Thursday, January 28, 2010

Ouch, But in a Good Way

If only it were as easy as saying "I'm going to yoga class every other day for a year." Things happen. I decide to turn somersaults. Literal somersaults. And chaos ensues.

Last Saturday afternoon, I went to Marco Rojas' Inversion Workshop at Pure. I'd been meaning to try Marco's class, and I've been working on my inversions for a decade, so it seemed like a perfect storm. I arrived forty-five minutes early to make sure I got a good spot -- in a corner where I'd have half as much chance of crushing my neighbor in another of a long series of abortive handstands. I chose my mat, went off to the locker room, came back, changed spots, spent some quality time with Simon Doonan on my Kindle, and changed my spot again. To Pure's credit, they had mats already set up around the room, so there was no jockeying for purse or personal space before the workshop began. Thank you.

Based on Marco's reputation, I expected a classroom full of perfect bodies to whom inversion was as natural as regular version. I assumed I'd be the lumbering ox in the corner. I was scared. So I was pleased when the first few words out of Marco's mouth included "courage." I know that courage is doing something in spite of your fear. So I took a deep breath and committed myself to whatever was to come.

There were eight teacher assistants -- several of them trainees, at least one senior teacher.

We began with a 40 minute practice to connect with muscles we'd be using to go upside down. Tadasana was key. I always try to activate my tadasana in regular classes but with Marco calling out "shoulders down, quads pressing into hamstrings, hamstrings toward quads, inner arches up," etc., I looked like I was standing still but my muscles were dancing Swan Lake. I immediately learned something. When asked to stand against the wall with my heels one inch away from the baseboard -- I need four inches to accommodate my butt. I tried the one inch thing. Determined to be the good student, I stayed upright through sheer force of will, but from the side, I looked like a close parenthesis.

The first thing we did was turn somersaults to "become children again." I wasn't a child during my childhood, but having seen children in movies, I knew what was being asked of me. I knelt, put my hands and head in position -- all I needed to do was tuck and roll, but I was paralyzed with fear. My C7 vertebra was screaming "Quadroplegia!" In my head, I knew it would be fun to flip over, but I could not do it. I held my breath. I very nearly cried with fear. Now I was, indeed, reliving my childhood. Instantly, there were two teachers by my side. Matt looked at me with fun in his eyes. He said something like, "You're there, just do it!" So I did. Woo-hoo! Fun! I'm just kidding. It was not fun. But Matt seemed thrilled at my accomplishment so I faked it. I did another one. A little better. And then we moved on. The purpose of the somersaults was to teach us how to fall out of headstand. Can't wait.

Next, we moved on to my arch-nemesis: handstand. Once I get up into handstand, I can stay there. But when kicking up at the wall, it feels to me like I'm yards from upright. Apparently, this is not the case. In class at Reebok with Joanna Ross, she told me I'm actually a few mere inches from making it, and that I'm doing everything right... good form. She suggested I get uglier and dirtier in my kick -- throw myself at the wall a few times rather than expecting my feet to rise magically into the air with grace and delicacy. She's right. And she gave me confidence. Unfortunately, I haven't had much chance to work at the wall in vinyasa class. And I'm too chicken to do it at home.

On Saturday, however, I got an awesome assist. One of the teaching assistants had me put my kicking up foot on her shoulder, then use it as a lever, pressing down on her shoulder to bring the other foot to the wall. It was a new way of doing it. Not at all useful when I'm by myself, but I feel like the more times I get up, the better. Sherman suggested I kick up both feet at once-- that it's easier. I haven't tried that since he mentioned it, but it's on the list. It's not that I don't think about handstanding. I rehearse it in my mind every day. Then I take a nap. Interestingly, the woman on the mat beside me had all my fears factored to the power of ten. I watched her try to go up. She was absolutely fine, but the look on her face was one of horror. She closed her eyes. Then bugged them out. She turned ashen with fear. Imagine what a feat that is -- considering that all the blood is rushing to your face! And the whole time she was in the pose -- legs up the wall, standing on her hands. It was so obviously all in her head. When she came down, I told her so, but I think she was still so frightened that it didn't register. She told me she'd been a cheerleader back in the day, doing acrobatics, but she'd forgotten how. Seeing someone psych themselves out was edifying.

When we got to headstanding, we teamed up. I vowed to have a breakthrough if it killed me, and I did. I went upside down and my partner, Jen, an advanced practitioner, placed a block horizontally between my shoulder blades and the wall. The goal was to keep the block there, a reminder not to lose your shoulder blades. And, miracle of miracles - I BALANCED AWAY FROM THE WALL FOR THE FIRST TIME! My mind was centered in my upper back, rather than in my feet waving high in the air. Duh -- of course the balance comes from the base! I felt like I could have stayed there all day. I was sad when we had to come down. It was my $50 moment.

When we moved away from the wall to try again, I retained some of the previous feeling, but the somersault falling technique -- gone. Life in an iron lung was foremost in my mind as I got my knees and feet off the ground with Jen cheering me on. I wanted an assist. I wanted someone to stand beside me and give me a touch to remind me where in my body I'd gone unconscious. Unfortunately, the teacher assistant with whom I was working was a novice. I live for personal assists. Don't we all? But a senior teacher zens where your practice is from what they see going on in your body. They're in the moment with their yoga tool bag at the ready.

We all come to the mat with many past teachers' voices in our heads. We make mental technical manuals, drawn from each teacher based on our personal needs, fears, and physical structures. This is not to say that going back to zero in an Iyengar class, for example, isn't valuable. Just the opposite. But there is a difference between a teacher who explores the underlying structure of an asana, and one who has to start from the beginning of something because she doesn't know how to begin at the middle. I know how to measure the space between my elbows and walk my feet in. I needed someone to stand beside me as a security blanket so that I had confidence to lift my knees toward the ceiling. I said so. And if this teacher had been watching my previous attempts, she would have known that. But she only knew one assist, which consisted of sitting on the floor behind me, using her legs to keep my arms in, etc. Then, as I went up -- more afraid with her there than without because, for me, fear of death is trumped by fear of murder and women's prison -- she started squealing "Oh, oh, oh no... Your rear, your rear..." My ass was in her face and advancing. I told her not to sit there.

As I, chagrinned, made apologies and excuses I didn't need to make, she told me she can't balance in headstand either. I would say "not that there's anything wrong with that," but I think, in this case, there is.

I went back and balanced with the block as an emotional palate cleanser.

We took shoulderstand on blankets. I fell on my head and neatly executed an unintentional backwards somersault. (Guruji would have been relieved that I finally attempted chakrasana. In fact, maybe he shoved me.) Shoulderstand, then plough -- or as I call it: breast asphyxiasana. Savasana. Then Peacefood cafe for raw key lime pie. Do it.

Ultimately the workshop was great. I learned tons. And next time I'll ask for the assist I need, rather than just taking it. That may be the most valuable lesson of all.

However, I took home a goody bag full of pain. That spazz out in shoulderstand? It's the gift that keeps on giving. I can't turn my head to the left, and my right lower back is tighter than it's ever been. I figured I'd torqued myself doing something sexy like headstand, until yesterday, when I took shoulderstand at the end of Sherman's class. Ouch ouch ouch ouch ouch. My neck and back lit up like they were radioactive.

That's when I learned another valuable lesson. I found myself making an excuse for modifying, which I was doing with high drama-face in the corner. Historically, the better I get to know a teacher, the more easily I make excuses for myself. But I assume I'm not the only person in class who rarely, if ever, feels a hundred percent. If I don't know the teacher, and want to be perfect for him/her, I just keep my condition(s) to myself. And probably surprise myself by rising above whatever migraine, neck tweak, temporary blindness, bunion, bloat or bad mood I've brought into the room with me. I don't want to be that person. Anywhere. So from now on I'm going to use all these physical "messages" as questions to be answered or challenges to be met. After all, the warnings in my head: You need rest! What are you thinking doing that at your age? You can't! -- are not to be trusted. Not even I know what I'm capable of doing. And those who want me to play safe are speaking from their own agenda.

"Always be a little uncomfortable in your practice." Words to live by.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

Showing Up

Yesterday was one of those days. I felt strong and lean (it's seriously relative) when I woke up. But when I paired my turquoise yoga top with black and red yoga pants... and rationalized that "it felt right," things began to roll rapidly downhill. Yes, the pants felt right, because that particular pair never decides it would be hysterical to expose my sloppy lower belly mid-chair pose. But the color combo was off, and even though I avoid mirrors... I do occasionally look down at myself, especially in downward dog, when I aim them toward my navel, pretending it's visible beyond my boobs. That's not drishti. It's second sight. The studio was crazy hot, and I had a series of severe and inexplicable head rushes coupled with a general queasy feeling throughout class. I sat down once, regrouped a few other times, sweated like a rainforest, but managed to keep going. I would have been happy to locate my comfort zone in yesterday's practice I think I left it at home. Not that it was any harder than usual. It was just harder for me. Every day is so different.

The disappointing thing was that I felt so lumpy. When I looked in the locker room mirror, all I saw was persistent fat. I battled the temptation to listen to the naysayers in my life and dump this Kind Diet/vegan adventure as a bad idea. I do feel thinner on the inside, but externally I look pale and doughy to myself. Yesterday anyway.

I have enough experience with my own body issues to know that what changes from one day to the next is my gaze, not my thighs. It took a long time to pack this weight on. It won't be easy to take off. But there's no reason I can't do it. I'm still working very hard to adapt to my new lifestyle -- not that I've strayed. I haven't eaten an animal product since January 1. It's only been three weeks. Still, I fear being the world's first obese vegan yogini.

Some days you just need specific measurable results. Like new jeans or the surprise ability to cartwheel up Amsterdam. When all you've got is Be Present pants that refuse to stay tied near your navel, and a clumsy trudge to the Columbus Avenue bus stop with a 20 oz. (vegan) Coke Zero, you have to surrender the day and show up tomorrow. On faith.

Guruji says "practice and all is coming." I would pay extra for express shipping. But since that option is not available, I'm going to have to show up again today just because I said I would -- and, without landmarks, trust that I'm heading in the right direction.

Anybody who thinks that's easy, never really tried.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Comfort Zone

I love it when my yoga classes reverberate off the mat. One of the things my favorite teacher, Sherman Morris, says in every class is: "Get out of your comfort zone," or "If you don't feel anything, you're wasting your time." Although he says this often, it always cuts through the gathering mists and brings me back to the mat. Not that I'm ever comfortable in yoga class. I'm more comfortable in some asanas than in others, like everyone, but seeing as I'm not comfortable half naked in public -- it's not my nature to flip the cruise control switch and coast into savasana.

For me to step out of my comfort zone, I have to attempt the asanas that both scare and excite me. These are usually the poses that defy gravity, and because I'm a longstanding musical theater geek, I confess that I sing along to "Defying Gravity" from Wicked at least once a day. I associate the song with doing something that's scary joyful, like Pincha Mayurasana (Forearm Stand).

There were years where I couldn't get near Bakasana (crow pose) -- any arm balance was far outside the realm of pose-ability. I almost always tried it, though, picking up pointers from different teachers along the way. Jerry Bianchini gave me the tip that made it all click into place. I can't remember his exact words, just the image -- but he suggested I think of a string attached to my sternum, stretching through my middle back to the ceiling -- I turned myself into a chubby comma and suddenly my feet lifted off the floor. Now Bakasana resides just inside the border of my comfort zone.

Outside the studio, things are no different. I am comfortable as a soap writer. I know what's expected of me, and I know I can more than deliver. But I have spent the past few years working on a book, and this week I met with my awesome agent, Erin, to hand over my completed book proposal. It's now in her hands. She'll soon be sending it to editors. My dream is becoming very real. While we sat at lunch the other day, Erin said, "We're going to get you out of your comfort zone. Are you ready?" Hell, yes! I'm prepared and I'm terrified, but it's curious, anticipatory terror -- the good kind. When Erin echoed Sherman, I took at as a sign that I was in exactly the right place.

When things are right, I get a squirrelly feeling in my solar plexus -- my power chakra. I used to call it "my vulnerability spot." If I'm writing from a dangerous place (emotionally dangerous, not the crow's nest of a schooner in a storm) -- my third chakra lets me know I'm on the right track. It's far from comfortable. In fact, it can get so uncomfortable that I want to run away, shake it off, go eat half a cow on white bread. But these days I write through it, aware that I've hit the good stuff. As a reminder, I had a lotus flower tattooed right over the vulnerability spot. Confucian scholar, Zhou Dunyi, said: "I love the lotus because while growing from mud, it is unstained." That is why I write: to transform the mud into something beautiful.

From writing practice back to yoga practice. I haven't felt terribly well all week. I'm drained and pale. This is my 21st day as a vegan, and I'm probably not eating the optimal variety of foods. Here, again, I am far outside my comfort zone. At the same time, I feel much lighter and clearer. I sleep better -- weird dreams though. In yoga class, my twists feel different. Oh, and my boobs shrunk an entire cup size in three weeks. Why can't weight loss start from the bottom and work upward? I have to put more effort into shopping and preparing things to have around. Not only do I like cooking, it's one of the highest forms of self-care. I don't have the hang of it quite yet, but I am not giving up. It's not like I didn't mess up my diet daily while I was a carnivore. Both my moods and my blood sugar were on a constant seesaw.

In the meanwhile, I've only managed to make restorative practices this week. First there was Jessica Caplan's Sunday night class at Pure. I was shocked to see it so crowded. I was also shocked by the loud screams emanating from my hip joints in the world's longest Happy Baby pose. Yow. Pigeon pose on the right was similarly noisy. The left: no problem. There is obviously a banshee making her home in my right hip joint. Good to know. Class was excellent, but, to be honest, I was yearning for one of those pillowy restorative practices where the teacher stretches your neck and rubs oils into your forehead. Who gives those anymore?

Yesterday, I was feeling too wispy to make it through Sherman's 9:30 vinyasa class, so I went to Jerry Bianchini's 10:30 Restorative across the hall. Jerry is an extraordinary teacher. I've been in his class at various venues for ten years now, and I never leave without something new to think about. We worked on backbending with chairs, and my lungs are grateful. But the class began with sudden onset yoga rage.

To the elderly couple who showed up 13 minutes late to a one-hour practice: What the f**k? (If you think this might be you, it is. If you're in doubt, sir, you wore an Upper West Side t-shirt, so I know where to find you.) Slipping in along the side and unobtrusively joining in is bad enough. Walking to the center of the room and standing there waiting to be serviced -- whining that there's no room -- forcing the instructor to stop teaching and take care of you -- was not freaking restorative! Aaaaarrrrrggggggghhhhhh. Plus, there were no more chairs. So, Pure, perhaps you should limit the size of the class to the number of props you have. But more importantly, I think what separates a true yoga studio from a gym is class discipline. Don't allow students to come in late. I mean, five minutes... and quietly... maybe. Gym yoga often sucks because management won't allow such sensible restrictions. But despite its affiliation with Equinox, Pure is a yoga studio. That's why I joined. (Oh, and it would be so great if you could have cups by the "tea station." And maybe... tea. I'm just saying.)

I know this bitchery is not yogic. So I'll go for it. There's a guy I've been practicing with for at least five years -- he goes to Yogaworks and he owns a cluster of high-end NYC clothing boutiques -- this guy has never once come to class on time. Any class. Any teacher. Any time of day or night. He's always ten minutes late, but comes unabashedly to the front of the room, slaps down his mat -- and usually drinks coffee throughout his practice. I think his biggest yoga challenge would be to show up on time.

Yes, I am the queen-size Nellie Olesen of yoga class. I should try to subsume my bratty tendencies. Is there a pose for that?

If you don't remember Nellie, for your viewing pleasure:

Friday, January 15, 2010

Private Practice

I have had headaches for six or seven years. Terrible headaches that assert themselves. Like a scrim stretched across the proscenium arch of my reality, they erect a film between me and the day I want to have. Some of my headaches were caused by a rare eye condition (narrow-angle glaucoma) diagnosed and surgically treated nearly three years ago. Before that, I would go temporarily blind in my right eye when these headaches occurred -- often while inverting in yoga class. Blindness and excruciating pain in handstand. Hmm. Maybe my fear isn't completely unfounded. But that's been taken care of. The stress factor and endless hours at the computer monitor, not so much. The headaches continued.

Sick and tired of losing half my weeks due to chronic pain, I chose to eat a vegan diet, beginning on 1/1/10. I've been feeling fantastic. And I went a record nine days without a headache. I was so bummed when it happened; I'd thought that maybe I'd solved the mystery and cured myself. Still, three headaches in 16 days is much better than the three per week I'd been having. Yesterday was one of those days, though. A sick headache made my entire body hurt, and I could neither think straight nor hold a coherent conversation. I finally gave up and slept from four pm until eight this morning. Today I feel hung over and draggy. My limbs are heavy and spaghetti-like. And I'm sitting here blogging, rather than taking my first plank position in Sherman's Sunday morning class at YogaWorks, my favorite ninety minutes of the week.

There are so many reasons I miss being there this morning, the foremost being the impending end to my YogaWorks membership. I joined Pure West when they opened last month, and I'm looking forward to broadening my practice, while continuing to study with Sherman. But so far he's only on the schedule two days a week, so I will probably spend money I don't have to continue practicing with him on the weekends. Those classes have become a cornerstone of my life. Despite that, there was no way my fuzzy head and Gumby-post-headache body could have managed ninety minutes of power yoga this morning.

I hate these headaches. But I have faith that the new diet and the rededication to my practice are going to help my body cure itself. Meanwhile, I'm going to Restorative practice at 6 tonight. On a day like today, that counts. And I could use some healing touch.

In the meantime, I had a few interesting practices this week. On Wednesday, I woke up with pain in my shoulder and right lower back. Reflecting on Tuesday's Anusara practice: for whatever reason, I used a lot of force in that class. Odd, because it wasn't incredibly challenging. I particularly recall using the wall to help with Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) -- ordinarily one of my favorite asanas. In theory, pressing the raised foot into the wall should have reproduced a feeling of floating, but I found myself shoving one hand into the floor, unable to find the place where the bottom hand is weightless. I was earthbound, most of my weight resting heavily on my bottom wrist and hand. Something was terribly off in my pose, but I couldn't figure out what it was. (My attitude?)

When I got to Sherman's Wednesday morning class, I planned to take my mula bandha experiment further, but within minutes I abandoned the idea. My breathing was quick and heavy, so I switched my focus to cycling the breath in and out for the next ninety minutes. It was such a chore to catch my breath, however, that within fifteen minutes of the start of class, I again switched my intention: this time to survival. The class was as good as always, but as my own teacher - I wasn't all there. Looking back, I could have surrendered to that experience, but I fought it instead.

Perhaps that's why I fell on my butt in Trikonasana (Triangle Pose). That's right. I tipped over backwards in Triangle. Who does that? Sherman says to go the edge. I did. And the edge moved. For the rest of class, the edge played keep away. When I got to Savasana, I could hardly believe I'd made it without a crash helmet.

On Friday, I went back to class with trepidation. When I entered the room and headed for my preferred Pure Studio One spot: front row to the left of the teacher, away from the door, but not hugging the prop cubbies -- it didn't feel right. There was a cozy spot in the back row, tucked into an odd architectural corner, that was calling my name. The words "private practice" came to mind. Ordinarily, I like to stand in front so I'm not distracted by other people, but the idea of a yoga corner to myself, with no one watching, was exactly what I needed on that morning. So I nestled into my space, and began. Every time my mind wandered, I just came back to myself. It was perfect. And perfectly healing.

I've been working on Vasisthasana (Side Plank Pose). For years I hated Side Plank. I tipped forward and backward -- mostly backward -- struggling to find that arch from bottom ankle to bottom shoulder, while occasionally shooting a glance at the ceiling which would inevitably send me crashing to earth, where I'd waste a few breaths, avoiding as much of the asana as possible. But sometime last summer I discovered that I could finally look at the ceiling, send my hips high and balance. Part two, however, grabbing your big toe and reaching your top leg to the ceiling -- Ha. Then one day I surprised myself with the thought: "I'll put my top leg in tree" -- and did. On both sides. Who knew I could do that? Encouraged, a few weeks ago, I decided to see what would happen if I grabbed my big toe and aimed my top leg toward the ceiling. I did it, shocking myself. But I couldn't operate my hips -- they were shoved way back, butt sticking out -- I don't know how I stayed balanced. When I tried to aim my hips forward and underneath, I hit the ground, feeling encouraged. I tried the left side -- no go. Either that leg is far heavier, more susceptible to gravity or possessed. I can't move it to save my life. But Vasisthasana has now become one of my practice benchmarks. An asana I try every practice, knowing that one day it'll work as long as I keep showing up.

I was happy that Friday's class went in the direction of Pigeon Pose and its cousins. I wonder if I'm the only one who sends out (unanswered) psychic signals when I'd like an assist. It's been a while since I've gotten that extra help on seated forward bends, probably because I'm so flexible. But flexible yogis need assists too! Especially when one side of your back feels like it's made of cast iron. I was bent forward in double pigeon, sending breath to my right lower back, which was knotted into a fist, so deep into the asana that I didn't realize Sherman was behind me until his hands were on that exact spot, lifting my torso out of the congested area, freeing up whatever was stuck in there. When I left class, the pain was gone. It occurs to me that that's why I ended up with a headache the next day. It's possible I didn't drink enough water to flush the toxins out of my system. Whatever was making its home in my lower back was evil. Maybe it found its way to my brain.

This week I plan to try a couple of new things. Yogi Charu's 12:15 Monday class at Pure was recommended to me, so I'm going to check it out. And next Saturday I signed up for an inversion workshop. Gulp. At least I know I won't go blind.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Not My Style

Today I took an Anusara class. The Anusara practice was founded in 1997, around the same time I found yoga. Practically speaking, I think of it as Iyengar Lite -- alignment-based and prop-heavy -- although devotees would probably school me harshly for making such a statement. On the official Anusara website ( it states that "Anusara means "flowing with Grace," "flowing with Nature," "following your heart." Interesting moniker for a practice devoid of flow. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Having inhaled and exhaled my way through countless vinyasa, power and ashtanga classes, as well as six months of Mysore practice, I know how important proper alignment is. Thanks to my dance training, I'm a stickler for good form. I never leave any class, regardless of style, without a nugget of new information. I once took an Iyengar class where the teacher worked on Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose) for 90 straight minutes. Somewhere around minute 75 she exclaimed: "There's a backbend in revolved triangle," and I unlocked the pose for myself. I hear that voice every time I revolve my triangle. Deadly as that class was, I'm glad I was there.

In vinyasa class I understand that perfection in asana is unachievable. (Do not get me started on Bikram's yoga championships.) Because I love going deeper and deeper into the subtleties of the postures, I could practice forever and never get bored. In the Iyengar and Anusara practices, however, my own imperfections are all up in my face. I'm too flexible, which means I'm weak as a deboned kitten. I hyperextend my knees and elbows, which means I will die a slow, agonizing, immobilized death due to misuse of my own limbs. As for my badonka-donk, it's been repeatedly flicked and smacked to remind me to shove -- I mean "draw" -- it underneath. At the Iyengar Institute, the teacher actually pointed at my ass and laughed. But I showed up today, ready to for anything.

At the top of class, a fellow student handed out cd liner-sized cards. I gave it a polite glance, masking my disapproval of self-marketing in yoga class, then stuffed it out of sight under my towel, until the teacher asked us to take out our cards and read along if we were unfamiliar with the opening chant. I read and write all day long. It's the last thing I want to do in yoga, so I made up some Sanskrit-sounding gibberish. We chanted one time through, then handed the cards back. It felt like the end of a pop quiz that I had just failed.

Next, we closed our eyes, focused on our breathing, and were treated to at five minutes about the Silk Road exhibit at the Natural History Museum. What lessons did I take from this story? 1. I am woefully ignorant of Asian history. 2. I know Marco Polo only as a pool game. 3. I'm sick of caterpillar metaphors. And 4. I don't take advantage of New York City's cultural activities. The list goes on, but you get the idea. I'm lazy and I suck.

Only fifteen minutes into class and I was barricaded so tightly inside my own head that Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Jerry Garcia and the Beatles together could not have freed my mind.

I'm not saying I didn't find a nugget in today's practice. I was reminded to melt my heart toward the floor in preparation for handstanding. It helped. I got closer to vertical than I ever have on my own. Then I landed on my sore big toe. "Dammit." The teacher gave me the hairy eyeball. There's no cussing in yoga.

By the end, I was mentally exhausted, overwhelmed by the four corners of my knees and the inner and outer spirals. I got the concepts. They're not unique to Anusara. But the way they were communicated kept me in an intellectual space, rather than an energetic one. The whole practice felt herky-jerky. And rather than walking tall as I left, I took new aches and pains home with me.

Was it the teacher or the style?

I visited the Anusara website, looking for enlightenment. (I prefer to find it on the mat, but hey....) The site claims Anusara is "uplifting, epitomized by a 'celebration of the heart' that looks for the good in all people and all things." Not my experience today, but maybe I have a bad attitude. They refer to their community as a "merry band of bohemian artists." Sure, if said artists are bipolar and on the downswing. According to the website, the chant was meant to invoke universal spirit. It just made me feel more alone. On a positive note, I had an excellent savasana. My soul left my body. It had a seventy minute head start.

Anusara isn't the practice for me right now. Certainly not with this teacher, who struck me as inauthentic. But please don't take my word for it. For some, Anusara is exactly the practice they need. Personally, I prefer a style that's older than I am. But I'll try anything six times.

Yoga means "union." I find union when my practice takes me out of my body, when my breath and movement become one, when the energy of the group carries me along like a wave. My ideal practice is a moving meditation that brings total connection.

I wish I felt the class today. I wanted to. I totally felt the chickpea fries I had later at Peacefood Cafe. And their raw key lime pie? That was union.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Good Morning, Mula Bandha

I slipped, and I'm embarrassed about it. In beginning this project, I promised myself that I would not skip more than one day between practices, which I knew would entail some reorganization on my part. I am a scriptwriter for As the World Turns, and I have an 86 page script due every Tuesday or Wednesday morning at ten a.m. Every week for nearly a decade, I've ended up pulling an all-nighter in order to make the deadline, after which I'm whacked out for days. It's not easy to uproot myself from the chair after nearly forty-eight straight hours. Last week, I had two scripts due. It was either skip yoga or blow the deadline -- not an option -- so I sat here typing and feeling bad about myself for not planning better. Again.

My conversation with myself went something like: 'You suck. Why are you surprised? You never finish anything. You're the world's biggest procrastinator. And a fake."

Then I remembered my earlier post: Always we begin again. So Friday morning I squeezed into my yoga clothes and got to Sherman's 9:30 class at Pure. I felt like the Tin Man after he'd been left out in the rain. Everything creaked. I couldn't balance. My breath was short and shallow. I hated the woman on the mat next to me and her stupid, stupid water bottle. Practice was a war. I became a vegan on January 1. Perhaps my joints were calling out for bacon.

When I woke up this morning, it was fifteen degrees. I wanted nothing more than to skip practice due to... winter. I could bang out twenty sun salutations at home and go to Sunday night Restorative. That sounded appealing except for the sun salutations. And the restorative. One thing was clear: I couldn't go to class with my hair looking the way it did. Last night, I showered and fell immediately asleep. The hair on the left side of my head was stuck to my scalp, while that on my right was auditioning for the reverse-gender remake of Eraserhead. I clapped on a knit cap, and Robedeaux and I hit the streets. That's when my attitude shifted.

The sky was crystal clear and blue as a postcard. There was no wind. The morning sun was bright on my face, none of that dishwater Manhattan winter blech. All of a sudden I couldn't wait to get to the mat. Problem: both mats were dirty. There are days when that would stop me, even though a rental mat is only two bucks. Not today. On the way to class, though, I began to dread the twenty five push-ups Sherman throws in at the end. I could already feel myself fall out of Warrior Three. My ankles throbbed at the thought of the Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana series. I was about as out of the moment as one can get.

So I gave myself an assignment. Rather than dedicate my practice to steadiness of mind and effort, I decided to dedicate it to mula bandha -- the root lock. If you practice, you know how frequently you hear "use your bandhas." Often, while in a particularly pretzel-like pose, the teacher will tell someone -- or everyone -- to use their bandhas, but I can't locate mine. The twist in the middle disconnects my upper and lower body. Not good. The point is to get into your body, not disassemble it like the Black Dahlia.

I decided to see what would happen if I concentrated on nothing but mula bandha in every pose. Forget breath, feet, shoulders, tailbone... just me and mula bandha for ninety minutes. It was awesome. That belly fat I move aside with my hands in order to deepen a twist: mula bandha moved it for me! This altered my breathing. I suspect I've been doing too much belly breathing before today, because the breath was totally different -- much more focused. In a forward bend, my thighs pulled up all by themselves as if attached to mula bandha with strings. I even felt a difference while upside down in my tripod headstand -- which, in my case, is more like an upside down frog stuck with a pin to a dissection board. My knees were a few inches higher off the floor in up dog. I could see my navel in down dog. (I thought this was impossible due to the topography.) Who knew?

Is this what I was supposed to figure out when dance teachers told me to "pull up"? I tried, but it was never enough. I worked from the outside in, muscling my fat, superconscious and super-self-conscious. This was another thing entirely, a brand new experience.

On the walk home, I noticed I was thudding heavily on the sidewalk. I activated mula bandha, and it was as if I'd dropped thirty pounds. Rather than smacking into the ground -- each step an end in itself -- I used the resistance of the street to propel me forward. It was a little bit floaty -- in my case, indetectable to the human eye, but I've seen astangis who levitate for an extended moment before landing in chaturanga. I always thought they were using fishing line and pulleys. Perhaps not. I wonder whether yogis like that think about their bandhas, or do they eventually become second nature?

Mula bandha made me feel like my body was pulled into itself -- to the midline -- where there was an empty -- but very alive -- space. I think that's prana.

Simple, but it took me thirty years to get here.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Spot by the Window

One of the reasons I love yoga is that sooner or later during every practice the noise in my head stops, and I'm left with the sounds of my own breath and my teacher's voice. I latch on to his instructions as if attaching a carabiner to a rope on a dangerous stretch of mountain, and then I set one foot in front of the other, not looking down, back or beyond, just placing my feet in the tracks of others who have climbed before me. On a good day.

On a bad one, I've arrived too late to get a spot near the front of the room. I'm crammed between the wall and an anorectic Lotte Berk disciple with Botox-sealed sweat glands who stashes blinking Blackberry, Starbucks venti and Birkin bag two inches from the top of my mat. When my teacher asks me to close my eyes and dedicate my practice, I challenge myself to sweat on her Hermes.

I know this is far from a yogic attitude. I don't claim to be terribly evolved. But as my teacher often says, that just means my journey will be more interesting.

Today, however, was a good day, my third day of practice in a row, despite the wind chill and the three deadlines waiting impatiently on my desk. When I made it to the studio, my spot by the window was free, and two kindred regulars had nabbed adjacent mats. I don't watch others during class, (unless they're either annoying or extraordinary), but feeling them there makes all the difference. Companionship doesn't turn class into a group activity. It's more like separate dances on the same dance floor. Or individual skirmishes on a single battlefield. Improvisations on a theme. Today's class went quickly because I felt like I was inside a protective yoga pod, practicing with a pair of like minds. If they hadn't been there, I would most definitely have missed them.

Class was hard. In the words of my late teacher Sri K. Pattabhi Jois: "Practice and all is coming." I would add to that: stop practice and headstand is going. The first time I practiced with Guruji -- in a room of at least 150 yogis half-naked but for their tattoos -- I was fairly new to yoga. Crow pose was a distant dream and the thought of headstand gave me angina. As Guruji called out: "Sir - sa - sana..." and feet floated above heads all around me, I bent over and wiggled, hoping to fake my way through to the poses I could ace. But the yoga is as much in the things you can't do as in the things you can. I don't know how Guruji found me in that sea of upendedness, but he was suddenly there waiting, and not gently. I wanted to say: "I'm not ready. My hair hurts. Please no -- I don't want to be forever known as the yogi who crushed you. These people will eat me. Except they're probably all vegan. But my tank top is made of hemp. They might gnaw on that..." Guruji didn't speak much English, and he didn't come all the way from Mysore, India to hear me talk about what I couldn't do. So, terrified, I slapped the crown of my head down on the mat, prayed and kicked upward in the general direction of Guruji's third eye. He held me aloft by my ankles, a recurring theme in my life. No comment.

I didn't kill Pattabi Jois that day. Nor have I yet killed the headstand. Six months ago I was able to take my feet off the wall for ten or fifteen seconds at a time. Then headstand seemed to go out of vogue in my classes, and I started working on other things. Until today, when Sherman threw in a Sirsasana after 90 full-out minutes, I tried, hoping to gracefully invert, but I couldn't figure out which way was up; my feet clung to the floor as if magnetized. I was grounded when I wanted to glide. He told me not to be a pose-chaser, but I see nothing wrong with being a pose-seducer. Everyone around me is standing on their heads. I need to know what that feels like.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Always We Begin Again

"There's another class at noon."

"You deserve a rest. It's a holiday!"

"You need to shower, and it's too cold."

"This is your chance to finish the Wire in the Blood marathon. Only three more seasons to go!"

Such was the cantata of excuses that began with the 8 a.m. blare of my iPhone alarm clock. I'd changed the ring from the cloying "Marimba" to the opening bars of M.C. Yogi's "Ganesh is Fresh." Ganesh is the remover of obstacles. I was hoping he could remove me from my bed.

He was losing the battle until I recalled the feeling of being in Pincha Mayurasana (forearm stand or peacock feather pose).

I have a mental block when it comes to inversions. It's called fear of death. But when I do go upside down, it's ecstasy. Simply stated, inversions make me feel as if I can do anything, which would lead one to assume I spend as much time upside down as humanly possible. Not even close. When it comes to yoga inversions, I have perfected the ninja art of invisibility. The moment a teacher says "handstand," I vaporize without actually leaving the room. Most teachers assume I'm sitting out these poses because, overweight, I'm not strong or advanced enough to execute them properly. The bigger I get, the more invisible I become.

But one Saturday morning last June, I rolled out my mat -- with trepidation -- for a new Power Yoga class. The teacher, Sherman Morris, had just moved east from San Francisco. Fifteen minutes and a half dozen sun salutations into the ninety minute class he threw me for a loop.

"Drop down to your elbows, and if Pincha Mayurasana's part of your practice, go ahead. If you have no idea what I'm talking about..."

I knew. But I was marooned in the center of the studio. No wall to hurl myself into. Nothing to stop me from breaking my neck. I did a few half-hearted hops and curled into child's pose, defeated and bored with myself. Then I felt a tap. I looked up from my pity party to see Sherman give the universal sign of "get your feet over your head right now." He wore an expression of utter confidence. He believed I could do the pose. Despite the metallic taste of panic in my mouth and the double knot of fear in my belly, I kicked up and, before I knew it, he was holding me upside down by my ankles.

"Less banana," he said from somewhere in the stratosphere. I sucked in my stomach and tucked my tail bone, gaining another two or three inches. All of a sudden I realized I was doing something I didn't know I could do.

Sherman's generosity and faith shattered the wall that had been blocking my progress for several years. I found the joy in yoga again. And now, every time I show up on the mat, I attempt death-defying feats. I practice. I fall down. I laugh. I practice again. One of these times I will stick the balance. Anybody can stand on their feet. I'm going to stand on my elbows. Maybe even tomorrow.

All I have to do is show up.

Weird Things I Saw in the Locker Room Today Department:

As I was getting dressed after class, the girl next to me took off her pristine Beyond Present yogawear ensemble under which she was covered, knees to rib cage, with saran wrap.