Monday, December 5, 2011

"Wrongful Appropriation": Bad Karma?

It's been a while since I got my knickers in a twist.

No... wait... that's not the correct metaphor. That's too polite and girlish for what I felt the other day when I commented on Alive in the Fire's post about yet another Bikram lawsuit. More like, it's been a while since my guts got so heated they could roar fire.

I think most avid Bikram yoga practitioners have weighed in on Bikram's tendency to go after studio owners that use his series without receiving training or paying their monthly dues. I'm writing here not so much with the intention of offering my opinion on the matter, although, as you'll see, I do have one. It's more like I just want to... complicate the discussion and make some connections between this yoga and what I do for a living.

I am a writing teacher. Right now, our semester is winding down, and I'm commenting on final drafts of research papers. One of the things we writing teacher diligently teach is how to avoid plagiarism when citing. Using sources correctly is a tough skill to teach, and contrary to what you might think, teaching students to avoid plagiarism is NOT as simple as reviewing the rules and telling them about the horrifying consequences (reporting to the dean, a black mark on your spotless record, possible expulsion! Life sentence in jail! OK, not the last one). Most of the plagiarism teachers see is unintentional, and there are also cultural differences that can make source management trickier for some folks than for others.


And then, to complicate matters, what I do in my daily life runs counter to hard and fast rules about plagiarism. I manage a file-sharing website for our department that allows teachers to post and download handouts to use in class. I make it clear to anyone who submits something to the site that it is for sharing. Don't expect the instructor who uses your cause-and-effect paper idea to cite you when they distribute it to their students. They might think it's the perfect assignment to share with their students--making little changes here and there as needed to make it their own. Who benefits? The student, as does the instructor who doesn't have to freak out thinking they have to start from square one. Talk about good karma!

(For more on this reeeally interesting issue, check out Feralchick's blog--she taught me all I know about plagiarism (look, I'm citing my source! ;-) or look up plagiarism-obsessed scholars Rebecca Moore Howard or Nick Carbone.)

Look at any aspect of the media, art, culture, etc and you'll see examples that complicate copyright law. In hip-hop music, sampling is often celebrated. And what is art but a graceful amalgamation of other artists' ideas and techniques? No wonder students come into college befuddled, anxious, and even surprised about our rigid guidelines for using sources correctly.

All my gooey, share-the-love goodness runs dry, however, when I read a student research paper on education that begins with this "hook" for their introduction: "Education is often being confused with schooling, relying on the premise that time spent in school is directly related to education. Somehow, by osmosis or some other magic force, spending time in school will lead to an educated person. This is one of the biggest lies and misnomers that is pervasive throughout our society." Wow! Sounds great, right? I've done such a great job teaching my students this semester! Look how much this guy's improved. Aww, wait... "misnomer"? "Osmosis or some other magic force"? Waaaait a second.

Do a quick Google search on one or more of these sentences and you'll see the passage is lifted directly from a blog on education. What follows a teacher's discovery of plagiarism is an odd--and frustrating--range of emotions. Did this student think they could trick me? Did they think I was stupid? How could I not notice that their writing was suddenly of a level publishable by the New York Post? The action of lifting a few sentences to use as a lead for one's research paper is suddenly a full-on assault of a teacher's ego.

I bet my fire-breathing reaction to plagiarism is a little what Bikram must feel when he realizes that yet another studio is teaching something akin to his series without crediting (*cough*paying*cough*) him for its proper use. I'd be pissed, too. If I designed a series of yoga postures and breathing exercises, added a dollup of hot, and remained convinced that this could significantly improve people's well-being, my ego would scream I did that, you cocksucker motherfuckers! (Sorry for the profanity, kiddos. I'm just using the words of the man himself that he was screaming into a phone the one time I approached him for a photo.)

It's a perfectly human reaction. The first time I saw chunks of one of my syllabus in another instructor's syllabus, I thought, "Hey! That looks familiar. I'm not sure I dig that." Aaaaaand then I remembered I pretty much stole most of my syllabus from other teachers when I first started. Once again: who benefited from the instructor who used excerpts of my syllabus? The students. The instructor. The only one who was momentarily hurt? My delicate ego.

But it only hurt for a few seconds.

I totally get the very legitimate reasons for why Bikram would want to copyright the series. As I said on Alive in the Fire's blog, I want to take a Bikram yoga class. I want my Pranyama followed by Ardha Chandrasana followed by Padahastasana.  I don't want the teacher to ask for "requests" at the beginning of a yoga class. Don't mess with the order, dammit. Don't touch that dial. Bikram doesn't need a copyright to keep people coming to his studios. I'm not going to other studios because when I want McDonald's, I'm not settling for Jack-n-the-Box. Or Hardee's. Or whatever else y'all have on the east coast ;-)


And before I finish my little tirade, what gets me most of all is that it seems like Bikram (or his handlers?) are proud of the fact that they go after every studio. Check out this self-congratulatory note on his copyright page on his website: "The asana sequence copyright registration joins Bikram’s growing portfolio of registered copyrights and trademarks that lie at the heart of the proprietary Bikram Yoga system.   Bikram can now easily and effectively enforce these rights."

Yay! He can now sue easily and efficiently. Phew. Now that his portfolio of lawsuits is growing steadily, surely no one will dare to bait his wrath!

That's just what I keep thinking my plagiarizing students will realize. Hmm. We're not quite there yet.

Please note that I am not pro-plagiarism, nor am I pro-copyright infringement, or pro-badness in any way :-) I am not a legal scholar, so take my comments on copyright with a grain of salt. I know it takes a great deal of critical thinking and due diligence to use source material responsibly, and I am definitely pro--, uh, that!

If I could offer up a paltry piece of advice, though, it would be this: Let the karma yoga you preach about actually be your karma yoga.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Trails Untrod

Do you ever feel like "doing the posture" is an incredibly lofty goal? Do you ever want to laugh in the teacher's face when they say, "One day you will touch your forehead to your toes!" Not in this lifetime, right? (Those of you who can do this, well... I guess I'm not talking to you ;-)

What force entices us to undertake these seemingly impossible challenges again and again? It seems like inside and outside the hot room, challenges we've seen time and time again are placed before us. I think of 'em as "Deja vu Obstacles": The frustration I feel in the balancing series, the claustrophobia that sets in during the floor postures, the heart-pounding head rush of Camel pose. And don't even get me started on stuff in my personal life. Boy, have I been here before.

I've been thinking a lot about these patterns lately. I feel like I've been stuck in a certain sticky cycle--one you'll have to buy me a burger to get me to open up about--for quite a while now. I get out of a tough situation, and I breathe a sigh of sweet relief. Then, I notice a pretty trail open up before me. I happily toss my stuff into my wheelbarrow and skip down it, thinking, "This time it's going to be different." Almost immediately, though, I can see it's not. The trail is as well-trod and worn, and before I know it my little wheel has slipped right back into the same rut.

What compels us to sign up for more of the same?

To answer, indulge me in a little detour into my grad program. One semester I took a seminar on William Faulkner. The teacher, a grumpy PhD who was itching to retire, assigned me a presentation on his short story, "Red Leaves."  Part of the story centers on a slave (known only as "Negro"), who has been assigned to live and work with an Indian chief. (Criticism of this white Southerner's problematic portrayal of Native Americans and black slaves is duly noted.)

When the Indian chief dies, the nameless slave panics, knowing that it is his fate to be buried with his "master." Although he has been prepped his entire life for this hard fact, the slave runs for miles and days, trying to outrun his fate, saying, "Ole, grandfather. It is that I do not wish to die." At last, though, the slave gives in and is caught, led back to the village to meet his death.

When I was to present on this story, the only instruction I was given was to be prepared to tell the class why the nameless slave ran. I read and reread the story, thinking there must be some magic sentence in the text to help me answer the professor's question. Finding none, I stumbled nervously on the day of the presentation until she asked me the question outright. "Why did the slave run?" "Uhm, because.... ah, that's Life," I managed to spit out. "Human beings are compelled to live, and no amount of conditioning can take away our desire to live."

I think this is the same force that compels us to take up that trail again in the hopes that it's fresh and untrod. Or perhaps it's that we take up the trail in the hopes that we'll have the strength to propel ourselves out of the rut in the hopes that we can continue marching toward our goal. We may know deep down that it's our fate to fail to touch our forehead to our toes, but that doesn't stop us from unrolling our mat in the hot room day after day. No amount of neurotic conditioning should rob us of our will to attempt improving ourselves again and again. Find that pretty trail. Get your wheelbarrow ready. Try, try again.

_____________________________________________________________________
You can read "Red Leaves" here.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Yoga Babies

Yoga babies. No, it's not an attempt to rip off the ever-growing yoga clothing industry, nor did I witness some strange new Mommy-and-Me mutation. It's the perfect description for the class I had today.

Now, babies have been on my brain lately. Not in the way you might think--I'm not gettin' knocked up anytime soon--but I have been thinking about 'em. A dear friend welcomed her first child into the world recently, and following her experiences with that has been fun. I'm also in the mid-semester grading slump that hits all of us teacher types. (Non-teachers: please forgive your teacher friends for their inexplicable yet cyclical October/April madness.) To prevent myself from falling into a pit of grading despair, I take a few moments here and there to let my thoughts get all innocent and childlike. There's a big difference between this internal monologue: "Goddammit. How did you make it to this level of college without learning to use a fucking apostrophe?" and this one: "I notice that this student takes a creative approach to the conventions of English!"Ahh, a beginner's mind can be a welcome relief to the drudgery of the day.

Back to yoga. Today's class was a steamer. To boot, there were quite a few first-timers, which meant the instructor had to spend a bit of time here and there attending to Fixed Firm poses and ankle-holding issues :-) And there was just... something in the air. You know those classes that seem to have bad energy? Those ones in which us students remain obstinate and listless, wrung out like an old rag, despite the best efforts of a wonderful instructor to keep us going? It was one of those.

As the normal hour for class to be over approached, we were still postures away from being done. As I lay on my back between postures, I noticed bizarre things--people walking back and forth (to get what, I don't know), the wheeze and moan of a newcomer. At one point, I turned my head to see the instructor walking the rows during mid-posture savasana. She knelt down between two new students, whispering some sweet reassurance to them. Enviously, I wanted to know what she was saying. Couldn't she see we were all suffering, too?

That was when it hit me: our class was a bunch of yoga babies. There we lay, little infants, exhausted, begging for relief and attention. The teacher was ultimately of no use in this matter. And I think that the best of teachers, mothers, husbands, lovers, friends--none of them can do anything but remind us of the fact that we are already worthy of our own love. Isn't yoga all about self-care? Ain't it a tool for us to tend to our weary, irritated, and ambivalent souls?

So, it's OK, little yoga babies. We can throw our little tantrums and wish our teachers would tell us "take it easy, honey." But even sweeter is the realization that we already have the ability to soothe ourselves.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Lions and Camels and Nietzsche, Oh My!

"Writing is like magic because you cannot see the simple psychology you are weaving, the questions you are asking, the way you are reshaping how you interact with your world," writes Rebecca K. O'Connor, author, falconer, and blogger on The Rumpus.

I wasn't able to articulate why I haven't been able to blog lately until I read that wonderful piece of O'Connor's. Lately, I feel like I'm seeing life so clearly. In looking back over the stages when I've blogged most often--and blogged best, if I may be so bold--it was when I was mired in little tragedies I was willing to share with you all. I was desperately trying to peak behind the fabric of my experience, and writing was the fingers that allowed me to grasp. For a moment, perhaps I'm taking a break from weaving that simple psychology.

These past few months have led up to a pretty big change in my life. I made a decision that took far too long to arrive at, but the relief that swept over me after making it was so welcome I don't regret the lost time one bit. I feel now that I've been on my knees, begging for mercy, for over two years, and I finally heard a voice saying it was OK to get up. And, mind you, not one of those "Hello, E, it's schizophrenia calling" kind of voices. Something different.

Anyway, how wonderful it is to finally stand up! Nietzsche and, oddly enough, Sufi poet Rumi write that spiritual unfolding occurs in three stages: the camel, the lion, and then the child. In the camel phase, we feel we have been burdened with the suffering of our existence. We trudge onward, until finally we kneel, as a camel will, under the weight of our burdens. We surrender completely. It's only then that we can rise up like a lion, full of the strength and majesty we need to meet our challenges.

OK, I get it--it's kind of a cheesy comparison. (That's also an odd thing to say about something Nietzsche-generated.) But you know, don't we all get to feeling like we've been taking a knee from the weight of our burdens for far too damn long? Moreover, I bet we also all know what it feels like to finally set that heaviness aside and rise the fuck up. I'm feeling it now--every sleepless night, every jagged meditation session, every scalding tear, every desperate conversation with friends, every scrawl in the journal, and every sweaty yoga class--they do add up to something far bigger than the sum of their well-intentioned parts.

Ahhh. Life is good. I teach, I sweat, and I sleep. The only downside is that it doesn't provide me with much inspiration for blogging :-)

But I know from living in a dualistic universe that these things are cyclical ;-)  I'm sure the camel will be back, but for the moment, I'm sure enjoying being a lion.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Being Breathed

It's not often I scramble for a pen when I hear someone speak. When I'm listening, I like to let the person's words wash over me. I like to get lost in the scrunch of facial features, of animated hand movements, of  soft or rushed tones of voice. Buddhist teachers tell us that if we hear something we like, it's resonating with what we already know. No need to form attachment to words--we already know it all.

But I've been haunted by this quote by poet W.S. Merwin since I heard it two weeks ago. "Little breath, breathe me gently," he writes, "for I am a river I am trying to cross."

Ah. So much here. I think we all know what it's like to experience anxiety and fear. What happens when we perceive something as being fearful? The breath takes over, enlarging itself to spur the body to action. We panic. But with attention, even in stressful situations, we can encourage the breath to remain gentle.

I also like the author's implication that we are not forcing ourselves to breathe. Even as we bring our attention to it in yoga or meditation, it's ultimately an unconscious action. It's a natural part of our existence. Knock ourselves out with a hammer, booze, or drugs, and the breath will soldier on. It holds us. It's our rock--it will always be with us, until it's not, and until we are not. It's like something is breathing us. (Maybe that's why noticing it can be so centering.)

I think we struggle to cross our own rivers all the time. We have a tide of tendencies, of habits,  compulsions, and obstacles that arise constantly. They can seem overwhelming, and it's so easy to lose sight of that little breath. But to remember that we are being breathed, well, that would sure go a long way to fuel our little boat.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Caesura

It's been a while. It may be even longer before there's an actual post to speak of. The change of the semester starting has seemed awfully big this year, and while objectively, things are good, there seems to be a bit of a sea change going on in my life. Makes it hard to write, knowing that these uncertainties will be etched into some corner of the internet for all eternity.

It's just a caesura, a brief rest in this particular musical score. I'm sure I will be back! Don't think for a moment that I've stopped going to yoga or reading your blogs :-)

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Fort-Builders

When I was a kid, my brother was my favorite person to play with. We'd enter into our own world, fashioned typically of boy things like sticks, Star Wars toys, and GI Joes, and everything else would drop away.

When he and I were really young, one of our favorites was to build a fort out of the couch in the spare room. I think it's a common experience for fort-builders: ironically, they're kinda frail. My brother and I would take the cushions off and rearrange them very meticulously so that they surrounded the couch with just enough room for us to slide in on one side. Once we were inside, we had to move very carefully so as not to collapse the walls surrounding us.

There was always something so thrilling about that activity. The joy was in the doing: in the placement of the cushions, the imaginative reasons for making the fort, and the cautious entrance. Honestly, I've forgotten moments after we actually got inside. I imagine we looked at each other, reveled in our creation, and then got bored and punched our way out. Or maybe we started fighting and it all came crumbling down ;-)

I think most of the fun was in the acceptance of the cycle: you build, you love what you're doing, you appreciate it for a moment, and you let it all wash away so you can build it up again. This is particularly easy for kids to do, I think. Think of the way a toddler passes his favorite toy back and forth with you. He trusts that what you take from him, you will give back. (Maybe it's harder for us adults, but I digress...)

I feel like I'm on a similar cusp. I feel this especially strongly today. This morning, I took a step back and looked at what I've been building as I was recognized in a special tenure ceremony. For those who don't know, tenure is kind of a permanent position granted to teachers after you put in some dues and demonstrate you're qualified for the job. (Please note, not all teachers who deserve tenure are afforded an opportunity to get a job, especially these days.) It was such a lovely experience, and what was especially interesting about it was the reminder that the times we're most honored are the ones in which we're the most humbled. I stood on a stage with 12 other faculty members, feeling those two extremes pretty profoundly. I allowed myself to recognize that I've spent the last six years lovingly, joyfully (mostly) building this little fort, all the while knowing I was dependent on all those who continually show me the way and build with me. I may have "done it," but, at most, all I did was combine ideas I pretty much stole from everyone I've befriended along the way. That's the way it is. We build together, and when we're doing it right, we love the process.

It's so like yoga, isn't it? The teachers tell us over and over that it's not the degree to which you exemplify the posture, or whether you get your forehead to that knee. The more joy and compassion we bring to our practice, be with the posture, and are able to let go and happily embrace the next, well... I can't help but thinking those forts will become just a little more solid.

Friday, August 5, 2011

No LTR!

For the first time since I've started teaching, I am able to write these words: It's the end of the summer, and I'm ready to go back.

We start up in one week. A WEEK. It's odd. This has been a pretty wonderful summer, and I haven't checked off half of my summer to-do list. Usually, the looming fall semester rains a shower of gloomy anxiety over me, but this time, I'm really ready! I haven't quite figured out where that openness is coming from this time around--maybe I hit just the right blend between intense travel, yoga, and relaxation.

One thing that I hope to take with me in fall semester are the little yoga breakthroughs that I had these past few weeks. I actually practiced regularly at two studios this summer, just for a little change of scenery! I've heard Bikram teachers say that summer's the best time to practice--your body is just so much more open and willing to change-- and I hope that some of this progress sticks. For one, I can finally get my leg upside-down L like Linda in Standing Head to Knee. I am beginning to think about lowering the elbows.

The other big change came with a teacher's help. I developed a Leaving the Room Tic (LTR), which would threaten to deploy during Triangle. It would then fully deploy during Cobra during classes that reached a certain temperature. It's like my body was calibrated: Hot classes + certain postures = LTR! LTR! LTR! I'd be out of the room and sucking down my after-class Vitamin Water treat before I could stop myself.

Until.... my teacher stopped me. She's been working (quite patiently) with me for over two years now. One of the things I like about her is that she very understanding about LTR and doesn't give people grief about it. Unless, that is, she can see it's just a tic. A few weeks ago, she saw me flip over during Cobra, a sign that I was getting ready to split, and she read my mind. She kindly but firmly encouraged me to stay, and later in the class she talked in general about identifying patterns in your practice that you can then work through. This was great. It was just the push I needed. I knew I could leave if I really had to, but if I didn't have to, why go? It just sets you up for bailing on a regular basis.

Since then, I've stayed in the room. No LTR! It doesn't mean I don't sit down when I need to, but at least I don't leave. Maybe that discipline will stay with me once school starts, maybe not :-) Hmm. Maybe I am going to miss summer after all!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Judgment Takes Time

How's this for a lesson learned from a posture clinic? Judgment takes time. 

Actually, I didn't learn that particular lesson at the posture clinic. I got that one as I was driving home. More on that later. First, I want to share a little bit about the posture clinic with Jim Kallett this weekend!

Jim's a good speaker, and the fact that he lectured for over three hours straight without me boring me out of my mind says a lot. A couple of standouts. One is that Bikram has an incredible life story. I'm sure you teachers have learned it by heart, but for those that haven't, go look it up somewhere. Gurus, smallpox, shattered knees, Paramahansa Yogananda's brother, feats of strength, Richard Nixon, Shirley McClain, jeez, the list goes on. I have heard all these details in dribs and drabs, but it was impressive to hear them told all at once, in narrative form. (Once again I see the truth in what poet Muriel Rukheyser says: "The universe is made up of stories, not atoms.")

I got some good advice, too. "When you get to a fork in the road, there's an easy way and a hard way. Always take the hard way," Jim said. Damn good advice. That one really resonated, particularly because I am one who revels in the easy way. Seriously, I just heard the ding of my microwavable macaroni 'n cheese announcing its done-ness. 

Standing Bow
In the spirit of taking the hard way, when I could tell we weren't going to get to the floor series so I could get individual corrections on Cobra, I volunteered for Standing Bow. Now, I really struggle in this pose (like all of us, I suppose. It's a challenging posture). Jim had pointed out earlier that most people tend to fall into "made of steel" or "noodle from Milan" categories. I am kinda in the middle. I'm not naturally a noodle anywhere but in my hips--I had to melt down the steel over a period of years to get where I am today. I'm also reasonably strong, but I feel like I've been stuck on a plateau of my own making for a long time now.

Jim hit the nail on the head. He didn't say much after forcing my leg up to the ceiling, but he after letting me go, he said, "You're resisting. You have a lot of resistance." I couldn't help noticing he didn't say that to anyone else who came up.

There was some other good stuff at the posture clinic, but the biggest lesson came on my way home. I skipped the class at the end because I felt nauseous and had a budding migraine (resistance, anyone? Easy road, anyone?).

On my way home, I got into a minor car accident. I'll spare you the details. In retrospect, I was stuck by the calmness of the accident itself. There I was, driving 65 miles an hour, slowing down to pull off the freeway, when I saw the crate in the middle of the road. Within a span of a second, my mind had assessed the situation: "Shoulder on the right. Cars on your left. You are going to hit that crate." So, I hit the crate.

It wasn't until I was on the side of the road, exiting my car to see what the hell that god-awful scraping sound was (the crate instantly punctured my front tire), that the fear started washing in. "Oh my God. I could've died. Someone else might hit the crate. What do I do? My head hurts. Who do I call? Why did I cancel AAA?" Compared to the aftermath, the actual moment of "the accident" was quite calm.

I saw that three others had hit the crate before me. One of them bravely grabbed the crate out of the way before changing his tire so others wouldn't hit it. As I waited for my friend's son to come out and help me put on a spare, I started talking to the young woman who was also waiting for her tow-truck savior. Turns out, she's a Bikramite, too. We kinda gawked at each other in learning this--she'd even practiced at the studio I was coming home from.

What lesson is this? What do I take from this?? The only one I can process, after stress-eating on a fast-food fish sandwich and french fries and sleeping for twelve hours, is this: Judgment takes time. Worried about an accident or disaster? Don't be. The thing itself isn't nearly as frightening as anything your mind will make it up to be later.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Just Enough Slack

I saw this cartoon in The New Yorker a couple of weeks ago and have been waiting for it to make an online appearance so I could share it with you :-)
From a July New Yorker

Ain't that just the way it is? (And isn't this cartoon so Bikram?) OK, OK, I suppose I can grab my toes and get the back of my knees on the floor, but I will simply not get my forehead to the toes in this lifetime. I appreciate my body but also recognize its limits.

One of the things I like about this cartoon is the look of, well, distress on the woman's face. I totally relate to her. My mind is oriented toward success and overcoming obstacles. When I sense that they are extremely far-off or likely impossible to overcome, I get a little sad. And scared. And maybe even a little pissed off.

I guess the important thing to remember is that the point is not that we overcome the obstacle. It's like having a giant ball of yarn bouncing around behind you. You can ignore the ball and let it bounce around behind you, knocking people over and getting in your way, or you can take up the yarn and work at it, slowly, gently. You know you're never going to disentangle the whole thing, but it's enough that you work, piece by piece, until gradually you have just enough slack that you can do what you need to do.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Security!

Picture this:

It's 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday. You're sleeping peacefully, as any rational person would be. Suddenly, all hell breaks loose: you are hit by a wall of sound so overwhelming it feels like your body is being struck. You tumble out of bed, terrified. The cats are already hiding in the closet. You dumbly register the thought, "The alarm is going off," but it feels like so much more than that.

This was my morning. After realizing what was happening, I went through almost comical routine of beating the smoke detector with my palm until I realized it wasn't what was making the noise. No, it was the supposedly-defunct alarm system that came with the house. I've lived here for three years now, and nothing like this has ever happened.

Man covers ears. Like I did.
I'm one of those people who has to learn a lot from movies and/or television. While there have been many cinematic depictions of the "alarm scenario," I realize now that those scenes resonate only with those who've lived it. There's simply no way to convey the volume of sound that they emit. Forget the burglar--the goddamn alarm is scarier than any robber. (Interestingly, the thought of a real break-in only registered in the furthest regions of my mind.)

I was so disoriented that it was all I could do to stumble outside and call the police. As I waited, I apologized to groggy neighbors emerging from their homes to see WTF was up.

And that.... in that period was waiting I had one of "those moments." It was like I got myself quiet and allowed this space to form around me. Maybe it's what they mean when they say "collect yourself!"

One of the lessons we learn as we sit in meditation or do yoga is how to become ever-friendlier with discomfort. The heat wills us to grab the water bottle and guzzle, but we abstain because we know that we will pay for the cool but momentary joy by feeling nauseated in Camel pose. Similarly, giving into the sensation of boredom in meditation ("I'm bored! This is pointless!") leaves hidden places unexplored. Why not push past that sense of discomfort and see what else is there?

I think that's what kinda happened as I was sitting on the stoop in front of my house. The ten minutes since I'd called the police seemed like hours, no doubt exacerbated by the embarrassment I felt in causing my neighbors to awaken at an inhumane hour. As I was sitting, I vaguely recalled a time when the home alarm emitted a quiet but irritating beeping sound. By pushing the asterisk button on the control panel, it stopped. With this in mind, I steeled myself and covered my ears as I ran inside, making a beeline for the control panel. And ya know what? It worked. I hit the button, and the beeping stopped. I cannot tell you the relief that flooded over me--I almost started crying.

Shortly thereafter, the police arrived. They each had their ideas about what to do with the malfunctioning alarm, knowing I would never, ever choose to experience it again. (One of them had the well-intentioned but not-so-bright idea of ripping the control panel from the wall. I ended up paying the neighbor's electrician friend to dismantle it. Funny how much safer I feel now that the alarm is now truly defunct.)

So.... what if I had collected myself a little sooner? What if I had sat in that (albeit extreme) discomfort instead of running around like a headless chicken, calling the police, waking neighbors, and destroying my own property?

Collect yourself a little sooner. It's the task of a lifetime!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Days like Sardines

I'm behind.

It's mid-July. I have less than a month before school starts back up, and I'm behind.

My summer to-do list was pretty extensive: Go to the beach a lot. Cook a lot. Figure out my bizarre-o dreams. Achieve enlightenment. Or, at least, find a meditation group. Replace the comforter on the bed. Teach a class and do it well. Travel. Have FUN.

I'm behind. I hate this feeling, and it's exacerbated by the fact that I've been sick all week. I haven't been to yoga since Monday, and I'm already woefully behind on the class packages I indulged in (I bought classes at two studios! To say nothing of the many restorative yoga class I've missed at the adult school!).

I'm behind. I hate this feeling, yet... maybe it's just what the doctor ordered.

In an email to a friend of mine I lamented this loss of time due to illness. In response, my friend gently suggested that my body might be calling out for a rest from all of this summer R & R. She might be right. It's experiences like these, where I'm strapped into my skin like Hannibal Lecter into that straight jacket and mask, that I wonder what all my daily doing is really about. During the school year, I look forward to a lazy summer the way I dream of a bottle of coconut water during a particularly hot yoga class. But summer arrives, and I pack it full of must-dos, inventing tasks that I rationalize are essential to my existence.
Packed like sardines

So... the big question. What, in God's name, am I avoiding by packing my days like sardines? Is even half that stuff essential to my existence? It might take me a lifetime to figure out, and even placing my toes at the edge of that very big pool is a frightening idea."My mind is like a bad neighborhood; I try not to go there alone," said Anne Lamott. Maybe it's best not to go it alone, or walk too far too fast ;-)

The good news: despite almost a week spent in bed, I'm having a fun summer. I'm behind on yoga. The only cooking I've been doing lately is of rice and soft-boiled eggs. I've only tried one meditation group, I still have that cat hair-infested comforter on my bed, and I've only been to the beach three times. But damn, those were fun times. And maybe some quiet pool-wading was on the summer to-do list after all.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Que linda es la vida: Look at all the costumes!

"Wipe your hands on your costume, and bend forward to pick up your foot."

The costume concept has really been with me lately. In the hot room these past few days, it's like I hardly know myself; some days I'm a rockstar from another planet, others I'm a mouse huddled in the corner, toying quietly with my water bottle as the rest of the class launches themselves into Balancing Stick.

I gotta say, I love the variation. During the semester, I often feel like a woman who only has two or three outfits: Teacher! Colleague! Exhausted person desperately trying to make the most out of a few ounces of spare time! But during the summer, ay. Que linda es la vida. I feel like a spoiled princess who gets to try on a thousand dresses, reveling in the different fabric, texture, and colors of each, knowing there's nothing stopping me from wearing what looks good that day.

(Case in point: I just wrote an extended analogy about wearing fancy dresses. If you know me in person, you know I'm the girl who thinks that wearing a bra makes her suitable to go out in public. This girly-girl post is a summer special, folks.)

It's when I have the time to play with all the different costumes in my closet that I feel most like myself. Maybe that's just the way life is: we go through phases--new mommy, cashier, invalid, writer, mountain climber, liquid eyeliner-wearer, thrift store-hunter--and some of those outfits are like uniforms we're forced to wear for a while. Though some outfits are given away, some are mainstays that will haunt the closet for a long time. 

I know I've been referring to a lot of super-smart spiritual teachers lately, but the person that kept coming to mind as I toss this post around is Tori Amos. (Please, please, bear with me ;-) She did an album a few years ago called American Doll Posse. The unifying concept of the album--God, do her recent albums have unifying concepts--is that the songs are sung from the point of view of Greek goddesses: Demeter, Athena, and all those other righteous chicas I never took the time to learn about. While the album isn't quite as "solid" musically as some of her earlier stuff, I think that idea is kinda cool.

“It’s not just, ‘I’m going to wake up and play dress-up today,’" Tori Amos says about the point-of-view thing. "What I'm trying to tell other women is they have their own version of the compartmentalised feminine which may have been repressed in each one of them. For many years I have been an image; that isn’t necessarily who I am completely. . . I think these women are showing me that I have not explored honest extensions of the self."

Yes, I just quoted someone talking about the "compartmentalized feminine." But it's summer, and I'm gonna say it: hell yeah, girl. We all have warriors, dainty doilies, surfer dudes, broken hearts, sneaky wits, and sensual lovers inside us. (And if ya think about it from a cosmic, multiple-life perspective, that concept becomes even more interesting.)

So go on. Look in your closet. Which one you gonna put on today?

And enjoy my fave song from ADP :-)


"Is there a love lost and found?"

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Bad Teacher

Feel like her today. Don't look like her today.
Warning: I am in a foul mood. It might be exhaustion from days spent babysitting little cousins in a strange house. It might be the feeling that I'm behind on work and can't catch up. Probably, it's a sense of entitlement: it's summer. Why am I teaching??

Even worse: I took a couple of hours off from grading, figuring that if I was profoundly cranky, I should be prevented from having any interaction with students in order to prevent psychological damage. When I finally returned to the job, the first email I sent addressed the student by the wrong name. www.Failblog.org, anyone? Revocation of tenure, anyone?

I am a pretty even-keeled person. Even when I'm extremely tired or stressed, I try my best to shove it deep down and maintain a general aura of complacency (very healthy, I'm sure ;-) And this, this burning sense of irritation and entitlement, only vaguely tied to the self-loathing I'm intimately familiar with,  is so foreign to me. I feel like calling it a day at 7:54 p.m.

I'm taking the rest of the night off from work and interacting with other human beings. I'm going to sit on the couch with a box of Nerds, watch Pulp Fiction, and maybe even sign up for an all-day Bikram workshop that's taking place at the end of the month. There's nothing like dreaming about the future to distract you from your current state of despair, right?

So... when y'all are cranky, and I mean throw-in-the-towel-at-8:00-so-you-can-get-this-awful-day-over-with cranky, what do you do? (Please wait until at least tomorrow to offer holier-than-thou answers such as yoga, meditation, or good deeds, or I will throw a cyber-book at you.)

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*edited to add the following uber-important update: Nerds helped, Pulp Fiction not so much. I've gotten waaaay more sensitive as I've gotten older, and the violence was kinda unsettling. Got me all aggro, to. Woke up a million times better, and a juicy Bikram class cooked away the residual cranky :-)

Friday, July 1, 2011

My Right Path

It's a time for important dates. Soon, it's the 4th of July. Last week, it was my two-year anniversary at my Bikram Yoga studio. In less than a couple of months, I'm going to hit the big 3-0.

I have been having so. much. FUN this summer. Lots of Bikram Yoga! Lots of restorative yoga! Naps! Good food! Catching up! With every sun, sweat, family, and friend-filled moment, though, comes some pretty intense reflection. I think that's the nature of dates in general, right? They remind us of our limited time on this blessed planet and invite us to think about whether we're living our lives the best way we can. This series of anniversaries have been no exception. I don't think one can step into the next decade without asking, "Did I do enough with those years? Am I really on my right path?"

One of the reflective activities I've been devoting my time to this summer is reading. I have five books in my bed right now, and I'm actually making pretty good headway in all of them. One of them is In the Buddha's Words, a collection of his teachings. It's dense and reminds me of reading the Bible, which, no offense, is not that exciting, so I view my time spent reading it as devotional practice. In a comforting and oft-quoted passages I reread earlier this week, the Buddha is at the end of his life. He tells his devoted but confused disciple "be a lamp unto yourself."

The instruction invites us all to consider what is true for us. As helpful as religious instruction can be, and as devoted we may be to our wise teachers, our belief system has to resonate with what we already know to be true. At best, religion is like a compass. It simply points us in a helpful direction. But whether we have the energy to get ourselves on the path, whether the destination even seems like it would be a cool place to go to... well... that part has to come from inside.We ultimately have to feel the destination is worthwhile and the path the right one, or else we'll get tired, bored, and call a taxi to take us back.

Of course, the trick is that it can take a lifetime(s) to discover what it is we know to be true and to set upon the path we deem right for ourselves. I feel like a newborn baby when I try to think with this in mind, and at the same time feel blocked by mistakes that I already seem to make over and over again. (How is it possible to feel too young and too old simultaneously?)

I have, however, learned or become convinced of the importance of the following things. These are *some* of the truths that comprise my own path, the lamp I will look to when it seems like it's all pretty dark out there.
  • I really, really love swimming in the ocean.
  • I am as worthy of my own love.
  • Everyone is worthy of my love.
  • Travel is hard, but damn, is it worth it.
  • I love air conditioning.
  • I love heating.
  • I am terrible at sleeping, but when I do, it's worth the effort it takes to get there.
  • I would love to be a "real" vegetarian, but sea creatures taste really, really good.
  • I need a lot of alone time.
  • I am always so glad I gave up the alone time to be with others.
  • It's OK to lose yourself in a book or in watching wind move plants.
  • It helps to be still.
  • Without yoga, I would not be the person I am today, but my hamstrings will probably never become more flexible than they are right now. There will be no forehead to toes in this lifetime.
Those are little truths on my path. What are some of the truths on yours?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Please... Make Me a Borg

Resistance is futile
...do I even need to explain the reference to the Borg? Or to the phrase, "Resistance is futile"? For those of you who were not lucid between the years of 1987-1994, or for those of you who are not pop culture nerds who research utterances that seem to refer to something generally understood, please Google "The Borg Star Trek." Also, if you don't know who the Borg are, you don't need to talk to me anymore ;-)

It's summertime, and the living is easy for She-Who-Eats-Yolks. Well, mostly easy. I have slept in until the record late hour of 9:00 a.m. I have stayed in bed until all hours of the night (i.e., 11:30 p.m.) reading Ann Patchett's new novel, State of Wonder, imagining my bed to be a boat cruising down the Amazon, my cats snakes and other such jungle marvels. I have yoga'd at other studios, gone to the movies, signed up for a meditation group, hiked, cooked. I even plan on baking. Yes, there will be baking.

There is, however, the tiny inconvenience of teaching one online class, which prevents me from oozing into a complete puddle of decadent, summery bliss. What amazes me is how this class, which generally demands no more than an average of two or three hours per day of work, absorbs much of my mental space. Through studying yoga and meditation (and also just observing what happens) I've learned that the resistance to those approximately two hours per day probably adds up to as much time as I spend actually working on the class. I wake up in the morning, and one of the first thoughts is, "I should really respond to those discussion boards first, so I can enjoy the day." During yoga: "I should've done those discussion boards earlier. Now I can't focus." After lunch: "Damn. I should really do those discussion boards." And on and on.

Once I actually sit down to respond to the discussion boards, however, it's so easy. It's relatively enjoyable! I like my job. Why so much resistance to actually doing it? Hey, Borg ship, you giant cube of lights, wires, and drone people. Come get me. I'm ready to stop resisting.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Return

Blergh. I've been opening the blogger.com page for three days now. I returned home from a little trip to Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico late Saturday, and I suppose I've just been processing ever since. I have a new found admiration for bloggers who post almost daily, regardless of what's happening in their lives. For me, it seems I must arrive upon some perfectly appropriate insight to share with my imagined audience :-)

It's taken a couple of Bikram classes to "reset" me. The trip... wow. How to sum up such an
experience? Sometimes, language is a way in, and sometimes it's a barrier laden with cliches. Parts of the trip, like waking up to the sound of the Caribbean from my cabana on the beach, were like this:

Tulum, Mexico
Mayan Ruins, Tikkal



It's not Zico!
Parts of the trip, though, such as the relentlessly hot, air condition-free hotel rooms in Flores, Guatemala, rendered me brain-dead, baffled, like the moment when your eyes set upon "Alaskan" coconut water. Yeah, you yogis think you’ll be ready for the heat, but it’s one thing for sweat for 90 minutes, knowing that at some point, the buckets of liquid will stop oozing from your pores. When there’s no end in sight, though, it’s a completely different story.
I've got an endless list of the "good" things to talk about. The food. The crumbling churches in Antigua. The jungle surrounding Tikkal. Jumping into cool water after riding in a van for hours through Mexico. Did I mention the food? Camaron del ajo, conch steak, ceviche, ceviche, ceviche. And, randomly, the best nachos I've had in my life. 

And there were challenges: riding in vans for hours. Watching soldiers pile out of their trucks to surround a nearby vehicle, enormous guns aimed at the driver. Having sweaty Apocalypse Now nights, sleeping in dead, humid air, because a local politician cut the power to our electricity (i.e., fans) so people couldn't watch a TV program portraying him in a bad light.

And then there are the spells of pure joy and connection to experience, found usually in unexpected moments, like the tiny gecko that graced my hotel room in Mexico, as if to say adios. Eating dinner by candlelight because the power was off. Realizing on the 8th hour of a cramped van ride that this is it, this beautiful ride is what I came here for. The real experience defies expectations, right?
Mi amigo de Playa del Carmen
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*Sorry for the crappy formatting, y'all. I suck at blogger.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Settled: Good. Clingy: Bad.

This weekend, I undertake two journeys. First, I will delight in my childhood friend's wedding, humbling myself by going "all-out": hair and makeup, a navy evening dress, festivities and well-wishing. Then, my father and I fly to Guatemala, where we will travel through jungles, beaches, colonial cities, and whatever else the universe has in store.

A thought hangs  in the back of my mind, like a bat reluctant to let go and whip out of its cave and into the evening sky: I've been feeling so ... settled lately. And not in an "I'm settled because I scooped me up a good guy" kinda settled. But lately, stuff 'round these parts just feels right. I delight in a morning yoga class, followed by an hour spent reading a novel for fun, eating what I want, and sleeping when and as long as I want. Why would I want to leave?
 
Settled is great. Clingy, however... not so hot. When I get super-honest about what holds me back from complete friendliness to this experience, however, I notice a lot of the clingy stuff--my friends and family, my cats, my school, my yoga, my computer, my cereal, my Jon Stewart :-) I'm trying to remember that it will all be here when I get back and that the experience that awaits me--beaches, long bus rides, colonial cities, underwater adventures, Mayan ruins (even the recent drug cartel attack in Guatemala)-- is no worse, no better. Trying to remember that the clingy stuff is just fear. 
My Jon Stewart
For some reason, this quote from Pema Chodron is on "repeat" in my head this week: "I've seen it all, and I love it all."

Namaste, y'all!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

"Aha!"

Serves me right!

Right after my post about rockstar classes--the audacity with which I spoke of driving the yoga truck--I was back to my normal ho-hum yoga classes: painful standing series, temptation to sit out Triangle and/or the next posture, and an overwhelming desire to leave the room during spine series. The anticipation (and, admittedly, anxiety) of travel and the changes it brings have hit.

"What's the use?" I whined during a particularly growly class. Our bodies are borrowed. Each time we look in the mirror, we're older. We're all marching steadily toward the grave, funeral pyre, etc. Why bother struggling and straining as we do in yoga?

I feel like an uber-nerd mentioning Insight Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield again, but I've just gotta. He addresses the question that I'm posing quite beautifully in an article of his. In honor of Oprah's farewell, I allow myself to say, I had a total "Aha" moment.

Kornfield writes of a meditation student so full of anger and judgment at the other students. At just the moment the student was about to leave the retreat from frustration, he ever-so-faintly noticed that he had the ability to see the connection between the physical manifestations of anger (tightness, shortness of breath) and his thoughts toward the students that were pissing him off. This realization was enough to keep him at the retreat. "He realized that his body had become a mirror," Kornfield writes, "and that his mindfulness was showing him when he was caught and where he could let go."

There's not really much more to say here. I think that most of us who practice yoga are comfortable with the idea that the body manifests its emotional traumas. As one of my teachers recently mentioned during class: "I have a very tight hip. When I was little, something happened, and my hip contracted." She had no need to elaborate further--those two sentences spoke volumes. That tight hip is her bodily reflection of whatever pain (emotional, I assume) she experienced as a child.

So... what's the point? "Aha!" There are a lot of good answers to that question.

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If you're interested in reading the (pretty awesome) Kornfield article, you can check it out here at the Shambhala Sun.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"Self-Hatred? What is that?"

Earlier this morning, I read the comments on my most recent blog post. I always love reading comments, but the encouragement here resonated especially deeply. In the post, I fumbled around with the idea of taking pride in my own actions. It sounds like I'm so not the only one who struggles to be able to do that!

Again and again, one of the recurrent themes that comes up amongst friends and acquaintances is the idea of not being good enough. At the end of the semester, teachers often feel a sense of failure mixed in with "it's all gonna be over soon" relief. We think that some students didn't "get it," or that they won't pass, and we take that on ourselves. In the locker room after yoga, I hear students engage in similar self-flagellation over a class that didn't go well. "I just didn't drink enough. I shouldn't have had that second brownie last night. I was thinking about my kid, and my standing series sucked." And these aren't simple observations--we seem genuinely disheartened by our own perceived shortcomings.

A divided mind
Where does this come from? It's so pervasive, despite our varied life experiences. Maybe it's partly a western culture thing. That would explain this reaction from the Dalai Lama, anyway. (Yeah. I'm finally quoting the Dalai Lama. It was bound to happen, right?)

On one of the Dalai Lama's first visits to the US, Sharon Salzberg raised her hand and asked him about how to work with self-hatred. "Self-hatred?" he repeated in English. "What is that?" It took some back-and-forth with the translators and questioner before he finally understood. The Dalai Lama had to ask Sharon for clarification, and he needed the help of translators before he finally understood what she meant. Finally, he said, "I thought I had a very good acquaintance with the mind, but now I feel quite ignorant. I find this very, very strange."

There's probably more than one way you could interpret this lack of understanding. Naysayers might say he lived too sheltered a life, or that his teachers overlooked a really big concept. I've also heard it explained, though, that self-hatred is a very western concept. Possibly, Tibetans have their own slew of neurotic tendencies, ones that simply don't encompass self-hatred. His Holiness probably had to spend a few months in the US before he witnessed the vast expanse of self-loathing behaviors. Or maybe he finally watched a Woody Allen movie.

While I am certainly in no position to draw a conclusion about cultural differences between East and West, the story about the Dalai Lama floored me, probably because it gives me hope: it is possible to live so appreciatively that it doesn't even seem possible to grasp the idea of self-loathing. May any human be so lucky as to exchange that problem for a horse of a different color!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Shadows. Yoga. Narcissists. Gold. Suddenly, it got all ephemeral.

I've been having such rockstar classes lately. I just love it.

Yogis joke about the yoga truck. Some days you get hit by the yoga truck, some days you ride it. Dare I say that today I kinda felt like I was driving the yoga truck, as if I were a unionized trucker schlepping goods across the state in record time. I'm gonna allow myself this little dip into narcissistic thinking 'cause, well... it's rare for me to do so. Typically, my thought turns toward what is wrong with my practice, behavior, teaching, grading system, etc, and when I'm momentarily released from it, dammit, I'm just gonna wallow.

Narcissus
 I mulled over the rockstar class, as I typically do with every class (except for the nightmare classes that threaten to haunt my dreams). Yes, my teachers are pretty freakin' great. Yes, I'm almost done with grading. Yes, I'm about to take an amazing journey to Latin America. But none of those things really get at why periods in our yoga practice are just better than others.

I am certainly not qualified to answer that question, but I've noticed that my practice "goes downhill" in the middle of the semester and revs back up again once the finish line is in sight. That cause and effect is obvious. But what's behind it? I tend to start getting very un-narcissist about myself halfway through the semester. Spirits flag in class, students start dropping, my grading load triples, and I figure pretty much everything crappy in the universe is my fault. Then, yoga becomes one more place to practice counting the reasons why I suck. It's almost like I have this idea that because things are "not going well," yoga should reflect that. Probably, the opposite should happen. I'm strong, I'm remarkably flexible, and dammit, I've been doing the same freakin' 26 postures for two years without a break, to say nothing of the years of other types of yoga I've done before.

This is an oft-quoted passage from Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson that might explain things:

"Curiously, people resist the noble aspects of their shadow more strenuously than they hide the dark sides. To draw the skeletons out of the closet is relatively easy, but to own the gold in the shadow is terrifying. It is more disrupting to find that you have a profound nobility of character than to find out you are a bum. Of course you are both; but one does not discover these two elements at the same time. The gold is related to our higher calling, and this can be hard to accept at certain stages of life. Ignoring the gold can be as damaging as ignoring the dark side of the psyche, and some people may suffer a severe shock or illness before they learn how to let the gold out."

Wow. So much there. The gold metaphor doesn't really work for me personally, but the concept of being frightened by what I'm good at really resonates. Glad I'm not the only one on that. Thanks, Jungian analyst guy, for making me feel a little less alone there.

I think yoga gives us the perfect opportunity to see "these two elements" so clearly. When I'm in class, I'm so aware of my body and thoughts. The criticism of self and other, as well as the pride I feel for myself and the other, are observable. So, I really feel those "shadow" classes and those "gold" classes.

No idea if I'm making sense here. No idea at all. Did it all get ephemeral? I'm sorry.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Good Movie. Memorable Mother's Day.

Holy Madre de Dios. 100 posts.

I just felt I had to acknowledge that. I'm not going to mention it again. I think. I'm actually going to fill my 100th post's text box writing about pain.

I spent the better part of the past weekend (or is it the worst part?) dealing with a migraine and its after effects. I don't get migraines nearly as often as I used to, thanks to yoga, growing up, eating slightly better, and having hormones that don't belong to a teenager.

I've always been floored by the pain migraines create. All headache sufferers know that even a small one bugs waaaay more than it should. And migraines give you the extra benefit of making you queasy and throwing up! And then hurting your joints and muscles because you're doubled up in pain! What a good reminder that the body is interconnected. Yay.

Now that I don't get migraines as often as I once did, when they come, I'm floored by the riveting fact of pain itself. I spent a good half-hour slumped on the bathroom floor, my head leaning against the cool tub, trying to focus on the pleasant smell of Dove soap while I moaned through the pain like a teenager experiencing her first hangover. I may have even thrown in a "Mom, heeeellllllpppp meeeee"--to a mother who passed away five years ago--for good measure. (Believe me, the fact that I'm got one of the two migraines I've had this year the day before Mother's Day is not lost on me.)

But all that isn't really what I wanted to say about pain. There was something almost profound about what I was experiencing. The really bad part lasted about six hours, and that time was like a six-hour meditation. There was no distraction from myself. No turning on the TV, no Youtubing, no phone calls, no yoga poses, no emails, no cleaning the litterbox, nothing but my own unpleasant thoughts and sensations to lie/slump/sit with.

Perhaps because I was finally forced to sit so still, all this mental and emotional pain came roaring up. A lot of stuff about my mom that I had simply not dealt with came out and whacked me across the face. It was like that time I was a kid, minding my own business on the playground, sitting by a tree with a book during recess, when a soccer ball randomly fell out of the sky and onto my head. (Seriously, all that happened.) It was there, waiting for me to be captive by something to go, "Oh, remember this? You knew you'd have to face it at some point." There was no escape.

Eventually, the pain began to lift, ever so slowly at first, as if feathers were being pulled off me. I could finally focus on something of my choosing. Many Buddhist scriptures begin, "Oh nobly born, you sons and daughters of Buddha, remember who you really are." I recited that in my head like a mantra, and each part stood out so clearly. I could write paragraphs on each part--being nobly born, remembering who we are instead of learning who we are, etc. There was some real comfort there in spending some time with that one line.

Finally, I got out of bed and watched Terms of Endearment until I knew I was well enough to sleep. Good movie. Memorable Mother's Day. Peace out, blogging world. I love that I can come and write here.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Soup that Makes Up Yourself

1950's TV Dinner
 I ate a frozen dinner today that looked a little like this. I suppose the food itself was slightly less disgusting-looking than the 1950s version to the right, but the packaging was just as neat. Everything was politely divided--mushrooms, rice, tofu. Play nice, kids. No touching.

I got to thinking after I ate the frozen dinner after a particularly gooey yoga class: is that at all like human nature?
A friend posted that she'd reconnected with someone she grew up due to Facebook. For some reason, her post of gratitude for FB's powers of connection reminded me of soup. It's almost like those forgotten or shuffled-aside experiences are part of the soup that makes ourselves up. Sometimes, that pot of soup simmers away on the stove for so long, by the time you sit down to enjoy it, you forgot what was in there. You go back to the cupboard and remember: Maybe it was the old bottle of thyme you found on your mother's shelf. Rosemary taken off a neighbor's bush. Maybe it was the basil, picked fresh and chopped lovingly from the yard. Or, less elegantly, it was the expired teaspoon of Mrs. Dash seasoning salt.
Remarkably, the Mrs. Dash can actually blend with other ingredients that seem distinctly different. Simmer on the stove for a few hours, though, and it begins to really be something. And just try to take out the flavoring from a pot of soup (what do scientists call it? A chemical change?). It's not possible, because they've melded together to form something distinctly new.  
Soup... much closer to who we are, I think. A colleague asked me to do something today, and I was struck by the complexity of my response. There was an immediate desire to say yes. But I didn't think it would be best to do what she asked of me, so I also felt a sense of confusion: she wants me to do X, and I think X is wrong. And then guilt for knowing I'd say no and let her down. All of those feelings boiled up, surfacing simultaneously.

There just doesn't seem to be much of a dividing line. I am not inclined to use this blog as a platform for my views on hot-button issues, but when I hear about people rejoicing in the death of others I can't help but think of soup.
A line from Aleksandr Solzenitsyn:
"If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
He's right, I guess, especially in his desperate "If only it were so simple!" cry. If only we were TV dinners. We could just cut out the pathetic attempt at fried chicken and feast on mashed potatoes and succotash. But we're a little more like soup, I think... just try and fish out an ingredient of the soup that makes up yourself.

Monday, May 2, 2011

College. Yeah.

"College, huh?"

Tonight, I was reminded yet again how our multitude of neuroses can be reflected right back at us in the hot room. I must warn you: even as I blog in the cool evening from the comfort of my captain's chair and sip from a cold glass of water, the neuroses are flying off the shelves. I think they're forming a tornado in the middle of the room.

I slunk into my Monday evening yoga class, dreading the experience. It's pretty warm in San Diego this week, and the studio seems to absorb that extra heat. Plus, it's Monday, y'know? Blergh.

The hardest part of tonight's class, though, was not the heat. It was the bitchy comment this fellow practitioner made to me in the changing room before class. OK, OK, it was probably my reaction to the comment that got me all worked up. Damn, though, did I get worked up.

I've talked to this yogi before. She's a teacher, and she knew I was a teacher, too. When she learned I taught at the college level, she raised her eyebrow and said, "Really?"

Tonight was more of the same. She walked into the dressing room, took one look at me as I was changing, and said, "College, huh?" Uhh. I look young. I know I do. Fine, OK, I am young. And I probably don't deserve my job. And I'm probably just scarring the 120 students that come into my class each semester. I'm a giant waste of time and money. I'm such a loser. I should be kissing this teacher's feet. She has every right to question my existence on this planet.

Please tell me I'm not the only one who knows this downward spiral.

Class started up right away, and I didn't have time to ask her what she meant by her question. I spent the class in a mental tug-of-war: "What was her problem? She doesn't know me. I'm a good teacher. No, I suck, I don't deserve this job, I want to be eating salad. Blah!"

The balancing series reeeally sucked today.

Then, right between the first and second set of Triangle, I got it. What a perfect mirror this yoga is. Yeah, I guess there's a possibility you could question the motive behind her comments. But I torture myself with those negative thoughts about my work all the time. I don't need an actual human to get me going on 'em. Until I excavate through those thoughts that are already there, they'll come back, again and again.

After class, I dragged myself to the locker room and managed to gasp a request for explanation of her "College, huh?" comment. She didn't answer directly, but she did share that, like many teachers across the state and nation, she's been pink-slipped. If, by some miracle in the state budget, she does get to keep her job, her class size will increase, and funding for their materials and activities will drop. And even more than getting that "don't judge" reminder, I saw she was a really nice person. She was just fuckin' worried about her life.

The conversation was really humbling. Seems I got a double message: some people have a right to bitch. Also, I'm as quick to judge myself as I am others, and that's just never helpful.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Bird with Lace Wings

Naughty!

I ditched grading and yoga today. In my desperate attempt to cling to the bliss of spring break, I left work, put on my hiking boots and revisited a lovely spot not far from my house. I saw a coyote slinking around the creek, lizards mating, cocoons, a giant millipede (yikes!), and these cotton candy-like tufts of seeds being blown across the canyon.

On the hike, trying to escape from a blaze of tedious, work-related thoughts, I thought about those moments before thoughts start to form. You know the ones. You witness something spectacular--an overpowering smell, a marvelous sight, or an enrapturing song. Moments arise when you're just "there," and your mind stops. For a moment.

At one point during the hike, I noticed something flying overhead. I had one of those thinking gaps where I simply experienced. It was like a black bird with light beaming through its wings just happened.

Then my mind started up again. My first thought was "bird with lace wings." It didn't even seem like a thought. It was more like a flicker of energy, this gentle label. I looked longer, though, and my thoughts formed a more cohesive (and depressing) story. It was a crow. It didn't seem to be flying too straight. It had patchy spots in its secondary feathers, where pieces were missing--due to illness, a fight, I don't know. Maybe it couldn't chase after food or other birds very quickly now.

I'm describing a process that happened in less than the blink of an eye. I saw something so startling it shocked me out of that powerful blaze of thoughts. Then, a story started to form, and things quickly went from good to terrible. The holes in the crow's wings that had initially inspired the beautiful thought, "bird with lace wings," immediately took on a very sad quality. Talk about an Easter moment: how quickly birth and death occur! A bird happened, my thoughts flared up, and my mind kinda stabbed the whole experience to death by forcing relentless thoughts on it.

I'm reminded, again and again, how tremendously powerful our thoughts are. Forget weapons of mass destruction: it's our thoughts that do the most damage of all. I suppose that's why we crave yoga and meditation. We set time aside to allow those moments before thoughts to happen. We observe our mind (and body!) in action. I think Bikram puts it as "You walk the dog or the dog walks you!"

How powerful these thoughts can be, huh?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

I got an F? Good.

I'm good at a great many things. I'm a good baker, a good friend, a good nature-watcher, a good traveler, a good reader, a good teacher, and a good morning-riser. Part of me hates the idea of grading, but as a teacher, I'm compelled to do so ;-) In these things, I give myself a solid A or an A-.

If I had to grade myself according to polite society's standards and give myself F at something, I'd fail myself at finding a partner, at "being in a relationship." (As I type this, in a reflective state, I see the absurdity of the statement. In truth, I'm in relationship all the time. Always was, always will be.)

Polite society would tell me I've failed at every attempt at forming a life-long partnership. Some men have left me, and I'm tempted blame myself for being leaveable. Most I have left, and, apparently, I enjoy blaming myself for leaving. I realize that there was nothing "wrong" with them, that they're no more flawed than any of us are.

Still, I leave. And, if given the opportunity, I just might leave again!

Upon leaving/being left, there is an initial sense of despair. It usually comes from the agonizingly universal "WTF is wrong with me?" question. As the years idyll by (ahh, the turning of another decade--I'll soon be 30!), I can no longer cling to the "I just haven't met the right guy" delusion. Time to take stock, time to look at who I really leave when I walk out the door. Time to see who it was I left long before the guy walked out on me.

So... where to go from here? How to take stock? Or, a more immediate question: how do I comfort myself in the face of this pretty painful realization?

Darlene Cohen, a Zen teacher who passed away recently, writes of how her pain has been a source of great strength in years past. She suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, and despite this, it's said that she had a tremendous healing spirit. This passage is a little long, but bear with me--it's pretty powerful:

  • "People sometimes ask me where my own healing energy comes from. How in the midst of this pain, this implacable slow crippling, can I encourage myself and other people? My answer is that my healing comes from my bitterness itself, my despair, my terror. It comes from the shadow. I dip down into that muck again and again and then am flooded with its healing energy. Despite the renewal and vitality it gives me to face my deepest fears, I don't go willingly when they call. I've been around that wheel a million times: first I feel the despair, but I deny it for a few days; then its tugs become more insistent in proportion to my resistance; finally it overwhelms me and pulls me down, kicking and screaming all the way. . . I can never just give up to it when I first feel it stir. You'd think after a million times with a happy ending, I could give up right away and just say, 'Take me, I'm yours,' but I never can. I always resist. I guess that's why it's called despair. If you went willingly, it would be called something else, like purification or renewal or something hopeful. It's staring defeat and annihilation in the face that's so terrifying; I must resist until it overwhelms me. But I've come to trust it deeply. It's enriched my life, informed my work, and taught me not to fear the dark."
There's so much here, really. But what stands out to me now is that Cohen recognizes this pattern: pain, resistance, despair, and finally, the giving way to something beautiful, to an energy that inspires everyone that comes into contact with her.

I think that pattern is evident everywhere. Yogis know it. The more we resist the hot room or a dreaded posture, the greater the pain we feel down the line. But it's precisely that depth of pain that enables us to feel tremendous joy when we finally surrender. The depth of pain enables us to radiate a fuller joy that is reflected by those whom we encounter later.

I'm fortunate not to have a lot of physical pain, but with each F I earn in a relationship, I add to the mucky shadow Cohen talks about. I'm really not complaining, though. I'm actually quite happy! What a powerful reservoir to draw from in the future. Maybe one of these days, I'll stop resisting ;-)

F? Good.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

To suffer, to be restless

Warning: this will be reflective and rambly. Until tomorrow, when I reluctantly drag myself into the office to get caught up on work, I'm on spring break. I'm sleeping a lot, observing cats, reading, hiking, doing yoga, and catching up with friends. As a result, the normal constrictions of time, routine, and purpose have been loosened. I love it.

One of the things that often comes up when I'm "on break," though--be it summer, spring, or winter--is a sense of restlessness. When I am in the throes of grading, when my day is accounted for in 15-minute intervals, I crave a break. Try as I might to balance things out by taking it slowly and appreciating the moment, at a certain level of business, I shift into a hyper-manic mode. Whatever I might be feeling deep down is completely washed aside by the tsunami of activities.

Then, the break finally does come. And it's beautiful. I have a deep appreciation for things I ordinarily don't even notice: the cats' daily routine. The feel of the finished wood on top of my computer desk and the rough, unfinished wood beneath. I notice way the dirt crunches under my feet; the way the pavement refuses to break apart under my weight; the squish of mud next to a creek.

I also notice a profound sense of restlessness. "The break is here! Lovely! ....And, now what? OK, we'll read for a half hour. Then, some light yoga. Then, a snack, meditation, a nap, and finally, Bikram." And before I know it, half a day has been spent in planning the day. It was this dharma talk by Sally Clough Armstrong that gently reminded me how great a part restlessness plays in Westerners' lives. (In the talk, she also refers to her experience teaching meditation to new converts from India, and how students from the region don't seem to have the same problem. Interesting stuff.)

If you find yourself also noticing a deep sense of restlessness, maybe this insight I got will help you too: it's progress to notice your restlessness. If you notice this at any particular moment, treasure that realization, because that feeling is probably there most of the time, but it's been hidden beneath layers of activity. As I see it (and as I derive from Armstrong's talk), restlessness is one layer beneath the "doing," the relentless onslaught of activities we schedule to avoid boredom or anxiety.  Under the layer of restlessness is probably something even deeper we've been avoiding. But we can't get there unless we keep diving past the layers!

I remember reading literary criticism of Toni Morrison and William Faulkner, and critics referred to both of these authors as having an "unflinching gaze," a willingness to look, and look, and look, despite how ugly (or restless) the picture seemed. So, I'm thankful for the break's opportunity to continue looking, despite that continual urge to run away by going to Target or out to dinner ;-)

To end, here is a quote by Woody Allen on suffering that Armstrong refers to. On my better days, I compare myself to Tina Fey in 30 Rock. On my rougher days I've been known to think of myself as the female Woody Allen. That can't be a good thing. Don't be like Woody Allen.

“To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering, one must not love. But then, one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be happy, one must love or love to suffer or suffer from too much happiness.” --Woody Allen

Monday, April 18, 2011

Unbound

I'm stunned. I've been leveled. I've been flattened by a joyful steamroller.

It's spring break in my corner of the world, and it got kicked off on a most lovely note. A gorgeous childhood friend is getting married in a month, and to celebrate, I took a drive up the coast with some girls I've known since elementary school. The gloomy SoCal weather magically dissolved, and we spent the weekend lounging by the pool, picking citrus, and soaking in a hot tub under a luminous moon as we celebrated marriage, babies, and almost 25 years knowing each other. 

So, where's the "stunned" part come in? I'm not quite done processing, but we all came home and, via a chorus of emails and text, agreed that the experience was even more amazing than we'd anticipated.

I think, in part, that these girls have finally grown up. We were never an uber-catty, high-drama bunch, but what little of that there was seemed to completely drop away. It was almost dream-like--it seemed like each of us had learned to make room for the other person in the time that had passed from our last trip together: my lovely friends knew that I would be the first one to sleep, the first one to wake, and to spend a quiet hour to herself doing yoga and basking in the sun before everyone else arose. I could see that this recognition, this knowing,  was felt as deeply by them as it was by me.

I lowered my achy, stiff torso into standing backward bend in my Bikram class this morning and felt so grateful for the warmth, friendship, and this sense of being unbound that we all seemed to experience this past weekend. I bow to it, and I let it go, trusting it will be felt again and again.

Santa Barbara loveliness

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

"Body is a playground," or, How I got into Yoga

I must confess: I've become a Bikram traitor! Again! Heheheh.

OK, I know there's really no such thing. But I admit to feeling a little naughty when I walked back into my Bikram studio after taking a few days off to try some vinyasa classes. I have been having a great time at this studio. I've been humbled, I've been uplifted, but mostly, I've been reminded that, as my newly-favorited self-help guru Byron Katie says, "The body is a playground."

I have not shared much about my history with yoga on this blog, but my time at these classes inspired me to reflect on how I came to it. I've been doing yoga since I was 16. I can hardly believe it--that means I've been doing yoga for 13 years! I can actually say I have a history of doing yoga now.

When I was 16, I joined a gym to impress my then-best friend. She wanted to "get in shape," and I wanted her to like me more. (Typical E!) She wanted to take step classes and lift weights. I was drawn to one of the (only) two yoga classes the gym offered.

(**I should mention that I do not come from a gym-rat family. My dad golfed and played racquetball, but no one ran or worked out for the sake of staying healthy. I was never overweight as a kid, but I was always un-athletic. I couldn't touch my toes, do ten sit-ups, or run a mile. I surely failed all those presidential fitness tests--you can forget the competitive sports. No, seriously, I'm still trying to forget tetherball.)

I finally got up the courage to go yoga without my friend. From my first class, I was hooked. After all those years of awful P.E. classes and feeling lame because I couldn't even touch my toes, I finally found this way in. And it was all for me. It didn't matter that my hamstrings and shoulders were tight, that I couldn't balance for shit, couldn't breathe right, or that I didn't know what I was doing. It was like someone had given me this permission, this key to enjoy how I felt, regardless of how "good" I was actually doing in comparison to others. Body is truly a playground when you're open to it, no matter how you feel.

Wouldn't you know it? That key has continued opening doors. I was an introverted kid--still am, in many ways--but I don't doubt yoga gave me the ability to stand a little more confidently on my own. Of course, I touched my goes. My friendship with that mean gym girl dissolved. I started looking forward to school, rather than hating the world when my alarm went off at 6:30 a.m. to wake me up. I made cool, new, happy friends through that yoga community. I even convinced my mom to let me go on a yoga retreat in Mexico when I was 17, something I never would have wanted to do if I hadn't known yoga's ability to open me up, to tug gently at the tension binding me together.

I remember overhearing my mom, who had initially wondered about my new-found interest, talk on the phone to one of her friends a few months after I started yoga. "There's something different about her. She even walks straighter."

In coming back to that vinyasa style class, things are definitely a little different. It was humbling. Though I could be wrong, I doubt I'll ever see the physical progress I saw when I started at 16. But physical strength or flexibility were never really the point, were they? I needed to get myself to that yoga retreat when I was 17, and that had nothing to do with touching my toes. Who knows what other journeys await? I might become the most social person on the planet ;-)

I'm so glad I went to that new studio. Even though some of that playground equipment was rusty, it was so fun to give it another spin. After two classes there, my Bikram return was the most phenomenal class I've had in a while. I look forward to finding a new balance!

Yay, yoga!