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.