Soldiers of Humanity

Once, a division of the Japanese army was engaged in a sham battle, and some of the officers found it necessary to make their headquarters in Gasan's temple.

Gasan told his cook:  "Let the officers have only the same simple fare we eat."

This made the army men angry, as they were used to very deferential treatment.  One came to Gasan and said:  "Who do you think we are?  We are soldiers, sacrificing our lives for our country.  Why don't you treat us accordingly?"

Gasan answered sternly:  "Who do you think we are?  We are soldiers of humanity, aiming to save all sentient beings."

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


Being My Own Teacher

As many of you know, I practice at home, with rare exception.  I have learned most of what I know from personal experience and books.  Occasionally, I will practice with other ashtangis, and have worked with several different teachers over the years, but never for more than a few weeks or months at a time.  This means that, most often, I have to be my own teacher, which requires a certain degree of separation from myself.

This isn't always easy.  In fact, it can be downright awkward.

This morning, mid-way through a gritty second series, I observed me being hard on myself.  I heard the tension in my throat and saw the tell-tale signs of self-flagellation on my face.  So I stopped myself after Nakrasana, sat myself down, and we had a little chat.

"Listen," I, the teacher, said.  "I know you're feeling discouraged and you're reluctant to add to your practice.  I know that both your knees click, and your hip is tight, and your wrist is rallying for mutiny all the way up your right arm.  But you're in a rut.  It's time."

I, the student, shook my head and stared in disbelief.  "But... Karandavasana?"  I said.  "It isn't even close. . .  My knees and hips will never let it happen."

"Don't say never," I responded.  "You don't know that."

"And Mayurasana?  It's hardly ready.  For Pete's sake, what about Dwi Pada?  I can barely balance..."

"That's not important.  You're doing well.  There is a deceptively fine line between perfectionism and laziness, and you've been walking it for too long.  Let's go.  Vinysasa.  Vatayanasana."

I obeyed with hesitation.  The elaborate entry was awkward, and the posture itself was precarious with a few tumbles at first, but I struck the sweet spot eventually, and my knees were not as strained as I had feared.  First side.  Second side.  Done and done.

I, the teacher, stood nearby and nodded with approval.  "Good.  Let's keep going.  Parighasana is cake."

I was right.  Parighasana is cake.  Sweet, delicious, side stretching, thigh rotating cake.  Right side.  Left side.  My body buzzed with a fresh rush of prana through the following vinyasa.  "Next?"

"Gomukhasana!  Jump!"

Gomukhasana A was strange.  I teetered there atop my snugly folded legs.  But the B variation felt fantastic on my knotted shoulders, like a long awaited treasure at the bottom of a giant bag of Cap'n Crunch.

"One more.  Supta Urdhva."

I struggled through it.  Couldn't bind my foot on either side.  But I did my best, enjoyed the twist, and chuckled at the rest.  Emboldened, I asked, "Headstands?"

But I smiled to myself and shook my head.  "Not today."


Top 10 Posts of 2012

In the spirit of this reflective time of year, because I'm too occupied to write, and because lots of new readers have found their way to the blog over the past couple of months, I have compiled a list of some of my favorite posts from 2012.  They are chronologically arranged, from least to most recent.  I hope you enjoy.
  1. Revelations and Prostrations  Thoughts on teachers and teaching.
  2. Ashtanga as Therapy and Injury in Practice  How it hurts and how it heals.
  3. What Does Compassion Look Like?  Compassion is the key to a connected life, but what does it mean?
  4. On Giving Up  No coffee, no prana?
  5. Yoga Works  It really does.  But how?
  6. Breaking up with Ashtanga, or How to Dig a Well  This relationship takes effort, but commitment to the practice is important.
  7. Suffering, Reabsorption, and Recoil  Death, rebirth, and the simplicity of purpose.
  8. The Paradox of Self-Awareness  Looking inward to see beyond the self.
  9. Why Fearing?  Exploring the nature of this practice and the cycle of aversion.
  10. The Rules  Improving my Ashtanga experience through sacred space and submission to the method.


A Breathing Practice

Great practice today.  It was a fun, focused, prana-filled Primary with Garbha Pindasana giggles and all, capped off by a twenty-minute sit.  I've been working hard to rebuild my practice these past few weeks and my body will not let me forget it.  Finally made it to Pincha on Thursday for the first time in who knows how long... a couple of months, probably.

Everything Intermediate is in reach despite the break in Intermediate practice, but man-oh-man does it make me sore.  To ease the transition back to full practice, I am eating exceptionally well (... light and mostly raw, but well...), sleeping lots, and giving my sore body tons of self-massage, organic oil love.

Mid-practice this afternoon, it occurred to me that I had hoped to finish second series by the end of 2012.  So much for that...  But it also occurred to me that, had I been working with a teacher, I almost definitely would have. 

It is no secret that my own standards for my practice seem to exceed those of any observer.  When I study with a teacher -- any teacher -- they tend to pile on the postures.  Working at home, alone, as I do, there is nothing and no one to push me past the breath.  First, if the breath becomes labored, I stop.  It's as simple as that.  I do not allow myself to go forward if I'm struggling to maintain a full and easy breath.  Second, I've always felt that the transitions are as much a part of the practice as the postures -- this a continuous practice, a yoga mala -- and if I don't have the proper transition, I don't move on.  This stipulation kept me at Pincha for months.

So, maybe I don't move as quickly through the series as many students do, or as I might if I worked with a teacher, but my study is deep and precise.  My asanas are comfortable.  My pranayam is long and strong.  And, in this spacious inner environment, my mind and heart are free to explore the other limbs of yoga.  (Yes!  There are 6 more!)

As I prepare to teach more Ashtanga in the coming months (lots more!), I am beginning to think about if and how I should apply these standards to my students.  As a teacher, I am not impressed with the asana, entirely regardless of strength and form, if the breath just isn't there.  It is a breathing practice, after all.  The breath is the beginning and the end.

But the breath is also personal.  One needs to find it and refine it on one's own.  I will be curious to observe the variety of ways in which my students may or may not relate to their own breath, and the ways in which I may be able to help them to strengthen that relationship without imposing my own template on their practice.

I see challenges ahead.  Looking forward to exploring this more and more.


The Death of Death, The Birth of Love: Reflections and Intentions

Narasimha, the Man-Lion

I have tried and tried and tried to write this yearly post, but words cannot do the transformation justice.  For the sake of continuity, here is my best effort.

2011 destroyed me.  It took everything I thought I had.  The cloak of fear was ripped away and my naked body held against the flame.  It was the best year of my life.

2012 challenged me and showed me who I am.  It was a year of hard labor.  A slow rebuild.  With the ashes of the past, I mixed a different clay and built a new life from a place of love.  I snuggled up to God.  It was the best year of my life.

My 2012 intentions were simple and few, and they served me well as guiding lights.  I have grown secure and trusting in the practice of my arts with no loss of curiosity.  I have learned to play, to win and lose.  I have learned not only to be vulnerable, but to love this vulnerability as a coat of polish on the perfection of life manifest.

In 2013, I have only one intention:  I will stay close to the Truth, so close that it becomes me.

Happy New Year.  May you evolve and be blessed.