3.31.2011

Shadows

In the midst of wondering whether or not to start tacking on the first few postures of 2nd series to my Primary, the question has been answered for me.  Yesterday, I unveiled my new drop-backs and stand-ups in the Mysore room, and my teacher told me matter-of-factly that we start 2nd series on Monday!  I'll probably play with the postures at home a bit before then.  It's exciting to be moving along with the practice, but I'm also wondering how much longer my practice can possibly get.

Yesterday, as usual, I was the first to begin with the Suryas, and the last to leave the room.  Even the teacher left me to my own devices... again.  And now I'm supposed to add another few postures?  We're entering the realm of 2+ hours here.  I don't mind it.  I'd happily spend all day on my mat, but I feel bad occupying the room for so long.  Fortunately, there's not another class immediately after the Mysore class, or I'd be doing the finishing series in the hallway to the sounds of the spin class around the corner.  I swear I'm not a futzer.  I just breathe very slowly.  It's a gift.  And a curse.

The structure of Ashtanga has really focused my energy and revealed unearthed potential.  It's almost as though I've been wandering aimlessly these past few years, checking out the scenery and orienting myself with the customs, but I've only just been handed the map.  Apparently, if you give me a clear, distinct route to travel, I'm unstoppable.  At least that's how it feels right now, in this moment.  Give it a couple hours and I may be huddled on the floor, head in hands, wrapped in the throes of sorrow and self-pity -- it's been that kind of week (L.H., anyone?  Stagnant, unfulfilled relationships... anyone?  Yeah.  Not fun.)

All is but a passing glance.  Moods are merely shadows on the mind.  

Frankly, the practice is all that's keeping me together right now.  It and my teaching are the only things that feel right.  But I suspect the practice may be at least partially behind this bout of uncertainty.  Ever since I started practicing Asthanga, and namely, since I've begun dropping back, I've been sleeping very little and having strange, unsettling dreams.  There is much of this thick, dark muck being churned up to the surface, and I'm having trouble enough just keeping it out of my eyes so I can see.  There are moments on the mat when I feel as though I might explode, and then I exhale, soften, and return to stillness, knowing the same attacker waits for me further up the way, ready to pounce and strangle.  Knowing, nonetheless, that I must carry forward and all that I can do to save myself is breathe.

This moment feels pivotal.  I've just emerged from debt and left my job of 5 years.  I'm teaching yoga, a practice and a purpose I believe in very deeply, which is not insignificant for someone with my remarkable capacity for doubt.  I'm about to summit the first in a series of large humps in my academic career.   And the one relationship that's been stable, open, and supportive in my life is in decay.  The culmination of these events is hidden somewhere up the trail.  My heart pounds in nervous anticipation of the destructive forces at work, but my gaze is steady and my breath is strong.  There is no preparation for the present.

The beauty in the ruins is the space the loss creates.

(image source)

3.28.2011

I'm Standing! So... 2nd?

During the course of the two days away from my practice this weekend (I took an extra rest day because of the bum knee, which involved teaching 3 classes in a row, so not really a rest day at all...), I managed to build up quite a sense of self-pity about my knee and it's anticipated effect on my practice.  By the time I got to the mat today, I was feeling depressed, low-energy, and certain that any version of Primary would likely kill me.  Fortunately, I could not have been more wrong.

Initially, I had decided to skip Primary altogether and have a nice Vinyasa practice instead so I could freely accommodate my knee, but as I laid out my mat, straightened my towel and began to spray it down, I was reminded of something I wrote earlier about Ashtanga:  that the power of the practice is in stepping on the mat every day, and every day finding a way to make it through.  Depending on how and what we practice, we may be forced to tap into our deepest reserves of energy and concentration just to get through the series.  We may trudge through a practice that, outwardly, appears to be something entirely different.  But therein lies the potency.  We learn to adapt.  We learn, inevitably, that we have resources beyond our comprehension at the ready.  Expectations are wasted on the present.  We learn to let them go.  With this knowledge, I began my practice.  Five Surya Namaskara A, five Surya Namaskara B...

As you may have guessed, it was amazing.  Heavily modified and amazing.  All lotus and half-lotus postures were modified on BOTH sides.  I'm taking a big step back here (a "step back" in the sense that I'm considering the larger picture, not in the sense of achievement or lack thereof).  I shouldn't have rushed the lotus postures in the first place, so I'm proceeding with caution.

Starting out, the knee was pretty stiff, but it quickly began to feel better rather than worse as I moved through the standing sequence.  A good sign.  With the seated sequence I found that, after two days of relative rest, my jump-throughs and -backs were especially strong.  I've been cleaning up the vinyasas by placing the hands closer to shoulder-width and concentrating on keeping the knees together.  This seems to aid in the application of the bandhas and is particularly effective in adding height to the jump-backs.

Practice flew by.  Before I knew it, I was backbending.  The Urdhva Dhanurasanas were perhaps not the deepest I've ever done, but they felt great.  I came down to the crown of my head for one exhalation between repetitions, walking each hand in a step.  With the third press up, I walked everything way in and after five breaths, rocked three times and came up to standing with the help of the wall.  Then I dropped back and began the process all over:  walk it in and rock... 1, 2, 3... except this time, on the second rock, I came up.  Inadvertently.  Without the wall.

I gathered my bearings as I came to terms with what had just happened.  I stood up from Urdhva Dhanurasana.  A first!  Then I took a couple breaths, dropped back and did it again!  I dropped back and stood up four more times, just to be sure I had it down.  Overall, they were pretty smooth.  My heels lifted slightly as I first began the climb, but they came down right away.  After the first stand, which sent me on a little jog forward, my feet remained rooted and parallel.  Beginner's luck?  We'll see.

I wonder if it wasn't the extra rest day, giving me time to drop the expectation of failure, that made all the difference.  As I said, the first time it happened, I didn't even intend for it.  So now I've still got the bum knee, but it's not as inhibiting as I thought it might be.  My Primary is still the lovely practice it was before that unfortunate crack, and dropping back and standing up have both come into reach.  In response to this turn of events, I'm considering adding the first four postures of 2nd series.  One of my teachers did say I was ready.  She also said that the ability to stand up from the backbends is traditionally considered the sign of readiness for 2nd series.

So.... I'm ready, yes?  We'll see.

(image source)

Rug vs. Towel: Let's Duke it Out

I hesitate to write this because I like to think that my practice is independent of props and baubles, but it's no exaggeration to say that Manduka and their amazing products have played a considerable part in the development of my practice.  I'm a heavy sweater, always have been.  And I have chronically unstable joints, battered and bullied by years of horseback riding and running.  These factors combined, before Manduka came into my life, meant a slippery-slidy and painful practice:  no rolling over the toes (lest they scream in agony), no extended time on the knees, and absolutely no jumping.  Manduka changed all that.

The Black Mat Pro is my best friend.  We have a special, intimate relationship.  This mat cradles and coddles my sensitive joints.  It lovingly protects my once immobilized ankles and toes.  Practice on this mat has opened up a whole new world of Vinyasa possibilities and allowed my arm balancing practice to flourish without ruining my wrists.  We've got a good thing going on, the Black Mat and I.  But it's an open relationship.  We like to share... with the eQua towel, that is.  The Black Mat is great by itself, but traction is lacking for we sweaty yogis.

Enter the eQua.  I have two of these towels and I love them both.  The grip is superb, even when the towel is completely soaked (eeew, I know, but it happens) and, for the most part, it stays in place throughout the practice.  But now that I'm practicing Ashtanga, I'm finding that the incessant jump backs, especially on those days when lift off isn't quite so light, are dragging the towel around.  Sometimes it feels as though straightening the mat towel is an official part of the jump through to seated, and I don't like it.  It's distracting.  So I'm considering investing in a Mysore rug, and since Manduka has always been so good to me, I went there first.

Pictured to the right is the Shama yoga rug.  Hand-woven and constructed of 100% cotton, available in green or maroon (and by that I mean "acai" or "moss," obviously), this rug will set me back $45.  Is it worth it?  I proffer these questions to the Ashtangis out there:  does the weight of a Mysore rug keep it place?  And are those raised ridges annoying or helpful?

I'm put off by the ridges.  I can see myself developing severe neuroses regarding my stance and placement of the hands in the asanas.  Precision is good.  Anal retentive is bad.  Or perhaps both simply are.  In any case, I'm about to shell out the dough unless the interwebs (that's you!) have anything to say about it.  So, rug vs. towel: which takes it?

3.26.2011

Primary Friday: Appeasing the Knees

Whew!  It's been another big week for my Ashtanga practice.  I'm suddenly binding all over the place, my hamstrings are long and strong, and even the lotus postures are comfortable... or were comfortable until yesterday, that is.

I had a really lovely Primary, apart from a fiasco with my knee.  The Mysore room was lively, with a large group of beginners on one end and the rest of us on the other.  I really admire teacher 'T' for handling the room the way she does, instructing the group of newbies as one and then visiting the rest of us individually.  I can't imagine how difficult it must be to have so many things going on at once, so many different practices to keep an eye on.  Students spread all over the place.  Compared to teaching Vinyasa classes where everyone moves as a group, teaching Mysore must be a whole different ball game.

The standing sequence was especially comfortable.  Just breathing and observing the heat, observing the sensations.   I no longer feel the breath shortening after Parivrtta Parsvakonasana and I was surprised yesterday at how fresh and light I felt during the Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana series, which has always felt like a bit of a slog, a hump to get over before carrying on.

Seated was pretty nice, as well, but I noticed my right knee feeling stiff right away in Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana.  I treated it nicely, easing my way into the postures, but every time I came to a lotus or half-lotus position, the knee felt a little less stable.  I made it all the way to Karnapidasana without incident.  Then came Urdhva Padmasana.  Having just recently found the full expression in reach, I was perhaps too eager to take the full pose.  As I put the right foot into position, the knee clicked a bit, but didn't feel any differently than it had for the rest of the practice.  Then, as I moved to fold the left foot in, the knee made a loud crack, which hurt a bit and seemed to significantly shift the alignment of the lower leg.  I was horrified and frozen in a very sloppy rendition of Urdhva Padmasana as I tried to assess the situation.  I skipped Pindasana and carried on slowly through the rest of finishing, taking a half-lotus position with the left foot on top instead of Padmasana for the final three postures to aleviate the pressure in my knee.

And now the knee is tender and inflamed behind the joint.  There is pain on the lateral side if I try to rotate the foot too far to the left or right, and there is some firm swelling impeding full flexion.  Walking and basic, linear movements are okay, but the joint feels strangely unstable.  This may be a significant setback.  I experienced something similar during teacher training in my other knee and it took a few months to completely heal.

So now the knee therapy begins.  I'll be sitting in Virasana for meditation instead of Siddhasana as my first step.  I've noticed this pose tends to relieve pressure in the knee joint built up from too much external rotation since the lower leg is (very slightly) internally rotated.  And I'll definitely be modifying any lotus postures in my Primary for a while.  Any other suggestions for healing the knees?

3.25.2011

Asana of the Week: Parsvakonasana


Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose) is a foundational standing posture with a long, lateral stretch from heel to fingertips.  I'm demonstrating the extended variation, (Utthita Parsvakonasana or Extended Side Angle) in the picture above, but a variety of arm variations may be used to make the pose more accessible or focus the intent behind the posture.

The front thigh and outer hip work to support the weight of the body in this pose as the inner thigh and groin are stretched.  The bottom hand presses into the floor to broaden the chest and spiral the torso open.  The bottom side of the torso contracts strongly, strengthening the muscles of the side and back while lengthening the same set of muscles on the opposite side, improving lateral mobility.

To enter the Parsvakonasana, take a wide stance, turn the back toes in, and bend the front knee directly over the ankle.  Ensure that both the toes and the knee of the front leg are pointing straight ahead and ground evenly through all four corners of the front foot.  Press the entire sole of the back foot down by engaging through the inner thigh and engage the buttocks to roll the top hip open.  Draw the shoulderblades onto the back to create space between the shoulders and ears, releasing any excess tension in the neck.  To modify the posture, take the elbow to the top of the thigh instead of pressing the hand into the floor.  To deepen the posture, firm the front knee against the upper arm.  This action will assist in further opening the chest.

3.24.2011

Lotus Holes

(image source)
My Primary is coming together faster than I can manage to absorb.  All this instruction is really streamlining the process (go figure...).  I am now binding Mari C on my own, and sometimes Supta Kurmasana.  And I finally figured out Urdhva Padmasana and Pindasana.  I've been back to the Mysore room twice already this week (to yet another teacher), and I'm planning to hit it again tomorrow.  

This teacher, who we shall call "S," is great!  She's a sweet, kind, mature woman who takes no guff and doesn't let me get away with anything.  She's the first of the three Mysore teachers to catch me skipping Marichyasana D and make me go back to do it.  She binds me in any poses I can't bind myself, then tells me, "you don't need me for that."  She stopped me yesterday after Bhujapidasana to explain that I could be jumping into Bhuja and Kurmasana.  Now, I know jumping is an option, but frankly, I haven't bothered trying because I've always felt like I've got enough on my hands with the Primary series, but I appreciated the push so said I'd try it.  And voila!  No problem.  S's no nonsense approach seems to really work for me.  Her demeanor says:  I know you can do it, so do it.  And I do.  Simple as that.

Yesterday, S helped me get my arms through my legs in Garbha Pindasana for the first time.  She sat at the top of my mat and explained to me in her loving tone how to "slide the arms through the holes" by squeegeeing the sweat from the rest of my body to use as lube.

I stared at her in disbelief, thinking, "that's kind of gross," and also, "what holes?"  But she sprayed my thighs with water and I smushed my hands through the invisible lotus holes as she tugged from the other side.  The sensation was strange, and I was completely astonished that both forearms fit between the thigh and calf -- the Primary surprises are never-ending.  S had me clasp my hands and press them into the floor rather than attempt to bring the hands to cheeks because I think we both knew that those elbows weren't going to bend, but still, it was a great success.

S has also been assisting me with standing up from the backbends.  She seems to think I can do it, and sort of "tricks" me into standing up on my own by giving me the tiniest of assists, and then retreating quickly, leaving me to either fall back on my head or stand.  And I stand.  It's pretty exhilarating, and I'm almost able to do it on my own... I just can't quite get that initial shift of weight.  Soon, very soon.

And just now, as I write this post, I'm on a spontaneous foray of yoga spending.  I just signed up for two weeks of Mysore and Pranayama practice with David Swenson in June!  That's in addition to the teacher training I'll be doing with him in October.  Skirts to the wind, I say.  I'm diving into Ashtanga, ala Swenson.

3.23.2011

Practically Perfect in Every Way

The coffee table is overflowing with yoga references.  Notebooks brimming with class plans and sequencing ideas cover the desk and shelves.  My teaching bag is in it's place by the door, ready to be stuffed with towels, mats, notebooks, folders, music, and props at a moment's notice.  It reminds me of my beloved Mary Poppin's carpet bag, not only because it appears as if it could be made of carpet, but also because it swallows my stuff into it's folds and regurgitates them to me as it sees fit.  It's like a fun little game.  Now close your eyes and stick your hand inside for a big surprise...

My schedule is filling out nicely, peppered with classes to give and classes to take, deliciously devoid of restaurant work.  That's right folks:  I'm off the schedule at the cafe!  No more waiting tables... unless I want to.  YIPPPPPEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!

Ahem.

It is with both joy and reservation that I step away from this work that has been such a source of stability in my life.  Serving food has always provided enough.  Even while I occupied the role of sole breadwinner for our little family (the Boyfriend, the dog, the cat -- who, frankly, I don't care for -- and myself), we lived modestly but comfortably without assistance.  And for that, I will be forever grateful, but it's time to move on.  Time to take the plunge, to leave the illustrious world of late night diners behind.  And with this step away from the past, I stride into a new life.  A new role.  A new purpose.  Last week, I wrote of impending change.  Now the change is real, and it's here.

I've been working nights for seven years, which means that I go to sleep in the morning, hopefully before sunrise, and wake up in the afternoon.  I don't practice in the morning because I'm headed to bed, and I don't practice right when I wake up because sunlight hours and business hours are hard to come by for a night walker.  I usually begin my practice at dusk, but I've been known to put it off until midnight or 1am.  It's difficult to muster the motivation for something so energy-intensive as my practice after dark falls, so if I don't get on the mat by dusk, it gets harder and harder to begin, and often I get hungry and have to eat.  Then it becomes necessary to wait a while, and the practice is pushed back even further.  It's frustrating, and often feels as though I spend my whole day preparing for practice, ensuring it happens.

This is my last week working nights, and I cannot wait to go to bed early, then wake up at the ass crack of dawn to do my practice first thing and be done with it.  Ha!  How often do you hear that?  Early morning Ashtangis, don't take those sunrise hours for granted.  It's a privilege to be able to rise early and carry that clarity with you throughout your day.  I am so looking forward to it.

3.19.2011

Primary Friday: Finding the Balance

Took another trip to the Mysore room this week and got a few more pointers on my practice.  Class was taught by a sub, someone whose Ashtanga classes I've attended once or twice before.  Though, at the time, I was merely an Ashtanga tourist, sight-seeing and gathering tidbits of information.  I had not yet begun my own practice of the Primary series.

I enjoyed the opportunity to get a different perspective on my Primary.  However, as understandably happens in this rich and varied practice, I received some instruction in total opposition to a technique the usual teacher instructs for deepening my forward folds.  One says to use the spinal extensors to extend and then fold.  The other recommends first to round the spine down over the leg(s) and then extend, using the bandhas to pull the body forward.  Which is right?

In answer to my own question, I think they're both right.  I think both techniques are effective in different ways, and the appropriate method for our practice depends on what we are working with, where we're coming from, physically.  I might even venture to say that different methods could be best used on different days, depending on the needs of the practitioner.  The regular teacher (let's call her "T" from now on, shall we?) likely suggested the "round, then extend" method to me because I have a habit of overusing my spinal extensors, flaring my ribs and hyper-extending the spine at the mid-lower back.  Perhaps T has the same problem, which causes her to notice this first in her students.  But, for many, the opposite is true: the back is habitually rounded, causing compression of the vertebrae.  I'd guess this is the case for the sub (we'll call him "M"), who recommended that I "extend, then fold." 

M helped me refine Chakrasana, something I'd been at a loss with in my own practice.  T had tried to get me to tone down my jubilant backward-somersault Chakrasanas the first time I came to class, but I never understood how to make it work until M explained.  Toes touch and then push into the hands.  Got it.

There were no drop backs in class this week.  I thought about going for it alone and/or asking M for assistance, but since I was already running long in my practice, I decided to skip it.

I realized today that this has been the first week in which I practiced the Primary series every day.  I didn't even think about it.  Just unrolled my mat, as usual, and out came Primary every time.  I never missed my free-flowing Vinyasa practice, until today.  Primary gives me almost everything I need, but not quite.  I'm thinking maybe five Primaries and one Vinyasa practice... or four Primaries and two Vinyasa might be about right.  I'm tempted to believe it doesn't have to be so structured, but part of the power of Primary, in my opinion, is the commitment we make when we step on the mat.  We know what we have to do.  And we do it, somehow, no matter what.  That's the character-building element of the practice that I am so intrigued by at this time, and to only do Primary on days when we care to is to reduce the potency of the practice.

I'll have to think about this some more.  In the meantime, Saturdays are Vinyasa days, full of backbends and arm balances and all the fun stuff I want.

Asana of the Week: Parsvottanasana

Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch Pose) is an asymmetrical standing forward fold which brings a strong stretch to the hamstrings and glutes of the front leg while lengthening the calf muscles of the back leg.  The position of the hands inwardly rotates the shoulders to release the muscles of the shoulder girdle and upper back, while the wrists and forearms are stretched as the palms press behind the back.  The deep forward fold and relatively narrow stance work the abdominals to bring the upper body forward over the leg and stabilize the pose.

The stance here is slightly shorter than one leg's length apart and the hips are square and level.  There is a tendency to collapse in the front hip which pulls the body off center and makes balance difficult.  Counteract this tendency by continually tucking the front hip back and keeping the back leg strong, grounding into that back heel.  Activate the pose by consciously using the deep muscles of the abdomen to pull the chest forward over the front leg.  Press the ball of the front foot into the mat as though you are putting "pedal to the metal" in order to engage the leg and prevent hyperextension of the knee.

It may take some time to develop sufficient flexibility in the shoulders and wrists to practice the pose with hands in the reverse Namaste position.  As an alternative, you may hold opposite forearms behind the back or press fists together.  For a more restorative pose, release the hands to the floor on either side of the front leg (pictured below) -- this variation is especially nice as a resting pose during a strong standing sequence.

Parsvottanasana Sequence:  Notice the sensations in the outer hip of the front leg as you move through this challenging standing sequence.  Use Parsvottanasana and Prasarita Padottanasana as opportunities to deepen the breath while maintaining a strong relationship with the earth by actively grounding into the feet.
  1. Anjaneyasana (High Crescent Lunge variation)
  2. Virabhadrasana III (Warrior 3)
  3. Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle - lunge variation)
  4. Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch - variation w/ hands on the floor)
  5. Urdhva Prasarita Ekapadasana (Standing Splits)
  6. Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana (Revolved Half Moon Pose)
  7. Parivrtta Natarajasana (Revolved Dancer Pose)
  8. Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose)
  9. Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-leg Forward Fold)
  10. Vinyasa; Repeat steps 1-9 on the opposite side.

3.18.2011

The Search is Over

Call off the hunt!  I've found my teacher:




Just kidding.  Although...


Kiki, I love you.  And your big hair kicks more ass than I can comprehend.

3.17.2011

The Search

Shiva as Dakshinamurthy, teacher of all knowledge. (image source)
I've spent the better part of the last few days in my own head, searching for an answer to an unnamed question.  Something is amiss, but I can't quite put my finger on it.  Intense dreams descend upon me like a wave and then recede, leaving flashes of broken imagery and a lingering, low cloud of indistinct emotion.  I am drawn, for the first time in many years, to travel, to seek in the exterior.  I yearn to leave the long-held and familiar behind, to disassemble the very structure of my daily life, to allow it to regenerate in a new, improved ideal.

I am wrapped in urgency and aimlessness, trembling in this overload of barely controlled prana.  It hit me hard today:  I need a teacher.  I need a teacher I can trust to guide me along this length of the path.  I am weary of going it alone.

It fills me with sorrow to I say that I have never had a teacher, or a guru -- someone to keep a watchful eye on my practice and nudge me in the right direction. I have had instructors.  During yoga teacher training, I regularly attended the classes of several great teachers.  And then, of course, there were the actual YTT course instructors.  At the time, I softened to become a student and gather what I could, but, looking back, even the teachers I spent hours on end with during the course of those three months never really filled the role of teacher in my mind.  I never arrived in a place where I felt I could trust them entirely -- there was too much frivolity and too many holes in the program.

But it would be unfair of me to say that this was entirely their fault.  I am in intense student.  I work hard and I come prepared, and I am surprised at how frequently teachers are unprepared for this.  This is not to say that I haven't learned from others.  I have, and do every day.  But I need a strong leader right now.  There are signposts on the threshold warning me not to carry on unattended. 

Apart from my own needs, it occurred to me that, as a teacher, I should know the dynamics of a student-teacher relationship within the context of such a highly personal and powerful discipline as yoga.  The union of the body, mind, and spirit.  The realization of the self.  This is not a frivolous pursuit.  I could use a good mentor, at the very least.  And so the search begins.

But where do I start?  How will I choose?  How does one go about finding a teacher, or is it the teacher who finds the student?  And, of course, there's the money.  And the time, not to mention the trust issues and various other psychological blocks to contend with.  It's sounding like a misguided search already, but I'm putting it out there, leaving the door ajar, so to speak, so my teacher, whoever he or she may be, knows they are welcome.

3.14.2011

Vichara (Reflection)

I am drifting through a dream-space, untethered and uncomfortably weightless.  Practice is the only thing that makes sense, the hours spent on the mat the only time I feel fully formed, and my urge to exist only in this place of order -- breath, bandhas, dristhi -- grows stronger every day.  The practice permeates my dreams.  The deafening sensation of the backbends has triggered a pranic tinnitus, a high-pitched buzz or hum, incessant and to which I am the only witness.

Nerves are raw.  Sleep is brief.  The blind plunge, backward and head-first, awakens an animal alertness.  The spine is suddenly expressive and I am made aware of a disturbing depth of structural discontent, stemming from the right side of the sacrum.  The base, the root.  It calls for realignment, real change.  It draws me in and yet I am profoundly disconnected.

I've always felt monasticism would suit me well.  The misanthrope in me excites at the idea of freedom from interpersonal relationships, which inspires a suspicion that perhaps hermetic life is not the most appropriate arrangement -- just a fantasy of isolationist bliss, the product of a young life surrounded by siblings, wanting nothing more than to be left alone, to serve my purpose from this quiet place.  But, somehow, I've always known this was never meant to be.

And so I sit, perched on the lip of this vacuum.  I see the incongruence of the present.  I observe the unseen forces bumping headlong into one another with the understanding that this cannot continue and I wait.  I contemplate the coming change as if it were a choice.  Amid the winds, I find my gaze.  And breathe.  And breathe.  And breathe.

3.12.2011

Primary Friday: Wherein I Learn that I'm Slow

Slowpoke Rodriguez, slothful cousin of Speedy Gonzalez and kindred spirit.
 I made it back to the studio yesterday for my second Mysore practice.  Again, the teacher was great and it was very cool to be practicing among others and yet engaged in my own practice.  The energy in the room was different this week -- stronger, more alive.  There was a large group of Ashtanga first-timers, I'd say maybe 5 or 6 people, at the other end of the room being given the practice in chunks.  The rest of us carried on in our half of the room, one or two doing the Second series and the rest of us in Primary.

Last time I attended Mysore, the week before last, I had arrived a couple of minutes after the scheduled practice time, but was still one of the first to begin.  In spite of this, I had been the last person to wrap it up.  I did everything post-backbends completely alone.  Even the teacher had gone by that point.

This week, I wanted a head start so I showed up 15 minutes early.  I was the first to begin by a long shot.  Nearly two hours later, there were only two of us left -- myself and a guy practicing Second. This guy, who had come in maybe 15-20 minutes after I had, was clearly intent on taking his time, experimenting with this or that between postures.  I, on the other hand, had had a very focused practice, and there we both were finishing together.  I'm not sure why my practice takes so long.  It's a solid two hours, with few extra breaths, and perhaps a brief backbending interlude to work on dropping back and standing up.  I'm a long, slow breather, but I don't think that alone can account for the all extra time it takes me.  Isn't 75-90 minutes about the average?

In class, I noticed that I may have been the only one taking a half-vinyasa after each side and each pose instead of skipping it or just lifting up after the first side.  Isn't this customary? It's difficult to be sure, since I wasn't actually watching the other students, just occasionally sensing where they were in their practices, but the guy in my peripheral to the left, who was also practicing Primary, seemed to be whizzing through the practice at an unbelievably accelerated pace.  I like my slow, steady practice and I don't like to be rushed, but I feel bad occupying the studio for longer than everyone else, and I don't want to make the teacher hang around to watch me like she did last time, so I'll need to figure out ways to cut it back a bit when I go to class.

I was a little worried about unveiling my new drop backs since I've never done them without first warming up by dropping back to a support (bolster, blankets, pillows), but I happened to see some dark green bolsters stacked outside the door as I dragged my mat to the wall.  I grabbed one without thinking.  It was only later that I realized that I should have asked, knowing as I do that some Ashtanga teachers don't allow the use of props.  The teacher was kind, of course, and watched me do one drop back by myself to the bolster, then motioned me away from the wall and helped me do two sets of three drop backs and stand-ups.  She seems to think I've got the drop backs down pat and that I'll be standing up soon.  She gave me a few pointers,  mainly that it's all in the legs.... theoretically, if just straighten the legs, I'll stand up.  I understand the principles of it, and I can feel what needs to happen when she assists me.  It's just initiating the lift in the first place that isn't happening.  When I'm in my backbend, I can't seem to figure out how to first shift the weight into my feet.  With practice.

3.11.2011

Asana of the Week: Viparita Dandasana

"The Hindu devotee prostrates before the Lord lying flat upon the floor, face downwards with the hands outstretched.  The Yogi, on the other hand, prostrates himself in this graceful, inverted arch." -- BKS Iyengar, Light on Yoga
I've had backbends on the brain these past couple of weeks, so here's another great backbend for you:  Viparita Dandasana, or Inverted Staff Posture.  This exhilarating pose keeps the spine supple, makes the back body strong, and expands the chest fully.  The heart becomes the point of focus as it is lifted and presented forth.  While it can be tricky to come in to this pose, once there, Viparita Dandasana induces feelings of glorious liberation.

Warm up to this pose with some gentle heart and shoulder openers; Gomukhasana (Cow-face Pose) and Ustrasana (Camel Pose) are a couple of my favorite preparatory postures for deep backbending.  When you're ready, enter Viparita Dandasana from Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose) by bringing the crown of the head to the floor.  Release the forearms down one at a time and interlace the fingers behind the head.  Advanced practitioners (a.k.a. those of us with too much time on our hands) may drop the legs into Viparita Dandasana from Sirsasana and, to exit the pose, kick the legs back up to Sirsasana from the backbend.

While in Viparita Dandasana, draw the shoulders back to slide the heart forward.  Keep the elbows firmly pressed into the mat to prevent them from splaying apart or sliding up.  At first, this pose may be practiced with the legs bent, but as proficiency is reached, the legs will gradually straighten.  Press firmly into the heels and keep the inner and outer edges of the feet in contact with the mat.  The feet may want to roll out because of the contraction of the glutes, which externally rotate the femurs.  Counteract this tendency by grounding through the mounds of the big toes and consciously bringing an internal rotation to the legs.  Ideally, the feet will be together, but tightness in the low back may require that the feet be hip-width apart which, for most of us, is only about 5-6 inches.  (Your hips are not likely as wide as you perceive, especially since we're speaking strictly of bone structure here... just something to keep in mind.)

Engage Uddiyana bandha to support and elongate the low back.  Breathe into your expanded, expansive chest and melt your heart forward by softening the space between the shoulderblades.  Enjoy the strength and supplication of this pose.

3.09.2011

Bruised Ego, Scraped Knees, and, oh yes, Drop Backs.

Dear Primary Series,

Why do you torment me so?  Just last week we were having such fun together, and now...?  Your indiscriminate brutality is too much for me to bear.  

See you tomorrow.

Love Always,
Megan
Yesterday's practice was Primary for the first time since last Thursday.  It's been a crazy week -- busy, stressed, and short on the yoga -- and boy did I feel it on the mat.  The Suryas were sluggish.  The standing sequence was unremarkable.  Once I got to the floor, things completely fell apart.

Well... maybe not completely.  I carried on, but I was left feeling pretty despondent by the prospect of slogging through the entire sequence after the first couple of seated poses.  The vinyasas, which are usually my favorite part, were violently awful.  Jump backs were heavy and clunky and eventually started to scrape my knees, which is hard to do on an eQua towel.  The jump-throughs were no better:  I crash-landed with a loud PLOP! more than a few times.

Fortunately, things did get a little better.  Eventually, I was able to accept the situation, feeble transitions and all, and just move through the practice in a softer way, any expectations I'd brought with me blown to bits.  Finally, I reached the finishing series.

If I came to the mat with one goal yesterday, it was to take my drop backs all the way to the floor.  However, considering the way practice had gone up until this point, I was not optimistic.  Nonetheless, I did my three Urdhva Dhanurasanas and set up the meditation pillows by the wall in preparation.  My ego in shreds, I moved slowly and carefully into that first drop, and, frankly, it hurt like hell.  I don't usually choose to acknowledge sensation as "pain" in my practice, but yeah, this was pain.  Still, it was good pain, the kind of pain that indicates there's something more to discover if I can just breathe my way through it, so that's exactly what I did.

I practiced six drop backs altogether.  For the first three, I dropped to the pillows.  Thinking perhaps that this was not the day to take it all the way to the floor, I almost left it at that, but decided that I didn't want to start a pattern of aversion like I seem to have done with my handstands, which I still won't do in the middle of the room.  I thought to myself, if I land on my head, so be it.  At least I will have tried.  Then I removed one of the pillows and dropped back one more time.  No problem.  Again, I thought, that was practically to the floor.  I could just leave it for another day.  But no, this was the day.  It had been decided. So I removed the last pillow and went for it, reciting in my mind all the little nuggets of wisdom I've gathered along the way: strong legs!  straight arms!  chest lifting!  head back!  

I curled back slowly, slowly, until I could see the place on the floor where I wanted my hands to go.  I stared at this spot with razor focus, took a final inhale, and surrendered to the drop.  Success!  Just to be sure it wasn't a fluke, I went for it again.  And again, very slowly, my hands made it all the way down to the floor.  I wanted to do a little dance, but felt as though my electrified low back might snap if I tried, so I just smiled to myself and gently made my way to the floor to decompress in Paschimottanasana.

Standing up from the backbend is another story altogether, one that appears, at this point, as though it might go on for a long while.  I'll need to do some study on technique, and, as always, lots and lots of practice.  But I'm very pleased and surprised with the drop back progress I've made just in this last week of practice.  One never knows when the body will simply open up to something new.

3.07.2011

Drop Back Success!

Photo by MasTaPiannis
After an extremely busy, sleep deprived week, all I wanted to do last night was curl up on the couch, drink chamomile tea and watch the X-Files (I love me some Mulder and Scully), but since my Saturday practice was edged out of existence by an unexpectedly long meeting, I knew I needed to get on the mat.  It was very late and cold by the time I managed to begin.  Heavy with reluctance, I cajoled myself to practice with the promise of a luxuriously slow start.

 I seem to have some of my best practices when I'm sick, tired, or otherwise unwell.  I think it's because it is only in these situations that I am really able to let go of expectations or self-judgment.  When I'm exhausted or ill, I can do nothing but listen carefully to my body's signals and move in a way that best serves me in the present.  There's nothing to strive for or obtain.  Just being and breathing.  This was my practice last night.

I felt surprisingly light and fresh, considering how late it was.  The practice came fluidly, one pose at a time, one feeding into the next in an organic expression of the glorious potential of being alive in this body, something I like to call damn good yoga.  Because of my state of mind -- humble, open, and unassuming -- there were many firsts.  I put my leg behind my head for the first time (Now how do I keep it there?).  I flowed from a tripod headstand to Parsva Bakasana and back for the first time, and I got my first drop back!

Not all the way to the floor, mind you, just to my meditation pillows which give me about five extra inches.  I practice these by the wall, and funnily enough, discovered last night that the only reason I haven't been able to drop all the way down is because I haven't been standing far enough from the wall.  I had been overestimating the bendiness of my back.  Once I figured this out, though, it wasn't all that scary.  I simply stepped forward about six inches, and there it was.  No drama.  I have just one piece of advice to offer at this point:  STRAIGHT, STRONG LEGS for as long as you can.

I think I've got plenty of space to drop all the way to the floor without the pillows.  We'll find out tomorrow when I get back to the Primary series for the first time since Thursday.  Stay tuned! (As if you're on the edge of your seat about my practice. Ha!)

3.06.2011

Primary Friday... Or Not.

Mysore was a no-go this week.

As it happened, the opportunity to sub another class arose on short notice in a time slot overlapping the afternoon Mysore practice.  It was a difficult choice; I'm sure I gave the Mysore teacher the impression that I would return this week, and I very much wanted to.  However, since expanding my teaching is sort of my big goal for this year, I decided to sub the class for a sick friend instead.  I felt bad because, as a teacher, I know the twinge of disappointment when students vow they will return and then don't show the next week.  Still, I think I made the right choice, and I'll return to the Mysore room next week.

The class I subbed turned out to be WAAAAY out there in the boondocks (okay, maybe not the boondocks, exactly, but it seemed like a long drive), and by the time we finished up, there was no time for Primary before work.  Instead, I crawled downtown through rush-hour traffic to take a friend's Power class.

During the class, I practiced between two men, approximately my age, neither of whom I had met before.  Our mats were just a few inches apart, the class being full, and by the end of the hour, I felt so much love for these guys.  We didn't speak much before, and not at all after, but it seemed as though we'd been through a journey together.  The warmth and gratitude I feel for these men for sharing their energy with me is very real.  It's happened before, a strong connection made, sometimes without a word or even a glance.  Just the most subtle exchange of something infinite, the essence of which is love.  Not very misanthropic of me, I know.

So, no Primary report this weekend, but the afternoon unfurled to reveal something lovely, nonetheless.

3.05.2011

Asana of the Week: Shalabasana

Shalabasana, or Locust Pose, is a great little backbending posture that works wonders on the low back and sacral region.  This pose develops the muscles of the back, particularly the low back, without potentially straining the lumbar region as many backbending postures tend to do if we're not careful.  Locust Pose also aids proper digestion, relieves bloating and constipation, and improves bladder and prostate health.

The key to this posture is not in how high you lift the legs, but in keeping the legs together and internally rotated to soften the buttocks and free the lumbar and sacral spine.  Engage the muscles of the upper back to lift the chest and send the heart forward by pressing the shoulders down and away from the ears.  There are several different arm variations for this posture.  Pictured above is the most basic variation, but the work of the upper back may be intensified with this variation:
 Or this one:
 Below is my favorite arm variation, which brings a nice shoulder stretch into the mix and is always an excellent preparation for Dhanurasana (Bow Pose).
For those accustomed to belly breathing during practice, all variations of this pose may present a challenge.  Rather than breathing into the belly and resisting the floor with the abdomen, breathe into the chest and soften the lower abdominals to allow the floor to press into the belly as the action of the diaphragm massages the abdominal organs.
Shalabasana Sequence:  This backbending sequence starts small and crescendos to the glorious openness of Ustrasana (Camel Pose).  Rest one cheek on the floor and breathe into the low back for a few breaths between rounds of Shalabasana.  Be aware of any compression in the low back throughout the sequence, and mindfully engage the muscles of the upper back to keep the heart lifting.
  1. Sphinx Pose
  2. Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)
  3. Shalabasana A (Locust Pose A)
  4. Shalabasana B (Locust Pose B)
  5. Shalabasana w/ Shoulder Opener (Locust Pose w/fingers interlaced behind the back)
  6. Vinyasa
  7. Dhanurasana 2x (Bow Pose)
  8. Vinyasa
  9. Ustrasana 2x (Camel Pose)
  10. Balasana  (Child's Pose)

3.02.2011

Super Yogini to the Rescue!!

Since my first Mysore last Friday, I've been doing a bit of extra Ashtanga practice to clean up my Primary for this week and, ultimately, to be in super shape by the time October rolls around for the teacher training intensive with Swenson.  I haven't quite let go of my Vinyasa practice, but I've reached a half and half ratio: 3 Primaries and 3 Whatever-the-hell-I-feel-like practices per week.

Every time I do the Primary series, I love it a little bit more.  Primary makes me feel like a full blown superhero!  When I finish, my mind is pure, my body is strong, and I feel remarkably accomplished.  After practice today, I strolled around my empty apartment for a while feeling like somebody owed me a major award (which I would naturally decline with a modest wave of my hand, because, hey...  It's just what I do).

Each time I've done the practice over the past few weeks, something new has come within my reach that I couldn't touch before.  Today, I was able to move into the full expression of Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana for the first time without any knee pain.  I took lotus legs in Garbha Pindasana AND seem to have finally figured out how to roll all the way around without beaching myself like a dying walrus.  I managed to successfully roll into all of the bum balancing postures without incident, except for Urdhva Mukha Pachimottonasana, which took a couple of tries.

Perhaps most excitingly, I've been practicing the full expression of Setu Bandhasana since the Mysore teacher helped me figure it out last week.  I'd been avoiding the pose because of fear of the dreaded neck crunch, but she helped me work into the full expression without any pain, and after just a few more practices, I'm totally comfortable in the pose.  Not to mention, it seems to make a big difference as preparation for that first Urdhva Dhanurasana.

After the three backbends, I opted to do some work with drop-backs at the wall, something I really haven't done since that first drop-back attempt a few months ago.  Astonishingly, they felt great!  I came much closer to the floor in my drop back attempts, I seemed to know intuitively what to do with my legs this time, and the whole experience (three drop-backs and three stand-ups) felt incredible on my low back and sacral region.  I'm very close to a decent drop back, but very far from a decent stand-up.  Either way, I'll take it.

The only postures that are bothering me now are Urdhva Padmasana and Pindasana.  I hate them both.  Urdhva Padmasana makes me cranky as hell, and I usually just give up on Pindasana, which is not at all like me, but I don't mess around in those shoulderstanding postures for longer than I absolutely must.  Too many bad experiences in the past.  I'll need a teacher or a big chunk of time, or both, before these poses feel steady and right.  And that's ok.  What fun would it be if all the postures came so easily?  Even we superheros need a challenge every now and then.