2009 – the Year in Poses

13 January, 2010

I overstated the badness of 2009 yesterday. After all it was replete with opportunities for spiritual progress (or I’ve been reading too much Eckhart Tolle). As far as my physical practice is concerned, it was a year of extremes. I practiced 217 times last year. I know this because I have a log (more on that in some other time – it’s not as lame an idea as it sounds). That’s 10 fewer times than in 2008. But the quality of my practices made up for that.

Last summer, I hit a peak which I now sometimes think might represent the all time height of my physical practice in my life. I practiced 28 times in May. These were the days I tell you. I glided seamlessly from one pose to another, slipped my legs behind my head with nonchalant ease, lifted into the deep arching back-bends that girls do all the time, and casually clocked up 2.5 hour practices that went well into the second series.

Once after practice my teacher said to me ‘you probably don’t realize it Ash, but you’re on the verge of big changes’ (It was a bit cryptic and I have no idea if he was actually talking about my practice). These were the days when Doug Swenson, was sufficiently convinced by my practice to invite me to demo Ashtanga on the Toronto Yoga Conference main stage with him. These were the days when I picked up Mark Hyman’s ‘The UltraMind Solution’ and went caffeine, sugar, alcohol, gluten, dairy trans-sat fat free for six weeks. 10 lbs fell off me like a belt-less pair of 32s as I went to a 28 waist. I starting supplementing with Omega 3, B12, B6, D3, Folic Acid, Calcium, Magnesium, plus the usual multivitamin. People asked me what I was taking – it was that obvious that I was now operating in a new gear.

But it went pear shaped big-style come Fall. By September it was 12 practices and then in October a paltry 8. My wife broke her right knee-cap in September and I came face-to-face with understanding and letting go of my attachment to the physical practice. I had to yield. I had to step into bigger responsibilities than mastery of ‘Pigeon’. I think I’ve been pretty good at the 50/50 parent gig, but now I had to be 80 or 90 as my wife lost the ability to walk (never mind carry, bathe, rock an 8-month old around). And, being me, I added ‘small’ projects like finishing the basement (myself) and getting a Geothermal heating and cooling system put in. Something had to give and it was my physical practice.

But in a way it was good for my bigger practice to step off the mat and come to terms with the lopsidedness of my Yoga. Equanimity and acceptance, responsibility and non-attachment is what I picked up in Fall (either that or I’m reading too much Eckhart Tolle).

An Overdue Update

11 January, 2010

The nature of my last post really demanded an update considering the sympathy expressed.  I was remiss in not providing it.  As explanation I’ll just say that 2009 was a contender in the ‘most difficult, challenging, painful’ year category and blogging, for all its cathartic value, didn’t really rate highly.

If you want to measure the impact of neuroblastoma, you might draw up a 2×2 matrix: along the top, you have discover – ‘early’ and ‘late’; and down the side you would have pathology – ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Drishti’s case fell into the top left box – her tumour was found early and found to have a ‘good’ pathology. A good pathology means that her cancer appears to be spontaneously regressing. It’s shrinking. It has disappeared from her liver, and what is left on the adrenal gland is just half it’s original size. When I query our daughter’s oncologists about the ‘disappearing cancer’ they can’t really offer an explanation and what I get is ‘It just does that sometimes and nobody’s quite figured out exactly why’.

Fair enough. Who cares so long as it does just go away. It suffices to say that Drishti’s well; beautiful, cheerful and full of mischief. She’s not out of the woods. But she’ll manage. Her biopsy sample is of value to those who study cancer and apparently it is being examined closely – yet so young and to have contributed so much to the betterment of humanity!

Maybe. But she definitely contributed to the betterment of her Dad. I’ll never be quite the same.  The struggle for me is to hold onto the clarity of vision that I acquired in those challenging weeks and months when all the detritus of life fell away and I saw in the starkest light how so little of what I fretted about and valued actually mattered. The vision’s gone a little blurry again. It was bound to with the return of normality. But it’s still clearer than it was.

A Month Later

11 April, 2009

I wrote last time about trying to summarize an entire year in a blog. Well March reminded me that a month can be just as difficult. Here’s how it went: Drishti’s spitting up and not pooping so the doctor sends us to an ultrasound. Cheerfully the ultrasound technician walks us through the routine she starts scanning Drishti’s tummy, but suddenly, abruptly stops talking halfway. She wraps up, puts the results on a disc and send us back to our doctor…who, after looking at the results sends us immediately to Sick Kid’s Emergency downtown. Early the next morning we get seen to and Drishti’s in a ward room. Another ultrasound, a urine test, and finally a CAT scan confirm neuroblastoma – a mass on her adrenal gland and spread to the liver. Cancer.

A team of surgeons confer and decide on a biopsy to remove the tumour, and a bone marrow test to see if the cancer has spread. A week later, we’re quietly watching the status board in a well-appointed waiting room as she goes under the knife. An incisional biopsy removes most of the tumour (taking it all would have required removing the adrenal gland…and you kinda need that) and a sample of bone marrow is taken. More tests. Days go by. We wait. Bone marrow tests come back negative and she’s discharged a little over two weeks after we went in. The neuroblastoma specialist is now managing us on an outpatient basis – we go in every Thursday so that they can scan the tumour to see if it has grown.

I think I’m still a bit stunned by the whole episode. I think we just went into autopilot and just got ‘on’ with it. You often fall apart and lose control when confronted with the small challenges of life…and then something really really big happens and you go into some kind of zone and…deal with it. We are lucky (at least so far); neuroblastoma is dangerous and even fatal if it goes on with its business unnoticed. We found it in Drishti about as early as you possibly could.

My wife stayed with Dristhi at the hospital. I looked after the other girls with help from my Mum. I’d drive to the hospital with a daily supply of food, clothes, etc.

A couple of days before it all happened, I had taken on the biggest project of my career, two days after the customer signed, I stepped down from leading the project so that I could focus on home. I had the alacrity to think that I could somehow juggle this huge project and deal with this ‘daughter’s got cancer’ business. My executives indicated their backing whichever way I was going with this. A couple of days later I came out of my delusion and realized I must have been off my rocker. I stepped down and was given as much time as I needed to ‘deal’ with what I need to.

We managed. We didn’t fall apart. We acknowledged deep down that this was the experience we needed to be having. We did not resist. We accepted. Now, I’d never wish this experience on anyone and this is going to sound stupid but feel privileged to have gone through this. There’s a new clarity. The bullshit fades into the background. The things you were once afraid of, fretted about, or regarded as important seem absurdly trivial. It’s like yoga…on steroids.

It’ll stick too. I’m not pissing about either. Yoga’s given me perception and perspective. No doubt about it. You know what I mean. I’m not exaggerating when I say that my practice is the biggest single success factor in my career and my life. But this whole business has just accelerated it all. I don’t really mind at all any more what happens to whatever. I’m back at work now now on something interesting…but I’ve applied for a oversees non-profit assignment with an NGO in Brazil or Vietnam. I’m going to India too this year and I’m talking the girls with me. I’m going to take my time practicing in the morning. If I want to spend two and a half hours doing both primary and intermediate before work then that’s what I’m going to do.

Remarkably I practiced 25 times in March. That’s a 100% attendance record. How did I manage that?

A year later

7 March, 2009

How do you post after a year away from the blog? Do you pretend that you never left and just carry on blathering about what you did today or do you make a fist of providing a whirlwind summary of the year? I don’t know how to go about doing the latter. I wouldn’t know where to start.

I could start I guess with girl #3 born last month. We named her Drishti – my western friends think I’m a hippie and my Indian friends think I’m a right-wing fundamentalist.

I’ve grown to appreciate the importance of Satsang this year. What drove me to blog in the first place was to seek out a community of the like-minded – a support mechanism to sustain and bolster my practice (I practiced on my own, in my basement) and maybe allow me to do the same for others. On a whim about this time last year I volunteered for a Yoga Conference and the experience changed me; I immediately sought out a shala – a place to call my Yoga home.

Last year I practiced 227 times; not a 100% record – that would have been 290 following the Ashtanga tradition (if you were wondering) – but not too bad either. Most of those practices were traditional Mysore style at my Yoga Studio. Typically I drove in early, dropped my wife off at her gym and got into the studio just before seven and I’d practice for 2 hours or so before heading uptown to my client’s offices. I got to know the teachers well enough to call many my friends, and the co-owners as my mentors. I did a 200 hour Teacher Training course there over the winter (to deepen my practice more than anything). My practice is my centre of gravity. My friends have changed.

My practice is deeper and broader. Broader in the sense that I’ve progressed to deeper asanas and regularly do the second series now. Deeper in the sense that I continue to be humbled by insights into ‘basic’ poses that I’d long ago ticked off like so many scout badges. I could do Surya A alone for the rest of my life and never completely ‘perfect’ it. Amen to that.

I’m more tolerant and accepting of alternative approaches to asana and even incorporate some occasionally into my own practice. I’m a bit more skeptical of the ‘church’ if you will, even as I continue to be relatively orthodox in my practice and ever grateful for the teachings. And I’ve grown to appreciate the broader physical discipline – spending time on pranayama and delving into Ayurveda. I’m not saying I’m perfect though – this blog post was catered by Labatt and Frito Lay. But it’s been a good year. All in all, I’m better for it.

Baby’s crying. Time to finish my can of Blue and take my shift.

Like Seven Inches from the Mid-Day Sun

1 July, 2008

Mercifully the temperatures have come down this past week in Toronto which means the Shala was a mere 28 degrees this morning. (Do they actually heat this place in June? Is this Bikram and no one told me?).

Even when it gets hot again, I think I’ve built up the stamina to manage, and my practice appears to be back down to something like a normal duration. Coming from my 15 degree basement, I took some time getting used it though. It slowed me down at first; I frequently need to towel down to keep the sweat from running into my eyes, and it just pours off me as though from a tap – bringing my hands down in Samasthiti, I sometimes watch it run in streams from each hand and make ‘pud pud’ sounds on my mat like rain leaking onto a carpet

Sometimes I just stopped from plain physical exhaustion – I felt like a car being red-lined. I’d just lie in some improvised Savasana halfway through, staring at the motionless ceiling fan, my face drenched, and throbbing with heat.

Well this morning I was back down to something more typical – 100 minutes. (Whereas one day this month I finished up to find I’d practiced for 2.5 hours!)

Still, walking out the door after those hot practices, taking a deep breath and feeling the cool morning on your face…feels amazing. All I need is that celebrated coconut wala to hand me a cool one.

Good conditioning for going to India this…not that I’m going any time soon.

Doing Asanas For the First Time Again

26 June, 2008

I must have been a bit of a curiosity when I started practicing at the shala, dropping in out of nowhere like I did. I just showed up at Mysore one morning four weeks ago and kept coming.

Whereas, I gather that most of the yogis ‘grow’ into their practice at the place – for example, they might start off with an ‘Intro to Yoga’ workshop, take a few ‘Yoga Prep’ classes before migrating to led classes (levels 1, 2 and 3). Eventually they could take the ‘Intro to Mysore’ workshop and then ease themselves into the Mysore class.

And there’s me…practicing in my basement like a hermit…and then showing up at DDQW out of the clear blue sky to stake my spot.

Now almost four weeks later I look at how my practice has changed. Most significant is a further realization of how deep, multifaceted and complex each asana is. I am rediscovering and subtly relearning poses that I ‘ticked off’ long ago – small adjustments in placement, emphasis, or nuance. On the other hand, I’m also learning that I’m not as far off in closing the gaps in my practice as I once thought; occasionally during the past week I’ve gotten a quick adjustment or remark from an instructor that ended up advancing an aspect of my practice – bringing me, for example, close to straight-legged jump-throughs, or hand-stand vinyasas; I also ease my way through poses that I once thought gruelling (Mari D) and now routinely get smoothly adjusted into that one pose I once considered beyond me (Supta Kurmasana)…

I have a Shala

3 June, 2008

I’ll get back to talking about the Yoga Show later, but today marked something of a landmark in my physical practice – the first significant change since I started it three years ago: I took it out of my ‘basement’ and into a shala full-time. I did the Mysore practice at Downward Dog this morning after signing up for an introductory one week; I’ll be extending that into a monthly pass next week.

It’s just a feeling but while I’m still making good progress in some places (backbending for example), in others I’ve reached a plateau. Basically I think I now really need both the subtle tweaks and the firm adjustments that only a regular Shala practice provides.

The practice was phenomenal. Afterwards, I was absolutely drenched. I felt like a rag that had had the dirty water rung hard – twisted and banged – out of it and I felt immense. I couldn’t stop grinning. It reminded me of my first Ashtanga class in 2003.

I’ve gotten used to practicing in my basement or more recently in the gym at my current customer engagement. They’ve at least given me a (more or less) quiet comfortable place to practice. But these are cool places; I’m sure the basement is frequently down in the range of 10 degrees on some practice days, and of course the gym, they purposefully try to keep cool.

The main room at Downward Dog, on the other hand, has plenty of windows facing east and north and the room was intensely warm this morning as Toronto was hot today…even at 6:30 am. I was sweating after the third Surya A and later on would sweat so much that the moisture actually impeded some of my poses; I kept slipping out of Mari D for example and then counter-intuitively the sweat made my thighs and calves ‘grippy’ and made Garbha Pindasana a bit harder to get into. I hadn’t brought a towel as I’d never needed one before.

I got some good robust adjustment in Supta Kurmasana and a few more subtle ones elsewhere. Walking out of the place, I felt they way you do when you leave home. It already felt that good and right. I felt like I belonged to the place. Later, as I drove up Jarvis to Bloor (I should have taken Spadina) with the sun to my back, and the windows and sun roof all the way open, the wind drying my still-sweating brow, I wondered why I hadn’t joined the Shala sooner.