Hold first, then flow? Or flow first, then hold?

I can’t remember exactly when it was, but I remember this mindblowing moment when I realized that once you’re deep into yoga, you don’t even notice how good you feel anymore because it becomes normal. And the problem is that other people don’t even know how good they can feel, and how do you explain that to them? I’ve been thinking about that a lot, because I do not feel good.

I was suddenly way into my practice and study again, and loving it, and it was making me feel great and really happy, until I wasn’t for like five weeks! I was deep into finishing a children’s book about climbing Rainier and traveling and climbing and starting my run coaching business and for some crazy reason I stopped making the time. Because it’s not about not having the time, it’s that you’re not making the time that stops you from making good decisions for yourself.

“We make choices. I hate to say sacrifices. If we truly love this sport, and we have these dreams and goals in this sport, the classroom, or in life, they’re not sacrifices. They’re choices we make to fulfill these goals and dreams.” -Deena Kastor. And that about sums it up, right? Every moment that I don’t get up and do yoga or stop making notes on whatever so that I can read my texts is a choice. It’s not a sacrifice to make time for the practices that make you healthy and happy. I know our brains are wired to appreciate immediate gratification more than good long term habits for our health and happiness, so it’s hard to stop watching TV or eating to go do yoga. But what about when I’m working and I can’t seem to stop and take time for yoga?

I was very aware when I was writing this blog every day and practicing before and after that, that it was making me feel nourished and calm and happy. I know that fear and ego are problems, but I don’t really see that being the barrier either. I know it’s important, I know it makes me feel good, I don’t get up and do it. So far, I haven’t been able to figure out why on the internet. So let’s move on and talk about Desikachar.

For whatever reason that I probably just don’t know, it feels to me like Desikachar slipped through the cracks, at least in the west. It seems like most folks with more than a passing interest in yoga know BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, and maybe even Indra Devi, who were all famously students of “the father of modern yoga” Krishnamacharya. Lesser known is TKV Desikachar, who was actually Krishnamacharya’s son. I’m re-reading the Heart of Yoga, and here’s something crazy to me that shattered my world into a million pieces the first time I read it, and that’s that Desikachar recommends dynamic movement with breath through postures BEFORE then holding them.

As opposed to the way we do it here in America, at least in the various branches of Ashtanga (vinyasa, power)(tbh, I don’t remember how Iyengar prescribes it, I should look that up), where we hold first, flow later. Where I think we hold first, as an opportunity to get into good alignment so that when you flow you kind of fall into better alignment after having had the opportunity to fine tune it first, Desikachar sees it as an absolute necessity to warm up the body by flowing dynamically through postures first, then kind of doing the important work of settling in while holding after. It’s been a while since I’ve done this, so I’m going to go ahead and try it right now with a few rounds of Sun Sal’s at least.

Okay I’m back, and I am astonished at how good that felt! I didn’t want to put too much thought into whatever prescribed rigidity might be involved, so I just simply did five rounds of regular Sun A’s linked to one breath, one movement, then one around where I held each pose for five breaths (three probably would’ve sufficed but five felt good today), then I did five dynamic Sun B’s, with a sixth round including static holds. Both felt amazing. In general, in my body, the first uttinasana, the first chair, and the first warrior one are always pretty stiff and uncomfortable because you’re holding them, and they’re pretty intense. I think when you’re practicing a ton, you forget how intense they are. But there it is. Uttininasana yanks on my hamstrings and I have to bend my knees quite a bit for it to ease up. I’m a big proponent of long chair pose holds for tapas (which we’ve discussed pretty recently the many benefits of tapas), partially because I was taught that way. But now I suddenly see it differently, like you’re making it more uncomfortable than necessary! And in both chair pose and warrior one, having done five rounds dynamically first, I was able to comfortably go deeper in a healthier way, rather than feeling that too tight/too soon discomfort.

You might be able to put your finger on this too, because it’s a fairly common practice in power classes for the teacher to put you in a long hold first, then flow a bunch of times, and come back to yet another long chair hold later in class. The second chair hold, you might feel more tired, but it’s burning zeal and not just plane rigidity or discomfort. Now I’m thinking, that feels like how it should be! More full body depth, more zeal, more enthusiasm, and I definitely felt like I could feel the “touch every piece” aspect much better with the dynamic flow first.

“There are two ways of practicing an asana. The dynamic practice repeats the movement into the asana and out again in rhythm with the breath… Dynamic movements allow the body to get used to the position gently and gradually. For this reason, it is always better to practice an asana dynamically first, before attempting to hold it. There are other important benefits to be gained from the dynamic form of practice. For example, many asanas cause great problems for beginners when they try to hold them in static practice for lengthy periods of time. As well, experienced practitioners of yoga often get caught in the habit of focusing their attention on fixing the posture somehow in static practice rather than really working in it and exploring its possibilities.”

That was a long quote from Heart of Yoga, and he goes on to express more benefits of practicing this way and further but I want to stop there for now. “Experience practitioners of yoga often get caught” and that just could not be more true! I was speculating earlier about the reason we teach that way being that you can make all of these alignment adjustments so that your alignment is better for when you’re flowing, especially maybe for beginners? But he’s basically saying, NO, that’s not important. Making those alignment adjustments will catch you and pull you out of the actually important work, and so dynamic is the more important practice, because it helps you find depth. Definitely today in my body, that felt true.

I’m super interested in exploring this more, for example, what does Pattabhi Jois say about why he does it the opposite way? I don’t know, I wonder if I can find that, and if I do I’ll bring it up again. For now I want to leave you with another important piece about rest that I think we all are guilty of forgetting from time to time, or at least not paying enough attention to. “We must of course rest whenever we become out of breath or are no longer able to control our breath. There is one rule to follow regarding rest: if we need a rest, we take one.”

My old teacher used to bring up something similar, about satya, honesty, that a truly advanced student knows when they’re not pushing towards their edge, but also when they need to back off. As a general rule, I don’t think Americans know when to back off. I don’t, I’m still recovering from OTS and I’ve actually recently found out that it’s a tiny, specific, particularly bad version of a spectrum of disordered nervous system activity called Sympathetic Dominance, which is actually pretty common in America, and is basically just a medical way of saying, “We don’t know how to back off.” In any case, I’m really picking up what Desikachar is putting down right now and you can expect more on this, probably about pranayama and the autonomic nervous system’s response to breathwork, tomorrow.

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