4.30.2012

A Dream

(Image by Karen Lostracco Austin)
I dream of a quiet man
who explains nothing and defends
nothing, but only knows
where the rarest wildflowers
are blooming, and who goes,
and finds that he is smiling
not by his own will.

-- "Sabbaths 1999, II" by Wendell Berry


Real Prosperity


A rich man asked Sengai to write something for the continued prosperity of his family so that it might be treasured from generation to generation.

Sengai obtained a large sheet of paper and wrote:  "Father dies, son dies, grandson dies."

The rich man became angry.  "I asked you to write something for the happiness of my family!  Why do you make such a joke as this?"

"No joke is intended," explained Sengai.  "If before you yourself die your son should die, this would grieve you greatly.  If your grandson should pass away before your son, both of you would be broken-hearted.  If your family, generation after generation, passes away in the order I have named, it will be the natural course of life.  I call this real prosperity."

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

4.27.2012

Primary Friday: Mobilization

My two most loyal companions.
It's been a hard week.  Holiday kept me grounded for a few days.  It feels like I hardly get to practice anymore, though I know that isn't true.  Been finding other ways to stay active.  Spending more time outside.

My dog and I have always enjoyed long walks together in the afternoon or early evening, depending on the time of year.  Sometimes we drive out to the trails and play in the woods, others we simply hike through the neighborhood to cross paths with all the other regulars.  Until recently, we would go two or maybe three times a week, but for the past month, we've been going every day.  A few brisk miles, at least.

I do my best thinking on walks.  My eyes settle into a soft forward gaze and my mind follows the syncopation of the footfalls, hers and mine, overlain by the rhythm of the breath.  It feels good to be on the move, and that's something that we can share.  My dog is a worthy companion.  She will trot along at my side in good humor for as long as I ask it of her.

God help other dogs who pass us by, but that's another story.

I have, on more than one occasion, responded to crisis by taking the dog for a walk.  Relationship ending?  Call from the doctor?  Death in the family?  Out the door I go, with nothing in my pockets and a leash in my hand.  There is something about the walk that is innately satisfying, it brings me to a balanced place from which to reflect and plan.  In this way, walking with my dog -- finding balance through the ritual -- is a sort of counter-practice to the yoga.

In my practice on the mat, I watch the breath and feel the rest.  If my mind wanders from the breath, which of course it does, I bring it back.  Singular focus, broad awareness.

When I walk, the breath and the motion fuel my thoughts.  The pace my body chooses comes from so, so deeply within that to allow my thoughts to follow and play on the rhythm is to embody my place in nature.

I walk and solutions present themselves.  When I feel immobilized with indecision, I walk.

All the extra walking of late is no coincidence.  I have allowed anxiety to bubble beneath the surface since the beginning of the year, frozen in an inability to make a choice as I allowed important opportunities to grow ever more stale.  Finally, the breaking point came this week.  The wheels are in motion.  I am finally moving on.  And not moving on, as the case may be.  Was considering a significant cross-country move, but have decided against it.  I feel relieved and more in love with Austin than ever.  Ready to commit to my new students and to my continuing education in this beautiful city.  Here we go.


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4.26.2012

Book Review: Yoga Cures by Tara Stiles

Tara Stiles of Slim, Calm, Sexy Yoga infamy is at it again with a new book packed full of yoga remedies for all that ails you.  Yoga Cures, which it seems Tara's publishers have been handing out to yoga bloggers like candy, is a sort of yoga lure, if you will, offered up to the common couch-sitting, cable-loving, chip-eating citizen.

After a lengthy introduction aimed at convincing the yoga skeptic that yoga is not something weird or foreign or scary, but is in fact totally hip and chill, Ms. Stiles lays out 50 short 3-5 pose sequences which are apparently designed, if not to cure, to at least address the discomfort of 50 common contemporary complaints.

"Cures" range from postural remedies for obesity and arthritis to acne and ADD.  Beyond physical ailments and body image complaints, Stiles meets personality disorders head on with the "Party Pooper" sequence, the "Procrastination" sequence and the "Chill the *&@# Out" sequence, just to name a few.

Are these petite sequences "cures?"  Absolutely not.  Do I forgive Ms. Stiles for this indiscretion?  Yes, I do.  Everybody's gotta make a buck.  And, as much as the overcompensatory use of slangy, non-threatening language irritates me, I can't help but feel that the more people exposed to the practice of yoga, the better for all of us.

Would I buy this book?  Absolutely not.  But am I glad that Yoga Cures might plant the idea of yoga as therapy in the consciousness of a larger chunk of this suffering society?  Yeah.  I am.

Asana of the Week: Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana


Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana (Upward Facing Intense West Stretch) is an elegant balance that strengthens the abdominals and hip flexors, lengthens the hamstrings, and improves mental focus.

When first learning the mechanics of the posture, you may enter from seated.  Bend your knees, balance just behind your sitting bones, and take your feet.  Straighten the legs as much as you can.  Take a preparatory inhalation to lengthen the spine, then exhale as you pull the legs to the body.  Gaze to the feet.  Do not overuse the arms.  Rather, work to consciously engage the psoas and actively reach upward through the torso, extending from the very base of the spine.  

When you're ready, you can learn to roll up into Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana from a variation of Halasana.  From Halasana, tuck your toes and take your feet.  Exhale completely here and prepare to use the bandhas to control the roll.  With the inhalation, give yourself a little push off with your toes and use the breath and bandhas to control the momentum.  Come to balance in the preparatory position pictured below, then exhale into the final posture.

Preparation

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4.24.2012

Waiting for Love


I am only waiting for love to give myself up at last into his hands.  That is why it is so late and why I have been guilty of such omissions.

They come at me with their laws and their codes to bind me fast; but I evade them ever, for I am only waiting for love to give myself up at last into his hands.

People blame me and call me heedless; I doubt not they are right in their blame.

The market day is over and work is all done for the busy.  Those who came to call me in vain have gone back in anger.  I am only waiting for love to give myself up at last into his hands.

-- From Gitanjali: A Collection of Indian Songs by Rabindranath Tagore

4.20.2012

Primary Friday: Spring Cleaning and Deep Reading

Springtime is in full effect.  The inertia and anxiety of winter have given way to a sense of ease.  Though the labor of this season is harder than the "buckle down and fatten up" of colder months, I feel lighter on my feet and in my heart.

I took the moon day today, even though the new moon is technically tomorrow.  Giving myself more rest lately, taking Matthew Sweeney's advice to "learn, also, to not practice."  And perhaps not coincidentally, I am finding my body opening in new ways.

Practice is a joy and fascination.  I am still doing at least some of Primary most days before going into Intermediate and it has been therapeutic for my knee.  I've lost weight, binding Supta K and Pasasana again.  My focus and endurance have improved, which I credit equally to the deepening of my seated meditation practice as to the continuing abstinence from coffee.  I've probably written enough about it by now, but I will say once again that giving up coffee has positively affected nearly every area my life -- with one exception:  I am still not sleeping through the night.  Very strange.

I spent the day deep cleaning my apartment, getting into all the nooks and crannies.  There was lots of spraying and scrubbing, sweeping and sucking, bagging and hauling.  And laundry, many loads of laundry.  Normally, I rather enjoy a good day of heavy cleaning, but today it just felt like hard work.  My energy has been low these past few days, which is not unusual on the approach of the new moon.

Now, tired as I may be, my little apartment is tidy and smells faintly of mint, so I can sit back and enjoy my Saturday.  Looking forward to the usual Saturday shenanigans:  oil bath and afternoon stroll, with the rest of the hours spent with my face in a good book.  I am currently reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, having found it on sale for all of four dollars a couple weeks back.  And wow.  It's excellent.  Apart from the absolute beauty and profundity of the work as a whole, it contains the best practical guide to meditation that I've ever read.  Do yourself a favor and find a copy.


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4.19.2012

Asana of the Week: Krounchasana


This intense forward bend is Krounchasana (Heron Posture), an extension of Triang Mukhaekapada Paschimottanasana from the Primary series.  Krounchasana stretches the hamstrings and glutes of the straight leg while lengthening the quadriceps of the bent leg.  The abdominals, psoas, and spinal extensors are strengthened, as are the muscles of the legs if eccentrically engaged to press against the arms.

To enter the posture from Dandasana, bend your right leg back so that thigh bones are parallel and the ankle is straight.  Lift the left leg (bend the knee if you need to, but keep it as straight as possible) and hold the foot or bind the hands around the foot as shown.  Inhale as you extend the leg, arms, and spine to look to the foot (pictured below).  Exhale as you pull the leg close and sit up as straight as you can.  Use the lats to draw the shoulders down and lift the belly in.  Stay for 5-10 breaths and repeat on the opposite side.
Krounchasana prep
When proficiency in the posture is gained, it is an interesting challenge to jump directly into the prep position from Adho Mukha Svanasana without allowing the straight leg to touch down.  If the glutes are tight, there is a tendency for the straight leg to swing open.  Keep the leg forward and the hips level.  Resist the temptation to round the spine with steady engagement of the core stabilizers and strong lift of the bandhas.

4.14.2012

Killing


Gasan instructed his adherents one day:  "Those who speak against killing and who desire to spare the lives of all conscious beings are right.  It is good to protect even animals and insects.  But what about those persons who kill time, what about those who are destroying wealth, and those who destroy political economy?  We should not overlook them.  Furthermore, what of the one who preaches without enlightenment?  He is killing Buddhism."

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


4.06.2012

Primary Friday: Just Practice

I am still off the coffee and not feeling the least bit deprived.  Gave the last of my gourmet Costa Rican beans to a friend in need and felt very good about it.  Now, just planning to hock my beastly espresso machine for some cash and enjoy this liberation.

Practice this week has been wonderful.  Without the caffeine in my system, my energy levels are more sustained.  I am more focused.  And more patient.  Not to mention, I no longer have to stop to use the bathroom during practice.  Kidneys and bowels are functioning better. 

I have extended my practice to include Primary to Supta Kurmasana before heading into 2nd series.  It's longer -- over two hours, even if I avoid rest and experimentation throughout -- but it feels so good.  David and Shelley encouraged me to drop Primary last fall -- they said my practice was too strength-driven... my shoulders too big... that 2nd would change that -- so I did.   But every time I come back to Primary for whatever reason, my body thanks me.  I need Primary.  Without it, my QL muscles get too short, limiting the twists, and my hips just don't get the intensive, incremental work they need.  Not to mention, Primary keeps me lean.  Melted off a couple of pounds just this week with the longer practice.  

Second series doesn't have the same fire, not with all the prep work I need for the LBH.  Sure, the sweat starts to pour right around Laghu and through the twists, but Eka Pada is like a big, fat cow on the tracks that derails the train.  Eka Pada on the right side is good -- 5 breaths up, 5 breaths folding -- as long as I work into it slowly.  I start on my back, cradle the leg for a while, bring my ankle to my forehead, then take it behind my head and stay there for a bit before sitting up and taking the posture.  It works, it opens my hips, but it also snuffs out any heat I had going on my way into the LBH.

Eka Pada on the left side, and, consequently, the next two postures, are still heavily modified because of the knee.  It's healing really well.  All lotus postures -- including Urdhva Padmasana -- are go.  I was tempted this week to swing the leg back there in Eka Pada just to see what would happen, but I'm taking it slow.  Maybe in the coming week.

I have taken my heels every day in Kapotasana, even with all the extra rest and body drama of the previous week.  It has become routine, just like that.  I think I've probably had the mobility to do it for some time, but only recently figured out the mechanics.  (Hint: walk the hands further than you think you need to and keep the head high until you have your grip.)  The best part is that it means I only do the posture once per practice.

No Primary today because of the moon day, which makes me even more glad I did so much of it throughout the week.  Looking forward to a restful Saturday, complete with big breakfast, long walk, and afternoon oil bath.  Wishing you all a great weekend.

The Moon Cannot be Stolen


Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain.  One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing in it to steal.

Ryokan returned and caught him.  "You may have come a long way to visit me," he told the prowler, "and you should not return empty-handed.  Please take my clothes as a gift."

The thief was bewildered.  He took the clothes and slunk away.

Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon.  "Poor fellow," he mused, "I wish I could give him this beautiful moon."

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


4.05.2012

Asana of the Week: Forearm Plank

This week, we're getting strong with Forearm Plank (a.k.a Dolphin Plank).  The practice of Forearm Plank delivers many of the same benefits as Plank Pose while asking more of the core without straining the wrists.  As such, this is a great Plank modification for those who suffer from wrist instability or pain.

The reduced angle of the body to the floor, made so by dropping to the forearms, increases the workload of the abdominals, back muscles, shoulders, and chest.  With the forearms down, there is less freedom to shift the weight from font to back, making for less opportunity to escape or vary the effort of the posture.

When practicing Forearm Plank, be sure to align your shoulders over your elbows and place the forearms parallel on the mat, hands a wide distance from one another.  Flex the feet strongly and strengthen the legs.  Tuck the belly in and point your tailbone toward your heels.  Keep the hips level with the shoulders and gaze softly toward the top of the mat.  Stay for 5-10 breaths or more.

4.03.2012

On Giving Up

Last week's Primary Friday has been surprisingly popular.  Apparently, many of you are curious about the process of quitting coffee.  Maybe it's because your bodies have been hinting at you -- like mine did -- that the caffeine content and high acidity of coffee are doing more harm than good.  I won't tell you whether you should or should not drink coffee -- I think it's probably fine for most -- but I will share my own experience.

The truth is that coffee is just one of the things I've given up lately.  In the past month, I have given up wheat, alcohol, Sriracha, and my netflix account.  I've also cut my hair and every time I look in the mirror I am delightfully tempted to cut more.  I've always been afraid to cut it short and felt intuitively that one day I would have to part with my long locks one way or another as a grand gesture of non-attachment.  That day might be approaching.  (Is it strange that I'm afraid to change my hair but nonchalant about tattoos?)  Point being, I've been letting go of lots of things and I really can't be sure that lack of coffee is entirely responsible for the effects I will henceforth expound.  But I suspect it is.

I quit drinking coffee last Tuesday.  The first day was hard.  I walked around in a haze.  Taught a Mysore class.  Yawned a lot.  Ate a lot of sugar.  No practice.

The second day was less hard.  I felt as though everything moved more slowly, not only my own thoughts and actions, but everything and everyone around me.  There seemed to be more space everywhere.  I had a slight headache, but noticed that my skin was looking absolutely rosy and I definitely felt less hungry, though still craved sugar, which I partook of heartily in the form of chocolate covered raisins.  No practice.  Broken sleep.

On the morning of the third day, I felt really good in spite of the poor quality of sleep the night before.  Headache gone.  No practice.  I took an oil bath and had a good breakfast.  Meditated.  Watched a few installments of Cosmos with Carl Sagan (side note:  space is incredibly fucking cool).  In the afternoon, a few hours post oil bath, I noticed that my hips and legs were achy.  That night, I tossed and turned for hours with restlessness and pain.

On the dawning of the fourth day, I observed that certain bodily excretions were an entirely different color (and they have since remained that way).  I did my first caffeine-free Ashtanga practice.  Though my energy levels were good, the pain in my hips -- at the psoas, hamstring attachments, and deep in the groin --  was absolutely excruciating.  Forward bending was brutal.  It was Friday.  Primary was brutal.  I breathed through it.  Felt better after practice, but still achy.  Taught two classes.  Noticed that my teaching was more grounded without the hard stuff in my system, my jaw and eyes softer.  And I was sweating less, a lot less.  Again, I tossed and turned for much of the night.

Saturday, the fifth day, I did Primary through Purvottanasana and the full finishing sequence because I couldn't bear the thought of another day without practice, especially if it meant a delay in addressing that pain, which was no better and perhaps worse on this day.  Again, I felt good after practice, though still sore in the hips and very tender deep in the joints.  Took the dog for a long walk in the evening, which seemed to help.  Sleep that night was short and interrupted, but less so because of pain.

I both feared and anticipated the return to Intermediate on Sunday, the sixth day, but in light of my bizarre pain condition, I decided at least a bit of Primary would be best before jumping in.  I did Primary through Baddha Konasana and Intermediate to Eka Pada.  Good practice.  Took my heels in Kapo even though it had been a full week since I had practiced any of Intermediate.  Eka Pada was painful at first, but, strangely, deeper than ever.  In fact, Eka Pada was the only posture that seemed to make the pain go away, at least for a while.  Sunday night was restless, in keeping with the pattern.  I found myself waking at odd intervals and flipping over, thinking to myself, "other side," seeking balance even in sleep.

Monday:  day seven with no coffee.  Taught an early class.  Took a long nap, lack of sleep finally caught up with me.  Did Primary to Baddha Konasana and Intermediate to Pincha.  Allowed myself some black tea in the afternoon to help me perk up for my evening class.  Mistake.  Feeling twitchy and wide awake now, nearly eight hours later as the clock rounds midnight.  (This will publish on Tuesday's date, but it's still Monday night to me).  

The long practices seem to help with the hip pain, which I believe to be a result of the surrounding musculature releasing habitual tension due to the elimination of caffeine -- with the exception of this afternoon's misguided venture, which, by the way, is only strengthening my resolve as I sit here and note the obvious effects of the caffeine:  twitchiness, racing mind, unconscious clenching made conscious by the change.  By finishing sequence this morning, the pain in my hips had faded to little more than a residual tug in the shoulderstanding postures, but I might stick with this long practice for a while.  It's been a nice change.  God knows I love my Primary.

So after one week with no coffee, I can say that I dig this whole caffeine-free thing.  In spite of the counterintuitive side effect of interrupted sleep, I genuinely feel better, physically and emotionally.  I'm thinking better, relating better.  Practice is different.  Better.  The fire is smaller, more manageable.  I can sit close without getting burned.  


BE ADVISED:
***I have resumed eating wheat.  Gave it up for a month, but dared have a burger on a wheat bun over the weekend.  It was fine.  I felt fine.  No different, worse or better.  I thought maybe I'd function better off wheat, but I think my diet is too fatty without it.  Need the fiber.

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