Tag Archives: yoga

guitar/yoga/reading–on not hurrying, or, it takes as long as it takes

My guitar playing is coming along.  I think I have a bit of a head start because of my piano playing, back in my previous life. I remember I first wanted to learn to play piano when I was seven or eight because the music teacher in my first grade class could play and I thought the movement of her hands across the keys was the most wonderful thing I had ever seen.  I have the same feeling now when I see some amazing guitarist, not so much the rock or pop kind, but these contemporary fingerstyle instrumentalists, when I see what they can do.  I wonder if I could ever do that?  As I type this, the fingertips of my left hand ache as they hit the keys.  I have developed massive-seeming-to-me calluses on them, but they still hurt all the time!  It’s only been a few weeks, so I’m hoping for fingertips of steel, any minute now.   Ambition to learn lights a fire under my butt, which is a good thing—motivation is a necessary ingredient, right?—but I’ve noticed that there is a difference between inspiration/ambition and being in a hurry.  Desire keeps me going.  But being in a hurry doesn’t seem to help at all.

I had three piano teachers over the course of my piano-playing.   The first—I was eight, I think—seemed to be in a state of perpetual anger at me.  Maybe she just didn’t like teaching piano.  She was very nice in front of my Mom, but when it was just the two of us, she scowled and beat time on the piano with a ruler, accusing me of not practicing.    She would drill me on sight reading and I would read the finger numbers on the music as a cheat (instead of reading the musical notes) to try to play better than I could, for fear of her.  Wrists up!  Fingers arched!  Back straight!  She wanted progress faster than I could deliver it, and so I faked it and cheated, and learning stopped.  I nearly gave up piano because of her.  Her hurry hurt the process of me learning piano.

But I still had desire, and eventually, I was back at it.  My second piano teacher, years later, was a young man, Patrick, who enjoyed playing, and would arrive early at the place where the lessons were and play long, rolling improvisational pieces before our lesson.  I loved to sit and listen.  At the time I had a friend, Crystal, a Japanese Mormon and an amazing pianist despite having tiny, tiny hands.  Crystal was my hero.  I remember her sitting down to play George Winston’s “Thanksgiving” at a piano in a department store at the mall and a small crowd gathering and clapping for her afterward.  Her tiny hands flying across the keys were beautiful. I studied with Patrick so I could, maybe, maybe, play like Crystal.  And since there was no sheet music for George Winston’s music  at the time, to play anything by him you had to pick it out by ear, listening over and over and finding the notes on the keyboard.  So that’s what I did.   Patrick taught me tons of music theory to help in the process of picking out music, key signatures, chord structure, scales, improv techniques, progressions, transcribing, etc.  And now the time-tattered remains of this knowledge is being rebooted by my guitar studies. I actually know what a suspended fourth chord is, say, or an augmented seventh, or embellishments for a I, IV, V7 chord progression might be.  Thank you Patrick!

But there was a difference, I found, in knowing what to play (having picked it out) and being able to play it.  I was in such a rush, I would move on to the next piece before my fingers learned how to play the hard parts of the song I had been working on.  As a result, I could play half of most of Winston’s songs.  Even now, the miracle of muscle memory let’s me still play the first half of “Thanksgiving.”  But I could play all of only a very few songs.  I was in too much of a hurry!  Eventually I moved away and didn’t study piano for several more years.

(I wonder whatever happened to Crystal?)

My third and final piano teacher—I can’t remember her name to save my life, although I was twenty, I think, when I started with her—taught me classical pieces.  I had this idea that I wanted to play ‘the masters.’  There was not much direction to our work together.  Find a piece and learn to play it was the basic template.  But this gal (what the heck was her name?) had had serious trouble with tendinitis, and as a result, had studied and learned much about playing piano in the best possible way for the human body.  She approached playing as a physical training as much, or more, than a mental thing. Using the heavy, relaxed weight of my arms to push down the keys rather than rigidly arched fingers, for example, was big with her.  Relaxed shoulders was her mantra.  And practicing sections of a piece at glacial speed, so that even the most difficult run was easy—I mean, whole seconds to move from one note to the next—was key.  “Playing the piano is training your muscles to make intricate motions,” she used to say.  “Practice a mistake and you’re training the muscles to make the mistake.  Go slowly enough to never make a mistake, and speed will come on it’s own.” “Tense fingers can’t move quickly.  Try to go quickly and you make more tension. It’s a vicious cycle.”  And this, over and over:  “If you make a mistake, you’re practicing too quickly for the level of your technique.”  This turns out to be very good advice for learning guitar!  Thank you, whatever your name was!  But thinking about it now, maybe I was in too much of a hurry to take her good advice.  I wanted it now.  I was too impatient to practice so slowly, and the fire of my ambition went out.  It was all too slow.

But all that talk about muscles and injury reminds me of where I’ve come to in my yoga training.  Instead of pushing or straining to go further in a pose, I’ve been practicing the David Williams way, at 60% ability, finding the ‘sweet spot’ where a pose feels wonderful, and taking the long view for advancement rather than trying to rush forward.  Accomplishing a more advanced version of the pose is not the goal, but rather, doing an enjoyable practice every day.  Going further in a pose happens on its own as a side effect.  I have noticed less yoga ambition in myself, a good thing, but with less fire under me, I’m less motivated.  Will I quit, like I did with piano?  Keeping the desire, without the hurry, seems to be the trick to master.

Could playing guitar like Vicki Genfan ever be a side-effect of daily, relaxed, enjoyable guitar practice?  It’s hard to be patient enough to play slowly enough to play with perfect technique.  It’s hard to wait for the muscles to learn in their own way, rather than pushing them (and creating tension that blocks progress) by applying more control, more force, more pressure.  But I think that, looking over my piano history, cultivating that patience would be the path to playing the way I would love to.  How to keep the desire without hurry?

Which makes me think of why Paul and I unschool the kids.  We really believe that learning to read (for example) happens as a side-effect of daily, relaxed, enjoyable interaction with a word-rich environment.  I observe it happening in the kids—watching them learn to read has been so cool!  Trusting their speed, their ‘reading sweet spot,’ rather than having ambitions for them to learn at an externally chosen speed, takes the same kind of patience as doing yoga at my body’s current level of ability, or practicing chord changes in slow motion.  The predominate paradigm for kid-learning is that you have to apply more control, more pressure, and push kids to learn to read (or learn anything), with tension-producing drills and practice whether they want to or not.  Constantly there is a message of “getting” a child to learn.  But how many people are damaged by being pushed to read before they are ready—people who are told they are slow, or ‘remedial,’ and put in the ‘stupid kid class,’ and all the loss in status and self-esteem that comes with that.  Like taking a body and trying to force it into a backbend, or taking a hand and trying to force it into a G chord, creating tension and injury that goes against the very goal one is trying to achieve.

I know this about unschooling. I guess I just have to be generous with myself to apply it to my own learning.

So, what’s the rush, I’m asking myself in my guitar playing.  Why so impatient?  Go slow, just like whats-her-name trained me to do, and my body stays relaxed while my muscles and nervous system acquire the motions I want to be able to do (lightening fast chord changes!).  Without losing the desire!  Keep the fire burning! Desire without the hurry.  Advancement as a side-effect of daily, slow-enough-to-find-ease practice. Patience.

Maybe I’m in a hurry because I know, underneath, that I’m going to die?  I’ve only got so much time, after all.  But even so, I’m not just talking about it being more pleasant to learn this way.  Even from the point of view of the ambition: forcing (and the tension it creates) blocks advancement.  And in some cases, say a yoga injury that ends practice for good, or the way people think they ‘can’t do math,’ pushing and hurrying STOPS advancement altogether.

How to cultivate the relaxed patience to let learning happen at the speed it actually happens, instead of bearing down harder, trying to get it to hurry up?  I don’t know.  Tequila?  No, okay, maybe not.  I seem to be able to do it for the kids, what’s the trick there?


(Gah!  Forget that!  I want it now!)

(Breathe, grasshopper. Breathe.)

guruji pays me a visit

Listen to this. I dreamed last night that I went…somewhere, I don’t know, this sunny room with big, square, terra-cotta tiles on the floor and a peaceful breeze. I was doing some yoga. There were some other people doing the same. And then, Lo, Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois came over to help me! I was so happy—I said to him that I thought I had missed my chance to ever meet him and I was so glad to be wrong. He smiled and nodded, and assisted me in some pose, I don’t know what. As I came out, I touched his head, my whole hand, palm to his skin. The sensation of it is still in my hand this morning. He kept smiling and patted me, seemed happy that I was there in his class. Then he moved on to the next person and I woke up.

What a cool dream!

In other news….

A friend of mine read my blog yesterday and called me up to set the record straight. “You have so meditated before. You were not a meditation virgin.”

“What?” says I. “When?”

“Well, there was that class you took at that center in Virginia. You bought a zafu. It had angels on it.”

“Oh, yeah, I remember that zafu. I wonder what happened to it?”

“You sat on it, you tried it.”

“Sitting on a zafu is not meditation. Besides, I remember that now. It was hopeless. I couldn’t bear it for more than a minute.”

“Still. It’s meditation.”

“No way. That’s like saying making out in the car is the same as intercourse.”

“And then there was that other time, you were reading a bunch of books on Buddhism. You said meditation messed up your chakras. So you must have tried it.”

“I said that?”

“Yes. You said you felt like you were suffocating and your chakras were turning inside out.”

“I did not say that. And how do you remember this stuff? Besides. Reading about Buddhism is not the same as meditating. It falls under the category of reading books about working-out while sitting on the sofa, eating potato chips.”

“You love to do that.”

“I do not.”

“And there was the time you were learning how to lucid dream.”

“Okay, that was NOT meditating. That was like…guided napping.”

“You are so full of it.”

“Poetic license!”



Um, anyway, I’m here to set the record straight, lest anyone think I may be misleading all seven of my loyal readers. I may have dabbled in meditation prior to having children, prior to sitting on the bank of my creek a couple of days ago, back when I had free time and disposable income for such things as angel-covered zafus and recreational spiritual-ish classes. But that was another life. I can’t possibly be held responsible for anything that occurred back then. I mean, except in a karmic sense. But definitely not for blog purposes. So there.

in which i pop my meditation cherry

I know, right? What am I thinking? I’m Ms. “I like my fantasy life, thank you very much,” what am I going to do with being mindful of the present moment? I mean, reality can be so disappointing. But I’ve been reading a stack of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and its all dhyana (meditation) this and samadhi (bliss) that, and shoot. A girl gets curious.

So, while sitting outside while the kids ran wild in the woods, I thought…how about now?

Sure. Why not.

I figured I would stack the deck in my favor, so I picked this…

…as my meditation spot. Well, not IN the creek. Imagine me sitting on the bank, looking contemplative.

And I also figured I’d best not set myself up for failure by taking on more than I could chew, so I figured I’d give it, oh, five minutes.

That ought to do it.

Then I did what any good 2010 technogeek girl would do, and I pulled out my ipod touch and surfed over to the app store, because you know there’s an app for that.

A couple minutes later, I’m downloading ‘Zen Timer’ a clock thingy that will alert me to the end of my allotted five minutes with a nice tibetan bell sound. Because it isn’t meditation if you aren’t roused by a tibetan bell.

Okay, timer set, creek bubbling nicely beside me, kids climbing a death-trap fallen tree in my peripheral vision—yep, I’m good to go.

I actually did okay with the whole ‘follow the breath’ part. I guess all this ashtanga yoga with the Darth Vader breathing has gotten me used to listening to myself breathe. I could hang with the inhale, and hang with the exhale, hey, mom, look at me, I’m meditating!

But no ujyai breathing here, and apparently my normal breathing has a loooooong pause after the exhale. With no breath to follow for what feels like years…OH the places I an go in such a pause! Galaxies can be crossed! Novel plot points can be worked out! Fantasies lie in wait to grab me and spirit me away to never-neverland in that tiny, but deliciously spacious, pause.

Still, you just keep bringing your attention back, that’s the instruction, so that’s what I did, hauling my ass back from Alpha Centauri at the start of each next inhalation.

I think to myself: I can do this. See? I’m doing it already.

At some point the kids (and cat) tore by, screaming.

At some later point the kids tore by, screaming, but going the other direction.

My back started to hurt a little.

My breathing started to look a lot more boring than my inner story life.

And just as I got fed up, certain I had forgotten to activate my little timer, the bell chimed.

Five grueling minutes had passed. Try meditation. Check.

But what mom doesn’t want to sit and do nothing for five minutes? It was nice, even with the hurty back. Can a person have a small formal mediation practice of five minutes? Is there anything to gain from such an endeavor—and, I know, I’ve already blown it by looking for gain. Arg! Maybe I should stick with chocolate as a spiritual practice.

Still, I thought I’d give it a try. Even I should be able to commit to five freaking minutes a day. I decided right then that I’d do it again the next day.

And then I completely forgot about this decision.

For a week.

So, you know, I’m not enlightened yet.

But I’m trying.

P.S. Ever since typing in the title of this post, I’ve had Joan Jett singing Ch-ch-ch-ch-CherryBOMB! in my head. Along with the song is the picture of Ms. Jett herself, playing an immortal pretending to suicide off a high rise, on a first season ep of “Highlander” (There can be only one!) while Cherrybomb plays, and WOW did she have a bad French accent, what were they thinking giving her a flashback in France? But who cares, right? I love Joan Jett. And I hear she’s got a biopic coming out.

And it’s just this sort of scintillating inner dialogue that I have to give up, to some degree, if I’m ever going to be a meditator.

This project may be doomed.

state of the yoga practice: six months

That’s right. It’s been six months since I started doing a near-daily (more on that in a moment) ashtanga yoga practice. How time flies! When I started I could barely limp through the surys—that’s the 10 sun salutation at the beginning, 5 surya namaskar A and 5 surya namaskar B. It took me three months to build up to doing the whole Primary Series, with lots and lots of Swenson variations. Now, three months later and a lot of the variations have passed by. Most notabe, to me, is that I can hold the real chaturanga  to upward facing dog, suspended in the air, throughout the series now, rather than spending most (all, when I started) of them on my knees (or even chest) on the floor. Woo-hoo! I’m getting stronger!

I dreamed last night that I hopped effortlessly into bhujapidansana  and was terrifically surprised, as in, wow! I can do this! It’s not hard at all! That was a cool dream. In real life, I can’t get my feet off the floor without falling on my bum, boing. (Yes, I bounce, what’s it to you?)

But then today, in practice, I found that I could, in fact, effortlessly do bakasana  , which is part of the bhuja exit, so howdy doody. I’m getting there.

So, about the ‘near-daily’ thing. For the last few months I had been on a three-day-on, one-day-off, schedule, mostly because on the fourth day I felt really tired and didn’t want to do yoga. I’m all about not doing what I don’t want to do. That gave me a five day a week practice. Traditional ashtanga practice is six days a week, but I figured I was in the ballpark. Then I got inspired by some ashtangi bloggers in the cybershala, Grimmly, Boodiba, and Skippity, who were all talking about what a difference that sixth day made. Then I heard Lino Miele, on his South American dvd, being asked, why practice every day? His answer: I asked Guruji this very question and his answer: you eat every day don’t you? So you practice every day.

I thought, heck, what’s one more day? I’ll try it for my own self and see.

Well, it turns out, for me, it isn’t the number of days per week, but the number of days in a row. That fourth day, I was tired, but pushed through (beware pushing in yoga!!!). The fifth day was grueling. I gave it up for the sixth day. My wrists had started hurting, too (see? don’t push in yoga), and I felt exhausted. Interesting. I mentioned it to Grimmly, who suggested shorter practices, perhaps some of the Swensen short forms. And I thought, I can’t do that, that’s cheating! But the lure of the sixth day still called, so I decided to compromise. Sharath, the Big Daddy of ashtanga now that his grandfather has passed (I hate that I’ll never meet Sri K. Pattabhi Jois!!! I found ashtanga just a bit too late….:( ), has a dvd that moves through the whole primary series in about an hour. It accomplishes this by holding the poses for two or three breaths each instead of the traditional five. I thought, well, if I can’t do 90 minutes (my usual primary series duration) six days a week, maybe I can do a 60 minute primary six days a week, for a while, to build up.

I’m on week two of six days of the Sharath Express, Saturdays off. Twice I’ve turned in a short practice of surys, standing, and finishing, then collapse.

It IS different. Hard to explain how, yet—I can feel it, but can’t describe yet. The psychological shift is most noticeable to me so far, but I can feel the physical changes as well. Watch this space for further reports.

And the wrists…I have these skinny little bird wrists, just sticks, and the right one was broken when I was 18 and poorly set, resulting in a lumpy bone thing that sticks out on one side. Definitely a weak link for me. I’m scrupulous about alignment, not resting weight in the heel of my hand, for example, and if they start aching, I start sitting out the vinyasa here and there. When I back off a bit, they don’t hurt. No pushing through. I hope they are getting stronger along with the rest of me. We’ll see.

In other yoga news, I have been possessed by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra and am reading a stack of them right now. Here are a few of the books on my pile at the moment…

Gobble, gobble. I can’t get enough. Weird.

Finally, I saw this video of Jois talking about ashtanga.

It’s been around a while—check out those sunglasses—but I was struck by how worked up he gets about the equal breath thing. If the inbreath is ten seconds, the out breath should be ten seconds, too. Well, that surely is not the case for me, ahem. So I decided to work on that a bit. My pitiful breaths are about four seconds, so I was counting, one two three four, in my head as I inhaled and exhaled, boring. I thought, surely someone has thought of some cool sanskrit mantra or something to say in one’s head instead of one two three four… Maybe I’ll pick a sutra a day! But that was too hard. Maybe later when the asana get easier. Still, I kept looking for something…

Then I thought of Metta meditation, a Buddhist thing, but hey, Richard Freeman says Buddhism and Yoga are basically the same thing anyway, except, I guess, the yogis get to be fit. I read Sharon Salzberg’s Lovingkindness book years ago on metta, and remembered how nice it was—basically you meditate on good wishes, first for yourself, then for people close to you, gradually expanding to people you don’t like, and then all sentient beings. Something like, “May I be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress; may I live happily. May Paul be free, may he be free from hostility, free from affliction, free from distress: maybe Paul live happily.” etc. There are lots of variations on the sayings. I was reminded of metta by this lovely quote in a comment on a yoga blog:

“The Pali word metta is a multi-significant term meaning loving-kindness, friendliness, goodwill, benevolence, fellowship, amity, concord, inoffensiveness and non-violence. The Pali commentators define metta as the strong wish for the welfare and happiness of others (parahita-parasukha-kamana). Essentially metta is an altruistic attitude of love and friendliness as distinguished from mere amiability based on self-interest. Through metta one refuses to be offensive and renounces bitterness, resentment and animosity of every kind, developing instead a mind of friendliness, accommodativeness and benevolence which seeks the well-being and happiness of others. True metta is devoid of self-interest. It evokes within a warm-hearted feeling of fellowship, sympathy and love, which grows boundless with practice and overcomes all social, religious, racial, political and economic barriers. Metta is indeed a universal, unselfish and all-embracing love.”

Now, I know, I know, I can’t renounce bitterness and resentment. Those practically define my personality at least 37% of each day. But for a little while, during practice, maybe…?

So I made up a metta that has a four/four beat, for example, “May Sophie by happy, May Sophie be at peace, May Sophie be safe, May Sophie be free.” I do one sentence on the inhale, one round on the exhale, switching out myself, Paul, Sophie, and Luc, for the most part, and throwing in a few other folk every now and then.

It’s nice. I feel all relaxed and happy after an hour of Sharath Express Plus Metta. Who needs prozac?

And it’s good to have all these positive endorphins going in because I’ve been feeling quite ‘what’s the point’ with the whole writing thing lately. I think this is just the “I’m 3/4 through the current novel and I fear it is all a pile of crap” thing, but still. Bitterness and artistic despair are only a moment’s thought away. Like the icy driveway out there: it’s easy to slip and bust my ass.

And that’s the state of my practice. Maybe I’ll keep on this quarterly report schedule. Maybe I’ll be able to do an actual backbend by my next report. Maybe I’ll have found samahdi.

Hey. It could happen!

lino miele dvd double feature

Since I started this ashtanga kick, every month or so, I need an inspiration to keep going. I’ve found piles of this in the generous outpouring of blogs from other ashtangis. And every now and then I get a dvd. My last dvd purchase was Anne Nuotio, which I loved. This time, I decided to try Lino Miele’s fairly newish primary series video, and the very new South American workshop dvd. A double feature! Here is one gal’s review of both.

First the primary series dvd.

If I had to sum up my impression of this dvd with one word, it would be elegant. Lino’s practice is elegant, the framing of the shots is elegant, the music is elegant (a lone sax, I think, I’m not very good at instrument identification, and then several lovely classical pieces for the short sections), the shala is elegant, the asana names subtly zipping across the screen are elegant, Lino is elegant. It’s all like perfect tiramisu or something. Very Roman. Very nice.

There are four sections. The main event is Lino doing his elegant practice, not a fidget, not a spare move or breath, a delight to watch. There is no voice over, just the music and his breathing. Then there is a short lecture (Italian with English subtitles) on a few of the basics such as ujjayi breathing, when in the breathing to jump through, etc. He talks a class through a few poses and it gives a chance to see him interact with students, and get a feel for him, very short but okay. Then there is a short little bit, kind of a yoga music video on the ‘dance’ of a mysore class set to a famous waltz (I’m blanking on the name at the moment) with students coming and going, moving into poses, getting adjusted, kissing on both cheeks, smiling. Last there is a short slide show of photos from Lino’s life, several nice shots in India, of him teaching, of him in advanced poses, friends kicking back on beaches. Obviously the meat of the dvd is the practice section.

I like this dvd for its beauty, for having an older yogi, for the humor that rides beneath its surface, and I’m inspired by Lino’s exceptionally clean practice. But, I find, I was a bit disappointed anyway. It isn’t a practice dvd, really, because, with no voice over, it would be hard to follow along since you can’t watch a dvd while you do your yoga. Which makes it more of a documentation of Lino doing his thing—valuable, yes, but… Even a simple voice over, perhaps as an optional track, with just the names and the counting and a hint here or there, would have greatly increased the dvd’s use to me as a support in learning to have a practice as clean and on-the-breath as Lino’s is. I would have liked that. Or a track talking about his inner experience of the practice as he goes, that would have been cool, too. But no go. As is it’s kind of a watch once and put away, rather than a dvd in regular rotation. I’m sure I’ll watch again, but not as a repeat thing the way some of my other yoga dvds hit the player fairly regularly.

So, still a thumbs up, but it didn’t deliver the full monty for me.

Next up, South America.

This dvd is a sort of documentary of a Lino workshop in Buenos Aires. The main portion is a led primary, full vinyasa, Lino calling it out to a room full of ashtangis. Very simple asana names, counting, a word here or there. In addition there is an interview with Lino, and another of his musical interludes, plus a guided relaxation piece at the end of the practice section.

Okay, what I wanted when I ordered this was something along the lines of Kino’s workshop dvd which, while regrettably short, was packed with great info, a kind of compressed version of one of her workshops on strength and jumpbacks. That is, I wanted the stuff Lino says outside and around the actual practice. I’ve got enough led primary sort of material. Anyone really could have been calling out the count—the fact that it was Lino Miele didn’t really add anything to that section. It was cool to see all the yogis doing their thing, but, eh. It was also kind of boring, I have to admit.

Moving on, next, the interview section, and it was nice, but I wanted to goose the girl asking the questions and feed her some more good ones, fewer generic ashtanga questions (pregnancy and practice, for example) and more stuff only Lino could answer, such as:

What’s it like, really, to do this practice for twenty-plus years? What’s your practice like now? What was your relationship with Guruji like? Was he still teaching you things, were you still learning from him, or had it plateaued at some point? What’s the dark side of ashtanga yoga? What texts have you studied and found valuable? Have you studied sanskrit? Why or why not? What is one’s mula bandha like after twenty years? Has it gotten more subtle or can you now crack walnuts? What are some challenges you have faced in this practice? What do you wish you had figured out sooner? Have you had injuries? How did you work with them? Have you ever wanted to give it up? Gotten bored? Become disillusioned? If so, what brought you back? How did it come to be that you wrote the book with Guruji? What was that like? Can you talk about some moments where you had a breakthrough in some way, inner or outer? How has the inner experience of the practice changed for you over your twenty years of doing it?


Oh, and there were a couple of moment in the practice section where you could see everyone kind of laughing, and you know he had just said something funny, but they cut it in order to maintain the led primary for the dvd and I wanted to shout, “No! I wanted the jokes! I wanted the personality!” There are a few clips of him on youtube teaching and he looks like he’s a hoot in person, quite charming and funny. Like I said, there are tons of led primaries to be had—for this dvd, I wanted to see Lino being Lino. I wanted to see him teach.

I’m so picky, right? If only the voice over for the second dvd had been put on the first (it doesn’t work because the second is full vinyasa and not so clean, whereas the first is a perfect half-vinyasa practice). If only the second had had all the stuff in the workshop besides the led primary. I’m so hard to please!

So, okay, this dvd was a bit of a let down for me. Me and my expectations always messing things up. Because really, it’s a nice sort of ashtanga basics soft-sell documentary. It just didn’t give me what I wanted. [pout]

There you have it, Lino double feature. He seems to be an awesome teacher and yogi. Hey, Lino, come to North Carolina so I can take a class with you, okay? Please? And if you do another dvd, let me do the interview.

how to make a heartblock

Last week I decided I wanted a heartblock, that is, a wooden yoga prop that you lie across to unbend and open your thoracic spine.

It’s an antidote to puzzle back, and fairy-doll making, and writing, and just about any stooping-over activity, of which I do many. I get scared I’m going to become one of those little old ladies that permanently look down at their feet. And how will I ever achieve a free-standing, comfortable Urdhva Dhanurasana if I can’t get my chest to open?

Barring a hammer and chisel, I mean.

These heartblock thingies look perfect. But, whoa, they are like $200! Um, no thanks.

Have no fear, I told Paul of my plight and he offered to make me one. Woot! How cool is that? So, this is how he did it.

First I found a bunch of photos from different companies that make ’em.

They look like dinosaurs, right? You scoot your butt up to the back legs, drape yourself across it, with your head near the dino-head. I know, it’s hard to imagine, but it works, really.

Okay based on these, I ‘built’ a bunch of mock ups with the kid’s wooden blocks and my various yoga props and tried resting (delicately, because they tended to collapse) on them to see what size and shape was perfect. This part was pretty funny, actually. The kids were curious. “What are you DOING, Mom?” No photo though. I wish I’d thought to take a few.

Anyway, this phase resulted in a silhouette cut out of a paperbag. It was this piece of paper that I handed to Paul.

He looks at for a minute and kind of grunts and the wanders off into the yard. I’m calling out questions like, “what kind of wood would be good? Do you think you’ll build it up from several boards, or carve it out of one piece? Where do you get a big chunk of wood like that?” He answers by wandering back with a chunk of pine out of the wood pile. And I say, “Um…? Are you sure about this?”

Next, spray paint.

It’s an optical illusion that the cut-out on the left is so small. It’s actually huge. I can’t figure out why it looks so small. Maybe it’s really far away?

Paul is one of those guys that feels most challenges can be better faced with the judicious use of power tools. Thus, “Honey, can you make me a yoga prop,” clearly is cause for breaking out the chain saw.

And the grinder.

There goes the bark…

More grinding and then…

Wow! Clearly he decided to dispense with the whole dino-look. But who cares because when I did this…


After I tested it out, he gave it a once over with the sander and poof, I had me a heartblock. It took him about an hour. “You just saved us $200!” “I’ll send you a bill,” he says.

And that’s how you make one of those critters. If you’re Paul.

three things in ashtanga yoga I just can’t seem to get

Have I mentioned lately how much I adore my yoga practice? I do.

But there are a few things that continue to elude me. I don’t mean certain asana. And I don’t mean samadhi. I mean three seemingly simple things that have remained annoyingly mysterious thus far. Here we go.

1- rolling over the toes

How in the fuckity fuck do people do that? I just don’t get it. It’s not unlike the mystery of how those boneless ballet dancers STAND on their toe-tips. I still don’t know if I believe they really do that. But ashtangis DO roll over their toes and they do NOT wear pretty shoes to conceal the mystery. The toe rolling is out for everyone to see. If I knew how to capture a bit of video from one of my dvds, I’d put a clip here of a close up of Lino rolling over his toes to prove it. It looks perfectly effortless, as if toes were made for rolling over, as if he has rounded stumps instead of toes. He does have sort of stumpy toes, unlike my freakishly long, finger-like toes, that flap and fold when I attempt this rolling thing. They fold and I get stuck right there, with folded toes, and I do not go up into Up Dog, and/or do not go back into Down Dog. There is that cartoon noise of a car coming to a sudden halt, ERRRT!, and my vinyasa just dies. Instead, I have to touch my knees for a split-second to the floor in order to lift my feet and reposition my toes. I notice, too, that I drop my bandhas when I do this touch down, and lose heat. Weird. Rolling over the toes seems connected to bandhas. Oh, this is just maddening.

2- tapas

Where is the sweat? I was promised SWEAT. Once, last August, I think it was maybe 90 degrees outside, I had a single drop of sweat fall from my body and land on my mat. I thought, woo hoo! I’m purifying! But that’s it. One drop. This time of year, I do full primary in long pants, long sleeve shirt, and often a cashmere sweater, no kidding, and I do not sweat a drop. If I really focus on the bandhas (and work at not doing the aforementioned knee-touch) then I feel warmer. I usually can shed the sweater after the surys, and navasana warms me up a bit, but no inner fire. Instead I have inner slightly warmer. At this rate, I’ll never get that purification thing going. How can I burn off my samskaras if I’m this milquetoast yogi? I want some of this heat everyone is talking about. Especially during this cold spell.

3- driste

At least with this one, I understand driste, gaze point, intellectually. I get it, I do. But in practice, I can’t seem to do it. For one thing, I can’t see most of the proscribed gaze points from my position in the pose (for example, belly button in Down Dog, toes in face-to-shin forward bends, upper hand in standing revolved poses). And when I can see them, looking at them tends to throw me out of my inner experience and I lose my balance. Say, the thumb in Trikonasana. I just fall over if I really look at my thumb. I do better with a kind of unfocused, paying attention to my breath/bandhas thing, not looking at my thumb, not looking at anything. It seems like if I look OUT, I’m lost. Then there is the ‘tip of the nose’ driste—am I really supposed to cross my eyes? Again with the falling over. I’ve been interpreting ‘tip of the nose’ to mean something like ‘gaze down the nose so you can see its tip in your peripheral vision.’ That kind of works. I guess. Oh, who am I kidding.

Seeing as how driste is one of the tristhana of the ashtanga method (looking place, breathing, asana), I feel like I need to get this thing more nailed down. And I am sure that any minute now it will come to me. Along with the toes and the heat. Any…minute…now…. any….minute….

UPDATE (1/17/10): about driste, I have run across two things, advanced ashtangiis quoted by their students. One was that in driste you don’t LOOK so much as you ‘rest your gaze upon’ the spot. That helps. The second is, “The dristi is an eye exercise and helps focus the mind. We don’t actually need to see the toes.” So, my literal interpretation of “gazing point” gets softened a bit to be more of a mental technique for creating focus. Okay. I can work with that.


…also called love-mommy-asana. Luc named it. He says, “Is it time for loveasana yet?” It’s my all-time favorite pose. It happens at the end of my practice, when the kids have been waiting to get close for over an hour (don’t get too close to an ashtangi or you’re liable to get kicked by a flying vinyasa) and now, at the end, they finally can.

Luc secretly took this shot this morning in the Noah House. Sophie is wearing her fancy white Christmas Eve Eve Eve dress. I’m the blob in black, jelly limbed from a rousing round of primary series.

Have I mentioned how much I love yoga?

the trigger point therapy workbook

This book can change your life. I am NOT kidding. If you have any pain, especially chronic, nagging pain, ranging from annoying to disabling, the information in this book, applied by you, can seriously diminish your pain, and probably get rid of it entirely. As a yoga person, trying to avoid injuries, this book is essential. I have spoken.

I sound like I’m selling something, don’t I? I’m not, I promise. Just this: every time I have had aches and pains, I have used information in this book to fix it. Poof. Well, actually, first I suffer for a while before I remember the book. Then I do the V-8 maneuver [palm/forehead] and look up my owie.

What book? This book:

Some quick history: In 1992 Dr. Janet Travel published her opus Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction. In it she showed how a muscular phenomena she called trigger points created referred pain (meaning the pain shows up in places other than the trigger point itself. She also described, in detail, how these trigger points, left to fester in the backwaters of your myofascial tissues, could band together to create complex chronic pain syndromes.

Then she described how to deactivate the trigger points, for, Lo!, once they are deactivated, the referred pain goes away. As in, GONE.

But you don’t have to read 1000 pages of her two volume work to figure this all out. Clair Davies, in The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook, has, essentially, taken Dr. Travell’s work and made it totally accessible and easy to do on yourself.

Go Clair! All hail Clair Davies!

Basically, you (1) get a tennis ball or one of those super-bounce balls, (2) with the help of the book you find the magic trigger point (you know you’ve got the right spot because it Hurts So Good and lights up the chronic pain area when you press on it), and (3) apply pressure to the point by leaning again the ball, against a wall, or the floor, for a few seconds, a few times a day. You do this until you forget to do it because your pain is gone.

Here’s an example.

I’ve been doing a lot of touchpad editing/scrolling/cursor work the last few weeks, editing a manuscript. I noticed that my wrist was hurting, then I noticed that the pinky side was seizing up. Then it started screaming at me when I twisted it wrong, like, pain enough to make me drop whatever I was holding and curse.

Oh, no, I’m injured what do I do…duh…drool…oh yeah, what about that book? So I got out my dog-eared copy, looked up ” outer wrist and hand pain.”

Option #1 : stick needles in the trigger points. Yikes! This was Dr. Travell’s preferred method, and, I think, that is unfortunate, because it sounds so…icky. On the other hand, acupuncturist Mark Seem has done some cool stuff combining acupuncture technique with trigger point theory with remarkable results. So needling trigger points is option one. But what if you don’t like needles, or don’t know an acupunturist who is doing Seem’s work?

Option #2: get someone to mash ’em. That’s right, you can put pressure on the trigger points and they scream for a few seconds lighting up the referred pain areas in this exquisite pain/pleasure weirdness, and then the pain goes away. It’s like a freaking miracle. You can pay a massage therapist, trained in trigger points to do this for you, and if you can afford this, I HIGHLY recommend it.

But massage therapy can be expensive. And even if you can go regularly, real benefits come from daily work. Which leads me to…

Option #3: mash ’em yourself. You can totally do this! It’s awesome. About my wrist troubles, five minutes after flipping through the book I found the trigger point and gave it a little mini-treatment and the pain was 50% better. Five minutes! That includes reading! A few more treatments over the next couple of days, problem gone. Same thing for the lower back pain I had after my last pregnancy. Same thing for the shoulder and neck pain I get when I spend too much time at the computer (or doing puzzles with Luc). Etc.

In fact, I posted that post on Asana Envy and avoiding injury the other day—Yoga Hubris! Beware!—and the next day after my practice I realized I had tweaked my right hamstring attachment. Ouch. Yoga-butt. I’ve been feeling something going on there for a while, but it finally broke through to my consciousness that it was an actual hurt. Oops. Did some ice, rested, then got out the book. My understanding is that if the hamstring attachment is hurting, that means the tendon is getting over-stretched, taking the hit instead of the muscle-belly. I flipped through the book looking at the pictures until I found a few that showed refered pain on the sit-bone, noted the associated trigger points, and got out my high-bounce ball. Bingo, I found some exquisitely tender trigger points in my hamstring, right where the book said they would be, rolling the high-bounce ball under my thigh while sitting on my piano bench. Wowie kazowie they hurt. But when I stood up, no pain at the attachment site. And when I folded over in Uttanansa, the Hamstring Tendon Killer, no sharp ouch, instead a…twinge. Obviously still some healing/strengthening to do for the tendon. But the hurt was at least 50% less by deactivating those trigger points in the muscle. Holy cow! It took ten minutes to diminish the pain by 50%!

I say again, All Hail Clair Davies! He’s got a cure for what ails you!

He’s written a book on rotator cuff injuries that I really must read, but haven’t yet.

Trigger Point Therapy Workbook—Highly recommended.

(And if you’ve got yoga butt, look at this great article by Roger Cole, an Iyengar guy and anatomist—I did this fabulous workshop with him on Restorative Yoga a million years ago—and definitely don’t miss this article by Tim Miller, one of the Big Names in ashtanga. Very informative.)

asana envy and injury

I had two yoga teachers back in my twenties, one eclectic, one Iyengar-based, both of whom got me into a lot of trouble with my poor joints. The first, the eclectic gal, was into pushing. And yeah, she got us into some poses we wouldn’t have tried out of fear, and that was good. It was cool to realize my ‘inability’ was sometimes only in my mind. But I got hurt in that class. Regularly. The other, the Iyengar gal, she was into pose perfection. I learned a tremendous amount from her about alignment, as well as using opposing forces in the body to create stability in a pose and safety for joints (yeah!). But she had this phrase, “any amount more,” as in, “twist any amount more,” that got me hurt several times. The whole idea of “working in a pose” has done me a world of pain.

Now, I’m not laying all the injury blame at their feet, far from it. Mostly I’m pointing at Asana Envy, that desire to create a pose more aesthetically perfect, or the desire to do fancier Party Poses as well as the desire to look as cool as the Cool Kids who are doing them. I admit it. I suffer from Asana Envy on a regular basis. Look at those gorgeous floaty jump-throughs! Look at that elegant handstand-with-lotus! But I’m coming to see, what with this near-daily ashtanga home practice that I’ve been doing, that Asana Envy is useless. It doesn’t even work for getting what it purports to want (prettier poses).

In fact, I’m coming to see that striving for the fancy asana is the thing most likely to prevent the achieving of the fancy asana. Even if fancy asanas were the goal of yoga. Which they aren’t.

Here’s how it works in me. I conceive of a desire to do lotus pose so I start working extra much with preps for that pose, spending longer in it, and pushing just a bit while in half-lotus, hoping to get to the destination, Full Lotus [cue holy music] faster, sooner, now. And I I tweak my knee and it hurts for a couple of days. Which means no preps, no half-lotus, no knee-binding poses of any kind. And while my knee is healing, my hip is hardening even further….

Whereas, the poses I don’t focus on, the ones I just get through to get to the next one, continuously, magically, improve. A simple example, Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana, the bit where you stand on one leg and levitate the other leg up in the air in front of you, like you’re pointing, with your foot, how to get somewhere. “Oh, it’s right over there [point with foot].” It’s kind of silly looking. But when I started, I could lift and hold my foot, oh, maybe twelve inches off the ground, pathetic, but so what, I didn’t care about that asana. I was busy hurting my knees in lotus. But now, only a few months later, I can hold my leg nearly parallel to the floor. That’s some 60 degrees of improvement with hardly any effort on my part, beyond doing the pose at some easy level almost-daily. My lotus has improve maybe .0001 degree. Ha.

(I know there is a world of difference between the muscle strengthening in Padang and the tendon/ligament opening needed for Lotus, but still.)

Jois’s most famous saying is, “Practice and all is coming.” I’m starting to see one application of this. In fact, I’m starting to think the opposite of “any amount more,” that is, “drop back 10%” is the way to go. When I started ashtanga, I couldn’t do any back-bending of any kind, not even up-dogs, without my lower back going into terrible spasm. I kept trying to scale it back. Updog back to cobra, cobra back to sphinx…finally I gave up and just did plank. Good ole plank was my ‘back bend’ in every vinyasa. Until one day I realized I could do updogs. Poof. All my striving early on got me a hurt back. Just backing-off got me updogs.

Maybe it was other poses indirectly working the area. Maybe it was my core getting strong enough to support my low back. Who cares? Trying less got me further than trying more.

Since I’ve been thinking this way, it has made each day’s practice more enjoyable. A pose doesn’t have to be a big heroic production. I mean, the idea is that you do this stuff the rest of your life, so there’s no rush to get somewhere, right? I’m doing yoga now. The practice is now. There will always be fancier poses to master. The yoga won’t be when the fancier poses are accessible. The yoga is now. Even with my wimpasasa, my smear-back and collapse-through, my plank-is-my-backbend. Forget “give it your all!” I’m all about “give it a good 80% and call it a day!” I’m still progressing at a surprising pace and more importantly, I’m not getting hurt. Does this work in other areas? Do less, make it enjoyable, show up every day…hey, it’s like compound interest! Actually, this is the approach I’ve taken with writing, and parenting, and…. Maybe the whole American fixation on goals and goal-setting and achievement is the problem. Down with will power!

Anne Nuotio talks about using the breath to get further in a pose and I’ve been using that. Get 80% into a pose and then use motion of the five breathes in each pose, the expansion and contraction of the lungs, let that take you five increments further in. You can really see her doing this on her dvd. No muscling into a pose. No “any amount more.” Just a gentle, pleasurable pulse arising from the motion of the breath, at around 80% effort.

The fear “but I’m not striving! I won’t get anywhere!” is baseless: look at how my body opens when I treat it this way!

I could never have gotten away with this approach in those yoga classes.

Just say NO to Asana Envy.