Intimacy & Equanimity • 8 January 2010

On Sunday, icicles began to grow on the windows of the little practice room. Today they’re a foot long. The heat is dry and patchy. It’s a bit grey in the sky and the ground are covered in four inches of the puffiest soft snow. In the morning it’s crisscrossed with squirrel, cat and deer tracks; and sometimes at night the fluffy white possum who lives under the neighbor’s stairs will roll out and squint at me. My sinuses ache, all the way up to the center of my head; and there’s something in the air that makes me sneeze powerfully at times. In Los Angeles, I feel the rhythms of my environment and move accordingly; here I have moved from euphoria to slight familiarity. My core is warm, but there’s a light contraction in the deep muscles. At all times, they are working harder here—navigating a new environment, adjusting to the dark, dry cold.

I had doubted whether it would make sense to continue 3S as a practice in this environment. Is it sensible to keep the body so open when it’s so cold and brutally dry? Will the Nordic climate and culture, the absence of vegetarian items at decent restaurants, the amazing fish market at Kerrytown, and the proximity of the lake cause me to crave fishmeat? (If so, wonderful! But for some reason I don’t feel right about using animal flesh to drive extreme yoga, and would ramp down the practice if creatures were my usual fuel.)

I had questions about context. The practice seems suited to very energetic, very open people in warm environments, with the support of other people who have decades of experience and dozens of colleagues who know how the series works. I wondered if doing it here, in a cuddly-cozy, hyperintellectual, neurotic scholarly-powerhouse of a town, would only serve to keep me out of touch with my environment, fighting reality with sinewy sentimentality. The opening and the work of it, I thought, require so much surrender and so much will that doing it every day would be a self-punishing struggle. Advanced stuff suffers no fools, and I worried about disrespecting it by taking it out of context. I might need to find a more “supportive programme,” I thought.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, blah. Turns out my body is context enough. This self-questioning was the same as all the other doubts that one has– about practicing while pregnant, practicing while female, practicing while over a certain age. (Doubts usually suffered by women, I’d note.) So it’s winter. So what? So I do what I always do. This machine has been meticulously constructed and, like the Honda, it runs just fine on difficult terrain.

The weird thing is that the old programme is better than fine here. My hips tend to tighten up against the cold, and the opening section of the practice is full of strong re-letting-go work. The strength work warms me up and, together with the backbends, generates a great deal of positive energy that will probably shelter me from the neuroticism that is par for the course for young academics in these parts. (Michigan is smack in the center of the stress belt: statistically, people here are far more anxious and depressed than elsewhere; and the institution seems to take for granted that new arrivals will experience a mental breakdown upon moving here.)  Because the practice is so in-my-face, I can’t sit around and look at my toenails or take 10 extra breaths in postures. Otherwise, it might be much more difficult to learn to practice by myself after years of community support.

The solitude is mostly allright, though at first I tended to get very emotional in the backbends, remembering how much I missed my previous home. I had forgotten the potency of ashtanga yoga… if there is an emotion I’ve hidden under the surface, some level of bending will eventually bring it out. The hardest backbend was urdvha dhanurasana – the one in which my heart is completely exposed and the psoas has to both lengthen and engage to bring me to stand. All the others—even natrajasana—have some element of protection of the chest, and did not leave me so completely exposed. After a week of bailing out of dropbacks, I talked to a home practitioner who is pretty systematic about not bailing out and who takes notes every day on what he did in the backbends. The next day, I practiced through the sadness and fear. Sort of awkward. After three or four more practices, the block went away. Now my body remembers what it’s always done.

I have often wondered if it might be better to practice advanced series alone. It’s so confrontational and intimate, and sometimes a distraction to others. I don’t know about shalamates who have to live with advanced practitioners, but for my own ego it is somewhat liberating to get away from the sense that I’m any different from everyone else. No matter what series you're doing, ashtanga’s all confrontational and intimate—which becomes obvious, again, when there are no eyes or cameras or mirrors. In this sense, the crazy programme has never made so much sense. It seems natural that, after cleaning up all the vinyasas with a teacher to keep me present, I should learn to clean up the distractions and drama that want to undermine me when I do the same practice alone. It was a little messy and exasperating at the first, but now there’s also a feeling of rebirth. Of greater intimacy with my own experience, and much "better" conditions for figuring out that thing about equanimity.


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