Primary Friday: Painful Practice and Pitta Problems

It has been a wild couple of weeks with high degrees of undetected stress, but now I feel as though I might be on the other side of something and my body is timidly unclenching as the experience soaks in.  Yesterday's Primary ("yesterday" being Friday, since I am writing this entry on Saturday.  Normally, I'd backdate the post, but, for reasons I won't go into, I will not do that this time.) was the most painful practice that I have ever endured.

Following periods of extreme stress, I tend to experience acute pain deep in my hips and at the hamstring attachments that make forward bending practically unbearable.  The strange thing is that this pain isn't the result of tension as it might first appear to be, at least not in the sense of shortness of the muscle.  Once sufficiently warm, the depth of the postures is relatively unaffected.  It is the nature of the sensation that is completely changed.  It cuts sharp and deep, tugging at my solar plexus and jabbing at my diaphragm like an obnoxious bully on the schoolbus, loathsome and relentless.

Even more strangely, the most painful postures in practice both Friday and today were the Sarvangasana series.  Shoulderstanding.  The sensation shooting through my hips and up my body overwhelmed me with dueling impulses to either vomit or cry.  Friday, I made it through Halasana, but bailed at the very thought of Karnapidasana.  Today, even Halasana was too much to attempt.  Couldn't do it.  No way.

This being Saturday, you must be thinking to yourself, "What fool would practice on Saturday?  Saturday is rest day!"

I did an abbreviated practice this morning because I took four days off this week.  In a row.  For my holiday.  I never take four days, but I am in the process of reshaping my practice, reshaping my life, in a way that supports my well-being rather than stressing it.  I will spare you the details of my personal health concerns -- typical pitta problems -- but four days of rest per month for my holiday (making space for the process) is part of the plan.

At first, I thought all of that rest might be the cause of the discomfort in my hips and hammies, but I have a feeling it's this:  as part of this larger lifestyle reformation, I quit drinking coffee.

I used the extra rest days to get through the withdrawal period. After ten years of daily coffee consumption -- black, hot, and straight from the pot -- it's been almost a week without a drop of java and I feel like a different person.  Time passes more slowly.  My body moves more freely and gracefully through space.  I am calmer, cooler, more even-tempered.  And my skin looks amazing.  Just two days into the coffee prohibition, I kept catching myself in the mirror and wondering when or why I had put on makeup, only to remember that I was in fact not wearing any makeup.  It's a nice perk, and there are more.  Many more.

I am finally getting serious about damping down this flame that's been burning too hot for too long.  Learning more about the ayurvedic approach, more about my dosha and how to find balance.  Not surprisingly, my own education calls me to give up many of the foods and practices I have come to love.  In this adventure, I am continually shaping and reshaping.  Moving and breathing.  Practicing zazen.  Drinking spearmint tea.

The discomfort I am feeling is a positive sign.  Deep release is coming.

On Balance

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

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From Earth to Heaven by Michael Gannon

This feature-length Ashtanga documentary/asana demonstration is pretty excellent.  Written and produced by Gannon, he incredibly demonstrates much of 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th series on the longest mat I've ever seen.  Not only are his asanas light and beautiful, but he has a sweet and reverent practice face.  I fell in love.  You will, too.

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Seriously.  Don't miss out.


Asana of the Week: Plank Pose

Plank Pose is a great way to get strong.  When practiced correctly, this simple yet challenging posture works the whole body, from the arms, chest, and abs right down to the ankles.

From Adho Muka Svanasana (Downward Dog), shift your body forward until your shoulders stack over your wrists.  Spread your fingers and roll the biceps forward as you draw the triceps back.  Push the ground away and feel your back body engage to support the spine.  Keep the belly lifting and the tailbone tucked.  Strengthen the legs and press back into the heels to flex the feet.  Stretch the sternum forward as you press the heels back, finding maximum length from head to heels.

Do not allow the hips to sag toward the floor or buckle toward the ceiling.  If the integrity of the posture is lost due to weakness of the core muscles, take the knees down and practice a modified variation until sufficient strength is gained.

Hold for 5-10 breaths.  When the posture can be held for 10 breaths without strain, you might consider working with some more extended holds in Plank to test your own staying power.  I like to bust out the timer and hold here for 4-5 minutes or more to challenge my willpower and steadiness of mind.

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Incense Burner

A woman of Nagasaki named Kame was one of the few makers of incense burners in Japan.  Such a burner is a work of art to be used only in a tearoom or before a family shrine.

Kame, whose father before her had been such an artist, was fond of drinking.  She also smoked and associated with men most of the time.  When ever she made a little money she gave a feast inviting artists, poets, carpenters, workers, men of many vocations and acovations.  In their association she evolved her designs.

Kame was slow in creating, but when her work was finished, it was always a masterpiece.  Her burners were treasured in homes whose womenfolk never drank, smoked, or associated freely with men.

The mayor of Nagasaki once requested Kame to design an incense burner for him.  She delayed doing so until almost half a year had passed.  At that time the mayor, who had been promoted to office in a distant city, visited her.  He urged Kame to begin work on his burner.

At last receiving the inspiration, Kame made the incense burner.  After it was completed she placed it upon a table.  She looked at it long and carefully.  She smoked and drank before it as if it were her own company.  All day she observed it.

At last, picking up a hammer, Kame smashed it to bits.  She saw it was the not perfect creation her mind demanded.

-- From 101 Zen Stories, transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps


What Does Compassion Look Like?

Palden Lhamo:  wrathful incarnation of the goddess Saraswati.
This frightening image is a depiction Palden Lhamo, the fierce, red-haired protectress of the way of compassion and the only female among the Eight Guardians of the Law.  She crosses a sea of blood astride her mule, a gift from the gods.  Seated on a saddle blanket made from the flayed skin of her own irreparably evil son, she has eaten his flesh and drinks from his skull, a clear warning to all who might threaten the way of compassion in this world.

We talk a lot about compassion in the yoga-sphere. It is a virtue we aim to cultivate. It is the key to human connection, but we don't talk much about what compassion really is or how to recognize it within oneself. What are its characteristics?  What is its nature?

com·pas·sion /kəmˈpaSHən/ 
noun : 1) a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.  2)  To suffer together with : PITY, MERCY.

Hmm...  Sorrow.  Pity.  That's not the shiny, happy yoga that studios and media are selling.

The truth is that compassion isn't pretty.  Compassion is not pleasant or easy.  To feel compassion is to feel the pain of this world.  It is to shoulder the suffering of others -- to share the pain -- willingly and without resentment in order to "crush and destroy" it.  Impossible though it may seem, the way of compassion is to carry on with a clear intention to put an end to all suffering.

It is a daunting prospect, to be sure.  The way of compassion is filled with legitimate danger and risk.  We must ready ourselves with practice.  We must build strength (love) and eradicate weakness (fear).

Palden Lhamo's message is that the way of compassion is not always kind -- at least, not on the surface.  Her steed bears an eye on its haunches which grew from the wound inflicted upon it by her angry husband -- furious with her for murdering their son who was destined to destroy Buddhism -- as she fled from their home forever to serve from the mountaintops as guardian of the Way.  She is the "Victorious One who Turns Back Enemies," and she gave up her family to follow truth and serve love.

In order to effectively eradicate the suffering around us, it is our duty to expand our awareness of our environment and deepen our understanding of our place in the world so that we may recognize the seeds of suffering long before they take root, especially if that source of pain is a product of our own action.  This can (read: will) mean great personal sacrifice.  It is through practice and an ever-deepening relationship with one's own body as a microcosm of the nature of the universe that we develop the steadiness of mind and clarity of perception to make such a sacrifice and follow the Way with pure intent.


Primary Friday: Ashtanga Body

After the bustle of last week, I spent most of this week in quiet contemplation in my home, writing, reading, and doing the practice.  I have been incorporating more meditation and pranayama into my daily routine, both of which have been potent and real.

This morning's Primary was special, so peaceful and light.  The breath was long and soft, with effortless strength to carry me through the vinyasas.  It was really quite beautiful -- so much so that I even got a little weepy heading into Janu Sirsasana, where the rhythm of the practice takes off.  This may be a sign that my holiday is on the way, but that does not negate the emotion or the moment.

The left knee is healing well and I have already learned much about the habitual gripping in the left groin that is likely the cause of the problem, limiting the rotation of the thigh bone in the hip.  I am enjoying my practice no less for the "injury" and its accommodations.  In fact, I might be enjoying it more.

Second series continues to completely transform my body, but probably not in the way one might think.  My back is broadening.  My whole torso has grown thick and dense like a tree trunk.  My ass is shrinking as my thighs expand.  I am heavier and softer than before, but stronger, too.  Feeling very grounded in this body.

In practice, it has been an especially big week for backbends.  Tuesday, I did Kapo twice and took my heels on the second try.  Wednesday, I got the heels on the first go.  It felt like I had to crawl my hands for miles, but it would seem that my shoulders are finally opening up.

This is new for me.  I have touched my heels in the past, I have even gotten one finger around my heels in the posture, but I have never been able to grip the heels like that on my own.  It felt great, and I even managed to bring my elbows in a bit to polish it up.  We'll find out on Sunday if that openness can survive Primary nestled between two rest days.

In other news, Damn Good Yoga has an awesome new Facebook page where I am posting all those interesting yoga bits that come my way.  Visit and LIKE if you know what's good for you:


Asana of the Week: Bharadvajasana

This subtle, elegant twist is dedicated to Rishi Bharadvaja, author of large sections of the Rigveda, one of the most ancient scriptures known to humankind.

The leg position in Bharadvajasana is half Virasana (Hero Pose) and half lotus.  With the right leg in half lotus, wrap the right arm behind your back to bind the right foot and tuck the left hand under your right knee.  Once your foot is bound, press your left hand completely flat, lengthen your torso, and then open the chest as you twist to the right.  Stay for 5-10 breaths and repeat on the other side.

Bharadvajasana differs from most other seated twisting postures in that the arms are used very little to deepen the twist.  Rather, the muscles of the back and sides are held in contraction to support both the extension and the spiraling action of the spine.  Because the twist is relatively mild, this is a nice counter-posture to deep backbending and may be therapeutic for those with arthritis or other less serious spinal issues.


Primary Friday: Ashtanga as Therapy and Injury in Practice

It's been a big week for me.  I had forgotten how energy intensive yoga instruction can be.  After teaching my last class of the week this afternoon, I drove straight home, stripped down, and curled up in bed.  What was intended to be a brief pre-practice nap became a deep 3-hour hibernation.  So my Friday Primary was hijacked by the inescapably perfect napping conditions of a soft, comfy bed and the warm afternoon sun.  By the time I awoke, it was too late for a proper practice and what with the buggered knee, I figured the extra day of rest might serve me better in the end.

In spite of the exhaustion side-effect, it feels so great to be teaching again.  That 3-month hiatus seemed like an eternity.  It's been especially great meeting and connecting with other Ashtangis, many of whom I have practiced with before, some of whom I have not.

Teaching Ashtanga has generated enormous opportunity for deepening my own studies.  I am finding that even the students in my non-Ashtanga classes are very curious about this practice, and in searching the relatively shallow depths of my own knowledge to give them answer, I am forced to examine and reorganize my thoughts.  In doing so, my own understanding is elevated.  It is a beautiful process and I am excited for the growth to come.

One such exchange with a student got me thinking about Ashtanga as therapy, particularly in contradiction to its reputation as an injurious method.  While it is true (and I really hate to admit this) that I have and do suffer from the signature knee issues, this practice has been so healing.  The first series is yoga chikitsa, after all, and its daily practice has been nothing short of transformational.

Beyond this, each and every time that I have experienced a "set-back," or an "injury," or an "opening" or whatever you want to call it, the healing process has endowed me with invaluable insight as to the ways in which I care for and carry my own body.  My practice has been refined and filled with meaning in no small part through injury.


I practice carefully.  I practice mindfully.  I do not push into pain and do not accept adjustments from teachers I don't trust.  Still, my body gets injured.  Things get rearranged.  I persist in practice because, though it might seem paradoxical, the very thing that hurts me is the only thing that heals.  And more often than not, set-backs in my practice run parallel to -- or, at the very least, illuminate -- potentially destructive patterns in my life.  That is the beauty of this practice, the mirror of yoga.

While I suspect this isn't going to save me from a chorus of either "You're doing it wrong!"  or "How dare you validate injury in yoga!"  I'd like to make something clear:  I am talking about minor injuries.  Muscle pulls, creaky knees, persistent aches and pains, those little things that slow you down and make you change your ways.

If lasting damage is being done, there is a disconnect that needs to be addressed.

That being stated, it's like I said to a student this week:  the path is not straight.  Sometimes there arise obstructions we must scale or divides that we must cross to get back on the trail.  These are the richest, most interesting stretches of the journey.  

The True Path

Just before Ninakawa passed away the Zen master Ikkyu visited him.  "Shall I lead you on?"  Ikkyu asked.

Ninakawa replied:  "I came here alone and I go alone.  What help could you be to me?"

Ikkyu answered:  "If you think you really come and go, that is your delusion. Let me show you the path on which there is no coming and no going."

With his words, Ikkyu had revealed the path so clearly that Ninakawa smiled and passed away.

-- From 101 Zen Stories, transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps


Asana of the Week: Mandukasana

We are veering into some slightly more obscure territory this week with Mandukasana (Frog Posture).  Best practiced for longer holds (2-5 minutes or more), this awkward little pose is one hell of a hip opener and not for the faint of heart.

This stretch goes deep into the groin, lengthening the entire adductor group similarly to Malasana, Baddha Konasana, and Upavishta Konasana.  However, the fixed position of the legs in Mandukasana limits the external rotation of the legs which directs the bulk of the stretch into the posterior adductors (the gracilis, magnus, and brevis).  Because of this, Mandukasana may prove useful for those with very externally rotated hips.

Don't know if your hips are externally rotated?  Do your feet flop open in forward bends or turn out when you walk (sometimes referred to as "frog-toed")?  If yes, then they probably are.

To enter Mandukasana, come down to your hands and knees. Walk the knees apart until the inner knees are in contact with the mat, then step the feet wide with the inner edges of the feet down.  Begin with no less than a right angle (90 degrees) at the knee and no more than a right angle at the ankle, meaning that the feet are actively flexed.  Once the legs are in position, lower down to your forearms and press the hips back to move into the stretch.

As the hips release, you can step the feet wider and/or press the hips back further to move into a deeper expression.  Stay for at least one minute or as long as is comfortable.

Exit the posture slowly by first sliding the hips forward, then step the feet together and walk the knees in bit by bit.


Primary Friday: Taking Notes

I have led a fortunate life.  Born to loving parents, well cared for and fed, I enjoyed a happy childhood and survived the reckless teen years no worse for wear.  Some key decisions of young adulthood have been... shall we say... difficult to justify, but all in all, this life is going well and, considering my propensity for wrong turns, both on the road and off, for that I can only take so much credit.  Because whether or not one believes in god or God -- he or she, the one or many -- it is important to give credit where credit is due, to be able to recognize when one has been aided along, indeed, to know when one has been treated gently.

Yes, still hung up on gentleness here.

Spiritually, I have occupied the spectrum from believer of Christ to stubborn atheist.  (I was once labeled  a "nihilist" by a man who lived with me for several years.  At the time, I considered it one of the greatest complements I had ever received.)  In spite of this, I have always been vaguely aware of a suspiciously lucky streak running through my life.  I have suffered far less for my actions than many might have for the same.  I do not take this fact lightly -- most of the time.

Sometimes I just can't help it, gotta ride that karmic wave and make the dangerous decision, but it's also true that when the universe (i.e. god, God, the tao, the "natural order," the eternal cosmic dance of creation and destruction, etc...) gives me a slap on the wrist, I pay attention.  Because -- by golly! -- I am nothing if not a good student.

Popular culture's favorite nihilists.  "We believe in nothing!"
It just so happens that I have received two of those signature slaps (More like "pats," really, my teacher is so gentle...) since last week's telling Primary Friday post: 1) There is a large, fresh dent on the passenger side of my vehicle as a result of the slow, steady escalation of my own insane, aggressive driving behavior.  2)  My left knee has been reinjured.

I am greatly displeased.  The car thing, well, I deserved that.  But the knee??  I've been careful! I've been gentle... with myself.

And there it is.  (This is getting too damn easy.)  Ahimsa in the practice is all well and good, but if one fails to eventually take the strengths we develop and offer them up, then the practice is done in vain.  Or worse, it increases one's capacity to cause harm, both to oneself and to others.

Displeased though I may be, I am also very grateful.  It could easily have been a much more serious accident considering my recent history on the road.  (I know... for shame!)  And my knee, though this may be a setback, does not seem to be as badly injured as before.  Lotus postures are okay for the most part, but leg-behind-head may not be happening for a while.  This is fine.  I can deal with this.  I can learn from this.

See what I mean?  Gentle.

Is it foolish of me, as a teacher, to share these first-hand lessons with an audience consisting at least partially of my own students?  Maybe.  But the greatest teachers, in my experience, are attentive students, too.  And, as a student, at least my students know that I am paying attention.


My Heart Burns like Fire

Soyen Shaku, the first Zen teacher to come to America, said:  "My heart burns like fire but my eyes are as cold as dead ashes."  He made the following rules which he practiced every day of his life:  

  • In the morning before dressing, light incense and meditate. 
  • Retire at a regular hour. Partake of food at regular intervals. Eat with moderation and never to the point of satisfaction.
  • Receive a guest with the same attitude you have when alone. When alone, maintain the same attitude you have in receiving guests.
  • Watch what you say, and whatever you say, practice it.
  • When an opportunity comes do not let it pass by, yet always think twice before acting.
  • Do not regret the past. Look to the future.
  • Have the fearless attitude of a hero and the loving heart of a child.
  • Upon retiring, sleep as if you had entered your last sleep. Upon awakening, leave your bed behind you instantly as if you had cast away a pair of old shoes.

-- From 101 Zen Stories, transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps.


Abusing my Strength

Last week, I practiced in a Mysore room for the first time since October.  A few weeks ago, I invited a friend into my home for a week, and for the past couple of months, I have generally been spending more time with people.  All this interaction has led to what might be an important realization:  as much as I enjoy living/being alone, it may serve me well to have someone around to keep my ego in check.

It has come to my attention that I might be coming on a little strong.  When I speak, my voice is loud.  I don't walk so much as bound from place to place.  My shoulders somehow continue to broaden and my "man arms" (never liked that term, but there it is...) are out of control.  Could it be the Ashtanga has created a monster?

Back in October, at some point during the Swenson intensive, I had a brief conversation with a non-ashtangi colleague about the off-the-mat effects of a full-time Ashtanga practice.  I remember musing aloud that the rigor of the practice had turned me into a real hard ass.  I felt less free with my protective impulse, at times, less free with my compassion.  The discipline and character one accumulates in stepping on the mat each day, learning to face the practice with a fresh, adaptive mind, seemed to have a counterpart for which I have no single word;  I felt it as a sense of separation.  Emotional distance.

Separation.  Distance.  Aren't these the opposite of yoga?

It was also around the time of the Swenson intensive that I experienced rather extreme and persistent discomfort in my lats, shoulders, and chest.  Practice itself would ease the pain, but by the next morning, I could barely lift my arms without a mournful groan.  Not insignificantly, my practice at the time was full Primary plus 2nd to Yoganidrasana.  Also, not insignificantly, I was working myself very hard on the mat.

Fortunately for me, David and Shelley are so loving.  They embody a balanced approach -- both diligent and fun -- to what can be a demanding method.  David helped me fix my labored breath, thereby speeding my practice along, and Shelley convinced me to drop Primary and move on with Intermediate for the sake of my shoulders.  Together, they helped me understand that this practice is just a tool, its uses limited only by the scope of my imagination.

It has taken some time for the lessons to soak in, but the nature of my practice has changed, and with it, the way I relate to the world.  I still work hard and honor the system to the best of my ability, but when I need a shorter practice, I take it.  For that matter, when I need a longer practice, I take that, too.  The integrity and abundant joy that I derive from my practice gives me great strength.  

What I am learning in this new chapter --  in what feels like a "reintegration" -- is that honesty can be startling, and senseless joy is, frankly, overwhelming for most people.  Just as strength is dangerous without flexibility, awareness is useless without sensitivity.  I must learn to treat others more gently.

Asana of the Week: Halasana

Halasana (Plough Pose) is an extension of Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) and offers many of the same benefits.  This posture lengthens the hamstrings and stretches the extensors of the spine, primarily along the thoracic and cervical vertebrae.  For this reason, Halasana is effectively practiced as a counter-posture to backbending asanas or as a preparation for Sarvangasana.

To enter the posture, lie on your back with legs and arms straight, palms flat on the mat.  With an inhalation, swing your straight legs up and over as you push into the hands and roll the shoulders back.  If your toes reach the floor, point the feet and interlace the fingers.  Keep the feet light against the floor using the back and bandhas to support the weight of the legs and actively press the clasped hands into the mat.  If the feet do not reach the floor due to shortness of the hamstrings, take the hands to the back as in Sarvangasana to support the spine.

Roll the shoulders away from the ears to stabilize the scapula against the upper back.  Lift the sternum toward your chin and ensure that the back of the neck is not flat against the floor.  There should be space enough to slide two fingers beneath the neck to avoid hyper-flexion of the cervical spine.  (Notice the light peaking through in the demonstration photo.)

Once the back and hamstrings have been comfortably lengthened, the primary challenge of this asana is the breath.  It can be difficult to breathe freely with the intra-abdominal pressure this posture creates, particularly with the bandhas engaged.  If you have trouble breathing in Halasana, remember to keep the throat soft and actively spread the ribs to make space for the breath.  Gaze to the navel.  Stay for 8-10 breaths or more.


Primary Friday: Sweltering

Had an extraordinarily strong practice and a very strange day.  Recently, I am astounded by my own behavior.

 The weather has been warm, which does not bode well for the coming Austin summer.

I know I need to put the fire out, but the white hot light is mesmerizing.  God help me, I cannot refrain from feeding it dry bits of grass and wood, just to see the way it burns.