Why Sirsasana is done before Sarvangasana in the Iyengar system

Iyengar nirlamba sirsasana

My good friend and fellow blogger Irish Ashtangi brought up an excellent question: is headstand (Salamba Sirsasana) done before or after shoulder stand (Salmaba Sarvangasana)? As this question is a bit more complex than it seems, I am dedicating a blog entry address the question.

First full disclosure. I practiced Ashtanga for a brief period of six months should not be considered anywhere near an expert authority on the Asthanga system. I have experienced the First Series a few score times so at least I have some reference point to write from.

That being said, I later became certified in the Iyengar system. In my training, I was taught that Salmba Sirsasana (supported head pose) is unequivocally sequenced before Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported All Limbs of the Body pose, or shoulder stand).

First, we have to view these two asanas in terms of temperature. Salamba Sirsasana (I’ll refer to it as headstand from here to simplify) is a “heating” pose as it stimulates the nervous system. Salamba Sarvangasana (shoulder stand) is a “cooling” pose which pacifies the nervous system. Here are Guruji’s words on the subject from Light On Yoga:

Sirsasana and its cycle should always be followed by Sarvangasana and its cycle. It has been observed that people who devote themselves to Sirsasana alone without doing the Sarvangasana poses are apt to lose their temper over trifling things and become irritated quickly. (Light On Yoga page 189)

If you consider the eight limbs in logical progression, they go from the external to the internal. From this perspective, it makes sense to a practice a less stimulating pose like Sarvangasana near the end of  the practice to prepare for Savasana, then Pranayama to experience Pratyahara.

In defense of the Ashtanga system, which has Sarvangasana practiced before Sirsasana, the poses are only held for a short period of time compared to the Iyengar system. In the Iyengar system, one builds time in Sirsasana to 10 plus minutes and Sarvangasana a bit longer. From my brief practice of Asthanga, I recall the poses being held for a few breaths lasting no longer than 2 minutes. Please correct me if I am wrong as I am not an authority of the Asthanga/Jois system.

In my training, we are instructed to teach beginners Salamba Sarvangasna before we teach them Salamba Sirsasana. This is because students learn the required movements of the shoulders and the chest in Salamba Sarvangasna that they will take to Salamba Sirsasana when it is later introduced.

One last note about the sequences in the back of Light On Yoga. Most all of them start with the first pose being Salmaba Sirsasana. This has gradually changed in his later teachings, but Sirsasana still tends to show up early in contemporary Iyengar sequences. Also, inversions are more prevalent in an evening practice than a morning one. There are always exceptions to the rule depending on which “effect” you want from the practice. Thank you Irish Ashtangi for asking this question. He is an ardent sadhaka and has a very inspiring blog chronicling his yogic journey.

guruji pali II

As a commemorative note, today marks the 13th day after Iyengar’s passing. The 13th day after death is considered an auspicious time. In your practice today, please keep Iyengar in your thoughts.

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The King of Asanas

King of Asana

In this post I will demonstrate a safe way to practice Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Head pose, or headstand). It is called the “king of asanas” for various reasons. It is mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pratipika as an asana that will cure diseases as the practitioner builds time in the pose. Before you scoff at such claims, realize that Guruji practiced this pose well into his 90s.

First clear the room.

Sirsasana A

The setup is a folded sticky mat with the folded edge toward the wall and a folded blanket with a the folded edge toward the wall.

Sirsasana C

Now stand in Tadasana to learn the “base”

tadasana

Interlace the fingers all the way to the webbing so they are facing straight across. this is the correct hand position.

Sirsasana D

 

Now find the tops of your ears with your index finger

Sirsasana F

 

And trace it all the way to the top. This is the top of your head where you will be balancing. Make a finger nail indent so you know what part of the head to place on the ground.

Sirsasna G

Next, take your folded hands behind the skull and move your elbows in shoulder level. This is much more narrow than you think.

Sirsasana H

Now take this knowledge to the props. Kneel down and place folded fingers at wall on props and bring your elbows well in to be shoulder width.

Sirsanasa I

Place the head in cupped shaped fingers and the finger nail indent spot directly on the floor.

Sirsasna J

Tuck toes under and press thighs up toward ceiling like Downward facing dog pose.

Sirsanasa K

Walk in, bend knees and raise one leg high in the air.

Sirsasana M

Hop up and quickly straighten legs.

Sirsasana N

Press forearms down mightily, don’t let the shoulders shrug.

Sirsasana N1

For balance take one toe mound off wall and press up. Repeat feet.

Sirsasana Q

Sirsasan R

 

Then flex heels.

Sirsasana S

Then both toe mounds up and tailbone forward at the same time. You are in the classic pose now.

Sirsasana T

 

To safely come down land both heels at wall again.

Sirsasna P

Bend knees.

Sirsasana O

Come down one leg at at time.

Sirsasana M

Turn around and do adho mukha virasana with cupped shaped fingers to release the neck.

Sirsasana V

At first don’t hold for long. Just learn how to safely enter and exit the pose. You can only go up ONCE if you have not been practicing this pose for less than a year. See Inversions and Eye Problems for explanations.

That being said. Don’t attempt if you have neck problems, high blood pressure, glaucoma, or are menstruating.

10-Salamba-Sarvangasana

Also Salamba Sarvangasana must be done after this pose to calm the nervous system. See Light on Yoga for ill effects of solely doing Salamba Sirsasana without Salmaba Sarvangasana.

Inversions are a hallmark of Iyengar yoga practice and will bring many wondrous effects to your body’s many systems with regular practice.

 

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Paschima pratana sthiti for beginners

My dear friend Sudhanshu Srivastava from Kolkata has been suffering when doing forward bends. He says in Paschimottanasana (Intense stretch pose for the West side of the body) as seen below he is not able to bend forward but only a few degrees.

paschimottonasana

This is a difficult pose for any beginner and should not be considered until two things happen: the hamstrings loosen and the abdomen softens. That takes a few years of correct practice in the Iyengar method. Otherwise there is a risk of injury, particularly tearing a hamstring muscle. This pose does not appear until the second (Intro II) syllabus which assumes the practitioner has had at least three years of practice in the asanas preceding it.

Here is a sequence of forward bends for people with tight hamstrings and a hard abdomen.

ardha uttanasana

Ardha Uttanasna with wall (hips directly above ankles, wrists on same plane as hips)

Chair downdog

Chair Adho Mukha Svanasna (note heels are pressing down)

U T in chair

 

 

Chair Utthita Trikonasna

parsvottanasna with chair

Parsvottanasna Stage I with chair and back heel pressing against wall

Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 1.19.16 PM

Prasarita Padottanasna Stage I with blocks

rolled blanket

First roll a blanket about half way of what it is in picture…

Uttanasna bent knees

 

Then insert it in the crease between the abdomen and thighs in a bent knee Uttanasna. Make sure the cavity of the abdomen fills with blanket. Eventually try to straighten the leg keeping the blanket in the cavity. This will be very uncomfortable because the abdomen is tight. Do what you can.

sp mere mortal

Supta padangusthasana with belt keeping abdomen soft.

savasana with chair

Savasana with legs on chair, knees slightly in front of hips as seen above. Note that abdomen remains soft.

This is just an example of a simple forward bending sequence and should not be considered dogma by any means. My aim here is as mentioned above, to address tight hamstrings and abdominal muscles. I put a lot of emphasis on the “softness” of the abdomen because the rock hard “six pack” abdomen makes it very difficult to do forward bends due the overuse. The rectus abdomini are just superficial muscles. The muscles I am concerned with are the much deeper and stronger are the transversus abdomini.

paschimotonasna with kofi

To lastly illustrate my point, the above picture is taken at a Kofi Busia workshop a few years ago. That is me in Paschimottanasna with a little help from Kofi. I weighed about 175 lbs (80kg) in the photo and have a roundish soft abdomen. The red haired lady in the background is obviously much lighter and has a “six pack” style abdomen. That is as far as she got in the pose.

 

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We’re still practicing

guruji with patanjali

I attended the en masse commemorative group practice yesterday with members of the Iyengar community here on O’ahu. It felt special and unifying. An altar of Guruji was placed in the front of the room with candles and incense. Right at 2:30 pm Hawaii Standard Time, we all began the sequence led by the most senior teacher of the group.

When I  practiced, I felt as though Guruji was watching me and did the best Tadasana, Adho Mukha Svanasana, Uttanasana, and Utthita Trikonasna I could. Since I was working, I just wore my work clothes and did not don my yoga attire. This wasn’t about me. It was about devoting my practice to the teacher of all my teachers.

The 45 minute practice was healing. Some cried. Some did not speak. Some prostrated before his altar. Others just bowed their head. There were plenty of hugs. It had the feeling of a wake and was extremely cathartic given the heaviness of the previous week.

When I was driving back to work after the event. I took great comfort that the practice of this community would not be deterred by Guruji’s passing. It will just be strengthened.

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A sequence to commemorate Iyengar a week after his passing

bks-iyengar-memorial-sequence-964x367

Today at 8:30 pm EST, Iyengar communities throughout the US will be doing the above sequence in memoriam to Guruji who passed away a week ago today.

As seen in one of my earlier posts, I wrote that asanas can be used for other purposes. In this case, the sequence is devotional (bhakti) as the asanas are used for the higher purpose of  commemorating rather than just physical exercise.

The standing sequence is also stabilizing, reminding us that Iyengar’s legacy will be strong and will last many many years even though he is no longer physically with us.

I invite you to also take part in the sequence and know that thousands of other practitioners will be doing the exact same sequence at the exact same time for the same purpose…to remember the man who has given so much to humanity.

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This iconic photo of Iyengar taken by a humble, powerful woman

IyengarAtPali1987

This is perhaps one of the most widely used photographs of Guruji. It was taken in 1987 on top of the Pali Highway on O’ahu. It overlooks the windward side of the island toward Kane’ohe. I drive by this spot every day on my morning commute and always think of Guruji when I pass it.

The photo was taken by Penney Sing, who is a dedicated Iyengar student at the Intermediate Junior I level. She has always been a rock in the Iyengar community here on O’ahu. I was fortunate to see her a day after Guruji’s passing. I gave her a big hug as we were coming out of a workshop with senior teacher Laurie Blakeney. She expressed sadness, but was grateful that Laurie kept the theme of the class light in spite of the gravity of the week.

penney

Penney and her iconic photo at Iyengar Yoga Honolulu

She said that she “gave this photo to the world” and has not received any type of payment or proper recognition for this iconic photo. Sadly, in a commemorative book for Iyengar, the photo appears without any credit to who took it. You could not replicate this photo at this spot today as the Pali Highway is now littered with traffic. She said that Guruji jumped over the wall to a dangerous spot and struck this pose. As you can tell it is very windy on the Pali at all times.

This photo was released today which appears to be from the same roll. It is nothing short of miraculous. She gave me permission to publish the photo on my blog.

guruji pali II

Penney deserves all the glory and praise for these photos of Guruji she has “given to the world.”

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A restorative sequence for a tough week

niece in triangmukhaikapadapaschimottanasana

It has been a rough week for the Iyengar community for obvious reasons. To pick up with Guruji’s quote “My ending should be your beginning” I will continue to publish teachings on my blog to further yoga. Here is a restorative sequence for beginning students at the request of my friend Sudhanshu in Kolkata.

gomukhasana arms

Gomukhasana arms to open chest and shoulders

Chair downdog

Chair Adho Mukha Svanasna to address hamstring stiffness and further open the chest.

U T in chair

Chair Trikonasana to charge legs and further open chest

Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 1.19.16 PM

Prasarita Padottanasana stage I with blocks to get more concavity from upper back.

Screen Shot 2014-02-11 at 4.06.47 PM

Vrksasana for lift in the side chest and abdomen and to hone concentration

dandasana

Dandasana maintaining lift in side chest

prop virasana

Virasana with lift in side chest

upavistha konasna

Upavistha Konasana to recirculate knees and lift chest

supta baddha konasana

Supta Baddha Konasasna with bolster. If you don’t have a bolster use this setup of blankets.

pranayama blankets

setu bandha

Setu bandha on blocks with feet same level as hips

viparita karani

Viparita Karani (omit if menstruating and do Savasana instead)

If you don’t have bolster you can do Urdvha Prasarita Padasana against wall

legs up wall

Savasana

savasana

Note there is no time for each pose. Hold as long as you are getting benefit from them, but don’t overstay your welcome if you become agitated. You can even repeat poses until you feel you have gained the benefit from them as well.

Enjoy your practice and blessings to you all!

(Photo above is my niece in supported Triangmukaipada Paschimottanasana with Disney chair).

 

 

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Iyengar will live through his teachings

Dwi-Pada-Koundinyasana-Yoga-Pose-BKS-Iyengar

Twenty four hours ago, the world lost B.K.S. Iyengar. By witnessing the worldwide remembrance of this man who barely stood five feet tall, it is clear that he was a true giant to mankind. I personally have to admit I was pleased to see that he out-trended Nicki Minaj on Facebook.

Today the social media was flooded with tributes and expressed sadness of his passing. We are all mourning his loss in some form. I picked up an edition of Astala Yogamala from my bookshelf as I often refer to the text when I need inspiration. It is one of eight volumes that encompass many of Guruji’s writings. Iyengar immediately jumped out at me as I started reading. It is then I realized he will live on through his teachings and through his writings.

It seems like one of the things Iyengar was both praised and criticized for is his sharing of ancient yogic knowledge to those who were willing to learn. Before it was only transmitted from guru to shishya (teacher to pupil roughly translated). He was the first to teach yoga to large groups of people at once. By teaching this way, he had to innovate not only the way yoga is performed, but the way it is taught.

Through much blood, sweat and tears, he developed a method of teaching that allows the proper transmittal of the ancient wisdom in an accessible and digestible format. This is the method that we have to learn in our teacher training and assessment process that takes years, not months.

When I first started my teacher training, I asked another Iyengar student if she thought the method would die out because it was so hard to get certified. She replied “just the opposite, that will make the method live longer because of the purity of the teaching.” I am just now starting to see the wisdom of her statement.

There are amazingly few certified Iyengar teachers worldwide compared to other styles. There are less than 1000 in the US as of last count. In contrast, Yoga Alliance has more than 40,000 registered yoga teachers in the US. Go to any US city and look up an Iyengar studio, and you will always find it on page 3 or 4 of Yelp.

Iyengar yoga is an obscure and distastful style to newcomers and young people. It requires a discipline that is reminiscent of parochial school. We don’t allow students to “do their own thing” like random handstands and half-baked natarajasanas on their own whim. Furthermore, we don’t burn incense, we don’t use a playlist, we don’t jump around (at least in contrast to other forms), we don’t have mirrors, and we don’t heat up the room. Instead, new students come into a room with strange wooden furniture and ropes on the wall. I have heard the “dungeon” and “medieval” references more times than I care to repeat. Funnily enough, the macho guys who have dabbled in serious marital arts seem to “get it” more than the Lululemon clad women.

Meanwhile across town the Corepower yoga is thriving. People there are complaining that they have been turned away because the large number of people have exceeded the fire code capacity. I have to admit that I have become discouraged at times about this. But then news comes that the teacher everyone loves there has gone away to Wanderlust or some other spiritual-du-jour festival. The students go away too only to be replenished by new students. This cycle repeats itself about 4 times a year.

Then I look at my students. I have about six in my Saturday morning class. Several have been studying with me for over 10 years. Quite a few more over five years. Then there are the ones who try it out. Some stick, some don’t.

Iyengar yoga does not attract the fitness buff. Even in Light On Yoga, you see that Iyengar at his prime does not have a washboard stomach that is much prized in today’s culture. And that is the magic of Iyengar yoga. You see something transform magnificently right before your eyes. You see a five foot man with roundish stomach land and prop up gracefully in Dwi Pada Koundinyasana from Sirsasana II. It is this brilliance that the rest of the world sees that is blind to the Western eye.

So this will be the way of Iyengar’s yoga. You will have a few dedicated students that study for years. You will not have throngs of up-to-date fashionistas breaking the fire code. But 30 years from now there will still be Iyengar yoga. As for Corepower, only time will tell…

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Iyengar makes transition

Blessings to you Guruji! Thank you for all you have done for humanity.

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Support Guruji’s rest and recovery by maintaining your practice, and giving his family space

guruji

As all of you have heard, Guruji has been hospitalized and has been put on kidney dialysis. The Iyengar family is requesting privacy at this time. For updates on his health, go to iynaus.org. In addition to prayers and thoughts, an excellent way to show concern and support for Guruji at this time is to maintain your yoga practice and even attend classes at an Iyengar studio near you. As much as people want to write him letters and emails, it is best to allow the Iyengar family to tend to him unfettered by communique.

Our community needs to come together now for support and sadana. Some good news is that some of this year’s candidates have already gotten certified. Congratulations to those who have! I can imagine this news has made the process that much harder for both the candidates and assessors.

As for Guruji, may you recover and get the rest you need. And may your family members get the support and space they need to take care of you and themselves during this time.

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