Thursday, January 26, 2012

Surprise, surprise.

I've been surprised by a lot of what life's thrown at me. Relationships, births, deaths, adventurous travels--all of it, so unexpected.

I remember the globe my family kept in the living room when I was a child. At that point in my life, my world was pretty small. Nice parents, a silly brother, some family, and a smattering of friends and teachers. Before I was 10, I don't think I ever left Southern California. I'd look at the globe, spin it halfway around, and gaze at China. Halfway around the world. And yet, so tiny on the map.

When I was 20, my tiny world began unfolding at an exponential rate. As I grew up, I learned how distances actually could be compressed to the point of becoming inconsequential. With a bit of pluck and a few extra pennies, those distances could be traversed in a single plane flight. But standing on the Great Wall of China when I was 20 was only the beginning. Since then, there have been loves. There have been degrees and jobs earned. There have been trips taken and trips cancelled. There have been family members lost, and family members born.

Grove of Aspens
 But after reading Emily Rapp's lovely article over on The Rumpus, I'm reminded of the biggest surprise of all: Our hearts are vaster than I ever imagined it to be. Forget the Gap's infinitely forgiving stretch jeans; the human heart's capacity for love, like an ant capable of carrying ten times its own weight, is the real miracle.

What I notice as I've gotten older is the way the friendships I've made on the playground, on the yoga mat, and in the teachers' lounge have quietly guided our lives. We no longer happen to be friends. Our lives have been shaped by each other, and it's as if we are now inextricably linked. I think of the way Aspens grow--their roots are intertwined, as if they were a family. Chop one down and the whole colony could die.

Had you told the little girl with the globe about the experiences that lay before her, she would have said no one's heart would be big enough to bear them. And yet, it seems the heart grows like some magical oddity--Harry Potter and the Infinitely Expanding Heart!

Thanks to my dear friends for letting those roots mingle...

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Be aware. Be VERY aware.

"I should have taken a shower before class. This top accentuates my collar bones nicely. Argh--why is it so humid today? I really wish I were eating a pomelo."

Is there any limit to the utter insanity of mental chatter? Sit down to meditate or practice yoga and you see the stuff that comes up is absurd. As Jack Kornfield likes to say, the mind has no shame. And usually, the thoughts that come up are one rerun after the next.

Isn't stopping the flow of chatter what we mean when we say we want to increase our awareness? We do yoga and meditation because we hope that our valiant efforts will eventually quiet our crazy monkey mind and that we'll go through life more engaged, focused, calm, and level-headed. But there are other ways in which we are not aware. Take me, for instance: I'm a dweller.

I am still dwelling on a conversation I had with a colleague last week. Well, obsessing is probably the right word.

I'm currently enrolled in a psychology class. Although it's not my area of expertise, psychology has always interested me, and as I've gotten older that interest has expanded into a full-on preoccupation. One of the things psych teachers will tell as you settle into the first day is that you're going to learn about lots of odd disorders. You're going to learn how psychologists diagnose people. And under no circumstances are you to attempt to apply these criteria to yourself or the people you know. It takes training, not an introductory course, to correctly diagnose patients, and what's more, you can't ever objectively diagnose yourself or people you're close to. So don't even try.

Got it! Makes perfect sense, right? I will never do that. Of course not.

Ha. Ha, ha.

In the aforementioned conversation with the colleague, he mentioned a behavioral tick that set off a little bell of recognition in my head. I eagerly asked my coworker a couple of followup questions, and before I could check myself, I sputtered, "Oh! That sounds like a symptom of ________!" I then followed up with, "do you also get X, Y, and Z?" before catching myself and apologizing profusely.

Despite my apology, the conversation ended awkwardly. And I don't blame the person. Ugh, imagine getting an armchair assessment from your coworker! (Especially if there's a grain of truth in their observations ;-)

So, on the one hand, that little scenario would indicate a lack of awareness on my part. I shouldn't have jumped to judge the guy. But also note my above statement: "I am still dwelling on a conversation I had with a colleague last week." Seriously? Last week? Is rumination essential to awareness? How many present moments am I skipping out on when I berate myself  for a) disobeying a teacher (I have this thing about disobeying perceived authority figures) and b) potentially causing distress to a coworker.

I guess this is why we practice yoga and meditate. Doing so rockets us out of our heads and back into our bodies, enabling us to be present.

Well, except for the pomelos and the collarbones ;-)

A tasty pomelo

Pomelo cat also enjoys pomelos

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Something New

...And not just a new blog layout!

It's taken me a while to process the fact that it's a new year. I keep writing 2011 when I sign checks or write the dates on HW assignments. I'm not one who's big on making and then desperately trying to keep rigid resolutions, but I do like to take a moment to reflect on what changes I wouldn't mind coming my way ;-)

I think, if anything, I'm resolving to do more of the same. One is to keep settling into myself, allowing myself to be comfortable in my own skin rather than working so hard to fix every imperfection. The other is to be as open as possible to new experiences.

I started the new year with one of those: two weeks without a Bikram class--the longest it's been without being forced to due solely to travel! This wasn't by choice, though. The day I got back from Sedona, I got some sort of cold/sicky thing that hung around for at least a week. Since it's the new year and the room is packed, I figured I'd do my fellow yogis a favor and sit it out a few days. The anticipation--and the "I'm a bad absent yogi guilt"--mounted.

Breathing in
Finally, Friday a.m. came. With no morning classes to teach and no yucky symptoms to coddle, I confidently rolled out my mat. I breathed warm, humid air into my lungs during Pranyama and kicked my leg out proudly during Standing Head to Knee. And then.... I was just done. You ever work on a really tedious task, avoiding looking at the clock, thinking, surely, hours must be going by, only to find it's been about 13 minutes? That fun feeling hit me by Standing Bow.

I spent most of the class on the floor, trying to convince myself that I wasn't humiliating myself and that I shouldn't have stayed home. I tried to be a good yogi and just stay present, breathing the humid air into my desert-dry lungs. I slogged home, drank a bunch of juice, and spent the rest of the day in that occasional unpleasant post-yoga hangover: wrung out, headachey, unmotivated, yet unable to sleep. Ugh. It's not a fun combo.

Still, I dragged myself out to dinner, hoping that the warm glow of the pub and friends' faces (not to mention its greasy and delicious fried food) would snap me out of it. I wasn't halfway through a glass of wine when it hit: migraine! Crap. And I had been ignoring all the warning signs: post-illness, intense exercise, citrus, and now alcohol (both common migraine triggers). I excused myself early and dragged myself home.

Now, you migraine sufferers know that once it gets under way, it can feel like a full-blown attack in a war that lasts hours. I tried to resign myself to its course--fighting never seems to help much--and settled into bed, readying my iPhone to a Jack Kornfield talk should the need for his soothing words arise.

But not two hours later, I remembered seeing Deepak Chopra on TV not six months before, talking about a meditation-based/biofeedback-ish technique for easing the pain of migraines. The instructions are as follows:

"Put your hands out and then close your eyes. Watch your breath for a few seconds and bring all of your awareness into the middle of your chest. Listen to your heartbeat and tell it to slowdown. Now move your awareness into your fingertips, and focus on experiencing your heartbeat as a throbbing sensation that has moved there. This technique diverts blood from your brain into your limbs, reducing blood pressure and slowing your heart rate so your headache goes away."
From "A How-to Guide to Holistic Health"

I did this, more or less, in about five or ten minutes while lying in bed. And would you know, it worked! I actually fell asleep--something that doesn't happen for hours into the migraine cycle. I woke up a couple of hours later but simply tried it again and slept through the night. I woke up feeling relatively normal.

It could be a coincidence that I managed to interrupt the typical course of a migraine. But I'd rather chalk it up to being willing to try something new :-)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Why Some Write

It's my last day of freedom before the semester begins. I am spending it in an odd state--I'm recovering from a cold, mulling over this short but tumultuous and wonderful break, and thinking about writing.

I've mentioned before that I teach writing. At the beginning of each semester, I spend a few days reviewing and updating syllabi. I think about assignments and readings that I might tweak or change entirely. I amp myself up, telling myself that this will be the semester where I reach them all. Repeatedly, I come back to the question, why write?

Woman journaling
Each semester, as I look out at the sea of mostly-new faces, my self-consciousness rears its little head. I imagine the wheels turning in the students' minds, churning out questions like, "Who do you think you are? Why do I need to be here? Why do I need to write?" Those are good questions for students to be asking. Especially the last one. In part, I think we all need to answer it for ourselves. If you can't find your own reasons for writing and are doing so only to earn a grade or please your boss, what you come up with is likely to be forced and a little empty. (Bloggers who feel pressured to post a certain amount of posts per week/month probably know a thing or two about that ;-)

Famous writers have pondered the question, too. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, William Faulkner said that we write "to help [a person] endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past." Yikes, Bill. Them's some lofty aims. David Mamet: "to lessen the unbearable disparity between the conscious and unconscious mind and so to achieve peace." OK, Dave. Wordy, but slightly more comprehensible.

After I began blogging and reading others' blogs, I noticed that I felt better about everything. Maybe we write to comfort each other.

The reasons for writing are probably limitless. Earlier in the week, while on vacation, I was reading Jonathan Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis (a great book--though not a quick read--for those interested in the science behind happiness). In it, he refers to Dr. James Pennebaker, who has devoted his life to proving that writing has the ability to improve both emotional and physical health. For 20 years, he has been completing studies in which he asks people to write for 15 minutes a day for four consecutive days about an emotionally painful experience. He then follows these individuals for two and six months, and some for up to 1.4 years. Compared to the control group, they have less depression, fewer doctor visits and physical problems, as well as positive behavioral indicators like increases in grades.

In a sense, the study suggests, the participants write to heal themselves.

What a powerful tool, this writing! Interesting stuff. I just thought I'd share that with you!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

More Questions. Few Answers. On the NYT's "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body" article and more

I'm sure most of you have already read/been irked by the NYT's critique of yoga, "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body." It definitely ruffled a few of my feathers, largely because most of the author's "evidence" for the evils of yoga is anecdotal. I've no doubt that there are already many good responses published, such as that of The Reluctant Ashtangi, so I'll leave the rebuttals to others.

(I do feel I must point out that although the author lumps Bikram Yoga in with other yoga series, none of the postures demonized in the article are done in Bikram (I don't think Cobra referred to in the article is the one done in Bikram; the description evokes Upward Dog, often labeled Cobra in non-Bikram classes.).)

What I am more interested in is where the glimmer of truth lies (and I think there's a glimmer of it in all arguments advanced!). Bikram has long touted the safety of his series, claiming that it is a beginners series. Teachers of his yoga are trained to give extensive description of the postures--how to enter and exit, as well as the benefits received from each one. Because you simply stand between each posture instead of moving into a sun salutation or flowing rapidly to another posture, there's less the chance of "getting behind" and injuring yourself in a rush to catch up. I would think that the series is as safe as humanly possible, even for those who don't happen to have much body/self-awareness. Despite the anti-Bikram sentiment that one might interpret in my previous post, I am a Bikramite through and through and recognize the many benefits of this series.

Chapel Hill, Sedona, at sunset
The timing of this anti-yoga article is coincidental, however, considering only two days ago I took a class that left me wondering about the safety factor. I just returned from a trip to Sedona, AZ, where I enjoyed a few days of its rejuvenating, warm red rocks. There is no Bikram studio in Sedona, so after a couple of days, I tried the local "hot yoga" studio to loosen up my hiking-tight hamstrings and shoulders.

I went in with an open mind--pretty easy to do, considering how burned up I've been lately about what I perceive as arrogance on Bikram's part for his insistence on TM-ing, R-ing, and Copyrighting his series. I asked the instructor what type of yoga class she taught and that I was familiar with Bikram. She said her studio offered a style of yoga taught by Bikram's nephew, Sumit, who has apparently made a small name for himself in the hot yoga world. She said it combined Vinyasa with some Bikram poses.

And... that's exactly what it was. The room was lovely--juicy, just uncomfortably warm at first, and it reached a pleasantly toasty temperature midway through the series due to the heater, humidifier, and the many packed bodies who showed up for that weekday morning class.  I was initially trained in Ashtanga, and I would characterize most of the class as being "flow" Ashtanga--postures like Warrior series, Triangle, etc were held momentarily as we "flowed" through sun salutations. This was almost randomly interspersed with postures from the Bikram series--all of a sudden, we'd stop, do Half-moon/Awkward/Eagle, go back to flowing, then do the balancing series, go back to flowing, etc.

I was able to retain my non-judgmental mind for most of the class. The flow-y stuff was initially fun. Then, however,  I realized we really weren't holding the postures very long. The energy I was exerting was going not into a posture. It seemed to evaporate as I moved--quickly! as if we were running out of time!--from one posture to the next. The teacher talked a lot, though it was mostly motivational/hippie-spiritual and less about how to get into and out of the postures, or what to do if I got tired. If I hadn't had a lot of Ashtanga experience, I wouldn't have known what I was doing. I would be looking around and struggling to catch up, much less get a sense of what I was supposed to be getting out of the postures! Talk about an injury-inviting experience.

Talk, also, about an eye-opening experience. On one level, it was kinda fun! My hamstrings got stretched as they haven't in years. The part-Vinyasa, part-Bikram series kept my attention. In that sense, though, it was very American--no chance to get bored, as there was always something to occupy the mind; the poses weren't held long all. And, there wasn't much depth to it.

Different strokes for different folks, I suppose. If you are an experienced yogi, I'm sure you'd do fine in the class. For some reason, I feel compelled to make a tenuous connection between the article, my time at the hot yoga studio, and my previous post on Bikram's insistence on going after studio owners who teach too close to his series. The NYT article would seem to bolster Bikram practitioners' justification for the series and why it needs to be kept pure, taught/sold only by trained teachers.

Different strokes for different folks... or is it that some folks, afraid of being slapped with a lawsuit, feel the need to modify classes from Bikram's style so much that they lose much of the benefit and increase risk of injury?

No answers here in my first post of 2012. Is that going to be a theme for this year? No answers, just more questions? :-) Can't wait to get back into the hot (Bikram) room and find out.