You’ll Get the Hang of It

Relief is in sight. But executing Tolasana/Utpluthih especially as the 2nd to last pose in the Ashtanga Primary Series really does inspire me to…give up sometimes. It’s but one way in which my mind neglects to stifle a thought-yawn, expressing a desire to check out early under the banner of freewheeling autonomy. Simultaneously, I lash out at myself. I’m disappointed that I could be such a quitter. I’m letting my parents, every yoga teacher who’s ever taught me and my cat down.

I know, I know. Balance. Find it. Maintain it. Document it with a calligraphic quote overlaid on a soft-focus image of a forest or some twee illustration that conveys a feeling that no one has ever really had. But I think, more than anything else, what balance feels like to me is incredibly hard work. Specifically, the hard work of Tolasana and Utpluthih. What’s the difference between them? Even a peek into the subject on the Internet seems inconclusive, but the general consensus seems to have to do with breathing and the state of one’s mind.

Tolasana literally means scales pose. It is a balancing pose in lotus, where one’s centre should be neither too far forward nor backward (of interest are the discussions of whether the knees and feet should be in front, level with, or behind the arms and elbows). It should neither be too much effort (which would make it impossible to hold for very long) nor be overly dull (which would be poor form on many levels). Why is this important? Because I feel it suggests a rejection of extremes, which can be the most challenging thing to understand about Ashtanga, both as a practitioner and as an observer.

Utpluthih is generally translated as uprooting or sprung-up pose. Placement of the arms is wider apart than it might be in a (routine) arm balance as it also sets up the doer for the jump back to Chaturanga. Gregor Maehle describes it as: “[increasing] bandha control and [helping] in understanding the vinyasa movement”.

Some say that what differentiates the two is merely(!) the breathing undertaken in each, with regular ujjayi breathing recommended for Utpluthih, while Tolasana frequently recommended to be paired with Kapalabhati or Bhastrika (or a more powerful version of ujjayi ‘like a steam engine train,’ as David Swenson advises).

But as always, in yoga. Those are the technicalities, which one must gradually enfold into one’s body, not force or be aggressive about. “One must experience it, not achieve it,” said a teacher of mine.

This note by Kino McGregor is a particularly illuminating one for me: “use every muscle you have to do this lift, because each part of the body is responsible for lifting itself.” It’s a wonderful, profound reminder that balance comes when we are completely engaged. And balance sometimes goes as well. Except now you know that it exists, and then you know how to find it. And that it can feel like spring has sprung.

Maybe that twee feeling does exist after all. Ask me after Savasana.

– Jennifer Lew