Monday, February 28, 2011

Yoga for Strength

Random thoughts on gaining strength...

18 years ago now, when I was 16, I bought a VHS video from a discount bin called 'Yoga for Strength'...I should have known then that I'd end up an Ashtangi...

It's what I came to yoga for, what brought me to the mat for the first time: I wanted to be stronger.

Today, is my first practice back on the mat on my own after a week of practice with my teacher. The theme of last week's practices, yes, strength. I've gotten to an interesting part of the particular sequence that I'm practicing. Just when I'm starting to feel a bit tired and distracted, I'm met by strength pose, after strength pose, after strength careful what you wish for...

Something I've heard Beryl Bender Birch say at a few workshops that I've done with her is this: "Don't envy flexibility!" She goes on to talk about this a bit more and the subtext is always this: if you think you want someone's physical flexibility, then you have to be prepared to accept the rest of their life too.
It seems a very broad way of thinking about both flexibility and envy.

It's interesting to me because my default is bendy, but not just physically. The physical is also an expression of my default in life...flexible...the one who accommodates, agrees or easily slips out of the way.

When I came to yoga looking for strength, it seems that, although I didn't see it at the time, I was looking for strength in the broader sense as well as the physical. The two are not separate.

After years of Ashtanga practice, I can say that I found what I was looking for.

I have work to do yet balancing my agreeableness with standing up for myself. That work is found daily, in balancing in a steady handstand and then bending it into a deep backbend. It's found in controlling the transition from a strong neutral standing position into a deep backbend and smoothly returning to standing. It's found in the daily striving for a balance between effort and ease in breath regardless of what sort of pretzel is being asked of the body.

A week with my teacher always leaves me sore, tired and awash in gratitude. I remain in awe of what changes this practice can initiate and ever grateful for my teacher who continues to believe that I can be strong even in the moments when I don't yet have the strength to believe it myself.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Yoga Dreams...

I had a dream last night about mayurasana. In the dream I was doing the pose (in real life, not so much). I woke up with my arms pinned underneath me and every muscle squeezed tight.

...good to know that I'm working on my challenging poses even in my sleep...

...bad to know that apparently my mind is a little obsessed with this one...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

You Know You're an Ashtangi When...

You know you're an Ashtangi when...

...the high point of my day is when my teacher jabs his thumbs into my belly during a "bandha check" and says "yes, perfect."

....really?!...for one whole inhale and exhale there was just the right amount of tension in my lower belly. for all those other inhales and exhales... :)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Being a Student...

I'm spending the week practicing with my teacher.....ahhhhh. There is just no substitute for time with your own teacher.
It makes for some intense practices when the opportunities arise only a couple times a year though.
Today's practice may have set a record for the number of times I looked up at my teacher during practice with a look that said: "Are you insane?!"...and then proceeded to put my best effort towards whatever seemly crazy request was being made.

That is of course why I have a teacher. :-)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On the Bandhas: Microcosm and Macrocosm of Mulha and Uddiyana

A third and last post coming out of my thoughts on David's anatomy workshop...

An interesting relationship between the little pieces and the broad picture of a practice has been sort of flitting around in my mind since the workshop. I've been waiting for it to land and hopefully coalesce into something coherent.

Although we did talk about the anatomy of the bandhas...or as close as you can get to describing the physical access points to something energetic, what stuck with me was the discussion in a much broader sense of rooting and lifting energy throughout the practice.

It started with the discussion of the 3 natural arches in the foot. In just the action of placing the foot on the floor, there is a mulha aspect, found in pressing into the base of the big toe, base of the pinkie toe and the heel. There is also an uddiyana aspect found in lifting up through the arches. After a bit of playing with generally moving the weight around on the feet, picking up the toes, etc., I was a bit startled to feel the changes in energy moving up my body from just these actions in the feet!

We continued in the microcosm vein, looking at the mulha and uddiyana aspects of the hand and the parallels to the actions of the feet when we place them on the floor. There are again mulha and uddiyana aspects to just the action of placing weight into the hands when we place them on the floor.

David is adamant that if the hands are on the floor in a pose, then they are there for a reason. I've lost track of the number of times I've heard David say "Put weight into the hands!" as we fold forward in sun salutations or "Pretend the hand is another foot." as we fold forward in ardha badha padmottansana.

This whole discussion of mulha and uddiyana in miniature got me thinking about all the little pieces that make up the whole practice picture...and wondering about how many little pieces have fallen out of my frame of awareness as poses have gotten familiar and comfortable. The feet and hands are often our foundation in poses. I'm curious to see what happens to the qualities of the practice as a whole as I play with bringing greater attention to the rooting and lifting energies from the base upward.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

On the Breath and Nerves...

There was an interesting thread connecting breath and the nervous system, that kept coming up in David's anatomy workshop last weekend.

I've been playing with the pace and fullness of my breath in practice lately and have blogged a bit on changes I've noticed. Changing the pace and quality of breath, changes the quality and energy of my practice. I've noticed it in the moment (during practice) and I've noticed changes in energy post-practice, later in the day.

...but so far, that's all I had done...just change the breath arbitrarily to see what would happen and then make a note of it. I hadn't been setting out to change the breath with any particular intention in mind.

Over the weekend, the importance of controlling the breath in order to control the nervous system kept coming up. This was definitely a "light bulb moment" for me. My default setting is nervous. I grew up with family often encouraging me to make decisions out of fear, to make "safe" choices. I've known for a long time that I don't want to live that way. Some of the best people/experiences that I've known have come out of the sort of choices where you take a deep breath and jump! I've crash-landed a few times too, but I've never regretted taking the risk even when I've landed hard.

What's sort of settled in from thoughts generated over the last weekend is that creating the spaciousness to make choices with the greatest awareness I can manage all comes back to controlling the nervous system....and the way in to the nervous system is the breath.

David talked about the importance of using the breath to manage and reduce stimulation of the nervous system.
My favorite David Keil one-liner of the weekend was in reference to breath: "Take control of the breath, otherwise it's controlling you."

Ah, yes...that is, in fact, exactly what happens when I let the nervous system take the wheel. The breath gets shallow and fast and drives me right into a panic. Suddenly, all I can hear is the refrain of "What if...".

It's amazingly freeing and calming to know that I have a tool to manage the nervous system. I can tame it daily with the breath.

More from David on the anatomy of breath here:

Friday, February 11, 2011

Weekend of Yoga Anatomy with David Keil

Whew!...Almost a week back from David's anatomy workshop this past weekend and finally writing a post. A busy week this week of fun (late night out to see a band I love!) and not so fun stuff (dentist appt., car repairs) seems to have swallowed up the days.

I leave every workshop with David remembering why he is my teacher. David teaches with humor, patience and common sense....all three of which are crucial to enjoying a weekend of human anatomy. :)

As a Mysore teacher I generally see the same students in class each evening. As a practitioner, I practice with the same body daily. In both cases, it's easy to fall into patterns, habits and stop seeing clearly. David is a great guide to help me question what I think I know and to help me step out with confidence when, what I find that know, isn't what I expected. What I really got out of the weekend was an opportunity to take a step back and look at the big picture. I've returned again to practice and teach with fresh eyes.

More in the next few days on a few topics that came up during the workshop which I'm still mulling over....but a few anatomy bits from the weekend that stuck with me:

On forward bends: (*waves to Helen*)
-David had 2 things to say that I made a note of:

1) If the hamstring is already torn, David recommends folding forward with straight legs, but not bending as far...not bent knees!

2) To avoid hamstring tears and sit bone pain, he encourages students when folding forward with bent knees to keep trying to actively straighten the legs (without over doing it of course)

There's a great anatomical description with details and an answer to Why? to both of these here:

On chaturanga:
-After an interesting discussion on the "right" or "wrong" placement of everything from shoulders to toes in chaturanga, David made 2 points that stuck:

1) What chaturanga looks like will evolve with the rest of your practice...just like any other pose. The "right" chaturanga is the one that is appropriate for a particular person's body at that point in time in their practice.

2) this--this is a direct quote "The right chaturanga is the one that doesn't injure you."
More anatomy discussion of chaturanga here:

More thoughts from the weekend to come soon!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

It must be Thursday.

My favorite quote from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is from Aurthur Dent and is said sometime after he discovers his house is about to be flattened, his planet is going to be destroyed and the friend he thought was a struggling actor is actually from another planet.

Aurthur says: "It must be Thursday. I never could get the hang of Thursdays."

Yes, today is that kind of Thursday...not bad, just weird. After some morning scheduling weirdness, I've found myself not doing any of the things I thought I would be doing at work today and doing lots of things I thought I wouldn't be doing.

It's a chance to make a decision: resist the universe or surf the waves as they come. I'm not doing either especially gracefully today. The perfect storm of new moon energy, ladies holiday and Thursday, found me at the Panera buying cookies at lunch time...

So Yay for things that sort themselves out despite my best efforts to get in the way and Yay for cookies!

Tomorrow, off to David Keil's anatomy workshop with a friend...I'm so looking forward to it! Workshop posts to come next week.