Tuesday, June 30, 2009

127/180 - Doing Dishes

Monday 4:30 with Sherry --

Class was good. Balancing poses were especially good. I was focusing more on the visualization technique, and it helped me more easily into Standing Bow, which in turn helps me hold it a bit longer. Beyond that, I don't remember much, just that class was tough but satisfying.

Doing dishes is not my favorite task. So I was a bit surprised that the quote before the day 179 meditation was about doing dishes. Well, its really about being present, using doing dishes as an example. Basically, it says, when you are doing dishes you should only be doing dishes. You should focus in on the task and give yourself completely to it. Thus, doing dishes can be a sort of meditation. Tomorrow, I will try it. I tend to watch TV, chat, watch my dogs, listen to music -- just about anything that will take me a bit away from doing dishes. I'm curious to see if there really is something to this.

This reminds me of something from Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, which I read ages ago. Valentine Michael Smith was an incredibly good kisser, and the reason was because he threw himself utterly into his kissing, so that he was doing that completely and nothing else. I was maybe 13 or 14 when I read the book, so its not that surprising that I remember this tidbit. But it's the same idea.

And, of course, its what we are striving for in asana practice. The challenge here is to try to bring the same sort of awareness to other tasks we do that we learn to bring to the asanas. It's a very interesting idea.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Help an Aspiring Yoga Teacher

Crisitunity, a fellow yogi/blogger, just learned that she will be let go from her paralegal job. She's trying to convert the bad news into a blessing. For a fairly long while, she has been trying to save for teacher training, and she has been very reluctant to ask for any assistance. The recent turn of events has made her take a bold step. She is now selling some short stories she wrote, with the goal of financing her training. And she is also accepting donations.

She writes very well, and her few entries on particular asanas have been enlightening. I have no doubt that, if she gets this opportunity to go to training, she will become a very fine teacher. I also have no doubt (as a lawyer) that the world will be better off with another yoga teacher, even if it loses a paralegal in the process. Giving a little bit to help her achieve this small dream will help change a person's life for the better, and in a small way, will make the world a better place.

I hope I've piqued your interest. If so, you can learn more here. Do something nice today. Help out a stranger. Even the smallest amounts will make a difference.

(Also, she has some privacy concerns, which means she doesn't want her real name simply published. You can get the link to her site by responding on her blog. Or you can get it from me, if you want, by sending me an email, or requesting in a comment with your email address. My address is in my profile.)

126/179 - Stealing the moment

Sunday 9:30 with Sherry --

Well, after the crash for the last two days, I picked myself back up. It wasn't a super class, but my stamina was back. I made it through every pose and managed to stay with the dialogue, mostly, and stay within my breath. My balancing series was pretty good, especially Standing Head to Knee, where I held for the full length twice, including one time kicking out.

It's still a mystery to me why we cycle between great classes and crashing. It's just part of the process I suppose. When it's this severe, it makes me understand why we long so much for purely linear growth. It's much easier to understand and deal with.

The day 178 meditation is about non-stealing on the mat. Gates says that non-stealing is acting in faith, and theft is faithlessness. I had already extrapolated this concept to generosity. And I sort of see the point of his shift from material theft to an idea that is based on faith. But its a big stretch, and I'm not really sure that I fully understand it yet.

He makes a really good point about how this works on the mat. We often start asking questions of ourselves: Am I doing this right? Am I working hard enough? Is it really this fricking hot, or is it me? But when we are truly in the pose, and flowing with the practice, none of these questions come up. We simply are the practice. So, the process of questioning itself steals the moment from us, it steals the feeling of truly being in the pose.

Good enough to know. Still, its purely descriptive. As Rohit said the other day. If you do something wrong, don't kick yourself for it. If you do kick yourself, don't make the mistake then of kicking yourself for having kicked yourself. You can go that direction for as many layers as you want, to the point where the original problem becomes forgotten or meaningless. The better course is to simply let it go, if you can.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

125/178 part 2 -- Clearing the clutter

The day 177 meditation begins with another quote from a student. She talks mostly about yoga helping to find herself. I don't disagree with this kind of talk, but for the most part I don't think its that helpful. I read teacher training blogs all the time where people talk about how much they have learned about themselves at training. And I believe them. But for some reason, they never say exactly what sorts of things they have learned about themselves.

Actually, I think there's a very good reason for this. Largely, I think yoga helps people to stop defining themselves by some set of expectations, by how they would like to be perceived by others, for example. In place of these external definitions, there comes a sense of contentment and confidence. The student expresses this point quite well: "Yoga clears the clutter." For whatever reason, asana practice has helped me be clearer about priorities, and how unimportant are so many little worrisome things. I think the clearing of clutter goes hand in hand with the increased contentment and confidence I mentioned before.

And I think that Gates is right that this all stems from being honest, from dropping pretense. By practicing honesty on the mat, we come to learn that that honesty is enough, and also that it works. Not only that, it works better than either pushing too hard, or lying to ourselves that we won't ever be able to do anything. Since honesty on the mat does work, it tends to breed confidence and a sense of satisfaction. And that confidence, that sense of clarity, clears the clutter. Then, since we find that being honest with ourselves works so well on the mat, it becomes tempting to try the same experiment off the mat. And the results there can be at least as astonishing.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

125/178 -- And Then, The Crash

Friday 4:30 pm with Sherry
Saturday 9:30 am with Connease

I knew the roll was bound to end, but I didn't necessarily expect such a dramatic reversal.

Yesterday's class with Sherry was hard. I felt a bit out of it throughout. I knew I was in trouble early on when I started losing my balance a bit in Half Moon. My strength and stamina was down for some reason, and I skipped a set of Triangle. The I managed to hold it together somehow and got through the floor series feeling really drained, but basically OK. It wasn't the heat, and I couldn't pin it on anything else. I just lacked energy.

It turned out that that was just a preview of coming attractions. Today's class was probably the hardest I've ever had. I felt weak by Awkward Pose. I actually had to catch my breath between sets of Awkward and missed a bit of the first part of the second set. In balancing series, I fell out and fell out and fell out. I went through one part of standing bow where I was simply trying to grab and hold my left foot, and I basically couldn't do that. That part was actually pretty comical.

OK, since balancing series had more or less become adventures in standing, you would think I had built up some energy for the rest of standing series. Maybe I did, but just bending forward in the first separate leg pose just about wiped me out again. Then I skipped the first set of Triangle. No biggie there. And I thought I was fine for the second set, but going down into the first side, I got dizzy and fell down pretty hard. Enough so Connease asked if I was OK. I shrugged it off, and stayed down. I skipped a set of the next pose as well.

It wasn't that hot really, and by skipping that much of the floor series, you would think that maybe I hadn't sweat that much. My towel was completely saturated when we hit the floor. So despite objectively doing less, I was sweating more than usual. I also managed to down a full liter of water in class, instead of my usual 2-3 oz. or less.

In floor series, I did fine until bow. Then felt drained again, and skipped a set of Bow, and then one of Camel and Rabbit. I don't think I've ever skipped more in any class. And I rarely have felt as wiped out afterward. And I stayed pretty much wiped out all afternoon. Tomorrow should be interesting.

The Day 176 meditation talks about honesty on the mat. And this meditation underscores one of the really good things about today's class. A few months ago, I would have pushed way too hard today. I would have lied to myself about my ability for the day, and kicked myself each time I came short of my false expectations for myself.

When it comes to being honest on the mat, there's always the question "Am I simply weak willed and lazy, or do I just not have it today?" Before, the answer was always that I was weak willed and/or lazy, even when it wasn't true. Today, I just accepted that I didn't have it. And as it turns out, given how drained I felt afterward, its pretty clear that I put in my best effort for today. On top of that, as much as I was skipping poses, I never beat myself up over it.

The only lingering doubt I have is this: I knew a crash was coming. So, having anticipated it, did I somehow build it up into something bigger than it otherwise would have been. I don't know the answer, but I don't think so. And I'm not going to worry about it too much.

Friday, June 26, 2009

123/176 - Non-violence on the Mat

Thursday 10:30 am with Sherry

The roll continued. Another really strong class. Class went quickly. I let myself go with the dialogue. Stamina was really good again. And I can remember absolutely nothing specific about the class. All I know is I gave a good, solid effort throughout, and I enjoyed it. Otherwise, it's pretty much a blur.

The day 175 meditation is about developing non-violence on the mat. This is not the easiest concept to grasp through the Bikram dialogue. We are told to pull as hard as we can, to push harder, more, more.... When I first started, this was almost an invitation to injury. I'm sure that pushing too hard caused some of my earlier, nagging injuries (hamstrings, sciatic, knee pain, for example).

Of course we are also told to stay within are breath, that form always comes first, and that we should never push to the point of pain. But those are general ideas that come from time to time. It's the dialogue itself, combined with the teachers trying to motivate us and give us energy, that tends to pre-dominate and makes the caveats easy to forget.

Anyway, over time the idea of non-violence on the mat seems more and more important. The expression I like that embodies this idea is "focused and effortless." Rohit says "maximum effort and no struggle." (Isn't funny how "effortless" in one pair seems right, while "maximum effort" in the next also seems right?).

Gates gives a very nice rule of thumb for deciding when you are veering away from non-violence. If you are trying to defeat or conquer something, then you are in trouble. For me, this happens mostly when I decide I'm going to reach some goal. If I decided that I was really going to get a standing split in Standing Bow, I'd probably end up in traction somewhere. Instead of seeking to defeat or conquer, the idea is to understand and befriend. That seems pretty straightforward and simple. And maybe it is. But it's definitely an attitude that comes and goes, and its worthy of nearly constant reminders.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

122/175 - Feeling more alive

Wednesday 4:30 pm with Amy

Amy was especially bubbly. The teacher of her very first Bikram class was taking. I don't think Amy was trying to show off. She's just naturally happy, and she was extra happy because her first teacher was there. And her happiness tends to be infectious. The class had no newbies at all, and the energy was through the roof.

I had another in what is becoming a fairly long series of great classes. My elbow bothered me some, but didn't hold me back at all. Balance was very good. Triangle and Awkward were strong. My stamina was great, and I had fun all the way through.

The day 174 meditation begins with a quote from one of Gates' students. It's a testimonial that I wish I had written, and I think everything he says applies for me as well: "The impact of building core strength has been freeing in so many ways." This is one of the things I had not looked for at all. The feeling of balance and competence that comes with improved core strength really is liberating.

There are many, many things that I do effortlessly now that I would have paused to do before I started. To take a very simple example: the fence to the nearby dog park is four feet high, and always locked. Before yoga, I would have thought twice about going over it. Now I simply hop it without a thought (except I am sometimes amazed at how easily it now comes).

The other ideas are equally true. I feel more alive. I'm more connected to my hands and feet. With less practice than usual, I've become a better musician over the last year, simply from doing yoga. The focus on breathing and core strength has improved my singing. And yoga has helped me stop thinking in terms of me/my body. Even when I feel the distinction, I now thoroughly buy into the idea that we are in this thing together, and my body isn't something I am just saddled with, something to be overcome. And that feeling of connectedness is even more liberating than all the rest.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

121/174 - Big Yellow Taxi

Tuesday 4:30 pm with Sherry

"Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got til its gone." I'm talking about the ease in my right elbow. There is an upside to minor injuries: they really bring out exactly how each pose effects the injured area, and just what the limits might be. And so this practice was an exploration in how the Bikram series works the right elbow. It's something I had not ever really appreciated before, for exactly the reason in the Joni Mitchell song.

Anyway, here's what I found out. Pranayama works the elbows, and actually stretches them, in ways that I had not perceived before. I'd never noticed any elbow work in Eagle before, it had always been easy. These two seem pretty obvious, since you really are bending them there. What was more surprising is how much of the series involves actually trying to hyperextend the elbows. Of course, I sort of knew this before, but I could lock my elbows pretty easily, so I knew it without really being aware of it.

And I was a bit surprised at two poses where the tightness caused some problem. Standing Head to Knee -- It was hard to reach and hold my foot and my balance. And Toe Stand -- Here the problem is that you use your hands, reaching down to the ground, to balance, and the weight can shift suddenly. Sudden, extra weight on that arm was not a good thing.

Class itself was a bit crowded, with really good energy. Both Rohit and Cisco were practicing right behind me. I didn't see them much, but simply having them there, I think, provided a boost. My stamina has been great, and my roll is still rolling along. I'm still waiting for the class that sucker punches me...

In the day 173 meditation, Gates announces that he will begin a series of entries that connect asana practice to the yamas and niyamas. So, in some ways, the meditation was just a preliminary. He starts with a quote that states that the word "innocence" originally meant "not harmful" in Latin. Thus, its possible to see the first yama as being a call to innocence. I like this idea, and I think it fits today's practice pretty well. I took extra care today not to do anything that would further injure my elbow. And in the process, I was in some ways completely innocent of the impact that each of the poses would have on it. The same spirit of non-harming also made the practice fresh, new, and alive.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

120/173 - Learning Poses

Monday 10:30 am with Janna

I've been on a roll with classes recently. I could feed off the momentum of having one good class after another. But no. Instead, before class a part of me always wonders whether this is going to be the class that ends the streak and kicks my ass. It wasn't.

Class after class, I've heard Amy say that she's been teaching for seven years and no-one has ever broken their elbow in Locust. Well, today I came close, and I have no idea how. Coming out of first set, I felt something pop in my right elbow, but it didn't feel too bad. Then, it started getting worse and worse.

By the end of class, it was a bit stiff and it felt almost exactly like it did when I had tennis elbow the summer between high school and college. I've heard before that yoga will make you work through your old injuries. I wonder if they meant it this literally.

In the day 172 meditation, Gates beautifully describes the internal process of learning and becoming comfortable with a pose. At first, you feel lost and totally separate from everyone else. And of course, you are certain the pose is impossible and that you will never get it. Gates says that the feeling of separateness is bolstered by seeing the people around you who do the posture so well. Maybe in some classes, but in a typical Bikram class, the beginners tend to have lots of company.

For example, I can't imagine feeling inadequate by looking at the typical class in Standing Head to Knee. First off, Lenette drove it into my head from the very start that yoga is not a spectator sport. If I'm watching anyone else, then already I'm doing something wrong. (Moreover, she says that its disrespectful to watch, and I tend to agree with her.) Even so, like anyone else, I can't help but notice others from time to time. And there are a few people from time to time who I find awe inspiring. But they are the exception more than the rule.

Over time, eventually we can drop the frustration and the judgment. And then we find ourselves falling into something that looks or feels more like the image of the pose, or of what the dialogue describes. (Often, at the start, those moments come with some nice praise from the teacher to reinforce the moment.) And in that moment, we might absorb something to remember about the pose, we might learn something about how to observe progress in ourselves, and if we are really lucky, we might start the development of new habits and begin a new connection with the pose.

The only other quibble I have with Gates' description here is he makes it sound a bit too linear. In his description, one day you get it, and then its internalized. And sometimes it works that ways. Other times, you get it, and then it seems to disappear for awhile, and then it comes back again. It would be really nice if I could simply get it, and then have some assurance that I would be able to keep it. But it doesn't seem to work that way.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

119/172 - Attitude and Visualization

Sunday 9:30 am with Rohit

Hooray for Sunday morning classes! Today was the first 9:30 Sunday class, and it drew 31 people. That's only half of yesterday's class. but its amazing for the first class in a time period. Usually, a first class has drawn somewhere between three and eight.

I went to sleep last night with a bad headache. When I woke up, it was better but not by much. By Awkward Pose, it was gone, and gone for good. I'll never understand how that happens, but it's not the first time and I know I'm not the only one.

Aside from curing my headache, class was very pleasant and moved quickly. Rohit encouraged us to treat the poses as a form of exploration. The idea is to push a little bit in new directions, and new ways, and see whether it helps or not. Not only does this help with progressing in the pose, more importantly it helps develop the power of observing. And it helps keep you present.

The day 171 meditation again brings up the theme that our attitude can be more important than the facts themselves. If you want to change your world, then first change your attitude. Here, however, he applies the idea to asana class itself. He suggests you picture yourself as flowing through your practice as you want. Imagining it will help you to realize it.

This process of visualization is one that is useful in lots of sports and activities. I probably first used it when learning to shoot foul shots. First you see yourself taking the perfect shot and the ball swishing through the net, and that visualization does help making the shot. Good musicians will practice away from the instrument simply by running through the performance in their head, hearing and visualizing every nuance.

So why hadn't I realized that the same thing would apply to asana practice? Especially when I've already talked at length about how attitude can make all of the difference? Well, obviously I hadn't made the connection between attitude and the process of visualization that I've used elsewhere. Now that I have, I can't wait to try it.

118/171 - Adventures in Falling (and the Frog and Peach)

Saturday 9:30 am with Amy.

We set a record today, with 64 sweaty bodies in the hot room. We squeezed in four rows, and in the front, there was barely enough room to get the forearms over the forehead. That made for pretty silly sit-ups. But the energy in the room was great, for the most part. It was really humid, but not too hot. And there was noticeably less air in the room.

I fell. Twice. Both times for pretty much the same reason, and I'm not talking about falling out of a balancing pose. Instead, I'm talking about having both feet planted on the ground and still just losing it completely and landing on my ass. The first time was in Awkward Pose, third part. I was going down slowly, and a woman passed directly behind me, while bolting out of the class. On one level, I think I fell simply because my eyes were drawn to the motion and it pulled me out of balance. But I also think that the falling may have been a kind of physical reaction to my being so flabbergasted. I've seen people give up before: but in the first set of Awkward? Lenette was behind me, and I could hear her laughing at me as I recovered, and it was too funny.

The second time was slightly different. It was the first set of Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee. I was rolling myself down, which means the entire world is sort of spinning and tilting, and another woman is now coming back into the room, chugging on a fresh bottle of cold water she just got. Here, I think my eyes were simply drawn to the incredible rudeness of this, and I kind of flopped onto my side. No damage done. I still have a hard time believing that someone would leave the room for more water in the first place, then come back in and walk behind people who are getting into the pose all the while making audible "chug, chug, chug" sounds.

I guess I needed these two falls to complete the trifecta. I fell in Rohit's class earlier in the week but didn't mention it. That was in Standing Separate Leg Head to Floor. In the second set, I felt like my back was pretty straight, I was pulling pretty hard, and my legs were set up really well. So I decided to lean forward and see if I could get near touching. I leaned, and then leaned a little more, and then I lost it and my head went BANG on the floor. That wasn't much of a fall, but it was totally startling. I don't know if that contact was a breakthrough or not. I kind of think you have to be able to hold the pose for a second to think it counts. But Rohit gave it a big compliment, and said that you have to be willing to fall in that pose a few times before you will finally get it.

The day 170 meditation feels a bit to me like a recap. There's one idea that particularly struck me: that we don't learn from experience; we learn from the experiences we choose to learn from. This reminds me a bit of a classic Peter Cook / Dudley Moore comedy routine. Moore is a TV interviewer, and Cook is the owner of the recently failed fast food restaurant "The Frog and Peach". The "Frog and Peach" served two items: Frog a la Peche, and Peche a la Frog. The first is a broiled whole frog with a peach stuck in its mouth. And the second was a large peach which, when cut in half, has 300 black tadpoles swimming where the pit had been.

Anyway, on a whim, I looked it up on youtube and sure enough it's here And it's almost as funny as I remembered.

At the end of the skit, Moore asks whether Cook has learned anything, and Cook answers: "I've learned from my mistakes, and I'm sure I could repeat them exactly." I think that's both hilarious and all too true. That's the way most people go about their relationships with others. In learning music, every time you make a mistake and let it go, you train yourself to learn the mistake and not the music. I've done that. Moreover, I've done it again and again.

Yoga may be the antidote. Of course, even in Yoga, its pretty easy to fall into a mistaken pattern and to get the wrong thing ingrained in your system. But staying present, really listening to the dialogue, and observing what's actually going on with your body can help prevent that. And the awareness itself fosters an openness that allows you to try new, and better, things. And this can cross over to other areas of life as well. It's another reasons why advancement on the mat can lead to progress elsewhere in life. Instead of learning from mistakes so we can repeat them exactly, yoga can actually help us to understand the mistake and perhaps avoid it later.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

117/170 -- Asana and Meditation

Thursday off.
Friday 4:30 pm with Sherry.

I took off Thursday because Friday marks the beginning of the studio's summer challenge. I'm not 100% committed to it, but if I can get through the first 10 days or so, without schedule problems, then I think I'll try to push through for 30 days or more.

Friday's class was good. The early afternoon class is sometimes too close to lunch. And they say that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. Well, I insanely had some pizza for lunch again. It wasn't quite so bad, but it did knock me out of one set of Locust.

Other than that, I really can't remember much of anything about Friday's class. I felt great afterwards, though.

The day 168 meditation starts with a quote from Kahlil Gibran. A while back I complained about some Tom Petty lyrics. Well, Before reading Gibran, I'd rather listen to hour after hour of Tom Petty whining his lyrics accompanied by, say, bagpipes and accordian. I remember people trying to get me interested in him a long time ago, and all I could see were false, or trite, profundities. Here, I'm just gonna say that I don't get it, and let it go at that.

I do like Gate's idea that all of our deeds and actions are our children. I also like the idea of the asana making us into something like a bow: stable, flexible, and strong.

The day 169 meditation suggests turning asana practice into meditation. Gates suggests: "At the beginning of your next practice, tell yourself, "I will keep my mind in the now. I will devote my attention solely to the posture I am in right now." Well, duh! This is exactly what we are supposed to be doing during Bikram practice, and we are reminded of it again and again. It's a 90 minute moving meditation. What strikes me as being so cool about this, is that Gates treats this step as if its something unusual. Asana and meditation, I guess, are treated differently in other schools. In Bikram, if you are paying attention, asana and meditation are the same thing, and its done exactly the way Gates describes here.

When you try this, at first, your mind will be all over the place. The nice thing is that you have the dialogue to focus on, and the postures pretty much demand all of your attention anyways. Even with that, its easy for the mind to zoom all over the place.

The next steps that Gates discuss are much easier said than done. Rather than conquer or judge the unruliness in our minds, Gates says we should try to embrace and understand it. That way will lead to surrender and then to the first steps into the light. This process is very much an on and off thing with me. I don't beat myself up as much as I used to, but the times when I feel like there is a true surrender, at least for any length of time, are few and far between.

Friday, June 19, 2009

116/168 - Staying Close to the Program

Wednesday 8:15 pm with Rohit.

I'm falling way behind. I really didn't feel like going to class Wednesday. It's been unbelievably hot here -- well over 100 for several days in a row, but with humidity only in the high 70% or so. I don't know why, but the extra heat has not been making me look forward to the hot room. I was on the fence about going, and then at the last moment, I just did.

And I'm really glad I did. The class was a great mixture between being relaxed and intense, between being humorous and serious. Its amazing how, in almost every pose, Rohit brings up a new wrinkle to focus on. In Balancing Stick, he had us starting with our elbows really locked out, encouraging us to get them behind the ears and keep them there. I pay close attention to this detail in Half Moon, but by Balancing Stick I have managed to get a bit lazy with my arms. It made a big difference in the pose, and oddly, I think it may have made it easier to balance.

In the final stretch, he took us through a preliminary on the second set, so we could see what it felt like to keep the backs of our knees on the floor. He had us bend one leg over the other so the knees were on top of each other. Then we reached forward and grabbed the top knee, and started to lean forward and press down. This really isolated the stretch, and absolutely put the back of the knee on the floor. After doing this on both sides, he had us do the pose, and here he made us get the backs of the knees on the floor, and then reach up with the hands as much as we could and only then start to lean forward with the back, all before reaching with the toes. It was a much different approach than we usually take to get into this pose, but I was doing it better in the end, and I think others were too.

Rohit mentioned the yoga sutras. He explained how the first book on yoga contained 196 aphorisms, of which only three specifically talk about asana practice. Then he talked a bit about bringing truthfulness and non-harming to your Triangle. I think this was the first time in over a year that anyone has specifically mentioned any of the yamas in class.

On top of all that, I got a few very nice compliments. My alignment in Half Moon was good. I have thought that I'm getting there on this, and it was nice to hear. Then I got my standard compliment in Awkward, second part. And then in Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee, he said that my pose was "great," and that "men can't do that." All good stuff. The only bad part of class was a very slight struggle with reflux in the back strengthening series. The urge to spit up turned into the hiccups, which are better. But it's a neat trick trying to do Full Locust with the hiccups.

The day 167 meditation is about "staying close to the program." Distilled, this could be as simple as the Nike slogan "just do it". Sometimes that idea seems absurdly simple, and at other times it seems very profound. The last sentence of the meditation was totally appropriate for Wednesday: "Oftentimes when we need yoga the most, we want it the least."

Thursday, June 18, 2009

115/167 - Doing Your Best

Tuesday 10:30 am with Jessica

Class was solid and workmanlike. I had no breakthroughs, and no earth shattering revelations. I was just happy to be there, and to have my stamina back. I'm trying to think back on high or low points, and coming up with nothing. Usually, that's a good sign.

I got one good correction. I let my shoulders bounce in the final breathing. I wasn't even aware of it, but its true. Jessica suggested I really concentrate on bracing my arms, to quiet the shoulders. I tried, and I think I sort of got the hang of it, but (naturally) it makes the posture much harder. I thought I had learned to isolate those diaphragm muscles, and now I see that there's still a long way to go here.

Gates describes what he does when he doesn't really feel like going to the mat in the day 166 meditation. The main point is that, even when you don't feel like it, you can still simply do it and give it your best. As long as you do your best, nothing much else matters. I fully agree with this, but I'm still gradually learning that my "best" shifts from day to day, and sometimes for no apparent reason. And the other thing I sometimes have a hard time with is the idea that my "best" is not necessarily trying my "hardest." It's trying as hard as I can in any given pose, without struggling. So maximum effort, no struggle. Or "focused and effortless." That's what I've been aiming for recently.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

114/166 - Being Most Effective

Monday Off.

The day 165 meditation discusses when we are the most effective. Gates collapses three ideas here: 1) not being attached to results; 2) being in the moment; and 3) doing something simply for the love of doing it.

I remember the end of my senior year in high school. We had already taken the AP exams in Calculus but not gotten the results back. From the standpoint of what we were supposed to achieve, the class was over. At this point, the teacher started showing us things about calculus that he thought were bizarre, or fun, or interesting. (Things like the mathematical definition for an object with finite volume but infinite surface area -- so you can fill it, but you can't paint it.) For most of the year, I had approached calculus like it was pure drudgery, and done well at it, but with almost no interest. After the AP test was over, for some reason I did not understand at the time, I got very interested in the subject. One day, my teacher even commented on how odd he thought it was that I was almost impossible to engage for almost the entire year, and now that it didn't count, I was one of the best students he had ever had. And that was the point: it didn't count anymore, so I was free to enjoy it on its own terms. For me, that was an early, and very clear example, of how liberating and energizing it can be to have no attachment to results. (On a similar note, I was one of the best pick-up basketball players in the area, and good enough to play on our school team, but I never did anything at all of any note in organized basketball, and my coaches always thought I was an underachiever.)

Being in the moment, for me, is something quite different. It's a much rarer type of thing, at least in my experience. Before yoga, the only ways that I had known to be in the moment came either through music or sports. I suppose there were times in school when I might lose myself in a problem that was particularly difficult (usually something in math, logic, or maybe philosophy). But that sort of thing was very rare. For me, this feeling comes when time seems to vanish, when there's no difference between what you are doing and the awareness of what you are doing.

Doing something just for the love or joy of doing it is something a bit different. I suppose if you are actually doing something for the love of it, then you won't be attached to results. And I also suppose that doing something for the love of it will more likely lead to being in the moment. But it doesn't need to. And there are different levels of this. For example, I don't think anyone truly loves to practice scales. But almost every great musician will have spent hours and hours doing this. And if you actually become a great musician, I think at some point in your life you must have learned how to practice the scales out of love (maybe not of the scales, but of music itself).

(Do you think it bothers anyone that my comments on Gate's meditations are often longer than the meditations themselves, and probably don't end up saying as much? Just a thought.)

To get to the effective state, Gate's suggests that we begin, when we encounter difficulties or struggles on the mat, by asking "What am I?" or "What am I not?" Asking this question may help with letting go of the things that are causing the struggle, which very often are false images of ourselves that we hold onto. This seems like a very practical suggestion, which will either work or not. So I may give it a try in the next couple of classes and see what happens.

114/165 - Noble Failure

Sunday 2:30 with Sherry

No, "noble failure" is not meant to describe Sunday's class, but it might just as well.  Class tried to beat me up, and for the most part, I would not let it.  I didn't have much energy, started feeling queasy about half way through standing series, and then my skin just started to burn on me, somewhere in back strengthening.

The skin burning sensation is one of my least favorites, and its usually a sign of very bad things to come (like splitting headaches later in the day).  So I played a game with it.  In savasanas, instead of dwelling on how miserable it felt, on how much I disliked it, I sat down and tried to simply pay attention to what it really felt like.  And the oddest thing happened, when I was simply observing the feeling (and to a certain extent savoring it), the discomfort that accompanied it would slide away.

A few years ago, I read that dogs pretty much smell for information, and without judgment.  I've known lots of people with good noses, and it seems to be an unfortunate trait, because those people are always complaining about how bad things smell.  (It seems like there are many, many more objectionable smells in the world than good ones.)  When I read this, I tried to take the same approach.  Instead of instantly reacting to what others might call a "foul" smell, I try to actually get a decent sense of what it smells like.  As a result, fewer things now smell bad to me than before (the distant odor of skunk is a pretty good example -- I kind of like it now).

Anyway, I think that what I did with the heat is somewhat similar, and its amazing the effect that it can have.  Of course, it was short lived, because once I started a new pose, the simple observation ended.  But who knows, perhaps this is a faculty that can be developed over time.  For Sunday, I'd like to say that that made the practice easier, and perhaps it did, but it was still brutal. 

The day 164 meditation actually is about the noble failure.  According to Gates, the noble failure is the almost utter inability of people to control their minds when they first try to meditate.  In Bikram, one of the goals is for the entire class to be a 90 minute moving meditation.  At the start, its anything but.  When you go into Savasana,  you are told to quiet the mind.  That's the point, I think where everyone first experiences the "noble failure."  

When I first started, my mind would race and race.  To what I'd be doing after class.  To things that happened beforehand.  To how I had done in certain poses, or what I feared about poses to come.  Or even to random things:  song lyrics, movies, books, just about anything that would get me away from the heat and from simply being there.

Gates says that asana is wonderful preparation for meditation, because its nearly impossible to give honest effort in any of the poses without also learning how to concentrate and focus on what you are feeling.  And like just about everything else, this kind of concentration improves with practice.  It may be this simple fact that explains why yoga seems naturally to improve the spirit.  I can't say that I'm anywhere near a 90 minute meditation yet, but my mind doesn't race like it did.   And the little exercise I described above, about simply observing the burning sensation on my skin?  Well, that would have been unthinkable when I started.  

Sunday, June 14, 2009

113/164 - Sleeping Beauty

Saturday 9:30 am with Janna 

Class was challenging and good.  Teacher's timing has become a big mystery to me.  In this class, I felt like the standing poses did not last very long.  I didn't check the clock, so that was totally subjective and probably wrong.  By the end, we were running behind, and the savasanas were being cut short.  I can't account for it.  The only thing I can figure is that the poses were being held for as long as usual, and they just felt short for some reason.

Anyway, there was a huge difference between this class and the last class where the savasanas got cut short.  This time, I simply rolled with it, and it didn't bother me at all.  It's just how the class was, and it was fine.  My stamina was pretty good, but I skipped a set of Triangle.  I have to keep this in mind, because it almost feels like I'm in danger of  letting that become a habit.  Otherwise, I can't think of anything really memorable about any of my poses -- oh, I got a compliment in Rabbit, which is always nice.

The day 164 meditation talks about asana teaching us to reinhabit our bodies.  At first, this sounds sort of weird, but I think there's an awful lot to it.  Gates talks about beginners' hands.  They are all over the place.  I've noticed this as well -- hands and feet.  If I want to get a good measure of how strong the energy will be in a class, all I have to do is scan the mirror for peoples' hands in the set-up for half moon.   If I see a bunch of steeples, hands gripped firmly together, pointing straight up, composed by tight -- then I know it's going to be a good class.  But often, what I see is hands that don't know where they are or what they are doing.  

Same goes for feet.  The dialogue says something like "heels and toes together, touching nicely."  What you get is all over the place.  I especially get a kick out of the people who do half moon with their feet about 2-3 feet apart, and then start Awkward pose with them about 2-3 inches apart.  

Over time, yoga gives us body awareness.  The shape of the hands starts to matter.  So does something as simple as feet flexed, or pointed, or relaxed.  I tend to think this detailed awareness works from the outside in -- from the fingers and toes to the core.  I'm constantly amazed at how much improvement comes from focusing on the extremities, and not so much on the hamstrings or the shoulders.  

Take Rabbit, for example:  there are three things that I tend to focus on to really improve the pose.  One is bringing forehead to my knees.  That's not such a big deal for me anymore, but it was for a long time.  The second thing is really pulling on my heels, which involves mostly my hands.  And recently, I've been focusing on bringing my heels together and having them touch. That slight motion in the heels does incredible things through the back. 

It's that sort of attention to detail that, as Gates puts it, reawakens our sense of our bodies.  And I just love his closing analogy.  He says that we are like Sleeping Beauty, and the asana are like the prince whose kiss will breath life back into us.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


Friday 10:30 am with Jessica

Jessica is a teacher who left for a job as a social worker just as I started.  She just recently has come back to teaching Bikram, and its very nice for us that she has.  I really enjoyed her class.  She kept up a good pace, was good at motivating people, and she gave good individual corrections.  At least they sounded good to me.  She didn't correct me personally.

She did one thing that I had not seen before.  When Amy runs behind, she tends to drop one set of the final stretch at the end.  Some other teachers, when falling behind, will either cut Savasana short, or maybe rush the set-ups of the last poses.  Jessica didn't cut anything short.  Instead, she had us skip last few short savasanas entirely, the ones after Rabbit.  

This spared a couple of minutes, and didn't interrupt the flow as much as I would have thought.  The poses then are just not that demanding, and anyone who wants to take the extra time in Savasana can do it just after class.  At the same time, people in a rush can get out just a little earlier.

Class itself was really nice.  One of the nice things about having a new teacher is that it makes it much easier to simply listen to the dialogue again, as though it were fresh.  From a new teacher, the dialogue is fresh, and it makes it much easier to adopt the beginner's attitude.  My balance was very good, kicking out for two full parts of Standing Head to Knee, staying focused for good stretches of Standing Bow.  In back strengthening, I struck a nice balance between giving full effort and staying with my breath.   Overall, it was a very satisfying class.

The day 162 meditation returns to the subject of fear.  Gates says that he's constantly asking himself what he is afraid of.  With some students its easy to see what they fear -- falling, looking stupid.  For me, the most obvious fear is the dread of spitting up in Locust of Full Locust.  I'm gradually getting over this.

There's a deeper level.  Gates talks about a class he was taking where he was reluctant to try something a new way.  The question then arises:  what was he afraid of?  He doesn't answer the question, but I think part of the point is that posing the question helps to overcome obstacles and blocks.

I had a similar experience that stuck with me several years ago.  I had started taking guitar lessons from a new teacher in Minnesota.  He wanted me to use fingerpicks and a thumb pick.  I had been playing only with my nails for several years, and a former teacher I had really disliked fingerpicks.  At first I balked, and my new teacher said:  "If you are afraid of learning something new, then maybe you don't need a teacher."  That was a great lesson for me, probably worth as much as all the lessons he gave me (and he taught me a ton).  It's one I've tried to take into everything else I've tried to learn since.

The lesson Gates is trying to teach goes even further.  It sounds like its something to consider whenever you get stuck, in any small way.

Friday, June 12, 2009

111/162 - Giving Up the Fight

Thursday off.

In the day 161 meditation Gates talks about working through the problem he had with curvature in his back.  At first, and for a long time, he came to the mat determined to improve this problem  He fought with it, and lost.  That renewed his determination, boosted the level of his fighting, which led to bigger defeats.  

I can really identify with this part of what Gates is talking about.  For me, its more things like my utter inflexibility going forward in Standing Separate Leg Head to Floor.  Or the rigidity in my shoulders.  Or take any of the "impossibilities" I run into throughout the series.  Partially because it seems the obvious way, and partially because of the exhortations in the dialogue to "push, PUSH", I tend to fight with my limitations, and lose.

The next part of what Gates says is fascinating.  Over time, he began to respect his back.  And gradually, he made friends with it.  This happened by shifting his focus away from his limitations, and turning it toward what it could do.  During this process, the need to change his back disappeared.  Now, the curvature in his spine has disappeared, and he doesn't remember when it happened, because when it did, he no longer cared.

I'm somewhere in the beginnings of this process in asana practice.  But this story pretty much mirrors what happened with my weight.  After several yo-yo rounds of dieting, losing up to 60 pounds in a fairly short period and then putting it back on in a coupe of years, I came to yoga determined not to diet anymore.  Yoga put me more in touch with my body, and my appetite, and I started naturally to some better foods, and less of it.  In the last 15 months I've lost a bunch of weight, without dieting at all.  I don't know how much any more, and I don't care either.  I haven't weighed myself since August.  

Now I just need to take the same approach to my hamstring flexibility....

111/161 - Dropping the Baggage

Wednesday 8:15 with Amy --

I've been falling behind.  I blame the NBA finals at least in part.  But I also wonder whether my enthusiasm is waning just a bit.  I only got to four classes last week.  This week I should make it to five, but I missed two early in the week.   I imagine, like in other activities, there will be peaks in valleys in how firmly the yoga grabs onto me.

Wednesday's class was crowded for an 8:15 class.  Normally, there are somewhere from 10-14 people there.  There have been nights with as few as 6.  Last night there were 23, and when I said that was probably a record, I heard that there had been 24 on Tuesday.  I think it may be because school let out, but for whatever reason, its a good thing.

Class was rock solid.  My stamina was back.  Because it was an evening class, my flexibility was good.  And my balance was better than average.  I didn't need water, and I refrained from some of my tics (blowing my nose to no effect, and readjusting the top of my shorts).  Even better, while working hard, I was just happy to be there.

I got one correction that I really need to work on.  In the first few months, teachers where constantly telling me to straighten my arms -- in Half Moon, the first backbend, Balancing Stick, Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee.  I stopped hearing it for a pretty long while, and my arms look pretty good in Half Moon.  Wednesday, Amy called me out on the first backbend.  Apparently I've gotten lazy and have been bending my arms in this pose too much.  Of course, bending the arms gives the illusion of going deeper, and it also bypasses stretching in the upper back and shoulders.  So this is an area that needs work.

The day 160 meditation has a fairly lengthy description of all the baggage that we can bring to something as simple as a red light.  I think he is describing reactions that come when we are in a rush.  It can bring back all the times we've been late, have not been late, the lessons we had early in our lives about being prompt or tardy, etc...  Thus, the red light ceases to be simply what it is, and starts to stand for lots of things that we project onto it. 

I've definitely felt that way sometimes, especially if I'm in a rush to get somewhere.  But the passage amused me because last week I had almost exactly the opposite experience.  I was driving on a nearly empty road in the middle of the day.  It was a nice day, and I was simply taking in the surroundings as I was driving.   And for a little bit, I must have simply melted into the surroundings.  

I saw the light, I probably even noticed that it was red, but that simply didn't mean anything to me at the time.  So I blithely ran through it.  Halfway through the intersection, I heard a honk.  Thankfully, it was from the car I had passed, who had stopped at the intersection.  There was no cross traffic, and there weren't any policeman.  The honk brought me back, and I realized, "Oh! It's a RED light."  And suddenly that had meaning, and what I had done was just a little bit frightening.  I'd like to think that I was paying attention to other traffic, and would have stopped if there was cross traffic, but I simply don't know for sure.  I think this was an example of perhaps diving too deeply into the moment -- being so present, in one sense, that I had stopped processing the meanings of ordinary sighs.  Instead of bringing too much baggage to the traffic signal, I brought absolutely none.  Thankfully, nothing bad happened as a result.

The mat, Gates says, is a place where we can drop all of the baggage, where it is safe and productive to live completely in the present.   Where we can completely quiet the body, the mind, and the spirit.  Given a choice between  on the mat, and behind the wheel, I recommend the mat.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

110/160 - Start with a Prayer

Tuesday off.

The stomach bug stuck crept back, and stuck with me, so I decided to take the day off.

The day 159 meditation talks about preliminaries to asana practice.  There are basically two words of advice here.  First, set your intention.  This is something that we get told all the time at the start of Bikram practice.  Second, Gates says you can do this with a simple short prayer.  The prayer will help acknowledge your place in the universe.  He uses either "Thy will be done."  or "Thank you for bringing me here."

I've taken recently to doing something similar before the long savansana after standing series.  But when we are told to "set your intention," I mostly just stare blankly at myself in the mirror.  The pause and short word of thanks after standing series has worked really well for me.  And this is not much different and has almost zero cost.  So I will definitely be giving this a try.  I'm kind of amazed that I hadn't thought of this before.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

110/159 - Preparing for Class

Monday 10:30 am with Lenette

My stomach started gurgling early in the morning.  But I didn't actually feel bad, and its not really that uncommon.  When I got to the studio, I first had to make an emergency bathroom stop, and it wasn't pretty.  I had either a stomach virus or mild food poisoning, I'm not sure which.

But I shouldn't let a little thing like that interfere with practice, should I?  I went in to class and laid in savasana for about seven minutes before class started thinking:  "I can do this, can't I? How bad could it really be?"  Short answer: pretty bad.  And something of a roller coaster.

Pranayama was fine, but I could already feel the energy draining out of me.  By the middle of half moon, I was thinking that I could just lie down if it gets really bad.  By Awkward, I didn't know whether I was going to lie down or just collapse.  

So I started thinking, the strength stuff is going to be over, and then I can just focus on breath.   And that worked!  I had a really great balancing series.  I didn't fall out of Standing Head to Knee once, and I made it without falling through two parts of Standing Bow, and I kicked higher than ever before in one of those.  Right about then, I was thinking that maybe this stomach flu stuff is a blessing in disguise.

But triangle, of course, is a strength pose.  And it did me in for a while.  I skipped one set of it, and then a set of Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee.  And then I basically limped to the finish line.  I didn't have it for anything that required strength, but my flexibility was better than usual.  Lenette has said before that we sometimes make progress just when we give up or surrender, and I think something like that may have happened in Half Tortoise, in Fixed Firm, and even the final stretching.  I was much looser than usual, even though I was really dragging my sorry butt through the poses.

After class, Lenette gave me a big smile and said:  "Great class.  At least you didn't give up."  So I told her I had some stomach flu or something, and she said she already knew.  I'm still wondering exactly how she knew.   And I think she meant that she knew what was wrong with me, not just that I wasn't feeling well.  I find that pretty amazing.

The day 158 meditation talks about preparing for an asana class.  The idea is to clear your mind.  Gates talks about the sociability that goes on in his studio before class.  Our studio has none of that.  There's some chatting in the lobby, but the studio itself is very silent.  And since its a good idea to get a little acclimated to the heat, I tend to lie down for 5 minutes at least before class starts, and simply focus on breathing.  For a while I tried some warm-up stretches, but I've found that simply breathing helps prepare me better.  So I was pleased to read that Gates does breathing exercises before asana class.  I figure that between my lying down breathing and the first pranayama in class, I'm doing something similar to what Gates does.

I completely agree about starting class with a quiet mind.  That's one of the great things about a morning class.  There's less clutter that's developed in my head in the early mornings.  That advantage outweighs the somewhat reduced flexibility in the mornings.  

And I've had only a few classes where I've rushed into the studio at the very last second,.  Those always present a challenge at the start, and I've found that those are the classes where finding focus becomes most difficult.  So, even though you never know what your going to get when you go into the studio, calming down and trying for some stillness before class seems to reduce the chances of getting a lump of coal. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

109/158 -- Steady and Sweet

Sunday Off.

I initially planned on going to class.  But this weekend was the finale of the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, which is held every four years.  I got caught up in the webcasts over the past few weeks, and decided to see the last finalists on Sunday, instead of going to class.  

The winners, if you are interested, are a 19 year old boy from China named Zhang.  He turned 19 just 2 days before the competition ended, and if he had been born two days later he would have been ineligible.  The other winner (they shared first prize) was a 20 year old boy from Japan names Tsuji.  He will become famous for the wrong reason:  he is blind.  Thinking back on it, I should have written about him with regard to the Helen Keller quote from a few days ago.  He is someone who may truly regard his "handicap" as a blessing.  

If anyone is interested in classical piano, I highly recommend checking some of the streaming video located at www.cliburn.tv

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.  The day 157 meditation talks about being steady and sweet.  With asana practice, Gates uses headstand as an example.  This is unfortunate for me, because I've never been able to do headstand in the few gym yoga classes where teachers thought we might be ready for it.  So I truly have no connection with what he is talking about here.  The example he gives just doesn't give me anything to chew on.

In daily life, he connects steadiness with duties, and it is a form of giving.  I think the parallel in asana practice is the focus and the energy that we put into the pose.  And in daily life, he connects sweetness with compensation.  I'm sure here he is not just talking about money, but about all the good things that flow from right and fair dealing.  So sweetness means compensation which means receiving.  In asana practice, this comes at the moment of satisfaction, content, and effortlessness.

The aim in asana, and in life, is to be both steady and sweet.  That means to be simultaneously giving and receiving.  I think this is one aspect of balance.  (And it now occurs to me that he may have used headstand as an example because he is talking precisely about balance.)

I have to say that I'm not quite sure still what this means when it comes to asana.  And I'm disappointed with not being sure.  One of the mysteries of asana practice is why it seems naturally to lead to spiritual growth.  And here, I think Gates is giving insight into one of the answers.  It has to do with being steady and sweet.  And he assures that being steady and sweet in asana practice leads to skillfulness in life.  Great.  But I'm still not quite sure what it means.

I almost feel like he finally answered the ultimate question of the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.  But instead of 42, I got "steady and sweet."  Maybe I'm just in a bad mood.

Sunday, June 7, 2009


Saturday 9:30 am with Lenette

Everything was back on track.  After two days of struggling and whining to myself, I get treated to a comfortable class that just seemed to fit like a pair of old shoes.  I didn't even catch myself trying to stay focused, trying to bring myself back into the room.  Rather, I just flowed with the dialogue.  A couple of times, I caught myself moving slightly in anticipation of what Lenette was saying, but even then I caught myself probably before anyone else noticed.

I felt especially good in the backbends, in the first forward bend for a change, and in the balancing postures.  I still fell out several times, but it my focus was better than its recently been. 

 And I tried Lenette's suggestion in Locust for the first time.  I mentioned a while back that she suggested bringing the chin forward to get more leverage in the shoulders.  This tip is for people who have already hit 45 degree lift, which apparently I have done.   Perhaps not so shockingly, I had already forgotten this tip, partly because Locust has been an exercise in trying to avoid spitting up.  But it is another reminder of how often I need to relearn the same lessons, the same tips.  Anyway, I tried it and could get something of a glimpse of the possibility this might present.  Even so, it seems like this is going to demand alot of strength in the shoulders and the upper back.  I'm hoping that I just haven't discovered the balance between strength and flexibility that this might call for, because right now the prospect of going higher seems daunting.

The day 156 meditation devotes a couple of paragraphs to analyzing a Tom Petty song.  My apologies to any Tom Petty fans out there, but I never could see the appeal and I will basically pass on the analysis of these lyrics.  (I know I'd feel totally different if it were a Robert Hunter lyric, but I think I'm entitled occasionally to indulge a whim, even if its in the form of a veto.)  My opinion of Petty finally got solidified with his dreadful duet with Stevie Nicks.  Between the two of them, they almost cover a full octave in range, on the rare times you I can make out identifiable notes.

Gates does close with a great suggestion.  He says in each class identify some limiting belief that you have.  When this limitation comes up, take note of it, without judgment, and then simply let it be like everything else.  Acknowledge it and let go.  I actually did that in class before reading the passage.  The limiting belief, for me, was the desire for praise or correction from Lenette.  Sometimes I just irrationally want the teacher's input, perhaps to boost my ego.  Anyway, I noticed this feeling come up, and did exactly what Gates said.  I took note of it, and put it aside.  It helped a bunch.


Friday 4:30 pm with Sherry

Important safety tip:  when standing in front of the thermostat, just ignore it.  When I put my mat down, just in front of the podium, I noticed the temperature was about 97.  I got myself set mentally, I suppose, for a cooler class.  By the end of awkward pose, it had climbed to 105 -- still no big deal.  Then it continued to climb through the standing series.  Worse, I couldn't help but notice after each pose.  And I also let it get to me.  By the end of Triangle it had hit 112, and that's when I decided to try not to look anymore.

Anyway, the heat knocked the hell out of me in standing series.  I missed only one set of Triangle, and I had a nice standing series.  But I felt wiped out by the end of it.  The heat lowered throughout the floor series, but it didn't matter to me:  I was already cooked.  My pulse was absolutely racing in the back strengthening series, and I even had to sit out a set of bow.  Actually, I set up for it, and then just couldn't bring myself to kick when Sherry called to kick. 

I got some better control over myself after that, but came out of second set of Camel early, and also second set of Rabbit.  It was a hard class, and I felt totally drained afterward.  I think the main problem was paying too much attention to the thermometer.  I've been in hotter classes before, but I don't think I've been in too many classes that messed with my mind as much. 

And this makes me wonder if I'm really getting so prissy about class conditions?  One day I'm quibbling about timing, which shouldn't bother me at all.  The very next day, it's temperature control.  At least, on Friday I didn't resent the temperature swing.  Instead, I allowed the starting temperature to set an expectation, and then I let the change mess with what I had anticipated.  So, I got thrown for a loop.  But on another level, getting thrown for a loop was OK with me.  And I take that as at least a bit of progress.

The day 155 meditation opens with a quote from one of Gates' students.  The meditation itself mostly praises the student and talks about how the student has incorporated what he has learned into his life.  The student's quote is interesting and encouraging.  It confirms several the things.  

First, he talks about how yoga is not based on faith but on experience.  I think what he is getting at here is that yoga is, first and foremost, a practical discipline.  Some disciplines ask for faith up front, and then promise some payoff later on.  Yoga asks simply that you try something.  You don't have to believe in the results when you start to try.  The results themselves then help build up further faith in the practice.  

Then he talks about how the postures teach you not simply how to release strength, but they also give you a kind of tour guide through stress.  They allow you to observe, listen, and learn what's going on in your body -- to confront, experience, understand, and ultimately let go of stress and blockages.  I've seen this happen some, but for me its still a work in progress.  But, going back to the first point, I have faith that I will improve in this personal observation and improve in the ability to let go of stress and blockages.  And this faith is based on the results I've already seen.

Friday, June 5, 2009

107/155 - Learning

Thursday 8:30 am with Janna

I love the early morning classes, enough so that I wonder why I find it hard to drag myself to them.  I go in tired, with an empty head, and with extra tightness through my hamstrings, in my lower back and across my shoulder blades.  And then somehow, 90 minutes later I feel alert, awake, full of energy, and the creakiness has, if not disappeared, at least been beaten back for another day.

Actually, I know full well one of the reasons I find it hard to get to these classes.  I also love the feeling of stealing a few extra minutes of sleep in the morning.  It's such a luxury, on days when its possible, to spend that little extra time in that area somewhere between being asleep and being awake.  I've always liked anything that makes time seem to vanish -- and this nether state early in the mornings is one of the easiest and most reliable ways for me to find that feeling.

Even though I love the early morning classes, this class was a bit tough for me.  Janna takes her time in the standing series.  Today it took almost an hour, which is 10-15 minutes longer than most other teachers.  And it doesn't take longer because she's talking alot between postures.  I think the postures are just longer.  And some of the set-ups.  

For example, it felt like we held the lunges preparing to go into Triangle for over a minute (I don't know how long it actually was).  So my thighs and arms were not happy with me, and I was too looking forward to just getting into the posture.   I actually think the set-up for triangle is harder to do than the pose, and its not the first time I've gotten impatient while a teacher corrects a persons leg angle again, and again, and again.

The next part of the difficulty in Janna's class comes toward the end.  To make up for the extra time spent in standing series, she seems to skimp on the savasanas.  Again, I'm not sure I'm right about this, but its what it feels like.  This throws off my stamina more than it should.  I was having a very hard time of it in Camel, and came out of the second set early, which I don't think I've ever done before.  And it was because I was having trouble breathing.  And I think that came from having shorter savasanas than usual.

Now here's the thing.  I already knew all this about Janna's class.  So the question is:  why does it still bother me?  I feel really good after her classes, and I don't feel like I'm missing out on any of the poses.  It's just that they present a different sort of challenge, and they defy my expectation.  But even that's not right, because by now I expect them to defy my ordinary expectation.  So what it comes down to, I think, is my ego.  I like having the stamina to get through everything.  It makes me feel good about myself.  And I haven't quite gotten past saying to myself that a class was a bad class because I sat out X, or came out of Y early.

The day 154 meditation is about learning.  It starts with a quote that insists that man is a learning animal.  (The guy who said that didn't know some of the animals I went to school with.)   Gates talks about learning through asana practice.  First, it presents the truth to ourselves.  I've found this to be true on so many levels.  Every day is different, and the best way to make progress is to try to tune into those differences, accept them, and push to the limit that presents itself for you for that day.  That process on its own, involves continual learning.  Certainly, after only 14 months, I can't say that I've gotten even close to having mastered it.

Gates talks about another aspect of learning, by exploring different styles of yoga.  I don't have much experience with this, and I haven't been doing Bikram for long enough that I really feel the need.  I did get to try Ashtanga when I was in Shanghai last year, and I enjoyed it.  I was pretty surprised at the differences.  And I've tried the advanced series a couple of times.  Doing that really had one of the great benefits that Gates mentioned:  it made me feel like an absolute beginner all over again.  

And that I think is the point.  We are most receptive to learning when we can adopt the attitude of a complete novice.  That means dropping expectations, and truly watching and listening with an open heart and an open mind.  And that leads me to one last observation:  one of things I find I'm learning in yoga is that it is essential to learn the same lessons over and over again.  

Thursday, June 4, 2009


Wednesday off.

The day 153 meditation feels to me like a bit of a non-sequitur.  Gates talks about how, at 30, he suddenly started making friends because he had stopped trying to be interesting, and instead became an addiction counselor who spent almost all of his time listening to other people's problems.  In some ways, I'm surprised it took him until he was thirty.

Most people think that they are the most interesting things in the world.  For the most part, they want to talk.  And what they want to talk about is themselves.  As the joke goes:  "Enough about me.  Let's talk about you for awhile.  What do you think about me?"  This means that it's very, very easy to get people to like you, if you want.  All you have to do is show an interest in listening to them talk about themselves.  If you can show a genuine interest and manage to stay engaged, you are bound to be extremely popular.   In a world where everyone wants to talk about themselves, the willing listener is a rare commodity.  (It's not too hard to see people in all sorts of public places who don't seem to stop talking even though its abundantly clear that the people with them are paying only the slightest attention, or waiting for a turn to interject something that shifts the focus to them.)

Take this a bit further.  Listen to someone, and then paraphrase what they said back to them, in the form of a question.  Repeat this several times in the conversation, showing that you are both listening and understanding what they are saying.  Sometimes, this leads to remarkable revelations.  This little trick is an oversimplified version of Carl Roger's Client Centered Therapy.  It's really simple, and amazingly, it works.  And it makes people like you even more.  And it's not as easy or manipulative as it may sound.  Done properly, its about as non-manipulative as you can get, because you aren't forcing any ideas at all into the conversation.  Instead, you are simply trying to understand.  

What does this have to do with asana practice?  I don't know.  Gates offers hope in the idea that he could undergo such a radical change in his relationships with others when he had hit the advanced age of thirty.  It's a good point, though I don't think of thirty as being anywhere near too old to learn or change anymore (I probably did when I was twenty).   I hope the same point applies at 50 or 60 or even beyond that.


Tuesday 8:15 pm with Amy

Tuesday's class was just about perfect.  I had a really nice balance between strength, flexibility, and stamina.   I had basically three notable difficulties.  

First, I was feeling really good going into Toe Stand, so I tried lifting both hands into prayer position, held it for a second and then lost my balance.  That wasn't so bad, but as I caught myself falling backwards, I felt a ring around my entire upper chest cramp up.  I felt cramps in core muscles that I didn't know even exist.  When I cramp in my calf or my foot, I know how to move to relieve the cramp.  But with these muscles?  I had no idea what to do, so I just kept going.  And miraculously, that seemed to work.

The next problem was more predictable.  I pushed through Locust without getting into too much trouble.  Then, going into Full Locust, I got hiccups combined with some spitting up.  This is happening too often recently.  I've also noticed that I'm having trouble holding my elbows the full time in Fixed Firm more and more.  Both of these are clear signs that I should pay more attention to what I'm eating, so maybe I will.

And then, in Half Tortoise, I got a cramp in the arch of my foot.  I managed to hold the pose through the cramp, by thinking about breathing into the cramp.  I haven't had foot cramps in a while.  I'm not sure if it was from lack of electrolytes, or if it was just an overexertion cramp.

The day 152 meditation, which I did not read until just now, is about putting an end to suffering.  In some ways, I think that's ironic, since I just went through a catalog of my petty sufferings in Tuesday's class.  Gates talks about this as a vow.  But it seems clear, at least to me, from what he's saying, that putting an end to suffering is also a natural result of a yoga practice.  
A long time ago, it seems, I wrote a post about changing the world one camel at a time.  I think this is part of the idea here.  Gates says that he realizes he is just a drop in the ocean, but as the drop changes so too does the ocean.  To put it a bit less abstractly, as we change ourselves throu practice, we also project that change everywhere we have influence, and that projection cannot help but have a ripple effect.  Thus, as silly as it sounds, we can change the world one camel at a time. 

I'd also like to not that this harks back to the quote from Gandhi:  "Be the change you want to see in the world."

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

105/152 -Handicaps

Monday off.

The day 151 meditation starts with a remarkable quote from Helen Keller:

I thank God for my handicaps, for through them I have found myself, my work, and my God.
For a fairly long time, I've understood the beneficial nature of handicaps in the arts.  One obvious example I think of is the gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt.  By all accounts he was a fairly mediocre guitarist traveling around Europe.  He got caught in a fire, and lost the use of his ring finger and pinky on his fretting hand.  Left with only two fingers, he invented and perfected his own technique, and became one of the very finest jazz musicians in history.  Without this "handicap," its likely that he would have remained in obscurity.

That's an extreme example.  Let me take a much more universal and mudane example. A photographer is limited to a flat image, ordinarily in a rectangular frame.  It's possible to think of the frame of the photograph as a limitation.  But its also possible, and much more worthwhile, to think of the limitation of the frame and what you can do with it, as being a defining part of the art.   In some ways, arts are defined by their limitations, and the great artist is the one who best uses those limitations.  The photographer makes the frame come alive. 

I like to think of this meditation as inviting us to approach life as an art of its own.  The idea is that if we embrace our limitations, and simply accept them, the way a great photographer embraces the frame, then we can transform the same limitations into advantages and opportunities.

105/151 - What I Want to Be When I Grow Up

Sunday 2:30 pm with Libby

I did a quick search, and it looks like the last time I had a class with Libby was all the way back on October 5.  (Who says that blogging is useless???)  In some ways, having class with her again was a bit like coming home.  I think she was the second teacher I had after Lenette.  And, as they were at the start, her class was tough, challenging, and fun.  I pushed very hard, and I don't know if that was a one time thing, or if it just had something to do with the way she motivated the class.

She was being a bit of a stickler for the class moving together today.  She called a few people out about moving ahead, or coming out of a pose improperly.  And then, she also thanked everyone and was really upbeat when we were moving together.   By itself, that helped pump in some extra energy.  

She emphasized coming out of the poses as you went in to them.  Every pose begins with a stretch.  If you come out properly, that means that you end every pose with a stretch as well.   There's no reason to miss out on that stretch, and it will help you understand the full shape of the pose.

My class was pretty good.  I ended up sitting out one set of Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee.  The heat had gone up steadily through the standing series, and I was pushing really hard.  I think I might have overdone it in Triangle.  Actually, I think I may have been fishing for a compliment, but I was casting my line by trying to be even stronger in the poses.  And it finally caught up to me.  (The no food all day might have played a part as well.)

The floor series was good.  I had a better back strengthening series than I've had in a while. I went all the way back on one set of Fixed Firm.  Camel and Rabbit were both good, and I managed to breathe in Rabbit for the full length, both sets.  The back of my left knee hit the floor in the final separate leg stretching.  All in all, it was a good, strong class.

The day 150 meditation deals with dharma, or in this context, what one should do with one's life.  When people ask Gates how they can know, he asks two questions:  What would they do if time and money were not obstacles at all?  and What do they do in their spare time?  These are excellent questions.   

I can answer the second question pretty easily:  Play guitar. Play piano. Sing. Practice Yoga.  Play with/train my dogs.  Take pictures and manipulate them with Photoshop.  Write this blog.  Read. Surf the internet.  Ride my bicycle.  Travel.  Watch too much TV.

The second question is much harder for me to come to answer.  If I really had all the time and money I could ever need, I'd probably still want to do something with music or film or both.   And I'm pretty sure I would go to teacher training for Bikram, and probably think about some other types of yoga as well.  The problem here is that Gates thinks that these answers will shine a light on some career path, and I simply don't see it.  That may show some limitation in my imagination.  But there it is.

Monday, June 1, 2009

104/150 - Boredom?

Saturday 9:30 am with Sherry -

I had a solid class, with good stamina.  I actually don't remember all that much about class.  The woman in front of me went down several times early in standing series.  At first, I was a bit annoyed again (at least enough so that I remember it).  But unlike last week, I let it be, and simply focused on myself.  And my concentration took over enough so that the people dropping around me didn't really suck away any of my energy.

The day 149 meditation talks about dealing with boredom.  Gates says that instead of fighting it, or trying to supress it, when he is bored with his practice he simply includes the boredom as part of the process.  I see this as a timely meditation, because thats basically what I did with the woman in front of me who kept dropping to the mat.  I went from being annoyed, to simply noticing it, to not noticing at all.

This idea reminds me of something Jerry Garcia said in an interview long ago.  He was talking about how sometimes the energy is simply not there and you feel like you just suck.  And he said that sometimes its OK to suck.  When it happens, you just go with that too, because sucking is part of life too.  (This is a really bad paraphrase, and I'm not even sure it's close to what he said, but its what I remember after 25 years or so of what he said.)  I think Garcia and Gates are talking about basically the same idea.  Gates brings boredom into the process, as Garcia brings sucking into the process, so that  Gates' yoga, and Garcia's music, can become a "meditation on the infinite." 

I will say that I'm a bit surprised about Gates finding boredom in his asana practice.  I haven't been doing this for that long, I realize.  In the last 14 months, I've had many negative reactions on the mat.  I've been frustrated, angry, impatient, peeved, scared, exhausted, disappointed, etc...  But I don't think I've ever been bored.  I know there are people who find the 26 postures a bit limiting, and say it becomes boring.  But for me, I don't see how I could put in the concentration, both physical and mental, that a Bikram class requires, and be bored with it.