Thursday, April 12, 2012

Practice with Sharath

Check out who I practiced led-Primary with on Tuesday morning:

Me and Sharath post practice
Sharath Jois and Saraswathi!  Grandson and daughter of Pattabhi Jois (a.k.a Guruji, founder of Ashtanga Yoga).  My friends and I road-tripped down from Boston on Monday night to practice with them in Greenwich, CT.  My friends were fresh from a month of studying with them in Mysore, India (they kept a great blog going while they were there, check it out: Ashtanga 4 Life); this would be the first time that I met either of them.  Sharath and Saraswathi were only planning to visit the East Coast once this year during this time to help open the Jois Yoga shala (studio) in Greenwich, so I didn't want to pass up the chance to practice with them when they were practically in my backyard.  When I signed up, I was unaware that this was actually one of the studios that was coming under a bit of scrutiny from some people in the Ashtanga community.  Basically, the issue that some people seem to be having is that these new studios are a chain and are super fancy, and they are worried about Ashtanga Yoga becoming a brand, that the name is becoming more important than the method.  I won't rehash the whole article, that came out in Vanity Fair of all places, because I don't know enough about what's going on or have enough knowledge of how things were done during Guruji's time; but you can read it here if you're curious. 

Also, that's not what I want to talk about here, I want to talk about what it was like to practice with someone who studied as close as anyone possibly could with the person who created Ashtanga Yoga, and who continues to direct and teach at the main shala in Mysore.  How was it?  Very sweet...that's the best word I can think of for it.  Yes, the new shala is super fancy with a high-end boutique in the front.  But that's not the yoga--doesn't matter how fancy the space may be, we were all still squeezed in there together, sweating and bumping in to each other some of the poses because our mats had to be so close in order to accommodate all the people who came.  While we were waiting to start, Sharath said, with that awesome smile of his, "It's not enough that you practice Mysore, you have to experience Mysore!  Bring the mats closer!"  And all that new studio fanciness, that's not Sharath. 

Sharath speaking with a student before the next class (that's Guruji in the painting)

My friends and I ended up being in the very front row and I was directly in front of his chair; front and center, not my favorite place to be in a class, lol.  But he had this wonderful, non-intimidating presence that just reflected his attitude that he does not consider himself to be a guru, he is still thinks of himself as a student.  You could just see from his smile and his attitude that he just seemed so happy to just be there teaching and sharing the yoga.  I really liked the way he taught the class too--the pace was perfect, much slower than I had heard about from some people (my own pace tends to be pretty slow, so I was a little concerned about that, lol).  His tone of voice was calm, quiet and a little humorous too, teasing us by counting slower when we got to Navasana (an intense abdominal strengthener that comes in the middle of the Primary Series that you repeat 5 times and hold for 5 breaths each) and Utplutihi (the last pose of a class where you sit in lotus, or cross-legged, and hold your legs/bottom half off the floor for 10 breaths), "Don't come down!  Don't drop the legs!  Lift back up!"

At the end of the class, there was no promoting the new studio or any sort of advertising.  All he said at the end was that it was important to practice everyday; that if you had 2 hours to spend on Facebook everyday, then you could spend 2 hours on your yoga practice (I'm summarizing, he said it much better, lol).  It was really nice to be able to practice with him and Saraswathi and get a little bit of first hand experience of what they are like.  And it's always nice to see how big and connected the community of Ashtanga practitioners are.  Ashtangis are a dedicated bunch of people and that seems to connect us: India, New York, Connecticut, Boston, Cambridge...even if we've never met each other before.

Me, Cara and Cyndi (part of "Team Boston")

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

I'm still here!

First off, apologies for the 2-month long absence from the blog.  I tend to go through phases when I feel like writing about everything and then when I don't feel like writing about anything.  Clearly I've been in the latter phase.

When I last wrote in my blog I was in a bit of rut.  I was going to practice but it just didn't feel good, it felt tiring.  I was also getting over a persistent cold that lasted nearly 2 weeks and ended up re-visiting me with re-newed intensity near the end of February.  Not cool.  The "gremlin" that I thought was just pinched up and pissed off muscles from all the coughing ended up being a slight rib dislocation/fixation from all the coughing!  Meaning that one of my rib heads had gotten a little out of place (not a complete dislocation) and then got stuck (kind of like when a joint gets frozen).  Good times.  Well, the rib has been put back into place (through much pain...ouch!) and the only remnant is that every now and then those muscles are a little achy.  The practice continues to roll on...

Actually, practice has been pretty fantastic lately.  The visiting teacher (Karen Breneman) who was subbing for my regular teacher while she was in India had me start practicing drop-backs again.  Kate (my regular teacher) had put them on hold because I would get extremely light-headed while doing them--to the point where it felt like there was so much pressure on my head that I felt slightly nauseous and near blacking out.  As much as we could tell, a large part of this has to do with my low blood pressure.  When I told this to Karen, she suggested I go as slowly as I can and, before sitting down for Paschimottanasana, pause in a half forward bend so that my blood pressure has a chance to equalize.  That one little suggestion ended up making a huge difference!  No more intense pressure when I sat down for Paschimottanasana.  It felt so good to be doing drop backs again.  Almost first, lol.  And then my mind caught up with me and, for some reason, my brain started freaking out whenever it came time to work on my drop-backs.  Even though my form looked great, inside my nerves were all over the place.  I started getting more light-headed when I did them, though not dangerously so.  I kept doing them even when the light-headedness returned because (a) I figured that the only way I was going to figure out what was causing the light-headedness was to keep doing them, and (b) they presented this fantastic opportunity to work with my reaction to fear.  Finally, one day when I was getting ready to stand up from the first one, I could feel the fear coming up and with it my neck muscles clenching up!  That part was the last piece of the puzzle for me.  Kate had said it before but I just never really connected it: my neck muscles getting tight during dropbacks was cutting off the blood circulation to my head!  Now, before I stand up, I make a point of checking in with the neck muscles to see if I'm gripping them...which also means that I need to make sure my shoulders haven't crept up towards my ears.  For me, no matter how much the drop-backs might be freaking me out, I have to make sure I'm very relaxed in order to do them safely.  Since Kate has come back, she's also made a point to check that area every time we do drop-backs.

Since figuring out those two critical pieces to backbending for me, doing drop-backs has become this amazing liberating and empowering experience for me.  It's liberating because it feels so good for my body--very freeing because it feels like there's so much more space.  It's been empowering because, for me, there is a great deal of trust that I have to have in myself in order to do these.  Trust that my legs will be strong enough to support me and that I know enough and have enough awareness now to practice these without hurting myself.  I've also noticed that it feels like it's had an interested effect on my emotions.  I know that for some people, back bends tend to make them more emotional, bringing up all sorts of latent anger or sadness.  For me, it's had more a balancing effect!  Freeing and stabilizing all at the same time.  Now, on days when I don't do them I tend to feel less stable and heavy...almost like a "weighted down" feeling.

Since my teacher came back at the end of March there has also been 2 new additions to my practice: the next 2 poses in the Intermediate Series, Ustrasana and Laghu Vajrasana (she gave them to me last Wednesday).  I was not in a hurry to get Ustrasana because, in the past, it has been my least favorite back bend, primarily because I could not figure out how to support the backbend without having my arms to hold it up/support it (like you would in Urdhva Dhanurasana) and the entire bend felt like it ended up dumping into my lower back, which was not the most pleasant feeling.  Well, at some point during all those drop-backs, my body must have figured it out, because it felt great!  The other one, Laghu Vajrasana was...interesting, lol.  I've heard everyone else's horror stories with it and have seen people practicing and struggling with it, but I had never attempted it before, so I had no idea how it would feel for me. 

Here's Megan from Damn Good Yoga showing an exquisite example of Laghu Vajrasana
Well for one thing, it's hard, lol!  Holy quads Batman!  I knew that's one area the pose was supposed to strengthen, but I don't think you can ever completely understand it until you try it.  My quads were on fire for 2 days after the first attempt at it, lol.  It was also completely discombulating for my brain.  Kate explained how to do it and then had me try and I said, "wait, where do my hands go?"  And I tried lowering down and my brain thought, "wait a second, how am I supposed to do this and keep my arms straight, that doesn't make any sense!"  It has also been a very humbling pose because I can't do it yet.  I get about 3/4 of the way down, try to hang on, lose it and...splat!  Right on top of the head.  And trying to come up from it...not even close, lol.  It's hilarious.  I can't do anything but laugh at it.  When I was first attempting this pose, I was focusing so hard on trying to do it that I was hesitating to completely go for it, because I could feel that I was going to lose it.  Kate saw that and said, "it's ok if you crash and burn."  And, oddly enough, it feels really nice to not get it on the first try, to have to work for it.  Being physically active for nearly my entire life and having a good amount of natural flexibility, it's not hard for my body to be able to just do things without having to work really hard at it for a substantial length of time.  So, this feels nice; to not be perfect or good at something right away.  And even if I'm not able to completely do the full posture right now, the effects of simply just trying to do the posture are showing.  Not only do my legs feel stronger (like they used to when I was a runner, hello legs!), but practicing the pose has been a big help in my drop-backs!  I feel like I have even more control over them now and the landing is super soft and light! 

There are lots of things clicking together in my practice right now and it just feels soo good.  Peaceful, empowering, stabilizing, liberating...I'm loving it so much right now that when I finish, the first thing that comes to my mind is, "I don't want to stop.  I feel like I could just keep going."  I leave the studio to go to work and the first thing I think about is how soon I can come back and do it all again.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


When you're low on prana, sometimes it helps to visit your sources of inspiration.  The first comes from a phenomenal lady named Steph Davis.  Steph Davis is a climber who is known for free solo climbing up huge cliffs and rock towers--meaning she climbs without a rope and she's thousands of feet above the ground!  She has also taken to jumping off those high cliffs (often after climbing them) either via parachute or wing suit.  Talk about mastering your fears!  Dealing with fear is something she talks about a bit in this video and that's one reason I find it inspiring:

The other big source of inspiration is, of course, the yoga (even when it's feeling a little rough).  And I really love the way Kino Macgregor (who is a pretty inspiring person herself) talks about it in this video because she talks more about the longevity of the practice--something that's inspiring when you go through periods of "slump."

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Tara has no prana...

Yeah, it kind of feels like that.  Most of January actually (hence the month long absence from the blog).  I was sick for nearly the whole first 2 weeks of January with some kind of head cold that everyone seemed to be getting.  I don't usually get sick that often (I didn't get sick at all last year, minus the last couple of days in December when the cold started to settle in) and when I do it doesn't usually stay with me that long.  This one, however, knocked me on my ass.  It wasn't even that there were a lot of symptoms--no fever, no throwing up.  Just a lot of congestion, coughing, achy muscles (that was the first symptom) and a huge energy zap--due largely to being unable to get a full night's sleep courtesy of the coughing and congestion.  I tried everything in my home remedies tool box to fight it without meds: hot water with lemon, ginger and honey, neti pot, cut out all the dairy, ate spicier foods, shots of apple cider vinegar...nothing helped.  I kept my practice up for a little while and always felt a little better afterwards, but I finally had to stop that too because I just didn't have the energy for it.  I finally caved, took a sick day at work and got some Advil PM and Mucinex.  2-3 days later, I was sleeping through the night and feeling better--though I had some really bizarre dreams.

So, the cold finally cleared out but my body felt like it had been through a train wreck.  Body was exhausted, energy was depleted and my appetite and digestion felt completely off balance.  Sugar snuck its way back in, almost felt like it needed to after eating so many spicy foods.  Now the appetite is feeling a little more normal and I'm working to kick the sugar back out of my system (or at least as minimal as possible).  I may enjoy the taste of sugary foods (can't lie on that one) but it always messes with my mental and emotional state--I feel better in that sense with it kept to an aboslute minimum.

My energy is still touch and go right now and, more often than not, my practice feels very tiring (as evidenced by the 30 minute savasanas I've been taking).  All the days of coughing also left a very annoying, and very persistent, knotted/pinched up muscle right next to my right shoulder blade.  When I try to use that muscle or "round the upper back," it's like there's some kind of vise in there that clamps down on it.  Not fun.  That's been hanging around for about 2 weeks--even after some seriously deep tissue massage.  Tennis ball massage, heat, arnica gel...nothing.  This "gremlin" (as Kai at The Reluctant Ashtangi likes to call them) does not want to let go.  My knees have been a little achy as well and my right foot (the one that had the surgery) has suddenly started feeling pinched up and achy as well.  I've also noticed a tenderness/tightness in the attachment area of the left hamstring--which could spell hamstring tear if I push it.  It's not an injury yet and I'm hoping to keep it that way, so I'm being very careful in my forward bends right now.  Add in some tenderness and mild pain in my low back/SI joints following a cranio sacral session (the session was good, but it appears to have stirred up something in my lower back/sacrum area).

Today my friend was explaining to me and a couple of other friends at the studio how you could tell how the prana (the vital life force/energy in your body) was moving in your body by what direction a dangling pendant was spinning (called "dowsing").  If the pendant spun/rotated towards you, then your prana was in balance; away from you and it was out of balance (he said you could also tell which foods were good for you via the same method: toward you = good, away from you = bad).  I watched my friends hold it and saw how it move even though they were very clearly not moving their hands or arms. 

When I held the pendant--no movement.  Tara has no prana, lol.  Which of course is not possible, lol.  My friend suggested that something was probably just blocking it.  With the state my body is in, I don't doubt it, lol.

Oiy, here's hoping February is an improvement...

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Easing into 2012

I love Garfield.  I read that in the Boston Herald newspaper yesterday and it really resonated with how I'm feeling about the coming year.  At the start of last year, there was a lot that needed to change in my life.  The big change of course was the new job, but a lot of 2011 was about letting go of a lot of things and not resisting the changes as they came.  In 2010 I was holding on to my yoga practice way too tight, refusing to let it change in any way that I didn't want it to.  My then-boss had said that I was dictating my whole schedule and forcing everyone else in the office to work around it.  Ironically, this year, in order to go deeper into my practice via the teacher training, I had to be willing to let it go, to let it change in ways that I wasn't actively pursuing.  With the new work schedule and the addition of dog-walking and dog-sitting, I suddenly was not able to practice with as wide a variety of teachers and classes as I used to.  At first I was bummed out because I had grown close to a couple of the teachers.  But, it was a change that definitely needed to happen (it kind of seems like that's how all unplanned life changes seem to be) and that I was ready for.  My Ashtanga practice became my home, the place where everything that I learned from the training and all my past teachers had a chance to actually integrate--rather than constantly bouncing between classes and teachers and taking in new information. 

Now, my practice is at a place that feels more sustainable and more intelligent and mature.  And so does my life, for now at least.  It still feels like there are some significant changes waiting just on the horizon for me next year (I've heard that's kind of a given when you start really practicing the Intermediate Series, lol) and I'm really curious to see where my practice goes and what changes will come in my life next year.  But it doesn't feel like there's anything that I have to actively "do" or change.  No big "resolutions" or intentions.  Just keep doing what I'm doing but be alert and open to changes when they come.  Even my body is on the same page for this one...yesterday I started fighting a cold.  Nothing huge, just enough to sap my energy.  So, no midnight yoga class or party with friends.  Sleeping, that's probably what I will be doing during the transition from 2011 to 2012, lol.  My first practice of 2012 will probably not be some grand feat of physical strength or endurance.  No 2 hour Yoga Mala (108 suns) like last January.  Though it might be heated because it feels like my body needs it to help sweat out whatever has taken up residence in my body, lol.  We'll see how it goes ;-)

See everyone in 2012!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Ninja chakrasanas, Bhekasana, achy knees and a new way to flow

This week's practice was a little bit of a mixed bag--both in how it went and in what I practiced.

Sunday I took a break from the Ashtanga practice for 2 reasons.  One, my body needed it after the intensity of last week ;-)  Two, my very first yoga studio, Healing Tree Yoga, in Quincy, MA was holding a free yoga weekend (meaning every yoga class was free!).  It had been well over a few months since I'd been back to visit my teachers there so this seemed like a good opportunity.  It was really nice, felt like going back home.  Healing Tree is such a sweet little one-room studio and the quality of teaching there is on level with anything that I've seen at some of the bigger studios in Boston.  Even better sometimes because the class sizes are smaller so there's more opporutnity for discussion and individual attention.  It was so good to take class with my first two teachers from there, just to hear their voices and their instructions again.  It also made me realize how much I've grown since then.  During my first couple of months of yoga my emotions ranged from being extremely unhappy and feeling lost in my life to being ecstatic at this new way of moving that I couldn't even really understand yet.  In my practice I remember wanting to do all the hardest things that they could throw at me, just show that I could do it.  I can feel now that there is much more intelligence in the way that I practice and more fluidity--I don't have to concentrate as much on "what" I'm doing, it just flows more easily and organically.  I guess 2 years of daily practice and a teacher training will do that to a person!  It was also good to be able to talk with my teachers from there, even if most of the time it focused on them encouraging me to teach even though I don't feel ready.  "You're never going to feel ready Tara."  Probably true, lol, but it doesn't feel like it's time yet.  Is it weird that even though I've had a daily practice for 2 years I still don't feel like my practice is...stable?  I think that's the word I'm looking for.  I don't feel strong enough and stable enough in my own practice and life to be able to teach yoga to other people.  My teachers don't buy that explanation, lol, but that's how I feel.  Both of them offered to talk with me and help me in whatever ways I might need in order to get me moving in that direction and it's nice to know that I still have that support if I need/want it.

Monday was back to the Ashtanga room.  Practice was still flowing smoothly with the straight leg jump-throughs and I'm pretty sure they're here to stay.  It's so weird, it feels so natural and smooth now that it feels like I've been doing them that way for years, rather than just a couple of weeks!  I feel like at some point, after lots of practice, something just "clicks" inside and suddenly the body just understands how to do it.  I think a lot of it actually has to do with not thinking too much about "how" to do it.  That entrance to supta kurmasana from seated is still kicking my ass but my back is adapting quickly and it doesn't feel quite as tight as it did (I also got a 15 minute massage while I was at Healing Tree, so that probably helped too).

Tuesday was actually a home practice because I had an 8am-1pm time window for the gas company to come and replace the gas meter.  I didn't want to lose the momentum that my practice was building up, so I convinced myself to get out of bed just after 5:00am and do my practice at home.  At first, my body was not impressed and was completely against the idea of moving, lol.  I ended up doing about an hour of restorative/yin type poses before I actually started my Ashtanga practice.  And even after that, my body still felt stiff and it felt very hard to find the rythym and even to get the breath really moving.  It's hard to say why practice felt so sluggish that morning, almost like my mind was too engaged and my body too tired.  In the past when I've felt similarly, the standing balances tend to work really well to get me focused and connected.  Tuesday, not so much.  It felt like energy and focus were just not going to be there.  So, I had resigned myself to finish the standing poses and then move into doing something else once I got to the seated poses.  Odd thing happened though, as soon as I jumped through to the first seated pose, it was like a little switch got flipped on and suddenly, there I was--settled into my practice and ready to go.  The rest of it was pretty smooth sailing.  I was also pretty excited to practice the seated entrance to supta kurmasana a little differently--seeing as how I was at home and could do whatever I wanted ;-)  I'm "supposed" to put the left leg behind my head first and then the right.  But, as I've said before, I'm no where close to being able to do this "properly" and the left side of my back is getting tighter and "denser" than the right.  So, I tried with the left leg first and then I tried with the right as well.  The right side is actually a little easier, but that doesn't surprise me, my right hamstring is much more open than the left.  I still got no where close to coming into Supta K from seated but it gave me some good information on what I need to work on with the left side of my body.

I also went to a vinyasa class in Jamaica Plain with a teacher that I really like.  It's actually starting to become a regular thing to go to her class once a week (usually either Sunday or Tuesday).  I really like the way that she teaches.  She has a lot of energy in her classes but it's also really light and fun.  The other thing that's really cool is that she trusts her students.  You can tell by her cueing and the poses that she offers that she trusts both the physical ability of her students as well as their judgement in attempting the poses that she offers.  She also almost always includes some arm balances and fun transitions as well as inversion time--which I love.  I go to her classes to play :-)  She also challenges me by throwing things at me I don't normally do because she knows that I can do them.  My handstand is also getting much more stable because of the time I spend in this class.  I can find the balance pretty easily knowing the wall is in front of me and have been finding some "hang-time" pretty regularly now.  It actually almost feels calming.  She also had us do something really cool and fun on Tuesday night: she gave us the option to drop into chaturanga from a tripod headstand.  It was awesome!  You kind of feel like a rockstar when you do it, lol.  And I think it had a positive influence on my Ashtanga practice the next morning.

Wednesday morning, I did something in my practice that I have never done before.  I landed directly in chaturanga from my chakrasana!  I wasn't even trying to or even just thinking about it--my body just did it!  I lifted my legs up on the inhale, exhaled and pressed into my hands and all of the sudden I rolled over my head and landed directly in chaturanga.  I got this awesome little boost of energy from doing it and now it makes even more sense as to why it's in the series.  I feel like the tripod to chaturanga that I did in the Tuesday vinyasa class was the thing that kickstarted this because the movement is similar.  Once my body got a feel for the movement, it just naturally incorporated it into the chakrasana!  A friend of mine said that the few times that she's managed to do that she always feels like Chuck Norris.  I totally agree, you feel like this awesome combination of rock star and ninja, lol!

However, a little gremlin that I've been noticing popping up in my body and getting stronger finally came to a head later that day.  My knees had been getting tighter and more achy ever since I came back to Boston from my vacation in the desert.  Oddly the right knee was getting worse than the left (the left used to be worse than the right).  But on Wednesday afternoon I noticed a significant pain directly in the middle of my left knee and it soon became painful to walk normally.  Nothing odd happened during practice, it just started hurting later in the day.  By the end of the day I was limping and it was painful to straighten my left leg.  My doctor has told me that he thinks that I might have a degenerative tear in the meniscus of that knee and I started to worry that it might be getting worse since I started taking all the half-lotus positions.  I remembered my teacher (who is also an Ayurvedic consultant) once told me to try massaging the knees with warm sesame oil, so I did that Wednesday night to see if it would provide any relief.

The next morning (Thursday) it was not much better.  There was still pain when I straightened my leg and I was still walking with a limp.  I tried not to worry about how it would effect my practice and just to adjust my practice as it needed it, but the practice was still choppy and my mind focused more on my knee than on my breathing.  But, my teacher also gave me the next pose in the intermediate series, so my spirits picked up a little bit ;-)  I am now up to Bhekasana, frog pose (see below):

I know, it doesn't look like it would be good for someone who is having problems with their knees, lol.  Can't say I wasn't a little concerned, but it was actually fine.  The amusing part is attempting to extend your back in that position.  It felt like I couldn't get more than a couple of inches off the floor, lol.  Then my teacher sat on my legs and pulled back on my shoulders and I rocketed up!  It was hilarious, I felt like a seesaw, lol.  Even though the poses like these ones are more difficult for me because my back muscles aren't that strong, they feel great because they're strengthening my back.  I've really felt the difference in my Urdhva Dhanurasanas ever since my teacher added salabhasana.  My back has felt more open and it's been easier to get the bend moving out of my lower back.  Add in this new pose that also stretches the quads and backbends felt great that morning!  I'm so excited to finally be in this series.  I know that I've said it before but I feel like it's going to challenge me in all of the right ways.  And it feels great energetically as well.  I feel more awake and balanced after practice now--rather than the super calm/borderline sedated and balanced feeling that I have after practicing just the Primary Series.

I also talked to my teacher on Thursday morning (after practice) about my knees feeling worse.  I didn't want to because I was afraid that she would be hesistant to move me forward in the series, but they were definitely getting worse and she needs to know that.  She said that a lot of other people's knees were starting to hurt as well.  She thinks it's mostly the cold weather.  Could have a lot to do with it, but mine hurt here during the summer too.  The only thing we can think of is that the dry air in the desert was helping my knees.  She thinks a lot of it might be inflammation and possibly even some fluid in my knee since the pain seems to move around.  She recommended to do castor oil packs on my knees at night.  Massage warm castor oil on the knees and then wrap them up with plastic wrap.  Leave the wrap on over night and then wash it off in the morning.  She also recommended getting leg warmers or something to cover my knees in the colder weather as well as taking baths in epsom salts.  I tried the castor oil wrap as well as an epsom salt bath Thursday night and the next morning they felt remarkably better.  No more limp or pain when I walked or when I straightened my leg.  I still stayed away from any lotus positions on both sides during Friday's primary, just to be careful.

Speaking of Friday's led primary, that was actually the highlight and surprise of this week!  My teacher had us try something different in our sun salutations/vinyasas.  She had seen a book of Krishnamacharya (Pattabhi Jois's teacher) doing the vinyasas differently than Jois did.  In the book Krishnamacharya kept his gaze to the ground during chaturanga (instead of looking straight forward) and in the transition to up-dog, he kept his chin tucked in until the last moment and then he just let it fall back in up-dog (rather than keeping the chin up/level the whole time).  And in the transition from up-dog to down-dog, the arms bent out to the side a little bit when you push back to down-dog (as opposed to keeping the straight the whole time like you're normally taught).  My teacher had been trying it in her own practice and liked it and wanted us to give it a try, at least for just the 5 Sun A's and Sun B's.  The hardest part was getting the hang of letting the arms bend, it felt totally unnatural and choppy.  Not to mention it went agaist everything I was taught in my teacher training.  I could hear Natasha (a.k.a, alignment guru/nazi) gasping in outrage in the back of my mind, lol.  But the head position felt fantastic!  Keeping the chin tucked in until the last moment felt like it helped to isolate and emphasize the bend in the upper back during up-dog, whereas the "traditional" position felt like I was leading with the head and it felt harder to get the bend in the right place.  It also felt so much more relaxed in the neck area!  I kept the new head position for the duration of the practice and even the arms bending out to the side in the down-dog transition.  I tried keeping the arms straight but discovered that the slight bend out to the side actually helps to incoroporate the relaxed movement of the head.  My practice has never felt more fluid and was phenomenal.  It's amazing how making just a couple of small changes to something that you do everyday in your practice can completely change it!  I've never felt the neck/upper back region of my body feel more relaxed than it did after that practice.  I told my teacher afterwards how much I liked it and she told me that she was watching me and could see how much better it was for my body to do the vinyasa that way.  I think she was just as excited for it as I was, lol!

When led Primary finished on Friday, I just wanted to keep practicing, it felt so good.  It's cool, even though there still some days where the practice feels a bit off or super intense, I'm still really loving my Ashtanga practice right now.  It feels like I'm in this wonderful phase where all the work I did during the first two years of my practice has finally solidified and integrated itself enough to where a large amount of the practice feels almost effortless.  Like I no longer have to really think about what I'm doing, I just move.  Now it's less about building a strong and solid foundation and more about refining and smoothing out what I already know.  I can't wait to get back to my practice tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ashtanga growing pains

This has been quite an intense and awesome practice week for me thus far (and I still have 2 days left!) 

One big part of the awesome is how fluid my practice has felt, due largely to all the straight-leg jump throughs.  About a month after my teacher training ended in August, I did my first ever straight-leg jump through (after close to 2 years of practice).  But, while I could do it on my own at home (and not while doing dozens of vinyasas) I couldn't seem to incorporate it with any consistency in my Ashtanga practice.  I usually caught a few of them near the beginning of the seated poses, but my arms would eventually tire and I didn't do them throughout the rest of the practice.  Well, on Sunday, I just started doing them!  It didn't even feel like it was a conscious choice, as in "hey, I think I'll jump-through with straight legs."  I just started doing them, as if I'd been doing them like that for months and it was the easiest thing in the world!  And it's continued throughout the rest of the week, I don't even have to really think about it, I just do them.  One thing I've noticed is that if I take extra breaths between when I do the jump-throughs, it's like I lose the rhythm and my feet will skid.  I also noticed that I do my jump-throughs on the inhale, it's like the breath in helps to lift me through.  I don't know if that's the "proper" way to do it, but that is what seems to work for me.

I've also started working more consciously on actually attempting to jump back.  In the past I've usually just lifted up, put my feet down and stepped back.  Now, I actually put more effort into lifting up AND bringing the legs back through to chaturanga--even if it means my feet give a little push when I get stuck.  In the past, that always felt like cheating so I wouldn't do it.  Now I realize that it's helping me to get a feel for the motion of the jump back and they're starting to feel quite light. 

But, one of the best parts of my practice right now is that I can do nearly all of the lotus positions!  I haven't been able to since I started because my knees (particularly the left one) have been bad.  The doctor even thinks that I have a "degenerative tear" in the meniscus of my left knee.  But, the right one was good so I've usually been able to do at least the right side of any lotus/half-lotus type poses.  Well, for some reason, when I was practicing on my own back home in Arizona, my left knee stopped hurting!  I was floored!  I couldn't believe that it could just simply stop hurting like that!  Could have been the dry air, the break from having to walk every where or just simply being more relaxed.  Whatever the reason, it feels so good to be able to do the full version of those poses.  It's like I can actually feel what those poses are doing in the sequence and to the body.  Is it weird to say that I love feeling my heel pressing into my abdomen?  It feels fantastic, like a pressure release.  Since I got back to Boston, the knees have still been holding up, for the most part.  They're starting to feel a little tight since I've been doing all the lotus positions.  Not painful, just tight.  Actually the right knee (formerly the "good" knee) more than the left!  Sometimes, I think my body is either, weird, confused or screwing with me, lol.  Anyways, the tricky part right now is that in a full lotus position, the left leg sits directly on top of an old shin splint left over from my running days.  It was the last one out of about 3 areas on each leg to develop.  I was surprised at how tender it still is, even though it's been 3 years since I last ran consistently.  I know the compression is good for it, because it's going to help break it up, but damn it hurts, lol. 

My teacher also moved me further into the Intermediate Series and gave me Salabhasana A and B (the 3rd pose in the series).  The first version is done with the hands back and arms straight, keeping the hands on the floor.  Then you lift the chest and the feet off the floor for 5 breaths.  After 5, you keep the legs lifted and move the hands forward as if you were going to do a low cobra.  Stay there for 5 breaths.  After that, lift straight up to up dog and vinyasa through.  Not exactly a "hard" pose but definitely one that my body needs.  It strengthens the muscles in my back which tend to be my weaker muscles and back bends have been feeling pretty good afterwards.  It feels like a good prep.  My spine was about the only part of my body that didn't respond well to being back home in Arizona.  Backbends, twists...they all felt tight and achy during my week of self practice back home in the desert.  Add in 2 days of driving, 3 nights of sleeping on a thin futon and 2 plane wonder my back was resisting backbending!  It's still felt pretty tight and achy since coming back to Boston last week.  So, the addition of Salabhasana feels like it's really helping to uncurl my spine from all the travel and whatever it didn't like about being back home.

Supta Kurmasana has also been feeling amazing!  About a month ago, one of my teacher's assistants was able to get my hands to clasp--and stay clasped!  And a couple of weeks ago, when I spent a week practicing on my own back home in Arizona, I surprised myself and got the hand clasp by myself!  Tricky part, I could no longer get the feet on my own once I got the hand clasp.  But, when someone else wrangles my feet into the clasp, it's really deep--and it feels so good!  On Monday, my teacher noticed and decided that it was time for me to work on it differently. 

Since Supta Kurmasana is now coming fairly easy to me, she wants me to work on coming into it from seated.  Meaning she wants me to clasp my feet behind my head, while seated upright, by myself, and then lower down to Supta Kurmasana and clasp my hands.  In other words, come into it from Dwi Pada Sirsasana (pictured below, just minus the arm balance)

I don't know why I thought even for a second that it seemed simple.  It's not.  It's hella hard, lol.  I got my left foot behind my head and couldn't sit myself up straight enough to even attempt bringing the right leg up on my own.  Every time I'd try, I'd fall over.  I kind of felt like fish flopping around on land.  Except that I've bound up one of my fins and only part of my body can flop around in what can only be a comical sight.  It's quite possibly one of the hardest things I've ever had to attempt in yoga (along with eka pada bakasana and bound ardha chandrasana).  It makes the entire backside of your torso work.  And it hurts.  My newly recovered neck muscles are a bit sore and I've had a persistent muscle cramp on the left side of my back since my first attempt on Monday.  And only the left side because you're "supposed" to put the left leg up first.  And since I can't get more than the left foot behind my head without falling forward/over, only one side of my body is cramped.  I don't think my body has been this sore from Ashtanga since I first started practicing it 2 years ago and my hamstrings were screaming for mercy.  Oiy. 

I usually give it 3-4 good tries before either someone helps me or I resort to doing Supta Kurmasana the "regular" way.  And by the time I get there, I'm so tired from the attempts at the new way of coming into it that I have to struggle a bit more to get the hand clasp and then just collapse into the floor for the remaining 5 breaths.  If someone wrangles my feet together, great.  If not, I'm content to just stay there curled up without my feet clasped, lol.  Oooff.  It's amusing when I think about it and talk about it, but when I'm attempting it, it's hella frustrating and exhausting. 

But, this is Ashtanga.  No avoiding the poses you don't like.  You can either let the knowing that you have to "face" the hard pose (and probably get no where close to it, despite your best efforts) ruin the rest of your practice or you can take it however it comes when you get to it and then let it go and move on to the next pose.  I love my practice.  So, I'm doing my absolute best to not dwell on how that pose might be on that day...or how sore I'm probably going to be afterwards, lol.  Good news though is that the body adapts pretty quickly and even though the left side is cramped, it's not quite as bad as after the first time.  Interestingly enough, I've kind of felt like I've had more energy this week.  I don't know if it's the practice being more fluid from the easeful jump-throughs or the addition of new poses and backbends starting to feel better; but I have definitely noticed that I've felt less "comatose" post-practice this week and more alert--even though I'm getting my butt kicked in there.  And even with the "growing pains" (ouch my back muscles and shin!) my practice feels like it's made some significant strides just during these last 4 days.  And I've felt so much more focused during my practice.  It feels like a bunch of little things have clicked together and my practice has grown and deepened in some way.  And that's a pretty cool feeling :-)