Monday, December 29, 2014

Yoga Nourishment

After a recent conversation I began asking myself:  In what way does my yoga practice provide nourishment to me? I feel around me, among many I dearly love and those I meet through my teaching and individual work, a need for the nourishment of the rain after a drought. 

An interesting medley of thoughts came in response to my question.  I offer them here to all of us as we move in a world that might be too dry or too wet or in bodies and spirits that are hurting or exhausted.  I offer it with humility for each of us has our own way.  Many of the responses are “small” moments.  But they take me into spaciousness. In a series of books by Ursula LeGuin, there is a grove of trees on the island where the wizards are trained.  From a distance, the grove looks small but when one enters and walks, the grove expands indefinitely.  The Patterner lives in the grove.  He watches the patterns of leaves and light and gains understanding and wisdom through them. 

Perhaps there is a pattern of understanding and wisdom in observing some of these small moments related to my yoga practice that nourish. 

                        *  *  *   
The hawk calls almost every morning during my pranayama practice.  This wild hawk call pierces through to some forgotten wild place in myself and I hang momentarily suspended from even breath.  I hang suspended in a wild mystery. The wild place nourishes me.

                        *  *  *   
During the summer months I practice on my outdoor yoga platform under an oak tree.  I built it with my own hands.  If one traces the word asana back and back and back, as I have learned from Richard Rosen, it is the platform the yogi’s had outside their small houses to practice on.  And before that it can be understood as an altar.  And so as I practice outside I feel I am offering my practice on an altar to that mystery of the hawk call.  The layers of understanding reaching back toward my yoga ancestors, nourishes me.

                        *  *  *   
Some mornings, if I am very tired, my practice consists of primarily or only reclining pranayama, as was the case on the morning I write this.  I lay over the pranayama blanket, my head wrapped in a cloth, my legs belted, a sandbag on my thighs, and a blanket wrapped around me as if swaddled.  Amelia sleeps on top of my legs.  I go very quiet externally and internally and all that I feel is breath and space and Amelia.  The quiet is nourishing.

                        *  *  *   
Sometimes on a Sunday morning when I am there, Elenna invites me to her outdoor yoga studio – a pier out over the water in Alameda.  The birds are usually there.  Often we practice in silence.  Or we enter into conversation that I can only describe as sacred.  Practicing by the water with a friend nourishes.

                        *  *  *
My mother has macular degeneration so she is unable to read without some kind of magnification.  Recently, she was waiting for her regular treatment of having an injection into her eye.  She could not read during her wait so she decided to practice her relaxation breathing, something she had learned in her yoga class.  She waited an hour.  She sat breathing and coming back to her breathing every time she found her thoughts wandering. 

Normally, when she receives the injection in her eye, her body jumps as the needle is inserted.  It is not pain, she has been given something to prevent her feeling the needle.  It is more of a reflex.  This time, after her hour of breathing, she did not jump.  She was pleased and intrigued as was the doctor who thought perhaps his technique had improved.  She explained to him what she had been doing. He agreed as how it was possible. 

My mother began practicing yoga at 75 and is now 83. 
I feel nourished by her story.

                        *  *  *
As I write this, an email comes in from someone I have not heard from in a long time:

Pooraka is drawing the breath up.  Kumbhaka is retaining the breath.   Rechaka is the exhaling of breath slowly from within.
Many sorts of cakes are prepared from the same rice.
So also, by breath, everything is accomplished.
Nourishment comes in surprising ways.

                        *  *  *
Sitting with fifty some other people in Durango, Colorado in the afternoon – the soft light shines over the mountains and Patricia Walden talks us through a pranayama practice.  The precision, the place, the dedicated people around me – all melt into a timeless experience, again of breath, that is like walking into the grove of trees Ursula wrote about.  This is nourishing.

                        *  *  *
A friend who is a brother to different parents, knowing something difficult has happened for me, leaves me a phone message.  He says that when I am next in headstand, I should think of him also in headstand giving me a hug.  His interweaving of support with his knowledge of my yoga practice nourishes me.

                        *  *  *
My whole body hurts on the morning after I have been moving some very large rocks from one place to another to wait for when I know how and where to place them.  They are rocks I gathered five years ago with vision for them that I have lost.  I have been swearing at them for years when I weed whack (not really at them but at me for not finishing the project) so during my time off over this holiday, I move them.  My body hurts when I enter my practice the next morning.  This physical practice of inversions and backbends and twists does not magically take away all sensation but softens it or makes it more fluid so that I can move through my day without discomfort.  I feel a physical body nourishment similar to eating when I am hungry. 

                        *   *  *
The hawk calls almost every morning during my pranayama practice and I am pierced and suspended in a moment of wild mystery.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Passing of a Great Being

I have never met B.K.S. Iyengar and I am not an Iyengar trained teacher.  The stories of this great being and his way of teaching and practicing are, however, the oxygen that my own teaching and practice breathes.  His life has nourished the world in the way that our veins and capillaries nourish our bodies out to the far edges.   When I go to Durango, Colorado every year to study with Patricia Walden, I am surrounded by Iyengar teachers who have been studying at his school in Puna, for many years.  I find myself alternately sorry that I have not been able to experience him and relieved.

The days following his death, I set up a small altar at the front of the class to honor his life.  On the Thursday class, I “accidently” left a mat out on the floor beside mine.  As I began the class, I suddenly noticed the mat and laughed at myself.  Someone in the class thought I had done it intentionally for Mr. Iyengar.  I moved the altar onto the mat.  A short time into the class I suddenly felt nervous, as if he was on the mat observing me teach.  This feeling lasted about 5-10 minutes and then was gone.  I choose to assume he paid us the honor of a visit on his journey. 

B.K.S. stands for Bellur Krishamachar Sundararaja Iyengar.  I have to confess, it is only now that I learned his full name. He was born on December 14, 1918 and died at the age of 95 on August 20, 2014. His impact on the world is huge and as far as I can tell from a distance, he was a man of great integrity. His rather sickly childhood where he struggled with malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid fever and general malnutrition, changed when, at 16 years old, he lived with the teacher who brought to India a practice that synthesized ancient hatha practices and modern gymnastics, Krishnamacharya.  Patricia Walden told us that on his 80th birthday he did 108 drop-backs – dropping into urdhva dhanurasana (wheel) from standing.  In his 90s however, he practiced more supported backbends. 

The well-known childhood story of his regaining his health through his yoga practice and then giving this learning to his teaching, speaks of taking the circumstances of one’s life and turning them into something great – not so much great because he has become so famous but great because his learning has become meaningful and something of beauty.  I don’t know that I am as tireless in his process of transforming life events into greatness but I take inspiration from it.

The Iyengar system of teaching yoga is famous for its use of props that are meant to help us attain the benefit of a pose when our bodies are not quite able to find the necessary alignment.  According to an article in the New Yorker, he developed his use of props as a result of being asked by Krishnamacharya to travel and demonstrate yoga and experiencing first hand the dangers of pushing oneself into poses prematurely.  Consequently, he developed a slower, more systematic way of practicing including the use of props.

One of the stories about him that make up my yoga world is of him asking his assistants to put someone into a pose using props in a particular way. When he turned to look at that person he said no, that is not right, we must try another way.  This capacity to see so clearly and make adjustments according to that clarity of seeing is a metaphor for how to live. 

Last July in Durango, Patricia quoted Mr. Iyengar as saying, “God is in the precision.”  I have thought about this again and again.  As I now begin learning Manual Lymphatic Drainage where my hands must be extremely precise and sensitive, I think of it yet again in a different situation.  Mr. Iyengar used great precision in the alignment of poses and he is both highly respected for it and sometimes criticized for it.  He also teaches great precision in the pranayama practice as to how one sits, moves ones skin and places one’s fingers on the nose.  Sometimes I think I feel, rather than understand intellectually, what he means by, “God is in the precision.” 

Thank you,  Bellur Krishamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, for all that you have given to the world. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Searching for my Core

A few selections from Merriam-Webster for the word core:

-    a central and often foundational part usually distinct from the enveloping part by a difference in nature
-    the usually inedible central part of some fruits
-    a vertical space in a multistory building
-    the internal memory of a computer
-   the central part of a celestial body usually having different properties from the surrounding parts
-    the conducting wire with its insulation in an electric cable
-    a basic, essential, or enduring part
-    the inmost or most intimate part

I keep searching for my core.  In my search I begin to wonder if perhaps I am searching for the core.  Or, maybe I am searching for a core.  It seems it should be easy to find given how much it is talked about in and out of the world of modern postural yoga and other forms of physical practices and therapies.  Instead however, I find it rather elusive. 

I still remember first learning about the four abdominal muscles and the importance of building strength in them.  The long one in the front, the rectus abdominus had its day of popularity when everyone wanted to have six-pack abs.  But the rectus can create problems if it is over strengthened in relationship to the other three, the internal and external obliques and the transverse abdominus. 

The transverse is a bit more popular lately thanks to its relationship to the pelvic floor. When everything is working properly, the transverse and the pelvic floor muscles work together to lift and create stability in the spine. Perhaps this is a bit closer to the elusive core since the pelvic floor is the location of our first chakra, or root chakra, that part of our energetic system in yoga that connects us to the earth and our basic needs:  “a central and often foundational part.”

I am always sure the psoas must be part of this search for the core.  How can it not be? As Ida Rolf points out, the psoas connects the legs to the spine.  The psoas attaches to all the lumbar vertebrae and moves right through the pelvis to the leg, coming very close to the pelvic floor. The psoas, as my dear friend Yoko has said, is like a river of energy in the body. It is also a muscle the sometimes holds our basic fears.  When we contract in fear, the psoas contracts: “the internal memory of a computer.” 

Alas I may still be searching a bit too superficially. Perhaps the core is actually the sushumna, a central energetic channel spoken of particularly in kundalini and hatha yoga, although the chakra system and nadis are referred to quite broadly in many yoga styles:  “a vertices space in a multistory building, the conducting wire with its insulation in an electric cable.”  The spine is an obvious place to look. Not just the spine but inside the spine where one finds the spinal cord. Inside the spinal cord one finds the cerebrospinal fluid.  As it turns out, the same cerebrospinal fluid is found in the billions of fine collagen fibril tubes that are part of our connective tissue: “the inmost or most intimate part.”

The collagen fibril tubes are very small.  And as one looks deeper by looking smaller, we find more and more space.  The nucleus of an atom is very small relative to the space that the electrons use to roam around the nucleus and bond with other atoms.  I imagine that as I search for my core or the core I end up in a world of atoms and subatomic particles that appear much like that of outer space and celestial bodies.  At this point, I always feel I am going deeper and smaller and suddenly find myself looking into some beyond we call outer space, an expansive place.

The celestial bodies, including our earth, all have a core: “the central part of a celestial body usually having different properties from the surrounding parts.”  The core of the earth is believed to be solid.  The core of a star is a region where “the temperature and pressures are sufficient to ignite nuclear fusion, converting atoms of hydrogen into atoms of helium, and releasing a tremendous amount of heat.” (http://www.universetoday.coma). The star we call our sun for example. 

In my search, I lose the sense of my core into a feeling of a core, a core among many cores, a world of mystery and beauty beyond the scope of my imagination and yet tantalizing me to keep imagining. I can understand the attraction of both those who look out into the night sky through powerful lenses and those who look deep into the body or the earth with powerful lenses.   

I continue to work with my physical body as I experience it, amused by my search for a core. I look for that most often quoted sutra of finding ease and steadiness in posture and I suspect it comes from that elusive core but is so clearly not limited to the definitions we give it.