Monday, August 6, 2012

The lessons of the Intermediate Series

As I move deeper into the second series, postures that came easily for me are becoming increasingly more difficult, while those postures that for years eluded me, are finally coming. I was started on the second series within weeks of starting the practice, largely due to a hamstring tear that made the forward folds of the primary series impossible. Backbends, with their back body releasing potential, are a great way to heal and release hamstrings. When I started practicing yoga, my back was open, and I lacked strength. I practiced the postures of the intermediate series without really having any context for them. I stayed mostly with the backbends for a long time. I think I grabbed my heels on my first attempt at Kapotasana. I didn't know that it was a dreaded posture; I had no idea what it even looked like until after my teacher had guided me into it.

Fast forward to now: years of practicing the primary series have made it feel like home. The postures are comforting and familiar; I am fully attuned to their rhythm. No longer am I daunted by all the forward folds that either felt impossible or bored me to death in those early years. Supta Kurmasana is not so bad if I give myself some time and extra breaths. I have a special love for the primary series; it's been a learning ground for much of what I know about my body and about this practice. We've spent a lot of time together, the series and I. I've been reluctant to move on, which is ironic, since in the early days of my practice I used to covet all the strange leg-behind-the-head postures and arm balances of the later series. Now, when I unroll my mat to practice, I come up with reasons (excuses) why I should not practice the second series: my back is too tight, it’s too late in the day and I won’t be able to sleep, I don’t have enough time, etc. I have developed an aversion to the intermediate series. It frightens me. Kapotasana? It makes me feel like I may die. Titibhasana? Those puny five steps back and forth make me feel like I have ran a marathon; they lead to a deep, strange fatigue in the bones of my hip joint that takes my breath away. 

From Patanjali:

The five obstacles are: lack of knowledge, egotism, attachment, aversion, and clinging to bodily life.

(Enough said, right?)

I have had sleepless nights after practicing the series. I have felt intense anger for no apparent reason. I have shed tears that come out of nowhere. I have sudden jolts of what feels like electricity running through my body, a buzzing, vibrating sensation that catches me off guard. And, I have developed a sudden, intense fear of backbends. This, from someone who usually cannot get enough backbends. Now, I do everything in my power to avoid them.

Nadi Shodhana, the Sanskrit word for the second series, translates to ‘Nerve-cleansing.’ To say that I am more aware of my nervous system and what it’s going through is an understatement.

Perhaps what keeps me going is the knowledge that this is how this particular series, with its intense backbends and hip openers, is opening me up, cracking me, showing me my own tendencies of self-preservation, of avoidance, of holding on. 

'The fundamental fear we have to work with is the fear of losing ourselves. When the stronghold of ego is threatened, fear is one of our strongest defense mechanisms. Beginning to dismantle it is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves or others.'
-from the introduction to Trungpa's Smile at Fear

So this is my work these days, recognizing that I am afraid, that my tendency is to avoid that which I am afraid of, to cling to the comfortable and the familiar; that my mind will pull out all the stops: will try to make me believe that my very life is on the line. My work is to recognize all of this, and then do it anyway. To dismantle the fear. I know enough to know that the fear is not about the postures themselves, that the practice is merely a mirror that shows me my tendencies and habits. We don’t see the same image each time we look in the mirror: some days there are new wrinkles and lines, some days we see the face of someone who is at ease and kind-featured, and some days, we see a reflection we do not like.

The idea is to look, and, to really see.

The seeing is sometimes, the hardest part. Being honest with yourself about what you see is also, not easily done. I find that once I admit an unpleasant truth to myself, then it becomes impossible for me to ignore it; the act of observing changes that which is being observed. The fear becomes dismantled; it dissipates.

Practicing the second series makes me feel like a beginner. After refining the primary series for years, I now run out of breath, huff and puff, have messy, shaky transitions, and want to plop down midway through a posture and give up the whole endeavor. It’s difficult to find the flow when many of the poses require so much from me. I often feel drained and have detox headaches after practice.

It sounds terrible, I know. But it’s actually quite exciting. I get to be a beginner. I get to experience the process of learning something new, something that challenges me, something that asks me to show up with all I’ve got. I get to be fully present, because if I’m not, this shit’s impossible.  I get to release my idea of who I am as a practitioner and teacher of yoga and find what kind of a student of this practice I can be. I get to experience a new-found level of empathy for my students, those who are brand new to yoga, those who have a difficult time following my cues and breathing and being present all at the same time.

I get to practice releasing my attachments to the familiar. I get to, as Rilke said, 'trust in what is difficult.'

I realize that with time, this series will get easier, will perhaps feel as smooth as the primary series. That the transitions will become more and more elegant, my breath steady and long. And the beauty of it? There is no end to this practice. There will always be another image in the mirror to look at, and, to truly see.

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