1.30.2011

Primary Friday: A Change of Pace

The institution of Primary Fridays is turning out to be a really good thing for my practice.  I look forward to the Primary Series all week.  It serves as a barometer of sorts, providing me with weekly feedback on the state of my hips, hamstrings, and abdomen.  This gives me ideas of things to work on during my regular practice.  All in all, it's contributing more focus and structure to my weekly routine.

It's also been a nice change of pace.  A large part of the effectiveness of my daily practice, as I see it, is the evaluation of body and mind that takes place during the opening Surya Namaskar.  From this evaluation, I practice in a way that will best serve me in the place I am on any given day.  As much as I love the creativity, expression, and presence of mind that my regular Vinyasa practice calls for, it's a relief to step on the mat every Friday and know exactly what I will face over the course of the next two hours.  It allows me to focus more completely in each posture as it happens, rather than thinking about where I should go next, always ready and waiting for the practice to reveal itself.

I am beginning to commit the sequence to memory.  I didn't stop to page through the book at all during my practice this time, just needed a quick peek once or twice during the seated sequence to be sure I had it right. I'm still skipping Mari D, Garbha Pindasana, and Kukkutasana, and modifying a few other postures for the sake of my knees.  I'm also skipping over Supta Kurmasana for a variety of reasons, namely what I believe to be a bulging disc around L1-L2.  I think Supta K. would pop the cartilage right out of my spine, so I'm not even toying around with it.  There is enough forward bending in the series as it is.  Interestingly, since I began to practice Primary on Fridays, Saturday has become the Day of Backbends.  I really feel like I need the extension after all the lift-ups and forward folds of the Primary Series.

The standing sequence is beginning to make more sense to me, and this week I noticed that my hips felt absolutely amazing during the full vinyasa after Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana -- powerful and open.  I've had major breakthroughs in Parivrtta Trikonasana practicing the pose within the Primary Series.  I'm beginning to feel a glorious stretch in my mid back as I twist into this pose. I think I finally have the appropriate stance figured out.  I've been overcompensating in the hips and neglecting the abdominal twist.  Silly me.

Virabhadrasana I is another fundamental pose that I feel Ashtanga is illuminating particularly well.  I am better able to anchor all the way back through the rear heel instead of bearing the weight in the front leg and I'm finally able to really sit my hips down into the stance without sacrificing the position of the pelvis and straining my low back.

There was a point during the seated sequence, somewhere between Janu Sirsasana and Kurmasana, when I began to feel overwhelmed.  So many vinyasas!  So much flexion!  I CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE!  But I continued to breath and told myself to proceed one pose at a time.  It worked.  My mind quieted down and I carried on without further incidence of fear or frustration.

Something mysterious happened in Baddha Konasana.  I held Baddha Konasana B for at least 10 breaths because I was feeling something different, something new.  I thought it must be important, so I stayed and explored the new sensations a bit more.  As I've mentioned before, Baddha Konasana is not an easy pose for me.  The fold forward is extremely limited, but by what I'm not exactly sure.  Friday, I felt a subtle stretch very deep in the pelvis around the hip joint.  I suspect it may be the pectineus awakening.  I'll be spending some extra time in Baddha Konasana in the coming week to explore this event further.

Finishing was nice.  Urdhva Dhanurasana was not too intense.  The first time up was not as harsh as it has been, and the next two rounds felt wonderful.  Sarvangasana was pleasant; I'm so glad to finally be able to enjoy this pose, though Halasana is still an uncomfortable place for me to be, claustrophobic and restricted.  Sirsasana was potent, as always.  My gaze did not wander up in Padmasana as it tends to do.  By the time I arrived at Tolasana, my lotus had bloomed.  I was able to take the full pose and stay for the full 10 breaths in comfort.  It was a good practice.

1.28.2011

Asana of the Week: Eka Pada Koundinyasana II


Eka Pada Koundinyasana II, also known as Albatross Pose, is an arm balancing posture that develops abdominal strength and hamstring flexibility.  The torso contracts strongly on one side as it lengthens on the other.  This wrings out the organs of the abdomen and tones the waistline.  The chest, arms, and wrists are strengthened.  The front hip is flexed and both legs are engaged.

Utthan Pristhasana (Lizard Pose) is a good starting point for this pose.  From Utthan Pristhasana, work the shoulder behind the front knee, bend the elbows, and extend the front leg.  The back foot will become light as the weight moves forward over the hands.  More advanced students may enter Eka Pada Koundinyasana II from Visvamitrasana by simply taking both hands to the floor, hugging the inner thigh to the upper arm, and then bending the elbows.

A strong, fully engaged core is more critical to the balance of this posture than arm strength.  Squeeze the inner thigh of the front leg into the same-side upper arm.  Bend the elbows deeply and energetically push through the soles of both feet. Lengthen out through the neck and look forward.  You face will come very close to the floor.  If this causes a fear of smashing your nose on the mat, which is a legitimate concern, turn the gaze to the front foot so the side of the head will touch down if you fall forward.  This will also give you a little more room to see-saw up and down before finding the point of balance.  Use the extended legs as a balance pole, adjusting the lift of the back leg until steadiness is achieved.

Eka Pada Koundinyasana II Sequence:  This sequence opens the hips, stretches the sides, lengthens the hamstrings, and strengthens the abdomen. 
  1. Parsva Upavishta Konasana (Side Wide Leg Forward Fold)
  2. Upavishta Konasana (Wide Leg Forward Fold)
  3. Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Posture)
  4. Rock-the-Baby
  5. Akarna Dhanurasana  (Archer Pose)
  6. Parivrtta Surya Yantrasana (Compass Pose)
  7. Eka Pada Bhujapidasana (One-Legged Arm Pressure Pose)
  8. Astavakrasana  (Eight-Angle Pose)
  9. Eka Pada Koundinyasana II (Albatross/Sage Balance II)
  10. Jump back to Chatturanga (Low Push-Up)
  11. Vinyasa, repeat 1-10 on the opposite side.

1.26.2011

Food for Thought

Why do you eat what you eat?  Which factors shape the food choices that you make?  Maybe you select foods that carry promising health claims, like cancer-fighting antioxidants or omega-3s for heart health.  Perhaps you choose which foods to purchase based on where they were grown or raised.  If you are especially busy, you may choose your foods for the ease and swiftness of their preparation.  Or maybe, and this is a long shot, you eat what you think tastes good.

Food, nutrition, and its impact on health, both our own and that of the planet's, is a universal issue loaded, for many of us, with controversy and emotion. Much research has been done, but relatively little is known about how exactly the body processes and makes use of the variety of nutrients it needs to stay healthy.  In the Western world, we are fortunate to have nearly endless food choices and a variety of established, neatly categorized diets from which to choose, born from civilization's  endless pursuit of optimal nutrition.  Each of these diets comes with its own set of guidelines, health claims, and outspoken advocates:  vegan, vegetarian, macrobiotic, locavore, raw foods, and Paleo are just a few examples that come to mind.  There are many more.

As yogis, we must consider not only how the foods we eat will affect our bodies, but also the impacts these choices may have on our minds and spirits.  In Light on Yoga, BKS Iyengar writes of these impacts that "character is moulded by the type of food that we take and by how we eat it."  So, in terms of a yogic diet, it is not just the type of foods that we eat which are significant, but the manner in which we eat them.  "The yogi believes in harmony, so he eats for the sake of sustenance only.  He does not eat too much or too little.  He looks upon his body as the rest-house of his spirit and guards himself against over-indulgence."  In other words, the yogi takes only as much food as he or she needs, and eats that food mindfully, "with the feeling that with each morsel one can gain strength to serve....  Then the food becomes pure."  (Emphasis mine)

It is a popular interpretation that ahimsa, the principle of non-violence, predetermines vegetarianism as the only diet for the yogi in keeping with the yamas and niyamas, or the dos and don'ts of yogic behavior.  However, while a meatless diet may provide sustenance for many, not everyone can maintain proper health on a vegetarian diet, in which case, for these people to deprive themselves of meat products would be directly in conflict with the principle of ahimsa, which begins with the intention to do no harm to oneself.  So, as you can see, the issue is not as cut and dry as it may first appear, even in terms of yogic philosophy.  Sometimes the best choice is simply the lesser of two evils.

Depending on where you live and the resources available to you, a locally and humanely raised beef product may produce much smaller impacts and serve as a more efficient nutrient source for you and your family than a bunch of bananas chemically ripened, picked by abused workers for pennies (or the equivalent), and flown thousands of miles to your table.  I'm not telling you to quite buying produce.  I'm just pointing out that mindfulness means that we must be present in every choice, to assess every situation and resist the urge to take a rigid stance.

Fad diets and sweeping lifestyle changes such as veganism are prone to swift and ardent popularity because they make our many daily food choices a little bit easier.  If we lessen our options by assigning stringent limitations to our diet, we can stop thinking about what serves us best in this exact, unique moment.  If we have already decided that it is, without exception, wrong to eat certain foods for whatever reason, it becomes too tempting to fall into rigid patterns of thought, which results in a lazy, unobservant mind.  We should seek to extend the principles of our practice to every situation.  Be in the moment and choose for the moment.  That's yoga.

1.22.2011

Primary Friday: That's More Like It

 Yesterday's Primary was delightful.  Sooooo much better than last week.

I remembered the order of the sequence and stayed with the breath counts all the way through Purvottanasana without needing to check the book, which I still leave open on the floor at the top of my mat.  I came much closer to a recognizable expression of Parivrtta Parsvakonasana, though it still feels horribly askew and I can't help but wonder what it looks like.  I've been using an upright variation for Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana, variation B in Swenson's manual.  My hip craves the forward bend, but my knees stubbornly refuse.

Dandasana is a deceptively challenging pose.  I never employ it in my own practice apart from these Primary sessions, so it's been interesting to spend a little more time in the pose.  About a year ago, my grandmother and I were discussing yoga.  She was asking me lots of questions about the nature of the practice, the poses, etc, and I was trying my best to answer them, but it's really such a vast and formless thing, this yoga, so I have difficulties trying to explain it in practical ways.   After summarizing the importance of the breath and focus, it occurred to me that Dandasana is an excellent illustration of the work of yoga, the purpose of the asanas in relation to the larger practice.  The two of us came into Dandasana on the floor and I guided her awareness through all the many actions throughout the body required to simply sit up straight.  It was far more effective than any of my verbal explanation.

Jump backs and jump throughs were much cleaner.  Since attending that Ashtanga class a few weeks ago, I've been tinkering with my jump back technique.  I received some advice to keep my arms straight as I bring the feet through and then lower into Chatturanga as the toes land.  This is interesting because the very thing that allowed me to accomplish the jump back in the first place was learning to bend my elbows and hinge my weight forward in order to bring the hips up.  So now I'm in a confused place where I alternate the straight-arm and bent-arm approaches.  Yesterday I decided to stick with the bent arm approach, but sometimes, when I get it right, the straight-arm technique feels less taxing.

Chakrasana is coming along nicely.  I can't express how much fun I have with this vinyasa.  It makes me feel like a kid again, except when I was a kid I was too insecure and uptight to do things like this.  I'm reverse-aging.  I do have one question, though:  how do Ashtangis stay on their mats in those gridlocked shalas?  As it is now, I'm all over the place.  Yesterday when I flipped over, I kicked the room divider hard and bruised the bottom of my foot.  I think less momentum and more control is needed in the vinyasas to keep me from wandering too far forward or back.

I am still in the process of figuring out the breath counts of the seated sequence.  I can't quite jump through and propel myself right into the poses in a single inhale just yet, but the sequence flowed more smoothly this time and I had a better idea of what I was doing.  I knew which modifications I needed to take and found more suitable variations for some of the lotus and half-lotus postures. 

I could not lower down in Bhujapidasana.  It was so easy the first time.  Now, not.  What's the deal?  I'll have to play with the pose in my regular practice this week and try some different things, see if I can't figure out how my entry has changed. 

The finishing sequence was supremely enjoyable.  That first backbend was tough, but the next two were gloriously expansive.  I'm starting to appreciate Sarvangasana.  It's taken four years, but it's finally happening.  Lately I've been having a subtle but sensuous experience in my upper upper back during Sarvangasana and Parsvottanasana.  It's a pleasant but unfamiliar sensation that tingles, for lack of a better word, across my trapezius and between the shoulderblades.  It's not a stretch, exactly, but it is lovely.

And again, when I left the mat, I felt absolutely juiced.  I was all abuzz for hours after I got to work, practically tweaked, like I'd had way too much coffee.  Am I doing something wrong?  Is this normal?  Do Ashtangis always get this pumped up after practice?

1.21.2011

Asana of the Week: Virabhadrasana II

Virabhadrasana II (Warrior 2) is a pose that I go to when seeking empowerment.  The body expands in every direction from the inside out as the chest is broadened, the hips are opened, the legs are strengthened, and the arms powerfully extend.

The outer ankle and calf muscles of the back leg are stretched.  The adductors of both legs are eccentrically lengthened, and the quadriceps and hamstrings engage strongly to hold the front leg in position.  Uddiyana bandha (navel lock) draws the belly in and supports the low back.  The rhomboids pull the tips of the shoulderblades together and down, which lifts and expands the rib cage.  The deltoids and supraspinatus work together to extend the arms.

The width of the stance controls the intensity of the sensation in the hips and thighs.  Balance the pose by maintaining awareness in the back leg.  Try to take some additional weight into the back leg by engaging the adductors of the thigh to press the sole of the foot firmly into the ground.  Ensure that the front knee does not collapse to the inside of the ankle by contracting the glutes and piriformis to pull the hips open.  It can be useful to take the gaze down for a moment to see if the big toe is visible to the inside of the knee.  If not, press into the inner edge of the foot and engage through the outer hip to pull the knee open some more.  Extend all the way out through the fingertips and press the shoulders away from the ears.  Keep the heart broad and lifted.

Virabhadrasana II Sequence:  This sequence will light your thighs on fire, in a good way.  Use your Ujjayi pranayama to stoke the flames.  Try to increase your stay in Virabhadrasana II by a few breaths each time you enter the pose.
  1. Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
  2. Vinyasa
  3. Virabhadrasana I (Warrior 1)
  4. Virabhadrasana II (Warrior 2)
  5. Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose)
  6. Virabhadrasana II (Warrior 2)
  7. Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)
  8. Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose)
  9. Virabhadrasana II w/ Chest Opener (Warrior 2) - Interlace fingers behind the back.  Press down through the knuckles and roll the shoulders back.  Engage jalandhara bandha (throat lock).  Stay for at least 10 breaths.
  10. Prasarita Padottanasana C (Wide Leg Forward Fold) - Keep the fingers interlaced and take the hands overhead toward the floor.  If the shoulders cramp from the position of the arms, release the hands to the floor.
  11. Step to standing, Ashtanga-style
  12. Repeat steps 1-11 on the opposite side.

1.20.2011

Making Space


I had a nice lunch today with a couple of friends from YTT.  We munched as we talked about our experiences as fledgling teachers and our impressions of the business of yoga thus far.  It was great to relate.  Since the conclusion of teacher training, when we all scattered out into the yoga world, still unsteady on our bare little yoga teacher feet, it's been critical to remind myself to never compare my own path, the choices I make or the opportunities that arise in my teaching career, to the paths of the other graduates.  Each journey is distinct and intricately woven over, under, around and through my own.

It has not been easy to refrain from judging myself for not jumping into teaching full time.  Realistically, I know that very few people just up and quit their day jobs to thrive as yoga teachers right after training.  For most of us who aspire to this, it's a process.  A process, not only of networking, interviewing, auditioning, and volunteering, but also, I think, of earning humility.  The fear and rejection we face as new teachers thickens our skin, which further insulates our truth from the dangers of success, and drives home the lesson that, even as leaders, we are not in control.

Then the ego jumps in:  But So-and-so started teaching full time right away!  Or:  How did So-and-so get so many classes?  Why can't I do that?  The mere fact that it's possible makes my slow transition seem insufficient,  not unlike failure, regardless of the enormous growth I've experienced or what I have provided for my students.  I must not be good enough.  I'll never be able to make enough money to pay my bills.  I must have been crazy to think that I could...  All of this and more, even though I've made relatively little effort since graduation to actually acquire more teaching jobs.  Talk about a masochist.

I sent my resume out for the first time this week, for Pete's sake!  And I've had school!  And my job!  Or are these just excuses for avoiding situations that make me uncomfortable?  Like selling myself to studio owners and potentially, no, DEFINITELY facing rejection?  Well, yes.  But that doesn't make them invalid.  I do need to be able to pay my bills.  And I do need to leave enough time in my schedule to devote to school, but deep down I know that the primary reason I have not pursued my ideal is fear -- fear of rejection and fear of financial instability.

The ego is in the way.  Attachment to compensation will only cause suffering, and this is as true for the teacher who has to turn students away from a full room as it is for the one who watches the clock tick five minutes past the hour and still not a soul in the room.  I am beginning to notice that the more I teach, the less I care how many students will show up.  The more I risk, the less I cling to illusions of security.  I cannot receive if my hands are already full of things I can't let go.

1.18.2011

Stupid Things I Say Sometimes


As regular readers will know, I teach Vinyasa yoga.  I love it and hope to do more of it as the opportunities arise.  But sometimes when I teach, I say stupid things.  Stupid, ridiculous, cheese-ridden, nonsensical things.  It's a consequence of the sheer amount of verbalization required of me to lead a Vinyasa flow class.  Often, it simply sounds better in my head.

I admit it.  Cut me some slack.  My classes are like snowflakes, no two are exactly alike.  While the sequences may be planned for, the words are off the cuff.  Most of the time, this makes for an engaging class.  Once in a while, it means that I end up with my foot wedged securely in my mouth.  Not often, but it happens.   

For example, at one point during my class last night,  I instructed my students to "enjoy the expansion of your heart."  As soon as I heard myself, I cringed.  What the hell does that mean?  My very sensible intention was to direct their attention to the particularly satisfying sensation of the intercostals and pectoralis stretching as the students deepened into Setu Bandhasana (Bridge Pose).  Instead, I rambled about enlarged hearts.  Nobody seemed to notice the meaninglessness of my instruction, or maybe they conceived of their own interpretations, so I simply let it go and carried on.

It was only later, while in the midst of a good nap, falling in and out of that fuzzy space where sleep is just around the corner and the mind makes particularly nimble twists and leaps, that I remembered what I had said.  I began to giggle.  I laughed as I thought about some of the other, better blunders I've made while teaching.  I remembered an incident teaching the opening meditation of one of my very first classes in which I got stuck in an endless loop of metaphors for the "ebb and flow, the rise and fall, the expansion and contraction, the blahbiddy blah and the blahblah" of the breath.  I don't know how it happened -- I got nervous and just couldn't stop.  One of my students giggled aloud at the absurdity.  Remembering her expression, eyes closed, sitting tall, face all scrunched in suppressed amusement, made me laugh even harder.

And then I thought of the Shatner-eqsue pauses to which I am prone from time to time.  Occasionally, I drop off mid-sentence, sometimes until the more antsy of my students start to look around before picking up where I left off.  At first, these pauses were nerves wiping my brain completely blank at the idea that I was responsible for delivering a yogic experience to a group of 30 strangers, until I regained my bearings a few awkward seconds later.   I still use the Shatner pauses, but not due to nervousness; I appreciate the silence, and I'm much more comfortable taking my time to choose the right word, the most appropriate language, the most illustrative idea to direct the class. 

Then the significance of my ability to forgive myself for these blunders struck me.  This would not have been the case a few months ago.  I would have tortured myself writing pages of notes about what went wrong and how to fix it, transcribed things I already knew, and doubted my abilities for not delivering the perfect class every time.  It seems, happily enough, that at some point in the recent past I have come to terms with my role as teacher.  My voice is taking on a distinctive tone and message.  I am confident sharing my own interpretation of the practice, yoga babble, dramatic pauses, and all.

1.15.2011

Primary Friday: Round 2


As I was saying on Wednesday, things have a way of coming and going.

I had my second go at the full Primary Series yesterday.  It was something of a wreck.  To begin with, I was in a rush.  Last Friday, the whole series took me two hours, so I knew I'd need to speed it up since I only had about an hour and 45 minutes.  The practice was hurried and disjointed from start to finish.  I had not reviewed the sequence before getting on the mat this time.  And yet, I had the most adorably naive idea in my head that I might actually remember all the transitions.  This was untrue.

The standing sequence went well enough.  I needed to peek at the sequence just a couple of times to be reminded of when to return to Samasthiti, but flowed smoothly otherwise.  Parivrtta Parsvakonasana is still thoroughly baffling.  The pose feels completely impossible with the back heel turned down.  I keep thinking I need to get my opposite armpit to the outside of the front knee so the arm is flush with the shin, but looking at Swenson's book now, it appears that his arm is a few inches in front of the shin and the armpit isn't even touching.  I'll have to play with it some more and see if I can make it work.

The seated portion was a struggle.  Jump backs were awful.  I confused the sequence a couple of times, and my hips and thighs were very tight. The floor touch in Bhujapidasana entirely eluded me, which is strange because it happened so effortlessly last week.  For whatever reason, I could not hinge forward at all.  Baddha konasana, which is and has always been a problem pose for me, was unsatisfying.  I can never release into this pose.  If I don't use my arms and/or abdominals a lot, I can't fold forward in the least.  I'm not sure why this is because, while I am unable to move deeper, I feel almost no stretch.  What is the problem here?  Short adductors?  Tight lower back?

Transitions are where I'm struggling most.  The pop up to Upavishta Konasana B is not happening.  I've tried initiating the motion in a few ways, but nothing ever results.  My legs barely lift from the floor for a split second before they crash back down.  It's mystifying.  The roll forward from Supta Konasana, however, was much closer this week than last, and the roll up from Ubhaya Padangusthasana was relatively smooth and precise.  Both transitions were much improved.

Urdhva Dhanurasana, a pose that I normally look forward to in my practice, was stiff and painful.  The first lift was especially intense, but I came up twice more, touching the crown of my head down for an exhale between lifts.  It got a little better by the third round, but  I have to ask:  why so little backbending preparation in the Primary Series?  It's all ab, arms, and hamstrings.

One of the more interesting things I've noticed doing the series so far is the distinctive heat of the practice.  The constant work of the abdominals and the relentless twisting keeps me warm from the inside the whole time, but in a way that is highly energizing.  I leave the mat simply buzzing with strength and energy after an Ashtanga practice.

1.13.2011

Asana of the Week: Sphinx Pose

Sphinx Pose is a gentle backbend excellent for lengthening the abdominal muscles and warming the spine in preparation for more active backbending.  My favorite way to practice this pose is as a counter pose to difficult standing or arm balancing sequences in which the core is worked strongly.  Sphinx Pose gently releases the work of the abdomen and opens the chest while strengthening the muscles of the upper back.

While it may appear to be quite tame, the Sphinx is an active pose.  The toes curl back and the quadriceps lift the kneecaps.  The serratus anterior engage to draw the shoulderblades down the back.  The triceps contract to press the palms down and latissimus dorsi work to draw the heads of the armbones back.  These actions lift the heart, which, coupled with the extension of the tailbone toward the heels, creates an active lengthening of the rectus abdominus.

Sphinx Pose (for which I could not find a Sanskrit name; I suspect it's a modern and/or Western modification of Bhujangasana) is a great place to catch your breath and release after intense core work, but the pose must be activated in order for the subtle benefits to become clear.  The mild backbend awakens the upper back and increases awareness in the thoracic spine.  Continual lifting of the heart and softening of the space between the shoulderblades begins to create a gentle bend in the upper back which is important to develop before attempting deeper backbends, such as Dhanurasana or Urdhva Dhanurasana, in order to avoid creating stress in the low back.
Sphinx Pose Sequence:  This backbending sequence builds the foundation for Ustrasana by first strengthening the thighs and abdominals, then slowly preparing the muscles of the back with increasingly powerful heart openers.  The shoulders also get a nice stretch as a counter to Bakasana.  Rest the head on the forearms between steps 5, 6, and 7.  Hold each pose for 5-6 breaths.
  1. Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
  2. Utkasana (Chair Pose)
  3. Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold)
  4. Bakasana (Crane Pose)
  5. Sphinx Pose
  6. Ardha Bhekasana (Half Frog Pose) - Do both sides.  Rest between sides if needed.
  7. Dhanurasana (Bow Pose)
  8. Adho Muka Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog)
  9. Ustrasana (Camel Pose)
  10. Balasana (Child's Pose)

1.12.2011

Ripening


My practice is maturing.  My body is opening.  The hours, the sweat, and the patience is paying off.  In some ways, this is happening exactly as I expected, in others as I never could have imagined. (image source)

Over the course of the past year, I've committed to my practice in a big way:  6 days per week, 2-3 hours per day, with very few exceptions.   The results are beginning to show, shaping my time on the mat and directing the currents of my mind in a new way.  My body has become powerful and my practice precise, making space for the subtleties to reveal themselves more fully.  I have honed my focus on the breath and done pranayama daily.  I have felt the weightlessness of the correct coordination of mula and uddiyana bandhas.  I have been suspended in mid-air, paused in impossible positions, my consciousness practically positioned in my pelvis.

Ujjayi pranayama has become the driving force.  Inhalations and exhalations have grown steady and long without interruption, nearly equal in duration and sound, a quality I had come to accept might never be a part of my practice, even after three years of tender cultivation.  I remember quite distinctly when I realized this had happened: it was just after the conclusion of YTT.  I was sitting, quietly breathing, preparing for my practice, and I noticed that the ujjayi inhalations had finally come.  It was no longer a struggle to let the air drag through the throat.  The breath became sweet and long, the sound encompassing my mind and carrying me gently through the postures.  The simple act of breathing was suddenly a profoundly pleasurable experience, and it has only become more so in my esteem.

I had another such breakthrough today.  I've been doing some extra study on the Ashtanga approach to floating which I've been working toward semi-successfully in my own practice for several months.  My jump throughs and seated jump backs are perhaps not as graceful as they could be, but reliable.  It's the floating to and from standing that has eluded me, until now.  I had been gathering bits of theoretical information here and there over the past couple of days, taking notes from Swenson, Maehle, David Garrigues, and, of course, Grimmly, who I believe founded his blog on this very principle of floating and lightness.  In addition, I watched a 90-minutes class by Kathryn Budig today at Yogaglo which emphasized lightness in the vinyasa, and I guess all of that extra theory and anatomy knowledge rattling around in my brain made all the difference because I managed to get the float forward to Uttanasana for the first time.

I came to the mat with the intention of working with special emphasis on the bandhas and doing some extra floating work.  I began straight away with the Suryas, cultivating awareness deep in the pelvic region and lifting the navel up and in, up and in.  I subjected myself to some detestable pilates-type abdominal strengtheners for several minutes, then spent a good deal of time upside down in various headstand and forearm stand variations focusing on supported stability and maintaining those locks.  Then it happened.  I just flew, my lower half weightless in space until I decided to slowly release the feet down.  And it happened again, and again, and again.  I couldn't believe it.  I kept throwing in extra forward folds just so I could jump into them in slow motion and cement the memory of the action in my body and mind.

And yet, it's entirely possible that I won't be able to float tomorrow.  It's happened before.  Something clicks one day, and then it goes away.  Every practice is a fresh start, for better or worse.  The value of the work is in the moment, in what I learn about myself through my navigation of the practice, not in what I achieve.  So, when I step on my mat tomorrow, I will inhabit the moment uninhibited by the past and I will not confuse the power of intention with the filter of expectation.

1.10.2011

Radical Shifts

First, the obvious:  Damn Good Yoga has a new look!  The old red and black thing wasn't working for me anymore, too fiery.  I'm feeling much cooler, much calmer, much more mineral, if that makes sense, so I've tried to reflect that in the design.  If you're reading from a feed reader or mobile device, be sure to stop by the site and check out the new and improved look.

Next, I know I recently wrote about how I've outgrown writing about my practice in terms of asana, BUT... I had such a nurturing practice yesterday that I'd like to make a note of it here.  I had already decided yesterday that I wouldn't have time for a full practice before my class in the evening since I used some of the afternoon for an upper body workout I do once in a while, but at the last minute I felt strongly compelled to roll out my mat.

I had no plans, no idea with what to fill the 75 minutes I had, I just knew that I needed to practice.  So I simply stood at the top of the mat and breathed, waiting for the practice to reveal itself.  This is what developed:
  1. Surya Namaskara A 4x: Simple Sun Salutations, the first of which heavily broken into it's components.
  2. Eka Pada Adho Muka Svanasana:  Down Dog Splits, warming the hips and core while gloriously opening the hamstrings and inner thighs.
  3. Crescent Lunge:  Basic high lunge, warming the legs, lifting the heart, and grounding through the pelvis.
  4. Parsvottanasana:  My hamstrings asked for this one very articulately and politely.  How could I refuse?
  5. Urdhva Prasarita Ekapadasana:  Bonus for the hammies, still working those glutes and piriformis.
  6. Crescent lunge with chest opener:  Lowered back down to the lunge, interlaced fingers behind back and opened the chest.
  7. Virabhadrasana III:  With hands still interlaced behind my back, sending the heart forward while reaching back through the extended heel.
  8. Ardha Chandrasana:  Revolved open from Warrior III.  My hip popped in the most delightful way.
  9. Virabhadrasana II:  Floated to Warrior II from Half Moon and stayed for a good, long while.
  10. Trikonasana:  Powerful extension of the side waists.
  11. Prasarita Padottanasana:  Sweet release.
  12. Salamba Sirsasana:  Tripod headstand, first with legs wide, then legs together.
  13. Bakasana:  From the headstand, brought the knees onto the upper arms and lifted for a bit of upper body strength.
  14. Back through Prasarita Padottanasana
  15. Parsvakonasana:  Made sure to take an extra-wide stance and look for that edge.
  16. Vinyasa
  17. Utkasana:  Subtle refinements, looking for that perfect placement of the pelvis.
  18. Parivrtta Utkatasana:  Strong twist, sitting ever deeper.
  19. Parivrtta Parsvakonasana:  Moving deeper into the twist, beginning to feel an opening in the outer hip.
  20. Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I:  Total surrender for 5 minutes, breathing through the sensations, waiting to release the pose until I felt completely honest with myself about my intentions.
  21. Parivrtta Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I:  From the folded version, took it a step further and twisted toward the front leg with hands in prayer position.  This is intense and I'm only up for it once in a while.  Yesterday, it was powerful and perfect.
  22. Agnistambhasana:  Feeling the fire in my hips.
  23. Ardha Matsyendrasana:  Deep counter-twist.
  24. Vinyasa
  25. Ustrasana:  Went into this without any further backbending preparation.  The little events throughout my body rang clear and I could feel the hip flexors reluctantly release.
  26. Virasana:  Upright variation.  Two minute hold.  Butt resting on a dictionary between my heels.
  27. Paschimottanasana:  Two minutes, slowly working deeper with every breath.
  28. Viparita Karani:  Sacrum elevated, arms fully extended to the sides.  Eyes covered.  I stayed for about 8 minutes.  If I'd had the time, I would have stayed all afternoon.

1.08.2011

Primary Friday: My First Rodeo

Primary Series on Fridays is happening.  I'm making it a weekly event. Yesterday was my first go at leading myself through the entire Ashtanga Primary Series and it was quite a wild time.  This is going to be a fun project, I can already tell.

I spent the better part of Friday morning studying the breath counts in Maehle's book so I could carry on with some sense of flow.  Once I got to the mat, however, I needed to peek at the series in Swenson's manual from time to time to remember the sequence, upon which I made little pencil notes to remind myself which poses flow directly into the next and which require a full vinyasa.  I noticed Maehle and Swenson use slightly different counts.  Swenson's is more accessible -- no grand, complicated gestures to be done in a single exhalation -- so I'll probably try to follow his version for the time being.

The standing sequence is quick.  It was as if I blinked in Trikonasana and immediately found myself on the floor.  There seems to be a distinct lack of strengthening in the standing sequence, at least compared to my regular Vinyasa practice which tends to be full of lunges and balancing work, but all the stretching of the standing sequence is nice. I practiced the most comfortable and stable Parivrtta Trikonasana I've ever had coming into the pose straight away without all the fussing and preparation I usually give it.  Hmm... maybe there is something to the pace of this practice.  Just do it.  Just find the pose and stay for five breaths.  Then move on.  No tinkering, no undulations of the spine, no subtle adjustments of the hips as I explore the distribution of weight in my feet for a few extra breaths.  It's all very direct and deliberate.  I like it.

The only standing posture that eluded me was Parivrtta Parsvakonasana.  The traditional variation of this pose, with the back heel turned down, felt completely impossible.  I made do with the anjali mudra variation (palms pressing together) and worked on squaring those hips, but it was not pretty.  It was tempting to spin onto the ball of the back foot and simply substitute the lunge variation of the pose, which I normally practice; but then, what's the point of this whole adventure?  I stuck with it.

The standing sequence is nice and mellow for the most part; the seated sequence is where the insanity begins.  All the vinyasas made me feel as though I were spinning, just a whirling ball of feet and breath flying from one pose to the next.  Eventually, my jump-backs became drag-backs and I could feel all the extra work very distinctly in my core. I also did Chakrasana for the first time.  Wheeee!  I could hardly contain my giggles at the image of myself in my mind.  If you've ever thrown a cat (which I would never do), you know how they look when they prepare for landing.  I felt like that, my claws extended and ready to cling to the earth when I came down.

I took my forehead down to the mat in Bhujapidasana and lifted back up quite easily, which was a surprise to me.  I have not been able to do that in the past.  I even tried jumping into the pose and came closer than I though I might, but my right wrist pleaded "no more!" so I moved on.

The whole thing took me two hours.  I skipped Marichyasana D, Supta Kurmasana, Garbha Pindasana, Kukkutasana,  Baddha Padmasana, and Tolasana.  I did not fold forward in Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana and I substituted Siddhasana for Padmasana.  Do you see the pattern here?  Lotus legs.  My lotus has shrivelled and died.  I can't do it anymore.  I'm not stupid, though.  I'm fairly certain there's a correlation between all the hip/butt/thigh strengthening of my usual practice, with tons of lunging and abduction of the legs in balancing postures, and my total inability to approach the lotus or even half lotus, both of which stretch the outer hips and are mainstays of the Primary Series.  Maybe this is why the standing sequence is short on hip and thigh strengthening: any more and it would inhibit the openness needed for the seated sequence... interesting.

1.06.2011

Asana of the Week: Janu Sirsasana


Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose) is a revolved forward fold that packs a therapeutic punch.  As a matter of fact, this has been my go-to pose all week.  My low back has been unusually cranky and my right SI joint has been feeling tweaked.  Janu Sirsasana is one of the only postures that puts everything right again.

This pose lengthens and releases the muscles of the back and sides, particularly the latissimus dorsi and external obliques.  The spinal extensors are given a good stretch, as are the hamstrings and calf muscles of the extended leg.  The outer hip of the folded leg is opened as are the internal obliques of the same side.  The lower trapezius and rhomboids of the mid to upper back are both lengthened by the extension of the arms as the weight of the head is allowed to rest on the knee or shin of the extended leg.  Internally, this pose tones the liver and spleen, encouraging healthy digestion, as it tones and stimulates the kidneys for optimal renal function. 

Because of all this one-sided lengthening, Janu Sirsasana is an excellent pose for exploring the asymmetries of the back body.  This pose will reveal which side of the sacroiliac joint is more stable and which is more mobile, and which side of the back is stronger and which is longer.  Imbalance in the hips and hamstrings will also be made obvious to the practitioner as he or she practices this pose first to one side and then the other.

To set up for Janu Sirsasana properly, extend one leg and bend the other tightly so that the heel of the bent leg is as near to the perineum as possible.  Draw the knee out to the side by engaging the glutes and piriformis.  Adjust the pelvis so that both hips bones are pointed straight ahead by securing the sole of the foot against the inner thigh of the straight leg.  Maintain a slight internal rotation of the extended leg as you engage the quadriceps and draw the head of the femur (thigh bone) securely into the hip joint.  Lengthen the spine fully with an inhalation before folding forward over the straight leg.

Janu Sirsasana Sequence:  Here's a nice restorative sequence to gently open the hips, release tension in the back body, and encourage a general sense of well-being.  Breath deeply and enjoy each posture for as long as you like.
  1. Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Posture) - Supported version.  Prop yourself up as you like with bolsters and blankets (or pillows and towels, as the case may be).
  2. Supta Pawanmuktasana (Leg Lock Posture) - Remove the props.  Hug the knees into the chest, rock gently back and forth, side to side on the sacrum and lumbar spine.
  3. Supta Udarakarshanasana (Revolved Abdomen Posture) - With the knees together, open the arms out to the sides and let the knees fall over to the left, twisting the spine.  Breath into the belly and let gravity do the work.  Repeat to the opposite side.
  4. Ananda Balasana (Happy Baby)
  5. Rock up to seated - Begin by rocking very slightly.  Build momentum until you are rocking along the entire length of the spine, then come all the way up to seated.
  6. Marichyasana C (Sage Twist C)
  7. Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose)
  8. Switch sides & repeat steps 6-7.
  9. Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Fold)
  10. Setu Bandhasana (Bridge Pose) - Supported version, either with the heels of the hands or a block supporting the sacrum.  A strap may be used around the thighs to secure the legs and allow for greater release.
  11. Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose)
  12. Savasana (Corpse Pose)

1.05.2011

Me? An Ashtangi?

It's been a while since I've written much about my own practice, since much of my energies were directed outwardly during the holiday season.  Even so, I made sure to set aside at least an hour for my asana practice each day.  Things have finally settled down this week, so I've been able to get back to my extended practice and even emerged from my cave to attend a couple of classes, which is always a treat.

Monday afternoon I decided at the last minute to check out a 75-minute Ashtanga Short Form across town.  It was a lot of fun.  As much as I study the principles and read about Ashtanga, I still don't have the Primary Series memorized because I don't practice the Series on a regular basis.  It was a little disorienting to be moving from one side to the next for each pose rather than moving through a series of poses on one side before repeating the sequence on the other, but it was also a nice change of pace and I enjoyed the class immensely.  The teacher, who I discovered to be a neighbor of mine, gave me some pointers for polishing my jump-backs, which was great.  That's one of the nice things about being a home practitioner:  on those rare occasions when I do get some instruction, I almost always leave with new awareness which tends to bring about some pretty huge shifts in my practice.

I'm considering instituting Primary Fridays in my own practice in order to bring some more structure to my week and get more familiar with the sequence.  One never knows when one might want to join the Ashtanga cult (and I write this with the utmost affection and fascination), moon days, ladies' holidays, and all.  I'm not sure how I'll do it, but, in keeping with my archaic ways, it will likely be with Swenson's Practice Manual at the top of my mat.  I've got a couple of Primary DVDs, but I can't see myself practicing with those on a regular basis; I don't like to be rushed.  Still, it would be an interesting experiment and fun to write about... my once weekly Primary.  We'll see.

After the Ashtanga class, I felt great.  Really great.  In fact, I felt suspiciously super-energized, so decided to roll with it and went, more or less directly, to a Power Yoga class at the home studio before teaching my own class that evening.  This class was complicated and wonderful.  I learned a cool new arm balance (think: "one-legged crane scorpion"), got plenty of backbends to balance all the forward bending of the Ashtanga class, and left the room simply oozing yoga goodness.  It's no surprise, then, that my class afterwards went really well.

Yesterday, I realized it had been 9 days since my last rest day, which was the day I travelled home from Wisconsin, which wasn't really a rest day at all, trekking my luggage all over the airport during an extended delay, so I reluctantly abstained from asana practice.  There have been rumors, though, that I may have been spotted in some exotic-looking postures on the living-room floor.  It's best not to believe them.

(image source)

1.02.2011

Impressions and Intentions


This is it:  the reflections and resolutions post.  I spent a while last night reading through some of the early posts here at Damn Good Yoga, looking at how far I've come both in my practice and in my writing.  I was startled by how pose-centric my practice used to be.  Most of the first posts here are about which poses I practiced each day and in what order.  Though I suspect this is partially because I wasn't sure how to write about the more subtle elements of the practice at the time, this type of discussion seems so tedious to me now.  I consider this a sign of growth.

I don't mean to throw analyzation of the asanas entirely out the window.  It is encouraging and useful to look back and see what I was doing on the mat then versus now.  I have gained considerable strength this year.  This time last year, I had just begun to tentatively explore inversions, namely headstands and handstands.  Now, I spend at least 5 minutes a day in Sirsasana and my handstands are not too shabby, if I do say so myself.  It was also about this time last year that I became fascinated with Ashtanga and began to infuse my practice with it.  This led to many changes in the nature of my time on the mat.  I found a sense of lightness as I began to experience the bandhas more viscerally.  I learned how to float from pose to pose and fly from one position to another.   Then the YTT course over the summer took it up another notch and got me into the best shape of my life.  Now my practice is a whole new animal.  It truly is a moving meditation, a chance to simply feel along the edges and explore uncharted ground.  I am somehow both constantly amazed and never surprised by what I find when I step on the mat.

I've never been one to set New Year's resolutions.  The last time I remember making one was probably 16 years ago when I decided to quit biting my nails, which I did successfully, but ended up picking at my cuticles instead.  So it was more of a trade of one bad habit for another, which put me off of resolutions for a while.  I was reminded, reading through the archives, that I made a half-assed resolution last year to address my tight shoulders more consistently in my practice, which I had forgotten about but did pretty well with, regardless.  I have incorporated more shoulder openers in my daily practice, and the range of motion in my shoulders has improved significantly since last January, which counts as a successful resolution in my book, so I figured I would give it another try this year.  I have not just one but a whole list of resolutions that I intend to work on:
  1. I will reinstitute my morning pranayama practice.  I began to practice a morning ritual during teacher training but let it fall by the wayside over the past few months.  I've been continuing the pranayama practice just the same before my asana practice in the evenings, but I'd really like to get it done first thing when I wake up instead.  My willpower is weak in the morning and, most of the time, the coffee machine calls to me more loudly than the cushion, but I think I can change that.
  2. I will stop eating big dinners.  I tend to have the biggest meal of the day shortly before I go the bed.  I know that this habit makes me feel heavy and groggy in the mornings but I do it anyway, almost every day.  To combat this life-long habit, I will try to eat more substantially during the day so that I don't crash and stuff myself before bed.
  3. I will quit cookies and cakes.  Currently, I eat pretty well:  whole foods, mostly vegetarian, and almost entirely home-cooked with little to no pre-made or processed foods, but I have a weakness that's getting weaker:  sugar.  I love sweets.  I'm not interested in chocolate bars, milkshakes, or candy.  It's the bakery delights that I often cannot resist:  cookies, cakes, pies... anything bready and flaky or rich and moist.  As scrumptious as these foods may be, they hit my stomach like a rock, serve no nutritional purpose, and make me feel distinctly awful.
  4. I will take my handstands away from the wall.  I hesitate to set an asana-related resolution since this practice is not and should not become about achieving any particular pose, but in the case of Adho Muka Vrksasana, I think it's more about overcoming fear, a mental game.  It's time to wean myself from the wall.  By this time next year, I intend to be busting out handstands all over the place.
  5. I will seriously pursue my goal of teaching yoga full time.  In order to do this, I will need to embolden myself.  I will need to talk to people.  I will need to get out there and make myself known, to express myself and share my practice honestly in the interest of finding my place in this community.
And there you have it!  I've got a nice set of challenges for the new year.  What about you, readers?  How was your 2010 and what's on your plate for 2011?