Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Restorative yoga #1 and #2
I have this problem. It’s the “think before you speak” problem.
I have this other problem. It’s the “ Don’t think of pink elephants” problem.
Sometimes your problems can line up is such a way that they compound each other, and ruin a perfectly serviceable moment in your day. Your restorative yoga class, in fact. Of course, sometimes destroying something is the precursor to creating from the rubble. And that moment in between? That is presence. Of course, true to form, I didn’t get that right away. As per my wont, let me walk you through the narrative, and note how the perspective changes as we go along.
Restorative yoga is stretching and relaxing. OK, it’s more than that, or so I’m told. Ostensibly, it is also a deep, beautiful, spiritually enriching experience wherein you reflect, draw perfect attention to your body and your breath, and exercise the types of techniques that lead to perfect, beautiful awareness and a blissful engagement with the moment.
I can’t seem to get the hang of it, but the stretching is nice, I suppose.
My problems manifested pretty immediately. I’m just getting back on the yoga horse after a return from the Mitten, a brief illness, and various other obligations. The first restorative yoga class was just that- it got me back into a practice. Still, it was pretty gentle as a practice goes, which is a nice way of saying ‘boring.’ I was OK with it, but when I showed up for the second class, I was expecting a normal class. Some poses and shit.
Here we get into the first Yoga Platitude, a phrase I capitalize because I think it would do well to document them, and so I intend to. I’ll explain the theory later, but suffice to say, I’m noticing that there are a limited set of yoga standards that all teachers seem to adhere to, be them verbal sound bites repeated in class, or even just habitual practices that seem to permeate every studio.
Here, it was the “End of the Month Restorative Yoga Class.” EVERY studio does this. The last class of the month is always ‘restorative’, and it’s more or less a rule across the board, at least as American yoga goes. I wasn’t expecting it here, though- the YMCA calendar clearly stated a Yoga I class, and I was looking forward to a bit of a workout. It seems as if I have been converted to the American ethic of “yoga as weight loss”, but that seems to be it’s strength, and I’m as malleable as any other consumer. I wanted some exercise.
It also doesn’t help that I’m suspicious. The ‘End of the month restorative yoga class’ feels a hell of a lot like ‘movie day’ in a public school classroom. My first year teaching, I swore I’d never be one of ‘those’ teachers, the ones who fired up the VCR, tweaked the shades, sat at the back of the classroom making sure nobody set fire to anything while I graded papers. I would have exiting and engaging lesson plans each and every day, a model educator.
10 years later, my movie collection is well into double digits, threatening to cross the hundred mark. And you know what? It’s OK. Sometimes the kids need a break as much as you do, and a good ole’ fashioned nature documentary with excellent footage of death and sex on the African Savanna is just the thing on a Friday. Still, call it what it is. Restorative? Yes. A content-heavy problem-solving inquiry workshop, geared toward active student engagement? Not so much.
Restorative Yoga on it’s own feels like a release, a nod to the fact that we all need a day off. Restorative Yoga paired with instructions to be mindful of the ‘most difficult of yoga techniques, the calming of the mind’ feels like you just got a handout of busy work questions to go along with the movie.
When the teacher, as we all filed in and began setting up our various little stations, mentioned that it was almost February and that we would have a gentle practice today, I responded in the true colors of problem #1 (think before you speak). I’m sure I rolled my eyes as I said, too loudly
I didn’t intend for anyone to hear it. I wasn’t thinking. It was an internal response, made public before I could even consider the repercussions. Unfortunately, she heard. I knew it when she made her announcement.
“ So this will be a restorative yoga class. For those of you who wanted a great workout today, well, you’re not going to get it.”
I have to, despite my initial flinching, commiserate with her. When a kid complains loudly about what we’re doing in class today, I don’t have the option of saying, directly
“Don’t be such a turd.”
It would be confrontational. I might be right, but it would single the kid out in front of his peers, and he would take it as a slight, so I’m forced to say, to the entire class
“Even if you don’t like touching snails- and that might be many of you- I would ask that you don’t refer to them as ‘fetid slices of extra-terrestrial labias encased in their own crunchy packaging.’ Please. Humor me.”
So here I was, feeling funny for being abstractly singled out. I had injected a note of negative energy in a discipline where positivity IS THE LAW.
It is something I can’t get over, now living on the west coast. We all know the views are breathtaking, the weather is (mostly) ideal, the food is local and organic, and life is sweet. Still, having grown up in the Midwest, there is a measure of guilt I feel planting carrots in January. It seems an unearned bonus.
Coming so recently from Michigan, talking to my mother who is faced with two months of chemotherapy and sub-zero temperatures- not that she’ll be getting out much- I feel guilty without winter- it sucks, but one feels a certain karmic debt is being paid to the planet. It gave us an excuse to bitch, get grumpy, practice being stoic, and generally be real with each other. Nothing brings out interpersonal issues more than being stuck indoors for 5 months at a time.
Without it- and living in an earthquake prone area- I do feel a Pompeian uneasiness, as if it is an act of hubris to live in such a gorgeous climate on such unstable land. I would feel better if I were older- if I had already had children that could fend for themselves in a disaster, run for the nearest doorway instinctively, know not to light cigarettes around ruptured gas lines. I could believe that I had passed the buck, selflessly contributed to the profligation of the hairless monkey species we so affectionately refer to as ‘people’, ‘God’s chosen ones’ and ‘stewards of the planet’, actual evidence of our success notwithstanding. We’re the only species to have caused a mass extinction through our own greed, an event that has only happened 4 times in 4.5 billion years, and also the only one that was foretold and ignored. Are we so sure that we should trust ourselves?
This tangent- and I do realize that I just went on a long, serious tangent- Is typical of me, and actually relevant to this small Yoga class and my own problems. Should I even trust myself? Should I listen to my own internal soapbox monologues? I digress, sure, but for a reason. Let’s go ahead and bring it back.
So. Class. Begins.
We have been issued 3 yoga blocks 3 blankets, and 3 of those couch-cushion things that have some sort of official sounding name, stabilizers or something. They are shaped like the armrests on a piece of furniture that would most likely be referred to as a davenport. I cannot at all fathom why we will need all this stuff.
She reiterates the fact that class will be more meditative, mostly for my benefit. I’m trying not to look at her, but I distinctly feel her direct gaze.
“You know”, she begins, “Indians consider these meditative mudras the most difficult for Americans to do.”
Immediately problem number #2 surfaces. The Pink Elephant is a dark suspicion that she read this somewhere, and has not, in fact, been to India. It’s cynical. I do not know this woman. I have no reason to believe that she hasn’t been to India. She’s a teacher, and must have some knowledge of whatever yoga teachers are supposed to know, right? I’m pretty sure yoga teachers must really like their discipline, and so must have some knowledge of the philosophical precepts behind it, because without them, it would only be so much repetitive posing. But I can’t help it. I have a third problem, and that is to be contrary just for the sake of being contrary, and a large part of this is to immediately disbelieve everything that shakes my eardrums.
“Let’s concentrate today on quieting our minds, removing all the chatter that goes on in our heads. “
I don’t like the idea. I feel we are getting served a work sheet. Why not think of stuff? I feel as if I am being deliberately placated, that the positivity laws are, if not being enforced, than relying on our collective goodwill to not be critical of the teaching method.
And this goes on. And on. Sometimes I feel like blogging about yoga is proscribing what I’m supposed to get out of it. I often find myself taking mental notes during class, and without out a notebook, I just have to repeat all my thoughts to myself to make sure they stick, and that I’ll remember them when I get home. And by doing this, I am somewhere else entirely- my body might be going through the motions, but my mind is occupying a future cyber-sphere. I am not at all present, I’m just thinking and thinking and talking to myself in my head, responding in kind, turning my cynicism on myself and I realize I CAN’T SHUT UP.
As this all goes through my mind, we are building blanket forts. Well, not really, but it feels like it. The teacher is instructing us to place our blankets and cushions and blocks (oh my!) in a very specific formation. Some cushions are propped on blocks to make a gentle incline, which we will lay our backs on. Blankets serve to pad the floor beneath our legs and booties, other davenport stabilizers serve as ….armrests. Further yoga blocks are positioned to support our heads and necks, and upon completion of this temporary edifice, I realize we just built floor-level La-Z-Boy recliners. We are instructed to relax.
It doesn’t help that I am not the only one smirking at this point. Other yoginis are glancing around the room with that particular Spock-cocked eyebrow, non-verbally sending a social cue around the room that says “ Does anyone else think this is a bit ham-fisted?” It fuels my cynicism, and starts a brand new thread of masturbatory dialogue between me and my inner imaginary me-friend.
The mental chatter is unrelenting- every time I try and empty my mind, attempt to stop the chatter, I open a new discussion thread about whether or not I SHOULD be chattering to myself, if it’s in fact ok. It’s with no small measure of embarrassment that I realize this woman is absolutely right- quieting the mind IS a fucking hard thing to do. WHY CAN’T I SHUT UP? Wait, you just yelled at yourself. Can’t you please shut up? But shouldn’t I be thinking? Isn’t thinking about what’s going on a measure of awareness? I am here, now, thinking about it. And talking to myself about it. Isn’t that a measure of how “Now” I am? Wait, I thought that thought a few seconds ago, and I’m still thinking about it. That’s not ‘Now’ that ‘s elsewhere. I need to have a discussion with myself about that. Wait, I’m NOT SUPPOSED TO BE TALKING to myself. Wait, if I keep saying ‘wait’ to myself, doesn’t that mean I’m waiting for something? Is that ‘Now’-ish?
This paradox, this idea that I need to concentrate on not concentrating, is spinning me in circles.
Still, the La-Z-Boy is soooo comfortable. I DO feel relaxed and- I’m not sure how, exactly- I just surrender to everything. I’m tired of trying to analyze each and every moment, and something just releases. I don’t have to try and shut the voice up anymore, because the voice just got fed up with trying and knocked off for a pint of bitter at the pub. I- and I no longer feel like “I’, anymore, just some physical material that moves molecules around- am…just ……..here. Breathing.
I so forget myself that I don’t even realize that I’m completely out of the thread. Somehow, everyone else took a verbal cue to move on to shivasana, and the mass of creative atoms all lumped together and given the name Shumit has failed to register any sort of social etiquette. The mass shakes itself out of the stupor, and tries to reconnect with a name, but the process is shaky at best. After I rather sheepishly follow the other yoginis, placing my blocks and blankets and mat away in the proper receptacles, I head toward my stuff on the bench. The teacher- the one I offended- thinks I am coming over to talk to her, and her face lights up. It’s awkward- I went to get my stuff together, but in a way, I do want to apologize, and as I fumble with my belongings, I try to address this. I can’t think Shumit enough to discern what order I need to put my street wear back on (pants before shoes), and I tell her as such.
“Ah-ha!” she says, “So you got it!!”
Did I? I’m not sure, but I’m happy that she understands- or recognizes, really- that something happened. Did something happen? I’m not sure of that either, but I know now that it is best not to think about it.