We've just had a one-night workshop with Brock and Krista Cahill, who are basically a gravity-defying core-strength duo.
Now, usually when you get a workshop in handstanding/core strength, you get some warmup exercises and then a progressive introduction to arm balances and/or inversions. This was not quite of that type: right off, we were doing jumps to handstand pike (legs straight) in sun salutations. Also, the handstand transition (to and from various things) was not part of a "set" of inversions; there was not even talk of forearm balancing or any headstand, not even a mention.
And yet it wasn't a workshop "on handstand" either, because the handstand was simply given as an inversion option, sort of a demonstration of core strength principles. Now, you can apply core strength to anything: jumping back, Navasana, headstand of any type, Bakasana, you name it. But here, we sort of applied it to everything: Navasana sit-ups, Bakasana to handstand, switching legs in handstand and coming down to Virabhadrasana I, side plank pushups (mean!), handstand entrances to various Koundinyasana (scissors in non-Sanskrit) arm balances, etc.
There was some "first listen, then do" style of presentation, but mostly it was very "jump in and swim!" which admittedly gave little room for fear. "Jump and float!" I mean, YOU DO before you think and then you don't have time to freak out. Effective teaching of such challenging transitions. I know I tried stuff that I only think about sometimes in practice or vinyasa classes.
How "core strength building" and Patrick get along:
We don't, really, not well. This is because most core-strength-building exercises aren't yoga postures, but (to my thinking, about which I will say more below) more like gym workout moves. Now immediately we run into trouble here, because plenty of Ashtanga vinyasa movements build immense core strength (or require it and then build it), like jumping back and/or through, doing any headstand, doing any arm balance (like Bakasana or Tittibhasana to say nothing of the 3rd series batch) and even doing forward folds (our friend Kino defines them as pulling in the abs to lengthen the spine).
Typical core-strength-builders that I saw tonight and which I've seen before include things like this:
a) Navasana sit-ups: come into Boat, lower not to the floor, come back up to Boat.
b) Rotated Navasana sit-ups: same, but send legs out right and arms out left (or vice versa) and do sit-ups. These things burn me out to nothingness in less than 20 seconds.
c) Plank push-ups or (harder) forearm plank push-ups. These are particularly challenging as you try to pull the belly in and ribs "down" and lift the thighs without lifting the hips. Using what the Anusara people call "muscular energy" or "grabbing the bone with the muscle."
d) Side plank push-ups. Again, lower but not to the floor, keeping the arm straight (even in forearm variation). I find these to be FEROCIOUSLY difficult.
There are others, but these are what I saw tonight. Let me add one, that's technically a vinyasa yoga entry to a pose, but requires massive core attention:
From Down-dog, swing the right leg back and then dip it forward, right knee trying to touch LEFT TRICEP. That's right, criss-cross. If you can land it (and I can't, I'm too long and apparently not strong enough), you can lean forward into a Koundinyasana arm balance. Rad move, but burned me out to total uselessness.
So my relationship with core-strength-building, with explicit CSB moves, is that I don't like them first because I can't do them well (ego complaint) and second because they seem to me to be "gym moves" rather than "yoga moves" and I prefer the latter to the former (probably because in my youth I hated gym and all of its over-masculine expectations and sporty skill sets which immediately turned into evaluations of one's possession of masculinity or not--and yes, it was the 1980s).
But a lot of what we did tonight with Brock and Krista reminded me of time in that OTHER handstand junkie's room, one Troy Lucero the summer before last.
So it seems to be a question: am I going to acquire this skill set and BE DONE WITH IT or am I going to leave it until the NEXT time I'm in some handstand-intensive when I'll have to do all this questioning over again?
Let me try (and fail, in advance I know this) to explain how I both seem to possess and to lack core strength.
I can hit ANY headstand, static. Seven deadlies or not, name it (well, with the exception of a hands-free headstand ala Dharma). I can do any 3rd series arm balance, from tripod, the way you're supposed to. I can put a foot behind my head (that takes some strength, my friends). I can jump back 40 times or more per practice if necessary. I can forearm stand with almost total certainty that I won't fall over. And so on. All of which is to say, I've been at ashtanga vinyasa for a while and it has granted me these skills. Yay me, or whatever.
I can't hold a rotated Navasana sit-up, I can't even hold it WITHOUT the sit-up movements, it's so hard. I can't reliably handstand without wondering if I'll fall over (even when I hit one and timber to chaturanga, I'm never SURE it'll work). Side plank sit-ups burn me down like paper in hot fire. That twisted entry to Koundinyasana had me panting for air in about four seconds.
Now, I don't have the precise anatomical knowledge to be able to say, I have THIS strength and I lack THAT strength. One way out of this is just to say that the strengths are specific: handstands build handstands, Navasana sit-ups build Navasana sit-ups, and jumpbacks build jumpbacks. Then you close the case and move on.
Navasana used to burn me out badly in the outer hips (the much-afflicted outer hips, right?). Side plank pushups do the same, and so does that twisted Koundinyasana move. Same strain, same place, same burnout to failure. This happened to the point that I couldn't do a bunch of standing pose vinyasa moves tonight, but had to do Sweeney Lion Sequence outer hip stretches (Prasarita Padottanasana twists, and such). I absolutely HAD to stretch those adductors and external rotators, because asking them for more strength was just not going to do, it just wasn't possible.
The handstand jumps we did, and the attempts to take a knee up in a straight-arm Bakasana (let me ramble a bit here: taking a knee off your arm in a BENT-arm Bakasana is about a THOUSAND times easier than taking one off in a STRAIGHT-arm Bakasana; if you can do straight-arm Bakasana, try this out and see), really got me right in the BACK of the shoulder, under the deltoid. This is exactly where I'd burn out trying to do handstand presses in TL's room (and it still happens when I try them in practice). Another point of apparent weakness, or at least, a point where more strength than I've currently got is requested.
Finally, it seems that my oblique abs want more work in order to do things like that Koundinyasana twist. Same in rotated Navasana sit-ups. The abs just WILL NOT pick me up once I sink down toward the floor, I just could NOT get back up.
Someone writing an anti-ashtanga polemic would now claim that the practice doesn't work these parts of the body, but I'm not in the least interested in going there.
I think that THESE are three muscular areas that I could work on if I wanted to have floaty handstand transitions. The quest is clear, if I'm interested in it. Do more pike jumps in sun salutations, and try for handstand exits in Bakasana: that covers the shoulder. Do rotated Navasana sit-ups outside of your practice, and do them to failure. That takes care of the abductors and the obliques.
But my question is DO I CARE ENOUGH TO GET THAT?
Floaty handstands are probably cool, but they're a YouTube video stunt. Does my practice need them? Does my ego need them? Do I care if I ever get them or not? Or do I just want this dumb wall to fall over< JUST BECAUSE IT'S THERE?
I don't have any doubt that I could acquire this skill, but I wonder if I actually want it in any way enough to actually work on it. What are the plusses and minuses?
Plus: cool movement, potentially useful strength elsewhere (Karandavasana?)
Minus: takes time, might not enjoy the process (but maybe I might, too)
I can't tell if I should go out of my way to acquire this or not. Right now my practice (when I can do it) is largely about breathing: I'm gonna breathe, I'm gonna do some poses, I don't care how big the Updogs are because I don't care how big Kapo is (it'll come or it won't) and while I care whether or not I can still dropback and standup (I can), really I just want to so some focused breathing and movement.
Seventh series really killed my ego (and I didn't enjoy it) where asana achievements are concerned. Sure, I have a big skill set, but I don't do anything beyond 2nd series and I don't even do more than about half of that. But at the same time, seventh series opened my curiosity to sort of "living in the moment" when I'm opening cat food or playing with the boy and the train set or even walking down the street. So I'm not really in a "ooh ahh" state of worship of Jedi handstand transitions, but I'm also open in a sort of "hey, that might be cool" way to new stuff.
I think that, as the Gita puts it, my indifference to the achievement might be a good mode in which to pursue it.