Posted tagged ‘self-practice’

Scoring Yoga (The Fug of Comparison and Nag Champa)

November 21, 2009

I am a bit amazed that anyone would question whether the “spirit of competition is in the soul of yoga.”  (See New York Times article, of November 18, 2009, by Sara Eckel.)

I have done yoga for more years than I like to confess (brownie point 1); many years at famous yoga studios (brownie point 2), with celebrated teachers (all true, also Brownie point 3.)

I have also practiced yoga for the last several years on my own, without aid of teacher or studio (points 4, 5, 6, and an extra .5 for the word “practice.”)

(I just realized that I could have gotten a whole extra point on that last sentence if I’d used the word “shala” instead of studio.  Darn.)

Part of the reason I made the jump to self-practice (7.5) was to get away from the atmosphere of competition and comparison that fogs the atmosphere of most yoga centers as effectively as that sweet fug of Nag Champa and sweat.  (8.5 for use of specific incense name.)  Practicing in a center all the time also got extremely expensive.  (High fees seem to mesh with yoga’s soul just fine.)

I loved my teachers dearly.   As a yoga student, you have a very special relationship with your teachers.  They lie on top of you, they stand on your knees (8.5, 9.5); they place their hands, firmly, on your inner thighs, your shoulder blades, the small of your back, your sternum;  sometimes they even poke around your bum, trying to show you the exact location of mula bandha, a genital-anal muscle lock.  (Brief pause in the brownie points.)

In a physically demanding form of yoga like my practice, Ashtanga (10.5), your teacher will wear you down to a level of intense emotional vulnerability;  to continue in this practice, you need to extend the teacher an immense amount of trust.   If the gift of this trust does not end in orthopedic surgery, you will reap amazing rewards.  With your teacher’s help, you will feel super-human, doing handstanding flips and intertwining parts of your body that had had no previous acquaintance.  (11.5, 12.5.)

Soon, you begin competing with other students for the attention of your beloved teacher (who also happens to be, or at least seem, physically attractive).  You are cheek by jowl with these fellow students in most  NYC studios.  You can’t help but be aware of every touch they receive;  when the teacher seems to give them extra tummy rubs, you feel sick to your stomach.  (Subtle downward dog joke 13.5.)

You begin to hate your yoga teacher’s “favorites” in a way that is distinctly unyogic.  If you manage, mindfully, to let go of that hatred, you still try to be better than those students in whatever way is physically possible if only an earnest facial expression).

Comparison, and its side-kick, competition, sneak in even when you don’t much like the teacher.  Asanas (14.5) are sometimes held for a long time;  the teacher drones on.  Bodies are stripped down, clothing-wise; your third eye roves. (15.5)

If you are like me, you can’t help but get a little irritated at the snazzy people who, despite narrow hips, feel hip in their sleek purple body suits.   When they look around the room, they seem to see right through you (the distinctly unhip).  Again, you try to cast off the feeling of resentment (Om), and then you notice that one of those same purple body suits, who chants with closed-eyed fervor, and (you saw in the dressing room) has a nipple ring, cannot support a jump into crow pose.

You breathe deeply/heavily as you balance in your not perfect, but adequate, jumped-into crow.  (17.5)     As your slightly saggy arms shake, you concentrate on the pose (18.5),  and the Higher Self. (19.5) , and the Unity of All Beings.  (20.5), but you also notice that you are suddenly visible to purple body suit, and that, when you jump back into chataranga (21.5), purple body suit even looks impressed.

All of which does not convince me that yoga should be an Olympic sport, but does make me think it was probably wise for me to start practicing in the privacy of my own room.

How To Do Ashtanga Yoga In One Short Breath

October 20, 2009

I am a longtime and very proud devotee of Ashtanga Yoga. This is a form of yoga pioneered by Shri T. Krishnamacharya and the much beloved Shri K. Patabhi Jois. It involves six fairly long series of poses (though most practitioners stick to the first “Primary” series), which are intended to energize the body, clarify the mind, and purify just about everything.   Ashtanga is supposed to be practiced six days a week, preferably in the morning.  (An empty stomach is recommended; a non-empty stomach is regretted.)

It is a great form of yoga, especially for people, like me, who have a hectic schedule, as it is designed for self-practice.  Not only does Ashtanga provide a  series of pre-set poses, it includes certain transitional movements between each pose. This takes decision-making out of home practice, an immense benefit for those who already have too many other things to think about.

Breathing in Ashtanga, as in all yoga, is super important: each transitional movement corresponds to a specific inhalation or exhalation, and each pose is ideally held for eight steady breaths.  This means that Primary series, if done right, should take between an hour and an hour and a half, to complete.

Some of us, however, have managed to shorten the required time span to approximately fifteen minutes.

Here’s how:

1. First, practice for years. It’s important to know the poses in your bones so that when you whiz through them you don’t need to spend a single extra second thinking about what comes next.

2. Second, be Manic.

3. And slightly depressed.

4. Start a daily blog.

5. But keep your day job.

6. Most importantly, fuel the flames of family and personal drama with long drawn-out conversations or email each morning, so that you really don’t have more than fifteen minutes to do yoga. (Ignore possible effects of yoga’s calming influence, if done correctly.)

7. Don’t mind if you wrench your knee or shoulder throwing yourself into convoluted positions. (Alignment always felt kind of boring anyway.)

8.  Who said you had to do the complete pose?   At least, your bending that wrenched knee.

10. Try not to mind that a practice that is supposed cultivate deep breathing and energetic stillness is whipping by in panting exhaustion

11. Congratulate yourself on the fact that you are practicing yoga at all.

12. (If you can call that practicing . Or Yoga.)

13. But keep practicing anyway. (As that great sage Scarlett O’Hara said, tomorrow is another day.)