Primary Friday: Yoga Chikitsa

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in Samasthiti
I so love that the final day of the year will be a Saturday.  The obsessive compulsive in me is hugely gratified by the synchronicity of a week, month, and year coming to a close at once.  We must be tidy.  Must be neat.

The final practice of 2011 was a soft evening Primary, throughout which I couldn't help but think back to my first Primary explorations at the beginning of the year.  What a journey it's been!  Earlier this week, I wrote about the larger impacts of the practice and how it's changed my life.  Today, I'll write about how the posture practice -- the asana -- has evolved my body, attitude, and understanding.

On a physical level, there has been substantial change.  I am longer and leaner.  Hips and thighs are noticeably more toned.  Upper body strength has developed in a nicely balanced way; I am looking less like a linebacker and more like a yogi every day.  With this scaling down of excess bulk, I have found that the mobility of my shoulders has improved tremendously.  As a result of this opening, neck complaints, previously a common problem, have fallen by the wayside.

Even as my hips have narrowed and toned, so too have they been opened through the Primary practice.  When I first came to Ashtanga, lotus was a red zone.  Both knees were tight and unstable and, at the time, I seriously doubted I would ever assume a comfortable lotus or half-lotus position.  I spent months modifying postures, developing awareness and, slowly but surely, my lotus bloomed.  In fact, in my final practice of the year, I managed Urdhva Padmasana with no discomfort whatsoever for the very first time.  Here's to the efficacy of patience in practice.  Karandavasana, here I come.

Perhaps the most significant physical opening I experienced this year was in the backbends.  The drop backs changed not only my body, but my psyche, my inner state.  The sensation of those first few drop backs early in the year were quite a wake up call, reminding me not only of the imbalances to which I'd grown blind, but also that sometimes it becomes necessary to move through the pain rather than around it.  I know pain talk in the practice is often shunned outside the world of Ashtanga, but what I felt learning to drop back was pain, and it was necessary and good.  The Intermediate backbends picked up where the drop backs left off, super-toning my back, thighs, and buttocks, teaching me to support the lower half while softening the upper half in order to open the chest cavity and thoracic spine.

Through the discomfort, my body was healed and my heart was opened.  I learned to accept risk, and to care for and carry myself in a whole new way.  It's the yoga chikitsa, the only therapy I know.  And now I look forward to the New Year and all that it brings.  This will be the year of nadi shodana, the nerve cleansing.  Based on the jarring effects that Intermediate has had so far, I suspect there is much that lies in store.


The Game

With the New Year fast approaching, I can feel myself dropping into a less ambitious, more reflective state.  Asana practice has continued to be erratic, but interestingly, I have ceased to be bothered by this.  Instead, I have allowed my practice to become flexible and simply valued whatever time I have.  This has made all the difference.  Certainly, it makes things more pleasant in my head; but even physically, I am less affected by lack of practice when I choose to remain soft and in the mindset always.  This is another one of those lessons I must learn over and over again.

The year 2011, now almost to a close, has been incredible.  It was only January that I first began to practice Ashtanga in the tradition of Pattabhi Jois.  I strongly believe that this practice has been the driving force, the impetus, behind the enormous change and --  dare I say it -- the growth that I've experienced over the course of this past year.  Many times, I saw the storms on the horizon and feared my tiny vessel would be overwhelmed, but found instead only more deftness in life and more capacity for joy.  Ashtanga has provided me with an indispensable set of tools with which to face adversity.  I love this practice with a passion and will be forever grateful.  Thank you, Guruji, for disseminating this wealth of information so prolifically.  And thank you, David Swenson, for planting that seed at the dawning of a decade that will soon loop back upon itself, the circle nearly complete.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Not long after Ashtanga won out as my daily practice, replacing the meandering Vinyasa experimentation I had previously employed, I found the courage to leave my dependable job of many years and take the plunge into full-time teaching with little savings to back me up and no guarantee of regular work.  In order to survive, I further simplified my life, edging off the non-essentials.  In so doing, I created a clearing in which for opportunities to land.  And they did.  Well-paying gigs just fell into my lap, and soon I had a pretty full schedule teaching yoga.  A dream come true.

Then my partner and I broke up.  After seven years.  It was hard, but not that hard, and not long after that, when I moved into my new apartment to live alone for the first time in my adult life, I felt as though I had literally stepped into the light after years and years of darkness.  Such lightness, such relief.  I became aware of the thousands of ways in which I had compromised myself to sustain that other person, and rather than feel regret or self-loathing for having done so for so long, I have taken enormous pleasure in rediscovering myself.  Intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, and sexually.  It's been a wild, wonderful ride.

Just weeks after the break up, I had the pleasure of studying with David and Shelley for the first time, two weeks of morning Mysore and pranayama.  The intensity of this experience felt very much like a gauntlet through which to pass in order to better understand the culture and the practice of Ashtanga -- baptism by tapas, if you will.  Those two weeks with Swenson burned through any lingering pain from the separation and put me more finely in tune with my self-abused body.  

But when I turned that attention inward, I found something amiss.  Swollen lymph nodes all over.  Night sweats.  Fatigue and chronic ketosis.  These symptoms sent me to seek a medical opinion, an opinion which turned out to be a potentially leveling blow:  it looked like the "C" word.  Cancer.  At age 25.  I spent weeks undergoing tests and an invasive biopsy, waiting and waiting and waiting for the final word.  During this interval between the first and last mention of the worst-case scenario, I fell into the most vivid, perceptually expansive state I have ever experienced.  It was a death meditation and it was bliss.  I glimpsed the moment of transition.  I felt the final breath and it felt more perfect than anything I have ever felt before.  I was changed.

Somehow so appropriately, just a matter of weeks after the announcement of a benign result, I returned to the feet of my teachers, humbled and scarred, but also emboldened by the peace that I had found.  Another three weeks of intensive study with David and Shelley in the company of many fine students and teachers enabled such extreme growth to take place that I am still processing the enormity of that experience.

And, as if that weren't enough for one year, just days after the completion of the Swenson intensive, I was fired.  For a variety of reasons, I suppose, but among them, my "intense energy" and my dedication to the tradition of Ashtanga while masquerading as a proponent of fitness-based Vinyasa flow.  It felt wrong and it was wrong.  But this not-entirely-unexpected turn of events really opened the flood gates.  I was consumed with creative passion.  I poured kerosene on every bridge I never wished to cross again and set them all ablaze, then set off into the uncharted territory deep within.  I haven't yet emerged from the densest of the brush, but I remain unscathed, and though this creative awakening has been painful, it has also been enriching and expansive.  It has softened the boundaries of my world and illumined the dark corners, revealing a depth of possibility as yet unseen.

The coming year holds a special promise, it beckons me to enter with a glint of unforgiving mischief in its eyes.  It humors me flirtatiously, ushering me in as if this passage were a matter of my choosing.  Though I am not fooled by this performance, I will be coy and play the game.  Not yet, 2012.  Not just yet...


Primary Friday: Another Chance for Morning Practice

Primary was soooooo good this week; not technically perfect by any means, but perfect in it's purpose and effect.  Surely, many pairs of Ashtangi eyeballs will roll at this next comment, but part of the reason my practice was so great was that I did it right away in the morning.  I crawled out of bed, did nauli (my new favorite activity), had a cup of coffee and a big glass of water, and unrolled my mat.  No fuss, no time for reluctance or negotiation.  Just practice.  

I did notice that my sweat smelled a little extra funky without any food in my stomach (see this post for backstory on that).  But after my experience today, I might just give this morning practice thing another try.  My body was noticeably lighter and my mind clearer.  Rather than be bothered by the regular resurfacing of moments past from throughout my day, I enjoyed a mentally quiet practice with just the occasional glimmer of anticipation at the joyfulness of the day to come with my practice already under my belt.  Very nice, indeed.

Once again, I am in Wisconsin with the folks and siblings this week, so I won't spend too much time here discussing the idiosyncratic ins and outs of my Primary.  Suffice it to say that practice was good.  And now, I'm going to go enjoy my family and give them the fullest of my love and attention.  It is my wish that you all might be so lucky as to do the same.

Happy Holidays!  

Asana of the Week: Setu Bandhasana

(NOTE:  Do not attempt this posture without the close supervision of a qualified instructor, especially if you have any history of neck injury.)

Setu Bandhasana (Bridge Posture) is the final posture of the Ashtanga Primary series before the finishing sequence.  As such, there is an inherent temptation for students to rush, skip, or approximate this distinctive backbend, which is different from any other backbend in the series in that it encourages external rotation of the legs.  The primary action in this posture is the extension of the cervical spine, which must be approached with care and attention to avoid injury.

To enter Setu Bandhasana, lie down on your back and turn your feet out with your knees bent and heels together like Charlie Chaplin (see right).  Then, as if setting up for Matsyasana, lift your head and chest and drop the crown of your head back to the mat with the chest lifted.  Cross your arms over your chest and, with an inhalation, slowly push into the feet to lift the hips from the floor.  Roll forward up the centerline of the head until the hairline or forehead touch the mat.  Gaze down the tip of your nose to soften the face and throat.  Breath deeply into the chest for 5-10 breaths.

Throughout your stay in this posture, be aware of the sensation in the neck.  We want to maximize spinal extension without crunching or compressing the cervical vertebrae.  To do this, try to envision your cervical spine in the posture.  Use gentle muscular contraction to create a support structure for the neck, as if each little vertebrae is held securely in its place by 360 degrees of controlled muscular tension.  Resist the temptation to lift the arms away from your chest.  Keep them down and pull the shoulders back.  As you feel ready to move deeper into the posture, try pressing the legs straighter.  Eventually, the legs may come completely straight with the inner legs together.

To exit, exhale as you slowly roll down the the centerline of the head.  Take a moment on your back to gently rock your head from side to side and release any compression in the neck before lifting your head away from the floor.


Floaty Exits and Jump Back/Jump Through

I've had a few video requests recently, mainly in the interest of clarifying some of the elements of my own practice that I've written about, so I took the opportunity after practice last night to grab those for you.  Because I care.

First, for DeborahS, the Ashtanga "floaty" exits from Utkatasana and Virabhadrasana II.  I'm not great at these.  Mine are more "hoppy" than floaty most of the time (like a good IPA... wink, wink), but this should give you some idea of what I mean:

Next, I've had a couple of requests for a video of my own jump back/jump through since I emphasized the difference between the straight arm and the bent arm approach several weeks ago.  As I said, my jump back is slow and more labored than I'd like.  I believe that the straight-arm jump requires less effort, but I don't seem to have the wrist flexibility to bring my weight forward enough into the hands to accomplish it.  At least that's my theory.  I'm open to your insight:

As you can see, the jump back is especially slow now that I'm carrying a few extra pounds, but at least I'm jumping back again.  As for the jump through, this way is quick and easy and unceremonious.  I was playing with the crossed-leg jump throughs a few months back because they're supposed to build more strength, but gave up on it in favor of the simplicity of the straight-leg approach.  

Comments?  Questions?  Other requests?


Primary Friday: The Good News

I am finally emerging from this blasted winter funk!  As the week went on, with each day the practice felt less and less like torture and more and more like home.  Today's Primary was actually quite nice.

I started the week with my current Intermediate practice (to Pincha, with Kapo twice and Pincha twice), but aborted Intermediate entirely no later than Tuesday as it became clear that 2nd series was not at all what I needed.  I needed therapy.  I needed Primary.  And Primary is what I've had, straight up and uncut since Tuesday.  It's been lovely.  Oh, how I love my Primary...

However, I can't help but wonder if this whole episode of the past few weeks, or even the entire month, is a direct consequence of my Intermediate exploration.  The nerve cleansing, the prying open of the body.  I have put myself in some pretty vulnerable positions recently, both professionally and personally, something I have spent my entire life avoiding.  This resulted first in a level anxiety unseen since adolescence, followed almost immediately by rapid weight gain disproportionate to the changes in my diet and activity level.  (Note:  I'm not trying to be dramatic about the weight gain.  It's like 5 pounds.  It'll be gone by next week.  It just came on so fast.)

It occurred to me today that the weight gain may have been an unconscious effort at self-preservation.  I have taken cover under my own flesh to recover from the overexposure of the past month.  The good news is that Primary seems to be aiding my emotional and physical recoveries.  I am feeling much better.  The bad news is that I haven't done a full week of Intermediate practice since I-don't-know-when.  And -- call me paranoid -- here is where I get suspicious:  Teachers have been pushing me into Intermediate practically since I took up the Ashtanga.  But any time that I have moved forward into 2nd series, obstacles have arisen that have forced me to step back... or have they?

Maybe all of this is just self-sabotage.  Intermediate is the unknown.  It is fearsome and incomplete.  Primary is my cozy little home, with every breath accounted for, every moment a part of the meditation.  Why would I ever want to leave?  Have I been rationalizing my own plateau into existence, holding myself back, afraid of whatever else might be revealed?  I don't know, but it's a compelling explanation.


Asana of the Week: Laghu Vajrasana

Laghu Vajrasana (Little Thunderbolt Posture) is a remarkable little posture in that it illuminates the role of the legs in protecting the spine during backbending and brings the crux of the spinal extension out of the lower back and up into the thoracic and cervical spine.

To enter the posture, begin in a kneeling position with the knees hip-distance apart.  As if preparing for Ustrasana, take a moment here to lift the chest and bring the pelvis forward of the knees.  When ready, take the hands back to the ankles and grip firmly with straight, strong arms.  Pull the pelvis forward, lift the chest, and with an exhalation, drop the head back and lower the crown or hairline to the mat, keeping the arms straight throughout the transition.  Do not take weight into the head.  Stay for five breaths.

The quadriceps and psoas must work strongly to control the spinal extension as the head is taken back.  Without committed activation of the legs throughout the entry and hold of this posture, you will not likely make it out the same way you came in.  The proper exit from Laghu Vajrasana is more challenging than the posture itself and must be kept in mind throughout your stay in the backbend.  After five breath cycles, inhale as you scissor the inner thighs and push with all your might into the hands and tops of the feet to pull yourself back up to the starting position.  Remember to keep the head back as you emerge or the low back will collapse and the burden on the thighs will be increased, causing a tendency to fall back down.

If it is too difficult to take the head all the way to the mat, build control by lowering only part of the way with the exhalations and lifting back up on the inhalations, continuing the motion rather than pausing for five breaths in order to ensure that the legs stay active and the breath is moving.


Sunday Small Talk

Sunday practice is always sort of a grab bag.  I never really know what I'm going to get until I jump on in there and feel around.  I am still on the receiving end of some karmic heckling for my negligence but, thanks to my first oil bath in nearly a month, today's practice was a clear improvement on the shenanigans of last week.

I practiced Intermediate to Pincha.  It was nice.  Pushed myself to move a little faster through the backbends without all the dawdling I sometimes allow.  And you know what?  It's easier if I don't stop.  I had this realization with the Urdhva Dhanurasana repetitions a good while back and it applies just the same to 2nd series:  pump the breath to power through the backbends.  It's only when I stop and try to slow the breath and slow the pulse that the nervous repercussions take place.  If I try to rest, I start to feel winded and the whole thing is overblown.  On the other hand, if I just keep moving, keep breathing, I'm through the whole backbending barrage before I know it and everything is fine.  Must try to remember this.

The hips are slowly opening up again, but my shoulders are stubbornly immobilized.  Both internal and external rotation is unusually limited.  I can't bind anything.  I've never had a problem binding Tittibhasana -- at least not within the context of Ashtanga -- but Thursday, all I managed was a desperate, painful clinging of a few fingers and today, not even that.  I used my towel.

I don't quite understand it, but I've got loads of tension lingering in my neck and shoulders.  I had that tension headache for days after the long drive home from Wisco and a little gremlin has been wandering from right trapezius to left every 2 days ever since.  Don't get me wrong; the oil bath on Saturday was magical, my feet and legs feel completely renewed, but the neck and shoulders are still a little messed up.

And, while it's true that I have been indulging more than usual in the food realm, I haven't been eating that much... so why does my belly look distended?  It feels as though my metabolism has slowed to a crawl and my entire torso has been inflated.  I think I'll blame the weather.


Primary Friday: Where's my Cookie?

I did it.  It wasn't pretty, but I did it.

This has been a hard week.  I am really so astonished at how drastically my practice has been affected by... well... By what exactly?  I'm not sure.  It's got to be the combination.  I've gone periods of time on minimal practice, I've put on a little extra weight here and there, and I've certainly gone astray in the dietary realm at least a few times in the past, but I can't think of a single thing that's impacted my practice so badly as the trifecta of stress, sedentary days, and rich foods that have taken over my life these past few weeks.

Fortunately, gimpy as I've been all week, the Ashtanga has helped me get back on track and moving forward.  Income has been secured.  Personal projects are well in hand.  Relationship confusion has faded to the background and food choices are more rational by the day.  Don't you worry about me, friends.  I'm on top of this.

Primary today was nice.  The weather was moist and warmer here and I kept a steady pace, so the heat was more than adequate. I worked up a good, clean sweat.  Stayed an extra breath in some of the forward bends, namely Ardha Baddha Padma and Trianga Mukaikapada because there was some serious work to be done in the hips and hamstrings.  Binding is still an issue, so the Marichyasanas are a compromise.  My shoulders are unbearably locked up and my back is feeling funny.  I assumed both of these issues were caused by the driving, but if a week of practice hasn't fixed them, I'm not so sure.

Occasionally on Fridays, I like to do some alternative backbending work in leu of drop backs.  Today, I did 9 rounds of Urdhva Dhanurasana in sets of three for five breaths each, giving extra focus to the rotation of the arms and legs.  Then a final round for fifteen breaths without coming down, walking the hands in every five breaths.  This was good work.  I really felt it in my quads and psoas at the end.

I am whole-body sore from the return to full practice.  I've been working myself hard on the mat and spending almost every other minute at my desk, a dichotomy which undoubtedly contributes to the soreness.  Tomorrow will be a welcome rest.  I have a feeling things will feel very different on Sunday.

So... practice week completed.  Where's my cookie?


Asana of the Week: Padangusthasana

Padangusthasana (Foot Big Toe Pose) is a nice forward bending posture which makes use of the connection made between the hands and feet to engage the arms and legs.  The physical connection here keeps the energy circulating within the body so that what appears, at first glance, to be a sleepy forward fold is all lit up with prana.

As the first posture in the Ashtanga standing series, Padangusthasana lengthens the hamstrings, releases the backbody, and encourages gentle extension of the cervical spine in preparation for more the core-intensive forward bending of the remainder of the series.

Alternate view
Prepare for Padangusthasana standing with the feet planted at hip's distance.  Bend down and take your big toes with the first two fingers and thumb in yogi toe lock, bending your knees as much as necessary to make this toe lock possible.  Keep the wrists lifted and the bandhas engaged.

With an inhalation pull your arms straight, lengthen your spine and look forward.  Exhale to fold, bending at the hips to keep the spine long.  Fire up the quadriceps to lift the kneecaps and encourage the hamstrings to release.  Lift your shoulders toward your waist to make space for the neck to extend.  Feel the crown of your head coming closer to the floor with every exhalation and bend your elbows straight out to the sides as you gaze softly down the tip of your nose.  Stay for 5-10 breaths.


Dream Big

I had a dream last night that I could bind and balance easily in Pasasana.

image source

But even in my dreams, my heels are nowhere near the floor.



My body is teaching me some hard lessons this week, mostly concerning the consumption of beer and ice cream.  In spite of my inability to get my nutrition back on track after spending the Thanksgiving holiday with family, I had hoped to jump right back into Intermediate on Sunday.  But after an honest evaluation of Saturday's Primary performance, moving forward seemed unwise.

I took it one pose at a time and practiced full 1st plus 2nd to Ardha Matsyendrasana.  It was the longest practice I've done in a while, but I badly needed every bit of it.  The backbends weren't as hard as I had feared, but jump backs are still completely AWOL and I haven't bound Marichy D in a week.  I don't have a scale, so I can't be sure, but I feel like I'm carrying an extra seven pounds and all of it in the belly.

Ever since the drive back from Wisconsin, my mind has felt much better but my body is falling apart.  In addition to the expanded waistline, the right side of my back is flaring up from an old injury and both shoulders are threatening revolt.  My neck is tense, my hips are tight, and somehow I've got what feels like a shin splint on the left side.  It's a mystery.  Or not.  I've been dealing with some extra stress and the short days of the season make me anxious.  We've had cold, dark rain in Austin for the past few days which compels us all to stay inside.  On top of that, the practice has been relatively sparse and since I am not yet teaching yoga anywhere, I am spending a lot more time writing at my less-than-ergonomic desk.  All these things are weighing in and I really feel unwell.

Yesterday I didn't practice, and since I don't have to justify myself to you, I won't.  But I got back on the horse today and tackled Intermediate... sort of.  It was hard.  Really hard.  I probably shouldn't have bothered.  Pasasana was bound on neither side.  Krounchasana was an eyebrow raiser and Kapotasana a struggle as I clawed my way to my pinkie toes and hung on for dear life.  By this point in the practice, the urge to purge was ever present.   I didn't even attempt the actual the LBH postures, instead opting for exclusively reclining variations for fear my spine would snap under the pressure.  Even the bind in Tittibhasana was accomplished only with the aid of a towel.  Pincha took at least 5 attempts with just as many tumbles.  I'm in rare form, friends.  Rare form, indeed.

But you know what?  It was one of the best Savasanas I've had in a while.  I lingered.  I focused and felt real release.  Of course, I'm glad I practiced.  But tomorrow, it's Primary --  at least the first half -- before jumping into any Intermediate.


Primary Saturday: Syncopation and The Rain

Practice was irregular throughout the two weeks at my parents house in chilly, rural Wisconsin.  It's always difficult to keep up the routine during travel, but even more so when that travel involves reuniting with family and friends I have the fortune to visit just once or twice a year.  Old habits take over and I find myself in a string of big, hearty meals, long, lazy afternoons, and some very late wine-soaked nights.

Add to that a touch of recklessness and a big ol' schmear of insomnia and you'll understand that practice was necessarily whittled down to the essential.

No regrets.  But two weeks of debauchery bookeneded by a pair of 20-hour drives has taken its toll.  The dog and I returned to Austin Thursday.  Jet lagged from the drive (is that even possible?), I failed to summon the energy Friday to do more than a minimal practice (10 Surya and the final 3), so did my full Primary today.  It was quite a shock.

I felt comically out of sync.  No jump backs.  Jump throughs were hit or miss.  No binding in Marichyasana D.  I've had a tension headache since we hit the road on Wednesday, somehow related to the muscle pull I inflicted upon myself shortly after my arrival in the Midwest.  The whole right neck/upper back/shoulder area is afflicted, but I'm surprised the headache hasn't faded yet, especially now that I've had a chance to sleep and do my practice.  I am still using the arnica cream, which does seem to have some effect on my range of motion without discomfort but, overall, I am not impressed with its performance.

The day is grey and rainy here which makes it especially hard to get moving.  Almost failed to drag myself away from my favorite chair and a good book, but I'm glad I practiced.  Intermediate will be interesting tomorrow.


End Scene.

Distance seems to be a great solution for the desperation and delusion.  That, or there's something in the air up there in Wisconsin because as soon as I passed into Iowa, I felt better.  Entirely in possession of my faculties.  All systems go.  I drove the 1300 miles home in high spirits and held my mula bandha the whole way.

What I've learned from this most recent episode is that, while I'm a pro at letting go (fluent in the "fuck it"), I have a lot of trouble not grasping for it in the first place, whatever "it" may be.  And yes, I have many theories and I've drawn many connections between this experience and the Ashtanga but I hesitate to elaborate, lest I be known as the crazy, obsessive Ashtangi.

But it may be too late for that already, so here it goes:

The difference, energetically, from 1st to 2nd series is significant.  First series is scrappy.  Second series is sexy.  I feel the practice in my pelvis.  At the risk of sounding dirty, there's a lot of deep work at the root.  In all of the extremes that 2nd series takes us through -- extreme backbending, extreme hip rotation, and extreme forward bending -- awareness of the root is key.  Mula bandha anchors the extension of Kapotasana, traps the apana of Dwi Pada, and steadies the precarious walk of Tittibhasana.

I think I mentioned this a week or so ago, but Titti really turns me on.  More often than not after the exit, I feel hot and high, as though all my blood is sloshing around in my pelvis and all the rest is really secondary.  Pincha is a special challenge if I don't give myself a moment to level off.  I've noticed this heightened root awareness since the split to 2nd in October.  Though I had been practicing much of Intermediate in addition to Primary prior to this, there is definitely something distinctive about the effect of the backbends -- and, indeed, the practice as a whole -- independent of all the core warm-up that Primary provides.  The sensation is rich and the body is still fresh.  More mindpower is required to quell the reluctance.

Second series necessitates a heightened presence as we are asked to take the body to opposing ends without the slash-and-burn of 1st.  Without that heat, we are called upon to draw from a deep, intuitive understanding of the body and a clear, attentive mind.  Because we are not numbed by the rigors of Primary, Second series is more sensual.  Second is also the more playful practice, and I am feeling this effect full-on.  Spontaneous dancing.  Fits of laughter.  Bouts of mischief and good-natured antagonism.  It's all there.

But enough about me.  Let's talk about you.

How's your practice coming?  Surviving the holidays?  Ready for the new year?  On that note, considering my recent meanderings into the realm of the ultra-personal, I'd like to know what you want to see from Damn Good Yoga in the coming year.  Do you want more instructional/informational content?  Videos?  Features?  Product reviews?  Or are you quite content to read about my personal practice forevermore and see how my real-life neuroses manifest in text?



That's the word.  Everything is raw and red and open and I just can't trust my senses.  I am compelled to write about it, but the discomfort is so great that I can't tell if I have an overshare problem or a vulnerability problem.  Either way, it doesn't feel right.

Still, here I am, pecking away.  I can't help it.  I am blogger, hear me roar.  Read it and writhe in it with me, but be careful not to catch the itch.  I often wonder if I shouldn't start an anonymous blog for getting this incoherent sludge out of my system safely and quietly, but somehow the idea seems dishonest.  This is what the practice is for, navigation of the mind shit.  The emotional shit.  The family shit and the relationship shit.  I was raised on a strategy of compartmentalization -- separation and obscurification -- but the yoga dissolves the dividers and the whole mess blends together in a petri dish of pain to be dealt with as a virus, growing or dying but never to remain the same.

And then there's the pendulumic swing to pleasure that happens now and then when I manage not only to let it go, but to hurl the toxic bomb with all my might at the nearest passing stranger.  Bullseye.  Take that and run with it, you schmuck!  I'm outta here.

Obviously, there's instability.  But it's about time.  I haven't felt this rattled in years.  It's been difficult to face my practice.  Second series, especially, is scary in this condition.  But this is just the occasional sharp corner on a long and windy road when the sun is down, the night is dim, and the rain has made the pavement slick.  If I can keep my eyes on the road, everything will work out fine.  In the meantime, if you don't mind the way I drive, you're invited along for the ride.


Asana of the Week: Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana

Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana
Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana is almost exactly like Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana except that the posture is seated.  Because of this, the core muscles -- the spinal extensors and abdominals -- must work harder to create extension of the spine without the aid of gravity to draw one deeper into the pose.

The half-lotus position of the top leg releases the internal rotators of the hip as the heel applies pressure to the abdomen, massaging the vital organs with the breath.  The binding of the arm opens the chest and shoulder, encouraging a feeling of extension and spaciousness in this forward bend rather than rounding or curling inward.

Care must be taken to protect the knees.  Always use caution when folding the legs to a lotus or half-lotus position with special awareness on sensation at the joints.  The effects of this posture should be felt at the hips and not in the knees or ankles.  If discomfort is felt at the joints, practice a preparatory posture or modification instead.  Stay for 5-10 breaths in your fullest expression and then repeat on the opposite side.


Primary Friday: A Problem-Solving Practice

In the foreshadow of change, these quandaries and conundrums progenerate like rabbits as I turn my head to look the other way.  Characteristically, distraction appears in a most disorienting form at a time when clarity is most especially essential.  Uprooted from the solid earth of solitary life, the daily practice -- the in-the-moment-every-moment practice -- has been a special challenge.  Not only do I miss my sacred space, but I yearn for the simplicity of progress on the path in an environment self-designed almost exclusively to facilitate my own success.

In my cave, seated on my cushion or sweating on my mat, there is nothing to distract me from my task.  There is only quietness and space, the material manifestation of my earthly life nestled comfortably between the few things that I need and even fewer things I don't.  In my natural setting, like the postures, I deal with the problems one by one.  Typically, they come rolling in at a manageable pace, and I watch and breathe and watch and breathe and breathe until the answers just appear.  They are reliably revealed through ascription to simplicity and nothing more.

As a sojourner, simplicity is all the more difficult and all the more necessary.  The colorations of the mind cast my world in a seductive saturation until light and shadow, grade and shade, blend together in a garish landscape of needy neons and the oppressive almost-black of navy blues.  It is tough to see the trueness of the road on the horizon or feel the nature of the ground beneath my feet, and so I work to gather bits of precious pleasure just in case I need to make a nest and rest along the way.  But that's the fear, the choice, a fear of commitment equal to or greater than the natural fear of the unknown.

So now my mission is to tear myself away from the pleasure-center stimulation, to seal it up and feed the sacred root before it is strung out any further in search of nutrients and other lesser but supporting forms of life.  I need work.  I need burden.  I need responsibility.  I don't function well apart from that which grounds me.

And what's the answer?  Practice:  Primary, pranayama, meditation.  These are the tried and true methods for balancing the prana with the apana, the winds of the body as the sanctuary of the mind.  My body is my home and any attachments or associations to place and time and persons present are merely misperceptions.  I will quiet the body, make space in the mind, and invite solutions to the surface.



So... there's a reason I generally choose to avoid romantic involvement of any kind.  I had forgotten what that reason was.  I remember now.


Primary Friday: Ashtanga Love

image source
This week's Primary was just as it should be -- light, fast, and fun.  I have grown more accustomed to practicing in the cold and, for some reason, my hips have been freakishly open.  I am enjoying an effortless lotus entry and some very deep Marichyasanas as a result.

The right shoulder is still tweaky, but not to the extreme that it was.  This whole sad shoulder saga has made me rethink the way I move through the vinyasas, jump backs and jump throughs in particular.  The weight-bearing in the left hand is always good, but in the right hand, I can feel myself lift up through the inner edge of the palm if I'm not careful to spread the weight evenly and keep the hand flat for the duration of the jump.  Must be more careful to preserve the shoulders if I hope to tackle 3rd series one day.

Intermediate practice has been going extremely well, with the exception of the self-inflicted neck injury earlier this week.  Eka Pada Sirsasana on the first side is finally feeling comfortable in the full expression of both A and B.  Second side is a different story, but if it can happen on the right, it can happen on the left.  I am a firm believer.  Rather than just give it one shot and hope for the best, since my practice is relatively short for the time being (2nd to Pincha), I have been investing more time in research and preparatory postures for the LBH set.  Half-pigeon, Lizard, Rock-the-Baby, Archer, and Compass variations have all made appearances in my practice this week.  Even with just a few days of including this extra work, there is significantly more range of motion in both hips.  I do lose some precious heat during this hip-opening detour, but I think it will be worth it in the long run... or the short run, as it were, assuming I can avoid any major setbacks in the LBH department.

Tittibhasana is my new favorite posture.  I LOVE the way this pose makes me feel.  It's a challenging set, but after the dismount, both psoas are unmistakably abuzz.  Not to mention, it seems to be doing amazing things for the shape of my hips and thighs.  I have no complaints in that department when it comes to Ashtanga.  To put it frankly, my ass has never looked better.  Hell, my body has never looked OR felt better.  Ashtanga rocks!

The Routine

Check out this cute Ashtanga infographic!

Ashtangi morning Infographic


Asana of the Week: Prasarita Padottanasana

This wide-legged forward bend is one of my favorite standing postures.  It stretches the hamstrings, opens the hips, and activates the inner thighs while releasing the neck and spine.  The effect on the upper body varies with the position of the arms, of which there are many.  Not shown is a variation I like with the hands in reverse prayer which, in this progression, would fit best after C and before D to further open the shoulders if necessary.

While Prasarita Padottanasana is straightforward enough, one question many face is how far apart to set the feet.  The distance between the feet is primarily dependent upon two characteristics specific to the individual practitioner: flexibility and height.  If the hamstrings are so long and/or the stance is so wide that the crown of the head reaches the floor, then the feet should be brought closer together.  If the head is nowhere near the floor because of tight hamstrings, step the feet an inch or two further apart to take some of the stretch out of the back of the legs.  

Mindfully lift through the arches of the feet and the adductors of the inner thighs as you hold your weight squarely on all four corners of both feet.  Be sure that the outer edges of the feet are parallel to the short edges of your mat and keep the quadriceps working to lift the knee caps.  Let the muscles at the base of the neck be soft, using the spinal extensors, bandhas, and sides to progressively bring the crown a little closer to the floor with every breath.  If a connection is made with the hands to the floor or part of the body, as in positions A and D, use the arms to deepen the posture and keep the energy circulating.  


Inertia and Injury

Ok, universe.  I get it.  Every time I build some steam, you spring a leak.  Any time I get the fire going well and hot, you bring the rain.

It's as though I've been sucked into a state of inertia, a standstill, despite every natural impulse. The tapas are white hot and the truth is burning fiercely, but every time I make a move, a big wet blanket falls to take me down.  I lost my love.  I lost my job.  I lost my independence.  And just as I bent down to gather up the scattered fragments of my life, a heavy cosmic boot landed squarely on my ass to push me face down in the mud.

I pulled a muscle in practice yesterday.  Badly.  The first side of Eka Pada was so good that I came to the second side, my tighter side, with too much confidence and as I pressed my head back against my shin I felt an ominous inner shift.  Normally, with this type of injury, I'll continue on with the practice, but this time it was different.  I couldn't do much at all without pain, so I skipped ahead to finishing, omitting all drop backs, Sirsasana, and the vinyasas. This morning, I can barely turn my head from side to side, much less nod it up and down.  I've had problems with this muscle group before, but it's never been this bad.  I don't know how I'll practice until this pain goes away.

Yesterday, I drove 30 miles to the nearest health food store (which, in itself, was quite depressing...) to pick up some arnica cream and neti salts.  I had high hopes for the arnica, but it's effect has been minimal. I fully intend to unroll the mat today, but practice is likely to be skeletal for at least a day or two which leaves me with even less to do out here by myself while the family is away.  Clearly, this time is meant for rest and reflection.  The way of things has left me little choice.


Primary Friday: Road Trip

After the news of my grandmother's death on Tuesday, I felt called to be with my family.  Without a job or other obligation, there was nothing to hold me back.  On Thursday morning, I packed a bag, packed the dog, and drove straight up the nation from Austin to Wisconsin in one smooth motion.  It's a long, beautiful drive north through the plains of middle America, so between the moments of awe and soulful appreciation, I had a ton of time to think.

Where do I go from here?  Do I look for work teaching?  Should I go back to school?  Or do I take the divine hint and skip town in search of bigger and better things?  I'm not sure.  It's exciting to have this much freedom, so many options and seemingly endless possibilities.  It's the proverbial "crossroads."  Here I stand, facing the fork in the road.  I'm glad to be home, surrounded by those close to my heart as I ponder these big questions.  I am so fortunate to have such a wonderful network of support within my family.  In spite of all the ways in which we disagree, they have always been there for me and for that I am eternally grateful.

Between formulations of my future, there was ample time during the drive to practice counting the Primary series in Sanskrit.  It was a perfect way to fend off the highway hypnosis.  I led my imaginary students through the practice from Surya to Savasana, calling the postures and counting the vinyasas in real time.  It was amazing how vividly I could see and even feel the practice in my own body from start to finish while still strapped in my chair.  That Primary practice, it seems to have been etched in my DNA.

Naturally, the practice schedule has been interrupted with the moon day and travel.  I was on the road all day on Thursday and half the day Friday.  By the time the dog and I arrived at our destination, neither of us cared to do much but lie around and bask the in the affection of the family, so the weekly Primary was pushed back to Saturday.

It's colder here.  The house is drafty and even with a space heater placed near my mat, it's hard to stay warm.  In spite of this, I had a really nice Primary.  I thought my hips and hammies might have seized up from all the driving, but was surprised at the openness I found instead.  My shoulder, both shoulders actually, are still acting up, though the discomfort is less sharp than it was.  I wonder if it's got something to do with the 2nd series practice working around the joints in a different way.  I have been feeling a new stretch deep within the shoulders in Kapotasana and I wonder now what the relationship is between that stretch and the sensitivity I've had there for the past couple of weeks.  Could it be an opening?  Let's hope so.

As I type this post, I am trying to psych myself up for my first Intermediate practice since Wednesday.  I want the practice, but I don't want the cold.  It's so hard to get started when the chill drives deep down into the bone, I can barely muster the courage to disrobe to change into my practice apparel.  It's like taking a cold shower, the initial plunge is the hardest part.


A Beautiful Death

I have an elderly neighbor, a little old man in a wheelchair for lack of both legs from the knees down.  His eyes are sunken, his skin is ashen, and his voice is barely there.  He lives alone.  Meals on Wheels brings him the occasional sustenance and his daughter stops by from time to time and yells to him through the door, "ARE YOU OKAY, DAD?  DO YOU NEED ANYTHING?"  As if he could project his own harried voice enough to answer.  I would often see him parked in his chair across from the dumpsters in the parking lot with a plastic bag of trash in his lap, just hoping for someone to come by and deposit the load for him.  I had the honor once or twice.

Last night, he died.  This, in itself, was no surprise.  He was very, very old and seemed content in his approach to the end, but the events that followed were fascinating and unsettling to watch.  There was no ceremony, no reverence or care for his life or remains.  His body was taken away, his chair thrown in the dumpster along with what seemed to be everything else.  A woman and her preteen daughter callously gutted the old man's home and hauled armfuls of stuff -- blankets, appliances, pillows, shelves -- and threw them straight away.  It was a hurried process, no time for memories, no setting aside of special mementos to save for those who may have loved the old man.  Everything went to the trash.  I have never seen another's life so unfeelingly discarded.  It was as if they could not finish the work fast enough.

My grandmother is dying.  She's been dying for weeks.  I have received no fewer than 5 text messages in the last month from family asking me to "pray" because "today's the day."  And yet she lives on in a state of surrender, waking every day and simply waiting for the end.  Loved ones huddle, tense and expectant around the bed, wishing her well on her journey, thinking every breath will be her last.  Well-intentioned bible quotations pepper the family Facebook pages, as she seems to be using her last gasps of strength to check her Facebook feed.  My 21st century grandma...

This woman has been an influential force in my life.  She has always played the mighty matriarch, with a sharp tongue and a fierce eye for imperfection.  Her deceased husband left her a good deal of money which she has never been shy about flaunting.  For as long as I can remember, she has driven the latest model, carried the latest phone, and stocked her home with the latest console and video games with which to impress and entertain her many grandchildren.  

She travelled extensively, often selecting a relative to accompany her as her companion.  One summer at the tender age of 14, in a post-pubescent body with a pre-pubescent mind, I had the pleasure of accompanying her on a cross-country jaunt via the railroads.  I remember her presenting me as an object of admiration to random men along the way, "Isn't she thin?  Isn't she lovely?"  It was awkward.  And what could they do but nod and smile, these middle-aged men faced with this fearsome old bird and her underaged debutante?

Nonetheless, I took her behavior as a directive.  I ate less and less, and I made myself... ahem... available. I returned from that trip a different person, my naivete dissolved by the ugly alkaline of judgment and lies.  My mind, for the next few years, would be completely dominated by preoccupation with my own attractiveness, both in absolute and relative terms, and the conquest of men.  My grades and relationships suffered, but in that pain, I found my art.  

Profound discomfort in my own body spawned a work of poetry quite vast in which my soul could rest.  With my sexual awakening, a valve was opened and the words purged onto the page.  I understood that beauty arises from affliction, and I became attached to the pain, the source of my art.  I clutched it closely to my bosom.  I stared into it, I stroked it, I fed it precious morsels.  I worshipped it and prayed that it would stay.  

But pain does not stay.  It fades away to nothing as the heart refuses anymore to feel.  The mind is left with little but the vague impression of an old sensation, the imprint of an expired state of being.  When this nothingness became unbearable, I went in search of new extremes, new ways to stretch my capacity for discomfort in the hopes of dislodging some last line of inspiration from which a whole new era of art (beauty) might spring.  Homelessness, poverty, harmful habits, and tattoos -- these are just some of the ways I sought to shake the frame.  Yoga ended this cycle.

There it is:  the yoga connection.  In the complexity of life, yoga is the simple solution.  It teaches us how to feel, how to experience the richness of existence without becoming a slave to the sensation.  Through the practice of yoga -- real yoga -- we learn to keep the channels open so that we may perceive the fullness of both art and ugliness.  More importantly, we begin to understand the relationship between the two.


Primary Friday: Life is a Blessing

This week's Primary Friday post is late because I wanted to let the previous post sit for a bit, but now let's get back to our regularly scheduled programming.

This week's Friday practice was my first Primary after a whole week of cutting it from my regular practice.  Instead of staying home, I visited a teacher friend's led Primary and practiced to the Sanskrit count.  It was nice to hear the count again but all of this, coupled with the cold turn of the weather had me feeling out of sorts.   Old injuries are flaring up as the chill sets in.  Twisting and forward bending are not fun.  My right shoulder is still bugging me off and on, and it was predictably aggravated by the Primary practice.  All those goddamn jump backs...

Swenson and Shelley, among others, have tried to teach me the straight-armed jump back which relies more on momentum than strength, but I can't seem to do it.  The only jump back I'm capable of is sort of a slow lift and press with the elbows serving as the primary fulcrum instead of the shoulders.  It's exhausting unless you get it just right, and even then it takes a lot of work.  One thing David said that has really made a difference, though, is that when the legs cross for the jump back, the top leg is active and the bottom leg is passive.  It seems so simple, so obvious, but when done with awareness, it really does make the whole process much cleaner and more precise.

Just before I was fired, I decided to congratulate myself on the completion of my training with some yoga goodies.  I ordered a couple of mysore rugs, an eye pillow, and a stack of books.  Even though I really can't afford them now that I've got no income, I'm sort of glad I made the purchases when I did because, between resume submissions, I have nothing but time to read, study, and do my practice.

Last night I finished reading Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings by A.G. Mohan, one of Krishnamacharya's longest standing students.  What a beautiful book!  Mr. Mohan recounts the history of Krishnamacharya as both a student and a teacher, and divides the rest of the book into succinct commentaries on various topics that are all rich with nuggets of wisdom from the father of modern yoga.  Mr. Mohan's dedication and affection for his teacher are clearly communicated through the text.  The span and evolution of their relationship as recounted by Mr. Mohan is quite moving.  I certainly set this book down with a much clearer understanding of Krishnamacharya's influence and a greater appreciation for his efforts.

Nitya Mohan, A.G.'s daughter, began to learn the Vedic chants from her father at the age of 4.  Here she is to usher the good vibes back to Damn Good Yoga:

Next on the reading list?  What else??  Guruji!


Primary Attachment and Teacher Appreciation

Giving up Primary is going to be harder than I thought.  I have come to realize over these past few days that, in spite of any desire I may or may not have had to move on to 2nd series, I am deeply attached to the way Primary makes me feel.  I miss the heat.  I miss the stretch.  And I miss the work of all the jump backs.  In fact, I miss it so much that, last night, I defaulted to 1/2 Primary plus Intermediate to Pincha instead of going straight into 2nd series.

I don't intend to do this every day.  Shelley told me not to for the sake of my shoulders and I believe she's right, but there's something about the effort of Primary that feels so grounding and real, whereas, with 2nd, the work sort of sneaks up on me all quiet-like.  There's just so much raging prana from all the backbends that the fatigue doesn't set in until I emerge like a dirty dish rag from Tittibhasana, shriveled and wet.  

I didn't even notice how much strength had built up in my legs from Titti and the kneeling backbends until yesterday when I put the drop backs back into my practice (haven't been dropping back this week because of the shoulder,  which was feeling much better last night).  After just one preparatory drop back -- slow and controlled, with several breaths in the hang -- I managed 3 smooth, unbroken drop backs in a row (haven't done that since before the biopsy).  Then three half-backs and a very deep final backbend, which I stood from unassisted without a wobble.  All in all, it was one of the better rounds of finishing backbends I can remember and I attribute that to the power 2nd series demands of the thighs.

And then there's Pincha.  I am having a hell of a time with Pincha in my practice.  Every day, I lay out the floor pillows at the top of my mat (don't laugh; the floor in my apartment is really hard), and every day I tumble, again and again.  BUT, however many tumbles it takes, I keep trying until I stick one for 5 breaths, which I have managed to do every day.  You might think all this crashing over would be disheartening, but, on the contrary, it is so freeing to be able to fall, to be liberated from the wall and to know that my efforts, regardless of my ability to balance, are tearing down the walls of fear for a much-needed renovation of the inner space.  This is the best kind of work and I feel privileged to have come this far.

It probably goes without saying, but those three weeks with David and Shelley have given my practice a complete overhaul.  Lightbulbs are flashing at random and I am only just now hearing some of what he said.  David's guidance on the breath completely changed the way I feel.  His pointers on economy of movement and continuum of motion have pushed my energy levels through the roof.  My aversion to the mat is gone, having been replaced with renewed enthusiasm and a wide-eyed appreciation for the potential of each and every practice.

I am filled with love and gratitude for my teachers.

Battle of the Yogis

Moral of the story?  Honor your teachers, honor the practice, and honor the process with patience and respect.

Thanks, Selena!


Practice Report: 2nd Series and Shoulder Woes

Last night, I returned to home practice for the first time in three weeks.  After all that luxurious Mysore-style during the Swenson TT, with a teacher standing by at all times to assist, home practice feels like a lot of work.

Coracobrachialis shown in purple
I've been nursing a tweaked right shoulder since Friday, and yesterday morning it started to feel worse.  I was concerned that I wouldn't be able to practice at all and spent the day analyzing exactly what type of actions caused me pain.  Internal rotation of the arm coupled with either a downward push or an upward pull triggers acute discomfort.  When the muscle feels especially inflamed, it is also painful to lift the arm at certain angles.  A bit of research has revealed that this is probably my coracobrachialis acting up from habitual inward rotation of the right arm.  Mindful attention to the sensation there for the last couple of days has provided me with a good amount of feedback regarding all the little things I do throughout the day that place unnecessary strain on that shoulder.

While it is uncomfortable and sometimes frustrating to deal with injury, it is these periods of self-healing that reveal the most to me about my body and the way I carry myself.  I have always emerged from minor muscular injury with greater awareness and therefore,  a cleaner, lighter practice.  When the body talks, I listen.  I just wish it would speak up a little sooner.

After icing the shoulder for a bit in the evening, I decided to roll out the mat and see what I could do, figuring I'd probably do a few Surya Namaskara, the final 3 finishing postures, and call it a night.  But by the third Surya A, my shoulder felt loose and my body was pumped so full of prana that nothing could have stopped me from going on.  It turned out to be my first full big-girl 2nd series practice at home.  And it was fantastic.

Pasasana and Krounchasana are a jolt without all that 1st series warm-up.  I had a tough time binding and balancing Pasasana since my heels are nowhere near the floor, but I didn't want to wrench the shoulder, so I settled for an unbound expression with a rolled towel under the hovering heels.  Krounchasana is flat-out intense on the hams and glutes as the first forward bending posture of the sequence, but after that, it was smooth sailing through the backbends.  Despite the relatively cold room (I checked:  it was only 70 degrees when I rolled out the mat), I had a clean, drenching sweat going by Dwi Pada.

Dwi Pada is a circus, by the way, without someone to assist.  I gave it my best, but truthfully, until my left leg will stay comfortably behind me in Eka Pada, I think I'll be skipping Dwi Pada for a longer stay in Yoganidrasana to help me get there on my own.  My hips are opening nicely.  It's only a matter of time.

Tittibhasana is no problem.  I am still refining the walk.  It is difficult to coordinate the body and breath for those big steps forward and back, but the rest of the Titti set is under control.  I like that I get to practice both expressions of the Titti arm balance -- with the hips lifted, legs parallel to the floor for the first round and with the butt dropped and legs up for the 5 breaths before the exit.

Pincha Mayurasana is where things get complicated.  I'm not supposed to use the wall to which, I admit, I have allowed myself to become rather attached.  I can balance just fine on my forearms after a bit of wobbling and toeing the wall, but without that initial bit of stabilization, I have a tendency to go up and over.  During the Swenson TT, there was always someone there to stick an arm out just in case.  Sometimes I needed it, sometimes not.  At home, however, there's nothing and no one to prevent me from going over, so Pincha becomes a mind game.  Last night, I faced the problem by laying out floor pillows at the top of my mat so that, if I fell, I wouldn't come down on the unforgiving floor.  After several half-assed 'fraidy cat kicks, I finally went for it with conviction, kamikaze-style.  As it turned out, I didn't fall but suspect that, in the coming weeks, I will.  And I had better get comfortable with the idea.  Once I manage to get over the fear factor of Pincha, it's on to Karandavasana, where I expect to be stuck for quite some time.

I really do enjoy this 2nd series practice.  It has a totally different feel without all that exhausting Primary beforehand, so much lighter and more energetic.  Somehow, the whole practice took an hour and forty-five minutes last night even though I focused on a circular, unbroken breath as David instructed (which really has made an enormous difference in my energy levels), but that's still a good deal shorter than my previous Primary + Intermediate routine.  The relative brevity and playfulness of the Intermediate antics is liberating.  I am excited to endeavor in this new phase of practice.


Asana of the Week: Upavishta Konasana

Upavishta Konasana (Seated Angle Pose) is a beautiful seated posture that strengthens and lengthens the torso as it promotes increased circulation and good health of the pelvic region.  Gregor Maehle claims this posture balances the flow of pranic and apanic energy in the body (Ashtanga Yoga:  Practice & Philosophy), and BKS Iyengar promotes this posture as a "boon to women" for it's ability to regulate menstrual flow and "stimulate the ovaries" (Light on Yoga).

There are two phases to this posture, the first of which is pictured above, wherein the back of the legs and the front of the torso are laid on the floor.  In this phase, the feet should be flexed with the toes and knees pointing straight up to achieve the desired rotation of the legs.  Spread the legs as wide as possible while maintaining a firm grip on the feet.  Keep the back body long and melt the heart toward the floor.  If the chest is resting comfortably on the floor, lift the gaze to take the chin down rather than the forehead to promote further forward extension.

After 5 breaths in position A, inhale to lengthen and lift the head, then exhale to fold toward the floor with the purpose of creating momentum so that, with the next inhale, you roll up to balance on the sitting bones with the legs spread wide in position B.  Try to maintain your grip on the feet through this transition.  If it is not possible keep hold of the feet (which is the reality for most of us), you may release the feet and lift your straight legs to meet the hands at the top of the roll.  Once your grip is established, point the feet and lift your gaze to the sky.  Remain in position B for 5 deep breaths.


For those lacking in flexibility, it is preferable in position A to bend the knees rather than allow the back to round.  However, in position B it is best to keep the legs straight even if that means holding on to the big toes or calves instead of the edges of the feet.  Ground into the sitting bones to lift from the crown of the head.  Feel the heart open and expansive as you press the legs wide and plug the arm bones into their sockets.


Primary Friday: Dispersal

Today was the final day of training, so this week's Primary was special and sad.  David practiced with us, conducting the series with nothing but the occasional "inhale" here or "enter" there.  The breath was exquisitely beautiful, and I had the special privilege of practicing at his right hand.  Immediately after practice, he led us all through the chanting and pranayama one last time.  My insides have been liquified by the experience.  No doubt this will go down as one of my most memorable times on the mat.

This training with David and Shelley has been a bright and clear point of focus through the chaos of the last few months.  In the ecstatic rebound of the cancer scare ordeal, the impending nature of this program kept me mindful in my practice, and when the high began to fade, it kept me coming to the mat.  Now that it's over, I feel shaken by the lack of drishte but excited to observe the change.  Already, my classes have taken on a different tone.  They are quieter, more trusting and more focused on the breath.  And my practice, while still a beast, has become a softer animal, swift-footed and light.

Oh.  And I've been told to make the split.  No more Primary for me.  David and Shelley don't want me bulking up my shoulders any more than they already are, and Shelley thinks my body would be well-served by Intermediate.  I spoke with her yesterday, and apparently they had both been wondering behind the scenes why I hadn't made the split already.  I expressed concern about my need for the hip opening of Primary and my relative newness to the practice, but Shelley assured me that I'm ready and said I should focus on opening my hips outside of the Ashtanga.  And, of course, there's always Friday.

Post-biopsy and pre-training, I had built my practice back to Kapotasana after being unable to bend either forward or backward for nearly two weeks.  During that time, practice consisted almost solely of modified Sun Salutations, lateral movements and gentle twists.  Over the course of these past two weeks in the second level training, I have gone through the land of Legs-Behind-Head and the Insect Infestation to Pincha Mayurasana.  And now I face the steep climb of Karandavasana by myself.  This is going to be fun.

Shelley gave me some good pointers for facing Karandavasana alone, the first of which was NOT to use a wall.  I am to practice my inverted lotus in headstand before attempting from Pincha.  If my knees don't like it, I can practice with a legs-crossed type of modification.  I should work on the lowering process in increments, coming down only part way and then hauling it back up.  This all sounds well and good in theory, but we'll see how it goes in practice.  I foresee many a face plant in my future.

Tomorrow is a rest day and I intend to spend it thoroughly cleaning my home, getting grounded and re-established in my responsibilities so that I may share what I've learned from a place of clarity and stability.

And Now for Something Completely Different...

Thanks to David for passing this along!


Self-Centered: The Narcissistic Cult of Yoga

This afternoon, I was sitting in an ice cream shop with David Swenson (true story!), his wife Shelley, and a bunch of rowdy Ashtangis and we were all chatting it up over sundaes.  The topic turned to an emerging trend of disrespect among yoga practitioners for each other, the space, and for the teachers (I should mention that David was not personally engaged in this conversation).

A few of us theorized reasons for this trend, commiserating as we alternately nodded and shook our heads.  I proposed two reasons for this dissolution of reverence in modern yoga:  1)  Very few teachers have any prerequisites for their students to meet in order to begin study.  Anyone with enough cash can buy the teacher's time.  2)  There is a gaping hole in Western yoga culture's understanding of the idea of "the self."  

It is a popular thing to say, "you are perfect as you are."  We believe in self-love.  Self-affirmation.  Self-appreciation.  Self-acceptance.  Self.  Self.  Self.  Self.  Self.  We do yoga to do something good for ourselves.  Forget service!  This is me-time.  My time.  Time to spend time with me.  To do what serves me best.  The kicker is that these slogans and buzzwords are right.  The true self is perfect, but in order to embrace the self, identification with things or ideas that are not "the self" must be severed.  

But we here in LuluLand like to skip that part and head straight for the self-worship.  Why?  Because it tastes good and it goes down easy.  What's that you say?  I'm perfect as I am?  Well then, *wipes hands* my work here is done.  It's no wonder students don't show respect to their teachers; not only are they not at all familiar with the history or foundation of the practice, they think they have nothing to learn, except when it comes to asana where the shortcomings are glaringly obvious.

This is the reason teachers who can do crazy shit with their bodies are the ones who attract the most students.  I'm not saying that's entirely wrong, because the ones who can do crazy shit are usually the same ones who have dedicated their lives to the practice, but I do think that the way yoga culture is developing presently makes it harder and harder for teachers, senior or otherwise, to make a living and be discriminating so that sincere yoga study may advance.  The role of teacher has devolved and the foundations of the practice have been shaken.

What we need is a healthy dose of ego obliteration to remind us of how much we have to learn.  Readers:  what are your thoughts?  Does Western yoga culture need an etiquette injection?


Asana of the Week: Baddha Konasana

 Baddha Konasana (Bound Side Angle) and its many variations are a mainstay of my personal practice and a frequent feature in my classes.  This posture has loosened my low back, lengthened my adductors, and opened my hips for the practice of Padmasana (Lotus Pose).  
Also known as Cobbler's Pose because it depicts the manner in which Indian cobbler's sit, Baddha Konasana is said to eliminate and prevent diseases of the urinary tract and reproductive organs.  Regular practice may also bring relief from sciatic pain and prevent hernia.

Baddha Konasana stretches the quadriceps and inner thighs as it contracts the deep external rotators of the hip.  In forward bending variations of the pose, the quadratus lumborum and piriformis are given a deep release, while in the upright variation shown above, the rectus abdominis, spinal extensors, and quadratus lumborum work in careful coordination to maintain the natural curve of the spine against a strong temptation to round the low back.  

In the practice of this posture, use your hands to turn the soles of the feet up as you engage your glutes to pull the knees toward the floor.  With your hands connected to your feet and the arms held straight, engage the muscles of the back to draw your shoulders back and down.  This action creates a pull on the feet encouraging greater external rotation of the legs and a deeper expression of the posture.


Primary Friday: Homecoming

Wow.  Where shall I begin?

Week 2 of the Swenson TT is over and I am absolutely swimming in Ashtanga.  From 7:30 in the morning to 5 o'clock at night, I'm in training.  We practice asana and pranayama in the morning, pairing up for asana practice -- one plays the student, the other the teacher, then we switch.  After that, the whole group convenes for pranayama before we break for lunch.  Post-lunch, we study the Sanskrit count, followed by 2nd series postures and adjustments in the afternoon.  After that, I go home to review my notes and/or listen to Sharath's led Primary DVD until I fall asleep to dream sweet dreams of Ashtanga until morning comes, when it starts all over again.

David and Shelley are really hitting all the bases.  First thing this morning, they taught us how to do nauli kriya, or "navel cleansing."  It's not as hard as it looks.  (Try it!  Let the always lovely Kiki show you how.)

This afternoon, David showed us some gentle bodywork techniques to help students complaining of back and neck pain.  Next week, the philosophical discussions begin and there has been talk of karma yoga.

Today, I led my first student through Primary to the traditional Sanskrit count.  This Sanskrit study has taken me well outside of my comfort zone.  At first exposure, the logic of it was confounding.  I realized that I have never been to a counted led class, so it was difficult to follow the rhythm.  However, now that I've had some time to chew on it, I like the way it feels in my mouth.  Literally.  The Sanskrit language has a sweet, rich sound and a satisfying texture.  I really enjoy leading the practice with the count, the sound is soothing and seems to enhance the meditation... that is, unless I'm stumbling over the next number.  Luckily, I've got some time to practice before my next crack at it on Sunday.

It has been fun to take my practice further into Intermediate again.  With David's permission, I have been doing the standing series in its entirety and then moving straight into 2nd rather than splitting at Parsvottanasana, as per the tradition.  I just can't give up all that hip opening work in the latter half of standing, it is too terribly needed for the lotus postures later in the practice.  And (who am I kidding?) I like to try my hand at those floaty transitions from Utkatasana and Virabhadrasana.  More and more, they are feeling as I envision them to be.

As for Intermediate, on Monday, I practiced to Supta Vajrasana.  Tuesday to Bakasana, Wednesday to Tittibhasana, and Thursday, I took it all the way to Pincha.  Which, by the way, I balanced and held on the second attempt with nothing but the assurance of a spotter standing by.  The exit was a different story:  I could not for the life of me figure out how to find the lift to move my hands into position for the chaturanga landing.  I came down in a forearm plank position, which was fine with me.  Save the landing for another day.

For the first few days of practice, David was on me about my breath.  I have a habit of dragging it out until I'm moving through the sequence like molasses.  I thought I was justified -- if I could do it comfortably, then why not?  Then he came by one day during Kapo to assist and, standing over me, made the comment that my breath in Kapo is how I should try to breathe throughout my practice.  I laughed at the time, but that remark really put things in perspective.  I instruct my students to "pump the breath" in big backbends to avoid the panicked, erratic breath that tries to take over.  So now I'm trying to pump the breath a little more throughout my practice, not just elongating the breath but harnessing it completely.  It's been interesting to bring even more emphasis to the breathing and it seems to have had a profound effect on my practice.  It is much lighter, less exhausting, in part because I'm not spending quite as much time in each asana, but also because the energy seems to flow more freely when I avoid sitting in the pauses between the breath.

One of the things that has made this experience so incredible is the fact that David's book was my very first exposure to yoga, long before I had any notion of the distinction between the different "styles" or approaches to the practice.  Fast forward ten years and a cross country move, and I find myself in Austin practicing Ashtanga just in time for David and Shelley to start travelling less and teaching here more.  People have traveled here from all over the world to attend this intensive, the first of it's kind, and I just so happen to live 2 minutes away.  It's been an interesting journey with a roundabout route from those first few uncertain Surya Namaskara ten years ago to now, but I feel as though he's been my teacher all along.  The fact that Shelley is an excellent teacher in her own right, with a different but complementary perspective, is the icing on the cake.  There are murmurs that they may someday establish a more permanent presence here in Austin... ahem hem.

I, for one, would be delighted if that were true.