12.31.2010

Asana of the Week: Natarajasana


"This vigorous and beautiful pose is dedicated to Siva, Lord of the Dance, who is also the fountain and source of Yoga (BKS Iyengar, Light on Yoga)."

Natarajasana, sometimes referred to as "Dancer Pose," is a challenging and energizing standing balance with a backbend.  The full expression of this pose, in which the arms reach back to take hold of the foot and pull the sole of the foot toward the back of the head, requires a great deal of flexibility in the spine, psoas, and shoulders and lots of strength in the legs and core.  Luckily, there are many variations of Natarajasana to practice as you build the strength and flexibility necessary for the full expression of the pose.  The variation pictured above, with the hand to the inside of the foot, is my preference, but one may also take hold of the outer edge of the foot or use a strap around the foot to practice this pose.

Advanced variation


The standing leg works strongly here to maintain balance, particularly in the outer hip and lower leg.  The spinal extensors contract to create the bend in the back.  The rectus abdominus and obliques of the standing leg side work to support the lumbar spine and distribute more of the curve into the thoracic spine (upper back) while squaring the shoulders straight ahead.  The quadriceps, psoas, rectus abdominus, and intercostals of the lifted leg side are given a good stretch which is intensified by the opposing action of the foot pressing into the hand and the hand pulling back on the foot.  Use these opposing forces within the body to find equilibrium and balance in this pose (image source).

I have had to work very hard for my backbends in general, and Natarajasana in particular has always been a challenge for me.  In an effort to gently open the chest and shoulders and bring more awareness into my thoracic spine, I have been working with hang-backs and spending a fair amount of time in supported heart openers, but I feel I've still got a long way to go before my shoulders and upper back will be open enough to approach the full expression of the pose. In the meantime, I've been enjoying the more accessible variations and finding new ways to utilize this pose in my practice.

Natarajasana Sequence:  This brief standing sequence will challenge your balance, deepen your backbends, and strengthen and stretch the outer hips.  Be sure to warm up well with lots of Surya Namaskara before attempting these poses.  Hold each pose for 3-5 breaths.
  1. Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
  2. Natarajasana (King Dancer Pose)
  3. Ardha Chandrasana (Half-moon Pose)
  4. Urdhva Prasarita Ekapadasana (Standing Splits)
  5. Parivrtta Natarajasana (Revolved King Dancer Pose)
  6. Release and repeat steps 1-5 on the opposite side.

12.30.2010

Please Secure Your Own Mask Before Assisting Others.

I was given these familiar flight safety instructions many times during my recent holiday travels.  Even as a very young person snuggled in the middle seat between my parents, this idea of securing one's own position before others' always struck me as a lucid gem in a long, rambling speil of safety precautions that, let's be honest, won't do a damn thing for us if the plane decides to go down.  But this concept of tending to oneself before attempting to reach out is an important attitude to consider; the cultivation of compassion toward the self is what prepares us for true expressions of compassion in the world.  This attitude, however, is not easily understood and not generally well received in our culture.  Perhaps we fear the distinction will be missed between self-care and selfishness, and self-love versus egotism, and as a result we give and give of ourselves in a way that is neither helpful nor sustainable.

Ahimsa, meaning "non-violence," is the first of the five Yamas (behavioral restraints) of the first limb of the eight-limbed path lain out in the Yoga Sutras.  The first yama suggests that we act in a non-harming, non-violent manner toward ourselves and ALL beings; non-violence toward the self is merely the first step.  And it is not an easy one, but if we recognize that, as Maehle writes, "it is the same consciousness that looks out of every eye, we understand that, with every person we harm, we really hurt only ourselves (Ashtanga Yoga:  Practice & Philosophy)."  I believe the reverse is also true.  When we are kind to ourselves, we cultivate an attitude of kindness, and that attitude grows and inevitably extends beyond ourselves.

On the other hand, if we fail to care for ourselves and regard ourselves properly on all levels, we will be of little good to the larger community.  If we do not come from a place of truth and integrity, built from patient, compassionate, and humble practice, the harm we do to ourselves becomes a burden not only for ourselves, but also to the one's who love us, care for us, and wish us to be well.

How can we possibly express kindness and compassion outwardly if we neglect to cultivate this attitude of love, compassion, and respect toward ourselves?  If we aspire to be a force of good in our world, to be of service to those we love and share our lives with, we must first assume an attitude of compassion with the self so that we may offer of ourselves from an honest and stable place.  By regarding ourselves with love, taking time to honor and care for our bodies, minds, and spirits, we can be strong and healthy not just for our own good, but for the good of all.

12.28.2010

First Blogoversary!

As of today, Damn Good Yoga is 366 days, 162 posts, 112 subscribers, and 48 followers old.  Wow!  When I began Damn Good Yoga last December, I had no idea how much writing this blog would impact my practice and daily life.  I have learned so much since that first post, not only from the research, introspection, and exploration I've done for my own writing, but also from commenters and other bloggers who have shared their wisdom, uncertainties, and support with me here.  Damn Good Yoga has chronicled my journey from closet-yogini to yoga teacher.  The blog itself has evolved from personal practice journal to yoga resource.  I have invested a great deal of time in Damn Good Yoga and I have been repaid in full and then some by the enrichment my life has undergone with the simple act of writing, using my own experience as a way to connect and share with other practitioners all over the globe.

My thanks go out to everyone who's ever stumbled upon my words and taken the time to read them, and especially to those of you who've been reading and commenting from the beginning.  I'd also like to thank all of my fellow yoga bloggers, from whom I have learned a great deal and by whom I have been inspired, for your contributions to this community of practitioners who insist on looking deeper into the practice of yoga, to understand its theory and its challenges.

I look forward to this new chapter of Damn Good Yoga and everything the coming year has up its sleeve for my writing, my practice, and my relationships, both with myself and the world around me.  
(Happy Misanthropic Yogini Pose)

Thanks for reading, everyone!  Namaste.

Christmas Bounty


I'm back.  The week with the family was wonderful.  I was sad to leave them on Sunday, but always glad to return to Texas where it's warm.  I was struck throughout the week by how much I wanted to give yoga to my loved ones and how nearly every conversation seemed to circle back to how yoga can help.  I had to temper my enthusiasm so as not to seem fanatical.  It's just so obvious to me how much yoga could do for them, and it hurts me to see members of my family in chronic pain and guzzling pills when, in my experience, a simpler, more natural approach can work wonders.  Just breath.  Just move.  Just let it go.  I did my best to explain how yoga works and what it can do in a clear and balanced way, and I will continue to plant these little seeds in hopes that something will take root and grow.

I maintained my regular practice, more or less, during my stay with the family.  This meant laying out my mat in a relatively high traffic and very draughty area of the house.  Drishti and rigorous sequencing helped me avoid curling up into a shivering ball on the floor or sprinting to the nearest hot shower mid-practice; lots of lunges, arm balances and extra vinyasas kept me warm and focused.  It was a good exercise in pratyahara (withdrawal from the senses), and even with the challenges of conducting practice in conditions that were not ideal, my daily ritual kept me grounded and at peace as I navigated the family politics and attempted to nurture each relationship equally.  I have a very large family and, as much as we love each other, the personal histories are complex and the politics abound.

Attaining proper nutrition was another challenge, which is ironic because the sheer amount of food my mother was able to prepare for us was staggering.  The holiday meals were fabulous; it was the simple things, like toast in the morning or fresh fruit that were more difficult to find.  For example:  I decided to double check the ingredient list of the wheat bread they had on hand before tossing a couple of slices in the toaster for breakfast.  The second ingredient on the list, after wheat flour, was 'corn syrup.'  Later down the list, for that extra kick of corn, were 'corn syrup solids.'  Top that off with some sugar and molasses, and that's some seriously starchy bread.

Christmas Eve and Christmas morning were practically perfect in every way.  It snowed all day on the 24th, beginning with a light dusting in the morning and working toward a thick fall of fluffy white flakes by dark.  Christmas morning we rose with the dawn, as is our custom, and gathered around the tree to give and receive gifts.  My parents came through with really great presents for me this year, including some new yoga duds, a beautiful mat tote/gym bag, a stainless steel water bottle, and, best of all, some awesome new additions to my yoga library!  Among the new books are Ray Long's Scientific Keys, Volumes I and II, which are incredible anatomy references, and Gregor Maehle's Ashtanga Yoga:  Practice & Philosophy.

Shiny new books!
I was reading Maehle's book on the flight home and deeply regretted not having a pencil and highlighter on hand.  Maehle's use of language is very specific as to the subtler actions of the poses.  I can't wait to get back to this book with the appropriate study materials.  I spent a couple of hours with The Key Muscles of Yoga, volume I of the Scientific Keys, on Christmas morning, soaking up the anatomical enlightenment so densely that I passed out on the couch and dreamed of agonists and antagonists.  After the nap, I enjoyed a cup of coffee and my practice before rejoining the family for the evening.  I can't think of a better way to spend a day.

It's overcast and rainy here in Austin today, which is perfect weather for some yoga reading, if you ask me.

12.24.2010

On Holiday

Frosted sugar cookies: an unfathomably sweet family holiday tradition.  No, I don't eat them, but they sure are pretty to look at.
Hello from the Midwest, dear readers!  Merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, hope your Winter Solstice was spectacular and your Festivus was fabulous!  Damn Good Yoga has been off the air for the week as I am currently deep in the snowy expanse of Wisconsin spending precious time with my lovely family and friend (yes, singular.  I don't do long distance friendships for just anyone).  There will be no Asana of the Week.  Please don't feel abandoned.  I'll be back on track next week with some killer posts.  In the meantime, be good to yourself and your loved ones and enjoy this special time of year, no matter what your beliefs.  

Much love and yoga.  

Namaste.

12.18.2010

Asana of the Week: Eka Pada Rajakapotasana II


For someone like myself with constantly tight shoulders and hip flexors, this variation of Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose) is a dream come true.  The bind of the foot in this kneeling posture opens the anterior deltoids and pectorals while providing a controlled, active stretch to the quadriceps.  The assymetrical backbend lengthens the iliacus and psoas while strengthening the spinal extensors; the rectus abdominus and obliques work strongly on the opposite side to maintain the forward-facing position of the torso against the pull of the bound back leg.

Prepare the body for this pose with lots of heart and shoulder openers, and plenty of deep lunges to warm the hips and thighs.  I like to spend a few breaths gently stretching the hip flexors and warming the muscles of the back in Anjaneyasana (Crescent Moon Pose) before moving into Eka Pada Rajakapotasana II.  Keep the pelvis square as you bend the knee to bind the foot.  If tight shoulders make the rotation of the binding hand in this pose uncomfortable or impossible, the fingers may point down the foot toward the knee instead of forward over the toes.  To ensure that the heart is open and lifted, roll both shoulders down, draw the shoulderblades together, and point the elbow of the binding arm straight back.  Do not allow the elbow to splay out to the side, as this will collapse the chest and interfere with the curve of the thoracic spine.  If balance is a challenge, focus on hugging both inner thighs to the midline and keep the shoulders stacked over hips.

Activate this pose by pushing the bound foot back into the hand with the inhalations and press the base of the palm down into the foot to draw the heel toward the outer hip with the exhalations.  Keep the shoulders squared straight ahead and feel how strongly the core (both front and back) work here to stabilize the body in this position.  Play with these opposing forces in the body as you experiment with balance and sensation.

Eka Pada Rajakapotasana Sequence:  This balancing sequence warms and opens the hips, hamstrings, and muscles of the back.
  1. Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
  2. Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana A (Extended Hand-to-Foot Pose A)
  3. Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana B (Extended Hand-to-Foot Pose B)
  4. Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana D (Extended Hand-to-Foot Pose D)
  5. Virabhadrasana III (Warrior 3)
  6. Urdhva Prasarita Eka Padasana (Standing Splits Pose)
  7. Anjaneyasana (Crescent Moon Pose)
  8. Eka Pada Rajakapotasana II (One-legged King Pigeon Pose variation)
  9. Urdhva Prasarita Eka Padasana (Standing Splits Pose)
  10. Uttanasana (Intense Stretch Posture/Standing Forward Bend)
  11. Repeat steps 1-10 on the opposite side.

12.14.2010

Bad Habits

 "To fall into habit is to begin to cease to be."  -- Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life

We are creatures of habit.  We all have our routines, a list of signature behaviors we have accumulated, of both the good and bad varieties, which color our character and shape our personality.  The ability to form habits is an evolutionary advantage and one of the most primitive forms of learning; once a task has been performed with enough consistency and repetition, it becomes second nature, automatic. By delegating some commonly completed processes to the subconscious, the mind filters the totality of experience down to a manageable sliver and makes mental resources available for more intensive analytical tasks.  This is the mind's way of efficiently managing its considerable workload.

What do habits have to do with yoga?  Well... nothing, and that's the point.  Habits are activities performed entirely without conscious thought.  Habits are the opposite of yoga.

In yoga, we strive for mindfulness in every moment.  Whether we know it or not, when we practice yoga, we engage in the practice of expanding of our own capacity for awareness in the present.  We increase our ability to experience the fullness of life.  However, for the daily practitioner, to whom the actions and sensations may be both comfortable and familiar, the challenge becomes preventing the practice itself from becoming habit.  After the ten thousandth Surya Namaskara, it is tempting to disconnect ourselves from the motions and let the body move on muscle memory alone while the thoughts are allowed to stray where they might.  We must be wary of habit creeping into our practice.  We must fight the urge to move through even the smallest vinyasa or the umpteenth chaturanga without the full attention of the mind.  This is at the very crux of yoga.  When we cease to pay attention, we cease to be engaged in the practice.

So how does one prevent the practice from becoming habitual?  By making it a ritual, instead.  Make every moment on the mat a dedicated act of devotion -- to what or whom, it does not matter.  Use intention and meditation.  Use stillness in your practice.  Take the time to re-center, to check in again and again.  With every breath, notice your thoughts.  Observe the patterns of your own mind and train yourself to stay connected, to recognize the signs of action without awareness and remain diligently watchful.

And what about off the mat? You may ask.  What of the well-worn habits in our day-to-day lives?  One could say this is where the real practice occurs, in the little things we do every day.  Can you mindfully brush each and every tooth?  Can you tie your shoes with total attention?  Can you be thankful for everything you have to protect when you lock the door as you leave for work every morning, and take pleasure in the scenery of the same route you walk, ride, or drive each day?  These are the moments in which the fullness of life passes by unnoticed unless we remain present and engaged in the practice.

12.13.2010

The Yoga, It Does Things to People.


As a reformed news junkie, I no longer read the Huffington Post, but came across this insightful article via commentary at PeaceLoveYoga that resonated with me as both a student and teacher.  Susan Piver, author, vents her frustration with the growing practice among yoga teachers of teaching students to "do what feels right," counseling with vague, motivational rhetoric rather than instructing the correct alignment of the poses.  Piver asserts that the power of the practice is in the form of the poses, and I agree.
 
The poses are designed to open the body, to clear the energy channels of obstruction and allow prana to flow freely.  Advanced practitioners may know how to manipulate the body for their own purpose in their practice, but for someone new to yoga without the body awareness that comes with years of practice, "do what feels right for you" may be difficult to translate among the host of unfamiliar and often intense sensations that even the most basic of the asanas can incite in the body.  Piver points out that largely unregulated education standards for yoga teachers in the US has inevitably led to hoards of teachers with minimal training inauthentically offering up a spiritual "experience" for their students.  It seems many yoga teachers feel compelled to layer their classes with nebulous new-age motivators, all the while neglecting to assist their struggling students in refining the very basics.

My classes are low on philosophy. I like to keep it to a minimum because I find that if it's planned, it feels contrived.  Sometimes, the moment inspires a nugget here and there, but generally I choose instead, when venturing beyond anatomy and alignment, to suggest tactics for dealing with discomfort on the mat, which allows the students to eventually realize these tactics in their everyday lives at their own pace if that is what they seek.  However, the teacher training program I completed was big on infusing classes with motivational stories and themes.  I don't care much for themes.  When designing my classes, I turn to the wisdom that the body has to offer by working with the level of sensation and emphasizing 1 or 2 fundamental alignment points throughout the class to really drive them home.

Much of the feedback I received from the lead instructors during my YTT course and after the final presentation was that I do not include enough "messaging" when I teach.  In response to this, a resident teacher at the studio assured me that my understanding of the body was paramount and commented that "the yoga does things to people."  In other words, teach the poses well, bring people into their bodies, and the rest will come.  I believe this to be true.  The wisdom that yoga has to offer is experientially gained.  The real essence of the practice cannot be taught, it must be found along the path of the individual.

Yet, it was impressed upon me during YTT that the quiet space in class is to be filled with optimism and enthusiasm, that it is my responsibility to keep the energy of the room soaring.  Because of this, I worry about the students feeling abandoned when I quiet down and let them sit with the poses, as if they'd all just give up and collapse on their mats if I left them to their own devices for a minute or two.  I know this is absurd.  In spite of what I was taught, it feels natural to offer spaces of silence in every class for the students to turn inward and explore their experience more deeply.  It is yoga, after all, the practice of calmly facing oneself in the quiet. 

On my way to teach my class last night, I told myself rather sternly that "less is more."  I resolved once and for all to be an example for my students, to let go of the teachings I received that I know to be wrong for my approach, conflicting with my character and presence as a teacher.  From this point forward, I intend to share the taste I have acquired for silence through the practice of yoga and offer my students a rare opportunity to observe themselves, to face the chatter, to face the doubts and quiet them, one by one.  So I will teach the poses as clearly and directly as I can.  I will continue to learn as much as I can about anatomy and philosophy with the intent of creating the best possible environment for the students' self-realized experience.  And I will relax and learn to trust my students to be brave enough to face the quiet.

(image source)

12.10.2010

Asana of the Week: Salamba Sirsasana

This week's asana is Salamba Sirsasana (Tripod Headstand).  This variation of the classic headstand requires more upper body strength than Sirsasana, particularly of the triceps and rectus abdominis, in order to maintain stability and balance.

Tripod Headstand strengthens the biceps, triceps, shoulders, pectorals, glutes, thighs, and muscles of the core, both front and back.  The potential health benefits of this pose are the same as most other fully inverted poses, such as a temporary reduction in blood pressure, relief of digestive cramps, and healthy drainage of the lymph system.  Energetically, this pose stimulates the crown chakra (Sahasrara chakra), the center of highest consciousness located at the top of the head.

As a beginner, practice this pose by kneeling on your mat and planting the hands shoulder-width apart in front of you.  Lean forward and place your hairline on the mat 6-8 inches beyond and midway between the hands, then walk the knees in as you roll forward along the midline of the skull until the crown of your head is on the floor.  You may need to experiment with the placement of the head to find your "sweet spot," as head shapes tend to vary widely from person to person and the apex of the skull doesn't work as a balancing point for everyone.  Personally, I prefer to balance on a point slightly forward of the crown.

Once you have found your sweet spot, straighten the legs and walk the feet in so that the hips move forward over the shoulders.  Ensure that the hands and elbows are no more than shoulder-width apart, forearms and upper arms parallel.  Ground into the first finger and thumb of each hand, hug the elbows toward one another to correctly position the scapulae on the back and press the shoulders away from the ears. Then bend the knees into the chest to lift both feet simultaneously.  If you can remain here comfortably with the knees bent for several breaths, try extending both legs up.  Once up, use the hands to steady your balance as the asymmetries in the body are revealed.  Suck the belly in, squeeze the inner thighs together, and engage the buttocks as you balance to create stability in the body.

As you advance in your practice of Tripod Headstand, numerous possibilities will be made available to you in the incorporation of this pose into your practice.  From Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Leg Forward Bend), one may enter Tripod Headstand by placing the head on the floor and extending the legs out into an inverted splits and then up.  Advanced practitioners may also enter Tripod Headstand from Bakasana (Crane Pose) by gently lowing the crown of the head to the floor and lifting up.  Then, from Tripod Headstand, one may reverse the motion and bring the knees to the upper arms to press back up to Bakasana; this challenging vinyasa is great for building upper body strength and serves as effective preparation for more advanced arm balancing sequences found in Ashtanga and Iyengar yoga which flow through Salamba Sirsasana as a home base.

Another vinyasa for adventurous yogis to try from Salamba Sirsasana is the drop to Chaturanga.  I love this transition because it's dynamic and fun, and it allows me to practice Salamba Sirsasana at practically any juncture without disrupting the flow of my practice.  Just remember to keep the core strong, flex the toes on the way down and soften the elbows when you land.

Salamba Sirsasana Sequence
  1. Virabhadrasana I (Warrior 1)
  2. Virabhadrasana II (Warrior 2)
  3. Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) 
  4. Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Leg Forward Bend)
  5. Vinyasa through Virabhadrasana II; Repeat 1-4 on left side.
  6. Salamba Sirsasana (Tripod Headstand) 
  7. Bakasana (Crane Pose) 
  8. Salamba Sirsasana (Tripod Headstand)
  9. Prasarita Padottanasana w/ Shoulder Opener (Wide-Leg Forward Fold) - Interlace fingers behind your back and stretch your hands toward the floor.
  10. Vinyasa through Virabhadrasana II
  11. Repeat steps 1-10 on the opposite side.

12.07.2010

26 Yoga Tips and Tidbits, Alphabetically Arranged

Ashtanga
Ashtanga is a Sanskrit word meaning “eight limbs.” Ashtanga yoga is the practice of the eight-limbed path, a series of steps one approaches in pursuit of the final step, Samadhi, enlightenment or bliss. The first two steps are the Yamas and Niyamas, interpreted as the do's and don'ts of yogic behavior such as non-violence, truthfulness, cleanliness, and devoted study. The next pair of steps concern the physical body: the practice of Asana, the physical postures of yoga, and Pranayama, mastery of the breath. The fifth step is Pratyahara, withdrawal from the senses, which prepares one for the next two steps: Dharana (concentration) and Dhyana (meditation). When mastery of the first seven limbs is achieved, Samadhi, a state of higher consciousness, is entered.
Ashtanga also refers to a specific style of hatha yoga pioneered by Sri K Pattabhi Jois.  The Ashtanga style of yoga is a heating, detoxifying practice which incorporates the use of Ujjayi Pranayama ("Victorious Breathing") and bandhas (energetic locks) as tools of focus.  Ashtangis begin with the Primary Series, and may progress as mastery is gained through up to 6 advancing sequences.
Bikram
Bikram Yoga, commonly known as “hot yoga,” was founded by the legendary Bikram Choudhury, infamous for his flashy suits and fedoras. In a Bikram class, the practice rooms are heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. The same series of 26 postures, designed to take the body through its full range of motion, is practiced in every class. It is acceptable and even recommended, should you choose to attend a Bikram class, that you wear as little as possible. And bring a towel.
Child's pose
Child's pose is a safe haven, a place to return to if at any time you feel overwhelmed or out of breath during your practice. Yoga classes often begin with this introspective, supported pose to prepare the mind and soften the body for the practice ahead. We start here because the practice of yoga is practice for life, and and we all begin as children.
Dharana
Dharana means concentration. Yoga is a practice of both the body and the mind. Through practice of the postures, which are designed to create sensation in the body, the practitioner trains the mind to remain calm and focused in any situation. Yoga employs Pranayama and Drishti, breath control and fixed gaze points, as tools for developing concentration.
Energy
The Sanskrit term Prana is translated as the vital energy or life force, equivalent to chi or qi. In yoga, we aim, first, to gain greater awareness of the way energy flows throughout the body, then we seek to direct that energy in a more efficient way. Physical pain and illness are interpreted by yogic tradition as blockages in the energy channels that constrict the flow of Prana through the body. These blockages may be energetic manifestations of injury, trauma, or harmful patterns of thought. Practice of the asanas, or postures, clears these blockages and promotes the free flow of Prana in the body, ensuring good health and happiness.
Failure
The only failure in yoga is not getting on the mat. The rewards to be reaped from the practice are the truths inherent in the experience of the practice itself, not in the attainment of handstands or Hanumanasana.
Gaze
The gaze, or drishti, is an important and often overlooked element of asana practice. Traditionally, each pose has an assigned gaze point. In my experience, however, these traditional gazing points can create strain in the neck, back, and shoulders. The important thing to remember when choosing your drishti for the duration of your stay in a pose is to select a spot that is easily seen, is not moving, and encourages the head to remain in a position that does not cause compression in the back of the neck. Once you have selected your drishti, do not look away. A steady gaze reflects a steady mind.
Hanumanasana
Hanuman, the seventh incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, was a powerful monkey chief. Legend has it he crossed the Indian Ocean, from Sri Lanka to the Himalayas, in one giant leap. Hunumanasana, or Monkey God Pose, is dedicated to Hanuman. It very closely resembles the splits.
Iyengar
Iyengar is an alignment-based style of yoga named for its founder, BKS Iyengar, legendary student of Krishnamacharya, the father of modern yoga. If you find yourself in the hands of an Iyengar instructor, expect to be thoroughly propped up with blocks, bolsters, and straps. Do not be afraid of the straps. They will not hurt you.
Jalandhara Bandha
Jalandhara Bandha, or throat lock, is one of energetic locks employed in the practice of yoga. To engage Jalandhara Bandha, lengthen the back of the neck, then tuck the chin and draw it back very slightly. This lock stimulates the throat chakra, and is said to encourage thyroid function and healthy metabolism. The ancient interpretation of this effect is that the position of the throat prevents Jal, the 'water' or nectar of life which is stored in the skull, from dripping into the digestive fire in the belly.
Kukkutasana
Kukkutasana is a challenging arm balancing posture which requires one to wriggle one's arms through one's lotus-bound legs and lift the lower body from the floor. The English translation of Kukkutasana is Cock Pose. Teehee.
Lulemon Athletica
Lulemon Athletica, makers of status- and asset-enhancing athletic wear for the hip and fit crowd, does charge a pretty penny for their stretch pants, but they also offer free classes in their stores and do their fair share to promote yoga teachers in the community. So, while I won't buy their wares, I might wear them if they happened to be given to me. (Hint. Hint.)
Meditation
When many think of yoga, they think of flexible folks dressed in Lycra twisting, bending, and stretching their bodies in all directions. However, meditation is an important element of yoga as well. While practicing the postures can be a moving meditation, the act of sitting in stillness and drawing the mind inward is an important practice that contributes to the well-being of both the body and mind as one gains greater understanding and compassion for oneself.
Nostril-Breathing
Generally in the practice of yoga, breath is taken in and out through nostrils rather than the mouth. This is done for a few reasons: the breath is warmed and filtered of any impurities in the sinus passages before it reaches the lungs, which is said to improve immune health and create heat in the body which encourages the release of toxins. Breathing through the nostrils also results in less water loss than mouth breathing, which quickly dehydrates the mouth, allowing one to continue their practice without the constant need for water.
Openness
Be open to the transformations that are waiting to take place in your life. Open your heart to those around you. Open your mind to the possibility that the limitations of your body may not be as inhibiting as they seem. Open yourself to the possibilities.   
Pain
How do you define pain? Consider that perhaps your need to label your sensations as pain is the very thing that is causing you to hurt. Consider your real pain. Consider it, acknowledge it, and then just let it go.
Quality
Value quality over quantity in your yoga practice. The best way to bring about the change you seek is to do it every day. Make this achievable by setting reasonable goals for yourself. Instead of committing to ninety minutes a day when you know you don't have that kind of time, aim for twenty minutes a day of focused quality practice time, then extend the duration as you are able.
Relaxation
You'll hear a lot about relaxation in yoga. Sounds easy? It's not. Go ahead. Give it a try. Really and truly relax. Let go of thoughts. Let go of expectations. After a few moments, you may find your muscles twitching, your toes wiggling, or your eyebrows furrowing with the focus of your intention. This is not relaxation. Try again.
Savasana
Savasana, or Corpse Pose, is the final resting pose in any class of nearly any style of yoga. Traditionally, it is practice for death, the practice of letting go with grace and ease.
Toes
Pay attention to your toes. Allow them to express themselves as individuals. Years of immobilization in shoes can disfigure and weaken them. Use the many opportunities in your practice to give your toes the care and freedom they deserve.
Ujjayi Pranayama
Ujjayi Pranayama, “victorious breathing,” is a controlled method of breathing in which the back of the throat is contracted slightly, resulting in a long, slow breath with a soft, hissing sound resonating in the throat as the practitioner inhales and exhales. Ujjayi Pranayama is commonly used during the practice of asana because the friction of the breath dragging through the contracted throat builds additional heat in the body, which amplifies the detoxifying effect of the postures. It is called the “victorious breath” because the chest is lifted and broadened as the rib cage expands, creating a proud posture with the body.
Vinyasa
The Sanksrit word Vinyasa means, loosely, “to place in a certain way.” More commonly, it refers to a flowing form of yoga in which the poses are linked through movement, and the movements of the body are linked with the breath.
Water
It is likely, at this very moment, that you have no idea how thirsty you are. Drink water. Drink more than you think you could possibly need. Forget 8 glasses. Try drinking a gallon a day and see how you look and feel.
X-Chromosomes
Yoga classes today are typically dominated by those of us with two X-chromosomes. Interestingly, the asanas as they are now commonly practiced were originally designed for men, specifically young men with lots of energy in need of proper direction.
Yoga
What is yoga, really? How does one define it?  The word itself means “to yoke,” or unite. To bring together. To make as one. In the practice of yoga, we unite the body and mind, and the individual self with the infinite self, which is indistinct from all that surrounds us. This is Samadhi, the ultimate culmination of yoga.
Zen Yoga
Zen Yoga, as the name suggests, is the practice of a combination of Zen and Yoga, among other things. Zen Yoga emerged in 2002 as an offshoot of yoga which incorporates elements of tai chi, qigong, and gentle stretching as an accessible form of breath-based movement. Philosophically, Zen Yoga fuses facets of various Eastern philosophies, including but not limited to Zen, Shamanism, and Taoism as a means toward holistic health.

12.05.2010

Titti B and Me

It's been a good week for my practice.  Last week, I took an extra rest day because I had pile of homework to do, so I made sure I had plenty of time set aside for practice every day this week.  I found myself working in a lot of bound postures, spending a good deal of time wrapped up in both open and closed twists, playing with some bound poses that I don't practice much, like Malasana (Garland Pose), Pasasana (Noose Posture), and Tittibhasana B (standing Insect Posture variation).

Photo courtesy of Yoga XTC
Titti B is my new best friend.  I have to ask myself, why have I not been practicing this pose until now?  I tend to carry a lot of tension in my upper back between the shoulderblades, which is a tough spot to stretch well.  I usually go for bound postures to get at this area, but I've never tried Titti B before.  I haven't been able to fully bind this pose yet, my fingertips barely touch, but the rotation of the shoulders in this pose hits the spot just right and leads to a much nicer Titti A than I've ever been able to do before.  This, in turn, has made the Tittibhasana to Bakasana arm balance transition, something I've been polishing, completely doable.  I love how that all worked out.

I have practiced Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose) every day, as promised, and I have come away with a thing or two to note.  I first felt a change when I practiced Parivrtta Trikonasana after my drop back experiment.  My back was amazingly twisty after all those backbends, and the twists felt good on my back muscles, shocked as they were from the new effort.  This was interesting, since I generally save backbends for later in the practice, after the twisting is done.  I might have to play with my sequencing a little and explore this effect.  I also tried a couple of things readers suggested in the comments when I last wrote about this pose, such as bracing the back heel against a wall to aid in stabilizing the hips.  I found this to be helpful in understanding the appropriate actions for grounding through that stubborn back heel, and I was able to place my hand to the outside of the front foot fairly easily without compromising the alignment of the hips.  Since this experiment, I have been able to replicate the traditional expression of the pose without the heel at the wall a few times.  I'd say the week of Revolved Triangle has been a success.

While I am still shackled to the wall in my handstand practice, I have had a few 'Aha!' moments.  My balance is getting better, my stays in the pose are longer, but I'm still so prone to tip backwards that I'm not comfortable taking it to the middle of the room.  Today in my practice, I noticed that a very slight flexion at the hip joints and strong contraction of the glutes helped me to stay in control of my center of gravity without arching the low back.  I also find that pressing the inner edges of the balls of the feet together helps me engage in the right places.  I keep wondering if the fear of falling over is the only thing that will push me to take the next step in my handstand practice.  Maybe I should just go for it.  Bear in mind that I practice the two-legged half-handstand or pike position entry into handstand, rather than the single-leg kick (I'm stubborn like that), so I don't have the leverage of the 'pushing off' leg to prevent me from tipping.  That may be why I'm touching the wall more often than not.  In any case, I'm afraid it's simply becoming habit and I should move away from the wall before it sinks in too deeply.

My practice this week inspired the class I've prepared to teach tonight at Love Yoga Co-op.  There will be binding, balancing, and inverting, with some delicious twists to boot!  I'm excited to share this.  Get ready to feel good.

12.03.2010

Asana of the Week: Uttanasana


Uttanasana (Intense Stretch Posture) is your basic standing forward bend.  It is a pose of introspection and surrender as we turn the focus inward and bow to the highest self.  This deep forward fold has a calming effect on the body and mind, lowering the blood pressure and soothing the nervous system.  When we fold in Uttanasana, allowing gravity pull the upper body toward the floor, the spinal extensors and hamstrings are lengthened, and the muscles of the outer hip are given a deep release.  This is also a deceptively strong pose.  The feet and stabilizing muscles of the ankle and lower leg are working here to maintain balance.  The tops of the thighs lift and the inner thighs rotate internally while the abdomen is strongly compressed by the deep flexion of the hip joints.

In the beginning, engage mula bandha (root lock) and uddiyana bandha (navel lock) at the bottom of the exhalations to encourage the posterior tilt of the pelvis (sit bones to the sky!) and bring the body deeper into the pose.  Work toward keeping the bandhas engaged for the duration of the your stay in Uttanasana.  Be mindful of the distribution of weight in the feet:  the tendency here is to carry the weight back in the heels so that the thighs may relax.  Shift the weight forward slightly into the balls of the feet, relax and spread the toes, and notice how this engages the thighs, protects the knees, and releases the low back.  If the hamstrings are tight, bend the knees.

In a Vinyasa practice, we often flow into and out of this pose quickly, rarely stopping to breath here for a while.  In my own practice this week, I've been pausing in Uttanasana for 5-6 breaths here and there throughout my practice, and I've gained a new appreciation for the pose.  The release in the outer hips, specifically the glutes and piriformis, after a few breaths in Uttanasana is intense, and the action of the feet and ankles is very strong if the weight is distributed correctly.  The extension of the spinal muscles is pronounced after some time in this pose.  It also seems that the compression of the torso, which limits breathing capacity, encourages deeper action of the diaphragm.  When I come out of this pose after several breaths, I find that the inhalations are more full and effortless.  Below is a sequence I've been practicing a lot this week, exploring Uttanasana in a more focused way.

Uttanasana Sequence:  Notice the sensations in the low back, outer hips, and feet as you move through this standing sequence.  Hold each pose for 5-6 breaths unless otherwise specified.

1.  Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
2.  Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
3.  Uttanasana (Intense Stretch Posture)
4.  Urdhva Prasarita Ekapadasana (Standing Splits Pose)
5.  Anjaneyasana (High Crescent Lunge)
6.  Virabhadrasana III (Warrior 3)
7.  Urdhva Prasarita Ekapadasana (Standing Splits Pose) - Yes, again.
8.  Uttanasana (Intense Stretch Posture) - Just 1 breath this time.
9.  Return to standing
10. Repeat steps 1-8.

11.30.2010

Coffee & Yoga: A Good Blend?

Coffee is the most popular beverage consumed by adults in the United States, and the second-most popular beverage in the world, second only to tea.  The average adult in the U.S. consumes nearly two cups of coffee per day, and a significant proportion of the population drink considerably more -- I am one of them.  I love my morning coffee, and my afternoon coffee, and sometimes, if the work is far from done, my evening coffee.  I love the taste, I love the smell, and I love the extra juice it gives me.  But I'm finding it harder and harder to enjoy coffee with the carefree attitude I once held as I have come to recognize the caffeine addiction my love of coffee has left me with.  And I cannot help but wonder how all this java is affecting both my practice and overall health.

The litany of health benefits and risks associated with coffee consumption range from the prevention of Alzheimer's disease, Type 2 diabetes, and heart failure to the inhibition of nutrient absorption, interference with body-fat reduction, and leeching of calcium from the bones.  Several studies suggest coffee enhances brain function, reduces pain during and after intense physical exertion, and greatly improves athletic endurance.  Others indicate that the caffeine in coffee exaggerates chemical stress reactions in the body and disrupts the functioning of the endocrine system.  The antioxidants in coffee may reduce one's chances of developing some types of cancer, but 19 of the chemical compounds found in coffee are known carcinogens to rodents. With all of these possible effects to consider, what's a yogini to conclude?

Well, it seems that, for most of us, the potential health benefits outweigh the minimal risks.  As with most things in life, I believe moderation is the answer.  If one enjoys coffee in the morning or finds that a cup in the afternoon can help them make it through the day, then by all means, partake.  The coffee loving yogis among us are likely already aware that the great contemporary gurus BKS Iyengar and the late Pattabhi Jois have both endorsed coffee as personal fans of the fully leaded version.  Iyengar in Light on Yoga suggests that, while the asanas should be practiced on an empty stomach, "a cup of tea or coffee, cocoa or milk may be taken before" if one is uncomfortably hungry or tired.  I remember reading this as a green yogini first thumbing through my crisp new copy and feeling enormous relief that I was not obligated by the practice to give up my favorite productivity beverage. 

However, in the pattern of my personal coffee consumption, the line between moderation and excess was crossed long ago.  I drink less than I used to, but still more than I need.  My dependency is well established.  I am not myself without it, so I believe it may be time to curtail the coffee drinking once again.  But I'm not quite ready to call it quits.  Based on the evidence, I'm not sure that I should.

Articles Referenced:

11.29.2010

First Drop Backs

It's been an interesting day.  I had to work an extra shift last night because of the holiday weekend, so I was at the restaurant all night and woke up later than I would have liked this afternoon.  After the obligatory coffee and blog reading, I had about an hour for my practice before jumping in the shower and heading off to teach my Sunday class at Love Yoga.  As I am wont to do when pressed for time, I defaulted to my favorite essential practice:  20 minutes of pranayama, 10 minutes of meditation, 5 Surya As, 5 Surya Bs, 5 minutes in headstand, and Savasana.  It was just right.

I arrived at Love Yoga energized and ready to teach.  I set up my mat, turned on the heat (78 degrees, people.  Not 100), and waited for the students to arrive.  And I waited.  And waited.  And waited.

Nothing.  Nobody.  Not one student showed up.  This has happened before, unfortunately, but I've handled it well.  I knew from the beginning that empty classes can be part of the job, especially when first starting out.  In the past, I've used the time to play with the props, working on floating, restorative postures, and other such fun.  But this time it got to me.  In the quiet, candlelit room, I realized that this was the first time I've wanted to pray in any way, shape, or form in a very long time.

I laid on my mat for a while, feeling sorry for myself.  Then I picked myself up, dragged the Manduka to the middle of the room, and grabbed a cushion.  I sat in meditation.  I listened to sound of the breath.  I felt it as an expression of my desire to serve in this place.  Then I felt it grow, expand, and begin to move beyond myself.  I honed the tone and sent the breath to every inch and corner of the room, filling it with my offering.  Then I locked up and went home.

I had homework to do, so naturally I managed to procrastinate in a variety of ways.  I made a sandwich, ran to the store, checked the blog stats, and tidied the kitchen.  Then I happened upon this helpful post by David Garrigues, who offers up some mighty fine instruction on his blog from time to time, with a couple of brief video tutorials on drop backs.  He talked about the effects of various arm positions, and the actions of lifting the chest, pushing the hips forward, and pressing the thighs back.  Then I thought, I had a light practice today.  Why not?  I've been working with hang backs in Ustrasana for the past couple of months, which feels amazing.  And sometimes in Urdhva Dhanurasana when walking my hands in I feel the weight shift into my feet and my upper body becomes light, so I guess I've been preparing for it in my own way.  I rolled out my mat by the wall and, after plenty of warming up, practiced my first drop backs.  I was pleased with the practice, even though I have no frame of reference, which is kind of nice.  This way, I can just allow things to progress without expectation.

I laid a couple of floor pillows down flush with the wall in case of a crash landing since I wasn't sure what to expect, then I set up, "stamped" through the inner edges of the feet, as Garrigues puts it, lifted the chest and began to curl back.  I tried dropping back and standing up about ten times.  My hands made it to the wall about a foot and a half from the floor, then I'd walk them down a little ways toward the cushions, looking for the edge of sensation, then rock once and stand up.  A couple of times I made it all the way up without using the wall, but most of the time needed a second push to come up to standing.  The only thing I found really confusing about the experience was when to begin bending the knees more.  It felt like the point at which I bent the knees was the same moment that I literally "dropped" that last little bit to the wall.  If I prolong bending the knees, will I be able to drop back further?  Or should I bend the knees sooner to create more of a bow shape before letting the hands fall?  Either way, I'm sure I need to spend some more time opening the shoulders if I want to take this further.

And now I can't sleep.  So it's true what they say about post-backbend insomnia...  It's nearly 4 AM.  That's a couple of hours past my bedtime, and I'm still buzzed from the backbends.  Oops.

11.26.2010

Asana of the Week: Parivrtta Trikonasana


Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose) is a standing twist which stretches the muscles of the outer hip and lengthens the hamstrings while toning the legs, back, and sides.  It is an awkward pose, to be sure, and it's a little bit harder than it looks.

The challenge here for most practitioners, myself included, is balancing the pelvis.  The front hip must be continually tucking back, and the rear hip moving forward to bring the pelvis into balance.  If the hip abductors or rotators are weak, the gluteus maximus will engage to compensate which causes the pelvis to tilt posteriorly and collapses the low back.  This throws the hips out of alignment and makes it difficult to ground into the back foot, which anchors the pose, resulting in a battle of the opposing rotations of the pelvis versus the torso and a teetering, misaligned pose.

It is helpful to begin in Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch Posture) to prepare the hips and hamstrings for Revolved Triangle since the pelvis is already squared and level in this position.  When moving into Parivrtta Trikonasana from Parsvottanasana, the legs and hips remain the same, both legs active and grounding, as you "lengthen the spine in a spiraling motion from the sacrum through the top of the head" (Swenson, Ashtanga Yoga:  The Practice Manual).  Traditionally, the bottom hand is placed to the outer edge of the foot; however, this placement can make balance and breathing especially difficult if the outer hips are not open enough to allow for free rotation of the torso.  If this is the case, the hand may be placed to the inside of the foot, on top of the the foot, or on the shin.  Another option is to use a block.  This is one of the few poses for which I like to offer a block in my classes.  I don't often use props because I dislike the distraction, but a block is especially helpful here in making space for the breath in the twist while keeping the pelvis squared.

I practice Parivrtta Trikonasana with the palm on the floor to the inside of the foot, as pictured, so that I can focus on really grounding through that back heel, which never wants to stay down.  It's difficult to tell from the photo, but my left heel is not quite on the floor, which is an accurate representation of how this pose generally plays out in my practice.  Tight hip abductors and short achilles tendons have made progress in this pose slow going.  It has been one of the least comfortable postures for me since the beginning.  The yoga teacher in me says that this means I should practice it every day, but I don't.  I was for a while, and made significant headway, but these days, not so much.  Let's change that, shall we?

For the next week, I will practice Parivrtta Trikonasana every day with mindfulness and honest effort.  I will observe myself in the pose and attempt to discern a path in the direction I wish to move, toward space and groundedness.  I will report back on my findings.

I gather that Parivrtta Trikonasana is an awkward and uncomfortable position for many practitioners.  Readers: what's your experience with this pose?  How do you prepare the body?  Which variations do you prefer to practice?

And, as always, a flow...

Parivrtta Trikonasana Sequence:  Use standing twists as an effective way to warm and open the hips.

1.  Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
2.  Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
3.  Parivrtta Utkatasana  (Revolved Chair Pose) - Bring hands to heart center.  Twist to the right.
4.  Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose) - Step the left foot back to lunge variation.
5.  Parsvottansana (Intense Side Stretch Posture)
6.  Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose)
7.  Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana (Revolved Half-Moon Pose)
8.  Urdhva Prasarita Eka Padasana (Standing Splits)
9.  Uttanasana (Intense Stretch/Standing Forward Fold)
10.  Repeat steps 1-9 on the opposite side.

11.23.2010

The Dirty Manduka

As I write this, the mighty Manduka hangs from the curtain rod in the shower, defeated and pathetic, haphazardly dripping on the linoleum floor.  It has just succumbed to its first washing in a very long time.  I am both embarrassed and somehow proud to admit that I have not cleaned my mat once in the past eleven months.  Until today.

I practice 6 days a week, for at least a couple of hours, often more.  And I do sweat.  A lot.  In my defense, I always use a towel over my mat when I practice, which I alternate and wash frequently, but this still adds up to almost a year of towel-filtered sweat and grime compiling on my mat.  When I realized how long it had been, the thought occurred to me to put if off for an entire year just for the hell of it, but the funk was starting to bother me and the very idea of another child's pose beginning to make me queasy.

My reasons for not having washed my mat are likely a combination of simple laziness coupled with a strong aversion to being a whole day without the mat while it dries.  Get attached much?  I do, apparently.  It's not as if, should I be so desperate, that I could not bust out a practice on the bare floor.  I've been known to find myself mid-asana in a variety of environments, so it's not simply the need for practice that has kept me from scrubbing the thing down once in a while.  There must be more to it.  I chose, over and over again, even on the eve of a rest day, not to wash the mat, almost as if I were attached to what the physical accumulation of hours of practice represents.  Gross and weird, I know, but I think it may be the reality.

At the insistence of the boyfriend, who felt very strongly that this had gone on long enough, I gathered up the Manduka, the scrub brush, some soap, and trudged my load to the tub, where I laid out the giant mat as best I could, turned the water on hot, and began to spray her down.  It was an awkward endeavor. The mat is far too big a beast for our tiny tub.  I managed to soak myself and the entire bathroom floor before the job was done, but I gave her the good scrubbing she had coming to her and watched the gray, soapy water, the residue of countless hours of effort to shed the very muck I scrubbed and it's spiritual equivalents wash away down the drain.

After hanging the mat and sopping up the floor, I ran my fingers over the black surface, slick with moisture, feeling somehow it had changed.  Something would be different.

Maybe the mat will be stickier.  Maybe the absence of the lingering odor of previous efforts will make my practice more pure, more independent of past experience or future expectations.  Maybe I can simply enjoy child's pose a little bit more.  In any case, I'm glad to have it done.


Here's to another year of not washing the mat.  ;)

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On a side note, I have an announcement:  Damn Good Yoga is all grown up!  I am now blogging from the big-girl URL of http://www.damngoodyoga.com.  Make a note of it, my darlings. 



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11.19.2010

Asana of the Week: Ardha Chandra Chapasana


This week's asana is Ardha Chandra Chapasana, a challenging standing balancing posture with an asymmetrical backbend thrown in for good measure.  This pose deeply opens the inner thigh and groin of the standing leg while giving a good stretch to the hip flexor and quadriceps of the bound leg.  Ardha Chandra Chapasana effectively expands the rib cage, broadens the chest, and brings an active stretch to the abdominal muscles as the front body is gently pulled open by the pressure of the foot into the hand.

This pose is an obvious extension of Ardha Chandrasana (Half-moon Pose), and is sometimes offered as an advanced variation in mixed-level classes.  To come into Ardha Chandra Chapasana, begin in Ardha Chandrasana.  With an exhalation, bend the knee of the floating leg and reach back with the top hand to grab the outer edge of the foot.  As you inhale, begin to gently press the foot into the hand and revolve the chest up while you relax the shoulders back.  Turn the gaze up if you feel steady.

Ardha Chandra Chapasana has been manifesting quite a lot in my home practice this week.  I like to practice this pose early in the standing sequence as a preparation for deeper asymmetrical backbends, ala Eka Pada Rajakapotasana variations or Hanumanasana.  It's a great opener early in the practice, as it gives my always-tight quadriceps and psoas a much-needed stretch and leaves me with a deep sense of space and expansion.

Ardha Chandra Chapasana Balancing Sequence:  This standing sequence will test your balance and strengthen the standing leg as it opens the hips and lengthens the hamstrings.

1.  Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
2.  Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana A  (Extended Hand-to-Foot Pose A)
3.  Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana B  (Extended Hand-to-Foot Pose B)
4.  Parivritta Hasta Padangusthasana  (Revolved Hand-to-Foot Pose)
5.  Ardha Chandrasana  (Half-moon Pose)
6.  Ardha Chandra Chapasana  (Sugar Cane Pose)
7.  Urdhva Prasarita Eka Padasana  (Standing Splits)
8.  Uttanasana (Intense Stretch Posture/Standing Forward Fold)
9.  Repeat steps 1-8, standing on the left leg

11.18.2010

Pain-Free Forward Folds


Deep, delicious forward folds.  We all want them, yet the most common contra-indications I see in class are dangerously rounded backs and locked knees in the forward-bending postures.  Students seem to have this idea that the forward fold is not complete until the fingers reach the feet or floor, and throw ahimsa right out the window when they strive and strain to go deeper, compressing the spine and straining the joints.

Forward folds are positions of surrender.  They offer us the opportunity to turn inward and bow to the truest self.  In forcing these important poses, we forgo the deeper, subtle benefits of that these positions have to offer.  In moving beyond the point of surrender, we deny the true self and potentially do our bodies harm.

It is important to remember that the action of forward bending is flexion, or contraction of the spine.  The vertebrae are compressed when we round our backs, particularly in the lumbar and cervical sections of the spine.  Unfortunately, this is something that we tend to do a lot of in our day-to-day lives, hunching at our computers and slumping in chairs.  This means that we must be particularly mindful of creating extension in the spine when bending forward, or run of the risk of stressing the vertebrae and causing pain in the neck and low back.

The best way prevent compression is to take a preparatory inhalation before folding forward, using this full inhalation to extend all the way from the base of the spine through the crown of the head.  As you extend, lift the breastbone and tilt the sitting bones back, bringing a slight concavity to the curve of the low back.  On the exhalation, lead with the sternum as you fold.  Envision the ball-and-socket joints of the hip:  stabilize the thigh bones and smoothly glide the hollow socket of the hips up and over the heads of the femur bones as you support and extend the low back with the subtle lift of the bandhas.  Continue to grow the spine by reaching the heart forward and rolling the shoulders back. Maintain length in the back of the neck.  You may not be able to fold as far forward with this extension of the spine, but this approach will build flexibility safely, and support and strengthen the low back over time.

If the hamstrings, hips, or lower back are tight and force the spine into compression, simply bend the knees.  This is true for standing and seated forward folds.  In my own practice, even though my hamstrings are rather long, I take the first few forward folds with bent knees to give my body a chance to warm and open gently.  In Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold), for example, it is a good practice to begin by bending the knees enough so that the belly rests on the thighs, and then gradually straightening the legs, little by little, with each exhalation while maintaining the contact of the belly on the thighs.  The legs may not straighten fully, but the forward fold is more correct because, in bending the knees, the stretch is directed to the hamstrings and the low back is allowed to extend

Be patient with your hips and hamstrings.  Life in a chair-centric society has made them short and tight.  With consistent, mindful practice, they will lengthen.  In the meantime, bend your knees, lead with your heart, and be joyful in your own unique expression of the folds.

11.16.2010

Proclamations and Revelations

I love Sundays and Mondays!  I love my students!!  I love teaching yoga!!!  Love.  Love.  Love.  Love.  Love.

Sunday's class at Love Yoga this week was small, to put it mildly.  One person attended.  We chatted a bit before class.  He professed to his beginner status, and I'm glad he did because I had a heck of a sequence planned for us.  When it became clear that he was to be my only student that evening, I dropped the plan and improvised a class full of the basics for him.  I hope it was a good experience.

In total contrast, Monday's class at Black Swan was packed.  Thirty people snuggled up in the little downstairs studio.  The energy was great, and even though the sequence involved some challenging balancing work, the students practiced with open minds and a sense of humor.  I'm beginning to see quite a few familiar faces in my classes.  This makes me very happy.

So, which class was the greater challenge to teach?  The single student or the roomful of bodies?

Sunday's class with just one student was far and away the more challenging teaching experience.  I did my best to tune in to his rhythm and give him the kind of practice that he needed, watching from moment to moment and deciding where to take him next.  With a larger group, I tend to stick with the plan and offer a range of variations to suit the different levels of students.  It helps me to maintain some type of structure and hold the space more effectively with all those monkey minds bouncing around.  But it's easier with a big group, I think, because the students feed off of each other's energy as much as they do mine.  Right or wrong, they tend to motivate each other, whereas with just one student, we have only each other and the connection must be unwavering.

It was a good exercise for me to be forced to scrap my class plan and lead based solely on my observations.  And the beautiful students at Black Swan stepped up to everything I threw at them with a joyful sense of adventure, yet again.  Another week of classes gone by.  A few more lessons learned.  I can't wait to see what next week brings.

11.13.2010

Asana of the Week: Parivrtta Hasta Padangusthasana


Twists, twists, and more twists!

It's another twist this week.  My practice has been full of them lately, I must be in need of a good cleanse.  Been feeling a little thick around the middle the past couple of weeks, probably eating too much protein (read: peanut butter, tons of it).  I'll have to cut down on that, but in the meantime, twists are helping me along.

Parivrtta Hasta Padugusthasana (Revolved Hand-to-Foot Pose) is a standing balance with a strong twist.  In this pose, the notoriously tight IT band receives a deep stretch, and the glutes and hamstrings are lengthened.  The core and standing leg are worked strongly to keep the body stable, while the twist improves mobility in the spine and massages the abdominal organs, contributing to healthy digestion.

Use your bandhas to remain grounded and steady.  Point the tailbone down.  Keep a micro-bend in the knee of the standing leg and draw up through the arch of the foot. Lift the chest and lengthen the spine in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand-to-Foot Pose) before switching the hands to initiate the twist.  Stabilize the hips as you revolve from the waist to turn your gaze back over your shoulder.

Driste, the gaze point, is especially important in balancing postures.  Choose a gazing point that is comfortable for your neck and stick with it.  Fix your eyes on a spot that is not moving to keep your mind focused on the task at hand, eventually bringing the gaze all the way around to the thumb of the extended hand as you deepen the twist.  Breathe deeply.

Parivrtta Hasta Padangusthasana Sequence

1.  Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana A (Extended Hand-to-Foot Pose) - Stand on your right leg.  Bend your left knee and grab your big toe with the first two fingers and thumb of your left hand (yogi toe lock), bring your right and to your hip.  Extend your left leg straight out in front of you, OR if the hamstrings are tight, bend the left knee and hold the knee.
2.  Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana B - Inhale your left foot out the side and turn the gaze over your right shoulder.
3.  Parivrtta Hasta Padangusthasana (Revolved Hand-to-Foot Pose) - Inhale your left foot back to center, grab the outer edge of the foot with the right hand, bring your left hand to your hip, and exhale as you twist to gaze back over your left shoulder.  If you feel steady, extend the left hand.
4.  Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) - On an exhale, release your hold on the left foot and remain in Parivrtta Hasta Padangusthasana with the leg floating for one inhalation.  Exhale with control as you unwind the body and float your right hand to the mat 6-10 inches in front of the right foot.  Reach your left hand to the sky and gaze to the left thumb.
5.  Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II) - Exhale as you bend the right knee and float the left foot down to the mat.  Reach the right arm forward and the left arm back in Warrior II.
6.  Vinyasa to standing.

7.  Repeat 1-6, standing on the left leg.

11.10.2010

A Long, Hard Journey to the Mat

Yesterday was one of those days.  It being my only free day of the week, I had a very involved practice planned, but had much to do in the way of life-management (read: cleaning, banking, laundry, homework) and used my list of To-Dos as a way of delaying my practice.  It went something like this:  I should practice early.... but I think I'll vacuum first.  Okay, it's still early... but wait, I should write that paper first.  Okay, NOW I can do yoga... but I'd really rather practice on a clean towel.  I'll think I'll do the laundry first...  It's getting late, I better practice, but I'm hungry.  I think I'll have a snack first...  It went on like this all day and my mood continued to worsen until, finally, it could not be delayed any longer.

And even then, it took me an hour to get moving.  I was feeling drained and defeated, even though I'd had a productive day, so I began in supta baddha konasana, propped up with pillows, under a blanket with a towel draped over my eyes.  I stayed there for 15 minutes before moving on to my pranayama practice.  After 30 minutes of pranayama, I laid down for another 15 minutes in savasana. I considered staying there, surrendering to the low place I'd found myself in, but something told me to keep going.  I took a bathroom break, redid my hair, and otherwise dallied for a few minutes before finally stepping to the top of my mat, feet together, hands at heart center, ready to begin.

It was not until that first vinyasa, inhaling the arms up, lifting the gaze, that I came into my body, into the moment, ready to do the practice.  In that simple action, one I've performed thousands of times, something clicked.  I woke up.  I saw the possibilities of the practice in a flash and they excited me.  I was reawakened to the spirit of the journey, suddenly quiet, open, and ready for whatever might lie ahead.

And what lie ahead was some damn good yoga.  I had an amazing practice.  It took me a while to realize how strong I felt; there was a constant, subtle resilience to every pose, a true sense of ease.  I experienced unencumbered joy in the grounded lightness of my being.  I expressed this through the poses.  It was a beautiful practice, with a couple of 'firsts.'  I practiced moving from Vasisthasana directly into Hanumanasana for the first time, which was quite delightful.  And get ready for this... I did my first free handstand in the middle of the room.  It was sort of a happy accident:  I had just finished my handstand practice by the wall and was moving on through a half-handstand vinyasa, when, independent of my will, my legs shot up and I found myself standing on my hands with no wall to fall back on.  Woops!  As soon as I realized this, the This is Scary, I Must Fall Now reaction kicked in, and I toppled over to the floor, feeling somewhat betrayed by my renegade legs but otherwise unharmed.  Still, I'm glad that's over with.  Maybe now I can start working the handstands in the middle of the room more often and learn how to fall a little better. 

After my practice, I felt like a different person.  I am repeatedly amazed by my own ability to forget how the practice heals.  Yesterday, the practice was what I needed most, yet I denied myself the pleasure all day, somehow continually justifying my procrastination, looking for the answer elsewhere when I knew exactly where to find it all along.  Human nature?  Self-destructive tendencies?  I don't know.  What I do know is that the more I practice, the harder it is to forget how it grounds me, empowers me, and connects me to the uncolored reality of the moment.  This is why daily practice is so important.

I have often fantasized about doing my asana practice right away in the morning, at the same time every day, in order to avoid the situation I found myself in last night.  I have not turned that fantasy into reality because my schedule is too irregular, or so I tell myself, among other cleverly conjured excuses.  Currently, my practice happens at different times on different days, usually in the afternoon or early evening, but I wonder how my days might be changed if I carried that feeling I get from my practice with me from the very beginning.

So I pose these few questions to you, readers, in the hope of gaining some insight:

*  Do you prefer to practice in the morning or at night?  Why?
 
*  Are you able to do your practice at the same time every day?

*  If not, is it difficult for you to maintain a daily/regular practice?

Please leave your answers in the comments.  I'd love to know how other yogis keep the prana flowing.

11.06.2010

Asana of the Week: Ardha Matsyendrasana

"Once, Lord Siva went to a lonely island and explained to his consort Parvati the mysteries of Yoga.  A fish near the shore heard everything with concentration and remained motionless while listening.  Siva, realizing that the fish had learnt Yoga, sprinkled water upon it, and immediately the fish gained divine form and became Matsyendra... and thereafter spread the knowledge of yoga (BKS Iyengar, Light on Yoga)."  

Ardha Matsyendrasana, Half Lord of the Fishes pose, is dedicated to Matsyendra, teacher of Yoga and Lord of the Fishes.  This seated twist is a favorite of mine because the position of the legs stabilizes the pelvis in opposition to the rotation of the spine, encouraging more mobility in the mid and upper back.  The secure leg position also lengthens the gluteal muscles of the top leg, making for some nice opening sensations along the outer hip and buttocks as the spinal twist deepens with the breath.

The pressure of the top thigh against the abdomen massages the abdominal organs, encouraging healthy digestion.  The muscles of the back and sides are lengthened on one side as they are contracted on the other.  When practiced on both sides, as all asymmetrical asanas should be, this pose brings symmetry to the spine.

The breath can be tricky in Ardha Matsyendrasana.  Directing the breath into the chest, which is free to expand if the shoulders are kept from collapsing, is the most efficient breath in this pose.  Deep ujjayi pranayama, firming and lifting the lower abdomen, ensures that the spine stays long, the low back is supported, and makes space for a deeper twist by lifting the abdomen away from the thigh. 

There are a variety of bound arm positions one may incorporate in Ardha Matsyendrasana.  However, "it is frequently a more intense twist when the arms are placed in a simple, non-bound position."  If binding the pose, be sure to rotate the spine first.  I like to spend a few breaths in the non-bound position pictured at the top before moving into a bound variation (right) to ensure that the spine is not stressed by the leverage of the arms.  "Overuse of the arms can direct too much force into vulnerable parts of the spine -- particularly T11-T12,"  where the mid back and lower back meet and the curve of the spine is reversed.  Use very gentle pressure with the arms creating a "deepening, stabilizing (not mobilizing) action (Kaminoff, Yoga Anatomy)."

Ardha Matsyendrasana Sequence

  1. Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose)
  2. Janu sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose)
  3. Marichyasana A (Sage Twist A)
  4. Marichyasana C (Sage Twist C)
  5. Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose)
  6. Agnistambhasana (Firelog Pose)
  7. Parivrtta Agnistambhasana (Revolved Firelog Pose)
  8. Vinyasa
  9. Repeat steps 1-7, twisting in the opposite direction.