Thursday
Jun112009

Dorkasana, or You Can't Know Too Much Pose

When we first come to yoga it can seem overwhelming: new words in Sanskrit (isn’t that a dead language?) describing shapes we’ve never made before with our bodies, that everyone else seems to know and fall into effortlessly as we heave and sweat and strain (or at least that was my experience, as I was too proud to start in a basics class), some moves that look just about impossible and entirely out of our reach, and then thank god we get to lie down at the end. There’s a teacher up front going on about meditation, or awareness, or breathing, but we’re just trying to get through the hour and a half without expiring.

Eventually, through practice, we settle down, we learn and make adjustments, we recognize the names of the poses, and over the years we develop an attunement to ourselves. It can be easy to get lulled into an idea of what our practice looks and feels like, and what we believe our bodies can do. In other words, we start to become complacent in our practice. Not that we don’t still receive enormous benefits, or look forward to it at the end of a long day as a means to downgrade and unwind, or enjoy that we’re finally comfortable in a headstand in the middle of the room after 5 years of trying.  And the experience of a dedicated practice, deepening our relationship with ourselves, coming to greater and greater awareness through regular practice and self-examination is what yoga is all about. But without new stimulation, without challenging ourselves, it can be easy to settle for the mid-range of both our abilities and our experience. I have felt this myself more than once, and from my own experience I can only say that we are the ones responsible for shaking ourselves out of it (as with pretty much any other change that we want to make in our lives). Your yoga teacher can only do so much to inspire you: you may find that you need to learn the great pose called Dorkasana.

Dorkasana, as defined by… me, is anything that gets you jazzed about yoga, that gives you a breakthrough by coming at it a different way, or that connects your life back to your practice and threads your world together. It’s anything that stimulates your brain, or your body, or your heart, that gets you out of the habits that you’ve created in your practice.

We can practice Dorkasana in any number of ways. The value of a steady practice in our short-attention-span world with a teacher that we learn from and respect, and with whom we develop a teacher-student relationship cannot be discounted. However, it can be a great inspiration to study with another teacher, perhaps in a workshop or retreat, or as an addition to your regular schedule. This is not ‘cheating’ on your teacher! We yoga teachers work to the greatest of our abilities with each student, and we must be willing to recognize that our abilities might have limits, and that a student can benefit from the wisdom of others. From the seat of the teacher, to find new teachers to learn from is not only Dorkasana for our practice, but also for our own teaching, and will allow us to serve our students better by deepening our knowledge and skills. As a student, you will return to your regular teacher and remark “I took a workshop with blah-de-blah teacher, and I heard this amazing thing about the lower back in Urdhva Dhanurasana!” (Your teacher will nod, and smile, and hopefully keep to themselves that they’ve been telling you about this for years.)

One of my personal favorite Dorkasana variations is reading. There are reams and reams of books about yoga from every possible angle – philosophy, anatomy, breathing, memoir – so if your practice feels humdrum, then turn off the TV, sign out of facebook, and read. I recently made a huge Dorkasana purchase: ‘A Physiological Handbook for Teachers of Yogasana’ by Mel Robin (and in case the word handbook makes it sound like a brief read, it’s over 600 pages long). My inner dork thrills to this excerpt about proprioception from page 208:

“Question: What sense is delighted when we do yogasana? Answer: The pleasure of doing yogasana must come from the appreciation of the kinaesthetic and proprioceptive sensors in the body which monitor the limb positions, motions and tensions within the muscles, joints, etc. As with the other senses, the delight of doing yogasana increases with increasing discrimination and sophistication in practice.”

If you have a daily practice, Dorkasana it up by doing the whole thing in reverse. Start with savasana (WHAT!!). Or pick one pose and do it over and over and over again. Do every standing pose you can think of. Then every arm balance. See what happens. Learn.

Learn. Keep moving. Grow. As my teacher Manorama often reminds us, the practice of yoga is not about becoming another thing. It’s not for adding more layers on, but for getting closer and closer to the core until we become That. We don’t want to end up yoga practitioners, we want to end up free. So if you’re stuck somewhere in your practice, kind of satisfied but also kind of dull, keep going. Un-stick yourself. And see how the un-sticking changes your life off the mat as well.

 

 “Analysis and experimentation have to go together, and at tomorrow’s practice you have to think again, am I doing the old pose, or is there a new feeling? Can I extend this new feeling a little more? If I cannot extend it, what is missing?”

- B.K.S. Iyengar

Saturday
Jun062009

Stand Up in Your Spirit

One of my favorite life-goofs that seems to happen to me all the time, and that I have no good explanation for, is that I constantly mishear what people say. I took yoga class a few days ago with a wonderful teacher (Daniel Stewart of Rising Lotus Yoga) and, to be fair, I was still in yoga hangover from teacher training, but I could have sworn at one point he said “Stand UP in your SPIRIT!” Although on reflection, I think it was something about expanding, or – I don’t really know.

What I love about this phenomenon is that although sometimes the phrases I re-make in my brain mean absolutely nothing (and I get to delight in the absurdity of ‘walking bananas’ or the like) sometimes they seem like a message from the Universe. Stand up in your spirit, indeed! What an affirmation of the power of connecting to our highest Self, of being in the present moment, of embracing that which we are.

I was in the bank yesterday enjoying the soporific calm (all that marble and efficiency) when suddenly a cell phone rang, zinging through the silence, immediately irritating. And I thought to myself, do we really need cell phones to ring, ever, when they are usually attached to your waist, or in your pocket, or bag? Could we not instead work on our own capacity to tune into the world around us so that we become more sensitive and would easily respond to a vibration?

We’re so constantly bombarded with sounds and images clamoring for our attention that we do a fair amount of blocking out just to get by. But yoga is asking us to tune in, on a deep, deep level, and hear the vibration that is our life energy, the very sound of our existence.

If we listen well enough there are messages out there everywhere, dropping hints and clues as to where and what our next best step will be. Hear the message, then stand up in your spirit and take the step. And please keep your phone on vibrate at all times.

Monday
May252009

Now Exiting Your Comfort Zone.

“Please take a moment to look around and see if you can even remember what your belongings look like, and if you’ve wedged them into the seat pocket in front of you, go ahead and leave them there, because they’re of no use to you right now. When opening the overhead compartment (your brain) please use caution as contents will undoubtedly have moved around so much that while you may still recognize them, you will no longer recall the words to describe them.”

I’m deep in a teacher training right now (Yoga Tune Up with Jill Miller. Amazing. Find her and study) and it feels like someone zoomed up in a van with blacked out windows and snatched me off the street, blindfolded me, drove around for hours, and then dumped me in a dark alley.

That sounds horrible. It’s really not like that at all. (And I adore Jill!) All of us trainees are having an incredible learning and growing experience, and laughing and enjoying ourselves and making mistakes, but it is a galaxy far, far away from my comfort zone. It’s the kind of learning curve that makes me question what the hell I’ve been kidding myself with teaching all these years.

When we get flung out of our habits, our regular patterns of living, working, teaching – even out of the words we’re used to saying – the unfamiliarity can be overwhelming. But it's not supposed to be comfortable – we’re leaving our comfort zone, remember? We seem to always have a last-ditch hope that something will be familiar, that we’ll recognize where we are, or see someone we know that we can grab onto, but it ain’t gonna happen. Best case scenario (like the one I’m in right now) there are a whole bunch of other people there with you who also don’t know what the hell is going on and you get to sympathize with each other.

So we have a choice in how we react to this new arrangement of molecules and atoms. The first choice is to resist it, curl up in a ball, kick and scream and declare that we HATE it, and that we’re LEAVING, and we always thought it was STUPID anyway. This is our brain-based fear telling us that this unfamiliar place is too dangerous and we might not survive. But when we run away from the unfamiliar, we merely feed our fear; we cement its place in our lives and in our hearts. It moves in and starts rearranging the furniture, and like a bad houseguest, takes an enormous amount of effort to kick to the curb.

Our other choice is to sit in that discomfort. White-knuckle it like an addict getting clean, if necessary (it can feel that intense!). Wiggle around a little. Feel it out. Breathe. Wait. The longer we can manage ourselves in relation to the discomfort and fear, the less uncomfortable and scary it becomes, and the more we can release that grip, a knuckle at a time. (A friend of mine used to have a book on her shelf called “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway.” I never read the book, but that title gave me a lot!)

Until after a while we realize that yes, everything is new, and no, we’re not going to know what’s happening for a while, but that’s not a bad thing. And this newness might actually stimulate the heck out of us (and neurologically speaking, that’s exactly what’s going on – we are forced to build new pathways in the brain for these new experiences) and inspire new creativity within us in all different aspects of our lives. It might inspire us to make long-needed changes that we’ve been avoiding, or have that conversation that we really should have had six months ago, or leave the job that’s sucking at our soul, or the relationship that is safe but miserable.

Through all this, we can drop through the fear created by the mind and rest in the safety and the constancy of our hearts. We can rely on the deep knowing that even when the world turns upside down, there is a stillness and a truth at our centers, and that truth will light the way through. And we can even attempt the advanced variation of this life pose – to revel in the not knowing.

 

Dance, when you’re broken open.

Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.

Dance in the middle of the fighting.

Dance in your blood.

Dance when you’re perfectly free.

-Rumi (From The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks)

Monday
May182009

Student vs. Teacher, or The Beginner’s Mind

[I wrote this entry last night, and woke up to hear about the great teacher Sri K. Pattabhi Jois’ leaving his body this morning. If you have ever taken a yoga class in your life, it is because of this man’s dedication to the yogic path. Along with B.K.S. Iyengar, he opened the door to yoga and brought the Western world through it. I offer this small meditation to him, with gratitude and pranams for his tireless efforts and lifetime of study and teaching. As my teacher Manorama noted this morning, “The West owes him too much.” May we all continue to learn from his brilliant, shining example.]

 

We’re all familiar with the expression “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” (If you’re not familiar with it… it’s an expression.) A little knowledge can be especially perilous to those of us that teach things, as it the easiest thing in the world to garland our egos with a sense of superiority: I’m the one in the room you’ve all come to learn from, therefore the learning is only going to flow in one direction: from me to you. If you start to see yourself this way, it’s not that hard to believe it’s true all the time, even when you’re not the one teaching. You are never the Student; you are always the Teacher.

I find it hardest to put aside what I know and to truly become a student when I’m taking class with a new teacher – which, as you can imagine, has been happening a lot ever since I moved across the country. In many ways this has been hugely beneficial, as I’ve been exposed to and challenged and stimulated by a whole new bevy of brilliance, West-Coast style (Jill Miller! Anthony Benenati! Tara Judelle!). But every now and then I’ll be in a room, and the teacher will ask us to do a pose, or sequence something in a different way than I’m accustomed to, and before I can stop it, that little voice in my head starts chiming in. “Really?” it asks. “Flying crow, now? What does this have to do with what we were just doing? Have we warmed up enough for this? This is not what I would do now if I were teaching this class. Who is this person, anyway? How long have they been a teacher? I’m not sure I’m ready to do this pose. I’m not sure I’m even going to try.” 

And therein lies the problem. When we make a decision about an experience before we have it, whether it be the efficacy of a class, or how we’re going to react to a person, or what we think the outcome of a situation will be, we cut ourselves off from learning anything: from the situation, from the person, and from (or even about) ourselves. We stop growing. We sit content with our little knowledge, and we do nothing to test its boundaries, to make it expand and grow. We lose the ability to be surprised, and at best we remain static; at worst, we atrophy.

I was reading about bones earlier today, and reminded about one of their most fascinating features: when we put them in healthy stress situations, like asana practice, our bones respond by depositing layers of calcium into themselves, thus becoming stronger. When we sit around doing nothing, our bones get weaker. It is only when we challenge them to move in non-habitual ways that our bones stay healthy and strong.

So we have a choice: we can sit around, content with the knowledge we already have, or we can challenge ourselves to keep studying and learning, even though we already have a certificate, or a glowing review, or we’re an expert in our field. The best teachers that I know, the ones who I continue to learn from, are those that are humble enough to keep studying, that remain fascinated with the subject matter at hand and are eternal students.

Often it is in greater study that we come to realize how much there still is out there for us to learn. And what a fantastic realization! It’s kind of dull to already know ahead of time how a situation is going to play out, or decide you don’t like something without even trying it, or to detest a person on sight for no better reason than they remind you of your eighth grade nemesis. How much more exciting and satisfying tomorrow becomes when we see it as an opportunity to have a new experience, a new encounter, to dig into that small percentage of our thoughts that aren’t repetitive and habitual (only about 10%!) and maybe expand it for ourselves. To truly have what is known as beginner’s mind asks a little vulnerability from us; it asks that we put down our defenses, if only for a moment, and let something new in.

 

“A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Peirian spring; there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.”

– Alexander Pope, An Essay On Criticism, 1709

Monday
May112009

Patience and Control

Someone asked me once what I thought my biggest character flaw was. I replied that it was the fact that I was completely perfect, as this tended to make other people feel bad about themselves…

In reality, one of the things I find most challenging is patience, and I think this is a common issue for many of us. Whether it’s being stuck behind a slow driver (yes, this is an L.A. issue I now deal with!), or waiting to hear if we got the job, or wondering if we passed a test, or even when we get into the mindset of ‘next year, when a, b and c have happened, life will be better’, patience can be a challenge. Impatience is a mild, somewhat acceptable form of anger, and used correctly it can motivate us to take charge and make positive changes in our lives and for the world around us. But when every little thing starts to get on your nerves, when you find yourself sighing with exasperation at the large crowd of tourists walking slowly in front of you, or the older lady having a conversation with the check-out person instead of moving out of your way, or if the waiter doesn’t bring your water quickly enough, it might be a sign that something is out of whack.

It seems to me that patience and control go together, or rather, impatience is born out of a perceived lack of control of a situation. The world around us is behaving in a manner that we don’t appreciate, that we could do better at, and we simultaneously strengthen our own attachment to our righteous indignation and separate ourselves even further from those around us (“Doesn’t this person see that I’m WAITING?”).  We confirm our already well-established beliefs that we are right, and everyone else is wrong, and each time something happens to test our patience, we confirm it again.

It makes our minds harden. It makes our bodies harden. And it hardens our hearts. If, as my dear friend and gurubai Vidya likes to remind me, 90% of what other people say and do has nothing to do with us, then we need to stop taking it all so personally. That person may be walking slowly in front of you because they can’t go any faster. The waiter who forgets your bread may be dealing with a terrible boss, and is just trying to get through the shift without quitting. The old woman striking up a conversation with the bank teller may be enjoying the only personal contact she’s going to have all day. We’ve become such an accelerated society, used to getting everything that we want right now, that we actually believe that 5 minutes later is not good enough.

Everyone around us, in every moment of every day, is doing the best that they can in that moment. Perhaps, because you are so perfect (;-)), you could do a better job. But I can pretty much guarantee that at some point or another, we have all been the perceived cause of someone else’s impatience, perhaps when we drove down a street too slowly because we didn’t know where we were (again, me in L.A.).

So that can become our practice: when we find impatience rising in ourselves, we can remind ourselves that this person, this group, this situation is evolving and happening to the best of its abilities. It reminds us that everyone else is not just a bit player in the movie called My Life, but that we are all sharing this planet, this sidewalk, this restaurant, these great gifts, together.

 

sribhagavan uvaca:

asamsayam mahabaho

mano durnigraham calam

abhyasena tu kaunteya

vairagyena ca grhyate

 

The Blessed Lord spoke:

Without doubt, O Arjuna,

The mind is unsteady and difficult to restrain;

But by practice, Arjuna,

And by indifference to worldly objects,

It is restrained.

 

Bhagavad-Gita VI.35

(translation by Winthrop Sargeant)