Coffee & Yoga: A Good Blend?

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

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

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

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

Articles Referenced:


First Drop Backs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Asana of the Week: Parivrtta Trikonasana

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, as always, a flow...

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

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


The Dirty Manduka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



Asana of the Week: Ardha Chandra Chapasana

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

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

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

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

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


Pain-Free Forward Folds

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

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

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

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

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

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


Proclamations and Revelations

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

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

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

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

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

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


Asana of the Week: Parivrtta Hasta Padangusthasana

Twists, twists, and more twists!

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

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

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

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

Parivrtta Hasta Padangusthasana Sequence

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

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


A Long, Hard Journey to the Mat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Asana of the Week: Ardha Matsyendrasana

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

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

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

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

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

Ardha Matsyendrasana Sequence

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



Had a damn good practice yesterday, with some extra pranayama at the beginning and the most effortless headstand I've ever done toward the end.  I got my hands on a bunch of yoga DVDs and I've been gifted with access to the Yogaglo library of classes through one of the studios where I teach, so I'm fully stocked on sources of inspiration for the time being.  I've been spending lots of time taking lots of notes and absorbing the teaching styles of some great teachers.

Yesterday, I watched the pranayama segment of Rodney Yee's Advanced Yoga, which was fantastic.  Pranayama is difficult to teach, but he did an amazing job talking through the practice and emphasising the subtle aspects.  I learned a lot about how to interpret the sensations in pranayama, and the balance of posture, mindfulness, and breath.  I did my practice just after watching the video, and had a really lovely pranayama session, incorporating much of what I learned.

In keeping with my efforts to move outside of my comfort zone as of late, I tried my first "timber" vinyasa, or straight drop from a tripod headstand to chaturanga.  This is a delightfully dynamic vinyasa and a helluva good time.  I'm excited to use it more often in my practice.  The inspiration came from a couple of Kathryn Budig's Yogaglo classes.  She made it seem like such fun.  And it was!  I was reminded of the time I decided to try jumping back from Bakasana, thinking there was some elaborate process involved when all there is to it, really, is a little lift.  Often, these things are not as hard as they look if I don't allow myself to think about them too much.  Quiet the mind.

I approached the drop like so:  from tripod headstand, I took a big preparatory inhalation, reaching up through the tailbone and toes, lengthening the whole body.  On the exhalation, I firmed the body, engaging core and thighs, flexed the feet and toes as much as possible, then initiated the drop with the strength of the arms, keeping the body firm as I hinged over in a straight line.  I was a tiny bit worried about crushing a toe, but all went smoothly as I made sure to keep the feet strongly flexed.  It felt very natural and the landing was a happy little moment.

So, the lesson is this, readers:  Try new things.  It's good for you.


The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

Last night's class at Black Swan was lovely.  The students were focused, and all did especially well working at their own edge.  I am having more fun teaching, and the energy in the room has been really good these past few weeks.  I think I can say that last night was the first time I have not left the studio feeling emotionally exhausted after teaching a class.  I had a good time.  Afterward, a young woman approached me and mentioned that it was her first time doing yoga.  I was so happy for her, and impressed with the way she handled herself.  It must have showed on my face.  She saw my reaction and revealed that she had "done a little pilates."  That might explain it.  I don't know much about pilates, but she practiced with steady concentration and admirable compassion toward herself, two very advanced elements of the practice, in my opinion.  I hope that she continues to develop her practice.

As for my practice, it's evolving.  This afternoon I was reflecting on how it's changed over the past several months, particularly since YTT.  It's become more fluid, more focused.  I rarely reach for my towel or water bottle.  My breath has slowed.  I've been taking for granted the strength I've gained, forgetting that much of the reason my practices used to run so long is because I spent a lot of time in recovery.  I don't linger too long in downward dog between sides or sequences, just long enough to observe and reconnect, in part because I don't have that much time to spend on my mat anymore, but also because I've gotten stronger and more efficient with my practice.

For months, my daily practice was built on essentially the same structure, resembling the Ashtanga primary series on steroids in many ways.  I switched it up occasionally, but not often.  These days, the sequences I practice are different every day.  I am playing with new poses and ways to sequence them more often, both for my own development and for my growth as a teacher.  This experimentation means that I spend a little bit more time falling out of poses when I practice, collapsing in a sweaty heap on my mat, which is pretty great if you ask me.  The growth stagnates if we fail to meet a new challenge every now and then.

I am more deeply exploring the bandhas, honing in on mula bandha and uddiyana bandha with extra floating work and inversions.  While I am still working my handstands and forearm stands by the wall, I can reliably balance for 3-5 breaths without the support of the wall, which is improvement.  The handstands feel straighter, more supported, and downright easy when I find that perfect position, I just can't seem to find it often enough without first touching a heel to the wall to feel confident trying it in the middle of the room.  However, I seem to have gained new awareness in the uddiyana bandha region, and it might have something to do with the incorporation of kapalabhati into the daily routine for the past couple of months.  It's a powerful practice.

Tonight, I'm planning to get on the mat and spend some extra time working with bound postures to open my kinked shoulders.  I've also got a fun new standing balancing sequence in mind that I am excited to try, plus a little pincha mayurasana action in there somewhere.  It's going to be great, even if it's not.  That's yoga.