Bikram Day 96: WTF?


Bronze mirror with the head of the Medusa, Greek, South Italy, 500 - 480 B.C.

Bronze mirror with the head of the Medusa, Greek, South Italy, 500 - 480 B.C.

One day while carrying out some business, the Mullah Nasruddin was asked to show his identification.  He directly pulled out a mirror from his pocket and soberly studied his reflection for a long time.  At length he exclaimed, “Yes, that is me!”

I have to say that meeting this challenge is the by far the best thing I have done with my life in a very long time.   When I signed up to attend 100 bikram yoga classes in 100 days I told myself that I was performing an experiment. I also reasoned that, since I am something of a couch potato,  I would never make it into a studio to perform difficult physical contortions while sweating profusely at 105 degree for 90 minutes at a time unless I tricked myself into it.  And once I put my name up there on the public board, where students who have taken on the challenge mark their progress each day, it was simply too embarrassing not to show up for class every day.  Other people had done it. Why couldn’t I?

When I began the challenge, at least five other people were completing their last 20 days or so, and shortly thereafter two other students declared their intention to do it, too.  It seemed that I had lots of company and that what I was doing was not so very remarkable.  The yogis ahead of me, some of whom were teachers, finished their 100 days.  There were then just two of us–I and a woman who began her challenge on the same day as I did.  We’d meet in the say “18!” and then “19!”.  She stopped coming.  It was okay because another woman who regularly came put her name up on the board.  She dropped away, too.  Then I was alone–but not really, since a small posse of yogis took at least once class a day, and plenty of other regulars showed up four or five times a week.  Their accomplishment seemed greater than mine.   A number of people began asking me “what day are you on now?” and seemed genuinely impressed.  I hadn’t yet finished and could not yet say with utter certainty that I would manage to finish. Congratulations will not be in order until I have ended my 101st class in a row.

But it no longer matters to me how many days in a row I have been coming to class, although I do still get a small charge when I mark off each day.  Indeed, I’m looking forward to not counting.  I guess you could say that my point of view has shifted.  Much more important that being able to say that I’ve met the challenge is the experience of practicing every day, whether I want to or not.

Paradoxically, I like the way I feel in general even though I don’t always feel good when I’m practicing.  Some days I can’t seem to balance.  On other days my stomach feels cramped, or packed, or bloated, which makes Pada-hastana particularly uncomfortable. On other days I can’t seem to stop yawning, or my legs are tired and weak.  Sometimes the heat bothers me more than at other times.  None of it matters.

Kaspar van den Wigngaard

As one of my teachers, the amazing Kaspar van den Wijngaard, told me: “When you commit yourself to a daily practice you learn to stop worrying about how well you did on any one particular day and to focus more on the process.” Or something like that.  I can’t remember his exact words.  Kaspar has taught me to divest from the need to be “good” or perfect all the time. There’s no capturing the moment, no saying, “I’ve done it, I own that,” or “I am x or y because I can do this or that.”  One does one’s best every day, and that is what one is doing.

Remarkably modest and sweet-tempered, Kaspar is simultaneously an especially exacting and forgiving teacher.  He encourages each student to work from where she or he happens to be at the time.  He saw me leaning back on my elbows in Supta-Vajrasana and said, “You can put your head on the floor and lean all the way back.”  I had it in my mind that I could NOT do that pose and found the suggestion irritating. Still, I dutifully laid back and discovered that I could indeed to the minor backbend, and get a nice stretch in my stomach at the same time.

Kaspar has been teaching at the studio for the month of February, and I’m really going to miss him when he leaves. When he first got here, he ran us through the postures without mercy, it seemed, allowing us much shorter breaks than we had become used to.  But we–I am not the only one–adjusted to his tempo and now like it better.  We’ve gotten better over time, through diligence, consistency, commitment.

Why has this been the very best thing that I have done with my life in a very long time?  Not simply because I have developed a discipline and proven to myself that I could do something that I didn’t know I could do.   Not simply because I have gotten a lot stronger and more flexible.  Not simply because I no longer have the pain in my back that I used to have when I lay flat on it in sivasana.  Not simply because I am far more toned throughout my torso and not simply because my jeans fit way better than before.   Not simply because I have made a lot of new friends and found a happy, supportive, and healthy community in Pittsburgh.  Not simply because the light and the heat have made this winter way more bearable.  Not simply because I’m probably getting taller.

All of these reasons help to make daily practice of Bikram yoga one of the best things I have ever done. But much more important to me than all of these reasons put together has been the daily moving meditation.   Yes, my body is changing.  But what is far more profound and interesting to me is the way that my mind is changing.  In a word, I am more courageous than I was before.   I’m much more willing to face things, issues, problems, predicaments, life-changes that scare me.  This does not mean that I am not still frightened.  What it means is that I am facing, acknowledging, dealing with my fear.  I used to flee from it.   My body is stronger, but so is my mind.

What am I afraid of?  All kinds of things.  Getting older, getting fatter, getting weaker, losing my memory, losing people I love.  I’m afraid of facing the world in which the people who I thought were my friends turn out to be quite unfriendly and mostly indifferent to me.  I’m afraid of letting go of the identity that I’ve clutched around me like a cloak, an impenetrable shield, a space-suit for the past twenty-odd years.  I’m afraid of facing myself and not knowing who I am or what I really want or what I am going to do about it.  All of these things.

I am walking away from the path that I have been on for a very long time.  The old road is well sign-posted, and the signs say “Climb this mountain!”  “Cross this bridge!” “Cut and bundle into sheaves this field of wheat!”  They also say “When you succeed at this task you will be GOOD!” and “If you fail at this task you will be WORTHLESS.”  The path is old and rutted and bloody and lonely.  You must assess everyone you meet on the path and quickly decide if they will help or hinder your progress.  You cannot trust anyone fully.  If you leave the path and walk into uncharted territory, most of the people you met on the old road will forget about you, as though you never existed.

For the first time in a long while I am actually acknowledging the fear, as well as the grief that comes with letting go of a long attachment to something that was not really who or how I wanted to be.  I am letting myself consider possibilities.  I am following my nose.  Next week, for example, I will go through a week-long training at the Women’s Center and Shelter of Pittsburgh so that I can work directly with women in need.  I am looking for meaningful work.  I am looking for dignity.

I am facing my fear of being a very bad painter even though painting is something I have always wanted to do.  I am facing my fear of not living up to my parents’ expectations.  My fear of not living up to my graduate advisor’s expectations.  I didn’t have any mentors at my last job so I don’t worry about not living up any of my former co-workers expectations. But I am facing my fear of not knowing what the next job will be.  Whatever it is, I will not make the mistake of confusing it with my identity.

This will sound cliché because it is:  I am facing my fear of myself.  It’s not quite right to say that I don’t know who I am, since  I don’t believe in absolute selves or intrinsic identities.  I don’t believe in the soul, or in reincarnation, or heaven or hell.  So I finally don’t believe in not knowing who I am.  What I am dealing with is the challenge of letting go of the space-suit, the rigid identity and the insecurity that kept the stiff paper-board self in place.  The challenge of being a being rather than a doing.

Do you know?  Every day after Bikram I lie on my side in a semi-fetal position with my arms around myself until I feel a sense of love for myself.  I say, “I am here and I love,” and I wait until I feel connected with whatever it is, love, warmth, self-acceptance, gratitude.  It makes a difference.  Once a day, put your arms around yourself and be present with yourself with a kind-heartedness.   Try it.

Here is another story about identity and the Mullah Nasruddin, from Idries Shah, The Sufis.

Once, the people of The City invited Mullah Nasruddin to deliver a khutba. When he got on the minbar (pulpit), he found the audience was not very enthusiastic, so he asked “Do you know what I am going to say?” The audience replied “NO”, so he announced “I have no desire to speak to people who don’t even know what I will be talking about” and he left. The people felt embarrassed and called him back again the next day. This time when he asked the same question, the people replied “YES” So Mullah Nasruddin said, “Well, since you already know what I am going to say, I won’t waste any more of your time” and he left. Now the people were really perplexed. They decided to try one more time and once again invited the Mullah to speak the following week. Once again he asked the same question – “Do you know what I am going to say?” Now the people were prepared and so half of them answered “YES” while the other half replied “NO”. So Mullah Nasruddin said “The half who know what I am going to say, tell it to the other half” and he left!

Libya: Bikram Day 93


Today I will complete my 93rd class in 93 consecutive days–only 7 to go to meet the challenge.  Actually, I have 8 to go, since the custom at our studio is to attend a class on the next day.  People have been congratulating me already and commenting on what a great accomplishment it is.   I’m shrugging.  It’s not so impressive.  What it is is luxurious.  I’m incredibly lucky to be able to go to class for hundreds of reasons.  Some of them are that I have a strong and healthy body, that I have the money to pay for classes, that I live in a society in which I can stand in a room with half-naked men and women and exercise, that I can speak out and demonstrate against my government without being shot, or imprisoned, or tortured.

It’s actually bizarre to stare at myself in the mirror and practice the breathing exercises or half-moon pose or standing bow or any of the postures while knowing that people in the region where civilization–an advanced state of human society, in which a high level of culture has been reached–is most ancient are killing their fellow citizens from rooftops and airplanes.  People all over the middle east, northern Africa and central Asia, from Iraq and Iran to Libya and Yemen, are dying because they are standing up for what we North Americans (including Canada, of course) consider to be fundamental civil liberties: the freedom to assemble, to speak out, to choose our government.

A recent article summarizes some of the abuses of the Libyan government since Quadafhi took power in 1969:

 

1970s – ARRESTS, TELEVISED HANGINGS

Rights groups and Gaddafi’s foes say that throughout the 1970s police and security forces arrested hundreds of Libyans who opposed, or who the authorities feared could oppose, his rule.

Student demonstrations were put down violently. Political opponents were arrested and imprisoned, or simply disappeared.

Police and security forces rounded up academics, lawyers, students, journalists, Trotskyists, communists, members of the Muslim Brotherhood and others considered “enemies of the revolution,” Human Rights Watch says. Gaddafi warned anyone who tried to organize politically they would face repression.

“I could at any moment send them to the People’s Court … and the People’s Court will issue a sentence of death based on this law, because execution is the fate of anyone who forms a political party,” Gaddafi said in a speech on November 9, 1974.

A number of televised public hangings and mutilations of political opponents followed, rights groups say.

In 1976 Gaddafi authorized the execution of 22 officers who had participated in an attempted coup the previous year, in addition to the execution of several civilians, rights activist Mohamed Eljahmi has written.

1980s: DETENTION, DISAPPEARANCES

In 1980 authorities introduced a policy of extrajudicial executions of political opponents abroad, termed “stray dogs.”

According to a 2009 article in Forbes magazine by rights activist Eljahmi, Gaddafi’s then deputy Abdel Salam Jalloud issued a public justification in 1980 for the assassination of dissidents abroad, telling Italian media:

“Many people who fled abroad took with them goods belonging to the Libyan people … Now they are putting their illicit gains at the disposal of the opposition led by (then Egyptian leader Anwar) Sadat, world imperialism, and Israel.”

A failed coup attempt in May 1984 apparently mounted by exiles with internal support led to the imprisonment of thousands of people. An unknown number of people were executed.

In 1988 there was a period which appeared to herald important human rights reforms. Authorities freed hundreds of political prisoners in a wide-ranging amnesty.

But more repression ensued in 1989. According to Amnesty International, which had visited the country in 1988, the government instituted “mass arbitrary arrest and detention, “disappearances,’ torture, and the death penalty.”

1990s: MASS KILLING AT PRISON

In 1993, after a failed coup attempt in which senior army officers were implicated, Gaddafi began to purge the military periodically, eliminating potential rivals and replacing them with loyalists.

In what critics call probably the bloodiest act of internal repression, more than 1,000 prisoners were shot dead by security forces on June 28 and 29, 1996 in Abu Salim prison, according to Human Rights Watch.

The scale of the killings was confirmed by the Libyan Secretary of Justice to Human Rights Watch in April 2009, and in a press release by Saif al-Islam’s Gaddafi Foundation charity on August 10, 2009 which set the number at 1,167.

For years Libyan officials denied that the killings at Abu Salim had ever taken place. The first public acknowledgement was in April 2004 when Gaddafi said killings had taken place there, and that prisoners’ families had the right to know what took place. To date there has been no official account of the events at Abu Salim prison.

2000s: MAN FREED — AFTER 31 YEARS

Rights groups say the authorities have taken limited steps to address the situation, including releasing some political prisoners and allowing infrequent visits by rights groups.

In 2001 nearly 300 prisoners, among them political prisoners, were released. They included Libya’s longest-serving political prisoner, Ahmad Zubayr Ahmad al-Sanussi, accused of involvement in an attempted coup in 1970 and who spent 31 years in prison, many of them in solitary confinement.

More than 700 prisoners accused of having ties to Islamist militant groups have been released in the past three years under a reconciliation program organized by the Gaddafi Foundation.

(Sources: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, U.S. State Department, Libyan political scientist Mansour Kikhia, Mohamed Eljahmi, co-founder of the American Libyan Freedom Alliance, Reuters)

Obviously things have not improved in Libya–not if Quadhafi has so terrorized his armies and police to make them willing to shoot their brothers and sisters who are bravely standing up against this violence.

After yoga last night I had a discussion–not quite an argument–with a friend about the wisdom of the non-violent pro-democracy demonstrators in Libya and other countries. His contention was that they were foolishly inspired by the Egyptians because, obviously, the Libyan government would massacre them.  I countered that this was a very condescending attitude towards the people of Libya, who knew far better than we could what dangers they faced as they stoood up to oppression and violence.  He found them ignorant.  I found them wise and brave.  People are not sheep.  We don’t know that the protesters will succeed in bringing an end to Quadhafi’s tyranny, of course.  But we can be certain that tyranny will continue if the people do not stand up to it.

I’m grateful for my yoga classes, for my privileges, and especially for the opportunity to meditate and breathe consciously every single day.  I’m also grateful to the people of Libya, and Egypt, and Yemen, and Bahrain, for standing up and speaking out.  Namaste.  It means: I acknowledge the goodness in me and salute the goodness in you.

Reconnecting with my stomach: Bikram Day 87 (or is it 88?)


I’m pretty sure that yesterday was the 87th class I have taken in the past 87 days.  That’s what the count at the studio (Bikram Yoga Pittsburgh) tells me, at least. I’ve stopped counting, and almost don’t want the time to come to an end.  Not that it hasn’t been difficult to keep going every single day.  Often I don’t want to go, and often I’m dragging myself down to the Strip.  Often I walk in there feeling low and cranky and tired.   But I never leave feeling that way.   I always feel better afterwards, no matter how the practice has gone.

It is different every day.  Sometimes the studio is extra hot.  Just a few days ago I thought I was having a heat stroke and seriously wanted to leave the room.  My face turned bright lollipop red.  My heart pounded like a hammer, even in sivasana, and would not slow down.   I hated it.  I complained a lot in the locker room afterwards.

I stopped bringing water in to the room with me weeks and weeks ago.  I can stand it when I’m thirsty, but I still hate it when I’m too hot.   I don’t mind the sweat, but I do not enjoy the sensation of boiling blood.

Still, even such dreadful situations teach me something useful. The aim of bikram yoga is not to torment yourself, or to push yourself beyond your endurance, but rather to do as much as you can do while breathing.  The aim of bikram yoga, as far as I am concerned, is to breathe more effectively, as well as more efficiently.  It is always better to sit out a pose or to back off until I have regained my equilibrium, because I can’t benefit from the posture if I’m forcing myself through it like a rag doll on marionette strings.

I named this post “reconnecting with my stomach” because I have started to wear tops that expose my midriff.  Not so much because I think my belly is so beautiful.  Indeed it is not.  But seeing it helps me to suck it in, which improves the pose, strengthens my muscles, and better supports my spine.   Having to witness my stomach in all its rounded and mottled moods also helps me to remain more conscious of my eating and drinking outside of class.

But I am also learning to be more accepting of my Rubenesque imperfections, also known as cellulite.

Yes, I still look longingly at the lithe, long and slender bodies of the younger women in class, and wish that I could recapture the lines of my younger self.  But here I am, at 50, still quite strong, and getting stronger, and healthy, thank goodness, and awake, and waking.   And it is just fine.

Bikram Day 61, Margaret, and why I love Bruno’s Garage


Margaret is my 1985 Jeep Cherokee Grand Wagoneer.  Here we are crossing the Bighorn Mountains, near the Bighorn Medicine Wheel, which is an awesome place:

Margaret and Me Crossing the Bighorn Mountains, near the Bighorn Medicine Wheel

Imagine her covered with hoar frost and snow, and sporting a festive wreath on her front grill.  The Idaho license plate is still there (in Pennsylvania, you only need one plate, on the back of the vehicle).   Imagine me bundled up in my faux-fur brown coat and incredibly warm and fabulous La Candienne boots.  The Canadians alone seem to understand cold-weather fashion.

Margaret runs great.  Her mileage is 86,000 and I’ve had to make only minor repairs to keep her going.  Still,  for the longest time I’ve been able to unlock the car only on the driver’s side.   Today that barrel broke down completely, and the key would not turn, so I could not get into the car.  The lock was not frozen, but jammed, kaput, fertig.

Therefore, I could not go to yoga.  Instead of sweating it out at 105 degrees, I stood waiting for the AAA guy to jimmy the lock at 13.6 degrees.  Then I drove Margaret down to Bruno’s Garage.  It’s the best, the cheapest, and the most honest place in my neighborhood.

Highland Parkers: don’t take your car to Iezzi’s.  They always jack up the charges by telling you that your car needs extra stuff.  The last time I took Margaret in there for her annual inspection, I ended up $500 poorer.  Did I really need new shocks on all four wheels?  Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t.  The point is, I don’t trust them.  They never explain why they have done what they do and simply hand me a big bill.  At Bruno’s, the main mechanic, Mike, always shows me the old part, explains how and why it had failed, and helps me to understand why I needed the work done.  I never worry that they are taking advantage of me because I am a woman and relatively ignorant about cars.  Margaret is old enough to be somewhat comprehensible.  I like older cars for exactly this reason.

Yes, I should have taken “the beast” (Margaret’s other name) to Bruno’s, but they’re impossible to get on the phone and always backed up.  You have to drive the car down there, make an appointment in person, and then bring the car back.  Sometimes I forget to bring the car in when I’m supposed to, and have to go through the whole process again.

The great thing about  Mike and Greg, the brothers who own and run Bruno’s, is that they let me leave the car there in an emergency.  Today I figured I’d have to leave Margaret unlocked in my neighborhood until they could fit her in.  They know that it is a bad idea to leave a car unlocked in our neighborhood, so they said they’d find room for her in their garage and fix her as soon as possible.  It took me less than 15 minutes to walk home.   Unfortunately, leaving the car at the shop made me carless, and it was too late to round up another way down to the yoga studio.

To stay on schedule, I’m going to have to borrow a car and do two classes in a row.  It’s not so bad.  At 13 degrees under gloomy Pittsburgh skies, it’s hardly punishment to spend three hours in a hot, brightly lit rooms.  Yes, I’ll be tired.   No, I’m not looking forward to it.  But I know I’ll feel great afterwards.  I always do.

Bikram 54


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Some people go straight up into it like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Where Did My Back Pain Go? Bikram Day 43


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To invite the pain in is quite a different project than to dwell on or indulge in pain, which really only means a kind of idiotic wallowing and vaulting off into trauma after trauma.  Yes, sometimes just breathing can feel traumatic.  And sometimes just breathing is traumatic.  Still, I have found that I do best when I put my weapons down, when I drop my fists, and stop trying to bat the pain away.   Only this way do I see that some of the nets that I spread out for myself to fall into are not saving me, but rather trapping me in yet more hurt.   A caveat: sometimes the nets–protective mechanisms of denial, or  behaviors that temporarily dull my suffering (such as drinking, or smoking pot, or drawing, or reading, or playing computer games for hours on end)–really do save my life.  But when I am stronger I see that only by falling through the habitual nets, only by letting go of my learned responses to pain, that I can fall through  and get beyond it.

Tossed in the Waves: Bikram Day 38


Oy!  Yoga kicked my asana today.   I did two classes in a row, beginning at four this afternoon.  Throughout the first part of the first class, I felt sick to my stomach, but found relief by finding my eyes in the mirror and repeating my mantra, “I am.”  In the second session, I felt so dizzy that I had to sit down several times.  Again I found my eyes in the mirror and said to myself, “I am.”  It’s a pretty powerful mantra, as Nisargadatta Maharaj found out.  (And no, I’m not religious.  I agree with Christopher Hill that God is Not Great and that religion poisons everything.  But I also find peace in this simple, secular statement.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attempted Censorship of Bikram Blog


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

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

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

Had he or she actually investigated my blog, he or she would no doubt have been as hard-pressed as I am to discern what elements of which postings are “disturbing” enough to be censored.   Was it that I mentioned that there are naked women in the locker room?  

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

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

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

Sapere aude!

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m having a huge dinner for Jonathan’s family.  Jonathan is the husband of my boyfriend’s sister, MJ.  Jonathan and MJ live around the corner from us.  Jonathan also comes often to bikram and knows this woman.   It occurred to me to invite her long before I the words of invitation came out of my mouth.  When they came, they were completely sincere.  She did not accept.  But I hope that she will.  I will be in the studio on Christmas day.  So will she.  I will invite her again.  I hope she comes.  I did not invite her because I felt sorry for her, but rather because I like her and would enjoy getting to know her better.  Also because I like her and want to help her.

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

Day 19


Day 19.  It was good to hear that Mayhem, who is also on day 19 in the challenge, had a lousy day today, especially since I have been having some pretty crummy times in class lately.  She’s a roller-derby queen.  I think her real name is Michelle.  She doesn’t like it as much as her derby name, Fannie Mayhem, which, you have to admit, is pretty cool.

I liked her the first moment I saw her.  She has a beautiful smile, great teeth, very white, which she flashes a lot at you.  Her face lights up when she speaks, and she looks at you directly, usually with a smile.  Plus she is very frank.  She announced to all of us in the locker room in the very first week that she had to do this challenge because she has gained so much weight since she started skating.  And then she told us exactly how much she weighs, and how old she is, and other things, like what it’s like to be in the roller derby.

Anyway, she’s great.  And it is great to be able to say to each other, today is day x….  But I think she’s going to stop at Day 30, which will be hard for me, since I’ve taken the challenge for 100 days in a row.

I had to do it because I’m pretty lazy, and would come up with all kinds of reasons not to go if I hadn’t publicly announced that I was going for the big run.  My name is up on the poster board in the studio, and every day I get to put a sticker to mark off my accomplishment.  Since most of the names up there are followed by 90 or 100 or more stickers, my little run of 19 lady bugs, happy faces, gold coins, and penguins looks pretty short.  But it’s longer than it was a week ago.

As I’ve probably mentioned, I’m doing this primarily out of curiosity.  To see if my body will change, as everyone assures me it will, to see HOW it will change, and to see if I can do something for 100 days straight.  It’s a long time for me to stay in one place.  I can’t even leave for the weekend.

What else.  I’m starting to make friends.  Mayhem and four other women from the roller derby signed up at the same time, all on a groupon.  They’re quite a bit younger than I am.   I like imagining how it might be to be a roller-derby skater, at my age, roaring around the rink, smashing into women, getting all my aggression out.  I think I’d like it a lot.  I wouldn’t shave the sides of my head, as Mayhem has, but I’d enjoy drawing attention to myself in other ways, by wearing some ridiculous pink outfit, for example.

What’s interesting is finding out who all shows up every single day.  A certain solidarity builds up over time.  What’s more interesting is that the people who do show up every day are not all incredibly skinny.  Some of them are quite round, even rounder and blubberyer than I am.

Maybe because you really do get incredibly sweaty–I mean the sweat streaming off you patters on your mat like rain, and your face gets really red in the heat, if you have a complexion like mine, and you have to pull your hair back into a pretty tight pony tail to keep it from driving you mad–and because it is impossible to look good doing this, the practice does not appeal to princesses and glamour girls.   Many of us may indeed look glamorous (and yes, the teachers certainly do) after getting cleaned up.  But you don’t see the kind of women you often see in gyms who appear to be wearing brand-new, tight, sexy little outfits every time they show up, and who actually wear make-up on the floor.   It would be severely stupid to wear mascara or foundation to bikram.

OK, some of the yoginis flaunt their incredibly thin bodies in incredibly tiny shorts and bras, but that is not because they’re showing off but rather because they want to have a little fabric next to their skin as possible.   And plenty of the fleshier women wear the same sort of thing.  It’s not pretty.

I am vain, so I suffer the extra cloth.  I just can’t stand to look at my stomach muffining out over my shorts just yet.  Maybe I’ll get there.  Probably not.

O, and, I’m not really losing weight.  Maybe a pound.  Maybe six pounds.  I was scarily over-fat just before starting, and dropped five really fast.  But they were the kind of pounds that you pack on in one day and lose right away.  Water weight?  I don’t know.  I am down one pound from the amount my body seems to have stabilized at for the past year.

Got to run now to see my incredibly thin therapist.

Bikram Day 15


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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