I began practicing yoga sometime in 2000 as a way to address a lower back problem that was not severe enough for surgery and not light enough to ignore. The only option I was offered was taking anti-inflammatory medication, sure to cause its own problems from overuse. So when my then boyfriend mentioned he’d tried yoga and that he thought it might help my back, I jumped on the opportunity. I was, without knowing it, walking into a fairly traditional Ashtanga-Vinyasa yoga studio. Not that you would’ve known that from the name: “It’s Yoga!” was all that the sign read. And with my complete ignorance on the topic and my mental image of people in lotus pose meditating I walked in and was shocked (and pleased) at how dynamic and athletic yoga practice can be.
Within three weeks my back no longer hurt. And though the practice did not eliminate the issue (if I go without practice for a few weeks the pain in the lower back inevitably returns) it offered me a pill (and side effect) free option for it. I’ve been with it since.
In 2006 I took my first teacher training (more focused on personal development than teaching mechanics, though the former without question aids the latter) and was immersed in the non-asana (posture) aspect of Yoga, which only intensified my curiosity and drive to learn. In 2010 I did a second teacher training which focused more (than the first training at least) on the art of teaching. Each training gave me a different dimension and purpose for yoga practice. In my first training I was exposed to a breadth of knowledge and practice I didn’t even know was available. It was my first time attempting pranayama (breath control) and meditation. In my second training I learned how teaching can be a form of selfless service and, as such, an act of karma yoga.
And now I’m here. I knew this trip would offer me a totally new dimension as well. But, as before, I had no idea what that could be. This last week I got a taste of that when I was called up to the front of the room to serve as a test subject in our Application of Yoga class. In this class we cover some theory but mostly focus on how to learn to see another person so that the subtleties of posture, personality, habit, form and breath become clear as signals for what someone needs. At KYM, Yoga is not something that is practiced in a class format. It’s personal and most effective when personalized to meet the requirements of the individual’s current situation.
I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Kausthub, the teacher for this class (and as I’ve mentioned before, son of T.K.V Desikachar, founder of the KYM, and grandson of Sri T. Krishnamacharya, to whom the center was dedicated) asked me to go into Uttanasana, a simple forward bend.
“How awful!” he said when he saw it.
My mid back always folds in this pose. I’ve always considered it an issue with my hamstrings, which are tight from years of jogging and weightlifting. When I go into this posture I always engage my quads, which help release the hamstrings, and do my best to lengthen my spine as I go into it. I can touch my toes, a huge improvement over where I was when I started asana practice in 2000, but for someone practicing as long as I have, my Uttanasana leaves much to be desired. Kausthub asked the class what was wrong and, no surprise, everyone mentioned my hamstrings were probably tight. What I’ve always heard.
“Really? Are you sure?” he responded. He does this all the time.
We knew better than to assert that we did. A couple of days before he had called a different person up and asked her to go into Utkattasana. She did and his response was: “How awful! Is that the best you can do?”
Class with Kausthub is nothing if not a humbling experience. But in Yoga, that’s part of the point: reining in the ego, disassociating with it and, most important, understanding that you are not your ego… or rather than your ego isn’t you.
A girl in class seemed to be offended. “That’s her anatomy! Her ankle flexibility is limited. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“Is that so?” was Kausthub’s response.
So he proceeded to give the subject a sequence of breathing exercises paired with movement. Deep, conscious breaths. At first he placed his hand on her lower, then mid then upper back and asked her to breathe deeply, using the inhale to move his hand upward, lengthening her spine. Then he gave her some vinyasa: sometimes moving with breath, then completing an exhale before moving into Ardha (half) Utkatasana with the spine straight, then into full Utkatasana. A few minutes of this and when she went into Utkatasana, she was in a full squat, spine long, arms pointing straight up.
Everyone was silent. So Kausthub called on the girl who had protested moments before. “So. Did her anatomy change?”
The girl was clearly humbled. “No.”
“Wrong answer!” Kausthub laughed. “But it was not her medical anatomy.”
That was our introduction to the effects of energy in the body. If any of us thought prana was only a concept before, this clarified that it was not. This was not simply explained by her body warming up. She’d one just a few minutes of breathing synchronized with movement. But it was breathing in a very particular way. When you know how to manipulate energy in your body, how to direct it, you can change how your body functions to an impressive degree.
He’d shown this once before but not so blatantly. He’d called one of the other men in the class to the front and asked him to go into Uttanasana and everyone could see the rounded back. A few minutes of conscious breathing, again with Kausthub’s hand on his back to bring attention to the area, and then modified asana. Then the guy could do Uttanasana with no problem. No curve of the spine.
So when it was my turn, the students were less enthusiastic about offering assessments and solutions. Kausthub brought up the other guy who’d had problems with Uttanasana and asked both of us to sit in Dandasana (sit upright with legs extended infront of you) back to back. Everyone could see that where he had a rounded back, I was able to sit with a flat back, an indicator that my hamstrings were actually looser than the other guy’s.
“He may have tight hamstrings but they are not the cause of his rounded back.”
Kausthub asked if anyone wanted to come up to help me with my pathetic Uttanasana. One student jumped up and immediately began doing what Kausthub had done to the other two. Her hand on my back she asked me to breathe and try to move her hand upward along my back. I could do it with the lower and upper back but not with the mid back. She became a little frustrated and kept trying to get me to move it but it wouldn’t. She then asked me to do Uttanasana and nothing had changed. The technique didn’t work.
That was Kausthub’s point I think.
Personalizing Yoga begins and ends with observation. It’s typical of our mentality to want to take a technique and use it with everyone, accommodate the person to it rather than accommodate it to the person. There’s something comforting about using a tool that works for everyone. But everyone is different and two people who exhibit poor form in Uttanasana may do so for very different reasons and if you don’t pay attention to those differences then applying the same solution will be ineffective at best and detrimental to the subject at worst.
So she sat back down and Kausthub called on the other guy again. “What is different between these two guys?”
There were plenty. He was shorter and stocky. We stood differently. We breathed differently. Everyone noted these things. And Kausthub suggested that these differences, subtle as they may seem, indicated that the way to address the problem had to be different for both of us. So instead of the process we were all used to, he asked me to breathe deeply into my solar plexus, the area just below the front of the ribcage and above the abdomen.
“Inhale into here and exhale from there.”
This was a very different breathing technique than I am used to. With Uddiyana Bandha, I exclusively chest breathe and, correctly or not, keep that area still. With regular breathing, I tend to breathe into the chest and abdomen simultaneously.
The moment I started to breathe in this new way, I knew something was different. It was tight and hard to move. The more I breathed into it the more the sensation radiated from the area, especially towards my back which aligned perfectly with my mid-back.
He then asked me to lie down on the floor and inhale into the area then let out all the air with a “Ha!”. “Do it twelve times,” he urged. So I would take a deep inhale then release. Sometimes the sound was so loud it reverberated in the room.
“Goooood.” Kausthub would say in those instances.
It’s hard to describe what I felt in those moments. The emotional sensations were more pronounced than any physical ones. I felt vulnerable, sad, scared, numb and at peace. I kept rolling through those sensations, sometimes feeling them at the same time.
When he asked me to stand up and repeat Uttanasana I went deeper than I ever had before. I’ve been able to place my hands flat on the floor with straight legs but always with my arms extended. Now my elbows were bent, my legs weren’t shaking, and there was an ease to the pose that I’d never felt.
I stood back up again.
“Look at his profile,” Kausthub urged the class.
“It’s completely changed,” one student said, and others nodded along.
I sat back down and a few students asked me then and after class how I felt. This all seemed like magic to us and that is not an overstatement.
During our break I was still in a bit of a daze and suddenly felt this terribly grief well up and I began to cry quietly. It was strange. I had no sense of where the sadness was coming from. It was just there, without purpose. I’d experienced this before during meditation in my teacher training so I wasn’t scared of it. But it doesn’t cease to surprise me and I am never totally at ease with it. I just watched as the emotion rolled through me and then dissipated. And then it felt like a weight had been lifted; I felt physically lighter.
For the rest of the day I tried to continue breathing into this area that had been stuck before and felt a pain that ran like a spear from the solar plexus into the back. Every inhale took work and brought pain. But each time it was milder. And I started to feel my back open up.
The next day I awoke late, didn’t do my own practice at 6a.m. as usual and skipped the asana class at 7:30a.m. Instead I chose to shave my head, shower, eat breakfast at the hotel, have my coffee and overall take it easy. I was void of stress. When I walked back into class the folks that I spend the most time with raised their eyebrows a bit. Clearly the shave head was a difference but something else had changed.
“You look like a different person,” said the other bad Uttanasana guy. “You’re a changed man.”
My friend Andrea asked if I was okay. I was. I was, if anything, at ease in a way I hadn’t been for a long time.
A couple of days later my friend Bradley experienced an even more profound change. He’d hurt his back a week before, severely enough that he was skipping the morning asana class which, by most standards is not difficult at all. He’d tried private consultations, gone to the hospital, done ultrasound massage and taken anti-inflammatory meds to reduce his pain. None of these things helped much. Perhaps they offered momentary relief but the pain ultimately returned.
Kausthub called him up to the front of the class, asked him to do some conscious breathing then a simple pranayama: inhale freely, then exhale through a partly closed right nostril. Twelve breaths and his body visibly warmed up, his forehead sweating a bit. A student was asked to come up to check his back: the left side, which had no problem, was normal in temperature; the right side, which had the problem, had warmed up so much he had started to sweat there.
Bradley felt some relief immediately but the next day was the surprise. His pain was completely gone. He told us later that up to five hours after class he’d felt his back constantly relax and grow, the tension in it dissipating, until he didn’t feel any discomfort at all. And this relief had carried on to the next day. What meds and massage and other forms of therapy had not managed was cured with only three minutes of conscious, calculated breathing. That is the control of prana.
Primary Series in Ashtanga-Vinyasa is also referred to as Yoga Chikitsa (Yoga Therapy). The idea is that in preparation for the harder asanas and the much harder work of pranayama and meditation the body has to be tuned, healed, softened and strengthened. Yoga is a method of steps in the path of progress and the first step is always to deal with ailments and conditions that may get in the way of your journey. There is a power to it that is undeniable. My asana practice was responsible for changes in my life that led me to the 140lb frame that I now sport, a much more comfortable weight, I should add, than before and more than 40lbs lighter than I was at my peak. The body does much less work carrying less weight and can devote energy to other areas that need it: digestion, immunity, reducing inflammation and increasing concentration and focus. This therapy is amazing when yoga is approached even in class formats, where everyone is exposed to the same postures, the same sequence, with perhaps some modifications to accommodate limitations. When the process is individualized it becomes ten times as powerful, focusing our own energy specifically on our needs, and this can carry us farther on the journey than we could manage otherwise.