Pain and Impermanence

Thank the highest goodness for this practice.  My income is violently unsteady.  My personal relationships are in ruins and my life's path is uncertain.  But the practice is always there.  It is my sanctuary.  My office.  My laboratory.  My home.  It is often the only place where I may simply be, apart from my attachments and desperate identifications, to be reminded of the great and simple joy of living, in spite of any pain that may inevitably arise.  I tremble to think where I would be today without it.

These past few months have been very interesting.  My life has been intense and so my practice has been intense.  Where, off the mat, I struggle to find solutions, on the mat there is a clarity and simplicity of logic in which all paths lead to revelation.  I still feel my pain deeply, but rather than resist it with angst and rigidity, I treat it with great value and respect.  My pain.  My teacher.  The source of genius.  Show me the way.

The parallels between my practice and my personal life, my inner and outer lives, have been uncanny.  Changes are afoot.  Ashtanga was the catalyst.  The backbends, the dropbacks especially, opened something huge, something smothered away in dormancy which was suddenly and wildly awakened.  I found my strength.  Not my physical power or my force of will, but an inner strength, a steadiness within that anchors me in the throes of uncertainty.  To dive over backward, blindly but without faith or expectation, sitting comfortably in the unknown, ready to receive success or failure as equally likely and equally right.  Knowing, ultimately, that all is unknown.  There are no certainties, no forevers.  All is impermanence and that is its beauty, its grace.

Rooted in this new found soundness of strength, I soften into the wind and let it take me where it will, waving a bittersweet goodbye to whatever and whoever stays behind, too heavy to be lifted up until another gust comes by and sweeps it all away.  My loves and I may be deposited by these dramatic currents, eventually, in the same dark corner to meet again in the newness of life, to crawl our way into the light together.  Or we may not.  We may never meet again and always carry with us stale fragments of a love that once was whole, marked by the painful extraction of the roots we've grown and wrapped inside of one another.  But these marks are not forever.  This life is short and I will wear my scars with pride as a reminder to myself and all who have the eyes to see that pain is a powerful teacher, and though there is a harshness in the lessons, there is great kindness in the wisdom gained.


Primary Friday: Strange Behavior

Ready...  set... rest day!  I am loving this 'Primary on Fridays and Saturdays off' stuff.  Ashtanga is fun and (don't hate me for this) delightfully quirky.  Today, I found myself remembering and planning for the moon day next Wednesday.  So that's it, then.  I'm in the cult.  It's official.

I had a fantastic Primary practice yesterday in T's room and I found out that the free Mysore on Fridays will continue through September, which is good news.  Even if I decide not to purchase more classes, at least I'll have an extra eye on my practice once a week.  Although T hasn't been giving me much attention for the past several sessions.  She helps me with the Intermediate hang backs and final backbend, but that's it.  I waited for her a little while on Friday before taking on Supta Kurmasana, hoping she would come over and help me get my legs crossed, but no such luck.  She's usually pretty busy with beginners.  The class size has grown considerably.

With this growth also comes a strange variety of behavior.  The lady who began her practice just to my left did a few Surya and then proclaimed aloud to no one in particular that it was "too hot," rolled up her mat and left.  For the record, it wasn't especially hot.  Certainly much cooler than last week!  A pair of ladies in the corner chatted intermittently throughout the practice, one of whom wasn't even practicing Ashtanga.  At one point, she asked T loudly "when we practice handstands at the wall."  I guess she was confused.  Anusara.  Ashtanga.  Same thing.  At the other extreme, there was an older guy there who was completely new to yoga.  First time ever.  T led him through the Suryas, a few standing postures, and some of finishing.  After he was done, T asked him how he felt and he said, "Amazing!"  That was nice.

In spite of the minimal adjustments and the obvious fact that I was distracted by all of the activity, I had a very clean practice.  I felt strong.  Jump backs were much lighter than they have been in recent weeks.  My knees are still feeling pretty good and lotus postures are accessible.  In fact, while walking the dog and getting my vitamin D today, I had a revelation regarding the rotation of the thigh in Padmasana, about how it's a three-step process:  1) close the knee, 2) abduct and externally rotate the thigh, and 3) internally rotate while in abduction and fold the leg into place as one piece.  It seems so obvious now, but I'm excited to try it out in my practice tomorrow.  I've read both Maehle's and Swenson's detailed instructions on how to enter Padmasana without injuring the knee multiple times.  To be perfectly honest, I've understood them in theory, but not in practice.  I think I finally get it.  I'll find out tomorrow.

Sonya Cottle on the Practice

Caught this video today and thought it would make a good follow-up to the "Thoughts on Daily Practice" post from earlier in the week.  Sony nicely summarizes not only the importance of regular practice but some of the elemental reasons for taking up the practice in the first place.

"The hardest part for anybody, regardless of their level of experience, is the showing up.  Nothing is required...  The 'getting there,' that's the practice."  

Well said, Sonya.

Asana of the Week: Paschimottanasana

This deep forward fold is an important therapeutic posture.  The entire back body -- the fiber of which is one long, continuous strand of muscle, connective tissue, and fascia from the achilles tendons at the heels to the fascia that wraps up and over the scalp -- is stretched and released.  The primary focus of the stretch is the hamstrings at the back of the thighs, which are very often reduced to a constricted, shortened state due to our modern lifestyle.

It is said that the hamstrings harbour emotions steeped in ambition, such as greed, anger, competitiveness, and fear.  These suppressed emotions are stored in the hamstrings and, over the years, are the source of the gradual stiffening and shortening of the muscles. For these reasons, releasing the hamstrings can be a long and psychologically arduous process.  These stored emotions may arise with the intensity of physical sensation that we experience in the stretch.  The natural tendency for many is to brace against these feelings, both emotional and physical, perpetuating the cycle of resistance and self-abuse.  Instead, we must learn to release into the pose, to surrender to what is rather than force and strain to reach the feet.  Gregor Maehle describes this process well in Ashtanga Yoga:  Practice & Philosophy:
"All suppressed emotions are potentially crippling to our health:  they are toxic and have an impact on our personality.  It is essential that, if strong emotions do arise, we acknowledge whateve we feel and then let go of these emotions.  Breathing through a posture requires that the stretch be kept at a manageable intensity.  If the stretch is too strong we will harden and numb ourselves further.  One needs to stretch with compassion and intelligence."
Many students struggle to reach their feet in this pose and, in doing so, sacrifice the integrity of the spine, rounding the back and consequently straining the lumbar spine.  Rather than rounding the back to stretch further, it is advisable to take a soft bend in the knees and lead with the sternum so that the lower back may release and lengthen while redirecting the stretch to the hamstrings.  Alternatively or in combination with bent knees, placing a folded blanket beneath the sit bones to elevate the hips may be useful in finding extension in the lumbar spine by increasing the effect of gravity on the pose, which allows the abdominals and hip flexors, which may bunch and actually impede the fold if working too strongly, to soften and release allowing the hips to flex more completely.

Use the breath to carry you into the pose.  With every inhalation, imagine the spine lengthening and the heart reaching to the toes.  With every exhalation, soften and release to fold more deeply.  Initiate the inhales at the base of the pelvic floor and direct your breath into the rib cage.  Keep your mula bandha (root lock) and uddiyana bandha (navel lock) engaged to aid in the support and extension of the lumbar spine.  There is a tendency to hunch the shoulders around the ears when we bind the arms in Paschimottanasana.  This contraction in the neck and shoulders constricts the blood vessels in the neck and may result in headaches, red face, or dizziness.  Rather than pulling with the trapezius, remember to keep the latissimus dorsi and serratus anterior engaged to pull the shoulders down, which then extends the thoracic spine and opens the heart.  (You can actually see my giganto-lats quite clearly engaged in the picture above.)

Always be patient and compassionate with your body.  If you practice the pose correctly with attention to detail, it is likely that you will not be able to fold as far as if you were to round the back and strain to reach the feet.  Do not be bothered by this.  When careful attention to alignment is used in practice of the asanas, the body develops and opens in a healthy and balanced way which prevents injury, builds strength, and paves the way for seamless entry into the more advanced postures.


Relief from TMJ Syndrome, Teeth Grinding, and Chronic Jaw Tension

Lion Pose
Jaw tension is nasty business.  I carried anxiety and anger in my jaw for years, which resulted in neck pain and frequent headaches, which then resulted in a whole host of other postural and psychological problems.  Over time, I have been able to let go of this tension, but not without diligent effort.

I regularly suggest during my classes that students check in with and let go of any tension accumulating in the jaw and throat as a by-product of their efforts in order to help my students develop awareness of their stress reactions.   Students often ask me what they can do to address their chronic jaw tension outside of class.  I give them Lion Pose (which illicits dubious stares) and tell them to simply replace the stress reaction of tension with one of relaxation.

There is no quick fix for TMJ syndrome, grinding of the teeth, or other tension issues.  Relaxation is hard work, but developing a keen awareness is the first step to overcoming the harmful habit of unconscious clenching of the jaw.  For a few more fantastic tips on relief from jaw tension, here's Kiki in all of her infinite wisdom:


Practice Report: Lotus Blossoms and Drop Backs

So far, it's been a really nice week of practice.  Sunday practice is always especially nice for two reasons:  first, I teach all day beginning in the early morning, but after my first class I go straight home and have just enough time to enjoy my full practice, shower, and have a snack before I head out for my afternoon teaching spree.  It really fuels me for my classes.  Also, it just feels so darn good after a rest day to get back on the mat.  Monday I had a very clean, efficient practice in J's room.  I'm beginning to feel a part of this darling community of scrappy, determined yogis.  The past two days have been home practice and, since the lotus has been feeling good, I've been adding on the next two Intermediate postures:  Supta Vajrasana and Bakasana A & B.

Both knees are healing well.  I've been practicing all lotus and half lotus postures except for Urdhva Padmasana and Pindasana without any discomfort.  The addition of lotus legs to Marichyasana B and D is taking some getting used to.  I lose the wrist bind on the left side in Mari B when I take the right leg into lotus.  In Mari D, I lose much of the twist and there's no binding to speak of so I've been alternating, one day with lotus legs for the hips, and the next day without lotus legs for the twist, slowly bridging the gap.  It's strange: last week, I wondered with despondency if I would ever be able to do lotus again, and now it's suddenly more comfortable than ever.  Of course, I am proceeding with caution, but it's tentatively looking good. 

For the past couple of weeks I've been refining my drop backs by reducing the number of breaths for each round.  I had been dropping back in two breaths, and then rocking twice before standing up.  Then J asked me on Monday if I've tried doing it in one breath without the rocks, which surprised me because I didn't think I was ready for that.  I told her as much, but the implications of her inquiry planted the seeds of curiosity.  Yesterday in my home practice I gave it a try and surprised myself.  I managed three rounds of drops and stands in a row without rocking or walking the hands in.  Just exhale back, inhale up.

My Intermediate postures are coming along.  I am SO close to binding Pasasana on my own.  Tuesday, I was able to hook the tips of my middle fingers on the first side which, I suppose, is just barely a bind, technically speaking.  Krounchasana is feeling quite a bit better.  For a while there, my straight leg was rotating out pretty badly despite my efforts to roll it in, but my outer hips are suddenly more open than ever, so that tendency seems to have disappeared.  My energy levels appear to have normalized after the last two weeks of an obvious downturn.  I'm able to forge ahead through the belly backbends of Intermediate and into Ustrasana without pausing for rest.  Laghu and Kapo still demand a few preparation breaths, but I'd rather approach those two with precision than hurry through.

Kapo has suffered this week.  I think perhaps I have not been as patient with the hang back because it seems these past few days that my hands are having to walk a long road to get to the feet.  Kapo B is still asking for more extension in the shoulders than I have to give at this time.  Also, my forearms are really tight for some reason, so my wrists just won't stay down.  But the backbend itself is feeling very good, none of that eye popping heat in the low back that came with the first explorations of Kapo.

One thing that is eternally confounding me is the half-handstand.  I can perform this maneuver in and of itself without a problem, but in the context of the practice, I can't do it.  The exit from Utkatasana and the on-the-knees backbends of Intermediate are always a little clunky despite my best efforts (as you can see in the video in this post), with the exception of a few rare and glorious moments.  I know, mechanically speaking, that my hips simply need to come further forward over the shoulders.  I just can't seem to get them there.  However, never one to take things lying down, I've been making myself use the cross-legged jump through during my practice, even though it's not as clean as the straight-leg, in order to build strength and give myself ample opportunity for success.  It's actually been kind of fun, like a game, playing with the cross-legged jump throughs.  I alternate the cross of the ankles each time and try to hang at the top of the inhale for as long as I can, which isn't long, but it's keeping the practice interesting.

Today will be another home practice and then Primary only tomorrow in T's room.  T's free Friday Mysore is nearing an end and there are only four classes left on my discount class package purchase.  As it happens, those are likely to be used up about a week before the two weeks of Mysore with Swenson.  After that, I'll probably spend a while practicing exclusively at home and decide if I have the desire and the finances to purchase more classes.  At this time, it's looking unlikely, but we'll see what happens.

(image source)


Thoughts on Daily Practice

How is it that, after years of doing this practice (not Ashtanga necessarily, but some kind of asana practice) and never once having regretted it, my mind can still lay siege on my intentions with a slough of doubts and fears as I unroll my mat?

The resiliency of the reluctant mind is astounding.  Every day I do my practice.  Every day I make it through, and every day when it's over, I am a happier, freer person than I was before.  It's a well established pattern.  And yet, many times my mind finds room to question, to consider, as I inhale my arms up for that first Surya Namaskar, that perhaps this is not the best idea.  After all, I'm already tired and I've got the whole series ahead of me.  I might need the energy later.  I should probably just take a nap/have a snack/read a blog instead (hint, hint...).

This tendency for skepticism in the face of obvious truth has been the source of a number of personal revelations thoughout my (relatively few) years of practice.  Sometimes it feels as though I'm stuck in a wheel, learning the same lessons over and over.  Until one day when the lesson is somehow not merely learned but absorbed, assimilated into my being.  Another veil falls and a new and vivid world appears before me.  Sometimes the veil falls and flutters softly to the ground, and sometime it must be roughly torn away.

This aversion to freedom, the only way I've been able to interpret my persistent reluctance to practice, is a strong samskara, a deep, dark rut that requires a hard climb up and out before redirection can take place.  Every day that I choose to practice in spite of the mental chatter, I dig myself a little bit further out of that vacuous rut, arriving just slightly nearer to the light, making a clearer, brighter way for myself in the future.  Every practice makes way for the next, every day it gets a little bit easier.  But even now, with a few years of daily practice under my belt, days and weeks and months of both gross and subtle evidence piling up in its favor, even now I have to fight to shrug off the resistance, the laziness of body and mind.

What's the point of all this?  I'm not sure.  I suppose it is simply to say that regular practice -- daily practice, if possible -- is so important because it is the beginning of the journey toward essential truth, the path to freedom.  Daily practice is the constant, perhaps the only one in life.  It must be created and cared for, developed with attention and nurtured with tenderness for it to fulfill its purpose, which is nothing but a clear lens with which to look into the self.  When we choose daily practice, when we commit to shed the blinders and face the naked truth day after day, we are choosing to care for ourselves, to do what is right for us no matter what.  In this sense, the practice itself is an expression of unconditional love, something that can be difficult to understand and even more difficult to access in our lives.  But daily practice makes it easier.  In other words, yoga helps.


Asana of the Week: Bhujapidasana

Bhujapidasana (Arm Pressure Pose) is a wonderful and accessible arm balancing posture that is especially helpful in developing the group of muscles that create internal lift and lightness in your practice.

This pose strengthens the hands, wrists, arms, and shoulders, as well as the upper back and chest.  The abdominals work to curl the hips under and the adductors of the inner thighs hug the knees into the upper arms to leverage the body up.  Combined, these actions of the abdominals and adductors are the key to many of the arm balancing postures, which is why I recommend working with this pose, as well as Bakasana, for those wishing to develop an arm balancing practice.

When first learning Bhujapidasana, enter the pose from Downward Dog by stepping or jumping the feet to the outside of the hands.  From here, take hold of the backs of the legs and use your arms to help you pull your body through your legs and wriggle your shoulders behind your knees (pictured right).  Then plant your hands down behind the feet and sit your hips, shifting the weight into the hands.  Squeeze the knees tightly into the shoulders and walk your feet toward one another until you can cross the ankles.  Keep hugging the knees against the shoulders and lifting in the belly to remain afloat and hold your balance.  If the feet and hips hover easily from the floor, trying pressing both the arms and legs a little straighter.

Once this variation has been mastered, you may try bending the elbows and hinging forward to bring the crown, forehead, or chin to the floor (pictured left).  Engage the latissimus dorsi and serratus anterior to stabilize the shoulders as you extend the spine against the pull of the abdominals and squeeze your heels toward your buttocks.

Primary Friday: Sweat Box Extravaganza

 This week I decided to save my Primary-only practice for Friday.  All day long, I had been looking forward to a happy-go-lucky afternoon Primary, only to be met by a stiflingly hot and humid practice room.  I broke a sweat simply laying out my Manduka.  Twenty minutes into practice, every single mat in the place was surrounded by an ever-expanding ocean of sweat.  Faces were flushed, shirts were drenched, and moans of misery could be heard from time to time.  Every so often, my bewildered gaze would catch a fellow student's in the mirror and we would share, for the briefest of moments, a nod and sweaty smile at the slavish conditions, assuring one another that it was, indeed, really hot in there.  So much for happy-go-lucky.

So it wasn't the light practice I'd been hoping for.  It was, however, an opportunity to very carefully consider pacing in the practice.  This keeps coming up here lately, maybe because the weather is turning warm, but I have to be very careful doing my practice in hot rooms.  My body doesn't seem to have an efficient cooling mechanism in place.  I sweat and I sweat and I sweat until I have not a single salt left in my body.  My skin turns beet-red, I get woozy, and eventually an oppressive headache descends that doesn't go away for the rest of the day, no matter what I do.  This happens to me regardless of my level of fitness.  It doesn't manifest as fatigue, it feels more like internal pressure, and it can be avoided if I simply slow down, but.... that's hard to do.  It's my practice.  What's the point if I can't practice to my best ability?

I have been to doctors about this.  Specialists, even.  This was back in the days when I had access to health care.  I used to run, and this total system failure would not generally happen during training but it did happen at some point during EVERY. SINGLE. RACE.  They told me to drink Gatorade instead of water and eat well during the days leading up to my races.  I tried that.  It made no difference.  When that didn't work, they tried to give me antidepressants -- the good ol' American cure-all.  HA!  No thanks, doc.  So I've been left to deal with it on my own by simply not putting myself in situations in which this catastrophe is likely to arise.  However, as we all know, sometimes we can't control the conditions of our surroundings.  We can only control the way we conduct ourselves.  Which brings me to pacing in the practice...

How important is it to stay with the count?  How much of a "bad lady" would I be if I took an extra breath or two in Down Dog between postures on hot days to let my system settle before jumping back into the fray?  I know that only I can really answer these questions for myself.  Is staying with the count so important that I should knowingly drive my body into disfunction?  No.  It isn't.  But it's frustrating because I have the strength, I have the focus, and I have the determination.  I just don't have the ability to maintain homeostasis.

During my practice yesterday -- drowning in sweat, the pressure on my brain increasing to a level of warning -- it occurred to me that I can probably never go to Mysore to study at KPJAYI.  It's really hot there, right?  I'd be miserable!  I'd have to hobble through my practice, my internal flame pathetically extinguished by the external abundance of heat.  Oh well... just another quiet dream thoroughly crushed by circumstance.  I'll survive.


Video Snippets

Since yesterday was a home practice, I decided to take the opportunity to grab some video of a few things that I've been wanting to see in order to get a better handle on.

First up:  Bhujapidasana.  I've been wondering why I can't seem to bring my chin to the floor.  Every time I venture to try, the back of my neck feels uncomfortably crunched and I nearly break my nose.  From what I can tell, looking at the video, my back is rounding way too much.  It needs more extension.  Looks like I need to focus on leading with the sternum and hinging rather than rounding forward.

Still polishing the exits from these poses.  I used to flex my feet very strongly when swinging back into Bakasana.  For some reason, I seem to have dropped that technique.  I should probably pick it up again.  As I recall, it really helps with the lift not only in the legs, but all the way up into the belly.  Kurmasana is good.  I love this pose for it's balance of strength and stretch and I've never had a problem lifting my heels.  Then there's Supta Kurmasana... My back is WAY too rounded.  No wonder I can't get my feet behind my head.  Must extend, elongate, lengthen, and grow.  That's my new Supta Kurmasana mantra.

I also recorded the on-the-knees backbends to see what's happening there.  Surprisingly, they look pretty good and, more importantly, they feel good.  Now I'm just trying to eliminate all the preparatory fuss and resting breaths between poses.

Kapo A is coming along nicely.  Still haven't reached the heels, but I'm sure it will happen in time.  Kapo B is INTENSE.  My hands still want to slide forward and my wrists try to lift from the mat.  I can't quite get the arms straight, either, and I don't feel any considerable progress in that regard happening from day to day.  Maybe I should spend some time hanging off the side of the bed each day... 

BAGH!  So much extra-curricular work involved in this practice.  Now I have not only my daily practice which runs in excess of 2 hours, but also regular tennis ball trigger point massage, a hip opening routine to build up to the leg-behind-head postures, shoulder stretches to counteract the soreness from the backbends, and bed hanging to open up the chest and armpits for Kapo.  Not to mention daily meditation and pranayama...  It's a lot.  My life has officially been hijacked by the yoga.  

Listen to me... complaining about yoga.  Who am I kidding?  I love every minute and wouldn't have it any other way.


Post-Moon Day Practice and the Year of Swenson

(image source)
 I had a really great practice last night in J's room after resting for the moon day on Tuesday.  Primary was fantastic, jump backs were better, and my Intermediate poses are coming right along.  I almost bound Pasasana on both sides without assistance.  I couldn't quite get a secure bind, but the tips of my middle fingers remained in contact throughout my stay in the pose.  It's progress.  Another point of note:  I practiced all lotus postures on both sides for the first time since the right knee imploded.  And it felt okay!  Not great, but certainly not painful.  Hooray for healing!

Maybe it was the extra rest day, but last night I finally felt my strength returning.  For the past couple of weeks, I've been struggling with my upper body strength.  There has been a distinct lack of ligthness in my vinyasas, and I suspect it has something to do with all the backbending.  My front body is opening so much that I seem to have lost some of the ability to contract very tightly in the jump backs.  It's a trade off.

To address this, I've begun to add the ultra-macho extra Chaturanga into the vinyasas, at least during the Surya Namaskar.  It's like adding 20 pushups to the practice.  I'm also trying to be extra-conscious of my shoulder alignment during load bearing activities, engaging in the right places, recruiting the lats and not overusing the chest or anterior deltiods.  It's not a lot, but every little bit helps.

Another more obvious reason for my declining upper body strength is the fact that I haven't been keeping up with my weekly push-ups and pull-ups routine.  I used to do 50-60 pull-ups and 100 push-ups about once a week.  I began this custom when I first started to practice vinyasa yoga because I wanted to be able to move through the vinyasas with ease and maintain my breath.  And, of course, arm balances -- I wanted those.  But when T and S started me in on 2nd series, I tapered off and eventually quit with the strengthening routine because I knew I'd never bind Pasasana or reach my feet in Kapo if I kept building all that muscle.  Now, however, I'm wondering if it isn't time to pick it back up.

One month from today is the start of my first Swenson adventure, two weeks of morning mysore and pranayama with David and Shelley.  It might be a jolt getting up to practice at 6am every day for two weeks after practicing almost exclusively in the afternoon.  I should try to ease myself into that the week prior so it's not such a shock to the system.  Also, as some of you may remember, I signed up a while ago for a week-long Level 1 Ashtanga teacher training with Swenson which will be taking place in October.  This week I happened to notice that there is also a Level 2 training being offered.  It's an additional two weeks which, all told, makes it three straight weeks of intensive study with Swenson.  I'm in, and this training will be meet nearly half of the requirements for my 500-hour teaching certification.  I couldn't pass up the opportunity and I am SO excited to get into the nitty gritty and work with the man whose book planted the very first seeds of intrigue nearly ten years ago.


Ordinary Dreams

The yoga is giving me dreams.  Lots of them.  In fact, I can't remember the last time I slept a whole night without vivid, restless dreams, mostly about yoga.  How subtle, right?  I'm not exactly sure what this says about me, but I generally have very ordinary dreams.  I've never dreamed that I could fly or breathe under water.  I dream about sandwiches (yum!), surprise family visits (the horror!), and gaining one new follower on my blog (sad but true...).  My dreams are merely unimagined alternatives to reality.  My yoga dreams are no different:  I'm in a mysore room, on my mat, moving through my practice.  I'm not doing 3rd series, or floating effortlessly to and from Uttanasana, or even doing lotus without fear of blowing out my knee.  I'm in MY body, facing my challenges.  Doing my practice.  What's a girl gotta do to get some rest around here?

To answer my own rhetorical question:  observe moon days!  And that's what I did.  Today was my very first moon day.  And it was good... but I have to wonder, if I'm going to buy into this whole tradition, with rest days and moon days, and ladies holidays and the whole bit, when am I supposed to do my practice?  (Answer: in my dreams, apparently.)

As I mentioned early last week, my teacher J had suggested I stop at Eka Pada Sirsasana instead of practicing Intermediate through Yoganidrasana until I can get my leg to stay behind my head.  Well... since then, we've taken it down yet another notch.  For the past week, I've been stopping at Kapo.

Why, you ask?  A few reasons.  For one, I'd been having problems sustaining my energy through the practice so much so that I couldn't healthfully sustain a heating pace through the later postures of 2nd series (my sweating too much, too fast without dying issue).  It was a long, slow trudge through the leg-behind-head postures, particularly since I needed to stretch first, and even then could never quite get my leg to stay behind my head without using a hand to keep it there.  And this leads me to another reason we decided to shave it down for now:  my knee.  Or, more accurately, my (two) knees.  Not only do the leg-behind-head postures have the potential to re-injure my knees, but J seems convinced that I'll be able to do the lotus postures in time, and she would prefer that I focus on opening my hips and performing Primary in it's fullest expression before I move on.  Fair enough.

While I'm not too keen on the idea of giving up postures I've only just acquired, I have to say that full Primary plus 2nd to Kapo is a really lovely practice.  And it leads sooooo nicely into the finishing backbends.  After Kapo and it's series of preparations, my spine and shoulders are primed for Urdhva Dhanurasana.  I can feel every single vertebrae in my spine unfurl individually in the drop backs.  It's like nothing I've felt before (I never stopped at Kapo before, remember?  S took me from Laghu right on to Bakasana B). 

While I don't feel it during the bulk of my practice (the Suryas and Padahastasana seem to take care of it), I am still experiencing unprecedented levels of tension and resulting immobility in my shoulders and upper chest.  After a long day, I need to take a couple of deep breaths before I try to slip a shirt off over my head.  During a class I assisted in today, I could just barely demonstrate the proper arm position for Garudasana (Eagle Pose), and not without vehement objection by my posterior deltoids.  It must be the backbends, right?  I can't imagine what else it could be, but as my dreams clearly reveal, I'm not terribly imaginative.


Primary Friday: Ashtanga Daze

Whew!  TGI rest day, am I right?  I have officially made it through another week in one piece.  This practice is exhausting!  Lately, I'm sweating so much on the mat that my electrolytes are depleting too quickly, leaving me weak, woozy and light headed.  I've always been prone to electrolyte imbalance.  As a runner, I would crash suddenly and HARD during races.  First, my strength would leave me and then an oppressive, nauseating migraine would descend.  I've experienced similar breakdowns during yoga classes in heated rooms.  I just can't sweat that much and survive.

Fortunately, practice rooms are not heated in Ashtanga.  What with ujjayi pranyama and the bandhas and vinyasas, the practice itself is heated enough.  But now the weather is warming up.  This had not occurred to me before, but I may need to modify my practice as we transition into the reign of the Texas summer sun.  Fewer Surya Namaskar and softer breath should help me make it through, at least until I grow accustomed to the practice and the season.  I'll just have to try and remember this before I'm half dead at Setu Bandhasana with Intermediate staring me in the face.

Speaking of Intermediate, J has encouraged me to do Primary only without my 2nd series poses at least once in a while.  I'd like to do this once a week, but it didn't happen this week.  I don't do it on Fridays, per the tradition, because I go to T's class and she helps me with the Intermediate stuff.  I'd prefer to do the Primary practice at home, so I might start doing that on Sundays.  It could be a nice way to ease into the week, although I've read that the reason for the tradition of practicing Primary only on Fridays is to seal the energy in for the day off on Saturday.  Should I not be walking around my front body all open and exposed on the weekends?

Come to think of it, these Primary Friday posts don't really make sense anymore.  When I initiated the Primary Friday custom, I wasn't practicing Ashtanga every day.  That was the whole point -- Fridays were special because they were Ashtanga days.  Now every day is Ashtanga Day.  Maybe I should replace the Primary Friday posts with something like the "Rest Day Rehash," or keep it simple and call every post from this point on "Ashtanga Delirium."  Thoughts?  ;)


Asana of the Week: Matsyasana

"Matsya means a fish.  This posture is dedicated to Matsya the Fish Incarnation of Vishnu, the source and maintainer of the universe and of all things.  It is related that once upon a time the whole earth had become corrupt and was about to be overwhelmed by a universal flood.  Vishnu took the form of a fish and warned Manu (the Hindu Adam) of the impending disaster.  The fish then carried Manu, his family and the seven great sages in a ship, fastened to a horn on his head (BKS Iyengar, Light on Yoga)."
Can you tell I'm on a backbend kick?  This expressive posture is Matsyasana, otherwise known as Fish Pose.  It's a beautiful asana that serves nicely as a counter-pose to Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand), Halasana (Plow Pose), or any other posture in which jalandhara bandha (throat lock) is engaged.

The cervical and thoracic spine are fully extended in Matsyasana.  The chest is lifted and and the rib cage expands to allow for deep breathing.  The pectoralis and anterior deltoids are stretched as the spinal extensors and rectus abdominus engage in tandem to lift and support the spine.  The psoas and quadriceps contract to flex the hips and pull the rim of the pelvis foward while the soleus muscles of the lower legs point the feet.

Enter Matsyasana by lying down on your back.  Bring the legs together, engage the thighs and point the toes.  Bring the palms flat beneath the soft part of the buttocks and walk the elbows tightly into your waist.  Take an inhale as you lift your chest and head to look at your toes, then exhale as you drop only the head back, maintaining the lift of the chest, and lightly touch the crown of your head to the floor.  Keep the elbows as close together as possible behind the back to facilitate the expansion of the chest.  Enjoy the openness of the heart and throat, but be careful not to hyper-extend the cervical spine by crunching the back of the neck or resting too much weight on the head.  Keep the legs engaged to support the posture as you breathe deeply into your chest.


My New Best Friend

Over the weekend, a kind soul named Jim left a comment on this post encouraging me to try rolling on a tennis ball to ease the soreness in my upper back and shoulders that seems to be a direct result of my adventures with the Ashtanga Intermediate series.  I'd like to take this opportunity to personally offer Jim (he commented as Anonymous, but signed his name at the bottom of the post) my most heartfelt thanks for the nudge.  Thank you, Jim!

I had heard of tennis ball massage before.  I'm familiar with muscle rolling, though I've never done it, and I love a deep tissue massage every now and then.  However, in spite of the fact that, thanks to my dog, we have plenty of tennis balls around the home, I've never bothered to try the tennis ball method out for myself.  Until today.  And... oh... my goodness.  Oh, my gracious! It's amazing!!!

I started with the trouble spots in my back and shoulders.  At first it was awkward figuring out how to shift my weight around and how to find the trigger points, but I got the hang of it quickly enough.  The release was painful and hard-won, but so worth it.  Deep breathing and conscious relaxation made the experience almost like a yoga practice in and of itself.  After the initial awkwardness of becoming accustomed to the intensity of sensation, the endorphins began to flow and the focus narrowed to the most subtle of internal shifts.  I rolled on that ball for nearly two hours, going deeper and deeper into the tight spots, discovering a new sensation with every subtle shift of weight.  It's no exaggeration to say that I experienced some... umm.... mild hallucinations.  Swirling colors and the like.

I rolled on both sides of my upper back and shoulders, targeting the usual rough spots.  Hard masses of muscle were gradually, begrudgingly smoothed out. Then I moved to the lats, which was incredibly painful but so very effective.  I even rolled the ball under my left upper chest, where I've experienced lots of resistance for as long as I can remember, but I've never been able to find the physical root of the tension (hmm... left upper chest, eh?  Armored heart?  Too obvious...).  The tennis ball found it.  The mass held strong against the pressure and then suddenly would give way, resulting in radiating muscle spasms, searing heat, and eventually softness.

Then I started in on the hips, mainly glutes and piriformis.  I can barely verbalize the rawness of this experience.  I saw stars.  I remembered my birth.  I felt the pulse of the universe in my own throbbing ass.  Maybe I'm exaggerating a little bit, but not much.  It is said in yogic circles that we store emotional trauma in the hips in the form of unconscious clenching of the muscles.  I've always believed that pain or sickness in the body is often simply the physical manifestation of emotional pain, but I've never had such a direct and immediate experience confirming this to be so.  After a thorough working over on both sides, pausing for several deep breaths at trigger points and then rolling the ball maybe an inch along the muscle fiber and pausing again, I'd finally had enough.  Not two minutes after removing the ball and lying down to rest, I became suddenly emotional.  Downright weepy, actually.  The nature of the pain was as if someone I loved had betrayed me or been hurtful to me in a deeply personal way.  Sad but pure.

Fortunately, my back, hips, and shoulders felt great.  So I guess the lesson is: if you wish to release your pain and increase your emotional intelligence, you might do well to explore the body.  And maybe roll around on a tennis ball once in a while.

2 Steps Forward, 1 Step Back

 Now that S has been gone for a couple of weeks and I've had a few chances to work with J (J has taken over S's classes), I'm happy to say that I like her very much and, more importantly, I trust her.  She has taken a more conservative approach toward my practice, which is exactly what I think I needed.  As you may recall, I had begun to feel wary of the speed with which S had bestowed Intermediate series upon me and feared myself being buried in a practice that I didn't know how to handle.  Fortunately, J has applied the brakes.

Last week when I first worked with J, I asked her what her preferred system was for working with Primary plus Intermediate (i.e. doing full Primary, or only up to Navasana, or to Supta Kurmasana) since I'm hearing different things from different teachers.  We talked a bit about the different approaches, then she asked me how long I'd been practicing Ashtanga.  "Since February," I replied.

J's eyes bugged out of her head for a quick second and then she said with conviction, "You do ALL of Primary."  She says I haven't been doing it for long enough to leave any of Primary behind just yet.  She was firm but apologetic about insisting I stick with such a long practice.  I assured her, however, that I don't mind doing all of Primary.  Actually, I prefer it.  But it is a very long practice and sometimes I can feel the life force simmering down to nothing as I trudge through the 2nd series backbends only to emerge on the other side of Kapo as a soft, wet, submissive sponge.

I float through the rest of 2nd series in a haze, completely surrendered to the rhythm of the breath.  Funnily enough, I think this surrender has been a great boon to my practice of Bakasana B. I used to prepare, bouncing up and down a bit to build momentum for the jump, but now I don't bother.  At this point, I can see the glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel so I just stick with the breath count.  Exhale Down Dog, Inhale jump!  And it's working!  I've been landing it on the first try almost every time.

The leg-behind-head postures are still something of a circus.  No matter what I do, I cannot seem to get my leg to stay behind my head.  This is strange to me because both legs are easy enough to get back there, but as soon as I let go, the leg shoots out from behind me as if it were spring-loaded.  I've been reading up on these postures in Maehle's book, and it seems as if I need to get the leg below the C7 vertebrae in order for this to happen.  I asked J for any advice on this topic yesterday, and she said essentially the same thing:  work the leg further down the back.  She also took this opportunity to take Dwi Pada and Yoganidrasana away from me for the time being.

J says that until I can let go of the leg and perform Eka Pada Sirsasana with both hands at the chest, I shouldn't be moving forward.  I have mixed feelings about this:  on the one hand, nobody likes to regress.  On the other hand, she's right that it seems pointless to struggle through Dwi Pada if Eka Pada is still giving me problems.  However, I've grown to love Yoganidrasana and I don't want to give it up.  I feel a big, warm opening sensation deep down in the hips in this pose, a depth of sensation I have not accessed in a long while.  I happened to read in Maehle's book (I really love his take on Intermediate) that if one is struggling with the leg-behind-head postures, Yoganidrasana may be practiced instead of or as preparation for Dwi Pada.  So I may tack Yoganidrasana on at the end of my practice while omitting Dwi Pada entirely, at least when I practice at home.  I intend to ask J her opinion on this tomorrow.

Here's a strange observation:  Sunday, when I practiced at home, even though I had the windows open, the AC off, and in spite of the hot, muggy weather we've been having, I didn't break a sweat until the seated postures and I was practically dry when I finished.  Last night in J's room, I was sweating so heavily that I had prune fingers midway through my practice.  My mat towel was completely soaked and it's not even a heated room!  By Setu Bandhasana, thirst-driven fantasies of cool, clear, delicious water were regularly hijacking my mind.  During Sirsasana, all I could think about was the water fountain that stands not 15 feet from the studio door, glowing with an aura of gold.  So thirsty!  Haha!  Man, this practice can be intense.


Yoga vs. Pilates: What's The Difference?

Occasionally, students will ask me, "What's the difference between yoga and pilates?"  In spite of the fact that this question has surfaced more than a few times, I never seem to have a satisfactory answer.  This is, in part, because I know almost nothing about pilates, but also because, from what I do know about it, I believe the differences to be so vast that I don't even know where to be begin to explain.

In an effort to clarify the distinctions between yoga and pilates, I have constructed a brief presentation.  Behold.

The difference between yoga and pilates, as I understand it, is the difference between this contraption-clogged body shop:
 and this honest, empty room:

Or between this intimidating chamber full of racks and straps and plastic and metal...
 and this warm, receptive space.

To summarize, the difference is in the intention, in the quiet, in the focus on the breath.  It is well-represented in the humble, simple space that need only be clean and empty to be sacred.


Asana of the Week: Ardha Bhekasana

Ardha Bhekasana (Half Frog Pose) is a lovely little backbend that stretches the quadriceps and shoulders while opening the chest and upper back.  This variation is the perfect preparation for the full pose, Bhekasana (Frog Pose), a challenging posture present in the Intermediate Series of Ashtanga yoga.

Ardha Bhekasana primarily lengthens the quadriceps, but it can also stretch the psoas if you engage the glutes to extend the hip further as if you were to lift the thigh from the mat and point the knee up (this doesn't need to happen to get the stretch.  Simply engaging in this way is enough).  In the upper body, the anterior deltoid and pectoralis are opened while the thoracic spine extends.

Come into Ardha Bhekasana lying on your belly.  Bring one forearm to the floor beneath your chest with the elbow aligned directly under the shoulder and the forearm parallel with the short edge of your mat.  Separate the legs to hip width.  Bend one knee and reach back with the same-side hand to take hold of the inner edge of the foot, then swivel the hand so that the elbow points up to the sky and the fingers point down toward the ankle.  Be aware of any sensation in your knee as you do this.  Strengthen around the ankle and do not allow the foot to rotate outwardly as you bring your hand into position to prevent strain on the inner knee.

Anchor your pose by engaging the straight leg and pressing the top of the foot into the mat.  Lift up out of the supporting shoulder as you square the chest forward.  Deepen your expression by pressing the heel toward the outer hip, using the opposing forces of the arm against the leg to intensify your sensation.  You may leave the hand there with the fingers pointed down, or take it a step further by pivoting on the heel of the hand to point the fingers forward over the toes.  This will require a degree of flexibility in the shoulder.  Always move with awareness and honor your body's limitations.


Kapotasana and (Much Improved) Drop Backs

As promised, I managed to record Kapotasana today, and since I had the camera ready, I went ahead and got another video of dropping back and standing up to check on how all that business is evolving.

FYI:  These were taken within the context of my full home practice.  I have not showered.  I have frizzy practice hair which is wrapped up in a monstrous, man-repellent ninja bun on the top of my head because that's the only place it can go that isn't in the way.  Don't hate.

Here's Kapo:

I do it twice for the purposes of exploration.  I haven't been repeating the pose regularly, but seeing how much the second round improved upon the first, I think I might start doing Kapo twice every day, at least until I have a better grasp on it.  In the first round, I manage to grab my pinky toes for Kapo A.  In Kapo B (straight arms, for you non-Ashtangis), you can see how the ball of tension I've discovered in my left chest/shoulder/armpit is causing the hand to slide.  I have to reset it at one point, and it still slides a little further.  In the second round, my hands get a few inches further in Kapo A and I am able to grab the outer edges of the feetI almost get both elbows down, but not quite.  Kapo B looks much better second time around and my left hand pretty much stays in place.  

At first, Kapotasana always feels futile and the floor looks impossibly far away, but if I just hang with it and keep curling back, actively engaging in the upper back and pressing the hips forward, I can make it work.  It surprises me every time.

Drop backs have felt really good lately -- softer landings, less bend in the elbows, with the hands landing much closer to the feet.  Stand ups have also been better, though I'm still not able to keep the heels down as I initiate the lift.  Have a look:

I see a lot of improvement here from the last drop back recording.  I'm landing in a decent Urdhva Dhanurasana pretty consistently, and I seem to be better able to root into the feet as I stand.  If you watch closely, you can see how in the second stand up attempt, I almost tip back but manage to stay grounded in the feet.  Then in the fourth attempt, I almost tip forward, but again, manage to root strongly enough into the legs to catch it and maintain my stance.  Definite improvement.

Moon Day Musings and a Led Class

After a long day of exams yesterday, it was tempting to take advantage of the moon day and skip out on my practice.  I have never honored moon days, mostly because I don't bother to check when they are, but also because I never used them in my daily practice before Ashtanga, so I don't really see the point of adding them in now.

However, the idea of an extra couple of rest days per month is becoming more and more enticing by the minute.  Ashtanga is hard!  It's an energy-intensive practice.  I have been hit with the feeling of impending collapse more than a few times on my mat, when the juice just runs dry and my arms feel like limp noodles at my sides.  It's a very distinctive feeling.  I used to run long distance, so I know the feeling well.  These meltdowns only happen when refinement is lacking or the pacing is off, but that's a different discussion for a different post.

So instead of taking the day off yesterday, I decided at the last minute to hit up a led Primary at the studio.  I've been avoiding led classes since I went the way of Ashtanga.  I prefer not to feel rushed in my practice, which tends to be the case in led situations.  Also, since I've picked up so much of 2nd series, I haven't wanted to leave that portion out; but yesterday, in the low energy state that I was, I decided that a nice, quick Primary might be just the ticket.  Turns out I was correct.  What fun!

I know it's traditional for everyone to practice Primary only on Fridays, but since I usually practice with T on Fridays, I end up practicing my 2nd series postures as well because she prompts me to.  Consequently, this was the first time I've practiced Primary only in about a month.  It was interesting to notice how much lighter the practice felt, how much more explosive I could be without having to reserve some of that prana for 2nd series.  And while it was true, especially during standing, that I only got about 3 full breaths in any one posture, it was okay because the pace of the practice kept the heat up.  The breath was good, I had a nice, steady sweat going, and it was fun to practice in a more communal environment, feeling the influence of the practitioners on one another. 

Teacher M led the class.  I last practiced with M when he subbed T's class a couple of months ago and whose short-form Primary happened to be my first live exposure to Ashtanga.  He kept a nice, consistent pace throughout the practice and taught to the different experience levels in the room very well.  I received some great adjustments of a different style than those that I would get from S or J (J is the teacher who has taken over S's class) including a new-to-me Down Dog adjustment that emphasized lift and internal rotation of the thighs.  Very nice.  He also let me in on another fun variation to the jump through before Upavishta Konasana, which I will add to the jump back/jump through project video whenever I muster the ambition to put that together.

To make the class even more interesting, a student right next to me was doing a Mysore-style practice instead of moving with the class.  He went through much of, if not all of Primary, and then nearly all of 2nd.  I really enjoyed being next to this guy and feeling the turbulence of his practice.  I've seen him in the evening Mysore classes a few times (I don't recognize faces well, but I do recognize tattoos) and I've always admired his focus and control.  I smiled to myself yesterday as he pounded around in Nakrasana (I cannot wait to get to this pose!) while the rest of us were no doubt enjoying some form of a forward fold.  And I might as well admit to taking a quick peak at his Kapotasana, purely for educational purposes, of course.

Oh, Kapo... I just know I can get my hand to my heels if I can only set it up right.  I'm planning to record my Kapo attempts this week to have a look-see and maybe get some tips from the wise ones (a.k.a. my readers).  Stay tuned for that!


The Brakes

I've had a couple of days to sit with my new practice (Primary + 2nd up to Yoganidrasana), to sense the arc and pacing, and I'm feeling much better about the whole thing.  After S gave me the leg-behind-head postures as a farewell present, I had begun to question my venture into 2nd series.  Who the hell do I think I am taking on 2nd series with just a few months of Ashtanga under my belt?  I can't possibly be ready for this.  And what about my knees?

If I'm being perfectly honest, I still don't quite think I'm ready for the LBH postures (EXCEPT Yoganidrasana... love & joy surrounds this pose).  I can get my leg behind my head easily enough, but I can't figure out how to make it stay.  I'm also a little concerned about the possibility that too much fumbling and experimentation in these postures will tweak my already compromised knees. The left knee is beginning to express intolerance for lotus postures as well as the right.  I'm back to modifying on both sides, which might actually be better since I'll be maintaining some sense of symmetry.

Kapo is going well... hehe.  Who am I kidding?  It's REALLY EFFING HARD!  I have not, as yet, been able to get my elbows to stay down without assistance.  Though I do consistently get my fingertips to the soles of my feet, I can't get my bearings enough to really grab hold of anything.  Today I practiced on the second day of my LH and the day after a rest day.  A double whammy.  Now, frankly, I've never honored this "no practice on ladies' holiday" business, but Kapo may bring me to change my criminal ways.  Holy hell, that hurt.  I don't remember ever feeling that much resistance in my low back.  I worked through it, but boy howdy (that's right, I just said "boy, howdy!"), I never want to feel that again.

Practice on Friday was fantastic.  Today, however, I felt especially fragile from the first Surya A.  My knees were creaky, my elbows were sore, and my shoulders... well, my shoulders were suspiciously fine.  Jump backs were nice and strong, considering how unstable I felt.  Jump throughs, however, seem to have suffered some sort of mortal blow.  I blame all the straight-leg jump through discussion that's been going on this past week (Thanks a lot, Grimmly, Nobel, エスタ, and the rest of you punks...).  I've had my straight-leg jump throughs for a long time.  Barring total exhaustion, they pretty much just happen for me.  But not today.  I couldn't stop going through the checkpoints in my mind.  Feet together, broad shoulders, strong hands... and BANDHAS, girl, fire up those bandhas!  Then again, speaking of bandhas, it could've been the LH throwing a wrench in the old gears.  Yeah... that's what it was.  (Sorry friends, I didn't mean what I said about you being punks...  You're fine, upstanding yogis, all.)

Tomorrow will be my first practice with the teacher who's taking over S's Monday and Wednesday Mysore.  I am, of course, curious to know the how it will go.  I've only got another month or so of bi-weekly classes purchased.  After that, it's two solid weeks with Swenson, and then I'm back to slogging through the muck all on my own.  At least that's the plan. And this brings me to wonder: if the new teacher tries to give me more of 2nd, should I take the instruction while I can get it and set it aside for later, when I'm ready?  Or, if she tries to give me Titti, should I tell her straight out that I think I need to slow down?