physical practice, yoga

Coping with frustration in the practice

Image Source: therespiratorysystem.com

I’m continuing to struggle with my intercostal injury, though I’m managing to maintain my practice through it. Ever since I injured it, I’ve been unable to bind it Supta Kurmasana again, due to a loss of flexibility in my trunk which doesn’t allow me to get my shoulders far enough behind my knees. The injury was improving, but I recently experienced some setbacks and now have to practice a modified form of Kurmasana and Supta Kurmasana because the full expression is just too painful and aggravates the injury too much. On Tuesday, in Bhujapidasana, my muscle popped again and it became difficult to move again, so I’ve realized that until this is healed, I’m going to have to practice a modified version of that pose, as well. I’m really frustrated to be limited by an injury, but what I love about ashtanga is that you can modify the practice so as to be able to continue even while injured.

I’ve been trying to understand this injury a bit better, because the intercostals are a muscle group that people tend not to think about or realize the importance of until they injure it. These are the muscles that connect your ribs, and from what I understand there are three layers to them – innermost, internal, and external. There’s no way for a doctor to know from an exam which layer you’ve injured, so I don’t know exactly what or where my injury is, other than that it’s on the left upper side and starts on my back, looping around to the front. Unless you’ve completely torn the muscle (and sometimes even then), there’s really nothing you can do to heal it aside from rest/avoiding activities that aggravate it. Unfortunately, since these muscles are between your ribs, they affect a huge range of activities – basically anything that stretches or strains them at all. This includes breathing, laughing, lifting your arm, bending, twisting… almost anything. So here’s hoping that through modification of my practice, I’ll be able to fully heal within a couple of weeks!

physical practice, yoga

Progress!

On Monday, I achieved one of my most important goals: completing primary series! It was really exciting to be given the last pose by my teacher, and luckily it’s one that’s actually not too difficult. This means that (hopefully) I’ll be moving onto the second series soon, which is pretty awesome. I would love to be at least part way through the intermediate series by the time I go to India next year, and I can’t wait to get started on it!

Also, about a month ago now I achieved another of my initial goals, which was to stand up straight from urdvha dhanurasana. I now do this every practice, followed by three drop backs and come ups, and then half backs.

I guess the fact that I’ve achieved two of my goals means it’s time to think of some new ones… I’m sure it’s not long until my teacher throws a new challenge my way!

Uncategorized

On struggle, injury, and practice.

It’s been an interesting few weeks for me. To start, I’ve been struggling with a chest cold for well over a month now and it’s taking its toll. This was not helped by the unusually cold weather my city has been experiencing of late! The combination of sickness and cold temperatures had me feeling, well, pretty bad. I was struggling in my practice a lot- I was still doing everything, but it just felt so. much. harder. There were a few days where I felt like my entire practice was a struggle, and it was also harder to motivate myself to get on the mat.

Fast forward to last week. My practice was starting to feel back on track, and it was also the first time my city has had any real snow in… a long time. At least a couple years. This not only meant that my studio was closed for a day and that it was a lot harder for me to get there anyhow (I’m a cyclist who doesn’t own a car), but also that there were a lot of fun things to do out in the snow! I spent many hours out tobogganing with my nephew, niece, and partner, and went over a lot of jumps that were probably better suited to a child’s body. When I got home, I got straight on my mat and was having a brillianttttt practice until I got to this beauty of a pose:

Bhujapidasana. A pose I adore and do literally every day. Unfortunately, I think the tobogganing had jostled my muscles around a bit and when I lowered down into it, I felt something definitively bad happen. I kept practicing and completed the series, drop backs and all, despite a growing pain under my back left-side ribs. By the time I finished practice, the pain had grown so bad that I couldn’t bend, twist, breathe deeply, or even talk. Ouch. It hurt so bad I almost threw up, and I have a really high pain tolerance. I didn’t sleep much that night thanks to being constantly woken by pain.

Now, I’m no stranger to injury. I herniated a disc in my back a few years ago thanks to overtraining, and I seem to always have a new injury cropping up somewhere. Sadly, it kind of just goes along with the package of being a very active human. But no matter how often I get injured, it never stops annoying the heck out of me. I hate very little more than being held back by physical ailments, and when I woke up in tremendous pain the next morning, I was so scared that this was an injury that would have long term effects, like a cracked rib.

It was bad enough that I went to the doctor (which I hate doing). Turns out it was just a sprained intercostal, which hurts like crazy and would hold me back from doing certain activities for a while, but luckily wouldn’t take too long to clear up if I was careful (2-3 weeks). I took two days completely off, which sucked, and then moved onto doing half primary, and now I’m back to doing full. It still hurts and I’m trying (sort of) to be cautious, but at least I’m able to do everything again!

What was most interesting to me was noticing the effect that practice has on me. On Monday, after taking those two days of and then practicing only half primary for a few days, I felt terrible. More depressed than I’ve been in quite some time, unbelievably fatigued, and just generally ill. Cue practice. That was the first day I did my full practice again, and afterward I felt immediately better. It was as if I had been cleansed, mentally and physically, and could see and breathe clearly again. Obviously I’m still not healed – it’s only been a little over a week since I hurt myself – but with every practice I feel a little better. I guess that’s the silver lining of the injury – it was a good reminder of why I’m committed to the practice and why I keep coming back every single day.

physical practice, yoga

Supta Kurmasana

Ah, Supta Kurmasana. What a crazy, humbling, hard, learning experience. This pose, one of what are known as “gateway poses” (ones that people tend to get stuck on for a while before they can move on), took me around 10 months to learn. Up until that point, I’d flown through the primary series. It was mid-February 2018 – a month and a half into my practice – and I’d already completed half primary without any trouble from Marichyasana D (another gateway pose), learned bhujapidasana with relative ease, and was now being given the next posture. As my teacher instructed me into Kurmasana, the posture that immediately precedes Supta Kurmasana (without vinyasa in between), I delighted at how successfully my body slid into the pose, which looks as follows:

“Look how easy it is for you!” I remember my teacher saying to me. I felt proud that something which is difficult for most was “easy” for me. Then, however, she told me to watch in my feet so my knees were bent, to slide my shoulders as far under my knees as I could, wrap my arms around my back and clasp my hands. I did as she told me, but my hands were (seemingly) nowhere close to reaching one another. My teacher squeezed my elbows together so I could grab the clasp, but even then my hands popped right apart. This would be my experience for the next few weeks. Then, once I could hold my hands clasped once my teacher had helped me get there, they started crossing my feet in front of my head, which would inevitably make my hands pop back open again. It was incredibly difficult not to get frustrated, and I must admit that many days, I did. I started to approach the pose with a lot of anxiety because I wanted so badly to be able to do it on my own. I even spent most of my free time reading article after article and watching video after video about the pose.

Slowly but surely, it got easier. Suddenly I was able to keep my hands clasped while my teacher crossed my feet, and hold the shape for five breaths. Then I started noticing that when I reached my arms around, my hands were getting closer and closer. Sometimes I could make my fingers touch. My teachers kept telling me that I was so close, I could do it, my body knew how. It took time, and dedication, frustration, and a whole lot of sweat, but then one day…

I reach around and my hands met. Easily. They bound. I crossed my feet and I held the pose for the full five breaths. I stayed cool on the outside but inside I was dancing. Ten months of working up to this point and now I’d made it and could move onto the next challenge.

I have learned a lot from Supta Kurmasana and it has shifted from being one of my most anxiety-provoking postures to one that I genuinely look forward to in my practice each day. This posture genuinely made me more humble and taught me a lot about perseverance. It also drilled home the idea that progress is not linear. Since “getting” the pose, I have not been able to bind my hands every day. Most days, I can, and the days where I can’t are growing fewer and fewer, but those days still exist where I need my teacher to swoop in and squeeze my elbows a bit in order to get it. The first few times this happened I was unbelievably angry that I could have “lost” it. Now I know that it’s all just part of the process. You don’t “get” a pose and you don’t “lose” it either. One or two days of not being able to bind Supta Kurmasana does not mean that I’m not able to bind my hands in Supta Kurmasana anymore – it just means I can’t do it today. Yoga, like life, is ever changing and that’s okay. Supta Kurmasana helped me to learn that.

yoga, yoga philosophy

The Niyamas

On Sunday, January 20 I went to a moon day “chai and chat” at my studio, where we discussed the second limb of yoga, the Niyamas. (unfortunately I was on vacation when the talk about the first limb took place) This was not something I had looked into at all prior to the talk, so it was extremely informative for me.

There are five different Niyamas:

  1. Shaucha (purification)
  2. Samtosha (contentment)
  3. Tapas (discipline)
  4. Svadhyaya (self-study)
  5. Ishvara Pranidhana (devotion)

Shaucha has to do with the purity or cleanness of body and mind. My teacher gave some examples of what it means to achieve this, such as eating healthily (most of the time), cleaning oneself and one’s things, having a clean and tidy living environment, and being clean in one’s speech. I would like to work on these last two – my house certainly isn’t unclean, but there is clutter that I would prefer wasn’t there, and I think I would be happier without it. I also could definitely benefit from cleaning up my speech, as I currently swear a lot.

Samtosha involves not wanting for what you do not have. This is a tricky one in western cultures, I think. I know that for me, at least, it is hard to not wish for things or look to the future. Personally, my greatest struggle with this involves wishing I were somewhere else. I desperately want to live in New York City, so it can be frustrating to be living here instead. I also love to travel, so I’m often thinking about my next trip or wishing I could go back to somewhere I’ve been. I recently went on a trip to Cuba and find myself often wishing I was back there.

Tapas is, essentially, exercising will power over the desires of the mind – forcing yourself to do things that are good for you even though you may not want to, or stopping yourselves from doing things you want to that will not serve you well. I am lucky in that I don’t have the common problem of lacking willpower, which is helpful in maintaining a practice and staying healthy. However, I do also think it is important to relinquish willpower at some times so as to partake in the joys of life and avoid rigidity. I had a bad habit of overusing discipline in the past, so I know how destructive it can be.

Svadhyaya is the studying of oneself through the examination of one’s life lessons and studying various texts that shed light on universal truths. I tend to be pretty self-analytical, so I resonate with this one. I have a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, so I am no stranger to examining myself and my deeply rooted assumptions and beliefs, as well as to studying plenty of texts about life and the human condition. I have definitely drifted away from studying this kind of material since completing my degree, though, so I am hoping that studying the Yoga Sutras and other pieces of yogic philosophy will rekindle my interest.

The last Niyama, Ishvara Pranidhana, is the hardest for me to grasp or resonate with in any way, as it involves devotion and surrender to a higher power. In this way, one’s yoga practice is seen as an offering to this higher power. This is difficult for me, as I’m an atheist and struggle to reconcile this idea with my general belief system. I am, however, quite interested to learn more about this as I read through the Yoga Sutras.

physical practice, yoga

The Primary Series

A chart of the Ashtanga primary series, which I am just in the process of completing. I am currently working on refining Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana, the second last posture in the series, which I was just given on Tuesday, January 22, 2019. I am struggling to roll up into the pose with straight legs, as well as to keep my balance while folding forward, so this will be my challenge over the next while.

[Image source: http://www.trueryan.com]

physical practice, yoga, yoga philosophy

My Goals

I have a number of goals, in both my physical practice and my practice extending off the math, that I would like to reach or at least work toward within the next year. I find it often helps to write goals down, for accountability and organization.

Physical goals:
-Continue to uphold my commitment to practice 6 days a week.
-Nail my jump backs, and refine my jump throughs.
-Complete the primary series (I just have one pose left!) and get a good chunk of the way through intermediate.
-Refine the following postures: utkatasana (chair), virabhadrasana I (warrior 1), triang mukhaikapada paschimottanasana, janu sirsasana C, marichyasana D [getting my hips level], navasana, kukutasana, urdhva mukha paschimottanasna
[While I am focusing on these poses specifically, because I feel that they are most in need of work, I will of course be refining all of my postures through practice.]
-Work toward crossing my feet behind my head in supta kurmasana without the help of a teacher.
-Nail the transition from bujapidasana to chaturanga, and supta kurmasana to chaturanga.
-Continue standing up from drop backs, and work on standing up from urdva danurasana (wheel) without momentum.

Beyond the mat:
-Read the Yoga Sutras of Pattanjali.
-Read Yoga Mala by K Pattabhi Jois.
-Read as many books as possible about ashtanga and yogic philosophy more generally.
-Attend talks about the ashtanga philosophy at my studio whenever they are offered.
-Develop some level of understanding of the eight limbs of yoga, and the general philosophy underlying the practice.
-Take the practice off of my mat, by applying the philosophy where I can to my daily life. There are many areas where I can work on this.

I will be posting about these goals on this blog as I work on them throughout the year, and will add new goals as they arise.