Saturday, May 27, 2006

Wring-neck pose

Q: So how does a recently-minted vegetarian, long-standing yoga practitioner wind up wringing the necks of chickens?

A: An hour ago, I stood in a dusty chicken coop, breathing and noticing the fight/flight drumming of my heart, hard enough to make my entire chest cavity rattle with each beat.

Two roosters, ten or twelve hens scattered around me. Each of the hens bore unmistakable signs of rooster scars -- bare patches of skin, pecked raw, cut by spurs. One rooster half torn up by the other, tearing, in turn the hens. My nephews and niece unable to gather eggs, as the roosters (both the gorgeous and pristine alpha, as well as the torn-up beta) attack them, too.

My brother is a physician -- a healer. A person for whom death is anathema, let alone killing.

In shoulderstand earlier today, drishti focused on my feet, I looked past the roll of fat around my middle, then shifted my gaze to it -- to the scar on my belly where I'd been clawed by the spurs of a rooster who seemed big enough to me, at 9 or 10, to eat me alive.

How do I reduce suffering in such a world?

I'm currently reading Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin, an amazingly insightful animal behavior scientist. She describes in some detail the results of breeding programs aimed at developing a particular characteristic. Emotionally defective animals result. In particular, she describes rapist roosters, roosters that not only mate with hens, but brutalize them continually. I'd never heard the phrase before last week. This evening, my brother reports on the way the two roosters mount and mate, again and again, with a particular hen, never letting her even stand up.

I go into the coop, heavy gloves in case the roosters are not interested in going gently into that good night. I make a grab for the pristinely feathered alpha. He dodges away. I realize my heart is pounding, and I stand to breathe and be present.

Eventually, I corner him, grab him around the neck, and -- feeling the warmth of life through the gloves -- twist my hands in opposite directions. He spasms. I twist farther, breathing. Warmth. One more twist. A flutter of wings, and he's dead.

The beta is no more interested in gentle departures. I catch him and kill him, this time more quickly, as I've learned from the first pose how to deepen the twist more readily. I act with greater surety, muscle memory aiding.

Then the matter is done. The hens are disturbed. They calm. My heart, trip-hammering at the outset, is calmer, then calm.

I have done what I concluded would reduce suffering, what was as near to the right thing to do as I could evaluate.

But here's the question I'm left with -- if it was all a function of rational thought, why did I kill the alpha first, especially when the beta would have been easier to grab?

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Why teach?

Recently, my youngest son asked me to practice yoga with him. We do that occasionally -- sometimes as often as once or twice a week. In fact, it was the prospect of practicing with him that shaped my thinking about taking teacher training -- certainly not the only thing, but one of them.

A couple of days earlier, he had asked me to spot him in Adho Mukha Vrksasana -- Handstand. Part of my -- my inner-Iyengar task master -- wanted to tell him that he wasn't ready for it, rather in the style of Jack Nicholson's rage-ridden Nathan Jessep in A Few Good Men, "You want Adho Mukha Vrksasana? can't handle Adho Mukha Vrksasana!" But it occurred to me that that was a lesson that life teaches pretty well on its own. It doesn't need my help. So I complied with my son's request.

As a practical matter, he only kicked his leg up to about waist-high. I caught it and lifted his lower body into Handstand. His shoulders had a limited range of motion -- they didn't extend straight over his head, but rather cantilevered forward about 15 degrees. From a pure body-mechanics perspective, any shoulder tilt away from vertical in Handstand puts all kinds of stress on the shoulder joint, which has to muscle the levered body above it into line. When my son dropped back to the floor, I told him that Downward-facing Dog practice would help a lot with his shoulder strength and extension. So when he proposed practice with me, he asked for lots of Down Dogs.

Shoulder things are the same in Down Dog as they are in Handstand. But Down Dog is a much safer place to practice. It has the added advantage of gravity pulling in the right direction to create the extension, drawing the back and arms into a single line, rather than angling at the shoulder. After several Down Dogs, my son requested Handstand again.

This time, I showed him how to position himslef correctly next to a wall: You place your hands and forearms on the floor, parallel with each other, shoulder width distance apart. Slide your forearms and hands forward until your fingertips touch the wall. Notice where your elbows touch the floor. Then move the heel of each hand back to the elbow spot. With your hands in that place, walk your feet toward your hands, then lift one leg to vertical, kicking off the other into Handstand. One leg bends at the knee so the foot can rest against the wall behind you for support, the other extends vertically. The hand positioning ensures that you can touch the wall bending the leg only at the knee. Closer to the wall than that, and you can end up tilting your whole body toward the wall. While that will strengthen your arms, it won't teach you anything about balance. Farther away from the wall than that and you'll end up in something of a backbend with a lot of weight against the wall. Inverted backbends are tricky enough without adding the peril of toppling into a wall. The ideal wall-supported Handstand has the toes of the bent leg just touching, then releasing, then touching, then releasing from the wall as your brain makes sense of what it means to "stand" upside down, and as your hands discover what your feet figured out years ago.

A brief touch of Handstand was all he wanted. That done, we moved back into a restful practice -- a few cat/cows, a couple of cobras. Instead of camel, in which he tends to crunch his lower back, I had him drape into a backbend over an exercise ball and breathe, expanding his abodomen and intercostals.

We ended in Vajrasana, Thunderbolt Pose (sitting on heels, straight spine, hands in prayer position at the heart) for three or four minutes of meditation. When done, he sighed and vigorously rubbed his nose. He said that a stray hair had caught at the edge of his nostril, tickling with each in-breath. But rather than scratching it during the meditation, he just tried to notice it.