Sunday, December 28, 2003

I’ve drowsed through the last few days. To recap: naps, sleeping, reading, movies, yoga.

I took another yoga field trip with a friend yesterday. We practiced at Yoga Works (or Yoga Place, I can’t remember which) in Laguna Beach. I know, I know: it was Saturday, which is usually my off day, but I figured, why not check out a new place?

The studio was much more typical of modern Western yoga studios than Tim’s – there was retail space in front, and several separate studio rooms in back. You can’t begrudge a yoga studio for trying to stay in business, but it’s still a bit of culture shock, after having practiced at Tim’s for a while.

Suzie was the woman running the Mysore room, which began at 6:30. It was a nice space: hardwood floors and low lighting, so low I could barely make out the features of the people across from me.

The most unnerving detail of the room, though: no pictures, drawings, or decorations of any sort on the walls – they were barren. It gave the room a closed-in, box-like feeling.

I imagine the studio’s owners wanted to be as “non-denominational” as possible, and want the place as icon-free as possible. But surely some photos of asanas wouldn’t hurt?

Practice was excellent, as per usual. I sampled cappuccino prior to practicing, but I was pretty tired from lack of sleep the night before, so it didn’t really take effect.

(It’s strange that no one ever mentioned to me that cappuccino tastes like utter shite. When you’re a kid, you imagine all the adult drinks taste really great: beer, wine, coffee, espresso. And then you get older and drink coffee – which always smelled so good! – and you discover it’s absolute crap. What’s all this about “acquired taste”? Cheated again!)

Suzie is a brilliant adjuster. Chiefly, I noticed she gives long adjustments, which really lets you breathe and relax into a posture.

This morning, I opted for chai before practice. Mistake! The dairy in the chai put up a pretty good fight in my stomach for the first half of practice before my digestive process gained the upper hand.

But, as per usual for Sundays, it was good – the late start time (10:00) and heat gives my body time to warm up and really start moving – I felt like I could push into handstand from padmasana.

My friend Sherrie said to me after class: “Were those your hips I heard when Tim was adjusting you baddha konasana?” She was almost 10 feet away from during practice. Regretfully, I said yes.

In baddha konasana, Tim uses gravity and his considerable body weight to squash me; the adjustment is usually accompanied by the sound of grinding sand, which emanates from the area between my legs. He’ll usually say something like “Resistance is futile,” or “Moksha is coming.”

After several breaths of increasing relaxation, my knees and face hit the floor, and then I can even extend outward. At some point, though, I’m hoping I can start generating the movement on my own. There's still a strong lump of resistance percolating in my hips.

I always wonder on Sundays: who in here is sweating off a hangover?

After class, at St. Germain’s (Only the best smoothie spot in Southern California. Check into the Local’s Lunch – it’s got almonds), I ran into Melissa, a woman who’s been practicing at Tim’s for a while. She attends Yale or Princeton (I forget which), and only visits Encinitas during summer or holiday breaks.

Unfortunately her mom, her sole reason to visit California, has moved back to the East Coast. She has no reason to come out here anymore.

“I’m still going to come to Encinitas, though,” she said. “It’s just that Tim’s so, y’know … incredible. I’ll always try to come back.”

Very true.

Friday, December 26, 2003

Woke at 4:45 this morning to gale-force winds and the roar of the pounding surf. It had rained most of yesterday and this morning. The glass window above the studio’s front door had blown shut and was half-shattered, with glass covering the sidewalk. The studio’s back door had been open for a few hours while it was raining -- the carpet was soaked with water and gave off a slight mildew smell. I guess it’s winter in Encinitas.

Tim was back today. He seemed pretty happy to be home, although he didn’t say much, as per usual. He contracted a cold on the flight home, so pranayama was mellower than normal. The retentions were short, although he still used his patented six-hour-long inhales and exhales. Man, Tim’s breath is like a slow leak from a big tire. It just takes forever and ever to get anywhere.

He ended pranayama early to get to what I suspect he really treasures: kirtan. I figure he missed it the entire time he was in India.

He has such an electric presence in the studio. You can tell people had genuinely missed him, and were glad he had returned. For his part, he too seemed really glad to be home.

Asana practice was brilliant. It is Friday, after all, and for some reason my practice is very strong and light at the end of the week. Plus I had fasted for two days, which may have had something to do with my lightness.

By practice's end, I was forced to abandon my usual spot by the heater. The mildew smell was too strong, and I had to get away. It occured to me that our studio is in a rather run-down and dilapidated shell of a building. Like so many other Encinitas buildings from the '60s and '70s, it's not built to handle any temp below 60-degrees, or any weather other than sunny and mild.

After attempting a three-day fast (over Christmas, nonetheless), I’m going on record to say that fasting sucks. By sucks, I mean that it is very, very challenging. That first day was murder. I’ve discovered that I not only like to eat, I LOVE it. Rather dearly.

But I guess that’s the point.

Monday, December 22, 2003

Sheepishly, I must admit to a total yoga-nerd weekend. On Saturday night, a friend and I crashed at another friend’s house up in Orange County. That night, we ate Indian food and rented a movie. Very, very low-key.

It was really fun to hang out with two people I’ve met through yoga — there was none of the displacement I usually feel when I’m out with friends. I really felt a sense of belonging.

It’s hard to come to grips with the fact that ultimately I’m not as interested in partying and socializing as I used to be. What part of that comes from my practice, and what comes from a natural hermetic tendency? It’s all too easy to shutter the windows, bar the door, and stay in for the night — every night.

On Sunday, we rose at 6. I was up a little earlier, because I was sleeping on the couch. The couch was shorter than I was, so it had been a fitful night, accompanied by a feeling of being perpetually short-sheeted. I showered. Someone made a coffee run, so I fueled up on espresso. We all climbed into the car and headed for LA. Tim’s been gone for a few weeks, so we opted to practice at Noah Williams’ and Kim Flynn’s studio in Silverlake, LA.

We arrived at quarter to 8. The space is tucked upstairs in a strip mall. There’s no sign, either on the door or the main sign out front. The room is small, and maybe holds 20 or 25 people. It’s a great place to practice. The room has hardwood floors and a very efficient central heating system. The walls are yellow-orange; one side has two large prints of Guruji, and another has a small altar with a photo of Vishnu and a statue of Hanuman.

Noah was in savasana when we arrived, and Kim was finishing her practice, so I didn’t get to talk to them. They knew one of my friends from Mysore, and I’m sure Noah would recognize me from Tim’s; he and Kim had just been down to Encinitas over Thanksgiving. From what I gather, they don’t generally take drop-ins, but I figured it would be okay to just start practicing.

I knew from the first forward bend that it was going to be a spectacular practice. My nauli was incredible — when it really works, it’s like an airtight vacuum-seal and everything I’ve ever read about prana and apana suddenly makes absolute sense. I felt incredibly open, and was vibrating from the combination of caffeine and intent. After all, we’d woken at 6 and driven over an hour just to be here.

So my practice was incredible. Noah’s and Kim’s is traditional ashtanga, so none of us practiced Tim’s little embellishments, i.e. hanumanasana and samakonasana after prasarita paddhatonasana, or vrksasana between navasanas. I was feeling rather energetic, though, and after the fifth navasana I pushed up and through into vrksasana — it felt like I was light as a feather, and a string pulled me up. That’s never happened before.

I also got the best single adjustment in supta kurmasana I’ve ever received. I was face-down on the floor, and Noah came over and pulled my legs together like he was tying a giant knot. It was a very firm adjustment, the most firm I’ve ever gotten. For some reason, I have to move very deeply into that pose to actually work into it. Noah just has a strong touch. It was incredible.

Back bends were exceptional, too. For the final backbend, Noah weighted down into the tops of my knees/thighs, and said, “Don’t lift your head until you’ve stood up.” I rocked back and forth three times, and on the third time curled upright. I believe “Wow, thanks” was all I could say.

After practice, we all compared notes — apparently, everyone had received fantastic adjustments in supta kurmasana. The two ladies I was with, who are practicing second series, had each had some intense help with kapotasana from Kim.

She had not let them put their heads onto the floor. “Once your head touches, that’s it,” I heard her say. So the girls would lean back, drop their hands to floor, and grab their feet without putting their heads on the floor.

At this point, Kim would grab the girls’ hands and put them on their heels. This was accompanied by a panicked gasp or groan from each. It sounded very intense. But each grabbed their heels and put their heads on the soles of their feet. Wow.

One of my friends says that kapotasana is one of the most intense poses in yoga because it reduces you to a state of total and absolute vulnerability; you become vulnerable in a way that every strand of DNA in your body is encoded to resist. You’re totally backwards, your airflow is restricted, and your heart and chest are totally exposed. It’s rather intense, and that’s without the energy that shoots directly up your spine when you come out of it.

The most incredible part of yesterday’s practice: the sense of wellbeing, lightness, and equanimity from the morning practice, which ended at 9:30, carried over the entire day.

So with the highs, there must be lows. I was a little apprehensive about this morning’s practice, because I knew there was no way it would be as good as yesterday’s. Coming from a super-heated room, where I practiced later than usual in the day, and after I’d been awake for hours and was hopped up on caffeine — I knew I was in for it.

The first surya namaskar felt a little weird, in the sense that my muscle memory was still tuned to yesterday. But I adjusted quickly, and the rest of the practice flowed smoothly. It was a little less frenetic than yesterday’s, but equally as rewarding. By the end I was pretty beat, and entertained the idea of skipping dropbacks. I persevered, though. I only did six backbends, then did dropbacks. They weren’t that great, but it’s coming along.

I did try to push up into vrksasana from sitting: no go. But the battle is won, because I know I can do it.

I wonder how this week is going to be at the shala? Today was semi-crowded. It is a holiday week, after all, so I’m expecting a lot of the evening class people to start attending in the morning. Also, the family people start attending in the morning, too, because they don’t have to be at work, or get the kids up for school.

Tim’s back in class on Friday, although apparently he gets in tomorrow. The studio is closed Tuesday and Thursday, however, so that’s two days off this week! Practically a holiday.

After Tuesday, I have 10 days off work. I love getting up, practicing, and then heading home or to the smoothie shop. Hustling off to work right after is not high on my list of favorite things. I do have to do a bit of writing, but I’m taking my laptop home. I figure if I put in two hours a day for two or three days, I should be able to get it all done. It’ll keep me motivated during break, too.

Also, I bummed a juicer off a friend. Even though Hatha Yoga Pradipika advises against fasting, I’m taking the next few days’ rest to try out a three-day juice fast. “The intelligent want self-control; children want candy.” Someone e-mailed me that quote. We’ll see if I can make it, and how practice on Wednesday is affected. I’m hoping for an incredible sense of lightness and increased spinal flexibility, in addition to the release of the so-called “toxins.”

Friday, December 19, 2003

The attrition rate in pranayama class increases as Tim’s India trip hits the two-week mark. There were only four people in class, including myself.

I think Mark, who’s filling in for Tim, is working with reduced inhale, exhale, and retention times, because I managed to keep up through the entire series — which is the first time I’ve ever done so. There were a couple slips, but otherwise the series seemed way more manageable, somehow.

Mark uses a watch, and measures out the length of inhales, exhales and retentions using the seconds hand. I haven’t started counting time yet, so I don’t know if and when he varies the length of the counts. Is there an arbitrary number that he and Tim both use?

Tim brings an analog watch and sets it in front of him during pranayam, ostensibly to mark time. But there’s no way he could be using it for that, because we’re there before the sun is up. It’s really, really dark for a solid 20 minutes.

I asked a woman who’s been practicing pranayama about it. “I think Tim just breathes until he hears the rest of us struggling,” she said. “That’s how he sets the length of breath, because otherwise he could just keep going and going.“

Asana practice afterwards was good, but slow. I lacked an energetic spark. More yin than yang? I had coffee Wednesday and Thursday before practice, but not today. I’ve also not been getting enough sleep.

(On Wednesday, I saw the new Lord of the Rings movie after work, which meant I didn’t climb into bed until midnight. Last night was another company holiday party and an 11 p.m. bedtime. Because I get up at 5, two “wild” nights like those have utterly bushwacked me.)

So it was a mellow practice. I only did six backbends. Regardless, my back felt great. I really am getting a sense that my hip flexors, shoulders, and back are gradually opening. I believe Tim has given me several of the initial poses in second series, up to bekasana, in order to help my urdhva dhanurasana, and it really seems to be working.

Before bekasana, we do vajrasana, and I’ve been requesting help. A teacher stands on my quads while I recline. It’s really been blasting my hip flexors and quads, and has only gotten more comfortable. “When asana is correct, pain is gone,” says Guruji. It’s been proven true again and again in my case.

Allison has been leading the “dreaded” (says Tim) Thursday morning improv classes, and they’ve been brilliant as well. Yesterday, we spent the entire class working on preps for leg-behind-the-head poses. The class culminated in durvasana, which is where you put your leg behind your head in a seated pose, get your leg beneath you, and then slowly stand up—you’re standing up straight, with a leg behind your head.

It was another reminder of the disparity between my hips. I could mostly stand up with the right leg, and it was an incredible hip opener.

The left leg, though, was a different story. I could barely stand up more than 6 inches. Pretty crazy. I wonder how much of the difference is due to my 13 years skateboarding—my pushing leg/back leg, or right leg, externally rotates way more than the left, which has severely limited external rotation. The right hip is way more open, and the quad is a lot more developed.

My front/left leg, the leg that steered the board, has less developed quads and a tighter hip, yet more flexible hip flexors. I’m heaps more stable on my left foot.

The holiday party last night was interesting. I hung out with the company bosses, and a great bunch of people I’ve come to consider my friends. I realized how incredibly fortunate I am to have the job I have, even though I’m ultimately frustrated at it.

Since ashtanga has become a prime focus in my life, my career aspirations here have dwindled. Certain things just don’t mean as much to me anymore. Patanjali talks about how the practice of ashtanga cleans the indriyas, or sense organs, and this is what strengthens our powers of discernment. Perhaps this is why I’m not as interested in the game anymore.

Asana is only one of the eight limbs, but dedication to it has really cultivated a sense of how several of the other limbs work. When I read Patanjali now, I have a working, experiential, personal sense of what he means when he talks about tapas, for example.

It’s not so much the poses themselves. It’s showing up and practicing, every day, even when you don’t want to. It’s performing a pose you’re not good at, or that is frustrating, or scary, or intimidating. And not just once, but again and again and again.

Monday, December 15, 2003

In the mornings here in Encinitas, the mercury has been dipping into the 40s. Boo hoo, I know. But you have to take into account that almost everything in Encinitas is built for mild beach temperatures. Nothing is insulated, and every apartment I’ve lived in had paper-thin walls, a single dilapidated heater for the whole place, and drafts leaking cold air in from every possible nook and cranny.

Tim’s studio is no different. I’ve taken to wearing socks, sweatshirt, and hat for morning pranayama, which starts at about 6:15, just before the sun rises. Thankfully, after a few rounds of kumbhakas, or breath retentions, my body temperature shoots up and I begin sweating (never mind the trembling and panicking). During asana practice immediately thereafter, I’ve taken to posting my mat as close to the heater as humanly possible. If they had a horizontal heater, I’d practice directly on top of it.

The recent winter temperature has made me wonder about my attachment and need for external heat. I’ve become suspicious of things that I think are mediating my experience with the practice, such as coffee or heat.

I look at the people who practice Bikram’s yoga, the heated-room yoga, and think that many of them are addicted to the extreme heat in their studios, which boils north of 105 degrees.

In a larger sense, winter is proving to be another invaluable teacher. Am I reliant on a sweltering, humid environment to practice? I certainly thrive in temperatures in which I feel like I’m going to wilt.

This winter is different than last year, though. The rigors of a consistent, daily practice, the heating and wakening effects of pranayama, and nauli kriya, or abdominal churning, have allowed me to notice only minimal, subtle changes in my practice. Mainly, there’s little stiffness.

I’m curious as to the long-term effects of maintaining a daily, consistent practice in the face of such difficulties as cold temperature or wet, rainy, cold weather. How does that consistency affect your personality in the long-term?

Ashtanga provides a rigid structure I lean on and get support from. You show up to practice, every day, and you practice the same set series, every day. The discipline makes you stronger, not just in a physical sense, but as a person.

But ashtanga also insists on relaxation in the face of resistance. If you don’t relax — not only physically, but mentally and emotionally, because your mental and emotional stance directly corresponds to your body — if you don’t relax, you’ll hurt yourself, whether it’s hamstrings, knees, or shoulders.

Asana practice over the last few days has been excellent, as per usual. Hips, back: opening. I struggle with baddha konasana, but it’s gradually easing. It’s still a shock to have my face hit the floor, complete with these weird and alien popping noises emanating from my groin region.

I’m still trying to figure out how to come up from back bends. It’s on the horizon, somewhere. I expect it will just happen one day, once my hip flexors and shoulders open further. I must say that back bends are feeling especially great of late. I think the second series poses Tim has given me are making a huge difference.

I dropped in on an improv class on Saturday, and it was a real treat. Warm and good. Allison led, and did a lot of great preps for Hanumanasana, or splits. The first movement for the final prep consisted of propping the rear knee on the ground, so the rear shin was flush against the wall.

In the next movement, you walked the other leg out and straightened it onto the floor. Ideally, you would then be doing the splits, with the rear shin at a 90-degree angle to the rear thigh, propped against the wall.

In my case, I obviously couldn’t lower all the way to the floor, so I had to support myself with my hands. It really worked the hip flexor of your rear leg, which is where I definitely need work. (A chiropractor once described my hip flexors as “Ropy, lumpy, and scarred.”) They’ve always bothered me.

The other fun part of the improv class was the leg-behind-the-head poses (which I unashamedly requested). We did a wee bit of hip opener prep, then moved into eka pada sirsana and kashyapasana. As I’ve said before, they really, really work my hips and, unfortunately, feel really good.

It must be a function of my body dynamics or limb length or something. I can’t help it. Thankfully there aren’t really any poses in first series in which to indulge my ego and probably hurt myself.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Rather than use one of the Sutras for concentration this morning during pranayama and practice, I used one of Hanuman’s many epithets, Ekadriya Bhakta, which means single-pointed devotion. It’s similar to another Hanuman epithet, Mahabhakta, or great devotee.

It’s been proving very helpful while trying to measure the breath during the long inhales and exhales of pranayama. It helps set a rhythm. It also provides a point of reference to return to when the mind inevitably wanders.

Pranayama is loosely translated as prana control or breath control. Pranayama is used in yoga as a separate practice to help clear the body and mind. It is also used in asana practice to help maximize the benefits of the practice and focus the mind.

There are set, specific pranayama techniques that are sequenced in a set way in ashtanga, much like the series of asanas.

In addition to repeating Ekadriya Bhakta today, I tried internal gazing, looking upwards with my eyes closed and trying to “see” my forehead or third eye, during the kumbhakas, or retentions,.

Most of the interesting moments in the 45-minute ashtanga pranayama sequence come in the liminal moments. I tend to lose the most control during the transition periods between the long, slow inhales and the long, slow exhales. Starting the inhale or exhale after a long retention also proves difficult, because there’s a tendency to gasp, gulp, or snort. I’ve been focusing on slowly but surely decreasing the erratic moments, but as with most transition periods or points, they’re providing great lessons.

At first, exhaling all the breath and sitting completely empty was the worst part – it was like drowning. My brain would absolutely panic and my body would tremble. The reptilian brain went to fight-or-flight mode, and everything went crazy.

The difficulty has now become maintaining a long, slow breath into or out of a retention. The anticipation of exhaling all my air and then holding it is worse than the actual act. Also, exhaling after holding the breath is proving difficult, which is weird, because it seems like that would be the easiest part of all of it. But I’ve been losing my breath halfway through the exhale, needing to sip in a quick breath before continuing.

I will say, though, the whole process is getting more comfortable, and I’m very curious to see where it leads.

Following this morning’s pranayama, I tried to focus on Ekadriya Bhakta during practice. Could I maintain a single-pointed devotion to the moment during each pose? Well, no, but it made a great touchstone to return to when my attention wandered.

The other benefit of pranayama has been that my bandha control has increased exponentially, especially because we practice immediately afterwards. My nauli kriya has considerably improved. I’ve been practicing three surya namaskar As, doing nauli, then doing three surya namaskar Bs.

The churning really fires up the agni and activates the bandhas, so much that I often break a sweat just because of it. Then when I dip forward on the first surya namaskar B, it adds a whole new dimension to my stretch and awareness. It’s as though I can go even deeper.

Nauli has also been helping out because the temperature has dropped here. Even though I set up as close to the heater as possible, I noticed while practicing yesterday that, even though I was halfway through practice, my toes were still cold. I hate that.

As for the practice itself, it was phenomenal, as per usual. I practice all of first series, and start on the first poses of second, ending at bekasana, before moving to backbends. Today, I only did seven. My shoulders and hips seem to be opening further, facilitating a deeper urdhva dhanurasana.

Every day I notice such a disparity in the openness of my right and left hips that I can’t help but laugh — the right one is heaps more open than my left. I know there’s supposed to be a difference between the two, but I had no idea mine were this far apart.

I can comfortably sit in janu sirsasana C on the right side, and work on opening that hip in the pose. But on the left side I can barely approximate getting the arch of my foot against my thigh. The left side is a matter of working the knee to the floor.

Which is fine, because it really works the hell out of that left hip, getting it to externally rotate. It’s an instant lesson in humility, to go immediately from one side of competency to the other side, which is much, much more difficult.

Still, it’s a struggle to get rid of thoughts of normalcy – I keep thinking, “If my hips were normal, they’d be more even.” But really, what’s normal? I’m just working through the samskaras that have bound up in my hips.

I like the samskara metaphor — your actions in the past have wound themselves up like thread in your body, and are writ large through muscles, joints, tissue, and fascia. Through yoga, we attempt to unknot or unwind the threads.

Monday, December 8, 2003

I drank way too much at our company holiday party on Friday night. Consequently, the next day I suffered my worst hangover of the last five years. Quite possibly one of the top-five worst hangovers of my life. I was sick almost all day Saturday and into the evening.

The flipside to such a brain-splittingly ferocious hangover is that any inclinations to drink I might have had -- which, admittedly, were almost nonexistant at this point -- have been burned away.

How does this relate to asana? Well, Saturday is obviously an off day, so I convalesced, drank water, ate aspirin, and generally moved about very gingerly. I will also admit I went to the Encinitas Diner at 3 p.m. -- my first time off the couch all day -- ordered a tuna melt and french fries, and consumed all of it. The following day, Sunday, however, was practice.

I awoke Sunday feeling slightly queesy, and immediately thought, "I'm on the verge of a two-day hangover!" The sky was overcast, and I believe it even rained a little. My joints get a little weird when it rains -- a little stiffer, a little creakier. I was determined to practice, however, and accept the consequences of Friday's excesses.

Practice rolled around at 10 a.m. Sundays are always crowded. There's usually a mob of people out front of the shala, and you tend to see a lot of people who can't make it during the week.

If you were to plot a graph of the number of practices one has (the x coordinate) versus the transformational power of ashtanga (the y coordinate), I wonder at what point the cut-off line falls between casual yogi and dedicated ashtangi -- meaning, could you plot how many practices you had to have before graduating to a daily practice?

I wonder that because there are so many people I've seen every Sunday for nearly two years who ONLY practice on Sunday.

Obviously it's not something that can be generalized. How do you quantify the transformational power of ashtanga, anyway? We all have epiphanies in different ways and times. Also, obviously practicing only one or two times a week is more than enough for some people.

At any rate, class was mostly full, although I had more room than usual. I suspect attendance will gradually decrease next week, too, as Tim is gone for longer.

I was feeling okay when class began, but was dreading the thought of marichyasana and urdhva dhanurasana. The twisting poses really do something to your liver, kidneys and stomach -- namely, squeeze the hell out of them. I was dreading what might get squeezed out. And then back bends -- well, they initiate all sorts of interesting physical and mental reactions.

The room was warm and humid, and I think that helped, because my practice was great. It really fired along. I really thrive on warm, humid temperatures, I guess. I also have been practicing nauli during adha mukkha svanasana because it really fires up the agni, activates the bandhas, and compresses everything south of the navel in a great internal massage. I figured that would be a good gauge of how I was going to feel during practice. There was no sickness to report, however, and I had a briliant practice.

It was very humid in there, and some people were gasping. The poor girl next to me lost it midway through the seated series, and began panic-breathing. It sounded like someone having an anxiety attack. But she started breathing through her nose again, and her breath evened out.

On the way out of class, I was thinking that I've never had a bad practice. They're all really, really good. For some reason, for the last few weeks, they seem to be noticeably improving, too. I know I've also switched up some dietary factors, too. Chief among the changes: I've been eating lighter dinners earlier in the evening, say around 6:00 or 6:30. It's had a dramatic effect.

So while I've never had a bad practice, I can definitely remember having some very, very HARD practices, where halfway through I've thought, "Sweet Jesus, I'm never going to make it!" They're no fun, but just as informative as the good practices.

I remember being in a led class on Tuesday morning; this is the class where Tim practices first series along with the class. I didn't really notice anything until the end, when we only did five back bends -- normally, Tim does between 12 and 15.

After savasana, Tim looked especially fatigued. He said to the class, "Good god, is it always that hard for you?" He must have had a pretty off day.

Friday, December 5, 2003

Tim's been gone for a few days. But we followed his Thursday habit yesterday and stopped pranayama halfway. Pranayama has been much more manageable since Tim's been gone. I secretly suspect he has bellows instead of lungs.

Following pranayama, Sequoia led the group in singing kirtan. She has an incredible voice, and is a pretty accomplished harmonium player. She got very caught up in the moment, too, which strangely enough made me uncomfortable. I don't quite know what to do when someone displays that level of devotion and fervor. I have no frame of reference or experience with anything like that in my life, which is kind of sad. But I'm glad to be experiencing it now, in a genuine way, because it's meaningful to me, and not a meaningless routine or habit foisted on me during my upbringing.

The dread Thursday improv class came after pranayam. Allison led it. She worked some arm balances, shoulders, hips, and then moved into back bends. The arm balances are usually no problem for me, although on this day we moved into karandavasana right away. My hips were not fired up, so I couldn't slide into lotus while in pincha mayurasana. It's almost easier from vriksasana, too, which is odd. I think the extra clearance and balance in handstand gives your hips and legs more room to maneuver into lotus.

It was good, though, because just when you think you have something dialed, there's another pose that builds on previous poses, plus adds new and challenging twists. Literally and figuratively. It definitely keeps your ego in check.

No matter your flexibility and strength, there's going to be a point in one of the ashtanga series where you're going to be challenged, if not stopped cold.

More than poses, though, I also think the genius of ashtanga is in the sequencing of those poses. It's not enough to pretzel your leg behind your head -- you're asked to do it as part of a full series of poses.

My favorite definition of yoga comes from the Bhagavad Gita, which defines yoga as "skill in action." Repeating a set series, day after day, develops "skill in action." Where does your mind go once you've built a steady practice?

My other favorite part of the improv class was the hip work. Allison led a series of eka pada raja kapotasana variations -- the more traditional version, one lying on the back, cradling the shin, that is a precursor for kasyapasana, and one standing and cradling the shin that's a precursor for darvasana.

From there we moved into eka pada sirsasana. I can't help it, I love that pose. I don't have the most open hips in the world, but for some reason my legs fit behind my head rather comfortably, and from there I can really work the hips by expanding my chest and straightening my spine.

It was a satisfying practice. I took that energy into this morning's Mysore practice. The Sutra I picked for the day was "prayatna saithilya ananta samapattibhyam." For today's practice, I exerted effort to the point where I felt resistance; at that point I tried to relax into the pose. It was helpful to repeat it occasionally when I felt my attention wander.

My old nemesis baddha konasana is slowly weakening. With Rich's assistance, my knees and face hit the floor. And then I looked up and slid out four inches further. It felt really, really good.

It's interesting to compare now to six months ago. I've sprained both ankles so many times and so badly I couldn't even put my feet together and then open them. There was also a giant knot in my right hip that hurt so badly I often wondered if I would need surgery to have something removed. It felt like there was a lump or peach pit or rock lodged in there. It hurt like hell. But constant practice and dedication has smoothed it away.

Practice is always good. Even when it's an off day. Every time I walk out of the shala, energized and hopeful to face the day ahead, I'm thankful I'm able to do it.

Wednesday, December 3, 2003

I've started an on-line blog for a few reasons. One, I was inspired by fellow ashtanga EZ Board posters/bloggers Okrgr and Chiotissa. Two, I have a job where I have to write, all day, every day. As a result, my personal writing has dwindled to nothing. And third, I want to share my yoga experience with my my mom.

I had a good conversation last night about yoga, which left me with several questions that I carried into practice this morning. A friend and I talked about egos in the shala, and whether people are overly competitive in ashtanga. One of the main complaints leveled against ashtanga is that it's too competitive, and that it attracts type A personalities.

My friend said that Tim's studio, which is where I practice, was devoid of a sense of ego, performance, and competition that's found at other shalas.

While I think that's true, it made me wonder how competitive I was. Where do I let my ego lead me when I practice?

So this morning, during asana practice, I was hyper-aware of my drishti, or gaze, and tried not to let it wander for even a second. It wasn't so much a goal as a vector or movement to embody.

Usually by the time I make it to the floor, I'm oblivious to my surroundings but for a fixed point on the carpet in front of me. My attention shifts inward. I've mentioned this before, but it's sublime to suddenly realize that 20 minutes or a half-hour has slid by, measured by the steady rhythm of inhales and exhales.

I wonder how practice would be different if everyone faced the wall, or faced the same direction? At Tim's, we line up in rows facing each other. Sometimes, like most every day this week, it's so crowded there are three rows. The people in the middle end up face to face with people in one of the rows.

So during today's practice, I wasn't surprised to find a nagging twinge of ego. It was only exacerbated by the fact that I fell in synch with three other people in the room. We were all doing the same poses at the same time. I constantly redirected my focus internally, but it would occasionally slip. "What's his baddha konasana look like?" "How is her jump-back?"

I think something I learned in pranayama helps here. The trick to navigating these waters is to acknowledge these thoughts when they arise, observe them with equanimity, and then let them go. I sometimes think of Shiva's smile in the Nataraja image -- it's slight, subtle, removed, and self-deprecating, yet warm at the same time. It's a good metaphor for how to deal with these feelings when they come up.