Time and Linearity

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Someone asked me last night how long I’ve been been practicing Ashtanga.  I’m not sure when to start the count.  I probably took my first led Ashtanga class about 10 years ago, but I was a flibbertigibbet for some time.  And I had already begun teacher training in a style of vinyasa yoga.

I’d say the real starting point, when it became a more or less a daily practice, was in the Summer of 2011 when Sue P. and I went to Burlington Vermont for an intensive teacher training week with David Swenson. Still a baby practice to be sure.

Don’t even ask me how long I’ve been practicing yoga, I probably won’t give you an honest answer.  Decades.

Which sounds all braggart, I confess.  But not to worry, I’m solidly back in first series after a series of Unfortunate Events (sorry Lemony Snickett).  First there was Lyme’s disease, which didn’t turn chronic but did lead to a 5 pound weight gain, and just as I was recovering from that I lost my only sister to drug addiction in the midst of the worst winter of my life.  Perhaps I will write more about Chris later. If I seem to gloss over it here, it’s more out of a lack of readiness and a sense of rawness as I approach the one year anniversary of a profound loss that has affected every aspect of my life.

No, I’d much rather write about the awful winter, pounded by snowstorm after snowstorm and ice dams and roof leaks and broken down old snowblowers and a husband who went to China 25 times in one month.  Or at least it felt that way sometimes.  You have no idea, or maybe you do if you’re from New England, how very grateful I am for this mild winter, and that some days I’m tempted to kiss the bare asphalt of my driveway, just for being there, un-iced.

Five pounds turned into 20 and I was never a skinny Ashtangi anyway, I started losing poses.  Or rather, I never got back to 2nd series after putting it aside for a while after the Lyme’s diagnosis.  Then even first series poses like Marichyasana D became difficult, then impossible. A hip injury surfaced, and, to my horror, stayed, until I eliminated backbends from my practice and left my teacher.

Which is another loss.  A big one, losing a teacher.  I loved my teacher, but we came to a parting of the ways.  He is an amazing teacher, so all I will say is that his teaching stopped working for me. I am still grateful for everything I learned from him, and the meticulous attention to the details of the practice, the exquisite refinement he instills in the students who study with him for a long time.

I am grateful, so very grateful, for Sue’s new mysore program at New England Yoga.  I can’t even tell you how walking into that room makes me feel, and how after barely 4 weeks of practice there I feel at home in a small group of familiar faces, many of whom are already dear to me.  I could kiss the floor of her studio, although I probably won’t considering the number of feet that tromp around that space.  I am in love with this quiet, accepting space.

The point, if I have one, is that the practice isn’t always linear.  Oh sure, when you’re first learning, particularly if you’re somewhat in shape, it grows by leaps and bounds and there’s always that next pose on the horizon.  At some point in a maturing practice there are bound to be setbacks, injuries, life events that force you to stop relying on the next pose for sustenance and inspiration.  This, of course, has been written about before.  But perhaps it’s good to hear again.  Sometimes I watch other people struggle on their mats (which reveals more about my lack of focus than their practice) and I want to tell them to relax, to let go of the struggle.  Of course I want to say that to them, because, right now at least, it’s what I most need to hear.  My daily goal in the mysore room is to focus on my breath and let whatever happens happens.  David Swenson once said that Ashtanga is like a knife, you can use it to hurt and you can use it to heal.  Right now, I’m just working on the healing part.  The flying, binding and heel grabbing bits can wait.

 

 

 

New, Anew, Renewed

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Ustrasana Verte

An ambitious title, perhaps.  We may have to take things in stride.  I had a wonderful teacher, and I learned so much from him.  But as I found myself saying to my new/old teacher, he was the perfect teacher for me, until he wasn’t.

Many things were not at all his fault.  I got Lyme’s disease over a  year ago, lost my little sister to addiction nearly a year ago, and fell into a funk.  Gained weight, lost momentum, lost the mental ability to focus on a lengthy practice.  I tell you, you don’t even know the things you can lose until you lose them.  Not surprisingly, perhaps, I got hurt, a deep long standing hip injury that I tried for some time to work through.

It started, rather innocuously, as a curious reluctance to drop back into urdhva dhanurasa (wheel posture).  In the context of my practice, I’ve been dropping back for years and I’ve never been afraid of backbends, but something happened, perhaps while I was working on kapotasana, and over the course of a year things went from bad to worse.  Finally I decided to stop doing backbends for a while, and, for this and other reasons, to stop going to the shala.  I have seen a difference, less hip pain, and none of the variety that wakes you from sleeping.  Now the hip is sort of clicky, a bit sore if I tilt my pelvis, pushing the tail bone backwards and allowing it to nutate.  Doesn’t feel quite optimal, but it’s better.

Somewhere in all of this it was suggested that it was all in my head.  And there’s something to that, only what’s in your head can lead to an injury.  Like Albus Dumbledore said to Harry within the confines of a dream, that doesn’t make it any less real.

When Sue Pentland, the woman who first taught me Ashtanga, announced that she was (finally!) starting a mysore program, my heart soared.  This for sure is exactly what I need right now.  A place to practice with people I know and love in a beautiful , divinely heated space with a teacher who accepts me as I am in this moment, whatever that is.  Mostly she leaves me alone to heal, offering gentle assists and suggestions from time to time.

It’s perfect, and yesterday I bought a monthly pass.  My only goals involve breath, bandha, and drishti.  Although I can’t pretend that I don’t want my practice back the way it was, and the excitement of adding on new postures in 2nd series.  But that will either come, or it won’t.

Meanwhile, I am renewed.

 

2 People on My Mat

IMG_4536Completely unrelated photograph of a flowering tree.

Sometimes there are 2 people on my mat.  This is not ideal.  There’s the now me, the one who should have eaten less and practiced more in the preceding week.  The one who can’t seem to put weight into her hands in chakrasana and continuously bungles the jumpback from bhujapidasana.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Somewhere behind me, or a bit to the side, there is a shining, glowing version of myself.  The one I can see out of the corner of my eye.  The one who manages effortless, seemingly weightless transitions. It’s my potential self, who binds in places I can’t bind and who calls on reserves of strength and energy she has built up over a week of eating and living in a way that supports her practice.

The real me, who stayed up too late after a glass of wine/ really good movie/ vampire coyote shape shifting mass fiction novel, doesn’t quite have those reserves available, is clunkier and less focused than the woman I imagine, but more solid and real.

I  am grateful for the ethereal version of myself, without her I would never have the courage or the wherewithal to grow, to learn to jump through, to breath when things get difficult.

But sometimes I cling to that ideal to the point of denigrating the actual me.  To seeing my potential self as a should, as another stick to beat myself with when I don’t measure up.

Perhaps at some point, perhaps even this Summer, the two selves will be more closely in alignment.  Perhaps I will learn to live more comfortably in my skin.

This is the journey.

 

New Prints, New House & Saturday Practice

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I’m back.

 

I mean, I’m baacckk… Think Steven Tyler screaming “I’m back in the saddle again.”

 

And if you’re too young to know who I mean, well, never mind then.

 

David Garrigues recently wrote about Saturday practice being more about reflecting on your practice week, taking the time to verbalize your thoughts.  That would be great except that I sometimes practice on Saturdays as a make-up, for those practices I didn’t quite manage to fit in during the week.

Whatever.  I’m just thrilled to have moved, to be done with moving.  The toll it has taken on my physical practice has been high.  My hips are tight in a way I don’t recall feeling… ever.  My low back too.  Backbending, always my strong point, has deteriorated, and don’t even talk to me about my struggles with Mari D or god help me (Ganesh?) pasasana, the noose I hang myself with several times a week.

But there is hope.  Today the thermometer hit the 70s.  More and more I feel the call to add seated meditation to my physical practice, as if I had the time.  But of course, there is only time, right?

What I know mostly is that I have a long way to go.  It’s all about abhyasa at this point, developing a steady, committed, daily practice.  You’d think after all these years I’d just give up and give in.  This is what I’m doing.  But no, I still fight and struggle and half-ass the practice.

As if that would help.  Sometimes ashtanga is like the bristly wooden metal tipped meat tenderizer my mother used to have.  Smash the meat until it becomes soft, malleable.

If you’ve read this far, I’ll throw this out there.  I need some fresh photographs to use for artwork.  If you practice ashtanga and feel like sending a picture, please do.  In return I’ll send you a print or a drawing.  Right now I’m moving towards working with trikonasana, parivrtta trikonasana, but any pose from 1st or 2nd series will do.  I’m starting to see that there’s a lot of energy in the poses we learn first.  Really anything that has interesting lines and shapes will do.  But ashtanga please, keep it simple.

 

 

 

 

 

Finding a Teacher

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Peg Mulqueen in Laguvajrasana
Colored pencil on paper

 

Angela Jamison from Ann Arbor, Michigan wrote a post that you might read if you’ve ever wondered about how your perception of your body affects your practice.  Don’t just read it once though, it takes a few flyovers to figure out what she’s talking about.

Which begs the question, have I really figured out what she’s talking about?  Not many people can successfully write about the energetic transformations inherent in the practice of Ashtanga yoga, but she does so with precision and courage.

Sometimes I think she’s a little angry.  That’s cool, I don’t mind my teachers occasionally pulling an outraged Jesus in the Temple with the moneylenders kind of maneuver.  David Garrigues can be like that too.

It took a long time to find a teacher.  There were teachers along the way, of course.  But I kept reading about Mysore, India and the traditional style  of teaching Ashtanga.  A few experiences with it kindled a hunger in me that wouldn’t leave.  I suppose some people have affairs in middle age, but I found yoga instead.  New Year’s Eve weekend doing a 2nd series workshop with DG almost 2 years ago now was a key turning point.

Backing up, I learned Ashtanga from Sue Pentland in a led class format.  She learned from David Swenson first and later from Kino MacGregor.  I found a wonderful teacher in New Hampshire, Robert Moses, and I still think he has the best Marichyasana C assist ever.  That man can just twist you around- I had no idea I could twist that far.  Robert learned Ashtanga from Norman Allen and I think from Eddie Stern, and I would have stayed with him but he’s far away on these New Hamphsire backroads and his schedule is limited.  If you are ever in the Peterborough, NH area you should look him up.

Then we, my practice partner and I, for by now I had a yoga buddy, found Randy Aromando.  She found him first but she’s nice and she shared.  So we drove to Belmont for the first time last January.

For the first time I understand what other ashtanga bloggers before me have written about, or not written about, this topic.  It’s not that Randy ever says “Though shalt not write about thy practice,” but I now have a disinclination to write about the details of such a relationship, other than with very broad strokes.

I will say this though.  I practiced first for a long time with him before he gave me any second series poses.  This was a good thing, because although I had begun 2nd on my own, with some successes and failures, I had not “cooked” first series enough yet to really be able to absorb second.  So I waited, sometimes patiently and sometimes not so patiently, for what seemed like a long time.  I didn’t ask either, but people were practiing second around me and I knew that sooner or later, if I waited (and worked hard), it would come.

Then there came this place of not caring so much.  First series itself is amazing.   The exploration and learning available in the primary series is infinite as far as I can tell.  I see now that I’ve only scratched the surface.  There is this breathy place I’ve found in the standing series, in which the breath initiates the movement and each inhale lasts the full entry into the pose and everything just flows… If you had told me ten years ago that I would find immeasurable joy in practicing the same sequence of poses over and over again, I would not have believed.  It is a practice, a moving meditation, and you can spend decades refining your sun salutations.

One day you hear the words “Jump through, pasasana.”  And you’re pretty sure they’re meant for someone else except that your teacher is standing right next to you.  And that there is the problem with 2nd, you no sooner get through the mari D hurdle, and there it is, Ganesh’s noose just waiting for you to put your head through the loop.  Sigh.  It’s a good thing that my teacher is patient.

 

Summer

 

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Summer is lovely.  I have been awash in other things and writing for a time has been on the backburner, but I miss it.  I can definitely say that I miss it.

In a way it is good, this time of allowing my practice to be nonverbal, to practice before writing.  Sometimes it’s very difficult to choose what to weed and what to water.

When I can get out of my own way enough, the practice flows.  A sequence of postures, memorized and practiced uncounted times, a teacher who assists and corrects.  No Deborah, not correct.  Yes Deborah, that is correct.  I find gratitude at the end of such a practice, a quality that has been sorely lacking in my life.

It is hard to explain.  David Garrigues wrote an article about pain recently, and I can see why.  It’s controversial, his attitude, because obviously pain is real and it is not wise to mindlessly practice through pain that is damaging to the body.

But his point is real too.  Here we are in this cave of wonders, and all we see is the dark and the damp.  We complain to anyone who will listen about our pain.  I do it too.  But there is a time and a place to see pain without identifying with it, to move through the pain and into the cave of wonders.  There are diamonds sparkling there.

I wish I could have met Guruji.

 

Sensory Overload and a Harsh Taskmaster

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Alhambra Ustrasana

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Model is Peg Mulqueen– you should check out her blog too!

My latest project is painting the interior of our house.  I should practice now but I’m drinking a warm cup of coffee and writing, so I’ll practice later.  I’ll be more flexible by mid-day and it will force me to take a break from painting the dining room, which is coming along but it’s a project that you just can’t really make go quickly.  Painting home interiors is about slow, steady progress.  I often approach it like I do a painting I’m working on.  I work for a few hours, then take a break, get something to eat or drink, and sit in the space and allow the next step reveal itself to me.  This house is currently my work of art.

If there’s one lesson that I seem to be absorbing lately it’s the lesson of don’t know.  When I acknowledge that I don’t know something, it opens up space for learning.  For example, in the mornings I struggle with anxiety.  Taking a shower helps, something about the hot water and steam soothes an overactive mind.   My mind rapidly spins out nets of thought while I endeavor to notice without identifying with them.  The next step is to turn my awareness to the spaces between the thoughts, and to inhabit those spaces a little bit, to notice the quality and timbre of no thought for the briefest of instants.  Then everything starts to settle, breathing slows, and I don’t feel so anxious anymore. 

This opens the door for a new thought:  that I am more or less constantly over-stimulated.  By mid-morning on a typical day I’ve gotten up early, written in my journal, practiced yoga and/or walked with my dog, gotten 3 children up and off to school which is quite a task let me tell you, returned home to clean up the detritus of the morning meal, and ingested breakfast along with a cup or two of strong coffee.  My mind whirls, a choppy blender full of tasks and projects.  It’s much easier on a day when I go to work for someone else, then the tasks are clear and the boss relatively easy to please.  But I am a harsh taskmaster and my to-do list for a day usually holds a week’s worth of tasks.  Impossible. 

So I’m overstimulated and for a break in the afternoon I sit down at this laptop computer and look at facebook and read my favorite blogs.  If I examine that habit there are these great nuggets of information that I find, it’s true, but after a while I’m just surfing from one wave to the next, not even reading complete articles but skimming the surface of a wide variety of things.  There’s no depth.  Finally I leave off this fruitless enterprise and lie on the floor and hug my legs to my chest. 

Ahhh.  There it is, what I really needed.  A brief pause, a reduction of sensory input. 

It’s easier to notice in others than in myself.   I’ve always been quick thinking and frustrated with people who can’t keep up.  Once in a while you meet someone who has the self-possession of a mountain and makes you question the value of a mind that leaps from one topic to the next in rapid fire succession. There is Catherine E, a fabulous artist with a strong, clear presence.  Talking to her made me feel  uncouth, as if I were sitting in the presence of the divine and all I could think about was my next manicure.  I have a friend like that, J, and while I rattle on and on about a million tiny things, she often says the one perfect thing that cuts through the static, revealing the knot in the wood. These women and others I admire exude a quietly profound wisdom that unravels pride in speed.  As if the hare has finally noticed that the tortoise embodies something of value, something heretofore barely noticed and poorly understood. 

This hare is working on heeding the lessons of the tortoise.  And while I’m at it, to come up with a realistic to-do list and remind myself that I’m doing a good job.  It’s amazing how much that helps.