Sunday, April 7, 2013

Moving on

Amid conflicting reports of what is happening with Google's blogs, I have started up my blog on a new site. I have posted my own material from this blog there, some of it reworked. I cannot move the kind replies you have posted here. I have saved them, though, and will post them at the new site with your OK, if you don't want to re-post them yourself. I hope to see you there: I have just posted a new item on my student Wanda and her late mother, Mildred.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Head balance

Head balance is a favorite
among many of my students, as
Robin demonstrates here.

When I was a child, I wouldn’t do a cartwheel. I didn’t like somersaults. I detested being upside down. It terrified me.

Karin O’Bannon taught me my first head balance. I was 38 years old and a few days into her teacher training. Truth to be told, if I had known there were headstands in yoga, I never would have walked into a yoga class.

Some frightened students ask me, what’s the point of it? The same question might be applied to asana in general. What do the poses have to do with yoga? And if yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind, head balance in particular might seem antithetical to yoga.

BKS Iyengar offers a concise explanation in his Light on the Yoga Sutras of PataƱjali: “Asana, for example, offers a controlled battleground for the process of conflict and creation. The aim is to recreate the process of human evolution in our own internal environment.  . . . The creative struggle is experienced in headstand: as we challenge ourselves to improve the position, fear of falling acts to inhibit us. If we are rash, we fall, if timorous, we make no progress. But if the interplay of the two forces is observed, analysed and controlled, we can achieve perfection.”

Keep in mind that PataƱjali defines perfection in asana as effortlessness, not in terms of its physical attributes.

I knew none of this the day I faced my first head balance.

That day in 1997, Karin noted that some people were terrified of headstand.  Shrinking inside, I told her that I was one of those who were terrified. She taught me the finger interlace, the placement of the head, the actions of sirsasana. Then she helped me upside down, with a wall behind me for support. After quite a few hyperventilating breaths, I realized that the world was not going to come to an end. After my breathing slowed, she assisted me down, and asked what I thought. I answered without thinking: “That was great!”

It was six months before I tried it outside of class. It was several years before I could hear a teacher announce “sirsasana” without feeling dread. Then, for years, the pose was the mainstay of my practice.

Of late, head balance has become ground again for the creative process Iyengar described. Now I face, not fear of falling, but fear of injury. Now, again, it has become that battleground for my fears, as I seek to perform the pose without injury, and yet to progress as well. 

No matter. When I'm in the pose, the fluctuations of thought do cease, I focus completely on the interplay of forces. This is the epitome of yoga.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Laugh, be present

Marit easily lifts into headstand,
practicing regularly at home. 
Marit’s story could be most any beginner’s. She came to her first class immensely unsure of herself. She had good reasons to be scared. She had suffered a small stroke and couldn’t stand in mountain pose without falling over. 

She brought a strong asset, however: her willingness to laugh.

She was in her early 60s. A friend had urged her to come. She arrived with a big smile and very little expectations. After more than 10 years of regular class attendance and home practice, her headstands fill fellow students with awe. She started practicing headstands regularly at home because they can help with motion sickness. Now she can go on a cruise, with nary a moment of nausea.

With help, she can kick up into handstand. 

She can step wide for utthita trikonasana, extended triangle pose. Like all of us, she may wobble. Like many of us, sometimes she sits down abruptly. And laughs.

Mountain pose? Piece of cake.

Of late, she has been getting her husband, once several inches taller than she is, to try a bit of yoga at home. He might even come to class, she says. And then she laughs.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Satya, what is

Behind all the physical excuses, the true excuses hide.
It took me years to learn
to do a handstand, and now,
again, I'm too afraid to do it.
Fear of looking silly in front of other people.
Fear of not being as good as other people.
Fear of the unknown.
Fear of trying and failing.
Fear of not having any more excuses.

Seven years after I took my first yoga teacher training classes, I told my teacher I was considering quitting my management job as a low-level editor at a newspaper with a good paycheck to become a full-time yoga teacher. Karin O’Bannon no longer lived in the area, not even in the country, and I had tried to discuss this with her two weeks earlier and had not found the courage. I knew she would give me an answer in the best interest of yoga students. I trusted her honesty, and feared it.

Given my last chance before she left again, I hesitantly brought up my, not dream, driving impulse. She gave me her direct gaze, referred to in a magazine article as the “eye of the tiger”, and said a bit witheringly, “I’m surprised it took you this long to figure it out.”

I told her I just hadn’t had the courage. She gave me another withering gaze and said she knew few who acted with such courage. I was shocked. How could I be considered courageous when I was afraid of everything? She delivered a message that I have encountered many times since. It was new to me then. Now it has a sort of “duh” quality. Being courageous isn’t being without fear, it’s acting in the face of fear.

When I quit my job, it meant walking away from all the “if onlys” of my life, walking away from the obstacles to santosa, contentment, accepting complete responsibility for my joy and my sorrow.

Defined as acting in the face of fear, I had to admit, I had courage. 

So do we all, truth to be told. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

No more excuses

Reasons people give saying they can’t do yoga.

--I’m too stiff.
--I have arthritis.
--I’m overweight.
--I have a bad back.
--I’m too old.
--I’m a guy.

Let me describe the people in the picture here. 

Their ages range from 42 to 82. One is blind. One has scoliosis and deals with chronic pain from post-polio syndrome. One has fibromyalgia. One’s a guy.

Let me describe their teacher.

I am 54. I took my first yoga class in 1995, shortly after I learned I had advanced osteoarthritis in my left hip. I had been told at age 25 that I had the knees of an 80-year-old. I had my first joint surgery a few months later. It left me more crippled in the knees than before. I had suffered from crippling back pain since I was 18.

By the time I took that first class, I could walk about a quarter mile. I could go up and down stairs only with assistance. I had to use my hands to move my feet onto the gas pedal and brake to drive to that first class. I sat on the floor and burst into tears from the pain. My teacher gave me a stack of towels to sit on and I could stop crying. An hour and 15 minutes later, the back pain was gone.

I began studying how to teach and then began teaching in 1997.  Fifteen months later I had to have that left hip replaced. The doctor told me I would have been there much sooner if it hadn’t been for the yoga. Three months later, I had the second hip replaced. My recovery period: five weeks. At week four after each replacement, I was walking up and down Mt. Rubidoux, a 3.5-mile round trip on a big hill in my hometown. My doctor also attributed that recovery pace to the yoga. The doctor also noted that my entire spine was degenerating, as were all my joints.

In 2004, although my back pain was mostly gone, I was aware that damage existed and I had sharp pain in my neck. I had X-rays and then an MRI done. The lowest disc in my spine was completely gone; next one up was half gone; I had ground bone away from my lowest vertebra; I had bulging discs and bone spurs in my neck. I set to work on the neck problems in my yoga practice and the pain was gone in about two weeks.

When I started practicing yoga and for years after I started teaching, I couldn’t come anywhere close to touching my toes. I couldn’t do backbends, I couldn’t do forward bends, my standing poses were narrow and wobbly. Even as a teacher, I felt frightened in most poses all the time. I still do.

What got me going in yoga: pain.

What kept me there: hope. And that's what keeps us all coming back. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Detaching from pain

Much is written relative to Yoga Sutras 1.12, on practice and detachment, and 1.15, on renunciation as detachment from desires.  Most writings deal with how to detach from pleasure. Perhaps this is because commentators view that as the harder thing to do. I don't agree and I wish more had been written about detaching from pain. I could use some help on that. Pleasure is fleeting, and most of us know that. Pain seems so much more enveloping and hard to escape. And maybe that is the problem, that we try to escape pain. This is far from trying to detach.

This topic came up while e-mailing about a yoga workshop on grieving that was to include a discussion on "embracing change". My correspondent felt this meant accepting change "happily or willingly". There is a place between being happy about change or hating it. Neither is detachment. I think that the trick, the pratipaksa, contrary thought, to hating change is not to embrace it, but to find equanimity within it. That seems like a good thing to aim for, given change happens, no matter our will.

I think back to some things Manouso Manos said during a workshop in March in Los Angeles about luck and free will and our lives' involving both. That to do yoga, we must "show up". This is our act of free will. In the midst of luck, good or bad, or change, good or bad, we can act from free will. This seems to me to say not that we are embracing change or pain or pleasure, but that we exercise the will to exist within ourselves in the midst of it. This is the path to santosa.