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My student Mieko sent me this mesmerizing video. “My cat only scratches my yoga mat,” she wrote, “How is your cat?”

My cat occasionally joins me on the mat, sauntering underneath my Adho Mukha Svanasana, nudging my legs when I’m sitting, or plopping himself at feet when I’m in a lunge. I make way for him, but my asana is compromised.

Or is it? The girl in this video continues moving while balancing a cat on her back. Meanwhile the kitty, who simply wanted a stable perch, adapts to her movements with impressive composure, burrowing into her lumbar spine with grace, tenacity, and pointy claws.

Talk about accommodation! Make the most you can with what you’ve got.

The other day, I returned to the MRI clinic where I got my knee scanned last summer. (I wanted more of the orange foam earplugs given to patients. They look ordinary but block noise better than any others I’ve tried. I use them when it’s not quiet enough for sleep.)

In the elevator, I met a woman also heading to the MRI clinic. She was due for a second scan, and she was anxious: the noise, the tunnel, the claustrophobia. She even brought a friend for support.

I’d experienced the exact opposite reaction. Weird as it might seem, I rather enjoyed the process: lying down, not moving, for 20 or so minutes. The noise level was not excessive (thanks to those earplugs, plus headphones to hear the technician’s voice).

Mostly I appreciated the forced stillness.

Perhaps that’s because I rarely sit still (not counting working on my computer or eating a meal). Any situation that forces me to be still is welcome. I like pre-flight time at the airport, reading a long-awaited novel and daydreaming with impunity. I like waiting rooms, where I have an excuse to rifle through glossy fashion magazines. I really like massage and haircuts, where I’m not only still but also pampered.

In yoga, Savasana and restorative poses are all about stillness, physically and mentally. But, outside of class, how often do I do a long Savasana or a gentle class? Rarely. Okay, never.

My occasional episodes of forced stillness do me well. Maybe they should be less occasional and more regular. Doing a restorative practice once a week might be just the ticket.

Note: My MRI was normal, and my knee healed on its own. Go figure.

Image: Gingy, my late kitty who slept in perfect, symmetrical alignment.

I recently reconnected with a yoga classmate (I’ll call her Jill) whom I met in Berkeley. We’d lost touch after I moved to Vancouver a few years ago. Around Christmas 2008, in her mid 30s with a new marriage and PhD, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. This year, she had a baby.

What a journey she’s traveled in three years. (And I figured I’d made a big change by moving to Canada.)

I thought of Jill when I read this excerpt from Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor:

Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.

It must surely transform one’s everyday mindset to journey to that other place. Without this rite of passage, we can so easily forget about our own terminal condition. It doesn’t matter whether we’re young or old, rich or poor: if we’re not facing cancer or another critical illness, we walk around blithely, obsessed about things that would mean nothing if we knew the end was near.

We all sustain less-daunting afflictions, from broken bones to migraines to common colds. Maybe little illnesses and injuries—brief trips to that other place—are just practice for the big ones that we’ll all face down the road.

Some would say that Jill’s got a lot to be thankful for. But it’s really people like me, so lucky and so ungrateful, who do.

Seven weeks remain in the year 2011. Seven weeks!

Are you satisfied with your year so far? If not, you have seven weeks to turn it around. Me, I’ll face off with procrastination.

Take my blog. I post infrequently despite a swarm of viable topics buzzing in my head. I take ages to transform them from half-baked ideas to publishable posts. Why? Procrastination. I’m not lazy by nature, and I’m Type A about my work, my practice, and my teaching. But I grapple with non-deadline tasks.

The trouble with procrastinating is the snowball effect: the longer I wait, the larger the task looms. If I posted to my blog twice a week, each post would seem ordinary and routine. When I wait for two or more weeks, each post seems momentous. The longer the passage of time, the more I feel compelled to write a stupendous post.

I sometimes experience the same syndrome with other non-deadline tasks, such as answering personal email. If a close friend emails me, I want to respond with a substantial note, not a flip “thanks for writing!” But with work and other pressing matters, personal email might linger in my in-box far too long. The irony is that I immediately answer trivial messages with quick and dirty conciseness. Prompt and efficient. I should apply this approach universally.

In seven weeks, maybe I can complete those non-deadline tasks on my to-do list. None are sisyphean except in my imagination. I can probably complete one per week. Just. Do. It.

When I first moved to Canada, I was surprised by the red poppy pins worn around Remembrance Day. News anchors and politicians pinned them to their lapels, as did Vancouverites of all stripes. Walking down the street, I’d see scattered red dots coming toward me and smile to myself.

Initially I attended Remembrance Day ceremonies, solemn, traditional, and patriotic, but in a low-key Canadian way. I listened to the vaguely familiar words of In Flanders Fields, a poem close to Canada’s heart and memorized by schoolchildren here. I liked the numerical elegance of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Growing up in Hawaii, Memorial Day, in terms of military veterans, didn’t resonate strongly with me. The last Monday in May mostly marked the start of summer. As an adult in Berkeley, California, especially in the late 2000s, patriotism was a complicated concept (and fallen soldiers served as symbols of a misguided administration).

In Vancouver that first year, my eyes were wide open. Remembrance Day in Canada was different from Memorial Day in the USA. I noticed and appreciated those red dots coming toward me. Now, less than five years later, I don’t see them with the same sharpness.

Why? Is it the human condition to become blind to the familiar? Must I grow jaded when novelty disappears? Can I train myself to see with fresh eyes?

Related post:

Image: poppy pin, Cafe Maplethorpe blog

Last summer, my friend Siobhan performed a compelling solo dance for her “project” at an Iyengar yoga teacher training in Victoria, BC. All participants had to express parinama (transformation), samskaras (imprints), gunas (three qualities of nature), and heyam dukham anagatam (Google it), through any creative medium. Naturally, people chose familiar modes of expression: An art teacher made striking mixed-media pictures. Some cut up magazines to make collages. A few read aloud deeply personal essays.

Only Siobhan danced. That’s probably because she’s a talented, trained, professional dancer. Who else would dare perform a solo dance in public?

That very week, I received a video of my little niece dancing to entertain herself at a San Francisco museum (she was probably bored and squirmy). Like Siobhan, she did an improvisational dance. Unlike Siobhan, she is not a professional dancer. At what age do we distinguish between what we do and what we simply do not do?

Maybe it happens early. By elementary school, even kids prefer to do what comes naturally, what they’re “good at.” That’s why I like to see folks step out of character and do the unexpected. I like to see middle-aged people change careers or seniors try yoga for the first time. I like to see non-professionals entering realms typically reserved for professionals. YouTube has been a great equalizer (for better or worse). Take this 2008 video, Where the Hell is Matt?, that went viral. It features the funny dance of an ordinary guy “dancing” around the world and it never fails to cheer me up.

*“Come Dancing,” The Kinks, 1982

Come dancing
Come on sister, have yourself a ball
Don’t be afraid to come dancing
It’s only natural


	
	

Last week, I was striding through City Square Shopping Centre near Vancouver City Hall after a dental appointment. The centre’s airy heritage architecture can’t quite compensate for the mundane mall experience, so I had no reason to stick around. In passing, I noticed the abandoned Hello Kitty kiosk. “What happened to them?” I asked a neighboring vendor.

A Chinese immigrant in her 50s or 60s, she gabbed about their move to a larger mall with more shoppers willing to shell out for genuine Sanrio merchandise. “Are you Japanese or Korean?” she interjected. Before I knew it, she clasped my right hand and began buffing my thumb nail. Her kiosk sold cosmetic products by Seacret, an Israeli company unfamiliar to me.

“Look at that,” she marveled, smoothing the ridges and then rubbing my nail to a gleaming finish. “It last for two weeks. All natural. No need polish.”

She proceeded to rub cuticle oil around my nail. “You take care of your hair, your face, but why not your hands? So dry.” Then she held a boxed nail kit. “Online, $59.95. Today special $39.95. Only today.”

Me? Buy a kiosk nail set? “I’ll think about it,” I said, all set to escape.

She persisted, buffing my other thumb, commiserating over the hand-wrecking “women’s” tasks of cooking and cleaning. “For you,” she said, “I’ll give the senior special: $29.95, even if you’re not senior. Treat yourself.”

When I demurred, she pulled the two demonstrated products from the box: “Buffer and oil, $20.” I did the unthinkable and bought it.

As a rule, I reject pushy salespeople and unknown brands. This was As Seen On TV up close and personal. But the Seacret saleslady somehow amused me with her chatty familiarity and never-say-die tenacity. She reminded me of three things:

  • Don’t give up The Seacret saleslady would not accept my “no.” And she had nothing to lose in pursuing me until my “no” was final. Do I persist that hard in the face of likely rejection or imminent defeat? Do I put myself on the line day after day? I can admire such doggedness.
  • Synchronicity That very week, I’d already been contemplating my chronic hangnails, due to frequent hand washing and the natural dryness associated with vata dosha. Having a total stranger offer a solution was a neat coincidence (nevermind that she probably accosts anyone who makes eye contact). I figured that Seacret’s buffer and oil were no better than drugstore brands, but I could live with the price (and, hey, I crossed something off the to-do list).
  • Helping one another We’re all trying to make a living, whether as lawyers or yoga teachers or Seacret salesladies. Who knows: Maybe she can’t stand kissing up to strangers for a $20 sale. But it’s her job and she’s definitely not lazy. Twenty dollars wouldn’t break me and we both took something home from that encounter.

Acknowledgment: I discovered the idea of synchronicity through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.

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Whenever I visit my little niece, I end up reading children’s stories that delight me as much as they do her. My favorite of the moment is The Fire Cat by Esther Averill. It’s a 1960 classic, with drawings that capture the essence of Pickles, a stray kitty with big paws and big dreams.

In the three-part story, Pickles faces the universal challenges of life:

  • Search for one’s purpose.
  • Adrift in the wrong environment.
  • Choosing purpose over privilege.
  • Being both good and bad.
  • Being paralyzed by fear.
  • Getting into a fine mess.
  • Getting a second chance.
  • Working hard to improve oneself.
  • Turning over a new leaf.
  • Making friends with others of your own species.
  • Facing the truth about one’s past.
  • Overcoming one’s fear.
  • Helping another in trouble.
  • Fulfilling one’s purpose in life.
Yes. All that shines through in this slim paperback. Read it.

I stumbled upon this YouTube video, “Don’t Take Anything Personally,” through elephant journal. It’s unbearably New Age-y and self help-y, yet strangely compelling. It highlights one chapter of a book, The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, that keeps popping into my life.

I’ve never owned or even read the book, but last year it caught my eye near the yoga section at the wonderful Green Apple Books in San Francisco. Reading the title, I suddenly recalled someone (a guy sitting next to me on a plane?) highly recommending it ages ago.

I skimmed the entire book, short and sweet, with just four main points. While it struck me as rather simplistic, I could relate to each of the “agreements.”

Here’s what’s written on the cover:

  • Be Impeccable With Your Word: Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.
  • Don’t Take Anything Personally: Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.
  • Don’t Make Assumptions: Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.
  • Always Do Your Best: Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.

The YouTube video covers the second agreement, which might be my biggest challenge among the four. Maybe Don Miguel Ruiz is popping up for good reason!

The classic Iyengar method of teaching asana is what I’ll call the “demo” method:  teacher demonstrates and then students do. This contrasts with the common “follow the leader” method, in which teachers do practically the whole sequence along with students.

So, many students who attend my classes aren’t used to the “demo” method. Often, they’re hesitant to venture too far from their mats, unlike longtime Iyengar students who want ringside seats for demos. Sometimes, I demonstrate a forward bend with my head facing downward only to find students already doing the pose when I rise. Waitaminute, folks! I want to watch students enter the pose. If I’m doing the pose, I’m not watching them. And isn’t my job? To watch my students?

If they’re used to constant activity, however, some tend to be impatient. While I’m demonstrating, they can’t help but to ready their stance or to arrange their props. The instant they recognize the pose I’m teaching, their minds jump to expectations. I know this pose. I don’t need to watch. Let me do it.

This amuses me. Where are their minds during class?

I, for one, never tire of watching my own teachers demonstrate. I love to watch the details, from the spreading of the toes to the symmetry of a backbend. Once, my current main teacher told me that watching her own teachers was invaluable to her practice. It was only through visual observation that she learned to do the most-challenging asanas.

Close observation of teachers’ demos or words doesn’t mean agreeing with them. Heck, I’ve attended classes where I learned how not to do a pose! All classes are not created equal. Regardless, you’re physically there in class; you might as well be mentally there, too.

The yoga mind. If the whole point of yoga, including asana, is really to develop the mind, who has a better practice: The adept student who relies on ease and habit? Or the inept novice who pays close attention?

Image: Cliff & Olivia

On November 19, 2010,  there was a car crash in Kona involving 27-year-old former University of Hawai’i star quarterback Colt Brennan. He was a passenger in an SUV driven by his girlfriend, Shakti Stream, also 27, who crossed the center line on the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway and hit an oncoming car head on. Stream’s injuries were minor; Brennan’s were more serious but not life-threatening. But the innocent victim, 47-year-old Dr Theresa Wang, ended up in a coma.

That happened during my Lonely Planet Big Island trip, so I watched the local news fixate on this story due to Brennan’s football fame. Nevermind that the Hawai’i Warriors were trashed by the Georgia Bulldogs in the 2007 BCS Sugar Bowl, or that Brennan probably won’t make it in the NFL. He was a local hero and will always be.

Recently I stumbled upon the We Love Hula Terri blog by Wang’s husband, David Chen. Both immigrated to Alberta, Canada, and then became US citizens before moving to Hawai’i in 2006. She is a physician; he is Director of Finance at the lush Mauna Lani Bay Hotel. I read his January 5, 2011, post, describing the couple’s move to Colorado for specialized spinal-cord-injury rehab, and skimmed his prolific blog archives. One post featured this Honolulu Star Advertiser article that captured Chen’s attitude toward Stream.

He struck me as a forgiving, compassionate, optimistic person with a resilient sense of humor. He is a devout Christian, which I admit typically gives me pause, but here his faith is obviously his source of strength.

Chen’s attitude reminded me of the yogic teachings beyond asana—and the way we can rise above the average person’s mindset. Could I be civil (let alone nice) to someone who caused unthinkable harm to my loved one for no good reason?  Could I blog so openly about a crisis so great? Could I be as “big” a person as he is?

I had high hopes to continue blogging during my Hawaii trip. Dream on. Lonely Planet assignments swallow me whole and, when I’m in Hilo, spending time with my parents is also top priority.

In my Hawaii life (a parallel universe to my other life in Canada), sitting for hours at a computer seems incongruous. Even my sacrosanct asana practice has shrunk to a minimum, making way for people and places rarely seen.

My blog readership is surely dwindling. Posts are the lifeblood of blogs, and I’ve ceased posting, despite a myriad of free-floating ideas.

Can resurrect my blog by flooding it with posts in December or in the New Year? I’m reminded of my tabletop basil plant, which droops when I forget to water it. I guiltily soak the soil and, within an hour, it’s perky and rehydrated. Can my blog similarly come back to life?

My mom’s cactus

When she was a little girl, my mom got a cactus smaller than her fist. Over the decades, it grew into this specimen, almost a foot tall! Underneath its inch-long thorns, the cactus was unmistakably green and monstrously healthy.

About two years ago, the cactus resembled a wizened oldster. Its smooth green skin was rough and brown; its spiky top was a bald patch. Its decline disturbed me; I associated the cactus’ vitality with my mom’s.

When I returned home this year, I wandered into the backyard. “Where’s Mom’s cactus?” I asked.

“Look for it,” my mom said. “You’re going to be surprised!”

They had moved the cactus from its prior spot; my mom, ever maternal, thought it posed a danger to kids (or clumsy adults). I spied it under the overhang of an orchid hothouse.

“Oh!” I laughed. “When did this happen?” It had grown another part on top. It was thriving, not in its old way, but in a new way.

In its new location, the cactus was half covered, half exposed, to Hilo rain (a prodigious 100+ annual inches). “Shouldn’t it be under cover?” I asked. “A cactus shouldn’t get too much water, right?”

“Look how happy it is!” my mom said. My parents are the ones with green thumbs, so who am I to question their plant care? The cactus did look happy. Buoyantly so. And it gave me hope.

Growing up in Hilo, Hawaii, I lived five minutes by car from Rainbow Falls (look closely and you’ll see why it earns its moniker). My parents would drive us there when off-island relatives came over—or when rainstorms produced a massive wall of crashing water. Both my mom and my dad were attuned to nature: they would notice when Mauna Kea was snowcapped, when cloud cover signaled rain, when the falls were a trickle or a deluge. But I was blithe. As a young adult, months, perhaps years, might pass between visits. I took Rainbow Falls for granted.

When I became a travel writer with Hawaii as my beat, I saw my home island objectively for the first time. I finally appreciated not only its obvious natural beauty but also its local culture and unpretentious people. It took distance—in space, in time—for me to see Hawaii clearly. Now I’m grateful for being born and raised here.

Today, I live in Vancouver. Do I see my current hometown clearly? Do I take it for granted? Have I learned from my mistakes?

This is my food for thought on Thanksgiving.

A few days after I drafted my prior post on musical accompaniment to asana, I read a fascinating New York Times article, “How to Push Past the Pain, as the Champions Do” (October 18, 2010). In assessing how elite athletes edge out their competitors, despite equivalent “pain,” experts made two points. First, it helps to be familiar with the conditions (such as the race course), for optimal pacing. Second, it helps to “associate,” to concentrate on your sport and the task at hand.

Regarding the second point, John S. Raglin, a sports psychologist at Indiana University, says that less accomplished athletes tend to dissociate, to distract themselves:

“Sometimes dissociation allows runners to speed up, because they are not attending to their pain and effort,” he said. “But what often happens is they hit a sort of physiological wall that forces them to slow down, so they end up racing inefficiently in a sort of oscillating pace.” But association, Dr. Raglin says, is difficult, which may be why most don’t do it.

Association, not dissociation, works

Maybe I see yoga connections everywhere, but I found this point applicable to the music question. Asana is not an athletic competition, but yoga practitioners all face physical and mental strain in challenging poses (see “Holding the plank” for one example). Do you use music (or other forms of dissociation) to push through? Or do you focus on your muscles and bones, your form and alignment, your breath and mind?

Image: lifeofMimi.com, Mimi daydreaming of cloud carrots

On a brilliant fall day in Vancouver, I watched Sly the Cat bask in the sun or, rather, a spot of sun streaming through a window. Lying there, soft and toasty, he was utterly content. Life couldn’t be more perfect!

A while later, I noticed that the sunny spot had moved two feet away, but Sly was still smack in its center. Even a house cat must “work”: to adapt to change. A perfect situation is never permanent. If he had stuck to his original sunny spot, he would’ve found himself huddled in the shade. While the sun eventually finds most chilly dark corners, it pays to chase it yourself!

Sly and his sunny spot made me think about the human condition. While a cat’s pursuit of happiness might involve sunshine, companionable humans, and dabs of Petromalt, we are likewise driven to be happy. But, even if we do find a moment (a day, a month, a decade) of real joy, it cannot last forever. On the bright side, if things are bleak, they won’t remain that way: either circumstances change or we cope.

Of course, the real trick is not to be swayed by sun or shade or any external circumstance. If you’re essentially OK with yourself and with life (this includes death), nothing can faze you.

Today is Canadian Thanksgiving Day, which always sneaks up on me. (Thanksgiving in October? On a Monday?) I’m not a big holiday celebrator, but this might be an auspicious day to review the year 2010, already three-quarters gone. Am I in a sunny spot? Are you?

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where—” said Alice

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

“—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Consider the conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat. Is it best to know where we want to go? Or only to want to go? Or simply to go?

My knee-jerk reaction, based on the Cat’s mocking pronouncements and my own personality, is to assume that one should have a plan. Meandering aimlessly is for lost souls and losers, right?

Well, I myself can argue otherwise with a literal example: travel. I write travel books on Hawai‘i, and people often ask me where to go, what to see, which accommodations are best. While I have no shortage of suggestions, I’m often stumped because I don’t know a person’s particular preferences.

Ultimately, you must know yourself well to travel well: to choose a destination (and purpose and pace) that reflects what you enjoy rather than what’s trendy. People with keen interests (whether hiking or yoga, botany or the arts) are wise to plan ahead, to ensure the right equipment, workshop space, or tickets to a show. Yet, over-planning is not the answer. Who knows what you’ll discover along the way? Why be tethered to a plan if it proves misguided on the road?

In yoga, we eventually know (or should know) the basics of alignment and form and quieting the mind—and which type of practice suits us. But beyond that, do we really know where we’re going with yoga? At that level, we’re mostly just walking along, trying to keep a steady pace, hoping to reach a good place. Likewise, in the big scheme of life, it’s also a balancing act between foresight and freedom, knowing and not knowing.

Related post:

Sometimes, my words as a yoga teacher have a life of their own. Recently I was pleased to receive this email message from a student:

“You had advised us during the last class of the summer session to pick three poses, do them every day, and see what happens. I picked plank, warrior 1, and dandasana against a wall (the one where you lift your arms up and try to touch your thumbs to the wall).

This morning my son got me to try upward bow pose, the one where you had to spot us with straps and I couldn’t get even one millimetre off the ground by myself.

I got up! Not all the way to straight arms, but still! I guess my upper back is a lot more open.”

She happens to be a linguistics professor and might be especially conscious about language, but she later commented that my three words—see what happens—made her do it. Otherwise I would’ve been just another Goody Two-shoes telling others to exercise it’s “good for you.” “But to see what happens?” she said. “There’s a hook!”

Truth be told, I only vaguely remember saying those exact words. (I carefully plan my class sequences (or themes), but my words are spontaneous.) In the back of my mind, I hoped to teach students the following:

  • To adopt a doable daily home practice.
  • To aim for regularity rather than quick results (but to realize that results are possible with regularity).
  • To absorb the Japanese concept of kaizen, slow and steady improvement, which I contemplate in past posts “One day at a time,” and “On home practice and eating salad.”

I ultimately told them simply to see what happens. For one student, it worked.

Image: YogaTeds

In her email newsletter, Kailua-Kona yoga teacher Barbara Uechi mentioned a video, Old Man Dances to Lady Gaga, posted on Today’s BIG Thing. I couldn’t resist checking it out.

I admit that I’m a sucker for uplifting Joe Shmoe performances. But why exactly did it make the cut? Why is it a “big thing” to see a silvery senior go all out dancing to “Poker Face”?

We expect men his age not to dance, certainly not to Lady Gaga. (If he’d performed a smooth ballroom number, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.) We expect people to behave in conventional ways, in childhood and college, in middle age and beyond. That’s why we marvel at kids who are prodigies or simply precocious. At those who return to school or leave secure careers in middle age. At seniors who run marathons, wear cool jeans, keep up with new music and high tech, or simply dance. At the unexpected.

Yesterday at the university gym where I work out, I initially didn’t recognize the student staffer at the front desk. But as I pedaled up a sweat, I realized that he resembled someone I hadn’t seen since winter. That guy was much beefier (the overstuffed look of a misguided male trying to “get huge”), with cropped hair rather than this guy’s Brady Bunch curls. A brother, perhaps?

Turns out, he was the same guy. It was his senior year and he’d been cutting his hours to focus on school. During that time he also lost 43 pounds.

“I barely recognized you!” I said. “You look great. What made you change your whole workout and lose that weight?”

“I was 243 pounds,” he said. “I just wasn’t feeling good. I’d get out of breath and everything. Just wanted to get in shape.”

Quite an impressive physical transformation: Losing 43 pounds in less than six months. Growing the hair into a curly mop. Creating a new look that could fool even spies like me.

Transformation and yoga

I was intrigued by this 22-year-old’s turnaround, perhaps because I’m fascinated by all human transformation. When I see it happen, it inspires me. Whether physical, emotional, or intellectual, change is hard.

Change seems especially difficult for adults. A baby morphs from month to month, week to week, even day to day. Growth is inherent in babyhood. Just by being alive, they grow. Adults need to make it happen.

Once, when my Iyengar yoga teacher held us in a challenging pose, a classmate broke the tension with a joking complaint. My teacher responded good-humoredly, and then added, “Yoga is about transformation. And you don’t expect transformation to come easily, do you?”

I often think about her words. I’ve never minded that yoga is challenging. In Iyengar yoga, I can’t get away with sloppiness anywhere. But these very challenges seem necessary for any breakthroughs. While “anything goes” yoga might offer solace for a moment, it is probably less likely to spur real transformation, which seems to need that classic arc: effort, achievement, rest.

Our physical improvement though asana is probably obvious to us all. Barring injury, we can do poses better today than on day one. But I wonder if changes in my body are spurring mental maturity. That is my challenge. I don’t need to lose weight or grow my hair or do crazy arm balances. But I do need to outgrow a mental “bad habit” or two. How can my asana practice spur that change?

Image: Butterfly farm, Costa Rica, 2003

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers recently played in Vancouver. The local weekly, The Georgia Straight, reviewed his concert rather negatively because he apparently played too many new songs (off his latest album) and not enough familiar hit oldies.

The following week, a letter to the editor echoed this complaint, writing, “Could rock promoters adopt some kind of mercy rule to the effect that old rockers can’t play more than three songs in a  row from their new album?”

On one hand, I totally empathize. We all want to hear our favorite groups play their old hits: Songs to which you can sing or hum along. Songs that made a difference in your life.

On the other, I respect groups that don’t rest on their past hits and instead keep generating new stuff. I feel the same way about novelists who keep writing (long after critical acclaim) and professors who keep researching and publishing (long after tenure). Why should one go soft after success?

Refining versus reinventing: What’s your teaching style?

The Tom Petty complaints made me consider yoga teaching:

My teacher once mentioned that some teachers find an effective way to teach an asana and stick with it throughout their careers. Others are always experimenting; despite the classic “rules” in the Iyengar system, there are many ways to teach the same pose. Neither style is better or worse, she said; it depends on the teacher’s personality.

Creative types might get bored with teaching the same sequence year and year. By trying new sequences, they keep themselves fresh and engaged, avoiding rote teaching. That said, if one finds a great way to prep a challenging backbend, why abandon it merely to avoid repetition? One can refine, rather than reject, a particular sequence. After all, aren’t we still following Mr Iyengar’s longstanding instructions in Light on Yoga?

Perhaps teaching yoga by traditional, established methods (which are not static either, of course) is akin to cooking by classic culinary methods. It takes one type of talent to evolve and innovate—and another to master and refine the basics. While all teachers do both, most gravitate in either direction.

Perhaps the main thing is not to get stuck in a rut. It’s a copout to stick with tried-and-true methods, blithely repeating songs, recipes, or asana sequences to avoid real thinking.

Image: Wikipedia, Tom Petty

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