Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Yogic reflection 3. On hips

Before I begin the last reflection, I should clarify one thing: I've spoken disparagingly of some of the hippy--speak that can surround yoga. I don't want this to be taken the wrong way -- I'm a bit of a hippy myself, really, and as the previous entry demonstrates, I know that some of my distaste stems from blind, misplaced prejudice.

However, I **do** still think that you can find a lot of bollox spoken about yoga (I guess if you search the internet hard enough, you can find a lot of bollox spoken about pretty much anything), and I suppose this bothers me so much precisely because I think yoga has such potential to bring positive benefits to those who practise it. I don't want daft nonsense to put people off!

ANYWAY, to hips: one thing I've come to understand only recently about ashtanga yoga is its starting assumptions about the state of our hips. Put simply, the primary series is built for practitioners who are assumed to be able to sit easily in full lotus.

Now this may be a reasonable assumption when developing a yogic-system in a nation where people routinely sit on the floor, but I am A MILLION MILES away from being able to do this. So, ashtanga isn't for me then?

On the contrary, I can and do practise ashtanga on a regular basis, but I need to make several concessions to my stiff white-boy hips:

1. ALTERNATIVES TO LOTUS: Some of the poses in ashtanga involve putting one's feet in lotus, and then "doing stuff" (balancing on your shoulders, suspending yourself on your hands etc). Generally it's pretty clear how to do alternative versions of these with crossed legs, although it also seems clear that the alternative versions are much less effective at stretching and moving the body in the way intended. Still, something lost, but not much -- these asanas are not numerous.

2. BE CAREFUL! This is the really important point: although many of the poses may not explicitly require lotus position, the assumption about flexible hips is built in to their form. If one doesn't have this flexibility, then the full form may not be possible.

For me, one of the main offenders here is TRICHONASANA, the triangle pose. Many, many people practise this pose in even very elementary yoga classes (not just in ashtanga). Beware! The danger with trichonasana is that one straightens that front leg too strongly at the start, and then tries to turn the body through 90 degrees, so as to enter the full pose. If one does this with reduced hip flexibility, then one is in danger of twisting **through the knee**, and the consequences on the knee joint (which is not designed to twist) are severe.

I'm pretty sure that some of my knee problems a few years back were caused by malpractice of this most basic of poses. I now practise trichonasana with a pronounced bend in my front leg, the bend held until **after** I've twisted my body and straightened my arms, with the bend finally decreased once the rest of the body is in position (but never to a completely straight leg, always with a "micro-bend").

This type of adjustment is rather subtle and would not necessarily be picked up on a first pass through the primary series. How important, then, is the spirit of curious inquiry that I talked about in my first post! One needs to be alert to inappropriate stresses throughout the body, and to be ready to adjust one's postures so that these stresses are not damaging.

Importantly, this **isn't** a reason to avoid ashtanga: our bodies need to be exercised, and any exercise can cause injury. If done well, yoga is perhaps the safest way to do exercise on dry land because it is undertaken with an engaged mind that is alert and listening to the sensations and signals of the body. Looking back, I think the damage I did to myself was rooted partly in my testosterone-stoked desire to progress fast in the practice, an approach that polluted my attention with thoughts of future achievements, rather than allowing focus on the present-moment experience of being on the mat.

3. COMPLEMENTARY PRACTICE. Because ashtanga assumes we have open hips, it doesn't tend to include poses that promote and develop open hips. In the last 12 months I've started to do yin yoga, and I've found the benefits rather dramatic. These benefits range over many aspects of the yogic experience, but in particular there is a lot of time spent opening the hips.

So, for instance, a typical hour of yin--yoga may involve...
  • 5 minutes in the two COW-FACE postures (incredibly intense, and with a number of interesting variations)
  • 5 minutes in each of the two PIGEON postures (again very intense; also the worst pose I know on the knees if practised badly so should be done very carefully and consciously);
  • 5 minutes in FROG posture (I prefer to do this with my feet jammed under something like an open bottom drawer on a chest-of-drawers, otherwise my feet float up as I try and sink the knees down; this posture always feels obscene to me, like I'm trying to fuck the floor beneath me but, hey, it also feels great on the hips, so let's go with it).
... and there are a bunch of others that you probably know.

Starting an ashtanga practice with some amount of yin, or else swapping out one of your regular ashtanga sessions for a yin session, seems like a very good move to me.

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Let me conclude with a final thought on hips that also demonstrates that I don't mind some of that hippy-chat too much :-) A yoga instructor once remarked in a class I attended that "the hips hold a lot of emotions, and so it can be emotionally helpful to work on opening them." That's some serious hippy nonsense right there.

Still, the instructor's observation was corroborated by my mum who was warned by her surgeon, before undergoing a hip replacement, that people often cry a lot after hip surgery and it's nothing to worry about. Sure enough my mother was a basket case for several days after her operation, much to her bemusement. My mother, and her surgeon, are both very far from being hippies!

I've wondered what this might mean for my emotionally-constipated self. Like many men, I have a great deal of trouble crying -- it doesn't come naturally to me, and I sometimes feel rather compromised by its lack in my life. I've wondered if working on hip-opening might help with this but, to this point, I have no spectacular bouts of weeping to report.

Nonetheless, I have been rather taken aback by the profound mental effect that an hour of yin yoga can have on me, particularly when it involves the three strong hip-opening poses that I detail above. I often get to the end of such a session in a markedly disembodied state, as if in a trance; as if, indeed, I've taken some pretty damn good drugs. I heartily recommend it.

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