Whenever I return to Cincinnati to visit family, we always end up in my grandpa’s basement putting together a jigsaw puzzle. My mom and grandpa do this weekly and it’s clear whose spot is whose, who has been working on what portion and who was the most frustrated at the close of the previous “puzzle party.”
Mom’s section is mostly green bamboo stalks with just a hint of panda ears as she nears the center of the puzzle. Grandpa has chosen to work on the pandas and gets more and more aggravated as the night ticks on. I observe them, working independently yet together in some symbiotic way, and am fascinated by the methodology. They are both concentrated on their own sections but send a piece to one another that they think “might go there.”
Then that moment comes when the one, “had-to-be-left-out-of-the-box-before-we-started” piece appears and connects their two segments and EUREKA! We have part of a panda with bamboo behind it. It actually starts to look like a picture now rather than scrambled, indecipherable pieces of colors and designs.
This is how I approach my asana practice when it comes to challenging poses. I like to break down the posture into reasonable and sane sections and work with that for as long as I deem necessary. Once I feel reasonably confident in most aspects of the posture, I will attempt to pull it all together.
This month I am tackling Vishvamitrasana in my personal practice which has always captivated yet eluded me. It’s an arm balance, a side bend, a backbend, a twist, and a hamstring and adductor “torturer.” The complexity of this pose is not simply because it’s all those things balancing on one hand and one foot, rather it’s the degree of attention and attunement I am required to have while attempting to execute this pose. (Check out Jason’s pose notebook about this incredible asana here.)
I decided to do a “Not-Suitable-for-Instagram” version of Vishvamitrasana (we’ll call it NSFIG Vish) today so that I could create a physical blueprint for what the entire body should experience in this posture. Rather than have the leg which is off the ground BEHIND the arm, I chose to work the posture with the leg IN FRONT. It’s no less demanding in my attention and breath, but it does allow for more stability in the bottom shoulder and arm since the weight of the hips/pelvis isn’t sitting on the humerus bone.
I am also able to focus more on the integrity and strength of my back leg when in this version of the pose. It’s easier to keep lifting the back thigh bone (femur) up and therefore connect the outer edge of the foot to the mat. With the fortitude of a strong base, there is freedom in the torso and upper extremities to move the top elbow and rotate the chest toward the sky.
After repeating “NSFIG” Vish several times on each side, focusing on different sections of the puzzle each time (bottom arm, back leg, expansion in the chest), I decided to try the “real” pose. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t easy. But you know what? I did it. Even though I only held it for maybe a breath (more like half of an inhale), but that’s where we start.
We have to try and put different pieces into that one spot which may or may not fit. Turn it sideways, turn it all the way around, until you find the one that clicks. Today, it was the bottom arm. That was the piece that made the whole thing come together. It doesn’t always happen in one 90-minute yoga class, one month or year of practicing, or even a lifetime. And it’s not always part of the physical asana practice. It can be pranayama, meditation, or any aspect of this human existence because yoga stretches far and wide beyond the mat.
Yoga is like putting together my own Self’s giant jigsaw puzzle. There are certain parts that click into place so easily I don’t even think about them, there are other pieces that I swear are missing and never to be found, and then there are other sections that are complicated, confusing, frustrating, trying, beautiful, profound, and require just a little bit of work to sort out, organize and put it all together. Which is one (of the many) reasons why I love yoga. I love stepping onto my mat and having a clean slate to be curious, to explore, to be wholly me while allowing the pieces to fall into place one arm balance at a time.