Posts Tagged With: backbends

Why do I run, when it ruins my yoga?

Just the other day when I was teaching a class, I compared doing an hour and a half of yoga to that of running 9 miles. Now anyone who has ever run 9 miles is thinking it’s an over statement, and maybe it is, but I shall explain my line of thinking. All things fitness that seem impossible had their start in the “I can’t do that” vocabulary. But they eventually move towards more of the poker language “I’ll see your 10 pull-ups and add 2”, or “I’ll see your 5 miles and add 5 more.” It’s how you get to the crazy idea of running a marathon. The day that you go out for a run and 10 seems easy is the day you start thinking a 1/2 marathon at 13 miles might not be so bad. For all the people who tell me they can’t do yoga because they can’t touch their toes I just want to say “Well, I couldn’t run a marathon either, until I trained for it.”

Runners tend to gravitate towards my classes and teaching style, for one main reason : I don’t chastise them for being runners. If anything, I praise them for it and ask them when their next race is. I also incorporate a lot of great poses that deal with runner specific over-use injuries. But I also don’t sugar coat it with runners. The truth is, running will not make your physical practice of asana better, but yoga will definitely make your running better, physically speaking. As long as runners can make peace with that idea, it will make it a whole lot easier to push through 1st series ashtanga yoga for 90 minutes. You are bound to be tight, but without yoga you will only get tighter and probably experience more injuries that will sideline you.

So my comparing 90 mins of ashtanga yoga to 90 minutes of running was to make the point that they both take about the same amount of time to accomplish, and that during both you will have to overcome the quitter’s mind. That during 90 minutes of either activity you are probably going to wonder “What was I thinking to do 90 minutes of yoga/running.” Something is going to hurt, some posture, or mile is going to be brutal, and you might start to lose your motivation. When doing anything physical you are going to run up against that voice in your head that is the pessimist, the nay-sayer, the weakling. This is where running and yoga are similar. They are both a battle of the mind, more than a battle of the body. Your body can do just about anything. Hence the reason why the New York City Marathon has 50,000 competitors , the Marine Corp has 30,000 and the Chicago marathon has 40,000, just to name a few. 1% of those people are competing against each other, while the other 99% are competing against the weakest version of their self. The nay-sayer voice that around mile 16 loves to tell you, “You can’t do it.”, is the same voice in yoga that will try to tell you you can’t come up out of a backbend either. The voice is the same, it comes from the same place and can be put to rest the same way no matter if it’s running or yoga. As my teacher, Tim Miller, likes to say “Experience is the remover of doubt.” Every time I run 5 miles, it erases the doubt that I can’t run 6. Every time I run 6, it erases the doubt that I can’t do 7. This can carry on until the 26th mile is finished.

This is how I see the similarities between running 9 miles and ashtanga yoga; the surya namaskars are equivalent to the first mile of any run you go on. It’s the warm up mile, where you find your legs and the rhythm of your breathing. The standing poses are equivalent to a 5k (3 miles), it’s enough of a run on a busy day. The seated postures, up to Marichyasana are equal to about 5 miles. Right in the heart of what are commonly called the speed pump poses in ashtanga there is navasana, bhujapidasana, kurmasana. These are like mile 6, where you start second guessing yourself, and this crazy idea of staying fit. Mile 7 of a 9 mile run starts to smooth out just a bit as you start thinking you’re in the home stretch. Just like the poses baddha konasana, upavishta konasana, and supta padangsthasana do in yoga. You might think backbends are mile 9, but they are only mile 8, you must save enough energy after backbends to complete your inversions and come in strong to savasana. Savasana is equivalent to the cool down after a long run. I can tell you from experience, you don’t just sit down after a long run, or you will quickly stiffen up. You will struggle just to get your shoes off later, if you don’t incorporate a good cool down. Savasana is necessary and so is a good cool down walk after a long run.

Around mile 19 of the Pittsburgh Marathon.

Around mile 19 of the Pittsburgh Marathon.

I think this is why for years now I have loved practicing ashtanga yoga, and I continue to be a runner. I was a runner long before I was a yogi – I am a distance runner at heart. I like the rhythm of my breathing, I like the rhythm of my legs and arms working together, and I love how my pessimistic mind doesn’t win out. Most runs and most yoga practices I conquer my negativity. I push through the rough spots and I always come out on the other end better for it. Running may be making my yoga practice harder, tighter, but I know that what I conquer while running makes me a better yogi in mental capacity. While yoga makes me a better runner in physical capacity. There is no doubt in my mind that they both make me better spiritually. Staring down your weakness has a profound way of changing you.

Not once in 4 marathons have I hit the infamous “wall” (Mile 21), which in no way means I’m discrediting it. I just happen to run slow enough and have conditioned my mind enough into an “I can” attitude over “I can’t.” Plus to be honest I haven’t run a single marathon trying to beat another person, or a previous time. Simply put, I run them just for the sake of finishing and for once more tackling my inner demons that love to tell me “No”. I remove my doubts by doing the things that I thought couldn’t be done.

Crossing the finish line of the Pittsburgh Marathon, May 2010

Crossing the finish line of the Pittsburgh Marathon, May 2010

So if you’re a runner and haven’t yet tried yoga, I strongly advise you do. Now! Put on your running shoes and head straight over to a studio near you. If you can, find Ashtanga yoga. I think you will like the similarities I just mentioned. I am not telling you it will be easy. I’m being completely honest telling you it’s hard. Running tightens you, it’s gonna be brutal, but it will save you from injuries and even burn-out. It will also give your running longevity. I foresee myself being a runner for just as long as I am a yogi. This is good place to insert my favorite Forrest Gump quote and no it’s not “Run Forest, Run.”, it’s “We was like peas and carrots.” For me, yoga is the peas and running is the carrots. Let’s see if this works “Do yoga, Forest, do yoga!” Nope, it doesn’t work, but I hope I have made my point.

Postures I suggest for runners:
Supta padangustasana (reclining hand to toe pose) – One of the best stretches for the hamstrings
Virsasana/Supta virsasna if appropriate (Hero’s pose. reclining hero’s) – for the quads and shins. If you recline in this one it is great for the psoas
Gomukasana (Cow face pose)- for the external hip rotators
Malasana (Garland pose) – for the lower back and feet
Halasana (Plough pose) – for the upper back and hamstrings
Agni Stambhasana (Fire log pose)- for the glutes and IT band.
Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward bow pose)- for the whole front body. Modify it by lying over a stability ball – it is just as good for you.

Categories: For the beginner, My viewpoint | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

36 backbends, 1/3 of the way there.

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“Life is a great big beautiful three-ring circus. There are those on the floor making their lives among the heads of lions and hoops of fire, and those in the stands complacent and wowed, their mouths stuffed with popcorn.” -Christopher Hawke

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Bending the light backwards.

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Arching with the morning light.

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Sometimes backbends feel like you’re in a tight spot.

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Backbends can be a heavenly experience.

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Bow! Wow! Wow! Yippee! Yo! Yippee! Yay! It’s another great day for backbends.

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“Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.” – Bruce Lee

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“It’s not the daily increase but the daily decrease. Hack away at the inessential.” Bruce Lee

Crazy ideas are great! They are what keep life juicy. In Ayurveda it’s called “ojas”. We all could use a little more juiciness, right? You know how awful it is when you’re eyeballing a piece of fruit sitting on your counter, just waiting for it to ripen to perfection. You finally take a bite, only find its spoiled and all dried up. That’s what happens when you sit on ideas for far too long. They go bad, from all the ways you talk yourself out of moving forward with them. Well, this is one of my recent crazy ideas, which is a small part of a bigger one. I’d like to share with you what I have learned so far. I am only 36 pictures in to the plan of taking 108 different pictures of backbends, all over the place. I’m at the 1/3 of the way there mark, like the 1st 1/3 of the sound of Aum, aaaaaaaaaah. I’m hoping there is a shift in the next third and a final explosion of insight in the final third. Just like we have to create that verbal sound of “A” way in the back of our throats, I had this idea brewing in the back of my mind for a while. The courage I needed to do it finally moved forward out of the dark shadows of all my doubts. One of my students inspired me to take this journey. Everywhere interesting that he went he did a headstand and snapped a picture of it. Now that I am 1/3 of the way in, I’m slightly wishing that I had chosen a pose like headstand (Sirsasana) or downward facing dog (Adho mukha svanasana) to photographically journal, instead of wheel, as I am a natural forward bendy kind of girl. The word natural and backbend don’t belong together in my case. Too many years of running, or too much comfort in protecting myself. I’m not much of a risk taker, I am more a creature of habit. I find comfort in the consistencies in my life. For me, forward bending has always been consistently easy. Backbending (Urdhva dhanurasana), however, doesn’t have much consistency. I am sure you will see that in my pictures. I hope you enjoy the photos. If you’d like to check out all of them, you can follow me on Instagram @catherinewoods. I’m really starting to enjoy the challenge of finding interesting backdrops, trying new shapes with my body and sharing quotes. But maybe next time I get a crazy idea like this I’ll do 108 child’s postures (Balasana)

So here is what I have learned so far.
1) Not all surfaces are conducive for backbends
2) Backbends are cruel without the proper warm-up
3) Bending your spine in the wee morning hours is for the young, and I mean like the 8-year-old gymnast, not the 42-year-old runner/yogi. (However I prefer to shoot these pics in the morning as I do not care for an audience and the morning light is beautiful. So for that reason, I must suffer. Art is an expression of suffering, sometimes.)
4) Some places and or surfaces are very scary to lift yourself up off the ground in a vulnerable, belly exposed position.
5) Backbends on treacherous surfaces drive the point home of sutra 2.46 Sthira sukham asanam. First and foremost sthira! Steady! Then ease comes.
6) Since I am doing most of the pictures as selflies this has made repetition a great teacher. My teacher, Tim Miller taught me the benefit of repetition years ago with backbends. He has a way of inspiring you to do 12 backbends.
7) Pictures always speak louder than words. I have become immensely informed by my photos as to where I need to do some work and research. Try it, you will see things that you might not yet be able to propriocept.
8) From sharing my photo’s, so far to date (By what people have chosen to share with me privately), I have inspired 3 random people to try to do a backbend and to keep them incorporated in their practice. (I’m finding backbends in some yoga communities are becoming a lost art)
9) My lazy habits are being exposed, my external hip rotators overwork, while my internal rotators underwork. My cervical spine is stiff.
10) I have learned that I am a dreamer, that I believe I can fit into tight places and do things my body has never done before. Not only am I a dreamer, but I’m not afraid to leave my comfort zone after all.

Questions I am wondering if I’ll have answered at the end of this 108 photographic journey
1) Will my backbends improve in such a way that I will be able to do tic toc’s?
2) Will I understand my psoas better? And get better movement and expression through it?
3) Will my body require less backbend preparation to experience a good, comfortable and correct backbend?
4) Will I be able to grab my heels in Kapotasana, by myself?
5) As I have been enjoying finding murals to use as a backdrop to my photo’s, I wonder if I will finally make some room to start painting again. Long before being a yoga teacher, I was an artist. I admire each and every one of the artist I have used in my photos. They have embodied the “Go big or stay home.” mantra with their art and I thank them for that.

I think at the pinnacle 108, it will just be a landmark. I imagine at this point that I have caught some sort of backbend bug. If you were to talk to my students this wouldn’t be a surprise, as I have been driving home the numerous benefits of backbending for years now. I now feel like I am on a mission to find the most unique expressions of backbends and the most unique backdrops to accent the experience. I intend to be 80 years old and still standing up out of Urdhva dhanurasana. Join me. I promise, it will be good for your health.

Categories: For the beginner, My viewpoint | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ripe for the pickin’.

Do you remember your graduation from pre-school? Do you remember all the excitement about starting out the next year at a new school? Each year working your way up to the eventual end – graduation from college. Is it that there is an eventual end that keeps us on track? Is it knowing that at some point we will be given the reward of a title that allows us to keep our nose to the grindstone? What if there were no-end? If there were no diplomas, would you still work as hard as you do and for as long? Is it possible you would work even harder for less – less acknowledgement, less status, less pay? It seems as the human species goes, we do well with things that are going to end but we do terribly with things that have no end. If I told you that you only needed to do backbends 50 more times before you could spring right up out of it to standing, would you be willing to do 50 more? What if I told you it was going to take 100 more backbends, or 500 more? Would you still be as willing to do them? What if I told you all you were ever going to get out of yoga is a better night’s sleep? Would you do it, would you stick with it? I find the hardest part about yoga for some people is the endless effort that is needed without knowing what the results will be.

The most difficult sutra for a yogi says “Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah” – Practice without attachment to a particular result. But if we are putting forth effort, aren’t we aiming for a particular result? Well, how do we practice with out attachment? We must practice patience. I do believe you will ultimately get any result you strive for with enough due diligence. In the same way that you eventually do get to enjoy a nice glass of wine. But keep in mind that wine was first a grape, or even further back a seedling. The process of making a good glass of wine takes a while. If you just consider alone the fact that it takes about 3 years to make a productive grape vine. Let’s not forget about all the TLC that is needed in that three year process to keep that vine healthy, pest free, frost free, drought tolerable, etc. Add to that how the soil had to be cultivated before the germinated seeds could be planted. Then of course, there is the harvesting, smashing, fermenting, bottling etc. It takes from 1 year to 5 years to make a bottle of wine, the extreme being 20 years with reds. If people were only willing to put that much time into their yoga practice. Just think of the limitless potential you could experience by allowing yourself time to mature into a yogi.

Patience. If you try Padmasana before it's time you might risk injury.

Patience. If you try Padmasana before it’s time you might risk injury.

A three year yoga practice could be like growing your deep roots and vines before you are ready to produce a mature fruit ripe for the picking. During that 3 year period processing what you’ve learned. Then you might be ready to be picked, pruned and overall cleansed of the fruit that might be weighing you down and that can be turned into something better. But even then, you might need to sit and contemplate your next phase of yoga, just like wine sits in the fermenting process. You must discard the waste before you can take on a new form – going from your solid state to a liquid state of being. In yoga, we are trying to become more fluid, to become sweeter, to become better with age. Each of us has the potential to add to this world something unique, something that comes from a good exploration process. If we walk away from yoga before the process has had time to really set in, we would be missing out on all the colorfulness that yoga brings to so many. With enough yoga we do become a lot like a red wine. Where it’s hard to get the stain of yoga out of our hearts, just like it is hard to get the stain of red wine out of carpet. Yoga leaves an impression, and a strong one at that, when practiced for years, not months.

Wine doesn’t make it to your lips without having a heritage. Most vineyards are centuries old. The craft being passed down from one generation to the next. The craft being refined with each year by experimentation. From when to pick the grapes, to what to add to the soil, to how the climate produced a specific result. When you are part of Ashtanga yoga, you become a part of that heritage. Yogis before you have experimented. They have refined the craft of Ashtanga yoga. You automatically get an umbilical cord to India. Just like wines have a particular flavor when they come from a particular region, you automatically step into a family tree with the great, great grandfather figures of Ashtanga yoga – Ramamohan Brahmachari, Krishnamacharya and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Tim Miller. As each year of your practice goes by, you are becoming a bigger limb on this old, amazing family tree we call Ashtanga yoga. You are fertilizing the soil for the next crop of yogis.

So give yourself time. Don’t be in such a hurry. Be still. Stand in the sun. Receive from the earth what it has to offer. Be gentle when you prune back what you no longer need. Squish out all the flavor that yoga is giving you, and be willing to share it with others. Don’t hold back and don’t be shy to have your own unique flavor. Yoga makes us ripe for the picking. You just never know when you will be picked in life and for what cause. You might get picked to be a mother, you might get picked to be a cancer survivor, or you could get picked to be a civil servant, or picked to write a great novel. Whatever it is you get picked for, yoga will make you humble, sweet, patient, generous and RIPE.

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