Thursday, April 28, 2011

Jump-throughs and jump-backs: An Ashtanga Story

"Nobody deserves your tears, but whoever deserves them will not make you cry."

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Grimmly's last two posts about jump-throughs and jump-backs (I'm going to use "JTJB" as a shorthand for jump-throughs and jump-backs for the rest of this post) are very informative and stimulating (on many levels). As usual, these posts have sparked an interesting conversation (Are we on the same page on this, Grimmly? :-)) So, being the piggy-backer that I am, I'm going to say a few things here about JTJB, and how my experiences with it has shaped my practice.

(1) I think it is no exaggeration to say that JTJB is the single most distinctive feature of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga practice. I do not know of any other style of yoga that employs JTJB quite so ubiquitously in transitions from one posture to another. I mean, when was the last time you saw anybody do JTJBs in an Iyengar class? (Note to reader: This is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. I'm not putting down Iyengar or any other style of yoga. So don't start throwing metaphorical eggs at me...) JTJB, along with vinyasas between postures/sides, form the "glue" which hold the postures and the practice as a whole together in Ashtanga.

(2) JTJB is also quite possibly the single most spectacular and eye-catching aspect of the physical practice of Ashtanga. I vividly remember the first time I saw somebody do a jump-through. I was in grad school at the time, and had just started doing yoga. One of my first yoga teachers was a fellow grad student who had been practicing for a number of years. A few of us would get together with him on Saturday mornings in a local park in Gainesville, Florida to do yoga for a couple of hours (we called it Yoga in the Park). He did not teach any one particular style of yoga, but would basically get us to do whatever sequence he came up with on that particular day. One morning, he was in an Ashtanga mood (I didn't know what Ashtanga was at that time), and suggested to us that we should try to link all the postures we did that morning with a vinyasa and JTJB. Of course, none of us had the slightest idea what he was talking about, so he had to demonstrate. He did a posture (I think it was Paschimottasana) for five breaths, lifted his feet and hips off the ground, hovered there for about a second, shot his legs back into chaturanga and did a vinyasa. And then he lifted himself effortlessly into the air from downdog, crossed his legs, and floated through into a seated position. All of us gathered there were speechless. The two thoughts that immediately occurred to me were: (1) "He must be very strong in his upper body to be able to pull this off", (2) "Gee, it must hurt to bump or scrape one's feet/butt/whatever on the ground on the way through..."

On that particular morning, I found JTJB to be simply too intimidating and impossible, given where I was in my practice at that time. So I basically "chickened out", and did the postures by walking back and forth through the vinyasas. It was at least a few months after this point before I learnt that it was "okay" to jump forward and land on one's feet, and then sit down. And it was about a year after that that I finally managed to jump through (Even then, I was still scraping my toes on the mat on the way through, but I didn't care :-)). And it took yet another year or so beyond that point before I mastered the jump-back.

(3) JTJB is actually very healing and strengthening for the back if done properly. I learnt this the hard way. If you have been reading my last few posts (especially the ones about splitting), you will recall that I messed up my SI joint really badly last June. Around that time, I thought I had mastered the jump-through: I could jump through with straight legs, even if at least one of my legs (I think it was the right leg) wasn't always perfectly straight. There is a pitfall that many practitioners (including yours truly) tend to succumb to when they think they have "mastered" the straight leg jump through (I'm going to call this SLJT from now on). At some point, if one is not careful, one's SLJT tends to become sloppy, and the SLJT becomes a kind of jump and slide from downward dog into the next posture, kind of like a baseball player sliding into base (image courtesy of Susan :-)).

What's wrong with this, you may ask? Well, for one, Ashtanga is not baseball, and there is no Ashtanga equivalent of a home-run (as far as I know). But, more seriously, doing the jump and slide version of SLJT causes one to pay less attention to engaging the bandhas to do the jump-through; one ends up relying more on sheer momentum, which leads to strain on the lower back muscles (and SI joint issues, and all kinds of unpleasant things).

So, around the time that I injured my SI joint, I had succumbed to this pitfall of jumping and sliding into postures (come to think of it, this may have aggravated my SI joint, but this is another story). In the first few days after my injury, my body quickly showed me who's boss, and any attempt to do that jump and slide thing resulted in excruciating pain. So I had to start from square one (actually, it's more like square zero...): From downdog, I had to very very gently push my legs off the ground, cross my feet in the air, and hold them there for as long as I can as I did my best to bring them through my arms into the next posture. This is, of course, a whole lot more difficult than simply jumping and "sliding into base." For weeks, I had to land on my butt and feet way before I got through my arms. But gradually, I discovered that this seemingly extra-difficult way of jumping through is actually a gift: Because I couldn't jump and slide, but had to slowly hang and lift myself through, I had to engage my bandhas more than I ever had. In the process, I perfected my cross-legged jump-through (CLJT). As of right now, I can jump through slowly with crossed legs without touching or scraping my toes against the mat at any point. And by the way, my SI joint is much, much better :-)

Moral of the story: Sometimes, something that is slower, less glamorous and even, God forbid, painful is actually a gift, if one gives it some patience and time and perseveres. Of course, I do not wish injury upon anyone; but the cool thing about Ashtanga practice is that it gives you a way to work through injuries and issues and come out stronger on the other side, if you stick with it.    


  1. Thank you for illustrating my point, Nobel!

    I nicked the baseball image from a senior teacher, but I can't remember which one :)

  2. Hmm... let me see if I can help you to jog your memory here, Susan. Is there any senior teacher who used to be a baseball player, or who is a big baseball fan? FYI, I don't know the answer to this question myself. This is a real (as opposed to rhetorical) question.

  3. My teacher has been telling me to jump thru with crossed legs until I can work my Udiyyana Bandha..your post is so inspiring to me. Thank you.


  4. I hear that Sharath prefers the cross-leg jump-through because it trains the bandhas better. And that seems to be what everyone is teaching--SLJT is thought to be (perhaps) only for the more advanced.

  5. Karin: Yes, your teacher's advice sounds like very good advice. Moreover, I really don't see the what the big deal is with trying to do SLJT anyway...

    Frank, I'm definitely with Sharath on this one.

  6. I know that David Swenson talks about this (but Susan you haven't done courses with him have you?) and does a funny demonstration to go with it.
    Since working with Kino in Goa this year I have been seriously working on her method of (as you call it) CLJT (which entails NOT GIVING UP and wriggling and wriggling until your legs are through your hands) and jumping back with a midway stop-point on the tops of the feet. All strength-building apparently, but means my primary only practice is now two hours long every day! But apparently it will all pay off eventually so I am sticking with it :)

  7. Thanks for sharing, Mel. I don't know what David Swenson says about jump-throughs, but I'm definitely with Kino (and you) about nailing that CLJT, even if it doesn't look quite as glamorous as its straight-legged cousin, and even if one's practice takes longer as a result. Hang in there, Mel: I know you will emerge stronger from this :-)

  8. Yeah, think it was David Swenson. I've done loads of workshops Mel!!

    I totally subscribe to Kino's method too. Although basically with all the senior teachers I've been exposed to it amounts to more or less the same thing, i.e. no cheating... keep those hands flat :)

  9. Glamorous? you think sljt glamorous. Don't see that myself, cute perhaps. CLJB is much more versatile but am having fun at the moment with straight legs. But bandhas though, they help perhaps, a little extra that might be the final piece in the jigsaw, more control perhaps ( and on both types ) a little more finesse but it's mostly, MOSTLY, technique. Getting all the technical pieces together the right timing, that'll jump you back and through on it's own. Used to hate the response to the how do I jump back question being " work on your bandhas'.

    Nice you got something straight back from Kino on this, thanks Kino.

  10. Thanks for sharing, Susan. I'm also starting to see the importance of keeping the hands flat throughout.

    Hello Grimmly, I do not mean "glamorous" in any kind of backhanded-compliment way; what I mean is something along the lines of "This would be a really cool thing to do, if I can just do it effectively and safely." And at least as far as I'm concerned, I feel that I can work more productively and effectively with CLJT than with SLJT, given where I am at in my practice at the moment.

    Yes, simply saying "work on your bandhas" does sound very cryptic, to say the least :-)

  11. I just stumbled on your blog and this post from last year. I am finding it great reading. I am currently doing a six day a week practice, 5 of which are at home alone. Prior this it was more classes and a bit of mysore, so its taking some time to get focused again. I read this post last night and today I did my jump through with CL, and happy to report it was MUCH better than trying to get my legs straight. I felt a lot more 'energized' I dunno, prana maybe, but it did make a difference. I find that reading about yoga and reading other peoples experiences really help me. My teacher prefers me to be in mysore and absorb via osmosis but sometimes this is just what I need! and Grimmly, I have read quite a few of your blog entries. Wow, I am truly in awe of how far you have come in your asana practice with so little instruction. I guess its true what they say about the teacher within! It certainly shines through with you!

  12. Hello Anon, I'm really happy you enjoy reading my blog. I am also a great fan of the CLJT; I think it really works the bandhas. Moreover, Sharath himself endorses it too :-) When I do the SLJT, my practice tends to get a bit sloppy. And yes, Grimmly is simply amazing.

  13. If its good enough for Sharath then its good enough for me I say. I think it really does work the bandhas more, and I say that because I can feel things today that I dont normal feel! The SLJT, for me is sloppy too. I have really long femurs and a very short torso, so I have real trouble getting those suckers through on the SLJT.