Thursday, January 28, 2010

Ouch, But in a Good Way

If only it were as easy as saying "I'm going to yoga class every other day for a year." Things happen. I decide to turn somersaults. Literal somersaults. And chaos ensues.

Last Saturday afternoon, I went to Marco Rojas' Inversion Workshop at Pure. I'd been meaning to try Marco's class, and I've been working on my inversions for a decade, so it seemed like a perfect storm. I arrived forty-five minutes early to make sure I got a good spot -- in a corner where I'd have half as much chance of crushing my neighbor in another of a long series of abortive handstands. I chose my mat, went off to the locker room, came back, changed spots, spent some quality time with Simon Doonan on my Kindle, and changed my spot again. To Pure's credit, they had mats already set up around the room, so there was no jockeying for purse or personal space before the workshop began. Thank you.

Based on Marco's reputation, I expected a classroom full of perfect bodies to whom inversion was as natural as regular version. I assumed I'd be the lumbering ox in the corner. I was scared. So I was pleased when the first few words out of Marco's mouth included "courage." I know that courage is doing something in spite of your fear. So I took a deep breath and committed myself to whatever was to come.

There were eight teacher assistants -- several of them trainees, at least one senior teacher.

We began with a 40 minute practice to connect with muscles we'd be using to go upside down. Tadasana was key. I always try to activate my tadasana in regular classes but with Marco calling out "shoulders down, quads pressing into hamstrings, hamstrings toward quads, inner arches up," etc., I looked like I was standing still but my muscles were dancing Swan Lake. I immediately learned something. When asked to stand against the wall with my heels one inch away from the baseboard -- I need four inches to accommodate my butt. I tried the one inch thing. Determined to be the good student, I stayed upright through sheer force of will, but from the side, I looked like a close parenthesis.

The first thing we did was turn somersaults to "become children again." I wasn't a child during my childhood, but having seen children in movies, I knew what was being asked of me. I knelt, put my hands and head in position -- all I needed to do was tuck and roll, but I was paralyzed with fear. My C7 vertebra was screaming "Quadroplegia!" In my head, I knew it would be fun to flip over, but I could not do it. I held my breath. I very nearly cried with fear. Now I was, indeed, reliving my childhood. Instantly, there were two teachers by my side. Matt looked at me with fun in his eyes. He said something like, "You're there, just do it!" So I did. Woo-hoo! Fun! I'm just kidding. It was not fun. But Matt seemed thrilled at my accomplishment so I faked it. I did another one. A little better. And then we moved on. The purpose of the somersaults was to teach us how to fall out of headstand. Can't wait.

Next, we moved on to my arch-nemesis: handstand. Once I get up into handstand, I can stay there. But when kicking up at the wall, it feels to me like I'm yards from upright. Apparently, this is not the case. In class at Reebok with Joanna Ross, she told me I'm actually a few mere inches from making it, and that I'm doing everything right... good form. She suggested I get uglier and dirtier in my kick -- throw myself at the wall a few times rather than expecting my feet to rise magically into the air with grace and delicacy. She's right. And she gave me confidence. Unfortunately, I haven't had much chance to work at the wall in vinyasa class. And I'm too chicken to do it at home.

On Saturday, however, I got an awesome assist. One of the teaching assistants had me put my kicking up foot on her shoulder, then use it as a lever, pressing down on her shoulder to bring the other foot to the wall. It was a new way of doing it. Not at all useful when I'm by myself, but I feel like the more times I get up, the better. Sherman suggested I kick up both feet at once-- that it's easier. I haven't tried that since he mentioned it, but it's on the list. It's not that I don't think about handstanding. I rehearse it in my mind every day. Then I take a nap. Interestingly, the woman on the mat beside me had all my fears factored to the power of ten. I watched her try to go up. She was absolutely fine, but the look on her face was one of horror. She closed her eyes. Then bugged them out. She turned ashen with fear. Imagine what a feat that is -- considering that all the blood is rushing to your face! And the whole time she was in the pose -- legs up the wall, standing on her hands. It was so obviously all in her head. When she came down, I told her so, but I think she was still so frightened that it didn't register. She told me she'd been a cheerleader back in the day, doing acrobatics, but she'd forgotten how. Seeing someone psych themselves out was edifying.

When we got to headstanding, we teamed up. I vowed to have a breakthrough if it killed me, and I did. I went upside down and my partner, Jen, an advanced practitioner, placed a block horizontally between my shoulder blades and the wall. The goal was to keep the block there, a reminder not to lose your shoulder blades. And, miracle of miracles - I BALANCED AWAY FROM THE WALL FOR THE FIRST TIME! My mind was centered in my upper back, rather than in my feet waving high in the air. Duh -- of course the balance comes from the base! I felt like I could have stayed there all day. I was sad when we had to come down. It was my $50 moment.

When we moved away from the wall to try again, I retained some of the previous feeling, but the somersault falling technique -- gone. Life in an iron lung was foremost in my mind as I got my knees and feet off the ground with Jen cheering me on. I wanted an assist. I wanted someone to stand beside me and give me a touch to remind me where in my body I'd gone unconscious. Unfortunately, the teacher assistant with whom I was working was a novice. I live for personal assists. Don't we all? But a senior teacher zens where your practice is from what they see going on in your body. They're in the moment with their yoga tool bag at the ready.

We all come to the mat with many past teachers' voices in our heads. We make mental technical manuals, drawn from each teacher based on our personal needs, fears, and physical structures. This is not to say that going back to zero in an Iyengar class, for example, isn't valuable. Just the opposite. But there is a difference between a teacher who explores the underlying structure of an asana, and one who has to start from the beginning of something because she doesn't know how to begin at the middle. I know how to measure the space between my elbows and walk my feet in. I needed someone to stand beside me as a security blanket so that I had confidence to lift my knees toward the ceiling. I said so. And if this teacher had been watching my previous attempts, she would have known that. But she only knew one assist, which consisted of sitting on the floor behind me, using her legs to keep my arms in, etc. Then, as I went up -- more afraid with her there than without because, for me, fear of death is trumped by fear of murder and women's prison -- she started squealing "Oh, oh, oh no... Your rear, your rear..." My ass was in her face and advancing. I told her not to sit there.

As I, chagrinned, made apologies and excuses I didn't need to make, she told me she can't balance in headstand either. I would say "not that there's anything wrong with that," but I think, in this case, there is.

I went back and balanced with the block as an emotional palate cleanser.

We took shoulderstand on blankets. I fell on my head and neatly executed an unintentional backwards somersault. (Guruji would have been relieved that I finally attempted chakrasana. In fact, maybe he shoved me.) Shoulderstand, then plough -- or as I call it: breast asphyxiasana. Savasana. Then Peacefood cafe for raw key lime pie. Do it.

Ultimately the workshop was great. I learned tons. And next time I'll ask for the assist I need, rather than just taking it. That may be the most valuable lesson of all.

However, I took home a goody bag full of pain. That spazz out in shoulderstand? It's the gift that keeps on giving. I can't turn my head to the left, and my right lower back is tighter than it's ever been. I figured I'd torqued myself doing something sexy like headstand, until yesterday, when I took shoulderstand at the end of Sherman's class. Ouch ouch ouch ouch ouch. My neck and back lit up like they were radioactive.

That's when I learned another valuable lesson. I found myself making an excuse for modifying, which I was doing with high drama-face in the corner. Historically, the better I get to know a teacher, the more easily I make excuses for myself. But I assume I'm not the only person in class who rarely, if ever, feels a hundred percent. If I don't know the teacher, and want to be perfect for him/her, I just keep my condition(s) to myself. And probably surprise myself by rising above whatever migraine, neck tweak, temporary blindness, bunion, bloat or bad mood I've brought into the room with me. I don't want to be that person. Anywhere. So from now on I'm going to use all these physical "messages" as questions to be answered or challenges to be met. After all, the warnings in my head: You need rest! What are you thinking doing that at your age? You can't! -- are not to be trusted. Not even I know what I'm capable of doing. And those who want me to play safe are speaking from their own agenda.

"Always be a little uncomfortable in your practice." Words to live by.


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