1.28.2010

Mindfulness and Inversions Revisited

Practice the past few days has been pretty damn good. Stepping onto my mat every day is getting easier and easier. Not that I don't face resistance from time to time, but the comforting regularity and consistent progress I have experienced since I began practicing daily (six days a week) is enough to keep me coming back for more. It helps to have a loving and supportive person in my life, who will often look at me sleepily sprawled on the couch in the evening and ask, "have you done yoga yet today?" To which I will usually respond, "hmmm? No, uh... I was just about to go do that." And whether or not it's really true when I say it, I make it true by getting my lazy ass to the mat.

Committing myself to a daily practice has required me to be more mindful and flexible in all areas of my life. I must be more aware of how I spend my time, and more flexible in my allotment of it in order to have sufficient time to practice without infringing on my studies, work, or relationships. I must be mindful of what I eat and drink, of how much, and when, so I don't consume more than I need or have to practice on a full stomach. And I must be flexible of mind, so that I may be able able and willing to practice in any state of mind or body (almost. There are exceptions. Say... a broken foot, or swine flu).

Perhaps the most significant benefit of all is that my daily meditation and asana practice is the only time I have each day in which I can justify completely letting go of the concerns and criticisms that hound me mercilessly the rest of the day. I tell myself that this chunk of time that I have dedicated to my practice is fully occupied, and there is no room for interference. Much of the time, this becomes my mantra. As thoughts arise, and lead me on a treacherous path to other thoughts, I find my way back to silence, reminding myself that worries serve no purpose here.

Anyway, so practice has been good. I've been having extended practices for the past few days (2+ hours), really taking my time, and working deep into the poses. I have been reintegrating inversions, which has been going really well. For some reason, headstand is much easier than I remember it being a week ago. In place of the inversions, I had been doing some extra seated twisting postures and core strengtheners for the past week. Maybe this core work made the difference in my stability. Also, I was reviewing what Mr. Iyengar has to say regarding sirsasana in his Light on Yoga (linked to in the sidebar), and something he wrote struck me:

"In Sirsasana, to balance alone is not important. One has to watch from moment to moment and find out the subtle adjustments."

This is entirely opposed to the way I had been approaching headstands. I thought that my goal was to balance on a single point, steadfast and unmoving. I had been trying to achieve a literal point of stillness. Apparently, I've been going about it all wrong. I have been kicking into handstands against the wall the past couple of days, which is also somehow easier than I remember it being last time I practiced it. Yesterday, my kicks were pretty graceful, with no crashing against the wall. Today, the kicks were a bit sloppy, but once up, I was able to balance away from the wall for several seconds before needing to bounce a heel off the wall to regain stability. I'm still struggling with shoulder positioning in both headstand and handstand. In sirsasana, I know I need to keep lifting and broading through the shoulders, but I can't seem to retain that action very well just yet. Regarding handstand, Mr. Iyengar says simply to "extend fully through the arms." It sounds easy enough, but isn't there something to stabilizing the shoulder blades against the back, or drawing the armbones in?

1.26.2010

Try Your Hardest to Relax

I hit the mat today with a restless mind, and the distinct need to sweat out some nagging tension, so I turned on the humidifiers and cranked up the heat. Meditation was brief. My body itched to get into the asanas, so I responded with a powerful standing sequence that lasted over an hour in itself. A twinge in my right hamstring melted away, and the crick in my neck that I woke up with today loosened. My lower back was, not tight, but tired from the backbendy class I took yesterday (or, technically, Sunday, but as a nocturnal being, Sunday is still yesterday to me. I'll be going to bed when I finish this post, officially ending what I consider to be Monday). I didn't notice this until well into my practice, when I came out of a flow consisting of crescent warrior, warrior III, half moon, revolved half moon, and urdhva prasarita ekapadasana. I love practicing this particular flow. It requires steadfast focus and breath control as the heart rate rises, not to mention strong legs and a solid core. And the five breaths in downward dog afterwards are always revealing, asking everything I have to let go, soften the breath, and quiet the mind. The effort of relaxation: the paradox of yoga (or perhaps just one of many). I rounded out the standing sequence coming down into eka pada rajakapotasana with a forward fold, opening the hips and releasing the lower back after all that work.

I kept things heated during the seated sequence with arms balances, lift ups and jump throughs. I also worked into my core with side plank (with tree legs), marichyasana D, compass pose to stretch the sides, then astavakrasana. Bridge pose felt good again today. My first urdhva dhanursana started off a little strange. There was some tension in my armpits to work through, but the second felt great. I walked my feet in and went up on the toes, opening the chest. I was tempted to try lifting one leg in UD again. The first and only time I tried it, I was so utterly denied that I haven't even thought about trying it again until today. Maybe I'll experiment with that tomorrow.

I'm still off of inversions. Hormonal birth control is real drag (I once tried to get the hormone-free copper IUD, unsuccessfully, but that's another story for another day). I should be back at the headstand and handstand in the next day or two. Here's a question: Why exactly am I not supposed to practice inversions while menstruating? I know that I am, without question, not to practice inversions during this time, and some traditionalists would say that I should not be practicing at all, but I have not read any specific reasons for this. I generally feel fine during my "lady's holiday," which seems to be the preferred term among blogging yoginis. In fact, sometimes I feel especially focused and powerful, so why are the inversions such a no-no?

1.24.2010

Whole Lot O' Backbends

Practice today was the Heart Opening Backbends class at Yoga Today with Adi Amar. The class was about 59 minutes, and after a brief meditation and about 20 minutes of surya namaskaras and lunges, went right into a barrage of backbends. It began with a few crescent variations on each side (hands clasped pressing into the front thigh, arms overhead, then with a twist), then onto the floor for 2 locust variations, half frog on each side, full frog, full bow pose, then onto the knees for camel pose. There were no counter poses held between these backbends, and only a couple of vinyasas.

The effects of practicing so many backbends in a row were interesting to note. At first, my body resisted. My shoulders hunched, and my breathing shortened, but after a few relatively long holds, the front of my body, especially my shoulders and chest, really opened up, and my energy level went through the roof. Exactly what I needed today.

This class also involved some one-armed downward dogs, with one arm grabbing the opposite leg for a twist. This is a position that never feels right to me. I am rarely inclined to practice it in my own sequences, but I have encountered it in both video and studio classes. Asymmetrical downward dogs put strain on my elbows and shoulders, even with the arm bones tucked firmly into the sockets. Isn't downward dog about finding symmetry, balance, and ease in the body? I suppose the asymmetrical version is an asana in and of itself, presenting its own set of challenges. My only fear is that practicing it more often will result in injury rather than strength. Any tips? Micro-bend the elbows? Magic bandha powers?

1.21.2010

The Way of Things

My practice the past few days has been familiar and methodical. I've avoided setting daily practice goals or planning my flow sequences, and have instead stuck with the basics, focusing heavily on grounding, alignment and, of course, the breath. It's been helpful facing my practice without expectations, and has been the difference between spending time on the mat or not lately, which is really the most important thing.

The breath was the highlight of my practice today. After a lovely fifteen minute meditation, the breath came easily and rhythmically, and stayed long and soft throughout the practice. I have been incorporating more standing forward bends with hands clasped behind the back, working on opening the front of my shoulders, which have always been a problem, and I am starting to notice the difference already. Bridge pose felt very good, with no twinges in my neck or palms. I focused on keeping the knees together, neck long and the shoulders pressing down and back. Everything felt in order, and I was even able to keep my outer wrists pressing into the floor without too much effort from the triceps.

Jump throughs and lift ups are now integral in my practice, and my core is definitely responding. My abs today were noticeably fatigued, so the jump throughs were sloppy, but I expect to emerge from this soreness stronger and lighter. Happily, that tends to be the way of things.

1.20.2010

Clean

Practice today was sweaty, delightful, and satisfying. The weather was unseasonably warm and humid, so I kept the windows open all day, and practiced luxuriously for over two hours in the moist, fresh air. I held the asanas for as long as I wanted to, practicing extended flows and emphasizing strong hip openers, passive shoulder openers, and deep twists (even practiced revolved triangle, which I count, along with shoulderstand, among my most hated and rarely practiced asanas).

I warmed up the hips with a standing balancing sequence of warrior III, half moon, revolved half moon, and urdhva prasarita eka padasana before working through a few pigeon variations and fire log pose. I substituted a series of sphinx pose, locust pose (first with arms at the sides, then with hands clasped behind the back), half frog pose, and bow pose (twice) for the usual bridge and urdhva dhanurasanas, working on opening the front of the body, and keeping my shoulder blades relaxing down the back. I forgot to do the usual seated twists, but did practice compass pose and astavakrasana. I'm off inversions for the time being, but can't wait to get back to working on my headstand and handstand.

I've been meaning to get to the studio for another class one of these days to smooth over the traumatic memories of the last class I attended, and to test my new eQua mat towel in the ultimate hot/humid environment, though I suspect it will be more than adequate (at the end of my practice today, my clothes were completely soaked, but the towel was suspiciously dry. I enjoy watching the sweat fall to the towel, splatter, and completely disappear, rather than wait for me hazardously on the mat). I haven't felt like going the past few weeks, and now that school is back in session, my timely return to the studio is even less likely. Though I am still considering attending the Ricky Tran workshop in a couple of weeks.

Monday, I cleaned my apartment from top to bottom. I'm talking everything from washing the dog, to vacuuming under the bed, to scrubbing the shower, toilet, sinks, kitchen, and floors. I washed the blankets and sheets, the towels, and every piece of laundry. I busted out the attachment to the vacuum and got all the nooks and crannies. It felt great. Very cathartic. I highly recommend it.

1.18.2010

I'm a Little Neti Pot

Winter has been a rough time for me the past few years. In central Texas, the cedar pollen, which begins to disseminate in mid-winter and lasts through March, throws a large chunk of the population into a spiral of respiratory trauma known as "cedar fever." Try to imagine the worst allergies you've ever had, and add a touch of the pneumonia, and you might be close to the level of mucusy misery sufferers of cedar fever experience throughout the late winter and early spring months. Last winter, I thought I was dying. I was plagued with a chronic cough, lung congestion, and sinus inflammation, which resulted in an always-sore throat and constant headaches for three months. Sometimes when I would wake in the afternoon (I work nights), my eyes would be swollen completely shut. Never in my life had I been so sick for so long. I tried to remain optimistic, reminding myself that it was just allergies.

I don't take any medication, even mild painkillers, unless I absolutely cannot carry on without it. I keep a bottle of Aleve around in case my migraines flare up again (as if Aleve could begin to conquer the pain of migraines), but, thankfully, they usually expire before we use them up. But cedar fever broke me: I tried everything I could think of to help keep me functioning. Over-the-counter allergy medications had absolutely no effect. Mucinex helped with the coughing, but made me feel tweaked and anxious. Nothing seemed to help.

It was at this point, after noting the suggestion from a few friends, that I began using a neti pot every day. While I suffered from these wretched seasonal allergies, the use of the neti pot soothed and rinsed my ravaged sinuses. At the time, I rinsed every day upon waking, and before sleeping to ensure that I could breath easily while I slept, and reduce post-nasal drip, which worsened my rumbly cough. It took a few months before my body felt completely healed from this ordeal (I pulled a muscle in my lower abdomen and another between my ribs from the heavy coughing). Despite my good health since, I feared the arrival of winter this year and the sickness it would bring. However, here we are in mid-January, and I haven't even had a cold... and I work in a restaurant, where those things really get around.

I now rinse with the neti pot once a day, and have shifted my daily yoga practice to a more cardiovascular style, and the difference in my respiratory health has been quite remarkable. I've had sinus and respiratory issues my whole life, and I can honestly say that the daily use of a neti pot and a regular yoga practice are the only things that have made much of a difference in my health. Exercise is not new to me; I have always been active, but nothing has boosted my immune system like yoga or neti have. I highly recommend them both.

1.15.2010

The Poorly Planned Practice

Practice last night was disjointed and aimless. After cutting my time on the mat short the day before, I had intended to hit the mat early and have a long, leasurely session. The practice was long (a full two hours), but my focus was challenged, and my body was not speaking to me. I felt heavy and sluggish. I began with 10 surya namaskaras (five A and five B), which I normally flow through with a growing sense of joy and ease. Last night, however, the salutations seemed like a chore... a long, tedious chore. From there, I moved from asana to asana, trying my best to honor the vague intention I held for the day, to simply do yoga, for a long time.

This focus on the amount of time I should spend on my mat overwhelmed my practice last night. I found myself repeatedly glancing at the clock, frustrated, thinking, "it's only been 20 minutes!?" As a result, the flow was not good. I was including what seemed to be irrelevant asanas here and there to fulfill my meaningless time requirement. I could not tell what my body needed, so I just did whatever I could think of that didn't badly interrupt the sequences I was practicing. It reminded me of when I used to work out on the elliptical trainer at the gym, sweating and staring at the little red numbers, watching the minutes and seconds edge slowly closer to the glorious end (note to self: never again).

Perhaps this is a sign that I should start planning my practice better. When I first began doing yoga at home, I alternated two beginner's sequences in The Woman's Book of Yoga & Health, one being more forward bending, the other including more backbends. From there, I bought a couple of asana guides, and built on these two sequences, adding in asanas I wanted to learn. For a couple of years, I alternated these evolving sequences, and so always knew what I would be practicing on any given day. At some point, maybe a year ago, I went freeform, or more specifically, ashtanga-based vinyasa freeform. And it's been wonderful, being in tune with my body, expressing myself creatively through yoga, but maybe it's time for me to hit the books again. A clear plan might be exactly what my practice needs right now. I'm thinking about developing two distinct sequences to alternate, and perhaps incorporating a weekly "unplanned" practice, to work on new asanas, and maintain my yogic creativity.

On a side note, there's a workshop coming up at the end of the month with Ricky Tran on the Art of Floating and Flying at the studio I (infrequently) visit. I am tempted to go. Has anyone practiced with this guy? I have watched a couple of his demonstration videos, and they are awe inspiring (with cool music, too!). Any thoughts?

1.14.2010

The Jogger

One early morning, when all was dark but for the electric orange of the street lights and a faint yellow glow, barely visible over the horizon, a friend and I were walking. A figure shuffled toward us on the sidewalk. A jogger. As he approached, the conflicting details of his personage emerged: he wore a red baseball cap over long, dirty, naturally dreadlocked hair (as in, not combed or washed, not the the carefully tended dreads of your modern-day hipster), a dirty white t-shirt, and shorts, perhaps athletic shorts, and old, worn-out tennishoes. His face was smudged and smeared, and generally covered in a layer of grime distinctive to those who reside outdoors.

At first, I was struck by the sight of a homeless person out for a jog. Then I saw the long, thin white cane he held firmly at his side, with the tip hovering just above the cement. He was blind, or very nearly. I considered this unusual sighting, bemused and confused by the rare but possible combination of blind, homeless, and athletically inclined, until I saw, as he passed slowly but steadily by, that from his dry, cracked lips hung a cigarette, lit and burning.

I have yet to fully process this sighting. I consider this man from time to time, and the many possiblities of his reality, and try, with futility, to make sense of it all. This blind, homeless, jogging, smoking man, in his own way, inspires me to be a more flexible, well-rounded person. His existence makes limits and labels seem meaningless. I know it isn't yoga, but it does stretch the mind.

1.12.2010

Just Practice

Had a good practice last night. I was noticeably tight in the shoulders and hips after my "rest day" on Sunday, which involved no yoga, but a ten-hour shift at the restaurant. A nagging resistance kept me from practicing until later in the evening than I would have liked, but as always, once I got my ass to the mat, everything fell into place. I started with a nice 10-minute seated meditation, lengthening and equalizing the breath. Then 5 surya As, and 5 surya Bs (2 more each than I normally do, but the flow was so nice and I was in no hurry, I decided to go for a full ten). Then...

warrior I
warrior II
extended side angle
vinyasa, repeat other side.
warrior I (2 breaths)
warrior II
triangle
half moon
vinyasa, repeat other side.
utthita hasta padangusthasana A, B, C (1 breath), and D
prasarita padottanasana A, C, and D
utkatasana
vinyasa
warrior I, back heel raised
warrior III
half moon
revolved half moon
urdhva prasarita ekapadasana
vinyasa, repeat other side.
slow motion vinyasa (5 breaths in high plank, 5 in chaturanga, 5 in upward dog, 5 in downward dog)
bakasana, jump back to chaturanga, vinyasa (2 times)
vinyasa, jump through to seated.
upavistha konasana
bound angle
navasana, lift up (4 times)
vinyasa, jump through to seated.
east stretch
marichyasana A
marichyasana C variation
marichyasana D variation
vinyasa, jump through to seated.
"rock-the-baby" (sitting upright, cradling the calf of one leg to the chest)
compass pose
eka pada sirsasana (variation with leg on shoulder, not behind head)
astavakrasana
eka pada koundinyasana II
vinyasa, repeat other side.
janu sirsasana A
vinyasa, jump through to seated.
bridge (2 times, 5 breaths each)
urdhva dhanurasana (2 times, 8 breaths each)
vinyasa (couple extra breaths in down dog to stretch the back), jump through to seated.
seated forward bend (ten breaths, 5 interlacing the fingers around the feet, 5 binding at the wrist)
vinyasa, exhale to the knees from down dog
headstand by the wall, 10 breaths
child's pose
vinyasa
several attempts to kick to the wall for handstand, followed by 3 successful attempts, held for a few breaths each, trying to find the sweet spot.
child's pose
vinyasa, jump through
tolasana
savasana (aaahhh...) for ten mintues.

1.10.2010

Yoga for the Weak and Feeble

Waking up yesterday afternoon, I was feeling downright feeble. I didn't eat much the day before, and sleep was not restful. I seem to recall waking up shivering a couple of times, and these things definitely took their toll on my body. I was tempted by this feeling of weariness to take my rest day one day early, but resisted the temptation and chose, rather, to ease myself into the day's yoga with a long, rejuvenating supported reclining bound angle pose instead of my usual seated meditation. This was exactly what I needed. A few minutes into the pose, with my eyes closed, breathing into every inch of my body, a little meditation smile came to my face. I felt supremely relaxed, empty, and very much at peace with the world. To think, I almost deprived myself of this lovely experience because of a little fatigue. Some of my deepest meditations have been at times when I have not been feeling well (ill, stressed, exhausted, etc...). Can anyone else speak to this?

I went on to have a damn good practice. I started with three surya A's, and three surya B's, then moved into a strong and lengthening standing sequence, focusing on maintaining lift through the bandhas, and keeping the breath soft. I threw in eagle pose, then grounded my hands and moved from there into flying pigeon (a delicious hip opener), and followed that up later with a couple of pigeon variations on the floor. In spite of feeling a bit weak, I kept the asanas flowing, though my jump throughs today were a bit lacking. Nothing to report on jumping into bakasana. Still slipping. Jumping back from bakasana, though, is easy as pie now that I've got the technique down (or a technique, anyway). Practiced a couple of extra seated twists yesterday, working towards binding (damn these tight shoulders!). Headstand yesterday was pretty good. I lifted up near the wall, bounced my right heel off the wall once to stabilize, then stayed up for 10 good, long breaths. It actually felt pretty stable and comfortable, but for a couple of wobbles. Then I went on to give handstand another try. I had some trouble coordinating myself kicking up, so I practiced some more preparation jumps. Once I kicked up to the wall, I played with pushing off of the wall, balancing for a bit, then tipping back to the wall, just playing with sensation and balance for 10 breaths. I did this twice. I wasn't sure if full backbends would be appropriate for me yesterday, so I tested the waters with a gentle bridge pose. It felt good, so I went on to do two urdhva danurasanas, walking the feet toward my hands, and lifting onto the toes. After a seated forward bend and a vinyasa, I finished up with my new favorite closer, tolasana. Savasana was divine.

1.08.2010

Musings on Anticipation

Each day, as I prepare for my practice, I get a little rush. My heart flutters, and my mind races at the possibilities, known and unknown, that lay before me on the mat. I have accepted this pre-practice exhilaration as part of the ritual, and yet, it seems to be, somehow, un-yogic. Shouldn't this thing that I do every day be mundane by now? Shouldn't my practice be as familiar as my very breath?

The breath. The constant. The guide. Where will the breath lead me today? Perhaps it's this idea of surrender that excites me. Maybe this knowledge that, even though I'm the only person in the room, it's not entirely my decision what I can and cannot do or where I should and should not go, that infuses each practice with a sense of newness, and fills me with anticipation. But I should not be filled with anticipation. I should approach my practice with a non-dualistic mind, experiencing sensations without attachment, letting go of pain and pleasure. But it feels so good. I can let go of the pain. I didn't want it in the first place, but the pleasure? I'd rather keep it, thank you very much.

Is this the perfect balance that we seek, this point between effort and ease, this singular nothingness, absent of pleasure and pain? Treating all things equally, do we aim to let go of sensation altogether? It is a bittersweet thought, and makes me want to take a long savasana, in a resigned sort of way.


On a practice note, yesterday's practice was pretty damn good. I kept things very focused and tight, not lingering too long in down dog between sequences, as I sometimes tend to do. I did a strong standing balancing sequence with warrior three, half moon, urdhva prasarita ekapadasana, then utthita hasta padangusthasana A, B, C, and D.

Regarding my progress jumping into bakasana: SO CLOSE! Tried twice yesterday. The first time was about the same as usual, the second time, I landed right, but I just wasn't present enough. I wasn't ready to succeed, so I lost balance and my left big toe came down again. It's coming, very soon. I'll be ready next time. However, I was inspired yesterday watching a video of this woman jumping back from bakasana to give it another try myself. Success! I've never been able to shoot my legs back into chaturanga from crow. I realize now I've been over thinking it. I had been trying to lift my hips really high, thinking I needed the height in order to have time to straighten my legs, but as I was watching that video I noticed she was just shooting her legs straight back, no flourish, not much extra lift. I tried it her way, and it worked perfectly. I did it twice in my practice, then I did it again after practice to show my boyfriend the cool new thing I learned.

Regarding handstand: I hovered! The first time I kicked up near the wall, I waited for my heels to crash... and nothing happened. I felt weightless, and suspended there for about 10 seconds, then let my heels come to the wall, and stayed there for about 8 long breaths. Kicked up to the wall again for another ten breaths to build strength.

1.06.2010

Quick Class and Handstand

Today's practice was Embodying Fearlessness with Sara Kline at Yoga Today. The class was just over 58 minutes, and featured lots of shoulder openers and backbends in preparation for urdhva dhanurasana. It was labeled a "hatha flow" style class, but vinyasas were really only used as warmups, and they were done mostly on the knees. I missed the flow of the vinyasa throughout the practice, but did have the opportunity to try a couple of fun things I don't often try unless prompted. One sequence involved jumping into crow, then lowering the head to the floor into tripod, lifting into headstand, then back into crow, and jumping back into chaturanga. This sequence was performed twice. I have not yet achieved the jumping transition into crow, but I was able to enter tripod from crow with control both times. I was hesitant about where to place my head, and I did not try to lift up into headstand the second time. I also tried rolling onto either side in full bow pose, something I've never bothered to try before. It felt good to rest my head on the floor as my shoulders opened up.

After the class, I did some handstand preps, jumping into pike position several times, then doing a similar exercise I've come to know as "donkey-kicks"-- jumping onto the hands, lifting the hips and tucking the heels to the bum. These felt good, so I tried kicking up into handstand about six inches from the wall. After several times kicking up, straightening my legs, hovering for a second or two, and coming back down hard, I was able to get my feet to the the wall and begin to feel out the correct shoulder positioning. I did this twice, about 8-10 breaths each time. Major progress, and yet...

I'm no good at existing upside down. It's completely disorienting. I forget everything I know, and my elbows turn to jelly. Today was the first time I was able to compose myself enough to balance against the wall. And you know what did it? Good ol' drishti. I focused on finding my gaze (in the center of the big gong - another dumpster find!) in down dog, before thinking about kicking up, then, like magic I was upside down. The few times that I've tried handstand in the past, I've always wanted to look at the floor between my hands, or indeed, at the wall behind me that my heels were soon to be crashing against. It's never turned out well. I've almost collapsed right onto my head a couple of times... not good. But today was different. I think I'm going to like handstand.

Eggs and 'Taters

Damn good practice last night, in spite of my hunger and resultant irritability. I kept putting off having a decent meal yesterday because I wanted to do yoga before I ate anything substantial. When I finally sat down for pre-practice meditation, I was ravenous, and my man friend chose this time to start frying up some appetizingly aromatic eggs with peppers and potatoes. I was tempted to scrap the yoga until later and join in on the chow, but I persevered, and found my focus by incorporating inhale and exhale retention into my ujjayi pranayama for a few minutes. Soon, I forgot about the food I wasn't eating, and ended up having a really lovely 2-hour practice.

My shoulders were a bit tight at first, so I did some bound standing poses and, later, east stretch, and they opened up nicely. The jump throughs were good today, whereas yesterday I couldn't nail a single one. My legs felt strong, but hips and hamstrings were a little tight, so I did a few pigeon variations, fire log pose, and hanumanasana. Urdhva dhanurasana on the toes was epic last night. My heart was so shiny and open, I would have accepted Jesus Christ as my savior if he had chosen that moment to make his appeal. Headstand was okay. I tried it once, near the wall, and stayed up for about 12 breaths, but had some trouble finding stability. I still can't lift up into headstand gracefully, and it takes a few breaths just to get comfortable. I am making slow but steady progress, however, and I intend to start practicing handstand very soon. I finished up last night with tolasana again. I know I've mentioned it, but I'm really enjoying rounding out my practice sessions with tolasana. It's such a perfect way to prepare for savasana.

As an update, last night was my second practice with the Manduka mat towel. I did not dampen the towel prior to my practice this time, and it did move around a little more, but not enough to really bother me, and I found that the grip was adequate even when the towel was completely dry. I'm very pleased with my purchase.

1.05.2010

This is Not a Manduka Product Review: My Triumph over Slippery Sweat

Three weeks ago, I attended my fifth and most recent yoga class. To be frank, it was not a good experience. I have found that the extreme heat and humidity at the studio where I have attended these few classes to be, at best, uncomfortable after practicing at home for so long, and, at worst, downright dangerous. I am generally annoyed by sweat on my face, and, unfortunately, I sweat a lot. As soon as I begin my practice, my palms and feet begin to sweat. Once things really get going, sweat drips down my arms and chest, and comes pouring forth from my thick mess of hair when pushing back into downward dog. Though I have been trying to come to terms with the sweat, and even enjoy the sweat, in the heated and humidified studio, it all becomes too much. A frightening array of puddles forms on my mat which I cannot avoid, and when wiped, are quickly replenished.

I received a Manduka Black Mat PRO for Christmas from my generous father this year. It actually arrived about a week before Christmas, which was good, because I was inordinately excited about getting down to work on my serious black mat. I scrubbed the mat with warm water and a mild soap, then sprayed it down with hot water before hanging it to dry. I was not about to allow some sneaky, slippery residue to get between me and my ultimate practice. The mat dried remarkably quickly (I never washed my old mat because it took a couple of days to dry completely! I chose the filth over two days without my mat. Lazy, or dedicated? You decide). This, too, was good because, again, I was really raring to go (I mean really ready. I wanted to kick yoga's ass all over my new mat).

So my first practice with the Black Mat was fun. The extra firm support the mat offered was noticeably more comfortable and stable than my old sticky mat. I noticed, particularly, that it didn't hurt my feet to jump back into chaturanga. Revolutionary! However, I did need to wipe my hands and feet occasionally to maintain a decent grip in down dog, though this was nothing new. My old mat required the same (I've been using the Black Mat for a couple of hours, 6 days a week, and have washed it again since then. It has gotten noticeably stickier). The next day, I attended the class I mentioned above, with my new Manduka mat. This practice was not nearly as fun.

The class was vigorous, as a Power Yoga class should be, but a little too infused with strengthening calisthenics for my taste. I have trouble considering such motions "yoga" (I realize that it's a fine line), and I tend to feel that these types of exercises in my practice are just a waste of energy. And at 85-90 degree temperatures and 50-60 percent humidity, there's no need to be wasting energy.
Soon into the class, my mat was covered in sweat. Some of the residue from the production process had apparently escaped the washing. I could see it mixing with the sweat. The resulting substance felt a bit like jelly to the touch. It was as slick as oil. Downward dog was not restful or rejuvenating, as it should have been, because I was constantly readjusting my hands. I was determined not to disrupt the flow by wiping my sweat too much, so I tried to power through it. Mistake! The heat began to give me a headache. I had not eaten the right foods that morning. I had certainly not had enough water to drink. I had never sweat so much in my life. I made it through the standing sequence, though I was not enjoying myself. My headache became almost unbearable, but I was determined to stay calm. Silence the fluctuations of the mind. 
 
Then we arrived at the back bending sequence. Bridge pose was awful. My shoulders were tight from trying to keep my grip, and kept slipping out from beneath me. My headache got worse. I managed to do a couple of upward bows (at that point, I thought maybe they would help. Upward bow usually leaves me feeling bright and light as a feather), but my feet felt as though any shift in my weight and they would go shooting out from under me. The teacher asked us to come up on our toes. I didn't dare. After a seated forward bend, inversions. Oh no. I tried headstand. It was stupid. I should have stopped. Then he called for shoulderstand. I stopped. Shoulderstand, which so often leaves me in discomfort (I'm doing it wrong. I know that. I just can't seem to do it right) was the last straw. I opted to lie on my back with my knees bent, breathing, while the rest of the class lifted up, oblivious to my pain. I expected the teacher to ask me if I was alright, or at least offer me an alternative pose, since he had seen me do shoulderstand in the recent past. He didn't. I just layed there, and rejoined the class as we all rolled forward into navasana. I coasted through the rest of the class in a haze. Savasana did not relieve the headache, so I left, soaked in sweat, managing to whisper a "thank you" to the teacher on my way out.

It was just shortly after this class that I ordered a Manduka eQua mat towel, intent to end this damned slippage problem, which has plagued me in my practice for so long. My experience in that class was the breaking point. I felt unsafe on my mat. I couldn't allow that to happen again. The towel arrived yesterday, and I practiced with it last night for the first time. I have to say, I was hesitant to spend $40 on a towel, but now that I've used it, I'm pretty amazed. I was sure the thing would bunch up, fold over, and move around during my practice. It did not! It stayed perfectly in place, even during vinyasas, sloppy jump throughs, and seated poses. The grip was perfect, and the softness was an unexpected bonus that I had not considered (it felt especially lovely on my feet). Coupled with the Manduka Black Mat, the grip and support were really as close to perfect as I've ever experienced during a practice. I could not be more satisfied. I hope to test the true power of this holy union in one of those infernal, Amazonian jungle classes at the studio in the next week or two. I'll let you know how it goes.

1.03.2010

Non-asana

Often, I do my best work when forced to stay within certain restrictions. Though the free-spirited rebel in me is resistant to this idea, the analytical me cannot deny that I have seen this in myself many times.

Yesterday, I had no more than an hour and a half to squeeze in some good yoga. Normally, this would have me feeling rushed, and at a loss as to what to include and what to omit in my practice. I decided not to think about it, and all else failing, to stick to the fundamentals, and stay focused. It turned out to be a damn good practice. The first 35 minutes were vigorous, beginning with surya namaskaras and strengthening standing sequences. Then utthita hasta padangutsthasana A, B, C, and D, and crescent moon to counter the standing balances, then I made my way to the floor. I omitted the usual arm balances to save time and give my shoulders a break. Instead of the usual bridge and upward bow, I practiced locust and bow pose. I also did a headstand (hands clasped behind head, not tripod) in the middle of the room without doing my signature "tuck and roll". I lifted up in one motion, and breathed steadily for 8 breaths before releasing my feet back to the floor. I was not quite satisfied, so after a brief child's pose, tried another headstand. This time, I collapsed my neck almost immediately and rolled out. Twice is enough for me, even though the second try was a total failure. I'd like to devote more time to headstand, but I must be protective of my neck.

I have gotten into the habit of ending every practice with Tolasana (pre-savasana, of course). I feel more generous with my energy at the end of my practice, and pouring everything I have left into Tolasana is very cathartic; the effect it has on my savasana is pronounced. The contrast of the contraction of Tolasana makes the release of savasana that much more wonderful.

Today is a rest day... or at least, a non-asana day. I like to think the yoga never stops.

1.02.2010

Flying High

For the past two weeks, I've been on a sabbatical, of sorts (hence, the new blog, I suppose).  Because of the days of the week which the winter holidays have fallen on this year, I have worked just 2 days over the past two weeks.  I went back to the grind Thursday night,  and the difference it made on my practice was unsettlingly obvious.  I began my practice yesterday, after working the night before, feeling heavy and strange.  My shoulders felt as if there were no blood at all circulating there.  They did what I asked of them, but the lack of sensation, which lasted through most of my surya namaskaras, was odd and unfamiliar.  My experience during the salutations shaped the rest of my practice, as it almost always does.  I find that the ritual of the salutations reveal my strengths and vulnerabilities to me on any given day, be it hip or hamstring tension, shortened breath or wandering mind, or, occasionally, all of the aforementioned... and more.  As varied as my practice may be, I believe ritual is an important tool in one's yoga practice.  We must have a constant in order to evaluate ourselves.


Shoulder openers.  GOOD GOD, ya'll!  What are they good for?  Absolutely nothin'!  Or at least that's what you'd think, looking at my practice habits.  For someone with habitual neck and shoulder tension, I don't do nearly enough of them.  I attempted to atone for this yesterday.  After some warrior I, II, triangle, extended side angle, and half moon, I did a fun little garudasana-to-flying pigeon sequence as follows:

garudasana (5 breaths)
inhale, utthita hasta padangusthasana D, keeping garudasana arms (1 breath)
exhale, lean forward and swing pointed leg back into virabhadrasana III with garudasana arms (5 breaths)
inhale, swing leg forward to utthita hasta padangusthasana D (2 breaths)
inhale, reach arms up, bend standing leg, bringing ankle of extended leg to upper thigh of standing leg (one-legged chair, maybe? I did it in a class, I swear.)
exhale, fold forward, ground hands, inhale
exhale, flying pigeon (5 breaths)
vinyasa, repeat other side.

I also did some prasarita padottanasana A, C, with cow-face arms on each side, and D.  I couldn't help but undo some of that opening work with a couple of arm balances, including a bit of compass-to-eka hasta bhujasana-to-astavakrasana.  My practice doesn't feel complete without arm balances.  Arm balances, at this point in my practice, center me more effectively than any other type of asana.  They create the distinction between average yoga, and damn good yoga.
I know what you're thinking:  "Cut it out with the arm balances, already!  They're no good for your tight shoulders!"  See?  I know.

It's an addiction.  It's an addiction, within an addiction, really.  You could say, I get high on flying (you know, with all the bird names for the uh... poses... with the arm balancing).  Was that cheesy?  It was.  I'm sorry.  Maybe I'll set a late New Year's resolution to take shoulder openers more seriously.