Friday, February 26, 2010

Contemplation and Repeating the Past

What an interesting evening. I have been meaning to get to the downtown San Diego studio and take a class with Jim or Emma Kallett, who were my teachers when I was 18. I finally got there tonight! I was a little nervous going in--new studio, new practitioners, but I hung onto a line from a Bob Dylan song: "You can’t repeat the past? What do you mean, you can’t? Of course you can.” 

Well, I'm not ready to say that Dylan's insights are ones you should hang your hat on all day, every day, but the class was great. I'm so glad I went. Jim remembered me and kindly talked to me a little bit, and Emma taught a wonderful class. She has this way of being very energetic and driven when we're in the postures, and then, when in savasana, her voice seems to come from deep within the speakers. You almost have to strain to hear her. It's like she's mirroring what happens in savasana--maximum exertion to maximum relaxation. No strain, no effort, just rest.

She also sprinkled her class with lots of insights about focus. "Always, throughout the day, we are distracted. We think about everything except the present," she said during standing series. "Yoga teaches you to be more in the moment, to concentrate, one thing." 

There was something very fresh about hearing her emphasize the "concentrate, meditate" instruction. Don't we just need to hear it over and over? It reminds me of this really bitchin' LA Times article by David Ulin. It's so good that I've bookmarked it and visit it over and over. Ulin talks about how he struggles against losing his ability to read for long periods of time, and chalks it up to an "over-networked culture." I've memorized my favorite line from the piece: "Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know."

That's a pretty loaded sentence. We need to contemplate just to figure it out! OK, so, according to Ulin, we as a society tend not to hold up concentration, meditation as something to aspire to. We'd rather be up on what our friends are doing via Facebook, Twitter, texting, etc. It's like we want to be lightly connected, and in doing so, we avoid what's actually happening in the here and now. But hey, at least we know that Suzy had a burrito for breakfast!

I'm as guilty of this tendency as anyone. The internet alone keeps my mind hopping around like Bikram's monkey! And these phenomena--Facebook, Twitter, blogging, email, they're not bad. I love them, in fact. I love being connected to you yogis across the country. I draw inspiration and insight from your lovely posts. I also kinda like FB and Twitter and God knows my head would just explode without email. But sometimes (often? Always?)? Eeeeh, yeaaaah. I need a little more of that contemplation Emma was talking about.

I don't even need to mention that yoga can help get us there! Just getting ourselves into the room is probably more than we do all day.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Reframing Mefisto

I’ve been thinking about the concept “reframing” in the last couple of months. I found a cool site that goes into detail about why we should be aware that we need to reframe things from time to time. The authors tell us that “To reframe, step back from what is being said and done and consider the frame, or 'lens' through which this reality is being created. Understand the unspoken assumptions. . . that are being used.”

Before I get to how I’ve brought this idea to the yoga, indulge me in a little story about my cat Mefisto. Whose name is now Totoro. Let me explain.

Mefisto came to me as a stray kitten about a year and a half ago. She was completely feral. Despite the fact that I’m pretty good working with cats, she remained the most skittish housecat I’ve ever known. Possibly, she had a traumatic childhood. Whatever her problem is, I can’t get it out of her. She’s cagey that way.

Due to the fact that she was adorable and mostly black and a little bit of a temptress, I decided to call her Mefisto. Mefisto, by the way, is the devil that comes to entice Dr. Faust into exchanging his soul for a life of fame and fortune. The offer is so tempting that Dr. Faust says yes. Brief happiness and then eternal suffering await the poor doctor.

It’s a story of epic proportions, and what a name for a cat. But do you really want the feline version of Satan in your house? After a year went by, my Mefisto never calmed down. Not only did she remain shy with strangers, she wouldn’t let me touch her except when she was eating. The only form of communication she engaged in with me was opening the kitchen and bathroom cabinets, one by one, over and over again.

It gradually dawned somewhere in my stupid head one day that I was doing her a disservice by naming her after Satan. I took a shy, feral kitten and named her after the devil and was surprised she didn’t socialize properly? Oops. (And don’t get me started on the whole Orientalist “Other” conversation! Edward Said would be so ashamed.)

Time for some re-framing. The “frame” I had hung around this little cat was that she was exotic, dark, enticing but ultimately unobtainable. In the last month or two, I have been trying to think of a more appropriate name. Then, one day, I saw her sitting on her haunches, all cute and chubby, gazing at me with that quiet cat look, and thought she looked just like the creature in Mayazaki’s anime film My Neighbor Totoro.

In the film, Totoro is a good creature. He/it comes in and helps the children in the film. They don’t really understand him or where he comes from; they just accept his magical presence. Hence, I now have a cat named Totoro. Much cuter name, much more fun to say. Try it! TO-to-ro!

So, at long last, how does this all tie into yoga? Although I continue to work on stamina in the class, I have made progress in individual postures. Last week I decided to reframe Standing Bow, whose mere name strikes fear into my heart. Now, it’s just called Breathing Posture :-) All I have to do is breathe and try it. If I fall out, it doesn’t matter—all I’m doing is breathing and trying it. And you know what? It works! I can stay in it longer, I can kick harder—more often than ever, the pose just comes together for me, and I finally “get” what the teachers mean by “kicking and stretching being equal and simultaneous!”

I know that breathing is all we ever have to do. But sometimes we have to work actively to reframe things and get over a hurdle.

And guess what else? Totoro has really “opened up” the last couple of months, too! She has become much more vocal, and she is letting me pet her much more often. Not just when it’s dinnertime, either:- )

Feline Totoro!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Lose the self, find the Self.

So, I begin with a warning. There will be no pseudo-intellectual discoursing, no fun insights, no uplifting message in this post. If you want that, scroll down to some of my previous posts. :-)

There will, however, be some bitching.

Still with me? Good.

I've been feeling quite discouraged about my yoga practice lately. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I'd had to start a new medication. I've never had to take daily medication before, and the whole thing has thrown me for a loop. While it's awesome to know I'm not going to literally stroke out anytime soon, the side effects of the meds show up in the hot room. On a daily basis. Not so awesome.

When I started the meds and found myself sitting out four or five postures per class, I cultivated my inner cheerleader, who said kind things like, "it's all good--it's just a temporary setback. You are still doing yoga, you are still getting benefits, and this is an opportunity to improve!" That cheerleader did a great job for a while, but I think she got winded. Or maybe she got distracted by the captain of the football team. Whatever it is, I haven't heard from her lately.

There has been progress, but I admit to getting frustrated that it hasn't been unfolding in a perfectly forward motion. It's more like trying to swim beyond the waves--you make some progress, and a huge wave comes and knocks you back. Overall, you gain, but it is easy to lose yourself in the moments where you're being pushed backwards.

OK, I guess I have had an insight this week. I always strive to not compare myself to the other students. Usually, that's no problem. If I happen to fall out of a pose early and see Sarah executing the perfect Standing Bow, I think, "You go, girl. Rock out." No envy, just inspiration. But if I'm comparing myself now to myself two months ago, the ego is still getting the better of me. That lower-case "self" is still dictating how I should feel about myself. Really, it doesn't matter if I used to be able to do a class without skipping postures. Like Bikram says, what matters is that you give 110%. What matters is that you try the right way.

Despite the fact that I had to sit out a set of triangle, separate-leg-head-to-knee, and separate-leg-stretching, I know I was trying the right way, and trying 110%. Even amidst the churning emotional sea in my head, I had a sweet moment. During Standing Bow, one of my nemesis poses, I got into it really deeply. And there the posture was: kicking leg perfectly in line with the standing leg, body down, stretching forward like there was no tomorrow. Maybe my inner cheerleader did revive herself for a couple of seconds, 'cause I heard someone go, "Wow. That is beautiful." Grateful for the signs of progress, wherever they crop up.

Ahh, feels good to complain a little. I guess I am hesitant to appear like I'm being too whiny--too much complaining and I feel a little self-indulgent. Plus, when you write something down, it becomes permanent and empowered. I don't want to empower the bad stuff :-) But we all struggle the same way. Without sharing our struggles, how can we connect deeply to others? Our endeavors bind us, even as they humble us and seem to hold us back.

On another note, my studio owner kindly offered a free kids' class today, and I brought my eight year-old cousin. To my surprise, it was taught by current national champion Joseph Encinia. My cousin and I had such a great time. Joseph demo'd his signature poses before we started to inspire us all. He also talked briefly about his health issues and how yoga helped heal him. Best of all, at the end of class, he had each of the kids come up and demo their favorite pose. What a great move.

I don't typically talk about my teachers, but Joseph is so well-known in the Bikram community I just had to mention his class. Most Bikramites have seen videos of him practicing, so y'all know how glorious his postures are. But he has the biggest, most humble, and now very healthy heart, and he just shines as he's teaching. I feel very fortunate to be able to practice with him!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Escape from the Ether

Final savasana.

We’ve been here countless times. No matter how terrible a class I’ve had, I always have a “heck yeah, you made it!” moment as I lie on my back, honoring myself, the teacher, and fellow yogis for being there and getting through another class.

I always experience fear when I’m in the hot room. Backbends were my forte when I practiced Ashtanga, but in Bikram yoga, they terrify me. I need that teacher to shout, “Don’t be scared!” during Half-Moon pose as much as anyone. My mind races with fear—“You’re gonna die! You can’t do it! The teacher is going to eviscerate you with a samurai sword!” Of course, I don’t die, and, so far, no one has ever busted out a sword. (Although there is that one quiet guy in the corner who brings a really big towel… it’s the perfect cover, really ;-)

By final savasana, though, I feel … cleansed. Emptied. The fear is gone, and the problems with work, my endless doubts about my ability to succeed, all that is quieted.

In savasana earlier this week, that line from the T.S. Eliot “Prufrock” poem came to mind. I thought I kinda felt like Prufrock, a “patient etherized upon a table.” Initially, I was pleased with myself for making such a profound literary connection ;- ) But is that really the right description? Does yoga really etherize us? Or does it do the opposite?

Because my literary geekiness parallels my yoga dorkiness, I just have to explore the poem a little more. Here’s my attempt to sum it up succinctly, admitting that it’s a complex poem that warrants several reads. “Prufrock” centers on a man of a certain age who looking back on his life. He seems to be angry with himself for having lived his life cautiously. Full of the wisdom to know what choice he should make, he has never been able to act on anything. He tells us that he has “measured out [his] life with coffee spoons,” that he is “politic, cautious, and meticulous.” By the end of the poem, we learn that Prufrock is simply afraid. That etherized patient is him—immobile, paralyzed, aware but unable to act.

Is yoga an etherizing agent? Or is it an escape from the ether? I’m thinking it might be the latter. Throughout my day (the non-yoga part), if I’m lucky, I’m aware of the fact that I’m not aware of much. The thoughts that run through my head are utter nonsense. Even when I’m teaching I have to fight to get control of my thoughts: “How do my clothes look?” “I wonder what bakery that donut came from.” “Am I rambling like an idiot here, or have I tricked the students into believing I might know what I am talking about?” And it’s when I’m teaching that I’m the most present, yoga or other intense experiences aside. That’s a pretty terrifying realization.

But in yoga, uh, wow. Our fear, anger, and self-doubt, it’s all there. It’s right on the surface, in fact. That means we’re aware of it, right? That means we’re working on it. Unlike poor Prufrock, we’ve “bitten off the matter with a smile.” We fucking owned it. We ate the yolk.

I think that the way we feel in savasana is how we should be feeling all the time. Anyway, I wish I could carry that feeling around all the time. I appreciate my strong heartbeat. I can practically feel my little cells vibrating with life. I actually like the fact that I’m lying in a puddle of my own sweat. “Hey, ma, look what I just did! Enormous sweat puddle!” (Sorry, couldn’t resist!)

For a few minutes, anyway, we can lift ourselves out of the ether.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Stillness and Sprezzatura

I've been thinking of stillness the last couple of days. In watching the Yoga Cup, the thing I admire the most in the lovely contestants is their stillness.

In a literature class a few years ago, my professor mentioned that great writers manage to make the expression of their prose seem effortless. To describe this, the prof introduced us to the word sprezzatura. According to, the word was first used by Baldassare Castiglione in 1528: "[T]o avoid affectation in every way possible . . . and (to pronounce a new word perhaps) to practice in all things a certain Sprezzatura [nonchalance], so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it."

"Conceal all art." Don't ya just love that? Art here doesn't mean a painting or sculpture; it means something done deliberately and willfully, almost like struggling. Of course, the yogis work very hard to maintain their balance, be still, and achieve the full expression of the posture. But there's something so magical that happens when people achieve mastery at their given talent. The struggling seems to disappear, and all that's left is that radiant beauty. That's sprezzatura. Can you have sprezzatura without stillness of the mind, without quieting the whirlwind of voices and emotions inside? I doubt it. The person is just existing, expressing, and leaving traces of that connection to the moment in the art they create.

On another note, things have been pretty still in my life the last couple of weeks. No complaints--it's great for my mental and physical health, I'm sure, but the fervor that can fuel great blog posts is lacking ;-) I will continue working on achieving that same stillness in the yoga practice. Goodness knows I need more of that!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Confession: I am still a little yoga-stoned right now (to steal a term I picked up from The Dancing J's epic blog). Proceed with caution. 

So, by the skin of my teeth, I managed to drag my butt to yoga tonight. I am not doing a challenge, and I currently practice about four times a week. There are a couple of days a week where I work or attend class from morning until night, and I give myself another day off just 'cause I'm a little bit lazy. And I feel it's the right balance for me now.

I was thinking tonight might be my "freebie" night. Instead, I got myself to class and was able to demonstrate to myself yet again why I love this practice so much. 

Like we all do from time to time (or often?), I had a rough day. Work sucked. Also like we all do from time to time, when things don't go right, I have a tendency to beat myself up. Like, beat the shit out of myself. Y'all had that tendency, right? Perfect time to do yoga, though. I managed to get to class. Step one, completed.

Step two: staying in class. Have you ever had one of those moments where you wanted to bolt from the room before you even set up your mat? I don't think I've ever been quite there before. (That feeling tends to come in somewhere around Standing Bow ;-) But jeez-oh-man, as I was lying on my mat I really had to wrestle with myself even to stay in the room. I just wanted to run--jump in a lake, go to bed, dance naked in the rain, anything but have to face myself in the mirror. 

I've learned some techniques to calm myself in those desperate moments. I try to grab for a saying--something--anything--to bring me back to the present. This time, it was the "like a flower petal blooming!" line. The image struck me a different way. I used to think of a little flower gradually pulling its head up to face the sun. But, duh, E, the line says petal. The little petal is stretching open, gently unfolding itself, to allow the previously-hidden inside to receive the sun's nourishing light. Gorgeous, right?

What really comforted me, though, is that it's all about the flower petal blooming. It's not a flower petal bloomed. The action is not complete, not even by the end of class! It's always happening. The unfolding is constant. What matters is that we are doing the work to allow that to happen.

I ended up having one of my better classes. Yes! Two sets of Camel, for the first time in a couple of weeks.

Nothing's over, of course. The work problems will still be there tomorrow morning. I will still have a tendency to beat myself up for things that are beyond my control. But what lovely moments awaits you in that room!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Hand-in-Hand: Sweet Revelations

My posts seem to have an, "Oh Yoga, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways" theme to them. Oh well, here goes another ;-)

One thing I love about practicing Bikram yoga is its lack of artifice. There are no candles, no tranquil music, no teacher telling you to "love your body." Yet, you leave the class calm and connected, and you are able to respect your body more than you ever thought possible. Alright, well, I think Westerners always need to work on being truly OK with their bodies, but that's an entirely different post! I digress.

Occasionally, I get a little into myself. I love the technicality of the dialogue. I love being told exactly what the posture is doing for me. It's taught me to be more aware of the body as a functioning whole and less a composition of parts. It used to be, "UGH, those love-handles! The butt ain't bad, but the inner thighs? Girl, ease up on the Trader Joe's-brand Ritz Bitz!"

Now, it's more like, "YES! Standing forward bend is increasing the blood flow to my legs and calves! Hell yes for good circulation! Elongating and stretching the spine forward safely, unlike what I do the rest of my day!" I just appreciate the attention given to each part of the body, especially to the parts ignored by the media and superficial pop culture. (Imagine: we commend Beyonce for her marvellous lung capacity and lovely posture instead of her bodacious booty.)

Just often enough, though, my main teacher will throw a few philosophical tidbits in for good measure. I love that--they balance out that focus on myself and the attention to the body for a few precious seconds. One of the nuggets of wisdom she occasionally tosses to us hungry masses is that you can't do yoga only for yourself. It's not enough that you're improving your circulation, your kidney function, to trim your waistline. We do this yoga so that we can better serve others.

The first couple of times I heard this, I didn't understand. Yoga was my break from the world, my time to honor myself (albeit in an often painful way). How does one reconcile this?

Just once or twice, I heard my teacher encourage the class to dedicate our practice to someone. In moments where we struggle, we are to bring that person to mind to draw strength from. I don't think she meant it in a cheesy, "think of the dying people in Haiti!" kind of way. I think it's more like that "love your neighbor as yourself" saying." Americans obsess on the "you must love yourself" part of that expression. Yes, you must honor yourself before you can honor your neighbors, your friends. But you can't have the one without the other. Without loving others, the honor or respect we give ourselves is just... empty. Arrogant. I think. Can you tell I'm reaching here? 

Sorry if that's a little out there. I felt like I wanted to talk about it, though, and to hear what folks have to say!

I continue to struggle to make it through the class without sitting out three or four sets of the postures. But today, after attempting to do two sets of Camel simply kicked my butt, I thought of my dear friend I'd dedicated my practice to and managed to slog through the rest of the class. The Self and the Other, they go hand in hand. There's no real separation.

No candles, chanting, or incense. Lots of hard work, sweat, and sweet revelations.

Happy Friday!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

"Don't be scared. I've done this before."

Show me your teeth!

Lady Gaga, showin' her teeth.

I just had to start with a little tribute to the Mistress of the Monsters who got dissed at the Grammys on Sunday. (Yes, it's true. Normally I only admit to enjoying elitist music by the likes of Radiohead or Chopin, but. Uh. Gaga just rocks.)

I thought of Gaga in class tonight as my scaredy-cat self was trying to dictate how the last of the standing postures would pan out. I mentioned in a previous post that I've been dealing with some health issues and am taking it slow in class. Having gotten a squeaky-clean bill of health from the doctor just before class, though, I figured I was ready to push through the fear--at least a little, and always with listening to the body, of course.

One of the side effects of the medication being fatigue, the standing series has been tough to get through since I've been back. In my usual state of being, I've gotten into kind of an easy-breezy zone with it. I can get through the standing series doing the postures. But I don't always feel them very much. I figure that means I am not usually giving the 110% the teachers ask for ;-)

So, after Balancing Stick today, I was feeling dizzy, lightheaded, seeing stars, you know what happens. I decided to take it easy and sit down. But what do the teachers say after Balancing Stick? "It's the triple exposure effect! Do you feel a little nauseous, dizzy? Do you feel terrible? Good! Something is happening!" Doh. The jig is up. It's not just me.

Of course, you know what comes after Balancing Stick's cardiovascular workout: you get to calm your body down a little bit with the forward bending posture. It's all about balance. You can trust how the series is set up--some postures get your body juiced and some calm it back down. You take advantage of the wildly-flowing blood as you stretch the tendons and ligaments and get the blood to those starving, cut-off areas.

Maybe some would be troubled that I was taking words of advice from Lady Gaga, but the lyrics from her song "Teeth" vibrated in my head as I got up to do the forward bend. "Don't be scared," I recited. "I've done this before!" Admittedly, I did sit out the second set of Balancing Stick, but I kept my butt off the floor for the rest of standing series, sans one set of Separate Head-to-Knee.

All in all, it was a very decent class, especially considering the changes. I'm feeling really grateful this week.

(On a sorta-related FYI: According to Bikram's book/common sense, if you suffer from hypertension, you're also supposed to take it easy on Full Bow and Camel. Technically, you're not supposed to do those poses at all without a teacher present.)

I must also share with you what happened in the doctor follow-up visit today. He turned the screen to me and said: "Look at your levels! Even the non-medication-related levels are all perfect! Now, tell me about this yoga you were going on about last week. I need to lose weight." Of course, I obliged :-) I even shared the "never too late!" quote when he expressed concern about being overweight.

I am one of those people who is reluctant to push anything as a cure-all, even if I love it. I will not say that Bikram is a cure-all, and honestly, I don't think it's for everyone. But jeez-oh-man, so many things I've heard in the class that I initially thought were bogus have been proven true in my meaningless, little body in the last few months. There's something so special about it.

Thanks for reading :-) There's something very moving about knowing there's a Bikram community out there!