Saturday, January 30, 2010

Yoga Chronicles: Yes, Ma’am!

I’m sitting happily on my mat, awaiting the start of a basic yoga class. Roving around the room, still helping to settle the newcomers, C. begins the litany of the commands that will lead us into Sukasana, an easy version of sitting cross-legged.

“Extend your legs.”

I’m anticipating her instructions just slightly. By now I’ve done this many times, but I love getting told what to do. It’s like taking a test when you already know you will get a perfect score—very satisfying.

“Bend your knees. Flex your feet. Externally rotate your right leg—if you don’t know what I mean, you can look at what K. is doing,” C. says.

K. is me! I sit up a little straighter. Indeed, I’m extremely pleased to be mentioned, at least until my buddy R., a sixth-grade teacher, emits an emphatic noise from the mat to my left.

“Brownnoser!” she hisses.

I turn to R., roll my eyes, and laugh. Ha, ha, very funny! I hope that for a second we’re like two kids passing notes in the back of the class—you know, infinitesimally disruptive. Not teacher’s pets. Not brownnosers at all.

As class begins in earnest, I’m thinking that later I’ll set R. straight about how I’m really a rebel. (Not now, because C. just told us to close our eyes and focus quietly on our breath.)

I never do, of course, because by the end of the session I’ve realized that in a way what R. said is totally true: when it comes to yoga, I love following the rules.

* * *

That thought is a surprise. It shouldn’t have been, I suppose, since I’m seriously law-abiding, but then again: our lived reality and our internal experience don’t always jibe.

In my mind, I’m not malleable. I’m defiant. I live in a perpetual state of resistance. I’ll do what I’m told, I think, but I don’t have to like it.

How come, in yoga, I do?

It may seem weird to leap from the simple matter of accepting a teacher’s guidance to the whole matter of oppressive ideologies, but that’s where it goes for me.

I grew up with parents who’d spent their formative years fearing Nazism, McCarthyism, and religious fundamentalism—terrible things. All may have begun with an assertion of shared and ostensibly positive values, but they swiftly morphed into intolerance, and worse.

As I understood it—and mind you, these were simply the interpretations of a wide-eared child, with no comprehension of nuance or hyperbole—my father believed that social movements by their very nature consisted of people who had subordinated their individual will to some larger, collective imperative.

These people were sheep, but potentially very dangerous sheep. Before long, these they would be hard at work trying to impose their shared values and their rules on you.

My father opposed the Vietnam War and supported civil rights, but he did not seem to be in favor of antiwar rallies, protest marches, churches, politicians, team spirit, community activism, Ralph Nader, or block associations.

(Theater, movies, books, wildflowers, trees, houseplants, butter, Lorna Doone cookies, sorbet, shrimp curry, some dogs, and Thoreau were okay.)

A better child than I might have emerged as an impassioned foe of injustice and intolerance, but I emerged with a deep suspicion of group activities.

I had no idea what was safe to believe in. I had no confidence in my own moral fiber. I was afraid that even the smallest act of participation might be enough to lead someone as weak-willed as myself to a life of blind following.

I was terrified by what faith in anything, particularly if others believed in it also, might make me want to do. I might start telling other people what to do. I’d be a brownnoser one day, and a brownshirt the next.

Why not defy the group? To me, even the mildest sharing of divergent views felt like confrontation. I had no idea how to negotiate. Melting into the shadows seemed like just the ticket. Avoidance made me feel strong.

It can feel very lonely if you never allow yourself to care.

* * *

Almost from the very start, yoga has been able to trick me out of my ambivalence toward authority.

For most of my life, I believed that my refusal to really join with others was a sign of strength. Now, of course, I can see that defiance can also be a great mask for fear.

To me, almost any set of collective standards represents a form of coercion. If you want to play with the group members you’ve got to acknowledge their standards—and once you do, you’ll be using their lens to see how you measure up.

If you don’t measure up, then you fail. And if you do measure up and feel good about it, what about everyone else who doesn’t?

If you don’t want to fall into this type of self-hating quagmire, you simply refuse to join.

My first significant encounter with yoga came in the early 1990s, when I took a class taught by Roberta Schine at her Karate School for Women. “Be a C student,” she used to say, over and over.

I could hardly believe my ears. I was never a C student. Not only was I being given permission to fail, I was being given permission not to try!

The voice of authority was telling me it was just fine to ignore her. I could yield to my limits or my fears or my soreness and still be okay in there.

Yeehaw! From then on, I did everything she said. I loved her, and I adored those classes. Suckered by reverse psychology, or liberated from expectations, I gave the experience my unprecedented all.

That yoga experiment didn’t last long, because Roberta closed her school and went off to teach yoga to cancer survivors, but the legacy of those weeks lives on. For me, yoga remains an arena where it seems possible to obey without having to submit.

* * *

A basic yoga class, I sometimes think, is like a game of Simon Says—but without that malicious trickery! It feels like a safe place to surrender. Basically, I trust these people. It’s pretty clear that the last thing they want is for us to get hurt.

Once I’ve lowered my defenses, it turns out I can actually enjoy taking orders.

When C. says, “raise your arm,” I try. If I fall over, there’s no time to brood—there are more directions coming.

The commands run right through me. I don't think; I obey. We execute a whole sequence of postures on one side and move on to the other.

Sometimes a teacher may send us into a pose with our left leg bent, and later forget to repeat it on the right.

Most often, there’s a student who’ll call out the omission, sometimes to a chorus of mock groans.

Half the time I don’t even remember what we did the first time. I’m not attuned enough to my body to notice the imbalance, and my mind seems completely absent.

For me, the mix of arduousness and precision is often absorbing.

I am, in a strange way, fully in the present of each step. My brain seems to have no record of whatever movement just took place. There is no past and no future.

I wonder sometimes if this isn’t part of what’s so relaxing.

* * *

In the long run, yoga may provide an interesting illustration of a familiar point: that you have to know the rules before you can break them.

I don’t think I’ll always be able to let the teacher function as a surrogate consciousness, no matter how delicious that may feel.

Eventually, it seems, the—er—brownnosing would take a new shape. A devoted student would go home, practice the poses, and absorb the routines into memory.

I imagine with this kind of progress there comes a new level of responsibility: to know yourself and to take care of yourself. If you couldn’t achieve the positions the yoga schools dictate, you might have to adapt the asanas so that they would work for you.

One of the teachers, J., told us that new poses are still being developed; as she remarked, “the book of yoga is not yet closed.”

All of which could in fact make it exciting to absorb the rules. Because you could feel confident you’d never be confined by them.

(What’s scares me still, at least in prospect, is the thought that I might actually become a true convert. I might end up as a vegan ascetic wearing a sheet!)

If practice is supposed to teach you something, I guess what I’m learning is this:

It takes openness and discipline to accept and apply the rules that help—and courage to reject the ones that don’t.

Just as that serenity prayer says, the wisdom must lie in discerning the difference.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Yoga Chronicles: The Year of the Cow

As 2008 came to a close, I made a New Year’s resolution to start taking yoga classes. Much to my surprise, I kept it—and several other resolutions, too. Go figure.

Ten months into 2009, I was struggling with a whole bunch of questions about what to do with my new practice. In lieu of a job, I’d spent the summer training for a bike ride. When that was over, I dumped all my anxiety and ambition onto yoga.

I wanted to advance, but before now I’ve rarely undertaken a sustained effort to get better at anything. In between feeling that progress was unlikely and unrealistic and besides a daydream of the ego, I wondered if I could become a yoga teacher.

Having tied myself into mental knots, I’d plan an arduous schedule of more advanced classes. I’d skip other acts of exercise to conserve energy for my proposed foray into the intermediate level, but then, week after week, I’d bypass the yoga classes, too. They were at all new times. When would I eat?

Anyway, I didn’t want to leave the basics classes I so love, or the people in them.

I wrestled with my ambivalence until the New Year drew nigh, and then abruptly settled on two 2010 yoga resolutions that I hoped would be simple and doable.

1. I would aim for two intermediate and one open class per week. Any basics classes I took after that would be purely for fun.

2. I would bring the spirit of a cow to my practice.

* * *

It’s the heifer part that really matters to me.

First and foremost, I thought I could use that cow image to shut my mind up. Get placid. Just stand by the fence and chew my cud. Swish my tail from time to time. Mooooo is practically Ommmm sung backward.

(Obviously, I’m not thinking of the kind of cow that gets tortured in industrial farming. I’m thinking of the apparently contented dairy cows I still sometimes see by a country road. )

Not surprisingly, I’d arrived at my notion of bovine inspiration while working through repetitions of cow pose, which is one of yoga’s basic moves for warming up the spine.

You start on your hands and knees, but then raise your head and neck at one end and your “sitting” bones (aka ischial tuberosities) at the other. Your spine drops and stretches into a shallow curve between the two elevated points.

The pose that alternates with this is cat pose—still on your hands and knees, you curl your back like a Halloween cat.

photos: Yoga Journal. Cow left, cat right.

As an aside, let me note that I often experience a fair amount of confusion while cycling through these two poses, and it almost always starts with the word arch.

Yoga may be all about the body, but there’s still plenty of room to get tripped up by language.

To me, an arch is something that goes up—the McDonald’s arch, the St. Louis arch. But to lots of people, it seems, an arch can also curve downward, like the smile in a happy face or a jump rope waiting for action.

As a result, about half the time when a teacher says “arch” I rise into cat, while everyone else descends into cow.

(This moving in the wrong direction is fairly typical for me in yoga, though it usually involves right and left.)

One of the things that I’ve come to love about yoga classes is the way in which coherent collective action and distinct individual experience are able to coexist.

To me, this often creates a wonderful sense of mystery.

The teachers are trying to invent language that communicates to the body, and we’re all absorbing the dozens of literal and metaphoric instructions in different ways.

I have no idea what is flashing through all the other students’ minds as they engage the stream of images that is likely to be invoked in the course of any given class.

(Lawn mowers, snakes, parachutes, jellyfish, sails, ferns, flags, Slip ‘n Slides—the list goes on and on.)

When somebody says “cow,” do all the other city people get excited?

Cows have big bony haunches, and when I envision them I get a little flamboyant about spinning my own pelvis so that my sitting bones feel hugely wide and very tall in the air. (If I were doing this as a human, I’d probably be a lot less exuberant.)

When I raise my head, it’s because I’ve had my neck comfortably lowered for gazing, but then I calmly raise my head to see what’s passing by. (Big brown eyes. Mmmmm. Look back down.)

It’s true I picked cows as my mascot because they didn’t seem like the types to indulge in overthinking. But there was more to it than that.

As I contemplated my intentions for the year ahead, one of the underlying questions was this: How can I stay with yoga for the long haul?

I knew that I wanted to cultivate discipline, to learn to work hard and to visibly try, but at the same time I feared it might be counterproductive to fight so hard at every step of my practice.

As much as it conflicted with every macho fantasy I’ve ever had for myself, I thought I should aim for something steadfast and gentle, like I imagined a cow to be. Something sweet.

Lately, C. keeps emphasizing that yoga is all about feeling in the body, and therefore about touch most of all. I buy that, and I’m fascinated by the idea of developing an interior sense of touch, but I’m surprised to discover that yoga has opened up other senses as well.

When I think of it, sweet can be a quality of movement—I’d certainly aspire to that—or a taste. But I was thinking of a particular scent, one I’d inhaled years ago during a magical day in the badlands of North Dakota.

The grasses were unusually lush and green, the sky pink and blue, and the breeze danced with the sounds of meadowlarks.

I could remember how amazing the fragrance of that prairie was, and I knew what it was like, but I simply could not bring it back to mind—not enough to use it in yoga.

What had it been like? After a while, I realized it was kinder, gentler, more nuanced version of cow dung—which made sense, since both scents came from grasses. I could readily conjure the perfume of cow dung.

Yes, at the risk of seeming ridiculous, I wanted my yoga practice to contain the smell (and smelling) of manure. How alert do I feel when I am capturing an unexpected scent? How delicate does my sensing have to be? How smoothly does the aroma flow through me? Can I move like that?

The associations went on from there. I’d first encountered cow dung while exploring the dairy farm that bordered the very first house I’d lived in.

I’d wade across the creek, squeeze through a slack, rusty strand of barbed wire, and stand daringly in the cow pasture. The fact that the manure coiled into a perfect circle—the proverbial cow pie—was totally amazing to me.

A while back I wrote about visiting the neighbor’s farm to watch the cows come in for their milking (see postscript). My sister has since told me it turned out it was off to the cows I had gone when I disappeared one afternoon and my father got so frantic he jumped in the old well to look for me.

So my cow idea has acquired another layer—a fresh narrative about the child who wants to explore and is loved at the same time. That childhood daring feels very much part of the world of yoga for me, along with the notion of being cared for, in a sense, by the teachers and the practice.

* * *
I’ve only invoked the cow a few times so far. As the Jaya newsletter said recently, I’m constantly remembering that I’m about to forget I ever had the idea at all.

I tried it once during the extended period of time in which we held a hip-opening stretch.

Head down, forearms on blocks, eyes watering, hands clasped in prayer, I began to imagine what it must be like to be a cow walking toward the barn with a swollen udder. Oh, those bones must ache. Was the cow in a hurry? Was the cow complaining? No!

(Speaking of hip openers, I’ve discovered that they bring up a lot of what the yoga teachers like to call “sensation.”

One of our instructors, A., told us with a smile that she’d once held ankle-to-knee for so long that she could taste the tears she’d shed on her fourth-grade playground. Once again, yoga had moved beyond touch, to memory and taste.

Apparently I’m suggestible, and there must be something about that pose and salt. The next time I tried ankle-to-knee I could have sworn my saliva was flavored with blood from my endless childhood sessions at the dentist.)

I'm not sure any of this is what you are supposed to be doing in yoga, but for now it’s fun anyway.

I realize a cow may be too clumsy and plodding and earthbound to serve as a lasting source of yogic inspiration, but for now those are my attributes, too.

And of course, there’s always that cow that jumped over the moon.