Sunday, August 29, 2004

Another slow day at work (so far), so an opportunity to recount the week presents itself. I have been spending some time recently going through the site put together by Julie/Suburbfreak. The site is aggregator of ashtanga blogs. Plenty of people discussing aspects of their lives and practices. Interesting to see how each person approaches it. Kudos to Julie and all who have helped her for all their hard work in making such a resource possible.

My first chance to practice this week was a mysore class Tuesday morning. At first glance, each day of the week might seem the same as any other in relation to the practice. A day is a day, just another chance to roll out the mat and start bending. But, it's not that straightforward. I have always been a little and sometimes a lot, uninformed about the history of how things are. Maybe that's why I liked Dan Brown's bestsellers, The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demon's. They gave life to the symbols in our everyday life that we take for granted and often are blissfully ignorant about. I never knew there was any real background to the reason why our weekdays have the names they do (I never took languages in school, except for sliding through two years of Latin in high school without learning an iota of Latin). They were just the names of the days. Kind of weird, out of place names, but nothing worth spending energy learning about (Wednesday? What kind of name..., screw it, who cares.) Only since attending a few yoga workshops did I learn there's a story there, an astrological one. In many, or maybe most cultures, the days of the week correspond to seven heavenly bodies that are visible to the naked eye: the sun, moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn. Different cultures named each day based on their names for these planets or for the gods that they associated with them. Interestingly, in English, many of the weekdays are named after Norse gods. At any rate, there has to be a reason I'm going into one of my patented terminal digressions here. The different days of the week have different characteristics attributed to them, usually in reference to the characteristics of their associated planets and deities. Tuesday is associated with the planet Mars. In Roman mythology, Mars is the god of war. Similarly, in Hindi, Tuesday is called Mangalvar, so named for the Hindi word for the planet Mars. Tuesday's attributes are those we have learned to associate with Mars: courage, fiery nature, energy, maleness. In astrology, Mars is also known as the lesser malefic. It has negative connotations because many of the attributes for that planet aren't always that helpful: restlessness, rashness, violence, single-mindedness. When this was discussed in our workshops, Tuesday was presented like it was a day that we should tread carefully in our practice efforts. This kind of bugged me, because I saw myself as a Tuesday kind of person, a Martian. It seemed like it would be the best day for me. In fact, by chance, the day that I do my surgeries is Tuesday. In my classes, however, I was taught that Tuesday is a day of guardedness in Hindu culture. Brahmins don't shave on this day, for example. And, new endeavors are limited. Endeavors like getting new postures. New postures are never given on Tuesdays, traditionally. Tuesdays are days of mixed blessing: it's a day that I sometimes get the chance to practice, always a good thing, but it's a day in which I don't have the possibility of progression into new areas. So, I go into Tuesday practices with no expectations. As a result, I often have what in hind site seem like my best practices on those days.

This recent Tuesday was notable for a couple of clear progressions for me. I only did my second series poses. I did all my backbending research stuff. In Kapotasana, Tim adjusted me as deep as I've ever been. He had my thumbs just shy of the leading edge of my heels. I felt that I possibly could have been put all the way in to my heels, and I think he may have considered that too, adjusting me deeper a couple of different times before stopping. It was probably a good call, the risk of going that one step too far and causing injury was there, or at least my fear of it was. In the operating room, we call it the mistake of "good, better, oops": trying to make something good even better and ruining it in the process. Most of the rest of my poses were nothing spectacular, just par for the course for me. I did get into Dwi Pada Sirsasana on my own, something I'm now able to do about fifty percent of the time, or thirty percent at the least. I even held the balance part of it for a few seconds. After doing that part of it on my own, Tim helped me get a better positioning of my feet but I couldn't keep the balance after that. Very frustrating. I was also able to do a better Viparita Chakrasana. I went over on my own three times, with slightly better landings each time. That's the opposite trend from what I have done in the past. Usually, my first try is my best one and they degrade after that. I tend to let my feet come too close together as they approach impact. The resulting narrow base that my feet give causes me to often tip over to one side or the other when I land. But, if I concentrate on getting my feet out wide, I make some other mistake, like letting them get too far away from my hands. That results in a higher speed, out of control impact that draws looks from several mats away. On that day, I was able to get more things right than wrong and landed each try. I am no where near being able to come back up on my own. I can't even do that in Viparita Dandasana. To work on the feel of coming back up, I decided to turn and do my drop overs so that my feet came down near the wall. I then used one foot to push off of the wall to come back over. After doing that three times, nobody came by to do the usual supported version of the sequence with me, so I turned around again and started doing the drop overs followed by coming up to standing that close out the sequence. I don't think I made it up the first time I tried it. That brought Tim by to help. Instead of doing just those last three, he had me start from the beginning. Again. I wasn't tired though. When I first started doing these, I had some reluctance but it wasn't based on worries about injury, like my fear of drop backs. It was hesitancy based on fatigue. I've done them eight or ten times now and have felt stronger and less fatigued each time I've tried them. I still get some dizziness on occasion, mainly after doing one of the stand ups, but that is much less common too. So, I was very happy with how I did that day. On my scale of progression, those were some significant advancements.

I went to Tim's Improv class on Thursday. I wasn't needed in the OR until 9:30, so I figured I could practice and then cut out before the chanting and Savasana and still make it in time. When he asked what we'd like to work on that day, the requests were for standing balancing poses, Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana and doing walking handstands. I asked for a pose but was gently denied. After those requests and mine too, Tim said, "Well, before I get any more crazy suggestions, we better get started." He did a bunch of stuff, even trying to walk across the room and back in handstand, but he managed to arrange the sequencing of the researching and of the requested poses in such a way that we ended up doing the latter third or so of the third series. He's very skilled at putting these Improv classes together extemporaneously. It reminds me of a really good comic, like a Robin Williams, on an Improv night. It's artistry. I did get another first that class. I got my feet to my head in Raja Kapotasana. Not on my own, mind you. First the person on the mat next to me helped me. It's a very awkward position for the person trying to help adjust. They have to stand with their groin an inch or two from your face, put their knees into your shoulders and push you back towards your feet. She coached me into better positioning and helped me let go of some fear and relax into the pose better than I did in the past. I couldn't really tell how close I got with her but it felt good. When Tim came by helping other people, I went up into it again, hoping to be able to do it a second time. He obliged and got me to actually touch. This came about by him having to push back on my chin and draw my legs forward, but it never felt forceful when either of them did it. I'm sure it looked forceful, it's a wicked looking adjustment.

On Saturday, I went to the Improv class. That class is taught by the person who helped me on Thursday. So, I of course asked for Raja Kapotasana to see if I could touch again. We didn't do as much research but she got me very close. We also did, upon request, some "ab work". Ugghh. Fortunately, it was limited to a rep of three Navasanas, followed by three Ardha Navasanas, where we lower our upper body and legs further, so that each are only four inches or so above the ground. After that cycle, we then repeated it all again, but did a handstand in between each one instead of Lolasana. With each rep, she had me try to cross my legs and lower down and come through to sitting in a controlled fashion. She had to help me but she was there each time. It was very helpful to try that. Near the end of class, after doing our backbends, we did three attempts at drop backs. I had to wonder if this was directed at me. I doubt it but I wanted to show her that I could do it. Only, I couldn't do it. She came over for the last one and held my hips lightly so that I would know that I wouldn't do a facial and I went back to my hands with no problem. It wasn't the same thing as doing it though. After coming back up, I mumbled an apology to her for my fearfulness. Not many teachers give us the chance to work on that in a class. She has done it a few times now. I was disappointed I wasn't able to use the opportunity to overcome that mental frailty. It's just something I haven't been able to conquer.

Tomorrow, I miss out on Mysore. I get off at 8:00 but Mysore goes from 7:00 to 9:00. If there was one thing I'd want to change about my studio, it would be to have the chance to practice from 9:00 to 11:00, every day, not just Tuesdays and Thursdays. Next lifetime. At any rate, I'll do the noon prep class tomorrow.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

I was talking with a guy after practice today while we waited for the bathroom line to move along. He's from out of town but I had recognized him from a previous visit to our studio. As we chatted, he asked me, "Aren't you that guy with that blog thing?" I thought to myself, "That's the second time in my life somebody's ever asked me that." When I nodded yes, he then asked, "Whatever happened with that?" Uhh, good question. Whatever happened with that? I got disenchanted with the effort that it takes to seem interesting, I guess. But, I keep trying on occasion. I told the guy, "You know, I was actually planning on putting a new post up today right after practice." Yeah. Right. It's now almost half a day later and the only reason I sat down here was that my wife left me sleeping on the sofa to go watch a movie. Nonetheless, words are appearing.

Lots of stuff I could have written about since my last posting during our trip to the Mt. Shasta second series workshop. The rest of the trip was great. I had really good practices. I mentioned in the last post that in one of the Mysore style classes I tried some poses well beyond my current practice range. I talked with Tim about it later. I was worried he'd think I was trying to show off to try and get moved forward. I wasn't. I just wanted to see if I could do the poses. I asked him if I had been 'inappropriate' in trying them. He kind of shook his head and said, "Hey, it's your funeral." Okay. Message received. I told him it was a one time thing, no offense intended, blah, blah, blah. That evening during the mat in the middle session in the yoga room, he kind of jokingly commented, "I don't know what got into John today, doing those poses from third. Back home he's always so obedient." When I replied that I was counting on him to stop me if I got into inappropriate ground, he said, "Ah, just testing limits then?" I guess so, maybe, but not really.

The other Mysore classes, I just did second series, with every research poses I could think of. I even did that on the Friday class. On Fridays, the current tradition in Mysore, India, and therefore in many of the Ashtanga studios of Guruji's students, is to only do First series. Tim told us we didn't have to do first or only first if we didn't want to. He noted that the First series only on Fridays is a fairly new tradition, that it wasn't always that way. I was glad to hear that. At home, if I get the chance to go to a Mysore class on a Friday, I'd hate to miss the opportunity to do my second series poses. Although it doesn't happen very often, when it has happened in the past, I would do all of first and then my allocated second series poses because I thought we had to. Now, I'll feel better about just doing the second series poses.

On the last day of the workshop, everyone gets together in the yoga room for goodbyes and what not. This is the first year we've made it to that session. In years past, we left on Friday, right after the last practice. The week in Shasta is powerful enough that the goodbye session has become known as the Circle of Tears. Everyone gets a little emotional and snivelly. Even I. First time in probably seven years or more.

After all that time in the refreshing mountain air, we then flew into LA. Our oldest two kids were at camp for two weeks at Catalina Island, about 30 miles off of the coast from LA. Our youngest stayed in Shasta with us but was going to Catalina herself for a week the Monday after Shasta. On Sunday, we all went over to Catalina to see the older two kids for Visitor's Day. They had been having the time of their lives. Our son, however, got a little homesick and wanted to come home when it came time for us to get back on the boat. We had been warned by the camp staff before going over there that this is pretty common. They get over it as soon as we're gone for 20 minutes. Or so they say. We chose to not give in and made him stay. He got pretty mad and went off to pout. That made me feel a little better. If he had gotten really upset and cried, I would have worried that something was not going well. But for him to get mad meant that he was fine. Our daughter e-mailed us a few days later that by then he was "so not into going home", so we felt relieved. Our youngest was enthralled with all the camp goings on, especially all the hand clapping, foot stomping and yelling games the campers did while they waited for their turn in the lunch line. She practiced the hand clapping routines endlessly that day in anticipation of her getting to go there the next day. Prior to dropping her off, we went to Noah and Kimberly Williams' studio in Hollywood for Mysore practice. I felt a little guilty doing it, but I did all of second again. I knew Noah could tell from my performance that I shouldn't have been doing much of it, but I wanted to maximize my chances at doing it while I could. We had lunch with them and a couple of friends of ours who are students of theirs and then we dropped Zoe off at the boat for her trip to camp. We now had a full week at home with no kids. First time since our kids were born.

Kiran spent much of the week teaching classes. She subs for a lot of people in our area and has her own class at a studio in La Jolla on Wednesday evening. I went back to my usual routine of work. The schedule of work made it such that I was only able to practice on Wednesday and Thursday. So, I went twice on each day. I hadn't planned on doing that, but there was no one else at home, the kids were gone, the wife was teaching, so why not. Wednesday I was post-call, so I was off during the day. I went to the noon class, which is an improv type class. Then I went to Tim's led first series class that evening. That was the first time I had done the first series in at least a couple of weeks. I did okay with it. I wasn't as stiff as I thought I would be but did get a bit more tired than I was happy with. It turns out there was a person practicing there that night who is famous. I wouldn't have recognized her at all if I hadn't heard that she may be there. She was very attentive to her practice. I guess one benefit of celebrity is that you learn to control your gaze in all aspects of life to avoid inadvertently encouraging people to come over and bother you if you make casual eye contact with them. Her practice, what little of it I could see from where I was set up, seemed very nice. Smooth, very capable. She left after half way through Savasana. She did it very discretely, not in the , "Hey, look at me. I'm leaving class early. I've got waaay more important things to do than lay around in savasana. Okay, you can lay back down now, I'm leaving" way that tends to piss me off. I realized that she probably has to do that to maintain any sense of privacy. Kind of felt sorry for her that she has regularly miss out on something like Savasana.

Thursday morning, I went to Tim's Improv class before going to work. I've been to this class maybe three or four times before. It's a class that tends to challenge everybody in one way or another. We did some poses that I've never done before. He did take it a little easy on us. When he got a request for arm balances at the start of class, he ended up doing mainly hand stand variations and pincha mayurasana variations and not the more challenging arm balances from the third series. They were fun though. We even got to try Sayanasana. One of the students asked at the start of class if we could do a pose called "Bird of Paradise". Tim said if the pose doesn't have a sanskrit name, we don't do it here. Another guy asked if we could do the pose where you stand with one leg behind the head. Tim demurred on that one too. "That doesn't sound too therapeutic for this group." he noted. That evening, I got away from work in time, so I decided to go ahead and do the evening improv class. No celebrities. Just regulars. I asked for the Bird of Paradise pose. It's harder to get balanced in than it looks, but then, my hamstrings are pretty stiff. We did some of the other fun poses that we had done that morning too, including one Tim called Svastikasana, from the fifth series. It looks like a combination of Garudasana and a pose in the Bikram series where you put one foot in half lotus then lower down and balance in a squat on the other foot, but the foot is kept flat on the floor, not up on the toes like in Bikram. I should note that the term Svastikasana is also used to describe one of the sitting postures, one that looks very similar to Sukhasana.

That was it for practice until this morning. Led first series again. I worked last night so I couldn't get to the second series class. Both classes were packed, more so than usual. I did okay with the series. It's a little limiting when we're set up real close to each other. There's some inhibition in some of the exits, like coming out of Supta Kurmasana and Bhujapidasana. It's very easy to whack someone, even with jump throughs. We had a really long Savasana. It was great. In most classes, they never seem to have enough time left for a decent Savasana. I was really thirsty by the end of class (I have maintained my pledge to not get up in first series and take a water break any more) so I spent the first half of Savasana imagining someone turning on a faucet of cold water from Shasta and running it wide open right into my mouth.

I haven't looked ahead yet to see what my yoga prospects are for this week. I already know that Sunday is out--moon day again

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Hola. I'm away at one of those yoga retreats we go to a couple of times a year. Other than going to soccer tournaments for the kids, our free time these days is pretty much centered around yoga related activities. Kind of a monochromatic existence I guess, but we have a good time. This particular retreat is put on by my teacher, Tim Miller. It's spread over two weeks. They do the first series in the first week and then second series for the second week. Some people go to both weeks but most, like us, can only afford to spend the time and money for one of the weeks. Since my wife has almost finished the second series, this year we opted to go to the second series week. We did that last year too but I hadn't gotten too far along in the second series by that point, so I was a little out of place. This year, I've gotten a bit further into the series so I feel more confident being here. The retreat is in a fairly rustic (read what you will into that term) bed and breakfast inn in a small town near Mt. Shasta. It has to have been a very hot and dry year up here because the mountain seems barer than usual. The snow fields and glaciers are mere strips of white from the distance. This time of year can be fairly warm, but it tends to be cool in the morning. In years past, they would light a wood burning stove in the yoga room to get it warmed up before class at 7:00AM. We haven't needed to do that this time around.

Each day we have practice at 7:00. After a late but leisurely breakfast, there are outings set up for each day. These typically involve a two to three mile hike to a nearby water fall, a mountain lake or something equally scenic. The day wraps up with an hour or two session of discussion, asana Q&A, chanting, reading of stories from the Ramayana, pretty much whatever comes up. After dinner, most folks sit around and chat. I spend that time letting Tim take my money at the Scrabble table. It has become a fairly standard routine. One of these days, though, we're gonna play by the real rules, not the Tim Miller variations. As if that would make any difference.

The class is made up of the typical array of abilities that one would expect to find on a retreat, although being a second series retreat; the overall skill level is quite good. Rather than just do a guided second series sequence each day, Tim alternates a guided class one day with a Mysore style class the next day. In the past, he has also thrown in an Improv class for one of the days, just to add a little spice.

Our first day of practice was Sunday. I was expecting to be stiff. That's usually the case after traveling for me. All the crap food I tend to eat in the airport and in the plane, the prolonged sitting, maybe even the changes in cabin pressure, all seem to add up to a day of regressive bending. I was stiff. When I do second series in Encinitas, be it Mysore or even the rare Sunday led class, there's often some "research" poses that we do in and amongst the regular second series poses. These research poses, usually groin and shoulder stretches, make several of the more challenging poses approachable for the stiffies like me. In Sunday's class, we pretty much just did straight forward second series. I had a much harder time with a couple of poses than I usually do, especially the foot behind the head stuff. I had no expectations for that class though.

I really didn't feel like going on the hike that first day. I offered instead to watch Tim's young daughter while he led the rest of the group. He dropped us off at a nice shady glen at the side of the stream they were hiking along. I spent the next two hours trying to keep up with her imagination. It's been a while since our kids were three years old, so I'd forgotten how demanding it can be. My biggest worry, and her least concern, was that she would trip and hurt herself on the rocks that bordered the stream. To make matters worse, she took off her shoes and al of her clothes wthin 5 seconds of our getting there. I kept jumping around trying to gently steer her to areas of least risk without her knowing that. Like most three year olds, she is allergically averse to being protected or otherwise controlled. I had to develop the non-linear, non-rational thought processes she was playing with to keep her engaged and relatively happy. So we spent the better part of an hour naming various rocks (these were her dolls) and deciding which ones were worthy of keeping and which ones needed to be cast aside. Sad to say, after the first ten or fifteen dolls were chosen and placed in the imaginary house, almost no one else was good enough and they ended up in the stream or in the bushes. My job in this process was to come up with a different reason for each rock to be unsatisfactory so that she could discard it. "That one is too ugly." "This one is too mean." "Oh no, this one can't stay it's too, uh, too..., too furry." I don't think she ever got bored, though I can't take any credit for that. Her dad and the rest of the hikers came back right when we (she) was finishing the second soft drink and the last of the chocolate chip cookie, a dirty trick I used to keep her going when it appeared that the other activities she had come up with, like walking on the sharp rocks in her bare feet as perilously close to the rushing stream as possible and going over to inspect why the bees were clustering near a still area of water, were not going keep her attention too much longer. I realized I was out of kid shape. I had a mild headache from trying to maintain a conversation with her. I know that doesn't really sound like much but try to do itwith a three year old for a couple of hours. It brings a whole new meaning to emptying the mind of distractions and becoming one with what you're doing.

Yesterday's practice was a Mysore style class. Before the class, Tim told us that we should do whatever we felt was appropriate to do. It looked like most people did second series. A couple of the more advanced students did third series. Some folks did first series. Last year, even though the week is set up to be a second series week, for the Mysore classes, I did the first series and what second series poses I had been given up to that point. This year I decided that since I get to do second series so infrequently at home, I was going to do full second series each day, even the poses I hadn't been given yet. Then, when he said that we could do whatever we thought was appropriate, I thought, "Why not do some of the third series poses? I think I can do them (I've never done most of the foot behind the head poses in third). It's not like I'm expecting to do these poses normally. And he did say he'd stop us if we got into doing something that was inappropriate. Screw it. I'm going to see if I can do them." I think playing with Tim's daughter the day before affected my ability to think rationally. I worked through the second series okay. Not my best ever but serviceable. I couldn't quite get into Dwi Pada Sirsasana on my own, a goal for this week, but I did hold the position after he put me into it, my biggest goal for the week. I held each of the headstands, some of them waveringly but upright nonetheless. Then, I started off into third. I've done the first pose in that series, Viswamitrasana, at the most twice ever. And it showed. That is a pose that really tests your bandhas, your balance, your strength and, you have to be able to extend your leg in abduction (the kind of motion your legs makes when it goes into the side splits) really well, which I don't. I weebled and wobbled for a bit but I didn't fall down. I glanced to see what Tim's reaction would be to my impudence but he was helping someone do their finishing backbend sequence so I don't think he saw me. Good thing. Onward I descended. I have done the second pose, Vashistasana a few times. I don't think I did it too bad but my wife informed me afterward that I looked horrible in it. Still no shouts from across the room to stop. So, into the crux moves. I think I can do the foot behind the head moves fairly well, if I am reasonably warmed up and are not too tired. Well, I can do the single leg things okay. I suck at the dwi pada postures. The third pose in the series, Kasyapasana, is one we do fairly commonly as a preparatory move before going into Eka Pada Sirsasana. I can usually get my extended leg almost straight but I usually don't get it down to the floor. I got through that one and entered virgin territory. Chakorasana is a pose that we go through as we transition out of Eka Pada Sirsasana back into Chaturanga. I've never tried to hold the straight leg up for the full five breaths. My foot usually slips from behind my head as soon as I get the straight leg raised up, because that's the next move in the transition. I was getting tired by this point. Poses with the foot behind the head have a lot of strong muscles working against each other. They're all pretty taxing. I had to re-do Chakorasana a couple times on each side to be able to keep the foot behind my head. My extended leg was looking pretty ugly, bent at the knee and no where near my face but I was able to approximate the pose. Bhairavasana took me several tries on each side, with increasing longer breaks between each attempt to catch my breath and wipe myself down so I wouldn't slip as much. Some where into the middle of doing this one, Tim strolled by on the way to help another student and said, “John, what are you doing?" I wasn't sure if he was asking about my doing the poses or the fact that I had been sitting there resting between attempts, doing nothing for a minute or so at a time. I avoided looking at him and muttered that I was doing "research" and pressed on. I though Bhairavasana would be where I had to stop because I had trouble figuring out how to get my back leg back there without my top leg slipping off of my head. I finally managed to get the right degree of extension and was able to hold the pose. Once in it, it really didn't feel like I was doing it that bad. Skandasana, the next pose, I didn't think would be too hard. It wasn't. I still had to take a couple of tries on each side to figure out the balance shifts and the counter pressures necessary to come to standing. By that point, my difficulties were more an issue of fatigue than inability. I almost stopped there. I was worried that I'd be tired enough that I wouldn't be able to keep my balance in Durvasasana, where you stand upright, or as close to that you can with one foot behind your head. I didn't want to blow out my back or anything by pushing too far. I decided to go ahead though. That was the pose that I really wanted to know if I could do. I knew going in most of the others were do-able. I wasn't sure about Durvasasana though. But I did okay. I wobbled up on my right and held it. As I bent back over Tim was looking at me, as in "Why?" I got upright on my second side but lost my balance so I let my leg come up off of my head and decided to call it quits. I had answered my questions. It was late and I was tired and I didn't want to make Tim come over and tell me off.

Today was guided second series. We did a few researching poses for the foot behind the head poses but otherwise it was straight forward. We held Kapotasana for a looong time today. That took some wind out of my sails. I almost domino'd a row of people when I fell out of Baddha Hasta Sirsasana C, the headstand where your arms are in the same positions you would use for Pincha Mayurasana. That is my worst headstand. I fall out of it more than even Mukta Hasta Sirsasana C. My shoulder range of motion is better but I still have a very hard time coming up. I can't use my core to get my legs up, like I can on all of the other headstands. I have to push myself way past the midline. Sometimes I even have to hop to get the feet moving up. Since there's often not a point in the lifting of the legs where I have a stable base, I some times go boom. Today I tried to steer away from the woman right in front of me, but falling over to the side just endangered the lady on the mat next to hers. My feet landed about four inches from her face. She blinked, I think, but that was about it. She never wavered a bit in the pose. That was pretty remarkable.

Well, I have to drive into town and find a place to log on to the net so that I can pos this, so enough for now. Hopefully I'll get a chance to add more later in the week. I'm sure I'll need to edit it later, I'm using my wife's laptop and with her keyboard I mishit the keys even more than I usually do, but it will have to stand for now