I recently completed my second three month trip practicing with Sharath Jois at the KPJAYI in Mysore.
Last year I wrote two blog posts about my first trip, “A New Chapter” and “You Stop There”. These articles expressed my perspective of the experience of starting over as a beginner with Sharath, after having had a daily Ashtanga practice for 12 years, having completed the 4th series with my previous teacher Rolf Naujokat, and having been a Mysore style teacher myself for a number of years.
I had not been planning to write about this second trip in the same way. My impressions of practicing with Sharath remain much the same as I described last year and writing about it again seemed like it would be both redundant and clichéd – two things which I strive to avoid.
It was a difficult trip for me, and a very personal one. I’ve been working with many inner struggles recently and this was the salient feature of my time in Mysore this year. Most of this is too personal to share publicly and initially seemed like another good excuse to not write about my trip.
Upon further reflection, I realize that the struggles and pain that everyone goes through are an important aspect of practice which are all too often ignored and hidden. Yoga websites, social media, and popular yoga culture are full of unrealistic and professionally staged photo and video shoots which depict us at our very best – glorifying the beauty of some advanced asana in a pristine natural setting or a temple and often accompanied by some “inspiring” cliché from one of the better known spiritual texts or teachers.
The reality is that our practices rarely look or feel like that. I have never practiced in front of a temple, and the only time I practice outdoors is when I am camping or there is no indoor space available. There are wonderful days where practice does feel light, free and blissful, but for the most part Ashtanga Vinyasa practice is difficult and often is a struggle. The images portrayed by these staged photo and video demos are not an accurate representation of the day to day experience of Ashtanga Vinyasa practice, and I feel that they promote unrealistic personal expectations and negative self judgment in the minds of those who consume dozens of these images every day.
Even when the struggles and pains of practice and life are publicly acknowledged, they are often glorified and spiritualized as necessary sacrifices on the road to the reward of enlightenment. Superficial analogies are made to the battlefield of the Bhagavad Gita or other misinterpreted teachings where our pain becomes our noble cross that we have to bear on the path to personal salvation. I guess it is what keeps some people going, but it doesn’t really work that way for me.
I do feel that there is some value in sharing the experience of the struggles which I encountered on this trip – at least those struggles pertaining to my asana practice. I had to relearn some important lessons.
At the end of my first trip to Mysore last year, Sharath had allowed me to practice up to dwi pada sirsasana, which has always been a challenging posture for me. I wrote more about this in my “You Stop There” article.
Going back home to Bali at the end of last year, I felt no hurry to return to practicing 3rd and 4th series, which were my main practices of the preceding 8 or 9 years. Practicing intermediate series daily in Mysore and being asked to work more deeply on dwi pada had been beneficial and felt good. I was happy to continue with intermediate series at home.
Practicing under Sharath’s strict standards also made me realize that I would face another challenge on my subsequent trip: Karandavasana. While I could lower down and lift back up in karandavasana to a standard that was acceptable to my previous teacher, I knew that it would not be sufficient to satisfy Sharath’s idea of “perfection”.
Dwi pada sirsasana and karandavasana don’t look very similar on the surface, but they share one very important feature. Both postures require a significant degree of lumbar flexion, posterior pelvic tilting and lengthening of the lower back and pelvic muscles connected to those movements. One could say that these two postures represent the extreme of “apanic” movement. This movement is very difficult for practitioners who have an anteriorly tilted pelvis and deep lumbar curve or lordosis – in other words, a “pranic” body structure.
It is interesting that both postures occur in intermediate series. There are no postures in 3rd or 4th series which require the same degree of apanic body movement, except perhaps bhuja dandasana at the end of 4th series (which was also very challenging for me and I got stopped on for several months while learning that series with Rolf). All of the other leg behind the head variations involve one leg behind the head, which requires significantly less lumbar flexion than having two legs behind the head. All of the other arm balances (except sayanasana) are done on the hands, not the forearms, which also requires less lumbar flexion.
Deepening my dwi pada to Sharath’s standard was beneficial for my pranic body structure. Though I had already worked hard for many years to develop my body’s ability to exist in the apanic state, deepening dwi pada had brought that movement to another level for me. It was also a very good preparation for improving my karandavasana.
After experiencing the improvement in my dwi pada, I was determined and inspired to improve my karandavasana before coming to Mysore this season. I continued to practice intermediate series every day, and I put more attention on karandavasana, attempting it three times in each practice session.
Many people focus on the fact that karandavasana requires a lot of strength. The standard assumption is that those who cannot do it well are simply lacking in strength. For me, this was not the case – it was simply a mechanical problem arising from being 190 cm tall and having an anterior pelvic tilt and lordosis.
My previous technique for lifting back up in karandavasana would be to lean forward and let the face come even closer to the ground and then allow the rest of the body to lift back up to pincha mayurasana. While I did not rest my head on the ground, I would typically finish the lift up with my nose only about an inch from the ground. Fully extending my shoulders at the end of the lift up was not possible. My previous teacher had considered this good enough for me to move on, all those years ago.
I now realized this would not be good enough for Sharath, and that he would likely want full shoulder extension when I lifted back up. I started to focus more on the shoulders in my practice of the posture. I found that when I attempted to extend the shoulders before lifting the rest of the body, I would not be able to lift the rest of my body up at all. Still, I knew that establishing the foundation of extending the shoulders was important, so I stopped worrying about coming up at all and tried to rebuild the posture based on better shoulder extension in the initial stages of lifting back up.
This proved to be quite frustrating, as there seemed to be no movement happening at all. After some time I began to use a strap above my elbows to help stabilize the shoulder girdle more and get a bit more leverage. This technique provided a glimmer of hope as I could see where the movement might start to come from, but it still seemed far away from actually happening.
I continued to do this diligently, three times per day in each practice session. Finally, after about six weeks it just happened – as most major breakthroughs do – and I found one day that after getting the initial lift in the shoulders, the rest of the body followed, and I was able to lift right back up and fully extend the shoulders into a perfect pincha mayurasana. I was able to do this quite reliably from that day onwards, and I continued to practice it like that with the belt around my arms for several more weeks.
Once I felt confident with the aforementioned technique, I decided to get rid of the belt. I was shocked and disappointed to find that without the belt, I was back to square one. There was absolutely no movement happening. I was amazed that simply having a strap above the elbows would make such a difference and I felt that I had probably made a mistake by working exclusively with the belt. Though it had given me the experience of feeling what it was like to lift back up perfectly, it had not helped to develop the movement pattern in my body at all. It was a good reminder of why exclusive reliance on props is not very helpful.
I again began the diligent process of trying it 3 times per day, without feeling like I was really getting anywhere. I would try 2 or 3 times without the belt, and then on my last attempt would use the belt and lift back up fully, just so I would not lose the body memory of the feeling.
This went on for a long time without much sign of progress. Eventually, I began to miss the experience of 3rd and 4th series practice. I knew that I had to continue to practice intermediate every day if there was any hope of improving karandavasana, so I decided to try a different practice routine, where I would add 3rd or 4th to the end of intermediate.
I added a few postures of each advanced series per session and would alternate days, so that one day I practiced intermediate and 3rd and the next day intermediate and 4th. This felt quite good and strengthening. I continued to practice intermediate only on Sundays and primary only on Fridays and on the other 4 days I eventually worked up to practicing two full series. This routine allowed me to maintain a daily practice of intermediate and also get two days each of 3rd and 4th.
It was part way through this process of adding back the advanced series that karandavasana finally happened without the belt. This was probably about six months after leaving Mysore. It felt like quite an accomplishment to finally be able to achieve the one posture that is least suited to my body’s natural structure. I also felt a sense of satisfaction that I would likely be able to go to Mysore without being held up in intermediate series to work on another posture again.
Karandavasana came and went for a little while, but soon enough I could do it without the belt every day, and on most days I could do it on my first attempt. On the days where I could do it on the first try, I did not bother to repeat it and it started to become just another posture in my practice again, without so much extra emphasis.
I arrived in Mysore in November feeling very strong. I had had several months of practicing two series per day and everything felt aligned, balanced and open. Beginning practice in Mysore felt wonderful. As I noticed in my first trip, just being in that room took my practice to another level. I felt even more open, strong, and focused.
After the first week of primary series, I attended the led intermediate class to begin the second week of practice. Sharath gave me two new postures in that practice, acknowledging that my dwi pada was now good enough and taking me up to tittibhasana.
A few days later in Mysore practice, I was part way through drop backs when Sharath looked over at me. “What did you do?” he asked.
“Tittibhasana”, I replied.
“Pincha mayurasana”, he said.
“Now?” I asked.
I had already done several deep backbends and my spine was in a state of extension. Now I was supposed to just hop up into pincha mayurasana, out of sequence and under his analytical eyes. I managed to pull it off reasonably well. It was not my best pincha ever, and I could clearly feel that the backbending had taken away the usual stability I felt in pincha – but it was good enough.
“Karandavasana”, he said.
Now I was unsure. My natural lordosis was deepened by the backbending, and I had clearly felt less stable than usual in pincha. This would be a big handicap for attempting karandavasana. I also had not done karandavasana since before I arrived in Mysore, and Sharath was watching me.
I tried. It felt awkward and unstable lowering down and I was quickly losing hope of success. As I started to lift back up, my hands slid in towards each other as they usually did. Sharath groaned loudly, “Noooo”. I made it about halfway up but then found my back was still too much in extension to complete the lift. I came down and looked at him.
“The hands are not correct”, he said. He didn’t seem to care so much that I hadn’t lifted up, but chose to focus on the fact that my hands had slid in. I was surprised that he focused on the hands. While I realized that, ideally, my forearms should stay parallel to each other, I didn’t think he would care too much about that detail as I had established all of the other aspects of the posture.
The next practice happened to be led intermediate again. It would be my first time to attempt karandavasana in the led class. I was able to follow his count moving into the posture, but by the time he had counted to five and gave the vinyasa to lift back up, I had already taken 12 breaths or so! I had never tried to lift back up after staying so long in the posture, and I was already quite tired as I was not yet acclimatized to the added strain of led intermediate with Sharath. The result was that I could not lift back up again. I also noted that only a small percentage of the class were able to lift back up with Sharath’s count.
I laid on my belly like everyone else and was about to get ready to go to the change room for finishing postures, when I noticed that he was taking his time to help several people lift back up. I also noticed that a few people were giving it a second attempt, so I thought I might as well try again. As soon as I had lowered down, Sharath’s attention was on me. “Lift up”, he commanded. As I started to lift up he again groaned, “No, no, the hands are not correct”. I was still tired and felt intimidated and again was not able to complete the lift back up very well. “Try again”, he said. At this point I had little hope, but gave it a third attempt. It was a little better than the second, but still not very good. “That’s how ladies do it”, he said. I looked up at him and he concluded, “All the ladies do it better than you. Now you go inside (to the change room for finishing)”.
A few people actually messaged me after the class and told me not to take his comments personally and that he was just challenging me to do my best. I knew that was the case, and I actually took his poking fun at me as a compliment. He wouldn’t have bothered to take the time to give me that attention if he didn’t see some potential or a reason to.
I did feel challenged though. I was pretty determined to make sure I didn’t fail at karandavasana in class again. The following class, which was again Mysore style, I was able to lift back up fairly well. My success didn’t generate any reaction from Sharath. From that day onwards I was able to do the posture fairly reliably in Mysore class. However, at this point Sharath was ignoring me.
After a couple of weeks of practicing karandavasana pretty well and being ignored, I decided that Sharath was likely waiting until I could do it without the hands moving in. So, I decided to start working on it a bit more at home.
I am a strong advocate of limiting asana practice to once per day. I often advise my regular students to follow this guideline strictly. If one has both the energy and the ambition, it can be tempting to do a little extra work on stuck areas in the afternoons or evenings. This rarely brings healthy results, especially if it is done regularly. It can be beneficial to perhaps have a few spontaneous exploratory sessions every now and then, especially if an opportunity to get a few tips from a more experienced practitioner arises, but doing extra training on top of an intensive daily Ashtanga practice is usually going to lead to problems.
I see the Ashtanga Vinyasa series as a system of bodywork which rebuilds the body and nervous system from the ground up. The sequencing of the series are very intelligently designed and take the body and nerves through a lengthy process of deep structural transformation. I personally believe that it is the most effective form of bodywork that is publicly available on the planet today.
Practicing the same sequence every day gives the body and nerves consistent repetitive inputs. Over time, the innate intelligence of the body begins to understand these inputs and eventually integrates those movement patterns into its permanent structural repertoire. In other words, the structure of the body itself changes in order to accommodate and integrate these repetitive movement patterns.
Any set of repetitive movement patterns will change the structure of the body. If one hunches over a computer or a mobile phone or a steering wheel all day, the body structure will change to reflect this. If one carries a heavy backpack over a mountain several times per month, the body structure will change to reflect this. If one grows up with abusive family members and is constantly recoiling in fear or shame, the body structure will eventually reflect this.
With the Ashtanga practice, the unique aspect of the system is that the new movements we learn and repeat each day are consistently arranging themselves around the internal form of bandha and deep and expansive breathing. The movements are therefore arranging themselves around the activation of the scaffolding of the innermost layers of structural tissue. If the postures are done with reasonably good alignment and conscious awareness, the structural changes that result will tend to bring the midline of the body into harmony with the field of gravity. Many long term practitioners become taller and straighter as a result. Chronic tensions which arise from us being in a constant battle with gravity are automatically eradicated over time, as the body realigns.
This is truly a holistic process. It is also a particularly complex process. While each posture does “work on” specific sections of the body, it also simultaneously works on the body as a whole. Each Ashtanga series also works on the body as a whole, with the net effect of practicing all of the postures in the series being much greater and deeper than the sum of the effects of each individual posture.
In systems thinking, we can talk about “emergent properties” which arise from higher levels of organization but cannot be found in the parts of that system. A car, for example, has many emergent properties that cannot be found in any of the individual parts from which it is composed. A forest has emergent properties which cannot be found in each individual tree, animal, or rock. Similarly, an Ashtanga series, practiced in sequence with the connecting vinyasa and breathing has effects on the structure of the body which cannot be found from practicing any of the individual asanas in the series in isolation.
I think it logically follows from this that if the repetitive sequence of postures we are practicing is having a net effect on the structure of the body as a whole, it is a very complex process which even the most knowledgeable anatomy expert cannot possibly hope to completely understand. We should probably respect this complex process and not complicate it further with extra inputs. Practice the series in the morning; then take the rest of the day to allow the body to integrate those inputs before reapplying the process the following morning. Slowly but surely, the body changes. When it is done in this way, the changes are usually stable.
But, if we feel like we are stuck on one posture, and then go home and later in the day apply some more repetitive practice of this posture (or hip openers or back openers or core strengtheners) out of the context of the sequence, then the inputs on the body become very different and the body now has to contend with a second set of unique and demanding inputs to integrate into its structure. Since these inputs have come without the usual context of the Ashtanga sequence, they may not necessarily even be in harmony with the first set of inputs that are coming from the sequence.
For example, one could experience being stuck at a posture that requires some degree of opening in the hips that is not currently possible. It might make perfect sense to then go home and spend 30 minutes in the afternoon doing extra exercises to stretch the hips. But, it could very well be that the net emergent effect of that person’s entire morning practice is currently to generate more opening in the thoracic spine during backbending. The body needs to compensate for the opening in the thoracic spine by tightening up somewhere else – ie. the hips. So, by going home and then forcefully stretching the hips, one is actually sabotaging the intelligence of the body and the direction it is attempting to move in with the practice.
A tree can be shaped by an expert gardener – or even by natural environmental conditions – over time. The entire shape of the tree can be permanently and dramatically changed over a period of years by the cumulative micro effects of the daily inputs given by the gardener and environmental conditions. However, if the gardener attempts to force too much change in the shape of the tree too quickly with excessively strong manipulations and inputs, the tree will either break or wither and die.
Sustainable change takes time to integrate. Asking for too much change too quickly will never bring sustainable results; or, if it does, it will necessarily involve a period of fairly intense discomfort and instability before the results become healthy and sustainable.
This is why I strongly believe that one should not practice any strenuous asana beyond one’s daily morning practice. The inputs of the Ashtanga sequence on the human body are very deep and powerful. It is wise to treat them with respect and give them the space they need to settle in and be integrated.
In complete contradiction to the above explanation, I decided to start working on karandavasana at home. Why did I disregard my own views on doing extra practice at home? It’s a good question, and an important question. I never would have done this had I not been in Mysore. There was definitely an element of wanting to perform and to prove something. Sharath had challenged me and had done so publicly. I wanted to meet his challenge, and I had a limited period of time during which I could do this. I also felt that having practiced the advanced series for nearly 10 years and having just gone through a phase of practicing two series per day, that my current practice in Mysore of intermediate series only up to karandavasana was fairly easy and non-strenuous. My practice was only one hour long and finished by 5:30 am. It seemed relatively harmless to attempt a little more later in the day at home.
I was certainly wary about the prospect of practicing karandavasana at home without the context of the sequence. For the shoulders to support the movement safely, they require a significant amount of warm up and need to be well aligned. If any problems arose from this extra practice, I figured they would come from too much strain on an improperly prepared shoulder girdle.
I attempted it at around 11 am, before lunch and still a little bit warm from my morning practice. I would do a few simple shoulder openers and then go straight into attempting karandavasana. I was happy to find that there was no strain at all on the shoulders and that I could do it quite well. I started with 3 – 5 repetitions of the posture, and over the next few days worked my way up to 8 – 9 repetitions, usually done in sets of 3, with a bit of a shoulder release in between sets.
I found that I actually felt very good after doing this. I would feel more open in the chest and shoulders and feel taller and straighter, which I always interpret as a sign of “correct practice”. I would normally do this extra little home practice 4 days a week, from Monday to Thursday, and then give it a rest on the other three days. Though there was no significant change in my karandavasana, after a few weeks I did start to manage to keep the hands a little more apart after 4 or 5 of the repetitions at home.
In the shala, my performance of karandavasana did not improve. In fact, it seemed to be getting a little more difficult as time went on. I could still do it in the shala, and usually on my first attempt, but it was sloppier and the hands would come in more than in my home practice of the posture.
I didn’t have much hope of being able to achieve karandavasana without the hands coming in before the three month trip was over. I resigned myself to being stuck on the posture for the remainder of the trip. Several people mentioned to me that Sharath would likely move me on within a few weeks, and that the way I was practicing karandavasana was definitely good enough – he just wanted to make sure I had to work a little bit harder before getting moved forward in the series. Whether this was true or not, I realized that the posture could be improved and I did want to be able to practice it without the hands coming in, so I continued with my home regime.
Part way through my second month of practice at the shala, things started to get more difficult. I noted the same thing on my first trip: The first month felt very open, light and easy, while in the second month and third month things started to tighten up and practice became more challenging. All of the other postures in my practice began to feel a little stiffer and the flow seemed to be less natural. Practice became a bit of a struggle overall, though I could still do everything reasonably well.
Around this time, I also started to notice a strange effect after my home karandavasana sessions. After finishing my 8 or 9 repetitions, I would stand up and feel a bit of cramping at the bottom of my sitting bones. It felt like the insertion point of my hamstrings and was quite a strong sensation. It would only last a few seconds, and I would simply do a standing forward bend and then everything would feel fine. I assumed it was the hamstrings and I found it very peculiar. I wondered how it was that karandavasana was creating a strain on the hamstring, since my hamstrings are open and strong and the effect of karandavasana on the hamstrings should be fairly negligible. In hindsight, this was the first warning sign of something going wrong and I should have paid a lot more attention to it.
The sense of struggle in my practice carried on for the next few weeks of my second month. Karandavasana was becoming more difficult as well. It seemed to take more effort to lift up and it felt sloppier. I also started to feel more tired during the day, and began taking naps, which I had not been doing in the first month.
In the second half of the second month, there was one day where Sharath seemed to be giving everyone new postures. I was having a particularly difficult time that day. It was hotter than usual and I felt quite low in energy and stiffer than usual. As I came to karandavasana, I wondered if I would be able to do it at all. I was looking forward to being in the finishing room. I did manage to do it, and as I straightened back into pincha mayurasana after lifting up, I heard Sharath say, “You did?” I jumped back into chaturanga and then heard him say, “You did karandavasana?”
I looked at him and said “Yes, I did.”
“Show me again”, he replied. I groaned to myself. I was so sweaty and exhausted, I was not sure I could do it a second time. I tried. As I had feared, I was not able to lift back up. When I looked up, Sharath had already walked away silently. I chuckled to myself and thought, “blew my chance”….
After that day, I was not able to lift up in karandavasana at all. My ability to do the posture vanished completely. Each day in the shala, my attempts to lift up would get worse and worse. For a few days, I was only able to lift part way up. Then, I could barely even get my legs off my arms at all. Finally, it came to the point where I actually could not even start to lift up. My brain would give the command to lift up, and the muscles simply would not respond. I would just slide off my arms and shake my head in bewilderment. It felt like a mental block as much as a physical one. Though I never bothered looking up to see if I was being watched, those who were practicing near me told me that Sharath was watching me intently each time I attempted to do it. After a week or two of this, he came over one day to backbend me at the end of my practice and shot me a disappointed look that said it all. My only response was to laugh sarcastically and shrug. No words were necessary.
Losing the ability to lift up should have been my second warning sign that something was going wrong and I was perhaps overdoing things by practicing at home. This sign was much clearer than the little moments of cramping below my sitting bone, yet I also ignored this warning sign. I became frustrated and actually started putting more effort into the home practice, sometimes attempting it more than 10 times per day, even though I was no longer able to lift up at home either. It began to feel like I was beating a dead horse, yet I kept beating it.
I know from experience in the practice that big breakthroughs are often preceded by a period of time where things seem to hit rock bottom. Sometimes things have to come apart before they can be rebuilt in a better way. I theorized that this could be what was happening to me now. My assumption was that losing the ability to lift up at all in karandavasana was hitting rock bottom. I was wrong.
During the final week of the second month, I began to feel really unstable in my practice. There was a strong sense of resistance and avoidance and I could feel what I can only describe as a quivering, shaking feeling deep in my nerves. While my inner focus and composure were still there, the deepest root of my physical stability seemed to feel strongly threatened. I began to feel other elements of my practice which were second nature to me also slipping away. Jumping into bakasana became sloppier; during one led primary series class I could barely even lift up and jump back between each posture. The whole practice felt clunky and seemed to take me back about 15 years to what my first year of practice felt like. It was humbling, to say the least.
Finally, the hitting of rock bottom happened: During one Mysore practice, after completing bakasana I jumped through for bharadvajasana and suddenly felt what seemed like a bolt of lightning shoot through my left leg. It was probably one of the most intense pains I have ever felt in my life and my leg went partially numb. I practically went into a state of shock.
I have had experiences before where something really gets tweaked in the practice, and then by carefully continuing the practice, it disappears just as quickly as it came. This was much stronger than any “tweak” I had ever felt before though. I very carefully put my body into bharadvajasana, which I could do, but the entire body was still quivering in shock. When I tried to jump back, the electric pain shot through my left leg again. I gingerly stepped through and did the other side of bharadvajasana. I repeated the process for ardha matsyendrasana and it was very clear that this tweak was not going to release. I could not even fathom attempting eka pada sirsasana, so I just sat there for a minute, unsure of what to do. The intensity of the room swirled around me and I had a very lucid feeling like suddenly being jerked violently out of a dream.
I decided to end the practice. I walked over to the stage and told Sharath that something had happened to my leg and I needed to stop practice. He looked at me and then quickly nodded and said “Okay, don’t do backbending”. I went into the change room with the intention of doing the full finishing sequence, but the pain was so strong that I could not even lift my body into sarvangasana or sirsasana. I struggled to place my body into yoga mudra and then laid down to rest. Getting up and rolling up my mat was excruciating and I was unsure I would even be able to walk out. Thankfully, I did manage to do that.
I was concerned, but figured that it would be something that I could release with a few days of primary series practice. There were three more days left in the week and I managed to do a very painful primary series on those days, though certain postures were not possible at all. It did not seem to get any better.
It was a very strange pain, and unlike anything I had experienced before. There was no pain in the spine or back, and the spinal movements themselves seemed to be unrestricted. Anything that required the same kind of abdominal and pelvic strength or flexion that karandavasana requires would send a shooting pain through my left outer thigh and all the way down to my foot. Certain types of forward folding, with the legs in different rotations also elicited the same pain. Other types of forward folding were fine. It depended on the rotation of the hips and the degree of strength required. It was very clear to me that this pain was caused by my excessive karandavasana regime, as any postures which resembled the movements of karandavasana triggered the pain most strongly.
Backbending was the only movement that did not elicit any pain and actually felt more open than usual. I decided to return to intermediate series practice, though anything beyond the twists would not be possible. With some trepidation I came to the led intermediate practice the following Monday. It went okay (though still very painful) up to the backbends and twists. As we came to eka pada sirsasana, I decided to stop and got ready to leave for finishing postures. Sharath was well aware of me and watching from the stage. He encouraged me to attempt eka pada. I was surprised to find that I could do the right side. For the left side, he told me to at least attempt it as much as I could, which was not very much. He stood near me for the next few postures and guided me with some suggestions for modifications, making sure I stayed up to karandavasana.
It felt empowering to complete the practice, and I found the leg was actually somewhat better afterwards. Stretching it to the degree that was possible seemed to help a bit. I still had some hope that the problem would resolve itself sooner than later.
I felt a deep sense of surrender as we began Mysore practice that week. For the preceding two months, I had felt quite a bit of performance pressure around karandavasana. Now that my practice was in smoldering ruins, and I knew there was no chance of doing karandavasana at all and that several other postures in my practice had to be modified or avoided, there was actually some sense of relief. Though my practice was very painful and unpleasant, that sense of surrender to my circumstances also created a sort of relaxation and letting go. I developed a new routine which involved skipping the left side of eka pada, dwi pada and yoga nidrasana. I could do tittibhasana and pincha mayurasana. For karandavasana, I would lift up and cross my legs but could not lower down, as even the lowering movement would start to trigger the pain.
It was a challenge to be in this state. It was very humbling, and a good experience to go through. Sharath’s attitude towards me also changed. He became more outwardly kind and less pressuring. Though each day was an immense struggle, moving slowly and carefully and bearing the pain that many of the movements elicited, I did see that slowly but surely most of the movements were gradually returning. Each day and each week I would feel a little more open, and could go a little further into certain movements, or use the internal strength a little more without triggering the bolts of pain. The practice became about finding that fine line of generating enough movement to stimulate creative healing but not so much that would cause aggravation of the symptoms.
Facing the intense physical discomfort and the emotional vulnerability of having to go through this process in public was a very deep form of practice. In many ways, it was about dropping back into the real purpose of the practice. Instead of obsessing about the external appearance of one particular posture, I was able to drop back into the internal process of working with my reactions to my own inner experiences.
My third month in Mysore was a difficult process of slow recovery from the injury caused by my own excessive ambitions. As I was also struggling with other aspects of my Mysore experience and my experience of life in general, I was eagerly looking forward to the end of my trip. I longed to return to my home in the humid and quiet rice fields of Bali, where I could practice alone and in the dark before teaching with only the sounds of crickets and frogs to accompany me as I limped through my practice and continued to encounter my own pain. I had completely let go of all ambition to “move on” past karandavasana and was ready for the trip to end.
A couple of weeks later, I had healed to the extent that lowering into karandavasana became possible again. Lifting back up still seemed light years away. In my second to last led intermediate class, I attempted karandavasana as usual and then rolled up my mat to go to the change room for finishing. As I started walking, Sharath turned towards me and said “Show me”. I actually laughed out loud sarcastically. He then turned back to whomever he was helping. I just stood there for a minute, and wanted to tell him “No”. What was the point? Karandavasana was not going to come again for a long time. He remained focused on someone else, so I sighed and put my mat back down and gave it a second attempt. I was shocked to find that I actually was able to lift halfway back up. I felt a deep focus and strength that I had not felt since the beginning of the trip. For one brief moment everything came together again inside me. Sharath didn’t say anything and I then went to the change room for finishing.
The next day in Mysore class, I prepared for backbending after my attempt at karandavasana and Sharath again called to me from the stage and told me to repeat it. I failed again, and he attempted to give me some helpful instructions, which were things I already knew but that my body just could not execute in its current state. I still had no hope of lifting back up again anytime soon. I was expecting it to be at least a few more months.
I then continued to attempt karandavasana twice per practice session, as it seemed like that was what Sharath expected now. I could feel that he now wanted to move me past the posture but could not justify doing so until I could lift up again. I, however, was quite content to wait until the next trip!
In the following led intermediate class, which was my last one of the season, he again asked me to “show him” after I started to walk towards the change room. The same thing happened as in the previous week’s class; I was able to lift up part way and felt that glimmer of what it used to feel like, but was not successful in lifting up fully.
On Thursday of that final week, which was my second to last Mysore practice of the season, I lowered down into karandavasana as usual. Somehow, I then lifted back up. It was shocking. I didn’t feel like I had really tried to do it, and I had had no ambition or expectation to do so. Yet, somehow my body came up. I was so surprised that I actually started trembling. I unfolded my legs and extended my shoulders straight. It was sloppy and certainly no better than it had been in the beginning of the trip, but I had done it. I jumped back to chaturanga from pincha and immediately heard Sharath’s voice from the stage – “Mayurasana”.
I looked up towards him, just to make sure it was not a coincidence and that he actually was talking to me. He gave me the biggest smile I have ever seen on him, and nodded and gestured with the mayurasana arm position.
It was an intense moment. Suddenly, all the pain and the dark tunnel that my practice and life had been for the past while dissolved into a moment of lightness. It was as if a thick fog had suddenly lifted. I smiled back at him and nodded and attempted mayurasana. He immediately informed me that it was not correct and critiqued several aspects of how I did the posture.
The following day I was able to do karandavasana again. Even though my body still had a long way to go to heal completely, it was an unexpected and somehow fitting way to end the trip.
Having been home in Bali for two weeks now, I am still working through the injury. I managed to put my left leg behind my head and to do supta kurmasana for the first time since the injury in my practice this week. Still, there is a lot of pain to work through and I anticipate it will be another 2 – 4 months before I am pain free. Interestingly, karandavasana has returned to feeling quite smooth and feels like one of the least effortful parts of my practice at the moment.
This trip to Mysore was a very important one. In many ways I feel like it was a calibration of my relationship with Sharath. I think we both learned a lot about how to deal with each other, and my next trip will be much better as a result.
The interesting question that still stands out to me is why I chose to disregard my own understanding of how to practice? Why did I allow myself to succumb to the ambition of excessive practice in order to perform?
I would never have chosen to do that anywhere else, whether at home or if I was practicing in another shala. Was it that the environment of Mysore brought out some unhealthy inner tendency of mine which I had not yet completely resolved? And, was it my time to face that tendency again?
Sharath pushed me hard on both of my trips, for reasons that only he can know. One thing that is clear to me however, is that Sharath would not have approved of my extra practice of karandavasana at home. He also strongly advocates not practicing asana more than once per day. If I had asked him what I should do to improve my karandavasana, he definitely would not have told me to go and do what I did.
I know this, and I knew it then, so I certainly take most of the credit and responsibility for my own actions. I will certainly learn from my mistake, and this will serve me well on future trips to Mysore as I get into more advanced practice there.
I share this story for various reasons. I feel it is important to publicly express and share the darker side of practice as well as the dangers of “incorrect practice”. As social media and pop culture increasingly promote asana practice as an image contest and a fashion show, the dangers of harming oneself by getting caught up in this trend increase.
Even though I was not attempting to create the perfect karandavasana so that I could post it on facebook, youtube, or the cover of a magazine, the fact is that I was still trying to create a perfect karandavasana at least partly for image related reasons. This is what led to my excessive practice which led to my injury.
The most interesting thing is that I intellectually understood all of this very well before this experience. Even though I have watched numerous fellow practitioners and students injure themselves in a similar way, it seems I had to finally experience it for myself in my own body to fully comprehend the truth of it.