“I don’t advise running or jogging for my yoga students” – Respected Teacher of Ashtanga Yoga

September 27, 2009

Me to a really good backbender, “Any advice on doing better backbends?”

His advice: “stop hiking and running; you’re tightening up your legs too much.

Said to me by a yoga-practicing friend who lives in a place where “nobody walks”: “How can you walk so much?  It must be hell on your yoga practice.”

These are the seeds of my discontent.  They have blossomed, yes.  But it started with statements like these.

Question: what happens when a healthy activity, a hobby, turns into an all-encompassing obsession that interferes with your ability to walk your dog, to get places on foot, to improve your cardiovascular health (don’t tell me Ashtanga is cardio.  In many ways it is LIKE cardio, and portions of it might include cardio, but it is NOT cardio; it is anaerobic exercise, period, start and stop, high and low, the definition of anaerobic)?  That interferes with your social life (no partying on Saturday nights), that confines your social life to people who “get it” (inevitably, your shala mates)?

What happens when you want your life back? (Do you become like me?  Aggressively anti-cult?  Do you close your eyes and pretend this never happened?  What makes one person turn away in anger, and another in peace?)

What happens if you DON’T?  (Do you give up all of your possessions that no longer make sense in your life?  Does vodka become a distant memory, organic wine (blech) taking its place?  Does every interaction with those who don’t “get it” become a strain?  Something to gradually filter out of your life?)



I’ll sleep when I’m…in bed.

September 26, 2009

A few weeks ago, I made plans to meet a friend at the CT Shala.  I made the plans in good faith, thinking how nice it would be to meet up with him (we went to college together although we only know each other through the cyber-shala world) and to see some real life friends who practice with Val regularly.  Ah, good intentions.  Apparently, they are exactly where the rubber meets the road: I woke up on the appointed morning and couldn’t get myself out of bed.  I tried, at first, to blame it on being tired.  I wasn’t used to waking up early to practice within someone else’s time frame.

It bothered me to think that I didn’t have the discipline to wake up and get out of bed for practice.  It bothered me so much that I couldn’t stop thinking about it…until I realized that not being able to get out of bed for shala practice was the symptom, not the problem.  The truth?  I just didn’t WANT to anymore.

I sent my apologies and noted, “My practice is just not shala-ready.”

But even as I wrote it, I knew that it wasn’t exactly true.  I mean, when I started my Mysore-style practice at Guy’s shala (actually, my very first practice ever was at Eddie’ Stern’s, but Guy’s shala was my first habitual place of practice), I was very much an Ashtanga beginner.  I could barely bind Marichyasna A or B and couldn’t bind C or D without help.  Supta Kurmasana was impossible without a towel between my hands.  I couldn’t really even get to Supta Kurmasana without getting winded.  I had no almost no backbend practice at all, and my Upward Facing Dog was nearly flat.  Yet every day, I went to practice.  Every day, I relished the experience, looked forward to it.  On the rare occasion when I couldn’t get to practice for the late morning session, I went early.  Or I came in the evening.  It didn’t matter that I was humbled by the practice.  I went anyway.  It didn’t matter that it was difficult for me, and that I didn’t know if I would ever be able to complete the Primary Series.  I went anyway.

So, not shala ready?  What did that even mean?

What it means is that I am no longer willing to put myself in the hands of a Mysore-style teacher.  Not that there is anything wrong with Val or Guy or Kimberly or any of them.  It’s me.  It’s my unwillingness to have my practice interrupted with assists I don’t want or need.  It’s my unwillingness to NOT add in a set or two of Jivamukti-style sun salutations between Surya Namaskar A and Surya Namaskar B, if I want to.  Or to add a set of Gomukhasana arms in before Parvotanasana.  Or to add in a set of pigeon poses and a Hanumanasana before the Warrior poses.  Or to do Pasasana after Marichyasana D instead of waiting until MILES later, after my body has long since forgotten twists.  Or to add in all the leg-behind-head poses either before OR after Supta Kurmasana, just because I feel noodley and want to explore.  Or to save all of the backbend poses for dead last so that I can warm up my back and my arms before having to press up into full wheel.

It’s my utter lack of receptivity to hearing that my breath should be louder.  Or that I might want to consider bending my elbows in Upward Dog.  Or to being treated to a midpractice jump-through workshop.

I just want to do what my body wants to do.

But truth be told, there is more than that.  There are things that make me cringe about shala practice, things that I never thought would make me cringe.  Things like American teachers pretending to speak like Indians (“you take”, “you do”).  Things like practicing before an altar with a photo of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.  Things like students bowing before the altar, putting their hands in prayer over their head.  Why?  Why the bowing, sure, but WHY the prayer over the head?  What does that even MEAN?  Things like that requisite “Namaste” and bowing to the teacher upon leaving the shala.  Things like being required to take Savasana.  I NEVER take Savasana.  I’ll sleep when I’m in BED.

And the worst thing of all: the impetus to perform.  I.  Just.  Can’t.  Anymore.  I just can’t.  I don’t wanna.  People who comment here sometimes ask me, what happened to me?  Who hurt me in the Ashtanga world?  Who insulted me?  Who made me feel  small?  Honestly?  Nothing and no one.  It’s all me.  I just started waking up to the fact that I don’t want my workout (and YES, I have never been anything but honest about the fact that this is my workout) to be under someone else’s scrutiny.  I want it to be for ME.  I don’t want to do it for YOU, or for YOU or for YOU or for Teacher.  I want to do it for me.

Yet…there I am on my mat, at home, but still imagining the audience.  I still imagine what Teacher would think, what Teacher might say.  When I practice Pasasana after Marichyasana D, I imagine the Hypothetical Teacher saying, “Yes, but it is EASY to do Pasasana when you’ve JUST done two deep twists before it.  Try doing it COLD.  Then you’ll REALLY be an Ashtangi.”   When I do all the backbends in a row, same thing.  And sometimes I become present enough on my mat to remember that there is no reason why it has to be done THAT way, instead of THIS way, except that someone said it.  One person said it.  And that person changed his mind quite often.

Until I can get to that place where I know I am doing this practice for me, until I get to the place where that Hypothetical Teacher is accepting of my body exactly as it is each day, and doesn’t mind when I give that body exactly what I know it needs, I won’t be comfortable doing my practice in a shala anymore.

In truth, I hope that someday I WILL be able to practice in a shala again.  I’d even like for that day to be tomorrow.  I just know that it isn’t.  For now, I’m in recovery.  Shala recovery.


When I think about you, you touch my ass

September 23, 2009

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois gives an adjustment to (the attitudes of?) a pair of yoginis

This photo has been making the rounds on the internet. I saw it on Facebook, but it was also referenced on a blog I saw on Yoga Journal (Yoga Spy).

For those who don’t know, and apparently there are MANY out there in the wide world, it shows the modern founder of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, engaging in what can only be described – objectively, from looking at the photo – as inappropriate touching of two yoga students, under the guise of “giving an assist” or “giving an adjustment” in a yoga context. It was linked from failblog.org, as in “yoga instructor fail“.

As you can see from the comments on that blog, those who do not know who SKPJ was either roundly criticize the man for putting his hands where they absolutely should not be put, EVER in a yoga class, or joke about the sexual nature of the touching exhibited (“did these girls pay extra for a happy ending?” type thing).

What made the comments interesting to me is the question of what would a full-in, in-the-cult, ashtangi say?  Would someone who is deeply committed to the ashtanga community believe that there is nothing wrong with this picture?  Would they believe that something is wrong with this picture but convince themselves otherwise?  Would they try to convince others otherwise?  Would they try to send the message to the world that this photo is somehow “incorrect” or “out of context” when in reality, touching is touching, and no one should be touching anyone that way outside of an intimate and private relationship.  No matter WHO is doing the touching.

I wondered about the people whose livelihoods depend on continued goodwill between them and the family of SKPJ – teachers of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga who have received or expect to receive or desire to someday receive authorization to teach this type of yoga.  Would they refrain from commenting?  Probably.  But what would they be thinking?  Would this be a chink in the armor of their guru (a guru whose feet I once sat at and kissed…truth be told)?

Psychologically speaking, we tend to emphasize in our own minds that information which supports our inner hypotheses, and we tend to overlook or dismiss that information which does not.  It’s called “cognitive dissonance”.   Would it be so against an ashtangi’s inner hypothesis of “SKPJ is my guru, and I kiss his feet” that the visual information contained in this photo would be “cognitive dissonanced” away?   Dismissed?  Like it didn’t exist?

As someone who has left the cult (although I still practice yoga and incorporate many of the physical lessons I learned while studying Asthanga), I see it as nothing short of abuse.  Perhaps not intentional.  Likely not intentional even.  But an abuse that comes from being put on a pedestal for so long by your followers that you longer have to keep your behavior in check.

It’s an age-old story really.

Anonymous comments on this blog are permitted, and I hope that you will weigh in.


What is it about being sick?

September 20, 2009

It’s been a rough year, 2009.  Not for important reasons.  But for stupid annoyances, things that just get in the way of my enjoying my yoga, which, truth be told, leads to my having difficulty enjoying many things in life.  When the yoga goes awry, the grumpiness tends to set in.  I don’t obsess about yoga the way I used to, but when I have trouble with it, when it doesn’t feel good, I tend to return to it over and over in my mind, wondering, why? why? why?  what is wrong? what is going on with my body?

And you know what?  Usually, if not always, it has been true that something IS going on with my body.  For the first several months of the year, I had an undiagnosed tooth abscess, during which time, I felt malaise and stiffness.  My arthritis acted up.  I put on a few pounds (and on someone of my size, it only takes a few pounds to feel the difference).  Something was wrong, and everything felt wrong.  In March, the root of the problem was discovered, no pun intended, and root canal (plus antibiotics) was the solution.

As soon as the bad stuff was cut out of my tooth, I felt better.  My yoga returned to its usual goodness.  Of course.  I should have known.

But when the tooth abscess returned, as it sometimes does after a root canal, the same physical symptoms came back: symptoms of inflammation.   More antibiotics.   Well-being returned.

Then in June, I broke my hand.  My thumb.  My hand.  Whatever.  There was also, as it turns out, some soft tissue damage.  It’s still not 100 percent, although it’s getting there.  The whole episode did my yoga practice no favors.

But just as things were starting to get better, guess what?  My tooth abscess returned.  My face hurt.  My body ached vaguely.  This time, there was no more that my dentist could do.  He sent me to a specialist where the choice was either remove the tooth or try a special surgery called “apigoectomy”, where the apex of the tooth is removed, along with the source of the infection.

I consented to the surgery, although it’s questionable whether it was actually “informed consent”, as I was not told that the surgery would require several weeks of downtime where I could not be upside down, and a full 10 days of being unable to leave the house due to my face being so swollen that I was literally unrecognizable.  I also was not told that the bruising would last another month after that.  And that the pain would not necessarily go away for much longer.  Or possibly ever.  Nevertheless, the abscess was gone, really and truly gone, and after the first few weeks, after the stitches dissolved and the surgical site healed, I began to enjoy life without inflammation.

Once again, my body felt happy.  I began to reintroduce myself to vinyasa practice, after a summer off, and then weeks of forced rest.

Then last week, I caught a terrible cold, one which decimated my voice and left me listless from Sunday through yesterday.  Today, however, I woke up feeling better.  I took Lewis the Bagle for a long hike this morning, and late this afternoon, I did my yoga practice.

And all I could think was: Wow…so this is what it’s supposed to feel like.  So THIS is what my body is supposed to do.

It’s been a long time, and I had almost forgotten how good yoga can make me feel.  I can only hope that I get a nice stretch of feeling good, that my surgery turns out to be a true and permanent success, that I don’t catch the flu (getting a shot in two weeks, doctor’s orders) and that I can catch a break in general (REALLY no pun intended).  After one good practice, I have had a taste of what it’s supposed to be like on the mat.  What it used to be like.  What I’m hoping it will be like again.

Is that too much to ask?

Oh, and as of September 17, 2009, it has been seven years since my surgery.  I hate to even bring it up, but since I’m bitching and complaining about what a rough year 2009 has been, I should at least temper it with an acknowledgement of what REAL troubles are.


When all else fails, believe harder, recruit bigger

September 8, 2009

If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must after all be correct.” – Leon Festinger

A prediction had been made that the world would end in a great flood before dawn on December 21, 1954.   A group of believers in this prophecy took strong behavioral steps to indicate their degree of commitment to the belief, which included that believers would be “saved”  by a flying saucer (!) that would rescue “true believers”.   They had left jobs, college, and spouses, and had given away money and possessions to prepare for their departure on the flying saucer.

Leon Festinger, a psychologist, theorized that the inevitable disconfirmation of the prediction would be followed by an enthusiastic effort at proselytizing.

In order to study his theory, Festinger and some colleagues infiltrated the group (cult).  They observed the following:

  1. Prior to December 2o, the group shunned publicity. 
  2. By the afternoon of December 21 (at which time, it is clear that the prophecized event has failed occur), the group began to actively and aggressively seek to spread its message and entice others to join. 

Interesting on so many levels.   Religion, yoga, human behavior in general.


For yogis only

September 6, 2009

I don’t keep up with many of the yoga blogs anymore, but among those that I do peruse regularly, I have noticed a dropoff in posting.  One, in particular, has had virtually no yoga posts at all in the past week or so.  Whenever someone posts like a lunatic about this pose, that pose, this strategy, that strategy, yoga yoga yoga, blah blah blah and then screeches to a halt, I gotta wonder: what’s going on?  Are they injured?  Disgruntled?  Oh, wait, that would be me.  But maybe I am not the only one who simply gets tired of writing about the same poses on and on and on and over and over and over.

I haven’t written about asana at all lately, so, I figure it’s time to set the record straight, in case anyone is wondering:  Yes, I am still practicing.  I was supposed to meet a Facebook friend at the CT Shala last week, but I couldn’t wake up, and I ultimately attributed it to the fact that I cannot stomach showing up at any Shala right now, where I would have to explain that I want no assists due to my still healing hand/wrist/thumb, that my jump throughs are kind of inconsistent for the same reason, that I have NO Urdhva Dhanurasana at all, for the same reason.  But it was more than that too:  I like to do my practice exactly as I need it on any given day.  Today, for example, I needed to do about 20 Surya Namaskar A’s to start out.  I just kept doing them until I felt as loose and sweaty as I wanted to be.  There always seem to be some variations thrown in to reflect what I feel that I need on any given day.  And I hate to give those up just to practice in a shala.

Is that rigid of me? Attached?  Maybe.  Or maybe, I just like the joy I get out of something that is incredibly harmless: moving my body the way I want to.  So, maybe rigid, maybe attached, but still, I had to be true to myself.

Where is my practice these days?  I have decided to put all of my focus on leg-behind-head poses.  Since I still can’t push up into a backbend without the wall for support due to my bum right hand, I have decided to give backbends a rest.  SO, what I do is, I frame my practice around Primary, and when I get to Mari D, I often add in a Pasasana for added shoulder flexibility.  Then I move straight onto Kurmasana, hold it for a loooong time, until I feel soft.  Then I work on Supta Kurmasana, which is quite painful to my hand unless I have someone to rotate my hands into the exact right position for me.  Lately, I have had someone.  Either the husband or one of the boys.  When I don’t have someone, I usually take Yoga Nidrasana and then go back to Supta K, hoping to have softened things up some more.  Then, no matter how things go in Supta K, I always do Eka Pada Sirsasana on both sides, along with some softening-up stretches beforehand.  I think I am making some progress in these, which is nice and contrasts with the backbend hell, where there never is any progress and each day holds its own (usually not good) surprises for me there.

After I am holding Eka Pada Sirsasana satisfactorily, I will get back to attending to backbends.

After the LBH sequence, I just finish up Primary, and I sometimes add some of Second Series’ backbends, or not.  Then a quick finishing.  It’s been good this week.  Practiced five times in total.

I would like to practice four or five times next week, and make sure to run at least once.

So, that’s where things are.  Yes, I’m still practicing.  But I am getting further and further away from anything resembling Ashtanga, and from anything you might consider “shala ready”.


Everyone should post this, or else they are BITCHES

September 3, 2009

Today, the propaganda machine was in full force on the Facebook newsfeed.  It went something like this:

“No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick. If you agree, post this as your status for the rest of the day.

So, like, DUH.  Who would NOT agree with such a broad-sweeping, moralistic statement?  I mean, who would NOT agree with it, out of context, without the spectre of  “Health Care Reform”, such as it is?

The question is, what are you gonna DO about it?

My taxes are ridiculously high as it is (whose aren’t?).  Do I want them to go higher?  No.

My current health plan, which I was forced to accept because it is all that was being offered by the husband’s law firm, SUCKS.  With its ridiculous deductable and absurd lack of plan doctors, it makes Oxford look like manna from heaven.  And yet I pay nearly 20 grand per year for it, including copays and deductables, and I think that is a conservative estimate.  Do I want to pay more and still be told that this procedure, that test, this medication is not covered?  Do I want to find that NONE of my doctors are on my plan a year from now because the plan sucks even worse for providers?  No.  No.

I don’t have the answers.  But I know what I don’t want them to be.  So, when I fail to update my status as you wish, just remember, it might not be because I disagree with the sentiment.  Because, really, who would??  It just might be that I don’t agree with the propaganda machine and its insidious use of this sentimental crap to {shhh….silently} advertise a reform plan with which I don’t necessarily agree.