Tag Archives: primary series

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.

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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.