I have had an on again, off again, love affair with yoga for the past 15 years. This form of exercise is excellent for the mind, body, and soul. It has a calming effect as it improves flexibility, strength, and overall fitness. Then why can’t I stick with it, usually? Yes, the time and money are commitments I am not always able to afford. Even then, I could practice it on my own. Unfortunately, there are certain activities that fair better with a group dynamic, i.e., motivating someone who is not a great self-starter, such as I. Thinking back to some of the rituals that are woven into the practice, I realized that it is the “soul” part I have issue with.
The concept of a soul is an intangible, thus nebulous, one. I don’t believe we have physical souls, not in a religious sense. I am not biased against spirituality, per se, because it can mean different things to different people. My views happen to align more with Eastern philosophies than the monotheistic principles ever prevalent in our Western cultures. I feel there is positive and negative energy, but as is scientifically proven, it cannot be created or destroyed. Thus, we must convert what we have. We should draw on what is around us, such as nature, to enrich our spirit (life essence) to make us feel “whole.” I put that in quotes, because I really don’t know what that means, much less what it feels like to be complete.
As I am fundamentally opposed to organized religion, I certainly don’t attend a yoga class for a ceremony. Due to a pesky little Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I seriously need to achieve a Zen-like state if I don’t want to have a premature death from some stress-related illness. But, I need to discover that on my own while enlisting help as needed. It is called inner peace for a reason; it’s private, damn it. Also, I feel rather stupid participating in some of the peculiar mantras I’ve been exposed to in different forms of yoga.
Of all the styles I’ve tried, Vinyasa is my favorite. The poses are challenging and numerous. It is a real workout. When I leave class, I am calm and my mind clear as I focus on my body that I pushed into a delicious fatigue. Depending on the instructor, the class could be peppered with some philosophical ramblings that I must focus energy on tuning out. I get nothing out of them, and they distract me from my purpose for being there. One instructor actually read a passage out of some Taoist text. I couldn’t even follow what she was saying. I tried to listen initially, but I was in the back of the room and her voice was getting lost. I was left sitting there for five minutes, doing nothing. Could I get a refund for that portion? The hour-and-a-half class cost $18. I want my $1.00 back! Oh yeah, Namaste and all that.
All forms of yoga are designed to improve flexibility, strength, as well as breath-control. Hatha is a gentle style with an emphasis on poses that promote tranquility. I guess that would explain why the instructor wanted to keep her vocal instruction soft and tender so as not to jostle us out of our meditative state. That was very thoughtful of her, but it had the unexpected result of making me giggle. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when my qì is in a constant state of unrest, perhaps I needed more focus. As we were in corpse pose—the most common way to end a class by lying on the back in complete relaxation—she spoke ever-so gently to us. “Close your eyes, and reeelllaaaaa . . .” No, the ‘x’ is not broken on my keyboard, nor did she get something stuck in her throat at that last syllable, she deliberately omitted it, evidenced by three more requests that we rela [sic]. Okay, I gave her that one. Perhaps the sharp sound of that coveted Scrabble tile is a bit harsh. “Shanti shAHHHNTI . . . SHAhnti.” Qì said what? I wanted to describe phonetically the way she chanted that, or should I say, sang it. Be that as it may, it was plain goofy. What does shanti mean, anyway? I just looked it up. Peace, it means peace. Then fucking say that instead of getting all pretentious on me with a word I would never use in normal conversation. Yeah yeah yeah, Namaste.
I should beware of what I wish for, I know. I get it! I got a Groupon I am currently using up at a school that promotes peace in all forms: Peace yoga, self-defense, peace-breathing meditation, peace, peace, and more peace. I’m fine with that, even if it was to basically dig out a niche in the market of this vast and popular form of exercise. Really, the poses weren’t too different from those in Hatha. What really sets it apart, I found out within a couple minutes of my first class, is the breathing exercise they practice. “Inhale wooooorrrrrrrllllldddddd. Exhale peeeeeaaaaaccceeee.” Over and over again. Yes, in the grand scheme of things it is innocuous and means well. But, it is a platitude, and platitudes annoy me. I complained to a friend that no matter how heavily we aspirate our desire and positive energy for world peace, it ain’t gonna happen in a modest yoga class. She said that it probably meant that you were supposed to wish peace for yourself. Well, then, it should be “Inhale meeeeeeee, exhale . . .” Anyway.
I could forgive that banal, albeit stupid ritual. I could not abide my awful experience when I went to one of their Saturday classes recently. It started out strangely enough with an odd way to stretch. The instructor didn’t just pull her head to her shoulder, her head and shoulder spasmed together for two repetitions. I thought pulsating stretches went away with the Flash Dance era; they risk injury. While it looked cool when Jennifer Beals’ dance-double did it, it is much safer to ease into a static stretch. This just looked silly. As I tried to mimic her tic—which did nothing beneficial for my muscles—I felt like I was trying to do the beginning of the “Thriller” dance. You know the one. I then started to think about zombies. Since they are so popular right now, why not develop a form of yoga in homage to the mythical beasts. Zombie Yoga. Zombya. Vampire Yoga would be ill-advised. First, we’d have to get in and out of the poses faster than humanly possible. Plus, some of them have the potential to turn bloody and violent, which is antithetical to the yogi way. Zombie Yoga makes more sense. “Inhale wooooorrrrrlldddd” GRRRRRRRR. “Exhale peeeeeaaaaccceeeee.” GRRRRRRRR! Their disposition, or qì if the undead can even have one, can be argued both ways. Are they just chilling, or are they in a perpetual state of agitation due to their constant quest for food? If the former, it is a Zen we should strive to achieve through practice. If the latter, then it could get weird. “Inhale bbbbrrrraaaaaiiiinnnsssss. Exhale eeeeeaaaaaattttt.” Something to ponder. I’m calling firsties if a Zombya studio pops up, by the way. Nyum-nyum-brai, grr, I mean, Namaste.
I can ignore the spazo-tic and just stretch my own way, so that’s what I did. I can’t ignore kids. Being a peace-promoting school, they encourage children to participate. I think that is great to introduce the wonders of yoga at an early age. Like the dojo, it needs to be respected. The evil brats I was surrounded by were obviously brought there by force by their peace-loving parents. Ironic, eh? I also commend any new mother to get back on the fitness wagon, but shit, leave the newborn at home with a sitter. My qì was a bit bothered from the cooing, but I figured that was my problem. What sweeter sound is there than a happy baby? A quiet one, I say. When the baby turned fussy and started crying, it became everyone’s problem. The mother spent the rest of the class in the bathroom, so our practice was accompanied by muffled cries the whole time. At one point, a photographer came in to take pictures of the students. Of course, she aimed the camera at me. Since I was sans make-up, had my hair in pigtails, and no doubt had a pissy look on my face, I certainly wasn’t photo-ready. But what could I do? My third eye visualized a missile taking her out and freeing me from her crosshairs is what I did. What the hell was she doing there, anyway?
Midway through the class, we were in meditation pose and focused on our breathing. After several inhale worlds and exhale peaces, the instructor thankfully had us continue on our own. Ahhh, silence. When she spoke again, a kid behind me sighed, “Finally.” It was pretty funny in retrospect, but inappropriate. My sense of humor at that point was conspicuously absent. I lay blame on the frequent interruptions from my own quest for inner peace with the imps’ chatter. I know they are still fairly new to this whole ability to talk thing, but why can’t they nix the conversation for an hour? Since they will have extra years on this earth if they stick to yoga, it is a relative brief period of time that would be gone in a blink of the eye. They have their whole lives ahead of them to flap their gums. There was one hellion positioned behind me who was very ungraceful and loud as he did his poses. Thump thump thump! Cripes, a zombie would be lighter on his feet. It was seriously skunking my qì. I told myself that the next crash from one of his limbs would result in a warning slam of my fist right in front of him. Peace could bite me; I’d declare war on that little monster.
The fucker had to take a piss, so of course he announced it to the whole class with a whack! whack! of his legs. I welcomed the respite from that little ball of evil, albeit briefly. When he finished, he felt it was more important to close the bathroom door all the way than not disrupt the class. Whomp! Whomp! SLAM! My shoulders collapsed as I turned to him and gave him a “really?” look. He was unphased. That is, until his father came from the front of the class to scold him in a harsh whisper. I rather enjoyed that, until I realized: You dumped your kid in the back of the class to leave us to deal with him? My qì said, “Bugger this. I’m outta here.” My body stayed, but my spirit took a hike as my mind plotted World War III. Kiss my ass, Namaste.
Pointless mantras are bad enough, but that last experience risked souring me to yoga. It was the first time I left a yoga class more tense than when I arrived. It was beyond frustrating. Then, my friend came to the rescue with a gift of a hot yoga class.
Hot yoga is the generic name and derivative style for the Bikram method. Due to copyright protection, only Bikram-sanctioned studios may use that name. For the others, the postures may vary but the concept is still the same. Participants perform 26 Asanas in a 105-degree room; reason being that the heat and humidity warm the body to make the muscles and joints more flexible for deeper stretches. The body must also expend energy to cool it off, thus resulting in anywhere from 500-1,000 calories burned in an average 1.5 hour class. I was excited, but due to my heat-sensitivity, a bit apprehensive.
Deciding to only bring positive energy to the experience, I was stoked when I arrived at the studio. I walked into the room and felt like I entered a sauna. I then thought I was screwed. But, I followed the rules and didn’t talk and just focused on acclimatizing myself to the heat while in corpse pose. When the class started, the instructor introduced me and said that I had a free pass. Meaning, the regulars get the verbal equivalent of a riding crop to their rumps if they slack off, while my only goal was to stay in the room the whole time. While the amnesty I was granted was reassuring, my competitive side did not wish me to be complacent. I got through the whole class with sitting out on only three reps (each pose is performed at least twice). There were several times that I thought I was going to pass out, and about five Asanas into it, I was hoping for a 45-minute corpse pose, but I stuck to it. The instructor told me at the end that I did a great job and she forgot a few times that I was a beginner. That was rewarding, but I didn’t need the compliment. I accomplished one of the most difficult workouts I have ever endured, and live to write about it. While the class didn’t end that way, I would have happily done so with a Namaste.
And you know what? I kind of loved it. There was no ceremony, no platitudes, just instruction on how to push your body to its limits. The mind can focus only on the moment, leaving the spirit to sort things out later. As I discussed in my last post, Starting Over, I have a blocked vein that makes a lot of activities more challenging. Being a lymphoma survivor, my lymphatic and circulatory systems—those responsible for fluid movement—are sluggish. This is the most I’ve sweated in about 20 years. I looked like I jumped in a lake with my clothes on, and felt like I was internally cleansed of impurities. Going in and out of the poses left me breathless and lightheaded at times because of the blockage, so it was extremely difficult. But, I could feel that the more I do it, the stronger I will get and the less my condition will bog me down. It can only benefit me, so the time and money are worth it. As I stated in Starting Over, I am worth it.
Vinyasa is still my style of choice, but between running and hot yoga, my mind and spirit just may show my body who is boss.
I run, I run,
And I run—
Till I am out of breath
Till I lose the energy that keeps me going
I run, I run,
And I run—
Till I can go no more,
Till I fall to my defeat.
But I rise up,
I take a deep breath,
And start over.
I dug out my childhood book of poetry recently, and found this little gem called “Starting Over.” Back when I wrote this, when I was 15 years old, I was surprised at the overwhelmingly positive response, as I didn’t really view it as poetry, per se. My fledgling creative self thought that all poems should rhyme, even to its own peril. It couldn’t hold a candle to my childlike ode to spring: Spring is here, let’s all cheer, for this warm day, that comes our way. I wince from embarrassment that I wrote such an infantile piece of tripe, albeit before my age reached the double-digits. Thankfully, I have improved greatly through practice, as well as maturity from life experiences that I draw inspiration for more profound topics.
Reading “Starting Over” again 28 years after its creation, I appreciate now why it was considered poetry, and of decent quality at that. I am not sure where I got the inspiration for it, although, Manfred Mann’s “Runner” was released that same year, and I recall it being a song I was quite drawn to at the time. Still, I was not an athletic child, nor did I gravitate toward running as a form of exercise. Yet, I chose that activity to symbolically express the hurdles we encounter and the way that they can be overcome—quite simply, by soldiering on. Even years later, as a seasoned lyric writer, I can’t think of a more direct and astute way to poetically convey that. It doesn’t cease to surprise me how insightful we can be as children and young adults, as well as the clarity that our youthful, non-jaundiced eyes can see.
Back in 2003, I wound up in the emergency room feeling like I was slowly suffocating to death. The CT scan revealed a tumor the size of a grapefruit compressing my right lung and superior vena cava. The mass was life threatening due to how rapidly that the tumor was growing. If I had waited even a week to get treatment, it would have been too late. A surgical biopsy was needed as soon as possible to determine the next course of action. It was Stage II Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; I spent the rest of the year getting chemotherapy and radiation. I responded remarkably well to the therapy, but developed blood clots from the chemo. While Heparin and Coumadin dissolved them and prevented more from forming, one left a permanent mark in the form of a scar in my subclavian vein. I didn’t know that until after I went into remission and started experiencing problems after my body started to recover from the numerous assaults inflicted upon it.
Even though the doctors gave it a gentler-sounding euphemistic diagnosis of an “occluded vein,” the effects of it could not be softened. Every day, I feel it to some degree. The most tolerable is a numbing pressure in my head above the nape of my neck. I feel a bit winded as the blood pools in my head and face when I rise from a squat or bending over. I learned to slowly ease out of those positions to mitigate that response. It becomes problematic when my head throbs. It borders on painful when it moves down my neck to my upper back; it is debilitating when it pulses like a hot electric current down through my gluteus muscles into my hamstrings. That is when my balance is thrown off and my vision becomes blurry in my left eye (the blockage is in my left vein). A sharp, sudden noise, such as a hammer, causes a painful spasm in the connective tissue in my neck. I won’t sugarcoat this: It sucks. I got a raw deal; I feel like I sacrificed freedom and gave a piece of my happiness in payment for my life. Even when I don’t experience it physically, I am reminded of my battle with cancer every time I see the muted roadmap of collateral veins on my torso. The wondrously adaptive mechanism of our bodies designs alternative routes for the blood to find its way to the heart when the original ones don’t function properly.
The things that cause a flare up—barometric pressure changes, excessive stress, or strain on the lower body through exercise, injury, or standing for long periods—were what I discovered on my own through processes of experimentation and elimination. I have gotten little to no help from the plethora of specialists I have seen. There is, however, a consensus on the prognosis: There is no cure or treatment for it. I was assured it should not be life threatening, but I do have to handle myself with care. I also found that the less excess weight and body fat I carry, the better I feel. Essentially, the less effort my body requires to function, the more efficiently it will operate.
It was not serendipitous that I rediscovered this poem. I believe subconsciously, I was drawn to it. Why? Because as a response to my father’s death earlier this year and a resulting increased concern with my own health, I started running. For exercise, that is. It was also a way to cope with the trauma and the realities of my own mortality. I couldn’t run away from my problems, but unexpectedly, I found I could run them off—literally and figuratively. The physical benefits of running three times per week have been palpable. I have more energy, am leaner, and the symptoms of the occluded vein have lessened. The reason for the latter is two-fold: I have less body fat that could interfere with the venous flow; Davis’s Law states that when soft tissue undergoes stress, it adapts. My vessels are being taxed from the exertion, and just as my body built the collateral veins, it strengthened the walls in order to accommodate the additional load placed upon them.
The less tangible effects are what got me thinking about how such a simple yet dynamic physical act can turn into a symbolic life-lesson. When I first started back in June, I could barely make a half a mile before I was sucking wind and had to slow to a walk for the rest of the course. It was a discouraging start, but something propelled me forward. After a little over a month, I was making at least two miles. I set a goal for myself at the end of August to make it to four miles without stopping. I reached that distance on August 7. I felt on top of the world. However, I have not been able to maintain that consistently. I was temporarily sidelined by travel and a couple of knee injuries, but even then, I made the effort to run at least a mile. If I didn’t, then I feared I would lose the drive and give up. While I can’t say that I enjoy running, as it is uncomfortable to exert so much effort, I have the utmost respect for it. There is something galvanizing about pushing my body to its limits. Just when I think I will hit a wall, I can set my sights on a stopping point further ahead, yet find myself running past it. Eight years ago, my body let me down; now, it is reassuring me that my mind sets the pace, and that everything else will follow. How liberating.
I have come to a begrudging acceptance of my situation. I have no choice. There is always a possibility that a respite, if not a complete cure, could be found. Discover Magazine published an article earlier this year regarding a development in stem cell research. A San Diego biotech company designed an organ “printer” that created the first artificial blood vessel made entirely from human cells. Could that mean that something similar would be able to generate new paths to make the blood flow more smoothly in my body, thus decreasing my ordeal? Perhaps, but it may not happen in this lifetime. It is far from a guarantee, so I must play the hand that I’ve been dealt. Where it stands, there are still consequences to putting my body through the trenches. More times than not, I experience ill effects. They get less extreme the stronger I become through pushing myself. Even though I will never be rid of it completely, it is worth the time and energy. I’m worth it.
Incidentally, I have pressure in my head as I write this, due to running this morning. Poetic, eh?