Monday, 6 July 2009
Here’s a thing about the primary series in Ashtanga: after a while, you will slide through about half of the series with relative ease. You know the sequence and even if you are tired, even your muscles are tight or whatever, it will be fine. Breathe in – jump through, breathe out – land and bind, breathe in open the chest, breathe out – fold. You come to navasana , a position that many dread because it’s hard on the core, but as far as the technique goes, it is not terribly difficult. So you do it.
And then it comes: Bhujapidasana, the ”shoulder press” position. At most yoga schools, in the west anyway, it is not unusual to stop beginner classes here and go to the finishing sequences and relaxation after navasana. This is good, as it gives everyone time to work on the basics. On the downside of it, a lot of people will get stuck doing only half primary series for ages, long past the point where they could have challenged themselves further. Or some people will go on past navasana but maybe skip the bhuja pidhasana, kurmasana and even garbha pindasana/ kukkutasana sequences because they seem to be somewhat overwhelming in terms of what they seem to demand of your strength and flexibility. Yet, all of us being aspireing yogis, we know that the yummiest flavour of things comes from playing the edge and ultimately seeing it move.
Beginners: Land outside of the yellow brick road
In one of my favourite films, ”The Wizard Of Oz”, Dorothy and her companions are told to follow the yellow brick road while on their way to meet the great wizard. While their departures off the road caused them more trouble (but more sizzle to the film), the yellow brick road on your yogic path might sometimes turn out to lead into a rut and monotony. After all, the Ashtanga sequences were created to progressively lead you to new levels of body and mind awareness. So, here are a few tips that could hopefully help you to jump off the route of the known:
If you are a beginner in a relative sense – that is, if you are comfortable with the primary series up to navasana, the first thing to munch on when going into bhujapidasana is the landing.
When in your downward facing dog, finishing the vinyasa out of navasana, you jump your feet to the outsides of your hands. In the beginning, you can work first one and then the other shoulder under each respective knee. If this definitely feels like enough you might want to stay here for 5 to 10 breaths and move on to backbends and inversions, i.e. the finishing sequences.
But if the shoulders under the knees part was okay, then you press your knees slightly against your shoulders for stability (as mentioned earlier, bhujapidasana means ”shoulder press”) and try to sit down on your upper arms and lift your feet off the floor. You will probably need to transfer some weight forward, or else the weight of your thighs and bottom will tend to pull you down on your ass. Then you try to cross your ankles and have a taste of that. If this is enough, eather stregth-, balance- or flexibility-wise, you can stop here (for example if you are completely unable to cross your ankles or if you can´t keep the posture afloat) .
If you can go on, you breathe in and on the outbreath, you drop your chin to the floor/ mat, lift your hips up toward the ceiling and work your crossed feet backwards between the wrists, all the while trying to keep them (the feet) off the floor. Most people will struggle with the chin on the floor part, as this is not the easiest posture to keep your back long in. So, if you can only have your forhead or the top of your head on the floor, instead of the chin, this is completely okay. At this point, you might want to slide your hips a bit lower down from your shoulders, as this gives your shoulders a bit more room to open as you go down. This might also make it easier for you to place your chin on the mat, instead of the forhead or crown. And there you have it. You take five breaths here and then ride your vinyasa out of the position. And how do you do that? Still pressing your inner thighs against your upper arms, you breathe in and lift your head up, while your hips come a bit lower toward the mat. You straighten your legs into tittibhasana (it doesn’t have to be the strongest tittibhasana you can do – too much energy in this can drain you before you finish the vinyasa) and as you breathe out, you whip your legs and body back into chaturanga (maybe passing through a very short bakasana, but no fuss if you can’t).
Intermediate/ advanced: Leap into it!
If you have practiced the entrance into bhujapidasana described above, or any other modified version and if you are fairly comfortable with it, you might be ready to take it a bit further. And the way to take it further is to jump into the posture straight from adho mukha svanasana (the downdog). Chances are that in your first few (or many) attempts, your feet will have to touch the floor. No worries. If bhuja pidhasana is an asana you are okay with in general, this is the way for you to enter it. Sooner or later, you will be able to jump in without your feet touching the floor.
The trick is not losing your mind after you jump. Personally, I think it helps to think of, almost visualise, what I am about to do. And the second part of the trick is not to worry if your feet keep touching the floor. Actually, when you jump straight into the posture, the thighs will have a tendency to land in a more correct position in relation to your upper arms and shoulders, compared to what often happens when you work yourself in from standing. Jumping straight in, most of us are unable to jump the thighs high up on the shoulders, so you will not have to think about having to slide them down when you start leaning forward to touch the chin on the floor. Oh rejoice!
The jump-in method makes the position more fun to do. For me, it also made it easier to lean forward and down. One part of it is probably the more correct distance between thighs and shoulders but there must be something else too, as my feet (they’re big!) slide through between my wrists easier. What used to happen was that I had to walk them backwards and then lift them off the floor. Since I started practicing jumping in, they seem to slide without me having to do much (or any) walking.
So, next time you practice….
Next time you practice, given that you are generally comfortable with this position, try flying in instead of the easier version where you enter after landing your feet on the mat. At first, it might seem ridiculous, but come on, this is yoga we are talking about, so what did NOT seem ridiculous when attempted for the first time? Swing your adho mukha svanasana (down-dog)a bit forward right before you jump. This might make it easier. Make flying into the posture the way you practice this vinyasa, even if your feet touch the mat every time. Eventually they won’t. You can also ask your teacher to give you some pointers.
For those of you who practice this position and try entering it in a new way, this could be one of those little things that give your practice a bit more zest.
If you used to stop at navasana (especially if this is what you have done since the dawn of civilization), this might be the time, to give bhujapidasana a try. Try the modified version first and see where it takes you. It might just be well beyond the yellow brick road. And YOU just might turn out to be the wizard!
On May 18 2009, Sri K Pattabhi Jois died in his home in Mysore, India. The way I found out was unusual and even now as I am writing this, almost two months later, it seems unreal. I found out after I had held a class and as people were leaving, someone commented on how Guruji had been ill. And then she asked: "Has he died?" I answered: "No, of course not, he's probably fine!". And the girl behind the reception desk said "No, he died today." Unreal.
I haven't studied under him and I had always thought I would someday. I have been fortunate to train with many of his students. All my teachers have been his students, so through them he influenced me. They say he had a unique touch and could train even severely injured people. Alexander Medin, a great teacher, lovely human being and certified teacher once said that what Guruji appreciated was being seen as a regular human being once in a while, amidst all admiration of him as a guru.
No matter which yoga tradition you belong to or follow, K Pattabhi Jois has probably touched your practice in some way. For us ashtangis, he has been and will always be the teacher of us all. Now that his grandson Sharath has taken over as the leader of the Mysore Shala, the teachings of Ashtanga yoga are in the best hands they could possibly be in.
We thank you, Guruji!