SCSU yoga

Asana: psalm of the flesh

"Enter eagerly into the treasure house that lies within you, and so you will see the treasure house of heaven...The ladder that leads to the Kingdom is hidden within you."  sixth century Christian mystic St. Issac the Syrian

handsI'm faced with this problem:

I teach, mostly, asana.

I tell people the asana don't really matter; yoga begins with a desire to wake up, with ethics and personal observance, with self study and commitment.

And I tell them the way is through asana.

You see the problem.  I'm contradicting myself.

We all walk into yoga knowing it has to do with postures.  A few of us figure out, along the way, that yoga has nothing to do with postures.  If we've made the commitment to a regular practice, if we keep knocking on that door of the body, if we practice when we are tired and when we've not slept well and when we don't want to, practice when we're too busy and when we're happy enough without it, eventually we feel joy come to answer the knocking.  Joy erupts as deeply as an orgasm and as incorrigibly as age.  Grace only ever happens in real time.

But those things - ethics, commitment, self study - remain abstract for most humans.  Asana offer a discipline, an opportunity, a path. Maybe a ladder.  They give a way in to meditation, to healing, and to the present moment.  Most of us wouldn't have the guts or the time to get there on our own.  Asana is the teacher, is the commitment.  Asana is the guru.

We show up and are prodded into the present moment.

The body lives in the present.  When you are aware of the body, you are connected.  To what I won't bother to say.  Maybe the global throb of life.  The on-goingness of it.  The truth of dailyness.  Eternity.  God.  An underlying okayness. The realization of how small and irreal your hang-ups are, considering reality.  How big they are, as hang-ups.  The present, via the body moving and the mind watching, will reveal the stories you tell yourself day in and day out.  If you manage to trace edges with your breath and your toes, the present will prove to you that these stories are untruths.  Half truths at best.  Signals of compromise.  Misunderstandings. vaparita dwi pada dandasana

The present, via the body, is the one place from which you can see reality.  Awareness of the body is our gateway into the truth of what is.

Pema Chodon writes "To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.  To live fully is to be always in no-man's land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh.  To live is to be willing to die, over and over again."

Asana throw us directly into no-man's land.

I think that is where we need to be.

***

The simplest explanation for why, in the eight limbed path, there are asana is this: if you want to reach the inner self, you have to go through the self.  It is hard to feel alive, let alone awake, if you are stuck in a body that is unwell.  If you want to go the depths of who you are and what you are capable of, it helps if your most immediate and constant tool - ie flesh and blood - become resource rather than hindrance.

It is hard to find reality if you are unaware of your own heartbeat.

So the body itself becomes an object for meditation.  The body itself is medicinal, therapeutic.  Asana provide a genuine high and a refuge.  Asana gives us a place to go.  It lays out pathways and intricacies of mastery and skill.  They strengthen and sooth, open and release.

ardha padma uttanasanaBut there is something more than the simple explanations.

If we can manage to show up in the body, to drop in, we experience.  We feel something.  Something is known that wasn't known before.

Because it is body - or whatever it is that is real inside and outside the body -  it is not a thing of the mind.  Language can only approximate it.  Like love, asana is a thing that has to be experienced, rather than talked about.  Also like love, asana is expressed in metaphor and poetry.  It involves ecstatic release, profound rest, changed brainwaves.  Like love, the entirety of the experience can never be understood from the outside.

But we've touched something.  It's eerie at times.  The fact that there is something there.  To reality.  To body.  This isn't necessarily what we came looking for.

***

A deeper understanding reveals itself.  Our brain is everywhere the nerves go.  Heart is everywhere the blood is.  The practice of asana teaches fairly quickly that our bodies are much more complex, or perhaps more stiff, than we'd known.  What we took for granted, as reality, as limitation, proves to be conditioning or simply a  process we haven't completed, yet.  It also teaches, in little shivers of recognition, that we can know our bodies more profoundly.  Where body is, mind and heart and emotion can go.  Meditation and awareness can go deeper.  What was unconscious in us is brought closer.

If the simple reason for asana is clarification and refinement of the body, the more complex reason is the fact that bodies are our most direct route to reality and its depths.  Deep involvement and attention to asana brings us directly to (perhaps, perhaps...through...) mind and it's shadows.  You can't work physical patterns very long without banging smack up against psychological patterns.  namaste

You cannot practice asana for long without having to acknowledge that even mind and emotion, urge and insight, knowledge and clarity, are more profound and shadowy than you thought.  In the deep silence underlying your breath, you'll recognize you're facing a door.  To enter possibility, to to turn away.  The pose begins exactly as you most want to leave it.

***

Psalms, songs, beatitudes, and prayer are all words that come to mind when I try to write about asana.  There seems to be no more literal way to commune than to examine what it is we do with our hands, or to open our heart.  To touch gratitude, acceptance, dedication.  It is one thing to understand such concepts.  Another, deeper thing, to embody it.

sirsanaI teach asana.  Sometimes I can hear resistance and disbelief roaring out of my students bodies.  My foot, where?  The hell you say.  I practice asana, and I hear that same roar inside myself.  Here I am, lurching through no-man's land, all over again.  But it has been in asana, in that very place of disbelief and breath, that revelation comes.  There have been times I seem to break through in a pose I've done for years; the body shifts a millimeter, perception gets brighter, it seems there is bliss inside the hamstring. There have been other times, crumpled on the mat with my knee no where near where it's supposed to be, that fear has been revealed.  Or longing.  Absolute surrender and behind the surrender the sensations which are moody and pithy and cogent and altogether sweet.  There's the thought I didn't know I could feel this.  There are poses, too, that I have doggedly practiced - without success - for months and months and years on end without much believing I'll ever truly get there.  When suddenly, I am there.  The foot lifts.  The rib moves out of the way.  The heart stretches.

We have potential in our gristle.  The root truth is this: if we experience pleasure, pleasure is experienced through the body.  If we experience fear, grief, or longing, it is because our physicality has been shifted and touched in fine or blatant ways.  If we honestly desire health, wellbeing, contentment, it must involve the chemistry and patterns of hormones, digestive proteins, cellular structures.  If we have ever longed for god, or felt our heart clutch in some manner of loneliness, it has been a physical pang.  Therefore, we come closer by going through.  We bend back on our selves, attention revolved back toward itself, the body a mirror in which we can begin to see.

Asana is a dedicated form by which we turn the abuse and denial of the body back into humility, feeling, and meaningful gesture.  Asana is how we turn our bones to dancing, our wrinkles to poems.  Asana is a psalm made of flesh and bone.

of spirit

"There isn't anything except your own life that can be used as ground for your spiritual practice. Spiritual practice is your life, twenty-four hours a day." - Pema Chodron

flyer reach"And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it." -Isaiah 30:21

"Seek not to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; rather, seek what they sought."  Guatama Buddha

"The whole way to heaven is heaven itself."  Teresa of Avila

This sunday, if you haven't signed up yet, do.

If, anyway, you wonder what yoga has to say about spirituality and heartwork.

What all this body stuff might have to do with healing the soul.

Or what ancient practices have to teach you about your own life.

It isn't for everyone.

But it is for you if you are tired of arguing about religion and politics, tired of reading about spirituality, tired of talk-talk-talking about change or better or goals or happiness.  Tired of talking about things that matter without doing a single thing that matters yourself.

My hope is that a few of those who are looking for things that matter, trying to figure out what really matters to them, or are sick of living with what doesn't will find yoga to be an exercise of spirit and a path of heart.  Come.  Sunday January 27, 9-noon.

Please register here and click the workshops tab.

Holiday Schedules, and a workshop

In asking students whether they would be a) in town and b) interested in yoga during the holidays, the only clear answer I got was yes.  Yes. So, as I'm not leaving town myself, I plan on having class both Thanksgiving day and Friday morning at 6:30 am.

I'll close Christmas eve and day, but will have regularly scheduled classes the rest of the holiday season.  Including new year's eve and day.  (It is good to start the year this way.  It is good.)

Also, since a number of students have requested longer workshops, I've gone ahead and scheduled one.  On Sunday, December 30, from 9 am to noon I will host something part movement, part dialogue, part meditation.  I'm calling it 'body, mind, feeling and world: yoga and mindfulness'.  More to follow.

Come, practice.  The door is open.

 

Strong Medicine

More and more I find myself referring to yoga as medicine.  As science.

Of course, I say in class, yoga has elements of a spiritual path.  It has elements of fitness and diet.  But it is not a religion and it is not a fitness program.

Yoga is a science.  Yoga is strong, strong medicine.

In a world of many illnesses, a country of unprecedented stress, anxiety, mental illness, obesity and cardio vascular diseases, you would think this would be embraced.

It is not.  Western Medicine itself will only refer to yoga as a useful tool for 'stress reduction', in spite of a growing body of evidence that it can reverse heart disease, treat 'treatment resistant depression', and ease carpal tunnel syndrome, to pick out of a grab bag.  Even within the world of 'alternative medicine', mention of yoga is dismissive and scant - perhaps because nothing is ingested or inserted or removed from our bodies and we can't fathom medicine, otherwise.

And even in the world of yoga, it's teachers, authors, and serious practitioners, yoga is called a 'discipline', a 'practice', or a personal path.  I don't mean to suggest it isn't those things.  But I believe it is more.  I believe it is science and ought to be treated as such.

We know it builds strength and confidence, if not character.  We know it improves flexibility and stability, that it fosters serenity and poise.  Beyond its attributes as preventative medicine, we know that it heals - not cures, necessarily, but heals in quantifiable ways - low back strain, chronic pain, MS.

One of the difficulties is financial: studies cost.  More deeply, it is that cultural assumption that healing involves ingesting something, inserting something, or removing something from the body.  The cultural assumption focuses on disease rather than health and has no real way to discuss, let alone understand, yogic well being.

This raises a question.  Call it philosophical if you like.  Wonder about your own, or your best friend's, particular body if you want to be more poignant.

When you have an intervention which appears safe and effective, when it has no negative side effects, when it in fact has positive side effects, should one wait for proof before trying it?

I say no.  I say yoga will help in ways you wouldn't think possible.  I say it will change your ideas about health and wellness.  I say it will heal you, though the healing may not be what you expected.

I am not a doctor.  I will never encourage someone to go against a doctor's advice.  I will and frequently do insist a student talk with a doctor before beginning, changing, or returning to a yoga practice.  But I do believe a yoga practice can compliment traditional medicine, and make us more well.

And I believe yoga's potency, what makes it strong medicine, is largely it's ability to return you to control and autonomy: it will immediately teach you things you can do to relieve symptoms and influence your health, whereas so many of us feel we have no choice, no influence, no way to navigate the body mind other than to 'suffer' it or 'deal with it'.  How powerful it is for the fibromylagia patient, who has been told there are no cures and that she must learn to live with her pain, to realize there are, actually, things she can do for herself.

This is fierce medicine, indeed.

Landing, and getting up

Arrival and change feel blustery, vulnerable, and rootless.  They say moving is one of the most stressful events in life.  After the last week, I would agree. I caught myself, all week, being confused: this is a good thing; I am starting a yoga studio in a place that really needs it, bringing what skills I have to a people who don't have other teachers around; I am, in many ways, claiming 'my own' teaching and space and time.

So why does the good feel blustery, vulnerable, and rootless?

Because even good change is hard.  It calls us out of who we have been and challenges us to be something more, to bring our best, to risk and grow.

Of course it's good, and of course it's scary, both.  As the first week of classes ends this morning I'm sitting at a desk that is still unorganized and unpacked and confused, with the window open to the first day that smells like autumn, exhausted.  And happy.  I pushed students this morning, challenging them into an arm balance.  Some are very new to yoga and had never seen it before, others have done yoga but haven't gotten themselves up into that bakasana yet, or been able to hold it very long.  Therefore, there was a lot of falling.  Wobbling, wavering, and trying over.

Every one of them got up.  Felt both the risk (you expect me to stand on my hands?!) and the lift.  If just for a second.  And then we moved on.

We're all doing yoga, always.

CLASSES IN ST CLOUD START TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 4

Return is ready to open the doors at 6:30 am this Tuesday.  I am eager, and I am afraid, but I have figured out that the two usually go together.  That if it is really happiness, if you are really growing, there will be an element of poignant, gut grabbing panic.  It doesn't mean stop.  It means you're on to something important. There have been a few questions sent along.  About what kind of yoga I teach, what classes will be like, whether yoga is right for all the various 'me's out there.

The short answer is this:  our medicine, our psychology, and our culture have accepted yoga as mainstream.  We know that it improves health and deters decline associated with aging.  We know that it works to combat cardio-vascular disease (America's big number one); mitigate stress, depression, and anxiety (the numbers two and three); improve concentration and sense of wellbeing; heighten performance and reduce rates of injury and illness.  It is not a religion, although it has aspects of spirituality.  It is not a workout nor a diet and fitness plan, although there are elements of those things as well.  Yoga is, at it's heart, a proven set of practices designed to make human beings find and follow their own highest potential and step into their authenticity.

Return practices that, over the currently popular 'power yoga' classes that are very much like jazzercise and will, sooner or later, lose it's fad appeal.

Because I teach that, my classes start from the belief that any body can practice yoga.  You do not need to be in shape nor have a super healthy body.  You do not need to have any experience.  You don't need balance or flexibility and you do not need to know a thing.  The 'healing' classes, in particular, are intended to be open to bodies of all shapes, sizes, and abilities.

Also because I teach a yoga of authenticity, I teach 'strong' classes that are challenging and demanding.  More demanding, probably, than the power yoga class taught at the gym.  You will not do crunches and we will not talk about your abs.  But I will provide a framework for you to chisel out your own relationship with your body, figure out what you are capable of, and be more healthy five years from now than you are today.  Keep practicing, and you will be more healthy 25 years from now than you are today.  I will teach you inversions and arm balances and deep backbends.  I will push and you will sweat.  If you're an athlete, you'll learn how to detoxify your body post work-out and bring more proprioceptive facility to your time off the mat.

The practices are deeply healing and a private experience of accountability, growth, and self revolution.  They go deep.  But they also can be taken small, tiny small pieces at a time.  You take what you want.  You practice when you can.  If what you want is an hour to yourself, it is that.  If you want to sweat and stretch and literally change the edges of what you are capable of, it will be that.  It will help heal what is wounded and bring your body to its most alive expression, most productive state.  It will be both inspiring and soothing.  A yoga practice is both solace and new challenge.

That is the yoga I teach.  And I am excited to teach it in St. Cloud.

Give me strength...

There is strength to open pickle jars.  Strength that can hold a twisted, inverted asana where all of one's body weight is supported across the five fingers of one hand.  And then there is the strength that burns down cities in war, of storms that rips trees from the earth, the true strength of death that makes smoldering matchsticks of us all. It was a hot, smoldering summer.  Without thunder or mercy, just the drone of dry heat.  It was easy to fall into lassitude, into believing everything would go on being the way it was.  To think of strength as the muscles, and a personal thing.  I practiced handstands.  There were many black flies.  I flicked at them, absently.

Then one day it thundered.  It roared.  Someone said 'it's fall now, so...' and I thought but no, no it isn't.  By the end of her sentence, though, it was.  September is irrevocable.  And I was snapped out of my dailyness when told I'd have to move, things are changing, I'll have to make decisions and things won't be the same anymore.

The westernest leaves of the sugar maples turned a burned red.

**

When you meet persons who have practiced yoga or meditation for a long time, you are struck by their levelness.  They have a kind of grace.  A quality of being touched, joyful.  It seems, sometimes, that they are a lucky brand of bastard whom suffering and the chaos of life hasn't touched.  Their lives must be different, less stressful than ours.

This isn't true.

When you ask, you learn that they suffer and worry just as we do.  Their lives are no less stressful than our own.  I've known yogis who battle massive depression.  Folks who weep when their parents die.  Ones who have lost money, a limb, a child.

It is not that they don't suffer or that they are immune to life's changes.  It is only that they have learned what true strength means.  It isn't that they don't age, don't hurt, don't have headaches or have to work and find time and defecate like the rest of us neurotic humans.  They suffer and struggle.

But they are not overwhelmed.  They are strong.

**

Before I practiced yoga, my life was a kind of war.  It seemed very hard.  I seemed to have to work, constantly, to hang on with both hands, to keep the whole thing going by my own efforts.  I wavered between a kind of self-pity (why can't I have a life like hers?  Why is that person so lucky?  Things would be different if I had the money, time, if I lived there, if I met the right person, didn't have to deal with this person...) where everything appeared very random and an overweening sense of importance: I would make my own life happen, I would learn the right skills, I would or would not make relationships work, have a happy life, be healthy.

Most of us spend most of our lives with this kind of erratic, frantic movement.  Where we have to juggle and keep dancing.  Where we are constantly busy or too busy, but never really seem to get anything done.

I thought of my depression (devastating, disgusting, brutalizing and wanting me dead) was a thing I had to manage and control.  I thought of my time as I thing I had to control.  I thought happiness and success were things you got if you were good enough at it, and I tried but doubted the outcome.  I thought, most of the time, that I understood The Way Things Are, whereas others seemed only to have opinions and not know The Whole Story. Relationships, just like projects, were things I had to navigate.

I rarely noticed the color of leaves or the passing of seasons.  Unless, of course, it came as a kind of insult and affront to my efforts; the passing of time making a mockery of my best intentions. The whole of 'life' being out of control and myself as powerless.

**

We forget who and what we really are, says yoga.  We are blind.

The practice is to discover strength.  Not of muscles, not of pickle jars, but the strength to be fully alive with the burning leaves and the thundering storm.  To know we are not supposed to and never can 'control' life - we can't even control our own thoughts and feelings, for chrissake -

we are supposed to live it.  To participate in power and strength, rather than fight against it.  To realize there is power and passion and awesome, more baffling strength in being than we'd ever glimpsed.  Strength is there, is real, but we've been looking for it in the wrong places.

**

Yogic strength is in attention, in showing up and watching without turning away.  We watch our thoughts...churning, not so pretty, unstoppable, sometimes just plain stupid, every once in a while deeply provocative and profound.

When we learn to watch them, we are not crippled and driven by them.  We can access the profundity.  And we learn to not be cowed by all that pettiness and drone. Attending can let it be, thoughts being thoughts, mind being mind.

When we learn to attend, we may be slapped with the shock of strength.  Craving, for example.  We slowly start to practice just watching and will notice that 'craving' is an understatement: it is an avalanche of physical sensations, sweaty palms, salivating mouth, a spreading subtle tension across the entire body of muscles, a tightening in the belly, a compression around the eyes, perhaps even a closing of the hearing; it's a ruckus of thoughts, terribly uncomfortable and pressing and insistent, and you cannot stop it.  Attempts to stop it make it worse.

Muscle, for another example.  When we learn, slowly, as we can, to literally pay attention to what stretching feels like, it might hit us like an orgasm or an drug altered state: reality is more intense, more vivid, more than it was before.  We notice not only that the muscle is tensed, but whether it is clenched or trembling or steady, hot or cold, rough in texture or smooth like water, we notice how one muscle touches another muscle, where sensation begins and ends, that sensation in one tiny part of the body spreads like ripples in water.  A clenched hand spills up the arm and into the neck, it alters our breath, it clenches the jaw, it tightens the chest, it shifts our toes, and it literally changes the way we think, shouts a change in our hormonal levels, heats or cools the skin, raises hairs, focuses or unfocuses the eyes.

Every emotion, every movement, has this powerful swell of energy behind it.  Even boredom, apathy, hunger.  Attending shows us how powerful these things are.

When we get stronger, we might be able to tolerate attending to a thing like anger, rage, depression, anxiety.

I am afraid, we will think.  And we'll have the strength to go on, anyway.

We'll realize, more and more and over and over, how much is involved in this being alive.  It's as profound, I tell you, as the ocean is deep or the cosmos is baffling.  We cannot control our minds, we cannot control our lives and our deaths.  But we can know them.

**

Do this, and the strength in you suddenly seems something out of a fairy tale or a comic book, something almost divine.  There is a reason yoga talks in metaphysics.

Oh, my god, you'll think: I LOVE this person, and your love will swell.  I am HUNGRY, you'll realize, and start to eat differently, all the colors and textures and tastes being louder than they were before.  I want to be happy, you'll know, and you'll start moving, moment by moment, into the person for whom happiness is possible.

A person of strength and grace.

It doesn't matter if I can do the pose, or not, you'll think in your yoga class.  And you'll be dumbstruck to realize you're standing on your head.

**

Life, friends, is hard.

We cannot control life.

But it is possible to be alive in it.

Walking, I notice the passing of time.  The cicadas are dying and lay on the sidewalk in alien corpses.  The air is sharper, pungent.  There was a time in my life this would be hard: to be suddenly without a place to live, to be asked all of the sudden what my plans were.  I am different, now.  I can feel the panic, like a little fist in my heart, pulling the whole body into it.  I can feel afraid, but I can also wonder and feel: I wonder at all the options, I wonder what is possible, I realize what a difference I can make, here or there.  I decide to open a yoga studio in a little town I used to know.  I do not know whether this will succeed or not.  But I can try.

The fact is, I try more now.  In relationships, in my heath, with my very body thrown upside down with a seeming disregard for things like safety and bruises.  Truth is I am more afraid, more often, than I have ever been in my life.

But the fear doesn't matter any more.

I am strong.

 

 

Return goes home. To Saint Cloud. In Minnesota.

Some already know. I've been keeping it under wraps until details like a lease and a date are finalized, but at this point I can announce: Return is opening a studio in St. Cloud in September 2012. 822 1/2 West St. Germain. Classes four times a day.  Strong classes, the sweaty ones where we learn to go upside down and challenge the very nature of our guts and endurance; but also the gentle, reverent, exploring classes that so heal and so change us and are accessible to anyone who can breathe, anyone who has a body. That's the long and the short of it... Mixed emotions, knowing that this is written half for the students I am leaving, and half for students I haven't yet met.

St. Cloud is personal; it's where I grew up, the jumping off point, the place I left in order to wander the wide world.  There is something poetic, I suppose, in going home; so many of our stories circle back that way, so many attempts to find ourselves just prove how much we need to know our own place in the world.  Still, I never thought I'd go back.

The process, the idea, is acceptance and responding to what life we do have rather than handicapping ourselves with what the ego clamors for.  If the world were to my making, I'd be opening a studio in Rio.  On a mountaintop somewhere.  Something with oceans and travel.  If the world were as I liked it, I'd never even have to open a buisness.  I'd just write poems, eat bon bons, and practice asana all day.  In between taking naps.

If yoga were how we 'expect' it to be, it'd only be romantic, esoteric, the stuff of retreats and exotic places of natural wonder.

But an honest practice isn't like that, at all.  An honest practice takes place at home, in the midst of our lives, with the stuff of our days.  Commericial, american, midwestern days. I do not do asana on beaches, and yoga is not a thing I retreat to do.  I practice where I am.  I practice in parking lots, sometimes.  Sometimes in kitchens.  On carpet, on cement.

I am not a hippy, starry eyed kinda person who believes in fates and auras and angels and strings that are pulled by forces.  But from moment I considered St. Cloud, everyone and everything has rushed to make it so.

With some of the largest social service programs in the state, and a city full of society that doesn't fall under the rubric of 'social service agencies', yoga as service couldn't be anything but a blessing, there.  With the demographic boom, the colleges, the smush of St. Cloud Sartell Waite Park Sauk Rapids St Joe all becoming one metropolis that is the metropolis of central Minnesota, it's baffling there is no studio. It's funny that I know the town so well.  There was a pretty studio space, all ready and waiting with the right time and the right price.  An apartment lease was signed, the dog is allowed.  What I thought might possibly happen someday, eventually, somehow, is happening. Happening NOW.

The moment you say yes to your life, life unfolds.

It is not what I expected.  But it makes me very happy.  It is a good.  Unexpected, out of left field, mildly confusing, and good.

I am more grateful than I know how to say.

But I am also sad to be leaving the students, classes, and teachers here behind.  Yoga has lessons for me, here, too:

The good of yoga is not something I do, I teach; I can step out of the way and students will still have the power and transformational tools that yoga gives.  There are many gifted teachers.  Students here do not need me.  I was blessed in introducing some to yoga, helping others find a way back in.  I was blessed in living and working with long time yogis and teachers who are deeply involved in their own process.  I have learned.  I have been touched.

And I will miss you.