Thursday, September 5, 2013

Life outside of the hot room

From time to time, I have found myself far from any kind of yoga studio or hot room, but I still have tried to make some kind of practice.  Until recently, I have met with mixed success.  However, for the past two months I have been practicing a slimmed down version of the sequence without any heat but with quite remarkable results. I had promised myself some time ago not to write any more about yoga, but this is worth sharing.  So read on at your own discretion.

Firstly, let me set the scene:  for nine weeks, I have been spending six hours a day sitting in a classroom, trying to get my head around another language.  At the end of each day I really need a yoga practice to help me unwind my head and my spine.  It is natural that I should turn to the same yoga sequence, one I know fairly well, and do the best I can with no heat, no smoke, no mirrors, no dialogue – just the sequence and my experience of each posture and my understanding of my own body.

Regardless of all the other noise that surrounds the yoga world from time to time, let me say that I trust this sequence.  Although I do not teach this any more, I continue to believe in the efficacy of the sequence itself.   But I have to say that my experience with this yoga has been peppered with regret.  My life was changed because of the practice and I will be ever thankful to the man who put this sequence together, who picked these postures out of many and ordered them in such a way that they work every part of the body in a logical and healing progression. The source of my regret has never been the sequence, but rather the manner in which the sequence has been led and the environment in which it has been practiced. Both of these have frequently interfered with my practice rather than supported it.  Therefore, I welcomed the opportunity to develop my practice without heat and without any distraction other than my own mind and body.

I have enough space in my room for me to spread a thick towel on the tiled floor and open the door so I can breathe some fresh air.  And as always, I start with a breathing exercise, pranayama, either one or two sets of ten repetitions performed quite quickly.  Next comes the warm up postures in the sequence, and I like to do two sets of the first combination - half moon, back bend and hands to feet.  And then from this point on, just one set of the remaining postures all the way through.  I move into each posture with some care, feeling out my muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints along the way, and then once in a correctly aligned position, I hold the posture for my target time, which I count. Most of the postures I hold for twenty seconds, except the principal balancing postures of head to knee, bow and tree pose, which I hold for thirty seconds each.  There are a few shorter postures which I hold for twelve to fifteen seconds, such as the compression postures, balancing stick, and each part of the locust series.  I allow myself a brief rest between each posture in the standing series of about ten seconds and a full twenty seconds between each posture of the floor series.  I finish with one set of a final breathing exercise.  My time in each posture begins when I am sure that my alignment is good, when I am still and when I am breathing normally.

The hard floor has been a challenge for my knees, so often I use a pillow between the tiles and my kneecaps.  And I always work within my range of motion, not beyond it. But the results so far have been extraordinary.  I feel stronger, more in control of each posture, more focused within the posture, and invariably more energized at the end. I am stretching enough not only to maintain my body's capabilities but to increase them.  In several postures I have been able to extend or improve the asana in a number of ways:  increased stretch, better balance, more focus, improved technique, sound breath control and lastly that elusive stillness.

So the question is, how has this happened?  While I have practiced plenty of times outside of the hot room, I did not expect to improve any posture without heat.  Frankly, I am surprised that this has happened.

I attribute this improvement to the fact that I deliberately work carefully within my range of motion and focus on technique and relaxation. This is possible because I have more energy to play with;  my body is not burning energy to combat the heat.  And that increase in energy gives me choices:  I can use the energy for more technique, by fine tuning muscles or grip, or I can choose to stay longer in a posture that has previously been giving me problems.  In either case there is improvement.  If all is working well and I stick to the target time for the posture, then that energy supports greater concentration. And with more concentration comes relaxation, and with relaxation comes stillness.  It is like unlocking a door and finding a corridor that leads to a room I have not been in before.

Of course my mind wanders from time to time, so I ask it to come back and try again.  There are times my minds sends me all sorts of nonsense, but I know that I don't have to hold onto any of it.  I can just let it go.  And then I start again, always by using my breath.  There are lots of times when I need to start over.  But I accept that now and I don't get too bent out of shape if that is my practice, all the way through. Tomorrow, it may be better, or at least it will be different.

I am not sweating as much, so I realize that I am not benefitting from the cleansing that follows from that level of sweating.  The first part of the sequence is a highly effective means of warming up the body to support movement. And as long as that movement is within a tolerable range of motion, then I have not experienced any discomfort due to muscle pulls or strains. So for me it seems to be a trade-off: I am giving up sweating but gaining more energy and concentration.  Of course there is a downside:  the yoga does not seem to go as deep.  I find that if I miss a day, then I feel a difference immediately.  Before, I could get by with a practice three times a week.  Now I feel that I need this every day otherwise I can feel a difference in my spine.

I know that this may not work for everybody and I am not advocating it to replace whatever works for others.  For the time being, I have no inclination to return to the hot room  although I recognize that this could change at some time in the future. It is probable that for some time I will live far from any hot room, so I need to learn how to use this yoga without extreme levels of heat or humidity.

I am grateful to have found a way where I can continue to practice this sequence of healing postures independently. Every day my spine talks to me and tells me that this is working. When it stops talking I will think again, but for the time being I know what is good for me, and that is enough.  There is a life outside of the hot room.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Snakes and Ladders

I thought we were meant to get smarter as we aged.  Or maybe that was was spread around by older people when I was younger. Age brought wisdom:  it was a twofer kind of deal.  You got incontinence and gas but you were smart as a whip. Until the point of course when you forgot your door keys for the umpteenth time and they don't let you out on your own again.  Then you're not so smart;  you have dementia instead, and that trumps smart every time.

So recently I have been wondering what the signs are, you know, for either being wise and smart, or for possibly being not so smart and being a dementia candidate.  I conclude that it is a thin line, one of many thin lines in life.  I think of all the thin lines that have separated me from others, sometimes a single degree of separation.

Health from sickness — now that can be a very thin line.  Why did Marianne get cancer and not me?  She was the one with a healthy diet:  she was the one who ran every day and dragged us both off to yoga. That was a thin line.

Happiness from sadness — that's another thin one.  And it moves too.  One day happy, and the next day not so much.  Recently I have been keeping a check on my happy score every day.  It seems a reasonable thing to do — not a dementia risk there.  Just a sensible tracking of how things are going.  I seem to be getting a little happier, although I try not to resort to scoring in two decimal points in order to show progress.

Life is just one giant game of snakes and ladders.  Fall on a square with a life crisis and I slide back down the snake, three rows down and five to the left.  Not good.  Roll again.  When I was younger, I wanted the ladder that lifted me up three rows and four to the right.  Your internet start up has a successful IPO — that would have been a good square.  Mine wasn't;  it was one fat anaconda. And I still have not got over that one.

Now I just want consistency, no surprises.  Just give me one square at a time with nothing on it.  I just want to sit there, in the square and enjoy it, basking in the reasonable expectation that there will be another square to the right tomorrow.  I want some thick lines around the square, not thin ones.

Recently I landed on a snake, and that was quite a surprise. My first response was to stop playing.  Not helpful. My second response was distance.  Look for another board in another place and start again.  But this time, choose the board before I start playing. Now that make sense.  But sometimes new boards need some different skills, sometimes the rules change.

But one thing seems to be sensible and smart and worthy of being older.  in fact, it might even be wise:  make the game simple.  Stop complicating it with other stuff.  Simplify everything.  Downsize. Reduce. Give away. Become mobile.

The other day a friend of mine asked me for my advice regarding financial management.  How have I been able to move across the board, and arrive at this stage of my life, let's just say pre-dementia for the sake of argument, and be able to travel and seemingly enjoy life with such ease and lack of financial worries?  What are the brilliant strategies I used along the way?  What ladders was I lucky enough to land on?  And the answer is the same:  simplify, downsize, reduce, give away, become mobile.  It is easier to do that when you are sixty plus than when you are thirty, but maybe that is wisdom talking.  I wish I had known that when I was thirty.  Nowadays, I have no property, very few tangible assets and just a little storage. I pride myself on the fact that my stuff fits in two suitcases, maybe one if I squeeze.

Now I just want a new board, some squares with no snakes and no ladders, and a hand to hold as I roll the dice one more time.  I can see that happy score moving up.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

I will not let this day go by unmarked. So I will post this same message again, updated to reflect the passage of yet another year.  I miss her presence and I miss her love.  But I see a life ahead and a path forward. It has become easier.  Here are the words I have written before about these ten days.

For the past five years, I have reserved the ten days between July 1st and July 10th, I have put them aside as a reminder of the last ten days of Marianne's life in 2008. Ten days of hospice care at home; ten days of gradual increases in pain medication; ten days of withdrawal;  ten days of her body slowly shutting down, system by subsystem, bit by bit, until there was no room for her and no room for me any more. 

I like to think that her spirit didn't need her body anymore, and so slowly freed itself, piece by piece. In the Bahá'i faith is written "to consider that after the death of the body the spirit perishes is like imagining that a bird in a cage will be destroyed if the cage is broken, though the bird has nothing to fear from the destruction of the cage".  So like the bird in the cage, her spirit was freed, and remains free.

It becomes easier, year by year, to look back at those ten days.  The pain is eased a little - not quite so raw. Memory is selective, filtering the view, rounding the edges, allowing me to focus on those times when love was affirmed, when a kiss was shared, a hand held, a touch received.   

Much has happened in these five years: two boys have grown into young men, their lives filling, confidence growing and their futures slowly appearing, pixel by pixel. They are finding their way in a tough world.  I am so very proud of them, and I know for sure that Marianne is proud too.

And what for me? I am still reminding myself to be in the moment, to take another deep breath and start again. Life is lots of new beginnings after all.  I need to remind myself of that at times like this.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A messy world

I have been back in the USA now for five months and I have been struggling with my writing for all that time. Several drafts for my blog sit on my laptop – and most likely they will stay there. Friends ask about my writing and I make some lame excuses about work in progress and then change the subject. But now I have just finished a book, for the second time, and I feel compelled to write about it.

Allow me to clarify a possible grammatical confusion: I have actually finished more than two books in my life. But every now and then I like to read a book twice to make sure I have got the point. I am both fortunate to have the time to do that and unfortunate in having the need to do that. That's both sides of the same coin: aging. However, back to the book...

The book is called “Hell Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga” by Benjamin Lorr. In my view, this is a well written, thoughtful and relatively balanced look into the World of Bikram. Lorr relates his experiences taking Bikram yoga classes, attending Bikram teacher training, participating in intensive yoga programs involving extensive back-bending postures (now called “Jedi Fight Club”) and competing in yoga competitions at regional and national levels. It is not my intent to provide a review or recommendation of the book, but the reading and indeed the re-reading has prompted my own thoughts and provided focus for some of my well established concerns.

Those of you who have come to my class over the years have heard me talk about the evil twins of “ego” and “obsession ”. Maybe I am fortunate in having come into this yoga at an older age than many people, since my previous life in Corporate America gave me all the opportunities I needed to massage my ego and explore my compulsive need for work, both of which provided me with my identity at the time. I hope I worked all those out of my system before I stumbled into the hot room many years ago.

Having made all those mistakes myself in the past, I am sensitive to those times when one twin or the other forces their way onto the mat, whether that mat belongs to me or someone else. But should that happen, I am reminded of the humanity of the yoga. We are engaged in a very human activity, a reflection of our life outside the hot room, and that by its very definition will involve both the good and the not-so-good. Life is full of mistakes, and so is yoga.

When one twin or the other creeps in, I try to recognize it and then encourage it to swiftly move on; neither belongs in my practice today. And while I hope I can say that “ego” never has a place on my mat, I must acknowledge that “obsession” might have taken up residence had I been twenty years younger. I like to think that age has given me the wisdom to keep things in balance, something I struggled with during all those thirty years in corporate life.

Balance involves keeping things in proportion. And for me these days, it means recognizing the vital place that yoga has in my life – but it is not everything. Over these recent years, when the Universe has thrown a few challenges my way, I have recognized the critical role that yoga has taken on in my life. That job has been repair and maintenance – first physical, then mental and finally spiritual. So much happens to my body and mind in just every-day life: things break, muscles pull, ligaments tear, stress builds, worries appear, thoughts become confused. All that needs fixing and my yoga practice is the auto-repair shop where that takes place.

I have accepted that my practice will probably not get much better, and I am okay with that. Yoga provides me with a toolkit to keep my aging body running and in balance. I can pick up that toolkit and put it down when I choose. Taking a day or two off and resting does not cause me to feel anxious or guilty. I feel stronger on the mat when I come back. After all, yoga, like life, is full of restarts. Each time I come into the room, I am starting over – no expectations, accepting where I am on that day. I think that is consistent with the humanity of the practice.

And have no mistake, this yoga is essentially human, as are the people in it. As teachers and students, we make our fair share of mistakes. But never confuse the yoga with the people in it. We are all human and we will mess up on a regular basis. In the meantime, we have been given this gift of yoga and the special sequence that makes up the Bikram class.

This brings me back to “Hell Bent”. The book gives an insider's view to the World of Bikram. It is a messy world, the characters are imperfect, the community has its fair share of the weird and the wonderful. I recognize so much of what Lorr describes and it is not pretty. I hope every aspiring Bikram teacher reads this book before they decide to go to teacher training. And I say that in the belief that we make better decisions when we are better informed. The book will inform some; it may deter others; it is unlikely to provide much encouragement. But as an aspiring Bikram teacher, you will be less surprised at what the teacher training experience has become. And then you may be more realistic about your expectations after teacher training. For many, teacher training equips us to recite, while actual teaching takes a little longer and may require a lot more work. That teaching certificate should be just the beginning of a very humble journey.

Or maybe you will be attracted by a week or two of intensive back-bending practice, or by the chance of competing in the yoga championships. While neither retains much appeal to me, I would urge you to keep that all in balance. Recognize obsession if it creeps in to your practice and then decide whether or not you are comfortable with it; if yes, then learn to live with it and test its effect on your life at regular intervals; if not, then do not hesitate to throw it out.

Do not allow your ego to drive your practice: listen to your body and let your body drive your practice. That may be different from day to day. You can still try your best and practice at your edge if you recognize that edge is a moving line, and sometimes it moves backwards as well as forwards. Progress does not often come in the form of a straight line. How many times have you heard me say “two steps forward and one step back”?

So I would encourage you to read the book, and then when you come back into the hot room for your next class, be grateful for that practice, however imperfect it may be, and then be forgiving of those of us who are in the business of messing up your class. After all, we live in a messy world.