Thursday, June 17, 2010

Astanga

I’m continuing from yesterday’s post - if you didn’t read it, you’ll want to go back and do so.

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The interesting thing about picking up the practice the way I did, without a teacher, is that I didn’t have adjustments. Instead, I observed my body and experimented. I read tips on forums (and blogs!), read books and watched video clips. No one was there to physically move my body in a way that would deepen my experience of a posture - I had to find that ‘edge’ on my own.

I did have the advantage of being a yoga teacher (with a better-than-average knowledge of anatomy and body mechanics). However, many of these poses were brand new to me and the deeper expressions of them were completely foreign.

Here’s the really cool thing: the poses still deepened, even without adjustments. The wrist binds eventually came in the Marichyasanas. Even Supta Kurmasana, which seemed like a cosmic joke of a pose, eventually became available to me. My hamstrings were tight, but after a couple of years of regular practice, they lengthened. Careful attention to lift-ups in my vinyasas helped me build strength.

I kept returning to the mat, doing my best. Practice and it *really* is all coming! I learned so much about myself and my body during this process.

I used audio recordings to learn the correct vinyasa counts for the poses. I think this was the area I needed the most help with when I first arrived at the Shala. It’s very hard to learn the Primary Series all at once as I did, and learn it properly. I thought I was doing okay in this department until my teachers started to clean things up. And eek! I’m *still* learning.

But back to adjustments. I was just a bit mystified by them. Having never had Astanga adjustments, I wasn’t sure what they were for or what I was supposed to do with them. This was brand new territory for me.

I also need to put this card on the table: For a few years, I practised in an advanced Anusara class and I had some horrifically bad experiences while being assisted by other students (a common practice in Anusara). I’ve been kicked in the face, dropped on my head, allowed to fall THUD onto my back during a handstand. As a result, I’m deeply wary of allowing anyone to ‘take control’ of what my body is doing in a pose. If I’m not initiating the movement, I start to feel out of control and frightened.

The very first thing I learned about adjustments in Astanga is that they’re not passive. I have a role in them, even if my role is simply to breathe. I quickly learned to breathe into the adjustments and allow my exhales to soften my body. Paschimo squishes were a terrific learning ground for this. They were probably the first adjustment I felt ‘at home’ in. Any type of forward bend was a good opportunity to soften into the pose with my exhalation. I also learned to deepen my Ujjayi breath by ‘breathing into the teacher’s hands’ (in those adjustments where the hands were placed on my back).

The next big revelation was that adjustments often make me work *harder*! I started to become aware of those moments when I allowed my teachers to ‘do the work’ of the pose for me. I tried to remain engaged during adjustments so this would not happen. At first, I found it challenging to follow the lead of an adjustment, while still supporting myself in the posture. Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana was a daily lesson in this. I couldn’t allow the teacher's hand that was holding my foot to carry the entire weight of my leg - that’s my arm’s job!

Next, I started to learn how to use my body language to let the teacher know when I was ready to go deeper in a pose. The first time this actually worked, I was amazed! I was able to consciously work harder in my poses during the adjustment. I was starting to understand how they might be very, very useful to me!

And finally, I became more sensitive to physical cues from my teachers: the sound of breath, body language, and touch. For the first month or so in the Shala, my teachers literally had to talk me through adjustments. R would poke my leg a few times, then finally give up and say: “Straighten your leg.” The other day, I realised that we managed to get through Utthita Hasta Padangushtasana without a word being spoken between us. But there were lots of pokes and nudges and the sound of Ujjayi breathing.

Some of the best adjustments I’ve received in the Shala have been silent experiences where I’ve been so completely tuned into my teacher and my body that I lost myself in the moment. I think the reason I was so blown away by that simple Baddha Konasana B adjustment a couple weeks ago was because I was completely ‘there.’

I’m also learning to trust in the more forceful adjustments. Prasarita Padottanasana C is a case in point: R and I had daily battles in this pose for about a month. She would push, I would push back! She would tell me to relax and I would tense my shoulders. I must have been driving her nuts! It took some time before I learned to soften my shoulders and surrender to the adjustment. In fact, for a couple of weeks, I had to silently coax myself: “Trust R” (on every inhalation), “Relax your shoulders”(on every exhalation). It was the only thing that would get me through the adjustment without a lot of exasperated verbal cues from my teacher.

I’ve learned a lot and come a long way in my understanding of adjustments and my ability to trust. I think the big test was when I walked into DR’s Mysore room for the first time. I had no idea what to expect, so I fell back on what I had learned: pay attention to breath and cues, work hard in the postures, trust the teacher not to hurt me. I felt pretty comfortable and confident during those adjustments. It helped that I feel genuinely at ease with DR. When DR asked if he could take me deeper into Supta Kurmasana, I didn’t hesitate even for an instant, even though I didn’t have a clue what he was going to do to me! I softened my body and just waited for the cues to come, listened for his direction and moved where he asked.

Where I’m still struggling with adjustments is this whole ‘standing up’ thing. There’s a HUGE amount of surrender involved in allowing someone to help me stand up from a backbend. First of all, I’m upside-down and disoriented in space. I’m uncomfortable! I’m scared. I can’t really see anything because I’m supposed to be looking at the tip of my nose. My head is thrown back and I need to keep it here - I’m not allowed to ‘see where I’m going’ as I come up.

The first time I received this adjustment, it was a bit like being thrown off a cliff without warning; resistance didn’t have time to percolate. But the second time? The third time? My brain asked: “Where’s the net?”

It’s no wonder I’m struggling with standing up from Urdhva Dhanurasana and I’m experiencing so much anxiety around it! I feel a loss of control, I’m frightened and it doesn’t help that my trust in my teachers is a bit shaky right now.

What it boils down to is this: it’s a ‘chicken-or-the-egg’ scenario for everyone involved. I can’t get my head wrapped around the action of standing up because I have no muscle memory, no experience of the physical mechanics required to make it happen. But my teachers can’t help me learn this because the adjustment is so scary to my brain that I physically shut down when it happens.

It’s an interesting dilemma and I have no idea what the answer is.

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Practice report:

I have a shala-buddy this week! A new friend is joining me for six days of practice at Shala Central. It’s neat to have new energy in the room and someone to chat with after practice. Fun!

I had a good practice today, even though I started with a terrible head ache. I focused on my breath, which made it easier.

My Marichyasanas are incredibly deep right now. The wrist bind in D is starting to feel easy! I’m loving these poses :-)

Heels are still lifted in Kurmasana! I received an adjustment from P in this pose today, which was helpful. I’m starting to think of ways to deepen my Supta Kurmasana.

There’s something very interesting happening in my jump-throughs right now. Since I started lifting my hips higher on the jump, I’ve noticed a ‘micro-pause’ at the top of the jump. When I can find it, it’s easier to take my feet through with more control.

Backbends: 3, 3, 2 and I was done. I’m trying to lengthen my breath in my backbends. I’ve been Pingu-ing my hands in until I reach a ‘discomfort point’ in my back and holding there, moving my tailbone toward my heels and lifting up through my lower ribs. I’m keeping my heels on the floor, trying to keep the legs engaged. I have no idea where my hips are going in this, but I have a feeling they’re moving back instead of forward (wrong direction!). I have no idea how to change this, but I’m not worrying about it for now.

4 comments:

Ragdoll said...

This is a really interesting read for me. And kind of timely. For instance:
"Even Supta Kurmasana, which seemed like a cosmic joke of a pose, eventually became available to me."
With my life being a bit up in the air from September, it's good to know that it's possible to get that pose even if I do end up moving somewhere where I don't have any access to an Ashtanga teacher. At the moment, I feel slightly that if I have to move away my progress on some asanas may just stop. Or even move backwards as I slide into bad habits!

Your comments about the breath, body language etc of a teacher reminds me of the first time that I realised a teacher was using the ujjayi breath themselves to get my own breath back on track. I had the weird feeling that I was being told off - of course there was no such implication from the teacher, that was all in my head. I try to remember that when teaching university students, a group of young adults who are also still in the mindset of a 'reminder' being interpreted as a 'reprimand'.

I also got dropped one time (though from headstand) and I was already a bit wary of being helped, but had taken a deep breath and gone with it. Think I'm still wary of any other student's (physical) support, but I've never had a poor experience with a teacher, in any of the forms of yoga I've tried.

patrick said...

YES to the jump-hang-time. THAT, my friend, is the magic you've been looking for. The more you do it, the longer it'll get, and eventually (so they say) it'll lead fun places like Navasana handstand vinyasa (can't speak from experience there, though....yet).

Loo said...

I love the surrender I get when I have the paschimo squish and breathe in unison with my teacher. He studied with Guruji for years and is very capable yet gentle.

Personally I always hated working with other students in *regular* yoga class ... now there is where my trust totally breaks down!

My husband has a solo self-taught practice like you did, but I can see he is beginning to want the adjustments so hopefully he'll join me. I'm sending him to your blog for inspiration!

Kaivalya said...

@Ragdoll
The first time my teacher tried to cue me with his breath (and he can breath LOUD), I was all: "Why is he doing that?!" I totally didn't get it, then I had a lighbulb moment. After that, I realised that he needed to hear *my* breath in order to help me in the adjustment. It really is like a dance sometimes!

@Patrick
The jump 'hang-time' is continuing to develop. I’m actually delighted that there is so much vinyasa in the Primary Series because it gives me plenty of time to play with it!

@Loo
The full-body Paschimo 'power squish' is my favourite adjustment. Done by a good teacher, it's both gentle and soothing.

I hope your husband finds his way to a Mysore room. It's a good learning experience and his practice will grow exponentially.