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.


ps154artstudio said...

Yes, I'm all for it! I see that subtle downward arch
in the cow's back. Kelly

Joan said...

Moo is Omm backward....You crack me up.

May I also say that is a very pretty cowpie photo. Where the hell did you get that? Does Getty Images stock cowpie shots, or something?

I have that same problem with cat-cow. Arch to me means arching up, like that Halloween cat. I've been trying to find a mnemonic to trigger the right response when we start doing it. Nothing's worked yet. At one point I actually resorted to trying to make some kind of mental connection between how you breathe when you go into 'cat' and the old wives' tale about cats stealing breath from newborn babies. That didn't work either. Fortunately!

KC said...

Uhhh, all uncredited images, if they're not mine, come from wikipedia/media/commons or whatever. The ones that seem to be public domain...It is a nice one, isn't it?

I didn't know about the cats and the newborns! They're worse than I thought! (Wait, don't you breathe out in cat??)

My sister says if you curved your back in the cow posture (pasture?) way while standing up you'd be arching it. I'm hoping that'll help.

Joan said...


Breathing out in cat -- Yeah, I guess so. I told you--I can never remember!!!!!