I had two yoga teachers back in my twenties, one eclectic, one Iyengar-based, both of whom got me into a lot of trouble with my poor joints. The first, the eclectic gal, was into pushing. And yeah, she got us into some poses we wouldn’t have tried out of fear, and that was good. It was cool to realize my ‘inability’ was sometimes only in my mind. But I got hurt in that class. Regularly. The other, the Iyengar gal, she was into pose perfection. I learned a tremendous amount from her about alignment, as well as using opposing forces in the body to create stability in a pose and safety for joints (yeah!). But she had this phrase, “any amount more,” as in, “twist any amount more,” that got me hurt several times. The whole idea of “working in a pose” has done me a world of pain.
Now, I’m not laying all the injury blame at their feet, far from it. Mostly I’m pointing at Asana Envy, that desire to create a pose more aesthetically perfect, or the desire to do fancier Party Poses as well as the desire to look as cool as the Cool Kids who are doing them. I admit it. I suffer from Asana Envy on a regular basis. Look at those gorgeous floaty jump-throughs! Look at that elegant handstand-with-lotus! But I’m coming to see, what with this near-daily ashtanga home practice that I’ve been doing, that Asana Envy is useless. It doesn’t even work for getting what it purports to want (prettier poses).
In fact, I’m coming to see that striving for the fancy asana is the thing most likely to prevent the achieving of the fancy asana. Even if fancy asanas were the goal of yoga. Which they aren’t.
Here’s how it works in me. I conceive of a desire to do lotus pose so I start working extra much with preps for that pose, spending longer in it, and pushing just a bit while in half-lotus, hoping to get to the destination, Full Lotus [cue holy music] faster, sooner, now. And I I tweak my knee and it hurts for a couple of days. Which means no preps, no half-lotus, no knee-binding poses of any kind. And while my knee is healing, my hip is hardening even further….
Whereas, the poses I don’t focus on, the ones I just get through to get to the next one, continuously, magically, improve. A simple example, Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana, the bit where you stand on one leg and levitate the other leg up in the air in front of you, like you’re pointing, with your foot, how to get somewhere. “Oh, it’s right over there [point with foot].” It’s kind of silly looking. But when I started, I could lift and hold my foot, oh, maybe twelve inches off the ground, pathetic, but so what, I didn’t care about that asana. I was busy hurting my knees in lotus. But now, only a few months later, I can hold my leg nearly parallel to the floor. That’s some 60 degrees of improvement with hardly any effort on my part, beyond doing the pose at some easy level almost-daily. My lotus has improve maybe .0001 degree. Ha.
(I know there is a world of difference between the muscle strengthening in Padang and the tendon/ligament opening needed for Lotus, but still.)
Jois’s most famous saying is, “Practice and all is coming.” I’m starting to see one application of this. In fact, I’m starting to think the opposite of “any amount more,” that is, “drop back 10%” is the way to go. When I started ashtanga, I couldn’t do any back-bending of any kind, not even up-dogs, without my lower back going into terrible spasm. I kept trying to scale it back. Updog back to cobra, cobra back to sphinx…finally I gave up and just did plank. Good ole plank was my ‘back bend’ in every vinyasa. Until one day I realized I could do updogs. Poof. All my striving early on got me a hurt back. Just backing-off got me updogs.
Maybe it was other poses indirectly working the area. Maybe it was my core getting strong enough to support my low back. Who cares? Trying less got me further than trying more.
Since I’ve been thinking this way, it has made each day’s practice more enjoyable. A pose doesn’t have to be a big heroic production. I mean, the idea is that you do this stuff the rest of your life, so there’s no rush to get somewhere, right? I’m doing yoga now. The practice is now. There will always be fancier poses to master. The yoga won’t be when the fancier poses are accessible. The yoga is now. Even with my wimpasasa, my smear-back and collapse-through, my plank-is-my-backbend. Forget “give it your all!” I’m all about “give it a good 80% and call it a day!” I’m still progressing at a surprising pace and more importantly, I’m not getting hurt. Does this work in other areas? Do less, make it enjoyable, show up every day…hey, it’s like compound interest! Actually, this is the approach I’ve taken with writing, and parenting, and…. Maybe the whole American fixation on goals and goal-setting and achievement is the problem. Down with will power!
Anne Nuotio talks about using the breath to get further in a pose and I’ve been using that. Get 80% into a pose and then use motion of the five breathes in each pose, the expansion and contraction of the lungs, let that take you five increments further in. You can really see her doing this on her dvd. No muscling into a pose. No “any amount more.” Just a gentle, pleasurable pulse arising from the motion of the breath, at around 80% effort.
The fear “but I’m not striving! I won’t get anywhere!” is baseless: look at how my body opens when I treat it this way!
I could never have gotten away with this approach in those yoga classes.
Just say NO to Asana Envy.