Sunday, December 21, 2014

How do You Get to Carnegie Hall?

From the Carnegie Hall website:

The origin of the joke will probably always remain a mystery, but the best explanation we’ve heard comes from the wife of violinist Mischa Elman. One day, after a rehearsal that hadn’t pleased Elman, the couple was leaving Carnegie Hall by the backstage entrance when they were approached by two tourists looking for the hall’s entrance. Seeing his violin case, they asked, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Without looking up and continuing on his way, Elman simply replied, “Practice.”

I think many of us have been moved and inspired by a musical performance. Virtually without exception, the musicians we’ve enjoyed listening to have invested many hours practicing their craft. While the musicians also spent innumerable hours rehearsing and taking lessons, their practice hours were the foundation of their mastery.

The practice of yoga is much the same, though I have noticed that this commitment to practice has been fading over the past decade or so. While I received some flak for pointing this out in a Facebook posting a few months ago, I think the situation has become sufficiently urgent to warrant revisiting this increasingly contentious subject.

 In the West, we’ve enthusiastically embraced the elements of yoga philosophy suggesting that we’re already fully realized. Yoga is a non-dual philosophical system, which suggests that we are already everything we’re seeking. But simply showing up isn't sufficient cause for attaining Yoga. Far from it.

A personal yoga practice creates an environment where you can directly recognize your true nature. By practicing yoga day after day, year after year, this recognition becomes more commonplace.

What is a yoga practice? In the West we associate yoga with postures and breathing, which certainly can be a nourishing element of your practice. Yet there’s more to yoga than postures and breathing. Seated meditation has historically been an essential element of yoga practice, as has reading and reflecting on inspirational texts. On some days, yoga practice may be active and sweaty, while on other days practice may be more quiet and contemplative.

Yes, we’re already luminous, oneness, or whatever you prefer to call it. But we have huge gaps in really living the recognition of this non-dual state.  Just as it takes vast hours to gain mastery in music, it takes vast hours of practice to more fully recognize your true nature.

There are some amazingly talented musicians in our midst. I think many of us have seen the YouTube videos of a 4-year-old concert pianist, or the 12-year-old violinist performing in front of thousands. Their talent is a profound gift but I have yet to hear of a musical prodigy who does not back this talent up with vast hours of practice. The talent provides the foundation, and it’s their practice that builds the fullness of the experience.

The same holds true in yoga. Talent may open the door, though it’s the commitment to a personal practice that guides the practitioner through the door. Positive thinking, affirmations, and wishful thinking rarely yield an inspiring musician, and similarly, rarely contribute to the yogi or yogini directly realizing their true nature.

You get to Carnegie Hall through practice, and the fruits of yoga are also realized through practice. To suggest otherwise is to lower the bar on what’s possible.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Hear and Now

Street scene in Mysore, India
A couple summers back, I began to notice that more people were mumbling and that conversations were fading into the din of background noise. While I knew the world was becoming noisier and enunciation wasn’t as popular as it used to be, I could scarcely believe how fast the world was changing. Thankfully, years of teaching and practicing yoga had helped me learn to read body language pretty well, and I also seemed to have a knack for reading lips. On the continuum of problems, slight hearing loss didn’t seem too pressing, and I embarked on various regiments of self-healing.

I’ve long believed that food is medicine, and I began to mess around with my diet. Historically I’ve gotten pretty plugged up when I ate dairy foods and gluten, so I assiduously parsed these from my diet. This change in diet seemed to help a bit, though I still relied heavily on context and body language to figure out what was being said.

I then began looking at other foods as possible inflammation triggers and embarked on a strict elimination diet. I believed inflammation was the root cause of my hearing loss, and believed that eliminating these trigger foods would help my hearing.

I found a number of foods that seemed to plug me up, and by further eliminating carrageenan and tapioca starch from my diet, I found my hearing did improve a bit.

The improvement was incremental, though, and I was still was faking it in a lot of conversations, and nodding politely far more than was indicated.

I then turned my attention to acupuncture. I work with a great acupuncturist, and she immediately identified some blockages and imbalances that could have contributed to my hearing deficit. Many months into an ongoing course of acupuncture treatments, I was feeling more energetic and filled with vitality. But, while I felt like I had reverse-aged about fifteen years, I was still conversing largely through body language, piecing syllables together, and reading lips. I wasn’t fully out of the loop in social interactions but many details were getting lost in the shuffle.

The changes in diet and acupuncture made incremental improvements but almost one year had gone by since I’d heard birds singing or even the sound of many passing cars. Denial is not just a river in Egypt, and I was pretty resistant to accepting the extent of my hearing loss.

By this time, despite my penchant for optimism, the reality was that my hearing was getting worse. In addition to diet and acupuncture, I received some great bodywork, and continued to practice yoga and meditation each day. While I was feeling very good, more people were mumbling and I was starting to pull back socially. I have always been pretty outgoing but now I was finding the effort to piece together conversations was sometimes too much. The latter was the convincer that finally motivated a visit to my general practitioner. The GP immediately referred me to an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist; the red, puffy scene inside my ears wasn’t the result of a typical ear infection or injured eardrum – something else was amiss.

The first step in seeing the ENT was a comprehensive hearing exam. There were so many tests! There were tests with headphones, transmitters on my mastoid bones, tests that injected air against my eardrums, and a battery of speech recognition exercises. After all sorts of poking and prodding, the conclusion was that I had moderate to severe hearing loss. Thankfully, I hear almost normally in a small band of frequencies around 1,000 Hertz, which allowed me to somewhat hold my own in conversations. Outside of that bandwidth of frequencies, my hearing loss was severe, which explained why people with unusually high or low voices were the hardest for me to understand.

While this report certainly fell under the subheading of bad news, the ENT quickly pointed out that this sort of hearing loss, called conductive, is highly treatable. At worst there’s a surgical repair, and at minimum, a course of nasal steroids may be able to knock back the inflammation that’s keeping my eardrums from moving normally. While the full treatment is probably somewhere between the two extremes of nasal spray or surgery, the otolaryngologist assured me I will ultimately be able to hear normally, once again.

After two weeks of nasal steroids, I continue having eureka moment where I hear sounds I haven’t heard in awhile. The upstairs neighbor’s footfalls, passing cars and insistent crows have never sounded so good! I’m also still aware of how much I’m missing, and am trying to remain aware of how my optimism, which often contributes to my happiness, can also be a deceiver.

For example, while at a writing workshop this afternoon, I could hear other participants laughing at someone’s story, though I could not hear the story that was the cause of their laughter. There’s a long way to go in restoring my hearing, though I’m glad to live in a time and place where I have ready access to both complementary and Western medicine.

I’m committed to fully restoring my hearing, as listening is a key component of teaching. As this situation unfolds, I’ll be posting periodic updates.

Thanks for listening!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Welcome to Crestone

I think we all can look back at our lives and identify decisions that didn't turn out very well. And I think most of us can also identify decisions that turned out well in ways we couldn't have imagined. Every so often, it seems like there are decisions that are a little bit of both.

Toward the end of my undergraduate years, I began to recognize my mind as a minefield of distractions and errant perseveration. As a complement to my daily yoga and meditation practices, I started to look at the daily activities that fanned the flames of my oscillating mind. It became clear that the music I chose to listen to was far from calming; it actively fanned the flames of my monkey mind. And in the manner of a young man, the pendulum swung in revising my musical tastes. I set aside The Specials and Psychedelic Furs, and began listening to instrumental and New Agey sorts of music.

While some of the CDs I purchased in this swing-of-the-pendulum phase now make me cringe, I still enjoy listening to some of the CDs I purchased all those years ago. In the latter category is the music of Native American flute player R. Carlos Nakai. I found his music hauntingly beautiful 20+ years ago, and I still find his music inspires me.

While listening to his music back in the early ‘90s, I noticed that several of my favorite recordings came from the Lindisfarne Chapel in Crestone, CO. I made a mental note to check out the chapel if my orbit ever took me to Crestone.

Little did I know that no one inadvertently finds themselves in Crestone. To say that Crestone was the back of beyond was pretty optimistic. The bumpy and dusty 10+ mile drive on the dead-end road was the only way to get there, and there were many places that you simply couldn't get to from Crestone!

While traveling to visit friends in Boulder one winter, my travel companion and I decided to take a significant detour to get to Crestone. The 1982 Subaru we were driving was up to the task, though we landed in Crestone pretty bedraggled and road-weary. It was a long days drive from Tucson to Crestone!

I don't remember if we went directly to the site of the Lindisfarne Chapel at the Crestone Mountain Zen Center, or if we waited until the next day. What I do remember is the sign that greeted us at the bottom of the unplowed driveway that led to the Zen Center: Closed for the month - practice retreat in session.

I was seriously disappointed but my travel companion immediately began clambering over the gate. I was initially horrified, though couldn't help but admire her chutzpah. As we post-holed our way through the driveway's deep snow, an older man poked his head out the kitchen door to greet us. The grey-haired gent was insistently welcoming, even though we clearly had invaded a quiet and contemplative space.

He invited us in for tea, and promptly began asking us all sorts of questions - our destination de jour, our aims in lives, the nature of our contemplation, etc. The conversation was animated, thought-provoking and, at the end of the day, really quite life-influencing. When I asked the man how long he'd been doing contemplative practice, he responded with words I've never forgotten: I've been practicing my entire adult life.

After many cups of tea, a guided tour of the Zen Center (including the Lindisfarne Chapel) and several hours of conversation, we finally got around to introductions. After we introduced ourselves, the older gent extended his hand and said, I'm Richard Baker Roshi.

Even then I knew of Richard Baker Roshi, the co-founder of the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, dharma heir to Suzuki Roshi, and a seminal figure in the transmission of Zen Buddhism to the West. I could not believe our good fortune in spending so much quality time with Roshi, while at the same time, I felt like a serious doofus for ignoring the sign and barging into their Winter Practice Period.

I still consider this experience both a large-scale blunder and a fortuitous decision. And little did I know, I'd return to Crestone 20+ years later to attend meditation retreats with Mingyur Rinpoche's brother, Tsoknyi Rinpoche.

In the past few years, I've come to love Crestone's panoramic views, easy access to the mountains, and how the region seems to support contemplative practice. My wife and I recently purchased a small piece of land outside of Crestone, and one day, someday we may build a hermitage out there.

Until then, we are excited to announce the First Annual Alignment Yoga Crestone Retreat. We'll be headquartered at The Crestone Mountain Zen Center (legitimately, this time!) and enjoying their exquisite food and gorgeous facilities. Perhaps you can join us July 13-19, 2015 for yoga, meditation, and quality time in the mountains of Colorado?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Backcountry Skiing, Guides and Yoga

Backcountry skiing is one of my favorite activities. Rather than riding ski lifts to the mountaintops, backcountry skiers get to the tops of the mountains under their own power. It’s said that backcountry skiers earn their turns, and I’ve certainly found that the pleasures of untracked snow are even greater when I’ve broken a sweat to get there.

Over the years, I’ve daydreamed about doing longer and more remote backcountry tours, and inevitably come to the conclusion that a guide would be essential. The threat of avalanche is a constant companion, as is the very real possibility of getting turned around in whiteout conditions. As I consider the need for a guide, I’ve further reflected on the attributes I’d look for in a guide.

Firstly, I’d like a mountain guide to be a proficient skier. Should anything go awry, the guide would need to ski in whatever conditions were present, and perhaps across the steepest and gnarliest terrain. Expert skiing skills would be essential.

I’d also prefer that a guide had years of experience leading similar trips. When things go awry, experience really counts. Rather than having to figure out what to do on-the-fly, the most experienced guides call upon their reservoir of experience to skillfully navigate difficult situations. While participating in similar trips seems like a good prerequisite, I’d also want to make sure the guide had actually led many trips like the one I was considering.

I’d also like a guide to be an expert in the mechanics of snow and avalanches. Having taken rudimentary training in avalanche safety, I’m more appreciative of the vast knowledge that underlies avalanche safety and prevention. I’d look for a guide that understood the physics of snow’s crystalline structure, and not just follow the guide who waved their hand toward skier-filled slopes and proclaimed that my teacher told me this one is safe, and that that one isn’t. I’d want to make sure the guide really understood the mechanics of the snow, and didn’t just repeat second-hand information they’d heard from others.

I’d also look for a mountain guide that had good people skills. I think we’ve all met experts who struggled to relay their expertise to others, and also worked with teachers with a real knack for bringing out the best in their students. Hiring a guide seems like a good way to enhance the richness of the backcountry experience, and a good guide with finely tuned people skills seems like the glue that could help bring a group of people together.

As I reflected on my criteria for a mountain guide, I realized these are nearly the same attributes I look for in yoga teachers, and in particular, in a yoga teacher training program.

While yoga practitioners rarely perish in avalanches at the yoga studio, they are embarking on a path that works deeply with body and mind. In the potential for positive transformation, there is the ever-present possibility that we let go of constrictive elements of ourselves that we identify as me. In this calibrated dying process, there’s the very real chance that we’ll encounter situations as stressful as an avalanche-prone ski slope, or the possibility that a classmate encounters a difficult situation that requires the experienced guidance of someone who’s traversed the same territory countless times.

In reflecting on the backcountry ski trip I hope to take in January, I am reminded of the multiple Alignment Yoga Advanced Studies program that will also be starting early in 2015. Mound Street Yoga Center is Madison’s original yoga center, and Alignment Yoga was Madison’s first Yoga Alliance approved Yoga Teacher Training program.

We have the skills and experience to help students’ yogic journeys. Where would you like to go?

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Master of Disguise

It used to be that spies were masters of disguise. By donning a suitable disguise, spies could pass as legitimately belonging within a given office or lab, along the way extracting what they wanted or implanting their ideas. I imagine most spying is now freed from physical disguises, instead relying on cyber-aliases - though there may still be the occasional spy roaming the planet who rely on wigs and fake noses to avoid detection.

While the era of spies-in-disguise may be shifting, the disguise is still very much alive and well. Anxiety is a master of disguise, and seems to be more and more prevalent.

Sometimes anxiety is immediately recognizable, though often it slyly disguises as a justified worry or fear. For example, many people will worry about money at points in their lives. Often there is at least a shred of validity to the concern, though frequently the extent of the worry exceeds the intensity of the stressor.

The anxiety is very sly – it sees a stressor that can legitimately cause concern and puts on a wig, nose, glasses and a fake mustache that looks just like the legitimate concerns. Like a master spy, the anxiety eludes detection. Instead of seeing anxiety as anxiety (a transient mind-state), we get whipped into a frenzy by the anxiety’s seemingly legitimate appearances. And anxiety often puts on a money disguise.

Maybe your car breaks down and needs an expensive repair. The unexpected expense may require examining your budget, and perhaps making some difficult decisions. The reality of the unplanned car expense merits thought and consideration but does it merit fretting, worrying, and sleepless nights? Perhaps it does, but more likely anxiety has put on a money worries disguise, and the anxiety is able to escape detection in your mind.

The regular practice of yoga and meditation allows us to look at our own mind. Rather than reflexively following the parade of thoughts streaming through our minds, we can watch our own minds at work. We can ask ourselves, is this worry commensurate with the stressor? Or has anxiety put on another disguise to evade detection? Quite often simply seeing the anxiety beneath the disguise invites the anxiety-spy to ship out.

When you practice yoga poses, here’s a simple technique to practice watching your own mind.

Many of us have heard a lot of cues or instructions within each yoga pose. Shift your hips here, place your leg there, breathe like this, don’t do that, etc. And quite often when we practice yoga, we respond to the parade of instructions in real-time. In this real-time following-of-orders in the pose, there may be a glimmer of awareness of our own mind but more often it's anxiety wearing another disguise.

A more reliable way to cultivate awareness is to pause for a couple breaths each time a cue or instruction flashes through your mind. After a couple breaths, maybe you choose to apply the cue, or perhaps you watch it melt back into wherever it arose from.
In practicing yoga in this way, we become more familiar with our own minds. In becoming familiar with our own mind, we’re more likely to pause and reflect when appropriate, and less likely to believe the ministrations of the anxiety.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Three Harmonious Friends

Living in the outskirts of exurbia, I never know what may present itself during meditation practice. In the winter, the pulsing thrum of snowmobiles is sometimes heard, while in the warmer months, the lub-lub-lub of the Harley-Davidson V-Twin occasionally accompanies my practice.

Most days I'm accompanied by cats; sometimes lugubriously sitting by a closed door, often meditating on my lap, or just passing through the Dharma Hall on an undisclosed mission.

The other day, Amelia's mission had taken on an unusual urgency. She bolted down the stairs and came flying into the Dharma Hall. The bushiness of her tail indicated there was big excitement in the air, and her furtive movements were unusual. It was still daybreak, so I could not make out the cause of her alarm, though it did not appear that she was being pursued or otherwise in danger.

As I continued meditating on form, the cause of her furtive movements came into focus - she had brought a live mouse into the Dharma Hall, and it had just escaped from her clutches.

Meditating on form was about to give way to a movement meditation, as the forthcoming cat-and-mouse game would cause all manner of karmic demerits.

Moments before I arose, the mouse shot toward me, and with Amelia in hot pursuit, ducked behind my meditation cushion. I could almost feel the mouse panting with relief at its stay of execution.

Surprisingly, Amelia immediately lost interest in the mouse, and curled up in my lap. Within a few moments, Amelia was soundly meditating in my lap, with the mouse hidden behind my meditation cushion.

The moments expanded into minutes, and I could almost feel the mouse relaxing behind me. After a few more minutes, it almost seemed as though the mouse was joining me and the cat in meditating.

I could hardly help smiling - perhaps the three of us were meditating together!

Monday, April 28, 2014

Structure and Energy

In my late-20's, I met an eccentric yoga teacher who later became one of the strongest influences on my teaching. Some of this influence included what I would consciously choose not to do, though many of his teachings still inform my yoga practice, and correspondingly, my yoga teaching.

Under the tutelage of Roger Eischens, I became a student of energy. Whether we call this energy chi, qi, prana or Floyd, an awareness of energy in the body is found in many healing modalities.

At first, I felt that energy was tangential to structure: There was body alignment, strength and flexibility... And then there was energy.

With further training and practice, however, I began to feel how alignment could facilitate feeling energy moving in my body, and how energy-based techniques could influence alignment. Rather than being two distinct systems, Roger showed me that they were the two sides of the same coin.

Roger was famous for containing multitudes. As I mentioned previously, I consciously forgot some of his teachings, while other teachings I've treasured and nurtured. Also in the vein of two sides of the same coin, some of Roger's teachings I both treasure and question.

In the late 1990's, Roger was teaching a therapeutic session to a well-worn athlete. This guy had worked and trained hard, and if his body were a pair of corduroy pants, most of the fuzziness of the corduroy would have been worn off.

Upon learning that the athlete's knees were largely devoid of cartilage, Roger quipped you don't need cartilage, you just need energy. And with that seemingly naive segue, Roger showed the old athlete poses for the arches of his feet, poses to realign his shins, and poses to realign his shoulder blades. After each pose, the man was standing straighter and looking more filled with vitality - as if an energy was being rebooted, and flowing more freely in his body. By the end of his short session, the man reported being free from knee pain for the first time in many months. Despite seeming unlikely, Roger's claim to have used structure to awaken energy-flow did seem to have positive merit.

Since then, I've learned to respect when a joint is worn, to respect the limits of joints, and to avoid straining whatever cartilage may be remaining. And while working with the structural body, to remain attuned to the flow of energy in the body. This energy may be poorly understood in the West, but it can contribute mightily to vitality and well-being. In working with techniques that realign the energy-body, in tandem with techniques that realign the structural-body, yoga therapeutics can be a powerful path for transformation and healing.