Everything, The Blog, Uncategorized, Yoga

The Lesson of Kapotasana

My ashtanga yoga practice has always (okay, for the past year that it has been a part of my life) been a curious mix of meditation, peace, fear, love, motivation, determination, competition, desire..and I’m sure a long list of other emotions. I am competitive by nature and I instantly loved the way that one can “unlock” new postures, even new series, with time,  with patience and with effort. From the beginning, I have felt internally driven to improve such that I can progress within each series. Well…maybe progressing wasn’t always my goal. Once I was practicing full primary, I had the sense that I would be there many months and so the real fire in me became one to improve my hip mobility (oh, supta kurmasana…how you taunt me) and to master my standing drop-backs. Always though, I have been striving for “better.”

When I began to practice Second Series however, months before I ever expected to, I saw amazing postures ahead of me that I could not wait to learn — could not wait to be “gifted” by my teacher. I viewed each added posture as a reward for my hard work and persistence, a “gold star” to tell me how “good” I am. (I am realizing that, like Gretchen Rubin, I too am a bit of a “gold star junkie”). Then, this past January, two new yogis joined my studio, both at a similar place in their practice as I…and suddenly I had this secret race in my head, a burning to not let them get ahead of me. We were all working on kapotasana and I knew I had to master it first. I had to. Oh the ego…it really, really does not have any place in Yoga. But darn it, I said this was my yoga practice, not yoga “perfect!”

I began to grow nervous each morning as I neared kapotasana in my practice — it was so uncomfortable and my shoulders screamed as I tried to work them into position. I would spend many breaths at the wall, stretching them preparation. I had imposed an imaginary time limit on myself — I had to get this. Fast.

Eventually, I did. One day, my Teacher was able to move my hands so that I was clasping my heels…and the next, she had me try on my own and I succeeded. I was over the moon…but full of anxiety that I wouldn’t be able to do it again.

I did, however. I did, and I was taught supta vajrasana. I felt rewarded and…relieved. I had a slight breather now, a bit more space between myself and my fellow two yogis. (If you practice Ashtanga and you are reading this…you will think me ridiculous! How “un-yogi!” How absurd! I know my Teacher Frederique will likely read this. But it is what it is).

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Kapotasana – shortly after achieving it.

The fourth day though…I could not grasp my heels. Nor for the next week after that. I was told that kapotasana will come and go…but I wanted to should that I had only just achieved it! I felt a fraud for practicing supta vajrasana, and especially bakasana. I didn’t deserve these postures if I could not do kapotasana.

The dread before kapotasana grew stronger than ever. I spent longer and longer preparing for  my backbend and experienced real fear each time I entered into the pose. I ignored the fact that I was experiencing shoulder pain with every chaturanga….and soon, in every down-dog as well. One morning I could not lift my arms to shoulder height in warrior II without a sharp, stabbing pain.

Finally, I was forced to wake up to what I had been doing to my body. I had blatantly ignored its shouts and pleas, so intent on feeding my ego, with “beating” this lovely yogi couple whom I honestly liked. Intent on competition. I had tendonitis in both shoulders and was forced to modify my practice. With no other option, I began stepping rather than jumping back into nearly every one of the dozens of chaturangas and I stopped catching ankles in my assisted backbends.

…I can now grab my heels in kapotasana nearly every practice. But I still experience that anxiety — that dread, not of the discomfort I still experience in the posture, but of “failing,” of being found un-worthy of it and of where I am in Second Series. I fear discovering that I am an imposter, who progressed too far, too quickly. And perhaps I did — perhaps I needed to go slow, to learn patience and humility. Weeks later, I still rarely jump back and land in chaturanga — my shoulders are still healing and any one thing might cause a flare of pain and inflammation. Only twice have I caught my ankles in my standing backbend in the past month.

I am still learning the Lesson of Kapotasana — in this and in all areas of my life. But it has been a powerful message in patience and humility and one I cannot ignore. It has forced me to remember why I practice yoga — if I knew I would never learn another posture, would I stop? It has forced me re-connect my brain to my body, to both listen to and nurture my body. It has reminded me to leave my ego at the door and to keep my eyes on my own mat (or more accurately, my drishti). It has taught me…that often in life, you have to go slow to go fast. Build a foundation. Learn patience and consistency.

I know that I will continue to grapple with my ego, my desire to prove myself, to earn “gold stars” from myself and others. I hope, however, that this lesson will serve to give me pause — in my crossfit training, in my Master program, in my overall life’s journey. It is a lesson I have been trying unsuccessfully to apply in my internal battle regarding quitting my program. It is a lesson of letting go. It is a lesson of learning to accept myself as I am, where I am, regardless of the contests I may win or lose, participate in or abstain from. It is a big lesson. It is one that I am tackling slowly, day by day.

Sometimes, we need slow, not fast.

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Everything, The Blog, Yoga

How I Started My Yoga Practice (And Why You Should Too)

…Yoga taught me to be tender toward myself and to connect with, and cherish my body. Ashtanga taught me the rewards of persistence and consistency and to believe that with these tools, anything is possible.”

At the start of 2016 I was perusing Instagram (where I had previously only followed close friends and vice versa) and I stumbled across a series of yogis performing seemingly effortless handstands, the splits and better yet — handstands and the splits, all rolled into one. That, my brain said. I want that.

That very day I began to practice yoga — just in my bedroom, alone, a few minutes a night. Basic stretches, short flows streamed from the Yoga by Candace website or the Yoga with Adriene Youtube channel. I quickly learned that yoga was not the boring, lazy “fad” I had perceived it to be during my time at University…yoga was hard. I had not the strength to lift and jump back into chaturanga nor the balance to perform a simple headstand…and let’s not even talk about handstands! I also did not have the patience or the courage to lie still in savasana, with nothing but my breath to shield me from my roaming thoughts.

…I persevered. I followed a “yoga for strength” video series by Candace, every day for a month and I saw my crow pose (bakasana) evolve and strengthen. The changes and the improvements felt huge…and before I even realized it, I was hooked.

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After that first month I decided it was time to start attending classes in order to receive the benefits of real live teachers. Usually notorious for indecision (born of a fear of making “the wrong choice”) I promptly bought a membership to a local hot and room-temperature “fusion-style” studio that offered vinyasa, power, yin, hatha, restorative and even a led hot Ashtanga class. I also participated in my first Instagram #yogachallenge…

In a nutshell, that is how my love affair with yoga first began. And oh, but how it has evolved.

At my studio I gained an appreciation for slow. Soft. A respect for the patience and the strength that is required for Yin yoga, for remaining in a posture for one, two, for five minutes. For allowing the emotions and sensations that arise to rise, for seeing them without making a story of them and then simply letting them pass. I learned about the meaning of “yoga,” the yoke between our mind and our physical body. How to nourish one, we must nourish the other. And for the first time, I gave consideration to the idea that perhaps my body was not my enemy to be conquered…but a friend, seeking love.

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In practicing yoga I also began to work through my pervasive fear of failure and my drive to be “the best.” Each class would be filled with yogi’s of all levels, abilities, ages. Everyone modified based on their own needs. On occasion, I began to practice stepping back into chaturanga, challenging myself to sit with the uncomfortable feeling of “doing less”, even as the person next to me jumped back. “I can do that too!” I’d want to yell. But I forced myself to step back. My purpose was to challenge myself — to practice doing less than my best, to practice coping with being “less skilled” in my mind than the others around me. To learn to compare less. To learn to give myself grace.

…Meanwhile of course, on Instagram: #yogaeverydamnday. Although seeing these advanced, lithe yogis contort themselves into complicated postures may have initally skewed my perception of what it means to “be a yogi” (tip — you don’t have to be able to perform any particular posture), these accounts motivated me and expanded my repertoire of what was possible. At the studio, every class had to be catered to accommodate the fresh-to-yoga yogi, which eliminated a large variety of postures that required practice and persistence to perform. By following these challenges, in which I would post a photo of “that day’s” posture (or my best attempt at it) my knowledge of the asanas grew exponentially and I was encouraged to practice more, and different and more difficult poses…and by maintaining my “at-home practice” I was able to dedicate the necessary time to improving a given posture or to reaching a certain goal. And so my muscles grew and strengthened, my balance stabilized and I felt my enticing front splits come slowly, slowly within reach.

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At this point (although I’ve rambled long enough, I’m sure) I’d like to introduce you to my dearest love: Ashtanga yoga. As I said, there was one teacher (my beloved, feisty, Star Wars-loving friend, Frederique) who was an Ashtangi and who taught a couple of led Primary or half-Primary Ashtanga classes a week. Something about the primary series, the postures (Aside: Ashtanga is a set series of postures that grows as you advance as a practitioner — it is also typically taught Mysore style (more on that here)) felt so incredibly right to me, that I soon never missed an Ashtanga class. I loved the memorization of the postures that came, how I could lose myself in my Teacher’s count and in my breath (5 inhales, 5 exhales) and quite nearly shut-off my ever-whirring brain. I loved the natural transition from the standing postures into the seated sequence, how a series of hip-openers gave way to cleansing twists, then to backbends and inversions. I loved the energy that built in the room as we sang the opening and closing chants. I loved (and still love) the repetition of the same postures every practice, how I was forced to remain humble as my body taught me how different it would choose to be and feel every day — for example, some days a previously “simple” pose would feel impossible. Yet even with the fickleness of the human body, I loved how clearly progress could be marked. When you practice the same postures day in and day out the changes that come are unmistakable.

…I’ve since transitioned to the traditional Mysore style of teaching, travelled to Ubud, Bali, the sometimes proclaimed “yoga capital of the world,” and moved cities where I now practice 6 mornings a week at an Ashtanga yoga shala. I have worked hard, backed off during injury, and achieved things I never thought possible. I can grab my heels unassisted in kapotasa. I can drop back into wheel pose from standing, and stand back up in a single breath. I can do the splits (front…don’t get me started on transverse)! Yoga taught me to be tender toward myself and to connect with, and cherish my body. Ashtanga taught me the rewards of persistence and consistency and to believe that with these tools, anything is possible.

I cannot sell yoga hard enough. Yoga is for everyone, whether it is yin or restorative, vinyasa, Bikram or Ashtanga. Hot power yoga to a Beyoncé soundtrack. Classical Iyengar (although I must here admit that I have never experienced this style, or Kundalini). Find a studio with teachers and a philosophy that vibe with you. Find a teacher that vibes with you. Unroll your mat at home with Candace or Adriene for free and just…get started. Roll out that spine and flex your wrists. Focus on breathing, on how it feels to fill your lungs and then slowly release the balloon of air. Maybe you are a hard-charging high-intensity athlete — well don’t kid yourself that yoga cannot be intense. I have seen professional athletes absolutely kicked after an Ashtanga practice. But more importantly, open your mind to the meditation in movement, in breath that is yoga. Give yourself that chance to tune into your body and your mind, to move in ways that feel good. Whatever it is you need or are missing–I believe that you can find it in a yoga practice. Just find the practice that is right for you.

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Namaste!