The last couple days, I’ve returned to Sun Salutations. They are a perfect practice in and of themselves. I used to hate them. Always forced myself through them, knowing I needed the warm up. Finally I realized: if you hate a pose in yoga, you’re doing it wrong. There is some other alignment, variation, or way of breathing that will work for you. Even burning, strengthening poses are enjoyable if you’re at your edge, and not over it. A few examples:
“I hate Warrior I.”
Many standing poses create intense burning in the legs. This pose in particular has some goofy alignment on top of the fire. Back foot rotates out while hips face forward? Are you kidding? Just know that different traditions have different expressions of the pose, for different reasons. Iyengar aligns front heel to back arch; Kripalu has the back heel up, like a Lunge! Once you learn or decide the intent of the pose (for me, it’s a heart opener with a lot of fire underneath), you can wiggle the hips and explore the breath until you feel that intention with full-body participation. We all have different skeletons, no two poses will ever look alike. The stance can be very narrow if that is where you breathe fully and feel stable. The hips can turn towards the side if it lets you lift through the heart and stop sinking into the lower back. You want ease but not easy. There’s a lot of room for exploration. Your teacher’s head might explode, just tell them you have a doctor’s note for self-medication. Adjust.
“I hate Ankle to Knee.”
One of the most intense hip openers, Ankle-to-Knee (aka Fire Logs) gets right into the freaky tightness in a mysterious corner of the hips. All around the classroom, students avoid the full parallel of the shins and round into a cross-legged ball. Try not to care that they’re cheating. See above. For full sensation, keep the ankles right on the knees, not on the thighs. Flex the feet and try to relax. In martial arts tests, you hold squats for 1, 10, 20 minutes to get your belt. The secret is apparently to focus on the sensations of breathing, not the sensations of pain. Like life: if you run around thinking about your problems all day, you will not be smiling very much. So, sit up tall, and breathe up and down the back. Maybe an exhale tips the hips an inch forward; maybe not. As Leslie Kaminoff says, think about spinal movement, not spatial. A new door opened on intense poses when I learned to stay where I was. Relax.
“I hate Handstand.”
This inversion uses an invigorating combination of muscle and fear. Even against a wall, I used to freak out. I was sure I didn’t have the strength to hold it. Heart openers immediately prior helped — a little clasp of the hands behind the back before diving forward — but I still hated the feelings of panic and wobbly weakness while in the pose. It was too unfamiliar, there was too much going on. So, I simplified. An L-shaped Handstand allows both feet to be firmly on the wall, which somehow feels much more familiar and secure, so that the alignment of the shoulders can be the focus. (Since we want to work from the ground up, we have to tackle the hands and shoulders before the core and legs.) Eventually, each leg could take a turn extending to the sky. I firmly believe it’s better to do one piece of the pose well, then all of them terribly. Simplify.
And finally, “I hate Sun Salutations.”
The jump backs. The Down Dogs. The repetition. There’s so much to hate! My attitude finally changed I think at Sivananda, when we were led through two rounds of Surya Namaskar, and then told to do three more at our own pace. It’s a shock to realize that you don’t know what your own pace is. Suddenly, this exercise was an exploration of how I actually wanted to move. I started skipping Up Dog, and appreciating Cobra. Keeping the step-backs, and their connection to the core. Hearing the breath more like a breeze than a freight train. Since then, I’ve noticed how different the speed of my breath is at different times of day — sometimes it wants to race, sometimes it wants to relax. Following the breath is like letting an alternate brain lead. It’s a different choreographer each day; the quality and rhythm of movement changes subtly and sometimes drastically. Breathe.
Acknowledging, deciphering and accommodating irritants will create positive reinforcements for your practice instead of negative. Practice in a way that leaves you looking forward to the next one, not holding subconscious dread. You will start to get it.