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.
...so 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.