Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Asana with Care

When I was first learning the primary series in Ashtanga yoga (of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois) I would lay on my mat at the end, totally covered in sweat, good and hot, and felt as if I had just wrestled a big gorilla. I was the big gorilla. There is a good feeling to exerting oneself to that degree. It feels so good to lie down at the end.

It is good to work hard in yoga. But the scenario I just described isn’t so great. I was really yanking to try to be where I wanted to be in the poses. This is a vexing way to practice; my frustration would mount as I went from pose to pose. I was also hardening myself with over-effort.

At the same time I think it is important to challenge one’s self with the practice. So trying poses you “can’t do” is a good idea. What is crucial is how you practice. Practice with care.

Asana is the third limb of Ashtanga yoga from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Asana is the physical pose we are practicing in class or wherever you practice (Doing a yoga pose is a nice way to wait for luggage after a flight.).

A good way to practice asana is to put your self into the pose. Then assess it. Are you over-working certain parts, and under-working others? Do you feel strain? Can you breathe? Then adjust the pose so the whole body is actively sensing and responding to moment-to-moment feedback from the pose (including the breath). And this can all happen while “holding” a pose.

Sometimes I see students work by finding the general shape of the pose, and then freeze, perhaps waiting for it to be over. The moment you are waiting is the moment that you have stopped doing. The muscles have become like glue, rigidly holding the bones and organs in place. This way of practice is like when a bunny freezes. Sometimes rabbits do this when startled. There is nothing tighter than a tense bunny (I have two, so I know)! Their little bodies become like alabaster sculpture that shakes. Don’t do this to yourself! Don’t “hold” the pose still like that.

Keep finding the pose. Instead of trying to remain absolutely still, see what you can do to improve the pose. Does it feel dull anywhere? Can you activate that dullness? Does it feel like a rock somewhere? Can you release that or extend that? Do everything you have learned about the pose, and then discover more. Practice is fun!


Anonymous said...

I know that big gorilla thing...(and I think I'm probably a good deal bigger and hairier than you are)...then, overall, anytime I'm in yoga class and things get challenging (which, truth be told, happens a lot) there's somewhat of a battle going on, between the self who says "why do I subject myself to this crap? Wasn't it easier getting stoned in front of the T.V.?" and the self who couldn't be happier to be there, and just wants to go deeper(and, considering how long it's been since I last got stoned in front of the T.V., the good guys seem to be pretty clearly winning)....

Unknown said...

Practice IS fun, it's the yin and the yang, the hard and the soft of it that you have to learn to dance with. What a beautiful blog...Namaste!

Flo said...

I have to say I've been that still frozen student during my ashtanga practice.
Recently I've been playing with vinyasa classes and some Iyengar based classes.
I've noticed I've been able to enjoy the postures and be present more.
I am not sure if it was just the ridgity of my mind that would impose this upon my primary series practice, but I am truly enjoying these classes more with out the frozen asanas. :)

Eco Yogini said...

What a wonderful post! This is how I felt during a "hot yoga" class recently. All I wanted was to do the pose and be done- I could barely breathe! I also used to push push push, trying to "win" until one hot day I over stretched (my muscles were warmed up but not ready) and hurt my achilles tendon. Wow. Was that a wake up call.
No more hot yoga for me- my body will practice with care :)

Brenda P. said...

I always tell my students to "keep the pose dynamic," whether they are deepening into the stretch with movement or just letting the body open with the breath. Like you said, once you stop, you're done.

I like this post!