Let me rewind and start at the beginning. When I first started working with Shane, we discussed goals. Perhaps yoga is different, perhaps I am different, but instead of me telling Shane what my goals were for my practice, he told me what his goal was for my practice. I like that about Shane, his willingness to straight up push me even if that might seem unorthodox. Shane told me he wanted me to reach a point where I could complete the Ashtanga primary series on my own. Today was my first attempt to do just that, in the presence of one of the better known yogis of the western world. To say I was petrified would be putting it lightly. I needed Shane there if for nothing else than to break my fall and forgive me if I ruined class for everyone else. Just like the first class I tried to teach, and my first 100 miler, I leaned heavily upon someone who had been through it before as my security blanket. When I walked through that door, I knew I was ready to give it my best shot, but I had no idea what my body would be capable of.
The warmup went well enough, I was very thankful that my shoulders were feeling capable of my attempts to pick up and float back. I knew I would be calling on them to work hard today. I subbed in crescent lunge for vera 1 during the warmup b/c it just takes me so damn long to work my hips semi-square in vera 1 and there's only one inhale up and one exhale down, so no time to settle in. I started to sweat. I found the 5 breaths in adho mukha to be a little longer than I do at 7am, perhaps the pre-warmup in Shane's driveway and the 10am class time on top of the 4:50am start to my day had me feeling a degree of afternoon-like readiness and openness. Padangusthasana took me deeper than I've ever been before noon, opening up the deepest padahastasana I've felt, my toes were on top of my wrists instead of inches away from the crease and I felt my forehead gently grazing my shins. I became optimistic, the day seemed ripe for this session.
Before I realized it, the lunges began with trikonasana. I grabbed for my toe and pulled up, I pressed my feet apart and rotated my chest towards the ceiling. Well, that's what was going on in my mind. In my body, I was probably bent with a duck butt and crooked neck. But my heart was pumping, the sweat was dripping, and I was charged all the way past full on my internal battery. One thing Tim said later, in marichyasana D, it just keeps getting harder. This is so true because immediately after triangle is twisted triangle, which is my 2nd most feared lunge in the series. I forgot which hand goes on my hip and which hand reaches forward, but figured it out based on which hand is up and which is down. I don't often attempt twisted triangle without someone stabilizing my hips to keep me from falling over. I feel so vulnerable in this pose, and today I felt doubly so with Shane on one side and his friend, Clancy, on the other. I didn't have my palm on the mat, and my back heel lifted up slightly, more than I would have liked it to, but I had to accept that I'm not there yet. Overall it was a reasonable attempt. Then, the call to switch sides and I tried to gracefully rotate my arms into position as I spun on my heels and pretty much took myself down to the mat. Tim looked in my direction with what I assumed was a look of utter disgust and asked me to "get a grip". It was a well deserved reminder to be mindful and not attempt to add anything to what would surely be one of my most challenging days on the mat to date.
Side angle felt a bit like triangle, doable but not perfect, my knee won't press out into my arm, and it's hard to keep 2 feet and one palm all on the mat while attempting to rotate the chest open to the sky. I'm happy with where it is, and I have a lot of room to progress. Then parivrtta parsvakonasana which is my #1 fear when it comes to lunges. I'm sure it was ugly. I remember feeling some deep sensation. But I made it through, without assistance or a block, which might be the first time I've attempted self sufficiency in twisted side angle. Don't think for a second that my heel was on the ground or that my torso opened much or that my hand was over the centerline of my body, none of that happened. Just to survive it without 3 or 4 of Shane's limbs involved was a big first for me today. I felt like this marked a progression, I felt that my confidence increased even though my alignment is much worse without the assists.
Prasarita paddotanasana went well, as a helpful hand placed a block down for my head and reminded me to get my hands further back in A. As we progressed through B and C I remembered that the half lift breath cycle is only on A and D, a subtlety that Shane had mentioned to me a few times and I was grateful for that knowledge. I have to mention that the only part of the class where I was forced to suppress my laughter was when I had to contort my neck during the ascent and descent to avoid going head to ass with Shane. I don't think that is in the series, not even for partner yoga. I managed to get a bit of a stagger going by C so that I could bend to the left and work my head around his knee. For some reason, perhaps the hours of sweating I've done within his supervision, this moment of physical proximity didn't phase me beyond a silent chuckle.
Parsvottanasana with my modification (fists, knuckle to knuckle) went OK, of course with the usual lateral shakiness. By this point on my own, I am typically pretty trashed, but it's actually only about 1/4 of the primary series. Today I felt pretty good, ready for more, and accepting of my limitations. It wasn't easy to keep pace with the class, filled with students who can do all of the poses well, but I was enjoying the moment very much, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to practice in the middle of it all. I wasn't overly impressed with myself for uttitha padangusthasana but I didn't fall that much, so it was at worst a pass and at best a decent attempt. I couldn't help but look over, past Shane, and admire for just a moment, a 1/4 breath, the woman next to him who had her foot above her head. I can't describe how incredibly beautiful that degree of flexibility seems to me. Perhaps this is because it is so far away from where I can ever see my body. Uttitha eka padasana was a confidence boost, I felt prepared for it from all of the work with Shane and with the flexibility traded in for strength I felt much more like I was on familiar turf.
I almost thought about going for a bind in ardha baddha padmottanasana but I played it safe by using the wrong hand to hold my half lotus in place. Utkatasana flew by, I've really been working to get my arms vertical and while I'm not there yet, I feel comfortable pushing vigorously towards that for a few breaths. Skipping the handstands, I did my crappy version of warrior 1 and then goofed and went into vera 2 instead of switching sides with vera 1. That goof bummed me out because I've worked hard to learn that transition, palms together, looking up, spinning on the heels. I do it halfway decent most days with Shane. I was annoyed at myself for missing a chance to do one of the garnishes which make the primary series so flavorful, but it was done, it was over, and I had to put it behind me in warrior 2 and focus on the one pose that I can sort of get mostly right other than low plank. My one legged crow after warrior 2 also left me feeling like all the work I've done added up to a bit of nothing on gameday since I know I've done better versions of eka pada bakasana, but there isn't any time to dwell on the past when you're staring down the seated asanas.
|Photo credits: Trevor Hawkins|
Dandasana might be my favorite pose, there's no balance, there's no movement, there's no grace, it's just heaps of muscular energy and breath. But to do dandasana right you have to engage all sorts of muscles simultaneously and that's difficult no matter how familiar it is. Pachimotanasana went really well, I managed my first steeple mudra with my wrists in front of my feet and I felt like that was a very good sign. The next four single leg stretches seemed to drag since I can't do any half lotus in any of them, but I was really digging the pickups which seem to come with a fury in this section. Some of the students were skipping the pickups, perhaps to save their shoulders or for whatever reason which was right for them, but I took them as an opportunity to keep the energy flowing, even though my feet/butt hit the mat on the way through, I still get a great boost from each cycle of lift up, squeeze through, press back, chaturanga, jump up, float forward, push through, kick out, sit down.
Janu Sirsasana went so well that I came close to grabbing my wrist on each side. That was a first. I was glad my body was so compliant today, so willing to stretch, twist, and bend. It made it that much easier to really dive in and soak up every bit of each moment. Marichyasana was similar to the single leg stretches, without half lotus it's an exercise in repetition, but a useful/meaningful one and peppered with pickups to mix into the sauce. And then, bam, navasana.
|Photo credits: Trevor Hawkins|
I am getting more and more fond of navasana. It's such a perfect kick in the gut, such a demented and brutal asana that I almost feel like it needs to be done every day to remind me of what it feels like to be alive. I think I've done 5 sets with Shane in the past, but I will say that I found the 5th set very challenging today. I think this is when Tim looked at me and told me to chill out (I'm paraphrasing) since he didn't want to deal with a "myocardial infarction" (that bit wasn't paraphrasing). I suppose my breathing was too heavy, perhaps in lolasana or maybe it was the crazed look in my eye. The next section after navasana is a blur, a definite area of weakness for me, although badha konasana went as well as it ever has. The wide leg floor stretches in tight quarters made for some sweat sharing with Shane and Clancy and a loud thump when my calves and heels slammed the floor (sure wish I could do that one gracefuly). I got some much needed assistance in ubhaya padangusthasana and urdvha mukha pachimatanasana, since there's no way I can do those without help. I misinterpreted the call to setu bandhasana, so I got into that one late, but felt my neck showing up stronger than it ever has and really felt like this one took a step forward today.
And then wheel.
The big wheel.
For anyone who skimmed the first part waiting for a punch line, here it is.
First, I'll summarize all of the above. I worked hard, felt the best I have and managed to keep pace with a highly modified and graceless attempt at the ashtanga primary series. Tim poked fun at me a few times but didn't seem to be too offended that I was sweating in his presence. It was a pretty good day.
In recent weeks, wheel has taken on a new dimension for me. It's opened up into a world of sensation I never knew existed, as I gain confidence, strength and flexibility. It's still a long way from looking how I'd like it to look, but again I feel like I've made recent progress. With all that said, not once in my work with Shane have I attempted 6 wheels. Today was the day. I was going to give it my all. The first set of 3 went well, I felt strong, I pressed, I breathed, and I survived. The second set got ugly. On the 4th my hands slipped and my head hit the mat pretty hard, but I said f it and popped back up. On the 5th my elbows were bending and I was noticeably gassed before the 5th breath, I had to bail out early. This whole time I was thinking to myself, how the f does someone stay up for 5 minutes. How? I don't understand. I can't understand. I can't even make it through 5 sets of 5 breaths. What is 25 breaths, maybe one minute with at least that much rest mixed in? How does one do a continuous wheel for 5 minutes?
I'm beginning to realize how a very straightforward looking pose like urdhva dhanurasana can be such a masterful peak pose. There is so much to it that you don't see looking at it as an observer. There is so much to it that you don't even feel in your own body for the first few months of attempting it. The door to my wheel room is ever so slightly cracked open and I've peeked inside. It is a massive, cavernous room that awaits me.
I popped up for the 6th wheel, which would be the final wheel of the day. My arms quivered. My breath felt forced. I willed myself to stay up. I sensed Tim walk up onto my mat. My HR doubled. My eyes glazed over. He stood between my legs, in a space that in any other situation would be considered personal, but on the yoga mat is considered shared. He wrapped his arms around my waist and according to Shane he put himself in utkatasana and pulled me up to standing. I'd like to say I was limp in his arms but I was not present in my body during this moment. My arms remained above my head and I came to consciousness in tadasana. I saw stars. I felt complete elation and utter vulnerability. I felt defenseless against and yet completely protected by this great man who had pulled 180 lbs of useless meat up from the mat with supreme confidence.
There was a gratefully long utanasana to attempt to erase the effects of the wheel. Shoulderstand, even with Tim's help, was pretty lousy, I think he sort of abandoned the effort of trying to fix it, realizing I was hopeless. Headstand and super fish were strong, some of my better asanas from all the work Shane has put in. Padmasana was my only attempt at full lotus and I had to hold my legs together to keep them from slipping apart. And then utpluthih for 25 long breaths. I made it to 10 feeling ok, with feet crossed instead of lotus. By 15 I was worried and soon after my feet made contact with the mat. At 20 I was breathing too loud and Tim told me to close my mouth. By 23 I was done and came crashing down.
And then sweet, ever so sweet, savasana with Uncle Tim and his book. The end of my first primary series. It was an experience, an extended moment complete with all sorts of simple and complicated emotions. I shared space with great yogis, I doubted myself and I explored new ground. I didn't hurt anyone else or myself, and I passionately loved every minute that ticked by. It felt much more like one hour than two. I suppose that may actually be one way to measure progress in yoga, when time shifts over from plentiful to scarce and I find myself surprised to have reached final savasana.