Sunday, November 29, 2009

215/331 - Pain masked as pleasure

Friday off
Saturday 8am with Lara

I went to a non-affiliated Bikram class on Long Island. The owner is one of the early teacher trainees. As I understand it, their certification gives them considerably more latitude than the current teacher trainees get. There were a number of fairly startling differences.

First, the studio was not carpeted. I've been in non-carpeted studios before, and it generally is not a big deal. The only difference it makes in the series is in the separate leg portion. Except, the wood floor gets slippery. I discovered that in Standing Bow when I fell forward off the front of my mat, and nearly slid onto my butt. It was a precarious, but funny moment, and there was no harm done.

The teacher used music during class. I noticed it a little at the beginning, but quickly shut it out. Then I noticed again during the long savasana. I've been in Yoga classes with music before, but never a Bikram class. Since I didn't hear it at all during the poses, I have a hard time saying whether it made a difference or not, but probably not.

The big difference was in the noise. There were 22 people in a room that could hold maybe 23. And there was no carpeting, no fans, and a passive heating system. That all meant that breathing became very audible. Pranayama was great, very loud and very energizing. The rest of the class varied somewhere between being entertaining and annoying. There were six other guys in the class, and they grunted alot. They held their breath, and then gasped for air. Some did something like uji breathing, making an audible throaty sound with each inhale. I've never heard anything like it before, and was a bit surprised that the teacher didn't say anything about it.

Then there were the differences in the poses. Hands behind the back was an option in the first backbend. Bridge was offered as an optional substitute to Fixed Firm. In Standing Head to Knee, many people stopped with their leg lifted and thigh parallel, without bending over to grab either the knee or foot. I don't really understand the point of any of these modifications. It seems to me that they are unlikely to lead to significant progress.

As for the class itself, I discovered that I'm on the verge of being sick. I had a hard time staying with the breathing in Pranayama. I started off OK after that, but lost my stamina very quickly. I sat out a set of Triangle, then a set of Standing Seperate Leg Head to Knee. That's happened before, but then in Tree I got dizzy and had to come out early.

The floor series was about the same. Lara was running behind, and either she was cutting savasana short, or they don't do twenty second savasanas on the floor at this studio. By Camel, I decided to take my savasanas whether the class did or not. That meant missing a set of Camel and a set of Rabbit. They only did one set of Fixed Firm, and then one set of the Final Stretching. Overall, I'm happy I went to this class, but it was definitely not one of my best classes.

The day 287 meditation talks about our being "embedded in pain masked as pleasure." I can think of perhaps no better description of the ridiculous holiday eating that has gone on here for the past few days. Wednesday night: a wonderful, huge meal at a very fine French restaurant. Thursday; turkey feast. Friday: turkey feast redux. Does anyone actually feel good an hour after Thanksgiving dinner. Then, another great but enormous meal out, this time at a seafood house. Of course, I volunteered for it all. And nothing compelled me to continue to eat and eat and eat. But it surely is pain masked as pleasure, and the pleasure really does not last all that long.

According to Gates, pratyahara (turning inward) is the decision to stop hurting ourselves with this kind of pain. Maybe so, but I have to say that this is not the first time I've had this realization about Thanksgiving, but the realization and the decision not to do it again hasn't worked before. So I can't say with any confidence that I won't be back at the trough next year too. What that means, I guess, is that there are decisions and decisions.

Friday, November 27, 2009


Tuesday 6:30 pm with Libby
Wednesday off
Thursday (Thanksgiving) off

Tuesday's class went well. I was a bit worried beforehand because I had pizza with lunch. (This is one of those lessons that I seem to refuse to learn.) It caused some havoc in one set of Locust, but otherwise I was just fine. I felt especially good in the backbends. In the first backbend, I think there is some point of relaxation that I simply don't get, and that if I could just figure out what it was and let go of it, I would get much deeper.

My knees are gradually improving. I'm still slightly hampered in the second and third parts of awkward. No bouncing like a motorcycle ride for me yet. I am almost to the point again where my hips touch the floor in Fixed Firm, which is some real progress. And I don't really feel any other big limitation from them anymore. I'm thinking maybe a month or two before I try Toe Stand again.

I thought about going to a studio on Long Island on Thanksgiving morning, but I only got two hours of sleep the night before, so I opted to sleep instead. I hope to get one or two classes in while here on Long Island. But there is also something to be said for simply vacationing once in a while.

The day 286 meditation discusses turning inward in a bit more detail. According to Gates, pranayama gives the experience of having one foot planted in the external and another in the internal world. Part of the attention is on sensation and physical technique, but because this attention is on the breath, we can't help but at least partially focus inwardly. The next step is to turn completely inward.

Gates says we should first try this in asana practice (for me this means tomorrow morning). The interesting thing is that he asks a series of questions, and one of them is "What resistance do you have to letting go of the past and the future?" To me, this seems to show that either turning inward, and being present, are the same thing. Or, maybe its that being present is in some way a prerequisite. I'm not even sure if there is a real distinction there.

The other point Gates makes is that this is not supposed to be hard work. That's nice to know. Maybe its sort of like those magic eye posters, the ones that look like nothing but a mess when you first look at them. But if you learn to look at one the right way, a three dimensional object emerges from the mess, and sometimes the image is quite extraordinary. Maybe there is a similar "trick" to turning inward -- so that its not hard to do once you learn how, but learning how might be a matter of either getting the knack or finding it to be impossible, with no middle ground.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

213/326 - Unwinding

Sunday Off
Monday 6:30 with Sherry

I remember Thursday's class as being one without high points, and without any real difficulties. I didn't skip anything. I remember being somewhat distracted by other people lying down. I don't mean someone sitting out a set of Triangle. But sometimes I simply don't understand when I see someone out for the count in second set of Fixed Firm, or in Half Tortoise. I think this must show how vastly different peoples' experience of the series must be. It's hard for me to imagine being so wiped out at those points that I would need to sit out. But obviously it happens, and to people who seem to have a pretty strong commitment to their practices.

The day 285 meditation ends the "external" limbs of yoga. It's time to turn inward, which it turns out is the translation of pratyahara. Gates compares the process of turning inward to the first couple of days of vacation -- the time where you have already arrived at your destination, but your mind and your rhythms are still back at home. Often, over the first couple of days of a vacation, there is a process of easing into the vacation itself, of unwinding. So it is with turning inward, but instead of getting used to the rhythms of a new place, you become attuned to your own internal rhythms.

This is a point where the navel gazing stereotype of the yogi might seem preferable to a Bikram practice. But even here I'm not so sure. In Bikram, the dialogue might be seen as a distraction. So too the heat. But there's no music. The poses don't change. The room doesn't change. And what you are left with is you and your reflection in the mirror. When class is going well, that's pretty much all there is. How much you get out of the class often depends solely on how much you can focus on yourself, how deeply you can turn inward.

And in some ways, it may even be easier to turn inward during this practice. For example, in Standing Head to Knee, I think it might be impossible to do the pose while having your attention elsewhere. It almost demands this kind of shift of attention. The same goes for some of the longer strength holds. Here, its possible simply to tough it out. But, if you can focus on your breath and learn simply to enjoy the sensation, then you can find ease in these poses.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

212/324 - Putting your eyes out

Friday Off
Saturday 9:30 am with Lenette

The cool thing about Lenette's classes is that, while basically every other teacher says how good I'm doing Awkward, Lenette almost always finds something to correct. This time I was down too far in the first part, and she had me come up just a half inch or so. It didn't make much difference for my thighs, but it did allow me to actually get more of a backbend feeling than I usually do.

Back strengthening was as good as its been for a long time. I felt composed in control in Locust, which is pretty much a rarity. Otherwise it was just a nice solid practice. I had to skip out a set at the end of standing series again, but otherwise I felt strong and good. And following my moaning about the third part of Wind Relieving, I just pulled in tighter and held on, and I made it through without losing the grip. But I still need to be a bit more mindful about food...

The day 284 meditation is the last on pranayama, but it doesn't have much to do with pranayama. Instead, Gates talks about advice from his mother. No matter what he wanted to do, his mother would likely object that someone had died from doing that. After a long, long time and seemingly endless hours on the mat, he finally realized that he might be better off not asking his mother for advice. But, of course, the voice still lived inside him.

This story reminded me of an uncle/caretaker who played a big part in raising us up. We called him Unk, but he wasn't a relative. Instead, he met my grandfather the day he arrived in the U.S. in a bar in downtown Manhattan. They got drunk together. Eventually my grandfather asked him where he was staying, but he didn't know anywhere, so my grandfather said it would be OK to stay the night, and he ended up staying for the next 60 plus years.

That's all beside the point. The point is that whenever I had a new small toy that I was playing with, Unk would assure me that "You could put your eye out with that." For the most part, what he was saying was preposterous. I mean, I suppose a really determined kid could put his eye out with silly putty, but I doubt it's actually happened more than a handful of times. Yet, even to this day, I have a kind of irrational fear about putting anything near or in my eye. Watching people put their contacts in makes me shudder. And this meditation made me remember and realize that that fear almost certainly came from Unk.

Now that I know where that irrational fear comes from, does that mean that mean it will somehow vanish? I doubt it. But since this fear has never been all that troubling, especially since I still don't need glasses, much less contacts, it is amusing to realize where it came from.

Friday, November 20, 2009

211/322 - Breathing and Non-Violence

Wednesday Off
Thursday 6:30 pm with Rohit

I pushed really hard in the standing series, and then had to skip a set in Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee. I've thought for a long time that, no matter how conditioned you are, you should be just on the edge of your stamina limit by the time that pose rolls around. If not, then you probably have left something on the table. And if you push too hard, like I did this time, you have to sit out.

Getting it just right can be elusive. Some teachers can convince me to go on when I'm certain I need a break. I'm not always the best judge of my own limits, though I think I'm gradually getting better.

Recently, one of my hardest poses has been the third part of Wind Relieving. For a while this seemed pretty easy. Now, when I grab my elbows my legs start to slip out of the grip. I try to hold on, but then I start tensing up in my upper back. I'm not sure what's causing this, but I think its a pretty clear sign that I my belly has gotten bigger and I need to be a bit more mindful about food. That's a nice thought with Thanksgiving just around the corner...

The day 284 meditation is about the infectious nature of nonviolence. Gates says that people and nations continually respond to violence with violence in return, and then wonder why peace is so elusive. I don't know if non-violence as a response to violence would always work. At the extreme, I have doubts about whether any non-violent approach would have stopped the holocaust. So, on one level, its hard for me generally to accept the idea.

Having said that, in many, many more cases it seems to me that non-violence is the much better approach. And I think that that's true almost universally in my personal life. I've also noticed that its been much easier to refuse confrontations since I started yoga.

Gates also talks about non-violence in the yoga practice itself. This is a point that I'm still developing. If I push myself to the point where I lose my breath, as I did in this class, then I've slightly crossed the line . And that, I think, is one of the central points to this meditation: learning to breath comfortably is learning non-violence. And from learning to breath, all the rest can follow naturally.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

210/321 - Oz Revisited

Saturday Off
Sunday Off
Monday 6:30 pm with Sherry
Tuesday 6:30 pm with Libby

I skipped two days again. Sometimes I feel like I'm really slacking off.

Sherry's class was good, but I can now remember almost nothing from it. I was next to a noobie and trying pretty hard to set a good example. I don't know if I actually did or not, but I didn't skip anything and I was paying pretty good attention to both form and dialogue. I still couldn't find my breath in Rabbit, but otherwise everything went pretty well.

Libby's class was great. There was lots of energy, and it was just good fun. Plus, I got lots of nice compliments and good corrections. Here's a short rundown on the compliments. First, in the set-up to half moon. I've worked really hard on getting my elbows to lock, hands together, and arms back behind the ears. This was the first class where a teacher commented on it and it was surprisingly gratifying to hear the compliment, even when I know that I'm doing it pretty well.

Then the great compliment came in Standing Bow. She said I was doing perfect form and that I was definitely competing next year. I laughed and she said "What are you laughing about?" I was laughing because the main goal for me right now is fixing my knee, and if my form is any good its because of my bad knees. After class, I told her and she said "Aren't the injuries like a gift?"

There were some other compliments along the way, but those were the real high points. On corrections, she told me to keep my chest up in Standing Head to Knee. I was at the second step, just kicking out, and apparently I'm arching/rounding too early. This was a good tip, and the posture was easier to hold after the correction. (It was one of those few corrections that did not make the pose harder.)

And then in Rabbit, she said to get my heels together. Concentrating on doing that actually allowed me to get through the pose, even though I still had no breath. Maybe all I need to do in this pose is focus on something other than not getting any air.

The day 282 meditation reminded me again of The Wizard of Oz. At the end of the meditation Gates says that pranayama "confirms the central message of yoga -- that we have already arrived, that we are already home, that we must simply wake up from the dream that this is not so." And that could be straight from the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy had the power to go home from the start, all she had to do was believe it, and that would wake her up from her dream. And as Dorothy says "But it all seemed so real." And I guess the same could be said for all the baggage we get rid of, a layer at a time, through yoga practice.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

208/317 - One Thing

Thursday Off
Friday 6:30 am

I left the house a minute later than usual but then hit every light between here and the studio and had slow traffic on top of that. I've only been late to class once before. This time, I got into the studio halfway through the first set of pranayama.

That's not that big a deal, and I know what I should do so I rushed into the room and threw my mat and towel on the ground and started in. Rohit immediately pointed out that I was directly in front of someone in the back row. Oops! I usually consider myself to be both considerate and observant, so I was a little mortified by this. I moved away a bit sheepishly. And that shows a bit how out of sorts being late made me.

The other thing was that I had been planning on using the bathroom before class. Then I thought I might be able to make it through in my rush to get inside. No such luck. As soon as I calmed down a bit, my bladder started to complain. I left the room after Eagle, but didn't miss anything. Instead, I just blew up part of the point of warming up.

Once things settled down, it was a very nice class. In Rohit's classes, it seems easier for me to strike a balance between working really hard and finding some calm and peace in the practice itself. In this class, the room was very hot. I worked really hard and pushed myself through without taking any breaks. I did a solid back strengthening series, without bailing on any part of either of the Locusts. I came out of Rabbit early on the second set, but that's because I still can't figure out how to breathe in that pose, at least not when I'm really compressed.

But despite the huge effort I was putting into the poses, I always felt composed and confident. I'm not sure what it is about his classes, but I definitely like the effect. (I like other teachers classes as well, but often for different reasons.) So lets just say that this class just hit the spot. For what I needed on this day, it was just right.

The day 281 meditation begins with a quote that I find quite surprising:

Those who really want to be yogis must give up, once and for all, this nibbling at things. Take up one idea; make that one idea your life. Think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body be full of that idea, and just leave other ideas alone.

I hear all the time that yoga aims to strike a balance. This quote sounds like it involves a single-mindedness that crosses the line towards obsession. If one picked the wrong idea, then wouldn't the pursuit of it lead to disaster. Weren't the great megalomaniacs doing exactly what this quote recommends? So I have some initial doubts about this quote.

Gates says that for him, the idea he took up was "God." And this makes me wonder too. Very often, I think that peoples idea of "God" is basically an infinite vessel into which they can pour all things that strike them as being good. And yes, I admit that that's my projection and may not be what others do. But it makes me doubt about whether God really is a single idea in the way that is meant by this quote. For Gates, it may be, and so much the better for him.

It also occurs to me that I saw this same idea expressed in a more popular form. It's the scene in City Slickers where Curly explains that the secret to life is just "one thing." Stick to that one thing and everything else "doesn't mean shit." What's the one thing? That's up to each one of us to figure out. The problem I have with this quote is that it makes it seem like it might not matter what idea one chooses to adhere to.

I still have reservations about whether this type of single minded focus on one idea is consistent with what I've come to understand about yoga over the last year and a half. Is it unbalanced, or does the focus on one idea provide a platform from which someone can find balance? I don't know the answer to this.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

207/315 - Transcendent Breathing

Tuesday Off.
Wednesday 6:30 with Sherry

What a contrast from the last class. I went in with the same trepidations, perhaps more. But very early on, that all melted away and the class was a pure joy. Easy, focused, strong. I skipped nothing. I had really good focus in the balancing series. I felt on the outer edge during the spine strengthening series but managed to hold things together.

I'm not sure how Sherry times her classes the way she does. I swear that she holds the early standing postures for longer than most. In Standing Head to Knee, for example, you could easily squeeze in five or six forevers in the first set alone. Half moon is always a full, honest minute. But somehow, even with these full holds, she finishes the standing series with 45 minutes left. This leaves lots of time on the floor, so there is never any skimping on the savasanas. And she also holds the floor poses longer than many other teachers, since there is no need to rush at the end trying to catch up.

The timing is great, and I'm thankful for no skimping on the savasanas. But it also makes for a seriously challenging class. And I'm still not sure how she manages it. Is she saying less dialogue? Spending less time on the set-ups? Giving less time between poses in the standing series? (I don't think so on that one.) She doesn't spend much if any time between poses giving general corrections or demonstrations, and that might have something to do with it.

The day 280 meditation talks about "transcendent breathing," breathing that is "effortless and non-deliberate." Gates says that this is the point where breathing actually becomes meditation, and that most people have their first encounter with it during asana practice. He also says that he's felt it at times while training for marathons.

This is the point where effort ceases, and the person crosses a threshold. At this point, we are "no longer the doer." The breath and the action becomes effortless, our minds find stillness, and we start to experience our still center: "inaction in action." Here, we are revisiting the idea of losing yourself in the moment, finding the place where the music plays the band.

Gates says that we are likely to first experience this in asana. I first experienced this sort of thing playing basketball. And then again, at some times, playing music. And I've also had moments, and even whole stretches, in Bikram classes where I think I may have crossed the threshold. Still, this kind of meditation either makes me yearn for something I've been missing, or it gives me hope for what is to come. Which one depends upon my mood.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

206/313 - Married to your Breath

Sunday Off
Monday 6:30 pm with Connease

Often I will go into the room 5-10 minutes early. This lets me do some of the pranayama exercises Gates recommends, and also lets me get acclimated. And that's what I intended yesterday. I lay down on my mat and settled into some deep breathing. I still wasn't feeling all that well, and wasn't at all sure how I would respond to class, so the acclimatization seemed even more important.

I woke up as Connease was just starting Pranayama. I had fallen utterly asleep, and came awake with the kind of start that I remember from school days, where the head starts to drop and then BAM -- awake again, and startled all at once. The jolt basically killed the gradual relaxation I was looking for. And then, I had to consider whether I would rather take the class or simply go back to sleep on my mat.

Class was hot and hard for me. I skipped a set of Triangle, and still felt like I had nothing left by the end of standing series. Floor series was one of those classes where I alternatively felt totally exhausted, and then felt like a bit of a slacker. In short, there was very little balance or ease in the class. I had a good set of Standing Bow, and did nicely in Standing Seperate Leg Head to Knee. Otherwise, I simply felt off, and I think that all stemmed from still being a bit sick.

The remarkable thing is that after class I felt really good. No traces of sickness, lots of energy, no pain in either of my knees. So, even though the class pretty much sucked, it also turned out to be exactly what I needed.

Speaking of my knees, I have a new theory. I recently noticed that my knees are not quite as bow legged as they used to be in the resting pose. And my elbows get a bit closer together behind my legs in the first forward bend. I think my legs may be getting straighter, and that's what's causing the shifting pains in my knees, from one knee to the other, back and forth. When I first started, I had fairly constant pains in my feet, even though my plantar fascia-tis went away very quickly. These pains were definitely the result of my feet getting better and stronger. Now, I think the same sort of thing is happening in my knees, and this makes me think there is nothing seriously wrong with them.

I love the day 279 meditation. Gates says that when we start asana practice we take marriage vows to our breath. But its a strange marriage, because the fighting comes first, and then we get the honeymoon. In my experience, the relationship is even stranger than that. In some poses, breathing is quite easy and natural from the start. In others, with some understanding of the pose, its pretty easy to develop an easy breathing rhythm, at least most of the time. For me, poses like Triangle, Awkward, and Half Moon fall into this category.

Then there are the poses where it's just hard to figure out how to breathe. For me, this includes Rabbit, Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee, the first backbend, and Locust. I'd love to get to the point where I could even call on my breath to help me out in these poses, but more often than not, breath simply eludes me in these poses -- especially Rabbit and Locust.

Amy has always told us, breath first, then form, then depth. Gates reminds us here that we may often need to remind ourselves to return to a relaxed, regular breath. And makes me think again how brilliant the floor series is for adding the savasanas between poses. Each one of these is a call to bring your breathing under control. To make it natural and flowing. To slow down.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

205/311 -

Friday Off
Saturday 9:30 am with Lenette

I was feeling off, and maybe a little bit sick, before class. By Eagle, all the ill feelings were gone, and class was simply nice and pleasant. The heat felt perfect. I didn't skip anything, and I didn't lag behind as the class wore on.

It's been a while since I've had a Lenette class, and its always fun. She made a big point about discipline somewhere towards the end of class. Her two points were: if you come in late, be a bit meek about it and hurry up and get into the class. A latecomer is an energy pirate.

And, if you are in the front row, you have taken it upon yourself to act as a leader. That doesn't mean your poses are perfect. It just means you are committed to sticking with the dialogue, trying your best, and staying still between poses. Even those can slack off some. Everyone has bad days. But if you are shifting from foot to foot, wiping yourself constantly, fidgeting in Savasanas, going into poses late all the time and coming out early, well, then maybe you should think about going to one of the other rows in your next class. (Thankfully, she wasn't talking about me. And besides, I was in the middle row this class.)

Libby hits on discipline from time to time. Amy is just too nice to call anyone out. At the most, she will make the most general suggestion to people. The other teachers tend simply to ignore discipline "problems." I tend to think that the discipline is a part of the practice, so I'm perfectly happy to hear people reminded about things like not drinking water at the wrong times, or lying down with the feet toward the back.

On the flip side, everyone's practice is their own. And if someone really thinks they need to wipe their sweat, or readjust the towel on their mat, there's no reason why it should bother me or anyone else. So I'm glad we don't have any true "drill sergeant" type teachers.

The good feeling that came along with practice didn't stick with me. I actually did get sick, but maybe not so sick as I otherwise would have. The Texas Asana Championships were today, and I was really looking forward to going and cheering on the folks I knew who were participating. I barely slept at all last night, and woke up feeling rotten. So I stayed in instead, and am pretty bummed that I missed these championships for the second year in a row. Oh well.

The day 278 meditation is both short and dense. I think I'll quote the whole thing:

The physical and mental calm that comes over us with pranayama practice makes it possible, often for the first time, for us to perceive the pain we are in. Rushing through our days, we feel only hints of the deep waters that swirl beneath our surface. In the stillness of practice, we dive right in. What I have found is that I have held the present a prisoner to my past. As I breath into my body, into my life, I glimpse an alternative reality, one in which I simply am.
I don't understand the first sentence. If pranayama brings us into physical and mental calm, how does it make it possible for us to perceive pains for the first time. I can understand how the absence of pain that one feels while in pranayama might make one more aware of the pain that they otherwise are in. But pain and calm don't generally go together.

When I was in my twenties, I lost a filling and had a back molar break into several pieces. My tooth had rotted away from underneath the filling. It led to my first root canal. I was very close to having an abscess, and my mouth was a swollen mess. The dentist did the first steps of the root canal in one visit, and after he was done, he apologized for any pain that he might have caused. But quite to the contrary, the very short sharp pains of the visit were nothing compared to the relief I felt afterward. I simply had not realized how much pain I had been living with for the past few months -- a nearly constant pain in my mouth and head that I had pretty much managed to ignore (at significant cost to my moods, as I soon realized). For me, that was a vivid example of becoming aware of a pain by removing it. And it's by thinking about this, that I can best understand what Gates might be trying to say here.

The deep waters that swirl beneath our surface are what I'm thinking of as suppressed pains. We do a much better job of suppressing past emotional hurts, those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, than we do in ignoring a true physical pain. But the lasting damage from them is probably at least as great, if not greater, and I think its that kind of damage that Gates is referring to when he talks about being a prisoner to the past.

Friday, November 6, 2009

204/309 - Alternate Nostril Breathing

Tuesday Off
Wednesday 6:30 pm with Sherry
Thursday 8:15 pm with Amy

Wednesday's class was pretty strong. I don't think I missed any of the poses. I had some trouble with the last part of Awkward pose, but felt better in the second set when my knee finally cracked. I'm also having some congestion problems, and it's having an impact on the forward bends and the spine strengthening series. Sherry brought me some tissues, which was a trifle embarrassing, and at another point, I was really stuffed up and having trouble with breath, and she asked whether I was OK, so it must have been really obvious.

Tonight's class was better, but harder. It wasn't actually hotter than usual. But it felt it, and I wasn't the only one feeling it. People were dropping all over the place. I cracked up in second set of Standing Bow, because Amy was encouraging people to turn it up at the end of the pose, and then she said by name "John and Duffy" because we were the only ones still trying at all. And then I laughed so hard that I fell out early too.

Instead of nasal congestion, tonight I had a slight cough. I still think its probably allergies, but sickness has been going around, so I'm not dismissing the possibility. This took a real toll in back strengthening. The cough became reflux, and I was basically spitting up liquid from Cobra through Full Locust. Not fun.

On the plus side, I had a really strong Triangle, even though I was feeling beat at the time. Sometimes, if I nail the set-up, the pose itself just seems to fit and becomes almost effortless. Or at least it seems effortless until its over, and I suddenly realize how hard I was working. And then, I did my best Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee in ages. Both legs straight and locked, back nicely curled, arms straight, and the posture felt good.

The day 278 meditation introduces a fourth breathing technique: alternate nostril breathing. Seated, with one hand on the lap, you put the other hand by your nose, so that the thumb can close one nostril and the fingers can close the other. This is just another aspect of the miracle of having opposable thumbs. Close the one nostril with the thumb, inhale. Switch the pressure so the thumb valve is open and the finger valve is closed. Exhale and then inhale. Switch the valves again. Exhale. That's one cycle. Do 10-20 cycles easily.

If feels really odd at first, but its not actually difficult. Gates says its a great way to gain focus, concentration, and relaxation. I wonder why. Maybe the strangeness of the feeling of breathing only through a single nostril makes it that much easier to center your attention on your breath. The very strangeness of it makes it an aid to concentration? This is another one I need to do for a while with some seriousness before i can really comment on it. I've tried it before when reading about it in books, but never for more than a minute or two.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

202/306 - The Music Plays the Band

Sunday Off
Monday 10:30 am with Janna

My knee hurts. And it's the other knee! It's not so bad this time, and it doesn't look swollen at all, but it feels a bit like I have a brace on it. Japanese sitting position was impossible at first, but that got better. And Fixed Firm was a joke. I spread my feet apart, but did not go down at all and probably ended with my butt 5 inches off the ground.

Other than that, class was really nice. I skipped one set of Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee, and because I was a bit worried about the knee, not because of stamina issues. I did very well in the balancing poses, and really pushed in the back strengthening series. I think I might have pushed harder there because I thought that the later poses where you are on the knees might end up being a bust.

Janna gave me some gentle prodding in Half Tortoise that worked wonders. She slightly pulled/encouraged my hands forward and together. Then touched the back of my head, reminding me to get my nose to the ground, and then lightly touched my hips, which gave me a clue as to how to get them further down. These were really good corrections for me, and I think they stayed with me for the second set.

After class, I felt better and my knee seemed to have improved. I also noticed that Janna seemed to have changed her timing. In the past, I've noted that she has tended to skimp on the Savasanas. Today, the standing series seemed to go more quickly, and then she allowed us to luxuriate more on the floor. The differences can probably measured in mere seconds, but it made the class more enjoyable -- at least for me.

I think this is one of the things that is probably really hard for a teacher. Very small changes in timing can make very large differences to the students experience. I've joked before about how many "forevers" its possible to fit into a single 90 minute session. And I've found myself frustrated more than once with a teacher correcting someone on the triangle set-up while I'm trying and failing to hold the lunge with some degree of patience. All those small timing changes can make a world of difference. And to complicate the matter further, the changes have a different impact on different people. If the teacher decided to hold the first part of Awkward for an extra fifteen seconds, or Camel for however long, I might not even notice the change. But other people would start wilting.

The day 276 meditation expands on the idea raised in the last -- that we breath with intention but without taking control. And it does this in a way that makes a bit more sense to me. As my brother suggested, it seems like this is another way of saying that the goal is to arrive at a place where you lose yourself in the exercise, where "the music plays the band."

As Gates puts it: "...watching the ocean tide of my breath, I let go." And then "[f]loacting on my breath ... I want to be the channel, I want to be the witness, I want to be grateful." I love the way he starts with the image of the breath as an ocean tide, and then sees himself first as floating along, and then as simply being the channel through which the ocean flows. Not only is this a beautiful image, but I think its something I can try to imagine myself. It's something I can work with.

The last part of this meditation leaves me a bit in awe. Gates seems to be saying he can put himself into this state pretty much at will. The idea boggles my mind. I might fall into this state from time to time. But I can hardly even imagine getting there with any regularity.

One other thing about this idea of letting go and losing yourself. I think this is one of the areas where the Bikram dialogue can be a great aid. First, we're told again and again that pranayama "sets the tone" for the rest of the class. One of the ways that it sets the tone is that it gives the first opportunity to lose yourself in the dialogue itself. And then, maybe you can stay with the dialogue, maybe you can get to the point where it seems like the dialogue itself is moving you without any intermediary. As Zeb used to say, "My mind, your body." Using the dialogue in this way, I think, can lead to exactly the sort of thing that Gates has in mind. And in the Bikram class, you don't really have to think about it. Instead, you just do it, and if you are doing it right, eventually the magic will happen.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

201/304 - Intention vx. Control

Friday Off
Saturday 9:30 am with Connease

It was another humidity feast, and during the floor series I just hit a wall. It was probably my fault. I came in with too little sleep and maybe a bit dehydrated. But then I was stoked for the class because Sherie was practicing behind me. She's on a Bikram binge, preparing for the Asana Championships next sunday. And I haven't seen her in a while, so I was just happy that she was there, and I was expecting maybe to feed off her energy some.

That worked fine for most of the standing series, and I thought things were going along pretty well. But maybe I pushed just a bit too hard, because Triangle was a real struggle, and then I had to go down for the first set of Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee. And then, I was disoriented. I almost interrupted Connease, telling her she had skipped a set of Triangle (probably because I was sitting out, and I'm supposed to sit out Triangle, so what was she doing skipping ahead?). I caught myself on time, but that was a signal of things to come.

Then, during the long Savasana, Connease shut the fans off. I don't know why. Sometimes the fans go off when its too cold. But it wasn't too cold at all. I'm thinking that maybe she was trying to control the humidity by cutting back on the sweat evaporation. The reason doesn't really matter, and neither should the fans have mattered. But they did, in a big way. I was in a perfect mood to blame all my woes on the lack of air circulation. And, I just reacted badly.

I struggled through the back strengthening series, and did a fair job of it. Then the resting poses just got to me. In Half Tortoise I felt like I couldn't breathe. I skipped the second set of Camel. I felt even more disoriented after one set of Rabbit, and then I limped through the home stretch, but made it. All in all, it was a class just to get through.

Afterward, I felt fine, but as the day went on, I got one of those dehydration headaches. So that was definitely one of the problems. In general, I think I've become a bit too complacent about my out of class water, and it's taking a subtle toll. So, for the next week or so, I may start apportioning a water intake at the start of the day, and just drink it whether I think I need it or not.

The day 275 meditation draws a distinction that I don't really understand. It's all the more troubling because I also get the sense that its a very important distinction. Most people go through their lives without paying any attention to their breath. I would have thought that it was fair to say that they simply let their breathing happen. Pranayama is breathing exercise. When we do pranayama, we focus our attention on our breathing. And I would have thought that, if anywere, it is in pranayama that we take control of our breath.

Apparently this is wrong. The goal is not to control the breath, but to ride it. The goal of pranayama is to let the breath happen, but it happens in accord with our intention. And that is the distinction I don't understand. We intend something to happen, and it does, but we don't take control of it. To me this is simply a puzzle at this point.

It might be simply that there are different levels of control that Gates is getting at. But that's not what he says. He's quite clear that we simply start with an intention and then "let go and let the universe respond." On this, I'm not sure I have a clue what he's getting at. It's definitely not something that I've experienced in any pranayama -- certainly not in Bikram. And I don't really have any idea how I would go about doing it, either.

In some ways, it sounds an awful lot like the endpoint of meditation to me. That there is a kind of unity going on, so that there is no longer an "I" that is controlling the breath. But I really am not sure if that is the idea here or if I'm simply missing the point.