Sunday, March 11, 2012

Pincha Mayurasana

I did not see this one coming.  I was sick all week, so I gave priority to my running workouts with the 5k PR attempt approaching.  I did not touch my mat from Monday through Thursday and I struggled through a basic flow on Friday night.  Everything about my body felt awkward on Friday night and I went to bed a little bummed out about what felt like 2 steps backward.  It is so easy to forget that yoga is a continual practice, that there is something unexpected waiting for us every time we come to our mats.

Saturday dawned a new day, a beautifully pleasant and warm morning, and with it a clean slate.  The track workout went smoothly enough, maybe 1-2 seconds slow on the 800's but when you factor in the dirt surface being a little bumpy and the 440 yd vs 400m fudge factor you can call it close enough.  Coffee chat at my dining table with the 4 of us afterwards was a great highlight.  It puts me at ease to be able to host others and make them feel comfortable and welcome in my space.  Shelley texted that she was working at CP and and wanted to take a class after, and I remembered Alyssa's fb post that she was picking up the noon class.  I knew the evening wasn't going to include any workouts and I assumed Sunday morning would be lost as well with the time change and waking up in a hotel in downtown LA, so I felt compelled to make it to the class.

Arriving late, I carried in apprehension in two forms.  One from the night before and how "off" I had felt in my own body.  And mostly from my past history with noon heated weekend yoga classes after morning run workouts.  I am never able to hydrate adequately in between, and I typically fall apart at 30 or 40 minutes in when I'm forced to retreat to child's pose before the class reaches the surrender series.  I do much better with 4 or 5pm classes on the weekends, there is time to eat, drink, digest, and recover from the morning.  However, I had to be at Kelly's at 3pm to make the trip up to LA so there wasn't another option this time, I had to suck it up if I wanted my yoga fix.  Interestingly, on top of the negative expectations, I also brought in some positive energy from Morgan's comment on one of my prior posts.  Her words and my response to them were swirling in my head, and along with them some very positive memories.  And, yes, I am intentionally linking to her post about her own pincha mayurasana because it makes everything seem so very connected in retrospect.

I rudely barged in between two ladies in the back corner.  They were both nice enough to move their mats to make space for me and I whispered a few thank you's as Alyssa brought us all together with her words.  One of the first things we remind ourselves when we come to our mats to begin our practice is to let go of expectation.  I've already admitted to carrying all sorts of baggage in the door, and I won't pretend like I just pushed it aside instantly, but I did try to clear my head as much as possible.  Alyssa explained that we would be doing some backbends and heart openers, and I remembered an earlier class of hers where she focused on Anahata, the heart chakra, so I expected something similar.  I thought of Fukumura and his crazy backbends, how his chest seems as if it has a door hinge in the middle of it, and how mine feels more like a 2x4.

Right away, however, the class felt different, unique, and somehow intangibly special, just like this entire weekend has been.  From the first cow pose, Alyssa lead us into a single leg scorpion type backbend, I'm not sure I remember what she called it.  I was surprised to see my foot above my head in the mirror, perhaps a little bit inspired at the glimpse of this new pose and how fun it was.  I started thinking about how a great yoga instructor is a lot like a great chef.  To create something special with food, you can either follow someone else's recipe, perhaps tweaking it to suit your preferences, or you can just build something from scratch.  Regardless of how you put the pieces together, they have to make sense and complement each other.  The order and progression matters significantly.  You can't put a pie in the oven before you roll out the crust, just as you can't hit your peak posture without first heating the body and opening the joints.

And this is precisely the point in the class where I reached a new level of appreciation for Alyssa's talent.  Just as every chef is different, every yoga instructor brings their own style.  As students, we tend to pick up on the vocal intonation, what is said and what is not said, and general tone of the instructor as our initial impression.  Once we reach a comfort level with a certain instructor, however, we see past those primary impressions and we start to pay attention to where they are leading us and the path they are taking to get there.  We begin to understand their purpose in selecting various poses along the way and how the components contribute to the success of the class as a whole and especially to whatever the peak pose may be.  I'd like to pretend that I saw pincha mayurasana coming, but I didn't, I had no clue.  Instead, I absorbed myself in those initial backbends which Alyssa incorporated into each series, focusing on the specific cues she handed out along the way.  At the end of the core series she brought us into forearm plank which was a cool surprise for me.  Even more unexpected was how my body responded.  Shane has worked with me for months to get my elbows closer together in various poses.  There is an obvious difference for me when I am able to hug my elbows in on the mat vs when I let them splay out, I can feel it as if it were a completely different side of my elbow making contact.  I like to make excuses for why I have trouble with this, but the reality is that I simply find it challenging and other people do not.  I laugh at myself sometimes, imagining a 6 year old girl who can hold the pose for minutes when I struggle to get it right for a few seconds.

Somehow, for no reason I am able to understand, forearm plank felt easy in that class.  Maybe the week off was part of it, maybe it was set up perfectly, or maybe it just clicked, I'm not sure.  It felt like getting my elbows rolled in wasn't a tremendous challenge and I wanted to stay there even after Alyssa cued us out.  I didn't know where we were going, I was thinking maybe camel and wondering how dehydrated I'd be by that point and if I'd pass out or feel nauseous afterward.  As we went through what would be our final lunge series, I started to feel my body shutting down.  This is my typical breaking point in those noon classes, maybe 35 minutes in, with the heat blasting and the sweat dripping, as the class nears the end of the standing poses.  My legs give up before my heart does, and I've learned to accept that I am not as strong as I would like to be, that I have a breaking point just like everyone else.  I caved a bit on the left side of that final lunge series, checking out for a break in balasana.  I tried very hard to let go of judgement.

At that point I can honestly say I had released my expectations and accepted my limitations, at least to whatever degree I am capable of.  Even with a strong exhale, there is always residual air in my lungs, so when I say I let go of expectations, I only mean that I released them as much as I am capable of, not that I reached some sort of enlightenment.  Thankfully Alyssa brought us down to the mat and then cued us into our inversion.  She mentioned crow as an option and then started calling out prep for forearm stand, aka pincha mayurasana.  I've wanted to be able to do this one for months.  I see it as a step on a path towards handstand and for whatever reason, handstand is the pose that I think of when I ask myself what I'm working toward.  From my months of working with Shane, I've developed a confidence with my headstands that I didn't realize I'd need at first.  I now have some understanding about the importance of these pieces of foundation.  Being able to control my body from my shoulders to my toes while inverted without constant conscious thought and effort allows me to shift my focus to the body parts which make contact with the mat.  I've risen up out of headstand a few times, lifting my head an inch off the mat, but I never saw the bridge between headstand and forearm stand.  Seeing others lift gracefully into their own forearm stand doesn't really help me figure it out in my own body, it just makes me envious as I tend to hero worship the gracefulness of a beautiful inversion.

This point in the class is precisely where Alyssa's mastery became so blatantly obvious to me.  She leads with a balanced combination of strength and confidence along with simultaneous support and encouragement.  There are no wasted words, no unnecessary color, and no dripping emotions.  Her cues from dolphin to forearm stand were strong, and she took me out of the "I'm cooked already, there's no way I can do this" and into a "well, I might as well get positioned and kick up a few times."  I kicked up with my left leg 3 or 4 times and started to fatigue, then I did the same with my right.  Forearm stand for me feels like an attempt to balance my body as if it were a seesaw.  The class was so crowded that I felt apprehensive about falling forward and disrupting the people in front of me, or worse toppling over to the side and hurting someone. I knew I needed more effort to get my feet above my head, that my kicks weren't strong enough, but I wasn't completely committed to a full effort.

Alyssa then reminded us that it's OK to fall and it's OK to have a bend in our spines.  It's amusing how much of an effect simple reminders can have.  I tend to approach yoga and so much of my life as an all-or-nothing, black-and-white experience and I miss out on the shades of grey frequently.  This sounds a little silly, but I honestly felt that Alyssa's words physically carried my right foot above my head on that 7th or 8th kick and held it there.  I remember her being in the opposite corner of the room, but it felt like she was right there with me.  I slowly brought my left foot to meet the right, expecting to fall forward or backward soon.  I waited and breathed and prepared to crumble.

I looked down between my elbows.

I took another breath.   Then another.

I felt a sense of calm.  My shoulders felt fine.

I thought, "wow, I think I might stay up this time."

I waited for the end, the involuntary point of failure indicating the end of a good attempt.

And waited.

Then it clicked, "I can do this now."  Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not yesterday, but right now, at this very point in time, on top of this sweat soaked towel, I can do pincha mayurasana (or at least something that looks sort of like pincha mayurasana.)

I felt satisfied.

I heard Alyssa's words of acknowledgement off in the distance, calling my name, reminding me that what I was experiencing in my own body was actually happening and not some strange dream I was having.

I slowly let my feet return to the mat and found my way to balasana.  And then, for the first time ever on my mat, I let a tear loose.  I have joked for a while that if I ever pull off a real handstand I'm going to collapse into a sobbing pile of flesh.  This moment wasn't dramatic in that fashion, I'm not even sure the ladies sandwiching me on either side noticed, but there was an emotional release, it was very real and I remember being affected by it.  I know I should not be attached to the physical asanas in the way it might seem that I am, but I also know that my emotional existence is tied to my physical body and the two are not so easy for me to separate.

The rest of class was a blur.  I don't even know what happened after that, I think we may have done bridge and I remember a "your choice" at the end where I might have done headstand.  I didn't have a chance to thank Alyssa or even say much to Shelley before I had to run out the door to get ready for the evening adventures.  Writing this, more than 24 hours after the fact, I can still feel the energy of that class pulsing through me.  I'm actually terrified of my next attempt at forearm stand, terrified of carrying in expectations based on the knowledge that I can do something which was not within the realm of possible for me before.  But I know that this is precisely why I come to my mat in the first place, to confront those fears.  I arrive in order to attempt and in order to be challenged.  Throughout this process, I am learning how to give support and encouragement to my positive voice while I accept and subdue my negative voice.  This all sounds so easy, just like putting your elbows on the ground and kicking your feet above your head, but I find it immensely challenging and also extremely rewarding.


  1. I think that was a PR! Sorry, I don't speak yoga. My point is: congratulations.