I’m closing out the third day of my fourth seasonal Ayurvedic cleanse — hard to believe it’s round four! — and scribbled in my notes from yesterday’s cooking class with Kate O’Donnell of Ayurveda Boston is:
DO NOT STIR THE KITCHARI!
I adore kitchari to the point of craving it fairly frequently, especially in its hardcore, cleanse-style form without ghee or tastier accoutrements. But since my first cleanse in the fall of 2012, I have always had the sense that I improperly prepare this mix of basmati rice, split mung dahl and spices.
After tasting Kate’s concoction yesterday, I feel validated in my suspicions.
So for the rest of this cleanse, I will let the kitchari cook on the stovetop longer, I will add water as I go along if needed, and, for heaven’s sake, I will not stir the batch as I go. I’m looking forward to whipping up kitchari that is soupier than risotto — and I can’t wait to add a strip of kombu to the mix.
Kate, by the way, is working on an Ayurvedic cookbook, and I am counting the months until it’s released. I’ll share that info here when it happens.
This weekend’s sessions with Kate, hosted in Ann Arbor by Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor, included introductory sessions on the fundamental concepts of Ayurveda and also a cooking class. I can’t tell you how geeked I was to get to meet Kate in person after a year and a half of only seeing her through laptop and iPad screens for online cleanse meetings and individual consultations. I’m not sure where I would be today — digestively or otherwise — if Angela Jamison hadn’t set up that first online cleanse program with Kate in 2012. In the stew of A2, as Ann Arbor is called, the twin sciences of ashtanga and Ayurveda have transformed my lifestyle and therefore my life.
If I only had one word to describe this weekend, it would be community. How cool is our ashtanga shala community? We have the likes of Anne Kellogg, who took the photo of Kate above, and Eric Fileti, who made delectable batches of local organic ghee to share. And in my head, I’m scanning the room and seeing everyone else who brought their smiles and experiences and questions. I mean, by the end of the weekend, we were laughing about our debate over preferences for castor oil sources (I am taking my purgation this Friday, and will be using the drug store variety).
I needed this weekend. My job has tested me on just about every level for the past couple months — physically, with the hours and the stress, and emotionally with some dynamics going on. I was especially geeked for the opportunity to meet individually with Kate — our first consultation not done via Google+ — in which Kate could look at my tongue and feel my pulse. It was a true treat to be able to sit across from each other and talk.
A lot of the talk was centered on my elevated vata dosha (not a surprise to me, believe me — I have felt this keenly since returning from India and being thrust back into my professional life).
One ridiculously simple and extremely lovely suggestion Kate had was to bring flowers to work. I can hear my mom telling me the exact same thing, and really, many of the gems of Ayurveda remind me of what my mom has told me all my life (get outside! take a walk!).
Like with so much of Ayurveda — as Kate reminded us during the weekend workshops — this is stuff we already know. But we’re human, and we need to be reminded. I bought these flowers from a lovely shop near my workplace today, and I am happy to say that this, too, is part of my Ayurvedic practice.
Since learning “Sahana Vavatu” — one of the “shanti,” or peace, mantras — during this year’s Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor Xinalani retreat, I’ve found it can provide a space of solace that I can return to at any time. Because I find it powerful, beautiful and deeply reassuring, I’ve used it as a talisman, going over it in my mind in situations in which I am struggling with uncertainty, doubt or anxiety. There are times I recite it quietly to myself simply because I want to connect with its meaning and its meditative qualities. And I like to chant it as I’m nearing the end of my hour-long drive to the yoga shala in the dark of the early morning.
There’s also something else about this chant. For me, “Sahaha Vavatu” forms the perfect soundtrack to a Mysore room’s sacred student-teacher bonding ritual of assisted backbends.
In many schools, the Sahana Vavatu is recited before the asana practice. These schools include the Sivananda and the Satyananda schools, as well as most of the traditional ashrams such as the Kaivalya Dhama of Lonavla and the Shantiniketan of Rishikesh.
Om sahana vavatu sahano bhunaktu
Saha viryam karavavahai
Om shantih shantih shantih.
Om. May He protect us both (teacher and student). May He cause us both to enjoy the bliss of liberation. May we both exert to find out the true meaning of the Scriptures. May our studies be fruitful. May we never quarrel with each other. Om peace, peace, peace.
This invocation is found in several Upanishads among which the Taittiriya Upanishad. It is probably the most famous after the Gayatri. As a shanti mantra, it advocates peace between student and teacher, encouraging both of them to study and to practice yoga, without mentioning any particular god or any particular book.
Like ashtanga’s opening and closing mantras, every translation reads a little differently. I am drawn to this translation’s juiciness — the idea of studying vigorously and working together with great energy:
Om may he protect us both together, may he nourish us both together
May we work conjointly with great energy,
May our study be vigorous and effective,
May we not mutually dispute
Om let there be peace in me
Let there be peace in my environment
Let there be peace in the forces that act on me
Om peace peace peace.
I like the straight-forwardness of this recitation of the chant by Lakshmish Bhat, recorded at the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore (it’s the second chant in). And I might as well admit here that given how much time I’ve spent in yoga workshops of various stripes, it’s surprising to me that I was never taught this chant before this year. It’s not exactly hard to find; here is Ravi Shankar’s take.
There are many invigorating and reassuring aspects of practicing in a Mysore room, from the undulation of the room’s collective breathing to the consistency of joining a group of people in showing up to the same space day after day to practice.
One of my favorite aspects of a Mysore practice — versus a home practice or the led ashtanga environment that was my first exposure to ashtanga — is the time for assisted dropbacks before you begin your finishing poses.
It’s hard for me to believe now, but I didn’t officially switch from a mostly home-based practice to mostly practicing in a Mysore setting until about six months ago, when I committed to making the drive from Lansing to Ann Arbor at least three days a week. These days, it’s become just another part of my day to make the two-hour-round-trip-drive before heading in to work a few weekdays a week and to make the drive on weekends too, but it was a big deal for me to make the lifestyle changes I needed to make to get up at that early hour even three days a week.
For me, having the opportunity to work on assisted dropbacks was an integral part of settling into a Mysore groove. I still remember the transition of my teacher having me learn to walk my hands toward my feet in urdvha dhanurasana to one day walking my hands in far enough that my hands could be gently placed around my ankles. To step back from the process, it seems like the most unnatural thing to be doing at the crack of the dawn (or really at any time of day). Staying present in the moment, however, it feels like the most natural thing to do after reaching the pose you’ve been stopped at. What I love about assisted backbends is not just that they provide a gorgeous example of how a teacher can coax a student to going farther than she ever thought possible — it’s that I get to start my day out with a ritual built on absolute trust in another human being and absolute surrender to being in the moment. It’s harder to walk through the world questioning the intentions of people around you when you started the day out in the radiance of someone who, without a doubt, has your best interest at heart, and it’s harder to go through your day resisting things you can’t control when you have already let go so deeply.
What does it mean to approach life from a heart-centered place? That answer differs for each of us, but for me, starting out the day with assisted dropbacks helps prime me for greater receptivity.
In my experience, deep backbending with an experienced teacher means the difference between a safe, strong and effortless backbend versus one that comes from a place of overcompensation or recruiting flexibility from another part of the body. I have a pretty mobile low back, so had it not been for Angela Jamison teaching me how to stand strong in my legs, I would probably have eventually been flexible enough to grab my ankles even if I didn’t have the safest technique — and then I’d be unnecessarily taking the brunt of it in my low back. (Learning how to stand strong in my legs — I could do a whole post on just what that says about my relationship with myself in this world.)
More on trust
A few months ago, Kaz posted an awesomely candid post titled “Trust” on her Realizing Mysore blog. She talked about how, halfway through her month assisting Sharath in Mysore, she struggled with assisting students in grabbing their ankles during assisted dropbacks:
A couple of days later, I am still dodging students with flexible backs. And I decide to get up the courage to speak to Sharath, hoping for guidance, moral support–if you practice with this man, you probably know where this is going…
“Hi Sharath, um…so…I’m kind of afraid to take people to their ankles.”
He looks at me and says matter-a-factly, “I know.” He knows!
“Ahhhh…” I wait for some advice, encouragement, anything, but there is only awkward silence before he walks off to back bend someone himself.
Hokay… So much for feedback from the boss. In my optimism, I think he’s leaving it to me to figure out on my own. It’s not the first time. Last, year I struggled with a new posture. There was no feedback. No assistance, not even with back bending. At some point, I felt very alone as I muddled through the emotions that came up from it. By the end, however, the “personal time” was good for me. I learned a lot from it.
In practice, Sharath knows when to help and when to back off. I believe it’s one of his superpowers of perception. I’m going to read his acknowledgement paired with lack of input in this particular instance as a sign that he trusts me to figure it out myself.
I know it isn’t about strength. I’m dropping back guys much bigger than my petite Asian self. I understand the technique, more or less. I’m familiar with the ankle routine in my own practice. But I lack confidence. There is fear there…
Sharath’s right to leave me on my own. My fear is my responsibility. I know that I can’t continue to be afraid. I’m only halfway through the month of assisting and will not be able to avoid dropping back someone bendy enough for ankles. At some point I will be caught edging away from open backs, though Sharath probably sees my slipperiness already, probably smells the fear across the room. Most importantly, I just want to get on with it, I want to be totally present as I assist, and this fearfulness is getting in the way.
I look at my own practice. I ask myself, how am I at going to my own ankles? I can manage with more ease with Sharath helping me, but it is difficult when I am being assisted by someone else other than him, always stiffer somehow, a little less sure. I realize that I wasn’t always “successful” (for the lack of a better word) with assistants. It didn’t add up.
Maybe it’s easier with Sharath because I trust him so much. But what cause do I have to mistrust the assistants? Something in me stiffens when they are before me as I come up from backbend. Perhaps, it isn’t them at all, but rather something in me. Do I trust myself in this process? Or am I relying on Sharath’s magic touch to make what I still thought impossible possible? Did my mind create the conditions that made the fear difficult with others?
How can I expect others to trust me, if I myself had a hard time trusting? How can I ask someone to surrender to me, if I can’t manage surrendering myself?
Eventually, there is a breakthrough:
Then, one morning, I’m standing in front of a female practitioner who comes up from urdhva dhanurasana. She says something and all I catch is “ankles.” Here we go.
Something definitely shifts. I’m calm. And things go smoothly as we both do our part. I trust myself. And what’s more, I trust her. I reckon she trusts me too. With the breath–both of us breathing together–she extends the spine and arches back. It’s so fast and at the same time so beautifully slow. For me, it is an amazing moment of synchronicity and surrender between two people that don’t know each other.
I reach for one wrist and then the other. There is no forcing, only a little guidance. And there in that place of trust, I find a sweet balance between being able to support her and also stepping out of the way, allowing her to reach.
I realize then that with this ankle grabbing business, I’m not supposed to do all the work. I’m support crew. People generally don’t go there unless they can and the real task is not up to me really but in the heart of the practitioner finding space to go the extra distance. And for those making that first leap into this strange territory, Sharath’s usually there, guiding them towards their feet.
By the end, I ceased running from ankle grabbing. But I didn’t chase it either. If I was called, I would do, trusting in the process of practice, trusting in the abilities of the student, and trusting in myself. With more confidence, it all worked out fine–thank goodness!
In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether I’m helping people to their ankles or not, whether we’re grabbing ankles or even dropping back on our own. What matters is that the practice cultivates the courage to go beyond, to see past the fears and the limitations of our own mind, and that it refines our ability to trust, trust in others as much as trust in ourselves.
I’ve actually started this post a few times in my head since returning from the retreat, but it never seemed the right time to actually get these thoughts out. It’s interesting that I’m inspired to finally write this during a week my teacher is gone from the shala. She is on a silent meditation retreat several states away, and while I knew I’d miss her this week, I was surprised at how much I’ve still felt her presence in the Mysore room, and in my own practice, this past week.
Angela has told our group of Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor apprentices that our job is to hold space. It’s not to adjust, though of course we provide a lot of adjustments. Our fundamental job in a Mysore space is to hold that space for students and their practices. We breathe with each student individually, and we breathe with the room collectively. To hold space, we need to be present, receptive, grounded, and heart-centered.
The balance that Kaz talks about in her blog post on trust — the balance of supporting a student while also leaving enough room to step out of the way so the student can reach — seems fundamental to holding space.
Your job is to hold space. It was such a simple and yet revolutionary idea the first time I heard it, and I think I’ve been able to feel the magnitude of this powerful concept so intensely this week precisely because Angela’s been gone. She has held space so consistently, so honestly, and so firmly, for her students who arrive every day at the Phoenix Center on Main Street in Ann Arbor’s vibrant downtown that even when she’s gone, her influence is palpable. It’s palpable in the way her students approach practice, and it’s palpable in the way her apprentices approach students. When the shala’s amazing senior apprentice, Rachel, comes by for assisted dropbacks while Angela is away, I feel the same envelope of support from her — and I hope she feels the same trust I have in her. I have this belief that when space is held as consistently and transparently as it is held in this shala, trust — the kind that’s earned and deserved — can become contagious.
So for me, an extension of the “Sahana Vavatu” mantra is that once the bond of the teacher-student relationship has been established, the lessons can expand and continue even if the teacher and the student aren’t in the same physical space. In consistently heading to the Mysore room to step on my mat, I have been consistently stepping into a space of self-discovery that has been held for me. I am realizing that as I live my life, I can actively choose to expand that space of learning and insight beyond the Mysore room. That space can, if I set my intentions with clarity, be expanded exponentially — to include just about my entire universe.
About the photos at the top of the post: I had thoughts about this theme of trust even before I went to the Xinalani retreat in Mexico, which is why I asked Angela if she’d be willing to take some photos with me to illustrate assisted backbends. She kindly said yes, and we held a short and sweet photo shoot in the yoga retreat’s distinctive Jungle Studio (so short and sweet that, without the benefit of a practice first, I definitely wasn’t going into any ankle-grabbing!). Thanks to the handy camera work of my friends Tim and Jade, I’ll always have the photos at the top of this post as visual mementos of this aspect of the sacred student-teacher relationship that means so much to me.
A few of us who went on the Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor retreat to Xinalani earlier this month did so with a goal of leaving behind online and social media distractions. I was one of them, taking my iPad only to write, and using my iPhone for photos and video. Given how intensely relaxed everyone was able to be, I was a bit shy about asking my teacher and our retreat leader, Angela Jamison, if she would be willing to sit down for a YogaRose.net Three Questions set. On the other hand, when else would we have this setting, and this time? So I asked, and she sweetly said yes.
We set up a chair in the retreat center’s dining area, and you can hear the waves of Xinalani Beach below her as she speaks. (Thanks to the gorgeous lapping of the waves, if you have headphones, I think that’s the best way to listen to these videos.) The videos are listed first, and then some thoughts follow.
What is radical f-ing acceptance? (Hint: Think equanimity with an edge.)
What are the slowest openings? (Hint: Think about the places with the least tangible structures.)
What are questions to live by? (Hint: Think about orienting questions that keep teachers close.)
Radical f-ing (or is it effing?) acceptance
At the Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor (AY:A2) shala, we talk a lot about radical f-ing acceptance, so this has become part of my vocabulary.
As an AY:A2 apprentice, I had the chance to observe Angela teach a workshop in Canton, Mich., last month for a group of mostly vinyasa yoga-based practitioners who didn’t have radical effing acceptance in their parlance. This discussion came up in the context of a student’s question about what she can do about the feeling that her ribs are being crushed in twists like marichyasana C. Instead of launching into an anatomy answer, Angela starting by talking about a two-step process that can help remove resistance in our practice.
The first step involves this radical effing acceptance, which can help take that first level of judgment out of the picture: “Most of the time we’re subtlely kind of fighting with our experience,” she said. She explained that learning on a subtle level to cut the nervous system’s circuit of attraction-repulsion — to learn how to step away from the fight for a minute — is a skill in and of itself, and it’s not an easy one. The next step is to work with the energetics of this: “OK, this is information. It is what it is and it’s OK. If you don’t have that baseline of just radical acceptance, you won’t actually get access to all that information.” In step 2, in other words, if you’ve confirmed that you’re safe, then can you see if there’s a way to relax? Is there a way to let that experience flow?
Yoga practitioners in the ashtanga lineage know that asana is just one of eight limbs, and the physical practice is not the end all, be all of the practice. But it’s so easy, in that moment of trying to twist and bind — or get your leg behind your head or whatever — to not get caught up in it, and only it. Using a two-step process like this can help us turn every challenge in our asana practice — and we all know how many there are every day, much less over time — into a teachable moment for our nervous system.
‘Almost no experience in the body is solid’ — except perhaps thought forms
In that same workshop, Angela noted that in most poses, there is no stasis in our bodies. “Almost no experience in the body is solid — ever. Even when we’re lying in savasana for 15 minutes, there’s almost no stasis,” she said.
The most solid aspect, for instance, of what happens in the body’s zone that includes the belly, diaphragm and ribs — which are so much air and water — are our thought forms. “If we have a thought form of, ‘Oh, this is what my belly is, and I have this belief about it’ — that’s pretty stable. And we reinforce it and we think it again, and that stays. But really, in the meantime, the physical and energetic structures are always moving,” she told the group.
And maybe in that moment, a practitioner can simply exhale.
That idea made immediate sense to me — at the same time, it blew my mind to view our body-mind connection this way. Thought forms as more solid than what is actually happening in a body? Absolutely — I mean, think about eating disorders and socially constructed self-hatred-driven body image issues that both women and men deal with.
When is it appropriate to start teaching ashtanga?
Although the Xinalani ashtanga retreat, held the first week of March, was set in a secluded paradise, there were workshops each afternoon for teachers and aspiring teachers that talked about everything from karma yoga to questions to live by, which is the focus of the third question above.
We also talked about when it’s appropriate for someone to start to teach ashtanga yoga. Angela writes about this in a fantastically candid blog post she wrote a few days ago on the AY:A2 apprenticeship program:
For ashtanga teachers, transitioning from sadhana to seva (from self-focused practice, to service) can be weird. It can stunt one’s growth dramatically if done without sufficient (1) preparation as a student, and (2) support from teachers and community. When this transition is made because the student puts herself in the teaching role, and not because her own teachers identify her as sufficiently skilled and prepared to teach, the challenges just mentioned are multiplied.
(Subtext: do not get in to ashtanga teaching unless you full-on cannot avoid it. Resist!! Don’t give yourself over to it unless you basically have to do it in order for your own practice to grow, and unless you have tons of support.)
Given these challenges, most teachers need active, invested mentors to whom they are accountable. (I do.) They need a (1) clear method and (2) a sense of history to keep from getting confused. They need to have strong equanimity and mental clarity, so they can (1) stand outside today’s “yoga” market and culture hype and (2) influence that culture positively.
Teachers need to be able to identify, and resist, the ego’s urge to use teaching to feed root chakra needs: money, sex, power, and attention.
We talked about this last point — that move from scarcity motives to abundance motives — in detail during the retreat. While there is a kind of useful fire that can be generated from scarcity motives, there are dangers if someone doesn’t actually believe he or she has all the money, attention, sex and power needed, because that leaves open the opportunity to use the teaching to try to get it.
“Usually it’s not appropriate to teach ashtanga until the transition of scarcity needs to abundance motives has been met,” she said during one of our workshops. Here’s an example: Coming from a place of scarcity motives, other yoga teachers and studios can be seen as competition; from a place of abundance motives, the same teachers and studios are viewed as colleagues. It’s a world of difference, and it can have such a significant impact on how someone chooses to transmit the practice, interact with students, run a business, and everything else that surrounds the act of teaching.
My next beach reading
Back to the third video about questions to live by. Asking yourself: “Who am I and why am I here?” as a way to remain alive in an experience, no matter what it is — I’ve tried this since the retreat in ways large and small, from eating choices to teaching schedules, and it’s been interesting how it generates slightly different answers than I might get from thinking about an issue without these types of big-picture questions.
This reminds me that I want to reread the Bhagavad Gita. Again. I’ve read the classic Eknath Easwaran translation twice in the last couple of years, but on the retreat, Angela mentioned Bhagavad Gita: The Beloved Lord’s Secret Love Song, published in 2007by Graham M. Schweig. It sounds like a lovely translation, and I will start it as soon as I can get my day job to stop being so demanding. (In other words, if only I had a beach to read it on without any distractions . . . .)
[I had the chance to unplug during an ashtanga retreat held March 2-9, 2013 at a magical, secluded little spot called Xinalani, located near Puerto Vallarta in Mexico’s Banderas Bay. While unplugging meant no social media and no online hanging out time, I did write on a few nights. (I didn’t want to actually post during the retreat, though, since it would have required selecting photos and spending the time to link, format and all that good stuff — and it was hard to justify taking that time while in the middle of a serious paradise.) I’ll be sharing those posts from the retreat over the next few days.]
WRITTEN BY IPAD LIGHT ON TUESDAY, MARCH 5, 2013 AROUND 9:45 P.M. WHILE SITTING UNDER A LOVELY MOSQUITO NET BED CANOPY.
The first thing you notice about the Xinalani eco retreat center on Mexico’s Banderas Bay — about a 20-minute boat ride from Puerto Vallarta — are the waves. They’re stunning, and amplified. They’re so loud it seems like the winds must be unusually high, or a storm is coming, or, though obviously not the case, the retreat center has strangely managed to mic the entire gorgeous beachfront and pipe the sounds to wherever you happen to be. And what you continue to notice — as you wake up, or practice yoga, or meditate, or get ready for dinner, or chat with your friends, or read on the beach, or wash sand out of your ears, or head to bed — is that incredibly, the waves are still there. It’s as if they’re being controlled by a larger-than-life metronome.
Descriptions of the waves that ebbed and flowed among our group members included the steadiness of a heartbeat — and the steadiness of vrittis, the fluctuations of the mind.
I don’t think I’ve ever had the chance to sleep this close to a beachfront, and I certainly haven’t had the chance to practice yoga in a place like this (though in 2009, I did get to practice yoga inside the inner sanctum of a Masonic center in Vancouver — that was totally weird). It’s the fourth night of our seven-night ashtanga yoga retreat led by Angela Jamison of Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor, and the nine of us lucky enough to be on this first such trip are still so blown away by the whole experience — and especially by the waves.
We used the sounds of the waves during meditation today to explore an auditory element of a concentration-focused sitting practice. Among the questions explored: Could we meditate on the waves and experience the sounds as recordings, detached from any visual experience? What did we experience between the sensations in the auditory, visual and kinesthetic fields?
This afternoon, my friend Jade and I decided to get a little silly and play on the beach a bit. Against our better judgment, we decided to do an inversion on one of the beach’s many rock formations, even though it was late afternoon and high tide. After I got up into ardha sirsasana and settled into the relief that I was stable and balanced and hadn’t toppled over, a wave came in and, indeed, toppled me over. The exact same thing happened to Jade, even though I swore, now that we knew the pattern, that I would be able to warn her in time. Those waves move pretty damn fast.
We had such a blast getting knocked over by waves — far more fun than when mental fluctuations come out of nowhere (or at least seem to come out of nowhere, even though we should usually recognize the pattern) and throw us off course. They’re the memories from the past that run roughshod over your present moment. Or anxieties about the future that intrude on your current mood. Or the rumbling of some rambling thoughts — happy, silly, profound, whatever — that zap into your headspace at inopportune times.
Knowing that Angela would lead a few opportunities to sit each day — and knowing that I would have time to sit beyond those periods as well — I came into this retreat with a goal of establishing a more consistent meditation practice.
I found the path to my six-day-a-week ashtanga practice back in 2011 following an ashtanga retreat to California’s Mt. Shasta with the very big-hearted Tim Miller. Meeting Tim in 2010 changed my perspective and my practice — and by extension, my life — in profound ways.
Soon after returning from that trip, in which I let go of some pretty deep emotional baggage I was carrying around, I met Angela back home in Michigan. She is the teacher I now realize I’ve been looking for my whole life, and having this retreat time was the sweetest gift in the world.
(In case you can’t tell, I’m a big believer in retreats — they’re worth every dime you have to save up and all the sacrifices you have to make to attend, because for so many of us, daily life simply doesn’t afford the space to create a new pathway for yourself.)
So now I’m looking forward to converting the inspiration from this experience to finding a path to a deeper daily meditation practice. I’ve been meditating between five and seven days a week since this past fall, but the meditations have been at different times of days and for different lengths of time. I want some consistency so that I can reach more penetrating places. It doesn’t have to be the consistency of the waves I’m hearing as I type this, but I do want to make meditation much more of a constant in my day-to-day routine.
I know that the more this happens, the less those knock-out vrittis will get the best of me.
When I arrived at Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor this morning at 7 a.m., my fellow AY: A2 apprentice Rachel was practicing in the finishing room, and my teacher, Angela, was on her cell phone.
Clearly, something was amiss.
Namely, the heat was nowhere to be found.
Today got up above freezing so it was warm in contrast to what temperatures have been hovering at for the past few weeks here. Still, it’s winter in Michigan, and it was in the teens when I got out of my car. The new big furnace fueling the Phoenix Center had given out for reasons I won’t get into here, but suffice it to say it made for an early morning bandha adventure (should “bandha adventure” come with a yoga superhero jingle?). Despite calls with the building’s owner and messing with fuses, the furnace never magically kicked back up.
Rachel and I had our marching orders: Do our normal practice in the finishing room — with only two space heaters and, of course, our bandhas to heat us — and move at a faster clip than we usually do. We needed to help heat the room and we needed to avoid claiming valuable real estate for too long, since we would need to open up spots for students coming in. (The Sunday invocation is at 8 a.m., but students start showing up well before that.)
So I did what is normally my two-hour practice (all of primary series through eka pada sirsasana in second series) in a record 90 minutes — and it didn’t feel like I was artificially or frantically rushing either. When I got to kapotasana, Angela came over to adjust and afterward she said, “This environment is good for you.” (She said also said what I joke is the single scariest word in a Mysore room: “Again.” But she says that every day I am there. I’ve learned to love that word.)
I knew exactly what Angela meant when she said that environment was good for me. I am by nature so cautious — in my practice, in my career. I know I could practice a little faster, but I also don’t want to go so fast that I wear myself out too soon, especially when I am going on not enough sleep due to burning the candle at both ends, like I have been lately. So I try to find a steady pace that I know I can stay with. (If only I drove this way! I’m one of those terrible speed up/slow day kind of drivers.) I am so cautious with my career; as one example, I went to graduate journalism school because I wanted to make sure I had time to learn from some of the best people in the field before I started reporting for a living. I don’t think these are bad tendencies — I have always believed that the measured among us help balance out the manic energy of the “shoot first, ask questions later” types. I truly think organizations need both to succeed, and societies need both to advance.
But yeah. This was a great reminder that seemingly unideal conditions can actually be the ideal environment to bring out the best in us. The lack of space in the physical room reflected the lack of space for my mind to wander. I was on a mission: Help heat the room, and move through my practice fast enough to not take up space for too long. That left little room for dinking, roving thoughts, etc.
It turned out that we had exactly the right number of spots for the number of people who came, and I don’t think anyone had to wait too too long before a spot opened up for them. The body heat got up so high that we didn’t even need the space heaters on after some point. Even the new students of the shala’s once-a-week drop-in class, called Mysore Light, seemed to enjoy the super sweaty, detoxifying heat. The huge, steamed-up windows were glorious to see — like a piece of art that everyone in the shala had helped to create together.
The cartoon at the top of this post was posted on AY: A2’s Facebook page last month by D.C. ashtangi Michael Joel Hall. (Thanks, Michael! Hopefully you and I will get to meet some day — perhaps when I get a chance to go out and see Jen Rene.) I thought of that cartoon today, and it made me laugh.
Anyone else cold and nauseous? Darn if this is not a cold, cold ocean. So. Are we going to practice with this situation or what?
It’s not actually about practicing in cold temperatures. But it is about practicing in cold, adverse conditions — perhaps the coldest and the darkest kinds, the kinds our unenlightened nervous systems create for ourselves.
I guess this post is dedicated to anyone struggling with finding the wherewithal to establish a consistent morning yoga practice. This morning could have totally, like the furnace, blown. But community + practice = glowing. No matter what the conditions when you start, everything alway ends up better by the time you’re done.
So this was a perfect thing for me to catch today. It’s been such a long week (already, and it’s only Wednesday!) and I realized this afternoon that today I started to fall into old patterns of stress. I identified this and took a little break from work because I wanted to short-circuit the pattern. One of the things practicing six days a week has helped me do is not eliminate old patterns — yet — but identify them and decrease the frequency and duration of them.
And here is what had happened: I had felt like a big weight had been lifted by mid-afternoon because I had just wrapped up a two-hour training session that I was co-leading. It was a fun and fruitful session, and having it behind me allowed me to get to the rest of the deadlines I have for the end of the week. But when I got back to the office, a couple of things I had checked off my list had boomeranged back to me, which was a bit frustrating. (What’s arguably worse than not being able to check something off my list is checking it off and having it reappear again.) I think old-pattern Rose would have then spiraled into feeling more stressed and would have powered through and tried to get as much done in the afternoon as possible, even if it meant a darkening mood. New-pattern Rose took a step back, realized Project Boomerang could be dealt with the following day, left the office for about half an hour, and returned feeling a lot better.
Zap, the sound of the short-circuiting of an old pattern.
I’ve seen this Krishnamacharya quote before, but seeing it again today reminded me of a passage I particularly like in the book Myths of the Asanasabout halasana, or plow pose:
According to yoga philosophy, all of our actions and thoughts leave traces in our consciousness. Our actions in this world can either remove impressions from the landscape of our consciousness or carve new ones. Just as Haladhara [Krishna’s older brother] dragged the Yamuna [a great river] to him with his plow, the yogi seeks to draw the mind back from its negative wanderings in order to absorb the positive. There is a sutra in the fourth chapter of the Yoga Sutra that talks about this kind of ‘plowing of the mind’:
Essentially, what this sutra says, just as a farmer plows his field to introduce water to the field for irrigation, if we remove the obstacles in our path toward yoga, we can lead our mind toward it. In this way, the plow of our mind leads us to liberation, based on the quality of our thoughts. The plow pose provides an excellent opportunity to plow the field of our mind with positive thinking.
I have understood that meditations, prayers, asanas are just a tool. And this tool can be used to plough the soil and to make it fertile. This is what practice does – it makes the soil fertile. If a person fulfils difficult asanas or prays constantly it does not mean yet that this person is spiritual. It simply means that inside him there is a fertile soil. And what the person plants into this soil will grow. Therefore, the more intensively we practice, the more cautious we should be. If you plant an ego into this fertile soil it will grow up much more than an ego of a usual person. Spirituality is not defined by practice. Spirituality is defined by concentration, intention and actions of a practitioner.
It’s the middle of winter — my least favorite season — here in Michigan. The weather last week was a frosty 0 degrees before you took wind chill into account. Yesterday and today? A balmy 55 degrees. In a couple days it will be back in the teens. The roads have been an absolute mess and the commute has required even concentration than usual. It’s most certainly not the time to think about gardening, growth and abundance.
And yet . . . maybe this is actually a wonderful season to nurture and cultivate new plantings. Since I’ve never actually had a garden myself, here’s some random gardening advice I just found online:
Regular tilling and amending of your soil will make it easier to work with as years go by….Preparing garden soil is a long-term, continual process. It can’t be done in one growing season. Fall may be the best time to begin soil improvement, but it’s also possible to begin now.
Right-to-work protests at the Michigan Capitol buiding today. (Photo by Romain Blanquart via the Detroit Free Press.)
What is it that you show up for? I mean, really show up for? Your yoga practice? Your job? Your kids? Your marriage? Your church? A cause? Why do you do it? How do you do it?
I’m thinking about this on a day full of people showing up in vastly different ways. I started my morning at the yoga shala in Ann Arbor, rolling out my mat for Mysore practice at 6:15 a.m. The collective energy was, as always, powerful and grounding. All the ashtangis around me have had their own journeys of training themselves to change their lifestyle enough to show up at ridiculously early hours to practice, and why they do it week after week is like a fingerprint — unique to them. Yet the collective feel of a group of people working toward a similar goal is palpable in that space.
The 60-minute drive back to mid-Michigan, where I live and work, took 90 minutes this morning, thanks to cars clogging the highway as they headed toward Michigan’s capital city to protest right-to-work legislation. I work two blocks from Lansing’s Capitol building, so my coworkers and I — a mix of former journalists and news junkies — couldn’t help but to follow what was happening as thousands of protestors and two branches of government did their thing. The sound of helicopters above only added to the day’s heightened feel, but the most notable feeling for me, as I walked through the crowds in the bitter cold, was how upbeat the collective energy of the protestors felt. This was absolutely a politically driven event, but I’m not making a political statement here. To me, it was interestingly apolitical that the men and women who showed up in Lansing today seemed to believe that their presence in that very particular spot of the world was vital, even though all the pundits and analysts said it was game over for their side (and it was).
After work, I headed straight to the athletic club where I teach a beginning-level vinyasa-flow class. Tonight there were twice as many students as usual who were ready to challenge themselves with a mind-body practice. Some students I have seen every week for a year, and several were new. The feel in that room was one of determination — yoga may not necessarily come easily to them, but they weren’t going to give up and walk away.
I suppose what I’m saying is that in every setting I was in today, I was surrounded by people who had to make a conscious decision to show up — which is sometimes the hardest part. True, the shala and the gym’s yoga room aren’t divisive spaces like the protest grounds, which had an intense police presence, riot gear ready. Yet the collective feel in each was one of a group of people willing to do what it takes to show up to help create what they believe to be a set of better circumstances.
(What’s pretty inspiring on the yoga front is that it you can’t just marshal up that motivation once; it’s not a one-shot deal the way a protest might be. But I think that’s where collective energy can be so helpful to keep you fighting the good fight against laziness, inertia or a crazy schedule.)
So back to the questions. What do you show up for? I find that showing up to my yoga practice helps me be more present in everything else I do — my work, my marriage, my friendships, even how I process the feel of something like a right-to-work protest. And how do you go about being present once you’ve shown up? For me, I think that lately I’ve been working on putting forth the effort but trying to avoid clinging to what I want to happen (e.g., “I want to feel my body to feel light and my spine to feel supple this morning”), which allows me to be more receptive to what comes (note the emphasis on “trying”).
By the way, on the point of receptivity: Working on deep backbends — can you say kapotasana? — seems to help with the whole surrendering process (no kidding, right?!), which in turns seems to help me with the whole receptivity process.
That said, every new day is a test. I failed a couple of tests today (post-practice) and I passed others. We’ll see how tomorrow goes — starting with those backbends.
The Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor Mysore space (2011) (Courtesy of Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor)
Long day, up at 5 a.m. in my Eastern time zone, where it’s now the middle of the night. It’s only 1:30 a.m. here in California, where I just landed — a state that hasn’t been home for a decade and a half, yet still feels very much like home. Being a bit turned around on the whole space and time front seems like a fairly apt time to talk about how I started the week — with two evenings spent in workshops with Indian scholars Dr. M.A. Jayashree and M.A. Narasimhan, hosted by Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor. The sessions, as promised, went a little like this: “Monday, we will have an introduction to Indian philosophy and some chanting of the Samadhi Pada. Tuesday, we will focus on the eight (ashtau) limbs (anga) that asht-anga yoga comprises.”
Looking back, though, I can’t really separate day 1 from day 2, and one of my favorite quotes from the evenings was when Jayashree explained that Patanjali goes on like loops. Some people say “sutra” (singular) rather than “sutrani” (plural) to describe the yoga sutras, because every sutra is linked with the other (just as each of the four chapters of the books, or padas, of the Yoga Sutras are linked with the other):
It is a single string that gives a single meaning.
At minimum, we were told, “to understand one sutra, you need the previous, and the next.”
Jayashree, whose bright smile reminded me of my mom’s joy and radiance when she sings classical Thai songs, later illustrated the idea by the idea by sticking out her arm. “Can I call my hands as ‘Jayashree’? Can I call my eyes as ‘Jayashree’?”
‘Ashtanga is yoga’
When I was in Maui this spring for my honeymoon, I had the good fortune to meet the gorgeous and ginormous Banyan Tree (pictured above) that graciously unfolds in the town of Lahaina. One tree, many trees — it’s hard to tell, because you can’t quite discern where one ends and one begins. It reminded me of M.C. Escher drawings.
At some point, Narasimhan started discussing viveka and at some point, he said: “In the Indian system of thought, there is no black and white. No right or wrong. Shades of gray.” (This, in turn, reminded me of what I’ve been learning about Ayurveda, and the idea that there is no “good” or “bad” herb or mineral, for instance. Just the appropriate one for the appropriate condition.)
Here are some impressions, some moments:
One way to view yoga’s purpose? To create optimistic, happy and connected people who can in turn help make society happier and more connected.
It’s not accurate to view India as having many Gods. “There is only one primordial force,” Narasimham said. “We always follow the primordial force.” What, then, of all the images of deities — such as the unmistakable Ganesha, with his elephant head? Think of them as creative forces. “Creatives forces are represented as a god — small ‘g’ god.”
Ganesha is the remover of internal obstacles. A human being has a spinal column and two hemispheres, and from the back, the human body can appear like an elephant’s head.
Bramacharya is “controlled sex” rather than celibacy. So, even if you are married, you only have sex under certain circumstances, not just whenever and wherever; and that schedule is given in the scriptures.
The nervous system is the bridge between the physical and the mind.
The electrical attraction between a cloth and dust creates a dirty cloth. You remove dirt by using a cleaning agent such as soap. Tapasya acts as a cleaning agent to help separate us from guilt, much the same way other cleaning agents work to break attraction. The eight limbs of yoga cleanses us physically, mentally and emotionally.
Processes abound, but effort does not necessarily need to accompany those processes. Asana –> pranayama –> pratyahara. Dharana –> dhyana –> samadhi. You cannot put forth effort to express samadhi, which is the opposite of what happens in the external world, where typically, the more effort you put forth, the more you are rewarded.
I could share more impressions and more moments, or I could let you hear a little from the brother-and-sister team yourself. In the first video, they offer an unforgettable analogy of samadhi to none other than a cup of coffee — while name-checking Starbucks to boot. In the second question, they discuss subjects and objects. I think the springboard for the third question (questions and answers sort of overlapped, as you might imagine happens in this kind of discussion) was about Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, who was described as essentially a psychologist, with his work being more relevant today than ever before.
What is samadhi?
The second yoga sutra discusses “citta vrtti,” which you describe as loops. How can the first few sutras help us as human beings understand consciousness and our relationships with objects, and how can the sutras help us change our relationships with loop patterns?
What changes with yoga?
I am such a devotee of the ashtanga vinyasa yoga practice because I love its design. It’s beyond brilliant. And every time I learn more about the aphorisms that collectively make up Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, my respect grows. For me, listening to Jayashree and Narasimhan discuss the sutras — and chanting in Sanskrit along with them — helped illuminate the intricate yet I suppose ultimately simple architecture of the sutras. The images I’ve been feeling in the days since have been Escher-esque bridges, ropes and branches that loop, pathways that only appear linear, trap doors that actually liberate, and beginnings and ends that connect and recoil. It doesn’t matter where in this spiritual design you start. Walk along whichever foot path intrigues you most to discover a universal journey through your individual experience.
Dominic had a ring with a mesmerizingly radiant stone, and before I had to say goodbye to him I finally asked him what the stone was. Turns out it was a star ruby. Pictured here is a star ruby housed at the American Museum of Natural History.
When Angela Jamison announced that Dominic was coming, I was looking forward to seeing how this would work. For one thing, yoga students like to meet their teacher’s teacher. I think part of it is awe: Who is this person who inspired someone as inspiring as my teacher? Part of it is curiosity: Will this person be anything like I’ve pictured him or her to be? Part of it is simply excitement.
For another, I’m accustomed to Ashtanga workshops structured around themes: bandhas, adjustments, and so on. So I wondered: What happens during a highly anticipated visit by a Mysore teacher to a highly traditional shala when there were no workshops or guided classes scheduled? How does all the juicy stuff — the subtle and mind-blowingly important observances culled from decades of practice, learning and teaching — get passed on?
Dominic was wearing a T-shirt with “Shiva” written in a KISS font the first morning I met him, before the Mysore class got underway. He struck me as a down-to-earth ashtangi with a quiet punk rock vibe. HIs adjustments were firm yet gentle, and when he did use words, they were quite matter-of-fact.
By the end of his visit here, I realized I have been drinking from the energetic currents of Dominic’s teachings for years now — much in the same way you are infused with the rhythm and the passion of the pioneering blues masters when you listen to the Rolling Stones’ greatest work.
“Before, Again II” by Joan Mitchell, housed at the DIA. The image links to a video that discussing the artist’s influences.
The third time I was in his orbit, it was for a visit to the Detroit Institute of the Arts with a small group from AY: A2. I joined the group late, however, and contemplated calling someone’s cell phones when I arrived to avoid the goose hunt of trying to locate half a dozen people in a huge building. For whatever reason, I decided to wing it instead. I walked slowly and tried to let my intuition guide me and I guess I didn’t do too badly, considering that I found them in about five minutes. I squinted down hallways for Angela’s spritely movements, but how I actually found the group was by spotting, for a second, a ponytail gliding down a hallway. Dominic could have been any museum-goer, but there was such a calm about this figure that I figured I was in the right place. He was totally enthralled with the pieces he was viewing when I caught up. One thing I’ve noticed with the senior Western teachers I’ve met: They are so present in everything they do.
After the DIA, we all headed to a cute little cafe called Le Petite Zinc, a healthy and delicious lunch spot a short drive away. I don’t remember what prompted this, but I asked Dominic about teaching Ashtanga yoga versus teaching its hyper-popular offshoots of power yoga and vinyasa yoga. Dominic knew that I’ve studied with Tim Miller, so he explained that he and Tim go back a long, long way — back to Encinitas, where the power yoga style was inadvertently sparked as they tried to offer Ashtanga in a way that would appeal to settings such as health clubs.
Dominic said tweaks to the method — such as modifying poses for people with knee problems — were always done in the service of trying to help students eventually connect back with the traditional Ashtanga method. The same goes for using music, which Dominic pioneered. He explained that he used music as a way of working with states of hypnosis. (What he didn’t do was use iconic songs with familiar riffs and lyrics the way some of the most popular vinyasa teachers today do.)
Before putting myself into bhairvasana for the first time today—or rather, letting it take me into itself with another’s guidance—I had feared that it would be something of a long, slow trainwreck: a daily undertaking that could open up my sacroiliac joints to an unsustainable gape. Make me a bag of ligamentless bones by 50.
A year ago, maybe; but my body’s been tilled for this and it’s simply a nice, new little habit that takes me to a previously unknown part of myself.
I can say this only because the way the posture was given made it second nature, if not downright natural. No big deal.
This is because my teacher understands the power of suggestion, and how to relate with a student in or near theta state to create an easy and beautiful reality out of our weirdest possibilities. Not only is this teacher on to the NLP (a comment about establishing rapport the first day made me suspicious), but he just doesn’t complicate the yoga.
Imagine what would have happened had Angela circa 2007 been introduced to this pose — “’Siva’s terrible aspect,’ a posture in honor of the deity’s skull-amulet-bearing, fratricidal side” – in a way laden with verbal cues telling her what the pose would be like or should be like for her.
Back to the lunchtime conversation. Dominic told me that he approached non-Mysore classes as how to use fewer and fewer words. He put it so well and I wish I had taken notes (actually, that’s not really true — I don’t wish I had taken notes, because that would have destroyed the casual lunch vibe). We basically talked about the constraints placed on students when too many words are used. I was fascinated by whether some of the most seemingly feel-good words in a yoga class can actually serve as distractions from a deeper type of empowerment that could happen if a teacher were to do more of holding space than creating space.
(As we ate our crepes and salads served up at a place dedicated to simple and classic cuisine, it was interesting to think about sourcing Ashtanga instruction the way food is sourced — whether as a consumer only or both a consumer (because all teachers have to be students first) and a producer. No matter what kind of sustenance, tapping into a strong current whose source remains vibrant and clean helps us flourish. What types of food are going into this body? What types of instruction are passing into this nervous system? As a teacher, I need to ask myself whether the words I’m using are organic — what will their effects be? Or am I relying on pretty words with artificial flavorings and empty calories, void of any true nutritional properties?)
And as Dominic talked, I had a flash to a post from earlier this year on Angela’s other blog — the AY: A2 blog — about the poverty of verbal instruction:
I wonder how we’re really using words in yoga class. Do we know how to use language to set ourselves free in our bodies… or do we more often use it to solidify difficulties and obstacles? Do words come up due to anxiety about impermanence or attempts to pin things down, a need to prove something, or maybe unwillingness to just be quiet and do the technique? I wonder, too, if talking in practice—including my own verbal instruction—increases an egoic sense that we know what it’s is all about.
Sitting across from Dominic while hearing bits of this blog post rolling around my mind felt a bit like watching time-elapsed parampara.
If you’re not familiar with parampara, it helps to go back to the KPJAYI website (emphasis below is mine):
Parampara is knowledge that is passed in succession from teacher to student. It is a Sanskrit word that denotes the principle of transmitting knowledge in its most valuable form; knowledge based on direct and practical experience. It is the basis of any lineage: the teacher and student form the links in the chain of instruction that has been passed down for thousands of years. In order for yoga instruction to be effective, true and complete, it should come from within parampara.
Knowledge can be transferred only after the student has spent many years with an experienced guru, a teacher to whom he has completely surrendered in body, mind, speech and inner being. Only then is he fit to receive knowledge. This transfer from teacher to student is parampara.
The dharma, or duty, of the student is to practice diligently and to strive to understand the teachings of the guru. The perfection of knowledge – and of yoga — lies beyond simply mastering the practice; knowledge grows from the mutual love and respect between student and teacher, a relationship that can only be cultivated over time.
The teacher’s dharma is to teach yoga exactly as he learned it from his guru. The teaching should be presented with a good heart, with good purpose and with noble intentions. There should be an absence of harmful motivations. The teacher should not mislead the student in any way or veer from what he has been taught.
The bonding of teacher and student is a tradition reaching back many thousands of years in India, and is the foundation of a rich, spiritual heritage. The teacher can make his students steady – he can make them firm where they waver. He is like a father or mother who corrects each step in his student’s spiritual practice.
The yoga tradition exists in many ancient lineages, but today some are trying to create new ones, renouncing or altering their guru’s teachings in favor of new ways. Surrendering to parampara, however, is like entering a river of teachings that has been flowing for thousands of years, a river that age-old masters have followed into an ocean of knowledge. Even so, not all rivers reach the ocean, so one should be mindful that the tradition he or she follows is true and selfless.
Many attempt to scale the peaks in the Himalayas, but not all succeed. Through courage and surrender, however, one can scale the peaks of knowledge by the grace of the guru, who is the holder of knowledge, and who works tirelessly for his students.
It’s only now crystallizing for me that the legacy of Dominic’s teachings have been filtering to me through strong and distinct currents:
The power yoga classes I started taking in 2009 as part of a yoga teacher training program I had enrolled in not for the purpose of teaching, but to deepen my understanding of the eight limbs of yoga. (Interesting to reflect on power yoga classes as adaptations — sometimes truer to the original and sometimes highly marketed, far-flung versions of the original — of an Encinitas-based yoga experiment to make the Ashtanga practice more accessible all those years ago.)
The clean and direct transmissions as experienced through my embodied teacher’s presence when I am in her room.
The way my teacher writes about the practice — from a 2012 blog post about the use of language all the way back to a 2007 post on use of language in a room, as written in the Inside Owl blogger’s voice.
Here I was, having my first true conversation with a man who until now had just been a name and a relationship — Dominic, my teacher’s teacher — and what happens? The conversation we gravitated toward dealt with the subconscious — the not-quite-apparent layers. Manifestations of my teacher were playing at the edges and communicating between us at times, but those versions, while offering something, also provided inadequate words for the experience. Also inadequate was trying to use this conversation as a mirror to check out how all of this energy is being integrated within me, and how it flows out of me when I write and when I teach.
Looking back over the week, how did transmissions happen? It wasn’t through a guided class. It wasn’t through a workshop lecture. It wasn’t even the words that were actually exchanged at lunch.
Dominic hopped on a plane out of Detroit yesterday, and I’m wondering if his energy, his physical adjustments, and the post-practice conversation all has to simply be understood. I believe in the power of technology — of social media in particular — to help ashtangis around the world stay connected as a community. But it’s the quieter moments of being in the sphere of brilliant and deeply present teachers like Dominic that reminds me of the limitations of those mediums. What’s being passed on isn’t data — parampara is necessarily so present, so personal.
For the past week, my husband has put up with more of my yogi ways than usual around our house. The other night he came out of our downstairs bathroom and asked very matter-of-factly: “What is a tongue scraper?”
I explained that I had bought the tongue scraper now housed in the bathroom because scraping your tongue in the morning is part of the 10-day Ayurvedic fall cleanse I’m participating in.
He didn’t ask me any more questions after that — although I’ve kept him more informed than he probably wants to be about the morning ghee protocol, the evening oil massage, and the castor oil purgation to come.
This is my first-ever cleanse. I’ve always been weary of cleanses, because most of the ones I’ve been told about have instructions that boil down to: Don’t eat, take these supplements and stay close to a bathroom for two days. Thanks, but no thanks.
I was much more intrigued when the opportunity to participate in this cleanse came up, since it’s based on the principles of Ayurveda. Sweetening the pot even more was that I would not be doing this cleanse alone, but rather going through it with a group from Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor.
Ayurveda as a way of life
Kate O’Donnell of Ayurveda Boston, who provides Ayurvedic consultations (remotely if needed) and is leading our cleanse, describes Ayurveda this way on her website:
Ayurveda is not merely a system of medicine, it is a way of life.
Ayurveda originated in India more than 5,000 years ago and is the oldest continuously practiced health-care system in the world. Ayurveda is the science of nature, largely preventative medicine, enhancing self-awareness to help us make choices that support well-being. This system encourages us to catch imbalance before it begins to create disease.
We had a kickoff meeting last Friday evening, with Kate, who also teaches Ashtanga, joining us from Boston via a Google+ hangout. It was extremely helpful that she started out with the fundamentals. According to the principles of Ayurveda, toxins are stored in the body’s fat, because the fat’s not going anywhere. So the design of this fall cleanse — to de-gunk the body — is to get the body to start burning stored fat. How to do that? Well, start by not feeding the body any fat — which means eating only three non-fat meals a day (no snacking in between!) spaced far enough apart that the body goes into fat-burning mode.
In short, this is not about weight loss. This is about flushing toxins, regaining an effective digestive system, and maybe even gaining a new lifestyle that’s balanced and supports well-being on the deepest levels.
Three tracks — and don’t be a fundamentalist
This cleanse was billed as one that you could do while still going about your daily routine — the third reason why I decided this was the cleanse I wanted to try. Kate was great about emphasizing that this is not the time to be a fundamentalist, and she offered three different “tracks” depending on how your life is going at the moment. In our cleanse manual, Kate writes:
The largest cause of dis‐ease is stress, so if you are uncomfortable or stressed out, you can always shorten the cleanse. The nervous system must be calm in order for the body to burn fat and remove toxins. There is no reason to force yourself to do anything. Use this time to explore yourself, not to give yourself a hard time.
Our group members all went through three days of a pre-cleanse together, in which we cut out caffeine, soy, dairy and meat. We focused on whole grains such as quinoa and rice, and on cooked greens and seasonal fruits and vegetables.
Then, people took different routes for the main cleanse:
Some stayed with the pre-cleanse diet for five days.
Others changed to a mono-diet of non-fat kitchari, the yogi comfort food of basmati rice, split mung beans, steamed vegetables and spices. Kitchari is very easy to digest.
Some opted for the full cleanse, which is the mono-diet but with the added component of taking warm ghee — clarified butter — in the morning. The idea with this version is that the ghee starts to permeate our tissues, dislodging toxins and bringing them down to the colon.
Some, like me, are doing a four-day main cleanse. Others are going for five.
So yeah, the ghee. I was waffling on whether to go the mono-diet route or the full cleanse with ghee, and in the end — thanks to my husband’s encouragement, actually — I went the ghee route. I’m really glad I did, because it turns out that I’ve been able to go about my daily business even with the ghee protocol. And shhh — I didn’t mind the teaspoons of warmed up ghee in the morning. (I don’t like it, but I don’t mind it either.) As my friend Tim (who has decided he is now a “gheetotaler”) described it, “It’s like taking in the essential spirit of the best bucket of popcorn you ever had.” Some in our group decided that the ghee is great with a ginger tea chaser (which is allowed in this cleanse).
Taking the plunge
Tonight, I’ll be taking the castor oil purge (!), which is the end of the main cleanse. That’s another first for me, as you can imagine — I’ve never even tried the castor oil bath that ashtangis are enamored of, much less ever ingested the stuff.
Part of the Ayurveda seasonal cleanse toolkit: neti pot, tongue scraper, dry brush (in back), sunflower oil. (Sesame oil is actually recommended for the oil massage, but I am allergic to the stuff.)
After that, it’ll be three days of a post-cleanse that’s similar to the pre-cleanse — and from there, return to what will hopefully be a new normal. I loved the pre-cleanse diet, and hope to start integrating more of those types of meals into my daily life. I already use the neti pot and I’m not adverse to incorporating the daily dry brushing and the tongue-scraping. (Not sure what my in-laws will think about all these new additions to the counter space when they visit next weekend, since they’ll be taking over that bathroom.) The oil massage does feel lovely, but it’s too time-consuming for me to do more than once in a while.
That said, I must admit that I am looking forward to drinking coffee and pomegranate oolong tea lattes again. I was surprised that I wasn’t really hungry during this cleanse — found it quite filling, in fact. Who could guess that I had the discipline to not snack. What it turns out I missed most were my drinks, like cranberry juice and almond-milk-based tea lattes.
Goodbye for now, rajas
Especially since this is my first cleanse, I can’t say enough how important it was to have a skilled cleanse leader in Kate — and to have the support of the group (we stayed connected through a Google group). A cleanse can bring up some intense emotions, and it’s helpful — and more fun — to go through it with friends.
During the pre-cleanse, my body was, as apparently happens to many people, achy. Since starting the ghee protocol, I have definitely felt the need to go slower — way slower — during my day (a very strange feeling for me to have!). Heading into the cleanse, Kate had cautioned us to only practice primary series during the cleanse, but said that some of us may need to do very abbreviated practices. (Turns out I was in the latter group — more than anything, my body has needed time to rest this week).
What’s been so interesting to me is that my mind has seemed quieter somehow during the main cleanse. If my head space were a college town, it feels like the end of the term, when students have all left for the break. While I do miss the rajas a bit — you should see how much I am putting off until next week — I have to admit that this is nice.
The film directed by certified teacher R. Alexander Medin, released early this year, clocks in at just 22 minutes and includes striking footage — taken inside the practice room of the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Gokulam, Mysore — that’s woven into interviews with a range of compelling and articulate practitioners talking about why they were originally drawn to Mysore, and what the practice has done for them.
But the copy of the film I ordered a couple months ago indicates on the cover that this DVD is a new version, in that it includes six special features. The short film is quite well done — and, yes, it makes you want to book a ticket to India, stat — but for me, the gem of this 63-minute DVD can be found in the bonus features, which include segments on the following topics:
I was particularly drawn to the “Obstacles” section, in which you hear these oh-so-familiar thoughts spoken by different yogis:
“You are confronting your own shortcomings daily . . . “
“Some days are incredibly difficult to get up and go practice . . .”
“Whatever it is, it is guaranteed to come up in the practice . . . “
“The moment you start your practice, it’s almost like a train — it’s a speeding train towards your obstacles.”
Sound familiar? I was wondering if perhaps they had actors reading from a script of thoughts that run through my head way too frequently. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about obstacles — and how to overcome them when you practice alone, at home, and don’t have the benefit of the energy of a Mysore room, much less the opportunity to travel to the source — thanks to the daily support I’ve been getting as part of a group of yogis, most of whom I’ve never met, who are part of the Way-Before-Breakfast Club for morning-challenged ashtangis. We meet in a little digital lounge where we can talk about our obstacles to practicing, help each other work through them, and generally cheer each other on.
Kino MacGregor’s struggles
In “Obstalces,” Kino MacGregor talks about her struggles in the practice. Yes, that Kino — the ubiquitous one who is all over social media, making everything look easy. The one who looks like she was born with a body made for this practice. The one who wears those trademark short shorts that make practicing things like arm balances even harder, because you don’t have fabric to use as friction.
Kino MacGregor screenshot via KinoYoga.com
I’ll note one of MacGregor’s quote because I think she’s probably the most well-known of the yogis in this section, between her videos, blog posts, tweets, Pinterest boards, and all the rest. Sitting comfortably in a Led Zeppelin tee, she tells the filmmakers:
What does strength mean? Where does it come from?
For me, that’s been a really big journey, actually, because I wasn’t strong when I practiced — not mentally, not spiritually, not physically, not emotionally. So when I found this blockage in my practice — like, I couldn’t lift my butt off the ground — not at all in the beginning — I just remembered thinking, ‘What’s this about for me?’ And what does this say as a state of mind that I want to quit all the time? What does this say as a state of mind? Who is this person that can’t find any strength, that can’t, you know, accept this part of myself?
My first career was as a newspaper reporter, and I remember, early on, thinking that I was not fit for this field. I looked around at all these reporters who were tearing it up with A1 stories, investigative packages, beautiful long-form features. They seemed to me like they were born to do this — that they must wake up feeling confident every morning, that they have some uncanny ability to stroll into the newsroom around 10 a.m. and get their sources to spill by noon. Words seemed to flow out of their typing fingers as fast as coffee was streaming out of the newsroom coffee pot. Then I started to get to know people better. I started to learn about their sleepless nights. About the sacrifices they had made over the years to get their sources to trust them. I learned how some reporters would even get their doctors to prescribe Ativan when they were facing their toughest deadlines. Being part of the Fourth Estate — when done with integrity to ethics and dedication to the idea that citizens require information and truth to make informed decisions — can be hard. It was important to me to know I was not alone in feeling this way.
You are not alone, ashtangi
Back to Ashtanga yoga. It’s hard! This is not news. For some of us, it can be helpful to hear from people we think never had to work hard to achieve something, because it can make the endeavor seem more accessible. Some of us need to hear that nope, actually, these guys struggled too — and continue to struggle — just like the rest of us.
To be sure, there is also a kind of inspiration from knowing that someone else like you is still keeping at it and trying their best, despite their doubts, anxieties, frustrations, fears and everything else. Sometimes we get so beholden to our challenges that we lose all perspective. I think this is one way in which connecting with one another — whether over social media or by watching a DVD like this one — can support practices.
Checking out the film
There are renting options and purchasing options with the film — follow this link. I don’t believe renting the film — streaming it online for $4.99 — offers you the bonus features. It looks to me as if the DVD option, for $24.99, is the best way to go — and you should know that 50 percent of revenues go to the Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Charitable Trust.
Here’s a sampling of some discussions of the film when it originally came out.
I made a few updates to the social media grid the first few months after launch, but had to let go of keeping it fully updated due to the craziness of my life through — well, this summer. Thanks to the break I’ve had over Labor Day weekend 2012, I just finished a major update to the grid.
Tim Miller also went from having a Facebook profile to a Facebook page. I guess that’s what happens when you have more than 5,100 friends (which was roughly the number the last time I checked, which was last year).
I originally included info on Cathy Louise Broda because I wanted representation in the grid for something — anything! — related to Ashtanga and pregnancy, which seems to present a big question to many practitioners. But Cathy’s Baby Blog was last updated in April, and I haven’t found other platforms she posts to in a way that speaks to community-building (if I am wrong, tell me). Her blog remains on the YogaRose.net links section and was included in my recent post on resources for Ashtanga yoga and pregnancy.
New rows for three shalas that I have been turning to in recent months for sharing high–quality content: Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor (where I practice), Albuquerque Ashtanga Yoga Shala and the Ashtanga Yoga Centre of Toronto. If you were to think of my Chrome browser as my shopping cart for yoga-related media I consume, I’ve felt that the links and such from these three sources have been enriching — pretty low fat content on the posts, tweets and such that they’re distributing. This is stuff I would feel going about applying a read-share-repeat mode to.
Sadly, my Labor Day weekend is coming to an end, and so must this post. Enjoy connecting via the grid, v. 2.0. And thank you for connecting here with me, by reading and commenting over this past intense and fascinating year.
P.S. — If you’re ever bored and want to see what types of Ashtanga-related tweets people are sending, you can manually set up a search on Twitter.com or a stream on Hootsuite. Or you can go to a silly little page I put up last year called Twitteranga. I’m sure you’ll find some lean-cut tweets, some with nothing but fat, and everything in between for your consumption.
Graphic credit: Carl Richards via The New York Times
The New York Times yesterday posted a piece titled “You Probably Have Too Much Stuff” by a certified financial planner. (I probably wouldn’t have seen it, except Bristo Yoga School posted it on their Facebook page, and that showed up in my newsfeed.) Readers of this blog know I’ve been working on unpacking my patterns of excess during my recent move, so I was interested in reading this column. What impressed me most, other than the very clean and striking graphic that I’ve posted above, was that this financial planner acknowledged the emotional price you pay for having too much stuff:
When we hold on to stuff we no longer want or use, it does indeed cost us something more, if only in the time spent organizing and contemplating them. I can’t tell you how many times I have thought about getting rid of that tie (for instance), and every time I went to choose a shirt for the day, I would think about the few that no longer fit.
. . . .
It can help to think in terms of, “Do I have room—physical, emotional, mental—to bring one more thing into my life?”
It has taken me a long time to realize that my opinions and judgments — of myself and others — count as “stuff” that needs to be constantly cleared out. (Better yet, not brought in in the first place.) What makes this kind of excess worse than the piles of unnecessary whatevers that may be laying around the house is that it travels with you — it’s not something you can avoid when you’re not at home. I think most of us know people so chained by anger, resentment and grudges — so addicted to personal drama — that they can’t even see how much friendship, good will and respect from others they have lost. These packets of anger, resentment and grudges that get stockpiled can color every conversation you have and affect every relationship you enter. It can cause you to push people away and it can keep people from wanting to be closer to you. It saps a tremendous amount of energy and it’s toxic. Is there a higher personal cost than that?
Two sides of the same coin
In many cases, anger and the like are byproducts of too intensely liking someone and being disappointed, right? In The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice, T.K.V. Desikachar offers up a simple little drawing of a tree (p. 11) that I always think of when there’s yogic talk of ignorance. The caption underneath the tree reads, “Avidya is the root cause of the obstacles that prevent us from recognizing things as they really are. The obstacles [branches of the tree] are asmita (ego), raga (attachment), dvesa (refusal), abhinivesia (fear).”
Maitri karuna mudita upekshanam sukha duhka punya apunya vishayanam bhavanatah chitta prasadanam. In relationships, the mind becomes purified by cultivating feelings of friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion for those who are suffering, goodwill towards those who are virtuous, and indifference or neutrality towards those we perceive as wicked or evil.
I don’t remember the retreat dwelling on it, but I scribbled in my notebook that the last of the four discussed was equanimity, which Angela noted included “not getting attached to preferences in people.”
That’s such an interesting one — and I realized that I was recently confronted with this. During the months of my wedding planning and after the wedding itself was held in May, I had been quietly holding on to hurt feelings. I had a few friends who meant a lot to me and who, as a result, I expected to somehow demonstrate their reciprocity by, at best, being excited by the wedding and, at worse, at least acknowledging the event. But as with any wedding, there were people who didn’t so much as reach out with a post-wedding “hey, congrats” or a “sorry I blew off your invite, I was x, y or z” or whatever. Their silence was deafening to me. The fault was entirely my own, though: I should have not have expected anything, because expectations create baggage. And did it matter what the reasons were? Everyone who was invited to the wedding was someone whom my husband and I felt had given us a gift of friendship at some point; that was enough.
As a post-script, I have to say that I somehow shed a lot of these feelings — along with other holds I’ve been carrying for a long time — during my honeymoon in Maui. Part of it was the magic of that island, and much of it had to do with the fact that my wedding showed me just how much I had to be grateful for — I have so many good people in my life, and can you ask for much more than that? I felt so light as my wedding weekend came to a close, and that feeling has stayed with me.
The geometry of closets
Like much of the population, I tend to stash stuff I don’t need into closets. This forces me to cram stuff I don’t need or even really like into spaces that contain stuff I do need and do like. The end result? The stuff I don’t need pushes the good stuff out of view and everything ends up crumpled. In my emotional closet I’ve started taking inventory of tchotchkes built on resentments, articles fabricated of anger, and boxes storing grudges, and I’ve been pitching as many of them as I can. (I’m also trying to catch myself before I drag in new junk.) It’s less that I have reached that level of zen, and more a reflection of how much I value all the good people and things in my life — I don’t want those dynamics wrinkled by emotional detritus I should have tossed years ago.
Don’t get me wrong — I am human, and I still have way more baggage than I need. But the spring cleaning has begun, and I suspect it will be, as is everything worth taking on, a constant and lifelong process.
It was a distracting day to be in Lansing, Mich., because there was so much going on in the Ashtanga world elsewhere.
Mt. Shasta and McCloud, Calif.
Tim Miller started the distractions that turned into daydreams when he posted a dispatch from Mt. Shasta, where he is leading his annual weeklong second series retreat. I was there last year, and it was the beginning of what I’m seeing now as a yearlong emotional shed that began last August in Mt. Shasta, hit a crescendo during my honeymoon in Maui in May, and went all the way up to settling into a new house last month. The friends I met last year who returned to Mt. Shasta this year were posting about their exploits on Facebook, and I would have rather been there with them than at my work desk.
The Ashtanga Yoga Confluence and San Diego, Calif.
By afternoon, the Confluence Countdown blogging husband-and-wife team posted that the schedule for the 2013 Ashtanga Yoga Confluence was out. It looks amazing. That brought my mind forward to March 2103 and back to this past March, when I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the first-ever Confluence. I won’t be headed to the Confluence next year, however, because money is pretty tight right now, and I’m saving up for . . .
Ashtanga Mexico Retreat with Elise Espat and Angela Jamison
My Ashtanga teacher will be co-leading a retreat near Puerto Vallarta next March, and I want to be there. It seems like an incredible way to experience my practice, and a perfect opportunity for some sort of mental and emotional deep-dive. I wanted to get on a direct flight other Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor folks are taking — and get on it while the prices are still low — so I’ve bought my ticket yesterday. This afternoon, I realized my name was spelled incorrectly on the reservation, which means it doesn’t match my passport, which means it could cause some trouble during the actual trip, so I called Delta today to fix that. Calling the airline got me all excited again for this trip.
I think getting away for yoga trainings and retreats is important not just for deepening a practice, but for the purposes of rekindling inspiration and creating an environment for some healing work. I know these retreats sound like vacations — and they totally are. But if you want them to be, they can also be work — intense and not always pleasant emotional work.
I’d say I hope tomorrow will be a little less distracting, but having too many Ashtanga events to think about is a pretty good problem to have — more opportunities to get away as part of a journey to settle back home.
From left to right, one set of triple gems in my life.
Ganesha is the lord of thresholds and new beginnings, and here you have a Ganesha puja spoon purchased in 2010 from the Ashtanga Yoga Center in Carlsbad, Calif., and a Ganesha murti gifted to me and my husband when we moved into our new house in 2012. They’re both resting on top of a stone tray given to me by my sister Alisa. I’ve been waiting for years to find the perfect use for this tray, and I finally have.
The tray is the centerpiece of my new yoga room, and below it are the blue-and-gold Thai sashes I wore in May for a marriage blessing at Dhammasala, a Thai Theravada forest monastery in, of all places, Perry, Mich. My mom and dad bought the Thai outfit for me, and my sisters meticulously pinned all the pieces of the outfit for the short ceremony. The sashes are there, in short, because objects from my family are important to me. My parents and my two sisters, along with my husband, embody the qualities I want to nurture in myself — kindness, patience and generosity. The yogic system encourages humans to see the divine in all things; I’m not there yet. But I can always find a type of divine inspiration in the radiant spirit of my loving and wise family members.
Teachings and teachers
This photo was taken by Michelle Haymoz, a photographer based in Encinitas, Calif., who always seems to capture the most striking and compelling aspects of the human spirit. Luckily for the yoga world, she enjoys turning her lens to the practice. Here, she used her camera for photos of the summer 2010 primary series teacher training led by Tim Miller. Tim has a loyal, worldwide following — he’s the kind of teacher students uproot their lives for, to be close enough to study with him — and is the first American certified to teach Ashtanga vinyasa yoga. I first met Tim at a workshop in Columbus, Ohio, in April 2010, and within five minutes of being in his presence, I knew I had to make the trek to his studio some day (which I did, at the urging of my now-husband, later that same year). Tim has a gift for synthesizing the Yoga Sutras and the Ashtanga vinyasa yoga practice — a gift for mapping the yogic principles contained in the 196 aphorisms of the sutras to foundational elements of the Ashtanga practice. The powerful sense of equanimity he conveys is, in and of itself, instructive.
I’m in the foreground in padmasana wearing a custom spinning ring I bought myself in 2009, when the beginning of a shift started to take place. That shift was from a perspective of fitting yoga into your life to fitting your life into your yoga, and it really started when I decided to deepen my sporadic Ashtanga practice (the product of living in areas of the country lacking Ashtanga teachers) by taking a 200-hour vinyasa-based teacher training program with Hilaire Lockwood at Hilltop Yoga. I had absolutely no desire to teach yoga at the time, but I was drawn to the possibility of what I could learn from Hilaire, who is a pistol of a woman with a passion for offering students the level of challenge they need in their practice to start to make discoveries about themselves. She did exactly what she promised she would do during that teacher training and a subsequent 500-hour training I took with her in 2010 — she opened doors for further exploration, and I’ll always be grateful to her for that.
Inside the ring was etched, “Do your practice and all is coming.” I lost that ring a year later, and while I’m still sad about it, I decided against ordering a replacement. I saw the loss as a way to remain detached to the physical object while internalizing the spirit of the ring’s meaning to me.
This is a photo of the Stone Arch in Saline, Mich. — a church that’s been beautifully converted into an event space — taken mid-morning during this year’s Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor summer retreat, just after the Mysore practice time ended. The energy inside the main space of the Stone Arch was tremendously calm during the practice — and if you’ve ever practiced in this style, you know there is nothing quite like a Mysore room and the pulsing of the rhythmic breath of your fellow practitioners. The work being done on each of the 30 or so mats was so individual, and yet so communal.
Angela Jamison, who has been building AY: A2 since moving to Michigan a few short years ago, invests deeply in helping her students find their individual paths, and she also works to strengthen the Ashtanga community by connecting practitioners from different areas — whether it’s different parts of Michigan or different parts of the world.These AY:A2 retreats are, much like events such as the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence, tremendous opportunities to bring more people who are interested in the eight limbs of the practice into your orbit.
I met Angela in person in 2011, after returning from an important (in that shedding kind of way) trip to Mt. Shasta. While I wish I had met her years ago, it was also the perfect time for our paths to cross. Thanks to her teaching, and her guidance by example, I’ve been able to integrate many threads of a more yogic life. These threads — such as practicing six days a week and finding ways to let go of deeply seated emotions — were threads that I would start to braid, but they would unravel for one reason or another. Often, it was work demands. Sometimes, it was simply life. Others, for reasons I can’t understand even now.
I’ve been told the first part of my last name, “Tantra,” means “to weave” in Sanskrit. My three-and-a-half-decade journey has shown me that it helps to have a lot of help in this enterprise of weaving strands of your life together. Triangulation with a triple gem. I started out my career with a vague sense that I wanted to tell people’s stories, so I went into journalism. I had a love/hate relationship with the field — it was like playing the right song in the wrong pitch. (Now, as a communications professional, I work for clients who need their story told.)
I started this blog in the summer of 2010, when my life was more or less on track, but in a pretty different place — a much more unsettled, frazzled and searching place. To the extent that I can, I’m sharing my own stories, as they come. You won’t find an enlightened yogi in these posts, because it’s two steps forward, three steps back for me. But if you follow the trajectory of the blog, you might see that the thread of the Ashtanga yoga method has been working wonders in slow and unpredictable ways. A decade and a half after I started out trying to tell everyone else’s story, I’ve come to realize that perhaps all these journalists, poets and novelists were right: You have to write what you know.
Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor‘s summer retreat was held this weekend inside the Stone Arch, a beautiful and expansively intimate church-turned-event-space located in a cute Michigan town called Saline. This was my third retreat with Angela Jamison of AY: A2, and, as with any good yoga workshop, each one of these seasonal confabs has offered me an array of inspirational, intellectual and practice-based nourishment. Some I digest right away (along with, I should mention, actual tasty nourishment in the form of fantastic lunches), and some I can’t until much later.
Something I digested in real time today had to do with an exploration of how to decrease your reactivity during potentially tension-filled situations — whether that’s at an academic talk, a corporate meeting or a personal conversation. There’s a one-word answer and then a longer answer. The one-word answer: Listen. (If you’ve already started judging this word, hold on — listen for a couple paragraphs longer.) The longer answer requires a look at a person’s five koshas, or sheaths. Koshas go from the outside in, starting with gross manifestations (the body) and move toward more subtle ones:
Annamaya kosha: Physical body
Pranamaya kosha: Energy body
Manomaya kosha: Mental body
Vijnanamaya kosha: Wisdom body
Anandamaya kosha: Blissful body
Rather than starting to build up your own wall of defenses — your feeling on the matter, your justifications, or whatever it may be — while someone else is talking, try really listening. Become very, very receptive to what is said, rather than work off a loop of assumptions and proactive counterarguments. The self-help industry is full of advice of listening, but in this yogic framework of koshas, what you’re doing is allowing a quick downshift from the mental body to the wisdom body, and allowing reactions to come from a more refined place. It’s not easy to let go this way, but the payoff can be tremendous.
I seriously love framing this shift in consciousness like this, because I do this. I. Do. This. I do this all the time, in fact. I don’t consider myself overly analytical, but probably starting with my time on the high school speech and debate team and on through my work in deadline-driven professionals, I’ve always seen arguments — even healthy ones — as an us versus them proposition with winners, losers and a ticking clock. Time is limited. Get your idea out there before a worse one gains popularity. (Working in corporate America has done nothing but reinforce my patterns.)
Speaking of digestion . . . in my ongoing efforts to start waking up at 5:30 a.m. six days a week to practice, Angela has suggested that I stop eating dinner at my usual 8, 9 or 10 p.m. and try to eat earlier. The retreat flew by today, and between that, the 75-minute drive home, and a quick errand on the way home, it’s getting awfully close to my usual dinnertime. I have lots of great vegetables from yesterday’s trip to Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown Famers Market, so I better go.
Is it just me, or are there only about a dozen ashtangis in the States right now? I feel like Ashtanga yoga practitioners are all either already in Mysore — practicing, blogging and tweeting away — or on the cusp of departing for India.
Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor posted this wonderful link to a Facebook event — or an attempt at an event, anyway. The idea is to have everyone show up to the led class being held at the Mysore shala on Christmas Day in a santa hat. It seems that there are some logistical challenges to making this happen, but I think the whole idea is a hoot, even if it doesn’t pan out.
I’m posting this from a tiny little town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula called Quinnesec (population: 1,187), on a holiday visit with my fiance’s parents. (I’ve been saying “Iron Mountain” as shorthand, because people in Michigan know that as the town that Tom Izzo‘s from, but Iron Mountain is actually the larger town over, with some 8,000 or so residents.) But when I practice tomorrow — rolling out my mat and rug in the beautifully finished attic we stay in when we visit here) — I’ll be wearing an energetic santa hat, trying to connect to some of the light-hearted energy emanating from the shala in Mysore.
>>Update 12.25.11 — Check out my comment below for links to photos of yogis rocking their inner Kris Kringle.
Last night at this time, I was in a diner in Chicago’s Boystown district, sitting across the table from my very talented, very funny and very fast (in that marathon/triathalon kind of way) friend Molly. We were having a blast catching up after not seeing each other for two years.
But there was one undeniably strange thing about the situation. It wasn’t the circumstances that brought the two of us back together. It was that we were voluntarily doing our celebratory catching-up dinner in a vegan joint.
I’m no Anthony Bourdain when it comes to my view on veganism. I respect other people’s choice about food. For myself, however, I draw the line at vegan dishes — if I can’t have milk or eggs, that’s a deal breaker, and I don’t even want to spend my hard-earned money in a place that caters to vegan taste buds.
I’ve always eaten meat, except for about three years in my mid-20s in which I pretty much cut out pork, poultry and beef from my diet. (I am very nearly a seafood addict, so I never even considered cutting that.) I had initially cut out pork because of one bad sweet and sour pork dish I ate — it tasted like I was eating a carcass, and I was not OK with that. A while later, I cut out poultry because I didn’t like what I had heard about the way chickens and turkey were raised. I cut beef out last, because I believed that red meat wasn’t healthy.
It shouldn’t have taken me so long to figure out that this experiment was not working. I seemed to constantly feel tired. My hair would fall out in clumps every time I washed it.
When I finally started listening to my body, though, was when I started having random thoughts of cheeseburgers (like, while driving). If that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is. So perhaps for the first time in my life, I really listened to my body. I reintroduced meat — all of it — and I felt much better. On every level.
Now, at the not-so-tender age of 35, I’m facing another fork in my gastronomic journey. The last year or so, I’ve felt strongly that I wanted to eat better. It seemed to be less about what I ate — because I don’t eat much fast food, and I naturally crave things that are good for you, like greens, Brussels sprouts and squash — and more about how much I ate.
Then came the game changer — the six-day-a-week Ashtanga practice.
One day off
While I have long aspired to have a six-day-a-week Ashtanga yoga practice, that resolution has gone the way of so many diets over the years — great intentions, but never actually starting.
Since returning from an Ashtanga yoga retreat at Mt. Shasta this past August, though, I’ve fought for, and so far maintained, a schedule that gives me only one rest day a week (in addition to the typical two moon days a month when you don’t practice). When I say “fought,” I mean it. It has been a battle to keep this schedule up — for six days of every week, I fight to carve out enough time to practice.
On the level of honoring traditions, I’m drawn to how this is the prescribed schedule for an Ashtanga practice. On a personal level, I’m drawn to what such a consistent practice does for my body and my mind.
But right now, I think that more than anything, I am fighting for this schedule because I want the discipline of it. I need to prove to myself that I have it in me to follow through. If six days had been something dictated by my employer, I would have done it already. I have always, on some important level, put my personal life after my professional life. I feel, first and foremost, that my responsibility is to my work — to doing a kick-ass job on whatever it is, and to meet all my deadlines. I’ve always asked my family, my friends — and, finally, myself — to understand during those times when work had to come first.
What I’m proving to myself with this six day a week practice is that I can do both — I can still rock out at work while not short-changing my personal life. Angela Jamison of Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor has reminded me that the Ashtanga practice is by design a householder’s pursuit. This practice wasn’t designed for people who could shirk off daily responsibilities.
Do you have chicken that tastes like something else?
So it’s early November now, and one thing that started happening maybe three weeks ago — so roughly eight weeks into this six-day-a-week practice — is that I have not been able to bring myself to eat chicken. I’ve been fine with beef — even had a craving the other week for my favorite burger place in Lansing. It’s just been chicken that I’ve wanted nothing to do with — something about the taste and the texture. If someone were to set a plate of Southwestern eggrolls — one of my guilty-pleasure appetizers — in front of me at this moment, I think I would look and then keep typing.
Is that a vegan menu?
This weekend, I headed to Chicago for Tim Miller’s workshops at the yogaview studio. My friend Molly very generously offered to let me crash at her place, so we had the chance to compare notes about how the past couple of years have gone. For our big dinner Saturday night, Molly ran down a long list of suggestions — awesome-sounding places that featured small plates and/or seafood. Fancy places, less fancy places, fun places. The one that sounded the best? Chicago Diner, a joint that specializes in vegan cuisine.
I had had a lovely, sweaty Timji-led Ashtanga primary series practice that morning, in a room full of more than 60 yogis all going to the flow of this practice. I left feeling amazing. I know that feeling carried me through the day, and I know that played a role in not feeling like eating anything heavy.
After seeing the full menu of choices including sweet potato quesadillas and a chicken firehouse wrap with “chicken” seitan, curiosity and an appreciate for creative flare and fare drew me to the place. It reminded me of Chu Chai, one of my favorite places in Montreal — a vegetarian Thai place that offers delicious faux-meat dishes.
The Chicago Diner did not disappoint. The food was fantastic. Molly and I started out with some sweet potato fries topped with “cheeze” and I had a Soul Bowl with quinoa (love that stuff!), spicy grilled tofu with chimichurri sauce, black beans, flashed greens and mashed sweet potatoes. We ended with — get this — vegan chocolate chip cookie dough shakes.
Did the dining experience make me want to go vegan or even vegetarian? Absolutely not. It did make me want to return to Chicago Diner, and it did make me reflect some more about the power of practicing six days a week. If this is already what I’m experience 11 weeks in, it’s going to be interesting.
As for chicken — will I start wanting to eat it again? We’ll see. I kind of like having this be my mystery meat for the time being.
How about you? Do you practice six days a week? What, if anything, changed for you?
Once a year, I have to go see my periodontal surgeon. It’s an appointment I dread, because I’m afraid I’m going to be told that my teeth-grinding has continued to such a degree that I once again need surgery (of the free gingival graft variety — where tissue is taken from the roof of the mouth and grafted to your gum line, which has receded because you grind your teeth so much that the action erodes your gums over time).
Today was my appointment for 2011.
I wrote a blog post a while back about clenching (“‘Rarely do we clench just one thing‘”). Even though I think about clenching pretty frequently, I have to say I really thought about it a lot today, and I also thought about it yesterday, during a daylong Ashtanga yoga retreat hosted by Angela Jamison of Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor. There was a point when the discussion got to how the Ashtanga yoga system can affect your daily habits — how it can even make you so present, and so transparent, that you don’t have spaces in the body to hold things — things like tension and negative emotions.
I can’t imagine what that would feel like — to experience tension and let it just slide off you because there aren’t nooks and crannies in your body into which you would squirrel that stuff as a way of packing it away.
Do you know how where you pack your stuff?
I hold most of my tension in my neck and shoulders. There is this one spot in my right upper back in particular that seems to serve as the reservoir for all my stress run-off. Even yoga doesn’t always provide relief, and when it comes to that, I seek refuge in my acupuncturist’s office — so that she can turn the needle in that spot to open the value and release some of the pressure.
Obviously, I take a fair amount of stress into my jaw as well. I bear down, I lock and I grind. Daily.
On a professional and personal level, the amount of stress in my life has decreased substantially since 2008, when I had my gum surgery. Since that time, I’ve also upped the frequency of, and my commitment to, my Ashtanga practice.
Has it helped? I hope so. I figured I would have at least one black-and-white measure depending on what happened today.
The appointment began the same way it does every time. My surgeon, who is not only a sweetheart but is also extremely good at what she does, examines each tooth and rattles off a number to her assistant. “Three, three, three, two one.” I don’t even know how her assistant writes it all down fast enough. “One, one, one, three, three, three…”
Years after my surgery, I still don’t know what the numbers mean — because I don’t want to know. When I’m in the chair and until my surgeon gives the overall prognosis, I hold my breath and tense up all over. Thank goodness she is thoughtful enough to invest in fantastic dental chairs equipped with massagers for the back, because that helps a bit with the tension.
Happily, I survived another appointment. I left with a clean bill of health. I need to continue to wear my mouth guard every night, but I made it another year without the threat of surgery. Is it all due to the mouth guard? Luck? Genes? Yoga? Less overall stress in my life? Probably a combination of all of the above.
I hope, however, that I’ll be less dependent on all of those factors by the time my appointment rolls around next year. I hope I’ll be a little closer to being able to not only conceptualize but to also experience, in my own body, what it means to not have any place to stash stress and hard emotions.