Just Breathe

“What could he have done or said differently? What change would have altered the course of events? In the big picture, nothing. In the small picture, so much.” ― Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake

So I’m injured right now. It’s not the first time something has happened, nor most likely the last sadly, though it sure would be nice! It wasn’t because of anything in practice, but other times, yes, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit practice has been a crystalline snap in me being hurt. Ahimsa, do no harm, has many facets, and sometimes it’s just not beating yourself up on mistakes of the past, but learning from them. I’m in the midst of dealing with/recovering from bilateral acute Achilles tendinitis, yet in many ways, my practice couldn’t be better. How is this possible? By giving up any expectations beyond the gratitude of just being on my mat again, by not caring how deep, what it looks like, by just trying to see what’s possible. Granted, either having experience yourself and/or guidance from a long term instructor can enhance and help, I would not recommend working through this alone as a novice, as David Keil so beautifully put it in his fantastic book on anatomy

If you have practiced asana consistently for ten years or more for at least one hour each day, it is certain that you know the workings of your body quite well. You may not have the technical anatomical names or understandings, but your kinesthetic knowledge is a very real and powerful way to know the body. This is knowledge that can not be learned from a book.

I’ve been lucky enough to have guidance of a fabulous long term teacher and practitioner telling me to trust myself and the knowledge I’ve gained in practice and just start moving to see what works. She, as well, has been giving me ideas to add movements to work the bones of practice I’m not able to do in a conventional approach. The beauty of a long term practice, in grasping that asana come and go, is having the wisdom in appreciating where you are right now, and knowing what your body is capable of attempting. Certainly by no means am I happy that I can’t bear weight standing, it really sucks quite frankly.  However, instead of dwelling on what wasn’t possible, I decided to creatively figure out just what I could do, without exacerbating the tendinitis, if my legs were cut off below my knees. My first week my practice was just reading, meditation, and breathing, it was perfect and the best I could do. 

So I got the courage to come to my mat. At first I just sat and silently gave my intentions and opening prayers. I chose to start sitting and breathing through a sun salutation in my head. Comically the holds in down dog were harder to breathe through, even though the movements weren’t really happening, the chatter of idea of movement was easier than the stillness. It was worth noticing, worth trying to gain a quiet surrender to the count without the action being necessary. I tried again, without expectation but awareness, and let my bundhas help out this time, and magically the experience became easier. I tried to envision just how I could create this with my limited ability and took the advice to trust myself, to just start moving if it felt right. 

So as an example, Sun A from my knees, inhale arms up, exhale deep fold with arms stretched into child’s pose, inhale look up with my hands still outstretched on the ground, exhale bringing my hands more inline with a chaturanga sliding my legs flat and down more like a cobra, inhale into updog, keeping my feet relaxed, exhale into a tabletop, arching into a cat for the down dog hold of five breaths, inhale child’s pose outstretched looking up, exhale head down, inhale back up on knees, arms up, exhale standing on knees, samasthiti. 

It was awkward at first, I was slow, and using too much shoulder in the first day back, not giving myself enough exhale in my cobra/plank, as I was intuitively just trying to figure out what could work to maintain the integrity not just of the movements but the fluid nature of the breath count as my guide for stability. I needed to just let go of trying for more of anything.  It took me three days of practice to figure out Sun B with any continuity of warrior 1. The first day I just pulled each leg back out behind my tabletop, holding it up to keep it straight, the second day I added bringing my knee forward to my chest before bringing it back down, on the third day I did both actions and added a passive pigeon with my front leg pulled in next to me and stayed low in my squared hips but lifted my arms. The key was not trying to rush it, the key was just seeing with discernment and curiosity versus critism of what could give me the best floor version of a warrior 1, while maintaining my breath. It was surprising just how much work it was, by the time in finished all ten that third day and went straight to dandasana, I was not just covered in a sheen, but had a few drips of sweat equity running down my arms, yet felt steady, calm and relaxed. 

The beauty of trying to figure all this out was in getting there was no need for more. As dynamic as each asana can be, there is something to be said for giving up on any muscular contraction, I was finally figuring out how to surrender, how to balance effort and ease. As I incorporated what I could of the seated sequence of primary, I noticed just how relaxed and deep I was able to go in asana when my only concerns were not hurting my Achilles, so keeping any tension from my legs, combined with breath, bundhas, and dristhi. Purvotansana while in lotus, to protect my ankles, feels really good by the way! A friend tipped me off to that one. 🙂  

There is always more to learn. Seriously, triangamukapada paschimottanasa felt better and more even than ever before. I can’t say how it looked,  but I felt aligned in my hips, folded forward straight out, with ease, clasping my wrists without even a smidgeon of lift in either hip instead of that elusive hair width of extra force needed to balance out what touches the floor. I only did janu A as it didn’t want to mess with my heels but again I felt completely stabile. Mari A and C though not perfect, had so much more twist from the right areas in my obliques and thoratic spine but not pressing my foot into the ground, but just having it gently upright in the right location letting my breath guide the movement much more than I usually allow, so much for muscling into things, ha. 

I only did a few more asana after that piece as accessibility became more difficult,cherry picking around my in ability to use my ankles, but next week, who knows?  I did manage a decent backbending sequence of shalabhasana, first one legged, than a few in full expression, a single gentle danurasana, and ending with three half backs held smoothly with breaths in modified ustrasana, finally ending it with reaching down for a final deeper hold. The only part of the rest of closing I left out was headstand. I can’t pop up into a headstand because I push up from my feet and for fear of landing on my feet wrong, but maybe I could with an assist or a block. I know I’ve explained quite a bit in the technicalities, and practice is so much more than that, but just as in the beginning of learning anything, that piece is integral to find a stabile seat. Whatever takes place, as long as I’m breathing, I’m practicing. As a sweet friend asked me after practice how it went, I smiled and said, it was creative. It’s just getting to the mat, it’s not how much you can do, or how well, but not deciding anything is impossible, not giving in or giving up. Life doesn’t get easier, but how we choose to handle it and the choices we make, make all the difference. 

Excuses, excuses


Let me start by saying I read a fabulous article called Ashtanga:aging and fatigue, this week by Chad Herst. Please read it here. So much of what he talks about is valid and compassionate, as a practitioner who didn’t start practicing until I was 43, I can attest I know what an aging body feels like! Yet, like with anything, it can lead to a rationalization to just give up. Kind of like cheating on a diet, then deciding to binge because you’ve already had a piece a cheesecake.

Obstacles will always arise in our path, that is just the way life works. I swear, everyday, yes every single day, I have very specific reasons come up inside me telling me what I can’t do. My brain is very good at telling me how tired I am, my back is tight, my shoulders are sore, my thumbs hurt, my allergies are kicking in, my balance is off, my ankle is numb, etc. Many days, during my first few sun salutations, I am fighting the urge to just curl right into child’s pose and give up.

You know what? The majority of the time, it’s nothing but blah, blah, blah. I am no masochist or sadist for that matter, I can usually differentiate between discomfort and pain that leads to injury, there is a difference. I promise I’ve never had a day saying I wish I hadn’t practiced today. Not once. Granted as Chad stated in his article, practice isn’t always pushing it to the next level either, but I will add, balancing it, with an honest assessment is key. Cliches abound all about this phenomenon. “Most things in life are difficult before they are easy.”and “Pain is your friend.” Both come to mind, and yet I hate cliches and overuse them…oh the irony.

I’ve come to the mat with chronic discomfort, fatigue included. I subjectively don’t call my past rheumatoid arthritis damage pain. It’s not that it can’t be hurting on any given day, because, sometimes it just does. No rhyme or reason, (another cliche!) just waking up and there it is. Sometimes it’s my back, many days it’s my thumbs, rarely my ankles tweak just to mix things up a bit. Each time the pain is significant, of course I fear another bad flare. Combined with that is just the regular aches and pains of being human like sleeping funny on your neck. These are not injuries to be concerned about per se, and though, I fully get my brain telling me I’ve got an ouchie, it’s not something to throw in the towel about. (More cliches, sigh) I wonder sometimes, what part of me is so resistant? Is it fear? Is it knowing how intense a specific asana is? Is it being lazy? Is it frustration? Impatience? Disliking the asana I’m struggling through?

I’m sure it’s all those things with a dash of ego thrown in to the recipe just to make it all the more dramatic and all about woe is me. (Another one! ) Let me stress, I abhor pain, it’s vile and simply hurts. I try to avoid it like the plague. (I like that one) However, I know that laying in bed all day, (a onetime fantasy for me) barring being very ill, actually is not beneficial to me, or anyone. I’ve done it, on chemo. Laying waiting to have energy does not give you energy. I know this as a fact.

Use it or lose it. (It’s true, but I really dislike this cliche) I have felt like I couldn’t move, seriously, I’ve been so severely flared in my RA the only way to get downstairs in my house was to sit on the stairs and scooch down one step at a time, crying because it hurt to just get myself in the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Looking back, I empathize with that sickly soul, but wish I had been given advice to pick my ass up and try a little harder. Yes, tough love( more cliches really?) and I’m not sure I would have taken it before I was ready to, but alas I know better now. This does not in anyway mean, that I would push through a true injury, assessment, rest as needed, and modification if necessary. Work with a trusted instructor as well as medical intervention if needed.

As crazy as it sounds, movement makes the worst of that pain of discomfort go away. Even when I had to bump my way down those steps, by the last one it was always a little better than the top! It also creates more energy. Movement can not straighten my middle fingers back to normal, but for the most part, action gets the circulation going, which ultimately gets me feeling better. By no means should you practice to a point that you are too exhausted or injured to function. Practice is a support to living as well as a foundation to a lifestyle. The foundation must be tended too, or it starts to slowly crumble away. That does not mean catching your ankles at all costs, but it does mean giving your best effort, in any given day, for that day. It also means that some days you will be sore, but in that sweet way. My quite winded point is, yes pay attention, avoid injury, if not the aging process, but don’t let your mind stop your potential, as all this babble arises, just acknowledge it, see what’s real and then let it go and practice to the best of your capabilities.