Namo Buddha (Hail to the Buddha) and Nepali Women

Woman praying

3 July 2, 2011

Yesterday I visited an important Buddhist shrine, Namo or Naya Buddha, with two other volunteers, Shannon and Darima, and a group of Hindu women from the Women’s Center. I teach these Nepali women English, and they taught me more about Nepali spirituality than any book or article I’ve read.  They don’t think of the Buddha as a god–he is “very different,” they said, from Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Saraswati, Durga, and the rest of the Hindu pantheon.  They think of him as a “wise man.”  He is buddamani, sage.  So why do they venerate him with all the same emotional intensity as they bring to Ganesha and others?  Because they are Nepali.   The following are notes from my journal during the day. Headings have been added.

2 July 2011

Women Together

I’m on a bus with Menuka, Devi, Susshila, Dilu, Ambica.  They are taking Darina, the other teacher at the Women’s Center, and me somewhere towards Banepur to place called Namo Buddha. Shannon is coming along for the ride because tomorrow is her last day in Nepal and she and Darina have become very close.  It is raining, of course.  This bus looked suspicious decrepit when we boarded it.  It did not seem to bother Dilu, who tends to take charge, that the driver’s head was halfway into the engine.  The last bus ride that started out this way was supposed to take only one hour but actually took 6 because the bus kept breaking down.

I’m very pleased to be going anyway, since this is my first outing with my new Nepali friends.  I love women but would not say, as I was about to say, that I like women better than men. Sometimes I trust them more, but not always and not finally.

As I get older, I find comfort in the similar experiences and challenges that women have and suffer because we are women: menstruation, childbirth, menopause, hormonal shifts, surges, stress, discrimination, catcalls on the streets, harassment, come-ons, rape, stares, the policing of the body, its clothing, gestures, and locations.  Not all women will admit or talk about it.  Some women are ashamed to be women;  some deny and some repress.

Not all women become mothers, of course, or get to keep and take care of their children. But we all as women share the common lot of women.  We all live in cultures that, to various extents and in different manners, insist that we dress, behave, and move through the world as women. Those who resist these codes are brave.  If they survive and thrive, we celebrate them, but not generally during their lifetimes.  What do we call the ones who defy their cultures’ policing of the body and mind and who then fall into poverty, isolation, and depression? weird, insane, unnatural, or evil.

Low-caste women building a house

Taking Busses

We’re climbing through endless terraces of rice fields doted with brick houses.  Many of the houses are habitable only on the ground floors.  These send up aspiring columns of brick or concrete that bristle with steel reinforcing rods.  Many roofs in the city are flat, which is useful for hanging laundry or creating gardens with potted plants.  In the country, where there is room, roofs are peaked.  Susshila touches her palms together as we pass a giant stature of Shiva, who holds his trident and looks benevolently over the valley. She says this place is called Sagar, or something like that.  The bus strains up the mountain and we go through a small village where a butcher displays flayed carcasses of unidentifiable animals on stone counters and rocks.

The sun breaks out and I want to mention it, but have to look up the word, surya, for sun.  Suriya the sun-god is one of the oldest Indo-European deities, along with Chandra, the moon, Indra (war, storms and rain), and Agni (fire).   My book is wrong about the word for sunny.  Gamlagyeko is the correct term.  It is not yet gamlageko but the surya has come out.

I see women bent under loads of bricks carried with a forehead strap, dark-skinned children standing in dirt lanes between fields, corn in patches everwhere.  Women wearing red headcloths and ragged red saris are planting rice in the rain.  A butcher shaves the hair and hooves off of a headless goat.  A shirtless man washes himself by a concrete cylinder.  Now we are arriving in a larger town, driving down a broad street bordered by 4 and 5 story buildings.  Dogs forage in spread-out mounds of garbage lining the road.  This is Banepa.

….

We have boarded a crowded bus.  The Nepalis sit three to two seats and push towards the back, where all the spots are claimed.  Darina and Shannon are complaining that the trip is taking too long.  We have gotten on our third bus.  The women told them that we were going to someplace far away.  Menuka said that it will cost 1500 rupees to get into Namo Buddha, and this has really set Shannon and Darina off.  They say, “I’m not paying that,” and want to go home.  Darina is sick with a bad case of gastrointestinal dis-ease.  Shannon has been traveling too long and longs to get back to the States and her boyfriend.  Darina understands that the women have high hopes for this journey and doesn’t want to disappoint them, but she looks miserable.

At least she has a seat.  Ambica is sitting on Susshila’s lap.  The rest of us are standing and have been standing for almost an hour.  Once we get going we will travel for yet another hour, so we will be weary when we arrive.  I don’t know where the bus driver is.  Few of the Nepalis appear to be distressed or impatient.  Ah, here is the driver.  He has started the engine, but still we sit.  At last we are leaving the filthy city of Banepur.

We climb through a village where I see a tall, thin, grey-haired woman in Tibetan dress, which is much plainer than the Hindu style.  Tibetan women wear long dark skirts and vests over along-sleeved blouses, and tie horizontally striped aprons around their waists.

The family next to me has brought cucumber from a vendor outside.  It looks and smells delicious.  I dare not touch it.

We have been climbing a winding, steep dirt road and seem to have come up 2 or 3 thousand feet.  But bus rolls into a deep pothole and everyone hears tearing metal.  The driver cuts the engine and the ticket-takers jump out to inspect.  No damage is found, and we crawl forward.  I have finally found a seat, which I am sharing with Menuka.  It is quite uncomfortable but better than standing.

Namo Buddha

We get off the bus at an inauspicious crossroads—a muddy track bordered by brick shacks.  We head down a dirt trail and I am worried that Shannon and Darina are going to be very angry because there seems to be nothing here.   Signs of civilization ahead include an outdoor restaurant where the chickens are pecking around the frying pans on top of the stove. A battered sign reads, in English: “We serve hygienic, fresh food here.”  There is a somewhat clean squat toilet with a door.  After we use it a ragged boy with a Dalai Lama medallion appears from nowhere and shouts at us to pay the fee.  Devi gives him 30 rupees. He still complains, so she throws some coins into his palm.   We head down the hill and pass under prayer flags that lead us to a medium-sized stupa.  This is Namobuddha, then.  This is looking better.

Lunch: Amazing food: channa (round, red beans), roti, tharkari (curried vegetables), roti (fried bread) and chura (beaten rice), ladu (Nepali sweet cakes), and coffee-chocolate candy which we wash down with Mountain dew and sweet Nepali tea.  We westerners cannot believe that they brought so much to eat, and are even more surprised and grateful when we find out that they have gotten up at 4:30 in the morning to cook it all.  Menuka pays for the tea.  Shannon says that she feels better and that she always gets cranky when she is hungry.  Darina has a serious stomach ache and cannot eat much, but she soldiers on.

After we eat we visit the small stupa.  I make an offering and light a butter candle, then round the shrine, spinning prayer wheels as I go.  I join the Hindu women at the inner temple of the stupa, and offer prayers.  Menuka pour a handful of rice into my hand and give me some marigolds and a white, silken scarf.  I throw the rice around the Buddha inside and give the flowers and the scarf to the old man who tends the shrine.  He tucks the blossoms into the statue’s knees, drapes the fabric around the Buddha’s neck, and then blesses me with a tika, a smear of red powder that he mixes in his hand, combines with some of the sacred orange smear on the Buddha, and then rubs into the crown of my head.  He also pours holy water and flower petals into my hands, which Susshila shows me to throw over my forehead and hair.

We go to another shrine nearby, removing our shoes as we enter.  Inside there are three relatively large Buddha statues and a frightening looking demon who looks like Bhairab, the angry manifestation of Shiva.  I have no idea which bodhisattva this is, but I make an offering here, on impulse, and hope for strength to manage the stormy changes that seem to be coming my way.

End of journal.  Continuation of the Story

We walk up a very steep hill bedecked with thousands of prayer flags.  Many of the women fall behind and finally it is only Shannon and I puffing towards the summit, where we find expansive views of the valley in all directions and a line of Buddhist shrines.  The red, yellow, blue and white flags festoon the top and lead down the hillside on a path that I am eager to follow.  We wait for our companions.  They, however, refuse to take another step, so I content myself with what purports to be the holiest spot at Namobuddha, the site where a young prince—who may have been the Buddha himself—encountered a starving tigress and her five cubs.  She was about to devour a small child, but the prince offered his own flesh instead.  His sacrifice transformed him into a boddhisattva.  After he died, legend says, he was reincarnated into Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha himself.  The Tibetans call this place Takmo Lujin (Tiger Body Gift).  Namo Buddha means Hail to the Buddha.

I feel especially moved by this place, because tigers have always been my favorite animal. When I was little I had a giant Steiff tiger named Suzann who guarded me while I slept.  She had glowing green eyes and was nearly as big as I was.  I made up the story that she protected me so that I would not feel afraid of her.  I say a sincere prayer to the tiger spirits of the mountain and move on with my friends, who have gone ahead.

From here we follow a narrow path up the spine of the mountain to another sacred spot, where we again give rice, flowers, silk, and money.  Menuka seemed to have an endless supply of scarves.  Susshila, the holdest and most overtly religious of the group, brings out her chrome offering bowl, her waxed wicks, and incense, as she does at every holy spot. She circulates the burning flame and smoke three times over the sanctuary while murmuring a prayer.  Menuka waves the heat and light from the butter lamps over her head.  All the women pay their respects by raising their hands to their foreheads, setting money, and pouring rice into the center of the shrine.  Before we enter, we walk clockwise around it turning prayer wheels.  I join their venerations out of curiosity as well as spiritual need.  Shannon and Darina stand apart and watch.

We still have not reached the highlight of our journey. a spectacularly beautiful, enormous, and seemingly brand-new monastery, the Thrangu-Tashi Yangste Gonpa, which at first glance looks like an expensive resort hotel.

Thrangu-Tashi Yangste Gonpa

The Tibetans have thrived in Nepal and they like to spend their wealth on monasteries.  Inside we find a large and elaborately painted rectangular passageway with columns decorated with tiger heads and lotus flowers.

We remove our shoes and follow a young monk up to golden doors, and then wait with him for an older monk, who opens the great doors to the great hall, drawing a gasp from all  of us.  Inside we see a huge, vaulted temple with six huge, golden Buddhas serenely staring down over rows and rows of prayer benches, silken banners, drums, and exploded thangka-like wall paintings, some of which are still in process.  There is the customary large photograph of the Dalai lama on the central dais, where we leave more rice, scarves, bills, and prayers.  We linger for a long time but not long enough for me.  As we leave monks begin to arrive and to sound cymbals, drums, and chants.

Back downstairs in the open passageway that runs beneath the temple, I copy out the following text from a newspaper entitled “The Voice of the Young Monks” and dated July 2011:

Today we collectively are facing so many environmental crises such as global warning, natural disasters, extinction of animals, population growth…

Now we cannot simply rely on current economical and political systems to solve the problem, because to a large extent they themselves are the problem.  The critical element of our problem is lack of awareness, which brings us to Buddhism.

Buddhism offers a precise solution to the environmental crisis by showing the method of cutting the self [off] from clinging.  The delusions of a separate self, which does not exist and is empty in nature, still because of which we become obsessed with things that we hope will give us control over situations, especially the competition for power, sex, and fame.

The syntax gets a little convoluted there at the end, but the message is clear enough.

I think all of us have been renewed by our visit to Namo Buddha.  I feel more at peace with myself than in a long time.  It has been a welcome escape from the tensions of the VSN project, which have been particularly taxing lately.

Here the journal ends.

Returning home through the language haze 

The journey back to Pepsi-Cola was so arduous, the buses so crowded and steamy, that we decided to walk the last short leg home.  This turned out to be more difficult for some of the women than they had expected.  Shannon and Darina, anxious to get home, sped ahead and were soon lost in the mud, dust, cows, motorbikes, vendors, bicycles, dogs, and mayhem of the busy road.  I also longed to rush towards my room, but remained with my hosts, who had taken us so far to see wonderful sights.   I had happily spent most of the day with them anyway, listening to their chattering, picking up words were I could, and building my vocabulary.  While Darina and Shannon and spent most of the day talking to each other, I had made the effort to speak to my friends in their own language.  They were not very good students of English, after all, and if I was going to get to know them I would have to do it in Nepali.  But this long, voluntary language lesson had exhausted me, and I was eager to retreat and recoup.

To my dismay, Ambica lived on the road we were walking along and invited everyone in for cold drinks.  It would have been rude to refuse, so I spent yet another hour in a language haze, following the women’s tone and facial expressions more than what they said.

Dogs and Men

Ambica’s son has a beautiful German Shepherd puppy, with whom I fell in love.  The son—I never did catch his name—said he was going to get rid of him because the dog does not bark and is too obedient.  To my mind, this made the dog perfect, but the son wanted an animal to scare unwanted visitors.  He spoke pretty good English and launched a barrage of questions at me, which I was glad to escape. He insisted that I come back again soon and often, to see the new, better dog.  I demurred and explained that Americans do not like to drop in on people without warning.  Throughout this interchange his mother, Ambica, said nothing.  She remained silent not only because her English is weak, but also because in Nepal women have very little say about what their sons do.  The husband rules the house and in his absence, the eldest or only son takes over as lord.

Nepali women are strong, like women everywhere, but they use their strength to endure and cooperate with their subordination, instead of resisting it.  If they work a full-time job, they come home to cook, clean and cater to the men in their families.  A good wife presses her forehead to her husband’s feet.  She marries a man from a collection of suitors from her caste whom her parents have selected.   Then she moves into her husband’s family and never return to her mother’s house again.

Very slowly, I am learning about how women live within these strictures.  One of the women at the center, for example, is divorced.  But she tells everyone else that she is married, because even these seeming friends of hers would shun her if they found out the truth.

Finally it was time to go.  Susshila split off a few steps down the road, and Dilu and Menuka accompanied me to Sugandha’s house, where I gratefully collapsed, finally alone, onto my bed.

All in all it was a very good day—ramaylo cha—as I learned to say.  I made better friends with the women from the center as well as with myself.  We had made a pilgrimage together and it was very good. Hail to the Buddha and to Nepali women!

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.

Extreme Plastic Surgery, "Artificial" Sex, and the Insane Death of Carolin Berger

Today’s post began as a response to ECHIDNE of the snakes. who brought Carolin Berger to my attention

She was a German erotic actor who died in her sixth breast enlargement surgery, at the age of 23:

She went under the knife for the last time at the Alster Clinic and was having 800g (28oz) of silicon injected into each breast.  But her heart stopped beating during the operation. She suffered brain damage and was put into an induced coma.The tabloid’s headline read: “The senseless death of Big Brother star Cora shocks the whole of Germany. “(Her) frail, 48kg (106lb) body struggled against death for 224 hours. She lost. Cora is dead. …Her previous five operations were reportedly done at a private clinic in Poland which refused to admit her for a sixth time.

I kept going over those weight numbers, the amount of silicone to be injected into her and her body weight. Then I started thinking about the widespread impact of heterosexual pron on what women’s breasts should look like and how we now regard artificial breasts as really the natural ones, how seeing a very thin woman with very large breasts on television now looks normal, in the sense of averages. Porn has also affected the shaving of the pubic hair.

If it has done all that, surely it must have had some impact on general interpretations of sexuality and on the roles women and men take in sex?

I think that the cultural turn towards increasingly artificial bodies would indeed affect sexual habits and roles.

Women who are willing to alter their bodies dramatically are likely to engage in degrading and humiliating acts that do not sensually stimulate themselves, but, rather, their partners.  Of course, being able to excite their partners would theoretically also get them off.  Presumably, they would be more stimulated by partners who fit the roles that they have learned to find exciting–wealthy, powerful, dominant.  These are the very men for whom they are mutating their bodies, after all, the men for whom they (think they) live, presumably.

Or would it be more accurate to say that these women live entirely in the Gaze, permanently disconnected from themselves as subjects, and utterly and only aware of themselves as objects?

I think that porn alters the mind and sexual experience because the culture has prepared the mind to alter.  We are all subject to deep and long patterns of dominant-submissive  behavior that are not at all “natural” in the sense of being permanent and unalterable.

In other words, it has not always been this way.  We have been humanoid, Homo Sapiens, upright, intelligent, and communal, for approximately 100,000 years.  Only about 10,000 years ago did human males begin to figure out how to dominate human females. Human females learned how to cope with that arbitrary and unnatural situation in various and often freakish ways.

Sexual desire is very malleable, easily manipulated–we know this.

But at what point does the subject who is experiencing sex as an object, and nothing but an object, utterly lose herself (or himself)?  At what point does the long-objectified self break down completely, in severe depression, catastrophic phobias, or addictions, or bizarre, disfiguring and self-destructive behaviors?

Coralin Berger seems to have broken down in the last sort of way.  We can imagine that she at one time had a sense of herself as a person, a girl, a young woman, before she became obsessed with her body, or, rather obsessed with the notion of herself as a body, a body that needed, in her eyes, continually to be improved.

We can speculate about the forces that influenced the way that she came to think of herself.  They are the forces that influence all of us: the family, the church, the schools, the juridical system, the economy.  There is also the increasing power of the media that manipulates our sense of ourselves as women, as men  (for some good examples, check out About Face and the film Generation M).  Each one of us resists these forces to the best of our abilities.

My question is: at what point do these forces drive us completely insane?  At what point does the self who struggles to think independently break down so completely that there is nothing left but a shell, thin, brittle, and driven to the operating table for the sixth and final fix?

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.

Attempted Censorship of Bikram Blog

I’m really glad to know that there are readers of this blog, but I am disappointed in one or more of you.   One of you has gone running to someone else at my yoga studio–never named here–to complain that I have written “disturbing things.” The person who received this complaint then had the nerve to tell me that I should “watch what I say” in my blog.

It is not as though this person possesses the authority, institutional, moral or otherwise, to tell me what I may or may not post here.

It was irritating enough that this person felt empowered to do so.  More annoying was that he or she had not even bothered to read it, and had essentially agreed to carry out the malicious intentions of the coward who wanted to shut me up in the first place.

Had he or she actually investigated my blog, he or she would no doubt have been as hard-pressed as I am to discern what elements of which postings are “disturbing” enough to be censored.   

I haven’t attacked anyone’s character.   I haven’t named any names, except to praise teachers who, in any case, are already well-known and well-praised.  What I have done is chronicle my journey through 100 classes of bikram yoga in so many days.  I have discussed poses I find difficult and described what I have enjoyed about the practice.  I have commented on my own weak, petty, and competitive thoughts, and attempted to think through them to stronger, more generous behaviors.   I will continue to do so.

Most of the people I have met at the studio are wonderful, warm, open-hearted and humble.  Every one of them possesses a unique set of skills, strengths, and capabilities.  I like it that not everyone in the room is young, toned, and thin, and I love the genuine friendliness of the people who are young, toned, and thin, to those of us who don’t look quite as beautiful as we once did.   I feel lucky and happy to join all the people I’ve met in this studio–the young and the old, the blubbery and the skeletal, the limber and the stiff, the serious yoginis and occasional passers-through,  in my practice every day.  I’m frankly shocked to know that one of them slandered me behind my back.

I don’t write this blog to please anyone but myself.  If you don’t like it, don’t read it.  If you insist on tormenting yourself, then at least have the decency to comment, publicly or privately, on what you find “disturbing” here.   Have the courage to take responsibility for your response, however negative,  to my writing.

Sapere aude!

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.