Tuesday, January 31, 2006

A response to anonymous (rather overdue)

In several books I've been reading recently, the authors have made the point that often enough, what answer you get depends on what question you ask. Not necessarily a controversial point, but one that I think is interwoven with anonymous' comment posted below in response to The Process.


About six years ago, I attended a leadership conference where several of the presentations and workshops discussed the various ways that people interact. One of the presenters suggested that (waking) mind-work can be usefully understood along a dimensional axis with narrowly-focused attention at one end and with expansive, creative linking of ideas at the other. She used a Hoberman sphere (google it) expanding and contracting as a visual representation of the modes of mind she was discussing.


As a 19-yr.-old Mormon missionary ("Mormon" = shorthand for "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints." See why we use the shorthand?) in 1981-82, I interrupted college and moved to a community I'd never seen (the Spanish-speaking peoples in the barrios stretching between Pomona and San Bernardino, CA) to devote all of my time to teaching religion, proselyting, devotional practices such as prayer, and community service. It was an immensely rewarding experience. I discovered the influence of God in ways that I'd never previously encountered. I gained pragmatic experience with urban life. I learned Spanish. I developed personal commitments to principles of morality that I still hold strongly a quarter century later.


As an interested by-stander to several physicians' education and training, I've been impressed with the insanity of residency workloads. (Though I believe they've moderated somewhat in recent years.) I watched in a combination of amusement and awe as my brother put in 100+ weeks regularly. I visited him in a hospital (which was where he could always be found) one afternoon that had a nearby McDonalds with a help wanted sign in the window. My brother said he'd gone in and asked how much they paid per hour. After some quick math, he realized that the amount was a lot more than his salary divided by the number of hours he was working. He pointed out to the McDonald's employee that he'd make a lot more money working for them than as a resident. The employee disagreed, indicating that for quality control purposes, McDonald's wouldn't allow an employee to work that many hours per week. So what on earth justifies letting residents operate on people while working on so little sleep? The story as I understand it is two parts: first, the need for raw hours in the saddle to gain experience, and second, there is a kind of intensity of focus that makes each of the hours spent more valuable in instilling the values, cementing the details, and integrating the experience of medical practice.


So what? Just this: it seems obvious that what and where we seek determines what we find. Am I overdosing on yoga? Perhaps it seems that way from the outside, just as it seemed to me that my brother and other hospital residents were overdosing on medicine; as lawyers overdose on legal practice or investment bankers on financings or nuns on prayer. Might I gain valuable understandings from devotion to other endeavors? Surely. I find the pattern of immersion-learning to be one that repeats throughout my life.

But that brings me to what I believe anonymous was getting at: so why yoga? Why not investment banking?

I've been mulling over that question for the last week or so. My current thinking goes like this:

  1. Can any activity, conducted with meticulous attention to its details and the ways in which we interact with that activity lead to deeper and broader understanding of existence? Yes.
  2. Are some activities more conducive to such discoveries than others? Yes.
  3. Is yoga a useful vehicle for me to follow? Yes.
  4. Why?

Why? Because through practicing yoga in fits and starts for the past six years, I have had enough unexpected and valuable experiences for me to believe that there is more to yoga than meets the eye. That makes me curious to discover whether those experiences happened to occur in yoga simply by random occurrence (I was practicing yoga at the time such a transcendent experience was going to come no matter what I was doing, so it occurred during yoga) or whether those experiences are directly related to the practice of yoga and can be cultured by more or more intensive yoga. And, not least, because when I practice some yoga, I typically want to practice more.

Somtimes itches go away when I scratch them. Sometimes they get more itchy.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Meditation on mirrors

Where I practice asanas, we face floor-to-ceiling mirrors. In practice, I then have three related perspectives – the perspective of the physical sensations from the body, the perspective of the visual images before me, and the perspective of the teacher.

I can notice the depth of my lunged front leg in the mirror. I can feel the energies and difficulties of the lunge from the inside of my quad. I can hear my teacher’s verbal cues to align, to deepen.

What mirror enables me to notice my postures within the other seven limbs of yoga? What teacher?

Integrating Death and Life

I started to respond today to the anonymous comment posted earlier, as I think s/he made some important points that I wanted to explore in the context of my life a bit.

But today threw me a bit of a curve, and right now it seems more important to address the curve tonight. I'll respond more fully to anonymous later.

I got an email today, attaching the obituary of a woman who worked for me a couple of years ago. We parted when the company we both were working for was sold. Rather than continue her work as an employee benefits paralegal, she and her husband, finally empty nesters, had decided to move to New Mexico to buy and run a bed-and-breakfast. So she made the career change, taking an early retirement. And this month, she died at the age of 54.

The obituary, as is the custom, I suppose, says nothing about the cause of death, but does note the identities of the surviving family (and, in her case, a pre-deceased child). So I know nothing about the circumstances of her death.

The email caught me at mid-day, enmeshed in revising some complicated documents. I stopped my day and forwarded the email to several of those who worked with my friend and me previously. I paused for grief no longer than a few breaths.

And I went back to poring over my complicated documents, changing definitions, looking for consistencies and inconsistencies among the various papers, sorting out stylistic edits, substantive issues, client preferences, and negotiation points to persuade the other side to accept our changes.

And it wasn't until this evening's yoga practice -- until Half Pigeon, a pose that I start as a backbend, and then fold forward -- that I even remembered that my friend had died. Some part of my body remembered, I suppose -- a part where I could store my loss of my friend while I churned intellectual mental tangles. And, as is remarkably common in my yoga practice, on my yoga mat I found myself crying for the loss of a friend. The teacher saw my unarticulated grief and rested her hand on my back as I descended the pose from backbend into forward fold, her touch a focal point to my feeling. A reminder of companionship, that I am not alone in my mourning. An extension of compassion.

Following the practice this evening, I encountered one of my teacher training classmates in a corridor. For the rest of this to make sense, I should point out here that sometimes in the class, I feel immensely older than some of the other students. I recognize that that is my issue -- a curious blend of my own ego and my own disappointment with myself -- not my classmates' issue. Some of it is my view of my own middle-aged body shape. Some of it is just a function of having too many loved ones die too recently -- it makes me want to feel old, lick my wounds and feel sorry for myself. At any rate, seeing each other in the corridor, we said hello, and she asked how I was doing. I mentioned my friend's death, and this person who knows me only slightly looked me in the eye and expressed profound sympathy, offering whatever support she could provide. Looking into her eyes, the ego barriers that keep me thinking myself separate and apart -- different -- than my classmates became translucent, and I could see, in her eyes, the light of pure compassion. She offered that letting go is a practice that is very hard, but necessary. I allowed that I thought she was right, but that I wasn't yet ready to let go. She again offered whatever support I might need. I thought for a moment that what I needed most was a hug, but I felt awkward about saying so. I reached for her hand and clasped it, grateful for a human touch.

A minute later, I hugged my teacher -- my friend -- and walked through the evening back to my office, feeling re-enlivened, as I almost always do following yoga.

Whatever the structure of one's spiritual beliefs, moments of grace or enlightenment or connection to the Divine seem to come in curious and unexpected ways. And as I walked back to work this evening, I drank clear, cold water from a bottle I carried. The water replenished some of the sweat I had shed during the hour-long practice, some of the tears. It seemed a sacrament in honor of my deceased friend, restoring the life in me, shaped by hers.

I suppose that there are lots of understandings of "namaste" in the world. I like best one of the first that I learned a long time ago:

I salute the Divine that is you
that is the Divine that is me
that is the Divine that is all things.
And it is in this way
that we are One.

In a way that I did not expect, but deeply desired, I am becoming a part of a community.
I bow to my deceased colleague, to my teacher and friend, and to my classmate this evening: namaste.

Third Class

Sunday afternoon we reviewed cues for Integration and Sun A, different students presenting each posture.

We started with a discussion of what it means to lead a group.

- Keep it simple
- Less is more
- Name pose and breath
- Concise

What does the teacher represent to the student?
- An expert.
- Everything that the student wants to get from yoga.
- Ease, knowledge.
- Relaxation and peace

You have to get those things yourself before you can offer them to others. The best way is through your own yoga practice -- notably, not such practice as you may be able to derive while teaching.

If you walk into class not feeling those things, fake it til you make it.

In practice, every student hears different things from the same words. In yoga, as in life, students only hear instructions they're ready to hear. Accordingly, if a student doesn't get an adjustment with an instruction you provide, don't just repeat the same instruction, but louder. Give a different one. If a verbal instruction doesn't help, try a visual cue.

On feedback: In the training, think of feedback as a constructive exercise. Don't provide meaningless platitudes. Substantive criticism allows improvement. Two principles should guide the feedback exercise in training: satya and sankosha.

Satya means "truth." Truth is not only embodied in speech, but also in action and thought. Satya need never be harmful. If a particular aspect of feedback could harm another, find a different way of expressing it until you find one that does not harm.

Sankosha means "contentment" or "equanimity." It is the manner in which we should receive feedback, rather than taking something personally. In receiving feedback, keep silent until the other person is done providing it. Abandon excuses or explanations. Find a way to understand and benefit from the feedback. Internalize whatever you can from the feedback. Avoid reactivity. Absorb the feedback. Take responsibility/credit for it.

On affecting students: Most students can't absorb more than three different instructions, so limit the number of verbal cues you offer. No teacher can convey everything she knows in 60 minutes. Don't try. Teaching beginners is hard. You need to figure out how to make every student succeed every time. Many students are intimidated about entering a studio in the first place. Simply walking in the front door is very difficult. In the practice, yoga immediately challenges the student's ego in some way. And everybody has bad days at some point. The students come to yoga seeking something. How their pose looks from the outside is a dim indicator of what it feels like or what it's doing on the inside. Especially with beginners, just keep them coming in the door. Establish that the studio is a solid, good place for them. Your objective should be for them to walk out the door thinking, "even though I fell over in X pose, I liked it." Student poses might look bad, but they could love it, anyway.

The teacher's job is much bigger than simply leading others through a series of postures. The teacher is a leader. Consider the effect of a leader who does not look the part -- perhaps one who has just finished a hot yoga session herself, walking in to teach a core power session. Be aware of the effect of hygiene and appearance. The external appearance affects the students' perceptions and experience. Teaching involves looking at a student and knowing what they need, whether it is to be left alone, a verbal suggestion, a physical adjustment. The teacher needs to see more than the mechanics of a pose. Will touching the student at that moment be the right thing? One on one teaching is easier. In class settings, there is little time to adjust your approach, and you need to respond to one student's question with a response that assists the entire class. Fundamentals are a way to do this: keep them breathing, stack the joints, maintain neutral spinal alignment.

Notes on specific poses:

Balasana: Child's pose. (Kneeling on mat, bring knees to the outside edges of the mat, toes together, hips on heels, forehead to floor, arms extended to the front of the mat, palms down) This is the first pose of the series, so even though it seems a passive one, in this series, it's active. The body and mind are engaged in the stretch and slight inversion. The pose is not a function of disengagement, but rather one of engagement while prostrated and passive. It allows students a time to disengage from everything other than yoga. And it provides a situation in which they can focus on the breath. Start them in ujjayi breathing, inhales and exhales to the same count (whether four or six or whatever), slightly constricting the back of the throat to make an audible sound similar to the sound of soft waves on a beach. Though it is not presented to the class in such a fashion, this is prostration, and some students will dislike it because it will present ego issues to them. It embodies a release of ego, and an acknowledgement of other (or Other), whether that is the teacher, the class, a concept, existence, Brahman, or god. This is one of the most restful postures, and teachers should emphasize to students the permission (and responsibility) to return to child's pose whenever they need to during the practice. Moving into child's pose when overwhelmed by other sensations (including exhaustion) honors the practice, and maintains the balance between working at the edge and doing no harm.

When teaching, watch for your own negative body language -- crossed arms, hands on hips. As you teach, make an effort to fill the whole room -- avoid standing in one place. Above all, though, be sure that you have a purpose for every action, every word. Do nothing that is not essential. When you walk around the room without intention or when you touch a student without intention, you're just engaged in an ego power trip -- "I'm doing these things because I'm in charge and I can." The truthful response to "why" regarding anything you do in class should be an uplifting answer.

In cueing this, as with all poses, start with the name of the pose and let the cues start from the ground and work up.

Adjustments: some students find their faces flat on the floor, crunching the nose. Have them move their knees in, providing a higher support for their belly. Some students will have difficulties with the deep bend of the knee. Let them keep their hips higher, off their heels. Also consider putting a rolled blanket or mat at the bend in their knees to limit the depth of the bend.

Downward facing Dog:

Values: gravity traction on spine, decompressing; discs neutral; eases disc compression

Training errors: failure to stabilize shoulder blades down back.

If student has shoulder issues, pose can be difficult. Students may need to approach the pose a little at a time to counter the constant collapsed-forward position that most people use all day in front of computers -- head forward, neck down, spine curved, shoulders rolled in. All of those are countered by Downward facing Dog. We shouldn't be surprised that students find the pose difficult at first. Let them approach the ultimately neutral alignment of Down Dog as they can. It would be pretty extreme for them to shift from curled in and collapsed to open and neutral all at once.

Rag Doll:

Values: Calms the mind; relieves mental stress; stretches hamstrings

Samasthitih (sp?):

(Note: I can't begin to represent in these notes the beauty of watching E (I try not to use other's names here without permission) demonstrate the posture as another class member cued her from Rag Doll to Samasthitih. Watching the fluidity of E's spine unrolling from a deep forward bend to vertical was the high point of the day for me.)

Details: in setting the pose, roll your feet from front to back to front, from side to side, feeling for the center of your feet. Then place the balance of the pose at that center point. As you chant OM from this pose, feel the vibration fully. There are elements of this pose in every other pose we do. As we learn this pose more fully, we will enhance those other poses, as well. When this pose is perfect, only two muscles are engaged.

Tadasana (I didn't take notes on this discussion -- though this is one of my favorite poses. Go figure.)


Calms the mind and cools it as you unroll out of the pose.


Creates a tension between forward and back. The forward fold to a flat back engages, automatically, mula bandha (sp?) and uddiayada bandha (sp?). It hollows out the belly, drawing it to the spine, and both prepares the body for and relieves the body from the exertion of the jumps forward and back in the vinyasa flow.

Chaturanga Dandasana:

Do anything incorrectly enough times, and you'll hurt yourself. This pose is both difficult and complex. Alanna then walked us through a number of demos of aspects of this pose. My recollection (no notes) is as follows (perhaps someone else has a better recall than I -- please feel free to post): Watch for shoulders dropping below elbows -- shoulders should be no deeper than level with elbows, and having them higher than elbows is fine. Elbows should be flush against ribs -- not beneath them supporting the torso, not out to the side in the manner most guys learn to do pushups. For this reason, sometimes it's better to avoid calling this pose "low push up" because you may inadvertently get a lot of elbows wide. This pose causes many "ashtanga shoulder" and "ashtanga toe" injuries. It can also, when done incorrectly, cause many lower back problems. Any of these problems can take you out of practice for a long time. They're worth avoiding in your practice and in your students' practice, as well.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Second Class

Today (Saturday) was focused on verbally cueing poses during the first and second stages of the practice. The first set is comprised of three "integration" poses: balasana -- child's pose, adho mukha svanasana -- down dog, and a mild version of uttanasana -- rag doll. The second set is the basic suryanamaskara A -- sun salutation A: samasthiti, tadasana, uttanasana, half-lift, uttanasana, down dog, dandasana, chaturanga dandasana, urdhva mukha svanasana -- up dog, then ending in down dog.

I've probably done that sequence of poses a thousand times in my life. I know the basic elements of each pose, I know the transition from one to the next. I know the breath sequence.

But I know it from the inside.

Today we broke up into small groups -- mine was composed of me and three others. Cueing my three students was laughable. Watching them, I wasn't doing the poses. So I promptly forgot what followed what. When they cued me to cue them, I called the next pose and promptly realized I hadn't any idea of what to say. It was pretty funny. I moved into the sequence with them, just to try to remember what came next. (The teacher training teacher promptly passed by, reminding me not to do that.)

Blessedly, the second time through, I managed to get the sequence right, even though my cues were stumbling and difficult. Forgiving students are a must.

Perhaps that's why Alanna emphasized to us last time the importance of us being good students.
And the workings of karma.

On cueing: Find lots of ways to say the same thing. Some people will get one cue, while others won't have any idea what it means, but will tune into something else. There is a kind of eloquence that we can develop. Keep in mind as you cue poses that you are projecting yourself at the same time as issuing cues, and some versions will work better than others. Try out different styles in the training. It provides a safe environment where you can try out different approaches and styles.

Friday, January 27, 2006

The process

I've begun thinking about yoga classes from a teachers' perspective, and it's a little unsettling.

I know the basic elements of each posture, but knowing and conveying knowledge to another seem like entirely different exercises. So I tried to pay attention this morning to the verbal cues the instructor provided. And I quickly discovered how many posture cues she actually gives during a class. The teacher was someone whom I've practiced with many times. I'm familiar with her style. Likely, she's familiar with mine, as well. But in paying attention this morning to her cues, I realized that I often don't pay attention to the basic form instructions that follow the teacher's calling of a particular pose by name. My mind goes somewhere else -- sometimes to the inside of a shoulder joint, frequently to the strain of exertion in lunged leg, maybe to the sweat dripping off my face.

I've always been a little mystified and a little impressed by a teacher who can demonstrate gracefully the full extension of a pose, all the while continuing to talk, cueing the class on various aspects of the pose. In the full extension of most poses, gasping for oxygen like a fish on the sand, my face clenched into a knot, is as much as I can manage. Listening this morning, it seemed to me that the instructor, in contrast, provided clear, simple cues. But I noted that a couple of the students in the room still wound up backwards a time or two, perhaps confused for a moment by the verbal cues. When they got stuck, they stopped and looked around, taking visual cues from the instructor when she was modelling a pose, or from the other students in the class.

I suppose that to move forward, I'll first need to memorize the pose sequence (or at least segments of the pose sequence), and then sort out the pose-specific cues and memorize them.

At any rate, as I was walking to work after practice this morning, it occurred to me that the basic sequence of any pose -- or experience in life -- should be this:


Thursday, January 26, 2006

Response to first class...

Alanna's discussion of teachers and students was interesting to me on several levels.

The first is rather idiosyncratic to my religious training -- so a brief explanation of background. My religious tradition teaches that we can, and should, experience God's guidance and influence directly. It teaches that we can recognize the influence of God through a warm feeling in the heart space. We call that experience "testimony of the Holy Ghost," and ascribe truthfulness and importance to experiences that are accompanied by such feelings. During Alanna's instruction, I experienced that feeling. While I can analytically ascribe it to a variety of deterministic physiological conditions, I don't. I understand it as a way that my body expresses its affinity for a person, a situation, or an idea.

The second level is intellectual and analytical. I have a strong resistance toward trusting a stranger. That resistance is amplified manifold when someone tells me to trust them just because it will be good for me, if I do. That's the sort of approach to life that very quickly proves itself to be more than a little dangerous. I'm a lawyer, so not only have I had enough lifetime experience to teach me to be especially on guard when I'm told to lower my guard, I'm also professionally trained to distrust such instructions.

The third level that swirled through my mind during Alanna's discussion was this: I've been blessed to have a "guru" in my life. And everything that Alanna said about having such a relationship is 100% true of the relationship I had with that guru: I found her, not the other way around. She wasn't really looking for devotees. As she guided me through the Bikram series of poses every so often over the course of several years, I came to love her simply, trust her implicitly, and to rely on her to help me live in the larger context that the practice opened up to me. I still believe, deep down, that she is partly magical. Although she and I viewed and understood the world quite differently, I could not argue with her results. A Reiki master, she would explain about energy fields that sounded suspiciously New-Agey and artificial to me. Yet under her touch, I perceived energy flows I never imagined. A quirky Buddhist, her explanations of prior lives sounded contrived to me. But she readily guided me toward practices that honored and respected the upwellings of otherwise unexplained emotions yoga brought out. A mature and devoted yogini, she modelled poses with ease that I still can only observe. Who made her my guru? I did. By my actions.

So to sum up the score so far: (1) my body's telling me via its own language to pursue the path Alanna's telling me to follow; (2) my rational mind thinks I'm nuts even for listening to such instruction, let alone paying for it; and (3) my memories are reminding me of all the upside to having a guru, confirming that faithfully-pursued, open-minded yoga leads to connection to such of the divine as I've discovered in my life. So how do I score that? Two to one? How could that sort of math make any sense?

So far, I'm still on the fence about investing these barely known teachers with anything like what I've given to others in the past. But lurking in my mind is this: the absurdity that Alanna taught us last night has a remarkably plausible feeling to it. It might just be that existence is so oddly constructed that she could be right.

I'm not yet ready to trust very far these unknowns who ask for my confidence so bluntly.

The remarkable thing about yoga postures, though, is that sometimes even moving a little ways into a pose unlocks more than I expect.

First Class

The preliminaries:
33 aspirants (acolytes?).
30 women. 3 men.
Age distribution: 22-50, mean: 30.
4 teachers.
One asana room: 80x30, two columns in the room, three mirrored walls, one frosted glass. Nondescript carpet squares. Unfinished ceiling made of foil-covered materials, spotlights on dimmer switches, and a number of circular ventilation ducts for heat and humidity.

The first 45 minutes was a group recital, running us through the beginners' set and sequence of poses, the exceptional being the multiple teachers roaming and more pose adjusting than I'm accustomed to.

Allanna started us with a mantra: Om Gan Gana Pataye Namaha, invoking the good fortune associated with Ganesha, and then emphasizing that every obstacle can be overcome.

She then led a discussion of what it takes to be a good student. The following are my notes:


  • Whether you believe what the teacher says or disbelieve
  • Whether you agree with what the teachers says or disagree
  • Whether you already know what the teacher says or don't know
  • Whether you believe you understand what the teacher says or don't believe you understand

Be receptive -- more as reverence for your teacher than submission to the teacher. You are not forging the path alone. Only recently has yoga teaching been passed to students in a class setting. Previously, it was one teacher to one student, and was known as "transmission." Such instruction was a function of the teacher/student relationship. It required complete openness on the part of the student. Only through the student's openness -- not the student's judgment -- could understanding come.

On gurus... When you are ready for a guru, one will appear. You do not need to go looking for one. You find the teacher. The teacher does not exert authority or power. Instead, you invest the teacher with authority and power by the way you behave, listen, and honor them. Your willingness to be a good student creates the teacher. When you love your teacher, your love enables you to be receptive and open, to receive and learn what the teacher has to offer. In a yoga class, when a teacher calls a pose, the student assumes the pose. There need be nothing more than that. With time, transmission from the teacher to the student occurs.

Still, there are impediments to learning. Among them -- the student's own ego can block openness that would otherwise allow reception of what the teacher has to offer. And all teachers have something to offer, no matter who or what they are. As a student, your task is to receive what there is to receive. In a class setting, this means -- within reason -- do what the teacher says. Release your form to your instructor. You may find yourself gaining insight into a different pattern than the one you expect, than the one you believe, than the one you know. In releasing your insistence on yourself, you may gain insight into your own mind, discovering how your resistance ends your receptivity. Allow that your teacher may know better, even if you don't think she does. If you think that a mistake is occurring, can you follow the instruction and be humble enough to receive what that experience offers?

Let go of expectations for this training. This does not mean "do not experience" the training. Instead, it means just let go. Your first homework assignment: this week, go out to eat with a friend or partner. Look at the menu the waiter provides. Then give it to your companion, have your companion decide and order for you, and then eat whatever comes with joy. Don't be hung up on getting your own way. Learn to be happy with what you get. Practice letting go. If you accept what is given, without expectation, you will get everything there is to receive.

On karma...

  1. Karma is actions, whether thought, word, or deed.
  2. Karma is certain. It can't be avoided or hidden from. Even thoughts generate karma -- the most powerful karma, like seeds that grow. Think of an acorn growing into an oak. Thoughts are the karma that is hardest to change.
  3. Karma expands. Your actions will be magnified back to you.
  4. If you don't do the actions, you won't receive what the action offers.
  5. If you do do the actions, you will receive what the actions offer
  6. There is no good or bad karma. We may talk about karma that way, but there is only what you do with karma. Example of 24 Hours character who benefits from the "wake up call" of getting hit by a car.

All of you have had tragedies. What happens doesn't matter. What we do with what happens does matter. For many lifetimes you have practiced yoga. You have prepared during all those lifetimes for this training. Many things have been facilitated for you to come to this training. Spread the good from that karma to others. Karma will repeat until you work it out. "Guilt" and "blame" are not terms in Sanskrit or in yoga philosophy. They are concepts of western thought. There is really no time to beat yourself up. Self-loathing paralyzes the body and interferes with experience. There is no judgment implicit in karma. There is, however, logic. You can't plant a tomato seed and expect to grow a Christmas tree. If you give away money, you'll receive money, but not because you "get what you deserve." There is no judgment. You do not "deserve" yoga teacher training. What matters, though, is what you do with it. Since actions produce results, what do you want? Maybe you seek to teach? Maybe you'll find during the training that you no longer want to teach. Maybe you seek to deepen your practice. Maybe you'll find during the training that you want to teach.

Honor your teacher as much as possible. It's your practice -- what happens inside you -- that will make the teachings of your teacher special. Each of you will learn from each of you. The sprit of a teacher is the spirit of the divine. You will receive lessons from unexpected sources. If you have trouble, ask for help, even if only anonymously. In yoga training, it is disrespectful to point your feet at the teacher. Exercise the discipline -- so long as it doesn't cause you undue pain -- to honor your teacher. Will you feel discomfort in your ankle during a class? Yes. Let that pain be your offering. This will make the teachings you receive in that process more powerful for you.

Regarding what Yoga is...

  • "Body, mind, spirit" -- Body and mind are physical and will fade and die. Yoga is the union of your higher self with the divine.
  • A way of living
  • Balance. Guru puts hands together at heart, explaining that the hand position is a mudra of balance, two opposites in harmony.
  • Poses -- assuming a pose named one thing or another is becoming the thing the pose is named for.
  • Stilling the mind/meditation -- what happens in the mind? Chatter. Yoga provides us a way not to be attached to or governed by that chatter.
  • Breath. When you inhale, you draw in air that has passed from all other people.
  • Karma
  • Space opening
  • Dedication
  • Personal and Non-judgmental
  • One truth -- many paths. Gandhi walked only the path of ahimsa, and yet he attained yoga. There are many paths.
  • Healing -- healing the body, healing the separation of the spirit from the divine
  • Mindfulness -- awareness, consciousness

Even if you just practice the postures, yoga will sneak in.

May we be lucky enough to have in this group many, many problems. Because if we have them in this group, we'll be better prepared to help students in the future who have those problems and seek our help. In this training, we will all use each other's bodies and experiences to learn.

Dave: Always be ready to teach. Always be ready to practice. Injuries are great teachers of teachers. During the coming weeks, while practicing, notice everything in those practices -- cues, music, adjustments, everything.

Striving and being


One of the puzzles of yoga for me is the tension between seeking new experience and letting go of ego and ambition.

When I first began practicing yoga, everything was new. I did everything “wrong,” and I learned enormous amounts about life. Today, I’m reasonably competent at the things that used to give me great difficulty. I don’t tip over too much in vrkasana, and when I do, it feels much like tipping over has usually felt over the past several years. I suppose I’ve gotten used to tipping over, so that even that doesn’t easily draw me out of my abstracting rut.

It’s the escape from the rut that I valued so much from my beginning practice.

Don’t get me wrong – my life is significantly better for the benefits of the years of yoga practice. I feel equanimity even while reformulating my religious life. I no longer need daily meds to see me through til evening. My back problems are managed. My weight is under control.

All of those are good things – really, really good things.

Shunryu Suzuki taught that it is the beginner’s mind that we should seek. He said, in essence, “In the beginner’s mind are many possibilities. In the expert’s, few.”

Yoga does offer a way to respond to the dilemma of mastery – if I get sufficiently flexible, strong, and accustomed to a posture, there is always another posture, a further complication, an elaboration to make it more difficult. So if I no longer tip over in Tree pose, I do it with my eyes closed. If I don’t tip over with my eyes closed, I can do it on my toes. If I don’t tip over that way, I can extend it into a backbend.

There’s always something to keep my mind from settling.


Aspiration takes me away from present experience. Perhaps there is someone who is better at managing that dilemma than I am, but for me, ambition is a significant complication and distraction. Yet I can’t figure out how or why to practice yoga without caring about whether and how I practice yoga.


One of the elements of my yoga practice is this: from the very earliest exposure I had to yoga, I learned of Lotus pose and Handstand. To my untrained mind, those two poses seemed the very essence of yoga. As I learned a little more, I transformed my view of them from the essence of yoga to something only slightly more moderate – like Everest pointing to heaven.

From the outset, Handstand required things mental and physical that I couldn’t figure out, so I set it aside. Lotus seemed more attainable.

I started with the mostly unthreatening Half lotus. I’d work it into various practices. Instead of sitting in Thunderbolt, kneeling and seated on my heels, I’d sit cross-legged, one ankle atop the other knee. To get there, I’d have to rest my weight on one of the sitz bones, letting the other lift off the floor. That skewed my pelvis a bit, but stretched the various muscles in my butt on the side of my top leg. The pose never felt remotely sound, always contrived. After a long practice in a hot room, sometimes I could get my other leg into Lotus for a few moments, but it hurt to do so. I had to contort my spine simply to get into the position, and even more to hold it for very long. I figured I just hadn’t stretched the muscles, ligaments and tendons enough, so I began sitting in Half lotus for extended periods while in my office chair at work. That promptly led to knee pain that persisted for weeks even after I stopped.

I found and attended for six months or so a studio with a teacher and group that practiced a very sedate style of yoga – mostly floor poses, combined with a few standing poses. My knees healed and forgave me my ill-guided excesses. I learned a few mantras that have become part of my own internal Ipod. I came to appreciate the gentle insight and mind explorations of that group.

But the power and energy of yoga seemed absent. I gained weight. And while I needed the spiritual life that that practice provided, I needed more than it was providing.

At home, I tried Handstand against a wall. The first dozen times or so, I couldn’t get vertical, even against a wall. Either I didn’t have the strength to kick my legs up high enough, or I couldn’t get my mind to let my body move into a posture that felt so unsafe. Whatever. But I kept at it. A few weeks later, I managed to kick up and rest my feet on the wall, only to discover that my arms, shoulders, and torso immediately began to quiver wildly. I wasn’t strong enough.


The yoga studio where I’d practiced sedately closed, and the teacher relocated to a new place, modifying the style of yoga and the class schedule. I was uninspired by the new changes and thought perhaps it was a good time to explore a bit. I found a nearby studio I’d seen, but where I’d not practiced previously. The studio taught a variety of vinyasa yoga it called “core power” yoga. After the usual process of skeptical (i.e., self-defensive) checking out, testing, etc., I began to practice there two or three times a week. At first, that level of practice was painful. My arms and legs quivered. My abdominal muscles ached on rest days. My neck cramped. But I was getting stronger. And the pain was muscle pain, not joint pain.

And the practice routine included not just a particular inversion, but a few minutes in each period to work on whatever inversion we wanted. They started us in Crow. After a few weeks of tumbling out of Crow, I found I could hold it for several consecutive breaths. When I could manage that without gasping, I re-added Headstand. I’d figured out the balance for getting into Headstand some years ago, and it was nice to supplement the inversion and counter the muscle strain of Crow with the ease of Headstand. After three or four episodes like that, I decided to re-try Handstand. So when we reached the Inversion-Of-Your-Choice, I headed to a nearby wall, placed my hands on the floor about 18” from the wall, and kicked my legs up and over, against the wall. The weeks of Down Dogs showed their effect. With a toddler’s balance against a solid object, I pushed up with my arms and shoulders and breathed.

In the weeks following, the experience was largely the same – I could kick into the inversion and hold it for five to fifteen breaths, all the while teetering between balance and keeping a toe against the wall. To evaluate a new teacher a friend had recommended, I attended a more advanced class than I was accustomed to. To my surprise, shortly after a few warming postures, the teacher called for Handstand. I was in the center of the crowded room. After a few tentative kicks, I decided to give it a real try. I kicked up, but with no wall, I continued over, tumbling into the friend who had recommended the class and teacher to me. After apologies, I settled into Child’s pose, kind of excited that I’d even tried Handstand in the first place.

Then, a couple of weeks later and during a more typical practice, the teacher called for inversions. I headed for a nearby wall, kicked up, got my balance with a toe against the wall, and then, my arms and legs tipping, my torso wobbling a little, I found my feet freed from the wall, balancing over my hips, my hips balancing over my shoulders, my shoulders balancing over my hands. I breathed and tipped back to the wall, breathed again, and tipped back to upright. The moment is etched into my mind when my toe left the wall and the inverted column of my body accepted simultaneously both the responsibility for bearing weight and for maintaining the balance.

That peculiar combination of ambition, attainment, imminent collapse, and the energy running from the earth to the sky to the earth is, for me, yoga.


I read recently that the importance of advancing yoga postures is to stay on the edge. The unity within a group of practitioners with different flexibility, different strength, different balance is that no matter what the characteristics of a body, it can be moved to and along its edge. At the edge is the potential for failure. At the edge is the potential for discovery. At the edge is the potential for growth.

However, the self-adulation associated with being able to do something like Handstand after years of wanting seems quite poisonous to what makes yoga valuable to me.


How do I stay on the edge without depending on ambition. How do I stretch and exert without turning to ego?

Is there a mirror before which I can practice that will show me exactly what I'm doing without showing me what I am?

Or is the question better framed "who is looking in the mirror and why?"

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Where and when

Anticipation is what I do for a living.

I anticipate what others will do or say, and I recommend actions for today to shape how events will occur tomorrow.

I’m hardly the only one who does this.

It’s one of the few faculties that shaped and preserved the distinctive evolution of humans. Our ability to anticipate future events and to alter present conditions to shape future results is our principal survival tactic. It manifests itself in agriculture – planting seeds today in anticipation of a harvest in the autumn – in construction trades, in manufacturing, in stock markets, in education, in the military, in religion.

But does it have a place in yoga? Isn’t yoga a “right here, right now” sort of thing?


But here’s the thing I strive for most in yoga – to perceive clearly my existence. And today, my existence includes anticipation of the start of my yoga teacher training regimen on Wednesday. I am committed to this path. Today and for the last twenty-five years of my life, my basic priorities are and have been family, work, and my religious duties and community. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I didn’t really see how a ten-week addition of twelve or so hours per week would ever fit in. But my teacher’s note caught me at a saddle, the top of a pass between the mountains. And it pushed me in a direction, into a new basin that I hadn’t conceived of before.

A month later, I’ve carved up each of my basic priorities to make this work. I’ve carved back the time I’ll spend with my family. I’ve cajoled my boss into letting me leave work early on Wednesdays. And, for the first time in my life, I’m going to stop attending my congregation for reasons other than illness or travel. Tomorrow, I’ll teach my last Sunday class for ten weeks.

It all feels vaguely like an ending – though I haven’t consciously intended to end anything. Certainly not an ending of family or work – indeed, I neither want, nor can I even envision such a thing. But an ending, nonetheless, of the scene I’m acting in. Perhaps what lurks in the back of my skull is the change of priority – from weekly attendance in the context of life-long-permanency of a demanding religious tradition, to yoga -- to an exploration of a non-religion that seems more central to my life today than the religion that has always been part three of my personal trinity. I don’t consciously intend to end my religion. Likely, I’m over-dramatizing a bit, as is my wont. Whatever the explanation for it, today, it does feel vaguely like an ending of a sort.

But it’s not that sense, alone, that keeps pointing me toward Wednesday. One of my favorite yoga instructors returned to teach class today. Last week, she was at a conference of yoga teachers in San Francisco. Today, her instruction bore the insignia of her recent training. She paused us in several places to refine the poses, to focus our attention, to sharpen our awareness. Her instruction included less of cant and more of herself. Seeing the changes in her, I wonder: "Will I change like that? Or like something else? Not at all?"

Also, before class began, another yogi whom I see every Saturday drew me aside, asking if I was going to do teacher training. I told her I was. She said she was thinking about it, too, not certain whether she’d be able to manage the rearrangement of life that would be required of her and her family. Her dilemma seemed familiar.

Despite the anticipation – the not-here, not-now focus of my musing mind – the three dimensions of space framed by the two of my mat drew me back to here and now.

This week, I’ve been reading Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, a book-length essay comparing the teachings and implications of physics and quantum mechanics on the one hand, with teachings of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism on the other. I’ll leave the highlights from the book for another day. For today’s yoga, one of Capra’s points suffices: modern physics teaches that particles are concentrations of energy within a field. Neither the energy is without the field, nor the field without the energy. Matter does not exert influence on space to curve it. Instead, matter and space are different manifestations of the same field.

As I flowed from virabhadrasana I to virabhadrasana II to reverse warrior to chaturanga dandasana, Capra’s point seemed quite sensible even at the macroscopic level: the space of the room and the motion of the dancer are not separate, but rather unified, differing manifestations of the same substance. Nor are the teacher and the student separate objects, but rather a relationship. I didn’t visit the San Francisco yoga conference last week. But I am the student of a teacher who did. She was changed by it. And as she changed my poses today, I was changed, as well.

And, despite the esoteric abstractions of physics and eastern philosophy, I could feel the connection, the identity, the flow. And it drew my attention from the day after the day after tomorrow to the sensation of a right-angled leg in crescent pose, a curled coccyx in standing warrior, a drop of sweat emerging on my brow.

Thursday, January 19, 2006


Going into yoga this morning, my right shoulder ached. Why it did is a long story, the short version of which is this: it's messed up, but usually if I'm sufficiently attentive to it, I can do a reasonably challenging vinyasa practice without implicating its defects.

So I resolved to practice around the problem that lying on a mattress for seven hours apparently generated in it.

Then in the first uttanasana of Sun Salutation I, my perpetually grumpy right hamstring squawked. That's normal, but it was tighter this morning than usual. Even so, I figured it would stretch and lengthen in the warmth of the room if I treated it reasonably.

Then my right knee hurt when I flexed into crescent pose. I wiggled it a bit to get the pain to go away.

In horse pose, my foot cramped up a bit. I shifted it to fix the cramp.

In virabhdrasana II, a new knot formed under my left shoulderblade. It wouldn't go away, so I just kept going.

In Crow, a spot on an oblique muscle I pulled a month ago twinged.

While dukkha is usually attributed to the impermanence of all things, today, I'm hoping that my present condition is impermanent.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

A gentle push

What is the effect that we have on one another?

I've just finished reading (the second time through, as a college professor insisted was the only way to really understand a book worth reading), Fritjof Capra's The Web of Life.

He's quite clear and persuasive that thinking about any organism -- including a human -- as an individual separate, apart, and sufficient from all others and from the world it exists in is not only artificial, but likely to lead to all sorts of misguided conclusions. Among the themes that he develops, the one that came across to me as most central is that life is, as the title suggests, a web, a network of processes and systems and interrelationships that are cycling, interacting, branching, and re-interacting again and again. In that entanglement, whether we're looking at a human immune system, a national economic structure, or Earth's carbon capture/release processes, the basic structure of multiple entities acting upon, shaping, and re-orienting one another is common.

So in that context, I'm wondering whether I've decided to pursue yoga teacher training because of my own decision, my own beliefs, my own desires, or because of a note handed me by a valued teacher quoting Alice in Wonderland's Queen of Hearts and Joseph Campbell.

The Capra in my head evaluates the question this way: in analyzing complex systems, one of the characteristics that arises again and again is the structure to the pattern of outcomes. Chaotic systems are defined as systems that will yield results that can't be reliably predicted. But, Capra reports, when mathetmaticians began plotting the results they obtained running and re-running models of chaotic systems, they didn't get a grey-screen of randomly distributed plots. Rather, they found the results clustering. To be sure, the results were still mathematically speaking specifically unpredictable, but they were not incomprehensible on a larger scale. I conceptualize that abstraction this way: if the complex system whose results are being plotted is where a particular ivory-billed woodpecker will be located tomorrow, the exact answer is unpredictable, as too many variables can affect the outcome, ranging from how many bugs it found in a particular kind of tree today, what the weather is tomorrow, what the breeding opportunities may be, and the like. But if I'm interested not only in tomorrow's exact location, but also in how much we can say about where it will be, the mathematician's plotting may start to be helpful despite the chaos -- because the plot will show that for ten thousand separate analyses, the results tend to cluster -- the bird will be located in the forests of the southeastern United States.

One of the more curious aspects of chaotic systems analysis, though, is that even a chaotic system that yields a clustered plot of outcomes given a particular set of initial values can develop a new and different set of plots, given a particular change in the values at a particular point in the process. Without a particular input at a particular stage in the calculation, that new cluster of potential outcomes would never occur. With the input, though, the system plot can create an entirely different "basin" of plots, like the second petal of a formerly one-petalled flower.

I think the note I received was just such a new input.

At times in my life, I've swung from more responsible and orthodox to more irresponsible and unorthodox, but I've always done so within a particular range of values. In other words, if you were to plot my life, you'd get a cluster of plots with the plots centering on obligations and desires that emphasize family, work, and an orthodox religious community. At any given time, were you to plot my position, I'd be within the cluster.

But a couple of weeks ago, when I received the note telling me to follow my bliss and that believing the impossible isn't all that difficult, I happened to be at one of the far edges of my usual cluster.

The note was not enough to move me out of my cluster-plot if I had been at the center of the cluster, or even if I'd been at one of a hundred other edges of that plot. But I was near a particular edge.

And so, even though I'd already thought about teacher training and had already decided not to do it because it would conflict too much with obligations I felt to my family, church, work, and others, the note kept asking me "why not ask?"

So I did.

My wife, bless her, responded to the effect that "if you need to do it, you should do it." Other conflicts worked themselves out reasonably enough.

And the day before yesterday, I paid the price of the training and committed myself to a path that will lead me somewhere that I haven't been before.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Yoga Teacher Training

So I've decided to keep a journal of my experience with yoga teacher training, and here seems like as good a place as any for such an effort.

Why should a reasonably well-paid lawyer spend time and money to learn to be a yoga teacher, which pays, in the scheme of things, almost nothing at all?

Still working on that one.

For now, though, I'm content with this answer: I want to learn how to teach yoga. I have not decided to stop doing other things in order to learn to teach yoga.

Over the past couple of months, the idea of taking teacher training has been lurking below the surface of my pond, occasionally poking a eye into daylight, then slowly dropping back out of sight. Twice I went so far as to start filling out an on-line application for the training with the studio where I practice, each time closing my web browser without hitting "send." Why not send it in? Time conflicts, mostly. Suspicion that it is too much for "me," in part. A bit of worry that it will bring into daylight things that I've kept comfortably in the dark.

See, the thing is, I've got a pretty comfortable life, all in.

I have a fun and loving wife and children -- or as loving as three teenaged sons can reasonably be expected to emote.

I have a decent job.

I live in a nice neighborhood.

I'm relatively healthy.

So how could teacher training jeopardize those things? Realistically, it can't.

What it can do, I suspect, is mess with my mind.

Yoga has always messed with my mind. It seems to have a way of pushing right through locked doors, rearranging walls, opening curtains. In my life, it has never been very respectful of the "no trespassing" signs that I post, sometimes without even noticing. Absurdity is easier to maintain unconsciously.

So for reasons I'll work to articulate in the future here, I'm trying out a new posture.