Friday, October 30, 2009

200/302 - Taming the Bull

Wednesday Off
Thursday 6:30 pm with Connease

I was expecting a really hard class. It was pouring outside. The humidity soared. Just sitting out in the lobby, I started dripping sweat. Then, when I went to put my mat down, the temperature showed 107 degrees. Gulp.

And once again, I got something totally different from what I expected. I felt strong, focused, and together. I flowed with the dialogue for the most part. I made it all the way through without skipping any parts, even when I wanted to go down at the end of the standing series. Right now, most of the wanting to go down is just a newly formed bad habit.

Overall, it was one of the more pleasant classes I've had recently. I got a good correction in Balancing Stick -- not pointing my toe enough. And a nice compliment in Triangle: Connease said she could feel me stretching through the chest in shoulders just by looking at me.

For a while now, I've been feeling a bit self satisfied about my arm position in Half Moon. But a couple of days ago I demonstrated for someone how far back Rohit gets his arms by his arms, keeping them totally locked. Most men don't do this, so I think men might come to think they have something of a pass on this one.

Anyway, while demonstrating, it occurred to me that if I could demo this form, then I should also really be doing it in class. No excuses for slacking on that. I really tried harder to focus on the arm lock in this pose, and I can still feel it through my shoulder blades. It's not like I was doing it badly before. But as Rohit says, these poses really are bottomless. The surprising thing is that I thought that paying attention to this aspect of the form would hurt the overall depth. It didn't. If anything, I was going maybe a little deeper than normal.

The day 174 meditation begins with a quote about taming a bull. First you bring out the whips. As the bull learns, he becomes naturally tame. Eventually, the restraints come off, and the bull willingly follows its master. The bull is the mind. At first, we have to use the will and all of our focus to get the mind to stop bucking. Then, over time, with practice through pranayama and asana, the mind starts to become a bit more naturally tame. And, according to Gates, with the passage of months and years, eventually the mind will follow its master.

On this progression, I'm still beating myself into submission. But I like the analogy. And I have had relatively tame classes, and relatively tame days. But it still feels like the fully tame mind is a long, long ways away.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Sunday Off
Monday 10:30 am with Sherry
Tuesday 6:30 pm with Rohit

Monday's class was basically good. I skipped one set of Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee, but otherwise held in and through my "sticking points." The only other stuck area was one set of Rabbit, where I felt like I couldn't breathe, and came out early.

I held myself back on Monday by getting stuck on something else. For some reason, I became acutely aware of other people coming out of the poses early. Sherry tends to count down at the end of poses -- Five, four, three, two, one, release... In half moon, I noticed that nearly everyone was popping up somewhere between two and one. This bugged me, and I couldn't stop myself from paying more attention, and the more attention I paid, the more it bugged me. By Camel, I saw people in my peripheral vision popping up somewhere between five and four.

I know this shouldn't bother me. If people want to cheat themselves, well, its their practice. But it bugs me all the same.

After class, Sherry asked what I was laughing about during class. She said that I came out of Camel one set and I was laughing. The really cool thing is that I didn't even remember it, and I don't think I was aware of it. The best answer I could come up with is that sometimes you've got a choice between melting or laughing at yourself, and if I can, I try the laughter. That's how I usually feel about it, but I can also usually remember those times. I think this was something different and much better. Apparently I was just really happy to be doing Camel, or coming out of it.

Today's class had a different satisfaction. Libby took class, and just before she asked where I had set up and parked her mat next to mine. I always like practicing a teacher, so that was cool enough on its own. But I was also flattered and a little stoked by her wanting to practice next to me. It's as nice a compliment as I've received in a while.

And practicing next to her made class fun. I always like being next to someone with great focus, and I felt through the standing series like I was feeding off her energy. I didn't skip any poses for the first time in a while. And after class, Libby thanked me for pulling her through, which I thought was funny because I was thinking exactly the same thing -- that she had pulled me through. I guess that may be what it means for people to feed off of each other's energy, and for the sum to be greater than the parts.

The challenge in this class came from drinking too much iced tea at lunch. I started thinking about leaving the room around Standing Bow, but I put it off. It got really bad in the floor series, and peaked in Floor Bow, where I could feel painful pressure in my bladder. By then, I thought it would be silly to leave, and nothing else really puts direct pressure on the area, so I stuck it out. I hate leaving for any reason, and in this class I really don't know if I made the right decision or not.

The day 273 gives us a third pranayama exercise. Rather than pause halfway on the inhale, Gates suggests pausing halfway on the exhale. So this one goes: Inhale, pause, exhale half, pause, exhale remainder, pause, repeat... The other advice here is to pay attention, be mindful, notice the differences between a good day and a bad day, etc... I haven't tried this at all.

The last exercise is much harder than I thought it would be. Taking long breaths is just an extension of what we do all the time. But pausing in the midst of an inhale is not something I've done very much at all. It takes a great deal of focus and control, and even then it doesn't feel at all natural. I've noticed that the first part of an inhalation tends to come deeply from the belly. Then the second half seems to involve the chest more than the stomach. I have no idea if that's how it should be, but that's what I'm observing.

I'm looking forward to the double exhaling. I'm guessing that I will find it easier than the interrupted inhale. We do double exhales on the sit-ups. And the final breathing exercise is a multiple exhaling exercise. Those may provide a connection for this exercise. I'll try to report on it later.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


Thursday Off
Friday Off
Saturday 9:30 am with Amy

Before class started the humidity was almost as high as the temperature. So, at least at the start, the heat wasn't a problem at all, but breathing through all that water presented some difficulty. I've said it before, but I would trade heat for humidity any time at all. The point of the extra humidity is to make sure that people sweat. No Pratt has ever had a problem sweating. I can't think of any other benefit to the excess humidity. It's not like it loosens anything up. As near as I can tell, that comes from the heat only.

I parked in the back row because the front was all taken. And from where I was, the front row looked like a big game of WhackAMole. The first one went down in Half Moon. Then the one next to her dropped in the first part of Awkward, just as the first was popping up again. Then a third one dropped in the third part of Awkward. And so it went, up and down at odd intervals all through the standing series.

The popping up and down annoyed me at first. Then it just became funny. It made it impossible to draw energy from the rest of the class, so for that, I was on my own. And I did an OK job of things. I still skipped a set of Triangle, one of my sticking points. But on the other sticking points, I showed a bit of progress. I fell from the balancing poses, but I stayed with them as long as I could, so it was falling without giving up. And I did a very good floor series.

The day 272 meditation is instructional rather than meditative. It introduces the concept of "place" to breathing. The place is the place where the breath is retained. The exercise Gates gives is a variation on the original pranayama exercise he gave us. As you might recall, that was deep inhale, pause, exhale completely, pause. Now, on the inhale, he says to inhale 50%, pause, then inhale the other 50%.

I'm going to try this a few times, and probably should refrain from commenting until I get a better idea of what its actually like. From the description and the few tries I have made, its very clear that this exercise will help quite a bit with control. It's also the first exercise he gives that stands on its own. I can do the others, for example, while in asana. I'm not sure I would want to be trying to deal with this while I'm doing asana. What I'm not sure about, however, is what this exercise teaches about "place." I will have to try this some more and see if I'm noticing anything about where the breath gets retained while doing it.

Friday, October 23, 2009

196/294 - Is Prana Amoral?

Tuesday Off
Wednesday 8:15 pm with Rohit

Before class, Rohit said that the 6:30 class had been a decent size -- 24 -- and that it was all women. I've had a few classes that were all women except for me, and it's never bothered me. It hasn't even bothered me in classes where Lenette has used the generic "ladies." Even if I did think about it, how often do women have to live with the generic "guys" to talk about men and women together.

Anyway, the late class was only 12 and we had 5 guys, which is the closest I've ever gotten to a class with half men. Did it make a difference? Not that I noticed.

I've been thinking recently about sticking points in class. There are some predictable points in class where I lose focus, or energy, or otherwise fall short of what I should be able to do. Falling out of the balancing poses. Sitting out a set of either Triangle or Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee. Losing it in one or both sets of Locust. Coming out of Rabbit early and wiped out. For me, these are the most common sticking points.

On the one hand, I know that judgment is bad, and that I shouldn't beat myself up over these moments. And for the most part, I don't. But I can't help but wonder when not beating myself up veers into being too easy on myself. I'm not sure exactly what to do about this, but I think I may have to start concentrating on one of these sticking points at a time, and just bring a bit more focus to it for a few classes in a row and see if anything changes.

There's another oddity that amuses me. For me, Locust is always the hardest pose. It's the only one that actually brings up a bit of fear. And yet, I think if you asked my teachers, they would probably unanimously say that the third part of Locust is my best pose. I'm not sure what to make of this. If I could identify an easiest pose, I wonder if it would also be one my teachers thought of as my worst? Happily, I can't think of an easy pose.

The day 271 brings up some thorny, but ultimately not very practical, questions of philosophy. It starts with a quote from Mother Theresa. She compares us to light bulbs. Her idea is that we are the wires, and god is the current. If we let the current flow through us, we can light up the world.

Gates has a slightly different take on this. He talks about prana, the root of pranayama. It means "life force." Gates says that there is enormous potential in prana, but that it is neither good nor bad. It simply is. Gates thinks that people minimize the prana available to them because they are afraid of what they might do with it. I take this to mean that people shut themselves off from prana out of a fear of the evil they might do. He goes on to say that's why surrender to God is so important -- because it allows us to open ourselves up to the potential of prana.

I wonder if Gates has this right. It sounds to me like he has the priorities wrong. Surely, if surrender to God is important, its not for some instrumental reason. If there is a priority to these things, I would have thought that it worked the other way around -- that opening yourself up to prana is worthwhile because it ultimately makes it easier to surrender to God.

In some ways I think this whole discussion is utterly impractical. And it bears a strong resemblance to the Euthyphro, a dialogue where Socrates tortures some poor student with arguments about whether the something is good because the Gods approve it, or whether the Gods approve of it because its good.

But a similar, and interesting, question arises from this meditation. Could someone use the techniques of yoga -- pranayama and asana and mediation and such -- and powerfully put them to bad purposes? Here, Gates seems to suggest that its possible to put prana to evil uses. From everything I've read so far, I would have thought otherwise. What I've admired so much about yoga so far is that just doing it tends to make people better, both in body and mind. This makes me wonder whether I've misread this meditation. It does seem to go against quite a bit of what Gates seems to have said consistently throughout the book.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

195/292 - The Gold Ring

Sunday off.
Monday 8:15 pm with Rohit.

I haven't been to the late class for a while. It's been long enough that Rohit expressed surprise at seeing me so late. I don't know why exactly I haven't gone. It turns out that I really like the class. I have more flexibility at that hour, which is always nice. And there is something really soothing about having the sun set during class. But mostly, what I like about the class, especially at this time of year, is the cool, fresh feeling the evening air brings when I step outside. That early autumn feeling (and its only a fake feeling here in Houston, but I'll take what I can get) just gets amplified by the sweaty satisfaction that comes after a nice Bikram session.

Class was good. I dumped out of a set of Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee because I balled myself up so tight in the set-up that I started cramping in the abdomen. I couldn't keep the pose together, keep my breath, and deal with the cramp all at once. Otherwise, things went smoothly. I had a nice smug feeling in first part of Awkward, when Rohit said "Everyone go lower, unless your name is Duffy." And after Rabbit, Rohit turned to me and said: "You see, I made it through the entire pose without telling people to "pull" once." I really like a class that has some humor in it.

In the day 270 meditation, Gates suggests a new mantra, sort of. He opens with this quote:

The goal cannot be anything apart from the Self, nor can it be something gained afresh. If that were so, such a goal cannot be abiding and permanent. What appears anew will also disappear. The goal must be eternal and within. Find it within yourself.

Gates suggests internalizing the last two sentences as we try pranayama. As he puts it, let the energy of this statement intertwine with your practice. I haven't tried this yet. But I will. For a long time I've been haunted with a similar thing expressed in the closing lines of Crazy Fingers, a Grateful Dead song with lyrics by Robert Hunter. I may have quoted these before, but if so, they are worth a repeat:

Midnight on a carousel ride
Reaching for the gold ring
Down inside
Never could reach it
Just slips away
And I try....

The connection is pretty simple. Life is like whirling in circles at midnight, which is "everything apart from the Self". The goal is the gold ring down inside -- after all, gold is eternal. What I like better about the song than Gates' quote is that the song acknowledges how difficult or rare it may be to actually achieve the goal. And the song is not at all despairing. Instead, I think it has an odd kind of hopeful resignation -- of letting go, if you will.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

194/290 - Easy yoke, light burden

Friday off.
Saturday 9:30 am with Amy.

I'm in an every other day habit these days, and its serving me fairly well. Still, I can't help but feel a bit like a slacker. I've slipped on the frequency mostly because of my knee. But being perfectly honest, I have to say that there are days where I could go to class, but I just don't for whatever reason. I think I will probably try to do every day between Thanksgiving and Christmas break. And I'm sure Amy will have some beginning of the year challenge to jump start the New Year. But for now, I'm pretty content with the every other day routine I've fallen into.

One thing that I've noticed, however: no matter what routine I fall into, it seems to be something that seems to fit. I've gone every day, five days a week, now every other day. They all seem good. And the only time any routine seems like a burden is actually during a challenge.

Class was good. There was lots of strong energy in class today. I worked really hard at the start of standing series, and knocked myself out of a set of Triangle and Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee as a result. But what I did, I did well. I got a nice compliment for coming down really slowly in the third part of Awkward pose. It turns out that the extra care I use going down, to make sure that I don't blow out my knee, is also just what you are supposed to do.

Floor series was very nice. It feels like a luxury being able to spin around without worrying too much that it will lead to something popping. And I can keep up with the class for the first time in weeks.

The best thing in class actually happened right afterward. There's a regular who has been coming to Amy's studio since she first opened, and been doing this yoga for five years with strong consistency. He's in his mid-60's (by my guess), and is in really good shape for his age. Today, after class he announced to Amy that he got his butt on the floor for the first time ever in Fixed Firm. He was beaming. He had the attitude and delight of a six year old. He said when he first started, he couldn't even sit on his knees, and he was positive for years that he would never get his butt on the floor in that pose. The progress is amazing, but even more amazing is to see the effect that this breakthrough had on him -- the joy, astonishment, and the pleasure in just being alive and having a body that works. It's truly amazing, and inspiring stuff (there's that breath word again).

The day 269 meditation starts with the quote from Matthew (and one of the greatest parts of Handel's Messiah): "His yoke is easy, and his burden is light." Gates describes the typical day of a woman he knows who teaches yoga. She too is in her 60s, but has the body of a 30 something and deep wisdom. She works hard at her practice, but the work is also a joy, and it has led to results that are much, much easier than the alternatives.

Gate's example is pretty easy, and I don't have any quarrel with it. It may not be all that the quote from Matthew means, but its a pretty good start. I've actually hit on this kind of meaning twice, at least, in this post. First, I said that regular practice only starts to feel like a burden during a challenge. And that burden is more mental than physical. The actual work of going to class is really hard, but in the overall scheme of things it makes daily life so much better that its an easy burden to bear. Second, it took five years for his butt to hit the floor, and there was some real work involved in that process, and I can imagine that there were setbacks along the way. But just feeling the satisfaction radiating out from him, because its actually possible to fulfill the promise of the yoga, and you can see that the burden of it was extremely light.

Friday, October 16, 2009

193/288 - Learning attention

Wednesday off
Thursday 6:30 with Rohit

Thursday's class was a joy because it was simply a normal class. My knee wasn't limiting me at all. I was properly hydrated. No reflux problems. The temperature in the room seemed perfect. And I just stayed with the dialogue (to the extent that Rohit does dialogue), and stayed with my breath.

I didn't skip anything. I worked hard in Triangle, and still had gas in the tank to finish standing series. Floor series was challenging, but good. Locust was particularly strong. And I finished without fading. All in all, just a very pleasant class.

The funny thing is class was that, for the second class in a row, the teacher mentioned my question about pulling in Rabbit. I checked the dialogue, and my problem isn't in the dialogue. Once you are tucked with your head on the ground, the dialogue simply says to keep the elbows straight, and says nothing about pulling. Most of the teachers I've had say that you pull with your arms, even when your elbows are straight. And this is simply not possible. There might be tension in your arms, but if you are pulling and your elbows are locked, then you must be pulling with something other than your arms. (Moreover, in all the other poses where you are told to pull with your arms -- first forward bend, Standing Separate Leg Stretching, Wind Relieving -- its quite clear that your elbows are bent and your are pulling with your biceps.)

The day 268 meditation discusses what is so important about learning to focus the attention. In several of the backbends, we are told to look up and back as far as possible, because the head will go where the eyes go. Wrestlers learn to pull someone down from the neck, because where the neck goes, the body follows. A similar thing happens with attention. When we focus our attention on something, that thing grows bigger for us. It becomes more present. There's a trivial application of this idea -- we have the ability to focus and concentrate on something far from us, excluding other stuff from our attention. With practice, we can isolate everything else out and simply pay attention to what we want. This ability to focus makes it possible to read things at a distance, to pick out small details of color or expression.

Everyone does this to one extent or another. But few people actively practice this kind of focus. That's one of the things pranayama is for. It teaches us how to pay attention to something specific, and to make the object of our attention grow and become more present for us. Once we learn to get better at this ability with breath, we can apply it elsewhere -- increasing our focus, our ability to be more present with anything we want to concentrate on. So, just as our head goes where our eyes go, and our body follows our head, so too our minds follow our attention. So it's best that we actually learn to pay attention.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

192/286 - Back to Normal

Monday off.
Tuesday 6:30 pm with Libby

Back in high school, I sprained my ankles alot between playing basketball and skiing. The first sprains took forever to heal. But over time, I would start to come down badly on the ankle. It would hurt like hell for awhile, and then it would basically be OK. The explanation I came up with for this progression was that there simply wasn't much left to tear in the ankles anymore, so the later injuries didn't really hurt anything. I have no idea whether I was right about that or not -- probably not.

But I'm beginning to think the same thing about this strange knee problem. On Friday and Saturday, the knee hurt as badly as it ever had. I was pretty much convinced I was looking at another month or more of slow rehab. Two yoga classes, and a little rest, and now it feels as good as it did last week when I was prematurely announcing that I was pretty much healed.

So now I don't know what to think, but I'm not complaining.

Tuesday night class was great. I really like the 6:30 class even though I rarely get to go to it. I'm not hungry. Revisiting my lunch isn't an issue, and my flexibility is much higher at that time. It was also my preferred time for bike riding and running. It just feels like a natural time to exercise. I wonder how much of that has to do with late evening basketball practices when I was growing up?

I got called out by Libby in the first backbend. My arms weren't straight. For me, this is one of the easiest things to forget, and I seem to forget it all the time. And it was actually nice to have that drill sergeant voice bringing me back into line.

Later on, I got a compliment in Triangle, but I think it was more because I started correcting my head alignment just as Libby called for the chin to touch the arm. It was one of those satisfying moments when I seemed to be perfectly in tune with the dialogue, and I think Libby was praising that sense of being in tune more than the actual pose.

Then, between sets of Rabbit, Libby started talking about a "student" who questioned how you could pull in Rabbit at all. Of course, I was the student, and it was from something I asked back in Rohit's workshop. I didn't question whether you could pull. My question was: What are you pulling with? The arms are locked, so you can't be pulling with your arms. And it was never quite clear where the pull comes from. In some ways, I'm still not that sure what muscles I'm using. I just know that it's going ok if I feel tension in my hands and wrists, my arms are locked, and I'm trying to move my ears away from my shoulders.

Anyway, after this, I got basically a little guided tutorial in second set of Rabbit, and it helped a bunch. There are so many details in this pose. Often, by the time we get there, I'm so wiped that I can barely pay attention to tucking my head in. But this class, I got the tuck right, got my forehead up on my thighs for the first , time in a while, and then worked pretty well on arching the back, sucking in the stomach, getting separation between ears and shoulders, and then getting my feet closer together. It was a really tough posture, but it felt great, and put a nice cherry on top of a good class.

The day 267 meditation brings us through three scenes in Gate's life. First, there is the first grader in New England, holding away from his classmates as they, returned inside, hiding behind corners, seeking the "magic that called to [him] in the quiet." Contrast with the man overseas, an alcoholic, part of "a group of men dedicated to killing other men." This incarnation looked back on the woods of New England, and his quiet moments there, as a kind of heaven. Finally, Gates talks about his return to New England, and his seeking out the Maine woods to find his lost heaven, to find the quiet he sought as a child, and how grateful he was for those quiet moments.

Finally, Gates suggests that we can know something of what he felt on his return by closing our eyes and taking a few deep, focused breaths. This idea is very powerful, but I have my doubts as to whether its true. Gates is suggesting that, if you are truly present, the experience is the same regardless of where you are. So, sitting in my room in front of this keyboard, I can share something of Gates' quiet in the New England woods simply by focusing my breathing and becoming present in the moment.

Is this right? If you are fully in the moment, then do the individual characteristics of the world become indifferent, so that all present moments are one? Actually, it may be so. This is what yogis are talking about when they say that there is nothing wrong with the world, and that yoga is union, ultimately union with everything. And if this is right, my deep resistance to the idea itself is a pretty good indication of how far I've got to go.

And yet, I still can't help but think that there must be some difference between these things. I don't think its an accident that Gates picks an idyllic place to make this connection. I will wait a long time before someone tells me how they sought out a roaring, urine reeking cubbyhole deep near the tracks of the A-train 180th street subway station in New York. Is it because the place ultimately makes a difference? Maybe not. Maybe its because the woods, which we easily imagine as "lovely, dark and deep", make it easy for us to slip into the feeling of presence. And the subway, not so much.

Monday, October 12, 2009

191/284 - Repetitive as Breathing

Saturday Off
Sunday 2:30 pm with Rohit

Saturday was not good. My knee was back to where it was just after I first injured it, back to going up steps one leg at a time. I basically couldn't find a position where it didn't hurt. I'm almost beginning to wonder if it's some sort of Rheumatoid Arthritis, and this was just a flare up. But from what I've read, RA tends to hit the joints on both sides of the body, and more than one joint at a time, so I'm discounting the possibility.

Sunday was a bit better, but I rode the fence about whether or not to go to class. Some of that was the knee. More it was my distaste for the 2:30 class, because it means no eating until late afternoon. Even on the way there, I was debating whether I was really going.

I'm glad I did. I felt much better for it, not necessarily in the knee, but more alive afterward, and just more satisfied. The heaters weren't working well, so Rohit jacked up the humidity and it was really wet. I much prefer high heat and low humidity. The low 100's with really high humidity has made it very hard to breathe in the past. But not in this class. I'm attributing that to my newfound focus on breathing.

For having a gimp leg, I did a really good balancing series. I wasn't kicking out for long, but I held the locked knee the whole time in Standing Head to Knee. And I had respectable Standing Bow, and a solid Balancing Stick.

I skipped one set of Triangle, but not for lack of stamina. The first Separate Leg pose put enough stress on the knee that I needed a break. And the floor series was my odd progression of gimpiness. I was moving well enough to get into and out of Savasana, but still really slowly. I think its the oddest thing that the poses don't do anything at all that worries me about the knee, but the simple act of turning 180 degrees is a bit treacherous.

Oh, and one other odd note. I got a great compliment from Rohit on the first part of Awkward Pose. That's one that's supposed to be hard on the knees, but it has nothing at all to do with what's bothering me. (The third part is a different story, that one is really tough now).

The day 266 meditation is again an exploration of the connection that breathing makes between mind and body. In this one, the point is that focusing on breathing brings us into the present, and thus connects us to our bodies. At this point, the meditations on breathing have started to strike me as a bit repetitive, sort of like breathing itself. Here, to reinforce the point, Gate says: Stop reading, close your eyes, take ten deep breaths and concentrate on the breath as you do it. Do it. It's powerful. It really works. And ultimately I think this is the point about the basic pranayama exercise. Doing it is so much more powerful than anything I could actually come up with to say about it. I think I'll try it again.

The nice thing here, is this is an exercise where I think having music on is really cool, because it lets you bring the music fully into the present as well. So that's one thing I might add. Try the same exercise with some good music on. Don't think about the music, just the breathing, and let the music flow through you as you do. See if you don't have a different experience of the music when you try this.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

190/282 - Breathing to end wars

Thursday Off.

Friday 4:30 with Janna

A big cold front came through, and proved that my knee is not so good as I thought. It also helped prove the wisdom behind the idea that each yoga class is new. With a freshly sore knee, the poses all came as new challenges, with new limitations put before me.

Overall, class went very well. Standing series was good. My stamina was better than it’s been for a while. This time I skipped a set of Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee, but not because I was tired. Rather, going into it, I felt like my knee was not up to it.

Floor series started off well. And I had the best back strengthening series I’ve had in a while. Locust was really good, and surprisingly controlled in the first set. I even managed to keep control of my breath in Locust, a true rarity.

Then came the rolling around poses. The ones where you have to roll over to get into Savasana. My gimpiness came to the foreground. At first, I was just moving around slowly. By Half Tortoise, I was just finishing straightening my leg when the Savasana was already over and it was time to sit-up. And I slowed down from there. After Rabbit, I gave up the idea of getting into Savasana at all. But I stayed with the poses, and I felt much better after class than before, even with a very stiff knee.

The day 265 mediation brings up the connection between pranayama and meditation. According to Gates, meditation is the goal of pranayama. In traditional yoga, asana practice also aims to prepare people for meditation. Ultimately, I don’t think the three need to be separate from each other. As yoga means union, in the end an asana class will also be a pranayam class, and it will also be a moving meditation. Sometimes I can see how that might be possible.

Gate’s other point is that pranayama gives us a means for ending our war with reality. This is a broad statement, but its fairly easy to see how it works in practice. Just the other day I was trying to wire the back of receiver with a thick guage bare speaker wire. My thumbs were too large for the spaces between the plugs. The wire was almost too thick to go through the posts. I couldnt see the holes. So basically I was trying to thread a needle, blind, with my hands inside a pickle jar, and with a thread that was too thick for the needle. I was getting more and more frustrated. Then I noticed that my breathing was out of sorts, a bit rapid and shallow, and i had started to sweat too much. I was also begin to curse myself out for my own incompetence. The answer? I stepped back and forced myself to breathe slowly ten times or so. The breathing calmed things down and took the edge off the frustration. Going back to the task, I managed to do it in just a couple more tries.

That’s a ready example of pranayama ending a war with reality. And I don't offer it as some sort of revelation. Rather, it's an illustration of how simple, and perhaps mundane, the idea is. But it's just that simplicity that gives it it's real power.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


Tuesday Off
Wednesday 10:30 am with Sherry

I missed going to morning classes. In some ways, going to morning class just seems to make for both a more relaxed, and a more productive day. Sure, flexibility is a bit off compared to afternoons. But it's also a bit easier to focus.

I haven't even felt twinges in my knee for almost a week. I'm still hesitant to say that its 100%. As soon as I do, I'm bound to twist it in some unknown way and be back at square one. For now though, its not having any effect at all on my practice (always excepting Toe Stand). Outside of class, the only think I'm wary about is running around too much with the dogs. That's still a bit iffy. But the improvement over the last few weeks has been amazing.

My stamina still is not fully back. I made it through Triangle again, only to drop out immediately afterward for one set. This isn't a big deal, and I know that the stamina will come back just as soon as I start going for several consecutive days. Otherwise, class was solid. I paid good attention to breathing, and to stillness between inhales and exhales, for most of the poses. This really seems to help a ton in Half Moon and Standing Bow especially. In Standing Bow, the pauses seem to give an extra level of concentration which helps with the balance.

The day 264 meditation is a bit beyond me. Gates introduces the idea of having three different types of brain as a result of our evolution. I'm familiar with this idea. First there's the reptilian brain -- it hunts, kills, and eats. Then there is the limbic brain, or mammalian brain. It is largely emotional. It deals with communal areas. In some respects, this is where love and comfort resides. It's what we have in common with dogs, for example. Lastly, we have our primate/intellectual brain. It does the reasoning. The primate brain has a very high opinion of itself, and would have us forget all about the demands of the reptilian and limbic brains. This is a very quick and sketchy summary, but its still more detailed than what Gates has said. Furthermore, having introduced this idea, I'm not really sure what Gates is trying to do with it.

More of the meditation is involved in showing the resonance between the Sufi idea of breath and the Yogi idea of breath. I have no reason to doubt what Gates says here. But I know only a little bit about the yoga ideas, and nothing at all about the Sufi ideas. So I basically take it on his word that the two mesh so well. But that fact does little for me.

And to a certain extent, I think this meditation has flown over my head. The problem probably lies with me, and not with the meditation itself.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

188/278 - Brain in a vat.

Sunday Off
Monday 4:30 with Janna

Monday's class was fairly ordinary, but it was so much better than Friday that it seemed a triumph. Class was hot, humid, and fairly quick paced. I was determined to make it through Triangle, and I did, but had to bow out right afterward.

On the floor it seemed to get hotter, and I started to fall a bit behind the dialogue. That's been happening more and more recently. I fell into the habit, I think, with my knee problem. And now I have to fall out of the habit, because I don't really have an excuse anymore.

It was nice and satisfying to have a thoroughly ordinary class, without any extreme ups or downs.

Since Descartes, western philosophy has obsessed over the split between mind and body. My second semester in philosophy was basically a survey on the subject. Later in school, I took a class called Minds, Brains, and Bodies. We spent much time discussing the brain in a vat problem. (Suppose a brain in a vat got wired up so that it could experience everything that we experience. Now, how do you know that you aren't such a brain. I guess this is the precursor to the Matrix movies.)

Descartes himself spent a great deal of time wondering how the mind and body were connected. He thought the connection was in the pineal gland, which is not a bad guess. No-one knows what the pineal gland does, even today. (Even though we don't know what it does, I'll bet one of the 26 poses is designed to stimulate it, probably Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee).

The day 263 question answers this problem of connection in a very practical way. The breath is the connection between mind and body. Of course, yoga rejects the whole concept of dualism in the first place, so it doesn't really need to answer the "problem," since there simply is no such problem. But even so, it seems typical of yoga to have a concise and practical answer to such a problem. And furthermore, its an answer that you can actually do something with, even if you are just a brain in a vat.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

187/276 - Remember and begin again

Friday 4:30 pm with Janna
Saturday off.

Friday's class was about the worst I've ever had. I know of probably said that a few times before, but this one was special. I started feeling nausea in Half Moon. I had some reflux problems in the first forward bend. My nose was either clogged or running or both. I felt like I had to go to the bathroom. And between all of these things, it was just getting to me.

I managed to sort of stay with the program in standing series. I skipped a set of Triangle, but I've been doing that fairly often. Then I skipped a set of Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee, again no big deal. But then I felt like skipping Tree, and Tree doesn't even take any energy. And about this time, I started to feel like I NEEDED to leave the room, even though I probably didn't.

Everything fell apart at Cobra. I couldn't keep myself up with my back strength in the first set. A big "Fuck it" switch went off in my head (and it's not something I'm proud of). I also felt like I had to vomit. I started for the door, and Janna tried to talk me out of it, asking whether I could just stay in the room. I was having none of it.

It turns out she was right. As soon as I got out of the room, I lost the need to vomit. I did use the restroom, but I could have made it through without. Next time I see Janna, I will have to apologize to her and tell her she was right, and I was wrong about my "need" to leave.

I missed second set of Cobra, then all of Locust, because I was out of the room. I was fine for a little while, but started getting dizzy again in Half Tortoise. I skipped a set of everything after that - Camel, Rabbit, Stretching. I even bailed on the final spinal twist. Not one of my best days.

The most positive thing I can say about the whole thing is that I shrugged it off afterward. I don't want to make a habit of it, but on the other hand, it was only one bad practice. Except for the fleeing, I was making an honest effort. It just happened to suck, and sometimes suckyness happens.

The day 262 meditation has some bearing on this. Part of the goal of mindful breathing is to create a kind of steadiness of intention. The quality that we are looking for in breathing is the same as what we seek in asana practice: steady, relaxed, calm and deliberate. The training we are going through aims at treating each pose, and even each breath, with the same intent.

Often, however, we lose sight of this intent. We get something other than steady, relaxed, calm, and deliberate. Friday's practice, at least for decent stretches of it, was a pretty extreme example of that. Gates says that the course to take when we forget is simply "to remember and begin again." And that's what I will do. (Interesting that we are alway beginning again. In yoga, we are perpetual beginners.)

Saturday, October 3, 2009

186/274 - Breath and Spirit

Wednesday 4:30 pm with Amy
Thursday Off.

My knee is back, almost one hundred per cent. But it's allergy season, and in the midst of these meditations on pranayama, I'm having difficulty breathing. In class, the biggest impact is on my stamina. I'm back at a point where I can't seem to get myself through both sets of Triangle. Actually, I am tending to skip the first set. I haven't quite decided if this is just some mental block, or if it really is the allergies.

I've been thinking more about the idea of the opening pranayama setting the tone for the rest of the class. More and more, it seems to me that the object of the opening pranayama is to set a deep rhythm, a rhythm that will perhaps carry forward to the rest of the class. For a long time now, I've told people to stay within their breath, and tried to live up to the same idea myself. But this sense of rhythm takes that idea even further. Staying within the breath, for now at least, means not only not getting to the point where you can't breathe comfortably through the nose. It now also means either maintaining something like the rhythm of opening pranayama, or coming back to it between poses. Concentrating on this, when I can, adds a new dimension to the class.

The day 260 meditation is fairly simple. It re-emphasizes the connection between breath and spirit. Gates doesn't mention this, but the word "spirit" comes from the word "spirare" which meant "breath." Thus, respiration (containing the "spire" root) is the system of the body that deals with breath. Inspiration, which is the act of taking in some divine enlightenment, literally means breathing in. And expire, means simply to breath out. The etymology of the word could not make the connections clearer.

There are some every day usages which still emphasize the connection. Think of what it means to be "breathless." Or waiting with "bated breath." There are probably other examples, but I'm not thinking of them now.