Chaturanga dandasana, my nemesis

A slightly more technical article tonight, because as we like to say in French “C’est l’occasion qui fait le larron”; i.e. my friend took some pictures this morning and I thought it was the occasion to make a blog post.

Comparatively to the number of hours I spend doing yoga, there are very few pictures of me in asana. I’m not on Instagram, and I don’t do selfies, so my yoga pictures are either from people who think what I do is cool or to check my alignment. The winner in the first category is Sirsasana (headstand); somehow friends and family like taking pictures when I’m standing on my head. The winner of the second category, with a large advance, is Chaturanga Dandasana (a.k.a. the yoga pushup).

Out of the Introductory I&II syllabus, Chaturanga is the one pose I truly struggle with. We’re supposed to hold it for 30 seconds, which to me appear to be 30 years. There are other poses that I find hard, but at least I can get into the shape of the asana. With Chaturanga, I lack both the strength and the alignment that would enable me to work on either, so practicing it feels pretty helpless.

Still, it seems to be getting better since the beginning of the year (i.e. teacher training year so September) when I realized I truly my teacher gently scolded me and told me I really needed to be working on it specifically.

Let’s look at Guruji, B.K.S. Iyengar:

th

Ok, it’s impossible to find a good quality picture of Guruji in this pose, which is incredible. Gotta scan my Light on Yoga next time. 

The instructions given in the preliminary course are:

  • lie face down on the floor
  • bend the elbows and place the palms by your side in line with the floating ribs
  • have the feet one foot apart and anchor the toes so they point towards the head
  • exhale and raise the entire body a few inches above the floor
  • keep the chest hips, thighs and knees lifted so the whole body rests only on the hands and toes
  • keep the face and chest facing the floor
  • exhale, lower the trunk down to the floor

NB: this asana is classified with the backbends because it tones the spinal muscles (it is actually a backbend prep.).

The main learning point is to keep the knees and thighs firm above the floor without sticking the tailbone up to the ceiling, chest up so the whole body is parallel to the floor. 

I’ve been working on it with different variations, at the wall, using a block under the pelvis or under the chest (the latest variation I learned this morning!), using a bolster under the trunk (which I don’t like because it just feels like I’m not doing anything).

2645b51d3bb45b150fce2998e9435e21

Bolster variation, credits Ann West Yoga

Let’s look at some of my progress pics with variations (thanks Hiske and Tally for taking most pictures):

IMG-20150919-WA0000

My chaturanga in September during teacher training. I swear I’m really doing my best, but my form is very, very poor. Instead of a straight line going from my feet to my neck, I break in multiple points (hips, low and upper back, neck). 

So what’s happening here? Well many things, such as  I’m not using my glutes, which is a general issue with me since I am never using them. I’m not bending my elbows enough so I’m more in a bhujangasana form; truthfully this comes from the fact that I used to feel like my breasts had to leave the floor quite a bit when in reality, in the proper alignment they almost touch the floor. My neck is being heavy, shoulder blades not in my back, elbows going out, etc, etc. I could go on, but you got the message: this is really bad form.

chaturanga-dandasana

Muscles that should be working during Chaturanga, credits prana prana yoga. Basically all my weak points: triceps, abs, glutes. 

A month of daily practice later, this was the result end of October (block under pelvis variation):

20151020_080010

Home practice end of October, using a block under the pelvis which you cannot see on the picture. The alignment is better, but my shoulders are dropping and this time, I’m not lifting the chest enough. 

20151020_075530

Same practice, different view. You can see that my chest alignment is better but I’m not using my legs properly. I still need to bring my tailbone down and my shoulders up. Sorry for the poor picture quality…

tumblr_nc5iledy9u1tem5nto1_1280

Sketch from fnyogi showing the block position in the block under pelvis variation. 

 

Alright, now this morning, so approximately 7 months after the first picture (and admittedly a daily practice which recently did not include many chaturangas…).

 

IMG-20160407-WA0000

Wall variation after my first attempt at the full pose was terribly out of alignment. I’ve hurt my right wrist a while ago by transitioning from halasana to setu bandha so this was also easier to hold for a while. 

 

The main thing is still to bring my tailbone down… and a bit more abs would help. As usual, my flexibility is an issue and I spend a lot of time finding “the middle”. Maybe it’s part of a bigger, metaphorical lesson (but seriously, I often have no idea where the middle is so that my hips are in line with the rest of my body, even in Tadasana).

 

IMG-20160407-WA0003

Using a block under the chest (and a wooden plank for my wrist).

IMG-20160407-WA0002

End pose, no props except for the plank for my wrist. The alignment is much, much better! I’m still dropping my shoulders lower than my elbows, but otherwise it looks much more like a straight line. Next step: bringing the chest forward so that my hands are under my elbows, but that may have to wait until my wrist is better. 

 

I’m gonna try and keep the body imprint… And work on holding the shape longer than 5 seconds! Practice and all is coming as Sri Pattabhi Jois said 😉

Advertisements

Of age, (Iyengar) yoga, psychedelics and hard work

For most people, I’m “good” at yoga, and I can do “crazy stuff” with my body. And sure thing, I’m more flexible (and hopefully stronger) than the average person. However, in my yoga class, it is normal to be able to put your hands on the floor while standing with your legs straight. It is normal to be able to hold a headstand for several minutes. Padmasana (lotus pose)? Lots of practitioners sit comfortably that way. So when I practice outside, I am always surprised that people are staring at me (I’m often completely oblivious, actually, and my friends tell me later that everyone was staring) or even come to talk to me afterwards.

From an (Iyengar) yoga point of view, I am a yoga toddler. I am constantly reminded of the depth of yoga and how little I know when I meet senior practitioners during workshops. It sure gets your ego in check when Bobby Clennel is telling you that after 50 it gets difficult to hold a 30 minutes’ headstand without a channel (3-fold blanket placed under the head to help maintain the lift in the shoulders), or when Matthew Sanford explains how he can feel his legs through the connection with his inner body.

For a brief period before I started to practice yoga, I gave up on feeling good in my body. I felt like I was getting out of shape simply because I was getting older (I know, I know. Funny. How can a 20 year old give up on being in shape because she’s getting old?! It’s funny how the media can twist our ways of thinking about age…). Nowadays, I’m looking forward to aging, because of all the amazing role models I have found with yoga. I don’t see aging as an impediment anymore, but as experience, depth, and betterment. Increased awareness, better alignment, deeper understanding; that’s what I foresee for my yogic future. And it’s very uplifting.

I started yoga relatively late, but I’m a hard worker and disciplined, so it’s been relatively easy for me to stick to a daily practice. As I stuck with it, my awareness improved, my physical and mental health improved, my morality was heightened, and I kept on seeing positive changes. As Guruji said:

217fc219058b72b84ee8bf631f0c7aa9

I’ve been reflecting recently on age, because it seems that many people around me think I am older than I am. So they’re surprised when they hear I’m 26. I don’t think it’s because I look older than that, but apparently the way I act makes people think I’ve “got my sh*t together” and thus I’m older. Age and maturity don’t always go hand in hand, I’ve had to learn it the hard way, but life experiences sure help, and a yoga practice may be the best way to balance one’s life.

I thought maybe the way I was raised, with glorification of hard work, and the feeling that if you struggle but keep on working hard through life’s hardships you will be rewarded, has shaped my life also in its spiritual aspect. While I do not believe in a God, I do believe that everything is interconnected. It also makes sense to me from a scientific perspective. And while my ego gets in the way, “I” 😉 generally maintain this feeling of connectedness throughout the days, and it makes me a more compassionate person. I am reminded of this connection when I teach and physically adjust students, but also when we chant “Om” at the beginning of the class, and many times through practicing gratitude and mindfulness, for example while cycling home today and admiring the flowering magnolias.

I’ve heard that LSD users often have this realization of connectedness when tripping on fairly large amounts. Some people use LSD not as a recreational drug (for the “shit ‘n giggles” of the hallucinations) but for creativity, spirituality and/or mental health, in a way that psychedelics like ayahuasca were used in spiritual ceremonies in many cultures around the world. I’ve read accounts of people supposedly experiencing a Kundalini awakening after taking LSD. I toyed with the idea for a while, and I’m not saying it didn’t happen for these people, but ultimately I don’t see that happening. It somehow feels like a shortcut, and definitely like it would be unfair if it were that easy to take LSD, sure, maybe go through a couple of bad moments and then be enlightened. Would taking the risk of losing it completely if you can’t get over the ego death compensate for years of hard work following the ashtanga (eight fold path, not the Jois school) yoga method?

I was reading the yoga sutras, and came accross Pada IV.1.

जन्मौषधिमन्त्रतपःसमाधिजाःसिद्धयः॥१॥

janma osadhi mantra tapah samadhi jah siddhyayah

Accomplishments may be attained through birth, the use of herbs, incantations, self discipline or samadhi.

Iyengar comments there are five types of accomplished yogis:

1. By birth with aspiration to become perfect (janma);

2. By spiritual experience gained through herbs (or as prescribed in the Vedas),

drugs or elixir (aushadha)

3) By incantation of the name of one’s desired deity (mantra);

4) By ascetic devotional practice (tapas);

5) By profound meditation (samadhi)

Iyengar then goes on to note why all five of these classes of siddhas are not equal:

“There is an important distinction between these means of spiritual accomplishment. Followers of the first three may fall from the grace of Yoga through pride or negligence. The others, whose spiritual gains are through tapas and samadhi, do not. They become masters, standing alone as divine, liberated souls, shining examples to mankind.
Sage Mandavya and King Yayati developed supernatural powers through an elixir of life. Today many drug users employ mescalin, LSD, hashish, heroin, etc. to experience the so-called spiritual visions investigated by Aldous Huxley and others. Artists and poets in the past have also relied on drugs to bring about supernormal states to enhance their art.”

Other translation

Interesting article on psychedelics and yoga

I guess I found the way that fits me: Iyengar method all the way! Even if it means I am sometimes seen as a masochist… I only need to remember the faces of my students after class, their heartfelt “Namaste”, “thank you” and “you changed my life” to realize the road I’ve chosen to walk may not be the hardest after all.