Ashtanga Lila: the playfulness of the practice

A few days ago, Bobbie posed a tough question to me:

“You’ve been practicing at home for two months now. How’s it going?”

How, indeed.

The simple answer is: Fine. The slightly more complicated one is: Not great, not bad, but probably not overall much different than had I been getting to a shala that whole time.

I’m sure that physically my practice hasn’t advanced as much as it would have in a warmer room, with more adjustments. But I also suspect at least some of that loss was offset by the Rolfing that occurred during the same time frame.

But the inner practice — the important one? — has probably advanced more, and for a few mundane and not so mundane reasons.

  • It’s nice not having to drive to practice, especially at 6 a.m. And I’ll add a little extra: One of the hardest parts of practicing at our Los Angeles shala was that it was almost exactly half way on my commute to work. But I only rarely would practice and then go straight to work or manage to practice after work. And so I was driving half of my daily commute twice. I was seeing parts of LA — sadly, some of it around the airport — four times every day. That got old pretty quickly. Not having to drive definitely keeps things calmer.
  • I like the solitude of practicing alone. Probably it’s because I’m so easily distracted. But the dristi-breath-bandha focus is, well, easier. And I think it is hard enough for me that I don’t need to add to the challenges there. Being in a solitary space, without others’ coming and going, certainly makes for more of a still and inward-turned asana practice.
  • Our household gods, our Ishta Devatas, our role models, are there watching. That helps.

There’s a final discovery I’ve made (which probably won’t come as a big surprise for most) that also helps both the inner and outer practice: Practicing at home offers is the ability to mold the asanas a bit more to the body’s needs — like playing music, not exactly traditional or by the book. But I’ve found — as with the beneficial short practice — that addressing the (physical and subtle) body’s needs more explicitly can work.

This morning, for instance, I was pressed for time. And I had a few solid hip and back aches. So I recalled this from Eddie Stern’s description of a beginner’s class:

The class begins with gentle breathing that creates both relaxation and warmth in the body, followed by the sun salutations, and six standing poses that give strength and flexibility to the legs and waist. Following the standing sequence, you will learn several seated poses that strengthen the back and increase the flexibility of the hips and legs, and then close with a short seated meditation. [My emphasis.]

Sometimes, I have to be honest, that’s what my body needs. (I should probably note that another benefit from the two months of home practice is that I think I’m coming to terms with my inevitable, eternal stiffness.) At other times, upping the back bends might be what the asana doctor calls for.

I’ve come to think of this mutating asana practice as the play of Ashtanga, its Lila, if you will. (Apologies, Frances.) And while it isn’t 100% legit, I guess, I don’t think anyone this side of uber fundamental would watch what I’m doing and think, “That isn’t Ashtanga.” (What I’m talking about is an Improv self-class, I suppose, but I have been sticking more to the sequence than those do in my experience.)

I think — and I could be deluding myself — I have a good enough sense to know what I need. Yes, there’s probably some degree to which what I need is just to push on through the practice as it’s supposed to be done, every day. (Tapasya, right?) But right now, that isn’t always possible.

In the meantime, it feels like I’ve found a new aspect (limb?) to Ashtanga, one that defies the militaristic stereotype. Following Lila’s more playful meanings, it has a little bit of fun to it, a little bit of the unknown. And it seems to be addressing better my physical and subtle needs.

Hmm… this is starting to sound bad. I’m on my way to the Roots Yoga, aren’t I?

Posted by Steve

The Rolfing is over, and it’s just beginning

My 10-session Rolfing is done.

By which I mean, it’s really only beginning.

There are any number of ways that yoga and Rolfing meet, aspects they share: the body awareness; thoughts of movement and a wholistic approach to the body; being in the moment.

But the real similarity they share is this: They are never over.

Yoga’s a journey. I don’t have to tell you that. (And Ashtanga’s really a journey.) Turns out, so is Rolfing.

Two weeks passed between my ninth and 10th (and final) session with Russ. When I walked out his door after No. 9, I was thinking to myself: “Self, you are no where near being ready to be done.”

As I walked down the driveway to his place on Thursday night, I was thinking: “Self, you are awesome. You’re nearly there. You’ve made such big strides these past two weeks.”

Turns out I was right and so very wrong.

I was right in that Russ told me I looked good walking in; it was twilight, and apparently he got a very “silhouetted” view of me.

I was wrong because he then went through all the pieces I still need to work on: better containment of the body; more heaviness (still); getting the head in the right place.

Feet and head, feet and head, feet and head. My problem areas.

Still.

But, even during our 90 minutes together, more pieces fell into place. Relaxed here; tight there; ankles loose; shoulders relaxed; head back.

I’m done with the Rolfing, but the lessons are no where near over. The changes they will bring, too, are far from done.

I need to be thinking about the connection between a muscle under my chin, the back of my head and the area behind my heart.

I need to push myself along, not pull.

I need to be heavy in my feet and ankles and light in my neck and head.

My weight needs to be forward, and it needs to be back.

If little of this makes sense, it’s because in many ways it doesn’t — there are all these seemingly contradictory pieces to the puzzle that, when finally brought together, fit.

Fit, right? Connect? Unite? Union?

Yoga.

And it’ll keep going.

So, did it accomplish what I wanted? No and yes. My wild hope was Russ would find the key to loosening me up. That was a ridiculous desire.

What I got was better. A realistic way to keep myself from tightening more, to give myself an avenue to loosen up — especially in conjunction with Ashtanga — and to be better, stronger, healthier in the years ahead.

Not such a ridiculous desire. And one that’s achievable.

Posted by Steve

The worst lesson from the Rolfing sessions

Throughout my years-long adventure in yoga, I’ve received the same advice, over, and over, and over again:

Stretch.

If that sounds obvious, it is. I’m stiff, I should stretch. I’ve heard it from yoga teachers, yogi friends, people offering unsolicited advice, even Tim Miller.

Yes, even Tim Miller.

Via sportsgirlsplay.com. If only it were so easy

 

But it’s a difficult one to swallow, for one reason: Aren’t I stretching enough, already?

 

It’s not even debatable that I’m stretching — via yoga — more than I ever have in my life. If you round down the amount of time my Ashtanga practice takes, we’re looking at a solid hour a day on average. In my mind, that’s a lot. When and how am I supposed to add more stretching into the mix? And why do I need to? Isn’t an hour of pretzeling myself a pretty solid show of commitment?

Well, during my most recent Rolfing session, Russ put it in more undebatable terms: I simply cannot stretch myself enough. It’s just not going to happen. I might feel like I’m stretching a lot, but it isn’t enough. I need to be lying on basketballs, foam blocks this, curved implements that. The stretch has to happen — gravity versus whatever it is I’m lying on. I can pull and yank and grab and whatever else, but it isn’t going to take me very far.

Pretty much what people have been telling me. Even Tim Miller.

Yes, I’m a slow learner.

This is not happy news, for all the reasons cited above. How and when do I add this in to things? Do I fit it in with morning Ashtanga? Do I make it part of an evening routine?

An even more pointed question: Does what Russ said finally sink in and do I actually start stretching? Because I’ve heard this before…

Posted by Steve

The yoga mat as laboratory, and me as the rat

Earlier, I noted that my Ashtanga/flexibility/moving through the world Achilles’ Heel seems to be … my Achilles’ Heels.

Thursday night’s Rolfing session — and we are in the closing sessions, just two more to go — re-proved that fact. A bit painfully. (Seriously, the feet and ankles are sensitive!)

From about.com — Achilles injured

The whole-body journey that is the Rolfing regiment has been a fascinating and frustrating one. The fascination comes — at least for me — from realizing how interconnected everything in the body is. Think your bandhas don’t connect to your neck and spine? Think again.

The frustration comes from the same thing. There’s a lot to synthesis and digest; there’s no single point upon which all the needed improvements can be built. (Again, at least for me.)

Of course, am I expecting 40 years of habits to vanish in two months? No. But I still have the desire to find the key to start solving those habits.

That desire, apparently, comes from my over-thinking things. As Russ tries to get me “heavier” and — I’m assuming here — looser, he often describes it as “dumbing you down.” Stop leading with the analytical part of the brain. Let things go, or, in this case meaning the same thing, let things come.

Being able to go to the yoga mat has been essential. Bringing these lessons to the mat adds a rich layer, and I can’t imagine going through Rolfing without having something like yoga as a laboratory of sorts, and me as the unfortunate lab rat. (And you know I’m doing inhumane things to myself. It’s Ashtanga, after all.)

The timing that has forced me to practice at home in this case has been a blessing, because I’m often doing things that make me a “very bad man.” This morning, for instance — and, yes, “practice talk” alert! — I had time only for the opening Sun Salutes, but it was all about grounding my feet as much as possible, sinking into the mat as though it were made of sand.

It probably took twice as long as normal, as I struggled both to think about what I was doing and then to not think about it.

In this case, the routine of Ashtanga was critical. We all know how the same set of poses provides a touchstone, something on which to base judgments about both our gross and subtle bodies. It ended up being a very in-and-out practice, one that — as I think back — was entirely too self-indulgent but also one that was necessary.

The moments on the mat also were clear reminders of how long and slow a journey Ashtanga is, and that despite the temptation of forks in the road, this seems the right road to be on. And so on with the experiment.

Posted by Steve

Rolfing update: Even my tongue is stiff

After a two-week hiatus, I was back on the Rolfing table on Thursday night.

And it came just in time.

As I told Russ, about last Friday I felt like I had lost all the stuff I was gaining. My posture and gait seemed to have slipped back to the old style; it was time for a re-tune.

Russ didn’t seemed freaked by this, and he started to work on this week’s area: the head and neck.

Things went a bit south from there.

He quickly discovered a little spot on the right side of my neck — a tight spot, if that isn’t clear — and said that he didn’t remember it. It seemed to change his approach.

He ended up diving into my upper back. I almost mean that literally*. He was working as hard as I think he has, and it felt like he was putting as much weight and force as possible into his hands (thus the diving metaphor). As I lay there, I thought about what Tim Miller had said to me as I left Encinitas a few weeks ago: “You’re too stiff to break.” I laughed to myself as Russ tried to work through this, until I finally told him what Tim had said. “Now, do you see why my backbends suck?” I asked.

He laughed. “Yeah, we’ve got some serious work here,” Russ said. And he dug in more.

This week, we also talked a bit more about why I might be so stiff. I remain convinced it’s congenital; Bobbie disagrees. Russ, I’d say, is playing it close to the vest and is somewhere in between.

Whatever the reason, I definitely approach the world head on (literally [ha!] and figuratively), and don’t take it in, let it come to me. My engagement with the world — and these are my words, not Russ’ — involves my touching it, but not letting it touch me. (There probably is a male principle versus female principle sidebar here, which is funny because I don’t think in most cases I fall into a neatly traditional “male perspective.”)

But this what I’m supposed to be working on, along with the connection between lifting your head and your bandhas. And to find this perspective, it is about relaxing (i.e. surrendering, i.e. hard for me, see our Friday asana aid) and letting “the walls see you,” Russ said. And it is about being back in my head — not head first into the world.

Amazingly, I managed this briefly today, for a moment while walking through the hallways of my office. Yes, at work. And it was, however briefly, a total alteration in consciousness. (Thus, hard to put into words now.) Shapes seemed different; lines along the floor and walls appeared longer. Colors were off-hue. It felt like there were shadows where there weren’t shadows. The world also sounded muffled.

But it also felt a bit more gently, a bit more peaceful.

Weird, huh? We’ll see if I can manage this again. The trick seems to be to get your brain farther back in your head. Yeah, I know. Sounds weird to me, too.

Via ilawled.com

During the Rolfing session, as always, there were a few moments when the sensations were pretty strong, and there are two spots on either side of my spine, maybe four inches from the hair line, that are tender to the touch. As I think about it, it probably is about where Russ wanted my neck “to start” as opposed to much higher up.

But the craziest moment — perhaps in rival to the strange consciousness change from today — was when Russ was working on my face and head. (That was strange in and of itself.) He went and grabbed a towel, and he told me to stick out my tongue, grab it and pull on it, gently.

I want you to remember, we are nearly done with Session No. 7 of the 10-session package at this point.

Well, this was the step too far for me. Why, I don’t know.

I said something that was the not safe for work version of: “Are you kidding me?”

He wasn’t. I need to pull on my tongue, loosen it up. Because “even your tongue is stiff,” Russ told me. And it’s a yogi thing, he pointed out. They get their tongues back up into their sinuses. Some even cut the bottom connection of the tongue to facilitate this, I added. (Always nice to show how smart you are!)

Well, I can say that I’m hating this. Grabbing the tongue is, in a word, gross. I can feel it, hours later. Dry and tasteless and, yuck!

But I’ll keep trying, grabbing and pulling. Because, apparently, I want Second Series postures just that much.

Posted by Steve

* The improper use of “literally” is a Confluence Countdown pet peeve. It typically is used with a metaphor (exactly the opposite of what “literally” means), and for some evil reason is now intended to be an emphasis of a point. Joe Biden used one on Thursday night at the Democratic National Convention, something along the lines of America “literally” being on the edge of a economic crisis. Umm… no Joe.

What was that in my left hamstring? Please say it will never be back

There was something evil lurking in my left hamstring.

I don’t know exactly what it was, but I know Russ Pfeiffer found it. Time will tell if it’s gone for good.

My Thursday night Rolfing session was eventful, shall we say. It was focused on the back side of my body, which meant getting both into my hamstrings and into my calves.

Serious trouble areas.

I knew I was in trouble — real trouble — when Russ kept prefacing our session. “Remember, you’re in control of the hand brake. You’re in charge.”

Ida Rolf, via rolf.org

I’m in charge, all right. I also want to get everything out of the Rolfing I can. And so the only use for that hand brake was to drift or power slide.

Having been somewhat reprimanded by a commenter for saying the Rolfing hurt, I want to say up front: Wow, that hurt. Especially the moment, brief but seared into my mind, when we hit something lurking in the fascia of my left hamstring.

This isn’t a bad hurt, though, so don’t get me wrong. Hurt’s just the easiest, most readily available word to describe it. If you want to call it “significant sensation,” you can. I was never scared or worried about what was happening; I think that would be the case if I was truly hurting.

That said…

I was trying to tell Bobbie what went on in the session, and the plain and simple fact is that I don’t remember much. I was pretty focused on breathing through the experience, making it through.

So, let’s fast forward to the following morning: Without any fanfare, soon after getting up, I bent over and was just about at my toes.

In other words, way more flexible than last week; way, way more than when summer started.

I know I’m a broken record about my stiffness, but it is only because it is such a central experience to my yoga practice. I identify very closely with this stiff, rigid body — even going way back before yoga entered the picture. I can remember hating runner’s lunge — tiriang mutka eka paschimottanasana — in high school. This stiffness has been there. Always.

But now it isn’t so much. Russ did say, earlier on (so I remember), that it wasn’t as bad as he was expecting. It isn’t so bad, he said, compared to most people. But I’m comparing myself to some of the most bendy people around: Ashtangis. (He did acknowledge I’m congenitally stiff, though.)

What this means, perhaps, is that there are some poses that will begin to be more accessible. And while the asana isn’t the end game, I know there’s a realm of the practice that I’m only beginning to touch. A realm I, honestly, thought would always remain out of reach.

What’s there, I wonder. What might a fuller, more comfortable back bend do to me? What about deeper twists? What about Second Series, which I never, ever thought would be a series part of my practice? Is it … coming?

And if these hurdles — very real, very concrete, very tactile and very painful — can be crossed, what others aren’t quite the grand challenges I think they are?

Both on and off the mat.

That I’m heading down to Tim Miller’s for a week at this moment is both exhilarating and terrifying.

Posted by Steve

Ashtanga, Rolfing and the science of the esoteric

The latest Rolfing session was the most uneventful.

Not the most compelling way to draw you in, I’ll admit. It was focused around mula and uddiyana bandhas, or, to use the precise scientific and anatomical term, my belly. And I guess because that didn’t seem to be a big problem area, I don’t necessarily have a big, “wow” moment to share.

What did strike me, as I’ve written before, is how critical the Ashtanga practice is toward this being successful. At one point, Russ told me that someone without the Ashtanga practice might need several sessions to figure out what I’ve already got pretty well ingrained when it comes to activating the bandhas.

Ways of seeing, via thepaltrysapien.com

More generally, the yoga has me more in tune with what’s going on with my body (beyond just “that hurts” or “that’s tight”), although I think I have a long way to go on this front. But I’m probably more integrated — if that’s the right word — than most people.

As I’ve been pondering this, I’ve recognized that it demonstrates one central reason why yoga needs to be put to the scientific test. I know this is an issue that’s open to healthy debate. But I wonder whether people who don’t see why an “ancient” tradition needs to be put through a modern-day lab have forgotten that the changes and improvement and benefits yoga brings are — take your pick on words — minute, incremental, subtle, exoteric, and that the reason yoga’s impact feels big to them is because they have learned to see it, to feel it, to recognize it.

As someone who has a foot in “the west” and one in “the east” (but most of my weight in the former), I would caution that most people won’t “get it.” For most westerners, the ground needs to be well tilled; yes, there are people who might have that “eureka” moment from an initial encounter with yoga, but I wonder how often they have actually been prepared for it by some other experience.

The same, I think, applies to Rolfing and other alternative practices.

An analogy that comes to mind involves seeing — both the basic, physical sight of our eyes but also the subtler (and an analogy itself) seeing as understanding. If you take someone with 20/100 vision to an eye doctor and get them the right pair of glasses, the change will be unmistakable. But put that person through a Sweat Lodge ceremony, let’s say, or a month of Mysore practice, and the change will (most likely) be mistakable. But if they are prepared for these changes — in part by Westernized “proof” to their effect — they might be more open to experiencing these subtler changes to how they see.

Or something like that. I’m sure someone will find a way to unravel that line of thinking. Which is why it’s good that my Rolfing this week is working on the backside of the body, which really translates to: hamstrings.

On the plus side, they may have a little more give to them before a week down in Encinitas and practicing at Tim Miller’s. On the negative side, ouch!

For sure there should be plenty to write about the Rolfing, itself, perhaps from above the beach in Encinitas.

Posted by Steve