Wednesday, September 30, 2009

185/272 - Between two breaths.

Tuesday off.

The day 260 meditation simply asks us to observe what's going on when we breathe. It's not esoteric, its not lofty, its meant for all human beings. I particularly liked the opening quote from an ancient tantric text:

Davi: O Shiva, what is your reality? What is this wonder-filled universe? What constitutes seed? Who centers the universal wheel? What is this life beyond form pervading forms? How may we enter it fully, above space and time, names and descriptions? Let my doubts be cleared!

Shiva: Radiant one, this experience may dawn between two breaths.

In some ways this text reminds me a bit of some of the zen koans. But there is a key difference. The space between two breaths might sound mysterious at first (sort of like one hand clapping). But if you stop looking for profundity, its just very simple and practical. That's one of the things I've liked about yoga from the start: this seeming union of the extremely practical with the highly mysterious.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

185/271 - Race Goes to the Slow

Sunday Off.
Monday 4:30 pm with Janna

The good news is that my knee is no longer impeding anything in class (except Toe Stand). That's two classes in a row. I'm still a bit cautious about how I spin around on the floor, but for the most part, it looks like the healing is on the right track.

I'm still not sure whether this was an injury, or whether there is some deep realigning that's going on and causing these temporary problems. I say that because it seems like my knees are just a bit closer together than they used to be when I go into the first forward bend. They still aren't close to touching, but the space does seem narrower.

Class was solid, workmanlike, and fun in sections. Now that I'm supposed to be concentrating on breath, I actually find that I'm smiling (or slightly grinning) more. I've only got the breath thing down for the duration of a few poses. But just thinking about it for some reason seems to wipe the grimace off.

The day 259 meditation talks about the benefits that come simply from paying attention to your breath. The first point is that simply by bringing our awareness to our breath, we start to experience a host of benefits. Of course, most people know that gaining control of breath is one of the ways to fend off panic. But the same thing works on a smaller scale whenever you want it to. That's one of the reasons I like the name of Hannah's blog so much: Just Breathe. There are so many situations where you could offer much worse advice than this.

The other striking thing is that almost all the benefits we talk about have to do with slowing things down. The breath slows. The pulse. Metabolic activity. Even skin conductivity. With practice, we find stillness, and eventually peace. From the standpoint of well-being, it looks like slowness is just a good thing. I'm not sure why this should be so, but I have no reason to think there's something wrong with the idea.

The funny thing is that I've spent much of my life trying to be faster, and feeling a bit behind because I lacked speed. This was definitely true about foot speed. And then about my finger speed both for playing guitar and piano. And even when it came to mental games, I was never really very fast: we would have things like math quiz/races in elementary school and I never excelled at them. When it came to these sorts of things, I did better with things that were deep and hard, or sometimes with things that involved a seemingly impossible (almost intuitive) leap. But speed was never really on my side. Reading this, its kind of good to know that there's a lot to be said for slowness as well.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

184/269 -

Wednesday 4:30 pm with Amy
Thursday Off
Friday 4:30 pm with Janna
Saturday 9:30 am with Lenette

I give up on trying to catch up. I've gotten so far behind on the classes that I can barely remember anything useful about them. I've also had this idea that I would somehow catch up on the meditations, so that I would fit the full 365 within the calendar year. But I won't worry about that any more. I may do more than one on some day, but I'm not going to give them less attention than they deserve just so I can finish "on time."

Onto the classes for the last few days:

Amy's class was the first where I paid serious attention to pausing between inhales and exhales. For some poses, the difference is almost miraculous. I felt a real difference in Half Moon for example. It may seem simple to hold still for a bit, then trying to lengthen the body on an inhale, really reaching for the wall, then staying still, and then trying for depth on the exhale. But the process really seems to clarify things. I find a greater sense of awareness at the still points, and I think its already made some difference both in depth and form.

There are other poses where the process doesn't work for me, at least not now. Locust is the prime example. And some of the forward bends have the same problem. Basically, where the breathing is cramped to begin with, and where the pose is really demanding, it becomes very, very hard to have the kind of control that this breathing demands. I don't know if its impossible, but I can't see how to do it right now.

Another interesting thing in this class. I've had allergies, and before class, I had a sinus headache that had lasted for almost a full day. It interfered with sleeping. Yoga knocked the headache out by Awkward Pose, and I thought I was in for smooth sailing after that. And so it went, until Rabbit. But then, as I curled my head and lifted my hips, I got this amazing burning sensation in my mid forehead that just got more and more intense, until I had to abandon the pose. I never have felt anything like it. It disappeared almost instantly, but it felt like if I held the pose much longer, I could pass out or burn something out of my head. Whatever it was, it worked. The headache never came back, and my sinuses were perfectly clear for the next day.

I was looking forward to more experimentation with this breathing on Friday. Instead, I got another lesson in how brutal the class can sometimes be. It started a bit cold, but just seemed to get hotter and hotter. I was doing fine in the first half of standing series, and had a really good Standing Head to Knee, and Standing Bow. But I think I pushed it too hard, because I was wiped for a set of Triangle and then also for a set of Standing Separate Leg Forehead to Knee. From there, it just seemed to get hotter and hotter.

By the middle of floor series, I was in one of those states where I was beginning to wonder whether I would taste better boiled or braised. My skin was burning. My heart raced. I was moving between poses a bit awkwardly. At one point, I thought I hurt my knee again, but it was a false alarm. (I felt the telltale pop that has recently meant a few more days of pain, but nothing came of it this time.) By Camel I thought I was done, and then, either the heat came down again, or I somehow got my control back. By the end of class, I was thoroughly wiped out, and as difficult as the class was, afterward I felt great.

The morning's class was delightful. I set up front and center, and it turned out that we had an unusual line-up in the front. To my right was Brad, who has about the most disciplined practice I've ever seen. Herb was on his right. He's a bit older than me, but in great shape, and he's been practicing at the studio basically since the day its been open. And to my left was an Indian gentleman (I don't know his name). He's also a regular, and has the best locust of anyone in our studio.

I'm not sure I've ever been in a line up of four men, and certainly not four with such strong and disciplined practices. The energy was through the roof. My knee felt great, almost 100%. And the class simply flew by.

I got a couple of compliments from Lenette. First on the first pranayama exhalation. I thought this was funny since I've been focusing so much on breath recently. And then in the final stretch, where Lenette grabbed my feet and turned them into proper alignment, guiding me through a really hard, but good, set.

The day 258 meditation adds some detail to the earlier pranayama exercise.. First there are props. Gates suggest using three pillows. Two go underneath the base of the spine. The other goes under the head. The spine pillows should be comfortable and help open up the chest. The head pillow tucks the chin slightly forward. I haven't tried this yet, so I can't report on it. Maybe tomorrow.

Then imagine your torso is a glass of water, with the base of the spine being the bottom of the glass and the shoulders being the top. When you inhale, you slowly fill the glass from bottom to top. And on the exhale, you empty the glass from top to bottom. Without this imagery, I think I've arrived at this same approach to deep breathing, but the imagery might help focus it even more.

The most interesting tip to me was the idea that the rhythm you set in pranayama should be the rhythm for your entire practice. In Bikram, we are often told that the opening pranayama "sets the tone" for the class. I always thought what was meant here was that the harder you try in pranayama, the better the class would be. Maybe I had that partially wrong. Maybe the tone that we set in pranayama is the rhythm of breathing that Gates thinks should be carried through the class. I think that's an idea worth exploring some.

Friday, September 25, 2009

181/265 - Inhale, Pause, Exhale, Pause

Tuesday Off.

In a rather surprising twist, with the day 257 meditation begins an instructional segment to the meditations. Gates is going to guide us through the simple pranayama exercises he teaches to beginning students in his own classes.

The first should be somewhat familiar to Bikramites. It's the title of this post - Long inhale, pause, long exhale, pause. Gates recommends doing it as a warm - up to practice. Again, no surprise for Bikramites. He also suggests doing it lying down. No funky chicken with the elbows, no engaged thighs, no sucked in stomach, no neck movements. So it's a bit different.

I was going to try this as a warm-up to the class today, but got into the studio too late. The cool thing is that you can do this just about anywhere. I've been focusing on it some while driving. And also while in bed watching TV. It's a fun thing to do, and it seems to slow things down, and make it easier to focus.

The other point that Gates makes is that the benefits of pranayama are not esoteric. I've noticed this in my singing. Breath control has gone a long long ways just from doing the Bikram exercises. And I expect I'll notice something similar if I ever get back to riding my bike.

There's a teacher at our studio named Steve. He teaches only the 6am classes, so I've never had a class with him. He also is a rolfing practitioner. And he works from time to time with another friend of mine. My friend was talking to him about pranayama, and he recommended doing this same exercise that Gates described. He said the thing to work on is the length of each segment. Start by trying for four or five seconds on each part: thus, a single round of breath would take somewhere from 16 to 25 seconds. My friend asked him how long he is doing it for, and if I remember correctly, I think he said that he was doing 37 seconds for each part. Yup, thats a 37 second inhale, a 37 second pause, a 37 second exhale, and then a 37 second pause. A 10 breath set of that would take almost 25 minutes!!! There's clearly something to work on here.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

181/264 - Experience of yourself

Monday 4:30 with Janna

I've fallen so far behind that I can barely remember the classes anymore. Here's what I vaguely recall from Monday. The heat was up, but it felt good. I got through the whole class without skipping. My knee basically felt better, but it still definitely comes and goes.

I only remember one thing about the poses. I was in second set of Cobra and I felt something strange and nice going on in my inner back. I was thinking to myself that I should try to remember and repeat whatever I had done to get into the pose. And then Janna complimented my pose. This came as a surprise for two reasons. First, Janna usually sticks pretty close to the dialogue, and I could probably count on one hand the number of specific compliments I've gotten from her. That's not a criticism, its just how it is, and I take it to mean that each compliment from her means just a bit more. On top of that, I almost never get a compliment in Cobra. So that means that whatever I was feeling, it matched up with something good in how the pose looked. Now if only I can remember how I did it. (It may be simply from working on Rohit's workshop tips.)

The day 256 meditation takes us on a very quick recap of what the yamas, niyamas, and asanas do for us. Yamas purify negative energy. Niyamas channel energy to promote health. Asanas teach us to focus on the matter at hand, and to strip away all things superfluous. On top of these, pranayama forces further focus, while refining health. It's an amazingly terse summary. I have no quarrel with it, but it seems to me that it basically takes the entire book to unpack that brief summary.

Gates then goes on to ask us to try an experiment. Focus on your breathing, and remember something that happened yesterday. Then do the same, but remember yourself doing a very good deed. Then simply breath while focusing on your breath and listening closely to your environment. In all three cases, he asks "What is your experience of yourself?"

I tried this, but I have a problem. When asked this way, I find myself completely at a loss. If he asked, what did I feel, I might be able to come up with something, and perhaps even something different, for all three things. But for some reason, when he asks what my experience of myself was, I simply don't know how to respond. Here's what I'm trying to say: I have emotions like most anyone else. I get angry, happy, sad, troubled, etc... But when I'm angry, for example, I am simply angry. I don't typically have an experience of myself as being angry. That's just a bit too mediated for me. Or maybe I'm just quibbling over words. Anyway, when I think of the question as he asked it, I find that I am just at a loss about how to answer it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

180/263 - Breath Retention

Sunday 9:30 am with Rohit.

I hurt my knee again -- in my sleep! I was rolling over or something and I woke up feeling that something was out of place in my leg. But it didn't hurt yet. Then I tried to straighten it, really without thinking, because I was still half asleep, and yikes, it was painful.

So I was set back a couple of weeks in practice. I skipped all of Triangle, more out of fear for the knee than anything else. And I felt pretty terrible just standing at the beginning of Pranayama. But gradually, it started to feel better during practice, and then better and better through the course of the day.

The big problem that my knee is now giving me is that it takes me forever to get into and out of savasana from Fixed Firm on. After Fixed Firm, it can take me almost the full savasana simply to straighten out my right leg. I'm not missing much, but I have the impression that the teachers think I'm really suffering, when the truth is that I'm just a bit of a gimp for now. Actually, its closer to the truth to say that I'm riding the border between caution and fear when swinging my body around. Controlled movements are fine for now, but its exactly the kind of lateral swinging that gets you quickly into savasana that is also the most perilous for the knee right now.

Other than that, practice was solid. The biggest improvement I've seen since the workshop is in Rabbit. The tip about how to move the shoulders, along with dancingj's image of having no weight on the head have really helped with the depth of this pose, and surprisingly, its easier to breathe in the pose as well. This may be the first time when I've made a big correction in form, and the posture actually got easier as a result. It makes me wonder if I'm doing something wrong...

The day 255 meditation is our first on Pranayama. It opens with this sutra: "Pranayama is the regulation of the incoming and outgoing flow of breath with retention." There's an awful lot packed in those few words, and I doubt I will get close to unpacking all of it today.

Gates says that pranayama is where the internal and external parts of the practice meet. The control of the breath trains the mind to concentration on a single thing. And this concentration, in turn, opens the doorway to the metaphysical.

How do we start? Simple: just do what we are already doing but bring more attention to the breath. Inhale and exhale evenly through the nose, and try to retain the breath with a pause at the end of each inhalation and exhalation. From the sutra, we can see that there's extra emphasis on the retention aspect, on the pause I think there are two reasons for this. First, the pause is not totally natural for people, so focusing on it develops concentration. More important, its in the pause where we can find true stillness.

The idea of pausing and holding the breath comes in other disciplines as well. I use it all the time in photography. To get a better shot, especially with a slower shutter speed, simply make sure that you are holding your breath as you depress the shutter. I learned this trick, in turn, from reading about snipers, who do the same thing as they squeeze off the shot. In both of these, the object is to cultivate as much stillness as possible. And the same goes for yogis.

I need to focus some more on exactly this aspect in class. In many exercises, I know what to do on inhalation and exhalation, but the teachers rarely emphasize the still point between the two. In final spinal twist, for example, the idea is to lengthen the spine on the inhale, and twist more on the exhale. But the unspoken part is to find a still point in between the two. So that, I think, is my new big project. (And not just in final spinal twist.)

Of course, we have two breathing exercises in Bikram. The first is called pranayama, and it does just what this sutra describes -- regulating the inhalation and exhalation with retention. I wonder about the Blowing In Firm exercise at the end. It's a breathing exercise of course, but there is no regulation of inhaling. Instead, the inhales happen automatically. And, of course, retention is out of the question. Its just, blow blow blow blow blow blow blow. So, that makes me wonder whether other yogis consider this a form of Pranayama, or is it another kind of exercise. (Just to be clear. This question doesn't worry me at all. I'm not bothered in any way by the last exercise. I just am curious how it fits.)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

179/262 - Farewell to Asanas

Saturday Off.

I fully intended to go to class, but life intruded. (I ended up waiting for the contractors to show up and remove a great deal of debris from our driveway.)

The day 254 meditation is the last in the chapter on asanas. With this, we have gotten an introduction to the yamas, the niyamas, and the asanas. These, I think, are probably the aspects of yoga that westerners (or at least this westerner) are most comfortable with.

In this meditation, Gates dismisses the idea that yoga is there simply to soothe. As he puts it, it is not a "time-tested alternative to Valium." I don't think anyone who practices Bikram would ever even begin to make that mistake. Bikram does promote relaxation, but not during class.

Instead, Gates insists that yoga aims for big things: namely, realizing our divinity and sharing it with all beings. It doesn't get much bigger than that. And allowing big things to happen is the main point of this meditation.

Next up will be Pranayama.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

179/261 - Too Clever

Friday 4:30 with Cisco

For the first time in a while, I made it through class without skipping any sets. When I've had a long streak where my stamina is off (or where I've been hampered by injury), I get a bit excited about any class where I feel like I'm back on track and back to normal.

Apparently, my face wasn't telling the same tale. After class, Cisco asked me if it was a rough class. Apparently I had some other-worldly expression on my face coming out of Locust, and he thought I was having an especially hard time. I'm not aware of it, and my guess is that an "especially hard time" is just the norm for me in Locust. Even so, it sounds like there's some extra gymnastics going on with my face, and it might be a good idea to try to bring that under control a bit.

The day 253 meditation begins with a quote from Herman Hesse: "Be on your guard against too much cleverness." There follows a charming story about Gates' observation of one of his students. She first went to one of his non-heated classes, away from the Studio, and she struggled through it. He pegged her as someone likely to quit. She then came to one of his studio classes, and had a really hard time of it. He was sure she was a goner. She became a regular at his 9 am classes, despite his expectations. A month later she showed up for a 7 am class, and by this time it was clear that she was committed to the practice. After that class, she asked her name, and she said "Faith."

Its a cute story. But what does it have to do with the quote from Hesse, I wonder. Here are a few possibilities. First, perhaps Gates was being too clever when he pegged her as someone who would quit. I've seen beginners all the time, and you do get a sense of who will come back and who is likely not to stay with it. There's nothing particularly clever about it. In Bikram, I've noticed that people who come in with high expectations of themselves tend not to return. Athletes, seasoned yogis from other disciplines, people who think that the hot room shouldn't be a problem. They tend to get blown away, and if that first experience is enough of an ego blow, they are gone for good.

By contrast, there's a remarkably high return rate for people in really bad shape to begin with. The class shows its benefits to these people more immediately, and for the most part they don't have their ego all wrapped up in their current conditioning, so getting blown away by the first class is pretty much what they expected.

The second candidate for cleverness in this story is the woman herself. Maybe her response was just a clever way to answer him, perhaps because she had caught on to his expectation that she would give up. Maybe so, but if it were so, I don't think it would be the end of the story. And even so, what is there to be wary of.

The third possibility is my favorite. Gates gives away the cleverness of the story with one detail. He asked her for her name after she had been a regular for a month. This defies belief. A teacher like Gates, I believe, would get to know each of his students by name after the second or third class at the latest. So, Gates is telling us the story to make a point about faith, and the opening quote is letting us know that the story is simply a story.

And, then there is the last possibility: that the quote is warning me against my own cleverness in overanalyzing the story. It's saying to simply take some things at face value, and not worry too much about analyzing it deeply. In this case, that would mean simply reading the story as a charming story about the nature of Faith, and leaving it at that.

Friday, September 18, 2009

178/260 - Learning to Die

Thursday Off -

The Day 252 meditation takes us deeper into the meaning of Corpse pose. It begins with a quote from Seneca: "In life we must learn not only how to live, but how to die as well." From what I know of Seneca, I think he may have taken this idea much more literally than Gates seems to. But I also think Gate's gloss on this quote has lots of merit.

Gate says that life is filled with many little deaths. We prepare for a long time for any given moment. Think of any of the major events in life: a big game, asking someone for a first date , a wedding, a big presentation or business opportunity, anything that we've worked hard for which comes to any sort of culmination. Often, regardless of the outcome of one of these events, a letdown and perhaps even depression follows. These culminations in life can also be like little deaths. All the preparation and work comes to a head, and a let down afterward comes perfectly naturally.

By learning how to die, Gates thinks Seneca means learning how to let go of the culmination that has just passed, and put yourself into a state where you can welcome the next moment. By developing this ability of timely letting go of a culminating moment, it makes it more possible to be present and to live a fuller life.

Gates then connects this to asana and savasana. Asana or a series of asana, is an exercise in living in the moment. Every class, maybe every pose, gives us the opportunity to experience a kind of culminating moment in miniature. (And perhaps not so miniature.) Savasana teaches us how to let go of what we just accomplished. To simply lie back and be.

Given this idea, I think it shows some of the extra genius in the Bikram series. We don't simply get a long savasana at the end. We are trained instead to try to let go of each pose in the floor series immediately after doing it. And, if we approach this with the right attitude, we simply accelerate our ability to let go. Bikram speeds up the process of learning how to die and become reborn.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

178/259 -

Wednesday 4:30 pm with Amy

Sometimes, it feels like there is just nothing in the tank. Before pranayama started, there was a nice puddle forming at my feet, and that should have been the warning sign right there. By Eagle, I was feeling drain. Then, trying to keep true to what I learned in last weekend's workshop, I basically sucked myself dry in Balancing Series. And the rest of the class, I alternated between feeling sorry for myself, and making it better by concentrating on breathing and simply trying to stay present. It basically worked, but the class was really tough even so. I haven't had one like this in quite a while, so I guess I was about due.

On the plus side, Camel was still really good. And I think I've finally got a feel for what the arm position is in Rabbit. And, amazingly enough, it seems to create more room to breath. That's a fairly big blessing for that pose.

The day 251 meditation is a simple, but elegant description of an idyllic scene in Costa Rica. A walk on the beach. A return through the jungle to the hotel. Practicing with his wife on a terrace overlooking the Pacific. A tropical rainshower, and its aftermath. Absolutely beautiful stuff. Hell, I like it when it's raining outside, and our studio only overlooks majestic Highway 59, not the Pacific.

The point of the description, I think, is to illustrate the beginning quote, from Mohammed, in action. And its a beautiful quote (and surprising for someone whose main exposure to Islam is from less idyllic sources). "Observe the wonders as they occur around you. Don't claim them. Feel the artistry moving through, and be silent." This is a wonderful thought, and Gate's illustration, I think, captures the spirit of it very well. And then I wonder if that's a contradiction or not. If you capture the spirit of a moment like this, and reduce it to writing it, have you then "claimed" it, or not? I don't know the answer to this one, but if not, then part of me wonders how else one would go about claiming a moment. And I don't know the answer to that one either.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

177/258 - Attaining Nothing: More on Savasana

Tuesday Off

It was a nice day off. I have to go back to see whether I stated any goals for the number of classes for this year. If I did, I'm probably falling behind. But I probably didn't: usually my New Year's Resolution is not to make any New Year's resolutions.

And that leads us to the day 250 meditation, which brings up the paradox of savasana. It's a pose. We're often told that its the most difficult pose, especially for Westerners. Why? Because its a pose where we are striving towards stillness. We are trying to attain nothing. And let's face it, in an odd way that just does not compute.

Gates asks what it means to have nothing to attain? I won't go all Heidegger on people, and make a noun or even a verb out of it. (Favorite Heidegger quote: "The Nothing nothings.") I never liked that style of philosophy anyway. And Yoga is always, at bottom, supremely practical. So my stab at answering this question: "It means learning to accept things as they are. It means learning the feeling of sinking into the floor, and growing comfortable with that. It means trying to find new ways to relax. It means learning to be content with whatever you just did in class, no matter how tortuous it might have seemed, because it will be good for you, and being content with it afterwards will be even better. That's my answer, and I'm staying with it at least for now.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

177/257 - Savasana Again

Monday 4:30 pm with Amy.

What one thing did I learn from the workshop, more than anything else? If anything, it's that I let me practice fall into something of a rut. It's not that my practice was bad before. I would have said it was pretty good in many ways. But the workshop definitely showed me all sorts of new ways to push my limits. As a result, this class felt very fresh and new.

Also, since I was leaving a lot on the table before, without really being aware of it, this class also beat the crap out of me. Let's fact it, trying to do each pose to the best of your ability is just plain hard. And while I wouldn't say that I had done things to put myself into a comfort zone, it might be correct to say that I permitted myself to sink into certain areas of tolerance.

Here are some brief comments: You know how we hear that Bikram calls Balancing Stick your daily heart attack on a stick. Well, he should also call the first backbend your daily 10 second hallucinogen. When I come out of this pose after going really deep, its like I don't even know where I am anymore. Amy called change, and I was still going down, so I did until I fell out. Pulling the arms back really makes a difference. And if I keep this up, I might even see the floor sometime this decade.

Second part of Awkward really hurts the bunions. I wonder if there's any correction or adaptation for those of us with huge bone growths on the sides of their feet.

On the first part of Standing Head to Knee, I can legitimately start dropping my elbows now. I did this for the first time in a class, and Amy looked really happy about it. The form was there, and it felt good.

I spread my legs as far apart as I thought was possible in Separate Leg Stretching. I still didn't get my head on the floor. But rolling forward, it felt like I might be getting closer. So I did a hand check and I'm within a couple of inches here. Again, it looks like head to the floor might happen this decade.

I really compressed in Rabbit going down. And then tried the pulling thing the way I saw it. I think it was better. The stretch felt deeper. It also gave me unbelievable cramps in the upper abs.

There are lots of other little details that I tried, and I could see how they might help. But overall, the amazing benefit from the workshop is simply the extra enthusiasm it's given me for the practice. I know that, eventually, I'm supposed to transcend these little boosts. But there it is, so I might as well acknowledge it and take advantage.

The day 249 meditation again talks about savasana. It says how, as beginners, we are so thankful for the long savasanas. But that after getting more used to the practice, we are more likely to be thinking ahead in the day after the end of class, and so we tend to rush from the room and skimp on Savasana.

I don't think this observation is as true in Bikram. For the most part, beginners are dashing out of the room as fast as they can, not to get on with the day, but simply to escape the heat. The people who stay for five or eight minutes, or even more, tend always to be the same people, and for the most part, I've noticed that they are steady practitioners, and they are also people who tend to bring much discipline to their practices.

I've gone both ways on this. Gates talks about Savasana giving the sense of ending to the class. Again I don't think that's quite right in Bikram. After all, we get lots of Savasanas, so they aren't really the end of anything. And I wouldn't make as much of it being corpse pose as Gates wants to in this meditation. After all, in Hindi philosophy, death is just a transitional state. It's not an end. In Bikram, we're told that Savasana is where the body gets to absorb the benefits. That's as good an explanation as I need. I do know that I feel better later if I allow myself a longer Savasana, and that should be all the proof I need. The class - with preparation, driving, class, cool down, and drive home - lasts for just over two hours. An extra few minutes in Savasana simply shouldn't be that big a deal. And if it is, its proof that there's something wrong elsewhere.

Monday, September 14, 2009

176/256 pt. 3 - Posture Clinic, Fixed Firm an On

The rest of the class divides fairly nicely into series: warm-up, balancing, separate leg, etc... I haven't thought of the same idea of series when it comes to the end of class. Instead, I tend to think of the final poses in pairs. First there's the rest pair: Fixed Firm and Half Tortoise. Then there's the bendy pair: Camel and Rabbit. And then the home stretch (pun sort of intended): With final stretching, and spinal twist. The main carry over I see here is that the compression in Rabbit leads naturally into the one legged head to knee compressions.

Fixed Firm -- For those of us with big calfs, Rohit recommended actually pulling the relaxed calf flesh out to the sides to make room for the hips as you go down. I need to try this.

The first controversial point here is about when you should start going back onto your elbows. I've heard over and over again that you shouldn't start to go back until your hips are on the floor. I've taken this as gospel. Rohit says, if you are close to the floor, and your knees feel fine, that's good enough and you can start to go back.

On this one, I just checked the dialogue. There's nothing about getting the butt on the floor. It says that heels should contact the hips. Of course, if your heels and hips are touching, your butt will be pretty close to the floor. So maybe that's good enough. Still, I found this one to be surprising, since I've heard so many times not to go down until the butt is on the floor, or maybe just a hair or two off.

The other interesting thing here is what to do with the back once you are fully down with the elbows over the head. Rohit says the question used to be whether or not you should keep your back flat on the floor. Bikram said that there was no point to flattening the back because it has a natural arch.

Over the years, the "natural arch" of the back has morphed into lifting the stomach and chest to "create a perfect human bridge." This is something that clearly has changed. Rohit doesn't see the point. The main benefit of the pose, he says, is a deep stretch in the quads. By arching the back, you reduce that stretch. I think this is an example of where the practice has developed into something different from what he learned. For me, this distinction is purely academic. It's sort of like asking what's the next thing you do once your head is firmly on your knee in Standing Head to Knee: interesting, but it will be quite some time before it has any bearing on how I practice. And who knows, by the time I get there, the instructions might be different than they are now.

Half Tortoise -- Rohit put more emphasis on keeping the hips down than I have heard before. And even here, I may be subtly misunderstanding something. If the hips pop up and the back curves to get the head on the floor, thats clearly wrong. But I'm not quite as sure about what to do with a straight back.

For this pose, Rohit and Sherry helped people into and out of the pose by holding the hips down properly and guiding them through the bend up and down. Mostly what I learned from this is how great it would be to have a personal assistant, who knew what to do, who could give these little assists. Keeping the hips down on my own still feels impossible. But I've had Rohit, Sherry, and Miranda all assist me going into the pose. Each time it happens, I have a "Eureka" moment, and feel like I finally understand the pose. And then it all goes away the next class when there is no helping hand...

Camel -- The Iyengar people go into this pose differently. They start basically the way we start in Rabbit, and then keeping the grip they bring the hips up and forward and then lean back into the pose. Rohit said that going into the pose that way showed him what part of the pose causes that Camel fear and loathing. He says it comes from the opening in the throat as this area opens up.

This would explain why I almost never get anything like the overwhelming feeling others get in Camel. My neck and throat simply don't bend that way yet. Maybe someday.

Rabbit -- I asked my perpetual question about this pose, and again I got puzzled looks to begin with. We are told to get our elbows straight. And then told to pull harder. So the question is: What are you pulling with? You can't pull with your arms if your arms are straight. On top of this, I never actually see people or myself doing this pose, so the pulling has stayed a mystery.

It turns out that you are pulling with something in your back, maybe the rhomboids. But what you are trying to do is create distance between your shoulders and your ears. I saw a few people doing this, and got to see the difference it makes in the pose. And for the first time I think I may understand what's going on at that point in a way that I could actually repeat.

Seated Forehead to Knee -- Most people don't twist their bodies to the right position at the start of this pose. Rohit had us try the following. Right leg extended. Grab the outside of the right foot with the left hand, palm inward. This forces the body to turn into alignment. Then put the right hand over the left hand, release and get the normal grip.

For a while now I've been more or less hanging out on the right side in this pose. My knee is flat on the floor, and my head very well tucked. But little was going on. I didn't have the feel for what was going to get my heel up off the floor. Here, I got guided into kicking out the heel. It's another use of the term kicking that I did not grasp. I don't think I can explain what I did. Basically it felt like I was reaching for the wall with my heel, while pulling back on the toes. And I think it helped. Its another thing I'm looking forward to trying in a few classes.

Stretching Pose -- One of the hardest poses for me. I simply don't hinge forward at the hips, so my upper back ends up being arched. The solution, as Rohit said elsewhere, is the same thing that gets people to Carnegie Hall.

Spinal Twist -- Two tips I learned here. First, you start with one arm propping you up from behind, and the other is going to lift up and cross over to grab the front knee. Before reaching up with that arm, use it to actually pull back on the knee and give you a head start into the twist. (And its much easier to see what he means than to try to explain it.)

The second tip is not to rush to reach around with the back hand. Instead, he suggested that you walk it around as you go deeper into the pose. This can help keep your spine straighter, and give you some more leverage for the twist itself.

Sit-up -- We're told there is a double exhale toward the end of the sit-up, and there is. Lots of people will inhale between the two exhales. The purpose of the second exhale is to empty the lungs. That gives you a better chance of getting your head to where it's going.

The sit-up should be a smooth motion. Libby said that Emmy has changed her instruction on it because so many people were first jerking their bodies first up to the ceiling and then forward, in a kind of jack-knife motion.

The only other big emphasis was on keeping the feet flexed and heels on the floor. If you do this, you get 14 extra hamstring stretches in every class.

On a self-congratulatory note, I got a nice compliment on my sit-up. I've worked extra hard on keeping my arms with my ears in the sit-ups, ever since my first class with Rohit. And apparently it's paid off.

Final Breathing - (I don't know how to spell Kapulbati, so I put it in a parenthesis). Nothing really new here. Shoulders and upper body as still as possible while still having good exhales. Get rid of excess tension in your mouth and face. The puffed out cheeks, the puckering, the noise making, etc..., these only inhibit airflow which is the opposite of what you are trying to do.

Savasana - Don't skimp. In floor poses, put one hand to the opposite side of your body and spin on it to get to the floor quickly. With practice, this is basically a one step move into savasana, and can get you an extra 3-4 seconds in the pose.

The clinics may have taken less time than it took to write them up. The feeling I've had since doing the clinics is very reminiscent of how I felt when I was first starting. Lots of good aches, and the feeling that things are opening up. Maybe that's just from doing 4-4.5 hours in a row, instead of a measly 90 minutes. To test that, I think maybe I will have to try some back to back doubles.

176/256 pt. 2 -- Posture Clinic, Back Strengthening

Back strengthening, for me at least, is probably the core of the series. And it's also the part which says "torture chamber" more than anything else. The things that really drain my stamina in class are: 1) Half Moon and Awkward. I find these two poses to be about as hard as the rest of the class combined. 2) Triangle, sometimes. And 3) Back strengthening series. And of the these, back strengthening is by far the most intense. Here goes:

Cobra -- Bikram says this is the hardest pose to teach. Rohit says its one where he has seen about the widest variation in approved final positions. In other words, two people can look very different from one another in this pose, and Bikram might still think that both are doing the posture correctly.

Rohit doesn't put much stock into the "looking up" that many teachers stress. For some, the body will naturally follow the eyes when they look up. For others, looking up simply puts a crick into the neck. I was surprised at this, because Rohit insists that we not look down when going into Balancing Stick. Looking down leads to arching the back. In the end, he says to try looking up and stay with it if its working for you, but don't make a fetish of it.

What to do with the hands? He suggested actually pulling back on the hands. This has the effect of pulling the body a bit further forward from the hips. The other interesting point was that the initial hand position depends upon your flexibility. The less flexible your lower back, then the further forward your hands might need to go, so you can get the 90 degree bend in the elbow at the end. A flexy back might can put the hands a bit further back.

Locust: One Leg -- The teachers have noticed that some people slack off a bit on the one foot part of Locust, because they are saving up energy for the two feet together. I wonder if there's anyone out there who has not done this? Bikram says that working hard in the one leg part of the pose makes the two legged version easier. It's not clear to me if he means that for a single class, or whether its a long term proposition. Either way, its good advice that I will try to heed. This is another one where I may have been cheating myself, because I'm too focused on the end product.

I also have gotten the priorities a bit wrong. The off side should be relaxed. The lifting leg needs to be as straight as possible, and stretching away from the hip. Then, you go for the height without moving your hip out of line or rotating in any way. And then, you should try to keep contact between raised hip and the arms. I thought that the contact was essential, and have been giving up quite a bit in the way of height. Letting the hip come up some makes it possible to get even deeper into the upper back muscles.

Locust: Both Legs -- The two main points here were: legs straight and don't throw yourself into the pose. When you bend your knees, you get the feeling that you are going higher into the pose. But you are doing it without any benefit. This is one where what you are feeling actually fools you some. As for throwing yourself into the pose, its never a good idea, but its something that happens quite often with Locust because the pose is so intense.

Someone asked about how you go about using your shoulders to push up even higher. As it turned out, I'm the only one in the clinic who gets up high enough that I actually use my shoulders (sometimes). So I got to demo, even though I wasn't sure if I still had the strength. I got up pretty well, and under control, and then I really tried to push with my shoulders. Someone said something like "Wow, he's up really high." But it didn't feel like it was anywhere near my best.

Anyway, I was trying too hard. I came out of the pose, and Rohit said, "That was really good, but..." And I joined in "You forgot to breathe." That just goes to show how easy it is to forget the most basic things. It was a nice demonstration of what not to do, however. Rohit says that he forgets to breath in Locust all the time.

Full Locust - Bikram says arms like airplane wings, and everyone puts there arms out to form a "T". Airplane wings are almost always pointing back a bit toward the stern. I had a question about this. A long time ago, Lenette said to start with your arms actually a bit forward of the T position, so the hands are pretty much parallel with the forehead. Then, as you go up, you sweep the arms back into the airplane wing position, which helps open the chest. This is another one where it seems like whatever works for you. And I'm going to have to toy with it both ways.

Next point: engage the thighs enough beforehand so the knees lift from the floor. This insures that your legs are straight. And finally, this is one of the big grimace poses. Try to smile. Try not to wrinkle the brow.

Floor Bow - We started with an illustration that Floor Bow is actually a relief. With our arms at our sides, chin on the floor, Rohit had us come into a variation of Full Locust and hold it for about 10-12 seconds. Then he said to bend the knees and reach back with the hands to grab the feet. Notice how, when you get the feet, you relax into Floor Bow, and it actually comes as a relief. Full Locust, of course, is much, much harder to hold.

The keys here were relaxing the shoulders, and kicking up instead of back. That means the kick is more at the hips than at the knees. I've always had a bit of a problem with all the "kicking" language in the series. It appears again and again, and it rarely means the same thing in any two places. And in some places, it simply does not seem at all like a "kick" at all to me. For example, in Standing Head to Knee, we are supposed to kick out the heel of our raised leg once the leg is straight, and we keep kicking out that heel. That imagery does nothing for me, and I have had to translate it into something that means something to me. The same has gone for floor bow. I've kicked lots of balls. And I've taken martial arts and done front kicks, side kicks, roundhouses, etc... For me, the kicking in Floor Bow has just never felt like a kick.

Rohit and Sherry went around the room and put their hands lightly on peoples feet and told them to push the hands away. That little physical assist worked wonders for me. I think I finally have some idea of how I'm supposed to get my feet up higher.

The other interesting part of Floor Bow is what happens if your feet are not up the same amount. Rohit says the problem is usually in the wrist. One is likely to curl in more than the other, and the curled in wrist will keep that foot down some. (I've noticed a different reason for it recently. With a weak knee, there's simply an imbalance in how much tension my legs can stand in this pose. My weak knee leg doesn't want to go up as far as the sound leg on some days.)

Next post will be the rest of the series, and then we will return to our regular scheduled programming.

176/256 - Posture Clinic, The Floor

Sunday 9:30 am with Sherry
11:15 Posture Clinic with Rohit and Sherry

Class was mixed this morning. First off, I tried to apply everything I learned yesterday to the standing series. The result? I was pretty much wiped out by Balancing Stick. I'm truly astonished by how much I have been leaving on the table. And I thought I was doing really well, and I end most every class pretty well drained as it is. But there was just another level that I was at during the start of class, and it really took it out of me, both physically and mentally. The most startling thing is how the clinic has opened my eyes to an even deeper level of concentration that could be available.

I also learned that treating class as a prelude to anything is not such a good idea. I was looking forward to the clinic that was coming up, and because I was already wiped out, I think I held back some in the floor series. Holding back in Bikram only leads to distraction. It makes time go more slowly, and it makes what you are doing hurt a bit more. Not a good combination. I realized this somewhere in back strengthening, and pulled myself back into just being present and doing what I'm told. And things got a bit better from there.

Before the clinic, Rohit talked a little bit about how the game "Telephone" works. To prepare for the clinic, he went back to the notes he took during his teacher training. Sometimes he found things in it that he teaches, but which other teachers find unorthodox, and which are not part of the current dialogue. And he found a bunch of things that he had simply forgotten, probably because they weren't particularly relevant to his practice (though they might be important in teaching). He thinks that every teacher develops their own gloss on what Bikram teaches, and as they share things with one another, other things start to sneak into the teaching as well.

I like this, because what's happening here are my imperfect notes and impressions of what I learned from this clinic. Those, in turn, are based on what Rohit said, which in turn comes from his notes about what Bikram taught, and through the haze of many years of memory. So to a certain extent, it really is like "telephone."

Rohit also confirmed my impression that there's much more I could be doing in the poses. He said that while demonstrating poses, and then in how he felt afterward, he realized that there was much he could be doing in his own practice, but instead he has somehow avoided doing it. We spend lots of time in the room. Add to that the driving, the showering, the cool down, the laundry time, and it really adds up. Given that, we might as well be making the most of the time we put in. It's a great thought, and would be an even better conviction, but of course, its much much easier said than done.

Onto the poses (probably again in two posts):

Tree - Tree pose prepares us for Lotus. So its mainly a hip opener. The hands in prayer, and even the balancing, are incidental. The keys are dropping the knee down, and pushing the same hip forward while keeping the two hips in a line parallel to the front wall.

Toe Stand -- The following is not Bikram and Rohit was very clear that its not. He's not a big fan of Toe Stand. In India, its considered more of a trick than a pose. Like Tree, the idea of Toe Stand is to prepare you for Lotus. But to get people into the pose, they can compromise by not raising the leg as high on the thigh. This gets people into Toe Stand, but does very little to help prepare anyone for Lotus. So the pose, for many people, doesn't accomplish its main benefit. On top of that, its high risk for anyone with knee problems.

He says that if you have any problems at all with your knees, then do Tree again. If you can keep your leg in place with hands in prayer in Tree, and your knees are good, then Toe Stand is just fine. If you can't keep your leg in place in prayer in Tree, then you aren't ready to get the main benefit from Toe Stand, but you should still try it anyways if your knees are up to it.

Libby asked about what to do in Toe Stand if you have bunions. I wonder about that too when I'm up for the pose. The answer was basically a shrug. I guess life just sucks sometimes.

Wind Removing -- I've been confused for a while about how you pull in this pose. Sometimes it sounds like you should be pulling the knee toward the shoulder. Other times I get the impression that you should be pulling down toward the floor. The answer is to pull down toward the floor.

In the two leg part of this pose, we talked about hand towels. Rohit likes to use a hand towel to help with the grip in this part of the pose. Almost every studio now forbids the use of hand towels to help with the grip in any pose. When he took teacher training, a big towel and a hand towel were provided. They were also common at the few studios that then existed. There wasn't any prohibition on using them to help with grip in some poses. Rohit thinks Bikram got rid of the hand towels to reduce the amount of laundry to be done, and from there it somehow turned into one of the Bikram rules.

I have a hard time in the third part of this pose. If I'm really pulling on my knees, tucking my chin, and trying to get my tail to the floor, then my elbows are almost certainly going to start slipping off my knees. If the room is cool and I'm not that sweaty, then there's plenty of traction, and there's no slippage. It's much easier to find the benefit of the pose that way. But in a typical class I try desperately not to slip out of the pose. Rohit says one solution is to use a hand towel and risk the teacher's disapproval. He doesn't know of any benefit that comes from slipping out of this pose. Or, he recommends trying to dry the legs and arms as much as possible before this pose, but that's probably hopeless the way I sweat.

Back strengthening in the next pose, and maybe more...

Sunday, September 13, 2009

174/255 pr 2 -- Posture Clinic Part 2

I left off in the middle of the balancing series, keeping everyone on one leg. In this post, I will try to get to the end of the first session.

Standing Bow Pulling -- We spend lots of time discussing the details of this pose in class. For several of my teachers, this pose seems to be a big favorite. It's pretty. And it definitely appeals to ex-dancers. I've seen two people in class doing this to near full expression, with the legs in a standing split, and it is an amazing thing to see.

Given all the class attention this pose gets, we didn't spend much time on it in the posture clinic. The main point emphasized was getting the shoulders right and feeling a good pull/stretch in the shoulders. The error most people make is to keep the shoulders too square. Instead the extended hands shoulder is really reaching out and forward, and the other one is back, creating something like a twist in the torso. Other than that, the best advice I got on this pose is that it really is 50/50 between stretching forward from the arm and kicking back on the leg.

Balancing Stick -- By contrast, I don't usually hear much about this pose in class, and there was much to say in the clinic. First, its another pose where so much depends on the arm extension. Ideally, the arms should stay behind the ears, like in Half Moon. That's aspirational, but thats also how to set the intent.

Then, to avoid "broken umbrella" syndrome, the key is not to look down. Looking down causes the back to round. The trouble I have with looking forward, however, is that I lose any fixed point and it makes the balance really hard. That's something I need to work on.

Finally, once you have got a really nice traction going between your arms and your raised leg, is getting the hip square and parallel to the floor. It's really a ton to think about in a ten second pose. Fortunately, the pose hurts like hell, so the ten seconds seems like its alot longer...

Standing Separate Leg Stretching -- I've had the priorities wrong in this pose. Here's how it should go: 1) Feet parallel; 2) Legs straight with thighs engaged (Rohit hates the word "locked"); 3) Legs spread so wide that the head can touch the floor; and 4) Grab the heels and pull. I've been putting too much emphasis on the grip, and haven't been close to touching my head to the floor. Even spreading my legs as far as I can, I still can't get my head to the floor, but its within a couple of inches now, instead of being close to a foot or so.

About the feet being parallel. The dialogue says to pigeon toe your feet. Rohit believes this crept in the dialogue because most people tend to splay their feet when they take the big step, and also because most people feel like they are pigeon toed when their feet actually are parallel.

There are two problems with going pigeon toes in this pose. First, as I found out, it can cause sciatica. That's bad enough. Worse, one of the main benefits of the pose is to open up the hips. Pigeon toed feet will tend to close up the hips. They work against the benefit of the pose.

There is a good reason not to splay the feet outward. It protects against injury. But the right orientation of the feet is the same as Awkward, with the outsides of the feet parallel to each other. The dialogue gives a literally wrong instruction, probably because it is a shorthand that works well for most people. (I see people who, after hearing the instruction, will turn their feet in some but still have them slightly splayed.)

Triangle -- It's all in the set-up, and the set-up is painful. I already knew that. The other point that's worth mentioning is that, if you are doing the pose correctly, the only way that you will touch your foot is if you have an abnormally long forearm. Otherwise, if you have the elbow connected to the knee, and the thigh parallel to the floor, your hand just will never get there.

Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee -- Here, the tips were pretty much the same as I've heard in class. Make sure you roll down, no flat back. Empty your lungs on the way down to help with the rounding bend. Use the hands on the floor for leverage to get a better head/knee connection. This is preferable to putting the hands in prayer.

He had us do an interesting experiment. Stand straight with the arms up and in prayer position. Now start moving the arms forward some and back some. Find the place where the throat is most choked. For most people, the maximum choking comes with the arms forward a few degrees -- like 15 to 25 degrees forward. That choking is the main benefit of the pose. But the pretty pose has the arms reaching forward in prayer. This last step gives an incidental shoulder stretch, but actually takes away from the main benefit of the pose. So why do it? You are supposed to be choking your thyroid, and you can do that by bringing your hands by your feet and pushing on them to get an even better compression.

That was it for the first day. We covered alot of material. And I felt some strong opening up in my hips and upper back. After class, I had the pleasant aches that I associate with the first few weeks of class.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

174/255 - Posture Clinic, Part 1

9:30 am with Connease
11:15 am Posture Clinic with Rohit and Sherry (and Libby and Connease)

Since the posture clinic was coming directly after class, I intended to take it easy on myself. Yeah, right. Every time I say I will take it easy, I then start feeling guilty about it, and then I end up working even harder than I would have. It doesn't fail, and it was always the same for my "light" days when I was riding a bike. So I should know better by now.

Class was very good. Connease said one thing that had never occurred to me before. She said the arms in Eagle are a warm-up for Standing Head to Knee. You are opening up the shoulders in Eagle and that will help in the next pose with the grip. I hadn't ever thought about it. I have noticed that the Balancing Series actually begins a pose early. But here is yet another way of showing how well designed the series is.

I skipped only one set of Triangle this class, and nothing else. And I probably could have done both sets, and might have tried if the Posture Clinic was not coming right afterward.

There were close to twenty people in the clinic, including Libby and Connease. And there was even one woman who had never done a Bikram yoga class before. Talk about information overload! But she was a very good sport about the whole thing, and in some ways the clinic was much less physically overwhelming than a real class.

Rohit started with his main theme for the two days: Aim for the benefit. The first point is that we don't do asana so we can get good at asana. This seems totally obvious, but its so easy to become obsessed with getting better at the pose. And in doing that, we often lose sight of what the pose is trying to do for us in the first place. So the idea is to take the emphasis over what looks good in the orange room. And instead, to perhaps find ways that bring about more benefit, even though they might make the pose less pretty in the short term.

After this introduction, we went through the standing series up through Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee. We alternated demonstrations, questions, and some doing of the poses. Overall, it was a great experience. I learned a ton, and I'm really looking forward to tomorrow. So what did I learn?

Pranayama -- The big tip I got here was on how to get the throat working properly on the inhale. Rohit had us put a hand about 4-6 inches in front of our mouth and make the "HAH" sound while we pretended that our hand was a mirror that we were trying to fog. No big deal here, and I've never had a problem making the right kind of noise on the exhale anyways. For the inhale, he said to pretend that we were holding a mirror 4-6 inches behind our neck, and try to fog that one up. What that means is that on the inhale we are breathing through the back of the throat, and visualizing the breath being pushed backwards. It may not sound like it makes much sense, but it made a world of difference. The volume of noise I was making on the inhales basically doubled, and it's really coming from the throat and not the vocal chords.

Half Moon -- Not too much new here. The big tip for me here was that hip alignment is more important than shoulder alignment. So, first get the hips square. Then try to get the shoulders where they should be. But don't compromise the hips. If the shoulders won't go into the right line, ease off on the depth.

Backbending -- It's all about the arms and knees. Knees locked, butt squeezed, and bring the arms back. This one is hard for me, and I will probably need to hear it many, many more times.

First Forward Bend -- People put too much emphasis on locking the knees here, and there's tons of stuff to do before you get anywhere close to locking the knee. Rohit wanted me to really get my hands behind my feet, and I resisted. He asked what would happen if I crossed my pinkies, and I said: "Who could say?" So I crossed them, and I've never felt anything like it before in my shoulder blades. I'm still feeling it some. I've clearly resisted going this far with the grip because I need this stretch more than I would have imagined.

The other minor point here is that the knees and legs should ultimately come together. Mine tend to bow apart, and this pose is one of the worst for my knee right now.

Awkward 1 -- I thought that this pose focused on developing quad strength. Rohit says that Bikram says that the quads are incidental to the pose. It's really a standing Cobra, for the lower back and to open the hips some. (I've noticed sometimes when doing this well that my hips will POP when I come out of it, so that makes some sense to me.) The point here is to really focus on getting some kind of backbend in the pose.

Awkward 2 -- I've been doing this wrong. I go up to the balls of my feet. Rohit said to lift my heels higher, so I did. And I immediately said "That' hurts." So he smiled and said, "Congratulations, you've found the pose." I was sparing my bunyons. When I come up further, I'm putting real pressure on them, and it really does hurt some. But I can see the point. It's amazing how much avoidance is going on even in the poses that I thought I was doing well. That was another theme of the clinic: the series is bottomless, there is always more.

Awkward 3 -- Here, Rohit said the dialogue is not complete. He went back to his notes from the first teacher training. Bikram said to pigeon toe yourself before going down in this pose. It's to protect the knees. If you just bring the knees together without turning the feet at all, you are torquing them, and that has nothing to do with the pose. Turn your heels out a bit, and you can squeeze the legs together without putting the extra pressure on the knees. Given the current state of my knees, I like this tip.

Eagle -- Lots of time spent on the arms, and that's one area I don't have trouble with. The legs are another story. To get the hip flexibility, he suggested doing the leg wrap at home while lying down. It's worth a try.

Standing Head to Knee -- We spent a long time on this pose, which I guess is not surprising. Here's the big surprise: on the right side, I'm ready to go further that I've taken this pose, and I actually started dropping my elbows some in class.

Rohit stressed not bending too far forward when grabbing the foot in the set up. Lots of teachers insist that the thigh stay parallel with the floor and that the student hunch forward. Rohit doesn't know where this came from, and says it places too much stress on the back. It also leads to having the head be out ahead of the knee from the start, which makes it almost impossible to curl the head back to the knee as the final expression. He said he has watched Bikram and Rajhashree do the set up, and they both do it the way he recommends, and that's good enough for him.

In the second phase, we kick out and are supposed to then lock the kicking leg. Here, he says that its ideal to get the kicking leg completely straight. But, if you are pretty close, and kicking toward the wall with your heel as best you can, then its ok to start bending the elbows and arching the back forward, even if your leg isn't 100% perfect. That's why I can go a bit further than I thought in this pose. And to my surprise, going a bit further for some reason made the pose a little easier, and alot more fun.

That's enough for the first part. More later...

172/254 -Simplicity beyond Sophistication

Thursday Off.
Friday 4:30 with Rohit

The weakness in my knees still shows itself in Triangle. At this point, its possible that my knee is actually strong enough to do it, and I'm harboring some fear that's preventing me. But soon, I think it will obviously be strong enough again, and then I will only have Toe Stand to work myself back into.

I got called out in the first part of Awkward pose. I've been awfully fond of how low I can go in this pose. There have been a few classes where Rohit has said everyone but Duffy needs to go down lower. And in this class, Rohit said I was down too low. Worse, he said going down too low puts the knees at risk. Yikes!

Everything else was pretty standard for a weekday 4:30 class. I had some bad reflux issues in the first forward bend, first set. But I got my breathing and everything else under control, and they didn't crop up again, not even in back strengthening. More and more, I'm becoming convinced that I have pretty complete control over these reflux issues, and that when it strikes, its because I'm doing something wrong in the pose -- typically not breathing properly.

The day 248 meditation begins with a wonderful quotation: "We must strive to reach that simplicity that lies beyond sophistication." Gates, in talking about this, mentions running into people who have no idea how complex life is. He says that for them life is quite simple because they "come from a place of love."

I don't doubt that Gates has met such people. He may even be right about why they can treat things with seeming simplicity. But I think he misses the point of the quote. The idea is that someone goes through all of the complexity, and after putting all the complex things together, ends up with the truly simple.

I've often admired this quality of accomplished simplicity, whether in music, in art, in writing, or in any other field where it can crop its head. Let's take music first, and I will give three examples. First, Mozart's music, especially his piano music, has a deceptive simplicity about it. Young students often play Mozart, because people mistakenly consider some of it to be easy.

A more concrete example is the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. The main melody is a single note repeated over and over. But out of this a completely simple melodic material, Beethoven creates music that is deeply moving and tragic. Here it is if you care to listen.

The other example is in much of the music by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. When at their best, it seems like they were writing folk songs or traditional music. There best songs are ones that could have been around for literally hundreds of years. I'm thinking of songs like Ripple or Brokedown Palace or even Cumberland Blues.

In the arts, the sort of thing I have in mind are the wonderful later cut-out works by Matisse, or maybe the sculptures of Brancusi. In Chinese art, there are painters who work on painting a goldfish with a single brush stroke. I think its that sort of thing that the quotation is getting at.

I especially admire any writer who can write both simply and powerfully. In writing, I think of things like Frost's poetry, which seems so simple and often is not at all. Or maybe just my favorite poem by William Carlos Williams:

So much depends upon
A red wheel barrow
Glazed with rain water
Beside the white chickens

And the same sort of quality applies even to a field like Math, where a proof is a good thing, but a simple and elegant proof is something that mathematicians truly admire.

The same quality ends up being the goal of asana practice. We work and work on the details and on the techniques so that ultimately the poses might become simple. It's a simplicity that does not come naturally at first, but one that we might ultimately reach after we have wended our way through some sophisticated knowledge applied to the same poses.

Friday, September 11, 2009

171/252 -

Tuesday Off.
Wednesday 4:30 with Amy

Wednesday's class was solid, and fairly typical of recent classes. My knee felt pretty good, but I still had to skip a set of Triangle and Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee.

Once again, I got a compliment in Standing Separate Leg Stretching. I still don't come close to getting my head to the floor, and I haven't noticed any progress in this pose, at least not in how far I go. Sometimes, I feel a better stretch in my inner thighs, and that's what it felt like in this class. I guess my form is improving here, and I can only have faith that that will lead to a deeper, better pose someday.

The day 246 meditation is about connection, and how breath leads to feeling the necessary connection. It makes a distinction between being present, and "right action as it is definced by our lif philosophy." According to Gates, the end or goal is to connect the moment to this philosophy. As the opening quote puts it, we need "to see both the forest and the tree."

As I see it, this is one of those overview meditations. I don't disagree with anything said here, but I don't have any substantial experience that fully relates to this sort of end. For me, its still pretty much aspirational.

Moving on to the day 247 meditation. (I need to catch up some, because I'm going to posture clinic both days this weekend, and I expect to have loads to think about and write about from those sessions.) Here, Gates talks about seeing his face in every face. He's talking about universal love, having the feeling that every living thing is family. In this meditation, he doesn't draw a distinction between a forest or a crowd.

This one comes a bit closer to home. Practice has made me more open to others, at least much of the time. This is one of the things that came totally unexpected, and its one of the best things about the practice. I can't go so far as to say that I see my face in trees, but I think I at least see the direction that Gates is heading in, or the point of his metaphor. But that assumes that it is a metaphor, and I can't say with certainty that that is the way Gate's means it. Rather, it is the best way for me to understand it right now. In a few years, maybe I will think differently?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

170/250 - Flexible Mind

Monday 10:30 am with Sherry.

Class was surprisingly full for a holiday, with about 38 people. I got a spot in the front right next to Lenette. It's always nice to practice next to a teacher. It brings a little extra energy for me. I know it probably shouldn't make a difference, but there it is.

Again, I was a bit concerned going into class because my knee wasn't feeling that great. And once again, the yoga defied my expectation and turned things around. After class my knee felt much, much better. And it has since. As for the class itself, it was pretty solid. I skipped one set of Triangle, and one of Standing Seperate Leg Head to Knee, both because I didn't want to push the knee too hard.

The day 245 meditation talks about how the asana develops flexibility in the body, but also by showing us that we can push our limitations, develops flexibility of the mind in the process. This is a great point, and I think Gates makes it well. Thinking about it, there are more parallels between the physical attributes we develop and the attibutes of mind or character that come along with it.

Take balance. It's hard to even separate physical and mental balance. If your mind is flopping all over the place, it's unlikely that you will be able to stay on one foot. And the opposite is probably true too: falling out of the pose again and again tends to lead to frustration and can easily put the mind out of balance. So, when we are cultivating balance in class, we are getting at both the mind and body at the same time.

And the same thing goes for strength. Think of Awkward pose, second part. Of course, this is working on inner thigh and quad strength. But the way to develop this strength is by also exercising focus and determination. Thus, yoga is developing physical and inner strength all at once.

Flexibility, strength, balance, stillness. A mental and spiritual aspect gets fostered for pretty much every physical virtue we try to cultivate. Of course, if we keep in mind that yoga is union, then this all makes perfect sense. But when you break it down this way, its a pretty amazing thing to behold.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

169/249 - The Attention Yo-Yo

Sunday Off.

My Friday class with Janna, or something after it, set my knee back quite a bit, so I decided to take an extra day off again. I'm feeling like quite the slacker.

The day 244 meditation describes an all too familiar process during class. For this post, I'm calling it the attention yo-yo. We might start out distracted, with the mind on all sorts of things that just happenned -- the driver that cut you off, someone who yelled at you at work, maybe just a feeling of being pressed by that inner to-do list. And then, as practice goes on, attention focuses on breath, on the feeling of the poses, on finding the edge. And then something breaks that connection, the mind starts wandering again, of maybe just starts cursing the heat. And again, with attention to the poses, we try to bring it back into control. And so our level of distraction tends to yo-yo up and down through a typical class.

Over time and with lots of focus, Gates says we gradually get more and more control over the yo-yo effect. We cultivate stillness in the poses, stillness between the poses, and that stillness gradually comes to our minds as well. I think this is an apt description, but its nothing like the linear progress a novitiate might suppose. Instead, I'm finding that there are whole weeks where my mind seems to be bouncing where ever it will, doing Walk the Dog, Loop the Loop, and maybe even Buddha's Revenge, and all sorts of other yo-yo tricks that I could never actually do. But over time, and I'm still very early in this process, I think there is genuine progress.

Gates also calls attention to savasana at the end of class as part of learning rest and peacefulness. Here's where Bikram really is different, and I think the difference really pays off. We get Savasana in the middle of class, and then a short savasana between all the floor poses. At first, these breaks were great because I was just so happy not to have to be doing another strenuous pose for a few seconds. I've come to appreciate them more, and when things are going well, the savasanas are genuinely energizing. We're told again and again in class that these short savasanas are one of things that truly sets the Bikram series apart from other styles of yoga.

The final savasana, however, gets kind of short shrift in Bikram. I've taken other classes where there's 5 minutes or more of simply lying still before class is over. And in those classes, the teacher usually emphasized that that time was the most important part of class. In Bikram, for most people, its two minutes or less and they are out of the room. Often its less.

Thinking about it, I realize I've recently been skimping on the Final Savasana. For a while, I told myself that I could not leave the room until it no longer felt like an escape. Now, I rarely feel like I have to "escape" the heat, or anything else, so that rule doesn't work well anymore. And I probably should come up with some other way to extend that time.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

169/248 - Explorers and Adventurers

Saturday Off.

In the day 243 meditation, Gates calls yogis explorers and adventurers of the body. He says that instead of traveling to distant places we set out to explore what is closest at hand. I really like this comparison.

There are a few ways to travel. Frequently, people opt for quick tours, with lots of their compatriots. They may ride a bus, or a train, or cruise on a ship. If so, they are likely to stick together with people they know, or at least with people from their own country. They will see some wonderful sights, and perhaps have a guide tell them about it. And they might have a wonderful time. When they come home, they might even have some snapshops: that's mommy standing in front of the Eiffel Tower -- the French were so rude; or there's dad, throwing a coin into Trevi Fountain. Didn't you just love Roman Holiday?

I don't really have as much disdain for this type of traveling as it may sound. And I certainly have nothing against Roman Holiday. (I do, however, absolutely hate those kinds of snapshots.) But there is an alternative to the Six Night, Seven Cities tour.

I took my first trip to Europe when I was nineteen. I rented a student garret in Paris for the full month of June, and stayed in the city and its environment. I walked, alot. I started frequenting the same cafe and getting to know some of the people there a bit. I played my guitar in the subways and in front of the Pompidou center to make money for a slightly better dinner. I had a blast, and I like to think that I actually absorbed a tiny bit of France in the process.

Now, I prefer to find a spot or a couple of spots on a vacation and stay there. To eat, I do my best to find out where the locals go, and I have found wonderful, small restaurants this way. In Ravello, Italy, there's a family owned restaurant called Compa Cosima (and I'm slightly guessing at the name). In town, they know it as Netta's place. She's the owner and learned to cook from her father, who was the owner before her. They serve the best seafood and pasta you can imagine, and Netta treats the customers, at least any who return, as her kids. Last time we were there, we stayed in Ravello for almost a week and ate at Netta's four nights. By the last meal, she was asking us the night before what she could make especially for us.

The town itself was similarly homey. There's a town square where basically everyone goes to hang out and socialize in the evenings. There might be a group of men playing cards and talking trash to each other, while drinking the evening away. There is sure to be some kids making up games with each other on the spot. Elderly couples just sitting on the church steps, watching their grandkids and enjoying the evening.

On one magical night, there was a local band, all brass instruments. They preformed a brass arrangement of highlights from Rigeletto, by Verdi. And, they were good. Probably the whole town turned out. The people knew each other, but were equally welcoming of strangers, like me and my wife.

This kind of travelling is quite different, and I think it has an element of what Gates is talking about. To really get to know someplace, you have to drop your preconceptions about what it should be like, and allow yourself just to be present in the environment. In travelling, to me, what this means is that you have to understand the difference between on the one hand "doing the Louvre" simply to be able to say that you had done it, and you were disappointed in the Mona Lisa. Or on the other hand, going to the little museum where David stands, and just sitting there for an hour or two to bask in the work, and then coming back again the next day to take in a little more because its just so freaking awesome.

And that's the way it is with yoga as well. In asana, instead of trying to become present and allow ourselves to absorb the daily feel of Paris or the joy of a summer night on the square in Ravello, instead of that, we are trying to accomplish the same thing with our bodies. Instead of trying to simply do some exercise and get it over with, we are trying to learn how to bask in the feeling of our limbs aligning as they should, our muscles stretching just at their edge, or our breath making a difference because its just so freaking awesome.

Yeah, I liked this meditation.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

169/247 - Sustained Attention

Friday 4:30 pm with Janna

Class was great. I made it all the way through without skipping anything. I didn't feel hampered by my knee at all. I felt like I'm making progress in Half Moon, and in the backbends. I put myself in the hottest part of the room. Janna had the heat cranked, and it didn't bother me at all. I came out of class feeling great and very pleased with myself.

And then, a while later, my knees started to ache, and I have no idea what I did to them. This time it wasn't just the injured one, though it hurt more. Both of them had a kind of deep ache in them, and it didn't make much difference whether I was bearing weight or staying still. Very strange, and I'm not sure what to make of it. But it means I'm in store for some more rest.

The day 242 meditation asks us to conduct an experiment. First he says to let your mind wander, either over past events or over your expectations. He suggests that you notice how readily your emotions track the quality of the things you remember -- happy memories tend to yield happy thoughts, and sad memories are just that. Gates says that the emotions here are real, but they are based on a fantasy. The danger, he says, is that our emotions become a slave to the "soap operas" that our imagination produces.

He then contrasts this with sustaining your attention on something you are doing here and now. When we do this, we might still feel joyful, sad, angry. But in this case, we know that the basis for the emotion is real and that we can work with it.

So what? It's tempting to think that happiness based on a fantasy is just fine, and may be preferable to some of what reality pushes at us. That was my first reaction. Gates' point, however, is that when we stay in the present we can work with it, and this gives us room to grow and develop. Sticking with our imagination and our memories leads to a kind of stasis. It gives us nothing to grab onto, nothing to change, and no way to grow.

Asana practice gives us the laboratory for learning how to work in the present. And it shows us the changes that become possible by simply staying present. And I think this is very useful.

But I think Gates misses out a bit on the importance of daydreaming. In the right perspective, a good daydream can be a very nice, pleasant and satisfying thing. In fact, I think where the real difficulty lies is when people start confusing or intermingling the two. There's nothing wrong with retreating to a very nice daydream. And there's certainly nothing wrong with living and working in the present. The problem arises when people let their daydreams, their memories, and their illusions interfere with their everyday life.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

168/246 -My Inner Lenny Mintz

Thursday Off --

In the day 241 meditation, Gates talks about how sometimes his best practices happen when he decides to take it easy. He explains that, ordinarily, he is ruled or guided by an inner coach. That coach is sort of an amalgam of his high school sports coaches and his army drillmasters. When he decides not to try so hard, sometimes an amazing thing happens and his practice simply opens up for him.

The coach from my past, the one who drives an inner voice that I would be much better off without, was a particularly nasty, bitter little man named Lenny Mintz. He first coached me in 9th grade football, and then again he coached varsity basketball.

For me, the keynote for the football season came when Mintz gave a long speech to the team praising one player for being the only one on the team who had never missed a practice. He basically was telling everyone how noble and dedicated that was, and what slackers and degenerates the rest of us were. Every day before practice, I went to the locker room, deciding whether I was going to go to practice or quit the team. And every day, I went to practice, without missing one. So after this speech, when I got a chance to be alone with him, I said to him: "You know, I never missed a practice either." He shrugged his shoulders and said, "I was talking about someone who made a difference to the team."

Later, coaching basketball, he would have us do sprints until a few people had to run into the lockers to puke. When they would come back out, wiping the puke off their chins and pretending to be ready to go, he'd make sure to tell the person how worthless they were, how they didn't deserve to be on the team and should probably just quit. He took some delight in running "offensive foul" drills, which were basically an excuse to let players knock each other to the floor.

A friend of mine, who was an excellent player who could have played top notch college ball, broke his arm before his senior season and missed all but the last two games. In one of those two games, largely because of my friend's amazing play on defense, we beat the number one team in the state that year. Mintz refused to give him any help in getting a college scholarship, because my friend "ruined his (Mintz') season" by breaking his arm and missing most of the season. Why should Mintz help my friend when my friend hadn't done anything for Mintz?

That was the main coach I had in Junior High and High School. And unfortunately, he's been a big part of my "inner coach" for years and years after that. Very often, when on an exercise program, I can hear those encouraging words: "You suck. You're worthless. You don't deserve to be here. I don't even know why you even try. Why don't you just quit, already."

And yes, I have known for years and years that he was just a petty little man, not worth my attention. In fact, I didn't even go out for basketball in my senior year after having played varsity in my junior year, precisely because I no longer wanted to have anything to do with him. But even with that knowledge, he managed to worm his way into my mind.

One of the things I love about yoga, and Bikram in particular, is that this my inner Lenny Mintz almost never says a word while practicing. That's one of things I love about the dialogue. Listening to it makes it a bit more difficult to carry on an extensive inner monologue. It shuts Mr. Mintz up.

168/245 - More is More

Wednesday 4:30 pm with Amy

For the first time since I tweaked my knee, I made it through a full class without skipping anything (except subbing Tree for Toe Stand). The extra attention I paid to detail seems to have paid off some. I got compliments from Amy in poses where I usually hear nothing.

First, in the first forward bend. I felt like I was actually getting some lengthening in my lower back, and Amy said the pose was "beautiful." That's not something I thought I'd ever hear about this pose.

Then I got a compliment going down in the third part of Awkward. This one was a little funny. I was not sure how strong my knee was, so I took an extra long time going down, what seemed like forever. And now I know that that's what they've been asking for all along. Ten counts actually isn't long enough, and they really mean it when they say the slower the better here.

And then, I got some more nice praise for Camel. I really like this pose again, and I've gotten to where I look forward to it. Strangely, the pose that now bugs me the most is the last part of Wind Relieving. My knees start to slip out of my elbows, my upper back isn't really open enough to relax into the pose. I begin to lose the pose, and I never know whether to set up again, or to try to hang on for dear life.

In the day 240 meditation, Gates talks about doing doubles. For Gates, a double is a morning practice and then an afternoon or evening practice. He likes doing them from time to time because the morning practice acts as a nice warm up, and then he can go even further in the evening practice.

I've only done a handful of doubles, and they were all in my first challenge. I liked doing them, but for whatever reason, I've had little desire to do one outside of a challenge. A while ago, Cisco told me the whole practice escalates to a new level when you start doing more regular doubles. I was a bit skeptical, and he said that I just hadn't had enough of the kool-aid yet.

Of course, the main trouble is finding the time. A morning and afternoon class, with driving time and cool down, takes close to five hours. A back to back double would save about an hour. But for Gates, I don't think a back to back counts as his sort of double. Instead, I think he would view it as an extra long single practice.

Anyway, the double is one way in which, as the quote at the start of the meditation says: "Sometimes more is more."

Thursday, September 3, 2009

167/244 - When to Practice

Tuesday off.

The day 239 meditation deals with the very practical issue of when is the best time of day to practice. The opening quote says to practice before 5:30 in the morning. I agree. I always practice before 5:30 in the morning, in two senses. First, if I practice and then wait a certain amount of time, 5:30 in the a.m. will eventually roll around. Of course, when it does , I will almost certainly be asleep. But, in a literal sense, I practiced before 5:30 am. And then, of course, when I'm done with practice, 5:30 am will roll around somewhere on the planet, so again, I practiced sometime before 5:30 am, somewhere.

But, if the idea is to wake up, practice and be done with it before 5:30 am, that's both not possible with Bikram, and it wouldn't happen even if it were possible. Amy would have to have 4 am classes. She'd have to find someone crazy enough to teach them. And I'd have to wake up at 3:30 am to get to them. That would put my bedtime before my dinnertime, and while that would probably be great for the waistline, I don't see it happening any time in this life.

We do have a 6 am class and I keep saying I want to try it, but that's a noble thought that is easily repressed, especially at 5:30 am on the few times that I set the alarm to try it. I'm glad we have the 6 am class, because there may come a time when I need to go to fit a class into my schedule. Fortunately, I have been spared that necessity so far.

Gates says he used to do early practice and loved it. It woke him up and got him ready for the rest of the day. The downside was that he was much less flexible and capable in the poses. This mirrors my experience as well. In Bikram, there are some other considerations for a morning class. It's more difficult to be sure of how well hydrated you are before a morning class, and that can be some cause for concern. But on the plus side, my stomach is always empty for morning classes, and that means having no concerns over spitting up anything.

Evening classes have kind of the opposite advantages and disadvantages. The day is done, and Gates points out that there can be some trepidation during the day about whether to go to class. That's certainly true. Flexibility and strength are both much better for me at night. Hydration is usually easily managed with drinking water through the day, but spitting up can be an issue for me (especially at the 4:30 class).

The Bikram difference in the evening, or at least something that Gates doesn't mention, is what to do with the incredible energy you get from class. Often, still, I can take an 8:15 class and find myself wide awake at 2 or 3 in the morning. I never have this problem with the earlier classes, and there are things that can help even after the 8:15 class -- a long final Savasana, a long hot shower, a nice book to read before bed.

For me, I don't think there is a right or wrong time for practicing. They are simply different. And frankly, I like mixing them up. I like the feeling of going to a Saturday morning class and working myself through the morning stiffness. I like the peace and energy that it brings today. And I like just as much the satisfaction of going to an evening class and being totally on top of everything. Then, coming out of the class and feeling like I've made a very satisfying end to the day.