Asana of the Week: Marichyasana A

"This asana is dedicated to the sage Marichi, son of the Creator, Brahma.  Marichi was the grandfather of Surya, the Sun God" (BKS Iyengar, Light on Yoga).

Marichyasana A (Sage Twist A) is an awesome stretch for the inner hip joints, but the first thing I noticed about this pose was the deep internal heat it builds in the core.  Extending through the sternum rather than the head, the fold is very active, and the thigh of the bent leg presses into the side for a good organ massage.  It's a particularly satisfying position with the breath going strong.

The first time I tried this asana, it was an awkward experience.  I bound my hands and tried to fold forward, but I was completely stuck.  I couldn't fold at all.  I tried rounding the back to bring the head closer to the knee, but that was no good.  I decided the better approach was working on breathing length into the spine and keeping the chest open.  Eventually, the fold started to happen.

 Iyengar says in Light on Yoga that "the inner side of the [right] foot should touch the inner side of the outstretched [left] thigh," but as I learned the pose, the foot of the bent leg should be a wide-hand's distance from the inner thigh of the extended leg.  I find that practicing any of the Marichyasanas this way allows me to better ground through the foot of the bent leg, which in turn allows better use of the leverage of the upper arm against the shin to assist in the twist and fold.   The bind here also does a nice number on my shoulders, pulling them down and back.

I like to follow this asana by breathing the spine upright while maintaining the bind, then twisting open for a few breaths, away from the bent right leg, and gazing back over the left shoulder.  This further contracts the right side with an extra twist and feels pretty nice on the hips and shoulders.  I found this little move in The Complete Book of Vinaysa Yoga by Srivatsa Ramaswami, which is jam-packed with endless variations and sequences based on foundational asanas.  After this opening twist, I usually follow with an unbound variation of Marichyasana C, then Ardha Matsyendrasana, then a gloriously opening firelog pose before jumping back to repeat it all on the other side.  This sequence is such a great hip opener and heat-builder, I've been practicing it every day for the past two weeks.

What's your experience with this asana?


Ups and Downs

Practice last night was a little wacky.  I felt off all day -- not tired exactly, just a little left of center, and it showed on the mat.  I fell.  A lot.  It was really strange, and kind of funny.  I tipped over TWICE in ardha chandrasana standing on the left leg, which never happens.  I tipped over again during a low anjaneyasana with a bhekasana bind.  I tumbled out of a tripod headstand during a bakasana to tripod sequence.  And I fell flat on my face trying a firefly to bakasana transition.  Lots of falling.  Very unusual.  Obviously, something was awry.

That isn't to say that I didn't have a good time.  By the third fall, I was laughing and shaking my head, what the hell is going on here?  I took my rest day on Sunday, so... maybe I was a little rusty?  Doubtful.  I'm guessing it's just that I've got a lot on my mind.  I have a debate on the use of assisted-suicide to prepare for my philosophy class, and another short story for my writing class that must be compelling and complete by Sunday.  On top of this, the possibility of teacher training is still whirling around in my mind (update on that from yesterday:  I'm at about 96% yes, 4% no.  I will make my final decision on Saturday, but I'm feeling pretty good about it right now).

In spite of all this unsteadiness, I considered it to be a damn good practice.   Let me tell you why:  jump backs!  To my unfettered joy and amazement, I nailed the first jump back of my seated sequence.  As I hinged forward, still tucking the legs, I expected to feel my toes brush the mat, as they usually do.  They did not.  For a stunned moment, I wondered where the floor had gone to all of a sudden.  Then I nailed the second jump back, and the third, and the fourth!  I even managed a decent jump back after a set of 4 navasanas with lift ups in between.  Where did this extra lift come from?

I had read Kaivayla's very helpful notes on the Kino workshop a couple of weeks ago at The Reluctant Ashtangi, where she mentioned that Kino suggests leaning very far forward and bending the elbows dramatically, to an almost chaturanga-like position, but without the legs.  ArkieYogini has also posted a few Kino workshop videos on floating at her site, which I found to be very enlightening.  I kept these points in mind during my practice, and viola!
Jump backs for everyone, on me!


To Teach, or Not to Teach?

I have a confession to make: I, along with everyone else and their mother, have ambitions of becoming a yoga teacher. My practice has done so much for me, physically, intellectually, and emotionally that I feel compelled to share it.  And I'm intrigued by the idea of making a little money sharing this practice that I love (and I do mean a little money... I realize it's tough to make a living teaching yoga.  I won't quit my day job... or night job, as it were).  I may not even decide to try to teach right away, but I'd really like to have the option.  I had been looking into teacher training programs in my area a few months ago, but none spoke to my practice, or fit into my schedule while I'm working nights and taking classes in the afternoon. I decided to be patient and put the notion of teacher training on the back-burner, thinking I can always do it when I finish school... whenever that may be.

Then opportunity sidled up and gave me a cheeky tap on the shoulder last week. When I went to the website of the yoga studio I visit on Wednesday to check class times for the afternoon, I saw a little link at the top of the page asking, "Interested in yoga training?"  Why, yes I am!  I clicked the seductive blue letters. Apparently, the studio is hosting a teacher training intensive this summer with Kurt Johnsen of American Power Yoga.  Heard of it?  Neither had I.  Check it out here.  I'm a little apprehensive about this "unique" style of yoga which incorporates elements from varied backgrounds. I do realize that this is a bit hypocritical of me, as I'm no purist, certainly not on my mat.  Mr. Johnsen apparently has a few classes on the Yogavibes class list.  Maybe I should buy one before I make my decision. Has anyone heard of this guy or his style of yoga?
The training is eleven weeks, Friday evenings, and 9-5 Saturdays and Sundays. I could do this! My classes this summer are online, and if I can manage to rearrange my work schedule a little bit, I could conceivably complete this training. I'm excited.  But...

I have many questions.

Is my practice at the level it should be to undertake teacher training? I spend a lot of time on my mat, and my practice is both ritualistic and exploratory.  I sometimes wonder how my solo practice would translate into a teaching method.  I'm also a little afraid of how the training might change my practice.  Change is scary.  One of the reasons I have chosen to stay away from yoga studios is that I have a tendency to be very competitive.  I want to be the best, all the time.  It's  irrational and destructive, but it is.  I am capable of suppressing these competitive urges.  I have never attempted an asana in a class because the person beside me could do it, but I have wanted to.  I've also been inspired and enlightened by the person beside me, or in front of me, during a class, so there's that, I guess.

I also wonder if I have I been to enough studio classes to have a good level of comfort and understanding in a classroom environment.  There has never been a time that I felt unprepared or out of my element in a class.  My home practice, to my sustained astonishment, does not disintegrate when I take it into the light of day.  But these are eight-hour days.

I've read that some programs require 6 months to a year of practice with a teacher.  It does not appear that this program has any such requirements, but I haven't developed much of a relationship with any of the teachers at the studio. I've been teacher-hopping, taking one, two, or three classes with four different instructors... and this is the extent of the instruction I've received (with the exception of many Yoga Today classes, which were very educational).  Is this enough?  I feel pretty confident that I'm capable and ready.  I am dedicated and diligent in my practice, but that is not to say that I don't have doubts about my abilities.

I've gone back and forth since I first learned of the training.  One minute I'm certain I'll do it.  The next, I'm apprehensive.  But some simple math has revealed that, most of the time, I think I should do it.  I'm excited to learn, and optimistic that whether or not I choose to teach when I emerge from the training, the experience is likely to deepen my own practice.

I have not yet decided what I will do... It would give me something interesting to blog about, assuming I can find the time ;)  There's an open house with Kurt Johnsen at the studio this Saturday, which I plan to attend, and perhaps ask some questions.  I will make my decision then.  In the meantime, I'll be practicing, on and off the mat.


The Stingy Misanthrope Emerges

Guess who emerged from her yoga hole today to practice in the company of other yogis? That's right, I was able to squelch my misanthropic tendencies and made it to a studio class. I remained pleasant and congenial, even when another student asked me to move my mat so she could be by her friend.... ugh. I obliged, but wondered in what possible way her proximity to her friend could deepen her practice. I've only been hitting the studio about once every couple of months. When I do attend, I usually enjoy myself. I find that the classes, though just sixty minutes, have a way of illuminating the weak points in my practice... patience with my fellow wo/man not the least of these.

This was a Power Yoga class, and it was packed. There were at least 30 people in the relatively small, L-shaped space (weird layout at this place), and the pre-class chatter was deafening as I tried to cultivate focus and awareness lying there in a wide bound angle, closed eyes twitching at the pounding of bare feet back and forth along the side of my mat. Apparently, I had relocated to a high traffic area.

Things settled down once we got started, and the class was pretty focused. The instructor had us begin from standing, and after 2 or 3 surya As led us through a long garudasana sequence: garudasana, warrior III with garudasana arms, warrior II with garudasana arms, downward dog with garudasana legs, side plank with garudasana legs... it was weird. Not bad, just weird. To give you an idea of how packed it was, during warrior III, I could feel first the hair and then the breath of the person behind me on my extended foot. That's a tight fit.

I had fun. It wasn't a particularly challenging sequence, but the HEAT, my God, the heat! The heated room gives me a headache every time. I don't generally take pills, but I may try popping half an aspirin before I head back to the studio again. It's just too damn hot, and it's not even Hot Yoga. I've decided I don't ever want to know what Hot Yoga feels like.

The practice of asana is a whole different experience when someone else is calling the shots, so to speak, though I maintain possession of my own practice, take an extra breath or two when I need, and move in my own way, even when under the supervision of a teacher. I try to be respectful while not relinquishing my practice entirely, but I'm not experienced in the studio atmosphere, and I have to fight the urge to be competitive or become discouraged if something doesn't feel right for me. If given the opportunity to set my own intention at the beginning of a class, I always choose to practice with an intention of openness and receptivity to the teachings offered, since it is a rare opportunity for me.

The studio is a donation-based cooperative, which I very much approve of. The suggested donation for classes is $10-$15, which is not bad. Sometimes I think I'd like to bump up my studio visits to once or twice a month to get more instruction and show support for the place, but when considering the options of a home practice versus attending a class, I almost always choose the free option. I'm that cheap.


Asana of the Week: Bakasana

"Baka means crane. The body resembles that of a crane wading in a pool of water, hence the name (Iyengar, Light on Yoga)."

Bakasana, or Crane Pose, is a favorite and popular arm balance. It was the first that I incorporated into my practice, and the catalyst for an extended stint of arm balancing obsession. Bakasana seemed like the most basic and simple of the arm balances, with it's symmetry and tight contraction of the body. I had to try it.

To gain the strength necessary for this pose, my approach was to spend a lot of time in Chaturanga (8-10 breath holds). Looking back, I should have been doing more Navasana, but hindsight is 20/20, as they say. Bakasana, as it seems with most of the asanas, is achieved primarily through subtle control and coordination in the core -- the bandhas -- but a little extra strength in the wrists, pectorals, and triceps doesn't hurt. Hip tension was an obstruction in my early practice of this pose, as my hip flexors had a tendency to cramp if I tried to lift the weight of the legs from the upper arms, which resulted in a very low Bakasana that demanded more work from the upper body, and constant bruises on my triceps. Core strength and hip flexibility have paved the way to a light and comfortable Bakasana.

Be sure to protect the wrists in this pose by gripping the floor with the fingers and distributing the weight evenly through the hands. It can be tempting to balance on the heels of the palms, but expect unpleasant nervous repercussions if you do this. It has taken me a while to be able to straighten the arms in this asana, and stability in the wrists was a big factor here. My recommendation? Practice Padahastasana regularly of you're getting into arm balances (I like to really bend the elbows in this pose, getting a good stretch into the forearms and wrists, and massaging out the hands with the balls of the feet). My wrists went through a bit of a crisis once I began practicing arm balances daily. Regular practice of Padahastasana has been a big help.

Bakasana is an excellent pose as early preparation for handstands, and a great feeler for gaining deeper understanding of the bandhas. Bakasana was definitely an epiphany pose in my practice, leading to a realization of the mechanisms of the bandhas and the literal meaning of "lift." The curve of the spine here, supported by a very active core, makes this asana a particularly enjoyable counter-pose to backbends.

Bakasana has some fun variations to works towards. Parsva bakasana, or side crane, is another favorite of mine; it is somehow easier than plain old Bakasana. There is also Eka Pada Bakasana I, in which one leg is extended back, and the somewhat more obscure Eka Pada Bakasana II, in which one leg is extended forward.

There is also the option of jumping into Bakasana from Downward Facing Dog. This is something that I had been working towards for a while, and felt close to attaining, but never quite landed the jump. Every single time, my left big toe would come down to stabilize me. After many, many close attempts but ultimately failures, I became discouraged, and decided, as I often do, to approach this jump into Bakasana from a different angle. I've been working more on my handstands, and hope to achieve the jump into Bakasana by polishing my handstand jumps, and lowering the knees onto the upper arms rather than landing directly on the arms. I realize this is probably going to take a long time... and I'm okay with that. I think it's the superior approach, considering the alternative is pounding my knees into my triceps over and over again. I don't need that.

The jump back from Bakasana to Chaturanga is another option. This vinyasa has been a fun addition to my practice, and was the first jump back that I explored. The first time I tried it, I just exhaled and shot my legs straight back. Simple. It was really surprisingly easy, if not particularly graceful. I have since polished the jump back from Bakasana somewhat, lifting the hips just a little more and bending the elbows slightly in preparation for a softer jump. I like to really draw out the end of the exhale once I land in Chaturanga, looking ahead, opening the chest and drawing the belly in. It's a nice moment of reflection.

Another fun thing to try, if you're up for a challenge, is lowering the head down from Bakasana to a Tripod headstand for a few breaths, then tuck the legs and lift back to Bakasana a few times. It's a serious core strengthener and tricep toner.

Bakasana is a pose that I feel can be included almost anywhere in a practice: during standing, transitioning to the floor, after seated twists or backbends... whenever. It's a very centering, empowering symmetrical pose that brings a one-pointed focus to the mind and balance to the body. I usually practice a Bakasana or two as part of the transition to my seated sequence, and occasionally after a backbending sequence.

Where do you place Bakasana in your practice?


The Six Year Itch

I had a damn good practice today, as usual, but I think I may have used up all my loving-kindness on the mat. Lots of useless and nagging negativity began to penetrate my thoughts around the time I was setting up for my headstand, which is very near the end of my practice, and pestered me through savasana. The crankiness only increased during my post-practice shower, and by the time I got out of there, I was in quite a dangerous mood.

Maybe I over-did it a little bit. I practiced lots of arm balances today: flying pigeon and eka pada koundinyasana II during my standing sequence, and a lot of work in bakasana on my way to the floor, transitioning from bakasana to a tripod headstand and back a few times, holding each position for five breaths. The burn in my triceps during this bit was something new. My arms haven't been challenged like that in a while. Also lots of jump-throughs, jump-backs, and handstand work had my shoulders and elbows approaching a jelly-like state by the end of my practice. It felt good at the time, but I was one formidable woman when I re-entered the realm of real life, i.e. the six-year anniversary of the relationship between the boyfriend and myself.

The last couple years have been tough for us. He's been having trouble finding/maintaining employment, which has put a great deal of pressure on me. This also means that I don't get much time to myself, since he's home most the time, which is usually nice, but sometimes not. My practice is really the only time that I completely shut myself away. I like to chalk his unemployment up to the economic situation here, but I have trouble with situations that are entirely out of my control. I can be supportive, so I try to be, and I think that's all I can do, but anniversaries have a way of making one reflect, bringing everything to a point, and demanding analysis. I think I may have been trying to drown all this out on the mat with a strong practice.

It didn't work, but luckily the boyfriend made it out of my natural disaster alive, as I was able to recognize the reactionary behavior and compose myself. Let's chalk that one up to my being present and in control... yeah. Anyway, I think we can still have a nice day today. I have a class, and a stupid meeting for stupid work in the afternoon (just kidding! Love my job!), but maybe I'll take the boyfriend out for a nice dinner or something in the evening... rekindle the old flame and all that jazz. It would be good for us, and probably good for my practice ;).


Practice Notes and Seated Sequence

Good, solid practice sessions on Friday and Saturday after a day off on Thursday. I've been a little pressed for time, and because of this, the practices have been really focused and flowing. Yesterday, I thought I only had about an hour for practice, but somehow, I made it an hour and 45 minutes, and still got to work on time. It's amazing how time just seems to manifest from nothing for me some days. I guess I don't need nearly as much time to get ready for work as I thought I did, and that's A-Okay with me.

I packed most of my standing sequence into a single flow. I tried coming into warrior III from ardha chandrasana, something I normally do in reverse. I exhaled both arms down from ardha chandrasana and squared my hips to the floor, then lifted the arms up. It was tough. The right side felt okay, I was stable through the transition and held for five breaths, but on my left leg, once lifted into warrior III, I could feel that my center of gravity was much further back than it is when I enter the pose from anjaneyasana, and I couldn't seem to adjust it. It was like my left leg was completely locked in place. I stayed for five breaths, but when I bent the knee to come back into warrior II, the joint felt strange and buckled a little. Very weird. It hasn't bothered me since, though, so I'm sure it's fine.

For more damn good twisting and hip opening, which have been heavy in my practice lately, I've been practicing my seated twisting sequence on a single side before switching legs. It goes like this:

- Marichyasana A - Right knee bent, 5 breaths
- Keeping the bind, inhale the spine upright and twist open to the left for 5 breaths
- Marichyasana C - 5 breaths
- Ardha Matsyendrasana - 5 breaths
- Stack the right calf over the left and exhale forward to Firelog pose for 5 breaths
- Inhale back up, cross the ankles, lift-up, jump back
- Vinyasa, repeat on the other side.

Good stuff. Backbends were big and long yesterday. I started with ten breaths in ustrasana, then vinyasa-ed my way to my back for 10 breaths in bridge, then 10 in the first urdhva dhanurasana, and 15 in the second, with each leg extended for five breaths. My backbending is getting very strong... it's not the desperate, balls-out plunge into perspective-bending stimulation that it used to be. There's much more focus, more control, and more accuracy to the bends.

I practiced just one full inversion yesterday: 30 breaths in salamba sirsasana. And it was damn good. I'm beginning to find ease in this pose. My bandhas are getting stronger.

Speaking of bandhas, I skipped tolasana at the end of my practice yesterday because of the time, but I've been wondering about the notation in Swenson's book that the recommended duration for the pose is 100 breaths. I've been wondering... I mean, I just want to know... Has anyone actually done this? It's an understatement to say that this seems like a long time. I'm a firm believer in slow and steady progress, so I believe that it can be done. But as the final asana before savasana, that's asking a lot.


Stability and Ease

Earlier this week, the Everything Yoga Blog featured a post entitled "Shaping Up for Bathing Suit Season without Sacrificing Your Yoga Practice." The article suggests that yoga should not be physically challenging, and that the optimal duration for one's daily personal practice is 20-30 minutes. The first bullet point states that "yoga isn't meant to be a workout." It goes on to point out that, per the Yoga Sutras, the elements of sthira (stability) and sukha (ease) should be present in one's asana practice, and suggests that this is not possible when engaged in a rigorous practice. I won't paraphrase any further. You can read the article yourself.

I've been reading the Everything Yoga Blog pretty regularly for about a year, so I'm familiar with the author's views regarding brief, manageable practice sessions, but this particular post raised many questions, and got me thinking about the nature of my practice.

How much yoga, specifically asana practice, is enough? Is it beneficial to try and condense the practice into it's most time-efficient form, doing only what one deems to be “enough?” If this is the attitude that one takes toward their practice, I have to ask, why? My personal practice is at least one hour, typically two hours, not unusually three hours, including 20-30 minutes of seated meditation, six days per week. This practice schedule is not something that I planned for. I did not one day decide a minimum or maximum practice limit for myself; even now, I do not commit myself to any length of time when I step onto the mat. My practice has evolved this way because it brings me joy. There is great joy in living fully in the body, honoring it's power and vulnerability. Sukha, generally interpreted as "ease," can also mean "pleasure," "joy," "comfort," "happiness," and "relaxation" (Parnell, "Balancing Polarities of Tension and Relaxation"). If this element is present in your practice, what is the motivation for doing only as much as is necessary?

Sthira may be translated as "firmness," "resolution" or "changeless," in addition to "stability" (Parnell, "Balancing Polarities of Tension and Relaxation"). The term “resolute” implies effort; it suggests that there are obstacles to be faced. It also implies focus and presence. It is my understanding that the practice of asana is practice for life – and life is hard. Asanas are designed to stimulate sensations in the body so that we may train the mind to be steadfast as we near the edges of our capacity to experience stability and ease. Through the practice of asana, we learn to be in tune with our bodies so that we may safely navigate these edges, and learn compassion in the process. If we do not seek to move past our edges, or, perhaps more aptly, if we does not seek to move our edges, then the practice is not a journey; it's a settlement, a compromise.

I am not saying that a vigorous vinyasa practice is for everyone. I am saying that an element of difficulty is necessary for the practice to be meaningful. For some, this challenge is in stillness and surrender, for others it's in letting go of doubts and being generous with one's body and its abilities. For most of us, I'm sure it's a combination of both, which is why I believe that one's asana practice should balance challenges of both natures in the interest of expanding one's capacity to exist in a state of stability (sthira) and ease (sukha), free from agitation.

But agitation and difficulty are not the same thing. One can perform a task of great physical difficulty with a sense of ease and, for that matter, accomplish a simple task with great difficulty, the point being that sthira and sukha are drawn from the mind to the body, and not the other way around. Through the practice of yoga, we learn to maintain a steady and quiet mind in the face of stimulation, which in an asana practice is experienced as sensations of varying intensity. I agree with the general consensus that pain should not be a part of yoga, but only in so far as the fact that “pain” itself is a judgement of the mind, which is something to be avoided by the yogi. According to the Bhagavad Gita, “this is the real meaning of Yoga – a deliverance from contact with pain and sorrow” through the practice of non-judgement, striving for a steadiness of mind which allows one to regard all aspects of life evenly. I believe this includes discomfort -- physical, mental, and emotional. How can we learn to experience each moment fully if we do not condition the mind, with practice, to be still and receptive at those times when life inevitably pushes us onto the edge?

Please share your thoughts in the comments. I'd love to know what the other yogi/inis have to say about sthira and sukha in their asana practice.


Asana of the Week: Astavakrasana

"Astavakra was a very learned sage whose mother attended Vedic chanting classes while pregnant. While he was in his mother's womb, he winced at eight of his father's mispronunciations of Vedic prayers, and was thus born with eight bends in his body (Kaminoff, Yoga Anatomy)." This is the familiar story behind this week's asana. The fetal sage cringes at his father's eight painfully poor pronunciations of the prayers, and gets stuck that way, just like your mother always warned you!

In Light on Yoga, Iyengar spins a less comical version of the story, in which the unborn child laughs disrespectfully in the womb at his father's mistakes. In response, his father "became enraged and cursed his son to be born as Astavakra. So it came to pass that he was born crooked in eight places. These crooks earned him the name Astavakra, or Eight-Crooks." So the fetus's father becomes so enraged by his unborn child's petulant laughter that he cursed him to be born with a badly deformed body. But the young sage, wise beyond his years, was forgiving: "The sage's father had been defeated in a philosophical debate by Vandi, the court scholar of Mithila. While yet a boy, the sage became a great scholar and avenged his father's defeat by worsting Vandi in an argument..." So the child sage not only forgave his father for willfully causing him to be born with multiple deformities, but actually restored his faulted father's honor. Happily, the story ends well: "Then his father blessed him, his deformity vanished and he became straight." Isn't that nice.

Astavakrasana, or Eight-Angle Pose, is what I'd call an accessible arm balance. It is deceptively not about upper-body strength. Rather, in my experience, the challenge in this pose is developing sufficient coordination in the body to sustain the right counterbalance with the extended legs. Core strength does come into play. This can be a very deep twist, but the leverage provided by the top leg against the upper arm affords a lot of control in respect to depth of the twist. The biggest challenges for me when learning this asana were developing symmetry of the two sides and squaring the shoulders to the floor. My left shoulder would drop, leaving me with an imminent face plant situation. Luckily, it's not a difficult arm balance to bail out on if things start to fall apart. You can just keep your legs as they are and drop your butt to the floor. It's not very far, so don't be afraid to try it if you haven't already (assuming you have no health constraints).

I did notice, while reading up on the asana today, that Iyengar specifies which ankle to cross over which. For the record, it's the opposite of the way I'm pictured demonstrating the pose. The ankle of the bottom leg should cross in front of the ankle of the top leg. I had never noticed this detail of instruction before. These Asana of the Week posts are turning out to be quite illuminating.

That's the other side for you. I'm laughing there.  I can laugh in this pose, which should suggest to you that there's plenty of room for good breathing. Leslie Kaminoff asks in Yoga Anatomy in reference to this asana, "as compared to Side Crane, in which the body weight is lifted and supported on the upper arms, Astavakrasana requires you to "hang" the weight of the lower body off the support of the upper arm.... Which pose requires more or less expenditure of energy, and which offers more freedom of movement for the diaphragm?"

Iyengar has us enter the pose from standing, with the feet "about 18 inches apart (Light on Yoga)," and bending forward to tuck the shoulder under the top leg. I had never entered Astavakrasana this way until today, when I was studying up for this post. I gave it a try on the living room floor. I did not like it. It required much shifting of the hands and rocking the body back and forth. I didn't feel as grounded as I do when entering the pose through a vinyasa. I can see why one might want to first learn the asana that way, but I always practice it thusly:
  1. Rock-the-baby
  2. Compass pose
  3. Eka pada buhjasana
  4. Astavakrasana
  5. exhale back to Eka Bada Buhjasana
  6. release and repeat on the other side.

If I'm feeling saucy, I'll tuck the extended leg under and extend it back for Eka Pada Koundinyasana II, then jump back and take a vinyasa before jumping through to begin again on the other side.


Holy Floaty Jump Throughs, Batman!

Mmmm... Just finished a damn good three-hour practice, followed by a damn hot shower, currently enjoying a damn cold beer, which is soon to be joined by some damn tasty tomato, pesto, and goat cheese pizza. I think that calls for one more: Mmmmmm...

I feel good. Can you tell? That yoga stuff really works. ;)

Practice today was sweaty and seamless. No messing around. I started slow by warming up the spine, hips, and shoulders with some tabletop postures, extending the right leg, left arm, then left leg, right arm; also, drawing one knee into the chest on the exhalations and extending the leg back on the inhalations. I practiced the revolved sequence I wrote about in my last post during my standing practice, tweaking the flow and paying close attention to the placement of the hips in all the twists. Good stuff. Great hip opening and core work.

Speaking of core work, I'm still cleaning up my vinyasas, working on staying grounded through the hands and feet, trying not to shift my foundation during the course of the full vinyasa. It's tough, but the key is finding ease in the downward dog, not resisting the length of the spine or bracing against it in the shoulders. I'm also still working on the jump backs and jump throughs. The jump backs are coming along just fine. It's getting easier to work my feet through the hands without touching down, but the jump throughs are really where it's at right now. I've been taking the jumps as if I were about to lift for a handstand, getting the hips very high, bringing the legs straight through (I don't cross the ankles), and then, as of today, hovering above the floor with my legs outstretched for the exhale before setting down. I've been trying to hover at the end of the jumps for the past few days, but it wasn't happening for me until today. Admittedly, my heels still brush the floor sometimes once they get past my arms, but not nearly as often as they had been. The whole process of the jump through is slowing down. I'm gaining control and establishing solid lift in the bandhas before making my move.

Backbends today were intense. I was in a no-nonsense kind of mood, so it was 6 breaths in bridge pose, one breath to set up for urdhva dhanurasana, then 3 UDs in a row, six breaths each, with just one inhale and one exhale in between. I have a habit of taking my time between the backbends. After a big backbend, I just want to lie there and bask in the adrenalin for a minute, but I tend to waste a lot of time just lying there getting cold. I feel like it detracts from the release of savasana, which I know is fast approaching, relatively speaking, once I start my backbends.

Headstand practice today was pretty great. I lifted up, stayed for twenty long, slow breaths, and never used the wall. I've had longer stays in headstand, but today's headstand was definitely the most comfortable and stable one yet. This is very encouraging, as my headstands had been suffering this week for unknown reasons.

Guess what else I've been practicing? Shoulderstand! And I don't hate it! Yes, I'm really excited about this one. I was beginning to think I'd never be able to enjoy shoulderstands, but yet again, regular practice pays off in the end. It's about time I learned to stop doubting the benefits of my practice and wasting precious consciousness thinking about what I can't do. If you've heard it once, you've heard it a thousand times: "Practice, and all is coming (Sri K. Pattabhi Jois)."


Revolved Standing Sequence for Buttery Hips

I seem to be accumulating a small yoga debt this month. Just five practice days again this week (aiming for six days a week). I've been hunched over my laptop (trying to work on my typing posture... it's not good) writing and writing and writing for one of my classes. It's a fiction writing class, short stories, and it takes a lot out of me. Lots of writing, which is also why I haven't posted in several days. Sometimes writing does not beget more writing.

Anyway, as for the yoga, my practices have been focused and fundamental. I've been playing with some different standing sequences, and Friday I mixed things up with this lovely revolved standing sequence:

- Warrior I (5 breaths)
- Bring hands to heart, exhale over the bent knee to parivritta parsvakonasana with hands in prayer position for 5 breaths (practiced this revolved side angle with the back heel on the floor. I've always done the high-lunge version of this pose, but was feeling experimental. Wow, but it's an entirely different asana altogether trying to ground through the back foot. My hips were being pulled from all directions.)
- Bring bottom hand to floor, reach up with top hand, deepen the twist for 5 breaths
- Inhale the front leg straight to parivritta trikonasana for 5 breaths (this vinyasa was a challenge. I had to shorten my stance a bit, and actually brought both hands to the floor on either side of the front foot before straightening the leg to work the forward bend before the twist.)
- Inhale and shift the weight forward to parivritta ardha chandrasana for 5 breaths (by this time, my outer hip was really opening up -- lots of sensation and heat from the long twist.
- Inhale to warrior II for two breaths
- Exhale to vinyasa
- Repeat on the other side.

For the rest of my practice, I felt like the Tin Man who had just won a complimentary lube job. The normal knots and sensations around my hips joints were completely gone -- nothing but smooth, unobstructed mobility. Seriously, like butter. It was really amazing. I think I'll try that sequence again today. Maybe I can smoothen the transition between revolved side angle and revolved triangle some more.

Smoothen? That's a funny word.


Asana of the Week: Dhanurasana

BKS Iyengar says of dhanurasana in Light on Yoga, "the hands are used like a bow-string to pull the head, trunk, and legs up and the posture resembles a bent bow." The Yoga Bible by Christana Brown describes the pose similarly, saying that "in this posture, the arms are like the string of a bow, pulled tight by the strength of the body and legs." However, I like David Swenson's description best. He takes the bow metaphor a step further in his Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual by mapping the flow of energy in the body: "The arms are like the string of a bow and the body is the bow itself. The energy being propelled through the spine and up to the crown of the head is the arrow" [emphasis is mine]. Nice.

This is one of those asanas that doesn't show up in my home practice too often, but when it does, it leaves an impression. Dhanurasana is an enormous heart opener and major source of energy and endorphins. I find it especially appropriate that, to release from this asana, one is supposed to literally let go and lie flat on the floor. In that release after Dhanurasana, some pretty heavy shit can come to the surface. Sometimes it's murky, but sometimes it's beautiful and clear.

This is an asana that my neck and shoulder tension has kept me from enjoying for quite some time. Until I came to terms with the fact that a Gomukhasana once in a while wasn't going to do the trick, I pretty much rejected all other shoulder-openers, finding them too painful and bothersome. Eventually, I got tired of all the tension headaches and the lack of mobility in my shoulders, and began working shoulder openers into my daily practice. Asanas like Dhanurasana, Setu Bandhasana, Halasana, and Sarvangasana are accessible to me now.

I've always been taught in classes to never spread the knees any wider than the hips in Dhanurasana. Maybe I'm a literalist, but the message I've gotten from more than one instructor is knees no wider than hip width apart! Swenson, however, allows that one may spread the knees to find a place of comfort: "If it is too intense to keep the legs together then you may open them until you find a comfort zone while keeping the chest and knees away from the floor" (Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual). I'm liking this Swenson guy more and more.

Iyengar says to "lift the head up and pull it as far back as possible," but as you can see in the photo, I'm maintaining some length in the neck, it's something I do in most asanas that call for an upward gaze. I've made a habit of it in order to protect my neck and upper back. Swenson says it's okay: "If you feel tension in your neck then drop your chin toward your chest and that should relieve it" (Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual).

I usually practice Dhanurasana after a few other prone backbends, namely Shalabasana variations and Ardha Bhekasana. I find Shalabasana with the hands clasped behind the back, pulling the chest up and open, is an excellent preparation for Dhanurasana. One issue I have with this pose is deciding where to put my weight, and once having found that place, how to avoid rocking with the breath. Generally, when I first lift up into Dhanurasana, my weight is on my lower abdomen and hip bones. It takes a conscious shift to bring the weight fully onto the soft part of the abdomen where it should be, and while this lessens the bend in the upper back slightly, it brings a great stretch into the front of the knees and quadriceps. Leslie Kaminoff writes in Yoga Anatomy that "it is a common practice to rock back and forth in this pose by pushing the belly into the floor with each inhalation. It is less common (but much more intense) to practice not rocking by directing the inhalation into the already expanded chest region." It is a challenge to direct the breath into the expanded chest, but I prefer the stability and consistent pressure on the abdomen of the non-rocking version of the pose.

What about you, my darling readers: do you rock the bow or not?


So Damn Good

What can I say, but damn good yoga today. I put off my practice all day, and was starting to get cranky from the irreconcilable simultaneous urge and resistance to practice (I wonder what's that all about... something needs doing, probably). But I finally made it to the mat, and it was great. The practice was lengthy and sweaty, but damn it, I'm feeling fantastic now!

I wrote the whole thing down. Maybe it was just my mood, but the sequence flowed really well. I seemed to find a place of ease just when I needed it in each individual sequence. My standing practice has developed such that trikonasana, ardha chandrasana, and utkatasana have become positions of superior comfort for me, opportunities during the standing sequence to really open the chest, recenter, and equalize the breath. In utkatasana, I've been working on shifting the weight more into the heels by lifting the toes, and bringing the thighs just about parallel to the floor (I'm not sure, but I don't think they're getting quite parallel yet). My parivritta trikonasana is improving dramatically. For the past week, I've been able to really ground through back heel and tuck the front hip under. It definitely feels different, in a good way, so I've been keeping at it with every practice.

As for the much hyped sequence I practiced today, I've listed it below. It's long, just to warn you. Also, I'm including both the English and Sanskrit names, as I know them, in an effort to make the sequence accessible to more potential readers, but also, to be frank, because this is how I'm learning the names of the asanas: by blogging my practice. Practicing at home these few years, learning from books, but mostly the pictures in books, I haven't needed to know the names of the asanas, particularly not the sanskrit names. It takes me forever to write these things down, needing to find the name of the asana in a book if I can't remember what it's called, but I'm quickly committing it all to memory... So if the names of the asanas are a little inconsistent, especially in regards to the school from which the names originate, I apologize. I use a variety of resources.

Anyway, if you've got a good while to spare, give this a try:

(note: as usual, I probably spent five breaths in each asana unless otherwise noted.)

- 4-6 Cat-cows
- Adho mukha svanasana - pedaling out the feet, swiveling hips, and generally loosening up
- Ragdoll pose (forward fold grabbing elbows) - hung around here for about two minutes
- Arm raises - inhaling the arms up and back for a tiny backbend, then exhaling the arms down
- 3 Surya namaskara As
- 3 Surya namasakara Bs
- Padahastasana (forward fold with forearm stretch)
- Uttanasana (standing forward fold) with hands clasped behind back

- Vinyasa
- Virabhadrasana I (warrior 1)
- Virabhadrasana II (warrior 2)
- Utthita parvokanasana (extended side angle)
- Utthita trikonasana (extended triangle)
- Ardha chandrasana (half moon)
- Vinyasa, repeat on the other side.

- Utkatasana (chair pose)
- Vinyasa

- Anjaneyasana (high lunge, arms reaching up)
- Virabhadrasana III (warrior 3)
- Ardha chandrasana (half moon) - first five breaths with lifted leg extended, then five bending the knee and grabbing the foot for a backbend
- Parivritta ardha chandrasana (revolved half moon)
- Urdhva prasarita eka padasana (standing splits)
- Vinyasa
- Repeat on the other side.

- Utkatasana (chair pose)
- Samasthiti

- Vinyasa
- Utthita hasta padangusthasana A (extended hand to big toe)
- Utthita hasta padangusthasana B (side hand to big toe)
- Parivritta utthita hasta padangusthasana ("Sting" pose) - Someone please tell me there's another name for this one. I was told it's called the Sting pose because it's his favorite... I want a pose named after me... I'll call it Supta Misanthropasana [pictured below, for your reference])

- Carrying on, embittered by the fact that you do not have a namesake pose, repeat that last bit on the other side.

- Vinyasa
- Anjaneyasana (high lunge, arms up)
- Parivritta parsvokanasana (revolved side angle) - First five breaths with the hands in prayer position, then another five with the bottom hand to the floor outside the foot and the top hand reaching up... slowly working toward binding this one.
- Inhale back to anjaneyasana, exhale palms to floor
- Lizard pose - Forearms on the floor, legs in a lunge -- does this have a Sanskrit name?
- Eka pada koundinyasana II (don't know the English name for this one, if it has one)
- Jump back to vinyasa
- Repeat on the other side.

- Parivritta trikonasana (revolved triangle) - both sides
- Parsvottonasana (intense side stretch) - both sides
- Prasarita padottanasana A and C (wide-legged intense stretch)
- Samasthiti (equal balance pose)

- Vinyasa
- Plank
- Chaturanga (four-limbed staff, or push-up position)
- Urdhva mukha svanasana (upward facing dog)
- Adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog)
- Side plank - both sides, pushing back to down dog for one breath between sides
- Adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog)

- Eka pada rajakapotansana (one-legged pigeon) - With a forward fold for about 2 minutes, then with the back foot in the elbow crease, hooking the fingers behind the head for 6 breaths
- Firelog pose
- Lift up, jump back, vinyasa
- Repeat on the other side.

- Bakasana (crow pose)
- Vinyasa
- Half hanumanasana
- Hanumanasana (yoga splits)
- Vinyasa
- Repeat on the other side.

- Bakasana
- Vinyasa, jump through to seated.
- Marichyasana (Sage twist) with a forward fold, grabbing the toes of the extended leg with both hands
- Marichyasana A - bound at the wrist, folding forward for five breaths, then twisting open for five
- Marichyasana C
- Lift up, jump back, vinyasa, jump through.
- Repeat on the other side.

- East stretch
- Lift up, jump back, vinyasa, jump through.
- Navasana (boat pose) - five times, lifting up between sets
- Lift up, jump back, vinyasa, jump through.

- Bridge pose
- Urdhva dhanurasana (upward bow, or wheel pose) - two times, 8 breaths each
- Eka pada urdhva dhanurasana (one-legged upward bow) - lifting each leg for 3 breaths each
- Paschimottansana (seated forward fold)
- Lift up, jump back, jump through

- Salamba sarvangasana (supported shoulderstand) - 10 breaths
- Plough pose
- Fish pose
- Vinyasa.

- Handstand - Six handstands, 1-3 breaths each
- Child pose
- Salamba sirsasana (Supported Headstand) - 28 breaths... yes, I counted.
- Child pose
- Vinyasa, jump through.
- Tolasana (scale posture) - 8 breaths each way
- Savasana (corpse pose) - 10 minutes


Different Path, Same Destination

Last week was a 5-day yoga week. Time constraints due to a big project for school kept me from my practice on Wednesday and Sunday, but the practices I have been able to squeeze in have been damn good. The air here has been warm and downright dewy for the past several days, so the sweat has been coming easily during my practice, and my muscles have been nice and loose. I haven't even been turning on the humidifier. Just to give you an idea, it's currently 4:00 AM, and it's 70 degrees out there with 84 percent humidity. Not bad.

Thursday and Saturday I had excellent self-led practices, two hours on Thursday and three on Saturday. Friday I took a yoga today class called "Blissful Hip Openers" with Adi. True to its title, it involved hip openers, a few hip openers, and then some more hip openers. Just over 51 minutes of hip openers, and I have to admit, it was pretty great. Adi packed a whole lot into those 51 minutes, and thanks to the weather, I was sweating within the first fifteen minutes. This class was really engaging. I surprised myself with my focus a few times, and my breath was beautifully equal and long; often during the video classes, I find myself distracted and fidgeting much more than in my solo practice, perhaps overwhelmed by all the cues and chatter. This class, however, kept me warm and focused. Even though it did not include any balancing poses, core work, or backbends, I was left feeling quite blissful, indeed.

In my self-led practice, I've been working through some longer sequences, flowing through six or more asanas on a single side before taking a vinyasa. I've also been working some arm balances, which are generally reserved for my transition to the floor or after the backbends, into my standing sequences: finding my way into flying pigeon from garudasana, for example, or tucking the shoulder under the leg after a high lunge and lifting up into eka pada koundinyasana II for a few breaths before jumping back for a vinyasa -- that kind of thing. Arm balances really add to the intensity, though, so it's great when I'm in that sort of mood, but if I've got a deep seated sequence in mind or plan to work on my handstands for a while, I just practice a bakasana or two before coming to the floor.

I'm still working on my eka pada urdhva dhanurasana, and I must say, I couldn't be happier with my exploration in this pose. I've said before that the first time I tried this -- a few months ago, probably -- I was completely and utterly denied. My body said, "NO!" And I listened. I didn't even think about it until about a week ago, and now, here it is, completely within reach. I feel steady and strong pointing my foot to the sky. This is something that I truly love about yoga: practice works. We all face obstacles and limitations, but yoga allows us to take the scenic route on the journey toward whatever it is that we seek from our practice. We can simply circumvent that which stands in our way and take a different path toward the same destination.