Thursday, June 28, 2012

Good Food, heavy practice, more tamas, deeper backbends (?)

Disclaimer/Warning: The contents of this post will probably reveal all too clearly that I am very much identified with my body, its perceived shape the morning after eating certain rich foods, and its ability to get into certain asanas. Which means that I am probably very much a victim of body-identification/asana-identification/whatever-other-identification there is out there. Or maybe I simply am doing too much asana, as Steve over at the Confluence Countdown would say. If you suffer from any of these identifications as well, and would rather not read this post, I understand: Don't read. If you choose to read this, do so at your own peril. I will not be held responsible for any aggravation of any symptoms of your identification. Consider yourself warned.

So here's the story. Yesterday evening, my fiancee and I went to the local Indian restaurant for dinner. Neither of us was particularly hungry, so we decided to share an entree. Which sounds like a wise choice, except that we both tacitly assumed that just because we were only eating half an entree each, we were therefore entitled to eat more appetizers and side dishes. So this is what we ended up eating: We had Gobi Manchurian (flour-battered spicy cauliflower) and garlic naan bread for the appetizers, and we shared the entree, which was Palak Paneer (pureed spinach with cheese). If you would like a visual, we had:

[Image taken from here]
[Image taken from here]
[Image taken from here]
Looks yummy, right? I thought so too. But if you are an Ashtangi, you will know that one can engage in such indulgences at the dinner table only at a rather hefty price: A difficult, heavy-going practice the next morning. Of course, one can avoid such suffering by simply skipping practice, or doing a much shorter practice and then calling it a day. But being the Ashtanga Fundamentalist that I am, I decided to put myself through the self-flagellatory routine known as primary plus second up to Ardha Matsyendrasana. Oh boy, I felt the heaviness from the first few Surya As: I just barely managed to lift myself off the ground after Trini to float (if I can even call that a float) back into chatvari. The heaviness subsided somewhat once I got past the standing postures and into primary, but the effects of last night's dinner definitely continued to make themselves felt. I had to take a couple of extra breaths to get the bind in Mari D on the first side. And the jumpbacks definitely felt less light than usual.
But here's a surprise: The backbends were actually deep and felt more stable. In particular, Chakrabandhasana today was almost a breeze. After the third dropback, I walked my hands to my feet, and then hooked my right fingers around the right ankle. And then I simply did the same thing with the left hand: Walked it further in, and hooked the left fingers around the left ankle. And held the whole thing for a good solid five breaths. When I came up, I could scarcely believe what I just did. 
Now here's a theory I have: Eating more food makes one heavier and more full of tamas, which is not so good for doing most asanas, but is actually very good for doing deep backbends. Why? Because by making the body heavier, tamas helps to anchor the body to the ground. This is particularly useful in Chakrabandhasana; the more the body is anchored to the ground, the less likely it is to just spring up like a jack-in-the-box
And I think I may actually have some evidence for this theory. Before we go on to view the video below, I would like to first issue a general apology to Iyengar people out there: I am not doing this to make fun of Mr. Iyengar or any Iyengar practitioners. It's just that, well, sometimes a visual does speak a thousand words, doesn't it? Anyway, take a look at the following video. In particular, notice the series of deep backbends (the successive dropbacks, Kapotasana) Mr. Iyengar performs around 40 to 60 seconds into the video: 
I'm guessing that Mr. Iyengar must have been at least in his 70s when he performed those backbends (I wonder if he still does them today?). And as you can see, he is, well, not thin... again, I don't mean this as an affront to Mr. Iyengar or to Iyengar people out there, but well, it is what it is, no? Could it be that whatever it is that is tamasic and weighs down the body also actually helps to anchor the body in deep backbends? As I said, this is just a totally random theory I came up with. Feel free to weigh in on it (no pun intended). 
In other news: In order to help me get over my recent disappointment at not going to Mysore, I have decided to go to an Ashtanga retreat organized by the fabulous Angela Jamison of Ashtanga Yoga Ann Arbor. The retreat itself is on Sunday July 29th, but I plan to arrive there a few days before to practice and soak in the sights and sounds of the beautiful city of Ann Arbor. Actually, I am also thinking about turning this trip into a Grand Ashtanga Midwestern Road Trip (sounds pompous, no? :-)), where I travel through a few Midwestern states to practice (and blog) at several shalas before arriving at Ann Arbor. But I'm still waiting for a few things to fall into place before I decide if I want to do this ambitious road trip. But I'm definitely going to Ann Arbor, one way or the other.  
Incidentally, Angela has also informed me that the best Iyengar school in the country, the Ann Arbor School of Yoga, is located in Ann Arbor (duh?). Now this makes me a little nervous: I might get kidnapped by some Iyengar people and put into Kapotasana for, like, five hours in retaliation for what I just wrote in this post. Note to self: Gotta watch my back more (no pun intended) when I'm there. Also gotta be more careful what I say on this blog.    


  1. Hi Nobel, I think that's very cool that you're going to practice with Angela. I'm looking forward to hearing more about it.
    So the weight thing. I struggle with this one, many of us do I suspect. For an Ashtangi, I'm definitely on the big side. And I notice a phenomenon you mention. Not to brag, but my backbends are decent. Carrying a few extra pounds doesn't seem to limit backbending too much. Binding in mari D or pasasasana, now that's a problem.
    I'm not sure about the tamasic nature of foods grounding the backbends more. I haven't noticed that backbends are better after eating a heavy meal the night before. But you can be strong and flexible even with a less than ideal BMI.
    What I have noticed is we can get all caught up in our head about what we ate or drink or didn't eat or drink the night before affecting our practice. And it does, of course. But you can't be sure until you roll out your mat and get warmed up. Sometimes I am surprised. I'm starting to figure out that you have to start everyday with a clean slate. Practice might not be what you think it's going to be. What you think it's going to be can all too easily color what it actually is. You might give up before you really give yourself a chance.

    1. After clicking on the "Comments" button, I'm so relieved to see that it is you commenting, and not some angry Iyengar practitioner who is mad at me for insulting his/her guru :-)

      Well, I'm really not sure about the tamasic nature of foods grounding backbends, either. But I still think it's an interesting theory. And yes, I do struggle with the weight/body identification thing, even though I have tried to overcome or at least dis-attach myself from it by ceasing to weigh myself regularly. Hmm... maybe this is why I am not yet ready for Mysore :-)

    2. well, it's interesting that both Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois put on a few pounds later in life. Especially considering that Krishnamacharya placed a great emphasis on maintaining leanness, and he was a pretty lean guy all his life from the pictures I've seen.
      Lately there's this joke a few friends of my have. Reading Gregor Maehle's books on 1st and 2nd series, there comes a point when in order to improve you have to "Reduce adipose tissue. Eat less, exercise more." Which is true, but to make it sound so easy. Oh I get it, of course! I'll get right on that....

      Perhaps Mysore isn't ready for you! Still, studying with Angela sounds pretty good to me...

    3. Yes, I really like the way Maehle uses the scientific term "adipose tissue" rather than "body fat" or "excess fat". It makes it sound more neutral, but somehow also adds a certain layer of authority, the way people who use scientific terms always come across. Anyway, I seem to remember David Garrigues saying pretty much the same thing in different words: Didn't he say in a video somewhere that there comes a point where you need to change your diet pretty drastically (such as eat only two bananas for dinner) if you want to "achieve" certain advanced asanas?

    4. No more dinner. Dinner is done.
      -David Garrigues

  2. I love your post, very honest and humble, specially the introduction :-)