New, Anew, Renewed

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.



She who loves herbal tea


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

Writing, Practice and Freakish Will Power

Lately, I notice, the writing is getting the better of me.  I would get up at 5am, get a cup of coffee and write in my journal for a while.  Pretty soon an hour went by and I wasn’t on my mat yet.  And my practice was too short, by the time I got there.

So this week, a new leaf.  I’ve already cut out the pre-practice coffee, and am now down to 1 or 1 1/2 cups a day.  This feels a bit ascetic for me, but it does help even out my energy levels and reduce anxiety, which is a topic for another post.  Practicing while drinking ginger tea is not quite the same, but it’s not terrible.  This week I will practice first and write later.  Of course this means I will write less.  But I’m intrigued by something Angela Jamison wrote in her post How Jedi Knights Should Eat.  She writes:

“Daily practitioners do develop slightly freakish will power. But a strong will can make you stupid. In this practice, your will is only as good as your surrender.”

Okay, so I can see some of this freakish will power when it comes to poses.  And it’s true, it has made me stupid.  I have had a tough time with this whole surrender business and have injured myself as a result.   Slow learner, in this, regard, but getting there.

But when it comes to food, I have yet to experience the freakish will power thing.  Perhaps I don’t practice intensely enough.  Sure I practice daily, mostly, but some days are a bit weak.  Some days I’m lucky to get in the sun salutations.  And as I mentioned, the writing thing was getting strong at the expense of the Ashtanga practice.  Which is good, in a way, except that mostly in my journal I whine about things that more yoga might solve better than more writing.

So this is an experiment, of sorts, in ramping up my practice.  If a miracle happens and I suddenly develop the freakish willpower to resist the lure of peanut m&ms and guacamole on Easter Sunday, all the better.  But I’ll settle for less than that.

This week I intend to practice full primary every day. Except Saturday, which is a day off and I get to go ice skating with my daughter.

Ashtanga Report & Candles of Joy and Sorrow

On Sunday mornings I practice Ashtanga 2nd series, sometimes called Nadi Shodhana or nerve cleansing.   I began this in September.  Some people will be offended or annoyed by this because I don’t have a teacher to teach me 2nd series, since there are no mysore classes less than an hour away from me.  Others will think I shouldn’t be doing 2nd series because I can’t bind in certain key “gateway poses,”  like Marichyasana D and Supta Kurmasana.  True enough.  But I can stand up from a backbend, so I made the decision to add this series once a week for now to see how things progress.

So I have been plodding along carefully yet steadily, doing what I can and not doing what I can’t.  A few things are not possible right now, so I omit them.  Such as the pose where you put 2 feet behind your head.  But using David Swenson’s book and Kino MacGregor’s video, and I can usually find some way to approach a pose and still say safe.

And there are these wow moments.  I posted a month or so ago that Lotus had been taken away by the god of knee injuries, but Pinca Mayurasana was given to me in its place.  A small miracle, as I’ve been working on it for years.  Years!  And then yesterday, suddenly I was there and it felt great and I thought what would happen if….  What would happen if my feet bent down toward my head and my back arched.  Oh my god.  OMG!  And I repeated it too so it wasn’t a total fluke.  My feet didn’t touch my head (don’t get that excited) but scorpion pose was definitely happening.

So just when I think this crazy series is not for me and I have no business being here, there are poses that invite me in and allow me to linger.  I love the headstands.  All 7 of the glorious things.  Too much fun.  Don’t get me wrong, I would love a teacher, if a teacher moved to my neck of the woods and set up shop I’d be there.  I’d be waiting at the door.  Friday I will be traveling to a new teacher for a mysore class.  But it’s not something I can do regularly as it’s an hour plus drive and only on Friday mornings when my husband works.  There is a mysore studio in Boston, but again, that’s over an hour away.  And I hear that they are super traditional and now I have this problem with driving for an hour and getting stopped in Marichyasana D.  Ah the dangers of self practice.  I do go to led primary classes whenever I can, and I love them.

So that’s the Ashtanga report.  On to what I’m starting to think of as Creative Vinyasa.  I teach a power vinyasa class on Sunday afternoons.  Sometimes I go in with a plan and sometimes I wing it a little and yesterday was one of those days.  We arrived at Shavasana and I hadn’t decided what to do yet.  I was wishing that I had prepared with a quote or a reading.  I led my students through a closing routine and asked them to lie down.  I was getting ready to lead them through a guided shavasana (a savayatra exercise) when suddenly I noticed the music.  Wade Imre Morisette was singing Om Mane Padme Om and it was particularly lovely.  So I stayed quiet and let the music play.  Held the space, as David and Shelly put it.  Then I remembered church this morning, how we light candles of joy and sorrow.  So as my students rolled over I had them light an imaginary candle of joy or sorrow in their heart for someone, and to dedicate the benefit of their practice to someone important in their lives, reminding them that what we do for ourselves is of benefit to others as well.  That sometimes you have to put on your own oxygen mask first.

Sometimes it’s good not to have a plan.

Kimono Plate Ustrasana

Practice is at a plateau where it will probably stay until I figure out how to plug up those energy leaks.  At the moment I have to confess that there is stress, enough that I’m regressing in some of my habits and it is hard hard hard.  Hello plateau.  Here is your color and texture and I’m getting to know you pretty well.  Working around my current limitations, I just keep showing up at the mat for whatever practice I can manage for the day.

Yesterday, as my mind wandered and my energy was low and I was tempted to check my email, drink more water, and in other ways escape from the meditative flow or lack thereof that needs to happen on the mat.  I asked myself, why are you here if you’re not going to focus on the here and now?  That brought me out of my reverie and back to my mat.

Yet the other day while I was teaching I noticed that teaching yoga has become a flow state for me. If I can learn to maintain the kind of focus I bring to a yoga class to my artistic practice, that practice will take off I have no doubt.  For the length of the class and a good chunk of time thereafter, I forgot to worry about the trials and tribulations that currently vex me.  Which puts things into perspective and shows me how my mind fixates on problems in a way that isn’t terribly effective or useful.

My friend John has a great solution to all such problems:  more yoga.

Here is an amazing performance- I even downloaded the song from iTunes.  Yoga meets breakdancing anyone?