Thursday, December 31, 2009

231/365 - I'm Back

Sunday Off
Monday 6:30 pm with Rohit
Tuesday 6:30 pm with Libby
Wednesday the 23rd through Monday 28th Off (Merry Christmas!)
Tuesday 10:30 am with Lenette
Wednesday 6:30 pm with Rohit
Thursday 10:30 am with Rohit

This is by far the longest I've taken without posting. My apologies to any of you who were anxiously awaiting what I might next say. The Wednesday through Monday break was also the longest I've taken off with no yoga at all. I'm not entirely sure why I didn't make it to a class while on Long Island. Maybe I didn't feel like it. Maybe its proof that I didn't really like the studio there.

I'm not going to summarize each or the last five classes in any detail. I learned something fairly big in each of the first two. First, Rohit said I'm falling out of Standing Bow the way I am because I'm charging forward before I've gotten all I can out of the backward kick. He's getting to be more and more of a stickler on this point, and his advice really helps me. The idea is to kick back with your leg (creating the back arch) until you can't kick back anymore. Then you start to kick up, and its that kicking that drives your body forward. It's not simply a matter of bending at the waist. Rather, you should have no choice but to bend at the waist. This tip has since helped both with the stretching feeling in the pose, and in my ability to hold it. Of course, my new improved Standing Bow doesn't look as cool as the way I was doing, but it will get there.

In the second class, Libby called me out a few times for not locking my elbows. I make a very big deal about keeping the elbows locked in Half Moon, and I can do it pretty well. But there are so many other poses that call for the locked elbow, and its so easy to relax the idea in these poses. First Backbend, Balancing Stick, Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee, Half Tortoise are the main ones, but I may be missing something. This is very similar to the same point that Janna has been making about Half Tortoise. It's obviously one of those things that I "know" yet forget with such ease.

As for the three most recent classes, I've had some real stamina problems, especially in the second class after the break. I dropped a set each of Triangle, Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee, Tree!!!, Camel and Rabbit. I wanted to drop even more. This morning I did better, but still lost a set of Triangle and Tree. I've never skipped tree pose before, and I think its related to my blood pressure. Coming out of the tuck in the earlier pose, I get a little dizzy, and I think that may be a sudden drop in blood pressure. And then I can barely balance on two feet, much less one.

The only other thing is another, and different, pain in my left knee. This time it's on the inside at the back and I don't think it has anything to do with any of the earlier problems. My calf has some related tightness, so I think I must have just pulled something a bit carrying luggage and stuff up and down stairs. This time, I can't fully flex the knee at all. Japanese sitting position is impossible. Third part of Awkward is a major challenge, and I can't go all the way down. Fixed firm is a pipe dream, and Half Tortoise and Rabbit don't get the set-ups they deserve, and suffer pretty badly as a result.

After class this morning, a tranplant from Los Angeles who is new to our studio said that I was "really intense." I'm taking that as a compliment. I do think it's a bit odd that other people see me that way.

The day 295 meditation talks about doubts cropping up over meditation. It's so easy to doubt meditation. As soon as you ask yourself whether you are meditating properly, or even whether you are meditating at all, then you aren't. And at the start (where I am now), thoughts like that crop up all the time.

Once again, Gates assures us that it's not rocket science. There isn't any great body of knowledge needed to start meditation. Rather, like so much else in yoga, you just let go of the doubt and do it. The nice thing to hear is that asana and pranayama are already forms of meditation, but they are in some ways more difficult. With the meditation he's talking about, all you need to do is focus.

On a personal note, I've found one very nice bonus to my recent blood pressure worries. I've got a wrist monitor that may or may not be accurate. The doctor told me to take readings in the morning and the evening. The monitor suggests resting for 10 to 15 minutes before taking the readings. Voila! This is an instant time set aside for meditation. And I've got to do it anyway for other reasons, so I've been trying to do it right.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

226/352- Doing It

Friday 10:30 am with Janna
Saturday 9:30 am with Connease

Janna really wants me to do Half Tortoise correctly. It's so easy to ease off in this pose -- to think that Fixed Firm and Half Tortoise are both well deserved resting poses after cramping my entire back for the last 10-15 minutes. (Is back strengthening series really that short?) In this class, Janna told me she was going to guide me through the corrections in first set, but I had to do it on my own for the second.

Here were the corrections: Thumbs crossed, and use them to squeeze the hands together. Only pinkies on the floor. Straighten the neck even more. The last was something of a surprise. With my neck straight, both my forehead and my nose pressed flat on the ground. I didn't know I had that in me, and thought I was doing the pose fairly well because I was getting good contact with the forehead. The really cool thing about these corrections is that they seem to have stuck, at least through another class. And that's a start.

In general, class was good. I've been reading up on blood pressure symptoms, so now I'm getting all of them. It's a good thing I didn't go to med school. I would have had every symptom known to man. Anyway, I felt a bit lightheaded after Standing Separate Leg Head to Floor, and skipped a set of Triangle. Otherwise, it was a nice solid class.

Today's class was tougher. I think it might have been hotter, at least in the Standing Series. Or maybe I've just honed my psychosomatic skills. I started feeling a bit weak in Awkward. By Balancing Stick, I didn't know if I was going to make it. Then I skipped a set of Triangle, and then a set of Standing Separate Leg head to knee.

The parts I did, I did pretty well. Standing Bow is getting better, both in terms of how high I'm kicking up, and in how long I can hold it. The real stretch right now is underneath the shoulder blade of the arm holding my leg. I feel like I could get much deeper into this pose if my shoulder blades would just open up some more. (Same goes for Floor Bow and Camel.) In fact, after class I'm feeling the most in that area right now. It's getting hit in just about every pose these days: Half Moon, Standing Bow, Balancing Stick, Locust, Floor Bow, Half Tortoise, and Camel.

Another interesting note. I took my blood pressure after yoga both of these days. On the first day it dropped 20/15 points. Today, it dropped to normal -- 122/80. It's not permanent, but it does seem pretty miraculous. Maybe I should just do five classes a day, and I'll keep it down for most of my waking hours.

The day 294 meditation applies a lesson we learned about asana to meditation. It's pretty simple. Don't worry so much about doing it perfectly, and just do it. Sit still and be quiet for 15 minutes a day. Just try to focus and be still during that time, and don't worry too much if it's not going "right." The important thing is doing it. The rest you can let go.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

224/340 - Pi/e (and Sloth)

Tuesday 6:30 with Libby
Wednesday 8:15 with Rohit
Thursday off.

First, some housekeeping. I need to look back over my post titles. My day count is at 340, and I think there are 14 days left in the year. Did someone change the calendar this year? Or (perhaps more likely) I goofed on the count somewhere? (Edit: Oops, strike that. I goofed with this post. I went from 347 to 340. Doh! I will keep the title of this post as it is, and get back on course with the next post, maybe...)

This raises another interesting question: Why am I bothering with a day count at all? At one point, the days were going to match the meditations in Gates' book. Now, instead, they serve as a reminder of how far off the track I've gone. At this point, I think I'm doing it just to do it. And also, it gives me a convenient title for a post when I can't come up with anything cute. But random numbers would serve that purpose just as well. Hence the name of this post. (BTW, I have a nasty habit, when people try to get to think of a number between one and ten, of choosing either pi or e.)

I had three really good days of classes in a row. Libby's class was inspiring. I found new things in several of the poses. Most notably, I discovered how to go even more deeply into my shoulders in Half Moon. Here's the strange, but typical, discovery I made. I can get a much deeper stretch in my shoulders in the pose by paying even more attention to locking my legs and making sure that the inside foot is bearing the weight it should. That's just another example of how totally connected different parts of the body are in these poses.

Mostly, what I did in this class was pay even more attention to the set-ups. More and more, I'm impressed with the importance of the set-ups for every pose. The more attention that gets paid to following every detail, the better the pose. It's pretty much that simple. After the set-up, everything is a matter of breathing and determination.

The class itself was great. There were eight of us, and Libby had us all move to the front row. This means that there was basically no-one in my field of vision. But still, the energy was really high, and several times Libby complemented us on how we were staying together. Part of the reason, I think, is because the studio is in the holiday doldrums. For the most part, the only people who are coming are the ones who are very committed. And it makes for small, but high energy classes.

After two really good classes in a row, I thought about taking a day off, but decided to push my luck. At the last minute, I grabbed my stuff and headed for class. The only reason I had for not going was that I didn't really feel like it, and that's not going to be a good enough reason anymore.

Class was really good. Again there were about eight of us, and the class was strong and together. During Triangle, Rohit commented that it was the first time where he had nothing to say about anyone's Triangle during a class. Then in Floor Bow, he mentioned how no-one in class dropped out of the pose early. It's been that kind of week in these classes, and its really cool.

The day 293 meditation visits an old friend of mine: sloth. As Gates talks about it, sloth is basically whatever gets you to say that you don't need to practice today, that you can do your meditation sometime later, that tomorrow will be as good as today for starting some project. I think there's some difference between procrastination and sloth, but it's probably not worth mentioning.

As Gates notes, its pretty to overcome sloth with Asana practice. Once you get involved in your practice, its relatively easy to let yourself become completely involved. I think that's just the nature of the poses. Of course, in Bikram, the dialogue delivery has something to do with it as well.

He also notes that sloth is a bigger obstacle in meditation. This seems kind of counterintuitive to me. In some ways, when you are meditating, you aren't really doing anything. So I would think that meditation and sloth would make fairly good bedfellows. But here's the rub. Meditation requires focus and concentration, and sloth doesn't particularly like to keep company with them. So it will constantly try to bring you away from your focus, to turn you away from the meditative state and bring you back to the "comfortable" area where thoughts just sort of flit about as they will.

Monday, December 14, 2009

222/347 Doctor, Yikes!

Friday through Sunday off.
Monday 6:30 pm with Sherry

I had a check-up today and I'm mostly fine. The blood work hasn't been done yet, so I may be jumping the gun. And he wants to x-ray my knee, but mostly because I complained about it.

But... I've definitely slacked off about my weight. I haven't weighed myself in almost a year, I think. And my clothes still fit, but may be a bit more snug than the were after my big challenge last year. I knew that. According to the doctor's scale, I've regained 25 pounds of the forty plus that I lost. OK, I can deal with that, and I basically know the adjustments I need to make to get things back on track.

Now here's the scary part. My blood pressure this morning came in at 175/116 !!! I thought I had it licked, and even went off my medications and had no problems a year ago. I had a headache this morning. And the doctor says its possible that the headache, or whatever caused it, also caused a spike in my blood pressure. But it's also possible, and more likely, that the high blood pressure is actually causing my headache. This little problem puts a bit more urgency into shedding a few pounds. My guess is that going back to the weight I should be will significantly lower, if not eliminate the blood pressure problem. And if it actually is as high as this morning's reading indicates, then its a VERY serious problem.

The headache stayed with me, until about Triangle in tonight's yoga class. So there is one thing I'm wondering. I get these headaches pretty regularly when I skip a day or two of yoga. So, you might ask, why do I skip these days? Because even smart people can be really stupid about some things is the best answer I can come up with. I'm definitely going back to 5 or more days a week, and maybe to every day. I would join the 100 day challenge that's beginning on Jan. 1, all accross the country, but I know I'm going to miss a bunch of days in mid February from travel. Maybe I'll join anyway and try to make up those days as best I can.

Class tonight was very pleasant. The temperature was perfect. I didn't skip a pose, but crash landed early out of Locust. I came in with the headache, and had it completely disappear. I kicked out and held it for a full set on both sides in Standing Head to Knee. But the best thing about the class is that I felt alert and with the dialogue the whole way through. It was one of the most satisfying classes I've had in a while.

The day 292 meditation recommends a 15 minute meditation in the morning. I really need to start trying this. First off, there's the benefits. And then, of course, its kind of silly for me to be writing anything about this stuff unless I've dived in. The meditation also has a beautiful quote from Shakespeare, which stands on its own:

And this our life exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

The quote is from As You Like It, which is one of my absolute favorites. It's never gotten a good film version, as far as I know, but the two stage productions I've seen of it were extraordinary and delightful. I had never considered the retreat to the forest as a kind of meditation, but here again, Shakespeare proves that he simply knew more than most people had ever imagined.

Friday, December 11, 2009

221/343 - Ferdinand the Bull, and Devo

Monday off.
Tuesday 10:30 am with Sherry
Wednesday off.
Thursday 6:30 with Sherry

Tuesday's class was going great. I felt good and flexible, and my knee felt as good as it has in a long time. I even thought about doing Toe Stand, but refrained. I did, however, go back on my elbows in both sets of Fixed Firm.

Then, after the first set of Rabbit, I spun around, and something popped in my right knee. I really wish I knew what was doing it. It seems that getting comfortable with a healthy knee is an almost surefire recipe for reinjury.

I took Wednesday off to give it a rest, used some herbal patches, and after last night's class, its basically back to where it was. So it ended up being more of a scare and a reminder, than anything serious. (And now that I've said that, I'm probably going to tweak it again.)

Last night's class was one where the room seemed hotter than it was. I skipped a set of Triangle, but not for lack of stamina. I went into the first lunge and my knee felt like it might give out. So I took a breather, and took more care in the set-up of the second set.

I also had a realization about one of the songs that repeatedly pops into my head during yoga classes. The song is "Praying Hands" by Devo, of all things. There are several lines of this song that haunt parts of the yoga class, but the realization came over the following "Roll over, play dead. Get spiritual minded." Take away the Sanskrit, and that's Savasana in a nutshell. (And the Devo song is most decidedly not about yoga, or at least, I wouldn't have thought so before. But somehow I had made the connection without realizing it.)

The day 291 meditation gives a practical exercise as the first step in meditation. The idea is simply to take the first step toward eliminating distractions and into concentration. It's not much different from pranayama. All Gates requires is to sit up, on a chair or cushion, and count your breath or simply focus on it, for 10 minutes. That's it. The cool thing about this is that it makes meditation seems so simple. And the instruction is pretty clear as well: focus on something and let the distractions slide away.

The rest of this meditation reminds me of Ferdinand the Bull. Gates says that part of turning inward stems from the truth that we already have everything we need, that we are already in heaven if we would just let go of our fears and allow it to be so. And that's pretty much the message of taking time to smell the flowers. The idea, at least as I am drawing the connection, is that meditation can help open the gateway to appreciation and gratitude.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Friday 6:30 pm with Rohit
Saturday off.
Sunday 9:30 am with Rohit

Rohit took a drink during Eagle and I started laughing. He asked why. "No drinking before party time, " I squeaked out, managing not to fall out of the pose. The between poses, I said I was laughing because he had managed a three-fer. No drinking before party time. No drinking during a pose. And no drinking while people are balancing. After that it became a running joke for a little while. For me, that kind of humor lightens up the class, but I also suspect that some others might not appreciate it. I did notice that I was the only one laughing.

Class was good. I skipped nothing, and managed to avoid getting stuck at any of my sticking points. Instead, I got the hiccups again, this time during the end of Full Locust and the start of Floor Bow. And I went back on my elbows in Fixed Firm again.

A half hour before class today, the room had heated up to 72 degrees. By the time class started, it had zoomed up to 76. And by the end of class, it had climbed gradually to 90, with the humidity holding steady at around 60%.

The condensation in the room was pretty incredible. We're told to focus on our eyes in the mirror, then on our knee, etc... In this class, there was no focusing in the mirror at all. I would have expected my balance to suffer, but it didn't. Rather, not having the mirror interfered most with half moon. It seems that I've got a pretty good internal compass about how to balance and where everything should be in the other poses. But in half moon, I rely very much on the mirror to gauge hip and shoulder alignment.

As expected, the strength poses were much easier today -- Awkward, Triangle, and Back Strengthening always benefit from a cold room. If they could somehow turn the temperature down 10 degrees before Locust, I might be able to overcome my reflux problems and my mental block for the pose. Today's Locusts were the best I've done in recent memory.

I've heard lots about the benefits of the heat. No doubt it improves flexibility and depth in stretching poses. It also makes strength poses more challenging. And it often presents a mental challenge all on its own. But I still have some doubts about the long term physical benefits from a very hot room. If the room is 90 degrees and you push a stretch to its edge, is that stretch really less effective for you than a somewhat deeper stretch that you do to your edge at 103 degrees? I don't really know the answer to this, and I have my doubts about whether anyone else knows the answer either.

Ultimately yogis in all disciplines tend to get really flexible. They also improve their strength. I don't question that there are other benefits to the heat. It speeds up the warm up. Sweating tends to be a good thing. It can add a challenge on its own, simply by providing another distraction. But I really don't know about any lasting physical benefit.

The day 290 meditation talks about three stages in practice. First, there is the decision to improve yourself or to try again. According to this meditation, that is the part where "turning inward" comes into play. Then there is the honeymoon period, where dramatic changes happen. And then there is maintenance.

I'm sure his description applies to a great many situations. For example, it surely takes a certain amount of courage for an addict to give up an addiction. And it takes courage for a person to try again after some significant failure.

But I also think that it's possible for the turning inward to come later. How many people come to their first Bikram class with almost no idea of what to expect? Or come because they've heard that it's a good work-out. And then the changes start happening. And for lots of people, I think, that's all that ever happens. The turning inward never happens, and they get lots of benefits from the Bikram class, but it remains an exercise program, a hard work-out.

And then other people go through the same thing, and a light goes off. They start to learn how to forgive themselves. They start to focus and approach class with discipline. Their breathing cleans up. They start noticing that they are nicer to people generally, that they have adopted better eating habits for no particular reason. And that awareness, at some point, starts the turning inward. I think that that probably more closely describes the process in my case.

Friday, December 4, 2009

217/336 - Snow! and a Recipe for Happiness

Wednesday 6:30 with Sherry
Thursday off.

It's snowing and has been since early this morning. In some places, the ground has accumulated as much as 1/4". Here in Houston, that's incredibly rare and enough to make people wonder whether they should brave the traffic. The radio stations are all reporting many minor accidents. It makes me wonder whether there really are more accidents today because people are freaked over the snow, or if they are just reporting accidents that they ordinarily would ignore so they can make the snow out to be a big hazard.

Anyway I can't wait to take my dogs out for a romp. They are snow dogs (Samoyeds) and they have never seen what they were born for. And then I might just dare the treacherous roads for another Bikram class.

Wednesday's class was good. My stamina improved and I made it through standing series without even wanting to sit out a set. And then I got stuck with the hiccups of all things between the Camel sets. I made it through Rabbit without coming out early, and Sherry tends towards long rabbits. With her timing, she manages to give long holds in most of the poses, full Savasanas, and still finishes a few minutes early. I don't know how she does it -- maybe the laws of physics are different in her classes. (Maybe at home she can make magic grits -- and bonus points to anyone who gets the reference).

The other first in Wednesday's class was a hamstring cramp in the right leg when trying to pick up my foot in Standing Bow. The foot would go up, I would grab it, and then CRAAAMP. So I extended it, and tried again. Fortunately, the stretch you get in the leg when its actually the standing leg worked things back to normal, and I was fine from there on out. I don't know what caused the cramp, but I'm taking it as a sign that something is happening in my hamstring, and that's probably a good thing.

The day 285 meditation focuses on an incredibly powerful and challenging thought: "To become happy, we simply have to stop making ourselves unhappy." My first reaction was that it can't really be that simple, and the next thing Gates says is that most people don't think that it can be that simple. So I guess, at least at first blush, I was in the majority.

Studies (and I don't have any cites off the top of my head) show pretty consistently that happiness has very little to do with wealth. These studies exclude the truly destitute. But for people who have the basics, meaning food and shelter, the rich don't tend to be any happier than the poor or the middle income groups.

The next thing that seems to be true is that happiness depends much more on a person's attitude than on circumstances. And perhaps that means that happiness is more of a disposition than it is a result. In yoga, contentment is one of the things that we should practice. Once again, being content is an activity, its not something that happens to us.

Give all the above, I think there's probably a world of truth to the idea that the way to become happy is to stop making ourselves unhappy. In class, I've certainly learned that I can turn the class around with a smile. I can make a bad class better by refusing to dwell on how much things hurt, and in its stead, start telling myself how grateful I am for the opportunity to be there. And if I can do it in class, then why not elsewhere. I think I will try it out this afternoon by tolerating the drivers who simply can't deal with the idea of a little snow in Houston.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Sunday off.
Monday off.
Tuesday 4:30 pm with Rohit.

I planned to go on Monday, but our plane from New York arrived late. Before boarding, they told us that we had to make a stop in Birmingham to refuel because of bad weather. I'm not sure I like the idea that my plane can't hold enough fuel to handle a little circling. We got home at 3 instead of 12:30, and that meant I would have to go to yoga without eating anything at all. And then there was my cold.

I went into Tuesday's class wondering how long my cold was going to drag on, and how badly it would effect my practice. The answers: It hung around until about Cobra, and after class it was like I never had a cold at all. And it had a big enough impact that Rohit left the room during the long Savasana to find some tissues for me. The amazing thing, and its happened before, is coming into class with symptoms of some illness and leaving with them gone. The only difference today is in how dramatic the contrast was. From coughing, runny nose, and some sneezing to nothing at all.

As for the class: I skipped Triangle only. I still stuck at some of my sticking points. I crash landed out of Locust, dragged myself into Camel set-up behind the rest of the class, and came out of a set of Rabbit way too early. On the plus side, my butt hit the floor in Fixed Firm for the first time in a while. Standing Head to Knee was also better than its been in a while. I came out just a bit early once, but otherwise held the pose for the duration and kicked out for most of the time -- at least on the right side, the left side side not so much.

The day 288 meditation opens with an Indian fable. When the star Svati rises and it rains, the oysters come to the surface of the water and open their shells. They know that if they can catch a raindrop, it will become a pearl. Once they catch some of the rain, they close their shells and hurry back to the bottom to develop the raindrops into pearls. The one telling this fable then says we should be like the oyster, first opening ourselves to experience and understanding, then closing ourselves off and diving deep inside to develop the truth.

I've been trying to come up with some sort of Western comparison to this fable, but I'm getting nothing at all. If anyone can think of something, please let me know. In the meanwhile, I think this fable is a pretty good illustration of the difference in cultures or ways of thinking.

Gates says that when he started his book he also thought he would continue teaching, but that became more difficult than he thought. He took some time off, wandered around in the woods, watching fish in the river, and as he did this the book began to take shape for him.

I really like his description here, partially because it describes the way I worked when I was a student. Before writing a paper, I would first read everything I needed for it. Then would come the time when everyone else thought I was either procrastinating or goofing off. I would wander around campus, chat with people, listen to music, while everyone else was busy writing and re-writing their papers. And then, I would write. Using this "method", I once wrote a 10 page paper in less than an hour. At the end of my senior year, I wrote three 25 page papers in a day and a half. I would tell people that I was composing the papers in my head while wandering around, but that wasn't really true, at least not on the level of sentences. I can't really describe what I was doing, but I think this fable gets it about right, I was taking what I needed it and turning it into a "pearl", even if in my case they were sometimes more paste than pearl.

This process was fine until I started working at a law firm and had to bill by the hour. It's one thing to tell your friends that everything is alright while you seem to be procrastinating. But how do you bill the ruminating process? So I gave it up, and its too bad, because the work I did with it, I think, was much better than anything I did with the drafting and re-drafting process that makes bosses so comfortable.