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.