Friday, April 30, 2010

Achtung Baby

Setting: Kerbey Lane Cafe, Austin, TX, mid-1990s
2 young people eating lunch at a window seat and watching customers arrive...a white limo pulls up and a short, spiky-haired fellow gets out, wearing high-heeled cowboy boots and wrap-around glasses.
(snorts) Look at that guy, he thinks he's Bono!
(calmly) He's right.
(remembering U2 is in town) Hmph!

I was reminded of this scene from my past, while considering recent comments on my earlier post.

Seriously, if people are happy with their yoga classes and no one is being exploited or abused, is there really a problem? I certainly enjoy the discussion and crafting an argument can be a great mental exe
rcise but, at the end of the day, if some one thinks their brightest contribution to the practice of yoga is a pair of yoga shoes, maybe they're right. If shelling out for yoga pants can help assuage the fear of "camel toe" during class, maybe that's a good thing. Perhaps Led Zeppelin and 59 other sweaty bodies can be the path to inner peace (and a bargain, to boot).

The practice of yoga has been around for a long time and will survive any attempts at hybridization, branding, or re-imaging that the entrepreneurs can think up--whether I get mad about it or not. Come for the tight yoga bod, stay for the mental peace. Whatever.

So I'm going to try and stop caring (so much) about the trendy and get back-to-basics. Wanna join me? Bob Wei
senberg is hosting a book discussion group over on Elephant Journal; first text under consideration-Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Bhagavad Gita. As Bob says, this is one of the Big Three of yoga sources, along with the Sutras and Upanishads (I hope we'll read those, too). I'm looking forward to this; the combo of Bob's thoughtful discussion, comments from many of the usual suspects, emotional reactions, and intellectual exploration should make for a really lively and interesting mind-full. On Monday, we're starting with the Introduction (just 20 pages, there's plenty of time...).

Do come.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

By Any Means Necessary

Some good stuff this (and last) week: yoga for those who can (should) afford it, for those who can't, yoga for everyone. I am especially inspired by the discussion following Roseanne's post on mobile yoga and Linda's on donation yoga --are the hybrid yogas and cheap yoga a good thing, as long as they bring new students to the practice?

My comment to Roseanne was that strategies for getting-everyone-on-the-mat strike me as similar to those of trying-to-get-everyone-to-read. The reasoning seems to follow that it doesn't matter what people do, or the quality, but just that they are doing it--60 people crammed in a studio, rollerblade yoga, graphic novels. Who am I to say what kind of yoga/books people should enjoy...maybe these will lead them on the path to "harder" stuff and that these are the gateways to a more intense yoga or literary experience.

But maybe they won't.

And that's where my enthusiasm for the hybrids ends. I certainly don't have a problem with other forms of exercise borrowing from yoga or other reading material being considered a part of literature
(and I think some graphic novels are brilliant, but you don't read them like you read a page full of words) . I think both approaches miss the point--that these should be activities that force you to leave the external world and enter an interior one. Asana should help you get out of your body and books should challenge your imagination. It's hard work to exercise the brain, but that is what doing yoga and reading the printed word is to me.

So if the class stays focused on cost-cutting (meaning the factory-farm model, to borrow R's analogy) or trying to do the "best" arm balance or tightening your abs and glutes, I'm not particularly supportive. If the book feeds you all the visuals or dumbs-down the language or draws its characters from a TV show, I'm not thrilled. If that's really all some one is looking for, she's missing a lot. Maybe the whole thing.

But that's just my opinion. Maybe these options do create awareness for some people, or maybe they will want to seek a more challenging approach some day. However, it seems that if you offer people an easier way, they rarely decide to try something harder. And, since the easy way is usually the profitable way...well, you know how that story ends.

(BTW, this is in no way to denigrate the awesome, generous spirit in which most pay-what-you-can yoga classes are offered.
There are many wonderful teachers out there sharing their knowledge for free or on the cheap...not with an eye on the bottom line, but on spreading the love. I am grateful they can do that, and I hope people realize that this is a gift and not something to be taken for granted.)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Challenge of Silence

They have been some really interesting comments about what we take from yoga, especially the stillness and quiet. For me, savasana is the hardest pose and pranayama the hardest practice--it's so hard to shut those voices up! Well, apparently this is a very popular topic--the challenge of silence--and this guy's publicist is working overtime to promote his new book about it...

At least I think this is the guy I was listening to--I know, shameful lack of citation--on NPR the other day. George Prochnik was discussing In Pursuit of Silence, and was making some interesting observations about humans and their need for constant noise. He noted that pretty much every other animal on the planet tries to keep quiet, either to avoid being eaten or to avoid being detected while sneaking up on the former in hopes of eating. Just about the only exception is noise in service of reproduction...

What is it with us humans--top of the food chain, with no predators? big brains in need of constant stimulation? not enough attention as children? too much attention from parents and not enough from the rest of the world? scared of being alone? too many listening devices?

I do okay with quiet (which technically includes the hum of a dehumidifier, the gurgle of the fish tank, occasional scolding from a vocal cat), which is such a relief when I'm the only one at home. But, unless I have the voice of a teacher in my ear, I have a hard time concentrating on my yoga practice without music. I really have trouble meditating. Prochnik suggests controlled background noise can have a focusing effect for kids with ADHD, but I see it working for many of my students and, certainly, for me.

Which makes me a little wistful. I try to cultivate quiet calm, when I can (background noise that I control...with two little boys, yeah, right!). I'd like to think that I'm part of a group that can forgo constant external stimulus, but maybe I'm not (or just barely).

Or maybe quiet has always been hard. Maybe there's a reason yoga was originally restricted to the Brahmin caste; it was thought the average householder couldn't handle it. Maybe it's always been noisy, it's just the kinds (and volume) of noises has changed. Humans have always been the "look at me" animal on the planet...and, for the most part, aren't worried about being lunch.

Something to think about--when you're not trying to not think.

(Overheard at the Milwaukee zoo, "Hey sweetheart, get a load of this...")

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Opening and Closing of a Heart

Woof. The first discussion on the Diane Rehm show yesterday morning was a four-weller (meaning, I found myself welling up listening to it, four times). And I only caught the last 15 minutes!

The show had assembled a number of counselors and pediatricians who deal with adoption issues, prompted by the actions of an adoptive mother who "sent" her son back to Russia after deciding she couldn't handle him. (I can't begin to understand her decision; suffice it to say, I am very sorry she felt that was her only option and I am sorry that she now has to deal with her own reaction to that decision, as well as global condemnation)

The show had a wonderful, moving call (a two-weller) from a mother dealing with a very difficult, six-year old adoptee. She sounded very tired, but very determined. The host asked her if she'd ever wished she hadn't adopted her daughter. Without a second's pause, the caller said no and said, while she hadn't visualized this life for herself, she figured there was a reason she was matched with this child.

There is some one who is going to have an awesome next life.

It reminded me of another interview I read, in which a woman was recounting her life dealing with her teenage son's mental illness. She told of complaining to her minister that, "this wasn't what she signed up for." Her wise counselor responded, "actually, this is exactly what you signed up for." For me, that exchange really drove home the whole amazing and horrible trade-off of parenthood.

Or any relationship where you accept responsibility for another life, actually. To open your heart and allow some one (thing) in requires a huge investment--of emotion, time, and faith. You cede control to let in the sweetness--and the pain.
(Probably the technical explanation is that the brain rewires to accommodate this new sense of self and obligation...but where's the poetry in that?) These are important things to remember during the first heady days of falling in love, bringing home a new pet, considering parenthood.

It makes life that much richer, and that much scarier. I can't think of anything more upsetting than losing some one close...the old I-would-give-my-life-for-you sort of feeling. On the other hand, I can't imagine keeping people at arm's length to avoid any heartbreak. That seems rather cold and lonely.

So I wish you all the ability to open your hearts, and keep them open. Cherish the good and soldier through the bad that comes with this responsibility. It's hard to love, I know, but I wonder if it's even harder not to...

Friday, April 09, 2010

Before there was Yoga...(and After)

I have been very impressed with the tenor of recent discussions. A lot of really smart (a compliment, as far as I'm concerned), thoughtful responses, with much additional information to put in the mix. Very cool.

I'm struck by the variety of experience out there. Not that it should surprise me, but there are a lot of interesting back stories that I'm just getting a glimpse of: college majors, past career tracks, enthusiasms, impressive reading lists. It got me to thinking (don't it always) about what leads up to one's yoga "career" and what it was about yoga that was so compelling that we stayed. Some of it is obvious (stress-relief, fitness, improved health), but--of course--yoga moves in deep and subtle ways and there must have been something more personal that each of us responded to. Before there was yoga, there was something else and I want to know what it was...

So, I'll go first. My first yoga class was in the fall of 1989, in Philadelphia with Joan White, a long-time Iyengar instructor. It was also my first semester of grad school in Art History at the Univ. of Pennsylvania, and my first Big City experience as an adult. I was quite overwhelmed by Ivy Leaguers and the City of Brotherly Love and I'd heard yoga was good for stress, so I thought I'd try it out.

Of course, it was good for stress, but what caught my attention was Joan's rigor and her attention to detail. I liked the soothing pace of the class, but I also liked the right-way/wrong-way dichotomy. That I was there to learn "how" to do a pose and--even though it could be modified--there was a correct version and an incorrect version. Some of this came from Joan's adjustments, but some of it came from the fact that if you're out of alignment, you can't hold Tree Pose. Basic enough.

As a fish-out-of-water Midwesterner, I found this fairly strict presentation of the discipline very appealing. Here was something clear-cut, secure and regular. I could go to class, expect a straightforward sequence, and would feel better when I was finished. None of the "do I belong here" or "can I keep up" voices from the rest of my life at that time.

I guess that's why the basic Iyengar approach continues to resonate with me, altho I've found it a bit inflexible at times. I like the logic and structure. I know one thing will lead to the next and, as this progression unfolds, I will move deeper into the practice and into calm. I can rely on it. It's not that the rest of my life is super-chaotic, but my yoga practice feels like my protected, quiet center.

Before there was yoga there was a lot of nervous, unfocused energy. First Art History and then Costume Design. High-pressure deadlines out of my control, unpredictable personalities, excitement, drama, over-thinking (can you imagine?!?). Sequins. And that is still my tendency, but I have a remedy for the worst of it. And, when I moved back to Wisconsin, I replaced the really crazy life of show biz with that of a yoga teacher (and mother--but that's a bit more of the out-of-control drama).

So, for me, yoga offers Structure. A Voice that reminds me not to over-analyze and helps me focus the energy and settle down. Nothing fancy, not too much dogma, just asana and pranayama and the calm that follows. Common-sense yoga, if you will.

Your turn.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Cogito, bitches

re. Last Week: That's what I'm talking about. Interesting observations. Provoked thoughts. Amusing anecdotes. That is why we do this, no? And it brings yet another issue to mind...

It seems, on a regular basis, some kind-hearted soul smiles at me while I chase one misbehaving child or another and says, "Well, isn't that their job? To test limits?" And, while I grit my teeth and try not to offer them an afternoon testing their own limits with said child, I have to admit, they're right. That's child (teenager) hood, isn't it, to figure out the rules and then try to transgress them. And sometimes this is problematic--crayon-meets-wall/bike-meets-concrete/alcohol-meets-underage-lips; other times it is something beautiful. That something beautiful is thinking for yourself.

I have a healthy respect for rules. I'm not a fan of chaos or anarchy. But some rules are meant to be challenged, whether with a well-crafted argument or science experiment or clever demonstration. That's what I hope to teach my own little tormentors--using your mind is probably the most transgressive act of all. Cogito Ergo Sum, baby. I Think Therefore I Am.

And so it ties in with my feelings about all the yelling over and the shutting down. The citing of Sutras and taking of the US Constitution's name in vain (you don't really have to read it, you know, to know it's against health reform). The Purists/Constitutionalists/Fundamentalists would have you believe that the guys who wrote the texts that we live by, had no imagination, couldn't conceive of a world other than their own and, therefore, expect us to follow the rules they set down without question or exception.

Yeah, right. A good writer is a good thinker. One who considers words carefully, who crafts meaning with intention, who looks at many sides of an issue. We know T. Jefferson and the Apostle Paul and, probably, Pantanjali, did a lot of thinking before putting pen (quill? charcoal stick?) to paper. I doubt they thought they had all the answers.
How could Pantanjali be against chocolate--I doubt he ever tasted it?!?

And yet, people want to take refuge in unchanging verities. To take a text at face value. Instead of thinking reasonably about their beliefs, they want to shut the book and cross their arms and ignore all challenges. That is a trap I hope the boys never fall into--to stop thinking and just accept.

It's a trap I hope we all avoid. It's hard to be a thinking person, it can be lonely, but it is what makes being human such a beautiful thing. We have a very complex and subtle brain; we can abstract, empathize, and use language. Growing up doesn't mean you stop testing limits or questioning rules. Maybe you don't try to write on walls or stuff dirty clothes under the bed anymore, but you should never stop thinking.

I mean, where's the fun in that...

(Thanks, Leonardo, now how about a Vitruvian Woman?)