So, what was I saying?

June 1, 2011

The lapsed ashtangi has lapsed in lapsing.

I’m writing this without even having checked to see what I last said when I last said it. Was it a year ago? More? Less? All I know is that for a very very long time, my passion for blogging was as absent as my passion for practicing Mysore-style Ashtanga. In the intervening time, and maybe you know this already, I had a crazy 9-hour surgery in Charleston, South Carolina, to re-re-reconstruct my breasts, this time out of butt flesh. My own butt flesh. That was followed by a shorter second-stage surgery (in New York City) that tweaked the results of the first (it was always planned that way; the first surgery is so focused on the microvascular issues of dissecting and removing the Superior Gluteal Artery along with the butt flesh and reconnecting it to the upstairs vascular system, that it is not expected to resolve every cosmetic issue involved with making boobs out of butt, although it came pretty damn close to being perfect from the getgo, thank you Dr. Maria Lotempio). And that, in turn, was followed by an even shorter final-stage surgery.

All in all, as a result of my surgeries, I was out of commission for nearly 12 weeks of 2010. Then, just as I was getting back into the swing of regaining my fitness, I fell while figure-skating the day after Thanksgiving and smashed my left knee but GOOD. That left me essentially unable to work out for another six weeks, but I am thankful that it healed completely, with no leftover soft-tissue damage (unlike my right thumb, which two years after breaking it, still aches when I wrist bind and is still significantly weaker than the other).

And all of that inactivity led to some really tight jeans come spring as well as, insult to injury, a significant loss of flexibility in my shoulders, spine and hips. Basically everything. My lotus was no longer tight. My Marichyasanas were back to fingertip binds. And sadly, oh so so sadly, my Supta Kurmasana was lost. Not even an assist could help me bind.

And in that sorry state, I had no desire to get back to the yoga on any regular basis. Instead, I did what had heretofore seemed unthinkable: I joined a gym – The Gym in Armonk – where everyone, and I swear, I mean EVERYONE (in Armonk, at least) works out. I took Spin classes. I took Zumba. I even took a body sculpting class. Yes, hell froze over. I did bicep curls and lateral deltoid raises. I familiarized myself with all of the leg-weight equipment. I had fun with it, and I practiced yoga maybe twice a week with a group of women whom I had been practicing yoga with for the past year or so. Two Asians and two redheads, we call ourselves Ginger and Spice.

And then one day one of the Spice girls (Gina) tried a Mysore session at Yoga Sutra in NYC. And she fell so in love that she bought a two week membership. When she tired of going into the city for Mysore, she searched for a place to practice Mysore style around here. The well, as we all know, is fairly dry, but for Val’s place in Ridgefield, which is about a half an hour from my house, but a bit further from Gina’s house. I tried to convince Gina to go there, but for some reason, she was dead set on trying out Stan Woodman’s place in Westport. WESTPORT!

Anyway, Gina was hooked. I, of course, bristled at some of what she told me about Stan’s room…you know, what I normally bristle about with regard to Mysore rooms: the control-freak nature of the whole thing, the frustrating waiting for the next pose, the being held back at “chicken pose”, as Gina calls it (Kukutasana), because she can’t hold her hands together while her ankles are crossed in Supta Kurmasana. Argh. But as my jeans got looser and my limbs got flexier, I began to find the courage to even desire to be back in a Mysore room.

Yes, ego. I was unwilling to “be where I was”, to just go and do the yoga and suck at it because that’s where I was, to go and feel fat (fat, for me, yes, I get that it’s all relative) and know that it’s all ephemeral and shifting and changing. Blah blah blah. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t in that place of handling my present moment with equanimity. So be it. That’s where I was.

And that’s where I still am, I suppose, except that because my body responded to the yoga and the better eating and getting outside to garden again, I am once again comfortable in my body and willing to do my yoga in public. And so, two weeks ago, I ventured to Westport.

I did my Primary, I got assists in many poses, I got dropped back. And I failed to hold the bind in Supta Kurmasana when Stan put my legs behind my head…and lived to tell about it…and went back again despite the failure.

Interesting, that. Not that I can’t hold the bind. But that Stan’s method of assisting in Supta Kurmasana is like nothing I have ever experienced, and I have experienced a LOT of Ashtanga teachers. Every other teacher I have ever received a Supta K assist from has done it as follows:

1. With the student in Kurmasana, teacher has the student bend her legs, and teacher proceeds to rearrange the legs so that the legs are aimed directly (or as directly as possible) over the shoulder, creating the smallest possible angle between the legs, ideally, the legs being close to parallel and skimming right over the shoulders.

2. THEN the teacher holds the student’s wrists and yanks the arms out and UP to vertical so that the shoulders REALLY clear those heavy heavy legs.

3. With room now between the shoulders and the legs, the teacher can then bring the student’s hands behind the student’s back and the student then is able (hopefully) to clasp the hands.

4. THEN, and only then, the teacher crosses the student’s ankles in FRONT of the CROWN of the student’s head.

I would characterize that sort of assist as focused on the binding of the hands primarily, with the legs not being “behind” the head at all. Stan’s assist is much more focused on crossing those ankles behind the head…or really, beind the NECK. And that is really cool, actually, if you (and by “you”, I mean me) are willing to let go of the attachment to a really deep binding of the hands…because there is simply no way that someone who is working solely on Primary is going to be able to keep their hands bound while having their ankles crossed behind their neck. I was always told that that was the goal of the pose once you were already practicing Second Series up to Dwi Pada.

But anyway…as I am sure you can imagine, this is my current struggle. Letting go of the Supta K of the past. Not being all bitchy about it, which I was on Tuesday when I groused at Stan for not pulling my arms out from beneath my shoulders. And learning to accept that my body is tighter right now than it was and that it will all come in time…just like it did before. And even enjoying the fact that when it finally does come, I will be like, “DUDE!! I have my ankles behind my head AND my hands are bound!!” And happily accepting that for whatever weird reason, my surgery resulted in my backbends being deeper and my chest being more open, while it tightened up my back-body (having a chunk removed from each butt cheek might play a role in that, ya think?).

Anyway, I’m back. Not sure why Ashtanga inevitably leads to blogging by me. I guess there is a lot for me to digest. And it’s the kind of stuff I need to digest obsessively here, rather than making all of my friends hate me for being so boring.

So, yeah. Hi. Remember me?


25 Random Things About Yoga

November 10, 2009

Click Here to read 25 Random Things About Yoga…on the Huffington Post.


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, 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.


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.