A World, A Part

I’ve been combing my hair with a part on the left side since I was a little boy. Maybe I was just doing what my mother did.

I do perspire profusely, and in hot yoga my rug gets soaked. It’s particularly pronounced in the inverted postures, with all the sweat on my back running down my neck onto my pate. Lest it run down into my eyes, upon standing my habit is to squeegee it off my crown from left to right.

I realized last week that when I did, I was losing mental focus – becoming more emotional. That makes sense, in a way: the left side of the brain is analytical, the right intuitive. But with the realization came an image: the movement of energy from a male bastion to a female cluster, weakening the former.

So I decided to start parting my hair on the right side, just to be sure that I’m not favoring one side over another.

I wonder what consequences I’ll confront?

The Serpent’s Usurpation

In reflecting on my spiritual work here, I try to honor my unique perspective in relating my experience to others. In considering how to relate recent events, I keep on coming back to St. Perpetua, the early Christian martyr who surrendered her newborn and was mauled by lions in the forum before impaling herself on a sword held by the centurion sent to administer the coup de grace. Before her martyrdom, she was granted a vision of a field filled with bronze ladders. Men and women climbing those ladders towards heaven were dragged down by a serpent below.

After writing Love Works back in 2005, I visited a number of spiritual book stores, looking for venues to talk about the work. One of the stores had opened recently, and I was the sole attendee at an event held by a spiritualist. She took a good look at me, and shared that I had a four inch gap in the flow of prana between my hips and rib cage. When she asked if she should fix it, I said “that’s the business of a woman that I haven’t met yet.” I considered that it was a useful characteristic, in that it kept people from using sex to get into my heart and mind.

Of course, it has its negative impacts as well. I have trouble grounding myself psychologically, a weakness that has been exploited over the years by domineering intimates both in my personal and professional lives.

Having become conscious of the problem, I did try to manage it. My first attempt was to close the loop by routing the healing energy arising in my heart upwards through the crown chakra and then down into the earth before closing the loop up into my root chakra.

I first gleaned the sense that the gap was not entirely self-induced at the Buddhist Geeks’ Retreat in Rosemead in 2009. The kick-off speaker on Friday night spoke on the characteristics of the avatar that would usher in the era of peace foretold by all the world’s great religious. He cited compassion, all-embracing meditative focus, and out-of-the-box thinking. Hoping that I had finally encountered someone that might appreciate my experience, I went up after the talk to offer my insights. Upon receiving my assurance that the time was close, he looked up at the outside of my head and affirmed “I can see that it must be so” before turning his back to address a question.

On Sunday morning, having found their event to have been somewhat co-opted by my presence, from among that senior teachers an attractive little pixie stood forward to denounce me, saying that “my energy was completely out of control.” I won’t recount the rest of the conversation, because what was significant was my strong intuition that she was interested in managing my purpose. In the middle of her harangue, she leaned forward with desire in her eyes and wrapped her arms around a band of energy that cocooned my lower torso, a band centered on the gap seen by the spiritualist.

Something was pinching off the flow.

I first confronted this presence back in 2014 when – during a Dance of Liberation Workshop led by Parashakti at LA Ecstatic Dance – I tunneled down into my reptilian brain. In the vision that followed, I walked through the spiritual dislocation of the dinosaurs that culminated with a vision of their avatar sitting in the seats of military and political power in the modern era, feasting on the constructive energy generated by human compassion.

That survey of the human condition was not directly related to my personal infestation. The connection was only made recently, after Peter at Peace Place Massage had worked on me one Saturday night. Where Asia, my regular therapist, has a distinctly feminine healing touch, Peter just stirred things up. I went home that night and laid with my arms stretched across the bed and my heart open to the sky. Seized by a strong intuition, I found myself rubbing my hands down along my ribs, wriggling them under the spiritual bands around my waist, and sending energy along my fingers into the tissues of my abdomen.

Since that experience three months ago, I’ve been fighting tension and pain in my waist. Stretching and yoga helped, but I felt as though I was just chasing the problem from place to place. To a colleague at work, I actually used the words “things are really moving around.” I was focused on the pain and tightness, but the words expressed an important intuition.

We’ve suffered a lot of dislocation at work, and my supervisor has come under intense scrutiny as engineer after engineer disappears on short notice. He adopts an unusual posture in conversation with others, feet spread wide on the floor. I have a strong sense of energy flowing up into his pelvic floor. We continue to have our arguments, and as we discuss the consequences of decisions made in the past on the survival of the company, I find it hard to avoid bringing up ancient history. My association with him seems to drive me into remembered experiences of weakness in his presence.

In the midst of these two struggles, I was listening to praise music one night, a series of songs from WOW Worship that encouraged the faithful to surrender their hearts to God. A vision came upon me, a masculine presence that focused my attention to my pelvic floor with the words “You need to find my throne.” In response to that, I began poking at the base of the hip bone with my fingertips, until a point begin to glow.

This event was followed by a series of visualizations in yoga, visualizations centering myself around my pelvic floor, and building power around the point that I had discovered. This came to a head last night. I had a unsettling series of experience yesterday, either of co-workers claiming initiative on projects that I had instigated, or attempting to make me responsible for bringing closure to projects that I had heretofore been pointedly excluded from. I have been struggling to sleep at night due to the pain in my abdomen, and I was knocked off-balance psychologically.

Yoga was a struggle. Throughout the opening standing series, I felt weak, off-balance and beset by negative psychic energies. As we entered the balancing poses, I sharpened my focus to identify specific personalities, and tried to ground myself in my root chakra. Reversing the flow of energy leaking into them, I began to build power in the postures, with a new-found focus on the pelvic floor. Finally, in balancing stick pose, I arrayed them around me, one at my fingertips, one at my toes, and one on either side of my hip. They attempted to wriggle away, shifting and substituting others, but I just kept on pulling them back, using them as anchors for the pose.

The rest of the practice was a breeze.

But the spiritual and psychological shift was more significant. All of the personalities that I engaged are domineering. I have previously identified one in particular as “the tip of the spear” for the whole pattern of control that we struggle with as a society. As we wrestled spiritually, I had a strong image of him sitting on a throne, a throne nestled in my hips. Pushing him aside, I focused on the throne itself, and discovered a kaleidoscope of personalities shifting on it, until finally I broke through and discovered the dragon that rules them all.

Left Body, Right Mind

I spent a lot of time playing my flute over Easter weekend, and when I left work on Monday evening I unbent my elbows and caught my breath as the muscle that connects to my thumb screamed in discomfort. Laying down on my back that night, the pain radiated down to my hand and up to my shoulder. As a software developer, I immediately worried that I was coming down with a repetitive stress disorder.

What was worse was yoga on Wednesday night. The Bikram practice has poses that require pulling with bent elbows, and I just couldn’t execute them. By the time we reached tree pose, my right arm was dangling uselessly at my side. Worse, lying down for spine strengthening series with arms straight brought pain all the way from the hand up to my shoulder.

Obviously this was more than one muscle, and as I laid in bed trying to diagnose the phenomenon, I realized that it was a side-effect of the work I have been doing trying to pull my shoulders back. After two months, I’ve finally stretched my left pectoral enough that I can get that shoulder back behind my breastbone. When lying prone, then, my upper arms no longer descend from the shoulder to a bend where the forearms lie against the ground. My arm is perfectly flat, and the muscles in my arm are having to stretch to accommodate the new position. That I sit with my arms bent almost all day long doesn’t help any. Furthermore, with my shoulders back, I no longer use the muscles of the upper back to raise my arms laterally – the shoulders now do the work. This explains the pain there – I am asking for work from muscles that have been freeloading for most of my life.

As might be obvious from this analysis, my yoga is an intensely left-brain activity. Yes, it’s mind-body integration, but in any instructor-led activity, I am constantly comparing my activity to the ideal, and correlating defects with the underlying body structures as revealed by sensation.

This prevalence was first brought home to me when I attended a shamanic healing in Santa Monica ten years ago. The healer went around to take a look at all of us, and when he reached me, simply touched the right side of my head and pulled his hand away. I felt my mind expanding to fill the space he had created. It was an interested experience, but at that time I didn’t stop to consider why I had this imbalance in my mind. I assumed that it was a legacy of my intellectual discipline – that my left brain was stronger than my right brain, not that my right brain was weak.

Recently, Jeff Nash’s Awakening Process has forced me to reexamine this weakness. Jeff encourages us simply to feel, and to expand the depth of our sensation by surrendering into our exhales. With nothing in particular to think about, again and again I have found the right side of my mind turning on.

I assume that this is due in part to the work that I have done in Yoga balancing out my left and right musculature. This is still an intensely left-brain process. This week I am focusing (as I am able) on stacking the bones in my left leg, even when walking, ensuring that I am not using soft tissue to absorb stress. And I am still strengthening the muscles around the left shoulder blade and in the left side of my abdomen.

This morning, though, an unexpected side-effect came to light. My lady and I have been facing some blow-back, with her complaining (as others have in the past) that she just wanted to be a woman and here I am making her into a goddess. That left me exposed last night, and I woke up to sexual energy originating from another source. Noticing that this seemed to enter through the right side of my mind, I expanded my awareness back into the occupied part of my personality.

And found myself listening to women talking about me for the rest of the night.

Oh, well, I guess that I’ve been too much of a gentleman, trying to save space for a woman all my life. But it looks like if I want something done “right,” I’m going to have to do it myself.

Balancing Yoga Bliss

Having played tennis and basketball as my primary fitness outlet for the first fifty years of my life, upon starting yoga I was immediate impressed by the imbalance between the left and right sides of my body. During the first two years of my Bikram practice, that manifested in a number of chronic stress injuries, particularly around the right hip and lower back.

While the problems were impossible to ignore, I was pleased with the gross changes in my body. I lost my fluff, slowly converting it to muscle. That was really a first for me – I had never succeeded in building much muscle mass through weight lifting. Bikram is an isotonic practice, holding postures for up to a minute under strain, and that seems to really agree with my physiology. At this point, the deep wells in my clavicles have been filled in, and a little bit of six-pack is peeking through from under my middle-age padding.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the last year that I realized how the two things went together. One way to maintain an isotonic posture is to lock all of your muscles. In my case, that reinforced and even exacerbated muscle imbalances. I would do my best, checking in the mirror after every posture to make certain that my shoulders and hips were aligned. After many “strong” sessions, however, when the lights came on to start practice two days later, I would look in the mirror to find myself twisted completely out of whack. The instructors were a little put out by my laughter and pawing at my eyes in disbelief.

Simply, in most postures the mirror is a liar. You can take a standing bow posture and think that you’re aligned, but in fact one hip is higher or lower, or forward or back. Sometimes it’s your limbs that hide the truth, and sometimes it’s that the mirror only shows you one view of a multi-dimensional picture. Psychologically, then, the breakthrough was to stop letting my eyes lie to me, ignore what my muscles were doing, and focus on where my bones were.

This culminated recently with the realization that for as long as I have been doing yoga, when I bend over I drop my left ribs inside of my hip. I was collapsing on that side while the right side stayed strong. Consciously avoiding that exposed tightness in my left shoulder, which naturally came forward with my ribs. I’ve been dragging it back, resulting this weekend in severe muscle fatigue that extended to the right side of my neck. Camel posture has been a real revelation in this regard, as the tightness in my left shoulder forced me to rebuild the posture from scratch over the last three weeks. I just couldn’t get back as far as I did when I allowed my left side to collapse.

The other major side-effect has been in the right side of my lower back. I’ve always wobbled in the standing series, and assumed that it was just poor muscle coordination. But in projecting my left side forward, I realized that I’ve been stabilizing my vertical alignment by locking the right side of my hip. Particularly in the lower back, the muscles on the right side were significantly shorter than those on the left. I focused on lengthening them during class, but could feel them snapping back as I walked to the car every night. But of course, that was because I was also using my right hip to project my balance forward while walking.

This was resolved two Sundays ago down in Culver City. I went to the dance celebration and spent about an hour-and-a-half walking around the perimeter of the floor, stopping occasionally to raise my feet gently in point, paying particular attention to maintaining proper support in the left side of my chest. It was frickin’ miserable! I wore myself out in half an hour!

Given the muscle fatigue in my back from my maniacal focus on keeping my left shoulder back, I was a little worried about class on Monday night. Indeed, I did have some trouble with forward bends, but as for the rest, I actually had fun for the first time ever. I had been wearing myself out trying to keep from keeling over to the right side, and having gotten the bones into alignment, all the stabilizing muscles can relax until their use is required by a specific posture. The heat no longer bothers me, I recover faster from postures, and I was able to get far more length because I wasn’t fighting locked muscles.

What can I say? Being a poser is to be your own worst enemy. Bliss arrived in learning to feel what my body was doing.


Reflection: Yoga Beyond Asana

It’s coming up on the end of my fourth year of practice in the Bikram Yoga school in Agoura Hills. Obviously the primary impact has been physiological. When I was out at the Skeptics Conference in Pasadena in May, a number of people commented that I had excellent posture. As I am painfully aware right now, that process is ongoing – I realized just recently that when standing, my right hip is shifted about an inch to the left. The pain derives from a shortened band of muscles in the right side of my lower back. Every class, I stretch them out, and every evening they crawl back to the length they have had for the last thirty years.

I didn’t realize how great the changes in the rest of my body had been until I met again with Balwan Singh yesterday. Balwan works at Bikram headquarters organizing teacher trainings. He is very Indian, struggling still at times with his English, but humble and joyful to the core. He had taught in Agoura Hills on Saturdays while the studio was establishing itself, often coming by with his lady-love Sharon (who is now expecting). The first words out of his mouth were “You look really good.” Sitting on the floor in the second session, I looked in the mirror and finally saw what people have been talking about. My body has filled in, and it responds gracefully to direction.

Most teachers in the Bikram method hew tightly to the established environmental constraints – primarily to keep the room near 105 degrees and the students in posture. The conditions were established while Bikram was developing his practice in Japan, and as a 6’6″ physically active American, they are really brutal on me. Most of the advanced practitioners in the studio are actually proportioned like the Japanese.

Balwan always catered to my challenges, and yesterday was no exception. I set my mat up in the back in the path of the air through the door. It came open early, and the oxygen that came with the air made it a very different practice. When the owner Rachel, who was set up just to my right, indicated that she wished it closed, Balwan remarked that advanced practitioners created heat internally, and the environmental controls weren’t as important as for beginners.

Rachel is a really beautiful lady, both inside and out, and I’ve been trying to facilitate her union with some angels that have been floating around in my orbit. Balwan got us to focus on breathing from the get-go, and I surrendered the tension in my chest to let the air really fill my lungs. I got into this rhythm with Rachel, each of us just looking into the other to see where the energy was getting stuck. For me, the most surprising impact of that collaboration came during head-to-knee posture. For the first time I really got up into the second stage, balanced on one leg with the other held out parallel to the floor in front of my hip.

When the practice was over, we were offered a lecture by Arvind Chittamulla, organizer of MokshaFest here in LA. As anyone who has studied the Vedic practices knows, there is far more to Yoga than the physical training, or Asanas. The ultimate goal of Yoga is to allow the purifying energy from the divine source to flow into the world through us.

As Arvind explained, here in the West yoga has spread as a physical practice. As I see it, that reflects the forces that Western society organizes to channel our behaviors to the purpose of creating wealth for those that employ us. They are reinforced by media images that impose air-brushed standards of beauty. We lack both consciousness of the psychic costs of internalizing these forces, and methods for purging them. Yoga asanas allows us, to a certain degree, to at least regain control of our physical manifestation.

But there is much more to yoga than that. Meditation is essential to management of our minds, and breath-work grounds us in the world. Asana, meditation and breath-work are connected: if we don’t have control of our mind, the corrupt thoughts that we entertain during asana practice will infect our bodies. For this reason, Arvind sees that the narrow focus of yoga in the West actually hurts many practitioners.

Arvind walked us through the other seven limbs of the tradition. In Indian studios, orientation to the first two, involving morality and life action, are often prerequisites to practice of the asanas. The remaining five manage the inward journey that opens into relationship with the divine.

The lecture was directed towards the teachers in the room, and Arvind’s ultimate goal is to broaden instructor certification to include, at a minimum, meditation and breath work. As a business proposition, he believes that the idle hours at many studios could be filled with sessions that offered students those tools.

I know that I have benefited from the coupling of my physical practice to my spiritual development. As I explained to Arvind, the difficulty of the conditions during a Bikram class forced me to completely surrender my ego – I had to accept that I had a lot of work to do before I could achieve the postures even in their initial expression. Given that surrender, the consistency of the sequence ensures that I am able to enter a meditative frame, letting my muscles do the work until something doesn’t work, and then focusing only on that. I have learned to ignore the other students in the room while still sharing the energy that arises between people committed to a common goal.

So I must wish Arvind success in his efforts, although I think that he might find more acceptance if he packaged them as advanced certifications.

The interaction with Arvind came with some tensions. I was glad to be with Balwan at the end of the evening. He was talking with one of the other attendees, and I circled around behind to put my hand on top of his head and share a hug, wishing him all the deepest joys of fatherhood. He sent me off with a heart-felt “Thank-you, Brian. Thank-you so much.”

The Body-Mind Connection

When I started my current job at age forty-eight, I was just beginning to get heavy on my chest and abdomen. The primary impact on a software developer is lower back pain that steals the last two hours of the work day. I ran a few miles a week and played tennis with my sons on the weekend, but I could see myself starting the long, slow slide into flabbiness.

The general manager at the company was in far worse shape, having decided to take up golf for exercise. After ruining his back with all that hyperextended twisting, he decided to bring in a yoga instructor. I took a few classes with her, but with zero-period drop-offs for the son that was taking AP chemistry, I couldn’t make more than one session a week.

My introduction to Bikram Yoga was incidental – the studio is next door to the music shop where I took flute lessons until last month.

At this point, I can’t say enough about the discipline. To tell the truth, though, starting it at age fifty was really hell. I was riddled with tissue and joint alignments that had evolved to support my defective posture. Then there were the untreated stress injuries and left-right muscle imbalance from basketball and tennis. I’m also a long string bean, and was just really embarrassed to collapse half-way through the balancing poses held by all the little 5’2” ladies. Finally, I’m a walking bog monster: I drop ten pounds of water weight over the ninety minutes in the heated room.

So I was a train wreck for the first eighteen months. Between aggravating my stress injuries by straining too far in the poses, to just collapsing in the heat, I really drove the studio owners crazy. I still remember the first time I really compressed my gut in wind-removing pose. After the twenty-second squeeze, I uncurled to lie in corpse pose, and I could feel my body reeling as fat was released into my blood stream. Yuck!

Along with the physical challenges were some serious psychological challenges. I’m a really open and supportive person, and there are predators that come into a collective effort like group yoga and just suck energy out of people like me. Some of them don’t realize what they’re doing: they’re just hypercompetitive people that have always taken energy out of others in accomplishing their goals. Some of them are fully conscious of their abuse of people that they consider to be weak-willed. And some are just struggling with the discipline of staying in a heated room while exercising at the limits of the ability. After learning to recognize and reclaim my energies from the first two groups, most of the second year was spent learning to manage the last group. I put a lot of thoughts like “Breathe”, “Just rest” and “It’s OK. Do the best that you can” into the room. Every now and then someone comes up after class to thank me.

Some of the experiences I don’t even know how to categorize. The most intense was when lying down after an deep back bend on the floor. I felt a spark, pretty much like an electric spark from finger to metal, emanating from my liver. Everybody in the class froze, and the teacher stopped and asked “Is everything OK, Brian?”

This last year has been about building strength in the left side of my body. As I got closer and closer to balancing out the poses, I was overwhelmed by feelings of intense loss and sadness. Sometimes those feelings seemed to be related to having a specific person or persons in my vicinity, but I eventually realized that they were coming from somewhere deep inside of me.

I was exhausted last Tuesday just coming into class, and spent the first half of the floor series trying to catch my breath. The sadness was powerful, and I had to hold my breath to keep from sobbing. I finally got back into the postures, focusing this time on the left side of my neck and upper back. Suddenly, I had an amazing sensation, as though the right side of my head was filling up with energy.

I mentioned that I have a spiritual tenant on my right shoulder, something that was waiting for me in my mother’s womb following a six-month miscarriage. I realized that I had forced him out of my mind. He was a little upset, but resigned. The intensity of focus I had invested in activating the muscles on the left side of my body had worked back into the right side of my brain (the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body).

The impressions that I drew from him, regarding the sadness I had been struggling with, were related to memories of the agony he had suffered as his little fetus succumbed to death. Honoring the sacrifice that he had made, I spent the rest of class working out how to supply him energy without renouncing the right side of my brain.

What’s been amazing is the impact on my relationships. I’ve been seized by fear of rejection all my life. That’s evaporated. And the people that rely upon emotional connections to drive their relationships no longer find me to be so needy.

Of course, it’s not just me and my tenant in this situation. One of the things that I’m conscious of is that predators consider humility to be a form of weakness. I’ve been letting a certain class of them get twisted up in the right side of my mind. It’s time to infect them with the strength that comes from loving.