May 13, 2013 § 6 Comments
Neither do my wrists and shoulders for that matter.
The past month has been a ridiculous whirlwind of house-hunting, which came to an end last Friday when our offer was accepted for a 3-bedroom house straight out of the 1950s. Apart from the oak hardwood floors, the rest of the house is long overdue for an update, which will bring its own set of adventures. Still, it was a relief to see the end of open houses, market analysis, multiple-bid scenarios and nerve-wracking days. My body is starting to let go of the low-grade tension and clenching of the past month and in its current state, it’s a body I don’t recognize. Shoulders as achy and stiff as I’ve never seen, a cranky left wrist in every upward dog (something to do with the shoulders perhaps?), and now, an amorphous ache in the right hip/lower back area that feels as if it needs a good application of castor oil. Hip and back pains trigger paranoia like nothing else. I wonder if I tore a ligament/dislocated a disc/over-compressed something in backbending….the list goes on.
This stiff body I find myself with has made for practices that are more intuitive and open, and less about feeling the need to do every single pose up to Bhekasana. The focus is on nurturing, grounding and healing with the breath – the best tool I have to carry me through periods of high stress and high anxiety. It never fails to amaze me how different and energized I feel after just 5 Surya As and 3 Surya Bs, no matter how hesitant or faffy I was before getting on the mat. I’ll have to keep that in mind once we start the joyful process of remodeling and all it brings. Breathe breathe breathe.
May 2, 2013 § 10 Comments
Recording this for posterity: Did three crash-free dropbacks today, thereby invalidating the narrative that “I won’t ever be able to dropback on my own”. Today’s event was necessary to prove the intuition I’ve had for a few months now – that my body is ready and fully capable of doing this, if I can get my mind out of the process for long enough. I need to work through this on my own, in my own space, without recourse to a pair of supporting hands or a familiar voice telling me “you’re fine”, “bend your knees” “yes, you can do it”. My teachers had become my crutches, and it was time to cast that away. The entire process took about 15 minutes I think. 15 minutes of pep talks, deep breathing, false starts and just hanging, frozen, in mid-air trying to figure out how to “bend my knees” to bring me closer to the floor without crashing.
The work that lies ahead is in cutting down that pep talk time, engaging the arms more so that they stay straight on landing and now, working on standing up. The journey never ends does it?
Still, I did it. I’m one step closer to demolishing the demons in this pose (are dropbacks really a pose?) and while the work continues tomorrow, today is reserved for basking in the glow of contentment and the ability to say “I did it!!”.
April 29, 2013 § 7 Comments
The coming month will be an experiment. We have a teacher visiting the studio for the month and, instead of signing up, I chose to do a home practice for the duration of his visit. There are a couple of reasons for this, but above all, I’m really craving for some practice “downtime”. No teachers, no workshops, no new tips or asanas, just me and the breath and the mat. I don’t have a very good track record of solo practices (I think I can count the number of times I’ve done it on one hand), but I knew I made the right decision last week when I finished my last group practice at the studio and found myself looking forward to some solo practice time. Looking forward to it. Now that’s something new. Maybe the prospect of practicing on the Lifeboard has something to do with it (new toy!), or maybe I’m just entering a different phase in my practice. Today’s session was all about figuring out the right temperature for the practice room. I heated it a little too much I think, got a headache by the time I started the seated postures and it got progressively worse. So, short practice today, with backbending, some experiments in Urdhva Dandasana and of course, a looooong savasana with the bedroom door open.
Looking forward to what tomorrow brings.
April 23, 2013 § 4 Comments
My Mysore story began with the Sharath and Saraswati tour a year ago, so it’s nice to come back and reflect on how things have changed. Back then there was a lot of buzz, from within and without. A big group of us from the home studio made the trip south to practice with S+S for the first time. The Vanity Fair article on Sonia Jones and the Jois Yoga enterprise was still a hot topic of conversation, and the Jois yoga studio was replete in its high-end retail glory. There were photographers and videographers, as well as the “who’s who” of Ashtanga practicing alongside the rest of us. I was terribly anxious about practicing led for five consecutive days, seeing as how a six-day practice week was still the exception rather than the rule at that time. And then to do the first class and be completely swept away, absorbed, into the collective experience of the breath, which sealed the deal on my decision to head to Mysore. It was a heady, endorphin-filled time that kept me going for many weeks afterwards.
This year, things are much more low-key. First of all, they’ve cleared the shop floor and turned it into a huge waiting/changing area between classes. The “shop” is now about a fifth of its original size hidden behind screens. A lone photographer stopped by for just one class (per session – there are two sessions each day). And there’s just a smidge more space around each mat, compared to a year ago. Waking up at 5 to walk the half-block to the shala is sweetly reminiscent of those dark Mysore mornings, and seeing familiar faces from my recent trip is both surreal and sweet. The practice itself is sweeter than ever, and, dare I say it, easier compared to a year ago. There is more steadiness, fewer fluctuations, stronger and louder breaths. There is surrender to the count and all of its Sharath embellishments.
I have to confess that I wasn’t all that excited about making this trip – the 3rd in a span of a month – given the demands of real life on my time and energy. I just wanted to be home for more than just a few days at a time, I wanted my life to go back to being “normal”. Well, the first ekam on Friday took care of all doubts. Whatever detractors may say, there’s no denying the fact that Sharath’s able to pull together a critical mass of people and orchestrate an experience that’s quite unlike any other. A led class with him is more than just about perfecting each asana or lasting his count for Uthpluthi. It is a return to the basics, a stripping away of the faffing and mental chatter that sucks away at our energy and places us firmly on the mat to do just one thing: breathe. It is an experience that is both sublime and quotidian, filled with joy and love from both teachers and students. While I won’t be able to make it to Mysore every year, I can’t say the same for Encinitas. Looking forward to the 2014 edition of this tour.
March 18, 2013 § 6 Comments
Nancy was in town two weeks ago for a long weekend of 2nd Series asana fun. I went into it with my own ideas and expectations about what I was “allowed” or “not allowed” to do as dictated by the current set of “Ashtanga Rules” where you don’t move on to 2nd Series until you can stand up from a backbend. This made for a rather stressful afternoon on Friday, wondering if I had made a mistake by turning up and only doing what I had been “given”, i.e., the first three poses of Intermediate. I couldn’t understand why my teacher had told me that it would be ok to attend this, if I wasn’t going to do more than that, and I felt like a real renegade that afternoon when I went on to do Bhekasana and Dhanurasana.
It took me a while before realizing that I wasn’t there to do my “regular” practice. In my teacher’s words, the workshop was meant to be inspirational, a break from the usual routine of daily practice. And I was free to do whatever I was comfortable with. That’s when things started to get really interesting. And fun. We had two Mysore practices on Friday and Saturday, and a Led class on Sunday. In the Mysore classes, I practiced up to Navasana before switching over to 2nd, and went up to Supta Vajrasana the second day. For led, we went the whole hog: Full Primary and Intermediate up to Supta Vajrasana. I was beyond happy that the last day of the workshop was a moon day, and relieved that Kapotasana isn’t part of my daily practice.
If you’ve studied with Nancy before or have heard about her teaching philosophy, you’d know that she approaches the concept of “progress” in Ashtanga pretty differently from its current version. She feels that students are being kept at the Primary Series for far longer than is necessary, and she moves folks on once they satisfy a few requirements:
- Head on the floor in all Prasaritas.
- Knee to the floor in Mari B and D, binding in Supta K.
- A daily asana practice, with energy left over after the completion of the Primary series.
So by current Ashtanga standards, she would be considered a “liberal” when it comes to progressing through the series. This was a hot topic of discussion throughout the weekend, with about a quarter to a third of the participants practicing less than half (or none at all) of the Intermediate series. In addition to the ‘asana qualifications’ mentioned above, Nancy moves her students on when they’ve been practicing Primary for a while and start complaining of knee pains. I’m not sure why this would indicate a need to start 2nd, so if there are any anatomists out there please feel free to chime in.
I’ve followed with interest the recent discussions around the evolution of Ashtanga and the worrying rigidity with which it is currently practiced. As with all complex issues, I found myself wanting to comment and not comment at all because the parameters of a comment box felt too stifling. After a weekend with Nancy, many of her quotes are still fresh in my mind and I’ve included them where appropriate in the thoughts that follow.
One of Nancy’s common refrains is to teach Ashtanga as she was taught, and the difference between her approach to that of current Ashtanga teaching is a reflection of the evolution of the teaching that’s occurred between the 1970s and now. How a teacher was taught and how quickly they were moved on in the series is also a reflection of their physical abilities and constitutions as students. Nancy’s practice didn’t feature vinyasas between each side or between poses until later, whereas David Williams had the vinyasas from day one.
“When we (Nancy, David Williams and David Swenson) compared notes after class, we were surprised to discover how he (SKPJ) was teaching us in completely different ways.”
In other words, teaching them in ways that their constitutions needed and could handle. And the way they were taught is what shapes and informs their teaching now. In this light then, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more Ashtanga teachers sticking to the rule of dropbacks and standing up from a backbend before moving a student on to 2nd series. Because that’s what they probably experienced in Mysore. I don’t see anything wrong with having this as a “general rule”, because problems can arise when students progress too quickly – too much, too fast, before the body is ready for it. But problems also arise when students don’t progress quickly enough, and suffer strains and injuries as a result.
The challenge for today’s Ashtanga teachers then, is to be able to navigate the murky waters between these two polarities. To be able to read and understand the energetics of different types of bodies and constitutions and to tailor their teaching accordingly. To know when to break the rules. This may require the addition of ‘prep’ poses to the sequence, or of practicing alternative sequences on occasion. It most certainly requires a strong bond, a trust, on the part of the student, like the total surrender to one’s teacher that we keep reading about in Guruji.
“He (SKPJ) would take us apart at practice one day, and we would go back the next day and he would put us back together.”
I’ve never practiced with him, but based on what I’ve read, SKPJ sounds like the sort of teaching genius that comes by once a generation, or a few. The nuance he brought to his teaching is borne out of great skill and an immersion in his subject for decades. How many teachers today can testify to that sort of experience? I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be teaching till they have had 35 years of solid practice, but I do think that cultivating this nuance is an important quality and it’s one that’s easily overlooked because it’s intangible. I suspect that it’s a skill that one comes to know rather than learn.
In the same way that teachers need to navigate between rules and the nuances of individualized teaching, so the need for students to pay more attention to their body’s needs and take responsibility for their asana practice, within the boundaries of a teacher-student relationship. In other words, I personally think it’s ok to do prep/Intermediate poses/alternative sequences if it’s needed and it’s something that’s allowed in the Mysore room you practice in. At our studio, the teachers have fostered a culture of discussion and questioning which I’ve found helpful in highlighting, more clearly than ever, the individualized nature of this practice. Got a question? ASK!
Ultimately, you should practice whatever your teacher asks of you.
“Your teacher” here meaning the teacher supervising the room that you’re practicing in. So if you don’t agree with the teacher’s philosophy, leave. It’s your practice after all.
I get the feeling that there’s a tendency to take rules all too seriously, probably because we don’t have access to the full range of knowledge that SKPJ and Krishnamacharya had or haven’t been immersed in this long enough to really know how to use this practice therapeutically, i.e., adapting this where needed. Or it could be a case of a few ‘bad hat’ teachers giving the others a bad rep. Fundamentally, I think it doesn’t really matter whether you’re doing the “real” Ashtanga or the version from the ’80s/’90s/’00s…..what’s important, as Grimmly put it so well, is to turn up on the mat everyday and breathe.