9.24.2010

Asana of the Week: Visvamitrasana

As promised, this week's asana is Visvamitrasana, also known as Flying Warrior, dedicated to the sage Visvamitra. Originally a king and member of the warrior class, Visvamitra achieved the status of brahmanical sage through his piety and asceticism. Though he earned great status and respected titles, Visvamitra was not satisfied with his ascension to the brahman class until the great sage Vasistha, a priest and author of the Vedas, acknowledged him (Light on Yoga). Visvamitra continued his rigorous penance for many years until finally Vasistha recognized him as his equal (FreeIndia.org). The competitive relationship between these two sages is the subject of many legends. And so the connection between Visvamitrasana and Vasisthasana is revealed: they are different, but equally powerful. Vasisthasana is graceful, simple, and elegant. Visvamitrasana is scrappy and complex. Both will test your strength and sense of balance.

Visvamitrasana strengthens the hands, wrists, shoulder, side body, and thighs while stretching the opposite side, shoulder, hips and hamstrings. There's also a twisting element in this pose in revolving the chest open and upward while keeping the hips stable. My favorite way to transition into this pose is from Lizard pose (utthan pristhasana), but it can also be found from Gate pose or Parsvakonasana (side angle).

To enter Visvamitrasana from Lizard pose (left leg forward), brace your left shoulder against your inner left thigh and ground your left hand directly beneath the shoulder. Keep the upper arm bone hugging tightly into the shoulder socket so that your shoulderblade is flat against your back; this will protect and stabilize the shoulder as you find your balance. Straighten your right leg and roll onto the inner edge of your right foot, then press the entire sole of the foot into the ground. Finally, feeling grounded in the left hand and right foot, lift the left foot from the floor, grab the outer edge of the foot with the right hand, and straighten the left leg, revolving the body open. Gaze down for added stability, or gaze up for maximum openness.

Visvamitrasana Sequence: Vasistha and Visvamitra are at it again.
  1. Anjaneyasana (Crecent Lunge)
  2. Virabhadrasana III (Warrior 3)
  3. Ardha chandrasana (Half-moon)
  4. Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana (Revolved Half-moon)
  5. Urdhva prasarita eka padasana (Standing splits)
  6. Utthan pristhasana (Lizard pose)
  7. Visvamitrasana - right side
  8. Vasisthasana - left side
  9. Eka Pada Adho Mukha Svanasana
  10. Eka pada rajakapotasana (Half pigeon)
  11. Agnistambhasana (Firelog pose)
  12. Vinyasa
  13. Repeat on the other side.

9.21.2010

The Giving and Taking of Orders

Yesterday was a long day. I'm still trying to settle into my new school/work/teaching schedule a month after the shift. It's been difficult. Last night I taught my Night Cap Yoga class at Black Swan after an excruciatingly long day at school following a very stinted night of sleep. The class went well. When I got home, I ate a big dinner as I ran the class over and over in my head, trying to learn something from my experience, thinking I needed to come away with something significant for the evening. Then I did some writing to dump it all out before hitting the sack and slept for ten hard hours. I don't crash like that very often. The difficulty of balancing my multifaceted life is becoming more apparent. I am currently a part time student, part time yoga teacher, and part time waitress -- I don't do part time very well. I'm more of an all or nothing kind of girl.

The class last night was small. Seven students came, but I recognized at least a couple of faces from previous weeks, which made my heart swell with joy. Right now, I'm in an emotional place where I want to smother these people with my love and appreciation simply for showing up. It is challenging to carry on with this attitude while maintaining the presence and authority of a teacher. I suspect that I need to get more comfortable with telling people what to do (though I'm guessing the boyfriend may disagree). I often feel as though I'm repeating myself a lot. I try to phrase things differently, but still I feel like a nag sometimes. Square your hips. Tuck your tailbone. Spread your fingers. Activate your feet. Then I tell myself, this is a yoga class. These are yoga students. They came here for you to tell them what to do.

I just now realized my aversion to giving orders may have something to do with the contrasting roles of my two jobs: I wait tables. I've done it for years, and it's all about taking orders. I don't give very many orders in my professional life. I'll have to think about this a bit more, but I may be onto something here. In any case, I've already noted that my classes go much better when I loosen up and go with the flow. Duh, right? But it's not that easy. This teaching yoga stuff is hard. You have to keep going, keep holding the space no matter what happens, no matter what kind of reactions you're getting. There is no time to think about yourself, to retire for a moment and consider. "Stay there in your half-moon, everyone. I just need a few minutes to compose myself." Not happening.

So that's what I'll be meditating on this week: getting in touch with my inner teacher. I know she's in there somewhere. I need to find a way to get comfortable in the role of instructor and be confident in my ability to lead.

9.18.2010

Asana of the Week: Vasisthasana

This week's asana of distinction is Vasisthasana (a.k.a side plank or inclined plane posture). Vasisthasana is dedicated to the sage Vasistha, a family priest to the solar race of kings and the author of several Vedic hymns. The rivalry between Vasistha and Visvamitra, a royal sage and man of the warrior caste who by his piety and asceticism raised himself to brahman status, forms the subject of many legends (Light on Yoga, BKS Iyengar). I intend to keep this rivalry going. Look for Visvamitrasana next week!

 Vasisthasana works the arms, wrists, sides, outer legs, and low back strongly and brings a glorious stretch into the hip, groin, hamstring, and inner thigh of the raised leg.  Enter vasisthasana from a plank position. Bring the feet together behind you and roll onto the outer edge of the right foot, then extend the left hand to the sky. Begin with the legs stacked. Be sure to ground the supporting hand directly beneath the shoulder to ensure stability in the shoulder joint. Work toward the full expression of vasisthasana by floating the top leg to build strength, or practicing side plank with tree legs to work on opening the hips. I recommend playing with both variations.

When you're ready to try the full pose, engage the side body as strongly as you can, then bend the top knee and reach back for the big toe. You might need to lean forward a bit in order to catch the toe with the fingers, so be prepared to compensate for this shift in weight by stabilizing the side body and strengthening the whole hand, spreading the fingers wide and gripping the earth. Once you've got your big toe firmly in hand, flex the foot and straighten the leg, shining the sole of the foot to the sky. Keep the hips and shoulders stacked and the breath steady. Gaze down to the thumb of the supporting hand until you feel stable, then try taking the gaze up to the big toe.

Below is a Vasisthasana sequence I've been playing with this week that'll strengthen the arms and open the hips:
  1. Anjaneyasana (Crescent Lunge)
  2. Parivritta parsvakonasana (Revolved side angle)
  3. Eka pada koundinyasana I (Sage Balance 1)
  4. Utthan pristhasana (Lizard pose)
  5. Eka pada koundinyasana II (Albatross)
  6. Vasisthasana (Side plank)
  7. Eka Pada Adho Muka Svanasana (One-legged Down Dog)
  8. Eka pada rajakapotasana (Half pigeon)
  9. Vinyasa
  10. Repeat 1-9 on the opposite side.

9.17.2010

Pincha Mayurasana and an Announcement

Damn good practices these past few days. I'm still making an effort to practice a new sequence every day in the interest of fostering new teaching ideas, trying not to fall into the trusty old routines. It's really keeping me on my toes. I've been working with longer standing sequences, and my hips, butt, and thighs are telling me all about it. These longer sequences tend to end with a mind blowing hip opener or two. All that heat really makes for some serious sensation, and for the rest of the day my legs feel like they're pulsing with energy.

I've also been playing with pincha mayurasana (forearm stand) a little bit every day. The last few days I had been practicing it by the wall, but today I decided to bite the bullet and try it in the middle of the room (mostly because I didn't want to disrupt the flow of my practice by dragging my mat to the wall... lazy, or adventurous? You decide.) To my total astonishment, I stuck my first attempt for about 20 seconds, then the "Holy Crap!" kicked in and I tipped over backwards, saw my life flash before my eyes, and landed painlessly in a sloppy upward bow. Once I figured out that I could safely bail into a low backbend from forearm stand, I lost the fear and couldn't stick another one. I flipped right over every time. Apparently, the fear of God is a necessary element to my success in free-standing inversions (with the exception of headstand). It's been established. But I'm not giving up.

I did some more work by the wall after I failed to catch another one in the middle of the room. I held four of them for five breaths each, my toes only occasionally grazing the wall after the initial stabilization. This inversion feels more like a backbend than headstand or handstand. I actually want to drop my feet back behind me. Another odd little thing I noticed is that I want to point my toes in pincha mayurasana, which is strange because I never got into the habit of pointing my toes -- flexed feet or pointed feet only. I also happened to notice that this pose feels very good. It aligns and broadens the shoulders, opens the front body, and nicely works the chest and muscles wrapping around the ribs. A strong core is obviously necessary, and I'm finding that digging the fingertips into the mat helps with stability, distributing the weight along the length of the forearms rather than back in the elbows. A steady gaze is essential, and the fear of God doesn't hurt.

I've been sleeping and eating a lot lately. I must be on the downswing from my Summer of No Sleep, a.k.a yoga teacher training. Midday naps and all day snacks are pretty much dominating the schedule around here. I've been indulging myself, but intend to curb my lethargy and gluttony over the next few days if the drowsiness and constant munchies do not subside on their own. I'm teaching a private session early in the afternoon tomorrow, and the rest of the day is free for whatever my big, bold heart desires. Probably more yoga. Hopefully not sleep or snacks.

Lastly, I received a bit of good news this week: I am pleased to announce I'll be teaching another class! Starting on October 24th, I will be teaching a vinyasa class at Love Yoga Co-op, Sundays at 5:30 pm. If you're in the Austin area, come and check it out. The cost is just $12 per class and the space is absolutely gorgeous. Intimate, sacred... just lovely. Plus, I've got 75 minutes to really juice it up. I intend to use this time well, to put it mildly. Expect lots of balancing -- on the hands, feet, bum. You name it. We'll balance on it. Find your center, locate your self.

9.15.2010

Life on the Edge

Find your edge. Sound familiar? It's one of those ambiguous things that yoga teachers like to say when leading a class through especially challenging poses. But what does it mean? How do we find our edge and why should we do this?

The edge: the place you come to when you cannot move forward without flinging yourself to the ground. Everyone's edge is different. Our bodies and practices are unique to each one of us; so too is the proverbial edge. The edge can shift from day to day, moment to moment. It is the point in your practice at which you are compelled to release the pose, when your mind is rattling with the force of your sensations. It is the point at which you may begin to resent the instructor, or feel the need to label your sensations. It may be when you start to ask yourself, is this pain? When you must choose between analysing your sensation or mastery of the breath, when every ounce of your focus is required to maintain your steady breath, this is your edge.

When you have found your edge, stay. Stay with your breath. Do not allow the mind to be consumed by the significance of your sensations, good or bad. Use the breath to dissolve your sensation. Be compassionate. Do not push your body beyond its limitations. Rather, consider the possibility that your limitations may not be as inhibiting as they seem. Learn to navigate your edges with a quiet, receptive mind. Remain grounded in the stability beneath your feet, but don't be afraid to expand, stretch up and over and look beyond the edge. Explore with humility. You cannot know your edge unless you allow yourself to teeter terrifyingly over the brink once in a while.

Why do we do this? To practice at our edge is the best practice for life. In doing so, we train the mind to focus and function properly amid struggle and chaos. We learn to fully experience life and everything it has to offer, our minds and hearts unobstructed by fear and judgement. With practice, your awareness will grow and your compassion with it. You will learn to dance along your edge with the ease and lightness of a skilled funambulist along the length of a wire. You will inspire others to seek their own edge, to aim a little higher, to be a little better. In this way, we grow.

9.12.2010

Lightbulbs


My personal practice these past several days has been truly inspired. I guess I'm still high on this grand new teaching adventure. My class last week went really well. It felt completely different -- worlds apart, really -- from my first class. Granted, when I taught my first class, I was running on two hours of sleep and surprised to be teaching at all, but last week was pretty great. I was not nervous. Excited, elated, joyful? Yes. But not nervous. It may have had something to do with the fact that I'd been taking awesome free classes all day, but the practice just flowed with simple truth from a quiet place inside, and the students flowed with me, breathing and moving with mindfullness and determination. I can't wait to teach again tomorrow.

New sequencing ideas are coming to me at random. Friday I was breathing in lizard pose and about to take my usual vinyasa when I heard a little voice say, "I don't think so. Let's do something different." So I lifted into eka pada koundinyasana II and seamlessly transitioned to visvamitrasana with a big toe bind in a single motion. Never done that before. It was very natural, and very nice on the hips. My first thought was wow! I need to teach this! Immediately following that thought, I realized just how insane I would need to be to try to teach that to my class. I teach an all-levels vinyasa class late in the evening, and that kind of thing just wouldn't be appropriate... which got me thinking about what I could do to make the sequence more accessible. This pondering resulted in a whole slew of new vinyasa ideas to choose from. I came up with a nice forearm sequence, which ultimately inspired an entire class focusing on the shoulders, which I intend to teach tomorrow night. It's as if the practice is revealing itself to me all over again. Oh! The possibilities!

My home practice has become less of an indulgence and more of a responsibility as of late. I feel compelled to practice every day not just for my own well being, but for the sake of my students and for my livelihood, or what I hope to someday transform into my livelihood. My energy levels are soaring, but even so, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that the practice is necessary and good, there is always that moment shortly after I step onto my mat in which I begin to question my motivation, to question why I am I putting my body through these motions. Most of the time, it's easy to ignore these questions: I am here on my mat in this moment because this is where I am supposed to be. And that's that. But occasionally I'm stuck wondering, my thoughts get caught in the sticky muck of sensation and I writhe and resist and struggle to carry on.

What would the practice be without these questions? If I were to cease to experience this resistance, then the practice itself would no longer be necessary, would no longer be good, so I choose to value these moments of doubt. These are the moments in which the practice does its work. These are the moments in which truth is revealed. Be open. Be ready.

9.10.2010

Asana of the Week: Trikonasana


This week we're going back to basics with Trikonasana, also known as Triangle Pose. Trikonasana is a favorite of beginners and advanced practitioners alike, offering a delightful stretch for the hamstring and inner thigh of the extended leg while strengthening the legs and core, lengthening the waist, and providing a gentle opening across the chest and through the hips.

To come into this pose from standing, step your feet to a wide stance (3.5-4 feet apart, maybe more depending on your height and flexibility). Point your right toes forward and left toes in at about a 30 degree angle. Open your pelvis and chest to the side, pulling the left hip back in preparation, then hinge over to the right, aligning the spine directly over the right leg. Bring your hand either to rest on the leg or to the floor to the inside, on top of, or to the outside of the foot. You've got lots of options here with the hand position. I have experimented with all of these, as well as the Ashtanga toe lock, in my Trikonasana practice, and I haven't decided if any one hand position is superior to the other. The toe lock demands very strong grounding through the legs, resting the hand on the leg is nice if flexibility is lacking, and bringing the hand to floor at the inner edge of the foot is helpful in maintaining length in the low back and openness of the hips. Different strokes for different folks.

A common tendency here is to collapse in the low back, rounding the spine and allowing the top hip to roll forward and down. Keep the spine long and the hips open by pulling the left hip back and tucking the right hip under the body, stacking the hips one on top of the other and pulling the pelvis open to the side.  You will probably feel a strong stretch in the top side of the torso.  Imagine you are lengthening both side bodies equally with every inhalation, and rolling the torso open with every exhalation.

Another challenge in Trikonasana is preventing compression of the cervical spine. A good way to prevent this is to think of keeping the chin parallel with the top of the shoulder and look past the front of the shoulder to gaze to the thumb, rather than over the top of it. Of course, the best way to prevent compression of the neck is to simply keep your gaze to the floor or look to the side with the spine in a neutral position.

When practicing Trikonasana in a flow sequence, moving into Ardha Chandrasana (half-moon pose) is a natural and smooth transition from Triangle Pose since the hips and shoulders are already nicely stacked. Ardha Chandrasana is also a natural progression of the anatomical actions of Triangle Pose: it extends the stretch a little higher up the right leg into the hip and groin, and intensifies the actions of the already engaged left hip and glutes as you float the leg straight up and back.

Here's a nice Trikonasana sequence to open the hips and strengthen the legs:
  1. Virabhadrasana I (Warrior 1)
  2. Virabhadrasana II (Warrior 2)
  3. Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)
  4. Ardha Chandrasana (Half-moon Pose)
  5. Urdhva Prasarita Eka Padasana (Standing splits)
  6. Utthan Pristhasana (Lizard Pose)
  7. Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-legged Pigeon)
  8. Agnistambhasana (Firelog Pose)
  9. Vinyasa
  10. Repeat on the other side.

9.06.2010

Personal Practice and Pranyama

My first week as a yoga teacher has come and gone. The dust has settled, and the future lays wide open before me. It's been a whirlwind of a week. I led my first studio class and taught two private sessions: one with two newbies, and one with a seasoned practitioner. All went very well, and already I've learned so much. I teach another class tomorrow, and then the rest of the week I'll be out on the prowl, beginning my hunt for more teaching jobs around town.

I was finally able to return to my daily home practice this week, and it's becoming apparent that both body and mind have evolved. My strength has increased dramatically, and flexibility has followed suit. In light of these developments, I'm realizing that my home practice is in need of a makeover. The old standby sequences just aren't cutting it anymore. On top of this, I'm feeling compelled to be more creative in my own practice for the purpose of cultivating new ideas for my classes. This is where I'm feeling conflicted: how do I preserve the healing, therapeutic nature of my own practice while simultaneously using it as a tool for my teaching? How do I maintain a single point of focus while in the back of my mind I'm wondering, how would I best describe this to a room full of students? Where does my personal practice end and the teaching begin?

Naturally, my personal practice is the well from which I draw for my teaching. And I believe this is as it should be, but does this mean that, henceforth, I will always be watching my own practice for teaching ideas? Does my assumption of the role of yoga teacher preclude the individuality of my practice? I have many questions, and I'm hoping that everything will fall into place eventually; but, currently, I'm struggling as I attempt to navigate these murky waters.

In the meantime, in spite of these swirling questions, I've been having some truly beautiful practices. I'm enjoying this new and improved body, feeling freer to explore and push the boundaries of possibility. This week I've also begun a shiny new morning routine: pranayama. I've decided to start the day with 30 minutes of pranyama, 15-20 minutes of meditation, and, of course, a headstand. All told, it takes about an hour of my time, but it is absolutely worth it.

The pranayama practice is what is really exciting me right now. I begin with ten deep yogic breaths, then 5 rounds of kapalibhati (50 breaths per round), 20 breaths of nadi shodhana, then ujjayi, first with inner retention (10 count inhalation, 5 count retention, 15 count exhalation), then with outer retention (10 count inhalation, 15 count exhalation, 5 count retention). The new yoga space has a clock on the wall that audibly ticks, so I've been able to use that reliable ticking to pace my breath, rather than relying on my own less-than-accurate count. I have been pleasantly surprised to find that I'm quite comfortable breathing just 2 breaths per minute, particularly since I have not been devoting much time to my pranayama practice. In other words, I haven't had a pranayama practice outside of the that which coincides with my asana practice for quite some time. I had no idea how much my breath has improved. Here's to progress and pleasant surprises!