Refining your practice II: Utilizing the sun saluations

It feels like an age since I last posted something. And in blog terms, in fact it was. I just checked – over a month. I’ve been pretty consumed by a combination of this incredible summer we’re having, practice, and work work work. Foundation for Change is taking up a lot of my energy, time and headspace. It’s often the last thing I’m going to bed thinking about and usually the first thing that comes into my head as soon as the chimes of my alarm start to rouse me from my sleep. My co-director Liz and I are spinning a lot of plates – we’re now carrying a group that are almost half way through, writing applications for funding, receiving rejections for applications (apparently just 1 in 10 is successful), networking, creating publicity, maintaining the finance systems and talking incessantly. It’s how we work.

As always, my practice is acting as my anchor for these uncertain and fairly turbulent times and although I’ve not had a chance to post anything, the various layers of the practice are never far from my mind or my fingertips. I had a long conversation with Eileen yesterday, about various practitioner perspectives on the practice as a whole and where people’s priorities seem to lie. What we both talked about are that there are those who pay little attention to the breath count and actually even just the breath – holding it, forcing it, squeezing it into the lungs as if breathing in itself was a massive effort. I guess their priority is just to get through to the end as it’s always going to be hard if the breath isn’t steady. Such people are NOT a good advert for someone wondering what Ashtanga is like as they make running a triathlon seem more enjoyable.

There are others who only focus on the asanas themselves and pay little attention to the transitions, the vinyasa, the tiny details like when your hands go to your waist and whether that’s done on an inhale or an exhale. Such practices are fragmented, the focus is just on the things that are perceived to be the ‘important’ bits and the ‘mundane’ bits can be pushed to the side. Particularly when the teacher isn’t looking. Something similar happens when people schlep their way through their sun salutations and speed their way through the standing poses to get to the bit where the practice apparently starts – ie. From being on the floor and the beginning of the seated poses.

The reality is that every single aspect of the practice, regardless of which series you’re on, is a fundamental part (including savasana!) and it is important to connect and integrate all aspects (which happens over time for sure) rather than have various fragments that resemble some kind of whole. This actually mirrors life itself and the tendency to compartmentalize… Something I have applied in my practice for several years now has been to take my time in my sun salutations and really aim to squeeze out every single drop of goodness out of every single one. If I can remember rightly, I used to be a bit sloppy in my sun salutes, finding them really hard, just wanting them out of the way, sometimes skipping a few, often skipping breaths in the bits I now realize are crucial to breathe in. I think the change came after my car accident when I had to strip my practice right back to its bare essentials, essentially becoming a beginner again. My sun salutations became the first thing which brought mobility back into my recently fractured spine, brought back the strength into my shoulders and arms, and helped me get back in touch with being able to flow seeing as I was nowhere near even getting to the end of standing, let alone the seated poses.

Slowing down brought me right back into my breath, and the recent fractures (I started sun salutations about seven weeks after my accident) made me practice more mindfully then I ever had in my life! In itself tiring in the beginning. I see the sun salutations as fundamental to my practice – they lay the foundation and the set the tone for what’s to come. It is during those 5 A and 5 B that I steady my breath, focus my mind, limber up my limbs to prepare for the subsequent transitions and poses. The integrity and quality of the sun salutations mirror that of the ensuing vinyasas – sloppy vinyasas are usually down to a lack of strength particularly in the shoulders, lats and core, and what is vital to recognize is that you can work on these elements at the beginning of your practice. I’d go as far as to say that I’ve have built up probably about 90% of my upper body strength through really understanding and then working my sun salutations and later vinyasas as they are things we do the most (I’m pretty sure I counted once… it was a lot).

There are several threads which run through the practice and different threads will apply at every point. Once you begin to understand just what these threads are and how they manifest, you can begin to reign in and integrate what for most people are disparate poses. Realize that something you may do at the start of your practice will help at other points, even right at the end: I begin working my backbends (whether for second series or the back bends at the end of primary) in sun salutation B; I am preparing for my headstand and handstands in both sun salutations and throughout each vinyasa. The same applies to the standing poses – learning to condition the lats and serratus which are vital for arm balances – in poses where you’re not weight bearing but still keeping the muscles engaged.

The most important thread of all? The breath…

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