Tuesday, March 31, 2009

64/90 -- A Cause of Regression

Monday 8:15 pm with Miranda
Tuesday Off

It was my last class with Miranda, at least for a while.  She's leaving for Hong Kong on Thursday, and will go to Indonesia or Australia from there, because there is no Bikram in Hong Kong right now.  And we will all be waiting with crossed fingers for the State Department to do the right thing.  

Class was strong.  I pushed even harder than usual, and thought about going down towards the end of standing series.  Instead, I toughed it out.  Somehow, I didn't want to let Miranda down and that made for an especially hard working class.  I sometimes wonder about the range of work possible in Bikram.  Even when I "take it easy," I'm generally working pretty hard, just easing off a bit on depth, maybe.  And if I push to the point where I need to use my mouth for breathing, I sit out.   So, you would think that there would be a fairly narrow exertion range in class.  But my experience is otherwise.  

Even staying with good form, and staying within my breath, there seems to be a wide range of how hard I can push myself.   More interesting, is how important fellow classmates and the teacher are in how hard I'm able to push.  When I'm near people who are dropping out, my energy just naturally drops.  And conversely, surrounding myself with strong practitioners gives me a pretty big boost, probably bigger than it should. 

It's likewise with the teacher.  And on a night like last night, when we were basically saying goodbye to each other, I think everyone gave just a bit extra energy.  The class was more together, and I just think that many people were trying to say goodbye to Miranda with the strongest, most upbeat class that they could give.  And Miranda was returning the favor by being especially tough and motivating.

In the day 88 meditation, Gates talks about how yoga allows us to drop off layers of armor.  By armor, I think he means the various defense mechanisms that people build up around themselves to protect them from insecurities, shortcomings, and various fears.  He says that we often do not know when we have dropped a layer of protection, and because the protection is gone, this leaves us exposed to old fears and anxieties.  As a result, practice might lead to times when it feels like we are regressing.  This sort of regression is actually a sign of progress.  Instead of relying on false defense mechanisms, we can either deal with our fears or simply let them go.

This is all well and good.  But how does one know when its happening?  If you don't know that you've shed one of your layers of armor, then how will you ever know if your regression is due to having shed the armor, or whether it's simply a regression.  And then it occurs to me:  this wanting to know the one from the other is simply another form of results oriented thinking.  The answer, I suppose, is to have faith in the practice, stick with it even through difficult patches and see whether it serves well over a longer period. 

In the end, this is one of those meditations that simply doesn't mean that much to me now.  I haven't been practicing long enough to have hit any troubling regressions.  So, I guess that its something that I will try to remember for when the time comes.  It's interesting, but for right now simply does not have much practical import for me.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

63/88 Self Study As Process

2:30 pm with Miranda

So after yesterday's really tough class, I went to a 2:30 class today, having eaten nothing all day, and feeling about the same as I felt before yesterday's class.  And it went fantastically.  I didn't need to drink any water.  I stayed collected throughout.  I didn't skip anything, and pushed really hard for the most part.  I don't know what yesterday's problem, but once again Bikram shows itself to be like Forrest's box of chocolates.

My balance was really good today.  I didn't fall out of any of Standing Head to Knee.  And I had a very slight breakthrough:  in Toe Stand I actually got both hands off the ground for almost two seconds on my left toe.  I've gotten to that on the right side (but not today), but I've never been able to lift the second hand on the left side without falling before.

Back strengthening was all good.  So were Rabbit and Camel.  And I felt especially good for some reason in Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee.  I still couldn't breathe, but I had my knee locked on the right side, and came close on the left.  All in all it was a really strong, and a fun, class.  I'm thinking that might partially be because I felt like savoring Miranda's last few classes before she goes back to Hong Kong.  I need to look into whether there's anything I can do to help her visa application.

Yesterday's meditation strikes me with a few things.  Gates relates self study to non-attachment.  Basically, the more openminded a student is, the more likely that self-study will help.  To the extent that people cling to pre-conceived ideas, the more likely that anything new will simply bounce off with no effect.  I know lots of people who read "inspirational" texts or literature, and even go to the extent of highlighting it.  More often than not, they are highlighting stuff that they agree with, stuff that is not particularly challenging to them.  I've always thought that this is a sort of reading for reassurance.  It might lead to a slightly deeper understanding of what someone already believes, but its almost certainly not going to break any new boundaries.

I've always thought that a better approach, if you are going to highlight stuff, is to highlight the stuff you react strongly against, or the stuff you don't seem to understand.  Then, I like to go back over it and, instead of saying why I don't like it or disagree with it, I try to puzzle out what it really means.  Quite often, the things I disagree with are simply things I don't understand at first blush.  Sometimes, I can get to a point where I see what the author is trying to say, and this makes it a bit easier to swallow.  Of course, sometimes I simply end up disagreeing, and other times I simply fail to understand.  But the exercise has served me well.  Too often people are ready to accept or dismiss something without really trying to figure out what it means in the first place.

The other point that struck me is how self-study ultimately needs to be focused on only a process and not on getting any particular result.  In one way, this seems pretty obvious to me.  When you are engaged in this sort of study, you literally don't know what the result is going to be.  If you did know, in any concrete way, then I think you also would likely have achieved the result.  Since the result is in some way unknowable at the outset, that means that all we are left with is process.  

And then there is the contradiction that lies at the heart of this.  One way to state the result is simply this:  be present, or be aware.  But if you try to grab being present as some kind of result, it then simply eludes the grasp.  However, if you give it up, and focus simply on the process of what you are doing -- on your breath, on the feeling throughout your body while doing asanas, to the process itself -- then you can find yourself falling into being present, being fully aware.  

Saturday, March 28, 2009

62/87 Planting Seeds

9:30 am with Amy

After a few great classes in a row, a tough one generally waits.  Today's was like running full speed into the end of a train line.  Just before class, I noticed a rash starting to develop on the top of my left foot.  That's a sign that my immunity has dropped for some reason, and the class bore it out.

By awkward pose, I started to get dizzy.  I could barely balance at all as a result.  On top of that, I started to feel weak.  I sat out a set of both Triangle and Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee.  I was even looking for excuses to leave the room.  I thought I might need to go to the bathroom, but then I realized I was just trying to find a way to escape.

I've thought for a while that you can always get through class, if you just keep within your breath.  Today put that to the test, and I made it.  Once I got on the floor, the waves of dizziness either faded or didn't matter any more.  I gathered myself together, and made an OK showing from Locust onward.  It wasn't like other classes, where I found a second life.  I was running out of gas by the end, but pleased that I made it through a very hard morning.

And, as usual, after class I felt better.  And I've felt even better all day.  So, whatever the problem was, I'm thinking that maybe the yoga knocked it out.

The Day 86 Meditation (I'm still one behind) describes how we are sometimes not ready to absorb what we read, and the truth behind it only dawns on us later, with more experience.  When I was young, and studying philosophy, I often ran into writers who insisted that philosophy was for old man.  That was hard to swallow as a twenty year old, especially one as precocious at argument as I was.  And now I've come to think that, in one sense, this is true.  My temperament now is more suited for philosophy.  On the other hand, it seems harder now and takes more energy.  Anyway, I think this is not only a corollary of what Gates is saying, but in my case, it is also an example.

I also think the same applies to all sorts of other things:  music, the arts, food, basically any human activity that touches us deeply.  When I was in my early teens, someone gave me Katy Lied by Steely Dan.  I remember sort of listening to it once, and putting it away, totally unimpressed.  About four years later, I came on it again while thumbing through my records (yes, I had records), and I put it on for a lark.  It then became one of my favorite albums.  Both were basically first impressions, but the second time I heard it, for whatever reason, I was ready for it.  

And of course another example is yoga itself.  I first got exposed to yoga when I was about 25.  I joined a gym on the upper west side of NY.  A dancer taught a class twice a week on stretching and alignment.  This incorporated some postures from what I now understand is Power Yoga.  I distinctly remember Triangle and Reverse Triangle.  From her, I learned how to lock my knees, how to align my spine while lying down.  And a few other things.  I really enjoyed the class, but thought of it as being entirely physical.  She got a job on Broadway and that was the end of that class.

Then again, I took some yoga classes at a gym here in Sugarland about 13 years ago.  This was also about two weeks ago, and I really liked it.  It turns out that that class was using the Bikram series.  I know because I found a yoga book on my shelves about 3 months ago.  Inside, there was a sheet with a list of diagrams of poses that I had gotten from the gym class.  And sure enough, they were the 26 postures (no breathing exercises).   I don't know why I didn't stick with those classes.  Again, I thought the routine was just "stretching" at the time.  And I think I just left the gym to concentrate on riding my bicycle.

So now, years later, I stumble into yoga for the third time (at least, there may have been some other isolated classes), and now for whatever reason, I was ready for it and it seemed absolutely right for me.  I can't say why exactly, but I think enough about my attitudes must have changed to open me up to yoga.  I don't know what paved the way, but I now think of my early exposures to yoga as a kind of preparation for what I'm doing now, and not as lost opportunities.  

61/86 More Self Study

Friday off.

I took the day off because it's Yanzi's first birthday.  It's a Chinese thing:  they get to have a birthday according to the lunar calendar, and then they get another one by ours.  And if she wants to celebrate twice, that's fine with me.

It turns out that self study, as I suspected, does not just concern itself with spiritual texts.  Basically it's any form of study that starts to turn inward.  Thus, to take the obvious example, asana practice is a form of self study.  

I think this is probably pretty obvious to anyone who has paid serious attention to how they are performing a posture.  You learn about your body, of course, but also about your edge.  You learn when you can push, and when to hold back.  And you might learn that you have deeper reserves than you ever thought possible.  And that its possible to get comfortable with conditions that are very uncomfortable, and eventually to find some peace there.  If asana practice did not invite this element of self study, the yoga would not lead to the revelations, and to the feelings of peacefulness, that many people get from it -- even people who are otherwise unfamiliar with the other paths within yoga.

Gates also says that it doesn't matter how large or small a thing you study.  And that seems clear from asana practice as well.  If you focus well on the tiniest detail, it can lead to a new appreciation of a pose, a part of the routine, your body, your overall attitude, etc...  As Gates puts it, there are no big insights or small insights, there is only insight.  

This reminds me of a passage from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Pirsig was talking about trying to get some students to do some writing on a topic, and when the assignment was to write on anything, many of the students came up blank.  He kept narrowing the topic, and narrowing the topic.  Finally, when he told them to pick a particular brick on a particular building and write about that, things just opened up and the students who were blocked finally made their breakthrough.  That seems silly, but I've tried it with students as well (using things other than the brick), and it works.  So I fully buy into this idea that focusing on the small can be as productive as looking at the big picture.

Gates also says that all objects of study are equally important.  That seems to flow from the idea that everything is interconnected.  It's a nice thought, but I'm not sure that I buy it.  Moreover, I'm not sure that Gates believes it either.  If he did, then why the emphasis on reading spiritual texts over trashy fiction.  

I'm actually very sympathetic to the idea that all objects of study have equal importance, at least in the sense that they can be equivalent gateways.  Things are interconnected, and while it may not be that big a deal to find the pathway from each thing to Kevin Bacon, I think exploring the way other things interrelate is usually worthwhile.  (In his brief lectures on Psychology, Wittgenstein somewhere makes a comment that you could find just as much about a person by psychoanalyzing his impressions of a detective movie, as psychoanalyzing his dreams.   And I think this is a very astute point, and not necessarily a criticism of psychoanalysis.  When it comes to studying the spirit, virtually anything could be used as a starting point.)

Friday, March 27, 2009

61/85 - Self-Study

Thursday 8:15 pm with Amy

Another great class.  Now that the heat and humidity are back to normal, I felt comfortable again trying the class with no water.  It's funny:  my mind tells me that when the humidity was down that I should sweat less and thus need less water.  And the after class evidence bore that out.  My towel wasn't even completely drenched after some of the recent classes.  But during class, it was a different thing altogether.  My mouth would get a little parched.  Parts of my face would feel dry, and this translated to: need to drink.  Anyways, no water tonight, and it translated into tons of energy throughout the class.

I haven't had a class with Amy for over a week, since before I tweaked my back.  (She spent a week with her sister on one of the Greek islands, poor thing.)  After Standing Separate Leg Head to Floor, she said that I've made real progress since she left and that sometimes its great to see the jumps that people have made after going away.  I was pleased but a bit bewildered by this.  I don't really have an idea how deep I am in the pose -- it just always feels like my head is a few miles from the floor.  And I would have thought that I had regressed in this pose, because of my back.  However, I have been paying lots of attention to form, and this is another indication that attention to form pays off.

And again, it's funny.  Every time I start paying serious attention to form, it ends up with one of these really nice compliments.  And that means that it shows that I'm making some real progress.  So why don't I just pay constant attention to form throughout, and finally learn the lesson???  This is a hard one to explain -- sometimes, I think its simply a matter of neglect.  Partially, I think its because 90 full minutes of that kind of concentration can just be hard to pull off.

I went all the way down in both sets of Fixed Firm, but I think I may be pushing it too hard.  My knees might be coming just a tiny bit off the floor.  I'm going to have to ease off this one, or at least be very careful.  And again, Camel and Rabbit both felt very strong.

The fourth niyama is self study.  A big part of this, it appears, is the reading and re-reading of spiritual texts.  It's very hard for me to believe that the reading is actually essential:  part of me thinks that the principles of yoga must have been possible to achieve in societies that had not developed writing.  Or to put it another way:  one of the ideas that I like about yoga is that we already have everything that we need (the Wizard of Oz aspect).  Dependence on books written by others seems to undercut this idea.

But that's a quibble.  I do have access to books, and I read more than most, so on a practical level this is no problem.  Indeed, I think Gate's book, and my study of it here, is a pretty good start on the road of self study.  

A few nights ago my wife was impatient with me clacking away here.  She said:  "Nobody's gonna read that anyway."  My immediate reaction was: "That's not why I'm writing it."  Of course, I'm delighted with whatever readership I have, and I love getting the comments.  But this blog, I think, is just an aspect of this idea of self-study.  If I take it upon myself to write, then that increases the chances that I will actually think some.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

60/84 - Inevitable Success

Wednesday 8:15 pm with Miranda

Bad news:  Miranda is leaving us, at least for a while.  Her visa extension is running out and the State Department denied another extension.  She's been in the country on a visitor's visa.  Amy has already sponsored her for a green card, but she has to leave while that application is pending.  And her return will depend on getting the work visa application accepted (whenever that might happen), and her not finding something better in the interim.

I've probably had more classes with Miranda than any other teacher.  She's absolutely great.  She's really good at motivating people.  She sets a great pace.  And she truly cares about how everyone is doing.  She spends lots of time both before and after class helping students with various problems.  So I definitely hope she comes back, and I'll be very sorry to see her go, especially since she wants to stay.

Class last night was fantastic.  I was looser than I've been since I pulled my back, and I was full of energy.  Outside, it started pouring, and its always nice doing yoga in the rain.  I'm not sure why, maybe its the background sound that adds a peaceful feeling. 

I went all the way back, and easily, on the second set of Fixed Firm.  My knees weren't even complaining about it, and I even had time to start to think about creating the bridge with my back.  So that counts as a breakthrough of sorts.  

I also had maybe my best Rabbit ever, though its hard to tell in this pose because I have basically zero idea what I look like.  But I had a nice solid connection between knees and forehead, my hips felt further forward than usual, and my ankles and feet were closer together than usual.  I'm amazed that I went from total gimp in this pose just a week ago, to something bordering on a breakthrough.  Camel and the Final Stretches were good too.

The Day 83 meditation is about how, once we find our dharma, there is an inevitability of success.  Dharma, I think, is a true purpose.  It's what some people would call a Calling.  It's what a person is truly meant to do.  

Gates illustrates this idea by talking about a sequence from the bio-pic Pollack.  I haven't seen the movie.  But it appears that there's a really great sequence when they move and start setting up the artist studio.  Gate's says the sequence is crackling with energy and you can feel, as they are putting the studio together, that success will inevitably follow. 

Maybe that's how it was.  But I also want to say:  it's a movie.  It's easy to see what someone was fated to do after they die.  So I'm not impressed that there was any actual inevitability.  And lets not forget, movies and stories are also pretty good at convincing entire generations of girls that there is one true prince out there made especially for them.  

Now, its also possible that Gates is only trying to say that this movie was a really good depiction of a real process.  That it captured the essence of something that is true for many.  A person catches on to something that just feels right, and there's no longer a question of failure because the rightness of it is so strong.

Again I want to say, maybe so.  I definitely think that was the way it was for my father and the law.  He seems to have loved it from day one, and he loves it still.  And it's impossible to argue with his success (and I'm not talking about money).   He's had basically a perfect career and a happy life, and he truly loves what he does.

In a similar way, the same might apply to my sisters and their love/ability with animals, which is now focused on dogs.  But here, while I think the pure love of what they are doing is obvious, the inevitability of success is not quite so clear.  In terms of being good at what they do, yes, they are success.  But it's not quite as clear to me that the world will continue to support them doing what they love.  I hope so.

In my case, I don't even know how this idea applies.  There are lots of things that I really like to do:  I like the law when its interesting.  I loved movie editing on its own terms, but not the business.  I love photography.  I love music, the guitar, and singing, and am pretty good at it.  But are any of these my dharma?   I can't say yes, and I think I might not know what my calling was if it ran over me like an eighteen -wheeler.   Or perhaps I'm right when I sometimes think that my true calling is to be a 19th century British gentleman, but where's the inevitability of success in that?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


10:30 am with Danielle

It's been a while since I've had a class with Danielle, and it was quite nice.  Lenette and Janna were both taking, and its always good to have instructors taking class.  For some reason, it just seems to pump the energy way up.

Class was very normal for me.  Nothing was particularly outstanding like Sunday's balancing series.  And nothing was very far off either.  My back was limiting me just a little bit, but its no longer a matter for real concern.

I'm still a day behind on the meditations.  Yesterday's meditation was about how, when we start a practice, we must follow the guidance of others.   But with thought and dedication, we can gradually become our teachers.  I've always thought that that was the point of just about all education.  And good teaching program will lead a person to the point where he can start to teach himself.  So I'm left wondering what this observation has to do with yoga, except that its as true there as elsewhere.

I was going to go on to today's meditation, but I read it and I'm going to have to think about it some.  So, still a day behind.

Monday, March 23, 2009

58/82 Suffering and Tapas

Day off.

I'm still a day behind on the meditations.  I took the day for no particular reason.  My back feels much better.  Overall, I'm feeling really good again.

Gates says that there is a fundamental energy that underlies tapas, and that that energy derives from the desire to end suffering.  Too often, people apply that energy by trying to change the outer world.  That can lead to bad, and even terrible results.  He says that that misdirected zeal made Stalinism and Nazism possible.   In yoga, he says that the desire to end suffering is directed internally.  With it, we can change our reaction to outward circumstances, and we can do this without risking evil consequence.

Too often people misunderstand one of the basic points here:  most evil people actually intend to do good.  Hitler truly thought that the end result of his extermination programs would be a better world.  The Communist true believers slaughtered millions in pursuit of what they thought would be a better mode of existence for everyone.  I'm pretty sure that Osama bin Laden truly believes in the rightness of what he was doing, as did GW Bush. 

And I also think that Gates is onto something by pointing out the zeal, the focus of belief and the dedication to its application, that is necessary to accomplish evil on that scale.  This is one of the reasons I tend to shy away from true believers, no matter what they are selling.  Skeptics tend to be alot less dangerous.

I also agree that many problems have their root in a desire to end suffering.  People overeat, or gorge on comfort food to make themselves feel better for awhile.  People will lie, cheat, and steal because they want financial security.  No matter how rich some people get, they will then think that it will be enough when they make the next big strike.  And with other people, I've seen a kind of never ending resume building -- if they can just get that next position, that next title, then everything will be all right. 

The question that still puzzles me a little is whether the inner directed zeal is, by nature, superior.  The reason I wonder is because I've seen a few yoga snobs, people who are entirely wrapped up in their own spirituality, and who tend to rub it in other peoples faces.  Is their zeal inward directed, or outward directed?  I don't know how to answer that.  Or maybe their zeal in practice is just fine, but they are missing some other aspect.

Anyway, I'm pretty well convinced that outward directed zeal can be a very dangerous mistake.  I'm not as convinced that it always has to be.  But, again, the nice thing here is that yoga is ultimately a very practical endeavor.  The thing to do is to try to devote energy into the practice itself, without focusing too much on any particular result.  And then see if that works.  

And don't bug me about how I will know whether it worked if I don't have any goal in mind.  Suffice it to say, if I like where the ride takes me then I'll stay on the bus.  Or as Mickey Hart put it:  "Gone are the days we stopped to decide where we should go, we just ride."

Sunday, March 22, 2009

58/81 Part 2: Desire and Results

The niyamas contain a seeming contradiction.  On the one hand we're supposed to practice contentment.  But then we're also supposed to have zeal in practice.  The zeal springs from desire.  But it seems that to the extent we desire something, we aren't content.  Hence, a contradiction.

Gate's suggests that the way out of this seeming contradiction is by divorcing tapas from results.  When we see something lacking in ourselves, we look for a way to fill it, and this is the typical wellspring of desire: we desire a particular result.  The trick with tapas is simply to desire the practice, or the process, itself without necessarily linking the process to any result.

On a mundane level, I've seen this at work many times.  For example, I don't think its a coincidence that I tweaked my back on the same day that I reached my goal for the year of seeing the ballet bar in the first backbend.  I'm not sure if it was the cause, but I know that I probably pushed myself too hard because I was determined to meet my goal for the year.  Even if the little injury wasn't a direct result, its timing is too perfect for me not to take it as a warning not to push too hard for some objective goal.

A woman at our studio, whose practice is otherwise very strong, has done the same thing repeatedly.  She was determined to do well in the asana competition last summer and pushed herself really hard.  As a result, she injured her back a week before the competition and had to withdraw.  Recently, she became determined to lock out her kicking leg in Standing Bow.  And I think she made it.  And at the same time, she otherwise blew her practice to hell, got worn out, and now seems to be taking a break.  Again, attachment to a particular result was the enemy.

But, if you become zealous about engaging in the practice itself, its perfectly possible to keep up the desire to practice, and also to stay content.   In an odd way, I think that on this level desire and contentment become one.  And that's how it feels when the practice is going well. 

 In an odd way, I think that's how it feels when people start to behave charitably toward others.  When you start helping others, you shouldn't be doing it to make yourself feel good.  But the act of helping others tends to make the helper feel better, to become content, and that in turn drives the person to want to help more.  And again, I think its important to realize here that its the process of helping itself that is satisfying.  If you decided to behave selflessly to make yourself feel better, I think you would defeat the goal from the outset.

Taking this even to the next level.  I used to torture the nuns in catechism with all sorts of logical puzzles about the nature of God.  One I especially liked was my proof that if there was a God, he could not have created the universe.  The idea was that creation necessarily involved desire.  And that a perfect being could not possible desire anything.  Hence, no creation and we don't exist (or God the creator doesn't).  Pretty clever for a ten year old.  But I think Gates here may show the way out of this conundrum, by suggesting that there are ways that desire and contentment can go hand in hand.  (Please don't tell the nuns.)

58/81 Watching the River Flow

Saturday 9:30 am with Janna
Sunday 2:30 pm with Miranda

The last two days have felt a bit like a roller coaster.  Yesterday, I felt better going to class.  Then, during class I was incredibly tight.  I couldn't even grab my left foot in Standing Head to Knee.  My first set of Rabbit was more like a pathetic Child's pose.  My forehead wasn't getting anywhere near my knee, and I could still feel an amazing pull in my right side lower back.  Sit-ups were scary.

The low point yesteday, however, was the balancing series as a whole.  I don't think I started Bikram with such poor balance.  I fell out and fell out and fell out, and never got any kind of momentum going in any of the three poses.

Despite that, I felt better after class, and the feeling better continued (and actually my back continued to loosen up) throughout the day.  Janna paid me a very nice compliment after class:  she said I work really hard, and that I'm in the pose and focused all the way through the class.  For me, that counts for alot, and I'm very pleased that its apparent.

So today I woke up and my back still felt good, but I had the same Sunday headache I've had for the last several weeks.  I was on the fence about whether to go to class or to eat lunch and maybe get rid of the headache.  I opted for class.  

By awkward pose, I thought I might have made a mistake.  I'm going to have to yell at Cisco.  He called me out about the second part of Awkward a couple of weeks ago, saying to not sit quite so low into the chair.  And the correction really hurts.  I can now turn my legs to jelly in about 20 seconds, on cue.  But that only meant I felt like I might not have the stamina.  The real problem was my headache started pounding worse during the warm-up.

And then, somewhere in Eagle, it simply switched off.  Everything became very clear and still.  In contrast with yesterday, I didn't fall out of Standing Head to Knee once today.  I had no trouble grabbing my left foot and keeping my foundation.  And I kicked out on the right side for second set and held it the full time with no difficulty.  On top of that, my foundation (which is all I could work on for the last week), has never been better.

The great stretch continued through the first side of Standing Bow.  It was the best I've ever done that pose by far.  My foot was directly over my head.  Standing leg was completely locked.  I had a really good line going from my arm, through my chin, to my shoulder.  And my leg kept going up and up, way beyond where I'd ever had it before.  Then, with only like 3 seconds to go in the pose, I fell really far forward out of the pose.  Almost fell to the floor, and came up out of it laughing and very happy.

That was the end of the amazing part of class.  It then settled into a very nice, orderly class.  My back was back to about 95%.  Sit-ups were fine.  Rabbit passable.  Overall, the class was an incredible improvement on Saturday, but it paled in comparison to those few minutes in the balancing series where I felt like I had made a few years advance instantaneously. 

I'm three days behind on the meditations, but I will do my best to catch up.  The Day 79 meditation is pretty challenging.  It contrasts tapas (zeal in practice) with karma.  According to Gates, karma is the sum total of external circumstances:  birthright, physical appearance, other genetic gifts, gender, education, other life experience.  Most people float along with their karma, as though adrift in a river.

Gates says that some people try to swim against the current.  Others simply float along and get beaten against whatever rocks lie in the way.  But that there is a third way: which is simply to reach the shore and leave the river.  Tapas according to Gates is the key to reaching the shore.

OK, but it seems to me that sometimes navigating a river is preferable to trudging along the shore.  So, why doesn't the analogy say that tapas crafts for us a paddle that enables us to navigate.  And when I think about it like that, it seems to me that the entire analogy just starts to lose its power for me.  Which makes me think that I'm not quite sure what it is that Gates means or is getting at.  Ultimately, it seems to me that I'm not all that sure what the river is supposed to represent, and why getting out of it is such a good thing.

He says that we can think of karma as being the river.  So that means the river is stuff like our life experiences, our birthright, family, education -- the totality of our external existence.  And tapas lets us step out of that?  First off, I'm not sure I believe it.  And secondly, even if I did believe it, I don't see why I would want to escape ALL of that.  That makes me think I may be missing something pretty obvious here.

Friday, March 20, 2009

56/79 Trust in our own Respect

10:30 am with Janna

The room still felt cold at 112 degrees.  I never thought that I would start to yearn for more humidity, but there it is.  The humidifier is still broken, and it was somewhere between 10-15% today.  At times my mouth felt dry, and I sipped some water just to get rid of the parched feeling, not because I otherwise needed it.  Far from it, I didn't feel like I was sweating much at all.

My back felt better when I woke up, but it then interfered more with my practice than before.  Part of that may be the difference between morning and night class.  I always feel more limber at night, especially in the forward bends and compression poses.  And those are the ones that are now most impaired:  I couldn't even get my forehead to my knees in the first set of Rabbit.  

The other setback was in the sit-ups.  On Wednesday, I had the sit-ups figured out pretty well, and was doing them with great form.  Today, I could feel a bit of a twinge in each sit up, no matter how much I clenched my butt or sucked in my stomach, and I almost gave up on them.

The plus side today was Triangle.  I paid extra attention to the setup, partially because of my back, but also because there's a discussion going on in the Bikram forum at yoga.com that led me to pay some more attention to this set-up.  I had some very nice triangles going on, and felt strong and secure.  Then Janna complimented me on how I looked, first in class, and then again after class was over.  I usually think I've got a pretty good Triangle, but today I think I must have pushed it to a new level.  Better, it just felt good and satisfying, with a nice full stretch across my chest and arms.

Yesterday's meditation (I'm a day behind, and will likely stay that way for at least another day) was about how tapas leads to becoming your own teacher.  Aside from the obvious point of beginning to learn for yourself, Gates focuses on the aspect of learning to become your own advocate, learning ultimately that you can't screw up your relationship with yourself by experimenting, trying new things, or even slacking off.

Once again, I think this meditation came at a very appropriate time.  I have skipped class every other day for about the last week.  It's hard for me not to feel guilty about this.  After all, I'm doing it in part because my back has been hurting, and I feel like rest is at least as good for it as class.  And I've also had other things going on that have cramped my schedule.  Still, I tend to get a nagging feeling when I skip classes.  Then I read that "[w]e must learn to trust that if we ... take a day off ..., we will not lose our own respect or affection."  This is something I'm working on.  Then I think of how, while I'm taking the time off, my enthusiasm for yoga in general is increasing.  And I realize how much I wanted to be at class this morning, and I think that maybe I'm making some progress on this aspect.

Part of the self learning, part of the zeal in practice, has to be learning when to be easy on yourself as well as when to push.  That's a part that's always been difficult for me.  Back when I was riding my bike, I would go out day after day telling myself that I would take it easy that day.  By 10-15 minutes into the ride, I would find that I had already blown that plan, and I would just push myself harder.  All the while, I knew that the pushing would inevitably lead to overtraining, or illness, and to some self-recrimination.  It was stupid, but a nearly compulsive behavior.

Yoga may be teaching me to treat myself more kindly, to learn to avoid the self-recriminations, and ultimately to embrace a practice that is sustainable for the long term.  That's what I'm hoping for anyway.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

55/78 The 100 Day Challenge Revisited

Day off.

Thanks everyone for the comments I've received, both on the blog and via email.   Martin asked if the 100 day challenge lived up to its hype, whether it went as Mary Jarvis describes in her blog, etc...  Mary Jarvis' pitch for the 100 day challenge is here.

When I started the challenge, I only planned on doing 60 days.  I had been practicing 5 times per week, and sometimes six.  So I don't think I felt the immediate physical shock that many people do when they start a daily practice.  Mary says that the first 30 days are mostly physical.  The physical challenges for me probably peaked at about day 40.  My hamstrings tightened up.  I developed some tendonitis in my left knee.  And eventually I aggravated my sciatic nerve.  Those were the big physical obstacles.

At the same time, I definitely felt myself building stamina and strength.  Many of the classes were very tough, especially some of the Zeb classes, and I got so I could handle the physical demands of class, even through doubles, with little problem.  And I also learned how to deal with continuing with class through minor nagging injuries.

I definitely think Mary is right about the second 30 days.  The physical demands aren't foremost anymore.  Instead, the biggest obstacle of the challenge at that point was just getting to class.  The nice thing is that you don't really have a choice.  But I did find some classes where I resented being there, as I said yesterday.  And there were other classes where I would grow impatient with the teacher.  Or I'd just be mad or frustrated.  On the plus side, it was during this time when I first started really appreciate stillness and discipline throughout the class.

I know other people who did the full 60 days and went through much the same.  I can think of at least two people who made it through the entire 60 day challenge, and who I have not seen at the studio since.  I don't know what happened, but I wouldn't be surprised if they got to the end of the challenge at an emotional low point, took a break, and just haven't been able to get themselves back.  I don't know how common this is, but I don't have another explanation for these peoples' disappearance.

Somewhere between day 60 and Hurricane Ike (about day 96), my practice opened up "like a flower petal blooming."  The studio was my happy place.  I felt more at ease with myself than I had in years.  My body worked better than it had in a long time, even with the minor injuries I was still working through.  And during that time, I think I realized that I was really in this thing for the long haul.   The idea of not doing some kind of yoga practice became almost unimaginable. 

Keep in mind that when I started the challenge, I had only been practicing for two months.  In some ways, the changes I saw in the first two months were even more radical than the changes that came in the challenge.  Bikram yoga has definitely changed my body and my life.  How much of that do I attribute to the challenge?  It's hard to say, but quite a bit.  The challenge had a huge impact on the way that I practice, and on learning respect for my body -- both the capabilities that I had not imagined possible, and the limitations.

In the end, I think the number that you put on the challenge is a bit arbitrary.  But then I also think the challenges should be longer than 30 days or even 60 days.  Those periods are short enough that the people who do them look forward to reaching the end, and then too often I think they can then file that experience away.  It becomes just another achievement.  There's nothing wrong with that, except that its then too easy to make the challenge a discreet event, instead of an integral part of your life.  To make it on the longer challenge, I think you have to break through some walls of anticipation, and finally get comfortable with the idea that you really can do this hard thing every single day.  And by doing that, it truly becomes part of you.  For some people, that realization may happen much earlier.  I saw this breakthrough, or this gradual dawning,  somewhere between day 70 and 90, and I am very grateful that I did.

As a final note, I should say that I'm writing all of this from memory.  So it may or may not be consistent with what appears in the first 100 days of this blog.  I may go back and see what I was thinking at the time, because sometimes its funny how memory works. 

And a final, final note (I promise):  I will get to Gates' Day 78 meditation in another post.

55/77 The Desire to Know More

8:15 pm with Miranda

The driver's seat of my wife's car hates me.  After about 15 minutes driving, it felt like someone was sticking hot knives into both of my hips, and then it started to get worse and worse.  To top it off, I couldn't really adjust my seating that well without getting twinges in my stiff back.  No other seat in the world does that to me:  it must be the miracle of German engineering.

Anyway, I spent the rest of the day doing impromptu backbends and standing up really straight, to get the pressure out of my lower back and my hips.  And that worked pretty well, but I was still stiff in class.  Most notably in Standing Head to Knee, Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee, Wind Removing Pose, and Rabbit. 

On the plus side, I hit my goal for the year in the first backbend.  I definitely saw the ballet bar.  Whatever is wrong with my lower back (and I still think its just a slight strain), it definitely is not interfering with my backbending.  Now I have to come up with another goal.  The next one will probably be for my renewal year.  And I need to think on it for a little bit.  I've really sort of dumbfounded that I already made the backbend goal, since a few months ago I would have said that it was unlikely, if not impossible.

And that brings us to today's meditation, which is a further reflection on tapas.  The idea that I loved from today's meditation is that progress and consistency in practice derive not from any kind of iron discipline, but from the desire to know more.  When I took the 60 day challenge, it was an exercise in discipline and commitment.  And it was worthwhile, but the need to go to class every day became very wearing.  

I vividly remember one day where I went to class in the morning full of resentment, because it was another day when I had to be there.  The simple matter of discipline was draining the life out of the practice.  The reason I remember that day so well is because I came back for the evening class, not because I had to, but because I wanted to see what the double would be like.  I was exploring.  I simply chose to be there because I wanted to learn a bit more about my limits.  And I loved the second class even more than I resented the morning class.

In the end, I think it would take a rare person who could sustain a blossoming practice simply out of self-discipline.  Fortunately, that's not needed.  In almost every class, even the ones that are otherwise pure torture, I find some detail about the practice, or about how my body reacts to things, that I hadn't noticed before.  And from the more experienced yogis I've talked to, the self-discovery just on the physical level is perpetual.

And then there are the simple spiritual lessons that come from class.  The humidifier is basically broken, and cranked up all the way, it was still only 20% humidity in the class.  The temperature was 107, and it still felt cold.  I barely broke a sweat.  Anyway, those conditions probably made it harder for me to work through my stiffness.  But I was able to pay even closer attention to how things were working, and I learned a bit more about staying within my limits and not simply pushing for the sake of pushing.  In other words, I learned a bit tonight about how to accept the conditions for what they were, and to be satisfied with a good stretching feeling, and not pushing too hard and risking pulling something else.  The asana practice, at least tonight, was also an exercise in honesty and in contentment.  That's a pretty good threefer.  And, as usual, I felt much, much better coming out of class.  (I've got to start going in the mornings again so I can take advantage of that boost through the rest of the day.  Maybe tomorrow.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

54/76 Burning Away Impurities

Day off.

My back was better today, but still a little stiff.  My schedule didn't quite work out for getting to the late class today, and I decided that giving my back a day off was not a bad idea.

Today's meditation is on the effect of "tapas" or zeal in practice.  The principal effect is to burn away impurities, both physical and spiritual.  I can verify the physical purification.  I'm off my medications:  blood pressure and triglycerides.  My total cholesterol was just under 180, and my good cholesterol was close to 50, last I checked.   I have basically conquered a decade long bout of heartburn which had been impervious to medicine.  I lost somewhere around 40 pounds without dieting.  My skin is better than its been in years.  My digestive system works better than it has in maybe 25 years.  I didn't start yoga looking for any of the benefits above.  And I definitely believe that I can attribute all of them to my infatuation with, and devotion to, this yoga over the last year.

It's a bit harder to catalog any types of spiritual purification I've undergone, at least it's hard to do that without sounding pompous, self-important, or otherwise blowing my own horn.  I'd like to think that I've made some progress here.  I can't say that I've stripped away all layers of falseness, etc... and seen the world as a little child, as Gates describes (and as described in the beautiful quote from Hesse's Siddhartha).  On these fronts, I'm sure I still have a long way to go (indeed, I've got a long way to go on the physical side as well, if I think about something like locking the kicking leg vertically in Standing Bow....), but I can also say that after a year, the yoga feels fresher even than it did at the start, and I am looking forward to wherever it takes me over the next year, or ten, or whatever.  And, thinking about zeal in practice, I think that that enthusiasm must count for something.

54/75 Zeal in Practice

8:15 pm with Miranda

The third Niyama is "tapas" or zeal in practice.  I think its a fitting one for today for two reasons.  First, because I went to class tonight.  My back still twinged a bit.  The tenderness has localized to the lower right part, and its definitely muscular.

Gates talks about three pillars of his zeal in practice:  gratitude, wonder, and respect.  All three were in full force for me tonight.  I went to class in part because I am grateful for what it has done for me over the past year.  My experience has given me faith that the Bikram series is therapeutic, that the cure for slight injuries (even those caused by yoga) is more yoga.

Wonder applied tonight because I was very curious to see what sorts of limitations the back twinge would impose on me.  (Forward bends with a straight back were the biggest problem.  I had no trouble with the compression forward bends, or with any of the back bends.  And, ironically, I had a really good back strengthening series.)  Also, I wanted to find out what immediate effect the class would have.  And as it turns out, I feel much, much better after class.  Not quite at 100%, but close.  So, again my faith in the therapeutic power of the series has paid off.

And I came to class with more of a feeling of respect than usual.  I treated class as a kind of diagnostic session.  I paid more attention than usual to how exactly I was feeling in every pose.  And in particular, I was minding how the slight movements were registering, if at all, on the tender spot in my back.  In addition, I was taking extra care with form tonight -- form above all.  This respect for form comes from my faith that the poses, when done properly, will cure you, and that injuries are almost always the result of careless or bad form.

I went into class only with the goal of getting through it, and perhaps feeling better when leaving.  And from that standpoint, it was a wonderful success.

Zeal in practice is particularly appropriate today because it turns out that today is the one year anniversary of my Bikram practice.  I took my first class with Lenette a year ago today.  I knew immediately that I had found the practice for me, so that part of it was amazingly easy.   In the past year I've attended 267 classes at the Sugarland studio.  On top of that, I had one class on Long Island, and seven classes during my Shanghai vacation last summer.  That makes 275 classes in a year, or a batting average of  .753   

Emmy Cleaves says that the keys to progress are frequency, precision, and intensity.  I think that's probably a pretty good definition of zeal in practice as well.  At least when it comes to asana, I've got the frequency thing nailed down pretty well.  I may not hit 275 classes again this year, but I'll probably end up in the ballpark.  The intensity comes and goes, but if anything its an area where I go a bit too far.  As for the precision, well that's still a work in progress (as I think it is for just about everyone).

Sunday, March 15, 2009

53/74 - Step out of Time

Day off.

I wasn't planning on taking the day off, but I woke up with a headache.  My back was still tender from yesterday's backbend.  And it was another dreary, raining day.  So I decided to eat instead, and see if that would get rid of the headache.  It did, maybe.  I had a headache last Sunday too, I remember.  Thinking back, I didn't drink any tea on either Saturday.  Could I possibly be drinking so much tea that I still have a caffeine addiction, and am getting headaches as an early withdrawal symptom?

Today's meditation hits the nail on the head for me.  Gate's says that the reason we keep coming back to the mat, to the practice, is because of our secret longing to "step out of time."  It wasn't like that to begin with.  The health benefits and the general feeling of peacefulness I get after class were (and probably would continue to be) enough for me to be more than enthusiastic.  But I've had a few classes that either flew by, and portions of class where time simply became irrelevant, where I somehow stepped out of time. 

I've had the same experience hit me randomly doing other things, usually very pleasant things.  The two areas where I could get close to it with some regularity were playing basketball as a kid, and playing guitar or singing in a group.  For me, I had always had this feeling of timelessness when involved in a group activity, on those rare moments when the group seems to be acting completely together, as if with one mind.  That may be one of the reasons I'm drawn to Bikram and its classes.  But I doubt the presence of others is necessary.  Yoga doesn't really seem to be a team sport.  Anyway, the times when time itself seems to melt away are also the times when everything seems to be just right.  I've already seen that yoga may be a way to slip into this sort of state more often, or maybe even with some reliability.  So, yes, Gates has it exactly right in my case when he says that this is the WHY of yoga.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

53/73 -- Holy Backbend, Batman!

Friday off.
Saturday 9:30 am with Lenette

Another great class with Lenette.  Class simply flew by.  I pushed hard throughout, maybe too hard.

At the beginning of the year, I decided I was really going to try by the end of the year to see the ballet bar during the first backbend.  Today, I felt like I was getting close, and something let go in my back.  I might even have seen the bar, but the whole experience was so close to hallucinatory that its hard to say what I see.  I actually fell out of the bend backwards, and it took me a while to get my bearings back, realize I was in the yoga room, and get going with the forward bend.  So I might have accomplished my goal for the year, and I don't even know.

The aftermath isn't quite so great.  I've felt some tenderness in my lower back all day, and I think I may have to be cautious about it.  Oddly enough, the backbend itself was so otherworldly that it took quite a while before I made any connection between the soreness and the bend.  It was like it happened to someone else, so it couldn't be causing my problem, could it?

Yesterday's meditation returns to the opposition of fear and love.  The basic idea is that our fears cause us to make all sorts of little retreats in our daily lives, and these lead to discontent.  The antidote is to live with love, faith and openness.   The shift in approach can lead to contentedness and even joy in our daily lives.

The funny thing for me is that he leads with a quote from Ecclesiastes to show the true nature of being content.  And its not either of the ones that I would expect.  Ecclesiastes begins with one of the great laments:  "Vanity of Vanitys, all is vanity ... for there is no new thing under the sun."  And it resolves a bit later with the wonderful poem of contentment that got turned into the Byrds' hit song "To everything there is a season, and a purpose to everything under heaven."  I had not thought of it before, but it looks like Ecclesiastes is a near perfect meditation on content and discontent. 

Today's meditation is about how lack of knowledge, and the strategies we devise from false information, are the cause of pain and suffering.  In some ways, this is obviously true.  But take one of the examples he gives:  finding solace in a pint of Ben and Jerrys (it used to be Haagen Dasz).  I've done this, or eating similar to it, in the past.  When I started, I knew that it was going to be bad for me, and I knew I would feel terrible later, and that I would regret it.  So, in some sense, the knowledge was there.  But I took the wrong course even knowing that it was wrong.  And I think that this is much more common than most people believe.  Most people come under the sway, from time to time, of the imp of the perverse.  They do the wrong thing because they know it is wrong.  I'm not going to try to explain it, but I think it puts a challenge up to the basic idea.

Ultimately, there is a difference between knowing something and truly understanding it.  There are so many different words for "knowledge" and most of them are a bit ambiguous.  What yoga brings, perhaps, is a deeper understanding or appreciation of the harms that we do to ourselves, and it may also bring a longing to cease and desist.  It's taking the first few bites of the ice cream and realizing, "I've had enough."  or "I don't need anymore.", or just instinctively putting it away.  At this level, I think "awareness" may be a better word than "knowledge."  I knew for years how to become more healthy, but it took a few months of doing yoga to connect on some level my awareness with my book-learning.

Friday, March 13, 2009

52/71 - The World Sings

8:15 pm with Amy

Great class tonight, and an almost perfect antidote to yesterday.  I still had some runny nose/clogged nostril problems, but I was mentally prepared for them and didn't let them bother me.  And I managed to adjust well to whatever limitations I encountered.

Also, it was a small class of entirely strong practitioners, and the energy level was really high.  Amy was simply gushing at how strong and together the class was.  The funny thing was, the strength of the class was mostly apparent to me in the lack of distraction.  I didn't pay any attention to anyone else, at least not in a conscious way.  And even so, I would say that the energy was palpable, perhaps just in the way Amy channeled it through her teaching.

Unlike last night, my Standing Head to Knee was really off tonight.  I held it well for one set, but otherwise was falling all over the place.  Standing Bow, on the other hand, was really good.  I fell out, but kept good form and held it each time for a reasonable amount of time, and each fall was forward and not to the sides.

The only down point in todays class came in the forward bends.  I had Indian food, and a buffet, for lunch.  It did not agree with the forward bends, and I thought I might lose my lunch.  You would think that Indian food would agree with a yoga practice.  Now I can add another to my list -- no Mexican, no Indian buffet before a yoga practice.  But even with that problem, I simply took it in stride and I didn't skip out of anything, and felt really good and energized throughout. 

Today's meditation is about how nothing is wrong with reality.  Actually, it's on the idea that we can't improve on reality.  If you really pursued this line of thought, you might end up concluding that "wrong" is simply a veneer that we put on things, and that in many cases its possible to change that veneer. 

In some ways, this is a pretty hard idea to swallow. It's so easy to see so many things that are wrong, and other things that are right.  With an idea like this, however, I think it is much easier simply to reject the idea than it is to try to see what it means, or how it might be helpful or useful.

In the second part of the meditation, Gates proposes another exercise.  He suggests to take any posture, hold it near the edge, and then to breath into every cell and just become aware of your breath and the sensations in your body.  If you do this, he says, you will begin to feel contentment, not as a resignation, but as a kind of celebration.  Your body, and indeed, the world will begin to sing.

Indeed, I've experienced something like this on a few occaisons.  It's one of things thats gotten me so hooked on yoga - the quest to try to find this feeling on a more consistent basis.  So I will definitely try to consciously do what he suggests in the next few classes and see what happens.  Part of me thinks that it can't be so simple.  Then I remember that simple and easy are not always the same.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

51/70 - Breathing Through a Collapsed Straw

Tuesday off.
Wednesday 10:30 am with Lenette

Today's class was so bad that eventually it became funny.  A few days ago, a guy with a really strong practice distracted me.  Then, it was a group of beginners throwing me off.  Today, all the distractions came from me.  First, my allergies seemed to have flared up, which means my immune system is working overtime.  I blow my nose pretty often in class as it is (and I think this may annoy some of the other regulars).  Today, I could not clear my right nostril, and at times I was like a honking goose.  To anyone who was in class with me, and who might be reading this, I'm sorry.

The end result was that for most of the class I was breathing through one nostril, or through my mouth when I broke down.  This played hell with my stamina, and I ended up sitting out a set of Triangle, plus a set of Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee.  In that pose, I have a hard time breathing on a good day.  Today it was like trying to suck air through a collapsed straw.  I could feel my head turning purple, and just bailed.

The awfulness started much earlier than that.  By Half Moon, I knew I was in trouble, and my flexibility was off.  I fell out of the second set backbend.  I did really well in Awkward Pose, and then pushed my edge and fell out of the second part of the second set.  

And then, out of nowhere I did the best Standing Head to Knees ever.  Something just clicked on the left side, of all places.  I kicked out in each set and each side, I held my balance for the whole time, and I stayed kicked out for 3 of the 4 parts.  Not only that, but on the left side I wasn't wobbling at all.  For maybe the first time, it felt like I had a rock solid foundation in my standing right leg.  So even sucky classes can have their awe inspiring moments.

Standing Bow was OK, but the breathing problem was starting to really creep up on me, and already I was thinking about sitting out a set.  My form was fine, and I managed to ease off enough to be able to stay with it.  Then I gave a nice full effort in Balancing Stick, and it just about wiped me out.  My no water policy got flushed, and I don't think it was because I needed water.  I needed to breathe, but not being able to do that, I was OK with getting whatever comfort I could.  (We'll work on that one again tomorrow.)

Floor series was a little better, but my flexibility was off.  I managed to stay within my limits, and didn't skip out anything else.  But it was not one of those peaceful classes.  There were a few times where I felt like just sitting out another set out of spite for my nose, but I refrained.  Then Lenette caught me with what must have either been a look of suffering, or despair, or maybe I was shooting daggers at her.  She gave a little wink and a smile, and I just started laughing.  It was too funny how sorry I was feeling for myself.  The rest of the class, at least from an attitude standpoint, was fine.  With one look, Lenette made me realize how silly I was being, and it brought everything around and back into some sort of balance.

Of course, after class I feel just great.  Go figure.

It's amazing how, while Gates is going on and on about the practice of contentment, I seem to be running a full panoply of ways not to be content.  Yesterday's meditation was on the saying:  "Remember, you are God's son in whom he is well pleased."   So much of what we do is out of our sense of guilt or inadequacy.  As he puts it, most of us think that, if we are God's children, he must be awfully disappointed with us.  

Today, I had more than a few moments of self-recrimination.  I certainly was not happy with my nose (and I let it bother me more than it probably should have).  I beat myself up a little bit because I sat out two sets of poses.  I haven't done that in months.  But so what?  Today, I needed to, and that was just fine.  I probably should have sat out more.  The more astonishing thing is how much good a timely wink and a smile, not to mention a good laugh, can do.  After that, I was pretty much just happy that I went to class, that I made it through, and that I tried my best.  If that's enough to make God well pleased, I'm cool with that.

A little side note on the possibly religious implications:  it's pretty clear to me that Gates is some sort of pantheist.  I'm not sure exactly what sort.  But at times he seems to use the words "God" and "universe" interchangeably.  I haven't said much about what, if anything, I am.  And I'm not sure I will.  To a certain extent, on a subject like this, words fail me.  But I will hark back to something Gates said in an  earlier meditation on prayer -- that if you don't know who or what you are praying to, don't worry too much about it, because no-one else does either.  So, when I'm talking about "God" here, I guess I mean something in that sense.  Which is to say, I don't really know what I mean.

In today's meditation, Gates talks about a moment of spiritual awakening.  He tells the story of his enlistment as an infantry officer, and how he fully expected to die.  (Lieutenants in the infantry have about the highest casualty rates of any military personnel.)  He went to the first Iraq War, survived and from what he says did not have to kill anyone.  After he returned, on a run in the woods, he suddenly felt connected with everything, and this was a profound moment of awakening for him.

It's a good story.  It's the sort of thing Ernest Hemingway wrote about incredibly well in his short stories, before he started to become a self parody.   The question I have is whether a moment like this is enough to qualify as a spiritual awakening.  I've had moments like that before, on various occaisons and arising out of different circumstances.  They seem magical and timeless when they happen.  And then they are gone.  They leave a memory, but the memory is like the memory of a sensation.  It's no substitute for the sensation itself. 

A moment like that will be an awakening, perhaps, if you do something with it.  That, I think, is where the practice comes in.  The practice hopefully makes one more open to having such moments, and the moments in turn provide energy and incentive which foster the practice.  Then, maybe that sort of connectedness counts as a kind of awakening.  Beforehand, I would be tempted to say that that sort of thing is simply a glimpse of the possibility of a better way.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

50/68 - The Starting Point

8:15 with Miranda

My cable in the backyard got cut, leaving me without TV, phone, or internet connection.  What did I do when I was growing up, and there was no internet, only 6 channels on TV with nothing on them instead of several hundred, and a land line phone that I didn't like to talk on anyways?  The cable company is having pity on me, and they say they might be able to get someone out to fix it by Thursday.

Last night's class was great.  For a long time, I preferred to set up in one of a few locations where the humidifier blew.  It would send a stream of relatively cooler air when it was on, and that seemed a relief.  Last night, I realized that I pretty much don't like those spots anymore.  There have been a few times recently when I've set up in one of my old favorite spots, and then ended up feeling a bit cold, and a little distracted.  So, just like I never thought I would complain about it being too cold, now I actually find myself gravitating toward the hotter parts of the room.  Go figure.

It was crowded for a late class, with 24 people, and six! first timers.  Three of them were directly behind me, and I tried not to let it distract me, but it can be very difficult.  I know, this may sound like there's no pleasing me.  Just the other day I was saying how distracted I got by the guys incredibly focused and disciplined practice.  And now I'm saying that the newbies were distracting me.  But there it is.  

Even so, I had a really good ending for the standing series, with a strong triangle.  Then I actually felt good in Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee.  I was solidly in the pose, hands in prayer, head fused to knee and almost fully locked out on both sides.  And I could breathe.  I don't know what changed, but I usually find it really hard to breathe in this pose, and it was so nice to be able to concentrate on locking my knee, instead of wondering whether this would be the class where I finally pass out.

Floor series was good.  Back strengthening felt especially good.  I managed to keep my breath in Locust, and then after a little unfortunate spitting up (still a problem from time to time) I got control of myself and did a nice second set with control again. 

Gates meditation talks about his time as a navigator in the army, and how in navigating the first thing that must be right is the starting point.  What does this have to do with being content?  So many people think of satisfaction, or being content, as a goal.  The danger here, I think, is that it's so easy to be critical of yourself for not having reached your goals.  And if the goal is being content, then the simple action of making that your goal is likely to derail your progress.  The effort of trying to reach the goal actually takes you further away.

For a long time, I've thought that the answer was this:  happiness is not a goal, its a by-product of having achieved other goals.  My idea is that when you do the right things for other good reasons, you may end up being happy, but that was not the point.  Basically, if you strive to do good, this might in the end make you happy.  But if you instead strive to be happy, you almost certainly fail.  (I realize I am using contentedness and happiness as being interchangeable, and they may be different, but I think the same point applies to either.)

Gates supplies a new wrinkle for me to think about.  Being content may not be either the destination, nor perhaps a by-product.  Instead, he encourages us to think of it as the starting point, by which we can set our bearings.  

I'm not quite sure what I think about this yet, and I will think on it some more.  Part of me wants to say:  If I'm content, then why am I going to yoga so often to improve myself?  And I'm not even sure if that is the reason why I go, or why I go so often.  

Underneath all of this, there seems to be a paradox:  contentment is the starting point, but how do you get there if you aren't already content.  And as with most paradoxes, I don't think you can puzzle your way out of it.  Instead, you just have to let go of it and go on.  And the same probably applies to finding contentment.  How do you find contentment?  By letting go.  You let go and that's where you find your starting point.  (Sometimes easier said than done.)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

49/67 Contentment on the Rocky Road

2:30 pm with Cisco

Cisco teaching the 2:30 Sunday classes is making up for the horrible time slot.  I slipped from my no water goal today.  By itself, that's not so bad.  But thinking about it, it's pretty clear that I drank out of fear.  I hadn't had anything to eat all day, and I had a slight headache going in.  So I was simply afraid that things would get really bad if I didn't drink.  I took a sip at the first party time, and realized that I didn't need it, that I was just doing it out of anxiety.  Then I made it pretty comfortably through the rest of the class with no water.

Cisco called me out in Awkward Pose.  In second set, he said I was doing it great.  Then he said to come up just a little bit at the hips.  The difference was amazing.  My thighs started to burn and quiver.  After the pose, he said that we all learn little ways to hang out in poses.  He had done the same little cheat in Awkward Pose, and had only been called on it after two years of practice, and after he had gone through teacher training.  I had been working my ankles and feet just fine, but I had found the sweet spot where I look great in the squat, but am also capable of hanging out.  Bring up the hips and upper body just a hair, and the pose becomes really, well, awkward again.

In final forward stretch, Cisco said I had made progress in that pose too (too was referring back to the third part of wind removing).  I said, "A little, I guess."  Then he says, your knees are locked, your thighs are engaged, your back is straight, and your heels are off the floor.  It looks really good, and you say "a little"?  This was just a fabulous compliment for me.  I have tried really hard to work on my form in the poses that I don't do very well.  Other teachers see me often enough that I don't think they notice the changes as much.  Frankly, in this pose I had not noticed much change either.  And recently I have been frustrated in this pose, because it doesn't really feel like all that much is happening.  It's really nice to hear that my attention to form is paying off.

At the end of the class, after his customary comment to keep coming back to yoga because it will change your life, Cisco closed by saying "I love you all more than you know."  This is pure Cisco.  He's about the only one I know who could pull off saying something like this and genuinely meaning it, and without making it sound corny in the slightest.

Todays meditation is about finding contentment in the rough spots as well as the beautiful spots.  Actually Gates says that he has had an easier time with the rough spots, because the smooth ones invariably lead him to wonder how long it will last, what will upset it, etc...  

In many ways, Bikram's class is designed to get people to learn contentment in less than ideal conditions.  He doesn't call it the torture chamber for nothing.  First off, part of the reason for the heat and humidity is simply because it is uncomfortable.  It's meant to be a distraction, and its meant to challenge your mind.  So simply learning to be content with the heat is a start in the practice of contentment.  And, as I find out every few days (or weeks if I'm lucky), just when you think you have the heat beaten, it comes back and knocks you on your ass again.

Gates says that contentment is a particular kind of stillness, one infused with faith, an open heart and an open mind.  Notice that this doesn't mean that we have to take a pollyanna view about stuff that sucks.  It's enough to realize that sometimes its ok for things to suck.  With that approach, and a spirit of openess, we might even be able to draw out what is worthwhile. 

As for the good moments, I generally don't have the same problem that Gates has.  But there have been several times when I've been having a wonderful time, or in a wonderful place, with other people.  When they become aware of how nice everything is, often they immediately feel the need to "capture" it with pictures or video.  And almost as often, the recording of the moment destroys the moment itself.  Sometimes,  losing the moment while trying to capture it leads to frustration or even anger.  I sometimes wonder if people had an easier time really enjoying themselves before we had the ability to record every moment.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

48/66 - Contentment

9:30 am with Amy

Class was a mixed bag.  It was hot, and I was deep in the hot side of class, all the way by the back mirrors.  And it was crowded, to the point where Amy had people hugging the walls so there could be a fourth row.

I started off pretty well, and things got better and better until about Camel.  Then I started feeling the heat and losing a bit of patience.   I tried to just soak the heat in and deal with it, sort of the "I'm lying on a nice beach on a sunny day." approach.  But it wasn't doing that much good today.  In the end, it didn't really hurt my practice:  I did a killer Camel and a pretty good Rabbit, and didn't bail out early on anything.  But I've felt better.

The root of the problem, I think, is very connected to today's meditation.  It introduces contentment as the second niyama.  Gates says that contentment is the choice to end our war with reality.  Most people I know would think that contentment or satisfaction was a state that happened to us.  So the idea that it is a practice is not easy to grasp at first.  Bikram has helped with that, being satisfied with a good effort even when there's no obvious sign of progress.  Being content to let sweat pour into my eyes, and just ignoring the slight sting, while holding still in Savasana.  As Lenette likes to put it:  getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. 

Here was my obstacle today:  standing in front of me was a guy who I've seen before but never watched at all.  In about 15 seconds, it was clear that his practice was really strong and disciplined.  He didn't move or blink between sets.  He had a perfectly calm expression on his face whenever I saw him.  And the problem came because I tried to match him.  The most obvious example was in Awkward pose, where we both went down and came up really slooooow.  My legs are still feeling it.  So, I was losing some focus by comparing myself to him.  And his practice was so disciplined that I lost some of my own contentment with my practice.  It became clear to me for the first time in a while how much further I could progress in this regard.  In the end, I think that's a good thing to know, but it was messing with me today.

Then, in Triangle, without warning and without changing that entirely stoic expression, he went down.  Twice.  I was really impressed.  His expressions did not reveal one bit of the difficulty he was in.  I would have been really impressed if he had totally rocked the class, moving from pose to pose effortlessly.  I was even more impressed that he kept up the seeming effortlessness until he couldn't do it anymore, and then without any hint of suffering, he sat out when it got too much for him.  I wanted to chat with him after class, but he bolted before I got a chance.

So, I think my obstacle today was that I let my observations of this guys excellent practice steal a bit of the contentment that I usually have.  As a result, I lost some of my focus, and I worked harder in a few poses than I ordinarily would.  Then it all caught up to me somewhere around Camel.

47/65 Priming the pump

Friday off.

I took yesterday off to get my energy back.  It seems to have worked.

Yesterday's meditation was maybe the shortest in the book so far, and even so, I have a quibble with it.  Gate's says that "sauca" or purity involves a leap of faith, because there are too many times that we don't believe that anything will make a difference.  I don't think this is quite right.  What I've seen is that even without faith, the practice itself can act as a way to prime the pump.  To begin with, you don't have to believe in much at all, but the improvements come.  They in turn give you some faith in yourself, and this opens up the well and allows more improvement to flow forth.

If there is some leap of faith that needs to be made, it is simply these two things, I think: 1) some sort of faith in yourself, in your ability to improve over time, even if just a little bit; and 2) a commitment, for whatever reason, to the practice.  I think that that's really all it takes to get started, and if that is a leap of faith, then maybe we don't disagree.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

47/64 More on Purity

Wednesday Off
Thursday 4:30 pm with Miranda

I took yesterday off and felt great.  Then, for a variety of reasons, I got next to no good sleep last night.  The neighbors dog barked the whole night, and ordinarily that wouldn't phase me.  But I got up at 2, then 4, then 5:30 and finally at 7am, each time for a different reason, and each time the barking interfered with my getting back to sleep.

In today's class, I think I found the reason.  I'm on the verge of getting sick.  I bulled my way through class today, but in the process I sometimes abandoned the things I've recently learned, like stillness, and keeping my breath at all time, and smiling.  It didn't matter, because it felt like a victory just making it all the way through an unpleasant class.  

Here's what I mean by unpleasant:  twice today I found myself getting annoyed at Miranda, once because she held a posture longer than I wanted it to go on and longer than she usually holds it, and once because she was saying things exactly the way she usually says them.  I know, and I knew at the time, that I was the one being arbitrary, and that it was something wrong with me that was causing the annoyance.  But that did not stop me from being annoyed all the same.  

Anyway, since class I have felt totally drained.  And there's no objective reason for it, so I think I must be fighting off some sort of illness, and that fight is taking its toll. 

The last two meditations have been on purity again.  He says that when we practice purity, when we are progressing on the yoga path, we will find that we are happy for no apparent reason.  I've definitely found this to be the case, time after time, over the course of the last year.  But then again, one of the reasons I liked the last meditation so much is because it presented an exercise which makes the reasons for happiness apparent.  As my brother put it, the exercise is simply to count your blessings, the things for which you are grateful.  And your blessings, the things that make you grateful, will probably supply more than ample reason for happiness.  So on this minor point I disagree:  it may seem like we become happy for no apparent reason, but if so, that's because we haven't looked for the reasons -- and there are many.

Gates says that we can start to purify the mind by letting go.  We're told this all the time in class.  In Savasana, if there's a thought that creeps into our minds, take not of it, and put it aside.  Getting frustrated? then catch your breath, smile, forget about it and start again.   At the beginning of class, teachers will say that for the next 90 minutes you can put away all of your outside thoughts and focus on nothing but your eyes in the mirror.  All of these are preliminary steps to the kind of letting go that Gates is talking about.  The end goal of this process is to make class a 90 minute moving meditation -- (I've gotten maybe a couple of minutes in a row on occaison, but I think that is amazing progress from where I started).

In today's meditation, the idea is that the practice of purity puts belief into action.  The belief here is no more than caring for yourself.  By taking the objective steps of staying clean, dressing decently, keeping your environment orderly, exercising, eating better food, etc..., you take easy and identifiable steps that put the care for yourself into action, and these small, programmatic steps start to reinforce your beliefs.

When I was in film school, I had a friend who was unemployed.  He had let himself get about 25 lbs overweight.  He had no ambition.  He was drinking lots of beer and close to a pint of whiskey a day.  He let another of my friends persuade him to start running, and going to the local YMHA gym.  He started going with my other friend just to stop the badgering.  Within a few weeks, he started to get obsessed with meeting a few goals at the gym.  This then led to a diet, which led to quitting drinking, which led to his taking a job teaching English as a second language, and finally led to him meeting his future wife, going to grad school and starting a nice life and career.  All of this started because he started to take some objective steps to care for himself.  I didn't realize it at the time, but by starting to care for himself and cleaning himself, he had stumbled onto a part of the yoga practice, and it turned his life around.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

46/62 Purity

8:15 pm with Amy

My streak of totally upbeat classes ended tonight.  It was still a good class, but it was hard.  I had originally planned on taking the day off, but then something came up which makes it look like I won't be able to go tomorrow.  And I can't skip two days in a row.  Sometimes taking a class out of the blue leads to a great experience.  Today, it led to a trial.  My stamina was off for some reason, and I ended up sitting out a set of Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee.  Then, in floor series, I got cramps in my middle back in Full Locust, and had to sit out a set of Floor Bow.   I tried to get into it, but I immediately cramped.

Then later, I came out early in Rabbit, both sets.  I've been shortchanging Rabbit recently, and I think I need to really focus on staying with it for a few classes.  I've gotten into it with good form, and I do OK while I'm in it.  And then I simply can't breathe properly, and I come out.  Rabbit does to me what other people say they experience in Camel -- dizziness, lightheadedness, white and black spots at the corner of my vision, and a general feeling of being overwhelmed.  But I can stick with it if I simply focus enough.  Tonight, the lack of concentration won out.

On the good side:  my balance was pretty good today.  I made it through a full minute of Standing Leg Head to Knee with kicking out.  I even made some sort of effort to lower my elbows.  Or I should say I tried, I didn't notice them actually going anywhere.  But the intent was there, and I was trying to find the muscles that would accomplish the task.  So that's worth something.

Then, in Standing Bow, Amy complimented my alignment.  Of course, the compliment so flabbergasted me that I immediately fell out.  And I nearly held the full duration in 3 of the 4 sides, and actually made it all the way on one of those.  As so often happens, the good first two poses led to a horrendous Balancing Stick.  It always seems to work that way for me:  I do the opposite in Balancing Stick again and again.

The first Niyama is purity.  And purity means, first and foremost, cleanliness.  In another tradition, the idea I suppose is that "cleanliness is next to godliness."  Here, I think the realization is that the way we keep our appearance and our immediate environment will have a direct effect on how we live.  This is definitely an area where I could use some work.  Anyone who has seen the water bottles on the floor of my car would know that.  (At least they are no longer Diet Coke bottles).

One interesting point that Gates makes is that asanas and pranayama are both aspects of purity.  This means, in one sense, that two full parts of the sevenfuld path could be seen as subsumed under a single Niyama.   What it really means is that the different parts of the sevenfold path are actually closely interrelated, which is why progress can occur on all parts at the same time.

In our classes, we are constantly being reminded of the detoxification that comes through the postures and the breathing exercises.  On top of that, the practice leads to balancing of internal functions -- witness my no longer having heartburn, or needing blood pressure or triglyceride meds.  So the purification aspects of the asanas is abundantly clear to me.

On the mental/spiritual side, Gates equates purity to love and compassion, and then to gratitude.  I don't quite see the connection.  I would have thought that purity did not address the nature of an idea or emotion so much as it did the quality of the ideas.  In one sense, pure means unalloyed, untempered.  In this sense, I would have thought that purity equates to something like simplicity.  Again I'm reminded of Flaubert's story A Simple Heart, where the servant woman might have been a simpleton or a saint, because she was so without guile and pure of heart. 

Gates also recommends a daily exercise that strikes me as a fantastic idea.  He says to list five things you are grateful for.  I won't do it everyday (I don't think).  But here is my shot for tonight:

1) I'm grateful for the peaceful sound of my wife's snoring at my side as I type this.
2) I'm grateful for having discovered Bikram yoga and having been able to heal myself with it
3) I'm grateful for the astonishing crimson sunset that flared through the sky this evening
4) I'm grateful for the nearly constant presence of music, and the joy that it brings, in our house
5) I'm grateful for my parents, who are still amazingly young, and who are still an inspiration to me and to most people who know them

I haven't asked questions on this blog before, partly because I'm afraid it would simply expose me as  a voice crying out in the wilderness, but this exercise does bed a question:  What are you all grateful for?

Monday, March 2, 2009

45/61 Finding Stillness

8:15 pm with Miranda

I read today's meditation before class, and it had a pretty big effect on my practice.  The meditation was about allowing ourselves to find stillness.  Imagine a peaceful lakeside scene.  Do you see storm clouds on the horizon?  Probably not.  Are there motorboats, and jet skis whipping along the shore?  Not on my lake.  Maybe there is a sailboat moving quietly along with a very gentle breeze.  But the breeze doesn't make much more than the hint of some texture along the water.  Stillness and peace.  Gates says that if we learn to practice these well enough, we will begin to see through the gaps in the material world, and beyond into something deeper, and into our souls.

A few of my instructors, most notably Lenette, have talked about finding some point in each posture to simply hold still.  She says that we make the most progress at the point where you can hold still and learn to enjoy the discomfort in a pose.  It seems that the Bikram dialogue goes against this idea, with its exhortations to push, push, One ... more ... ... time.  But there are also many places where the dialogue says "hold it," like near the end of wind removing.  And often the exhortation is simply "lock the knee," and if you have done that, you should be still anyways.

Tonight, I tried to pay attention, where possible to staying still.  I didn't even bring the water in with me, so there were no distractions on that front.  And I did an even better job than usual of being still between the poses.  But the revelation was in adding a touch of stillness toward the end of poses that I usually push really hard.  Take Half Moon.  Typically, I will try to lengthen my reach on an inhale, and them push deeper into the pose on the exhale.  Today, I kept still on a few of the exhales.  Two things happened:  the pose seemed easier.  No big surprise there.  And I think I went deeper than usual.  That was very surprising.  More than that, in the time where I was trying to remain still, I felt like I could actually enjoy the pose.  And joy is something I rarely, if ever, associate with Half Moon.

As class went on, I became more and more sold on the idea.  Not because I had the same sense of depth that I got in Half Moon.  But, trying to stay still increased my level of awareness in many of the poses.  I think with more practice, I will have a much better sense of how I should be feeling in the poses.  This is something that not drinking water tuned me into in the last few days, and the added awareness seemed only to deepen tonight.  On top of that, I felt like I had much more energy tonight, especially on the floor.

As for breakthroughs, or near breakthroughs, I went down on the right side in Separate Leg Head to Knee with my knee locked tonight.  I didn't have to try to push it back at all, it was simply locked from the outset.  And then, I almost got my left leg fully extended in the final seated Head to Knee pose.  I was actually a bit deeper than where I was before I hurt my knee.

I can't say that I got any deep glimpse into the interstitial workings of the universe, or of my soul.  But I got a deeper sense of awareness, and took some joy away from my practice.  Even if that were all that trying to practice stillness brought, it would be enough.  

Sunday, March 1, 2009

44/60 - Introducing the Niyamas

2:30 pm with Cisco

I haven't been to a Sunday class for a few weeks, in part because they have become so crowded, and partially because taking class means not eating until pretty late.  As I was on the way out the door for lunch, I suddenly decided that I would rather go to yoga today.  And I'm glad I did.  I haven't had a Cisco class in a long time, and they are always fun.

The room was crowded, with somewhere between 45 and 50 people.  And it started really cold, somewhere in the 80s I think.  But Cisco took control of that pretty well, and assured us that the heat was coming.  He said if we thought the room was too cold, we should just work a bit harder and build the heat from the inside.  I have thought that might pose a danger in overstretching, but I have enough faith in Cisco to try what he says.  And, indeed, it worked.

He hasn't seen me in a while, and was quite impressed with my grabbing both elbows and being so tight in the third part of wind removing pose.  This reminded me that, while I've been maybe a bit frustrated with day to day progress, in the bigger picture I have made lots and lots of progress.

After the final Savasana, he asked people not to drink until they were leaving the room  He says that refraining from drinking at the end will help detoxify the body.  And then he said: "It's not like I'm asking you not to drink through the whole class."  I had to laugh, because I had just made it through my fourth straight class with no water.  Today, I felt no need for it at all.  I didn't really work up a good sweat until about Standing Bow.  But all around, people are drinking for comfort, out of habit, simply to avoid something or other.  There's so little that you can cling to in the Bikram studio that water seems to take on extra importance for people.  And I know that, even without water, its pretty easy to invent all sorts of other attachments.
Who knows, in a few weeks or even days, I might go back to drinking regularly.  But for now, I'm really enjoying these "dry" classes.

Today, we get a cursory introduction to the Niyamas.  Like the Yamas, there are five of them:  Purity, Contentment, Zeal in Practice, Self-Study, and Devotion.  Once again, they don't come with a guidebook for their interpretation. 

There's one pretty obvious difference between the Yamas and the Niyamas.  The Yamas dealt not only with the self, but also with how we treat others.  The Niyamas are much more inward.  They deal with the self only.

Gates says that the Niyamas help sustain the changes that Yamas bring to us.  The yamas, he says, are the hardest part of the spiritual path.  They bring about change and help us to overcome fears.  The Niyamas will help make the changes last.  I like this idea.  I have had a history of becoming involved in something, getting very occupied with it, only to drop it after a year or maybe two.  I don't want that to happen with Yoga.  I'm approaching my one year anniversary, and still going strong.  But, in Yoga, a year is nothing.  I really want to be doing this in five, ten, even thirty or forty years.  And I don't want it to be just something that I come back to from time to time.  If the Niyamas can help sustain a steady practice, I'm all in favor of exploring them in depth.