Friday, June 03, 2005

Sometimes it just hurts...

Just three weeks ago I was in New York, practicing yoga under the direction of Shri K. Pattabhi Jois. I went to five classes, full series - one more than I'd ever done before. When your guru tells you to do five classes, you do five classes. Of course, if she gives you weasel room, and you're me, you weasel. So I did one practice session last week, and showed up today for her Friday class.

If you're not familiar with Ashtanga, the idea is to do it Mysore-style, which means that the first five days of the week, starting on Sunday, you do your own practice, at your own pace, stopping at the asana you are working on (for me it's Kurmasana). The teacher watches you, adjusts you, and occasionally pushes you deeper into the posture, which makes you cry like a baby. Good times. Friday classes in Mysore are always led, so if you're doing Mysore style, there's one led class a week, and you typically do the entire series to the best of your ability, unless you'd be hurting yourself, in which case you stop when you must.

Anyway, the greatest number of practice sessions I had ever done in a week was four, only one of which was a Friday class. Every class Shri Pattabhi Jois led in New York was a led class - no Mysore style. So I did more that week than I have ever done, by a substantial factor - maybe 30 or 40%. At the end of the week, I was feeling nice and loosened up, which was swell, but my lower back was starting to feel really challenged. So I addressed this by trying to figure out what part of my practice I was doing wrong.

I figured it was Salamba Sarvangasana - shoulder stand. That's the one where you lie down on your back, raise your feet straight up, support your back with your bent arms, and try to put your weight on your shoulders, not your spine. I normally think of this as an easy asana, but it requires a fair amount of work on the part of your lower back muscles, and after five days of practice, I reasoned that my supporting musculature was just tired out, and so it was asking too much of my lower back. So it was on this basis that I weaseled out of practice for almost two weeks.

Today when I showed up for class, I tried to explain my reasoning to my guru. She got that patient look she gets when her student is talking nonsense, and asked me if I'd been practicing. I said no. She said "that's why your back hurts." I felt somewhat unsatisfied with this, but I went with it, and she wandered off. Before class started, she came up to me again to see how I was taking it, and we talked a little more. Finally she said that in fact my back was hurting because I wasn't practicing, but that if I did practice it would still hurt.

So anyway, I did the practice, which was difficult at first. Every time I looked up in Uttanasana I could feel my lower back stretching, which was nice, but also a bit challenging. Anyway, after an hour of asana practice, we got to Salamba Sarvangasana, and my lower back was still sad. But it finally clicked, what Lisaji had been telling me. This is pretty obvious, but still easy to forget in the heat of the moment. In order to get a good result, effort is required. Sometimes the path forward is extremely difficult and painful. It doesn't mean I'm doing something wrong. It doesn't mean I made a mistake. If I want the problem to go away, I have to keep walking the path, straight into the problem. The popular phrase would be: "the only way out is through."

Of course, the other way out is to just give up. Eventually the muscle tone that's triggering the problem will go away, and that form of pain will go away too. But if I want to continue with my asana practice, I have to keep practicing through the pain. This is a somewhat depressing and challenging thought, but the nice thing about my yoga practice is that although I have not done it perfectly, I have had moments where I've felt the bliss of practiced ease, just for a moment, so I know it's worth it.

Musical theme: Stokowski's Mussorgsky. Track: The Death of Boris


Blogger Penni said...

"Finally she said that in fact my back was hurting because I wasn't practicing, but that if I did practice it would still hurt."

This isn't metaphorical for me. I did my exercises at least six days a week from the time I started being treated for scoliosis at age 14 until the day I went into labor when I was 41. My routine as developed over a quarter of a century comprised exercises from various physical therapists, a back-care class, a pain-management program, a voice therapist, books, and lots of yoga classes.

It kept me toned, flexible, and--most important--helped keep me mentally balanced. And I lost all that with my life-changing event and all the aftermath, good and bad. I haven't been able to get that routine back, and much of the reason seems to be that four years on my body hurts when I ask it to do what it used to be able to do. And that has been hard to push through. It's scary--will I ever be able to do it again, or is it all lost to the past?

Thursday, June 09, 2005 8:35:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

One worry about going back to something you used to be good at is that it's easy to hurt yourself, because you think you can do more than you can, so you push yourself beyond the breaking point. Of course, there's also the fact that we're all getting old, and the body doesn't recover as quickly as it did.

The evidence I've heard suggests that you can in fact get back to some approximation of where you were, but it will probably hurt, and your age does have an effect. It's not like the long-term result of a good asana practice is that your body stops aging or something. :'(

In point of fact, that's pretty much what I'm going through - I used to be very flexible, and very physically fit, and getting back to that is a laborious process. But things I haven't been able to do since I left my teens are now possible to me, and in many ways I'm much more physically fit than I was then. So at our age, I'd say forward progress is possible, the result isn't exactly what you remember from 20 years ago, but it's probably worth it.

A pretty wishy-washy answer, but the best I can do under the circumstances. :'}

Friday, June 10, 2005 9:44:00 AM  

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