Bikram Day 26: the back and the belly and the mind

What I’m liking best about bikram these days is the yogatalk in the locker room afterwards.  Today I mentioned that sivasana is still incredibly painful for me and elicited a chorus of similar complaints and advice.  The consensus view is that I don’t know how to stand or sit properly, like lots of women.  What I need to do, the women in the locker room said, is tilt my pelvis back while tucking my butt under and pulling in on my stomach muscles.   A number of them demonstrated, in various states of undress, standing and kneeling on the floor.

It’s not like I haven’t heard this before.  My wonderful Iyengar teacher in Hotchkiss, Nancy, suggested that I think about my pelvis as a bowl of milk.   I need to tilt the bowl back, bringing the front rim up, so that I don’t spill the liquid that I’m carrying in it. This is an old metaphor.  As the lover says to the beloved in the Song of Songs,

Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies.

According to the naked and sweaty women in the locker room at my yoga studio, combined with the advice I got from my wonderful Iyengar teacher in Colorado, my back pain, which is sometimes so debilitating that I can hardly move, comes from not having enough respect for my belly.

So where does this leave me?  How do I continuously focus on how I’m holding my self, my spine?   I don’t know if I can do this, but I will try.

What I am noticing now on day 26 is not physical.  I haven’t lost an ounce and I can’t see that I’ve tightened up in any one of my muscular areas.  My arms still look flabby, damn it.  I’m still drinking a couple of glasses of wine every night.  But I am eating less junk food, and I do notice that I’m craving healthier meals.  Yesterday, for example,  I did a double class–four hours in a 90 degree room, three of them holding poses–and afterwards I wanted to eat green stuff.  But the greatest noticeable benefit is psychological.  I feel calmer, more centered.  I feel more self-confident and less anxious.

For example: today I sent off my book proposal. This is a huge achievement.   I’m embarrassed to admit how long I’ve been working on it.  Something about the commitment to yoga made it possible for me to make a commitment to myself in this way.  After years of anxious hiding,  I finally said to someone, “hey, this is my theory, and it is mine, and you should pay attention to it.”  Also: “My ideas are interesting and worthy of publication.”  And, “I’m not going to sit on this for one more minute.”

What is the connection between this locker-room lesson about the belly and the back and  my having sent out something that I have been sitting on and fretting over for 10 years?  The sending out of the proposal is a kind of birth, a kind of delivery of what is within me to the world.   This gesture, so long guarded against, so long feared, has helped me to relax.  But I wonder if I would have been able to make this vital move if I hadn’t also been going through the same 26 spine-altering poses for the past 26 days.

Tonight I practiced yoga with a woman who I have had trouble accepting, even though I have also been very touched by her.  When I first met her, I felt resentment, competition, and dislike.  Tonight my anxiety, or discomfort in the world, abated a bit, and I was able to see and accept her with much more compassion than before.  I caught myself comparing my ability to do the poses with hers, and tried to let this ridiculous competitiveness go.  Tonight she was rather noisy and self-centered and vain and domineering.   I sensed that her not very likable behavior was coming from pain and misery.  She’s very confessional and at the end of class she mentioned that, just before it, she had been weeping in her car.   Christmas is coming on and she just broke up with her boyfriend.  None of her family is here in Pittsburgh.  She doesn’t know quite how to get through the holiday.

Why did it take so long for my heart to soften and to see her as a human being whom I actually liked and wanted to help?  Is it not because I get into these habitual and rigid poses of the mind, not unlike the habitual and rigid poses of the body, that ultimately bring me pain?  Isn’t this guarding of the heart, and these customary ways of holding the body and the mind, a way of dwelling in dislike and distance and alienation from other people? I experience this alienation from other people as a form of pain.   I don’t know how I learned to hold myself in these ways, and it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that I learn to change the way I carry myself in the world, not only in relation to other people but also in relation to myself.  The old habits of rigidity and separation may once have protected me from pain, but they can also increase the discomfort, the stiffness, that makes the movements of my body and mind excruciating.

Bikram Day 15

After half a month, I think I’ve reached some kind of plateau.  I don’t seem to be getting better at the poses as rapidly as I did before, and I often feel very tired in class.

The first few days, I felt completely exhausted after class and could not understand why Jonathan, my friend, said he felt the yoga energized him.   I came home and collapsed into a chair or bed and moved very little afterwards.

After about a week, though, I began to feel a certain lightness and joyousness that started right after the final sivasana and stayed with me during the day. It was as though my very glands were coming alive again as I flushed the toxins from my body.  And it seemed that each day I awoke with more energy, power that I plowed back into the practice.  I bent to the side and backwards with more effort and enthusiasm.  I threw my chest off the floor during locust.

Lately I have felt tired in class.  I’m dragging.  I had to sit down today.  I’ve pulled a hamstring and my leg hurts.  In sivasana, I’m hot, hot, hot, hot.  I can barely stand how hot it is…I search for the slightest whisper of air.  I swallow to bring moisture into my throat.  I stare at the ceiling and call out for the old ones to help me endure.  My clothes, plastered to my body with warm sweat, feel heavy.  I wait for release from my misery.  It comes with the next pose, a sit-up, that leads right into the next contortion on the floor.

So I’m just here, in this place, after 15 days in a row of yoga.  I’m supposed to feel the benefits by now.  Am I?  I suppose my concentration has improved and my endurance has grown, along with my humility.  Sivasana still hurts my back.

I’m no longer bragging to my friends about this awesome new practice I’ve begun.  But I’m still committed, more than ever, I suppose, to seeing it through.  I’m going to have good days and bad days.  As one of my teachers likes to say, the worst days are the one when you don’t show up.  I’m still showing up.

And I’m learning, incrementally, to become more aware of the tension in my throat, my neck, my chest, of the ways that anxiety and fear and worry register themselves in the muscles in my back. I can’t release those muscles until I know what I’m doing with them, and I can’t give up the stress that I’m holding until I release those muscles.

The heat, the discomfort, the heart pounding the blood through my temples and chest I’m learning to experience as temporary sensations that come and go.   I am learning to look for a cooler, calmer, steadying aspect of my experience, which is also there, and perhaps always there.

Bending in Bikram


I resisted bikram yoga for years.  I had tried it once and found it oppressively hot and even rather disgusting.  All those sweaty, fatty male bodies and their sweaty smells.   But I’m committed to it now.   I’ve even signed up for the 100 day challenge.

Today is day 12. I’ve already noticed a change in my body.  I haven’t lost any weight, but my clothes fit differently.   My jeans are looser.  I feel leaner.

On day one I could hardly stand the sight of myself in the mirror.  My arms looked white, fleshy, flabby, and large.  They are still white and fleshy, but there is a bit more tone in my shoulders.  I don’t know why, since we don’t do any push-ups or arm-balances or sun salutations.  Maybe my sun salutations are helping. I try to start each class with 5 sun salutations to warm up my body.  I can drop into sivasana must faster afterwards, even if the room is crowded and noisy, and I get a better sense of what’s going on in my body as I’m lying there, sensing my spine against the floor.

Sivasana (corpse pose) is not easy for me.  I have a big butt, courtesy of my ancestors, and a slight scoloiosis, so my spine does not rest easily or comfortably on the floor when I’m lying on my back.  I can ease my discomfort if I tuck my shoulder blades under, and if I lengthen out my legs.  If I don’t adjust my bones and buttocks, the pose is painful.  I think of it as the first spine stretch of the day.  I let myself rest heavily on the floor, and let go.  I’ve been practicing this pose for ten years, and it still challenges me.  I think in some way the true test of bikram will be how it changes my sivasana.

Will it become easier for me to lie flat on my back?  Will my spine lie more easily, curve with greater fluidity around my glutious maximus, which I assume is only going to get bigger and harder, as it becomes more muscular?  Will I learn to calm my breathing down more efficiently?  Will I develop a greater ability to relax all the muscles in my body, to let the flesh drop down, off the bones, as it will when I finally die, before rigor mortis?

It probably seems odd to decide that the quality of one’s corpse pose will measure the effectiveness of practice that is meant to restore vitality.  But this makes sense to me because sivansana is the pose in which I am most aware of what my spine normally does, and how it normally feels. And  bikram is all about the spine. My spine is stiff and inflexible.  I can’t go up into wheel, for example, with any kind of grace, not even when I’ve been climbing a lot and my arms are strong, because my spine won’t bend that way.

Yet, after 12 days of half-moon poses and standing back-bends  forward bends (Ardha-Chandrasana and Pada-Hastasana) and standing bow pose (Dandayamana-Dhanurasana), triangle  (Trikanasana) and seated twists ( Ardha-Matsyendrasana) twists, and all the other poses,  I’m starting to loosen up.

For the first ten days, I blacked out every time I moved into camel.  To do this pose, you support your back with your hands facing downwards towards your butt, stick your hips forward, lift your chest, and bend backwards, trying to see the wall and then the floor behind you.  For the past two days, I have been able to bend back without seeing stars.  This is a big accomplishment for me.  It’s hard to breathe in that room, at 90 or 100 degrees.  The secret to staying conscious, in back-bends, is to crunch the glutious maximus down hard.  Then you simply hang back, letting your butt do all the work for you.  The spine is lengthening slowly, slowly unfolding, slowing bending back and opening.

I’m grateful to my teachers for reminding every day that the body will change, but that I must wait for it.  With time, consistent practice, and patience, I will see improvement.   I’m inspired to Nan, my fellow-student and yogi, who is now on her 88th day or something like that.  She says that her body has completely changed, even though she hasn’t lost a lot of weight.  She feels better, stronger, more vibrant.

I’m looking forward to feeling better.  But I’m also doing this because I’m curious.  I just want to see how it changes me psychologically and physically.

Could I live out here?

Could I?  Honestly, I don’t know.  I love it and it is part of my home territory.  My dad loved the West and drove us all around it for more than 20 years.  I’ve seen it change and I’ve seen it stay the same, exactly, as it was.  I love the subtle change of seasons in the dry brush.  It pays to pay attention.   I like arid, sunny, mountainous climates. I was born in the center of downtown Los Angeles.

Race is different out here.  First of all, depending on where you live, you hardly see it.  Inland and northern western states are very white.  White-Brown relationships are particularly complicated.  There is not simply a binary division between “whites’ and ‘hispanics,” since lots of hispanic people  are “white” in the eyes of Anglos  But it’s not that simple.   Southern California, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado have something in common with South Africa, in that these states share a culture  in which successive waves of very different white people came in, took over, and fucked a lot of stuff up.

I have seen one person of color since I’ve been here now for over a month and half, with a week break in the middle of the period.   It’s not normal.  Almost makes me ashamed to admit that a part of me thrives–no, comes back to life–out here in these sunny, arid mountains.   But lots of people come back to life in this climate.   That’s why it seems so weird out here—where are all the other people?  The community feels unbalanced, too homogeneous out here. Not quite “America.”

Plus there is no movie theater. Nor is there a decent bar.  Nothing even close to the symphony, not to mention opera or ballet or theater.   I can live without shopping malls–I order everything online anyway.  There is a good used bookstore.  It had a great s/f collection, and that is how I judge a bookstore.  But not much in the way of inspiring artists. At home I can not only know ABOUT an aspiring artist, I can also be get to know that person, and learn from her or him.

It’s a nice fantasy: myself out on the range, let’s say on an immense ranch of my own, with stunning views and clear streams, rustic exteriors and cozy interiors, great wine, fresh, organic, local produce, maybe even a few goats and chickens, and a steady supply of marijuana, of course, and books, and internet access.  Maybe I’d paint more.  Maybe I’d take up that rustic weaving project.  I’d revert to my hippie self.  Obviously I would grow herbs.  Maybe I would sell them.  I would practice Iyengar with Nancy and get very good.   I would converse with people through the internet, go to conferences, or not.

It’s such a common fantasy, it’s almost embarrassing to be having it.   What makes mine different is that I’d get to be near my brother, who is only a few years younger than I am.  I miss him.  And I’d be closer to my sister, and nearly all of my cousins and aunts and uncles.  My family.  But my son lives on the east coast, and so does my boyfriend.  So  I find myself in the same question: where does the heart yearn?  It years in opposite directions.  Irritatingly.

At least there is the prelude to Edvard Grieg’s From Holberg’s Time.”

In case you didn’t know, Ludvig Holberg was a Norwegian humanist, an Enlightenment thinker who is also called the founder of Norwegian and Danish literature.  Apparently he was pretty good at investing money.  I’ve never read anything he wrote.


Edgy

So for three days now I’ve been rewriting the introduction and it is not going well.  I have written I think one paragraph that I like.  And I honestly do not know what else should go into it.  Enough introduction.  I am so heartily sick of writing the introduction.

The sun starts to hit the table where I work, in my brother’s kitchen, at about 3 pm, glaring off the screen and making it pretty uncomfortable to work.  I took a long break and drove up into the Grand Mesa National Forest, which you can only access by miles of dirt road.   Pretty awesome.  The road starts out through a valley bordered by a rim of rock that runs along the hills, winding through ranches with airplane-sized watering tractors, and long bunches of cedar and scrubby brush, and then heads upward so steeply that even my brother’s enormous truck slipped on the gravel at times.  I hadn’t put it into 4-wheel drive yet, trying to save gas.   After about 10 miles the ranches dropped out and there was just open sagebrush sea and scrub, and up ahead in the far hills a forest of gold.  And then I was in the aspen, all apricot shimmer and white trunks, and nearly hit a very black cow and its calf.   On I drove over a road that got markedly worse, so bad that I had to slow down and roll over the rocks and valleys at 1 mile an hour.

I reached Bailey’s Reservoir at about 4.  It is really just a lake nestled into the skirt of a small and barren valley.  Beautiful, but dark.  The sky was overcast, threatening to rain.  There was one bright yellow aspen against the black-green firs.  The ground was rust brown, mottled with cow-pies.  Little breeze.   I was away from the road, away from the truck, and tucked back into the woods, just the way I like to be.  Not a sound except for one weird cry that could have been a coyote or a crazy human. I guess it spooked me, because I didn’t want to stay there.  Maybe it was too quiet, deafeningly silent, after that.  There was no breeze, and I was too far away from the cows to hear them.  I regretted I had not brought the dogs.  It was so quiet that my brain started to make up sounds–to hear the buzz of the highway, or cars, or other kinds of urban noise.  These phantoms passed away.  An airplane thundered pass and it took a long time for the sound to fade.  But then it did, and all was silent again

I drove further down into the valley and headed back home.  Then I began to feel irritated with my cowardice, turned around, and headed back up to the lake.  But I couldn’t stay there.

I turned around again and drove downhill about a mile, across a rugged washboard road, got out, propped an easel against a rock, sat, and looked.  I could see way down across the Grand Mesa and out towards the West Elk Mountains and the flat land where Highway 92 runs from Hotchkiss to Delta.  I was way up on 3100 Road.

Even though I enjoyed the softness of the aspen trees that had already shed their leaves feathering up against the evergreens, and the broad swathes of gold behind them, and the valley spilling out below me; even though I was happily straddling a granite boulder like a horse, I couldn’t simply sit and be.  Too edgy.  I needed to move, get back, reach home before dark, before the rain.  Plus in this spot I could hear the cattle lowing, and they annoyed me.

They annoyed me more on the way back down, because they all seemed to have decided to go somewhere on the road at the same time.  Dinner?  There must have been thirty or forty of them, all told, on the way back.  All different colors, browns and tans, creams, and russets and blacks, bulls and cows and calves.  They frequently stopped right in the middle of the road, turned their enormous bodies sideways and stared at the headlights.  When I finally got through them all, and drove a little further down the mountain, I saw one pure white young cow grazing among the aspen.

I also saw hawks, and chipmunks, and deer.  I think they were deer.  Could have been elk.  One froze by the roadside, so I stopped and looked into her eyes until she decided I was no threat and moved on.  She had enormous ears.

Once I had a dream that three animals came to me, and when I awakened I fancied that they were my spirit animals, or totems.  They were an owl, a jackal, and a doe.  I saw the face of the doe this afternoon.

I’m making soup with last night’s creamed corn (I made it from fresh cobs), tomatoes that come from my brother’s garden here, caramelized onions and carrots, and sweet potato.  The broth is water-based. Since I’ve sworn off all processed foods I couldn’t use a cube, so I took a chicken breast out of the freezer and popped it in to the slow-cooker.  I made this before I left for my drive.  When I got back the chicken was tender enough and cool enough to shred with my fingers.  I poured another cup or so of water and about half a cup of wine into the broth, and it has been simmering for the past 40 minutes or so. I will have to let you know how it turned out.