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.

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?

Working Towards Lotus: A Mini-Revelation

Yep, still trying to achieve Lotus.  While I’ve had some serious headway in other parts of my practice (my headstands are literally taking off, and I’m discovering flexibility that I’ve never even dreamed of experiecing before), Padmasana remains a distant dream.  Being an endurance athlete, with triathlon being my drug of choice, I’m pretty sure that I am hindered by tightness that builds up in my hips, knees, and feet from pounding those long miles on the run and bike.  Yoga has helped keep me strong and healthy as I prep for triathlons, but I can’t say that triathlon’s repetitive motions do much for my yoga practice.

Since I’m not willing to give up triathlon at this point, I’ve had to find other avenues towards flexibility.  For a long time, I believed that my biggest hindrance was tightness in my knees and feet.  However, I found a video yesterday that was something of a revelation.

Patrick Reynolds argues that the key to achieving Lotus lies almost exclusively in flexibility in the hip joints.  While this may be a “duh” statement for most of you, I hadn’t put together that my tight hips has led to my Lotuslessness.  While I’ve looked to my feet in the past, I’m now working on Wide Legged Forward Bends and other such hip openers.

This moment of insight makes me wonder what else I’ve missed.  Of course, this is a huge question and doesn’t simply pertain to yoga.  When it comes to seeing the forest or seeing the trees, I’m usually a big picture kind of girl, favoring wide vistas to individual pines, oaks, and birches.  Yet it seems when it came to Padmasana, I got caught up on the details; I wanted to work on my feet and knees when I should have seen how open hips lead not only to Lotus, but to a wide variety of other poses as well.

So maybe the truth of the matter is I’m not as “big picture” as I’ve always thought.  Maybe I’ve become hung up on trivialities (getting into certain poses, working on specific projects, worrying about momentary emotions) rather than seeing the big pay offs, such as finding repose in daily practice, or leading the kind of life that makes me happy, regardless of what others may think.  And maybe there is no pay off; there’s just life.  We can choose to sweat the small stuff, or we can live the big picture.

I’ll continue to work towards Lotus, but with the big picture in mind: playfulness, contentment, acceptance, and love, not just for those around me, but for myself.

Experimenting with inversions

Okay, we’ve all seen this video at this point, right?

I must admit, that video is the reason I decided to kickstart my inversions practice.  Don’t judge me too harshly.  Yes, it’s sexy and she’s doing yoga in lacy underwear, but there’s also a great deal of beauty and control going on there.  I don’t need to have the lacy underwear, but I would like to harness that kind of control. 

Fueled with a new interest in inversions, I decided to sign up for a workshop that focused on handstand and headstands, with an arm balance or two thrown in for good measure.  The workshop was at a studio I’d heard good things about, but had never visited before.  The space itself was amazing: two large yoga rooms, a meditation center, a massage room, and even a raw/juice bar for refueling after practice.  It’s an amazing yoga setting, and I’m looking forward to getting back there soon.

But back to the inversions.

The workshop completely rocked my world.  There was a large focus on the mula bandha, the “root lock” that is the base of core strength.  I don’t know a lot about the bandhas yet, but I know I was able to achieve modified versions of Tittibhasana and Tolasana where I’d never been able to before.  The mula bandha is deep core strength that goes far beyond six-pack abs, and is vitally important to inversions. 

My favorite inversion right now (since it’s the one I can do without using a wall for support) is Sirsasana II, or Tripod Headstand.  I love this pose.  I get all the paradigm shifting benefits of inversions without having to worry too much about toppling over.  I can also experiment with full headstands while simultaneously having a safe “base” to return to when things get wobbly.  Here’s a link to a pretty good tutorial for Sirsasana II, although I would highly recommend trying to first with an experienced instructor. 

I’m hoping that by the next time I write about inversions, I’ll be rocking a full headstand and a solid mula bandha.

Working Towards Lotus: From the Ground Up

Yoga Sutra III.13-15: These are called “transformations” because that creates a change in the very condition of the quality of things, whether external elements or internal powers. All these things follow upon a single thing they possess: the fact that neither their stopping nor their starting can ever be pointed to.  The cause for their other stages follows too from the transformation.

The root of things is often a mystery.  What, for example, is the source of inspiration?  it is the thought just preceding the brainstorm, or a simple and momentarily overlooked observation that may have occurred weeks before?  In the Yoga Sutra, Pantanjali suggests that transformation has no beginning and no end, which, in a strange way, is comforting.  The impetus and inspiration for transformation is constantly available and is never ending.  Very cool.

So where did my desire to achieve Padmasana come from?  Well, according to Pantanjali, it’s always been there, just bubbling under the surface.  It came from my desire to improve my meditation practice, which came from a yogic spiritual awakening, which came originally from just using yoga to become more flexible, which came from years of running, which came from…  It could go on and on with no clear beginning.  And where does it end?  Achieving Padmasana will inevitably lead to another transformation, the setting of new goals, and so on.  

While the impetus for reaching full Lotus may come from a desire for spiritual growth and can thus easily draw from Pantanjali, every physical practice needs a starting point.  For me, it makes sense that the foundation of my practice be the foundation of my body: my feet.  Foot and ankle tightness has been a huge limiter for me with yoga in general and with Padmasana in particular.  My feet are long and strong, but years of running have fixed their function, and they’re going to need extra attention if they are to become pliable and compliant.  

Amazingly,  each foot contains 26 bones (which add up to a quarter of all the bones in the body), 33 muscles, 31 joints, and over 100 ligament (www.sunandmoonstudios.com).  They have multiple arches, can move in myriad directions, contain more sweat glands than anywhere else in the body, and are associated with balancing the first chakra (again, compliments of http://www.sunandmoonstudios.com).  In short, the feet are pretty dang important, and it’s high time I pay more attention to there.  Therefore, this week, as I began inching towards Padmasana, I focused heavily on my feet with the following poses:

  • Virasana (Hero Pose)
  • Baddha Konasana (Cobbler Pose)
  • Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose)
  • Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)
  • Balasana (Child’s Pose)
  • The various Warrior Poses

The result?  My left foot is responding well, but I’ve been able to achieve Half Lotus with my left leg on top for several years now, so this isn’t necessarily surprising.  My right foot, however, is rebellious.  It behaves (kinda) in Hero Pose, but the moment I move into Half Lotus, it cries out, “Um…no!”  Perhaps this is an ankle issue more than strictly a foot issue.  

Now I’m reaching out to you, the brilliant and supportive yoga blogging community: What poses do you suggest for fickle feet?