Primary Friday: atha yoga anushasanam

Now, after having done prior preparation through life and other practices, the study and practice of Yoga begins.  -- Yoga Sutra I.1

Now the real practice has begun.  Can I continue to breathe?  Can I observe the unfolding of the days with a steady, even mind?  Can I hang on with conviction to that which I love, but also be prepared to gracefully let go?  This is what my practice has become.

Of course, that's not to say I've given up the asana.  Quite the contrary, today I did my full Primary, just as I do every Friday.  I had a strong practice.  Deep, steady postures.  Deep, steady breath.  The practice, as it has a way of doing, knocked me out of my frightened stupor and gave me the strength to go out and take care of some errands, to face the world without crumbling to a shaky, sobbing mess.

After running my errands, I retreated hurriedly to my home, only to find that I didn't know what to do with myself.  My apartment was clean.  My errands and asana were finished.  My dog was fed and walked.  Nothing to do but sit around and wait, which wouldn't do at all.  I don't know how I'm going to keep myself grounded until Tuesday when the proverbial ball gets rolling, but I have an idea:

Yoga.  Lots of it.  When I found myself this afternoon with little left to do but wait and worry, I packed up my mat and towel and drove myself to the studio, fighting tears all the way.  I took a class.  It was strong and slow, full of long holds and hip openers.  Exactly what I needed.  I left that class feeling one hundred times better than when I had arrived.  Rooted, balanced, and ready for whatever the coming week may bring. 


The Waiting Game

Monday morning, I decided to have some blood work done because I've had some odd swelling and soreness in my chest and neck.  I haven't been to a doctor in years, apart from my annual lady exams, so I figured I'd shell in for the works and get everything tested and measured, just to be sure.  Well, the results came back on Tuesday.  They looked great.  According to the test results, I'm fantastically healthy.  So much so, in fact, that the technician who called me with the results asked if I "work out a lot."  Now, I get that question fairly often in person, but never before over the phone.

I was very relieved and figured I wouldn't need to take any steps further, but the technician also expressed curiosity as to why I wanted to have the tests done.  When I told her my concerns, she recommended that I see a physician anyway, just to be sure.

I did.  And I received some horrifying news.  The word "cancer" was uttered.  More tests are under way.  A biopsy scheduled for Tuesday, and meanwhile, my entire life is suspended in the balance.  Waiting.  Waiting for Tuesday morning to roll around.  Waiting for the doctor's word.  Waiting for the results of the biopsy.  Waiting, waiting, waiting.

And wondering.  Wondering how it's possible that I could feel so healthy yet be so unwell.  Wondering how my body can be functioning at the level it is and be battling something so dangerous.  Wondering if it's possible that the practice itself has kept me well enough to prevent me from recognizing the signs of illness until now.  As difficult as this may be to swallow, athletes and yogis are not immune to disease.  Look at Lance Armstrong, or Derek Ireland.  Or, more close to home for me, an Ashtanga teacher here in Austin whose amazing practice I have admired from a distance.  They all got it.  Now I might have it, too.

So, you might be wondering what I've been doing to cope with the uncertainty.  I've been doing my practice, breathing every breath like it could be my last.  And teaching, with so much love for my students bubbling to the surface that I can barely contain myself.  I want to do everything that I can to secure the practice in their lives because, in the midst of this nightmare, it's the only thing that has been a comfort to me.  It's the only thing in life that I feel has prepared me for moments like these.


Monday Milestones

Yesterday was a long day.  I taught five classes all told -- the earliest at 6am and the latest at nearly 9pm -- and, somehow, I managed to keep a medical appointment in the morning (nothing serious, just blood work.  Interesting results, though.  Thinking about doing a post on it...) and do my full practice in the afternoon.

I wasn't expecting much from my practice.  I was just glad to have found the time and grateful for the opportunity to withdraw after teaching all day.  Teaching yoga is such an energy intensive experience in a very reciprocal way to the practice itself.  In my personal practice, I withdraw from the external and journey deeply inward.  In my teaching, I project myself in nearly every way that I can:  my voice, my energy, my awareness.  I feel as though I must be everywhere at once, and somehow, sometimes, I feel as though I am.  Teaching used to exhaust me, mentally and emotionally, but lately I'm leaving class feeling all abuzz with the vibrations still resonating off the proverbial walls.  

It may have been the echoes of that energy that fueled me through practice yesterday, which was surprisingly pleasant and deep, all things considered.  The big surprise was the depth of the twists.  I bound Marichyasa C at the wrist on both sides for the first time.  I never even consider going for the wrist in this pose without assistance, but yesterday I just felt so loose that I crawled my fingers up the opposite hand and grabbed the wrist rather comfortably.  To that effect, I also got a good, solid four-finger clasp on both sides in Pasasana, which doesn't happen often.

The first part of Primary flew by and before I knew it I was at Navasana.  I landed a nice jump into Bhujapidasana and lowered down.  As I tried to press up, I found that I was completely stuck.  There was no going anywhere.  I kept trying and failing, bouncing my chin on the mat until it became clear that I would need to abort.  I tucked my chin and rolled out, somehow hitting the left side of my face on the hard floor.  I chuckled, checked the swelling in the mirror, and tried again.  Second try was a success, but there is definitely a threshold in that maneuver where it feels, for a second, like an impossibility but if you push against it, you make it through.  It has something to do with the legs, I suspect.

Intermediate backbends were good.  I indulged in the Ardha Bhekasana prep on each side before going for the full pose, which I don't technically need to do to get into Bhekasana, but I could use the extra length in the quadriceps for the health of my knees.  Kapo sensation was strong, to put it mildly.  I considered bailing for a split second as I began my descent to the floor, but breathed through it and found my way into a nice expression of the pose.  It was so nice, in fact, that I decided to give it another try and make a grab for the heels.  They torment me.  I'm so close, but it takes me so long to get there that I feel like I'm working against the clock.  How long can I stay in Kapo without combusting, I ask you?  

I didn't quite get the heels, but I came closer than ever before.  I kept Eka Pada on the first side with no hands for the five full breaths, which I believe to be another milestone.  I had to hold the leg for the fold, but that's no surprise.  Left side was not as deep and doesn't seem to be opening up a whole lot with practice, a least for now.  I'm sure it will.

Drop backs were reminiscent of my Kapo experience.  Very strong sensation, particularly in the right mid-low back.  I'm also beginning to experience a very strange, almost elastic sensation in the front body as I lift out of Kapo or stand from Urdhva Dhanurasana.  It's deep and quite delightful.  It took me a while to open up enough in the drop backs to go up and down with the breath, but I managed a nice round of three sequential drops and stands after 3 or 4 slow, savory drop backs to warm up.  I've also been doing a final backbend in which I walk the hands in as far as I can and stay for five breaths.  This has always been something I did only when practicing with a teacher, for whatever reason, but lately I've brought it into my home pratice and, yesterday, I stood from the final backbend without rocking or walking the hands out at all. Another first for me without assistance.

All in all, it was a really great practice.  I'm about to step on the mat again and I am still feeling the backbends from yesterday.  I wonder what that means for my practice today.


Primary Friday: Interesting Times

Hooray for Friday! After another ridiculously full week, I got to sleep late, chill at home all morning, then do a nice Primary practice with all the fixins.  And tomorrow's a rest day!  Weekends are the best.

I'm having a notably more difficult time getting myself on the mat these days.  I've been so busy with teaching, academics, and asana that I haven't had any time to keep up with my yoga study.  Pursuit of the theory of the practice has often been a great source of motivation for my asana practice.  When I feel uninspired, I pick up one of Maehle's or Iyengar's books, or just grab at random from the stack, flip open to a page, and start reading.  It works without fail.  But it's time consuming, and that's time I don't have.

I'm definitely in something of a downswing.  I feel clogged.  I'm lethargic, noticeably more irritated by insignificant bothers, and my sweat smells especially bad.  I wake nearly every morning to sore shoulders and I can barely think until I've had a cup of coffee.  My right glutes are seizing up like there's a golf ball wedged in there.  Interestingly, however, in the midst of this apparent downturn my teaching has been rather inspired.  I am loving what's happening in my classes.  I'm feeling bolder, more sensitive and improvisational.  Students seem to be loving it, too.  I look forward to every class. 

But like I said, my practice has been a different story.  It's hard to face, but once I get my body moving, my mind settles on the breath and everything falls into place.  That first vinyasa -- arms up, palms touch -- always feel so damn good.

This afternoon was no exception to this trend.   I had a tough time getting started, but had a great practice.  Ten slow Surya's.  Richness of sensation in the standing sequence which perfectly primed me for the first stretch of seated.  Lotus postures were free and open.  Twists were deep, jumps were light.  I tweaked my jump back by setting the hands an inch or two further back in relationship to my hips for the lift up.  Somehow, it made the whole process of the jump back easier, less of a muscular effort and more of a gravity play.  I'll be exploring the effects of this more.

Something is lighting up in my right psoas in some of the wide-legged forward folds, namely the Prasaritas and Supta Konasana.  It's an electric, traveling sort of sensation that comes on fast and fades after a few breaths with a slight external rotation of the thigh bone.

Backbends have been awesome these past few days, not just in depth but in sensation.  I have felt a profound opening in the front body, in the abdomen and left upper chest, and an energetic rush deep in the belly when I exit the pose and reclaim the space.  My shoulders are opening up to a new range of motion in the backbends and bound postures, despite the soreness and stiffness I feel in the mornings.  It's an interesting time for my practice.

Asana of the Week: Dandasana

Dandasana (Staff Pose) is a deceptively simple-looking asana which functions similarly to Tadasana as a way of checking in and centering between seated postures.  I like to use this posture with my students as an example of how it is the practioner's responsibility to activate the asana:  you can sit on the floor with the legs soft and the body mostly upright and sort of be in the pose, or you can activate and extend in every direction, be present and breathing fully in the state of the asana.  It's your choice to do the work.  The postures won't do it for you.

Dandasana has the potential to illuminate several key actions in the body essential for deepening the practice of more complex postures.  The conscious contraction of the thighs without the help of weight-bearing necessity develops greater control and awareness of the musculature.  The action of the arms pressing into the floor lights up the serratus anterior which are important stabilizers of the scapula in arm-supported postures such as Adho Muka Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog) or Chaturanga.  The extension of the spine coupled with flexion at the hip reveals tension in the legs and lower back and clearly illuminates the converse relationship between spinal extension and hamstring tension.

This pose may also shed some light on the proportional relationship of the length of the arms versus the torso.  Neutral proportions will allow one to plant the hands flat beside the hips with the arms straight and strong without lifting weight out of the sitting bones.  Those with proportionally short arms may need to come onto the fingertips, while those with lanky limbs will need to set the hands behind the hips and perhaps bend the elbows to find the appropriate action of the shoulders and spinal extensors.

Ashtangis and those Vinyasa flow yogis among you who are working on jumping through to seated may find it helpful to practice this pose as a way of assessing the suitability of the body for such maneuvers.  Those with neutral or long-limbed proportions can rest assured that the jump through will be possible for you with practice.  However, if you find that you cannot press the hands flat beside your hips with the arms straight and the spine long, you may need to come to terms with the fact that a pair of blocks can be your friend.  No amount of practice will change the proportions of your body.  That's a fact, so use the opportunity to practice acceptance and buy yourself a good pair of blocks to set beside your mat.


More of the Same

Cranes (detail) by Ogata Korin, Edo Period c. 1700, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian
It's been difficult keeping up with the blog lately.  I feel so very busy, but when I step back to analyze the situation, I can't seem to pinpoint what exactly is occupying so much of my time.  I suppose it's a combination of things:  the summer school schedule is heftier than I had anticipated it would be, there have been lots of extra teaching opportunities thrown my way, and my practice has recently expanded to Yoganidrasana, so I'm spending at least two hours a day on my mat.

With practice being this long, I haven't had the time to do it in the mornings.  As much as I enjoy the freshness of early practice, when I do practice in the morning, I feel rushed.  I have to omit some of the more detailed work that I enjoy and cut the finishing backbends short, which I really hate to do.  Sunday is my busiest day of the week and I have no choice but to practice in the morning because, by the time I get home in the late afternoon, I'm too tired and hungry to even think about it.  I only ever have two hours TOPS to practice, often less, so I end up abbreviating somehow.  For example, this week I had to drop two Suryas and head into Intermediate from Navasana.

Afternoons, I tend to have larger chunks of time at my disposal, so I can spend hours uninterrupted on my mat without feeling hurried or guilty.  Yesterday, after a morning of blasting tunes and cleaning out my closet, I milked that time for all it was worth with all ten Suryas (I usually do eight.  Six if I'm in a hurry, but always ten on Fridays with Primary.  You wanted to know all of that, right?).  I decided to do all of Primary rather than split it at Supta Kurmasana, then I went on a tripod headstand tangent after Prasarita Padottanasana A, took an extra attempt at Kapo, indulged in a few prep poses for the LBH set, and capped it all off with extra drop backs plus a final backbend which brought my hands mere inches from heels.  All told, I was on the mat for 2 glorious hours and 30 amazing minutes.

It was a gritty but beautiful practice, clearing out the rust and pangs.  Trikonasana on the second side is getting harder every day.  Something keeps knotting up my right side hip and Trikonasana, a rather unassuming little pose, is making me see stars.  I've been staying for an extra breath or two on the second side to breath into that scary business.

My body felt like a ton of bricks in the jump backs, but everything else was good and deep.  I've been working on my lotus jump back this week, playing with some tricks David and Shelley shared with us during the Intermediate workshop last month.  It's coming along, though I still have to break it down into steps.  First, I swing the legs through the arms by momentarily opening the elbows, then the knees come down and I reset my hands further forward and lean into a Chaturanga position as I lift the legs, unravel, and shoot them back.  Maybe I'll make a video of that for you.  Any interest?  I was so glad to be given a plan of action for the eventual lotus jump back.  Prior to this method, I had little inkling of where to begin.  Now, at least I feel proactive working on the elements instead of just skipping it and waiting for "someday."

My hips were open and, surprisingly, the Intermediate backbends were very good.  I found considerably more depth in Dhanurasana and Parsva Dhanurasana accessing the internal abdominal obliques.  This new depth got me excited for Kapo, so I gave it an extra shot to try and finally get my hands to heels.  I did manage to fondle my ankles and got a finger around my right heel, but couldn't seal the deal.  So, so close.  Any day now, it's happening.  Any day.

And then what?  You might ask.  Well, just more of the same.  But that's part of the beauty.  With this practice, I can be confident that I will never run out of challenges.  There will never be a pose or vinyasa I can't yet do, certainly not by the time it becomes necessary to relinquish the postures I've been given.  It's a lifelong practice, indeed.


Primary with a broken leg!

Ever wondered how you'd maintain your practice with a broken limb?  I have.  This man is keeping his practice afloat through a broken femur with creativity and determination.  Love it!

(Thanks to Skippetty for the original posting!)


Primary Friday: So Sleepy...

(image source)
The moon day couldn't keep me away from my mat today.  It's been a hectic week and I couldn't stand the thought of another practice compromised.  Sunday I had a solid full practice, then another nice practice on Monday, but it all felt apart after that.

Tuesday, my feet were dragging and I could barely keep myself awake.  I surrendered to a nap after school with the intention of waking up to do a late-afternoon practice, but when I woke up I felt tired, stiff, cold, and disoriented. I haven't felt so much resistance to the practice in a long time.  I couldn't do it.  My body firmly rejected any suggestion otherwise.  Instead, I managed to get on my mat for an hour in the evening, and actually had a very nice, light practice.  I felt like a different person afterwards.  It was probably just what I needed.

Wednesday, I was still feeling really resistant to the idea of an Ashtanga practice.  I'm not sure what the aversion was, but the thought of it made me want to bury myself in blankets and cry myself to sleep.  I nearly skipped practice altogether, but decided to try and pull myself out of the funk by getting out of the apartment and tapping into some community energy.  I took two classes from two of my favorite teachers at the home studio.  Between classes, I worked on backbends.  The change of pace was perfect, and it was really great to practice among fellow teachers and alongside some of my students.  I needed that.

By Thursday, I was itching to get back to my full practice, but still feeling strangely anemic.  With a full day planned, I had hoped to fit my full practice in during the afternoon, but again, I fell asleep.  It seems I can't make it through an entire day anymore without an extended afternoon nap.  By the time I awoke, I only had about an hour for practice.  I managed to satisfy my craving for Ashtanga with a whittled-down Primary that snapped me right out of my sleepy stupor.  Afterwards, on my way to the studio to teach my evening classes, I realized that there are few things in this world that a good practice and a shower won't fix.

I've heard exhaustion is sometimes experienced by those new to Intermediate.  Being reminded of this recently, it occurred to me that I have added a pretty good chunk of poses to my practice.  At the end of those two weeks with Swenson, I added in Bharadvajasana and Ardha Matsyendrasana.  A couple days later, I put Eka Pada back in there, with Yoganidrasana as the cherry on top. All of these are very core-intensive and asymmetrical postures, so they're all done twice with a vinyasa between sides.  That's a fair bit of work.  In the context of the practice, it feels like nothing, but looking at it more objectively, it's possible that I'm simply adjusting to the increased energetic demands of my practice over these past few weeks.

Still, today I was determined to get back on track, moon day be damned.  I woke with a headache, but self-medicated with coffee and tons of water.  The headache eased off, but wouldn't go away.  Nonetheless, I unrolled my mat for Primary this afternoon and I am so glad I did.  I had a fantastic practice.  It felt incredibly good to be back in the rhythm of Ashtanga.  There is something so freeing in it.

After practice, I made myself a protein and iron-rich dinner of sirloin, pinto beans, and sauteed spinach to give this chronic exhaustion a good, square kick in the ass.  I intend to rest tomorrow, do the whole oil bath routine and try to shove off this funk for good so I can start anew with morning practice next week.  Though I must admit, I'm afraid to find out what my Intermediate postures are going to feel like after nearly a week away.


Asana of the Week: Urdhva Dandasana

Urdhva Dandasana (Upward-Facing Staff Pose) is an extension of Sirsasana (Headstand) that calls for strong abdominals, a keen awareness of the spine, and skillful manipulation of the pelvis as the center of gravity.  This pose is a favorite of mine as a means of developing strength and control in the deep, lower abdominal muscles in preparation for the coveted "float," as in jump throughs, jump backs, and all of those other fun Matrix-like yoga maneuvers.  If you have an inversion practice, but you haven't yet found your uddiyana bandha -- the key to the float -- you would do well to practice this pose.

Enter Urdhva Dandasana from Sirsasana with the elbows under the shoulders and the fingers interlaced behind the head.  Squeeze the inner legs together and point the feet.  Engage uddiyana bandha (navel lock) and mula bandha (root lock) by drawing the navel upward and inward and lifting the pelvic floor.  With an exhalation, slowly lower the legs as a single unit until they are parallel to the ground.  Take a subtle tuck of the chin as you allow your hips to move forward in space.  Be aware of the curve of your cervical spine as you transition and push into the length of the forearms to support the head.

Keep the legs straight, strong, and tightly together.  It may be difficult to sense the angle of the legs from your inverted position.  Generally speaking, you will need to pull the thighs in further than you think to bring the legs parallel to the floor.  A fair rule of thumb is:  if you can't see your feet, you haven't come far enough.

However, it is appropriate to build up to the full flexion of the torso over time if one experiences discomfort in the neck or unsteadiness in the pose with the legs parallel to the floor.  If the balance is steady and no discomfort is experienced in the full pose, stay for up to one minute.  Once the pose has been mastered, it is a useful exercise to extend the breath and very slowly lift the legs to Sirsasana on the inhales, then lower the legs to Urdhva Dandasana on the exhales 5 to 10 times in a row. 

As with any type of inversion, carefully but immediately exit the pose if you experience discomfort in the head and neck.  The same goes for numbness or tingling in the limbs.  Don't tough it out.  Come down, adjust the placement of the head, and try again IF you think you can do so safely.

Questions?  Concerns?  Leave 'em in the comments and I'll try to help you out.


How's this for an about-face? UPDATED!

My commitment to morning practice is wearing thin.

These past few days have been busier than anticipated.  The language course I'm taking over the summer is demanding a good deal of my time, both in the classroom and out.  This week, everything seems to have converged in a massive ball of homework and exams.  Last night as I drove downtown to teach my evening class, wondering how I'd prepare for my exams and get to bed early enough to wake up in time for practice before school the next morning, I developed a facial tic on the right side of my mouth.  The more I let it annoy me, the stronger it became.  Ha!  That's exactly what you want to see in your yoga teacher, right?  A tic?

Fortunately, the twitching subsided before class began, but it brought to my attention the level of stress I had allowed to creep up on me this week.  It also made me realize that, by holding myself to this early morning practice regimen, I had let my practice become a source of anxiety rather than a source of peace.

I am not renouncing my commitment to morning practice.  I am simply acknowledging that there are days when it won't happen, and that's okay.  The very reason that I've been able to maintain a daily practice that has served me so well for these past four years is that I've always been flexible about when and what I practice.  With the role of "yoga teacher" come the physical demands and chaotic schedule of a yoga teacher, both of which have the potential to threaten my personal practice if I am not willing to adapt.  So I'm adapting.  When I can practice early in the morning without setting myself up for a 20-hour day on four hours of sleep, I will.  When I can't, I won't.  And that's that.

So.  Practice.  It's been good.  It has been a little harder getting myself on the mat these past few days for the reasons mentioned above, but once I manage to get my body moving through the Surya Namaskar, I land in a nice, even rhythm.  The breath has been very long and slow these past couple of days, especially during the standing sequence.  It's nice, but it also means that my practice is very long and, despite the summer heat, I don't get a steady sweat going until the Marichyasanas.

I noticed yesterday that I'm floating more consistently to and from Uttanasana and getting more height in the jump-backs and jump-throughs.  After practice, I felt my uddiyana muscles all abuzz from the extra work.  Intellectually, I'm aware that the center of gravity needs to come forward over the hands in order to master the float, but I'm just now beginning to get a better physical sense of this action without feeling as though I've lost control, ready to topple over at any second.  The motion seems to be something similar to a dive, as if I were jumping into a narrow hole in the ground face-first but catch myself with my arms at the last minute.  There's an arc to it.  That's all I can say at this juncture.  More and bolder experimentation is needed.

Plus, I'm still incurably intrigued by the idea of jumping into a tripod headstand.  It's currently in the envisioning step, but I'm getting closer every day to whipping out my mat and rocking it out in the real world.  In my curiosity at the technique involved, I found this video of Kathryn Budig jumping into a tripod in a very different way than what I'm used to seeing.  She jumps into sort of a bent-arm lolasana, then carefully places her head down.  Maybe it's just Ms. Budig's admirable grace and strength, but damn if she doesn't make it look easy!
In fact, she makes it look so easy that I think I could probably do it that way without too much brain damage incurred from trial and error.  I might be sorely mistaken -- it wouldn't be the first time I underestimated a pose or overestimated my abilities -- but I'm going to give it a shot one of these days.  I'll let you know how it goes... unless, of course, I end up in a coma.

UPDATE:  I did it!  I guess I talked myself into it writing this post.  I was just on my mat stretching out before heading into town to assist in a class when I got the impulse to try the jump, and I went for it.  First try was a no-go, but second try was a success, albeit a struggle to upright myself gracefully.  Then it just kept happening, so I grabbed it on video to share.  Sorry for the poor lighting, I wasn't planning this, so I just grabbed my phone to record it quickly.  The landing I got on tape was a little harder than the rest, but not painful so I'll take it.
I could hardly believe it.  The first time I landed, I laughed out loud in my headstand at the sheer absurdity of it.  Oh, the things we yogis will do with our time...


Primary Friday: Mindfulness and Krounchasana

What is it about Fridays that is always so satisfying?  This morning I was lucky enough to sleep in and drink a leisurely cup of coffee in the morning sunshine.  For a brief moment, I considered saving my practice for the Friday afternoon Mysore with T, but I've grown fond of doing the asanas in the morning, if for no other reason than that it's nice to get it over with and move on with my day.

Primary was delightful.  I had nowhere to be, so I didn't have to cut any corners.  I enjoyed working into the details of the postures and exploring some fun things that I don't always have the time or patience for.  My hips were still nice and open from my Vinyasa practice yesterday so my lotus was especially effortless.  The hamstrings, on the other hand, have been cranky for days.  The right side, particularly, has pained me since Wednesday.  I can stretch it out as much as I like but it still feels tight.  It's interesting to note that, today, the tension seems to have travelled up and around to my right glutes.  Immediately after my practice this morning, I felt the whole side knot up.  I'm not sure what caused this but, as usual, I have a theory:  I've been demonstrating too many postures in class.  If and when I demonstrate or do a portion of the sequence with my students, I only do it on the first side -- the right side -- because by the time we get around to the second side, the students know what they're doing.

I try to remind myself not to do this, but I'm so out of my own body when I teach that I hardly feel anything.  As much as I can be, I'm in my students' bodies (that sounds odd as I read this, but I think you know what I mean).  I try to feel the practice as they might be feeling it, judging from the cues in the room.  It prevents distraction and keeps the practice alive, but I worry that I'll injure myself jumping into a posture that I'm not warm enough or sensitive enough to do.  More mindfulness is needed.  More mindfulness and more Krounchasana.

Instead of drop backs today, I played with Urdhva Dhanurasana in some different ways.  I started with the usual set of three, exhaling down to the crown of the head and walking the hands in every five breaths.  Then I came down to rest for five.  Then I went back up for a long hold and walked my hands in every five breaths.  After twenty breaths of that, I could actually see my shins.  Hell, I was in so deep I could see between my shins and look out the window in front of me.  After that, I came down for a couple of breaths, then went back and up and played with Eka Pada (one-foot) and Eka Hasta (one-hand) Urdhva Dhanurasana.  It was fun to break up the backbending routine and revisit some things I haven't touched on in a while.

As always, I'm glad to see Saturday just around the corner.  I look forward to the late morning, the dedicated rest, and the oil bath, of course.  I've been taking a weekly castor oil bath for the past month and it's been really wonderful.  Seems to put everything back in order and get me ready for the week ahead.


Who's responsible for this?

Well, in keeping with my earnest efforts to become a "morning person," I managed to wake up early again today, but not early enough to do a full practice (to recap, for those of you just joining us, that's currently Primary to Supta Kurmasana and Intermediate to Eka Pada Sirsasana PLUS Yoganidrasana).  By the time I roused myself awake and swallowed down a mug of the brew, I had only 90 minutes to play with on the mat.  First, I thought about cutting corners and trying to plow through it all somehow.  Then I toyed with the idea of Primary only, but 90 minutes is a short window even for Primary and I really hate to be rushed.

I couldn't decide, so I just started in on the Suryas until I got to ten, then did what my body told me: I indulged in that Vinyasa practice I'd been tempted by on Tuesday night.  It was a little odd at first, disorienting and difficult to navigate.  I'd forgotten how long it's been since I practiced a flow like that.  I found myself in many warriors, hip openers, and psoas stretches.  Also plenty of tripod headstands with various entries and exits:  from Prasarita Padottanasana, Bakasana, the "timber" (does this have a name?), Adho Mukha Svanasana (and how am I supposed to jump into a tripod from Down Dog?  Anybody have tips on this?  Seems suicidal...).

I played with Eka Pada Galavasana (just Galavasana to you Ashtangis, I believe) from the tripod entry for the first time.  I had done so many hip openers and tripod headstands by that point that I figured there was no better time.  I surprised myself by knocking out both sides without any trouble, lifting back up to a headstand between sides.  I'm feeling all those tripod headstands in my triceps and lats as I type this, but only a slight suggestion.  Nothing uncomfortable.

I had a nice practice, but it made me aware of how much more quiet and internalized Ashtanga is.  Vinyasa flow requires me to extend my attention beyond the present, to analyze, assess, and make decisions, whereas with Ashtanga, all I have to do is breathe.  I'm not saying that one style is better.  In my opinion, the difference is negligible.  It's yoga, it's vinyasa, it's breath with movement, an energetic practice.

And yet, there is something to be said for the repetition of Ashtanga, though I'm not exactly sure what that thing is.  Early on, I touched on the idea that the repetitive nature of Ashtanga, despite what I fear to be a heightened risk of injury (though Swenson argued otherwise), adds a rather potent character-building element that even consistent daily practice of a less structured form of yoga doesn't have.  I am reminded of something Swenson said during one of the Q&As (I'm paraphrasing):  through repetition, magic is made possible.  I think he may have been quoting someone else, or I've read someone else quoting him, because I've heard or seen that before.  Not exactly, but in so many words.  In any case, it seems to explain the spark behind the enthusiasm I have for this practice.  There's always the possibility that today is the day when every little thing will happen just right.  Or maybe just one thing will happen right, but you get the idea.  Through repeated practice there is perhaps not perfection, but always possibility.

I feel such a sense of wonder when it comes to Ashtanga.  I don't know if it's the mythos, the moon days, or the series itself, but I do know that my life has been shaken down to the foundation since I've taken up this practice.  My own fearlessness surprises me on an almost daily basis.

All the change I dreaded, refused to even think about for years has come to pass and I'm still here.  I have slashed through so many tethers, so many desperate, grasping associations with the self.  I can see that this is not me.  That is not me.  He or she or they are not me.  My identity is not invested in the resources that I have, the people I love, or even my own health.  As soon as I let go of these attachments, I find the space the vacancy makes is so much more beautiful than I could have ever known.

Is the Ashtanga responsible?  Has it trained me to go through rather than around?  Has it emboldened me to have patience and work with the problems, one by one?  It's hard to say.  I'd think I'd better keep it up and see where it takes me.


What's that there behind your head?

It's a leg!  That's right, folks.  After just a few days of adding in Eka Pada Sirsasana and Yoganidrasana, my hips are noticeably more open and my right leg is staying behind my head without assistance!  Not for the full 5 breaths, mind you, but it's staying put for a breath or two at a time.  This is a big development.  I'm skipping Dwi Pada for the time being, at least until I can keep the left leg back there without my hands for long enough to hook the right leg into place.  My left hip is the more stubborn of the two so, as it stands now, that pose is a tragic, albeit hilarious waste of my time.  Makes me feel like a defective punching clown (see above).  I go down so easy but can't haul myself back up.

Practice has been generally great this week.  I am energized and beginning to see how much my practice has been affected by those two weeks with Swenson and Shelley.  It's cleaner, but also freer.  Together they encouraged a sense of joy and playfulness in their students.  It was especially needed in that dank, sweaty room, but it seems to be carrying over into my home practice.

With all it's rigor and precision, Ashtanga has a way of snuffing out the fun if you let it.  When I practiced Vinyasa, my practice was my playground.  The fluidity and potential for creative expression kept the postures alive and evolving, my mind always open to the next intuitive choice.  I hadn't noticed it before, but with Ashtanga as my daily practice, that playfulness and spontaneity had been missing.  Time on the mat had become this grave and burdensome thing that I tended to each day, a labor of love to be sure, but so wearying.  Suddenly, that intense curiosity and sense of adventure have returned.

I very nearly skipped practice yesterday.  I taught two very early classes, then had to head right from there to the establishment of higher learning for the rest of the morning.  By the time I made it home, I was ravenous, ate a big lunch and promptly fell asleep.  I woke up two hours later, groggy and bloated but running out of time.  For the first time in a while, I was tempted to sub out the Ashtanga for a quickie Vinyasa practice, but I'm happy to say that Ashtanga won out in the end.  This morning, I turned right around and woke up early to do my practice before school.  I feared the 12-hour interval between practices would put a damper on things this morning, but everything felt good.  No extra stiffness or soreness to note during practice.  Now, however, my hamstrings are voicing their objections.

I'm serious about keeping up with this morning practice routine.  It's something I've always wanted to do for myself, but I've never been able to break out of my usual coffee-slugging, blog-reading, facebooking morning routine.  That was a large part of the reason I signed up for both weeks of Mysore with Swenson.  I had hoped it would help me break the pattern and get over my aversion to pre-dawn practice.  I think it may have worked (knock on wood).


Independance Day Practice (and Opie makes her internet debut!)

This morning I enjoyed my first home practice since the start of the Swenson adventure.  It was so very nice to be back on my mat after taking the weekend off (Saturday rest plus ladies holiday on Sunday, which, frankly, I was thankful for) and I had a profound realization about myself:  I am exhausted by being around other people.  I've been so busy teaching big classes and practicing in a roomful of other students that I haven't had much time to just be with myself over these past few weeks.  And I wondered why I'd been passing out cold every afternoon!

Today, instead of feeling completely wiped after practice, I felt energized.  The 2.5 hours of practice flew by and when I emerged from Savasana, my mind was all abuzz with fresh ideas for new posts, new classes, and general improvements on life.  I carried that freshness with me to my afternoon classes and offered up a hell of a heart opening practice for my students.  I had been feeling as though I'd fallen into a teaching rut, teaching little more than variations on the same thing over and over, which is not all bad because students get the opportunity to refine their practice, but I was beginning to forget how deep the arsenal is.  Maybe it was just the repetition of Ashtanga rubbing off.

My practice has evolved again.  After a few days with Swenson, I asked him what he thought about me moving into Intermediate after spending just a few months with Primary, considering my previous Vinyasa experience and what have you.  In what I gather to be his usual fashion, he refused to give any kind of absolutist answer about how long one should practice Primary before dropping any for Intermediate.  What he did say was that I should adjust the practice according to my needs.  Do what I can, but be cautious against burnout.  When I have the time and energy, do full Primary plus my Intermediate poses.  When I don't, I can split at Navasana, or wherever I want.

So, with Swenson's approval, I've been practicing Primary to Supta Kurmasana and Intermediate to Eka Pada Sirsasana.  Today, I tacked on Yoganidrasana before finishing backbends and I rather liked it that way.  Everything felt good, even the Intermediate backbends which I haven't done since Thursday.  For some reason, I had a really good feeling about Kapo even before I got on the mat.  When the time came, I decided to get it on video because I was still feeling pretty optimistic and probably influenced by Grimmly's post from this morning.  I figured, if I was going to catch my heels for the first time, I might as well have the moment to share and enjoy again later.  Well... here it is:

SO CLOSE!  My hands made it far enough along my feet to grab the heels, I just freaked out a little and started flapping my elbows around like a frightened pelican.  (Or was it a pigeon?)  Even with that big lead, my hands slid down my feet to the usual spot at the base of the little toe.  Alas, it was not for me to have today.  But tomorrow, who knows?

In any case, that's the Opie dog skulking around self-consciously in front of the camera while I practice.  I think the ujjayi makes her uncomfortable, one big sigh after the other for hours on end.  Her real name is Ophelia, but she's never been Shakespearean enough to warrant more than two syllables.  It's about time she were introduced, don't you think?


Asana of the Week: Parivrtta Parsvakonasana

Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose) is a deep standing twist and, as Patrick and I discussed not long ago, one of the most difficult postures in the Ashtanga Primary series.  As Maehle writes in Ashtanga Yoga:  Practice & Philosophy, this "is not really a posture for beginners."

Fortunately, there are many variations of Revolved Side Angle for one to practice in its stead.  Unfortunately, I didn't take any photos of those variations, so you'll have to imagine what they might look like.  There are two targets in this posture that pose the greatest challenge for most practitioners:  one is keeping the outer edge of the back foot sealed to the mat.  The other is bringing the palm flat against the floor outside the front foot.  For many who are first learning the pose, one or the other is possible, but not both at the same time.  Therefore, it can be helpful to practice different variations of the posture that will allow you to work at the pose from both ends, so to speak.

For example:  If you are not able to press the palm flat on the mat, try coming onto the ball of the back foot with the legs in more of a true lunge.  This will lessen the resistance of the twist caused by tension around the pelvis.  Alternatively, you can practice the pose with the back knee resting on the floor and focus on the details of the twist.  As a means of developing the flexibility to keep the outer edge of the rear foot down, rather than placing your palm on the floor but allowing the heel to turn up, you can press the palms at center of your chest and brace your elbow against your thigh to deepen the twist while keeping the back foot anchored.  Regular practice of these variations as well as Marichyasana C will pave the way for the full expression.

Always warm up sufficiently before attempting Parivrtta Parsvakonasana or any deep twist with some Sun Salutations and standing poses.  This is a very heating and cleansing posture.  The rather extreme rotation of the torso aids in healthy digestion, improves circulation around the abdomen and stimulates proper function of the abdominal organs.  Regular practice of this pose tones the rectus abdominus, transverse abdominus and obliques, and brings symmetry to the muscles of the back which may help to alleviate lower back pain and reduce the effect of habitual postural problems.  Be sure to practice all twists for an equal duration on both sides to reap these benefits.


Primary Friday: Last Day in the Hot Box

(image source)
This morning was the final mysore practice with David Swenson.  I haven't had a rest day in over two weeks and it just so happens that today is a moon day and the first day of my "holiday."  Needless to say, today's practice was not memorable for it's lightness or depth in the physical sense.  However, it was special as a celebration of the community that has flourished over the past two weeks practicing together and in the hard-won closure of this incredible experience.

It was tough getting myself out of bed and on my mat by six every morning, especially since I could rarely get to sleep before 11pm, but I've gotten used to the early morning practice and I intend to keep it up, though I can't yet make it through the day without crashing hard in the early afternoon for an hour or three (no joke! Three-hour naps on a regular basis!).  I think my exhaustion is partly due to the heat and extreme humidity in the practice room.  It's also true that working with a senior teacher seems to add a little extra fire to the practice.  Every morning, the sweat ran not in drops but in a steady stream.  Whenever I would round down into Baddha Konasana B, I felt as though I had entered a dark, wet cave that continually rains in on itself.  I could almost hear the fall of the water resonating off the cavern walls.  Eventually, I got used to the heat but that thick, moist air was disagreeable to say the least.

It might be the intensity of the practice, the broken sleep schedule, or something else entirely, but I feel as though I've been walking around in a daze these past two weeks.  I can barely remember what happened the day before and I'm having trouble starting any projects, hence the lack of recent posts.  I hope, as things wind down over the weekend, that I am better able to absorb the experience with David and Shelley.

Now that this program is over and my studio passes for mysore practice with J are all used up, I go back to home practice exclusively, at least for a little while.  I'm looking forward to it.  I suspect that I'll begin to understand what I've learned once I have the opportunity to experience my practice again in the context of my so-called normal life.  I think it will be good for me to withdraw for a while.  Not that I won't be busy -- July is shaping up to be another big month.  I'm teaching lots of extra classes and hope to garner more.  Plus, I'm taking a language course for three hours a day, four days a week for the next six weeks.  That is in addition to an online biology course for which the coursework, I am happy to say, consists almost entirely of watching the Life on Earth documentary series from the 70s, hosted by none other than a young, spry David Attenborough.  I love community college.

I think I can say with total honesty that I have never wanted a rest day more in my entire life.  Tomorrow morning I will wake up late, take an oil bath, and enjoy not doing my practice for a change.  I'm teaching a couple of classes in the afternoon, then the gang from the morning mysore group is getting together one last time for an Ashtangi party in the evening.   I heard rumors of wine and extravagant food to be served.  It's bound to be a good time.