The Interior Journey of the Intermediate Series, part I

LhotseMountain.jos.500pix (1)Sometimes I look at the Intermediate Series as akin to a journey into the Himalayas — it is an endless trek that feels impossibly difficult. We also venture into the interior terrain of the body and soul, and there are two big “hills” over which we must climb. The first is Kapotasana. For me, the second “hill” (or maybe mountain is more accurate) is Karandavasana.

So far, what I have heard is that, in the intermediate series of Ashtanga yoga, Karandavasana is the most difficult pose that challenges men and women alike, sometimes for a long time.

So, in my naivete, I thought that all the poses afterwards would be much easier once one got past Karandavasana. When Andrew gave me Mayurasana, I thought, “Wow, finally! Now it is all downhill from here.”

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I was sorely mistaken. Those deceptively “easy” poses after Karandavasana were not so easy after all.

Mayurasana proved to be even more challenging, and I struggled for months longer in this pose than I did in Karandavasana. This is a gravity-defying pose that seemed to elude all my efforts to master it. It was a good teaching pose for the ego, especially after India. Like Kapotasana, it brought tears to my eyes as I crumpled down to my yoga mat in defeat while watching others progress to Nakrasana and onwards. Finally I realized that it was not so much trying to bring my legs up while balancing on my forearms, and but stiffening my core and chest until they were hard as a board. Only then could I leverage the weight of my legs upwards against the gravity which wanted to pull me down. To myself, I called it “The Christi”…after my friend Christi H., who had no problem with Mayurasana. Somehow, imagining that I was her made it easier to settle into the pose. It was a silly little mind trick that helped me a great deal.

Then there was Nakrasana, the Crocodile Pose. It looked so easy when others did this, and sort of fun, too, to jump five breaths forward and then jump five breaths back. That is, until you try to do this yourself. I could barely lift myself forwards after two breaths, especially after all the physical exertion in Karandavasana and Mayurasana. They say that yoga is not about the poses…which is true…and really, when one’s physical energy is completely spent, there is no pose at all! I suppose that it is about maintaining that steady “one-pointed” mind through the very difficult aspects of practice. Of course, one day, 20 minutes after finishing, I realized that I had completely forgotten to do Nakrasana. I remember thinking, “Wow! Vatayasanana feels a little easier today. Maybe I’m finally getting it!” That was because I forgot Nakrasana…perhaps a Freudian slip, of sorts. Kino MacGregor gives a great intro to Nakrasana in this video:

Then we have Vatayanasana, the Horse Pose as commonly known, or the Window Pose in Ashtanga. You close the “window” of your bent knee (the knee that is half lotus) to your heel which is supposed to be flat on the ground, with the feet pointing outwards. To me, it was the pose that never seemed to end. By the end of this pose, I may be completely drenched in sweat and my limbs are shaking. The vinyasa — or the transitioning poses — is difficult enough, but the actual pose itself is also really hard.

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After all the strength-based poses from Karandavasana to Vatayasana, Parighasana is a welcome relief. Just tucking the leg back and bending sideways. That’s it! I can catch my breath!! I imagine if Krishnamacharya’s young students (Pattahbi Jois among them!) would be doing the same thing. And, I do wonder how poses get inserted in the Series and it is something that I will explore with my teachers.parighasana-dana-rae-pare

But let me tell you, Gomukhasana is another sneaky pose. It looks easy but is not. It is another balancing pose where I had to focus inwardly and shift my weight forward. So, I find myself focusing not at all on my limbs but at how my internal core feels…similar to the feeling in Karandavasana…how stable does one’s body feel internally admist all that movement. Just recently, I tried bending forward a little and trying to balance with my weight over the front part of my bent thighs. Bending forward seems counter-intuitive, but it seems to helped me a little. Of course, it is very possible that I could be doing it all wrong, but so far, have not heard otherwise from Andrew or David.

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Yesterday, David showed me Supta Urdhva Pada Vajrasana. It felt like another present which I must carefully open; the “gifting” of poses in Ashtanga is another neat idea which I will write about later. The present of Supta Urdha Pada Vajrasana will probably take another while to get…I have no idea how people catch their foot in half lotus while upside down.

For all the physical challenges of Nadi Shodhana, I feel that somehow the postures force you to turn inward. It feels a bit strange to say this, but it seems that the more I focus on the physicality — like where my limbs should go and how I should look — the more I lose the pose. When worrying too much on the outer — say, if I’m arching my back enough while coaxing my legs into lotus while upside down in Karandanvasana — I lost the pose…my legs come out, or maybe I land too hard on my arms and slip. It happens more when I’m tired, without a good night’s sleep. But I found that when I turned my attention inward…to how things feel within my body, then a new stability comes forth and holds me steady. Well, sort of. But still, I try…and I figure that a smidgen of steadiness is better than none at all. So that is why I consider the intermediate series as an interior journey. In hindsight, what I’ve written seems very physical. There are many physical aspects to which we must pay attention, but it also leads us to an internal component. That is to say, the increased physical challenges of the postures have forced me to focus more on my internal awareness, of both the body and emotions.

The seven headstands waiting after Supta Urhva Pada Vajrasana are the final frontier…but for now, I will just focus on trying to catch that foot in half lotus while upside down…

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