A Counterbalance

My home yoga practice has not been the sanctuary of peace I would like it to be recently. I find myself fuzzy headed and disorientated, craving stillness but unable to decide what to do in order to find it.

Yoga international has an article about home practice, complete with contributions by my favourite long distance teacher Jason Crandell. Two of the tips I have found interesting and integrated into my practice today, to great effect.

Firstly I started in stillness. It makes sense if I want to find stillness in my mind I start with stillness in my body, lying in savasana taking a few deep breaths. It is there I found what I wanted to do in my practice today, by learning how my body was feeling.

The other valuable thing I took from the article is the idea of your yoga practice counterbalancing everything else that’s going on in your life. This makes complete sense to me… if your day has been under stimulating and sedentary then you need an active practice to balance this out. If, on the other hand they have been mentally and physically exhausting (maybe after travelling), you need a quiet restorative practice.

My week has been physically inactive but mentally very active. My mind just won’t shut up. So I did a very Shiva Rea-esque practice, using the breath and arm movements in and around poses. For example: high lunge with arms parallel to the floor, inhale and straighten front leg and bring arms overhead, exhale arms back to side and front leg bent. I find this kind of movement soothing and it stops the mental chatter.

For too long I have been using the stick in my practice and I need to use the carrot, to use the analogy in the article. I have been using my home practice as the place to “work on things I should do”, ie things I say I am bad at. I am going to use this knowledge and use my home practice as a time to balance myself out. In the same way that some yogis use a forward bend to “counterbalance” a backbend (not that I necessarily do that specifically in my own practice…) so we can use our yoga practice to counterbalance our lives.

Just too damn tired for Ashtanga

This week has been refreshingly easy and productive after weeks of dragging through the mud of low moods and disappointments and illnesses. I have painted everyday, gone on runs, meditated and practiced yoga.

Today is the exception.

I got some half-hearted painting out of the way (currently composing a ridiculously overcomplicated painting that is taking eons and I’m not entirely happy with) and then decided that I was going to practice me some Primary series instead of going for a run. I was a bit tired but there was no rush, I had hours of free time- bliss!

I got some headstand and handstanding preparation out of the way as well as lunges and pigeons for my tight hips before standing at the front of my mat and starting the Sun salutations. I whimpered my way through the first one and then promptly burst into tears in downward dog. I tried again. I collapsed in more tears. I thought “I haven’t practiced this all week and I said I was going to and I won’t be able to this afternoon and what else am I going to do now and I was really looking forward to it and I should be able to practice my way through it and I should find something else that will “cure” my mood but I don’t know what that is and I just want to go to bed and do nothing…” I promptly started hyperventilating. With no signs of low mood, just tiredness, I can still get this reaction.

I think this is my body way of saying “not now”.

So I’ve gone to bed. Just because.

Why I have not been meditating as much and why I must do more yin yoga

I have been finding it hard to keep up my formal seated mindfulness meditation practice. Ideally I would want to be sitting for 30 minutes a day, preferably everyday but realistically every weekday. Recently I have done good to get 20 minutes in, and none at all at the weekend.

Partly this is because, shamefully, I have been happier and therefore have not “needed” the calming meditation practice as much. I got busier and ignored all the signs that I should be meditating more, not less, to combat possible overwhelm.

Bizarrely sitting for meditation is usually easier when I’m feeling depressed (not too depressed though, in which case sitting down still is unbearable and I must pace like a caged animal), it’s like my brain knows it’s good for it. My depressed, easily confused, overwhelmed brain enjoys the point when I sit and turn my attention inward. But when my mood is better, I get antsy and impatient. My back aches, my knees hurt, my hips complain, my mind complains and I give up.

And then a couple of weeks later I realise that I’m not meditating as much and I realise why… because it’s uncomfortable to sit still for that long. Then I feel a pathetic and unworthy meditator, what “proper” meditator complains about physical comfort? You’re supposed to live with the discomfort, and do it anyway because it’s what the practice is about. The idea that I’m not keeping up something which helped me 90% recover from depression because of an achy back is depressing in itself.

My body is not made for sitting cross legged on the floor- my hips don’t rotate externally easily, my feet have been so stiff all my life I didn’t see the soles of my feet until I was 25. So me sitting on the floor without cushions= knees sky high and achy back within minutes. But I find my mind likes that position the best. I get a clarity and degree of concentration sitting cross legged that I don’t in other poses… on good days. I have a good zafu and I put cushions under my knees but it still isn’t enough to keep my body quiet and comfortable.

I’ve found that the best time for meditation is (unsurprisingly) after yoga, or after stretching post-run (which usually takes the form of yoga asana) but the problem is if I don’t do an extensive yoga practice or run then that also means I don’t meditate. I’ve been ill a lot lately so that has been a problem.

Enter yin yoga!

I used to do a lot more yin yoga, when I was more depressed and lacking in energy and flexibility. I craved the stillness and the massively impossibly deep hip stretches only yin can deliver. There’s something about those long holds…

Yin is supposed to stretch the tissues around the joints, not just the muscles (there is debate about whether this is possible) It’s also supposed to be a fantastic preparation for seated meditation- both physically and mentally. Physically because it prepares your hips to be in a still position for a long time, and mentally because it prepares your mind to be in a still position for a long time. Paul Grilley, one of the founders of yin yoga, apparently struggled with comfort in seated meditation despite his intensive vinyasa yoga practice so I’m in good company.

So I have been practicing a short yin sequence every day. I may alternate predominately backbending and forward bending days. For instance

Forward bending:

butterfly: 3 minutes

half butterfly: 3 minutes each side

dragonfly: 3 minutes

Back bending

high dragon: 2 minutes each side

low dragon: 2 minutes each side

swan: 2 minutes each side

sleeping swan: 2 minutes each side

seal: 3 minutes

 

These are quite short holds for yin, I know but I thought I should make it manageable. I also have to make room in my day for all that seated meditation practice!

Balancing home practice with classes

I started off doing yoga 4 and half years ago solely as a home practitioner. I liked it, I did exactly what I needed to do for my body and I learnt many invaluable lessons about my body and mind during that time. It was what I needed during a very low point in my depression and from that I could begin to heal. A year after I started I was brave enough to start going to 1 class a week. I was so incredibly nervous going to that class but by then yoga was such an ingrained part of my life that taking the class wasn’t much different from following a DVD. Plus I was in a room with people (not that anyone talked to me much)  and it gave me a boost to “come out” as a yogi.

I went to that class for a year and a half before the limitations of the teacher got too much and I left for a different studio. It got to a point where the class was something I dreaded and it put me in a bad mood for the rest of the day.

The new studio has a monthly fee for unlimited classes, so I feel it is worth my while to go to more than one class a week. The problem is I find taking classes quite draining. I’m so stubborn I find it hard to give control of my beloved practice to someone else, who may not sequence the poses I want, when I want. I am working on some quite “advanced” backbends in my home practice, among other things, and time at a class is time that I can’t be working on those. Plus what if I want to rest, or go faster, or just stop altogether?

On the other hand I have met a load of people at those yoga classes, no bosom buddies yet but a few I can small talk with. This is huge for me and would be impossible in my little lonesome attic studio. I have started work on poses- mainly inversions- after doing them in classes. I get new ideas and encouragement from classes. Plus going means I will get my 90 minute practice in guaranteed. That is fantastic, especially on days when I can’t be bothered sequencing myself.

I know that I am in a tiny minority (some of the teachers publicly admit to not having a home practice which I find quite shocking), to most of the people there that room where they go to do yoga is the only place in the world where they do yoga. Yoga is in that room and nowhere else. I do find it strange, if I’m honest with my judgmental self.

So my dilemma is, do I schedule days when I go to classes, and days when I home practice? Do I go with the flow (risking the classes getting the most of energy and the home days being when I have to rest, thus being the “dregs practices”)? Or do I say I will do 30 minutes home practice on days when I go to classes?

At the root of it, my yoga practice IS my home practice. Any classes I take are just to feed my home practice. That is where the value is for me, it’s my laboratory and my sanctuary.

Ashtanga

I’ve been very busy the past few days so I’ve been struggling to keep up with my August Blogging Challenge but I’m trying my best!

My yoga practice has been generic vinyasa since I started 4 and a half years ago. I use the cues and needs of my body to tailor a skillfully appropriate sequence each time I come to the mat, bearing in mind that the needs of my body and mind change depending on circumstances. Basically it means I do whats I feels like. This has led me to have a highly personal practice which I depend on and has always given me a lot of joy and opportunity for excitement and growth. But I’ve always felt inferior to Ashtanga people. Especially since I started reading yoga blogs. I fear that many of the blogs I read would view my practice as weak, non-committal, not serious, shallow… etc.

I had no desire to practice the Primary Series but I had many desires to work on poses that are included in the primary series: the half lotus, kurmasana, the extensive surya namaskars, dropping back into urdhva dhanurasana and of course the oft-repeated jump throughs and jump backs. I played with these in my general practice but I was not committed enough to make any kind of dent. Then my yoga studio advertised an Introductory Ashtanga course and I was kind of interested so I committed to practicing 3 times a week.

By the first week my right leg felt strange- stiff and achy around the knee and hamstring. I found myself unable to even practice half lotus which was part of the reason I wanted to practice the Primary Series in the first place. In the second week I hurt my wrist jumping through so was unable to practice those, or the surya namaskars. In the third week my inner thighs and hip flexors tightened up so much my outer hip rotators got a bit strained. I was unable to practice anything with much external rotation. Today during practice hip flexors got very tight and sore and I was unable to practice half lotus, janu sirsasana, navasana and I just generally felt like my comfy yoga pants were a tight pair of just-washed jeans, restricting my every movement.

At first I thought it was just bad luck, and some of it is but the thing is, when I felt a bit off before I would change the practice to heal. I am beginning to realise why my practice has been very injury free since I started yoga: I do things that are appropriate for my body. Over the years I have gravitated to deep lunges, pigeon poses, anything which stretches the inner thighs, and backbends. These poses were most beneficial for my body, I practice them for a reason. And I’m beginning to think that the Primary Series, with all its forward bending and hip flexor contracting, is just not suitable for my body. So as much as I was looking forward to investigating the Primary Series unadulterated, I think I might just have to modify it and practice it in parts.

I’m just such a rebel, I don’t like anyone telling me what to do. Especially in yoga.

Injury Diary

I didn’t set out for this blogging-every-day-in-August thing to just be a diary of my various injuries but it is turning into a bit of one. Today it is my right hip. Yesterday I went for a run, and being my first one in weeks I got a bit over excited and maybe overdid it a teeny tiny bit.

I have seriously tight hips. If I forego my regular yoga practice for a day I feel it in my hips first and by the second day I have back pain. Problem is when I reintroduce hip-heavy exercise into my days after a period of illness my beautifully tight hips reward me by getting stronger in the long term but tight and achy in the short term. I still “have” to do an intensive asana class though (thanks, stubborn brain) and it ended up being totally inappropriate for my bodily state. Any external rotation was fairly painful and by the end of the night I was in pain whenever I moved my hips at all. Which is whenever I move, incidentally. Hip pain is horrific.

This morning it was better thank goodness but I’m not a fan of powering through injuries and tiredness/illness so even though I am “supposed” to be practicing the Primary Series I decided it would be stupid to do so. So what do you do when you have a bad wrist, a bad hip, you’re tired and have a stomach ache? First of all you sit around feeling sorry for yourself, guilty you’re not working and panicky about future yoga teaching career because, if you can’t practice when feeling slightly ill and injured, how the hell do you expect to commit to teach others? At least you do if you’re me. Ended up spending an afternoon with Shiva Rea and Sarah Powers via my extensive yoga dvd collection. I feel soothed now. If I can teach half as well as those women I will be happy.

So lesson is for today that there is yoga for every situation and injury.

Question is, what will tomorrow’s injury be?

Yoga vs the Olympics

In the Grand Battle between practicing yoga and watching the Olympics, sadly the Olympics is winning. My evening practice has been slashed in half by my suddenly becoming attached to the tv and to the outcome of the handball match between Iceland and France. I’d never even heard of handball before! The novelty of having the Olympics live and in my own timezone has not worn off yet.

Also I have a pesky bad left wrist and a dodgy stiff right knee. So in some ways, I am an athlete too!

Strengthening my centre

Since the beginning of the year I have been doing lots of abdominal strengthening work. That area of my body, I’ve discovered, is a bit of a weak spot for me but I realised it wasn’t going to get any stronger by moaning about it so I started a (mostly) daily routine of boat poses, lolasana, and whatever other fitness/yoga hybrid abdominal poses I can think of.

The aim for me is not to get stronger abdominals for their own sake, but so that other poses can come easier. There are so many I want to work on: headstands, handstands, jump throughs, arm balances. These are all demanding poses, requiring strength as well as practice. So I figured why run before I can walk? I need a strong centre to face these challenging poses.

I’m also at a bit of a turning point in my life. After 4 years of recovering from depression, 2 years of seriously painting and a year of trying to get my painting taken seriously I finally have an exhibition in April and my depression has finally lessened to the point of disappearing most days. And I applied for a residency I didn’t even expect to pass the first stage, now I’m told I have a “good chance”.

I’m scared. Do I want this?

The real turning point in my depression recovery came in November last year when I started Jon Kabat Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living programme. I have carried on my daily mindfulness meditation ever since as well as successfully cultivating the mindful state in my daily life. It’s working! So I now have a coping mechanism for when things get scary and stressful. I can sit with my stress and my fears and I can understand them and know I have what it takes to get through them. And I do sit with my fears, every day. They come and go and I am still here. I doubt that I will make that terrible descent into depression like I did 6 years ago, ever again.

So I realised a connection between the work I’m doing on my physical body in yoga and my emotional/mental self. There’s no point in working towards some amazing fancy poses if I’m not strong enough to hold them comfortably. And there’s no point in aiming towards these high dreams and goals if I can’t cope with the inevitable disappointments and stresses that’ll come with them. So I meditate and I do my boat poses.

Week 8: Moving Toward Balance with Rodney Yee

I did it! I finished the course. After week 7 I caught a cold and I found myself only doing yin (with a tissue during the long forward bends) or restorative or couch yoga (in front of the tv, it counts) When I recovered I couldn’t wait to get back to this course, to get it finished!

Week 8, the last week, was about creating a well-rounded home practice so there’s not really much new ground to cover in terms of new asanas. At this point I was just glad to be moving again after my mega-cold. The main thing that was different from the other weeks was the (relative) long holds in headstand and shoulderstand which I thoroughly enjoyed. I think it was this week I had a massive breakthrough with my headstand which really warrants its own post. It was bizarre, here I was recovering from the worst (or only) cold in a year and I was closer to headstand than ever and because I wasn’t able to walk anywhere my hip flexibility was incredible. It almost made me want to stop walking!

So to round off my Rodney Yee yoga adventure I will sum up some good effects and bad effects of following this course.

Bad effects:

  • Meditation. I’ve been keeping up a regular, non-demanding meditation practice since March which I kept separate from my yoga asana practice. Since Rodney included a short 5-15 minute meditation after the asana practice I gave up my other meditation time. This meant that when the course finished, so did my meditation practice. This had repercussions.
  • General vinyasa fitness. My yoga practice usually involves lots of linking poses together, practicing jumping back and forward in the surya namaskar and generally a lot of movement. I noticed after practicing Rodney’s mainly static sequences for those weeks my fitness in my normal yoga classes decreased.
On to the good effects:
  • Left knee pain: I’ve had some vague joint pain in my inner left knee since February. Nothing serious but it stopped me trying half lotus and squats were hard too. I noticed that it helped to sit in hero pose but didn’t think too much of it. After several weeks of Rodney’s repeated long stays in reclined hero pose the left knee pain is no more! A miracle!
  • Headstands and handstands: I am now more familiar with these demon poses and well on my way to thinking about calling them friends. Or at least calling them more often.
  • Longer holds: The course has made me aware of how short my holds in downward dog and up dog can be. After some shameful arm shaking it’s put me in the habit of longer holds which has led to a stronger me and a stronger practice.
  • Restorative poses: There’s some fantastic ones which I will definitely be adding to my regular practice. Hello bolster!
  • Long passive backbends: I’ve rediscovered the wonders of passive backbends: reclined hero, supported bridge and supported fish all help to open me up for a deeper backbending practice. Sometimes slow and steady wins the race. The race for healthy backbends!
  • Slower pace, fewer poses: This has helped shift me away from the constant go-go-go you get in vinyasa sometimes and to a quieter more contemplative practice. I need to be reminded of the value of this every so often.
So that’s it, the good outweighed the bad and the bad was only temporary. This concludes my little yoga experiment, relinquishing control of my own beloved home practice temporarily has taught me many things. But I was so glad to get back to my own practice!
What next? Maybe the 300 week courses in the back of Light on Yoga??

Week 7: Moving Towards Balance with Rodney Yee

Goodness! I’m writing about something that happened way way back in September. Nevermind,I’ve got a good memory, or at least I hope I have…

Week 7 was headstands. I’ve always been a bit take-it-or-leave-it with inversions. Maybe that’s because I can’t do any! Except for shoulderstand, my token inversion. So at this point I was doing fairly uncomfortable shoulderstands (somewhere along the way I forgot that you have to roll onto the tops of your shoulders one at a time from plough, and then lift up into shoulderstand), my headstands were non-existent although I was still struggling along. I wasn’t expecting to love this week.

Happily, I was wrong. It found me at a time when I had no time and I found myself only doing Rodney’s set sequences, no extra standing poses, no leaping around. I just did what he told me to and I loved that simplicity. Ah if only I someone tell me what to do with the rest of my life…

Rodney believes that standing poses are the best way to warm up for headstand and backbends are the best way to recover. Since I love both standing poses and backbends, who was I to argue? Headstand was the only problem: I couldn’t do it. So I improvised! I set a timer, got myself up against the wall and tried for the length of the timer to balance as best I could. It worked well, I found myself being more familiar with the pose and becoming friends with it. Listening to it wasn’t pretty: lots of banging as my feet flopped against the wall again and again and then a final THUMP as my feet fell to the floor after I finally lost my balance completely.

I re-befriended shoulderstand too, since I discovered my mistake. I was doing an upper back-stand! Now I’ve regained my shoulderstand lovely floaty mojo and it’s toe-numbingly nice. This week introduced the long shoulderstand holds I missed in the week 5 of inversions. I vowed to practice them more.

A couple of poses I did not befriend: elbow balance is impossible (tight shoulders) and handstand (I’m not a natural gymnast and I’m terrified) but altogether this week was great. I finally began to understand the reason why everyone goes on and on and on about the effects of inversions. They’re calming! They’re rejuvenating! I’m a believer now.

Thanks Rodney!