Sunday, September 12, 2010

Astanga

Okay, confession time: I’ve not been having an easy time with my new, longer practice and I haven’t been adjusting very well to the realities of a home practice. If I were to choose three words to describe my practice at the moment, they would be: Long. Difficult. Lonely.

I kind of muddled through for the the first week-and-a-bit, limping along forlornly, trying to keep a brave face. Then circumstances rescued me by providing brilliant and entirely valid excuses not to be on the mat (Moon Day! Lady’s Holiday!).

But all valid excuses eventually come to an end.

On Saturday, I happily did a led Primary, for fun. But as I faced a return to my longdifficultlonely Primary+Intermediate practice on Sunday, I faltered. And my ever-helpful Brain lobbed onto a great alternative: Shala Central’s monthly led Primary! It was scheduled for this Sunday. I could go as a drop-in student! I absolutely *love* the led Primary class at the Shala. I could visit my friends! I could do a warm, cozy safe (easy!) Primary Series practice surrounded by shalamates and led by a Sanskrit count. I could geek out over Astanga during the after-class discussion. And eat muffins!

Seriously, who wouldn’t want to do this? Particularly when the alternative is a difficult 2-hour-plus practice, alone in a quiet apartment, punctuated by endless backbends and humiliating attempts to stand up from them.

I was all ready to go, bolstered by a million reasons this was SUCH a good idea. Then I stepped back and did a reality check. And I realised the *only* reason I wanted to go to led Primary at the Shala was to avoid my longdifficultlonely practice at home.

And that’s not a very good reason.

So, in the end, I decided to stay home, put on my Big Girl Ashtangi Pants, and do my practice.

Not that it wasn’t a struggle. I woke to the 5:30 alarm, remembered my practice, rolled over and went back to sleep. Woke again, remembered again, avoided again and again until 7, when I couldn’t put it off any longer. I took a salt bath, heated up the apartment, unrolled my mat and started my practice.

And you know what? It wasn’t THAT bad. In fact, I had a really nice practice.

Last week, I had a couple breakthroughs which seem to be sticking around so I’ll mention them:

- Very smooth and controlled lotus jumpbacks. I’m still doing that cheaty Mayurasana thing with my arms, but now I can lift up and hold the lotus there before the jumpback.

- Successful exit from Kurmasana to Bakasana and jumpback! No toe-to-floor-cheats! The key to this seems to be pushing down through my hands as I swing both feet around at the same time. It’s not a pretty Bakasana, but it’s solid enough for the jumpback. (I’m still not nailing the exit from Bhujapidasana because my legs are not far enough up my shoulders).

And I had two HUGE breakthroughs in today’s practice.

In Laghu Vajrasana, I’ve been lowering my head to a block, set on end - vertically - then coming back up. I do this over and over again until I’m tuckered - usually 10-15 repetitions. Today, lowering to the vertical block was too easy-peasy so I set the block horizontally and tried that a few times. That was pretty easy-peasy too, so I laid the block on its side and tried that.

Okay, that wasn’t *exactly* easy-peasy, but it was still do-able! I lowered and came up several times until the movement felt smooth and controlled. Skippetty’s advice (for standing from a backend, actually, but it’s well-applied to Laghu), ‘lifting from the belly button’ has been really helpful to me. I find it’s better if I just pretend that I have no solid body above my mid-torso, then work on bringing my hips and belly forward. As I come up, I allow my chest/shoulders/head to roll up floppy-ragdoll-style.

Since it was going so well, I decided to raise the bar even further. I looked down at the block, looked at the floor and thought, “Hey, why not?!” I shoved the block aside and tried lowering my head all the way to FLOOR. And I came back up!! It was challenging, but with a big inhale it was do-able. I repeated this a few times. Yay!

Here’s where I raised the bar a little bit *too* far. I wondered if I could lower my head to the floor, then *hold it* there for a couple breaths and come back up again. Nope! Ha, ha! I ended up collapsing into Supta Virasana, then laughing as I struggled to sit back up.

But still, this is a LOT of progress in this pose!

Then I worked on backbends. *sigh*

I did three warm-up Urdhva Dhanurasana from the floor, bringing my head to the floor for a one breath rest in between each. In these warmups, I focus on keeping the weight in my heels while relaxing the gluteals and breathing (!). The biggest challenge seems to be straightening the arms. As soon as I think about my legs, I forget about my arms. I also walked my hands in a bit each time to deepen the backend.

Next, I started playing around with hangbacks and dropping back to the wall. I placed two cork blocks at the wall, set vertically, and walked my hands down the wall to the blocks. I thought this little bit of height might help me stand up. Nope. No dice. I didn’t feel stable.

While reading through Grimmly’s notes about standing up/ dropping back, I recalled that he used his sofa as a prop. I decided to drop back to the futon and try standing up from there. The futon gives me about 30 centimetres of height.

I dropped back to the edge of the futon very easily, then rocked my hips forward a few times. It felt awkward. I decided to approach the action *exactly* as I do Laghu Vajrasana. So I exhaled completely, pushed my hips forward and applied Skippetty’s advice about ‘lifting from the belly button’. I kept my attention on my hips and belly, tried to relax my head and shoulders, ignore the fact that I have arms (for some reason, the arms always throw me off).

Then I rocked forward and stood up! It happened so smoothly, I thought it was a fluke! So I dropped back again. I stood up again. I did this about 8 times. I just couldn’t believe I was standing up from *anything* resembling a backbend! But I was!!! I was doing it!

Keep in mind, though, my hands were 30 centimetres from the floor. But it’s a good start!

From here, I can work on developing muscle memory for the action and gradually move to a point closer to the floor (dropping to the futon frame will be my next goal). I’ve been through this whole song-and-dance with dropbacks. It’s all a matter of taking baby steps. I can do this!!!

Funny aside: My arms *really* do take on a life of their own when I’m standing up, especially since I’m pointedly ignoring them. I’m not sure what they were doing the first time I stood because I was so excited that it actually happened. But the second time, they sort of flapped around like Mermaid Arms. The next three times, they did this whirly thing like airplane propellers (as if THAT’S going to bring me to standing *eyeroll*). After that, they were doing a combination of propeller-hands and jazz-hands.

Sheesh! I’m going to have to regain control of my crazy arms if I ever want to stand up at a shala! I’m pretty sure jazz-hands aren’t part of Astanga yoga! I’ll never hear the end of it! ;-)

9 comments:

patrick said...

Can't you just imagine, from across the room? "Hey Jazz Hands! Nice stand up!" :D

Seriously, though, well done.

Helen said...

Hi kai, sorry to hear it's been a difficult transition. Maybe you could go to a shala, once a week? You are so hardcore with your largu reps, no wonder you could not come up on the final one, I was exhausted just reading about it! I used to do three and I thought that was hardcore. Anyways re coming up after holding it for 5 breaths, the trick is to keep lifting up when you are down, do not allow yourself to rest down. Sounds like you'll be doing it soon. Well done on standing up too, it's great when working at home to find a way to work toward something. :-)

Ragdoll said...

Jazz hands has made me giggle - I have a few 'tics' like that, and have conciously erradicated a couple more!

roselil said...

Hey good girl, great achievement there getting up from the futon! Do more of this and you'll soon do it from the ground too!

As for the 'traditional' ashtanga approach of always having to do the newest/most difficult asanas at the very end of an ever longer practice, I have found that it might not be the most efficient way to proceed (not for me at least) as you will then be the most exhausted when you are doing the hardest stuff.

Have you ever tried to only do part of primary (say up to navasana) before starting your intermediate poses? This was an valuable approach for me and it was in fact suggested to me by a certified ashtanga teacher as they are not all that unpragmatic to the current way of non-split dogma.

Another approach I did for some time (also given to me by a certified ashtanga teacher) was to only do all the standing poses, including virabhadrasana, and then move straight into pashasana - but from there take 8-10 breaths in each asana.

These practices of course get shorter than your present, but this will leave you more time (and energy!) for backbending and a loooong finishing sequence.

At least I fell very lucky that I was able to shorten my practice when I was beginning to add on the intermediate asanas - or I would probably still be stuck doing only primary.

Lauren said...

I've been working on relaxing my head and arms too (i tent to lead with my chin!) and ended up smacking someone next to me today! just dropping the arms doesn't seem to be working...they have to be doing something given how much work the rest of me is doing to get up to standing!

30cm is miles in dropback land. it's the difference between "oh, there's the floor!" and "oh my god, where is the floor? i'm going to fall!". :)

Grimmly said...

Hi Kai, glad the sofa video has been useful. As an alternative to the sofa have you tried the wall? Drop back as close to it as you can then walk up the wall to your 30cm (futon) and then push off and up (you may need to start higher up the first couple of times), then just keep dropping back and pushing back up. Hopefully as the action gets fixed in your body you wont have to push as much, a tap might be enough, then perhaps you can start tapping up from lower.

I do this every morning. I can drop back and come up nine times out of ten from scratch now but i find this is a nice way to work into it especially as i do my drop backs near the start of my practice rather than the end. It kind of takes the pressure off, tap up off the wall a couple of times and then do it without. The wall is always there if you need it so you don't have to think about falling or anything you can just focus all your attention on the action, on keeping your hips forward, your legs straighter.
Here's a video form a couple of weeks ago, I start tapping off the wall a couple of minutes in.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ctwfacAS6ag&feature=player_embedded#!

Kaivalya said...

@Helen
That's a really good idea - one day a week a shala. I may do that in October, on Fridays. My teaching schedule is light on that day and Shala North's Mysore room is a bit less crowded on that day.

I'm going up there today to practise. I've been looking forward to it for days.

Thanks for the tips on Laghu. Hard to keep 'lifting' when it feels SO good to rest my head. Cruel pose! lol

Kaivalya said...

@Ragdoll, @Patrick
Maybe I need to give that career in dance another shot! ;-)

@Roselil
That's an interesting approach to the practice. I think 8-10 breaths in a pose would make me cry, though...lol

On a more serious note, even though this is a LOT of yoga, I can see that it's making me stronger. I need every bit of strength (both physical and mental) to take on further poses in this series.

Kaivalya said...

@Lauren
Yeah, my arms are definitely doing their very own practice when I'm trying to stand up - it's like they suddenly don't belong to me!

@Grimmly
I've been doing this against the wall too, but for some reason, it feels more 'real' when I'm standing up from the futon. Come to think of it, though, the wall work really prepared me for this.

Thanks for the YouTube clip. It's always helpful to see how you work!