Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sticks and Skiing

Even on a mountain, in 15 degree weather, the yoga is present.

I took my first ski lesson today. To get the feeling of leaning down the hill in a no-fear embrace of wind, snow, and slope, the instructor had us balance on one ski, letting our other leg point straight back. I thought, "Balancing stick, baby! Tuladandasana forever!" Despite the wind and low visibility, the teacher noticed my balance and said, "Hey, you do yoga?!" An awareness of hips and alignment is necessary, too, as there's a tendency to stick the butt out when you actually want to pull it forward as you do in half-moon.

But you skiiers know, skiing is no joke. Remember my post on sprezzatura? It looks so easy, yet it's tremendously difficult and initially counterintuitive. Much of the technique goes against our instincts (i.e., leaning forward), and that whole flying down a mountain thing is bound to get your heart rate up. What a way to meet your fears head-on.

My first two runs were a little terrifying. I realized at the end of the second that I was holding my breath as I wedged slowly down the hill and knew that had to change. Perfect situation to bring in yoga principles. One thing yoga has showed me is that I tend to be guided by fear. I hold back a lot--in class, in life, on the slopes--and as a result, I don't reach my full potential. Skiing totally tapped into that. After those first two runs, I didn't want to go back up, but I managed to get myself back on the lift. As I rode up, I did some pranyama--in through the nose, out through the nose (no hand movement, of course--had to hang onto my ski poles and gloves!). Doing so helped tremendously. And I have free lifts and rentals tomorrow, so you know I will be back out there. Still a little scared, though :-)

No Bikram yoga classes up here, but the principles find their way everywhere!
 Don't mess with Mother Nature. Just wear good clothes!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Breathing under the Mango Tree

Some days, a few moments of breathing is all you need.

I encountered a pretty challenging situation today at school. Can't go into details, but I had a little confrontation with someone I work with. While I did not do something that was entirely in the wrong, what I said to her provoked a deep and pained response. I was shocked by how I'd obviously hurt her. She rattled me to the core--my way of interacting with students was called into question. I was barely able to compose myself and finish what I was doing before I had a chance to scuttle off.

My main yoga teacher has told us a few times that pranayama deep breathing is the perfect way to combat stressful situations. Until today, I wondered if that was contradictory advice. After all, the dialogue says, "Warming up the body, from the inside out." It always seems to have an energizing effect. Wouldn't that be the opposite of what you want when riddled with anxiety?

After the incident with the person, I had less than 30 minutes to get to an important meeting. Dilemma time: do I go to my office and prepare for the meeting, or go outside and get centered? Some days, I would have just gone to the office. I'd have squished the feelings about the student away to some little corner of my bowels, and they would have probably just come bubbling up again at the most inopportune of times. Probably during the meeting ;-)

But today I decided to take a walk to a lovely garden not far from my office. There, as I stared at the bright the fish in the lilypad-covered pond underneath the mango tree, the tears started up. I couldn't get the incident out of my head. There was this desire to indulge and obsess over what happened, yet, I needed to get to this meeting. I remembered what my teacher said about pranyama, so, as the tears began to spill, I stood up and began inhaling through the nose exhaling, through the mouth. By breath 10, I kid you not, I was fine. Not perfect, but my head was clear and I knew I had it together enough to go to the meeting.

The fishies and mango tree didn't hurt, either :-)

Pranyama, y'all. Did ya know the Sanskrit name means "restraint of the prana (life force) or breath"? It's almost counter-intuitive. Restraining the breath, the life force, awakens and enlivens us, enabling us to connect and be more present.

Stuff still needs to be worked out with this student. I'm still anxious to see how it will resolve, to see how deep the impact will be. But one breath at a time is all we can ever do, right?
Mango Tree

Monday, March 22, 2010

You're out of control, baby.

A nice balmy room?

A strong practice in which I hold all the postures the full length of time?

Boy did I want that.

As a result, I went to a different studio today. As it's been warm lately, I've been dreaming about this larger studio with a really efficient heater. Although I only attended classes twice there, the heat feels evenly distributed (i.e., not blowing around or wavering in temperature) and delicious. My anxiety levels have been down the past few months, but today, for some reason, they were up. I was OK physically, but I couldn't focus on anything at work. I was sure a kick-ass class would get me back to normal mentally.

Is it just me, or do we tend to get the opposite of what we want from a Bikram yoga class? I did not have a kick-ass class; this class kicked my ass.

Not making matters any easier was the fact that I was taking a class from the highly respected studio owner, whom I had not practiced with since I was about 19 years old. I had to sit out a couple of sets and it was extremely difficult to keep my mind (and admittedly, my body) in the room today. Pretty much lost the concentration battle--by wind-removing pose, I was trying not to enter panic mode or run out. And, OMG, it was, like, hot in there.

Bottom line: my expectations were too high: try to please teacher! Try to own all the poses! Balance both sides in toe stand! Ooooooops

That humbling aside, I got a couple of wonderful insights today. This teacher's classes are wonderfully taught. His dialogue is precise and emphasized clearly, and he rarely deviates except to bring in corrections for specific students. But in savasana, he would go into detail about what was happening in the body. And this dude knows his stuff. I had never heard explanations about how yoga lowers high blood pressure before, but he went into technicalities--the arteries harden and fissure, causing plaque and cholesterol to form and stay, leading to high everything, how the yoga works to soften and heal the arteries. Good stuff, over and over, in each savasana.

Then, after class, I figured I would be persistent and "demanding" (hard for me!) and take up his time asking questions about my recently-diagnosed high blood pressure and meds. He kindly took about 20 minutes talking to me, and one of the things the told me was that I did not have to be scared in the yoga room. "Despite what it might feel like in there," he said, "it's the safest environment imaginable. It's a controlled space, a safe space."

That was what I needed to hear. All that anxiety, it comes from a desire to control the situation. In class, I admittedly feel out of control. I'm at the mercy of the heat, the teacher, my body, my mind. But that doesn't matter, right? And it's probably not even true. We are at no one's mercy. We're just in the room, doing a well thought-out set of postures that will help, not hurt. Worrying that I'm out of control is just a sign that I'm obsessed about being in control. And what a pipe dream that is!

Once again, I've written a wants vs. needs post. It's a constant struggle to let go of the wants, the expectations. But we have to try and trust that the need will be met. It has to.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A not-so-seductive wake-up call

It's said that by the time we're 75 years old, 22 years of our lives will have been spent in slumber. (I hope ya'll have pleasant dreams!)

But how much of that "awake time" are we actually awake, alert, present? There is a variety of ways we can be asleep. We can engage in "avoidance behaviors"--obsessive cleaning, watching TV, blogging, and indulging in our drug of choice that takes us away from the moment.

A friend and former (forever?) professor recently gave a great talk at our campus. He read from his book Tex[t] Mex: Seductive Hallucinations of the "Mexican" in America. The "seductive" part of the equation is the collection of images and stereotypes present in the media that are unconsciously engrained in our psyches as we grow up.

We typically don't think of stereotypes and generalizations as seductive. But think about it: we see a representation of an Asian American as the class math genius on TV, or the hoop-shooting African American in the movie. Our brains tend to go, "well, that's just normal."

In this, we are dreaming--or nightmaring! Dr. William Nericcio explains what occurs as we drink in these images day in and day out:

"In my nightmare, Speedy Gonzales hands me his hat and calmly wraps his red bandana around my neck. And I like it."

He continues analyzing his nightmare, admitting he's drawn to it, before calling on us to "Wake up" (208-09). 

As Nericcio dreamily accepts the quintessential emblems of "the Mexican" from that "innocent cartoon" mouse Speedy, we typically accept the representations of culture, religion, race, sexuality, day in and day out without questioning. Generalizations and stereotypes help us "make sense" of our surroundings. They reinforce our world views. But they are also hallucinations because they're not real. Stereotypes are erroneous collections of assumptions that prevent us from connecting to the world.

So, how the heck does yoga figure into all of this? Well, I don't think I've seen a yogi blogger who hasn't touched on its power to strip away the layers. In the hot room, our minds' iron grip on what should be--even, I think, on gender, age, race, and culture--slowly melts away.

These hallucinations gradually disappear as we sit into awkward pose's uncomfortable chair. The expectations of what we should be able to do, of what the pose should look like, must be put aside. Or we go crazy, right? That's when we fall down. That's when we stop breathing. Been practicing for a year? Still can't lock the goddamn knee? The response to that should be "No problem." The "you should be able to do X" is just another seductive hallucination that needs the bright light of day to pierce through it.

Case in point: I'm 28 years old. I've been practicing Bikram yoga for almost a year now, Ashtanga for years before that. The seductive hallucination is an image of me, in perfect standing head-to-knee pose, knees beautifully locked, forehead rounding down. I dream that! That's what's "normal" to me. But it's not the reality for me. That's not the present.

The temptation is to use age, length of practice, etc as a scale for judging ourselves in yoga, in the same way we use race or culture or religion or sexuality to judge others after class. Yoga helps us strip away all those layers. It's hard. We resist. But we should continue working at it.

Maybe the connection here is tenuous. Today, I don't think so. We need to shine a bright light on those hallucinations. Otherwise, they will continue to have power.

We need to wake up!

For more information on Nericcio and his cool read, check out his blog here.

*If you wonder what the heck I'm doing referencing all this academic stuff, I blame The Dancing J's and Japanese Ham Sandwich's latest posts for opening wide that door ;-) How could I not waltz right through??  

Monday, March 15, 2010

Feet and Feldenkrais

I've been thinking about feet lately.

There are a lot of references in the Bikram dialogue to feet--"flex your toes," "grip the floor," "stand with the heels and toes touching," to say nothing of the so-called Bikram stigmata we regulars sport proudly. The feet matter, but I think they often get overlooked. I've been trying to be a little more aware of them lately.

To help with this, I've been painting my toenails, and not just because I live in San Diego and spring is pretty much already here. While I have never gotten a "mani-pedi" or been the kind of girl to spend a lot of time on hair or makeup, I spend so much time contemplating my toenails in yoga that I figured I might as well give myself something to look at. 

One thing I realized after painting my nails is that the bones in my feet are changing! When I painted my toes more often last summer, the paint would get smudged if I didn't use a toe separater. And I don't have one, so that meant my toenail paint was pretty much always smudged ;-) But I painted my toes after class last night, and guess what? No smudging! I can see that my toes are pointing a little straighter. They used to be really tight in on each other, but all that floor-gripping action must be doing something!

Straight(er) toes!

On another note, anyone ever try Feldenkrais? My work is offering a one-hour session each week, and I tried it for the first time today. It's billed as "Awareness Through Movement," and from what I understand the sessions consist of very gentle, subtle movements designed to increase awareness and flexibility. Today was all about the pelvis--after walking briefly and observing our body, we lay on the ground and did these very gentle pelvic rolls.

It was an interesting experience. I could see that by the end, my spine was lying flatter on the ground and, in savasana, I was generally straighter (I can usually feel a curve to the right). I was also just much more aware of both body and surroundings, which, I think, is the goal of the practice. Admittedly, I had to stifle snickers at repeated "bring attention to your pelvis! Does your pelvis feel freer?" but overall it was interesting. I think I'll try it again.

The teacher's instructions were certainly distinct from Bikram's--she kept saying, "just be aware of differences between right and left. Don't try to correct anything." Maybe I'm misrepresenting Bikram, but I always thought that we were to identify differences in order to actively work on them!

Good to try new things, right?

Friday, March 12, 2010

"He ain't drownin'. He's just doin' the sidestroke."

One of the things I love about yoga is how it serves as a gauge for how preoccupied my mind is. Pretty much every time I walk into the yoga room, the phrase, "CHRIST, it's hot" flickers across my mind. On good days, I quickly think something like, "Duh, Captain Obvious, the sign out front says BIKRAM, not 24-Hour Fitness."

These are the good days--I let go of the piles of papers, the work-related emergencies, the floor that desperately needs mopping. And the heat somehow just... relents. I let my body open up, I let the sweat just roll out of me, and it's almost like I win.

Then, there are the not-so-good days. The work-related emergencies don't abate right away. They pop up in Half-Moon, Standing Separate Leg Forehead-to-Knee pose, and steal my newfound ability to balance in Toe Stand. And I can't. let. go. of. the. HEAT.

I had an interesting experience while struggling through Half-Moon today. My "monkey mind" was out and proud, strutting his stuff and keeping my mind everywhere except on progress. I was looking at myself and got fixated on the asymmetry. In Half-Moon, my spine bends beautifully to the right. When bending to the left, however, I struggle mightily just to attain the correct form. I am pretty sure I curve like nobody's business--torso is forward, chest collapses. The asymmetry is frustrating.

Normally, I can let that go. Throughout Bikram's gold book, he reminds us that asymmetry is, in fact, OK. I'm too lazy tonight to dig through the book to find a passage, but he writes something like, "One side more limber than the other? That's OK, you're normal." Phew. But tonight it took a little more effort. My mind was utterly convinced that I would be the Hunchback of Notre Dame by the time I was 30 and that it was way hotter than normal (initially, it probably was). I was having an incredibly hard time not bolting from the room. Until I drew on a NOLA memory to calm me down.   

Before class, I was browsing through some photos I took when I was in New Orleans last year. I remembered a trip to the swamp that my friends and I took. We were there in the spring, and these recently-emerged caterpillars were falling from the trees and into the water and onto the boat. They looked a little bit like these guys.

Freaky caterpillar.

A somewhat relevant aside: I'm actually deathly afraid of caterpillars. Even that picture is freakin' me out, so please appreciate the effort, folks. I'm having flashbacks right now. Caterpillars are my one irrational phobia. Of course, this transformed the swamp tour into a terrifying excursion involving a moment where there was an actual caterpillar on my arm. There were some good times, though, one of which involving a sweet exchange between a father and son as they were peering over the side of the boat and into the caterpillar-infested water.

Boy [In a heavy Southern accent]: "Dad, is that caterpillar drownin?"
Father: "Naw, son, he ain't drownin'. He's jest doin' the sidestroke."

OK, so, aside from that being a funny and sweet exchange that made me laugh at something caterpillar-related, it actually helped me back in my March 12, 2010 Half-Moon pose. There I was, all freaked out by my asymmetrical pose and what felt like an excessively hot room, and what calmed me down and kept me in the room? "She ain't drownin'. She's just doin' the sidestroke."

Swamp in Slidell, near New Orleans, spring '09

Monday, March 8, 2010

"Keeps perfectly still"

Bikram yoga. It's the same thing everywhere, right? What crazy person would want to take the same class, over and over? And to hear the teacher say the same words every time? We must be out of our minds.

Maybe not.

It was The Dancing J who published a really cool post recently that reminded me of a song I used to listen to all the time. In this blog, I've mentioned that I'm a teacher. I also indicated, I think, that I used to have some anxiety issues.  Before I would teach a class, I used to be wound up like an E on the first string. I'd sit in my office, lesson plans in order. I was technically ready to go, but for those fifteen minutes or so before class started I would get nervous and couldn't concentrate on anything. I'd sorta hop around, thinking about this possibility and that, and as a result it would take a few minutes at the beginning of class to really settle in and connect with the students.

The best way to be really prepared for anything, of course, is to find a way to get into the moment. What did the trick for me was hearing Tori Amos's "Horses." (If you hate Tori Amos, just roll with me a minute anyway. I promise it'll all come together. ;-)

Before every class, I'd sit down at the computer, go to the file I'd bookmarked, and just listen. That song came out in 1997, so I already knew it inside and out--where the breaths were taken, which syllables were drawn out, and which notes were emphasized on the keyboard. To be perfectly honest, the song is not the most sonically interesting of stuff that's out there. It's repetitive. It's meditative. The melody doesn't develop into a typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus the way most songs do. But there was something in that song that spoke to me, so I'd listen to it anyway. I'd listen closely to the notes I'd memorized, letting myself get hypnotized, every single day, before each class. The anxiety about class starting would quietly drop away and by the end of Tori's final repetition of "keeps perfectly still," I would be absolutely in the moment. I'd be truly ready for class. 

Isn't that what yoga does? Doesn't it get you ready for life? You go to a Bikram class, and what some might think of as a curse ("it's the same thing every day!") is really a blessing. To do the yoga you have to meditate on what's happening. 

After a few months, regular practitioners know the sequence. We "know the words." But we can't know what's actually coming in our practice, right? Despite the repetition of the dialogue and postures, there's a spontaneity in what actually happens in the yoga room. We never know what the body will tell us, what we'll be capable of, when a line of dialogue will speak to us in a new way--or when we might unexpectedly fall flat into a puddle of our own sweat.

Perhaps because it's "the same thing over and over," you have to keep your mind perfectly still. And being present in the practice leads to being more present in life. Can't get much more prepared than that!

Check out a pretty good version of "Horses" here. If you don't hate Tori, that is :-)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Stillness and... Bandhas??

I try not to do this often, but tonight, I gotta brag! In a previous post, I wrote about stillness. My yoga practice has increased my ability to be still four-fold outside the hot room, which I'm incredibly grateful for. I actually have the tendency to slip into anxiety-ridden phases, and yoga has kept me out of that for so long. More on that in a future post ;-)

That focus on stillness is finally beginning to reflect itself in my yoga practice! I struggle so much with balance, but today, for the first time in twelve years of practicing some form of yoga on a fairly regular basis, I got into full toe stand and balanced. Completely.

I could feel it happening as I went into the posture. I stared at the discoloration in the carpet with laser beam focus as I bent forward. Both knees were pointing down. I finally figured out what the teachers mean when they say, "Butt off the heels!" Butt went off the heels, and the hands went off the ground. And not just a quick clap--I felt like I would be able to hold it for quite a while.

Stillness is the only word to describe what I was feeling in the posture. Everything around me was quieted, and the people wobbling around, the heaters blowing, it was all so distant. There was that sense of internal harmony that I usually get only occasionally in postures I feel I "excel" at.
My teacher often reminds the class that progress in yoga doesn't usually happen quickly. She mentions that many students come in hoping for quick-fixes for their chronic troubles. "In the West," she said, "we want the change instantly. Now. Pronto. But real change happens slowly. It's deeper, and then you appreciate it more." And what sweet moments when you actually see the results! I felt like a little kid who'd just been hugged by her favorite adult when the teacher noticed my posture and said, "Pretty good, Elisa."

On a sort-of related note, I have found bringing some of the principles I learned in Ashtanga yoga has helped me in working on stillness. I've been thinking about mula bandha, the root (perineum) lock.  In Ashtanga, we were taught to aim to contract it constantly--I could never get close to that--but going back to it as much as I could remember to do was helpful there, and it's helpful now. I am sure that regular Bikram practitioners are engaging mula bandha often (especially in poses like Eagle), but consciously engaging that muscle can add a certain lift and levity to the practice, if not a tremendous shock of energy. It's one more thing that we can be conscious about!

(Also related are Uddiyana Bandha and Jalandara Bandha, the stomach and throat locks--Bikram teachers often point to sucking in the stomach and compressing the thyroid. This is definitely referring to bandhas!)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

It's ALL public

You ever notice how dramatic the difference is between what we think and what we say? Between what we imagine and what we actually do? It's common knowledge that to get by in this world you need to learn how to play the game, act the part, put on the mask. We have so many ways of convincing ourselves it's OK not to be genuine--we can lose ourselves just trying to make it through the day. As George Orwell famously writes, "A man wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it."

I've been thinking of this idea lately, and of course, I've been thinking about how it applies to yoga. There's an essay I used to use in one of my classes by James C. Scott, in which he writes about how people interact with both hidden transcript and a public transcript. Although Scott applies them to the interaction between the poverty-stricken and their imperialist overlords, the terms actually help define what happens to us psychologically on a daily basis.

The hidden transcript are the thoughts we deem too bitchy, too self-conscious, etc to be spoken aloud. For me, with the exception of rants on email chains with a couple of very special friends, most of these thoughts stay firmly inside my head. Therefore, they're hidden--they don't make it to public view. The public transcript is the "edited" version that gets spoken aloud. But in stuffing the hidden thoughts into a corner all day, every day, we can begin to go a little nutty.

Here's a more specific example from just the other day. I was going over a grammar concept in one of my developmental writing classes. One of the students asked a very technical question. We got into the topic a little bit, and suddenly I realized I wasn't going to be able to answer her question. I simply didn't know the answer. Hidden transcript: I'm no grammarian. I have no idea what I'm talking about. I shouldn't be allowed to teach this class. She's looking at me for an explanation of participal phrases! I'm totally fucked! 

The public transcript: "What a great question, Student X. But since that topic is so technical and actually beyond what we're discussing now, let's bookmark it and come back!"

The public answer was polite, but I left the class feeling like such a, well, phony. And also tired. I had spent the rest of the class making sure I was on top of my game, as it to make up for my perceived lack of ability.

That's what happens when our inner monologues are incongruent with the face we're supposed to put on for the world. If we put on the mask for too long, we feel like we've stepped out of our mom's or dad's closets wearing clothing too big and too "adult" for us. We pray that no one notices we're just posing, and it exhausts us. Or maybe the mask-wearing just makes us feel irritated. Or want to eat a cookie. Whatever. Point is, there's always a negative consequence when the hidden can never come to the surface.

But in yoga? It's all public. Physically, it's all out there. There's no hiding from the anger or self-consciousness under those fierce florescent lights and brightly-illuminated mirror. I remember the first time I took off my tank top and just wore the sports bra. I held off on doing so for a long time because I have scars on my back that make me insecure about my appearance. But deciding to wear just the sports bra was so freeing. 

Emotionally, you're out there too. You can't help but work your edge in Bikram yoga, and when you are giving 110% in a room full of people, you are 110% public. But how healthy--it's even more freeing than taking off the tank top! Everything hidden is brought right to the surface, and you can finally deal with it instead of stuffing it back under the rug. The nuttiness gets quieted down a bit. We can feel less like the kid dressed up in our mother's clothes and more like our own, unique selves.  

And now will you ever be able to analyze your thoughts without thinking of the hidden and public transcript? Or was this all just wannabe-intellectual silliness? :-) I know, I know: I really need to go to yoga tonight!