Beryl Bender Birch in the House!

June 3, 2011

Led Primary this morning, and BBB was there. She was super nice and friendly and approachable, and we chatted and took some photos, which I will post later, when Gina gets them emailed to me. Tina was there too, but she had to leave as soon as class was over (it was two Spice girls and one Ginger today, as Amy had parent-teacher conferences).

After having eaten like 15 Oreos after dinner, for some inexplicable reason (I don’t even love Oreos), I woke up with a weird and wonky tummy. It was growling for food and looked kind of bloated. I knew class would be a challenge today. And it was. And Stan went super super super slow, which should have made it easier. But instead, I was just kind of desperate to get out of each pose well before the fifth breath.

Of course, it’s all relative. I mean, I think back to my early Ashtanga days and the way I would not really feel like I could touch the floor in Utanasana until well after the fifth Sun Salutation, and the way I would be leaking my prana (i.e., life force/energy) all over the place by the time I got to Marychiasana A, in anticipation of Mari C and Mari D. I’d be panting and palpitating, which did me no favors at all. Now, I’m smooth all the way through, generally speaking. And I qualify that only because I was shaking by my fifth super-long-hold Navasana. SHAKING.

When I practice Mysore style, I’m done with Primary in an hour flat. And that includes Backbends AND dropbacks. Add another five minutes, and I’m done with the Closing Sequence. When we do led at Stan’s, it’s 90 minutes, including a 7 or 8 minute (by my estimate) Savasana. So…yeah…it’s a LOT of long holds. Holding my leg straight out in front of me and bending over to touch my knee while balancing on the other for five long breaths: challenging.

Anyway, yada yada yada, I couldn’t even get my legs straight in Kurmasana, let alone even attempt to get into Supta K. Whatever. Do I care? Kinda. But mostly, no. I really don’t. If I can’t even straighten out my legs in Kurmasana, I know (a) it’s a FLUKE because my hamstrings are very flexy, even if they weren’t today and (b) there’s no point in even thinking about Supta K, at least for me…I need my legs to be straight and my toes pointed and my legs lifted off of my shoulders. And thankfully, Stan didn’t even bother trying to assist me…it would have been a lost cause anyway. And I don’t really care. Except I kinda do. But I mostly don’t. Really mostly don’t.

On the other hand, I felt the flow in backbending. On the third one, I decided to really press my feet down – heels AND toes – while pressing up…and…BOING! I turned my toes in (it probably looked like parallel, but it “feels” like turned in) and … SPROING! I felt great. Couldn’t bear to be in a 10-breath paschimotannasana afterwards, as my yoga pants were brand new and they had that new clothing smell that I hate. I tried sticking my nose between my knees to bypass the pants, but nothing worked.

Imagine 10 breaths… a mere 10 breaths…being so unbearable? Had nothing to do with the physical yoga…but I suppose it speaks volumes about my chitta vrittis.

Anyway….for the first time in … maybe ever? I didn’t want to come out of Savasana when it was time. I consider that to be my biggest achievement today.

Tomorrow, no Ashtanga for me…instead, I will be doing what I’ve been doing every Saturday for the past few weeks: dragging myself to a painfully boring All Levels Anus-ara class at the Gym in Armonk. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the teacher. It’s just that I find Anus-ara not only horribly boring but horrible pretentious. I sit outside the classroom while the teacher sits upon her self-appointed pulpit and preaches about whatever it is that vinyasa teachers preach about these days, and I don’t come in until after the teacher leads the class in the prayer to Shiva. I’m simply not willing to sing a prayer to a Hindu god anymore. I used to put up with that crap. Now it just seems like crap.

What follows is about 75 minutes of lunging, peaceful warriors, half moon posses and workshopping of either backbends, inversions or arm balances. I’m making it sound better than it is. But I go. I go because what else am I going to use the (paid up) Gym membership for? Spin class? OVER it. Weights? OVER it. And Saturday is a non-yoga day on the “Ashtanga Calendar”. Finally, I consider it an exercise in discipline and self-control to be gracious and well-mannered while feeling vaguely annoyed by the unstoppable ego of the teacher.

Here’s an example of the kind of vague annoyance I experience in this particular class: Last Saturday, there was a 22 year old girl in the class, and when we were doing backbends, it became apparent that she was born without a spine. And I was instantly enamoured with her spine-free existence. I was literally droolng over her gorgeous, perfectly formed backbends. Unfortunately for her, teacher did not feel that she could allow this girl to enjoy her beautiful backbends without receiving a lashing for it.

Teacher pointed at this girl and said, “See how nicely her lower back bends? But she really needs to put some backbend into her upper back”.

I’m thinking, “Really? That’s how you’re going to play this, teacher? Down damned ego!!!” There was NOTHING wrong with that girl’s backbend – in fact, her back was perfectly rounded, top to bottom. Her arms were perfectly vertical, her elbows strong and straight, her shoulders like waterfalls, pouring her arms down to the mat. But the teacher felt the need to take the girl down a notch.

That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what’s wrong with vinyasa classes – not all of them, mind you. But too many of them. SO many of them, that you never know what you’re going to get when you walk into a vinyasa classroom. ESPECIALLY an anusara classroom, since those seem to be taught by particularly ego-driven teachers. Not sure why.

If anyone has a theory on why that would be, I would be grateful to hear it.

Anyway, wish me luck and pray that I (a) keep my damn mouth shut and (b) enjoy some Anusara Yoga tomorrow notwithstanding that it is, in my opinion, “Yoga-Lite” with a side order of Pretention.


Full Vinyasa Today

November 14, 2009

So, I did it. The Full Vinyasa Primary practice. I did it in my home studio, and I did it alone, but with some music. And it was boring and long, but definitely not difficult. In fact, the coming up to standing in between poses made it kind of eas. Not sure why. I would do it again on a low energy day, like today, where I know that the flexibility isn’t going to be the highlight of my practice, nor is the strength, and for lack of anything better to focus on, I can focus on endurance. Sort of. Since it wasn’t all that challenging.

As usual, I also added some Second Series stuff in where I thought appropriate: Pasasana right smack in the middle of Standing Series – after Parivritta Parsvakonasana, and then again after Marichyasana D. It just feels so damn good when I know I need a good back crack. Eka Pada Sirsasana, Dwi Pada and Yogi Nidrasana after Supta Kurmasana, which I did twice, once after laying out in Kurmasana for 25 breaths, and then again after I full vinyasa-ed out of it and back in again. Why? Because I had forgotten to full vinyasa out of it. Then I did all of the Second Series backbends before Urdhva Dhanurasana. Greg Tebb taught me some version of that a couple of summers ago (in his version, he selected some of the backbends, but not all of them). It was my first entre into Second Series. Pretty clever of him, I thought. It made UD so much better for me.

Been doing bedhangs for the past couple of days. Thought it was helping, it probably is. But it didn’t quite feel that way today. Ah, every day is different, and this yoga thing is never really linear, at least not for me.


25 Random Things About Yoga

November 10, 2009

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


What Yoga Can Do For Breast Cancer Survivors…

October 9, 2009

[I decided to include this one in its entirety, as it was published on the Huffington Post:]

When I first came to yoga, it was as a breast cancer survivor.

Technically speaking, it was as a breast cancer patient, since I had already had my double mastectomy with reconstruction and was then smack in the middle of six months of chemotherapy and hadn’t even started my six weeks of radiation or the year of Herceptin (the targeted therapy specifically approved for my particular disease) that was scheduled into the next year or so of my life (assuming there would be a next year or so of my life, which crazily enough, I always assumed).

Why call myself a survivor when I had so much more left of “being a patient”? Because I knew that I was going to have to survive in order to get to the end of that ambitious treatment plan. Ha. That was supposed to be funny. But I sense it fell flat. Well, no worries, cancer jokes often do fall flat. Just like my reconstruction. Badumpbum. Sorry.

Anyway, in those first few months of practicing yoga in between infusions in the chemo room and not being able to drag myself off the couch due to bone pain (caused by the drugs) and exhaustion (caused by the anemia caused by the drugs) and depression (caused by the fact that I had cancer) and projectile vomiting the one Fresca that I thought I could keep down, I felt pure joy whenever I stepped on the mat. And this was despite the fact that the yoga I practiced involved staring at yourself in a mirror as you attempted to do the poses. What stared back at me was a bald, bloated, blown-up, facsimile of me. But I liked her moxy. I liked the fact that that hideous doppleganger in the mirror stared straight back at me and dared me to move my body in ways that I hadn’t thought possible since I was a cheerleader in high school. And when I sneered at her and looked away in disgust, she still caught my eye and dared me to look back at her.

Only for yoga would I drag my anemic, depressive, bloated ass off the couch and make the journey from east side to west side via crosstown bus. Not even for my kids would I do that. For them, I would just send the nanny. But for the yoga, it was me or no one. So, I went. Because I knew that if I could just get through the many confrontations I would surely have with that bloated, bald bitch in the mirror, I would roll up my mat feeling strong and powerful, as if every ounce of chemical toxin had been wrung from my body while I was too busy fighting with my image in the mirror to pay attention.

After I finished with all the treatments, the love for yoga continued. As it often happens with yoga, the love for it is so intense that it transforms into a desire to spend as much time as possible doing it, learning about it, meeting others who do it, and ultimately…bringing others into it. Like a missionary. Or a Shake-lee representative. The logical next step then is to attend a “teacher training” where you can spend hours practicing yoga each day and learning about the history of yoga, the future of yoga, and “find your voice as a yoga teacher”, as is often said. By yoga teachers.

And that is what I did. And although I taught at mainstream yoga studios and gyms, my primary focus, at least at the outset, was teaching breast cancer patients/survivors. I found most of my students through theYoung Survival Coalition, which is a reflection of the fact that my particular interest was breast cancer patients who were like myself at the time of my own diagnosis: under 40, dealing with a life-threatening, life-altering illness at a time in our lives when we were supposed to be getting married, having babies, raising children, going great-guns in our careers. With breast cancer taking center stage in our lives, none of that could take center stage. It was all about hoping to survive, dealing with the way surgery made us feel bad about our bodies, the way chemo took away our beloved hair (I don’t care who you are or what your hair looked like before chemo; if you lose your hair to chemo, it’s the loss of your “beloved hair”) or made us gain weight when we should have been thin, or took away our ability to have children, perhaps, or to have children without high tech interventions, or to take care of your children the way you want to because you’re took sick and too tired and too depressed to do anything but hand them off to your nanny, your husband, your friends.

We started out as a small group and remained a cohesive group for nearly three years. During that time, we would meet once a week and do pretty much what I did with all of my students who were not dealing with breast cancer. We made shapes with our bodies and used our hands and our arms to lift our bodies and our core strength to stay balanced. We bent pretzel-like and not-so-pretzel-like. We complained about backbends and struggled to do them anyway. We burned a lot of calories, we sweat buckets. We laughed at ourselves and we began to make peace with our bodies. Maybe they weren’t pristine and teflon-like, able to shrug off illness with nary a mark upon us. But they still worked. They still did pretty much of what we asked them to do, and usually more. Maybe we couldn’t totally trust them anymore, now that we had experienced the betrayal that was breast cancer. But we found that we could, nevertheless, enjoy some good times with them.

Technically, our group disbanded because I left New York City for a life in the country. But in truth, I sensed that my girls were ready to move on, that they had already graduated out of our little club. None of us were really “living with breast cancer” anymore. All of us, in all other ways, had gone back to our regularly scheduled lives, our husbands, our lovers, our friends, our kids or our dreams of kids. All of us had thick, beautiful hair once again. None of us were fat and bloated anymore. All of us had made some level of peace with our bodies – with the changes that breast cancer brought and with the notion that never again would we feel entirely safe against a possible upheaval wrought by a rogue cell. Sometimes it is a more uneasy peace than others. But that puts us all at about the same level of peace with our bodies as, well, most women of our age. What made our group lucky, in the end, was that we were now experts at the negotiation. And we knew it.

Although every single one of my students is alive and well today, yoga cannot guarantee breast cancer survival. But what I learned, and what I believe my students learned, from our “Yoga For Breast Cancer” class is that yoga can reacquaint and reconnect you with your body, no matter what that body has been through.


Dropbacks are back!

October 5, 2009

It’s not “important” that I am able to do drop-backs. But NOT being able to do them as a result of breaking my hand, and thinking that I was never going to be able to do them again because of a combination of factors (age plus too many months of NOT doing drop-backs plus arthritic wrists plus fear plus pessimism and an aversion to all things painful) was a weight on my shoulders, so to speak. I thought about it often, I have to admit. Not a LOT of thought, but a little thought a lot of times over the past few months.

Today, I had a very nice practice and just WANTED to drop back and really had this feeling that it would be okay. And it was. I landed softly. No pain. It felt peaceful. Much more peaceful than pushing up into a backbend.

When will I ever learn that the practice is going to be there for me? Will I ever?


Why won’t my leg stay behind my head?

October 1, 2009

Kind of a rhetorical question.  I mean, if my hips were flexy enough, I would put my leg behind my head and it would just be happy to stay there.  As it is, it feels like my leg muscles are made of really really strong rubber bands…I can get the leg there just fine.  But then….sproing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

At least there is some possibility, I suppose, whereas with Kapotasana, I just don’t see it ever happening. My body just doesn’t want to bend that way. Even Ustrasana is getting painful these days, when I try to keep my legs at right angles to the floor. Wonder what that’s about. Perhaps having been forced to take the summer off from backbends? Or perhaps I’m just starting to really feel my age. I want to say that without shuddering. But it’s painful. Yes, it is. Better than the alternative. But painful, nevertheless.


“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?)