Breath... My Focus Today
The most challenging yoga practice is not doing advanced asanas. Rather, finding self-awareness and connecting to the breathe are far more difficult. It is a deeper layer of the work often being neglected. We easily find our bodies in one place, while the minds are somewhere else. One way to practice the mindfulness is to count our breaths,
So, I chose to focus on breathing today. I held each pose for five breaths (Ashtanga practice) and breathed in and out for a count for 4. I tended to have shorter inhalation than exhalation, and it was quite noticeable especially when I started counting. I was able to stay focus with quiet mind except for doing less favorite poses (aka challenging poses), such as Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana and Purvottanasana. I caught myself rushing through these two poses with shorter breaths unintentionally just so I could get out of the poses faster. I was hoping to slow down my breaths and be honest with my breath counts today. Unfortunately, I didn’t succeed. Although I counted for 4, the speed was probably 2 times faster. My mind started to wonder. “When could I exit from the poses? Why did I want to count the breaths?” All the voices in my head only made the poses more challenging. It was harder to focus and balance in one leg in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana, and more difficult to engage bandhas to lift up in Purvottanasana. Maybe I didn't master these poses, but I accomplished the goal I set for today's practice, self-awareness. By the way, these two poses needed lots of leg and butt strength, which was linked to my focus yesterday.
Learning how to calm the nervous system and be mindful are not easy, but it’s definitely something worth my effort to work on.
It's All About The Legs
It's been three days since I practiced last Friday. It feels much longer than that. There was no practice yesterday because it was a moon day. Instead, I did strength and flexibility training, and it kicked my butt, literally. My glutes were sore from the training. Luckily, it didn’t affect my practice (yet, we shall see how I feel tomorrow).
Today, I focused on the leg strength, straight legs as opposed to bending or locking knees. Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana was one of the poses I paid more attention on this morning. Not only did I work on straightening the knees, I also bought awareness to the glutes. Why did I talk about glutes? The gluteal muscles are so important in many asanas including standing balance poses and backbends. In order to keep the standing leg straight in Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana, the gluteal muscles play an important role.
There are couple variations of Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana. The first one is a great modification for those with tight hips (picture below). The second one is the full Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana. The third variation is what I have been doing for the past months. Besides hip opening, all three options require great engagement of the gluteal muscles to balance in one leg, especially when both hands are off the ground (3rd option).
Since my butts were on fire from yesterday’s workout, it was easy to know whether I was engaging my gluteal muscles or not (if I felt soreness, I knew I was using them). In Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana, I played with bent and straight knees, muscles relaxation and engagement. Then I found myself either wobbling or balancing in the pose. I felt the significance of the muscles engagement, particularly the quads and glutes. I’ve seen the change of my standing poses since I started working on legs. I used to bend my knees and now I am able to balance in one leg with straight knee. I really appreciate my teacher asked me to work on the variation of Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana to strengthen my legs and glutes. It not only improves my standing pose, but it is also beneficial to the drop back. In order to do the drop back with control, strong leg is a must.
I put two pictures below to show the difference of my standing leg back in February and now. What I thought was "straight" leg is actually quite bent. Although my leg is more straight today, I believe there is still more to work on.
Ashtanga Mysore Practice Journal
My teacher had me start doing the Garbha Pindasan instead of the modified version (the left picture below) this week. It was way more difficult than I thought. I saw my friends doing it all the time in the room. I knew it wasn't easy, but I didn't expect it to be so hard.
The biggest challenge for me in the Garbha Pindasana was to slide my arms through the legs. When I looked at my legs in the lotus position, I saw no space between the calves and thighs for my arms to go through. I tried to "muscle" one arm through, but it was impossible for two. My teacher showed me a trick, which was to have more skin-to-skin contact in addition to water. (No wonder lots of Ashtangis wear shorts.)
First, roll up the pant to knees (create more skin contact).
Second, spray lots of water on hands, arms, calves and thighs (reduce friction between skins).
Third, squeeze all fingers together and slide arms through.
Yes, the trick worked!!! But, it wasn't a comfortable position. I felt my elbows were against the ankle bones and I couldn't get my arms through far enough (passing elbows). Well, at least I was sort on in the pose and bruised my thigh, which was part of the learning experience.
I still need to experiment more to figure out the pose. The practice is getting more and more challenging. I am learning everyday. But the more I learn, the less I know. And there is more to learn.
Ashtanga Mysore Practice Journal
I had to keep my practice short to attend an early meeting at work today. When I said short, it was still an hour and half practice. Since I haven't done the second half of seated sequence (from Upavistha Konasana to Setu Bandhasana) in the primary series for awhile, I decided to do the full primary series this morning.
I was surprised that I wasn't rusty with those poses. My body still remembered the "shapes" of the poses. I remembered how challenging they were when I first started practicing, especially Setu Bandhasana, but they seemed "easy" now compared to the second series. Because I skipped the second series, my back was stiff. It took me few extra rounds of Urdhva Dhanurasana to warm up before doing drop back. It was still a good practice but I just noticed the difference in my body.
Every now and then, I like to work on basic poses to refine the alignment, engage the bandhas and connect to the breath. And today was one of those days.
Ashtanga Mysore Practice
Unlike most Ashtangis who practice everyday except for Saturday and the moon day, I only practice 3-4 days a week and it felt so good to practice on two consecutive days.
I had struggled with pain on my left SI joint area for a while. I saw a Chinese Doctor in Taiwan last Nov/Dec, which helped tremendously. Recently, I start feeling the pain again and it normally happens after the Kurmasana. For that reason, I decided to explore the left HIP MOBILITY today. The way I worked on the hip mobility was to either stabilize the femur bone or pelvis while mobilizing the other. For example, I stabilized my pelvis while seated, then I moved the thigh bone around to find mobility initiating from the hip socket. As shown in Step (1) in the picture below, I use my arms to cradle my left leg and to move it from side to side while keeping the pelvis stabilized. Back to Kurmasana, different to the example above, I stabilized my thigh bones while moving the pelvis to forward fold into the pose. When I did this work, I felt relief from my lower back.
I am still exploring and experimenting Kurmasana as well as Supta Kurmasana. I won't give up until I find know what causes my left lower back pain.
On a separate note, I was able to do the drop back without using the block today. Two weeks ago, I just started working on the drop back with one block (graduated from two blocks). And, I was able to do it without any prop. How excited was that!!!
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