Mysore: Day 14

This weekend was a big test of my burgeoning Ashtanga skills. 

I’m a mere 14 days into mysore practice and I’ve been slowly building up my repertoire of asanas.  The trick is remembering all the postures in the correct order without having to refer to the handy dandy cheat sheet my studio provides for new students.  While I can usually get by without the sheet, I also have the security of being in a studio with my ever-watchful teacher keeping a close eye on my progress and making small corrections here and there.  In other words, my location has been my security blanket.

However, we spent this weekend camping, which was the perfect opportunity to put my new Ashtanga knowledge to the test.  I laid out my mat in a relatively flat spot at the edge of our camping site and started my Sun Salutations, sans cheat sheet.  It was actually pretty nice to be detached from those small elements of security, and I spent most of my practice in a much more mindful and intentional place.  Was my practice perfect?  Um, no.  But when is it ever perfect? 

I ended each of my two camping Ashtanga sessions feeling satisfied and kinda proud of my mini-accomplishment.  I didn’t even mind the stares from the neighboring campsites.  Interestingly, I saw someone else practice Ashtanga on a public pier very close to our campsite.  I only watched him for a minute or two, but I recognized the sequence right away.  I wanted to cheer for him or go say hi or something, but that would have been awkward.  Plus, maybe he was practicing from a more mindful place that day.  Either that or he had hidden his cheat sheet very carefully. 

Two more weeks of mysore to go…


Mysore: Day 10

Hmm… the WordPress Monster seems to have gobbled up my two latest posts.  Ah well.  Such is the Internet. 

Ashtanga practice seems to get some flack from some of the more free spirited yogis out there as being too structured, too hardcore, too unforgiving.  Afterall, Ashtanga practice works with a very prescribed, very carefully formulated sequences of poses, and from what I understand, purists rarely (if ever) deviate from the sequence.  As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a rhyme and reason for the order of the asanas, as each pose appropriately prepares the body for the next one in line.  We do tend to move relatively quickly through the poses (five to ten breaths max for each pose with brisk vinyasas between some asanas), but it’s silly to say that there’s no room for modifications or realignment or teacher intervention.  In fact, mysore practice is built for teacher intervention and allows time for one on one instruction in what would otherwise be an individual endeavor. 

So yes, Ashtanga does require dedication to a tradition and a willingness to forego some of the creativity you might find in other vinyasa flow practices (although the studio I practice at does offer a “Mixed Series Improv” class that draws from both the primary and secondary series in a playful and exploratory way… maybe this is a no-no for hardcore Ashtangis).  However, after 10 days of mysore practice, I’m finding solace and constancy in the primary series sequence.  Every morning I come to mat, and there it is, unchanging, welcoming, reliable.  And as I become more comfortable and proficient, the flow of poses becomes meditative, and I can lose myself in the increasingly connected line between my breath and my movements on the mat. 

You see, despite my dedication to my practice, my growing interest in Eastern philosophy, and my desire for a simple existence, a part of me is afflicted by anger.  A whole lot of anger, if I’m being honest.  And I own this anger.  It comes from within me, aimed at things and people I can’t control, and it’s destructive.  I know that while Pema Chodron and Thich Naht Hahn would suggest I confront it, sit with it, and acknowledge it for what it is, I often find myself turning away from it, as going down that road of anger is often disturbing and frustrating.  It creeps up on me when I least expect it, and instead of looking it in the eyes, I often turn away, hoping it will lose interest and die down.  More often than not, it forces my attention, and I find myself in the grips of anger until the familiar train of bitter thoughts runs it course.  Only then can I return to my regularly scheduled life. 

There is one time, however, that I face my anger, and that is when I’m engaged in meditative physical activity.  To me running, biking, and swimming are meditative.  When I’m cruising the roads, exploring new trails, and moving methodically through the water, my breath and body are working as one, leaving my mind free to confront my demons.  When I exercise I come from a place of power, and my anger stands little chance when I’m barreling down a windy road or charging up a rocky hill.  And when I’m in the lap pool, my body completely supported by water and the harmonious movement of my limbs, my mind can careful pull apart the strands of anger.  I do my best thinking in the pool, and I’ve worked through more issues while counting laps than in any therapy session. 

Ashtanga has proven to have a similar effect.  My body is learning how and when to move, leaving me free to tackle my inner knots.  While vinyasa practice is using my breath and the force of gravity to gently transform my body, my mind is working to release the tension that I’m hesitant to face off the mat.  

The patriarch and originator of modern Ashtanga yoga, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, sagely said, “Do your practice and all is coming.”  He’s not just talking about physical growth here, people.  Ashtanga means “eight-limbed,” with each of the first seven limbs working towards the eighth, Samadhi (union with the divine).  One of the Niyamas (personal observances) is Svadhyaya, or self study.  When we engage in our practice, we have the opportunity to study all of the aspects of ourselves, including the inner landscape of our emotions. 

My anger is there.  I see it everyday, but nowhere is it clearer, more innocuous, and more manageable than on the mat.

Asana Saturday: Prasarita Padottanasana

Today is Saturday.  Today we rest.

I’ve only been at it for a whopping five days, but it felt strange to not wake up at the crack of dawn this morning and head off to mysore practice.  In fact, I slept in.  Like, really slept in.  Like, my husband had already been up for two hours by the time I bothered to start stirring.  Okay, it was only 8:00, but for me, that’s huge.  When you live with very young children, anything past 6:30 is a miracle.

Anyway, not having any new postures to learn this morning, I tool some time to reflect on what I’ve learned thus far.  I’ve shortened my stride and taken a toe hold in Trikonasana; I’ve changed the placement of my bottom hand in Parsvakonasana; and (this one threw me off for a couple of days and still feels kinda weird) I’ve stopped grabbing my ankles during the forward folds in the Sun Salutations.  Thus far, no asana has been an enormous, oh-my-god-I-can’t-do-it kind of challenge, but as I’ve mentioned before, following the exact sequence, everyday, in order, and according to the guidance of my teachers has required a paradigm shift for this very independent gal with an ever so slight I-know-what’s-best-for-me kind of attitude.

For example, yesterday, I learned Prasarita Padottanasana, or wide-legged forward fold.  My teacher gave me all four variations, although she warned that most people get mixed up on when you bring the arms up, when to look up, when you place your hands on your hips, and so on.  It doesn’t look at that confusing, but when you’re in the flow of the postures, it can be very easy to forget what comes next, especially when it’s brand new.

The punk in me wants to question why we have to do it this way.  What does it matter whether the arms come up or not?  Or whether you look up before folding forward?  And because I couldn’t help it, I did ask my teacher what the purpose was behind this very specific and mystifying practice.  She agreed that yes, some of these minute details seem arbitrary, but she reminded me that the theory behind the Ashtanga sequence is that every movement helps prepare the body for a more challenging pose (she actually pointed out Supta Kurmasana as the apex of the Primary Series, with everything leading up to and then cooling down from that moment, although I’m sure there’s room for debate there).  When the arms come up, it’s to rotate the shoulders in a certain way.  When we look up, we’re elongating the spine to deepen the forward fold.  So while it may seem tedious to have to memorize these details, there’s a reason to the rhyme.  This isn’t something I have to “deal with,” though; it’s something that will help me move forward in my practice.

See, I don’t always know what’s good for me.  Another paradigm shift.

Here’s a good video for learning the ins and outs of Prasarita Padottanasana:

I think it’s smart to note that modifications can be made to suit your ability level.  As for me, I take a block at its lowest height under my head so I can make contact (can’t quite reach the ground yet).  Do what you gotta do.

Mysore: Day 5

It’s day five of mysore practice, and the little lessons just keep on coming.  Yes, I’ve been given a few more poses (all the wide-legged forward folds today…lots of “where do I put my arms again?” moments), but there are learning opportunities to be had outside of the asanas as well.

I had heard the term “drishti” before, but the concept seems to be emphasized more in Ashtanga than in other yoga practices.  Drishti is simply a gazing point, something on which to fix your attention during an asana.  For example, in Triangle Pose, the drishti is the upper hand; in forward bends, it usually the big toes.  All said, Ashtanga yoga uses nine specific drishtis, all of which correspond to particular poses.

Since learning more about them a mere five days ago, I’ve found that the asana doesn’t feel complete until I’ve fixed my attention on the appropriate drishti.  And more than complete the pose, using a drishti really allows me to hone in on my own practice, as opposed to gawking at the much more accomplished Ashtangis around me.  I think we’ve all been guilty at one time or another or sneaking a peek at our neighbors, either to check out their pose or their yoga attire (I admit it: I dig yoga clothes).  But working towards a drishti allows you to recenter and to focus on what you’re trying to accomplish.  Plus, it’s more difficult to be satisfied with your block-supported wide-legged forward fold when the gal next to you is doing the full splits.  Or maybe that’s inspiring?  I don’t know.  Either way, the practice of using drishtis has personalized my practice, helping me to come back to me.

Interested in learning more about drishtis?  Check out this article from Yoga Journal.

Mysore: Day 4

It’s interesting how Living Social and Groupon always seem to know exactly what I want.  I have been interested in Ashtanga yoga for quite some time now, and although I recently discovered an Ashtanga studio in my town, I hadn’t quite worked up the oomph to sign up for an introductory class.  Then, lo and behold, Living Social offered an amazing special: five Ashtanga classes at said studio for $27.  Hello, affordable yoga!  I’ve always been amazed at the exorbitant prices studios can get away with charging, but that’s a rant for another time.  Needless to say, I jumped on the deal, and a few weeks ago, I found myself in my first Ashtanga class. 

The studio, an unpretentious, cozy little number that’s conveniently situated above a pizza joint, offers several levels of Ashtanga practice, along with some more general classes such as Power and Restorative yoga.  After taking an introductory class, the teacher suggested that I try the Level 3 Primary Series class, assuring me that I was ready for the rigor.  I went in a little intimidated, but left completely exhilarated.  The class proved to be just the right level of challenging: I didn’t feel like a complete noob, but I also found an appropriate amount of difficulty in nearly every pose. 

After the class, I spoke with the instructor about signing up for an introduction to mysore, which is the traditional way of teaching the Ashtanga tradition.  Instead of attending led classes, students gather together to work on their own particular sequence at their own pace.  This isn’t to say you just do whatever you feel like doing.  On the contrary, you work within an appropriate sequence as determined by your teacher.  Students just starting out may only do Sun Salutations A nd B plus the closing Lotus postures, while more experienced students will complete the entire primary series, which includes some seriously challenging poses.  The whole idea is that the student grows slowly based on his or her readiness (again, as decided by the teacher) and will wind up memorizing the entire sequence in the process. 

Here I am on day four of mysore, and I’ve learned a great deal about practice, patience, and surrender.  For me, the most difficult part of learning in the mysore style isn’t necessarily the physical postures; it’s putting all of my progress in the hands of a teacher.  For years, I’ve been my own coach, plotting my own course through exercise and pushing myself further whenever I feel like.  Mysore practice, on the other hand, requires surrender to a teacher who will only allow you to progress if he or she feels you are ready.  And the practice grows slowly.  So slowly, in fact, that it’s tempting to simply move on through the series, foregoing instruction.  Today was my fourth day of practice, and I’ve only gone as far as both Sun Salutation, six of the fundamental standing postures, shoulder stands, and the final Lotus postures (well, half-Lotus, in my case).  My practice, including Savasana, is no more than 30 minutes long.  I find myself looking ahead to the next postures and thinking, “I can do those!”  But restraint and surrender to my teacher has kept me from “cheating,” and has helped me to honor the mysore tradition.  Mysore has been a great place to remind myself that I don’t know everything, and that seeking guidance is a good, healthy thing. 

I’ll check in as my month of introductory mysore practice continues.  Has anyone else out there tried mysore?  What was your experience?