Thursday, July 30, 2009

153/209 - Doing it for love

Wednesday 4:30 with Rohit

It was a good class, with almost nothing memorable. As I've said before, that's usually a good thing. Oh, there was a bad moment where reflux was back in Locust, but I kept it under control. Otherwise, everything was fairly peaceful.

The day 208 meditation talks about the effect of desire on asana practice. People first come to asana practice typically because they have heard about other people's astonishing results. And that's good. Gates goes on to say that the first year or so usually brings amazing results with it. Butt's get tighter, body parts start to work again, years fall away, the weight of the world feels less than it did.

Working for results, however, is ultimately a dead end. I can't say that from experience, because I'm not that far into my practice. But I've seen it with others in my studio. I know a woman who quit the practice after the 60 day challenge because she wasn't satisfied with the results. She wanted more for her effort. (I watched her through the challenge, BTW, and I have to say that based on the effort she put in, she probably got about the results that she should have.) And I'm sure that if she's not doing anything instead of the yoga, she's getting a much worse result now (but at considerable less effort).

The point here, however, is that a results driven practice will inevitably lead to failure. Either you won't get to the goals that you set, become frustrated, and give up. Or you will reach them, and wonder, what now? and then stop from something akin to boredom.

The antidote to this is to stop focusing on result and to enjoy the poses themselves. It is to fall in love with the practice itself, and not with the things that the practice gives. If you can do that, the results will continue to flow to you as a biproduct, and the practice will never grow old. And how to do that? Be present, smile, and just be thankful that you can be sweating your ass off in the hot orange room. At least that's the best that I can think of for now.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Monday 4:30 pm with Jean

For the first time in a while, the room was cold. It was 94 when I arrived, and I doubt it ever got much over 100. The strength part of class (and its surprising how much of the class involves strengthening) becomes much easier when its colder. And that makes the class seem less tiring. But at the same time, at least for today, there was a noticeable difference in flexibility as well, especially in the forward bends. It's fairly easy to adjust to those variations, and overall class was quite satisfying. Sometimes its nice to simply feel stronger, even when that extra strength comes more from the weather than anything else.

I don't remember much on any of the poses. I just remember two corrections. In standing bow, my kicking leg was a bit out of line. It's more over the top of the opposite shoulder, instead of coming out of the top of my head. Jean had me work on getting it in line, and the adjustment has a huge effect in my hips and hamstrings. Needless to say, I fell out. But I think I have a better understanding of the pose. And Jean said afterward that if your foot isn't where you want it to be, you can just use your hands to move it over. I'm going to try to remember this.

The other correction was in Balancing Stick. Get my chin away from my chest. It's a simple thing, and something I would know if I was looking at someone else. But I was not aware that I was tucking my chin in. So I corrected it, and of course, fell out. This is another thing I'm going to need to work on. Moving the head is about the hardest thing to do in any of the balancing poses, but I think its especially hard in Balancing Stick since its just sitting out there on its own in the middle of nowhere.

The day 207 meditation focuses on another quote from one of Gates' students. He basically says that asana practice has made a big difference in how he deals with fears outside of class. Instead of dwelling on them, he's capable now of observing them and then moving on. Gates says that this progress came for this student over years of practice. In some ways, I can see some of the same things happening with me, but I also admit that its a slow process. Sometimes, I can do exactly what this student says. And other times, the little worrisome things are just that. The nice thing, however, is that if I catch myself now, I can probably help things out by just stepping back and breathing. And if that doesn't work, the next yoga class isn't too far away, and that will almost certainly help.

Monday, July 27, 2009

151/207 - Savasana

Sunday Off.

In the day 206 meditation, Gates says that spiritual ignorance manifests itself through fear, and we then divide the world into things that make us more or less afraid. On the mat, he says that the fears come through most clearly in Savasana.

Savasana is corpse pose. The whole point of Savasana is to achieve stillness, both of body and mind. We are told again and again that it is the easiest pose to teach and yet the hardest to master. My little joke is that it is the one pose that I know I will one day do perfectly.

At first its hard even to remain still in Savasana, especially in the many short ones we get in a Bikram class. I see many people who are adjusting their towels, wiping sweat, or just moving their arms and legs. Even these little movements, I think, are related to the kind of fear Gates talks about. The movements come because people are uncomfortable with the heat, the sweat, etc... But they also come out of a simple fear of letting things be, and just breathing.

The physical stillness, however, is relatively easy to achieve. It's much, much harder to keep the mind still. On good days, thoughts creep in. On less good days, they race around, they get stuck, they won't budge, or they just keep coming and coming. All these little thoughts, Gates says are simply reflections of our fears. I hadn't thought about it this way, but if he's right, then that simply shows how important Savasana is, because if you get good at it, it should be better than therapy since it lets you drive your fears away.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


Saturday 9:30 am with Lenette

It was a big class with a whole bunch of newbies. There were 50 people and I was smack dab in the middle. The heat was fine, but the humidity was way high, and at times it felt like there was no air in the room. But even with all that, class was still good.

Lenette called me out a few times for rushing. I wasn't even aware of it, and I think it was a reaction to the humidity. I let it get to me a bit, lost some focus, and started anticipating. I think almost every other teacher would have let it go (probably not Libby, and definitely not Sherie). Lenette expects better from me, and I like that.

Once again I had really good backbends, and a good back strengthening series, especially Locust. I'm feeling even a bit more in my middle back in Camel. This pose is funny. Once I could grab my heels, maybe 4-6 weeks into practice, it became one of my favorite poses. I never had any of the dizzying/overwhelming feelings that seem so common here. It stayed that way for a long time, and was one of my favorites.

Then, for no apparent reason, it changed. I was doing better in the pose, but it started to feel harder and harder. It was just a strain with all the pushing forward at the hips. Instead of liking it, it became one of my least favorite poses. And it was one that would typically wipe me out.

And now, again for no reason that I can see, its shifted back again. Pushing forward just isn't a struggle the last few classes, and I really can feel what they mean by lifting the chest. And all in all, I just think of it as being fun now when for the longest time it was anything but. (Awkward is another pose that goes through cycles for me. For the longest time I just liked it, and recently its been really tough -- tough to the point where i've been tempted to ease off/cheat.)

In the day 205 meditation Gates has started running through how the five afflictions affect us on the mat. The first affliction is spiritual ignorance. On the mat, this manifests itself mostly in identifying ourselves with our results. Thus, a good class makes our day, but we kick ourselves for having a bad class. Or we compete with the people around us. Or we just compete with ourselves.

These are all natural tendencies for me, and I'm gradually shedding them. And for the most part I agree that its best to shed them, if possible. But here's the catch. If I can't beat myself up because my head is still a foot off the floor in Standing Separate Leg Stretching, then doesn't it also follow that I shouldn't celebrate when I finally do get my head on the floor? I like my breakthroughs, and I love small compliments (and big ones). But should I like them so much?

150/205 - Habits

Friday 4:30 with Rohit

I had a big, and rather late, lunch of Thai food -- Pad Thai shrimp, spicy lamb chops with basil, a pork and onion dish, etc. So I was scared going into class that my reflux would act up. Apparently, however, yoga is cool with Thai food. I never would have guessed. Either that, or something else was working in my favor. By the end of the first forward bend, it was clear that I would get through everything with some ease, and that was OK by me.

I'm working harder at really getting the grip in Standing Head to Knee. My thumbs are short, so I don't know that I'll ever get the interlocking grip that I hear about. But I can probably do much better than I have been. Right now, it still feels like I need another inch or two in my arms to get the solid grip they talk about, and I'm not sure where that inch or two will come from. Maybe shoulder and upper back flexibility? Anyway, I can scoop my foot in the right place and interlock my fingers, sort of. But the grip starts to slip a bit when I kick out, and its just not ever really as secure as I would like it to be. So that's a new area of concentration.

The high point of the class, maybe literally, was Locust. Rohit said my second set was "outrageously good." And maybe he didn't see the first set, because it felt even better. And to top that off, my legs were pretty much locked (although Rohit asked for even more on that point, so there's still room for improvement there). Of course, the consequence of doing such a good Locust is that my upper back cramped. And I could still feel it later, and even now a day later. That makes me wonder what's going to happen when that kind of effort doesn't lead to cramping.

In the day 204 meditation, Gates closes by asking us to take note of the habits we develop on the mat. Today (I know I'm jumping ahead), Lenette told us that the Yoga Sutras say that habits are one of the causes of suffering. Not good habits, or bad habits, but just habits. I'm not sure about this, one way or the other.

But here are some of my yoga habits. When I get to class, I always first look to see if my favorite spot is taken. It's probably bad enough that I still have a favorite spot (actually a first, second and third preference). But this is definitely a habit of mind that would be good to break.

Going into short Savasanas, I tend to bring both hands up to my face. It's for some sort of relief, but I don't know exactly why or how. It might be to wipe sweat, but I don't think so. This is one that I catch myself at fairly often, but I haven't been able to break it yet.

I'm redeveloping some water habits -- especially taking a short drink after Balancing Stick, and then again after Floor Bow. This is one that I break, then it comes back, then I break it again, etc. And it's time to break it yet again.

For a long time, I tended to blow my nose several times between postures in Standing Series. It was stupid, because nothing ever came out. It also offended some people. (I know this because at least twice I came into class and someone had conveniently put a box of kleenex next to my mat. I still have mixed feelings about this "hint.") I've thought about it, and I think that some sweat inside of my nose was bothering me a little, and that's part of the reason for the blowing. But it was also just a sort of protest in favor of some sort of comfort. I'm more or less over this now. At least, I can say that its no longer a habit.

In the last post I talked about adjusting my waistband. Then there's straightening my towel. And I'm sure there are still a ton of others.

What habits are you all harboring, and do you agree with Gates that they are somehow impeding your practice?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

149/204 - Bellyhang

4:30 pm with Sherry

To begin with, the room was set on braise. Somewhere towards the end of standing series, it went down to a simmer. By the end, I was done, but not overcooked. Overall, it was a good class.

I tried harder to concentrate in balancing series, with some success. I made it through one of the Standing Head to Knee parts without falling out. And Standing Bow was pretty good, but by that time the heat was beginning to get to me.

Amy's tip in Cobra is simply amazing. By trying to extend forward first as your are lifting up, it really isolates the lower back. I was reaching new muscles, or new parts of muscles in the pose today. And I came out nearly cramping. Then I did something similar in Full Locust, and came close to cramping in my mid-back. And now I really am feeling it.

And I also got some new feeling in Camel. Usually, I can feel compression in my lower back, and I also feel it in my shoulders and neck. Today, for whatever reason, I could also really feel stuff in the middle of my back. I'm not even sure if I'm supposed to feel anything there in this pose, but it felt good. I don't really know if this was just a strange feeling, or whether its a sign of progress.

The day 203 meditation begins with the quote from Confucius that before you fix the world, you have to fix the nation; before the nation, the village, and so forth until it comes down to fixing yourself first. This is a recurring theme, and on this blog it goes all the way back to my post about changing the world one camel at a time.

Gates talks about how, through yoga practice, he has stripped away layer after layer of accepted ideas -- ideas which caused him to suffer. He doesn't here mention any specific ideas that he stripped away. Some of them we are familiar with from earlier posts -- his youthful competitiveness is a big one, for example.

I've noticed some of this happening in asana practice. Here's one simple example: The top of my shorts would roll down a bit after several poses, including every forward bend. After those poses, I would always roll them back up over my bellyhang. I probably told myself that it was a matter of comfort. But what I was really uncomfortable with was the idea of the bellyhang. And the shorts rolling down some just exacerbated this body image problem I was having. Somewhere along the way, I dropped this adjustment. I think the same thing happens with my shorts, but I'm not even positive of that. I just don't care that much about it anymore. The bellyhang hasn't completely disappeared. But my fetish over trying to hide it -- my irrational discomfort with it -- that part has simply gone away with the practice. And that's just a very small example of the sort of bad ideas that seem to fall away with asana practice.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


4:30 pm with Amy

Class was simply fun again. My stamina was good. I felt a sense of ease through almost the whole class, while still giving a solid effort. I didn't skip anything.

The first backbend was really good. I don't think I went any deeper than I have before, but my arms were more solidly locked, and I feel like I was getting more of a bend throughout the spine, instead of simply in the lower back. It also earned me a compliment, which is pretty rare for that pose.

Balancing was strange. I fell out early several times in Standing Head to Knee, and also Standing Bow. Then I took a moment to focus and breath, and pretty much nailed it. I'm thinking that I need to start working more diligently on simply concentrating in these poses. The main obstacle here is no longer physical, at least on most days.

I did really well in back strengthening poses today. For the first time in a while in the early afternoon class, I had no problems with reflux or hiccups. Amy had us stretch forward as we were coming into Cobra, and it really helped isolate the lower back, and gave a much better stretch. Locust was actually enjoyable for the first time in a long time. And then I got another compliment in Full Locust. Again, that almost never happens. But I actually had some energy reserves for Full Locust and managed to concentrate on the stretch across the chest and really lifting my arms up and back. And my feet stayed together.

Amy is putting together some promotional material and wants some photographs of students. We talked a bit about which pose I should do for this. She agreed that Triangle was probably the most picture worthy, although she also suggested Locust. Of course, I'm really flattered by this. It's too bad she couldn't have some before and after pictures.

I also mentioned the idea I recently had to offer students, especially new students or students starting challenges, before and after photo sessions in a few select poses. I really wish now that someone had taken some before pictures of me in a bunch of the poses, especially the poses where I can't see myself (the first Backbend and Forward Bend, Standing Separate Leg Forehead to Knee, Locust, Camel and Rabbit).

In the day 202 meditation Gates says a wonderful thing about the growth of his students. He says that often new students come to his classes as adolescents in adult bodies. Over the course of a few years, as their bodies become younger these people otherwise grow up. They do things to make their jobs more meaningful. They volunteer. They spontaneously help others. I can certainly attest to the idea of the body growing younger after only 16 months. As for the other part, it's very nice to hear, and it gives some reason for hope.

147/202 - Interconnectedness

Tuesday Off.

The day 201 meditation talks about how asana practice teaches us to relearn and appreciate the interconnectedness of all things. As Gates puts it, we learn how dramatically a subtle shift in the feet or in the hands can change an entire pose. We learn how changes in our breath, or just in our attitude, can change all the rest of our practice. Or, we can learn how important a slight shift in eye focus can be.

The opening pranayama is a pretty good example of this. I remember Lenette having us play with how far our mouth opens on the exhale. A simple thing like opening the mouth wider in that pose makes an enormous difference in how far back the head can go. Another difference comes from pushing the webs of your fingers together. The tighter you can keep these webs, the higher your elbows will go on the inhale. Rohit emphasized actually pressing your feet into the floor in this exercise, and the sense of grounding that comes from this pressing into the floor, has a fairly big impact on everything else. Each small detail has a real impact on all the rest of the pose.

The lesson Gates wants us to take away is that the sense of interconnectedness applies everywhere, not just on the mat. Sometimes, I think I have a sense of what he's saying. And this is probably a very important lesson. But I also think its another of the lessons that comes more through time, repetition and experience. Simply saying it doesn't carry one very far, I don't think. And its partially because of this, I think, that asana practice is so important, because it serves as a consistent reminder of this deep interconnectedness.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

147/201 - The Second Chance Business

Monday 10:30 am with Sherry

Mostly a good class, but my stamina was a bit off. I skipped a set of Triangle. Then had a very good floor series, especially in back strengthening. The room seemed hot, and after class some people were grumbling about it. The heat didn't bother me. Instead, if I was a bit off (and I think I was), it was more because my sleep hasn't been all that good recently.

The day 200 meditation is mostly about the beginning of Gates' own spiritual journey. The thing that I latched onto this time is largely an aside. He says that he sees himself as being in the second chance business. His teaching gives people the possibility of having a second chance with their lives. Also, he sees it as a way of giving thanks for the second chance that it gave to him.

I immediately thought about Luke, the teacher who owns a studio in New York. He was addicted to several different kinds of drugs. He got dragged to a Bikram class here in Houston by some friends when he was really strung out. He told the owner that he'd like to continue, but didn't have the money. The owner told him he could take classes there if he wiped down the mirrors after class. Then, one day when he was coming off of methadone addiction, he simply collapsed onto his mat for the whole class, and for the aftermath. When he finally picked himself up, he saw the owner cleaning the mirrors and knew that he had blown his one real chance. As he was dragging himself out of the studio, the owner turned to him and said: "See you tommorow, son."'

And then I thought of Mary Jarvis and Bikram himself. Mary Jarvis refused back surgery after a terrible car accident, and recovered by taking two classes a day in her own studio. Bikram was told he was unlikely to walk again after crushing his knee by dropping enormous weight on it. He went back to his guru instead, and fully cured himself through the yoga. Bikram yoga, to a very large extent, is a legacy of the second chance that Bikram got after that accident.

146/200 - Learning Efficiency

Sunday Off.

The day off was very welcome. But I have to say, if there had been an evening class, I would have gone. By six o'clock it was starting to feel weird not to be going to yoga for the day. But I got over it pretty quickly and gracefully.

The day 199 meditation explores why new students tire so much more easily than experienced students. The answer is pretty simple: experienced students know what they are doing, so they don't waste as much energy on things that don't help the poses. In Bikram practice, this manifests itself in all sorts of ways. New students tend to fidget, to wipe sweat, to moan, to move around, to take a defensive posture between poses. They think sweat is the enemy and cold water is their friend, when its really quite the opposite. And that's just what happens between poses.

They also are more likely not to have any clue about how to breathe. When things get hard, they hold their breath, then come out of the pose gasping. And in the poses themselves they spend alot of time tensing up things that need to relax.

A big part of becoming more experienced is learning simply how to stay still between poses, to overcome the fear of sweat, and to learn how to breathe. And that's very much an ongoing process, at least for me. An even bigger, and more subtle part is learning what muscles to use in a pose, and which ones to let go. In some ways, that's why Fixed Firm is such a relatively easy pose: you can pretty much let go of everything and let gravity do the work. Conversely, that's also why I find Awkward and Triangle to be fairly easy. In those poses, if you can't go far wrong by simply tensing everything up. Everything else seems to involve a delicate balance between working some things really hard, while completely letting go of some other body parts. And finding that balance is very much a matter of experience.

This meditation reminded me of an incident a while back in class. Gates says that he sometimes puts athletic beginners behind people 20 years senior to them (I guess as a lesson in humility). A while back we had a professional football player in class, behind me in the back row. In the long savasana after floor series, Amy bent over and whispered to me how it felt to be kicking the football player's butt. I hadn't really noticed, but I wasn't surprised. Whenever there's a new student in one of Rohit's class, he says "This is the one you are going to remember." I don't know anyone who has come to their first Bikram class really prepared. It takes more than a handful of classes to even start hitting your stride. Even after 16 months, I'm still learning a bunch about being more efficient, and I imagine I'll be saying the same in another 16 months, or even 10 times that.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

146/199 - Challenge Finished

Friday 4:30 p.m. with Rohit
Saturday 9:30 a.m. with Connease

I'm not going to go into much detail about either Friday or Saturday's class. It's enough to say that they were much like other classes in the last week of the challenge. I went into both of them feeling a bit weary, and not really stoked for another yoga session. I thought I might just sit down much, if not all of the classes. I missed one set of Triangle in Rohit's class, and nothing in Connease's. My knee is feeling much better, and I might start doing Toe Stand again soon. Otherwise, the classes were pretty typical and unmemorable.

On Thursday, Lenette asked the challenge participants during class what they had learned during this challenge. I thought I might take that up a bit here. My answer then was that I had learned patience with myself. In the first challenge, I impeded some of my progress by pushing too hard. I remember the sheer terror that came with the first forward bend. I injured my left knee. I hurt my upper back once, but worked through it. And I developed sciatic pain. All of those problems came up, and I still thought it was worth it. This time, I avoided all those physical problems, and it wasn't because I tried less hard. Instead, I think I've got a much better sense of where my edge is now, and how to push to it without pushing past it. And I don't think I really need to see daily proof of improvement anymore for some kind of validation.

The next thing that I learned in this challenge was a bit of a surprise: challenges are hard. I think in some ways I had a harder time with this challenge than the last one. Last year, I was overflowing with beginner's enthusiasm and had not really settled into any sort of yoga routine. So, in some ways, the challenge I did was not a variation from my routine. It was simply what i was doing. By now, I've gotten used to going five days a week, and sometimes four. I like the luxury of taking days off and simply feeling good. So going every day was harder than I expected.

Moreover, the real difficulty with challenges is not so much going every day. Instead, it's from HAVING to go every day. That's the part that really grinds on me. But here's another thing that I really learned in this challenge: How much I want to be in the room, or want to be elsewhere, ends up being irrelevant to my practice. It just doesn't matter that much how I feel going into class. That seems to have almost no predictive value in how well I will do in class, or how much I will like the class. This is a great lesson, because it means that basically any mood is a good mood for Bikram.

In the poses themselves, I'm feeling the most difference in my shoulders and upper back. They show promise of finally opening up some. In several poses, I feel stretching for the first time in my shoulders, in the middle of my back between the shoulder blades, and across the front of my chest.

Now I have to decide what to do following this challenge. I'm going to take Sunday off. I'm pretty sure that there's a significant bump in improvement between five and seven days a week. I will probably try to go every day until August vacation, and then maybe shoot for six days a week.

The day 197 and 198 meditations are about surrender, or surrender to God, on the mat. There are two points that struck me here. First he talks about how asana practice makes people open up to a different sense of purpose in their lives. The most obvious thing I see here is how frequently, and strongly, people desire to become yoga teachers themselves. I know many older people in our studio who would simply love to go to teacher training, if they could only arrange their lives to make it possible.

There are many other ways that asana practice helps with the arranging of priorities. It helps put things in perspective. It helps to focus on what is important and to strip away the rest. In that way, I suppose it also changes people's sense of purpose.

The other point I really liked is about asana revealing otherwise hidden potential. Gates mentions how people only use 10% of their brains. He says that asana practice helps reveal how little of the potential of our bodies we actually use. It reveals this by giving us back some of that use, and by thereby giving us a hint at how much further we might be able to go. Gates says that we build up barriers to our own potential, and that the process of surrender shows us how to eliminate or bypass those barriers.

Friday, July 17, 2009


Thursday 10:30 am with Lenette

It was one of those days when the body was willing, but my mind wouldn't cooperate. I had the hardest time just staying put. I tried harder and harder to simply focus, and eventually just gave up on the focusing. And then something strange started happening. My mind settled down, but the focus didn't return. As a result, I twice caught myself doing the wrong thing. First, when everyone was setting up for Rabbit, I caught myself with my arms over my head, getting ready for Half Tortoise. Then, after the left hand stretch at the end, when we should go back for the sit-up that aligns us for the stretching pose, I started going into Savasana for no reason, and had to catch up again.

This was a pretty strange experience for me. It wasn't that my mind was elsewhere. I'd already gotten over that kind of distraction. Instead, it was more like my mind wasn't anywhere at all. I clearly wasn't listening or following the dialogue, but I'm not sure what I was doing.

Before class, I told Lenette that there was a good chance I would just sleep for the full 90 minutes. (I may get to be the boy who cried wolf on that point.) Of course, once I was in the room, there was no good reason not to try. And so I went through all the poses, didn't sit out, and from the standpoint of working my body in the poses, I did OK, and maybe better than average. Camel and Rabbit were both very good. I got my legs completely locked again in Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee. The balancing series was surprisingly good considering how distracted I was. And it may even have been the best class I could have had under the circumstances, and it definitely helped with my general mood.

An eighty-five year old friend died the night before. He had liver cancer and had been given less than a month to live over a year ago. He was a really good man, had friends and loved ones around him to the end, and he lived a fulfilling, happy life. He died at peace with himself, and he was more than ready to go. And even knowing all that, it still threw me pretty badly.

The day 196 meditation is about how asana practice helps us discover who we are. Gates says that it helps us to learn to strip away all the things that we are not -- our fears, our desires, our preoccupations, etc... In class yesterday, Lenette asked the challenge participants what they had learned this time around. One student said that the progress is a bit like peeling away the layers of an onion. I think Gates is talking about something similar. We strip off the false layers, one at a time. But here's the problem: the onion doesn't have a core. When you strip off all the layers of an onion, you wind up with -- nothing.

That's just a quibble. But I do wonder about this emphasis on learning "Who am I?" To me, it sounds just as goal oriented as anything else. It may be that doing yoga makes people more confident and instills in them a better sense of self. But that doesn't mean that getting that sense of self is the goal. I've run into "spiritual" people fairly often who have done unkind and thoughtless things because they were so preoccupied with "finding themselves." I don't necessarily think that Gates is wrong her; it's just that I think its possible to put as much misdirected ambition into the search for self as it is into any other desire or goal.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

143/196 - Hurrying Through the Rain

4:30 pm with Jean

Class was just fun. The temperature felt anywhere from perfect to just on the cold side. The room was reasonably crowded and the energy was good. No newbies today, but two of yesterday's came back for a second helping.

There were several times when I simply laughed out loud. The best time was when the teacher confirmed that my name was Duffy and then said "I once went out with a guy named Duffy, but it wasn't you." I said, "No, it wasn't. I think I would have remembered." And then she said, "You seem like a much nicer guy than he was." Interchanges like that simply don't happen in Bikram class, and I cracked up. And, on top of that, it made my practice easier and more enjoyable, and I think better in the process.

Coming out of Fixed Firm, I made eye contact with the teacher, and then in Savasana she said that it's always nice to see a smile from the students in class. I know she was talking about me, but I didn't realize that I was smiling until she said it. Rohit puts a big emphasis on smiling in class, and I've been trying it more and more. So it was really nice to know that its coming naturally at some points.

The poses were mostly good. I skipped nothing. And no pose stands out as being either exceptionally good or bad. The best I can say is that I was alert, energized, and happy all through class. There wasn't hardly a moment of suffering or self-pity (well maybe for a moment in Awkward). Overall, I would say that its one of the easiest practices I've had in a while. And easy while still giving solid effort.

Oh, and I learned a new word: "Squeeziness" In half moon, Jean said she was going to come around a check the squeeziness in our butts. So I was trying to think of what the right word would be here, but couldn't come up with a better. Then, as she was touring the room, she noted that everyone started really clenching their butt cheeks together just as she was passing by.

The day 195 meditation begins with this quote: "When my master and I were walking in the rain, he would say, 'Do not walk so fast, the rain is everywhere.'" I love this quote, because I never run through the rain. Part of that comes from having lived for seven years in New Haven. But it comes more from an observation I made a while ago. If you are going a fairly short distance, you will get just about as wet whether you walk or run. The reason is because when you run, you are running through the rain. Your body passes through about the same number of drops whether you walk or run. Next time you go through the rain, notice the difference between how wet your front and back get. Your front will get much, much wetter than your back at first. By being in the rain longer, you will get slightly wetter from above, because there will be a slight difference in the number of drops that actually fall on you. But I think that you get wetter running from the amount of water you tend to kick up onto your pants, and that more than makes up for the difference. That's one longwinded explanation for what the master means when he says the rain is everywhere.

Gates applies the quote to not being in a hurry with asana practice. Since some yoga helps, many people think that more yoga will help even more. But Gates says not to hurry. The pain we are trying to escape is everywhere, and the grace we are trying to find is also everywhere. I agree with him about not hurrying. Hurrying implies that there's some destination to be reached. People hurry to get somewhere, and with the yoga hurrying, its to get so some particular benefit or result.

With that understanding, I think I agree with Gates. Its a good idea not to hurry, simply because its a good idea not to be so driven by goals. But that doesn't mean that doing more yoga is necessarily a bad idea. I definitely don't feel that way about the challenge I'm doing (except for the 15 minutes or so before I get to the studio, some days). When I was doing 5 days a week, I thought that was the sweet spot. This challenge reminds me that the sweet spot may just be to do as many classes as I can readily do. Every day doesn't seem like too much. And even though I'm thinking of continuing with an every day practice, its not because I'm in any hurry at all. Quite the contrary, I'm just trying to establish a norm.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

142/195 - Magic

6:30 pm with Libby

Class with Libby is always challenging and usually fun. Today there were a few moments that stood out. In one of the Savasanas, I think maybe the first, she asked me if it was a bit cold in the room. I thought it over, wondering whether I should own up to it, and she obviously saw the gears working in my head, so I nodded and she just smiled already knowing what the answer was from the way I had thought about it.

Earlier, after first set of Triangle, I took a knee. And just as I hit the ground she said: "But Duffy, I was going to give you such a good compliment in the second set." So I got up again, and then spent some time wondering whether the compliment was worth the extra effort.

I also realized something about my preference for teachers last night. Basically, I like any teacher who has some personal interaction. So, my favorites are the ones who are constantly correcting, praising, giving encouragement, massaging, etc... And it doesn't have to be directed at me. The interaction doesn't even have to be verbal. Eye contact, a smile, walking around the room, simply reacting to what the teacher sees by some change in delivery, even if its just tone of voice -- all of that is good in my opinion. The only thing that really starts to bug me in a teacher (and fortunately there is very little of it in our studio), is one who sticks to their own script, where the words, the tone of voice, and everything becomes so predictable that it no longer seems to matter what is actually going on in the room.

Another thing that was amazing about tonight's class: we had 6 first time students and 4 on their second class. As far as I could tell, this was a very unusual group of newcomers. Most of them were behind me to my left. But there were no waves of dropped bodies, no excessive sighs or moans. No dashes for water in the middle of balancing poses. The energy stayed high, and no-one was sucking it away. That's very different from the other classes I've had with multiple newcomers.

As for the poses, I started off pretty well. I had told Libby I was probably just going to take a 90 minute nap, and she said OK, but don't snore. Instead, I did a respectable class, missing only one half a set of Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee, and then missing the third part of locust and a set of Full Locust (I had a very late lunch because of a meeting that went too long, and had some reflux problems as a result.) Triangle probably earned the compliment I got. Libby said after class I was getting a really good reaching stretch with my arms and chest. And I got a nice compliment in Standing Bow as well. Everything after Full Locust was very good.

The day 194 meditation begins with a quote from a teacher who talks about how yoga brought magic back into his life. Gates says that that magic is our own divine spark, and that is what we come to study when we are on the mat. I'm not sure I agree. (I wonder if the teacher would agree with Gates' interpretation.)

In Bikram, we are told again and again about some of the "scientific" explanations for why the poses work. One that we hear over and over has to do with the tourniquet effect. We cut blood off to an area, then let it rush back in, and that has a healing effect. I don't put too much stock in these explanations. First off, there are lots of ways to get the tourniquet effect. Applying a tourniquet comes to mind. But I seriously doubt that applying a tourniquet would have the same effect as the asana themselves.

For me the benefits from the asana are both magical and scientific. They are magical in the sense that I really explain why they work. A friend who had flat feet since early childhood now has arches. The bunion on my right foot is disappearing. A guy in our studio has arthritis so badly in his back that his doctors say he should be on painkillers basically all the time, and he shouldn't be able to walk. And I'm not getting into things like the impulse to behave more honestly, or the shifting in food preferences that occurs. This stuff is quite obviously magic, or at least magic in the same way that a hummingbird flying is magic. There's no really good explanation for it.

But its also science, because it works and it works predictably. What's lacking is the explanations for why it works. Western medicine has been involved primarily in two things: studying sickness and cutting up the dead. As far as I know, there has been very little work done on the study of health. Yoga is a system devoted to health, a system that has been refined over centuries based on what promotes health. That's a different kind of science, and a type that we tend to disfavor in the west. So it's not surprising to me that yoga seems like magic to us.

Monday, July 13, 2009


10:30 am with Sherry

It was a very tough class. It started out a bit cool but very humid, and from there got hotter and hotter, while remaining really wet. I skipped one set of Triangle, but felt OK through the standing series. Then the floor just wiped me out. After Cobra, I had a hard time doing anything more than going through the motions. I stayed with it, but it was definitely one of those classes to be gotten through, instead of a class to savor.

I'm making real progress on Fixed Firm, and finally feel like I'm making some decent progress with my right knee. If this keeps up, I'll be doing Toe Stand again in another week or two. My balance was pretty good. I didn't fall out of Standing Head to Knee even once, and kicked out on both legs in second set. Standing Bow showed some promise. More and more, the key for this pose has been keeping poise as I ease into it. Too fast, and I fall out forward. Too slow and I lose something to one side or the other. But with a deliberate pace I can put myself into a decent pose and hold it for a while (generally until I'm reminded how much longer is left in the pose).

Again and again, my teachers tell us that the practice is all about ourselves. And that's what the day 193 meditation is about as well. The asanas lead naturally to us looking inward. At the start its just to get the feeling of the posture, perhaps simply to learn the edge between discomfort and pain. This turning inward naturally leads to a gradual conclusion that we aren't looking for something external through the practice. We start by focusing simply on our own limits, and by gradually pushing back those limits (in our backs, our hamstrings, our breath). And when we see its possible to push back those limits, then it also seems possible to work on things like discipline, stillness between the postures, respect for yourself. And progress is possible there too, so the same process starts to creep in elsewhere, on and off the mat.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

140/193 - Tapas on the Mat

Saturday 9:30 a.m. with Amy
Sunday 2:30 p.m. with Rohit

Each day I go into class feeling a bit weary, and unsure of whether I am going to be able to do it. I remind myself that, if I really want, I can simply lie down in Savasana and basically take the day off. In Pranayama, I wonder what the hell I'm doing here again. And then by the middle of half moon, I feel alert, energized and ready for the whole class again. And the energized feeling lasts the whole day.

Today was a special version of that. I got to class early and lay down for 20 minutes before class started. I was ready just to stay put, but decided to get up for Pranayama and see how it would go. I was very stiff through the class, but also felt extra strong. My stamina was great, and I ended up having a very nice class.

I don't have much to report on the poses themselves. On Saturday, I felt like I was doing pretty well in Floor Bow, and then I got a compliment. That felt good, I almost never get a word in that pose. I've worked really hard at keeping my knees and feet close together, and I try to make sense out of what "kicking up" means in that pose, but for me it doesn't really feel like a kick up at all. The best advice I've heard on the pose is to really squeeze the butt as hard as possible and push the hips down. That makes sense. Also, the last couple of days that pose has basically put my lower and middle back into near cramps.

Today, I did a very nice, and relatively comfortable Locust and got a compliment on it as well. I think the work on locking my knees and keeping the feet together is starting to pay off, and I'm getting some of the height back in the pose. And, on another nice note, Fixed Firm is starting to come back gradually. I take this to mean that I'm making some progress on my right knee.

The day 191 meditation is about Tapas. Before, Gates always defined it as zeal in practice. Here, he says that the literal meaning is "heat." That's too funny. In Bikram, the heat is supplied at no extra charge.

The remainder of the meditation is about what keeps bringing us back to the practice. Gates calls it dedication. But one that is born out of a yearning for beauty, and not one that comes from self-control or will power. I think this is an interesting question right now, since I'm 24 days into the new challenge. On the most superficial level, I'm going each day now because I want to complete the challenge. But then, I'm pretty sure when the challenge is over I will probably come back the next day. And if not then, the day after. Why? I don't see it as a yearning for beauty (at least not on any superficial level).

Rather, its some strange combination of curiosity and love. When I'm feeling good, I want to go because I want to see how well I can do. When I feel off, or have a headache, I want to see what effect the yoga will have on it. And when I just don't want to go at all, I still wonder whether I will be able to pull myself through it, and whether the yoga will give me something totally unexpected, as it has so many times before. The love part I think is a bit more self-explanatory, and its pretty visceral, so I don't think I'll attempt to put it into other words.

The day 192 meditation talks about how the asana instills within many people the desire to go further, to learn more. Gates has been through AA, so I'm not surprised that he stops short of the word that comes to my mind: "addiction." In some ways I see yoga as a positive addiction. It seems to me that the deeper you dive into it, the more you uncover yet further and deeper depths. So doing more only leads to making you want to do even more. (At least, it can be that way. There certainly are lots of people who seem perfectly content to come to class 10 times a month and leave it at that, satisfied with a really good "work-out.") I think its perfectly possible for people to have positive addictions. It's a sloppy way to put it, but in some ways I think its a pretty apt description for being happily in love.

Friday, July 10, 2009

138/191 - If Only

4:30 pm with Rohit

Of course, after yesterdays astonishing class, today was a bit of a letdown. Instead of having amazing breakthroughs one after the other, it was simply a strong, satisfying practice. The only pose that compared to yesterday's was Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee. I nailed it on the second set only, but that shows that at least some of the progress is sticking. What's interesting is that I was much better today in the poses that were a bit off yesterday: Awkward, Fixed Firm, Balancing Stick, Half Tortoise.

The room gave us a roller coaster ride today. We started out at 114, and Rohit turned the heat off. So we cooked for a while and gradually cooled off through standing series. Then, somewhere on the floor, he must have turned the heat on again, because by Camel I was really feeling it again, and it was taking lots of concentration simply not to fall apart. When the temperature changes like that, I find it hard to get into a real groove. I tend to get used to an effort level that suits the heat, but when the heat jumps up and down, its almost impossible for me to do that.

The day 190 meditation has further reflection on contentment. Gates says that our culture fosters discontent. I think he may not even go far enough. In many ways, we make a virtue of it. We have great admiration for ambition. We tend to look askance at people who lack ambition. But for the most part, ambition finds its roots in discontentment. A fundamental law of economics is that a person will always want more. This one has always struck me as being stupid, but then its probably exactly for that reason that I'm not likely to become rich.

People go around thinking if only X, then everything would be OK. Sometimes its making money. Sometimes its a promotion or some increase in prestige. Sometimes its having a kid. Sometimes its succeeding in a crash diet. And it can be a thousand other things.

Yoga can be the antidote to this way of thinking. Sometimes, on the mat, it becomes clear that at least for the moment, everything already is allright just the way it is. That's part of what I was trying to get at the other day when I talked about the studio as being a sanctuary. This doesn't happen all the time, but for me, it happens enough to give me some perspective. And that's a start.

137/190 - Breakthroughs

8:15 pm with Amy

My flexibility was off the charts, at least for me. And it was like that basically from beginning to end.

Half Moon -- I was down below 45 degrees with my arms, almost down to 30 degrees above horizontal. The form was right on, the stretch was along the outside curve and under my shoulderblades, right where it should be. This was a good start, but I had no idea what was coming.

Backbend -- I don't know how far down I went. When I came up, I didn't know what planet I was on. Amy was laughing at me, and said that's the way she feels sometimes when she can see the floor. After class she said she thought I was looking at the floor, I was bending that far back. My neck still doesn't bend that well, so I was still only seeing the ballet bar (I think). But my elbows were solidly locked, and my knees were as well, and this is by far the furthest I've gone with proper form.

First Forward Bend -- I could have locked my knees if I wasn't a bit afraid of hurting myself. My chest was really pressed on the thighs. Again, I felt like this was farther than I've gone before but I've got no way of proving it.

Standing Bow -- I made two parts without falling out at all. I hit another new high on the right side. The right side of this pose has been coming along for me. Better, I hit a dramatic new high on the left side, with my ankle over my head. On both sides, I could feel a really deep stretch in my shoulders. So, here I had breakthroughs both in stamina and in depth.

Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee -- This is the one I can really objectively measure. In all four parts, I went into the pose with my front leg locked. I kept it locked throughout, with my forehead easily on the knee, and even creeping up higher. I went in and out absolutely straight, with arms locked. I kept palms together and forward throughout. Here, it was not only a breakthrough, but for today at least, I was at the full expression of this pose. Amazing stuff.

The floor series didn't have the same shocking results, until the end. Fixed Firm was basically gone because of my right knee. Half Tortoise was so-so. Then Camel was great, very strong and with a really great feeling of compression. Cobra was also very solid. And then:

Rabbit -- My forehead usually comes down to touch my knees. Today I tucked more, and it came almost to four inches above my knees on my thighs. When I rolled forward, it was like the back of my head was on the ground. I frankly didn't know what to do with my spine bent so much. After class I asked Amy and she said she didn't know for sure, but would find out. Until she does, if I find myself with that kind of flexibility again, I should ease off.

So that's like a half dozen breakthroughs in a single class. Go figure. Is it the challenge? Is it the full moon? Is it my lack of sleep and some relaxation that goes with being generally tired? Or maybe, its going back to the evening class for the first time in a while?

The day 189 meditation is about contentedness on the mat. Today is probably a bad day for me to focus on this. When the practice is treating you to breakthrough after breakthrough, its pretty easy to be content. I'll say this much, however. These breakthroughs didn't come because I pushed for them. Rather, they came with almost utter ease. And for this day, at least, I was not at war with myself in any way at all. That's what Gates says lies at the heart of being content on the mat.

Before, I've sometimes fallen out of poses when I've made astonishing advances. I got to a certain point, and I start thinking to myself "Holy shit, I can't believe I'm doing this." And then I'm not. Today, there was none of that during the poses themselves, even in Standing Bow. Instead, the moments of utter astonishment came after I had done the poses, not during them. During the poses, for whatever reason, I was just staying with the poses and with my breath. And so, maybe today is a good day to bring up contentedness after all.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

136/189 - Healing

4:30 pm with Jean

We took a long time in standing series, and then went through floor series with almost no time in savasanas. It was very taxing, but also felt good in an odd way. For me the amazing thing was that I could do it at all, much less that I could do it without becoming resentful. It helped, I think, that the teacher made sort of a joke about it.

It was also my 20th day in a row, and I'm starting to feel some minor body problems. For quite a while, my right knee (inside front) has been slightly bothering me. It was an issue for three poses: tree, toe stand, and the left side of the final stretch. Basically, I could feel a slight stretch/pain just from bending my leg to the outside like a chicken wing. Well, in this class, it was acting up much more. I could feel it in Half Moon and Awkward, and it limited my ability to come into a squat in the third part of awkward (at least for the first set). I'm hoping that this may be a step backward that preceeds a bigger step forward, and back to good health. But its definitely something to keep an eye out.

Another thing I've noticed recently is that my right forearm and hand tend to go to sleep when its reaching up in Triangle. I asked Rohit about this, and he says that he gets it too, on the left hand side, and he does't know what it is, but assumes its good for you. At least it hasn't done him any harm that he's noticed in the several years he has been noticing it.

The day 188 has a great testimonial from a student who got rid of fibrosycstic breast disease through yoga. I just love reading stories like this. I've cured several of my own little ailments already, and am completely off medication (which is basically paying for the yoga). I also talk again and again to people in class who have experienced things that I would have said were miraculous just a year and a half ago.

I've also tried to talk several people into trying yoga for at least a few months, to see if it will help with their problems. One friend has a degenerative disc problem. The doctors have told him there's basically nothing to be done about it. Believing them in some ways makes things easy for him. And going to a hot, sweaty, 90 minute class five days a week is not appealing. If it works, it will easily save him more than that amount of time in the time that he spends laid up, or half crippled. But the time and effort just seems like too much. And I don't know what to do to convince him.

Meanwhile, theres a guy in our studio who has arthritis in his back. The doctors look at his x-rays and insist that he should be in incredible pain, and probably shouldn't be able to walk. But he's there all the time, making progress, and says he feels great. The healing power of the asana continually amaze me. The proof of it comes simply by putting in the effort.

135/188 -

Tuesday 4:30 pm with Rohit

I'm falling way behind on the blogging, but am determined to get caught up either today or tomorrow. I'm trying to remember something about Tuesday's class but drawing a blank. I know I went in feeling really tired, and came out feeling good. I also know I made it through without skipping anything. I seem to remember the back strengthening series as being really good, but beyond that its a blank. Either I let too much time pass before writing, or it was just one of those solid classes that simply fades from memory, and those classes are always good. So I'll go with that.

The day 187 meditation talks about how everyone is different, and thus we each discover different answers when seeking purity. He asks a few questions:

Dairy or no-dairy? For me, no dairy would be better, but I love cheese. Sherie says that I have congestion, and nasal congestion in particular, because of dairy. I believe her, but I haven't really done anything about it yet.

Meat or no-meat? I loved the Atkins diet when I was on it. All the meat and butter I wanted (but nothing to put the butter on except meat). I still like meat, but have been eating less and less of it since I started yoga. There are times when I get back from class and the thought of having meat is a bit revolting. And there are still times I really crave it.

Sunshine or no-sunshine? I think this is a false question, at least for me. I like being in the shade on bright sunny days. I get a bit antsy during the shortest, gloomiest days of the year. (Even more so when I lived in Minnesota.) But I rarely go out in the sun.

Stimulation or quietude? Like them both, and think that I need them both. I also have enough ability to concentrate that I can pretty much find quiet just about anywhere. (The time I fell asleep basically inside one of the speakers at a Jerry Garcia Band concert was maybe an extreme example of this. And yes, my ears recovered mostly.)

Ambles or power walks? Definitely prefer ambling. If the idea is to power walk, I'd rather ride my bike.

I realize all of this is beside the point. What I find interesting is the insistence I see again that everyone is different, and that we all have to find our own paths. I'm not sure how much I buy this. It strikes me as just as true, and just as profound, that we are all pretty much alike and that no-one is truly alone. The problem with the idea of saying that everyone is difference is that it seems to lead to an "anything goes" type of license. And taken to that extreme, its quite obviously false. And the problem with the "all the same" mentality is that it leads to dogmatism, and again is obviously false when taken to that extreme.

So I guess I'm content with hearing the appropriate platitude whenever someone brings it up. Sometimes it helps to remind people that we are all different, and sometimes what's needed is a reminder that we are all pretty much alike. And that's fine with me.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

134/187 - Purity on the Mat

Monday 10:30 am with Rohit

I got very little sleep and was a bit anxious going into class. But it turns out there was no reason for it. Class was a very nice balance between being relaxed and intense, and as a result it was energizing throughout.

The high point in class was Camel. Not because I did it especially well, but because I got a great assist from Rohit, just like the one that Lenette gave me a while back, with the towel wrapped under the back and helping to pull up on the chest. It really opened things up in my chest.

Rohit said something today that's both interesting and funny: the job of a yoga teacher is to be a therapeutic irritant. Just a few days ago, Amy was telling me that I was going to love a new teacher because she had a great sense of humor, and was a real hardass at the same time. And thinking about it, it seems that it's the quality Rohit is talking about that I really like and admire in a teacher. First, that its always clear that they have the student's best interest at heart. And second, that they find ways to motivate you to push boundaries.

The day 186 meditation is about purity on the mat. Gates talks about this largely in terms of preparation -- diet, sleep, managing stress, etc... I've had some experience with impurity in this context. Today, going to class on very little sleep. Or going to the 4:30 class after having some nice sausage pizza. I can definitely see the point here.

But I also wonder about the whole idea of changing other parts of your life in order to perform better on the mat. To a certain extent, it seems like the tail wagging the dog. Not that I haven't been tempted. I've thought about losing some extra weight through dieting just so I could do better in the forward bends. Then I decided against it, because I somehow feel that the weight should come off naturally if it is going to come off, from a change of attitude and not from will power.

Of course, if the changes are going to be good for you anyways, then by all means make the changes. An obvious example is the water I now drink. It's clear that drinking this much water is just a good thing, but its also pretty much necessary to keep up with the practice. But Gates also talks about not reading a good book late at night because it would interfere with practice, and here I'm not sure I agree. Sometimes the book will simply be worth it, and practice can suffer for a day.

There's another, simpler, aspect of purity that Gates doesn't even mention. In Bikram, its the constant laundry. It's keeping the mat odor free with tee tree oil. It's getting the tissues ready beforehand when I know I'm going to need to blow my nose. And I'm sure I'm missing some other parts. I tend to think that the practice of stillness between poses, of limiting water intake, and the other parts of Bikram "discipline" also relate to purity, but that may just be me.

Monday, July 6, 2009

133/186 - Good and Bad Yoga?

Sunday 9:30 am with Cisco.

I always like Cisco's classes, and yesterday's was no exception. The heat was good, the energy in the room was good, and Cisco's teaching was upbeat and supportive as usual. And I got some individual attention that was great, and for which I am very grateful.

First, I'm not sure, but it felt like he was talking directly to me in the first backbend, second set. He was encouraging me to squeeze my hands even harder, to really lock my knees, and then not to be afraid to fall over backward. I didn't fall, and the whole process seemed to get a bit deeper into my upper and middle spine.

Then he encouraged the whole class to really try kicking back first in Standing Bow, and only then to start kicking up and coming forward. I did my best pose ever after this, and as I was coming out, he was smiling at me and said: "See, doesn't that make a difference." When I say I had my best set ever, I mean that I had full control of my balance, and that my lifted leg was moving continually upward, well over the top of my head. I was almost looking at my calf.

And then there was Locust. For some reason, everyone has been focusing on my locust recently. Cisco really honed in on my keeping both legs locked in the second set, and he gave just a slight assist just as I was running out of steam. When an assist comes, its pretty much impossible to give up. So instead I wiped myself out. And I think it was worth it.

Cisco says that he's going to be teaching more often. But he also said that he's more committed now to practicing than he is to teaching. As he put it, on the mat "is where it all happens." It's great news that he'll be teaching more, and it would really be a shame if he stopped, because he's a gifted teacher. (I think he's genuinely kind and caring, and has an exuberant personality, so it just flows out in his teaching. I also think that very same impulse makes teaching hard for him. It must be really taxing to take care of thirty or more people at once.)

The day 185 meditation is about our attachment to certainty. Basically, the idea is that as we become more involved in a yoga practice, we more and more want to know. We long for certainty. This often manifests itself in a feeling of superiority -- the idea that the path we have found is THE right path, and that all the other ways are therefore wrong in some way.

Maybe I'm not far enough along in my practice, but I just don't relate personally to this attitude. The teachers at my studio never put down any other forms of yoga. There is a strong conviction about how good Bikram will be for almost anyone, but that I've never seen that conviction come at the expense of other forms of practice. And personally, the only thing that has stopped me from trying other types of yoga is convenience. I was looking forward to going to China this summer so I could try some Ashtanga based yoga again, but alas my plans got cancelled.

I have seen this attitude from time to time from other yogis when I tell them that I do Bikram. It's McYoga to much of the world, and of course, Bikram is only in it for the money and he has the obscene idea that he can "patent" yoga postures, etc., etc., etc. There have been several times when a conversation has stopped dead simply because a near stranger simply didn't approve of Bikram. And that's fine with me. But I simply haven't seen or felt the same thing in the other direction. Maybe that's another cultural oddity of my studio, but I'd like to think that its more general.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

132/185 - Asana and the Right State of Mind

Saturday 9:30 am with Amy

It was one of those practices where I found myself thinking "I don't know if I'm going to make it through this one" before every single posture. And yet, I managed to march through all of them, and had a really good class. I never felt terrible during a pose. But between poses, I was trying to convince myself that I didn't have the energy. And it turned out I was wrong, again and again and again.

Amy had me work on really locking my elbows in the first backbend. It makes a huge difference, but it seems like its so easy to forget. Balancing was so-so. I was in the back row for the first time in a very long time, and I had forgotten what a difference being back there can make. And for some reason, people falling out of the pose in front of you seems to be more contagious than people falling in the mirror (which is the view I usually get).

I really love the quote that precedes the day 184 meditation: "These forms are not the means for obtaining the right state of mind. To take this posture is itself to have the right state of mind." I don't think I've ever heard a better explanation for the difference between yoga and exercise. Exercise works the body. It's pretty easy to do it while otherwise distracting yourself. I've spent lots of time jogging or riding bikes with other people and chatting. I've spent countless hours reading while on a stationary bike. And it was all good. I don't think its even possible to do yoga that way. If you are doing a pose properly, then your attention and focus has to be where it should be. That, by itself, forces a connection between mind and body. It gets rid of the loose screws.

This quote is simply another way of showing that yoga is union. But it makes the point from a perspective that I had not thought before, and it makes me understand it in a new way.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

131/184 - Sanctuary

Friday 4:30 with Rohit

The room started out brutally hot, and the thermostat was broken: 110 degrees with over 40 per cent humidity. So after Pranayama, Rohit simply shut off the heaters. As class went on he would give us temperature reports, because the room was cooling down slowly while the humidity rose and rose. Somewhere around Camel he announced that we had gotten under 105, and asked for a show of hands for people who thought it was cool. It was surprising how many hands went up, including mine. Sometimes, its not the temperature itself that matters, but how its changing. He also told us about teaching in Pheonix in the summertime, where sometimes they would actually have the air conditioners running in the studio, because it was like 110+ outside, and then they would open the doors if it started to get too cool.

I had a rush lunch at a Mediterranean buffet, and ate too much too fast. I went too far into the first forward bend and had some stomach distress as a result. I pulled back quite a bit, however, for the second series and got everything well under control. Despite the heat, class was really good, and fun, and I learned some things.

Rohit has been trying to get us to understand the relationship between the knees, the hips, and the flat back in the forward bend. The basic idea he's trying to impress on us is that you can't bend forward with straight legs unless your hips move backward. He had us all stand with our feet and hips against the wall and try to bend forward, and yes, its true. As a practical matter, this means that rolling the weight forward onto your toes in the first forward bend, Standing Head to Knee, and in Standing Separate Leg Stretching will get you a better hamstring stretch. And in the last forward stretch, it shows the importance of keeping the knees locked and on the floor.

The day 183 meditation is a rather long quote from one of Gates' students. There's lots of good stuff in the quote, but the idea that really hit home for me is the idea of the yoga studio as sanctuary. It's a place where you go truly to be yourself. For the most part, people have no idea about your outside life, and are happy to treat you simply as fellow yogi.

When I first started, I was a bit concerned about my gut, and soldiered gallantly through the first couple of weeks wearing my cotton T-shirt. By Eagle, it would weigh about 4 lbs and feel much heavier than that. But it soon dawned on me that no-one cared how fat I was, and the shirt soon came off. Tight shorts soon followed, shorts that I would never consider wearing anywhere else.

But that was just the start. It also became clear that, at the studio, I was always welcome and people were genuinely happy to see me. On top of that, there is the sense that no matter what things were like when you go in, they will be better when you leave. That attitude alone, I think, works wonders.

It's funny -- I've been to many churches. At all of them, they pay lip service to the idea of how they welcome sinners. With some people, maybe this has been true, but I can almost get some feeling both of judgment, and of people trying to impress each other, at churches. At the Bikram studio, however, I really do get the sense that sinners (whatever that means) and everyone are welcome. That we are all in the process together, and that there's no judgment going on. And that makes the studio feel safe, warm and welcoming. (The warmth goes without question). So, yes, for me its become a very real sanctuary.

130/183 pt. 2 -- Into Emptiness

The day 182 meditation is about cultivating emptiness on the mat. Gates talks about letting go of expectations and letting go of judgment. In Bikram, there seems to be more of an emphasis on non-hording or non-attachment. We cultivate stillness between poses. We're encouraged not to wipe sweat, and to put away the hand towels. Some of us then think about getting rid of the water. Then there's the idea of not getting too attached to a particular spot in class, a particular row. In our studio, there is no advance notice on who is teaching when, partly because we aren't supposed to become too attached to any one teacher. And of course, we don't use props.

The point of all this is to have a practice that involves only ourselves, our image in the mirror, and the voice coming down to us from the ceiling. (There are times in class when I lose track of where the teacher is. The dialogue always comes from the same direction, so it's perfectly possible to come out of a pose having totally lost track of where the teacher is in the room.) Focusing only on ourselves, when things are going well, its possible to shut out the outside world, and become completely involved in the poses.

I think that's what Gates means by cultivating emptiness. And I love his conclusion about this process of letting go of everything but awareness of the present: "Into this emptiness, grace will come."

Friday, July 3, 2009

130/183 -- Pleasantly Killed in Locust

Thursday 10:30 am with Janna

Cisco and Janna were talking outside the studio when I arrived. Cisco told me that he and his friend (Amy's first teacher whose name I do not know) had planned on doing a double, but that Janna killed them. So I made Janna promise not to kill me in the next class. So far, so good.

Class was moving along very well. My balance was really good. I got through three parts of Standing Head to Knee without falling out, and almost the fourth. I had good stamina and managed to focus my way through Triangle.

I've been toying around with different mantras when I feel I need to both focus and relax. "Just breathe" works pretty well. I've also liked "focused and effortless." In this class, I toyed with one that Gates had suggested for before class: "Thy will be done." And it works. I'm not going to try to guess why, other than to note that the phrase obviously calls for a kind of surrender. And it seems to make the most strenuous poses a bit easier. I may have more to say about this later.

Things were moving along very nicely. And then we came to Locust. And this wasn't one of my terrible Locust-dreading days. No problems with reflux and I was feeling strong and composed going in. My feet popped up nicely. Then Janna starts saying: Good Duffy, now bring your feet together and extend them. I try and make some progress. Then she says, Great Duffy, now just a bit higher. And I comply again, and nearly do myself in.

After the pose, Janna says "I know I promised not to kill you, Duffy, but I took it back for just the one pose. You still get 25 of the 26. And its amazing how high you got. You will be at 90 degrees pretty soon" Ninety degrees? It's hard to believe. For the second set, I tried incorporating her corrections from the start, and got nowhere near as high. Besides I was done.

After class, Janna said I was doing really great in the first set of Locust. So I told her I never have any idea how well I'm doing in that pose. She then put her forearm up at a really steep angle and said I was about like that. She thought about it and said, somewhere between 75 and 80 degrees, on the first set, and soon I should be all the way up with my chin forward. I'm pretty much dumbfounded about this. There are many days when I can't even do the pose, and others where I thought I had gone a little above 45 degrees, but I had no idea that I was this close. And I'm totally stoked just at the idea that I've made that much progress on what I think is the hardest pose.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

129/182 - Sustainable Practice

Wednesday 4:30 pm with Amy

Class was peaceful and enjoyable. It was perfect Bikram weather. My energy was back. I did really well in a few poses: Triangle, Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee, and even the first forward bend. For the first time in a while, if ever, I felt like it might one day be possible to touch my head to my knees. I wasn't there, but the idea didn't seem ridiculous.

Lately, I've been coming close to wiping myself out by the middle of Awkward (only the second pose in the series, if there are any non-Bikramites who read this). I'm not sure exactly how I'm doing this, because it doesn't feel like I'm killing myself in Half Moon, but I must be. Anyway, at least for this day I managed to pull myself back together and the class felt just fine.

The day 181 meditation is about moderation on the mat. Gates says that exercising moderation is one of the things that makes a practice sustainable. It's definitely one of the things that drew me to Bikram yoga. When I started thinking about my health again, I didn't know what I was going to do, but I knew that I was not going to start any crash diet. And I wasn't going to do any training that I couldn't continue indefinitely. I've done many, many short term swings in my eating and exercising habits. If something wasn't sustainable, then it was out. (This is one of the reasons I've shied away from things like the Master Cleanse.) Anyway, from the start I was fascinated by the idea that you could do this unbelievably strenuous exercise every day (and even twice a day if you want).

The problem I was trying to solve is exactly the one that Abe Lincoln addresses in the quote before the meditation: Force is all conquering but its victories are short lived. That's what I always found to be true about the exercise of will power. It just gets to be so tiring constantly fighting for whatever improvements came with diet or exercise. So far, thankfully, yoga hasn't been anything like that. It's not easy, but it rarely, if ever, takes any will power. I'm still only early in my second year of practice, but I can really see continuing this indefinitely. And that's something I've never been confident of with Atkins, or with running, or cycling, or going to a gym, etc...

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

128/181 -

Tuesday 4:30 with Sherry

It was so bad that after class Sherry asked me if I was alright. I don't think I was whining or moaning, but who knows? It's possible. Actually, it probably didn't knock me out as badly as Saturday's class did. And I held myself together fairly well for most of the standing series -- only skipping Triangle. And I managed staying with the standing series without struggling.

But once we hit the floor, I just felt like staying on my back. I missed a set of Locust, and then Bow, and then Camel. I'm not sure what it was. The temperature and pressure outside dropped radically during class, as a storm rolled through. Ordinarily, I love it when it rains during class. But I think something about the pressure drop may have hit me the wrong way. At least, that's the only explanation I can come up with. (Aside from the obvious explanation that I've done 12 classes in a row for the first time in a while, and there are bound to be some tough ones.)

The day 180 meditation starts with another quote from one of Gates' students. What struck me is how different her introduction to yoga was from mine, but how over time it sounds like we are on pretty similar tracks. She knew nothing about yoga when she started, and found herself gradually sucked into it. I had done some gym yoga before, and knew from the first class that Bikram was for me, signing up for an unlimited year after the second class.

And it was a physical thing for her at first. For me, I think the thing that was different to me about Bikram, and appealed to me so much, was the obvious focus and discipline that was brought to the practice. From the very start, I was taken aback somewhat by people who referred to a Bikram class as a "workout."

She then describes in detail how yoga has changed her approach to honesty. And on this point, I am entirely with her. Her tendency was to sugar-coat situations. I shared some of that -- I tended more to simply push aside parts of the truth I didn't want to deal with, but it amounted to the same thing. Now, I'm much more likely to at least acknowledge harder truths, to ask myself what I'm really afraid of when I'm feeling anxious, and so forth. And I think I owe this to the yoga practice.

Gates then gives a great summary of how the yamas and niyamas seem to grow out of the practice itself. Just by focusing on the poses, we need to learn moderation, balance, honesty, self-study, contentment and zeal in practice. It's like the poses themselves are a laboratory designed to instill these qualities in people who are open to the process. And that's exactly how Gates sums up the transformation that can occur: "to the extent that we are willing to give of ourselves to this process, we receive the benefits of it."