Winter Break and the Return to Intermediate

It has been over a month since my last post.  To the best of my recollection, this is the longest drought DGY has ever seen.  My first semester as a full-time student has come and gone.  Grades will post today.  I am aiming high.  Fingers crossed.

In the past ten days, I have not only emerged from the gauntlet known as finals week, but also negotiated my teaching schedule for the coming year, and I am delighted to announce that I will be teaching not one but four Ashtanga classes each week!  Check the schedule page for details.

As for my own practice, with the demands of school compounding with each successive month, it became less of a place to challenge myself and more of a chance to nurture and revitalize.  Primary, standing and finishing, or even a minimal practice of 3-3-3 (3 Surya A, 3 Surya B, 3 final postures) was more than enough to keep me happy and open.  I think I traded in my Intermediate practice for a simpler approach sometime in late September, but now that the semester is over and I've got a month to decompress, I am wading back into the Intermediate pool.

My first Intermediate practice was Sunday, and it was fabulous.  Bound Pasasana, face to shin in Krounchasana, ankle grab in Kapotasana... the works.  In fact, the postures felt so remarkably untouched that I was tempted to go all the way through Nakrasana, but something told me I'd be cripplingly sore the next day if I carried on that way, so I stopped at Yoganidrasana and will do so for the rest of the week.  

I have been on Turks and Caicos with my very large and very dear family since Saturday, and I suspect that the sweet, temperate ocean air, the company of loved ones, and the relief of successfully completing the first semester back at school all have something to do with the open body and fantastic practice.  Still, I am rightfully sore.  I miss my quiet little apartment and my not-so-quiet little dogs.  I am ready to be home.


Primary Friday: Discovery and Rediscovery in Equal Joy

As I have maneuvered around a variety of obstacles to maintain my asana practice these past couple of months, I have learned much about my relationship to the larger practice of yoga, about how much I need it, how much it has changed me.  

First, years of consistent awareness practice have blurred the distinction not only between the various limbs and styles of yoga, but also between the practice and life itself.  They are seamless.  Neither ever really ends.

Second, this body is highly responsive.  It is an enviable blessing when I am deep in practice -- the asana and pranayama come so easily to me -- but when I compromise its treatment, however aware of the choices I may be, my body is quick to rebel.  There is no coasting on health.  Self-care is a daily endeavor.

Lastly, as I have felt my way back into the rhythm of Ashtanga and come to face familiar puzzles on the mat, I have learned that though the initial discovery of the practice is a joyful struggle, there is equal if not greater joy in rediscovery.  These days, I smile and nod through Primary as I coax my hips to reopen and breathe my way into the twists.  I know what's coming.  I've been here before.  And I delight in the opportunity to walk this garden again, perhaps this time with lighter feet and an eye for the rarest of flowers.

Speaking of rarities, I taught a Mysore class last week.  As always, the students were inspiring in their strength and focus.  The invocation was lovely.  I had forgotten how powerful the energy of the room can be.  I drove home drenched in reaffirmation of the method.  It was a lovely day, cool but with a brilliant sun.  I pulled into the lot of the apartment complex and parked in my favorite spot by the dumpster.  As I climbed out of the car, I spotted a backlit, psychedelic rendition of Shiva "The Transformer" in all his heavy symbolism, propped against a box of discarded books and magazines in the grass.  

After brief inspection, I scooped it up and skipped inside.  I plugged it in.  It worked.  The colored lights began to spin behind the sea of ocean blue, the dusty mechanical fan whirled somewhere hidden in the casing, and I laughed uncontrollably as I swirled around the apartment, scoping the walls for the perfect spot.  

It hangs beside the bed.  I turn it on at night.  It powers my dreams and serves as a hilarious reminder that the potential of this practice is unknown, that I am drawn to it for a reason.  For the full effect, I recommend you dim the lights, select "full screen," and play it on a loop.  

Let it speak to you the way it speaks to me.



Happy Sunday, friends.  I hope your weekend has been restful and your practice today is an absolute joy.

Those of you who follow Damn Good Yoga on Facebook may have noticed the DGY page has disappeared.  Do not be alarmed.  I decided to close my personal account for a number of reasons, not the least of which the shoddy privacy practices and financial manipulation of user content.  Unfortunately, this also disables the blog page.  So be it.

Still, I miss the interaction with readers and the ability to quickly share cool stuff with you, so Damn Good Yoga has migrated to Twitter.  Let's keep the conversation going.  Follow @damngoodyoga to get in on the goods.

Also, many of you have sent me emails at some point in the past few months that have since been swallowed up by the deluge in my inbox.  I have not responded to most of you.  I apologize.  Rest assured that I have read your message, and I will try to catch up on those in the coming week.


The Rules

My practice has gained some momentum and gravitated back to Ashtanga in the last couple of weeks.  I have been enjoying breezy practices of standing, backbends, and finishing, or full Primary.  Intermediate hasn't really seemed an option, but I'm getting closer.  I am happy to report that I am only marginally concerned about what I practice these days, as long as I practice.

Which brings me to this:  one of the best things about the structure of Ashtanga is that it frees us from the analyzing mind.  We are unburdened of the responsibility to create a practice -- to plan the next move -- so the mind is truly free to assume a receptive state.  When we abide by "the rules" (follow the sequence, 6 days a week, Friday Primary, rest Saturdays and moon days), the day to day details are left to themselves and we have only to show up and begin.

In my own practice, I find that the trouble starts when I negotiate with myself.  I over-analyze and jump right into an active stream of thought, planning my practice and exhausting myself by experiencing everything in my head before I even have a chance to get on the mat and move.  So much energy is wasted.

Yesterday, in the hour that I had, I skipped the invocation and spent all of the Surya Namaskara evaluating and prioritizing, trying to figure out a way to optimize my time.  I am hesitant to use the word "rules" here, and I used it above only for the purposes of the theme of this post.  (A more appropriate term in that context might have been "the method.")  But as I watched myself in practice, I observed some patterns and came up with a few benevolent rules to improve my experience on the mat.

1.  NO PLANNING:  I will submit to the method.  I will not plan my practice.  This is not to say that I may not do different practices on different days -- I can only do what is appropriate for me -- but I will let the practice decide itself.

2.  NO BLOGGING:  Novel insights are a fun side effect of practice and I admit that I tend to take some mental notes.  But they can wait.

3.  NO TEACHING:  This one is so hard.  It is extraordinarily difficult to separate my practice from my teaching, in part because I'm not certain that I should.  Still, I know that whether or not I consciously follow along and narrate my observations, the information is there.  There is no need to translate my experience in the moment.

4.  BRUSH TEETH:  My oral hygiene habits are none too shabby.  I floss, I brush, I rinse and scrape at least a couple times a day.  But that ujjayi is something fierce, so sometimes -- if I don't do a little upkeep before practice -- the breath can be unpleasant.  And that isn't what we want.  The breath is the focus, and I'd like to enjoy it at much as I can.

5.  SAY THE INVOCATION:  Usually, I say the chant.  But sometimes I do not.  It depends on my state of mind.  But I find that when I do take the time to say the invocation aloud, not only does it seem to anchor the mind to the task at hand, but it also sanctifies the space and sets the practice time apart, better enabling the first three rules.

While this list is not universally applicable, I think it points to this:  we must give ourselves to practice.  By that, I mean that if we wish for the practice to have an accumulative, pervasive effect in our lives, then it is not enough to go through the motions.  We must give our minds to the practice, even if just for that hour or two.  It is important to use the time that we have wisely.


The Role of Practice

Hello, my darlings.  I hope you've been well.

I've been busy with schoolwork and practice and all manner of life, all of which are in auspicious states.  I have perched at my desk and tried to write here many times, but nothing has seemed relevant or appropriate for this space.

My practice has changed, as sometimes it must.  Many days, I have time for only a minimal Ashtanga practice.  I practice the Surya Namaskara, Paschimottanasana, Purvottanasana, Sirsasana, Baddha Padmasana, Padmasana, and Tolasana, and I savor every moment.  Sometimes, this basic practice stretches to forty-five minutes with long, full breaths throughout, my body pouring through the motions like molasses.  Other days, I do an hour or ninety minutes of strong, intuitive Vinyasa, taking cues directly from the daily body condition.  Full Ashtanga practices are rare.

I am teaching just two classes a week, neither of which are Ashtanga.  The yoga has morphed  suddenly from this expansive, life-enveloping thing to a bit of karmic work a couple times a week and a compact but necessary daily endeavor.  It has become harder and harder to keep the mind space sacred during practice as my delightfully simple life has grown wound with complications.  However, I have matured into acceptance of these changes and now survey the unfamiliar landscape with bright and curious eyes.

Even with the reduction in practice, I have kept my strength.  Flexibility suffers.  My hips ache at night and my back will sometimes twitch after a day of school, carrying my heavy pack.  My ankles and feet are stiff, but though the sensations may be harsh, years of daily practice make the ritual so easy.  Somehow, a thirty minute practice is as full and satisfying as two hours.  The skill of relaxation is established.

It seems the role of yoga in my life has shifted, at least for the time being, but my appreciation for the practice only grows.  In a way, teaching so little and writing here less, I feel as though I have my practice back.  This change is healthy, and it is time for me to develop other areas of my potential with the diligence and passion with which I've delved into the yoga.  This is not to say that I won't be writing here much longer.  I will keep writing, and teaching, and practicing, but I will do it from a different place and with a different force.  This is the tool of yoga, to be used as it best serves.


Primary Friday: We Get Back On

Had a good week of practice.  Took a couple of days off midweek to catch up on schoolwork, but enjoyed full practices otherwise.  Practice has been hard, but so necessary and good.  I have been suffering through Intermediate, paying for the last two months of scant practice and full living.  My body is heavier, and not as flexible or strong --  a difficult set of truths to accept.  But I must practice in the body I inhabit today, however brutal it may be.

All will return with regular practice, but it occurs to me more and more lately that the older I get, the less true this will be.  I need to remain firm in my commitment now if I'm going to navigate the progressive difficulties of aging with ease when the time comes.  But I'm also trying not to be too hard on myself, even in the face of blatant neglect.  Take it from a long-time equestrian:  we all get bucked off once in a while.  The important thing is to know how to fall, brush off the dirt, and get back on.  This is important not just for the rider; it is essential for the horse, too, to know the rider can't be shaken.

A horse can be ruined by a rider who quits.  To be honest, I'm not totally sure how the extension of this metaphor applies to the practice of yoga.  Maybe the horse is samskara, or the dharma.  Or maybe the horse is one's personal concept of the practice, with all its cumbersome associations.  If we indulge the horse, then it will rear its head with aversion when we approach.  We must remain firm but gentle to quiet the animal and gain its respect.  And we must work harder, with even more presence and diligence if we cannot work with it every day.

So, yeah...  Back on the horse.  Riding out the rough spots.  Feeling more in tune with it every day.


Primary Friday: Be Good, Feel Good

No Primary today.  My Ashtanga week is all screwed up.  With the full school schedule on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I'm experimenting with a five-day practice week, with perhaps a light, minimal practice of the Surya and finishing and/or meditation on school-day evenings before I go out with the dogs.

Regrettably, the meditation practice has been sparse of late.  I really miss it, and know exactly why it's been set aside.  I've not been liking myself very much.  In many ways, I've watched myself repeatedly act against my better judgment, let my rituals, my practice, and my body unravel before my eyes.  I've allowed a harshness in my thoughts and actions and felt that pitta fire burn.  To sit would be to face and recognize these behaviors for what they are.  Meditation forced me to quit cigarettes.  Meditation forced me to quit coffee.  It made the physical and psychological effects of my choices crystal clear.  And, really, these are just the minor things.  The depth of awareness and the clarity of mind that comes with regular meditation is potent.

A daily morning practice would be ideal, and entirely doable.  I will start tomorrow.  First thing.

This evening's asana practice was not Primary, as I mentioned.  Not even Ashtanga.  I let loose with a fast-paced Vinyasa practice -- plenty of long holds, but also powerful dynamic movement.  Topped it off with lots of backbends, dropbacks, and handstands, and now I'm all jazzed up for the night.

I have reined in my diet and been practicing with more regularity the past couple of weeks.  Wednesday, after Intermediate, I walked away from practice feeling empty in the best possible way, as if every last bit of stale inertia had been squeezed out onto the mat.  Toward the end of practice, I had what now seems like an obvious realization, a truth I've known but not acted in accordance with in some time:  the practice feels good when I treat my body right.  The opposite is also true.  Eating heavily, sleeping erratically, and making sacrifices in the practice makes the practice hard.  Duh, right?

Duh, indeed.

Tomorrow is the full moon.  I have soared on the upswing of the cycle, and am looking forward to its culmination tomorrow night.  We are expecting heavy storms.  The dogs and I may not have our walk.


Primary Friday: Why fearing?

Photo credit?  Claim it if it's yours
If you've been reading this blog for long enough, you might have noticed a pattern.  Since I don't assume that anyone bothers to actually store the personal information I reveal here, I'll summarize:  Since I was first given Intermediate, and more dramatically since Shelley and David suggested I split, my practice has been subject to distinct surges from glorious ease in Intermediate to complete and total fear and aversion, wherein I scurry back to Primary and hide there for a while.

Primary is private.  Withdrawn.  Low to the ground and inward-facing.  The practice works and churns the belly to a soft and spacious place; it becomes a source of comfort, good feelings, and self-love.  The hips also, a dark and shadowy zone where sensation can be obscured by a lifetime of denial, are targeted in the first series, fired again and again until they crack.  Urdhva Padmasana... Pindasana... Padmasana.  You'll feel it there.

Intermediate is a different practice.  Where Primary peaks at Navasana and tumbles down a gentle slope to home, Intermediate is multi-climactic.  The first two postures are a not-so-mild reminder of Primary.  And then it begins.

With unrelenting backbends, I embark on an incremental climb up the spine.  But the sensation, if it's done right, is in the front of the body.  It exposes and stretches that beautiful belly so lovingly cared for and protected in the past.  And the heart -- my god, the heart!  It is driven to pound at the bars of its cage until it has no choice but to open.  Then, with Bakasana and the twists, there is a bit of that belly churning, just to aid the recovery.  Just a taste of that soft place, just to ease the nerves.

With Eka Pada, things get unfamiliar.  The root is flushed.  The upper body must work in a new way.  The front and back work harder than ever before to support the vulnerable spine.  As the sacrum downward shifts, Kapotasana makes more sense to the body in hindsight.  Dwi Pada and Yoganidrasana repeat the theme until the behavior of swinging the legs behind the head and keeping the chest cavity open and using that space in which to breathe becomes second nature.

Tittibhasana and its permutations takes this strong and open body and and turns it on itself.  With the torso firmly between the thighs, the legs become a vice, pressurizing the body while the hamstrings maximally stretch.  The walk is a strange journey, asking much of the legs and and demanding an unperturbed mind, but the next phase, Tittibhasana D, is perhaps the strangest insect of all, with its precarious duck feet and hidden face.  Some transit four phases;  I practice five, beginning and ending with an arm balance.

After the jump come the high flying acrobatics of Pincha and the impossibility of Karandavasana, and again the fire builds.  Mayurasana.  Nakrasana.  The heart is pliable and open but it must be strong.  I pound the ground.  I feel my chest.

And there I stop.  For now.

On to backbends and the familiar flow of the finishing sequence, though it is different, somehow, after an Intermediate practice.  Less seamless.  More like a cool down lap around the track after a set of interval training.

But none of this is the point.  There are times when I revel in the sacral, animalistic nature of Intermediate.  There are stretches when I salivate for practice.  The root stimulation is endorphin-inducing, and it seems to inspire exuberant, pleasure seeking behavior on and off the mat, but the recoil is harsh.  Without fail, I come to feel overexposed.  There is a frightening moment when the shame sets in, as if I see myself disrobed.

Then I withdraw -- shield the belly, cover the heart -- and turn inward.  I think often of Intermediate from this low, grey place -- I yearn for the extremes of light and shadow -- but feel somehow I'm not welcome... that it's not for me... that I'm not worthy.

Eventually, I snap out of it.  I stumble back to Intermediate with downcast eyes and fear the worst, but every time, my practice is right there waiting for me, right there where I left it, welcoming and perfect in every way.  Over and over again, I have shied away, forced myself to go back, and been made a fool for my irrational disinclination.  When will I find peace in this practice?  When will I learn to be not afraid?


A Letter

Dearest Readers,

Forgive me.

Forgive me for using this space as my own personal mirror and allowing my writing to devolve into little more than catharsis and journalistic blather.

Forgive me for the tired metaphors of wind and sea.

Forgive me for letting the Asana of the Week fall to the wayside.  I learn as much writing those posts as any of you might reading them, and it was self-serving on my part to sacrifice the asanas before something less pragmatic and informative.

On that same note, forgive me for insisting that the Asana of the Week would return with regularity and then failing to bring it back.

Forgive me for the advertisement that was in the sidebar for a stretch some months ago.  I don't know if any of you noticed it, but it's gone now and I'm sorry.

Forgive me for not reading your blogs, commenting, or sharing much of interest with you lately.

Forgive me for my occasional harshness and authoritative ranting.  I wish not to be self-righteous.

To my Ashtanga students, few though you may be:  Forgive me for stating my intention to keep my Monday night class -- my only Ashtanga class -- and then giving it away.  The commute was too much.  I am but a poor student with a big-wheeled SUV.

And, finally, forgive me for this post, for which I am truly sorry.

With love,



Primary Friday: Restoration

Ah, yes...  Here it comes.  Balance.  Integration.  Renewal.

After months of scrambling to stay afloat -- busy days, short nights, and abbreviated practice -- I can feel myself stilling, softening, and the settling into place.  The downpour of late summer muddied the path and the furious winds of change swept me off course.  I slipped and sunk repeatedly into long-discarded coping mechanisms and watched myself, as if from afar, struggle and fumble and fail to uphold my rather stringent standards of self-care as the insistent objections of body, my source of truth, grew louder and louder in my ear.

It is astonishing how quickly and unforgivingly the body will revolt against the idiocy of the mind.  After weeks of eating poorly, smoking casually, and sacrificing practice, I am heavier, tighter, and more resistant to the mat.  But facing this truth -- the actual, physical consequences of my behavior -- has forced me to revisit my intentions.  If I wish to carry on with this practice, I must face these repercussions.  There is no way around them.  I must go through.  I must deal with the mess.  I must get my house in order so that I may move and breathe.

And that is what I plan to do.  I have cleared my space of non-essentials and I am watching carefully the patterns of the mind.  I will not be pulled into the noise, the obfuscation and deception.  I will do my practice in the body I have created for myself.  I will acknowledge the state of the inner environment -- the exhausting heat, invasive darkness, and debris -- and, armed with appropriate provisions (breath, awareness, and compassion), I will head into the jungle brush that has grown up around the fertile fields of my heart and, patiently, persistently, I will hack away.

Practice has been more consistent this week and I am feeling slightly better having regained some precious ground.  Primary is the plan for this afternoon, it will be a nice respite from housework and homework.  I awoke this morning with clear eyes and a feeling of lightness and strength.  Energy levels are high.  I will make quick work of this overgrowth.


Primary Friday: Full Moon, Blue Moon

I am resting for the moon day today.  Just taught a nice evening class and now settling into two entire days completely and totally off.  I will have homework to do, yes, but I won't have anywhere to go or anyone to speak to or anything else to do... except for my practice, and maybe an oil bath.  It has been literally months since I've had a couple of days to myself and I am so looking forward to this.  I may stay in my PJs all weekend long and wear my glasses and tie my hair in a bun on the top of my head.

It's a possibility.  That's all I'm saying.

School has begun.  It feels strange to be a full time student.  Apart from the homework, which abounds already, I hardly know what to do with myself.  Practice, unfortunately, has continued to be erratic.  Three... maybe four days a week...  These past several weeks leading to the commencement of the semester have been hectic.  I don't do hectic.  At least, I'd rather not.

In response to my prolonged absences and our reduced walks, the poor dogs have been acting out, challenging each other for scraps and eating non-edibles around the house.  I will be walking them tonight under the full moon, a blue moon, the second full moon of the month.

Hurried and laborious though this summer has been, doing the work in good humor and remaining uncomfortably honest about my priorities in both the short and long term have proven fruitful in every sense.  Now, I find myself balancing a very different load, but the principles and tactics remain the same:  patience, truthfulness, and receptivity.

Staying open is the key -- open to change, open to new ideas and other ways of being.  Open to struggle and chaos and detachment and pain.  I can let it all in, because I must.  In truth, I have no choice -- that which comes to me comes to me for a reason -- but the process is easier without resistance, without the struggle.  I am learning this.  Getting better.



by Megan Walker

Off-center.  Leaning back and to the right,
skewed by the tide that sucks the sand from beneath my feet
and weakens my knees.

I can feel my body pulling back.  Wrenching back.
Balance is the natural way.
I seek to change.

Watch me transform myself.  Watch me bathe in the coming wave.
Watch me sink so deep that every pore is purified and
even my dry eyes water with the sting of salt and sealife and pollution.

Let me recede with the water to be reborn.
Let me cease my breath and stop my heart and,
only for a moment, know the stillness that exists in space between.

Show me patience.  Show me guidance.
Show me the coolest, cleanest seas in which to bathe.
Let me lay my blame, just briefly.  Watch me walk into the deep.
See me emerge and see the change and know I'm free.


The Paradox of Self-Awareness

"Until you can make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate." -- Carl Jung

   Though the benefits of a regular yoga practice are many, perhaps the most life-changing is a greater sense of self awareness.  Yoga brings the light of consciousness to unconscious thought and behavior patterns (in simplified, practical terms) by training the mind -- what lies behind the thoughts -- to observe itself.

I have been exploring my own stress reactions lately.  Observing myself fall into old patterns of behavior, and observing my mind organize my wild, random thoughts with the explosive omnipresence of a gymnast in a way that justifies my choices in the moment.  It's frightening.  Just because I've dug myself from these muddy trenches in the past doesn't mean they are not still there, just as slick and treacherous as ever.

Contrary to the incomplete but understandable conclusion that an awareness practice -- be it meditation, yoga, tai chi... whatever -- might lead to withdrawal from the exterior world and perhaps even narcissism, the paradox of deepening one's self-awareness is that it leads to the inevitable realization that we are not separate from that which surrounds us.  If we observe rather than deny the ever-changing nature of the internal landscape -- the constant fluctuation of the physical, mental, and emotional states -- our individual relationship to the world around us, on both an immediate and distant scale, becomes more clear.

If I can feel my physical body and know that is inextricably linked with my emotional state, and that my emotional state colors my mind, then I can observe these relationships, decipher more clearly the jumble that is my thought-stream, and cease the desperate grasping at straws.

At least, that's the idea.  It's not easy.  Awareness is a big step, but it's not the only one.  Clear intention leads the way, but action -- living rightly -- makes it happen.  We all stumble.  And, sometimes, we slip into those old ditches we forgot we dug, but crawling out again is easier once we know we can.

*Like this post?  Here's another:  http://www.damngoodyoga.com/2012/03/what-does-compassion-look-like.html


Primary Friday: Penance Practice

Tittibhasana C
Last week, I spent four days in Wisconsin to celebrate both the birth of my new niece, the first of her generation from my family, and my own August birthday.  For four days, I drank plentiful wine and ate nothing but cheese, meat, and vegetables primarily of the fried variety.  Somehow, a spectrum of fine Wisconsin cheeses stowed away in my carry-on luggage and I have been feasting on said cheeses for days.  For this, I have not gone unpunished.

That sense of ease I've felt for weeks in practice?  It's gone.

Practice has been hard.  Sunday, I did a quick practice of the Surya Namaskara, Sirsasana, and the final three lotus postures before my early flight back to Austin.  Monday, I spent all day taking care of neglected responsibilities that demanded my immediate attention, and then taught in the evening.  No time for practice.  Tuesday, I celebrated my own birthday in earnest.  I taught three classes throughout the day and managed to squeeze in a miserable half-Primary, but later that night honored this life heartily with more cheese, carrot cake, and a birthday cigar.

Wednesday, I got down to business.  Full Primary and Intermediate to Ardha Matsyendrasana -- no shortcuts -- plus extra backbending and handstands.   Needed every bit of it.

Thursday, it was Intermediate to Pincha.  I was sore from my long practice the previous day, and I am sore now from yesterday's practice.  My body is unsympathetic to any cause for celebration.  I must remember this next time I wish to indulge.

I am still caught in a whirlwind of work and preparations for the coming fall, and there is no rest in sight before I go back to school.  I am hoping that once the semester begins, there will be opportunity to reel in a few of these lines and channel my energy more singularly toward my own practice and scholastic efforts.

Even though I probably need the practice, I will rest for the moon day today.  However, as usual, "rest" in this instance means working all day waiting tables and teaching at night.  I hope to squeeze a nap in there somewhere.  God bless a good nap.  I'd have been a shriveled, strung out mess all summer long without them.


Primary Friday: Taking Rest

Hello!  Good morning!  Salutations, friends.

Pardon my recent absence.  These last few weeks have been nothing but one long day and one short night after the other.  Practice, as usual, has been my anchor amid the whirlwind of work and preparations for the coming fall.  Classes start in two weeks.  I am polishing my spectacles and sharpening my pencils with giddy anticipation.

Just now and for the next few days, I am in Wisconsin resting and visiting with family and friends before we disperse with the winds come September.  I am missing my puppies, but enjoying the change of scenery.  These rural hills and vallies are so green.

Last night, I slept long and well.  The weather here is lovely.  The nights are still and cool, with a soft day sun and a crisp breeze that ruffles the surface of the water, making diminutive waves that smash against the rust-colored rocks which line the surface of the lake.  Soon, I will step outside to do my practice in the grass and commune with the littlest creatures who live deep down in the shag.  Let us hope they are hospitable to me today.

This summer has flown by extraordinarily fast with no chance to sit and pause and really absorb the experience.  This need for pause is showing in my practice in the form of 20-30 minute stays in final rest.  Practice these past few weeks has left me lying on the floor, shrouded in blankets and sweat, eye pillow over my face, not quite asleep but not quite waking, either.  These rests have been so necessary and so very healing.  It is in this in-between space that my mind has found its clarity and peace.

I return home Sunday evening, and beginning Monday night, charge back into the fray.  I wish you all a wonderful and restful weekend.  Let's make the most of this final stretch of summer.  It'll be over before you know it.


Suffering, Reabsorption, and Recoil

Surge.  Recoil.  Surge.  Recoil.  This is the pattern.  I see it now.

July has been a hard, sad, beautiful, wonderful month, culminating on the 31st in a low swing down the way of physical and emotional exhaustion.  Early Monday morning after a restless night of frightening dreams, I learned of the violent death of a very dear coworker and friend.  I carried the weight of it all day, felt the sorrow growing heavy in my heart as I smiled and served pancakes and politely thanked each person to be led my way.  That afternoon, when I finally made it home after hours on end of hard labor for little pay, I let myself in, closed the door behind me, fell down to my knees and wept.

Broken hearted, I wept for him.  I wept for his children.  I wept for all and for myself.  I felt the deep, true nature of compassion fill my being and let it overcome me.  I felt it wash me clean.

After the collapse, I sat for meditation.  I kept my drishte through the tears.  My thoughts were soft and quiet, but visions of my friend's face -- of his artful, goateed, gold-toothed grin -- would briefly shine, twinkle, and fade.  

And isn't that our very nature?  The true and only purpose?  To shine, twinkle, and fade.  To be a brief, ethereal adornment against the backdrop of a sweeping, endless sky.  To be bringers of light and pure, essential goodness in a vast expanse of shadowed dark.  If yes, then to die is not to die.  The light still carries.  Glimmers of his spirit shine on just as brightly in my heart and mind, the nature of my being being not separate from that self-same sky.  

I used the clarity and strength I gained through meditation to connect, commune, and wish him well.  May his reabsorption be peaceful and his spirit ascend.

Tuesday, depleted from the previous day, my tender heart still throbbing and my intellect quite numb, ancient trauma surged and forced its way onto a poor, unwitting friend, resulting in a long, exhausting night of war stories, more pain, and eventual collapse.

Surge.  Recoil.

Last night, as we turned the page to a new month, bathed in the light of the auspicious moon, I felt reborn.  The elements aligned and the eyes of strangers sparkled as we passed under the soft, sweet lunar glow.  I felt the thread of suffering which connects us all not as burden but as enormous strength.  I realized that to hide my pain is to relinquish my hold on this lifeline to which we all so desperately must cling.

So let's play a game to help pass the time.  You show me yours, and I'll show you mine.


Mid-Year 2012: Auditing Intentions

"Jewels of Intention" by Michael Oravitz
Having summited the mid-year to find both personal and professional transformation taking shape just off the horizon, I am compelled to pause and evaluate my intentions for the year.  To review, the list is as follows:

2012 Intentions

1.  Learn to play
2.  Learn to be vulnerable
3.  Commit to morning practice
4.  Complete a first draft of my novel

Let's begin at the beginning...

1)  Play:  I am learning.  Learning to accept that play is a valuable learning tool in and of itself.  Learning that I do not need to be good at necessarily EVERYTHING.  Learning to release the need to win.  Learning to lose without any sense of loss.  It's progress.

2)  Vulnerability:  This is the hard one.  God, it's so hard.  So much pain is stirred to the surface, so much brutal, heavy fear.  But bless my poor heart, I've been trying.  This blog itself is an exercise in vulnerability -- I consider my writing here to be as honest and complete a representation of myself as I can manage and I have repeatedly surprised myself with what I am able to share in print -- but here's the difference:  however personal the content, I don't have to look my readers in the eye as it is being read.

This relationship is nothing compared to being face to face, revealing all the raw and open wounds and seeing that pain mirrored in a different set of eyes, to see the micro-expressions of pity, anguish, and disappointment flash across another's face.   It is a necessarily painful process if it is to be done in earnest.   But though the risk is high and though this heart is bruised and battle-weary, cracked and gnarled with scars, I am digging out the shrapnel.  God knows it's overdue.

3)  Morning practice:  Whew... okay.  This one is a little easier.  In the first few months of this year, I stuck to a morning practice routine and successfully overcame my aversion, be it at four-thirty, six, or eight AM.  The hardest part is simply coming into Samasthiti.  From there, the whole thing is a breeze.  That being said, I have not been doing morning practice every day.  Some days, yes, when it suits my schedule, but when necessary, afternoon or evening practice is a different sort of treat.  I enjoy both and am grateful to be practicing at any time of day.  This feels good.  This feels healthy.

4)  The novel:  Oh.... the novel.  After breaking at a gallop from the gate, the novel first slowed to a rolling lope, and then a canter, and then an easy trot.  Now it stands at the sidelines, huffing and snorting and whisking at flies.  I think about it often, churn it over in my mind, but have not contributed much in the past few months.  I've been busy, yes, but there is always an excuse.  With school on the horizon, it is unlikely that I'll be adding much length to it in this final stretch of 2012.  However, I am not ready to lead her to the stable yet.  There is hope.  There is time.  There is infinite possibility and inspiration.

All in all, in spite of whatever is or is not achieved, these intentions have done a great deal to shape my year and spur the evolution of my spirit.  I am feeling healthy, bold, and more myself than ever.  In these next few months of 2012, I hope to finish strong.


Primary Friday: Adjusting the Sails

Practice is evolving.  Lifestyle is shifting.  Changes are afoot.

This has been an extraordinarily busy summer, which is ironic because my intention had been to carry on with what I have come to know as my "recovery" through the summer season and kick it into high gear in the fall.  Alas, when the winds change as they are wont to do, the seafarer has two options:  row against the current or adjust the sails.  I believe I've chosen wisely.

I have been working more and more, particularly on very short notice, which is especially difficult with my highly irregular schedule, but rather than feeling overworked or discombobulated, I relax in every moment.  In fact, this has become my mantra.  I repeat it to myself throughout the day.  I relax in every moment.  I relax in every moment...

With the extra work and extreme irregularity, modifications to the practice routine have been imperative.  The traditional Sunday through Friday practice week has not been viable, but I've been making do by floating my rest day around as necessary, sometimes even taking an extra day off.  Interestingly, my practice has not suffered.  In fact, I am appreciating my practice more and, as a result, the time that I do have to practice has been truly beautiful and inspired.  Also interesting is the fact that, since that week with Sweeney, my hips have been so open.  It could be the heat at peak of summer, but I suspect it's something more.

I haven't mentioned this, but in the workshops with Sweeney, I had asked him (as I do every senior teacher I have the opportunity of working with) what to do about my tight shoulders and hips.  He looked me in the eye and told me not to do Ashtanga every day.


I was taken aback, to be sure, but it can't be argued that the man does not know what he's doing.  So I listened.  I began by practicing his Chandra Krama or Simha Krama once or twice a week, but this afternoon, I rolled out my mat and started with a blank slate.  No plans.  Just the quiet and the space for intuition.  I began in Virasana.  Closed eyes.  Quiet breaths.  I released the mind and listened to the body, and was carried through a brilliant sequence almost as though led by some force outside myself.  The lightness and the strength were quite astounding.  The power of the breath brought every pose to life.  Postures I've not practiced in perhaps a year were not only readily available, but deeper and more comfortable than ever.  I taught a class this evening heavily inspired by today's practice.  It was very well received.

With autumn fast approaching, my life is unlikely to slow down.  School starts the final week of August... oh wait.  Did I not share the news?  It's official.  I'm going back to school! 

I was readily accepted not only to the school I had hoped, but also to the honors program within, so I've got access to some super-cool, seminar-type classes that nerd-types like myself so thoroughly enjoy.  (Enough hyphens there for you?)  I've registered for a full-time schedule and I could not be any happier about it.  (I heart hyphenation.)

To my students:  I will continue teaching, but to what extent remains unknown.

To my readers:  I will continue writing.  Still hoping to pick up the AOTW on a regular basis, but thus far, the way of things has disagreed. 


Nature and Disease

I am the supreme being of the universe that is my body, and there are times when even I can do nothing but watch and wait.

Dis-ease.  It happens.  These past few days I have been plagued with respiratory allergies the likes of which I have not experienced in years.  The whole of Sunday night was spent sweating, shivering, and generally trying not to choke on my own amassing snot.  Since then, I've been suffering nasal and/or lung congestion to varying degrees, along with feverishness and mental fog.  Naps and neti have been aiding me along, though asana and pranayama seem to help more than anything.  In fact, since the congestion has snuffed out any sense of taste or smell, my typically voracious appetite has been dormant, so I am feeling especially open and light-bodied in practice.

Raised in a conservative Baptist home, I was discouraged from learning anything about astrology and so never developed an interest.  It is a vast subject and one I know relatively little about.  However, over the course of the past year I've simply been noticing things.  Watching the skies.  Communing with the moon.  Seeing and feeling an arc that I had been both blind and numb to before.  Venus, in particular, entranced me with its passage and seemed to bring an enchantment into my life during its peak of visibility over the Austin sky.

Just now, I am learning a bit more about when the planet Mercury goes into retrograde, as it just so happens to be at present.  For those of you like myself with limited astrology knowledge, CafeAstrology.com describes Mercury retrograde thusly:
"Three, and sometimes four, times a year, the planet Mercury appears to be moving backwards in the sky for a period of approximately 3 weeks. "Appears" is the key word here, because, technically speaking, no planet actually moves backwards in their orbits around the Sun. In fact, they don't even slow down. Retrograde-station-direct cycles are essentially illusions that result from our point of view from Earth, simply because the Earth is also orbiting the Sun at a different speed than the other planets. Mercury turns retrograde more frequently than any other planet. It can never be more than 28 degrees from the Sun, and whenever it reaches its furthest distance from the Sun, it changes direction (Mercury Retrograde)."
There's nothing evil or new-agey about that. Pure science. However, there are a variety of supposed effects felt by us here on Earth. The planet Mercury is thought to be linked to the forces of communication, so those of us most affected by the transit of the planet -- depending on one's own sign and the time of year -- may experience complications, delays, financial troubles, and other minor catastrophe.

I don't know if I believe any of this, but so far since the planet has gone retrograde my car has been towed, forcing me to cancel a class and costing me a couple hundred bucks to pick it up, brutal allergies have taken over my body, resulting in even more much-needed work missed, and my dogs, after weeks of peace and good behavior, have been fighting with each other and charging at other dogs.  A student pointed out that the dogs might be on edge because I've been unwell.  I hope she's right.

As an aside, to you youngish professionals who hear so many great things about Austin and want to move here and live in a shiny new condo with the rest of the hipsters and yuppies, consider this: the allergies in central Texas are like nothing you've ever seen. They will take you down.  In 2009, I fell ill with what folks around here call the "cedar fever." I was sick for three solid months.  I thought I was dying.  I spent half of those three months bent over a wastebasket coughing and heaving as though I'd contracted tuberculosis.  I coughed so hard that I pulled muscles in my abdomen and upper back.   I coughed so hard that I got acid reflux.  I coughed so hard that I couldn't hold my bladder.  The ONLY things that made any difference were neti and yoga.

Cedar fever is caused by the release of juniper pollen which is present in abundance in late winter/early spring, but pollen is not the only vicious airborne allergy we have. There are more.  Mother nature staggers them throughout the year, so think twice before moving here for the progressive scene.


Primary Friday: Experimentation

Sweeney's 2nd book
This week seems to have passed me by without so much as a silent hello. Wednesday came and went without my notice, and thus the Asana of the Week, the return of which I so enthusiastically announced last Wednesday, remains unwritten.

Bear with me, folks. We'll make it through this, I promise you.

Experimentation has been the theme since Sweeney's workshops.   Within the Ashtanga, I've been mixing things up a bit, doing more Primary, more work with dropbacks and handstands, less work with leg-behind-head.  I have also been working with Sweeney's Vinyasa Krama sequences, of which I knew nothing prior to purchasing his second book.  So far, I have done the moon sequence (Chandra Krama) and the lion sequence (Simha Krama).  Both are involved, incremental, backbend-intensive practices.  Both, also, are detailed and effective hip-openers.  Chandra primarily targets the outer hips in a sweet and sticky seated sequence, and Simha burns through resistance in the psoas, inner thighs, and groins with a strong standing sequence.

I practiced Chandra Krama last Friday in leu of Primary and Simha Krama last night.

The hip opening in Chandra Krama took me on a wild ride.   It has been a while since I worked so deeply into my hips and that became more and more obvious as I followed the progression of the asanas.  I wanted to laugh.   I wanted to cry.   I wanted to drag my desiccated self far from my mat and find my mommy.  

I felt that practice in my hips for the next couple of days.  But you know what I did NOT feel?  My knees.  My knees were aligned and free of discomfort for days to follow.  This alone is enough to make me consider plugging Chandra Krama into the weekly routine.  Saturday practice?  Maybe.

Simha Krama was a different sort of challenge, with seemingly endless strings of asana variations, several of which were unfamiliar to me.  There is some really lovely shoulder work and a nice hip opening sequence that culminates in Hanumanasana.  I chose to skip the section that follows consisting of some wild Ustrasana and Kapotasana variations, not only because they were a bit advanced but also because Simha Krama is just extremely long.  But where the different sections of Chandra Krama feel interdependent, Simha Krama is clearly segmented and redundant if practiced straight through.  This was the intention.  Sweeney writes in his description of the Simha sequence that it is not meant to be practiced in its entirety, and that certain sections should be omitted depending on the needs of the practitioner, similarly to the way Ramaswami presents his sequencing, as I understand it.

Chandra Krama was designed to be a counter-practice to Ashtanga, and it serves this purpose well by placing minimal demands on the upper body and providing plentiful psoas, glute, and piriformis stretches.  Simha Krama emphasizes opening the shoulders and lengthening the lower back in preparation for deep backbending. I enjoyed both practices immensely and came away informed.

This week has left me sore-bodied, a bittersweet treat because it doesn't happen often.  This morning as I writhed upon waking and stretched my tender upper back and sides, I was reminded of those first couple of years when the practice left me like this every day.  I think maybe I stuck with it because the relatively superficial soreness was a pleasant contrast to the deeper body pain that years of tension, negligence, and abuse had made an everyday reality.  It is incredible how comfortable we can be with pain if it aids us in avoiding change.



I had a rough practice this morning on the last day with Sweeney.

 Everything was hard. The body was stiff. The mind agitated. Nothing unfolded as planned.

Before practice, Sweeney declared Thursday "research day" and granted us leeway to explore a few postures beyond our usual stopping point. I was delighted because I had hoped to get some help with my new postures, which I had chosen not to include until today. But instead of soaring through to Nakrasana, I crashed into Pincha like a bird into a spotless pane of glass.

I tried. And I fell. And I tried and fell again. And again. And again, until it really started to tick me off. Matthew took pity on me and came over to help. I stayed for five breaths while he stood on my hands, then I botched the exit -- per usual -- and moved on. Or so I thought.

After practice, I thanked Mr. Sweeney and drove home in silence. I moped in a hot shower and melted into the upholstery on the loveseat in the living room until it became clear that I would get nothing done if I didn't shake off this funk. With the help of an old-fashioned To Do list, I managed to avoid spending the entire day on the sofa, but -- I am embarrassed to admit this -- that battle with Pincha bothered me for the rest of the day.

The incident with what is typically a steady pose in practice gave a focal point to the agitation that I brought with me to the mat. It zeroed in on the source of my frustration and fed and grew to occupy my mind for hours to come. It sent me down a dramatic shame spiral of inadequacy (for my inability to execute the pose) and self-disgust (for my inability to let it go).

Later this evening while out with the dogs, my mind still barreling down a muddy slope of anxiety which only steepened with my reluctance to acknowledge its source, I noticed a lanky, red-headed, mustachioed type in a safari hat and unbuttoned hawaiian shirt coming my way.  Our eyes met.  A genuine smile broke across his face and as we passed, he said emphatically, "God bless you."

Charmed and caught off guard, I replied, "Oh.  Thanks!"  And I meant it.  

We each continued on our way, but this simple exchange was enough to lift the fog. My own face lit up with a smile for the first time since this morning and, a few steps down the sidewalk, I remembered something Sweeney said that struck me over the weekend:
"If your practice is not deeply psychological, there's something wrong."
It occurred to me that the agitation I experienced while practicing with Sweeney and the subsequent fixation might very well be a good sign.  After all, he has given me a thick pile of homework.  I have not struggled like this in some time.  It's only natural that I encounter intellectual resistance to the heavier load.  It's only right that I experience fluctuations of emotion as a response to change.  If the practice did not challenge me on these levels, I wouldn't bother with it. 


Asana of the Week: Agnistambhasana

Asana of the Week is back!  I am going to try to put these out every Wednesday to make things nice and regular.  

As anyone who has attended a few of my Vinyasa classes could guess, this is one of my favorite postures and I can't believe it has taken me this long to do an AOTW on it.  Agnistambhasana, also known as Fire Log Pose or Kindling Pose, may derive its name either from the "stacking" of the shins as logs for a fire, or from the intense sensation it produces for most in and around the hips.

Because Agnistambhasana is such a deep and effective hip opener, we must approach the posture with caution so as not to damage the knees.  To perform this posture safely, it is important to be precise with the position of the legs.  This is not a half lotus posture.  Let me repeat:  This is not and never will be a variation of half lotus and is in no way related to Padmasana or its variants.  Rather, in this posture, the bones are stacked such that the top ankle is resting on the bottom knee and top knee is hovering over or, for the very flexible, resting on the bottom ankle.  The shin bones are parallel.  Both feet are FLEXED. 

If, following all of these instructions, you experience discomfort in one or both of your knees, do not practice this pose.

In the basic posture, which will yield plenty of sensation for most, the spine remains upright and the hands may rest either on the top leg or on the floor beside the hips.  If necessary, more ease may be found by leaning back slightly with the hands behind for support (pictured right).

If the upright position is comfortable, you may go a step further by placing the palms together and lowering the forearms onto your shin (pictured below).  I really like the feeling of stability this variation provides because of the even pressure along the top leg.  

Finally, if the above variation is comfortable, you may choose to walk the hands forward and bend over the legs.  In time, the chest may come down to rest on the shin and the head may drop toward the floor (pictured below). As always, be sure to hold the posture for an equal length of time on both sides.  If one side feels tighter, spend a little longer on that side until the hips are even.


Sweeney Week: First impressions

As I'm sure most of you know, I am in the midst of a week of study with Matthew Sweeney. I fully intend to share some of this experience, but don't get too excited. Though I have taken some notes for myself, I do not intend to publish any of my detailed workshop notes, as seems to be the trend. I consider this sort of thing not only misguided because of the context of the teachings that are lost, but also disrespectful to the teachers (including Sharath, in reference to the transcripts of his conferences that get passed around). However, I also believe in freedom of information, so I am open to discussion on this topic. If you feel differently, I'd like to hear about it.

This morning was the second round of Mysore practice with Sweeney. After a weekend of workshops, we are getting down to business. Matthew is blunt, enthusiastic, and direct in his teaching, but has a wonderfully soft presence in the Mysore room. His adjustments are unique, effective, and surprisingly gentle.

An example, for the purpose of comparison: When practicing with David Swenson last summer, the first time I attempted Kapo in his room, he swooped upon me out of nowhere, took my wrists, and in a single motion, brought my hands to heels. It was an unprecedented moment. All I could do was exhale. Without trust, it wouldn't have worked.

In contrast, this morning Sweeney came by for Kapo and, rather than pulling or pushing in any way, he let me hang back for a bit. Then stood over me, placed his hands on my triceps and softly shook my arms, telling me to "release the shoulders," until I was able to grab the heels easily on my own. The grip I achieved was awkward, but the adjustment was quite pleasant and the fact that I took my heels from the air without strain was amazing.

Needless to say, I am really enjoying Sweeney's teaching, and not just because he is easy on the eyes (a fact that he is clearly well aware of. Apparently, Matthew used to do "a bit of modeling.")

 His presentation of Ashtanga is unconventional but respectful and his methods have given me much to think about. I have been inspired to allow my breath to extend and explore more stillness in practice. Yesterday afternoon, I was astounded by how fantastic my body felt, especially my knees and shoulders, which can sometimes feel quite stiff later in the day. Then this morning after practice, as I shuffled to my car happily soaked in sweat from head to toe, I did not feel exhausted, overstretched, or depleted in any way. A bit thirsty, perhaps, but mostly clean, soft, energized, and open -- exactly the way I'd like my practice to make me feel.

Two more days to go.


Primary Friday: Cumulonimbus

I've had a nice couple of days.  Mornings have been especially lovely.  This time of year, the sun shines in my eastern windows from eightish to eleven, casting patterned, morphing shadows on the floor.  This is my favorite time of day to practice, when the contrast of the light and shadows is most stark.  The shapes revealed through the slatted blinds shift and move, and disappear and reappear as the sun yields to the passing clouds, of which I have taken more notice these past few days.

Even against the vastness of the Texas sky, they appear to be bigger than usual, huge and billowing and dense like giant, transient worlds.  With glowing white caps and dark underbellies, they seem to slow, then hurry on, as omens do.

Tonight is the first round with Matthew Sweeney.  We'll be learning the restorative "moon sequence" which he alludes to in his book as a useful alternative to a traditional ashtanga practice on moon days, or when one is feeling overworked or unwell.  I am hoping to learn the sequence well enough to practice it next Tuesday during the morning Mysore session, which Sweeney will be teaching despite the full moon.

Since tonight's practice will be gentle, I did Primary this morning.  The sequence felt foreign.  This has been a long week.  I kept things moving at a pretty good clip, wasted minimal time tweaking postures and spent more time refining the breath.  I felt the difference in Padmasana, which has been strangely difficult these days -- not the posture itself, but the stillness.  For weeks, my eyeballs have threatened to shoot out from my head and those ten breaths have seemed an unending drudgery.  But today, the eyes were still and the breath was long.

I am looking forward to spending the whole weekend with Sweeney and the local Ashtangis.  Though the first session is less than two hours away, it has not quite yet sunken in how much yoga I am about to do, or with whom.  In my denial, I had a late, large lunch.  Wish me the best.


Nakrasana Observations

Today is my first entire day off in two and half weeks. Last night around eleven, I stood in line at the grocery store with nothing but a six pack of micro-brew and a colossal piece of artisan carrot cake in my hands and dared anyone to judge me. Drank two beers and ate half of the piece of cake; perhaps not the healthiest way to decompress, but it at least it can't be said that I don't know how to spend an evening.

I am finishing the carrot cake for breakfast with my tea, the start of what I hope to be a sweet and mellow day. Practice will be reserved for this afternoon, at which time I am considering adding on the rest of Intermediate, save the seven headstands.

My new postures have come together nicely. Karandavasana is still a clumsy, lumbering compromise without the aid of a teacher, but I give my three best tries each day. Mayurasana and Nakrasana, however, have both been fun additions. I am a little stunned at how quickly Mayurasana has taken shape. At first, it seemed impossible -- even when I could hover, I couldn't control the swerving -- and that was only a few weeks ago.

Nakrasana, like Tittibhasana, is dynamic. Different.

I have always loved that moment in the mysore room when someone does Nakrasana. The floor boards shake and boom. All are snapped awake. It is a tantrum, a primal display. And now when I do this posture in practice, though I am home alone where the floor boards make no noise, I feel giddy with power. Nakrasana pumps me so full of something (let's call it "prana") that, even though my arms are tired, I have no need or want for rest. Since Nakrasana is my current stopping point, backbends are next.

The post-Nakrasana backbends are fantastic.  Just really, really fluid and controlled. Instead of feeling tight as after Primary, or wrung out as after the first half of Intermediate, I feel open and strong.  I suspect that the dynamism of the posture, the orchestration of the various muscle groups, helps to recover and reintegrate the body after the intensity of the isolated back bending, hip opening, and arm balancing that precedes it.


Primary Friday: Back to the Books

This has been a great week of practice and an exhausting but enriching week of teaching. I've been subbing lots of Ashtanga classes for one of my favorite local teachers while she's been away, and while I've enjoyed filling in for her immensely, there is one thing I did not account for when I signed on for the job: teaching Ashtanga is much more physically demanding than other types of yoga.

Sure, it's true that, in Ashtanga, demonstration is rare. But demonstration of an awkward posture or tricky transition is nothing compared to physically adjusting sweaty students all day long. Yesterday, I did my practice in the morning, then taught a midday Mysore followed by a led class and yet another Mysore session in the afternoon. When I finally arrived home and took the dogs out for our evening walk, I realized my arms were absolutely spent. Good thing the pups were not too frisky, or I'd have turned us right around and gone back home.

Ashtangis in Austin are revving up for the impending week with Matthew Sweeney, which starts on Friday evening with three days of weekend workshops and continues into the next week with four days of crack-o-dawn Mysore. (6am. On the dot. Master Sweeney doesn't mess around.)

After next week, the yoga storm clears and, as it stands, I'll be left with very little on my schedule. July and August may indeed be lazy summer months. Looking ahead to autumn, however, things are likely to be shaken up. I've decided to go back to school. The application has been submitted. If all goes well, I'll be a full-time student in September.

I love school. Full-time academia is something I've always wanted to do but, having spent my early twenties stuck in an admittedly defunct but committed relationship that demanded my energies as the provider, I have never had the time or funds to do it well. Now that I am unattached and living very simply, I really think that I can make it work.

The thought of school excites me.  I have always been a sincere and self-motived student, in it for the education and not the certificate.  Don't believe me?  How's this:  I graduated with honors but did not attend my high school commencement ceremony.  A few years later, I earned my Associate's degree but did not apply for graduation until another year had passed.  I just didn't care.  That fancy, gilded piece of paper means nothing to me and I resent the goal-oriented education system our society has built that discourages meaningful, well-rounded scholarship and encourages fast-track "professional" degrees (to say nothing of the exorbitant costs for classes taught by teachers' aids that one can no longer hope to one day repay with a decent salary reflective of one's work).  I study to expand my mind, and I practice to enhance my craft.  That is all.

So wish me luck and godspeed through the application process.  I applied on a whim just a few weeks behind the deadline.  If I am accepted, I'll be caught up in a whirlwind of preparation.  If I am not accepted, I'll be applying elsewhere for the Spring semester.  Either way, it's back to school.


Breaking up with Ashtanga, or How to Dig a Well

Salutations on this most glorious of moon days!  I hope the Ashtangis among you are enjoying your day off as much as I.

I am pleased to report that I have finally overcome the lethargy that's had me tethered to my bed.  I am feeling energized and enthusiastic.  Practice has been suspiciously good, and with the practice have come the insights.  I have had the itch to write more, but have not been of the temperament to produce.  It's an aversion to the empty page that I hope to overcome.

However, the time I've spent not writing here has been spent in part reading and commenting on other blogs, and sharing goodies on the Damn Good Yoga facebook page.  One such nugget in particular that sparked a conversation was a post by La Gitane at the Yoga Gypsy entitled "Dear Ashtanga: I'm seeing other Yoga."

It's a well written "Dear John" letter to Ashtanga, in which the author expounds upon a variety of reasons for the relationship to end, among them the idea that Ashtanga is the "Ferrari" of yoga:  fast, flashy, and downright impractical on this winding road we call life.

La Gitane writes:
"But don't worry, Ashtanga - it's not you, it's me. I've changed. I've grown in my practice, and you, of course, have been a part of that. But as I have become more in tune with my body - and my spirit - there are things that I have become less comfortable with, too.

You see, I'm not a dogmatic person. I don't have a religion, and I don't subscribe to the idea that any one system is better than another. Yet when I was introduced to you, Ashtanga, that sense of superiority was somehow present in the subtext. Now, I know that you're saying "it's not my fault I'm misinterpreted!" - and you know what, you're right. It's not your fault! But somehow that's the message that slipped through - "Ashtanga is like the ferrari of Yoga", one teacher said to me. The implication being that other 'vehicles' will get you there (wherever there is!) all the same, but that Ashtanga will do it faster. And with a bit more panache, perhaps. And I admit, when I first came to the practice, I certainly felt a bit of that turbo charge from the fast pace of the sequence and all those vinyasas! But I've come to a time where I'm suddenly thinking that a Ferrari is maybe not the only car that I need, because really, a Ferrari is only good if you have perfectly smooth, wide roads - say, a healthy, fit, injury-free body. To be honest, I'm more of a 4x4 girl myself - because life is not a smooth ride, and I'd happily sacrifice a bit of speed to make sure that I have enough flexibility to deal with anything that comes along!"
These sentiments are not uncommon among defectors. The idea that Ashtanga is rigid and dogmatic is an unfortunate misinterpretation of the structure of the system, which the author acknowledges. I left a comment which you can read at Yoga Gypsy, but since then I've been thinking more about the roll of faith in the lifespan of one's Ashtanga practice, and how dogma comes into play.

Faith is the root of dogma. And faith, while it may have its merits, is not a necessary precursor to meaningful practice. There are plenty of reasons to keep coming back to the mat outside the realm of faith or belief in the system itself.

Curiosity, for example, is probably my primary source of motivation.  I love to think that every practice is a gift just waiting to be unwrapped and I await the privilege with anticipation.  The nature of the gift is revealed posture by posture.  To the observer, that gift might look the same from day to day, but the accoutrements are varied and a delight to unveil from posture to posture, day to day, and even year to year.

By approaching my practice from an inquiring place, I avoid the trap of dogma or the assumption that Ashtanga is the superior method -- the Yoga of Yogas, if you will.  My choice to practice this method is not a reflection of my belief that Ashtanga is superior, but a reflection of my suspicion that it matters not which method we choose to practice, but that we must choose one method -- one path -- and stick to it.

There is a parable that I think may have its origins in zen which illustrates this concept well:
There was a farmer who wished to dig a well on his land to water his fields. So, one day, he took his shovel, went out into the field, and started to dig. When he had dug a few feet and found no water, the man crawled up from the hole he had dug, moved ten feet over, and began to dig again. But again, he found no water, and so he crawled up out of his hole and began to dig again. And again. And again, until his entire field was full of shallow holes, but no water had been reached. After some time, the farmer's wife came and saw the mess he had made of the land. She cried: "Husband! That is not how you sink a well. You must stay in one place and dig deeper."
Of course, this only applies if it is one's intention to evolve intellectually and spiritually through one's practice. If the yogi (or the well-digger) is only in it for the abs and ass, it might actually serve one better to keep digging those holes. Do the work for the sake of work and nothing more. Practice different styles, and even mix in some pilates for good measure. But if you sense that there might be something more to this practice, that there might just be some cool, clean water down below, stick with it. See where it takes you. To paraphrase one of David Williams' many gems:  Just try it out for ten years and see if you like it. If you haven't decided, try another ten more.


Primary Friday: Yawn

Maybe it's the work... or the dogs... or the summer heat...

Whatever it is, I simply cannot get enough sleep.  My bed tempts me with a nap all afternoon, I am drowsy by 9pm, and when morning comes, no matter how early I managed to bed down the night before, it takes every ounce of my determination to throw off the sheets and arise.  I have never been one to need a lot of sleep.  Seven hours has always been more than sufficient, but now I can get nine good hours of rest and still feel like rolling over when the alarm sounds.

The snooze button and I have taken our relationship to a whole new level.  This morning, I hit the snooze multiple times, then finally gave up and reset my alarm for a later hour.  When the time came, I hit the snooze again.  And again.  

I woke up a full two hours later than planned.  This is getting out of hand.  And yet... all this sounds somehow so familiar.  Isn't this exactly how I felt this time last year?  It was one of the reasons I had my health looked at and went down the rabbit hole that I've come to know as "the cancer scare."  How curious that now, just before the cycle is repeated, that those quiet bodies in the ground begin to shake and rattle their old, dry bones.  

Shhhh...  Hush now.  You're long dead, remember?

I have been resting since Tuesday for my holiday but teaching a lot of Ashtanga, and I've noticed that just being in the room and energetically involved is so exhausting.   I watch my students carefully and seem to feel everything they face.  After teaching, even though I don't give many forceful adjustments, my body feels as though I've done a practice, without the endorphins or the afterglow.

So next week, when I'm teaching full time AND practicing AND walking my dogs 5+ miles a day, I might just spread so thin that I disintegrate under the unmerciful summer sun.  

Sheesh...  Listen to me complaining about spending my days teaching, practicing, and hanging with my pups.  Poor, poor me.

After teaching a led class at noon, I've got an afternoon Intermediate practice in the works.  I know it's Primary Friday, but after those few days rest, I'd like to get one more Intermediate in before the weekend, so I'm saving Primary for tomorrow and resting on Sunday. 

And by "resting," I mean working a 5:30am double shift at the restaurant.  

Think I can squeeze in a quick nap before noon? 


Primary Friday: Time for Tea

For the first time in weeks, I feel adequately rested with only the slightest urge to curl up for an afternoon snooze.  I think this may be partly due to the nearly four-hour nap I took on Tuesday morning after teaching my early bird class, and partly due to the bag of sweet and spicy thai chai delivered to my doorstep the following day.  I've had a few pots.  No, it is not caffeine free, but it is damned delicious.

I haven't touched a drop of coffee since the day I gave it up, but I have been using caffeine responsibly.  Not every day, never before breakfast, and never in excess.  And just as I did not skimp on the caliber of my coffee beans in my long stint as a java junkie, these days I take my liquid prana in the form of quality loose leaf teas from Adagio.  (Stellar offerings there, my friends.)  I usually start my day with a cup of spearmint and honey, have a pick-me-up of rooibos, green, or chai in the early afternoon, and round it out with sweet chamomile flowers in the evening.  Typical of my obsessive, information-hungry nature, I am becoming quite the tea enthusiast.  

I bought a transparent tea pot with a built-in, washable filter and now I can't imagine preparing tea in any other way.  I simply scoop the leaves in, pour the boiling water, and watch in quiet awe.  It's like having an aquarium.  Tea leaves are so beautiful.  The steeping process is poetic.  This makes me feel sad for people with boxes of tea bags in their cupboards that they steep in plastic travel mugs on their way to work.  If that's you, here's a tip:  you're missing everything.

Practice is finally stabilizing.  I had a great 2nd series practice last night with a breakthrough in Mayurasana, then got back on track with my morning routine for today's Primary.  I surprised myself with the full complement of wrist binds in the Marichyasanas with the exception of Marichyasana D, but for the first time ever, it felt within reach.  My wrists are a little tight from my new Intermediate postures, so jumping back was especially hard today -- couldn't quite get my weight forward enough to hover without straining my wrists.  By the second half, they felt better.  

Generally speaking, I am enjoying a greater sense of ease in practice than I remember in the past.  Not only that, but I am seeing the practice with new eyes, feeling it in a new way, and being my own best teacher, asking myself to commit down to every small detail.  The idea of the practice as an offering frequently passes through my mind.  It changes everything.

Looking forward to the rest day tomorrow, though I'll be teaching a class or two.  Austin Ashtangis not resting tomorrow or those looking to learn can find me for Fundamentals of Ashtanga at Yoga Yoga North at 1:30pm.  It would be a delight to see you there.



It has taken me four days to write this meager post.  Just so you know.

I'm never sure what to write about anymore.  I've been busy.  Practice has been good.  I am having fun with my new postures.  May was a big month with some not wholly unexpected additions and omissions from my life.  Throughout the winter and spring, I spent much time marinating in the love of family and old friends -- and old friends made new again -- to recharge my reserves in the aftershock of the veritable life-quake of the previous year.  Now, I can feel myself pulling away, seeking the comfort and safety of distance.  I may be creating space around me for the coming growth.

This feels like a time for change, like time for hard, heavy work.  I've got things to do, letters to write, skeletons to exhume, reorder, and rebury with respect and proper funerary rites.  Unpleasantness abounds.

But you know what?  Even as I am assaulted by angry ghosts from a not-so-distant past, my peace is undisturbed.  And this is not avoidance.  I've checked.  Forced myself to sink into certain ugly truths and came up smiling.  Inconveniences and obstacles that would have torn me up inside a year ago are just a ripple on the surface of the pond.  Alignment brings such freedom.

On that note, perhaps you've noticed that there has not been an Asana of the Week for a while.  Or a Primary Friday post, for that matter.  I'm thinking of going free-form with the blog, at least for a short time, eliminating my usual weekly posts and allowing the nature of my writing here to assert itself in a new way.  Don't worry -- I intend to continue with the asana spotlights in some capacity.  I'm just not sure exactly how.  In the meantime, I've got some fun things on the way and there are plenty of asanas in the archive, which are arranged categorically and alphabetically under the Asanas tab in the bar under the banner at the top of the page.  Enjoy.


Moving On

Ever since that week of evening mysore earlier in the month, my routine has consisted mostly of afternoon/evening practice, which has been kind of nice apart from the extra meal planning it requires.  Not that it matters much when I do it, as long as I do it.  Practice is practice.  Still, after punching the reset button this weekend, I am hoping to get back to the morning ritual.

It has been difficult to keep up with daily practice, but I've managed.  Having permission, both from my teachers and myself, to take a shorter practice when necessary -- even guruji's "minimum daily practice" of 3 Surya A, 3 Surya B, and the final 3 postures (Yoga Mudra, Padmasana, Utpluthi) -- has been such a gift.  Working as much as I have been, to be able to visit my mat every day and keep the prana flowing without badgering myself for not doing my "whole" practice has made such a difference.  The quality of the time I spend in practice has evolved from drive and rigor to something soft and nurturing, yet the dynamism of my practice has not suffered.

In fact, this softness has yielded new steadiness and strength, making way for different challenges.  Last night, I decided to move on through Karandavasana, Mayurasana, and Nakrasana for the first time.  For Karandavasana, because of my knees, I practiced a cross-legged variation, lowered down about half way for three breaths, and came back up.  I went into it very conservatively and kept waiting for the posture to get hard, but to the extent that I took it last night, it was doable.  The experience made all my recent hemming and hawing about my readiness for Karandavasana seem ridiculous.  I know there is much work to be done, but it's far from impossible.

Mayurasana was hard.  I have experimented with this posture a few times in the past but have never had much success.  Last night was no different, but I can feel what needs to happen.  With daily practice, it'll come.  The vinyasas into and out of the posture were completely awkward and there is no way my big head is going to fit between my big arms for the seventh vinyasa with the hands turned around.  At least, I don't see it happening, but who knows.

Nakrasana, too, was hard.  Especially the backward hops.  I couldn't quite get the coordination of the breath and body in this one, but I gave it a damn good try.  As with everything else, it'll come.  After these three new postures, my abs and shoulders gave me the whatfor.  The additional work feels good, with an appropriate level of challenge and a nice counter to all the deep opening of the backbends and the LBH.  New projects are so energizing and I think the timing is right.  I am due for reinvigoration.

In other news, the dogs are doing well.  They are beginning to gravitate toward one another, sleeping closer, eating quietly, and sharing bones without incident.  Thank goodness -- the intensity of playing referee was wearing on my nerves.  I am so proud of my little muffins for making peace and moving on from their respective issues.  Now if only I could get them not to bark and whine at other dogs when we walk, I'd have the perfect pair.