Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Finding Uddiyana Bandha...

You know how it is, your practice plateaus for God knows how long, you trundle along with no apparent progress, you have the odd niggle here and there which seem to linger longer than they should, then, 'BAM!!' Something clicks and you find your practice moves to the next level...... (Caveat: At least for a while ;)

The 'niggle' disappears, you've 'found' something out about yourself, you've learnt how to engage a muscle you didn't know you had, your awareness of the body has grown!

When I started this practice my level of body awareness must have been zero. Seriously, I have had to teach myself, my muscles, to wake up and work. The more I work on the subtle level of awareness, the more I see that so much more work is required. So, this week, since Wednesday last week, my practice has been getting better and better, postures have seemed easier, jump-backs/throughs lighter and more floaty, backbends without pain and with more control and I even managed to grab my heels in chakra bandhasana on Sunday with not much effort (first time!).

But today I practiced at home. And it was one of them, you're not too bothered about it, you start and then quite soon into the practice you realise the practice is feeling really good. Soooo good that I'm not even wanting to skip any jump-backs! (Amazing!) I get to navasana (my nemesis) and I'm feeling engagement at the top of the thigh where I haven't felt it before. I get to kurmasana and its kinda easy for one, I've got straight legs and the hips feel engaged, I try some leg behind head and I'm looking up without much pressure on the back of the head.

Things are feeling good.

I manage to straighten my legs completely and without pain in tittibhasana, something I haven't been able to do for about a year. I get to my other nemesis, upavishta konasana and I'm straight down in one breath! Chin to floor abdomen to floor. What is happening to my body?!?!? This has never happened and I was beginning to resign myself to the fact that my body just wasn't made to bend forward in that way. What has changed?

If anyone tells you that to engage your quadriceps you 'just' lift your kneecaps they are wrong. To engage your quadriceps you engage all the muscles all the way up to your groins. It is this action which will engage uddiyana bandha. Sadly I've been just lifting my kneecaps all this time (5 years). All lifting the kneecaps has resulted in is pain in the insertion of my hamstrings from over-stretching without using reciprocal inhibition and complete frustration with my practice.

Engaging the whole leg right up to the groin, in ONE practice, has enabled me to get chest to floor in all forward seated bends, including wide-legged forward bends, deep kurmasana, straight legged tittibhasana, chest to floor upavistha konasana, a stable chest to thighs in urdhva mukha pascimottanasana and piking up to headstand....with straight legs, first time ever. I was even able to lower the legs straight taking the toes to one inch off the floor then lift back up with straight legs. My jump backs and jump throughs are almost nearly there too, as I've woken up the tops of the thighs and I'm finding the strength.

So in ONE practice, just by engaging my legs properly, I manage to conquer a number of postures/transitions. But, the most important thing about it is that the pain in the glute/hamstring has gone, and this is down to correct muscle engagement! Be aware of your body, when pain arises, you're doing something wrong, search it out and rectify it!! :)

What is an advanced student?

The term ‘advanced students’ is kind of a misnomer, if one defines ‘advanced students’ as those who can grab their heels in chakra bandhasana or hold a handstand without support. As teachers of yoga the definition or interpretation of what is an ‘advanced student’ has a great bearing on the experience of yoga for our students.

On a purely physical level, after two years of regular practice, I would expect to see from students the kind of results one would expect to see from people who take up some form of exercise e.g. increased strength and stamina, but also flexibility, which most forms of conventional exercise overlook. An increase in body awareness and maybe a bit more confidence, both on and off the mat. But to try to measure the advancement of a student by asana alone would be missing the point completely. 

There are 6 series of Ashtanga Yoga, each series including more advanced asana, but most students will never complete the Primary Series. But this does not means that students practicing Primary are any less advanced that those practicing sixth. It just means that the ‘edge’ of the person practicing sixth has moved quicker/further than the student practicing Primary. It means they have to practice more advanced asana in order to reach their edge. It doesn’t mean they’re any more of an ‘advanced student’.

The classic texts state that asana practice is purely a means to enable the student to be able to sit comfortably for a long time in order to meditate. If one’s hips and hamstrings are tight and one’s concentration is lacking, sitting still for long periods of time is unlikely to happen. So one could say that if one were proficient at asana, then sitting would be easy, which would easily enable meditation. But it is not just about stilling the physical body. You could be the most flexible person in the world, but if your mind is not still and focused when sitting, what is the point? Gymnasts can perform amazing physical feats, but one would not say that makes them ‘advanced yoga students’. A friend of mine worked as a porter in a hospital and says that some of the best yogis he’d ever met were completely paralyzed, unable to move any part of their body.

The more I think about yoga and meditation and the more people I talk to about it, meditation in this day and age is absolute absorption in anything, where time and space cease to exist; painting a canvas, playing a violin, carving a piece of wood, even doing crochet! Hartranft calls meditation “interiorisation”, the shifting of perspective away from externality toward an interiorised point of view. From the outer world of people, things, relationships; to the inner world of the attentional processes with which the external is seen. Or more specifically, interiorisation is the growing sense that awareness is not seeing an object per se, but instead observing a consciousness representing an object. (Hartranft, 2012: 13) Once one gets to this point, we’re getting nearer to being ‘advanced students’.

This interiorisation is a realisation and complete acceptance and meshing with the matrix of the external world, which is a more inclusive and comprehensible concept of the state of Samadhi, for the western mind. Once one feels intimate with their external environment and realises their connection to every other sentient being on the planet, compassion arises and with compassion comes unconditional love, this is true yoga (union) and this is what ‘advanced students’ experience. 

The skill of the teacher is to accommodate and nurture each individual student and their unique development whilst remaining true to the wisdom shared by Patanjali. In my opinion, one can only measure a student’s knowledge and understanding of yoga by the actions of that student once they step off the mat. 

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Terrified, but feeling alive!

So it's kind of just dawned on me what I've done, I've packed in my good (safe-ish) job in Town Planning, I'm letting my beautiful little house out and I'm leaving the safety of my home and family to study yoga in Portugal, India, Bali and Thailand for 1 year......And I go in 9 weeks.

The visas for these places have proved to be a bit of a nightmare, but I'm trying to remain positive that I can get what I need when I need it and the info on the net from other travellers regarding these issues is simply awesome, much gratitude to those who share.

So my ashtanga extravaganza didn't make it to the west as planned, due to cost, but I'm kinda glad because I get to really LIVE in India as I will now be spending much more time there than first anticipated. I'm mainly glad because I am tres excited at the prospect of spending so much time in Mysore. Not just at the KPJARI, but I hope to study with other teachers, Venkatesh and BNS Iyenga...I'm excited. I also plan to study Ayurveda in Kerala, Indian painting, mendhi and visit Rishikesh too, which wasn't previously on my list.

But I'm petrified, actually. I've put myself in this position by choice! I now have no choice but to go and do it. Completely out of my comfort zone...so far out you wouldn't believe. But I only have one life and it has to be lived, stagnating is just not an option!!!

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Is bad shoulder blade alignment doing your back in?!

I've had such a bad back over the past 4 weeks, at the joint between the lumbar and thoracic vertebrae. Even resting from loads of deep kapo and hanging back hasn't really helped, which I thought was a bit weird...  So I've been a bit standoffish when it's come to back work recently. 

Today I had one of those 'I can't be bothered to practice' days but dragged myself onto the mat as soon as I got home. I'm so glad I did. I decided when I got to end of standing I'd do second and went straight into it. I've only been practicing second a couple of times a week recently. Despite the recent lower back pain kapo was relatively easy and keeping the knees pressing down and thighs completely engaged was working to get me deep very quickly. Where was the pain? What was I doing differently? I scanned my body and it was the shoulder blades....they were pulling right down my back and close into the spine..everything felt perfectly aligned. I was engaging something that I had never engaged before. So I got up and re-created the feeling in urdhva dhanurasana and again, felt completely stable. 

Now, whilst I can drop back, I confess I normally do the 'Lino' style taking my hands down the legs then letting go and rotating them inwardly to land. It feels safe! I've always had a feel of not being able to open the thoracic spine enough and when I go back with hands in prayer I feel terrified and somewhat claustrophobic, like everything around the chest is closing in. (Image from ihanayoga.com.au)

Plus, the hands in prayer position looks so much nicer doesn't it?! 

So I raised my arms towards the ceiling, palms facing forward thumbs touching overhead, looking up and drawing the shoulder blades down the back and sucking them towards the spine, I placed my palms together and drew them into the heart centre, with engaged thighs I arched back and without any problems dropped back! So what has been the problem? I was so worried I'd drop onto my head my shoulders were somewhere round my ears and the shoulder girdle lifted, closing the heart area at the front of the body.

Kapo has also been awful because my right shoulder goes back effortlessly but my left just doesn't want to engage in any way at all, which means when being adjusted, normally with the right first, I get the right heel then my left arm/shoulder just won't rotate properly which puts me into a panic that I'm gonna put the joint out...and I fail miserably! It's as if without correct engagement of the back muscles, the front won't open. 

So the muscles of the shoulder girdle, the trapezius and the deltoids are contracted to keep the shoulder blades in the correct position whilst entering the postures, then once you're in the back bend, release these by engaging their antagonists, the pectoralis and the latissimus dorsi. The erector spinae and quadratus lumborum also need releasing by engaging the abdominals, especially rectus abdominis. It's important to release the erector spinae once in the back bend as their contraction will pinch the spinus processes of the vertebrae together which will prevent any further movement in the bend. 

So there you go. Some tips on working on urdhva, kapo and dropping back with hands in prayer. Hopefully now my left shoulder will build up strength correctly and over time will balance out with the right... :) Hallejulah!