Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The implications of moving into Mysore

Today, marked the first day of a full mysore style practice for my students at Breathe Los Gatos. A couple of brave souls had taken the leap last week, coming in earlier than usual and starting their sun salutations in silence. They carried on, practicing pratyahara, as I guided others in the room through the Primary Series. And today, perhaps inspired, others joined them in self-practice.

I walked through the room, trying my best to be present and meet every student exactly where they were. As I took in the energy of the room, the beauty of the practice as manifested in these particular bodies overwhelming me at times, I felt so fortunate to be part of their journey. This is how teaching is done: one body in one posture at a time. This is how we learn: by noticing our own tendencies, by being called to notice our unconsciousness, and, with lots and lots of love. There is no yoga without love. There is no yoga if it's just a push and pull to get to the next place, the next pose, over there. So I facilitated the coming back, the perpetual return to the roots, to the breath, to the present, direct experience. I was fully aware of the gravity of the situation: this is a pivotal, monumental shift, to go from being guided and led to taking responsibility for your own practice. It's going from being a tourist to learning how to inhabit the space, to learn the customs of the new country, to learn how to get along and perhaps, even thrive. It's not an easy shift. When we move from the environment of a led class to a self-practice, all of our old defense and coping mechanisms fall away and suddenly become inadequate. We become incredibly vulnerable. We can no longer hide. We can no longer take the habitual roles in the yoga room: the wallflower, the show off, the daydreamer, the joker, etc. Everyone is at a different point, and so, we come to a posture, and for the most part, nobody is paying attention to you, because they are trying to figure out how to be in this foreign land on their own.

But perhaps the most powerful and noticeable part of this experience is the fact that whatever comes up is ours and ours alone to see. Whereas in a guided class, we may project our feelings--jealousy, love, anger, hatred, lust, envy, inadequacy, judgement, etc.--onto the teachers, fellow practitioners, and the external environment, in a mysore class, it becomes starkly apparent that all of those feelings were about yourself all along. This is not something to take lightly. This is work that for some people can take years and years of psychotherapy and self-inquiry to see! This kind of deep seeing is also one of the reasons to stay in the Primary Series for as long as possible, to root and ground and work through stabilizing and preparing the mind, before moving on to the energetic roller coaster of the Intermediate Series. The way this practice is set up, we may initially get a larger dose of self-awareness that we can handle.

From my teacher, Richard Freeman:

Through hatha yoga practices we can actually
begin to identify the physiological processes
that are at the root of our mind. Of course it is
the mind that causes suffering, but the very 
same mind allows for liberation and freedom. 
By unlinking the physical patterns of breath
that lie within our body from the antics of the mind,
we can allow both body and mind to work more
intelligently, and eventually, rather than perpetuating 
our own suffering, we can begin to make inroads
into our release from suffering.

The proper breathing awakens the body. Through this awakening, we unravel deeply held  emotions, and we begin to feel very strongly. The Primary Series, for me, was about recognizing the sadness and sorrow that I had carried around with me, feeling it intensely, crying on my mat at times, and moving onto the process of recognizing the strength, that was also, inherent in me. Most of the sadness was not my own; it was familial and cultural sorrow that I had not been able to name up to that point, so I had owned them out of a sense of duty and habit. The process of constant reframing that this practice taught me, the refrains of I am not my sadness, I am not the stories that I've told myself, I am not that: neti neti, and the questions within the questions: if not this, then who am I? have taught me to separate the Self from the thought pattern, and always, look for context. Who is it that is aware of the sadness/pain/anger? What is this awareness, and what else does she know? There is incredible freedom in dipping below the surface, because it shows us a path that we did not know existed.

With correct, deep breathing, we also awaken the energetic body. Our nervous energy, either lethargic or 'buzzing', changes into a more consistent, steady flow for the duration of the practice. This change brings up resistance. We are going against our grain. Tapas is the heat that comes from this friction. And, as always, our ego will put up a fight to try and keep the status quo. So, what do we do?

The physical, tangible principles that we use for the body apply to the mind as well. When in doubt, start from the roots. Work on grounding, coming back to this earth, and use the breath the calm the mind. Also, recognize that much like the physical practice, the internal work cannot be done overnight. Pace your self-inquiry over the long run of your practice; pace and regulate the processing that happens in the practice by continuously returning to the breath, the roots, the calm drishti, and the alignment points in the postures. Recognize the tendencies, the patterns, and do not identify with them. Watch the theater and move on. Do not get sucked into the stories. Don't get carried away with energetic sensations, and do not get attached to them. They come and go. Giving them too much importance will reinforce the existing patterns of grasping and wanting to be special, aversion and attraction. Just as is important to know how to get out of a posture, it is important to know how to put yourself back together at the end of practice. Be mindful of how your process might affect others around you. Remember, yoga is to place every sentient being in your heart. Practice compassion (for yourself and others), and have a sense of humor about it all. We are fortunate to be doing this work, to be raising our consciousness; this is a luxury. Notice your resistance around practice, acknowledge it, and then get on the mat anyway. This is not a reckless fearlessness; it is being present with the fear, and proceeding mindfully. Notice the tendencies to create dualities: good sensation/bad sensation, good thought/bad thought, good practice/bad practice. The practice is not a war, not a battle; everything that comes up is sacred. Everything.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

On bandhas, dinner parties, and Self-realization

About a year ago, I taught a workshop at Santa Cruz Yoga where we talked about the physical nature of the ever-elusive bandhas. We tried to pinpoint the location of the pelvic floor muscles, using imagery, and of course, using the breath to bring awareness to these largely unconscious parts of our bodies. At that point in my personal practice, I felt as if I had a pretty good understanding of what bandhas are, and what they do in our practice. I could feel them engaging. I could conjure the lifting, upward energy in certain postures. I could see in my students' bodies if they had a general awareness of their deep, pelvic and abdominal muscles, or, if they were unprotected and unsupported in the low back and their core.

I also understood, conceptually, that there was much much more to the bandhas than what I had felt in my own body. I was excited for the natural progression of practice and awareness.

In my experience, most teachers fall into two categories when it comes to the subject: they either avoid talking about it, because it is so subtle and there is very little tangible, physical 'showing' one can do (I've heard stories of teachers, um, 'assisting' with mula bandha. No, thank you.), or, when presented with a problem they don't have a proper answer to, they will say 'more bandhas' as if bandhas were something one could buy at the store and apply to their bodies for increased protection.

I have been fortunate to have amazing teachers. They have in different ways, contributed to my understanding of the bandhas. Richard Freeman uses colorful imagery--a golden thread sewn to the pelvic floor, the mandala at the root of the spine, the wedded bliss of pubic bone and coccyx--to direct our awareness to the specific areas in the body where the energetic lift happens. Mark Stephens, in concrete anatomical terms, urges a lifting of the arches of the feet which in turn wake up the inner legs and draw the energy upward. Chuck Miller, in his holistic approach, says bandhas create protection around the joints, so we can apply a knee bandha in triangle, if we take care to send the inner knee back equally as the outer knee and not hyper-extend; he teaches to notice the tendencies in the body--the tilt of pelvis, the protruding ribs, the turned out feet--and to work towards samastithi. By focusing our conscious awareness on these points of alignment, we undo samskaras, and we work toward bringing balance to prana and apana, the upward and downward forces in our bodies and minds.

But the most tangible, bandha awakening experience for me has come from someone who did not even know the term 'bandhas'. To work through a recently reactivated, long-time injury that involved my deep hip rotators, I began working with a seriously gifted, advanced Rolfer. She began her work with me from my feet, noticing my tendency to hang behind the arches of my feet. She noticed my tendency to over-work, something that goes well beyond my physical practices, as these tendencies often do, and she suggested that instead of thinking about my legs as muscles or bones doing work, that I imagine them as hollow reeds of energy. At this point, I was ready to hug her. In my years studying literature, I would often get this feeling when the books that I was drawn to, seemed to be in conversation with each other. I would organize my books on the bookshelf based on this principle: if they were at a dinner party, would they have a lot to talk about? I wanted to put Karen the Rolfer next to Richard Freeman, so I could soak up their wisdom as they shared their thoughts on Prana and Apana! She then worked with me, on releasing the deep hip rotators. Her theory is that they are confused and are trying to do the work of my PCG muscles, and once the PCG muscles come on board all the time (you take bandhas! All the time! echo the famous Pattabhi Jois words; of course he would have to be at the head of the dinner table...), the deep hip rotators will release. There is of course much much more that she worked on, but I'm sure that kind of personal, idiosyncratic information is not interesting to anyone but me. When I asked her if she was asking me to use more bandhas, energetic seals, she shrugged and said that she had never heard of the term, but that she always thought of them as portals.

This practice is ever-deepening. There is no end to it. Just when you think you've got it, you realize that you don't. Just when you think it's out of your reach, something shifts, and makes you feel like you are closer to it than ever. What is the 'it'? What is the 'it' we are trying to get close to? How do we ask these questions in a way that the answers never  fully arrive, never fully satisfy so that we may keep asking them in different contexts? How do we peel back the layers of the self to get closer to our core, to the Self? Bandhas are certainly portals, doorways we walk through in order to raise our consciousness in new ways. They are not something to 'get', or to master. Much like the practice, it is the process of awakening that is interesting.

How we stand on this earth is important. How we carry ourselves in the world, is how we interact with it. How we do one thing is how we do everything. This is how we relate; this is how we give and receive, how we see and are seen. Our teachers, our guides on this path, are in constant conversation with each other, and sometimes, we are lucky enough to feel their wisdom in our bodies and more importantly, in our lives.

Friday, October 12, 2012

A few notes to my Ashtanga Students

-Pay attention to what you eat. Especially the night before practice, also, when you eat. If you are eating easily digestible, mostly plant-based meals, by the time you are on your mat the next day, you will be empty and light. On the other hand, heavier foods that stay in the system longer, will make pick up/ pull backs feel impossible. We can use all the help we can get.

-This is a practice that is best done three to six days a week. If you are an occasional ashtangi, chances are you will push yourself too hard too soon in the poses and get hurt, or else, get discouraged and give up. This is, as a wise student said the other day a 'showing up' practice, not a dabbling one.

-Examine your tendency towards an all or nothing practice. The mysore format allows you to be in the driver seat of your practice. A short, light practice on the days when you just don't feel like stepping on the mat is often better than sleeping in, and doing a longer, bigger practice the next day. You are building a relationship, and a fundamental part of that relationship is to show up even when it hurts a little. Imagine if you bowed out of a relationship any time there was difficulty...

-Watch out for early signs of fundamentalism. The zeal of the newly convert is very much a real thing.  Watch your own reactions, your assumptions, your desire to be a part of a group, your aversion, etc. This is all part of the process of unraveling the self on the path to awakening to the Self.

-There will be plateaus. There will be periods of what will feel like regression. There will be practices that feel like pulling teeth. There will be the occasional tweaks and injuries. The tendency to want to give up the practice might accompany these phases. This tendency might be very strong and very convincing. This is another way we get to watch the theater of the mind. This is another way we get to develop trust and faith in the process. There will be mornings when you will not want to practice, but you will anyway, because you recognize that our tendency is to resist change and in overcoming the resistance, tapas, the purifying heat will be the result.

-Ask yourself often: 'why am I doing this?' Be honest with your answers.

-Take days off. Observe at least one day a week off from physical practice. Take two days a month extra. Take your 3 days of ladies' holiday. There is no medal for you, no confetti at the end, because this is not a race.