“Do not waste time idling or thinking after you have set your goals.”
Miyamoto Musashi translated by Stephen F. Kaufman

The Martial Artist’s Book of Five Rings

Yoga Practice – Winter 2020/21

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This feels like a long-overdue update. A few months ago I had in mind a post with more “graphs” to illustrate the shifts in my practice, more details about the practice, and my breath, but that never came to be. Now I have only a slight inclination to write … so this will be brief … mostly to make note of some highlights of this period.

Summer: Work

After a relatively good allergy period, I settled into a regular flow of work. I was also practicing continuously and practice itself was on a steady curve of recovery. However, it didn’t go beyond a certain quality. I was not able to settle into a deeper more intense practice:

  • There was physical dstraction: I was doing a lot of physical work which left me physically tired and neading rest.
  • There was physical anxiety: Much of the work this year involved working high up on scaffolding, on a pithched roof … with safety ear. Though I worked slowly and with care, the hightened demands on balance, footing, work process, etc … were taxing … physically and mentally.
  • There was mental distraction: There were a lot of mental challenges which required my attention and occupied my mind. Sometimes resolutions would come during practice … sometimes at the “expense” of presence in practice.
  • There was emotional distraction: It was a disharmonious time in my relationship with Iulia. There was a demanding mixture of working together towards something while growing apart.

So, though I was practicing regularly, it felt like there was only so far I could go within these conditions. I was aware of this and embraced it. I settled into a good wholesome, stable practice. My breath was getting better. I was looking forward to fall, when the work would taper off and for better practice conditions.

Fall: Sleep

Iulia had spent most of the summer sleeping in a tent outside. When the temperatures dropped she folded up the tent and moved back inside. That had a drastic and obvious negative impact on the quality of my sleep … and sleep, somewhat like breath, is a clear indicator of well being … or in this case lack of it.

This biological feedback led to a clear realization that I did not want anymore to share a living space with Iulia. I did not want to wait until next year until we finish the summer kitchen renovation. I wanted to sleep better now.

So I decided to separate our living spaces. I moved into the living room and Iulia stayed in the bedroom. A new mattress converted one of the couches into a bed. Most of Iulia’s belongings moved to the bedroom. I now had a space to myself. Iulia was now free to live with her excesses and I was free to live with my minimalism. I only had to tend to one stove (instead of two). I had a quiet space without constant hectic movement … and I had a desk!

During fall and winter I look for other ways to fill my days (when it is too cold, dreary and muddy for physical work outside). Most of the things I wanted to do required, like practice, a sense of calm and presence. When sharing a space with Iulia I did not feel calm and present. Now I could start to nurture more such presence.

… and I have a desk … I can sit and write, paint, practice shodo

Practice was getting better, but a new obstacle surfaced … a blockage in my left nostril. It demanded my attention and required softeness … and it limited what I could in practice:

  • Sometimes it only required caring attention. This was nurturing … it evoked … caring attention. If I didn’t practice with attention and placed excess demands on my breath … my breath became strained … and called back … attention!
  • Sometimes it required softening of practice. This was also nurturing … it evoked … softness! In terms of asana count, or duration of practice I was “practicing less” … but I sensed an (almost corresponding?) increase in both attention and softness.
  • Sometimes it demanded only a short and soft practice (such as pratikriya) … and sometimes it demanded no practice.

I felt a subtle “peak” during this period. I had no ambition to get over this, to fix or heal myself. I found myself engaged with noticing where I was and praciticing accordingly. A peaceful sense of presence … and indeed, except for a few days here and there, I did not feel that, despite the limitation of breath, my sense of presence was not compromised. I also physically well. I felt my body available for more … but respecting the limitations of breath.

Over time I came to associate the breath blockage with aloneness.

Winter: Alone

As I write these words, almost the end of the 2020 calendar year, my breath is, by my standards, quite deteriorated. Since fall, I’ve gradually had to retreat in Pranayama from Pratiloma Ujjayi to Anuloma Ujjayi and in recent weeks to Ujjayi. There were a few weeks, after retreating to ujjayi, where I was able to gradually increase the length of my breath (from an 8 second inhale to 10 seconds) … but that has not held.

Around the time of the winter soltice I felt a shift. The blockage in my left nostril felt somewhat released and a tension appeared in my upper chest … and then moved down towards the diaphragm. Sometimes it sits at the place I associate with asthma. When it does, I get to inhabit consciously and without urgency that place in me where breathing was (and can be) blocked. Though I now sometimes express a light cough, I feel that shift was of release … of diffusion of a tension that was locked in one place. I am curious to see where this goes.

These days I am practicing whatever I can practice softly. Often it is without a metronome, just tending to an extended exhale, if possible soft AK and BK. When vitality increases slightly, I will use a metronome. I am experimenting, when possible with mid-day and evening practices. I have explored sequences of Ujjayi -> Surya Bedhana -> Sitali.

The limited breath has shortened my practice. I spend generous amounts of time between asana witnessing my breath and how it expresses effort. I avoid pushing my breath so that at the end of whatever practice I am able to do, there is softness in my breath and access to some kind of basic pranayama.

When reflecting on all this I associate it with aloneness. I have been able to fill my days well. But I am alone … I feel profoundly alone. I imagine that even in a monastery there are other monks … even though you may be silent and turned inwards … you are still in a way together.

I think it is very difficult to be as alone as I am. So I want to say that it is difficult … but that doesn’t sound quite right or true. I do not feel emotionally burdened and I am not motivated to go and seek out people. I actually feel privileged to be able to be alone the way I am.

There is an issue with vitality. When I do connect with others and experience meaningful conversation that evokes my essense and gifts to come to the surface I feel a vitality arising. It has clear biological signals … I get warm … and especially in this time of winter I have to shed a layer of clothing to adjust. This vitality is something I do not have access to on my own.

Without this kind of vitalizing engagement, I tend towards heaviness. I counter it by occupying myself well (practice, practice, practice!). Countering the heaviness brings me to an unstable equanimity. The equanimity itself is a place I treasure, but the pull towards heaviness remains. And when I am unable to actively hold the equanimity the heaviness arises. And, I have not yet found a way to shift independently to the vitality I can experience with others.

I do not have a tendency to get emotional, and when I do I do not tend to be activated by my emotions. But my breath … it, I believe, may be expressing a lot of the difficulty that is present and not expressing emotionally.

So … maybe I am not completely alone … I am with my breath.

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