Sunday, 1 December 2013

My Love Letter to the Primary Series

Like coming home to a home cooked meal.

As I am writing this, I am in India, to practice with an exciting teacher that I am training with for the first time. A lot of new insights, and an amount of assist-attention I haven't received for many years. My fellow practicioners agree: the teacher is kick-ass. She is tweaking my intermediate series and the process is INTENSE. I am sore and actually happily nap in the middle of the day, something I usually never do. Of course, the blazing Sun of India does do its part too. The beatings I receive in the shala every morning make me hunger for that one day this week when I will be reunited, for a day, with my first love - the primary series. This is my love letter to Primary.

I honestly love the primary series of Ashtanga Yoga. It's the one we learn first and, really, for some, it is gives enough to work on your whole life. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois is sometimes quoted as saying that the primary series is for everyone, intermediate is for teachers and the series that come from then on are for demonstrations. It is also called Yoga Chikitsa, meaning yoga therapy, and this is exactly what it is: healing, soothing when the intensity subsides,and both physically and mentally detoxifying.

I have always felt that the primary series, also referred to as the first series, is a little bit like a chiropractor of the Ashtanga system. In the beginning, it kind of took me apart and I felt like I was put together anew after that. Because it is the first of six series in the Ashtanga system, many of us do not appreciate Primary for the phenomenal vehicle of healing that it is. It is said to perfect the body for both your general life and for the subsequent series that might (or might not) be taught to you. When you are taught by a good teacher, you will be given an opportunity to work your entire body. Not much is left untouched and unworked once you are done practicing the sequence. Once forward-bending stretches give way to hip-openers, lifts and leaps that come to your door after Navasana, the primary series will present you with positions that will challenge you for years and years (forever?), even after you start practicing latter series. In one of her blogposts, Kino MacGregor, one of the most staggeringly advanced young certified teachers, wrote that practicing led first series with Sharath Jois, every day for almost a week, made her sore and challenged her strength. And she practices the Advanced B, the so called 4th series.

For me, Primary is what I return to when nothing else works. When I come to a new place, either because I travel, or because something has temporarily destabilised the structure of my regular life, I practice the primary series. In its sweaty, spine-elongating, hip-soothing, earthy, grounding manner, it is - and you will forgive me for resorting to a cliché, like coming home, no matter where I am. After injuries, the few I have had, a steady, careful practice of the first series is what got me back to being able to practice as if nothing had happened. It is very therapeutic, more so than any other physical training discipline I know of.

Maybe even more so than the series that follow it, Primary is such a great example of perfect sequencing. If you follow the sequence of positions with patience and trust, under the guidance of a good teacher, I believe that you can work your way back from anything. The Sun Salutation A and B alone are enough for many. If badly injured or lethargic, you may want to do only these, and they will start to fire up your flames until you one day find yourself ready for more. Then there is the standing sequence, giving strength to your legs, teaching you to pull in the thigh bone into your hip, while pushing your foot into the ground. Learn this and you will be able to transfer the technique into many other postures, and use strong legs and bandhas in order to relax your back and lengthen your spine. The standing positions will also start to gently open your hips and chest, rotate your spine and in some positions, like padahastasana and prasaritta padothanasana, even give you a sense of how to use your core and breath in order to balance while inverted. The so called sitting postures, will first lengthen your spine and backs of your legs, then start opening your chest and rotating you, before plunging into your core to strengthen it, open your hips even further, teach you how to move your weight in order to bend your body backwards in a way that heals and strengthens your body. And so on. The way I see it, it is all there. No matter what else you do in your practice, this is what we return to when other stuff stops working. The therapy series indeed.

I have always been a fan of being good at the fundamentals of what I do. That way, if something that comes later on needs to be tweaked or re-assessed, I will always have the starting point to look back to and reconsider. This is because, in my heart of hearts, I am drawn to being sloppy. So, I hammer in the basics of what I do, and that way, I am never without a good point of reference. This is a good advice for all ashtangis. You will be uncertain of things, you will feel lost and you will doubt. The primary series is so specific and its fires are soothing. If anything else in the Ashtanga method, which is seemingly designed to challenge us and whip up all the primordial crap we carry around,throws you off, knowing your first series and trusting it, will lead you to the path you need to be on. I honestly think this applies no matter which level you practice on. I have seen amazing, advanced teachers hurt, and I have seen how they apply this almost magical method to heal. One of the biggest mistakes a practitioner of Ashtanga Yoga can do is underestimate this place we all start at and look down on it. If you don't get its power, its purpose and the lessons of patience, respect, breath and alignment, you will be reminded. Sooner or later, you will need to loop back and learn the power of the first step. Many of us, perhaps all, have been there. Real practitioners of this method don't care which series you practice. We all come from the same root and when we know it, we see that the starting point sets you up for all that comes after.

So, Primary, my true love, you have been there when I couldn't tie my shoes because my body felt broken. You lifted me from the depths of physical and spiritual unfitness, and led me into the whirls of flaming discipline and an awareness of the comedies of my restless mind. When I get stupid and think all other doors are closed, I know that yours isn't. That is how I remember that the aren't any doors to be closed. First series. I love to love you. Baby.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Is Asana Madness Messing Up Your Practice?

I still remember the first Ashtanga Yoga workshop I ever went to. It was year 2000 or 2001 or so. Alexander Medin, who is now my teacher, arrived to Oslo from London. He was one of few certified teachers in Europe, and I was both in awe and nervous. This was the time when my ego was super tied up to my mastery of asana (the way I defined mastery of asana those days), and I knew the workshop was going to draw quite a few advanced practitioners. I fancied myself to be one, of course. I had practiced for about a year and I progressed pretty quickly. My teacher at that time had already pushed me through most of the intermediate series. Basically, I was like a low frequency appliance plugged into high frequency electricity. Long story short, the workshop was ferocious. I was exhausted, mentally and physically. At the time, I thought this was because Alexander was such a tough teacher. I actually didn't dare sign up for his next workshop when he came to Oslo, where I live, the year after.

Why I am writing about this, in an article about how asana can mess up one's practice? Because years after the experience I described above, I now understand that the horror of the workshop had little to do with how tough the teacher was. What it had a lot (everything!) to do with, was the fact that I hurled myself into the kind of practice I wasn't ready for. I was still struggling with aspects of the primary series that should be mastered before going further. Bandha was still a vague concept for me. Bhujapidhasana was a huge struggle. Drop-backs seemed unattainable. I hated putting my chin on my shin in utthita hasta padanghustasana (when I practiced without anyone looking, I mostly omitted this movement, as it demanded more from my strength and sense of balance than I could be bothered to exert). But most of all, there was this: deep inside, yoga was just gymnastics for me. I wanted to do all this stuff so that people would admire me more, I wanted the wow's, the oooh's and the aaaah's. So I could love myself more because others liked me more. I had a teacher who wanted the best for me and who was very ambitious on my behalf. I called this "yoga". What it really was, I don't know. It wasn't yoga.

Here's the tricky part: "Patanjali's Yoga Sutras" states that yoga is the cessation of fluctuations of the mind. We are also supposed to be cleansed through the challenge of the system and through flames of wholesome discipline. The practice is a tool we use to break out of the bonds of conditioned existence. Challenges we face through asana practice teach us that defining what's possible or not is none of our business. We're supposed to follow the method and the fruits will come. True knowledge comes, in a sense, through not taking our reality on face value, but letting the practice reveal what is real. Applied to asana practice, this might mean that difficulties and apparent impossibilities are meant to be met with the same attitude with which we would meet the things we find easy: Steady, regular practice according to the Ashtanga method. Doing this while not getting caught up into ambitiously chasing asana and not constantly spewing the pictures of ourselves balancing on an eyelash on Instagram demands a lot on our poor, overexposed egos. In Bhaghavad Gita, Krishna asks Arjuna to surge into battle and fullfill his dharma. For Arjuna, this meant a complete surrender to a reality he doesn`t yet see, masked behind a situation seemingly extremely opposite to what his sense of moral dictated.

Now, let`s pull all this esoterism back to the yoga mat: Say, I`m on my mat, with my laptop in front of it, Kino MacGregor`s Third Series - dvd on. Sthira Bhaga ftw!And I want this. I want that leg behind my head, as I recline back, my other leg straight and strong, glued to the floor. Look at me - Sthira sukham asanam incarnate!So, I do one position, because I can, then I skip three because I can`t get into them, but then I do the one after it. As fun as experimenting with asana might be, I ask myself whether yoga has left the building and circus has come to town instead. Sooner or later (but mostly sooner), every Ashtanga Yoga practitioner will face something like this.If you have practiced for a little while, you will be tempted and try to do stuff that is beyond where you really are or should be. You will attempt stuff your teacher wouldn't let you do, as it's energetically and physically beyond where your truth currently is. And these days, you will feel a pull to put this on your Facebook wall.

I have so been here. Years before I started practicing intermediate series of Ashtanga Yoga, I performed a very back-bendy version of pincha mayurasana (I'm sure the vertebrae in my lower back were dialing the emergency room number, crying on the phone) and I took a photo of myself. I edited out the laundry drying behind me and put the picture up on the internet. It was a cute picture. Was it yoga? No. It was me doing gymnastics and selling it off as yoga. Which is fine, as long as we don't mix things up. This had nothing to do with me being present and definitely nothing to do with cessation of fluctuations of my mind. Au contraire. Look away, Patanjali. My mind was racing mad and I wanted people to admire my physical prowess.

So, if I have learned anything through my years of yogic practice, trials and tribulations, it might be this: as much as the practice shouldn't be taken so seriously that we never attempt to bite more than we can chew, relaxing into the practice is a prerequisite if I am not to turn into a conceited freak. The lesson: relax and breathe and don't think too much. Today, every time I find a position frightening or tensed up, I get my Bhaghavad Gita on; I breathe and do what I can. There's the enemy army, so Arjuna get yourself together, boy. I used to not be too crazy about back bending in the intermediate series. Until I started doing the movement with my mind in a sort of "fuck it, let's go" - mode, under caring eyes of my teachers. Kapotasana and I are BFF's today. When my hands get to my heels, my heels want to make them a coffee. My experience is that you achieve this through relaxing into a regular practice, with a good teacher. Being overly ambitious about asana is tension. Wanting to be where you're not is tension. Tension is the opposite of presence. You get where you want to be by doing what you can today and respecting it. And then you kind of flow into things. This is when we find that we genuinely come to be able to do all the cool stuff without the freakishness of grasping what's not ours to grasp.

The concept of avidya in yoga, the blind ignorance of not seeing the reality the way it is, helps us here. Avidya is beyond ignorance. It is filtering how we perceive the world and ourselves through our ego. The truth we think that we live is a lie. Ashtanga is tough and it will show you that the way you perceive asana can feed into this blind delusion. You will think that mastery is something else than being present in anything that you do. You will think that mastery is about what your kurmasana looks like. If you get there, you will be pushed and pushed and pushed until something happens - an injury, a word from someone, or just the passing of time - and the bubble will burst. Unless you decide that you trust the practice before you go bananas and before there is a bubble.

A major part of the human experience is that, more often than not, we feel inadequate, somehow not good enough, somehow lacking. A major part of what our yoga practice can do for us, is putting this humanity under a magnifying glass, so that while feeling inadequate, unloved or whatever, we might experience that doing what we can with what we have, from where we are, we are suddenly at the place we dreamed about being. Asana-wise for me, I remember that years ago, I couldn't fathom how I would ever be able to do drop backs. This is one of those things you can't fake yourself into safely. Neither my head nor my body understood how this movement was possible to execute. I did the only thing I could: I followed the sequence until the time to attempt drop backs came, and I tried. My teachers helped me. I breathed and trusted. Today, I think I could do them if I got up in the middle of the night. When this suddenly became a possibility, I have no idea. The thing is that at some point, I accepted that I didn't care if I ever got to this back bending craziness. I did what my teacher told me, when they told me to do it. I have also experienced a state where I was in such pain (not because of my practice, mind you) that sun salutations were all I could do. Asana madness ceased to be an option. I had to accept that I might never get back to where I once was, when it came to my circusy skills. For the fact that I actually regained them, I believe that I can thank those small things like sun salutations, standing postures, breath and most off all, doing what I could safely do, doing it well, not caring what it looked like.

So there. Next time you're on your mat, no matter who you are, practice like no one is looking, like you're caressing yourself with asana. Do the positions like you want to heal yourself with them, not like you want to be on the cover of "Yoga Journal". This is how your asana practice, no matter what it looks like, ceases to be madness and starts being rock star practice. This is how it is never a nuisance. Go. Try. It will work. See?