear of death, but not really of my own death.  Instead, I tend to fear the death of one's that I love.  Of course, I've been fortunate enough for it never to be an issue, so I don't know that I would remain as sanguine it did become one.

Friday, May 8, 2009

90/128 - Reflection of the Heart

4:30 pm with Danielle

It appears that Danielle and I are on the same schedule now.  Either that, or she's started teaching all the time.  She led another good class with high energy, and very good pacing.

I originally planned on going in the morning, but I had a meeting early, and then an eye doctor appointment.  (If anyone is interested, my eyes are still good.  For the first time ever, the doctor optionally recommended some reading glasses.  He's amazed that I still read without undue strain, and without getting headaches.  But there it is.  I've said for a while that I would like to make it to 50 without any glasses and I've only got 3 1/2 months to go.  It's a small matter of pride, but I still think I will stick with it.)  Then in the afternoon, I thought I would have to miss class to finish some work on a contract. 

I must have suspected, however, that I might finish in time.  For whatever reason, I ate a lunch that was compatible with taking class even though I thought I wasn't going to go.  And yes, that means no pizza with sausage, or mexican food.  And then, I found myself finishing with barely enough time to rush over to the studio.

Class started off pretty well.  I was just so happy to be there that it provided a real uplift for most of the standing series.  And my stamina was good.  But I think I may have overdone things in the standing series, because the floor was a bit of a struggle.  I barely had enough strength to pull myself through back strengthening series, and from there, I started to feel hot.  Not overwhelmed, really, but also not at peace.  Even so, I kept myself together, did a stong rabbit, and ended the class respectably.

After class, Danielle asked me if my back was bothering me.  It wasn't, and she said it looked like I was in pain in final savasana.  That was news to me, and I don't really know what to make of it.  My eyes were closed, and I wasn't aware of my making any facial expression at all.  And I don't think I was feeling particularly bad either.  It may simply have been a remnant of struggling through the latter part of class.  I think I may ask her to keep an eye out for the same thing the next time I have class with her.  I have no reason to doubt what she observed, and it can't be a good thing.  So it's probably a good idea to keep some track of this.

The grimacing relates to the core of the Day 127 meditation.  Gate's closes the meditation by saying that "the world we live in is a reflection of our hearts."   I think this is beautifully put.  I've said several times here that the world of a happy person differs from the world of an unhappy person, and I think this is another way of getting at the same point.   Today, I thought that the second half of class was hard and a struggle, and for me it got hot.  Could I have changed my perception of the heat, and of how hard the poses were, simply by changing my attitude?  by altering my heart?  Probably so.  This means I probably need to be a bit more forgiving of myself, and especially forgiving of showing occasional signs of weakness in Locust or Full Locust.  

Back to the meditation.  Gates eloquently describes the bitterness he harbored toward the Boston of his youth.  That was the Boston of school desegregation, forced bussing, and heightened racial tensions that must have been extremely hard on a black kid being bussed to white schools where the parents (and kids) hated him and were very vocal about it.  He then talks about how he came back to Boston with a new attitude, after a spiritual awakening, and how he came to know the same neighborhoods, the same busses, and sometimes even the same people who hated him.  Only everything had changed, mostly because Gates' heart had changed.  He had managed to let go of his bitterness, and has grown to love the city he once hated. 

It's a lovely story and even a better lesson.  So much depends not on how things actually "are", whatever that means, but rather on how we react to things.  Thus, the world of the happy man truly does differ from the world of an unhappy man, precisely because, as Gates puts it, "the world we live in is a reflection of our hearts."

89/127 - Powerless

Thursday 10:30 am with Danielle

It was a hard, hot class, and very satisfying.  My stamina was a bit off.  I sat out one set of  Triangle, and almost took off another set in Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee.  At least for this day, I had no hesitations or recriminations about sitting out.  I did need it, and it gave me the energy to do well on the floor.

Speaking of the floor, I had a great Locust.  And the back strengthening series in general was really strong.  I ended up with near cramps all through my upper and mid back.  I didn't cramp up, but was absolutely on the edge. 

 I also have been doing better in the final stretch.  My heels are consistently coming off the floor, and I'm beginning to get the feeling of the pull forward.  It's still not completely there, and its a bit of a struggle keeping my feet aligned.  But lifting my feet off the floor with the knees locked is no longer sheer agony, and that is a clear step forward.

The day 126 meditation opens with an ode to Alcoholics Anonymous.  It's a nice illustration, because alcoholics clearly have some severe difficulties both with attachment and aversion.   The main point Gates wants to make is that the first step anyone takes in AA is to admit that they are powerless over their addiction.  He suggests (mostly through a series of quasi-rhetorical questions) that the same first step might be a great starting point for any attachment or aversion.

This idea ties very well to his earlier observation:  "What we resist, persists."  It's enormously difficult to beat an attachment (or an aversion) by fighting against it.  My weight has yo-yo'd quite a bit over the last 25 years.  I've lost 25 or more pounds (and as many as 50) at least half a dozen times, and always put on at least as much as I lost and more.  For me, diets don't work.  Whenever I diet, I get more obsessed with food.  The diets work in the short term, but the food obsession outlasts the diet.   Fighting to control my weight simply doesn't work.  It's an area where my willpower has only yielded temporary victories. 

It's abundantly clear to me now that I do not have the power to lose weight simply by the force of will.   Ironically, through yoga, I started to learn how to observe signals that had eluded me for years.  For the first time in my memory, I started to notice what it was like to feel full.  Before I could understand when I was totally stuffed, but not when I was simply full.  And just this increased power of observing myself led to losing close to 45 pounds.

I think the same process probably applies to all sorts of other attachments.  I have friends who just happened to quit smoking about a month after they started going to yoga.  They had tried several times over the few years that I've known them -- each attempt lasting six months or so.  This time, quitting was not a big production.  It was more like it was effortless, like the habit shed itself.  And they both have been tobacco free for almost five months.  The change again, I believe, did not come from fighting the addiction, but simply letting go of it.

And that I think is the ultimate point here.  Letting go of something is not an exercise of power.  Instead, its a kind of relinquishment of power.  It's moving from fighting something to simply observing it for what it is.   The true irony is how much power there is in refusing to fight.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

88/126 - The Power of Attention

Day off.

The day 125 meditation is both simple and extremely powerful.  The basic idea is that placing our attention on something actually magnifies that thing.  Thus, by paying extra attention to things that are pleasurable, we become attached, and ultimately addicted.  Conversely (though Gates doesn't discuss this point) paying too much attention to things that are painful leads to aversion.  That's pretty simple, and very clearly put.

Gates shows how this principle explains the power of asana practice.  Asanas force us to focus our attention on the working of our bodies, on maintaining control of our breathing, and on learning stillness and peace in poses that are uncomfortable.  The attention that we bring, day after day, to these positive things reaps benefits that seem to be out of proportion to the exercise itself.  

It also helps to explain why asana practice seems to be so addictive.  The focus that gets put into the asana practice does just what Gates says attention is likely to do:  it leads to an attachment to the practice.  But this is an attachment/addiction that I can live with.

And finally, the principle leads to a general prescription that is also very powerful  If you have a bad habit, or something that is nagging at you, then substitute something positive for it and focus your energy and attention on the positive thing.  By directing attention in a positive direction, we have the power to create good attachments.   (I used to apply this principle to some of my cultural tastes, by refusing to listen to bad music, to watch bad movies, or to watch basically any TV at all.  I've grown lax in that area, and I'm thinking maybe I should start paying more attention to stuff that really is good. )

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

88/125 Pt 2 - Desiring Peace

The day 123 meditation is about the pitfall of wanting to be spiritual.  This comes from building up some sort of standard by which we want to live, and then beating ourselves up when we fall short.  

With our other desires, the idea is to take note of them when they come up, and then put them aside -- let them go.   The same goes with the desire to be spiritual.  As Gates said the other day, and re-emphasized here, we are not our thoughts.  And the same goes for our thoughts about our spiritual shortcomings.

This is a pretty simple point, but one that bears repeating.  I've found this pitfall to be especially troublesome while writing this blog.  To a certain extent, dwelling on my shortcomings is an essential part of this blog.  Worse, some times I find myself searching for shortcomings (not that they are difficult to find) so I can have material.  So, I'm thankful for this meditation.  It's a nice caution for me.  (And yes, oops, this paragraph may be an example of what I'm talking about ;))

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

88/125 - Aversion

4:30 pm with Danielle

The day 124 meditation introduces the fourth affliction:  aversion.  When I think of aversion as it applies to my Bikram practice, Locust immediately comes to mind.  And today was a good example.  The early afternoon practice is not sitting well with my stomach.  I could tell there might be some problems with the first forward bend.  When I feel like I might have some digestion problems, then I get a real aversion to Locust, or rather to the spitting up that is likely to accompany it.

A few days ago, a commenter noted that one definition  of insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results.  That pretty much sums up my approach to lunch.  Today, I had a slice of pizza with sausage just after noon.  It wasn't alot, but I knew it was the wrong thing.  And then I paid for it.  My practice is definitely telling me to eat other things at lunch, to eat good things and not spicy, acid crap.  And for some reason, I sometimes refuse to listen.

Other than the struggle with spitting up (which I mostly won today), class was very nice.  It was hot, but not a killer.  Danielle led at a brisk pace, but not too fast.  

I got a little bit distracted by a couple of women near me who simply refused to listen.  I know it shouldn't bother me, but sometimes it does.  I had the impulse today to stop what I was doing and to go over and help one of these women.  Instead of doing the poses, she was inventing her own routine, which bore, at best, a passing resemblance.  I refrained, of course.  (And with one of these women, I know that they have been corrected before.  I've been next to them when teachers have corrected them.  But the corrections simply refuse to take root.)

Aversion is the flip side of desire.  Instead of getting too attached to what we want, aversion stems from becoming preoccupied with things that cause pain.  In nature, the "fight or flight" response is perfectly natural.  Aversion comes, I think, when we make either a fetish or a principle out of this response.

I was a bit surprised by Gates' description of aversion.  He concentrates on things that provoke us to fight.  Given his military background, I suppose this makes sense.  I'm much more in line with Bravely Good Sir Robin.  I prefer to run away: 

Brave Sir Robin ran away.
Bravely ran away, away!
When danger reared its ugly head, 
He bravely turned his tail and fled.
Yes, brave Sir Robin turned about
And gallantly he chickened out.
Bravely taking to his feet
He beat a very brave retreat,
Bravest of the brave, Sir Robin! Sir 
Robin ran away.
Or as Boris puts it in Love and Death: "I'm suggesting active fleeing."  So, for me, when I think of having an aversion to something, it means that I avoid it, not that I fight it.  Either way, I think the problem is the same:  the object aversion gets stuck in the mind.  It becomes magnified out of all proportion.  It becomes the enemy regardless of whatever other circumstances surround it.

It's easy to develop aversions in the Bikram studio.  One that I'm encountering recently is an aversion to practicing near newbies or people with really weak practices.  I talked a bit about it above.  And Gates is absolutely right about this.  On days when I simply let it go, when I refuse to even notice it, I feel much better and more energized.  When the dislike creeps into my head, even though I'm not doing anything actively either to fight it or to flee, it still sucks away at my energy.  The same goes to aversions to sweat poring in the eyes, aversion to excess heat, aversion to wrinkles in my towel under the feet.  And I could go on and on.  Bikram practice is designed to make us uncomfortable, to poke us in areas where we are likely to develop aversions.  And in turn, we are supposed to get over it, to not let the uncomfortable afflict us.

(I realize I skipped day 123 meditation, inadvertently at first, and will get to it later tonight).

Monday, May 4, 2009

87/124 - The Mouse that Roared

10:30 am with Lenette

Class was crowed for this time, with about 25 in the room.  The energy was good.  Temperature was perfect.  And the class just flowed all the way through. 

I didn't have any breakthroughs, but I also didn't have any noticeable failings.  Everything was just, well, pleasant.  Even Locust and Full Locust.  I did notice something about Lenette today, which had not occurred to me before.  She tends to compliment corrections.  I almost never get a word in the first forward bend.  Today, at a certain point, I realized that I don't really try to get my head to my legs, because I'm focused so much on stretching my lower back and keeping my chest and thighs together.  So, I then relaxed my neck as much as possible and then tried to get it to touch.  Lenette immediately said "Good, Duffy!"  (I also sometimes think that she sees absolutely everything.)  

Maybe the reason I hadn't heard anything before was because I was kind of hanging out (although it doesn't feel that way).  But then I listened to some of her other compliments, and it does seem that she is most likely to praise someone who has noticed something lacking in a posture and then self-corrected.  I think this is probably a great trait, because its exactly when doing those new corrections that I tend to be least sure of myself.

In the day 122 meditation, Gates talks about how Japan and Germany lost WW2, and then got what the economic power they wanted after the war, partially through post war reparations.  He asks, then, whether they lost or won?  I don't have an answer to this, but it reminded me of one of my favorite books as a kid:  The Mouse That Roared.  The Duchy of Grand Fenwick is a tiny fictional country in Europe.  It's on the verge of bankruptcy and ruin.  It decides that they only way it can save itself is to go to war with the U.S., lose the war, and then have the U.S. come in and repair its economy.  So, it sends an invasion force to Manhattan, with the sole purpose of surrendering.  The only problem is that the invasion force can't find anyone to whom they can surrender.  And then they wind up stumbling onto a doomsday project, capture the bomb, and thus win the war.  It's a very funny book (or at least it was when I was 12 or 13), and it was made into a decent movie with a very funny performance by Peter Sellars.

Gates basic point, I think, is a good one.   For many things, whether it is good or bad is a matter of perspective and attitude.  On the mat, he talks about how there are poses that we dread.  Then, as we start to get good at them, we start to look forward to them, and perhaps become too attached to them.  I've found this development to be true, but sometimes cyclical, in the Bikram practice.  Of course, we always do the same 26 poses.  When we started, I hated Rabbit.  Then I got good at it, and came to look forward to it.  Then something happenned (I think my form improved), and the pose got really hard again.  Now it's a pose I tend to feel differently about every day.   Not all poses are like that -- I've always loved the first back bend and hated the first forward bend for example.  But its surprising how frequently my desire/aversion for each pose shifts as the practice develops.  At some point, maybe they will all just BE.  I'm definitely not there yet.

I have one pretty big hesitation about the whole idea of letting go of "attachments."  Yesterday, I said that attachment is thinking of something that we want as a "need."  But what about things that we want that really are good, but aren't really necessary.  The big ones, I think, are things like family, friends, and perhaps even life itself.  Gates focuses on becoming attached to things that, as an attachment, clearly are bad for us:  addictions, food attachments, liking of stuff, things that gratify our false image of ourselves.  He doesn't mention being attached to the good, and I am curious, and undecided, about this.

86/123 - Attachment

Sunday Off

I thought I wanted to go to class yesterday.  Then, thinking it over more carefully, I realized I wanted to stick to my arbitrary goal of 5 classes per week.  So, it was my ego that was pushing me to go to class.  My body wanted to eat a normal lunch and rest.  And I also felt like taking a day off might be better for me, since I haven't been getting much sleep.

In the Day 121 meditation, we come to the third affliction:  attachment or desire.  Gates says there is a difference between simply wanting something, and suffering from attachment.  As best I can figure it, attachment occurs when we start thinking that we need the things that we simply want.  Examples abound:  Starbucks (or just the morning coffee).  For me, for years it was Diet Coke.  Then there are all sorts of entertainments and devices in our lives, from our constant exposure to music and other noise, to all the little conveniences we come to need.

There's a part of a big disaster that I really enjoy.  Last year, Hurricane Ike knocked out our power for several days.  All the restaurants nearby were closed.  I had canned tuna, and some other reserves in stock.  And for a few days, there were no lights, no TV, no internet, no reason to go out since everything was closed.  I actually talked to my neighbors.  We went for walks.  We slept early, and sweated through the nights, since there was no AC.  And through all of this, people genuinely had the sense of how lucky we were, since we had water and our houses were still standing, and no-one was hurt.  What I like about these times is that people come together, and most people temporarily get a sense of what they can do without.

On the flip side of this, I remember one morning in the coffee room at the law firm where I worked.  One of lawyers was making his single cup of very expensive, gourmet coffee.  Another lawyer teased him about it, and he said, without irony, "This coffee is the one luxury I afford myself."  For background, he drove a Porche 911, had just recently bought a $3 million dollar house, sent his kids to the best private schools in town, wore custom tailored suits and shirts with his initials monogramed into the cuffs, and I could go on and on.  And I am sincere about his not having a trace of irony when he said it:  he didn't see all the other stuff as luxuries at all.  In his mind, they were all the fulfillments of basic needs.

In Bikram, letting go of our attachments is a pretty big deal.  That's the whole thing with drinking water.  There is of course, nothing wrong, with drinking water in class.  When I try to limit or stop  water intake, what I'm really doing is trying to distinguish want from need.  Thus, after a few classes of going without water at all, I think its perfectly fine to go back to having a sip now and then.  It's fine because I have some confidence that I'm drinking water simply because I want it,  and not because I am fulfilling some false need.  Then, after a while, I have to re-examine whether I'm feeling a false "need" for the water, and if so, its time to hit the discipline again.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

86/122 -Forgetting Yourself

Saturday 9:30 am with Danielle

I only had about 4 hours sleep, and after Friday's murderous class, I was a bit apprehensive going in.  Of course, there was no need.  I was fully awake and rejuvenated by Awkward Pose.  And from there, class went smoothly.  I felt great throughout and even better afterwards.  The contrast from Friday maybe could not have been greater. 

It's tempting to pin the difference on the heat, but I don't think that's it.   In this class, I went in with basically no expectations.  If I started out feeling wiped out, that would have been fine, after so little sleep.  And with no high expectations, I simply relaxed into the practice.

The high point in the postures, I think, was Locust.  I went up into the third section very smoothly, and I experienced it as a real backbend.  Normally, I think of it as an exercise in strength.  And in this class I could feel the flexibility part of the pose kicking in.  It also felt like I was up pretty high (though of course I don't know how high).  Any time I get all the way through this pose without any panic, its a minor victory.  Today I was a few steps beyond that point, and I could even say that the pose felt good.

The other new thing in todays class came in Standing Bow.  As I was kicking up my right leg, my right shoulder made an audible POP.  It was big enough that it nearly threw me out of the pose.  It's a sign that something is happening, and that's almost always good.

The day 120 meditation is about forgetting yourself.  This is the yoga cure for pride and ego.  Through the process of coming to the mat, focusing on the asanas and on breathing, we gradually learn to be present, to find the still point, and in that process our bad habits drop away, and we gradually drop the false definitions of self that we have for years built up.

Bikram puts this differently, but I think the point is the same.  At the beginning of class, we are often told:  "Kill yourself."    Lenette says that Bikram has explained this as meaning by throwing everything you have into the practice, you can kill the self which is the ego.  This helps cure the "loose screws" that we all carry around in our heads.   How do we accomplish this feat:  by surrendering to the dialogue.  As some of my teachers have said when people stop following their lead:  "My brain, your body."  

Saturday, May 2, 2009

85/121- Ego and Pride

Friday 4:30 pm with Janna

Today's meditation fits nicely with today's class, which was a real blow to my pride.  I woke up with a headache, so skipped morning class.  The headache persisted throughout the day, and I decided to go to class anyway. 

It was hot.  Really hot.  It started out ok, with perfect Bikram weather (105, 40%).  By the end of the standing series, it had creeped up to 109 degrees.  After that, there was no point checking.  By cobra, I was ready to yell "Uncle."  A little later, I was thinking of all sorts of ways that I could maybe slip out of the room.  I skipped a set of Triangle, which happens from time to time.  Then I skipped a full set of Locust, which I never do.  Sometimes I can't get myself up for the third part, but I've never just bailed out on the pose before.  And then, I skipped a set of Camel, which I also have never done before.

Remember the quiet observer I talked about yesterday?  The third party who watches as our thoughts war with each other?  The still center that we grow to know more and more through asana practice?  Well, he was taking the day off.  

After a fairly good run of strong classes, I was once again knocked on my butt.  Instead of not needing any mantra at all,  instead of calmly thinking "Be quiet, be still, be here, be now."  which is the gibberish I sometimes force through my head when my thoughts are out of control, instead of those, I was hitting the floor chanting "It hurts, it hurts, it hurts."

And the irony of all this is that the class was exactly what I needed.  Somewhere, in all of my distress, my headache vanished.  I came out feeling beaten, but good (at least after a few minutes).  And I felt good and energized for the rest of the day.

Now, what was it that hurt so much.  In the end, I think it was my clinging to the idea that I should be doing better than I was.  And that leads us to the second affliction: pride or ego.  The big thing that was interfering with me yesterday was my own expectation about how I should perform.  If I could just have let go of that, I might still have dropped out as much as I did.  But I may not have overdone it in the poses that led up to me being wiped out.  So, in some ways, the class was just a small working through of the adage: "Pride goeth before a fall."

A couple of observations on the day 119 meditation (and yes I've fallen woefully behind again).  First, there is the idea that the root cause of pride comes from not being connected to others.   In its worst forms, this leads to people seeing others as being either objects or instruments, and not valuing them as people.   

Another form of the unconnectedness, according to Gates, is a direct result of avidya (spiritual ignorance).  When we start to identify ourselves with our achievements or abilities -- like my ability to go smoothly through a   Bikram class -- then we place to much value or emphasis on something that is not really ourselves.  We get too attached to it.  It becomes the source of our pride and leaves us vulnerable, because this excess attachment is almost always misplaced.

The other important point from today's meditation is that pride leads to errors in two directions.  On the one hand it plays to the desire to be superior to others.  And on the other hand it can feed off the fear of inferiority.   In this class, I think I was definitely prey to a kind of fear of inferiority.  Most of what was bothering me arose, I think, from my stubborn insistence that I must be better than this.  Do I really suck this badly?  The answer, at least for one class, was "Yes, you do."  And afterwards, I can pretty easily come to terms with this.   It was only one day after all, and everything would have been allright, if I could have just refrained from beating myself up.

Friday, May 1, 2009


Wednesday 8:15 with Amy
Thursday Off

The night classes almost always feel great.  Then I come back and have so much energy that I can't sleep for hours, and it takes its toll on the next day.  If only I could figure out some way of either importing that energy to a morning class, or else learn to shut down after the night class and get a real night's sleep.

Class was really strong again.  My stamina was up.  Balancing was good.  My strong poses (Awkward, Triangle, Rabbit) were very strong.  And my not so strong poses were still pretty good.  The one hesitation is that there's still some tenderness in my knees.  I held off of Toe Stand as a result, and Fixed Firm has taken a slight step backward.  There's no reason for alarm yet:  it's just something to monitor.

The day 118 meditation gives a better illustration for me of the dilemma I've talked about:  how to know what to do when you mind is at war with itself.  The example I've used is the one that recurs again and again on the mat:  whether or not to sit out a bit toward the end of standing series.  The first observation is pretty simple:  "we are not our thoughts."    I can think of the two sides of my internal argument as being carried on by two different players.  This brings to mind the cliche cartoon image of the angel and devil version of the self sitting on each shoulder, advocating their position.  Gates says that there's also a quiet "third player" that watches the warring thoughts.  As we cultivate stillness through the asanas and through other aspects of yoga, we also allow this "quiet self" to grow and to spread a kind of quiet influence over our other, warring aspects.

I don't think I'm in a position to agree or disagree with this lovely description.  It doesn't solve the dilemma I raised.  Rather, it shows how, with time and experience, the dilemma might simply vanish.