Today’s conference was my last this season. It’s only been six conferences, three a month, because of the new registration system. Now all new students have to register the first five days of the month and usually one of those days is a Saturday, which means that Sharath cancels the conference to welcome new students. Next Saturday will be such a day but by that time I will already be back in Sweden.
Each trip I’ve made to Mysore, Sharath has demonstrated an asana. And it’s always been head stand – Sirsasana – or forearm balance such as Pincha Mayurasana and Karandavasana. Actually it’s the two postures I never seem to get comfortable in, independent of how many years I’ve practiced them. All yoga practitioners will have one or two such asanas and those two are mine. So I’m very grateful for Sharath demonstrating them each time I’m here. In particular since also shouted at me across the Shala in practice yesterday for not having my arms straight in Mukta Hasta Sirsasana C (there’s not much space to do it really…bad excuse I know…).
It’s not so much that I use the wrong technique in head stand, it’s more the fact that I’m afraid of doing it following a nasty fall where I slipped a disc some years ago. Due to fear of being upside down I had refused to even attempt head stand in the first four years of my asana practice. But having finally let a teacher show me how to do it, I started slowly exploring the world upside down. Terrified each time. One morning when doing home practice alone I thought I should be brave and try it without a wall behind me. I felt relatively strong and managed to get up. However once up, my mind started wandering as I got too excited about actually standing freely upside down without support. And then came that moment of slow motion where everything stopped for a second and I remember thinking “I’m falling” (because that’s what happened).
And I fell badly! Since there wasn’t enough space for my legs in front of the mat I crashed into a desk with my legs and hit my lower back hard on the floor. After that I couldn’t walk properly for three weeks because of intense pain and my leg turned numb so I had to drag it behind me. It turned out I had a herniated disc but I was lucky since the injury healed by itself and it has never bothered me since. However the body remembers and that’s why it never really wants to go to the balancing point in inversions. The memory of the trauma is still there.
I guess this is why Sharath in today’s conference specifically underlined that one should ALWAYS learn Sirsasana and Sarvangasana (shoulder stand) from teacher. AND If you’re unstable you shouldn’t do it without assistance. I had to learn it the hard (and stupid) way but with sharing my story I hope that readers understand the dangers of learning asana – not only Sirsasana – without a teacher. That is why I also won’t share the details of what Sharath said or did in his demonstration as I think it should be taught “live” from teacher to student.
Sharath showed us the version of Sirsasana that is done in the finishing sequence and then the seven head stands of the Intermediate series. I read somewhere that they are called “The seven deadlies”. The head stands at the end of Intermediate series are different when it comes to hand positioning and weight distribution. Though when doing Sirsasana as part of the finishing sequence there should be no weight on the head, it should only be touching the floor. The weight should be in the hands and forearms/elbows like a tripod.
So why is it ok to have a little weight on the head in the seven Intermediate head stands? Because these are only held for five breaths each. Sirsasana as part of the finishing sequence should be held for 20 breaths or more. When we hold it for so long there should be no pressure on the head as that would risk putting more pressure on the vertebrae. Also when we hold for more breaths all the blood will have time to come to the head and therefore we should take care to move slowly into and out of the posture so that the blood pressure will follow. In Intermediate series the transition out of the heads stands is different and faster, but again that’s ok since we’re only up for a few breaths.
If doing Sirsasana properly many diseases can be cured, in particular respiratory problems that lead to lack of oxygen in the blood, dizziness, head aches and anxiety, Sharath told. If we have little time to practice one day we should still always do Suryanamaskar and the finishing postures. The finishing postures are very important in our yoga practice (see notes from last week’s conference). On days we have time, Sharath reminded that we should try to practice Sirsasana a bit longer – even up to 20-30 minutes. This would of course have to be built up over time. “Don’t do it at once or you can get dizzy”, Sharath said. One should start by doing 5 minutes and then increase the time gradually. By extending the hold in Sirsasana once a week one will build much strength and stamina.
Someone asked if Sirsasana could be practiced at any time of the day. No, it has to be done early morning during Brahma Muhurta (or maybe in the evening). “Early morning you all have time. Since you go on Facebook and Twitter I know you have time, but I know nobody really has time – so you need to make time”,Sharath said. Brahma Muhurta is the best time to practice yoga, he said. It is the period of time one and a half hours before sunrise. It literally means “God’s Hour” and is traditionally considered an auspicious time in all practices of yoga and most apt for meditation, worship or any other religious practice. Everyone is sleeping and so it is still quiet. Automatically your mind will be quiet as well. There is also less pollution and the air will be purer. With daybreak and all the activity going on your mind will be les able to focus.
Practice should be limited to once a day and if we practice on our own at home we should only practice what we’ve learnt in Mysore. No need to add any other asana. “Perfect what you’ve learnt so far and when you come to Mysore again you’ll learn a little more. That is how I learnt it from my grandfather, Sharath said. I had to show him perfection in an asana and then build up the practice slowly.”
Practice will strengthen body and mind and get rid of obstacles for stability. Being unhealthy is an obstacle to a stable mind. How can you concentrate when your body is suffering from disease? Therefore the first step of the practice is to gain health (yoga chikitsa=yoga therapy=primary series). When first learning asana one may develop “asana fever” or “asana diahorrea”, this is different from normal fever. You will feel tired or have a bad stomach, but it will last only a day or so and is a sign the body is cleansing. It is an automatic cleansing process where all poisons are discharged and as a result the body will become lighter.
If you have an injury you need to establish what type of injury it is. Is it only stiffness/weakness from previous activities/actions (karma) in your life or is it something that needs medical attention before you can continue in your practice? A torn ligament or meniscus would need surgery or other action to be mended as the tear otherwise would risk being aggravated through repeated bending/twisting etc.
“Don’t run after asanas”, Sharath said. Many people get so excited by asana and throw themselves into practice without considering whether they are ready for it. Then they injure themselves. It is important to have a strong foundation to build on and that has to come slowly. “Quickly coming will quickly go”, Sharath said. One should take time to cultivate knowledge about the body, about spirituality and the works of the whole practice system. Today many people have spoilt yoga with Teacher Trainings of 15 days. Such a certificate is of no use, it is only your own sustained practice that will lead to an understanding of yoga.
Because for what purpose do we practice? To get a certificate? If that is the case we will never understand yoga. A yoga practitioner has no agenda. “When I started there was no such thing as a certificate. I wanted to relish the practice. If you relish the practice you’ll understand yoga. But it takes time and hard work – a lot of dedication, devotion, discipline and determination. There are many D’s in yoga”, Sharath said.
If you want to know what yoga is you need to be disciplined. There are many other obstacles to practice such as laziness, doubt, carelessness, false attention and if we don’t have a strong foundation it is easy to get influenced by these. Our focus may falter and we may develop fear or depression. That said, a little fear is good as it will make you more focused. “No fear no fun”, Sharath often jokes and today was no exception. With practice the fear will lessen and the more one can learn to relax in an asana practice the more stability there will be. But again, it takes many years of practice.
A real Guru will help you wake up. He will also be disciplined and strict. Without discipline it is not possible to teach yoga. Many people might not like that but one can’t just give out the knowledge of yoga like that.
The teacher needs to make sure the receiver is ready or capable of handling it. Otherwise it’s like giving a diamond to a monkey. It will not understand the value of it and will start playing with it like a stone. Or like giving a lump of gold to an ant, it will be crushed underneath it.
There is no teacher like Pattabhi Jois, Sharath underlined. He was the greatest master. He treated all students equal and had no ego whatsoever. “That makes him a very very great yoga master.
It is important that one shows gratitude and respect to the practice. The knowledge of yoga is inside all of us, but we need to understand it. Workshops and trainings will not help. Only once we through practice get rid of Kama, Krodha and the other six enemies we will understand yoga. “Don’t search outside of yourself”, Sharath said. “Yoga is all inside you”. That comforting thought ends this posting and this season at the KPJAYI. Four more practices and then I’ll be on my way home. Until next time…