From the Secret Lives of Yoga Poses Archive posts from 2008 – 2009

Playing Dress Up with the Goddess

Happy Halloween!

Here are some thoughts I wrote down about the holiday back in 2009 (the pictures are a little newer) – enjoy!

ali_as_frida

Invoking one of my Heroes, Halloween 2011

Halloween is one of my favorite yoga holidays.

In my early yoga practice, when my teacher showed up to class in a witch’s costume on October 31st, I thought it was bordering on inappropriate. Halloween, with the ghouls and the yahoos and the boozy parties, didn’t seem to fit within my new found passion for this devotional art of service to all beings. But over the years, I have absorbed some of the open-ness that comes with the practice. And though it’s not in any formal teachings that I have run across, I have come to understand, even to relish her gesture in making a connection between these two seemingly disparate traditions.

And I’m not talking about honoring our departed loved ones at around the end of October, or the thinning veil between the manifest and spirit worlds said to come around the new moon time in Scorpio.

I’m talking about the costumes.

In a wonderful creation story from the Tantric tradition, it is said that the Goddess recasts herself as every animate and inanimate form that is present in this universe out of the sheer desire to experience herself in new ways, and to taste the sweetness of desire. I’ve lately adopted the habit of referring to the universe as the “multiverse,” because it makes sense to me to conceive of the whole as something more like a multiplicity – a collection of these many and diverse forms. As microcosmic expressions of this Shakti, one could imagine that each one of us possess all of her attributes, as a drop of water contains every bit as much water-ness as a well full of water does, or an ocean full. I love the idea that we, too, as forms of the multiverse, have worlds within us – are made up of facets as limitless and diverse as those of the forests, the oceans, the deserts, and the stars in the sky.

When you think about it, every time we practice yoga we are tapping in to our complexity and potential to recreate ourselves in new ways. We assume the many forms of the asanas, one after the other, sometimes pausing for a moment to savor the experience of knowing ourselves within that form. “Mmmm, this is me in triangle pose. Ahhh, here is me in a cobra shape.” It is delicious, every time. It’s not unlike a child’s game of dress-up – an opportunity to try on, try out, and celebrate possibility itself. In doing our practice, we celebrate the myriad possibilities of the unimaginably complex and varied beings that She (the universe) is, and that we are.

Over the years I have come to relish Halloween as a grand celebration of these myriad forms. When we honor the parts, in effect, we honor the whole. And what’s more, it’s just fun. Looking around at all the grown-ups – on the bus, in the bank, playing like children – lightens my heart and renews my delight in simply existing.

My favorite image from last Halloween is that of a small girl in a long black lacy dress, with a tall pointy orange hat and sparkly silver shoes, standing at the counter of a cafe and holding in front of her an orange and black frosted jack-o-lantern shaped cookie on a plate. Her eyes were all lit up in anticipation of the pleasure that sweet treat promised to impart. And there I saw the Goddess embodied – a witch who was also an angel, and a princess, and the very epitome of a human being, born from her own deep longing to relish herself via the pleasures and the confines of the human experience.

 

rainbow wig

In my amazing new rainbow wig – 2015

 

 

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 I was afraid to be an artist because

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I was afraid to be an artist because I thought it was too painful.

I stopped painting in the summer of 2000, just about fifteen years ago.  At the time I was pouring a lot of difficult personal experiences into my paintings, or through them. It was cathartic to the extreme, sometimes it felt like it might kill me. A teacher once said about the work I was doing that “some people paint by bleeding through their fingertips.” There was a point where it started to feel like I might bleed out.

acrylicMe

I hadn’t set out with the intention of painting difficult paintings. I had initiated this particular period of my art-making life with the innocent decision to dedicate some time, a few months or so, I thought, to just working on my rendering skills. I had been drawing and painting people mostly, and I wanted to be better and surer. I called it “playing scales”, and I chose my first subjects for the challenge they offered by way of complexity and detail. 

The first one was a broken open pomegranite. I did a bunch of those.

 

pomegranites3

 

still life_pomegranites_1

 

study pomegranites 3

Then one day my cat brought in a dead but perfectly pristine robin, and I fell in love. Feathers – are hard. Talons are hard. So I got all the juicy effortful trying and failing and learning I was after and then some.

 

stilled - oil on found wood

 

stilled 2 - oil on found wood

 

But there was something else going on as well, and that was that I felt connected to that bird in a mysterious but very powerful way. That’s what really hooked me, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I knew that little bird. I knew its deadness – the sudden unfathomable deadness of a flitting, singing, soaring creature, one moment lovely and exquisitely free, the next moment forever stilled. The feeling-tone or flavor of it was familiar to me, and also dear and precious. I cradled that bird, and lavished my attention on every minute nuance of its form. I painted it for months, keeping it in my freezer in between sessions. 

During that time, other stilled little birds happened across my path. I found a skeleton of a bird in a planter in my garden. Once, a tiny baby bird, newly hatched and barely formed, literally fell from the sky, landing on the sidewalk at my feet. It breathed for a moment and then stopped, and I scooped it up tenderly and took it home and it joined the robin in and out of my freezer for a while.

 

fallen - oil on wood

At a certain point someone challenged me about my subject matter, accused me of exploiting the birds for the shock value of their deadness. This came as quite a surprise to me because it was so completely innacurate, and in response I began painting myself into the pictures in various ways, in an attempt to clarify the strange kinship that was at the heart of my fascination. And as I did so, my own understanding of myself began to take shape.

 

little bird little bird - oil on canvas

 

 I started to realize that I knew that bird’s stillness, its tiny fragile perfect life stopped in mid air, in numerous ways through the events of my own life. Through the actual deaths and near deaths of actual flitting, soaring, lovely beings, so full of life and possibility, that had come so frequently and close together ever since my childhood.

 

untitled

When I was five years old, my older sister was diagnosed with Luekemia. At the time, that was a sure death sentence, and she was given six months. She underwent treatment, was a part of a test group for an as then unproved protocol which was to be, in part, the reason she beat the odds and lives to this day. But our circumstances drew other cancer fighting children into our lives, and while my sister survived, many of them didn’t. Then, in a bizarre twist of fate, my own special best friend, a playmate of my very own who had nothing to do with our cancer community, succumbed to death from Reye’s syndrome at the age of seven. Later, the suicides and alcohol related accidental deaths of my rebellious teenage years, coinciding with the Aids epidemic of the eighties delivered a host of unimaginably sudden stillings of exquisite soaring beings. There was the boy who either fell or jumped to his death from the roof at a party I attended when I was about nineteen, the one I wrote about in a previous blog.

When I was 23, I cradled my beloved uncle, a teacher and mentor of mine, in my arms as toxoplasmosis lesions consumed his brain, finalizing his conscious, relatable existence over the course of one dramatic night under my watch. When I was 24 I lost my first real romantic love to death, also HIV related. A few months after that I found myself a part of an informal network keeping watch over a brilliant creative young friend who was slipping away into the mental illness which eventually lead to his suicide. He hanged himself with the bible laid open to the story of Lazarus’s rebirth. All young, flitting, singing, soaring beings. There were others, including my grandmother that Fall, who I’d lived with, who taught me meditation and breath practice and profoundly shaped my world view, and who soared and flitted even as old age ravished her body and just up until the moment that death claimed it.

 

bird study suspended

 

suspendedwithshadow

 

I’ve since noticed that this happens to people. It may have happened to you. There will be a year, or a few years in a person’s life that seems to be filled up with loss, one coming so close on the heels of the one before that they hardly have a chance to catch their breath.

Losing the man I loved when I was so young was pivotal in my particular story I think. In countries at war, even in parts of my own country, women in their twenties experience widowhood more regularly. But in the culture I grew up in that kind of loss is very unusual at the age of 24. When it happened to me, no one had any idea how to relate to me. I didn’t know how to relate to myself. I don’t think anyone who loved me could bear the thought of my pain, so we didn’t really talk about it. I remember how hard I tried not to. I remember watching myself as if from outside of myself, trying to maintain normal socially acceptable conversations, and hearing, or seeing the story of this terrible pain come out of my mouth as if I had no controll over it at all. I remember wishing I could push the offending words back inside, stuff them down and swallow them again.

 

dona nobis pacem - oil on canvas

 

 So though it wasn’t what I set out to do when I painted that first little bird for the first time, I was now pouring the grief and tenderness and un-fathomability of it all into those paintings, and once the flood gates opened I was powerless to keep the images inside. And I was spending hours and hours every day at this. It was painful, and I was afraid of the pain, and of feeling alone, and of being singled out for my difficult nature, made ever more evident by my difficult paintings, and thus feeling more alone and thus feeling more pain. But I kept at it, because I thought, I still think, that truth has beauty inherent within it. Honesty is it’s own kind of beauty.

 

tiny tiny tiny - oil on panel

It took one final blow to push me over the edge, to make the pain of working through the grief greater than the healing benefit it promised: My friend, my best friend, who was also the man I had kissed for the first time just days before, the man who I was on my way to visit in order to figure out just what that kiss had meant, the healthy vigorous athletic vital man who had, incidentally, sat with me in my studio while so many of those paintings took shape over the previous few years, and who thought them beautiful also, died. It was sudden, a drowning. Like a soaring bird falling from the sky and landing lifeless at my feet.

In the wake of that powerful grief, on top of all the other old, unprocessed griefs, I made a choice to transform into a new version of myself rather than endure the heartbreak and suffering I was feeling. I turned away from myself. I stopped painting and drawing completely. I immersed myself in my newfound love of yoga. A few months after the drowning, I threw many of my paintings into the garbage.

Sometimes I want to go back and tell my younger self to stay with it, that fearless truth telling is of value to the world and is salvation for the teller. But then I remember that I was so young, and so hurt, and it was so much to hold. I did what I thought I had to do to get through it.

These paintings are the few that remain. I made them between the years 1996 and 2000. I treasure them like a long lost part of myself.

What I’ve learned since then has become one of the guiding principles of my life – that it’s not the telling of the truths that’s painful, it’s the truths themselves. That lfe is full of painful truths, and we can’t change that, but in the telling and sharing we can repurpose the pain into shared experiences of humanity, of connection, and these experiences of connection offer us some of our greatest moments as human beings.

Conversely, it was the times that I turned away from the truth, from myself and the fulll spectrum of my humanness, that brought the most suffering into my life. I know that now. But I had to learn it to know it. Back then, I was both too serious, and not serious enough.

 

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You can view all of these paintings in full page format in one continuous scroll here.

 

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6/9/15: My 2015 Living Yoga Yogathon Epilogue Blog

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No one likes a complainer.

That is, in part, why it’s frightening to speak out loud about our vulnerabilities and weaknesses.  We don’t want to appear whiny. And it’s why each entry of my Yogathon Blog project took a long time to write, rewrite, and finally go public with.

In case you missed this earth-shattering event, my Yogathon Blog project was to blog for the month of April about my almost-six years of traversing the muck of less than optimal health, and to share what that traversing has taught me as a yoga teacher and as a human being.

My hope in initiating the project was twofold. Hope one was to open up a little crack in the facade of the yoga teacher identity. I’m referring to the idea that if we do yoga as a life’s calling, that if we’re committed deeply enough to what we learn in the mat to eandeavor to share it with others, that we should be invulnerable to ill health, as well as masters of stress management, laughing mockingily at the absurd notion of negative thoughts, and at the beating that a full-sprectrum human life is capable of serving up.

Blech. I hate that.

Hope number two was to share the insight and understanding I have gained during this time.  An understanding which has led me to completely reimagine what practice can be, as well as who I am and what I want from life, and what I’m capable of.

 The first entry was meant as an introduction to a series of several posts that would both describe my current state within the larger picture of these years (and those to come), and also unravel the path I’ve walked to arrive here. I had a story to tell. A lot of stories, actually. And as Living Yoga’s Yogathon drew to a close, I found I had only just begun the telling process.

The posts I made during the month of April were written as part of my commitment to making my practice public, a commitment I made as an ambassador for Living Yoga’s 2015 Yogathon. I went all in. I kept a dedicated blog about my personal practice for the month of the Yogathon event.

I wrote five entries that month, which in retrospect feels like a pretty handy contribution. But the best part of the process was that it served as the motivation I needed to break the ice, and to begin telling some of the personal stories that have both stifled and fueled my yoga practice over the years.

My inquiry-through-story will continue on my new, ongoing blog:

And, Etc.,

It’s all to do with evolution and transformation, loss, and the creative process. You’ll find those five yogathon entries there, plus one from the Fall of 2014, when I blogged for the first time since I fell ill in late 2009, about how I’d just picked up a paintbrush for the first time in 14 years. Good times.

In Love and Yoga – A

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4/15/15 Yogathon Blog Entry # 5:

Because of All the Ways

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Dream – somebody (I?) was beating somebody’s (mine?) lifeless body. Lifeless as in, passed away. They were (I was) pounding somebody’s (my) lifeless flesh with tight fists, over and over as if in a rage, with every drop of strength they (I) could muster.

fallen

When I was about 19 or so, a boy I barely new, but had a crush on, either fell or jumped to his death from the roof of a building where I was attending a party. The whole evening was so random. I was walking down Fillmore street in San Francisco in 1989 and passed by a house that looked like it had a party going on inside one the flats. I was working on my shyness, and I wanted to meet people, so I braced myself and went up. A little bit after I had arrived I saw a boy come in that I knew from City College where I was taking a few classes, filling in the gaps left by my early and abrupt departure from highschool a few years earlier. I didn’t know his name, nor had I ever spoken to him, but I had seen him around the little courtyard outside of the arts department, and had developed a pretty crippling infatuation. He had messy, died black hair, and wore the long army jacket and boots that a lot of my friends wore. He had slightly crooked teeth, and I had imagined him with an English accent.  He came in with a few people, one of them a girl who was pretty obviously his girlfriend, and they all disappeared promptly on to the roof. I hung around for a while pretending I didn’t care, and then went into bathroom.

The whole bathroom was white, the floor and walls were covered in white tile. There were a couple of plants in the window sill, and there were little objects in the earth part of the plants, little glass jewels or figurines reflecting the sun coming in from the light well, and I admired and coveted the feminine touch, a touch I didn’t myself posses. I didn’t have to pee, I just needed to be alone for a bit, to manage my shyness, and the little heartbreak I was having over the boy. I’d been in there for probably five minutes when his body plummetted past the window.

I went outside. There was a lot of commotion, everyone from the party had come outside into the street. I spotted her, the girlfriend, talking to paramedics, and I sat down nearby. I didn’t talk to her, I just sat and tried to be empty and absorptive. I was meditating, sort of, imagining the area around our bodies filling with light, a technique I’d learned from my grandmother. I wanted to hold her and also give her room. I wanted to absorb her fear and pain and overwhelm. At some point I noticed we were holding hands, although we still hadn’t exchanged a word, and I’m not sure she’d even looked at me. We sat together like that until it was time for her to get in the ambulantce and ride with the boy to the hospital. She asked the paramedics if I could go with her. They said that wasn’t possible.

Later I heard that he died in the ambulance. I never found out his name, and I never saw his girlfriend again.

A few years ago I experienced a radical healing as a result of a spiritual crisis in the form of finding out my yoga teacher was a fraudulent abuser of women and power. I questioned everything I had ever believed in. I questioned, and remain quite suspect of, belief itself. I came to understand how much of what I thought was supporting me and making me strong was actually holding me down, keeping me dependent, my self esteem resting in the opinions and approval of others, and whether or not my actions were of value to them.

I write things down. I have hundreds of little notes to myself, both paper and digital, of things that come up that feel important or resonant. This is one I wrote during that time:

Because of All the ways I pretend.
Because of All the ways I make myself invisible.
Because of All the ways I have brutalized myself in the name of protecting or serving others (breaking the waves)

There’s a certain way in which our best qualities, in terms of how we show up in the world, can be our biggest failures in the way we show up for ourselves.

Fillmore Street, San Francisco, 1989

Fillmore Street, San Francisco, 1989

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4/14/15 Yogathon Blog Entry # 4:

Lying Down Days

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I wrote a couple of days ago that “Me and my mat need relationship counseling.”

I’ve been thinking about that a lot since. I also wrote in the same post that “we must fight the should’s in our lives and our practices with the tenacity of a terrier”. Trés dramatique, eh?  It might be that my mat and I just need to reimagine one another with the should’s taken away. As asana teachers, we tell our students every day that however they are, they are exactly how they need to be to practice. I think that is one of the most powerful messages that the Living Yoga teachers articulate to their students. But it’s easy to forget that ourselves.

A “lying down day” is how I’ve come to refer to the days where my energy is so low, all I can do is lie down. I think I can get up, sometimes I do get up, but then I just have to lie back down again. These days are becoming fewer and fewer, and seem to be related to actual exertion, as opposed to just randomly occurring. For the Yogathon, I vowed that I would go to my mat daily, even if just for an extended savasana. What I meant was that on the lying down days, I would spend some of my lying down time on my actual yoga mat.

At the very least, when I remember to come to my mat as I am, no should’s, I feel like I’ve done something constructive, which lifts my spirits.

Practice notes 4/10 – 4/13:

Friday, 4/11:
Savasana

Friday was a lying down day. I did teach class on Friday, but it felt a little clunky because of the sludge that was masquerading as my brain.

Saturday, 4/11:
Savasana

Saturday was not a lying down day. I did savasana only, but by choice – I chose to spend my energy gardening, which fills my heart up. After gardening I sat with people I love, and our dogs, and ate tasty things – kippers and triscuits and pesto and pickles and some kind of delicious stout. As part of my study in self care, I have been actively practicing the art of enjoying things – friends and food and especially unscheduled time. I ate with the dirt and compost still on my hands and face. Came just as I was to that practice, too.

Sunday, 4/12:
Sirsasana (headstand)
Armchair Sarvangasana (shoulder stand)
pranayama (ujaiii with antara and bahya kumbaka)
ajappa (silent mantra repetition)
savasana

Got up out of bed late at night to do this one, having forgotten/neglected. Super, super sweet practice.

Monday, 4/13:
Down Dog
Parsvotanasana (pyramid)
Anjeneyasana
Parsvotanasana again
Parivrtta Trikonasana (twisted triangle)
EPRK (Pigeon) prep with bow
EPRK (Pigeon) prep w/ open twist holding opposite foot
side two ^
Agnistambasana (fire log)
to supine baby cradle, to baby cradle crunch
Half happy baby
Supta Padanghusatasana lateral, and then front
second side ^
A few breaths in padmasana both sides
Paschimotanasana
Savasana

I felt pretty strong yesterday. Part of my healing process has been navigating what appears to be a complete re wiring of the messaging system that tells me what the right amount of effort is. I had always trusted in the fact that better energy would result from practice, or any exercise. It has been confusing and frustrating to realize that’s no longer a dependable assumption. A couple of weeks ago I took a gentle yoga class and was layed out for two days. Yesterday I hit the mark, which was great, because as a result I had a very productive Monday.

If you’re curious about Living Yoga‘s work and why it matters, check this video out – it features a man who’s gone full circle from felon to yoga teacher by committing to himself with the support of the LY programs.

To register for the 2015 Yogathon, go here (You are warmly invited to join my team – Team Loom!) To make a straight-up donation, go here. Thank you.

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4/11/15 Yogathon Blog Entry # 3:

First Memory

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Stepping precariously into a rowboat from a small dock on a crisp winter day, with an older couple I didn't know well - friends of my parents. Later, from their living room, watching snow fall in the woods through a sliding glass door. I remember the woman reached down to stroke my sister's hair - this was meaningful to me, probably, because my sister had recently been diagnosed with cancer (she survived), and everything surrounding her felt strangely sad and important.
First Memory – Stepping precariously into a rowboat from a small dock on a crisp winter day, with an older couple I don’t know well – friends of my parents. Later, from their living room, watching snow fall in the woods through a sliding glass door. I remember the woman reached down to stroke my sister’s hair – this was meaningful to me, probably, because my sister had recently been diagnosed with cancer (she survived), and everything surrounding her felt strangely sad and important.

 

 

 

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4/9/15 Yogathon Blog Entry # 2:

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inthegardenwiththesunflowers

A Tiny Space

Dream – A tiny space is opening up inside – the space for self compassion. The space to care, to be kind to myself. To feel self. 

The picture above is me in my garden last summer. I’d been trying to get sunflowers to take off for eight years, and it was so great – it felt like a miracle – that they finally just did, having successfully self-sown the year before. This really lifted my spirits after having been in bed all spring. It was the first year I didn’t put in a summer garden. Not one tomato. This was kind of a big deal for me, because ever since I was a little kid I wanted to grow things, to live on lots of land, keep chickens. Since I moved to Portland in 2007 and got some dirt of my own for planting, I’ve grown things and canned things. Until last Spring. I made peace with it. We have good farmer’s markets here in Portland. And the sunflowers definitely helped.

I wrote in my first Yogathon entry that in spite of my persistent fatigue, and the many false starts in my healing / recovery process where I thought I was getting better but wasn’t quite, I had reason to believe that this time, it was going to stick. The reason for that is so obvious it’s embarrassing to say it but here goes – earlier this winter, I went on vacation.

I’ve been asked by a few students who read my first entry whether I have Chronic Fatigue. Talking to a friend a while ago I brought up this possibility and he said, “Chronic fatigue is a description, not a diagnosis,” which was funny, but only partially true. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or CFS, is real, it is a diagnosis. I’ve read reams about it in the last few years. Did you know the author who wrote Seabicuit has it? She does, her name is Laura Hillenbrand, and she has become one of my bed ridden but accomplished heroes. I’m collecting them, just in case.

At this time, I  have not been diagnosed with CFS. But I’ve learned a lot about what I’m going through by learning about CFS and other conditions that result in debilitating fatigue. Noatably, people who succumb to those are usually people who are active, strong, capable, passionate. I certainly was. I was always the hale and hardy type, hardly ever sick, never happier than when I was tilling the garden with a pick, or building a patio out of broken concrete pieces I collected from from the free pages on Craigslist. Or running in the woods with my dog. Or savoring a long, strong yoga practice.

But as my energy flagged more and more, and my responsibilities in the world didn’t, there just wasn’t gas in the tank for doing those things. And since my joys had always come from things that look a lot like working, I didn’t have any skills in the area of recuperative downtime. I had never heard the term “self care” until late 2011. The last few years I’ve been studying it, like an anthropologist.

And then in February I went on vacation, a proper one, the kind I couldn’t afford and would never intentionally plan for myself (long story). I went to a warm beach and did nothing but roll around in the gentle ocean and read and nap and take slow walks and eat tacos.

And when I came back I had that dream up there.

Here are some practice notes I found from a few days ago:

Insights from pulling up weeds in the garden -

first – that gardening is like painting, at least for me, in the sense that you have to just get your hands in there and start looking and working the way reveals itself. How is it I’ve lost that kind of communication with my asana practice? Me and my mat need relationship counseling.

second – that yoga practice is like gardening in that it’s slow, in that you have to be patient and you may not see results for a while, in that no one knows for sure what the results will be (“you could try it and see” is the famed answer of most gardening experts to almost any gardening question), and in that you are never, I repeat never, wasting your time when working in your garden or on your yoga mat. At the very least, you’ll feel more of yourself in that moment, and for the long term, you will have aerated the soil. A deep breath is like money in the bank.

Three things about yoga and life that have gotten really clear for me in the last couple / few years:

1 – start where you are. start in the middle (as if there is another choice)

2 – dig more than one deep well – try to learn a lot about at least one more than one thing. Learning about one thing you learn about that thing. But learning about two things, and the way those two things are similar and dissimilar, and you are learning about the universe itself.

3 – finally, yoga must be sweet. We must fight the should’s in our lives and in our practices with the tenacity of a terrier. Our practices – yoga, art-making, must grow up from deep within us like tulips, fertilized by longing and tilled by pleasure. Even our tapas, our disciplines, must sprout from the deep earth of our authentic desires and drives if they are to be alive, to thrive as the conditions of our lives allow. This I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt.

dd
plank
dd
plank
pigeon both sides
supine baby cradle, supta padanghustana forward and lateral both sides
fire log both sides
lotus with  twist to both directions
supta virasana
ardha supta virasana with padanghustana

savasana

Here are my practice notes from today:

virasana for a long time, breathing
prasarita padotanasana
childs

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To register for Living Yoga’s 2015 Yogathon, go here (You are warmly invited to join my team – Team Loom!) To make a straight-up donation, go here. Thank you.

 

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4/6/15 Yogathon Blog Entry # 1:

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 I have a Story to Tell You

One of my strategies as a yoga teacher is story telling. I love to unravel the tendrils of a harrowing tale, or a hilarious or inspiring one. Offering just the right details, at just the right moments, to support or impact students’ effort in asana, is a project that tantalizes and taunts me almost as much as the practice of yoga itself.  I often remind students during classes that Yoga is hard because life is hard, and I say it to make us laugh, but also because it’s true. Similarly, I think that a story’s complexity can be its strength. I think that often, what seem at first to be unwieldy details, or random tangents, or confusing subplots, turn out to hold gifts of depth and layered meaning mired within them. I hope I’m right about that, because I have a story to unravel that’s so complex it makes me tired just thinking about it.

But then, I’ve been tired for years, which is what this story is about. Though hardly anyone knows about it, for years I’ve struggled with minor to moderate but persistent health concerns, resulting in my body flat-out refusing to perform in the manner I had come to expect. Over the last five years os so, I have been deeply, chronically, at times debilitatingly fatigued. I balk at staircases. I’m not always up to walking my own dog. There have been stretches, a week, a couple of weeks, even a couple months at a time, when the only time I got out of bed during the day was to teach a yoga class. I watched the whole spring of 2014, the whole beautiful spring in beautiful Portland, pass by through my bedroom window.

There have been many ups and downs, times of feeling better, and then not so much. I have been positively diagnosed with, and treated for, a host of things; broken adrenals, low functioning thyroid, some issue relating to cortisol and estrogen balance (I can’t remember exactly), anemia, various vitamin deficiencies. Basically your run-of-the mill hormonal imbalances and stress related depletion disorders. But none of these things seem to explain the tenacity of my symptoms. That spring was the worst of it. It turned out I had Epstein-Barr, a wicked virus that has no business taking root in a healthy adult. But then I wasn’t healthy.

Mind you, there’s nothing threatening my life.  I am am starkly aware of that fact. In the time I’ve been navigating these waters, I have watched friends and colleagues bravely face such demons as cancer, M.S., Lupus. In the past, I have nursed and then mourned loved ones who succumbed to AIDS and mental illness. I know how lucky I am for my overall health. And yet, there has been something taking the life out of my life, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it’s a special kind of torture to not have a diagnosis, a named enemy to go into battle with.

I have been both blessed and cursed in this life by a kind of stalwart, take-it-on-the-chin optimism, a quality that has both saved my butt and kicked me in it about a thousand times, such that through all of it I’ve simply held the belief that I’m on the mend. I’m always “getting my strength back”, emboldened by one treatable diagnosis or another. But the truth is that I’ve gone from vital and athletic, my can-do attitude perfectly matched by my hardy, reliable frame, to being almost paralyzed by a fear that I might inadvertently over-do, and trigger another bout of fatigue that will leave me unable to compose an email, or have a phone conversation. Afraid to accept a social invitation, or to practice asana for more than a few minutes at a time, after consistently requiring days of recovery after any but the most minimal movement. At a certain point I realized that there’s a way in which my positive attitude, the expectations I have held fast to that I would once again be the person I have always been if only I keep at my practice, get more rest, eliminate this food or the other from my diet, had become a pernicious presence of self-judging as I fail to meet those expectations day after day after day. For five, going on six, now, years.

At the moment of this writing I am – better. I have grown cautious around feeling excited about feeling better, because again and again such excitement has proved premature, but I do feel better right now than I have in a long time, and I have reason to believe that this time it’s going to stick. I’ve been taking steadily longer walks. I’ve been slowly adding strengthening asanas back into my yoga practice. That said, I still have days where I stand up, and promptly realize I have to lie back down again.

Why am a telling you this?

-Because I know I’m not the only one.

I heard a quote the other day: “If we knew each other’s secrets, what comfort we should find.” As I have walked through this foreign and sometimes terrifying period of unexplained alienation from my body, I have scoured the internet for evidence that I wasn’t alone. That someone, somewhere had experienced this before me, and had maybe even recovered. In part, telling is a way of giving back.

2 – Because not telling is exhausting.

This thousand armed beast wants out. As I mentioned above, I have mostly kept quiet about my struggles because I keep thinking it’s over (and then it’s not). But it’s also because it just feels unseemly to complain. Teaching yoga is a service, and it has felt inappropriate to me to burden those I serve with concerns for my personal well being. But I’m starting to see that this plan is unsustainable. I cannot continue to hold all the things I’m holding and still have the energy to show up for students, or even for my family, or myself.

3 – Because I’ve learned, so, much.

I used to think I knew what practice was. I thought I had discipline, because I diligently did my tapas, and the fire of my yoga steeled me, gave me strength and brought me peace. Just as all my teachers, and all of the texts had told me it would. But this particular demon I’m up against now only gets stronger when I confront it in battle. Like Raktabija, the demon who, when squaring off with the powerful Durga, produced infinite Raktabijas with every spilled drop of his blood.

As it turned out, I hadn’t begun to practice until my practice was taken away. Until what I thought to be the very heart of my sadhana – my body and the insights I gained on my yoga mat – was pulled out from under me, leaving me untethered and unsure.

So, I have a story to tell you. Or a thousand stories. Maybe a hundred thousand. I’m not sure what they are yet. For the month of the Yogathon I’ll post them here, as they surface, and also my practices. I know it will be healing for me to unravel them. And I hope they’ll be of use to you.

 

inthegardenwiththesunflowers

Last Summer in my Garden

 

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Oct 4, 2014

640px-Rainbow_Trout

On Ardha Chandrasana – or – What I Did on My Summer Vacation

Sometimes a moment will hook me, like a fish. Though it may be one amidst a sea of moments, it will glitter at me, and I’ll bite, and then I’ll find myself chewing my way up up the line for days.

This happened a few Saturdays ago, while I was taking a class from one of my students, a recent graduate of a yoga teacher training that I created and led over the last eighteen months. As a part of their final project, the graduates offered classes on a donation basis, and in support of their efforts I took each one. Even without the hooking moment, the experience of learning from a student would be worth mentioning. Through the course of these donation classes, information I had labored to communicate during the training came back at me in all kinds of new ways, having cycled through that students’ consciousness, full of that student’s memories and experiences and wisdom and curiosity and point of view. Teaching, it turns out, is a profound way to learn and grow and re-understand yourself.

mriyengarardhachandrasana

The late master BKS Iyengar in Half Moon

On this day, my student / teacher taught Ardha Chandrasana, Half Moon Pose, and the transition to Ardha Chandrasana from, and back to, Triangle, as shown in the pictures above. I had something going on with my hip flexors at the time that was affecting my balance on the left side. I felt stable enough in poses that required me to stand on just my right leg, but was all wobbly when standing only on the left. This is not generally the case, so I was paying close attention to his instructions to draw my leg in to connect to my core. He told me to draw in all the way from the bottom of my foot, even my little toe, as a way of cultivating the solidity and steadfastness that the pose demands. He had introduced a theme of intention, mindfulness, and tapas. Tapas is a Sanskrit word that means something like, “the heat of effort.”

While practicing Half Moon that Saturday, I immersed  myself in the process of tracing the path of that back leg, the sole of its foot and pinky toe, back to its physical root. I tried to feel where it’s woven into the fascial deep front line, beginning with the muscles that spread and lift the toes, along the deep tunnels of my calf, to my thighbone at the hip socket and, via a muscle called iliopsoas, which winds and slithers through the dark inner rim of my pelvic bowl, all the way to my spine at thoracic vertebrae number twelve. I know from my anatomy studies that the connections continue onward to the diaphragm, the pericardial sac, which holds the heart, and even the throat and tongue.

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Here was the hook – the taste of that moment was familiar. And not just because of my 14 years on the yoga mat. It was familiar because while moving through the moments of my life in the few weeks prior, I had found myself tracing similar pathways. I had been consciously endeavoring to identify my desires and preferences, and to feel into where and how they plug in to the rest of the story of who I am.

I had started by paying attention to my most peripheral whims and urges. Where at other times, as a disciplined person, I might ignore or suppress them, instead I followed their twists and turns, through deep layers of past loves and joys, losses and failures, through the shadowy tunnels of past choices, and events beyond my control.

I had initiated this work because I had come to recognize two things: Th first was a kind of instability. Just like in that yoga class (in half moon on the left side), my off-the-mat asanas – the ways I had been expressing myself in the world – were beginning to feel unsupported somehow, and therefore unsustainable. I was feeling wobbly, as if in spite of the loveliness of the outer form – the openness of my upper back and chest, the tilt of my hip – I was in danger of collapsing at any moment. The second thing I’d recognized was that this lack of stability was related to having become disconnected from aspects of my person that had, at one time or another, played a central role in my life.

An engineer friend of mine once excitedly told me that one day humans would evolve our little toes right off of our feet. He told me this was because they don’t really do anything. As a yoga teacher I was amused and a little disturbed by this. But it’s certainly true that most of us have very little awareness, if any, of what those little toes are for, or of the sinews that connect them to our hearts. We might have never considered that capabilities we really value, like maintaining balance, are affected when those connections weaken, and they do – often by our own neglect. I had begun to realize, and it crystalized in that yoga class, that I had become disconnected from other parts of myself too, parts not anatomical but none the less real. Parts which I had assumed to be insignificant, even disposable, but are in fact intrinsic to my wholeness and integrity.

So as an experiement, I initiated a practice of doing whatever I felt like. I had taken some time off, so I read a couple of novels. I got out my dusty pencils and erasers, once permanently affixed to my graphite-stained fingers, and made drawings – of strangers on the bus, of a little girl eating with her parents at a taqueria, and of my own face in the mirror. I painted a still life in my bathrobe with the radio blaring at midnight. I let my husband and our dog go on vacation without me, and spent more time alone than I have in many years, with nothing to direct me but my own plain wanting. I ate the whole pint of ice cream, right out of the carton, while sitting in the warm sun on the front porch listening to the radio. I watched tv on the internet. I went alone to a neighborhood bar and drank tequila while eavesdropping on the other patrons.

I refrained from placing value judgements on my choices, trusting instead that my  impulses to like or want, even when their objects appear insignificant, are voicings of qualities or energies that may in fact be deeply woven in to the fabric of me. That they can be traced through innumerable significant mechanisms to the heart of my very self, just as my little toe can be traced to the snake-like bony tube that houses my nervous system. And like my little toe,  they need to be engaged in the conversation of my larger self in order for that self to thrive.

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Little Girl at the Taqueria

Alison Alstrom

Still LIfe – first time I’ve moved paint around in fourteen years

dexter

At the initiation of this essay, I was obsessed with Dexter

The hip flexor thing worked itself out over time. I’ve noticed in my practice that sometimes the questioning and its accompanying awareness are enough. When I rev up my focus, and get clearer on the way I’m engaging my muscles in the poses, my body will often take it from there, and the glitches get worked out somewhere beneath the level of my analytical mind.

The deeper, or broader inquiry, around how to cultivate more integration in order to sustain and even enrich the poses I do off the mat, is still on the table.

lawandorderstill

The original Law & Order series from 1990 – my current internet TV fixation

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Moi

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