A Teacher's Practice

This is what happens when you leave me alone with my mat for a couple of hours...

  • Surya Namaskara A 5x
  • Surya Namaskara B 5x

  • Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
  • Bakasana (Crane Pose)
  • Vinyasa 

  • Virabhadrasana I (Warrior 1)
  • Virabhadrasana II (Warrior 2)
  • Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle)
  • Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)
  • Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose)
  • Urdhva Prasarita Ekapadasana (Standing Splits)
  • Vasisthasana (Side Plank, full expression with the toe grab)
  • Vinyasa

  • Anjaneyasana (High Lunge) -- After 5 breaths, moved to a variation with the hands clasped behind the back to open the chest
  • Virabhadrasana III ( Warrior 3 variation) -- hands still behind the back...
  • Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose variation) -- still behind the back...
  • Virabhadrasana II (Warrior 2) -- ... and release.
  • Viparita Virabhadrasana (Reverse Warrior) -- I've always been suspicious of this posture.  Seems like a Western invention, a pretty pose, but it has taught me a few good lessons.
  • Baddha Parsvakonasana (Bound Side Angle)
  • Baddha Trikonasana (Bound Triangle)
  • Svarga Dvidasana (Bird of Paradise Pose)
  • Visvamitrasana (Flying Warrior)
  • Eka Pada Koundinyasana II (Sage Balance 2, "Albatross")
  • Vinyasa

  • Anjaneyasana (Crescent Lunge)
  • Ardha Hanumanasana (Half Splits)
  • Hanumanasana (Yoga Splits)
  • Vinyasa

  • Dandasana (Staff Pose)
  • Paschimottanasana (West Stretch)
  • Purvottanasana (East Stretch)
  • Navasana 5x (Boat Pose)
  • Vinyasa 

  • Bakasana B 2x (jump into Crane Pose)
  • Upavishta Konasana (Seated Wide-angle Forward Bend)
  • Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose)

  • Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee)
  • Marichyasana A (Sage Twist A)
  • Marichyasana (Open Sage Twist)
  • Marichyasana C (Sage Twist C)
  • Eka Pada Bakasana (One-legged Crane Pose)
  • Vinyasa

  • Urdhva Dhanurasana 6x (Upward Facing Bow Pose)
  • Drop-back 8x
  • Half-back 3x
  • Chakra Bandhasana (Full Wheel?) - Not grabbing the ankles yet, but fingertips are coming within a couple inches of the heels.
  • Paschimottanasana (West Stretch)
  • Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand)
  • Eka Pada Sarvangasana (One-legged Shoulderstand)
  • Sarvangasana Baddha Konasana (Shoulderstand Bound Angle)
  • Halasana (Plow Pose)
  • Matsyasana (Fish Pose)
  • Sirsasana (Headstand)
  • Urdhva Dandasana (Upward Facing Staff Pose)
  • Balasana (Child's Pose)
  • Sukhasana (Easy Seated Posture)
  • Savasana (Corpse Pose)

(Images courtesy of beginning-yoga.info)


Primary Friday: The Rebuilding Process

(image source)
This has been my first full week of practice since the surgery and subsequent two-week sabbatical.  It's been an interesting process rebuilding the practice, full of surprises and deep-set soreness.  While my flexibility has, for the most part, remained intact, my upper body strength faded out much faster than I had hoped.  I also managed to lose the bind in Marichyasana D, so until I get that bind back, I'm parking myself in Primary.

It's been fun playing with Primary all week.  I've enjoyed cleaning up the vinyasas, polishing the jumps, and exaggerating the bandhas in all the forward bends.  I do miss the backbends of Intermediate but, frankly, I'm dreading what they might feel like when I do take up the Intermediate postures again.  The incision scars from the biopsy are in my armpit and at the hip crease, two major players in the process of opening up for the backbends, so I think it's safe to say that much rebuilding will need to take place to unlock those areas again.  As preparation, I've been doing an extra set of Urdhva Dhanurasana -- 6 repetitions in total -- before moving on to the finishing drop backs.

In addition to the daily Primary, I've attended several yoga classes this week, partly because I think the extra work will help me rebound more quickly, and partly because I've been craving that sense of community since the cancer scare.  It's been very healing to take classes from my teacher friends and to practice alongside my students in our shared sacred space.  I'd like to make a point of attending classes more regularly, to offer of myself at the studio in a different way.

Next week, I'll be flying home to visit with the family over labor day weekend.  It's hard to believe September is just around the corner.  This year has been such a wonderful, terrible blur -- one of the most transformative of my life.  I left an unfulfilling job with no savings to fall back on in order to follow my dreams, moved on from a long-term but long-dead relationship, moved into an apartment I love, took ownership of my health, let go of some bad habits, studied with two amazing teachers, completed my Associate's degree, and was forced to really and truly examine my life.  And just before the downpour, there was Ashtanga yoga.  I first took up Ashtanga Vinyasa in January of this year and it caused an enormous shift in my perspective.  I wonder now how I would have handled all this turbulence without this practice, without the refuge of its repetition and the honesty of its reflection... not so well, I think.

And the year's not over!  Before I know it, October will be dawning which, for me, means 3 STRAIGHT WEEKS of "teacher training" (yes, I know... let's not have a war about this, shall we?) with David Swenson.  I'm excited to get back into an intensive program and really immerse myself in the practice.

Asana of the Week: Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana

 This week's pose is Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana (Half Bound Lotus Standing Forward Bend), otherwise known as "the knee slayer."  (Okay... maybe I'm the only one who calls it that, but I have my reasons.)

This surprisingly complicated posture, when practiced with precision and great care, opens the hips, hamstrings, quadriceps, and shoulders while strengthening the stabilizers of the standing leg.  However, because of the standing half-lotus position, both knees are subject to strain if the hips are not sufficiently open.  The bent knee must be watched carefully for sensation as the leg is placed in half-lotus.  The standing knee is at risk of hyper-extension not just because of the forward bend but because the lotus leg may press against the thigh and place even more pressure on the extended knee.  This is not a posture to be attempted without ample warm-up or confidence in one's ability to proceed with compassion toward oneself.

To enter the pose, begin standing and lift the right knee toward your chest.  Completely close the knee joint by rolling the flesh of the calf muscle out to the side and squeeze the shin to the thigh until your heel touches your buttocks.  DO NOT PROCEED if you cannot fully flex the knee.  Instead, move on to the modification described at the bottom of the post.

Once the knee is completely closed, keep the knee sealed and bring the sole of the right foot against the inner thigh of the standing leg with your heel against the perineum in Vrksasana (Tree Pose).  From here, take hold of your knee with one hand and your foot with the other and then lift the knee and foot on the same plane as you draw the right heel in toward your navel, keeping the knee and foot at the same level the entire time.  If the heel reaches the navel without any strain felt at the knee whatsoever, fold the right foot into the left hip crease and reach the right arm behind the back to grab hold of the big toe with the first two fingers and thumb.  If the foot will not lift up into the hip crease but rather is resting against the upper thigh, DO NOT PROCEED.

If your half-lotus is comfortable and you have taken hold of the big toe with your right hand, fold forward on an exhalation and plant the left hand down with the fingertips in line with the left toes.  Exercise caution as you fold by taking a microbend in the standing knee to prevent hyper-extension.  Keep your standing leg steady and strong and press forward and down into the left palm to deepen your fold as you draw nose to knee.  Spend at least five deep breaths here, moving into the fold with every exhalation.  To exit the pose, inhale to a flat back.  Stay for the exhale to firm the belly and steady the standing leg, then inhale the body to standing, maintaining your grasp on the bound foot the whole way to encourage even greater opening of the hip and thigh.  Gently release your grasp and stand firm on two legs with the arms at your sides.  Repeat the posture on the opposite side for the same number of breaths.

If the above steps cause any discomfort in the knees whatsoever, cross the right ankle over the left thigh instead of taking the half-lotus position.  Take a soft bend in the standing knee and press the right knee open to achieve a stretch in the hip.  Be sure to activate the right foot by flexing the toes and press through the inner heel in order to protect the knee.  From here, you may rest your left hand on the left thigh and then wrap the right hand behind the back to take hold of the opposite elbow or forearm.  Keep both shoulders sliding down the back.  Stay for five deep breaths, then switch to the other side.


Ujjayi Pranayama: making music on the mat

In this age of yoga for fitness and weight loss, it's all too easy to forget that this practice, at it's core, is a breathing practice.  The breath and mind are closely linked; the state of one is reflected in the other.  In yoga, we exploit this relationship, taking control of the breath, as a means to gain greater control over the mind.

Though there are many types of pranayama, or breath control practices, the breath that we use in asana is called ujjayi pranayama, a Sanskrit term loosely translated to mean "victorious breath" or "conqueror breath."  It is called so for many reasons, one being that in ujjayi, the breath is directed into the upper chest while the belly remains gently but firmly tucked with uddiyana bandha (navel lock), resulting in a proud or victorious posture.

The Dark Lord
Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of ujjayi pranayama is the sound this breath produces.  It has been likened to the waves of the ocean, the roar of a steam engine, or to the mechanistic hiss of Darth Vader.  This aspirant sound is a meditation aid, used to drown out external stimuli and turn the yogi's attention to the internal world of the practice.  It has been said that the breath is the instrument of the yogi.  With ujjayi pranayama, we tune and refine the breath until the sound and rhythm of both the inhalations and exhalations are steady, slow, and resonant.

While it may take many months or even years to develop an even and sustainable practice of ujjayi breathing, it is an extremely important element of the asana practice.  Ujjayi not only assists the practitioner's mental focus, but also slows and extends the breath.  In a Vinyasa practice, in which the breath and movement are closely linked, long slow inhalations and exhalations allow the practitioner to move more slowly and with more control through the postures, building even more strength and heat in the body.

Ujjayi pranayama is initiated by the bandhas and regulated by a slight constriction of the glottis.  This constriction narrows the airway of the throat which slows the breath and creates friction, producing internal heat, or tapas, which we use to burn through destructive patterns of behavior in both body and mind.  When first developing your ujjayi pranayama, it can be useful to imagine that you are in fact breathing from the throat itself, as if there were a tiny hole in the throat through which to suck and blow air.  Concentrate on on the sensation of the breath swirling in the throat and the sound of the breath resonating against the upper palate as you slowly and steadily drink the breath in and then slowly and guardedly pour it back out.

Continue to tune your instrument until the inhalations and exhalations carry the same lovely tone.  Do not be discouraged if you at first experience tension in the throat or have trouble sounding the inhalations.  Start by sounding the exhalations only, and the inhalations will come.


The Express Kundalini

I am so glad to be back in the swing of things again.  Saturday, I taught my first class in almost two weeks, and yesterday, I managed my first Ashtanga practice since the biopsy.  Because of the placement of the incisions and the consequent swelling, I have not been able to do any deep forward bends or backbends, so my practice has been an odd mix of side bends, wide-legged folds, and twists.  Yesterday, I finally felt ready to return to Ashtanga.

Primary felt just like home.  Mid-way through the standing sequence, I was happier than a hipster in an Apple store.  It might be a couple of weeks before I get my upper body strength back, but flexibility seems to have remained intact.  I managed all postures well with just a couple of modifications and floated through the vinyasas without crashing, but I really felt it in the shoulders after practice.  The only thing left out were the drop backs.  My right shoulder felt tweaked in Urdhva Dhanurasana, and while my body craves those dynamic backbends, I'd better not push it just yet.

After practice, I went downtown to teach a couple of classes.  It was so wonderful to see all those shining faces again and to feel the high-octane energy of that room.  After class, a couple of students were talking about the Kundalini classes we offer.  When I mentioned that I didn't know anything about it because I'd never done Kundalini, they heartily recommended that I give it a try.  And since the next class on the schedule was none other than Candle Kundalini, I did exactly that.

It was great!  No one could be more surprised than I at how much I enjoyed the Kundalini experience.  The class was a lovely mix of chanting, dynamic asana, and meditation.   While I was pleasantly surprised at the physical intensity of the practice, I particularly appreciated the opportunity to use my voice in a different way.  I don't often share this with people because there is a tendency to ask me to "sing something" on the spot, but since you, my darling readers, cannot do that, I'll share this with you:  I used to sing quite a lot -- took professional lessons for years, dabbled in musical theater and vocal performance, even went to school on a music scholarship for voice -- but for painful and complicated reasons, I don't often sing anymore.  For this reason, all the chanting and singing and unabashed OMing was very powerful and healing.  I felt again the strong vibrations of my own voice rattling my inner body and it felt very, very good.

It's definitely not a practice to replace the Ashtanga, but will I do it again?  You know, I think I just might.



The Good Life

Must... resist... CHEESECAKE!
This afternoon, I did my first Downward Facing Dog since the biopsy.  It felt so good that I think I heard a million tiny angels singing hallelujah.  Every little vertebrae in my thoracic spine gave a lovely crack.  My chest, shoulders, hamstrings, and calves simply screamed in unadulterated joy.

While these past few weeks of uncertainty have been difficult, so many wonderful repercussions are emerging that I continue to bask in the blessings, among them a rekindled enthusiasm for meditation and pranayam.  My physical activity has been pretty limited for the past ten days to allow the incisions to heal, so pranayama and meditation have become my primary practice.

It's been nice.  I admit that my pranayama and seated meditation have been irregular this season.  What with school and work, I've barely had time for the asana alone, so meditation and pranayama has been happening once or twice a week instead of once or twice a day.  Now that the summer semester is over, I should have plenty of time to tend to the seated practices with more consistency.

Surprisingly, I have thoroughly enjoyed this break from the asana practice.  I thought I might get anxious without my physical outlet, but the meditation and pranayama has been more than enough.  Plus, I've had time to explore some other, perhaps neglected, areas of my life more deeply.  And, of course, to redesign the blog.  But all of this sitting, core-supported as it may be, has come with the addition of a few extra pounds.  I've been eating like a queen all week because every day feels like a celebration.  I see food and I say (sometimes aloud), "Why not?!  Life is short.  I deserve it.  Live and enjoy!"

It all started on my birthday, when I couldn't decide between carrot cake -- always a classic -- or decadent strawberry-white chocolate cheesecake.  So I got both.  Now it's escalated to nearly constant munching.  Under normal circumstances, when I'm doing my practice and teaching two or three classes a day, the munching isn't a problem.  But it'll be a while before I'm back up to full speed with the asana (goodbye, heels in Kapo...) so I better get the eating under control before I do something I'll regret, like eat another piece of cheesecake.  Ever.  So delicious in my mouth, but so, so wrong in my belly.


Asana of the Week: Savasana

This week, we'll look at Savasana (Corpse Pose), sometimes called Mrtasana (Death Pose) or less morbidly, the "Sponge."  This pose, in which the practitioner lies on his or her back, legs and arms open enough to allow air and energy to flow, is the final pose of the asana practice.  It is a resting pose, to be sure, but it is not without it's challenges.

Savasana is a continuation of the meditation.  The purpose here is to relax -- to surrender control of body and breath -- without losing the awareness cultivated through the asana or pranayama practice.  This is much more difficult than it sounds.

BKS Iyengar has written of this pose that "the stresses of modern life are a strain on the nerves, for which Savasana is the best antidote."  Savasana not only removes fatigue from the body but, when practiced with intention, quiets the mind and strengthens the practitioner's ability to enter a relaxed, meditative state.  This, in turn, heightens one's ability to function in an environment of total assault on the senses, something that many of us face on a daily basis whether we realize it or not.  (Forget battle or natural disasters, have you been to a mall lately?)

I find that consistent practice of Savasana for at least a few minutes a day adds significant depth and perspective to my practice, as a whole.  While the idea of death as relief may be an uncomfortable subject for some, it is important to remember that Savasana is the reward, the moment of transition.  While it is tempting to skip the final posture and get on with your day after practice, to forgo rest or allow the mind to wander is to relinquish the fruits of your labor.  So why not stay a while and enjoy?


The Impetus and Yoga: It's enough

I've spent the better part of the past three weeks in careful observation, watching my reactions to all the twists and turns, fascinated at the force behind them.  In doing so, I think I've come away with some important realizations, the first and most important being that I am already happy.  My life is already complete.

At twenty-six, I have been a seeker of knowledge.  I have followed my passions.  I have had a good love and I have touched a few lives for the better.  I can hardly conceive of anything more.  When the possibility that the "rest of my life" could be a short stint became exponentially more likely, there was nothing I felt rushed to do.  No big apologies so far left unsaid.  Nothing to create or accomplish.

I have also learned that to meditate on the moment of death is to experience bliss.  I think it may be the key to liberation, to hold a glimmer of anticipation for that final exhalation.  The long Savasana.  The better the practice, the better the rest, am I right?  Such a useful tool is this yoga practice, a convenient microcosm of the possibilities of life.

Perhaps the most ironic and indeed the most practical of the realizations I've come away with is how physically healthy I am because of the yoga.  Keep in mind that I do not do "cardio" of any kind, nor do I lift weights (though, as I've mentioned, I do pull-ups and push-ups semi-regularly to protect my shoulders).  I also eat a ton of cheese and have a drink or two nearly every night.  (Note:  "1 or 2" in this case is not a euphemism for 8 or 10, as seems to be the custom).

Through the many medical tests and scans, it was revealed again and again that all systems are running strong.  I was asked by the blood tech, who said she had rarely seen such good cholesterol numbers, if I "work out a lot."  The surgical nurse asked me after the biopsy if I am a runner because of my slow and steady pulse throughout the operation.  My chest x-ray revealed that I have larger lungs than the average female of my size (truthfully, I don't know if that is reflective of my pranayama practice or if it's even related to lung capacity, but I thought it interesting).

It is sometimes questioned whether or not yoga  -- for our purposes, this includes asana, pranayama, and meditation -- is enough to bring health to the body.  Based on what I've learned from this ordeal, I would have to say that it is.  I'm so glad, because now I can finally get rid of those running shoes that I never wear but keep stashed away for fear that I may, one day, need to lace them up again.  Good riddance.



This morning, I was sitting here at my desk, mid-way through a post about the biopsy and the healing process and how it was unlikely that I'd hear from my doctor before Friday, when my phone rang.  It was my doctor.  You know what he said?


HELL to the YES!  Thank you thank you thank you!  Praise be to the highest!  OM shanti shanti shanti!

What a ride this has been!  The truth is gradually sinking in.  I feel as though I'm stepping sheepishly from behind a black curtain, re-emerging in the light.  I had become so used to the idea that the my life was about to take a hard turn that it is difficult now to conceive of any other possibility.  I am giddy with relief but still on guard, not yet entirely convinced that the danger has passed.

Apparently, the blue ink from my rather large tattoo had been collected by the white blood cells in my body and distributed throughout my lymph system, causing the nodes to swell.  The doctor said both of the lymph nodes he extracted, one from the armpit and one from the groin, were the same lovely azure.  It's a bizarre case.  This is only the second time he's seen anything like it.  A rarity, isn't that fun?

I will celebrate my 26th birthday this weekend and, though I will not be with my family because of my post-surgical state, it will be a happy occasion.  Thank you all from the depths of my heart -- friends, readers, students, and family -- for your strength, compassion, and support throughout this fearsome affair.

And now... let the adventures continue!


Staying Power

I once walked into a cold, white waiting room that smelled of burning coffee and observed that the reading materials scattered on the plastic seats consisted almost entirely of full-length novels.  It became immediately clear that I was in for a long sit.

I'm still waiting.  Still shut off from my future and simmering in the past.  Nothing more has been revealed, though the days plug on ever closer to the dreaded truth.  What I had hoped would be a hurried process has become a long and painful dredge.  I have seen the oncologist. The biopsy is not until next week, and the wait for the results will be another 3 or 4 days.  It was just a week ago today that I was first presented with the question of cancer, and I'm not even halfway to the answer.  This has truly been the longest week of my life.  Every day is an eternity.  

So this is what it's like to inhabit the present.

I am keeping with my practice, though the practice is a whole new animal in the present context.  Every breath, every moment is vivid and unique.  It is terrible and wonderful.  Torturous and glorious.  Like a climax gone on for too long, everything inside me trembles and I long for rest, but cannot turn away.  The practice has been essential to my steadiness of mind as these convulsions have taken hold.  

Monday, I had one of the most beautiful and effortless Ashtanga practices that I can recall.  So quiet and light.  Then yesterday, after my appointment and a long day of making arrangements for the biopsy, it seemed as though Ashtanga might completely fry my nerves, so I opted for an alternative practice instead.

I got out the timer.  I stayed.  Twenty minutes in Virasana, four minutes in Plank, five minutes in Downward Dog, and five minutes in Virabhadrasana II with a one-minute Chaturanga after each side.  Then three minutes in Paschimottanasana, followed by two 2-minute holds in Urdhva Dhanurasana.  And finally, six minutes in Sirsasana before Ananda Balasana and a nice long Savasana.

This was an incredible experience.  I have used a timer with certain postures before, but never constructed an entire practice from timed holds.  It made me feel so solid, so dense, like every step could cause an earthquake.  My whole body was alive as a single piece of work, invulnerable.  It's certainly not an every day practice, but it gave me quite the energetic charge.  

It has been such an advantage during these hard days to have an arsenal of asana, a knowledge of the practice, and a nimble mind to apply these things in a way that serves me in the moment.  It is empowering to know that peace is not merely at the mercy of my circumstance.  For this, I am grateful.