Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Finding my edge? Or just making excuses?

Predictably enough, after taking almost all of last week off practice due to working away, two days into this 6 day week C ramped up my backbending another notch. Actually Monday was just "one of those days" (or should I say practices) where my brain wouldn't switch off, I kept reminding myself of things I had said or done which were out of place, my chitta vritta was trying to beat me with all of my mistakes, and getting my brain to calm and quieten down was proving impossible. I kept thinking that it would ease off once I got into the seated postures (nope), then I hoped that maybe after supta kurmasana I'd be feeling calmer (nu-uh), so when I got to backbends and C told me "Today we're doing something new" I was barely even surprised. Also (just to add to the moans) my body was feeling so sore that day, but most noticeably my lower back, right on the waistline on the right hand side - a new twinge which started on Sunday. So after doing my urdhva dhanurasanas I discovered that last week's break has given me just enough time to unlearn the ability to breathe in a hangback - I'm sure it'll come back, but for now the solo hangback comprises of 5 scratchy attempts to get my breath while I ponder whether to REALLY push it and see how far I can go, countered with not being crazy and breaking myself, and remembering to keep the legs engaged...which is a lot to think about at once, no wonder I can't remember how to make the space in my ribcage to find an easy breath! Anyway, after this Cary appears and says it's time to add something new...THE WALL.

A sunnier (but probably less deep) backbend in Thailand

I am instantly none too happy about this. Partly because I really don't want to add anything new (of course I don't!), partly because I have seen a shala-mate panting their way down the wall in a crazed and innefectual manner and don't want to put myself through the same thing, and partly (I admit it) because Susan says she doesn't see the point (and she is the crowned queen of backbends, afterall!). But of course I go with C to the back wall, and she talks me through it; lean back with one hand so that you can judge the distance, you might need to move your feet out as you go down, then go back to the wall, walk all the way down (remembering to breathe), hands right on the floor as you reach the bottom, then walk all the way up again, still breathing!! Well of course the breath thing is tricky, because in the assisted dropbacks I have been really using the breathe...inhale raise the arms, exhale go back, inhale come up...but here I am breathing in-out-in-out all the way down, and all the way back up again. And while I have seen video of peopl bouncing off the wall, of course mine is more like a hectic clamber, hands at different levels, trying not to slip and fall right on my head. Anyway I do the first two, then on the third one (apparently, I don't remember) C says I did great because I dropped straight back to the wall which takes bravery and that's half the battle - so she says.
So right after my experiments at the wall I come back to my mat to go through the whole normal routine of assisted dropbacks, but I am FECKING exhausted. Each dropback is too fast and uncontrolled, I land on my hands more heavily than I'd like, and by the end I am shattered. A big lump comes up in my throat that I can't decide whether it's an asthmatic style wheeze or a huge sob waiting to happen. I just about manage to sit down for a paschimo squish but can barely even catch my feet in the first instance...

And day two is a repeat. The main difference is that on my third attempt at going down the wall (or rather, at coming back up again), shortly after lifting off from the floor I fall down onto my head. Ouch. Luckily it wasn't far to fall ;)
Today, day three, after leaving out every jumpback through the practice (stepping instead) as I felt like that's what's hurting my lower back, I feel like my first hangback is MEGA deep (again, that knife-edge of "can I go a bit further?" versus "Am I pushing this too far?". Going to the wall I struggle to get the angle of my feet right - we have very few available walls in our shala and the ones we do have are narrow and at funny angles (plus of course there are people practicing in front of them). Without a mat under my feet I feel insecure and slidey on the wooden floor, and the walls (ick) are slippery with condensation from all of the hot bodies on the room. None of this feels very good. And again when I'm done, I am exhausted.

So I decide to tell C that I'm not liking this (even though I sort of know what she will say). I manage not to use the word "hate" but as she comes up I say "I really don't like the wall." Luckily she's not in a mood today where she just wants me to be quiet and get on with it. First of all she says that she never used the wall, which instantly makes me wonder why teach it that way, and she also says that I don't have to do it - that I should only do it if I feel it's teaching me something. Inside my head the arguments for and against are along these lines:'s definitely helpful to experience the initial dropping back to the wall part on my own...
...but if I don't have to do it then why would I?
...but isn't that just giving up?
...Remember feeling this exact same way about every other stage of this process so far? (and in fact, a lot of the rest of primary...) And how did you get through to the other side of that - by giving up? I don't think so.

Meanwhile C says that it is exhausting, and pushing your limits of endurance is part of the practice. Ashtanga asks us to go further...she talks about junior doctors working 70 hour weeks to train themselves to work intensively and says that not everybody chooses to do this, some people will never do it and are happy just to work a regular week. But then she says that exhaustion is a real issue, when she used to do half of second she was exhausted but now she can do all of it "just like that" - which of course makes me feel that I should just suck this up and get to the point where I'm not fall-down exhausted by it. But then she also says that  this is difficult, and her friend J says "you just have to let some things be difficult".
In other words by the end of the conversation I am none the wiser. My over-riding confusion is that first off, I think I should just do it because that's the only way it's going to get easier, but if she didn't learn it herself, and S has her doubts about it's validity in learning, then maybe I shouldn't wear myself out trying?

The dropbacks after the chat (and the little rest it allowed!) were more controlled than yesterday, but with more sound effects too (and more grabbing of C's arms as I come up instead of keeping my arms overhead) but again I staggered to the ground for paschimo like an old lady, actually even worse than yesterday, and the big throat-lump was there again. The first two days I did this I also had an instantaneous and massive headache at that point too, so I suppose it's progress that I didn't today even if I was stiffer in my body. But the finishing sequence followed the same pattern as the rest of today's practice; super-focused and inward looking, and I had time to lie in savasana until I felt like I was tripping out a bit (that's my favourite way of telling if I've been there long enough...if I start not knowing where I am, whether it's night or day or I'm awake or asleep then I know it's a good-un.), also incorporating lots of beautifully controlled dropback visualisations.
So now all that's left to do is to decide whether or not I head for the wall tomorrow? Or maybe I do it tomorrow, as it's the last Mysore practice of the week, and re-evaluate on Sunday. I think this is all about figuring out the difference between finding my edge, overdoing it, and just being lazy. But can't somebody else decide for me? It's just too hard to tell! Either way, I think the fact that in just over 4 weeks I will be heading out to Goa to study with Kino and Tim for 2 weeks could not be more perfectly timed, considering that she is considered by many (well, me!) to be the ashtanga world's high priestess of backbending!


  1. Just to be clear.. I don't see the value in WALKING up and down the wall... I'm in agreement with someone there, it might be Matthew Sweeney.. but I am TOTALLY in favour of dropping to the wall and bouncing lightly off the fingertips, BOTH HANDS AT ONCE. That's how I learned to do it, going a little lower each time till I was nearly at the floor. With that method I was able to learn it without seeing a teacher regularly. The problem with the wall is where to stand.. most people stand too far away so they have to kind of fall back toward the wall too much... it should feel a bit scrunched, causing you to find a deeper backbend.

    I thought you were talking about SI joint pain, but is it along the top of the side of the pelvis, like the pelvic rim? That can definitely be related to backbending if that area is getting compressed.. watch out for that.


  2. Thanks S, and sorry I should have checked before I started merrily misquoting you in public!
    Well as I am completely unable to bounce lightly off the wall as you describe I'm not sure what to I tried a different tactic. 1st attempt: bounce off the wall, both hands together, then home back up (I didn't get very far!). 2nd try: back to walking the hands, went all the way down then but not back up. 3rd one: all the way down and back up again (badly!).
    I was a little less tired for assisted dropbacks I think but landed more quickly/heavily than I'd like; C said it's because I wasn't hanging back so far - which I think is due to using the wall first.
    No back pain today though (well, before practice I had it, but not during or after) thanks to stepping back and forward, so I think/hope it's just my shoddy vinyasas causing it rather than my backbending.
    Got some extra inspiration today though watching another backbending newbie fearlessly attempt her first solo dropback and she aced it - I was thrilled!!

  3. That's cool, I was totally unaware that that person was doing her first solo dropback, or it might have given me extra energy :)

    I love that C keeps giving you techniques, but when you commented that you don't like the wall-walking she says, oh you don't have to do it! This is where you find a little freedom in your practice, a bit 'improv'. Do what feels best to prepare you. There is a lot of leeway on the preps, backbending sequence is not like the series in that respect. She is giving you a range of techniques to experiment with. Build your own backbending routine that you love because it gets you deeper and it feels good!

    I also love this: 'I am completely unable to bounce off the wall as you describe... so then I did the first one and bounced off the wall...' Hahaha :)

    Just bounce an inch lower every day, or every week! Find your preferred spaces and note the wee pockmarks where your hands land... slowly but surely the marks will change, just like when you were a little kid and measured your height against the wall.

    There is some serious dropback juju going on in our shala at the moment I think :)

  4. I think Susan's suggestions are good... especially about not walking up and down the wall and how everyone seems to get too far away or too close to the wall.

    Didn't you do the cold drop back challenge and do one, very nicely I remember, in JEANS in a hallway or something? So... maybe it's mental?

    Being dare-devil-ish, when I first dropped back, I just dropped. Literally. It wasn't pretty, but I thought I was doing it, you know, DROPPING back! HA HA!! I've learned the right way to do it since then, of course.

  5. Haha, i WISH!! Nope, have never-ever tried dropping back solo - warm, let alone cold and in jeans But I should have just let your comment stand so I look like some sort of hero ;)
    It's tempting to try it at home but I don't know how much I'd need to do to warm myself up first - I only ever practice at the shala and am just too lazy to do a whole practice at home on a rest day *just* so I could try dropping back!
    I tried moving my feet in and out once I was at the wall, the backbend feels pretty deep once I'm down there and the hardest part (coming back up) is because it's a vertical climb up the slippery wall - which I guess wouldn't be the case if I was too far away? Anyway I think I will continue using the wall for the next few weeks and see how I go, but after practicing next to the first-time-dropper-after-only-2-months-learning yesterday I realised that her practice is SERIOUSLY accomplished, so I am no longer putting myself on a par with her!
    Oh and Susan my "bouncing" off the wall was laboured at best!

  6. When i get too many vrttis about what to do or not to do, a good solution has been to decide to just go ahead and try it for a month. That gives enough time to see what kind of resutks you might get, and it's a chance to stop the should I/shouldn't I business.

  7. Yep, I agree with Karen. And sounds like that's what you're doing anyway.

    It's an experiment, right? Yoga is like the most vast and deeply fascinating lab manual full of stuff to try out on your own person :)

  8. Thanks Karen, that's good advice :) I am doing a modified version of going to the wall - as you say, it stops the confusion over whether to do it or first teachers said "never practice with any doubt in your mind" and I think they had a good point.
    I like the thought of all f this as an experiment, but it's pretty unscientific in terms of variables...take me last week for example:
    I'm starving and can't stop eating biscuits. It MUST be the backbends! It's not because I am having an attack of gluttony and have no self-control ohhhhhh's definitely the backbends. ;)