First off--brief update. The neck is probably at about 99% now; the "injury" almost seems like it never happened! The only remnant is a small twinge at the top of the neck that I feel from time to time. Headstand, shoulderstand, setu bandhasana are all back and feeling good...I even did a couple of chakrasanas during this morning's practice (I had been staying away from them--for good reason, lol--and had fallen back on rolling the way that I was taught in karate, where you roll on your shoulder instead of your head, lol). So, I'm back to my full practice (up to Krounchasana in the Intermediate Series) and feel stronger and more stable in the shoulders because of the way that I had to practice after I hurt my neck. Funny how that works out ;-)
Second, I was going to write a post about my practice and time during my trip back home to Arizona over Thanksgiving, but after a comment that someone left I felt like I needed to write this one instead. This one is about what to do when your practice feels...off, like you can't connect to your breath and "drop-in" like you usually do. When I first started practicing, it felt like every practice was phenomenal and I never thought that it could be anything but that. But, when things got really rough and confusing in my life, I found it very hard to connect and there were many days I just didn't want to go to yoga. That I couldn't understand why I was doing it if I wasn't even enjoying it anymore. It was kind of heartbreaking when I first felt that because I loved it so much. But, I kept going and kept showing up and I've learned a thing or two along the way that I feel like I should share.
So, here are some things that have helped me in the past when the practice didn't feel like it's going so well, when the practice was rough:
1) First and foremost, get on the mat.
A good friend of mine often says that the hardest pose of Ashtanga Yoga is getting out of bed. And that's true for any practice of yoga. Sometimes, when there's something really big and troubling going on in your mind or your life has become very turbulent, the hardest part is showing up. So, that is a huge accomplishment in itself.
2) Keep your focus on your breath.
The breath is the most important part of the practice. One of my favorite explanations that I have heard is that "everything in yoga is optional, except breathing." It's what helps open your body, focus your mind and help you connect to You. In Forrest Yoga, one of the first things they do at the beginning of a class is some kind of pranayama exercise. A lot of other classes do a similar thing where the first thing they do is get you to notice your breath. Simply spending a few minutes just sitting and focusing on your breath IS a yoga practice and a good way to get centered before starting any asana practice. Nadi Shodhana, alternate nostril breathing, is a good one. For those that don't know it, you start by closing off one nostril with your finger, say you start with closing off the right. Breathe in through the left for maybe a count of 5 (some number that is a deep breath for you but not your deepest breath possible). Switch, close off the left nostril and breathe out of the right nostril for the same count (5 in this case). Inhale for 5 through the right, switch and exhale for 5 through the left. That is one cycle. You can either stay at the same breath count or you can try to increase it, just don't increase it so much that it makes you feel tense and panicky. I think alternate nostril breathing is a great way to get connected to your breath when it seems difficult to do so. It's very different than your normal everyday breathing, so it grabs your attention a little more. And because you have to count and switch which nostril you breathe out of, I feel like it holds your attention better.
During your practice, keep bringing your attention back to your breath and making them as long, deep and steady as you can. Regulating your breathing is one of the best ways to help focus and calm your mind. I believe it was David Swenson that I heard say that "when you control the breath, you can control the mind." Also, during your asana practice try to use your breath, rather than just simply inhaling and exhaling. Try breathing into an area where you feel tension (like the back of your heart, neck or chest) and see if you can feel that you can actually use your breath to both open your body and help support it. Pretty cool, right?
Seriously. When I first started practicing I couldn't understand why we were doing it and felt really silly and uncomfortable doing it. Then I did it on my own (at work, when no one else was in the office, lol) when I was feeling really flustered and scattered, and the centering and calming effect it had was remarkable. In the Mysore room, we usually start our practice before the teacher comes in and leads us through the morning chant, and it always amazes me that it still has such a powerful effect on me and on the energy in the entire room. After we've said the last OM, there's this awesome focused silence that follows it and you can feel you and everyone else in the room really "drop-in." So: OM. It doesn't have to be booming loud, just loud enough for you to feel it reverberate throughout your chest. Do it as many times as you need to in order to feel that sense of "dropping in," and always pause and listen after you finish an "OM." It is said that there are 4 parts to "OM:" the sounds that make it up, A-U-M, and the silence that follows it. It's a "silence" that is so still but so focused. It's really hard to explain, but you'll understand what I talking about when you "hear" it ;-)
4). Slow down and stay in your poses longer
No one said that your practice has to be a grand amazing feat of asana. It could be nothing more than a handful of juicy restorative poses and a 30 minute savasana. But, when I'm feeling particularly scattered or worried or just off, one of the best ways for me to "drop-in" and get centered and connected is to stay in the poses longer. For one, staying in them longer means you're going to feel it more in your body. Try to have a scattered and wandering mind while staying in Utkatasana for 1 minute or more ;-) One of the beauties about the asana practice is that we can use the body, something concrete, to get to the mind, which is more subtle. So, staying in the poses for longer is going to really get you connected. I'm not saying to do a 50 minute downward facing dog (but if you want to try, go for it, lol). But just stay a little longer than you normally do. You get more of a stretch, or, depending on what pose you're doing, wake up and energize the muscles a little more. But it also has the chance to leave a stronger impression on your mind and your emotions.
My go to pose when I'm feeling really scattered and ungrounded is Sirsasana, headstand. There's a reason this pose is called "the King of Asanas." It's a "heating" inversion, so it's invigorating and it reverses the flow of gravity and helps bring fresh blood to your head. But, because of the contact with your head on the floor, it's also grounding and you can hold it for longer than you could a handstand or forearm balance. But, it's still a balance (clearly, right?!) so it requires your full attention in order to do it. During my teacher training, there was one practicularly rough day and I came home and was feeling so upset and all jumbled up that I needed to do something. So, I unrolled my mat and held down dog for a little bit and it's like my body just knew what to do after that. What it needed was a 5 minute headstand. I had never done one for that long before but the after-effects were amazing. I felt extremely centered and calm but also very rejuvinated. It was like this perfectly balanced feeling. I'm not saying it will be like that for everyone or that everyone should do a 5 minute headstand. The point is that the poses we do have an effect on our minds and emotions. So when you stay in them for longer, you'll experience more of it. Start moving, find a pose that clicks with you at that particular time and stay there for a while and breathe. Could be Warrior 2, Utkatasana, Downward Dog, Headstand, forward fold, one of the Prasaritas (wide-legged forward fold), plank, supported backbend...who knows, depends on what your body and mind need. But, going back to point one, just start. Your body will give you hints along the way if you listen.
5). Keep your dristhi (gaze/focus point).
My Ashtanga teacher likes to say that "where the eyes go, the mind will follow." So, try keeping your gaze steady on one point in each pose and see if that helps focus your mind.
6). Close your eyes.
I know, I just say to hold your dristhi, lol. This is where my other yoga background comes in. Quite often, especially in poses that I'm very familiar with and are "easy," closing my eyes helps me "drop-in" because I can feel what my body is doing a little better and feel the breath moving in my body more. Closing my eyes also shuts off one source of incoming "stimulation," so there's one less thing to pull my mind around. What's also cool is that closing your eyes in poses that you are familiar with also brings a newness to them, because suddenly your balance feels different. You might even start to realize that every pose is actually a balance--even Tadasana. Don't believe me? Try it and see how much you sway back and forth when you stand ;-)
7). Focus on the count.
You find this one in Ashtanga. In the Ashtanga series, there is a set count for everything in the sequence: the number of vinyasas and how breaths you take in each pose. Sometimes, this can have a very focusing effect because it gives your mind something to do. Want to know how to stay longer in the poses in the Ashtanga sequence and still stay with the set number of breaths? Longer breaths ;-)
8). Longer savasana.
One last piece of experience I can give you is to take a longer savasana. From my experience, savasanas in led classes are nowhere near as long as they need to be. I think most people need 10 minutes, 5 at the bare minimum, for a 90 minute class. Savasana is the most important pose in any class because it's the time when your body and mind absorb everything you just did to it---all the bending, twisting, inverting, focused breathing...you do a lot in your yoga practice, give yourself the time to rest that it needs. And use props! For mine, I like an eye pillow, or at least a small hand towel, to cover my eyes and completely block out any light. The eye pillow is also really good because the slight bit of weight on my eyes really helps to settle me in. I also almost always place a blanket over my abdomen and thighs because having the weight and warmth over those areas feels very grounding and calming. And, again, stay longer than you usually do, especially when you're feeling scattered, upset, etc because it will probably take longer for your mind to settle. My Ashtanga teacher puts it really well, "stay until you feel like you need to get up and then stay a little longer."
And, going back to point one, always thank yourself for showing up and putting forth the effort to practice--even if you never "dropped in" or had a "bad" practice. There were several months, earlier in my practice, when my life was turbulent to say the least. Where I literally hated the job that I worked at and had stopped putting forth any effort to actually do my work once I was there (I'm amazed I wasn't fired); was unhappy with where I was living and totally lost on where my life was going, even my yoga practice had lost a lot of its joy. To say I was depressed would have been an understatement. But I kept going to yoga and putting out the effort. Why? Because it felt like that was the only thing I wasn't giving up on (meaning the pull to stay in bed, eat junk food and wallow in my depression was very strong). Somedays, simply getting on your mat and putting effort into your practice is your practice. So always give yourself credit and thank yourself for showing up and practicing.