Yep. Can you believe it? I have been doing a near-daily ashtanga yoga practice for an entire year. I started with just the surys mid-summer 2009 sometime. I was 38. I don’t know the exact date I started, but, based on when I bought my manduka, I’m thinking the beginning of August. After a couple weeks of that, I started adding the standing poses. By November, I was doing the whole primary series, and have been ever since. And after a year of it, I can honestly say: I still love it.
Biggest changes. The standing poses are all easy now. How is that even possible? I have not put in any extra work or attention on them. In fact, I usually have the mindset of ‘getting through’ them. But they really do feel lovely now, like a good morning stretch. The majority of the poses, despite starting a year ago in easy-peasy variations, I can now do to their full extent. For example, a year ago my Revolved Triangle meant barely turning enough to get my lower hand around my knee or so, and not being able to look up lest I fall over. Now my lower hand is flat on the floor and I can turn enough in my spine to look all the way up at the upper hand. Wow! The exceptions: I can’t do a full Parivrtta Parsvakonasana, but I’m close. I can’t put my nose to my knee in Utthita Hasta Pandangustasana, but I can comfortably hold my toe with my leg straight in both positions. And I can’t bind my Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana, but bending over with one leg up in lotus is now delicious. This slow and steady improvement blows my mind. So, standing poses: check.
Other things, however, have changed only a little, and slowly. For example, back-bending. I started in such a terrible state with the back-bending—honestly, no exaggeration, I had zero backwards movement in my spine. If I bent back as far as I could, I was standing up straight. I couldn’t do any version of up dog without pain, and so did plank in all vinyasas for several months. I finally got to where I could do a baby cobra. Maybe six months in I could do up-dog. Up to that point, I was skipping back bends and doing Setu Bandha instead. Around six months I started draping myself over a big exercise ball. I remember when I could finally get my hands back far enough to touch the floor! I had Sophie take a picture:
(I’m fairly embarrassed to put these pitiful attempts up, but I want to see what happens in another year. Hopefully, these will the the ‘before’ pictures for a beautiful back bend. Someday.)
You can see I had—have—this incredible flat stiffness in my upper back! If I moved the ball towards my head at all, the hands came right off the floor. So I would hang in space for a while like that, and then roll it down towards my feet some, like in the photo, and sort of push it up into my upper spine. Felt great. I don’t know if it did much.
Three months later, I was finally strong enough to even try to lift myself up. It’s like I’ve got a 2×4 for an upper spine!
I swear, I was straightening my arms as much as I possibly could in this picture. The upper back just will not budge enough to let the arms go back any further. And it isn’t tightness in my shoulders. I can easily hold my own hands in Gomukhasana arms.
Here I am, one year in, and I have some movement in my upper spine. I can bend enough to look up…
…which I totally couldn’t do when I started. I’m pushing up through the heart as hard as I can here, and it looks like I’m slumping. I’m still working on—obviously. But, when I started, this position would have had me standing straight, tilting my chin up and rolling my eyes back in my head in an effort to see the ceiling. No backwards motion of the spine at all. So there is some progress, I guess. But wow. Slow. I really worry about this upper spine of mine. I don’t want to be one of those hunched-over old ladies.
Moving on. Finally we come to the “I haven’t seen any change, really, no, not any at all, I’m afraid,” category… Um, mental calm? Meditative stillness? Nada. To be fair, this is probably partially because 9 times out of 10 I’m doing my practice while Spongebob plays in the background, or lego towers are built around me, and I have to stop periodically to make sandwiches, or tie on costumes, or break up fights. Maybe I’ll get to work on inner peace when the kids are older. Maybe everything I’m doing now is prep for the real stuff. In fact, I’m sure it is.
That’s fine. Barring death, I’ve got some time.
But now we come to the Most Pronounced Change this year: I have very little physical pain these days. Where my back used to constantly hurt, to varying degrees, it rarely hurts now. Where my shoulders used to pop and ache, I rarely think of them, and the joints work smoothly. My knees feel strong and stable. My neck moves freely and only aches if I abuse it, sitting at a cranked position to read or whathaveyou. And let me tell you, being largely painfree is simply marvelous.
Ashtanga is worth the price of admission right there.
But that’s not all! You also get this amazing Bonus Gift: my great friend who lives 2000 miles away (sob!) came for her annual visit last month. She hadn’t seen me in over a year, since before I started all this yoga. It was crazy hot and one of the first things we did was go swimming. One look at me in my suit and she said, “Maya! Oh my god, look at you, look at your arms! Look at your abs! You look so strong and fit and…and…fantastic!”
Thank you Priscilla. Made the Goddess in all Her Glory rain chocolate blessings down on your head for all eternity for saying that.
So. Experimental Year Of Ashtanga is coming to a close.
But I’m definitely signing up for another year. Tune in next summer for another update….