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.

under the radar


I hang out with a group of women in their forties and fifties.  A few of us in their sixties, and a few in their twenties.  What do we have in common?  You could mention loss, heartache, trauma, success, strength, chutzpah, charm, beauty, brains. You could say we are women who are awake.  What holds us together is our willingness to see one another.  To take the time, and to screw up the courage, to look one another in the eyes and see what’s there.  And to drop the masks, for a little while, to let go of the strictures and be as we are.

Okay, not everyone can or will do this.  There are probably only a few of us doing it.  And even we are only trying to drop the masks, the space-suits that we wear around ourselves and call our personas, our identities.   Isn’t it because we know that these identities are not who or what we really are that we spend so much time playing?  trying on different roles, parading, posing, acting, exaggerating, being the fool?  Isn’t this play-acting the origin of religion, of drama, of literature, of philosophy?  Or is it the other way around?

Last night I arrived in a low-cut dress and it seemed that everyone was ooing and ahing and making a big deal out of my  breasts.  Okay so I like my breasts.  Lucky that way.   But then my friends, whom I adore, and who delight me, got to talking about women they knew who had had implants.  The gauntlet had been thrown.  What else could I do but say that mine were “real and they’re spectacular.”  Ybethy got it instantly.  She’s quick.

But I got more revenge.  In a lucid campaign to prove that everyone’s breasts were beautiful, I started taking pictures.  At first I didn’t tell them that I was doing this.  I just aimed low.  But after a while it struck me that the photos would be better if I could prepare the subjects of these photos in advance.  So I asked the girls to pull or push or stick up their “girls.”  At one point I even reached in and tugged them up…all in the name of art, of course.

I think that was the moment at which someone said, “You’re a lesbian, aren’t you?”  I nodded, even though that term was not quite right.  I’m not averse to being lesbian, I just don’t think this word, big or little l, is the right term.   And no I’m not thinking tribade or some other alt. label.  There isn’t an acceptable term for what I am, or for what most people are, because our sexuality is not only what we can conceive of ourselves to be.  It is yet also something more, something in between the categories but really not exactly OF the categories.  Something in excess of them, if also them.

So I said I was “somewhere on the continuum.”

“Bixexual,” she said.

No.  Still not quite it.

“Something like that,” I said.  “I’ve always been this way.  I was born this way.”

And I wanted to tell the whole story.  But I caught myself before spilling out the whole drama, which she wouldn’t have heard.  I stopped.

How often do you meet someone who hears you?  Who listens and focuses on you long enough to grasp what it is that you are going through or trying to say?  And isn’t it a shock when you actually meet someone who stops and listens to what you have to say.  Who makes an effort to understand you, even if it is hard to do, and who tells you, silently, “you matter.”

If you find a person who listens to you, who really takes the time to pause and pay attention to what you are saying, who makes you feel as though you matter in the world, treasure that person as a gift from the heavens.  He or she is not a gift from the heavens, of course, but rather simply another human being in one place at one time.  Mortal.  Fragile.  Fallible.  But infinitely valuable, and good.

And if you know someone who is mortal, fragile, and fallible, but infinitely valuable and good, then by all means tell them how much you appreciate them by listening to them.  Don’t interrupt, don’t judge, don’t advise.  Don’t tell stories about yourself that their experience brings to mind.  Don’t blurt out the first thing that comes to your mouth, but hold it, and pause, and say to yourself, “O, I am thinking x and wanting to say it.”  And then go back to listening to the person you are listening to.

You must go at it with your whole heart, with a genuine yearning to understand, to hear, to learn about the other person.  You must be patient with your impatience, and resist the urge to speak.  You must let go of your needs for the time being, and become present, awake, and attentive, to the person you love.  Because you love them.  You need to hear them.

You want to hear them.  But you haven’t yet had the patience to hear them, not really.   They have even complained, “you don’t listen to me!  You never listen to me!”  Stinging words.  But it is okay.

We are so guarded, so continually on the watch for attack that we take on the nervousness as a mode of being and lose the ability to pause and listen curiously and patiently.  Nervousness is just a habit.  If we can never completely unlearn it we can at least try to become aware of it as an habitual, emotional response to a thought, or an habitual, cognitive response to an emotion.  It’s healthy to be skeptical about our thought patterns when we are under a great deal of stress.

But we also need to play.  We need to get up and dance in a bar with our girlfriends, who miraculously can belt out all the words to all the songs on the jukebox.  We need to laugh. It takes so much energy to pretend to be the people who we are not actually that we need to go on vacation a lot.  That is to say, our brains need to take breaks.  It’s so taxing to be continually processing and analyzing and enduring the incredible tedium with which we preserve our adopted personas.  We should cut ourselves some slack, but we should also cut ourselves loose.

I think I just figured out what is really meant by the expression, “cutting loose.”  It means cutting your marionette strings and being willing to flail about for a while, mimicking and soberly attempting to digest the various paradigms for understanding reality, but finally deciding to take another path, to a better destination.

Not death.

The Rapists at College


The commonplace that men who rape women are misogynists bears repeating. A recent study by psychologist David Lisak shows that college rapists are overwhelmingly repeat offenders (9 out of 10) who deliberately seek out vulnerable women, especially women who have been drinking. “When compared to men who do not rape,” Lisak observes, “these undetected rapists are measurably more angry at women, more motivated by the need to dominate and control women, more impulsive and disinhibited in their behavior, more hyper-masculine in their beliefs and attitudes, less empathic and more antisocial.”
In response to this observation, Jacylyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti (authors of the book Yes Means Yes and blog by that name), wisely note

Guys who seem to hate women … do. If they sound like they don’t like or respect women and see women as impediments to be overcome … they’re telling the truth. That’s what they think, and they will abuse if they think they can get away with it.

NPR recently covered the story, and note that David Lisak interviewed more than 2000 college men over 20 years. 1 in 16 of those interviewed men answered yes to both of the following questions:

“Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated [on alcohol or drugs] to resist your sexual advances?”

“Have you ever had sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used physical force [twisting their arm, holding them down, etc.] if they didn’t cooperate?”

You might think that these schmucks would have been reluctant to admit to these acts. Lisak reports that the men he interviewed were “eager” to talk about them. “They’re quite narcissistic as a group — the offenders — and they view this as an opportunity, essentially, to brag.”

Lisak also found that the men who admit to coercing or forcing a woman to have sexual intercourse do not generally consider what they did rape. These men also typically rely on the fear or shame of young women to prevent them from reporting the rapes. They want the women they have coerced into unwanted sex to believe that they are somehow to blame for what they have done to them. They also know that the culture on college campuses discourages victims from coming forward and shields perpetrators from detection and conviction in the criminal justice system. He reports:

In the course of 20 years of interviewing these undetected rapists, in both research and forensic settings, it has been possible for me to distill some of the common characteristics of the modus operandi of these sex offenders. These undetected rapists:

  • are extremely adept at identifying “likely” victims, and testing prospective victims’ boundaries;
  • plan and premeditate their attacks, using sophisticated strategies to groom their victims for attack, and to isolate them physically;
  • use “instrumental” not gratuitous violence; they exhibit strong impulse control and use only as much violence as is needed to terrify and coerce their victims into submission;
  • use psychological weapons – power, control, manipulation, and threats –backed up by physical force, and almost never resort to weapons such as knives or guns;
  • use alcohol deliberately to render victims more vulnerable to attack, or completely unconscious.

College rapists are criminal sex offenders who are largely undetected, unpunished, and unrepentant.

Keep this in mind the next time you find yourself hanging around with someone who openly or covertly expresses his disrespect and hatred for women. Listen and believe what he is saying.