Day 2 of Being Present

It’s raining and dreary, so I decided to stay home instead of stumble through the Ashtanga class I thought I would go to.  I rolled out my mat in my own studio/office and put on a new playlist and moved through as many of the postures as seemed sensible.  For the past 12 months or so, I have been going to various physical therapists who have instructed me to avoid yoga. Well, actually, the first guy told me to avoid forward bends, and the second woman said to avoid backbends, so I stopped feeling confident in my body altogether.

Last week I went to an Ashtanga class (the one I avoided tonight).  I felt I had aged ten years.  My arms buckled in chatturanga and I could no longer squeeze myself into any kind of bind.   Humbling.

I teach a Trauma-focused yoga class to women in therapy at a community health center every week, and there I tell them to pay attention to what they feel in their bodies, and to make choices based on what they are feeling.  I’ve decided to practice what I’m preaching and spend a few minutes each day writing about it.

Things I noticed today: my stomach feels bulky and heavy and in the way.  My neck feels tight when I bring my ear to my shoulders.  I clench my teeth.  I felt angry today, not irritable, but appropriately angry, I thought.  A co-worker was rude and unkind to me.  Another challenged my judgment.  My back went up.  I’ve been carrying anger around in my belly and my neck.

It was surprisingly lovely to arrive in my body during sivasana, to dwell in my awareness of  the sweat cooling my forehead and chest, my lumbar spine and hips settling down towards the floor, my abdomen resting as my heart slowed down, the sound of my breath and a quiet, soothing swishing sound filling my ears.  It was surprisingly difficult to stay there, to remain simply in being.

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.

Image
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.

Grown-up Breakups, Green Tara, and Tupac

It is the oddest experience—to be really angry at someone and yet to forgive instantly, to love someone and yet to know that you need to let them go, to be relieved to have your solitude back and yet to mourn the loss of your former lover, to accept that you’re moving on and yet to keep freaking out about his having left you for someone else.

You say to yourself:

No way is she better than me.  I mean, his taste has really declined.

And then you admit:

…but maybe she’s better for him than I was.

Which leads to the happy thought:

And maybe there’s someone out there who is way better for me, too.

I have been looking for him for such a long time.  This time I’m not settling about anything. I will feel the earth move.  Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for his love is more delightful than wine.  Pleasing is the fragrance of his perfums, his name is like perfume poured out.

I’m glad, I’m glad, I’m so glad and relieved this time to be able to go through this without getting stuck in rigid “he did me wrong” discourse.  Also, I’m glad holding myself with compassion and gentleness and love as I face my suffering. This does not mean I place the burden of my suffering at his feet and demand retribution.  These are my problems.  Look: I choose to respond to this difficulty, this blow to my emotional and financial security with love and grace.  I chose grace.  Why chose anything else?

Suffering, dukha, is unavoidable.  I can’t opt out of the pain but I can choose how I respond to it.  I think writing about it, meditating about it, and crying about it is all an excellent form of ritualized mourning, a kind of kaddish that I am working through.  I’m trying to keep my eyes open.

I was talking to a friend (a friend? more than a friend? there’s always hope!) tonight about how weird it is to be back in the United States.  Everything is more or less the same. The gods dogs are the same, the garden is the same as it always is this time of year, the paintings and rugs and tables and chairs and dishes in my house are the same, the streets are the same, my neighbors are doing the same things, the pile of mail is the same pile of catalogs and come-ons, but I am different.  My body and mind have changed.   I was only there for two months but it transformed me tangibly in a way that I cannot yet describe.  I feel heavier, more rooted to the earth, as though the magnets in my soles had a stronger pull.  If I’m liable to floating off at a momentous breath, then I’m as likely to come come crashing back to the ground again, upright and on my feet.

I like being in my house by myself.  I love it here.  The wisteria and the grape vines are still alive, if parched.  The Echinacea is blooming into the heat.  The rosemary, symbol of the woman’s reign in the household, had held on, a small, scrubby branch.

Today I reclaimed my yoga/meditation room.  I set up an altar with the male and female manifestations of compassionate action—Avalokitseshvara and Green Tara.

 

For me, Green Tara is the most important deity/symbol in the Buddhist pantheon.  “ The Sanskrit root târ-means “to traverse” or “cross over” as in using a bridge to ford a stream.” Green Tara is pictured rising from her Lotus couch, one foot in the world, ready to help, actively involved in the alleviation of misery in the world.  Her name means what the modern Greek word metaphor means: a vehicle for carrying over, like a dolly that you use to move furniture from one place to another.  Similarly, linguistic metaphors don’t name the things they denote, they only transport meaning and by transporting make those things, those concepts, accessible.

Green Tara

Tara moves from one place to another, transports compassion from its abstract realm to the material realm, putting it into action.  A metaphor reaches out, spans a gap and, by connecting things together, makes the immaterial concrete, graspable.

I have been crying.

Crying releases stress and consoles the heart, they say.  For sure, you can’t pretend you’re not suffering or that you don’t need to be loved when you’re weeping.  But you don’t necessarily feel better afterwards.  You feel wrung out, over-infused with intensity, exhausted.  It is good if you can keep laughing. I often laugh after or while crying.  Joy and sorrow aren’t exactly opposed emotions. When you cry you feel vulnerable, and if you’re at all kind to yourself you will give yourself some slack.  Embrace your suffering with all the love that you would bestow on anyone else you love.

Having taken this advice seriously, I can now announce:

Hey! I just realized that I am HOME.

I’m in my house.  Today is my father’s birthday.  I have a gorgeous, large sepia-toned photograph of him in his prime, when he was still handsome. I’m at home in my father.  My father has come to rest at home in me.

I ADORED my father, and also had a lot of trouble getting along with him.  Many regrets.  Still, I’m hereby honoring, toasting, him, thanking him for all that he gave me, for the skiing lessons, the encouragement, for never saying that I couldn’t do anything I wanted to because I was a girl.

Awesome job, Dad.  And I’m not talking about the money, even though you thought that was all anyone cared about.  I cared about you.

Switching away to JOY!!  I have everything I need right here.  My son is spending the night at his girlfriend’s house and

 I am alone in my own private space for the first time in 2 months.

The bathroom is clean, the toilet flushes without running all over the floor, the shower runs hot and cold, no one is watching me come and go, and I have air conditioning.  I can eat all the salad and fruit I want without getting diarrhea  and I am taking food out of my own refrigerator in my kitchen with its ancient linoleum floors.  I can dance around naked if I please.  It is a delightful freedom. I want to call up my friend J not to gloat but to share with her a delicious independence that she will best understand.

If you cannot find a companion who is better than or like yourself

You should make your way steadily, alone.

In the childish there is no companionship.

From the 5th chapter of the Dhammapada

The Dhammapada, or “Verses on the Way,” is a redaction of the Buddha’s teachings.  By “childish” the speaker, allegedly the Buddha, means something more expansive that the behavior and mentality that we expect from children.  He means people who, for whatever set of reasons, have not yet grown to maturity in their thought or feelings, who have not yet become “skillful.”

Later on the Dhammapada reads,

If one cannot find a mature friend,

a companion who is wise, living productively,

let him go alone,

like a king abandoning conquered land,

like an Elephant in the forest.

A life of solitude is better–

There is no companionship with a childish person.

Let one go alone and do no damage,

Like an elephant in the forest.

It is better to restrain the mind alone than to be restrained by someone else, better to conquer one’s own passions than to live tamed by someone else.  Like an elephant, the wise wayfarer governs her or his own passions, endures the insults and arrows inflicted by others. The wise practitioner does not go mad with rage because she or he keeps watch over thoughts and emotions.  She or he finds comfort in friends and in “contentment with whatever is.”

If you are reading Buddhist scriptures you are probably trying to wake up, to see more clearly, to understand the world better than you have so far.  You are trying to find your way out of the trance of reactivity, of emotional distress that leads to behaviors you later regret.  You know that dukkha, pain, is inevitable.  You know that don’t need to make it worse by beating yourself up about it.   And yet you do fall back into the trance, all the time, and you do occasionally wake up to yourself beating yourself up.  So you keep to the path, watch over your mind,  and look for people who are more or as skillful at this practice of discipline.

Have you ever been on a trek or a long hike with a really childish person?  Not a really young person.  Young people can be very old, very mature, very good company.  But I mean someone who is continuously grasping for attention, for reassurance, someone who boasts and struts or whines and manipulates or has to fill every bit of quiet with incessant jabber?  After a short while you begin to feel enervated, tired, impatient.  You grit your teeth, you endure.  You are not looking about you.  Your attention becomes very small, very focused on the source of irritation.  The Buddha says, “be compassionate to and with this person but do not expect much from them.  Walk steadily on.”

These are not the Buddha’s words.  I’m paraphrasing the lines above, which differ a lot from the classic masculine stiff-upper-lip mantras that Tupac Shakur parodies in his “Hold On.”

Hold On, Be Strong,

When it’s on, it’s on.

The same speaker who claims that he screwed up by smoking pot but now knows what’s “going on out there” and that “god don’t like ugly,” and that “you got to stand strong,” is getting high at the beginning of the song.  Thus everything he says has a double meaning.  He plays on the meaning of the word “strong” by identifying it with the aggressively self-defensive stance of the “black male” and the “thug for life.”  Tupac is not endorsing this thuggish identity, he’s putting it down. He’s  also saying that it’s not enough to “hold on” and “be strong,” to stoically endure without admitting to pain.  He’s also not campaigning against weed.  He’s observing that we are all vulnerable, we are all suffering, and we might want to think twice about the directive to suck it up and bear it.  We might want to show a little compassion to our own suffering, which will help us to acknowledge others’ suffering, and jolt us out of the fatal trance of the ego.

So when it comes round, Tupac’s refrain, “Hold on, Be strong” means exactly the opposite of what the stoned speaker says it means.  Tupac challenges the whole “black-man-as victim-of-the white-system” and asserts, “be strong” and “hold on” as a message that is far more complicated that its overt explication.  He urges his auditors to have faith in themselves as agents of positive change.  The Buddha says, “hang in there, endure your suffering, but do not discount it; acknowledge your reality, your dukkha”   Tupac says something similar.  Be strong, but not in the rigid, hyper-masculine manner.

To compare dukkha, human suffering, to a simplistic victim/oppressor mode of thought is to get stuck in rigid black/white ways of understanding reality.  You can’t simply deny it or refuse to talk about it.  And there is no point in going around blaming your ex for having hurt you, attacking defensively, lashing out in retribution.  It solves nothing and it’s childish.

No one is coming to save you except yourself.  It’s not a matter of belief, of abstract faith, but rather of action, of wise movement, of practice, of allowing Tara/Avalokitesvara to step off the virtual lotus of heavenly bliss into the world of suffering.  Step off your high horse of militant self-denial into your suffering heart, and find contentment in the movement, in the metaphor. Acknowledge your pain and be with yourself, alone, like an elephant in the forest. Thus you can

Pull yourself out of misfortune

Like an elephant, sunk in the mud.

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.

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.