I want to preface this entry with this truth: Up until recently, I had been trying to maintain what I consider to be a very advanced practice on a daily basis. After my trip to Miami, my practice was loaded, because of the introduction of 11 new postures in only 8 days of Mysore practice. Strange shifts occurred in me and around me since Miami and I began experiencing what I think all practitioners must feel at some time: moments of frustration, moments of disillusionment, and moments where my practice (and life, at times!) felt completely shrouded in confusion.
However, because of the faith I want to have in the Ashtanga Yoga lineage and because of the guidance I received from every teacher I had practiced with in the past two months, I attempted to integrate the Second Series postures into my daily practice, adding one back each week so as not to kill myself with a practice too long and too advanced for my condition, capacity, and attention. I attempted to use the back-bends as therapy for my lower back and to ease up on my forward folds. I tried this honestly for about six weeks, under the tutelage of I believe five different teachers, who had similar but not identical suggestions about my practice.
I didn't make the decision to "give back" the Second Series poses until a conversation I had with one instructor who urged me to stick with one teacher, adding "even if that teacher is your own intuition right now." She placed an emphasis on a commitment to one thing, because she sensed how uncertain I was with how to proceed.
It was a desire to be guided by a teacher that prompted me to sustain the Second Series postures to begin with, not really my own belief that I was prepared for those postures and what they meant for my body and the energetic shifts in me. I wanted very much to trust the teachings that were being offered to me by many knowledgeable and dedicated individuals. These teachers unanimously urged me to continue into Second Series despite or because of my injuries. One teacher stated that stopping at Shalabhasana was a safe place; one thought to go on to Dhanurasana; two teachers suggested to work to Ustrasana; one recommended stabilizing at Kapotasana. All of this seemed horrifyingly daunting and impossible to me...
Let it be said here that I understand the value of having a teacher. A true teacher pushes you where you will not go on your own, pointing out subtleties and nuances about your practice that you very well may not detect on your own. A teacher will indeed present "horrifyingly daunting" work for you to do, because this is how transformation can occur. (So when I say proceeding through Second Series is "horrifyingly daunting," I mean that in a totally different way than the work I have to do in Primary (which is daunting, but not impossible): picking up and jumping back without floor contact, refining Garbha Pindasana, keeping weight properly distributed in my hands to avoid arm pain returning, and building strength in Sirsasana and Uplitihi.) I believe in this process of transformation deep within me: in my bone, and in my blood. I can feel when I am being confronted with a person -- formal teacher or not -- who is challenging me, my truths, my beliefs, and my knowledge to such an extent that it instigates change. I believe in that change, that transformation, the potential growth that can ensue as a result of that.
I also find myself at a place in my practice where I trust myself more than ever before. This trust I have in myself conflicts, at times, with the recommendations of other teachers. Which brings me to this: When what I know and feel to be true and right for me is not echoed by the teacher before me, I am no longer willing to sacrifice that merely because I think I ought to embrace the teachings of that individual unquestioningly -- no matter how thick and dense that desire to accept the teachings may be. I have found that what is right for you is not always what you desire; what you desire is not always what is right for you. Also that what is right for you may not be what other people believe is right for you, however frustrating this may be.
For these reasons, right now, I am taking a more independent approach to my practice. I have a newly-cultivated greater level of trust and respect for myself, my intuition, my sense of what is right; and at this precise moment (given what has been going on with my body and in my life), I have not gotten a sense of being guided in the direction that is right for me by the teachers I have practiced with at this moment in time, specifically in relationship to "doing more" or "doing less" in my asana practice.
I do not recall any of the teachers I have had in these two months advising me to do less. This fact, coupled with the profound back pain, has sadly led to a little lack of faith and trust, making the task of "going forward" with my practice a difficult and harrowing one, and making my practice feel surrounded in uncertainty.
This suspicion that I have had all along that I ought to be "doing less" has haunted me, but I had tried to stifle it out of respect for teachers and my understanding of the Ashtanga Yoga practice.
I believe strongly in the power of "Yoga Chikitsa" (which means "Yoga Therapy") of Primary Series, and what this can do for me (or any practitioner). My understanding of the energetic shifts that go on in Second Series ("Nadi Shodana") -- which is about cleansing the system that has presumably been healed by Yoga Therapy of Primary Series -- seems inappropriate to me, given my condition. I believe that practicing Primary Series with discipline, focus, and honor for myself and for the system of Ashtanga Yoga on a daily basis has to potential to "heal" me; that is, to transform me and my back. For this reason, I have wanted very badly to stick with the practice. However, another part of me has wondered if it is the practice that is aggravating my back, and if what I needed, in fact, is rest.
This is what influenced my decision to take an extended Ladies Holiday (Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday) and to come back slowly and on my own. First day back on Tuesday, I only did Surya Namaskara A and B, really focusing on spinal flexion and my transition into Virabhadrasana A, as right foot forward has been causing pain in my lower back. Wednesday, I woke at 2:36 AM, rather alert and conscious, for some reason. I practiced at 3 AM, this time up to the Six Fundamentals. Again, trying to remain very focused on transitions, maintaining bandhas during transitions. That makes a difference. Less pain with more awareness of bandhas; however, I did not go as deep into my forward folds as I was before. Thursday, I went up to Paschimattanasana as I wanted to see how seated spinal flexion would feel after working with slower, more controlled, focused movement the last couple of days. OK. Deepening my Paschimattanasana kind of hurt, coming out of it hurt. Friday I did Half Primary. A bit of discomfort this day, especially going into and coming out of forward folds. Certainly, the longer the practice is, the more challenging it becomes for me to maintain a sense of awareness of bandhas and mindful movements during the entire practice.
I think practicing alone was necessary for me. I think "doing less" was necessary for me, both in giving myself those days off and in committing to only practice Primary Series. I have just realized, I have been in no condition to receive adjustments or instruction with my back the way it is and my confusion and despair over it. I find it easier to stay focused on what I know I need to be focusing on when I don't have a teacher throwing all kinds of other things at me to work on. It has begun feeling like every teacher has a new suggestion. This can be quite exciting and inspirational and transformative... when you are in the right place. However, as a practitioner who takes everything quite seriously and attempts to give proper credit where due, simultaneously experiencing injury, this can become overwhelming. Unfortunately, my availability to yield these suggestions slowly dwindled as my back grew more and more uncomfortable. Also unfortunately: physical adjustments have been quite uncomfortable lately. This is why, I believe, at times, it is appropriate to practice independently.
Saturday was off as usual. Sunday I took off for New Moon. (There seemed to be some disagreement about which was Moon Day here in New York, Saturday or Sunday? I don't know. The rest I took during Ladies Holiday was helpful for my back I think, so I figured another day would be good for me.) That brings me to today.
When I woke this morning, I decided to try practicing with a teacher, despite my overwhelmed state. I do believe alternate perspectives are useful, when we are in a position to receive. I can be in that position, taking what feels right to me, but leaving what does not feel right. I figured I would tell her all about what has been going on with me and what I feel is most important for my practice right now.
I believe it was the right choice. She had a number of suggestions that made sense to me. She pointed out a few small, subtle things I do in my practice that I have otherwise been unaware of, but could be causing imbalance. Such as: allowing my lumbar spine to extend a little too much in Chaturanga; rolling over one foot before the other in transition from Chaturanga to Upward-Facing Dog and Upward-Facing Dog to Downward-Facing Dog; bringing my chin directly to my shin in all seated forward-bending postures -- she said Nancy Gilgoff recommends bringing forehead to knees first and then sliding the chin forward to extend the spine and deepen the forward fold. Had never heard that one before, but she says it could help as it puts a little less strain on the back. This is a constructive suggestion, I think.
Then it occurred to me. Garbha Pindasana. The rolling around in a circle is something I still have not quite gotten. I have received some tips from one or two teachers, but it is something that most teachers I have practiced under just don't give me much instruction for. There is something very obviously not right about what I am doing there. Firstly, I have not been able to do it in only 9 movements. I usually end up with 12 or 13 or 14. Secondly, in the week or two before Ladies Holiday, I was having immense pain in my low back during that rocking and rolling. I know I am not rolling on the right area in my back, because it usually hits me right on my spine. Dhruva says to rock back to the left of your spine, roll up to the right of your spine. I had experienced this a few times and THAT feels right. I can't always quite find it though... what to engage, what not to engage, in order to make that happen. Well, today, when I was rocking and rolling, my first few were rough and then I reminded myself to slow down, find that area to the left of my spine in the way down and try to hit that area to the right of my spine on the way up. That felt much better. I think incorrect alignment in Garbha Pindasana has definitely contributed to this lumbar/sacral imbalance.
Another thing I have been playing around with changing is my exit from forward folds. A long time ago, I used to come up with the lumbar lordosis still in tact. I stopped doing that March 2011 because I took a workshop with Greg Nardi in which he discussed allowing the sits-bones to curl under as you rise up from a forward fold, so that the hamstrings carry you up instead of using lower back muscles. I thought this must be part of the reason I had developed the pain in my lower back, so I changed it. Now, I am finding the opposite to be less painful for me. I am keeping the extension in my lumbar spine so my pelvis is in a more anterior tilt as I rise up and it feels better than letting sits-bones tuck under to rise up, bringing pelvis into a more posterior tilt. These things always change, who knows.
In any event, during my practice today, I had some pain, but it was the best I have felt in a long time... I felt proud at the end of my practice. Like something a little different happened today.