Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Day 3: Mind your Mantras


The Ashtanga Yoga (Opening) Mantra





Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Mysore Practice
Instructor: Deborah Carruthers
6:30 – 9:00 a.m.


Good practice today. I was able to slow down and spend a lot of time taking good care of my injured knee, and it enabled me to get a flow going and enjoy an energetic practice. Lots of amazing assistance from Deborah that really helped some new things "click" for me. I got over a mental block I had been carrying around for a while that I couldn't get my hands into reverse prayer position for Parsvotanasana due to my injured right shoulder (15 years of long days spend pushing a mouse around will do that to you). With Deb's help I was able to wiggle my hands together behind my back, and you know what? My shoulder could totally handle it. I got to really feel how beneficial the pose will be to my wrists and hands as well, which is great, and hopefully will only make my guitar playing stronger.

Chanting the opening prayer with Deborah got me thinking about all the many ways I 've heard people intone this mantra, and with varying degrees of precision. Deb tends to add a bit of melody to it, while I enjoy it flat as a well-posed Chaturanga Dandasana, with the occasional tonal lift.


*********************


I really like this recording of Guruji's son, Manju reciting it with a Western class in call-and-response:


*********************

And here's a great video (ripped from VHS by the looks of it) featuring Guruji himself leading the prayer. I recognize Richard Freeman and my doppelgänger, Chuck Miller, in the group. Any other famous yogis that you recognize?


*********************

I think it's very important for all of us Westerners to pay close attention to the mantras we recite, and to not just plow through them. We should attempt to deliver these sacred words with as much care and precision that we apply to our asana practice. Just as we reap the most benefit from these poses by performing them correctly, we also reap the benefits of the mantras — which can be likened to magical incantations — only when they are properly intoned. We can also use this ritual to consciously begin our practice with focus and intent, and to offer our respect to our teachers. The opening mantra is, after all, a salute to this ancient practice and the man who gave it to us, the sage Patanjali.

Just as we begin our practice with the opening mantra, I think it is just as important to close our practice with the closing mantra — something I've yet to see a teacher encourage. In my shamanic practice, it would be unheard of to not close the ritual space after ceremony. Yoga is an energetic practice, and when we close our practice, we can use the Mangala mantra to send all of that light, peace and love that we worked so hard to generate out into the world. I mean, that's kind of the point isn't it? To not only better ourselves, but to be of service to the rest of the world. On a practical level, I feel that a ritual closing of the space (both the physical space and the space we have created in ourselves during practice) can help us prepare for our re-emergence into the "regular world". I'm going to be talking more about the connections between shamanic and yoga practice in future posts, but it's definitely something that comes up for me every day. 

*********************


Here's a video of Guruji reciting the closing (Mangala) mantra:




Mangala Mantra, or closing peace prayer


If you're interested in studying the mantras further, AshtangaYoga.info is a great resource for learning the proper pronunciation and understanding the meaning and purpose behind each mantra. Enjoy!

*********************

Namaste,
Brian


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Day 2: Protect Ya Knee


(Apologies to the Wu-Tang)



Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Mysore Practice
Unled
6:30 – 8 a.m.


Slept better last night but woke up feeling a little 'clumsy'. It took me a little longer to get out the door because I kept forgetting things. Maybe it was the cold. Or the pitch darkness of 5 a.m. out in the boonies where there's no ambient light. It makes for some beautiful stargazing, but can make finding your way out the door and down the stairs a little difficult when you're trying to not wake up the house by turning on any lights and stumbling around by the light of your iPhone.

It was just me and Deborah at the studio this morning. As this was an 'unled practice' day, she was busy doing her thing, and I attempted to do my practice without any cues or prompting, save the blurry printout of the Primary Series I had laid on the floor in front of my mat. Trying discern the difference between postage stamp sized illustrations of Utthita Parshvakonasana and Parivritta Parshvakonasana at 7 a.m. in a dimly lit studio can prove to be quite a challenge.

You try it:

Overall my practice felt just "okay". My left knee has been aggravated, due in part to my hyperextending it in the forward folds lately. Over the past month or so I've increased the flexibility in my hamstrings, back and hips quite a bit, which has allowed me to go deeper into my forward folds. It has felt great, like some real progress, but I think I've been a little overzealous and pushing it too far without protecting my knee, which has made it pretty tender this week, slowing down my standing postures quite a bit.

I was also struggling with feeling like I needed to stop the sequence at a certain point, as it was just getting to be too much with my knee (there was no way I was making it through Marichyasana gracefully), but I wasn't sure if that's frowned upon. I had this idea that once you begin a sequence, you must finish it or else your body would be completely out of alignment and your nervous system thrown off the tracks.

I talked to Deborah after practice about all of this, and of course, she pointed out that it is traditionally accepted that a new student should stop at the point their practice is at, skip to the finishing sequence, Padmasana, Uth Pluthi and Savasana. That made me feel better. She thought that Janu Sirsanana would be a good place to stop, then work on knee and quadricep strengthening exercises. Phew. It was a relief to hear this.

I also bought the book "Yoga for Healthy Knees", written by Pixar's in-house yoga instructor (I wonder what Woody's favourite pose is... Tree pose?), Sandy Blaine (Amazon link). It looks to be a great resource and I'll be sure to post some exercises from it and updates on my rehab progress.

Having an injury resurface can be very humbling, and I think it's important not to get discouraged by what may seem on the surface to be a setback, as I think we can learn so much about our bodies, our alignment, our bad habits, and it's a good reminder to never forget the basics. It's also been a great reminder to never take another Bikram class. Instead of screaming "LOCK THE KNEE" at their hapless "students" who are coaxed into pushing their knees into Barbie-esque positions, they really need to teach people how to "PROTECT THE KNEE" by always maintaining a micro-bend and lifting the knee cap by stabilizing it with an engaged quadriceps. To someone used to hyperextension of the knee joint, a micro-bend can feel like a huge bend and thus, "cheating", but it's not really. Checking yourself in the mirror will confirm this. Get it "straight" alright?

*********************

I did work on a few exercises today that I think will be helpful:
  • Chair pose against the wall with a block between my knees, held for as long as possible. You'll know when it's enough. This will help strengthen your quads and ankles, helping to stabilize your poor knees.
  • Sitting in Danadasana (Staff Pose) with knees lifted slightly off the ground, quads flexed with a Carnac-like focus on your problem joint, making sure everything stays engaged and protected.
  • In poses where the knee is bent and compressed, placing a rolled-up washcloth in the "knee pit" will relieve some of the pressure there, allowing you to hang out in Sukhasana and reap the hip-opening benefits without the screaming knee. "Easy Pose", my ass. 
By the way, having more open hips will ease up on a lot of the torsion that can exacerbate an already weakened knee joint. So do your best to include these kinds of poses in your practice and exercises outside of practice whenever possible.

YogaJournal.com has plenty of helpful and detailed articles on all the poses and yoga anatomy. Here's a great one dedicated to the hyperextended knee syndrome. You should totally read it.

Postscript: I did get to do my first "adjustment" today, which was really me just moving Deborah's feet where she told me to as she contorted into Supta Kurmasana. Still, it was good to get "hands on" for the first time.

*********************

Namaste,
Brian


Monday, February 27, 2012

Day 1: Standing at the base of Mt. Everest

"I feel as though I'm standing at the base of Mount Everest, learning to tie my shoes."

Mount Everest, circa 1935 (from here)

Monday, February 27, 2012
First Mysore Practice
Instructor: Deborah Carruthers
6:30 – 9:00 a.m.


Woke up feeling pretty tired, as I hadn't seen 5 a.m. in quite a while and had a fitful sleep to boot. I kept waking up every couple hours, anticipating the early alarm, worried about waking D from her slumber (not to mention the dogs). I'll often have interrupted sleep like this before going on a big trip to a place we've never been. When it's kinda scary, but exciting.

It was pretty quiet this morning at the studio, with only one other student showing up (Joe, a sweet older guy who has been practicing Ashtanga for quite some time). We started with some Pranayama exercise (check this video of BKS Iyengar showing off his breathing chops), opening chant, then worked through the Primary Series, which revealed a lot of new poses to me. I realized that the videos I'd been studying with have omitted some key poses, and they are killers.

My Surya Namaskara A is feeling pretty fluid...I'm starting to get some of the finer details working, like rolling over the toes in the transitions between Chaturanga > Up Dog > Down Dog. Jumping forward from Down Dog > Standing is a bit of a challenge for me, I think mostly due to fear that I'm going to fall flat on my face. I'm pretty sure I've got the strength to do it, but my arms collapse before my feet reach their destination. I'm going to try practicing with a cushion in front of me tomorrow to see if I can break through that (mental?) hurdle. Here's a great video by David Garrigues, who I'll be studying with later this month demonstrating the transition:



After class I went home and ate my favourite restorative and grounding breakfast of basmati rice, steamed greens, and fresh eggs. I ended up having a 2 hour nap in the early afternoon, something which I rarely do. Managed to follow the new routine of eating the last meal before 7 and in bed (if not asleep) by 10:30.

After such a long practice of poses, and realizing so many challenges (and this is just the first series of six!), I reflected that I feel as though I'm standing at the base of Mount Everest, learning to tie my shoes.

Post practice mood: tired, but excited about new beginnings and future challenges

*********************

Namaste,
Brian


Sunday, February 26, 2012

Here, now.



"The hardest part of any practice is showing up. Everything else will come in due time."

Ledo/Burma Road (Wikipedia)



It's been a long and winding road to end up here (most recently a big chunk of that spent on the Trans-Canada Highway... more on that later) , but here I am.

Where is here exactly?

For starters, I'm a 37-year-old former graphic designer desk jockey turned Ashtanga yoga neophyte, who has just made a commitment to (at least) 4 months of 6 day-a-week, 6:30 a.m. intense Mysore-style practice. A sizable commitment (not by big city yoga studio standards, but definitely in respect to my current earnings, or lack thereof) in the form of the $1700 tuition fee for a 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training program and an even deeper commitment to my Self. A commitment to see what kind of transformation I can undergo in four months of intense practice and study. A commitment to make a concerted effort to manifest what I know is the next step in my evolution: to share, to inspire, to be a student. For life.

Like I said, it's been a heck of a meandering cow path starting with the time I first studied Hatha yoga with Burt Peeters back in St. Catharines, Ontario some 15 years ago — as clear as I can remember, which isn't great as I've never been much for personal archiving — through the many years working as a graphic designer in Toronto and taking a few weeks or months of classes at different rec centers or yoga studios, to the physical revelations and healing I found in a daily Pilates practice (supported by the wonderful women at Mind the Body, now Synergy Sports Medicine), to the gentle and precise Hatha practice of Joanna Dela Cruz at Green Lavender (sadly, now defunct) that (re)awakened the yogi in me. I stress reawakened, because it is believed that one comes to yoga only when he has practiced it in a previous life (Baghavad Gita 6:44).

This idea of reawakening resonates with me, because it was only when I started to get back in touch with my Higher Self (see Jung)— through much introspection, therapy and trials — that I finally came back home to yoga and it really started to work for and transform me — physically and mentally. All of these things combined made it so that I was unable to continue the lifestyle I was leading in the big city. Unable to continue going through the paces of a career that I couldn't remember why I started in the first place. Unable to continue compromising my physical and mental health in order to live a life that I didn't want and wasn't even sure how I ended up with.

Which brings us to the present day.

Last summer my wife and I finally quit our jobs, sold the house, packed the dogs into our newly purchased (albeit well-used) Volkswagen camper van and set out across the country to wipe the slate clean and start writing the next chapter of our lives. The one in which we find our heroes living out their dreams of healthy living, creative expression without compromise, and unhindered personal growth. It's been a wild ride, but we've landed in a beautiful spot on Vancouver Island, in a little barn with a workshop, nestled in the giant cedars on 4 acres of untamed land, close to family and amongst a very special community of people. Some of the warmest, most inviting folks I've had the pleasure of meeting.

Discovering Asrael's heart-drenched Hatha practice soon after we moved here — held twice a week in a large room with ceiling to floor windows overlooking beautiful Cowichan Bay — has been a Godsend. Her classes have fanned the flames of yoga within me and led to my current pursuit: mastery of the Ashtanga Primary Series. The actual mastery is a long, long, long way away, but I'm confident that a focused, intense daily practice will act as a solid foundation for a lifetime of learning and a fantastic base to build my eventual teaching style on. If I'm not teaching Ashtanga in the traditional manner, I'm sure it will heavily inform whatever flavour of yoga that emerges.

The Mysore style of practice works really well for me right now, as it allows me to break apart and dissect each Asana to try and discover how it works, and how I can make it work for me and my own limitations. I come into this challenging practice with a 'tweaky' left knee that hates Padmasana — let alone any seated bent-leg pose — a right shoulder that suffered from too many years of being a mouse jockey, and the tight hips and hamstrings of a (former) daily bicycle commuter. The free-form, one-on-one instruction and plentiful adjustments (at the shockingly strong but gentle hands of Deborah Carruthers) of the Mysore practice allows me to work within the constraints of these injuries, at my own pace, safely, and with the goal of repairing and strengthening my joints and muscles over a number of months as I teach my body the 41 poses of the Primary Series (appropriately named Yoga Chikitsa, or Yoga Therapy, in Sanskrit).

It's been a long, winding road to get here — and I'm certain the road ahead will be equally long and not without it's twists, turns and potholes — but I'm supremely hopeful that it will be increasingly clearer, forever challenging, and full of discovery, wonder and light.

Over the coming weeks and months I plan to share my experiences with you through this journal — all of the ups and downs, twists and turns, forward bends and seemingly endless Chaturangas. I hope that it may serve to encourage and inspire other beginners, and occasionally offer a bit of relief in knowing that you are not alone in your challenges. I also hope that it may remind experienced teachers what it was like to be a beginner and perhaps encourage some reflection on their own methodology and practice.

Postscript: It has occurred to me, through the multiple re-reading and editing of this first post, that writing will be for me — as a first-time blogger — very much like practice. I'll make sure I do my duty and show up on the mat, with faith that the grace and elegance of the experienced yogi (and writer) will come in time.


*********************

Namaste,
Brian