Thursday, May 27, 2010

Windshields and what is there

"I know that sometimes, all I can see is how I feel
Like the world is on the other side of a dirty windshield.
I'm trying to see through the glare
I'm struggling just to see what is there"
--Ani Difranco, "Virtue"

Windshields! You can get clarity in the oddest of moments.

I'm one of those people that hate labeling days. I feel like it's an exercise in futility to label a day "bad" or "good." A wonderful seed could have been planted during that bad day, and a choice you made on a good day could come back to haunt you later.

But jeez-oh-man, I gotta admit: this was a rough day. It started with a tough yoga class. It was scorching hot, and there was a serious lack of energy in the room. I swear, I was one of three people who didn't leave the room. I did, however, sit out about four sets of postures, including a set of Camel (I've grown to love Camel! I never skip it). Usually, even if my class is miserable, I feel great afterward. Not the case today--I felt fatigued for the rest of the day.

And then there was a buildup of just, well, crappy occurrences. Among other things, an issue with a student cropped up (isn't it supposed to be summer?). I got a wrong address and missed a writing class with my dad. An old man in his car literally shook his fist at me for a stupid traffic mistake, despite my sincere mouthing of "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"

I was starting to feel especially sorry for myself when it started raining lightly. As I clicked on the windshield wipers, I remembered the wiper fluid was empty, so all the wipers did was smear the grime all around. I had to struggle to see through it.

That was when the line from the Ani Difranco song came to me. We get so wrapped up in our self-centered emotions and feelings that we start thinking the universe is out to get us. The universe placed that angry old man in front of me to remind me I'm a thoughtless person. Nature decided to open up and rain down on me, in San Diego, in May, to show me she has it out for me.

What an absurd way of thinking.

As lay in my bathtub after I got home, the windshield thing really came together for me. The grime and dirt is there, sure, but if I focus I can see beyond it. I remembered as I sat in the tub, soaking the day away, that extraordinary things happened today, despite the yuckiness. When I was lost and trying to find my dad's writing class, I pulled over and went into this Tibetan Gift Shop. I had a wonderful encounter with the girl who worked there. She was so sweet, she even let me use her computer to let me check my email to see if the correct address was there. There was something so kind and genuine about this young woman--even in the midst of my "OMG! Life is hard!" mentality, I could see her good-natured-ness. Before I left we exchanged names and talked a little bit about ourselves, and she said, "I hope you find what you need."

Of course, I'd forgotten all about that meeting in my grimy-window state of mind. It wasn't until I remembered there was something beyond that grimy window that I was able to remember the good stuff.

The connection to yoga will be tenuous today, but I don't think it's forced. Yoga helps us in a couple of ways here. It requires us to focus on what's truly happening and on being present, and we learn to identify that windshield and see the self-created stress as separate from what's actually happening. Then, yoga gives us a path to work on actually cleaning that windshield, so we can see clearly what is there.

Whew. What a day, and what a lengthy post this turned out to be! Hey, if you're in San Diego, do me a favor and go to that gift shop, OK? It might be just the respite you need.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A shout-out

OK, I'm tired, it's past my blogging hour, and, like that extra vodka martini, I may regret this post in the morning. I had an interesting class, though, and I want to give the teacher a shout-out for handling things so well.

Y'all ever had a circus class? Well, that's what this was. No other way to describe it. Internally, I was a little mixed-up going in, and the class itself matched the emotional roller-coaster inside. First, the heaters were wacky. At the start of class, they were blowing really fast, hot air. Suddenly, we heard one give out. Almost instantly, it was cool in there (an aside: so much energy must be consumed in heating that room). The teacher had that to contend with the heat all class, but she did manage to keep it cooking.

Then, there were two newbies, and they were all over the place. One was fidgety, noisy, and needed a lot of attention. The other one.... fainted. Yes, she fainted. During Eagle pose, she got up to leave the room, grabbed the wall and started sliding down.

I gotta give the teacher so much credit. First of all, she knew something was up with this student. During half-moon, she asked the student if she was OK, and actually told her to sit down until the color came back to her face. But the student ignored her and persisted, and a couple of poses later, bam. There she was, all fainty.

I also don't know how the teacher managed to get there so fast. The woman started sliding, and the teacher was right there. She even got kneed in the calf--I saw the blossoming bruise afterward.

And that's all just the first three postures! The rest of class continued to be a circus--people running in and out, talking during class, etc--and I was distracted much more easily than usual. Another highlight was a really noisy guy next to me. He was moaning like he was either in extreme pain or experiencing extreme pleasure (why are those noises so close on the food chain, by the way? Shouldn't they be radically different?). A couple of times during the class, I looked at the teacher, hoping she'd say something to quiet the Moaner. But she kinda had her hands full with everything else that was going on.

Anyway... the primary purpose of this post was to give a shout-out to the teacher. She did more than just get us through the postures. The woman fainted during the first set of Eagle pose, and before the instructor had even come back into the room, she was saying, "OK! Second set! Arms up over the head." Such a rockstar. Yay for good teachers.

Best of all, by the time we got to the floor, my mind had quieted down, and I didn't even notice the Moaner. That's what it's all about, right? We can't spend our time wishing the external conditions were perfect. Let's learn how to be present... moaning and all!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"My heart leaps up"

"My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!"
--William Wordsworth

I thought of this poem today and had to share it with y'all. The message here is simple and often-repeated: when we're children, we are fascinated so easily by the world. Something as simple a rainbow makes the heart leap up with excitement. Wordsworth wants to continue being inspired by nature throughout his adult life.

It's a nice sentiment, and I think most of us would agree that childlike fascination with the world is something we should all aspire to. But how often do we actually let that happen?

It's the end of the semester for me, and this is always a time of mixed emotions. There's the anticipation of a long summer with plenty of stretches of idyll time. I can't help craving that when I'm in the middle of a stressful semester and stress levels are as high as the stacks of papers. But I simultaneously feel some apprehension. The routine will be gone--everything I rely on to give shape to my week will disappear overnight. As someone who needs a bit of routine and order, I'm finding my heart "leaping up" with anxiety from time to time, rather than the joy Wordsworth writes about.

So, today, on the third-to-last day of work of the semester, I found my thoughts bubbling up with apprehension. To combat this, I sought out a colleague to eat lunch with and worked on turning myself over to the conversation instead of dwelling on how I felt. As we were walking back to our offices, we both noticed how alive the campus felt, despite it being quiet and empty due to finals. The clouds were evaporating, the grass seemed fragrant and richly green, and the spring colors were so vivid. Our hearts were "leaping up"--this time, in a good way!

OK. How to tie this all in to yoga? ;-) One thing is that without the yoga, I doubt I'd have the awareness to know that something was amiss when I feel anxiety about the end of the semester. I'd take that as "normal."

But because I leave class so calm and wrung out, the tables are turned. I know what being in the moment feels like! Then, those moments of apprehension are correctly identified as "abnormal," as something to be worked on. Working it all out is an endless task, but without the ability to identify what the mind is churning on, we can't make progress. And our hearts don't leap up at the rainbows!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

You want me to breathe? NOW?

Anyone else occasionally get the sensation that they're just not breathing enough?

In the workshop I've been blogging about incessantly for the past couple of weeks, Esak focused a lot on breathing--pranyama, 80/20 breathing, and "holding the breath" when initially going into the postures. I had the realization today that in some classes I'm scared to breathe. What. The. Hell.

I walked into class tonight after a really busy day: classes, grading, workshops, errands, and then yoga. It had felt kind of like a marathon, and I was almost a little cocky that I was riding that wild horse of tasks so smoothly. The class really humbled me, and I could tell that the panicky feeling I was getting had nothing to do with my physical state of well-being. I was creating it. I was not exhaling and inhaling as much as I normally did.

The most troubling part of it all was that even when I realized I wasn't breathing enough, I couldn't get myself into a rhythm. Despite backing off the postures, I couldn't get back on track with the breath, and I began entering panic mode. And the most frustrating thing was that I couldn't blame it on lack of sleep, on what I ate, or what I didn't drink. It was all in my head.

The other most troubling part ;-) is thinking about where else in my life I'm not pulling enough air into the lungs. I think this idea is both literal and figurative--I can tense up and hold my breath, and I can mentally hold onto the day's events, to not let them go. In either case, not exhaling has consequences.

Back to yoga. When I'm feeling like I'm not breathing, first I'll try to gently bring awareness to that instead of focusing so intently on the posture. In worst-case scenarios, like today, I resort to singing, "Just breathe. It's gonna be OK," to the tune of that silly Lady Gaga song, "Just Dance."

Bringing up the Lady Gaga thing reminds me to be aware of my own... limits? Idiosyncrasies? Lady Gaga is... showy. Often inane. Not the most impressive musician on the planet. But her music is crack to me! Also, I keep a package of Trader Joe's oreos in the cupboard, just in case of an emergency. Also, I like the smell of skunks. Also, I can really, really get caught up in the day's herd of wild horses as they gallop on by.

But there's no need to. It's OK to acknowledge my own limits and tendencies, quirky as they might be. I can ride the horse when I need to, and hop off when I reach the destination. Just breathe, E.  


** what a constellation of topics this post has: breathing, Lady Gaga, a horse metaphor, and an admission that I like skunks. Can you tell my mind is all over the place? ;-)

Monday, May 10, 2010

It's SUPERnatural.

I'm still riding a yoga high from attending Esak Garcia's workshop this past weekend. I got so much from this workshop that this will be, at best, a general overview. Later, I'm sure I'll share more about what I learned and how it's being incorporated into my general practice.

The day began at 9:00 with a class taught by Esak. He's a great teacher--precise, motivating, but in no way arrogant or showy. For some reason, what I remember most vividly from the class was his focus on ankles. In Pranyama deep breathing, especially when talking about contracting the thighs and buttocks, he mentioned the ankles. It felt odd to think about ankles contracting (is it humanly possible to bring those together? Not for me, anyway), but in doing so, I had awareness of my body from the head to the toes. One extra part of my body felt alive!

He also talked about ankles in Eagle pose--not just wrapping the ankle around, as the dialog states, but really squeezing the ankles together. I think that's a contraction that many overlook. Must remember that one!

One of my goals for the class was to make it through without skipping a posture. I didn't quite achieve that. It was an incredibly hot class, and I sat out a set of Triangle. Oh well. I'm actually not bothered by the fact that I sit out postures occasionally, so long as I know I'm working my max and not leaving the room. Not all expectations are met ;-)

OK, so, the posture clinic. I loved how Esak set it up. He didn't begin with a laundry list of postures to gloss over; he set it up according to higher concepts that he used the postures to illustrate. I won't go over every posture and list everything I remember from it all, but here is a general overview.

The first concept was breathing--I believe he used the term "breathing like a master playing guitar" to introduce it. Here, he focused on Pranyama (duh, and more on that one later) and Half-moon. He really de-mystified 80-20 breathing for me, and the clarity I got there was so needed.

The second concept was Hatha yoga (Hatha, the physical practice of yoga, translates to sun+moon. It's all about balance.) The third theme was backbending (lots of focus on identifying the thoracic part of the spine--Balancing Stick, Half-tortoise), and the fourth and final concept was Raja yoga, which was a little short due to time constraints. But at least there we talked about coming into the postures quickly, no fear--Camel, Standing Backward Bending and the second part of Awkward.

For now, I'll just talk about two posture insights I got. One was on flexing the foot in the second part of Standing Head-to-Knee. He had us really work on it. First, we practiced flexing the foot while it was on the floor and seeing the muscles above the shin come to life. Then, he had us hold the pose, foot kicked out, while he came around and ensured that we were all truly flexing it. It wasn't until he came over to me and poked at that muscle that the foot really flexed for the first time. Very cool "a-HA!" feeling on my part. It ain't easy to actually flex that foot--it's much more than pulling the toes back slightly.

I could see that it was not Esak's style to use himself as examples for what the postures "should" look like, and I liked this about him. He mainly used the students as examples (including me in Pranyama!), which allowed him to give them even more feedback. But, among others, he did demo Standing Head-to-Knee, and in doing so, he pointed out a truth about yoga (and life, as far as I'm concerned) that most people overlook. He said that to perfect this pose for a competition, his teacher (Mary Jarvis) had him do it ten times a day. Then, twenty. He said that before competing, "I did the pose of thousands of times."

Isn't that reassuring to hear? It's just practice. It's just time. I think we are engrained with this myth that mastery comes from innate talent or ability. But no. It's time spent. Certainly, some may have more natural flexibility than others, or a body type that makes certain poses easier than they might be for others, but like us all, Esak didn't improve until he did the pose again and again. Doesn't that bode well for the lot of us? :-)

(By the way, if the idea of mastery from practice vs. innate ability interests you, go buy Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. He talks about this concept in detail.)

I also got a much deeper understanding about what happens and why in Pranyama. Esak talked a lot about the diaphragm and why sucking in the stomach helps. In part, we need to suck in the stomach because doing so compresses the internal organs, "allowing air to go into parts of the lungs that don't normally get used." I knew the second part, of course, but I hadn't thought of the internal organs getting squished down to make room for the extra air. Very cool. He asked me to demo the posture, and I was happy to hear that I was on the right track with it. As you know, it's really hard to keep the stomach sucked in when exhaling, but it can happen. Sort of.

It was at this point that Esak mentioned that what we do in yoga is not un-natural, it's supernatural. He was big on reminding us that in yoga, things do not always feel that great. There is often pain. Not injury, of course, but intense discomfort. Yoga goes beyond the everyday range of motion, taking what we do in everyday life to a higher (super) level. The extra air you pull into the lungs in Pranyama, the intense backward bending you do in Camel--we don't do that without making the effort and deciding to do so because it's needed.

So... make the effort. Put in those hours! And, finally, I'm done for now :-) It really feels like I'm just scratching the surface.

Esak Garcia, flexin' that foot

Thursday, May 6, 2010

No expectations! Well, maybe one or two...

Is it really possible to set aside our expectations for yoga? For me, it's a lofty ideal. It would be great to wake up and not think about what I want to happen--be it in my writing classes, when I go out to dinner, and, especially, with yoga.

I do strive to set those expectations aside in my practice, but with the Esak Garcia workshop coming up, I can't help but get a little excited and just hope certain things will occur. Maybe I could just reframe and call it "goal-setting" ;-)

The workshop begins with a class taught by Esak. Then, we have a short break, followed by a seminar/posture clinic/whatever that goes until 4:00. Goal #1: don't sit out any of the postures and just enjoy the class and new instructor.

I know it will be impossible for Esak to go over all 26 postures, and I'm sure I'll get a lot out of the discussion of whatever postures he chooses to discuss. Goal #2: appreciate insights into whatever he chooses to have us work on.

OK. My lofty "appreciate what's offered" ideal ends there. Here's what I want! I'm really hoping he has us work on Half-moon. I can't seem to get enough of teachers telling me not to get scared in Standing Backward Bend, and I've already posted about my curvy spine in Half-moon. I've never had a teacher single me out and tell me they could see I was capable of much more, but I know I'm capable of so much more. I can't seem to push myself enough here by adhering to the corrections given to the class. I need to kiss my fear of those poses goodbye, and a little one-on-one might just do the trick.

There are other poses I feel a little... blank about. By blank I mean that I simply have no idea what I'm doing and wonder if I'm getting anything out of them. In Standing Separate Leg Head-to-knee pose I have no idea what my hips are doing, yet the dialogue is specific about "right hip forward, left hip back." I'm also afraid of injuring myself on the forward bends, so Seated and Standing Separate Leg Stretching poses would be great to work on.

That said, regardless of what Esak chooses to do, I'm really looking forward to the workshop and spending a whole day on yoga. I'm going to take lots of notes, bring a camera, and hang out wiht my mat buddy. Only 20 people or so have registered at this point, so we should get some individual attention. You know I will share any insights I gain from this!