Tag Archives: primary series

The thing about time is…

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I’ve realized the thing about time is that it always makes you eventually forget the true extent of your pain, so that when a *new* pain makes its appearance, you’re tricked into believing that “NO, this is worse then before”.

I could be talking about a major disappointment. Or about another hypothetical situation of a jilted lover. But it is (of course) my practice that I am referring to. The thing that I wake up at 5 in the morning and drive in the quiet, still driveways of Federal Highway at 6. Often wondering where all these other crazy early risers who are on the road with me are going to at such an ungodly hour. 

I had been dealing with a discomfort on my right ribcage that has been escalating into a full blown type of pain that I find myself clutching and rubbing my right torso every time I need to laugh because well you *feel* it. Earlier this week, I had to use the opposite hand to push open my car door. And yet, there is a part of me, stubborn or resilient, call it what you may (or maybe just plain stupid, that’s quite possible too) that saw me turning up at the shala, on my mat until Wednesday. 

On Monday, I stopped at the end of Primary series. Did my usual backbending routine from the floor, involuntarily grunting a little too loudly perhaps, and stood up waiting to be dropped back. Ganesh, who obviously sees everything in that room, with eyes possibly at the back of his head too, must have seen all that silent pained expression I have been pulling during practice.

He came up to me and said in his very matter-of-fact and slightly broken English, “why are you standing? No dropback with that pain. No need. You do from the floor enough” and motioned for me to just sit down already. 

I felt like a kid in primary school that just got reprimanded for misbehaving in class. In this case, for not having enough awareness/intelligence to know when to back down and modify my practice until the pain is resolved.

Facet dislocation, my jovial Chinese chiropractor told me. And that is pressing on the nerve running to my ribs. I know what the cause is (hello dropbacks!) yet I do not know what exactly I am doing wrong that has brought me here. 

On Tuesday, I attempted pasasana, the first posture of the Intermediate series. And again, this time from way across the room, he gestured with his hands and said “don’t need to do”

On Wednesday, while helping to assist after my own practice he asked “what happened?” And held his right ribs. I shrugged and answered with a question “opening maybe?” And mimicked an urdhva dhanurasana 

Truth is, I HAVE NO IDEA. I don’t know if this is the normal rite of passage that every person has to go through before they could drop back and come up gracefully, if this was my own pre-existing condition resulting from years of bad posture, if I am ok and will be ok, or if I would end up somewhat fucked if I continue on. 

I remembered thinking to myself, while going through a slightly uncomfortable posture and humorong myself “well, that shoulder injury was end of December last year. Ok what. On average then I injure myself once a year”

Of course injury is never OK. As Eddie Stern would say in one of his many interviews “There are 8 limbs of yoga and pain is not one of them”

My closest friends tell me it is unavoidable. Necessary almost. That every single practitioner in that room has a story to tell about their own experience with pain, injury and the ubiquitous backbending.

“You need to break first before you get to do it correctly” 

“I had the same too last year, and I took muscle relaxants and rested. Just don’t take too much or you might not end up feeling anything at all” to which was met with a wide eyed stare of disbelief from me.

“This is normal. I think pain in that area indicates an opening, so you can go deeper in your backbending” 

I would very much like to believe the latter. In fact lets just say I am hanging on to that belief, and that is about the only thing that is keeping me from freaking out by the fact that I literally have use my left hand to open and close my car door. 

I had been resting for 2 days. No practice. But teaching still continues. With acute awareness of what I can help to adjust and what postures I should probably leave alone. 

Laruga Glaser talks about the cycle of the practice that involves phases of building up and spiraling down. She’s been doing this for 18 years. I find a certain comfort in that. Even though it is entirely baseless (because heck, how do I even know if our bodies are built the same?) I remain with the faith that these phases of “spiraling down” is unavoidable, no matter how much awareness you bring onto the mat with you every morning . 

“you have to find a way to make ‘peace’ with the fear”

Yet I don’t remember feeling as scared and hopeless as I do now compared to last December. I had been reading and staring at anatomical deconstruction of the spine, nerves and ribs for the last 2 mornings, hoping for an answer to modifying my practice until I am healed, and a clear understanding of what I need to be doing correctly in the future. 

The thing with time is it makes you think that it moves forward linearly and that as you move forward into your practice, you are meant to know more about your own physiology and anatomy. You are meant to have that awareness. 

And yet, truth is, I do not know. 

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“Fate will carry the willing man…”

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“Surrender” she said.

There’s a bolster lying vertically down my mat, and I’m standing at the top, feet apart. I had just come up from what seemed like a failed attempt of an unsupported drop back…because the floor seems so far away, and the breath just wants to leave me hanging midway.

“But it’s not the same as letting go. If you let go, there will be too much weight suddenly on your hands when you reach the floor. Just..surrender”, adding in the technicalities with a little smile.

I am beginning to marvel at this one simple word “surrender” that embodies within it an immense articulation of what it really means to allow life to play out on its own course. On the mat and equally off the mat. A word that is supercharged with a lot of energy and emotions that not many are willing to venture past beyond the point of contemplation. Because surrender is possibly the hardest thing one could attempt to do in the face of the unknown.

Fata viam invenient, Seneca once wrote. Fates will have its way. Ducunt volentem fata, nolentem trahunt, fate will carry the willing man and drag the unwilling. Reminding us all that there is a higher hand that is at play, or a discourse of life that has perhaps been written somewhere beyond our own ability to see and understand.

It is not even the end of the first month in this year, yet the word which I have made a point to work on more, delve into deeper, understand it further has been featured so many times since the start of the year – both in my own personal life and in the conversations I seem to hold with those around me.

Like that conversation I had with H a couple of weeks ago over lunch when she related her desire for a child and the emotions that arises as she goes through rounds of fertility treatment. I asked what it felt like every single time the process did not work, that time of the month that arrives to let you know yet again your effort, money and hope has yet to produce the kind of fruit you’ve been wanting. “Agony” she says. “Partly because of the effort you put into preparing your body to be at its healthiest, you plan your life and your schedule around this process and mostly because the doctors and those around you are confident that it will work this time around…and then it doesn’t”.

“This time, I’ll need to get things in order up here before I go in for the second round” referring to her second upcoming IVF treatment while pointing to her head. We spoke of expectations and keeping that in check, but mostly of surrendering to the process. And preparing the mind to accept the possibility that she will never be able to experience the sensations and emotions of an expecting mother.

But the word is steeped in so many different connotations. Letting go. Acceptance. And in a less positive light, complacence, or even worse having the ‘je ne sais quoi’ attitude to life. But these are just semantics I believe. There are inevitable situations and circumstances that we have to eventually acknowledge as being out of our control. As Gregory Maehle puts it “totally accept that you are a machine operated upon by God”. That our own bodies can betray the best of us for reasons unknown.

There is however, a distinct beauty that lies beyond that point of surrender. A beauty that presents itself in moments of silence unravelling a bigger picture that is so often overlooked because the desire to have things the way we want it to be, at the time we want it to happen, to have the final say to the outcome is far more persistent than the desire to see what may lie ahead and beyond the actual ‘wants’. Which reminds me of a beautiful verse from Al-Baqarah that reads “…and it may be that you dislike a thing while it is good for you, and it may be that you love a thing while it is evil for you, and Allah knows, while you do not know” (216:2). And perhaps that is the essence of surrender, giving in entirely to the unknown despite our best efforts and allowing fate to carry us through willingly.

..and this is the wonder that is keeping the stars apart

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Time is rather fascinating, from hours, to months and years – one can’t help but wonder what life would be like without any concept of time? Without any regard of time there will be no such thing as New Years no? But the concept of time, amongst its many other function serves as a tool of reflection, consolidation and integration of experiences into something meaningful. Because man is always out to find and attach meaning to everything that happens to them, Viktor E. Frankl certainly got famous from it, and I am not far behind in agreement.

This year has been nothing short of magical. Cliche I know, but it is one word that I can use with all honesty and still feel that it falls short of encapsulating the essence of 2014. Since it is also the end of my twenties, that “defining decade”, it feels really good to be exactly where I am today, to look back on all the big life decisions I have made to bring me here, and to feel a sense of excitement entering into my thirties.

If there was a word I could use to sum up my entire year it would be blessings. I am infinitely blessed and for this I am endlessly grateful to the Universe and the Higher power that governs it. From the opportunities that came in a steady stream and watching Mind Body Breath grow from strength to strength (with the 2 coolest thing to happen to it was the appearance on TV3 Berita Utama and coverage in Her World magazine), the kindness of strangers, the meeting of beautiful souls and mind blowing connections that transcends all my understanding of what it means to really and truly connect with another person, and ultimately the expansion of a group of people I hold close and dear in my heart.

Delivering a report and having a Vietnamese translator by my side (and discovering that having your presentation translated actually gives you plenty of time to calm that public speaking nerves – woohoo!), appearing on their national news, embarking on this teaching thing full time, sharing my written thoughts with others and seeing on it print, sharing what I love and what I know to others and watching them experience similar benefits and positivity, that maiden trip to India, falling in love with Saraswathi and her energy, discovering the value of parampara, falling head over heels with the entire practice and discovering an entirely new world around it, kick starting a business partnership with a person who is so similar to me in values yet so utterly different in certain worldviews and looking forward to the kind of boundless beauty that will result from this communion.

There were a couple of lessons that became really clear to me which affirms some of my understanding of the world or whatever it was that I may have read from before. I understood the concept of making space by first releasing the things that doesn’t serve you anymore. Magic happens in those spaces. They really do 🙂 I understood every quality that which we love, admire, hate or detest in other people are merely the reflection of the exact same qualities within ourselves, shedding an entirely different light and meaning on my understanding of ‘one-ness’ and the self. And I have also come to understand that the Universe awards you with many, many gifts in different forms and that you would only have to be present and aware when it happens to fully appreciate it. Of the biggest lesson in this though, I have learned that sometimes this gifts are not meant to be kept, sometimes to be let go as immediately as they came, sometimes to not be owned but appreciated as they are, and on other times, to be experienced and then to allow distance from it and to admire it from afar. The challenge that remains for me at least is to learn not to grow attached to any of these wonderful gifts.

Equally as the affirmation occurs, so too did the disintegration of certain beliefs that was accompanied with a lot of questions that was really uncomfortable leading to days of unease and sleeps underlined with meaningless nightmares. I am still questioning a lot of things but I have managed to find comfort in this very uncomfortable process, to make peace with certain things that remains unknown and to embrace fully my ability to question the very foundation of my faith and trusting this entire process in and of itself. Certainly these questions arise from within for the mere purpose of drawing one closer to the self.

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
E.E Cummings

Why Do You Feel?

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I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it. – The Invitation (Oriah)

This morning’s conversation began somewhere around Dandasana. His touch was alternating between firm pressure and cautious sweeping of his fingers on the area that has been responsible for an uprising of many introspection and emotions and a perpetual discomfort when it comes to breathing while lying down.

“Go easy with your practice. I can feel some tiny tears,” to which the hypochondriac in me instantly kicks into overdrive “but practice the way you are doing now. Exactly as you are doing now”, and that little child in me is quickly pacified though what really means are modifications, removing jumpbacks, jumpthroughs and chakrasana, and employing a version of half chaturranga that makes me feel like I have just taken 2 huge steps back in my own practice.

And if that is not sufficient enough for this ego that sits within me, the real sense of dread and fear for the upcoming seated postures, the Marichyasanas variations started as soon as I stepped on my mat and stayed with me all throughout. How does one avoid the inevitable? A clear example of humans being humans and demonstrating their aversion to pain. At home, during a self-practice away from the watchful eye of a teacher, perhaps it is always that much easier to press on for a couple of breath, sigh a little, struggle a little, grunt a bit more and then give in to that feeling of “fuck it, let’s just go to closing from here”, but in a Mysore room and a teacher that seems to hover around when he knows you are struggling the most, giving in to that feeling is akin to exclaiming out loud in a class full of other students that you’ve finally had enough, rolling up your mat and storming out of the room. Never. Going. To. Happen.

At Marichyasana C, I was teetering on the grey but very real line between practicing with awareness and the actual fact that I could really hurt myself. The kind that would usually send many PTs and Osteopaths shaking their heads at your own stupidity. But I caught my fingers and thought that is enough for today, at least in this posture. At Marichyasana D, that was when I felt like I am standing in front of an emotional water-dam that is brimming with tears. Partly not knowing if I should keep moving through the discomfort and complete the pose, partly feeling the full effect of helplessness and struggle, and fully thinking “OK so how FAR should I take this to??” while questioning every angle of this concept of surrender.

The entire time he was hovering close of which I am pretty sure exercising his superpower abilities of listening into every thoughts I had going in my head at that moment. And then he suddenly appeared, sat down, straddled close to assist me and said “Don’t identify with the pain. Just try. Slowly”. And when I caught my fingers he added with a smile “next year, it will be gone”. Next year it seems is less than a week today. I wonder if it will come that soon.

Later at the reception outside, he pointed out those tears weren’t new, that they were ‘old’ and it is just surfacing up to release itself. Now thinking back, few conversations in the last few months seems to make sense. Like that time when S was going on and on about blockages stored in parts of your body, and Akash talking about his Thai massage that made him cry (and in his own words “like a baby”). I have ABSOLUTELY no idea what kind of old injuries I’ve done to myself or unknowingly stored and equally as clueless why it is surfacing up in the form that it is now. Frankly I much prefer if it was just traded into 1 hour’s worth of sadness, so I could cry it out, and get it over and done with. It’s not a matter of patience and waiting to ride this out, but rather the discomfort that is opening up all sorts of introspection that is leaving me quite overwhelmed.

Why do you feel? What is the purpose of all these sensations and feelings? I’m not too sure myself – maybe next year I will find out.

Moving through the pain

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Pain, when it comes to yoga practice always presents itself as a topic of inquiry that leads to endless debates and opinions. What is a safe yoga practice? Is it normal to be experiencing pain during or after a yoga practice? Does the presence of pain indicate injury? and if so, does it mean that yoga should not be practiced at all?

A widely consulted physiotherapist and an advocate of myofascial trigger points in Mysore whom I had met and learned a few things from during my last trip addressed the last question succinctly – “Yoga in and of itself does not lead to injury, it is the individual that comes to the practice with his or her own pre-existing conditions, imbalances and tightness without first being aware of these that leads one to eventually experience some level of pain and injury”

I have always approached my yoga practice with a lot of awareness to a point sometimes it borders toward cautious rather than trusting the process itself. My belief was pain during and after practice is unnecessary. These feelings are meant to be heeded by easing off or backing off, resting during periods of prolonged pain until it subsides before resuming your daily practice ultimately acknowledging and honouring the sensations and the limitations of your body.

My views on this however are changing. The more I begin to observe the 6 times weekly practice, the more I talk to other practicing Ashtangis and their own experienced challenges in the practice, and as I begin to lay down my hands on more texts, opinions and views of long-term authorized and certified Ashtangis, there is another worldview that is opening up to me of this thing we call pain.

Gregory Maehle even has different categorisations to pain of which I feel could be information that is largely hard to digest and wrap the head around for those without a consistent yoga practice. This week I have somehow managed to end up with a persistent pain on the left shoulders – the palm sized area around the infraspinatus and somehow, i don’t know how this is even possible, a sensation that wraps around from behind to the front pectoralis. My suspicion is leaning towards rushed chaturangas, falling out of the correct alignment in an effort to maintain breath to movement and a botched, i’m-still-working-on-it chakrasanas.

In the past 2 days it has greatly intensified perpetuated by the fact that I still have to demonstrate these poses in my own classes that I lead. For the first time in all these years of practicing various systems of yoga asanas, I have decided to show up on my mat, however intense the sensation is. Mostly out of curiosity, like volunteering myself as the lab-rat to my own experiment on my mat. What happens if I allow myself to move through the pain instead of identifying with it and cooling off for a few days? What if this is an opportunity to turn inwards further and refine my own understanding of body awareness and limitations?

Before everything else though, there is a clear disclaimer here that I draw the line on the above approach only to myself. And under no circumstance would I ever push such ideals, or even worse my own curiosities to other people who are new to the practice or anyone that comes to me to learn yoga asanas. These are obviously just my own pondering of which I have yet or ever will draw any clear conclusions from.

And so it is, this idea of moving through the pain rather than just sitting with it. Yesterday’s practice was horrible. Today’s painful. Let’s not even talk about how many times I woke up throughout the night every time I needed to turn or move. It is humbling to be assisted into postures that I have never needed help in. Even more interesting to coax past the initial body’s reaction to tense up at the first tinge of pain. And yet the most surprising discovery out of the last 2 days was that my headstand was lighter, less cautious and that much more stable. Perhaps it is the heightened awareness to move through my chaturangas, sometimes modified, sometimes slower, to skip the jump backs and jump throughs and take the beginners version. (And I believe this is where the grey area lies between introducing modifications to minimise further aggravation of those irritated muscles and tendons, or bulldozing your way through the pain with complete disregard of what the heck it is you are actually doing to your body). Perhaps it is the energy reserved through less jump backs and jump throughs that gives me enough at the end of the practice to almost effortlessly come up (to stay up is another story by the way).

But it occurred to me that pain and ease are really two sides of the same coin. I love the Quranic verse that says “Verily, with every hardship there is ease” (94:5) In its simplest form what is implied is that ease comes after hardship. But what if they both exist together, at the same time? And without one, the other cannot be experienced? Or that both are meant to be experienced together? That verse used to imply hope, the temporality of what is, the idea of ‘this too shall pass’. But today I am awarded with a different perspective. Sitting with it implies stagnancy, moving through it on the other hand implies quite the opposite. Moving through the discomfort of pain allows for lightness to be experienced, and when it comes it is that much sweeter.

Day 9 – When is it coming?

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Part of what made me fell in love with the practice was the idea of commitment, consistency and perseverance which Ashtanga demands before you are rewarded with the fruits of your labour. These fruits come in the form of self-accomplishment, and a deeper understanding and acceptance of your own possibilities.

Guruji was known to have said this to his students when he was alive, “practice, practice, practice and all is coming”.

I was excited when I saw glimpses of this truth manifesting in my practice when I begin my daily Mysore classes at Upward. From Navasana (boat pose), I was given, and this I am describing in my own words and perception, the notorious Bhujapidasana (shoulder pressure pose). One of the gate or ‘peak’ poses in the Ashtanga Primary Series. I lost count of the number of times I had to awkwardly untangle myself from the pose because my body just could not register the level of strength required to pull myself out of it into a Bakasana (crow pose) AND jump back from there.

A few days later, I figured out how to come up without untangling myself. But I kept falling on my bum. And believe me, with my bony frame, it was literally bones against the mat over and over again. Thank God for those well padded Black Pro Manduka mats. My head would come up and I would move to the instruction of either of my teachers (“straighten your legs, pick up your bum, straighten those legggsss”) and BOOM I would fall. And there are days when doing one of those was enough and I would much rather lie flat on my mat after and she would smile slightly and say, “try, 3 more times”.

THREE more times?! My wrists felt like it was about to detach itself and run away to be the understudy for Idle Hands movie.

But I did. Grunting. Breathing like my life depended on it. There was no ease in that pose. Definitely no sukham in those few long minutes. A little over a week later, I came up. Bum up. Stayed up. And I eased (or at least tried to channel some ‘ease’) into something that resembled a Bakasana, and stepped back. All in a little over a week of 6 times a week practice, plus a few more moon days in between.

And so I had thought, by coming here, and being so close to the source itself would help me progress faster. I am coming into week 2 of my 1 month stay. At the back of my head I am filled with a slight but very real pressure of returning home having completed the entire Primary series. But my practice seemed to be just at Supta Kurmasana and everyday I am hoping Saraswathi would say “Tomorrow you try Garbha” which is the next pose in the series. Everyday I approach my Shirshasana (headstand) with a deep resentment and a splinter of hope because I know how it will be. Halfway and I am stuck. That hope is mostly a little bit of courage to try to balance on my own. But mostly it fizzles out as soon as I am on the tip of my toes. Or these days, I catch the attention of David, her assistant, and he kindly helps me with the full headstand and the pike headstand. Supporting me and ensuring I don’t go flipping backwards and shock the entire room with a big bang.  I feel like I could write a whole entire book about my journey into trying to stand and balance on my head. It has been 2 years and I can’t help but feel that typical ‘dang! is there something inherently wrong in my physiology that it’s taking me this long? When is it coming already??”. What took others a few days to learn (I have seen this happening personally), I am still struggling with. 2 years later and I have progressed forward at the rate of a very sleepy tortoise. Maybe that is the challenge that I have to face. To detach myself of the desire to progress at MY own timeframe, but rather allowing it to happen on its own. Perhaps.