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.