I’ve been reluctant to publish another post because my rather dull yoga practice notes would then displace that extraordinary image on my last post...I don’t want it to disappear…it incites my wild nature…the dance, the stance, the tilt of their heads and facial expressions, the emu feather head and ankle decorations, the ochre body paint, the red earth beneath their feet and rocky mound behind them so typical of Australian topography…this particular photo of a Corroboree dance was taken at the turn of the century… it’s one of my favourite images from “Voices of the First Day” by Robert Lawlor.
Many of the photos in this book are amongst the earliest ever made of the Aboriginal people. They were taken by anthropologist Baldwin Spencer during his travels to the remote regions of Central and Northern Australia. At this time much of the Aboriginal culture was intact. The photos therefore provide an authentic glimpse into the oldest known human society.
Alas…on to my rather tediously self-indulgent practice notes from Monday and Wednesday:
Monday 20 September
Two practices today…
Another short morning practice – 25 minutes - which by my definition is the bare minimum for it to rate as a practice. What it lacked in time, it made up with intensity.
Five Surya Namaskar As, flowing through Dog Pose without stopping for the 5 breaths; I was flying early – breath flowing strongly, body moving, breathing, stretching open with feeling, it was full of life, courage and strength. I skipped the Surya Bs to avoid breaking the flow – stepping forward to a lunge is a simple move that often aggravates my back – and maintaining the flow felt more important today.
Padangusthasana and Pada Hastasana both felt strong and soft as I pressed my shoulder blades in and lengthened down. In all these forward bends my focus spreads fully through my body, but a little extra attention goes to concaving the space in front of my lumbar. Anatomically I’m probably nutating the sacrum and opening the back of L4-5 and L5-S1 discs, but the focus is more on engaging the deep core muscles that support this area and directing prana from the base into the central energetic channels. I marvel at what goes on in these simple poses – in an instant I can swim down through multiple layers.
Trikonasana – I keep the back of my lower hand against my inner ankle and gently press back to encourage rotation. By not resting weight on the lower hand I have to engage my legs more and use core energy to support and lighten my torso.
Parivritta Trikonasana – the hip and spine alignment feel correct but from experience I know we can be far out when judging from a warped internal compass. I engage Mula Bandha and draw the prana up through the central channel in this pose and my body finds its natural alignment around an invisible energy line.
Utthita Parsvakonasana – always a dangerous descent through my unstable hip joints, especially on the first side. Some days I have to rest my elbow on my bent knee for support, but today was a good day. I notice the tinge of fear as I move down into the full pose…it’s a split second decision on the way down whether to bend my elbow to my knee or to reach for the ground. Again I marvel at the processes involved in this decision - the nerve impulses from my dodgy weak hip carry all the raw data to my brain about the condition and strength of my hip joints in that instant. Following a split second evaluation and decision based on stored memory data, I know whether my hip can support the weight of my bent torso today, and the potential for pain, collapse, or injury in the movement.
In a second I have moved into the full pose having weighed up all this data and the risks on the way down. My fingertips touch the floor, fear turns to relief and I set to work, breathing into the pose, correcting alignment and directing subtle energy into my weak hip joint to strengthen and heal the damaged tissues and nerves. With the hip joint stabilised and energised, I’m able to lift strongly out of the pose through my legs.
Parivritta Parsvakonasana – I’m still on the modified version of this pose, wedging my elbow outside of my bent knee with hands glued together in Namaste. On rare, flexible days I attempt the full pose but not today, because as I twist, my lumbar vertebrae grind against each other cutting my core power instantly. I re-engage mula bandha and connect it to my Ujjayi breath, bringing intention, courage and strength back into the pose for another two breaths.
I step back to Samasthithi, then step out with the next breath to Prasaritta Padottanasana. Palms are flat to the floor for 5 breaths in A, I inhale and rise halfway, pausing there for the exhale. I notice the natural Uddiyana Bandha grip that occurs at the end of the exhalation, supporting the lumbar and torso in this half forward bend. Inhaling I rise up, exhaling I return to standing.
Continuing to flow with the breath, I move on to the other three variations: B (hands on hips), C (hands clasped behind the back) and D (holding big toes).
I breathe my body back to Samasthithi and step out for Parsvottanasana.
Here’s another pose that deepens endlessly with time (same as Urdhva Dhanurasana, or all yoga poses really). You can do it for 20 years and uncover hidden treasures every time.
I lift and enliven my inner thighs here – again I engage the two bandhas and the rest of my body falls into alignment. The pose deepens breath by breath, my legs become elongated tree trunks with subterranean roots, my hip joints release their hold on my pelvis, my spine lengthens forward and the tip curls under like a soft leaf softening my neck…I breathe through the intensity of this magnificent stretch.
Parsvottanasana is perfectly placed before Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana because it lengthens the hamstrings and teaches the importance of strong legs in supporting the spine during forward bends. The leg/pelvis/hip arrangement in Parsvottanasana is almost the same as in the forward bending position of UHP A…which I’m now up to.
I take an extra breath in Samasthithi to recover then bend up my right leg for UHP.
My arm reaches outside of my bent leg to grab my big toe – this way is a little harder than reaching inside the leg but it ensures from the start that the femur is facing forward.
Time is ticking away but I decide that the next pose, Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana is essential research for that crazy Lotus in Headstand pose in the Iyengar week 26 sequence I’m playing with in my evening practice. Ardha Baddha reveals my stiff hips today but I still manage to do the full pose on both sides. I’m always tempted to pry open my stiff parts too early, especially in this pose. It’s a habit established in Ashtanga led classes where you only get 5 counted breaths in each pose before moving on.
The hip opening in Ardha Baddha is a bit intense today and I come up quickly on both sides after 5 breaths.
Time’s almost up.
I do a Handstand to the wall and after a few breaths I look up at my feet. It suddenly occurs to me that I’m doing a kind of Jalandhara Bandha so I experiment with turning on the other 2 bandhas to see if I can ignite a fuse. Instead I get a little disorientated from the surge of energy to my head and come down.
Back on the mat for Savasana I slip in a quick Ardha Baddha Padma Padmottanasana, (extra research) before laying down for five minutes. My mind is a bit racy but I do what I can to seek out and relax any tension that has lodged in my muscles. Five minutes is not quite long enough for an intense practice to settle down in my body…
The Week 26-30 sequence blew me away tonight. It took 2 hours.
Before starting the official sequence I prepared with Supta Padmasana which could have sufficed as a whole practice given the intensity of this pose. From seated Padmasana, I slowly laid backwards onto the floor, but my Lotus legs travelled with me until I came to rest with my knees facing the ceiling - I felt like an insect trapped and bound up in a web. It took a few slow, agonising minutes for my hips to release the femur bones and for my Lotus legs to descend to the floor - my hips and lumbar spine were all bound up together. I just laid there, determined to stay with the process of breathing and releasing my body’s tight grip. It was going to be a full practice.
I spent 7 minutes in the Headstand sequence and came very close to getting my second leg into Lotus while up there. This sequence has a lot of Padmasana poses and the repetition is helping to re-open my hip joints – Padmasana in Sirsasana may come sooner than I expected.
In Eka Pada in Sirsasana my feet are about 8-10 inches away from the floor on both sides. Any closer than this and I tip forward out of the Headstand. This pose requires simultaneously opposing actions: energising the upright leg while progressively extending and releasing the lower leg out of the hip joint. It reminds me of trying to pat my head and rub my tummy at the same time…
The entire Shoulderstand sequence took 17 minutes tonight. In the first Shoulderstand, there’s no time to hang out and enjoy the inversion… I limit myself to 15 breaths here (knowing the marathon ahead) so I have to quickly find a perfectly upright spinal alignment before moving into the free-balancing variations that follow. During the Niralambas all my body weight is held up by the neck and shoulder area and although the pressure build up eases a little when moving into Halasana, the next group of poses from Halasana through to Parsva Halasana force a lengthy and extreme Jalandhara Bandha to be held.
The final inverted pose, Urdhva Padmasana in Sarvangasana was strong – I’m enjoying the intense stretch through the front hips and groins in this knees-up version.
When I finally come down from the never ending Shoulderstand sequence, relief is instant bliss.
After the marathon inversions, Jatara was weaker than usual. The first Navasana (arms extended forward, feet just above eye level) is an easy one for me but the second one (hands clasped behind the head and legs much lower) is a challenge to hold in correct position for 5 breaths.
Janu Sirsasana brought about a turning point tonight.
My Ujjayi breath became quiet and deep as I slipped down that strangely familiar tunnel into deep inner space. Each pose that followed opened up into a fathomless eternity where everything was magnified.
I could clearly feel a tight band of scar tissue stretching horizontally across my lumbar like a bandaid holding my spine in place. It was higher than I’d imagined, over L2 I think. I tend to think of my lumbar problem as located much lower (though x-rays show that the facet joints between L4/L5 have eroded).
Scar tissue is very different from muscle tissue and once it has formed it won’t allow much stretch, but in Janu Sirsasana the release across my back was global and I felt this tight scar band give way ever so slightly. I breathed into my back body expanding it into a balloon full of air and light. My vast open mindstate was opening up my body. I was working way past the edge of my physical limitations without any intention to do so.
The following forward bends were equally regenerative. Ardha Baddha, Tiriang, Marichy A… for the first time in 2 years my nose touched my legs in Paschimottanasana and I managed a hand/wrist bind in Marichy A – not that these little achievements matter – they were simply showing the influence that my mindstate was having on my body.
After the forward bends, it was on to the Padmasana poses, then the Virasana poses, then the 2 twists and Baddha Konasana. After these poses, Ado Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog Pose) was a peaceful place to breathe and recover, its neutrality brought me back to equilibrium and rest…but not for long…I had to slide up into the first backbend: Urdhva Mukha Svanasana. It took me 5 breaths before my body would curve up at all which meant I had to spend another 5 breaths working fullness into the pose…intense. Part of my body’s protective mechanism is the loss of elasticity around the lumbar and hips. I guess this is necessary armour to prevent further damage occurring from sudden movements.
After the work in Upward Dog I lowered into Chaturanga but couldn’t hold it beyond 2 breaths. I collapsed to the floor then simply moved on…Salabhasana, Dhanurasana and Ustrasana, the three amigos! I did Ustrasana twice.
The action of standing up for Utkatasana after all the floor work still felt out of place but the pose itself felt nice – perhaps there is some intelligence to placing it here – grounding through my feet and legs and reaching upwards reconnected me between the earth and the sky.
Garudasana to end this sequence makes even less sense than Utkatasana did. I did it on both sides without losing my balance but my foot didn’t quite hook around fully on the second side. By this time I didn’t care, I didn’t correct, I didn’t repeat. It was good enough.
I scraped myself up off the mat at 8.30pm.
Wednesday 22 September
20 minutes this morning (5 minutes short of being a minimal yoga practice).
5 Surya Namaskar A
3 Surya Namaskar B
Padangusthasana (I skipped Pada Hastasana due to time)
Trikonasana – got a nice toe hold on the second side, maybe the first one in over a year…
Parsvakonasana – came up out of the pose slowly, deliberately and unsupported
Prasaritta Padottanasana A
Handstand to the wall
I’m not sure where the impulse came from to do Baddha Konasana at the end. It’s been a difficult pose since the onset of my back problems - morning stiffness makes it an inaccessible pose on some days. But on a whim I returned to the mat after the handstand, sat down and pulled my feet in. My lower back wanted to curl to allow for more femur rotation in my hip joints so it was a challenge just to stay lifted upright without collapsing. I lengthened up through my spine and tilted the top of my pelvis forward a little, rolled the pubic bone down and held all this while externally rotating my thigh bones.
Looking down I was surprised at how far my abdomen was twisted to the right. To correct this I had to slide my navel about two inches to the left and elongate the left side of my body.
I had noted and been working on this scoliosis in Shoulderstand and Halasana where my body’s twist can’t be ignored…my off-centre navel stares right back at me when I’m gazing directly up at my abdomen. Funny I’d never noticed this quirk in Baddha Konasana before. I think the recent return to seriously regular yoga practice is starting to show up all the damaged areas that were blocked out.
Now I’ll be watching for this twist in all my poses from now on and trying to correct it from the inside out.
I did the week 26-30 sequence again and it turned out to be a similar practice to Monday evening, perhaps a few degrees lower on the intensity scale. I deliberately kept it at a gentle simmer.
I started at 6.45pm and spent 15 minutes easing open my front hips in the Supta Padmasana preparation pose (it could just as easily be called flat Matsyasana or a Dead Fish Pose).
The official practice started with my first Headstand at 7pm and it ended at 8.30pm; a 15 minute Savasana followed. 2 hours total.
An early surprise tonight was getting my legs into Padmasana in Sirsasana on the second side. Slightly puzzling because the first side (left leg on top) is the only side we do in Ashtanga. This has always been controversial as it seems to defy yoga’s emphasis on equalising both sides of the body’s energetic system. For years I only did Padmasana with the left leg on top so I can slide into this side much easier than the opposite ‘strange’ side. Which brings me again to the question of why, when standing on my head, I can’t do Padmasana on my easy side (left leg on top) but I can suddenly do it on the second ‘strange’ side….
So far in this sequence I haven’t attempted Pindasana in Sirsasana as I haven’t been able to do Padmasana in Sirsasana. Now I have to fess up and add Pindasana to the practice.
Another small (Padmasana) detail I noticed tonight…Tolasana - when seated in Padmasana on the ‘strange’ second side (right leg on top) my right knee is much higher off the ground than my left. But as soon as I press my hands down and lift off, both knees become an even distance from the ground.
For my own record I’m going to list the poses in the Week 26 sequence that are either still inaccessible or still need some work:
Eka Pada Sirsasana – I can do this pose quite well but lowering my feet further than 10 inches from the floor compromises the integrity of the pose.
Urdhva Padmasana in Sirsasana – is coming…on the strange side….
Pindasana in Sirsasana – still an unfamiliar pose until I get more confident with Urdhva Padmasana
Karna Pidasana – two years ago I could easily get my knees to the floor in this pose; six months ago I couldn’t even bend them in to touch my forehead because of my lumbar. Tonight my knees got as far as my temples. Minimal but discernible progress.
Pidasana in Sarvangasana – another pose I used to do easily, clasping my arms and hands tightly in around my Lotus legs. I’m optimistic that the fully bound clasp will come back in time. For now I’m happy that my back is allowing me to even hold my knees in for a little squeeze.
Marichyasana A – this week I finally got to clasp my wrist again. The fully wrapped arm and clasped wrist are essential help to squeeze and circulate the prana within a tightly contained area. Forward bending is still difficult, but on a good day I can get halfway.
Lolasana – impossible (for now). The day I lift off will be a day of miracles.
Marichyasana C – binding seems far away – the loss of articulation in my vertebrae when the knee is bent up prevents full rotation so I just hook my elbow around my bent knee and enjoy a mild squeezy twist.
Ardha Matsyendrasana – ditto Marichy C.
Baddha Konasana – I have almost no forward bending capability when my femurs are externally rotated in the hip joints but on another level I plummet to enormous depths by sitting upright with my head tilted forward, engaging all three bandhas and Ujjayi breath to the max.
The week 26-30 sequence is the last one in ‘Course 1”. There is much work to do so I’ll stay with it for a while. Taking up the challenge of Iyengar’s course has reinvigorated my practice at a time when my body is just beginning to respond again.
As I learned from years of Ashtanga Primary practice, doing the same asana sequence regularly has enormous benefits and the practice deepens with time. The familiarity may be comforting but the endlessly arising challenges aren’t.
It’s exciting to observe my body and mind changing and opening up again. My yoga practice feels vibrant, primal and imbued with purpose, no matter whether I’m flowing with the Ashtanga sequence or deeply exploring my limits in the Iyengar course, or just laying on my mat in a knotty Dead Fish Pose.
While ‘casually’ looking through Light on Yoga last night I ‘stumbled’ across the next sequence (Week 31-35 in Course 2). I can see a couple of extra Headstand variations, and twists in Pindasana in both Headstand and Shoulderstand. Additional poses: Supta Padangusthasana, some more Padmasana poses – Yoga Mudrasana, Kukkutasana and Garbha Pindasana; Upavista Konasana, Akarna Dhanurasana, and Parsva Dhanurasana. I’m familiar with all of these from my Ashtanga practice except Akarna.
In the sequence after that (week 36 – 40), the standing poses return and Urdhva Dhanurasana makes its first appearance…
I’m not in any hurry to move on to a new sequence until I feel more at ease with the one I’m doing now.