7.31.2010

Asana of the Week: Virabhadrasana I

"Daksa once celebrated a great sacrifice, but he did not invite his daughter Sati nor her husband Siva, the chief of the gods. Sati, however, went to the sacrifice, but being greatly humiliated and insulted threw herself into the fire and perished. When Siva heard this he was gravely provoked, tore a hair from his matted locks and threw it to the ground. A powerful hero named Virabhadra rose up and awaited his orders. He was told to lead Siva's army against Daksa and destroy his sacrifice. Virabhadra and his army appeared in the midst of Daksa's assembly like a hurricane and destroyed the sacrifice, routed the other gods and priests and beheaded Daksa." -- Light on Yoga, BKS Iyengar.

What's the moral of the story? Double check your invitation list next time you throw a party. But seriously, folks, the hero Virabhadra was not messing around. He was loyal, obedient, and fierce, and the asana named in the warrior's honor embodies this ferocity. As Virabhadra rose up from Siva's severed hair thrown to the ground, so too does the power of this pose arise from the strong grounding action of the feet and legs, drawing energy up from the earth and sending it skyward, infinitely higher.

While warrior I is a highly familiar and commonly practiced pose in the yoga world, it is not an easy one. There's a lot going on here: you're grounding down through the legs, sitting deeply in the hips, but lengthening the spine straight up and out of the pelvis... and just when you think you've got it, you learn there's more work to be done. Once the necessary strength in the legs has been developed to be able to bend into that front knee while anchoring into the outer edge of the back foot, the challenge becomes squaring the hips and shoulders to face forward. Once you think you've got the hips and shoulders nice and square, you learn that the tailbone must be tucked under the body and the ribs must be tucked into the torso to prevent compression in the lower back.

A week or so ago, I wrote about some enlightening adjustments I received in my warrior poses which illuminated some of my weaknesses and revealed to me the extensive work of this pose that I've been missing out on. Tuck the tailbone, tuck the ribs, lift the chest. Rinse, repeat as necessary.  In order to bring the work into my core, I have been shortening my stance slightly to allow for better tailbone tucking action, but I still tend to seek that opening in the front body that I'm apparently not supposed to be feeling here. My tendency is to want to spread my rib cage and open my heart to the sky, to lean back and expand from my very center, but this is burdensome on the back.

One of my teachers beautifully described the action of tucking the ribs as "keeping something for yourself." Don't give it all away. Don't pour the energy from the heart. Instead, draw it up the spine and send it out through the crown of the head. This is my work, my warrior's challenge. What's yours?

7.28.2010

Teacher Training: Week 7

The pieces are coming together.  I'm starting to hear my own teaching voice developing, my own style of communicating the practice.  

And I have my first student!  My exceedingly wonderful boyfriend has agreed (with some pleading on my part) to allow me to practice my teaching skills on him.  He was a yoga virgin when we started, but we've had three classes so far, and already he's improving.  I like to think I'm improving, as well.  

Today's class was a full hour and five minutes (I wrote the sequence aiming for one hour -- not far off!), and he did a great job.  For our first couple of classes I was gentle, careful not to scare him off, but today I decided to kick his butt just a little with some standing balancing poses and core work... nothing too crazy.  He is a beginner, after all, but just enough to grab his attention.  He hung in there, though I had to remind him to soften the jaw at nearly every turn.  He's a go-getter.

I'm really enjoying our classes together, and I'm learning so much, so fast working with a true beginner.  He's holding his cards pretty tight to his chest, but I think he's enjoying the classes, too.  He definitely had a bit of the yoga after-glow going on after our class today -- rosy cheeks, little perma-smile and all -- though he'd be likely to deny it if questioned.  I am finding his weakening resistance quite endearing.

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Teacher training this weekend was pretty great.  Friday, we started things off with a very rigorous class.  The sequences were so complicated that at no point during the class did I know where we were going or remember where we'd been.  It was like walking a mandala, total surrender to the present moment.  I had my objections at the time, but I learned a good deal about myself.  After the class, we went out for pizza, beer, and group discussion -- a truly sublime combination and much appreciated after that hard-driving class.

Saturday, we discussed the Tao, reviewed some older material, and spent the afternoon on teaching drills.  Sunday, we were treated to paddle-boarding at the lake.  What's paddle-boarding, you ask?  It's like canoing on a surfboard.  Why did we go paddle-boarding?  Well, they told us it was to work on our balance and posture, but I suspect it was more for a good time.  And a good time, it was.  We rowed a ways down the lake and practiced asanas on the boards, which are about 8 feet long by 3 feet wide.  It was pretty cool playing with balance and gravity on the easily capsized paddle boards, and the standing rowing to and fro was both excellent upper body work and sublimely meditative.

We have quite a few assignments this week.  We are to eliminate corn in all its forms from our diet, watch the movie Food, Inc., and to put down our fork (or sandwich, or piece of pizza, etc...) between every bite.  We have also been asked to develop and refine our own morning warm-up routines (we've all been practicing a fixed routine -- now we customize it based on our individual needs).  We are to conclude our morning routine with a 108 breath meditation -- I worked it out:  at my meditation breath rate, this is about 30 minutes.  I don't have a problem sitting for that long, but now I'm supposed to count every breath?  For thirty minutes?  We'll see how that goes.

This coming weekend we've been told it will be all teaching drills, all the time.  I'm fine with this.  As a matter of fact, I'm glad about this.  I like drills.  I like drilling, and I like being drilled.  Don't you?

7.24.2010

Asana of the Week: Tittibhasana


My awareness has been heavily in my tight hip flexors this week, so here's a pose that'll do the same for you. And you may be asking yourself, "why are the bottom of her feet orange?" The answer is: I have no idea. Always have been. Deal with it.

Tittibhasana, also known as Firefly Pose, is more often than not a transition from one pose to another in asana practice, but if you stop and hang out here for a second, you'll notice your abs and hip flexors burning brightly. Until recently, I had always practiced this pose as a continuation of Bhujapidasana (arm-pressure balance), but I've been working it into my sequences more creatively. My new favorite way to practice this pose is to flow from Bakasana to Tittibhasana and back. Eventually, I'd like to make that Bakasana to handstand to Tittibhasana and back... I can dream, can't I?

It's a strong pose, and fun to flow into and out of, but if you're not ready to flow with it, start from a wide legged forward fold, bend the knees, and tuck the shoulders behind the legs one at a time, grounding the hands behind you slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Remember to grip the floor strongly with the fingertips to keep the weight off the heels of the hands. Then slowly bend the knees more deeply and shift the weight back onto your palms, eventually lifting the feet from the floor and balancing with the legs draped over the shoulders/upper arms, squeezing in. If this feels okay, straighten the legs. They'll probably come parallel to the floor, so try to tuck the tailbone under, rounding the back as much as possible, using the strength of the core to bring the hips down and forward, rather than trying to lift the legs higher.  Engage the lower abdominals strongly to ease the work of the hip flexors.

Readers:  how's your Tittibhasana coming along?

7.23.2010

Teacher Training: Week 6

This past week has been the week of modifications.  We have been asked to use modifications in our practice all week long, in every class we take.  It's been difficult, frustrating to have to constantly be thinking about what the modifications are for every pose, but helpful toward developing compassion for the beginner and understanding of what if feels like to do the practice on your knees, both literally and figuratively.

Taking all the modifications in class has been quite the ego-buster for me.  I've been laying my mat in the back rows, so as not to confuse or entertain the other practitioners, who are under no obligation to modify and would probably wonder what the hell I'm doing if I were to take a front-row spot.  Also, I've found that the practice with modifications does not draw my awareness into my body because the sensations I seek are lacking, so I have found myself looking around the room in classes, watching the teacher or peaking at other students.  I tried to overcome this distraction by focusing more on basic alignment points and, of course, the breath, breathing extra loud and strong to build the heat that my muscles weren't providing.  It worked, sort of.  The breath certainly helped me to find a rhythm, and I think it may have helped others.  I've been told that my loud breath is helpful in a class, people seem to feed from it energetically.  When it really gets going I sometimes hear it echoed from points across the room.  It's a beautiful thing... sort of a call-and-answer, an energetic embrace.

But yesterday, I went to a class in the evening, and I just couldn't take it any more.  This week has been a stressful one, and I really needed to wring that tension out.  I did not modify.  I practiced with straight legs, floating arm balances, and full binds... and it was glorious.  None of the other teacher trainees were there, so I felt okay about not taking the modifications, in spite of our assignment.  I rationalized the choice with the fact that my misbehavior wouldn't be influencing anyone else.  The teachers at the studio are aware of the "all modifications, all the time" rule for the trainees this week, but she let me go on with my bad self.  Maybe she sensed my need for a good sweat.  I was grateful.

As for the life intensive this week, simplification was the word.  Simplify and modify, break it down to the essentials.  This was a difficult task for me, since I'm already on a pretty tight budget and minimalism has been a pursuit of mine for some time.  I had to think hard about what else I could cut out.  I came up with a few things:  beer and wine, blogging (both writing and reading), and food (though not entirely, of course).  Cutting out the drinks was easy -- can't really afford it right now, anyway.  I simplified my meals, cutting out unnecessary ingredients, and tried to cut out snacking entirely, limiting my diet to three meals a day, supplemented by a piece of fruit if energy started running low.  As for the blogging, I limited my reading to once a day, and actually went a whole day without reading other blogs or checking on my own blog once (which doesn't happen often).  I did attempt to write a few posts during the week, but they just weren't coming to me quickly enough, so I decided to use the time some other way.

We are currently reading A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle;  finally, a book written in language beyond a 4th grade reading level.  I was apprehensive about this one, seeing as how it's got Oprah's Book Club stamped on the cover, but I'm actually really intrigued by Tolle's ideas about identity, humanity, and the collective consciousness.  We're meeting tonight for a class, followed by a book discussion.  I'm looking forward to delving into our interpretations.

7.16.2010

Asana of the Week: Setu Bandhasana



Setu Bandhasana, or bridge pose, is the go-to backbend in your average multi-level vinyasa/power yoga class.  It seems to be considered a "beginner's backbend," in that it is generally safe and doable for most people.  I am skeptical, however, of this attitude toward Bridge Pose.
 
Bridge was one of my least favorite asanas for a long time because of neck and shoulder tension, which happens to be a very common issue.  Because the full version of this pose demands enough flexibility in the shoulders to press the clasped hands into the floor, I would think this pose would be a challenge for the many people out there with tight necks and shoulders (particularly men and we broad-shouldered ladies).  Forcing this pose without adequate shoulder flexibility results in dangerous pressure on the back of the neck.  Prolonged practice of Setu Bandhasana with incorrect shoulder placement can damage the cervical spine.  Not good.  Don't do it.  Practice a variation instead.

Unfortunately for me, I was not aware of or willing to practice modifications in the early days of my practice.  I saw the picture in the book, and tried to emulate it.  Simple!  But dangerous.  I read the instructions and reminders never to enter the realm of "pain," but I was so out of touch with my body, already suppressing so much pain that I didn't know what pain was.   Forcing Setu Bandhasana in my days as a green yogini caused me headaches, neck pain, and a general aversion to backbends.  My lack of awareness obstructed me from putting cause and effect together at the time.  Eventually, I discovered a modification of Setu Bandhasana which involved bending the elbows and pointing the hands up, palms toward the body, pressing the elbows down into the ground.  This version of the pose helped me to find the right action in the shoulders, drawing them down away from the ears and under the body, without over-stretching my tight shoulders or bringing too much weight onto my neck.

Another revelation for me in the practice of Setu Bandhasana was learning the action of inhaling onto the toes, pushing the hips skyward, then exhaling the heels back down.  Doing so helps to distribute the bend more evenly along the spine, which tends to bring the bend into the upper back.  More bend in the upper back means more opening in the chest, which is the ultimate goal here.  Gotta get that heart open.

My favorite version of this pose for ultimate heart-opening goodness is bringing the heels of the palms onto the sacrum, like so:



I like to practice this variation for a few minutes as an alternative to more rigorous backbending (i.e. repeated Urdhva Dhanurasanas).  It opens the heart tremendously, eases the work of the lower back, and massages the sacrum while keeping the legs engaged.  Warning:  a long stay in this position may result in extreme happiness and a generally lovin' feeling.

7.15.2010

Magic Hands

Adjustments. They can be oh-so-good or so very wrong. The right adjustment given at the right time can open up a whole new world of actions, a new realm of sensation previously unexplored, and infuse the student with a burst of energy from depths unknown. The wrong adjustment can interrupt a good groove, scare the student away from yoga entirely, or even result in injury.

The administration of adjustments is a skill that I have enormous respect for: touching one sweaty body after another with genuine warmth and loving kindness can't be easy, not to mention the intuition and thorough knowledge of the human body needed to give them correctly. As a yoga teacher in training, my interest lies not only in the effects of the adjustments on my own practice, but in the technique and manner of the (usually) wordless interaction between teacher and student. This coming weekend in the teacher training program I am currently undertaking, we will have our first adjustment workshop.

The reason I bring this up is because I attended a class on Tuesday night in which I received some truly profound adjustments. It was a very full class, not a single spot left on the floor, so there was an extra instructor walking around giving adjustments. She gave me a lot of attention. I was visited on both sides in Warrior I, where she led me through a series of tucking the tailbone, then lifting the chest. Then tucking the tailbone some more and lifting the chest again. And again. And again, with every breath. I think my spine grew an extra two inches. The extra length was amazing, and the action in the core produced some serious heat. Then, in a twisted lunge, she told me to "squeeze the quad into the hamstring" of the back leg. I thought the leg was straight and strong before, but with this action, I came into a buoyancy and stability that allowed me to twist more deeply.

Those adjustments were great, but the most astounding was a very subtle adjustment I received in a forward folding one-legged pigeon. She placed the thumb of one hand in the hip crease of my front leg, and the other hand on my sacrum on the opposite side, if I remember correctly. The pressure of her hands was nearly nonexistent -- at first, I thought rather blandly, "well, this is nice...." Then, just a few seconds later, it dawned on me. "OH..." My hips melted. My chest sank into the floor. I still don't know how she did it, but it was the most blissful pigeon I've ever had. I thanked her as best I could after the class, and we spoke a bit about the action needed -- keeping the floating ribs tucked and the spine straight -- in my warriors and lunges.

She is a warm and generous teacher, and never once made me feel as though I were doing the poses incorrectly. Rather, she illuminated new paths within the asanas to remind me that there is always more work to be done. I feel privileged to be able to learn from her, and I'll keep asking about those awesome adjustments.

7.13.2010

Teacher Training: Week 5

It's starting to sink in. I am going to be a yoga teacher. The very thought makes me well up with joy and hope -- hope that I may, one day, be able support myself doing something that I am truly and utterly passionate about, something that I love. I never thought I'd be so lucky. A modest living is all I ask for (I'd be happy with the what I'm making now), and I'm beginning to think that if I work hard, that might be possible. I'm receiving enormous support from my teachers. They seem to have a lot of faith in me, and I am truly touched by their excitement. I never thought of myself or my practice as special -- I still don't -- but I have worked very hard and poured a great deal of myself into this practice. My teacher said "it shows." I was humbled.

You may have noticed how my own language has evolved. Until recently, I had always referred to these people as "my trainers." At some point, a shift occurred and they became "my teachers." I'm warming up to this student-teacher relationship, little by little. I came to this program with a very defensive attitude underlying my desire to learn. Part of this stems from my ever-present struggle with attachment to my practice. Teach me, but don't you dare touch my lovely practice. Hands off! It's delicate... This way of thinking doesn't really work. And I should know by now that my practice is not fragile, it is not built on nothing, as I have sometimes feared. This has been proven to me time and time again by the beautiful changes it has made in my life. Opening myself to the wisdom of others, no matter how near or far from my own ideals, can only lead to growth.

Over the weekend we charged through some more alignment and instruction workshops. People seem to find this stuff tedious, even the teachers. I think it may be my favorite part. I get downright excited about alignment specifics and sequencing possibilities. Can you say, "dork?"

As for the nutritional challenge this week, it's a Paleo diet... sort of. We're being asked to limit our diet to fruits, vegetables, and proteins (in the forms of meat, nuts, eggs, and beans). No grains, no corn, no dairy, and no artificial or refined foods. This is sort of a culmination of the past few challenges we've had: the first week was no dairy, second week was no refined sugars, third and fourth week were no gluten (though I failed this challenge miserably like the bread junkie that I am and quickly gave up trying altogether). But this week, no bread OR cheese. Not even rice. Or oatmeal. Or corn tortillas. But I can do this. I've had a resurgence of motivation. Even though I'm not entirely sure what the purpose is at this point, I'm having fun playing the game. So far, so good. Keep in mind, there are no consequences for not participating in the nutritional challenges. We're not even asked to report what we find, unless we care to, but my teacher actually inquired individually about my diet (privately), and seems to think that limiting grains would be good for my particular build. I'm very muscular and high energy (not bouncing off the walls energy, more like I can get through a 20-hour day rather painlessly-type energy). He seems to think it would focus my strength, not to mention get me looking lean and mean (my words, not his ;))... so I'm curious to know what this diet might actually do for me. I'm giving it a week.

We also have another awareness task: we have been given rubber bands to wear around our wrists. We are to "snap" ourselves back into the present if we catch our minds wandering into the past or future unnecessarily. Seems a silly, almost sadistic thing to do, no? Well, the first time I caught my mind reeling into the future, worrying about some stupid thing or another, I snapped my rubber band and felt immediately calm. Amused, even, by my mind's predictable, notorious misbehavior.

The last week was very busy for me, so the practice schedule lightened up just a tad. I managed to practice 6 days, but did not have time for as many home practice sessions as I would have liked. This week, however, should be different. I'm looking forward to it.

7.09.2010

Asana of the Week: Eka Pada Bakasana I


This week's asana is Eka Pada Bakasana (One-Legged Crane Pose variation 1).

In the past, from Bakasana, I have played with lifting one knee and then the other from my upper arms, thinking about Eka Pada Bakasana, but not understanding how to shift the weight and extend the leg back from there. I tried the full pose for the first time during a teacher training session a couple of weeks ago. We were discussing the difference between Crow pose and Crane pose. Who knew there was a difference?

Apparently, Crane pose is with the knees in or near the armpits done with straight, or nearly straight arms (this is what I understand to be bakasana). Crow pose, on the other hand, is the modified version, with the knees wide, squeezing into the outer triceps, and keeping the elbows well bent. My teachers argued that the actions of the two postures are so different that they should be specifically instructed, one way or the other to achieve a desired result (by that I mean working specific muscle groups versus others or being in a position to move to the next asana, not necessarily whether or not the pose is achieved by anyone).

Anyway, bringing this all back to the Asana of the Week, Crow pose, not Crane pose, is where you want to begin to come into Eka Pada Bakasana. This had been my mistake in the past. Since I always practice a tight Bakasana, with the arms straight, it's no wonder I couldn't figure out the transition to the asymmetrical version. The knee or shin must be further down on the upper arm and the elbows need to be bent in order to lower the center of gravity, or you'll just tip over.
 
There is a tendency in Eka Pada Bakasana to try to leverage the hips up by pressing the knee or shin of the bent leg into the tricep. I'm finding, in my limited experience with this asana, that rounding the back and lifting the hips from the core -- bandha action -- is the better way to go. I actually prefer to take almost all of the weight out of the knee and squeeze in with the inner thigh instead of pressing down. It takes a little more core strength, but it's much easier on that upper arm.

One of the fun things about this week's asana is that there are a few ways to enter Eka Pada Bakasana. First, of course, from Bakasana (but remember to keep the knees a little lower on the arms -- no armpit action). One may enter from plank, by drawing one knee to the outside of the same-side upper arm, then bending the elbows and shifting the weight well forward of the hands, lifting the back leg (almost exactly like the prep for Eka Pada Koundinyasana II, knee just a hair higher up the arm). BKS Iyengar in Light on Yoga prescribes finding Eka Pada Bakasana from Sirsasana, but the loveliest transition I've seen is entering Eka Pada Bakasana from Marichyasana A or C.  I use this vinyasa in my practice of the Primary series exiting Mari A and C.  It's a beautiful moment and a welcome break from the regular seated jump back.

7.07.2010

Generosity and Cleaning up

Damn good practice today. I decided not to go to the studio, and almost didn't practice at all, but at the last minute rolled out my mat and just started doing Suryas, not knowing or even thinking about what I would do next. When I had had my fill (five As and five Bs), I moved into a very solid, foundational practice focusing on the basics: tucking the tailbone, keeping the shoulders relaxing down, feet together, toes and fingers spread... that sort of thing. I've really been trying to clean up my practice. Teacher training has brought to my attention that my practice will become an example for my future students, so I had better be doing things right. This new focus has brought some extra energy to my practice, a novel form of motivation that inspires me to practice with greater peace and ease than ever before.

I'm excited about these changes in my practice, and looking forward to getting back to teacher training this Friday after taking last weekend off because of the 4th of July holiday. I got some really nice feedback from one of the trainers via email yesterday on a sequencing assignment and the work we've done so far in general. I try not to depend on positive reinforcement as a source of confidence, but boy if isn't nice to get some encouragement and a compliment from time to time. She didn't need to say those things, so I was really touched that she went out of her way to comment on my hard work. Very nice.

On that note, one of our "life-intensive" assignments this week is to commit random acts of kindness. While, normally, I might find this a cheesy turn of events, I have been meditating on generosity a good deal lately. It's something that I struggle with. A survivalist attitude (possibly from growing up in a large family) makes me hold everything very tight to my chest. I have acknowledged my greed and I don't like it. I see it in every area of my life: my work, my relationships, even my practice. I always hold more than enough back. I'm very closed. I need to open up.

7.04.2010

Handstand Practice and Gluten Attachment

Let me tell you, folks. It's all yoga, all the time around here. I've been keeping up with 4-6 studio classes plus 4 or 5 home practice sessions each week since the beginning of teacher training. This weekend began with a studio class and home practice on Friday, extended home practice on Saturday night, then back to the studio for a class right away this morning, then I came home, rolled out my mat again and worked on my inversions for an hour, followed up by 30 minutes of pranyama and meditation.

All this work is already cleaning up my practice. The vinyasas, especially, are going through a transformation. The Suryas we're being taught are much slower than those I had always practiced. For example, rather than jumping back from utanasana to chaturanga in one exhalation, we jump back to a high plank, inhale the shoulders forward of the wrists, then exhale to chaturanga coming onto the very tips of the toes. Also, in the Surya Bs, instead of stepping the foot between the hands and coming up to warrior I in a single inhale, we exhale the foot between the hands, then inhale the body up. It's all very slow and deliberate. At first, it was awkward, and the 6 suryas with which I begin each home practice felt like an eternity, but now I've really come to appreciate the slower, more meditative motions of the vinyasa. It's done a lot to extend my breath and strengthen the shoulders and core.

My handstand practice, on the other hand, has reached a point of stagnation. I just can't seem to get any closer to coming away from the wall, but I did a lot of handstand work today and came up with a couple of exercises that seemed to do some good things for me.

First, I just practiced several half-handstands, with the knees tucked into belly. Doing this near the wall, it was easy to just push back off of the wall and come into a stable half-handstand. I was able to hold these for at least a few breaths each, and felt the action strongly in my lower abdomen, like my belly was being sucked into my pelvis. It also helped me to find the right action in the shoulders. After this, I began a series of kicking into handstands first with both legs at once, donkey kick-style, coming down on an exhale, then kicking up on the next inhalation with the right leg, then with the left leg, then with both legs together again, holding each handstand for a few breaths, then coming down to rest in child's pose before starting the series all over again. I did this five times. After the first couple of rounds, I started to find a good rhythm, stopped thinking so much about the mechanics of the kicks, and began just inhaling the body up. It was pretty cool. Exhausting, but cool. I'll definitely be trying that again.

And finally, I have a confession to make: I failed the gluten-free challenge. My teachers would be so disappointed. I'm sorry, but I just couldn't do it. I love bread! There. I said it. I love it, and yes, I would marry it if I could. So there.

How's that for non-attachment?

7.02.2010

Asana of the Week: Urdhva Prasarita Eka Padasana



This week's asana of interest is Urdhva Prasarita Eka Padasana, which is a bit of a cumbersome title, so most just call it the Standing Splits. This pose has been popping up in nearly every class I've taken over the past two weeks, probably because it's an efficient stretch and strengthener that can be entered in a variety of ways. Also, I suspect it's popular because this is the pose that builds that yoga butt everybody seems to want so much.

The Standing Splits brings a strong stretch into the hamstring of the standing leg while keeping the front of the leg fully engaged. The hip, hamstring, and glutes of the extended leg work strongly to hold the leg up. One may push through the inner heel of the extended leg to help square the hips and work the back of the leg, but for more of a hip-opening experience, one may also turn the extended leg out. This will allow the foot to come quite a bit higher, which will bring a nice stretch into the front hip of the extended leg and ease the work of the glutes and inner thigh. I experiment with both versions in my own practice, sometimes staying for a few breaths with the hips square, then inhaling the leg higher and opening the hip for a stretch before exhaling the leg back down.

There is a notable difference in sensation here between flexing the foot, pushing through the heel of the extended leg or pushing through the ball of the foot. Again, I experiment with both foot positions in my own practice. I know they feel different, I just haven't decided if one way is better than the other. Pointing the foot seems to engage the front of the leg more strongly, while flexing the foot brings more sensation to the back of the leg. Readers? Any thoughts?

As I mentioned, this pose has been featured in every class I've attended recently, and I've received a few corrections. I had always looked down at the foot of the standing leg when practicing the standing splits because it felt more stable, but I've been told to drop the head, relax the neck, and look to the knee. I resisted this at first, but with some practice, I've noticed it brings my weight a little more forward in the foot of the standing leg, allowing me to fold more deeply and lift the leg just a little bit higher.

If the hamstring stretch is too much, bend the knee of the standing leg or lower the lifted leg slightly instead of bending the knee of the lifted leg. The benefits of this pose come primarily from keeping that leg straight and strong rather than lifting the leg high or fully bending over the standing leg.  Intensify Urdhva Prasarita Eka Padasana by lifting one or both hands to the ankle of the standing leg to balance on the foot alone.