Sunday, 19 December 2010

Happy shalaversary

The alternative title of this post could be: for all the posts I haven't written.

I find myself entering again into one of those phases where it seems there is so much to say here that I end up getting overwhelmed and saying nothing. Some of these things are pretty landmark occurrences though so if for nothing more than my own benefit, I do want to mention them (even if I don't have time right now to elaborate). Outside of my yoga practice there is a huge amount going on too, perhaps mirrored on my mat, but discussing that will have to wait for another time.

1. I had my shala anniversary. Thanks to having written about it here, I was able to tell when it was exactly a year to the day since I first practiced with Cary and proclaimed that "I think I found my teacher". Funny to see now how right I was. 
2. I was given setu bandhasana, the last pose of primary (wait for it) - ON MY SHALA ANNIVERSARY! I didn't actually realise until a few days later (when I checked the dates), but even though I try not to attach any great significance to this, it seems interesting to me. One year ago, I rocked up at Yoga Place with a very shaky practice, finishing at bujapidasana, not able to get into headstand, not able to jumpback (no change there then!), and certainly not willing/capable of the early mornings needed to enable a daily practice. At that point (just to recap) I had been practicing on and off for 8 months, but having not found a teacher that I gelled with AND could actually get to regularly (I loved the evening teacher, but never managed to get to more than one class a week) my practice had become more off than on. 
I'll save the evaluation of the past year of practice for another time, but I like the fact that these two events coincided; it does seem to have some significance. When I had a moment to chat to Cary later that week (this all happened a few weeks ago now) and told her, she said that it is said that it should take a year to do primary (by which I assume she means a year of daily/almost daily practice, which discounted my on/off once a week period). And she finished by saying "and next week we're doing dropbacks!"

So, the thing which I have heard and read so much about. The thing which I began to fear about 5 new poses ago. The thing which (if I am honest) a little tiny bit of my brain illogically thought "maybe you'll just be able to do them easily - even though that happens to NOBODY, maybe you'll be the first one ever!". It's easy to have these thoughts when you have never tried something. So I turned up to practice last Sunday fully prepared to start dropbacks, and I have to say I was filled with anxiety. But the shala was busy, C wasn't around when I was doing my backbends, so I hung about for a while lying on my mat and then did the vinyasa into my forward bend. But later she came and told me, "tomorrow after your backbends, stand at the top of your mat and catch my attention". So there was to be no escape!
My overriding emotion though, aside from anxiety, was not to make too big a deal of it. Easy to say before having started them I know, but I did not want my entire practice to become about this, just like when I was struggling with other asanas I didn't want to give disproportionate headspace to them. My practice is my practice, it is not about one asana. I may need reminding of this in a few months time however ;) One further disclaimer - as I am trying to bash this blog out in double quick time it IS just about dropbacks. Of course for every day mentioned, there was a whole practice attached...I just don't have time to talk about all of that now!

So day one - C teaches it this way: hands in prayer, inhale, exhale go back (as she holds), hands touch the ground, inhale she brings you back up. Repeat three times. No fuss, no screaming or grunting, and actually no fear. My overwhelming sensation was that this was very like another big "first time" (think about it) where prior to the event you have so much build-up, and people in your class are separated in your mind into those who have done it and those who haven't...and then when it happened all I could think was "Is this it? It just feels WEIRD!!". 

Day two was much the same - it really didn't feel like it was about my back at all - at this stage it felt like it was purely about faith.
I should have known things were about to get more challenging...

Day three and we added in some extra tricks. Three dropbacks as before, then three supported hangbacks (arms across the chest), then a final dropback where you hold for 5 and walk the hands in. Coming up from there felt difficult, and for the first time this all started to become about my back. 

Day four was the same physically, but mentally a lot more difficult. I was feeling strange, and I just wanted to skip the dropbacks - but I stood up and waited for C anyway. And the drill was the same, but I felt like she really had to haul me up. After the first three dropbacks I tried to ask a question but was silenced with a one-word answer and told to do the hangbacks. After it was all over I had to fight the overwhelming urge to walk out of the room, skipping closing. I felt irrationally irritated and angry. I cried in paschimotanasana. The only reason I stayed in the room was because I knew that there would be no more adjustments through the closing sequence - i couldn't bear the thought of any more.
And then on Friday, when I would normally have done the led class (and hence no dropbacks), I was in Brighton for work and so I took my practice to another shala. The teacher there was wonderful, and gave me some great help, but I very very nearly went straight from UD to forward bending, feeling again that I just didn't want to do it. She has a different style, and had me move my legs much closer together so that I squeezed her leg between my thighs - and oh my god it's a lot more difficult! By the time we got to the final dropback where I held for 5, she practically had to winch me up. As she brought me back up I staggered around and grabbed her, making a load of noise, then told her it had got harder every day, nearly losing it as I said it. She gave me some lovely feedback, told me my back was very open and that I was doing amazingly for only having been doing them for a week. I think I needed to hear this at that point.

So today I was back the the shala, and silly me for thinking that it would feel easier after the difficult Brighton leg-squeezing version! Today as C came to the top of my mat she said to me "now we are doing the next phase". So now I have to hangback as far as I can with my hands in prayer on the exhale, inhale there, and then she takes me down to the ground on the exhale, and inhale back up to standing. We do this three times before the assisted hangbacks, then the final dropback I have to do the same again before she takes me right down and I hold for 5, walking the hands in. All I can say is that it very literally felt like somebody took away the safety net as I tried to hangback without her holding me. There were a few false starts but I tried to just get on with it and not think too much, but that overwhelming sensation was of the missing safety net, and that I was trying to do something which was wrong (you know, like that urge to step onto live train tracks...or walk the wrong way up an escalator). So I think the lesson I am taking from my first week of dropbacks is this. Just as soon as there is anything approaching a comfort zone, it gets taken away, The honeymoon is over, the hard work starts here!

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Why do we work?

Why do we work?
Aaah, a good question you may think (and no doubt one which triggers all sorts of gut reactions) - it's a fairly loaded word, "work", isn't it?

The Sunday moonday last month allowed me to go back to my original yoga teacher, the one who really got me interested in yoga and it's more spiritual side - found, incongruously enough, at my local weight-lifting/circuit-training-obsessed local chain gym. The funny story is that this class is sivananda style hatha yoga, but up until a few days before I went to India to take an ashtanga course, inspired by my love for this class, I was utterly convinced that this was ashtanga. Anyway I digress...
For quite some time I was a regular at this Sunday afternoon class, without really having much conversation with the teacher (N - a wonderful guy who looks for all the world like he just landed from another planet and is still trying to figure out what this one is all about - he is that spiritual. But after coming back from my first trip to India, all full of the joys of ashtanga, I quit my gym membership to spend the money instead on yoga classes. As I now always practice at the shala on a Sunday, there isn't really a chance to go back to his class apart from on the odd ocassion, like last Sunday's moonday for example. Well now that I am an infrequent visitor, and a yoga devotee, every time I do go to his class I am treated to a seriously amazing conversation with N afterwards. I wish I could suruptitiously record what he says, as I can't take it all in, but he has said some things to me in these conversations which have had quite an impact.
So last week, I took the class, which was wonderful (and let me say, as it is mostly the same each time, it's a great marker to see how my flexibility and strength has changed in the months since I last tried it) and afterwards he stopped me for a chat. "You look so well," he said, taking my hand, "What's happened? Did you get married??"
Well, funny suggestion, but no - I told him that I had a new job (and in the most part my "looking wonderful" was probably down to a lie-in and a post-yoga glow). So then we got into a discussion about work - when I say discussion I mean him talking and me listening, hoping against hope that I could remember it all and apply it later - but the essence of it was something like this (though I' paraphrasing of course).
Through our work we face the meeting of past and future - of our memories and our if something reminds us of a situation when we did the same thing before and it went badly (like chasing up money from a customer for example), then we remember the past experience and imagine it happening again in our future. To get the outcome we desire we need to remain completely in the present and not colour it with what has gone before or what we imagine might happen this time. Our work exsists to teach us an important lesson in our life - but if we are not careful, if we take our eye off the ball and sleepwalk through our hours spent at work, we risk missing the lesson, and "that is why we work, it's all about the lesson." And there was me thinking I just worked to pay for yoga ;)
He went on to talk about how people explain washing the dishes as a meditation, and how he watched an old film of Swami sivananda where he did everything with a reverance, a form of deliberate movement - tying this in with work, he decided to take a job (on top of teaching yoga presumably and - big surprise to me - writing film scripts) as a decorator, "because if I couldn't turn work into a meditation when I'm painting a wall white from one end to the other, then what could I?" Seriously - wow.
He said that this took him many years to understand, but once he realised it it held the key for him. He also spoke to me once in the past about how once you understand what life is (when we were discussing the yogic path) that it doesn't matter if you're sweeping the streets or having the corner office, because you can do either thing with a song in your heart, or a black cloud permenantly raining on you - the actual job is not important.


I was reminded of all of this this week, especially yesterday, as I am in Denmark this week as part of my training for my new job. The company I work for as a sales rep/account manager is based here, and they get all new employees to spend a few days (or a week for those lucky people based in Denmark!) working in the warehouse - the idea being so that we understand how it all works and won't make unreasonable demands on them later, haha! As my colleague was delayed in arriving by a day due to bad weather, I spent day 1 on my own, and our first task was unpacking a shipment of baskets which had just arrived from Madagascar. Surrounded by Danish people who spoke little English, I stood alongside them with my knife, slitting open the old rice bags used to pack the baskets, and thinking of N's words. In all honesty that morning, lugging these heavy bags, carving up my already sore and dry hands, having no conversation with my neighbours, was the first thing I have done since starting this job at the end of October which felt like "work" - as in, a hardship, something which I wasn't actively enjoying doing - not that I was unhappy, as I had all of N's words running through my head as I did it, but it defiitely felt like work in the traditional sense.

And surely that can't be bad? Having come from almost three years doing a job where I did very little but watch the clock and surf the internet, this is something of a revelation. And thankfully the unpackig section was just a short interlude before I was trained how to pick orders - but here there was another lesson. I was taken by one of the (english-speaking) staff on a cart like the one in the photo to be shown how to pick orders (it is done manually, travelling around the warehouse on the cart with it's attached trolley and matching up the orders to a handheld scanner) and let me tell you, I was terrified. These things can MOVE! And being a passenger was really quite scary - as was the thought that I'd be let loose myself before too long. But after the morning coffee break I was off, and after a shaky (and very slow!) start I was zooming around like nbody's business by the end of the day. When my colleague arrived today, I was the one who trained her, and yes I may have had a few crashes but I quickly had to let the fear go yesterday, to notice when my shoulders were rising up towards my ears in tension, and just to go with it and relax. And I couldn't have been more proud when the warehouse manager told me at the end of today that I had done a really terrific job and not made any mistakes with my orders :) And how did I forget to mention how much FUN we had?! Zooming around on our little carts, my colleague and I giggled our way through today - with the odd bang and crash to send us on our way. We decided to ask the warehouse manager if we might be allowed to come and work for them during our holidays, a thought which had us doubled over laughing, as did the moment when I stepped off the MOVING cart we were both on to look at a cushion I'd spotted, whilst saying "Oooh, PRETTY!". So after the fear, the fun :)
So I'm not entirely sure what my overall message is, maybe I don't need one, but just to say that sometimes you need to keep your ears and eyes open for the lesson that is there in your work. And one thing's for certain, thanks to N and my lovely new company, I have been reminded that work isn't just a means to pay for yoga holidays - though it helps with that too.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

More things I learned in Thailand - Part two

This is continued from part one....

Asana specifics – these are all changes I have noticed in my practice since coming home. I'll say that of course not all changes or lessons become permanently ingrained, and even since I started drafting this post some of these things have changed...but let's go back in time and consider what I learned before I started unlearning it again!

  • Clayton explained the hip opening action in the janu sirsasanas – I’ve often heard these explained as hip openers, but until he talked about rolling the bent leg hip back and down, and came and adjusted me in it, I never really felt it. I also found a feeling of opening in the straight leg hip crease which I’d not experienced before, and in B I finally took the weight off my poor underneath foot (which has a scar to show for all the weight that’s been loaded onto it this past year) by working into my hips instead.
  • Mari A – I was left with some latent uncertainty about the foot position actually in all of the marichyasanas as this was tweaked in almost every practice by the assistant teacher. However one day she also talked me through pushing down into the bent leg hip to open the psoas – I have been taught in the past to push down into the foot, but pushing the hip down towards the floor seemed to produce a new feeling of opening there.
  • In teaching headstand to beginners, Clayton emphasised how important it is to keep the elbows close together and move the shoulders away from the ears. I didn’t realise that this had changed until shalamate Susan, covering the first mysore class after I came home, whispered whilst giving me my balasana massage “I really liked the way your elbows were close together”. Well I never had a compliment during child’s pose before! I have also found that my headstand feels a million times stronger than ever before through a combination of Clayton’s teaching and the conversation I had with Susan after that practice, where she said that pushing into the inside of the elbows (even if you can’t move them closer together) also really helps. So I tried it and you’re right – thanks Susan! And actually even in this past week I have been really working on the shoulders which introduces so much stability that I have even begun working on floating the legs up – up until now I have been tucking my knees to go up into sirsasana.
  • I videoed the last full practice of our retreat and through this I learned ALL sorts. One was that I massively hyperextend my elbows in downward dog, which is why my head is getting close to the mat, and also why I had a strange adjustment almost every day from Elonne, the assistant teacher. It wasn’t until I saw the video that I understood the adjustment itself, and why I had been getting it. And on returning home and trying to adjust myself to correct this what did I find? As if by magic, my heels were able to reach the floor much closer to the floor (somehow they have risen up again since I wrote the first draft)! A less fabulous thing I discovered from watching the film is that I am a million miles away from being able to jump back properly, somehow I am still launching off one foot, and my legs are kicking way up in the air. Having seen this I was really discouraged and it did actually make the process seem harder though my practice for a few days. But generally speaking seeing the video was a positive experience, especially as I got more adjustments that day than I got the whole of the rest of the week! It’s quite weird to watch yourself being adjusted and my mum was horrified by Clayton’s full-body downdog adjustment when I showed it to her (“but he’ll hurt you!”) – I just told her it feels great!
EDIT: I did originally post some of the video here but as it features other practitioners I can't decide if that's good blogging etiquette or not - any thoughts?
  • I learned that chakras aren’t a load of hippie claptrap. Sorry but that’s what I had always thought! I put them in the same camp as crystals and aura reading and know, kind of weird bullshit. But as part of the daily breathwork as well as chanting the bija seed mantras (which we universally loved!) we did the internal sunrise meditation (which I misheard as ETERNAL and now can’t separate it from the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind...but anyway!), working through each chakra point, visualising the chakra as a disc and breathing at 4 points around it before moving up to the next point, and then sitting and breathing for a few minutes at the end. I think it was on Tuesday, so three days into the course (and a day that we had a led class) that I had a very powerful experience in this meditation. As we moved up to the third eye, and then the crown of the head, I felt something really moving upwards in a very powerful way. I needed to sit with it, which I was able to do for a few minutes, but then we were told to come to stand at the top of our mats to begin the class – but I really, really needed to stay where I was and sit with whatever this thing was. Of course it wasn’t possible, so I did stand up and practice, but after coming out of savasana I still felt that I wanted to sit quietly. I went to breakfast but really just wanted to be by myself, so I cancelled my plan to go out for the day with my roomie and took my lovely Argentinian friend’s advise (“Maybe today you need some lonely time...”) and I did just that. I walked along the beach with my camera, I lay on the sand, I swam and I read, and later I felt able to rejoin the group for dinner. I was a bit scared though that this shouldn’t have happened, and was apprehensive about doing the meditation again the next day. But I did it, and then after the class had finished I spoke to Clayton and explained what I had experienced. I said that I am vata, and recently went through an experience of having too much vata at which he said “Oh me too...” and he then went on to talk about feeling like there was nothing to anchor you to the earth, feeling like a balloon that could just float away, and needing a lead weight to be tied on to keep you here. Now this was strange in the extreme, because in my life before yoga I often had this feeling, that I needed to be anchored somehow and that it was only through the way other people saw me that I could be pinned to the earth (as in, being somebody’s girlfriend, somebody’s friend) – those were the things that stopped me from floating away, and without them I was so insubstantial it was like I barely existed (such were the existential crises of my pre-yoga life!!). It was just really odd that he used the exact same analogy that I had thought, but never vocalised, for years and years in my early twenties. As I walked away I couldn’t even remember the full extent of this conversation with Clayton, only that he hadn’t said “oh my goodness, how WEIRD... you probably shouldn’t do that again “ which was of course what I was afraid he would say. He talked about engaging mula bandha to give that feeling of being grounded, but I think the most useful part of the conversation was feeling that what I had experienced was OK, and that it was normal.  And even that it had happened to him!

The last thing I feel I learned on this trip was something which came up in my very last few hours in Koh Samui. As I mentioned while I was away, I am not a very strong swimmer, but having ventured into the sea on my first day I was determined to make the most of the wonderful location and enjoy being in the water. I have always had a fear of deep water, so in a regular swimming pool I could never swim lengths because I wouldn’t go to the deep end – as soon as I know my feet won’t touch the bottom I start to panic and feel like my arms won’t come up high enough to swim. Likewise I was never particularly keen on being in the sea, not knowing how deep it would get, if anything was lurking on the bottom, and of course there are no edges to stay near to for safety. But just being in the water every day (if not really swimming much) was such a joy. Towards the end of the week my roommate and I cottoned on the fact that going swimming right after practice (on day 1 of this – IN our drenched practice clothes...though I took of my yoga pants and went in in my vest & knickers in full view of everyone, haha!) was where it was at, and often we would just go into the water and then hang about chatting. So it’s not like I can’t swim, or that I’m completely afraid of the water, but I don’t like going under, I don’t like getting water in my face, and I am definitely “on edge” when in the water. But there I was on my last day, my case was packed, and about an hour before I had to leave I decided to go for one last dip. Heading out into the clear calm water I lay on my back and just floated as I often do...but realised for the first time that in doing this you don’t have to keep moving your fingers to keep afloat. You don’t have to strive and can just lie there, arms outstretched in a T shape and the water will support you. And the thought came into my head: If I can just float, what is there to be afraid of?
Doesn't exactly look scary, does it?
BAM! Amazing realisation...and (of course) this is not about swimming. Just think about it: every fear you can imagine, if you just hold in your heart that belief that you will be safe and supported, then there is nothing to be scared of. The moment shook me, it was a profound realisation, but also a completely calm and lovely one. So I lay there a little longer, then I headed up for one last outdoor shower before I headed off for the journey home. And all through my three flights and 30 hours travelling home, instead of thinking constantly that I was going to die (no really, this is what normally happens when I travel) and gripping onto the armrests for dear life during takeoff and landing, I thought back to lying on the water, safe and supported. And I wasn’t afraid.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Things I learned in Thailand - Part one

This post is long overdue given that I came back from Thailand a month ago today....but that's mostly because it's been sitting as a half-written but still way too long draft for the past few weeks - oh and the fact that I have started a new job, turned my world upside down, been to Denmark - so that's lots of reasons! But I have new things I am dying to blog about, so I have to post this first - that's the rules!! So what did I learn in Thailand? I feel a Claudia style list coming on... 
  • Going on a workshop or retreat and expecting to come away with a transformed practice is just not realistic. I decided it was a bit like when you see those weight loss shows, and people have to lose vast amounts of weight – they might lose 9 pounds the first week, 6 the second, but before too long it plateaus at 1 or 2 a week and they start to get disappointed. If you are starting from nothing (as I did on my first retreat) then of course you will see obvious progress. If you are returning to practice after a break (as I was on my second retreat!) then maybe what you’ll see is what you lost (that you could do before you took the break), but probably by the end you’ll be making clear progress. But going on a retreat when you already have a practice means, fundamentally, you have a lovely setting for your daily practice, a different voice counting the led class, and maybe some pointers that differ from the information you are usually given. I don’t mean this to be unnecessarily downplayed, of course there were things I learned, but I didn’t experience a 360 degree about turn in my practice – because ashtanga just doesn’t work like that. What does Kino say, there’s no pixie dust! It’s all about doing it every day.
  •  Sometimes the things you need to learn are not all on your mat. I found the behaviour of some people I met on my trip really challenged me, and I don’t think I dealt with it in the best way (i.e. I let it really wind me up). I won’t say much else other than that as this is a public blog after all :)
  • Being taught the primary series with mostly beginners is a huge benefit – the fundamental asanas are clearly called that for a reason. Having a chance to go back and re-learn the early asanas in the series was a great help as when I first learnt them there is so much to take in that refining the poses has to come later. In a strict mysore environment you often get very little verbal guidance for these postures, even if (like me in trikonasana) you’re clearly not quite understanding something to the extent that every teacher I ever practiced with adjusted me in the pose. Finally with Clayton something clicked, the extra verbal explanation on a daily basis went in and now I am a lot closer to understanding trikonasana than I ever was before, and the same applies to a lot of the standing sequence.
  •  Breathwork and chanting are hugely powerful – I’ve got more to say on this in part 2 of this post, but every day we spent half an hour before practice doing a breathwork sequence including some chanting, and this had some quite strong effects on me. Those of us on the course universally loved it and I would really love to adopt some of it into my daily practice – the only problem is how! I already get up not long after 5am, I just don’t see how I can fit any more into my morning schedule – but maybe I can keep trying to work this one out. Clayton loves music so he also incorporated a lot of guitar-playing and chanting into our afternoon sessions which was really really wonderful. We’re trying to talk him into recording a CD!! It’s funny to be around people for a week who all have “shiva shiva shiva shambho-oh-oh, shiva shiva shiva shambho..” as their earworm.  
  •  The first few days of a retreat are always tough. In the run-up to it I imagine that I will be transported to paradise and everything will be perfect. Then I arrive, exhausted from a long trip, and spend a couple of days making comparisons to trips I’ve made before and worrying that the people aren’t going to be very nice/that they don’t like me. It happened on my second trip to Goa (and probably my first, but I didn’t document it that time), and it happened in Thailand, so I should learn from this that it will probably always happen.
  • Thailand and Goa aren’t in competition. So after the inevitable comparisons on arrival, I decided that (for me at least) Purple Valley is personal, and Yoga Thailand is commercial. For what it’s worth here’s what I thought. Although YT is undoubtedly more comfortable, it feels somehow less authentic, and several factors give it less of a friendly vibe than PV. One is that not everybody who is staying there is taking the same course, which inevitably means that you don’t mix with the full group, and that sometimes people will talk LOUDLY outside the shala while your whole group is in savasana (see point 1!). Sorry did I say sometimes? What I meant was Every.Freaking.Day.  Also not everybody there is an ashtangi, which of course is completely cool, but does mean that you can end up having those “What? You practice EVERY DAY? The same thing??” conversations (or worse the “well in MY yoga....” which often veils the “my yoga’s better than your yoga” sentiment) which make you feel like a freak. And the one place you really want to let yourself feel you’re not a freak is on an ashtanga retreat. Beautiful as the setup is at YT, I also found that the layout was less than ideal for this mixed group setting: the shala, pool and eating area are all on top of one another (adding to the gripes about noise!) whereas at PV there are all very separate. But then YT is right on the beach, and the location is stunning and perfect, the rooms are comfortable and air conditioned, the beds are fabulous, and my room even had an outdoor shower! After spending half the trip running through these thoughts I came to an important realisation: You don’t have to choose. One doesn’t have to be better or worse than the other, they are both wonderful in their own right. Coming out of the sea immediately after my morning practice on the penultimate day I found myself thinking “next time I’ll know to do this from day 1” (“this” being taking a swim right after practice) and it surprised me, as up until that point I hadn’t realised that I planned to go back again.
  • Having trust in a teacher and the system doesn’t come naturally to everybody – and maybe it’s the hardest thing for complete beginners. This was something I found myself discussing with my teacher since I’ve been home too, on the subject of who will cover while she is on maternity leave. I’ve always understood that if as cover teacher or retreat teacher differs from your daily teacher then you follow whatever instruction you are given – you respect the teacher you are practicing with on that given occasion. When I first started ashtanga I was so clueless that I didn’t think to question what my first teachers were telling me (and nor should I have done, they are wonderful traditional teachers), I just went along with what I was taught and accepted the system as explained to me. I was of course very fortunate to have such a great introduction to ashtanga (you can read about it here in one of my first posts). Coming back to London I first went to a teacher who I didn’t get along with at all, and who I really disagreed with in terms of her methods, but I did as she said, I tried to find a way to make it work, and then after a few months I switched to a different teacher. What I found interesting was that amongst my retreat group in Thailand, there was quite a lot of dissent in terms of the teaching methods which left me feeling rather uncomfortable. Having said this, the same thing happened amongst the complete beginners on my last trip to Goa. The general complaint was that it was too hard for the beginners. Funnily enough everybody who expressed concern said the same thing “It’s not me I’m worried about, but for some of the complete beginners I think it’s too much.” Those few of us with an established practice took to the programme (which was 50/50 mysore practices and half led primary on alternate days) with differing approaches. Whilst I missed my normal daily mysore practice a bit, and had a vague concern that it might be hard to get back to the later asanas after not doing them every day, I was mostly happy to take the teaching that was on offer.  The other established practitioners had differing views at times, but one realised that asking to be allowed to finish the series after the beginners had finished the led class was indicative of striving for more progress and what was needed was a lighter attitude to the practice. 
All of this comes down to one thing: you just have to suck it up. Listen to your teacher, do as they say, don’t question it too much. Now this may sounds like I’m brain-washed, and I want to write all sorts of disclaimers to go with it, (one of which is that of course, our teachers are only human and they can make mistakes - and sometimes we just won't click with a teacher) but the basic lesson is just as I said: suck it up. According to Cary learning to respect your teacher doesn’t come easily to a lot of people, it takes time for them to develop that trust, but from what I can see it is absolutely one of the most important points to reach if you are going to continue with a dedicated practice. Maybe this is why I look at other people on retreats happily having dinner with the teacher and speaking to them like they are just another of the guests, whereas I stumble over my words and don’t know what to say in normal conversation when my teacher is around...instead of this meaning I’m a loser maybe I can see it as a good thing!

I’ve got more but in the interests of not writing an encylopedia let’s call this part one – to be continued....and I’ll leave you with a video (clearly not Clayton!!) of one of the songs we managed to crowbar into a kirtan...not in Sanskrit. I tried to find a good version of one of my favourite chants from the week but nobody does them quite like Clayton..sigh.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Garbha information overload

Since I started (trying) to do garbha pindasana and having all sorts of trouble with the rocking, I've heard lots of different advice. I can get my arms right through (thank you Mr water-spray), I can rock back and forth, but as soon as I attempt a circumnavigation of my mat: beaching. Humiliation. Bleurgh.

"Rock back with the exhale, forward with the inhale."
"Pump the thighs as if you were on a swing."
"Make sure you rock alternate sides of your spine to avoid bruising the bony bit of your back"
"keep the bandhas engaged and the neck sticking out like a turtle" (I am paraphrasing...)
"Rock back onto the left side and lead up with the right side"

And much more besides...but still the fact remains that I CAN'T. BLOODY. DO. IT. Every day as I approach it I start making deals with myself as to whether I'll try it "properly" (in a circle) or if I'll just rock on the spot. Most days I find a reason for the latter (I'm too close to my neighbour/the wall, I'm beside the teacher's station & it's putting me off/I don't have time/I don't have the energy) so I am no closer to being able to do it. 
One day last week I just decided that there is only one way I am going to learn this. I have to actually  try. So that day I tried and tried, and eventually with lots of stopping & getting stuck, I got around. So of course the next day - what happened? I was in a hurry so I didn't try. And the next day. And so it goes on...

But today, again with my teacher sitting right beside me, I did actually try. I was encouraged by yesterday's effort where (on the spot, granted) I had managed to maintain contact between my hands and my forehead the whole time, which was an absolute first. And the first rock was good, hands stayed on the forehead and I actually moved round to the right. Pausing before the second rock I started to believe I could do this. I suddenly remembered about bandhas...might as well give that a try I thought... ;) So in my slow way I made a few rocks, a few revolutions, was feeling rather pleased with myself, and then I got stuck. 

"Do you want help?" C asked from her perch, but it turned out the help on offer (at first) was verbal.
"It's all in the tuck. As soon as you lose that tuck you've lost it - that's why I teach it with the hands on the forehead," she said. AHA! The most helpful piece of advice I think of hears on this one - oooor, maybe just what I needed to hear today. And yes, she did have to help me round on the last few (and to fling me into a lame kukkutasana), but this really gives me something to work on for tomorrow. Hurrah for daily practice - the last 2 days I have had the sensation on finishing that I just want to do it all over again...well, in 16 hours time I can have my wish!
p.s. yeah yeah, I know, I'll write about Thailand. One day.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Marichyasana you or don't you?

A(nother) speed post while I continue to process thoughts & reflections from my time in Thailand...(it is coming, really it is - the problem is there's just too much to say, and not all of it suitable for a public airing!!).

After practice today I asked C about Mari D. As I can now bind at the wrist (well, most days) I asked if I should be slackening off the wrist bind to try and get the bent leg hip to the ground - if I try to take the hip down with the deep bind I lose my balance, so what is the priority? It's only recently (like in the past week or so) that I noticed it feels slightly possible that the hip could come down to the ground so I have been wondering about this. C's answer was interesting; she said that she only teaches hip down when you have finished primary. So as she said, next year when you've finished primary, and been finished with it for a while - then yes, that's how I'd teach it, to slacken off the bind to allow the hip to come down (and then eventually of course we'd hope to get the wrist bind back again). She also said that it's probably because I have been doing my new postures (upavistha konasana, supta konasana) that I can feel the possibility of this happening, as there is some of the same action (I can't remember exactly what she said about this, and it doesn't make much sense to me at the moment...). I also asked her about getting the lotus leg hip to the ground in Mari B, saying that if my knee is up should I not be taking my head right down to the ground? Of course the answer is no, so she's going to take a look at it tomorrow (whoops, I hate asking a question that means I'll get pummelled for something on my next practice, but at least I will know then.)

In other news, a visit to my cranial osteopath on Friday (who also happens to practice & teach yoga) led to a demonstration of a new approach to baddha konasana which I got to try out in practice today. I have been really battling with this one, and every day as I come out of it,adjusted or not, I feel slightly like I'm walking away from the wreckage of a car accident (drama queen, moi?). There have been tears, ragged breath, panic, pain, name it, baddha k has it all for me. So he had me go into it (just the legs) and asked me where the tension is. Right in the hips/pelvic region was the answer, so he told me to roll the flesh away from the sitbones (oh yes, that favourite trick of all non-ashtanga yoga teachers...) and to lift up from the tailbone, and the pubic bone will lift with it. Then rather than trying to push the knees DOWN as I have been doing, he said to take them OUT in the direction they are pointing, and then engage uddiyana bandha to create the space before even thinking of going forward....and going forward lead with the chest, being aware of the space that's been created. Probably none of this is even approaching revolutionary, but as he reinforced each point to me as he added one more instruction at a time, and I sat in the posture all the while we were talking, he pointed out that my hips had opened even in that short time. And, more to the point, it felt SO different, and altogether more comfortable than my past experiences. Of course there's no room in a Mysore context for all of this fiddling about, but today I tried just to focus on some of these points (happily I wasn't adjusted) and again it felt so so different; it probably helped that I spent a long period sitting in baddha k last night but could it be that I am over my major traumas with this asana? As the osteo pointed out, hate is a very strong word to bring to your practice, so maybe I can kiss it good bye for now. Here's hoping anyway.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

A total lack of routine

So according to my last post I am mid-retreat in case anyone's wondering where I have got to, since my last post I have already been back to London, flown off to Denmark 20 hours later to start my new job, had a week without practice and then finally arrived home on Saturday night ready to get back to the shala last Sunday (where predictably enough I have battered my body for the past few days...Lesson learnt: NEVER take a week off, it hurts too much!!). As of Monday I am installed at home doing my new job, which currently consists of me being a little clueless and desperately wanting  to be fully up to speed with it, and all the while I am trying to figure out how to conduct myself in this whole new lifestyle. So while I am dying to blog about all of my experiences I am just too overwhelmed at the moment with everything else going on, and have also got into that phase where there's so much to say that I feel like I've fallen behind and I can't write about the newer stuff until I've written about the older stuff. Meh. I'm hoping that doing a mini excuse-laden post for my absence might kick start me to write some more that might actually be interesting! 

Just one little yogi thought for you today: Yesterday as I began my practice I had a little freak-out thought: "How can I just be doing sun salutations when I have no idea what is happening the rest of the day??" Whereas in my old life I knew I would be trotting off to the office after practice, and all was highly predictable, now (and especially during the settling in phase) I have NO idea what my days will hold. But an answer popped into my head as soon as the question came...
Of course you know what's coming next: just breathe.
Out-breath follows in-breath follows out-breath follows in-breath. And so I focused solely on the breath for the duration of my practice, and if at any point the fear of not knowing what's coming popped back up, I just reminded myself that if you can just concentrate on your breath you will ALWAYS know what's coming next....

Monday, 18 October 2010

Beginner's Mind

So the retreat has begun and I have stopped blogging...
Well there’s just so much to fit into a day! Yesterday’s schedule looked like this: half an hour breathwork/meditation to begin a slow led class as a group, breakfast, pool-time, a little swim in the sea, lunch, pedicure , afternoon workshop, dinner, chatting with fellow retreaters, bed. See? Busy busy round here, no time for blogging!!
But in the interests of keeping a record of this trip I should say how it’s going so far. Let’s put it this way – our welcome meeting on Saturday afternoon included some gentle get-you-over-jetlag yoga (including some of deepest pigeon variations I ever came across!) and when we were in savasana Clayton did a little strum on his guitar to tune it. And then Mel realised she was in HEAVEN! We then chanted lokah samastha sukhino bhavantu accompanied by his guitar and his lovely mellow singing and I knew I’d come to the right course :)
In terms of who is here, the majority of people on the course are either beginners or people who haven’t practiced mysore style or ashtanga yoga before. This makes for an interesting dynamic on my part, as I am amongst one of only 3 or 4 people (out of 17 I think) with a regular mysore practice. Having been one of the closest to beginner level on retreats in the past this is a strange and unusual concept to me (and am trying to disengage any ego at this point). But also I am the least advanced of the regular practitioners, so that feels a bit more natural!! What’s funny is that my room-mate is as huge an ashtangageek as I am and we both confessed to having a fear of being paired up with a complete beginner and having to pretend to be normal, haha!! She’s from Melbourne and is laid back and lovely and practices up to the beginning of intermediate. And her teacher was on the same training course in mysore that my teacher, my original teachers and our retreat teacher were all on. Oh and she was on the same course at Purple Valley as a good friend of mine last year. Small world eh? And then we have another massive ashtangageek from Argentina, a lovely guy who urged me to give up my job as one of the first things he said to me and has described at length the perils of wearing a certain type of boy shorts to do garbha. We had a fabulous long chat last night (the three of us) where we realised that we are all insane, but at least we’re in it together! Isn’t that actually the point of going on a yoga retreat?
 So anyway given the number of beginners my assumption was that we would be taking things very slowly to begin with, and yesterday that was the case. But I now completely understand the benefit of going back to basics – I learnt so much! I think often when you are a complete beginner there is SO much to take in that a lot of the finer detail goes over your head. Then with regular mysore practice, your teacher might pick up on some of these glitches during your practice but there will always be things that aren’t picked up on; going right back to the beginning and being taught as a complete beginner is a great opportunity to refine the practice. We began our morning with a half hour session of “breathwork and meditation”. We began with alternate nostril breathing then some other breathwork before going on to chakra meditation (no guitar!) as we chanted lam vam ram (and so on) for each chakra – all of which left me feeling very mellow and chilled. So practice began was an erratic sounding opening chant as we did it all together, and of course everyone has veeeery different versions depending on your teacher. Clayton’s is (of course) beautifully tuneful and rather lovely in a sing-song kind of way.  He then handed out posture sheets and proceeded to demonstrate surya namaskar A before asking us to try, then the same with B, repeating a few times together before moving onto padangustasana and so on. Lots of explanation, modifications and variations (with demonstrations) for complete beginners, some adjustments as he walked round and we did the postures in a slightly less flowing way than usual because of the explanations, but I loved the way that he made everything accessible to all levels. And surely that’s the mark of a good teacher? Oh AND he was assisting the person beside me in utthita hasta padangusthasana and then just held his hand out and held my leg up too so he was assisting us both at once. Good skills!
I also have to say (just to get it out of the way...) I don’t think I ever saw a 6’2 man demonstrate ashtanga before (most of the male teachers I’ve come across tend to be shorter and have a different type of physique) but he looks pretty awesome when he demonstrates. And his abs are almost a little distracting!!  What with that and lovely mellow timbre of his speech and singing voice I think maybe I have decided a new pre-requisite for a successful yoga retreat... haha, bad lady!!!
In yesterday’s afternoon class we then ran through the postures in more detail – in the morning we practiced up to Janu sirsasana A and then did full closing, in the afternoon we talked as far as the beginning of seated. And there were definitely a few things that I picked up from this first class which I was then able to take through my practice both yesterday and today. One of the major ones was from his lengthy explanation of the correct posture of chaturanga through into upward dog. On Friday when I practiced with Elonne she picked up on my legs rolling out in upward dog. I’ve been aware that I did this a little but something in the way Clayton explained this part of the vinyasa so slowly and clearly made the penny drop. Activate legs – ta-da! Oh also (this is slightly embarrassing) I think I was confusing lifting up the kneecaps/activating the legs with hyperextension. That feeling where the knees slightly roll was one I thought I had to avoid for fear of hyperextending, but now I find that’s actually what you need to do to activate the legs...and in case I didn’t explain this well I demonstrated it with my room-mate and she confirmed that my knees were NOT hyperextending when I did the pulling up thing. Ha! More fool me! But err – sometimes these things just take a while to click don’t they? We finished the class with more chanting, one in English that he said was a typical Californian hippie campfire song and then morphed into lokah samastha, and also the news that tomorrow morning (Monday) we would be doing a mysore style practice. Pretty scary news for the complete beginners I imagine but good news for me as I feel like I have missed lots of days (what with 2 days taken up with travel and the time difference and then the Saturday rest day).
But then weirdly before the mysore practice today I was feeling nervous and like I didn’t remember the sequence – part of which is to do with having new asanas and having taken a few days break I’m a bit confused as to where I actually practice up until – so I checked the sheet before I left my room, but actually when I did my last pose today (supta konasana) I had to ask Clayton afterwards what came next – and that gave me the answer that I had finished my practice!
Anyway we began the class again today with half an hour of breathwork, the same as yesterday, then we did the opening chant in call and response before kicking off with mysore practice. I had my roommate to my left and a particularly distracting beginner to my right (I tried not to be too distracted, really I did...). When the distracting one finally agreed to stop (after saying she was happy to do more 3 times when told to stop there) her savasana consisted of lying on her side with her legs up watching the room. When told she could leave when she was finished she said “no, I’m learning” and continued to watch. Okkkaaaaay.....
I noticed that at the very beginning of my practice I felt a bit like I was trying too hard and that my brain was everywhere. It’s hard sometimes I think to switch off and focus on your practice when there’s so much else going on around you, and the suryas felt like they went on forever. I don’t know if it was because I mentioned my trikonasana issues in conversation yesterday, by Clayton came and helped me with my alignment before I had even started on the posture, and I felt like I was better aligned today than ever before which was fantastic. It was ever so hot though and sweat was pouring off me (bear in mind we started at 8am, much hotter than 6.30!) and at one point I was really shaky and thought I’d never get through my whole practice. But once I got to seated it was OK, I was using a lot of the tips Clayton gave yesterday and it was all helping. Luckily nobody was around to assist in baddha konasana so my poor sore muscles have another day to recover, and apart from my mental block at the end of my practice it was all good. One last pointer was to bring my elbows closer together for headstand – which initially felt wrong but as I stayed there very strongly I realised that I was giving me greater stability in the posture. By the time I came out of savasana only two others were still in the room (my roomie and the lady who works here – the fabulous “we love our breasts” Qi gong teacher) and it was roasting hot. So what did we do but dive headlong into the breakfast extravaganza kicking off with coconut rice pudding with fresh papaya to steel ourselves for another day of sunbathing, swimming in the sea and – oh, getting sunburnt, but that’s not really recommended. Back to a slow led class to navasana tomorrow to help the beginners integrate what they learnt today, so knowing how much harder slow classes are than normal ones, I’m off to bed!

Friday, 15 October 2010

Finding my mojo

Although it’s a little late to be up and writing, if I don’t do this now I never will! So this morning I had my first mysore practice, though not with my retreat teacher (the course only starts tomorrow with the first practice on Sunday). I slept really well (surprisingly!) clocking up almost 8 hours before I got up to have a leisurely cup of green tea and a shower before heading down for the very civilised 8am start time. One of the people I was talking to at dinner last night was already there, so I went into the shala and was laying out my mat when she started chatting to me – I wouldn’t ordinarily chat in a shala busy or not, as I feel like there is something about the room that needs to be honoured as a sacred space – but she has been here longer than me, maybe the rules are different, so I answered but without too much chat, and then laid down my mat and did some gentle stretches waiting for the teacher to arrive.

They have various teachers here when there is no retreat on, and today it was a young American teacher (who introduced herself but I didn’t quite catch her name...) who I later heard say she is a student of Richard Freeman’s. She came and spoke to me, asked if I was new to mysore, I said that I have a daily practice so she suggested that I started and we would “open up together soon”. So with three other people arranged in each corner of the room, I started my sun salutations. Apart from feeling a little creaky on the first couple, I was surprised that it just felt normal to begin my practice here, with large windows to my left and behind me revealing lush greenery and plants and the odd person walking by. When I was on my surya namaskar B the teacher brought us to the front of our mats to chant, and like in yesterday’s restorative class nobody else in the room made a sound much above a whisper, but the chant was call and response and in a very tuneful and lilting incarnation (not what I’m used to, but quite lovely). So I continued with my practice, noticing (but not attaching to) the fact that the person in front of me was new to the practice (and had a sweet conversation with the teacher “but what’s full primary?” “Don’t worry about that for now, you have what you have...” “Yes but how many more poses? What’s the whole thing?!” “Let’s just work on the marichyasanas and that’s plenty for now...”), the person to her right was obviously not new to yoga, but not familiar with mysore style, and the person to my right went through a standard full primary (no dropbacks). And the teacher picked up on many of the little things Cary picks up on regularly – my shoddy alignment in trikonasana, taking the foot slightly further out in Mari A, taking the body further away from the bent leg in surya B, a rescue mission when I beached myself in garbha (actually C doesn’t help with that, but I could do with it!) – and also some of the things I always think Cary might tell me off for but doesn’t (finding an inward rotation of the thighs and grounding the feet in pursvottanasana, not rolling the feet out in upward dog) but my overall realisation was this:
My practice was exactly like my normal practice. I have flown halfway across the world and done the same practice that I would have done half an hour from my house.
This is not a negative realisation – far from it! But what I came to understand through picking my practice up and moving it all the way here, is that what really counts in ashtanga is the daily practice. I’m not going to expect any miracles just because I am on a retreat, because that would be missing the point. Yes, perhaps once my course begins I will learn things which will cast new light on the things I do on a daily basis, but if not, it’s not the end of the world. The whole purpose of being here is the rounded experience, being away from home, having a break – and if I’m honest, this realisation (which I don’t think I have explained very well) was worth coming all this way for in itself. Because let’s face it, I am about to undertake a new job which means I will be highly unlikely to get to the shala on a daily basis anymore, and realising that I can pick it up and take it somewhere else (i.e. it’s not dependent on my regular shala, or my teacher, or the energy of the other practitioners) is HUGE. Home practice may be another matter, but this will do for starters :)

My new friend
Other good things about today – I met two people who are here for my retreat, and they are lovely (most of the people I’d already met are about to go home). I remember from my second trip to Goa the urge to make comparisons to the first time were inevitable. Here, the comparison to Purple Valley is never far from my mind – though I know this will fade. Also I remember the little struggle I had for two or three days in Goa in January of not being sure about the people I was with, if I fitted in or felt comfortable, and of course by the end of the course that was all long forgotten. So I know that it takes a little time, and whilst this morning and afternoon I spent a lot of time alone, this evening was far more sociable. Plus in my alone time I rested in my room for a while, I lay by the pool, met a family of kittens, had an iced mocha from the juice (!) bar and I swam in the sea! That’s quite a big deal for me as I am always a bit uncertain of water without an edge...but it’s flat calm here and not deep at all, so I felt brave enough and it was fun! Now I did it today I will definitely be in there a lot.
I'm going in...
Oh and this afternoon’s restorative class? Turned out to be Qi-Gong – in the open-fronted beach shala while the waves crashed and the rain arrived in a sudden downpour. I had a few reservations but kept an open mind, and so I was hugging the full moon, scooping up clouds, climbing the cliffs from the ocean of infinite wisdom to the thousand petalled lotus in the third eye with the very lovely & sincere teacher who made some slightly peculiar pleasurable moans as she exhaled. Open mind please people!! It was actually rather lovely, especially the visualisation she talked us through at the beginning, and I felt super spacey afterwards.
But tonight we saw Clayton arrive (haha, I got my new fellow-retreaters to turn round as I pointed him out and he happened to look up – busted! As they said, it’s like when you see a celebrity...!) so tomorrow we begin. And it looks like I may have found my mojo just in the nick of time. 
Gratuitous generic beach-shot. Lovely though isn't it?

And when I say I am here...

...I really should have included a picture shouldn't I? So let's put that right...I am HERE! :)

Thursday, 14 October 2010

I am here: Here I am.

In the month of so before I discovered ashtanga yoga I was going through a rough time (lost my “dream” job, broke up with the one I thought was the one, yada yada) and some of the time I was struggling to hold it together. But without even realising what I was doing I developed a personal mantra that helped me stop from falling apart (at least in public). Many was the day I spent my journey to work on the tube repeating under my breath “I am here. I am here,” as I attempted to keep flashbacks at bay and stop tormenting myself with thoughts of happier times. It’s stood me in good stead as I remember it often now, and when an asana is challenging, or life is, I can sometimes keep connected enough to remind myself of it: I am here.  I had a moment in the early hours of this morning standing on the tarmac of Mumbai airport boarding a flight bound for Bangkok where I felt this so strongly but in a new way – as I zipped across the globe I felt almost like I was sending off a signal into the night sky, like a flashing map pin..."HERE! I’m here! But not for long...".

So for today when I say I am here, actually I am in Thailand!! Just in case I didn’t mention that I was coming here ;) (oh, I think I may have done...once or twice) the lowdown is I’m in Koh Samui for 10 days, 7 of which is going to be a retreat with authorised teacher Clayton Horton. I added on a couple of days at the beginning to allow myself to get over the LONG journey and goodness me am I glad that I did? My travels began with a 4.45am alarm call (tough even for this morning mysore person...), a 90 minute train journey across London, an easy peasy check-in, then flight #1: London > Mumbai. I had opted to fly with Indian airline Jet as I was so impressed with them on my last trip to Goa, plus the price was good, and despite the extra part of the journey the overall transit time didn’t work out that much longer than more direct options. What was lovely was getting the DELICIOUS Indian vegetarian food on really!! The 2 meals served within my flight (a rather early lunch and a “snack”) were so so good! Lunch was paneer masala with rice and something lentilly, the snack was some sort of dark green patties (spinach?) with things that looked like new potatoes but actually contained all sorts of things including corn. I have no idea what I ate, only that it was great. I had a very friendly neighbour too, a young british asian guy from up north who told me that he was going on a boys’ trip to Hong Kong to get away from the missus “who was soon to become the ex”. Anyhoo he was telling me that Mumbai is his favourite city in the world (compared to New York, London, Paris...he was obviously well travelled) describing it as like the west end of London put through an Indian washing machine. Maybe I will have to try it when I get the chance :)
The other notable things about the flight which are hilarious and happened on my last Jet flights too are that they played BAD bad piano music versions of popular songs while you take off and land (“Bright Eyes” being a prime example...) – does anyone know who Richard Clayderman is? (I'm so sure it's actually him having just looked him up on Youtube!!) And also they have all these coloured lights, it’s too funny – when I went to Goa they actually did a crazy light show as we took off, the lights are under the overhead lockers and they cycled through all the colours (to the bad piano music) – with no explanation! We were spared the light show this time, but there were some episodes of the blue cabin...and purple....where they just brought in these coloured lights for a short while. I would love to know why they do it!
The flight went quickly, I watched 2 movies: Bad Ass (not something I’d normally watch and with a very high body count, but really fun!) and Entre les Murs (English name – The Class) which was interesting too (I love French films...). Anyway despite my major paranoia that my three leg journey would be problematic, changing at Mumbai was simple, the only drawback being no ATMs between International arrivals and International transfers. Good job I had 80 leftover rupees which was enough to buy some water and the precious cardamom tea I have been craving since I discovered it at the airport in January! It’s black tea with milk (which I never normally drink) but comes out of some cruddy cappuccino type machine so is frothy, and sweet and cardamomy...yum, and a complete bargain at 20Rs.
I used the flight from Mumbai to Bangkok (4.5 hours) to listen to a couple of Kino podcasts and try to sleep. Interestingly enough one of the podcasts ties in with my “I am here” notion. It’s ostensibly about the challenges of beginning meditation, but she talks about how the practices of meditation and ashtanga is all about staying with the body, understanding that the spiritual path asks you to stay in difficult places and just sit there, which was kind of like being on a plane for me, especially when I can’t quite believe my luck that I am going on this trip. 
A crazy part of my brain kicks in and says “this seems too good to be true. But it’s happening, so what does that mean? It means something is going to go wrong. SERIOUSLY wrong...” and I spend 18 hours with a thoroughly morbid full-on death wish. But despite this feeling being pretty strong, I was able to not freak out, I felt more relaxed in my body (I can feel if I am holding tension in my hips and just let it go – but at least I am aware of it!) and alongside these fears I had some moments of complete acceptance. OK, I told myself, let’s say the plane turns into a thunderball and it’s game over – then I accept it. I found some grace to accept whatever unfolds, and although it didn’t make the fears go away (though they were soon replaced with "OMG will my luggage have made the transfer??" fears) I certainly felt better. So after listening to the podcast I popped on another which is a guided meditation, and having the a seat spare beside me I had space to cross my legs, so I could join in with the meditation. Predictably enough I kept falling asleep, and slept/meditated for a while after it finished which was great until the person behind me got out of their seat clumsily and clomped me on the head and shoulder. Bit of a shock when you are in a deeply relaxed state!

Arriving in Bangkok was strange – I was here ten years ago at the age of 22 and I’d forgotten the vibe, the signs in another script (with English when you’re lucky), the anjuli mudra given by everyone who sells you a bottle of water :) Thankfully my luggage did arrive OK (though with a hole in – and the bag is brand new! So that was something else to be paranoid about..."will the hole get bigger on the next flight? should I get it shrink-wrapped?? Or does that look a bit...well, y’know..." . But having checked in (without shrink-wrap) I made my way to the lounge for free coffee and pastries. I have to say between these flights I never felt so well fed whilst travelling, I’m not even sure how I crammed the pastries in – but they were small! After a quick internet check where I looked up BBC news to see that the miners they had begun to rescue when I left London were all now freed and I cried standing at the terminal, I decided I needed me a little yoga. My hips were so stiff and my body was just crying out to stretch. So I found a quiet corner, took off my shoes, hung out in downdog for a bit and then went into headstand. I think there were a few people around but they didn’t bother me and I didn’t bother them ;) So a bit of sirsasana, then some stretching, a bit of pigeon (OUCH my hips!!!) some very gentle baddha konasana sitting against the wall, and it was time to go check in for my last flight.
I hadn’t really meant to write a blow by blow account of my journey (how many of my posts end with a sentence beginning “I didn’t really mean to write about this...”??) So consider it a diary for my own benefit. If anyone else is reading then it’s an unexpected bonus ;) But now I’ve written too much and I haven’t even arrived yet! Time to hit fast forward...
Suffice it to say I arrived safely in Samui, so did my bag, and although I tried to fight it I slept for half of 45minute taxi journey from the airport to Yoga Thailand so I have no idea if anything looked familiar from my trip a decade ago. After checking in to my lovely room I took a shower (outdoors!! But fully private...) then climbed into bed and slept for 2 hours, cursing the AC which I couldn’t seem to switch off and actually made it rather chilly. I was awake in time to get to the 5pm restorative class conducted in the small open-fronted teaching space that faces onto the sea and my body appreciated the chance to stretch and breathe, but funnily enough the thing I enjoyed the most was the last posture:  a different version of my current nemesis! We took supta baddha konasana with arms outstretched, palms facing down, as the teacher explained that this is also known as the goddess posture and allows us to be fully connected to the earth...and laying there listening to the sound of the sea and the gentle breeze I didn’t even have to remind myself...I am here.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Not another one??

Today: Supta konasana.

I'm not counting how many asanas stand between me and the end of primary...I just refuse. I'm trying to remember that just like the freak-out I have started having about my new job, I just need to stay present and stop looking ahead to the unknown that lies in my future (and making up stories of how much I'm going to hate it all). Also trying to ignore the little voice telling me that I'm only getting these new asanas so fast because my teacher knows I'm going away soon....

Full tears in assisted baddha konasana today, but I can feel so much opening up happening in my hips (not to mention some very loud clunks and clicks!) that it almost seems worth the agony (I said almost!). 

That is all.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Moving swiftly on...

seem to have always written a post the day I get given a new asana, which if nothing else serves as a good bookmark for me to look back on. But when I posted last Monday that I was given baddha konasana that day, I definitely didn’t expect to be new asana blogging again so soon! Actually it was yesterday that I was given upavishta konasana, so forgive me for the slight time delay...but it has brought up some interesting thoughts.
First thing I’ll say is that yes, I follow the traditional practice of being “given” each asana in turn. However I now have a far greater understanding than I ever did before that other approaches are no less traditional – in fact having read in Guruji the method used to teach the first generation western practitioners, actually the reverse is true! But the point is I don’t discount whichever method works for anybody else, but the way I am learning ashtanga is one pose at a time from my authorised teacher, and I am really happy that this method does work for me.
I have written previously about the learning process that seems to accompany each new asana, or for me at least. Back in the seemingly endless days when I was languishing at bujapidasana (actually 8 months from August ‘09 to April ‘10, during which time I had at least 5 months of sporadic or completely AWOL practice!) I desperately wanted to be moved on, but couldn’t see how I would EVER be able to do buja. As it turned out, I still don’t think I can do it even now, but I do have a damn good try at it every day. I spoke to my teacher the day that she gave me kurmasana and supta kurmasana, and she explained that sometimes you feel an energetic space open up and decide that the student is ready for something else. And it’s true that the night before that move-on happened I wrote a post saying that I had made peace with my practice as it was. And as soon as I let go of the grasping – TA-DA!! It happened!
Moving through the supta kurmasana learning process was another difficult journey (as evidenced by the number of posts where it is tagged!). I went through deeply uncomfortable adjustments, a shoulder injury, weeks of backing off completely and then one day I nearly bound it. In fact I had managed to catch my own fingers together a few times – not regularly and reliably, but enough to know that it wasn’t a fluke by any means – when I was moved on to garbha pindasana, and that at a time when my whole life seemed to have gone into a spin. I’d gone from getting kurmasana in April to garbha in August, which felt pretty speedy. I won’t talk again about the lessons which came with supta kurmasana but I think this was a really crucial one for me in understanding that the yoga is the process, not the “achievement” of the asana. What was also interesting was that in moving me forward (although I felt like I still hadn’t full mastered Supta k), somehow the space opened up for me to be able to really get it. And now kurmasana feels like a different pose, it is so much deeper, the bind is securely there every day with my feet touching, and I have even progressed this past week to securely locking my right foot over my left after a good few weeks struggling to try.
Getting baddha konasana last week was strange, because as far as I was concerned I haven’t cracked garbha AT ALL. Yes I can get my arms through my legs, yes I can (mostly) get my hands under my chin, and I can rock, and I can get up into kukkutasana every day now (eventually – after a few times hurling myself at it!) but I am still struggling to rock in a circle. I feel like I write about this every day between twitter & my comments on other blogs so I won’t go on, but I will say that I feel like this will NEVER be easy – let along fun as so many other seem to find it! But the bruising has subsided, the pose no longer feels quite so completely impossible, and somehow after only 1 and a half months (mid-August to September) I was given baddha konasana.
The immediate impact that it had was (again) to take the heat off the previous asana. I love how this works! Garbha did become less of a work-up knowing that I couldn’t fully indulge in it as I still had some work to do. Also my backbends seemed to benefit (as they have done ever since supta k stopped being my last pose – that is one hard transition, straight from an assisted bind there into backbending) and within a day my hips felt different in the rest of my practice. But baddha k came with a warning: I have heard and read so much about the meltdowns that come with it I couldn’t help but feel a little apprehensive. One friend of mine told how she almost begged a teacher on an intensive course to keep on adjusting her for longer and longer so that she would cry as she was gutted that she hadn’t cracked in it yet. Ha!!
Having been given the asana last Monday I was shown it that day but not adjusted. On Tuesday I was adjusted by the new assistant, he’s just learning the assists so although I was nervous that he might not known that I only just got it (Yoga is letting go of your story” fat chance!!) it was a bit tough, but generally OK. But then on Wednesday, day 3, I had the first Cary assist. I was fully holding on for dear life as C kept up the pressure to get me down towards the floor. I felt my knees touch the ground and by breath number 4 I let out a whimper and gripped on to my tension like I didn’t ever want to let it go! “It’s OK,” says C, which is quite unlike her, I know she is different with different people but for me, we rarely speak during assists. One more breath after she reassured me and I came up for air, but as I did so and then went into B all I could do was cry gently. It was HORRIBLE!! Susan heard this from the next door mat and offered sweet reassurances on our daily emailed practice reports, and in a way I was glad that I’d felt the power of the asana so quickly, somehow believing that this would mean I will move more quickly into a time when it feels good!
So the week went on and on Sunday I had the hardcore adjustment again, only this time C successfully managed to get my chin to the ground and both knees fully open. And yowzers - it WAS.NOT.FUN. Then something flicked in my brain and I thought “she’s going to give me the next one” – even though I didn’t believe it was possible after a week, I seem to be able to sense when it’s about to happen. And lo and behold, having walked away while I did the vinyasa after baddha k, Cary came beside me and talked me through upavistha konasana. And do you know what popped straight into my head?
“Nonononononoooooo!!! it’s TOO FAST! That means the end of primary is looming with the horror of BACKBENDS!” So much for being present eh?! Again, the spectre of other people’s difficulties is looming, and all I can think of is that whereas a few months ago I didn’t think I’d ever finish primary, now it seems that I am gaining momentum a little faster than I would like. Mind you saying that makes some assumption that I am going to figure out just how to catch my feet in mid-air whilst balancing on the edge of my bum WITHOUT bending my legs! But still, compared to postures like supta kurmasana, I can see that what comes next in the series is likely to move a long a little faster than what has come before.
I had actually intended for this post to be a bit more a discussion about the different ways in which we might become ready for the next asana, and I suppose in a roundabout anecdotal way maybe I’ve done that, but I guess what it comes down to is this: there is no one size fits all approach. 
Sometimes a teacher moves us on because we have fully “mastered” a pose.
Sometimes it’s because they know that giving us the next posture will make the preceding one a little easier. Sometimes it’s because we showed up on our mat every bloody day for months and tried to do the impossible - TWICE.
Sometimes it’s because we stopped wishing we could get the next one.
Maybe it’s sometimes even because we are about to go away and the teacher wants to give us something to work on before we will have a chance to be taught by them again.
Maybe it’s all or none of these reasons. 
Maybe it doesn’t even matter what the reason is – because as in life, in ashtanga we can’t always control the way and speed that things happen at. All that we can do is to show up and deal with whatever gets thrown at us however best we can on any given day.