What being able to do the splits hasn’t done for me

Hanumanasana is a real ego pose. It’s one of *those* poses, the ones that everyone envisions themselves as being able to do one day, when things are perfect. I say “everyone” but we all know that’s not what yoga’s about… right?

Recently I’ve found myself being able to get into hanumanasana. I can do the splits! My 10 year old inner self is rejoicing . The headstand AND the splits, just imagine, me of the past could show those little gymnast wisps a thing or two. The reasons for me being able to do this ‘feat’ are simple: naturally flexible hamstrings coupled with excessive hip flexor stretching. Every day I walk, run or sit and so I do my lunges to stretch my hip flexors. Stiff, tight hip flexors are not an option for me anymore, I cannot abide them. So I stretch and I stretch and I have done for 3 years. No surprise then that my flexibility has increased.

My reactions to being able to get so far into hanumasana have been complex. First of all shock and amazement-” WHAT is my leg doing THERE??” Then interest- “Ooh I can really lift my chest and stretch my hip flexors… nice” But this is just on my own, yoga classes are a whole different story. In my yoga class I am one of the few who can get anywhere close to being somewhat comfortable in this demanding, and potentially hellish pose. (One of the others is a ballet dancer and looks like she could stay there all day.) So when the times comes to attempt the slow slide into hamstrings and hip flexors it can be quite the performance. This annoys me because I am not a performer in my yoga class. I like to do yoga in my yoga class. The attitude in my yoga classes does can get a bit “show-offy” and it makes me very uncomfortable. I don’t want to be clapped when I balance and I don’t want to have to stop and watch someone else stagger on their hands for a minute. I want to do my yoga and still my mind.

For instance a few weeks ago I was taking a class taught by a teacher who doesn’t seem to have much patience with herself. She said she’d been practicing yoga for 7 years but she seems to treat her practice like a chore, like the point of it is to get into impressive poses like handstand, forearm balance and.. yes.. the splits. We did the splits in that class and I slid into it very deeply and somewhat comfortably. The teacher saw me and said she’d been telling herself she’d be able to do the splits by Christmas for about 7 years before saying “I wish I could do that”. The look of disdainful jealousy was something. And the tone. I looked down at the floor, wanting to disappear, hating my flexible hip joints and legs. How do you respond to that?

Her attitude is unfortunately one that is way too common. I’ve heard the tuts when people fall out of balances, seen the gritted teeth and felt the extreme tension that comes from a lot of frustrated, goal focussed people being in a room together, being made to do poses that bruise their egos. And I don’t like it. It’s not why I do yoga.

Because being able to do the splits does not change my life at all. I wanted to say to that teacher that yes I can do the splits but it doesn’t stop me from waking up feeling like I can’t get through the day, it doesn’t mean I won’t spend 2 days in bed because of my depression, it doesn’t help my dodgy digestion, it doesn’t make my life richer, or easier, it doesn’t improve anything about my life except it makes my hips that little bit more flexible.

Of course I didn’t, I was just silent. I just wish I could get it across somehow, I’m sick of being the quiet girl sometimes! Still if you can’t say anything nice…

Headstand success!

I got it! I finally understand! I can balance! Etc etc etc. After 18 months of fairly intensive practice (at least a few times a week if not twice a day) I can now balance in a headstand. I say balance, the wall is still my constant companion if I want to straighten my legs but I can come up and down from the balance on my own.

The actual eureka moment came a few weeks ago. I realised that I could begin to lift my legs and find the balance after a run but at no other time. I couldn’t work out why this is the case for a while, was it fearlessness after a run? Open hips? Sweat? Turns out it was none of those things: it was my shoulders. I stretch my shoulders after a run and so my shoulders have a greater flexibility thus enabling me to balance on the crown of my head unimpeded by gunky stiff shoulders.

So ever since then I’ve been regularly hanging out in this fantastic external shoulder rotation stretch I got from my Jill Miller Shoulder Shape-Up dvd. You hold a block lengthways between your hands and bend your elbows. Then you put your elbows on a surface round about hip level or higher and drop your head between your arms, in a dolphin like pose. It’s like a dolphin pose without the strength and it’s fantastic. Or dolphin’s fine if I’m feeling hardcore. Then I’m up and balancing on my head and imagining my two legs are one and it’s perfectly normal and natural to balance on your head and not at all scary. Who am I kidding? It still scares me witless!

So there you go, nothing exciting, just tight shoulders. Now this is where the fun begins… actually, you know, holding it.

All this shoulder stretching has had a side effect. Last night I suddenly found myself in this pose Eka Pada Rajakapotasana II being able to rotate my shoulder all the way round to bring my head to my foot (sort of). I was surprised as anyone!

Week 2: Moving Toward Balance with Rodney Yee

I’ve given myself the challenge of giving up full control of my home practice and following along to Rodney Yee’s Moving Toward Balance course for the 8 weeks. Here’s how week 1 went down.

So here we are at week 2. It’s sun salutations week! I got to add back in my sun salutations to the beginning of my practice. Oh how I’d missed them for that whole week. Of course I followed the pattern of the previous week and rounded out my practice with some poses the sequence lacks, for instance some backbends and seated poses. I also gave up counting the poses in seconds and measured how many breaths I’d need to stay, for instance 45 seconds (7 breaths) and followed my breath. It was much more grounding that way, plus my ujjayi breath can be so loud I can’t even hear the clock at times.

Here are some things I’ve learnt in week 2 in handy list form.

  1. I hate being told what to do. I already knew this one because it’s always worth learning again. I have an inner rebel that absolutely detests a prescribed list of asanas, and will protest at holding for a prescribed amount of time. Dealing with this rebel makes for a very exhausting practice. Why do you think I do my own practice and have to force myself to go to classes?
  2. I love vinyasa! And following a set of static asana like in Rodney’s course is not stimulating enough for me. I got a bit bored… I like to move!
  3. I missed the jumping back and forward in the sun salutations. It’s been months since I made this a regular part of the practice and phased out stepping into lunges (actually it was from Rodney’s dvds that I first learnt that transition and it has been very lovely for my psoas muscles) and now I only don’t do at least a couple of jumps if I’m feeling ill. Taking them out this week made me realise they’ve stopped being a chore and a challenge and are definitely part of my yoga.
  4. I definitely need to work on holding down dog and up dog for more than a few breaths. In Rodney’s course on one of the days you hold down dog for a minute a couple of times and have a few 5 breath up dogs. I have to admit that my arms were shamefully shaking throughout.
  5. Using excessive props during a practice irritates me. Especially day one of the course where the room was littered with blankets, my bolster, blocks, my strap, pillows and I had to move everything whenever a new propped-up version of a pose was to be practiced. Which was often because there’s a lot of subtle variants of the poses and you only hold some of them for a minute! I love restorative yoga but I’ve noticed irritation when dealing with props during a restorative session too. I just want to settle!
  6. This version of supta baddha konasana is heavenly for my stiff ankles. There’s a bolster under my knees and 2 blocks under my feet. Mmmmmm.
  7. Extended, repeated stays in uttanasana still don’t do it for me.
  8. Sitting up against the wall in cross-legged position hurts my back. Why’s that?
  9. I also hate reading long descriptions of things, I’d much rather try it and see. I worry this means I’m missing wisdom along the way…
So I think that’s all the wisdom gleaned from this week I think. Next week: backbends! My favourite.

Hips and ankles

It’s a mega-autumn day today in my island home. I know it’s technically still summer but the sunniest and calmest of the weather is behind us now. It’s just been rain and winds for days, causing the leaves to be ripped off the trees instead of being able to turn those stereotypical autumn colours and gently fall at the more appropriate autumnal time.

Anyway weather report aside I wanted to do a little anatomy-lite post today. Ever since I started yoga I’ve been fascinated with anatomy but don’t actually know too much about it technically. I try not to worry, I’m sure it’ll come.

One of my little body quirks and personal struggles in yoga is with sitting cross-legged: sukhasana (easy pose), ardha padmasana (half lotus) and especially padmasana (lotus) were impossibilities for me in my pre-yoga days. I hadn’t been able to sit cross legged in any way for most of my life up until this point. I was so stiff! This is quite incredible thinking about it because the general assumption is that all children are flexible. Well I wasn’t, I hated sitting on the floor. I was more of a lounge-on-a-sofa kinda girl. I wasn’t made to sit cross legged I decided.

Then enter yoga at age 22 and I realised I was wrong! I could improve my flexibility so I could sit cross legged! This realisation (and, you know, not wanting to be so miserable and depressed all the time) drove my early yoga practice. I didn’t have to be stiff anymore! I’d always had painful knees and this stopped me doing much physical activity growing up (a blessing for me mostly at that time!) It soon became apparent that this pain was partly due to the incredible inflexibility around my hips. Because there was no give, no movement in my hips the stiffness would travel, if you excuse my crudeness, down to my knees causing intense pain whenever I jumped, or tried to run. This was a fantastic discovery! Now not only would I be able to sit on the floor like a nimble little pixie but I’d be able to live knee-pain free! It’s 3 years later and I’m glad to say that I can jump and run and I do often. The knees are only sore if it’s exceptionally cold out and I haven’t warmed up.

So after much research, and thanks to Paul Grilley’s anatomy dvd I gleaned some information about my hips: they are more keen to internally rotate than to externally rotate. My job now was to stretch good and to stretch often. Which I did with gusto. Any pose which had any kind of external rotation of the legs in it, or which stretched my inner thighs was in my daily practice. Warrior 2, triangle, wide legged forward bends, pigeon, lord of the fishes twist, etc. etc. made up the bulk of my practice and a couple of years my external rotation was no longer the torture it once was.

But I still couldn’t sit cross legged. Here’s some visuals. This is me trying half lotus.

And this is my good side!

I assumed for a long time that it was my hips causing this stiffness. I couldn’t externally rotate my femurs enough. But look at me in pigeon.

Supreme external hip rotation

I remember the first time I realised I could get my leg parallel after many months in the under-the-hip limbo it was all a bit well helllllo toes! I’d never seen my toes so close up before. Anyway it’s pretty clear here that this is not a hip problem. My second yoga teacher stopped the class one week to poke me. She discovered it’s not my hips, it’s my ankles!

Ah! It all makes sense now! The reason my knees are halfway to the moon whenever I sit cross legged is because my ankles are too stiff, there’s no give at all. So my job now is to improve the flexibility of my ankle. Gently. Too much and it hurts my precious knees. I think that’s the reason I didn’t improve the flexibility of my ankles earlier: I was trying to protect my knees.

So I can’t do lotus (or half lotus) and I can’t do headstand… yet. It’s a good job that I don’t have much of an ego. I can’t imagine how tough it must be for some people going to an ‘advanced’ yoga class and sitting out both lotus pose and headstand. No for me it’s the long haul, it’s the process. And I love learning, and I love yoga.

Week 1: Moving Toward Balance with Rodney Yee

So week 1 of the first course I’ve planned to undertake is done. I have to admit that I was naughty and I didn’t read the introduction of the book (I will do, I promise!) and also I did my own practice after the poses in the book. The idea of not doing pigeon pose for 8 weeks is just not worth thinking about.

In this book you do 1 day of long practice with all the new asanas, 4 days of shortened practices with emphasis on one or two of the new poses, 1 day of breath awareness and meditation and a day of rest. Another way I was naughty: I skipped the day of rest and went straight on to week 2. I practice yoga everyday, I don’t do rest days!

I’ve been meaning to try this book for a long while. Rodney Yee is a bit of a controversial character in the yoga world from what I’ve gathered (not being in the ‘yoga world’) but he was the first person I ever learnt yoga from and to me he’s always represented a calm, friendly being at a time when I was surrounded by demons and depression. I am determined for this reputation will stay intact.

Anyway the first week of the course is standing poses. Very basic but it’s very good to go back to the basics and see them anew every now and again. Especially if I plan on teaching one day. I did learn some things: I need to do half moon pose (ardha chandrasana) more because I can feel the freedom, the expansiveness and the calmness waiting for me… when I can just feel instead of just feeling like I’m going to topple over. I also realised by skipping the sun salutations how much I rely on the warmth to do the beginning standing poses. Triangle, which is usually a welcome friend, was an awkward little thing. I felt stiff like I hadn’t felt for years!

In the book you count in seconds and I’m so used to counting breaths. Listening for the clock was jarring and distracting me from the sensations in my body. When this is up I’m going back to the breath. Another bad point: Rodney’s reliance on uttanasana (standing forward bend) was irritating. I have to admit I got bored and thought “can I bend back yet?” It’s all about observing though right?

Some good points: I loved meditating in virasana (heros pose). As my hips are more inclined to internally rotate rather than externally rotate this pose as always come easy to me. Sukhasana (so-called easy pose) has always been hard for me for this reason, that and my completely inflexible ankles. So sitting in virasana was a joy! It made me wonder why I always have to make things so hard for myself. It was also fantastic to be told to do restorative poses. It’s sad to say but I need an excuse to do them. Usually it’s a fever or a debilitating depressive mood or something equally devastating. Why? From now on I will get those legs up the wall more often.

So all in all it’s been ok, a bit too basic for me right now. Hopefully the coming weeks will bring more insight.

Headstand update: I have decided to concentrate more on the tripod headstand (sirsasana 2) to regain lost ability in it. I’ve also decided to do a couple of mini-practices of headstand during the day to help me get comfortable with it. It’s still a struggle and it’s still impossible but that makes it all the more worthwhile.

I can’t do Headstand

I had another post planned about ‘progress’ in yoga and depression recovery but things have got in the way- low moods, low energy and low enthusiasm. Never mind! Carry on, carry on.

I am a yogini and as of June 5th 2011 I cannot do a headstand. I have been practising yoga for 3 years and I cannot do a headstand. Oh the shame!

Maybe I’m being a bit hard on myself. The headstand in question is the ‘bound’ headstand (salamba sirsasana) I can’t tuck my legs up into my chest and balance never mind start to straighten my legs. I can get into a sort of headstand by setting up next to a wall and putting one food then the other onto the wall a la this method. I’ve been trying to acclimatise myself to the feeling of balancing in this strange way by going into the headstand in reverse. That is getting up the way in the link and then balancing with both legs bent against the wall before trying to tuck them into my chest and balancing that way. So far all I’ve managed is a slightly controlled fall.

All this has become a bit of a thorn in my side. When I first set out on my yoga journey I saw the inversions section and went ‘pffft I’ll stick to the sensible ones thank you very much’ and that is basically what I did for the first year. In my second year I was a bit more open to the idea of headstands and what have you when I had a private yoga therapy course. I was told I’d be taught shoulderstand and headstand to ‘cure my depression’ but alas my teacher forgot to teach me headstand so I was left a bit relieved but a bit disappointed. I let it hang for a little while longer, the class I was going to didn’t do headstand and neither did any of the dvds I was following. It just wasn’t important.

I’m not sure what changed but I developed a desire to learn headstand. Maybe it was buying Erich Schiffman’s fantastic book ‘Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness’ with the awesome black and white photo of headstand on the front cover or maybe it was just realising that I might be missing something by not trying this poster-asana of yoga. I tried on my own for about 6 months, both salamba sirsasana I and I tried salamba sirsasana II, although with the latter asana I was working more in a ‘tripod balance’ than a headstand. I was admittedly half-hearted but I still didn’t get it. I couldn’t balance! I would just tip up and then tip down again. Then I’d get frustrated and flail and kick until I got worried I’d damage myself in some way. I started going to a class that used headstand and watched with sinking heart as everyone except me quickly flipped themselves upside down, legs soaring to the ceiling. I became my younger self, watching as everyone else had the fun.

I’ve had a couple of private sessions to help me with this. Personally I think it’s technique more than any kind of psychological or strength barrier. After all I’m pretty much able to straighten my legs in tripod headstand, even if sometimes I panic and move my hands (why???) Turns out I’m keeping my legs too straight which means I can’t tip my pelvis forward and so my centre of gravity isn’t shifted so I can’t balance. It all makes sense now! This revelation came a couple of weeks ago and I’d love to say I was one of the leg-soarers in the next class. Alas I am not yet but the joy’s in the process, not the results.

As a side note: why is it that all the people in my class can do headstand but they moan and struggle in wheel, or the standing big toe series? Were these people born on their heads? The mystery!