Thursday, January 23, 2003
Photo by Randy Tunnel: Torso Twist: Marvin demonstrates poses at the Yoga Center.
I''ve been practicing yoga for about five months now, and I think I am learning how to stand. To stand correctly, so that it''s me standing, standing the way I want myself to stand and not just letting my body fall into some clumsy, strained standing pose it has learned along with a lot of other bad habits, I need to practice concentration.
I practice standing at home, or at a spot I like up at Jack''s Peak, or in the bushes on the dunes at Carmel Beach--but I''ve found that I can stand best in class, when one of my yoga teachers talks me through it.
John, a teacher at the Garden Health and Fitness club, calls the standing pose by its Sanscrit name: "tadassen." He says: "Let''s take tadassen," (I think it''s a Britishism imported from India). "Observe an inhalation," he says, which is perfect, I think--not "inhale," like a drill sergeant, but "notice that you are inhaling." He instructs us to think about our feet--making sure that the outsides of our feet are parallel and our toes are lined up. He tells us to think about sinking our heels into the floor. He instructs us to make sure we are relaxing our arches. To get our legs right, John suggests we use our quadricep muscles to gently lift our kneecaps, to imagine pushing our quads into our thigh bones--I have to think about it to get it right.
The hips and pelvis are tricky: I have a swayback and an old low-back injury and a desk job. If I''m not paying attention, my hips tilt forward and my belly drops and I''m all out of whack. I''m learning to use my abdominal muscles to get my pelvic girdle to rest on top of my legs. And I''m learning that by opening my chest, pushing my sternum out, activating my triceps, rolling my shoulders back and letting them fall, my spine straightens, everything starts to line up, and my hips can relax. It helps if I lift my chin a little. Somehow when John instructs us to relax our jaws I can feel it in my spine, in my hips, in the bottoms of my feet--my heels press into the floor, my kneecaps lift, my sternum opens, my shoulders fall back. I''m standing.
Sitting is much more difficult. Breathing is the hardest thing of all.
I''ve been breathing for more than 47 years. I don''t know for sure that at the moment of my birth the doctor spanked my ass to get me started, but I would guess that''s how I learned how to do it. I believe it''s possible that everything my body does, right down to the most basic act of drawing breath, was and is a reaction to some kind of trauma.
I don''t know when or why I started standing and sitting and walking around with my shoulders drooped forward, with my pelvis drawn in and back, with my jaw half-clenched. I could blame my father or the nuns in grade school. I''d rather just purge these memories from my body. I think yoga is helping me do that.
One Saturday morning at the Yoga Center in Carmel, Marvin, another teacher, had us doing a simple twisting pose--sitting straight and turning to look back over our right shoulders. "We store our memories in our backs," he said. "Everything that''s ever happened to us in the past, our muscles and bones remember. If you believe in past lives, there are thousands of years of pain stored in our backs. When we twist this way, we pierce the veils of time."
I don''t think I believe in past lives in the way that Marvin does, but as I twisted my body, I imagined that I was looking back into the past, and correcting the injustices I had allowed to be inflicted on my bag of bones. I felt at that moment that I was performing an act of physical poetry. I observed an inhalation and heard a satisfying crack; I observed an exhalation and imagined that I slipped through it.
The word "yoga" comes from the Sanscrit word yoj, a verb that means "to attach" or "to bind," like our old English verb "yoke." Our ancestors would joke their oxen to a wagon, they would yoke themselves to a task. The yogis strive to yoke themselves--intellect, mind and emotions--to the Dharma, which is something like what we call God.
For me, a recovering Catholic, that''s a stretch (pardon the pun). So for now I''m trying to yoke my body to my will, instead of just letting it call the shots. I''ve been doing a little reading, and I think that approach is in keeping with the teachings.
No one claims to know when yoga was invented, but it was first set down on paper by an Indian guy named Patanajali in a book of aphorisms called the Yoga Sutras. In that book, Patanajali describes the goal of yoga as chitta vrtti nirodhah--the calming or restraint (nirodhah) of the turning or fluctuations (vrtti ) of the rational mind (chitta).
Ultimately, yoga is about learning to master the body so as to escape the mind.
We come to class to become fit, hoping that the practice will help us get limber or get strong or look good naked, but ultimately, the goal of yoga is to be able to sit, quietly and comfortably.
While sitting, we are instructed to pay attention to our breath. The breath, in yoga, is seen as a bridge between the body and the soul. Observing our inhalations and exhalations, we draw our attention away from the mundane tasks and sorrows and ego-trips that occupy our day-to-day thoughts, and become aware of a deeper and truer self.
For me, the word "meditation" is fraught with images of egomaniacs trying to achieve some hippieistic version of godliness. I''m rethinking that idea. Instead, I''m trying to learn how to breathe.
Chuck, another teacher at the Garden health club, begins every class with 10 minutes of what he calls "yoga breath." It''s a simple exercise: Inhale deeply and sit straight; pause; exhale slowly and relax; pause. He says the same thing in every class. "Yoga breath," he says, "leads to tranquility of thought."
He has us practice alternate-nostril breathing, which I''m sure looks silly to the folks peering in through the wall of windows in the club''s lobby, but which, Chuck tells us, leads to "clarity of thought." I inhale through my left nostril, pause, and exhale through my right nostril. It takes some concentration.
When I''m standing, I remember to lift my kneecaps. When I''m in a forward bend, doing "Earth Touch" or "Waterfall," I remember to pull my navel up and in. When I''m sitting, in vinyassen, I let my thighs drop toward the floor, using the action of my leg muscles to straighten my spine. When I''m doing the Downward-Facing Dog, I focus on keeping my feet hip-width apart at the back of my sticky-mat, and my hands shoulder-width on the mat in front of me, my fingers splayed, with my middle fingers pointed forward, my heels sinking, my sit-bones pushing toward the ceiling, and I remember to turn my biceps forward and up ("skyward," John says), and to activate my abdominals and open my sternum.
The hardest thing is to remember to breathe. Doing these simple poses, or the trickier poses--balanced in a Pyramid Twist, or thrust forward and up in Warrior One--Chuck or Marvin or John will say: "Breathe." And I remember: "Oh, yeah." And I breathe.