A couple of interesting things happened during practice this morning:
(1) During dropbacks/finishing backbends, I worked on grabbing my ankles in Chakrabandhasana using the method that Kino suggests in her recent video (see this post): Walk hands to heels. Then (a) grab one ankle with one hand, while keeping the other hand firmly planted on the ground. Then (b) switch sides: Grab the other ankle with the other hand, while keeping the non-grabbing hand firmly planted on the ground. And then, finally (c) try to grab both ankles.
The whole process is harder than it looks! Trust Kino to make everything look so easy and effortless... :-) I got through steps (a) and (b), but by the time I got to (c), my quads were burning so intensely (or was it the psoas? Hard to tell when you are in pain...), I had to exit the posture and come back up to standing (with control, of course... no more jacks-in-the-boxes ;-)). Well, maybe I'll have better luck with (c) next practice. Having said this, there is something very sweet about having your quads burn so intensely in a backbend; certainly a better feeling than a backache :-)
(2) The second thing that happened came up much earlier during the practice, and is probably more interesting on a spiritual/emotional level. During Surya B, my mind started wandering, and I suddenly found myself thinking about what I had to do today: There are a few important work-related emails I have to send out today, and I was pretty anxious about what the replies to those emails would be. One thought led to another, and I soon found my mind spinning into a downward spiral of anxious energy. I almost wanted to stop my practice, run over to the computer, and start sending those emails. Then I caught my mind in mid-spin, and asked it a few simple questions: Look, even if you were to send these emails right now, do you seriously think that anybody would reply at this early hour? Even if they did, you would have no obligation to reply right this very minute, would you? So why don't you just do the practice?
And do the practice I did. I'm really happy to have caught my spinning mind before it stopped me from doing what I needed to do at that moment. Isn't it funny, how our minds (or at least my mind) runs us in these circles? Here's something from Eckhart Tolle that speaks to this kind of experience:
"Most people are only peripherally aware of the world that surrounds them, especially if their surroundings are familiar. The voice in the head absorbs the greater part of their attention. Some people feel more alive when they travel and visit unfamiliar places or foreign countries because at those times sense perception--experiencing--takes up more of their consciousness than thinking. They become more present. Others remain completely possessed by the voice in the head even then. Their perceptions and experiences are distorted by instant judgments. They haven't really gone anywhere. Only their body is traveling, while they remain where they have always been: in their head."
I was going to relate Tolle's words here to the experience of the practice, but I can't resist the urge to tell you a little story that just came to my mind a moment ago. Please forgive the digression here. But hopefully you'll like this story. So here goes. Many years ago, when I was still living in Singapore, I knew this middle-aged woman who had just returned from a vacation to Paris with her husband. This being her first trip to Europe, I was quite excited to hear what she had to say about the beauty of this city of cafes. As I was reading a lot of Sartre and Camus at the time, I was half-expecting her to regale me with stories of charming French men dressed in black, smoking cigarettes and drinking strong coffee in cafes while philosophizing about the absurdity of existence. No such luck. The first thing that came out of her mouth was, "Do you know how much dog poop there is in the streets of Paris? And Parisian women stink! They are so unhygienic! How come they don't bother to clean up after their dogs, or clean up their own bodies?! And why does everybody think that Paris is such a romantic place? I don't get it..."
I remember listening to her impressions of this great city with something between bemusement and amusement. It immediately occurred to me that her perceptions of Paris were distorted by what she had in mind from the many Asian cities she had already been to (many Asian cities, especially Singapore, are obsessed about cleanliness and hygiene); or, as Tolle would put it, only her body was traveling, while her mind remained where it had always been: in her head.
But then again, maybe I shouldn't be so harsh here; I actually haven't been to Paris myself. Maybe if I were to go there, I would also end up forming the same harsh judgments about its dog-poop-clogged streets and stinky women! (no offense to any French woman who may be reading this now...)
But to come back to the topic at hand: The practice. I really feel that the practice, with its fixed sequence and structure, "forces" us to be in a certain fixed place. Since there is nowhere to go, and the only thing to do is to do the posture as best we can while paying attention to breath and drishti/gazing point, we are "forced" to really pay attention to what our bodies and minds are going through in the moment on the mat, and attain greater presence.
Then again, the practice also often makes us "travel" and "visit" unfamiliar places. This is most obvious when we get new poses, or when we work with poses that really push us to our limits (Supta Kurmasana, Pasasana and Kapotasana are some common examples). During these times, our bodies have to work so much harder, and visceral perception/experience naturally ends up taking up so much more "space" in our beings than conscious thinking, and we can then use these poses to help us attain greater presence. A similar thing also happens when one is working with injury. Especially when the injury is new, and one is as yet unfamiliar with how to work the practice around the newly-injured body part, one is forced to pay so much more attention to how to move around the injury, and work in such a way as to use the practice to heal rather than aggravate the injury further. In this sense, injury can also become a gift of presence. I'm not saying that we should all go injure ourselves deliberately just to attain presence! But let's face it: Ashtanga is a physical activity that demands a lot from the body. As such, sometimes, despite our very best efforts at healthy alignment and listening to our bodies, injuries still happen. Why? Because bodies are physical objects. And physical objects go through periods of breakage (and will eventually break down forever, whether we like it or not...). So when breakages happen, rather than asking in exasperation: Why? Why me?, the more productive questions to ask might be: How can I gain something from this breakage? How can I use this breakage to learn something about myself, and continue to move on this path of practice?
Wow, I ended up writing a much longer post than I intended: I was only supposed to say a couple of things about practice today :-) Well, my writing often takes on a certain life of its own once I start writing a post: All I can do is to flow with it, and let it all come out of me like a big verbal stream! But perhaps this is a good place for the stream to stop, at least for today. Have a wonderful afternoon :-)