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.


Manipulation of the Canine and the Self

Writing has been sporadic, I have been suffering with motivation.  By the night of the new moon, the initiative to do much of anything had almost entirely vanished.  I moved through the world as a silent, numb observer, just a dim glimmer of consciousness in a pinkish, fleshy sack.  I am feeling better now.  Let us hope my energy levels will follow the waxing cycle.

My nights continue to be filled with long and complicated dreams rich with exaggerated symbolism, and my days are sprinkled with acute realizations falling like sharp little raindrops on my fevered mind.  Practice has been most interesting.  Took the moon day on Sunday, of course, with the way I was feeling.  Did standing and finishing on Monday morning, then a Vinyasa practice on Tuesday evening -- something I haven't done in a long time.  It was nice.  Did a lot of deep hip work.  Really tried to break a good sweat, but it was hard without that Ashtanga heat.  In spite of the low energy, I felt strong.

Yesterday, I got back to my Intermediate practice for the first time in about a week.  It, too, was nice.  Every time I opt out of 2nd series for any length of time, be it a day or be it a week, I feel an anxiety about going back to it, like it's going to be excruciatingly hard.  But the practice is only as hard as I make it and I know that.  It always feels good to pick it up again and it's never as hard as I fear.

In fact, it's becoming rather too easy.  Now is probably the time to add the next chunk of 2nd, but I am feeling blocked by Karandavasana, particularly with my solo practice and knee history...  Or maybe those are just the best excuses I can find to justify my laziness.  I know there are plenty of modifications I can work with and other project poses I can do to help me build it.  I think I need to push myself over this hump, even if it means moving on without accomplishing the full pose on my own.

"I used to do a bit of modeling..."
Matthew Sweeney is coming to Austin at the end of June for a week and you can bet the farm I'm gonna be there.  The author of Ashtanga Yoga As it Is -- an absolute gem of a book with a surprising wealth of information that is hard to find anywhere else -- will be at Bfree Yoga Austin from June 29th to July 5th with three days of workshops and four days of morning Mysore.  Needless to say, I'm looking forward to it.

Ronin is doing well in his new home.  I have been walking the dogs at least a few miles daily, and even as good as they are, it's a serious workout.  We went hiking yesterday and I kept them on leash for most of the way.  My upper back and shoulders are feeling the work.  They are quite the pair.  Unfortunately, while they are fine the rest of the time, feeding has become a touch-and-go situation.  Opie's dog aggression has taken a turn for the worse.  I could just feed them in their crates and be done with it, but I am confident we can work through this at a deeper level.  She is and always has been a real challenge.  Thank goodness Ronin is so good-natured.  I like to think his influence will bring balance to the home and Opie is merely resisting the inevitable shift.  If Ronin and I can stay calm, she'll have no choice but to relax.


Primary Friday: Puppy Love

It's been a very light practice week, for a few of reasons.  First, I have been teaching practically full time (8-10 classes/wk) plus weekends waiting tables, so I'm a little worn out.  Second, I had a touch-up session on much of my ink, so I am freshly tattooed in multiple places, making practice difficult.  And third, I spent the mid-week carefully selecting and adopting a new dog from the city shelter and I am so completely in love with this dog that I can barely stand to be away from him for any length of time.  In practice yesterday morning, I was rather pleased with myself for making it all the way to Marichyasana B before rolling over and cuddling with my new boy, who insists on being at my side at all times.

My little samurai
This is Ronin (roh-NEEN), seventy-two pounds of pure, unadulterated Pitbull love.  Without exaggeration, he is the sweetest, calmest, and most polite dog that I have ever met.

He spent two long, lonely months in the shelter with no adoption interest and nary a walk or pat on the head from prospective adopters because of a nasty but non-contagious skin condition that the shelter staff determined to be mites, but which we now know, thanks to the thorough and proactive efforts of my wonderful veterinarian, is in fact an easily treatable skin allergy.  

He was picked up off the street and brought to the shelter by animal control.  When he first arrived, Ronin had nothing but a few scabby patches of hair on his body, his eyes were infected, and he was covered with pustules and scars.  There is one particularly frightening scar at the base of his neck that seems to be an indication of brutal mistreatment, as if a rope or chain was dug deep into his flesh.  God knows what he's been through, but bless him for his ability to move on with peace and gratitude.

And bless Cesar Millan for empowering me to be the pack leader in the face of such cruelty and for revealing the power of calm, assertive energy and alignment with nature.  I have been doing my homework, watching his show and seminars on Youtube while I considered bringing a new dog into the family, and with Cesar's techniques, not only has the behavior of Opie, my neurotic, dog-hating 6 year old Aussie, been completely transformed, but the introduction of Ronin into the family has been a huge success.  Contrary to what one might expect, the abused shelter dog seems to be having a great influence on her, teaching her how to be a canine and forcing her to fall back to her place in the pack.

Close-up of his condition
If I'm being totally honest, I went into that shelter with the intention of rescuing a dog who could serve not only as a companion to me and to Opie, but also as guardian and protector.  I had eyes only for big bully-type males between 1 and 4 years of age.  And Ronin, at three years, is definitely intimidating.  His war-weary appearance and size are deterring -- he stands just an inch taller than Opie, but carries nearly thirty pounds more in muscle on his frame -- and, even though he's as sweet as pumpkin pie, he has the capability to do some serious damage.  Yesterday, he picked up a bone that Opie had been working on for months and ate it like a chocolate bar.  Suffice it to say, the boy is strong, which makes it all that more important that I remain a powerful, competent leader.

Ronin's successful integration has skyrocketed my confidence, and his submission empowers me as pack leader even more in Opie's eyes, so her anxious energy has been nicely subdued.  It's a beautiful thing when the three of us walk, Opie prancing on my left and Ronin marching on my right.  Her markings and plumage are gorgeous, and his easy aplomb is striking, even with his scars.   We receive many compliments and admiring glances.  Our walks have become the highlight of my day.

These dogs have already brought me so much joy, and I look forward to the continuation of our bonding as a pack.  With twice weekly baths and daily antibiotics, Ronin's skin is healing well, and his eyes are shining brighter every day.  I intend to email the shelter staff and ask them to send me his mug shot so I can post a before and after comparison once all his fur grows back.  He is going to be one handsome, happy dog.


Changing Winds

"All conditioned things are impermanent.
Everything that deteriorates is suffering.
Nirvana is peace.
All things are selfless and open."

(image source :  Tibetan emblem of impermanence.  Also, what I feel like when I practice in a heated room)

This might have been a Primary Friday post, but today being Sunday, I think we've already missed that train.  May has been a far busier month than I would like.  This is day twelve of a 14-day stretch of solid work, and I am very much ready for an entire day off.

This busyness has me slipping from creative mode into drone mode.  From open-minded exploration into high-efficiency, auto-pilot practice.  My memory is suffering.  My output is low.  I am trying not to be too bothered with the shift, to see it as merely the change of the winds.  I like to think that to acknowledge the temporary nature of my mood is to heighten its temporariness.  If I see its impermanence, will it leave me?

I have been practicing hard and teaching a lot.  After spending last week in hot, sweaty evening mysore, this morning's early practice at home felt stiff and slow, despite the oil bath last night.  Had to do Kapo twice, but after a mid-foot grasp on the first half-hearted try, the second round was deep and strong -- so deep, in fact, that my body wished to heave and weep, but I did not.

Eka Pada was laborious and especially stiff on the left side.  More trembling.  I can see why so many are attached to heated practice, or evening practice, or both.  The LBH postures were no problem in that environment, but the heat in the mysore room, though relatively low at about 85 degrees, did give me headaches for the first couple of days.  I had great practices, but walked out of that room looking like an overripe tomato every time.  I come from stout, northerly, hot-blooded people.  Farmers and soldiers.  Scots and Germans, mostly.  The heat does not agree with me.

So what am I doing in Texas?  I'm not sure, but it called me here and I can't seem to leave.  Not yet.

Speaking of Texas heat, summer looms ahead.  Six months of high temps and high humidity has already begun.  Another shift.  I must adjust myself accordingly.


For Whom the Bell Tolls

A wave of aversion has clouded my mind.  Each morning as the alarm goes off, I writhe in exaggerated agony at the fateful sound of the bells and swat the snooze button before I huddle deeper beneath the mess of sheets.  It is not just the thought of practice that keeps me in bed, but the thought of absolutely everything.  I'm tired, very tired.

This is in part, no doubt, due to the incessant strangeness of my dreams.  Every night I am plagued with twisted memories and skewed stories of both past and future, close enough to the actuality of my life to be confusing but bizarre enough to be disturbing.  I wake to stiffness and emotional exhaustion.  It takes some effort to sort through the rubble and figure out which events are real, which makes me wonder how much of my life occurred as I remember it, and how much that distinction really matters.

To cope with this recent aversion, at least in terms of practice, I have been packing up my mat and going out.  Monday morning, I attended an eclectic led Ashtanga class which was a mix of First and Second, and yesterday, I went to an evening Mysore practice. 

The evening Mysore was quite nice.  Because of traffic congestion, I arrived with only 65 minutes to practice, but somehow managed a full practice with just a couple of omissions (6 Surya instead of 10, split at Parsvottanasana instead of Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana).  Considering that my practice usually takes one hour and 45 minutes, the efficiency of last night's practice was astounding.  Four breaths instead of five in all the standing postures and a ticking clock over my head really ramps up the speed.  This is good to know.

I'll be heading back to the Mysore room tonight.  It has been nice to practice with others, so heartening to be with dedicated practitioners of every level who do this practice in earnest.  I love them all and have always felt that being present in a Mysore room, as a teacher or a student, is such a special privilege.  Sometimes it makes me wish there were a Mysore program that were more convenient for me to get to every day.

Ok... maybe not every day.  Once or twice a week might be enough, but you get the idea.  The group energy is uplifting and there is a quiet closeness in this little Ashtangi community.  It's time that I made more of an effort to be a part of it.

Asana of the Week: Utthan Pristhasana Variation

This variation on Utthan Pristhasana (Lizard Pose) is one of my favorite postures for addressing tension in the quadriceps and hip flexors.  The mild rotation of the spine opens the chest and brings the stretch high up into the psoas.

To enter the posture, come to a long, low lunge with the right foot forward.  Drop the left knee, turn the right foot out at a 30 degree angle, and plant the left hand.  Then bend the left knee and grasp the left foot with the right hand.  Roll the right shoulder back and turn the gaze up toward the sky as you rotate the spine.  Stay for 5-10 breaths and repeat with the left foot forward.

Other side
In my experience, there are two ways to practice this posture:  press the foot into the hand to activate the quads in eccentric contraction (ala Laghu Vajrasana), or pull the foot toward the buttocks for more lengthening of the muscles, particularly higher up the leg near the attachments (ala Bhekasana).  Take caution with the back knee in either case, and be sure that your front knee is tracking with the toes.


"Meanwhile the world goes on..."

"Wild Geese"
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.


Primary Friday: A Blur

Remember this?

Another neighbor died this week.  Same apartment.  I did my practice Thursday as the aftermath transpired just outside my open window.  Wished them well.  Death has been on my mind.  

I am meditating nearly every day, but more and more, with all the practice and the walking and the sitting, I find the line between meditation and not-meditation is blurred.  The effects of this are obvious in my working life.  There is an increased energetic sensitivity.  I am hearing the voice of intuition.  I feel spontaneous rushes of compassion in all of its heart-centered, bitter-sweet richness.

Practice has been well and good.  The mid-week short practice (Primary through Purvottanasana and finishing) has been a life-saver.  This week, I did an evening practice twice in addition to the morning Ashtanga to focus on my hips and help rehab my knee.  The extra work seemed to make a big difference.  In today's Primary, both hips were nicely open.

Woke up earlier than usual this morning to be at work by 7:30am.  As I bedded down last night, I was not totally confident that I'd be able to get up in time to do full Primary.  In order to make it work, I knew I'd have to abandon all of my pre-practice rituals:  the nauli, the neti, the tea, the facebook.  I'd have to wake up and get right on the mat, which is exactly what I did.  It was a great practice.  Not my strongest, physically, but so open, so quiet.  

(Note to self:  the chattering of the mind is quieter before facebook.)


Yoga Works

These past few weeks of restless nights have finally caught up with me and I am now sleeping deeply and long.  Woke up very late today.  It feels strange to awaken with the sun high in the sky as if the day is half gone already, although it's really only just past 8am.  Sleeping in doesn't have the charm it used to.

So far, practice this week has been prolonged and gritty.  Second tries abound.  This, plus high degrees of involuntary shaking, equals very high energy expenditure on the mat.  Maybe that is why I'm sleeping late:  I'm tired.

I have needed to do Kapotasana twice the past few Intermediate practices.  Ever since I figured out how to grab my heels, my back/sacrum have been giving me trouble, hindering Kapo and the dropbacks.  Having a good hold on the heels really changes the posture.  Perhaps, in my excitement, I have used the heel grip too much to deepen the backbend.  If I'm not careful to avoid that weird little counter-clockwise spiral thing that I do as I drop back into Kapotasana, when I come out of the posture something on the right side has to pop back into place.  Which it does -- painlessly -- but it doesn't seem right.

My left knee continues to improve.  Not only have I reintroduced all lotus postures, last week I reintroduced Yoganidrasana without incident and yesterday managed to do Eka Pada on the left side for the first time in weeks.  I took it slow in the preparatory postures, starting on my back as usual.  The hip felt considerably more open than it has, so I took it a step further and worked the leg completely behind my head.  Once back there, my left leg began to tremble, first subtly, then built up to a significant quake.  All the while, the knee felt fine, so I stayed with it and took it a step further to the upright Eka Pada position.  Stayed for five breaths, still quaking, but strangely comfortable.  Afterwards, both legs felt incredibly fresh and alive.

The LBH postures (Leg-Behind-Head, for those of you scratching yours) have never been easy for me, but as much as I have struggled with them in the past, neither have I ever felt any aversion or fear toward these asanas.  Until now.  Recently, the nature of the sensation in these postures has completely changed.  It has gone from the superficial stretch of muscle to a deeper, travelling, nervous sensation.  If feels as though my entire pelvis is vibrating at some ultra-high frequency, the wedge of my sacrum rattling madly in its divot.

What is truly remarkable, though, is the steadiness of mind with which I have been able to meet this change.  Sure, I have thoughts, doubts, fears as this newly familiar discomfort begins to show, but I genuinely refrain from identification with these thoughts.  Yesterday, as I warmed up for Eka Pada on the right side, my mind said, "I don't know if I can do this.  This is will be too painful."  Yet, my gaze and breath and locks remained and my body entered fearlessly.  Having observed both the mind and body do their thing -- the mind balk, and the body plod along like the workhorse that it is -- I was reminded that I, the observer, am neither.  And isn't this exactly what the practice is supposed to do?  To teach us who we are through the process of elimination?

I think so.  And, if so, it works.