Thursday, July 28, 2011

Final day of MS workshop: Laghu Vajrasana, the paradoxical nature of the practice

Mysore this morning with Matthew Sweeney (MS) was great. A couple of "highlights":

(1) As per MS's suggestion, I skipped primary today, and went directly into Intermediate from the standing and balancing postures, doing Intermediate up to Pincha Mayurasana. Which made my practice a lot shorter: I estimated that the whole practice took about an hour and fifteen minutes, as opposed to my usual two-hour practice. You would think that this would make the whole practice easier. Well, not true: There is something about doing second series only that is really intense. I'm not quite sure why this is so; maybe it's because the mind and body did not have the benefit of having been "warmed up" from doing primary. In any case, I was totally winded when I exited Pincha Mayurasana, and had to pause for a few breaths to catch my breath before going into backbends. After practice, Bill, who was practicing next to me, remarked that this was the first time during the workshop that he actually heard me breathe!

(2) In the middle of Laghu Vajrasana, MS stopped me and asked me to redo the posture while grabbing my ankles, not my calves. Here's the backstory: For more than a year, I have been doing this unorthodox version of Laghu, where I repeat the posture five times. The first time, I go into the posture in the standard way: Grab ankles, bring top of the head to the mat, hold for five breaths, come back up. For the second, third and fourth reps, I grab my calves, bring my head to the mat on the exhale, and then inhale to come back up. For the last rep, I grab my calves, bring my head to the mat, hold for five breaths, and then come back up. I do this because Gregor Maehle, in his book on the Intermediate Series, says that grabbing the calves in Laghu allows for a deeper backbend.

Anyway, MS came along when I was doing that last rep, and told me to redo the posture while grabbing my ankles (I'm guessing he did not notice that I had already done the posture four times ;-)). I did as he said: Which meant that I did Laghu six times! Miraculously, I somehow still had enough energy to go into Kapotasana after that and grab my heels!

After the practice, I explained to him that I grabbed my calves in Laghu because I was following Maehle's suggestion in his book. MS responded by saying that Maehle is simply wrong. He explained that the basic purpose of Laghu is not a backbend, but to strengthen the quads and the front body in general. Grabbing the calves makes it easier to come up, which also undermines the quad-strengthening function of this posture. He also remarked that it is possible to turn Laghu into a chest-opening backbend by grabbing the knees instead of the ankles; but doing so turns the posture into a backbend, making it no longer a quad-strengthening posture. Seen in this light, he continues, grabbing the calves is the worst deal of all: One gets only 50% of the chest-opening afforded by grabbing the knees, and only 50% of the quad-strengthening afforded by grabbing the ankles, making it a neither-here-nor-there posture. I think this explanation makes a lot of sense. I'm learning something all the time. :-)


After practice this morning, I shared with Bill a recent conversation I had with my friend D in Fargo. As you might recall from my posts a couple of months ago, I had started teaching D some Ashtanga recently (see, for example, this post). We haven't done too many postures; I have only taught him Suryas A and B, and a couple of standing postures. Recently, when I told D I was coming to Minneapolis to attend the workshop with MS, he asked me what new things I can possibly learn in Ashtanga, given that I had already been doing yoga for two hours everyday, six days a week for a few years. So I had to tell him the whole Ashtanga deal: That there are six series of postures, and I am now somewhere in the middle of the second series, etc, etc. I also told him that there are probably less than five people in the entire world who have mastered all six series of postures. I had not told him all this before, because I didn't want to intimidate him. Anyway, here's how the conversation unfolded from this point:

D: Oh, so you are only at the second series... You have a very long way to go, don't you? 

Nobel (grins sheepishly): Yeah...

D: So, do you want to master all six series one day?

Nobel (grins even more sheepishly): Yeah, I suppose it would be nice to be able to do that, but I really don't care. I'm quite happy where I am. 

D (with a very puzzled expression on his face): ....

I then tried to relieve D's puzzlement by explaining that even senior teachers like Kino (to use an example) are "only" at the fourth series. Honestly, I don't think this did much to relieve his puzzlement, but it was the best I could come up with at the time.

I don't know what you make of this brief conversation; to me, it illustrates the paradoxical nature of Ashtanga practice, and perhaps even of yoga practice in general. We "insiders" know that despite the apparently linear progression of the six series of postures, they are really not there to serve as any measure of enlightenment or self-realization (despite Ellie's claims to the contrary :-)): Being able to put one's leg behind one's head and go into a deep twist at the same time (or not) is not a measure of spiritual development. But from the above conversation with D, I get the sense that it is not always easy to explain this to non-Ashtangis. After all, they probably wonder (understandably), "Why have a linear progression of postures if this progression is not an objective measure of "progress" in any really meaningful sense?" I believe that herein lies the paradox of Ashtanga practice: It is linear and yet not linear at the same time. 

Ah, well... I think I have mused enough for now. All in all, this has been a very wonderful few days in the City of Lakes. Now all I need to do is get in my car and drive and hopefully, get back to Moorhead at a decent hour. More later.      


  1. Thanks for this informative post Nobel. Who knew doing intermediate would be tougher than doing primary + intermediate? With regarding to the "dilemma", I think the achievement in Ashtanga is measured by the calmness of our breaths rather than the advancement of our asanas. That being said, when the postures in a series no longer challenge our breathing, then we go on to the next series/poses and again train until our breathing becomes calm and smooth. At least that's my interpretation of Ashtanga.

  2. Great post Nobel...I love the Ashtanga paradox! I like to say to students when they get talking about all the sequences that there are enough challenges in the six sequences for anyone no matter who you are....but not everyone will need all six. ;)

    whew!...six reps of lagu...I think I would have been limping out of the room! It's interesting to me that MS explained the purpose of lagu that way. David Keil explains it almost exactly the same way. When I first started thinking of lagu as a strength pose, I found it did change my expression of some of the poses that follow, especially my control of kapo and bakasana a&b for what that's worth.

    Thanks for sharing your experience with MS. I've heard lots of great things from friends who have taken his workshops. It sounds like it was a stellar workshop!

  3. Hello Yyogini, yes, you are definitely right that when all is said and done, the achievement in Ashtanga is measured by the calmness of our breaths rather than the advancement of our asanas; the physical difficulty of the asanas is, in this sense, primarily a way to get us to breathe in difficult situations. But I guess it doesn't always occur to me to explain things in this way at the right moment ;-)

    Yes, Christine, it was indeed a great workshop. I like your explanation of the Ashtanga paradox to your students :-) Yes, I think you are right that working on Laghu as a strength posture influences one's expression of the postures that follow; it did not occur to me to think of Intermediate series in this way. Very interesting.

  4. I was only able to attend the Saturday portion of MS's workshop, but he had a great line:

    "Backbends are like pancakes. The first two are rubbish."

    After everyone chuckled (nervously?), he went on with the obvious math. If you want 1 good backbend, you actually need to do 4. And if you want 3 good ones (like in finishing sequence), you need to do 5...

    On another note, like you, I read much of MS's book before the workshop. But rereading it now I find I am understanding/appreciating much more than I did in the first go-around. It's the gift that keeps on giving!

  5. Hello Mike,
    I guess that's why I missed you at his workshop, since I only arrived on Sunday ;-) I like MS's line; I think it's definitely true that the more repetitions of a backbend you do, the deeper your backbends will get, as your body opens up, all other things being equal. But I also think there are exceptions to this rule. For example, I never do Kapotasana more than once in a practice: I find it too physically and psychologically taxing to do so. And I feel that this is actually a good thing, because it forces me to really squeeze all my effort and intention into that one attempt.

    Yes, I'm going to go reread MS's book now too. It is indeed a gift that keeps giving :-)