Sunday, December 19, 2010

Les is More

I've been absent, stressed, overwhelmed and sick. At such times, the yoga mat should be a magnet, a dumping ground -- one of those newfangled mats on which you place your cellphone and it magically recharges to reconnect you to the universe.

I don't know whether I didn't want to connect, or I was so depleted that I couldn't, but for months, now, I have avoided my practice, all the while knowing it was the one thing that would calm my roiling mind.

I lost any sense of my body, and soon began to be at odds with it. When I wasn't focused on a specific task like dishes or taxes, I was scolding myself for being fat, out of shape, flabby, lazy and a big, giant larva-like loser. It got so bad that there wasn't a second -- no matter what was going on - when I wasn't actively hating myself, the self-loathing playing like a bass line under the melody of the moment.

Not that I wasn't accomplishing things. In fact, I've been changing my life, transforming my work, doing a huge volunteer service to my coop and, oh yeah, Jeff and I got married on November 12, after 12 years together. I have three book proposals in various stages, sold an article to O Magazine, was published in the WGA's Written By, and made my own wedding dress by hand, every stitch, every bead. I have managed, after several tries, to make it through Zoloft withdrawal -- which is patently horrible, but I am finally free of SSRIs and hoping my metabolism appreciates the effort. If only we could pay the rent...

But hard times are no excuse. Yoga is available for free. I have four mats, two blocks, a belt, an Iyengar yoga chair, a host of dvds and a chorus of teachers' voices in my head. How did I get so steadfastly in my own way?

I've mentioned before that my favorite class of the week is Sherman Morris's Saturday morning power class at Yogaworks Westside. Every Saturday morning for the past few months, I've laid in bed mentally going over chaturanga, and concluded that my body could not possibly accomplish it in my current state of decay. The thought of holding myself up was exhausting and impossible. So I ignored my friends' urgings to get my butt to class, their worry, their offers to take me to lunch. How could I let anyone see me like this?

All along, though, my higher self knew that the only way out of this depressive stew was to buck up, show up, and breathe.

Yesterday, I did.

I was scared that I would collapse, quivering, on the sweaty floor like a deboned tilapia in a grand mal seizure. That, while adjusting me, Sherman would be unable to restrain an "Ew" as my free-roaming fat rolls rearranged themselves. That I would cry... or die.

I gave myself permission to put my knees down in chaturanga, and to take basic variations if necessary. I hid behind my friend Taylor, rather than claiming my preferred place beside her at the front of the class. Butterflies squaredanced in my stomach.

But when Sherman walked into the room, I instantly felt like I was in the right place for the first time in more than three months (even if my mat wouldn't lie flat for being rolled up so long). From the very first plank pose, I couldn't stop grinning. And when he instructed us to chaturanga, it happened. I took the pose without thought, and it felt amazing. I hadn't lost everything.

I began to sweat out the credit card companies who call me five times a day as if that will fatten my bank account, my anger at a bullying colleague, my concern for my extended family, the dream job I'm waiting to hear about, and my recitative of self-loathing. With every breath, I felt my heart open a little more, and my worries lose their power. Overweight or not, I was still strong, flexible, resilient and surprised.

Inversions were a different story. I couldn't remember how to get my hips over my shoulders. I couldn't process the physics. I was afraid. At first I couldn't decide which inversion I was going to try -- which makes going upside down very dicey. But I pulled out one forearm stand with Sherman's help, and as soon as I got into it -- I found and rearranged my hips, shoulders, upper back, core and head -- and all the reasons I love the practice came flooding back. And nobody said, "Ew." Myself included.

The mat was there for me. And so was my teacher. They had been there all along.

I won't lose my way again.

Friday, August 20, 2010

I, the Disclaimer

I am a disclaimer. I've suspected as much for a while as I noticed myself leading with an excuse at the beginning of any social interaction. This would be especially true for my yoga teacher, Sherman.

"I sprained my ankle." (True, but still...)
"I ate dairy last night." (So what?)
"Work stress." (Who doesn't?)

Who cares?

I would like to feel enough as I am. In yoga, this should be a given. I mean, it is not a competitive sport. I was reminded of that recently when I missed Sherman's class and used the opportunity to practice with Yogi Charu at Pure.

Yogi Charu is completely different in style from Sherman, but awesome in his own right. He leads with the caveat to seek union with your own body -- not someone elses's -- meaning, in this case, not to judge your practice by that of the person next to you or across the studio. I normally don't do that; I stand near the front, so I can't see anyone else, for exactly that reason. After his disclaimer, Charu proceeds with a serious pranayama practice. Then sun and moon salutations and so forth. The class is unique and challenging, and the perfect Sunday morning follow-up to Saturday's Power Yoga.

One warning Pure yogis: If there's a tiny but verbose seventy-ish lady in a purple belly shirt next to you and you are asked to pair up for headstand -- do not make eye contact. That is, unless you think you might enjoy going up into headstand and having her drag your right leg straight out sideways so she can reach your ankle. Then, when you are coming down, she may not let go of said ankle, even when you yell up at her from the floor to do so, and you may wind up coming down on your knee. I'm just sayin'.

Back to I, the Disclaimer. I'm friends with an amazing woman named Yasemin, of whose brilliance, spark and beauty I am in awe. The other night I met her in the backyard and led off with the announcement that I was braindead, preverbal and not firing on all cylinders. I think I actually used all three of those expressions before saying hi. I was feeling very punk, it being my second day off coffee after a longstanding ten cup a day habit. In fact, I considered having my left hand replaced with a cup holder, that's how serious was my addition. So I was hurting when I met up with Yasemin, but she pointed out that I never fail to give the "Leslie Disclaimer" and that I don't need to. She's right, and I was relieved someone finally noticed.

I often wonder if most people walk around feeling awesome all the time. In recent years, I've felt crappy in one way or another pretty constantly . Devastating migraines, a long-undiagnosed eye condition, sore feet (likely from my weight), achy back, allergies, mood swings... a myriad of issues I refuse to chalk up to age in order to give up and self-medicate through the second half of my life. I remember when I felt best -- back when my yoga practice was fierce. So how to get back to that fierce, non-disclaiming self?

The answer, as always, is simple. Go back to the mat.

No disclaiming. And I'm doing an elimination diet for the next three weeks to figure out what's causing all my disparate symptoms. Five days off coffee, I already feel much, much better. No gluten, no dairy, no nightshade vegetables. I'm hoping, now that my coffee withdrawal headache is gone, that the migraines stop. No migraines would mean no migraine medicine and no skipped practices because I'm holding my head on with my bare hands.

One thing is certain: the change in diet has me feeling more centered and far lighter in body as well as in spirit.

I feel like smiling. If giving up eggplant and Subway sandwiches is all I have to do to stay this way, it's worth it.

I'm feeling almost social again.

So, if you catch me disclaiming, be nice, but tell me I don't need to make an excuse for being. That's a habit I certainly don't need.

Friday, July 23, 2010


I can't do a headstand.

It's true. When I first began to practice yoga eleven years ago, every class wound down with headstand. I was getting close, and then, all of a sudden, headstand was out and everyone was ending class by teaching handstand against the wall. Don't get me started on that.

When I began practicing with Sherman a year ago June, and he taught pincha mayurasana in the center of the room, I decided inversions weren't going to stop me anymore. Like an inchworm I crept up on the pose. Until, a few days ago, Sherman instructed those of us still finding the pose to begin with headstand and then press up into forearm. I froze. He noticed and, from across the room, told me to try it the new way.

I was forced to confess the gaping sirsasana-shaped hole in my practice.

It doesn't make sense that I can't stand on my head at this point. So I decided to go at it with fresh eyes, and asked a friend, the inestimable Taylor Spearnak, for some help before class. For months I've watched her press carefully and deliberately into headstand after class, and I know she practices like a demon at home. A zen demon. She advised me to stay in my tuck for a while. I don't mean a few minutes. More like, a few weeks. I have trouble getting my legs off the ground into the tuck, and I sense that this is because my hips need to be an inch or so further over my shoulders.

I know where I'm going. I've had the feeling of perfect balance, where my feet seem to float off the ground on their own. And I love that feeling of balancing in the full pose -- which is in no way static -- more like a stalk of wheat swaying with the revolution of the earth.

I know where I'm headed. I know the steps necessary to get there. Putting it together has me stuck.

So, Taylor advises me to press down with my wrists and I realize it's not about my literal wrists, but rather the first three or four inches of my forearms. I press down as hard as I can with the "wrists." I remember a tip from Jerry Bianchini, who put a soda bottle a few feet behind my mat for me to focus on while upside down -- because I tend to forget where I am in space like a lost diver, who forgets to follow the bubbles toward the surface. And then Sherman tells me to stay forward on my head (Really?!! Revelation.), and not to grip my hands so tightly together. I tend to clutch my fingers behind my head as if my hands are my brakes, which, in this case, they aren't. The hands don't do much at all -- what a coincidence -- another opportunity to LET GO!

I got into my tuck, balancing, and awesome Taylor screamed like Coach Taylor on Friday Night Lights -- "Suck in your gut! Suck it in! Suck it in!" And I do. The fact that I could find my gut while upside down was a breakthrough. I compacted myself, and remained conscious, all the while balancing on my head. Awesome.

It makes perfect sense that I am challenged by forearm stand. I skipped from A to D. Now I have to go back and fill in B&C. Humbled once again, I meet myself on the mat, the sum of all my teachers. (Whether or not they choose to claim me.)


On another note: I feel like crap. I'm on my third day of a migraine -- it feels as if my brain is sloshing around my skull like the bubble in a carpenter's level.

In addition to the headache, the spots in my vision, and the nausea, I'm battling a heavy case of stinkin' thinkin'. Do any of you walk around the streets -- or drive them -- arguing with people in your head, defending yourself to them, stressing yourself out via your own imagination? If these arguments do come up IN REALITY, it's not like solo practice is going to make any difference. This self-inflicted angst is not doing the pain in my head any good.

I know how to heal myself. Yoga, obviously. I tried today, but left after 55 minutes because the floor was pitching like the deck of a Bering Sea crab boat. I'm already known at Yoga Sutra as The Girl With the Vuvuzuela Fart. I'd hate to be The Girl With the Coconut Water Puke All Over Her Mat. I have enough problems.

But I think my weight is out of control, and the extra 60 pounds hanging off my frame is pulling everything out of whack. Including my spirit. I wish I could just let it be -- I'm proud of myself in most areas of my life these days. But my body? Despite its strength and flexibility, I am ashamed. I never look in a mirror anymore. Sometimes I don't go out because I'm embarrassed about the way I look. It was one thing when I had the stress and demands of writing As the World Turns keeping me in my chair around the clock. That is gone. I'm all out of excuses.

I need to return to the original Yogini Bikini mission. I have 5 months left. And the bikini's still hanging on the closet door.

I have a vision of myself speeding along Manhattan streets on my pretty pink bicycle, sundress blowing out behind me, feeling pretty and free. The dress doesn't fit right now. Most of them don't. And buying new clothes won't help. Anything looks good on a body in balance. And conversely....

I have so much gorgeous fabric waiting just across the room to be made into sundresses for biking, dancing, brunching.

I guess I'm asking for help. I'm not sure what kind of help I need, but I'm hoping you, my friends and readers, have some words of wisdom for me. All comments welcome.

As I start over... again... I thank you for being part of my yoga adventure. Namaste.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Missing Link

I overslept (again) on Friday morning. Set my alarm for Sherman's class every day last week, and missed every single one. Not all of them due to oversleeping. I'm working on a bunch of projects and sometimes I want to sit and work first thing rather than fight the sidewalks of New York. I practiced in the afternoons instead, and it was nice, for a change of pace.

For months now, I've been toying with the idea of returning to my ashtanga practice. Not replacing Sherman's power yoga class, but supplementing. When I looked at the Pure schedule for Friday afternoon, in search of a class, there it was: 90 minute Led Ashtanga at 5 pm.

I used to practice Mysore-style ashtanga -- a self-practice in a group setting. It's hard and extremely personal. Ideally, you can't fudge anything, because you are alone with your practice, working your way through the series, asana by asana, counting your breaths. I find it deeply centering in the way I find lap swimming centering. As I swim laps, I inevitably find myself counting with each stroke: one, one, one, one. Then two on the second length, and so on. It quiets the noise in my brain. Ashtanga does this, too, as I count one through five breaths in every asana.

My teacher, Christopher Hildebrandt, left Yoga Sutra soon after I farted like a vuvuzuela when he gave me a superhero assist in Marichyasana B. In order to fully grasp the experience as I lived it, you should know that the room was dead silent but for the sound of ujjayi breathing. I crumpled and capitulated: "Oh my God."

"That's what it's for!" Christopher crowed, as if announcing a winning goal.

Never, ever, ever eat sauerkraut at midnight before a 7 a.m. yoga practice.

Needless to say, I have post-traumatic gas issues with finding a new studio for my practice. With the added worry of not remembering the sequence (as if no one else in the room will be doing the same asanas in the same order) -- I hadn't gotten around to trying ashtanga at Pure.

I made it there Friday at five, and the moment the teacher began counting in Sanskrit, it was as if I could here the voices of all my previous teachers calling out "chatwari," and, as if by muscle memory alone, I was in chaturanga, just as I had been thousands of times before. My body and my breath remembered everything. I had missed this practice.

After the practice, in savasana, I felt like my body was more compact -- hugging the midline -- burning away the things I didn't need. I'm sure the extravagant number of twists in the primary series creates this phenomenon. After power yoga, I feel awesome, but because, with Sherman, we do a lot of backbends and arm balances, I feel spent in a different, looser way.

Yesterday, Saturday, I went to Sherman's 11:15 class at Yogaworks -- and I felt strong, still and centered, like I hadn't for a long time, despite the classroom being overcrowded and steamy -- too crowded to work on my forearm stands with confidence, for lack of falling room.

This morning, my quadriceps woke up before I did, then demanded to be heard. Ouch. But it was good to feel them still there, still strong. Between Sherman and ashtanga, I feel balanced -- and stiff -- but as if I've found the missing link in my practice.

Life evolves. Practice evolves. Thank goodness.

I've been feeling a bit lost without my weekly script deadlines to mark the passage of my days, so this week, I've got 7 yoga practices in the book. I'm going to let the daily mat milestone pull me through, and remind me which way is forward, when I get turned around.

But right now, it's time for some more Advil. Lots of Advil.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Same Words, Different Voice

The plan was to get up at 5:30, drink my coffee, pack my goggles and meet Quilty in the hallway at 6:45 to bike to Central Park's Lasker Pool to swim laps outdoors for the first time in decades. I woke up with excuses and fear on the pillow beside me. I haven't been on my bike since my last bout of unemployment, two summers ago. I had been so excited about going. I'd googled every available byte of info about adult lap swimming in NYC parks. Despite all that, I wimped out via text. I went back to sleep and slept through Sherman's class, too. I woke up feeling like a failure.

When I regained consciousness, I decided to reverse the plan and go to afternoon yoga at Pure, then head to lap swimming at 7 pm.

That's how I ended up in Matt Giordano's 4:30 pm hot power class. I've been practicing fairly exclusively with Sherman Morris at Pure and Yogaworks for 13 months now. But sometimes hearing the same words in a different voice wakes you up to an aspect of the practice that may have gone unconscious.

I didn't go to Matt's class blindly. He assisted at Marco Rojas's Inversion Workshop a few months ago, and coaxed me into doing a somersault when I was frozen in panic. I liked him, and I remember his assists being just right. Not wimpy. Not afraid to break the big girl.

Hot yoga, on the other hand, is one of my least favorite things. But this was not a Bikram class. And it was only scheduled for 60 minutes. I can endure anything for an hour, especially if I station myself near the door, where the oxygen accumulates.

Surprise. The class was perfect. Steady and measured. Simple but deep. Basic poses with optional advanced variations, all of which I took, because -- instead of causing me to circle the drain of consciousness the way it usually does -- the heat made me feel juicy. My chaturangas felt especially strong and controlled. Sometimes in Sherman's class I psych myself out, because I know how many dozens of chaturangas and bona fide push ups lie ahead. Rather than take them one at a time, I hold back early -- in a very subtle way -- rather than letting myself be tired down the road, when it happens, and trying to move the point of exhaustion later and later in the class. Perhaps the difference yesterday was that I had no idea where Matt's class was going, so I couldn't ration my energy for what I knew was coming. That helped me stay in that moment on the mat, as Matt asked us to do in our opening meditation. I was forced to take the ride down an unknown road.

What a mirror for my life these days.

I had a strange experience in Vasisthasana (Side Plank). I've been working on advanced variations in this pose. On the left side, I can bind my right toe and lift my leg up fairly high. Once I get there, I've been playing with keeping my balance, keeping my butt tucked underneath but not too far, so as not to fall backward into an inadvertent Rock Star/Wild Thing. As a Sherman veteran, I know that's where he's going after Vasi, so I frequently weasel out of going back into Vasi and stay in Wild Thing, waiting for the rest of the class to catch up. Or take a time out for water. Truth is: I'm faking it. Thinking ahead. Cheating.

But isn't Wild Thing the best name for a pose you ever heard?

Doing Vasisthasana on the right, I'm glued to the earth. I can get my right leg into tree pose and stick it there, but the minute I try to bind my big toe I come crashing to the ground.

Yesterday in Matt's class we moved into Vasisthasana unexpectedly... Both feet together. Classic. Basic. And I couldn't do it! My mind was all over the place trying to find the basic form of the asana. I'd forgotten the building blocks. (Like my feet...)

I was stressed. Magically, Matt -- who was nowhere near me in the studio -- talked about meeting stress on the mat -- not avoiding it -- and then conquering it with the breath. Great practice for the rest of life. Yoga can be stressful. We evolve by moving through that stress to see what's on the other side. And that is an amalgam of the Matt Giordano/Sherman Morris philosophies, as interpreted by me.

Toward the end of class, I had a significant breakthrough. Handstand is my nemesis. Sherman has begun to include two sets of handstand prep into class -- he asks for 5 kick-ups -- middle of the room -- and I do my best to oblige, although I'll admit I usually manage only 3 or 4. My kick ups are so earthbound I must look like a tortoise in the high jump. My inner monologue: I can't do it. I'll never do it. Handstand is impossible.

Just as I began to mentally check out, Matt took Child's Pose and said: "Those of you who do this when handstand comes up -- this is what I want you to do." He raised a leg in standing split and lifted it from there, the bottom leg leaving the ground for a moment as all the weight rocked onto his arms. "Ugh," I thought. Then I tried it. Suddenly, I suspended! Not for long, but it was better than never. And I had a sense that, eventually, I might be able to stand on my hands. It was an awesome moment.

So awesome that, after class, when I made it to the pool in Central Park only to learn lap swimming was canceled, I didn't much care, because the smell from the wildflower meadow I'd just passed was so intoxicating.

It's good to know that, just because I've overslept and missed Sherman's class, there's still yoga to be had. And always something new to be learned.

The Hindi word "Samskara" means impressions. Impressions made on you by the actions and reactions of your past. These impressions form pathways. Habits. Default settings. Sometimes it's important to step off the path to find it again.

Tomorrow morning, when Sherman asks us to kick up five times, I plan to start from standing split and practice hanging in the air for one suspended second. I can't wait. And that is something brand new.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Superfreaks Only

Saturday morning, Independence Weekend. My heart is heavy. It feels physically heavy in my chest, weighing me down. Most likely this can be attributed to an acute case of PMS, exacerbated by the vacuum in the middle of my life where As the World Turns used to be. I feel like there is a rogue wave of tears waiting just behind my eyes -- needing to come out. Tears of release. I know from experience that the only way to climb out of this funk is to hit the mat the way I've planned and surrender to the practice.

Sherman's 11:15 a.m. Saturday class at Yogaworks is my favorite of the week. It is, in fact, the only reason I still go to Yogaworks, and well worth it.

I'm very happy that I've created the kind of life where there's no room for stasis. It's not easy at times like this, but what an opportunity I have now.... again.... to reinvent my world, rather than living in a mold I cast for myself, without knowing it, at the age of 21. I'm so much braver now. I speak up for myself. I trust my choices. I love my friends. I've got no time for bullshit. And I have so much left to say.

So why have I been sitting at my desk in a tshirt and a pair of boxers, watching Seasons 1-4 of the BBC's Waking the Dead nonstop for three days? Hey, nobody's perfect. And it's an excellent show. It's British.

The sad truth is -- Season 5 is not yet out on dvd. So I guess that means I'd better get back to work. I'm excited about the future. I think the reason I've been sitting here staring into space since landing back at JFK on Monday afternoon is that I'm a bit afraid of what may happen next. The good stuff.

I have a framed copy of Marianne Williamson's famous quote on my wall. We've all heard it. I pass it a million times a day and, rather than think about it, nod a "yeah, yeah, I know" nod. But it's a classic for a reason. And I need it now.

"Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, handsome, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some; it is in everyone. And, as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

I'm trying to live up to this today. And the only way I know to do it is to go back to basics. Yoga practice. Writing practice. Breathing practice. Love. But first, I'm going to turn up the music and dance.

In honor of my ten year old doppelganger, Olive in Little Miss Sunshine... I bring you my theme song:

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Yoga Sells (Out)

7:30 a.m., Monday, June 21

I began last week at Mind Over Madness, the Times Square Alliance's annual Summer Solstice Yoga event. That's Douglass Stewart in the Yellow t-shirt, leading the class, and there I am, third yogi from the left, wearing all black. My warrior two should have have been deeper, but hey, it's Times Square. Apologies to the photographer. I nabbed this from the official website, and am looking for a name to credit. Please don't sue me. It would be a waste of effort, and you don't want to see me ugly cry. Namaste.

The event was awesome. The sun was bright. The sky cloudless. The Times Square neon was brighter than the day itself, and that is just as it should be. Douglass -- a new teacher for me -- was extraordinary. He built the class around the fact that, on the solstice, the sun is at its zenith, and asked us to open our hearts as we moved from asana to asana. Standing there in the vast open space of Times Square -- loved by me since my first visit with Mom at the age of seven -- there was nothing between me and the light, and the more I opened my heart in each asana, the more my surroundings melded into a kaleidoscope of brilliance (and commerce) but mostly energy. I felt the yoga.

Kudos to the organizers. The event was flawlessly handled. Sound and crowd control, security, ticketing, distribution of swag -- brilliant. There wasn't a false note, and because of that, we were all able to breathe deep and feel secure at the crossroads of the world. The class wasn't easy. Even better. And the corporate sponsors were mostly yoga studios and yoga companies. Douglass read a brief sponsorship blurb -- mercifully brief -- and we moved on to our practice. That was the reason we were all there, after all.

Then there was Flavorpill's branded-within-an-inch-of-its-life Yoga on the Great Lawn.

5:30 pm, Tuesday, June 22

Epic fail.

I was so looking forward to being one of 10,000 yogis and yoginis to practice together on the Great Lawn.

The event was HEAVILY promoted. Shoved down my e-gullet, it would be fair to say. I registered the first day for a "chance" to "win" a ticket to this record-breaking event. I don't give a damn about record books, and I doubt many yogis do, but Flavorpill was all worked up by the Guinness Book-ness of it all. When, a few days before the event, I heard that I'd "won" a place, I was invited to bring three friends. Translation: we don't have enough people.

The day of, under threatening skies and the pull of inertia, I received a 5 pm update. I paraphrase: "Come to the park, yogis! Those clouds above are a mirage. It's the revenge of the pilates people. It's not going to rain. We have a drummed up weather report that says so! And by the way: DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES BRING YOUR OWN MAT!"


There was no way I was going. Rainclouds, my impending trip to Vegas, and irritation about something unrelated had me horizontal. Then my friend Quilty came downstairs and began pushing all my buttons. He knows yoga always makes me feel better. And he used the magic words: gift and bag. So off we went to Central Park West and Yoga on the Great Lawn. I assume.

We never saw the great lawn, actually. We were on line at the 81st Street entrance by six o'clock. Except the end of the line was already at 83d. By 7 pm, when the class was supposed to begin, we were still JUST INSIDE THE PARK ENTRANCE! Nowhere near the event. The unsupervised but polite, fit, and heavily-tattooed queue snaked along pathways as far as the eye could see. We barely moved. There were no helpful Flavorpillies with walkie-talkies to give us updates.

The only way we could tell how far we were from the Great Lawn was by mentally triangulating our position with the Jetblue helicopter hovering midway over the park. How do I know it was a Jetblue chopper? From all the impatient yogis streaming out of the park with their free Jetblue promotional yoga mats. There is nothing more centering than practicing yoga on a mat that reminds you of narrow airplane seats, interminable airless runway delays and the use of alien toiletries because your brand doesn't come in a 3.5 ounce container.

While we waited, I assume the sea of "complimentary" Jetblue mats was arranged on the Great Lawn for the benefit of the photographer in the chopper high above, shooting an ad, teeming with extras bought for the price of a piece of molded rubber. I was getting cranky.

It began to drizzle, then rain fat, sloppy drops. Still no Great Lawn. Not even close. And then, out of nowhere, a Flavorpillie appeared, waving her arms as if calling off an airstrike. "No more mats! Go home! The Parks Department called it."

"No more mats?" This was me.

"No more. Go home." A woman ahead of me emitted a "What?" of disappointment. The Flavorpillie hugged her.

"We don't need a hug. We want our mats!" Quilty. Pithy as ever. The chick shrugged and evaporated. The crowd began to disperse, heading toward CPW, since, apparently, the middle of the park was "too dangerous." Quilty and I looked at each other. There was no need for words. We headed for the Great Lawn.

Allow me to digress for a moment. We had freakin' reservations! We jumped through hoops to get our bar codes. We were way early. How can it be we never even got to see the venue? I can only assume from what I saw next that there were two or three chokepoint entrances to the Lawn. In keeping with the Jetblue theme -- one was cavity searched for foreign mats -- i.e., mats sans corporate logos -- then handed the swag and ushered through. The bottleneck was for the sponsor not the yogi. I call bullshit.

When Quilty and I reached the entrance, there were still thousands of mats. Box upon unopened box of them. One dude was handing them over a snow fence into a spray of outstretched hands. We moved to a calmer person standing beside a head high stack of boxes.

"May we have our mats?"

"No more."

"What about those?"

"They're for charity." (And by charity, they mean the encore event in September. We grabbed mats from the righteous dude a few paces back, then forged ahead for the Flavorpill-stamped gift bags. We'd earned them after 2 1/2 hours on line. We'd been duped, and we wanted our pound of yoga coupons. But they, too, were for "charity." And the cute cardboard boxes filled with chocolate muffins from new carbon-free restaurant Otarian? Dear Otarian -- you should know the Flavorpillies left your swag out in the rain to be destroyed. We grabbed a few, though, and they were delish.

But the worst were the people manning the barricades. I confronted one of them with "We waited on line for 2 1/2 hours! We deserve at least a mat!" -- by the way, I said this as attendees were passing by with -- literally -- four or five mats per person. The alleged yogini 's reply was an insipid smile and "Have a nice day!" I went into a fugue state at that moment, but the bit of my reply I can remember consisted of "Bite me!"

When Quilty and I finally stumbled out of the park clutching our cheap mats, I stepped off the curb into a whirlpool, a vortex of surprising suck. My treasured peacock-patterned Haviana flipflop floated off my foot and under a moving car. I dove after it, narrowly avoiding death, as my other flip flop floated away, to be rescued by a similarly soggy stranger.

We found subway seats across from an obvious tourist in polo shirt and khaki shorts, holding ten mats. I'm sure he was taking them home to the orphanage he runs in Cabrini Green.

Wet and irate, Quilty and I emerged from the subway looking like Flavorpill's Most Wanted. At the turnstile, a slim, black clad woman spots our mats and asks us how "it" was. We launch into a duet -- ranting against the corporatization of Central Park, the Selling of Yoga, the disorganization and disinterest of Flavorpill... When we calmed down, she asked us for a swipe of our Metrocards. She was crazy. We just thought she was vegan.

That was our yogic moment. We laughed hysterically all the way home.

The past week, I've read many self-congratulatory articles by Flavorpill and the other event sponsors. They are patting themselves on the back for breaking the yoga record. Paging Bikram Choudhury.

I'm going to say it right here. Yoga on the Great Lawn SUCKED. It was a lie, a sham, a debacle -- and the rain had nothing to do with it. There were more yogis left outside the Great Lawn than actually made it to the field. Hey, but as long as Jetblue got their shot....

But my week's not over yet, friends.

Saturday morning I flew (Jetblue, sigh) to Las Vegas for the Daytime Emmys. I was part of the team nominated for Best Writing for As the World Turns. Despite the comically unfair nominating procedures, I'm always proud to be there, because I'm proud of much of the work I do, even if nobody knows I do it, which is, more often than not, the case in the soap genre.

Soaps ARE the stories. Whether you like them or hate them doesn't matter. The viewer is reacting to the stories, and the stories are written by writers. The actors are playing characters conceived by writers. In fact, characters endure while the actors playing them often move in and out of the roles like relief pitchers in the world's longest baseball game. Roles make stars. Writers make roles. And when a wonderful actor inhabits a role, and adds his or her magic to the text -- it's alchemy. (Colleen Zenk Pinter, I am talking about you.) I admit, there are some dreadful soap writers out there. But without dedicated, skilled, passionate writers as well, the genre would have died out long ago.

Unfortunately, in most cases the daytime writer is treated like the mentally-challenged cousin who can't be taken anywhere because she likes to hump table legs while singing the National Anthem. Of Russia. The lobotomized Kennedy. Tennessee Williams' retarded sister. The pregnant thirteen year old altar girl.

So imagine my unbridled joy when I check in at the hotel, and the nice young man with the Emmy credentials points me toward the Gift Suite! Finally! My friend/fellow nominee and I are escorted by a youngster with a walkie-talkie toward the golden door. "I'm bringing in Cheryl and Leslie from As the World Turns," she broadcasts. I stand a little straighter.

We reach a table staffed by youngsters with lanyards and clipboards. There is an audible buzz coming from the swag room and -- even better -- people I do not recognize -- people who are definitely not soap stars -- are coming out of there with bags FULL of Lululemon Yoga Wear! My favorite! And being just unemployed, I can't afford to buy it anymore. The swaggees are laden with shopping bags of all shapes and sizes, but all I see are the Lulus. I feel appreciated.

Until I realize none of the doorkeepers will look at me.

"Where are you from?" they ask again, as if I have said, "The planet Gallifrey. My Tardis is parked outside." (Dr. Who reference.) They pretend to scan their lists, but their eyes glazed over back when I said "We're nominated writers." And then they said it.

"The gift suite is for talent."

Profound humiliation does not begin to describe the feeling -- the shrinking, spreading feeling of being a puddle of stinky, fly-covered diarrhea blocking an Upper East Side sidewalk on a sweltering New York City afternoon. I was Carrie at the Prom. I don't know what Cheryl was doing because it was all I could do to stand there, ears buzzing, cheeks burning, eyes welling with angry tears.

I didn't try to make the youngsters feel better at my expense the way I would have a few years ago. Instead, I made it worse.

"Are you saying, we're not talent?" Our perky escort began twirling her lanyard and babbling about being responsible for the Lion King company all week. How they were going to be in the show and -- can you believe it -- they would have to leave the Emmys and go do the Lion King right afterward! Isn't that awesome? No. The Lion King isn't on TV, much less on Daytime, but , being "presenters," I'm betting they got their Lululemon.

But hey, why advertise on a writer's ass? It's always in the chair. EXCEPT WHEN IT'S IN YOGA.

After barring the door, lanyard boy spoke slowly and clearly -- as if to a deaf-mute -- "I guess you can go in and look around, but you can't take anything." Thanks, but I'll head over to the waterboarding suite instead.

I've wondered if this anger makes me a brat, a whiner, a greedy, petulant bitch? But it's not the free stuff that's the issue. It's the inequity. It's the ignorance. It's the unabashed playground-level cruelty. It's the ghettoization of the writer - the very engine of the genre. I get it. Mine is not the ass that will be photographed -- or maybe it is, but you deem it unacceptable. There are days when I feel the same way. That's why I do YOGA.

Thank God, I do. On the mat, I've learned, like the lotus flower, to seed myself. And survive.

Being turned away from the gift suite was indescribably painful, burdened, as it was, with eleven years of soap opera baggage. Those who have encouraged me know who you are, and I love you for it. And the As the World Turns company was, more often than not, an exception to the rule. But this dis from a stranger in the name of yoga made me cry. Great, heaving, stomach-churning sobs.

And then I picked up my pen and got back to work. In my new favorite Zobha yoga pants.

I'm Back, and I've Got a Whole New Life

I have been absent. Not from my mat. I've made it to practice, which has given the last few months a through line. No matter what chaos was happening outside the studio, I hit my mat with varying degrees of sanity, but committed, even when balancing on the lunatic fringe.

My yoga practice is always there for me. As soon as I roll out my mat -- gently and silently, not with the "look at me" thwack and gust of the more aggressive Upper West Side yogi/nis -- I know where I am. More often than not, I surprise myself there. On a hairy morning with not enough coffee and insufficient wake-up time, I ache. My muscles grip for dear life. Nothing gives. Then all of a sudden I do something I've never before been able to do, and I'm reconnected to myself. The trick is getting to the studio. Or at least the floor.

I am now officially unemployed. As the World Turns taped its 13,859th and final episode eight days ago. I flew to Vegas to celebrate the Daytime Emmys -- sadly, we didn't win, but three of our actors took home golden statues. I spent 41 hours on the ground in Nevada, then jetted back home, to wake up Tuesday morning with nothing but possibility staring me in the face. I've been staring back ever since, waiting for one of us to blink.

The past few months have been about wrapping up eleven years of writing for daytime. I put more of my heart into it than I knew until this weekend. And now, all that energy has been freed up. I have no safety net. And no savings. Seriously. None. I'm scared witless.

Fear is not a bad thing. In fact, it's inevitable. Eleven years is a long time to fill any mold. On last night's "So You Think You Can Dance," Bruce Lee reminded me to "Be Water." I'm water spilling out of a broken glass. Where to? Back to the mat. Always we begin again.

So what now?

I signed up for my dear friend Stacy's July Project: 31 Days of Experiencing New Things ( I invite you all to join me. It's summer, after all. I'll start tonight with evening yoga practice -- I'm a morning practitioner, and if I feel up to it, I'll grab a coconut water and stroll over to Lincoln Center afterward to listen to Midsummer Night's Swing. I put MNS on my calendar every year, but somehow I never get there. Time to change that.

Who knows? There may be a tango class in my future. And I'm fascinated with the idea of AcroYoga -- talk about facing your fears -- but I'm afraid no one would partner me at this size... I want to swim laps in Central Park in the early mornings, and ride my back home. And I want to write so many things. There's nothing standing in my way except my brain. But isn't that true for all of us?

The cool thing is, I have no choice but to move forward. The past couldn't be more over. I couldn't take refuge there, even if I wanted. I don't. I'd rather look ahead, and take the wonderful people I've met in my eleven years in soaps along with me. You know who you are. And you know who you aren't. Only adventurers need apply.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Quiet Leg's the Key

A few days ago, I balanced in Koundinyasana. This is a relatively new asana for me -- and by "new" I mean I've only been working on it for a couple of months. At first, I assumed it would be impossible for a long time, but I stuck around after class one morning and watched Sherman give pointers to someone else. That's when I had a revelation. I was concentrating on the wrong leg -- the show offy leg. The one that sticks out to the side, balanced on the bent arm. But the secret is in the less showy arm -- the one that is tucked under the body, supporting the quiet hip so the back leg can lift off the floor. I realized I often do this -- concentrate on the wrong body part. Most of the time there's no way to know this except by playing around with balance. But I've begun to consider this idea when I am having trouble with a pose.

As readers of this blog may know by now, I've been going at pincha maryasana for 11 months with my teacher, Sherman Morris's help. Recently he began to teach the pose with bent legs, as mentioned in my previous post. Yesterday morning, I balanced for more than a few seconds, with Sherman there -- but there was a moment where he stepped away and I remained upright. Or rather, downright. Downright upside down!!!!! Of course, the class kept moving. No time to stop and pat myself on the back. We returned to the pose twice more, and I didn't manage to repeat. But I came home and visualized the asana over and over as I went about my day. I kept falling backward -- and assumed my problem was my kick up -- or rather "float up" -- that I wasn't putting enough power behind it. But then it occurred to me in an aha! moment: it's the back leg that's keeping me earthbound! As I was going upside down, the lever of my back leg was extended -- longer than the bent front leg -- so of course it would pull me back to the ground. A lightbulb went off in my brain. The trick is to bend the left leg into a right angle as I go up! Again, it's the less sexy limb that is actually the key to the asana.

So I rolled out my mat at Yogaworks this morning, determined to balance -- not once -- but three times. The bent leg trick worked. Sherman was there all three times -- no solo flight yet. But on my third trip....

He's been encouraging us to try scorpion after a couple pinchas. I have written off this feat as years down the road. I find scorpion to be the most beautiful of asanas. In fact, I have a photo ripped from Yoga Journal of a woman in scorpion pose taped to the inside of my medicine cabinet where I see it several times a day. I look at it as a sort of far-off-over-the-rainbow aspiration. But there I was in my brand new balanced split leg pincha -- and Sherman said "bring both knees back." I knew where this was going, and as about to freak out, but I trust him, and I was already upside down so... I brought my knees back. He told me to open my heart or chest or something and I was magically able to locate the appropriate body part -- I followed his instruction and all of a sudden I was in scorpion (siamese scorpion, since Sherman was holding me up). I don't know if I was there for five seconds or five hours, but talk about not resting on your laurels! Now I have a whole new project. One that, before today, felt impossible.

The finish line keeps moving.

And that is the practice. Of everything.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Learning to Fall, or Fat Girls Can Float

I've been absent. Not from the mat, just from the net. I've been overthinking like a champion. And my body has responded by rebelling against my will. So much has happened, that I don't know where to start.

I woke up to the fact that I was in trouble about ten days ago when I caught myself thinking clearly and distinctly: "I hate myself." I was horrified, but not surprised. It's not true. I don't hate myself. And at the same time, I do. And the craziest part of this is that when I work myself into this particular self-loathing corner, it is always, ALWAYS about my weight. My weight issues have robbed me of so much life. They are the ONLY thing that stop me. And I've sunk to a depth now where they sometimes stop me from even leaving the house.

I'm suffocating inside of a fat suit. Something has to change.

I had a medical scare last week that continued until this afternoon. My body seemed to seize up -- and not just in one way. I had four migraines in seven days. Some female issues. Not one but two rashes on my back. Defcon-2 allergies. And such a dearth of energy that I was too tired even to relax. Something was wrong, but it felt systemic. And I was terrified that I would be forced to stop practicing while I got fixed. Some days in class I felt physically weak. Sometimes I was mentally weak. And then there were the days when I felt needy as hell. Like I was in a tornado of terror -- stuck in the vortex -- not connecting with anyone else.

And still I felt myself move forward in some of my asanas. Which is what has kept me coming back.

This afternoon I had to go to the east side for an icky test -- and when I went into the dressing room where the gown was waiting, neatly folded, on the chair, the technician quickly said, "Wait a minute. Let me get you another gown." I wanted to get all faux-jovial and say, "You mean a fat girl's gown?" But I couldn't muster my old ally: self-deprecation. As the tech bustled around the corner I heard a male voice say something I couldn't make out, but which sounded like pity. My tech chuckled and replied, "It's not that bad." For a brief moment I hoped that I was mistaken and "it" was not me. But then the tech appeared around the corner with a maroon robe and closed the door behind me. When I unfolded the gown, it was big enough to wrap around myself twice. I wanted to wear it over my head in shame.

All my tests were fine. I'm apparently normal. Which means I'm fat because I did it to myself. According to my BMI, I'm obese. I realize I don't look it, but I weigh so much more than you would think. And yes, the number on the scale is supposed to be unimportant if you look okay -- which I no longer do. I am lugging this body around with me -- with extra weight equivalent to a dozen canned hams. My mind flies but my body nails me to the earth. And it is profoundly exhausting.

I love to move. It makes me unreasonably happy and always has. I would like to move freely, without having to use my hands to manually shift my belly fat so I can go deeper into a twist. I love clothes. I love making my own clothes -- I love being pretty. But I can do none of those things these days. I can't wear most of what I own. I have recently bought a few fantastic dresses -- because dresses are my outfit of choice -- and they don't yet fit. Anything looks good when your body looks good. Nothing looks right when it doesn't. And worse, nothing feels right.

When people look at me -- not everyone, but salesclerks, for example, and the star yoga teacher I saw in the locker room a few weeks ago before she taught a workshop at Yogaworks -- I can see what they're thinking. "Lazy, slothful, unaccomplished... the girl just doesn't try or she wouldn't look the way she does." None of that is true. The opposite, in fact. But I'm still hiding inside my own skin.

But I am so ready to strip it off. In fact, I have to do it, because my life is changing in a big way. Earlier this week, I completed a year-long graduate program. And on June 8th, I hand in my final script for the final week of As the World Turns. After 11 years of writing soaps -- with only about 3 months and the 100 day strike off in all that time -- it's done. My book is waiting for me. And my mind is beginning to sprout stories and ideas when I take time to listen. I have a vision for my life beginning June 9th. It's creative and exciting and expressive -- and in my vision I'm wearing sundresses and doing cartwheels.

The problem is, right now, I can't see through the fog from where I am to where I picture myself. But I can't stay here.

And so I am learning to fall. Since last June, I have been working on pincha mayurasana -- forearm stand. Oh my God, has it been slow. But my teacher hasn't given up on me. And I haven't given up on myself. Lately we've been working on the pose with split legs -- easier to balance -- as if one is walking a tightrope while holding a pole -- like Philippe Petit walking the wire between the Twin Towers. I need to find that balance point -- I keep skipping back and forth across it -- and I've begun to fall over -- with an earth-shaking thump that doesn't hurt a bit. In fact, it makes me want to giggle when it happens. At least, when I land on my ass, I know I haven't made an excuse for not trying. I haven't let fear or fat get the best of me. It's actually kind of an adventure. A necessary step in the pincha process. Now that I know I can overdo it without killing myself or others, it's time to back off and float into the asana.

And yes, fat girls can float. I intend to prove it. To myself.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Ebb in Flow


Sherman was teaching Power Yoga this morning, but over in the corner, I was in a cage match with my mind, emotional state, and left ankle.

It all started last Wednesday after practice. Riding the bus downtown, I was watching a large and aggressively strange woman act out by refusing to move to the back of the bus. I was so busy ragging on her in my mind that, when I squeezed by her to get out the door, I stepped down and landed on the side of my foot. If I hadn't been as loose as Gumby after class, it probably would have broken, but it was only a sprained ankle. Since then, upward dog is impossible, and I'm skittish about most things on my left side, but I'm still practicing.

I feel like a wimp, though. And coupled with that, I went to the doctor on Friday and weighed myself when I was alone in the room. I feel like I've lost 20 pounds, maybe more, based on my clothes. Haven't lost an ounce. I could have cried, but there was nobody to cry to, so I just sagged, and have stayed saggy ever since. I am slipping into the slough of despond.

Sherman has added some new elements to his class -- and I'm feeling challenged, but I'm also feeling like the needy red-headed stepchild. A disappointment where I was once an inspiration. Stuck.

I know from past experience that my practice ebbs and flows. Some days I can't do anything. Then the next day, for no apparent reason, I feel stronger than ever. I know the key is to show up and trust the practice. I know that I am not the number on the scale. I know that I am in the middle of huge changes in my life and work and diet -- none of which can be ignored. I'm even growing out my hair, and tapering down on my Zoloft. I'm trying new things in every area -- although I plan to keep my awesome boyfriend just as he is. The mountain must eventually move. Right?

So why did I feel like a disappointment in class today? Well, besides my lame cobra modification in up dog and some technical difficulties with my back foot in Warrior One -- Sherman has begun suggesting split forearm stand. I've been thinking about the mechanics -- and I get that it will be easier when I hit the full pose, but I'm paralyzed with fear at the prospect of getting into it. Today I was in regular pincha, and Sherman told me to bend my back leg -- but, being upside down, I couldn't figure out what that meant until it was too late. Disappointment. I felt like I let him down.

We've also been working on going from rock star pose into a full wheel -- and I'm sure I can do this, but I can't figure out how to turn my bottom shoulder so that I don't snap my arm off. I suspect I'm supposed to turn my bottom hand but when? Homework.

Then there's my post-traumatic bridge syndrome. We're beginning to go from shoulder stand into bridge then full wheel. I believe the trick is to work one's hands up the back close to the shoulder blades. I was working on this several years ago and seriously torqued my wrists and thumbs -- no lasting damage, just an unforgettable shooting pain, the memory of which haunts me. So I weasel out in this bit, squishing around on my mat... pretending. Disappointing.

Speaking of mechanics, we're also working on Eka Pada Koundiyanasana II. Needless to say, the below picture from is not me.

It's an insane arm balance, but I think I can manage it strengthwise. It's a matter of where I put my weight. Right now I can't lift my back leg off the floor. It feels as if it's encased in cement. Today after class I watched another student get instruction in the pose, and I realized that he works his front leg way up toward his elbow. That may make a difference with weight distribution. We'll see.

So where to go from here? Liposuction? Fat camp? The sideshow? Back up to 100 mg of Zoloft? Not yet. I'll stick it out a little bit longer, and get back on the mat.

After class, I finished Dani Shapiro's Devotion, while consoling myself with an Other Caesar Salad at Peacefood Cafe. She writes about yoga and faith. The book got me thinking about a statue my father bought many years ago. It is, I'm sure, very old. A Buddhist acolyte gazing at his unseen teacher in devotion. Where Buddha statues are covered with jewels and mirrors, the acolyte -- James, as I named him when I was a kid -- is simple and unadorned. Before I knew what meditation, yoga, Buddhism or pretty much anything else was, I would sit on the floor beside him and simply breathe. There is something sacred about James, the statue of the eternal student, that has always spoken to me. Maybe he's telling me to calm down and listen for the teaching. After all, James has been sitting in my mother's house for 35 years, and he's still listening.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Small Gestures

It's been too long since I've blogged. Chalk it up to overwhelm. I'm facing an enormous life change in the next few months -- my job is going away -- and in pondering and preparing for the next phase, I fried my brain. I'm proud to say that I've continued to practice, though, and that is the thread that is carrying me through. My yoga practice remains constant, while everything around me is moving so fast that at times I feel like I'm inside a snow globe.

Something cool happened: I entered a contest on Twitter and won a new Manduka mat in the sexy, limited edition color: Black Cherry. It is fab. It looks like the spawn of my two older mats: the majestic Black Manduka and the lightweight maroon Prana mat that has been with me for many years. It has that new mat smell. Getting the mat in the mail -- and a love handwritten note from Manduka -- felt like affirmation that I'm on the right path, and for that I am grateful.

Meanwhile, lately I seem to leave yoga looking as if I've gone five rounds with (super hot) UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre. First, I blackened my left eye. A week later, I did the same to my right. Then, last Wednesday, I was in pincha maryasana when all of a sudden blood began to drip off my face onto the mat. Ever lame, I had ripped open my lip with a quick swipe of a towel just before going upside down. After class, Sherman put me right.

One of my issues is that I never think I'm working hard enough. I didn't pick this up out of the blue. It was planted deep in my psyche early on. I'm working on it... still... always... But something Sherman said on Friday about there being no finish line where the practice is concerned made me realize that I've brought this particular neurosis with me to the mat. Surprise.

It's not that I muscle through the asanas, but, rather, I throw myself around a bit, and rather than inching up to the edge and peering over to see what's there, I dangle a limb or two over the abyss just to test the air currents. I do this because I suspect I'm a lazy wimp, that I'm too easy on myself. It's gotten worse recently, along with feelings of shame that my body's not changing fast enough, and a host of other "not enoughs" that are currently playing on an endless loop in my over-active cerebellum.

What Sherman was basically saying was slow down.

So this morning, I decided to dedicate my practice to "seeing what happens." I went to an unfamiliar spot in the room -- a corner where I could feel fairly private -- hooked my mind to Sherman's voice, and let myself be as if this were the first class I'd ever taken. I made myself forget what was coming next, and, for some reason -- exhaustion? -- it worked. I flowed in flow class. My shoulders were tired after three days in a row of hard practice, but at a certain point they released and the rest of whatever I was holding onto followed, like dominos.

In some asanas, I went back to basics, choosing not to try the advanced options because I knew I'd just end up sitting on my butt waiting for it to be over. In others, I tried to take a small step forward. I have tripod headstand in my sights -- mostly because it looks fun. And since I had the wall right there, I took a stab at sending my feet up to the sky. They would have gone, too, except that I actually took the pose correctly -- hips over shoulders -- and my feet lifted off the ground all by themselves. I held them there for a split second, then freaked out and did what I can only call the dance of the dying house fly.

Afterward, over hummus and babaganoush at Le Pain Quotidien across the street from Yogaworks, I read the following about tree pose in Dani Shapiro's new memoir: Devotion:

"Standing on one leg, the other foot pressed into my upper thigh, I reach my arms over my head and then - then, I bend. I lean to the side, and allow my head to be dead weight. I forget about the idea of balance. I forget that there is a self who is balancing. I have learned that this is the only way that balance is possible. The minute I start thinking about it -- Oh, look at me! Look how far I'm bending today -- I will fall."

Amen, Dani. In the micro, I mangled my tripod headstand because I noticed I was about to do it. But in the macro, today's entire practice was an exercise in balance. In fact, when the dread direction: "High Plank," rung out, and I knew it was time for push ups and crunches -- that class was winding down -- I had to turn and look at the clock. We had been practicing for 75 minutes, and it felt like 45 -- or rather, it felt outside of time, because I had let go of the goal and thought only about what I was doing right then.

Or maybe it was my new mat.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight

I got a black eye in yoga class. I kind of like it. Jeff says it's not bona fide, but I know I earned every busted capillary. I feel like a boxer. Maybe it's the hat. I know yoga is not meant to be a contact sport. Nobody hit me. I hit my eye on the floor. It was kind of like a tripod eyestand. The great news is that I balanced in flying pigeon for a few seconds. I was so thrilled that when I started to fall forward like a giant oak tree, I completely forgot that I could just put my knees down and stop myself. Oh dear, what will this do to my modeling career?

My beloved and talented upstairs neighbor, John Quilty, took the above photo. He rocks.

I'm glad I fell on my face. The ten seconds before that were real progress. And now I know I won't die in Flying Pigeon. If only I could master the somersault.

Friday, February 19, 2010

What I Learn From the Olympics

I have been watching the Olympics since Munich 1972. My father, a surgeon, used to come home from the hospital at night and pull a chair very close to the TV. He'd usually have a paper napkin and four Pecan Sandies on his knee. The volume would be low, the lights off. Sometimes I would wander in, barefoot and in my nightgown, and sit on the floor beside him. We'd watch together in silence. That is, until the Munich Games. We watched and cheered for Mark Spitz and Olga Korbut. And we listened to Jim McKay's reports as Black September took the Israeli wrestling team hostage and ultimately killed them.

Despite the tragedy, I have been a huge Olympic fan -- both Summer and Winter -- ever since. I will watch every event, no matter what the sport, because I get four years worth of inspiration from those 16 days of competition. Talk about practice. Olympic athletes practice thousands of hours for a moment four years in the future. They show up even when injured -- although I would be quite happy never to hear about the pain of Lindsay Vonn's shin bruise again -- her smoky eyeshadow and professional-looking mascara don't say agony to me -- then again, I don't think I could WALK that downhill course, much less hurtle down it wearing a white catsuit -- and smoky eyes are beyond me.

Then there's figure skating. Evan Lysacek is said to be the hardest working man on figure skates. Those in the know say he had a "very tight warm-up" last night. But when he took the ice for his long program, his muscle memory took over, and all those hours of practice paid off. That was mildly inspiring to me. But the guy who breaks my heart every time is Johnny Weir.

Maybe it's because I want us to wear pink pajamas and hang out together watching a Celebrity Rehab marathon. But I have friends with whom I can share tawdry television. Not one of them can do a triple axel. What I love about Johnny is his absolute commitment to being himself. Last night, before he took the ice, he was quoted as saying, "I'm an Olympian. I'm a very good athlete. I think people forget that sometimes because of my personality." (I've had more than a few of those moments myself.) Then he skated a clean program (except for that bizarre stall mid-spin). He told a story on the ice, and made me forget about points and jumps and quads. He's had his share of public humiliation -- including being left off the national team after a disastrous skate at the U.S. Championships. He fought his way back by showing up to the ice, and doing what he had to do.

What does this have to do with my yoga practice? I wrote a scathing anti-competitive yoga post earlier in the week, after all. Ultimately, the figure skating coverage reminded me that nobody feels great all the time. I'd venture to say elite athletes rarely, if ever, feel 100%. Strong spirits show up anyway.

This morning as my taxi pulled up outside Pure -- six minutes before class -- I could feel the ghost of a migraine making its presence known. I was suddenly dizzy and queasy and tempted to turn around and go home. But I love Sherman's class. It's one of my favorite things in life at the moment. Unfortunately, the only available (okay, acceptable) spot was front and center. You know it's going to be a long ninety minutes when your very first high plank makes you moan out loud. Every time I stood up my head felt like a drunken gyroscope. I took an embarrassing number of water breaks. Even so, when the option came for tripod headstand -- I prepared to take my inverted dissectible frog position and my legs floated off the ground, seemingly on their own. So even on a crappy day, a small step forward. It's time to start sending my feet to the ceiling. I've been watching others take the pose, and suspect I may have an easier time lifting my feet from a wide second position to meet in the middle, rather than sending them straight up through the midline. I know that once I can persuade my knees to move, I'll get it. At the moment, I'm stuck like a gnat in an amber necklace. I think, when I finally manage to fully express the pose, I will explode with joy. I should probably do it at Pure, where they clean the mats between classes.

Friday, February 12, 2010


If I were to tell you this was the weekend of the Seventh Annual Yoga Asana Championship, who would you guess was behind it? Bikram Choudhury, of course. Oh, where do I begin?

I just wasted too much of my Friday watching a live feed from L.A., where the competition is underway. Even on the grainy video feed, you can tell it's Bikram, by the skanky grey floor covering on the stage. When I think of Bikram the yoga, I think of synthetic, staph-infected carpet.

If you're a Bikram addict, stop reading.

In brief, the Yoga Championship is a tournament. One competes in state contests, then regionals, nationals, and finally, internationals. A poser has three minutes to complete seven asanas. Five are compulsory. Two are yogi's choice. It's really boring. I mean, maybe if somebody fell down or farted, but, just like a Bikram yoga class, it was stultifyingly predictable, right down to the men's Speedos and jangling bits.

There are points, judges, rules, trophies, a federation, and cheesy music, just like figure skating. What there isn't is body fat.

The Choudhurys want yoga to become an Olympic sport. Dudes, it's not an athletic endeavor! There's enough catty competition in yoga classes as it is, with all the designer yogawear and the fight for a good spot in the room. Enough, already! Go tend to your empire and leave us yogis alone.

How does one score asana anyway? With an x-ray machine? My perfection is not yours. And what is my best effort today may be impossible for me tomorrow. Yoga is personal. And frankly, what is easy for you, Mr. Stretchy-Stretch Finger-Balancing Flyweight, may be an Olympian effort for me. Personally, I can't stand mirrors in the studio, much less judges.

One Bikram acolyte justifies a yoga asana competition by comparing it to skiing. The bullshit was not easy to interpret. Some super-spinny nonsense likening shushing down the slopes for fun to yoga class, as opposed to ski racers, who are like yoga competitors? It made no sense for so many reasons, not the least of which is that there is no "timing" in yoga (although competitors can earn points for good timing in the contest. Whatever.) Oh, and... it's difficult to die in an asana, even though I tend to forget that whenever I attempt an inversion. But I digress.

I loathe Bikram yoga. I've tried to like it. I've taken a dozen or so classes. I've lasted all the way through every one. But five minutes in I inevitably wonder what the hell I am doing there, and it's not just the heat. It's the bitches who beg for more heat. When I practice, I create my own heat, and I sweat like a waterfall. It's gross, but I always know when I'm working. In a Bikram class, I just know that I showed up and paid.

Another thing I can't abide is the stupid script! The verbal cues are standardized. But my practice isn't. And it's not just the idea of the script that I despise. The script itself is frickin' dangerous! In what circumstance would a drill sergeant-like bark of "Lock Your Knees" be appropriate? None. Nowhere. Nada. Never in life do you lock your knees. Not if you want to avoid surgery. I happen to be a hyper-extender. If I lock out my knee, my leg is no longer straight. Knees are not built to lock. (Perhaps Choudhury gets kickbacks from the orthopedic community.) "Lock your knee" is a horrible instruction. No wonder you have to sign a waiver at the front desk.

There is little talk of breath in a Bikram class after the first exercises. Maybe that's because there is a dearth of oxygen and a plethora of unearned b.o.

It seems to me that this particular twenty-six asana series, plus the heat and script, encourages mental tune-out, especially in a word junkie like me. The only thing that gets my attention under such circumstances is a stumble, an errant phrase, or a dollop of real yoga wisdom tossed in to spice things up. Otherwise, the script becomes white noise and the asanas rote.

I am anything but opposed to a set series. In fact, astanga is my practice of choice. But within each asana in the astanga series, there are infinite permutations, countless discoveries, unending challenges. There's always more breath, more grounding, more bandha. I don't know that a bikrami would know a bandha if it smacked them in the kisser. And one just might with all that overstretching.

I find Bikram's particular asanas relatively unchallenging. It's clearly about surviving the class and losing the body fat. I've heard it described as "yoga for the type A personality." Sigh.

Don't let me forget to mention the umpteen instances of throwing oneself into savasana as if one is a hooked fish flopping around on deck, ready for gutting.

Yet I always leave a bikram class feeling good. Righteous indignation is so satisfying.

Occasionally, when feeling fat, I am tempted to sign up for the Bikram 30 day challenge, 30 classes in thirty days. It would be an act of defiance. See, Bik! I can do it. But to achieve that sweet moment of high Nellie Oleson would require going to a Bikram studio. Nevermore.

In my opinion, Bikram is the fast food of yoga. It fills you up but is in no way nutritionally sound.

Finally, let me mention a few of the teachers I've practiced with. The first one wore a concert mike into which she hollered the English names of various asanas, and not all of them correctly. She stayed on her little stage platform for the full ninety minutes. I suspect she was wary of contracting athlete's foot fungus. Next there was G, a tiny gray-haired woman with a manner so cloying it's like snorting saccharine. She was highly recommended to me by others at the studio, but when I took my place in the room (away from the heater, near the door), I realized this was the same woman who put me off yoga for five years after I wandered into her class at Manhattan Plaza Health Club back in the Nineties. I soon remembered why. This woman not only strayed off script, she would not shut up! Attention: Bikram Choudhury! She's improvising! Before we began, she found out I had ten years of yoga practice, but only ten Bikram classes under my belt, with a condescending look, she encouraged me to try my best to remain in the room, that would be a victory in itself. For whom? A polar bear? Once we got to the asanas and she realized I knew what I was doing -- she aggressively ignored me. As if I'd offended her. Perhaps I had. The woman worships Bikram, the man. She waxed on and on about his genius, and then pulled out a copy of Iyengar's Light on Yoga. She read a quote from the book -- a famous quotation, although I am blocking it at the moment -- and then she marveled that she had heard Bikram spout this same philosophy a few years before. "Even Iyengar is quoting Bikram!" she gushed. I couldn't help but laugh. Dear G: Light on Yoga was first published in English in 1965.

There was, however, a bright spot: a funky older African-American teacher who filled in one afternoon -- and I was nuts about her. A newly minted instructor, she'd had a life before yoga. She was on a journey, and because she was present and real, she took me on one, as well. (To the Gobi Desert.) Here's her secret: she didn't bother with the script.

Several friends of mine swear by Bikram. I wish I could get them to another studio to try something else. Anything else. Yoga class is not the stage. One cannot properly be in the moment when spouting a script. Besides, there is so much more to yoga than booty shorts. And you can always have both.

But then again, maybe I could be the Dara Torres of Suryanamaskar B! Me in my yoga swimsuit and my contact dermatitis. My chaturanga is better than your chaturanga. And utkatasana? Nailed it. It would give "victorious breath" a whole new meaning.

I'd sooner do the ski jump. Eddie the Eagle's got nothing on me.

(PLEASE DO NOT SUE ME, BIKRAM CHOUDHURY. There's nothing to take.)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Edge Moved, and Then Moved Back Again

I've been absent from the blogosphere, but not the mat. I'm taking a few graduate classes in nonfiction writing, and school started last week. I went into my head and didn't come out. I had an assignment due for the first class, and, despite a solid idea, I could not get myself to sit down and begin. I was afraid. Of what? Beats me. Once I finally sat down it didn't take long to write, and I was proud of it. I have the same experience in my yoga practice. I create a major mindf**k for myself about certain poses (handstand). Like a big blinking neon "I Can't" sign in my frontal lobe. But I can. And when I finally do -- whether it's writing a new essay or attempting a new asana -- I feel spectacular.

The "I Can't" chatter in my head did not appear out of thin air. It was carefully planted and nurtured by various and sundry vampires I have known. I respectfully borrow that term from the Broadway musical [title of show]. There's an anthem in the show called "Die Vampire Die!" which was actually brought to my attention in a Weight Watchers meeting. In a nutshell, it's about all those people who, for one reason or another, want you to play things their way or not at all. Sigh. The most poignant lyric goes like this:

"Why is it that if some dude walked up to me on the subway platform and said these things, I'd think he was a mentally ill asshole, but if the vampire inside my head says it, it's the voice of reason."

If I believe that, I guess that makes me the mentally ill asshole... and also-ran. So too fat, too old, too lazy, too selfish, too uncommercial -- adios, vampiros. Why not me?

A self-pep talk doesn't always silence the vampires, but getting down on the mat works every time.

After struggling through my practice for a few weeks, feeling like a marionette with tangled strings, last Friday my practice leapt forward. On the way to Pure for Sherman's 9:30 class, I realized I felt shockingly good, both inside and out. I decided to pick something specific to work on and settled on strength. Sherman gives several options for most asanas, and I generally take the more advanced road, except in my vinyasa. He asks advanced students to take chaturanga, up dog, another chaturanga, then down dog. I had tried this second push up a time or two toward the end of class when I was sure I could survive to savasana, but didn't dare attempt it earlier. Last June, when I first began studying with Sherman at Yogaworks, I was still putting my knees down in many chaturangas, until he called me out, challenging me to go for it. Eight months later, I'm actually relieved when we get to the pose. I know. I can't believe it, either. It resets my body and my mind, erasing whatever triumph or debacle the previous few asanas turned out to be. Every once in a while, something lets go and dumps me on the mat like a bowlful of jelly, but that means I've been working. So on this particular Friday morning, I decided to attempt the second push up every third vinyasa. That seemed do-able. Until we got going, and I couldn't keep track. I changed the plan, and began to add the push-up every other vinyasa. It felt awesome.

Two days later, in the Sunday morning Yogaworks class, I decided that no matter what else I did, I would add that extra push up all practice. I think I may have moaned out loud a few times, and I'm sure I made the Russian weight lifter face, but I did it. That Sunday, I managed to move my edge. And it was the first time I've come home from that class and not been a useless baggie of protoplasm for the rest of the day.

I was out of the woods! I'd left the pain and struggle behind me! Until my next practice, which was awkward, stiff, and utterly hellacious. I should have known I was in for a rough one when the simple act of rolling out my mat caused me to get a major sweat on. I did manage to hoist both right and left legs in the air during vasistasana (side plank) -- which is something I've been working on for, like, years. But the rest of class was a blur of pain, audible creaks, sweat and frustration. Funnily, I'd decided to dedicate my practice to being present. Jinx. My body was on the mat. My mind was on the space shuttle somewhere. Blech.

When I got home, I sat down to watch some BBC -- Season 2 of MI-5 on Netflix streaming. I pulled out my yarn and started to do some lace knitting (one of those infinity scarves everyone's wearing). To knit lace, you follow a chart filled with cryptic dots, circles and slashes, taking one stitch at a time as the fabric rolls slowly off your needles. The pattern is rarely visible at the beginning. It just looks like a big, confusing, holey mess, and I end up ripping out and reknitting certain sections over and over again -- when my attention has wandered. But if you follow the chart -- trust it -- knit, purl, slip, or yarnover where you're told -- eventually the pattern becomes clear, and you stop needing the diagram, except for the occasional check in. One day soon -- if you stick with it -- or later -- if you get distracted and pick up another project or six -- you have a finished garment you can take pride in, handmade with trust and persistence. The yoga of yarn.

With that in mind, I hit the mat again this morning, feeling strong, if a little sleepy. I connected to my breath and Sherman's voice and blithely started the sun salutations, but quickly bagged the second push up when we got to surya namaskar B (sun salutation B). I was babying my left arm and shoulder. We got to the front of the mat, ready to move on, and Sherman threw us into my least favorite of poses: pasasana. I HATE PASASANA! For the uninitiated, it begins with utkatasana (chair/fierce/pleasure pose), then you twist to the side and hook an arm over your leg... google it. I can't even describe it without getting cranky. I hate utkatasana, too. It makes my quads ache. Perhaps if I sat lower I'd hit the sweet spot and it wouldn't hurt so much, but, frankly, I doubt it. I do feel better directing my weight toward my heels, adding a slight backbend and, as always, tucking my tailbone, but utkatasana and I are on thin ice.

Last week on Twitter, Yoga Girl tweeted the following unattributed quote: "Chair pose is a defiance of spirit, showing how high you can reach, even when you're forced down."

Yeah, all right. I can get with defiance. Truthfully, I have been weaseling out of pasasana, which is derived from chair. Sherman puts us in the stress position -- I mean, asana -- for about 85 breaths, then asks the advanced practitioners to take side crow from there. I am nowhere near getting side crow, but I try every time just so I can bail on pasasana. I fall on my butt within seconds, then sit on it, watching others negotiate the asana. I know what will serve me best is to stay in pasasana for however long Sherman abandons us in that particular hell, to stay there, breathing and working it deeper, but... no. Sometimes I dread this pose for days. And today, it's first up. I looked around for someone to hate. The woman beside me had an open cup of water too close to my mat, so I chose her, but my rage was hollow. I was out of excuses. I knew what I had to do. I bent, tucked, arched, and twisted. And I stayed there -- with the other Level One practitioners -- until the blessed words: "take a forward bend" released me from my torment. Now my butt hurts. That means I did it right. I went there. And now there's no excuse not to go there again.

But first, the Saints. The Super Bowl. And gooey Mexican dip from Alicia Silverstone's Kind Diet. Who dat?! I mean, namaste, chers.