Thursday, December 29, 2011

Pain is my guru...

Ganesha, the creator & remover of obstacles.
"New asana, new pain."  "If yoga causes pain, yoga cures pain." "Pain is your guru."  These are just a few of the peculiarly wise, often funny, and sometimes debatable Guruji-isms ashtangis like to rattle off as it suits them.  I guess these about pain are similar to my particular favorite, "no coffee, no prana," and, well, who the hell am I to argue with that one?! 

I've been thinking a lot about pain in relation to my ashtanga practice because, well, lately I've been experiencing pain that has resurfaced from an old shoulder injury.  A few years ago, I had a complete tear in the labrum and partial tears in some of the ligaments that hold the shoulder together.  I tried to rehab it for half a year with alternative methods like herbs and acupuncture and some ass kicking medieval torture physical therapy, and then went ahead and opted for the surgery my orthopedic specialist recommended from the get go.  He said there was no way to heal a complete tear like that with the level of edema I had, the labrum would not reattach to itself.  So, after a very painful surgery, I had a long road of recovery which left me completely immobilized for 2 months, followed by more than a year of intense, brutal rehab.  It sucked.  Big time.  I got really depressed during that time of my life.  I couldn't wash my own hair, or dress myself, or pull my pants up after I peed, or drive my car (stick shift), much less continue my tai chi practice which I was really in love with and totally committed to.  I gained a bunch of weight, having gone from very active and happy in my life to completely laid up and totally depressed.  I was on lots of narcotic painkillers, which definitely didn't help my mental state even though they helped with the physical pain.  Those were some very dark days that I'd prefer not to think about.  I've come so far since then through a lot of persistent, deep, hard work on every aspect of myself.  I've put in a metric ton of sweat and tears to be the healthy, active, joyful, and contented person I am today.  There really is no substitute for sweat.
Screaming Artist, lithograph by Fritz Scholder

And so I noticed something peculiar these last few days when my shoulder started acting up.  My temper started acting up too.  I was getting frustrated and angry very easily, for no particular reason really, and I was reminded very quickly how closely physical pain and emotional pain are tied together.  Pain is an interesting thing, even when acutely physical, it can have an even greater impact emotionally and spiritually.  I don't really mind a certain degree of physical pain, I've got a pretty good tolerance to it up to a certain threshold.  But all the attendant repercussions, or perceived repercussions, of it are where the challenges really lie.  The fear, the dependence on others, the asking for help, the cutting back or total elimination of activities I love, the feelings of weakness and vulnerability, feelings of failure, of not being good or strong or mindful enough.  All that stuff is totally bogus when you really take a good long look at it, but these things like to come up and rear their ugly heads when you're down and out.  Funny, that... Just remember to enjoy a nice cathartic scream every once in a while...

So where does this leave me with my practice?  On the one hand, I don't want to unquestioningly submit to the fear that I could re-injure myself and use that as justification to let myself off the hook in moments when I can push through and get to something deeper.  Pain can be an opportunity, a key, a doorway, and by confronting it and walking through it, it can lead me to places I've never dreamed of, in really awesome, empowering ways.  Where there is fear, there is power, and confronting pain and working with it can lead to all new, previously inaccessible, feelings of wholeness and health, strength and focus.  On the other hand, I really-seriously-for-real don't want to f'in re-injure myself and compromise a happy, healthy, strong body and mind ready for the intensity of daily practice in Mysore in just six weeks!

So, I just acknowledged to myself all this emotional stuff as it was triggered by the shoulder pain, patted myself on the head, and said, "you'll be ok, this is probably just old stuff purging itself and not indicative of a new injury."  And then I decided to give myself an extra rest day on Monday, which was the day after it started hurting.  I was feeling hungry and weak in general that day too (three weeks into my fast) and with my shoulder aching, I decided not to push myself, to just simply rest, peacefully, with no affliction or conflict about my decision.  I picked my practice back up on Tuesday and managed it with just a few minor modifications... not even trying to bind marichyasana d, and taking it easy in all the chaturangas.  That night my shoulder was aching again.  It felt dislocated and had a sharp soreness in the joint and behind my shoulder blade.  I had restless sleep that night and called my chiropractor first thing on Wednesday.  She popped me all back into place, and I went ahead to the new Mysore class I mentioned in my blog last week.  I decided to just be easy on myself, to just enjoy my practice wherever it is and not to push too hard.  And you know what?  I had an awesome practice, I felt more present in each asana, deepening my relationship to my breath and movement.  My heart felt more open, and practice felt very sweet in a new way.  I simply felt an openness and gratitude and joy to be there, to be practicing.  And I didn't even modify all that much, other than doing girly chaturanga (with knees down) and skipping the shoulder stand asanas in the closing sequence.  And I feel okay.  The shoulder may take some time to come back around and join the party.  I may not be able to push as far as I want with my upper body strength just yet, and that's okay.  There is plenty of room to grow within the practice in other ways, and I am open and look forward to those opportunities. 

And so I am learning something very important.  Pain in and of itself is not a bad thing.  It is a teacher, and it is a healer.  I'm not going to ever say, "I'm in pain, no practice today," because that will not serve me.  I will listen to my body, and if I am legitimately injured, I will recognize that and take time to heal.  But there is no reason to turn away from practice altogether.  It's all about finding the intelligent edge and backing off just a bit when necessary.  Pain is an opportunity, so instead of asking myself if I should practice, I will ask, "how can this pain guide me today into a deeper understanding of myself and my practice, how may it be of service?"  And I will follow it to wherever it leads me, and I will revel in what I find there.  Pain is a guru.  It is a key.  A doorway.  Walk through...

Novantatre, from the Me + You series by Laura Lea Nalle
Pain is a treasure, 
for it contains mercies.
The kernel is soft 
when the rind is scraped off.
Oh brother, 
the place of darkness and cold
is the fountain of life 
in the cup of ecstasy.
So also is endurance of pain 
and sickness and disease.
For from abasement 
proceeds exultation.
The spring seasons are 
hidden in the autumns.
And the autumns 
are charged with springs.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Tis the season... for over-consumption?

Ahhh, the holidays.  Exactly when did christmas become an annual orgy of over-consumption?  News reports calls us 'shoppers' or 'consumers,' not citizens.  Our worth is measured by how much we consume, which is usually in inverse proportion to our actual benefit to society, not to mention the environment.  People crush each other in massive crowds trying to get some plastic mass produced something-or-other that was probably made in China and will be long forgotten or discarded by this time next year.  People go into debt and stress over buying presents for people they don't even really like because they are 'family'.  It hurts my head and heart to think of all the trash that will be created this weekend, wrapping paper, boxes, excess packaging.  What the hell is wrong with our society?

This is the second year I've decided to fast during the holidays.  I'm more than two weeks in to a green juice fast, and I'm feeling great.  It really highlights the absurdity of all the stress and anxiety going on in the society at large with all this shopping and over-consumption.  I am enjoying stillness and tranquility in the midst of the frenzy.  Whenever I have to go to the grocery store for more veggies, I see so many stressed out people, throwing processed junk into their carts.  I can see in their faces how unsatisfied they are.  And I can see it in their bodies, holding on to excess, weighed down, unempowered, weak.  It is an acute, poignant image of everything wrong with society.  And I am making an empowered choice not to participate.  Or rather, to participate in a way that is meaningful and substantial by holding space for another possibility to arise.  Fasting during the holidays is another expression of my yoga practice.  It is about turning inward to tend the inner light, to find stillness in the midst of flux and peace in the midst of anxiety, to be open without expectation, to focus the mind and body and emotions on that which has integrity and real power from within, to recognize real needs and wants, to cultivate greater clarity and simplicity and grace in my life.

There are, of course, ways to bring this possibility into view without going on a fast.  Spend time with people whose company you actually enjoy, who bring greater light and clarity into your life just simply by sharing time together.  Talk with them, tell stories, laugh, cry, sing, go for a walk, hug them, write them a poem.  If you're fortunate, that may be the family you're born into, or perhaps it is your carefully chosen family of friends and people of like mind.  The important thing is that you realize you are completely empowered to choose who you spend time with.  It is not necessary to be with people who are draining or destructive to you just because they may share your genetics.  Take care of yourself and those who truly love and support you.  Be unafraid to spend time alone, to tend to things that are important to you.  Spend time, not money, on the people you love.  Give gifts when it's least expected throughout the year, just because you want to.  Be open to receiving gifts from unexpected people and places.  Bring mindfulness to your actions and the gifts you buy for loved ones.  Support artists and local businesses with your dollars instead of big box stores and products made in China.  These are just a few of many ways to cultivate your own sense of peace and stillness and light in the midst of everything that may be at odds with it.

The most important thing for each of us to do is be mindful and intentional about where we invest our energy, to steady our minds and focus ourselves in a way that brings greater light and grace into the world.

Many blessings to each of us, and our light-bearing power...

El corazón inmaculado, el Santuario de Chimayó

You’ve no idea how hard I’ve looked
for a gift to bring You.
Nothing seemed right.
What’s the point
of bringing gold to the gold mine,
or water to the Ocean.
Everything I came up with
was like taking spices to the Orient.
It’s no good giving my heart and my soul
because you already have these.
So—I’ve brought you a mirror.
Look at yourself and remember me.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Raspberry ganache chocolate bliss cake...

I've gotten some requests to share the recipe for the raw vegan raspberry ganache chocolate bliss cake I made for Thanksgiving.  It is so easy, not to mention nutritious + delicious!  Everything you'd want in a chocolate cake!  I adapted the recipe from Ani Phyo's raw vegan dessert book.

3 cups dry walnuts
2/3 cup Chocolate Bliss powder (available through, or just use cacao or carob powder as Ani's original recipe calls for)
1/8 teaspoon sea salt (if using regular cacao or carob powder, use 1/4 teaspoon of salt)
1 cup pitted Medjool dates

1/3 cup soft pitted Medjool dates
1/4 vanilla agave (available through, or just use regular agave syrup)
1 ripe medium sized avocado
1/3 cup + 2 tablespoons of raw cacao powder

You will also need a small carton of fresh organic raspberries.

To make the cake, pulse the walnuts, chocolate bliss, and sea salt in the food processor.  Add dates and process to desired consistency.  I like my cake with a little texture.  If you like your's without much texture, process until everything is well incorporated, but be sure not to over process.  You want the cake to stick to itself when you squeeze it in your hand.  It may be necessary to add a few extra dates.  Divide the mixture in half, and make two cake layers.  Set aside.

To make the frosting, process the dates and agave until completely smooth.  Add the avocado and process until smooth.  Add the cacao and process until smooth.

Assemble the cake by placing the first cake layer on a plate or serving dish.  Top with frosting, then take half of your raspberries and put them on top of the frosting.  I squeeze the raspberries a little so they release some of their juice and make a nice even raspberry layer.  Then place the second cake layer on top of that.  Finish by frosting the top and sides of the cake and putting the rest of your raspberries on top.
Keeps in fridge for 3-4 days.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

When the impossible becomes possible...

"Practice, and all is coming," as Guruji was fond of saying.  And it's true.  The thing I love, well one of the many things I love, about practice is that it continually reveals new things and opens up previously closed or inaccessible territory.  It shows me the places I fear to go, the places where I feel comfortable, the places where I struggle, the places where I feel vulnerable and weak, the places where I feel strong and empowered, the places where I try to take the easy way out, the places where I hold myself accountable.  Today I went to a mysore class with a teacher I've never taken a class from.  I keep a solid, consistent practice at home every day, but I am ready to step things up and get more regular feedback from a teacher, so I've been checking out some teachers in town.  And the class was great.  Lots of little minor corrections here and there.  My balance was off more than usual, but that's ok.  I'm fasting and get dizzy and it's hard to balance, and so I am patient with myself.  And as I'm working through the seated postures, the teacher keeps an eye on me.  I get to the marichyasanas and bind just fine in all of them except marichy d.  He comes over to assist me, and with a little help, I bound marichyasana d for the first time ever.  And it felt so damn good.  And it was like a huge sigh for my spirit, having struggled with it for so long.  It is, arguably, the toughest posture in the primary series.  It is considered a gateway posture and is the peak of the primary series crescendo.  When I first started my ashtanga practice, I thought I'd never be able to get fully into that posture.  It seemed like totally off-limits territory for me.  There are a lot of postures like that, especially as you venture into intermediate and advanced series.  But after working at it every day for a while, I finally did it!  I also did chakrasana for the first time with help from the teacher.  I can't help but wonder what else I can do that I thought was totally impossible!  I like this teacher, it's like he knows what I am capable of more than I know.  I'll be going back to his mysore class twice a week.  The rest of the week, I'll keep working on my practice at home to integrate the feedback I get in class.  It's kind of amazing how much progress can be made with daily practice.  And it's remarkable how off I feel when I skip a few days.  There are no shortcuts or easy ways out.  There's no way to fake it.  It is a spectacularly awesome feeling when the once impossible becomes possible.  There is only practice, and through practice, all is coming...

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Going to Mysore!

I didn't want to say anything until I got confirmation, and here it is!!!


This is your final confirmation to study at KPJAYI, we have received your online registration form and it has been accepted by us. You can come according to your new dates.

Do bring this Confirmation print out, you will have to show this on your arrival to register in person at KPJAYI, Mysore.

If you have any clarifications, please write on or call on  +91 9880185500.

Thank you,

I'll be there from mid-February til the beginning of April.  I'm wanting to make a trek up to Dharamsala after my time at the shala, I've been dreaming of that trip for eons.  Now to get a visa and start booking my flights and finding an apartment!  So excited!!!


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Ashtanga practice lights my way...

Natarajasana on Musselman arch, Canyonlands, Moab UT
I've been rockin my Ashtanga practice hard lately.  I've flirted with the practice off and on for a long time now, with varying degrees of commitment.  But I've recently come back to a place where I feel so dedicated to it that it is the highest priority for me every day.  I'm practicing 6 days a week (I have to even convince myself to take a day off) and look forward to it with more excitement than I look forward to breakfast!  I go to bed at night thinking about the next day's practice.  I get up and have my coffee ("No coffee, no prana," as Guruji would say) and then step on the mat.

I recently listened to one of Kino MacGregor's old podcasts, and she talked about in the old days when people used oil lamps for light, they'd have to clean the soot off the glass every day to be able to see the light from the lamp.  She describes the Ashtanga practice in similar ways.  The heat we generate in the practice cleans our body (not just physical, but mental, emotional, spiritual bodies) so that our light can shine clearly, brightly.  This metaphor really resonates with me, and I've been using that visualization to guide my practice.

Yesterday's practice was tough for me.  I'm currently on a green juice fast and have, in general, been feeling absolutely terrific.  But yesterday I was tired, weak, unfocused, unbalanced, hungry, easily distracted.  And I practiced anyways.  It was a struggle, I encountered a lot of internal resistance and excuses as to why I should just skip practice.  But I didn't.  I hit the mat and did the entire primary series anyways.  And when I got to navasana, I bargained with myself that I'd just do three instead of all five.  But I did all five anyway.  No short cuts, even on off days.  And I think it's off days that are most important to step on the mat.  And it's those days you get to see what you're really made of.

The practice is a reflection of my own inner state of things.  And this is the thing I love about Ashtanga.  It's the same sequence of asanas every time.  The thing that changes is me, and so it is a great gauge and reflection of my own awareness, lack of awareness, conflict, harmony, laziness, excitement, etc.  Some days I'm resistant until I start the first sun salutation, the hardest part is stepping to the top of the mat.  Some days are a struggle all the way through, and I give myself a hundred million justifications to let myself out of my commitment.  And it's important, crucial!, that I never capitalize on those justifications.  I do the practice with everything I've got on those days, even if I don't have much.  Some days are fun, easy, energetic, just plain joyful.  The harder I work, the more joy it brings.  Most days are like that for me, actually.  It is becoming more and more rare that I have a major off day like I did yesterday, which to me indicates the practice is really working for me.  And so I am able to tune in to the subtle nuances that shift day to day, and this provides valuable insights into the practice and into myself.  And this is how it illuminates my way.