Things have cooled back down here, in temperature and in opportunities to practice. Gone are the days of four and five yoga classes a week. I've settled back into the norm of two or three chances a week. I did get in three practices this week. It could have been better. I had hoped to get done in the OR yesterday in time to make it to the evening Intro to Second Series class. We didn't finish our last case until almost 9:00pm though, so that plan didn't work out.
I did make it to class Thursday evening. That is usually an Improv type class. Since the Tuesday evening First Series class didn't happen this week because of the moon day, the teacher decided for the Thursday class to mainly do a first series progression of poses, with a few extra things thrown in. That was fine with me because I've been wanting to get in some more forward bending. For extras, instead of doing the usual Urdhva Dhanurasana sequence of backbends, we did some other things, including Vrschikasana. Since most of us in that class aren't what could be described as adept, those of us trying to do the pose did it with the teacher assisting us. The first time I tried it, I felt a real strong cramp come up in my left hamstring as I tried to contract into a deeper back bend. I guess when most of what I do in yoga class is a stretch of the hamstring muscles, when the time does come that I make a strong hamstring contraction, it shouldn't be a surprise that the muscle spaz's out and goes into a cramp. After stretching things out a bit, I was able to re-try it and got as far as I can go in that pose. I had no further protests from the hamstring. That ham has been unusually stiff since then though. I've been trying to do things cautiously. I know it wants to snap in half on me just to show it's pissed off at having so work hard.
Today's class was the Saturday morning Improv class. In this class, the teacher will sometimes have a pre-arranged plan of what she would like to cover in the class. Other times, she will ask us for suggestions of things we would like to do. She will then make up an extemporaneous progression of postures to cover as much of that as possible. In the last few classes, we have done the kinds of things that I definitely need to work on. It's almost like I had sent her a wish list of poses and she went out and followed my list. Lately, I've been wanting to work on the various aspects of my body that are limiting what I am able to do in back bending. All the groins and shoulder work and the progression in class towards a particular kind of back bend that we have done the last two Saturday classes have been made to order for me.
While driving to class this morning, I was thinking what kinds of stuff I would want to work on if I were to volunteer a suggestion. My first idea was to suggest a class that focused on balancing. Not just arm balances, but doing all kinds of balance poses. I think one of the most lax aspects of my practice is my bandhas. I know how to bring them into play but I don't always do so when in practice, at least not with intention. Balancing poses are the kinds of poses where you are really forced to bring them into play if you want to be able to do the pose at all. With poor control of the core, Utthita Hasta Padangustasana is not happening. With steady breathing, engagement of bandhas, finding the balance within your core muscle groups, then you've got a chance. While we do go into various balance poses from time to time, I can't recall a class devoted to that particular focus. I tried to see how many different kinds of balances I could think of to see how much could be covered in one class. There's quite a few but I don't know most of them.
I also was thinking about doing some other advanced back bending posture, or at least working towards it. In the last two classes we worked up to Viparita Dandasana and Raja Kapotasana. I was wondering where we could go next and was thinking of suggesting Viparita Salabhasana. I've asked for it in that class once or twice in the past. It's a great sequence to work the back in ways that we usually don't get. Tim has done it in at least a couple of the Improv classes of his that I've gone to. The actual pose is well beyond me but the variations leading up to it are do-able and are very helpful.
I really was thinking about those two suggestions today. I've been thinking about the balancing pose theme for some time now. The reason I emphasize that is that our teacher went over those exact two areas in class today without any suggestions on my part. Enter Twilight Zone theme. After some typical opening poses, we did several Dighasana pose variations early on in the class. Then we did a bunch of arm balancing poses, including variations of Eka Pada Galavasana and Bakasana. We then went back to the opening of the groins by doing a series of Anjaneyasana variations. With the recent work we've been doing on developing the groins, I can clearly see improvements in the depth that I can get in my lunges. The poses are also far less taxing for me. I used to have to pull out and catch my breath about three counts into the fourth variation. Still, as much as I wanted to be doing them, after about the fifth or sixth variation, as I waited in Chaturanga, I would find myself hoping the next words out of her mouth were not going to again be, "Now, step your right foot forward....".
As I mentioned above, we ultimately went on to do Viparita Salabasana. We didn't do any of the approximations that Tim will sometimes use, like inversions with the front of our bodies up against the wall and our chin and chest on the floor. After a couple of warm ups, we just tried to do the pose. We, or at least I, used a blanket under my shoulders for lift so that I could get my hips high enough to allow my legs to come up. Even so, the teacher had to catch my legs as they tried to return to earth. Once in the pose, it wasn't that hard. For the next progression, the teacher helped us with folding our legs down towards our heads. I must have looked (or maybe sounded) like I was at my edge because she didn't take me very far. From how it felt on my end, I could have been taken quite a bit further. I don't know that I could have put myself anywhere near where she put me, but I could have been taken further without it getting scary. It's a hard line to walk though, better to come back another day.
After doing that work, we did some backbends. She then had us work on dropping back and standing up. In all my classes in the last four years, she is the only teacher I can think of who has ever gone over how to do this in a class. She had actually talked with me after class last week about my fears in doing drop backs. She gave me some different approaches to try that would help me work past some of those fears. We were doing some of those exact things today. And they helped quite a bit. In the past, when I have made gestures at dropping back, I would hold my hands in a namaste or prayer position in front of my chest and begin to arch back from there. Once I got to what I thought was my maximum back arch I would either chicken out and stand back up, or on a few occasions I would let something go in my legs, extend my arms and drop down to the ground. A couple of times I even made it to the ground by landing on my hands first. The other times I tried it, I ended up landing on parts of my body that are not designed to be landed on.
When going into a dropback, two things worry me. One is that I sometimes get dizzy in mid-arch when trying to do a full dip backwards. I can't predict when it will occur. I worry that I'll feel okay until just at the last second and then, as I am going past the point of no return, my head will go all fuzzy and I might auger in, never to breath again without a respirator. The other consideration that holds me back is that I know my shoulder range of motion is somewhat limited. The farther I go into the arch, the more my arm extension shrinks. I can extend them if I focus on that particular thought as I drop back. But if I'm instead thinking about some other aspect of the process of dropping back, like "Where the hell is that floor???", my arms tend to bend at the elbows and my hands move closer to my head. In that setting, even if I landed on my hands, they would be so close to my head that I wouldn't have enough cushioning to prevent the head from making impact. That kind of head banger drop back has happened twice. My arms just didn't get where they needed to be for it to be a safe thing to try. After we talked about those anxieties of mine, she suggested that instead of reaching back over my head as I arched back, I should start out with my arms down and straight with my hands on the back of my thighs. As I bent further into the back arch, I was to move my hands further down my legs. Eventually, there comes a point where you can't arch any more and have to bend the knees, release the weight and drop onto the hands. To do that in the approach she described, you have to swing the arms around as you rotate the shoulders to get the hands in the right orientation to accept the landing. I was able to arch pretty well today. I could see the back of my mat, which is a laughable thing for someone bendy like my wife but which is very good for me. I just couldn't get myself to release. I'm still working on it. It will come. I think it will anyway. I guess right now I'm thinking that if I try it and screw it up, that will just further heighten my anxiety. I guess I'm waiting for the day when I have built up such a range of motion that there is essentially no reaching a point of no return and having to let it go and reach for my life. I must be expecting at some point to be able to just reach back and place my hands on the floor, or to at least just ease them to the floor and not go barreling into the floor as I do when I have let it go now. That would be nice. Not having to pay taxes would be nice too, but that ain't happening either.
On Wednesday, I went to the LA area (that term literally translates to 'Southern California', but in this case I was in Woodland Hills, an area north of LA proper, near Malibu and Santa Monica) to work with some other folks on a special kind of surgery. We got done at about 3:30 so I hopped in my car for a dash to an afternoon mysore class at Yoga Works in Santa Monica, about 15 miles away. When I told the folks at the hospital I was trying to get to Santa Monica by 4:00, they kind of shook their heads knowingly. They know the traffic so I was kind of bummed to learn that I'd probably get there late, but a partial mysore practice is better than nothing. It turns out I had LA traffic beginner's luck. I got to class only ten minutes after it started. Even so, there was almost no mat space left. I started to set up on this little stage-like thing on one end of the room when one of the assistants had me move to a space she had people squeeze open for me. The practice room has windows that accept a lot of sun and the room was packed. It was waaay hot in there. And no ceiling fans. I almost got up to get a cool-down drink after just setting up my mat. Maty Ezraty was the teacher for the class, along with a couple of assistants. I knew from talking with others who have studied with her that she places a different emphasis on alignment and on getting things just right than many of the people that I was used to. Whenever I go to another studio, I try to get a feel for the place before I start my practice. I'd prefer to not stick out for doing things real differently from everyone else there. In Maty's class, I opted to keep it a straight forward ashtanga practice with no extra poses thrown in for fun, no researching and no flourishes. Just the basics. I was curious to see how long it would take before she tried to get me out of my bad habits and into better form. She came by a few poses into the practice and asked if I was in for just the day. I should have gone to her at the start and introduced myself but I got caught up in trying to find a space and get set up without causing too much commotion and never got around to it. She saw from my t-shirt that I studied with Tim, so she jokingly said she wouldn't try to do too much to me that day. She did come by and correct my knee position in both Utthita Parsvakonasana and Virabhadrasana A. I let my knee go forward to somewhere near my toes. She prefers that it stay directly over the ankle with no forward tilt. I'm glad to do it either way. Funny, Utthita Parsvakonasana is one of the poses I least like. It doesn't kill me or anything. I just don't really like it.
At any rate, since I was late, I figured I would have to move through the class fairly quickly to get all my poses in. Most of the people around me were doing First Series. I felt a little awkward starting almost 15 minutes after they did and getting to the Janu Sirsasana sequence before they had finished the standing poses. I got a couple of smaller adjustments, like getting a squash in Paschimottanasana, but not too much attention came my way until Marichasana D. I knew Maty would have to come by on that one because I do it so egregiously. Sure enough, from across the room, a loud voice announces "Okay, lets undo that and start over". She came by and had me change the position of my foot so that it was on the floor right in front of my sit bone, instead of out lateral to my hip where I usually slide it. Then, she eased me into my wrap. I had a hard time not laughing at myself. She was telling me, "Take it easy man. Twist from here. Slow it down man, slow it down", with the word 'man' sounding like something out of a Cheech and Chong routine. I got into it but the positioning of things pressed my weight backwards so I wasn't able to stay upright. I appreciate the effort to help me see what I was doing, I just can't yet get my body into the place where I can keep in balance in the form she recommends. I'm working on it. Tim had tried to get me to make similar shifts as well.
As I got closer to the end of the first series, I was getting pretty tired from the heat. I had already gotten up for one cool-down drink. After debating for a bit about just stopping after Setu Bandhasana and going into backbending, I decide to go ahead and press on with my second series poses. I didn't think I'd get them all in since it was already 5:25 and the class was scheduled to stop at 5:55 but I went on anyway. I got as far as Ustrasana when again, from across the room, I hear her say, "Hold it, hold it. Joel (the assistant teacher who was closet to me), get a strap. Strap his knees. Put a block between his feet." How shameful. I was so bad I was being Iyengarized. I looked around at the pitying glances from the regulars. The assistant had me go get a strap from across the room. To me, that was a walk of shame. I've never been sent for a strap before. In truth, I didn't feel any shame, I really wanted to be shown what I was doing wrong and how to do it better. We use straps in our improv classes for some poses. Tim helped me better understand the arm and shoulder action in Urdhva Dhanurasana once by strapping my elbows--I couldn't even go up into the pose with my arms being forced into a correct alignment. The arrangement of my legs after all the strapping and positioning of blocks for the Ustrasana had me wondering though. They had me put the block between my ankles but with the narrowest side up so that my feet were only three inches apart. That led to my knees being in an unusually narrow stance too. As I started back, a not so subtle "No! No! The groins, don't let him push out with his groins. Keep your hips over your knees. Arch here (pointing to my lumbar back)." I ended up doing the pose a couple of times, never doing it well as I struggled to figure out what to do internally to accomplish what Maty was describing. I was pretty tired after that. Since that is one of the easier back bends to do in the second series and since I was needing so much correction, I decided I shouldn't go any further. It doesn't take much to talk myself out of practicing when I'm tired. I quickly went through my closing and took a 10 minute Savasana. I hadn't done much looking around the room when I practiced. In the looking about that I did do, I noticed that the one "extra" thing that I could see people doing was that they appeared to do handstands before doing backbending. I didn't see anybody doing drop backs or doing Viparita Chakrasana. There were some people working on Second Series and one or two folks doing Third series on the other end of the room but I didn't look around that much so I don't know if they did that extra back bending stuff or not.
Well, I've got to cut it "short" here. I've got to hustle out and find a Mother's day card and some flowers before everybody gets home. I'm at work tomorrow, so today is functionally Mother's day. I know I need to proof this, I'll do it later after I've managed to cover my butt.