Monday, February 29, 2016

Second Series

 Camel Pose.  Or, casually hanging out at home.

The first time I ever did the Astanga Second Series (or Intermediate Series) was back in March 2012.   I was in my second week of teacher training at O2 Yoga, a time that is loving referred to as "Astangaland" and after slugging through Primary Series the weekend before, I was intrigued to try the next phase.  How different could it be??   At first, it was pretty comfortable, familiar territory -- those five Sun A's and five Sun B's were becoming old hat.  Then the next set of opening postures -- Warriors and Angles and Standing Forward Folds and, of course, a couple of standing balances.  Yeah, I got this.

And then the wheels came off the wagon.

Once we'd completed the "warm up" and moved into the actual Second Series postures, I was like a fish out of water, floppin' around and gasping for air.  There was twisting and back bending and feet being jammed behind the head.  There were exotic animals that told a story -- a peacock that is startled by a crocodile that chases a horse that jumps over a fence and lands on a cowface...  Something something something.  There's rolling and jumping and utter chaos around every corner.  And then -- seven headstands?  Good lord.  By the time we made our way into the familiar closing sequence, I was beyond rattled.  I thought to myself, "I suck at yoga.  What the hell am I doing in teacher training??"

Luckily, I wasn't alone in this overwhelming feeling and, after talking with my TT group, we all hashed out our Second Series demons and kept the momentum forward-moving.  I wondered if I'd ever do the sequence again in my yoga-lifetime, fairly certain that answer was no.  And maybe that answer would have remained a no except that when it became a yes, it truly changed my life.

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post -- "The Accidental Astangi" -- that chronicles what happened to get me to roll out my mat in Primary Series, let alone Second.  The short version of the story is my friends started teaching it and so I came to be supportive -- but what I learned was trying this practice was valuable to my growth as a yogi and, quite frankly, as a person.  Doing Second Series again after taking a three year break from it was incredibly rewarding.  While it was still hard and totally insane, I also could see how far my practice had come in the years between attempts and it was seeing this progress that allowed me to decide quite effortlessly to give this Astanga-business the ol' college try.  I set -- and have achieved -- a goal to attend a minimum of two Astanga classes a month -- one Primary and one Second.  It's a manageable and reasonable goal.  And what I'm pleasantly surprised to report is that I am being outed as a fan of Astanga.  ME!  Liking Astanga.  Those are just not words I thought I'd ever say and my friends at the studio just shake their head and chuckle at me as I nerd out about the "correct" order of the final three lotus postures in the series or options for modifying horse pose or how I challenge myself to do just a "tap down" during the three wheels at the end of class.  "I've been working on my nakrasana," is a phrase I've said as recently as last week.  A year and one month ago, I would have just given up if the teacher suggested a single hopping crocodile -- now I'm going for it with all I gots.

Who is this yogi??  Is this me now??  Man, it's just so great to report that it is!!  Having new challenges and goals and fine tuning what I have already learned or achieved means a lot to me and the concreteness of Astanga gives me such an easy yard stick to measure the distance from here to there.  It gives me a way to discuss it and a vernacular that can be easily understood.  Doing Astanga has pulled me out of my comfort zone and kicked my ass and humbled me and made me feel more proud than maybe is reasonable.  I honestly love it.  Second Series, especially, feels like an Everest to climb and the fact that I have done it twelve months in succession is a serious point of pride for me.  I'm 12 for 12, baby!!  That doesn't mean that I have nailed every pose and can do it all flawlessly -- there are quite a few flaws, actually -- but I am learning how to modify.  I am figuring out what I can reasonably approach and learn and improve upon and what I may have to modify for the rest of this lifetime.  That's what's so awesome about yoga (well, one of the million awesome things about yoga) -- there is always more to learn, to examine, to think about.  My Astanga Goal has been so easy to keep and achieve because it's such an instantaneous teachable moment.  Always.  Recently, one of the teachers at O2 joked about having a "how to do a vinyasa" workshop and my honest response was, "OK, great idea.  I'd love that."  In fact, the more "routine" a posture is, the more questions I have about it.  Astanga gives you five breaths in a lot of postures that serve as the foundation for O2 Yoga and thus gives me exactly the right amount of time to think about them before moving on to the next pose.  How cool is that??  So cool, so cool.  My yoga nerd brain just lights right up even thinking about it.

It's good to invest your time in learning experiences.  It's good to learn, period.  Yoga is something that teaches me a lot and doing it someplace like O2, where the motto is "Up Dogs, Down Dogs, No Dogma," gives me the space and the opportunity to learn what I am ready to learn as I'm ready to learn it.  No one is telling me the moral of the story -- I am left to figure that out on my own.  And what I've learned this last year during my Astanga Quest is I am just beginning to understand anything at all.  How exciting!  How rewarding!  How can it be that Astanga is part of this process at all?  Some day, my bafflement over this will dissipate and I will be better able to see how clear the path was from one point to the other.  Of course it makes sense -- five Sun A's, five Sun B's, let's go...  No reason to quit if it doesn't go well the first time -- keep putting in the work and when the time is right, you'll get the chance to try again.

What I learned is that doing Second Series the first time was hard because I didn't know what I needed to know to battle my way through it.  It wasn't that I "sucked at yoga" -- Second Series is just really hard!  In order to learn how to do it, you really have to put in the work.  The harder you have to work at something, the better it feels when you can see evidence of progress.

I still have miles to go on this journey, but there's a little spring in my step as I make my way through the wild and wacky world of Astangaland.  I'm having fun, people. Come visit me here sometime -- you'll see how pretty the sunrise and sunsets truly are.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Too Much of a Good Thing is a Good Thing

When you walk into my office at O2 Yoga in Cambridge, Massachusetts, you will see one of my most highly held beliefs written in the middle of a whiteboard:  "No matter what kind of day I'm having, yoga makes it better."  One of our regular students Jesse asked me once, "Who said that -- Pattabhi Jois?"  No, Jesse.  It wasn't the founder of Astanga Yoga.  It was I, Wolfstar, Yoga Studio Manager & Practioner Extraordinaire.  It's my saying because it is something I hold true in my experience.  Whenever a student or workstudy member or cafe staff personnel or teacher comes into the office to sit on the World's Most Comfortable Couch to ask whether or not they should practice that day, I simply point at the board:

End of discussion.

Recently, my own motto was put to the test during the studio's annual 31 Day Challenge.  We offer a $31 January deal that allows students to practice every day for that amount and for every day they do so, they earn a discount for February.  Now, as the studio manager, my yoga membership is part of my paycheck so there is absolutely no reason for me to be competitive about this Challenge.  But I was determined to do all 31 days.  I have an almost-daily practice, as is, but occasionally life happens and I skip a day here or there.  Not in January, though.  I was going to do it.  And everything was going great until the last week when I got a horrible cough that chicken/egg'd with complete exhaustion.  Any sane, rational person would have taken this as a sign to go home, yoga will be there for you another day.

Say what you will about me, but I did not listen to sane/rational and I went to class anyway.

The thing about doing yoga when you're not feeling 100% -- be it wellness, be it an injury, but it exhaustion, hangover, or emotional what-have-you -- is you won't know if it's a good idea until that first downward facing dog.  I don't drink much anymore and can't remember the last time I was hungover, but back in the day, I went to a class once after a night of pretty terrific drinking -- at noon on a Saturday, mind you -- and realized in the first seated twist that I was still drunk.  Class was maybe not the best idea that day.  It was also a January Basics class and I was all the way in the front corner, trapped with fifty other people all just trying to enjoy their weekend and I could not leave the class.  I made it through -- I even give it credit for sobering me up and eliminating my hangover -- but it was definitely not the best idea I ever had.

But a lot of the time, yoga helps work injuries and illness out.  Lots of poses are designed to aid in healing.  The key is to do the postures correctly and safely, of course, but when you have a handle on that, there is nothing better than that good yoga glow you get after a stellar practice.  I feel very fortunate to be trained in a style of yoga that emphasizes safety in postures so I can feel confident that what I'm doing is productive.  

So, yes, I did all 31 Days in January -- today is actually the first day I am taking off from my mat since, oh, December 29th.  Yoga is part of my daily life, my daily ritual, my daily reminder to be here now.  Nothing grounds me more in this moment than the focus and precision that goes along with an athletic and sometimes complicated practice that, at the time, is the simple linking of breath and movement.  I do it every day because I love it -- because it makes me happy -- because it gives me an excuse to do one thing at a time.  Writing this makes me almost want to cancel my dinner plans, throw on my yoga gear, and scoot to the studio, but I won't.  I will take a day off, only knowing how sweet it will be to get back on my mat again tomorrow.

Must be love, kids.  Must be love.