Sva dharma, yoga, and “The Fear”

Before we moved to Los Angeles, we lived in Orange County. I practiced there with Diana Christinson at Pacific Ashtanga. Diana helped me overcome a lot of fear. In addition to the blown disc in my spine, I had a torn shoulder. I had never really done a full backbend or a handstand. I was scared of headstand away from the wall. I’d never dropped back, or jumped through. I wasn’t an athletic kid growing up, but Diana convinced me these things were possible. It was Diana who taught me how to overcome my fear in Ashtanga.

Diana, from The OC Register
Diana, from The OC Register

If you’d like to get a sense of how she did that, I’m pleased to find that she’s written a guest column for the Orange County Register. Turns out Diana has some fears of her own: Surfing.

“The fear of not being a strong enough swimmer, of not being able to control the conditions, or not having enough breath when I really needed it, but most of all the fear of the raw and awesome force nature packs behind a powerful wave as it hits the beach.”

In her column, she makes some connections with following your dharma and overcoming fear. The fact that she uses surfing as an example just makes me miss practicing with her even more: Although I grew up surfing in South Texas, I’m afraid of the surf in Southern California. I’m often afflicted with what’s known by surfers at “The Fear.”  After all these years, she’s still teaching me. Check out her column.

Posted by Bobbie

The yoga of surfing and the Pipeline Masters

Over on Oahu the past week, what I’ll always think of as simply the Pipeline Masters — but this year officially is called the Billabong Pipe Masters in Memory of Andy Irons — has been running. The final heats are running on Friday.

This event is in the mix as the most important competition in surfing. (Whether surfing ought to be a competitive sport is a subject for a different blog.) It has been a mainstay of pro surfing as long as I can remember (which takes us back to the late 1970s). It is long the culmination of the Triple Crown of Surfing, three contests all in Hawaii. And, of course, it happens at what’s among the most famous surf spots in the world, if the Banzai Pipeline isn’t the most famous. (To our readers who aren’t surfers: Can you name another surf spot?)

Gerry Lopez, the real Pipeline master, via

I watched a few of the opening heats, when the surf was an uber-solid eight to 10 feet — meaning the faces of the waves, where the surfers are, is nearing 20 feet. Pumping Pipeline. Pretty much unfathomable stuff unless you’re either a Hawaiian local or among the 1% of surfing’s elite (not to be confused with that other 1% or even Ashtanga’s 1%).

Talk about having to be in the moment, which was on my mind last time I tried to bring surfing and yoga together:

When surfing, being in the moment is about bringing you, your surfboard and the wave together — a union of form, function and flow. All become one; there is balance and equilibrium.

In yoga, it’s … well, yoga, right? Bringing mind, body (gross and subtle), pose, breath all together. Focusing enough on that moment so it opens up, widens, lengths, expands — lasts longer. But also, so it is more intense, so that you take more in, experience more. See, feel, taste, hear, smell more.

In the water lately, the waves have held that same sense of “more.” I’ve felt the turns and drops more, recognized the wave better, lived it up and enjoyed the moment. I just hadn’t put together why.

As I watched these early round heats — by the way, the final or a semi-final could be the most-watched bit of surfing ever as a very close “world title” race remained up in the air until the final day of the contest — and saw surfer after surfer drop in and position himself in the tube, I thought about what makes this wave so alluring and why tube riding remains the ultimate act of surfing.

It’s yoga, in the sense of union. To survive (literally in some cases) these waves, the surfers have to be one with the wave. They’re inside it, at its mercy. It is a step beyond being in the moment, to being one in the moment.

In contrast, a lot of surfing now is full of slashes and gouges and hard, sharp turns — moves that don’t necessarily reflect or embody the wave. Aerials, in fact, are the next realm of surfing. (Aerials have been happening for almost 30 years, but never so dramatic and in such a consistent way to the rest of the ride.) There’s almost a willful disregard of the wave; it’s more about imposing moves on the wave than finding where the wave and the surfer are most in unison, which might be one way to describe a more classic style of surfing.

But that’s not the case at a wave like Pipeline. When a surfer does impose a move there, it becomes historic.

There’s something about seeing a wave wall up before you — and it really does feel like a wall looming to one side — that brings the need for oneness into clear focus. And when a surfer is in the barrel, it’s still the ultimate thing because the surfer and wave have to be one.

A few weeks back, the Friday after Thanksgiving, my nephew and I caught a great swell near Huntington Beach. Some head-high waves, great shape, and some little hollow sections, super mini versions of what breaks at Pipeline (minus the gnarly coral bottom). One wave in particular I can still picture straightening up in front of me, a steep, rippling expanse of gray (it was foggy that morning). I got through that section, and the wave just set up for a cutback. It was the right move for that moment, a little bit of oneness.


Sadly, that’s the last weekend I got in the water, ending my consecutive surf streak dating back to mid-August. I’m intent on getting in this weekend, even though I don’t know how I’ll fit it in with all our yatra preparations. Plus, the forecast looks pretty awful. And, sadly, I don’t seem capable lately of any similar sense of oneness during the actual act of yoga.

Unnecessary update: The world title I referred to above is settled: Australian Joel Parkinson won both the Pipe Masters and surfing’s pro title, beating out one of the few surfers most of you have (maybe) probably heard of: Kelly Slater, who was going after title No. 12. In local news, it is a clear but cold day in LA, but the surf doesn’t look good.


Posted by Steve

Ashtanga, surfing and the art of being in the moment

When I started practicing yoga, I had no deeper goals than trying to loosen myself up a bit in order to improve my surfing.

I wasn’t seeking to purify the Subtle Body. I had no thoughts about any Patanjali limbs. Samadhi, sh-amadhi.

Surfing great Gerry Lopez, from an ad in Yoga Journal; via

In that, I think I’m pretty typical.

But then one thing led to another; the yoga flow classes transitioned to Ashtanga, and then — as I’m sure you’ve experienced — the Ashtanga took over.

Dawn patrol? No can do — got to practice.

Sneak down for a sunset “glass-off” session? Other things managed to conspire against it.

Amazingly enough, after a few years of hit-and-miss surfing due in no small part to Ashtanga, Ashtanga itself came to the rescue.

A week slumming in Encinitas with Bobbie while she was in Tim Miller’s Second Series teacher training meant nine days in a row on the beach and five days in a row of surfing.

My best guess is it had been 21 years since I had surfed that many days in a row; it may have been even more.

Every weekend since, I’ve managed to get in the water at least once.

It’s thanks to what they call “stoke.” But it also has been due to something more.

To the art of being in the moment.

Last night, I was reading an article in The Surfer’s Journal (and, yes, I should have been reading something from our Yatra list), and the writer talked about riding a wave and how it involves being totally in the moment.

“Right,” I thought. “That’s part of what’s been different. I’m more ‘trained’ to be in the moment.”

This is definitely a place where yoga — meaning something beyond just asana, but certainly rooted heavily in it — and surfing meet. When surfing, being in the moment is about bringing you, your surfboard and the wave together — a union of form, function and flow. All become one; there is balance and equilibrium.

In yoga, it’s … well, yoga, right? Bringing mind, body (gross and subtle), pose, breath all together. Focusing enough on that moment so it opens up, widens, lengths, expands — lasts longer. But also, so it is more intense, so that you take more in, experience more. See, feel, taste, hear, smell more.

In the water lately, the waves have held that same sense of “more.” I’ve felt the turns and drops more, recognized the wave better, lived it up and enjoyed the moment. I just hadn’t put together why.

There’s something else, too. While all the glamour and glory of surfing begins when you paddle for a wave and ends when you pull out / wipeout, most of the time you’re either paddling back out to the peak or just sitting there waiting for the next wave. (Or, worst of all, paddling against the current to stay at the peak.)

Surfing also is an act of patience. And yoga — Ashtanga perhaps especially — teaches patience.

You breath your five breaths in a pose, hold it — while you’re waiting to move on, especially if the pose is challenging. But you learn to wait, to — again — be in the moment, but in this case as an act of not hastening things along.

You learn patience when you’re “stuck” on the same poses, the same sequence, waiting to advance to whatever is next. Your practice is what it is, and you patiently allow its development to come.

That’s pretty much surfing in a nutshell.

For the past six weeks, surfing has been more fun, thanks to yoga. And not just because I’m a bit more flexible, although that certainly helps.

To try to give a sense of what I’m taking about, I leave you with this. Sadly, it ain’t me:

Posted by Steve

The mystery of an Ashtanga Improv class

I’m sure I’m stealing a little something from Bobbie when I bring up a quip made by Tim Miller during her teacher training. It was something to the effect of, “Yoga’s not about mastery, it’s about mystery.”

I was wrapped up in mystery this morning during Tim’s Improv class.

We’ll first cut to the chase, though: After, Tim told me that I hung in there pretty well. “You gave it the old college try.” A lot of the poses were out of my league, but I did think I made a decent approximation of an Ashtangi. (I do have some trouble with the granthis, though.)

Just down from where I’ve been surfing, after the tide and wind shut it down. World Famous Swami’s.

The mystery was how Tim could weave together a sequence from a half dozen or so separate requests for poses. There was Surya B+, which includes a five breath warrior; there was nauli, which we did in between the Surya A and B, which according to Tim was something they did right when he first started practicing. (That was new. Anyone else familiar with that?)

And there were poses I’ve never seen nor heard of before. (Maybe out there in the Third Series?) Headstand, then dropping your feet down to the ground so you’re in a back bend. Upside down frog, I think. But also more familiar poses like Pincha Mayurasana (which I managed to hold away from the wall for close to five breaths). And a few others from Second Series, too.

I was thinking of this all as a mystery because it seemed a little magic how well it all came together. This was no pre-planned Vinyasa class. I know one old trick magicians use is to have a plant in the crowd, a partner in crime, so to speak. (Or really a partner in crime if we’re talking street betting / magic.) But it’s a bit hard to imagine that all six or so of the people requesting poses were plants.

The poses, themselves, are mostly a lot more difficult, physically, in part because of the unfamiliarity. (If you’re among those who balk at Ashtanga because of the repetition of the same poses and worry your body will get used to those movements, maybe you should encourage your teacher to add an Improv in once a week.) But the pace, ultimately, is a bit slower — with Tim demonstrating at times — and there are fewer vinyasas, thank Hanuman.

Ah, Hanuman! I should note, too, that after the morning Pranayama, Tim led more singing, with a slightly smaller band this time (just percussion). And he pulled the harmonium back out after practice and we sang the Opening Chant once more. Another twist, which was soothing and grounding (a word I’m not terribly fond of, but it seems to fit here.) Hanuman made me think of it because, of course, we sang the Hanuman Chalisa.

Somewhat counter to the mystery, perhaps, is that this improv class shows what’s possible, what’s ahead. In some ways, it removes the mystery from poses you’ve never heard of or just heard of in passing, but without much meaning to them. Now I know what lies ahead. It isn’t terrifying, although it is still mostly beyond my ken.

As is Tim’s mastery over the mystery of yoga. He strung a sequence of poses together from thin air. Magic, no?

(I suppose one measure to how “hard” the improv class is is that I had three people, I think, say some version of “brave man” to me. Four if you count Tim.)

I was considering taking Tim’s Intro to Second tomorrow, but I think I’d rather get in one final Mysore — Sunday will be Led First — which means up and out early. I might try to sneak back into the Pranayama class, which Tim promised would be more difficult. We’ll see if discretion proves the better part of valor.

And final note: Did get into the water, before the surf shut down on the high tide. Four days in a row — that’s the first time since 1991. Tomorrow, we will make it five in a row.

Posted by Steve

How hot does the Sacred Fire have to get?

As I was bobbing in the water this morning, no one around, glassy lines of small but steep surf coming in just often enough to allow for some serious reflection (surfing can provide a great refuge for reflection, by the way), my thoughts kept returning to fire.

In this case, the Sacred Fire.

Following the Tuesday Led First — and I’m off to another Led with Tim Miller late Wednesday afternoon — as I came to the front of the line of folks wishing Tim goodbye, he looked at me and said, “Some sweat.”

No doubt. Some sweat.

There’s little doubt that Agni is working overtime during my practice. I believe I turned this corner, went from someone who sweats during practice to someone who produces his own, internal heat, at my own Tim Miller teacher training in Tulum back in 2011. I was hot all week, and in many ways, I’ve been hot ever since.

(That’s meant in the internal fire way, not the ego way, I’m assuming it’s clear.)

But, as I nestling back onto my board after a barrely chest-high left, I thought: What’s all this fire getting me? And then I realized that wasn’t really the question.

The question is: Where’d all this stuff that needs to burn away come from?

There’s been some progress, no doubt. (And those who’ve been keeping along with this blog have read about it.) But, man, my iron does not want to be melted down, does not want to become malleable. And so all the pollutants and other crud that’s there, too, is still there.

It feels like my fire is pretty hot. But even this hot, it’s still not enough.

As I continued to catch waves, paddle back out, wait for the next set — pelicans flying by 15 or so feet from me at times — I wondered, if I’m going to keep this thinking in a Hindu or Vedic line, what exactly I did in my past lives to produce all this stuff but at the same time bring me to yoga.

I think that’s my own personal contradiction. I know three years of practicing Ashtanga still makes me a newbie, but for most — I know there are exceptions, a few of who commented on the “can you be too old to start Ashtanga” post — after three years, I bet Second Series is there, and First is pretty well under control. (I am talking heavily here about the most physical nature of asana, please keep in mind. I know there’s no such thing as mastery, only “mystery,” as Bobbie related Tim’s saying.) But as someone who doesn’t need much “reduction,” who has the strength to pick up and pull back and jump through, there’s still a ton of struggle in the grossest part of the practice.

And it is all, well almost all, in the stiffness. (I’m sure, physically, my breathing could become longer and more consistent.)

This is a very clear, narrow, focused physical problem. It’s what has brought me to the Rolfing, what has me trying to add different stretches during the day, what has me doing lots of everything.

So, again, the question: Where did this come from?

And the follow-up: What else do I need to do to get rid of it?

Until another good answer comes along, I guess I will continue to stoke the Sacred Fire, and hope that eventually it gets hot enough to break all this stuff down.

Speaking of stoke, and not to leave you on a downer, I think the past three days are the first time in a decade I’ve surfed three days in a row. (The last time, I believe, was on a surf trip to Rosarito Beach. Before that probably was the summer after I graduated college, which was another decade earlier.) When I go out tomorrow, and I will, it will be the first time in two decades — back to that same post-collegiate summer — I’ve gotten wet four days in a row. And I’ve got my eye on five.

Here’s a little taste of what I’m seeking during that part of my week’s retreat here (if you have a short attention span, jump ahead to 3:30):

Posted by Steve

Uh oh, studies suggest yoga not that good for you

Bear with me for a minute, angry Ashtangis who know better. I will address your concerns in about the amount of time it takes to get through a couple Surya Namaskara A.

I’ve just seen a story in Britain’s Daily Mail paper that wraps together a few studies with a few expert quotes to suggest that yoga isn’t all it is cracked up to be.

Here is the key reason why: It isn’t doing enough for your heart.

In other words — doing three sessions of yoga a week led to no significant improvement in aerobic capacity. An additional study by Porcari and his colleagues monitored the exercise intensity of a group of intermediate-level yogis as they took part in two sessions: one hatha yoga, and one power yoga, which is said to be more aerobically-challenging.

They found that 50-minutes of hatha burned just 144 calories, no better than a slow walk. Even the 50-minute power yoga class burned only 237 calories (half the amount of a circuit class) and boosted heart rate to only 62 per cent of its maximum, meaning it provided only a mild workout for the heart and lungs. But Brewer stresses that yoga does have its place in a fitness programme if you want to improve flexibility.

‘There’s some evidence it can be very good at achieving this,’ he says. ‘And good mobility can have a positive effect on other things such as injury prevention in sport and posture.’

Now, here’s where we get to you Ashtangis. We laugh at even power yoga, right? It all may as well be an Iyengar class.  If you are moving with your breath, you are building up that heart rate and getting your lungs pumping.

I know my heart feels like it is racing, and I sweat like mad during my Primary Series practice. And there is zero — less than zero — chance I’m only burning 200-odd calories per hour. (But, should I be working a higher aerobic activity in? Something like wind-sprints? Maybe… but it would interfere with me practice. Heck, surfing interferes too much!)

Here are a few more bits from the Mail piece that lead me to believe Ashtanga isn’t part of the “not so good for you” mix they are talking about here. This, from “one of Britain’s leading fitness experts, celebrity personal trainer Matt Roberts:”

“You may feel that you are keeping fit by doing a weekly yoga class, but you aren’t. The reason why everyone likes yoga is that it isn’t very hard.

“Yes, there are individual parts of your body that are being worked hard, but with every form of exercise you should ask yourself is it intensive enough? Is my heartbeat raised? Am I out of breath and sweating for at least 25 to 30 minutes at a time? The answer when you’re doing yoga is, I suspect, no.”

Did you catch that? I’m sure you did: “yoga … isn’t very hard.”

Well, Mr. Roberts, I certainly would encourage you to try an Ashtanga class before you say that. You might think differently, even if your regular exercise is crossfit, x-fat, burn-up, zumba… etc.

Ashtanga, by the way, does get mentioned in this story; and on this point, I have to admit to being in agreement: “But, worryingly, Dr Sherman also found that more vigorous types of yoga, such as ashtanga, and classes led by poorly qualified instructors, could make problems worse.”

That’s definitely an issue; but it is an issue with personal trainers, with dumb people lifting weights, with running, with cycling, etc.

One final thought, not to get too mushy-gushy. What the story isn’t really touching on the non-physical benefits of the practice. I know that, done with proper intention, anything can tap into the Atman (although they might not call what’s being tapped into by that name), but yoga — and I argue, Ashtanga especially — really seems to have a direct line.

And that might be worth a few calories an hour.

Posted by Steve

Yeah, you should be able to surf

Crystal Pier, courtesy Surfline

I know I’m not the only Ashtangi who comes back from morning practice and heads to the beach for a surf session. (Example: Today, although there isn’t much surf here in LA.)

So it didn’t take me long to look at where the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence is being held and think, “Umm… maybe I can just walk a few blocks and do a little surfing, too.”

Turns out, I — we — can. There are a few different types of breaks to choose from. And given it isn’t going to be summer yet, it might not be totally crowded. (I’m eying Friday as the best day to paddle out.)

Pacific Beach and Mission Beach includes longboard heaven at Tourmaline Surfing Park, which is a little trek from the Catamaran Resort, maybe 1/2 mile. Much closer, but a bit more aggro, is Crystal Pier. North past Tourmaline is Pacific Point.

Or, really, you will be able to walk across Mission Boulevard, a whole beach block — we’re talking 400 feet — and be on the beach, and walk from there until you find a little peak. That’s probably my plan.

Given it will be March, the water temperature will be in the upper 50s; San Diego has a fairly deep water shelf, so although it is south from LA, Orange County, etc, it doesn’t necessarily reflect it in the water. (Much like northern Baja Mexico.) Full suit, in other words.

What board to bring will depend on where you think you’ll go, and maybe any last minute checks of the surf.

At the worst, we can hope that the rumor about San Diego turns out to be true: That’s it’s always 70 degrees and sunny. At least we can go lay on the beach post-two Ashtanga classes and before the afternoon talks.