Wednesday, June 25, 2008

I remember - I learn

This week I started attending a new yoga class for women. I haven't been going to a yoga class for about 3 years, preferring to save gas money and continue a home practice. However, the home practice has been a little spotty and my body is feeling the need for more focused self-care, so off to class I go!

It was the very first session of the class. Most of us didn't know each other. We gave each other friendly little glances, but mostly kept to ourselves, still sneaking peeks at each other--how is she doing that? am I supposed to lean over more? how on earth can I do that?--yet mostly self-absorbed, which is actually ideal in this case. We are not trying to compete with each other, just trying to figure out what our bodies feel like in this yoga practice.

I liked the teacher. Very kind and nurturing, yet clear about what is ideal and safe. She's just getting to know us, too.

My favorite part of the class was doing some of the standing poses and feeling the muscle memory returning. Some balances are precarious, yet my body remembers to lean backwards just enough to keep me aligned. It was a good feeling. A powerful feeling!

How does my body remember?

For instance, how does it remember to stand up straight so my back is happy? To turn and acknowledge someone? To roll out pie crust? To thread new salt into the narrow neck of the shaker? To play ping pong or throw a frisbee? How it feels when grief moves through the body? Or how a dance connects and progresses? How to draw a fine ruled inkline without a blob at beginning or end? To tighten a bolt just so? To balance on one leg and a block?

I think the body just remembers. I know that's not an answer. Think of it more as a philosophical musing.

The brain keeps any neural pathway that's had active use, maybe letting it fade with disuse ("use it or lose it" some people say), but eager to open it up again when we have occasion to strengthen it. So some of those little-used pathways may have died back, choked with weeds, or more likely, overgrown with the everyday actions of our lives, but traces still remain.

It's reassuring in some ways. Yes, we can get caught in old responses, we can neglect old skills. Yet there is something still there to call back when we need it. And the body rejoices--I remember!

I remember what it's like to feel my body balanced and dynamic.

My favorite new part of the class was playing with what yoga people often call "flow," moving poses in synch with ones breath, in and out. I've never taken a "flow" class, preferring to solidify my physical understanding of each pose in Iyingar yoga, using props to support each pose and settling in to experience each one at length.

Here the flow seemed to make sense for the first time. We did eagle pose with flow, slightly raising our heads and entwined arms with each breath in, lowering them with each breath out. Moving with our breath was also a welcome change for several other poses.

Using flow seems to enjoy and encourage the ebb and flow in our bodies and our lives. Nothing stands stock still. Everything is constantly changing or flexing in cycles. Even something that seems rock solid may be changing slightly on a cosmic scale.

And our lives and bodies change too... constantly flexing and moving, cycling through different phases.

A new phase in life - exciting, scary, invigorating, wearying.

We see our old life, our old ways, while we are pulled towards our new ways. Or maybe the new ways are variations on the old. And so we flow through our cycles and explore new pathways. My brain is certainly being stretched, and my body too. We are all part of the same animal.

I think I'm ready for new experiences! Just trying to stay in the flow.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

It's All About Food Now

I've been obsessed with food lately. What to cook, when to cook, what to buy, more stuff to try. When to eat, what to eat. What to eat when I can't eat.

Ugh. I'm almost sick of thinking about food.

I had been cooking well this Spring and Summer. Better, fresher food, ridiculously healthy and delicious. Yes, even yummy, fabulous food! Now it's more of a chore. What, again? Eat more of that, less of that.

This is all new to me, so please bear with me. I'm sure it'll settle out eventually. Next up: travel adventures.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Brancusi? You're Done!

Of my two cats, Brancusi is the most neurotic.

One of his peculiar habits is to be overly freaked out by any hint of litter box smell. He is the one who will come and talk at me if the litter box is getting a little too stinky. Because I understand so clearly what he is going on about (unlike other times when he is clearly chattering away about anything and everything like a 4 year old), I have no problem with this and get right to changing the litter.

But sometimes he gets all frantic when he himself has just taken a pee or a poop. He covers it up like a good cat should, scratching up a little mound over the offending offal, etcetera.

But with his highly-sensitive nose, simply covering it is not enough. Because he can still *smell* it, you see? So he keeps scratching. And since he doesn't want to dirty his paws further, he will instead scratch the wall, the side of the porcelain fixtures, the door. It gets very irritating to listen to, not to mention damaging to the wall.

If you go to the door of the bathroom and yell at him, he will burst forth with a little guilty squeal of fear. Guilty because he knows that if Mama is yelling at him that he must have done something wrong (although with his little brain, he's not exactly sure what), and fear because sometimes I get so irritated with his obsessive scratching that I will give him a little squirt of water to deter him. Truly, sometimes the only thing that will pry him away from his scratching is to fling a little water on him. But then he will sometimes go out in the hallway to scratch some more.

Ah, what a sweet, compulsive cat he is.

Now, it's hard to ignore all this carrying on when one is trying to get some work done. Scratch, scratch, scratch, moving from box to wall to porcelain. The part of my brain that can identify sounds from across the house has this down pat. But if it goes on too long, I'll lose patience and yell at him from across the house. Granted, our house is not very big, so I don't have to yell far. Since this of course, rarely works, I then feel compelled to get up and menace him in person. Because we know how well that works (not). This is where the squirting comes in.

He knows I don't like this. He know he will get yelled at and probably squirted, but he can't help himself. Meanwhile, I am tired of escorting him out of the bathroom. And believe me, I've tried ignoring him, but the sound wears on my nerves too badly. (Although not as badly as his nails on matte plaster walls. Oy.)

Recently, I noticed that as soon as I came to the door, he'd go shooting past me with that little squeal *Mrrh!* even if I didn't squirt him. Hmmm. So his little brain has locked on to the pattern. Mama yells and he gets squirted leaving the bathroom. What if I changed the pattern a little? He already has learned that if I call him in a certain way, it means food, i.e. "Oookaaaay! It's time for dinner!!" In fact, I have to be careful to not use that intonation in everyday conversation or else the cats will mistakenly think "food!" They also recognize their name calls that I use to summon them for food or snuggles. They also respond very well to praise; in fact, they are both completely addicted to attention. Hmmm.

Thus began operation anti-scratch.

I wanted to train him (I mean, manipulate him) to stop scratching, and the first step was to be able to cue him from a distance rather than having to go to the scene in person. And using a call that would be distinctive enough to communicate a specific idea.

So I would yell, I mean, call out his name (branCUsi!), and then tell him "You're done!" The first couple of times, I stood outside the door and when he would come shooting out, I'd coo at him in praise and rub him down (he likes rubdowns like a dog). He ate it up. See, Mama isn't mad, just glad you stopped scratching already!

Soon, I could yell "BranCUsi! You're done!" from the office, and he would come shooting out with a little Mrrt!, running straight to me to get praised and have his ears rubbed. "GOOD boy, BranCUsi! You covered up your poop, ... and then you stopped!" haha Only now, his squeal has changed to a little bird noise of anticipation.

My husband thinks this is hysterical. Cat training works! he says. I'm not completely convinced that my directive is functioning as a direct command, but I keep reinforcing the new pattern, and maybe it'll stick. And even if not, I can at least shift my cat's neurotic tendencies for the better.

Now I wonder, what else can I tweak? I'm still working on myself.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Good Thing I'm Not a Horse

I'm barely into my 40s*, and already I'm falling apart!

(*Give or take a couple. Let's not quibble about the exact number, okay?)

My knees were the first to pipe up and scream--hellooo? No more blitheful knee-twisting for youuu! That was about 8 years ago, still in my Yout.

When I discovered that I could not walk down an incline without crying, I was bereft. I thought to myself that my dancing-hiking-lunging-walking downhill days were over.

But then I learned to strengthen the front of my legs to balance all the muscle on the backs of my legs. I learned to not run around on wet rocks, twisting my knees. I learned to avoid the deep lunges and the over-extensions that my legs do so, so well. I learned to do more yoga stretches. I learned to keep a little bend in my knees on rough downhills. I stopped stomping the floor quite so hard on the balances. I wore tendon straps, which even got me all the way to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Hey, I guess my knees are doing pretty well, if I pay attention and treat them well.

Then my thigh tendons (those things that my husband knows the exact name of) got into the act. Ow, stop that. And my feet. Have I mentioned my feet?

I have friends who dance all weekend and show off their blisters. I'd be happy to dance for hours (and I have), but I just can't do that any more. I don't even want to any more. It's too painful. Let's not even mention all the kids who stomp as hard as they possibly can. (Are they crazy?! No, young.)

I used to have to dance 8 hours a day, hard, to make my feel hurt. At a long weekend on a hard floor, I'd feel it even more, and traded dancing hours for having to nurse my feet back to health over the following week. I'd have all my moleskin and band-aid supplies, my strategies for getting my feet through the whole weekend of fun. Wouldn't want to miss anything, nooo. I got to be a pro at adding padding or second skin to any burgeoning blisters, taking what dancers call "Vitamin I" -- Ibupr0fin-- to reduce inflammation, and leaving my feet sticking out of the sleeping bag to cool overnight. If I'm lucky, I can get Joe to massage my feet, but that's not a permanent solution.

Last year, I had to hold back on Saturday to have enough foot energy left for the coveted Sunday dances.

This year I wasn't even getting many blisters. At first I was happy that I wasn't coming home with as many blisters, but then, the reality started to sink in... It was because I hardly danced enough to raise a blister except on rare occasion.

Why is that, you ask? It's not that I had lost my wind. The rest of my body could keep going for hours. It's my feet that were holding me back.

Now, after I dance vigorously for a mere couple of hours in an evening, my tootsies hurt. Not just a little achiness, but pain as if I have been dancing for days. Those darn metatarsals blare out painfully.

It's the nub ends of my feet-bones, getting sore, you know. I feel it every time I raise up on the ball of my foot during a dance, which I do roughly a thousand times per dance, or conservatively, more than 7500 times in the course of an evening of dancing.

They said it might be arthritis. This made me glum, because I wasn't sure it would be possible for me to give up dancing.

I saw a foot doctor this week, and was hoping he would have some doable advice for me. Something to manage the situation that won't force me to cut back on my life. I'm already cutting back on my dancing... sitting out some dances and resting my feet. It's frustrating because the rest of me feels great. My cardio can take it; it's my feet that are pooping out.

Oh, have I mentioned my hips and my hands? All of my joints are complaining.

There I was pulling weeds last week, yanking wire grass and vines out of my garden for about an hour, and for several days afterwards, I could not curl my fingers without aching. They were painfully tight. And awkward, when I had to hold or carry something. And a week later? I can still feel it! Damn. How did this happen?

It's another reminder that my body is not as spry and resilient as it used to be.

I can't figure it out, though--are other people my age feeling this kind of stiffness and aches and pains? I never hear about it. Okay, a little more yoga would be good, but I never think of myself as quite old enough to be suffering this.

When I told one of my older friends this, she reminded me that "old age is not for sissies." I nodded and said, "true, dat." And then I thanked her for not telling me I was too young to be feeling any pain, because there's nothing more annoying than having someone minimize your situation through active denial.

Another friend of an even older vintage told me that I might want to strengthen my core from an athlete's perspective. She's a runner, so she knows the wisdom to compare notes with other athletes and what it's like to be unwilling to just quit. Okay, so I'm already working on that.

I am a little scared, though, that this is only the beginning of a long decline. Where does it continue from here? What happens next? Do I get a chance to get used to this before the next restriction? Aaiigh! Not for sissies, indeed.

Okay, so I see the podiatrist, and he gives me a list of *seven* different things that are wrong with my feet. Most of them are congenital, most of them, the kind of thing that one often outgrows, although he says my doctor could have corrected it easily with (he says, minor) surgery in my 20s. Apparently, one of my feet has outgrown something, and the other hasn't. Therefor, I am still pigeon-toed, knock-kneed, adducted, twisted, sheered, over-pronated, under-whatevered... the list goes on.

I know there are at least seven things, because after I while, I asked him to write them all down for me. I certainly can't keep track of every last one of the medical terms, but you can bet I will be asking Dr. Google for further clarification because I can barely remember what means what.

He was kinda laughing as he enumerated all my issues, but when I chided him to not make fun of my feet because after all, I had to deal with the body I inherited, he softened and told me it was not his intent to make fun of me but to soften the bad news. Oh, FABulous. It's THAt bad, huh? But I appreciated that he acquired a little more sensitivity after that and spent a lot of time explaining things to me.

Part of me is happy that most of it appears to be congenital. This means it's not my fault to be born wonky. It's not like the rest of me is particularly symmetrical. Hur, hur, hur.

But boo to my wonky genes! It means that I can't afford to be a sissy at all. If I were a horse, they'd shake their heads and say, well, she's cute, but the gait is all out of whack--we can't use her. At least I don't have a sway back. Oh wait... I probably do.

I'm sure my husband will be happy to be vindicated by the need for more stretching. "More yoga!" he will tell me. Yeah, yeah. But not just that.

There will be stretching and orthopedics and all that. Looks like I will be spending big bucks to have my everyday and dance shoes outfitted, even with my major insurance. But yea for less pain and more dancing!

I am not up for surgery at this time, although supposedly it'd be a relatively simple matter to straighten the darn leg already. I am almost certain that none of my childhood doctors ever said anything about this to my mother. When I look back, I can tell that most of this stuff was obvious 25-30 years ago, but who paid attention to that? The big thing in the 70's was the sclerosis twisted-spine that would necessitate a back brace to straighten. (I'm sorry, my brain fails to remember the exact term, but I'm getting flashbacks to elementary school when we all had to undergo screening, and one of my friends needed to wear a spine brace for three years.) My spine was straight enough to pass that test. Apparently legs and gait do not get the same scrutiny. Well, apparently, legs also usually grow out of it.

If I tried, I could probably construct a unified theory for every weird physical thing in my life. Oh, so this is why my legs feel slightly unbalanced in my downward dog? My feet are throwing off my hips, too? Is this why my torso gets thrown forward and my toes want to curl under? Did that throw this other thing out of whack? Why one eye is tilted higher? Why my neck suffered and I overreact to insect bites? ? Why I hiccuped in utero? Oy! Save me from hypochondria! Yoga has been very good to me for alignment, but now I gotta... I don't know what. Relearn how to walk? Do the Alexander thing? It'll be ortho shoe inserts for starters. That explains why my feet cry in disappointment when I take off my Danskos--they are good for me, just not good enough.

It could be much worse, I know. Chalk it up to one more wonky thing in my physical self, and the vagaries of aging. This body of mine shimmies to the beat of a different drummer.

"I will not be a sissy. I will not be a sissy. I will not be a sissy..."