|This is where the magic happens. The magic, and the suffering.|
I was in the middle of a workout — to be precise, I was in the middle of a practice session — at Crossfit Portland.
It's a typical Crossfit gym. There are pull-up bars along one wall, ropes and gymnastic rings hanging from the ceiling, and racks of barbells and bumper weight plates.
A class was in the middle of a row/clean-and-jerk workout, so barbells were clanging and people were grunting on the rowers.
Back in winter 2006, during Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga practices, I tore the meniscus in first my right and then my left knee.
So in spring 2007 I had both knees scoped, about a month apart. I had 25% of the meniscus scraped out of the right knee and 20% from the other. The surgery was ridiculously easy, as much as you can ever say that of surgery. I pretty much limped out of the operating theater within an hour of the 90-minute procedure, and two weeks later I walked down the aisle at my wedding.
The scarring, swelling, and stiffness lingered, though.
Meanwhile, for many years my close friend Nate had bugged me to try this thing called “Crossfit.” Crossfit.com was a Web site that posted daily workouts, and Nate’s older brother, a Navy SEAL, had trained this way for years. They both swore by the system.
People around the world would perform the workouts and then post their weights lifted and times recorded in the comments section of the site.
The workouts themselves were high-volume intervals that blended rudimentary gymnastics movements (push-up, pull-up, dip, muscle-up, air squat), the Olympic lifts, powerlifts, and anaerobic and aerobic work, such as running, rowing, or jumping rope.
Crossfit founder Greg Glassman had defined overall fitness as sustained power output, or “the ability to move large loads long distances over time,” and the workouts were designed to increase this ability.
I wanted to do something to help heal and strengthen my knee, and I didn’t know the first thing about working out on my own, so I took a group class at Crossfit Portland in fall 2007. At the time, the gym was just a small room in the corner of the Academy of Kung Fu in Southeast Portland.
I believe my first workout involved five sets of five deadlifts (5x5), followed by a workout called “Christine”: a 500 meter row, followed by 12 bodyweight deadlifts, followed by 21 box-jumps, repeated 3 times as fast as possible.
I had done interval work/lung-death during hard chaingang road-bike rides before, so I was used to the lung-bursting aspect of the interval work.
However, I had never lifted a weight in my life, nor rowed, nor done pull-ups — any of it. I found that I liked it. More than that, I liked Scott, the owner of the place. Over time I've come to be great friends with him and the other owners, his wife Rochelle, and Xi Xia.
They weren’t jocks, they weren’t aggro, they weren’t meat-heads, and they weren’t dicks — all associations I’d had since high school about sports, athletics, and athletes in general.
If I hadn’t loved riding a skateboard I would’ve been driven to it anyway, simply because I had poor experiences with high-school athletics, in that, at least at James Robinson High School in Fairfax, Virginia, the jocks were fucking douchebags.
I also greatly liked the community feel of the Crossfit classes. Everyone sweated, strove, suffered and triumphed together. There were no hamsters-on-treadmills-watching-TV as at the many gyms where I taught Yoga. It was a lot like a Mysore or led Yoga class, as both touched the same desire for connection and conversation (or Yoga!) that we all have.
So, beginning in fall 2007 and until roughly winter 2009, I began practicing Crossfit two to three times a week.
An established and long-time Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga practice really helped me in certain areas. I had an active, usable flexibility in many areas. It meant I spent less muscular energy on exercises like overhead squats, toes-to-bar, L-sits, or squats.
I had also always considered my shoulders and back “stiff,” but practicing Crossfit in a group let me see just how much the concepts of “stiffness” and “flexibility” are absolutely and utterly context- and goal-based.
Basically, in Crossfit, flexibility was not a pursuit in and of itself. It was only a variable to be considered when practicing or performing a movement. This viewpoint coincides greatly with my appreciation for Ashtanga Vinyasa, in which flexibility is the means and not the end.
I also found I had a fair amount of proprioception, meaning I was able to pick up certain movements fairly quickly. As they say, “Flexibility breeds skill.”
Unfortunately, as far as effort goes, greater flexibility and proprioception were irrelevant. To paraphrase three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, “You don’t suffer less — you just go faster.”
So although I was able to quickly figure out certain movements efficiently, and my flexibility meant I had much less muscle resistance, it just meant I could do more reps. I was still pushed to my limits.
When I say "more reps," don’t mistake me. I was only ever a sub-par or mediocre (at best) Crossfitter. Towards the end of my Crossfit days, I was able to perform at least most of the bodyweight-only exercises with decent proficiency and mediocre times.
I finally worked up to several (but not all) workouts with the recommended barbell weights, such as “Diane,” which is 21-15-9 reps of 225-pound deadlift and handstand push-ups, though I want to say my best time for that was 10 minutes. Many guys typically do it in 3 or less.
I feel like I had a good sense of how to regulate, lengthen, and employ the breath for whatever effort was required, whether it was a short, sharp explosive exhale in a max-effort lift, a rhythmic in-out during lots of push-ups, or a deep belly breathing between rounds to help bring down my heart-rate in order to recover.
These techniques didn’t always work or work well — part of the point of Crossfit is to push you to the point where your systems break down to expose weakness. So don’t misunderstand me: the workouts could be hard and grueling.
Years of smooth and steady breath-movement vinyasa had also utterly detrained my fast-twitch muscle fibers. I had to relearn and practice any explosiveness or speed. Both my wife and I did these ridiculous graceful and balletic slow-motion burpees, absolutely at odds with the purpose of the exercise.
Finally and quite obviously, the most glaring lack of carryover from a Yoga practice was an utter lack of strength. I could handle most of the bodyweight exercises okay, as when I started, I weighed in at a near-starved 140ish pounds.
However, when it was time to move a fixed weight, I was a total novice. I was weak.
The press, the back squat, the deadlift, the snatch, the clean and jerk: I began all of these as a pure beginner, with entry-level weights.
This was humbling because, as most of us know, Ashtanga Vinyasa can be hard, tiring, and sweaty. I often left the Yoga studio and felt I had just worked hard.
Unfortunately, there was little to no carryover in this regard.
The Ashtanga Vinyasa did nothing for muscular endurance, either. All these years of chaturanga dandasanas did not carry over in any way toward performing 20 push-ups, for example.
Also, years of daily pranayama might’ve expanded my lung capacity, but it had done nothing for my use of that lung capacity. Meaning, I still struggled during intense bursts of strength and after 500-meter rows or 400-meter sprints.
I speculate that a seasoned Ashtanga Vinyasa practitioner can perform several of the Ashtanga series with their heart rate at between 100 and 120 beats-per-minute.
So it was absolutely revelatory for me to back-squat a heavy weight 10 times, drop the barbell, then sprint for 400 meters, my heart-rate pinned at 180.
To use a subtle energy-body map with workouts like that, they opened and used radically different nadis than I had been accustomed to.
Crossfit provided did provide some great benefits, too. It greatly aided in rehabbing my knee. I strengthened and supported all the muscles, ligaments, and tendons around, above, and below the joint.
I felt that Bulgarian split squats, back and front squats, single-leg deadlifts, and standard deadlifts really helped.
The Crossfit system tends to pair exercises that work complementary muscle groups. The workouts are generally arranged to work different energy systems as well, which let you work harder and longer than if it had been related muscle groups.
For example, a pull exercise is paired with a push, and then followed by a low-body heart-stopper such as box-jumps or sprints.
The system also favors exercises that strengthen the posterior chain, as in back, glutes, and hamstrings. I believe exercises built around both of these principles cleaned up a couple small but persistent injuries. Specifically, kettlebell swings and glute-ham raises (GHRs) really sorted my low back.
In a much larger sense, Crossfit helped me realize the true importance that strength plays in health, longevity and performance. I got a bit stronger and I felt better, both during Yoga practice and just walking around. Of course, I've also gained 15 pounds.
Crossfit really made me appreciate the various active flexibility components built into the Primary Series. For adults, merely increasing your passive flexibility is not the smartest, safest, or even efficient way to become more “flexible.”
The key, which is a by-product in the intelligent application of the Primary Series, is to get stronger and more flexible at the same.
The practice of Crossfit also led me to greatly appreciate my own unique cycles of effort-adapt-recovery. I began to notice this cycle in my own asana and even pranayama practice.
Crossfit training worked best when it followed the following classic formula: build a foundation or base, follow it with hard efforts, then reduce or back off. This always resulted in super-compensation or break-through.
That formula as transposed to traditional Ashtanga Vinyasa would be: accumulation, or to work “pose by pose” or “one by one”; intensification, or the addition of a new pose; and finally, reduction, or Moon Day, weekend, or holiday.
This explained why I frequently felt stronger after a few days off.
I don’t have a perfect application of these principles to the Ashtanga Vinyasa practice, but understanding them has led me to better understand and work with my energy levels and experiences on the mat.
Still, Crossfit didn’t help the Ashtanga Vinyasa practice in all ways.
I would feel immediate loss of range-of-motion (flexibility) during and after some of their notorious high-rep or high-rep and loaded movements.
For example, after “Angie,” which is 100 pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups and squats for time, my pec minor and pecs in general really shortened to the new range of movement.
After any workout with thrusters (a barbell front-squat push-press) my hip flexors would noticeably shorten and my Hanumanasana depth decreased.
I personally have never been an immediate and gifted back-bender, so I had to be diligent about maintaining that area of flexibility.
Often I would intend to practice backbends after a Crossfit workout, but this didn’t always happen, often because I was so smashed.
The fatigue from three or four Crossfit workouts a week often added a richness and depth to my practice.
This fatigue, delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and neural drain forced me to reframe why I practiced Ashtanga Vinyasa as well as how I could practice it when I couldn’t lift my arms over my head or walk up a flight of stairs, let alone practice an entire sequence.
The relationship between Ashtanga Vinyasa and Crossfit was reciprocal. The practice of samyama, or pratyahara, dharana, dhayana, and samadhi was possible during the short and intense workouts, though not as much during 20-minute or longer workouts.
Certain Crossfit skills, once learned, were simple enough that I was in no danger of muscular or aerobic failure, and the workouts were short enough and timed, which meant I couldn’t dissociate from my body, as I’ve experienced on long bike rides or runs.
Attention was immediate and total. Concentration would subside into contemplation, and absorption would arise. During some workouts and then immediately after there would be the experience of a luminous clarity.
My good friend David Kennedy laughed when I told him that I really liked the flush of health and vitality that accompanied back-squatting. “You think the only way to wake up kundalini is to wear a turban and do funny breathing?” he asked.
It’s like, duh. Of course a universal and pervasive energy isn’t beholden to specific culturally derived techniques.
Don’t tell the Kundalini Yoga people, but that energy arises under a barbell as well as it does performing ustrasana or bhastrika breathing.
Another huge revelation I had during hard efforts was the immediate and somatic confrontation of fear, of failure, and of the unknown.
Personally, it was revelatory to gaze over the edge of absolute muscular and aerobic shut-down.
This to me is similar to a Yoga practice. Not that in Yoga we barf on our mats! At least, I don’t. No, it’s more living with an emotion or thought long enough for it to wear thin and be exposed for what it really is: an emotion or thought.
Some of the workouts also dramatically expanded my horizon as to what I consider difficult, even what I consider possible.
For example, I used to consider the limits of physicality the Sunday led Intermediate series class in Mysore and at Tim’s Encinitas studio.
Spending time under a barbell, though, or doing a “Full Mission Profile,” or any of these other “mental toughness” workouts really expanded my sense of what was really “difficult.”
They drove home one of Pattabhi Jois’ constant points: “Body not stiff! Mind stiff!” A lot of my perceptions of my abilities turned out to be just that — perceptions.
These workouts and this training really made me okay with doing what I could do.
During a 100-percent effort or a max-effort attempt on a barbell lift, often there was literally nothing else physically I was able to do. That was absolutely okay. I put forth honest, sincere effort, and then let go. I simply tried to never quit. To paraphrase Krishnamacharya, “Do the Yoga that can be done!”
Eventually, though, by winter 2009, I began to lean into my passions and interests and away from Crossfit.
Once I learned the movements and the novelty wore off, I realized there was also a routine to it. I didn’t have an event or activity to train for, and without that, Crossfit was just a numbers-collecting game: add one more pull-up to my max, add 10 more pounds to my press, 10 more pounds to my deadlift, ad infinitum.
So, on that day Ben poked his head into Crossfit Portland, I wasn't actually doing Crossfit. I was doing my recent physical practice, of which I’ll write more later.
I wrote this for two reasons. The first was because, some days after Ben saw me, his girlfriend asked my wife Tara, “Does Jason...work out?”
The novelty, minutiae, and exhiliration of the Ashtanga Vinyasa sequences can be profound, stirring and all-consuming.
It’s important to remember, though, that the asana sequences are not the be-all, end-all of physical expression and/or personal devotion.
I also found Crossfit to address fundamental physical, emotional, and psycho-spiritual needs that the Ashtanga Vinyasa practice and culture either ignored or disdained.
The first of these needs was pure physical exertion. Ashtanga Vinyasa is derived from Smarta Brahmin culture, and so there is a veneer, however thin, that physical exertion is lower caste and class.
Group physical exertion also opens the door to competitiveness, aggression, and anger — but also absorption, ecstasy, compassion, and empathy.
In Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga culture, and in Yoga culture in general, we seem intent to play up those latter qualities while ignoring the former, even though they are a fundamental part of human experience.
My understanding is that one of the many questions that Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga asks is not, “How can I get rid of aggression, anger and competitiveness?” but rather, “How can I savor, use skillfully, and work with those qualities?”
So I'm thankful I was exposed to Crossfit. I'm tremendously grateful for the friend's I've made through it.
It has also really made me appreciate the beauty, subtlety and simplicity of the breath-movement that is Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. It's fun to leap around like a spastic monkey, but the breath-work and the internal focal points, as well as the connection to people of the same interest, are what draw me back to my Yoga mat.