The Beauty of Being Very Quiet

Hendrick Jansz ter Brugghen (or Terbrugghen) (1588 – 1629) Old Man Writing

When I was six or seven, my parents went on vacation and left my brother and me with the German ironing lady and her husband, neither of whom spoke English.  We lived in Augsburg then, on an army base, and employed a local woman to wash, fold, and iron our clothes.  She also served as a babysitter from time to time.

man-writing-with-quill-pen

The ironing lady and her husband were elderly and unaccustomed to rambunctious children.  They lived in a small apartment stuffed with large, dark, polished wooden furniture.   One day I was sitting at the dining table with the ironing lady’s husband, who was writing something with a fountain pen.  I am not sure how it happened, but my brother was probably napping and I had decided to be both very quiet and very alert.  I became utterly absorbed in the experience of listening to the sound of the pen scratching on the parchment, gazing at the old man’s mild face, and sensing my slight weight on the chair in the atmosphere of that cozy, small space.  I tasted the flavor of the air, smelled the ink and the old man and the wood and the carpet, and felt a thrilling, exquisite pleasure of curiosity about everything that I was sensing from moment to moment, second to second.

I did not want it ever to end, and sat utterly still, rapt in what I knew to be both profound and ordinary.  It was the first time in my life that I realized that simply sitting and paying attention could be enjoyable.  It was so easy to be patient, so wonderful and beautiful to experience watching and listening.  I felt as though there was a powerful, fragile tension between myself and the old man, and that my very stillness and quietness was part of his writing and thinking and breathing there, across the table from me, the table that I could barely see over, as though in that room at that moment a fantastic energy sprang alive and palpable and real and exciting.

This was a moment of what is called Abhyasa,  in the Sütras of Pantanjali.    Abhyasa might be described as a measured, calm, yet determined intention to pay attention to what is, as opposed to a wild, rushing and blasting and pushing energy, or the reckless passion with which, for example, a warrior flies into battle, or an athlete dedicates all her energy and power to winning a match or scaling a steep hill.  Abhyasa is experience without reaction, awareness without judgment, perception without response.

As I sat with the old man writing, I was stirred, but not stirred into any response other than observing his movements as something to observe.  I liked the activity of observation, and became, later, attached to the pleasure I remembered having during this moment.  This attachment, of course, became a source of suffering because it was something that I could not will into being, and had to wait for.

A Yoga Sequence to Cope with Lower Back Pain

Like many people, I have developed a weakness at the base of my spine precisely where the lowest vertebra of the lumbar spine, L5, meets the first vertebra of the sacrum, S1.

l5:s1

Many people experience pain at this intersection, where the flexible lumbar vertebrae curves up and back, and the inflexible, fused sacral vertebrae curve down and forward. When this structure becomes overstressed, the disc between the vertebrae gets compressed, or squished, and bulges out, putting pressure on the sciatic nerve and causing pain.  When severely stressed, the disc herniates, or protrudes outside of the spine.   Fortunately, my disc has not yet degenerated to that point.  Nevertheless, my disc had degenerated enough to make it hard for me to bend forward, to walk, and to stand.

As luck would have it, this condition flared up during the year in which I trained to become a yoga teacher.  At first I could not figure out why I could not relax comfortably in Shavasana or move into and out of Virabhadrasana without extreme pain.  After ten years of pushing myself in yoga practice, I had to pull way back and accept the limitations of my body.  I consulted a physiatrist, who sent me to a very good physical therapist, and took a break from all forward bending for two months.

All the forward bends that I thought were so good for my spine were actually worsening my condition, because the movement encouraged the disc between L5 and S1 to bulge out further.  In addition, other muscles in my core began tighten up as they overcompensated for the  weakness at the base of my spine.  My psoas muscles, which runs from the middle point of the spine over in front of the sacrum and down to the femurs, the large thigh bone, were overly consctricted and working like a tight rubber band that bent me forward at the base of my spine.  Furthermore, deep in my back musculature, the quadratus lumborum that run from the top of the lumbar spine down to the sacrum, were also overly tight.   In consultation with my physical therapist, I developed a yoga sequence to release these muscles, strengthen my abdominals,  and regain some of the flexibility I had lost.

For the first two weeks I did nothing more than simple press-ups, a variation on Bhujangasana, or cobra, in which you press your arms into the mat until they are straight, raising the chest and hips but leaving the legs on the mat while releasing all muscles in the buttocks.  I still begin every session with ten repetitions of this simple back-opener.

For weeks three and four I tightened my abdominal muscles with uddiyana and mula bhanda locks as often as possible–especially when moving from a seated to a standing position, or while seated and standing.  Basically: all the time.

Here is the sequence I started with.  It helps me a lot.  A word of caution:  if you have severe back pain due to sciatia, a herniated or degenerated disc, please do not practice these exercises without consulting your physician or physical therapist. 

Also, as always in yoga, let pain be your guide.  If you begin to feel an intense, burning or cutting pain, immediately cease what you are doing.  Seek sthira and sukkha, discipline and sweetness, a balance between exertion and ease, in every asana.

Bhujangasana variation.  10x. Lying face down on floor, bring your hands along the body just beneath your shoulders.  Press your palms against the mat to lift your chest and hips up,  keeping your buttock muscles loose.

Benefits of bhujangasana: strengthens and stretches the spine, opens chest and shoulders, relieves pain from sciatica and herniated discs.

Shalabasana (Locust)  4x  Lying face down on the mat with arms along the body. Strongly pulling your shoulder blades together, lift your chest and thighs off the mat, lengthening the crown of the head away from the feet and the feet away from the body.  Hold here for three breaths.

Benefits of Shalabasana: Strenthens the lumbar spine; helps the psoas muscle to release, posterior hip and thigh muscles, opens the shoulders and chest.

Dhanruasana (Bow) 3x  Lie face down on the floor. Bend knees and grasp ankles, one at a time.  Pull your chest  and thighs up while squeezing shoulder blades together.  Hold for three breaths.

Benefits of Dhanurasana: stretches the psoas, flexes the lumbar quadratus, strengthens the spine, opens shoulders, chest and throat.

In between each pose, Rest in a passive neck stretch–bringing your head all the way to the floor, turned, alternately to the left and right, for three full breaths.

Setu Bandhasana (Bridge)3x  From a supine position on your back, bend your knees and bring your heels towards your hips, keeping the feet hip-width apart.  Lift your hips by pressing your upper back against the floor and lengthening the stomach and spine.  Tuck your shoulders underneath your back and grasp your fingers together. Release your buttocks muscles and hold yourself here by pushing your feet against the floor.   Hold for 3 or 4 breaths.  Exit by unclasping the fingers and slowly lowering the spine to the floor, one vertebrae at a time.

Benefits of Setu Bandhasana: strengthens middle and upper spine, stretches psoas; relieves low back tightness.  It also may alleviate symptoms of depression by increasing circulation to the thyroid gland.

On Pantanjali, the Self, and why I practice and teach yoga

The aphorisms composed by the Hindu siddha guru Pantanjali, who flourished in India during the second century B.C.E., are among the oldest and most revered scriptures of yoga teachings. Yoga was originally a practice of meditation designed to awaken higher consciousness about the universe.  In the Sutras, Pantajali explains that the purpose of yoga is to “disarm the causes of suffering and to achieve integration” of the self with the universe (Yoga-Sutras of Pantanjali, translated by Chip Hartranft, Sutra 1-9). Ignorance of one’s true nature is the source of suffering (dukha), he says.  This ignorance (avidya—lit. “not seeing”) is an inability to understand that there is no such thing as a separate, individual self.

The concept of an isolated self, or ego, is a construction, produced by experiences and reinforced by cultural conditioning.  In other words, the “I” is the sum  of conditioned responses to experiences—good and bad—that reiterate the false impression that there is any other way to be.  One imagines that one’s self is always either an active agent or passive victim, the hurter or the stricken.  Resistant to change, the “I” dwells in the inertia or tamas, stuck in a polarized sense of a self that exists only through the experience of opposition, of “me” vs. “them”, “self” and “other,” as well as in false notions of the self as divided into similarly opposed arenas of “goodness” and “evil,” “acceptable” and “unacceptable.”

To move past this dukha, suffering, born of avidya, ignorance, we need to engage in action, Kriya.  But energetic effort is only useful if it is expended in the right direction, towards sadhana, realization.  Thus, for example, action taken in response to anger or guilt or self-righteousness will not take us where we want to go.  It leads into more suffering, not away from it.

In 2.12-16 Pantanjali considers the causes of suffering (samskara), which can either affect us immediately or lie dormant for a while.  A dormant or latent cause of suffering can be activated by a weaker, more trivial experience of unpleasantness, which allows the older “root” to erupt and overwhelm the mind and body.  Yoga helps us to break down this conditioned experience.

Moving through the postures (asanas) day after day, week after week, we experience the impermanence of all emotions, abilities, and states of being.  Some days I am strong.  Some days I am weak.   Most days the practice of yoga itself allows me to tune in to what I am experiencing.   When my mind and body, reason and emotions, are integrated, I recognize that my “self” or sense of an “I” is not fixed or even definable.   Rather the “I” is a pattern of consciousness that shifts and moves continuously, always in response to one thing or another.

The regular tuning into the body and the mind through practice allows me to distance myself from my habitual understanding of myself as a “self” existing in opposition to an ‘it” or an “other.”  Thus I recognize that we are all connected beings.  My experience of aversion, or opposition, to others itself is a fleeting body/mind energy, a pattern, an acquired habit of interpreting reality, and not necessarily a necessary way to be.

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Gelek Rimpoche

Tibetan Buddhist lama Rimpoche Nawang Gehlek relates a wisdom from seventh-century Indian pundits:

You can look carefully at suffering itself to see if it can be corrected or not.  If it can be corrected, put all your effort into correcting it.  If there’s nothing to be done about it, why be unhappy?  The unhappiness only adds more suffering to the suffering.

Like the Buddha, who lived approximately 400 years before him,  Pantanjali recognized that suffering is unavoidable.  Like the Buddha, he also believed that “suffering that has not yet arisen can be prevented.” What does this mean?  Hardship, pain, dukkha, is unavoidable, but we often add to our own suffering by shooting what the Buddha called the “second arrow.”

The Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student replied, “It is.” The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The Buddha then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.

The first arrow is the suffering itself, however it came about.  We experience a loss, someone is cruel or rude to us, we experience an injustice or a trauma.  We cannot control that, but we can control how we react to the first arrow.   If beat ourselves up about how we feel, if we blame ourselves for being weak, or indulgently feel very sorry for ourselves, we shoot the second arrow at ourselves.

We don’t have to do this.  Why do we do it?  Because we are conditioned to think of the self, the “I” as a fixed and determined entity.   If we simply accept the suffering, acknowledge that it is there without imagining that this particular experience of suffering somehow defines who the “I” is, we can prevent extra suffering.

The conscious, patient, focused practice of breathing and moving through asanas allows us temporarily to step aside from our punishing habits, the products of ignorance, avidya, and to glimpse what it feels like to refuse to send the second arrow.

I don’t agree with Pantanjali that the goal of yoga is to allow purusha to see itself (2.20), or to realize some absolute truth about existence.  My practice of yoga does not carry me further towards salvation or to the understanding that the “phenomenal world exists to reveal” (2.21) “fundamental qualities of nature” (2.19), which exist somehow somewhere else, in some abstract realm of purusha, perfect, “pure awareness” (Hartranft, 27).

No.  For me, yoga is both a means and an end, a dynamic method of awakening whereby we understand anguish (dukha), let go of its origins or causes, realize that dukha ends, and cultivate the path, the method of awakening itself.

As Stephen Batchelor, a former Zen and Buddhist monk who now leads a secular Buddhist group in England, writes,

The Buddha was not a mystic.  His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God.  He did not claim to have had an experience that granted him the privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks.”  Buddha did not found a religion.  He taught a practice for actively awakening, an ongoing, conscious effort to free ourselves from habitual impulses and irrational, false illusions.

This is how I understand yoga.  Yoga is an ongoing, conscious effort to awaken, not to any particular truth, but rather to free ourselves from the need for fixed truth.

My intention is not to proselytize or preach, but rather to guide people to find sthira and sukha, strength and ease, to “come home” (as Tara Brach likes to say) to whatever is actually going on in the body and mind by moving, breathing, stretching, and resting in various positions, asanas that stimulate awakening.

Bikram Day 96: WTF?

Bronze mirror with the head of the Medusa, Greek, South Italy, 500 - 480 B.C.
Bronze mirror with the head of the Medusa, Greek, South Italy, 500 - 480 B.C.

One day while carrying out some business, the Mullah Nasruddin was asked to show his identification.  He directly pulled out a mirror from his pocket and soberly studied his reflection for a long time.  At length he exclaimed, “Yes, that is me!”

I have to say that meeting this challenge is the by far the best thing I have done with my life in a very long time.   When I signed up to attend 100 bikram yoga classes in 100 days I told myself that I was performing an experiment. I also reasoned that, since I am something of a couch potato,  I would never make it into a studio to perform difficult physical contortions while sweating profusely at 105 degree for 90 minutes at a time unless I tricked myself into it.  And once I put my name up there on the public board, where students who have taken on the challenge mark their progress each day, it was simply too embarrassing not to show up for class every day.  Other people had done it. Why couldn’t I?

When I began the challenge, at least five other people were completing their last 20 days or so, and shortly thereafter two other students declared their intention to do it, too.  It seemed that I had lots of company and that what I was doing was not so very remarkable.  The yogis ahead of me, some of whom were teachers, finished their 100 days.  There were then just two of us–I and a woman who began her challenge on the same day as I did.  We’d meet in the say “18!” and then “19!”.  She stopped coming.  It was okay because another woman who regularly came put her name up on the board.  She dropped away, too.  Then I was alone–but not really, since a small posse of yogis took at least once class a day, and plenty of other regulars showed up four or five times a week.  Their accomplishment seemed greater than mine.   A number of people began asking me “what day are you on now?” and seemed genuinely impressed.  I hadn’t yet finished and could not yet say with utter certainty that I would manage to finish. Congratulations will not be in order until I have ended my 101st class in a row.

But it no longer matters to me how many days in a row I have been coming to class, although I do still get a small charge when I mark off each day.  Indeed, I’m looking forward to not counting.  I guess you could say that my point of view has shifted.  Much more important that being able to say that I’ve met the challenge is the experience of practicing every day, whether I want to or not.

Paradoxically, I like the way I feel in general even though I don’t always feel good when I’m practicing.  Some days I can’t seem to balance.  On other days my stomach feels cramped, or packed, or bloated, which makes Pada-hastana particularly uncomfortable. On other days I can’t seem to stop yawning, or my legs are tired and weak.  Sometimes the heat bothers me more than at other times.  None of it matters.

Kaspar van den Wigngaard

As one of my teachers, the amazing Kaspar van den Wijngaard, told me: “When you commit yourself to a daily practice you learn to stop worrying about how well you did on any one particular day and to focus more on the process.” Or something like that.  I can’t remember his exact words.  Kaspar has taught me to divest from the need to be “good” or perfect all the time. There’s no capturing the moment, no saying, “I’ve done it, I own that,” or “I am x or y because I can do this or that.”  One does one’s best every day, and that is what one is doing.

Remarkably modest and sweet-tempered, Kaspar is simultaneously an especially exacting and forgiving teacher.  He encourages each student to work from where she or he happens to be at the time.  He saw me leaning back on my elbows in Supta-Vajrasana and said, “You can put your head on the floor and lean all the way back.”  I had it in my mind that I could NOT do that pose and found the suggestion irritating. Still, I dutifully laid back and discovered that I could indeed to the minor backbend, and get a nice stretch in my stomach at the same time.

Kaspar has been teaching at the studio for the month of February, and I’m really going to miss him when he leaves. When he first got here, he ran us through the postures without mercy, it seemed, allowing us much shorter breaks than we had become used to.  But we–I am not the only one–adjusted to his tempo and now like it better.  We’ve gotten better over time, through diligence, consistency, commitment.

Why has this been the very best thing that I have done with my life in a very long time?  Not simply because I have developed a discipline and proven to myself that I could do something that I didn’t know I could do.   Not simply because I have gotten a lot stronger and more flexible.  Not simply because I no longer have the pain in my back that I used to have when I lay flat on it in sivasana.  Not simply because I am far more toned throughout my torso and not simply because my jeans fit way better than before.   Not simply because I have made a lot of new friends and found a happy, supportive, and healthy community in Pittsburgh.  Not simply because the light and the heat have made this winter way more bearable.  Not simply because I’m probably getting taller.

All of these reasons help to make daily practice of Bikram yoga one of the best things I have ever done. But much more important to me than all of these reasons put together has been the daily moving meditation.   Yes, my body is changing.  But what is far more profound and interesting to me is the way that my mind is changing.  In a word, I am more courageous than I was before.   I’m much more willing to face things, issues, problems, predicaments, life-changes that scare me.  This does not mean that I am not still frightened.  What it means is that I am facing, acknowledging, dealing with my fear.  I used to flee from it.   My body is stronger, but so is my mind.

What am I afraid of?  All kinds of things.  Getting older, getting fatter, getting weaker, losing my memory, losing people I love.  I’m afraid of facing the world in which the people who I thought were my friends turn out to be quite unfriendly and mostly indifferent to me.  I’m afraid of letting go of the identity that I’ve clutched around me like a cloak, an impenetrable shield, a space-suit for the past twenty-odd years.  I’m afraid of facing myself and not knowing who I am or what I really want or what I am going to do about it.  All of these things.

I am walking away from the path that I have been on for a very long time.  The old road is well sign-posted, and the signs say “Climb this mountain!”  “Cross this bridge!” “Cut and bundle into sheaves this field of wheat!”  They also say “When you succeed at this task you will be GOOD!” and “If you fail at this task you will be WORTHLESS.”  The path is old and rutted and bloody and lonely.  You must assess everyone you meet on the path and quickly decide if they will help or hinder your progress.  You cannot trust anyone fully.  If you leave the path and walk into uncharted territory, most of the people you met on the old road will forget about you, as though you never existed.

For the first time in a long while I am actually acknowledging the fear, as well as the grief that comes with letting go of a long attachment to something that was not really who or how I wanted to be.  I am letting myself consider possibilities.  I am following my nose.  Next week, for example, I will go through a week-long training at the Women’s Center and Shelter of Pittsburgh so that I can work directly with women in need.  I am looking for meaningful work.  I am looking for dignity.

I am facing my fear of being a very bad painter even though painting is something I have always wanted to do.  I am facing my fear of not living up to my parents’ expectations.  My fear of not living up to my graduate advisor’s expectations.  I didn’t have any mentors at my last job so I don’t worry about not living up any of my former co-workers expectations. But I am facing my fear of not knowing what the next job will be.  Whatever it is, I will not make the mistake of confusing it with my identity.

This will sound cliché because it is:  I am facing my fear of myself.  It’s not quite right to say that I don’t know who I am, since  I don’t believe in absolute selves or intrinsic identities.  I don’t believe in the soul, or in reincarnation, or heaven or hell.  So I finally don’t believe in not knowing who I am.  What I am dealing with is the challenge of letting go of the space-suit, the rigid identity and the insecurity that kept the stiff paper-board self in place.  The challenge of being a being rather than a doing.

Do you know?  Every day after Bikram I lie on my side in a semi-fetal position with my arms around myself until I feel a sense of love for myself.  I say, “I am here and I love,” and I wait until I feel connected with whatever it is, love, warmth, self-acceptance, gratitude.  It makes a difference.  Once a day, put your arms around yourself and be present with yourself with a kind-heartedness.   Try it.

Here is another story about identity and the Mullah Nasruddin, from Idries Shah, The Sufis.

Once, the people of The City invited Mullah Nasruddin to deliver a khutba. When he got on the minbar (pulpit), he found the audience was not very enthusiastic, so he asked “Do you know what I am going to say?” The audience replied “NO”, so he announced “I have no desire to speak to people who don’t even know what I will be talking about” and he left. The people felt embarrassed and called him back again the next day. This time when he asked the same question, the people replied “YES” So Mullah Nasruddin said, “Well, since you already know what I am going to say, I won’t waste any more of your time” and he left. Now the people were really perplexed. They decided to try one more time and once again invited the Mullah to speak the following week. Once again he asked the same question – “Do you know what I am going to say?” Now the people were prepared and so half of them answered “YES” while the other half replied “NO”. So Mullah Nasruddin said “The half who know what I am going to say, tell it to the other half” and he left!

Libya: Bikram Day 93

Today I will complete my 93rd class in 93 consecutive days–only 7 to go to meet the challenge.  Actually, I have 8 to go, since the custom at our studio is to attend a class on the next day.  People have been congratulating me already and commenting on what a great accomplishment it is.   I’m shrugging.  It’s not so impressive.  What it is is luxurious.  I’m incredibly lucky to be able to go to class for hundreds of reasons.  Some of them are that I have a strong and healthy body, that I have the money to pay for classes, that I live in a society in which I can stand in a room with half-naked men and women and exercise, that I can speak out and demonstrate against my government without being shot, or imprisoned, or tortured.

It’s actually bizarre to stare at myself in the mirror and practice the breathing exercises or half-moon pose or standing bow or any of the postures while knowing that people in the region where civilization–an advanced state of human society, in which a high level of culture has been reached–is most ancient are killing their fellow citizens from rooftops and airplanes.  People all over the middle east, northern Africa and central Asia, from Iraq and Iran to Libya and Yemen, are dying because they are standing up for what we North Americans (including Canada, of course) consider to be fundamental civil liberties: the freedom to assemble, to speak out, to choose our government.

A recent article summarizes some of the abuses of the Libyan government since Quadafhi took power in 1969:

 

1970s – ARRESTS, TELEVISED HANGINGS

Rights groups and Gaddafi’s foes say that throughout the 1970s police and security forces arrested hundreds of Libyans who opposed, or who the authorities feared could oppose, his rule.

Student demonstrations were put down violently. Political opponents were arrested and imprisoned, or simply disappeared.

Police and security forces rounded up academics, lawyers, students, journalists, Trotskyists, communists, members of the Muslim Brotherhood and others considered “enemies of the revolution,” Human Rights Watch says. Gaddafi warned anyone who tried to organize politically they would face repression.

“I could at any moment send them to the People’s Court … and the People’s Court will issue a sentence of death based on this law, because execution is the fate of anyone who forms a political party,” Gaddafi said in a speech on November 9, 1974.

A number of televised public hangings and mutilations of political opponents followed, rights groups say.

In 1976 Gaddafi authorized the execution of 22 officers who had participated in an attempted coup the previous year, in addition to the execution of several civilians, rights activist Mohamed Eljahmi has written.

1980s: DETENTION, DISAPPEARANCES

In 1980 authorities introduced a policy of extrajudicial executions of political opponents abroad, termed “stray dogs.”

According to a 2009 article in Forbes magazine by rights activist Eljahmi, Gaddafi’s then deputy Abdel Salam Jalloud issued a public justification in 1980 for the assassination of dissidents abroad, telling Italian media:

“Many people who fled abroad took with them goods belonging to the Libyan people … Now they are putting their illicit gains at the disposal of the opposition led by (then Egyptian leader Anwar) Sadat, world imperialism, and Israel.”

A failed coup attempt in May 1984 apparently mounted by exiles with internal support led to the imprisonment of thousands of people. An unknown number of people were executed.

In 1988 there was a period which appeared to herald important human rights reforms. Authorities freed hundreds of political prisoners in a wide-ranging amnesty.

But more repression ensued in 1989. According to Amnesty International, which had visited the country in 1988, the government instituted “mass arbitrary arrest and detention, “disappearances,’ torture, and the death penalty.”

1990s: MASS KILLING AT PRISON

In 1993, after a failed coup attempt in which senior army officers were implicated, Gaddafi began to purge the military periodically, eliminating potential rivals and replacing them with loyalists.

In what critics call probably the bloodiest act of internal repression, more than 1,000 prisoners were shot dead by security forces on June 28 and 29, 1996 in Abu Salim prison, according to Human Rights Watch.

The scale of the killings was confirmed by the Libyan Secretary of Justice to Human Rights Watch in April 2009, and in a press release by Saif al-Islam’s Gaddafi Foundation charity on August 10, 2009 which set the number at 1,167.

For years Libyan officials denied that the killings at Abu Salim had ever taken place. The first public acknowledgement was in April 2004 when Gaddafi said killings had taken place there, and that prisoners’ families had the right to know what took place. To date there has been no official account of the events at Abu Salim prison.

2000s: MAN FREED — AFTER 31 YEARS

Rights groups say the authorities have taken limited steps to address the situation, including releasing some political prisoners and allowing infrequent visits by rights groups.

In 2001 nearly 300 prisoners, among them political prisoners, were released. They included Libya’s longest-serving political prisoner, Ahmad Zubayr Ahmad al-Sanussi, accused of involvement in an attempted coup in 1970 and who spent 31 years in prison, many of them in solitary confinement.

More than 700 prisoners accused of having ties to Islamist militant groups have been released in the past three years under a reconciliation program organized by the Gaddafi Foundation.

(Sources: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, U.S. State Department, Libyan political scientist Mansour Kikhia, Mohamed Eljahmi, co-founder of the American Libyan Freedom Alliance, Reuters)

Obviously things have not improved in Libya–not if Quadhafi has so terrorized his armies and police to make them willing to shoot their brothers and sisters who are bravely standing up against this violence.

After yoga last night I had a discussion–not quite an argument–with a friend about the wisdom of the non-violent pro-democracy demonstrators in Libya and other countries. His contention was that they were foolishly inspired by the Egyptians because, obviously, the Libyan government would massacre them.  I countered that this was a very condescending attitude towards the people of Libya, who knew far better than we could what dangers they faced as they stoood up to oppression and violence.  He found them ignorant.  I found them wise and brave.  People are not sheep.  We don’t know that the protesters will succeed in bringing an end to Quadhafi’s tyranny, of course.  But we can be certain that tyranny will continue if the people do not stand up to it.

I’m grateful for my yoga classes, for my privileges, and especially for the opportunity to meditate and breathe consciously every single day.  I’m also grateful to the people of Libya, and Egypt, and Yemen, and Bahrain, for standing up and speaking out.  Namaste.  It means: I acknowledge the goodness in me and salute the goodness in you.

Reconnecting with my stomach: Bikram Day 87 (or is it 88?)

I’m pretty sure that yesterday was the 87th class I have taken in the past 87 days.  That’s what the count at the studio (Bikram Yoga Pittsburgh) tells me, at least. I’ve stopped counting, and almost don’t want the time to come to an end.  Not that it hasn’t been difficult to keep going every single day.  Often I don’t want to go, and often I’m dragging myself down to the Strip.  Often I walk in there feeling low and cranky and tired.   But I never leave feeling that way.   I always feel better afterwards, no matter how the practice has gone.

It is different every day.  Sometimes the studio is extra hot.  Just a few days ago I thought I was having a heat stroke and seriously wanted to leave the room.  My face turned bright lollipop red.  My heart pounded like a hammer, even in sivasana, and would not slow down.   I hated it.  I complained a lot in the locker room afterwards.

I stopped bringing water in to the room with me weeks and weeks ago.  I can stand it when I’m thirsty, but I still hate it when I’m too hot.   I don’t mind the sweat, but I do not enjoy the sensation of boiling blood.

Still, even such dreadful situations teach me something useful. The aim of bikram yoga is not to torment yourself, or to push yourself beyond your endurance, but rather to do as much as you can do while breathing.  The aim of bikram yoga, as far as I am concerned, is to breathe more effectively, as well as more efficiently.  It is always better to sit out a pose or to back off until I have regained my equilibrium, because I can’t benefit from the posture if I’m forcing myself through it like a rag doll on marionette strings.

I named this post “reconnecting with my stomach” because I have started to wear tops that expose my midriff.  Not so much because I think my belly is so beautiful.  Indeed it is not.  But seeing it helps me to suck it in, which improves the pose, strengthens my muscles, and better supports my spine.   Having to witness my stomach in all its rounded and mottled moods also helps me to remain more conscious of my eating and drinking outside of class.

But I am also learning to be more accepting of my Rubenesque imperfections, also known as cellulite.

Yes, I still look longingly at the lithe, long and slender bodies of the younger women in class, and wish that I could recapture the lines of my younger self.  But here I am, at 50, still quite strong, and getting stronger, and healthy, thank goodness, and awake, and waking.   And it is just fine.

Coming home after the Steelers Lost the Superbowl: Bikram Day 78

It has been now seven days since I started my new diet.  I haven’t lost an ounce.  But I’m not really trying to lose weight.  I’m performing an experiment.  What will happen if I stop eating meat, chicken, and pork, and all fowl, and all other animals except for fish, and only wild-caught fish, and if I also radically cut back on my dairy intake, and eliminate all processed sugars from my diet, including wine?  Will my body change?  Will I have more energy?  Will I feel better?

Yesterday I felt very strong in yoga, but today I was tired.  It probably had nothing to do with my diet.  Might have.  Hard to say.

Last night and tonight I have hung out with people I like a lot, and with whom I almost always drink alcohol.  But since I’m on this diet, I’m drinking water while they’re having wine.  Ever notice how it makes people uncomfortable if you’re the only one not drinking among them?  You have to reassure them that you’re having a good time.  I was!

I love my girlfriends.   They make me laugh, and I can say anything with them.  I had a blast.  And it was easy to drink water with them.  No one pressured me to imbibe, although there was some disappointment when I said I wasn’t going to eat the chili.   I was calm.

But I was more thoughtful, too.  What hit me on the way home was not–“isn’t it great that I’m completely sober while I’m driving home just after the Steelers lost the Superbowl?”

No.  I mean, yes, that.  Of course.

But what was better than that, way better, was just being there, being conscious, being with myself and liking myself.The alternative radio show Echoes was on DUQ as I drove.  And it was perfect:  I was in my little silver Miata.  I was wearing  jeans rolled-up to show my witches/Steelers’ socks,  a black turtleneck, and my Mom’s fabulous swing leopard-print wool coat.  I love those clothes

I also love to drive.  I love to be alone on the road listening to good music.  Tonight I wanted to drive all night–preferably up the coast from LA to Santa Barbara at night under a full moon.  But a mountain road would have sufficed.  Trouble was, there were a lot of drunk drivers on the road.  So I took myself home.

Now  I’m listening  to an album that John Diliberto sampled–the Icelandic group, Skuli Sverrison, Sería.  Awesome.  Haunting, soothing, passionate, resonant.  I don’t like the vocal tracks as much as the instrumentals, but there’s something piercingly sweet and mysterious about the woman’s voice.   Not sure I’d listen to this album over and over again as I do Philip Glass, who does something somewhat comparable with more traditional western instruments.  But I have a strong feeling I’m going to be playing it a lot in the near future.  I like the rhythm, the fluidity of the chord progressions, the strumming.  Acoustic guitar expertly played.

It seems that I hear my friends better when I’m not drinking.  And also that I hear myself better.

What could be more depressing than to watch the Superbowl, though, and to be so acute to the sexism of 99 per cent of the ads!!!!!

Not that we’re surprised.  Or, some of us aren’t.  The ones among us who are thinking are not surprised.  Some of my girlfriends are thinking.  Some of them laugh and snarl with me when I snarl that the Superbowl trophy is penis-shaped and that it’s a sacred object that each player on the winning team wants to touch, as though it had magic power not only to confirm but also to magnify his masculinity.

And then the semi-important bald guys–the one who got to carry the shiny, silver penis to the podium, and hand it to the guy at the podium, who got to hand it to the team coaches and also to the Money.  Notice how both of those guys tried to hold onto it for a long time?  While the many words they spoke puffed their chests up and out?  The coaches looked decent enough.  That one guy looked Norwegian.  How many times to the Norwegians win the Superbowl?  Kinda cool.  And they didn’t have shiny penis heads, either.  Doesn’t mean they’re not assholes.

While watching the game I talked to at least two women who were extremely distressed because they have been beaten up by men, men they loved, and neither of them has yet found a perfectly safe situation yet. We couldn’t talk about it there, for obvious reasons, but I heard them and need to call them tomorrow.

Life is Patriarchal men are hard on women.  One in four women.  Let’s not talk about the victims.

Let’s talk about the abusers.  Let’s talk about the monsters who call themselves men who think its okay to demean women, to slur them, to insult them, to bully them, to beat them, to slap them, to rape them to “keep ’em in line.” Men who have so little respect for themselves and who are so cowardly and vile that the only way they can begin to feel that they are “manly” is by pushing a woman around.

Men who are beating up their girlfriends or their wives or their kids in this city, or your city, in every city in the country, probably, on the continent, in the world, right now, as you are reading this.

Plenty of men out there.  But not many of them showed up on the screen, on the field or in the commercials during the GAME.  It’s possible to be a gentle, caring, compassionate, courageous, decent, kind, peaceful, egalitarian man.  I know some of them.  Patriarchal culture pressures men to live in fear, however, fear of losing their manliness, which the frightened ones must continuously demonstrate to one another.

If you’ve been reading my column, you know that I am a big fan of William Gay, #22.   Now there’s a real man:

Please donate to the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh.

Bikram in the Steel City, Day 75

The Strip, where my yoga studio is located, has been choked with people and cars since Christmas.  Now, just days before the Superbowl, it is jammed with CRAZED STEELER FANS.  Everywhere round, black-and-gold clad Black and White Pittsburghers move slowly along the sidewalks, perusing crowded tables of hats, gloves, socks, tee-shirts, sweatshirts, dog collars, pins, scarves, and, naturally, Terrible Towels.    It’s hard not to get into the spirit, impossible not to smile.  On every street corner Yinzer stores blare “Let’s Go”

In Penn Mac, the great, old-time grocery where you can buy all the cheeses of the world from a plump middle-aged lady who calls you “dear heart,” and choose from the greatest selection of pasta, anchovies, tomato sauces, olive oils, vinegars, salami, and all things Italian, for the best prices in town, you hear this song:

Prestogeorge’s, which has been roasting its own coffee beans and selling fine teas and cheeses for thousands of years, put up a sign that said “NO WISCONSIN CHEDDAR WILL BE SOLD UNTIL AFTER THE GAME”.

A man with bizarre headgear and a Steelers cape was reportedly dancing up and down the streets at six o’clock this morning, crowing with joy.  And we could hear the vendor below our studio calling out, “5 Dollars, 5 Dollars” all through our yoga practice today.  We giggled a lot during sivasana.

So, as you can imagine, it was almost impossible to find a parking spot. I was running late this morning, so I squeezed into a space that I probably would have skipped had I had more time. As I was easing my car into place, I very lightly touched the bumper of the car behind me, and heard an angry shout.  I popped out of my car and apologized sincerely.  The man–as wide as he was tall, bald, and very red–began to curse me out.  “I see you down here all the time and you drive a stupid, shoebox for a car and you can’t drive and you’re an asshole and blah-blah-blah-blah blah.”   “I’m really sorry, but there is no damage,” I said again.  “I don’t give a shit!!!”  he screamed, and continued to insult me, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah.  Then he threatened to ram my car and push it out into traffic.  I told him that I would call the police if did that, and wished him a nice day.

Seventy-four or even sixty days ago, I probably would have gotten into it with him and yelled back. Instead I kept my cool.  I even  felt sorry for him and made the sign of Namaste (it means: I acknowledge the divine in you and in me).  When I told a friend about it in the studio, he said.  “Men are always trying to intimidate women, you know.”  It hadn’t even occurred to me that he was trying to bully me, but that was obviously what had been going on.   I just figured that he was in a lot of pain and decided to take it out on me.  This was not my usual response.  I have a temper, especially when some,”man,” who is really a wuss,  is trying to scare me.   I get pissed off and escalate the violence.  I’m not proud of this.

Yeah, I worried about whether he was going to hurt my car, off and on, throughout class, but not very anxiously.  I was working too hard in some poses to think about anything but staying upright, or lifting, and too tired afterwards to do anything but catch my breath.  I giggled as the Vendor outside interrupted sivasana crying “5 dollars, 5 dollars.” I even bought a Terrible Towel after class.

The mean, red-faced man’s car was gone when I returned to my car.  And he had not rammed it.   I thought about going into the café where he works to complain to his boss, but decided against it.  It would only have escalated the bad feelings.  Plus, I felt great.  Relaxed, loose, easy.  The sun was out. Everybody on the street was excited about the end of the work week, and the coming football game.  Why fight when you can simply walk or drive away?

Bikram Day 70

Yoga makes me feel like this wild sunflower, which I photographed while walking my brother’s dogs on the high mesa near Hotchkiss, Colorado.

Yup, I’m still at it.  Today I celebrated in my 70th class in 70 days.  30 to go.  I really am more flexible.  And by all accounts except my own, I look better.  I can’t really tell the difference, but a number of people have said there is one.  I’m still trying to eat better–although I must confess that I drank more than I ought to have at a girlfriend’s dinner party recently.  I’m going to give up a number of things for the next 30 days, including meat, cheese, and most sugar. Just an experiment. Nothing permanent.  Don’t worry.

I actually went to two yoga classes today.  My partner suffers from severe back pain and has not practiced yoga for two years.  Today was his first day back on the mat, in a workshop specifically designed for people with spinal injuries. Our dear friend and well-beloved Pittsburgh yogi, Linda Meacci, taught it.   You can find her at Schoolhouse Yoga.

I still find it really hard to deal with the heat at bikram, but not as much as I used to.  I tell myself, as I lie under bright, bright lights with my body water running off me, that I’m de-toxing and curing my SAD syndrome all at once.  It’s really not a bad way to spend the winter.  I am so happy that I have found a good spot for my mat at Bikram Yoga Pittsburgh.   The teachers make you work hard because they love what they do and care about their students.

Check out the two main teachers, Zeb and Sherie, as well as a number of great people from the studio, in the following video:

Pretty awesome, aren’t they?  By the way, in this regional competition, Zeb placed 1st for men and Sherie placed 1st for women.  Two other people from the studio did very well.  Angela placed 3rd for women, and Sam placed 2nd for men.  So all four of these energetic and amazing yogis will be competing in the national bikram competition this year.   They also happen to be very nice people, each of them a Mensch.

Bikram Day 61, Margaret, and why I love Bruno’s Garage

Margaret is my 1985 Jeep Cherokee Grand Wagoneer.  Here we are crossing the Bighorn Mountains, near the Bighorn Medicine Wheel, which is an awesome place:

Crossing the Bighorn Mountains, near the Bighorn Medicine Wheel

Imagine her covered with hoar frost and snow, and sporting a festive wreath on her front grill.  The Idaho license plate is still there (in Pennsylvania, you only need one plate, on the back of the vehicle).   Imagine me bundled up in my faux-fur brown coat and incredibly warm and fabulous La Candienne boots.  The Canadians alone seem to understand cold-weather fashion.

Margaret runs great.  Her mileage is 86,000 and I’ve had to make only minor repairs to keep her going.  Still,  for the longest time I’ve been able to unlock the car only on the driver’s side.   Today that barrel broke down completely, and the key would not turn, so I could not get into the car.  The lock was not frozen, but jammed, kaput, fertig.

Therefore, I could not go to yoga.  Instead of sweating it out at 105 degrees, I stood waiting for the AAA guy to jimmy the lock at 13.6 degrees.  Then I drove Margaret down to Bruno’s Garage.  It’s the best, the cheapest, and the most honest place in my neighborhood.

Highland Parkers: don’t take your car to Iezzi’s.  They always jack up the charges by telling you that your car needs extra stuff.  The last time I took Margaret in there for her annual inspection, I ended up $500 poorer.  Did I really need new shocks on all four wheels?  Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t.  The point is, I don’t trust them.  They never explain why they have done what they do and simply hand me a big bill.  At Bruno’s, the main mechanic, Mike, always shows me the old part, explains how and why it had failed, and helps me to understand why I needed the work done.  I never worry that they are taking advantage of me because I am a woman and relatively ignorant about cars.  Margaret is old enough to be somewhat comprehensible.  I like older cars for exactly this reason.

Yes, I should have taken “the beast” (Margaret’s other name) to Bruno’s, but they’re impossible to get on the phone and always backed up.  You have to drive the car down there, make an appointment in person, and then bring the car back.  Sometimes I forget to bring the car in when I’m supposed to, and have to go through the whole process again.

The great thing about  Mike and Greg, the brothers who own and run Bruno’s, is that they let me leave the car there in an emergency.  Today I figured I’d have to leave Margaret unlocked in my neighborhood until they could fit her in.  They know that it is a bad idea to leave a car unlocked in our neighborhood, so they said they’d find room for her in their garage and fix her as soon as possible.  It took me less than 15 minutes to walk home.   Unfortunately, leaving the car at the shop made me carless, and it was too late to round up another way down to the yoga studio.

To stay on schedule, I’m going to have to borrow a car and do two classes in a row.  It’s not so bad.  At 13 degrees under gloomy Pittsburgh skies, it’s hardly punishment to spend three hours in a hot, brightly lit rooms.  Yes, I’ll be tired.   No, I’m not looking forward to it.  But I know I’ll feel great afterwards.  I always do.