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 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 light...it 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.