Tag Archives: milestone

On leaving the OAS and CICAD

After 15 years, my services at the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) in Washington, DC, have ended.  I leave with lots of questions since this change is a milestone in my life.  After all, this job was where I lasted the longest, and it has served as the scaffolding for my self-identity.

Each day working in an international organization is both a privilege and a blessing, in part because the job comes with excellent pay, benefits, colleagues and other perks, as well as  a challenging mission. The OAS was really the bridge that allowed me to make the transition back to the United States from living abroad for 18 years. When I started working there in 1998 as a temporary hire in the information technology division, I could feel the shift in my mindset because I felt at home:  it had an institutional framework that combined Latin American culture  and social relations. In 2005, I joined CICAD (actually the Executive Secretariat of CICAD since the Commission is made up of member states), which is a front-line catalyst for drug policy at a dynamic time. Technically, I was  the bilingual writer-editor for the web site, reports, proposals and other documents, but I was really a kind of information asset manager and institutional memory.

Photo: portrait of Michael Smith, taken by Javier Sagredo
On my last day at the OAS. My friend Javier Sagredo snapped a shot of me.

Continue reading On leaving the OAS and CICAD

Picking up the pace

The following conclusion should not come as a surprise to anyone who has taken fitness, well-being and the mind-body connection seriously: since stepping up the frequency of taking yoga classes and going to the gym after Christmas, I’ve noted a sharp improvement in my mood, attitude, energy and stamina. Vinyasa classes still tax my reserves of strength and breath, but I can now manage to get through them without falling to my knees (I will occasionally come out of a challenging pose early).

Since the start of the 40 days of yoga at Thrive Yoga on Friday, I’ve made it to four classes in a row. My muscles are still sore afterwards, but I recover quickly enough that I am not talking myself out of going to class the next day (I may not take in the 30-60 minutes of aerobic exercise at the gym as I’ve promised myself). There are about 14 participants of all levels taking part in the 40-day program, but we don’t necessarily all go to the same classes. Tonight, I was the only 40-dayer in the vinyasa flow class.

I look at the whole 40-day challenge as a way of bringing closure to all the misfortunes and milestones of the past year, since my parents’ deaths, purging the toxins, healing myself and acquiring new physical and emotional vigor. Throughout this period, I’ve never “given up my yoga practice,” just cut back to a kind of maintenance plan, emphasizing restorative yoga, pranayama and meditation, but there came a point when I was running on fumes. Once I re-dedicated myself and stepped up my practice in frequency and intensity, a different set of benefits seemed to click on.

2011 — the year of losing my grip

This past year has had some huge changes for me: the deaths of my father and mother in a four month lapse, my own attempt to play out my role as the “good son,” and the progressive deterioration of my well-being as I no longer could keep up with the “protocols” that maintained my persona (exercise, yoga, meditation, self-development, etc.). I was only partially aware of how these changes were affecting me, but they became concentrated in one symptom: my peripheral neuropathy and its manifestation of numbness, phantom pain (pin pricks in my feet that kept me at night) and sleep deprivation. This symptom distracted me from seeing the deeper “dis-ease” — I feared losing my hold on life’s moorings (as seen in my parents’  deaths), on my capacity to deal with life’s daily tasks and uncertainty, and on my condition as an adult who has to take full responsibility for his life.

This fear of losing my grip translated into a systemic physical trait — I held on ever more tightly through my myofascial tissues. I was the personification of being “uptight” —  stiff, constrained, and suffocating. My ligaments, fascia, tendons, muscles and other tissues were engaged to the maximum until I was strangling myself, to the point that large parts of my body was numb, unfeeling. There was a hidden lever in my head that was constantly winding me up, with minute twists to the gears, constantly engaged should some external force or internal flaw make the whole machine blow up under the pressure.

For years, I partially sensed this problem. That’s why I sought out yoga seven years ago. But this problem is so much bigger than starting an exercise regime, developing good work skills or changing eating habits because of a food allergy. That’s why I have put off writing about it here; just one entry is not going to cover it adequately.

A lighter touch

Since my diagnosis of peripheral neuropathy and the start of treatment with myofascial release therapy with Howard Rontal in August, I have begun a gradual process of releasing the tension, of letting go. My weekly therapy sessions were opportunities to explore the psycho-somatic nature of my condition and the mind-body connection. There was no promise of “curing the disease” but increasingly I saw the possibility of controlling my worst symptoms and even finding and developing a more relaxed state.

As of mid-December, my treatment with Howard has been suspended because of the Holidays and travel, so I’ve experimented with techniques that can help me self-soothe and self-heal (more on that in another blog entry). I’ve also made it back to yoga classes, put some time in at the gym and even done some jogging.

Mark Epstein has an insightful book, Going to Pieces without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness, and that title captures my predicament. I read it four years ago, and only now realize its meaning. There comes a point when you have to let go and reside in the present moment, no matter what happens, no matter the consequences.

On becoming a yoga agnostic

Photo: Michael moves into full wheel pose, with aid from friend and Desirée
Urdhva Dhanurasana or wheel pose

I have changed the tag line to this blog. It used to be “breath, energy, life, spirit = self-discovery through yoga,” dating from my innocent introduction  to pranayama and other yogic arts. Now it is “A yoga agnostic explores life, breath, spirit and beyond, one asana at a time.”

In the midst of my personal traumas and upheaval over the past eight months, I have undergone a quiet shift in my yoga practice and my beliefs: I have become a yoga agnostic. How do I define that status? I no longer pledge allegiance to a lineage, yoga system, teacher, guru, historical narrative or ideology. I simply believe in the empirical evidence that manifests itself every time I roll out the mat or shift into meditation. It can be really

A lot of freedom comes once I cut the emotional binds that lock me to a “5000-year-old tradition”  or a business model based on the American obsession with bodily perfection. I don’t have to cling to yoga as a cure for migraines,  back pain or leprosy (or whatever condition you wan to slot in there). I don’t have to doubt myself when I am not able to cure myself. I just know that it’s part of my daily hygiene. I don’t have to make a pilgrimage to Pune or Mysore in India to acquire true knowledge. I don’t have to read sacred texts or learn Sanskrit.

This change has been brewing for a long time, perhaps, when I injured my knee and realized that yoga does not protect me magically from injury or disease. Or when I read Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body, in which he challenged misconceptions about the origins and evolution of modern yoga, and realized that a lot of myth-making occurred when yoga was reincarnated in modern India and then was transported to the United States. Or when I hear old-school yogis complaining about the commercialization of yoga in the States.

Stars and storms are aligned against me

I was not able to take in a single yoga class this past weekend because Hurricane Irene blew through the Washington, DC area, Saturday was full of preparation for the storm, and my local yoga shop, Thrive Yoga, shut down for most of the weekend. During a cosmic event, such as a hurricane, it’s best to go with the flow — or at least, equip yourself with a life preserver.

Storm water has flooded my basement far too often so I had to invest time, energy and money in making sure that we diverted as much water as possible away from the house foundation, that we had enough pumping power in the window well to handle seepage, and that there was a backup system in case the power went out. We had power until about 7:00 am on Sunday, and then the electricity went off for about five hours, but by then the heavy rain had stopped. I worked most of Wednesday and then Saturday to put everything in place.

None of the above was a lasting solution, but on short notice, I did remarkably well, considering the intense demand for all hardware supplies. Home Depot brought in a special shipment of Basement Watchdog equipment, which was the key to keeping dry.

Cleaning up a soggy basement is such a drag that it was worth every cent of investment to set up an adequate sump pump system. I am going to have to bring in a landscaper for a definitive solution because my townhouse is the lowest point of the neighborhood so the water accumulates in my backyard, and then seeks to drain out, which happens to be the window well. At times, my backyard can be turned into a swamp.

A tree in the forest

I have added another wrinkle to my bedtime regime of yin yoga. While I am on my back in reclining bound angle pose (Supta Baddha Konasana), I rest a sandbag on each knee. I leave them there as long as I can stand the stretch. This angle of my leg and hip is extremely problematic for me. I do not have much range of movement in that direction. The best illustration of this obstacle is in tree pose: I have been unable to place my foot on my thigh; I may reach my thigh, but I can’t hold it there because my muscle torque pulls my foot off. My knee/leg, instead of being extended at 0 degrees to my body, is at 45 degrees. This issue also complicates my hips and balance since the rigidity does not lend itself to the micro-adjustments made to keep balanced on one leg, as well as in seated postures because I can’t rotate my thighs.

In class today, I was rewarded for my efforts by seeing that I could put my foot on my thigh, just above my knee, and hold it there. I still have a problem maintaining my balance, but the change shows that with just two weeks of work I am seeing results. In the past, I would have told myself that the obstruction was just the way that my body was put together, and I should never expect to get into full tree pose.

Yoga in America – a personal story

One of the interesting aspects of Stefanie Syman’s The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2010) is that each yoga practitioner has a chapter or episode in the book because we are characters in this story. We share the cultural experience and turn to yoga to resolve a personal issue, whether it be physical fitness, mental gymnastics or spiritual discovery.

Photo: yoga class
A wide-legged forward fold or Prasarita Padottanasana

Reading the first chapters, I was reminded of my own encounter with Thoreau, Emerson and their escape from the confines of conventional religious faith in America. In high school, I read Walden and selections of Emerson’s writing, but it was a hard read because as a teenager I was not able to understand all the true historical, social and cultural significance of the Transcendentalists. I was much more attune to local vibs of incense, prayer beads and peasant blouses and my own disconformity with US society than I was to Hindu philosophy.

I also had a real interest in Aldous Huxley and read a lot of his novels and philosophic works. I did not go into his interest in LSD and other hallucinogenics, but his sensitivity to alternative ways of  seeing appealed to me.  My reading of Huxley’s Ends and Means was central to my intellectual growth. Huxley and other British intellectual refugees, like Christopher Isherwoord and Gerald Heard, played a key role in giving yoga a foothold on the West Coast (Chapter 8: Uncovering Reality in Hollywood). Their presence also led into the next chapter, “Psychedelic Sages” — Timothy Leary, Ram Das and the other crazy men of the 196os.

I eventually had a glancing encounter with yoga after I graduated from college, in 1973. I told that story here: How yoga did NOT change my life. I think I actually went to my first yoga class in blue jeans. In any case, I did not get to explore yoga much more because I moved off to Peru a few months after that summer.

The next time that my life intersects with yoga is 30 years later  — in 2004 when I start looking for a way to deal with a series of physical and mental conditions. By then, the Syman story has practically ended, and I was just one of the 11 million (or whatever the figure was) Americans practicing yoga. I think what drew me to yoga was the increasing flow of scientific information about yoga’s health benefits.

Special events in October – a milestone

Now that Yoga Month has come and gone, we can get on with our regular practice. Shiva Rea is coming back to the DC area in October 9-10 at Flow Yoga. This will be one of the largest mega-classes this year because Flow will probably hold the event in an outside site to pack as many yogis, shoulder to shoulder, into a limited space. Sign up early (if you still can) and go early.

Photo: Brian Kest yoga class at Thrive Yoga - Brian speaking
Ganesha's playfulness matched Brian Kest's humor

I will be looking forward to the Brian Kest workshop at Thrive Yoga on October 23-25. A leading advocate of Ashtanga yoga on the West Coast, he has been a symbolic bennchmark for me. When I started out doing yoga five years ago, I used to watch the free yoga workouts on my cable service. For a while, it was one of Brian Kest’s videos. But they were so demanding for me that I could never get beyond the opening sequence before pooping out. The cable service rotated the video to other yoga instructors so I never got a chance to catch up with Kest’s pace. Of course, it took me a couple of years to just make it through a full vinyasa session.

Now I think I can handle it. That’s pretty amazing considering that I turned 60 last week. And I look at the coming decade of my life as even more challenging and fulfilling than previous ones because I am a more whole and healthy as a person.

Five years and going

On April 18, this blog will complete five years online. That also means that about two months ago, I should have celebrated my fifth anniversary of practicing yoga. I let the milestone slip by with no major hoopla. Part of this attitude is that yoga has infiltrated itself through many acts and moments during the day and I do not necessarily think consciously about it. It’s frequently a kind of mental nagging — “Walk more erect; you’re slumping again. Tuck that tailbone; you’re not supporting your spine correctly. Slow down; you’re just falling forward into the future without being present in the moment.”

I’d still like to fit in more classes, workshops and other learning experiences, but my practice does not have the urgency that it used to have. I find it hard to fit in time to read the latest issue of Yoga Journal, much less the stacks of books that sit next to my desk. It’s hard to find time to sit down, parse my practice and write in this blog.

I think this new pace is due to an awareness that my body and mind will accept and meld with yoga in their own time. I welcome my Level 1 classes because they allow me to get into the poses without striving (or by sweating less). I like taking my classes with my wife because she keeps my feet firmly grounded.