Coming to have a practice defied my previous experience of life as flowing forward from my will—a product of my own decisions. With that caveat, here’s a description of my YogaStory for Tim’s album. Just another data point in the revolutionary Astanga Yoga Research Experiment.
1. The start. What brought you to yoga?
A Honda Civic. Which hit me in the crosswalk in front of my house in October, 2002. When I woke up strapped to a board and swatted at an I-V, an EMT told me to settle down and obey because my neck was broken. Which had the intended effect of paralyzing me for the rest of the night, but the MRIs came out clean except for a chip on the chin-bone. Nevertheless, my mandible had been slammed hard into my head, and the resulting TMJ hell and cognitive-emotional backup were unwelcome visitors in the fifth week of my so-called career as a PhD student. Five months later, after steroid cycles, other wicked anti-inflammatory regimens, physical and cognitive therapies and very many tension headaches, a TMJ surgeon said to me:
“You know, I can help you release some of this tension, but if you’re going to get better, you’re going to have to do some of the work yourself.”
But this is the effect of something somebody did to me. I’m not responsible. Plus, are you implying that I am not a brain in a jar? Don’t pull that mind-body shit on me. We’re both scientists here, so buck up and talk like a good Cartesian, Pops.
But god how the pain and tension fastened into my bones and held there. So I took a hatha yoga class anyway, in the spring quarter of 2003. It was on Friday evenings, at UCLA’s beautiful, shady-hilltop SunsetCanyonRecreationCenter. (I would drive up to the center, sweat out the week, then pick up my favorite cohorts after their Friday seminar and drink with them on my porch until 2 or 3 am.) The yoga teacher was an ahtangi who became my first flow teacher, and whose flow class I still take on Saturdays so that I can continue to learn from her and honor that relationship with a bit of continuity.
2. First class. Describe your first class(es) or practice and your reaction to it.
It occurred to me that yoga might help relax the jaw, because I’d taken a half-dozen classes at SeattleUniversity in 2001. I was a mindless gym-goer in those days, managing my hyperactivity and keeping the endorphin-fixes regular with daily afternoon workouts (I could disappear from my job as a grad program administrator without being missed—o the beauty and the inefficient evil of university bureaucracies). In the spring, there was a Wednesday afternoon hatha yoga class in the carpeted, mirrored ex-aerobics room where I used to do my post-workout stretches. The same way I took the university’s financial planning and software-proficiency classes (all free for employees), I showed up for the yoga too.
The teacher’s name was Cassandra. She had great hair and told us stories about her crazy boyfriend and how yoga helped her stay calm on the drive over from Queen Anne hill. I remember the way my hip popped in Trikonasana and the great distance between my knees and the floor in baddha konasana, and that I was put out to have to front $20 for a mat. My body wasn’t very flexible (in junior high school, the one test that always disqualified me from the Presidential Fitness Award—which goes to students who are in the top percentiles in a series of tests like the mile run, the standing long jump, and situps per minute—was always the “sitting reach”: my fingers wouldn’t go past my heels). As a result of this inflexibility, I had a satisfying and not-exactly-subtle wall of resistance that I could explore, and the new sensations were interesting. That was nice; I added some of Cassandra’s hip and shoulder stretches to my daily post-workout cool-down.
When the class concluded, I started going to the university sauna on Wednesday nights instead. That was equally relaxing.
I don’t think that, even after a half-dozen classes, I had even begun to key in to what is first truly arresting about yoga: the linkage of movement and breath.
3. The addiction. How/why did you get hooked?
Just as the class up at SunsetCanyon concluded, I settled oh-so-compliantly with the insurance company of the driver who had nearly killed me. Receiving a large check changed several things for me, given my history: peasant-class people do no do yoga in this town, but I had already moved out of that zone culturally and now was also leaving it in an economic sense. I stashed much of the settlement in the market (likewise life-changing, considering my family view the owning of capital as sinful and the stock market as a bellweather for the apocalypse), bought a car (the first new car in the family, also viewed as transgressive), and listened to my partner when he said I should spend something on my own healthcare, given that the big check was a marker of the near-death to which I’d been subjected. I shrugged away the argument that I was entitled to something “for me,” but still followed my charismatic teacher to (cue horns) YogaWorks Beverly Hills, and took her 7:30 am class M-W-F for the summer.
The teacher started noticing me around August, but didn’t remember I’d been at the UCLA class the previous spring (“But I always remember the strong people! No way you were in that class!”) Apparently my body was changing, though I don’t even remember. I was showing up because I liked my teacher’s rhythm and playfulness. She had the ability simultaneously to make time both stand still and fly past. Class was an oasis. I also had a sense that if I kept going, the ill cognitive-emotional effects of that old wreck would dissipate and bring my sharp old analytical faculty back to roost in my pointy little head.
Oh yeah: I remember arguing many pinot nights on the balcony that practice made me smarter.
But that was mostly an excuse I made to my dense little clan of artists and academics for my frequent disappearing acts. I may have had to move up in the world to afford it, but my inner circle looked far, far down in the habit. They were beginning to suspect me. Not only was yoga manifestly narcicisstic—with the insufferable magazine covers in the Whole Foods line—it was unbearably corny. Did somebody say namaste?
As my tastes for alcohol, late nights, heavy food, loud avant rock, and intense intellectual banter diminished, my old garde both felt insulted and resented losing those pieces of me. My sweetheart started showing up at parties and shows without me, and quiet concerns arose. Years later, now that the adjustments for this new, jealous lover (i.e. astanga) have been made, my habits are viewed with irritation and pity.
For every one person who says my consistency is an inspiration, there are five who tell my partner they are sorry about what’s happened to me. The greatest misunderstanding is the popular story: after I got hit by the car, everything changed. I saw my own mortality—it is said, behind my back—and this changed me from an intense, complex and strong go-getter into someone who is less, who is weak, who is annoyingly like a hermit. What a pitiful story this is. But when a good friend’s fire seems to disappear, what else can you think?
The intensity hasn’t disappeared, you know. Just been redirected, in a way that ain’t so fun at parties.
That first summer of my practice, when I was still arguing it was all for the mental payouts, in truth I was showing up for my teacher because I just loved being there. I could drop right in to practice, focus and breathe: the simplicity of it was so beautiful.
The Beverly Hills scene was odd—so many sparkly-white leisure people and invisible brown ones cleaning up behind, the stupid dogs trained to be babies rather than cainines, valet parking in the city garage, Larry King cruising through in a Lincoln without stopping at the lights—but the studio itself was intimate and peaceful… an easy place to become a regular. At some point, I started taking a Tuesday-Thursday, and then a Sunday, class….
4. The history. Describe the development of your practice and history with teachers since then.
It got so my Sunday class was Led First Series Astanga. I took it for months but never learned the series. That would have required thinking, and I didn’t want to clutter up my meditative headspace with that kind of memorization. And, I was kinesthetically stupid (and still am, relatively).
Although my main teacher told me to learn to think with my body, I thought that was a special ability she must have learned as a dancer—an ability I simply didn’t have.
Then in March or April of 2004, YogaWorks cancelled the Sunday Led class. But there was something special about that particular sequence—god knows what I saw in it. But since I wanted it in my life, the cancellation meant it was time to go deeper—and become more a producer than a consumer of asana practice. On Tuesdays and Thursdays that quarter I had mid-mornings free, so skipped campus between 10 and 12:30 and sped down the residential streets alongside the country club to Beverly Hills for the erstwhile Sunday-teacher’s Mysore class.
Over the coming 2.5 years this teacher and another would baptize me with awesome fire and then with ice, and four others, after, with love and respect and space. All six were products of the specific school of astanga that Maty Ezraty and Chuck Miller built. Some of these students have tried to disown their first formations a bit, but both SKPJ and Maty-Chuck’s teachings are in me, directly through them. I only made it to Maty’s room a few times—the way the girls there acted brought up all my high school-outsider insecurities and it was not a sufficiently inward-focused place for me to hit and remain in something like theta state. If Maty and Chuck had not been mostly before my time, I would have found my teacher in Chuck, whose early-morning room (to recount my few visits just before he departed) was still and dim and totally electric.
As it is, for 2.5 years I learned from them and from their teacher, through the six students who became my teachers. I am grateful beyond words for each of them, in individual ways. Three have quietly watched me have a very hard year—two knowing the story and visiting this space, the other not—and they have held the ground open for me in a way most well-meaning friends could never know how to do. These people, inexplicably, show a kind of dedication to my practice—to practice itself. It is that they’re teachers, and all softened by years of this method. My experience would not be the same—would be nothing like what it is—without their ring of fire on the outskirts of this daily séance. Strong, steady mentor-friends. Thank you.
These six together took me through second. Then last summer Rolf came to town and taught me the first three pranayamas. Damn if that didn’t rewrite the whole equation forwards and backwards. Drat blether fret. Bother!
And then there’s my present teacher, who plans out the crude details of the thing so I do not have to trouble, who connects me directly to the master-student SKPJ, and whose holding of the ground resonates out in waves from our small room such that your awareness hits an air pocket and dives down fast as you walk up on the place. This is the model of teacher as Leah-Luke in the Deathstar trash compactor (why weren’t they doing Vira II?), or the wise child with the finger in the dike, or the shtirasukha serpent resting strongly on the elephant’s back. The teacher sets the ground, and we show up and rain down sweat and tears and, yes, a little blood. It’s a mutual creation, this addictive scene. Not that I would have expected something this good when I’m already here in the land of astanga plenty, but so it is. This era hasn’t been easy, but it is rich.
5. The future. What are your practice goals for the future?
Of course I want the present conditions to last, but I know that someday relatively soon practice will be often alone. So part of what I’m learning here is to both set and richly fertilize a me-sized piece of ground that’s fruitful under whatever conditions blow in. There will be easy years again, and harder ones after that.
So it’s all about cultivating the height of energy and the depth of focus that render practice powerful—the relaxed intensity and no-bullshit grace (moral grace, aesthetic grace, spiritual grace) that I’ve only seen a few in the over-50 generation pull off. And they pull it off consistently, not just on particular days—because the kind of strength I’m talking about is more in the synapses, and wherever, than in the muscle fibers.
So I’d like to keep practicing until the end of me, sensitive enough to adjust the knobs to make it sustainable on a daily basis. This is about supporting life that it should be more abundant, not about taking life to support practice.
Also: discover what I have to give to the AYR project and to individuals’ practices (support, energy, whatever), and give it richly. Maybe do some research or reflection on yoga as a system of science-morality-spirituality-art for our own time.
And probe the edges: today, that’s the primal fear that comes up in pranayama, the apparent practical obstacles to a deeper sitting practice. In asana, continue with the back-injury puzzle as it gradually works its way back to center. And if this makes any sense at all, I’d say in general I’m working from the ligaments. Mine don’t need to lengthen any more, and especially in the pelvic girdle/ hips and (when inverted) the shoulder girdle/ thorax, my aim is to render the ligaments stable for the sake of postural integrity and long-term strength. For me these days, this is where I’ll find balance and sustainability.