Grateful for Practice


So it’s Thanksgiving, and I have begged for a half hour to myself before meeting up with the larger family.  Today I am grateful for my practice, for even though it hasn’t been a terribly great week for practice, not practicing makes me see clearly just how much yoga does for me.

If I don’t practice for 3 days I start to get mood swings.  I know this, I know this by now and still I forget.  It makes me wonder.  If I didn’t do yoga would I have tried some sort of medication by now?  Hard to say, I’m not the type to swallow pills on a regular basis.  I can’t even make myself remember a multi-vitamin.  I’m the person that screws up the antibiotics for the rest of you because I stop taking them once I feel better and save the rest for a moment of need.  Please don’t tell my doctor…

So anyway, there’s a good thing there’s this yoga business to keep me on track.  It’s not just about chasing the handstand or the bind in this or that, it’s about keeping my life on track and it’s easy to forget that when things get a little crazy around here.

So thank you, yoga.  Thank you to Patanjali and Krishnamachrya and all the crazy yogis who lived in caves and lived ascetic lives.  Thank you to the entire country of India for giving birth to this life-saving, life-enhancing practice.  Thank you to Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar and all the others who brought yoga here to this country.  Thank you to all the hippies and truth seekers who went to India and brought yoga back here with them.  Thank you to the first woman who taught me Tadasana when I was 20, and the other woman who taught me a simple series of poses when I didn’t know anything and couldn’t find a teacher and there wasn’t a yoga studio in every town.  Thank you to Baron Baptiste, David Magone, Susan Pentland, David Swenson, Rolf Gates, Shiva Rea, David Garrigues, Kino MacGregor and Robert Moses.  And thank you to every single teacher who finds something of value in the practice and attempts to pass it on.  Many of us do so for very little money and fame, but just because we love it and need to share it.

I’m sure my family would thank you all too, if they realized what you’ve done for me.  Gracias, Merci, and “a blessing on your head, mazel tov, mazel tov.”  (from The Fiddler on the Roof)


I joined a writing group

Elephant Walk, Gelatin Print.  -Deborah Santoro

And stopped writing.  Ironically enough.  It’s not their fault, but I started thinking about writing as more of an assignment, and began worrying over the flow of a piece, the overall composition.  Which pretty much brought my blog to a stand still.

The other reason is I decided to take my practice up a notch and practice first and write later.  Which is great for my practice, and deathly for writing as the early morning is a time when the words just flow.  But I woke up this morning and had the thought that I miss writing.  Which is probably another excuse to not get on my mat.

Another interesting thing about writing a yoga blog, as a yoga teacher, is that you start wondering at a certain point if things are too personal to share.  If you should present yourself in a more professional way.  I have friends who have gone on to open up studios and they have to think about their image.  So far I’ve always kept it down to earth here, sort of.  I mean, I do get a bit flighty once in a while, but overall I’m not trying to impress anybody.  

Oh the ways in which we fool ourselves.  In many ways it’s all about attention, isn’t it?

But once you set yourself up as a purveyor of yogic wisdom, it could get a bit harder to admit that you yelled at your kids in the supermarket or ate a hostess twinkie or something.  Now I haven’t had a Hostess twinkie in a long time, do they still sell those?  But this Halloween thing did just happen and I am not so pure…  there’s this thing called the “Mom and Dad tax” on candy don’t you know.  And I do love those dark chocolate mounds things the kids occasionally get…

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this year, since my youngest has gone to kindergarden and I will be teaching at a new yoga studio called Buddha Nest Yoga in Groton, Ma run by my friend Anne Dries.  The same thing goes for my art blog where I currently my post my thoughts and frustrations in that realm but I do notice that professional artists usually present themselves online in a more polished way.  

One final thought though, all those super polished blogs and websites are not always so interesting to me.  I love all the funky personal practice blogs where people freely admit their flaws and foibles and keep practicing anyway.  It’s so much more real.

If you got this far, I’ll just say this.  It’s election day.  You can probably guess who I’m voting for today. If you wanted to know, I would tell you.  Looking for a more politically astute post?  Try YogaRose.  There’s a really good Angela Jamison quote in there if you scroll down.

The Body of Light

This is a print I made in Provincetown in August.  It is Ursula, but I’m afraid that she might not recognize herself here.  I’m a complete novice at printmaking but I was very pleased with this image.

I’ve been thinking about the concept of Isvara pranidhana, the 5th Niyama of Patanjali’s yoga sutras which means, roughly, turning towards god/ light/ energy of the universe.

I know nothing, absolutely nothing.  It’s a train wreck.  We could be kind and call it beginner’s mind.  I get up in the morning and chant the opening mantra, honoring Patanjali and all the teachers who came before me, illuminating the path.  But attention and focus are still scattered.  It is much easier in the classroom to achieve the meditative precision that a good practice requires.  What would it take to achieve that focus in my home practice?  What difference would that make in my life?  What if I hone in on that instead, clarify what nourishes and detracts from that.  Isvara pranidhana might happen of its own accord, like experiencing the body of light on the acupuncture table, finding that clarity.

Angela Jamison writes this on her Insideowl blog:

“Either way, here’s a secret. Even if you experience torrents of compulsive internal talk, your verbal-analytical stream really can grow quiet. Why do you think the ancients bothered with this stuff? Practice can give you a fully functional off-button for the sound of the voices in your head. And not just by accident. There are purifications and techniques that summon stillness.

I’m not sure how many yoga practitioners actually know this. It takes strong concentration, a long attention span, and people who can tell you what to do because they’ve been there. There is not intermediate series. Oh sorry, advanced series. Come on, dear hunters of pigeon, duck and that mythic pair of one-footed-crows. EXCITE ME. Is it not time to get some pose santosha and kick the mainline practice up to the next kosha?”

So there are purifications and techniques that summon stillness, but it requires concentration, attention and a teacher.  Angela herself is a dedicated practitioner with what she describes as an above average fascination with asana, so none of this is dismissive of devotion to the physical practice.

Of course.  How silly of me.  I’ll get to work on that now.  Just as soon as I quit a few minor addictions and learn how to focus on my mat, at home alone.  It starts with turning off the external distractions during practice, but there are internal distractions aplenty.  I am afraid.  Afraid to change, afraid of what the cost might be, not sure I want to pay it.  But what of the cost of not kicking the mainline practice up to the next kosha?  Last year I wrote that the body of light that I envisioned on the acupuncture table would have to wait  for now.  My excuses grown thin.  Here I am chasing the jump through, the elusive binds, the handstand, and all of those things are lovely and worthy goals, but in the long run they are child’s toys.  There is larger quarry to hunt.

Grumpiness and Regular Practice

Grumpy today.  There has been a lump in my chest and I seem to be all angles and edges, sharp with people when things don’t go my way.  It’s a number of things, not least of which is that it’s easy to write about yoga when the rhythm of your practice is going well, and much harder when it’s not.

For that matter, the writing practice is off as well.  I had a taste, for a week, of living as an artist, working in the studio all day, being around other artists.  I thrived.  I also had a taste of the luxury of time to myself, time to think and read and go to sleep when I wanted to and feed only myself.

But I am a householder yogi.  Three children and a husband and everyone wants to eat different things and go to bed at different times and project their emotional needs into the air we breathe whenever it pops into their heads.  I love them, would be lost without them, but it has been hard, this re-entry into my family after a hiatus, and I can’t seem to find the balance between my needs and theirs.  The artist in me is screaming for oxygen and oodles of time to play and explore.  My sleeping schedule is way off and it has been hard to get up and practice in the morning, harder still to practice later and sometimes I just don’t practice at all.  And then everything suffers.  And I become all angles and edges, sharp with people when things don’t go my way. 

But relief is on the way, school starts very soon and my youngest goes to kindergarten.  Schedules will regularize and I will have time, precious time, this year, to work in the studio, to practice yoga and write about it all.  For better or for worse.

Mysore Summer

Oh Summer.  First, the heat helps.  It warms the muscles, softens some of the frozen places.  This Summer Deborah D and I are making a regular pigrimage up to Dublin, NH to practice Ashtanga yoga in the Stonelea Barn where Robert Moses teaches. 

To back up a moment and define the terms, Ashtanga yoga is a particular style of yoga that originates in India.  There is some disagreement on whether the practice is 100, 2000, or 4000 years old.  I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter, or at least it doesn’t matter that much to me right now.  There are some pretty convincing arguments (Yoga Body by Mark Singleton) that Pattabhi Jois took what he learned from Krishnamacharya, combined it with Western influences that pervaded India at the time, and created the sequences that comprise Ashtanga yoga, codified the poses and sequences into a system that would work for the Western students that were hungry for what he had to teach.  What matters to me is that this style, these sequences, have worked their way into my heart, my soul and my body and I am transformed.  At this point I am perhaps overly enamored of the physical practice, but faint glimmers of spiritual depth and growth begin to emerge.  For Ashtanga yogis, the body is the starting point, but the end goal is defined by Patanjali, that ancient compiler of the yoga sutras.  “Yoga citta vrtti nirodha.”  Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.

Lineage is important to many Ashtangis, and Robert Moses, while not authorized by the current keeper of the lineage (Sharath Rangaswami Jois, the grandson of the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois), learned the practice from Norman Allen and Eddie Stern, who learned the practice from Pattabhi Jois directly.  Robert teaches Mysore style, which is how it is done in India and in traditional studios around the world.  In a Mysore style classroom you begin with the first series and you memorize it one section at a time, moving on as you are ready and directed by your teacher.  This is very different from what you experience in a typical yoga class in America these days, in which a teacher leads you through a sequence, calling out the poses. 

There are several advantages to a Mysore style shala, or school.  One is that a student can learn the sequence at their own pace.  You might come the first day and learn the sun salutations, a few standing poses, and some closing postures. Little by little poses will be given to you until you practice the full sequence, which takes about 90 minutes.  Eventually you might move on to second series, and a few intrepid lovers of asana (yoga poses) might move on to third.  There are rules about these things, and while I question some of them, over all it’s a pretty sane, extremely intelligent and healing progression. 

Another advantage is that the teacher, freed from the need to call out pose after pose, or to invent their own sequence either beforehand or on the spot, is much more able to closely observe and assist their students.  You will typically get a lot more physical assists in a Mysore class.  Much of the learning is non-verbal.  Excess talk is not encouraged, there is no soundtrack.  As a result you gradually learn patience, your ability to concentrate expands and grows and often spills over into your daily life.  The practice is, ultimately, a moving meditation in which concentration on 3 things; breath, bandha (internal lock) and drishti (focal point) leads to, well, the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.  What this might mean to a typical Western student is greater concentration and an ability to focus. 

Once you memorize the sequence, it is yours, and you are free to practice at home.  You no longer need a teacher to lead you all of the time.  Indeed, unless you happen to live very close to a shala, you must practice at home for very little benefit will be derived from a once a week practice.  Sure, it’s better than nothing, but 3 times a week is more effective and with a daily practice (5-6 days a week depending), internal shifts begin to take place that are powerful indeed.  Be prepared.  As a yoga teacher, I can say that the biggest obstacle to progress in one’s yoga practice is a reluctance to practice on one’s own.  Developing a home practice is a critical step in a yogi’s growth. 

So this, this Mysore summer, I am dedicating my practice to my family.  For while the ultimate goal of yoga, that yoga citta vrtti nirodha, is all very fine, I just want to be a better person.  A little calmer, more able to deal with the trials and tribulations of raising a family and making a living.  In short, I really just want to be a better wife, mother, and artist.  Enlightenment would be the frosting on the cake. 

And if I can master a few new asana on the way, that’s even better.  For I’m probably not kidding anyone, especially not any of the Ashtangis I know.  There are poses I long to master.  As I said, overly enamored of the physical practice.  Call it an occupational hazard.

Stonelea Barn

This is downstairs at the barn, the upstairs is even more beautiful but I couldn’t find a good picture.

So finally, finally, I began practicing in Dublin, NH with Robert Moses on a regular basis.  I have a sitter and will be able to go regularly on friday mornings for the Summer.  Glorious, glorious, glorious.  The first friday of the Summer with him was auspicious, and he got me into a challenging pose I’ve been working on on both sides, even my “used to be injured” knee side.

It is lovely to be able to say that the knee I injured last July is healed.  I have to move slower into 1/2 lotus poses, it is true, waiting for the hips to open first, but once there it’s actually better than it was before so I think it’s safe to say that it is healed.

So the yoga news is good on all counts, and although at Summer’s end I’ll lose my friday mornings once more, I do have the consolation that I’ve already signed up for a David Garrigues workshop at Florence Yoga in September, and my first workshop with Kino at North End Yoga in October.

Robert’s class takes place in a beautiful new space called the Stonelea Barn in Dublin.  It is gorgeous, a cathedral of renovated barns.  I’m sure there is a story behind the space and the surrounding buildings and land, one that I will be most happy to learn.

The Next Asana

This is me, not practicing.  I woke up early and began writing, which is a bit dangerous as I can get carried away.  Because of this and my cyclical attempts to give up/ cut down on coffee, I had given up my morning writing practice and coffee in an attempt to get on my mat earlier with a cup of herbal tea.

This sounds great in theory, but in reality I lost the mojo, the get up and go to get on my mat at all and there were far too many mornings in which I slept in and squeezed in some sun salutations and a few standing poses in later in the day.

This week, I’m writing in the morning, with coffee.  This morning I decided that I had so much to say that I would practice later, which should work out this time.  It has been a good week of practice, solid, nothing spectacular, but solid.  

The next asana is the most daunting one of all, and it’s not listed in 1st or 2nd series, although it is implied.

It is the asana of getting a grip on my eating habits.  You could say it’s related to the yamas and niyamas, which are like the 10 commandments of yoga.  Basic stuff very similar to thou shalt not steal or covet thy neighbor’s husband.  There is the concept of aparigraha, non hoarding, that relates to my grasping hungry ghost style of filling my nutritional/emotional needs.  I am stuck here, and have been for some time.

I’ve tried lots of things, but this time I’m going to start with cutting most of the sugar out of my diet.  Except in the morning coffee, that’s kind of a problem.  My friend Kira suggested Stevia as a substitute.  I have tried excessive exercise in the form of triathlon training, which works fairly well for a while, but there comes a time when you can’t ride your bike twice a week/ run twice/ swim twice/ on top of a vigorous yoga practice and still take care of your family.  In other words, there comes a time to face the fact I am using this leftover emotional survival strategy from childhood and it is time to let it go.  

I have learned to be grateful for this.  It may sound crazy, but my eating habits evolved during a difficult childhood and they worked, they kept me safe and relatively sane.  If I hadn’t had food to turn to, I might have turned to far less savory habits.  I’ve seen how some of these pan out, and it’s not pretty.  So I’m grateful, in my own way, but it’s time to move on.