A Good Practice Week

Teapot

It has been a good practice week, which is excellent for February.  Despite days off, for various reasons, I had 4 solid practices.  They felt good not so much for the poses I got or didn’t get, for I’m currently in a plateau phase, up against the same internal limitations, and trying to see my way through.  The breath, though, that has been a little different, longer, deeper, fuller, so that the same old practice is new, is constantly renewed, and has some space for love and light.  I know this sounds a little airy, but really it’s my practice partner who has been teaching me about the breath.  Not by anything she says, but by the sound of her breathing.  Long, slow, deep.  Her breath is contagious, luckily for me.

We also found a new teacher, Randy Aromando at Ashtanga Yoga Belmont.  We love Robert Moses, but he only teaches once a week, an hour away.  Randy has an intensive teaching schedule, I’m not sure how he keeps it up, truth be told.  But his mysore class was lovely, the space painted a rich buttercup yellow, complete with a small hand made temple at the front.  There was vibrant energy in the room as well, as people filtered in to lay down their mats and begin their practice.  I wondered if he would stop me, but I had decided in advance that I wouldn’t let it bother me, that whatever my practice would be that day would be fine.  For the non-ashtangis who read this, getting stopped simply means that if you get to a pose that offers you considerable difficulty, the teacher might have you end the sequence there and move on to closing postures.  It’s a way of teaching, and keeping students safe.  So of course it becomes this whole ego thing, which postures you have, how far you’ve come, but we make it that and it doesn’t have to be like that.  And so…

He didn’t stop me.  I guess my approximation of the bind in marichyasana D was close enough, although my fingers did not touch.  I got into my supta kurmasana, the one in which I grab the edges of the back of my stretchy yoga top and try to squiggle my hands as close as possible, than tuck the top of my head behind my crossed feet.  Energetically speaking, this seems to work, it’s a very deep forward fold even without the bind.  I think the day I get that bind that my head might blow off or something, or not.  Perhaps it won’t matter at all.  From this vantage point, I looked forward (it’s impossible to look up in this position), saw Randy’s feet.  Very good, he said and I took that as permission to move through the rest of the sequence.

The rest of the week went well, until Friday, practicing 1st with David Garrigues’ DVD, and my right wrist begins to hurt.  I thought it would be okay, or I hoped it would.  I’ve been working a lot with taking my weight into my hands, moving towards that graceful float from down dog to standing, imagining a float through to seated that moves in slow motion ballet, legs lifted until, ever so gently, they float down.  Not yet, but I keep picturing it in my mind.  But there’s a fine line between tapas, the fiery energy that fuels your practice, and over-efforting, pushing through into injury, allowing your ego to override your physical limitations.  Perhaps I will always err on the side of tapas, and that’s okay.   But by the marichyasanas, it was clear that I would need to modify.  It’s the outer edge of my right wrist.  It could well be related to the tension I hold in the right shoulder, the tension that magically evaporates when I am practicing or teaching yoga, but comes back under stress.  I’ve been working with a chiropractor lately, perhaps some things are shifting.  I’m not sure, the alignment of my right hand on the mat seems a tad off.  It’s subtle.  So I skipped vinyasas, modified vinyasas, and even skipped urdhva dhanurasana (wheel) until I remembered that I could substitute bow, dhanurasana, which is simply a wheel on your belly, yes?  Added in a few cobras for good measure.  It snowed 2 feet here on saturday, I had to keep switching the shovel to my other hand to take the twisting pressure off the wrist.  And now, Sunday, when I would normally practice, but there’s this wrist, and, technically, it’s a moon day.  Perhaps we’ll go skating or sledding instead.

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She who loves herbal tea

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This is a gelatin print I made using a photograph that Peg Mulqueen was kind enough to send me.  It is part of a series of prints and multi-media pieces I’m making using the backbends of the 2nd series of Ashtanga Yoga.  Peg is an amazing yogi, a fearless leader in her local Ashtanga community in Washington D.C., and an excellent writer as well with a funny and searingly honest blog that you should read if you don’t already.

It was a good practice week.  I’m able to work with 2nd series more, although it seems quite a stretch to think that I’ll ever be able to hop around like a crocodile, much less bind up that noose posture thing someone meanly put right at the beginning of the series.  But it is feeling more fluid, and I’m learning how to handle the emotional energy it seems to generate.  I have a friend to work with, and we practice together at her house once a week, which is wonderful.  We practiced last week and although I had to cut my practice short to get my daughter to an early rehearsal, I had this moment of extreme gratitude for this practice as it is right now, this place and these people to practice with.  Perfect.

Here is a story that helped me, perhaps it will help you.  In the past, I thought of myself as a person very attached to her coffee.  Addicted.  Not just one cup.  Not just any coffee, but freshly ground dark roasted beans   lovingly bathed in scalding water in my French press.  I have a friend who was the same, the kind of guy who would bite your head off if you got between him and his morning coffee.  Recently he came over and I made him a cup.  

Oh sure, I’ll have a cup.  Usually I just drink tea.

Really?  But you were always such a coffee person.

Oh no, sometimes I don’t have coffee at all.  I’ve been drinking this herbal tea that is nice…

And it’s stunning, because it’s as if the fellow imbiber of a daily cuppa no longer exists, he doesn’t even seem to recall that he was just like me.

He changed his mind.

Oh, he changed his mind!  And that is what you have to do, change your mind, and as a result, change the language you use to describe yourself.  If you’re sitting there not drinking a cup of coffee, and still thinking that you are hopelessly attached to that cup you’re not having, then it’s not going to take long for the smell of your husband’s coffee to overwhelm your senses.

So I have become she who loves herbal tea.  I am changing my mind and the language I use with myself.  I have long known that I’ve been overdoing the coffee and it’s not doing me any favors.  It is a primary suspect for morning anxiety.  As some of us age we become more sensitive to caffeine, and I am one of those.  Can’t drink it after noon or I might not sleep at night.  It makes me wonder how many people take anti-anxiety medication, when cutting their caffeine intake might make everything manageable without medication.  

Lest you think I’m some sort of saint, I still have morning cup, but only one, before my practice.  When I start to moon over that second cup, I remind myself that I am she who loves herbal tea, and put on a pot of water, place a teabag in a cup.  Ginger tea with a spot of honey while driving the kids to school is actually quite nice.  

Yogi tea with leaf

December is my Worst

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December is truly my worst month.  I’m still emerging from it.  This despite the joys of a beautiful holiday with a family I love.  It has taken me a long time to see the pattern of it.  Is it the light levels? My family history? All of that and more, I’m sure.  Truly I want to hide in a cave and instead I have to go to the mall.  I hate the mall.

That and a minor injury, already recovered from, but the next thing you know I’m up 5 pounds and the ever delicate marichyasana D bind is gone gone gone.  Poor me, there are worse things.

But there is more light now, the holidays are over, and once more a sense of renewal.  Always there is this feeling of return, return to the practice, to the intention to make the most of the short time we are given in this human life.  It is such a joke the universe plays on us, there is so much to do, so little time.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
― Mary OliverNew and Selected Poems

When my personal practice lags I turn to my DVDs, so once again David G tells me to dip the spine into the body, Kino exhorts me to put my feet under my hands in padahastasana on her 2nd series DVD, has anyone else noticed this snafu?  After a while this too, shall pass, and I will regain the momentum to practice in quiet, which is often deeper and more fluid.

I love this picture of David Garrigues and myself, from a weekend workshop in Florence, MA last September. He’s in India at the moment, for like ever, and I’m eagerly awaiting the update of his website to see what he might be offering for trainings next fall.  David said many things in that workshop that struck me, and I’m still reeling, but the most important one perhaps was this:

“Everything that is important in your practice, you are already doing.”

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.