Wednesday, January 21, 2004

The temp has warmed up to a balmy 55 degrees or so—it’s 10 degrees or more warmer than last week—which means the heat in the shala has spiked upward.

A noticeable result of this increased heat: I’m fairly blown out after practice. My drive and determination to go to work has been almost negligible. My get-up-and-go does just that—gets up and goes.

My practices are still strong, light, and good, so much so that I feel I could go for another hour. Lately, I hit the end of practice and think, “This is it?” The series are sequenced in such a way that they hit peaks and valleys, with demanding sets of postures followed by less demanding, restorative postures.

The transition from first to second is the same. The last several postures in first series are mostly reclining postures, and several are linked by chakrasanas rather than jump-backs. The first several postures of second series—pasasana, krouncasana, etc—start slowly, build to a pitch with kapotasana, and begin easing off again.

My personal practice ends a few poses into second, so I build this momentum, and then have to curtail it for backbends. They end up requiring a lot of energy, anyway, so it balances out.

The poses in second I’ve been practicing have made a remarkable impact on my backbends, which is why I assume Tim has given them to me. Well, that, and sheer backbend volume has done much to increase my opening and comfort.

Generally, I hate to reduce the body to purely mechanistic terms, but I approached backbends like a math equation. E (for effort) multiplied by x (number of backbends) equals y (comfort, ease, energy in posture).

Three backbends are okay—the first two can be rough, the third is better. Nine backbends is comfortable, open, optimal. Twelve to 15 backbends is overkill—my legs jelly out and I get too fatigued. Plus it takes too long.

I know generally Guruji only teaches three backbends. I compromised with my diversion from tradition by reckoning that when Tim practices first series on Tuesdays, he generally does 15(!). I think he does that many because his back is fairly tight. Well, that, and because he’s incredibly strong and has the stamina to reach 15 with relative ease (on most days).

Standing up has proved elusive, but I’m on the cusp of internalizing the required actions. It’s almost there, like a word on the tip of your tongue. When you can’t think of a word or name, it’s best to relax and think of different things—the word or name will float out of your subconscious sooner or later. It’s the same with standing up from backbends—If I relax and just do the practice, it will happen.

Tim has been regularly palming my chest to bring me to standing, a rather unnerving (at first) technique where he reaches over you in urdhva dhanurasana and places his hand square on your chest. He then pulls you horizontally. It forces you to transition your weight to your feet and curl upward to standing.

Practicing heaps of backbends every day for months and years—just the sheer length of time it’s taken to get this comfortable, which is still not total or complete—has slowly forced a new thinking on me: show up, do the poses. My expectations for “getting” a pose are slowly peeling away, and it’s easier to recognize anticipation and expectation and just let it go.

What really happens when you “get” a pose? Odds are, you get the next one, which is harder. You’ll practice that one every day for years until you get it. Then you get the next one, which is harder. There's always a harder pose in a more difficult series. Repeat the process, until you begin losing poses.

I like to think of the six series as a cliff on the beach that breaks all waves. Everyone has high-water marks and low-water marks, accomplishments and a sense of mastery, wedded to frustration, struggling and difficulty. But what’s important is showing up every day to wash yourself against that cliff.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

When I was 19, I put all of my belongings in the back of a 1980 Civic and caravanned to California. “All of my belongings” mostly consisted of two crates full of books and a TV that took up the whole backseat. I had purchased a gigantic albatross of a TV using grant money for college.

I followed my friend Tom’s maroon 1988 Ford Escort all the way from Wisconsin to Encinitas. It was a marathon two-and-a-half day drive aided and abetted by No-Doz, Mountain Dew, and, for a brief period through Utah, hallucinations of the most frightening and realistic variety.

Towards the end of the trip, I remember eating No-Doz every few minutes like M&Ms and trying to pee in empty Mountain Dew two-liters. Trying and failing. The No-Doz was no longer working, and all I was left with were strange, uncomfortable itches and pee on the front of my pants.

Tom had gone to high school with a kid named Marc who had moved to Encinitas some years before, so that’s where we were headed.

All three of us rented an apartment a few minutes drive down the coast from Encinitas in Cardiff, or, as the postcards say, “Cardiff-by-the-Sea.”

After two years in a synthetic apartment complex, we decided to relocate to new digs, and we were served with an eviction notice. We settled back in Encinitas proper. The house was on the corner of Third and A Streets.

I would eventually go on to move three blocks down, to the corner of Fourth and D Streets. (This is after a few short-term hiccups that led me to a few different zip codes, among them Hollywood.)

From Encinitas, I relocated to downtown San Diego, to a rent-controlled loft, which I recall as perhaps the cleanest, most modern, and downright coolest place I’ve ever lived. Or probably ever will live in, at the rate I’m headed.

I relocated from San Diego to San Francisco (again, with a few housing hiccups along the way, one of which involved living in a partially furnished garage in Ocean Beach, across the alley from Eek-a-Mouse, a certifiably insane, crystal meth-addicted B-grade reggae star who pimped out his haggard “girlfriend” in an abandoned storefront-slash-“studio.” Nights were punctuated by blood-curdling screaming, yelling, and shouts of “Bumbaclot!”).

Roughly two years ago, I moved from San Francisco and landed in Encinitas again … on Fourth and D Street, in the exact same apartment in which I had lived years before.

(I remember the date: October 5, 2001, because it was the first monthly check I wrote to Tim’s studio.)

Talk about full circle. I eventually moved directly across the street from my old apartment.

Through all this, unseen hands have conspired to have me practice ashtanga yoga.

For at least seven or eight years, I’ve lived within five blocks of Tim Miller’s studio. When I lived in downtown SD, I lived a few blocks from Anne’s studio. When I lived in SF, I lived three blocks from Alice’s studio in the Mission.

If you pay attention to the most resonant chords within, the ones that truly vibrate, and you relax to the universe, it will open up and support you. I’ve really come to believe that. Ashtanga has really helped organize my perception. It’s realigned more than my body. It’s realigned my past, giving it a sense of graceful inevitability that has led me to this very day. It's something that will lead me into the future.

More on asana practice later.

Friday, January 9, 2004

I figured I’d post twice this week. Miracle of miracles!

I’ve embarked on an absolutely insane yoga schedule for the last two weeks or so. But it’s working out pretty well – meaning I have a lot of energy, practice has been great, and work and social life have yet to suffer. Well, work/social life isn’t suffering any more than it has been.

(Perhaps “suffering” isn’t the greatest word. Let’s amend it to “transforming.”)

The new routine: alarm goes off at 4:30 a.m. I have two alarms rigged up, my cell phone and an alarm clock. The cell phone is on the table by my bed, and it goes off first. I turn it off. A few minutes later, my alarm clock goes off. It’s positioned across the room on my bookshelf.

When I lived in SF, I practiced at Ahimsa Yoga, a studio run by a former student of Tim’s named Alice. After a few months of three-to-four-times-a-week led classes, I felt that there was something more to this yoga thing, something I could feel but wasn’t picking up on.

I asked Alice about it. I wanted to know what the next level was. She informed me that, traditionally, ashtangis practice in Mysore-style, or self-paced classes, six days a week, at 6 or 7 in the morning.

I was floored, I remember. “SIX days a week? At 6 in the morning? Are you out of your mind? There’s no way I could get out bed that early!”

Alice told me that initially she was the same way, until someone gave her these tips on getting up early. It proved to be some of the wisest advice I’ve ever received: Drink lots of water before you go to sleep. And put your alarm clock on the far side of the room so you have to get up to shut it off.

And both tips work. So the alarm fires at 4:30; generally I smash the snooze bar and drift for another 10 minutes. I’ve also set my clock to a country-western station, which pulls me out of bed right quick, too.

I shower, more to rinse off the sleep than get clean, because I will shortly be leaking sweat anyway. I turn on the computer and fire up the brand-new espresso machine I bought at Target ($30!).

From 5 to about 6 I answer and send e-mails for work, and/or read. Latest morning material: Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Such a yoga nerd.

I leave for the studio at about five to 6. It’s literally two blocks; I drive because I have to leave for work immediately after practice. The last few days, it’s still been night when I’ve left the house, and the weather has been brick. That is to say, cold as hell.

The extra two hours before asana really give my body a chance to wake up. The hour of pranayama really fires up both the bandhas and my hips, because it’s essentially sitting in lotus/cross-legged posture for 45 minutes.

I’ve also been practicing nauli kriya between surya namaskar A and B, to both increase internal heat and really activate the bandhas. It’s strange, because one day I went from 5 As and 5 Bs to 3 each. I don’t remember how or why. It just happened, and for right now, that’s all my body needs to warm up.

The nauli really activates the core muscles. Sweat beads my brow almost immediately. Nauli has greatly improved over time, too. I used to have to shift my hips back and forth, whereas now I can get the abs to roll back and forth with no hip movement.

It’s uncanny to look down and see it happening. Certain muscles, tendons, and organs don’t flatten, so you can see their distinct outline as the stomach rolls over them. The right side is harder to flatten and control, too, I suspect because there’s a major body part there. The top of the stomach? Liver? A kidney? My anatomical ignorance stands revealed.

During one of Tim’s “dreaded” Thursday classes, he mentioned they used to practice nauli between A and B “in the olden days.” I asked him if he practices it now. “Every day,” he said.

Anyway, we’ll see if the new schedule works out, or proves too impractical in the real world. These 9 a.m. bedtimes have murdered my old social life, and one might imagine (correctly) that I’m not sharing my bed, because who in his or her right mind would sleep with someone who gets up at 4:30 in the morning? For yoga, nonetheless?

Wednesday, January 7, 2004

Moon day today – no practice. I have friends who practice on moon days, but generally I opt to take the proscribed rest, partly because I believe the body reacts differently during the waxing and waning of the moon. I’ve certainly noticed my energy level tends to spike during full moons — the highs and lows are particularly acute.

But mostly I take rest because, for god’s sake, ashtanga is pretty f**king hard. Two days off a month is a welcome respite.

I read an interview with Richard Freeman a few weeks back in which he discussed his visit to Mysore with Guruji, sometime in the late ’80s.

His daily schedule sounded pretty intense. After a time, it was only he and his wife there, so he was receiving some pretty hands-on assistance from what I only imagine was a much younger, fiercer Guruji.

He would do all of second series, then all of fourth. The next day, all of first, all of third. The day after, all of third, all of fourth. And so on. His practices were stretching into three, four hours.

“That sounds pretty intense,” the interviewer said.

“It was very intense,” said Richard. “I would pray for the days off!”

(Obviously I’m paraphrasing here.)

So I’ve come to treasure moon days, and I secretly suspect they’re not only to honor the moon’s effect on the body, but also to give ashtanga practitioners — and teachers — two days off a month.

Over the last few days, my practice has proceeded apace. Even when it’s just average, it’s great. Which is I guess what keeps me returning.

I feel as though I’m on the cusp of several openings. I suspect they will happen, yet will refuse to be dramatic and instantaneous, as I keep hoping. Rather, it will be gradual. I expect to stand up from backbends very soon, and the hips continue their ponderous yet inexorable movement.

Pranayama has been easier of late. I think Tim has scaled back a little this week; Monday was fairly manageable, and Tuesday was pranayama-lite in honor of the Feast of Epiphany, the full moon, and Mercury going direct.

I’m back in full effect at work after the holidays. Still, it’s more manageable, knowing I’m going to Mysore in June. Now it’s a matter of scrabbling to raise the necessary funds.

Thursday, January 1, 2004

What happened to 2003? I looked up from my desk at work and it was June, nodded and it was November, blinked, and it’s 2004!

I haven’t the time yet to formulate some resolutions for the coming year, but I’ll get around to it. I have a sneaking feeling it’s going to be a big year—-so many people I know established routines in 2002 and 2003, which means a shake-up is on the horizon.

So I’m predicting 2004 will be a big change year for people.

I’ve cranked out a bit of yoga in the last few days. I believe today was my seventh consecutive day; I also practiced twice on Monday, once in the morning and once in Tim’s intro class in the evening.

My friend Mirko was enjoying some holiday vacation time off work, and wanted to try yoga so I accompanied him to the Monday night class.

I put my mat down, and thought, “I do NOT want to do another hour and a half of asana today!” Because my morning practices have been so intense, I’m pretty well floored come evening.

But it was an intro class, and I made it through alive. Listening to Tim discuss the philosophical underpinnings of ashtanga is always worth the minimum effort required, too. The night’s focus was on the two or three Sutras that relate to asana practice.

Mirko was fairly devastated by the practice. It was very mellow for him on a physical level, because he’s an athletic guy, but he was unprepared for just how difficult some of the poses would be, particularly any involving his hips.

After class, he showed what his hips look like. I will go on record as saying he has THE most jacked hips I’ve ever seen. He has a protruding knob of scar tissue on either hip, like little horns!

Jesus, I thought I had it bad from skateboarding. Mirko’s skated since he was 9 or something, and was pro for a long time, too, so he’s taken his share of lumps.

The following day, he visited the 9 a.m. Mysore class and observed for about 20 minutes. I think he was impressed, because I got a call later: “That was some next level ish! When do I start? I’m ready to do this!”

I don’t know when to tell him to take a class, though. He’s a physical dude, so I think he could jump into a full first series class and figure it out.

Also on Tuesday, I hit the 9 a.m. Mysore class, instead of the regular 7 a.m. class that Tim leads. It was a change of pace, because normally I have to jet off to work by 9. I thought it would be neat to see how a week of Mysore practices would treat me.

So on Tuesday, I practiced near Olaf. I watched him reach back and grab his own shins in a backbend. Tim adjusted him so the was grabbing his knees. Pretty staggering. When he stood up, his eyes were flared to the size of silver dollars--—must have been quite an energy surge! "Relax your eyes!” Tim said, half-joking.

For New Year’s, I had my cake and ate it, too: Me and two yoga friends rang in 2004 at a very strange bar somewhere in the wastelands of Orange County. I will confess, I had a cocktail or two.

We split up and charged to yoga this morning for the sole class, a 9 a.m. Mysore class. One friend departed for Mysore for a three-week trip.

There were 42 people in the room this morning. Even with the glass still busted out over the door, the room was cooking.

Virtually every “regular” was there. It was nice----—not that I speak to that many people, but the room was made up of mostly familiar faces. I felt like a part of a little community—because really, only the absolute nutters are packing into a Mysore room on New Year’s Day!

It’s very profound to practice with 41 other people who have chosen ashtanga. Everyone who was there wanted to be there, so much so they showed up on New Year’s Day. How often does that happen anywhere else in life?

Regarding practice, I have a pet theory: I’ve read somewhere that when you sleep, your body produces a chemical that tells your muscles to stiffen to keep you from thrashing around while you’re in REM sleep.

When you sleep for less than six hours in a night, your body does not produce as much of that chemical. Therefore, your body is more pliable in the morning.

Of course, I have a feeling my concept of a “chemical” produced to stiffen muscles is hogwash, but …

On New Year’s Eve I ate some DODGY Indian food, drank two glasses of wine, hoovered two vodka tonics, and went to sleep at 1:30 a.m.

I awoke at 7, and was on the road by 8 to practice by 9.

Despite the five-and-a-half hours of sleep, I must confess that I had an absolutely brilliant practice.

The same phenomenon happened in New York City during my first day at Guruji’s workshop. I spent six hours wedged into cattle-class on a coast-to-coast flight, two hours on the subway from JFK to the East Village, and two hours talking to NYC homies.

The result: two hours of sleep before practice.

The practice itself: brilliant.

So this morning, janu sirsana C. The right side: no problem. The left side: different story. However, today my left hip externally rotated and I fully approximated the pose.

Also, I got a bit of insight into urdhva dhanurasana yesterday (walk the feet in to bring the hips over the feet). I feel like I will be able to stand up from a backbend in a week or so.

The only thing that stopped me today: fear. I was afraid I couldn’t generate enough strength the make it all the way up. It was there this morning, though. I was rocking back and forth and curling upwards.

After class, Tim had a bowl of half-anna coins for everyone to take for prosperity in the year to come. “Make sure you get one with Hanuman,” he said to me.

I probably couldn’t think of a better way to ring in a new year.