One day I will wake up and realize how stupid I am.
The scenario usually plays out like this: for one reason or another, I feel bad – sick, tired, lazy, whatever – and so I start to argue with myself about doing a yoga practice. Here in Spain, where I practice on my own, outside, on the terrace, there is nobody to witness the argument or to take note of my presence in or absence from the hot room. For the time being, it is me and my ego once again. I am answerable to nobody.
The argument can stretch out for some time; I restate my past experience, my certain knowledge that when I feel bad this is exactly what I need. I know that I will feel better afterwards. I always do; this practice has never let me down. Even in my darkest days of grief, it has still been there to help me find one tiny piece of peace. But I also know that it is hard work. And like many humans, I am inherently lazy. It is so much easier and attractive to find a way to get out of the hard work. I am a master of finding rational, sometimes even urgent, excuses for not doing my practice.
So I woke up yesterday feeling extra cranky: maybe I just slept wrong – sleeping has been a challenge for me for a couple of years now. I had a really painful, stiff neck, so that must have been the way I slept. And that generated a headache of some proportion. Many years ago, before I started yoga on a regular basis, I had suffered from migraine headaches, so I know that the predisposition exists. I napped a little during the morning but that did no good. I know that I needed the yoga; that was the only solution. But still I argued.
Where does that come from? I really have no idea. Over the years there have been countless occasions on which I have discovered something else that needed to be done just as I was getting ready to take a class. Often it was a business call, a meeting, an e-mail that had to be answered. I was too busy with the real world to take time out to do this luxury. And yet deep down inside, I knew what I was doing. It was stupid and I knew it.
Yesterday, I made a deal with myself: I'll just go outside on the terrace and do a little breathing, that's all, no commitment to do anything past that. I will do that slowly and with as much attention on that one activity as I can muster. I will do my pranayama breathing really well, like I am showing it to a new student. And if I want to, then I will just stop after that is done. That was the deal.
I did the breathing, two sets, nice and slow. I felt okay, in fact I had to admit to feeling a little better already. So I made another deal: I'll try one set of “Half moon with hands to feet” and see how that goes; but I'll do it really well, as far as my poor old body can manage on this day, together with some nice deep breathing, all the way in and all the way out, with all the attention I can muster. And if I want to, then I will just stop after that is done. That was the deal.
One set felt alright; I made myself pause for a moment, let everything go, and then thought that another set would be okay too. And that was alright; in fact I felt just a little better after that second set. The pain in my neck had eased and my headache seemed a little less intense. So I made another deal: I'll do one set of “Awkward” and see how that feels, but with no commitment to anything else, because I know that this posture takes a lot out of me and my legs are getting tired etc etc, so no promises here. I'll just give it a try. In fact, if I want to, I'll even cut the posture a little short because of, you know, some reason I have forgotten right now but at that time seems entirely acceptable. And if I want to, then I will just stop after that is done. That was the deal.
It was okay; not too shabby. I felt I could manage the second set, so I did. I even stayed in the postures a bit longer this time. A little rest in between; head feels a little better. Let's try the next one, but no promises, no commitment, I can stop at any time if I want. That was the deal.
You get the picture? That's how it played out for the next hour or so. When I laid down in final savasana, I was laughing at myself for being such a baby, for being so stupid. I had to remind myself of something I have told students on countless occasions: there have been plenty of classes that I never wanted to take but not a single class that I have regretted taking. I expect this to hold true for ever.
I felt that my whole day had changed after that practice. My neck was totally fixed and my headache was a thing of the past. I had kept my attention all the way through on just that one thing I was doing, and so I was surprised when the end came and there were no more deals to be struck. No more debate. Just complete relaxation as I sank onto the cool stones of the terrace. Never has hard stone been more comfortable.
Why do I put myself through this charade? I know what the end result is like and I want that more than anything else. I know it is the only way to repair my body and my mind – and then my spirit. But I am so full of frailties and weaknesses – always looking for the easy way out. It's a little disappointing but what can I expect? After all, I am just human.
But that is the enduring nature of yoga: when all is said and done, it is an essentially human activity – Bikram's “science of life”. I come to practice full of doubts and fears and [sometimes] expectations. It is so easy to find a way out – even for someone like me who should know much better. At my age you would think I would have figured all this out by now. It seems that I never stop learning. That's a surprise!
I expect to have another debate at some time in the future, maybe the next time that I come to practice. Maybe I will feel bad, sick, tired etc and I'll start to look around for some really good reason why I should do something else other than this hard work for the next 90 minutes. But the truth is that I haven't found a better way yet. The only way through is the only way through.
It is quiet, really quiet. Here in the Hondon, I own every sound that carries up, down and across the valley. The early morning traffic has stopped; today is Fiesta de Asunción María, so there is no work. No big trucks from the quarries carrying the huge blocks of granite and marble. Not on fiesta.
No farmers' tractors making their way from field to field, no barking dogs behind – even the loud, flashy parallel lines of ciclistas are at home with their racing bikes today. It is fiesta. No Mercadona for the expat couples to drive to for shopping – no markets – no café con leche at the bar – not yet – maybe later. It is fiesta.
At this time even the birds respect the silence. Earlier there were a few gun shots that ricocheted down from the hills above; always there is some hunting going on. But not now.
An hour ago, there was a farmer out on the other side of the Chicamo; I could see him in his orchard, moving slowly from tree to tree. I could make out the movements of the long pole in his hands well before I heard the dull crack of the wood against the branches as he knocked the almonds to the ground. But even he has rolled up his cloth, shouldered his pole and gone back home. It is fiesta.
Now there is a church bell, maybe from Macisvenda, maybe from further away, perhaps Barinas – it depends on the wind.
And now a few words of conversation that carry over the valley, floating, disjointed, a blue shirt moving in the trees and now gone again. More quiet.
I used to wonder how my Father could sit so quietly in his later years, left arm folded under the right, chin resting in his hand, eyes closed, not sleeping but lost in thought, or memory. For most of my life I could not tolerate sitting in such a way without a newspaper or book in my hand. I had to be doing something. But these days I find myself sitting the same way, looking back inside myself, moving from room to room in my mind, taking out a memory here and there, dusting it off and then replacing it back where I can find it once again – dimentia permitting of course. The quiet helps this process; nothing to disturb the filing.
When I was twenty-something I remember taking some battery of tests to figure out what I was good at – maybe it was at business school. I should not say “good at” but rather what I expressed a preference towards! And the result that stuck in my mind was “creating order out of chaos”. That's a fancy way of saying that I liked filing.
As I look back over the various jobs in my life the ones where I did really well reflected that ability to bring some measure of order to a dynamic situation; lots of moving parts that begged for capture, distillation and analysis. It was just another kind of filing. It truly puts things into a different perspective when I realize that all those fancy jobs amounted to not much more than filing. That's a healthy dose of realism.
Even nowadays, I take time to file the photos, music, papers, documents that track my life over the last thirty years. There is no doubt that I am a serial filer. There is a twelve step program somewhere for that.
Filing thrives in peace and quiet. I can order my life and then order my mind, explaining it away as part of the simplification program which I have signed up for. I am predisposed to a life where there is quiet. Maybe that is part of the attraction that brought me to the Hondon Valley, this very still part of rural Spain. My brother warned me that it is remote, and I cannot dispute that.
But does any of this add up to stillness? Do I need quiet to be still? My mind does a pretty good job of converting the same familiar cacophony of everyday life to white noise, something no longer of any importance to the brain so that I consign it to trash, dump it out of sight, file it in space. Like the pool filter: my watch tells me that it should be working and I should be hearing it, but long ago my brain found it, analyzed it and threw it out as not important. Now I have to search for the sound, check the noise-dumpster for stuff I have thrown away, just to make sure that the filter is still running.
So here is the chance, in this quiet moment, to still the mind, even if it is just for a few precious seconds. To bring attention back to the breath, to follow the inhale to that point between the inhale and the exhale, that still-point, and then follow the exhale to that same point. And then do it again.
That was a child's voice. Not a cry or alarm, but more questioning, perhaps surprise, perhaps joy. It could have carried from a long way off, down the valley from the other houses, where grand-children have come to stay with grand-parents, just for a few weeks during the school holidays.
Back to the breath and start again. Life is lots of "starting overs". No matter how hard I try to keep my attention on the one thing in front of me, my mind thinks better and starts to chatter and sends me stuff that I don't need, didn't ask for, cannot do anything with. It's just stuff – sometimes noise, sometimes images and sometimes full motion video. I have to remind myself to let it go and come back to this quiet moment, come back to this next breath and start again.
I've been surprised at the number of people who have written to me and asked directly or indirectly “what are you doing out there?”. I think they really want an answer that defines an activity that can be accepted and filed in their system. Something like “I'm volunteering at the local dog adoption group”, or “I'm learning Spanish cooking”, or “I'm fixing up the yard” - anything that is a recognizable or acceptable activity, something that would pass for an occupation.
The reality is that I am starting over. It is the coming to terms with this answer that is the difficult step. The quiet helps. A fiesta day is a good day to look inside and do some housekeeping. I fold my arms, left under the right, chin in my right hand, and find my way back to that point where I can start again. Not with regret or judgement on those memories but happy in this moment. A fiesta day moment – another kind of stillness.
I have threatened once or twice to write about breathing. A lot of well-qualified people have written about breathing; just search the web and you will turn up all kinds of interesting stuff. Try it: google “pranayama” and read some of the stuff. It's a little arrogant of me to think that I have anything to offer. In addition, I used to talk about breathing every class I taught; so it makes me wonder what there is left for me to say about it. After all, it's pretty easy – most of the time. One of those life skills that we don't think about too much, until it becomes a struggle. I know that all too well since my Mother suffered from emphysema for many years. The very act of breathing can become just too difficult, just too much hard work to carry on every day. It's the first thing we do in life and it's the last thing we do.
Most of the time our body just gets on with the job. The autonomous nervous system takes care of that, along with heartbeats and digestion and a few critical items that are too important to be dependent on a conscious decision. We breathe when we need to; simple as that. So cannot we assume that it will be the same case in the hot room? What is there to talk about when it comes to yoga and breathing? Surely we will continue to breathe when we need to. What difference does it make whether we breathe one way or another, through the mouth or through the nose? As quiet as a mouse or as noisy as Watt's steam engine – who cares? After all, we're making a lot of effort in each posture, aren't we entitled to let those around us know that we really are trying hard? Huffing and puffing and grunting and panting says “listen to me and know how hard I am working”. Sounds to me that is something the Ego would say; the Ego is always on the hunt for recognition.
Some months ago, one of my students was having a really hard time with their practice; it had just fallen apart – balance was gone, flexibility was lost, it was hard for the student to concentrate; and I could hear the student breathing from the other side of the room! After class, I took the person aside and told them to come into their next class and just breathe; don't even do the first set of each asana for a little while until the breath has returned to some semblance of normality. Come into the room, stand still, breathe in and breathe out. That's yoga. Focus on the breath and the body will follow along, getting on with its job of healing itself.
For me, breathing is everything; it is the key to my practice. It is the place to come back to when my attention wanders, as it does often. How I wish I had understood that when I went to teacher training; perhaps my yoga classes there would not have been quite so stressful. It took some time after that experience for me to figure out that the practice, the sequence, all of the asanas meant nothing unless my breathing was controlled, steady, slow and deep, through the nose and quiet. And then everything changed for me. Each class became a journey; my attention improved (although my mind still wanders all over the place) and my concentration grew much better. It became easier to be still. I tried to minimize distractions – the biggest culprit being drinking of course.
[I was so proud of myself during teacher training for learning to drink water while lying flat on my back without drowning – kind of like self water-boarding – so then I could glug away to my heart's content in every floor savasana, much to the aggravation of some students around me who reminded me that it was not such a good idea. But I used survival as an excuse and just carried on. It took me a long while to get that one straight!]
I didn't try to force any posture but rather gave my aging, inflexible, tired body permission to go as far as it could without putting any stress on my breathing. I finally worked out that I had to allow my breath to define the posture. That was a personal break-through. And of course, everything that worked for me in yoga worked for me outside the hot room, in the “real” world. None of this was easy. But accepting the importance of breath was the single, most important lesson for me in yoga, and consequently in my life.
Many years ago, my speech therapist told me over and over again that proper breathing was the key to bring my stammer into some kind of control. For years I had lived with this wild animal inside of me – wishing so often that I was totally dumb so that I could wear a sign that announced “dumb – doesn't talk” and just write little notes to people. Instead, I had to unleash the animal and just let it run riot, totally out of control, one day incoherent and the next marginally comprehensible. Apparently quite normal on the outside but then frighteningly abnormal as soon as I opened my mouth to speak, to buy a bus ticket, to order lunch, to start a conversation with that really cute girl. I was well into my thirties before that beast grew a little tamer, but I know it lives there still, just waiting for the chance to stretch its legs and run again.
The act of breathing doesn't just move air around, bringing that oxygen in and expelling the toxins, but it also moves prana, ki, chi or whatever name that your culture calls it. It is that life giving energy that doesn't show up on x-rays or CRTs or in nuclear medicine and therefore, according to main stream medicine, does not really exist. But ask any acupuncture provider or patient and listen to what they say. There is so much that we don't understand because we cannot reduce it (yet) to measurement, but Asian practitioners have accepted its existence for thousands of years and indeed have built holistic health practices around its force. So when we breathe we are moving, directing, encouraging that prana to flow within and throughout our bodies. You can try this for yourself next time that some joint or muscle gives you a problem, in class or outside. Concentrate your mind on that spot and each time that you exhale, send your breath to that point; imagine the prana flowing in and out of that spot, bringing energy and life to whatever is causing the problem, unblocking whatever is stopping your prana flowing freely through that spot. Yoga is like acupuncture but without the needles. Try it.
Not so long ago, when I was the CFO of a small public company in the USA, I had to present the financial results of the company to equity analysts, fund managers and investors through quarterly telephone conference calls. My speech issues just exacerbated the situation for me and increased the stress level. That was like a roller coaster and then my speech became worse, spiraling downhill and so on. So I learned to take a couple of minutes before the call was scheduled to begin, to close my office door, and to practice my pranayama breathing. It wasn't for too long but it was enough to calm my mind, settle my anxiety and bring my breathing back to a nice slow, deep rhythm. It saved me each time. So my experience is to trust this stuff because it has worked for me; time and again it has saved my life. And the key for me has been breathing.