Tag Archives: backbends

in praise of the lowly Up Dog, plus friday cyber-shala open thread chat, please drop by and say hello!

There’s a reason I don’t currently practice Intermediate Series and it isn’t that I haven’t tried or don’t have a teacher (because when has that ever stopped me).  It’s because I’m freaked out by backbends.  It’s true.  I’m a backbending wuss.  I just…panic.  I can’t explain it.  I’ve talked about it before, I’ve used props and dvds to try to get over it, and I actually have practiced Intermediate at various times (for example, here)—David Swensen’s version from his book and David William’s version—but I always seem to give it up.  It’s all those backbends right out of the gate, hanging my big old heavy head back into space, the mild choking , the disorientation, my cement spine, the fear of falling or somehow…breaking.  I hate it.

Never the less, I have made some backbending progress over the five years of my conservative Ashtanga practice.  And although I have tried all the various things I just mentioned, I really think the main thing that has worked for me is Up Dog and it’s slightly easier cousin, Cobra.

Seriously.  Up Dog.  And lengthening the time I spend in Up Dog.  Three, four, five breaths in Up Dog (or putting the legs down on the floor in cobra) per vinyasa, for all those vinyasas, that adds up to a lot of backbending.

Plus, I like to press into the pose from different angles, try to find different vertebra and put more arch into different sections of my spine.  I play with it, a la Angela Farmer.  And I can’t explain why, but Up Dog and Cobra do not trigger my backbend panic.  So I love them.

Sidebar/ If you haven’t heard of Angela Farmer, she’s amazing.  She studied with Iyengar back before yoga was cool and then went on to do her own thing.  She’s one of the old timers in American yoga, for example, Angela invented the yoga mat!  The story goes that she was teaching a workshop on these slippery floors and just, spur of the moment, cut up some under-carpet-matting, that sticky, rubbery stuff they put under wall-to-wall carpet, and boom.  Yoga mats.  I haven’t seen all her offerings, just a few of the older ones, but she  had a huge impact on me as far as pleasure in the practice, joyful asana, moving in an asana, trusting your body’s sensations, etc.  Terrific stuff, highly recommended.  She is a MASTER and I do not say that lightly.

Here, just found this, one of her old ones, Feminine Unfolding (although, I don’t think it has anything to do with women/men, personally, that feels kind of dated in a way).  This video is a long one, but worth every minute. You will never do a stiff, stagnant asana again. Very inspiring!!  Rocked my yoga world when I first saw it.

Anyhoo, I was thinking today about how little love Up Dog gets, it’s barely mentioned as more than a transition asana sometimes, something that happens on the way to Down Dog.  But I’ve found lingering there, as well as working in plank/chaturunga, these are sometimes the most important parts of a given day’s Primary.  The asana inbetween become fun little side stretches to rest between the WORK of five breath planks, shaky arm chaturangas, and five breath up dogs/cobra (I switch to cobra when my wrists start hurting, another David William’s approach).  Up Dog is not as flashy as  kapotasana, FOR SURE, but still, if you do twenty+ of them in a practice, it adds up.

And they are panic free, at least for me.  WOOT.  I’m all about the Up Dog these days.

Bonus round!

____________________

Finally, Friday’s are yoga-chat open thread days! Please feel free to say hello, check-in, talk about your week’s practice, highs and lows, complain, crow, whatever. Past discussions have been great, aging and yoga, outside exercise and Ashtanga, etc. We’d love to hear from you!

ashtanga yoga, five years in: state of the backbend

Q: What does five years of Ashtanga Primary, home practice only, do to one middle-aged woman’s spine?

I’ve done some previous State of the Backbend posts (2011, 2012, 2013) so some of these photos have shown up on the blog before.  But I haven’t done one in a while. Today’s post is the year five installment.

A bit of backstory to catch-up any newcomers:  I started Ashtanga in the summer of 2009 when I was 38.  I started because I got a sore throat and found that I couldn’t gargle because I couldn’t tip my head back far enough.   This totally freaked me out.  I couldn’t look at the ceiling?  Seriously?!  Thus the yoga.  The fact that I ended up doing Ashtanga was a bit of random hit—Primary was a routine when my biggest question when I got onto my new mat was “what do I do?”  Ashtanga offered an answer.

In 2009 I had zero backwards mobility in my spine.  For example, I couldn’t do an Up Dog—I had to do this kind of baby cobra instead.  Just lying flat on my back on the floor felt like a backbend.  Maybe this was the result of years of nursing, all curled forward, holding my babies.  My spine felt like cement.

But listen, this isn’t a miracle story, okay?  I have not made kapotasana my bitch.  Temper your expectations.  Never the less, in my gentle, no-adjustments, no-shala, no teacher, kind of way, progress has been made.

Let’s take a look.  This first shot is after one year of practice.  I could look up at the ceiling!  Yay!

hangback July 2010July 2010

Six months later….

hangback Jan 2011Jan 2011

Three months after that…

backbendspring2011

April 2011

Four more months… A watched pot doesn’t boil very fast, does it?

hangback Aug 2012Aug 2012

But still, from the start, that’s some steady progress, yes?

However, six months jump again…and it stalls.  The next one is less bend, but I was trying to get more upper-back bend and less lower-back cranking.  More arch, less fold-at-the-lumbar.  If you look at the 2012 pic, my upper back is still rounded forward quite a bit.  In the 2013 pic, I was trying for more upper back curve.

hangback Feb 2013Feb 2013

And then, for a long time, nothing seemed to change.  I didn’t take any pictures because shifts of millimeters just don’t show up in a photo, and it was depressing.

But, finally, yesterday, a year and half since that last photo, here I am:

hangback July 2014 July 2014

 Hey!  Some progress!  Not only can I see the ceiling, I can see the wall behind me now, haha.  So that’s something.

Okay, now Urdhva Dhanurasana.

When I first started trying UD, I couldn’t do it at all.  So I would stretch out over an exercise ball.  This was the first day I could put my hands on the floor, eight months into practice.

backbend April 2010April 2010

Those first attempts were really terrible….and uncomfortable!  My arms are bent at near right angles!  And so are my knees.  It’s a mess.

backbend May 2010

May 2010

But slowly my arms straightened out a bit.  Three months later:

backbend Aug 2011August 2011

Six months later….

backbend feb 2012Feb 2012

My hands are still way in front of my face, but it’s looking more like a UD now.  This next one is after nearly three years of practice.

backbend June 2012June 2012

I could hold them a bit longer at this point.  Meaning, from five desperate seconds (ha!) to maybe 10, slightly less panicked, seconds.

backbend feb 2013Feb 2013

And then…very little change.  For a long time.  Those early days when change happens so fast—it’s so motivating!  Long periods of mostly-the-same, man, those are harder.  (And hey, what’s with that baggy shirt?  Ugh.)

But here I am yesterday:

backbend July 2014July 2014

Not bad! Seeing this picture, I realized, hey, there has been some movement.  My hands are nearly under my head now, not out in front of my face the way they were last year.  My legs are quite a bit straighter.  And the arch is more evenly distributed, with my butt closer to half way between my feet and hands, instead of crunched over on the foot side.  So that’s good.

On the other hand, I haven’t gotten nearly as far as I fantasized I would after five freaking years.  Maybe it’s being 43 now, maybe its because I’m on my own, no teacher.  I wanted to be omnipotent by now!

But hey, barring that, I’m relieved that I wasn’t just treading water the last eighteen months.

Slow—very slow, perhaps—but I’m a far cry from where I started.   Millimeter by millimeter, the body opens up.  The tortoise wins the race.

And hey, if I make no further progress, but stay right here for the next twenty years…that would be a fine backbend for a 63 year old.

(But I might get a little more bend out of my spine, yet.)

Finally, it wouldn’t be a backbend post without a shot of my gorgeous and bendy photographer, Sophie, 10, who popped into this backbend cold, just for fun.

sophie backbend 2014

fun with props! backbending over a folding chair for extended stays without panic

I got a little frustrated earlier in the year with the lack of any apparent change in the comfort of my backbend.  As I’ve said before, backbends freak me out.  It’s kind of absurd, it’s just a body position.  But I get scared and panicked and emotional, both when trying to hang back and when doing a full Urdhva Dhanurasana.  Actually, I understand this is fairly common.  I have to psyche myself up for it.  “I can do it!” I say to the yurt.  And Sophie calls back, “Go Mom!”

Needless to say, I can’t stay in UD for very long.  Which I figure is probably a big part of why they aren’t getting any better.  Master backbenders like Heather Morton (see freak out post above) say long stays are the key to backbending.  To me that’s like saying, just hold your hand in the fire longer!  Which is probably why I was not able to keep up the use of her video for long.  Yeah, right, I’ll just hang around in my agonizing fear for fun, every day. I tried, but I started to dread my practice, which meant I started skipping.  A lot.  So I gave it up.  I’m just not the kind of girl who can go all hard core and suffer for the greater good.  Spell it with me: i-am-a-p-a-n-s-y-a-s-s.

So, here we are, two years later, and I’m still struggling with backbends.  I was thinking about that “long stays” business, though, which led me to try to think up ways to accomplish such with less panic and more comfort.  Which led me to thinking of props.  This prop, to be specific.

It’s a folding chair (available here) that a smart person made that detachable arch thingy for, to make doing Iyengar-style supported backbends on a folding chair more comfy.  I got this chair maybe fifteen years ago when I was doing some Iyengar yoga back in my twenties and it has been in storage for the last decade in our mold pit covered garage, ever since we moved into the yurt.  But I dug it out and cleaned the mold off and have been using it lately in the evening for ten minute backbends.

That’s right, ten minute backbends.

Basically the attached arch keeps my giant, heavy head from hanging loose, sort of supports it from behind a bit, which radically diminishes my panic.  Huzzah!  Here I am on the chair.

Easy, even pleasurable.  Perhaps the panic comes from my neck being too far back or something, and the arch-thingy is helping it not do that?  Because look, below I am doing the same thing on the chair without the arch-thingy attached…

…and it is almost exactly the same backbend but I could only stand it for a few breaths.  Panic came on almost immediately.

Maybe if/when my upper back opens a bit more, I’ll have more bend in the thoracic and thus less extension in the neck?  So that my head would hang up and down more, instead of hyper-extending back?  Just a guess.  Perhaps even this slight increase in extension reduces (or threatens to reduce?) my airflow in some way, making me panic?  Like waterboarding for yogis?  I don’t know.  I just know that without the support, I panic.  With it, I’m fine.

So yeah, I can do ten minutes a night (most nights, sometimes I forget) on this chair.  I have been for the last two months give or take.  No panic.  And it has definitely gotten more  comfortable as I had to inch my way off the chair and into emergency paschimottanasana at first (muscle spasms), while now I pretty much just sit up and feel fine (I still do paschi though because it feels awesome.)

Any improvement in UD?  Let’s see.

Here I am three-ish months ago….

And here I am this morning.

Hmm.  Not so much different visually.  But this morning I stayed up long enough to talk to Sophie (who was taking the picture) while she fiddled with the camera, vs. the pic three months ago she had to grab the shot the instant I got up there.  So I guess I’m staying up longer with more comfort (although I would not say it is comfortable, yet, not at all).  In addition, I can push in my legs a bit now, getting my head more between my hands rather than behind them—while before there was simply no room for any give, any pushing.  The position itself was already at my body’s maximum.  So that’s something!

The limit of the chair, of course, is that if you want a greater arch, you can’t have it.  I’ve been wishing I could crank it down a notch for a bit more arch.  It would be cool if there were a couple of attachments with greater/lesser levels of arch.

Still, I want to try the chair for another three months and see where it goes.  I want to get my head between my hands and my legs a bit straighter—that push I was talking about.  Before the chair, I would have thought this was impossible, as nothing had changed in a year.  Now, with the chair, I’m thinking maybe.

state of the backbend 2013, plus sophie does kapotasana with no effort at all

Time to do a back bending check and…not much to report.  It’s so sad!  I think I’m just….stuck.

Anyway, black sleeves is this morning, 2013,  and red tank is 2010, three years ago, or about six months after I started ashtanga.  Which definitely shows some improvement, but….

..

[WHY can’t I get wordpress to put these pictures next to each other??? It is driving me batshit.  Oh well.  Moving on.]

…but I’m not sure there is any difference between today and 2011 (blue tank top).

2011

My back had opened quite a bit between 2010 and 2011, and so I thought for sure things would continue in that vein, but not so much.

Can we say plateau?

Humph.

One thing that has shifted (a tiny bit) is that my upper back has a bit more give.  In the 2011, I was hinging at the lower back a lot, with nothing in the upper back.  Here is the upper back without the lower back hinge (so I wasn’t going back as far as I could, rather, trying to lift through the upper back), this morning:

Compared to the red tank picture three years ago, there is something happening now in the thoracic.  But not much.

As for urdhva dan…

2013

(Gah, hate that my shirt was all baggy, oh well…vanity is bad for me anyway)

Compared to last year…

2012

Maybe those hands are slightly more underneath the shoulders?  Maybe my arms are slightly more straight now?  When Sophie was taking the pictures this morning she kept saying, “Come on, Mom, straighten your arms!  Straighter!  You can do it!”  “I AM straightening them!  This is straight!”

Millimeter by millimeter….

But, and perhaps more importantly, backbends are still grueling. I have to talk myself into it every time.  “You can do it, Maya!  Stop being a wuss!”  It’s hard to make myself do them, which, I’m sure, contributes to slow progress.  What to do, what to do?  If anything.  I long for a strong and flexible spine, but instead I’ve got a back made of cement.  Longer stays, but they are so uncomfortable.  Longer stays in milder versions of the poses, but I’m having a hard time finding that balance, I guess.

Backbends and jumpbacks: the two parts of the asana practice I just can’t seem to make progress in.

How did my spine get so intractable?  I seriously wonder whether it is even possible to soften up at this point.  Or if, at 42 (well, not quite, birthday is next week), this as flexible as it is going to get?

In contrast, here is Sophie’s 9 year old spine (well, 8 today, birthday next week, too):

Full kapo with ankle grab, no warm up, just flopped onto the mat and slammed back into it.  She calls this pose “the lump” because a lump is what she feels like she becomes.

GAH.

A lot happens to a spine between 9 and 42.  Little fairies come and inject cement into the intra-vertebral spaces while you sleep….

state of the backbend feb 2012

It’s that time again, the bi-annual status report on my spine! In a few weeks I turn 41 and will have been practicing Ashtanga yoga for two and a half years. Seems like a good time to pause and take stock, yes?

First, a quick retrospective.

Winter 2009 (after six months of practice)

Summer 2010 (one year of practice)

Summer 2011 (two years of practice)

Winter 2012 (today)

Here’s one with my heels down:

Sidebar: Henry, my dog, knows the Primary Series. It has become the routine that I take him for a walk when I finish yoga, so he has a vested interest in the whole thing. When I start Surys, he goes over to the sofa, flops down, and goes to sleep. When I start doing seated, he opens one eye and watches. When I get to the butt-balance poses, he lifts his head. When I get to backbends, he comes and sits beside my mat. For the rest of the practice, he scoots closer and closer until he has sneakily (he thinks) gotten right up on the mat and is staring at me. I have to shoo him off for headstand lest I crash land on his fuzzy self.

Anyway. The backbend, hmm, I don’t know if it looks any better, really, but it feels more comfortable, so that’s something. In the first photo, it looks like one of my hands is forward of the other, not sure if that is the angle of the camera or not, but I’ll watch that. The fact that heels up make it look slightly more balanced over the shoulders makes me think maybe some hip-flexor and psoas stretching might be as helpful (or more?) than the upper back opening I’ve been focused on. Duh.

Well, miniscule changes are better than none. The increased comfort is nothing to sneeze at, although I wouldn’t call this a comfortable pose by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a strain to be up there. What do I need, more shoulder strength? Or will just getting my arms straight up and down put some of the work on the bones and less on the muscles?

If I take a quick peek at a bunch of other ashtanga folk’s back bends….

…then it’s apparent that legs are generally much straighter than mine, as well as the obvious arms going straight up and down, not at an angle. It seems impossible! Well, maybe I’m like Henry, scooting microscopically closer and closer to the goal.

It’s a work in progress.

Back to the sidebar: Henry happily licks my toes during savasana, corpse, the last pose of the series. Actually, the kids call this final resting pose Loveasana, because they come and lay down on me while I do it.

My toes are so CLEAN by the time I get up!

backbends freak me out

Grimmly, over at his Ashtanga Vinyasa Krama blog turned me on to Heather Morton‘s backbending videos, and I thought I would give the first one a try, seeing as how I am pathologically afraid of becoming a hunchbacked old woman who can’t look up.  Backbends are easily the weakest part of my practice, and, of course, Ashtanga’s Primary practice, which is what I do, has very little in the way of backbending work.  I’ve expanded what there is using the David Williams trick of extended a lot of the Up Dogs by five breaths, instead of a single inhale, and this has done a lot to improve my ability to bend back, but I hit a plateau.  So, when Grim was talking up this video I thought, okay.  Let’s do this thing.

First off, mother of god, this woman has a flexible spine.  I mean, she can do things SOPHIE can’t do.  When Sophie is impressed with your backbend, you know you’ve got it going on.  And she just stays and stays and stays in these anatomically impossible positions… Thankfully there isn’t too much of that in the first video, mostly doable stuff, hangbacks, cobra, locust, setu bandha, urdhva dhanurasana.  I can do remedial versions of all of these, meaning, I can do them, I just can’t bend back very far in most of the (compared to Ms. Morton anyway), and man, she stays in them a long time.  I actually would have appreciated just a touch more support for us backbending-challenged folks, just a mention of “beginners may stop here” or something.  She does give a couple of variations for the basic hangback, but even her most basic is off the chart for me (at her duration, anyway) and a touch more help there would have been appreciated. She does offer many little verbal adjustments in her patter that are helpful in staying longer, and staying safe, and these, I think, are the video’s best strength.

But anyway, the length of her stays in these asana bring me to the title of this post.  The emotions that come up when I try to do any of these long backbends are nuts.  Panic.  Anger in response to the panic.  Flushes of heat then cold.  And…well, PANIC.  Panicky panic. It’s totally weird.  I’m standing in my safe little yurt, my kids playing around me, bending back—and not very far may I add—and my body is shaking and breaking into cold sweats (not the regular work-out sort of sweat, more like when you are about to throw up, you know what I mean?) and I am freaking the fuck out, only quietly, to myself.  All this after only a few breaths, no way can I stay in as long as she does, a few breaths and I’m done for. (I should mention I’m not talking about PAIN. I’m not doing anything that hurts.)

Is this typical for backbending?  I know backbends affect the nervous system pretty strongly, so…maybe?  Forward bends create the opposite in me, relaxation, sleepy ease, inward calm.  If one physical position can create one kind of emotional/chemical response, it stands to reason a different physical position could create a different response.  I just never expected anything so dramatic! Did I mention the panic?

Oh, and my muscles are WEAK.  I thought I was doing okay, but holy cow, I’ve got burning achy muscles the next day after doing this vid.  Maybe if I get some strength the shaking will go down…? I’m sticking with it but easing up a little because if it’s too intense, I’ll start dreading it. Must balance the motivation that comes with the excitement of doing something new, plus the motivation the comes from the ambition to do fancy poses, with the anti-motivation of trembling freak-outs. Too much anti-motivation, too much dread, and I just won’t get on the mat. This is the voice of experience talking.

Always something interesting going on in the practice.

And, not that I’ll EVER do anything like this, but here is Heather doing something…impossible.

For more of that, see her youtube channel. Watch out that your jaw doesn’t hit anything sharp when it hits the floor.

yoga: state of the practice, 2011

Sometime in August 2009, I started practicing Ashtanga yoga.  I was 38 and stiff as a board.  That’s two years this month that I’ve been doing full primary at home and I thought it might be time for a check in. (For those tuning in now, here is my check in from one year ago.)

Let’s go down the list, shall we?

Fancy asana: Definitely some changes, but maybe not as many as I fantasized about.  I blogged about my first full lotus since I was a kid.  I can make the bind now on Mari B, although my knee is off the ground.  My heels are pressing into the top of my head in Supta Kurmasana, miles from getting them behind my head, but when I started I was looking at my feet from about 12 inches away.  So that’s some progress.  I can just do bhujapidasana, although I can’t do the lean down part, just the hover part.  Bottom line: fancy poses have progressed, but I may never join the circus.  Mostly I’m okay with that.

Jump back: When I started, the possibility of lifting off was a joke.  Like, oh, go pick up that 100 year old oak tree.  I still can’t do a regular jump back, but I can reliably lift and swing through…and crash land onto my knees.  But this is progress!  First lift off here.  As for jump through, I covet a straight leg version, I have to admit.  Right now I land cross legged, no bottom flump, decently graceful, not terrible, at least it keeps the swing of things moving pretty well.

Here is a combo lotus and lift-off, the dreaded Utpluthi:

Okay, I’m only a couple of inches up, but holy shit, if I lifted that oak tree a couple inches, you’d be impressed right?  This is the same thing, believe me.  I can actually hold this for about fifty of those super fast breaths (I’m working up to 108).  Here that?  It’s the Rocky theme music.

Injury: Yeah, this was a rough year for my right hamstring attachment.  Ow, my aching butt.  I blogged about realizing I was hurt here, and the healing progression here, here and here.  It STILL twinges sometimes.  But I’d say I’m 90% whole and if I’m careful, I can stay out of the achy zone.  I’m 40, I can’t be fooling around with injury—because I recover maybe…never.  My number one goal now in yoga is NO INJURY, so any time I feel pain, the slightest ouch, I back off.  My David Williams Inspired method is to practice at about 50-60% ability, make it like tai chi, perform every asana as pleasurably as possible.  Because my number two goal is Practicing for the Next Forty Years or so.  I want to be vital and able to get around when I’m 80, you know? We’ll see how that pans out.

Backbend: I’m still chiseling away at my Spine of Cement.  Here is a backbend from this morning.

My arms are still way out of place, but at least they are straightening up.  For comparison, here is my “backbend” one year ago.

Arms at right angles at the elbows.  Maybe one more year and my arms will be straight AND my hands will be under my shoulders.  That would rock.

And for further comparison, here is my photographer, showing off her drop back:

She bends backwards in slow motion and gracefully places her hands silently on the ground.  Then stands back up the same way.  I have seen her touch her ankles, which freaks me out.  To have the spine of a seven year old once again!

But enough of asana.

Meditative stuff:  I talked here about how my practice has gotten really inward.  Something I’ve come to depend on for this is dristi, not necessarily the proscribed locations but just the act of keeping my gaze super still.  If I let my gaze wander, I drift off into fascinating stories about every freaking thing.  Keeping my eyes steady is my number one go-to for keeping my brain quiet.  Number two is that mula bandha.  Interestingly, if I try to meditate with some kind of inner focus (Ohm, counting, breath, whatever) I get headaches.  It’s like there is too much focus/prana/whathaveyou up in my head.  But focusing on the mula bandha with some uddiyana bandha thrown in for good measure…no headaches.  I haven’t had another instance of the Big Quiet yet, but I’m hopeful.  My mind is definitely more stable that it used to be.  (My husband might disagree with that.)

An aside: I just read an article about how the plastic brain actually changes structure in response to meditation.  Seasoned meditators have bigger and more connected sections of brain in certain areas than your average Joe.  So it’s hard at first because your brain just isn’t set up for stillness, and it gets easier with practice because you’ve actually built physical structures to support stillness…just like asana gets easier because you’ve built up the muscle/flexibility to do it.  Isn’t that cool?

Anyway, Practice frequency:  Basically, it’s sucked this summer, what with Luc’s surgery.  I’m been kicking around 3 practices a week, pitiful, I know.  So there has been some treading water over the last month.  But I’m getting back in.  Five Primaries a week is the goal.  I used to do the whole full moon/new moon off thing, but it’s so hard to do yoga on the weekends when Paul is here and the schedule is disrupted.  So now I practice on moon days but take weekends off.  I’m getting back on that train, even if a “practice” is just surys.  I need to strengthen the daily habit after this summer of chaos.

Practicing at 60% abilility, pleasurable tai chi, NO PUSHING, focus on bandhas and dristi….you know, I really, really love how high my hour on the mat makes me when I practice like this.  Remembering that helps me show up.

So…That’s Year Two in ashtanga practice.

Am I signing up for another year?  Absolutely.

state of the backbend, spring 2011

Check it out.  Me this morning.  Progress is happening.

(Isn’t this a cute Rubyfish tank-top that Sophie designed with the dragonfly stamp?)

For comparison, here I am in July 2o10, about ten months ago.  I had been doing ashtanga for a little less than a year at that point.

As I’ve mentioned, when I started ashtanga, a “hang back” for me, literally, was standing straight up and down.  I couldn’t go back at all.  So I was pretty happy when I took the red tank pic where I could actually see the ceiling.

Here I was in January of this year:

The purple shirt picture was just three months ago—quite a lot of change between that and the dragonfly tank picture.  And I’m feeling a lot of change, movement in my upper back (although it still looks pretty straight in the picture).

I’m attributing this rate of change with the David Williams trick of holding the Up Dogs in each vinyasa for five breaths.  Lot of vinyasas in full Primary (which is what I’m doing at the moment), so that’s a lot of chances to work on warming up, extending, and arching the spine, even in Primary where there very few other back-bends.

Given how stiff my back was when I started, I’m excited to see this progress.  I’m almost horizontal!  Maybe I won’t turn into a hunch-backed old lady after all.

the positives to asana envy…maybe?

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.

Show off.