Tuesday, July 12, 2011

What Intermediate has done to my life thus far

I'll start by saying something about this morning's practice. During practice this morning, I had the chance to do a deeper exploration of Kapotasana. There wasn't any particular reason or occasion for this, but a couple of things I have experienced lately have prompted me to try to refine my backbends. I'm not talking so much the external physical expression of the posture; rather, I'm talking about the quality of my breath while I'm getting into and staying in the posture. For months now, I have been able to consistently grab my heels/ankles in Kapotasana, and in Urdhva Dhanurasana, I am able to drop back and stand up (although the standing up part is often far from graceful; but that's another story). But I have noticed that my breathing in deep backbends tends to be rather short and labored. Two recent events have brought this to my attention:

(1) During my most recent practice at the Yoga House in Minneapolis, my friend Ellie very helpfully brought to my attention the shortness of my breaths during backbends while she was assisting me with dropbacks and standups;

(2) While watching Kino's recent video about learning Kapotasana (see this post), I noticed that the model in the video did not show the slightest strain in her breathing while in the posture (unlike me, who is usually huffing and puffing like a cow... (do cows huff and puff, anyway?)). Yes, yes, I know we are not supposed to compare ourselves with other practitioners, much less somebody who has made it as a model in the ever-illustrious Kino Macgregor's teaching video. But still, the contrast is just too glaring not to notice...

In any case, these two events have prompted me to try to pay more attention to slowing my breath in kapotasana and other deep backbends. This morning, I had a little revelation in this area: It occurs to me that the shortness of my breath in deep backbends may have quite a bit to do with performance anxiety. Who are you performing for? You may ask. Well, nobody in particular. But I have a tendency to approach kapotasana with anxiety over how deeply I am physically going to get in the pose on that particular day. And I think that anxiety somehow spreads and manifests itself in the quality (i.e. shortness) of the breath. But things were a bit different this morning. Right from the beginning of practice, during the Suryas, I told myself, "Take your time. Take as long as you need to practice. There is nowhere to go, nowhere to be." I'm not going to try to analyze how I came up with this thought (it'll take too much time), but the really cool thing is, the moment I started thinking this, time kind of slowed down, and I felt like I was moving underwater.

Of course, the whole practice wasn't like that; there were many challenging moments (I won't bore you with them here.) But when I got to Kapotasana, some of this "being underwater" feeling stayed with me, and I basically told myself, "Look, you have been grabbing your heels/ankles/whatever all this while, so you probably will grab your heels/ankles/whatever today as well. So why don't you stop obsessing over whether you will grab your heels/ankles/whatever, and just breath and try to experience being in the backbend as much as you can?" I kept this thought in my consciousness as I worked on steadying my breathing and arching back into the backbend. I stayed in Kapotasana A for ten very deep breaths (probably the deepest breaths I've had in Kapo in a very long while). The interesting thing is, whenever I am able to breathe deeply in Kapo, I can feel the work of the posture shifting from the lower back to the front of the body (the quadriceps and the psoas), making the posture so much more satisfying and therapeutic... Oh, and I don't know if this still interests you, but yes, I did get my heels/ankles/whatever.

Intermediate series is very challenging. I think it is very demanding because it doesn't just demand things of the body; it sort of plays with and challenges the mind and nervous system as well. In a recent post, Claudia writes:

'I have heard of many practitioners breaking into tears, losing weight and bursting into anger while starting the nadi sodhana series, the "nerve cleansing, intermediate series"...'

I can attest to at least a couple of the things that Claudia mentions here. After I had been doing Kapotasana for a couple of months, I started noticing a couple of interesting things in myself. On the one hand, I felt that my overall energy level was more balanced: I had a more consistent level of energy throughout the day (less slumps, etc.). I think this is because energy-wise, the backbends provided a much-needed counter-balance to my previously forward-bend-oriented practice (Primary series, as you know, consists mostly of forward bends and hip-openers; also, being a person who has quite open hips and hamstrings, my pre-Ashtanga practice also tended to favor forward bends and hip-openers). On the other hand, the stimulative energy provided by the backbends also made me more sensitive and more likely to react strongly to things and people in the environment that I perceived to be unjust or wrong: For better or for worse, I found myself more likely to (over?)react to things or people that I felt were giving me s%@t (excuse the language).

On a less extreme level, I also found myself less willing to settle for something that was just given to me. I had started doing Intermediate series at my teacher's shala around the end of Fall 2009. At the same time, I was scheduled to teach early morning classes every day during the following semester (spring) at the college I was teaching at at the time. Which meant that I would not be able to continue to go to mysore classes during the spring. I was kind of bummed out about it for a while. Then one morning, after a particularly powerful and inspiring practice at the shala, I felt so good that I started thinking to myself: "Why do I have to accept things as they are? Why can't I at least try to do something to change things around so that I can continue to do what rocks my life (morning mysore)?" So I did what was, to my knowledge, quite unthinkable for a first-semester fixed-term junior faculty: I wrote to my department chair and asked if I could be re-assigned classes at a later time in the day, so that I could go to yoga! (Yes, I said yoga.) To my surprise, he agreed, and we managed to work things out. Of course, none of this might strike any of you as anything really remarkable; after all, in sheer employment terms, all this really amounted to was a request for a change in schedule. But to me at least, it was a big thing, and I can't help feeling that it had something to do with working on those backbends...  

Hmm... as always, I have succeeded in talking about one thing, and moving from that to talking about something else altogether. But at any rate, that's my story. And who are we, but the stories we tell ourselves and others? As Gabriel Garcia Marquez would say, "What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it."

At any rate, I thought I'll leave you with some words from somebody who is further along the path of practice. Matthew Sweeney offers us a bigger perspective from which to view all these things that second series does to us. He writes:

"The Intermediate sequence is called nadi sodhana meaning nervous system purification. This sequence begins with back bends, followed by their counterpart, legs-behind-the-head. The opposing nature of these postures creates a resonance in the nervous system. The second half of the sequence deals with both strength and more calming asana. Intermediate can be overstimulating at first. It is essential to get rest and decent sleep after practicing it. Strange dreams, heart palpitations and insomnia are common, often on top of bodily aches and pains." (Sweeney, page 9) 

Do you have anything to share about what this thing called Intermediate series has done to your life? I would love to hear it :-)



  1. Insomnia most definitely! I've always been a deep sleeper and never had sleep problems. But after starting 2nd series, I definitely had more energy to the point of not being able to fall asleep. Oh, and also being hungry more often. WEIRD! :)

  2. Yes, Skipetty, I hear you on the hunger part: I also experienced great hunger, especially after adding the leg-behind-head postures. Maybe 2nd series burns up more calories in the process of purifying the nervous system? :-)

  3. I went through a period of waking up at 2am when I started to do intermediate regularly. A strange feeling, since just like Skippetty I've never had sleep problems. And it's sorted itself out now.

    I love that you switched your schedule around for yoga! Your department head must be pretty awesome. Or a yogi himself?

  4. I wonder if those with sleep problems were practicing after work or otherwise later in the day/evening. Personally, I never had any mental/emotional issues with the back-bends per se. I actually wonder how much there's a placebo effect of sorts--that people have these issues after doing some of the back-bends because they heard these stories about other people having nightmares or crying or whatever. I think Matthew Sweeney exlpains it better: it's not the back-bends themselves that are "Nadi Shodhana", but the "opposing nature of" bakc-bends followed by leg-behind-the-head posese that "creates a resonance in the nervous system". I did have a couple of weird dreams after adding Tittibhasana--which is really at the height of whipping your spine around, from deep back-bends to forward bends through the Tittibhasanas, immediately back to deep final back-bends. And I'd actually already done my first drop-back before I heard "Frank, Tittibhasana", so I had to do back-bends, leg-behind-head through Yoga Nidrasana, back-bends and a drop-back, then the Tittibhasana sequences, then redo backbends, drop-backs, etc. So, maybe my weird dream was due to the additional back-and-forth that's not really part of the series; it only happened one or two nights. Or it may not have been due to that at all--maybe it was just a weird dream....

  5. Very timely comment, Ellie! Last night, I woke up at 1:30 a.m. after having a very strange dream. And for the next few hours, I had a series of strange dreams, punctuated by short periods of wakefulness... I'm not sure if any of this has anything to do with Intermediate; I've always been prone to having strange dreams... actually, my theory is that everyday has strange dreams, but some people recall them while others don't.

  6. Hello Frank,
    well, I practice early in the morning, but I still have strange dreams :-) But then again, I've always had strange dreams, so I don't know if all this is caused by Intermediate, or is just some kind of placebo effect, as you suggest.

    What a strange progression of postures you did, Frank. I've never done that sequence you did before, but I can certainly imagine that it would have some interesting effect on the nervous system :-)

  7. So glad you posted this Nobel...I'm always curious about others experiences in intermediate.
    Yes to insomina issues...waking up at 2am...finally gave up coffee. Yes, to weird dreams, spikes and crashes in energy, and yes to bravely addressing situations like your class schedule change that I would normally have just quietly slogged through.

    It's interesting that Frank mentions the placebo effect. Others have suggested that too but I'm inclined to think that many of the perceived responses of the nervous system adjusting to intermeidate practice described are genuine. When I started intermediate I had never heard anything about the possible physical, mental and emotional expressions of nerve cleansing. I had never read a yoga blog or book talking about expriences in intermediate. It took a few months of increasing weirdness before I started to wonder if this was somehow connected to the new poses in my yoga practice. It as only then that I started reading the books and blogs on intermediate and discovered lots of reported commonalities of exprience....doesn't mean we aren't all making this up together...but at least I know I have company! :)

  8. Thanks for your input, Christine, and for weighing in on the placebo effect. I think one thing is certain here: If something happened to you, it happened, placebo effect or no. If I start having strange dreams or insomnia soon after starting Intermediate, these things did happen. I'm not saying that there is no such thing as the placebo effect, or that certain sensations cannot be made more pronounced as a result of the power of suggestion. But I don't suppose that simply labeling it the placebo effect would make objectively verifiable things like strange dreams or getting up mysteriously in the middle of the night any less real. The tricky question is whether these things happened due to Intermediate, or due to something else. I don't have any answers here; just wondering, as usual :-)

  9. The same happens to me: Insomnia, I wake up around 3 or 4 am and then it's difficult to get back to sleep . I'm doing Intermediate up to karandavasana now, i split around a month ago... I wouldn't call it placebo!

  10. Thanks for sharing, Anonymous. I hope your insomnia gets resolved soon. Btw, congratulations on splitting!