6.29.2012

Primary Friday: Cumulonimbus

I've had a nice couple of days.  Mornings have been especially lovely.  This time of year, the sun shines in my eastern windows from eightish to eleven, casting patterned, morphing shadows on the floor.  This is my favorite time of day to practice, when the contrast of the light and shadows is most stark.  The shapes revealed through the slatted blinds shift and move, and disappear and reappear as the sun yields to the passing clouds, of which I have taken more notice these past few days.

Even against the vastness of the Texas sky, they appear to be bigger than usual, huge and billowing and dense like giant, transient worlds.  With glowing white caps and dark underbellies, they seem to slow, then hurry on, as omens do.

Tonight is the first round with Matthew Sweeney.  We'll be learning the restorative "moon sequence" which he alludes to in his book as a useful alternative to a traditional ashtanga practice on moon days, or when one is feeling overworked or unwell.  I am hoping to learn the sequence well enough to practice it next Tuesday during the morning Mysore session, which Sweeney will be teaching despite the full moon.

Since tonight's practice will be gentle, I did Primary this morning.  The sequence felt foreign.  This has been a long week.  I kept things moving at a pretty good clip, wasted minimal time tweaking postures and spent more time refining the breath.  I felt the difference in Padmasana, which has been strangely difficult these days -- not the posture itself, but the stillness.  For weeks, my eyeballs have threatened to shoot out from my head and those ten breaths have seemed an unending drudgery.  But today, the eyes were still and the breath was long.

I am looking forward to spending the whole weekend with Sweeney and the local Ashtangis.  Though the first session is less than two hours away, it has not quite yet sunken in how much yoga I am about to do, or with whom.  In my denial, I had a late, large lunch.  Wish me the best.

6.27.2012

Nakrasana Observations

Today is my first entire day off in two and half weeks. Last night around eleven, I stood in line at the grocery store with nothing but a six pack of micro-brew and a colossal piece of artisan carrot cake in my hands and dared anyone to judge me. Drank two beers and ate half of the piece of cake; perhaps not the healthiest way to decompress, but it at least it can't be said that I don't know how to spend an evening.

I am finishing the carrot cake for breakfast with my tea, the start of what I hope to be a sweet and mellow day. Practice will be reserved for this afternoon, at which time I am considering adding on the rest of Intermediate, save the seven headstands.

My new postures have come together nicely. Karandavasana is still a clumsy, lumbering compromise without the aid of a teacher, but I give my three best tries each day. Mayurasana and Nakrasana, however, have both been fun additions. I am a little stunned at how quickly Mayurasana has taken shape. At first, it seemed impossible -- even when I could hover, I couldn't control the swerving -- and that was only a few weeks ago.

Nakrasana, like Tittibhasana, is dynamic. Different.

I have always loved that moment in the mysore room when someone does Nakrasana. The floor boards shake and boom. All are snapped awake. It is a tantrum, a primal display. And now when I do this posture in practice, though I am home alone where the floor boards make no noise, I feel giddy with power. Nakrasana pumps me so full of something (let's call it "prana") that, even though my arms are tired, I have no need or want for rest. Since Nakrasana is my current stopping point, backbends are next.

The post-Nakrasana backbends are fantastic.  Just really, really fluid and controlled. Instead of feeling tight as after Primary, or wrung out as after the first half of Intermediate, I feel open and strong.  I suspect that the dynamism of the posture, the orchestration of the various muscle groups, helps to recover and reintegrate the body after the intensity of the isolated back bending, hip opening, and arm balancing that precedes it.

6.22.2012

Primary Friday: Back to the Books

This has been a great week of practice and an exhausting but enriching week of teaching. I've been subbing lots of Ashtanga classes for one of my favorite local teachers while she's been away, and while I've enjoyed filling in for her immensely, there is one thing I did not account for when I signed on for the job: teaching Ashtanga is much more physically demanding than other types of yoga.

Sure, it's true that, in Ashtanga, demonstration is rare. But demonstration of an awkward posture or tricky transition is nothing compared to physically adjusting sweaty students all day long. Yesterday, I did my practice in the morning, then taught a midday Mysore followed by a led class and yet another Mysore session in the afternoon. When I finally arrived home and took the dogs out for our evening walk, I realized my arms were absolutely spent. Good thing the pups were not too frisky, or I'd have turned us right around and gone back home.

Ashtangis in Austin are revving up for the impending week with Matthew Sweeney, which starts on Friday evening with three days of weekend workshops and continues into the next week with four days of crack-o-dawn Mysore. (6am. On the dot. Master Sweeney doesn't mess around.)

After next week, the yoga storm clears and, as it stands, I'll be left with very little on my schedule. July and August may indeed be lazy summer months. Looking ahead to autumn, however, things are likely to be shaken up. I've decided to go back to school. The application has been submitted. If all goes well, I'll be a full-time student in September.

I love school. Full-time academia is something I've always wanted to do but, having spent my early twenties stuck in an admittedly defunct but committed relationship that demanded my energies as the provider, I have never had the time or funds to do it well. Now that I am unattached and living very simply, I really think that I can make it work.

The thought of school excites me.  I have always been a sincere and self-motived student, in it for the education and not the certificate.  Don't believe me?  How's this:  I graduated with honors but did not attend my high school commencement ceremony.  A few years later, I earned my Associate's degree but did not apply for graduation until another year had passed.  I just didn't care.  That fancy, gilded piece of paper means nothing to me and I resent the goal-oriented education system our society has built that discourages meaningful, well-rounded scholarship and encourages fast-track "professional" degrees (to say nothing of the exorbitant costs for classes taught by teachers' aids that one can no longer hope to one day repay with a decent salary reflective of one's work).  I study to expand my mind, and I practice to enhance my craft.  That is all.

So wish me luck and godspeed through the application process.  I applied on a whim just a few weeks behind the deadline.  If I am accepted, I'll be caught up in a whirlwind of preparation.  If I am not accepted, I'll be applying elsewhere for the Spring semester.  Either way, it's back to school.

6.19.2012

Breaking up with Ashtanga, or How to Dig a Well


Salutations on this most glorious of moon days!  I hope the Ashtangis among you are enjoying your day off as much as I.

I am pleased to report that I have finally overcome the lethargy that's had me tethered to my bed.  I am feeling energized and enthusiastic.  Practice has been suspiciously good, and with the practice have come the insights.  I have had the itch to write more, but have not been of the temperament to produce.  It's an aversion to the empty page that I hope to overcome.

However, the time I've spent not writing here has been spent in part reading and commenting on other blogs, and sharing goodies on the Damn Good Yoga facebook page.  One such nugget in particular that sparked a conversation was a post by La Gitane at the Yoga Gypsy entitled "Dear Ashtanga: I'm seeing other Yoga."

It's a well written "Dear John" letter to Ashtanga, in which the author expounds upon a variety of reasons for the relationship to end, among them the idea that Ashtanga is the "Ferrari" of yoga:  fast, flashy, and downright impractical on this winding road we call life.

La Gitane writes:
"But don't worry, Ashtanga - it's not you, it's me. I've changed. I've grown in my practice, and you, of course, have been a part of that. But as I have become more in tune with my body - and my spirit - there are things that I have become less comfortable with, too.

You see, I'm not a dogmatic person. I don't have a religion, and I don't subscribe to the idea that any one system is better than another. Yet when I was introduced to you, Ashtanga, that sense of superiority was somehow present in the subtext. Now, I know that you're saying "it's not my fault I'm misinterpreted!" - and you know what, you're right. It's not your fault! But somehow that's the message that slipped through - "Ashtanga is like the ferrari of Yoga", one teacher said to me. The implication being that other 'vehicles' will get you there (wherever there is!) all the same, but that Ashtanga will do it faster. And with a bit more panache, perhaps. And I admit, when I first came to the practice, I certainly felt a bit of that turbo charge from the fast pace of the sequence and all those vinyasas! But I've come to a time where I'm suddenly thinking that a Ferrari is maybe not the only car that I need, because really, a Ferrari is only good if you have perfectly smooth, wide roads - say, a healthy, fit, injury-free body. To be honest, I'm more of a 4x4 girl myself - because life is not a smooth ride, and I'd happily sacrifice a bit of speed to make sure that I have enough flexibility to deal with anything that comes along!"
These sentiments are not uncommon among defectors. The idea that Ashtanga is rigid and dogmatic is an unfortunate misinterpretation of the structure of the system, which the author acknowledges. I left a comment which you can read at Yoga Gypsy, but since then I've been thinking more about the roll of faith in the lifespan of one's Ashtanga practice, and how dogma comes into play.

Faith is the root of dogma. And faith, while it may have its merits, is not a necessary precursor to meaningful practice. There are plenty of reasons to keep coming back to the mat outside the realm of faith or belief in the system itself.

Curiosity, for example, is probably my primary source of motivation.  I love to think that every practice is a gift just waiting to be unwrapped and I await the privilege with anticipation.  The nature of the gift is revealed posture by posture.  To the observer, that gift might look the same from day to day, but the accoutrements are varied and a delight to unveil from posture to posture, day to day, and even year to year.

By approaching my practice from an inquiring place, I avoid the trap of dogma or the assumption that Ashtanga is the superior method -- the Yoga of Yogas, if you will.  My choice to practice this method is not a reflection of my belief that Ashtanga is superior, but a reflection of my suspicion that it matters not which method we choose to practice, but that we must choose one method -- one path -- and stick to it.

There is a parable that I think may have its origins in zen which illustrates this concept well:
There was a farmer who wished to dig a well on his land to water his fields. So, one day, he took his shovel, went out into the field, and started to dig. When he had dug a few feet and found no water, the man crawled up from the hole he had dug, moved ten feet over, and began to dig again. But again, he found no water, and so he crawled up out of his hole and began to dig again. And again. And again, until his entire field was full of shallow holes, but no water had been reached. After some time, the farmer's wife came and saw the mess he had made of the land. She cried: "Husband! That is not how you sink a well. You must stay in one place and dig deeper."
Of course, this only applies if it is one's intention to evolve intellectually and spiritually through one's practice. If the yogi (or the well-digger) is only in it for the abs and ass, it might actually serve one better to keep digging those holes. Do the work for the sake of work and nothing more. Practice different styles, and even mix in some pilates for good measure. But if you sense that there might be something more to this practice, that there might just be some cool, clean water down below, stick with it. See where it takes you. To paraphrase one of David Williams' many gems:  Just try it out for ten years and see if you like it. If you haven't decided, try another ten more.

6.15.2012

Primary Friday: Yawn


Maybe it's the work... or the dogs... or the summer heat...

Whatever it is, I simply cannot get enough sleep.  My bed tempts me with a nap all afternoon, I am drowsy by 9pm, and when morning comes, no matter how early I managed to bed down the night before, it takes every ounce of my determination to throw off the sheets and arise.  I have never been one to need a lot of sleep.  Seven hours has always been more than sufficient, but now I can get nine good hours of rest and still feel like rolling over when the alarm sounds.

The snooze button and I have taken our relationship to a whole new level.  This morning, I hit the snooze multiple times, then finally gave up and reset my alarm for a later hour.  When the time came, I hit the snooze again.  And again.  

I woke up a full two hours later than planned.  This is getting out of hand.  And yet... all this sounds somehow so familiar.  Isn't this exactly how I felt this time last year?  It was one of the reasons I had my health looked at and went down the rabbit hole that I've come to know as "the cancer scare."  How curious that now, just before the cycle is repeated, that those quiet bodies in the ground begin to shake and rattle their old, dry bones.  

Shhhh...  Hush now.  You're long dead, remember?

I have been resting since Tuesday for my holiday but teaching a lot of Ashtanga, and I've noticed that just being in the room and energetically involved is so exhausting.   I watch my students carefully and seem to feel everything they face.  After teaching, even though I don't give many forceful adjustments, my body feels as though I've done a practice, without the endorphins or the afterglow.

So next week, when I'm teaching full time AND practicing AND walking my dogs 5+ miles a day, I might just spread so thin that I disintegrate under the unmerciful summer sun.  

Sheesh...  Listen to me complaining about spending my days teaching, practicing, and hanging with my pups.  Poor, poor me.

After teaching a led class at noon, I've got an afternoon Intermediate practice in the works.  I know it's Primary Friday, but after those few days rest, I'd like to get one more Intermediate in before the weekend, so I'm saving Primary for tomorrow and resting on Sunday. 

And by "resting," I mean working a 5:30am double shift at the restaurant.  


Think I can squeeze in a quick nap before noon? 

6.08.2012

Primary Friday: Time for Tea


For the first time in weeks, I feel adequately rested with only the slightest urge to curl up for an afternoon snooze.  I think this may be partly due to the nearly four-hour nap I took on Tuesday morning after teaching my early bird class, and partly due to the bag of sweet and spicy thai chai delivered to my doorstep the following day.  I've had a few pots.  No, it is not caffeine free, but it is damned delicious.

I haven't touched a drop of coffee since the day I gave it up, but I have been using caffeine responsibly.  Not every day, never before breakfast, and never in excess.  And just as I did not skimp on the caliber of my coffee beans in my long stint as a java junkie, these days I take my liquid prana in the form of quality loose leaf teas from Adagio.  (Stellar offerings there, my friends.)  I usually start my day with a cup of spearmint and honey, have a pick-me-up of rooibos, green, or chai in the early afternoon, and round it out with sweet chamomile flowers in the evening.  Typical of my obsessive, information-hungry nature, I am becoming quite the tea enthusiast.  

I bought a transparent tea pot with a built-in, washable filter and now I can't imagine preparing tea in any other way.  I simply scoop the leaves in, pour the boiling water, and watch in quiet awe.  It's like having an aquarium.  Tea leaves are so beautiful.  The steeping process is poetic.  This makes me feel sad for people with boxes of tea bags in their cupboards that they steep in plastic travel mugs on their way to work.  If that's you, here's a tip:  you're missing everything.

Practice is finally stabilizing.  I had a great 2nd series practice last night with a breakthrough in Mayurasana, then got back on track with my morning routine for today's Primary.  I surprised myself with the full complement of wrist binds in the Marichyasanas with the exception of Marichyasana D, but for the first time ever, it felt within reach.  My wrists are a little tight from my new Intermediate postures, so jumping back was especially hard today -- couldn't quite get my weight forward enough to hover without straining my wrists.  By the second half, they felt better.  

Generally speaking, I am enjoying a greater sense of ease in practice than I remember in the past.  Not only that, but I am seeing the practice with new eyes, feeling it in a new way, and being my own best teacher, asking myself to commit down to every small detail.  The idea of the practice as an offering frequently passes through my mind.  It changes everything.

Looking forward to the rest day tomorrow, though I'll be teaching a class or two.  Austin Ashtangis not resting tomorrow or those looking to learn can find me for Fundamentals of Ashtanga at Yoga Yoga North at 1:30pm.  It would be a delight to see you there.

6.07.2012

Hi.

It has taken me four days to write this meager post.  Just so you know.

I'm never sure what to write about anymore.  I've been busy.  Practice has been good.  I am having fun with my new postures.  May was a big month with some not wholly unexpected additions and omissions from my life.  Throughout the winter and spring, I spent much time marinating in the love of family and old friends -- and old friends made new again -- to recharge my reserves in the aftershock of the veritable life-quake of the previous year.  Now, I can feel myself pulling away, seeking the comfort and safety of distance.  I may be creating space around me for the coming growth.

This feels like a time for change, like time for hard, heavy work.  I've got things to do, letters to write, skeletons to exhume, reorder, and rebury with respect and proper funerary rites.  Unpleasantness abounds.

But you know what?  Even as I am assaulted by angry ghosts from a not-so-distant past, my peace is undisturbed.  And this is not avoidance.  I've checked.  Forced myself to sink into certain ugly truths and came up smiling.  Inconveniences and obstacles that would have torn me up inside a year ago are just a ripple on the surface of the pond.  Alignment brings such freedom.

On that note, perhaps you've noticed that there has not been an Asana of the Week for a while.  Or a Primary Friday post, for that matter.  I'm thinking of going free-form with the blog, at least for a short time, eliminating my usual weekly posts and allowing the nature of my writing here to assert itself in a new way.  Don't worry -- I intend to continue with the asana spotlights in some capacity.  I'm just not sure exactly how.  In the meantime, I've got some fun things on the way and there are plenty of asanas in the archive, which are arranged categorically and alphabetically under the Asanas tab in the bar under the banner at the top of the page.  Enjoy.