Saturday, 1 January 2011

2010 and the Primary Series: my year of yoga

Well well, it’s New Year’s Day so it must be time for a clichéd look back at last year...(well, if everyone else is doing it, why shouldn’t I?!)
This time last year I was at the airport preparing to fly off to Goa. It was to be my second trip to Purple Valley, this time to study with Noah Williams, and I was well aware that my practice had been shaky at best in the preceding weeks. It was only in November that I went back to a teacher after about three months break from my formal practice, and even then I was making it once or twice a week at best (and hadn’t practiced at all over Christmas). Arriving in Goa I found that around half of the group were beginners to ashtanga and so were taking a daily led class with Noah – leading them to believe that everyone in the early class was “advanced”. Not so, said I; true that I was confident to practice mysore style, but I was very definitely one of the beginner-est of the self-practitioners. It didn’t take long for me to get very dissatisfied and disillusioned with where I was at with my practice. I practiced up to bhujapidasana at that point, and was convinced that I was the ONLY person in the history of ashtanga EVER to be stuck at that point (oh yes, it was definitely “my special unique problem” – or one of them!). Trying to talk to Noah about it for some reassurance he basically said that I hadn’t been practicing for very long, and that given that I’d taken a three month break it was like going back to the beginning again. Which was really NOT what I wanted to hear (but was basically true). It was as impossible to balance in UHP as it had always been in my early days. I still couldn’t get into a headstand unaided. And needless to say, bhuja seemed impossible and I still wasn’t getting any new postures – despite the fact that others around me were. I kept a little notebook while I was there, much of which is filled with my frustrations. But towards the end of my stay something occurred to me. I was frustrated with my practice when I hadn’t actually been practicing. Duh!! And here I was, having practiced 6 days a week for 2 weeks (I even practiced the morning after spending the middle Saturday in bed having been very sick, India stylee), right at the start of the new year. I had a realisation that I couldn’t bitch about my practice until I actually made an effort to establish a regular practice. And having always been rather keen on that “fresh start” feeling of a new year, I couldn’t help but see it as my new challenge: 2010 and the Primary series. Somehow it just felt right, 2010 has a rounded feel to it, and to me it felt like the perfect opportunity to really give this thing my best shot.
Coming back to England I was determined to start getting to the shala more often. I documented my early attempts on this blog of course, but my plan was to build it up slowly so that it was sustainable, rather than coming back all guns blazing and reaching burnout after a few weeks. Starting with Sundays (that was the easiest day to get there for me) I started adding one more weekday at a time. By early February I reported having “made it” to practice on Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday (having skipped Monday and Tuesday because I’d almost had a mental breakdown being adjusted in triang mukha on the Sunday!!) and had started to make the connection that my body actually felt better (less sore) when I practiced than when I didn’t.
In March I travelled to Edinburgh for my first workshops with Kino, and had my first major breakthrough of the year: an unassisted headstand. It arrived magically at the end of a led class (possibly my third ever attempt at full led primary I think?), accompanied by full-on tears and violent shaking, but happily on returning home from the workshop it was mine to keep forever. On summarising the weekend with Kino I found that I had made peace with my practice exactly where it was, writing the post on a Saturday evening before bed. And so what happened the following day? Not twelve hours later I was with my teacher, who saw fit to give me the long-awaited next two poses: kurmasana and supta kurmasana. Talking to her afterwards she said that sometimes as a teacher you can just feel a “space that has opened up” – in other words, as soon as I let go of grasping for the next pose, it was right there waiting for me.
My journey with supta kurmasana was a painful one (both literally and figuratively). It involved a painful shoulder injury, visits to an osteopath, a long period of completely backing off, probably a lot of blogging, a HUGE amount of discussion, and finally the breakthrough I’d been waiting for came in July when I bound my hands all by myself for the first time. A quick review of my posts between March, when I was given supta k, and July (when I became able to get into it alone) reveal a huge amount – ha! I'm surprised myself by my level of honesty on this blog sometimes! But during these months I experience first hand how the practice can bolster you through difficult times when I lost my grandmother; I learned what happens when your teacher goes awaypermalink somewhere?!); and perhaps most significantly I ramped up my practice during this period to hit the elusive 6 day week – and immediately noticed the changes in my practice.
Then in August, all in the space of one week I was told that my company was probably going to fold (and I would be losing my job), I got two massive parking tickets, and I was given garbha pindasana. Wow thanks universe, anything else?! Garbha turned out to be a total bugger for me, and once the crazy bruising died down I had a good few months (in fact up until late November) of being able to get my arms right through but only being able to rock on the spot without getting beached. September brought baddha konasana (the day I was given it I wrote “I have a feeling this asana will bring both joy and pain” – oh how f’ing right I was!) which fast developed into my LEAST.FAVOURITE.ADJUSTMENT. EVER. But after only a few days of getting used to it, in early September came upavistha konasana. And at this pointi began to freak out that the end of primary was hurtling towards me like an unstoppable train. I was right, and the rest of primary was rolled out for me pose by pose until on the first anniversary of my first ever visit to my teacher, I was given setu bandhasana. A few weeks of getting used to this and then, a few weeks before Christmas, we started working on dropbacks. So in a sense, that was it: I set out to devote 2010 to the primary series, and in that time (completely unexpectedly), I reached the end of primary. Of course these are just the bare bones of the story, and I may now be practicing full primary on a daily basis, but the reality is that I still have so much to learn. 
And perhaps the most important thing I have to learn is balance. Because in devoting my year to my ashtanga practice, I managed to neglect a whole lot of other stuff along the way. I didn’t go on a single date. I certainly didn’t throw myself into my work (even though I now have a shiny new job). I became appallingly bad at replying to messages from friends and became a whole lot more flaky (and likely to cancel plans with friends) than I ever was before. I definitely ended up sleep deprived. But would I change the past year? No, of course not, but what it makes me realise is this: choosing to devote yourself to one thing almost always means that other things get missed out. And I know for sure I want to experience this whole rich tapestry, not to look back on my life and think “well, at least I could bind supta kurmasana by myself”. This (once again) is certainly not the post I set out to write, but I now realise with perfect clarity that the challenge turned out not to be “establishing a daily practice” or “moving through the primary series”, oh no. The real challenge, now that I have achieved (horrible word) both of those things, is to integrate my practice into my real life, and to have a bit more of a life. And something tells me this is going to be my toughest challenge yet.


  1. It was so fun to read this summary, even though I was more or less there for all of it, haha... It's hard to imagine a time when you couldn't do supta K, weird that it wasn't so long ago! And it's definitely weird that once upon a time you weren't a 6-day-weeker!

    Good luck with not being flaky and having a life, don't look to me, LOL...

  2. Hi Mel, Happy new year. I have the same challenge. Does yogi brunch count?

  3. haha yes susan I should have written at the top: only for irregular-readers, I am about to repeat myself! This wasn't quite the post I planned it to be, but then when are they ever? Funny when things (like writing) take on their own shape, I think we are just here to allow them to flow however they choose. Haha - is that zen writing or something?! Anyway yep, I found it really interesting reading back at what seemed IMPOSSIBLE just a few months ago, and also how my breakthrough with supta k came just after the practice where Cary made me cry by making me do it 3 I just read last night, so often a breakthrough immediately follows a crisis. Good to remember this!
    And Susan you TOTALLY have a life - more than most other yogis I know!!
    Helen - happy new year to you too! I think yogi brunch counts towards it, as long as that's not all I do ;) In fact I told a shala-friend yesterday that my "ambition" for this year's practice is to occasionally get drunk,stay up late and miss's all about BALANCE!!

  4. What a wonderful recap! Totally agree on the balance thing - there's no point having a solid 6-day a week practice of our off-mat life is neglected. Reading your post led me to reflect on my year too - a year ago today I had only been practicing for 2 months and I really dreaded the Suryas. One year on, I'm 3 poses away from finishing Primary - who would've thought??

    Happy New Year Mel! Looking forward to following your 2011 journey :)

  5. Yes, zen writing. Helen, yogi brunches TOTALLY count. And Mel I will help get you drunk if you insist :)

  6. Cool, I'm in London the weekend after next because Marc got me circ du soleil tickets for my birthday, yay! It was so hard to see friends outside of London when I was commuting to London every week, but I already have plans to visit a friend in Birmingham so I am going to gradually catch up with them all. Yogi brunch? You'll have to count me out on the drinking, I gave it up last year.

  7. Beautiful Post! Congrats on all you've done for yourself in 2010.

    I agree balance is the next harder step following dedication, and I am looking to do better at it as well.

    Best of luck of bringing all that you desire into your life in 2011, you can do it!

  8. Thanks Danielle - I know, it's hard to believe when you look back even a year at this stage how much has changed, isn't it? I dreaded Surya B for about my first 6 months I's funny how our goalposts keep moving though, I used to think that full primary and dropbacks were for the pros. But now I just realise it's the same as everything else. Happy new year to you too :)
    Susan - you're on! And Helen we'll email and make plans (though if it's 16th you are down I am working...)
    A - thank you! So far so good this year :) But agreed, balance is WAY harder than yogaddiction.And it might even be harder than supta kurmasana...more work required I think!