That's the word.  Everything is raw and red and open and I just can't trust my senses.  I am compelled to write about it, but the discomfort is so great that I can't tell if I have an overshare problem or a vulnerability problem.  Either way, it doesn't feel right.

Still, here I am, pecking away.  I can't help it.  I am blogger, hear me roar.  Read it and writhe in it with me, but be careful not to catch the itch.  I often wonder if I shouldn't start an anonymous blog for getting this incoherent sludge out of my system safely and quietly, but somehow the idea seems dishonest.  This is what the practice is for, navigation of the mind shit.  The emotional shit.  The family shit and the relationship shit.  I was raised on a strategy of compartmentalization -- separation and obscurification -- but the yoga dissolves the dividers and the whole mess blends together in a petri dish of pain to be dealt with as a virus, growing or dying but never to remain the same.

And then there's the pendulumic swing to pleasure that happens now and then when I manage not only to let it go, but to hurl the toxic bomb with all my might at the nearest passing stranger.  Bullseye.  Take that and run with it, you schmuck!  I'm outta here.

Obviously, there's instability.  But it's about time.  I haven't felt this rattled in years.  It's been difficult to face my practice.  Second series, especially, is scary in this condition.  But this is just the occasional sharp corner on a long and windy road when the sun is down, the night is dim, and the rain has made the pavement slick.  If I can keep my eyes on the road, everything will work out fine.  In the meantime, if you don't mind the way I drive, you're invited along for the ride.


Asana of the Week: Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana

Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana
Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana is almost exactly like Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana except that the posture is seated.  Because of this, the core muscles -- the spinal extensors and abdominals -- must work harder to create extension of the spine without the aid of gravity to draw one deeper into the pose.

The half-lotus position of the top leg releases the internal rotators of the hip as the heel applies pressure to the abdomen, massaging the vital organs with the breath.  The binding of the arm opens the chest and shoulder, encouraging a feeling of extension and spaciousness in this forward bend rather than rounding or curling inward.

Care must be taken to protect the knees.  Always use caution when folding the legs to a lotus or half-lotus position with special awareness on sensation at the joints.  The effects of this posture should be felt at the hips and not in the knees or ankles.  If discomfort is felt at the joints, practice a preparatory posture or modification instead.  Stay for 5-10 breaths in your fullest expression and then repeat on the opposite side.


Primary Friday: A Problem-Solving Practice

In the foreshadow of change, these quandaries and conundrums progenerate like rabbits as I turn my head to look the other way.  Characteristically, distraction appears in a most disorienting form at a time when clarity is most especially essential.  Uprooted from the solid earth of solitary life, the daily practice -- the in-the-moment-every-moment practice -- has been a special challenge.  Not only do I miss my sacred space, but I yearn for the simplicity of progress on the path in an environment self-designed almost exclusively to facilitate my own success.

In my cave, seated on my cushion or sweating on my mat, there is nothing to distract me from my task.  There is only quietness and space, the material manifestation of my earthly life nestled comfortably between the few things that I need and even fewer things I don't.  In my natural setting, like the postures, I deal with the problems one by one.  Typically, they come rolling in at a manageable pace, and I watch and breathe and watch and breathe and breathe until the answers just appear.  They are reliably revealed through ascription to simplicity and nothing more.

As a sojourner, simplicity is all the more difficult and all the more necessary.  The colorations of the mind cast my world in a seductive saturation until light and shadow, grade and shade, blend together in a garish landscape of needy neons and the oppressive almost-black of navy blues.  It is tough to see the trueness of the road on the horizon or feel the nature of the ground beneath my feet, and so I work to gather bits of precious pleasure just in case I need to make a nest and rest along the way.  But that's the fear, the choice, a fear of commitment equal to or greater than the natural fear of the unknown.

So now my mission is to tear myself away from the pleasure-center stimulation, to seal it up and feed the sacred root before it is strung out any further in search of nutrients and other lesser but supporting forms of life.  I need work.  I need burden.  I need responsibility.  I don't function well apart from that which grounds me.

And what's the answer?  Practice:  Primary, pranayama, meditation.  These are the tried and true methods for balancing the prana with the apana, the winds of the body as the sanctuary of the mind.  My body is my home and any attachments or associations to place and time and persons present are merely misperceptions.  I will quiet the body, make space in the mind, and invite solutions to the surface.



So... there's a reason I generally choose to avoid romantic involvement of any kind.  I had forgotten what that reason was.  I remember now.


Primary Friday: Ashtanga Love

image source
This week's Primary was just as it should be -- light, fast, and fun.  I have grown more accustomed to practicing in the cold and, for some reason, my hips have been freakishly open.  I am enjoying an effortless lotus entry and some very deep Marichyasanas as a result.

The right shoulder is still tweaky, but not to the extreme that it was.  This whole sad shoulder saga has made me rethink the way I move through the vinyasas, jump backs and jump throughs in particular.  The weight-bearing in the left hand is always good, but in the right hand, I can feel myself lift up through the inner edge of the palm if I'm not careful to spread the weight evenly and keep the hand flat for the duration of the jump.  Must be more careful to preserve the shoulders if I hope to tackle 3rd series one day.

Intermediate practice has been going extremely well, with the exception of the self-inflicted neck injury earlier this week.  Eka Pada Sirsasana on the first side is finally feeling comfortable in the full expression of both A and B.  Second side is a different story, but if it can happen on the right, it can happen on the left.  I am a firm believer.  Rather than just give it one shot and hope for the best, since my practice is relatively short for the time being (2nd to Pincha), I have been investing more time in research and preparatory postures for the LBH set.  Half-pigeon, Lizard, Rock-the-Baby, Archer, and Compass variations have all made appearances in my practice this week.  Even with just a few days of including this extra work, there is significantly more range of motion in both hips.  I do lose some precious heat during this hip-opening detour, but I think it will be worth it in the long run... or the short run, as it were, assuming I can avoid any major setbacks in the LBH department.

Tittibhasana is my new favorite posture.  I LOVE the way this pose makes me feel.  It's a challenging set, but after the dismount, both psoas are unmistakably abuzz.  Not to mention, it seems to be doing amazing things for the shape of my hips and thighs.  I have no complaints in that department when it comes to Ashtanga.  To put it frankly, my ass has never looked better.  Hell, my body has never looked OR felt better.  Ashtanga rocks!

The Routine

Check out this cute Ashtanga infographic!

Ashtangi morning Infographic


Asana of the Week: Prasarita Padottanasana

This wide-legged forward bend is one of my favorite standing postures.  It stretches the hamstrings, opens the hips, and activates the inner thighs while releasing the neck and spine.  The effect on the upper body varies with the position of the arms, of which there are many.  Not shown is a variation I like with the hands in reverse prayer which, in this progression, would fit best after C and before D to further open the shoulders if necessary.

While Prasarita Padottanasana is straightforward enough, one question many face is how far apart to set the feet.  The distance between the feet is primarily dependent upon two characteristics specific to the individual practitioner: flexibility and height.  If the hamstrings are so long and/or the stance is so wide that the crown of the head reaches the floor, then the feet should be brought closer together.  If the head is nowhere near the floor because of tight hamstrings, step the feet an inch or two further apart to take some of the stretch out of the back of the legs.  

Mindfully lift through the arches of the feet and the adductors of the inner thighs as you hold your weight squarely on all four corners of both feet.  Be sure that the outer edges of the feet are parallel to the short edges of your mat and keep the quadriceps working to lift the knee caps.  Let the muscles at the base of the neck be soft, using the spinal extensors, bandhas, and sides to progressively bring the crown a little closer to the floor with every breath.  If a connection is made with the hands to the floor or part of the body, as in positions A and D, use the arms to deepen the posture and keep the energy circulating.  


Inertia and Injury

Ok, universe.  I get it.  Every time I build some steam, you spring a leak.  Any time I get the fire going well and hot, you bring the rain.

It's as though I've been sucked into a state of inertia, a standstill, despite every natural impulse. The tapas are white hot and the truth is burning fiercely, but every time I make a move, a big wet blanket falls to take me down.  I lost my love.  I lost my job.  I lost my independence.  And just as I bent down to gather up the scattered fragments of my life, a heavy cosmic boot landed squarely on my ass to push me face down in the mud.

I pulled a muscle in practice yesterday.  Badly.  The first side of Eka Pada was so good that I came to the second side, my tighter side, with too much confidence and as I pressed my head back against my shin I felt an ominous inner shift.  Normally, with this type of injury, I'll continue on with the practice, but this time it was different.  I couldn't do much at all without pain, so I skipped ahead to finishing, omitting all drop backs, Sirsasana, and the vinyasas. This morning, I can barely turn my head from side to side, much less nod it up and down.  I've had problems with this muscle group before, but it's never been this bad.  I don't know how I'll practice until this pain goes away.

Yesterday, I drove 30 miles to the nearest health food store (which, in itself, was quite depressing...) to pick up some arnica cream and neti salts.  I had high hopes for the arnica, but it's effect has been minimal. I fully intend to unroll the mat today, but practice is likely to be skeletal for at least a day or two which leaves me with even less to do out here by myself while the family is away.  Clearly, this time is meant for rest and reflection.  The way of things has left me little choice.


Primary Friday: Road Trip

After the news of my grandmother's death on Tuesday, I felt called to be with my family.  Without a job or other obligation, there was nothing to hold me back.  On Thursday morning, I packed a bag, packed the dog, and drove straight up the nation from Austin to Wisconsin in one smooth motion.  It's a long, beautiful drive north through the plains of middle America, so between the moments of awe and soulful appreciation, I had a ton of time to think.

Where do I go from here?  Do I look for work teaching?  Should I go back to school?  Or do I take the divine hint and skip town in search of bigger and better things?  I'm not sure.  It's exciting to have this much freedom, so many options and seemingly endless possibilities.  It's the proverbial "crossroads."  Here I stand, facing the fork in the road.  I'm glad to be home, surrounded by those close to my heart as I ponder these big questions.  I am so fortunate to have such a wonderful network of support within my family.  In spite of all the ways in which we disagree, they have always been there for me and for that I am eternally grateful.

Between formulations of my future, there was ample time during the drive to practice counting the Primary series in Sanskrit.  It was a perfect way to fend off the highway hypnosis.  I led my imaginary students through the practice from Surya to Savasana, calling the postures and counting the vinyasas in real time.  It was amazing how vividly I could see and even feel the practice in my own body from start to finish while still strapped in my chair.  That Primary practice, it seems to have been etched in my DNA.

Naturally, the practice schedule has been interrupted with the moon day and travel.  I was on the road all day on Thursday and half the day Friday.  By the time the dog and I arrived at our destination, neither of us cared to do much but lie around and bask the in the affection of the family, so the weekly Primary was pushed back to Saturday.

It's colder here.  The house is drafty and even with a space heater placed near my mat, it's hard to stay warm.  In spite of this, I had a really nice Primary.  I thought my hips and hammies might have seized up from all the driving, but was surprised at the openness I found instead.  My shoulder, both shoulders actually, are still acting up, though the discomfort is less sharp than it was.  I wonder if it's got something to do with the 2nd series practice working around the joints in a different way.  I have been feeling a new stretch deep within the shoulders in Kapotasana and I wonder now what the relationship is between that stretch and the sensitivity I've had there for the past couple of weeks.  Could it be an opening?  Let's hope so.

As I type this post, I am trying to psych myself up for my first Intermediate practice since Wednesday.  I want the practice, but I don't want the cold.  It's so hard to get started when the chill drives deep down into the bone, I can barely muster the courage to disrobe to change into my practice apparel.  It's like taking a cold shower, the initial plunge is the hardest part.


A Beautiful Death

I have an elderly neighbor, a little old man in a wheelchair for lack of both legs from the knees down.  His eyes are sunken, his skin is ashen, and his voice is barely there.  He lives alone.  Meals on Wheels brings him the occasional sustenance and his daughter stops by from time to time and yells to him through the door, "ARE YOU OKAY, DAD?  DO YOU NEED ANYTHING?"  As if he could project his own harried voice enough to answer.  I would often see him parked in his chair across from the dumpsters in the parking lot with a plastic bag of trash in his lap, just hoping for someone to come by and deposit the load for him.  I had the honor once or twice.

Last night, he died.  This, in itself, was no surprise.  He was very, very old and seemed content in his approach to the end, but the events that followed were fascinating and unsettling to watch.  There was no ceremony, no reverence or care for his life or remains.  His body was taken away, his chair thrown in the dumpster along with what seemed to be everything else.  A woman and her preteen daughter callously gutted the old man's home and hauled armfuls of stuff -- blankets, appliances, pillows, shelves -- and threw them straight away.  It was a hurried process, no time for memories, no setting aside of special mementos to save for those who may have loved the old man.  Everything went to the trash.  I have never seen another's life so unfeelingly discarded.  It was as if they could not finish the work fast enough.

My grandmother is dying.  She's been dying for weeks.  I have received no fewer than 5 text messages in the last month from family asking me to "pray" because "today's the day."  And yet she lives on in a state of surrender, waking every day and simply waiting for the end.  Loved ones huddle, tense and expectant around the bed, wishing her well on her journey, thinking every breath will be her last.  Well-intentioned bible quotations pepper the family Facebook pages, as she seems to be using her last gasps of strength to check her Facebook feed.  My 21st century grandma...

This woman has been an influential force in my life.  She has always played the mighty matriarch, with a sharp tongue and a fierce eye for imperfection.  Her deceased husband left her a good deal of money which she has never been shy about flaunting.  For as long as I can remember, she has driven the latest model, carried the latest phone, and stocked her home with the latest console and video games with which to impress and entertain her many grandchildren.  

She travelled extensively, often selecting a relative to accompany her as her companion.  One summer at the tender age of 14, in a post-pubescent body with a pre-pubescent mind, I had the pleasure of accompanying her on a cross-country jaunt via the railroads.  I remember her presenting me as an object of admiration to random men along the way, "Isn't she thin?  Isn't she lovely?"  It was awkward.  And what could they do but nod and smile, these middle-aged men faced with this fearsome old bird and her underaged debutante?

Nonetheless, I took her behavior as a directive.  I ate less and less, and I made myself... ahem... available. I returned from that trip a different person, my naivete dissolved by the ugly alkaline of judgment and lies.  My mind, for the next few years, would be completely dominated by preoccupation with my own attractiveness, both in absolute and relative terms, and the conquest of men.  My grades and relationships suffered, but in that pain, I found my art.  

Profound discomfort in my own body spawned a work of poetry quite vast in which my soul could rest.  With my sexual awakening, a valve was opened and the words purged onto the page.  I understood that beauty arises from affliction, and I became attached to the pain, the source of my art.  I clutched it closely to my bosom.  I stared into it, I stroked it, I fed it precious morsels.  I worshipped it and prayed that it would stay.  

But pain does not stay.  It fades away to nothing as the heart refuses anymore to feel.  The mind is left with little but the vague impression of an old sensation, the imprint of an expired state of being.  When this nothingness became unbearable, I went in search of new extremes, new ways to stretch my capacity for discomfort in the hopes of dislodging some last line of inspiration from which a whole new era of art (beauty) might spring.  Homelessness, poverty, harmful habits, and tattoos -- these are just some of the ways I sought to shake the frame.  Yoga ended this cycle.

There it is:  the yoga connection.  In the complexity of life, yoga is the simple solution.  It teaches us how to feel, how to experience the richness of existence without becoming a slave to the sensation.  Through the practice of yoga -- real yoga -- we learn to keep the channels open so that we may perceive the fullness of both art and ugliness.  More importantly, we begin to understand the relationship between the two.


Primary Friday: Life is a Blessing

This week's Primary Friday post is late because I wanted to let the previous post sit for a bit, but now let's get back to our regularly scheduled programming.

This week's Friday practice was my first Primary after a whole week of cutting it from my regular practice.  Instead of staying home, I visited a teacher friend's led Primary and practiced to the Sanskrit count.  It was nice to hear the count again but all of this, coupled with the cold turn of the weather had me feeling out of sorts.   Old injuries are flaring up as the chill sets in.  Twisting and forward bending are not fun.  My right shoulder is still bugging me off and on, and it was predictably aggravated by the Primary practice.  All those goddamn jump backs...

Swenson and Shelley, among others, have tried to teach me the straight-armed jump back which relies more on momentum than strength, but I can't seem to do it.  The only jump back I'm capable of is sort of a slow lift and press with the elbows serving as the primary fulcrum instead of the shoulders.  It's exhausting unless you get it just right, and even then it takes a lot of work.  One thing David said that has really made a difference, though, is that when the legs cross for the jump back, the top leg is active and the bottom leg is passive.  It seems so simple, so obvious, but when done with awareness, it really does make the whole process much cleaner and more precise.

Just before I was fired, I decided to congratulate myself on the completion of my training with some yoga goodies.  I ordered a couple of mysore rugs, an eye pillow, and a stack of books.  Even though I really can't afford them now that I've got no income, I'm sort of glad I made the purchases when I did because, between resume submissions, I have nothing but time to read, study, and do my practice.

Last night I finished reading Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings by A.G. Mohan, one of Krishnamacharya's longest standing students.  What a beautiful book!  Mr. Mohan recounts the history of Krishnamacharya as both a student and a teacher, and divides the rest of the book into succinct commentaries on various topics that are all rich with nuggets of wisdom from the father of modern yoga.  Mr. Mohan's dedication and affection for his teacher are clearly communicated through the text.  The span and evolution of their relationship as recounted by Mr. Mohan is quite moving.  I certainly set this book down with a much clearer understanding of Krishnamacharya's influence and a greater appreciation for his efforts.

Nitya Mohan, A.G.'s daughter, began to learn the Vedic chants from her father at the age of 4.  Here she is to usher the good vibes back to Damn Good Yoga:

Next on the reading list?  What else??  Guruji!


Primary Attachment and Teacher Appreciation

Giving up Primary is going to be harder than I thought.  I have come to realize over these past few days that, in spite of any desire I may or may not have had to move on to 2nd series, I am deeply attached to the way Primary makes me feel.  I miss the heat.  I miss the stretch.  And I miss the work of all the jump backs.  In fact, I miss it so much that, last night, I defaulted to 1/2 Primary plus Intermediate to Pincha instead of going straight into 2nd series.

I don't intend to do this every day.  Shelley told me not to for the sake of my shoulders and I believe she's right, but there's something about the effort of Primary that feels so grounding and real, whereas, with 2nd, the work sort of sneaks up on me all quiet-like.  There's just so much raging prana from all the backbends that the fatigue doesn't set in until I emerge like a dirty dish rag from Tittibhasana, shriveled and wet.  

I didn't even notice how much strength had built up in my legs from Titti and the kneeling backbends until yesterday when I put the drop backs back into my practice (haven't been dropping back this week because of the shoulder,  which was feeling much better last night).  After just one preparatory drop back -- slow and controlled, with several breaths in the hang -- I managed 3 smooth, unbroken drop backs in a row (haven't done that since before the biopsy).  Then three half-backs and a very deep final backbend, which I stood from unassisted without a wobble.  All in all, it was one of the better rounds of finishing backbends I can remember and I attribute that to the power 2nd series demands of the thighs.

And then there's Pincha.  I am having a hell of a time with Pincha in my practice.  Every day, I lay out the floor pillows at the top of my mat (don't laugh; the floor in my apartment is really hard), and every day I tumble, again and again.  BUT, however many tumbles it takes, I keep trying until I stick one for 5 breaths, which I have managed to do every day.  You might think all this crashing over would be disheartening, but, on the contrary, it is so freeing to be able to fall, to be liberated from the wall and to know that my efforts, regardless of my ability to balance, are tearing down the walls of fear for a much-needed renovation of the inner space.  This is the best kind of work and I feel privileged to have come this far.

It probably goes without saying, but those three weeks with David and Shelley have given my practice a complete overhaul.  Lightbulbs are flashing at random and I am only just now hearing some of what he said.  David's guidance on the breath completely changed the way I feel.  His pointers on economy of movement and continuum of motion have pushed my energy levels through the roof.  My aversion to the mat is gone, having been replaced with renewed enthusiasm and a wide-eyed appreciation for the potential of each and every practice.

I am filled with love and gratitude for my teachers.

Battle of the Yogis

Moral of the story?  Honor your teachers, honor the practice, and honor the process with patience and respect.

Thanks, Selena!