I wrote here about three things I didn’t (yet) get about ashtanga: driste, rolling over one’s toes, and tapas. Well, it turns out, they’re all related, so no wonder I was struggling.
First, the easy one. I figured out that toe-rolling and heat are linked. When I finally got strong enough to keep my knees off the mat for all the chaturangas and up dogs, I got warmer. Even the briefest of knee-touch-down on the floor for toe flipping decreased my temperature—like taking the lid off the pot, even for a second, lets out the heat. Even if I try to stay engaged, bandhas and muscles strong, that touchdown is an energy leak. So I stay up now. Not warm, but warmer.
Next, driste. I ran across Richard Freeman talking about this on his Studio Talks disk on driste. He says driste is “allowing your eyes to rest on a single point, externally or internally.” “The eyes are a particular manifestation of the brain. The movement and engagement of the eyes take the mind, very much, with them. Practically instantaneously—” and then THIS: “To allow the eyes and mind to rest on a single point creates, very quickly, tapas, or heat.” So there you go. Me and my chilly yoga, me and my wandering gaze. But check this, he also says, “Without tapas, you’ll simply be floundering…The engagement of the eyes creates heat or concentration of the mind, and it’s the concentration of the mind which actually makes the practice a yogic practice.”
Damn. I’m just doing gymnastics! Well, okay, that’s fine, I’ll get there. Doing yoga in a room with two little kids, plus maybe Spongebob or a video game, or both, means to be distracted, to answer questions, to change the channel, to stop to wipe someone’s bum or get someone a glass of juice. I don’t think I would be better off waiting to practice until I can practice uninterrupted. Tapas-less yoga it is for the time-being.
But now that I know this, I’ve started noticing the distinct feeling of drops of heat building, and then being lost, when my focus is lost. Like a bar filling on the bottom of a game screen. I can actually feel my temperature going up and down depending on my mental focus. This is so cool! Yoga works!
And, wow, my mental focus sucks.
Moving on. Intermediate.
In ashtanga, there are six series. Primary is the one I’ve been working on, duh, because it comes first. There is quite a mystery around Sixth, also called Advanced D, as, I think no one actually practices it (maybe Sharath does?). Basically, for you non-yoga folks, in ashtanga yoga, you do 10 sun salutation, then the standing poses, then [insert series here, primary, intermediate, advanced A, etc], and finally everyone does the Finishing Sequence. I love the finishing sequence. David Swenson says ashtanga is like a sandwich, with the surys and the standing poses the bread on one side, the finishing sequence the bread on the other side, and the series—primary, intermediate, etc—the sandwich filling in between.
Anyway, after six months of eating primary sandwiches, I’ve decided to nibble a few intermediate sandwiches. Here’s the reason: (1) I can’t add poses to the end of first (the traditional way to begin Intermediate is to start adding new postures, one at a time, to the end of the first series, until you have enough to split it into two again) because my kids can’t tolerate me practicing that long. (2) Rather than a longer form, what I really need is a shorter form for a couple of days a week when I don’t quite have time to do the whole thing (like on horseback riding days). And, (3) I’m trying to work up to backbending, even though my back is like concrete, and hey, the first eight or nine poses of intermediate are heavy in back-opening poses. So, boom, I figured could do the first eight or nine asana of Intermediate and get my short form, and my backbending prep, a couple times a week. Alakazam.
I did the whole Intermediate once, just for fun, using Swensen’s dvd, and it nearly killed me. In a good way. I mean, I can’t do 80% of the poses, just variations, but that was fine. I was still trembling by the end.
But, oddly, I can do the first 8 poses pretty well, including the usually tricky Pasasana even with my feet completely flat. Everyone gets a gimme pose, right? This one, apparently, is mine.
Next is Krounchasana , doable, as long as my leg is far away from my chest.
A pathetically low Shalabhasana A & B, is next, which feel like cracking cement: much needed.
Bhekasana next, which feels freaking fantastic. I do one leg at a time like this , then the traditional two leg version.
Followed by Dhanurasana , which for me is this wimpy, collapsed thing, a balloon with no air, but that’ll change. And don’t even get me started on the Parsva version where I flop like a rustled calf onto one side then the other. Hilarious.
Finally Ustrasana, my nemesis pose, which I do three times, once up on a high block, once on a low block, once pressing my sacrum with my hands. Maybe in a few months it won’t feel like I’m going to break when I do this. It feels desperately needed.
And that’s it for me for my intermediate filling, pretty skimpy, given what comes next in the series, but it feels great to get these backbends in.
I should add that about at this point, in the finishing postures, Sophie gets interested and comes to do her practice. She does a full backbend, then lies on her tummy and rests her head on the soles of her feet (backwards), while I do my limping, supported Urdhva’s. She does a handstand and a headstand while I do headstand against the wall (I can get off the wall, but I’m too scared to not have it there, just in case—she does not have this fear). Then she does full splits, both out to the side and front to back. And finally she does the three padmasanas of finishing with me, although I only do half lotus, and she does full. And she can actually lift herself off the floor in Utpluti . I have to leave one leg down. Sophie is a total yogini badass.
I’m not sure I understand the choice in current ashtanga training of keeping the Intermediate poses back until you are really awesome at Primary. They feel fantastic and just what my extremely stiff back wants. Kapotasana, forget about it. But since I know it’s going to take me years to get there anyway, I might as well start now with the prep poses.
Even if I have to wear a sweater.