Monday, August 31, 2009

166/241 - Spiral Lines

Saturday Off.

The day 235 meditation introduces another type of line in body work. These are spiral lines. There are at least two of them. They run from the arch of the foot, through the front of the leg, then travels up around the body and ends up at the base of the ear on the same side it started. I don't have that clear a picture of this line, and its not clear to me to what extent a spiral is a line in the first place, but I think I get the basic point.

Gates says that we use these lines of connective tissue when we do twists. In Bikram, there are really only three twists. Standing Bow involves a very slight twisting of the spine. Triangle is a bit more pronounced. And then there is the final spinal twist. In the last one, we're told to twist like we are wringing out a towel. Even though we haven't been told this way, I like to think of my spine resembling a double helix, or recombinant DNA, in this pose. In this way, I get a bit of a charge about trying to mold my spine into the basic shape of life.

Given that, I think its nice to try to picture these spirals of connective tissue that weave through our bodies. In the end Gates talks about growing used to the spiraling energy that flows through our body. I guess the picture of these spirals of connective tissue might help with that, but I still like the image of twisting my spine into DNA better.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


Friday 4:30 with Sherry

I held back a bit more in class. I eased off on anything that made my knee feel funny. This meant doing less in Awkward, not crossing the left leg in Eagle, and skipping Triangle and Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee. Taking it a bit easy helped; I felt much better after class and have felt even better since. Right now, I feel about where I was before I re-tweaked the knee.

The day 234 meditation again addresses fascia and connective tissue. The point is that asana is not just muscular effort. Instead, as we develop, we can learn to spread our attention throughout the fascia, so that we are not just focusing on some isolated area. Rather, the goal is to become aware of all the connective tissue at once.

Gates quotes Iyengar: "Where does the body end and the mind begin? Where does the mind end and the spirit begin? They cannot be divided..." The fascia connect all parts of the body. And if yoga is the union of mind and body, it makes sense that awareness through the fascia would help develop this union. So far, so good.

Here's the problem? How do we become aware of the fascia in the first place. I never even knew I had plantar fascia until it started hurting so badly. I know how to move a finger, or move some bones, or how to flex some muscles by bringing my attention to them. But I simply don't know what I'm looking for when I'm supposed to feel this kind of connective tissue. Thus, aside from doing asana practice as best I can, I really don't have any clear idea how to bring my awareness to the connective web Gates talks about. I don't doubt it's important, but right now I feel its sort of like Gates is trying to describe the colors of a sunset to a blind man.

Friday, August 28, 2009

165/239 - Cultivating Stability

Thursday off.

My knee hurt, so I'm still on the day on/day off routine. I hope to slip through that today and tomorrow.

The day 233 meditation talks about the difference between plants and animals, at least in relation to their connective tissue.

Plant's mainly use cellulose. They put down roots. They stay in place. Almost everything about them is designed to increase stability. Yes, some will flex better in the wind instead of being blown over. So while stability in plants may allow for a decent amount of flexibility, mobility is still not a common or favorable attribute.

Animals use collagenous tissue to create a connective net that runs throughout the body. It fovors mobility, and animals achieve a kind of dynamic stability. Stability in animals requires near constant maintenance. Just look at your foot and ankle when doing any balancing pose. It's amazing, while staying still, the activity and twitching involved in the small muscles and tendons. I've watched people with excellent balance, and there is still this endless parade of corrections. I've tried to minimize these little corrections, with some but very little success. Balancing, which is one way of finding stability, does involve constant maintenance.

Applying this to asana practice, Gates recommends approaching class with the goal of finding stability (stillness?) in the poses. He says that if we find stability, strength will come, and so will come the room to explore the pose and find additional length. I'm headed off to class in just a few minutes, and I can't wait to try this.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

165/238 -

Wednesday 4:30 with Amy -

Have you ever had a song stuck in you head during practice? Songs float around in my head all the time, and often one gets stuck. Very often its a song I detest. If I ever hear the them to the TV show The Nanny, for example, I have to find something really good and lasting to wash it out of my head. And usually its just snippets -- perhaps only a line. For a long time, when asked to go down in a forward bend, I would hear the lyrics "And lower down, and lower down again..." for St. Stephen by the Grateful Dead.

Yesterday, it wasn't just snippets, but an entire song. Fortunately, it's a song I love. And in an odd way, it didn't really act as a distraction. It didn't stop me from listening to the dialogue, or from staying with it and giving my best. I just had my own soundtrack loop running on again and again. And since I really like the song, it actually made for a pleasant, if slightly weird class.

If you are interested, the song was Que Reste t'il de Nos Amours. This you tube clip is from a film version of Gatsby that I haven't seen. I knew the song first from another movie: Stolen Kisses (Baisers Vole), one of the most purely charming movies ever made, by Francois Truffaut. The thing about this song is it somehow makes me completely nostalgic for a time and place completely outside my experience. I think of the song as typically and wonderfully French. The very light swing is almost perfect, the voice completely relaxed and natural. And now that I put it on the YouTube version, it will be swirling in my head for another day.

Even with the accompaniment, class went really well. Standing series basically flew by. I made it through both sets of Triangle, but it put enough strain on my knee that I had to bail on the first set of Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee.

In the floor series, I started to think that it was a little cool in the room. Then Amy cranked up the heat and it got very challenging. I had my best Locust in a long time. And both Camel and Rabbit were very good. In Camel, I held the second set for a bit extra because it felt so good. And I don't know if I've ever done that before.

Then, somewhere very late in the second set, I tweaked my knee a little again. It was a little thing, and I barely noticed it. But I was somewhat hobbled coming out of class, and it continued to hurt the rest of the night. I don't think it's a big setback, and I don't know how I could have avoided it (short of not doing class at all). I'm not going to worry about it. I'm still way ahead of where I was just a week ago.

The day 232 meditation (I'm back tracking from yesterday's error, and I will try to catch up) discusses the "deep front line". As Gates puts it, this line connects the things we have direct control over to the things that we don't. Those things are basically internal organs. The way to open up the deep front line is with backbends. So basically, this meditation is saying that backbends are good for you because they give a way to expand the area around the internal organs, and fight the ongoing effects of gravity.

Again, I agree with the point. The Bikram series is just loaded with backbends: Half Moon, Awkward first part, Standing Bow, Cobra, Locust, Full Locust, Floor Bow, Fixed Firm and Camel are all backbending poses to one degree or another. And the more I do the series, the more I seem to both like and appreciate the back-bending. But I still am at a bit of a loss to understand what adding the inclusion of the terminology "deep front line" adds. I guess I'm just going to have to be patient with this part of the book. I never did have much use for scholasticism.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

164/237 - An Intuition Toward Health

Tuesday Off.

(Note: I messed up the order of the meditations. Instead of proceeding to the day 232 meditation, as I should have, I skipped to day 237. This is a pretty clear indication that I need to catch up already. Sorry.)

The day 232 (actually 237) meditation has a very interesting and powerful idea. Gates says that everyone has an intuition towards health. But somehow, through day to day life, we get disconnected from it. Asana practice puts us back in touch with this intuition.

In some ways, I think this is exactly right. Asana practice has definitely steered me toward healthier eating, healthier sleep habits, and other small things that have made improvements in my physical health. I think most people can see this aspect of asana practice.

Gates takes this further. Look at people who are connected with others, people who are kind, people who tend to care about others, happy people. People like this also tend to be healthier. In the west, health is pretty much defined negatively -- its the absence of sickness. In yoga, perfect health comes when the mind, body, and soul are one and the person has achieved complete balance. And that is the aim of asana practice. It will not only help straighten out your illnesses, but it also tends to make people kinder, more co-operative, and more at peace with themselves. So, it helps point us toward true health, and not simply the absence of illness.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

164/236 - Superficial Lines

Monday 4:30 with Cisco

Cisco led another good class. This time, his theme was stillness between poses, which is right up my alley. He confessed to adjusting his towel with his feet between poses. I thought I had the stillness thing pretty much licked, but I still find myself fidgeting with my shorts when I'm not thinking about it.

I'm still feeling some limitation from my knee, but it's not keeping me out of any poses. It's holding me back some in the standing poses, with one notable exception. In Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee, I've been going into the pose with a straight forward leg, because it hurts the knee to bend it. Of course, this is where the pose is supposed to end up, and it turns out I can go into it without the bent knee if I really apply myself. Today, with my bad leg forward, Cisco still said that I was doing this pose beautifully. So that's one pose where the knee injury has actually led to progress.

The high point in the class came somewhere toward the end of the floor series. I was coming out of one pose feeling a bit sorry for myself. My eyes met Ciscos, and I just started to laugh a bit and smiled. A little later Cisco said, for all the class to hear: "I love it when Duffy smiles in class. Most people look at me and all I see are daggers in their eyes." Bikram likes to call the room his "torture chamber," but its really only torture if you let it be. It can be just as easy, and much nicer, to treat the class as being fun and a bit lighthearted. And it's possible to do that without compromising the class itself.

The day 231 meditation returns to the body work ideas of a "superficial front line" and a "superficial back line." Forward bends (down dog is the example) open the back line, and backbends (up dog) open the front line. Maybe so. But I've got some problems even with this. The back line runs from the bottom of the feet. Well, what about the separate leg poses? Is it one line, or does it somehow split? The superficial back line makes sense if you are talking about a pose where the feet are together nicely, but it doesn't fit for other poses.

And then, what about compressions. In Rabbit, does it make sense to talk about a "line." The goal of the pose is to make your back look like a nice arc, not at all like a straight line. Now this is probably picking at nits, and I'm pretty confident that there could probably be some good explanation and useful analysis from these body work ideas. But, at this point in the meditations, I think they basically present many more questions than they answer.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

163/235 Body Worker "Lines"

Sunday Off

The day 230 meditation talks about how recent discoveries in body work fit nicely with asana practice. Gate's uses the seated forward bend as his example and talks about expanding the "superficial back line."

The body work information sounds very interesting, and sometime I might want to read more about it. And I have no reason to doubt the usefulness that Gates finds in this way of thinking when applied to asana practice. Gates says its particularly good for designing a series of poses. That makes me think that it would be very interesting to see this sort of analysis applied to Bikram's 26+2.

But beyond that, this meditation does nothing for me. I know nothing about body work, much less about recent developments in it. So explaining asana by making reference to body work does nothing for me (except perhaps show me yet another area where I am ignorant, and whet my appetite to learn more about body practice). Aside from that, it simply sounds a bit like throwing on a layer of jargon on top of something and saying "Voila! An explanation."

163/234 More on Connective Tissue

Saturday 9:30 am with Connease

The pattern of resting the knee one day and going to class is still helping, but I'm starting to get anxious about skipping so many days. I know there's nothing wrong with it, but I feel a bit odd on my days off.

I saw big improvements again in class. I did a full set of Triangle. The lunge on the right side was just a bit off, and I was very wary about balance one I tipped my arms. But at least it was possible again. Even more amazing, I did a set of Eagle, keeping my right knee bent somewhat and trying to wrap the left over. Now, the only pose which I fail to attempt is Toe Stand. I'm still not 100% by any means, but the recovery seems to be proceeding faster than I anticipated.

I came across something new in the first standing backbend. At the start, we are supposed to drop the head back and let it relax. Ordinarily, I just relax and let the head fall back some. Yesterday, I not only relaxed the head, but also something in my upper spine sort of between my shoulders, so the dropping back came from a bit lower down than usual. I don't really know what I did, but thats pretty much what it felt like. And it seemed to get much more of a bend in my cervical spine than usual. It also got much more of a stretch in the muscles under my shoulders near my armpits (maybe the deltoids?). Does this make sense to anyone? If so, have I stumbled on something that's good, or am I compromising the intended form? I'm going to ask a teacher in my next class, but I'm happy to get anyone elses input as well.

The day 229 revisits the idea of connective tissue. First, Gates says that the connective tissue in our bodies is all of a piece. Remove everything else, and you would still have a structure that resembled the body itself. Then, he says that main function of asana practice is to expand the connective tissue -- all of it. After it expands, it then contracts again, but doesn't fall back into the same rut that it was stuck in. It stays somewhat expanded.

I like the description, but I don't actually know if its true. It sounds a bit like the "tourniquet" theory we hear all the time in Bikram. It's another theory to explain some of the benefits of asana practice, but as far as I know, there's no proof for it.

This makes me wonder what the point of these theories is. The asana practice works. If you want proof, try it. It's so much easier to prove that asanas work than it is trying to explain how or why they work. With the idea of expanding connective tissue -- maybe thats so for the flexy poses, but what about the strength oriented poses? And what about the Bikram poses that are aimed at compressing the spine and choking the throat to get at the thyroid? Every pose in the Bikram series has some stretching in it as well, even if its only a part of the set-up. But stretching is only a part of each pose. With the exception of Fixed Firm, every pose in the Bikram series also has a strengthening element. The idea of expanding the connective tissue as the main focus of asana practice, it seems to me, neglects the strength and balance aspects of the poses, unless I'm missing something.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

162/233 - Connective Tissue

Friday off.

The day 228 meditation continues on the same discussion of the difference between asana practice and other exercise. Gates now focuses on the web of connective tissue which "gives shape to the innumberable spaces within the body..." As we talked about earlier, one of the big problems with the Nautilus approach to health was that it focused completely on a single, isolated muscle and completely neglected the supporting muscles and connective tissue. Thus, people overdeveloped muscles without doing anything to build up the strength and connections between muscles.

When you look at the chronic problems people develop as they get older, it seems pretty obvious that we should pay much more attention to the connective tissue. How many older people do you know who have serious problems because of weak hamstrings, or weak calves, or any other particular muscle? Maybe there are some, but the number is probably pretty low. Now, how many older people do you know who chronically suffer from bad knees, or a bad hip, or frozen shoulders? People who get joint replacements. People with carpal tunnel syndrome? Plantar fascia-tis? Lots and lots of the serious physical impairments that people get have to do with either the joints or the fascia -- the connective tissue that Nautilus figured out how to isolate out of the picture.

The stretches that most people do to warm up for exercise are largely directed at isolating and stretching a particular muscle as well. I'm thinking of things like the standard runners' stretches for hamstrings, or the leaning against the wall with one leg back and foot on floor to isolate and stretch the calf muscle. Then, often as not, the exercises that people do after stretching are damaging to the joints, and not restorative. I'm thinking mostly of running and other joint pounding sports. In this model, there's little or nothing to help people with their connective tissue.

I had plantar fascia-tis for years. It can be very painful, to the point of being debilitating. It's a problem that has grown more frequent in professional atheletes. Tim Duncan, of the San Antonio Spurs, has sat out long stretches of a couple of seasons trying to deal with the same problem. I'd talked to doctors about what to do about it. The recommended more comfortable shoes and rest. They didn't have any other solutions for it. With tons of money and an NBA championship at state, I imagine Tim Duncan got even better, and more current advice than I did. But the advice didn't help him all that much, either.

Bikram cured my plantar fascia-tis within a few months. How? I don't know exactly. But my guess is that the poses caused me to rebuild and redistribute things within my feet. This happened without putting any undue stress on the fascia. In other words, Bikram worked to help the connective tissue in my feet while it was working on all the other connections in my body. It's possible that Bikram helped my feet because it was straightening out problems elsewhere -- in my hips and my spine, for example. And as my overall alignment improved, toes to forehead, bones to skin, the problem with my plantar fascia just melted away. Whatever the reason, it's abundantly clear that Bikram eliminated a problem which left my doctors helpless.

Friday, August 21, 2009

162/232 - Isolation in Anatomy

Thursday 8:15 pm with Amy

I made a bit more progress this class with the right knee. The balancing poses were better, and I'm a little less reluctant about falling out of them. I managed to get up out of the third part of Awkward. And I actually balanced on my right leg in Eagle, with the knee bent some. I couldn't hold it the full time, but last class I couldn't even pick the left foot up. I sat out one set of Triangle, because I still can't deal with the lunge position. But that's the only real sitting out that I did.

And I got some compliments -- in Locust, which is no big surprise. But also in Standing Separate Leg Stretching. My head still feels like its about four feet from the floor in this pose (actually, about 6 inches or so, I think). So I know the compliment was not about my depth. And that means that my form must have been good, which is always nice to know.

The day 227 meditation offers some further criticism of the Western medical approach. Gates talks about how Western medical thinking tends to isolate parts. If there is a problem, it tries to locate which part is causing the problem and then tries to fix that part, very often in isolation from the rest of the body.

He uses the Nautilus weight machines as an example of the result of this way of thinking. I did Nautilus routines back when these machines were new. The system claimed a complete approach to fitness by using its series of 12-14 machines. Each machine would exercise one muscle through its full range of motion. You would do one set on this muscle to exhaustion in 8-12 reptitions, and then proceed to the next machine, working from the largest muscles to smaller ones. If I remember correctly, the progression was Glutes, Quads, Hamstrings, Lats, Lats (pulldown), Pecs, Shoulders, Biceps, Triceps, Abs.

A while later, people started to notice injuries occuring, because a main muscle got developed, but the supporting muscle groups, or supporting joint tissue, didn't get any similar or balanced development. Around that time, free weights started to come back into fashion, precisely because they didn't force an isolation of a particular muscle, and instead tended to work groups of muscles better. Even then, there's still a huge danger in weight training from overdeveloping one set of muscles, and ignoring the balance that should exist between various muscle groups.

Asana practice exists at the other extreme from Nautilus training. When doing the asana correctly, the entire body gets involved. Instead of focusing on isolation, asana practice focuses on integration. In an odd way, this point gets driven home to me more clearly any time I get another minor injury. When some individual part of the body is hurting, there just is a natural tendency to focus on that part during practice. The question comes up: Which poses use that part, and how? The amazing thing is that the answer to the first question is pretty much always the same. No matter what I've hurt, I discover that EVERY pose uses that part of the body, much more than I'd been aware of before. I hope that at least part of that awareness sticks even after the injury disappears. Thus, while Nautilus training focused on treating the parts of the body in isolation; asana practice stresses on learning the complete interconnectedness of the body in each of the poses.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

161/231 - Healing

Wednesday Off

No, the title of this post is not about my knee, though its coming along very nicely. Instead, the day 236 meditation is about one of my favorite topics: the incredible healing power of the asanas.

The meditation starts with a quote from a student who had both a chronic shoulder injury and a thyroid condition. Her doctors told her that her shoulder would never heal. After two months of yoga practice, the shoulder injury was gone. With the shoulder healed, she told her doctor she was going to go off her thyroid medication. Three months later it was borderline, and the doctor still wanted to put her back on medication. Three months later, her thryoid was normal. The thyroid medication, for most people, is a life sentence. Of course, even after this happened, the doctor was unwilling to conclude that the yoga made any difference.

There are tons of stories like this out there. I have my own. Bikram quickly got me off blood pressure medication and tri-glyceride medication. It also eliminated my acid reflux, and cured my planar fascia-itis. It has straightened out my right big toe, leaving me with one bad bunion instead of two (I'm still working on the left foot, and hopeful). I know other people who are dealing with arthritis with Bikram, and with chronic knee, hip and back problems. I know of other people who have gone off lifelong medications after just a few months of yoga practice, including one who got off her thyroid medication.

Why does this happen? Doctors, for the most part, are trained to suggest drugs or surgery. They will give a nod to exercise and weight management, but in my experience, most doctors don't stress these things, probably because they know that their patients are not likely to follow the recommendations, and then will likely blame the doctor anyways for not having given them a pill to take. I don't really blame the doctors here. They simply are doing the best they can with their training and the tools at their disposal.

And I don't blame their skepticism about yoga as a remedy either. They are trained to be skeptical, and have been taught to put their faith only in scientific method. And lets face it, no one has done any scientific study of the benefits of asana practice. In class, we hear lots of theories about why the poses have such amazing benefits. In Bikram, the tourniquet theory gets alot of credit. We shut off the blood to an organ or an area of the body and then let it flood back in, and that has great benefit. But, as far as I know, no-one has ever really studied this theory, and I have no idea if it explains the benefits or not. But it sounds nice and explanatory.

Gates has his own explanation for why asana practice gives such radical benefits. First, he links it to prana, or life force. He says that most people are pretty much cut off from their own prana, and yoga puts them back in touch. This process has incredible healing power. For Gates, this explanation "works." I think this means that he understands this explanation because it fits into a way of thinking that he has already bought into. I tend to agree with this explanation as well, but let's face it, if I gave this explanation to your average doctor or scientist, I expect he would simply roll his eyes and say "Whatever."

Gates comes close to acknowledging this difficulty when he says that he still wonders at the mechanics of this miraculous process. He then offers a more complete explanation. He says that the asana force us to act as a co-ordinated whole. Doing the asana correctly requires integrating the entire mind, body and spirit. And its this program of re-integration (forced bussing for the soul?), that leads to the spectacular health benefits that people see from yoga.

I completely buy into this explanation, but it still leaves something to be desired for the scientists. How does one begin to measure how integrated the mind body and soul are? One answer is: watch the person practice. And yes, I know that begs the question from a scientific standpoint.

In Bikram, we are constantly told that if we try the postures the right way, we will receive 100% of the benefit. I've wondered about this before, because its pretty clear that you aren't getting, for example, a backbend in Fixed Firm if you aren't going all the way back. This meditation makes me think that the "benefit" that Bikram is talking about is the greater benefit if re-integrating body, mind and spirit. That comes from trying the poses the right way, and not from depth.

That's why the miracles can, and often do, occur when people first starting to practice. And it may also be why some people never see much benefit at all; they simply aren't trying it the right way. It also explains why there's such a difference between simply exercising and stretching, and doing yoga.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

161/230 - Polaroids

Tuesday 8:15 with Amy

Last night's class was very nice, and it was another step forward for me. I had several breakthroughs. I could do one set of Standing Separate Leg Forehead to Knee on both sides. I think this may be due to extra flexibility at night: I didn't have to bend my right knee so much to make the connection from forehead to knee, and that let me into the pose.

I also did a bit better in many other poses. My balancing poses were better, largely because I have a bit more confidence about coming down on my right leg when falling out. And I almost got my hips to the floor in Fixed Firm. For some reason, whatever is wrong with my knee doesn't seem to hit the "knee" poses very hard. Awkward and Fixed Firm are not that far off from usual. It's all the other poses...

Awkward was strange. I decided not to compromise on form at all. In the third part, I went down pretty easily. But coming up with the knees together was impossible. It was like my mind was telling my body to try, and by body was just giving my mind the finger.

Since I've started yoga, I've tended to attribute all good things to yoga. And I could possibly do the same about the speed that this knee injury is recovering. But actually, I have no idea. Over a week ago, I could barely put weight on the knee at all. Yesterday, I told some people that I thought I might be able to climb stairs one step at a time in about a week. Today, I was halfway up a flight of stairs when I realized that I was doing exactly that. Is it the rest? The yoga practice? The Chinese herbal patch my wife had me wear? I just don't know. It's possible that more yoga and less rest would serve me better, or vice versa. And I really don't have any good way of deciding.

In the day 225 meditation, Gates compares yoga practice to a Polaroid picture gradually coming into focus. I wonder how long before this sort of comparison will be a complete anachronism. I assume he's talking about the Polaroid color cameras from the 80s that would spit a picture out at you, and then you would shake it for like a minute or so, as the colors would gradually set. Those are the pictures with the big white border on the bottom, and a slightly less big white border around the sides.

When I was growing up, my mom had a Polaroid Land Camera. The film for it was black and white only. You would take a picture and get a covered piece of film out of the camera. Then you had to wait an entire two or three minutes or so before you could peel the paper covering from the print and see the picture you had taken. The main thing this had in common with the later camera was its ability to take pretty bad pictures relatively quickly.

When I was growing up, there was an older acquaintance who used to visit the same beach house where we would go during the summers. When financial matters came up among the grown-ups, he would brag about how he had the great sense to buy Polaroid at $12/share. At the time, it was trading somewhere in the very high $100s or low $200s, and just about everyone had those ridiculous cameras that would spit pictures out at you. This guy was a firm believer in buying and holding. Ultimately, I think he decided to sell out his Polaroid stock at about $6 or $7/ share. I think it may still have been worth it to him. After all, he got years of bragging rights about his financial wisdom.

Back to Gates. The coming into focus that he's talking about is the gradual shedding of fear. It's a timely point, because the knee injury has put fear back into the forefront of my practice. There's a fine line between fear and respect. Several poses can put me at risk of further injury if I do something wrong. That's definitely true of all the balancing and separate leg poses. So, when I'm coming to my new limit, I continually ask myself whether I think I'm at my edge because I'm afraid, or if I'm at my edge because it's really my edge.

The funny thing is that I should probably be asking myself that question all the time. It's not just something that an injury should bring into relief. It's basically impossible to catalogue all the areas where fear alone is holding back progress. Indeed, often I will only realize that fear was holding me back when, for some reason, I get over the fear. That's really easy to see when its a simple question of going up a step on a bad leg. It's much harder to see, for example, that perhaps I'm easing off on keeping the legs perfectly straight in Full Locust because I'm afraid of something. Afraid of what? I don't know, and probably won't until I start getting the legs as straight as they should be.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

160/229 - Home

The day 224 meditation is both simple and powerful. Asana practice teaches us to relax into strange postures. We breath into them, grow comfortable, and start to explore. Eventually we feel at home in the postures.

Then, over time, we can extend this process to strange situations in everyday life. We breath into them, relax, grow comfortable, and start to explore and grow. Eventually we feel at home in the same situation. Thus, in the end asana practice makes home out of the world.

Monday, August 17, 2009


9:30 am with Sherry

The nice thing about having an injury is that the breakthroughs start coming fast and furious. It's another way that being injured is like being a beginner all over again. Today, I first got all the way down in the third part of Awkward. Two days ago, I thought that might take weeks or maybe even months. Then I grabbed my foot in both legs in Standing Head to Knee. And again in Floor Bow. Those were the big changes, and each of them was a minor cause for celebration.

I still skipped right side of Triangle and Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee. I need to ask whether skipping one side of a pose for a while is bad or not. I'm not sure, and I can think of reasons both why one should, and reasons why its a bad idea. But overall, it was a satisfying and encouraging class.

The day 223 meditation gets into some pretty deep water. First, Gates talks about asana practice as linking the physical world to the metaphysical, and the linkage comes through breath. I know this is true. Just doing the postures properly has a big spiritual impact. Part of the reason I started reading this book was to try to get a better understanding of why and how that process works.

Then, at times, we might begin to understand that the physical and metaphysical are one. This is a point where I think words start to become inadequate. As he recently said, there's no understanding presence other than being present. And I think that the feeling of true union is a biproduct of being present. So this sense may be especially difficult to talk about.

At the end of this meditation, Gates talks about being alive to the endless diversity of life, while still recognizing the unity of spirt that underlies it all. This sounds great, but I think he may be pushing it. But maybe not. Again I think of music, and basketball. In both, if you are with a group that is truly together, then all the parts are functioning as one. So the unity is there. And at the same time, each player is distinct. These moments, at least in my experience, are pretty rare and magical. Is this similar to what Gates is trying to say? If so, and if this is where the spiritual practice of yoga is heading, then I'm totally on board with the idea.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

159/227 - Evening Strolls

Day off.

Rest and class are working about equally well right now, and this morning, I felt like taking some rest. So I was lazy and didn't go to class.

The day 222 meditation discusses how Gates can measure his spiritual progress by how he feels about others while taking an evening stroll. He talks about a nice summer's evening walk in Northampton, Mass. The brief description of the walk made me a bit nostalgic. I've had the pleasure of living in lots of great areas for walking. But the Houston area is definitely not one of them, and I miss my walks.

In New Haven, I walked everywhere, of course. And then, often, just for fun we would go for walks -- up science hill and beyond, or just through the town square, or out to Worcester Square for the best pizza in the world.

Then there was Manhattan, where there's something new and interesting every few blocks. For a few years I lived near Fort Tryon on the northern tip of Manhattan, and its one of the nicest parks anywhere. On summer nights sometimes, we would walk down to the George Washington bridge around sunset, and then over it to New Jersey, just to get the amazing views of the river, and to be able to look back onto Manhattan at dusk.

And in Los Angeles, I lived in Venice and would walk up the Venice boardwalk up to Santa Monica to watch the beach volleyball and maybe have a little fun with the chess hustlers. In most of LA, of course, walking is pretty much unthinkable (Hollywood and Westwood are exceptions I guess). But Venice is one of the strangest places around, and filled with people of all sorts. It made for great, cheap entertainment.

In Minneapolis, it was the either the lakes or the river. I lived right on the Mississippi, so my evening walk was across a suspension bridge by the waterfalls. (The city exists because there's a drop of several feet in the river there, and the riverboats had to stop, unload, and then reload on the other side of the falls.) Then it was a walk along the riverfront, through a district with a fairly active nightlife, to the next bridge or the one after, and then back home.

And Paris was best of all, though I was only there for a little more than a month. Of course, in Paris, everything is new and magical. At sunset, I'd walk down one of the wider boulevards, watching the old men playing boules, and taunting each other. Or find a park where children would play with miniature sailboats in the fountains. Or just watch the stylish women walking their dogs. And of course, a walk in Paris is combined with stops at cafes or bars, where I'd try to make conversation in stumbling French.

But here in Houston? There just isn't much made for walking. It's too hot. People avoid the outdoors, especially in summer. And I miss the evening walks (or at least Gates has prompted me to miss it).

Gates main point was about his attitude to others when taking a stroll. He talks about feeling connected to everyone, enjoying their present, and simply being full of love. It's a nice thought, but Robert Hunter puts the idea much more simply, I think, in Scarlet Begonias: "Strangers stopping strangers, just to shake their hands; everybody is playing in the heart of gold band." The second line always seemed a bit like a non-sequitor to me, but Gate's meditation makes me see the point. When everyone is connected, then its like everyone is playing in the same band, and because the connection stems from love, it makes sense that the band would be the "heart of gold band." (And yes, I realize I'm probably over-interpreting, but there it is.)

Friday, August 14, 2009

159/226 - Understanding the Practice

4:30 pm with Sherry

I set up in the hottest part of the room again. I'm getting to like it. Part of that may be because the class simply is not as strenuous with the limitations that my knee has set. So it's much easier to deal with more heat. After class, I told Sherry that I thought it was a little cold today, and she said that it was 108 degrees up front -- so probably 110-112 where I was.

The major thing I noticed today was how important the development and progressions of the sequences is. There are only two poses where I feel zero effect from my knee: Camel and Rabbit. And as we are told over and over, these are the heart of the series, around which everything else was designed. It all leads up to Camel and Rabbit. Today, I realized what they meant by that. My knee wasn't interfering directly with either of these poses. But, because I had compromised on almost everything leading up to these two, these poses weren't quite there for me either.

The entire series could be looked at as an alternating series of backward and forward bends, all leading up to these two poses. Back bends: Half Moon, Awkward (1st part), Standing Bow, Cobra, Locust, Full Locust, Floor Bow, Fixed Firm. Forward Bends: First forward bend, Standing Head to Knee, Balancing Stick, Standing Separate Leg Stretching, Standing Separate Leg Forehead to Knee, Half Tortoise. These alternations all culminate with Camel and Rabbit, and they are all preparations for it. But I hadn't truly realized until today, when Camel and Rabbit were easy and everything else was compromised, how much they really do pave the way for these poses.

The day 221 meditation starts with a great quote from Ekhart Tolle: "You can't think about presence, and the mind can't understand it. Understanding presence is being present." First off, I like this quote because it is inherently self-contradictory. He's explaining presence, by telling us that it can't be understood or explained. And the weird thing is that I have an inkling of what he means. As soon as you realize that you are present, the realization itself pops the bubble, and you are no longer there.

I've had that happen several times in class. Things will be zooming along, and I'm basically with the dialogue, and everything is going smoothly. Then I realize what's happening, and at that moment the class starts to go south. The ease and the joy that came before simply evaporate. Of course, one of the main goals of class is to learn to become present. And if so, that means that ultimately, as Gates says, that we will never understand our practice. Instead we simply go to it and do it. (And keep in mind that I'm saying this after my long analysis of the back and forward bending structure of the series that occurred to me today. That's a hint that I'm not quite to this point yet. At least not for any extended stretch of time.)

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Thursday Off

My knee felt a bit better, and I'm still on the fence about whether to go see a doctor. My inclination is not to go. The doctor will tell me not to do any activities at all. He will offer nothing to help that I don't already know, except the option of surgery. Otherwise, its ice to reduce inflammation, heat to promote blood flow, rest and keeping it elevated. I don't need a doctor to tell me that, so I doubt I will go to see one unless I get the feeling that I really need to do something radical.

The day 220 meditation is quite beautiful and inspiring, but its too long to quote in its entirety. The main idea is that if you have your soul, then you already have everything you need. And if you don't, then you have nothing at all. Yoga puts you in touch with your soul. Thus, it gives you everything you need, and it allows you to shine as an example for others as well.

These are wonderful thoughts, and they give me an odd sense of hope. By all rights, I should be really frustrated, hobbling around as I am. Instead, I'm really looking forward to class tomorrow. Maybe I will outwardly be looking like a total beginner again, but I'll be doing my yoga. And I have faith that that will help.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

158/224 - Stamina

4:30 pm with Jean

Even getting to the studio, I wasn't sure whether I should take class or not. I talked to Jean before class, and she said that I should stop anytime I was in pain or my knee felt funny. That was encouraging advice, but it still left me with a decision, especially because my knee hurt no matter what I did, including nothing. But since it was going to hurt anyway, I decided to give the class a try. I don't think I made anything worse, but I also don't know if my knee got any better either.

Which poses work the inside of the right knee? All of them. The first big surprise was that I could do the first two parts of Awkward. But in the third, I could go down about six inches before I had to stop.

Eagle on the right leg was impossible, but I could still do the arms and bend both knees. Picking up the left leg wasn't going to happen. In Standing Head to Knee, I was limited to locking my knee and lifting up the other leg and grabbing it at the knee. Standing Bow was a bit better, I even started kicking up a little bit. And Balancing Stick was even better, almost as good as new.

I couldn't even think of doing the lunge in Triangle, and Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee was also pretty much impossible. Here, Jean suggested I do Warrior One instead, and I realized that I can at least do a partial lunge. So that's what I will do next time I have to do Triangle -- just start the lunge and do Warrior 2 until I can get the set-up right.

I thought the floor series would be better, and in some ways it was. Cobra, Locust, Full Locust, Half Tortoise, Camel and Rabbit were all fine. Wind Relieving was funny. Basically by the time my knee bent the full way, the pose was over. But the knee did bend all the way, and without any real pain.

Floor Bow was even funnier. I couldn't bend my knee and grab my right foot. Jean guided me through a variation where you just grab the left foot, and extend the right hand and foot. Afterwards, she said "That looked like pulling teeth, how did it feel?" And I had to laugh and admit that it felt like pulling teeth as well.

On the plus side, I really concentrated on the set-ups and form. I didn't do myself any harm. I felt better for having gone to class, even if I didn't get the boost to my knee that I've gotten from other minor injuries.

The day 219 meditation is about the stamina that comes with sustained practice. That's one of the great things that I've discovered in each of the challenges I've done. Practicing daily builds endurance and the ability to focus. This is one way that yoga is definitely not like other kinds of exercise. Running, cycling, lifting -- these all lead to overtraining and severe fatigue if done every day. Instead of leading to overtraining, asana practice seems to continually build energy.

The other point Gates makes I also find to be true. When you practice often, and hard, the stamina you build also gives the ability to find stillness and really enjoy the poses. Yesterday, after a week off, I noticed the sweat was burning my eyes at the start of the floor series. The stinging sweat was a real distraction, and if I only practiced a couple of times each week, it would probably be with me every class. Frequent practice seems to clean the sweat, and the sting disappears. On a more obvious level, when you don't have to worry about whether you can simply make it through Triangle, it becomes possible to explore what the pose is actually doing, and that exploration is one of the chief joys in class.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

157/223 - I'm Back

Friday Off
Saturday Off
Sunday Off
Monday Off!
Tuesday 4:30 pm with Rohit

I took Friday off because I hadn't planned on doing more than every other day while on vacation. Then Friday night we decided to go to Niagara Falls on Saturday. It's the fourth time I've been to the falls, once as a kid, and then three times in the last 10 years or so. And it's just as amazing as ever, and probably more amazing to me now than when I was a kid. (For some odd reason, what I remember from the childhood visit was some museum about all the people who survived a trip over the fall in barrels and other contraptions and a guy who walked over the falls on a tightrope. But I don't remember anything about the falls themselves.) Now, what I remember is the sheer power and beauty of the falls themselves. I especially like the rapids above the falls on the New York side. They make me feel both the terror and the allure of that incredible force.

So Saturday was shot, but for a very good cause. Sunday, I went tubing with a cousin and then the storms rolled in. We got off the lake with a little time to spare. It didn't clear, so no dock practice then. But no worries, because I was going to be back in the studio Monday afternoon, right? Wrong. We woke up at 3 am NY time to get a 6 am flight from Rochester. But we took off an hour late in Rochester, missed our connection, and then after a looong day at the airport, and another big wait on a runway, we finally got home at 11pm, instead of the 11am we had planned on. So I ended up missing four days in a row, the longest stretch since Christmastime.

Class started off well. The room was a bit cold when I went in, and I wanted to get shocked back into a real Bikram practice, so I set up in the hottest part of the room. Rohit even commented on it. I've been thinking about it, and I've decided that I have stuck to an area of the room out of a fear of the heat and lack of airflow elsewhere. So, I'm going to ignore that fear and simply set-up wherever. At least that's what I decided today. We will see if I stick with it.

The heat didn't bother me, and I got off to a nice start. I felt flexible and comfortable in Half Moon, and things got better. I started noticing that my knee was not bothering me at all in some postures where it had been. I had a really good standing series, especially toward the end in Triangle, and I was feeling very good.

My knee felt good in Tree, so I decided to give Toe Stand a go for the first time in a long time. I was very careful about going in on the left leg, and everything went fine. My balance was non-existent, but I went up and down with no problem. Right side, however, was not so good. About 3/4 of the way down, I could feel real tension in my right knee, but it wasn't worrying me that much. I went all the way down, and it was very, very intense, but I still would not have called it painful. It was intense enough that I decided to push myself up with my hands. But there comes a time when your hands pretty much have to transfer the work back to your standing leg, and I found that I simply did not have the strength in my leg to get all the way back up. By the time I realized this, it was too late to do anything about it, and I kind of hopped/fell out of the pose and restrained the knee.

It didn't feel that bad at the time, but it does now. It's not swollen, but I'm limping, and its definitely restrained in exactly the area where it has been tender for probably a couple of months now. So, its back to the drawing board, and maybe this time I'll learn the lesson. At least, I now know that if it feels that intense when I'm all the way down, I should just do a backward roll out of the pose. Live and learn.

Oh, and the floor series went really well too. If not for Toe Stand, I would have said the class was great, especially for the first class back.

The day 218 meditation is short enough that I'll just quote it:

In asana our eyes are open, our ears are open, our minds are open: our hearts are open. As the months turn into years, we realize that our practic is a long unfolding, an opening into promise. We learn to stand easy, firm, and relaxed, and our problems become the open window to opportunity.

I really like this. It gives me a good feeling about the future. I can already to the idea that asana practice involves an opening up of just about everything. But I'm still at a point where its more useful to measure my practice in months instead of years. So, I've got lots to look forward to. And I get a certain amount of consolation out of the idea that this "setback" I've had with my knee is actually an opportunity to learn more about how my body works, and how it will heal itself with time and dedication.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

156/218 - Goals and Achievemets

Thursday on the dock

Balancing was better, and I had an easier time of simply settling in on the dock instead of thinking about all the differences between doing the practice alone here, and doing it back in the studio. I cut the floor series short, but overall it was pretty satisfying.

The day 217 meditation is about goals and achievements. Goals and achievements are basically the same thing. Its just that goals lie in the future, and achievements are in the past. I was surprised, and a bit pleased, to read that Gates does not look down on these. Desire, after all, is one of the five afflictions. So it seems pretty easy to conclude that, if desire is not good, then goals must be bad as well.

But, as Gates puts it, goals help "galvanize" him. The trouble with a goal only occurs when it starts to interfere with the present. When the goal overrides the practice, its no longer doing its proper work. In a challenge this starts to happen when you start fixating on how many days you've done, how many are left, how long it will be until you are done. And, yes, that kind of thinking happens. But hopefully it doesn't happen in class.

Achievements can have an insidious effect. Completing a big challenge is a nice accomplishment, and it's very gratifying. The danger lies in thinking that those 30 or 60 or 100 days will have anything to do with class number 155 (or whatever). Every class is new, and equally capable of knocking you on your ass. And achievements aren't going to change that. But they might mislead you.

But its nice to know that its OK to be human, to strive to accomplish goals, and to take satisfaction in accomplishments. These are fine, as Gates says, so long as "each practice brings us back to the importance of now. Our achievements are simply the by-products of our ability to realize the potential of the present moment. ... That is the juice."

155/217 - Learning Like a Child

Wednesday Off.

The day 215 meditation begins with a quote about how eager children are to learn. And when they are learning, they do it with everything -- their whole bodies tend to move. Gates says that asana practice brings us back to this state. Asana involve the whole body.

I think this is one of those things that's easier to see the more you practice. To begin with, for example, the first forward bend might seem like a hamstring stretch. Over time, as you grow into the pose, you start to feel it not only along the hamstrings, but in the lower back as well. Then, you might start paying some more attention into the arms, and the pulling aspect of the pose. One day you hear, and pay attention, to the idea that your head is totally relaxed and your face is on your legs. My face doesn't hit my legs yet, but simply paying attention to the instruction makes a difference. Or you finally hear the bit about getting your arms close together. Over time, it becomes more and more clear that every single part of your body is deeply involved in this one pose. If you wanted, you could focus literally on any part of your body and probably find some room for improvement there.

But Gates point isn't just that. Finally, the goal is to have your attention on everything at once, so that the pose really is a full body experience. At that point, you might take inventory (as Lenette says). But there no longer is a single part of the pose that is the focus. As Gates puts it, the inquiry is ever expanding. It's childlike. Ultimately, if Gates is right, the asana helps us to learn with the openness and the enthusiasm of a child again, with complete attention and no pre-conceptions, using everything we have.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

155/216 - Mastering the Wind

Tuesday afternoon on the dock.

I did most of a practice before getting called off, enough so that I think I can reasonably take credit for it. Balancing was a bit better than on Sunday. I think with some practice, I might even get the hang of it without the mirrors.

When I was done, Yanzi decided to take some pictures of me in a few of the poses. Now this was totally new for me -- both strange and interesting to see. I did Wind Removing, Camel, Rabbit, Locust, and the first backbend for the camera. Here's what I discovered: My neck bends backward even less than I thought. In Camel, my neck ends up almost horizontal, instead of pointing nicely down. I'm not sure how to work on this, but considering I measure progress in several poses by how far back I can see, this is surely a big obstacle to that progress.

I also saw that I have a much flatter middle back than I thought. In Rabbit, I'm getting a really good bend forward in both the cervical and lumbar spine regions. But my thoracic spine might was well be an ironing board. Once again, I don't know if there's anything specific to be done about this, but it was interesting to see. And it's probably much better in the hot room than at 70 degrees on the dock.

My Locust didn't go up anywhere near as high as in class. No surprise there, and it looked about how it felt. Here, I can say that my form was good.

The first backbend was a big revelation. I've got a nice curve going, and the bend is actually more than I thought it would look like. But, its also pretty obvious that I'm still compromising in the knees and elbows, even when I think that I'm not. I need to bring more attention to my knees and elbows.

The good news is that that is the only place where I saw real form problems. The depth may not have been where I might like it to be in the other poses, but otherwise the postures looked like they were solid attempts. (If I get really daring, I might post them up here. I haven't decided yet. I was wearing a t-shirt, which obscures some parts of the poses, and they are pretty strong silhouettes.)

The day 214 meditation begins with a quote that concludes that the mind "is as hard to master as the wind." This one I can easily buy into. Bikram talks about getting the loose screws out of the mind, but I always thought that idea was a little off. I could get some control over a few loose screws. But often, my mind just runs where-ever it wants, and in courses and currents that I could never predict.

I also like this quote because the idea of the wind fits very well with the goal of practice as cultivating stillness. Sometimes the stillness seems effortless and just right. Other times, some single idea is nagging at me like a steady north wind. Other times, it's a blustery day in my mind and it seems like thoughts swirl like leaves in the currents. And then there are the days where I feel sort of like the weatherman trying to hold still in the hurricane, but unable to keep his footing and always with his eye a bit off camera in case some roof or sign should happen to blow his direction.

154/215 - Layers of tension

Monday off.

The day 214 meditation is again about shedding the fear of death. As a practical matter, on the mat, Gates says we do this by staying both firmed and relaxed, and by noting unneeded tension. We find "cringing patterns". I take it that this means areas we tighten up through habit, and for no good reason. And in the process, we learn to relax these areas while holding the pose. As time goes on, we start releasing more subtle areas of tension, layer by layer.

Rohit is very big on this idea (even if he doesn't put it this way). At least once a class and very often more, he tells people to take their tongues off the roof of their mouths. When he started suggesting it, I was totally unaware of it. Now, I pretty much smile to myself whenever he says it, because its a layer of tension that was pretty easy for me to remove.

A while ago, I was doing Standing Bow as well as I'd ever done it. And then Libby said, "Duffy, there's nothing in the dialogue about sticking your tongue out." I was doing the Michael Jordan tongue assist before anyone knew about Jordan, and it's amazing I never bit my tongue off playing basketball. Anyway, I stuck my tongue back in and immediately fell. Sticking the tongue out for me, I would have said, helped with concentration. But its just another of these cringing patterns.

In many of the poses, shedding these layers of tension is very much the key to progress. I think that's what happens in Locust. At first, we work harder and harder trying to lift our legs up, and nothing happens. While doing this, the back gets strong enough, but still nothing happens. Then, one day for no apparent reason, something simply relaxes in the back and BOING, the legs pop up higher than you ever imagined possible.

A similar process happens in many of the poses. I think that's why breakthroughs sometimes seem so spectacular. And it's also why its possible to make a great breakthrough on one night, and then lose the progress for weeks or even months. Strength and flexibility develop over time. But the ability fully to relax in certain areas can come and go in an instant, and it takes a while to control.

Finally, Gates says that trust is the opposite of the fear of death. This is a very interesting idea, and one I will have to think about some more. There are several times when trust becomes an issue in class. The most obvious one is the first backbend. Bikram says "Don't be scared." What I think this means is that you can trust yourself in the first backbend. You might fall out of it, but you will then just step back and catch yourself. It's really hard to hurt yourself in that bend, but it's such a weird position, that most people don't trust themselves in it.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

154/214 - Fear of Death on the Mat

Sunday afternoon on the dock.

I did the series about as well as I could on the dock here. It was about 75 degrees with a nice breeze, and the sun was setting. For just about anything else, it was a perfect evening. But these are less than ideal conditions for Bikram yoga, and it showed.

The first and most obvious thing was the balancing. I didn't really have any idea how attached I had grown to the mirror. And it was really hard to balance at all without relying on the mirror. I need to talk to some teachers and see if that's something I should work to overcome. I know that there aren't any mirrors in competition, so my guess is that its better to be able to balance with them.

I also hadn't anticipated what a difference the surface would make. A hard rubber mat on a dock is much less forgiving than my thin mat on the carpet. And the surface was not quite so flat. And then there was the breeze. For everything else, the breeze was quite pleasant, but in the balancing poses a little light breeze felt more like gale force winds.

The next thing that surprised me is how long the series took on my own. I felt like I might be going more slowly, so I skipped the second set on a couple of the floor poses. And I still was at it for more than two hours. Some of this may have been extra time between poses, but I think I held several of the poses for longer than we do in class - definitely Fixed Firm, Half Tortoise, and Camel.

Overall it felt good to practice, and its always interesting trying the series outside of class. This time I did it without any other warm up (like sun salutations), and I didn't notice any obvious difference. I have no idea what adjustments I would make if I did start a home practice. It's an interesting question.

The day 213 meditation discusses fear of death, the last of the five afflictions, on the mat. I have to say that I'm pretty much at a loss here. Gates sees the fear of death everywhere. To me, perhaps in my ignorance, its pretty much irrelevant. The biggest problem I see with this meditation is that Gates seems to want to collapse all the other afflictions into this idea of fear of death. Thus he says that "[i]t manifists in our restlessness, our difficulty in savasana, It is the prevailing sense that we are not doing enough, and that we won't get there, wherever there is." And I simply don't buy it. I see the problems with the things that he's talking about, but I just don't see what they have to do with the fear of death.

I started the path that led to Bikram yoga a year ago February, when my wife insisted I read a book called Younger Next Year. There are lots of books about living longer. In an odd way, this isn't one of them. The authors pretty much take it for granted that, as a matter of statistics, most people are going to live longer. Ninety years is now a fairly reasonable expectation, and that age could increase. If you follow the advice in the book, it would probably increase the chances of living that long, but that wasn't the point of the book at all. Instead, the book focused on quality of life as we age. The aim was to show how, instead of being old and feeble for your last 30+ years, you could live a life that was active and full basically right up to the end. And you could do this by following a few simple, practical rules.

Anyway, my point is that even the impulse that brought me to Bikram yoga didn't have much to do with the fear of death. Instead, the idea centered around how to make life richer. Maybe I just have a blind spot to this idea.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

154/213 - Just Practice

Saturday Off

I thought I might catch up this vacation week, but instead it seems on falling further and further behind. On Saturday, we flew from Houston to Rochester and then drove down to Keuka Lake. It was a beautiful day and would have been perfect except for doing it all on one hour of sleep.

I've talked before about changes from yoga. Here's another to add to the list: swimming is easier and more graceful. I've known for a long time that the correct form in crawl is to extend the arm as far forward as possible so that the forearm basically presses against the ear. But it never happened before, and now it seems completely natural, and effortless. Score another one for yoga. I'm going to have to tell this to my friend who swims competitively. I've been trying to get him to try Bikram for about a year now, and this might tip the balances.

The day 212 meditation is another of the very short ones, and like most of the short ones, it rings entirely true, so I think I will just quote it: "In the beginning we desire the fruits of a good practice. Early on, we are afraid of falling over in balancing postures and looking foolish in class. Desire and aversion stimulate us to work hard. Eventually we experience neither desire nor aversion, we just practice."

Here, it seems clear that Gates acknowledges that there is at least partially a good side to desire and aversion in the short run. They can prime the pump. They lead us to work hard in the first place. The problem with them is all the other baggage they bring along with them. Once the pump has been primed, once the practice can sustain itself, then it may be both possible and worthwhile to shed the desire and aversion, while still letting the waters flow.

Monday, August 3, 2009

154/212 - Emotional Responses

Friday 4:30 pm with Rohit

It was my last class before vacation, and it was just about a perfect class to close on. Nothing stands out as being very spectacular, and I don't think I had any breakthroughs. But I did have a nice feeling of balance between strength and flexibility. And I felt good throughout the class. I had a nice compliment in Camel, which felt really good. At the end of the class I felt that feeling that only comes after a good Bikram class -- both completely worn down and energized at the same time, and it comes with a nice helping of peace on the side.

The day 211 meditation talks about emotional responses both on and off the mat. The first thing that struck me was the idea that emotional responses are what make things memorable. I think its true that we are more likely to remember things we respond to with great emotion. In class, this means that the classes with big breakthroughs and the frustrating classes tend to stick with us. But what about times of great peace and contentment? I can remember these vividly as well, but I don't think they come with the kind of emotional peak that Gates is talking about. And that's true both on and off the mat.

I've said several times before that its a good sign when I can't remember anything about a class. This meditation tends to confirm that belief. But now I'm wondering whether there may not be a mistake involved here as well. On the one hand, its possible that a class is unmemorable for the reasons Gates says, and that's probably a good thing. But what if the class is just indifferent? I'm not going to worry too much about this, however.

Gates also brings up a situation that every yogi has been through: the "this posture is never going to end" syndrome. For me, this feeling used to come up frequently not in a posture itself, but in the set-up to triangle. We would get down into the lunge, and my arms would feel weak, and it was starting to feel hard. So I would just long for the relief of tilting the arms into the pose. And then the teacher would start to correct someone's leg position, usually because the front knee is too far forward. And then the person wouldn't understand the correction, and it would go back and forth several times, and then I would be screaming inside "Start the pose already."

Mostly that doesn't happen anymore. I still sometimes have a hard time at this point, but I can't remember the last time it led to frustration or aggravation. If it's too hard, I go down. If not, I stay with it. And the complaints have melted away, for the most part. That doesn't mean I'm completely over this sort of impulse, but at least there's been some progress.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

153/211 pt. 2 - An Aversion to Aversion

The day 210 Meditation discusses aversion on the mat. Aversion is the flip side of desire. It comes out as fear, hatred, revulsion and all sorts of other nice emotions. According to Gates, aversion is largely the cause for the atrocities of the 20th century and for today's terrorism. Maybe so, and probably so, if intolerance is simply an aspect (or possibly a result) of aversion.

On the mat, aversion comes out in any of the things we try to avoid. Examples Gates gives are avoiding a pose, avoiding or disliking a teacher, harboring dislike for other styles of yoga, or even getting angry over a person putting their mat too close. The interesting thing here is Gates describes all these things as a kind of intoxicant. At first, I thought it a bit odd to think of anger as an intoxicant. But here's the thing: when we get angry, we are also telling ourselves that we know better, or that we would act better. The anger also feeds a sense of superiority. It gives a boost to the ego.

The same goes with other types of aversion. A while back in class, a new student came with some kind of chronic wrist injury. She let herself out of many poses, and did her own modifications instead of trying the ones the teacher suggested. She knew that she could not do certain things, and thus she refused to try. And she grew insulted and angry when the teacher asked her to try things another way, saying that she simply couldn't, and that she knew better.

At the time, my reaction was that she was being silly, If her risk was as disabled as she said, then trying something new wasn't going to make anything worse. She was simply going to end up with a wrist as badly disabled as when she started. This meditation makes me realize that there was more at stake. For whatever reason, she actually has something invested in being disabled, and she also needs to know better than others about what her wrist can do. For now, at least, those satisfactions are more important than actually making her wrist better. (As far as I can tell, she hasn't been back, but I could be wrong on that.)

I've shed lots of aversions. Putting my face down in a little puddle of throw up is a pretty good example. It's not nice, but it doesn't do any harm, and its about the grossest thing I can think of that I do (sometimes). But there are still plenty left. The mat placement comes to mind. I never get upset about where someone puts their mat in relation to mind.

But take Saturday mornings. It's almost always going to be a crowded class, and people know that going in. So why do people insist on setting up in a way that takes up the most space possible, by putting their mats just far enough away from the mat next to them so another mat won't fit? It happens time and again. And it always makes me a little bit angry. Why? Because I know better, which is exactly Gates point.

I've always been a bit amused by people who express tolerance for everything except for people who are intolerant. It's easy to take the same attitude towards aversion. When you find an aversion, force yourself. For a short time this might work: I certainly treated Locust this way for a while. But it's not a solution in the long term. When training a dog, you don't get the dog to stop behaving badly by trying to force it to stop the bad behavior. It simply doesn't work that way. Instead, you stop a bad behavior by substituting an acceptable behavior and rewarding that behavior heavily. Does the dog jump up all the time when people visit. Don't just tell it "No!" But get it to sit instead, and reward it for sitting. Same goes here. The trick to avoiding aversion is to focus on the poses and on the breathing, and to take pleasure in them. The aversion might then simply fall away, because we are too busy focusing on something good. Focusing on the aversion and telling it No simply adds one aversion on top of the other.


Wednesday Off
Thursday Off

The last time I had two days off in a row was just before Christmas last year. And this is the first time in a long, long time that I've taken off two days in a row while still in Houston. Wednesday I had planned to take off. Thursday just happened, and I have no excuses. But it will be a drop in the bucket compared to next week. I'm going away, and will maybe do some practicing in the cold, on the dock of the lake. But in the meantime, I will try to catch up on the Meditations from the Mat.

The day 209 meditation is about a criticism of one aspect of yoga. Yoga says to give up desire and work with things as they are. The criticism is that this attitude leads to fatalism. Gates asks a few rhetorical questions: Did Martin Luther King work with things as they are? Did Hellen Keller? He then answers the questions in an unexpected way. He says that they did. According to Gates, people who accomplish great things demonstrate what is possible -- they demonstrate how things are. I can see this, but its also begging the question. You might just as well say that notorious failures demonstrate the same thing. In some ways, every time I go into Standing Separate Leg Stretching, I demonstrate that its not possible to touch my head to the floor. But I doubt that THAT is his point.

Fortunately, Gates addresses the asana aspect very clearly: "As we accept and connect with the postures that are hard for us, we find the understanding that leads to mastery. That is working with things as they are." So what's wrong with desire, then? I think the answer is that desire leads to refusing to accept and connect with things as they are. And because of that, its self-defeating. With asana practice, desire tends to lead to injury, because it makes people push past real limits because we want so much to get to the goal.