Asana of the Week: Sirsasana

I am pleased to announce the Asana of the Week is Sirsasana, the king of asanas and cure for all that ails you.  According to Mr. Iyengar, "regular and precise practice of Sirsasana develops the body, disciplines the mind, and widens the horizons of the spirit.  One becomes balanced and self-reliant in pain and pleasure, loss and gain, shame and fame and defeat and victory (Light on Yoga)."

Sirsasana stimulates the Sahasrara chakra, the energy center located at the crown of the head where our highest conciousness resides.  Physically, Sirsasana revitalizes the body and mind, and is attributed with all manner of healing powers, not least of which its power to reverse the effects of gravity and slow the aging process.  While the body is inverted, drainage of the lymph system is increased and it is generally taught in yoga circles that the brain and heart are provided with an abundance of fresh blood.  However, Leslie Kaminoff, author of Yoga Anatomy, puts this notion of increased blood supply to the brain to rest by asserting that "the body has very robust mechanisms that control the amount of blood delivered to any given region -- irrespective of the orientation to gravity." But Kaminoff is still pro-headstand, assuring us that "inversions do offer a very beneficial opportunity for increased venous return from the lower body... not to mention the benefits derived from inverting the action of the diaphragm."  The weight of the abdominal organs on the diaphragm encourages deeper, more complete exhalations, thus releasing more carbon dioxide from the lungs and thus encouraging fuller inhalations. 

If you think you'd like to practice Sirsasana, there's a quick test you can do to find out if you're ready.  Come to your hands and knees, then lower your forearms to the mat, palms flat, fingers pointing straight ahead.  Now step your feet together behind you, elevating the knees in a forearm plank position.  Keeping forearms on the floor, walk the feet forward so the hips lift and then stretch your heels down toward the floor.  Press the shoulders away from the ears.  This is Dolphin pose.  If you can comfortably let your head hang here with your neck completely relaxed and lift out of the shoulders enough that the crown of your head does not touch the floor, you may be ready to try Sirsasana.

Never kick the legs up when entering Sirsasana.  At first, practice with a wall behind you.  Lift up into the pose by bending the knees and only if this is comfortable, slowly raise both legs together.  Even if you're just learning, try not to allow the heels to rest against the wall.  Use the wall as a safety net, but keep finding your balance.  After some time and practice, one may enter Sirsasana with straight legs, but always move slowly with control.  Draw the elbows in and keep the jaw, throat, and shoulders relaxed.  If you feel any discomfort in the head or neck, come out of the pose immediately. 

Sirsasana has been an ongoing project of mine over the past year.  Much of my experience teaching myself to be comfortable in this posture has been chronicled here.  I spent many weeks practicing my headstands at the wall before venturing out to the middle of the room.  Iyengar, in his wisdom, changed the way I approach headstands.  When first practicing the posture, I became frustrated that I couldn't seem to remain still, my body always swaying and rocking, however subtly, but then I read that "in Sirsasana the balance alone is not important.  One has to wait from moment to moment and find out the subtle adjustments (Iyengar, Light on Yoga)."  I learned to soften into the pose, to watch and wait, and be comfortable in having to make adjustments.  Inversions have not come naturally to me, but with patience and practice, Sirsasana is now an essential and enjoyable part of my daily routine.


Why Yoga?

Have you ever been sweating and twisted on your mat, ready to throw in the lavender-scented towel and thought to yourself:  This is insane.  What am I doing here?  It can be useful to explore our reasons for returning to this practice so that, in these moments of doubt, we have an answer at the ready to put those thoughts at rest.   Often, I like to begin my classes by establishing a physical foundation upon which to build the practice: we set the feet, engage the legs, extend the spine, and expand from our center, and we utilize these actions throughout the practice to keep us safe and grounded.  Likewise, establishing a philosophical foundation for our practice, developing a stronger understanding of why, on a personal level, we choose to do yoga, can be in important step in laying the groundwork for a deeper experience, preparing us for new growth.

So, back to the question:  why yoga?  First, I'd like to make clear that I am not of the opinion that everyone needs yoga.  I do not feel like it's my job to corral as  many people as possible onto their mats for the sake of the greater good.  The elements of yoga that are most valuable, the healing and focus, can be just as present in other activities.  This is probably why some people like to say that chocolate is yoga, or nature walks or rock climbing are yoga.  It's easy to see how these activities, among others, could serve to bring one into his or her body and still the mind.  Yoga is just another avenue toward realization of the self.  There are many.

Yoga is a life practice.  Through asana and pranayama, we bring about sensations in the body so that we may learn to breath and soften into the resistance we face in life.  We utilize the body as a source of truth; sensations which arise in the body during asana practice are real and true, as true as anything we can know in this world.  By observing these sensations without judgement, we may experience truth more fully.  Through meditation, we learn to remain grounded and centered, which is especially important living in a culture in which we are constantly bombarded with conflicting messages.  Taking the time to quiet the mind, for even a few minutes a day, cutting off these influences, can give us a sense of who we are and what is really important to us, truths which tend to be smothered in blaring media and fanciful expectation.

Through the practice of yoga, we work to overcome our need to analyze and categorize everyone and everything in life.  We become the quiet observer, receptive to the truths available to us within.  We begin to reconcile the apparent contradictions inherent in ourselves that cause us discomfort, and discover that perhaps what we perceived to be contradictions are not all that contradictory after all.  Walt Whitman understood this when he wrote my favorite poem, Song of Myself, proclaiming, "Do I contradict myself?  Very well then, I contradict myself.  I am large, I contain multitudes."

It is through this practice that we learn the terribly difficult skill of expressing compassion toward oneself, and as a result, are able to turn that compassion outward and offer it to the world.  When we reflect honestly, as the practice calls us to do, and let go of past regret or future anxiety, we make space for peace in the present moment.  So we do yoga because it is from this quiet place, grounded in simple truth, that we can begin to establish a philosophical foundation upon which to build our reality.  Eventually, we learn to tear down the barriers of duality and see the inherent unity of life.  We begin to recognize the self reflected in all things and all things reflected in the self, perhaps catching a precious glimpse of our own infinite nature.


The Steps Along the Way

The past couple of days have been filled to the brim with yoga.  Sunday I awoke, worked on my lesson plan over coffee, did my morning pranayama, meditation, and sirsasana ritual, then practiced the sequence I had prepared from beginning to end to check the timing and polish over any rough spots.  After that, lunch and time with the boyfriend before heading off to teach.  Then, upon returning home, I had a nice dinner, jotted down some notes and reflections, and laid a rough foundation for my Monday class over a glass of wine (or two) before crawling into bed.

Monday morning, I did a bit of writing (coffee in hand, once again... freshly ground Costa Rican dark roast.  I can't put it down), practiced and polished my Monday class, lunched, took a nap, then got back on the mat for my personal practice before heading out to teach once again.  It may not be paying the bills yet (fingers crossed), but I am loving this yoga teacher life.

I'm sure not all teachers feel the need or have the time to do this, but I always practice the sequences I prepare for a class in full before presenting them.  Generally, I do this after my morning pranayama and inversion practice, so I'm already warm and prepared.  Yesterday, however, I decided to do the practice cold to really experience the sequence as most of my students experience it.  It was interesting.  I think feeling the practice as closely as possible to the way my students might feel it gave me insight into the appropriate timing and emphasis to use throughout the sequence.  It also instilled me with greater compassion for my students.  As I taught the class that evening, I remembered the sensations that arose in my body and knew better when to push and when to be most supportive.  The little revelations just keep coming.

I am studying hard and practicing with renewed dedication and purpose.  The relationship between my personal growth and what I can offer to others through my teaching is becoming more organic, balanced and sustainable.  I am optimistic and so excited to be on this journey, but I am diligent and humble, setting my feet mindfully on the path, careful not to crush any opportunities along the way.


Rehashing the Class

I taught my first class at Love Yoga Co-op last night.  Two lovely, skilled students attended.  Was it enough to cover my rent for the space?  No.  Was it a valuable teaching experience for me and a good practice for my students?  Yes and yes.  As it turned out, both of the students were also teachers themselves, which made my job very easy.  They both had strong personal practices, which came as a relief because I had a pretty challenging sequence prepared for the class.  They flowed through it beautifully.

We began by establishing a foundation for the practice, moving up the body from the toes to the shoulders, grounding through the legs and expanding from the heart.  Then we built the Salutations slowly, beginning with the movement of the arms, then half salutations, Surya Namaskara A, and finally Surya Namaskara B.  Then we added on a little more with a short warrior sequence, then we added on a lot more with an extended warrior sequence, really working into the leg with all manner of balancing and twisting before moving on to the other side, pausing in downward dog to notice the difference in sensation between the two legs and feel the effects of the practice. Then, a little arm balancing, a bit of backbending, a little hip opening, a splash of core work, an inversion, a tiny heart opener, and final rest.  I think it was a damn good class.

I absolutely love this venue, and while I do hope a few more people show up in the coming weeks, having just two students to work with allowed me to speak to their bodies and target exactly the issues I observed as we moved through the practice.  I did not play any music, which let me hear the breath of the students and conduct the energy of the room more completely.  I felt really good about the class afterward, when I'm usually kicking myself for holding the poses too long or talking too much or not enough, etc, etc, etc... though I believe I may be my own harshest critic.  Fortunately, it isn't my experience that's most important when I teach; it's the students' experience, and they generally leave class sweaty and happy.  I am realizing that my job isn't that hard if I just step back and let the yoga do it's work.

I'm teaching another class tonight at Black Swan Yoga, the Night Cap class at 8:45 in the downstairs studio.  There will be luxurious side stretches and hip openers aplenty if I have anything to do with it, which I do.  If you're in Austin and cramped up with the Mondays, grab your mat and come get your stretch on!


Asana of the Week: Eka Pada Koundinyasana I

"Eka means one.  Pada means leg or foot.  Koundinya is the name of a sage"  (Light on Yoga).

It's another twisting arm balance this week with Eka Pada Koundinyasana I.  In English, it is sometimes refered to as Sage Balance, but I like to call it Crazy Legs (or maybe it should be Krazy with a 'K' for that extra punch of crazy).  This is a fun pose that gets deep into the stabilizing muscles of the abdomen, such as the piriformis and transverse abdominis.  In addition, it builds strength in the wrists, arms, shoulders, and chest, and the strong twist initiated by the legs wrings out the digestive organs and vitalizes the spine.

Do not attempt this pose if you struggle with wrist pain or limited mobility in the low back.  Warm the muscles with some gentle strengtheners, such as Downward Facing Dog, plank position, and some lunges to open the hips.  Then warm the spine with some standing or seated twists.  Forward bends are also a good preparatory practice for most arm balances, as they encourage the deep flexion of the hips necessary for the placement of the legs.  Though Eka Pada Koundinyasana is traditionally entered from tripod headstand, I like to transition from Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (revolved side angle) or Parsva Bakasana (revolved crane pose).  The trick is getting the knee far enough up the tricep of the opposite arm before bending the elbows so that the core is fully engaged and the leg is less likely to slide down, making more work for the arms.

Arm balances, in general, are great confidence builders, and this one in particular leaves me with a feeling of lightness. As we learn to place the body just so and engage in just the right way, we find that we are stronger than we thought we knew.  We tend to discover that where strength will only take us so far, balance and finesse can take us further.

Eka Pada Koundinyasana Sequence
  1. Tadasana (Mountain pose)
  2. Utkatasana (Chair pose)
  3. Uttanasana (Standing forward fold)
  4. Parivrtta Utkatasana (Revolved chair pose) - Twist to the right, left elbow to outer right thigh.
  5. Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle pose) - Step the left foot back to a revolved lunge.
  6. Eka Pada Koundinyasana I (Sage Balance, a.k.a Crazy Legs)
  7. Vinyasa
  8. Repeat 1-6, twisting to the left.


The Perfect Practice

What's your perfect practice?  And I don't mean performing the asanas well, for there is no perfect pose, or exactly aligning movement with the breath, inhalations and exhalations perfectly equalized -- as long as you're breathing mindfully, you're doing yoga well.  What I want to know is what is the practice that grounds you?  That washes the mind clean and makes the body light?

This evening, before heading off to teach, I didn't have time for a full practice, but needed something to set my mind right, to shed the day and prepare me for the work ahead.  First, I sat for 20 minutes of pranayama.  Five cleansing breaths, five rounds of kapalabhati, and ten breaths of nadi shodhana.  Then five more cleansing breaths and a dedication.  Then 10 Surya Namaskra, moving slowly with the breath:  five A and five B, with 5 long inhalations and exhalations in each downward facing dog.  After that, 25 breaths in Sirsasana A.  Ten breaths in Sirsasana B (legs parallel to the floor), followed by child's pose and sweet savasana.  Simple.

Today, and often in the past when I've had limited time or energy, this is my perfect practice.  The pranayama is energizing.  The flow of the Suryas is meditative.  The downward dogs heal the body, and the headstand completely clears the mind.  The whole thing takes just under an hour, and it gives me everything I need.

I've been thinking more on the idea of efficient practice, ways to trim the fat, if you will (That's the proverbial fat.  Not the "bra fat," mind you).  This may have something to do with my currently loaded schedule.  I no longer have luxurious afternoons to set aside for my practice.  It's been an adjustment needing to fit in the practice rather than fitting things around the practice.  I am managing to get on the Manduka five or six days a week, but because of this random shuffle, I am motivated to use my time on the mat more wisely, honing in on that which serves me and leaving the rest.

It's a lesson in life, really.  Simplify and let go.  We must acknowledge our priorities honestly.  We must identify that which feeds us, that which allows us to serve best, and leave behind that which stands between us and those elements in life which have real value.


Asana of the Week: Parsva Bakasana

Parsva Bakasana (Side Crane posture) is the twisted version of the ever-popular introductory arm balance, Bakasana.  This challenging revolved balancing asana strengthens the wrists, arms, shoulders, chest, and obliques.  The strong, active twist massages the abdominal organs, namely the intestines, stimulating digestion and detoxification.

To enter Parsva Bakasana, begin in a squatting position with the feet together.  Turn the knees out to one side, twisting deeply, and brace the elbow against the outer thigh.  Squeeze the knees together and press the outer thigh into the elbow to engage the core.  Plant the hands in front of you slightly wider than shoulder width apart and begin to shift the weight forward into the palms.  As you feel ready, claw the mat with the fingertips and float the feet, drawing the heels back toward the buttocks.  If floating the feet feels impossible, just practice shifting the weight forward and back from the feet to the palms, experimenting with the actions in the shoulders and core.  Once you are able to lift the feet from the floor easily, work toward straightening the arms as much as possible, still pressing the outer thigh into the upper arm.

To modify this pose, try setting the outer hip on one elbow and the outer thigh on the other so that the weight of the legs is fully supported by the arms, easing the work of the abdominals.  To intensify, practice extending both legs out to the side and push through the balls of the feet.

More advanced practitioners may try entering Parsva Bakasana from tripod headstand by drawing the knees in to the chest, then revolving from the waist to place the outer thigh on the opposite upper arm.  Once the thigh is securely braced against the triceps, press down into the hands to lift the head from the floor.  This transition requires a great deal of upper body strength and solid control in the core, so don't be afraid to tumble out a few times while you figure out what needs to happen if you're just learning to press up from a tripod headstand -- just do your best not to land on your pretty face.

 Parsva Bakasana Sequence
  1. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog) 
  2. Malasana I (Garland/Yoga Squat)
  3. Malasana II (Revolved Garland) - Twist to the right.
  4. Parsva Bakasana (Side Crane) - Place right outer thigh on left elbow.
  5. Eka Pada Koundinyasana I (Sage Balance) - From Parsva Bakasana, extend both legs straight and send the left leg back.
  6. Vinyasa
  7. Repeat steps 1-6, twisting to the left.


Odorous Yoga: Part Deux

After a nearly 6-week hiatus from taking any classes, I finally made it to the studio this week for some inspiration and community.  I took a class from a new-to-me teacher on Sunday who gave me some good ideas for working with beginners, and, Tuesday, cleared my evening for a double header of damn good yoga with a couple of teachers I know and love:  first a challenging power class, followed by a stretchy hour of mellow vinyasa.  I had a lovely time, and left the studio feeling weightless and warm, inside and out.

Prior to enrolling in YTT, I rarely attended classes.  Then when teacher training started, I was suddenly required (or strongly encouraged, depending on your interpretation) to take four classes a week at the studio, plus the 2-3 classes on weekends for training.  At first, this was really hard for me -- not physically, but emotionally.  I missed my home practice, since I didn't have time for it too often with all the hours spent at the studio.  I didn't feel that I was able to enter the same meditative state that ideally comes in private practice, but after a while, I really came to love attending classes and practicing in the company of other yogis, the student-teacher relationship, the give and take of energy.  Then, when the training course first ended, I revelled in the solitude of my home practice for a few weeks.  I basked for hours in the familiar space and quiet, just the sound of my own breath to carry me.  This passionate reunion with my home practice lasted for a good while, but eventually, I began to experience yoga studio withdrawal.  Even though I teach a class there weekly, it didn't seem to satisfy my need.

So, this week I ponied up and went all in.  And it was great, except for one thing:  the smell.  As I was lying in supta baddha konasana on Sunday, eyes closed, waiting for the class to start, I heard the slap of a mat being laid out beside me and was instantly assaulted by a smog of perfume.  Lots of it.  My guess would be 5 squirts from one of those tiny little glass bottles.  In any case, it was too much.  It burned my throat and stung my sinuses.  It made me think twice about breathing deeply.  Then, I opened my eyes, sat up, and saw the teacher walking around the room lighting wax candles.  In that moment, I considered getting up and leaving before the class commenced, fearing for my precious lungs, but I resolved to tough it out.  The studio is well ventilated, after all.  I told myself the air would kick in and everything would be fine.  But it wasn't fine.  I did not get used to the perfume, and the fumes from the candles gave the air a thick, heavy feeling in my chest.  I'm glad I stayed, as the class was good and I got to hear a new perspective.  I just wish people would save the perfume and candles for date nights and funerals.

Readers:  What's your take on scents in the studio?  Do you cover up the sweat with a little pre-class spritz, or light a candle during your practice?  Which is more offensive to the senses, B.O. or eau de toillete?


Asana of the Week: Hanumanasana

Hanumanasana is dedicated to Hanuman, "a powerful monkey chief of extraordinary strength and prowess (Light on Yoga)."  This pose honors Hanuman's prodigious leaps.

Hanumansana is an intense stretch on the hips, groin, and hamstrings.  It lengthens and strengthens the abductor muscles of the thighs (muscles which pull the limb away from the midline of the body; in this case, the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus) and massages the pelvic area, improving digestion and reproductive health.  In reference to the subtle body, this asana stimulates the muladhara, or root chakra as the muladhara center is literally rooted down into the earth. 

It may be many months or even years of practice for some to achieve the opening necessary to lower the pelvis all the way down to the floor.  Be patient.  Spend lots of time warming and stretching the hips and hamstrings before attempting Hanumanasana.  When first attempting this pose, if excessive tension is encountered, support the weight of the body with the hands and try lifting and lowering the hips with the breath, moving toward and then away from your sensation to work toward the full version of the pose.  Ardha Hanumanasana (half splits) and Urdhva Prasarita Ekapadasana (standing splits) are both effective preparatory poses.

If you feel comfortable and stable with the palms in prayer, try extending the arms overhead.  I like to interlace all but the first two fingers and thumbs to assist in broadening the shoulders.  Keep the floating ribs tucked into the torso and engage mula (root) and uddiyana (navel) bandhas to tilt the pelvis forward and deepen your root connection with the earth.  Keep the legs strong.  Flex the front foot and press the heel into the ground.  In the back foot, feel the tops of your toes digging down into the mat.

Hanumanasana Sequence

  1. Uttanasana (standing forward fold)
  2. Urdhva Prasarita Ekapadasana (standing splits)
  3. Anjaneyasana (Crescent moon pose)
  4. Eka Pada Rajakapotasana II (one-legged king pigeon pose 2)
  5. Ardha Hanumanasana (half splits)
  6. Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (one-legged king pigeon pose)
  7. Eka Pada Adho Mukha Svanasana (one-legged downward dog)
  8. Hanumanasana (monkey pose/splits)
  9. Camatkarasana (wild thing/rockstar pose)
  10. Vinyasa through Eka Pada Adho Mukha Svanasana
  11. Repeat on the other side.


An Introduction to Yoga

 I spent the weekend reviewing some favorites from my yoga library and came across my copy of Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati.  This book is great.  When it first arrived in the mail, I regarded it from the corner of my eye because, well, it's a little bit old school.  The paperback cover is fiery orange.  The illustrations are strangely drawn and some of the Ayurvedic practices explained are scary (such as rinsing the sinus passages with urine, or "flossing" the sinuses with a piece of string), but lately I've been returning to this book, and I'm finding a lot of valuable information.  The section on pranyama is especially thorough and clear.

But what I've enjoyed most about this book is the Introduction to Yoga.  It is the most thorough yet concise explanation of the origin, history, and purpose of the practice that I've found.  I was surprised that I didn't remember reading it before, and it got me so excited that I decided to post it here for all to learn and enjoy.

Introduction to Yoga
an excerpt from Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati.

Yoga is the science of right living and, as such, is intended to be incorporated in daily life.  It works on all aspects of the person:  the physical, vital, mental, emotional, psychic and spiritual.

The word yoga means 'unity' or 'oneness' and is derived from the Sanksrit word yuj, which  means 'to join.'  This unity or joining is described in spiritual terms as the union of the individual consciousness with the universal consciousness.  On a more practical level, yoga is a means of balancing and harmonizing the body, mind, and emotions.  This is done through the practice of asana, pranayama, mudra, bandha, shatkarma, and meditation, and must be achieved before union can take place with higher reality.

The science of yoga begins to work on the outermost aspect of the personality, the physical body, which for most people is a practical and familiar starting point.  When imbalance is experienced at this level, the organs, muscles, and nerves no longer function in harmony; rather they act in opposition to each other.  For instance, the endocrine system might become irregular and the efficiency of the nervous system decrease to such an extent that disease will manifest.  Yoga aims at bringing the different bodily functions into perfect coordination so that they work for the good of the whole body.

From the physical body, yoga move on to the mental and emotional level.  Many people suffer from phobias and neuroses as a result of the stresses and interactions of everday living.  Yoga cannot provide a cure for life, but it does present a proven method for coping with it.

Swami Sivananda Saraswati of Rshikesh explained yoga as an "... integration and harmony between thought, feeling, and deed, or integration between head, heart, and hand."  Through the practices of yoga, awareness develops of the interrelations between the emotional, mental, and physical levels, and how a disturbance in any one of these affects the others.  Gradually, this awareness leads to an understanding of the more subtle areas of existence.

There are many branches of yoga: raja, hatha, jnana, karma, bhakti, mantra, kundalini, and laya to name but a few, and many texts explain them in detail.  Each individual needs to find those yogas most suited to his/her particular personality and need.  In the last half of the twentieth century, hatha yoga had become the most well known and widely practiced of the systems.  However, the concept of what constitutes yoga is broadening as more people take it up, and this knowledge is spreading.  In the ancient texts, hatha yoga consists of the shatkarms, cleansing practices only.  Today, however, hatha yoga commonly embraces the practice of asana, pranayama, mudra, and bandha as well.

History of yoga

The yoga we know today was developed as a part of the tantric civilization which existed in India and all parts of the world more than ten thousand years ago.  In archaeological excavations made in the Indus Valley at Harappa and Mohenjodaro, now in modern Pakistan, many statues have been found depicting deities resembling Lord Shiva and Shakti performing various asanas and practicing meditation.  These ruins were once the dwelling place of people who lived in the pre-vedic age before the Aryan civilization started to flourish in the Indus subcontinent.  According to mythical tradition, Shiva is said to be the founder of yoga and Parvati, his first disciple.

Lord Shiva is considered to be the symbol or embodiment of supreme consciousness.  Parvati represents supreme knowledge, will, and action, and is responsible for all creation.  This force or energy is also known as kundalini shakti, the cosmic force which lies dormant in all beings.  Parvati is regarded as the mother of the whole universe.  The individual soul is embodied and bound to the world of name and form, and also liberated from the bondage of the world and united with supreme consciousness through her grace.  Out of love and compassion for her children, she imparted her secret knowledge of liberation in the form of tantra.  The techniques of yoga have their source in tantra and the two cannot be separated, just as consciousness, Shiva, cannot be separted from energy, Shakti.

Tantra is a combination of the two words, tanoti and trayati, which mean 'expansion' and 'liberation' respectively.  Therefore, it is the science of expanding the consciousness and liberating the energy.  Tantra is the way to attain freedom from teh bondage of the world while still living in it.  The first step in tantra is to know the limitations and capacities of the body and mind.  Next it prescribes techniques for expansion of consciousness and liberation of energy whereby individual limitations are transcended and a higher reality experienced.

Yoga arose at the beginning of human civilization when humankind first realized their spiritual potential and began to evolve the techniques to develop it.  The yogic science was slowly developed by ancient sages all over the world.  The essence of yoga has often been shrouded in or explained by different symbols, analogies and languages.  Some traditions believe that yoga was a divine gift revealed to the ancient sages so that humankind could have the opportunity to realized its divine nature.

In ancient times, yoga techniques were kept secret and were never written down or exposed to public view.  They were passed on from teacher or guru to disciple by word of mouth.  In this way, there was a clear understanding of their meaning and aim.  Through personal experience, realized yogis and sages were able to guide sincere aspirants along the correct path, removing any confusion, misunderstanding, and excessive intellectual contemplation.

The first books to refer to yoga were the ancient Tantras and later the Vedas, which were written about the time the Indus Valley culture was flourishing.  Although they do not give specific practices, they allude to yoga symbolically.  In fact, the verses of the Vedas were heard by rishis, seers, in states of deep yogic meditation or samadhi, and are regarded as revealed scriptures.  It is, however, in the Upanishads that yoga begins to take a more definable shape.  These scriptures collectively form Vedanta, the culmination of the Vedas, and are said to contain the essence of the Vedas.

Sage Patanjali's treatise on raja yoga, the Yoga Sutras, codified the first definitive, unified and comprehensive system of yoga.  Often called the eight-fold path, it is comprised of yama (self restraints), niyama (self-observances), asana, pranayama, pratyahara (dissociation of consciousness from the outside environment), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (identification with pure consciousness).

In the 6th century BC, Buddha's influence brought the ideals of meditation, ethics and morality to the fore and preparatory practices of yoga were ignored.  However, Indian thinkers soon realized the limitations in this view.  The yogi Matsyendranath taught that before taking to the purifying practices of meditation, the body and its elements need purifying.  He founded the Nath cult and the yogic pose matsyendrasana was named after him.  His chief disciple, Goraknath, wrote books on hatha yoga in the local dialect and in Hindi.

Indian tradition previously required that original texts be written in Sanskrit.  In some cases they clothed their writings in symbolism so that only those qualified to recieve a teaching would be able to understand it.  One of the most outstanding authorities on hatha yoga, Swami Swatmarama, wrote Hatha Yoga Pradipika, or 'Light on Yoga,' in Sanskrit, collating all extant material on the subject.  In doing so, he reduced the emphasis on yama and niyama, thereby eliminating a great obstacle experienced by many beginners.  In Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Swatmarama starts with the body and only later, when the mind has become stable and balanced, are the yamas and niyamas (self-control and self-discipline) introduced.

The relevance of yoga today

Today, in the 21st century, a spiritual heritage is being reclaimed of which yoga is very much a part.  While yoga's central theme remains the highest goal of the spiritual path, yogic practices give direct and tangible benefits to everyone regardless of their spiritual aims.

Physical and mental cleansing and strengthening is one of yoga's most important achievements.  What makes it so powerful and effective is the fact that it works on the holistic principles of harmony and unification.  According to medical scientists, yoga therapy is successful because of the balance created in the nervous and endocrine systems which directly influences all other systems and organs of the body.

For most people in the 20th century, yoga was simply a means of maintaining health and well-being in an increasingly stressful society.  Asanas do remove the physical discomfort accumulated during a day at the office sitting in a chair, hunched over a desk.  Relaxation techniques help to maximize the effectiveness of ever-diminishing time off.  In an age of mobile phones, beepers, and twenty-four hour shopping, yogic practices make great personal and even business sense.

In the 21st century, beyond the needs of individuals, the underlying principles of yoga provide a real tool to combat social malaise.  At a time when the world seems to be at a loss, rejecting past values without being able to establish new ones, yoga provides a means for people to find their own way of connecting with their true selves.  Through this connection with their real selves, it is possible for people to manifest harmony in the current age, and for compassion to emerge where hitherto there has been none.

In this respect, yoga is far from simply being physical exercises.  It is an aid to establishing a new perception of what is real, what is necessary, and how to become established in a way of life which embraces both inner and outer realities.  This way of life is an experience which cannot be understood intellectually and will only become living knowledge through practice and experience.  However, the renaissance has begun.


The Beat Goes On

What's the hardest part about teaching yoga?  Surely, you would think it's the public speaking, or the sequencing, or maybe the assisting and adjusting.  But no.  It's the playlist.  Creating a new playlist for every class is ridiculously hard for me and inordinately time consuming.  Sometimes it takes longer to put together a playlist than it does to design a class.  There's something wrong with this picture.

I don't listen to music when I practice.  In fact, I don't listen to much music at all and I am, for whatever reason, feeling some shame wrapped around that little truth.  It might have something to do with the fact that this is a music town -- the live music capitol of the world.  Music permeates identity here.  I can say without exaggeration that half of the people I know are in a band.  Austinites take their music very seriously, so I shouldn't be surprised that this enthusiasm carries over into the yoga community.

Some of the teachers I know put a good deal of emphasis on the music they play.  They post their playlists on facebook.  They announce them pre-class to the delighted squeals of adoring students.  They take requests.  I feel very far removed from all this.  I get frustrated when putting together a yoga playlist because I'm conflicted about the use of music during practice.  It's not that I don't see the value of music in a class setting:  music can provide a nice buffer zone around the students, lending some privacy to the whimpers, groans, gutteral noises and gastrointestinal shifts that tend to accompany the practice.  The right playlist can elevate the energy of the room or bring it down a notch when appropriate, but it also makes it difficult to hear the breath and serves as a convenient place for the mind to wander if focus falters.  Music is great until it distracts from the moment. 

But I'm pretty sure that no music is not an option.  I just wish I could tweak a few winning playlists out of the mix, stick with those and never need to make another playlist again, but I don't think the students would go for that.  So I'll keep mixing and rearranging, digging through the archives trying to organize a series of songs that will suit my purposes and engage the students without being distracting.  It seems like such a daunting task.

Hey, yoga teachers!  How do you handle the playlist situation?  And students, what's your preference?


Asana of the Week: Utthan Pristhasana

Utthan Pristhasana, also known as Lizard pose, is a fantastic and versatile hip opener. I love this pose because there are tons of ways to incorporate it into a vinyasa sequence. It works well during longer lunge-based sequences as an opportunity to reconnect with the breath or as a means to prepare the hips for deeper hip openers like Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (half-pigeon) and Hanumanasana.

Utthan Pristhasana works the inner thigh and quadriceps of the front leg while opening the back of the hip and groin. In the back leg, the hip flexor receives a nice stretch while the whole thigh is engaged. The spine is lengthened as the sternum reaches forward to bring the shoulders directly over the elbows. The forearms rest parallel on the mat, palms down, fingertips engaged. If the hips are tight, it may be uncomfortable to come down to rest on the forearms. In this case, stay up on the hands, broaden across the shoulders and extend the heart forward.

Squeeze the knee of the front leg into the shoulder to engage the inner thigh and prevent the knee from collapsing out to the side. The toes may be pointed out slightly, but continue to actively ground down through the mound of the big toe. Keep the back leg straight and strong by hugging the thigh muscles to the bone and extending back through the heel.

Utthan Pristhasana Sequence

1. Cresent lunge
2. Virabhadrasana III
(Warrior 3)
3. Urdhva Prasarita Eka Padasana (Standing splits)
4. Utthan Pristhasana
(Lizard pose)
5. Forearm Plank
6. Forearm Side Plank
6. Dolphin pose
7. Pincha Mayurasana
(forearm balance) OR Salamba Sirsana (supported headstand)
8. Child's pose


The 5-Day Practice Week Blues

Something's gotta give.

I have been a diligent 6-practices-per-week yogini for quite a while now, about two years running with few interruptions in the cycle. I practice when I'm sick, I tug my mat along when I travel, and sometimes I eat spoonfuls of peanut butter for breakfast and/or lunch because when time allows for either a meal or yoga, I choose yoga. But lately, the schedule is so awkward that some days there is definitively not enough time in the day for my asana practice while allowing for enough sleep to survive. With teaching, school, and the night job I don't get to practice on Mondays or Wednesdays and it's driving me crazy.

At first, you might think an extra rest day might be helpful -- but these aren't rest days... they are marathons of academic tedium shackled in shoes, hunched in poorly designed chairs, followed by hours of the repetitious and horrifyingly asymmetrical work that is food service. I don't mean to complain. I know there are people who go to school full time and work three jobs and stay fit and maintain relationships and do it all happily, but I could never be among them. I need my quiet time. The thing of it is, I actually enjoy school but my school days this semester are very long, and all the chair sitting does a number on my hips. I'm having difficulty focusing on my classes this semester as I'm compelled to pour all of my energy into my practice and teaching, but the extended hours of class time and the alternating day/night schedule don't allow for it. I can't be at peace with the conflict of my priorities versus my energies. It isn't fair to myself and it isn't fair to my students.

I've given it a lot of thought, and I'm going to do something about it. I am going to make the time for my practice, study, and teaching. I'll shuffle some things around, do whatever I need to do, because this isn't working for me. Through the practice of yoga, I've gotten a little better at recognizing when to accept circumstances for what they are, to sit in my discomfort, and when to take action and adjust my position. This time I'm taking action.