With gusto for the gustha

One of the exceptionally cool things about taking a short (unintentional) hiatus from your Ashtanga practice is that when you come back, you find a new appreciation for the little things.

Partly, it’s a new point of view, I’m sure. Steve and I have a new, freshly-painted room in our house just for practice. The angle on things changes when you have a dedicated place to ponder.

So it was my last practice when I reached down and took my big toe in padanguthasana. The voice of Tim Miller popped into my head (as it often does): “Grab that thing like you mean it.”

I’m a firm believer in the magic of the mudra on the big toe: First two fingers meeting the thumb. It gives me a sense of security and connectedness. It’s the big toe that was the key to my happiness in Ashtanga. It was also the key to a lot of injury-wisdom.

When I first started practicing, I was (as so many are) hamstring-obsessed. I was convinced that there was only one way and one way only to open up my hamstrings, and that was by grabbing my big toe every chance I got and giving it a good solid and continuous (well, for five breaths, anyway) yank. In the Primary Series, there are a lot of chances to do this: padanguthasana, trikonasana, prasarita D, utthita hasta padanguthasana, paschimottanana A, supta padanguthanana, etc. Much attention paid to that toe in the Primary.

The result of all my pulling was pretty predictable. I tore my right hamstring at the insertion point. Five times.

On the up side, I did gain hamstring flexibility. On the down side: Five times. It’s probably the most common Ashtanga injury, and I wonder if that isn’t partly because of all the chances a beginner has to use the leverage of the arms, shoulders and back muscles while holding the big toes. And the fact that holding the big toe is such a tangible goal to reach for (so to speak)–at all costs.

Be kind to your big toe and it will be kind to you. Via healingfeet.com.
Be kind to your big toe and it will be kind to you. Via healingfeet.com.

However, it was also my gustha that saved me. After six years of struggle with that hamstring, I was in utthita hasta padanguthasana A when something else I’d learned from Tim came back to me: “Mula bandha begins in the big toe.”

I had looked this up in my trusty yoga anatomy books, tracked the fascinating set of connections that run all the way up the internal muscles of the thigh, but I’d never really made that extra connection with intention—that I could actually go after mula bandha by using my big toe.

So I did. Like magic, this solved my hamstring problem, redistributing the work away from that poor, overused insertion point. I became aware of the connection my big toes have to internal rotation. I began sending energy down (or out) through my big toe.

The ultra awesome thing about that is that once you locate mula banda this way, you stop yanking, and access a whole new set of muscles to bring yourself forward (or to bring it closer to you). You begin finding the earth in all sorts of unexpected places (like virabhadrasana B, for instance).

Hallux, it’s called in anatomy: Old Latin for “the great toe.” And so it is. So put your hastas together for the gustha.

Posted by Bobbie

Could I ever use Uddiyana Bandha now, plus a review of the Krishna Das doc

I mentioned briefly that our new house has a subfloor, including in the room that is/will be the practice room. For practice purposes, that means that any minor thud down on the floor results in a huge, deep bang.

A major Uddiyana Bandha check, in other words. You know, the Flying Bandha. Apparently my UB ain’t quite as light and flying as I thought. I could use some help.

Uddiyana Bandha, in my opinion, may be the lost bandha. By that I mean it tends to get lost in the mad rush to understand Mula Bandha and ignored in favor of the easier-to-access Jalandhara Bandha. I know I’ve heard Tim Miller explain it umpteen times, and I try to keep his ideas . I also am trying to keep our Rolfer’sRuss Pfeiffer — words in mind about keeping this part of the body lightly, but actively, engaged.

If you think about this bandha, it is easy enough to picture why it’s the one to help you fly. The middle of your body — your core, right? — is heading in and up. When jumping back from Down Dog — and this is when my loudest bangs happen — it all should be moving opposite gravity, enabling something like a light landing.

For me, there’s clearly something amiss in Down Dog in particular. My jump back during the seated poses don’t produce the same Jurassic Park-like thuds. I’m not sure if this is strange, but my guess is the issue is an upside down one. In Down Dog, Uddiyana Bandha ought to be easy to activate — that would go with gravity. But it’s also unusual, since I don’t spend most of my day head under heels. I’m probably slacking off.

There have been some hard landings this week, as a result. So I’ve gone searching. And here’s what I’ve turned up:

From Ashtangayoga.info:

You achieve Uddiyana Bandha, by gently drawing the stomach inwards. At the end of an exhalation, when the need to inhale begins, imagine a golden thread that is attached two fingers width under the navel, that is pulling in and up. From and anatomical viewpoint, the transverse abdominal muscles will be lightly activated. …

Uddiyana Bandha draws Prana (energy) out of it’s foundation, the Muladhara Chakra, up through the spinal column. Uddiyana Bandha connects you with the element air, the energy of the Anahata Chakra in the middle of the ribcage. Uddiyana Bandha gives lightness, helping you to overcome the force of gravity.

A David Garrigues video:

I was hoping to find something at either Richard Freeman or David Swenson’s websites, but no such luck.

On a separate subject, we’ve been following the release of the Krishna Das documentary, One Track Heart. Most of the coverage and reviews have been from sympathetic perspectives (yoga blogs, etc), so this new review might give you an added take on things. In other words, it isn’t all sunshine and light:

One Track Heart is pretty much a sermon to the choir, and one wishes Frindel—also co-founder, with his wife, of the Brooklyn Yoga School—had offered even a rudimentary overview of Hinduism and its basic tenets for the unenlightened laymen in the audience. The film is unabashedly worshipful of KD, as are all the interviewees…

Still, if you think about it, the review comes out pretty positive. A lot of films of this vein are unwatchable due to their fawning nature and vaseline-framed view of things. That doesn’t seem to be the case here (too much). So check it out.

Posted by Steve


For the love of the led Primary

I love led first. There, I said it.

It’s very tempting here to write another “list” post (TOP TEN REASONS WHY I LOVE LED), but I’m going to forego that for old-fashioned paragraphs.

It should be said that the first few years of my practice were exclusively led classes. This was mostly because I was lazy, a writer, and not a morning person. (Still true. I often think of Neil Gaiman’s line: “I am not a morning person in the exact same sense that I am not a fruit bat.”) Ashtanga, to me, was led by a teacher.

I still look back on that time as precious. I learned something every single class, and each thing I learned was transformative. I remember the day I learned ujjayi breathing. I remember the class I learned to follow it rather than have it follow me. I remember finding mula bandha by pressing down my big toes, the class I learned to push into my head in prasarita, and the day I learned the opening prayer (my teachers said it along with us–including Tim). All of these things were because of encouragement that came from a led class.

Savasan-ahhh at Omkar108.

So this morning I was a little sad to hear some grumbling about led in Jörgen’s class. Led is where the magic happens. You are wrapped up in the teacher shakti. You do more than you thought you could. You are reminded when you slip (“Exhale fully!” Jörgen says). This is discipline. You must listen to the count. Yes, you know what’s coming, but you must surrender yourself to a different beat–the beat of the room, breaths measured out by the teacher. No rushing! Chatuari down! (said now in layers of teachers’ voices in my head.)

The most important thing I learned from all those led classes was that beat. My first Ashtanga teacher told me there is an exact number of breaths in the Primary. Every practice has the potential to have the same number of inhales, exhales. The breath is time. The time is the string that holds the beads of the poses together. Beautiful.

Did that work out to ten reasons? I don’t know. Who’s counting?

Posted by Bobbie

Kino on Freeman and that mula bandha thing

Kino MacGregor posted a delightful tale on Monday about an interaction with Richard Freeman. It can be found here, and you should partake of the whole thing.

The post is probably more informative about MacGregor than Freeman; there’s an appealing self-deprecation about it that, I think, boils down to her still considering herself a student, although a bunch of us would consider her a very experienced teacher.

She covers something I’ve heard before attributed to Freeman when it comes to mula bandha:

Mula bandha according to Richard is not a mechanical thing but more like a devotional experience. He suggested doing a bhakti puja to Ganapti in the pelvis to get mula bandha and to invite the god into the temple at the base of the pelvic floor.

If I’m not mistaken, Freeman takes that directly from Guruji from way back early in the West’s first interactions with him.

There’s much more there, but as MacGregor says she’s worried she may be committing an “Ashtanga crime,” I won’t pass it on. That way you can’t even say I was driving the getaway car.

I will say that it does involve on our the more famous definitions of yoga among Ashtangis (think vrittis) and mula bandha, if you can believe that.

Posted by Steve