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....