What does “progress” in a yoga(sana) practice mean?

I started this article a couple of months ago, couldn’t manage to have a clear outline, and let it go in the WordPress drawers for a while. I started thinking about it again after last weekend’s workshop. It’s still pretty messy, but I’ll go through a couple of points which show how my definition of progress in my asana practice has evolved, so bear with me:

  • getting into/holding poses
  • understanding the mechanics of the pose : awareness and making the pose yours
  • getting to a point of concentration in the pose where it feels “light”
  • practicing today

Getting into/holding poses

When I started practicing, I measured my progress in whether I was able or not to get into certain poses (handstand, headstand, crow, side plank…) or how long I could stay in others (Warriors, downward dog, tree pose, half moon pose). And it is indeed a good feedback; my first yoga teacher used to say “If after six months of practicing with me you’re not able to get into crow pose I have failed as your teacher” – she was an Anusara teacher, and Bakasana is taught in almost every class.

I believe I have said previously that I will only ever feel like a beginner in my yoga practice; the more I learn, the more I see how much more there it to learn. Recently though, I realized that my view of what is a normal range of movement is quite skewed. If you spend a lot of time hanging out at a yoga studio, going to workshops with senior teachers, and looking for inspiration on the net, it seems only reasonable that your hands touch the floor when you bend forward and that you can balance on your hands. Teaching is a very good reminder that it is not the case for everyone.

I taught a complete beginner yesterday, a pretty stiff one at that. I caught myself pitying him. I still remember what it is to live in a body that you can’t control and feeling that everything that the teacher asks is impossible. Even though I am the flexible type, when I started I was very limited by my lack of strength (especially abs, still my weak point…). So arm balances for example looked impossible. The day I got into Astavakrasana I realized nothing is impossible and this powerful lesson has been with me ever since. “Practice, and all is coming” as Ashtanga guru Pattabhi Jois said.

It does feel great when you finally manage to get into a pose you previously couldn’t do. But there are poses you may never be able to perform because of your own physiology, and poses you shouldn’t do even though you can; I’ll get to that later. And in any case, as you reach a plateau after the initial ascending curve in your physical practice, you’re not going to get into a new pose every week, month or even possibly year. Even though there are many, many asanas, at some point “getting into” or “holding” a pose is not a sufficient progress indicator anymore.

Understanding the mechanics of the pose : awareness and making the pose yours

There comes a point when you not only can or cannot get into the pose, but you start understanding the subtleties that underlie the pose.This when you start having these “aha!” moments of sudden clarity about a part of a pose. You pay attention to the details. You notice the tendencies of your body and start exploring how to change, modify, adapt the pose so that it fits you. Yes, you can touch the floor with your hand in Trikonasana, but then you’re hanging in your lower back, so you decide that you’re going to use a block instead. Or suddenly, you hear a sentence your teacher said a thousand times and see it under another light. For me, staying with Trikonasana, it was “jamming your calf back may feel like you’re straightening your leg but it’s not”.

Yes, I need these 200 props right now. And no, I’m not into bondage, but I really like the ropes. Picture creds to Phoebe Andrews Yoga.

I heard one of my friends and fellow practitioner, while we were discussing a coming workshop with a senior teacher, say “well maybe for you it would be useful, but I don’t think I would get anything out of it”. He meant, you, “advanced practitioner”. I get that some adjustments and cues are only useful after you’ve reached a certain level of control on your body, but I thought it was a pity that he wouldn’t even give it a chance. We’re put in boxes all the time by others, why put ourselves in extra boxes on our own? Especially when you’ve been practicing for some years, it doesn’t matter if you “still” have short hamstrings or stiff shoulders, you know how to deal with them, and you hopefully be able to work on the pose at the place you’re at right now.

Getting to a point of concentration in the pose where it feels “light”

Yes, I mean getting to Dharana in Asana. More and more, I am looking for the lightness in the pose, what I believe Iyengar called “effortless effort” and/or “a spark of divinity”. Connecting with my body at a deeper level. But this is still very vague, especially for a non practitioner (not that I think many of them read my blog, but being able to explain this in real life would likely help many real life conversations!).

I truly believe that, even if you start doing yoga for the physical benefits of it -which most people, including me, do-, after years of practice you will also start feeling the spiritual value of the practice as well. This is why I am always slightly troubled when I hear people advertising the yoga style I practice as a workout. I understand where they are coming from, and that they are trying to get more people to try it without scaring them, but my practice IS spiritual. Yes, from the outside you only see me molding my body in different forms, but on the inside I am connecting to my muscles, my breath, and hopefully if it’s a good day I stop thinking and I am simply there. Somehow I have noticed that speaking a bout the spiritual side of my practice makes people very uncomfortable. A lot of people confuse spirituality with religion, and/or have no idea what it means, and humans are generally scared of what they don’t know. Note to self: write an article about my meaning of spirituality, sounds like a good exercice.

I was trying to describe my experience from last weekend in a sentence and came up with “I felt a shift in my practice”. It’s something that yogis like to say and it sounds very spiritual and all (or very Star Wars, “I feel a disturbance in the Force”), but what does it really mean?

I don’t even know why I’m surprised that Star Wars Yoga is a thing… Never would have thought of googling both terms together before writing this article, but hey, Star Wars fan are so many and crazy it HAD to exist. 

What I wanted to express by using that expression was that I managed to concentrate for longer amounts of time than I usually do, in poses I usually get bored in. So I felt I got closer to the core of myself, and my practice deepened as a result of reaching this new level of serenity in my body.

Practicing today

By practicing today, I don’t mean practicing everyday, though switching to a daily practice certainly is a sign that you’re going forward on the yogic journey. I mean letting go of the ego that tells you what you should do. Accepting that today you should do a less advances version of the pose you did yesterday.

This is a hard lesson for me to learn. I always want to give 200%. But that’s a recipe for disaster. Your body today is different from yesterday. Hell, it’s different now than how it was an hour ago! So yeah, yesterday that pose felt like a great stretch, but today it feels like hell on earth, well, get out! Listen to your body! There is no way you’re gonna reach Dharana in a pose where you’re uncomfortable, or worse, in pain.

So I’m doing baby steps towards accepting that even if everyone else in the workshop is doing Padmasana, my hips are far from being open enough today to attempt it. And I’m doing Marichyasana I instead of III because I’m on my period. And I shouldn’t do drop backs without warming up even if I can, because ten years down the road my lower back is going to kill me. And and and… I should just listen to my body. It sounds wise, and it seems it has lots to say.

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Awakening the inner body

Like everyone else, I have good and bad days. I’m generally a very energetic and uplifting person, but some days I get up on the wrong side of the bed and it’s hard not to snap at the world. Usually, this happens when I’m hormonal, and while I am extra aware of the tendency and try to control myself, it doesn’t make it easier. If you don’t know me very well, it’s unlikely that you will notice, but if you’re very close to me, I may snap at you and really regret it later, whether it was or not justified (I tend to be very accepting even if things make me uncomfortable, but on these days my threshold goes dramatically down).

Recently, I was in a yoga rut. I had finally gotten rid of my SI pain and started working on my chaturanga dandasana, only to overdo it, and ended up reaggravating my SI pain. Great. Combined with my hormones going wild, which exacerbates the SI pain, and a general laziness, I was highly unmotivated to practice last week. I didn’t practice for two days, and had a lazy practice on two others (including my Thursday morning practice which is usually the most beneficial one) which made it the non-holiday week I practiced the least for years. Literally.

Thankfully, on my teacher’s advice, I had booked a workshop with Matthew Sanford in London for the weekend, and I was looking forward to seeing my friends that live there, and meet Matthew who my teacher had praised so much. The only things I knew about him before going were Hiske’s praise, that he was in a wheelchair due to a car accident when he was young, he was an Iyengar yoga teacher, and this quote “I came to yoga because I was tired of overcoming my body”. I had not read his book or researched him further. And I’m very happy I didn’t, for I went to the workshop without any expectations.

Matthew’s book, Waking, which I read during the workshop. I’ll need to re-read it after I have had some time to digest his input in my life.

Funnily, anyone I told about the workshop reacted the same way “but how does he show the poses if he’s in a wheelchair?”. It kind of shocked/surprised me, not that it didn’t cross my mind at all, but I knew it didn’t matter. Still quoting Hiske during teacher training “I can make you become yoga instructors in six months. It’s easy to say turn out right leg out, left leg in, extend your arms, go down over your front leg. That’s not what I’m interested in. I want you to be teachers, not instructors”. Getting someone into a shape that resembles an asana IS easy. Furthermore, whoever goes to this type of workshop knows the names of the poses. You can just call the name of a pose, and the 20+ students will move to get into whichever shape you called for (and if they don’t, they’ll just copy what the others are doing).

So what makes the difference between teacher and instructor? I think it’s the same difference between yoga and gymnastics. A teacher won’t simply call out the name of a pose, he will get you to be in the present moment and help you connect your mind with your body. A good teacher sees right through you and gives you exactly what you need to go further, deeper at this moment (which doesn’t always mean going for the most advanced version of the pose, getting your hands or whatever else to the floor – like Matthew said “I’ve been to the floor and back, God isn’t there”). It can be making the pose easier, lighter, by a seemingly small adjustment. It can be getting someone to a new level of understanding, whether it is with words or by touch.

It’s a tough job, being a yoga teacher, but it is also incredibly rewarding. Even though I do not consider myself as a teacher yet (I wonder if I will ever feel anything else than a beginner when yoga is concerned… so much room for learning), I have had a glimpse of the reward while teaching my friends and seeing them connect with their body and understand how it works slightly better after I explained something.

But I digress.

All this talk to say that Matthew is one of the best teachers I have ever met. And that I met him at this moment of frustration with my practice could not have been planned better. Matthew teaches how to do asana using the inner body. His understanding of the poses, the alignment and the underlying energy guiding the poses seems limitless. Exactly because he cannot do the poses the way most people do, he has a knowledge of the core of the poses. Still, he teaches with compassion and leads you into a pose with grace and lightness.

“You cannot control the inner body. You can only let it flow where it wants to go”. He said something among these lines, I cannot remember the exact words – usually Iyengar teachers don’t let you take notes, Matthew didn’t seem to mind, but since I was used to this I did not bring a notebook to class. Anyhow it hit a chord with me, because I tend to do everything with sheer willpower, and it simply doesn’t work. Yoga is there to teach me that there are things beyond my control, and I need to/can/should accept it and let go of it. Here I was with this dude who has more willpower than anybody (and his book is a testimony of that) and yet he was telling me that the inner body is uncontrollable.

Matthew adjusted me in few poses, but each time he did, it felt incredible. Most of the adjustments concerned backbending, and something I know, which is that I bend too much from the lower back and not enough from the upper back. I didn’t know I was also doing this in Ardha Padangustasana though. And I’m not sure I understood exactly what I need to do to correct, but at least I can start playing with it.

Ardha Padangusthasana by BKS Iyengar himself

And of course, I need to get my hips higher in Urdhva Dhanurasana. The fact that he chose to adjust me in that pose shows I am only just starting to “get” it, even if Hiske and our senior teacher tell me I am getting there. But more than his adjustment (I mean, I know I need to get my hips up higher, it’s just really hard for me to make it happen at this point -I’ve just only understood how to make it happen) what I will remember is him telling me “Feel the wheel”.

How often are we so busy acting, engaging this and that muscle, that we forget to feel? Furthermore, I have a special connection with Urdhva Dhanurasana. It’s after working on this pose with our senior teacher that I crumbled down crying on the floor, unable to stop tears. They were not tears of pain, they were tears of confusion, hard work, and disconnection from my body. Apparently it is quite normal to cry after deep backbending; before that day I had never understood it. The energy release which happened then changed my practice.

Urdhva Dhanurasana by Patricia Walden, aka Queen of backbends.

Matthew also taught us how to lift the sternum, not only the ribs, by using a belt very tightly tied around the chest under the armpits. Very effective. He had previously commented twice on my Tadasana, the first time when we were doing partner work to release between the shoulder blades, and he looked me in the eye, and told me “This is not how you were taught, am I right? But this is ok too.”. He was telling me that it was ok to relax, that not everything had be be hard work (I guess it’s pretty obvious which type of student I am…). The second time, he took me as an example of the classical way to lift the side ribs up (which he said I did nicely, and my ego went party in da cluuuuuuuuuuuuub) before he explained how to reach the sternum to lift the chest in a more graceful way.

On the gracefulness topic, he said “when you judge, you loose the grace of the asana”. How true and beautiful is that?

Recently, I have started thinking about asana in terms of arrows. I can’t draw, but arrows are still within my abilities, and I felt like it is easier to “get” the actions you need to do by using arrows which show the direction in which the energy needs to go. So I was pleasantly surprised when Matthew said, and repeated many times during the workshop “In any asana you need only two things: a center of gravity and a sense of direction”. So simple, yet very applicable.

To illustrate this point, he made us come up from Upavistha Konasana to Prasarita Padottanasana by pressing the hands in between the thighs and using the momentum created by the intention of forward direction to come up. He told us that it is not a question of force, and that only with force we wouldn’t manage to do it (he actually made us stop and look at someone who was trying to do it with sheer force (i.e. willpower) and she didn’t manage to get up). In my mind what she ended up doing looked more like Titibhasana. Anyhow, I got it on the first try, and it felt somehow light. I have to thank the person Matthew guided to demonstrate first because seeing it done made the mechanics of the transition much easier to understand. In any case, I was just thinking that it was probably easy because I had been working a lot during my SI issues on engaging the inner thigh muscles in Padottanasana. I was taken out of my reverie when I heard Matthew said that people who managed to get up were the ones able to engage the inner thigh muscles from their core. Hello Sherlock!

It’s apparently incredibly hard to find a proper picture of Upavistha Konasana on the internet, so I went with the cartoon (Credits to Manon Curie @Bleu Yoga). It may actually illustrate my point better. See the (imaginary) arrows going from the feet to the hips, and one arrow going up the chest, another one going down the back?

The actions in Padottanasana are the same as in Upavistha Konasana, but standing instead of sitting.

We worked on this sense of direction and boundaries, i.e. limits of our physical body (literally where does your body stop, not the tightness in hamstring or wherever) on many other poses, for ex. using a belt around the knees while sitting in Siddhasana (hello hip compactness!) and even by having someone slightly touch the outside of our wrists while standing in Urdhva Tadasana. The lightness is incomparable.

Matthew also said something I had noticed previously, which is that beginners work way harder than advanced practitioners. This is true because their work in a more clever way, i.e. their alignment is good which makes the pose lighter and easier to maintain without (too much) muscular effort since the energy is flowing freely through the body. Teaching is good reminder of this for me, since I tend to take for granted the fact that I can stay for a fairly long time in the Warriors or Downdog. When I teach, I am reminded that when I started, I too was dying after 30s in the pose. It is one thing that I most certainly gained muscles, but more than that I believe I gained an in-depth knowledge of the pose, and my pose is better if it feels lighter. For example I discovered not so long ago, during my teacher training, that my Warrior I can be so much lighter when I stop bending from the lower back. Had we not worked on adjusting with belts, I would likely never have felt that.

The way Matthew taught us about awakening the inner body, meaning finding this lightness in the pose, was often through partner work. He would get one of us in the pose, let us “suffer” for some time in the pose, then have the other person adjust (help give the body more reference points), have them release again so that we can feel the effect (he was very right to say that sadly, we feel the loss more than the gain) then change roles. Having your center of gravity shifted forward in Dandasana because someone is pushing your sacrum forward is incredible. The chest lifts up so high, the breath is so soft, it is rejuvenating. It was enough inspiration to get me out of my yoga rut for a while.

I’ll leave you with the quote with which Matthew left us: “Boundaries are the key to transcendence, whether it is in asana or in life”. Food for thought.

Namaste, Mathew. The light within me bows to the light within you. You are an incredible teacher and inspiration. I hope we meet again.

The Munch : Van Gogh exhibit, part 1

This Saturday I went to the Munch : Van Gogh exhibit in Amsterdam. I had been looking forward to the exhibit since they announced it back in May. Sadly, the friend I came to the exhibit with didn’t feel well (great idea to go see Munch with someone who suffers from anxiety, I really overdid myself this time!) and we had to leave before seeing everything; which is why there will be a part 2 coming after I go back.

The exhibit is organised as a parallel between Van Gogh and Munch’s work, theme by theme, with paintings from other artists relevant to the period and theme. It is chronological as well, so you really get an idea of how they developed their unique styles while being inspired by the same environment.

The first thing I realized is that I actually know very little from Munch’s work! Having never been to Norway, I had never been to an exhibit dedicated to his work. I knew, of course, “The Scream” (which I got to see live for the first time!) and some of his other work around the same themes of angst, like Metabolism or Cupid and Psyche.

Metabolism, by Edvard Munch. Or when Adam and Eve meet Science.

Cupid and Psyche, by Munch. Beautiful.

I also saw “Hands” which I did not know about but is still in the same theme, and which I enjoyed very much. I could relate both to the woman’s point of view and the will of protection against all these hands that want to grab us (metaphorically) but also from the viewer’s perspective of when you covet something or someone so much you would like to capture them, grab them and not leave them any way out.

The hands, by Munch. I really like the movement of the hands, how her shoulders crunch forward, and the red pants, of course.

But he obviously painted a LOT of art which was not around this theme, and I was able to see his self portraits, Fertility, and Snow landscape among others which made a big impression on me.

Snow landscape, Thüringen, Edvard Munch. This. This piece is very powerful. Such a sense of beauty and calm reaches out from the painting… The colors are so vivid, I couldn’t stop staring at it. Maybe my favorite piece of the collection, and I’m usually not one for landscapes which I tend to find quite boring.

But I didn’t only learn about Munch’s paintings while I was at the exhibit. While I have been many times at the Van Gogh museum and have quite an in-depth knowledge of his art, I was happy to see paintings which are maybe less well-known (or at least which I had not seen before) and which were now worthily under the spotlight due to the parallel with Munch’s work.

I’ll name two: Dance hall in Arles, which is not a typical Van Gogh but whose colors and use of space I love, and The bridge at Trinquetaille (any idea with which of Munch’s work it was put in parallel to? No? Answer in the description, but it’s quite obvious really :p).

Dance hall in Arles, by Vincent Van Gogh. Look at the use of that space! It’s so crowded yet the painting really doesn’t feel oppressive at all. The colors pop out, and such a skill in the perspective as well as the expressions on the ladies’ faces… Amazing.

The bridge at Trinquetaille, by Van Gogh. Once again, look at the use of color! Especially the blue of the bridge side and the yellow sky, and these details… I have to say that something weird happens to me perspective-wise with this painting, I tend to see the blue side of the bridge as coming up instead of going down in first instance. Anyhow, if you’ve read until now, you’ve earned the right to know it was in parallel to Munch’s Scream 😉

Generally speaking, what I’ve seen from the exhibit has been very, very well done. The parallels are relevant and allow a better understanding of both master’s works. While I can’t show all the painting I would like to, I want to mention that the parallel I could relate to the most (classified under “spirituality”, funnily – or relevantly?) was the two “Starry night” paintings, see below.

Starry night, by Munch. So poetic and soft, very different from the usual pressure felt when looking at his most well-known masterpieces. I really have something about how he paints snow…

Starry night, by Van Gogh. Classic.

So that’s it for this first part of the exhibit, about which there is a lot to say. Can’t wait to go back and see what I missed!

I was planning to leave you to reflect on a quote from Munch about suffering and masks people wear, which was on the wall of the exhibit where the stairs are, but I didn’t write it down properly thinking I would easily find it back by googling, and it’s not the case. But while searching for it, I read this one which may be more relevant to me:

An artwork is a crystal. A crystal has a soul and a mind, and the artwork must also have these.

Only the result counts

That is how my parents, especially my father raised me. They didn’t care how I did it (notwithstanding cheating, of course), but I had to bring home good grades.

Recently, many of my friends have appeared surprised that I still want to do a postdoc once my PhD is finished. And honestly, if I would do a list of pluses and minuses, the minus list would probably be longer.

A lot of people get discouraged by the academic world towards the end of their PhD, and indeed the “publish or perish” spirit is well present in academia. Many very good scientists fail to publish, and luck plays a good part in getting publishable results. Of course, when you start a PhD project, you have a clear idea of the direction it should go, and what type of results you’re going to get. Sadly, most projects don’t go as planned. In my case, while I do have results, and hopefully enough to at least publish one or two articles, I am far from having achieved the type of data I aimed for when I started. Still, what I have keeps me going; but I have seen what failing to get data does to people, and it’s not pretty.

Many of my friends wonder how I manage to do a PhD and a yoga teacher training (and let’s not start about maintaining a blog :p). It’s not easy. I practice everyday, teach twice a week and assist once, notwithstanding the teacher training weekends. Thursdays are especially tough on me, when I get to self practice at the studio at 7am, then to work from 9am to 6pm only to end the day teaching yoga until 8pm. I have very little free time. On the other hand, I like being productive, and I love yoga – so I really don’t consider practicing or teaching as a chore. But it is physically tiring, and I have my constitution to thank for always having been overly energetic (I also get that from my dad).

Doing a postdoc if you don’t intend to stay in academia (i.e. if you’re not aiming for the grail that a tenured position is) is usually seen as a bad idea. You get paid less than in the industry for more hours, less career prospects and a more difficult integration in the industrial world than directly after graduating. And of course, there is a fierce competition for any tenured position, which depending on the lab you’re in, may result into a really poor work environment.

While I would like to stay in academia, it is not my grail. Either it will happen or it won’t, but I don’t believe that working 80 hours or more a week is what is going to make a difference. If you’re not already aware of it, overwork actually decreases overall productivity; two good articles on the topic:
– The Relationship Between Hours Worked and Productivity

– 10 huge productivity lessons I learned working 90-hour weeks last month

I’ll go through a couple of points that the author from the previous article makes and to which I can relate, and I’ll start with #4 to #6: planning and scheduling less time to do something than you think you should be doing. My life is very, very organised and my routine very oiled. Since I cannot miss my yoga sessions, it means that I have to be finished with my lab work 30 minutes before it starts, no exceptions (ok, I am somewhat flexible and can skip if it is really necessary. But I cannot skip every week.). I honestly think this makes me a better worker.

Previously this year, I went to work a month in an US lab. Everyone was working crazy hours, as I had been told would be the case. But they’re not productive. One hour here, one hour there… But actual, productive work? Didn’t see much of it. And it’s not that people are not actually feeling like they’re not working; they’re truly giving it their best – it just seemed very inefficient to me. And peer pressure is very hard to resist. It was slightly easier for me to refuse to come in the weekends or finish at midnight because I was visiting; but everyone thought I was very brave for leaving at 6:30pm to get to my yoga class, even though I’d been there since 9am and was definitely on browsing through the internet.

Since I was a teenager, I’ve always been fascinated by the US. I can’t even remember how it started, though it may have been because I watched way to much Buffy The Vampire Slayer. In any case, living there has been my dream for years. When I started studying science, going to MIT became my dream. Not so much for the prestige, though I’m not denying that it is part of it, but because after reading so many articles about it, it sounds like a highly stimulating environment.

It’s very possible I would be disappointed by going there, it has happened before when I moved to Montpellier to the second best ranked chemistry Grande Ecole. Also there, I was very excited to be in a stimulating learning environment, with like-minded, passionate people. Boy was I wrong. My first year was awful, even with the amazing weather and semi-perfect quality of life Montpellier can offer. Most of my colleagues were only interested in going out and getting drunk, had gotten there because it was their highest ranked school but had no interest in chemistry whatsoever, and had very swollen heads. It was definitely a brutal cold shower, but I recovered.

I think the main reason I want to go to MIT for a postdoc is because I don’t want to give up before trying. I want that experience. It will be what it will be, bad or good, but I won’t live with the “what if…” regret. Of course, there is a possibility I won’t even get a position there. But I won’t give up by not applying. If I do my best and don’t get in, then so be it.

If I do get in, will I be able to resist peer pressure and continue my yogic journey on the side? I can’t be certain, but I am pretty sure I will. Since I am fairly detached from the outcome of becoming a professor (and I think that doing a postdoc at MIT is unlikely to be a negative point on your CV, even for the industry), I believe I will be able to resist peer pressure and just do my thing, be productive while doing intensive yoga (cf #10). Because if I fail in Science, I don’t believe it is going to be because I worked 50 hours instead of 80. I want to do my best while keeping a balance, and if that is not enough to succeed, then I won’t.

Because in the end, what I want is to be happy. And yoga has contributed to my happiness in the years since I started to such an extent that I don’t think I will ever give it up. My practice will likely transform and evolve while I grow older, but it will still be there, stimulating my personal growth.

It’s been a bit tricky to realize, but the only result that really counts, in life, is happiness. And for me, happiness is linked to growth. Which is why scientific research and yoga are so complementary, and I’m not ready to give up on any of them just yet.