Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Practice Trajectory: Ordinary, Extraordinary, Everyday Ashtanga Yoga Pt. 2

Mt. Sanitas Park, Boulder, CO
"Days, up and down they come/
like rain on a congadrum/forget most, remember some/but don't turn none away/Everything is not enough/and nothin' is to much to bear/Where you been is good and gone/all you keep is the getting there/
To live is to fly/Low and high/
So shake the dust off of your wings/
And the sleep out of your eyes." — Townes Van Zandt, To Live is to Fly

Beginner's mind is a lovely thing: "this is interesting/fun/cool/new! Of course I'll do it." No resistance, no question, just doing. Soon after my introduction to Ashtanga yoga by Richard Freeman, I started going to a beginner's class taught by other The Yoga Workshop  teachers. Freeman had appeared like a beacon, then he was gone. I had no awareness of the whose-who of the Ashtanga community, so while Freeman made an impression on me, I didn't yet appreciate having been introduced to the practice by him.
Led classes were an hour-and-a-half of slow, explicated asana. Poses were broken down limb by limb: we often spent a third of the class at the wall working on getting our arms and hands in the right position in downward dog. I don't think we ever went past janu sirsasana in the primary series. It was all new to me. Even though I'd been riding my bike hours each day for years and did plenty of time at a gym, yoga was exhausting in an entirely new way. After class, I walked home and fell asleep for a couple of hours. The yoga had begun its work on me, immediately zeroing in on my biggest physical resistances...and I went to sleep, hah! There's resistance for you....  I didn't yet connect how what was going on on the mat could stir up, or reflect, the rest of my life.  Only in retrospect can I see how practice may have connected to other unravellings that were occurring. 
The new experience of yoga, along with studying with some of the Beat Poet's teaching at Naropa, and the various other practices we were dabbling in, were compelling and strange and inspiring in all sorts of ways.  Boulder was (is) a crossroads of many athletic and creative and spiritual communities and I was fortunate to see many amazing figures in person: Allen Ginsberg was still alive and doing readings about town, Townes Van Zandt performed at Boulder Theater, Tibetan Rinpoche's gave lectures at Naropa, you'd see Ken Wilbur hiking the Foothills trail and Anne Waldman at the grocery store.
During this period, in a bold and somewhat foolhardy move, I quit my job to pursue writing more seriously and to travel more with my husband. Working as a staff editor, I'd been getting published at the magazine routinely, and I left the position with a large amount of hubris in place. I thought it would be no problem getting freelance assignments. Not true. At the same time I was taking this new lifestyle on, and no doubt in part to how much this changed my home dynamic, my relationship began showing large cracks. 
Hard things break; soft things bend. Competitive cycling had come with a lot of benefits but it had also reinforced a hardness in myself that I'd grown into as a coping mechanism.
I once heard someone describe the beginning of Buddhist practice as like turning the water on a hose that's long been out of use. The water has to first work out kinks and then unclog the hose before it can get through. I think (now) this describes the process of starting any consciousness raising practice.
Things quickly felt messy and dark.
That winter, we traveled to France during what we'd find was the coldest winter of the century. We spent much of our time in museums looking at art, another creative turn-on. But as exciting and inspiring as the new culture was, something about that long cold month overseas showcased the rift in my relationship, and my inability to cope with the host of different feelings that were coming up. 
Even just dipping my toes into practices that demanded honesty, I could no longer escape the fact that I'd pretty much turned my back on my upbringing when I'd moved from California. College, then marriage, then moving to another state, cycling, and working at a fun job, had let me forget where I'd come from. I'd left California and my history — littered with eating disorders, my own parent's divorce, and another family member's suicide — determined to make my life better. And I did. On the outside anyway. But I had no solid spiritual grounding — I hadn't consciously embraced my somewhat wishy-washy Catholic upbringing — to sustain my actions over the long haul, and certainly not for all the changes I was making. We were headed in the direction of greater awareness but had a long way to go. A few months after our return, we split up and moved out of our house.  
The following winter I went snowboarding and fell really hard on my ass. I didn't break anything but something about that fall finally stopped me in my tracks. I woke up the next day sore and sick with a fatigue I wouldn't shake for many months. I stopped riding my bike. I stopped going to yoga.  I kind of limped through the next several months, writing and slowly walking the trails of Mt. Sanitas.
That spring, an editor at the my former job called saying he was too busy to cover The Ironman New Zealand. I'd covered the race twice previously—would I like to go again? Hell yes! 
For the first time in a while, I felt excited.  As I settled into my flight from Denver to LAX to catch the flight to the Southern Hemisphere, I looked up to see a familiar serene and slightly glowing figure board the plane and take a seat at the front of the cabin. It was Richard Freeman! I didn't talk to him, but noted how healthy and calm and ethereal he looked compared to the rest of the bustling crowd.
The trip to New Zealand is another story in and of itself— I would spend two weeks after covering the race and filing my report  traveling around the North and South Island based on how I felt each morning —and it signaled a time of  coming alive again. Shortly after returning, I house-sat for a writing teacher outside of Creede, CO, high in the Rockies. No yoga class, but a few sun salutations each day and a lot of time hiking, singing (mainly because it also made me feel batter) and writing. I had a dream, while staying there that I should return to Bolinas, CA, a very small town near the beach I'd nearly moved before getting married.
I also had a phone call from my father, who was still living in Santa Cruz County, telling me he'd been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
By the end of a summer of writing, I was packing up my VW to return to California.  Starting where I'd left off seemed to make sense, so West Marin,  two hours drive from my dad's home, became my destination. I sublet a small cottage in Bolinas for a couple months, got an editorial job at the Marin weekly newspaper, The Pacific Sun, in Mill Valley, and eventually moved there.
Amid this exceptionally changeable time I had made a friend in Boulder, a scientist and cyclist (for recreation not racing) who practiced Mysore-style Ashtanga at The Yoga Workshop. We stayed in touch and he always encouraged me to try Mysore.
"There's a good teacher near you," he said, pointing out The Yoga Studio in Mill Valley (now Yoga Works).
But Mysore still sounded too weird and scary. Instead, I started going to all the community classes at The Yoga Studio. Eventually, I gravitated to two teachers — Peggy Orr and Clayton Horton — who taught longer led classes at Yoga Studio, and I would learn later, had roots in Mysore-style Ashtanga practice....


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