Sunday, December 15, 2013

Notes on the Chakras: Swadhistana

So let's talk about sex.

This chakra is Swadhistana and it's traditionally located about an inch or so below the navel. It's associated with the ovaries and prostate and it's element is water. It is the next logical progression, the step up from Muladhara where our main concern was survival. If we have survived and become somewhat comfortable in that space, the next concern would be to procreate to ensure the survival of the species. Every organism on the planet responds to this energy in some way. Along with hunger, it is one of the primary forces that drives behaviors and provides motivations and that makes many people very uncomfortable.

This is the chakra that everyone stutters and stammers over while claiming that it has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with pleasure and sensuality and the connection to the physical world through the experience of sensation. But really it's just about sex. And the fact that the average western mind is so bothered by the idea of the overt discussion of procreation on a basic level speaks volumes especially when modern media is awash with sexual imagery and innuendo. The paradox is actually staggering if you stop and think about it. You can't talk about the subject without giggling behind your hand but the media and marketing moguls can use it all day long to sell whatever they want and that's fine.

This is troublesome to say the least. The current iteration of humans has severely mucked up sexuality on so many levels. We can't talk about it. But we have to have it.  But we can't have it. And we will tell others what they can't and can have and who the they can have it with. And everywhere you look flickering images and giant billboards that basically scream "Buy me and you can have SEX!".

Is it really that complicated though? Sex at it's most basic is a method of reproduction. Sex is for making babies and it's made pleasurable to encourage the baby making.

Now, of course, here comes the Hallmark Channel crowd that is going to call me a cretin and explain, tearfully, no doubt, that "making love" is a beautiful act of intimacy that shouldn't be sullied with words like "sex" and "reproduction". Which is part of the problem. Yes, sex is intimate. No other act is perhaps more intimate. But sex is for making babies. Covering up the basic mechanics of the situation with pretty words has not helped the evolution of humans one bit.

(Although it has helped some teenage boys in their early sexual endeavors. How many "birds and bees" conversations with young girls started out with "When a man and a woman are in love . . ."? How many boys used the opening provided by crying "But, baby, if you loved me . . ." to get what they want?)

But why is it so complicated? Well, for one, sex is intimate but having a baby with someone is that intimacy multiplied by a thousand. Your lives come locked together for the duration and nothing brings out the pure human in a person like parenthood. Rarely are such concerns present in the initial intimacy but search for birth control and the panic over a missed period show such concerns to be real. Other reasons for the complication include the effects of peer pressure, societal pressure, psychological pressures and physical pressures via hormones.

And those hormones should not be underestimated. It is amazing what a male type person at various stages of life will say and do in order to procreate. The power of the physical drive is frightening sometimes but it is the drive to ensure the continuation of the species. That's not an excuse for bad behavior. Just an observation of the evolutionary consequences.

So this chakra stays muddy for a lot of people. The desires are there, possibly weighed down by guilt or other psychological expressions and the desires are reinforced by media and while fears are enhanced with talk of unwanted pregnancies and STD's. To add to the mess, this chakra gets a lot of feedback from another chakra called Anahata or the heart chakra or the fourth chakra if you keep track by numbers. Anahata is the feeling center where emotions are processed and expressed and saying that there may be some feedback to Swadhistana may be understating the situation. It's more like a feedback loop.

Anahata:  I have feelings for this person.
Swadhistana:  Do you desire them physically?
Anahata:  Maybe?
Swadhistana:  But you have feelings for them.
Anahata: Yes.
Swadhistana: So you should make a baby!
Anahata:  NO!
Swadhistana:  But you said you had feelings.
Anahata:  I do but I just desire intimacy with this person.
Swadhistana:  Babies are intimate.
Anahata:  I SAID NO!

And sometimes the loop starts with Swadhistana as in the physical attraction is there but the feelings are not but develop through the implied intimacy. One can see how things stay muddied with both of these chakras.

So what to do? How do we balance this chakra and keep the prana flowing?

Honestly there is not a simple answer to that question.  We've concentrated on the sexual aspect but while sex is the focus, sensuality and pleasure is the byproduct which is often why this chakra gets associated with just sensuality and pleasure. But how many deny themselves even simple pleasures because of some associated guilt that connects all pleasure to sexual pleasure. And since sex is bad how can pleasure be good?

We need to ease back on the judgement. And easing back on the judgement does not mean we are giving up sexual responsibility. We drop the unwarranted guilt while still maintaining our ethical centers when it comes to choosing partners for intimacy and parents for our children. We can marvel at the physical sensation of this world and we should not feel guilty that we are experiencing this life on that physical level.

Swadhistana is the part of us that is searching for that experience, the physical experience of this life from the baby-making all the way down to that bite of chocolate. And savoring that bite of chocolate, a sip of wine or even the sun on our skin all speaks to the realness of being alive. Simple pleasures can feed the energy of this chakra as much as the full blown experience of a sexual encounter.

And we shouldn't judge. We shouldn't judge ourselves and we definitely shouldn't judge others in the midst of their own experiences. If anything, we should share experiences and relish the joy of discovery in ourselves and others.

If the first chakra, Muladhara, says, "I lived", the second chakra, Swadhistana says "I am alive".

Funny how we can choose just how "alive" we want to be.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Notes on the Chakras: Muladhara

I've studied the chakras for most of my life, long before I began practicing yoga for no other reason than the system makes sense to me. For the uninitiated, the chakras are the energy centers of the body located at various points along the spine, each associated with a nerve cluster or a set of glands. Energy or prana flows through these centers and manifests in many ways both psychologically, emotionally and even physically. Yoga, Qi Gong, Tai Chi and other systems manage these energy centers and encourage an open flow that generates vitality and health. Should the energy become blocked and stagnant, it is said that sickness and unease will arise.

I discovered Anodea Judith's Wheels of Life: A User's Guide to the Chakra System many years ago and the book is thick and packed full of everything you would ever need to know about the chakras and the traditions and history surrounding them. Anyone looking for more information should probably start there. She keeps things pretty straight forward and down to earth while offering tools to explore a very complex, very ancient system without glossing it over with the sugary sweetness that a lot of modern spiritual texts get bogged down in.

In my mind the chakra system is the software to the body's hardware, programs that run and can be altered and improved and that's what fascinates me. Think of the body as a machine and think of having access to the source code that runs the machine. Then consider that you not only have access to your own programming but can open your system to the network and tap into a greater consciousness. Or you could leave that alone and just optimize your own code and just feel better both physically, mentally and emotionally.

And that's an important point. You can actually take a step back from the philosophy of the chakra system and explore just the psychological level of the system and learn a lot. Each of the seven chakras has a element of the human condition that can be explored on several levels. Dive in a deep as you like but even if you only wade in ankle deep you will still discover things about your self with even the most modest of meditations.

So what follows are my notes and considerations of the chakras. I'll devote a post to each as I explore and articulate my experiences and thoughts of each one as a part of my journal-work for my immersion class. I state that this is mostly for me as I try to nail down some ideas and concepts that may be very subjective and I do not apologize for that. Read along if you like but just remember that nothing I say on this blog is true.

So. Chakra one. It's called Muladhara (root-support) in Sanskrit and it's located at the very base of the spine. It's associated with the element of earth and the adrenal glands which gives us the energy for our fight-or-flight response because that's what this chakra is all about. It is the anchor to this reality as we fight for survival in the physical world.

That's doesn't sound pretty, does it? Fighting for survival. We live in a civilized society, right? We don't have to fight for survival. We have grocery stores and fast food joints that cater to our hungers before we are even hungry. We are at the top of the food chain. Our paved roads and round bellies prove it. Right? No survival needed here. Just live, eat and die in your sleep. Safe and sound.

The problem is that your evolutionary consciousness hasn't caught up with our sense of civilization yet. Muladhara is the survival instinct bore of a million years of dark nights, frantic chases and desperate hunts. It the source of primal fear of many things but especially the dark and hunger. But that's only the down side. The up side is that Muladhara is also the source of our will to survive and our desire to make things better and more secure. But in the balance, we are just trying to survive.

And I'm fascinated by survival. When I was young, I read a book called My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George which is about a teenager who moves to the mountains to live off the land. I wouldn't recommend it as a treatise on how to survive in the wilderness but it caught the imagination of an insecure boy who desperately wanted to be secure. I wasn't naive enough to believe I could actually move to the mountains and live on berries and venison while befriending hawks and weathering winters in hollowed out trees but it did send me looking for survival manuals so that I could learn how to survive if it ever came to that. Survival manuals lead to some rather spartan camping trips to test the theories. And it was on one of those trips when I couldn't get a fire started on wet wood and a cold front was moving in that I had a primal realization that nature could kill me. That was an epiphany. A taste of mortality. Here I was doing my best to survive and nature had the audacity to try and kill me anyway.

It was a sobering and I realized that night that man is not necessarily at the top of the food chain. As a matter of fact, the food chain is rather flexible and twists back on itself sometimes. Human arrogance will state otherwise but I would point out that if you drop the average human naked in the middle of the savanna, the natural order according to humans gets jumbled up pretty quick. See that pride of lions over there? You can preach to them all day about your superior intellect and opposable thumbs but all they really care about is your soft underbelly and the fact that, compared to a zebra or a water buffalo, you're pretty easy to take down and probably a bit easier to chew.

Like I said, very sobering. But sometimes it's sobering thoughts like that that kick open that first chakra and stir up that will to survive, the will to carry on, the will to feel the fear and act accordingly. That's the balance. Feeling the fear and acting anyway.

Fear is not the enemy. Fear is the response to a dangerous situation and that's what we've forgotten in our well lit houses and comfy beds. Fear is not pleasant and it's not suppose to be. Fear is suppose to spur us into action that will lead to self preservation or help us avoid the situation all together. It's an evolutionary tool that serves us well if we let it.

But in this modern age, fears are much more abstract than ever before and we let fear become irrational fears that haunt us, control us and make us suffer but have no bearing on our actual survival. This comes from the fact that fear is really a sense of a lack of security and such a state will make humans do strange things to find that security again.

But what do we really need to survive? And what was the first thought that popped into your head when you read that question? I've heard a myriad of answers and most make a certain amount of sense when you follow the line of reasoning.  For instance, a working man might say "my truck" which makes sense when you realize that he works out of his truck and it's his transportation to the job sites. So, to survive, to get a paycheck, he needs his truck.

But do you see the abstraction? What do you really need to survive?

Another interesting answer is "my phone". Spoken by a modern teenager. Does that make sense? Well, in a way it does. To survive socially, he needs his phone. To remain a part of the group, the tribe, where it's safe and secure, he needs his phone.

Once again a layer of abstraction can be peeled away to reveal a core fear. And we could go on and on with the examples but they all lead back to the same conclusion.

What do we really need to survive? It's actually only three things: food, water and shelter. Some may scream about the missing social component and some may rail against the idea that you can live without love but those folks need to turn off the Disney channel and sit back down. We are talking about survival as in what does it take to live and persist. Not thrive and establish. Just live and persist. If we boil it down to basics, sometimes those abstractions melt away and life becomes extremely simple after your realize just how little you need to survive.

So what are you afraid of? Can you make a list and can you justify every entry on that list as a reasonable fear that actually threatens your survival? Can you edit the list in the light of day and weed out the abstractions and unreasonable fears by tracing them back to the source? Can you mitigate the fear by addressing the issue with logical solutions that provide a sense of security instead?  If you are afraid of the dark, buy a nightlight. If you worry about dark alleys, take a self-defense course (although most self-defense course would tell you to just avoid the dark alley). If you are afraid of spiders, make it a point to learn all you can about spiders. You might discover that the more you know the less you have to fear.

 Fear is the tool that keeps us safe but only if we respond and make ourselves safer. Otherwise we sit in fear and it begins to color our world and we begin to react instead of acting and that usually leads to bad places.

So there's a lot going on in this lowly chakra. Lots of energy moving in and out on a day to day basis as various situations may trip our fear response regardless of the levels of abstraction. Personally, I think this chakra is where most people stay most of the time on a psychological level. Just trying to get by is all this chakra cares about. It's also why I call it the "cha-ching" chakra because a paycheck in the hand will settle it right down with a warm fuzzy feeling deep in the gut while an empty bank account will stir it right up with that empty sinking feeling of dread.

It's all about security.

And it's interesting that as we travel up the spine one chakra at a time, this chakra may chime in at unexpected moments as other issues manifest while exploring those other energy centers. But the point is to listen and be aware, not control or ignore. This first chakra doesn't discriminate and to a certain degree it only has two states: secure and insecure. How you react to the information it provides is completely up to you.

And keep in mind that this is just the first step in a journey of self discovery so it pays to answer the most base questions as honestly as you can and deal with the darkness now. Fear is not pleasant but realizing that it's a tool to be used paves the way for higher orders of understanding and forges new paths through the tangle of consciousness that experience brings. It can be a very deep and revealing process but it begins with the question that must be asked over and over until we have a sense of security that gives us the foundation for further exploration.

What are your really afraid of?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Project Update: More Raku

Still having fun with the copper matte luster glaze from Alternative Kilns & Firing Techniques. With the last firing, three pieces went in and three came out, intact and with good color. Which makes for a good day.

One of the things that makes raku firings exciting is the remarkable chance for failure. You have a piece that goes from about 1800 degrees Fahrenheit to nothing is seconds and that shock leads to breakage and structural failures. But it also leads to your brilliant colors and crackle or antiquing effects.

So is it worth it? I think so even though another recent firing had four pieces in and only one survived. Frustrating but you just have to shake it off and move on. Avoiding expectations is also a good practice. I can't count the number of times I was sure a piece had all the qualities of a "sure thing" and fell to pieces the minute I touched it with tongs. Then others that I took a chance on and expected to fail survive spectacularly. So each firing is a exercise in letting go and accepting what happens as what needed to happen. It's become a mediation of sorts in its own right.

But having said all that, I was pretty confident of this batch. The shape is inspired by the Hopi sipapu and my own interest in "primitive" spirituality and prehistoric art. I think it's interesting to have a representation of "where we came from" on hand in terms of the Hopi tradition and find it fascinating that most shamanic traditions of the world also speak of journeying through tunnels to visit the lower or upper world to look for wisdom and healing. The way the copper glaze creates an alligator-like crawl on the interior of the pots reminds me of caves and tunnels and places mysterious and unseen.

So I'm not sure what to call them. I'm not arrogant enough call them sipapus since I'm not Hopi and that wasn't the only source of inspiration. I would like to associate them with the idea of the shamanic journey but nothing I've come up with sounds right so I think I will leave it to the viewer if a name is even required. But I plan to do more of these so maybe a name will come later.

In other news, the cinnamon mead is racked again and I had a taste. It taste like cinnamon but will require some backsweetening which is fine. The peach mead is bottled although I still wasn't tasting peaches but the overall flavor was very deep and only a little harsh. That harshness will ease with aging.

I still want to move to bigger batches but time is against me.

And speaking of time, you'll recall my little experiment that involved giving up coffee for the sake of meditation. Well, I'm still off the coffee and partake only of green tea and iced tea for lunches but the challenge is increasing as the holiday chaos kicks in and extra energy is needed. I will say that I missed coffee this past week when deadlines loomed but I still enjoy the benefits of going with out it.

I've also tried some green tea energy smoothies and find them to be worthy substitutes for an energy drink. I have a friend who is a nutritional coach and fellow yoga-nut and we brainstormed one night and came up with some ideas for ingredients and I can report that the green tea smoothie is now the remedy for emergency energy without all the crazy chemicals. She blogged the recipe and concocted another energy mix that I have yet to try but sounds delicious.

Once again, simple foods seem to be the solution to a whole lot of things.

Here is the link to Jenny's blog:  Words From a Heart

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Heavy Metal Yoga Revisited

A while back, I talked about the possible connection between yoga and the heavy metal music genre as well as a way that "negative" emotions may be processed in a positive way. Recently, I found this article that describes a metal yoga class and if it was closer geographically, I would be there with metaphorical bells on. I see what the teachers are doing (especially if you filter out the writer's cynicism). I get the idea on truly fundamental level that is thoroughly grounded in recent experiences with the purification process that comes with a regular practice.

Strange thing is, I don't think music and yoga mix well most of the time. When I'm practicing, I don't need the distraction. I want to be focused and I want to listen to Teacher's instructions and I want to take the experience inward as much as possible. I can't see how you would avoid working rhythmically which may be the point but I not sure I could do it without losing the breath with the movement and that's a challenge to me as it is. I think it's mostly a personal preference since I know the addition of music works very well for some but it's just normally just not for me.

But the experience described in the article with the low lighting and the more ambient stylings of fringe metal, I could see that creating an intense experience especially if someone was having trouble processing the "negative" emotions that may come up in a regular yoga practice.

Because yoga does pull it out of you. That's one of the revelations that has left me reeling a bit. I intellectually knew that a purification process would happen since I had read about it. I started feeling the effects within the first month even. But as the process continues and the meditations become deeper and the practice sessions become longer, more and more "stuff" comes bubbling up. Its jarring at times and disconcerting at others. Issues that you would have sworn had no bearing on the present come charging to the front of your mind along with the accompanying emotion that you no doubt suppressed at the time. Now you have to acknowledge it, express it and breath through it or suppress it and wait for it to come up another day. I choose breath most of the time but it's hard. The past is the past until you realize you're still living in parts of your past that you never let go. So you bend and you breath and let the emotion happen again only this time you experience it fully and let it go. Then the past is the past.

This is not necessarily a pretty process which brings us back to those negative emotions that may be associated with past situations. I can see denying the pain of the past and refusing the emotion that comes up simply from fear of that pain but if you can't get through it then it will always be there somewhere within your psyche, chewing its way through your system and manifesting in other ways. Letting the yoga practice ease this stuff out is better overall. But it can still be hard. And you won't find much open discussion about it online or elsewhere. Most are just looking for the physical exercise or they are chasing "bliss". You'll hear about the transformations and evolutions but I think the majority of yoga presented on the internet is coated with a thick layer of sugary sweetness that makes me want to go brush my teeth. I get chasing bliss but I'm not chasing the same bliss that I hear described most often.

Bliss for me is balance. Bliss is walking the middle road so that life becomes more full and alive and less reactive. The highs and lows are still there and will always be there as long as this body is part of the cycles of this world. But from the middle ground I can truly surrender to the highs and not succumb to the lows since I know the center. That is bliss. Surfing the center. Coasting through the troughs. Testing the stars at the crest. Returning to the center with a breath.

So the anchors and chains of the past have to go since you can't really surf the center when you are constantly being dragged into some past drama. But it's not going to be pleasant and that's why I think that the metal yoga would work. Here I stand in a dark room. With dark music. Staring down the past and daring it to come up so it can be fully realized and gone. Having slogged through some pretty wild experiences over the last month I can barely imagine what would come up and I may be wrong to feel so combative about facing those demons since those demons are just me on a bad day from long ago but I kind of like the idea of going on the offensive.

Or maybe it's just better to let it happen as a natural evolution. I'm not really far enough into this to advocate one way or the other. But I'm open to the ideas and that alone may be enough to scare some of those demons up and out on their own.

Here are the links for convenience and the curious:

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

The Flat Bread Solution

Western cooking is full of bread which makes it the instant challenge of any low carb/paleoish diet but there are substitutes and in some case the substitutes are better than the missing breads.

Take, for instance, this Pumpkin Paleo Flatbread recipe I found when I was looking for a replacement for corn tortillas. Corn is a grain so it's not paleo approved but it's better than a flour tortilla in a pinch. But I've been looking for a viable alternative for some time and I think I've found it.

Baking flour-free usually involves using a nut based flour substitute such as almond (which is crazy expensive) or something like tapioca flour (which is much more budget friendly). We will avoid the usual arguments about whether or not any kind of baking is paleo since I don't really do a strict paleo diet. I avoid sugar and wheat and so any way I can substitute and get to visit old favorites I'm all for.

So I need tortillas for things such as fish tacos and pulled pork and the stated recipe works perfect and can adapt to different ingredients. Basically you can replace the pumpkin with different starches such as baked sweet potato. I also used a generic gluten-free flour instead of straight tapioca and it seemed to work fine. They come out with a little bit of stretch and are very durable, more durable than corn tortillas by a long shot.

There is also dessert possibilities. Run the batter a little thin and the texture gets very much like crepes. So some sauteed fruit with some honey wrapped up and topped with goat cheese and more honey becomes a savory dessert. I'm pretty sure you could add some baking soda and powder and you should have gluten-free pancakes.

The next experiment involves using the sweet potato version with the pulled pork but I can see make a batch of these every Sunday to keep through the week to supplement lunches and such.

Here is the link to the recipe for convenience: Pumpkin Paleo Flatbread

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Copper and Cobalt Raku

Here is proof of more good results with the copper and cobalt glaze I talked about a few posts ago. I'm not going to go so far as to call it bullet proof but it's being fairly consistent in terms of colors and results while still offering surprises. Not sure you can ask more from a good raku glaze.

I'm going to work on some more complex designs since I've run out of test pots and I have some ideas now. Plus it's fall which makes for good firing weather especially at night.

And speaking of projects, I set a new gallon of mead to brew and added cinnamon to another gallon in the hopes of making a metheglin. Maybe it will be ready to drink by the holidays which will be pushing it but one can hope.

I'm ready to move up to five gallon batches I think but I'm also wondering if I can throw my own carboys. It would be a challenge but to have three or four ceramic carboys of ones own design and creation would be a lot of fun.

So sipping cinnamon mead while watching a kiln burning in the cool of the night will be happening this year.

If the mead makes good and the kiln don't fall apart.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Book Review: The Language of Yoga by Nicolai Bachman

If anything intimidated me about yoga before I began a regular practice, it was the Sanskrit. The language is beautiful to hear but if you look at it written out and romanized, it looks like huge lengths of unpronounceable words. But with any yoga practice, even a superficial one that only focuses on the asanas, one is going to run into Sanskrit.

Now you can fake it pretty easily. Jump on Youtube and listen to a few yoga lessons and you'll hear the terms bandied about and you'll hear multiple versions of the same word. Pick one you like and you're done. But if you catch one that actually pronounces the words with the right inflection, it sounds musical and almost magical. That's what I want. And I want the confidence to say it the way it was meant to be heard. So Youtube is not going to cut it.  I need a more direct approach that gives me the words I need.

A quick internet search lead to The Language of Yoga: Complete A to Y Guide to Asana Names, Sanskrit Terms, and Chants. I'm familiar with Mr. Bachman's work from The Path of the Yoga Sutras: A Practical Guide to the Core of Yoga which has pretty much become my favorite yoga book for a variety of reasons and it is also the reason my interest in the language was piqued. I like his writing style and enjoy his illuminations on the subject matter so it was an easy sell.

The Language of Yoga is hard-backed with a spiral binding and let me just say that all books should come that way. It lays flat and stays where you put it. And there's not much to it. It comes with two CD's and the book basically consists of the texts from the CD's. This is a good thing. No frills, just the yoga related words listed in their romanized version, the sanskrit version and it's translation.  On the CD, each word is spoken twice with a slight pause after and then the translation. Common chants are covered (not working on those anytime soon but they are interesting to hear), basic terms, basic numbers, chakras, mudras, astanga and asanas plus a whole lot more. The second CD is devoted to the asana names and organized for easy reference.

I've always had an interest in languages even though a lack of time and a short attention span has kept me fluent in only one. Three years of high school french left me able to read french on a good day. I have maybe fifty or so spanish words at my disposal. You might recall I tackled old english a while back and enjoyed it thoroughly. And of course there was Klingon back in the day which was also a lot of fun. I've tried language tapes and online apps but attention wavers and no one else I know wants to speak Klingon so you move on. But I still enjoy the study and the window into another culture that working with an unfamiliar language provides. I don't have to be fluent. I just want to dip my intellectual toes in and test the waters of another headspace.

Which is why I think there should be books such as Mr. Bachman's for every language. Give me the rules of pronunciation, give me the basic words such as numbers and days of the week and a CD to let me know how it all sounds and get out of my way. I would make it my mission to own every such book so that on a rainy day I could try my hand at hungarian or russian or even chinese. No commitment. No pressure. Just the sounds of another world rolling off the tongue for an afternoon.

And let it be stated that I would absolutely do deeply embarrassing things for a book that broke down gaelic is such a way. Just sayin'.

I can't recommend The Language of Yoga enough to students and practitioners. I think having the confidence of the proper pronunciation can add a subtle element to your practice that can take you deeper into the traditions and here it all is in a simple, little book and at a great price.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Knocking on the Sky - Finale

This is day four of the no-coffee experiment and the worst is pretty much behind me. It takes three days for just about anything to get out of your system. For instance, if you can get to day four without a cigarette, anything left is psychological. It appears that the same goes for caffeine.

I've also noticed that anxiety levels are down. Little things that normally bother me happened a lot today but for some reason I just shrugged and got on with it. This will be something to pay attention to as this moves along. If I can count on reduced stress and tension from avoiding caffeine then I'll avoid caffeine and I would suggest that anyone who has any sort of anxiety or stress related issues should calculate their intake see if there is a correlation.

As far as the meditation practice, it goes deeper and quieter with less time spent chasing random thoughts. This will also need to be monitored as the days go by but the static is gone and that's what I wanted to achieve.

But let's keep in mind that this is still an experiment. The holidays are coming and that means chaos in terms of keeping to the diet especially with a hectic schedule. But we'll see. I've committed to sticking to the program this year and that means searching for paleo friendly desserts.

But we'll talk about that when it gets a bit closer to the holidays.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Knocking on the Sky Part 2

Addiction sucks.

I'm not sure this particular experience qualifies since I've had a much harder time giving up things like sugar and nicotine but it's still a serious challenge to wade through the symptoms of withdrawal knowing that relief is a simple cup of coffee away.

Today the lethargy let up significantly only to be replaced by deep seated headaches. A little bit of ibuprofen solved that so it really hasn't been that bad. Perception has slowed and mentally I'm not as sharp but I think that will come back in time. Still breathing and, in a fortunate twist of fate, tonight's yoga class focused on pranayama and that pretty much killed the last of the symptoms. For now at least. I wish I had known even a little about breathwork with I gave up cigarettes the first time.

As far as the meditation practice, I'm finding the cave pretty quickly but at this point in the process, the symptoms pull me out.  So that will get better with time. Dreamtime continues to be longer, more fluid and more involved.

The experiment continues tonight and tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Knocking on the Sky

So I gave up coffee this week as part of a little experiment.

The meditations have become deeper and more meaningful as an extension of the yoga practice but I've detected obstacles. I can sit and find a little cave in my mind and rest there for a moment or two, observing thoughts as they pass by the entrance the cave, trying not to judge. Just watching for as long as I can until I get lost in the stream again. It gets easier with practice and the time in the cave gets longer and longer and sometimes the thoughts zipping by actually slow down and every great once in a while . . . they stop. And that's where it gets interesting. In the absence of thought is the magnification of the moment and that's when harmony settles in and there is peace.

But getting to that sacred point takes all kinds of practice and, while I'm happy with my progress so far through the immersion course, I want the meditation side of things to be more focused and available. I want to capitalize on my success and move forward but to do so means pinpointing anything that's in the way or detrimental to the process.

So we first need to analyze the process. And it should be stated that the experience of meditation can be very subjective. A person can be told exactly what to do and how to do it but as that person begins the practice, her experience will be her own and I think that's why so many get frustrated and quit. People like rules and structure and they want to know exactly what's going to happen and what to expect and how to gauge success. This gets tricky since the gauge of success in this instance has more to do with what you are not doing as opposed to what you are doing right. Another source of frustration is that some who would write books on the subject get locked into the idea that their way is the only way and so when someone tries their way and fails, they assume they will never succeed and give up all together.

So the key is to take everything with a proverbial grain of salt and experiment. Read books, watch videos, listen to cd's or, better yet, just do it and find your own way.

So back to analyzing the practice.  For me, that means sitting or lying in a quiet place and breathing.  Most of the time I use ujjayi which calms the mind and fuels the system or I might use a rhythmic breath for a more structured approach. Depending on the day, the mood, the moon and so on, I should be in a relaxed state of mind in a few minutes.  Then I try to sink my awareness inward and sit. Thoughts still rush by but I try to observe as opposed to participating. Usually, the more I breath, the more I observe, the slower the thoughts become until I can listen to something else. The thoughts almost become background noise that can be ignored.

Now all of this is on a good day, usually after a heavy yoga session at the studio and before the worries of the world come crashing back down. There is the cadence of the breath and an inner awareness of worked muscles and open spaces. On a not so good day I might not get past just slowing the thoughts down for a little while and following the breath. That's ok though. I know that my blood pressure has dropped at the very least and that's worth the practice in itself.

But let's assume a good day. Thoughts are slowing down and I can listen. I might check in on the chakras but for the most part, I just observe. But what is that in the background? It's not a thought really or a song. It's just static, like a old tv tuned to a dead channel. Interference really.

And what could be causing that? Well, caffeine is the primary suspect at this point and I didn't even have to think that hard to come to that conclusion.  My normal intake is about two cups of coffee in the morning, tea for lunch, either coffee or (gasp!) an energy drink in the afternoon and then tea for dinner. Sometimes a lot of tea for dinner. So my intake is high and I'm almost certain it's the source the static.  But let's experiment and find out for sure.

So for this week, no coffee and we are switching to green tea. Next week i may try giving up the green tea if this produces the desired effect even though there is a remarkable difference between the caffeine's of green tea, black tea and coffee. Case in point, I drank one cup of green tea yesterday morning instead of my normal two cups of coffee and I swear reality still dropped into low gear. Time actually appeared to be moving at a completely different rate sans coffee. It was actually pretty fascinating and pretty annoying.  Mid-afternoon is a nightmare of sluggishness and slow thinking. I also noticed a lack of balance in the yoga practice last night but then I remembered kapalabhati which is an energizing breath and after a few rounds I felt pretty normal.

I also noticed an increase in dream time while I was sleeping last night which is very interesting but makes sense. But that could be psychosomatic.

So this morning began with more kapalabhati and green tea and reality still seems downshifted but some of the sluggishness is already lifting. I had an intermediate yoga class tonight that left me pretty wrung out (in a good way) and I think moved me even further into detox than I was.

I'll meditate tonight and report back tomorrow but I'm amazed as the difference already.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Project Update: Raku and Melomels

On Sunday, I discovered that I had an almost full tank of propane and that completely derailed my carefully constructed list of chores since I knew I had bisque sitting on a shelf just waiting for a new glaze recipe. So some chores were ditched and some hurried through so I could get have enough daylight to at least get started. I don't mind finishing in the dark. It makes it easier to see into the kiln.  

So I whipped out one of my favorite sources for alternative firing methods (Alternative Kilns & Firing Techniques) and worried over the recipes in the back until I came across a copper matte that I hadn't noticed before that included copper carbonate and cobalt oxide. I use copper all the time, always looking for that splash of shiny penny or hint of red. Adding cobalt to the mix means blues are almost guaranteed especially with the oxide as opposed to the carbonate.  Not really sure how this particular recipe escaped me for so long  but it would be the glaze of the day.

So there was some scurrying and some glazing and some set up but in short order a tongue of orange flame graced the chimney of the kiln while I worked through a yoga routine on the nearby porch.

That was a bit of an experience. It was dark save for the light from the kiln as I focused on my own breath while using that rumbling white noise of the focused flame to keep me centered. Then I bent into an arch from a warrior pose, opened my eyes and saw the stars above. There was a perfect moment there. The kiln breathed and I breathed and I could feel the stars breathing as the flame danced and the glazes ran and created something new in the crucible of intent. No thought, no worry, no past, no future, no focus beyond the moment when all the factors and variables evaporate and there is only peace. Harmony, even.

How long did it last? Not long since warrior poses are still a bit of a challenge for me and I fell out, practically on my head. That arching back thing is way harder than it looks. But the moment was there, however brief and fleeting.

And glaze was a success. It's a basic copper matte that has been done to death in pottery circles but I still love it. Beautiful metallic colors and crazy effects, along with smoke, fire and no shortage of danger is why I got into pottery in the first place.

I have more bisque ready to go so we'll be visiting with the glaze again in the near future, maybe even with some of the larger pieces I've been working on.

But speaking of projects, I racked out the latest melomel mead. I gave it a taste during the transfer but I can't tell yet if we obtained honey-peachy goodness.  I used frozen peaches which wasn't discouraged in all the online sources but wasn't considered optimum either. But I didn't think about a peach mead until after the local peach festival so it's my own fault if this just doesn't work out.

The melomels and sweetened meads are a bit more trouble than they are worth, I'm finding. I prefer dry meads anyway and I think I want to start working with larger batches. You can get about four 750ml bottles out of a 1 gallon carboy which should translate into about twenty bottles out of a 5 gallon carboy. Now that I have the procedure down, I 'm not as worried about ruining a large batch.

Still thinking about bees so I can harvest my own honey but do I really need another project?

Probably not.

But it wouldn't it be cool to make mead with your own honey?

Eh, we'll leave "bee keeping " on the future project list and see what happens.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

In a Different Kind of Pickle

I haven't talked much about the garden this year because, well, it's still a bit painful to consider. Between late freezes, multiple re-plantings and the abundance of grasshoppers, the yield was less than spectacular. I especially missed out on the cucumbers which, of course, I planted extra since my experiments with refrigerator pickles last year met with some success. But no cucumbers this year.

But I ran across zucchinis at the market and I remembered that Alton Brown had mentioned that you could pickle pretty much anything and a quick search yielded this recipe for Zuni Style Zucchini Pickles. Sounds interesting other than the full cup of sugar for the recipe but the mustard and the turmeric were sound choices rather than using traditional pickling spice mixes. The mixes are fine but you get caged to a certain flavor profile and really can't make too many adjustments. But still the full cup of refined sugar is difficult to justify. I think that one of Alton Brown's recipes has at most a quarter cup of sugar for the bread and butter version.

Then I discovered coconut sugar and although it's a bit more expensive, it's not like I'm going to make pickles all the time. One good batch and you have jars of pickles in the fridge for a while. So the expense might be worth it especially if I cut the amount used back a little. A brine really can be messed with in terms of ingredients as long as your liquid to salt ratio stays somewhat the same and even that can fluctuate a bit.

But what about coconut sugar? Does it taste like coconut? I'm not a fan really unless copious amounts of chocolate are involved.  Fortunately, just like most coconut cooking oils, the flavor was not to be found. Coconut sugar tastes like sugar and this brandmeasures one for one. As far how it affects the diet I'll just have to experiment and see. But if it works out then this could be the solution for some holiday treats and eats. Especially for peanut butter cookies. But dessert is still dessert and resides in the realms of moderation and one has to be careful with any kind of sucrose or glucose in terms of how it can affect your health. Just because it's not white, refined sugar from sugar cane does not mean it's fine to eat it by the spoon full. It still can and will affect your insulin levels, your metabolism and energy levels. But for the occasional treat and as an ingredient in recipes, I'm betting coconut sugar is a better option that the white, refined stuff.

So I tried the Zuni recipe matching it pretty closely, cutting back on the sugar and adding jalapenos and onions and it worked very well. Very hot, very sweet and the zucchinis taste just like pickles. Pretty awesome although I could cut back the sugar even more and it would be fine.

Which got me to thinking. Lunches are still a challenge. I can throw some rice noodles in one of my lidded ceramic pots
and eat simple but the addition of vegetables would always be welcome. But cooking and long term storage will always be a problem unless you pickle some squash and zucchini in various mixes and have them in the fridge to add to noodles and broth as needed.  In this case I think I would drop the sugar content down to a quarter cup and maybe add garlic or even experiment with other ingredients. Add some pickle juice to the broth and you might get close to a hot and sour soup.

And as usual, one experiment is going to lead to a list of projects.  Pottery-wise, I want to look at making spring lidded crocks for pickles. Sounds challenging and fun.

And it is a worthy experiment if it makes lunches more interesting. There is enough wiggle room for some variety to stave off boredom.

For convenience, here is the link to the Zuni Style recipe and below is the video from the master himself. I think I've said before that if you want to know how to cook, watch Alton Brown:

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Last Mask You Will Ever Wear

A lot of the processes of yoga seem geared towards revealing the "authentic self" which I find fascinating. The dissolution of the ego is a hobby of mine. I'm always curious about what lies beneath, what lives at the very core of a person's being. What did you come into this life with and what parts did you create as you lived and grew into the person you are now?

Perhaps some definitions are in order before we get started because the word "ego" is used to mean a lot of different things. For instance, we could be talking about the Freudian definition of ego in all it's myriad of forms and functions but that can get cumbersome. I mean, supposedly modern psychology has disproven Freud's theories a thousand times over but they still love to bounce ideas off his tombstone.

Or we could be talking about Jung's persona. I like this one a lot better since its close to the concepts I like to discuss. Pesona is the social construct a person presents to the world. But this theory can get mired in psychobabble as fast as anything Freud ever came up with so we'll make our own definition so we can play with the idea and see where it takes us.

So the ego or the persona  is the mask we wear, the construct we present to the world for a variety of reasons sometimes voluntary, other times not. We do not come into this life with it on. We build as we grow and have experiences until there is no discernible difference between who we are and the mask we wear.

Now, some would argue that that's life. Tabula Rasa and all that. We come in and have to create who we are from the experiences we have. But my own experience runs counter to this. Through a variety of means and methods, I've caught glimpses of the "authentic self" in myself and others. We came in with something and then we build masks.

And what's wrong with that? Maybe that's what we come here to do. Make new masks, make new selves, explore different ways of being. But my problem is the automatic duality of the situation. If I know it's a mask, how can I be sure that my reaction to any given situation is authentic? What if a mask I wear was not one of my choosing but created as a means of survival during a horrible experience? Wouldn't my actions become a reflection, not of my true self, but of the face I had to create to survive? I can't see those actions as  authentic. I want to be in a space where I act at my own volition, not react based on a social construct I've designed to hide from the world.

So, I want to act authentically and to do that I have to see behind the masks.

So who are you?

 Most would answer, "My name is so-and-so. I live in some-place." So let's start chipping away at the limitations of language when searching for the self by saying you are not allowed to use your name.

So now who are you?

See the difference? Feel the catch in your throat when your identity is suddenly questioned? Our own name is one of the first masks we wear. It's the way we identify ourselves in the world. Take the name away and we have to suddenly think on an existential level. Who am I?

Some find that it's a very uncomfortable situation to be in.

Language is one of the most interesting barriers to authenticity. If you think about, how much of your reality is not really your reality but merely the description of your reality that you keep running through your head? You sit in a "chair". Your feet are on the "floor". Your "hand" holds a "drink" or the "mouse".

An interesting experiment is to go outside and contemplate a tree but forbid yourself from using the word "tree" to describe it. In theory you could contemplate anything for the sake of this experiment but a tree is big and alive and it can fill your field vision. You almost have to acknowledge it's existence. So study it, stare at it, absorb the details but banish the word "tree" from your inner dialogue. Can you do it? Can you hold the entity before you in your attention without assigning it a label?

Because that's it really. We assign labels to mitigate reality and we depend on those labels for communication and organization. But in assigning these labels, we are also assigning limitations.

So who are you? Are you the label?

A label is a limitation.

So at this point we can actually separate out some of the masks we wear as nothing more than labels we use to identify our place in reality. Some we may have had assigned to us by loved or loathed ones as we grew and developed. Some we may need to destroy or at the very least need to set aside. Others we may want to keep as a legitimate construct of this life.

For instance, it took me years to become comfortable with calling myself an artist. It's something that most artists go through and it has to do with perceived ability and self esteem and even, to a certain degree, the definition of "an artist" by a given culture. I created the mask called "artist" and it took me years to get used to wearing it.  The interesting thing is that the minute I was comfortable wearing the mask, I suddenly realized I didn't need it. I could put the mask aside and just do art and that art, I hope, is a direct expression of my authentic self. That's an effect of this process of ego dissolution. I may not even call myself an artist anymore and just do art. Which is ironic. I spent so many years creating that mask, that label. But to set it aside and let the actions speak louder than the label seems very authentic to me. I'm not going to throw away the mask. Sometimes society needs to see the mask they expect to see. But I don't have to wear it. Art is what I do. It's an expression of who I am.

So some masks, some labels are good. And some are bad. Some we need to keep and some we need to throw away. I think each person should choose their own tactics as they see fit since many wouldn't know how to act without the limitations that labels bring. Boundaries make some feel safe and that's fine. Others may need to take inventory of the self and decide if it's time to throw out the masks that make life harder, especially if those masks were created by someone else. Living with your own limitations is one thing. Living with the limitations assigned to you by someone else is unnecessary.

So who are you? Could you sit in meditation and wander the halls of your ego and gaze upon the gallery of masks that this life has created and maybe clear a few out? Could you address the ones that make you comfortable and be honest as to why they make you comfortable? Could you destroy the ones that aren't yours?

And could you find that final mask? Can you see what's behind it?

That's what I'm looking for. That final mask.

Behind it lies the authentic self and that's what I need to see.

Book Reviews from the Reading List: Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness

I'm moving through a lot of reading material both online and off as part of my immersion class. There is a lot to try out and a lot to process but all of it is fascinating in its own right on some level. But up to this point I haven't really found a book or video that broke the experience of yoga down and delivered it from a beginner's perspective.  Most assume prior knowledge and can even be intimidating, showing fairly advance poses with little build up or advice on how to get there. Even more just cover the asanas, ignoring the breathing and meditation, which is fine, I guess, but not I think yoga is more like a recipe and why would you leave an ingredient out of a recipe and still expect the certain results?

Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillnesscame up on the reading list and I think the title had me expecting a little more philosophy and less practical application. But as it turns out, I think I found the textbook that should go with any yoga course. It breaks down the hows and whys and wherefores from the very beginning, answering some questions I didn't even know I had. It is very quotable and an easy and engrossing read and very thorough in its approach.  If someone didn't have access to a teacher, I think this book would be enough to get a student started on their own. A teacher is always preferable of course but the layout of the information in this book could easily lend itself to self-study.

He covers philosophy (without getting sappy) and breathing and "playing with the edge" in terms of how far you should push a pose. I think my favorite section so far is "How to Combine Breath and Movement". Good, clear advice on how to coordinate movement and breath which gets a little tricky for me sometimes. My focus often locks on one or the other, the movement or the breath, and then I can't remember if I was breathing in or out and then I'm falling over. It's a learning process of course and an interesting part of the challenge.

The majority of the book is devoted to step by step instructions to the asanas, including what they work, what they are intended for, how to do the pose and the benefits of the pose. I like that the tone stays very casual and conversational. It could have become just another encyclopedia of poses but it stays friendly and approachable all the way through.

I still have a lot more books and other materials to move through so I not ready to award the "If You Buy One Book on Yoga" prize just yet but this one is a strong contender for that most coveted award. But I'm still reading.

A word of warning: Some of the reviews on Amazon mention that the pictures were kicked to the back of the Kindle version instead of the picture of each pose appearing next to its description. This will not work. The pictures need to go with the poses. I'm normally a fan of the Kindle versions but in this instance I would avoid it.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Ponderings from the Wheelhead

My schedule is pretty full at the moment so I'm not spending as much time at the wheel as I would prefer. But I take advantage of the time I have and I'm working on larger art pieces instead of the functional ware I normally focus on. So, in a way, I'm back in training, pottery-wise, since I haven't worked with larger pieces in some time and I don't get to practice as much as I used to. So each session is almost myself teaching myself, using the same lessons I would normally give a student. Recently, I found myself obsessing over every piece of advice I ever gave to nervous students while about five pounds of clay swirled around my hand and, in the process, I caught myself staring at my outside hand as my inside hand pushed out the clay. My focus should have been on the inside hand as it created the space. So I closed my eyes and started to work by pushing and feeling with the hand I couldn't see.

This can confuse a new student fairly quickly so I usually try to cover it early on. The inside hand pushes and shapes. The outside hand supports and guides. A beginner's instinct is to watch the outside hand and try to do too much with what you can see rather than focusing on the inside hand that actually needs to do the work.

I usually tell the nervous student, "It's not the outside of the pot that makes the pot. It's the emptiness inside the pot that makes the pot".  Which is a straight up Taoist concept.  The outer shape is a reflection of the space within. The focus should be on creating the inner space.

This has provoked more than a few blank stares which leaves an opening to elaborate and carry the lesson forward. But I've always been fascinated by the fact that some get hung up on the idea of emptiness being the focus. I think it's largely due to the Western notion that emptiness is bad. You wouldn't want something that's empty. Full is better. Empty is depressing. One shouldn't want an empty cup. Or stomach. Or house. Full means abundance and a lack of want or need while emptiness is the epitome of want and need.

But another way to look at it is that emptiness is potential. Stuff can happen, things can change, there is room to grow in the space that emptiness provides. An empty stomach can be a depressing thing but it also has the potential to be filled with an excellent meal. It's an extension of "the glass is half full/half empty" meme that is bit more philosophically flexible and a little less absolute.

Another interesting relevant Taoist concept is the Void.  Now, from what I understand, the term "Void" is a poor translation of the actual concept but it's the closest that linguists can get to a very complex construct of the "resting potential" that the universe emerges from. Pretty heady stuff but another neat way to think of emptiness: Resting potential. Ready to change, waiting to be filled and utilized.

The pot is formed by creating the potential that is the emptiness and that potential is reflected in its exterior shape.

So the clay was spinning and the shape was forming as I discovered the emptiness and I found myself considering the fact that my outer reality is also a reflection of my inner potential just like the pot. And that begs the question: What is being reflected? Is it the true reflection of the potential or is it a reflection of the psychological clutter that anyone would gather over the course of a lifetime? That's a sticky one. Some would say that the clutter is manifestations of ego and all of it should discarded. I'm not so sure about that. Some of the clutter might have yielded a positive change and while the particulars should be abandoned maybe the change should be incorporated into the potential. Perhaps the change even made it's own space.

Still, an inner reality house cleaning may be in order. Go through the clutter and throw out the trash, organize what's left and, most importantly, rediscover the spaces within. Create the space to grow and change.

And to continue with the analogy, I think that meditation is the way to explore the house and yoga is a way to clear the clutter. Or at least begin to. As this practice develops, I'm noticing the created spaces but there are also a few boxes tucked in corners that I can't throw away yet. But I know they're there and I can get to them eventually. The point is I am finding space. I'm discovering potential.

But what is being reflect even as the clutter is being cleared and the spaces created? Is the true self even in there any more? Or is it all ego?

I think it's time to delve deeper into this ego thing and examine the relationship between labels and limitations.

But that's going to take some thought and I'm still making space.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Can't Beat Free

I am pretty steady on the diet these days but it's still challenging at times.  I'm always on the hunt for new ideas and new ways to do the diet better but sifting through all the info out there is impossible. So I have to rely on the occasional article or a recommended recipe but even then it's hit and miss and what I really want is ideas that I can take and twist to my own designs.

I found this site which keeps track of the free books for the Kindle and, under the cooking category, I found quite a collection of books on paleo and cleaner living. Now, the diet is a modified paleo system which means that some of the better ideas come from  paleo cookbooks. But full sized cookbooks are (pun alert) hard to digest and pulling the good stuff out is time consuming. The good thing about most of these little ebooks is that they are short, concise and to the point.

For instance, I found  Simple Gluten Free & Paleo Bread: Fast, Sumptuous and Guilt-Free Baking Recipes and got it downloaded before they took it off the free list (it's still available for loan to Prime members. Note that the free books are apparently a promotional thing so they may not be free forever). Anyway I got it downloaded and gave it a read. Very concise. Very to the point. Still a lot of good info. The recipes are simple and the ingredients are not too outrageous although the first basic recipe uses 2 cups of blanched almond flour and that stuff is expensive But if you were looking for bread and wanted to stick to gluten-free, it looks like a great way to go. I'll have to wait for the next paycheck to try it out and report back though.

I would normally suggest avoiding any sort of bread-like food to avoid any psychological triggers but I've have a beef stew recipe that begs for bread and I've been craving beef stew.

The site has a quite a few books to peruse and it changes daily. Lots of smoothie and juice books, I noticed, and quite a few covering everything from desserts to slow cookers. There are other categories, as well. The cooking category was the one that caught my attention and filled up my Kindle first.

Here is the link again for convenience:


Friday, August 02, 2013

Yoga and Pottery

The asanas of yoga are practiced with the intent of preparing for seated meditation so I shouldn't be surprised by the fact that a yoga practice would help with working on the wheel.

I haven't had much time to get my hands muddy since I started the immersion program. As a matter of fact, last Sunday was the first time I really had a chance to sit and work for any length of time. I think I've mentioned before that what I found inspiring about yoga was that it got me to that quiet place that I experience when working on the wheel for a while. What I noticed as I sat down and got to work was that I found that quiet space much faster than I ever had before.  Just me, the clay and the hum of the wheel. I let the clay do what it wanted for the most part and was pretty satisfied with the outcome.

Now working on the wheel is not conducive to good posture. You can try to keep your back straight but you won't get far since you need to lean into the clay for leverage and your elbows need to be braced, sometimes on your knees, sometimes on your side so you spend some time hunched over. Getting up can be a painful exercise of unkinking the bowed spine as you rise up and stagger around for a minute clutching your lower back. Or at least that's how I used to get up after an hour or so on the wheel.

This time was different. I threw three mediums sized pieces. And then got up and took several steps to the drying rack before I stopped and wondered at the lack of pain and stiffness. There was none.  Not even a twinge. After years of rising hunched and sore, I just stood up and walked like it was nothing.

I've always had back issues, including a herniated disc, and I can say definitively that yoga helps. As a matter of fact it helps a lot. We spend a lot of time in class stretching the spine and twisting and, at first blush, I expected there to be more pain. After years of problems I'm a bit paranoid about anything concerns the spine and maybe even a bit overprotective. But the stretching, the twisting, the opening of the vertebrae has alleviated almost all of my symptoms and, as my core gets stronger, my confidence goes up. I'm not going to push it too far and I still follow all the basic rules (lift with legs, don't twist and lift, etc.) but still it's amazing how fast a steady practice has helped a problem that has plagued me for years.

And getting up from the wheel pain-free is my own little personal victory against getting older. I can't do a headstand yet and I am far from a full lotus but I think I'll measure success by these small achievements and relish the fact that one of my favorite activities no longer punctuated by pain.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Perfect Village

So what about the slow dissolution of the ego? Is it a good thing or not? Should we let it go and seek a unity of spirit with the cosmos or nurture it and define ourselves fully as a an entity in this reality? 

That's probably the big question for anyone. And everyone may have a different answer. Did you come into this life to be something particular so you could explore a state of being? Or did you come in to learn how to let it all go and become consciously aware of this reality, one eternal moment at a time?

As usual, it could be a little of both.  You came in with a plan to explore a state of being that would lead you to a greater awareness or even a singular awareness that the mystics speak of in revered tones.

Or you could just be along for the ride, ready to help others on their paths.

"The Perfect Village" is the thought experiment I use to discuss concepts of reincarnation with someone who may have trouble with the idea but is genuinely interested in talking about it. It goes like this:

Imagine a perfect village, nestled in a forest with a picturesque town square surrounded by ancient buildings. Everyone lives and no one dies and all is well. Existence is fairly stable. One might even say eternal. But one day, a group of youngsters realizes that there are various roads that lead out of town and this causes quite a stir. Why are the roads there? Where do these roads lead? Have they always been there? What are they for?

The old-timers sitting under awnings at the edge of the square just shrug and smile and offer no information. Undeterred, the youngsters gather in the park and make a plans. Each will choose a road and they will travel down a ways and then return and report back to the others about what they find. So each ventures out and after a time they begin to return. And each has a different story.  Some marvel at the wonders they saw while others speak of horrors and pain. Some paths were very short. Other paths were long and winding, with multiple forks so that decisions had to be made. Some left things undone before they had to return. Some didn't return at all.

The stories are exchanged and new ventures are planned since one heard tales of a path that she now wants to see for herself. Another wants to go back and finish what was started. Others ask for help from friends because the path was hard and they need help to finish the experience. Some wanted to go and find those that didn't return. Each has learned and discovered and grown from the experience and there is so much to explore that the idea of not going only occurs to a scant few.

So new paths are chosen and the young ones strike out again. And again.

And the old ones sit in the shade, shake their heads and smile, remembering the days when they used to pick a path.

It's an interesting way to present a very ancient idea. (I also like The Egg by Andy Weir as an idea engine to get the mind to relax around the idea of infinity.) A lot of times it leads to a discussion about which path you would have chosen in that situation. Would you have selected a dangerous path, a safe path, a path rife with decisions points? Or would could you have possible just gone along to help?

Personally, I think that's where I noticed a crack in the hard edge of my ego. My path may not be my path. I might just be here to meet someone one at some time to say or do something that's almost scripted so that a set of experiences happen that was agreed upon. Is that possible? And then what is the ego except the part you play? 

Think about that. The ego is just the part you play.

So what happens when you toss out the script and improvise? Is that bad? Wasn't the Universe expecting you to hold up your end of the script?

Not necessarily. I think that it's possible to ditch the script, become aware and walk the path consciously. The ego is gone and the way is suddenly clear. Forks in the road become conscious choices as opposed to blind decisions spurred by a function of the ego. Bumps and potholes suddenly become opportunities to learn and grow. The path becomes golden, your experience more real. 

The ego just defines the part. And now I'm curious about the actor playing the part. Can I even say that I know him?

Which brings us back to the slow dissolution of the ego. A gentle perusal of what lies beneath the veneer of a carefully (or perhaps not so carefully) defined role.  I am not proposing radical changes. I just want to test the edges and see if I can live a bit more consciously and a little less driven. 

Although, that alone could lead to some very interesting forks in the path.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

New Yoga Mat Review: myMAT by Manduka

I went with a cheap 3mm basic mat from the local big box to get started but quickly discovered that 3mm isn't enough for my trick knee at the moment. At the same time I didn't want something so think that it took away from the balancing postures. I am quickly learning that I need to feel the floor to balance and since balance is one of my challenges, I'm not going to put a 1/2 inch of foam between me and the floor.

The next size up at the local big box was a 5mm thick mat.  The 3mm mat ran about ten dollars while the 5mm, sporting a whopping 2 more millimeters, was sixteen dollars and the same dimensions. From there, they went to 1/2 inch thick fitness mats that were actually shorter that the yoga mats for around twenty dollars.

So I was done with the big box.

I started looking online and almost immediately found  1/4 inch myMAT from Manduka and then spent some time staring at a ruler trying to decide if a 1/4 inch was too thick or too thin. But the price was right, the reviews were good and it was longer than the mat I had so I decided to take the chance.

So two days later (thank you, Amazon Prime), I had the mat and I got a first hand look at the thickness. Not too thick, not too thin. Probably just right. But it would take a couple of sessions at the studio to really test it.

A couple of the reviews on Amazon mentioned a chemical smell once you take it out of the package and I noticed it as well but after a wipe down with mild soap and water and the laying out for a day, the smell was gone. Even up close.

Now, I've had it for two classes, an energetic Beginner II class and a more rooted and pose heavy Intermediate/Advanced class. The new mat performed well in both.  It stays where you put it and is just sticky enough to give you some footing without being so sticky you have to peel it off everytime you move. The 1/4 inch padding is just right between a hard surface and a sometimes tender knee without sacrificing the grounding effect of feeling the floor. I like the extra length (74 inches) although I could probably even use and extra inch or two but then I would be sucking up real estate in class so I think I can make do.

So for the money, it's a great mat for the level I'm at. I could spend a lot more money on a fancier mat (check the link to the store at the top of the page for some pricier selections) but I think this one could take me quite a ways into this new practice.

There are other colors available as well.  Here's the link for shopping and parusal:  1/4 inch myMAT from Manduka

Friday, July 19, 2013

Yoga, Heavy Metal and World Peace

I'm trying not to drown in the near infinite sea of information that is the Internet concerning all things yoga to the point that I've declared a moratorium on surfing the subject until I'm further along. There is so much information out there and some of it doesn't match up. So I will stick to the reading list and pay attention in class for now and focus. Teacher has mentioned once or twice how it's possible to be addicted to information which can rob you of the experience of the moment and I swear she's looking at me every time she brings it up.

But, still, I have found some things and made some observations.  For instance, this site explains mudras which are various hand positions that provide a variety of effects. My understanding is that "mudra" basically means "energy seal". Very interesting stuff and it explains of a lot of the meditation poses one might see where the fingers are curled in various configurations while resting on the knees or lap.

One mudra in particular caught my eye which was the Apana Vayu Mudra which is the "Gesture of the Heart". According to this particular website, at least. And it just so happens to bear a remarkable resemblance to this pop-culture gesture.

Well, that's a bit of a coincidence. Could there possibly be a connection? Is the the ancient practice of yoga the original one way ticket to midnight? Could the most noble and righteous genre of rock music be the yang to yoga's yin, approaching the quiet mind and tranquility of the perfect moment from the direction of staccato solo and the grounding influence of a solid bass line backed up by a double drum kit? Is it possible to find the end of the ego in the cacophony of energetic sound or the symphonic chaos of a Metallica album? Could this be the end solution? The unifying theory of everything? Could an enlightened physicist look down at his hands, one folded in the Apana Vayu Mudra, the other hand slowly rising to salute those who are about to rock, and suddenly realize just how connected it all is? He could write the perfect equation that would bind the quiet to the riot and bring us limitless energy from power chord and wailing voice screaming incomprehensible lyrics.

Could the power of heavy metal yoga finally bring peace to the world?

Ok, probably not.

I consulted with Teacher and the version of the Apana Vayu Mudra she is familiar with is more like this. You touch your two middle fingertips to the tip of your thumb and then tuck the first finger to the base of the thumb. It still looks a little like the metal horns but not quite. I point again to how much information is out there and how much of it doesn't match up and I trust Teacher over the Internet.

However, I did some research and the wikipedia article on the origin of the horny gesture again is a lesson on the amazing fluidity of modern culture. For the lazy, Ronnie James Dio of Black Sabbath fame actually took the gesture from his Italian grandmother who used it as a ward against the evil eye but the subculture of metal took it and owned it as their salute. So when metal fans throw up the horns towards their favorite song or band, they are actually warding against the evil eye.

As I said, the fluidity of modern culture is amazing.

But this all did force me to reminisce and consider a few things.  Back in the nineties, I worked as a roadie and ran lights for a local band which gave me the opportunity to surf the edge of the music scene and explore a wide range of venues and environments. And I found myself making certain assumptions. In a country bar, there is going to be a fight at some point. In a bar that plays classic rock, there is going to be a fight. At some point. Even in dance clubs, I saw a brawl or two (if a bunch of loose wristed, slap fighting counts as a brawl).

But in the metal bars, which I probably frequented more often, I don't really remember that many fights.

Now some would say that the mosh pit was it's own fight. For the uninitiated, the mosh pit is the area in front of the main stage where dancers (usually men) don't really dance as much as they bounce and slam into each other to the beat of the music. To the same uninitiated, it probably looks like a brawl but it's really not. I enjoyed a pit or two. Or three. And the dynamic was energetic but strangely safe. In my experience, if someone went down, those around him pulled back and picked him up. If someone was obviously in trouble, this strange, morphing group hug would happen so that the person would be transferred to the edge and deposited into the nearest chair to catch is breath. If someone was obviously trying to get truly violent, the same group hug thing would happen until they were ejected into the waiting arms of burly bouncers. In my experience, no one wanted to get anyone hurt (too badly, anyway) because it would stop the music.

Let's not sugar coat it though. There was anger. There was rage. You could feel it blazing off the mob like the heat from a wildfire and this should be expected when a bunch of twenty-somethings sweating testosterone get amped up on fairly angry sounding music and choose to express the pent up rage of the insecure youthful mind in the form of violent dancing. But that's just it. They were expressing their rage and anger in an appropriate venue. As strange as that may seem. One could even bear witness to the relaxed faces and easy smiles at the end of the night. The rage was expressed and it was gone. At least for a little while.

(Side Rant: Before any of you take what I'm saying and run out to schedule your six-year old's next birthday at the nearest metal venue because it's full of happy, shiny people, please be reminded that I'm using one aspect of my own experience to to illustrate a point. Metal, for the most part, is pretty dark and scary. That's why it's called metal. To be fair, a lot of bands and musicians have come out against the pits due to injuries or even deaths but I can only report on my experiences and note that my experiences occurred in smaller, more intimate venues instead of stadiums were mob mentality can easily overrule common sense. Also, I think modern metal is trying too hard to push on taboos and social boundaries in an attempt to stay relevant. The music seems to be getting lost in favor of stunts and stage gags. Old metal is the best metal and if you want to explore some of the history and variations, I present to you the Map of Metal.  :End Side Rant)

So can metal, as dark and sinister as it is, teach us something about the emotional reality of the common human?

Little baby humans are trained early that some emotions are bad. The parents may not even realize that the training is happening. They just want to get control of the wailing two-year old throwing a tantrum in the middle of the grocery aisle. The child is expressing anger and the parents explain to the child that expressing that emotion in that venue is inappropriate. The child hears a bunch of big words but gets the gist that expressing anger is bad.

And so we grow into emotionally constipated adults, pushing down "inappropriate" emotions until they fester and ooze out through other avenues or, worse, we explode in a spectacular fashion and then feel guilty for the damage done.

I personally don't believe in "bad" emotions. Emotions are the security system of the spirit and the body. We make them into more than that through a bunch of intellectual voodoo but in the end it's just the way the body and spirit are kept safe.

Let's use our metal example: Anger is considered a negative emotion. Unchecked it makes people do remarkably stupid things. But what about anger expressed toward an injustice? What about the anger that often pushes people into action to make a situation better? Is that anger wrong?

What about fear? Fear makes us run away or fight. Fear is considered a negative emotion. But in a dangerous situation, fear can be your best friend as long as you don't fall into a fetal position and fail to act. Consider the fact that fear is there to give your body an adrenaline boost to help you through that dangerous situation. Fear is not negative. One's reaction to fear is what is negative. Also, admitting to one's fears and justifying them is a road to self-discovery. Honestly, the only time one should experience fear is when the physical body is in obvious trouble. If a person lives their life in fear then that person should ask some hard questions about the true sources of those fears.

What about jealousy? That's a tricky one. Jealousy usually stems from self-esteem issues or a lack of faith in a certain relationship. Of any "negative" emotion, jealousy is often the most revealing if one is honest with oneself as to why they are feeling jealous. Am I judging myself and coming up short? Am I judging the relationship and its not what I think? How honest can you be with yourself? Here, again, is another passport to self-discovery. If you can't be honest about the feelings that certain situation generates you will continue to have those feelings until they eat you alive. Process the feelings honestly and see what happens.

Let's even take on the biggie: Hate. It's wrong to hate. But once again what if the hate is justified? I can hate racism. I can hate bigotry. I can hate corporate welfare. Is that wrong? Hate is really just the child of fear and anger. What do I fear? What am I angry about?

And, for all of these, how do I express it? Or do I express it? Can I express it and then question it and try to answer to the true source of the emotion? As I see it, the problem with these "negative" emotions isn't so much their potential negativity. It's the fact that if I have to ask myself about the source of the emotion and be honest with myself, I may not like the answer. It's easy to look at ourselves in a mirror when we are all shiny and happy. Looking in that mirror when I'm seething with jealousy or boiling with anger is not pleasant but it is the fastest way to find those dark corners of the soul that may need to be cleaned out.

We can bring this back to yoga with another observation: A good practice gives you the tools to process the emotions and express them. The revelation for me is how effective breathwork is for releasing a pent up emotional experience so much so that the problem of finding a healthy avenue of expression for a "negative" emotions is solved. For example, work made me angry. A few breaths, a few asanas and I'm not angry any more and I can evaluate the situation from a neutral standpoint and decide if the emotional response was justified or was I overreacting.  Know what? Sometimes it is justified and that's when my anger can be directed to possibly change the situation. The energy is expressed and redirected to a potential positive solution. It's much better than having a screaming meltdown in the grocery aisle that your inner toddler wants you to have.

Also, the emotional landscape evens out considerably with a consistent practice. There are still highs and lows but the transition is smoother.  "Negative" emotions sneak up on you less and you can express and question without being ambushed. The "positive" emotions are a lot more focused and full. The breathing and movements ease out repressed emotions and provide a clarity that helps you answer some of those "why" questions. And answering "why" can only lead you to a centered calm in matters of spiritually and, personally, the centered calm is the place I want to be.

Even so, I do miss the mosh pit. I miss its visceral honesty of expression. We can't always let the emotion go that freely in a so-called civilized society.

But I can take the example, know the power of the expression and the freedom of letting go, express in other ways and learn. I see this, now, at this point in the journey as the path to a centered calm.

And, personally, a centered calm is the place I want to be.