Today's yoga test - Urdhva Prasarita Ekapadasana - which leg is up and which hand holds the ankle? (answer below)
After climbing mountains with a friend this morning, my body was charged with prana but just slightly weary from the long, rocky climbs - an unusual paradox. Raw food is making a huge difference to my energy levels and this energy is clear, clean and light.
I rested a little after lunch, then did some reading and a couple of hours of meditation.
After getting home from a late afternoon long dog walk, my stomach was empty and growling. If I'd eaten dinner then I wouldn't have done a yoga practice tonight. Instead I chose to practice on the empty stomach, defying my usual behaviour.
What kind of practice should I do this evening?
I had plenty of energy but my body was still weary from the climbing this morning...and I had to take into account that it was too early in the menstrual cycle to do any inversions.
I could just get on the mat and see where it takes me, but I spy Light on Yoga in the corner of the room and flick open to the page where the 3 day course is listed. It is prefaced with the following statement from Mr Iyengar:
"For those who are satisfied with this first course I will now give a short three-day course which whenever followed will benefit the body and bring harmony to the mind."
The Day 1 sequence starts with Headstand and Shoulderstand, then progresses to abdominal poses, a long series of twists, 4 backbends, and then finishes with Dog Pose, Uttanasana and some Pranayama.
Day 2 starts with Headstand and Shoulderstand and includes all their variations which makes up a third of this sequence. After that is a real mixture of poses: Jatara, Urdhva Prasarita Padasana (supine leg lift), Mahamudra, then the usual sequence of forward bends, Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana, and a couple of twists. It finishes with Baddha Konasana, Uttanasana and Pranayama.
I opted for the Day 3 sequence, firstly because it only had one inversion - Headstand, which I replaced with Dog Pose - and secondly because it didn't have any of the twisting poses that were the focus of yesterday's practice - my hips are still recovering from that sequence.
Replacing the 10 minute Headstand with Dog Pose might sound like an easy option, but I held that Dog Pose for 10 minutes!
I hadn't done one of those challenging, extended Dog Poses for a long time. It's a mind training exercise, especially when you hit the 5 minute mark and the arms begin to quiver, the shoulders ache and every ounce of your body weight becomes evident. That first urge to come out of the pose has to be clearly observed and identified before following the habitual action to listen to it.
The habits of my 'ego-mind' fascinate me - they rule my instinctive behaviour most of the time, especially during periods when I'm not meditating regularly, when I get out of the habit of watching my mind.
"It's only sub-conscious when we are sub-attentive."
Getting to the 5 minute mark in Dog Pose with the onset of pose fatigue, was an opportunity to over-rule the unconscious directive to get out of the pose. I replaced it with a strong commitment to stay and observe.
A 10 minute Dog Pose is an extraordinarily simple but powerful exercise for transformation.
It highlights how forceful the ego can be in telling us what to do, but also shows how liberating it can be to identify this and to draw on a higher power, our will, to over-ride it.
Following this initial Dog Pose (which should have been a Headstand) came a long series of standing poses - all the usual ones as per an Ashtanga sequence minus the two balancing poses (UHP and Ardha Baddha Padma Padmottanansana). There are a few extra poses in this sequence that I hadn't done for quite some time which injects a refreshing boost to practice sometimes:
Virabhadrasana 3 - I was so surprised that I could hold this pose strongly - the last time I attempted it in Darren's class my lumbar still couldn't support the leg lift or the hold;
Ardha Chandrasana (half moon balancing pose) which I enjoyed so much that I held it for 8 breaths on each side;
Urdhva Prasarita Ekapadasana (Standing Splits - like a one legged Uttanasana with the other leg raised to the ceiling) - when I entered this pose my body couldn't remember which hand should be on the floor and which hand holds the standing leg ankle (why didn't I stop and check the image in Light on Yoga I now ask?), so I tried both hand positions thinking one would feel more 'right' than the other, but it didn't, they both felt odd. I love the silhouetted image above because you can't tell which leg is raised in comparison to which hand is on the floor which was exactly my dilemma.
After practice I did look this up and the hand that holds the ankle is on the same side as the raised leg.
Raising that leg as high as possible is a wonderful expression of many qualities we want to bring to our mind: strength, balance and the courage to extend up and out beyond our boundaries. Suddenly and unexpectedly I discover the beauty of this pose, and the subtle transformational qualities it can effect on the mind. I'm sure I'd be shocked to see the height of my raised leg (or lack of it to be more correct), but suddenly I am loving this difficult pose and all that it promises to bring if I work on it regularly in each practice - which I shall, and to satisfy my curiosity I shall also measure my progress by taking the occasional image...
(Not until after practice did I realise that this pose shouldn't be done while menstruating because of the inverted position of the pelvis - ooops.)
Garudasana (Eagle) and Parighasana (Gate) were the other poses I hadn't done for ages...nice to revisit these to test out the unfamiliar balance and my somatic memory, but also to bring to them the more sophisticated understanding and deeper insights that I practice with these days.
Parivritta Parsvakonasana is a pose that physically and emotionally challenges me. Once upon a time I could bind and twist deeply, and hold the pose with stability. I loved the deep squeeze of this pose. Now, the joints in my lumbar spine don't allow my body to combine the knee to chest position with a twist anymore, so I have to be very careful.
Tonight I decided to do this pose as we did in Glenn Ceresoli's workshop in January - starting with the back knee bent to the floor and toes tucked under, getting a deep abdominal twist and wedging the elbow to the outside of the bent knee, then EVER-SO-SLOWLY raising the back knee off the ground WITHOUT RAISING THE FRONT BUTTOCK BONE even an inch. The thigh of the back leg must be firmly pressed up like in Dog Pose, but the front buttock bone must be descending to the floor with the side torso twisting and pressing on to the front thigh. I love the oppositional action of raising the back leg while lowering the front buttock - the mind must split to simultaneously engage the back leg thigh while lowering the front leg thigh - for me the central axis of the mind split meets in the perineum and stimulates the core energetic centre of the perineum.
The set of standing poses is followed by two backbends, then Virasana, Supta Virasana and Paryankasana. My knees weren't happy about moving straight into Padmasana after these poses, there hadn't been any warm ups and for the knees Padmasana is an extreme counterpostion to Virasana. The knee shock wore off quickly - Padmasana came easily along with the Padmasana variations that followed. The sequence wound down with Gomukasana, Lolasana, Simhasana and Paschimottanasana.
It took just over an hour (not including Savasana) and was a perfect choice for tonight.