Bikram 54

I don’t feel like I’m on day 54, but rather much more like I’ve just begun this practice.  It’s really hard and I’m not very good at it and I don’t think I ever will be.  I hurt my back about a week ago.  I don’t know how I did it, and the injury is not serious, but it has prevented me from doing all the sit-ups that the class does.  Also, on Monday night, which was my fiftieth day of bikram, I went to an advanced yoga class that I used to go to regularly but have not been to for a long time.  The practice kissed my asana.  It wasn’t so hard to hold downward-facing dog for 20 breaths, nor to assume a good, strong posture in chaturanga dandasana.  What I found difficult was keeping myself in that push-up for as long as Linda, my wonderful teacher, wanted me to.  Also, she has quadriceps of steel, and thinks nothing of asking her students to hold their body weight on one bent leg for what seems like hours at time, but which is really only seconds.

There was a time when I found that practice challenging in a pleasing way.  Monday night I found it downright exhausting and nearly impossible.  The room wasn’t heated to an unusual temperature, but the sweat poured off me as though it were.  At times I simply collapsed, face down, on my mat.  And I was incredibly sore the next day and the one after that, too.

Still, it was good to be practicing on my grimy old mat, my daily support and comfort.  It’s dirty and sweat-infused, but it’s my sweat and that makes it sacred to me.

O, and sivasana is still painful.  Especially after rabbit pose, Sasangasana, which I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to do properly.  I make the effort.  Sometimes more, sometimes less effectively.  It freaks my lower back out, unlike camel pose, Ustrasana, which tires but heals my spine like no other pose.  I never skip camel, even though I really don’t enjoy it.

Indeed, I don’t enjoy any of the poses, lately.  My ham strings are super-tight to begin with and my right one has been injured for months.  I am impatient so I tend to strain it when I should simply back off completely.

But the fact that it is injured means that even my favorite pose, standing bow, or Dandayama Dhanurasana, hurts the back of my leg quite a bit. I can get my head to my knee in the various compression poses that we do but only because I am bending my legs way up.  I understand intellectually that this is not “cheating” but would someday like to be able to pull out the hamstring instead of protect it endlessly and to no apparent end.

Also, the heat bugs me.  Some days it feels unbearable.  I hate to be hot.  I lie there and suffer and try not to move too much.  As one of my teachers reminds me, fidgeting with clothing or hair or limbs only encourages the mind to race in a thousand different directions.  The point of this practice is to quiet the mind.  And one quiets the mind by quieting the body and coming into awareness and control of the breath.  My mind is a monkey chattering and swinging and screaming and jumping.  I often give in to the temptation, the urge, to wipe the sweat and hair off my face.  I tug down my too-short shorts.  I have at least given up the water bottle.

Yes, some days I’m just a brain-addled, bloated hippo lying on a gassy stomach struggling to get my arms and legs into the air.  Locust pose–salabhasana–who invented this particular torture? My legs are straight, my knees are locked.  My toes are maybe half an inch from the floor.  My breasts and my elbows are smashed against the floor.  My upper wrists, which do not like to turn under at all, seem to be completely incapable of forcing the right kind of brace with which to get my legs up.

Some people go straight up into it like this:

But I will never, not in a thousand million years, do that.  I make the effort every day.  Every day I wallow there, wracking my brain and body to understand how, exactly, I am supposed to bring my weight onto my shoulders.  This seems to me a thing impossible. And yet I struggle away.

I don’t flail.  Above all, I try not to flail.  I try to move deliberately.  Either my body will or it won’t.   Sometimes I see other people, who have not yet done much yoga, flailing as they try to force their bodies to do things that their bodies are simply not ready to do.  They fuss and flap and flutter and steam and break themselves down.

They also serve who only stand and wait, as Milton said.   Not that the point of yoga is to serve god, although it might be that for some people.  The point of yoga, for me at least, is to calm down enough to think clearly.

I have never been flexible.  I have never once done the splits or a cart-wheel.  I can touch my toes and may even someday get my palms on the floor with locked, straight legs, if my ham string ever heals.   I’m somewhat strong but not particularly athletic and have thought of myself as fundamentally uncoördinated for most of my life.  Still, I love to dance and make an effort to walk with some grace.  If you can walk, you can dance, the saying goes.  If you can breathe, you can do yoga.

Yes, yes, these platitudes really don’t help very much very often.  It doesn’t matter that they are true.  They’re annoying.  And yoga is often painful, and I often don’t have a very good attitude about it.  I don’t go because I love it so much or because I’m a masochist or a health fanatic.  Right now I am going because I said I would.

I don’t want to go to yoga today.  Most days I don’t want to go.  Especially when going means starting the Jeep three or four times until the engines runs steadily, and then brushing all the snow off all the windows and the enormous hood, and then sitting and shivering in the car, with wet, freezing hands, waiting for the engine to warm enough to drive it.  And there will always be some idiotic, slow-driving nitwit in front of me on the way down there.  Then I will have to hunt for a parking place.  And endure the incessant blast of Mexican party music from the market below the studio.  And trudge up the stairs and wait in line to sign in and hope that I’ve come early enough to get a good spot for my mat.

I almost always feel better afterwards.  Some days I feel utterly transformed.  I walk in a cranky death-eater and leave like Kuan Yin.  Still, I am occasionally so tired that practice only slightly lifts me, and my back feels not healed but racked.  This, too, is part of the journey.  I never said I was always going to like it.

50 at 50: Fires of the Mind

Today I completed my 50th class in 50 days, so I’m at the halfway point in this journey, this experiment that I am carrying on.

As I mentioned before, I haven’t lost an ounce but have changed sizes.  My jeans fit much looser around the waist, hips, and thighs.  I’m not trying to lose weight, but I have begun to eat differently.  I’m way more conscious of how my body feels before and after eating and notice that some foods, such as meat, processed grains (such as bagels or white rice) and, alas, popcorn, seem to move very slowly through the digestive system.  What I have for dinner affects the way I experience yoga at 10 the next morning.  Sometimes this really sucks.

It’s so not about what I look like, but rather about how I feel.  My spine is stronger and more flexible.  My muscles are stronger.  My heart and lungs function more effectively.  My blood carries more oxygen.  “Oxygen!  the greatest nutrient we take in!” my yoga teacher likes to say.  Fire of the body.

In general, I am emotionally fitter.  That is, I feel calmer, more patient, more relaxed than I used to.  Part of that has to do with having a regular practice and finding out that I experience the practice differently each day.  Sometimes I am strong.  Sometimes I am weak.  Sometimes I am very tired and have to sit down a lot.  Sometimes my body does more than I think it can do.   Sometimes I can’t psyche myself into a better pose, and have to accept that.   Each day is just a day.

In general, I’m much more at peace with myself.  Around day 40, however, I thought that perhaps I was having a breakdown.  Intense waves of rage, or misery, or sorrow, or impatience, seemed to be sweeping over me unpredictably and irrationally.  The slightest thought, or sight, could bring tears.  At around day 40, I seemed to begin every single class in the bathroom stall, crying for no apparent reason.    Then I’d get through the class and the extreme emotions–I’m going to call them the fires of the mind–would dissipate.

I asked my teachers and other students about this.  Could it be that this had something to do with the process?  The common wisdom is that the first 30 days are physical, the second 30 days are physiological, and the final 30 days emotional.  But most of the women I spoke to (I didn’t know any of the men well enough to ask them about it) said that they, too, had gone through similar periods of intense feeling, waves of seemingly irrational and often overwhelming emotion.  Many of them said that this process brings issues they had been denying or repressing to the surface.  Some said that they were simply becoming more aware of what they were feeling.

Meditating and staring at yourself in the mirror for 90 minutes a day at 105 degrees makes it rather difficult to avoid yourself.  You’re simply going to have to come to terms with whatever it is that you are, or, rather, however it is that you are.   Another one of my teachers recently said to me, “K,  you’ve got to realize that you’re just fine.”  There is nothing to complain about.  She gets impatient with me when I start to make excuses for my inability to do the poses the way I want to.   And who could blame her?

At any rate, just finding out that the fires of the mind were normal seems to have settled them down.  That is, I’ve done nothing different but I feel better.   But that’s not entirely true.  I have done something different.  I’ve made a more conscious effort to pay attention to myself and to accept whatever I find here.

Honestly, I’d like to lose weight.  But the journey seems to be taking me to the mirror of self-acceptance and away from the mirror of self-criticism.  Maybe the weight will come off, maybe it won’t.  It’s more important to me to feel good–supple, flexible, strong, and calm– than to feel thin.   For now.  In general.  Thinness is way overrated anyways.

Where Did My Back Pain Go? Bikram Day 43

Fortuitously, my countdown in bikram coincides with the day of the month, at least through January.  So, today is January 3 as well as the 43rd day of my bikram practice.  What is different?  Sivasana.

Yes!  Already!  It still hurts, sometimes, to “relax” on my back on the floor, because my muscles, long trained to bunch up, still contract and hold tightly to my spine when I lay it down flat.  Yet I have learned, not just through daily practice, but also heat and exhaustion, to let go and, as I call it, to “fall through” the pain.

I have been going to yoga classes for more than 10 years.  It is only recently that I have experienced lying flat on my back with complete comfort.  Some years have been better than others, depending on the degree of stress I was under and how much exercise I was getting.  Generally, whenever I lie flat on my back on a hard surface, my body feels, simply, not suited to this posture.  For all these years, I thought it was because I had such large buttocks, which forced my spine to arch upwards away from the floor in an s-curve.  It seemed as though I needed to reverse that arch in a posture such as child’s pose to get comfortable.  The odd thing I have discovered is that the opposite is true.  It is only through practicing poses such as cobra and camel, in which I bend my spine backwards and backwards from the floor, that I find relief.

What has been happening lately when I go into sivasana is a kind of cramping up.  This is the usual response of my spine to the pose.  Not only my spine, but my entire back clenches, as though the muscles have memories, in anticipation of pain.  What I have been learning to do is to “fall through” the net that my clenched muscles create.  I must consciously tell myself that it will be all right to relax into the pain.  That is, the pain actually increases when I first acknowledge that it is there, and that my muscular habits are creating it.  Once I accept that the pain is there– and this is a huge step–and then willingly fall into it, embrace it, by asking my muscles to release–I feel first a greater discomfort, and then a complete release from it.

It feels as though there are stages of pain, or layers of muscular netting, that I allow myself first to fall into so that I can go through them to the place where pain ceases and I am resting.  Usually I have just arrived at this place of peace and comfort when my teacher alerts me that it is time to sit up.  So my resting period ends up being quite short.  But it is getting longer.  That is, I am finding that I can “fall through” the pain faster than I used to, which affords me a few seconds more of complete relaxation before moving on to the next pose.

Camel, the excruciating backward bend that I could not do without passing out in my first week of class, is ironically the pose that affords me the most comfort in sivasana.  Rabbit, the next crunch forward, affords the least relief.  But today at the end of class, as I settled down into sivasana, I scanned my body in disbelief.  Where was the pain?  The net of clenching, tensed muscles had disappeared.   I shifted position on the floor, looking for it.  It had to be there.  It has always been there.  But it wasn’t.

So, what is the emotional or psychological lesson?  Every day that I go to class I learn something new or reinforce something I have known about the way that I experience being alive in this world.  Falling into pain to fall through it is something that I have been practicing with my emotions for many years.

During periods of great distress, particularly the years of separation from my son, I often found that resisting the pain, or actively refusing to acknowledge it, only heightened its intensity.  I’d push it away and away and away, all in fear of what would happen to me if I admitted it.  I was afraid that I would not be able to function; that I would never stop weeping; that I would not be able to get out of bed; that I could not do my job; that I would lose my income; that I would end up living hand-to-mouth on the streets, strung out, out of my mind with grief and pain and mother-madness.   What I was mostly afraid of was that I would lose him forever, that he would stop loving me entirely.

The only relief I found, the only way that I could get beyond  the pain, which was like a searing hot fire burning out all my nerve endings, was by allowing it to be.  There was no pretending this devastation away.  In fact, just like with back pain, the more I stiffened up against it, in all the various protective postures that my mind assumed to guard against discomfort, the more discomfort I felt.  The more anxiously I responded to my fear of disablement, the more crippled I became.  So I had to learn to give in.

When I first lost him, I would go into my son’s room and lie on his bed and say to the pain, the grief, the longing, the fear, “come.”  Of course I would weep.  Usually I would cry myself to sleep.  I did this for weeks, for months, for years.  But it was the only way to make it bearable.  Only by  focusing directly on what I was feeling, without responding to it in any way,  could I find any clarity, any relief, any sanity.  I had to go into the pain, and bring it in, accept it, in order to get beyond it.

The key is learning not to respond.  The key is finding a way simply to accept what is, to acknowledge it without fighting it, in the hope of understanding it and, most importantly, having compassion for the self who is experiencing it.  I found I had to hear myself or see myself suffering to begin to recover from the suffering.

To invite the pain in is quite a different project than to dwell on or indulge in pain, which really only means a kind of idiotic wallowing and vaulting off into trauma after trauma.  Yes, sometimes just breathing can feel traumatic.  And sometimes just breathing is traumatic.  Still, I have found that I do best when I put my weapons down, when I drop my fists, and stop trying to bat the pain away.   Only this way do I see that some of the nets that I spread out for myself to fall into are not saving me, but rather trapping me in yet more hurt.

A caveat: sometimes the nets–protective mechanisms of denial, or  behaviors that temporarily dull my suffering (such as over-exericising, over-eating, or playing computer games for hours on end)–really do save my life.  But when I am stronger I see that only by falling through the habitual nets, only by letting go of my learned responses to pain, that I can fall through  and  beyond it.

Tossed in the Waves: Bikram Day 38

Oy!  Yoga kicked my asana today.   I did two classes in a row, beginning at four this afternoon.  Throughout the first part of the first class, I felt sick to my stomach, but found relief by finding my eyes in the mirror and repeating my mantra, “I am.”  In the second session, I felt so dizzy that I had to sit down several times.  Again I found my eyes in the mirror and said to myself, “I am.”  It’s a pretty powerful mantra, as Nisargadatta Maharaj found out.

Why was I so tired?  Getting up at 4:30 this morning might have had something to do with it.  Only one train travels non-stop from Pittsburgh to DC and it leaves at 5:20.  My son needed to board it, so I drove him down there.   It wasn’t so bad after we got out the door.

Toxins, mostly residue from sugars, probably also slowed me down today.  I missed yoga yesterday because I had to drive my son’s friend down to McKee’s Rocks in the morning. And since it was my son’s last evening in Pittsburgh, and I don’t get to see him very often, I chose to have dinner with him instead of going to the night class.  I knew I could do a double today.  It was nevertheless not wise to eat mashed potatoes (his favorite) and pasta (my favorite) instead of green vegetables and fish.  Nor was it sensible to indulge in the candied nuts I make very year, or in two glasses of wine.

I don’t regret the wine.  It was a marvelous Bordeaux, dry and round and musky in the mouth.  I do regret the carbs and the sugars.

It’s true what my yoga teachers say every day–that daily practice helps the digestion and keeps the blood sugars regulated.   But it also helps to settle the heart and emotions.   According to my teacher this evening, stress is harder on the body than sugar and other not necessarily healthy things that we ingest.

Today was stressful.  Not because I got up well before sunrise; not because I haven’t been sleeping well for a week.  Not because I’ve been indulging my love of fatty, starchy, and sugary food.  Today was stressful because I parted–only temporarily–with my son.  He’s lived far away from me since he was six years old.   We have a good relationship because we have both made an effort to know each other.   He seems to have adjusted fairly well to the separation, and now that he’s in college it is obviously common and normal to live on his own.   I, however, seem to have a deep wound.  Like an old war-injury, it aches and troubles me, sometimes more, sometimes less.  I know the pain is old, not really relevant to the present.  It’s an emotional reflex, a resurgence of sadness, of loss, of inconsolable heartbreak remembered, that triggers when I have to let him go again.

This dark wave that breaks over me brought me under in yoga today.  I am not talking about something that exists only in my head, in thoughts, in memories, but rather a physical experience, a somatic condition.  The mind and the body are connected.  What makes it bearable, insofar as it is bearable, is that I know that it is just a wave.   I know that I’ll go under and that the current might tumble and toss me more wildly than I might expect.  I also know that if I just go limp during the worst bits, and swim when the surge begins to abate, that I’ll come up and through and out.  The wave will recede, and I will get back on my feet.

I’m feeling rather beached now.  But I still love the ocean.