The day began at 9:00 with a class taught by Esak. He's a great teacher--precise, motivating, but in no way arrogant or showy. For some reason, what I remember most vividly from the class was his focus on ankles. In Pranyama deep breathing, especially when talking about contracting the thighs and buttocks, he mentioned the ankles. It felt odd to think about ankles contracting (is it humanly possible to bring those together? Not for me, anyway), but in doing so, I had awareness of my body from the head to the toes. One extra part of my body felt alive!
He also talked about ankles in Eagle pose--not just wrapping the ankle around, as the dialog states, but really squeezing the ankles together. I think that's a contraction that many overlook. Must remember that one!
One of my goals for the class was to make it through without skipping a posture. I didn't quite achieve that. It was an incredibly hot class, and I sat out a set of Triangle. Oh well. I'm actually not bothered by the fact that I sit out postures occasionally, so long as I know I'm working my max and not leaving the room. Not all expectations are met ;-)
OK, so, the posture clinic. I loved how Esak set it up. He didn't begin with a laundry list of postures to gloss over; he set it up according to higher concepts that he used the postures to illustrate. I won't go over every posture and list everything I remember from it all, but here is a general overview.
The first concept was breathing--I believe he used the term "breathing like a master playing guitar" to introduce it. Here, he focused on Pranyama (duh, and more on that one later) and Half-moon. He really de-mystified 80-20 breathing for me, and the clarity I got there was so needed.
The second concept was Hatha yoga (Hatha, the physical practice of yoga, translates to sun+moon. It's all about balance.) The third theme was backbending (lots of focus on identifying the thoracic part of the spine--Balancing Stick, Half-tortoise), and the fourth and final concept was Raja yoga, which was a little short due to time constraints. But at least there we talked about coming into the postures quickly, no fear--Camel, Standing Backward Bending and the second part of Awkward.
For now, I'll just talk about two posture insights I got. One was on flexing the foot in the second part of Standing Head-to-Knee. He had us really work on it. First, we practiced flexing the foot while it was on the floor and seeing the muscles above the shin come to life. Then, he had us hold the pose, foot kicked out, while he came around and ensured that we were all truly flexing it. It wasn't until he came over to me and poked at that muscle that the foot really flexed for the first time. Very cool "a-HA!" feeling on my part. It ain't easy to actually flex that foot--it's much more than pulling the toes back slightly.
I could see that it was not Esak's style to use himself as examples for what the postures "should" look like, and I liked this about him. He mainly used the students as examples (including me in Pranyama!), which allowed him to give them even more feedback. But, among others, he did demo Standing Head-to-Knee, and in doing so, he pointed out a truth about yoga (and life, as far as I'm concerned) that most people overlook. He said that to perfect this pose for a competition, his teacher (Mary Jarvis) had him do it ten times a day. Then, twenty. He said that before competing, "I did the pose of thousands of times."
Isn't that reassuring to hear? It's just practice. It's just time. I think we are engrained with this myth that mastery comes from innate talent or ability. But no. It's time spent. Certainly, some may have more natural flexibility than others, or a body type that makes certain poses easier than they might be for others, but like us all, Esak didn't improve until he did the pose again and again. Doesn't that bode well for the lot of us? :-)
(By the way, if the idea of mastery from practice vs. innate ability interests you, go buy Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. He talks about this concept in detail.)
I also got a much deeper understanding about what happens and why in Pranyama. Esak talked a lot about the diaphragm and why sucking in the stomach helps. In part, we need to suck in the stomach because doing so compresses the internal organs, "allowing air to go into parts of the lungs that don't normally get used." I knew the second part, of course, but I hadn't thought of the internal organs getting squished down to make room for the extra air. Very cool. He asked me to demo the posture, and I was happy to hear that I was on the right track with it. As you know, it's really hard to keep the stomach sucked in when exhaling, but it can happen. Sort of.
It was at this point that Esak mentioned that what we do in yoga is not un-natural, it's supernatural. He was big on reminding us that in yoga, things do not always feel that great. There is often pain. Not injury, of course, but intense discomfort. Yoga goes beyond the everyday range of motion, taking what we do in everyday life to a higher (super) level. The extra air you pull into the lungs in Pranyama, the intense backward bending you do in Camel--we don't do that without making the effort and deciding to do so because it's needed.
So... make the effort. Put in those hours! And, finally, I'm done for now :-) It really feels like I'm just scratching the surface.
Esak Garcia, flexin' that foot