Pain, surrender, and serendipity in practice

There are days when the flow of energy is good, my body is loose yet strong, and practice feels effortless.

Unfortunately, those days are pretty rare.

More often than not, I often practice with pain as my wonderful companion. Pain visits me in various places…for a few weeks, it stayed in my left shoulder. This meant I couldn’t really jump back and hand stands became a real challenge. On other days, my right hip — always the stiffer and more stubborn one of the two — would complain. And now, more often than not, my lower back would really flare up.

Today was no exception. My lower back complained when I got out of bed at 4:14 am. As I slowly sipped my coffee, I debated whether I would skip yoga and just go surfing (more forgiving than Bhairasana, Durvasana, and tic tocs) instead. But I checked the surf report and it was going to small, about 2 foot, and drained out with a negative tide in the early morning. So I opted for the shala instead.

I am usually the first one in the shala, even before Andrew. That’s fine by me — I unlock the shala doors, turn on the lights…and now that it is summer, I don’t have to turn on the heater. I love the deep quiet in the early morning. As I set my mat carefully on the floor, I made a careful intention to be mindful of my body, and to stop if my body felt that it needed to. I let go of any unrealistic expectations (come up in karandavasana after five deep full breaths! bhairasana and urdhva Kukku A, B, AND C without falling over like a rolly-poly bug! tocking over without any help whatsoever!). I really tried to be happy with what my back would allow me to do. And if I cried, well that would be OK too.

Pain was a faint, but constant dark shadow that followed my breath with every move. I decided to breathe more, and focus on breath. Alicia came in shortly after I started my practice, and I found her presence so comforting. I tell myself, “Let me get through this, and see how I feel.” I get through standing poses, pashasana, and barely survive Kapotasana. My friend Vivs generously helped me with Supta V and I barely got through that! Slowly others begin to trickle in, and Andrew comes in to do a short chanting 15 minutes before the “actual” shala practice time of 6 am.

Certain poses certainly become markers of how I should progress or stop. If Eka Pada felt bad, I might just stop…but somehow Eka Pada felt okay. My hips were loose and pain did not shadow them there. Pincha Mayurasana and Karandavasana would be the ultimate test of my back. I brought intense focus to breath, and made great effort to lift up from solar plexus rather than trying to bring my legs up from the hips. I expanded my breath in the lungs and focused all energy in my chest and arms to lift, and this seemed to help. Karandavasana was tricky when I tried to land; I held out for maybe only 3-4 breaths before coming up, barely. But I was able to manage this. I tried to exit back into Chataranga as lightly as I could, and this was helpful too.

I noticed that pain now was a fainter shadow, and somehow focusing on breath was key. It made me slow down, and there was an element of surrender…meaning an acknowledgement of the pain, and moving more slowly. Practice took longer this time, about 1 hour 50 minutes, but perhaps this was good rather than trying power through and speed through practice because I was worried about showing up late to work.

I fell over in Urdhva A and had to try three times before I got it right. Urdhva B was a joke as usual. Urdhva C…eh, it was a joke too. Then it was time for back bends. I focused on how my back felt, and surprisingly, the back bends again helped it to feel better. Drop backs were okay, and I thought perhaps I would try one tic toc.

Andrew came over to help, and stood by my right side as he usually does. The tics are rarely a problem — I try to control the descent as best as I can, and usually, the slower I go the better the rest goes. I breathed as fully as I could, and tried to remember the feeling of curling my feet over my head. It’s always a leap of faith to hurl up. I needed help with the first one, and on the second try, could not come up. “Try to remember what you did the first time,” Andrew said. I had been thinking too much, resided too much in my head. I focused on breath, and curling my back, lifting my head up. The curling of the back helped with the pain; at this point it was surprisingly absent. It seemed like an odd synchronicity of events — of surrender mentally, to be OK with whatever happens…to breathe…to curl the back and lift the legs up…to have faith as I pushed back with my arms. I curled up and jumped, and somehow my feet flew over.

“Ah!” Andrew said. “I didn’t help you at all this time.” He smiled mischieviously and said, “Next time I will just stand by you.”

It felt miraculous, serendipitous. As per the norm, I needed help the third time. In Chakorasana bandhasana, where you try to catch heels from back bend, I opened my chest and bent from hips down. Felt a distinct pop in lower back, and somehow the shadow of pain completely dispersed. Caught heels and Andrew said, ‘Oh, very good, Straighten your legs more.” Straightening legs more became too intense and I had to come back up. My body was shaking, and I think I cried out loud even though there was no pain. Just intensity with great force.

When I pick up my mat to finish in the back, my friend Nathalie throws me a laughing glance. There were no words but an immediate feeling of understanding. I mutter, “Oh my God!” and we chuckle quietly. Meanwhile, the others breathe and sweat and wrestle through their own practice, with their own selves. Just as we all do.

As I settled into forward bend, and then into finishing poses, I realized how important breath was. Just breath. And slowing down. Paying minute attention. Just like life. And somehow, by toeing the hard edge of pain, there was that unique point of surrender and freedom. Mind stops, and there you are.

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