In What Shall be Known as "The Downswing"

2011 was an amazing year.  It may be too soon to declare, but I suspect it will go down as one of the most formative of my life.  The crescendo built like an ocean wave, peaked in November, and by December, it all came crashing down, leaving me drenched and confused in a pool of standing water littered with the fractured pieces of what I had come to call my "self."

But the deluge that swept my life clean, though it may have left me battered, has been the greatest blessing.  The sudden lightness, the liberation, of having so much burden so violently ripped away is a high that I had never known, and I rode that high for a good, long while, alive with the thrill of destruction and attuned to the buzz of rebirth beneath the fresh, new ground.  But for we among the unenlightened, a high is not eternal bliss.  And even at our highest, we know, one day, we must come down.  The heightened senses falter, the moods begin to dip, and soon enough we're right back where we started, or if we payed attention, just the tiniest bit wiser than before.

Eventually, the wreckage settled and the debris was cleared away, but now that I have landed on solid, albeit muddy ground, the vantage has shifted to eye level and the surrounding emptiness unsettles me.  A destructive pattern of behavior has emerged and I believe it to be a response to the elusive nature of my own bliss and the disturbing quiet of the clarity it affords.  

This is a tantrum.  I am stirring up the muck.

It is true that I live in the live music capitol of the world -- a party town to be reckoned with -- but, like any good Ashtangi, I mostly keep to myself.   (Note:  I am fully aware that I use my practice as a way to justify my aversion to socialization.)  But once in a while, when the moon is full or the night is otherwise romantic, I do venture out.

About a month ago, a dear friend of mine took me to a great little spot.  We drank for hours, ran into old friends, heard incredible music, and pretty much had a great time.  Well into my fourth beer (a LOT for me), my friend pulled out a pack of smokes and HOLY LORD!  They looked so good.

My friend, knowing full well that I had quit smoking some time ago, did not offer me a cigarette....

I asked for one.  He obliged.  And it was AMAZING.  Like... Better-than-sex-oh-my-fucking-GOD AMAZING!

I felt awful the next morning, but it was nice to be able to enjoy a smoke at the time and not feel threatened by the cigarette, as if it had any sort of power over me.  Weeks went by without another thought about it until, a week ago, I found myself out for beers with some work friends.  Right around the time beer number one-too-many was ordered, I remembered that cigarette.  I wanted one.  Badly.  

I bought a pack.

I had two that night, took them home and, not knowing what to do, put them in my freezer.  I noticed that simply keeping them in my freezer made them so much more prevalent in my consciousness.  Throughout the week, I would think of cigarettes at random.

Last night, in a post-teaching energetic slump, I took another smoke from the pack.  I stood outside and gazed at the city-dim stars, burning Camel in one hand and glass of red wine in the other.  I smoked slowly and swayed in the cool night as that familiar nicotine high took a firm hold of my brainstem, slid down my spine and through my limbs with the seductive patience of a confident lover.

Five minutes later, it was done.  

My skin turned cold.  My numb heart echoed with an artificial rhythm inside my deadened chest.  I thought of all the years spent feeling just like this -- somehow used, betrayed, abused.  I looked back on the many years of life lived full of poisons masquerading as emotion, years with soulless patrons masquerading as my friends.

I went inside and retrieved the pack of Camels from the freezer.  Then I doused them in the sink and threw them all away.  Somewhat to my own surprise, I felt no sense of loss.

Product Review: TheraPED

My feet and I have a beautiful relationship.  It is a relationshop built on mutual trust and respect, but it hasn't been easy.  For years, I trekked all day and night in cramped, strappy sandals or stacked high heels while my poor little toes screamed in agony from down below.  Not anymore.

These days, my tootsies get the loving treatment they deserve and, in return, I walk this earth free of pedi-pain.  If your dogs are barking, TheraPED is a product designed to help you do the same.

TheraPED is a snazzy, zebra-striped velcro sandal with soft, fabric toe spreaders and temperature retaining gel pockets inside to soothe tired, achy feet from both above and below.  The whole sandal may be placed in the freezer or microwave and will retain heat or cold for 15-20 minutes.

When I first put on my TheraPED samples (unfortunately, they are sold as a single, so you'll have to pony up for two at $9.99 a piece or pamper one foot at a time.  TheraPED was kind enough to send me a pair), I was unimpressed with the toe spreaders and, as soon as I took my first step, one of the gel packets burst, splooging clear goo all over my foot and floor.

That being said, as I am wearing them now, the gentle toe spreaders feel nice and the gel packs, or what remains of them, are cushy on my feet.  The hot/cold therapy is soothing, but I would have liked some around the heel, as well.  TheraPED leaves the heel completely naked, which I found to be a distracting contrast with the temperature therapy and support around the ball of the foot.

Clearly, TheraPED is designed with the heel-wearing woman in mind.  So, if you spend your days in high heels and want relief for your battered feet, TheraPED may be just what you're looking for.  


Asana of the Week: Marichyasana C

The Marichyasanas are powerful, important postures because the rotation of the spine causes the muscles of the torso to stretch on one side as they contract on the other, ultimately improving symmetry between the right and left sides of the body.  Regular practice of these postures develops a toned waist and a straight, strong spine.

Marichyasana C is a favorite of mine in personal practice, particularly for addressing discomfort in the back and/or tension in the external rotators of the hip.

Begin in Dandasana (Staff Pose).  Bend the right knee so that the shin bone is perpendicular to the mat with a 4-6 inch space between the right foot and left thigh.  While not part of the "official" instruction for this posture, it may be useful to turn the right heel out slightly, encouraging internal rotation of the leg, and slide the left hip forward to "unsquare" the hips in preparation for the twist.  This ensures that the greatest degree of spinal rotation will be directed toward the thoracic vertebrae and kept out of the lumbar, which is not well suited to twisting.

Once the placement of the legs has been achieved, wrap the left arm around the right knee with an internal rotation of the shoulder.  Take the right arm behind the back and clasp the hands together or grasp the right wrist with the left hand to bind the arms, as shown below (opposite side pictured).

Keep your weight forward and aim to close the gap between the torso and your right thigh.  Ground through the inner edge of the right foot and use the leverage of the bind to twist more deeply. The straight leg remains active with enough internal rotation to hold the foot perpendicular to the floor.  Both sitting bones stay in contact with the mat.

If it is not possible to bind the arms, you may modify the pose by placing the right hand on the mat behind you while hugging the right knee with the left arm.  Focus on grounding both sitting bones and sitting as upright as possible.

Stay for 5-10 breaths and repeat on the opposite side.


Primary Friday: A Self-Study, Post Hosting

Primary this morning was a true delight after a long, busy 10-day stretch.  I was blessed with a surprise houseguest for a week, followed by some very early days at work, so it has been a challenge to carve enough time for full practice every morning.

Now that my guest is gone and the apartment is quiet, I am basking in this familiar solitude and reacquainting myself with my beloved routine.

There is nothing like bringing another person into one's own home to reveal the ways in which one has become guarded and stiff.  Cohabitation is without doubt among the most difficult endeavors I have ever undertaken.  Be it for years or just the weekend, the compromises necessary to lubricate the experience into some sort of smoothly working order have never been easy to make.

I am cautious, methodical, and self-assured.  These characteristics that dominate my behavior are the same characteristics that make Ashtanga Vinyasa -- the systematic method -- feel like a perfect fit; however, these are the very same traits that drive me to spend so much time alone.  My sometimes forceful nature serves me well with few exceptions, the formation of close partnerships being a glaring example among them.

I feel a magnetism toward similarly strong-willed, self-assured individuals.  Invariably, this root of attraction is also the root of much conflict.  Put me loose with a kindred spirit whose modus operandi conflicts with my own and there is likely to be much snorting and head butting, punctuated by the occasional aggressive charge.

As a result, I make the strongest bonds in violent bursts.  I am a relationship sprinter.  Run hard, then rest. There is no such thing as moderation.

In the context of Ashtanga, this approach is dangerous.  The body won't allow it, not for long.  The practice must be tended daily.  The space (the link) must be maintained, with even the most subtle of acknowledgements.  Just a breath.  Just a nod.  Just a feeling.

Is the same true of a human bond?  If not a kiss, then a hug.  If not a hug, then a smile.  If not a smile, a nod.  If not a nod, then maybe a kind thought will do, a daily thought sent across distances of all kinds -- emotional, intellectual, philosophical -- as a bow of the head, not to what might be, but to the ridiculous unraveling of what has been and to the exciting strangeness of the now it has birthed.

The space (the separation) is a good thing.  Space is opportunity.  Space is freedom to move and breathe, to be both completely in control and utterly, hopelessly out.  But space is easy.  There is a challenge, a level of observation and adaptability that space neither necessitates nor provides.

Do I long for the challenge of a partnership at the expense of this roomy little life?  Perhaps not, but I am glad for the fresh insight.


Product Review: GaiamTV

I get loads of offers in my inbox for free stuff in exchange for publishing product reviews on this blog.  Most products advertised to me are junk and I choose to spare you the mental clutter, but once in a while, something good comes along.

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GaiamTV is a subscription-based streaming video library compiled and hosted by Gaiam, makers of affordable yoga and fitness products.  For $9.95 per month, you get access to dozens of videos ranging from basic yoga instruction by trusted teachers to feature-length documentaries on a surprising variety of topics.

During my free month of GaiamTV, I enjoyed yoga classes designed for all skill levels from Kathryn Budig, Rodney Yee, and Sean Corne, as well as inspirational lectures by Deepak Chopra and a fascinating interview with Gregg Braden (a man who has, remarkably, not altered his appearance one iota in the last 20 years).   In addition to basic yoga instruction, GaiamTV also offers general workout videos, pilates, and other body awareness practices, including a really interesting set of videos on healing and strengthening the feet.

This is not a bad product for the price.  The streaming software was always reliable and the variety of subject matter is impressive.  GaiamTV is currently offering a 10-day free trial with registration from their site.  If you are looking to start a home practice or otherwise expand your horizons from the comfort of your home, give GaiamTV a try.


Asana of the Week: Utkatasana

Utkatasana (Fierce Posture) is a simple but strong standing asana that works the glutes, thighs, and back while stretching the achilles tendons and soleus muscles of the lower legs.

Stand with your feet together.  Bend your knees, extend your arms overhead, and lift your gaze to the thumbs.  Drop your tail and scoop the belly up and in to support your back.  Ground into your heels as you sit your hips and use the inhales to reach up out of your pelvis by lengthening the torso.  Feel the opposing actions of the posture as you breathe fully into the upper chest.

To refine the posture, roll your triceps in with an external rotation of the arms and press your palms together to engage the chest and sides.  Alternatively, for those with very tight shoulders, keep the hands shoulder-width apart or even open the arms to a Y-shape to help relax the shoulders down while maintaining the upward energetic expression of the pose.  Stay for 5-10 breaths as you continue to find your way into a deeper sit and a higher reach.


Primary Friday: Depth Perception

image source
In spite of the mid-week moon day temporarily derailing the train, my practice has settled into a comfortable, steady clip.  It feels good in my body.  I am finding strength and space without the persistent soreness of daily Primary.  Not only that, but I have made peace, it would seem, with the effort.

I would be lying if I claimed that there are never mornings when it feels a chore to lay out the mat, but I slip into the rhythm quite easily, even on the hardest of days, and take joy in the work without the heavy ambition of previous years.

You may have noticed I am writing less about the details of my practice.  Writing less in general, really.  There is a reluctance to rehash the minutia.  All is well, just auditing my energies.  I am in the  midst of a rebound from a period of violent expansion.  Feeling overexposed and wishing to hole up somewhere quiet, but work is keeping me out and about.  Daydreams of yoga vacations in Goa or Maui ("vacations" meaning intensive work with amazing teachers, obviously...) have been dancing through my mind this week.

The switch to morning asana practice has streamlined my mornings, creating a nice, open space in the afternoon or early evening in which to sit.  Some weeks ago, I read a bit about Zen meditation to give my sitting practice some structure.  At first, the reading was helpful, but as soon as I tried to read up and really inform myself on the method, it became obvious that too much instruction is counterproductive to the process.  It was nearly enough to be given a posture, given a gaze, and told to watch the thoughts and breath.

Sound familiar?

To look into it much more, at least for me at this time, would be like pouring a bucket of murky water into a sink that won't drain.  You've got to let the debris settle and manually remove the blockage before anything can get through.

The blog may be going through a structural reformatting soon.  Still ruminating on that.  In the meantime, I've got a couple of product reviews coming at you in the near future.  Stay tuned.


Asana of the Week: Pincha Mayurasana

Pincha Mayurasana (Feathered Peacock Pose) is a challenging inverted arm balance that demands strong shoulders, abdominals, and, most of all, focus.

Pincha can be especially intimidating because the face is so close to the floor.  There may be a fear of falling on one's face as if the arms are not strong enough, but, in reality, if you should fall out of the posture, you are more likely to flop over than to collapse because integrated core strength is much more crucial to sustaining this balance than powerful arms.

That being said, don't flop over; which is not to say, "don't fall."  By all means, fall!  Fall your little heart out.  Just don't flip or flop.  Tuck and roll.  Set your head down and roll out.  You'll be fine.  If you don't believe me, keep practicing Sirsasana (Headstand) and Dolphin Pose until you feel ready.

So, now that you know how to fall, let's talk about how NOT to fall.  Start with a solid foundation.  From a kneeling position, set the elbows shoulder-width on the mat.  First, lay the hands down with the palms up to encourage the shoulders to broaden.  Then turn the palms down, spread the hands, ground the wrists, and bring readiness to the fingertips.  Tuck your toes under, lift your hips, and walk your feet in as far as you can.  Try to position the shoulders over the elbows as in the full posture.  Set your gaze somewhere south of the thumbs so your neck is not overextended, then lift one leg high in the air, keeping the hips square.

With an inhalation, push off gently with the back foot as you pull up with the lifted leg.  Do not kick or swing.  Remember: small movements.  Don't overdo it.  You will end up in something like this:

From there, slowly scissor the legs together at the center, point the feet, and lift the toes to the sky.  It is common in those with tight shoulders for the elbows to slide apart and the hands to smush together.  You can put a book or block between the hands to stabilize your foundation, OR (listen up, Ashtangis!) you can try this fabulous cheat via Swenson: put the tips of the thumbs together.

A solid drishti is essential.  Find a pulled thread on your practice rug, a piece of lint, or (my favorite) an errant dog hair, and stare that sucker down.   Remember your bandhas and don't forget to breathe.


Primary Friday: Revelations and Prostrations

Interesting practice this morning.  Yesterday, I experienced a great deal of post-practice discomfort deep in the right hip, just anteriorly of the joint, and felt as though my leg were more externally rotated than normal.  Then today in practice, the hip was stupid-open.  Janu C was at a whole new level.  Garbha P was no problem, arms and all.  The entry to Urdvha Padmasana was easier than ever.  It was amazing.

Then... something happened.  In Sirsasana, or rather, just after Sirsasana, in child's pose.  Face to the mat.  Tears.  Accompanied by a river of memories revealing the importance of a great teacher from my past, an importance that had been lost on me until now.  From there, the faces of other influential teachers sprang forth, one after another, and suddenly I found myself looking back on a long line of generous mentors and illuminators with a clarity that unveiled an exciting continuity, a pattern of ascension that I have never recognized before.

With my sweet and patient mother.  I'm helping, see?
I don't have many crying episodes in practice... in fact, I can think of only one... but this was different.  I was deeply overcome with gratitude.  I stayed in my prostration and wept, sending thanks to my teachers -- who have arrived in both animal and human form -- for their gifts, their sacrifice.

That is what it is, you know, the teaching:  self-sacrifice.  Perhaps not to the point of death, and surely this is more true in some fields than in others, but I believe it applies to teaching in every level and form.  Yoga comes to mind as one of the obvious realms.  Many aging teachers, particularly those of the Ashtanga tradition, travel almost constantly.  They sacrifice their practice and their bodies so that we may have a chance to save ourselves.

With Jericho, one of my greatest teachers.
This karmic exchange is beautiful and sad, and I have sensed it within those who have been most influential in my life, who have taught from the heart, with honesty, love, and respect.  This willingness not only to give but to give of oneself has shown in those who have been patient and, in doing so, taught me to have patience, in those who have been kind and taught me kindness, and in those who have been bold and taught me to be bold, to use my gifts, and to always chase the truth.

As I step, once again, into the role of teacher, the inevitability of this cycle is not lost on me.  Perhaps this is the shift.  I have cultivated my own gifts in fertile ground, nourished by the wisdom of my teachers.  I feel a ripening.  Perhaps now is the time for harvest, time to share the fruit.

With David and Shelley, super-teaching team.


Practice Ramblings and Kapo from Behind

There has been a balmy shift in climate here in Austin this week.  The weather is unseasonably warm and humid, so the yoga has been sweet and sweaty.  I am still loving my practice especially much.  Some days, I step off the mat feeling as though I am walking on air, really just so open and full of life.

Today, I lost myself so completely in the sensation and the flow that I forgot Pasasana and went right through the warriors, into Primary through Purvottanasana before I realized what I had done.  Oops.  But perhaps it was what my body needed.  Paschimottanasana took care of a tweak in the back that had been bugging me, and the inclusion of Purvo showed as extra space in Bhekasana.

As for Pasasana, I have not bound this posture in some time.  As a rule, I am giving myself less time to work into the postures, which may account for it in some way.  There is also the fact that I am practicing earlier in the day and without the Marichyasanas as preparation for the twist.  Pasasana is one of the few postures that makes me wish I practiced regularly with a teacher.  Pasasana and Dwi Pada...

And Karandavasana.  I know last week I mentioned that it might be time to tack it on, but I am having second thoughts.  While my hips have opened considerably in recent months, I cannot get my legs into a safe lotus without the use of my hands, which precludes Karandavasana.... unless I modify.... which I might do.  

Then again, I am not Dwi Pada-ing on my own, so my practice time might be better spent on LBH preparations than on moving forward in the series at this time.  The postures that follow Pincha -- my present stopping point -- aren't going to help me get my shoulders open for a consistent heel grab in Kapo, either. 

So that settles it.  I'm staying put for now.  On days when I want a longer practice, I can just put a bit of Primary in there before going on to Intermediate.  In the future I hope to do this consciously, not unconsciously as I did today.  Bad lady.

On the topic of teachers or lack thereof, one of the great things about having a teacher is that they will tell you when you are horribly crooked in a posture, even if your body won't.  Years of balancing heavy trays of food exclusively on my left hand have left me with a shortened right side.  My right hip cocks up.  My right shoulder pulls down.  This feels natural, but I am working to correct this.  Recently, the imbalance is showing up in Kapo, so I decided to grab a video (my sometimes-substitute for a teacher) from a different angle to see what's going on.

The first thing I noticed was the excess tension in my right hand as I take the arms back.  Then I start to veer right and that trend continues all the way to the floor.  Granted, it is not dramatic, in large part because I am very aware of the imbalance and doing my best to compensate with the information that I have.  Then there's the issue of the wide elbows; this is me working really hard to pull them in.  Feet were extra slippery today so I couldn't get a good grip to pull against.   

The arms are excessively bent in Kapo B -- feeling super tight in the shoulders lately -- but I work to push them a little bit straighter on every exhalation.  All in all, it felt good and I was pleased with the jump through that follows, as evidenced by the sweaty, panting, post-Kapo grin.