• culture,  health,  yoga

    Illness and the Circus

    w-amalunaI fell, almost immediately on our return from Europe, into the flu for a week, which has been followed by bronchitis.  I am getting better, day by day, but it’s been such an interruption of my life that March feels like it didn’t really happen and the beginning of April has already passed me by.  It was a little heart-rending to come from glorious Aberdeen, where the flowers were blooming everywhere and it looked like late spring, back to New York where my dandelions are still only green shoots. It is no wonder my body decided to have none of it and fall under the spell of the fever.

    Because I work from a company where working from home is so easy, I rarely take an actual sick day when I’m not feeling well.  There’s a part of me that occasionally wishes to be sick enough that I can’t work, because I have this romantic idea about sick days that involves movies and blankets and knitting.  In reality, I was too sick to do any of those things.  Instead, I spent them sleeping and trying to sweat, while being too overheated for my brain to work at all.  I had such a shortness of breath that I couldn’t even sit up long enough at the piano to get more than a few bars of practice in.  I couldn’t write.  I couldn’t think.  Even having the cat sit on me was far too taxing, as his body generated too much heat.  The flu was so miserable that the inconveniences of bronchitis seem more irritating than concerning. I’ve finally made it over the hump and am down to a persistent cough that is getting a little better every day.  It also clears out the seats on the subway around me, which just goes to prove that there’s an upside to just about anything.

    Yesterday I returned to yoga after a five week hiatus and, happily, did not cough through the entire class, so I think that things are finally back on track. I even managed to pull myself together enough to go to the Cirque du Soleil, as you just don’t waste a ticket that expensive, even if you’re half-dead.  I had managed to find our tickets on a discount, so we splashed out and had seats four rows from the stage.  It was worth it. They really do put on a good show, though we were a little disappointed after the last show that we saw with them.  This isn’t a comment on the new show Amaluna, which was very good, but a comment on how amazing the Wheel of Death is in their Zarkana show.  I have never been so entranced, so breathless, at any performance in my life as when we were watching the Wheel of Death performance. Amaluna had all the elements that we expect from the Cirque du Soleil — excellent comedic clowns, amazing trapeze acts, that trendy balance goddess act, stunning costuming, jugglers, balancers, gymnasts, acrobats and a healthy dose of music and humor. It just didn’t grab my attention in quite the same way that Zarkana did, but it was still an amazing and inspiring night out. Now I want to kill this bronchitis so that I can start my training as an acrobat.  Getting back to yoga is a good start — there was more than one move in the show that I recognized from the yoga studio.

  • introspection,  nature,  new york,  yoga

    Winter

    Like a good part of the country, we experienced abnormally cold temperatures early this week.  The coldest we felt was about -17F with the wind chill, which doesn’t compare to a good part of the rest of the country, but is cold enough for your breath to get your scarf wet enough that it will freeze to your face.

    Ask me how I know.

    I struggle in the winter months.  I’ve been in New York long enough that I’ve learned to cope with temperatures of 20F as a normality, but anything below that literally terrifies me.  Each year, I dread January and February, which are the coldest months here, because I spend so much time just trying to survive. There’s very little energy left to do much of anything else.  I am very much a homebody, so you would think that the plummeting outdoors temperatures wouldn’t matter so much, but the house and my office are drafty and I spend two months a year shivering everywhere I go.  I walk two miles each day as part of my commute and figuring out how to survive that involves a lot of strategy and planning in my clothing selection.  That — and my actual fear of the cold — is distracting enough that it’s easy to allow myself to slip into apathy as life becomes a fight with the outdoors.

    Me, Trying to Make it to the Train
    Me — Trying to Make it to the Train

    In yoga class on Saturday morning, my excellent teacher told a story about what we think we can and cannot do and invited us to push the envelope of our definitions of ‘can’t’.  Obviously, she was talking about the more challenging yoga poses; the focus of the class was an arm balance that I did not and have not ever attained.  Certainly, one of the best ways to move along in challenging poses in yoga is to ignore your brain’s laughter at the idea that you might be able to contort your body into that of an acrobat and to just keep on trying them until you can.

    Yet I found myself thinking about the weather instead; about how this week’s temperatures had pushed my own definition of what I can and can’t deal with.  In my brain, I think, “oh yes, I can thrive when it’s 20F or warmer outside.  I’ve done that now often enough in the decade since I’ve moved here that I’ve nearly gotten used to it.  No problem.”  20F?  Can.  When we saw the weather reports for -17F, my brain immediately said, “Panic!  Can’t.”  As a result, I was exhausted on Tuesday and Wednesday, not because the weather was so terrible (well, it was really, really awful but never mind that) but because my brain got into this exhausting panic state and put me into fight-or-flight mode.  This is not a useful reaction to have about the weather.  The weather is non-negotiable.  It’s going to happen regardless of my feelings about it.  What I did have a choice about was how much I was going to let the weather affect my spirits. I admit that I lost badly.  I can’t.  I can’t.

    My eyelashes did freeze with all the tears from the wind in my face.  That’s got to count for something.

    It warmed up and by Friday and Saturday I found myself able to go outside in my favorite uniform of jeans, loafers-without-socks and a cardigan.   My entire being thrilled with the warmer weather.  I got out on my scooter and left the house no fewer than three separate times, which is pretty remarkable for me on a weekend. I danced through the house, throwing open windows and pulling down Christmas decorations.  I was filled with the energy that I find so difficult to find at this time of year and it was glorious.

    But I had to wonder — would I have enjoyed the 50F day on Saturday if I hadn’t experienced the -17F day on Tuesday?  Maybe, but probably not.  We learn by contrast, by comparing our experiences with those of others, but mostly with our own experiences.  There was a time where I thought a 20F degree day would be too much to survive, but it’s become normal.  I can’t turned into I can.  And every year I get a little better at still being able to function when it’s freezing outside, but this is definitely still a pretty low time of year for me.  For those of you that thrive in cold temperatures — how do you do it?  How do you keep your energy up when the landscape is bleak and the air is painful and cold?  How do you still find the energy to create?  I want to try your secrets.  I want to turn I can’t into I can.

  • introspection,  yoga

    Yoga: Push and Pull

    I joined a yoga studio seven months ago, and I realized earlier this week that yoga has finally become a habit. I am generally not all that motivated about exercise as I have all the natural athleticism of a particularly ungraceful sloth, but yoga has managed to fit a niche for me, because it is physical practice combined with mental challenge and meditation. It is exercise for nerds.  No matter how many years I practice, I keep learning from it.

    Me, thanks to fifteen years of yoga practice.
    Me, thanks to fifteen years of yoga practice.

    I do appreciate the physical changes in my body over the last seven months, during which I’ve committed to going to at least two yoga classes a week. I wear tiny runners shorts to class, which means that I spend an awful lot of time staring at my leg flesh, as half of a yoga class involves having your head significantly further south than it traditionally habituates. When I first started wearing these shorts, there was a lot more cellulite and lot less muscle than there is today. It’s a nice reminder that I have grown stronger, even as practice is still difficult, as I try harder and harder things.

    At my studio, many of the teachers are under the mistaken impression that we’re all trying to achieve that ultimate yoga pose, the unsupported handstand.  If you’re thinking that you did handstands as a kid, you probably didn’t do them like this:

    The challenge for me isn’t doing a handstand. The challenge for me has always been getting into the room in the first place. Once I’m in the room, anything I do on top of that is really just extra credit. So when I’m in a class that is trying to teach people all the preparatory motions for performing this acrobatic feat, my brain is laughing.  Acrobatics aren’t the reason I’m there.

    All the same, I was raised to be polite, so when my teacher on Thursday had us take our mats to the wall and try the hops that are used to help teach a yoga student what the muscles need to feel like in order to reach yogic glory, I obediently put my hands down and hopped as instructed. I hopped again. And again and again and again, getting nowhere and not really caring, because I could die without doing an unsupported handstand and be perfectly happy.

    But then I had a revelation. My hops were acheiving very little other than lowering my dignity, as I was going on the presumption that the hopping leg had to provide all the momentum. This is backwards. The hopping leg starts the movement, but it is the straight leg, the leg that appears to be doing nothing, that pulls the body upright. So as
    long as I was only asking half of my body to perform the motion, I was getting nowhere. Once I engaged *both* of my legs, my hops got a lot higher.

    Yoga is like that. Many of the poses seem difficult because it looks like only one thing is happening.  But yoga never has only one thing happening, because the body doesn’t move in isolation.  Plank looks as though you are holding the body up with the arms supporting your body weight.  And if you do it that way, plank is indeed horrible.  But if you remember to lean your weight back into your feet and have your legs and belly support your weight, plank becomes so much easier.  The trick is engaging the brain and remembering.

    So with handstand, of course my one bent leg can’t push up the weight of my entire body! Why should it? It never has to act alone when I’m walking. As it pushes, my other leg has to pull the body upwards. And when both legs are working together, the movement flows and I stop looking so much like a demented frog and more like someone who might actually do a yogic handstand one day.

    Once again yoga has smacked me in the face and reminded me of things that are obvious. If a problem is hard, it’s time to step back and approach it from another angle. If something is difficult with the resources on hand, find or develop more resources. And if you’re pushing somewhere, it almost always pays off to pull somewhere else, to make the burden easier to bear. When there is motion forward, something else has to move back. This is how balance is achieved — and nature loves balance.

    I’m a writer. I should know this. People say that love is what makes the world go ’round, but I think that it is tension. It is tension that propels a story forward, it is tension that causes people to grow and it is tension that pulls and keeps us upright.  It is only when the tension is working in harmony and balance is achieved that the story is over.  And my story has a long way to go.

  • yoga

    The Committment

    yoga_sunriseI signed up this week for a year long membership to the yoga studio that I have been flirting with on and off for the last year.  It is a vinyasa yoga studio and the classes are hard.  The teachers do seem to be very focused on getting you to a place where you can do the advanced yoga postures, like this one  with ease.  At first this bothered me quite a lot, since I was used a more basic fitness version of yoga.  I’d been taking a lot of hatha yoga and kundulini, which is the opposite sort of yoga to vinyasa, which is as much about aerobics as strength training.  Vinyasa yoga is fast.  In hatha and kundulini, you hold poses much longer, so you have more time to get into the form and focus on perfecting them.  If you come to the perspective that the physical practice of yoga is a dance, then not having time to perfect the movement and not having mirrors to check your alignment is a little disturbing and took some mental flexibility on my part.

    But I kept going back, mostly because a friend had a membership there and I liked the idea of having an exercise buddy.  That largely hasn’t actually worked out due to geography and time, but it gave me the push I needed in order to actually get back in the habit of having a night that I went to yoga.  I need schedules in order for my life to work, so having it pre-slotted into my weekly schedule makes it much more likely that I will actually go.  For three months, I’ve been doing a very good job of making my Thursday night class.  It was proof enough to myself that I could keep it up and, to make the membership pay off, add another class in to the schedule.

    There was a time when working out was a really important focus in my life.  I was most into it during the time between the end of my previous romantic relationship and when I met my husband, but as long as I lived alone, there was rarely a day in which I wasn’t somewhere in the constant rotation of strength training, cardio training and rest days.  I did a lot of running (or, more honestly, jogging) and weights and yoga.  I was running about 15 miles a week.  When my husband moved in with me, I started to find it more difficult to schedule these things, because I had the added obligation to my schedule of being home each night at a set time to have dinner with him.  The choice was easy; I was going to eat with him and give up the exercise.

    When my brother joined our lives, it became even harder to find time, because I was spending each evening supervising the doing (and the not doing) of homework.  Now that he’s nearly out of the nest, I’m finding that I have more time to take care of myself.  And now that my fitness levels have started to return to what they were before the decline of the last few years, I find that I want to work on learning how to do those advanced inversions.  But maybe that’s just the blood flowing to my head.

  • introspection,  yoga

    Introversion

    I know that it’s a big debate whether people are really extroverts or introverts, even though nearly everyone knows their status on the Meyers-Briggs test. But regardless of the science of it, I’ve always found the idea to be a useful designation for understanding myself. Name it what you will, but I need downtime to recharge. Serious downtime. And that downtime can be filled with all kinds of activity, as long as it doesn’t involve other people.

    People love me at parties. FYI.

    It’s not that I don’t like people. I do. I like nearly everyone, even people that tend to rub others the wrong way. I was the nerd that everyone picked on for too long to not have a probably unusual amount of compassion. There are not a lot of people that don’t have some good in them somewhere. And yogic philosophy helps.

    But this week, I found myself hitting against that energy barrier that I think of as the Introvert Alert. I start to get unreasonably exhausted. I stop being able to concentrate. The only thing that really fixes it is time in a quiet room without people and much background noise. Today I took advantage of a massive sinus headache and worked from home, which got me situated in the lovely new kitchen and the quiet of my house. I got more accomplished today that I probably have all week long.

    I do it to myself, over and over again. Work is demanding and social (and with long hours this week), and then I follow it up with a very full life. Piano lessons, writing, knitting circle, yoga classes, my family. But after sitting today in the quiet of my new kitchen, I am feeling so much better. Recharged. Energized. Ready to go out and conquer again tomorrow.

  • yoga

    Vinyasa Adjustment

    I went to a yoga class last week for the first time in six months.  Yoga has been a huge part of my adult life and I deeply love it and have learned much of how I cope with the disappointments of the world from it.  So, once again, I am mystified at how it happens that six months has gone by since the last class I went to, but nonetheless it happened.  The studio that I’m taking classes at is a vinyasa studio in the heart of a super hip town, where parking is always a challenge.  Kitty corner from it is a bikram yoga studio.  In between are a Thai restaurant and two bars catering to craft beers and the younger set.  There are boutiques and a needlepoint shop.  It’s that kind of place.  It was fifteen degrees out and tough to park, but we made it on time anyway.

    It was an excellent class.  I had been having an unusually bad day and I hit the studio brimming with energy that needed to be burned off.  And this was the perfect recipe for finally understanding what vinyasa is all about.  My yoga background is hatha and kundalini.  In kundalini yoga, the focus is on holding poses for such a length of time as to make it really challenging.  It’s not uncommon for a five minute pose to be introduced into a class.  When you’re balanced on your sacram, holding your feet and arms in the air, five minutes is a really, really long time.  Vinyasa, on the other hand, focuses on constant movement.  It’s rare to hold a pose for half a minute, let alone five.  This was a challenge for me, because the first yoga teacher that I really bonded with was a former ballerina.  She focused really strongly on the technique behind a pose.  She really helped ungraceful, unathletic me learn how to move minute muscles, without just powering through a pose.  This has been invaluable to me in studying yoga, because now I have a foundation of how to move a million small muscles.

    In vinyasa, that gets thrown to the wind because of the speed of the movements.  There are no mirrors in this yoga studio, which really threw me, because now I couldn’t rely on a visual check to see if my arms really are parallel to the floor or if I’ve gotten lazy and have one drooping behind.  So much of yoga is dance for me, by which I mean the enjoying the beauty of doing a graceful movement, that it was a difficult adjustment.  Then, the other night, about halfway through class, when I was thinking about how much better I was feeling for the energy I’m burning, I realized that if I adjusted my thinking to compare it to an aerobics class, it suddenly all made much more sense.  And suddenly I understood the impressive athleticism of the teachers at the studio.  While no yoga teacher is out of shape, there’s a certain level of nearly competitive acrobatics that I had never seen before.  But when strength training is combined with cardio and stretching in the way that it is in vinyasa, it’s not surprising that it creates such powerful bodies.

    It’s not that the yoga isn’t there.  It’s just a different form of yoga than I practiced for the first ten years of study.  And there is good in it, even if the dance is now a quicker number.

  • introspection,  yoga

    To the Presidents, three hours of yoga and one hell of a bird

    The holiday weekend was filled with pure, unadulterated laziness. With Himself out of town, I thought that I might find the three days off rather oppressive, but I mostly found that even with three days basically to myself, there still  wasn’t enough time to do half of what I wanted to.  Clearly the problem is not external.

    I started out the weekend with an early morning yoga class, which I followed up on Sunday with a two hour yoga inversions workshop.  Basically I learned that I am not very good at being upside down.  I also learned that three hours of yoga in two days when your practice has not been particularly dedicated over the last year will turn your thighs into rock. It will take an actual volcanic explosion to make them molten enough to want to move again.  But I’m sure it was good for me; you’ve just gotta’ see my one-legged crow.  Maybe some day I’ll take the leap of faith and get that second leg off of the ground.

    Yogic inversions are suppposed to be good for the soul because they make you face your fears (and the strength limitations of your biceps).  I must concur.  It is scary to stand on your head with only a thin yoga mat between you and the floor.  And the floor hurts.  There are a couple of ways to work through this.  One, you acknnowledge the fear and then let it go.  Headstand.  Two, you learn how to position your body in a sensible way so that you master the physics.  This creates a body awareness.  The hip bone is connected to the leg bone.  Arms are easier to rest on if they’re positioned vertically enough that they turn into gravity supported shelves.  Crow.  Or, three, my method; find a wall, put your head on the mat, hop around a bit a la Gollum and pray.

    You can be the judge of which method is the most spiritual.  I can tell you from experience that the last will eventually yield results, though it helps if you mix the first two in as well.  I find that yoga provides a lot of metaphors for dealing with life in general. Learning to acknowledge and bypass fear is only one of them.

    The most valuable thing that I have learned in yoga is that success is rarely the correct object by which to measure achievement. It’s actually a rather shallow measurement, because it misses all the detail of the journey.  And if I’m worried about success, even when my yoga neighbor does a perfect unassisted middle of the room headstand (again), I’m never going to get that second foot off the ground.  And isn’t it the fact that I keep trying to fly despite failure really the important truth?

    In an unrelated adventure, I also met Cheeks the Quaker parrot this weekend.  (He does not actually wear a Quaker broadcloth suit.  I was disappointed.) Cheeks is approximately one pound, with semi-clipped wings, which he still waves around a lot.  And Cheeks crossed the entire living room to climb up my pants leg, using beak and claw, to sit on my knee and try to pick up the three pound ball of yarn I was knitting with.  He must have tried at least a dozen times, with each attempt winning him a few more inches before he’d have to put it back down and rest.  But he kept trying, which kind of makes that heart-filled creature my yoga hero.

    At least untill he shows up in my yoga class and does a perfect unassisted middle of the room headstand.  Then the bastard is on his own

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