Friday, April 11, 2014

Physics of Yoga Asana (second write, more detail)

I have written previously on the physics of yoga and decided today to write again about this important topic. I feel that this work builds a powerful bridge between the understanding of physical forces and energetics that are utilized in yoga but not oftentimes understood. This work is powerful in that it involves direct sensory perception as immediate feedback which acts to create form out of feeling.

This article will start by defining a few terms from physics. Bear with me and hopefully it will all come together and make sense. I do think the definitions are important and at some point will elaborate further on them with diagrams.

The first definition I want to lay out is the concept of force as defined in physics.

Since I've long ago sold my physics texts, I will use Wikipedia to help out.
According to Wikipedia we have,

"In physics, a force is any influence that causes an object to undergo a certain change, either concerning its movement, direction, or geometrical construction. In other words, a force can cause an object with mass to change its velocity (which includes to begin moving from a state of rest), i.e., to accelerate, or a flexible object to deform, or both. Force can also be described by intuitive concepts such as a push or a pull. A force has both magnitude and direction, making it a vector quantity. It is measured in the SI unit of newtons and represented by the symbol F.
The original form of Newton's second law states that the net force acting upon an object is equal to the rate at which its momentum changes with time. If the mass of the object is constant, this law implies that the acceleration of an object is directly proportional to the net force acting on the object, is in the direction of the net force, and is inversely proportional to the mass of the object. As a formula, this is expressed as:
\vec{F} = m \vec{a}
where the arrows imply a vector quantity possessing both magnitude and direction."

Basically, since we are dealing with fixed masses in yoga (our bodies), what we are doing is influencing acceleration in a given direction. Lets stick with the definition above as including a change in velocity or speed as well as direction and leave aside the deformation of an object. We are considering force as it is communicated through bone, and bone for the most part can be considered stable for our purposes here.

Before defining the specific types of forces, lets take a look at the definition of Newton's third law.

(from Wikipedia)

" The third law states that all forces exist in pairs: if one object A exerts a force FA on a second object B, then B simultaneously exerts a force FB on A, and the two forces are equal and opposite: FA = −FB.[24] The third law means that all forces are interactions between different bodies,[25][26] and thus that there is no such thing as a unidirectional force or a force that acts on only one body. This law is sometimes referred to as the action-reaction law, with FA called the "action" and FB the "reaction". The action and the reaction are simultaneous, and it does not matter which is called the action and which is called reaction; both forces are part of a single interaction, and neither force exists without the other.[24]
The two forces in Newton's third law are of the same type (e.g., if the road exerts a forward frictional force on an accelerating car's tires, then it is also a frictional force that Newton's third law predicts for the tires pushing backward on the road).
From a conceptual standpoint, Newton's third law is seen when a person walks: they push against the floor, and the floor pushes against the person. Similarly, the tires of a car push against the road while the road pushes back on the tires—the tires and road simultaneously push against each other. In swimming, a person interacts with the water, pushing the water backward, while the water simultaneously pushes the person forward—both the person and the water push against each other. The reaction forces account for the motion in these examples. These forces depend on friction; a person or car on ice, for example, may be unable to exert the action force to produce the needed reaction force.[27]"

Understanding Newton's third law, we can then apply it directly to forces in a specific way with two more important definitions, the contact force and the normal force.

What is the contact force?

Again according to Wikipedia we have

"Contact force is the force in which an object comes in contact with another object. Contact forces are ubiquitous and are responsible for most visible interactions between macroscopic collections of matter. Pushing a car up a hill or kicking a ball or pushing a desk across a room are some of the everyday examples where contact forces are at work. In the first case the force is continuously applied by the person on the car, while in the second case the force is delivered in a short impulse. Certain contact forces describe specific phenomena and are important enough to have been given unique names. The most common instances of this include friction, normal force, and tension. According to forces, contact force may also be described as the push experienced when two objects are pressed together."

Normal force is (again, according to Wikipedia),

"In mechanics, the normal force  F_n\ is the component, perpendicular to the surface (surface being a plane) of contact, of the contact force exerted on an object by, for example, the surface of a floor or wall, preventing the object from penetrating the surface."


Ok, so we have all of these definitions. How do we manage to put all of these concepts together to form an understanding of how to work with asana?

Lets make sense of it...
We have an active component (muscle) that engages a change in momentum and acceleration, interacting with a solid object (usually the floor), which in turn triggers a contact force (because the floor resists the foot with its friction, assuming it is not too slippery) and simultaneously increases the normal force, which is felt through the bone, equal and opposite in direction to the direction of the contact points.  In other words, if we press into the floor with the leg, the floor will push back into the bone with equal and opposite strength. This "return" force can be directly felt through the bones and carried all the way through the body. The extent that we can carry this feeling of the contact force all the way through the bone pathways of the body gives rise to our sense of connection and the engagement of the body as a whole.

Lets break it down further. Try this exercise. 

Stand with our feet apart several feet distance, with our feet turned out 45 degrees and our legs held straight at the knee.

Push the feet both down and out with a bit of effort. The feeling will that of "ripping the floor in half with the feet". What muscles are being utilized? The plantar flexors of the lower leg, or in other words, the muscles in the deep posterior (back) of the calf. We can consider these the "shin" muscles. This is what is meant by "engage the shins". We push the feet and lower leg strongly into the floor and separate the feet from one another. Do NOT attempt to raise the thighs here (I'll explain why in a moment).

Notice that as we create the force (our mass plus the change in velocity of the leg in a given direction parallel to the leg and downwards both out and down simultaneously), that there is a return force coming back into our leg, equal and opposite to the force which is pushing down. This is a direct experience of both contact force (leg coming into contact with floor) and also normal force (the floor prevents the leg from going into it and gives rise to a contact force). This direct experience leads to the experience of Newton's third law, in which we feel the equal force pushing back into our leg as that which is generated by the leg downwards into the floor. How high up can we carry this feeling? It will depend on if we can keep the force of the legs in the downward and outward direction constant and how strongly we can do it.

In yogic terminology, there are two things that have to be observed here. According to Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras 2.46, we have "sthiram sukham asanam" or "the asana has both firm components and components which are at ease". Do we understand the difference?  The firm or sthiram component is the engagement of the shin which pushes the foot downwards and outwards.  

The firm or sthiram component sets up the contact force

We may be tempted to engage all of the muscles of the legs which include the quadriceps of the thighs and more. Our hips may want to engage. We may think that the more muscle we engage the better. However, every muscle above the knee that comes into the picture is actually going to interfere with the ease or sukham component of the asana.  

In other words, we have to relax everything above the knee, including the hips, in order to actually feel the contact force coming up through the bones. This is sukham or ease, which allows us to receive the contact force.

You may notice that at some point along the "return journey" of the contact force through your bones that there is a jamming feeling. This is where we actually are resisting the contact force. Good for muscle building as this sets up a standing wave of felt energy in the leg, but bad for the deeper feeling of connection that we want to establish in terms of connecting the feeling all the way through the body. 

One of the most difficult parts of the body to get the contact force through is the hips. If we consider the legs as beginning with the coxal bones of the hip rather than at the femur head (or another way of thinking is that the legs start at the navel), we have the capacity to relax the upper sections of the leg and hip much more greatly. Another way of thinking about it is that the navel is sending an intention out to the shin and foot. Information comes back through the leg to the navel. Out from the navel, and back from the earth to the navel. It is really just our shin that is working on the physical level, but the feeling is that the whole leg is being pushed out from the navel. The more we push out from the navel, the more that we feel coming back through the bones of the leg to the navel, as long as we can relax everything above the knee. 

What then? The twin vectors of force (force with magnitude and direction) which are returning from the floor from both legs (which are working in opposition to each other) add up to drive the contact force directly up the legs and into the spine. From here, we relax the periphery of the spine, including the ribs, the obliques, abdominals, organs and everything around the spine, to allow the spine itself to feel the fullness of the contact force surging through the central column. We keep pushing into the feet until we feel that contact force rise to the crown.  

It may seem a little bit strange at first, but we can also wire the hands and arms to this contact force by connecting to it at one of the lower centers. The texts usually recommend the navel center but it can also be done lower down. If we consider the arms as starting at the navel rather than the shoulder, we attempt to "separate" the arms and the spine at the navel. We then distribute the felt contact force upwards into three sections, the spine and the two arms. It will then feel almost as if the arms are "floating" on the contact force as they lift, with very little muscular effort. This can be done with the arms at either the sides or in the upward direction. It can be done until the feeling of the contact force drives right into the fingers. 

All of this work is driven by the legs. My teacher used to say, "the legs generate the power, the arms manifest it". If you understand the contact force, this will make sense. 

This way of working can be applied to literally all of the standing postures. This way of working has released deep seated injury and emotional blockages for me and given rise to a much deeper understanding of connectivity throughout the body. I had to unlearn many years of "raising the thighs", squeezing the pelvic floor, and many other unnecessary and actually obstructive muscular actions. 

Ok, so fine for the standing postures, what about the rest of the postures? The important point to remember with this work is to set up the contact points with the floor. In other words, we have to know, what (muscularly) is driving something into the floor and what is getting out of the way in order to receive the return contact force upwards? 

Lets take downward facing dog pose (adho mukha svanasana). Come into down dog. Relax the hands and feet and step the feet close enough in that the heels contact the floor (this may be difficult for first timers so if so ignore this one for now, I don't really consider this a beginner pose). Don't worry about hip tilt or anything like that. Begin to push the hands at the base of the wrist down and forward while simultaneously pushing the shins and feet down and backwards. Two different contact forces are established here, one in the arm and the other in the leg. Is it possible to relax the upper torso and arms and also the thighs to allow the contact force to rise through to the hip and navel? Can we equalize the twin contact forces so that there is a feeling of connection of the twin forces joining at the center? It will feel like the building of a bridge. Separate the spine from the arms at the navel so the feeling is that the arms and legs are what is building the contact force bridge. Then, utilize the feeling coming back up the leg and separate it into the spine and extend the crown from that feeling, separate from the arms. If you do the posture in this way it will feel almost effortless and simultaneously very energizing.

Lets look at some more poses.
Take dhanurasana or bow pose. We lie on the belly. We lift the legs behind us and grab the ankles. By pulling the hands against the ankles we are pulling the arms and legs apart. But the hold of the hand resists that pulling apart so there is a force which is driven down through the arms and legs directly into the navel spine which is in contact with the floor. From this downward contact point, we set up a contact force which then travels back upwards into the body. The key here is to separate the arms and spine at the navel. The spine can then carry the contact force in the upward direction. It helps if we can relax the "horizontal muscles" of the gluts (butt muscles) and the rhomboids (muscles between shoulder blades and spine) as these muscles actually inhibit spinal extension (backward bending). To do this, inwardly rotate the arms and legs just a little bit. The spine is then freed to rise upward on the feeling of the contact force, assisted by the erector spinae (spinal muscles). There are other factors as well, such as the turning up of the eyes (which engages the suboccipitals, which further drive the spinal extension deeper). 

The seated posture. Try sitting up straight with legs crossed and knees lifted and shins crossed in front of you. Wrap the arms around the outer legs and hold one wrist or clasp the fingers. Pull with the arms the legs in as you simultaneously push and resist the legs out against the arms. This sets up a force which drives the sit bones down into the floor, setting up a contact force which then surges back up through the spine. The more we drive the sit bones into the floor, the more the spine can receive the contact force in the upward direction, given we can relax enough of the peripheral muscles around the spine to allow it to receive the feeling that derives from that force. Then the trick is to slowly let go of the legs with the arms and allow the action of the sit bones and spine start to take over on their own. In other words, can the sit bones and spine become like an isolated system? Can we get the sit bones to drop without the peripheral muscles? Can we relax enough in our peripheral body to allow the central column to rise on its own? It is very important not to sit on cushions or height here, but rather to allow the spine to learn to support itself.

Inversions are also engaged in this way. Many systems of yoga teach utilizing the shoulders for sarvangasana. Lifting the c7 vertebrae of the neck while driving the shoulders down, especially on height actually does not create a contact force established by the spine but rather by the arms. And it weakens the spine. More powerful is to drive the cervical spine into the floor, setting up a contact force in the spine, relaxing the arm lines in the manner of niralambha sarvangasana (without arm support) to allow the spine to bear the full weight and allow the normal force to rise through the central column and carry it up through to the legs. In the beginning this will look more like "banana pose" but over time, it will really get through. It takes time and a lot of concentration and perseverance but the end pose will be vastly different than the "ram rod straight" pushing that many have been taught.   

There is so much more to say. 

Working with the physics of contact and normal forces are a very powerful way to enter what Patanjali calls the "instrumental body". This is the body of feeling. Forces are felt. The body of feeling is connected to what the ancients called prana. Prana is felt. Physical forces are felt. Deep in the bone. This is very direct work. If you follow the feeling of this work and learn to get out of the way of the contact forces, a deep sense of connection will arise throughout the body and a deeper learning will take place.  

Have fun with it and let me know what you discover.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Some Ramblings on Gender and Life

Another personal post...

I have so many things to say on yoga, meditation, pranayama and many other practice related topics. I do think it is coming. However, my life continues to be the laboratory of my work. My personal work.

Disclaimer: Don't read if you don't want a raw, unfiltered look into someone's experience of life, which continues to unfold but doesn't necessarily get any easier or shiny and bright like a polished gleaming Buddha. 

I have a lot to say today but first I'm going to address the lovely email I received from a family member in late March after I announced that I was going to start using the name Madeline, after my great aunt:

"I am disgusted after having read your blog of March 24, 2014, dishonoring the name of ... Maddie.  Maddie never whined, never used foul language and never complained.  Maddie was a hard worker who was always happy, friendly, helpful, kind, gentle, loving, and a courageous human being who left the world a better place for having lived. It distresses me greatly to read that you are dishonoring her name.

Your immature, childish, insensitive, intrusive and cowardly way of dealing with your latent sexual proclivities brings shame and dishonor to the Huish and Droubay names."

Whoa. Ouch. What a lovely email! And from a family member no less! (btw, I just want to say that I truly thank the more than 99 percent who have been AWESOME with me! This letter is a bit of an anomaly...)

Am I whining or complaining in my personal posts? Perhaps a little bit. Exposing my personal process and thoughts to the world at large is a slight dilemna. On one hand I could pretend like I always have, that these thoughts and processes are just 'thoughts', just 'feelings'. That by themselves they mean nothing. That the entire movement of my life so far, which has led into many places of falsehood could have somehow been avoided by stoically persevering 'through it' and 'being a man'. I could 'be a yogi', 'be a saint', 'suck it up'.
Well... I've tried that. Yes, I have. Many times.
And guess what?
Life usually got worse...
I think that there is this tendency in modern culture even today to sublimate and sweep under the rug the uncomfortable places in our existence, to somehow pretend these places don't exist, to pretend to be people that we are not. To show only our happy sides, our light sides, our 'spiritual' sides. Exposing one's self fully is an act of vulnerability. Not just to the universe at large but to ourselves and God. Vulnerability is a tricky thing...

There is this thought that by writing about these things that perhaps I continue to attract them. I think personally there is a fine line here. On the one hand I think if we wallow in darkness we never allow ourselves light. But there is simultaneously a danger in ignoring the dark places as if somehow if we choose not to address them, thinking that they will actually go away. I'm really not so sure that is the case. Because? Well I've tried that with much magical thinking and frankly? It didn't work... So I'm going to continue...
As much as I feel grateful for who I am, there are many days that I do complain, that I despair, that I rage in anger and frustration at discomfort on a very deep level.

"Suck it up". "Deal". "You don't have it as bad as others do."
Yes, those thoughts pound into my head and attempt to annihilate my feelings, to make them smaller than they are. I know how to "be a man". Push the feelings down until they boil somewhere deep in the organs, hiding away in some dark corner. Have another drink! Distract myself! Smoke another cigarette! (yes I've been smoking for the past 3 years, since "she/me" hit me in the face and said, "wake up I'm here and always have been!", yes I hate it (the smoking) and yes it is the only thing that grounds me) Ignore the clothes in my closet in favor of ones that really make my skin crawl. Hide behind my facial hair...
Regarding my 'foul' language, I have no excuse. And honestly I will not apologize, nor ask for pardon or forgiveness for that. I will fucking speak as I like. You are free dear reader to take that as you will... No offense is surely intended though...

Am I being immature and childish? Perhaps. Perhaps I could be a mature and 'adult' enlightened being who is always upright, head high, showing only the face of light and always doing the 'right' things. But the fact is, I have learned from many demons in my life and for some reason I feel that my way lies through these darker places. I will continue to make mistakes, fumble awkwardly through my existence, screw up my speech from time to time, offend some people, and just in general continue to be the perfectly imperfect being that I am. Honestly I am not sure if I have actually ever met an 'adult' on this planet. What does an adult look like? I sure as hell know that a bunch of children are running this planet into the ground... And I do suppose addressing this letter is a bit 'childish' of me. But what the hell...

Intrusive? I'm not even sure how to answer that one as it still puzzles me... Intrusive into what?

Am I a coward? Hmm... Putting women's clothes on a male body and walking out into a world that still devalues women, especially women who have men's bodies, changing my name, preparing to live as I truly want to live, exposing myself to the world does not seem very cowardly... Insane maybe... But who am I to say? I won't say I have courage necessarily, I feel frightened quite a bit really, but for the first time in my life I am dealing with intense, really intense stuff and facing it. So no, on sitting with that, I'm not going to own that one either. 

And then there is my favorite, my "latent sexual proclivities". Oh I want to laugh at this one... I think there is this problem among many in that they confuse gender and sexuality. Granted, gender and sexuality are related but they most definitely are not the same thing! Oh how I wish my gender dysphoria was just about sex! 

And sexuality can become a bit confusing. Am I gay because I'm attracted to women? Probably. I also find that as I let go into my true self that even men become more attractive. Does that make me gay? No. I am a woman so thus that would make me heterosexual... Is bisexual the right term? I'm not sure that I even care to define what my sexuality is honestly. The point is, that me identifying as a woman has nothing to do with 'latent sexual proclivities' nor is it a fetish, or a mental disorder. 

Ok, enough of my relative's letter. My rant is over. I'll take it as a learning experience now and move on...
I will say this though on reflection in commenting on it. That I am glad I did it as I think that many transgender individuals deal with far worse and I think it is important to note that I have met so many  courageous individuals who have survived processes that make mine look like a rosy cake. 


So what's been up for me lately? Life has been a bit of an up and down. I'm settling into my new place, adjusting to living alone (except when I have the kids which is lovely!). Having had some time now away from my wife, I realize that the first three months of this year were pretty contracted for me. During that time, I had let my 'male self' or rather the construction that I now see it to be, take over to protect me. Its amazing watching internal mental/personality dynamics arise and take over. Quite a process really. And so much of it happening without apparent conscious control. 

As I've let go a bit in the past month, cried many tears over the loss of what I had thought I wanted my life to be, I've come a bit more into a space of clarity, which in turn has released the very being that initiated all of this in the first place. My self, my feminine has come forward more fully again. Has she ever been absent? No. But the 'male' has a way of taking charge in order to protect me. This gets confusing for me and others because it is like a mask that is difficult to penetrate. It is also difficult because others see this mask and confuse it for me...

I talk about these things using language that is hard to verbalize. Forgive me if it is difficult to understand. Know that it is even harder sometimes for me to sort. I've had this question for some time, "Just who is this male? And who is this female?" "Are they two aspects of one? Are they both constructed? Is one constructed and the other genuine? Are they both genuine? Are they both false?"

These questions rail on me. At the 'bottom' of it all, I always recognize the light of Consciousness. That's a given. But that's easy. EASY. Its what is occuring 'one level up' from that that is the tricky part. 

On that 'one level up', these words have begun to come to me, "It is not who you are but who you want to be that is important." These words are not about the base level me, the Consciousness, but rather the movements. The driving forces. In other words, there is no "me" right now. There is only the becoming "me" from moment to moment to moment. Me is a process of becoming. It is a direction that "I" tip towards. Where do I want to tip? Where do I want to move? And yes, there is the question: What drives the tipping? Oh the questions...

When I sit with the "old me" I find that the thoughts of tipping towards 'that me' revolt me. I've been there and done that. For 44 years. When I find this "new me", the female me that I see and feel deeply, there is a lightness. An openness. Possibility. I find that by tipping towards 'that' that I am somehow fulfilled on some level. 

Do I understand why? No. I don't. I don't think there are easy answers here. And it is frustrating. Because in this process, I don't feel like tipping towards both. I don't feel like creating a new male. I actually don't feel like I am genderqueer or a mix or a two spirit or that I identify with ArdhanaraSiva (half Siva, half Sakti).

I feel female. I feel like tipping towards that pole. Again and again and again.

The gender level of personality I find fascinating. Its like a strange filter that the world is seen through and experienced. So many things refer back to it. Its a place of identification that is made in the first microseconds of our interaction with every single individual we encounter. It is also a filter through which our own thoughts and feelings move. 

I have tried to strip it away completely but the very act of engagement with this world requires it on some level because it is so hardwired into our existence. Our bodies, our clothing, public bathrooms, and an infinite number of other things are connected back to this.

In light of this I will yet still ask, why is this all so important? Why do I keep railing on the same thing with myself, gender, over and over and over?
Perhaps the words of Helen Boyd, an excellent author and wife of a transgender 'husband' will make this clear, 

"the one thing you learn when you hang out with someone who might be transsexual is that almost nothing is more important than gender: not relationships, not children, not employment, not career goals or financial stability. When something isn't right with someone's gender, nothing could be more wrong or more important."

Ouch. Ya, that hits home. Hard. Fucking sucks. I have sacrificed every one of those things in my life so far in my intense discomfort around my gender. No amount of spiritualizing, yoga, meditation, relationship, loving, caring, praying, working, beating myself up, numbing myself, rationalizing, philosophizing, therapy, distracting, or really anything helps one Goddamned bit. Not one bit. Not one. Fucked up letters from relatives don't help either for that matter! ;)

What is the solution? To face it. To face what is presenting itself. To face my truth.

Easier said than done.

I get in these depression loops which don't help. I get depressed about myself, then I have a hard time motivating to work (thank God I can at least always get up to teach in the morning though!) or to write. Then I make less money, which means that I can't address my transition process further.  Which leads to more depression. Ouch. 

I fall into bad patterns then. I think its only the grace of God or some such thing, I haven't figured it out exactly, that then gets me to a point where I can at least somehow tip things in a positive direction. For example the other day I started my meditation practice again. My sitting practice has always helped to at least put things in somewhat of a better perspective. But I'm not always sure how I manage to do it, to get there to that point, to actually sit in the first place. Sometimes it seems like sheer force of will, overriding every fucking mucky demon that is grinning at me with large teeth and laughing at me. Thank God for Grace (whatever that is...).

Can't really afford therapy now (ok therapy helps a little, :)) so I sit with myself. With the intense waves. Let them come, let them go (if I'm lucky). Holy hell, some of them get so high that it takes my breath away. Somehow I'm still here when they pass (if I'm lucky). And I get up (or I crash and burn). 

Where things sit right now, I feel like clarity, Source, the light is telling me to move forward. To move into my Self. My Self that I have ignored and fought with for so long. It is starting to feel less like a struggle to allow myself to face myself now. But I have a long road yet to walk. I'm comforted, knowing that we are all on our own road and that yes we all have a nice journey to take in.

Take a breath.

"I" tip towards, step towards, walk into, reclaim, fall back, accept, love, and let go into my Self. 

She/me is like a radiant rainbow that sparkles in the eye of God, that limitless light. 

I try to hug her every day, even through the tears.

Monday, March 31, 2014

International Transgender Day of Visibility

So my awesome friend Devi pointed out to me today that my start date for the local Seattle Trans* yoga class is on International Transgender Day of Visibility. That's today!

Wow. I wish I could say that I picked it that way but I feel more like Devi is right, that somehow it was 'divinely inspired'!

And I didn't even know myself what this day was until I looked it up...

From Wikipedia,

" International Transgender Day of Visibility is an annual holiday occurring on March 31, dedicated to celebrating transgender people and raising awareness of discrimination faced by transgender people worldwide. The holiday was founded by Michigan-based transgender activist Rachel Crandall in 2009 as a reaction to the lack of LGBT holidays celebrating transgender people, citing the frustration that the only well-known transgender-centered holiday was the Transgender Day of Remembrance which mourned the loss of transgender people to hate crimes, but did not acknowledge and celebrate living members of the transgender community.
In 2014, the holiday was observed by activists across the world — including in Ireland and Scotland."

In looking it up on the web, I came across this website of the Human Rights Commission Blog:

where they have a lovely little booklet that you can download or look at online which discusses the coming out process for us trans-folks.

The link is here:  transgender-visibility-guide

I decided to look at it.

Here are a few pieces :

"From the time they are born, children are taught that there are girls and there are boys. But our history books, like our communities, are rich with people who have blurred, blended, or crossed those lines."

Interesting quote. Not many may realize that there are transgender people in every small corner of the world and have been throughout time. Many native cultures have different terms for these 'third gender' folks. In the ancient cultures, sometimes the 'men' would adopt the woman's role and tend the Goddess temples as priestesses, even castrating themselves. Some say that Joan of Arc was transgender. Many many examples if you look deep enough.

Mercedes Allen wrote an excellent several part series on trans history. I'm sure it is only the tip of the iceberg. But you can find the first part here (thanks Mercedes!):

Back to reading through the HRC blog pamphlet, I found more interesting pieces:

"There is no one moment when its 'right' to be open with yourself. Some transgender people have long struggled to live the lives they think their supposed to live instead of the lives they know they were meant to live. And some come to question or recognize their gender identities and expressions suddenly. Transgender people come out during all stages and walks of life- when they're children or teens, when they're seniors, when they're married, when they're single, when they have children of their own..."

Ya, that hits home... Not only for me, but for many that I have met. I always knew I was gender 'strange' having 'cross-dressed' for most of my life (I still hate that term...), but then ...

"Some transgender people who wish to disclose this truth about themselves to others have reached a breaking point in their lives where its too difficult to hide who they are any longer..."

Uh... Ya. That was me last year...

"Some benefits of disclosure:
Living an authentic and whole life
developing closer, more genuine relationships
building self esteem from being known and loved for who we truly are
reducing the stress of hiding our identity
having authentic and open friendships with other transgender people
becoming a role model for others
making it easier for transgender people who will follow in our footsteps
being more productive at work."

Yes. And yes and yes and yes and yes and yes and yes and yes and yes!

"Some risks of coming out:
not everyone will be understanding or accepting
family, family friends and co-workers may be shocked, confused or even hostile."

I'll stop there for a moment. I would say in my own personal case, that over 90 percent of folks have been awesome!!! Which was a relief... I know lots of trans folks who have had it really rough coming out. And I am grateful beyond belief. However, in my case some have been confused (understandable, hey imagine how confused I have been!)

And one family member recently was extremely hostile towards me (pretty lame, but I tried to suck it up and deal... Hopefully she will come around but I can't be attached to such stuff...).

"Other risks:

some relationships may permanently change"

Ya, that hits home a little too much... But it isn't black and white either... I'm trying every day to see the positive side of it.

"You may experience harassment, discrimination, or violence
you may be thrown out of your home
you may lose your job
some young people may lose financial support from their parents."

These parts bother me. I've witnessed it with trans folks I have met in person and on-line. Very sad stuff and one of the reasons I think it is important to increase trans* visibility.

I hope and pray that with our changing times that we can come together more as one planet. More love, more compassion, more acceptance for the incredible diversity of people that share this world.

There is much more insightful information in the handbook/pamphlet downloadable from the link above to the HRC blog website, including the beautiful range of gender expression and much more...

I give thanks to God for making me who I am. And I am grateful to the yoga, my wife, my children, my Guru, and my friends who over the years encouraged me by seeing me. I give thanks to all those who have been awesome to me during this wonky time of transition.

I also give a huge thank you to all of the courageous trans* folks out there who are blazing the way for a new future, a future filled more with tolerance, awareness, acceptance, and even love.

Much love to you all!

Monday, March 24, 2014

What's in a Name? Latest Personal Update.

Hi Folks,

Ok, another personal update. People seem to tend to read these more than my yoga and meditation posts, which I find interesting... :)

So I'm finally going to teach a class geared towards the trans* community. Trans* yoga!!!
I'm pretty excited about it really. And I realized that there is this little piece there which I feel the need to discuss.

My name.

In support group, we are allowed to "try on" different names to see how they fit. Back in January when I first went I was quite confused about the whole thing. Honestly? I still feel confused sometimes. It isn't easy in some ways having gender confusion.

Why confusion? Why don't I just know? Well... Maybe it is the 44 years of being conditioned male that has overridden my innate self. Or maybe I'm just half male. Or maybe I'm just deluding myself. Maybe it's none of those. Or maybe it's all of the above. But the fact remains that when I'm given the preference, that I just feel better when I allow that female side of myself forward.

I'm not one of those people who has "always known they were a girl". I'm not claiming to be a "woman in a man's body". Even if sometimes it does feel that way. Oh there are stories I can tell myself but ultimately I don't seem to have any absolute answers. And no, I don't think it's my kundalini rising...

Truthfully? Some days I just don't know who the fuck I am. But I do know that I feel better dressing as a woman, spending more time in female company, and just in general allowing myself to "go there". Call that what you will. I just call it trans*. I could break out into a longer discussion of gender here but I think best to leave that for the moment. This most definitely isn't just about being a "sensitive male".

In support group, I have the option every two weeks when we have breakout nights (where the very diverse group splits up into appropriate identifications) of going to either the genderqueer group or the trans feminine group (I probably couldn't go to the trans male group as Uh, that isn't me, right?). So I debate with myself, "Should I go try the genderqueer group?" After all, I do sometimes still feel these male feelings. But inevitably, I just always pick the trans feminine group. Because somehow that seems to be where I more fit in... But I think I will check out the genderqueer group one of these nights. Who knows?

Why am I saying all this stuff? Maybe because you read it... Maybe because I still have a hard time beating myself up about it all. It has been a long road to come to the point where I have even been able to accept myself. 25 years of yoga to get here. Hmmm... I can only imagine what it would have been like without the yoga. In fact, I'm not sure I would even be here to tell the tale.

Ok, so anyway, back to my name. As I mentioned in support group we try on names. I knew right from the start in group (after getting over my initial confusion) that I was Madeline. (that's with an i like pick and not pike) Why Madeline? Madeline was a very cool great aunt of mine, a lesbian in semi rural Utah of the mid part of last century who baked the best chocolate cookies I have ever eaten. I still want to find that recipe someday...

I could pick an exotic eastern Indian name... I could pick some strange yoga name. But guess what? That's not me... I think I would rather keep it 'ordinary'. I very much liked my lesbian aunt from Provo, Utah.

In fact, just to confuse things more, on my flier and most probably on Facebook (perhaps even today) I list BOTH my names. Why? Maybe because I'm still unsure, maybe because I'm still too chicken shit to just fully be a woman, maybe because it drives me nuts to watch others get uncomfortable around gender weirdness so I like to give options for people. All of the above? None of them? Who knows? But there it is.

So for now I'm going to be Madeline/Matt. Does that mean you should call me Madeline/Matt? No. It means you get to pick one. And yes it can change from moment to moment. It also means you get to pick my pronoun in conversation (although I have female pronouns on Facebook just to be confusing). So Madeline is fine. Matt is also fine. Maddy is fine. As is Matti. Just don't call me Matthew. I don't like that one. If that changes, I'll let you know. How's that for options? Wow. Maybe I am genderqueer, genderfluid? Ha ha ha...

If that sounds strange so be it. But then again, I've always been a little strange... And I'm beginning to like it more and more.

Much love.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Meditation Part 2

Hold a small object still in your hand, with the arm outstretched.

Is the hand moving or still?

If you answered still, you may want to think again. If your hand becomes still, the object drops.

When we drive a car and keep the car steady in the center of the lanes, are we keeping our hands still or are they moving?

If our hands become still, the steering wheel will veer.

Attending to the movement that holds an object within a particular configuration is meditation. Specifically in Yoga, it is termed Samprajnata, as per Yoga Sutra 1.17.

The movement itself is called parninama, also defined in the Yoga Sutras as a 'transformation of state'.

When I began the process of meditation many years ago, my mind attempted to attach to the stillness of mind and object. When the stillness wasn't present, I would have difficulty. This was like starting to veer off the road and instead of course correcting, I would just have driven off the road...

In Yoga, we talk of two distinct aspects of the practice of staying on the road or holding an object steady. These twin processes are called abhyasa and vairagya.

Abhyasa, oftentimes translated as 'practice', is the setting of an intention and holding to that over a period of time. For example, "I will stay within the lines of the road", or "I will hold this object steady in my mind", or "I will regulate the breath in this particular way".

Vairagya is oftentimes translated as 'dispassion' or 'non-attachment'. I don't feel these translations even come close to expressing what this part of the practice really is. To me, vairagya is much more like course correction. It is witnessing movement pulling consciousness away from the chosen form/object and redirecting the movement back, according to our intention set with abhyasa. In other words, if our abhyasa/intention is to stay in the center of the road and we find ourselves veering off, we course correct and come back to center.

In the driving example given, we realize that every day when we drive our vehicles, we employ these twin principles. Abhyasa holds us to center, vairagya brings us back every time we veer. To a lesser extent we employ them when we pick up a plate or a cup of coffee. If we didn't have enough concentration to hold to these simple tasks, nothing would get done.

To fully understand meditation from the yogic perspective, I find it helpful to examine these places in our daily lives where we are concentrated, even if for brief moments. More important than thinking about these processes, I find it important to learn to feel them. What does it feel like to drive a car and keep it steady? What does it feel like to work for an extended period, even when you feel that part of you wants to escape it?

The felt motion out from chosen point and the corresponding return felt motion back to chosen point are important sensations to notice. They are pre-mental and give us a deep clue to the processes known in yoga as mudra. When we start to really get inside of and work with these movements directly and immediately, we gain a much greater degree of control over the mental processes which usually distract and dull us. In fact, we start to witness the relationship between the mental forms and the underlying feelings of movement that give them birth.

Meditation is movement. It is not about stillness. Even when we 'become still', what are we doing but relaxing? Relaxation itself is movement. Surrender is movement. Allowance is movement. When we truly come inside the inside and it seems that everything stops, there are micromovements which cause the further arisings of form to cease. Patanjali calls these the nirodha samskara. The subliminal habituation to the clear state.

Pay attention to movement. Not to the content of mind but to the feeling of mind. Which is movement. Attend to the feeling of how the mind concentrates, 'steadies', and focuses. Attend to the feeling of the movement toward laziness and distraction. Not with judgment but through pure observation. Attend to how movement 'turns around'. Begin to feel the magnetic like pull of habituated movement. What is that magnetic force? Can it be increased? Decreased? What controls it?

As we drive the attention inward on itself in this ever deepening process we dive through the various levels of mind that are discussed in the Yoga Sutras. I will talk about these levels next time.

Happy investigation.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Personal Update

Ah personal posts… I do plan to write more meditation and yoga articles soon. Somehow life itself is my practice though and it is all somehow relevant..

Worked a ‘real job’ for the first time yesterday in 18 years. In other words, did something other than teach or write.

An awesome devoted yoga student of mine here in Seattle took me out window washing. A gig he has held for 22 years.

At first I resisted taking on such a job. After all I’m a yoga teacher right? That’s all I’ve done for 18 years. Nothing else.

But financial stress, the changing yoga climate, and the realization that life may have more to offer than just my limited perspective led me to do it.

And it was nice as far as jobs go. No customers to deal with, quiet, a beautiful Seattle day. And it actually felt good to clean people’s gunk off of their windows and look at the house afterwards. It was also strangely fun looking into the lives of others, albeit from a distance, through my own lens of interpretation, and through glass. Whether my perspective was 'true' or not, it made me  realize on some level that those with money don’t necessarily have less stress. And it also helped me appreciate the growing simplicity of my own life.

The low number of sign ups for my Portland workshop got me thinking about a lot of things. Things that have been in my face for a long time. About what it means to be a yoga teacher. Falling back on it time and time again as a ‘career path’. 

I’ve decided that no longer am I going to rely on teaching for my money. Well, at least for all of it anyway. I’m going to teach where it makes sense to teach and focus on earning a living where the doors are open. And not attempt to force open doors where they are not opening. I honestly don’t say this out of bitterness but rather as just a truthful examination of myself and what I’m seeing around me in the world. It isn’t just yoga teaching. The whole world has changed a bit in the past 10 years and finding work is a different kind of task than it used to be. I hope to embrace this new perspective, of not relying on teaching, with joy.

I do have plans that still involve teaching and those venues are going to be outside the box of how I have traditionally taught. Transgender classes, online presentations/lectures and classes. More writing. Focusing on my local classes and students. Letting go of being a teacher, I’m going to just focus in my extra time on what is working and the students that I have.

Signed a lease on a studio apartment. I move in March 10. My wife and I are still going ahead with the separation. What that means is not a black and white answer so I won’t comment any more on it. Its very complicated. She and I in some ways are getting along better than ever before. Not that it isn’t stressful, but sometimes space is the best thing for a relationship.

As far as my personal journey of gender and identity, it is ongoing and rather fluid. More so than I originally thought. It isn’t so black and white. And yet sometimes it is. Very strange. I definitely don’t feel the same, which I suppose could be said of anyone from moment to moment. But its not as stressful as it was 2 months ago. I’ve reached some acceptance around being whatever and whoever I am. And my understanding and identity continues to evolve and shift. Coming to a deep understanding a few weeks ago that sex and gender truly are not identical was profound for me. There is a lot more to say on this but I’m going to leave it for now.

Much love to all who have connected with me, the support, and friendship during this strange time in my life. I am beginning to feel more empowered and ready to give back to the world in a completely different way.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Meditation Part 1

I have been receiving questions lately on meditation, samadhi, and mudra. These topics have been covered previously but I will attempt here to elaborate. I may write several posts on this topic in order to elaborate. In my opinion, with the yogic method of meditation it is extremely useful to understand a few terms and their meanings. This first post will discuss a few terms in general and then later posts will go into more depth.

Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras, talks about two distinct forms of meditation or samadhi.

The first is called samprajnata and the second is asamprajnata.

The first, samprajnata, is when we learn to hold an object with the mind.

The second, asamprajnata, is when we learn to hold the mind in its basis.

Both forms of meditation involve control, or skill in utilizing the radiant reflection of consciousness that we call the mind.

When the mind is steadied one pointedly on a chosen object form, we have what is called ekagra.

When the mind resolves into its basis completely and becomes objectless we have full nirodha, according to Vyasa, the main ancient commentator on the Yoga Sutras.

To achieve this control of the mind there are several concepts that will be useful for us to learn.

First of all, we need to understand abhyasa and vairagya.

Abhyasa is akin to staying in the lines when we are driving a car.

Vairagya is akin to course correction that keeps us from swaying to the side when we deviate from the center while driving.

In other words, abhyasa keeps us on our chosen object of meditation, and vairagya brings us back when we stray.

Another useful term to understand is parinama. Parinama is translated sometimes as 'transformation of state'. In practice parinama is felt. We notice a distinct shift from one state to another. In our driving example, we would feel the car begin to veer to the right or left and would make the necessary course correction to right the car in the middle of the road. We use our kinetic felt sense to determine 1. when we are going off course, and 2. when we are bringing ourselves back to center.

When we are able to access this 'feeling body' in order to correct the mind during meditation, we have entered what Patanjali calls the instrumental state. Prior to this we may be 'in our heads' or thinking about names and forms, or the content of thought or the mind. This level is what Patanjali calls the objective state. The difference between the objective state and the instrumental state are like the difference between the form of a wave and its substance (water). When we are able to access this direct feeling body of the instrumental state, we can begin to notice the distinct movements that give rise to the forms and names of the objective and thus more readily bring them under control.

It is a mistake to think that we can separate ourselves from the object of meditation. This is like trying to pick up a book from the floor without using your hand. When we hold an object with our mind, we are actually attending to the movement within ourselves that contains the object. In this way we 'feel the object', rather than attempt to hold its form and name in our mind. In practice, this may feel almost like you have swallowed the object deep into your feeling body.

The practices of mudra help to get us deep into our feeling or sensory body, thus giving us access to a deeper level of control of the mind. There is a continuous biofeedback loop that is created through mudra that allows for a continuous recognition of the feeling layer of our being, a place where we can connect intimately with objects that we are choosing to steady and hold.

For more information on how mudra plays a role in meditation please see the following posts:

The number of objects that our mind can hold are infinite. Just as we practice with many asanas and the process for doing them is one, we can also practice with many objects of meditation and yet the process for holding those objects is one. As my teacher used to say, "if you know the one, you will know the many." It is far more important to understand the process of meditation than it is to 'develop success'. The success will automatically arise with regular practice and understanding of the process. It is very helpful in this way to understand what is being described here as well as the landmarks (understanding objective vs instrumental modes).

So far we have mostly been discussing samprajnata, or the meditation with form/object. What about asamprajnata, the meditation where we drive the mind back into its basis? Both meditations are actually the same, but in asamprajnata, instead of holding something, we purposely don't hold anything. One might be tempted here to focus on the form of nothingness or some conceived notion of emptiness but this is incorrect. There is a little 'jump' that is required.

In not holding anything, the 'one' thing we can 'attend' to is the basis. Or rather the basis attends to itself. This is described in sutra 1.3. The Light is always on. In other words, we just rest and 'allow' the light of consciousness to just shine as it always does. It doesn't ever go out. We just rest in that Light. Or the Light rests in itself.