Mysore: Day 10

Hmm… the WordPress Monster seems to have gobbled up my two latest posts.  Ah well.  Such is the Internet. 

Ashtanga practice seems to get some flack from some of the more free spirited yogis out there as being too structured, too hardcore, too unforgiving.  Afterall, Ashtanga practice works with a very prescribed, very carefully formulated sequences of poses, and from what I understand, purists rarely (if ever) deviate from the sequence.  As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a rhyme and reason for the order of the asanas, as each pose appropriately prepares the body for the next one in line.  We do tend to move relatively quickly through the poses (five to ten breaths max for each pose with brisk vinyasas between some asanas), but it’s silly to say that there’s no room for modifications or realignment or teacher intervention.  In fact, mysore practice is built for teacher intervention and allows time for one on one instruction in what would otherwise be an individual endeavor. 

So yes, Ashtanga does require dedication to a tradition and a willingness to forego some of the creativity you might find in other vinyasa flow practices (although the studio I practice at does offer a “Mixed Series Improv” class that draws from both the primary and secondary series in a playful and exploratory way… maybe this is a no-no for hardcore Ashtangis).  However, after 10 days of mysore practice, I’m finding solace and constancy in the primary series sequence.  Every morning I come to mat, and there it is, unchanging, welcoming, reliable.  And as I become more comfortable and proficient, the flow of poses becomes meditative, and I can lose myself in the increasingly connected line between my breath and my movements on the mat. 

You see, despite my dedication to my practice, my growing interest in Eastern philosophy, and my desire for a simple existence, a part of me is afflicted by anger.  A whole lot of anger, if I’m being honest.  And I own this anger.  It comes from within me, aimed at things and people I can’t control, and it’s destructive.  I know that while Pema Chodron and Thich Naht Hahn would suggest I confront it, sit with it, and acknowledge it for what it is, I often find myself turning away from it, as going down that road of anger is often disturbing and frustrating.  It creeps up on me when I least expect it, and instead of looking it in the eyes, I often turn away, hoping it will lose interest and die down.  More often than not, it forces my attention, and I find myself in the grips of anger until the familiar train of bitter thoughts runs it course.  Only then can I return to my regularly scheduled life. 

There is one time, however, that I face my anger, and that is when I’m engaged in meditative physical activity.  To me running, biking, and swimming are meditative.  When I’m cruising the roads, exploring new trails, and moving methodically through the water, my breath and body are working as one, leaving my mind free to confront my demons.  When I exercise I come from a place of power, and my anger stands little chance when I’m barreling down a windy road or charging up a rocky hill.  And when I’m in the lap pool, my body completely supported by water and the harmonious movement of my limbs, my mind can careful pull apart the strands of anger.  I do my best thinking in the pool, and I’ve worked through more issues while counting laps than in any therapy session. 

Ashtanga has proven to have a similar effect.  My body is learning how and when to move, leaving me free to tackle my inner knots.  While vinyasa practice is using my breath and the force of gravity to gently transform my body, my mind is working to release the tension that I’m hesitant to face off the mat.  

The patriarch and originator of modern Ashtanga yoga, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, sagely said, “Do your practice and all is coming.”  He’s not just talking about physical growth here, people.  Ashtanga means “eight-limbed,” with each of the first seven limbs working towards the eighth, Samadhi (union with the divine).  One of the Niyamas (personal observances) is Svadhyaya, or self study.  When we engage in our practice, we have the opportunity to study all of the aspects of ourselves, including the inner landscape of our emotions. 

My anger is there.  I see it everyday, but nowhere is it clearer, more innocuous, and more manageable than on the mat.


Working Towards Lotus: A Mini-Revelation

Yep, still trying to achieve Lotus.  While I’ve had some serious headway in other parts of my practice (my headstands are literally taking off, and I’m discovering flexibility that I’ve never even dreamed of experiecing before), Padmasana remains a distant dream.  Being an endurance athlete, with triathlon being my drug of choice, I’m pretty sure that I am hindered by tightness that builds up in my hips, knees, and feet from pounding those long miles on the run and bike.  Yoga has helped keep me strong and healthy as I prep for triathlons, but I can’t say that triathlon’s repetitive motions do much for my yoga practice.

Since I’m not willing to give up triathlon at this point, I’ve had to find other avenues towards flexibility.  For a long time, I believed that my biggest hindrance was tightness in my knees and feet.  However, I found a video yesterday that was something of a revelation.

Patrick Reynolds argues that the key to achieving Lotus lies almost exclusively in flexibility in the hip joints.  While this may be a “duh” statement for most of you, I hadn’t put together that my tight hips has led to my Lotuslessness.  While I’ve looked to my feet in the past, I’m now working on Wide Legged Forward Bends and other such hip openers.

This moment of insight makes me wonder what else I’ve missed.  Of course, this is a huge question and doesn’t simply pertain to yoga.  When it comes to seeing the forest or seeing the trees, I’m usually a big picture kind of girl, favoring wide vistas to individual pines, oaks, and birches.  Yet it seems when it came to Padmasana, I got caught up on the details; I wanted to work on my feet and knees when I should have seen how open hips lead not only to Lotus, but to a wide variety of other poses as well.

So maybe the truth of the matter is I’m not as “big picture” as I’ve always thought.  Maybe I’ve become hung up on trivialities (getting into certain poses, working on specific projects, worrying about momentary emotions) rather than seeing the big pay offs, such as finding repose in daily practice, or leading the kind of life that makes me happy, regardless of what others may think.  And maybe there is no pay off; there’s just life.  We can choose to sweat the small stuff, or we can live the big picture.

I’ll continue to work towards Lotus, but with the big picture in mind: playfulness, contentment, acceptance, and love, not just for those around me, but for myself.

Dreaming of Hanuman

My dreams are usually pretty vivid.  When I wake up, I can normally recount the dream, complete with sensory details and emotions.  I’m a fairly lucid dreamer as well; I know when I’m dreaming, I can sometimes change the course of the dream with a bit of effort, and I can wake myself up if things aren’t going well (like if some crazy beast monster is chasing me).

However, last night’s dream was neither vivid nor lucid.  I can only remember one thing, and I was fully convinced that I was not dreaming.  This was my dream: I was able to achieve full Hanumanasana on both sides, no sweat. 

Photo courtesy Yoga Journal

This is crazy talk for a couple of reasons. First, as a triathlete, I am constantly at battle with my hips, which are more often than not tighter than the hips of an 80 year old woman. It takes serious coaxing and patience to get my hips to cooperate during yoga. However, yoga has been the only thing capable of keep my hips healthy, and aside from a tight IT band every now and then, I can attribute yoga to keeping me relatively injury free. 

Secondly, in my dream, I was fully convinced that my ability to do Hanumanasana was real, that I had been doing it for years, and that it was the easiest pose in the entire world.  Au contraire.  I have never been able to get anywhere close to full Hanumanasana.  In fact, I can’t remember a time in my life where I was even relatively flexible.  I was kicked out of gymnastics as a kid for being too tall and too rigid. 

So, if physically achieving Hanumanasana is nothing but a goal right now, why was my dream mind so convinced that I’m capable of it?  Not to get all psychoanalytical on you, but what is the message of this dream?

I have a couple of theories.  First, Hanumanasana requires intense openness, and a willingness to put aside the impossible.  To echo the story of Hanuman, it is literally a leap of faith.  Perhaps it is time to reestablish a beginner’s mind, to look past what I think is possible and attempt to achieve things I’ve never even considered before.  Maybe the dream is a subtle message to myself to try a little openness. 

Secondly, Hanuman is representative of devotion, as his unwavering devotion to Rama gave him the power to do great things in the name of his beloved.  Maybe it’s time to reassess my loyalties, to honor those who deserve it and fix my attention on loved ones who need my help. 

I suppose if I take the dream literally, it could be telling me to work on my bendiness and make Hanumanasana a featured part of my daily practice.  While this could be a good thing (my hips could use the work for sure), I’m leaning towards a more symbolic interpretation.  I’ve always been more of a Ganesha girl myself, but there’s plenty to learn from Hanuman.

Coming back

A whole lot can happen in the matter of a couple of months.Yogically, I feel I’ve made some real progress.  I’ve established a solid home routine that I actually make time for, which is helping me out in all other aspects of life.  My work towards full lotus is…slow.  However, it’s not stagnant.  I can do half lotus on both sides in relative comfort now, but the whole shebang still eludes me.  I’m confidant I’ll get there someday soon.  I’ve taken an inversions workshop, and I’m loving headstands more than a normal person should.  New perspectives, and all.  I’ve learned more about chakras and mantras, and I’ve incorporated them into my practice.  All in all, yoga has been very good to me.

There’s always a reason why bloggers take a break from blogging, and for me, it had nothing to do with a waning passion for the topic of my blog.  In fact, if anything else, yoga has become more instrumental to my daily life.  Maybe I had to take a break because so much of what I was experiencing was, well, not yogic.  There was a lot of pain, a lot of adversity, a lot of crap.  And while I know these moments of doubt and hardship are the perfect moments for practice, my yoga just wasn’t string enough to deal with it all.  So I retreated.  Hastily.

But in the past few months, my practice has strengthened and so have I.  I’m ready to be back.  I’m ready to try to add something to my little corner of the blogosphere, and maybe help people find their own healing practice.  I’m done retreating.  It’s good to be back.


Doing more with less

Perhaps it’s the economy, or maybe it’s backlash from our culture’s over the top materialism, but minimalism has been strangely hip for the past couple of years. Ironically, there is a plethora of websites dedicated to all things minimalist (which again, smells subtly of irony), and there are more minislism blogs than you can shake a stick at. One blog even has a list if the top ten minislist blogs of 2011. Needless to say, minimalism is cool, which makes it decidedly uncool to people who profess to be cool, or to those who were minimalist before the boom.

Now, I cannot rightfully claim to be a minimalist in any sense of the word, but after a month of moving, reorganizing, and downsizing, I see the appeal. It’s the same reason I’m drawn to yoga: when it all comes down to it, you really don’t need special clothes or fancy equipment (although stretchy pants and a mat are definite bonuses). All you need is time, dedication, and a little knowledge of the asanas (or a solid yoga DVD). In my other athletic life, I compete in triathlons, which are all equipment, all the time. Yoga provides a solace of simplicity unavailable in other activities and lifestyles, which leads a girl to wonder how much “stuff” we really need.

Which leads me to the point of this post. I normally don’t do the whole resolution thing, but as we spent the last months of 2011 hauling junk from one house to the next, I think a resolution is in order. So here it goes: for each day of 2012, I am going to throw away or donate one non-trash item. This resolution is not a massive overhaul (I’m not going minimalist overnight or anything) which makes it all the more likely that I will succeed. It’s also an immediately noticeable resolution; each day, something is going out the door, making space for more positive energy in the house. Finally, this resolution just feels right: it feels simple, and freeing, and yogic. While others may be striving for more, I will be striving to be happier with less.

Here’s to a simpler, happier 2012.

It Will Pass

It’s funny how just when you think you’re finally getting this whole life thing down, something comes along and hurls a curveball you never saw coming and hits you where you’re most vulnerable.  Maybe funny is the wrong word.

For me, the past few months has been one, long, obnoxiously extended curveball.  For a while there over the summer, I really did feel balanced and whole, like I was ready to take on anything.  But as the Zen parable reminds us when we become accustomed to positivity, “It will pass,” and everyday comforts that I once took for granted are now being challenged and threatened.

So where does yoga fit in with this tale of change?  Honestly, yoga has become increasingly difficult.  It is terrifying to move through the asanas in silence, staring down my greatest fears.  There is no escape in yoga.  There is no passing scenery, no full contact adrenaline rush, no rules to adhere to.  It’s just me, my conflicting emotions, and my fruitless search for solace.

Luckily, however, yoga comes with thousands of years worth of wisdom, and some of  that knowledge is tailored especially for difficult emotional times.  Yoga encourages openness, and while being open may invite pain, it is also the only way to allow healing wisdom to penetrate the heart.  By literally giving up and giving in to the inevitability of impermanence and the possibility of pain, yoga practitioners can use their practice to discover who they really are, where they stand, and what they stand for.  Tibetan Buddhism uses the expression “ye tang che” to describe this joyful hopelessness.  Translated, it means “completely exhausted” or “totally fed up.”  I must admit, I’m there.  I’m ready to give up, to give in, and to submit to joyful hopelessness.  And I’m terrified.

So today, I need a mudra.  I need a symbol, a gesture, something to help me down this path of openness.  The lotus mudra seems appropriate here.  According to a variety of Buddhist and yogic sources, the lotus flower blooms above the water while its roots remain deep in the mud, making it the perfect symbol of openness, regeneration, and a change from darkness to light.  The lotus mudra is achieved by placing the heel of your palms together with the thumbs and pinky fingers lightly touching.  The knuckles remain separate, and the fingers open up like the petals of a blossom.  This mudra is usually held close to the heart, and I can honestly say that it allows for an openness and expansions that I haven’t found with other mudras.  It is beautiful and welcoming and safe.

So here’s to change, and to openness, and to life.  And if I’m lucky, just when I’m getting used to personal disaster, “It will pass.”

On Making Time

I think that on the whole, most home practitioners of yoga are not scared away by the prospect of not having a teacher guide them, or by the inadequacies of their equipment (haven’t we all done some asanas sans mat or suitable yoga space?).  Nor are they deterred by inflexibility or lack of strength or anything like that.  I think the number one complaint that keeps home practitioners off the mat is a lack of time.

Like most other busy people, I take on way too much, committing to all kinds of things that I have no business committing to.  This kind of crazy overcommitment contributes to my own personal perceived lack of time, that, and the fact that I’m often so exhausted by my myriad activities that I’d much rather collapse into a heap at the end of the day than make time to practice yoga.  However, making time is the key to any successful (however you want to define successful) home practice.  While it may seem like the world is spinning at a billion miles per second, it is really only our own perception of what is important that determines how we utilize time.

For me, time is precious.  It’s rare and desirable, and I want more of it.  So in order to create the time to devote to things I deem worthwhile (like yoga practice), I need to take stock of what is actually eating up this precious commodity.  What can be reduced?  What can be cut altogether?  And where am I going to fit my yoga practice?  Actually scheduling in time to practice makes it all the more likely that I’m actually going to make it to the mat on any given day.

As a teacher, student, wife, mother, and coach, I have a hard time remembering that I am also a yoga practitioner.  However, that tiny yogic voice in my head reminds me every so often that making time for myself on the mat helps me comfortably wear all of my other “hats.”  It’s time well spent, time that I’ll gladly use for myself.  Even if it means waking up earlier, or cutting a responsibility (or two or three), making time for yoga just makes sense for me.

I can’t be too hard on myself, as I’ve spent the past three weeks putting out fires that inevitably pop up at the beginning of a school year, but I’m ready to rejoin the yogic community.  And while time may always be an issue, I can always stop to take a moment, prioritize, and remember that the mat will always be ready when I am.