I’ve spoken before about my thoughts on asana envy, and also about the David Williams workshop I went to last spring, which was right up my philosophical alley and has had a huge impact on me. (Thank you, David!) One of the primary shifts in my practice since the workshop has been to move even further away from asana-as-goal (as in, I’d like to have a better lotus), to a frequency and duration goal (as in, I’d like to do yoga every day for the next thirty years). The result of this shift has been to back off the effort in a given practice session in favor of reducing or eliminating the progression that starts with discomfort, and leads to pain, maybe injury, then dread, and then avoidance of yoga. This shift is a good thing. Practice feels better this way, pleasurable and fun. A moving meditation rather than a heroic and exhausting ordeal. This is motivating and makes it easier to show up every day, and hopefully lessens the chance that I’ll quit altogether.
But I’ve noticed that, while upping my motivation to practice by making it pleasurable, I have lost a certain drive, an asana ambition, if you will. There is something exciting and motivating about working towards a flashy goal. The idea of being able to do a beautiful backbend (one day, maybe,) can inspire me to get on the mat (because it mostly certainly will never happen if I skip yoga). Goal-driven ego-motivated yoga does have a thrill about it that the goal of “show up every day forever,” sort of…lacks.
I wonder if there is a way to have both? Not the full-on push to get an asana that creates injury—because I get pains SO FAST if I push. But adding just a little…focus, perhaps, on a certain asana or type of asana, say, those beautiful backbends. Is there a way to let myself get the juice from pursuing an asana (and thus harnass that excitment as another way to get myself on the mat each day) without pushing, without pain? Is there a way to be gently driven?
I’m not sure. This might be one of those different philosophy things where it’s all or nothing. In unschooling, real unschooling, you can’t do it half-way. You can’t say, “I unschool except for math,” because that bit of control and distrust of learning will stop the unschooling goodness from blossoming. (See Joyce Fetteroll’s site in the blogroll for more on this.)
Or, it might be possible. Maybe I can get a little of that ambition-motivation by simply staying in a gently-held pose a few breaths longer, or doing it twice, thus increasing the speed of the body’s opening, without increasing the intensity.
Or maybe the body opens at it’s own speed and worrying about it is antithetical to what yoga can be best about? Maybe letting the mind get in there and set schedules is going to mess everything up?
Well, as a dedicated Home Yogi, there is only one thing to do. Experiment.
My lotus is coming along and my knees are way too sensitive to safely experiment with much. So I’m experimenting with the backbends. (See here for more on my backbend, or lack of one.) For my experiment I’ve added to the usual handful of backbends found at the end of Primary Series, a several minute stay draped over a folding chair. I stole this from Iyengar. It’s a passive backbend, meant to open the front body, and while it does nothing for strengthening the back or arms (both of which I need) it feels really good, and so possibly stays within the realm of Not Pushing. (Although I have to watch my tendency to pull into it with the strength of my arms…tweaked my rotator cuff last month doing that.)
Look at that stiff upper back! It’s like there are steel rods in there or something. I have to work to keep my lower back from taking all the bend. And I usually fold my hands behind my head to support it’s weight because until my upper back opens more, my neck tends to get overly flexed in this position. Everything bends but the back of my heart. Sounds like a country song.
I’ve also added a move from David Williams that I had previously ignored, that is, staying in Up Dog for five breaths in each vinyasa—except for David it is Cobra, as he was never taught by Jois to lift his legs into Up Dog in the vinyasa. I had ignored this suggestion of his up to now because of wrist pain. At that time, wrist pain was my number one concern in doing ashtanga and adding a bunch more time with my weight on my hands aggravated it. But David’s Primary Series also halves the number of vinyasas—he was taught, for example, no vinyasa between sides on asymmetric poses, and following his lead on that, my wrist pain has gone away. Decreased number of vinyasa, plus Cobra instead of Up Dog (less weight) means maybe my skinny wrists can handle the increase in stay. And my spine can surely use the backbending.
So, two small increases, and a psychological permission to want a better asana…
We’ll see if these two additions can make any dent in my incredibly inflexible upper back, without poisoning my practice with Ambition. I look at Sophie, my six year old, and I can remember when my back was as flexible as hers. So maybe it’s possible to regain some of that, although I can’t help but wonder if ossification has set in—and I’m serious. My back does not want to move.
But I’ve got time, right? The next thirty years, at least.
And I have found that letting myself focus on this goal, attaining one of those beautiful backbends, adds to my motivation to get on the mat. So that part is working, if by ‘working’ I mean, ‘greater excitement and engagement in my yoga practice.” I know, and believe, that in a larger sense, the goal of yoga is meditation, stilling the fluctuations of the mind, freedom. And these things are goals for me in practicing yoga. But I’ve found, in the push of the day’s activities and distractions, these goals, while motivating in a more global sense, are not enough to get me physically pulling out the mat and doing asana. Perhaps they are too distant or too vague—I find I need something more immediate on a given day to get me going. Something like It Feels Good is in the moment enough—that’s a pay-off I can reap today, 90 minutes from lift-off! And maybe, maybe, harnessing a little bit of Asana Envy can add some fuel to my motivation engine. I don’t know, though. It’s a dangerous and potentially toxic substance. Like using the Dark Side of the Force just to win this one fight, and then I’ll be good, I swear.
And then Sophie says, “Hey Mom, look at this!”
See how her feet are pointed one way and her face is pointed another? Freakish. Her head is about six inches from her butt.