Sunday, December 5, 2010

Yoga Workshop

I keep procrastinating when it comes to writing this post. Today I went out to lunch, rode a bike to the climbing gym and had an intense hour-long bouldering session, continued on said bike through some strong winds to the beach (beautiful!) where I met up with some fellow backpackers from my hostel, took a swim in the ocean, biked back to the hostel, ate dinner, took a shower, shook out all of my sand-coated belongings (it was quite windy at the beach), mended a couple things that required repairing (thanks, Mom, I've used the sewing kit a few times now!), chatted with new travelers at the hostel, checked my bank accounts, went on facebook, and then stared at a blank screen for a while before writing. Even now, by summarizing my day I have put off getting into my real reason for writing!

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend a three day Ashtanga Yoga workshop with Peter Sanson, a fairly well known name in the Ashtanga world. (No, I didn't really know of him until I did my research.) He studied with the Guru who popularized Ashtanga yoga (though it has been around for thousands of years), and now goes around leading yoga workshops all over the world. He was born a Kiwi, but moved to India to study with his Guru for 21 years. He has since returned to NZ to raise his two-year-old son while continuing to travel for workshops. Sometimes Peter will teach a "led" class where everyone stays at the same pace as they move through the series of Ashtanga poses, but more often he leads workshops where each individual moves through the poses at their own pace  (called "Mysore style" or supervised self-practice). During these sessions, Peter moves around the room and makes adjustments to correct positioning or assist you in going further in your practice. He is a gifted teacher and uses a gentle hands-on approach to encourage you - and your body - to release into the practice of Ashtanga Yoga.

Now, I have attended a variety of different yoga classes in my life, and always preferred the ones based on Ashtanga Yoga. It is from this I have pulled poses to utilize in my personal practice, though I did not know until this weekend how rigid the practice of Ashtanga is set up to be. There are specific series of movements that are grouped together and you are ideally supposed to move through these established poses in order. Each builds on the last to stretch and warm and loosen the body. It is a full-body workout that requires focus and determination, and when you come to the end of your practice - lying still on the floor - it is incredibly relaxing to feel how much you have used your body. 

I stumbled upon this weekend's workshop when I called ahead before attending a class on Thursday. I was informed that the class was cancelled but that there was a really great opportunity this weekend to attend a three day workshop (once again with the perfect timing of things just working out in NZ). I hopped online and did a little research to figure out who Peter Sanson was and if I would be able to keep up with the sessions because I had not attended a proper yoga class in months (with the exception of the one Bikram Yoga class I attended my very first night in the country)! I found a post on someones blog, summarizing their experience with a Peter Sanson workshop and mentioning how patient and accommodating he is no matter what level you might be. Somehow, I was convinced to attend and showed up for the first session on Friday evening.

Peter taught a led class on Friday which was an absolute blessing for me as I know the various poses but do not know the proper Ashtanga sequencing. I was able to follow along and felt I only really struggled with some balancing poses that many others apparently needed help with as well. It felt good to be in a class environment again, instead of the brief sessions of a few moves that I do on my own. The atmosphere is quiet and focused and each person is working internally on the various things that might be holding them back. You can hear - and almost feel - the "Ujjayi" breath: diaphramatic breathing through the nose that produces a raspy sound as it moves past the throat. The room warms up quickly, the mats become sticky, and your limbs become more and more slippery. 

Yoga is as mental and emotional as it is physical, and is historically based on spiritual health (along with all of these other levels). It is said to be a "way of life" rather than just the physical exercise that many westerners see. While I don't subscribe to the notion of attaining ultimate enlightenment and union with the universe, I do believe involvement in yoga helps to improve numerous aspects of my health and overall quality of life. Strength, flexibility, balance, focus, stamina, calmness, and self-awareness are all areas where I have noticed improvement in relation to my yoga practice. To return from my tangent, however I will get back to the workshop...

Saturday morning we met again in the same place for a session of supervised self-practice. This was a bit intimidating for me due to my lacking knowledge of the order and flow each pose is supposed to be practiced. Peter was patient with me and a few of us maintained the same pace through the practice, so he was able to instruct several at once. I followed along and did the sequences as I was instructed, but I started to watch the others who had begun earlier than myself. They were much more advanced in their practice and were attempting poses that looked much more fun than the primary series I was working on. I was able to remain focus on what I was doing as Peter mentioned we would do more tomorrow and had worked hard enough for the day. He assigned certain times for us to arrive on Sunday and I was happy to be placed in the middle group - not the most advanced, but not the few that seemed to be struggling to get the moves.

I did a little Ashtanga research on Saturday evening to try and learn more of the sequencing before Sunday's session. Talk about cramming the night before...

When I showed up on Sunday morning, I fell into practice right away. I knew the first sequence, but after that I blanked. I didn't know what fit in where, or how many repetitions I was supposed to do, and it seemed that Peter was less available to assist than yesterday. I struggled, pausing in a resting position between each sequence of movements, and waiting for him to instruct me on what was next. I felt dependent and lost, and when he would ask me if I "got it," I didn't know how to respond. The poses are all familiar - I am capable of doing them and I know the flow between some of them quite well, but it was remembering the sequencing that I struggled with. My constant pausing and waiting for instruction tried my patience and seemed to distract me from focusing on the areas I should be. 

Sometimes Peter would have me repeat a sequence of moves to make sure I had it, which frustrated me. I knew I could do the poses, but my memory and lack of Ashtanga knowledge was holding me back. I was watching others move quickly through the series and working on poses I was not as familiar with. I wanted to be trying those poses so that I would have the opportunity for professional assistance with them. Instead, I obliged with my instruction and repeated areas I knew I could do. After some time, I caught up with another lady and was able to follow along with her, figuring out which pose was next and doing it myself. I finally got up my nerve near the end and asked Peter to check or adjust my headstand. He almost seemed to laugh at me, saying no, that headstand was not to be attempted at this level and needed to wait until someone could support all of their weight with their arms. I think this is where it is hardest to work with someone who does not know you as well as you know yourself. How would he know exactly what I was capable of after seeing me in a group for a total of six hours?

I suppose it all comes back to patience. When Peter was learning to practice Ashtanga Yoga with his Guru, he was taught one sequence (about seven poses in the first one) at a time. He would practice this sequence over and over until his Guru was satisfied. For some, he would spend a week on the same series, for others he spent as long as seven years. After our third session, Peter discussed this slow progression of learning and touched on how he has seen people in various countries approach yoga. Some are looking for an athletic activity, eager to try everything, while others are very easygoing and laid back. Everyone has different struggles - hips that won't open up, legs that are a bit too tight, minds that won't focus, or bodies that are a bit off-balance. It was interesting to hear of Peter's experiences and process the different parts of the practice I need to work on. 

I think the reason it took so long to write this post (aside from the active/distracting nature of staying in a hostel) is that I felt the workshop really exposed my areas of weakness (not the easiest thing to publicly discuss). I am glad I had the opportunity to attend the workshop and feel that I left with a good idea of what I need to work on! I don't think that I will stop doing headstands, but I think my interest in (specifically) Ashtanga Yoga has been reinvigorated and hopefully I will be able to devote more time and effort towards my daily practice.

After the last day of the workshop, many of the participants (8 of 10ish) went out to lunch at a local cafe before Peter had to fly back to the north island. I tagged along and enjoyed listening to the various conversations about food and lifestyle choices that made me feel like I was back in Ithaca. I am grateful that I was so easily welcomed into a group that seemed to know each other pretty well, and will hopefully be able to attend classes with them when I am back in Nelson in the future. I was one of the youngest and most inexperienced people to attend the workshop, which definitely made it a challenging but rewarding weekend!

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