Practice Report: 2nd Series and Shoulder Woes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Asana of the Week: Upavishta Konasana

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

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

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


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


Primary Friday: Dispersal

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Now for Something Completely Different...

Thanks to David for passing this along!


Self-Centered: The Narcissistic Cult of Yoga

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

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

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

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

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

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


Asana of the Week: Baddha Konasana

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

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

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


Primary Friday: Homecoming

Wow.  Where shall I begin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Asana of the Week: Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana

Starting position



Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana is a challenging sequence of standing balancing asanas and the apex of the arc of the standing sequence of Ashtanga yoga.

 This family of postures strengthens the legs, back, abdominals, and hip flexors.  Variation A lengthens the hamstrings of the lifted leg, and variation B opens the adductors.  Variation C asks a great deal of the psoas and rectus abdominis of the lifted leg as it strengthens the glutes of the standing leg.

While these postures do require a great deal of activation, the biggest challenge is to remain present with the breath through transitions.  Remember that drishte is your friend.  It is the key to steady balance.  Find a point that is not moving and rest your gaze there for the duration of your stay in the posture.  Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana B is perhaps the most difficult variation because the dristhe must be taken to the side at the same time that the leg is moved.  Think of the leg and head as being attached to the same hinge and simultaneously swing them both open.  Try to prevent the ribs from flaring out and press the hip of the lifted leg down to keep the right and left sides long.

If the lifted leg, the standing leg, or both are unable to straighten completely, do not fold forward in Variation A.  Rather, remain upright in the starting position with a slight bend to the knees.  You may also release the toe, bend the knee of the lifted leg, and hold your knee with your hand as an introductory modification.

Below is a video of the Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana sequence in motion.  In practice, each individual asana is held for five breaths, but for the purposes of brevity, I mark each position with one breath instead of the full five.  Notice as you watch that balance does not equate to stillness.  Balance is fluid and responsive to the moment.  Do not be rigid in your postures.  Let the prana flow.


Primary Friday: Nitpicked

Practice today was led Primary with David Swenson with my own personal adjuster standing by to assist in any way.  It was awkward to have someone step in and tweak every little posture whether I needed it or not, but despite the near constant adjustments and the watchful eyes of David and Shelley, I was surprised to find myself resting in the meditation for periods of time.

My practice has been completely picked apart this week and my attention brought to every little asymmetry and imperfection:  my right side is shorter than my left from years of waiting tables, so my jump backs are crooked.  My palms lift during Virabhadrasana A transitions and my back heel needs to spin down before the front foot steps forward.  It's these little things that are truly maddening to address on the mat because I've been doing them every day.  Without a teacher to walk by and occasionally give me a nudge in the right direction, these bad habits have become very deeply set.  It has made for another jolting transition from home practice to a teacher's room, but it's all for the best.

Week 1 of three with Swenson is over.  Tomorrow we break and reconvene on Sunday morning, bright and early, to kick off Level 2.  The ground we've covered this past week has been thorough but basic.  Next week is when things get really interesting.  This program is divided into two "levels," the first of which I've just completed, and Level 2, which is two weeks of morning Mysore or led practice with an emphasis on building 2nd series, PLUS daily pranayama, philosophical teachings, and the traditional Sanskrit counts.  Basically, it's going to be an all-day-every-day complete Ashtanga geekfest and I am SO excited to be attending!

I expect the group over the next two weeks to be smaller, but since this is the first time David and Shelley have offered this second-level training in the US, the students are likely to be more advanced and more diverse.  I am curious to know if any of my teachers will be attending since a few of them got their start with David's Level 1 program.  Wouldn't that be fun?

At home, late this afternoon,  I unrolled my mat for a second practice of handstands and Pincha Mayurasana play for warm up, then backbends and drop backs aplenty to open my back after all of this Primary exploration.  Then I sealed it off with reclining hip openers and one very deep Savasana.  I haven't been doing much with handstands this year (which is ironic because, as I recall, taking my handstand away from the wall was one of my New Year's resolutions... hahaha... seems so silly to me now) but I have noticed the float coming more easily, so I've been playing with handstandy transitions in my practice.  Suddenly the pretty Utkatasana and Virabhadrasana B exits are happening consistently with little-to-no flailing or falling to speak of.  I am certain the pike pull-ups have something to do with this, they do amazing things to my QL and abs, especially the lower fibers.

I haven't decided yet if I will practice tomorrow.  Normally, I'd rest, but I haven't done my Intermediate postures since... let me check my calendar...  October 5th.  So I might want to touch on those again before Sunday to take stock of what I'm bringing with me to the training, if for no other reason than to compare the difference when training is done.


Sthira Sukham Asanam

As I pulled out of the studio parking lot this afternoon to head home after training, it occurred to me how incredibly lucky I am.  Today was just the fourth day of these three weeks with Swenson and, already, my understanding of Ashtanga has evolved so much.

We (the students) are teaching more and more of the practice each day.  David is handing us bits of Primary from either end, beginning with standing and finishing, then moving toward the middle.  Tomorrow morning, we will lead a partner through an entire half-Primary practice (to Navasana).  I had wondered, heading into this experience, how well a regular practice of Ashtanga would translate to teaching ability, particularly since teaching Vinyasa turned out to be so much harder than I could have anticipated despite any number of countless hours I had spent on the mat myself.  Fortunately, I am finding that teaching Ashtanga comes relatively easily.  The rhythm of the practice is deeply etched into my brain, and the direct, minimalist method suits me better than the nearly constant verbal instruction of Vinyasa flow.

We spend a lot of time in the studio doing partner work, one person assumes the role of teacher and the other is the student, then we switch.  It has been interesting to observe another closely in his or her practice, and not merely to observe but to be a participant, a facilitating force.  The variety of adjustments we are learning, many of which I have never received, have done a great deal to demystify the Mysore teacher's role in my mind.  As a bonus, I was able to use a few of the adjustments in class on Monday night with satisfying results for my students.  I can feel the workman's belt of teaching tools growing weightier around my hips.

I am also learning lots of ways to tidy up my own practice (figured out the lotus jump back!) and, more importantly, to make it more sustainable.  If there is one thing that David seems to emphasize again and again, it is the importance of the sustainability of one's personal practice over advancement through the series.  So how does one make the practice more sustainable?  By holding back.  If you are able to haul your body through every jump back and jump through of Primary but it takes every last bit of energy you've got, then don't do it.  One of my favorite teachers once said this to me about my practice and I try to think of it every day:  "Don't give it all away.  Keep a little something for yourself."  Sounds like something my mother would say.

I sometimes wonder, when I wake to a sore and tired body or feel an aversion to my mat, "How long can I keep this up?  Ashtanga is hard!"  But the truth of it is that Ashtanga is not hard.  My practice is hard.  The way that I practice is hard.  Ashtanga is merely a set series of postures, how one moves through the postures is entirely up to the practitioner.  But holding back is not easy.  It is much simpler for me to stay in the meditation if my thoughts are obliterated by sensation than if the sensation is mild and the body is soft.  So, as I have grown stronger and more open, rather than enjoying the fruits of my labor in comfortable, sustainable postures, I have developed a habit of going further in search of that sensation until the softness of the posture is lost.

 I say this with no sense of pride:  I have never not once skipped a vinyasa in my personal practice with ONE exception.  For a while there I omitted the one between Paschimottanasana and Purvottanasana to save time.  But that's it... except, of course, for rare occasions when I don't have enough time for a full practice.  In that case, I do a bare-bones Primary which involves a variety of creative shortcuts.  And I've "forgotten" that last one before Savasana more times than I care to admit.

Okay... so maybe I have skipped a vinyasa or two in my time. The point is that I don't do it often.  Yesterday, my training partner, a local Vinyasa instructor, remarked as he led me through a practice, "You're one of those Ashtangis I've heard about."  I laughed and confirmed that, indeed, I am one of those Ashtangis.  I always give the practice everything I've got, and even though I stay with the breath, I am overworking the body.  It's time to scale back the effort and bring a little more ease to this balance.


Give me Mysore or Give me Death!

We are now three days into the Swenson intensive and I am having a ball spending all day long with some of my favorite Ashtangis.  David and Shelley are so great.  Excellent teachers both -- patient and compassionate -- but beyond that, they are happy, lovely, inspiring people who seem to bring out the best in one another and, together, manage to make the possibility of finding love in this world look a little less dismal to the rest of us.  I am grateful for their joy.

I am also incredibly grateful for their practical and grounded approach to the practice: minimalist instruction, assertive and direct adjustment, case-by-case assessment over strict rules and prohibitions.  And best of all, no cheesy music or flowery yogaspeak.

Yesterday, after waking up embarrassingly late and dragging my frizzy, decaffeinated self to training for the day, I headed over to the local yoga festival to represent at the home studio booth for a couple of hours.  As I sat there on the sagging seat of a plastic folding chair, smiling at passersby with mats in slings hung over toned shoulders, surrounded by retail booths offering everything from chakra crystals-on-a-string to physic readings for the auspicious price of $108, I listened to the mellow-toned cacophony of four different yoga classes occurring all at once, strung together with sitar and didgeridoo, and I wanted to kill myself.

Truly.  It made me ill, such a stark and garish contrast to the quiet honesty I had been witness to for the better part of that day.  As a volunteer at the festival, I received a goody bag full of wastefully printed paper advertisements (one of which actually thanked me for making a positive difference in people's lives as a teacher of yoga and then encouraged me to get on the mailing list so that I could "get the latest designs before anyone else does."  Huh?), dietary supplements made with corn syrup and artificial ingredients, and a few Luna bars (You know -- it's like a Power Bar, but for a lady!)  Gross.  

THANK GOODNESS for people like Swenson who keep it real in a world of spectacle and facade.  And thank goodness for Ashtanga keeping it simple and straightforward, staying true to the power of the practice by making space for the meditation.


Confessions of a Hungry Yogini

There really aren't many pervasive rules when it comes to yoga, but if there is one we can all agree on, it must be this: yoga asana should be practiced on an empty stomach.  Right?  Surely, one shouldn't scarf a turkey sandy or slurp a bowl of soup before stepping on the mat, but some of us might want to think twice about doing any kind of intense practice (ahem hem... Ashtanga... ahem...) on nothing but coffee and prana.

For two weeks in June, I participated in a morning Mysore program with David Swenson.  I rose painfully early each day to be on my mat by 6am.  I practiced for 2-3 hours in hot, humid conditions on a completely empty stomach.  In a way, it was a wonderful experience and I say this with a tone of sweet nostalgia:  it was also total agony.  The heat and humidity coupled with the tapas of Ashtanga had me sweating what seemed like gallons and quickly depleted all my reserves.  I made it through practice every morning on the uplifting energy of the room and little else.  Every day after practice, I would shovel some food into my face like a zombie and, shortly thereafter, pass out cold for 3 or 4 hours of heavy sleep, only to wake in an unshakeable haze.  Those two weeks are still a blur in my mind.

I know some of you seasoned yogis rise before the sun every morning to do your practice and have done so without issue for years.  You have my utmost respect and admiration, but I fear I will never be among you.  At first, I thought my difficulty with morning practice was nothing more than an adjustment period, but eventually the signs of something more came to light.

I started to give the situation more consideration when I noticed that my incessant sweat during practice smelled strongly of ammonia.  One day, midway through the second week of the Swenson program, I walked into my closet and was assaulted by the sour, acrid smell of cat pee coming from the hamper.  As some of you know, I left the banes of my existence -- the couch and cat -- behind with my ex when I moved, so there was no mistaking the culprit: me.   

And so, with my curiosity piqued, as anyone would, I googled:  "sweat smells like ammonia."  Thousands of results turned up, most of which were posts on body building forums.  Upon further exploration, I learned that ammonia-scented sweat is a sign that the body is in ketosis, a state in which the body has used all available sugars and turns to fats and protein as the primary energy source.  Ketosis may be caused by alcoholism, starvation, and diabetes... basically anything that interferes with the body's ability to regulate blood sugar levels.  When no food is available in this state, the body burns its own fat and muscle.  Hence, the reason body builders would be most wary of ketosis, and hence the reason for my depleted strength and insufferable exhaustion after practice every day.

Some medical and fitness experts seem to say that ketosis is nothing to worry about and even recommend inducing ketosis through a low-carb diet as a means of losing weight (Atkins, anyone?).  But for someone with low blood sugar and low body fat, ketosis can be dangerous.  Ammonia is produced as a byproduct of the breakdown of protein for energy.  If the body cannot expel the accumulation of ammonia efficiently through urination, exhalation, and sweat, ammonia may build up in the blood, causing muscle fatigue and neurological impairment.  

Since this discovery, I have changed my pre-practice eating habits.  Rather than starve myself until after practice, I start my day with a nourishing, carb-heavy breakfast, wait a few hours, and then roll out the mat.  This way, I'm not embarking on a 2-3 hour practice journey with nothing for fuel but my own muscle.  And my sweat, while it may not smell like roses, doesn't wreak of cat pee.  So while you morning yogis are sweating your hungry little asanas off, I'll be sitting down to a big ol' bowl of oatmeal or spreading peanut butter on a slice or two of toast.


Asana of the Week: Parsva Dhanurasana

Since I've recently proclaimed this as my nemesis pose, I think it's only fair to explore Parsva Dhanurasana (Side Bow Pose) a little more deeply in the spirit of equal regard.

Parsva Dhanurasana is a strong asymmetrical backbend that strengthens the spinal extensors and quadriceps as it stretches the psoas and pectoralis.  Even though it appears that both sides of the body are aligned alike, the muscular actions required to create this shape while lying on one's side are not symmetrical.  The top leg must be used more strongly to pull the body open, toning the quadriceps.  The more the body opens with this action, the more the psoas of the bottom leg is stretched.

Enter this posture from Dhanurasana (pictured right).  Inhale to lift to the center and with the exhale, roll onto your right side.  Rather than "kicking" over by swinging your knees, try to initiate the roll by the pressing the right ankle more strongly into the right hand, using the quadriceps as if to straighten the leg.  Maintain the shape of Dhanurasana as you transition, including the position of the head which is tipped back down the centerline of the body.  Gaze past the tip of the nose to soften your facial muscles and prevent compression at the back of the neck.

Other side
After five breaths on the right side, inhale back to the state of Dhanurasana and exhale onto your left side using the quadriceps to initiate the roll.  Stay for five breaths.  If your neck becomes tired or strained, rest your head on the floor.  If you feel discomfort in the knees, try dorsiflexion rather than a pointed foot.  There is a tendency for the top knee to splay open, but do your best to keep the knees close together, if not touching.  To release, first inhale back to Dhanurasana.  For a challenge, stay in Dhanurasana for five more breaths. When you're done, with an exhalation, release your grasp on the ankles and lower slowly to the mat.