Tuesday, May 22, 2012

I was a ten year old girl, and my vision had already jumped ahead to the footlights and applause of the talent show.  I knew I could do a tap dance, because I had taken a tap dancing class back in second grade.  By now, I had out-grown my little tap shoes, with the grosgrain ribbons across the top, so I told my mom I needed new tap shoes. High-heeled tap shoes, like the grown-up tap dancers wear.  My mom suggested that I do the audition in regular shoes, and then if I got accepted into the talent show she would buy me the high-heeled shoes.  No, I insisted: I needed the grown-up high-heeled tap shoes for the audition! I was sure if I had those shoes, I’d get a spot in the talent show.  Back then, they didn’t let just anybody into the talent show: you had to show some talent.

My mom was eventually compelled to buy the shoes.  Size 5.  On the day of the talent show auditions, I sat through a bunch of other acts, several of which included the song “Celebrate” by Kool & the Gang.  I don’t think I had prepared any music; I just strapped on my heels and went out on the stage, and ‘danced’.  It seemed to me I was dancing: my shoes were making taps and swishes and I jauntily moved my arms and grinned, and stomped and stepped. Then, after about 90 seconds, I had run out of moves.  I did a few last grand steps, in rapid succession, froze in a pose of humility (hearing applause in my head) and pride (soaking in the imagined adulation), and exited the stage.

Much to my surprise, I didn’t get a spot in the talent show.

I didn’t wear the tap shoes again.  In fact, I kind of forgot about the whole thing, until one day, about 30 years later, when I was about to teach a yoga class.  A Shadow Yoga class. Shadow Yoga asks students to gain some degree of mastery over simple movements, and to develop some ability to pay attention and focus, before moving on to complex or ‘advanced’ yoga poses and activities.  Without the foundation, the yoga practice will either be unsustainable, or will bear no results.

While it's not entirely accurate to compare my inept tapdancing with yoga practice, what is similar is that I was blind to whether or not I could really tap dance, and got a bit confused by the fact that I was on a stage, in my shoes, with an audience, and had just enough experience to draw from to make me feel confident.  The wake up call for me was that I didn't get the part. In yoga practice, the wake up call might be that you can't stand on your legs comfortably, or don't feel well.  Is your yoga practice serving you? Are you excessively identified with your image as a yoga practitioner or teacher? These are good questions to keep in mind.

It's helpful to approach practice with ‘beginner’s mind’, allowing space for new information and ideas to come in.  This is easy enough for a person who has never tried yoga, but sometimes a challenge if students try Shadow Yoga when they have experience with yoga in the past.  Experienced students have the challenge of already believing they ‘know’ about yoga and what it is.  The mind is quick to make comparisons and judgments.  For new and experienced practitioners alike, there’s also an impatience to get in there and do it: to approximate the images we’ve seen of headstands and impressive backbends, and feel like we’ve accomplished something.  Like the 10-year old me, sometimes people are caught up in the excitement, have the proper outfit, and just want to get out there and do it!  Like the 10-year old me, it can be hard to see yourself, and see that what you think you are doing, and what you are doing are very different things.

I thought I was tap dancing.  But looking back and knowing that my understanding was based on hearing my shoes wildly tapping and the confidence of having taken one Tap Dance Series when I was 7 years old…. I am pretty sure my performance was not very good, or effective.  I love that I was so confident, although 30 years later I know that confidence must be balanced with a foundation of basics, experience, and consistent applicaton, to lead to success.

When I didn’t get into the talent show, perhaps I realized that my background in the basics of tap dance was not strong, and I would have to go back and learn the steps before I could burst onto the stage and improvise. I abandoned tap dance altogether.

Likewise, the preludes, or basic vocabulary of Shadow Yoga, sometimes come to the seasoned yoga practitioner as an unpleasant surprise.  They reveal previously unrecognized weaknesses and blindspots which are undermining the entire pursuit.  Though it’s useful information, it can be demoralizing to realize that you may need to ‘backtrack’ or go back to being a bit of a beginner, again.

Sometimes we are blind to these situations, as I was when I thought I could tap dance.  The way to tell if we are not seeing things clearly is if we get the wrong result.  For instance, if I was as good a tap dancer as I thought I was, I should have gotten into my grade school talent show.   Being faced with not getting into the show, I was forced to take stock and see why my expectations didn’t match up with reality. In our lives, if some “therapeutic” activity is not helping us, or bearing fruit, perhaps we are either approaching it in the wrong way, misunderstanding it, or have missed part of the vital information.

Success with yoga requires a calm and steady attitude.  It takes patience and perseverance to cultivate focus and alertness at all times, and to be open and adaptable to every situation.  The preludes, and the conditioning that they entail, teach us to work gradually, be compassionate towards ourselves.   It’s not the end of the world if we realize we have a few holes in our abilities, in fact it is in those places of weakness that our potential power and strength may be found.  Likewise they are structured so that one movement builds upon the last, so that we may over time and with practice develop a very stable foundation for yoga practice.

A good friend of mine recently said "When you've named something, you've killed it," meaning that once you think you know about something, there's no room for learning.  As experienced yoga practitioners,  indeed with any pursuit, it's a challenge to set aside our understanding of things, to make room for new insight. It's the challenge of creating an open and receptive state of mind.  It might help to imagine you've never been to yoga class before, and notice when you rush through movements or asanas that are familiar, because you feel you already "know" what they are and what's involved.

In any case, whatever your practice, the state of mind with which you approach it is as important as the practice itself.  And maintaining that connection to an open mind, and maintaining a practice over time is a good plan for understanding, and a clear view of reality.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

My Yoga Practice, Before it was Yoga

My Yoga Practice, before it was Yoga

legs, steel sculpture by Lita. 1995

Jim cleaned up pretty good.  After I parked my truck on the dirt alongside his building, and climbed the stairs to the second floor to his apartment, I saw he’d put on a clean rugby shirt, and showed a noticeable absence of black grime in his creases and pores.  “I used Ajax,” he said.  “Yeh,” he said. “One day I forgot to replace the soap, and I was in the shower, and no soap, and … I used the Ajax instead!  Works good!”

We went out for sushi.  “They always remember me here,” he said, when we were seated in the restaurant, “because once the ceiling started leaking water, and I happened to be here, and I fixed it.” Besides that, I thought: who wouldn’t remember Jim?  He was huge, with calves the size of my thighs, a head the size of a melon, and had tattoos all over his arms, and a big silver ring in his nose.  Plus, he had this cockney accent.  I’d never heard an accent quite like his, except in movies that involved thick ladies, and old men in pubs, and priests and petty crime. He called feta cheese “FEH-UH”.

Actually there was something under-the-radar, and possibly criminal with Jim. He was in the country illegally, and he did his business in cash: metal fabrication for cheap.  He undercut the legitimate working artists, and they complained about it, but didn’t confront him, so far as I know.  Jim rented a small industrial building where he lived upstairs, and worked in the downstairs garage on European motocross bikes and motorcycles.  He also worked in a metalworking studio that I shared, along with four other artists.  He made steel furniture and stair railings and metalwork for restaurants and bars, which paid him in trade.  I’d picked him up at his place because he had lost, or couldn’t get, a drivers’ license.  He mentioned he’d seen a man shot in the head in Spain.

At the sushi restaurant, Jim told stories that were better just because of his accent and style of speaking.  He paid for my dinner, increasing my suspicion (which had begun with his cleanliness) that he considered this to be a date.  We went to see a movie: not our first.  We had gotten into the habit of seeing what he called, “hard man films”.  We both liked Hong Kong directors, and Action films. In the theater, he would suck from a massive cup of soda, straw in his mouth and his eyes delightedly on the screen.  He would turn towards me and nod enthusiastically after explosions, and chase scenes.   The night of the Japanese dinner, after I drove him back home, he popped out of the truck without hesitation, making me think maybe it wasn’t a date, after all.  The next day he was at the studio as usual, obliviously blasting an old Pogues cassette tape while grinding through several abrasive wheels, creating an incessant din and shower of sparks and metal particles.

Sometimes we’d take a break and sit outside the studio on an old bench, and have a paper cup of coffee from a stand down the street.  “What’re you doing with your life,” he’d say.  “You Americans. Twenty-seven years old and fooling around with this and that.  Not me.  I was making a man’s wages at the age of eighteen! In the shipyards!”  He pointed out that my metal sculpture could easily be converted into a more marketable lamps, or side tables.  Jim was practical.

Jim was trying to interest me in motorcycles.  He said he’d teach me to ride one.  “I have a nice little Italian bike at the shop,” he said.  “It’s like you: little with big parts.” Here he was referring to my big arm muscles; big for a 115-pound girl.  He was sitting in the office/entryway area of the shop, one tennis shod foot on the desk, pushing his bulk back into a creaking, tilting office chair.  Two kids, boys about ten years old, walked up and paused in the open doorway.  They came by about once each week, looking for work.  Jim would hand them brooms and metal dustpans, and send them out under the tables and behind the welders to clean up the sandy black piles of dirt that collected there from our grinding and cutting.  It was a task I wouldn’t do without a respirator mask, but I didn’t intervene as these children blackened their baby-pink lungs in Dickensian fashion.  Jim handed me a stack of eight quarters.  “Give these to the boys when they finish,” he said. “And stop by the shop on your way home.  I’ll show you the bike.”

I did stop by that night.  It was dark by then, and the big garage door was open, light glowing out in an otherwise dark and silent row of warehouses and industrial buildings.  When I went inside Emma, Jim’s dog, was lying on the floor, a bike was up on a table, and he was doing something with grease and bolts, nearby.  Another English guy was lounging in a plastic chair, smoking a cigarette.  Gina, a girl who rented a room in the building, was cleaning a leather suit she wore for side-car motocross, which is a sport where a team of two riders are on a motorcycle, one of them hanging off \of the side.  The one who hangs off the side does a lot more of the physical work of the ride, and is known as “the monkey.” She was little, but I was a bit in awe of the whole thing, and I mumbled a shy hello.  Jim directed me to the bike he’d wanted to show me.  It was made by whatever Italian company puts a big star on the body, between the handlebars and the seat.  I sat on it and pretended I was riding, as the three of them looked on.  Then they stopped paying attention and went back to their various occupations.  I got off the bike, and settled into a chair near the dog, who went on sleeping. 

“There’s chicken, if you’re hungry,” said Jim.  He gestured to some half eaten chicken, lying on paper, which was, in turn, lying on the seat of a motorcycle.  I wrinkled my nose.
“Where did you get it?” I asked.
“Texaco.” He said.  “Only place open around here.”
“Texaco!” I said.  I studied the chicken, as if he’d procured it from the moon, noting the greasy flesh and brownish bone; crumbles of fried batter on the skin.
“Want some juice?” asked Jim, after taking a swig from a plastic bottle full of bright blue liquid. It was the kind of “juice” sold in convenience stores. Or Texaco gas stations.
“Nah,” I said.  “I don’t drink that kind of stuff.”
“Why not?” he asked.  “It’s good.”
“I just don’t,” I said.
“Try it,” said Jim  “Try it and decide again.”

Nothing of this world has stuck with me.  I have lost touch with all five of my steel-working studio mates.  My welding skills are…rusty.  I have no idea what happened to Jim, and the warehouse where this took place is long gone.  The truck I was driving is gone.  My twenties and thirties are gone.  This was all years ago, and years ago.  But the one thing that has stuck with me is that phrase: “Try it and decide again.” 

Isn’t that the nature of yoga, to loosen our grip on who we think we are and what we think we believe?  To feel what it is in the present moment, to see where we are and see clearly what we are now, not what we were yesterday, or who we believe ourselves to be?
Our egos cling to every notion of what we like, and what we don’t like, and who we are.  Slowly we solidify into that idea of ourselves, and our options become smaller and fewer. That night in the garage, with the European motorcycles and gas station chicken, Jim offered me his blue juice, and he offered me a little freedom, where anything was possible.  Where I might decide I liked blue gas station soda. Where I might decide to ride a motorcycle and live above a garage.  Where I might decide I wasn’t a metalworker after all, I was going to travel around the world and study yoga.  At any moment, even now, especially now, you can say to yourself: Try it, and decide again.  Even if you embrace the same choices and things you’ve embraced before, if you truly try it, see things anew, and decide again, it will all be that much more alive and real.

Try it and decide again!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sometimes Inquiring Minds are hesitant to Ask!

A couple of months ago, I went to the doctor. I hadn’t been to the doctor in many years, for two reasons. The first reason is that I’ve been lucky enough to be healthy. The second reason is that our healthcare system seems very foreign to me, like it has nothing to do with me. I do have health insurance though, and since something had begun to bother me, and it seemed like it might be a medical problem, I thought I’d give modern medicine a chance.

At the office, the nurse took my temperature, blood pressure and weighed me. I changed into some laundered pyjama clothes, and stood alone in the examining room, examining the rubber tubes and metal tools hung on the wall. I gazed at an illustrated poster of someone’s insides. I considered the table with the paper cover. The doctor came in, and soon pronounced me to be the healthiest person she’d seen in months. At this point, I hadn’t mentioned what had been bothering me, and it occurred to me that I might like to NOT mention it, leave, and just see what happened. Maybe it would go away.

This inspiration sprang from my lack of trust, and faith, in the system at hand. Perhaps a little arrogance, because I know other modalities of healing and am predisposed to think I know better. Perhaps a little wishful thinking, as well. Would staying silent make the problem go away? No. Would I get any new information to consider? No. Was I testing my doctor to see if she could read my mind or magically ascertain why I had scheduled this visit? Maybe! After all, she’s a doctor and it’s her job to figure out what is wrong with me. Acknowledging these somewhat irrational viewpoints, I realized at that moment that I might as well talk to the doctor. To not do so would be a waste of the time it took to schedule an appointment and go to the clinic, disrespectful to the doctor who is sincerely using the system she has learned to help me, and a waste of an opportunity to get information.

It’s worthwhile to consider why we are doing things and what we expect to receive from them, which is what brings me to the topic of yoga class. I have sometimes had students who had quite a serious condition, but didn’t tell me about it either out of shyness, thinking they should follow the class and deal with it themselves, or not being aware of why they were in class or even why I was teaching class.

I teach yoga to assist with health, stability, awareness and personal growth. It's a system I've explored for 2 decades, and I know its value from direct experience. I am there because the people who come to my class are there. I can see many things from observing students, and often offer suggestions and modifications, or give an individual a personal practice, because this is the way hatha yoga works. The therapeutic qualities of the asanas will be effective when utilized at the right times and for the right person, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

I know from personal experience, as both a teacher and a student, that a student asking a question reveals at least two things: 1. That the student is aware of the issue and 2. That they’re looking for help with it.

When I am teaching and I see something amiss, or suspect an underlying condition, it is somewhat an invasion of that person’s privacy to bring it up; therefore in many cases I must wait to be asked for advice, or wait until a lot of time and experience with that student have allowed me to know them better. Asking a question is an opportunity for a student and teacher to get to know each other more quickly, and to establish trust. As a student, I have found that with trust in your teacher, you will be able to apply what they suggest and benefit from it. Without trust it doesn’t matter how famous or great that teacher is, or the quality of their advice: the advice won’t be taken in. To some degree, this was the case with my visit to the doctor: I arrived with a mis-trust of the system, and by extension the doctor trained in that system, and so I kept whatever advice she gave me at a distance, skeptical and hesitant to integrate it into myself.

Yoga was traditionally taught to one student at a time. A student would come to a teacher, and the teacher would offer some suggestions and the student would go away and work with those suggestions. The process of working with the material, and integrating it, is crucial. At first, the information is alien and outside of oneself. With practice, one may integrate the knowledge, and it is blended with each of our unique backgrounds and existing knowledge.

As Zhander Remete states in his book Shadow Yoga: “Theoretical information should be digested until it feels as if the information has sprung forth and grown from within one’s own self. Practice and theory will then be one inseparable living knowledge manifesting as wisdom and action at all times.”

Asking questions, staying alert, closely observing oneself, and maintaining an open, inquiring attitude will greatly speed up the process of learning in yoga, and your benefit from it. I have made the mistake of allowing months or even years to go by before working up the courage or humility to ask a simple question. I encourage you, if you are serious about yoga, to ask: find a trustworthy source and ask whatever you are curious about. The worst that will happen is that you’ll get information that doesn’t resonate with you, and that you discard.

Wishful thinking, ignoring pain, waiting for your teacher (or doctor!) to read your mind will usually not work. Asking questions and looking into why you’re doing things and who you are can only support your life journey, because time in this life is short, and we are here now.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Freedom within form, or: a bruised leg.

Most people instinctively realize that the danger involved in spiritual advancement is the danger of personality extinction.

I had a shocking injury last summer. Since then, I’ve had more acute interest in how wounds heal and, by extension, the connective tissues of the body, and by extension, the ahamkara, a part of consciousness that holds us together.

I said “shocking” injury, because it was the worst injury that I can remember having; there are definitely worse things that could happen, and so in the grand scheme it was not that bad. It was, however, a shock.

I had a fall, from a ladder, onto a post. In an instant, I spun in the air and landed balanced on the tube-like end of a four-foot galvanized steel pipe, which was part of a chain link fence. The part of my body that balanced on the pipe was the back of my thigh. Within a few days, a very large bruise had developed.

I don’t believe in accidents, and whatever I had done up until this point and the factors playing upon me were thankfully not so inauspicious. I mean, it could’ve been worse. I didn’t break my leg, or tear my hamstring, or any number of other possibles. (For a great discussion on Fate or Free Will, and how to mitigate the fateful events hurtling towards each of us, see Robert Svoboda’s transcribed talk: “Fate Or Free Will” in the Fall 2006 Issue of Namarupa magazine.)

(Some very general information: if you suffer a strong blow which is likely to cause internal bleeding and bruising, you’re supposed to lie as still as possible for a couple of days. Ice the area for 10 minutes at a time, every hour or couple of hours. If possible, elevate the area above your heart. There are nutrients that support the healing of tissues, like iron, which is found in pumpkin seeds, sardines, and spinach, among other foods.)

I didn’t lie still, because I didn’t know any better, but I did ice the area, even before I dared to take off my shorts and look at it. It was pretty ugly, and took a couple of months to look better.

I get little bruises quite often. The dinner-plate-sized, black/purple/red/yellow multi-colored, swollen situation on my thigh seemed to be in an entirely different category, so I thought: “Is there a name for a bruise like this?” Well, yes: there are various words: contusion, lesion, hematoma… that last one still makes me cringe as it means a big internal collection of blood that is created by a broken blood vessel. Still makes me cringe? Several months later? Yes: we could consider this a not-too-serious example of an emotional scar. As I lay in bed, the nights after this injury, as ridiculous as this sounds even to me, at times I worried that I might die. A friend “helpfully” suggested I might have gangrene. Rationally, I did not think so, but it's an alarming concept when it does kind of look like your thigh is rotting from the inside out, and the appearance gets worse by the hour. Isn’t it true that it’s the unknowns in life that are most frightening?

The things that make us uncertain, frightened, anxious, are also things that challenge our ahamkara, or sense of ourselves. The quotation at the beginning of this blog post, "Most people instinctively realize that the danger involved in spiritual advancement is the danger of personality extinction" is from Robert Svoboda’s book, Prakriti. Svoboda describes our individuality as being an expression of Ahamkara (“I-ness”). This is that part of our consciousness that gives us a sense of ourselves: the ego. Once at a lecture with Svoboda, I heard him say, “Most of the cells in our body are of alien origin”. I immediately started daydreaming about extra-terrestrial life and our outer space friends, but much later realized that he was only saying that we are, physically, a collection of trillions of cells. Some of those agree to be “us” and some are just along for the ride, and some have an agenda other than being part of the “me” of each of us. As long as most of the cells are working cooperatively as one human organism, things proceed; but when too many cells follow other plans, the result is not so harmonious. This leads, on a physical level, to disease; on a psychological level to mental illness. This is an example of weak ahamkara.

Iyengar, on the ahamkara, says: Singularity of body requires singularity of awareness. Imagine a car with two independent steering wheels and two drivers. it would never stay on the road. Self locomotion necessitates a single "I" awareness linked through mind, senses, and body to the environment that provides food, air and water.

It is the ahamkara that allows us to operate in the world, with a sense of who we are and what we need and want to do. The ahamkara which has qualities of both rigidity and fluidity, is essential for our mental and physical health. However, the rigid aspect of ahamkara can undermine change and growth. Why so rigid? It's self-preservation, and misunderstanding. Iyengar also compares the ahamkara to the filament of a lightbulb, which believes itself to be the source of light. In reality, electricity is the source of light. Just so, our ego/ahamkara believes itself to be our true self, although there are more fundamental aspects of our consciousness, which give life to the ego. Blind to these deeper supports, and acting out of self-preservation, the ego recoils from activities that may question it’s permanence. Examples of these challenges are: yoga, the prospect of death, and even relationships, where one’s views and understanding of oneself are called into question.

We all know a few people who are stuck, but cannot move ahead because they’re paralyzed by fear of the unknown. In this (simpler) case I found myself in an unfamiliar situation, and was unnerved by the not-knowing. I noticed that the initial shock was also paralyzing, so that I could take little action until some time had passed. This is a logical way that the body and mind protects us: giving us space and preventing us from making choices until we have recovered our sense of ourselves, after a sudden incident. Unfortunately, for some this feeling of being stuck, or paralyzed, is overactive, perhaps due to long-held scars and fears. I'm saying that it takes a balance, between reasonable stability and reasonable looseness, to be a healthy person.

On the subtle level, it is the ahamkara that contains the shape of our individuality, sanity, and ability to function. Simultaneously, just like with scar tissue or physical inflexibility, becoming inflexible or fixed in our personalities and behavior can prevent us from growth, movement and freedom in our lives.

Getting back to the physical, connective tissue is the most pervasive part of the body. “Connective tissue” is that which divides us up into sections, and both holds together the whole of and holds apart pieces of the body. Because of the segmented effect of separating the different areas of the body with connective tissue, disease or infection can be contained. (Like in the movies on the space ship when they have to run from an alien and close off that part of the ship) Because of the unity of the connective tissue, action on one small part of the body affects the whole, (Like if you catch one corner of your sweater on a nail, if you walk away it pulls the whole sweater.)

Connective tissue knits us together, and if we are cut or injured, cells of collagen surge to the area and knit it together, forming an extra strong suture to hold together those tissues that were torn apart, until they can cohere again. The scar that forms results from tissue building a quick bridge until the normal tissues have time to grow and heal. The scar is not as artful as our ‘normal’ tissues, because it’s a rush job. (They say that in connective tissue, collagen fibers usually form a ‘basket-weave’ pattern (left), but in the case of a scar it’s more like many strands lying parallel, across the wound, forming a hard, dense suture. Scar tissue is flatter and has no hair follicles, which may be one reason it tends to feel different and be itchy.)

As the tissues heal, massaging the scarred area for 2-3 minutes a couple of times per day can help to reduce the scarring, because it will help break down that mass of collagen. I was told by a friend to “get some Mederma, or you’ll have a huge scar.” Mederma, as it turns out, is a mass-market cream for scars. I made a rare trip to the drug store (this injury was spurring all sorts of new conversations, and visits to alien places!) and came to the conclusion that it was the rubbing and movement, not the “Mederma”, that was doing most of the scar-reducing work. (the labels of all the creams said “massage into scar for 2-3 minutes.”) Massage and movement help to reduce stagnation, and keep circulation and energy moving in an injured area. (So no, I didn’t get the Mederma.)

In a short post a few months ago, I shared a video of Gil Hedley, who talks about “fuzz”, the sticky, fibrous tissue also falls into the category of connective tissue: fascia and “fuzz” hold the various parts of our body in place, in fact sheathe every part of our inner anatomy so that if all the other flesh and organs were removed, our shape and that of all our parts would still be visible. When, through lack of movement, these tissues stagnate, they grow thicker and more substantial, almost like a scar. Movement is gradually inhibited, and we begin to solidify into a more fixed form. While we do need some cohesion, to have a shape and inner support, but too much cohesion binds us into a restricted shape, where our movement is reduced, and eventually disease can develop, aside from the fact that we may also feel stiff and uncomfortable.

It’s easy to imagine how a thick and fibrous scar could inhibit movement, and that it might be a good idea to minimize the scar tissue as well as you can.

It is to our advantage to move, and do so daily. You know the stiff feeling you might get in the morning? In this video clip, Gil Headley says you have the impulse to stretch because it slides your muscles and tissues around a bit, and helps to break up newly formed “fuzz” as he calls it, within our body.

As for our psychological state, we are, to a necessary degree, always "stuck in a rut". We have habits, and routines, which form the structure of our lives, just as the connective tissue forms the structure of our bodies. Routine and habit allow us to expend less energy figuring out what to do, because we already have a basic working template. But when routine and habit are no longer serving us, some movement, and effort is called for to bring movement to the stuck areas and to form new, more supportive habits.

The shock of an injury or sudden change can cause an emotional scar, which will affect behavior in the future as we try to avoid something similar happening. However, if the risks and dangers we imagine are not really there, it is only going to waste our energy to avoid them, and only going to imprison us in self-limiting behaviors. One of the foundations of starting the path of yoga is to begin to see clearly, to dispense with wasting our energy on imaginary dangers and taking action based on incorrect understanding. Yoga is wisdom in action when we are able to see clearly, adapt accordingly, and proceed intelligently. Through understanding the balance between our little self, and it's necessary cohesion in order to have a vehicle in this world, and the "big" self which pervades this little self, we may proceed with less fear, and more trust in not just our own egotistical constructs, but also in the self which is untouched by the fluctuations of life.

It is this underlying formless form that gives us the resiliency to live, and to make our form, though we may be blind to this source of our power, just as the lightbulb filament is "blind" to the electricity that illuminates it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Eradicating pain

Yoga practice has discomfort within it, but one that is “practiced”. You enter into the practice, and the practice is mostly under your control, unlike the day-to-day world, in which all sorts of unexpected variables are at play, within and without you. Yoga practice allows us a controlled environment in which to observe our experiences, reactions, and sensations.

One of the sensations that invariably comes up is discomfort or pain. Any yoga practitioner will feel discomfort in the practice: a challenge in the beginning is simply discerning the difference between 1. discomfort, and 2. pain which is causing damage. Once you can tell the difference, you have to be vigilant so as not to go beyond your limits, from discomfort into pain.

To revisit briefly something I mentioned in my last post, all pain can be attributed to the five Klesha, as described in Patanjali’s yoga sutra. The fifth Klesha, abhinivesa, is the fear of death. This includes all fear: fear that we’ll feel pain, that we’ll be hurt, that we’ll face an unpleasant situation, that someone is lurking in the closet, that we’ll die. The literal meaning of the Sanskrit word, abhinivesa, is “that which completely covers the interior”. Could it be said that fear, and the sensations we fear and thus avoid, completely obscure our view of our interior, our essential selves, and our ability to feel free?

What to do if we are confronted by pain, or even the prospect of pain, which elicits fear and keeps us from connecting with ourselves and others in an authentic way? BKS Iyengar suggests that there are two options. The first is to live with the pain forever. For instance, if when you do a particular asana, you feel uncomfortable (slight pain), one way to deal with it is to not do the asana, or to move in such a way that you always avoid the shape that creates the sensation. The pain remains: any time you return to that shape, you will feel it again.

We have all experienced this in the patterns of our own behavior, or in relationships with others: each time you find yourself in a particular situation, it is uncomfortable, and you may, in a relationship for instance, move away from that situation, but then eventually it comes back, and you find yourself experiencing the same thing again, in exactly the same way.

One option available to us is to continue in these same patterns forever. The downside is that this route will cause further samskara (repetitive behavior) as we habitually avoid the painful area/situation, re-experience it, avoid it, etc, digging a deeper and deeper groove of habitual behavior we ‘can’t help’ sliding into.

The other option BKS Iyengar suggests is to work with the pain, and endure it as you experience it, to the point where you can possibly eradicate it. This may take time, patience, and initially more energy than avoiding the pain, but by freeing that area, you will also free yourself from the avoidance/pain cycle, and having to dedicate energy and attention to it. You may be free of that pain, and free of that pattern.

In this type of endeavor, we must work gradually, changing habits slowly so that we don’t take on too much at once or cause damage or shock to the system. Respect your own limits, but visit them regularly, and the things that seem impossible today may seem just difficult tomorrow. The things that seem very uncomfortable today may not raise a reaction in the future. In some ways it is a matter of acceptance and familiarity. As we accept what we have to work with, and get to know ourselves intimately, things are not so alarming because there are not so many unknowns. We can look at ourselves clearly, accept what needs to be done, and slowly work at it, bit by bit.

If we work with something for awhile, yet we find ourselves unable to unravel a pain or solve a problem, again we are confronted with the choice Iyengar suggests: live with it, or address it. When pain is deeply rooted, or difficult to get perspective on, we may need help. Again, the same choice: 1. admit the problem is bigger than you are able to deal with alone (seeing it clearly) and seek help (from a teacher, counselor, doctor, or guide) or 2. To continue cycling through your cycle of pain, avoidance, now joined by frustration and arrogance, alone. Of course you may be able to avoid the particular posture/situation/dynamic that causes the pain, nevertheless it is still there.

This all sounds like a good plan, until the moment we are confronted with a difficult sensation, at which point we might freak out and flee the scene. If that happens, wait until you've regained your composure and try again.

On this new moon day, I hope we all have the patience to accept ourselves, fortitude to endure discomfort, courage and resources to find help when we need it, and that we may find freedom, love and peace.

(referred to here was BKS Iyengar: “Find Comfort Even in Discomfort. … It is not just yoga that is causing all this pain; the pain is already there. It is hidden. We live with it or have learned not to be aware of it. It is as if your body is in a coma. When you begin yoga, the unrecognized pains come to the surface. When we are able to use our intelligence to purify our bodies, then the hidden pains are dispersed. As long as there is tightness in the body and mind, there is no peace. Internal mistakes such as forcing, acting without observing, tightening the throat, blocking the ears, create habits, and these habits create lack of awareness, constriction, heaviness, imbalance, pain. There are only two ways to confront pain: to live with the pain forever or to work with the pain and see if you can eradicate it.”

Light on Life, page 49. BKS Iyengar.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Yoga and the NYT: to quit, just hope for the best, or proceed with confidence? (!)

Today a yoga student of mine told me that she was afraid to practice yoga, after reading the New York Times’ article of January, 2012 entitled “Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”.

What if, after years of practice, her body began to fall apart, or she came down with a strange malady (or a common one)? It’s a good question to consider, since we are all likely to come down with various maladies and problems, regardless of how we spend our time. But which maladies, and why?

In a broad sense, since we are all going to fall to pieces and eventually die, why the fuss? Why the article? One thing is eventually going to wreck the body; if not yoga, then gardening, or snowboarding, running, smoking, overeating, stress, or accident. Our bodies last for a limited time. But, as my yoga teacher has said, “If I’m going to die for the same reasons as the person who spent every night of his life at the pub, why did I do all this yoga?”

The common assumption is that that yoga is “good for us” and that yoga makes us more vital and healthy. In the first paragraph of the Times article, the author says he naively believed that yoga was “only a source of healing, and never harm.”

How could this be? For instance, medicine is a science designed to help us. Is it always a source of healing and never harm? Only when practiced in the right way. Even then, only when God and the people involved have the good luck and right treatments to heal. It’s the same with yoga. We have a science that can be used to support health. It’s also a science designed to support health so that we have a foundation to transcend our current absorption in our perceived individuality and know more about our nature and spirit. But this is only possible with good knowledge, good application, and good fortune. Some say that it is good fortune to have the time, space and ability to practice yoga at all. To take it a step further, it is good fortune to be able to practice yoga and to find good guides, at the right times, to help minimize missteps and misperceptions. For this we need instinct, sharp perception, knowledge, help and faith.

It’s just silly to think that yoga will always help and never harm, so we need to reflect upon why and how we are approaching the practice, what the practice itself is, why it is that way, and what we can do about it.

In the article in the Times, writer William J. Broad, claims that many long-time practitioners and teachers are physically compromised by injuries, diseases, and conditions exacerbated by years of yoga practice. (I thought it odd that he went back to cases in the early 1970's for examples, that he used as an example a teacher who was performing for a camera crew when she got injured, but anyway--)

Yoga teacher Glenn Black is described as telling some of his students to give it up and not practice yoga at all. I think Black is doing students a favor when he sees that someone is going to face tremendous challenges if they are to continue with yoga: the biggest challenge a practitioner of yoga faces is to see themselves clearly, find their arrogance and ignorance, and change long-ingrained habits of behavior, thinking, and movement. Even if we recognize something that is not serving us, and know that we would like to change, we all know that it is sometimes a nearly impossible task.

Yet that is the project at hand! Patanjali, who compiled the Yoga Sutras some 2,000 years ago, is said to have created three texts: one on grammar so that people could communicate, a text on medicine to support health, and the Yoga Sutras to address our psychology and spirit. As humans, we have a physical body, mind, emotions, spirit, and intellect. Each of these facets affects the others, so the yoga practice we do is a way to see physical manifestation of the more subtle layers of ourselves. The way we behave shapes our body, and the way we think shapes our movement, for instance.

On the same note, how we behave, and the habits we carry into the practice of yoga will be amplified: if problems arise, they are likely not caused by yoga, they are caused by what we've unintentionally brought with us: the habits and approaches so much a part of us that they are often invisible to us. This is what the practice is bringing to light. This is why you must be alert. Some of the 'problems' are reflections of our own habits, and when they are small and minor it is our chance to alter them, and mitigate any unfortunate effects. (This is a best case scenario sort of idea.)

Glenn Black says, “Today many schools of yoga are just about pushing people. You can’t believe what’s going on—teachers jumping on people, pushing and pulling and saying ‘You should be able to do this by now.’ It has to do with their egos.” He’s talking about the teacher’s ego! Students of yoga are lucky when they are unaware of the battles and pettiness we yoga teachers go through. At our “worst”, we feel insecure when our classes are small, we find ourselves becoming invested in the “performance” of our students, we compare ourselves with other teachers, and what we teach against other styles. I’ve seen teachers become proud at their students’ accomplishments in yoga, and take it personally when students “disappear” from their classes. I've been that teacher. And, as a teacher, I try to be conscious of these ego-based feelings, and recognize them. I endeavor to keep my focus on the needs of students, rather than my own, and to teach simple, useful things that I believe in because they’ve been useful for me.

For teachers, there are financial and ego-based motivations for teaching and for attracting students. I know that students get excited by trying and accomplishing new things. When I taught vinyasa yoga in the first few years of teaching, I definitely collected yoga ‘tricks’ which were possible, but impressive, and would stir the enthusiasm of students. A good teacher will not be personally invested in your “successes” in yoga, but will guide you in good faith, with detachment and compassion, and all of the knowledge they have. With an inexperienced or egotistical teacher, the student has to realize that they have not only their own ego to keep in check, but that of their teacher.

Ego (which gives rise to pride and arrogance), in both the student and the teacher, is just one of the klesha (causes of suffering) described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. The others, briefly, are:

  1. Avidya: Wrong or incorrect knowledge. Is what we perceive accurate? This is the mother of all challenges in life. If we could correctly and clearly perceive the world around us and within us, we would always know the best thing to do, the best action to take. However (as I was saying above), the human condition is that our perception is always distorted. We are individuals perceiving through our own personal lens of past experience, hopes and expectations, fears and etc. The purpose of yoga is to help clean the lens so that, in this case, we can choose a good teacher, appropriate practices, clearly see what is going on as we practice, exercise good judgement, and proceed with confidence.
  2. Asmita: Ego (mentioned above). Necessary for sanity and a sense of self in our world, with the downside of selfishness and greed, excessive self-preservation.
  3. Raga and Dvesa: Attachment and Aversion: Again, due to our personal preferences, culture, and experience, we are drawn to some things and have an aversion to others. In the context of yoga practice, do you avoid certain postures just because you find them unpleasant or difficult? Do you return with gladness to certain other postures because you can do them so well? Everyone does this. But again, with discernment and knowledge, we can have a practice that includes the work that is best for us, whether we like it or not.
  4. Abhinivesa: Fear. Fear that some harm will come to us, that we will fail, be embarrassed, have to face challenges, or fall short are obstacles that cause us suffering. Not to mention the fear of death itself, which brings up again our ego attachment and love for this life experience. Yet we will all die, all fall apart, and experience illness and pain.

As with any tool, yoga practice can be used inappropriately, and harm may come to either the tool, or what it is used upon, or both. A metaphor: Imagine using your nice kitchen chef’s knife to make a dugout canoe. First of all, the knife is the wrong tool for the job. It will be very inefficient in reaching the goal, the canoe may not turn out very well, and the knife itself will likely be ruined. It could be said that something like this has happened to the tool of yoga: yoga asana has become an exercise, a reason for the marketing of props and clothing, a fad, and a diversion. Many of us are proud of being a 'yoga practitioner' and identified with our yoga stuff and yoga lifestyle. Yoga asana was intended as one facet of a broader practice, which was not intended to be a practice with mass appeal. That said, general, simple activities are good for maintaining health and well being; advanced practices may not be appropriate for every person or every life. The article in the Times is a good reminder to be aware of what you’re doing, where it comes from, and why you’re doing it. And even when you've been working with sincerity and the best of intentions, to be alert and ready to admit small mistakes before they become big ones.

Ego drives teachers to teach beyond their means, practioners to practice beyond their capabilities. Time invested compounds our attachment to our practices. For those of us with years, or decades invested in practice, we would hesitate to give it up, considering time already invested. My high school ceramics teacher was one of the greatest teachers of my life. John Kantar was among the kindest, most dedicated teachers I’ve known, and used ceramics as a tool to teach us about history, the earth, and how to be a good person. Mr. Kantar is a very wise man. He told me that he took stock of his life every year, and gave himself the opportunity to give up what he was doing and choose a different path. It takes a lot of courage to even consider starting again, to leave the familiar for something more suitable. What's suitable may be to delve deeper into what you have begun, and it may not.

When I began the practice of yoga, I thought it was about one thing, and over time, there have been many occasions when I thought: “this is not at all what I thought it was.” These were moments when I looked at my new understanding, and decided to keep going. I believe that I was na├»ve, and that my first understandings were superficial, and the more I learn about yoga, the more interested I am in it (so far!).

For our own good, we need to find teachers and sources of information that we trust and stay alert. We need to practice discernment, and vigilance, to see where we are, and what we need to do, and be courageous as we proceed.