Wednesday, March 20, 2013


Week 2 of assisting and a grey cloud hovers over me after I do a less than stellar job back bending two advanced students to ankles. Actually, we don't even make it to ankles. But I know for a fact that they are bendy enough, not just for ankles, but higher even. Instead, we struggle. It isn't the pretty seamless assist I was going for. I mismanage it somehow, don't give enough support, don't balance the weight. My nerves, more than anything, get to me.

Afterwards, they are both so graceful about it. One, a friend also, comes up to me before she leaves the shala and encourages me to back bend her another time. I am horrified at her suggestion. Still, they are not at all the worse-case scenario older student peeved at the mere existence of assistants, let alone being "helped" unsuccessfully by one. And although I am relieved by their understanding, I also feel like I failed them, not just them, but Sharath and myself. My confidence is shaken and fear sets in.

I know I am being hard on myself. I just need to learn from my mistakes. And it's just a posture. Just one part of a lengthy series of yogasanas. But back bending, so emphasized by the attention Sharath gives to it, is very prominent hereabouts. Dropping back, coming up, walking towards one's feet and eventually grabbing ankles are major landmarks of practice here, perhaps everywhere in the ashtanga world.

(Before I go on, let's take a moment to examine just exactly how obscenely not normal it is to be in such a posture. Backbending to ankles. Seriously!? Are we nuts? Backbending extremists? Heart-opening fanatics? But it seems an ever-shifting pinnacle: getting to one's ankles--and for the extremely open--calves, knees, thighs even. Thighs! That still freaks me out!)

So, I feel bad for bungling it. I feel embarrassed at my inexperience.

I give myself lots of self pep, remind myself that I'm here to learn from Sharath. And that surely he doesn't expect me to know it all.

A friend, an experienced teacher, points out that anywhere else outside of Mysore, such assistance would be a rare occurrence, that only in Mysore do contortionists converge in such large numbers. True, I've had little opportunity to assist the pose with my little ashtanga community in the Philippines. And they're pretty bendy. Another friend said that in her city-shala of 60 plus students, there was one ankle grabber. I'm encouraged.

A couple of days later, I am still dodging students with flexible backs. And I decide to get up the courage to speak to Sharath, hoping for guidance, moral support--if you practice with this man, you probably know where this is going...

"Hi Sharath,'m kind of afraid to take people to their ankles."

He looks at me and says matter-a-factly, "I know." He knows!

"Ahhhh..." I wait for some advice, encouragement, anything, but there is only awkward silence before he walks off to back bend someone himself.

Hokay... So much for feedback from the boss. In my optimism, I think he's leaving it to me to figure out on my own. It's not the first time. Last, year I struggled with a new posture. There was no feedback. No assistance, not even with back bending. At some point, I felt very alone as I muddled through the emotions that came up from it. By the end, however, the "personal time" was good for me. I learned a lot from it.

In practice, Sharath knows when to help and when to back off. I believe it's one of his superpowers of perception. I'm going to read his acknowledgement paired with lack of input in this particular instance as a sign that he trusts me to figure it out myself.

I know it isn't about strength. I'm dropping back guys much bigger than my petite Asian self. I understand the technique, more or less. I'm familiar with the ankle routine in my own practice. But I lack confidence. There is fear there...

Sharath's right to leave me on my own. My fear is my responsibility. I know that I can't continue to be afraid. I'm only halfway through the month of assisting and will not be able to avoid dropping back someone bendy enough for ankles. At some point I will be caught edging away from open backs, though Sharath probably sees my slipperiness already, probably smells the fear across the room. Most importantly, I just want to get on with it, I want to be totally present as I assist, and this fearfulness is getting in the way.

I look at my own practice. I ask myself, how am I at going to my own ankles? I can manage with more ease with Sharath helping me, but it is difficult when I am being assisted by someone else other than him, always stiffer somehow, a little less sure. I realize that I wasn't always "successful" (for the lack of a better word) with assistants.  It didn't add up.

Maybe it's easier with Sharath because I trust him so much. But what cause do I have to mistrust the assistants? Something in me stiffens when they are before me as I come up from backbend. Perhaps, it isn't them at all, but rather something in me. Do I trust myself in this process? Or am I relying on Sharath's magic touch to make what I still thought impossible possible? Did my mind create the conditions that made the fear difficult with others?

How can I expect others to trust me, if I myself had a hard time trusting? How can I ask someone to surrender to me, if I can't manage surrendering myself?

The following morning, Sidney, who is assisting at 4:30 comes to drop me back. In silence, I make a contract with myself. I will surrender and he will get me to my ankles. Together, we do it. It feels like a collaboration. And it's easier, so much easier than it has ever been with someone who isn't Sharath. I let something go that morning. Though Sidney doesn't know it, he participated in quite a little breakthrough. And I've been able to catch ankles with assistants each time since then.

It takes a few days to really test it. As luck would have it, I am never in the right place or right time to drop back any of the spectacularly bendy. Sometimes, I'm not fast enough, especially with Saraswathi in the room. Mama's fearless and has no qualms back bending anyone! And, in truth, I actually really enjoy assisting people who are just learning to drop back, it's a beautiful phase in the practice and I prefer assisting folks making those early steps.

Then, one morning, I'm standing in front of a female practitioner who comes up from urdhva dhanurasana. She says something and all I catch is "ankles." Here we go.

Something definitely shifts. I'm calm. And things go smoothly as we both do our part. I trust myself. And what's more, I trust her. I reckon she trusts me too. With the breath--both of us breathing together--she extends the spine and arches back. It's so fast and at the same time so beautifully slow. For me, it is an amazing moment of synchronicity and surrender between two people that don't know each other.

I reach for one wrist and then the other. There is no forcing, only a little guidance. And there in that place of trust, I find a sweet balance between being able to support her and also stepping out of the way, allowing her to reach.

I realize then that with this ankle grabbing business, I'm not supposed to do all the work. I'm support crew. People generally don't go there unless they can and the real task is not up to me really but in the heart of the practitioner finding space to go the extra distance. And for those making that first leap into this strange territory, Sharath's usually there, guiding them towards their feet.

By the end, I ceased running from ankle grabbing. But I didn't chase it either. If I was called, I would do, trusting in the process of practice, trusting in the abilities of the student, and trusting in myself. With more confidence, it all worked out fine--thank goodness!

In the end, it doesn't really matter whether I'm helping people to their ankles or not, whether we're grabbing ankles or even dropping back on our own. What matters is that the practice cultivates the courage to go beyond, to see past the fears and the limitations of our own mind, and that it refines our ability to trust, trust in others as much as trust in ourselves. 

No comments:

Post a Comment