Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Twelve Days of Christmas -- Day 6


December 316 geese a-laying  


On the sixth day of Christmas,
my true love gave to me
six geese a-laying


The six days of creation before God rested on the Sabbath.

eggsEggs are of course a well-worn flag of new beginnings, featuring prominently in Easter and other pagan-inspired spring rites of renewal. Cherished and adorned by Tsarist Russia, dismissed for possessing more than a reasonable share of cholesterol, the humble egg is still my favorite lunch-on-the-go (hardboiled and eaten out of the shell at room temp, in the style of those wire trees perched on the counters old French cafes).

Raising chickens is newly hip, and I've had the pleasure of watching my brother's flock drop their daily quota. The beauty lies in the diversity: some are pale green and oblong, others peach and round. Each day a new gift. Each perfect in its own way.

cracked eggThe yoga tradition pictures the universe as a cracked egg, its
perfect beauty marred by a fissure that in turn allows the universe to grow and to evolve. Awakening ones trace their way along the seam, for it is through the cracks that the light of the Divine also shines.

Baby chicks must tap tap tap their way out of the hard shell protecting them. We too must continually push out against the boundaries we set for ourselves, caterpillars breaking through the chrysalis. To do so means leaving our old selves behind. Step Six announces that we are willing to have God remove all the defects of character that emerged in our moral inventory (see Day Four). Yoga is the power of transformation, and God knows we could all do with change.

The Hindu pantheon features sets of three gods and three goddesses (total: six) who encompass the cycle of creation-sustenance-dissolution:

trinity





Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva







  




mahdevis





Saraswati-Laksmi-Kali





(Though later Tantra switches the order of the goddesses, seeing Kali as the innate potential that spurs creation.)

The ghostly trio of the Three Fates provide a vastly underrated backdrop to the Greek myths: no matter what antics the gods and goddesses may enact, the final outcome always lies in the hands of the three ladies:

one who spins the thread of life
one who doles it out
one who cuts it short.

Who's pulling on your string? How are you making use of what's being doled out?

new years eveA fond farewell to 2011! 

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Twelve Days of Christmas -- Day 5


December 30 

On the fifth day of Christmas,
my true love gave to me
five golden rings



The Pentateuch or first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis through Deuteronomy)-Moses again, foundations of Judaism. Heavy stuff, dense reading, honestly never even tried to read 'em.

To this modern mind five rings conjures the Olympic logo, which a little bird tells me have nothing to do with Abraham's visionary gifts (they stand for the five continents).

Still, at least melodically, this is the highpoint in the song. Think of how we sing it:

Fiiiiiiivvvvee gooolllllddddeennn rrrrrrinnnnggggs!

Before slipping back into the rapid-fire recitation of the first four gifts. The musicians wanted to catch our attention-or at least our breath-here, as though they were announcing something of great value.

Lois...AnjaneyaYoga, and especially Tantric yoga, loves fives: there are five elements, five koshas (layers of our being from surface to depth), five kleshas (afflictions rooted in egotism), five kounchikas (limitations arising from embodiment). In fact, the whole universe can be mapped in sets of five tattvas (categories)-in other words, it all comes down to fives. Anusara yoga offers five principles to help us align with the highest (our Goal from Day One of this countdown), since most of the time we are hopelessly askew. Need a refresher? Join me for class New Year's morning(www.oneoceanyoga.com) and I'll channel you down the spirito-energetico-physical roadmap to Enlightenment.

The Twelve Days of Christmas -- Day 4


December 29
 
On the fourth day of Christmas,
my true love gave to me
four calling birds


I know, more birds! But trust me, as the days go by we will move higher up the food chain. For now, we've got the four Gospels-calling birds, voices in the wilderness, wakeup calls. Words from on high from those who know better.

The yoga tradition divides scriptures into those that are written as logical arguments and those that are "remembered" or channeled from Above through God's chosen mediums. The Gospels, like the Upanishads and in fact all of the Vedas, the Shiva Sutras, and other masterworks of visionary insight, remembered texts count more than written ones. Less human distortion and mistranslation, muddle and misrepresentation--more pure wisdom. 

Think of the Buddha's visionary awakening that night he sat stubbornly under the bodhi tree waiting for God to reveal Himself-out came the Four Noble Truths (ah, another four!), clear as a bell. Think of Moses reading the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, or the Shiva Sutra's author turning over a rock and finding the teachings etched there (only to witness them evaporate).

Step Four asks us to peer inside and take a moral inventory of
our fears and resentments, the static between our ears and the crooked way we see. Not the most joyful way to pass anafternoon, nonetheless a tried-and-true way to get to the root of what ails you. Not a bad project as we enter a New Year. Do you really want to end up one year older still carrying the same baggage? Jumpstart your yoga practice and change your life with one of my Anusara Yoga Immersion mini-retreat weekends, which start in late January (www.blueskyyoga.com for details).

The Twelve Days of Christmas -- Day 3

December 28
 
On the third day of Christmas,
my true love gave to me
three French Hens 


The three French hens are Faith, Hope, and Love (or Faith, Hope, and Charity). Seems to me
the more obvious choice would be the Trinity-Father, Son, Holy Ghost-but then I didn't write the song. In any case, more birds. Why hens? Why French? Not the world's most popular culture but a safe haven for Catholics back when, before the whole Francophone Muslim Diaspora migrated from the former colonies to fair Gaul.

Threes have a bad rap, as in:
Three's a crowd
The third wheel
Love triangles
The Oedipal triangle
The Bermuda triangle
Triangulating in general

But at least part of our shared culture touts the value ofthreesomes. Hegel's entire dialectic--thesis, antithesis, synthesis-posits nothing less than the advancement of cultural and intellectual history on pairs of seeming opposites (see December 27 posting) resolving into something greater. Yoga loves threes as well: Indian medicine (Ayurveda) restores balance to the three doshas (personality types), which in turn stem from the three gunas (qualities that shape all that is). Tantra loves threes as well, and Anusara's tenet of "balanced action" would make Hegel smile (if German philosophers are in fact capable of turning up the corners of their mouths).

Recovery's Third Step asks us to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as We Understand God.   No longer us versus God, we now have "us 'n God," a winning team if there ever was one.
 

The Twelve Days of Christmas -- Day 2

December 27
 
On the second day of Christmas,
my true love gave to me
two turtledoves

The turtledoves are the Old and New Testaments, twinset of the Christian Bible. Feel free to substitute any pair that works for you: our binary minds are always eager to divvy things up, to map poles and polarities onto everything. Computer codes, Morse codes, good 'n evil, yes and no, passive and aggressive, gay and straight, top and bottom, innie and outie, Communist and Capitalist, optimist and pessimist, atheist and believer, left and right, right and wrong, terrorist and pacifist, particle and wave, human and not. Start your own list-it's as easy as it is endless.

Question is: how do we live in a world of opposites? Do we have to be Red or Blue or is Purple an option? Is your ex really an avatar of the devil or a mixed bag like the rest of us? Is anything ever all unredeemably bad or uncategorically good? Seen any white knights lately?

Anusara yoga's second principle has to do with hugging into our selves-all parts of ourselves--consolidating, coming home, getting to the core. Have a look: both humbling andpranamar viewenlightening. Remember: you are every character in the story, Wicked Witch and Tinkerbell, King Lear and Robin Hood, Winnie the Pooh and Spiderman. Need a little more time on the inward quest? Join me for a week on the Costa Rica beaches in early February, just as the post-holiday glow and all that goes with it has faded and the cold and dark have set deeply in (February 8-15, visit www.blueskyyoga.com for details).

Step Two says that only a Power Greater Than Ourselves can restore us to sanity-another dyad: you and God. I'll be the first to line up for sanit-izing, being gifted from birth with a whole cacophony of crazy voices orchestrating my every move

The Twelve Days of Christmas -- Day 1

12 Days of Christmas
An Offering 

Everyone knows about the partridge and the pear tree. Not everyone knows that the song celebrates the 12 days between Christmas (the birth of Jesus Christ) and the Epiphany (the day the three kings /wise men arrived at the manger). In olden times Christians made merry throughout this entire stretch, believing that the arrival of Our Savior merited more than one night of festivities.

While no Christian, this year I'll be marking the 12 Days of Christmas with daily postings that weave together the song's Christian and pagan symbolism, Hindu Tantric philosophy, yoga practice and theory, and the principles of 12-step recovery. I hope this multi-culti overlay of traditional inspiration and hard-won personal wisdom sheds some light of its own. Worst case, you'll receive a New Age mishmash of this 'n that whose total adds up to less than the sum of its 12 parts. Either way, I hope to inspire you to set your eyes on the highest as we move through this powerful time. Your other option? Post-holiday bargain hunting among the hoardes who didn't get enough on Black Friday.


December 26

On the first day of Christmas,
my true love gave to me
a Partridge in a pear tree

So, the partridge is Jesus. I know, not the most elegant bird. But remember, the whole song is encrypted with Christian symbols, and the whole point of a code is it shouldn't be that obvious. Legend has it that the lyrics were a catechism drilled into kids in some sketchy period of the past when Christians/Catholics were persecuted for their beliefs. The True Love is God Himself, and the singer the true believer.

Why a partridge? Some say the mother partridge feigns injury to decoy predators from helpless nestlings (Christ Our Savior has our collective back). Why a pear tree? Haven't dug up anything specific on that, so let's go with the Tree of Life. 

Speaking of trees, Hindu Tantra offers a rich image of a tree whose branches circle down to reroot in the ground while its roots rise up toward the sky. Now there's a metaphor for the hopeless human condition of being eternally betwixt and between-part body/part mind, part matter/part Spirit, mortal yet Divine. Grounded (some would say trapped) in our finite bodies yet driven by infinite desires. Compromised from the getgo. Hybrids with no Elmer's to hold the pieces together.

On this first day of Christmas, let's aim for the highest. Remember Anusara yoga's first principle: Open to Grace. Step into the flow. Let go and let God. How would your day feel if you lived from that place? How would you feel?

The twelve steps to recovery start by telling us we are powerless and that our lives are unmanageable. Hate that, but the evidence is in. How much time do you devote to lost causes, real and imagined? Tilted any windmills lately? Chased any shadows? As for the "unmanageable" part: How's your household budget? Your shoe allowance? Your Am Ex bill? Your interest rate? Your diet? Your relationships at home and abroad? I'm already on my knees. Come on down! It's not so bad here, as long as you remember to look up!

By the way, in England today is Boxing Day-not as in the ring, once again!-but as in boxing up things to give to the poor. If your closet or kitchen is on your unmanageable list, today's the day to purge and do some good for another.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

YOU ARE THE TEACHER

No one wants to hear this! We love turning ourselves over the care of others. None of us really relishes the day-by-day, breath-by-breath awareness of self that constitutes real living. Many of us abhor responsibility, even if it’s just to ourselves. When God slips the rudder into our hands and asks us to grow up, to educate ourselves, and to steer our course, we instinctively look over our shoulders for the guiding hand of a parent, a mentor, a boss, a teacher. But the bare fact is that yoga will whittle away all externals and bring you deeply into contact with yourself.

Paradoxically, America is the land of rugged individualism, of renegades and rebels and revolutionaries. We wouldn’t be here if the first settlers had not struck boldly (and basically blindly) out across the waters in search of the Land of the Free.  We love self-made men, the pull yourself up by your bootstraps guys and gals; we celebrate innovators and experimenters. Thoreau setting out for a solitary year battling the elements at Walden Pond, Emerson expounding the virtues of “Self-Reliance,” Whitman incanting the “Song of Myself.”



Yet many of us don’t believe that we  can “do it.” The gap that yawns between our heroes and ourselves is as wide as that between our mundane lives and the snippets of celebrity “life” we pore over in People and Star. Just as we raise our antennae to pick up celeb cues on how to do our hair, our makeup, our workouts, our families, we are always looking for guides. Even the “self-help” industry assumes that we don’t know how to help ourselves and so need to follow in the footsteps of self-appointed gurus. These works are almost doomed to fail us in any profound transformation because it just doesn’t work to follow someone else’s dance steps. No two snowflakes alike—the answers are not out there or over there.

Before I put myself out of business, though, I do need to say that teachers are  helpful in yoga as in any other discipline. In the beginning, they are probably essential.  They introduce us to technique and thus save us fruitless effort and spare us injuries. I have been told that the guru’s function is to mirror back to us the best in ourselves. I would expand this to say the best, the worst, and everything in between.  However, the teacher is always drawing on his or her experience, and no matter how wide or deep someone has ranged, his or her path can never duplicate ours. I have noticed that students often gravitate either to teachers who are a lot like themselves in temperament, likes and dislikes, age, and life experience or to teachers who are almost their opposites. Both strategies make sense to me: a teacher like you will offer you a yoga that feels comfortable—but may potential slow your transformation.  A teacher unlike you allows you a chance to step outside of yourself altogether—which by definition constitutes a serious detour off the path.



No worries, however—you simply can’t get yoga “wrong.”  There are no mistakes, no missteps, only quirky, unpredictable, inevitable progress. Because no matter what the teacher is like, yoga will move you inside. And as you go deeper into yourself, your outer form will start to shift. And I’m not talking about more open hamstrings or a deeper backbend.  I’m talking about personality, the outer manifestation of our inner wiring. We often don’t notice the changes until we find ourselves switching careers, ending or starting relationships, eating or sleeping or dressing differently, giving up cigarettes or going raw, even becoming aware of and honoring our true sexual orientations.  Yoga wakes you up, not with the blare of a digital alarm clock but with a gradual unfolding.  You simply become more conscious.  I have had to gradually pull out of New York City over the last 10 years, as my awakened nervous system finds the jar of so much stimulation exhausting. Pre-yoga, I didn’t even notice it.  I’ve learned to speak the truth, almost at the same time that something is actually happening, instead of having painful delayed reactions because I went temporarily numb, in shock, at some unacceptable behavior. I laugh a lot more because my horizons have expanded to truly appreciate the foibles of our human Vanity Fair.

“Yoga is self-teaching and self-correcting,”  my teacher Danny Paradise always says. He understood early on the perils of guru-enslavement, took the teachings and made them his own. The hard truth is that no one can do yoga for you, no parent, no mentor, no guru, no teacher. Our guides along the path merely hold the space for us, give us license to roam around the quarters of our own psyches. Along the way, we confront what we love, hate, ignore, and deny about ourselves. It all gets tossed up from the depths into the foam of our attention.  With this abundance comes freedom, wiggle room, options, choice! Shaken out of the chains of habit, we have room to grow. Of course we will stumble and err, but is our fear of “failure” so great that we abandon the path? I hope not. If you are reading this blog, the answer is no. It’s too late, you are already a work in progress. I urge you to continue to step out of the box and into your own skin, plunge deep into your own heart and mind and offer up what you find. Your beam of light will light the way for future yogis. And so it goes, from teacher to student  . . .


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

WHAT'S WITH THE INJURY? (Part 3)


So that’s some about how we get injured.  More intriguing, but way more elusive, is why.  

“Injuries are signposts on the path home,” one teacher sagely pronounced. And this is true. If you can figure out how you got an injury, you can figure out how to heal it, and thus take your body “home” to good health.  Alas, it’s often not so clear how we got where we are—how to read those signposts.  



When I was nursing my first shoulder injury, which lasted through all of 1996 and halfway through 1997, I went to the best yoga teachers and massage therapists and body workers I could find, just trying to get a diagnosis. The answers were so vast and varied that I joked that I could fill a book with them and title it “What was the Question??” because the answers were truly apples and oranges, unrelated and even contradictory.  Everyone had an opinion, but none of that collected wisdom was easing my pain. Were they not listening? Did the sum total of human knowledge fall short of my specific affliction? How complicated could it be? And the months dragged on and on . . .

Of course, being basically self-absorbed, I assumed that I was the only one with an injury.  I judged myself defective, flawed, less than. I was either weak, or stupid, or both. And the more my injury pulled me away from practice, or from the practice the rest of the group was doing, the worse I felt about myself. Solitude is the quicksand of self-esteem, and the lonelier I got, the more momentous my injury appeared. I could see no way out. I was not convinced that I deserved a way out.



Several years later, at an Anusara Yoga Therapeutics Training, John Friend asked the group how many had injuries. In a roomful of maybe 100 teachers, some 80 hands shot up.  I was shocked.  We who supposedly knew the most about yoga, its technique and its healing powers, were the true walking wounded.  Gather teachers for practice or a meal or an airport layover, and sooner or later the conversation will wind around to somebody’s injury. Often carefully, even painstakingly diagnosed and rationalized, many of these injuries nonetheless mysteriously persist beyond reason.

At that was when it dawned on me that injuries are much more than physical; in fact, the physical now strikes me as the symptom of a deeper cause.  Carolyn Myss has written deeply and extensively about the psychosomatic component of illness in Why People Don’t Heal—And How They Can. I want only here to put forth my personal observations about the weird ways that injuries can colonize our bodies, our minds, and our spirits.

“How can I explain personal pain?” wailed Iggy Pop in one 1980s song. 



When we can’t help, or get help for, our injuries, our pain, it’s easy to feel misunderstood, terminally unique. The Isolation Pit is just one short step from this advanced form of self-pity.

Monday, August 29, 2011

WHAT’S WITH THE INJURY? (Part Two)

“All injury is the result of bad breathing,” Ashtanga master  Shri K. P. Pattabhi Jois used to say. Rooted solidly in the breath rather than alignment school, this is exactly what we would expect him to say. But I have pondered the depth of this remark over the years, even as I continued to acquire more and more knowledge of anatomy.  And I think he’s right. If we stop breathing or allow our breath to become shallow, irregular, or labored, we are energetically “off’—trying too hard or not giving enough to what we are doing.

“All injury is the result of greed or inattention,” opined another teacher. This also strikes me as true, for the very same reasons. If we are “greedy,” in a rush to push our practice along, we are bound to strain or pull something sooner or later. A friend once told me that when he was young, he tried growing carrots from seed in a little pot. When the first green shoots started to sprout up, he was so eager to help the plant along that he tugged and tugged at it, eventually ripping it right up out of the soil.  A lot of us have done the same thing in practice. I have strained and even torn muscles trying to build strength I didn’t have or openness beyond my means--most embarrassingly, of course, when I was doing so to earn the teacher’s attention and respect.

Inattention is just as dangerous as over-efforting. When we check out, space out, unplug from what we are doing, we sail into the open seas of mishap and misadventure. Yoga asanas are intricate, whole-body endeavors that require a high degree of awareness. If we cannot muster and sustain the “many-pointed” attention required to ensure that each part is doing its part, something’s gonna give! This same divided awareness makes us trip on uneven pavement, slip on ice, bump fenders, or shut the car door on a finger.




Being generally stiff Americans (in contrast to the genetically more supple Asian and Southeast Asian body types), we collect many of our domestic yoga injuries  by stretching muscles and joints beyond their current capacities. This well-intended striving has roots in the common Western misconception that yoga is about flexibility, “stretching in Sanskrit” as my philosophy teacher sardonically calls it. Whereas yoga is traditionally about cultivating and channeling the flow of energy, and in today’s modern anatomy about creating strength, flexibility and balance, many still feel that only morphing into human noodles will make them good yogis. So we tug and we pull on the tender shoots of our often mature limbs, forcing the growth to happen a little faster than God wills. Being culturally short on santosha (contentment), the second of yoga’s ethical precepts, we strain against the walls of what is.

Of course, some yoga injuries also arise from falls, knockdowns, and collisions. I have seen students tumble out headstand or handstand. I have seen others knocked over by someone  else kicking up into handstand in a crowded room. I know of more than a few teachers who have been kicked—in the head, in the eye, in the chest-- by enthusiastic yet undisciplined students. These sorts of injuries, while no less physically damaging, have I feel less to teach us beyond the common sense of clearing adequate personal space around you so that you are a risk to no one beyond yourself.

But the vast majority of injuries on the mat are not one-day blowouts but creep up on you. Not “one false move,” these afflictions arise from doing the same moves or postures over and over again in poor alignment. My teacher often says that even one-quarter of an inch off is enough to cause harm.  The medical world calls these injuries “Repetitive Stress Injuries, “ or RSIs, and off the mat they include everything from tennis elbow to handmaid’s knee (inflammation under the kneecaps from prolonged kneeling on hard floors) to today’s seemingly ubiquitous Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, evil offspring of hours hunched over computer keyboards.

As with their RSI forebears, yoga’s repetitive injuries now comprise a taxonomy of their own. Among the most common:

  • Rotator cuff injuries from dropped and rounded shoulders trying to support the weight of the body (think chataranga, the yoga pushup, and “jump throughs” and “jump backs,” transitions from down dog to sitting and back)
  • Shoulder tendonitis, same causes
  • Carpal tunnel and other wrist  irritations, inflammations and cysts, which also arise from poor shoulder alignment when placing weight on the hands (down dog, chataranga, up dog are common scenes of this crime)
  • Meniscus strains and tears: damage to the cartilage of the knees from aggressively externally (and sometimes internally) rotating the joint when the hip is not yet open enough
  • “Yoga butt”: a strain or tear of the hamstring at its attachment to the sitting bone; also a strain/inflammation of the hamstring tendon or the bursa at the same spot, usually the result of aggressive forward bending while the muscles are slack
  • Groin (adductor) strains or tears from opening the legs wider than God intended
  • Bulging or herniated disks in the lower back, from pushing forward bends when hamstrings are tight
  • Sometimes “receding” vertebrae in the low back from using this part of the spin as the hinge for backbends (instead of the more stable upper back)
  • Neck injuries from putting weight on the head/neck with improper neck curvature (too flat or too curved), usually in headstand and shoulder stand



    I’ve had my share of these, including rotator cuffs (at least twice!) and wrist compression (dropping back from standing into wheel), and some others more related to my specific anatomical type. I have made outside injuries worse through yoga: in 2001, following a bike accident that damaged the ligament on my inner right knee, I aggravated the problem through excessively internally rotating the knee. This combo of injury and misalignment then generated a Baker’s cyst behind the knee that made it impossible to fully fold the joint. Eight years later I’m still nursing a finicky knee.  In 1996 I fell off a steep curb in Mysore, India, smack onto my bent my right ankle. Continuing to practice lotus and other variations through the pain, I further stretched the already strained ligaments, eventually destabilizing the entire joint. Along with the ligament damage came nerve damage, so my foot and ankle could no longer sense changes in the surfaces beneath me. For months afterward my ankle would “buckle” under me while walking on uneven pavement, painfully reinjuring the ankle as well as making me look like a drunken clod. Years  and hours of physical therapy later, I will still cross the street rather than walk on bricks, cobblestones, or other “risky” surfaces. Just this past summer, I strained my infraspinatus or teres minor (small rotator cuff muscles at the back of the shoulder) lifting a heavy bag across my carseat. This in turn caused my chest muscles to contract in the front, pulling on the biceps attachment. As usual I practiced away, thinking yoga would help, to no avail. Then one day I caught my reflection in a mirrored studio as I lowered into chataranga—oh, dread humiliation! Shrugged shoulders, bowed elbows, sunken belly—could this be me?! Whether I was unconsciously trying to avoid injury-related pain or whether this sorry alignment contributed to the injury, I’ll never know. But here I am now, 16 years into daily yoga practice, doing “girl’s pushup” style chataranga, lowering to my knees first and going super-slow like a beginner.


    Tuesday, August 9, 2011

    WHATS WITH THE INJURY?

    Yoga is widely touted, historically and today, as a miraculous holistic path to physical, energetic, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.  The scriptures are full of extravagant promises: illnesses and aging will disappear, we can live forever! And they don’t stop there. We can cultivate paranormal powers like inflating to the size of the universe, shrinking to the size of an atom, being in two places at once, seeing into the future.




    If yoga is so good for us,  why are so many getting injured? And how?

    How  is the easy part.  As a “science” in the Western sense, yoga is in its infancy. Ayurveda, the Indian traditional medicine, did not begin its study of the body by cutting it open. Dissections are a Western inspiration. Instead, Indian doctors explored the body experientially, learning what they could from visible markers like complexion and build and more subtle indicators like the pulse one can feel by pressing on someone’s wrist. The yogis of the past looked for similar signs, only on an even higher degree of subtlety. They explored with they experienced as internal energy flows, which they categorized as 10 forms of prana or the life force. These included upward flows and downward flows but also pranas devoted exclusively to sneezing, burping, and other spasmodic eruptions. The yoga postures we know began as attempts to direct, redirect, and channel energy—not as a spiritual form of physical fitness.





    Thus, the yogis did not know about muscles and bones, the central nervous system, the cerebellum. Yogic “anatomy” instead mapped out 72,000 nadis (energy pathways similar to the Chinese meridians), chakras (spinning wheels located along the central nadi that govern everything from posture to personality), the pranas, and three bandhas (locks that direct or stem the flow of prana). It was only in the late 20th century, thanks to the singular, tireless, and exacting empirical research of Indian teacher B.K.S. Iyengar, that we came to view yoga asana from the perspective of Western structural well being. Iyengar, though trained by master Indian yogi Krishnamacharya, also served at one point in his youth as a medical model. He stood on stage in only a loincloth while a medical professor pointed out bones and muscles and their actions to his students. Iyengar picked up this knowledge and applied it to asanas, especially to the frustrations and limitations that many of his students were encountering in trying to fold in half, touch their toes, open their chests, or stand on their heads and hands. He created props (see “Props: Who Needs Them?”) like blocks and straps and blankets that would allow students to do modified forms of the poses safely and effectively while moving toward the happy day when their hips, shoulders, hamstrings, pecs, and hip flexors would open or their hands, arms, and upper back would grow strong.





    Sadly, much of the yoga practiced today remains ignorant of Iyengar’s breakthroughs, or perhaps sees them as irrelevant. After all, the postures were initially created to facilitate the flow of prana, not to stack bones, and many yoga systems continue to see breath, not alignment, as the essence of yoga. The breath traditions view alignment as secondary at best, at worst as a mental preoccupation that distracts students from deep breathing. Even old photos of Iyengar doing asanas with wildly hyperextending joints and other anatomical distortions seem to contradict the very alignment instructions he gives students!





    So, many of us continue to practice perilously ignorant of both the physical benefits and the risks of asanas. As in most fields, it’s how rather than what you do that matters. The same pose in optimal alignment can build strength, lengthen muscles, and improve balance—or feed old unconscious patterns that continue to weaken and destabilize the whole.

    And even if we receive good instruction, applying the science of yoga is an art that can take a lifetime to refine.  Indeed, the yogic texts of the past frequently admonish us not to practice without the guidance of a skilled teacher. Don’t try this at home! And the more subtle the practice, the greater the danger: pranayama, or breathwork is especially dangerous. Yoga teacher trainings often reinforce these fears. I have heard more than one story of some poor soul who had a psychotic break while experimenting too freely with the various breathing practices and never made it back from the ashram. Even applying physical alignment principles to our own bodies is tricky business; we think we have it right, yet it’s damn hard to know, as none of us can see ourselves clearly. I’ve injured myself more than once playing the role of self-teacher. A teacher or fellow yogi can often steer us clear of imbalances, torques, dropped shoulders, collapsed waistlines, protruding thighbones, and other distortions.


    Saturday, July 30, 2011

    Balancing Act

    Black/white. Hot/cold. In/out. On/off. We live in a bipolar world, much of it our own creation (though Nature herself has been known to pull some pretty extreme moves). At the most basic level, our technology from Morse code to computer programs encrypts the universe as dot/dash, zero/one.

     We seem drawn to extremes, happy to swing from the end of the pendulum like monkeys from trees, passing through the middle ground with time for no more than a backward glance.

    I don’t know why this is so.  It does make the world a simpler place to live: if we can divide people, as a grad-school friend of mine did, into angels and devils, it’s easy to choose sides. If we are blue or red, we always know how to vote—we don’t have to ponder, to reconsider, to examine the many shades of purple. We know who is right and who is wrong.


    But extremes also cause great suffering. Ask anybody who lives in the desert, where days are scorching hot and nights frigid. Watch a small child: giddy with joy one moment, wailing as though her whole small world were crashing down around her in the next. Remember what it feels like when you have a fever, the strenuous oscillation between overheated and chilled. Look what climate change has wrought:  a world of dramatic tsunamis and earthquakes and floods, as our planet tries desperately to regain equilibrium.

    And yet we persist—overworking, then collapsing; overeating, then fasting; frenetically socializing, then hiding out. Exhausting beyond all reason. And of course, we bring this same imbalance into our yoga. Many of us dip our toes into practice, then dive in, get hooked, get fanatical about a class/teacher/practice, and either injure ourselves or suck the joy out of it all with our sheer intensity. We practice when we are sick, tired, jetlagged or just plain old distracted. We push our bodies to do things they were not yet meant to do. We self-combust, we burn out. And then we lapse out.






    Despite appearances, yoga is not about extremes—at least not the “householder” yoga practiced by those of us with kids, jobs, mortgages and other paraphernalia of earthly existence. The austerities of renunciate life (celibacy, restrictive diet, rigorous cleansing practices, standing all day on one foot or with one arm raised, onerous rituals) are reserved for swamis (monks or nuns) who devote their entire existence to the path.

    Yoga for ordinary humans should restore us to balance, not throw us further off course. Anusara Yoga’s Universal Principles of Alignment make this possible throughout our material and energetic body-fields. Each principle has a counter-principle or complement: rolling the upper inner thighs in, back, and apart paired with scooping the tailbone; “puffing the kidneys” (filling out the back waist) with drawing the shoulder blades more onto the back to open the chest; drawing legs and arms into sockets while also extending back out.










    The canon of postures also returns us to center. Backbends counteract our tendency to stoop and round forward, while forward bends stretch tight hamstrings and buttocks and relieve compression in the lower back.  Twisting right and left ensures that we don’t indulge our personal inner-body rotations (tendency to turn one way and not the other). Inversions flip us upside-down, taking a load off our legs and feet and challenging our arms and upper back to join the game.

    Yoga, essentially a solitary and inward-turning endeavor, also counteracts our overextended, extroverted, chronically plugged-in lifestyle. Disconnected from Ibook/pod/pad, from Facebook and Twitter and Googleplus, we confront ourselves. I often tell my students that they can learn everything they need to know about themselves within the confines of their sticky mats. Cheaper if not easier than therapy, this self-scrutiny separates us from the onslaught of images and opinions coming at us from outside and invites us to explore those that arise from within. (Take note: if you are new, or even newish, to practice, it’s going to take awhile for the true inner voices to be heard beneath the hubbub of recorded messages you’ve been absorbing from outside throughout your life. Twenty years into my practice, I’m still struggling to distinguish the two.)

    And how much practice is “balanced” for any one person? I reached a point with my Ashtanga practice where I had bent my whole life around practice, going to bed at 9:00 so I could awaken predawn, plough through a two-and-a-half-hour practice that left me limp as a noodle by mid-afternoon. I lost touch with friends who kept more “normal” New York schedules. I practiced so hard I probably created more tension than I dispelled.  On the other hand, too many hours/days away from my mat and, well, suffice it to say I’m not good company! Edgy, contracted, rigid, disconsolate are just a few of the adjectives that come to mind. These days I try to get some yoga in every day, but “some” can mean 15 minutes or four hours. I’m no longer rigid about when and where. I’ve come to trust my inner gauge of when I’m level, on beam, and when I’m off. And this balancing act has translated into my life off the mat. I’ve found happiness (yes!) in the middle ground. Come join me—there’s plenty of space! It’s only at the edges where things get crowded.

    Friday, July 15, 2011

    PROPS: WHO NEEDS THEM?

    If you grew up (yogawise) using props, you may be surprised to learn that the props we know and love are less than 50 years old. For many, yoga would not be yoga without: mats, straps, blocks, blankets, chairs, sand bags, bolsters, and other more elaborate paraphernalia (think: the wall or ropes and rings, resembling medieval torture implements) installed in some studios).

    To me, one of the beauties of yoga, and one of its greatest draws, is the fact that it doesn’t require special equipment, special clothes, specific weather conditions, mountains, waters, plains, or trails, flights or drives, hotels or resorts. It doesn’t require a backyard or even a roof over your head. But people like stuff, and they like to go places to do stuff with other people, and companies like to make money by producing and selling stuff and by moving people around and charging them for doing so. So, we now have not only props with legitimate uses in the studio, but also designer mats (last I heard, which was a while ago, Gucci was offering a $1500 yoga mat), fancy mat bags, calendars and posters and statues. Seventh Avenue yogi-fashionistas have contributed designer yoga clothes; a store in the West Village sells yoga-inspired jewelry.

    But to get back to the beginning. B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the premier yogis of the twentieth century, is the genius behind yoga props—though I don’t think he had a product line in mind when he first experimented with bricks and blankets. As Iyengar labored to bring his contortionist yogic prowess down to the level of mere humans, he realized that most of us don’t just bend in half (forward or backwards) like flexi-straws. He saw broad-brush patterns: tight hamstrings, rounded shoulders, creaky joints, cobwebs in the hip sockets. To make certain poses possible for students, he invented simple props: straps to loop around the feet in seated forward bends, when touching the toes was out of reach. Bricks and books to place under a hand in triangle pose. Blankets to tip the pelvis forward in seated poses. Bolsters to lie back on to open the chest. The yoga mat itself was reputedly “invented” by Angela Farmer. Studying with the Iyengars in Pune, India, she found the slippery concrete floor challenging in the warm, humid studio. So, she cut a piece of industrial rubber to her size and voila! The sticky mat was born.


    Research confirms that drinking gives you the same benefits yoga does!!!



    The evolution of props from these humble beginnings has not kept pace with the progress of other arenas, such as technology and medical research. In fact, props look pretty much the same now as they did 50 years ago. We still have mats made of environmentally suspect blends of rubber, plastic, and petroleum by-products, coated at the factory with noxious, slippery glaze that mitigates their ability to be “sticky” until run through the wash. Bikram students have mat-sized towels to absorb the skid in 105-degree studios; students practicing in Mysore, India favor rough-weave cotton blankets given to prison inmates, and Yoga Paws has created little socks and gloves with nonskid treads that eliminate the need for mats at all. In a latter-day effort to recoup eco-sensitive integrity, Gaiam and others are making “organic” mats from jute and other bio-sustainable plants. Bricks and books have morphed first into solid wood blocks, then hollow wood blocks, and finally foam blocks (once again of dubious environmental value). Straps have metal C-rings and D-rings and plastic buckles that only a NASA scientist could maneuver into place. Chairs are still chairs. Blankets are still blankets (though, at least in the Iyengar tradition, the amount of attention given to how students are to fold the blankets borders on the insane/compulsive).




    Given that props are here to stay, who needs them? We all do, at some point. Props extend our limbs (blocks under hands or feet, straps to join hands or loop around feet), provide traction (sticky mats), enhance alignment (blankets under the butt) and awareness (having a block to extend a foot toward can remind us to extend evenly through the four corners of the foot), provide support (under the thighs in hip openers, reclining on bolsters). Recently I’ve been inventing and cataloging ways to use props to make poses harder—thus lifting the stigma of props as remedial.




    But they can also hold us back. Students get inexplicably attached to props. This probably stems from our innate resistance to change; we tend to cling to what we know and to assume that what we heard first is good for all time. I know this because, as a teacher who views props as training wheels, as temporary solutions until a student gains the flexibility/stability/awareness to sustain good alignment prop-free, my frequent attempts to remove students’ props invariably meet with scowls and distrustful glares. I have disturbed homeostasis, I have not let well enough alone. I have tacitly asked someone to step into the unknown. They don’t feel ready, and can’t understand why I think they are.

    Nonetheless, I persevere. Because props used beyond their use are worse than training wheels: they are like asking a growing child to wearing shoes they’ve outgrown. They can make you contort and compensate in ways that cause more problems. It’s as bad as contorting to hold a pose without props when you really need them.

    Props also hold you at a certain plateau, in a certain geometrical configuration—and maybe not even one that’s right for your size and proportions. Because in the world of mass-produced props, one size fits all. You can’t order a 6B or a 34L, a P or an M or an XL. But even if you got the size right in the first place, your body is going to outgrow it as you gain strength, flexibility, and balance. BKS Iyengar realized this early on. In teaching himself to do back handsprings (vipariti chakrasana), he began by lifting his feet up off the ground on two telephone books. He then removed a page from each telephone book each day, until he could make the jump without any artificial lift.




    Hands-on adjustments are my preferred alternative to proppage. When I touch a student to enhance flexibility, I can feel the innate degree of resistance in their muscles on any given day, and adjust accordingly. As a student gets stronger or steadier in a balance, I can loosen my hold. Touch also allows for energetic transmission, that intangible “hit” or slow, steady increase in well-being you experience during massage or in a loved one’s embrace. And it creates a connection between student and teacher that goes way beyond words. That said, many teachers hesitate to touch, or avoid touch altogether—either because they doubt their own ability to adjust intelligently, or because they have never received great adjustments themselves, or both. For the gift of giving and receiving confident and effect physical adjustments, I remain grateful for my ten years of Ashtanga practice, where the only communication between teacher and student came through touch. Woe be to yogis who miss this bliss.

    Everything we do on the mat has repercussions off the mat. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing this blog. When we cling to a prop beyond its use, it conveys something else to our internal wiring: the signal “I’m stuck, and I choose to be.”

    Tuesday, July 12, 2011

    SPACE & TIME: IT'S ALL RELATIVE!

    We all grapple with space and time—we feel crowded, we feel exposed, we’re rushed, time drags. These apparently inexorable forces shape our days and offer the seemingly fixed ground of our lives. They rule, we follow.

    I’ve been thinking about time a lot lately, especially here in the lovely Hamptons summer. Not only do I cherish this time of year and the privilege of immersing myself in one of the most spectacular corners of the planet; I look forward to summer as I time to catch up on writing (hence, this blog!), reading, and planning the best for the busy “school year” to come. Alas, it is already July and I have done precious little of any of this. Where did the time “go?”



    Alternately, when I am on one of my extended teaching tours in China, with seven- or eight-hour working days running four or five weeks straight, time can drag. I start feeling homesick, counting the days till I board the final plane home. As a kid, my ever-restless mind (yes, it started early!) would reach states of near-panic on long car trips: “Are we there yet, Daddy, huh, Daddy huh?” I’d wail, my nose pressed to the glass of the station wagon’s rear window. Each schoolday brought the excruciating clock-watching countdown, which dragged every slower toward 3:00 release. To this day, I cannot teach in a room with clocks, whose presence seems to mete out my time as T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock measured his life in coffee spoons. Depending on what’s going on in the room, time alternately drags and rushes, pushing and pulling me off course and trifling with my game plan. Visit my home: you will see that when I am fast at work, all clocks are turned backwards and all electronic devices with LED clocks unplugged. I need to slip into “non-time,” or slide out of time to be fully present where I am and completely engrossed in what I am doing.



    Space can mess with us too. My New York City apartment seems quite spacious until I return to East Hampton, where I expand into square footage way beyond my needs. For the record, my Manhattan shoebox is shorter than my dad’s Suburban: stretching a mere 17 feet at its longitude while the monster SUV consumes a generous 18! Then I visit Tokyo, where hotel “rooms” can consist of mere shelves (think the couchettes or sleeping berths on old-fashioned trains): domestic living reduced to the space required to lie down. One of the reasons I like the Hamptons (and Manhattan) is the small scale: within a stone’s throw of here are ocean beaches, farmland, marinas, bay beaches, nature preserves, slick retail villages, aimless highway drive-bys, and even our token shopping center (quaintly titled Bridgehampton Commons—as though it were truly a place where all could gather). In the city you can traverse an astounding range of neighborhoods and cultures within a few square miles. When wanderlust seizes me, I often do a loop from my West Village studio across to the East Village (1980s hipsters supplanting Eastern European immigrants) down to the Lower East Side (90s hipsters edging out old-time Jewish dairy restaurants and deep-discount retail),Little Italy (getting littler every day), Chinatown (spilling over to engulf the Italians), Soho (Disney-fied high-end retail having replaced art and artists having replaced sweatshop factories and warehouses and the tenements of those who worked in them). Thus, I get to enjoy the passage of time as well as the clash of spaces. Beats going through security screenings and transferring your beloved toiletries to 3-oz bottles in search of the exotic.



    Conversely, beam me down onto the Utah desert and I succumb to agoraphobia. Too much space, not enough markers. You can’t even tell how fast you’re driving, as endless expanses warp our sense of time. As Einstein said, it’s all relative. And even amid the massive mountains of the American West it’s possible to feel claustrophobic: unless you at the top of the highest peak, you’re basically in an enormous salad bowl with opaque sides. You can look up but never out the way we ocean-lovers do. Last year I visited Tiananmen Square, infamous now as the site of the 1989 massacre of student protesters. What strikes the eye, however, is how it’s really possible for a grand public space to be too big. In erecting this massive plaza (or razing whatever was there before to create the square), Mao inadvertently dis-integrated the collection of government (read: power) structures framing the space. They’re just too far apart to hold any collective impact. The designers of the extensive “Forbidden City” proved much more adept at the sliding scale game: this ingenious sequence of palaces and courtyards contracts and expands in ways that take your breath away at each new vista.



    So where am I going with all this? Back to yoga, of course, or at least to the Tantric philosophy behind Anusara Yoga. The Tantrikas figured out centuries ago that space and time are elastic—if not physically, then at least in our experience of them. They grouped space and time under the “psychic” category of the kunchikas, and reminded seekers that basically, it’s all in your head. I think we all know this intuitively: time flies when you’re having fun. Hours on the beach zip by, minutes doing my taxes craawwwwl. We know this culturally: “social space”—the distance between two strangers deemed acceptable—varies widely around the globe. In public places—bars and restaurants, planes, and yes, beaches--Americans tend to be loud, colonizing more than their share of the communal turf. It’s no wonder we have foreign wars going on in places we don’t belong—our culture seems to think, as the Brits once did, that we and our ways of doing things are welcome anywhere.



    Then there’s “cyber-space”, that intangible, immeasurable realm where most of us spend way too much of our precious time. Listen to the words computer geeks and Internet maestros have come up with to create the feeling that we are somehow reaching others across this no man’s land: we “link,”, we “friend,” we “connect,”, we “follow.” Whereas in fact the only actual contact is between our fingers and the keyboard (sorry, touchpad), the true space that between our eyeballs and the screen.

    The good news (and in Tantra, there is always a bright side!): you can shift how you experience space and time, and this is a key part of our yoga. Jammed into a crowded subway car at rush hour? Close your eyes and explore the inner terrain.

    Feeling rushed? Put down the to-do list and focus on the task at hand. Time dragging? Reconsider the people you hang with and the work you do. In my experience, boredom triggers the slowdown, so chances are you’re just not fully engaged in whatever’s going on.

    As my teacher Douglas Brooks says, become a master of time (and I would add space)—don’t let them master you. Tantra has no patience for victimhood, but instead asks how you can make the most of what you’ve got. The clock is ticking . . . don’t let me keep you from what you love!

    Namaste,

    Lois