Asana of the Week: Supta Padangusthasana

Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Foot Big-Toe Pose) is a fantastic supine posture for lengthening the hamstrings, opening the hips, and toning the abdominals.  I am quite fond of this posture in my own practice and consider it to be one of the highlights of the Ashtanga Primary series.

To come into Supta Padangusthasana, lie flat on your back with legs together and the spine straight.  Inhale as you lift your right leg and catch your big toe with your right hand.  Exhale as you pull the leg toward you and contract your abdominals, lifting the scapula from the mat, to touch your nose or chin to shin.  Create resistance between the arm and leg to activate the posture.  Press your left heel down into the floor.  This is position A.  Stay for 5-10 breaths.

Inhale as you lay your body down and straighten the arm, keeping your grip on the toe.  Exhale as you swing the leg to the right, opening the hip, and turn your gaze to the left.  Use your left hand to press the left hip/thigh firmly to the mat.  Keep both sides of the body long and, again, create resistance by pushing the foot into the grip of the hand.  This is position B.  Hold for 5-10 breaths and feel the foot drift closer to the floor with every exhalation as the adductors of the groin and inner thigh release.

To exit the pose, inhale the right leg back to center.  Exhale and touch nose or chin to shin for the length of the exhalation.  Inhale to extend the arm and leg, and exhale to let the leg down.  Repeat positions A and B for the same number of breaths on the opposite side.

If flexibility does not permit you to grasp the big toe with your leg straight, bend your knee as needed or use a strap around the foot.  There is a tendency, particularly in position B, for the opposite hip to lift away from the floor.  Do your best to keep both hips on the mat.


Primary Friday: Astronomy Hour

Another week of practice has come and gone.  Primary this morning was delightful.  The days and weeks have fallen into a pleasant rhythm and I have arrived at a place of familiarity with what has become my daily practice.

Until recently, Intermediate had felt more like someone else's practice.  My teachers advised me to split and move forward a few months ago.  At the time, I balked and dragged my heels, loathe to leave Primary behind, but eventually followed through on their advice.  Since the split, I have felt like a tourist on the mat, clumsily groping my way through the sequence, wondering where and how I might find that essential sense of ease.

I think I've found it.  Though the arc of my current practice -- Intermediate through Pincha -- is awkward, as though it builds and builds only to drop abruptly before the fire really starts to burn, it has grown and billowed into an experience all my own.  I know when to stride out, when to hold back, where to push and where to soften.  Some days, I might stop and work on Eka Pada for five minutes; other days, only five breaths.  Same goes for Kapo:  sometimes, it's the main event.  Sometimes, it's just another pose.  Inhale.  Exhale.  Five times.  Move on.

As I mature, the sense of urgency that seemed to feed the fire behind my practice is fading fast.  The primary emotion is gratitude.  I am grateful for this practice.  I am grateful for this body.  I am in no hurry to consume the series for the sake of its completion.  

Rather, I am fascinated by the processes as they unfold.  I observe awakenings and openings as one gazes at the stars:  Ooh, isn't that lovely.  Look at that one sparkle!  Sensations are born, they burn brightly, and then they fade away, leaving only a soft impression on the mind and a sense of depth as yet unknown.  It is an inward journey through the cosmos of human experience.  A great mystery, meant to be explored.  How lucky we are to have such a powerful lens through which to map this infinite space.

"There is only one drishti.  That is God."  -- Sri K. Pattabhi Jois


Free is Better

I found this aging beauty outside...

... and made this amazing red pepper hummus.

As always, the trash gods provide.


"I feel joy for no good reason."

The above was a facebook status update made by a yoga student and friend of mine.  You better believe I "liked" that status as it came rolling through my page because -- you know what?  So do I!


I am enjoying my practice so much that it's spilling into my day, sending me out into the world with a silly grin on my face and a heart swollen with... well... with love, damnit!  In this stage, the practice prepares me to act from a place of love.  It is beautiful.  New patterns are emerging to replace the old.  My creative energy is wandering from the page, from the mat, into my every moment and manifesting as authentic self-expression.

I hear poetry.  I dance at random.  I am cooking with a spirit of adventure.

At times, this is dangerous and may appear to be unwise, but there is a sense of what I can describe only as trust -- unwavering confidence both in myself and in the natural order -- which has opened me to entirely new levels of both intellectual and sensory experience.

I feel tingly all over.  My mind is vast and empty, at the ready.

Incidentally, I took my heels in Kapo this morning... by myself... for the first time ever... after two days rest.  Could there be a correlation between this quiet openness and the sudden space in Kapo?  Maybe.  It's not as if I haven't been working hard at the posture on and off for months, but the ease of it was startling.  I took my time with the hang back, then dove and walked and walked and walked... and realized I was still walking when I felt the stubble on my shin.  Woah.  It felt great, and not great in that intense, gripping way.  Just nice.  Comfortable.  I savored the experience for a few extra breaths.

Tittibhasana C
On top of that, the Titti bind is back.  My torrid love affair with Tittibhasana continues.  Especially position C.  I daydream about being there, my chest cavity giving way to the pressure of my legs like a melon in a vice...  Oh, GAWD!  Do it to me!!

I know it probably sounds awful, but Tittibhasana does something incredible to my lats, pecs, and shoulder girdle that no massage has ever done.  Sometimes, as I work to straighten the legs, the pressure cracks my shoulders in this strange, wonderful way and my ribs feel like they're bowing under the weight so that my intercostals pull and stretch.  It all makes me want to let out a low, primal pleasure groan or two.

Pincha is no longer a problem.  I have weened myself from all comfort objects and rituals regarding its practice.  Not insignificantly, I have also learned how to fall out of the posture painlessly by putting the head down and rolling out if I start to flip.  That being said, it might be time to set my sights on Karandavasana.  Onward!


Asana of the Week: Urdhva Padmasana

Urdhva Padmasana (Upward Facing Lotus Posture) is a challenging inverted posture and an extension of Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand).  Proficiency in Padmasana should be gained before attempting this pose.

To enter Urdhva Padmasana, begin in Sarvangasana with both legs straight and the hands supporting the back.  Bend the left leg away from the body by extending at the hip, then fold the right leg into place.  Take one hand away from the back to assist, if necessary.  Once the right leg is in position, bring the left leg into lotus, switching hands if necessary to work the legs into a secure and comfortable lotus. 

Once the legs are in lotus, flex at the hip to bring the thigh bones parallel to the floor.  One at a time, take your hands to your knees and push the arms straight.  Create stability in the posture by pressing your knees into your hands and your hands into your knees.  Lift your sitting bones and engage mula bandha and uddiyana bandha to facilitate the extension of the spine.  

Try to avoid rounding your back as you draw the scapula together and down.  My teacher describes this action as "squeezing a walnut" between the shoulderblades.  This is the same action that will balance the posture and protect the neck from undue strain.  If you feel pressure on the back of the neck or the C7 vertebrae, exit and reevaluate your posture.  If your legs will not comfortably take lotus from this position, you may modify the pose by simply crossing your legs as in Sukhasana (Easy Seat).  Do not attempt to modify the posture with a half lotus position, as this will unbalance the hips and may strain the knees.


Primary Friday: Another One Bites the Dust

Found this while walking with my dog.
Practice has been great and there's really not much to say about the dirty details.  Just doing my thing.  Day by day.

Here's something, though:  Not only have I managed to wake and practice every morning, but it has only been three weeks and already morning practice is a total joy.  This is really exciting because, for years, I have felt like I was cheating myself out of I-knew-not-what by doing practice later in the day.  I wanted to do morning practice, but could never seem to manage it.  I didn't often feel well enough or strong-willed enough to hit the mat straight out of the gate.  Twice, I had hoped that daily training with Swenson would give me a running start, but no dice.

But then, this morning, this happened:  The alarm went off at 4:25am.  I looked at it.  I turned it off, crawled back under the covers and started to roll over.  I heard a little voice that I've heard many times before mutter, "just a few more minutes."

I agreed and began to fade away when a second voice rang loudly, clearly through the fog.  "No!  Get up!  I am rested and I want to do my practice!"

Wait.  What?  Who??

I got up.  Performed the kriyas, did my practice, and loved every minute of it.  It is enchanting to witness the birth of a new pattern and the death of an old way.


LBH: The Movie

Practice this morning was nice.  It's been unseasonably warm and humid for the past few days, so practice has been sweatier than usual.  The warmth helps tremendously with the leg-behind-head sequence, so much that I've been making major headway this week in Eka Pada.  Behold:

As you can see, I take my sweet time to come into the full expression.  Yes, I lose some heat spending so much time on my back, but my knees and neck have thanked me warmly for the extra preparation.  The reclining preparatory posture, which I found in Maehle's book, is an extremely effective warm-up not just for the hip opening, but also because it engages the abdominals and spinal extensors in the same way as the upright variation.  Still, even after all of that prep work, I felt it necessary to secure my leg during the forward bend to protect my lumbar.

I don't know how you hardliners will feel about this, but for a while I was completely skipping Dwi Pada and spending double time in Yoganidrasana to help me get the hips open without hurting myself.  However, lately, since Eka Pada is coming along so nicely, I've inserted a strength building Dwi Pada modification in which I work my knees up onto my shoulders and press my feet together in front of my face to simulate the high-pressure effect of the legs against the shoulders and neck as in the full expression.  The modification is surprisingly difficult and I'm sort of sorry I haven't been doing it this way all along.

Yoganidrasana is feeling spacious.  I've been reviewing drishte designations for 2nd series in Matthew Sweeney's book and was reminded that the drishte here is third eye.  I think I've been gazing down the nose, but find that third eye is more energetically effective and feels better on my neck and back.

Intermediate has already done amazing things to the shape of my body, but one unforeseen development has been the change in the thickness of my neck.  I might not have noticed except, the other day, I tried to wear a pretty little silver chain that, not so long ago, would have rested elegantly at the base of my neck to find it now fits almost like a choker, the chain rolling and twisting against my skin when I turn my head this way or that.  It may not be the most alluring yoga side effect, but I'll take it if it means Dwi Pada.


Practice Notes

I've been working hard on the mat and it must be catching up with me.  Last night after work, I soaked in a salt bath, had a glass of wine, and knocked off for the night to awaken not eight or nine but TEN hours later, all warm and fuzzy and rested.

Practice is plugging along.  Sunday practice -- post oil bath -- was nice, if a little meandering.  The castor oil definitely helped to alleviate some of the resistance in my lumbar, though it didn't do a whole lot for my shoulders.  Nonetheless, I reclaimed some space in Kapo.  Doing the posture twice makes a huge difference, especially if I refrain from countering the spinal extension between rounds and simply rest in Virasana for a few breaths.  The LBH set was also quite good.  I have found a preparatory routine that seems to work really well; thinking about recording the whole leg-behind-head affair in practice tomorrow to get a good look at the rotations and spinal position and all that jazz.  Depending on how boring and/or hilarious it is, I might share it here.

Today's practice, in contrast, was streamlined and solid.  Since I woke up late this morning, I had a time goal of 90 minutes.  I've been splitting at Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana since reading in Matthew Sweeney's book that Utkatasana is actually the first posture of the Primary series.  If one does standing all the way through Ardha Baddha, then the vinyasa to Pasasana is the same as the one to Utkatasana.  It's nice and clean that way, not to mention that the extra hip opening is nice, but today I split at Parvsottanasana to save time.

Got right down to business at Pasasana and sailed through to Laghu Vajrasana.  Gave myself a single shot at Kapo, but it was slow and deliberate.  I hung there for a good, long while letting gravity do some of the work.  My shoulders were especially tight, so no heels, but my back felt really nice.  Landed Bakasana B on the first try, plodded through the twists, and hit the LBH with plenty of heat to get deep into the postures.  Tittibhasana, as usual, left me dazed and feeling like my insides had been scooped out with a ladle.  (It's more pleasant than it sounds.)  I took a few extra breaths in down dog to recover, then stuck Pincha for five long breaths on the first attempt.

Backbends were okay.  Drop backs have been good.  Managed five in a row today without moving my feet.  I've been doing more work with hang backs before going for the dynamic drop backs every morning and it's made a noticeable difference.  The hangbacks are such a great way to explore all the subtle elements of the backbend, from the feet up to the gaze.  I think they've been especially valuable to me as a home practitioner.  Without assistance, more preparation and internal exploration seems to be the only way.


Primary Friday: Squat! Thrust!

It's been another good week of practice.  I am still committed to the early mornings, in keeping with my resolution, and I must say that, after just two weeks, it's clear that this has been a transformative choice.  I'm eating better, drinking less, sleeping more, and my productivity has gone through the roof.  Not only that, but I look forward to the kriyas, coffee, and quiet mornings on the mat.  Practice is a pleasure.  The mental resistance is gone.

The physical resistance, however, is fully intact.  Intermediate is knocking me around like a drunken hubby home from the docks.  Old injuries are flaring up.  Both ilio-psoas regions -- first left, then right -- have experienced what feels less like muscle soreness and more like a bruise or tear right over the hip bone.  A similar shortness is present in my left side/chest, the same areas affected by the biopsy oh-so-many months ago.  Apparently, I need to make a special effort now to keep these spots open or the scar tissue hardens right up.

My low back is also feeling strange.  About a year and a half ago, I found a pair of bulging discs in my lumbar spine.  The Ashtanga has done amazing things to heal this vulnerability -- the swelling is gone and the area is strong -- but the extensors around the discs have seized up.  Practice feels good, but I've been taking those first couple of Surya Namaskara really slowly to let the hard spots soften.  Forward bending and the leg-behind-head postures must be performed with special care.

I have lost a couple of pounds in the switch to morning practice, but am still not binding much in Intermediate without an aid.  Of course, the mobility of my shoulders is still limited, but I am beginning to think that part of the problem may be this tension in the low back, particularly when it comes to binding Tittibhasana.  Naturally, I'm not pushing it.  Just going to the edge and waiting for the area to open up.

With all of these old injuries and seats of tension seizing up in spite of regular, responsible practice, it occurred to me that I haven't taken an oil bath in a couple of months.  Could the castor oil ritual really make so much difference in keeping these areas soft?  I wonder.  Time to buy another bottle and find out.

On a side note, who remembers squat thrusts?  Here's Anthony to refresh your memory:

Squat thrust = Surya Namaskara?  Let's just be thankful for the yoga.

Asana of the Week: Padmasana

"Place the feet on the thighs, soles upward, palms in the middle of the groin, facing upward.  Gaze at the nosetip, keeping the tongue pressed against the root of the upper teeth and the chin against the chest, and slowly raise the prana upward.  This is called Padmasana, destroyer of all diseases.  Ordinary people cannot achieve this posture, only the few wise ones on this earth can."   
 Hatha Yoga Pradipika, 1:45-47
The Lotus posture is the most iconic of all the yoga asanas and almost certainly the oldest.  The unfolding of a comfortably held Lotus is considered to be the reward of a sincere and dedicated practice.  

Padmasana is the traditional seat for the practices of pranayama and meditation.  From this we can deduce that asana, as it is placed along the path of the eight limbs, is a preparatory practice.  Preparation for what?  For Padmasana and its potential.  What potential?  The potential for the "force in the pranic system and the higher faculties of the mind" to be awakened (Hatha Yoga Pradipika, commentary by Swami Muktibodhananda).

Energetically, Padmasana balances the forces of prana and apana in the body.  Physically, it promotes blood flow to the vital organs of the abdomen and nourishes the sacral and coccygeal nerves (the subtle seat of kundalini) by decreasing blood flow to the legs.

When practicing Padmasana, do not force your legs into position.  This is important.  Let me repeat:


I don't wish to enforce any seething rumors that yoga may in fact wreck your body, so work with me here and err on the side of caution.  If you feel it in your knees, stop, exit, and regroup.  

Gregor Maehle offers a nice step-by-step method for safely taking Padmasana in Ashtanga Yoga:  Practice & Philosophy.  His four-phase approach, which I have paraphrased below, has been enormously helpful to me in my own practice.
  1. Hug your right knee to your chest and close the knee joint completely by folding the right heel toward the right buttock.  If the knee does not close, do not proceed.
  2. Hold the joint closed as you laterally (externally) rotate the thigh and draw your heel toward your groin.  Think Janu Sirsasana A.  If you feel pressure in the knee, do not proceed.
  3. Point your foot and cradle your leg so the foot and knee are level and draw the heel toward your navel.  If your heel does not reach your navel without pressure in the knee, do not proceed.
  4. Fold the leg into place by now taking the right leg across your lap and lay the top of the right foot into the crease of the left hip.  The soles of the feet should point up toward the sky, not toward the body.
Recreate steps 1-4 to fold the left leg into position.  Be aware that it is more difficult to keep the joint fully closed on the second side because the foot must navigate over the right leg.  If strain is felt in either knee as you place the left leg into position, practice a half lotus variation instead.  If practicing half lotus, spend equal time with each leg on top.  Always refrain from the use of force.  Be wise, be patient, and do your practice.  If you need it, it will come.


Back in the Saddle

YEEHAW!  Good news, pardners!  I wrangled me a job teaching the yoga.  Ashtanga, to boot!  Stay tuned for details and be sure to check out the "Schedule" tab when it reappears at the top of the page.  (Ashtanga newbs, I'm looking at you!)

Get ready, Austin.  Feels good to be back in the saddle.


Primary Friday: Sweet and Spicy

It's been a good, full week of practice, my first six-day week in a while.  Early morning practices all, in keeping with my resolution... er... intention for the new year.  Not only that, but I split (again) to Intermediate.

I had split in October at the advice of David and Shelley, but after the stress of losing my job and the unprecedented emotional backlash that the work in 2nd series seemed to encourage, I ran back to the always open, ever-loving arms of Primary to carry me through the chaos of the holiday season.  But now there's no excuse.  It's time.

Fresh in my resolve to break strong from the gate, I kicked off 2012 on the morning of the 1st with a 4:30am wakeup and Intermediate to Pincha Mayurasana.  It was stiff at first, and slow, but with each posture and with each day, I have grown to love these early mornings. The quiet of the upswing of the dawn is sweet and peaceful and my entire day transformed by this simple act of preparation.   I have even rearranged the furnishings to make room for my mat to lay in such a way that I may practice facing east.

The return to 2nd series has been hard.  Though my achilles have suddenly given way with some added length, my shoulders are still tight, putting the bind in Pasasana out of reach with rare exception.  My quads were sore from Laghu for a day or two, but rebounded soon enough.  I've lost some space in Kapo, but I'm doing it twice per practice and taking my time to build it up slowly.  The work feels good.

Eka Pada and the LBH in general are just about to open up.  I can feel it.  Eka Pada on the right side is comfortable.  The leg stays back there and my back feels safe in the forward bend, but the left hip is more stubborn.  Still, there is progress.

Titti has broken my heart.  I love the posture, but I lost the bind and the whole experience is less gratifying without that security.  Here's hoping the bind comes back this week or, if not, that I might remember to keep my towel handy for a decent simulation.

Pincha, another posture I am repeating once per practice, is getting better all the time.  Entries are more reliable and stays are steadier.  I even managed the proper exit with just the tiniest of chest bounces for the first time this week, though only once.  Once is good.  It's a start.

Primary this morning was serene.  It was a gorgeous afternoon in Austin, and this evening I enjoyed some damn good spicy curry for dinner.  What a perfect way to end the week!

Asana of the Week: Tolasana (Utpluthih)

Tolasana (Scales Pose), known among Ashtangis as Utpluthih (pronounced OOT-PLOOT-TEEHEE), is an important arm balancing posture that builds strength, heat, and stamina as it highlights and tones the all-important bandhas

To enter this posture, fold your legs into Padmasana, plant your hands beside your hips, and inhale to curl up from the belly and lift the body from the floor.  Push the arms straight and the shoulders down.  Be sure to spread your fingers wide and distribute the weight evenly across the surface of both palms.  Lift the legs until your thigh bones are approximately parallel to the floor.  There is a slight rounding of the low back here as you tuck the tail under and curl the belly in.  Hold for 10 breaths or more.

Consciously use the bandhas to create a sense of lightness in your posture.  Feel yourself floating up-up-up!  The traditional driste (gaze) is to the nose, but I prefer to lift the gaze to the third eye in order to encourage an upward, pranic experience of the posture.

The obvious prerequisite to this arm balance is a comfortable Padmasana (Lotus Pose); however, if Padmasana puts any strain on the knees or ankles, Tolasana may be practiced instead with the shins crossed and the knees drawn in toward the chest.  If the posture is practiced this way, be sure to alternate the crossing of the legs with each practice.  Do not be put off if at first you cannot lift from the floor or hold the posture for very long.  Keep trying.  Strength will come.


"The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions"

Here's a link to Richard Freeman doing his poetic illumination thing.  Great talk, but grab a drink and get cozy:  it's 75 minutes long.

I love this man.  Can we bring him to Austin please?


2012 Intentions

2011 was the first in many years for which I recorded a list of intentions.  Looking back on those intentions now, I am both satisfied and amused with the change/non-change that has taken place.  Just for fun, let's recap:

2011 Intentions
  1. Sustain morning pranayama
  2. Lighten up on dinner
  3. Quit the sweet stuff
  4. Achieve handstand fluency
  5. Teach yoga full-time
All five of these intentions are quite specific and easily judged.  Have I sustained a morning pranayama practice?  No.  Have I diminished my evening meal?  Yes.  Have I quit eating sugar?  Not exactly, but it's less of a compulsion and more of an occasional indulgence.  Am I handstanding away from the wall?  Yes, but I have learned that this is more about an ability to fall gracefully than sticking a perfect balance every time.  And finally, am I teaching yoga full time?  Well... I was until recently, so I'm going to let it count.

So... what's the tally?  Three and a half out of five?  Not bad.

This year, I've got a shorter list:

2012 Intentions
  1. Learn to play
  2. Learn to be vulnerable
  3. Commit to morning practice
  4. Complete a first draft of my novel
I am optimistic about this fresh set of intentions.  The first two are attitudinal and related to some important discoveries I've made about myself this year with the help of two very wise women in my life.  The next two are long-time aspirations that I'm tired of half-assing.

So far, so good on all fronts.

New Year's Day, I awakened bright and early to set the tone for the year and have continued to do so all week.  Thus far, morning practice has been a pleasure and the novel is coming along nicely.  The progressive success of the first two intentions will be more difficult to measure, but I look forward to the inherent challenge of balancing the frightful strength and intensity of my personality (It's genetic.  Don't believe me?  Spend a day with my five obsessive, perfectionist, sharp-witted siblings.  I dare you) with a softer, lighter approach.  I will attempt to bring forth the feminine with cooling practices and temper the flame of this fiery, masculine energy that has reigned for so long.  Wish me luck.