31 January, 2012

Sweet breath in...

Today was Vinyasa with Whitney. A crowded and popular class today. Again I am filling in the gaps from two days ago and it's been a long week so my memory is failing me. A tough but well-paced class. I feel like I really met the challenge today. There was a tough series involving alternating between Chair and Crescent Lunge that really had me at that brink of battling the voice saying "No!" But I am getting slowly better at hearing the "No!" and doing it anyway. This week has been pretty good week for me so far, in terms of being ready for whatever comes my way on the mat.

30 January, 2012

Falling behind in the count

Today was Hatha with Bret. Truth be told, it was three days ago and I am falling a bit behind. I do not want to resign to not keeping up with every class so this will be a spotty effort to catch up. I can only get away with backdating my entries for so long before memory fails me. What do I recall? Awfully hard to say after three days. It was scorching hot in the room today, particularly second half of the class. I remember when I first started at UYS, I would get silently enraged at the instructor when it was hotter than I wanted it to be. I personally held it against them. I felt like they were either not comprehending or, worse, that they were sadistic! Now, I rarely feel that way. When it's hot, I assume that it's because it's hard to regulate and maintain temperature in these rooms. Especially in the winter. Even worse when it's crowded and humid. It's nobody's fault. It just is. And we are all experiencing the same heat. It's not me, suffering uniquely. And it's my choice to stay in the practice or to come undone and think think think about everything that is imperfect. So, then, as usual it was an enjoyable (if toasty) Bret class. No special achievements I can recall. But I will have better records going forward since I won't be falling behind after I catch up.

29 January, 2012

Part II: Hatha in the morning and Hatha at night

Evening Hatha class with Diane.

Today was my first ever "double" workout. It was not a back-to-back, though. As mentioned earlier, Erin's ninety minute Hatha class was in the morning, and I came back for more in the evening. This was not really something I decided to do because I thought it would be some fantastic idea to do two yoga classes, while still recovering from virus, food poisoning, or whatever it was. But I'd promised to go to the afternoon class with my girlfriend, and then found myself wanting to do the morning class. So... it just sort of worked out that way.

The amazing thing was that I felt great. I expected it would feel relatively easier just because it was only an hour, but assumed that would be vastly outweighed by the dehydration or fatigue of having done a morning class. Turns out, it just felt amazing. This class was in Studio A, the large room, which is mostly only Vinyasa classes. It's nice to have a big room for Hatha, and it's nice to have a large crowd, since usually Hatha classes only have 20-30 people. This class seemed to have between 50-60 people based on my rough count. 

Diane had us start out in Child's Pose, which is not the standard intro to Hatha. But, you know, it's little tiny differences like that, which can make a class feel different or interesting. There was a lot of energy in the room, and it just had a very light airy feel to it. 

Again, I found that Standing Bow is feeling very good. I am truly shocked that my low back has been doing as well as it has. At this moment, it does not feel like there's any remote evidence of the injury. I keep going on about this because last year, when a similar thing occurred on a trip, I ended up resorting to chiropractic to try to deal with the back pain. The result was that I had debilitating pain for many weeks, including a period of about 10 days where I could barely walk, turn, bend, sit, etc. I remember needing to crawl into my car head first because I couldn't bend and rotate to sit down. It was a bad scene.

I'm sure there's some element of the chiropractic having been a bad choice. There's also some likelihood that the nature of the tweaking was not exactly the same. But I can't help but feel like yoga is the primary difference between then and now. I am more flexible, more relaxed, and my back muscles and legs are getting stronger than they were before. 

The one downside of the double class is that I ended up feeling absolutely wiped out the entire night, after the class. It wasn't that I felt sick, particularly. Just really drained, and tired. 

I am asking myself if my body needs rest. Oddly, in spite of the feeling of tired, my body itself is not feeling run down. Though, I have been feeling quite depressed lately, most likely due to the weather and the season. This practice is keeping me barely in balance. 

When is winter over?

Part I: Almost Bikram

This morning was (we'll call it Hatha) with Erin.

I say that jokingly because, although it was a Hatha class, this 90 minute class had as close to a Bikram feel as any class that I've ever taken at Urban Yoga Spa. There were definitely a small number of omissions from a true Bikram sequence (e.g. introductory breathing, toe-stand, final breathing), and a few additions (e.g. Pigeon), it had the cadence and vibe of a Bikram class, from start to finish.

Of course, for me, that has the negative aspect of my "expectation machine" cranking into full-swing. I felt great through the standing series, but once we hit the floor, I started to feel overheated, and was fully aware of everything that was likely coming down the pipeline, and started itching to get out of Dodge. In fact, I'd blown through all my water about 70 minutes into the class, and ended up darting out of the room during Fixed Firm to refill my water bottle. That's not something I have done in a class before, but I allowed myself that extra water (I told myself) because of the dehydration that I was experiencing from the intestinal thing I was dealing with all weekend. It may be that I was giving myself an excuse, but it seemed like a justifiable one, and I made it quick, and was back in the room before the pose was over.

At the start of class, Erin noted that this was the final class in a series she's been doing in January that went through five different steps of deepening the practice. It's funny, but my immediate thought when I heard this was this sense of missing something. "What did I miss?!" And I really wished that I'd been to all of her Sunday morning classes so that I'd have known. It turned out that these five steps included things like 1) focusing on the breath, 2) keeping the tailbone tucked, 3) extending in our poses "beyond our physical bounds" (meaning, even if our body won't go further, let our experience and mental image of the pose extend beyond), and I cannot actually remember what (4) and (5) were. But they turned out to all be things that I'd heard her teach us in previous classes, so I felt a little less like I'd missed out on special new yoga secrets.

As for my practice, a few things are coming along suddenly. Standing Bow seems to be deepening and stabilizing for me. I am finding that I am not falling out of the pose. I feel like I have more control, on both sides. I am also finding that there's a point that I go to where it feels stable, but then, if I really let it go and really kick into my back hand, I can go even deeper, and I start seeing my foot up above the back of my head. This is usually something that I only can "let go" enough to achieve on the second set, but it's surprising me that I'm finding it there for me. It's one of the poses that I recall saying "I will never be able to get my foot up above the back of my head."

Eagle is another one that seems to be solidifying. My right foot is more consistently wrapping behind my calf now, and the amount of bruising that I am inflicting on my calf by doing this has been decreasing. The last few classes, I have been avoiding the temptation to "sleep the eagle" or do any other modifications, because I have had this urge to try to focus on a more perfect Eagle. Keeping it simple, doing it right. I know there are things that are still not correct. The tightness in my right hip means that my crossed right leg is not centered under my elbows, but it's sort of twisted off to the left. Just staying put in the pose, and not wavering is task enough.

Warrior II is something that I have been allowing to be off in a variety of ways for a while now, because it is a bit difficult with the knee pain that I am usually experiencing. But it's coming time where I am finding myself wanting to get the alignments better. Tucking in the butt so it's not sticking out, keeping the arms raised and not weaseling out, making sure the bent front knee doesn't cave inward, resisting the urge to rest the forearm on the thigh unless I really need it. That pose has a lot to think about. I am sure that all poses have a lot to think about, but for me, the Warrior II is just about the most difficult to deal with all the different ways that my body wants to break the rules. Since we're talking about Warrior II, I also should note that my overall flexibility has improved to the point that doing a "Bind" in Side Angle pose is now rather easy for me to do. The first time I attempted it, maybe a couple of months ago, I nearly dislocated my shoulder. So that's got to be considered progress. I still haven't begun to imagine what a Bird Of Paradise would feel like, but I've got plenty of time to ponder it.

The pattern of expectation or anticipation presenting me with the greatest challenges is continuing. I really need to think about how that bears itself out in my day-to-day life, because I'll bet it's relevant.

28 January, 2012

Self-imposed Savasana

Today was nothing, with nobody.

Today was staying in bed until almost 10am.

Last night, I went to bed with a slightly upset stomach, feeling the fatigue of the afternoon's class. As I lay in bed, I was thinking back to the Wednesday night back in Hawaii, where my better judgment was telling me "Maybe it's not such a great idea to do another yoga class at 7:30am tomorrow..." I didn't listen that time and, sure enough, I tweaked my lower back that next morning. My body needed rest, and I didn't listen.

So last night, there was a pretty emergent sense that I should not get up and go to yoga. Nonetheless, I still had it in my head that I would maybe be going to Bret's 9am Hatha class. Maybe.

Long story short, I woke up around 6am with what could only be described as a significant progression of the upset stomach, and it was a closed case. No yoga today. I struggled with a moment's guilt, but also realized that it's not a fantastic idea to have dedication bleed into obsession, at the expense of my health. And, even though I felt slightly better later in the day, I decided not to take a shot at the last class of the day.

The lesson from Hawaii taught me that I had better give my body rest when it's asking for it, or it will demand it in unceremonious fashion.

27 January, 2012

Are those even real yoga poses?

Friday @ noon, Power Vinyasa with Patrick.

Today was a day where the only way I was going to have time to do yoga was in the middle of the day. I was kind of excited to do another Patrick class. I think I have only been to one or two of his classes. The ones that I have done were challenging, so (talking about expectations) I was ready for whatever came my way. But, this was a truly amazing class, because (pardon my language) shit came our way that I didn't even know was possible!

Patrick started the class with what could only be described as a very non-traditional opening flow. There was no leisurely Sun Saluation A or B. This might well have been called "Patrick's Special Sun Salutation A-to-Z" because we did more in the first minutes of that class, including unusual twists and sequences, than I have ever done in any class. In fact, Patrick even joked, after that sequence, that we had just done a full 60 minute class in the first ten minutes. And it got more interesting from there.

We did Side Planks, flipping over to "Belly-of-the-Beast" on the opposite side, straight into Half Wheel (from a "3-Legged Downward Dog"). And this was all laced together with lunges, and twists, and warriors, and half moons, and standing splits, and airplanes. There was one long sequence that filled the better part of the middle of the class. It was so amazingly intricate and long, doing various poses on both sides of the body, that I was certain - 100% certain - that there was no way that he'd be able to lead us through the mirrored sequence of this meandering series. But, sure enough, to a beat, we did the entire thing on the other side (to my recollection) identically. All told, the series had to have taken twenty minutes or more.

The class featured many demonstrations of poses I'd never seen before, transitions I'd never imagined, with the added inspiration coming from seeing Patrick gracefully navigate these moves, explaining what every muscle in the body is doing to produce the maneuvers, and helping us to understand what it all leads up to in terms of other things that we can eventually do.

All this could be discouraging; daunting, even. But somehow it's not. Patrick had some great words of encouragement around this. Reminding us that we were going to see a lot of poses that we may not be able to do. But to keep an openness in our minds, and to remember that it is not "I can't do that," but rather, "I can't do that... yet."

The unpredictability of his class really does bring "the moment" into sharp focus. There can be no anticipation in a Patrick class. There can be no boredom. No monotony. There's very little time for "thought." There's just a truly inspiring atmosphere that makes you want to see how much of that craziness you can actually do.

25 January, 2012

Great expectations

Today was Power Vinyasa with Whitney.

Yesterday's class taught me, once again, the importance of coming to each class without expectations. Yesterday, I had been looking forward to what I'd remembered as being a certain experience. And it was different. It was hotter, it was harder, and my mind got stuck in that measurement of discrepancy. It's an interesting phenomenon that I'm starting to realize. Every class is this organic balance between multiple factors: How do I feel today? How does the instructor feel today? What are the conditions in the room today? All of these can serve to shift the experience. And part of practice is to just be okay with whatever happens, and stay in that infinitesimally small sliver of time that is "this very moment."

I decided to go right back and do Whitney's class again. It was primarily due to schedule. I had a tight schedule, and I wanted to squeeze in a class, and 4pm was the only one that was going to work for me. And that was Whitney's class. I think that, under other circumstances, I might have shied away from going right back after the challenge. That's sort of how I tend to be. Though, I am trying to learn that I should confront these fears or apprehensions.

This class turned out to be world's different from yesterday. Who knows what the difference was? Yesterday, I felt like it should be over, and there was still more left. Today, in contrast, I was ready for more, and we were suddenly finished. I guess it is all about the expectation. I came in today knowing that I needed to be ready for a long, difficult class. I also knew that I needed to be ready for more than I might expect would be coming, and that she might surprise us by ramping down and then ramping up again near the middle to latter part of the class. So I was ready for it. And it never happened.

I am not sure if I am taking the right approach there. There's still an expectation. But it's a negative expectation, which led to a pleasant surprise. I don't really know. It's not like I spent the entire class thinking ahead to what she was going to do next. It was more of a vague awareness that anything could be coming.

I'm looking for a metaphor here.

24 January, 2012

Just in case it started to feel too easy...

There is Power Vinyasa with Whitney.

Whitney's been away for a while, traveling. I remembered her classes as being sort of the perfect balance between intensity, encouragement, rest, and gentle coaching. If you've taken one of her classes, you know that she's got that dreamy almost entrancing voice that lulls you... "Take a looooong breath in.... Sweeeeet breath out..." It makes you feel like there is no chaos, even when your muscles are burning, and sweat is stinging your eyes, and you don't know if you can hold that pose for one more breath, let alone ten more breaths.

Well, after being away from Urban Yoga Spa for some time, Whitney seemed ready to bring us on a very intense journey. This class was very crowded, surely a combination of the near-end-of-month for the yoga challenge, but also the additional factor of people really wanting to take a "Whitney Class" after missing her. A testament to what a great instructor she is: there were three other instructors who took her class today. Sort of the ultimate compliment. It's like being a chef's chef, so to speak.

The class had a lot of everything, and not a lot of rest. Tons of Chair. Tons of Plank. A crazy-hard Crescent Lunge series, when we were already fairly well toasted from the first 30 minutes. Whitney did some interesting mixing up of sequences, sprinkling in difficult parts even pretty late in the class, with the culmination being two rounds of ten breaths in Dolphin Plank (yes, ten breaths).

As for me... well... I did the best that I could.

I arrived very early to secure a spot. Upon entering the room, just after the 4pm class had ended, I was greeted with a sweltering wall of moist heat. The thermometer "only" read 102 degrees, but I'd be surprised if the humidity wasn't up around 65% from the crowded class.

So, I knew from the start this was going to be... interesting. Even completely fresh, it felt like there wasn't a whole lot of oxygen in the air that we had to breathe. Telling myself "That which does not kill me..." and almost believing it to be true.

Five minutes into class, the sweat was streaming, in Downward Dog, just pouring off my face and head onto the towel. My goal was to 1) Do all the poses, 2) Not freak out, and 3) Try not to think ahead. I'm sure I'm being hard on myself, feeling like there were a couple of places where I could have done better. But I actually did pretty well. The cadence of the class was such that we actually didn't get a "prescribed" water break until the end of the standing series, and I made it all the way through to that point. I also made it through those monster Dolphin Planks by just saying to myself, "Just do it." As cheesy as it sounds, the initial thought in my head is "How can I justify that I can't do this, so that I can not do it?" but it was not a whole lot harder to just shunt that process, and do it.

When we got to the floor, I started having my resentment about the heat creeping in. I chose not to resist that urge to create drama, as Cassandra would say. And the drama really makes it a dreadful experience. My breathing became more labored, surely wasting energy, and less efficient. Thoughts were screaming in my head "OPEN THE DOOR!!! OPEN IT!! WHY WON'T SHE OPEN THE DOOR????!!!!" And when she opened it for a few moments, and then closed it, the thoughts again screaming "WHY IS SHE CLOSING THE DOOR??!!! WHAT IS SHE DOING???!!! WHITNEY!!!!! OPEN!!! THE!!! DOOR!!!" And all this certainly did make what would have otherwise been rather trivial poses like Pigeon, Supine Twist, Bridge into some sort of exercise in self-torture.

But... I did the whole class. And I did keep breathing. And I did keep doing the poses.

And when I got out of the room, unlike some of my stories from a month ago, I did not experience crushing pains in my chest, and a feeling of weakness, or wooziness, or panic like I may not actually be okay. What I experienced was a rather peaceful, sedate, satisfied exhaustion. And, while it was not the "walk in the park" that yesterday's class was, there's a place for both experiences. I wouldn't want my yoga practice to always be struggle and pushing up against my limits. But I also would not want it to never be a struggle or pushing up against my limits.

23 January, 2012

Having fun with it

Today was Hatha with Bret.

I wish every class were as easy as tonight's class. It's not that today was an easy class. But the experience was an easy one for me. It was very crowded. More than usual. Lots of new faces I had never seen in the Hatha class before, perhaps because there are only 8 days left to do the "30-Day Challenge" (Though, I found out a little secret from Gordy, one of the owners: you don't need to do 30 classes in 30 days. You have 60 days to do either 30 classes, or 60 classes. It helps to read the fine print!) Nonetheless, it was packed.

As I've mentioned before, Bret's style is very loose, creative, fun. And it seemed like the packed room actually fed into that energy tonight. He was weaving in between people, and he had a number of humorous observations and comments that had people actually laughing a bit. I'm sure he would note that, while laughing may not be allowed in a Bikram class, it's completely fair game in Hot Hatha at UYS.

There were many opportunities for adding flow sequences, and lots of people in the room were doing the extra poses, which also added energy and enthusiasm to the class.

The heat seemed to be back up into the typical range today, compared to the previous few times where Studio B was a little on the warm, rather than hot side.

I just really felt like everything about this class was perfect. I never even had to ask myself if I was "in the moment" because the moment was all around me, and the entire thing really just seemed satisfying and effortless. That's not to say it wasn't work, either. I came out of their drenched, and I can tell that my muscles are going to be sore.

The music was great tonight, too. Bret seems to go for a different soundtrack than most of the yoga classes. Tonight, we even had some Mazzy Star which, if you ask me, is perfect yoga music.

Not every day is going to feel like today. And I know that. I don't expect it to be otherwise. I can't even remember any particular pose that I want to call out, other than I seem to recall I had pretty good balance today in the Standing Bow, and that I'm actually bordering on shocked as to how quickly my low back is recovering from the tweak that I experience only eleven days ago. I feel grateful that my body heals.

Alright, lest I become too positive, I'll end this with one long "Om."

Ommmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

22 January, 2012

Variety is the spice

Today was Power Vinyasa with Kelley.

At 9am on a Sunday morning. There was a time when I would have felt the need to pat myself on the back for attending such an early class. But now, it's become almost automatic. Okay, I guess I am sort of patting myself on the back, after all.

There are 16 instructors at Urban Yoga Spa. Until this morning, I'd taken at least one class with all but one instructor: Kelley. I had her on my radar, but she is elusive, because she teaches mainly early morning classes, and then she'd been out during the holidays.

One of my goals in the practice is to resist narrowing myself down to just a few "favorite" instructors. Part of this is because variety is good, from the standpoint of the type of workout that one gets. But the other aspect relates to idea that I might perhaps learn even more from the instructors with whom I don't feel a natural resonance.

Kelley made a good point, along these same lines, at this morning's class. She asked everyone to call out some of their favorite poses (We heard people say "Pigeon, Crow"). Then she asked people to call out some of their least favorite poses (Calls of "Camel, Rabbit"). Oddly, it seems the birds fare better than the quadrupeds. Anyway, Kelley then said "In your practice, why don't you start trying to see if you can be as enthusiastic about your least favorite poses as you are with your most favorite poses!" And this is the same sentiment that I try to apply to the classes that I take.

That said, I do have my favorites, and you'll probably figure out who they are based on the degree of effusiveness in my entries about those classes, as well as the number of entries that ultimately appear. And I guess I do find myself subtly (though not categorically) avoiding some of the classes if there are other options that are more viable.

Now that I say this, I feel I will recommit to the idea of mixing it up.

Kelley's class was great. Though this was a flow class, and there are lots of transitions, Kelley keeps the pace such that you can think about each step in the flow, and she includes breathing cues at each step of the flow (which is incredibly helpful, as I mentioned yesterday, regarding forgetting to breathe).

Her class had some interesting and notable differences from the other Vinyasa classes I've taken. She had us do some unusual moves based around Crescent Lunge; they were very difficult for me, and I felt shaky in my balance (doing twists of the entire upper body, from that leg position). Perhaps the most interesting part of the class was the end of the standing series, where we went from Eagle to Airplane to (Modified) Standing Head-to-Knee, to Tree in one continuous flow. I guess I am surprised that I haven't seen that series of balance poses put into a flow sequence before, and it was pretty cool.

At the end of the standing series, we laid down on the mat for Savasana. Kelley made the observation that our hearts are beating hard and fast, and that we can use our breath to slow them down. I really like this type of little comment. Hearing her say "Your hearts are beating fast" makes me feel so much more comfortable and "normal" (for lack of a better way of describing it). Sometimes, in those heart-pounding moments, I start to wonder "Am I the only one for whom this is so difficult?!" I can suspect that it's not the case, and I can realize that it doesn't matter either way. But just hearing that proclamation that this is what everyone is feeling... it helps me to let go of that sensation that much faster.

When setting our intention for the class, my initial thought was about absolutely staying in the breath, and not moving one moment ahead, or anticipating, no matter what. And that seemed to hold up quite well today. Often, when we're taking that moment to set intention, the instructor suggests we may want to send the energy to someone in the world who needs it. A dedication. I usually balk at that idea. Not because I don't think it is a valid thing to do, but because I feel uncomfortable taking it on. Today, family came flying into my mind. First, my sister, who is unwell. And then, my father, who is likely suffering a great deal of stress with the circumstances. And I had them in my head for just a few moments. And it shook me a bit, because I don't know what to send them, or where to start. And I am not a believer in Reiki, or any other sort of remotely-administered spiritual healing. The moment's pondering started to feel like it was going to morph into "thinking" and I decided to let it go.

My shoulders and back are sore from Jo's class yesterday, as are my glutes (or am I supposed to say gluteus maximi).

And tomorrow is, indeed, another day (and another class).

THIS is all you need to do

Power Vinyasa with Jo.

Though I have taken many classes with Jo, it's been a while since I've had one. Thus, this is the first time I'm writing about it. I think it's been a combination of the holidays and the weather.

Back into Studio A, where the heat is flowing, and so are we. This was a great class today. For some reason, today's intention came to me out of the blue: "Have fun!" I could tell from square one that it was going to be a hard class, but I felt great, and I wanted to see if it was possible to relish each pose, and its difficulty, and not allow my experience to flip to being a struggle or a burden.

She had us do some pretty intense stuff tonight. Alternating between Chair and Crescent Lunge by tapping the foot backward briefly, and then returning to Chair. Culminating that series in an Airplane, followed by a Half Moon, and finally back to Warrior II. The only saving grace of this intense series is that the left and right sides were separated by a fairly long intervening sequence that was not as intense.

I felt great through most of the class, but my head got in the way toward the very end of class. We were doing a series that was based around Dolphin pose, and I found myself immediately wanting to resign to the modification. But I sort of went back and forth. First, I put my knees down. Then I lifted them back up. What I discovered was that, in Dolphin, my mind immediately starts thinking "How much is she gonna make us do in this pose? How long is this going to last? I don't know how long I can stay like this! This is hard!" And, as soon as I go there, I am already "mitigating risk" and taking that modification, even though the experience in my body, in that moment, was not unbearable.

This is something I think that I do quite often. I forget "what is" and focus on "what might be," and of course, this is typically in the form of some sort of worst-case scenario. I am most definitely not just referring to the yoga mat. In fact, much more in life, in general.

Something similar happened at the end of the class, too. We'd gone to the floor. The standing series was done. Long sigh... We'd done some abdominal work. We'd done some stretches. We'd done Bridge and Wheel. And my mind went to "Okay, it's gonna be over now." But there were more stretches. And suddenly, the heat was oppressive, and I was thinking "How much more?!" and feeling like I could not wait to be done. The thing is, these were all stretches that I like. But I'd got it in my head that the finish line was upon us, and the curve ball of a couple more poses threw me for a loop. My heart rate was up a little more than it should have been. And I tried breathing, and tried focusing on the moment, but it's almost like once you lose the moment, it's a hell of a lot harder to get it back again.

The title of this blog came from a thought I had after class: "This I can do. But when it becomes this and that, is when I run into trouble. And the reality is that we can only ever do this which is right in front of us."

There was a time where I would have been afraid to set an intention of any sort, or make any commitment or promise, because of the fear of the letdown if I didn't follow through. Today, I had fun for about 52 minutes. And the last 8 minutes were W*O*R*K.

Is this all just part of the practice?

20 January, 2012

There's not always much to say

Today was Hatha with Bret.

Usually, I have some idea or theme that emerges in my mind during the class, or just after, that I know I'll want to write about in the blog. Tonight, there wasn't really one. It makes me wonder, "Is it really possible to write a blog entry for every single class? Or is this going to run out of interest value for just about everyone including myself?" But I believe that doing this is going to take me somewhere so, in spite of that voice inside my head, I am just going to stick with it.

I have found that a number of the "causes" that I have pursued have hit a similar wall, where I suddenly began questioning the value of whatever it was that I was doing. And this is in spite of the fact that I always begin with a very clear idea of what I am trying to achieve. One of my primary goals in writing this blog was to get me writing again, because I'd hit a sort of writer's block that, with a few exceptions, had lasted well over a year.

So...

Today's class was cool again. End of class, only at 88 degrees. I guess there's something going on with getting the heat and the new humidifiers to cooperate with the outdoor temperatures. I don't pretend to understand how the equipment works. But today's Hatha felt quite a bit like yesterday's Hatha, with the exception being the difference in styles between Bret and Colette. After a few weeks of going without, I started reinserting a good set of push-ups at the start of the class, since Hatha does lack much to speak of in terms of upper body strengthening. Self-consciously, I often wonder if I look like a pretentious you-know-what doing my push-ups, but this is my practice, and I'd like to have that little bit extra at the start.

Bret, as always, offered a number of opportunities for including flow sequences in the class. Often, when the heat is up, I would take the pass on these and go for the Savasana, but in the cooler conditions, I felt the desire to add just about everything he offered. I like the looseness of his class. I like the idea that there are things that we do together; prescribed steps. But there are also things that we can choose to do, as Bret puts it, "to suit our own personalities." I really like the idea of the combination between individuality and working together as a single unit.

One challenge, I am realizing, in classes, is that instructors (most) provide a lot of guidance. In some cases, it's specifications for adjustments. In other cases, it may be words of encouragement. But I have seen in myself that when I focus on what the instructor is saying, I often lose connection with my breath. It's tricky. Because there are a lot of things to think about. There's the breath, the guidance, physical sensations, the reflection in the mirror. There's the almost constant recognizing (and hopefully dismissing) of the little thoughts that come up. And the first thing that seems to suffer is the breath.

Perhaps I need to put more attention in my breath. In fact, I think I heard an instructor either yesterday or today note that a lot of what the instructor says may just go in one ear and out the other. Perhaps I am focusing a little too much on what they're saying.

Something to consider.

Final note, relating to the progress with my lower back. It appears that it's recovering pretty quickly. The difficulty I had on Standing Bow earlier in the week is slowly letting up. I am still being cautious, but finding that the left side is not as tender as it was.

And a final, final note. I noticed, as I began sweating on my gray towel, that the pattern of markings on the towel reminded me exactly of the patterns of markings on the underside of the manta rays that I saw in Hawaii last week. I like little things like that.

19 January, 2012

The canvas is just another kind of mat

Today was encaustic class with Deborah.

You might be saying to yourself "Huh? I am not familiar with every yoga technique, but I'm pretty sure there's nothing called 'encaustic'... Maybe if you said something like 'Intensati?"

And you'd be right.

Today, I took an art class. It was the second, in a series of several classes. I am not an experienced artist, but I decided that I'd like to try. And what I found was that being present while creating art, and staying in the moment, without judgment, without self-criticism, without fear, is so similar to the feelings and experiences I've been having on the yoga mat, that it is uncanny. Last week, I took the first class in the series, and it went pretty well. I felt like I was making pretty good progress on my first piece. I spent the entire week thinking up ideas of how I would finish the first piece, and what all the other ideas were for pieces I wanted to do next. I'd already finished my first piece, in my head, and I had set myself up for coming in and having that visualization become reality in fifteen minutes flat.

That's not the way it went down.

Encaustic is an art form that involves brushing layers of wax onto a surface, and maybe adding other things into the layers such as paint, ink, materials, images, other objects. It's a very forgiving art form, but it is also one that might require a lot of patience and practice to get things to do what you want them to do. Sort of like trying to get Warrior II just right. There are more ways to do it wrong, than there are to do it right. But also, like Warrior II, you can make adjustments and, at the very worst, you can just try it again tomorrow. Moreover, there comes a point where you need to stop making adjustments and just be. I was trying to write some lettering on the wax using a graphite transfer technique. It was not coming out right. First I smudged the letters and had to remove and try again. Second time I created smudged letters straight out of the gate and had to remove more wax to try again. The frustration was brewing and I accidentally removed too much wax and started damaging the image that I'd embedded in the wax. Imagine the metaphor of getting fatigued in a yoga class and starting to hyperventilate which then leads to more fatigue and anxiety.

The downward spiral.

The instructor sensed that I was starting to unravel and she helped me a lot. But my thought was of running out of there and never returning. I looked at the other three students in the class and was asking myself "Why are they having such an easy time?" I started feeling like it was only me who struggled. I was defective. I want to run away. Never return. But I didn't run. I thought about yoga class. Oddly this made me feel badly too because I thought of all the work I have been doing on my mat to not spin out, not lose the moment, not run away... To breathe. Why couldn't I do it there, in the art class?

I realized afterwards that I did do it. I didn't spin out. I didn't run away. I got help. I finished my piece. Even though I thought it was ruined it wasn't. It turned out better than expected. And I stayed in the room. I had the negative feelings but I let them happen without reacting. Thinking about it a day later, I see the small victory. And I see that my practice is transferring to my life off the mat. I also see that to practice is not to be without ups and downs. It's not to be without pain or disappointment. But it's to not react and make it worse. To observe and also to remember that a mistake or unhappy moment does not necessarily need to be followed by more self-created misery.

As Cassandra would say, "resist the urge to create drama." I thank my practice and all my instructors for giving their time and their heart toward creating these opportunities for me and others. I thank my partner for making me come (kicking and screaming) to the mat in the first place.

But most of all, I thank myself for showing up.

The difference between hot and warm

Today was Hatha with Colette.

Most of the time, in hot yoga classes, you sweat. A lot. Sometimes, you sweat a lot and you feel good. Sometimes you sweat a lot and you feel bad. I am not exactly sure where the cutoff line is, in terms of temperature, and it definitely depends heavily on humidity. For instance, in Hawaii, a Bikram class at 95 degrees was almost unbearable heat. Oftentimes at Urban Yoga Spa, where the humidity is much lower, temperatures of 105 are just fine. Suffice it to say that there's a combination of heat and humidity where class becomes significantly less comfortable. And, of course, it depends entirely on one's frame of mind.

Today was not one of those classes. For whatever reason, today's class was the coolest "Hot" Hatha class that I've ever attended. Not sure why, and I am not complaining. It was actually quite interesting to experience the class from a less sweaty perspective. For the record, "Not Hot" meant that the room was around 87 degrees at the end of class. At this temperature, my towel was dry enough that I was able to use it to dry the little sweat there was on my body after class. In a typical class, my towel is drenched with 1-2 liters of [insert unpleasant description of bodily fluids].

The thing about a cool class is that I was able to really focus on my breathing without anxiety, without struggle. I know that there's benefit in struggle, and I am not going to suddenly start attending "Cold Hatha" classes. But it was kind of nice.

That said, I found myself, at the end of class, thinking "Did I really get a hard enough workout here?" There's a tendency to correlate the more extreme experience with being a better workout. I am not sure if that's true or not.

Colette's class has a very "Bikram-esque" flow to the order of poses. Her guidance method also tends toward the Bikram method, including the adherence to a full minute on many poses, and ensuring that we get two sets of particular poses like Standing Bow and Eagle.

I'm thinking about the temperature thing again... it is occurring to me that, while I can handle the 102, 105, even 108 degree temperatures in a Hatha series, usually without much struggle, it's the Vinyasa classes in which I'd really be just fine with the temperatures not being so extreme. In Hatha, there are only a few places in the workout where heart rate tends to go way up. This is pretty much during the Balancing Stick, Standing Bow, and Triangle portion of the class. But in Vinyasa, there can be 30-40 minutes of constantly elevated heart rate. I recognize that there's a mental element to coping with the heat. And I have not yet settled on what I believe is the perfect balance between "This is making it harder, but it's making me stronger," versus "This is making it harder, and... nothing."

There are all the adages about "That which does not kill us makes us stronger," and I can buy into that. But we are really talking about an optimization here between maximal mental gain, and maximal physical gain. There must, indeed, come a point where the heat index in a room has a detrimental effect on cardiovascular function that cannot be adequately compensated by any amount of mental toughness. So, in this optimization equation, the question then becomes: "Is the degree to which our capacity for physical benefit is reduced potentially outweighed by the degree to which our capacity for mental benefit is increased?"

Unfortunately, I am pretty sure that the answer to that last question is "Yes."

The reason I say this is because we will, unfortunately, experience many uncomfortable situations in our lives; both physical, emotional, mental. And we have the capability of developing a tolerance to these situations that enables us to handle them with more grace, and better judgment, if we can learn to be okay with them in spite of the discomfort, and (as Cassandra said yesterday) to resist the urge to create drama.

So, I say, "Bring it on!"

18 January, 2012

Back into the flow of things

Today was Power Vinyasa with Cassandra.

It feels good to be back at Urban Yoga Spa. I think I said that the other day too, but it remains true. Home is home. I was very much looking forward to doing the flow series, as I think it had been just under two weeks since my last Vinyasa class. It's snowy in Seattle, but the classes are still packed. I think there's no small coincidence that a practice like hot yoga, so focused on intention and commitment to self, would draw a huge crowd even in the most formidable of conditions.

Cassandra pointed out that we've already done the hard part just by getting here.

I was interested to see how my back would do with the different poses. My concerns coming into the day were things like the Warrior poses, Upward Dog, and the various back bends like Wheel (which I full expected to be omitting from today's workout).

My intention for the class was to just stay in it. Stay fully in the moment. Not just fully in the experience of each pose, but aware of the messages my body is sending me, because my back is far from 100% and I do not want to do anything that will cause a major setback.

Today was not a day of fantastic hydration for me during the course of the day, but it turned out to not be a problem. I think that the breathing and relaxing, and the intense focus, and no panic have been major benefits to my practice. I realize that this is just one layer of many, and that setting a focus for a series of 5-10 classes does not a yogi make. But it's a step in a direction, and I am seeing the rewards of it already. Class is less devastating.

Cassandra often says "try to resist the urge to create drama." In my practice, as well as in my life, this phrase rings so, so true to me. I am sure it is a universal experience for anyone who is willing to stop and recognize it. But the drama that we experience in our lives, on our mats, in our jobs, in our relationships; that drama is all created by the thoughts that we synthesize around the events that are happening our lives. Standing in a pose that is uncomfortable, tiring, sometimes boring, hot, wet, and recognizing that all of those sensations themselves are not that bad until we get that internal dialog going: "I can't stand this anymore!" and then suddenly, it becomes intolerable.

Enough of my aside...

Today's class was good. Felt good to be really using the upper body muscles again. That's something that is not as prominent in Hatha or Bikram yoga. It also felt good to be flowing. But there were a few poses that made my back very... alert. I found that Warrior II (which is hard for me anyway) was really tight today. It is surely in part from not having done it for almost 2 weeks, during which time I hiked, kayaked, swam, and walked around on snowy, icy sidewalks. Just being in the pose put a little strain -- but not pain -- on my lower back, and it was clear that bringing my hips all the way around was not going to happen.

Warrior II was surprisingly not that difficult, which may be because I'd been doing a bit of it in both the Bikram and Hatha, but also because I probably am not forcing my hips tucked under (something I am allowing to be "bad form" at this time, since there are other parts of the pose that I am still working on, leading up to the hip alignment). However, at the end of the Warrior II --> Side Angle --> Reverse Warrior --> Chataranga series, I found that "cartwheeling the hands to the earth" needs to be done with extreme caution or I'm going to do damage to my already sore back. There was a little weird twinge in Upward Dog if I allowed my weight to rest down too far. Solution: keep the weight up a little bit.

Poses like Half Moon (the Vinyasa version) and Warrior III were really shaky for me today. Just had no stability on the standing leg. On either side. I gave it a brilliant college try, and had fun with it, but it was just very shaky.

Oddly, in some ways, I feel like having that lower back pain made the class easier rather than harder for me. I couldn't let me mind wander, and I couldn't drift out of the moment, because a lapse in focus would be damaging.

Today, the sweat was stinging my eyes. Badly. It becomes hard to not let it be a distraction. The best I could do was not let it interfere mid-pose, but I needed to do some violent, but brief eye-rubbing at a couple of moments to get rid of that burning sensation.

The big surprises of the day were that Camel pose was doable without any problem. Wheel pose happened for me too. And Happy Baby was nowhere near as tight as I'd expect after two weeks away from it.

After class, my back is a little sore. But I've not been taking as much ibuprofen, and the pain is not bad.

My commitment to this blog is to not keep talking about my back. I promise.

17 January, 2012

Home again, cautiously

Hatha class with Diane.

After 3 days off, and many ibuprofen, I'm glad to say that it appears the lower back reinjury was minor. It's still stiff, and tired, but getting it moving has felt good, more than being stationary. So, after returning to Seattle in the snow last night, I made it back out there for my first class at Urban Yoga Spa in over a week. It was nice to be back at the home studio. Sort of like Cheers, where everybody knows your name. Only a few people actually know my name, but it still feels good that anyone does.

Because of the holiday, and the snow emergency, today's class was very crowded, and Diane was substituting for Bret. I decided, after a little bit of pondering, that Hatha would be a better reintroduction for my healing back than a more intense Vinyasa class; though there was some thought of the Hatha poses being more along the lines of "hair of the dog that bit me" compared to the Vinyasa series.

Today's class felt really nice... that about sums it up. It was not too hot, not too hard, I set my intention on observing my own personal limits, and paying attention to the way my body felt. And I wanted to enjoy the class. Diane has an extremely calming style, and I always come out of her classes feeling incredibly relaxed anyway. Today, I really wanted to absorb as much of that as possible.

So, where am I at, regarding the low back injury? Well, my hips are quite a bit tighter than they were pre-injury. My hamstrings are pretty tight too, and I think it's partly related to the injury, but may also be the hiking we did the last few days of the trip, combined with sitting on airplanes. As for the poses: Standing Bow with my left leg on the ground was almost not possible; that's one that really gets the spot, when I try to lean forward. On the right side, I am almost unaffected, and had no trouble with it. I was super-careful on Tree pose, even though it's quite a bit different pose in Hatha class. The hip tightness limited me a bit, as well as my caution, but it was not bad. Half Moon I was also very careful with, because the side bends I think have been a little too much for my back, although I have been doing them anyway. Same with the back bend. Though, in contrast, Camel pose was no problem. I guess it's about weight bearing and balance, combined with the bends?

I skipped Hero's pose (Fixed Firm), and took it very easy on all the back-strengthening poses.

Bottom line is that I guess I am cleared to keep doing yoga. For this, I am glad. But I realize that I need to be extremely mindful of where my body is, if I want this ability to persist. My low back is probably always teetering on the edge of acting up.

12 January, 2012

The importance of being rested

Bikram class with Mark at Bikram Yoga Kona.

This morning, I was awake before the alarm. We didn't get a ton of sleep, though. There was no question about whether or not we were going to take the class, but getting out of bed was hard. My girlfriend already had a headache, which is never a good way to start a hot yoga class. I felt okay, but tired.

My intention, once again, was to just stay in the poses fully. Don't let my mind wander, don't think about how much of the class is left. It's hard to get moving that early, being that I am not a morning person.

The first several poses seemed to go very well. I found myself really taking Standing Bow further than I usually am able, with more stability, confidence, and control. I really felt like I was able to stay in my breath, and not get overheated, even though it was definitely very hot in the room (because it's Hawaii, the studio is typically working with 60-65% humidity, so even at lower temperatures, it can be brutal).

On the final pose of the standing series, Tree, I injured my lower back. The short version of this story is that I have an old injury that involves disc damage. About a year ago, I had a major enough episode, that it finally got examined via MRI, and was revealed that I have two herniated discs. I haven't had any problems in about 11 months, but today I aggravated it. Tree pose is done differently in Bikram class than in a Hatha class. In Hatha, one brings the foot to the inside of ankle or thigh. In Bikram, the foot is lifted way up to the top of the thigh, and held there with the hand (unless you have enough flexibility for it to stay there by itself, which I do not). In fact, my right hip is so tight, when I hold my foot with my left hand, my shoulders are uneven, with my left shoulder pulled down an inch or so from the force of the foot. Today, I decided that I should focus on form, so I tried to make an adjustment to raise my left shoulder up, square with my right. And I immediately felt a twinge in my lower back, in the same spot as the existing disc damage. I knew that I'd done something bad, but was not sure how bad.

On the floor series, I tested it a tiny bit, tried to see if I could do locust pose... no. Floor bow... no. Sit up... no. So the rest of my practice today was trying to pick and choose the things that I could do, and avoid the ones I could not do. Camel... no.  Rabbit... yes. Savasana didn't feel particularly good on back or stomach. Ended up having to do it with my knees bent, on my back. I tried to keep positive, relax, not think of it as a contest. But I still found myself needing to recognize and dismiss the thoughts: "I don't want people to think I just couldn't handle the heat..." I was very worried about what other people would think. Not so much that it made me do things I should not be doing. But the thought was still there.

Obviously, it was a less intense class, overall, than the others I took this week. That being because I did not do all the poses. It really made me think, though, about the choices I made. Was it really a good idea to do two classes, each ninety minutes long, with only twelve hours rest, on top of the kayaking and swimming that we'd done? I find myself wanting to do more, more, more, but not asking myself if doing it is better for me than not doing it.

In retrospect, one of the things I notice about Bikram, as opposed to Hatha, is that I feel the instructors really emphasize, in Bikram, the pushing of stretches to a pretty extreme range. There's specific dialog about going "beyond your flexibility." There are implicit caveats for people who have injuries, but I think that the instruction text for Bikram doesn't include reminders to be careful. I have noticed, in Hatha classes at Urban Yoga Spa, that instructors are very careful to remind people to take modifications when needed, rest when needed, and know your own body and limits. In Bikram, it's not that there's an absence of any words of caution; Mark definitely says quite frequently to avoid injury, particularly when coming out of poses, by maintaining control and stability.

I don't want to go very far with that thought, because I think that ultimately it should not matter what words are coming out of the instruction. We need to hear our own bodies. I need to hear my body, and listen to it. I need to make good choices. It would be okay to "throw away" one yoga class that we paid for, because we're just not up for it. Heck, we spent $10 to buy two coconuts from a couple of locals on the side of the road, what's the big deal about missing a class? But I had it in my head that we couldn't miss it. That missing it was bad, weak, slacking, weaseling, etc. And I had it in my head that I should push myself to my limit on every pose. Sure, my Standing Bow went further than it ever had before, but ten minutes later, I injured my back. The injury made me realize that I have been taking a few things a little to far, too fast, and the lesson is to start listening.

11 January, 2012

Savasana in the surf

Bikram class with Mark at Bikram Yoga Kona.

After seeing how helpful it was to do some warm-up "sun salutations" from the Vinyasa series prior to class the other day, I decided to do the same again this evening, especially since we'd arrived quite early for the class. Yesterday, we'd spent the entire afternoon and evening snorkeling. Today, we kayaked across Kealakekua Bay and then snorkeled the entire morning at Captain Cook (which was truly the best snorkeling I've ever seen anywhere).

My intention for today's class was to really stay in the moment, focusing only on the pose that was at hand. I especially did not want to have my mind flying off into thoughts of "How am I going to do this again tomorrow?!" so I put a major emphasis on feeling the poses, experiencing them, breathing.

It was a good class. I don't think I broke any particularly new ground, but the Bikram series is starting to become more familiar now. Instead of the standing series feeling interminable, I was surprised when we were already on Pyramid pose, and getting ready to move to the floor series. I made a conscious effort to not overdo it with the water at the breaks this time too.

As an instructor, Mark is very direct, and very motivational. He's got some catchy Hawaiian phrases of encouragement he uses: "Tiger Shark Determination... Humpback Whale's Strength" and similar expressions. It's cute, and it makes it feel like a unique experience being there in his studio.

Near the end of the standing series, particularly in the inverted poses like Triangle, Hamstring Stretch, Pyramid, I found myself getting very lightheaded, and also start to have a hard time keeping my arms up. I am surprised at this difficulty I have with keeping my arms up in many of the poses where arms are raised. I don't see others struggling with this, so I am curious why it is. One thing I think it could be is that tightness in my shoulders is acting as to resist my arms going up, so I'm fighting it more than people who have less tightness. But I found myself taking lots of mini-breaks between the last few sets; not skipping poses, but doing forward folds to just try to regroup.

When we laid down on the floor for our Savasana, at the start of the floor series, I suddenly noticed something subtle that I hadn't felt earlier. I felt like I was moving... swaying... rocking... it was the waves. From the previous 24+ hours of boat rides, kayak rides, snorkeling, all in reasonably surfy seas, my brain had obviously done some auto-correction signals to cancel that out. And what I was feeling, as I laid in Savasana, were the residuals of that signal. And this felt really cool. I hadn't felt it in bed the night before. I hadn't felt it at any other time. In retrospect, I realized that I'd been having some trouble with the balance poses earlier in the class, and it's not unreasonable to think that it was because something small inside my brain was still swaying.

I mentioned this to my girlfriend at the end of class, and she excitedly reported that she'd experienced the same exact feeling.

We managed to avoid the two-classes-in-twelve-hours situation by taking a day off Tuesday. But the result was the we backed ourselves up against the wall for tomorrow. Tomorrow morning, we will be heading out of Kona to go to Hilo, so it's our last chance to take our final class that we prepaid. And it's at 7:30am. I made it through this class without letting my mind wander to tomorrow. That was good.

We'll see how tomorrow goes.

10 January, 2012

Do stop thinking about tomorrow

Today was Bikram with Marjorie.

After yesterday's struggle, I knew that I needed to do something different and ensure that I had proper focus for this class. Otherwise it was going to be a very long and uncomfortable 90 minutes.

We arrived early, and I decided that I would use the extra time to do a series of "Sun Salutation A" from the Vinyasa series, including taking a moment to set my intention for the class. In spite of the fact that I spent nearly three months doing Hatha and Vinyasa, without a clue as to what my intention should be, I now feel like this is an important step in the practice, because I saw the positive effect it appeared to have, even in the few classes that I have set a concrete intention.

I started off with the intention of setting my intention on "no panic" but, sure enough, another idea surfaced: "Stay focused only on the current pose." This should be a no-brainer, because it's always the case, but what I found myself struggling with the most in my previous class was not looking ahead and counting poses, and lamenting how much of the class remained.

Not surprisingly, things went much better, for most of the class.

Marjorie is (according to Mark, the owner) the most experienced yoga instructor at the studio. Compared to Shawn, she gives just a little bit less of a stream of instructions, but still providing enough encouragement, and subtle adjustments to keep a (willing) yogi's attention in the moment. I'd taken one class with her when I visited back in September. Surprisingly (at least to me), both Marjorie and Mark vaguely remembered having seen me before. I guess I don't think of myself as that memorable, but also, they must see a lot of people pass through, so it felt good that they remembered the face from four months ago. Or maybe they don't see a lot of tourists come through. From a surveying of the class, it did appear that most people had their own mats and towels, which might suggest it's not something that people seek out to spend their time doing on vacation.

The standing series was pretty much fantastic. I didn't feel much of a struggle, and was able to stay very focused on each of the poses. I fought mightily to get my right foot wrapped on Eagle pose, but I've actually started getting a nasty bruise on the back of my calf from my right toes. That's how tight it is getting the wrap. After prying myself into the pose for the first set, I agreed to not inflict further bruising on the second set, and did the unwrapped foot. It's at least always a relative comfort to feel how easily the left foot goes behind on the other side.

I know I talk a lot about Eagle pose. I think this one is sort of a benchmark for me, both in terms of marking my progress in flexibility, as well as in observing the dramatic difference between my left and right sides. Another pose where I have seen a big difference (not in Bikram series) is "Happy Baby." When I first started doing yoga, I could only think to call this one "Unhappy Baby" because my right hip and knee were simply unwilling to tolerate the pose. I felt a sort of shooting discomfort from the hip all the way to the knee, with extremely limited range of motion on that side. This was most likely "IT Band" tightness. I recall thinking (as always) "I'm never going to be able to do Happy Baby." This seems to be the way I always start off. And I have noticed that this "never" attitude has surfaced itself throughout my life in new things. I have always started off very frustrated at what others would call "inexperience" but I have tended to label as "ineptitude." I'm a bit hard on myself. "I'm never going to be able to learn SQL," or "I'm never going to be able to learn statistics," or "I'm never going to get my recording equipment set up." The list goes on, and it actually makes learning new things harder because of the negative energy I place on myself.

The neat thing about yoga is that I am seeing "nevers" evaporate at a rate far faster than I imagined possible. There are things that I believed were "never" going to happen, just a couple of months ago, that have become routine: Wheel (getting there), Camel (not only have I got this one, but Marjorie even complimented me on my form in this pose yesterday), Happy Baby (almost symmetrical now), Eagle (fighting it, but it's on the edge of being there). Even just the idea of making it through an entire tough class, and feeling energized, as opposed to destroyed at the end of class... I had not imagined that would be a possibility.

Back to today's class, after that long aside... After we finished the standing series, I "rewarded" myself with a ridiculously large quantity of water. Undoubtedly more than I required. And it sat heavy in my stomach, and made me feel queasy at the start of the floor series. This was a mistake. Interesting, too, because it turns out that listening to your body can mean a lot of things. And in this case, it meant giving myself only what I needed, and not more. The queasiness took my focus off a little bit, and I started thinking about why did I drink so much water. By the time we got to Hero pose (I can't remember the Bikram name for it), I was spinning off into thinking about how many poses we had left, though trying to contain it. The room was feeling hotter (it actually was getting hotter, in this case, since Marjorie closed that doors at someone's request). I was trying to stay with it, but felt like I was sliding down a rocky wall, and losing my grip. When we got toward the final stretching exercises, I felt like the class was interminable, and my mind had drifted even further toward "How the hell am I going to do this again at 7:30am tomorrow?!" We'd planned on taking a morning class, after an evening class, and I was dreading needing to pull off this focus again, so soon. Imagining the heat, imagining myself struggling, imagining the slow 90 minutes. 

The class ended, sure enough. And overall, I felt like it was better than the previous day. I maintained focus through most of it. But there were a few key lessons. First, give yourself what you need, and only what you really need. Not more. Not less. And know what that is, by listening. Second, there is no end point for focus. The focus must last the entire class. There is no "if I can make it to here or there then I'm home free." As soon as one thinks about a "here or there" the focus is already lost. Already thinking about a moment other than this one. It's only "easy" when there's nothing but the current pose. The current breath.

So far, I feel like I enjoy the variety of Hatha and Vinyasa more than the rigidity and predictability of Bikram. But I recognize that it doesn't really make a difference.

09 January, 2012

Wherever you go... there you are

Today was Bikram yoga with Shawn.

Bikram Yoga Kona is apparently the only hot yoga studio on the Big Island of Hawaii. This is where I would say that my "practice" officially started back in September. The studio is run by Mark Hough (from whom I took a class on my last visit to Hawaii). I have also taken a class with his daughter Rachel (during that visit). That trip was my introduction to Bikram, and it made enough of an impression that I decided hot yoga, though not explicitly Bikram, was something I wanted to pursue when I arrived back on the mainland, as I have mentioned earlier. 

BYK is nowhere near as posh as Urban Yoga Spa, in my hometown of Seattle. But it's distinctly Hawaiian, and has a friendly, family-run vibe to it.

Because I have now been practicing yoga almost every day for three months, I had expected to walk into the studio today and have an easy time.

Wrong, of course. If it were not bad form to do so, I would probably add an emoticon smiling face, since it seems that getting the opposite of what I expect is about par for the course when it comes to such experiences. 

Today was an 8am class, on our first full day on the island. Hot yoga is hot yoga, but there's a bit more humidity in Hawaii than in Seattle. 

The class was reasonably crowded, and I spent the first 10 minutes or so feeling angry and resentful that someone in the row in front of me was blocking my view of the mirror. They could have easily moved a step to the right, but I could not move step to the left due to arrangement in the room. It was making it hard for me to concentrate, but I also was realizing that this is just another distraction, another thing to either okay with and focus on the poses, or to obsess over and be suffering more than I need to be, through my own thoughts. After brief disgruntlement, I got over it. And, as it turned out, he took a step to the right, and then eventually he spent the majority of the class in Savasana. Question I have for myself is whether I can learn to be almost instantly "ok" with something like this, or if I really want to experience the resentment? 

Shawn is very good at calling out every subtle detail of the correct form of the poses. She's not low-key, and she's not subtle, and she was good at giving everyone in the class some individual call-outs of commendation, as well as adjustments. 

She has a very motivational style to her teaching. She makes you want to find that little bit extra on some tough poses like Backward Bends or Standing Head-to-Knee. But, because she was encouraging us to find new depths, I think I also found myself feeling a bit more tired than expected about halfway through the standing sequence. And one thing that is both good and bad about Bikram is that you know exactly what is coming next. This is valuable and tough on a few different levels. I found that knowing what was coming next meant that I was drifting into my head and thinking "We still have Tree... We still have Triangle... We still have Pyramid... We still have Standing Bow..." Of course, this is exactly what one wants to avoid doing, because that immediately causes the energy drain of overthinking. And in some ways, this is also what makes it good. I realized, at some point during today's class (though I think it didn't happen until back strengthening, perhaps Locust?) that I had better get my head back on this very pose because it's going to be utter hell if I am counting the poses ("Still have Floor Bow... Still have Camel... Still have Hero's Pose... Still have Rabbit... Still have Pigeon -- oops, wait -- no -- Pigeon is not part of the Bikram series")

Positives for today's class: got the right foot wrapped on the Eagle again. Camel is becoming second-nature, whereas it used to be a pose I dreaded. Standing Head-to-Knee I found I can actually do better when it's offered up as "not optional" to get my hands under my foot, and work toward extending the leg. In Hatha class, I tend to go very conservative and take the simpler modification of just standing upright with the knee raised. I usually tell myself it's because I am not exhibiting enough stability to warrant going further. But today, I saw that I actually can go further in it. So it's a lesson learned.

Negatives for today's class: I was way too much in my head, obsessing over how long the class seemed, and how much longer it had to go. I drank way more water, though I was probably legitimately thirsty, being first thing in the morning. Standing Bow, I was falling all over the place, and I suspect it is because my head was not in the game. 

Tonight, my low back is a little tired. It's a combination of perhaps going a little deeper in back bends than I should have, plus spending a fair amount of time snorkeling today (which is my favorite pastime, and one of the few ways that I have found of easily getting completely into this very moment).

I love the idea that I can go 3000 miles, to a different studio, different instructors, different mat, different towel, but it's still my practice. It's inside me. And I will take it wherever I go. And the struggles will be the same.

Tomorrow I will have to remember to set my intention on my own, since that's apparently not an explicit part of the Bikram sequence. 

06 January, 2012

Coming out of your story

Power Vinyasa with Cassandra. Friday night "Music Intense" class.

Last minute meeting at work today leaves me on the 9th floor of my building, at South Lake Union, at 5:18pm. Class starts at 5:30pm.

No panic.

I run. In Dr. Martens. If you're curious, this is exactly 0.5 miles up Westlake, turning right on Stewart. But I happen to know that the clocks at Urban Yoga Spa are a little slow... probably for this very reason. For a moment, I think to myself that it's probably not a fantastic idea for me to be getting my heart rate way up before class even starts. But the thought dissipates quickly. I will be fine, because there is no panic.

I am ready on my mat with three minutes to spare (thanks to the PST+UYS time zone). Always looking very much forward to Cassandra's classes. She is an inspirational instructor. Regardless of the fact that this is a Power Vinyasa class, there will be time for meditation. There will be time for rest. There will be time for listening to her brief but so-insightful words, sprinkled throughout the class. And the workout will still be intense. To me it seems something of a magical ability to be able to find that balance of intensity and calm easiness. So it is special to be there for it.

Today, Cassandra points out that the "Power" in "Power Vinyasa" is not just about the intensity of the workout, but also about finding the power in ourselves through our yoga practice. And finding energy in the universe, even when we may feel fatigued.

My intention, once again today was "no panic." My mind tries to put me on the spot to come up with a special and unique intention or dedication for every day (which amounts to starting off each class with a unhealthy dose of judgment). But the variety that one wants to aim for in such things as a blog entry or a dinnertime conversation is not applicable on the yoga mat. For me, "no panic" is not a "flavor of the day." And, unless I find myself compelled to set another intention or, until the concept of panic is a distant memory, it seems like an appropriate "go-to" place.

Today's class was wonderful from the first moment to the very last. I feel like I am starting to hear things that maybe were being said all along, but I wasn't hearing them before. But I question myself. Were they said before? Two days in a row, the instructors have made the reference to the futility of trying to fight the sweat dripping. Did the instructors decide to talk about this all of a sudden? Was it some master plan? Or have they been saying this all along, but I wasn't listening because I was too caught in that thought ("I need to wipe the sweat off my face!!"). I honestly don't know.

Cassandra asked us, during Warrior I, to look up to the ceiling, through our hands, and find the posture without the mirror. To feel the floor with our feet. To feel the adjustments. To feel our heartbeat. To feel our breath. Today, I was ready to feel these things. And instead of freaking out about why I can't get my hips all the way around, or why my knee hurts and I can't go deeper, or why I can't keep my arms up straight because they're burning... today, I just tried to experience it:  bring hips around more... knee hurts... does going a little deeper make it better or worse? hm... better... interesting... look up through the arms, rather than wondering how much longer I can keep arms up... make sure the back leg is still straight... and... breathe.

I felt waves of lightness and joy. I did not feel much thirst. The temperature of the room did not matter. At several points during the class, I felt strong emotions triggered inside of me. The rests felt restful. And when the rests ended, I found myself able to immediately override that almost automatic "Oh, darn, the Child's Pose is over so quickly" and just go. That's one of the things that Cassandra always says that I really like (particularly in the middle of a set of Wheel poses): "Not a lot of thinking, just a lot of doing..."

It turns out, it does take a lot less energy to do than to think.

Today's Wheel pose was even a little better than yesterday. There's something about the way she had us go into the pose today. We started it as a Bridge, which I assumed was just going to be a Bridge. But she had us make a few adjustments, feeling our feet pressing into the floor, and then pulling our feet towards us on the mat, flexing our hamstrings, and then unexpectedly she said "Now go right into your Wheel from here" and I just went, and my arms were straighter than usual, and my back was arched more, and my head was way off the floor, and it felt almost springy.

Cassandra often talks about how fortunate we are just to be able to be there in that room, on that mat, in our practice. At some level, I am always at least subconsciously aware of the good fortune that I have in this life. But on some days, it really feels like I am Fortunate with a capital F.

05 January, 2012

Intention set on zero panic

Kathy's Power Vinyasa class today.

On the walk over, I felt like I'd eaten lunch too late today. I felt like my stomach was full, and started thinking about the heat that was coming, and remembering the edge-of-panic feeling in my previous two classes. Top that off with the fact that today was to be Vinyasa, not Hatha, and this could have the potential to be a very challenging experience. Add to that (if we haven't already got enough added) that Kathy can teach a tough class, and I always have a bit of a psychological expectation that attending her class is going to mean pushing my limits.

At the start of the class, after a few warm-ups, we came to the moment where we pause to set our intention for our practice. Some instructors suggest that it might be a dedication. Usually, when we reach this moment, my mind freezes up. I don't know what I should intend. I don't know to whom I should dedicate this practice, or what the nature of such a dedication should be. So I stand there, imagining what everyone else is probably thinking. Remembering a lost family member... Thinking of a friend who is struggling... Giving love to their children... Whatever it is, I imagine it to be big and special and far more meaningful than the nothing that I can come up with.

But today, for some reason, it came to me: My intention is not to panic.

It seemed so simple, but it's clearly been the most significant struggle that I have had in my practice. And it may be one of the more significant things that has held me back in my life. I would say I have done a fairly good job of containing it in my life, and not being dominated by it. But when I do struggle, it tends to be a struggle in the form of "freaking out" over perceived limitations, perceived obstacles, perceived conflict that may not even be real.

So today, I was a bit pleased when I stumbled upon this intention. And I feel like it came from a place of the heart, not a thinking place. I did not want to have a bad experience in the room, and I did not want to give in to what I had been negative-fantasizing about on the walk over.

And sure enough, it was a great class. For some reason, it seemed easy. It didn't even seem hot. I was sure that the difference had to be that it was not as hot today. That had to be it. But I allowed myself a glance at the thermometer at the end of class: 105 degrees. It was no cooler than the two days before, where I had struggled so much. And it was not just a perception of being easier. I actually sweated less. The ends of my towel were not even wet, which is unheard of for me in a Vinyasa class. Furthermore, I hardly needed to drink any of my water, whereas normally I finish almost an entire liter.

So was that the difference? Could it be because I had set my intention on not panicking and, as a result, I did not panic? Fancy that!

Kathy made an amazing suggestion early in the class. She said (paraphrasing) "When you are pausing in your practice to wipe your sweat off your face, do you ever notice that immediately after you wipe it away, it comes right back again? So, instead of giving in to this distraction, just consider the idea of accepting it, and staying focused in your practice."

Calling my awareness to this made me realize that giving in to these "distractions", whether it be the dripping of sweat, or a sniffly nose, or muscles that are burning from the intensity of a pose... in any case, these distractions are contributing to that induction of panic. They take me out of my breath. They take me out of the moment. And when I tried harder not to give in to them, I found that I was apparently using less energy, and feeling less panic (none), and appreciating the practice more - even the difficult poses.

Kathy is famous for her "Dolphin Plank" series. On the last round of three sets, doing the second side of "climbing the mountain," where you alternate, one-arm-at-a-time from Dolphin to High Plank, my arms were burning, my abs were burning, my legs were burning, heart rate was probably at 160, and there was a part of my mind that was getting ready to say "I'm not gonna be able to do this set, and it's okay." But then I had just a moment's thought: "No, I am going to do this set, and it's okay." And I did it. And then I rested with everyone else.

I feel like I found a secret passageway today.

In the very last pose of the class, a 10-second Wheel pose, I found myself today on my tiptoes, with my head starting to lift off the mat. Lighter than usual. And only a month ago, I didn't attempt Wheel at all.

03 January, 2012

How does it feel to stand as you?

Noon Hatha class with Ginger.

Recovering from my cold, but there's no doubt that I am still weak

(should I have just taken the day off?)

Perhaps I should have just taken the day off, but I knew that I will likely miss tomorrow because of dinner plans, and I had something going on after work today too, so it left me with the option of skipping or doing a noon class.

I've never done a noon class before. I saw that Ginger was teaching Hatha, and I'd never taken a Hatha class with Ginger before, so there were a few reasons why this just seemed like an interesting thing to try today. In contrast with my usual evening visits, where I recognize the vast majority of the people in the class and in the locker room, today there was not a soul (save one) that I recognized.

The room felt hot from the start of the class, but I am now starting to think that "how I feel" is a much more important determinant of the impact of the heat than the actual temperature.

Ginger tends to do slightly different order to her routine than standard. This was true for her Vinyasa, and also true for the Hatha. For instance, we started off class on the floor for several minutes with some simple hip stretches before beginning the standing series. This is one of the things that I've liked about her classes is that they are just a slightly different flavor than the norm. She also seems to favor very quiet, meditation music, which is nice. The energy in the class was very soft and peaceful. I feel like her class really focuses on the breath, and it is helpful the way she will indicate pose duration by telling us the number of breaths that we'll be in the pose. Even if the number turns out to be slightly different for each person, there's something easier about staying in the pose, when you are counting breaths, instead of wondering how many seconds are left.

In spite of the easy pace and energy of the class, I struggled again. I think it was slightly less of a struggle than yesterday. The hamstrings were very tight, as were the hips, especially in front, pulling the knees in toward the chest. It feels like the tightness is residual from the Yin class two days ago. I always find that leg muscles tend to get progressively tighter for a couple of days after a deep workout, whereas upper body soreness tends to peak sooner. I've never been clear on why that is, but it seems to be the case.

Today, the effort to get that right foot wrapped in Eagle was a no-go. It almost got back there, but it just wanted to pop back out, and I found that my balance was pretty shaky today, so any attempt to force that foot behind just caused wobble.

On most of the standing series, I felt the need to go very conservative today. On "Standing Head-to-Knee" pose, I didn't feel like I should try to fold forward or extend, because my standing leg was wobbling all over the place. On Eagle, there was no sleeping, and no Warrior 3 today. By the end of the standing series, I was kind of dizzy and lightheaded again. Not quite as much as yesterday.

Again on the upside, the Warrior 2 and Extended Side-Angle felt better on my knees than it has felt in past weeks. Maybe I've learned some subtle adjustment? Or it might be that the weather has been a little bit warmer (this is continuing on the assumption that the knee thing is arthritis, but that's undiagnosed).

After class, I found that I could not get my heart rate to settle down. It was still way over 100 a half-hour after class. I really don't know what that's about. Of course, my mind started running with it, and wondering if I have some sort of a heart condition. Mind racing. Mind racing. Mind racing. Should I go to the doctor? But last week, my heart didn't hurt, and I did not have a cold. It's the cold. Nonetheless, the heart is a funny thing, because when it doesn't feel right, it triggers panic, which then makes the heart feel even worse. An unpleasant feedback loop. I tried to use my breath to contain it, but I kept coming back to that feeling of my heart, and it kept triggering the little panic.

At one point during today's class, Ginger had us close our eyes in Mountain pose, and she told us to just "experience how it feels to stand as you." I liked this notion of self-recognition worded as such.

Today, it felt kind of shaky and unstable standing as me.

I also noticed that now I am having a little trouble avoiding thinking about this blog during the class. I am trying to find what it is that I'll want to write about. If something happens, I'll start obsessing on making sure I remember it. Or I'll just be thinking about what today's story is. I suppose that is just a microcosm of the everyday struggle between the moment and my thoughts. But I want to ensure that I am coming to my practice as a student, and not a journalist.

02 January, 2012

Practice starts with breakfast

Today was Hatha with Bret.

I am fighting a cold. As a result, I've been taking various cold medicines. Have not really had much of an appetite. Today, if I recall correctly, all I ate was the equivalent of two or three pieces of bread. And that was during the entire day. I thought I'd hydrated enough, and I didn't feel hungry. And Hatha is typically not that intense. So I figured I'd be fine.

Wrong.

About ten minutes into class, I was already starting to feel fatigue. Just lifting my arms felt difficult. I felt like my muscles were exhausted, almost as if I'd already done some really intense workout. Of course, now that I think of it, I did start the class with a quick series of push-ups (often, I start a Hatha class that way, just to add a little bit of an upper-body workout). But normally, that doesn't affect me at all. Today was different. The balance poses were far more difficult than usual. Halfway through the standing series, I was feeling dizzy, weak, light-headed. I know that it's alright to just lay down and rest, but I wanted to try to back off the intensity, and just stay with it.

There were a couple of highlights for me in today's class, in spite of the constant struggle. For the first time ever, I was able to completely wrap my right foot behind my left leg on Eagle pose. Until today, it has always been that I can wrap the left foot behind right leg, but not even close on the other side. This is a fairly consistent asymmetry that I have between my left and right sides. My right leg is much stronger and more stable on balance poses than my left. But, conversely, my right hip and knee are much less flexible. So it felt like a pretty major milestone to get the foot wrapped. I can't help but wonder if yesterday's Yin class contributed to this new ability.

Another highlight was that the guidance Patrick gave in yesterday's class about how to get into Warrior II made it easier for me to do it today. Two days in a row now, I have been pretty comfortable in my (bad) knees, and both days was able to do full extension of my bottom arm during extended side-angle, rather than resting the elbow on the knee. I have even taken a full bind both days, which is something I have only recently started attempting in my practice.

Mercifully, I made it to the floor, but I never really felt better. The weakness and exhaustion probably triggered a little bit of that panic, and it also dissolved into a bit of queasy nauseous feeling. Not sure if I did the right thing by trying to make it through the class. It's a tough call. I want to not let my mind defeat me, but there is a line where it's just the body not being up to it. Given that I didn't get sick, and I didn't collapse, I guess I made an alright choice.

As usual, Bret provided many opportunities for unique variations in the poses and in the series. On most days, I will try to partake of as much of this as I can. Today, I was forced to accept that I wasn't up for the "bonus poses" and just take it easy. Bret also does a great job of keeping the practice light, and reminding us to smile, and to make the practice our own, and keep the energy flowing with little things like wiggling the fingers or the toes. Today, it was especially helpful having that lightness brought into the fold, because it would have been really easy to take things too seriously the way I was feeling.

Today's lesson is that "showing up for my practice" is not just about getting in the room, and on the mat. It's about everything I do, whether it be hydration, food, sleep. Today I did not provide myself the energy that I needed to feel well. I will cut myself slack that it's hard to judge hunger when one has a cold. But it should have been pretty obvious that I needed more nutrition today than I got.

01 January, 2012

Every second is the beginning of a new year

My first class of 2012 was a two-hour "Theme Class" with Patrick, consisting of Hatha and Yin yoga. If you are not familiar with Yin Yoga, you can read about it here.

This two-hour class was part of the New Year's kick-off of a 60-day "Yoga Challenge" at Urban Yoga Spa. Here's the way it works: You come. You do yoga. You get stars. If you earn enough stars, you are entered into a raffle where you can win things like a one-year yoga membership. Very cool. If you go to the theme classes, you get two stars. If you bring a guest, you get a star for them too. It's a nice way to get people fired up with their practice.

I had never taken a Hatha class with Patrick before. In fact, I have only taken one of his Vinyasa classes ever, because I'd heard his classes were intense, and I was afraid that I might have too difficult of a time this early in my practice. When I finally tried his class, it was indeed difficult, but I survived it! And I also had the opportunity to see and hear about poses I'd never even known existed. I cannot do many of them today. But perhaps someday...

Patrick has a very direct, and energizing approach, with lots of guidance and inspirational coaching as he teaches. I saw how this fit well with an intense class like Power Vinyasa, but I was curious to see how that intensity would map to a Hatha/Yin class. Turns out, it was fantastic.

I guess I came to class today, first day of the year, expecting to be inspired. And indeed I was. The class started with a discussion about how we, as humans, define these arbitrary delineations of time such as New Year's Day. But, in reality, every second is the beginning of a new year that starts right now. And that was an awesome message to give us in our practice. To remember that today is only "special" insomuch as today is where we are. But tomorrow brings the same opportunity for commitment, intention, practice.

The Hatha portion of the class felt great. The room was comfortably warm. The class was only moderately full, and it was a nice change to do a Hatha class in "The Big Room" instead of the smaller studio, where most of the Hatha sessions are conducted. We moved through the poses in what felt like a slightly more regimented fashion than Hatha usually seems to be. It's not that anything felt rushed. Just that there was a very smooth flow from one pose to the next, and Patrick provided a lot of very specific detailed coaching on correct form that enabled me to recognize and experience things that I hadn't noticed before. I particularly like the calling of attention to the part, or parts of our body that we should be focusing on as we move through the pose, such as feeling a back bend at the start of a standing bow pose, or noticing the sensations of the standing foot on the floor while balancing on one foot. By providing us with something extremely concrete to focus on, it makes it easier to stay in the poses, and to stay in the moment.

The interesting part of the class, internally, for me came about halfway through the Yin series. Everything was going along fine, and I felt like I was getting some really good, deep stretches. I was still comfortable, still breathing, still relaxed. And then we started doing some hip-opening exercises with one leg extended straight out to the side. This is difficult for me, because I have tight hamstrings. And my focus started unraveling. First, I'm thinking "I don't think I am doing this right." Then, it transitions to "I'm doing this wrong." Then, it transitions to "I can't do this." From there, it starts to feel hotter in the room. Next, I start feeling restless and fidgeting more with my poses. Struggling. Wondering when the pose will end. Wondering what is coming next. Looking around at the people next to me to see if they're having a hard time. Wanting more water. The room is getting hotter. Wondering if I should ask Patrick if I'm doing it correctly, because what if I'm not?

Then I realize... Here it is. Here is "The Moment." My struggle. In yoga. In life. First I get worried I might not be doing something correctly, because I want to "succeed" or "be right." Then, if it's hard or ambiguous, I fear that I must be doing it wrong. Then I don't want to do it until I know I'm doing it right because otherwise it is a "waste of time." And I become more uncomfortable, and start perceiving reality to be other than what it actually is which, in turn, further impacts my ability to perform or focus.

The room wasn't any hotter. But suddenly I was too hot. And suddenly my chest felt the panicky kind of heartbeat. And it wasn't because of yoga. It was because of my mind racing all over the place evaluating my practice instead of just being with it.

I felt much better when I realized this was happening, because I felt like I'd gained something. I became curious, instead of running all the way down the dark alley. But, because I'd spent ten or more minutes in that mind-spin before reeling it in, I wasn't really able to get my heart feeling peaceful again until the very end of class. The next step is for me to see that coming, and allow it to pass, rather than turning down the dark alley.