Saturday, September 17, 2011

Fear and the return of drop-backs

My practice took another fun turn this week.  I'm still on my Ashtanga roll, not wanting to do much of anything outside of this practice.  After all the different styles and teachers that I've bounced between, it actually feels really good to settle on one for this long (yes, 2 weeks is a long time in MY practice, lol).  There's really not a lot of that "itch" to check out another class or another teacher or do something different that is usually present.  I'm a little worried about losing the precision that I learned and the endurance that I gained from holding poses for much longer than one does during an Ashtanga practice, but I also know that it doesn't take me long to get back whatever I think I've lost.  Plus Kate has been really good about catching me on some alignment issues, especially where my backbending is concerned.  Speaking of back bending, Kate returned standing up from and dropping back into Urdhva Dhanurasana (a.k.a, full backbend/upward-facing bow) to my practice!  I had been doing them for about 4 months before I had my foot surgery last October.  They've been on a hiatus since then, largely because I aggravated an old back injury/tweak by attempting to stand up from them before my foot was strong enough to help support the movement.  Because of that, my lower back (already shaky because of a previous injury) took all of the bend and back-bending had been rough since then.  Add in subsequent shoulder and wrist injuries and back bends were almost completely gone from my practice for quite some time.  But, the training I just finished spent a lot of time going over how to back bend properly.  I've done a lot of work on them and since I returned to my Ashtanga practice after the training, they've been improving and feeling really good.  Apparently, Kate noticed.

It actually shocked me when she told me to try standing up!  She just gave me Setu Bandhasana last week, I didn't expect her to put those back in too!  On the next back bend, I started rocking on to my finger tips in preparation of standing up---and I was shocked to feel how scared I was!  Not to sound like I'm boasting, but there are very few things in the yoga practice that actually invoke fear.  But this one was suddenly doing it and I was shocked at how vivid it was.  My breathing was shallow, it felt like my heart was racing and I felt like I was shaking on the inside.  I was really scared of hurting my back again.  But, if there's anything I've learned from the injury (aside from waiting until an injury is fully healed and regained its strength) is that if you don't fully commit to whatever you're attempting then you will end up hurting yourself.  If I only half-heartedly attempt standing up, then my legs won't do the work that they need to and the lower back will be forced to take all of it because that's the path of least resistance.  So, I focused my whole effort on making sure I was engaging my legs and that my hips were over my feet as much as possible before I stood up.  And, I did it.  I couldn't believe I actually got back up--or that my body remembered how to do it.  I had to just stand there for a few moments before I could start attempting the drop-backs, which were equally terrifying.  I was literally shaking when I stood up--from the fear of possibly hurting myself again and from the effort of trying to stay calm.  I kept needing to let air out through my mouth instead of through my nose.  Kate kept calling from across the room, "Tara, breathe through your nose."  Nod the head, yep, working on it.  That whole time I kind of felt like I was hovering on the verge of a panic attack.  By the time Kate came over to do them with me (for those who don't know, in Ashtanga you do at least 3 drop-backs on your own and then at least 3 more with the teacher) it felt hard to keep my breathing steady and I was feeling very light-headed.  I didn't feel like I could do anymore.

However, the funny thing about this system of yoga is that you don't get to run away from something that scares you.  Nor do you get to skip out on the poses that you don't like (like purvottanasana, my once long-time nemesis who is now more friend than nemesis).  If you've been given that pose in your practice, you do it.  Your attitude towards it and how you approach is where the real lesson comes in and where you can really start to change your habits and how you react to things.  What I might have done in the past with a pose like this that scared me would be to ignore the fear, let my mind check out and just do the pose without thinking about it.  Which is likely to get me injured because I won't be thinking about what I'm doing.  The fear is a guide.  I'm afraid that I'll hurt my low back because that's what happened last time.  So, if I pay attention to the fear and make sure I do the pose and movement correctly (using the legs, and the breath and keeping the bend in my upper back, etc) then I am less likely to repeat what caused the injury last time.  So, with Kate's guidance, we worked very deliberately and very slowly and gently.  She is giving me more time than I have seen her do with other people to collect myself and steady myself before going back.  After we finished I felt like I was going to pass out from all the mental energy I was having to put into it.  Thankfully the very next pose in the Ashtanga sequence is Paschimottanasana (seated forward fold) and the best adjustment in the world--the "paschimo squish," where the teachers lays over you and presses your chest towards your legs.  And now I really understand its purpose.  Those drop-backs can be really scattering for the mind and your emotions.  Having weight on your back helps to ground it all down and calm your nerves. 

The next day, the drop-backs were much smoother and my fear was much less vivid.  It's still there though, I have a feeling it will be for a while.  Aside from being afraid of hurting my back, I'm also afraid of passing out.  I tend to get very light-headed when I do drop-backs in this practice.  I normally have fairly low blood pressure, and yoga is known for lowering your blood pressure.  I actually got to see evidence of this last week.  I went to my doctor for an annual physical right after doing my morning practice and my blood pressure was 98 over 56.  The nurse kept asking if I felt ok or if I was feeling dizzy, lol.  I said, no, I'm fine, I just did yoga this morning, lol.  Anyways, one of the drawbacks to low blood pressure is getting light-headed.  I also think my blood sugar might be a little screwy, so that's probably not helping.  Kate is trying to get me to engage the bandhas (energy locks), specifically mula bandha (root lock), but I haven't figured out exactly how to do that yet--or at least not consciously.  And I'm kind of curious how that is supposed to decrease the light-headedness.  But, Kate knows what she's talking about, so I'm going to trust her on this one. 

Ironically, the fear that I'm feeling in back bends now almost feels like a gift.  As I said before, there isn't much that scares me in my practice.  Natasha (teacher from my training) likes to say that your practice is like a mirror for how you are in your life.  And I've always wondered how I could be so seemingly fearless in my practice but so fearful in life.  I guess I just hadn't found it in my practice yet.  And it's really amazing to get to watch the process happen.  Because my usual reaction to fear is disassociating, or ignoring it, I'm not fully conscious of what actually happens in my body when it first shows up--which, I'm told, is key to changing it.  I'm pretty sure this is the same fear and the same reaction to fear that kicks in whenever I had to teach during the training.  I'm getting a pretty good view of it: there's a small "catch" at the bottom of my throat, making it feel hard to get air in or out (which may be why I feel the need to breath in and out through my mouth and not my nose), my chest tightens and my heart starts racing and I feel like I'm shaking from the inside out.  Now I understand why it's so paralyzing and why it's so hard to think clearly.  This is going to be a really good place to work on this.  Thus far, as always, the most important part and first step is remembering to breathe, lol.  I'm working on the rest :-)

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