Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ashtanga Days

It's been just about 3 weeks since the end of my first yoga teacher training, though it feels like a lot longer.  It's pretty amazing, it feels so distant now that it almost feels like it was a dream.  Part of that is because of the nature of my mind.  Not only is it heavy on the Vata side (Ayurvedic term, one of the 3 "doshas," or energies, found in the body that consists of air and either.  For a better definition go here), which means that as quickly as I learn something, I tend to forget it just as easily.  But that's also how my mind has learned how to cope with unpleasant, intense or stressful situations--forget that it happened.  Which is why I made such an effort to write about what I was thinking and feeling immediately afterwards: I wanted to remember it.  Not necessarily dwell on it, but remember what it felt like and what I learned.  So, I gave myself enough time to rest and just process what I went through.  I'm actually very proud of myself for handling it the way that I did.  I didn't spend a lot of time just sitting and crying and throwing myself a "pity-party," but I didn't ignore what I was feeling either--which is how I used to handle situations like that.  Close off, don't feel anything, do anything to keep moving and not feel or think about it.

Not this time.  I let myself feel it for a bit--the sadness at the training being over, at not seeing my fellow trainees (who I was just starting to get close to) every month and not getting to practice consistently with the teachers from my training, the frustration, disappointment and intensity of the practicum, the fear of the uncertainty of the future and the "what am I supposed to do now?"  There was a lot going on in my mind and I knew that I needed to feel it and process it.  But I knew that I also needed to let it go and move forward.

That's where the Ashtanga came in.  I went back to the Mysore room and my Ashtanga practice last week and the first practice was pretty incredible.  It was mildly exhausting because I felt like I was still recovering from the training, but it was as though someone had flipped a switch in my brain.  I felt calm and grounded for the first time since the end of the training.  It was like a total system reset.  For this entire past week, all that I have done is my Ashtanga practice.  Not only has it been calming and grounding for my mind and emotions, but I also realized that it has given me a place to integrate what I learned during the training.  A lot of what I really learned in the training were very subtle things--alignment points and subtle actions that you can't really see from the outside (like consciously using certain muscles to move you, literally using the breath to move the body, the famous "root-rebound" action that Natasha and Jennie emphasized throughout the training...and many more) but make a huge difference in how the practice feels.  I used to think that I couldn't practice these things in the Ashtanga room because the sequence had to be practiced in a certain way.  True, Ashtanga is pretty specific about certain things.  But all of those things are subtle enough and universal enough to practice in any class.  Jennie used to talk a lot about making students take responsibility for their own practice.  I think this is what that means.  I know how to do these things now.  It's up to me to actually use them and practice them, without a teacher telling me when to do it.  And let me tell you, the Ashtanga feels amazing when you have everything lined up right and are actually present and working in the poses--and not just holding them.

This past week of Ashtanga has felt like so much longer than 1 week--I think because of the way I've been practicing.  It has almost felt like I've been re-discovering my practice, and I've enjoyed every second of it.  I've also made some pretty big strides in the practice.  I'm starting to find more ease in my jump-throughs (from down dog to seated) and am starting to actually find a sense of the jump-back (from seated to chaturanga).  My back bends are also starting to feel better.  For some reason, in this practice, back bending has been feeling difficult.  In other classes they're very accessible, but in Ashtanga, it's a little harder to find.  I haven't tried to bring back the drop-backs (lowering down into Urdhva Dhanurasana from standing) yet, but I feel like I'm getting close.  Also, this last Thursday, I finally found the full bind in Supta Kurmasana--no towel necessary for the hands!  Here's a pic for those who don't know what it looks like (this is most definitely not me in this picture, this is courtesy of a Google search):
This is pretty huge for me, I've been working on this pose for probably close to a year because my shoulders have been so tight.  I usually can't even get my fingers to touch and need a towel to hang on to.  And then, suddenly, there it was.  Cara (Ashtanga teacher and Kate's assistant in the Mysore room) squeezed the outside of my legs together, so that my shoulders could wiggle underneath even more.  I clasped my hands and reminded myself what Erin (a teacher that subbed for Kate) told me when she was working with me on this one: "don't let go."  I kept my fingers clasped tight, Cara crossed my ankles in front of me and, there it was: Supta Kurmasana.  And, shockingly, it didn't feel like a struggle to hang on to the clasp and my breathing was still pretty steady!  I stayed in the pose longer than the required amount of breaths, after Cara had walked away, to make sure that I actually had it.  Yep, still there.  I was shocked, I couldn't believe it actually happened, I never thought I would be ever be able to actually bind in that pose! 

There was another huge stride in my Ashtanga practice that day.  Kate, my Ashtanga teacher, gave me the last pose of the Primary Series: Setu Bandhasana

I know what you're thinking.  "What the hell?!  That can't be good for your neck!"  That's what I thought whenever I saw people do it.  I didn't even play with this one on my own because it looked so crazy.  But here's the cool thing, it actually feels really good.  Opens up the throat and the chest and it actually felt like it helped me get more air into my lungs than other back bends.  I actually got it on the first try!  I thought that she would have to walk me through it a few times because the placement of the feet and the head looked confusing.  Nope.  She showed me how to place my feet and talked me through the prep part where you put the top of your head on the floor and start the bend in your back, just like Matsyasana.  Then she said, "now straighten the legs," and there it was.  No fuss, no struggle.  Just keep the legs straight, the hips lifted and the breath moving up to your collar bones.

After I finished the pose, it felt like I had just got a huge energy boost.  My back bends felt great, I did 6 of them.  I layed there after the last one trying to decide whether or not to do more.  I wanted to, but I also felt like I probably shouldn't push that pose because there's still something odd going on in my lower back.  But I still had so much energy!  I rolled up and went into Paschimottanasana (seated forward fold) and instantly wanted to come out of it--like it was restricting the energy that had just been released and I just wanted to keep moving.  I even had to make myself stay in Savasana!  For those who don't know me, forward folds are usually some of my favorite poses and I enjoy staying in them for much longer than 5 breaths.  And Savasana--in my Ashtanga practice I'm usually in that pose for at least 10 minutes, sometimes I relax so much in that pose, I even fall asleep (which, aside from the anesthesia-induced sleep from surgery, is the most restful sleep I ever get).  So, for me to not want to stay in a forward fold or to have to consciously make an effort to stay in Savasana is saying a lot!  It just felt like this huge accomplishment--like, in running when I had been working towards a goal time for a long time and then finally reached it, such as the first time I broke the 6 minute mark in the mile, or the first time I broke 2 minutes and 30 seconds for my 800 time (half a mile).  It feels like, after breaking that mark or accomplishing something like this, you just reach a whole other level of whatever you're practicing.

Kate actually told me the morning before (Wednesday) that she was going to give me the last pose.  She actually was going to about a month before the training started, but then the shoulder and wrist gave out and my Ashtanga practice took a back seat to the teacher training.  So, when she told me she was going to give it to me, I just kept my mouth shut.  Even though I was as excited as a kid on Christmas Eve, I didn't tell anyone--I didn't want to jinx it, lol!  But the Ashtanga gods were on my side that day.  No injuries, no over-sleeping the alarm.  Now I am practicing the full primary series.  It's amazing.  I've been practicing and working on this series for almost 2 years (1 year and 11 months to be a little more precise).  Sometimes I've been at the practice 5-6 days a week, other times it fell down to 1-3 days a week.  But it's always been there.  I've was able to use it and adapt it after my surgery and through all the different injuries that I've had over the last couple of years.  It's been confusing and frustrating at times, but I feel like it's finally really become my practice.

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