Friday, July 29, 2011

The nature of Ashtanga yoga

Nobel recently blogged about how his friend doesn't get why Nobel's goal in practicing yoga doesn't seem to be to master all 6 levels of Ashtanga. Megan recently blogged about waiting to hear about results from biopsies and medical test with the possibility of having cancer (sending her well-wishing thoughts). In my previous post, I wrote about how I am coming to the realization of peculiarities in my old habitual behaviors, and one of the commenters, Alison, suggested that perhaps I should look into restorative and yin yoga, since Ashtanga seems to be stirring up quite strong emotions and reactions in me.

If she had suggested this to me a year ago, I might have seriously considered her advice and switch to a calmer, more reflective yin practice. For those who have not tried practicing Ashtanga regularly, on the surface, this style of yoga appears to be a fast-paced, dynamic, heat-generating work out. Indeed, in the beginning I totally exhibited type A personality, coming to the led primary series because it challenged me more than any other yoga classes. I enjoyed the masochistic aspect that my back would ache and my arms would feel jelly the next day. Once I tried to practice two days in a row and the second day's class felt miserable. I had to do all my vinyasas on my knees. The teacher kept mentioning this was meant to be a 6-day practice and I thought he was nuts, that only exceptionally fit people could pull it off. The teacher did keep repeating the fact that this series is meant to be therapeutic, which made no sense to me at the time (which part of having my ass kicked is therapeutic??) Somehow I chose to trust the teacher because he sounded very sincere. I decided to give this class a year and see if my lower back would heal and stop aching at some point, or else I was going to move on to something else.

Well, 1.5 years later, the primary series no longer feels like an ass-kicking work out. It's still not a walk in the park, but it feels more like a full body opening stretching sequence than a heart pumping, muscle building exercising sequence. My heart rate does go up a bit while doing the sequence, but in terms of breathing, I feel no other yoga classes can bring me to breath so deeply for such an extended period of time. My teacher didn't lie; in terms of breath work it really does feel very therapeutic. I now practice Ashtanga for its calming, therapeutic effects more than anything else. So, even though it does build strength in the body, it's not the main reason why I practice Ashtanga.  Even though it doesn't burn as much calories as my previous exercise regime (I am fatter than I used to be), I am sticking with this routine until my mental clutter improves and I free up more time to exercise for the sake of exercising.

I have been thinking about yoga and spirituality. Why are some people totally fine with pursuing spirituality by long hours of sitting meditation, never having the desire to try yoga or even other forms of exercises? How come yogis seem to squirm like worms all the time and the only way to calm down is to contort their bodies into pretzels? Perhaps David Garrigues explains best in his blog post: "Ashtanga is for the hungry, the ones who have something gnawing inside, the ones who honestly aren't happy accepting complacent norms. Ashtanga is for those who are alive with intense feelings that there are worlds to discover, worlds that are found by reaching passionately inwards for expression that will contribute to personal and collective healing. "

I don't feel yin yoga works the same as Ashtanga, nor does "Core Power yoga" or Bikram or Iyengar or Anusara yoga. Don't get me wrong, I am not against these yoga styles and I think they have helped many people. I do feel I would benefit from sitting meditation, but it's the Ashtanga practice that calms down the "gnawing inside" so I can sit still for longer. I've heard there are people who practiced up to intermediate/advanced series, and then realized they actually only need to do the beginning standing series and the closing series in order to calm down and benefit from the practice.

I feel Ashtanga is very vast and deep. Devoting 1+ years to familiarize myself with the primary series is the best thing I could have ever done. From here, I can also choose to do just the opening and closing sequence, and focus on the meditative aspect of yoga; I can just practice the primary series; I can move onto the intermediate series and keep going until I reach my body's limits; I can always fall back to the primary when my body becomes injured, when I grow older, or when I am mentally drained/stressed out. I used to analyze every issue to death, thinking I have to understand everything / rationalize everything in order to find peace/resolution. Now I feel like peace comes from calming the breath, emptying the mind, and letting go of things we can't change. This realization is more useful than any psychoanalysis or any amounts of knowledge/information with which I try to cram into my brain.

I may have problems in life, but practicing Ashtanga helps me experience moments of calmness during the day. It helps clear my mind and put things into perspective, realizing what's important and what's minor. Do other yoga styles achieve the same? It might for some people, but I plan to write a whole post about my thoughts on the current industry of yoga.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A blog post all about my spine

It doesn't matter what style of yoga you practice; a major body part you work on is your spine. From gentle cat-cow warm ups, to downward/upward facing dog, to sun and moon salutations, to headstands and shoulder stands,  to crazy leg behind the head poses, most yoga poses move the spine in all sorts of directions, in much greater depths than most sports and activities ever require. There are apparently 5 major ways to move your spine: flexion, extension, axial rotation (twists), lateral flexsion (side bends), and axial extension (lengthening). Before I started yoga I thought I had a limber body. Now I feel like I'm finally using my spine the way its intended - built to be curved in so many ways, as long as the muscles, fascia, tendons, ligaments etc coordinate with the vertebrae.

When I started yoga I came to heal my spine. My lower back was hurting me, and when I first started Ashtanga it felt worse. I couldn't tell if I was doing the poses wrong or if my lower back was just weak. I asked the teacher and he said my poses looked okay and he didn't see anything wrong with what I was doing. Primary series was supposed to be therapeutic right? So I tried to suck in my belly button more whenever I felt discomfort in the lumbar spine, hoping the sensation would go away soon. Either that or I would have to quit yoga and switch to some other activity. Thankfully, after 6 months the lower back weirdness went away. So it was indeed a weakness and the primary series helped strengthen my spine in a major way.

Then there was my neck. Ever since I started yoga, I noticed I had a neck ache. I went to see a massage therapist which helped make it better. However after a month the achy-ness came back. I learned it was probably due to the turtle haunch position that I have been assuming in front of my computer screen for the past 10 years. I went to see a chiropractor, which tried to fix my imbalance in terms of left twist vs. right twist, but I felt it was such a money scam because he only worked on me for about 20 minutes at a time and charged me $40 per session, and asked me to go back for 8 more sessions. My yoga teachers adjusted me more than the chiropractor during a 75 minute yoga class, and I pay way less for a class. I tried to lengthen my neck whenever I notice my turtle shrug, but the discomfort persisted. Then I noticed headstands made my neck uncomfortable so I had to stop practicing that at home. I still did it in class but usually only for like 5 breaths and often with the teacher supporting my legs. I notice my neck felt worse when I tried to assume thumb drishti in trikonasana and utthita parsvokonasana, so I stopped looking up in those poses and just focused on lengthening my cervical spine.

Recently, my teacher has been coming by, putting fingers on my back and telling me to engage my lats and pull my back muscles down the spine. Hmm, I can't seem to engage my lats at all. I consciously pull them down for a few breaths, then the next time I check my shoulders are up to my ears again. Sigh. That must be the reason why my neck hurts.

I am just noticing recently that I don't use enough of my back strength in matsyasana. When I engage my back more, uttana padasana suddenly feels a lot harder (I've been arching my back and not engaging back muscles in these 2 poses all this time). So suddenly I am feeling a new sense of strength building in my spine. My headstands are feeling better in the neck, and in setu bandhasana, I am finally taking my elbows off the floor and crossing my arms over my chest. It feels pretty creepy but I can feel strength building in my neck as well. I am really hoping this period of neck strengthening will get rid of the neck discomfort once and for all.

Backbends: now that I am starting to attempt drop backs, I am feeling weirdness in my lower back return. Actually, a few posts back I complained about lumbar spine weirdness in urdhva dhanurasana. So it went away for awhile and I thought I was done with low back strengthening, but I guess I'm not done. I look at my own wheel pose in the mirror and it has such a mild arch, despite how intense it feels. And then I look at pictures of yogis grabbing their ankles in their wheel poses, and I wonder exactly what needs to stretch to get to that point. Kino's article and video suggests that we hang over upside down without touching the mat for a few breaths; I'm sorry but I don't have enough strength to hold it half way. I am either upright with a little back bend or I'm all the way down. There's no in between. Does it mean my back is just too weak?

So many people I've seen come to yoga with a haunch in the shoulder/upper back area. When I look at the pictures of long term ashtanga practitioners, they all seem to have a straight back, and when they bend either forwards or backwards, they bend right at the waist, instead of rounding at the thoracic spine. I don't know if this is the case, but has all these forward bends where the teacher has been helping me flatten my spine on my legs resulted in shifting of imbalances to the upper (neck) and lower (lumbar) part of the spine instead?

One thing's for sure: I definitely need more back strengthening and continue to engage my trapezius and lats to keep my shoulder blades down the back. The fascia and the connective tissue stuff I have no control over; they'll just have to keep restructuring on their own. I wonder if non-Ashtanga yoga styles also re-work the spine in the same way, since most yoga styles I know don't emphasize forward bends.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Back to led practice

Yes, today is a moon day, but I practiced anyway because well, that's when the led class happens. It felt really good to be grounded by my regular practice again, but the entire time I sort of wondered why the heck did I go sooooo fast in my Mysore practice last week? I totally thought I was keeping time to my teacher's normal counting. Either my teacher normally counts faster and he chose to count more slowly today, or alternatively, the burden of counting on my own felt so daunting I just rushed to get it all over with.

It's interesting how the mind works. Today I felt like my mind relaxed and allowed me to focus on how each pose felt at the moment I was holding it. In the Mysore practice it seemed like all my mind could do was to hear my breathing and do counting, that was it. Anything other tasks would become over-burden for the conscious brain. As I got into my janushirsansa b and c, I couldn't help but to wonder: did I even do these 2 poses in my Mysore class? I'm pretty sure I must have done them, but I have zero recollection of feeling my heel pressed into mula bandha, or the toe crunching / achilles tendon stretching sensations that I felt today in class. Did I bother going to my edge at all in my Mysore practice? I think the only perception I could manage besides remembering the sequence was that I felt no pain sensations.

It seems like a significant part of the practice of yoga is to understand our inner workings of our own minds. With this little Mysore back to led practice experiment, I discovered I have major blind spots in my brain. When the brain is occupied with being in an unfamiliar environment and new tasks, it drops the perceptions of less important things, like the details of how each pose feels in different parts of the body. Even though my focus on breathing was much better in the Mysore class (because it was what I used to pace myself) than in a led class, I felt less calm after the practice (more calm than before I practiced, but less calm than practicing at my usual class).  I wonder when I will reach a point where I feel completely at ease and be able to fully enjoy the practice without being my own yoga police, worrying if my bandha's engaged, if my legs are straight, if my neck's crunched, if my shoulders are away from my ears, if my side bodies are lengthened, so on and so forth. I fantasize about a perfect practice with no extraneous muscle strains, everything stays aligned, jump-throughs don't feel like dragging a bag of heavy bricks across the mat, and my breathing feels super smooth. It's something I would like to work towards.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

My first Mysore class experience

So I recently went to my first ever Mysore class. It felt sooooo different from a led class. It was so hard to concentrate on my own practice when everyone around me is doing something different! I kept miscounting my surya namaskara Bs (accidentally making some of them into surya As). I would also skip a pose, then realize it a few poses later, do that pose, then go back to what I was doing, totally re-ordering the Primary series. I was also totally not used the teacher's adjustments. My usual teacher normally starts with a gentle push, and then deepen the adjustment, holding it for 3-5 breaths, for both sides. The teacher at this shala would give me a 1-2 second squish one side only and walk away. For Mari D I got a non-gentle double shoulder grab - upper body deepening twist that was neither painful nor unsafe, but still left me kind of surprised. I guess I've been too pampered and spoiled in my regular led primary series classes. Supta kurmasana was a towel grab rather than a bind, but this teacher gave a pretty strong adjustment that got my feet crossing above my head, and that felt good. In supta padangusthasana A, usually I pull my leg down to my face, but this teacher held my leg straight in the air and made me come up to meet it. Made the pose feel totally different (ie. much more challenging, which is probably exactly what I needed).

I guess the idea of Mysore classes is to go at your own pace, spending a few more breaths in poses that need more work, and even repeating things that need work. However I felt totally insecure without a teacher verbally going through instructions on things to watch out in each pose, or what was supposed proper pace. I'm too used to being told what to do, so I ended up rushing through the entire series due to nervousness. I think I caught up and surpassed several people who started much earlier than I did. I might have also completely skipped a few poses by accident, but there would be no way to know because I had no memory of what I did and did not do 2 poses earlier, and the teacher wasn't really watching me (the shala was pretty happening). I think I also might have started counting my breaths while I was still getting into each pose, so probably I only held each pose for about 3-4 breaths.

Overall it was a very rushed practice at the fault of no one but myself. It was fun watching people do intermediate poses at close proximity. Hey, don't judge me for my drishti violations; it's my first time experiencing this so I just had to check out poses I'd never seen in real life before. It'll probably take awhile before I get used to Mysore style practice; for now I will stick to led Primary classes (and my regular teacher's handholding style adjustments, hehehe).

Update: I want to stress I'm not dissing Mysore style of practice. This is just my personal experience after over one year of led primary practice with the same teacher. I would happily switch to a Mysore class if my regular led class 5 minutes from where I live no longer becomes available to me.