Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Unstick the idea that you are stuck.

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in Samasditihi
“Are you doing advanced postures yet?”

One of my friends who I started studying Ashtanga with sent me this message yesterday. He’s not the first. And as I’ve been studying, looking on the internet at old films of Ashtanga practitioners, I have come across comments about moving along in the Ashtanga series. I often see the comment “I’ve been stuck at Navassana for 18 months...”

Lots of times this comment isn’t complaining, it usually is said with gratitude for the teacher that held them there. But its followed by a celebration. “Now I can do this posture and that posture and the one after it, too!”

Bodhi watches class
Perhaps I should clarify. In a traditional Ashtanga Yoga practice, there are six set sequences of postures. The first is called primary. Many people never get past second series if they practice daily for their whole lives. 

If you do your daily practice with other people, its called “Mysore practice”, named after the town of Mysore, India, where Sri K. Pattabhi Jois started the Ashtanga Yoga Research Center. 

In Mysore practice, everyone does the same series. The room is full of people, some beginners at the back, and generally, as you move forward in the Shala, people have more experience. People in the front of the room might have some third or fourth series postures sprinkled in. 

Everyone practices together, but you are all moving with your breath, so people are doing the same thing, but at different times. More advanced students keep going, but it takes beginner students the same amount of time, because we move slower or take more breaths. 

My friend Carina and I ended up in synch for a while
The teachers walk through the room and work with you on whatever posture you are on. You are supposed to know the sanskrit names of each posture and the order in which you do them. When you get to a posture that is too difficult for you to do, the teacher stops you. That is the end of your practice, every day, until they decide your body, mind and breath are ready for the next posture. That it would be beneficial for you to learn the next posture.

Because we are human animals, we feel rewarded for hard work when we get another posture added to our practice. People get frustrated when they can’t move on, thrilled that they are singled out when they can. Every one struggles with trying to not have a goal, everyone wants recognition. If you work hard, on your breath, on your bundah, on your drishti, on your movement, on your energy, on your intention, you should get another posture. 

But just like going on a diet, just because you join a gym for three weeks and show up diligently and wear your new exercise clothes and work really hard does NOT mean you will look in the mirror on week two or three or six and see much difference. Change, important, lasting change, happens slowly, from the inside. 

I am stopped at Navassana. This is a common stopping place. I came into the Shala worried that my practice would be sloppy but confident that I was strong enough to do all the chatarangas in the practice (there’s lots of them, they are lower down pushups). Turns out everyone is strong enough to do all the chatarangas. Turns out there were people in the class who were on second and third series. 

Navassana. Boat pose. Five times, five breaths. Don't sink your boat!
I knew I was going to be stopped at a posture, I was grateful at first that it was as far along as Navassana. I knew I had a lot of work to do the first day. I couldn’t remember the series, to begin with. 

I thought for sure after a week of hard work, I’d get to do the next posture, which is an arm balance. I love arm balances. Because you don’t have to be strong in your arms. Just well balanced. They make you feel like a rockstar. Like you are capable of anything. Its like all the reward of being able to walk on your hands without actually needing to go upside down. 

But a week went by, and I still was working on my Updog. “Charge your FEET, Kate! Come ON!” Rhada would say, and come over and pull on my feet and slap the backs of my legs. “Why don’t you use your legs???”

I don’t know. I thought I was. 

“Where is your BREATH? BREATHE!”  I thought I was. 

“If you don’t close your mouth, I’m going to get the duct tape.” Prem said one day. “You know duct tape? On your mouth. That’s where I’m going to put it.” 

I thought my mouth was closed. How is it that I can’t tell if my mouth is open or closed? How is this possible that I can’t keep Ujaia breath through the whole practice? Don’t I know how to breathe? 

Mel, super twisty and inspiring, in the grey.
Where in the world was my awareness? I was unknowingly cocky when I came to class. People in the past have complimented me that I have a nice practice, that I look focused and like I am working hard. Giving my all. I feel that, have felt that in my practice. 

Ether this place is a whole new ballgame, or I have awareness of breathing, but not during activity, or being somewhere new has exposed all my defaults or some sort of combination of all of that is going on. Whatever it is, I needed to lose my ego, gain strength, gain flexibility and clean my sloppy practice. Starting with learning the names and knowing how to do updog. 

About a week ago, I had the first of several micro breakthroughs in my practice. My feet, it seems, are stronger and more flexible. I have gained discipline in them, and with that discipline has come some strength and freedom. My updog is more powerful and light, connected, and grounded. My feet are charged. I am using my legs. I didn’t even know what that MEANT until I found my self floating on an inhale and staring up at the ceiling. 

Sharon, my teacher in Aspen, has told me about this sensation. “Eventually, with the breath, and the bundah, you will just feel like you are floating.” 

“Are you kidding? I feel like I weigh a million pounds and I will never float anywhere.” I thought. I had been carrying around the weight of this story, of this belief that I have a big, fat body. That even when its healthy it will be fat. That I can’t be light. That I have to accept my Kapha heaviness and cary it around in extra bags all over the place. I am not a sparrow or a pidgin. 

But while that is true, I am a larger person, holding onto that story has held me in this lie. It has told me that my core is weak, that my arms are strong, but I’m so heavy I can’t lift myself. I’m trapped in an idea of my body that has nothing to do with my ability or possibility. Skiing is possible for me because heavy is a benefit. My legs are strong. I have good balance. 

But maybe, maybe that’s all a story. Maybe if I practice, all will come. Maybe if I show up, every day, and breathe and move from my core, my body will unwind its story and let go and have permission to become what it wants to be. Lighter. Stronger. More flexible. 

Bhujapidassana. The next posture in the series. 
A few days ago, I was having breakfast after practice with Mel, a beautiful woman from Switzerland who can put both her feet behind her head. “They are so wonderful.” she said, referring to our teachers, Prem and Rhada. “I come here and they just clean my practice, you know? Take out all this extra nonsense that is like dirt on my practice.”

I nodded. This is exactly what it feels like to me now. I do not in any way feel stuck at Navassana. I feel like I have SO MUCH work I can and need and want to do in each posture and in each transition and in each breath allll the way to Navassana. 

While I still think doing arm balances would be cool to feel again, I’m not in a hurry to get there. Because I don’t want to fall on my face, or hurt myself or rush my body. Because there is no hurry. Because I am where I am. And where I am is a beginner. I need to learn the basics. I need patience for the foundation.

First, I needed to find my core, my center, mulah bundah. I needed to ground through that place. I’m still working on that, but now its there more than its not. 

Next, I needed to learn how to breathe. I needed to find my inhale, slow and full, in every posture. I needed to slow waaayyyy down until I could move fluidly with that breath. Now I am finishing with the front of the room, like I have a full long practice, even though I am stopped at Navassana. 

In order to work on this, I needed to step over my ego, in every posture, after every class. Not wish for more, not want another posture, not want to hear “Good job, Kate.”

There are no mirrors in Ashtanga. Just feel your body over time. 
And I found that the sooner I laid my ego down, the deeper my practice became. The cleaner it became. A few days ago, I had the experience of bliss in class. This ecstatic sensation as I rolled through my feet into updog. My body is changing. My practice is being scrubbed clean, all the extra sloppiness being flossed away. 

Why would I want to add postures when there is so much work to do in the ones I already have? My body is at its place of benefit stopping at Navassana. I am getting lighter, stronger and more flexible. My shoulders are opening, my hips are opening, my spine is opening. I can twist, I can stand solidly. 

I am finding length, space, and benefit, in each breath, in each movement, in the pursuit of depth and correct practice in each move I make, all the way to Navassana. I am sure, if I keep practicing, that eventually my place of benefit will be further down the series. I see people in front of me who can do beautiful and amazing things with their bodies, and it inspires me to keep working. 

Because I am doing beautiful and amazing things with my body. And I want to keep feeling that: the health, the strength, the opening, the learning, the unwinding, until I am an old, old lady. 

When I get there, to a place where my body can benefit from it, I’m sure my teacher will encourage me to add a posture, because my body is ready for it. 

Until then, I’m grateful to clean my practice and stop at my place of benefit, Navassana. 

There is so much time, and so much to be grateful for right right right where I am now. 

No comments: