(Practically) Instant Karma

I awoke to an email this morning from a representative of the fitness center where I went to my first Mysore practice last week (be advised:  this is not your typical "gym yoga."  This place is known for it's stellar yoga program and employs some very well-respected teachers.  This is Austin, yo.  We don't eff around with our yoga).  It had been my first visit to the place, and the email appeared to be a customary welcoming message from someone claiming to be a "fitness concierge," asking how I liked the class.  Being of the type of message that I would usually ignore, I was about to delete it when I had a second thought.

Instead of tossing the message in the trash, I took the opportunity to write back about how wonderful the teacher had been.  She was forward and knowledgeable, and I appreciated all the extra help she gave me.  She really worked her ass off, especially considering that it was a free class, and I made sure that my response to the concierge's inquiry said as much.  Even though I had thanked her in person, I wanted do to what I could to express my gratitude and give her the kind of review she deserved.  This little effort took me all of two minutes to complete.  I received an acknowledgement from the concierge that she would, at the very least, learn how much I had enjoyed class with her.

Later this evening, after teaching my own class, I found my inbox bombarded with emails for subbing opportunities, which have been frustratingly elusive until now.  I picked up two extra teaching opportunities next month with Community Yoga Austin, an organization that I am extraordinarily pleased to be a part of.  On top of that, there was a nice note from a woman who attended class a few weeks ago who had happened upon the blog coincidentally!  She was very sweet and complimentary.

That's what I call (practically) instant karma.  I gave a little, and I got a little.  And I really needed these small victories.  My ego has been badly bludgeoned by this whole teaching experience, and it's been making a particularly pathetic death rattle in my mind.  Don't get me wrong; I acknowledge this slow expiration as a good thing, but frankly, it's agonizing to witness.  I'll be glad when it's finally over.


Primary Friday: My First Mysore


Last week, a friend from teacher training put me on to a Mysore room in town offering FREE practice on Friday afternoons for the winter season.  I thought it too good to be true but, curious and frugal Ashtangi that I am, packed my mat and towel and headed yonder way.

I approached the reception desk with trepidation, half expecting the usual "hipper & fitter than you" attitude that so often comes with the territory.  Instead, I received a warm greeting and speedy, pressure-free registration process.  I had forgotten to account for the extra time it would take to fill out my first-timer forms and anxiously asked, "where do I go?  Is it upstairs, or...?"
With my information in hand, the receptionist waved me closer and pointed at me with her left index finger.  I stared, blank-faced, until I noticed the finger had a little orange sticker hanging from the tip.  "This is the code."  I took it.  She proceeded to verbalize a list of instructions as though I were about to embark on a secret mission:  "Take a left when you go out the door.  Hug the building all the way around until you're dumped on the opposite side of the street."  Intriguing.  "You'll see a building painted like this one.  Put these numbers in the keypad," she gestured to the sticker, which I had stuck to my water bottle for safe keeping, "and the door will open."  I nodded with conviction and set out on my mission.

Having followed her directives to the letter, I found myself on the stoop of a small, brightly colored building with no windows and two doors.  One door was green.  The other was blue, the keypad positioned between the two.  I entered the code and waited.  I heard the green door unlock and grabbed for the handle.  It opened.  I was in.

It was quiet.  And dim.  Three yogis were already on their mats, two engaged in the Surya Namaskar, one sitting nervously, facing the mirror.  None of these people appeared to be the teacher.  I took my spot at the end of the row and laid out my mat and towel as quietly as I could.  After five grounding breaths in samasthiti, I began.  Slowly, the room came alive.  Several more practitioners arrived as I took my first few Suryas.  Breath filled the room and, though I dared not intrude on the others' practice with a wandering drishti, I enjoyed the symphony of breath.  I noticed the teacher walking the room.  She headed straight for the nervous girl beside me.  It was her first time.  She didn't know the series and, indeed, knew not what mysore meant.  I smiled at the serendipitous proximity of our mats because, though I knew what I was in for, more or less, this way I could absorb all those foundational gems teachers dole out to beginners (I assume), gems I may have missed in my solitary Ashtanga endeavors.

After instructing my neighbor in Surya Namaskara A and assigning her 5 rounds, she ambled my way.  "Hi, what's your name?"  I introduced myself.  She introduced herself.  "Okay, Megan.  Do you have tight hamstrings?"  Uh oh.  I wondered why she wanted to know.  "The reason I ask is your posture.  I'd like you to draw the ribcage in and point the tailbone down."  HA!  Hahahaha!  An awakening, indeed.  It's the same old story every time.  I expressed to her that I'm aware of and having trouble overcoming this problem.  She reminded me throughout the practice, which was hugely helpful.  I think regular work with a teacher might be what I need to break this habit.

I was afraid I wouldn't remember the sequence very well, but surprised myself and made it all the way to Baddha Konasana before my Primary train derailed and the teacher had to come over to get me back on track.  She stopped me after the Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana sequence and informed me that the series is no longer practiced the way I had been doing it (standing upright in UHP A and bringing both hands to the foot for UHP C, ala Swenson's manual).  She made me redo the series, folding chin to shin in UHP A and eliminating UHP C entirely.  With her help, I bound Marichyasana C for the first time.  She nudged me deeper into Supta Kurmasana than I've ever gone before.  I got some good tips on some of bum balances and was generally able to work out many of the kinks in the series I've had trouble resolving on my own.

Around the time I arrived at Setu Bandhasana, I noticed that I was the only person still working through the sequence.  Everyone had gone home except for one guy in Savasana down the room a ways.  Apparently, I'm slow.  Remember, I was one of the first to arrive.  The very attentive teacher watched me do Urdhva Dhanurasana, then assisted me with 3 stand ups and drop backs before she, too, left me to my own devices.  Before she departed, she mentioned that if I come back next week, she'd help me work out a couple more things with Primary, namely dropping back and standing up, and then start me on Second series.

WHUUGH?  Second?  Me?  My astonishment must have been obvious because she said again, "Yeah, I think you're ready."  Wow.  Cool. Who'd have thought my fun little Primary Fridays would get me to Second series so quickly?  Certainly not I.

All in all, it was a great experience.  I had a strong practice.  I came away with a fuller understanding of the energetics of the Primary series and a new perspective on the work I do at home.  I'm seriously considering committing myself to regular work with an instructor, something I've never had, outside of those three months in teacher training.  This weekly afternoon Mysore suits my schedule perfectly since that time is already set aside for my Friday Primary home practice.  Looks like I might jump this Ashtanga train after all.


Asana of the Week: Salamba Sarvangasana

"The importance of Sarvangasana cannot be over-emphasized.  It is one of the greatest boons conferred on humanity by our ancient sages.  Sarvangasana is the Mother of asanas.  As a mother strives for harmony and happiness in the home, so this asana strives for harmony and happiness of the human system."  -- BKS Iyengar, Light on Yoga
Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand) is a basic yet powerful inverted posture.  The benefits ascribed to this pose are many, particularly stimulation of the thyroid and parathyroid glands.  Long holds (5 to 15 minutes) are recommended to fully allow for its effects to take place, though 15-20 slow breaths is a good place to start for beginning practitioners.  While Shoulderstand is generally considered the most accessible of the full inversions, care must be taken to protect the neck and shoulder girdle when practicing this pose.

Do not practice the full pose if you suffer from high blood pressure, chronic neck pain, or are recovering from any type of spinal injury.  I recommend that blankets or a folded mat (as pictured -- sorry for the awful, grainy picture, btw) be placed under the shoulders and upper arms to ease the flexion of the neck and reduce the risk of causing reverse curve in the cervical spine.  When done correctly, this active yet rejuvenating pose has a wonderfully soothing effect on the nervous system and is grounding and strengthening for the entire body.  With the appropriate support, Sarvangasana may also help alleviate tension headaches as it stretches the deep and delicate musculature at the base of the skull.

Prepare for Sarvangasana with gentle forward bends and shoulder openers.  When coming into the pose, be sure to establish your foundation by bringing the shoulderblades together on the back and, once up, walk the elbows a little closer together so that the weigh of the body rests on the tops of the shoulders.  Be aware of the position of the head and neck throughout your stay in the pose, ensuring that the back of the neck is not in contact with the floor and the gaze is kept straight up to the toes.  Any lateral movement of the neck in this position may result in serious injury to the cervical vertebrae.  Maintain a neutral position of the cervical spine and steady position of the head.  If you feel any discomfort in the neck or if the weight of the body is resting on the C7 vertebrae (the knobby knob at the base of the neck), release the pose immediately and work with a modified version until the necessary strength and mobility has been developed in the neck and shoulders.

Once proficiency has been gained in the basic version of the pose, there are a variety of movements to be explored in Sarvangasana.  You may take one foot at a time to the floor behind the head for Eka Pada Sarvangasana, bring the legs into lotus position for Urdhva Padmasana (Upward Lotus), or reach both arms up and balance on the shoulders alone for Niralamba Sarvangasana (Unsupported Shoulderstand).  These variations (among others) are an excellent way to build your stay in Shoulderstand without feeling as though tension is accumulating in the shoulders or fatigue in the torso and thighs from too long of a stay in the same position.

Sarvangasana Sequence:  This sequence, inspired by the Ashtanga finishing series, prepares the body for Sarvangasana, first with core strengthening and shoulder opening, then a forward bend before taking it all upside down for some nice inverted hip openers.
  1. Navasana (Boat Pose)
  2. Setu Bandhasana (Bridge Pose) - I'm envisioning the hatha variation, not the Ashtanga version of this pose.
  3. Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose)
  4. Paschimottansana (Intense West Stretch/Seated Forward Fold)
  5. Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand)
  6. Eka Pada Sarvangasana (One-legged Shoulderstand)
  7. Urdhva Padamasana (Upward Lotus Pose)
  8. Matsayasana (Fish Pose)
  9. Ananda Balasana (Happy Baby Pose)
  10. Savasana (Corpse Pose)


True Dat

Click image to view full size
Not long ago, I attended a yoga class. *gasp!*  (Yes, it's true:  the misanthrope emerges once again.)  As usual, to avoid the temptation of continually scanning the room and eyeing up the other yogis waiting for class to begin, I lay back in a reclining bound angle, eyes closed, opening my hips and growing my breath.  The room was packed, so I was surrounded on all sides.  Behind me was a group of 3 friends chatting good naturedly on their mats about yoga, their favorite teachers, and the cool new poses they had learned the week before.  One of these friends was apparently new to the studio experience because he asked in a bewildered and somewhat frightened tone what "that little symbol on everyone's clothes" meant. 

Though my eyes were closed (yes, I was eavesdropping), I knew exactly what he was referring to.  Unsettlingly, approximately 98% of the yogis in attendance were all wearing the same brand of clothing.  And what do you suppose that brand was?  Why, Lululemon, of course! 

The tiny but somehow glaring omegas marked nearly every single student in the room.  It was frightening, and I was both amused and relieved that the phenomenon did not go unnoticed by this unsuspecting newcomer.

I've never paid more than $35 dollars for stretch pants and, allowing for inflation, I hope I never need to.  My Target/Kohl's/Old Navy workout apparel is comfortable, stretchy, and covers my lady bits without breaking the bank.  I can't imagine needing anything more.  Granted, my yoga clothes are constructed merely of cotton/spandex blends and not patented, technologically enhanced, super moisture wicking, muscle supporting, ass enhancing fabrics, but I find that when I'm practicing yoga, which I do every day, I don't know or care what I'm wearing.  It's not even on my radar, and that's as it should be. 

Ironically, the fact that I do practice every day also means that I have no need for ass enhancing fabrics.  My yoga butt is in full force regardless of the pants I wear.  I refuse to be branded by brand loyalty, particularly when it comes to my practice.  I refuse to seek acceptance through something so insignificant as the color, shape, or fabric of my clothes.  I will not be a part of this monopolization of the "yoga lifestyle" that Lululemon has so successfully undertaken.  I remarked once in an earlier post that, while I would not invest my own money in Lululemon, I would accept their clothing as a gift.  Well, I've changed my mind.  You can keep your exorbitantly priced spandex, Lululemon, and I'll keep my soul.


Primary Friday... and Saturday?

With each week of this Ashtanga experiment, I am more and more tempted to hop the Ashtanga train and see where it takes me.  I love the Primary series... it's a real journey that stirs up a whole spectrum of emotion and sensation every time.  Seriously, the highs and lows I experience in this practice are remarkable, but when I consider going full on Ashtanga, I find that I'm not yet ready to give up my regular free form Vinyasa flow.  Can I balance the two?  It occurred to me that I could practice Ashtanga at home and try to take more flow classes to balance it out and keep up the lower body strength.  I'm just not sure I have that kind of time.

This week's Primary was wonderful.  It's amazing how much perspective can shift in just five breaths.  In a single Downward Dog during Surya Namaskara, my attitude can, does, and did evolve completely from self-pitying and pathetic to easy, quiet contentment.  I observed it all, noted the impermanent nature of my moods with amusement, and carried on.  Lather, rinse, repeat, and that's the practice.

And then there are the postures.  Parivrtta Parsvakonasana was very different this week.  I wondered when I'd feel a shift toward stability in this awkward pose.  I'm still using the variation with the palms pressed together, but the twist was noticeably deeper and it's feeling much better in the hips.  I was able to comfortably ground through the back heel on both sides for the first time.  The Prasarita Padottanasanas were a treat.  I'm still modifying Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana by remaining upright, holding the foot with the opposite hand, and then reaching behind the back with the other hand to hold the forearm.  It feels great this way, so I don't mind that it might be a while before I reach the full pose.

I included some more of the postures I'd been skipping over, including a modified version of Garbha Pindasana and the substitution of Tolasana for Kukkutasana instead of passing it over entirely.  So, in total, I skipped Janu C, Mari D, Supta Kurmasana, and Setu Bandhasana.  All other postures were accounted for.

The finishing sequence was nice until everything fell apart in Urdhva Padmasana, though it was better than last week and I came away with a little realization:  chin lock.  The use of jalandhara bandha helped stabilize my neck to a point where I felt safe balancing on the tops of the shoulders without the support of the hands.  I tried going for Pindasana, but rolled out pretty much immediately and moved right into Matsayasana.  Another new pose this week was Baddha Padmasana, though I am not able to bind.  I modified by holding opposite forearms behind the back, and the pose felt absolutely lovely.  I stayed in my lotus through Baddha Padmasana, Padmasana, and Tolasana without discomfort.  Even with just one Primary a week, my hips are noticeably more open.

Savasana was deep and peaceful and felt like hours, but when I came out I was surprised to find I had only been resting for five minutes.  I have not been experiencing the same buzzed effect I noticed early on in this experiment post-Primary.  My energies are balanced, and I'm already seeing the character-building qualities this practice has to offer.  Sometimes it feels like a long haul, but if you just keep moving with the breath, you'll make it through.


Asana of the Week: Gomukhasana

Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose) is a simple seated posture that packs a good bang for your yoga buck.  This pose addresses two of the most common areas for chronic pain and tension in the body: the hips and shoulders.  Both outer hips are stretched as well as the anterior deltoids, inner armpits, lats, and triceps.  The spinal extensors and rectus abdominus work in opposition to maintain the natural curve of the spine against the forward pull of the shoulders.

Enter Gomukhasana from Dandasana (Staff Pose) or any balanced, seated position.  Cross the right thigh over the left, wrap the heels toward opposite outer hips, and stack the knees in front of you so that both knees point straight ahead.  Reach the left arm up and then take the left fingertips between the shoulderblades.  Lengthen the right arm out to the side, and then sweep the right arm behind the back and wriggle the right fingertips toward the left hand.  Hook the fingers if possible.  If the hands don't reach, you may use a strap, towel, or simply grab the fabric of your shirt.  Ground evenly into both sit bones as best you can by lengthening through the right waistline and bring the spine erect.  Gaze forward, or lift the gaze and gently press the back of the head into the left forearm to intensify the stretch.  Be sure to repeat the pose for the same length of time on the opposite side (i.e. left leg on top, right arm up).

Use the hands to pull the elbows back and the shoulders down to regulate your sensation.  Try not to allow the elbows flare out, especially that of the top arm.  Keep the heart lifting and the abdominals strong.  Breath through the tension and when you come out, release very slowly and roll the shoulders around for a breath or two.  Do not remain in this pose for longer than 1 minute if you are new to yoga or you might get stuck (Ha!  Just kidding.  But seriously, beginners: don't hang out here for too long).

Gomukhasana has been vital in my own practice in addressing my tight shoulders.  Daily practice of this pose for many months, though intense and even painful at first, brought me enormous relief from tension and drastically increased range of motion in my shoulder joints.  These days, I enjoy Gomukhasana as preparation for Urdhva Dhanurasana because of the deep stretch to the chest and inner armpits.  This frees up the shoulders to allow for more curve in the thoracic spine, which is what makes or breaks those big, beautiful backbends we all aspire to.

Gomukhasana Hip & Shoulder Sequence:  So, this week I got a little carried away and wrote you a sequence that, with a few Surya Namaskara thrown in, could stand alone as a full practice.  This sequence targets the hips and shoulders to both stabilize and release these chronically tight places.
  1. Anjaneyasana (High Lunge Variation)
  2. Virabhadrasana III (Warrior 3)
  3. Garudasana (Eagle Pose)
  4. Ardha Utkatasana (Half Chair Pose)
  5. Eka Pada Galavasana (Flying Pigeon Pose) OR Toe Stand
  6. Vinyasa; Repeat steps 1-5 on the opposite side.
  7. Forearm Plank
  8. Dolphin Pose
  9. Forearm Plank
  10. Sphinx Pose
  11. Balasana (Child's Pose)
  12. Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose)
  13. Agnistambhasana (Firelog Pose)
  14. Optional Vinyasa; Repeat Steps 9-10 on the opposite side.
  15. Paschimottanasana (Intense West Stretch/Seated Forward Fold)
  16. Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose)
  17. Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand)
  18. Halasana (Plow Pose)
  19. Matsayasana (Fish Pose)
  20. Savasana (Corpse Pose)



The beauty of consistent practice is that, through repetition, everything is bound to come together, piece by piece.  Every so often at first, and more and more over time, the pieces just fall into place on the mat and all the world makes sense, or so it can seem.  We experience awakenings.  Suddenly, something that seemed so subtle as to be impossible just the day before is made clear.  Parts of the body, long neglected and deadened from lack of energy or awareness, come to life and we consciously engage these areas for perhaps the first time.  These are the effects of conscious practice of the asanas.

Throughout YTT and still when I attend classes, the most common feedback I get from teachers is to tuck my floating ribs.  My ribs flare and the effect of this is most obvious in my inversion practice.  I have tried for months to correct it, but the action seemed either elusive or constricting.  I wondered, if I tuck my ribs and hold my bandhas, where exactly is the air supposed to go?  It didn't make sense.

Finally, in my practice today, it happened.  I made it my focus from the very beginning, utilizing the action almost as another bandha, reminding myself again and again: root lock, navel lock, tuck the ribs.  It worked.  Suddenly a light contraction all the way around the floating ribs felt completely natural.  And it changed everything.  The practice was lighter, floatier.  The containment of the floating ribs and the near-constant awareness at the solar plexus made the practice stronger, but also softer.  It seemed to mitigate the sensations throughout my entire body, making the whole practice more efficient and manageable.

As you might expect, the inversions were where this awakening really showed.  Pincha Mayurasana was a whole different experience.  I came up four times and held each round for at least 5 breaths.  They were steady but relaxed.  The breath was calm.  Maintaining focus on the manipura chakra region, I was able to keep the mind quiet and actually fine tune the pose instead of the usual "I'm gonna fall, I'm gonna fall, I'm gonna fall" mantra that runs through my head when I stick my inversions.  After that, inspired to play with some more inversions, I tried some half-handstands.  I held several for 3-5 slow breaths, exploring the bandhas more precisely.

I feel like I came away from today's practice with loads of exciting new information which is mind-blowing to me (e.g. I can feel my quadtratus lumborum working to hold me up!) but completely tedious to anyone else.  It's tough being a yogini, absorbed in the minutest of details.  I am fortunate to have The Boyfriend, to whom I can unabashedly run up and giddily proclaim that "I figured out how to tuck my ribs!" without fear of derision.

There is a lingering heat at the solar plexus even now, hours later, accompanied by a joyful sensation, almost like the feeling of bubbling laughter before it erupts.  Perhaps a more subtle awakening is also taking place.


Primary Friday: Then and Now

Drawing by Francesca Romana Brogani
Nearly ten years ago, I practiced yoga for the first time.  It was Sun Salutation A, alone in my parents' basement on a cheap, slippery mat with David Swenson's spiral bound Practice Manual propped open at the top to guide me.  Even though, at the time, I did not go on to continue with the practice, my experience with Swenson's book instilled in me a special reverence for Ashtanga and great respect for those who engage in it.  Funny that now, all these years later, after the many nimble twists and turns my life has taken, I find myself in the very same position.  Every Friday, I grab that same copy of Swenson's manual that I paged through with wide eyes all that time ago, and lay it open at the top of my mat.

So Swenson's teachings have been with me all along.  His book was my first exposure to yoga.  The lessons therein hinted to me the hidden depths of the practice and planted the seeds of curiosity.  Now here I am, wading into the Ashtanga waters with my once-weekly Primary and still finding more to learn from this very same book.  Not only that, but last week.... teehee.... I signed up for a 40-hour Ashtanga First Series immersion.... teehee teehee.... with David Swenson himself!  BOOYAH!  It's not happening until October, but I am so excited.  And a little bit star struck.  I've watched his DVDs many times.  The Boyfriend and I once sat together in silence, broken only by the occasional outburst of disbelief, through the entire Advanced A and B Series.  Suffice it to say I think Swenson is just super and I CAN'T WAIT to study with him.

But on to my practice:  it was good.  I thoroughly enjoyed the 10 rounds of Surya Namaskara, as usual.  I am finally able to comfortably hold the reverse prayer position of the hands in Parvsottanasana without my outer forearms screaming in pain.  In fact, this position is starting to feel pretty great on my shoulders and upper back, which is altogether new.  Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana B is feeling more symmetrical these days.  Generally, my right hip abductors have a tendency to cramp in this pose, but all was well this week.  Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana D is getting stronger.  I am coming closer to Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana and Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana using modifications.  Neither pose feels quite so awkward anymore.  Trianga Mukhaikapada Paschimottanasana is another pose that seemed extremely awkward and unstable the first few times, but I'm starting to get the hang of it.  It feels much improved when I focus on keeping the shoulders balanced and level, rather than trying to fix the pose in the hips.

Bhujapidasana was a relative success.  I got my forehead down to the floor, stayed for 5 breaths, and managed to haul my way back up with some unsightly struggle and maybe a grunt or two for the titti-bakasana exit.  It's a work in progress, getting better all the time.  The seated sequence was much improved as a whole this week.  I've pretty much got the sequence memorized, and I'm introducing a couple of the postures I chose to skip entirely in the beginning.

The trapezius pull from last week is completely healed, but it did cause me to bring more attention the positioning of my right shoulder all the way down to the distribution of weight in the hand.  I know that I tend to hunch my right side.  I'm constantly reminding myself to relax the shoulder down, both in my practice and throughout my day.  Maybe this quasi-injury will be the wake-up call I've needed to be more mindful how I use that side.

Finishing was okay.  I'm having trouble with Urdhva Padmasana, apart from the fact that I can't bring my legs into lotus upside down.  I do the pose in half-lotus, but I can't yet bring both hands to the knees for very long.  I worry for my neck in this pose, so I don't push it.  Just give it a go and move on.  The 3 Urdhva Dhanurasanas felt good this week.  The first was a little sketchy, but the third was notably more open.  I practiced full lotus legs in Padmasana without pain, then lifted for 10 breaths in Tolasana.  Savasana was divine and not rushed for a change.  Like I said, a good practice.


Asana of the Week: Navasana

Navasana (Boat Pose) is often thought of as the quintissential core strengthener because of the toning effect it has on the rectus abdominus, but this fundamental pose works more than just the six-pack abs.  Navasana tones and strengthens the entire core while it stimulates healthy digestion and renal function.  The muscles of the back, sides, hips and even upper thighs in addition to the abdominals all work together to keep your Boat Pose afloat. 

To come into Navasana, begin seated, bend the knees, and plant the feet on the floor.  Sit up straight, draw the navel in, and reach the arms straight ahead with the palms facing one another.  From here, lean back until the weight of the body is balanced between the tailbone and sit bones.  Lift the feet from the floor so the shins are parallel with the arms.  If you feel strong here, straighten the legs.  Keep the heart lifting and the shoulderblades sliding down the back.  Gaze to the toes.

Ideally, there will be a 90 degree angle between the torso and thighs.  The arms should be parallel to the floor.  In the demonstration photo, my arms are a teensy bit high and the angle between torso and thighs might be a hair less than 90 degrees, which is the tendency for most practitioners.  The smaller the angle, the less weight for the hip and trunk flexors to manage. 

Maintain special awareness of the curve of the lumbar spine as you hold this pose.  If the abdominals are weak, the low back may collapse, which puts strain on the lumbar region.  Avoid rounding in the low back by continually lifting the heart toward the knees and engaging uddiyana bandha (navel lock).  Be sure to modify the pose by bending the knees or take hold of the backs of the thighs with the hands if any strain is felt in the low back.  If you already have abs of steel and regular ol' Navasana is no problem for you, intensify the pose by reaching the arms up or interlacing the fingers behind the head.

Navasana Sequence: Notice the ways in which the preceding poses prepare you for the postures that follow as you flow through the sequence.  Hold each pose for 5 deep breaths unless otherwise specified.
  1. Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
  2. Toe Squat
  3. Navasana (Boat Pose)
  4. Take-it-Up Asana - Inhale to lift up, exhale back down in a single breath.
  5. Repeat steps 3-4 four more times - Remember to modify Navasana as you need to protect the low back.  It gets a little harder with each repetition.
  6. Bakasana (Crane Pose)
  7. Salamba Sirsasana (Tripod Headstand) - 10 breaths.
  8. Vinyasa through Chaturanga (low Push-Up position) - Drop into Chaturanga from your headstand, if possible.
  9. Ustrasana (Camel Pose) - Enjoy the release in the abdomen, but be sure to keep uddiyana bandha engaged here to maintain length in the lumbar spine.
  10. Balasana (Child's Pose)


Project Poses

In planning for my classes over the past couple of days, I found myself browsing through my asana references looking for ideas.  In doing so, I not only found the inspiration I was looking for in designing my classes, but also came across a couple of poses that piqued my interest.  Last night, I was inspired to try these poses anew in my practice.  I think I have a couple more project poses to add to the ever-expanding list:
  • Padangustha Padma Utkatasana  (AKA Toe Stand, AKA Padangusthasana in Bikram Yoga)
  • Ganda Bherundasana (AKA Formidable Face Pose)
I came across the Toe Stand looking through The Yoga Bible and immediately oooohed and aaahhed.  Oh, yes.  I would try this.  My ankles could use some serious strengthening, and I am relishing poses with deep knee flexion these days.  My knees and quads want to open up, so I'm obliging them with lots of extended sits in Virasana, albeit with a dictionary between my feet.  It's become my new favorite way to begin my daily asana practice.

So... Toe Stand.  It's not easy.  I used to run quite a bit and my legs, all the way from hips to toes, suffered greatly for it.  Both of my ankles have been sprained at least twice.  As a result, they are not what you might think of as ideally stable.  While yoga has done great things for my run-ravaged limbs, my ankles are an obvious area of vulnerability.  Standing balancing postures in general have been a big help, but the Toe Stand targets the ankles and feet in a different way.  I tried the left side first.  Started in Tree Pose to begin opening the hip, then Ardha Utkatasana, then slowly from there sitting down onto the heel.  It was impossible.  I could not balance on my left toes without at least one hand on the floor at all times.  I stubbornly tried to bring my hands up to anjali mudra many times, but toppled over like an infant sitting on a backless chair.  After a valiant effort, I let it go and moved on to the right side with all expectations rightly demolished.  Alas, success!  The right side was easy, relatively speaking.  It appears my quest for perfect bodily symmetry is not yet complete.

(image source)
As for Ganda Bherundasana, that was completely spontaneous.  I was checking out the state of my Eka Pada Bakasana, as it's not a pose that I hold often, just transition through.  I remembered giving Ganda Bherudasana (the version with the chin NOT resting on the floor) a try during teacher training and coming much closer than I expected, so from Eka Pada Bakasana, I lifted through the extended leg, tilting the hips up until the balance became light, then stretched the other leg up.  To my complete surprise, I hovered there for a few seconds.  Then I gave it a try on the other side.  Even better!  I didn't spend too much time on it, just one attempt on each side, but it was fun to try something new.  It's an exhilarating pose as the body feels completely weightless for a moment, and there's a fear of the head snapping off if the feet were to fall too far forward, but that's probably just my imagination.

And then there are the ongoing pose projects, namely Adho Muka Vrksasana (handstand) and Pincha Mayurasana (forearm stand).  Both are coming along nicely.  I practiced Pincha for a while on Sunday waiting for students to show for my evening class and enjoyed some nice long holds.  I think this pose may be just around the corner for me.  I'm taking a new approach to handstand, spending at least 10 breaths in a handstand at the wall without even trying to balance away from the wall for the first 10 breaths.  I concentrate on the fundamentals of the pose: maintaining the bandhas, exploring the manipulation of pelvic tilt, using the fingers, and keeping the shoulders aligned.  After this, I move a foot or two away from the wall and practice catching handstands without touching the wall, holding whenever possible.  I have noticed that my free-standing kicks are much more controlled after spending 10 breaths in the supported handstand.  The muscles of the core and legs are all ready and warmed to perform their function in achieving balance.  I've been catching handstands more frequently, staying for longer counts.  I think I'm well on my way to achieving my resolution.

While it's fun to have project poses in my practice, asanas to work on and build a sequence around, the truth is that all of the poses are ongoing projects.  As with any art form, the work is never really finished.  The purpose of the practice, if it can be said that there is a purpose beyond simple necessity, is only fulfilled if we approach each pose with the same focus and attention to detail every day, with every practice.  Favorite poses may bring us to the mat, but once there, it is our duty to let go of what we desire and engage wholeheartedly in what we need.


Primary Friday: Brrrrr! Ouch!

Check out the feet-splaying action on that guy in the foreground.  Feet parallel, soldier!
It was an interesting practice.  We've been suffering a bit of a winter blast here in Austin these past few days, something we're not exactly prepared for.  It's been in the 20s!  Now, I'm from Wisconsin, so I realize that in the grand scheme of things, this is not cold.  But apparently, insulation isn't considered a necessity in Texas, so even with the heat blowing at 78 degrees, the apartment is still freezing and drafty as hell.  To combat these conditions, and because I was running late, I kept a razor focus and super-Ujjayi going strong throughout the practice.  There was a great flow to it.  I found a really solid rhythm and rode it a long way.

The standing sequence was wonderful.  I'm really beginning to love this series.  It's heating, but not exhausting, and my hips and hamstrings feel amazing by the time I vinyasa to the floor.  The seated poses were pretty great, too, but the vinyasas were a flop.  Jump backs were completely feeble.  I could not swing my feet through my arms to save my life.  I have no idea what the problem was.  It may have been that I was rushed and going for accurate breath counts over finesse, but I have not had that much trouble jumping back since I first started employing them in my practice.

Kurmasana was improved this week.  I think I've figured out a better way into the pose.  I've been going about it all wrong, in too much of a rush to get the legs straight.  This time, I let the knees remain bent and worked them up toward the shoulders before flattening out into the full pose.  My heels lifted easily without causing any pain in the elbows.  Bhujapidasana was better, too, but still kind of a mess.  I botched the Tittibhasana-Bakasana exit, but that was to be expected based on my temporary total lack of core strength.  I felt like I'd put on fifty pounds and never done Navasana in my life.

And to top it all off.... I have my first Ashtanga injury!  That didn't take long, did it?  Must have been the cold.  I pulled the upper fibers of my right trapezius in the transition from Supta Konasana.  I was focusing hard on contracting the traps to support the back of my neck, an action that has always been difficult for me, and somehow in the transition from the reclined pose to the vinyasa, I hurt myself.  First, I felt a little shift as I lifted up to jump back, and then an intense heat in my right neck and upper back.  Oops.  I paused to assess the situation and probe the area a bit, checked the mobility of my right shoulder and neck.  There was some discomfort accompanying rotation and flexion of the cervical spine, but the shoulder was fine.  I decided the pull was minor and carried on.

Finishing was fine.  Backbends felt great.  I was careful with the injury.  Skipped Urdhva Padmasana and Pindasana.  Almost skipped Sirsasana, but I love this pose and figured I'd feel it out and bail if it didn't feel right.  On the contrary, it was comfortable and stable, completely meditative.  I was worried it would strain the neck further, but I didn't notice the injury in this position at all.

After practice, I was all set to jump in a long, hot shower and self-massage my sore neck, only to find that a pipe had burst somewhere in the apartment complex earlier in the day, limiting the water supply and completely eliminating hot water.  No hot water?  I stood there, confused, sore, and freezing in my damp yoga clothes, my poor muscles getting tighter and tighter.  I deliberated whether or not to take a cold shower, then decided against it.  I washed my face and went to work in my yoga sweat, frizzy, unshowered, and unable to turn my head to the right side.  Ahh, yoga.


Asana of the Week: Dolphin Pose

Dolphin Pose has earned recognition this week for the glorious effects it has on my tight shoulders as an active respite during a tough practice.  This pose builds upper body strength while it opens the chest, shoulders, and inner armpits.  The core is toned, the thighs are strengthened, and the backs of the legs are stretched. 

Dolphin is a great pose for building strength in preparation for Sirsasana (headstand) and Pincha Mayurasana (forearm stand).  One develops strength in the muscles of the shoulder girdle, stabilizing the scapulae and allowing one to carry weight on the forearms, necessary for protecting the head and neck in Sirsasana.  The ability to remain in Dolphin Pose comfortably for at least ten breaths is a good indicator of one's readiness for Sirsasana.  Dolphin Pose also opens the chest and aligns the shoulders for Pincha Mayurasana, and serves as a starting point for lifting the legs into the full inversion.

The sensation around the shoulders can be strong, particularly if the chest is tight.  The shoulderblades are laid flat against the back and the thoracic spine is extended, which makes for a strong stretch along the inner armpits.  This is especially true if the forearms are kept parallel to each other and the palms flat against the mat, rather than with the fingers interlaced or the palms pressed together, as some prefer to practice the pose.  I find that the closer my hands get to one another, the more rounding that occurs in my upper back as a result, which limits the opening effects of the pose.  If the hamstrings are tight, another cause for roundness of the spine, the knees may remain bent so the pelvis tilts anteriorly, which will extend the low back and lift the sit bones.  Keep stretching down through the heels and lifting through the inner thighs.  Breath into the shoulders and melt your heart toward your shins.

Dolphin Pose Sequence:  This strong sequence opens the shoulders and strengthens the core in preparation for Pincha Mayurasana.
  1. Anjaneyasana (Crescent Lunge) - Take the Garudasana arm position here and step forward into the next pose.
  2. Garudasana (Eagle Pose)
  3. Virabhadrasana III (Warrior 3)
  4. Anjaneyasana (Crescent Lunge)
  5. Utthan Pristhasana (Lizard Pose)
  6. Forearm Side Plank
  7. Forearm Plank
  8. Dolphin Pose
  9. Pincha Mayurasana kicks (Forearm Stand) - Walk the feet in some more, come up onto the toes of the left foot, and make tiny kicks up with the right leg.  Take the full inversion if you want it, and be sure to kick up with the opposite leg when you revisit the pose on the other side.
  10. Adho Muka Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog) OR Balasana (Child's Pose)
  11. Vinyasa
  12. Repeat steps 1-10 on the opposite side.


How I Quit Smoking with Yoga

It is said that the average smoker will try and fail to quit smoking seven times before they finally succeed, if they succeed at all.  Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances on the planet, more chemically addictive than heroin, alcohol, cocaine, or caffeine.  Smoking causes respiratory diseases, is closely linked to several kinds of cancers, and results in an increased risk of stroke and heart failure.  Beyond the litany of detrimental health effects, cigarettes have a way of taking over one's life.  As any smoker will know, whether or not he or she chooses to admit it, nicotine cravings can shape ones schedule, work, relationships, and daily habits.  Give cigarettes a chance and they will own you.  Consider yourself warned.

I smoked heavily for seven years.  I had my first cigarette as a senior in high school one night when the parents were away and I was feeling bold.  Then, still in school, I started working nights at an all-night diner, slinging eggs and pancakes until dawn.  After work, I'd shower, gather up my books, smoke another ciggy and head off to school, all abuzz with nicotine and caffeine and financial independence.  Smokes and coffee became a way of life, a means by which to extend my waking hours indefinitely until light and dark, day and night were lost in the grey nicotine haze.

Eventually, I started living more healthfully.  I made time for sleep.  I started eating fresh, whole foods and drinking more water.  A couple more years down the road, I started doing yoga.  But I still smoked.  A lot.  It became part of my identity.  I was "a smoker" and to change that would mean to change an element of my character, to give up a little piece of who I thought I was.  And yet, I hated myself for smoking, and I realize now that I smoked because I hated myself.  It became a vicious cycle of self-destructive behavior, deciding every day to quit, and every day failing to act on that decision.  This pattern created a deep rut in my psyche that became more and more impossible to emerge from.  The yoga scholars among you may recognize this pattern as samskara.
"Samskara:  mental impressions stored in the subtle body and existing as an archetype for the brain (Hatha Yoga Pradipika)."
By continually allowing myself to light up in spite of my compulsion to quit, I created an ever-deepening imprint on my mind.  With every failure to act on my desire to quit smoking, my resistance to cigarettes became weaker and weaker.

Yoga, as it tends to be, was the catalyst for change.  In spite of the smoking, my body responded quickly to the physical practice.  I grew strong and vibrant.  I learned to love and honor my physical body... but I also learned that my body is not me.  I am not the body, and though the body suffered less as a result of the practice, the state of my mind, skewed as it was, became more and more apparent.

Meditation brought the issue front and center.  I learned to step back and quietly observe, to allow truth to surface.  Whenever I sat, the reality of my smoking habit was always the first to disturb my peace.  The thoughts would sneak up and take over, How much have I smoked today?  Way too much.  I'm killing myself.  I'm going to die of cancer.  Maybe I'll quit today.  Maybe I'll never have another cigarette again.  Yeah, right.  Who am I kidding?  I'll light up after practice like I always do...  And so it went.  Every day. 

I had made one serious but failed attempt to quit a year before the final smoke.  It lasted about a week, and my mind worked overtime day and night trying to justify another cigarette.  Eventually, it succeeded and I caved.  So how did I finally quit for good?  Not with iron will, or mind-over-matter mentality.  Not with harshness or rules or self-abasement.  Just the opposite.  I was finally able to quit smoking, cold turkey and without any pharmaceutical assistance, with compassion, acceptance, and patience.

I arrived at a place of acceptance.  Acceptance for myself, for my past, my habits, and my desires.  I fully realized that my decision to quit smoking was not going to make the cravings stop.  I came to accept the fact that I WOULD experience cravings, and that these cravings would cause me suffering ONLY if I continued to berate myself for having them.  I replaced the self-loathing with compassion, supplanted the harshness of my resolve with softness and patience.  I acknowledged my nicotine cravings without judgement, but rather as a normal and necessary part of the quitting process.  With this attitude of mindful compassion and acceptance, quitting became easy.  After a few days, the cravings slowed and, after a few weeks, they ceased altogether.

I am not a smoker anymore, but somehow, I am still me.  Just a freer, healthier, and happier version.  The smoke-free me revels in the peaceful quiet of meditation, undisturbed by the constant conflict of dependency, and drinks the sweetness of the breath, unblemished by the ruins of tar-filled lungs.