Friday, May 20, 2011

Ashtanga Yoga: A Root-Centered Practice

I haven't posted much for a couple weeks...I've been filling up my time with other things and haven't had anything in particular that I wanted to write about.

I've still been reading my favorite blogs around the Ashtanga yoga blogosphere though and a few days ago, one of Nobel's posts especially caught my interest.

Nobel asks: Is Ashtanga practice by itself sufficient for a core-centered practice?

The real answer to any good question is, of course, "that depends".

On a pretty good day, I realize that there is not going to be a point in life when things stop changing. I thought for a long time that things would settle down, be steadier, when [insert next personal milestone here] happened...when I finished grad school, got a job, got a better job, moved to a different town.

I credit my Ashtanga practice for the few clear moments when I realize that steadiness doesn't come from having just the right life situation. It comes from the inside out. I make steadiness happen or I don't as the case may be.

Nearly everyday I feel like there is some uneven ground beneath my feet. Many steps I take are uncertain ones and some feel more like giant leaps into the what to do and where to go when the ground opens up underneath you?...back to the practice.

My short answer to Nobel's question in the comments to his post was this:
Yes, Ashtanga yoga is enough for a core-centered practice, as long as you're not in a hurry. If we are talking specifically about the physical strengthening of the core muscles, I think the time it takes to develop core muscles depends somewhat on body type....just like some people increase upper body strength faster than others, the core muscles develop more quickly in some bodies than others. I watch students in my Mysore room work diligently at practice, but some still develop strength and lightness sloooowly.

...But is that really what we mean when we ask about Ashtanga as a core-centered practice...just really awesome abs?...or just the ability fly our legs through our arms and land? If this is it, then Pilate's or some time at the gym might be a better match.

...But as I've watched practice change me over the years, I've watched it provide access to a true source of steadiness that gets stronger over time even as life events shake up the ground underneath me. The longer I practice, the less I'm concerned about whether my core muscles are physically strong enough to do any one pose or transition in particular.

Nearly 10 years of practice and I still can't lift up and clear the floor with my toes when I jump back....But amid crazy busy schedules and all kinds of changes this past year, I'm still standing. It leaves me with no doubts about the core-centeredness of the Ashtanga practice.

...Or maybe core-centered is not really the right phrase. Maybe we should call it a "root-centered practice" Steadiness starts from Mula bandha, the root lock and as Nobel puts it in a recent post, like a root for a tree "it [yoga] sustains you" .

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Finding Strength

I've been thinking a lot about strength lately...especially since the fun Friday, where I joined in with people from all over the world and practiced with Sharath via live streaming video.

I've been doing the primary series for a while now....long enough that several years ago, it stopped feeling hard. There are still places in that series to work (Hello jump through and jump back!) and I imagine that there always will be work to do in primary if I look for it....but it doesn't feel hard like it did at the beginning.

I think the change in perception comes from two places. One, the obvious, I'm stronger and more flexible. I can move in and out of postures more efficiently and with less effort. The second reason that I suspect primary seems easier, is that I tend to compare it to the feelings I have practicing intermediate...which is a whole different kind of challenge. back to Sharath's led class... Besides an odd missed count or two, there were two poses that really caught my attention when I was practicing along with the streaming. The first was headstand. The second was utpluthi. I noticed them both for the same reason. I realized as Sharath was counting that I don't usually stay in either of those poses for that long. Somewhere along the way, I had started cheating myself of chances to work on increasing strength, something I keep saying I want....interesting. As I was hanging out there in headstand, waiting for Sharath's voice to say I could come down, I noticed something. It's not that I'm not strong enough to stay there. Actually, I noticed, I am. What really happens is that my mind gets bored. Mentally, I start to wander off topic. I start thinking about breakfast, how late I am for work. I let the mind talk me into something it finds more exciting.

I'm noticing this is really the beauty and the challenge of intermediate series for me. It's building on the willingness, developed in primary, to stay and breathe where I'd rather not. In all the places in intermediate where I tend to "give up the pose early", it's really not the body that I'm wrestling with, it's the mind. Karandavasana is not so much about the strength to hold myself up, but more about having the mental willingness to lock the attention onto tiny shifts in balance for the duration of the pose and most importantly to keep it there. When the mind goes, the pose goes.

If I'm really working in my intermediate practice, then the series of poses added over the last couple years by my teacher, pincha mayurasana, karandavasana, mayurasana, and most recently nakrasana, produce a kind of mental anguish by the time I'm done. My body will feel good, very alive, nicely stretched, muscles gently sore...but my mind will feel like a wrung out sponge.

...just when I find that, physically, I'm getting stronger, it becomes clear that there are whole other dimensions of strength.