Day after

The day after the workshop, and I felt a little crispy this morning at practice. Mostly my shoulders and quads. Which is a-okay. One of the super-bendy backbender gals asked if she was the only one with sore quads. “Do you feel anything at all in your shoulders?” I asked. She looked kind of bewildered and shook her head. Lucky thing.

She knew what I was asking, though. I am loving the new shala because people seem really engaged. We are aware of each others’ challenges even more than in the past. Bendy Gal knows I’m challenged in the shoulders, and I know she is challenged when she tries to come up from laghu vajrasana. Running Girl is new to the group, and she is delightful to watch because she is exactly the kind of practitioner you’d imagine a runner to be: lots of tensile strength, tight hamstrings, great endurance.

I am still feeling madly in love with the backbending, so much so that it is hard to take a day off. But I know I need to. I was reminiscing this morning about the old weightlifting schedule: protocol requires that you take at least 24 hours rest between workout of any given bodypart. Ashtanga is a full body workout. So by the protocol of exercise science, we ought to practice every other day.

In the workshop yesterday, Lisa mentioned that flexible people get stronger and that strong people get more flexible. She mentioned that the strong people also may lose muscle mass. True enough, and largely because of the daily practice, I imagine. I think back to when I was lifting: it would have killed me to give up muscle for a practice. Even when I finally gave up the gym and went All Ashtanga, All The Time, I felt kind of despairing about the loss of muscle mass. Now it’s hard to fathom how I ever could have felt that way.

My boss left a sticky note on my desk the other day. It had little squiggles on it. Under the squiggles she wrote:

Sanskrit for –> Good Job On That Project!

I saved the note. I think it’s hilarious.

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Backbending with Lisa

Great backbending workshop. Lisa is as terrific as I’d been told — very open and with lots of helpful things to say about different aspects of the practice.

My favorite thing, by far, was hanging out in kapotasana, in the middle of the bend, without touching the floor. For the very first time, I was calm enough to look around a bit (Hey, there’s my left foot! Hey, there’s my right!). Volleyball Guy came by and helped me catch my toes before I put my head on the floor. MUCH easier than putting the head down and then walking the hands in.

The most interesting tidbit was the admonition NOT to poke the hips forward at the start of kapotasana (in other words, don’t drive the tailbone toward the front and push the thighs forward), but rather, to push the public bone back, and the upper back, so the curve resides between the hips and the shoulders (rather then running from knees to shoulders). It is reminiscent, actually, of how you set your back before a heavy free-weight squat. Very stable. And then you start dropping back. Much more control this way, and much less lumbar stress. Cool.

Urdhva dhanurasana, for some reason, was particularly light and airy today. A good bit of it was purely mental, I think. Plus, I hadn’t “warmed up” with all of primary and a third of intermediate, so I was pretty full of energy. We’d done a bunch of shoulder stretches earlier, so that may have contributed to the ease I felt in UD. I have to stay positive, and perhaps I can feel more of that tomorrow morning!

All in all, a great workshop. There’s something nice about a bunch of practitioners getting together to research a bit, and I really enjoyed it. Day after day we practice in the same room, but each person is immersed in his or her own practice. There is something distinctly celebratory about working together every so often; the energy in the room was like a little party.

Kind words, automaticity, backbending workshop, panic

Sanskrit Scholar said something really nice to me yesterday at lunch. She said that my practice is devoid of any extraneous movements, and that that makes it very calming to practice next to me. We talked a little about minimalism and efficiency, which are qualities that warm my heart, in part because I am a designer, and also because I have had other physical practices (lifting and climbing) that were also about finding the most efficient motion and putting it to use.

One of the principles of flow states is the idea of overlearning. Overlearning is a concept that is quite prevalent in Educational Technology, which is my official, professional background (the degrees in sculpture and poetry are nice, but not to live on…) but I think I’ve always had an innate drive toward overlearning, or at least a strong curiosity about it. If you learn something to the point of automaticity, you can free up your mind.

And all of this leads back to practice. Automaticity in combination with regular practice can stave off frustration — basically it works like this: if you use your breath as the metronome and stick to the vinyasas, you can move through your practice without getting your mind all involved. Your breath keeps you moving. I was telling Sanskrit Scholar that if I stay on the breath, I can only go as far into the pose as the breath count allows, and then it’s time to move on. If I feel any dissatisfaction with the pose, there’s no time to wallow, and there’s the realization that I will be back again the next day. It’s a self-sustaining system, this way. If I am unhappy with one pose, sticking with the breath/vinyasas carries me away from the pose and into the rest of the series. If my mind stays behind and gets tangled up in my feelings about a pose, it gums up the automaticity of the practice and the whole machine kind of grinds to a halt: then the “fix” is to put my mind back where I am. The practice makes me put down my drama about something in the past and pulls me to the present. Where I can start the metronome ticking again and get back to it.

It’s really a remarkable structure. I’m not even going to go into how the automaticity and amount of challenge is a perfect breeding ground for meditation (if only we can subtract our attachment to thinking backwards and forwards).

This morning is a backbending workshop with Lisa Schrempp, an authorized teacher from Tucson. Word has it that she is a backbending marvel and a terrific, intuitive teacher. I’m really looking forward to this. If there’s an ongoing drama in my practice at this point, it’s definitely urdhva dhanurasana. Kapotasana is one thing: it’s difficult and it’s supposed to be difficult. Urdhva dhanurasana, though, seems like something that should reveal itself relatively easily. But I can’t find any significant comfort in it at all.

It’s kind of funny, too, because kapotasana, for all of its (astonishing) challenge, has the solace of grabbing my toes. For some reason, that tiny little connection point has enormous soothing powers. When learning any binding pose, once you stabilize the bind a bit, you can find the rest of the pose. I’ve never found any kind of comfort point in urdhva dhanurasana. There is nothing that I can kind of lock into, where I can find and settle into the sukha.

Oh, that just reminds me of inversions yesterday. I was doing pincha mayurasana (I know, it was just for my ego — because I can do it and it makes me feel happy) and Volleyball Guy came over, grabbed my calves and said, “Push into handstand.”

“That backbend,” he said as I (apparently) bowed my back some, “is panic.”

Interesting idea. Why panic? Because I was being asked to do something I’d never done before. I always feel some anxiety when I am doing something new. I have always imagined that this is a universal trait. Now I’m kind of wondering: anyone out there who feels no anxiety when doing something new?

Lin-Chi, notes from the iPhone, led & lunch

A new book: The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-Chi. Lin-Chi was a student of Huang Po. And we already know how much I love Huang Po.

If I were to discuss the great concern of Buddhism from the point of view of a follower of the sect of Zen patriarchs, then I could not even open my mouth, and you would have no place to plant your feet.

Someone asked, “Master, whose style of song do you sing? Whose school of teaching do you carry on?”

The Master said, “When I was at Huang Po’s place, I asked a question three times and three times I got hit.”

The monk started to say something. The Master gave a shout and then struck the monk, saying, “You don’t drive a nail into the empty sky!”

That said, I have some notes on my iPhone. Yep, an iPhone. Compliments of my boss. I’ve been saying for quite a while that the future of training involves smart phones and other mobile devices, so the organization’s called my bluff and presented me with the phone. Now it’s time to make some mobile training. In the meantime, the phone is great. Well, the hardware and the Apple software is great. The network stinks.

Notes from the iPhone:

Bindfry’s blog reminded me of flow states this morning. I’ve wondered about flow states before — specifically whether samadhi is actually just a super flow state. A flow state where the thing you are absorbed in is emptiness.

***

This morning is led primary and then lunch with the Mysorian yoginis. (I am amused that my voice recognition software now recognizes the word “Mysorian.”) It will be good to spend time with them. We’ll talk, but we won’t try to drive too many nails into the sky.

Tuesday is now the seventh day

And on the seventh day, Ashtangis rest. My old Sunday rest day was easier, I think. At first I figured a sleep-in day during the week would be great, but as it turns out, waking up at 6:00 AM is WAY harder than waking up at 4:30 AM. No idea why. Just because of the habit, I guess. So here I am at the office, officially unpracticed for the day. Do I feel the recuperation coursing through my body? No. I think I feel recuperation more fully on a weekend day, when I don’t have to be crazed with work.

I don’t like this experiment. I am a creature of habit and do not like changing variables.

Nevertheless, I will give it a try, this mid-week rest day. Sunday is a backbending workshop with Lisa Schrempp, who teaches in Tucson. So today is my rest. Rest, Karen! Rest! Recuperate!

Somehow this doesn’t seem optimal.

Monday morning

One of those “got to get to an early meeting” mornings. Started right in at 5:30, so I could finish up, run home and get ready for work (I’m 2 miles from the shala), and be in the office (4 miles from home) by 8 AM. Not too hard to pull off, but no room for dawdling. I prefer being able to just forget all about work during practice time, but oh well.

Volleyball Guy is quite attentive to the need-to-get-to-work practitioners. If he knows you have an early meeting, he mentions the time every now and again.

Practice felt really good. Zippy but not frantic. I did take a break at the end of primary, strolled around the room, and then came back to my mat for the intermediate poses. I need to knock off this habit once I get the breathing smoothed out on the new poses. For now, though, if I plow straight through, I lose my breath — I just push too hard if I don’t take a moment to regroup.

Finally, finally, I am starting to feel like less of an intermediate series imposter. For a while there, it just all felt so unlikely. Kind of like a tough climb on the first attempt. You might make it, but it’s gonna be ugly — and the things you learn as you scramble up are the things that you’ll need to know to make future climbs much more elegant. I’m not at elegant yet, but I am starting to see the lines of the structure: the places where I get tangled up, the places where I can relax and just assume everything is going along well.

I got a down dog adjustment during the suryas, then the usual supta kurmasana feet behind the head assist, and then nothing more until the intermediate poses. I like that Volleyball Guy is spare with the assists; I like that he just helps me where I need it. That way I don’t feel like I am greedy and using up his energy needlessly. Anyhow, tons of adjustments at the end of the practice: salabhasana, bhekasana, dhanurasana, laghu vajrasana and, of course, kapotasana.

The toe grabbing in kapotasana is a given at this point (not that it isn’t a struggle, but it is do-able). What I wonder about now is my ambition — or, rather, my lack of it. Once I have my fingers tucked into the space between the pads of my toes and the balls of my feet, I quit struggling to get more of the foot. The thing is, it doesn’t really hurt or anything at this point. I mean, it’s tough, but it’s not like I’m on the verge of screaming or bursting into flames or anything. I guess there’s a part of me that figures if kapotasana isn’t killing me, then I’m not really trying hard enough. It definitely feels like a challenge (by far the most significant challenge in my Ashtanga career), but I guess I am tempering the experience by holding back a teeny bit. Not that I can imagine pushing any more than I already am. I guess I’m just judging by the pain I imagine I’m supposed to feel. Okay. Now I’m gonna knock wood and just be thankful for how this is going.

After supta vajrasana, I did my dutiful urdhva dhanurasanas — not just three, but six, because if I keep doing them, someday my shoulders will open and it won’t be such a big freaking struggle. Or so I believe.

Then I scooted over to my mat and pulled my feet into padmasana. No time for closing!

Yeah, not so fast.

“Dropbacks, Karen,” Volleyball Guy said from across the room.

“But I’m already meditating,” I pointed out. He was amused, but undeterred.

And so it was. He does a great assist where he sits in front of me and just presses with his hands against my outer thighs to stabilize me. Very cool.

I grabbed another padmasana, felt grateful for a moment, and then I ran off.

Practice report, question, Lin Chi

All confused about what day is my day off. Used to be Sundays, but then when Volleyball Guy opened his new shala, there was the Sunday improv class. So I started going to that and took Tuesday as my day off. The shala’s closed this weekend, so what to do today? Take the usual Sunday break? Practice? Last Tuesday was a break day, so a sleep-in morning, which seemed great — but it was followed by a total day from hell at work, 100% vata-spiralling-out-of-control kind of day. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was the lack of practice that left me vulnerable to being swept up in all the work drama.

Anyhow, I decided to practice. And it was a good one. Not tough to get on the mat: I remembered to not spend too much time dawdling over coffee — otherwise my mind gets all attached to the idea of pursuing distractions (what it likes to think of as “starting the day”). Did read a great paragraph on Tabby Cat’s blog:

Adams talks about using the moment of waking up from (regular) sleep as a chance to “follow the I back to the heart” or basically not allow the I to creep its way up from the heart to the brain (because on the way to the brain, the nice big upper-case “I” (universal Self) gets funneled down into a Grinchy lower-case “i” (ordinary egoic grasper such as most of us are). He also mentions Ramana’s concept of the spiritual heart as being in the center-right chest.

Oh yes, that’s it in a nutshell, how the mind can interfere with the discipline of practice. He has some great book reviews on his site. I got going a bit on how zen is the same as and different than advaita. Uh oh! Mind getting ready to get busy with discursive thinking! Get on the mat!

And so I did. Practice felt nice and light, both physically and mentally. Parsva dhanurasana is really interesting right now: I am not even thinking about it physically (in terms of how “well” I am managing to do the pose) but rather, I am just trying to keep my mind still so I can feel it clearly. The heart part. I’m pretty much not paying any attention to shoulders, legs, arms, spine, or tension/relaxation points. Just the heart part. No idea where this will go, but I was freaked by the feeling when I first felt it, so the thing to do now is to just experience it fully for a while. The physical work can come later.

Laghu vajrasana is playing games with me: coming and going unpredictably. I had it stabilized for a while there, but stabilized by strength and will. It’s eluded my grasp and now comes and goes as it likes. I think this is because my back is opening up from the backbending — there is less stiffness to leverage in a strength pose like laghu vajrasana. Gotta give something up to get something else, eh? Okay, that’s fine. All I’m doing now is working the freak-out factor: need to get the equanimity going, so I can feel okay whether I get it or not in any given practice. Got it today, but tried to temper the “woohoo!” response — that way if I don’t get it tomorrow, it won’t seem like such a freaking tragedy. Kapotasana feels light years away, so I’ll just plug along. I figure I’ll do a critical review in January or February. No sense judging it day-to-day; I’ll drive myself mad.

***

Okay, so if you do your Ashtanga practice 6 days a week, does throwing in an improv class based on Ashtanga on the seventh day count as too much practice, or does the improv class not count as a day of practice?

***

Can’t stop the thoughts arising and disappearing in your mind,
True awareness shining boundlessly, you must focus on the one that doesn’t move.
To realize there are neither forms nor names, nothing to pursue,
Sword of Wisdom has been used, must hurry to hone it.

— Lin Chi