4.29.2011

Primary Friday: Playing Hooky

 It's been quite the lazy day so far, full of snacks and naps and one very windy bike ride.  Ashtanga 2nd series is certainly having it's way with me.  I'm sleeping long hours, dreaming non-stop, and eating like a linebacker.  Last night I slept almost 12 hours straight and I cannot stop thinking about food.  Everywhere I go, it seems like someone is cooking something amazing nearby and the wind carries the wafting aroma directly to my tormented nostrils.  I'm craving red meat and french fries and mangos and beer.  Earlier today, I saw a picture of the globe and mistook it for a pizza. I'm getting hungry again just thinking about it.  Mmmmm... Earth pizza.

Normally, I'd be on my way to T's Mysore room right now, but instead I think I'll stay in today and do my practice at home.  S took me all the way to Yoganidrasana on Wednesday and, quite frankly, I'm feeling a little overwhelmed.   With so many new postures to work on, my practice has become this huge, clunky thing that I'm not exactly sure how to deal with just yet.  Nobel has been discussing his own practice of 2nd series recently, to split or not to split, and I'm suddenly in a similar situation.

Here's my dilemma:  I'm fairly certain that, had I not decided to check out the Mysore classes I've been attending, I'd still be practicing Primary only.  As far as I'm concerned, my Primary could still use a lot of work, lotus modifications aside.  But I love the backbends of 2nd series and I think they're a great compliment to all the forward bending of Primary.  So I figured when I got Kapo that I'd just settle into that practice and enjoy full Primary + 2nd through Kapo for a good long while.  Then S hit me with the entire first half of 2nd series and I don't know what to do.

T told me last week that, once I included Laghu Vajrasana in my practice, I could stop Primary at Navasana and move from there into 2nd series, which is appealing since it saves me some time, but I miss the work of Bhujapidasana, Kurmasana, and Supta Kurmasana.  Also, I haven't quite mastered the rolling up to balance in Ubhaya Padangusthasana and Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana, so I don't want to skip out on that.

I've never heard of this sort of splitting of Primary and 2nd series before.  Is this customary?  In the midst of my confusion, I've been experimenting a bit in my home practice with the different combinations.  Earlier this week, before S gave me Kapo, I practiced full Primary plus 2nd through Laghu Vajrasana.  Then on Tuesday, after she gave me Kapo through Bakasana, I practiced Primary through Navasana and 2nd through Bakasana.  Then yesterday, after acquiring the leg-behind-head postures the day before, I went my own way and practiced Primary through Supta Kurmasana and 2nd through Bakasana, omitting the new poses I'd been given.  I just wasn't feeling up to trying the LBH postures on my own, and I needed a little more time to absorb the practice I'd just been given.  Today, I intend to tackle all of Primary + 2nd through Yoganidrasana just to see how it goes.  I've got the entire evening to while away, so why not? 

On a sad note, Wednesday was my last day with S.  I didn't know she'd be leaving so soon!  She made the announcement before the chant and it hit me harder than I had expected.  I've learned so much from her in so short a time.  Often, I was one of only two or three students in her class, and once I was the ONLY student, so she's invested a lot of her time and attention in my practice.  Not only that, but she seemed to particularly enjoy telling me the sweetest, most amusing stories about the old days of Ashtanga in Austin and her experiences with the members of the Jois family.  Practice with S was always a delight.  I will miss her very much.

And, of course, I'm left to wonder, what will the new teacher be like...?

4.28.2011

Asana of the Week: Virabhadrasana III


Virabhadrasana III (Warrior 3) is a fundamental standing balance that strengthens the body and steadies the mind.

The muscles of the foot, ankle, and calf work strongly in the standing leg to steady the balance.  The quadriceps support the standing knee and the hamstrings engage eccentrically to regulate flexion of the hip.  In the lifted leg, the glutes engage to extend the hip while the tensor fascia lata works against these muscles to prevent external rotation.  In the torso, the spinal extensors, abdominals, and psoas engage to support and elongate the spine.  The trapezius, deltoids, and triceps extend the shoulders and straighten the arms.

The foundation of balance in any of the single-legged postures is in the feet.  Press into the big toe and lift through the arch of the foot to activate the muscles of the lower leg and contribute to the lightness of the pose.  Microbend the standing knee to avoid hyper-extending at the joint and be aware of any external rotation in either leg caused by overuse of the glutes.  There is a tendency, especially in the extended leg, to roll the hip open in order to recruit the gluteus maximus more fully.  Use a slight internal rotation of the extended leg to drop the hip and counteract any imbalance in the pelvis.

Draw the shoulderblades onto the back to bring the tops of the shoulders away from the ears as you stretch out through the fingertips.  Lift the spine, arms, and extended leg parallel to the floor beneath you.  Consciously engage the muscles of the abdomen to prevent overuse of the spinal extensors.  Point the sternum forward as you push back through the sole of the foot.  Use the gaze to steady your mind.  Imagine that you are drawing energy up from the earth through the standing leg and directing it out through both ends.

If you feel strain in the low back while practicing Virabhadrasana III, you may press the palms in anjali mudra at the heart center or bring the fingertips to the floor.  A variety of arm positions may be used in this posture to change the focus or level of challenge.  A couple of my favorite variations include fingers interlaced behind the back to help keep the chest lifting or with Garudasana (Eagle Pose) arms for a nice stretch across the shoulders and upper back.

4.26.2011

More than I Bargained for

(source)
 So I've been wondering aloud whether S would give me Kapo before the new teacher takes over the class.  She's leaving in a few weeks and just gave me Laghu on Wednesday.  Last night, not only did she give me Kapo, she took me all the way to Bakasana B!

Kapotasana.  Was.  Awesome.  Many of the poses in Ashtanga, particularly 1st and 2nd series, are familiar to me in some variation or another.  Most of them I've tried at least a few times, if not practiced fairly regularly.  Kapo, however, I've always shied from.  I just never thought it possible.  I have never identified as a "natural backbender," one of those pixies with a rubber band for a spine, so I have generally kept to a few familiar heart openers and backbending sequences in my practice, assuming all others beyond my (here we go again) "natural ability."

I identify as a person with tight shoulders.  I have often thought, "I have tight shoulders. My shoulders are tight and inflexible.  This is the way they are."  This type of dualistic thinking has blinded me to the true extent of possibility, not just in my asana practice, but in my life.  Kapotasana is perhaps a small, silly example of the metaphorical door that I assume is locked because it's always been locked, though, in actuality, it may be unlocked and, should it be opened, lead to a more complete understanding of reality, a clarity previously unimagined.  Until I jiggle the knob, I'll never know.

Yeah... Kapo is like that.  You've gotta jiggle those knobs once in a while.

Anyway, after Laghu, which I managed to lift myself out of with S's precise instruction, she told me come to my knees after the vinyasa so she could give me the next pose.  Now, I suspected she might give me Kapo before she leaves, but I didn't expect it this week.  The first time, she had me go as far as I could on my own, and then gave me a little push to help me get my hands to my feet.  As it turned out, my feet weren't nearly as far from my hands as I thought they were.  After I came out, I told S as much, and she said I could try it again.  The second time, I walked my fingers in to my feet and held my toes for five breaths without assistance.  My elbows did not quite touch down, but it was amazing nonetheless.  Kapotasana B highlighted a big imbalance of tension in the left chest, shoulder and wrist, probably from carrying heavy trays of food on that side for seven years.  Now that I'm no longer waiting tables (again I say hooray!), I can finally address this imbalance.

After Kapo, I figured we were done.  I was wrong.  S had me come to seated, and we did Supta Vajrasana.  I wondered what would happen when I came to this pose since lotus is out of the question.  S simply had me sit in Sukhasana, a simple crossed legged position, and held my wrists as she rested her legs on my knees.  After the vinyasa, she asked me if I wanted more.  I asked her what was next.  When she said Bakasana A and B, I said, "of course!"  I love Bakasana, and I've missed the arm balancing in my practice these past few months as I've explored Primary more exclusively.  I landed Bakasana B with a minor toe-to-the-floor infraction and S exclaimed, "It counts!"  Haha!  I love her.

Drop backs were really good.  I suspect Kapo may have produced that effect since the shoulder extension is mainly where my drop backs come up short.  I've struggled with standing up for the past week.  I seem to have developed an irritating mental block that pops up when I first try to stand.  I go for it anyway, but the fear makes it stiff and I have to step backwards to catch myself.  After the second or third attempt, I'm usually able to smooth it out and keep the feet rooted, but the first couple stand ups have been pretty rough all week.  Maybe I need a stand up ritual.  S told me she says a little prayer before every single one.

So... now I've got quite the beastly practice on my hands and I wasn't even looking for it.  Primary + 2nd up to Bakasana B.  Let's see where this takes me.

4.23.2011

Primary Friday: Rumblings and Anticipation

 Is it a rest day again, already?  Unlike last week, when every muscle and bone in my body begged for a day off, I was surprised last night after practice to remember that Saturday usually follows Friday, and that means a whole day of rest for me!

Practice last night was strange.  I have not been eating well this week; the boyfriend and I have been indulging with one another.  First, a dinner of margaritas, fajitas, and salsa aplenty on one night, then pizza and beer the next.  Delicious and thoroughly enjoyable, but not at all appreciated by my poor digestive system.  On my way to the shala, my gut began to rumble and squeak in the most ominous way.  I'll spare you the details, but suffice it to say I considered turning around and skipping practice altogether.  Instead, I convinced myself it would be fine once I started to move and decided I might have to let T know that if I bolted from the room crying, it wasn't her fault.

As it turned out, I was fine (thank goodness).  Once I got through the first few Surya, things seemed to quiet down in my belly but I was left feeling sort of heavy and cold.  Practice was held in a different room this week due to some special event taking place in the studio.  It was surprisingly disorienting to be in a new room, with mirrors and people placed at odd angles all around me.  It took me a while to settle my drishti and not get distracted by the close quarters of the smaller room.

T left me more or less alone, with the exception of an early Down Dog adjustment, until Supta Kurmasana when she helped me get my hands bound and brought my feet closer together.  For a while there, I was easily binding my hands on my own in this pose.  At some point, that easy bind went away and I either have to work very hard to get the fingers hooked or I just pretend I'm bound as my fingertips extend toward each other.  This may have something to do with the margaritas, fajitas, pizza, and beer.  I'll try to take it easy with the food this week and see if I can bring it back.

Unsure whether or not S had already made contact with T about where I'm at with 2nd series, I forged ahead from Bhekasana with Dhanurasana, Parsva Dhanurasana, Ustrasana, and Laghu Vajrasana in spite of the fact that T has not, as yet, given me these poses herself.  She didn't seem to mind terribly, and came by to supervise as I moved through the backbends.  Laghu is an interesting pose; it feels amazing on my quads and it's not bad to come into or to hold, but the exit is tricky.  I have not yet been able to pull myself back up without assistance or, for lack of helping hands, resorting to hideous gyrations.  T showed me a couple of ways to work on this without beaching myself in the full pose.

T made a point of letting me know that, since I'm taking it all the way to Laghu, I can start my 2nd series poses after Navasana.  Frankly, I'd rather not, but I do feel bad when my practice runs over two hours and S or T have to stick around to help with the the 2nd series stuff.  I'll probably do as she suggested when I attend Mysore sessions but continue with full primary plus the 2nd series poses at home. 

I'm getting more and more excited about practicing with Swenson in June -- that's two weeks of morning Mysore and pranayama with David and his wife, Shelley.  Though I don't know anything about Shelley's teaching style, S has an obvious affinity and respect for her.  She mentions her fairly often and has said that Shelley's approach is the perfect compliment to David's presentation.  There are a number of workshops being offered by the pair throughout these two weeks.  I haven't signed up for any of them yet, but there is a Nadi Shodana workshop that is calling my name:
"Nadi Shodana Practitioners' Clinic: David will lead a guided exploration of the Second Series of Ashtanga yoga, starting with an introduction of its inherent dynamics. There will be a variety of options given for each posture in order to allow students to practice appropriately. This class is designed for students who have a full Primary Series practice, and at least a partial Second Series practice."
By the time late June rolls around, I should be primed and ready for further 2nd series exploration.  I like the sound of an introduction to the "inherent dynamics" of the practice, and it might be helpful to learn a number of modifications for the poses, as I don't think my knees will be lotus-ready any time soon.  It sounds like something that could have helped me a lot when I first started to practice Primary.  It took a while just to grasp to the energetics of the series and learn the appropriate pacing.  I'll probably sign up for this as soon as I can will myself to detach from the cash.

4.22.2011

The Jig is Up


I've been found out.  No more flying under the radar, practicing differently with different teachers.  It came up on Wednesday with S.  As it happened, I was the only student to show up on Wednesday, so S and I had lots of one-on-one time.  Essentially, I was the unwitting recipient of a very inexpensive private lesson (one of the perks of dedicated practice).  She stood by throughout my entire practice, stopping me here and there to clarify the breath counts or show me some fun stuff from the good ol' days, like alternative jump backs for Upavishta Konasana and Supta Konasana that are not part of Ashtanga anymore.

I can't do these things in a Mysore room, but I can play with them on my own.  Admittedly, I do indulge a bit in my home practice, flourishing as much as I damn well please some days.  Since I'm not allowed to do this with a teacher, I might as well play when I'm on my own.  I realize I may catch some flack for this from you Ashtanga purists.  I'm fine with that.

I'm thinking of putting together a video of the different Ashtanga jump backs and vinyasas.  (Not that Grimmly hasn't covered those bases for us already -- and very well, I might add.  But it might be nice to have a female interpretation, no?)  There are a lot of fun and delightfully creative vinyasas in the history of Ashtanga, and so many "right" and "wrong" ways to do them.  I'm really getting into this idea of the evolution of Ashtanga.  Are these changes actually documented anywhere in a way that can be followed logically and chronologically?  How difficult of a project would that be?

Anyway... back to my private practice with S:  the multiple teachers situation came up at Marichyasana B when she asked me why I do the pose the way I do, tipping forward with neither hip on the ground.  I told her that the "first teacher I worked with" instructed me to do it that way, which is true.  S asked me who my first Ashtanga teacher was... and I told her it was "[T] from the Friday Mysore session" (awkward pause) "... who I still practice with each week." *optimistic grin*

At first, S seemed a bit taken aback.  She was quiet for a moment, then revealed that T is a student of hers.  Ha!  She wondered aloud why T was teaching it that way, and made sure I understood that T didn't learn it that way from her.  Hahaha!  S is so cute, it destroys me.  Later, when we got into the 2nd series poses, S asked me if I'd been practicing 2nd with T.  I told her I'd been letting T give me poses as she thinks I'm ready, and then told her that T had just given me Bhekasana on Friday. *optimistic grin #2*

S was quiet and paced around a bit behind me while I carried on with my practice, awaiting her response.  First, she said, "you should do what she tells you to do when you're with her."  Then she came around to the top of my mat and announced that she would take me "much faster than [T] will."  I remained silent, unsure of exactly what her impression was.  It was never my intention to hide my wandering practice from my teachers.  Although I had begun to suspect it lately, I wasn't even certain it was relevant information.  This not exactly a thriving Ashtanga community.  Students come and go, with relatively few regulars.  This fact is obvious to me already, and I've only been there a couple of months.  It seems like the kind of place where students share teachers, or teachers share students... whichever.

True to her word, S took me to Laghu Vajrasana.  Before she left, she mentioned that she'll only be teaching there for a few more weeks.  (?!?)  Some time in May or June, someone else is taking over the class.  I was sincerely sorry to hear this.  I really enjoy sessions with S.  She's so loving, and she's taught me so much.  I will make an effort to attend her class twice a week until she leaves.  She also mentioned, as she made her way to the door, that she will email the new teacher and T about me before she goes to let them know where she's taking me with 2nd.

So I've been outed.  No more anonymous practice with different teachers.  And just a few more weeks with S.  I can't help but wonder... will she give me Kapo?

4.21.2011

Asana of the Week: Eka Pada Bakasana II

Eka Pada Bakasana II (One-Legged Crane Pose 2) is a strong asymmetrical arm balance that works the lower half of the body in different ways.  On one side, the quadriceps and psoas work together to extend the knee and carry the weight of the straight leg.  On the other side, the hamstrings bend the knee and squeeze the heel toward the buttocks as the hip flexors draw the knee up and in toward the body.  On both sides, the hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, and chest are strengthened.  The adductors of the thighs work to squeeze the legs against the upper arms, and the abdominals, obliques, and quadratus lumborum contract to lift the hips and round the spine.

In order to access the appropriate muscle groups, it may be helpful to think of Eka Pada Bakasana II as Bakasana (Crane Pose) on one side and Tittibhasana (Insect Posture) on the other.  I recommend practicing both of these asanas individually to explore these actions before combining them in Eka Pada Bakasana II.

Enter this variation of One-legged Crane from Crane Pose by dropping the hips slightly as you extend one leg straight.  Hug both knees firmly against the upper arms and engage mula bandha (root lock) and uddiyana bandha (navel lock) by lifting the pelvic floor and sucking the navel up and in to create a sense of lightness in the body.  As in all asanas in which we carry weight on the hands, remember to spread the weight evenly across the entire surface of the palm and engage the fingers (think: "suction cup fingertips") to avoid collapsing onto the heels of the hands and straining the wrists.

Advanced practitioners may begin in Salamba Sirsasana (Tripod Headstand), then push up to Bakasana and take Eka Pada Bakasana II from there.  To exit the pose, either move back through Bakasana to Salamba Sirsasana, or stretch the bent leg back and bend the elbows to balance in Eka Pada Koundinyasana II, then jump back to Chaturanga and take a vinyasa.

*See Eka Pada Bakasana I

4.20.2011

How to do Neti Kriya

Watch the video to learn how to practice neti, then follow the links below to get your very own neti pot and salts.


Uddiyana, anyone?

This gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "belly dance."

4.19.2011

Practice Report and More Drop Backs

Really good practices so far this week.  Mysore last night with S's sub was fantastic.  She's one of those teachers who makes you try things the hard way just for the hell of it, just to see what it takes.  I love this because I so often surprise myself when teachers push me to take it to the next level.

Last night, she saw my half assed jump into Bhujapidasana, in which I jump into Titti, then release the feet down to snuggle my knees further up my arms and THEN go for the full pose.  She told me to try jumping into Titti and crossing the ankles in one motion, then lower the head down on the exhale.  I responded dubiously, with furrowed brow, "Ok, I'll see what I can do..." And then BAM!  I did it.  One motion.  Totally amazed myself.  And then I was able to recreate the landing today.  In tiny shorts, no less!  Entering Bhujapidasana this way does cramp my style on the exit since my legs aren't quite high enough up the arms for a nice Titti to Bakasana transition, but it's a fair trade.  I can still do the proper exit.  It's just not as pretty, but I can work on jumping my legs higher up over time.

I've also been able to get into Bhekasana by myself the past few days, which is completely astonishing given the inflexibility of my knees.  Frankly, I never thought I'd be able to do this pose.  I've always practiced it one leg at a time, but lately my shoulders are opening up and my psoas are growing long and strong from all the hang backs.  I'm feeling huge shifts all the way around the pelvis since I've been practicing Ashtanga, and more specifically since the drop backs. There's more sensation, more room to move around in there somehow. 

And, speaking of drop backs, I recorded mine today.  Actually, I recorded the whole backbending sequence: 3 UDs and 5 drops and stands.  It's been one week since the last video, but I don't see much difference.  The drop backs aren't bad -- the last couple are actually pretty nice, but the standing leaves much to be desired.  I just couldn't stay rooted in the feet today.  I think I may be walking my hands in too far and trying to stand from too short of a backbend.  It's helps to shorten it up a little, but I may be overdoing it.  Seems like I'm carrying too much weight in the hands before standing, which is why I end up jogging backwards after the first couple of tries. See for yourself.


Tips?  Tricks?  Ancient wisdom?  What's the deal with the backtracking as I stand?  S's sub instructed me yesterday to keep the head back, to really roll up the spine from tailbone to head.  I'm not doing so great a job of it here.  It makes me a little uncomfortable to keep the head back as I try to come up, but when I practiced with her yesterday, it did seem to slow the whole process and make the stand ups really smooth and nice.  I'd really like to cut back on the rocking and start standing with more control.

4.15.2011

Primary Friday: Be advised... Ashtanga awaits.

It's been nine days since my last rest day and my body has not been shy in reminding me.  I'm feeling an interesting tweak deep in the groins at the hamstrings attachments.  My arms are tired, my wrists are stiff and I can't stop stuffing my face.  I'm on my fourth banana of the evening, and that's just to hold me over between bread and dairy products.  Hehe.  Practice the last couple of days has been a little rough.

It was back to T's room as usual for Friday practice this week.  I arrived early and had the room to myself for the first fifteen minutes.  The afternoon sun warmed the naturally lit room to a nice balmy condition.  I was sweating by the first Surya B.  A young woman joined me as I was half-way through the Salutations, unrolled her mat at a safe distance and, after a bit of light stretching, sat down.  I always show up early because my practice is long.  This Friday session is a free Mysore class, and as such functions as an Ashtanga lure to unsuspecting seekers of free yoga.  Many who come to class have no idea what Mysore means, and some are not familiar with the distinctions of Ashtanga.  Often, these first-timers arrive early, before the teacher shows up, and end up in the room alone with me as I carry on with my practice.

My heart goes out to these people.  They almost always lay their mats down on the opposite end of the room and fidget, no doubt confused by my refusal to acknowledge their need for direction while they play with gentle hip openers between trips to the water fountain.  They have no idea what's in store for them.  When I wrote this post, just over three months ago, I could never have guessed how quickly I would be swept up by Ashtanga. When I see these people, wandering into the shala unawares, I feel so compelled to reach out and warn them what's to come, but I don't.  Better to lead by example.  Better to let T explain.  In the meantime, I try to ignore them as lovingly as possible.

T gave me Bhekasana today.  S's sub gave me everything up to Parsva Dhanurasana on Monday, and I sort of tacked on Ustrasana while no one was looking... in my home practice, that is.  Working with different teachers, I've been letting them tell me what they think I'm ready for on an individual basis.  It's a little strange, but enlightening.  Sometimes I'm amazed by what they're able to see.  I might practice up to Parsva Dhanurasana when S comes back, since it was her sub who gave them to me, and see what she says.

Backbends were good.  All the backbends of 2nd are developing my upper back nicely and make Urdhva Dhanurasana a breeze.  My stand ups are more consistent as I've grown better able to sustain the strength in my legs after the Urdhva Dhanurasanas.  One of the drop backs in particular was especially nice today, with my hands landing softly much closer to my heels than usual.  I feel my uddiyana bandha getting stronger as I work toward using less momentum in the standing attempts.

Tomorrow is a rest day and I could not be more ready.  I might even do a nice restorative practice in the afternoon.  My body is still adjusting to a more intensive teaching schedule, not to mention the recent switch to a 6-day per week Ashtanga practice.  These changes are beginning to catch up with me and I really need to lie around and relax for a day.... maybe take the dog for a walk... do some reading... eat lots fruit and cheese.  You know the drill.  Me time.

The Marichyasanas: Who needs a chiropractor?

The first time I received an adjustment to bind in Marichyasana C, my back cracked from my tailbone all the way up to the base of my neck.  It was an amazing moment, and though I still get a good crack once in a while, the completeness of that spinal readjustment has not been recreated.

I present the present state of my Marichyasanas (just one side of each, so as not to bore you):

I'm still modifying the lotus variations for my knees and only binding to the fingertips in C and D, as you can see.  This was taken out of the context of my practice, so I'm not entirely warm and my pants aren't sweaty enough to help with the grip, so the binds are perhaps not as deep as they could be, but this is still a decent representation of where I'm at with these four postures.

I love twists but after the Marichyasanas, it's a relief to do five rounds of Navasana.  I think that pretty much sums it up.

4.14.2011

Asana of the Week: Lolasana

  
So you want to jump back, do you?  Well then, this is your pose.  Lolasana, or Pendant Pose, is the gateway to those floaty, effortless Ashtanga jump backs that you so desperately desire.  This pose strengthens the wrists, arms, shoulders, upper back, chest, and abs, developing all the muscles that are recruited in the jump back vinyasa.  

Begin by sitting on your knees in Virasana (Hero Pose).  With the knees together, plant the hands beside your thighs, fingertips flush with the knees.  Lean forward to align your shoulders directly over your wrists then, with straight arms, lift your knees into your chest.  At first, allow the feet to remain in contact with the floor.  You might stay here, breathing and squeezing the knees in toward the chest, or if you feel strong, lift your heels toward the buttocks to balance on the hands alone.  Though the image above shows my legs uncrossed, some find it easier to practice with the ankles crossed (pictured below).
Use your abdominals to curl your body into a compact little ball.  Keep squeezing the knees in and up and hug the heels toward your sit bones.  The body is a heavy weight for the arms to bear in this position.  Remember to grip with the fingertips in order to protect your wrists.  You may find that you begin to swing or sway with your breathing as you balance, hence the name:  Pendant pose.  The body swings like a pendant between the arms.  This motion may be chaotic and uncontrolled at first.  Work toward swinging lightly back and forth in a controlled manner.  This will develop the strength and precision needed for those jump backs.  Eventually, you will be able to swing your feet forward to come to seated, or swing them back to Chaturanga.

Once you are able to practice this pose comfortably, try starting from Sukhasana (Easy Seat).  Cross the legs at the ankles, then lift up and try to swing the feet back through the arms.  This is your jump back.  All you need do from here is shoot the feet back and you've got it!

4.13.2011

Vinyasaaahhh...

Last night I broke the month-long Ashtanga streak and opted for a Vinyasa practice instead.  It was getting late.  I'd had very little sleep the night before and the prospect of Primary plus 2nd through Ustrasana (I was given more of 2nd on Monday) seemed a little daunting.  I begrudgingly donned my sports bra as I gathered up my strength and resigned myself to 2+ hours of Ashtanga hell when I suddenly realized:  Hey!  I can do whatever I want.  Yoga is yoga.  I should practice in the way that best serves me.  And Ashtanga likely would have killed me, so I went an entirely different route.

It was divine.  So lovely to be on the mat in this way again, never knowing what comes next, just listening to the body for direction.  I started out with 5 minute holds of Adho Mukha Svanasana and Sirsasana.  I used a timer, a first in my asana practice, and I really liked it.  It was challenging to be at the mercy of the timer rather than a predetermined number of breaths.  Just when it started to feel like the longest five minutes ever, the bell would go off.  I haven't done any practice with long holds (except for Sirsasana -- 5 minutes is normal, it just seems longer with the timer) since I hopped the Ashtanga train, so it was interesting to see that I haven't lost that strength and in fact felt stronger than before.

I practiced lots of luxurious hip openers, big, sprawling hamstrings stretches, and some pretty arm balances that I don't get to do much any more.  I also focused on some asymmetrical backbends (i.e. upright variations of Eka Pada Rajakapotasana and Hanumanasana) to build strength for my 2nd series poses and release the psoas.  I noticed in these postures that I seem to be developing a major imbalance between the right and left sides.

My right psoas is very tight, which I was already aware of, but my right sacral region is clogged, for lack of a better word.  It just feels like there's some extra junk in there, marbles and pebbles mixed in with molasses, obstructing extension at the base of the spine.  I'm wondering if Ashtanga is making my one-sidedness worse because prior to the Ashtanga experiment, I had made some major headway in building symmetry between the two sides.  Could it be that modifying all lotus postures on one side (because of the beleaguered knee) is leading to chronic imbalance?  I hope not.  I'll have to observe this more closely.

And all of this brings me to drop backs.  With all of that psoas-stretching I figured it would be nice to see how my drop backs and stand ups were affected, and since I had my phone in the room with me because of the timer, I figured I might as well get a video and see what exactly is going on there.


It was strange to see the drop backs in relation to the way they feel.  The floor appears to be much closer to me when I'm in the process of dropping back than it actually is.  I'm dropping pretty far to the ground, but it's definitely getting better because the landings feel much softer on my wrists this week.  I can feel that the control necessary to create that softness in the landing is coming from the thighs.  I just need to develop that strength.  (By the way, my legs are not freakishly long as they appear to be in the video.  It's the angle, I guess, and the fact that my feet are not in the frame.  I'm actually pretty short.)

So that's my web video debut.  A bit behind the times, perhaps, but better late than never.  I may make this a regular thing, so if you're into watching other people do yoga, come back and see me.  I'm looking for advice here, so if you've got any feedback on the backbends, please leave your thoughts in the comments.  Let's polish these backbends together!  :)

4.11.2011

"Guruji Changed It."

Is that a mischievous spark of amusement behind those shades, Guruji?
Got on the mat early yesterday with a long day of teaching ahead of me.  As excited as I am about being able to do my practice in the morning after years of working nights and sleeping days, I had a hard time finding motivation as I moved through the Surya Namaskara.  My spine creaked and my mind searched with persistence for sufficient reasons not to practice.  Fortunately, it found none.

I settled into the practice midway through the standing sequence and by Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana, I was feeling pretty good.  The level of resistance I face when bringing my forehead to my shin is generally a decent indicator of how the rest of the practice will unfold.  I folded easily and balanced steadily on both sides, a good sign which rang true.  I had a great practice.

When I first began practicing Primary, I practiced along with Swenson's Practice Manual, which illustrates Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana as a series of four separate postures, the first of which is a relatively upright variation in which the leg is held straight out it front without folding the entirely over the leg.  In the third posture of the 4-part sequence, per the Manual, the foot is taken with both hands and the leg is pulled up to the face while the body remains perfectly upright.  This is how I learned the series at home until I made it to a Mysore class.

During my first Mysore class, the teacher gently informed me that I was practicing Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana incorrectly.  She then made me go back and do both sides again, with her assistance.  This experience thoroughly confused me.  I had thought the Primary series was the same everywhere, always and forever unchanged.  How could it be that Swenson's instructions had steered me wrong?  When I got home, I compared Swenson's book to Maehle's instruction of Utthita Hasta Padangusthasa in Ashtanga Yoga: Practice & Philosophy, my other Primary reference.  Maehle's version confirmed my teacher's, so I adopted this new variation and carried on, my confidence in the tradition of Ashtanga slightly shaken.

And all was well and good until one day in another teacher's Mysore room, I was stopped after Marichyasana A.  I had been under the impression that, should one have the ability, there is an alternative vinyasa to the usual jump back here in which the knee stays behind the shoulder.  The practitioner lifts up to Eka Pada Bakasana and then drops to Chaturanga in one exhale.  I had thought this was the ideal vinyasa for Marichi A and C.  However, this teacher informed me that "the only time we practice Eka Pada Bakasana in Primary is after Virabhadrasana II."  Huh.  I could have sworn I read that the Eka Pada Bakasana exit was prescribed after these two poses.  Upon further examination, Maehle's book mentions this vinyasa as an option, but Swenson's does not.  So I continue to do it in my home practice but not when I practice with a teacher.

I must have it all straightened out by now, I thought when, yet again, I was stopped by one of my teachers and told that the sequence had been changed.  No longer do we inhale up, pause, then exhale down from Supta Konasana.  "Guruji changed it."

What?  What do you mean he changed it?  Of course, I didn't say these things to my teacher, but I may have cocked an eyebrow.  How did he change it?  Is there some administrative panel that approves these decisions, or did Guruji just mix it up now and then for fun?  And will Sharath do the same?  Will I, one day after years and years of practice, be approached by a teacher recently returned from India (or Encinitas) who will stop me to inform me it's been changed?  It's a disconcerting thought.

Can any of you senior Ashtangis shed some light on this evolution of the practice?  Why and how does the series get changed?

4.09.2011

Primary Friday: A Lean, Mean Ashtanga Machine

How bizarre is this image?  Click for full effect.
I had a really nice practice in T's Mysore room yesterday.  It was a small group this week, just 6 students in the room, which means T was able to keep diligent watch over all of us.  We practiced hard and were rewarded with some extra attention.

Thursday was my rest day, so I was feeling a little rusty at the start.  The beleaguered knee was very stiff; I'm still modifying all lotus postures, from Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana to Tolasana, and expect to be doing so for a long time.  I've had to cut back to six Suryas when I attend class, three As and three Bs, instead of the full ten to accommodate the addition of my 2nd series poses, which I forgot to do yesterday until T looked at me and said , "2nd?"  I guess I was excited to get on with the backbending.

Pasasana is pretty much a disaster.  My heels are a good two inches from the floor.  Teacher S doesn't want me to prop them up because she says my achilles tendons will never lengthen that way, but T rolled up a blanket yesterday and put it under my heels.  Binding feels impossible.  With help, I can get my fingertips to touch but I can't hook them yet.  I'm wondering if I need to stop doing pull-ups and chin-ups, which I do once a week to balance all the triceps strength that Vinyasa yoga develops (and because they're incredibly efficient forms of exercise).  Sometimes when I'm binding, it feels as though the biceps of the wrapping arm will tear right off the bone.

Krounchasana is okay.  My hammies are pretty long, so pulling the leg in is no problem, but neither of my knees are able to flex completely, so I can't get the sit bone of the bent leg to come down to the floor.  I worry a bit about the bum knee in this pose.  It feels good to stretch it this way, but it also feels like one wrong move and it could be reinjured.  At home, I sit on a dictionary.  In the Mysore room, I practice very, very carefully.

T gave me Shalabasana yesterday, which S had given me on Wednesday, so they're still right in step with one another.  I love Shalabasana, especially before Urdhva Dhanurasana.  It seems to really prepare the muscles of the back body nicely for spinal extension. 

The first push up to Urdhva Dhanurasana is still wrought with intense sensation, particularly in the sacral region, but after that it's all smooth sailing.  Drop backs and stand ups are now practically routine.  It just seems to happen in spite of any and all negative thinking that may arise in the process.  Standing up goes something like this:  rock once... Holy shit this hurts...  rock twice... I'm going to fall and bust my ass this time, I know it... rock three times and Here goes nothing!  Then a flash of light and I'm standing at the top of my mat.  It's a good time.

Drop backs are getting better really quickly.  After watching a few of the pros do it on youtube, I realized that the way to land more softly and in a shorter backbend is to push the hips forward over the toes.  This way, the hands land closer to the feet and, rather than coming down hard on the wrists, the hands land fingers-first and there's a momentum that follows to bring the chest forward which, eventually, will be what helps me drop and stand in one breath.  Eventually.

My body is stronger and leaner from this Ashtanga experiment.  My abs and arms are taking on a lot of tone and I've lost the weight I gained back after teaching training.  My upper abs are sore today.  Not sure if it's from the Ashtanga practice or from the extra-curricular arm balancing and backbending work I did when I got home.  I took a bunch of Asana of the Week photos last night, so expect some fun poses to be featured in the near future.

(image source)

4.08.2011

Asana of the Week: Purvottanasana

It's no coincidence that the past few asanas of the week have had similar-sounding Sanskrit names.  I'm straightening this mess out once and for all, for myself and for those who make this mistake with me.  Sanskrit lesson #1 at Damn Good Yoga:  Parsvakonasana, Parsvottansana, and Purvottanasana.  Similar, but different.  Let's keep 'em straight, shall we?

Good.  Now that we've taken care of that...

Purvottanasana.  Eastern Stretch.  It's a heart opener without the big backbend, which makes it a great pose for developing the openness in the chest and shoulders and the strength in the legs and arms to practice safe, muscularly supported backbends.  It's also an excellent counter-pose to forward bending postures.

Purvottanasana tones the hamstrings, inner thighs, and soleus muscles of the lower legs as the hips lift and the toes reach toward the floor.  The triceps contract to straighten the arms which lengthens the biceps and lifts and spreads the chest, bringing a deep stretch to the anterior deltoids and pectoralis major.

Set up for Purvottanasana in Dandasana (Staff Pose) with the inner legs together and the feet in plantar flexion (pointed toes).  Take the hands to the mat 6-10 inches behind the hips with the fingers pointing forward.  On an inhalation, press into the hands and engage the backs of the legs to lift the hips.  The legs and arms should be straight with the wrists aligned directly beneath the shoulders.  If they are not, come down and adjust the position of the hands accordingly.

Ground through the inner edges of the feet to externally rotate the legs.  Press all ten toes down to the floor then gently drop the head back on an exhalation.  Stretch through the chin to open the throat but be careful not to crunch the back of the neck.  If the hamstrings are weak, you may be tempted to compensate by recruiting the gluteus maximus, which is likely to hyper-extend the lumbar spine.  Don't do this.  Relax the bum.  If you feel you are straining or experience pinching in the low back, bend the knees and practice a tabletop position instead.

4.07.2011

Writing about Not Writing about Meditation

Meditation has become a hot-button issue in the blogosphere these days, particularly among yogis as we pipe up from all corners of the net to proclaim our earnest intentions for developing a meditation practice, defend our existing practice, or justify our reasons for choosing not to devote time to seated meditation at all.  It occurred to me, judging from the content of this blog, that readers may be under the impression that I don't meditate.  I write a lot about asana, yoga philosophy, and lifestyle, but very little about the practice of meditation.

I do indeed meditate and I consider it to be a potent and valuable practice.  I began to incorporate meditation into my daily practice as I found myself burrowing deeper into the fertile ground that a larger, 8-limbed approach to the practice revealed.  It's just not something about which I feel particularly well-informed or able to fully communicate.  When it comes to asana, I know all sorts of interesting things about the body, the way it moves, how it's put together and how to work with the body in order to manipulate sensation and draw out those valuable little truths that lay in waiting.  I've read books and articles galore on the techniques and effects of asana practice, but my approach to meditation has been decidedly organic.  I just sit down, close my eyes, and breathe.

There are hundreds of different meditation techniques which focus the mind or develop different powers of concentration and energetic alignment, but this simple, natural approach has worked for me.  My meditation practice has grown from 5 minutes before asana to 20-30 minutes of quiet contemplation after pranayama every day.  Basically, I wait.  I listen intently.  I become an object of reception, allowing all the energies of the universe to flow through and do whatever it is that they do when I am able to refrain from interference and simply observe.

I don't know what else to say about meditation except that it works.  It grounds me.  It sharpens my perception and it brings me back to my true nature.  And this is why I don't write about meditation; it's not to easy to put into words.  It's a subtle, internal practice.  I have had some powerful experiences and been awakened to profound truths during meditation, but to try to relay those experiences here could never do them justice.

Another reason I don't write much about this topic is that I hesitate to offer a benchmark of experience for meditation.  It would sadden me to know that my words might interfere with the unadulterated experience of another whose needs do not match my own.  One should not approach meditation or asana with any goal in mind, but rather do these practices because they need to be done, like brushing one's teeth.  I don't brush my teeth because I want my smile to be a certain shade of white.  I brush my teeth because if I don't brush them, I'll lose them.  The same rings true for meditation and the intellect:  if I do not devote time to meditation, my ability to perceive rightly is diminished.

So I meditate because it is necessary if I wish to develop the steadiness of mind to recognize truth when I see it.  I suppose the cultivation of this ability could be considered a goal, but it's a goal that extends far beyond the practice itself and a skill that, even in its infancy, has dramatically changed the way I live my life.  The sitting practice, which once felt like such a chore, now feels more like coming home, like plugging in for a recharge, like tapping in to the source.  I look forward to it every day.

The one thing that I would like to stress to readers who may be considering a meditation practice is to be sensitive to your own needs.  Do what you need to do in order to be comfortable enough to remain still and in a state of dharana, or one-pointed concentration, for the specified amount of time.  Use a timer.  Start small.  Pratyahara, the ability to withdraw from the external and meditate without distraction, is a skill that will come with practice.  The rewards of a regular meditation practice need not be searched for.  They will surface with time.

4.04.2011

Prison Yoga Workshop

James leading a class at the San Quentin Prison
This weekend was the Prison Yoga Teacher Training hosted by Community Yoga and the Amala Foundation, two outstanding charitable organizations here in Austin.  The training was led by James Fox, prison yoga pioneer and veteran volunteer.  James has been teaching yoga at the San Quentin Prison for 8 years running and is the man behind the Prison Yoga Project, a ground-breaking organization that promotes awareness of the benefits of yoga and raises funds to bring the practice to people on the inside.  He is also the author of Yoga: A Path for Healing and Recovery, a guide to the practice geared toward the incarcerated population, which he distributes to prisoners all over the country.

James is an inspired and inspiring person.  The experience this weekend connecting with him and the rest of the group -- all of us looking to reach out to a population so greatly in need of empowerment, searching for a way to improve their lives -- was incredible.  The quality that strikes me so deeply about James is his groundedness.  He is so well rooted that his teachings emerge as intuitive truth rather than new information.  He emphasizes that we already know what we need to know -- teachers, students, prisoners, whoever.  We just need to move the obstacles out of the way in order to access this essential knowledge.

James teaches from a background in classical yoga and his presentation of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras is obviously a reflection of personal study and application of the practice in his own life, not simply recitation.  He speaks of the importance of one's personal practice and the need for we, as teachers, to be living examples of integrity.  He is a yogi after my own heart.

I am so excited to put everything I've learned from James over the weekend into action, not only in my coming work with the incarcerated population here in Texas, but also with my regular students.  We are all oppressed by the violent, relentless nature of our minds, and we are all in search of liberation.  The teachings of yoga speak to the human condition.  None are precluded from it's benefits and if we can recognize that suffering is universal, we can honor and lift up the good in all.  We can come together in a way that boosts the resilience of humanity.  Yoga is a path of higher evolution.  Through the practice, we elevate consciousness.  What better place to start than at the bottom, with those whose goodness has been so completely smothered and whose awareness has been cruelly reduced, not only by their own actions but by circumstance?

I'm still processing, still absorbing the weekend, but I know that I feel more steadfast in my motivations and values as a teacher.  I feel I've encountered a shining example in James, at a time when I am very much in need of one, of a teacher and guide who leads from the heart, who respects his students unwaveringly and supports them in their work while remaining detached from the results.  I am so grateful to him for bringing this work to Austin and for sharing his beautiful interpretation of the practice.

The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.  More than one in 100 adults is currently behind bars (source).  Please visit the Prison Yoga Project and consider purchasing James' book.  For $10, you receive a copy of this unique and practical guide to developing a personal yoga practice, featuring asana sequences and yoga philosophy, as well as effective meditation and pranayama techniques.  With your purchase, one copy goes to a prisoner in need.  If you don't want the book but you want to support James and his work, please donate what you can to the cause.

Don't think prisoners need or want yoga?  Read the testimonials.

4.01.2011

Primary Friday: Appreciating the Space

So...  if you've been reading the blog regularly these past couple of weeks, I know you're probably wondering:  "Who hit her with the emo stick?"

My personal and inner lives have been alight with violent realization.  I know this has been reflected in the sprawling tone of many of my recent posts.  I want to apologize, but I won't.  My practice is often a condensation of my life, extremes of experience projected on one another, one side a reflection of the other, my reactions being more or less the same.  They are not separate, but all is not yoga.  Nothing brings out the worst in someone like a lover.  And yet, somehow, even as I watch things fall apart, I feel energized.  I can observe my pain; I can feel it's source and where it sits in my body and know that only experience breeds wisdom enough to transcend experience.  But that's not what this post is about.

After an emotionally charged day, marinating in this ugliness, I both craved and feared my practice.  I went back to teacher T's room for afternoon Mysore, as is now the Friday custom.  It was very warm and I was dripping sweat after just a few Suryas.  I had noticed the breath was agitated during meditation earlier in the day, so I was not surprised when this carried on in my practice.  The standing sequence was a little more heated than usual.  The front wall of the room is one huge mirror, which I find terribly distracting, especially during the first part of my practice, before I get used to my own image hovering there in front of me.  I regained my rhythm once I came to the seated sequence.  From this point on, I honed in and the practice flowed.  Downward-facing forward folds solved the problem.  And boy, did I sweat.

In an earlier post this week, patrick suggested in the comments that it might get interesting practicing with 2 or 3 different teachers, as I am currently doing, if they all tell me something different.  Well, considering that I don't think they're aware that I'm attending the other's classes, they seem to be right on track with one another.  I see S twice a week and T only on Fridays.  T gave me the first two postures of 2nd series today.  S told me on Wednesday that we'd start 2nd the next time I work with her, which will be Monday.  So, yeah, I'm ready.

Pasasana isn't so fun for someone with tight shoulders, short achilles, and weak ankles (that's me!), but that's probably a sign that the pose will do me some good.  Krounchasana doesn't feel so nice on my busted knee so I'll probably be sitting up on the dictionary when I practice at home to alleviate the crank.  (Why don't I just buy a pair of blocks already?)

Drop-backs and stand-ups went really well.  It was the first time I've done either in T's room without her assistance, so we shared a moment of excitement when I nailed a stand-up attempt without budging my feet.  She's done a lot to help me with this backbending stuff.  Her "lead with the head" suggestion for my drop-backs seems to have made all the difference in the softness of my landing by initially creating even more bend in the upper back.  She's been very encouraging and I love her for it.

I'm finding this week that Primary is no longer the long haul it once seemed to be.  My energy has easily sustained me throughout the entire series with ease, even on these very tiring, conflict-ridden days.

Asana of the Week: Dwi Pada Koundinyasana

Dwi Pada Koundinyasana is a challenging arm balancing posture in the group of poses dedicated to the ancient sage Koundinya, along with Eka Pada Koundinyasana 1 and 2.

The chest, shoulders, arms, and wrists are all strengthened in this pose as the weight of the body is suspended over the hands.  The adductors of the thighs work strongly to keep the legs together and stabilized against the upper arm.  The internal organs are given a massage and the muscles of the sides and abdomen are strengthened as the torso deeply twists. 

Enter Dwi Pada Koundinyasana from Parsva Bakasana (Side Crane Pose).  Begin in a squat with the feet and legs together.  Turn the knees to one side and work the inside elbow as far up the side of the thigh as possible (toward the hip).  Brace the elbow into the thigh, plant the hands in front of you, and shift the weight forward into the palms.  Keep squeezing the thighs together, draw the heels in toward the buttocks, and press strong into the outside hand to bring the weight over the center.  If you are floating comfortably in Parvsa Bakasana, press the legs straight to come into Dwi Pada Koundinyasana.  Advanced practitioners may enter from Salamba Sirsasana (Tripod Headstand) by lowering the legs with control onto the arm and then pressing up into the arm balance.

The main challenge in this pose, apart from the level of strength involved, is to keep the chest open and the shoulders level.  The tendency is to allow the outside shoulder to drop in order to further the twist.  Counteract this tendency by pressing more powerfully into the outside hand and use the leverage of the legs to twist from the waist.  You will feel intense pressure in the outside shoulder (that's the shoulder to the opposite side of the legs).  Squeeze the legs together and push through the feet to focus your energy and make the body light.  It is acceptable to place the hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart here to provide more of a shelf for the legs, if necessary, but work toward bringing the hands closer together as you gain the strength and proficiency required.

Dwi Pada Koundinyasana Sequence:  Warm up well with some Surya Namaskara and then get ready to twist with this revolved balancing sequence. 
  1. Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
  2. Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana D (Extended Hand-to-Foot Pose D)
  3. Virabhadrasana III (Warrior 3)
  4. Anjaneyasana (High Crescent Lunge)
  5. Parivrtta Parsvakonasana variation (Side Angle lunge variation with hands in anjali mudra)
  6. Parsva Bakasana (Side Crane)
  7. Dwi Pada Koundinyasana (Two-Legged Sage Balance)
  8. Eka Pada Koundinyasana I (Sage Balance 1)
  9. Jump or step back to Chatturanga and take a vinyasa (You may need to reposition yourself on your mat since the arm balancing takes us off to the side.)
  10. Return to Tadasana and repeat steps 1-9 on the opposite side.