I know, I know, bad joke. But this is really how my arms and upper back muscles, especially the rhomboids and the latissimus dorsi, have been feeling the last couple of days from my home mysore practice. In fact, it got so intense that earlier today, as I reached my right arm up to get something from the top of my practice room closet, the right dorsi actually seized up! Well, actually, it's not as frightening as it sounds: It felt like part of the latissimus dorsi had either been caught under the scapula (is this possible?), or had become entangled with some other muscle group (I'm not sure if this is possible either, but that's kind of what it felt like). I've had similar experiences with other upper back muscles before, and I knew better than to fight it or try to push through it: I simply let my arm drop, took a couple of deep breaths where I was, and the entangled muscles quickly released themselves.
All of this is probably TMI... (like you care about the travails of my lats and rhomboids...) In any case, I know what is causing these muscles to be so sore: Pincha Mayurasana and Karandavasana. For the last couple of days, I have been doing full primary and second up to Karandavasana. I have been holding Pincha for 15 breaths, and then going into Karandavasana. I can't complain, though... I mean, I can always choose not to do these postures, right? But looking on the brighter side of things, there's actually been some modest progress in Karandavasana. Both yesterday and today, I got into upside-down lotus from Pincha on the first try, and held it for at least five breaths. Which meant that I met my objective, and didn't have to try Karandavasana a second time. Yes, yes, I know that there are a lot of you powerful Ashtangis out there who try Karandavasana at least two or three times during each practice. But my plan is more modest: For the next couple of weeks, following Frank's suggestion, I'm just going to go up into Pincha, go into upside-down lotus, and hold the lotus for up to 10 breaths, and then come down. Once I can do this consistently, I will then try to curl the lotus around the pelvis. And then, at some point in the not-so-near future, I will finally begin to try to land the duck. And then, at yet another point in the even not-so-nearer future, I will finally try to come back up. Of course, I suspect that if I were to practice in a shala, I will probably be hoisted down and up by a teacher at this time. But I practice alone, without anybody to assist me, so I've got to do what I've got to do.
I suppose none of the above is all that interesting to you if you are not at Karandavasana yet; but since this is a yoga blog, I should talk about my practice at least some of the time, right? :-)
But let's return to the topic which started this post: Soreness. I think it is safe to say that soreness is something that is universally experienced by all Ashtangis, whatever place they are at in the series asana-wise. Soreness, then, is the common denominator of all Ashtangis; it is the sensation that unites us all and reminds us that, whether we are putting our feet behind our heads or just stepping onto the mat for the very first time and doing our very first Suryas, we are all equally fragile and yet powerful physical, emotional and spiritual beings. At least in my opinion, it is the most immediate and visceral reminder of the value of always maintaining a beginner's mind, for no matter where you are at in the practice, there is bound to be a posture or two that makes you, well, sore.
Speaking of beginner's mind, Neal Pollack wrote this very engaging autobiographical book about how he started practicing yoga. In Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude, Pollack chronicles his journey from self-absorbed, self-loathing, and somewhat self-important literary/intellectual type to devoted yoga practitioner. Here's an interview he gave about his book.
I really enjoy Pollack's no-bullshit, not-always-politically-correct-guy's-point-of-view way of telling his yoga story; for instance, he talks about getting a hard-on during a meditation session. I suppose I'm biased, but being a pretty regular guy who got into yoga as a seeker of hot chicks (see this post), I really empathize with his feelings and his way of experiencing and perceiving the yoga world.
Pollack also has some really interesting things to say about his experience with Ashtanga in his book. Describing his first Ashtanga classes, he writes:
"...she [his teacher Mara] opened her home on Mondays and Wednesdays from 7 to 10 AM for self-guided practice. People could come and go any time within that frame, which meant that I was usually only practicing alongside two or three others. She called the class "Morning Mysore," Mysore being the city in India where the family of the late Sri. K Pattabhi Jois operates the official Ashtanga Institute. As I progressed, I came to realize why the word "sore" was in the city's name...
On Fridays at 8 AM, Mara led the entire class in doing the Ashtanga primary series together. This usually ended with me feeling like I'd gotten crushed in an elephant stampede. After class, I spent the rest of my day with my head turned to the ceiling while I tried to remember to wipe the drool off my chin. Enlightenment, indeed. Imagine going to the dentist every day to get the same tooth filled until he gets the filling right, except he never gets it right, and you have to keep going back. Ashtanga was like being in the yoga army. But like the Army, it made a man of me, without the part when you get beaten in the shower with a pillow-case full of soap if you make a mistake. Just as there's no "I" in "team", there's no "team" in Ashtanga...
Like lifting weights at the gym, Ashtanga could be really tedious, but there was no arguing with the results. When I took non-Ashtanga classes at other studios, the postures suddenly seemed a lot easier and calmer, and I was able to push myself deeper. On off days, I started doing the sequence by myself at home. Muscles began to appear where they'd never appeared before. It increasingly seemed like I would reach age forty without looking like the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. For the first time in a long time, maybe ever, I actually looked like a man, or what I thought a man should look like."
I supposed many seasoned Ashtangis might find Pollack's perception of what the practice is about and his seeming preoccupation with what the practice is doing to his body to be rather shallow, even crass. But we must also remember that this was his perspective as somebody totally new to the practice, and it is in many ways refreshingly honest and unpretentious. And besides, it would be rather unrealistic to expect people to get into yoga because they wanted to become yogic saints from the get-go, wouldn't it? I, for one, did not get into yoga with such high-minded motivations :-)