new yoga students

A sequence for raw beginners

During Iyengar’s trip to China a few years ago, he layed out a sequence for those who are fresh to yoga. He explains that all the actions in these asanas are the building blocks for furthering one’s practice. If you have never done yoga before, these are the poses from which to start. Here is the sequence, click on links for how to do each pose:

Tadasana

tadasana

Utthita Trikonasana

iyengar triangle

Utthita Parsvakonasana

Screen Shot 2014-01-31 at 10.34.44 PM

Prasarita Padottanasana

Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 1.26.40 PM

Parsvottanasna

parsvottanasana (2)

End with Savasana

savasana

 

This sequence appeared in an article by Senior Teacher Manouso Manos in the Fall 2012 Yoga Samachar. He says that  “It brilliantly links actions throughout the class and challenges practitioners to carry some actions from pose to pose and to change others–because it teaches straight leg and bent leg actions; it teaches twisting principles as well as stability; and it connects practitioners to their feet and composes the entire body into a cohesive unit.”

If you are brand new to yoga, I would try this sequence daily for a month. It can take between 15 to 30 minutes depending on your availability to practice. Try to devote at least 5 minutes to Savasana and gradually build up to 10. Never omit Savasana, it is the most powerful asana to link to the higher states of the eight limbs.

 

Yoga is beyond body issues

 ganesha-coloringpage

There is a great deal of talk about body issues in Western yoga. This discussion is by fed an industry called LOHAS (Lifestyle Of Health and Sustainability) which is making millions off of yoga fashion and dietary products. The latest issue of Yoga Journal has a woman who is considered “full figured” on the cover and a full article about body issues. There is another article that talks about diet. We are fed these ideas that all a practitioner needs to do is get a xyz brand yoga mat, do xyz style of yoga, eat an xyz type of diet, and viola! you fit into xyz brand of sized 5 yoga clothing, or shouldn’t worry about being sized five because you read Yoga Journal that tells you it’s okay to be full figured and practice yoga.

But yoga, when done classically, instructs you right from the beginning that your own body is not who you truly are. That may sound strange. “Of course my body is who I am…” (then ego kicks in with lengthy explanation). In classical yoga there are the concepts of Purusha and Prakrti. Prakrti means “nature” in a loose translation. Like weather, it is ever-changing and never constant. Purusha is that part of you that cannot be changed and is your “true” self. That is the part of you that witnesses all the madness your physical body puts you through. Your physical body is Prakrti. It changes every day, cells die and new cells form. Hair gets grey. Muscles get firm, then they atrophy. We age, then die.

The true aim of yoga is to cut through all the Prakrti to find the diamond that is residing inside of you. Yoga Sutra 1.4, vrtti sarupyam itaratra, means that sometimes the aspirant identifies more with the ego than the reality of his/her true splendor. By focusing on your body perception, you are caught up in the delusion of something that is ever-changing like a wild river.

In my work in the mental health field, I have encountered many clients with eating disorders and body dysmorphic issues. It is a tough mountain to overcome. In unpacking a lot of the problems these people face, it usually stems from not accepting that part of themselves that does not change. That is when they compensate by limiting their dietary intake to “fit” into what they feel should be their right size. The problem is that size is never good enough. And that perception is reinforced by the LOHAS industry.

Sometimes to get perspective, we have to look at the great masters. Ramana Maharsi. His later years were spent in a cave and he became ill and unable to ambulate. He developed tumors in his arms and refused medical treatment. His followers urged him to get medical attention to which he replied “Why are you so attached to this body? Let it go.” This is not to say one should do the same, it just show that Maharsi was not concerned about his body as it did not have much bearing on his soul.

Sri_Ramana_Maharshi_-_Portrait_-_G._G_Welling_-_1948

We should practice yoga no matter what. If you are feeling that your local studio is judging you by how you look or what you wear, chances are your local studio does not practice yoga, they practice avidya (ignorance). If this is the case, I encourage you to study the yoga texts to find out how to liberate yourself. You cannot attain liberation in a yoga class, it has to be done individually.

 

Listening to your wrists

texting

We text, type, scroll and sign our name more than any time in human history. Our wrists and hands are paying the price. Before it would be rare to have someone with carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms in yoga class, now it’s rare that you don’t find someone with those symptoms. Clutching cell phones for hours wreaks havoc on the tiny wrist joint.

During the recent Laurie Blakeney workshop, she did a few poses with a nice wrist emphasis to counteract these symptoms. I cannot recreate the sequence, but I have adapted a few of her techniques to my home practice I would like to share.

Basic wrist action in Adho Mukha Svanasana prep on hands and knees. Notice angled blocks at the wall to decrease the angle and strain on wrists.

Wrist 1

 

Move shoulders and torso forward to decrease the angle if wrists are too intensified.

 

Wrist 2

Utthita Trikonasna with hand facing backwards. Make sure the whole surface of the hand is on the block.

Wrist 3

 

Parivritta Trikonasana with hand backwards.

Wrist 4

 

Padahastasana. This puts weight onto the whole hand. You can do with bent knees if you cannot reach this far.

Padahastasana

Bharadvajasana I with wrist emphasis. My back hand is on my hip.

 

Wrist 5

Paschima Namaskar

paschima namaskar

After Paschima Namaskar the wrists feel tight, DO NOT shake your hands! Blakeney warned that the tiny bones in the hands can loosen from a violent shake after maintaining it in a fixed position. Do padahastasana instead.

As a side benefit, the shoulders also feel enlivened after trying these poses because of the amplified rotation caused by the hand position. This should help with your wrist-sues!

 

 

On missing the obvious cover story: welcome to the new Yoga Journal

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 2.52.50 PM

I have to admit I haven’t picked up an issue of Yoga Journal since the early 2000s. Those were the days when it was still as semi-serious publication for those interested in furthering their yogic knowledge. My how times have changed…

Yoga Journal recently switched to a new Editor-in-chief from Self magazine. And it has become what one would expect: a yoga-themed Self magazine. The first issue had Hilaria Baldwin on the cover in a corrupted variation of Eka Pada Rajakapotasna. The yoga blogs and social media took the magazine to task about everything from body issues, to over-glorification of yoga celebrities.

This is the latest issue’s cover which shows a fuller-figured practitioner in a oddly timed Vrksasana, like the photo was taken during an earthquake. So now it seems that the new YJ is pandering to its critics and showing what people are saying they would rather see. Except for one obvious misstep…the biggest news story out of the yoga world in several years went completely unnoticed. B.K.S. Iyengar’s passing is not even mentioned on the cover!

I have a background in both print and broadcast journalism. I can remember being in the newsroom and news crews were sent to cover breaking news of a fire or a scandal. The news crew would go to the site, cover something else while all the other media got the good story. That same type of disgust was my first feeling when I saw the latest issue’s cover.

I wouldn’t mind as much, except that many people’s first impression of yoga is through these types of magazines. And if all that is represented is Lululemonized models and people with body issue problems, what does that say about yoga as whole? There is a huge disconnect from the discipline and inner work of yoga in this slicker version of Yoga Journal that is desperate to gain respect in the wrong yoga circles, much like the awkward kid trying to hang out with the cool kids in middle school. Most of us who have survived middle school remember how fruitful that endeavor was. There is a story on this month’s cover entitled “why failing is the best thing that could happen to you.” YJ may want to rethink that story after this fiasco.

So now I cannot spitefully say “I am canceling my subscription” in a huff. I did that years ago. Now I can say please read other material if you want to be serious about yoga. And please don’t patronize the sponsors of these publications that do a disservice to the art, science, philosophy, and practice of yoga.

Clearing up a few misconceptions about Iyengar yoga

Sayanasana-Yoga-Pose-BKS-Iyengar

Now that the world’s attention has focused more on Iyengar yoga since his passing, I would like to take this opportunity to clarify some misconceptions about this style that I have seen in various blogs and social media.

Misconception #1: Iyengar yoga is prop based.

First, pick up a copy of Light On Yoga. You won’t find a single prop in his presentation of over 200 asanas…save a blanket and bench and a Noelle Perez-Christiaens (I apologize to readers for incorrectly identifying her as Vanda Scaravelli). Iyengar designed the use of props to get students further into certain actions of the pose, and for those who could not otherwise attain the pose without supports. Further prop refinements, particularly in Salamba Sarvangasana (supported all limbs pose, or Shoulderstand) uses blankets for safety issues.

When Iyengar teachers go for assessment, we are advised to do and teach asanas without props in the middle of the room unless otherwise specified. Props are only used to get the student to do the correct “actions” of the classic asana. Once the actions are learned and mastered, we get rid of the props.

That being said, the use of props is to allow us to spend more time in asana. In an interview, Iyengar says that the Lion-diety Narasimha inspired him to use straps as devotional statues show that he used the prop to sit in meditation for long periods of time.

bronze-narasimha-a

Misconception #2: Iyengar teachers are mean.

Iyengar was quite stern in his teaching. One of my students who took a class from him in the 80s when he visited Hawai’i could not remember what he taught, but she did remember that he was strict. We are taught to say instructions in a verb-noun format like “extend your arm!” This may have a “drill sergeant” sound to it, but when you are in a precarious spot in an asana would you rather hear “softly guide your inner spirit into the pose” or “press your thighs up to take strain off your neck?”  One senior teacher said that once class ended, Iyengar was the nicest man you’ve ever met. Is the photo below that of a “mean” teacher? Don’t confuse “strict” for “mean.”

Iyengar coconut water

Misconception #3: Your first Iyengar class will tell you everything there is to know about this style.

In our studio, we have a five week cycle of classes. Week 1 is standing poses, week 2 is forward bends, week 3 is backbends, week 4 is miscellaneous which usually covers twists, and arm balances, and week 5 is restorative and pranayama. For the person who just shows up one time on restorative week, they will think all Iyengar yoga is about is lying around and breathing. Conversely if they come only on standing pose or backbend week, they will think we are too physical. It will take a student about three months of regular practice just to understand the basic underpinnings of the system. In our fast food Yelp culture, three months is too long. We demand results now! Iyengar yoga is quite subversive to Western culture. It requires discipline. It requires time…like years not days or months.

Misconception #4: Iyengar yoga is for old people.

I will admit that there tends to be more older people in Iyengar classes than in other styles. Early in the US yoga craze, there was a studio who would send all of its prospective teachers to  an Iyengar teacher who taught in the same area. All the prospective teachers were young and lithe and new to yoga. I would hear them all complain that there were too many “old” people in the class. When it was time for Sarvangasna, the younger students all had a banana shape, whereas the “old” students had straight spines and were not as jittery in the pose. Many of the prospective teachers did not return. What they did not know is that many of the “old” students had been practicing since their 20s or 30s and were well into their 50s and 60s.

Older people are drawn to this style for several reasons. The first is that it is safe. Teachers take great pains to learn how to get students safely in and out of poses and to make modifications for those who cannot attain the pose. Secondly, it is a discipline. It takes the patience of a mature practitioner to understand the depth of this style. As mentioned before, this does not come overnight. Lastly, the “old” people in class are the ones with the best poses. In Light On Yoga, Guruji is in his 50s.

That being said, our studio has a “yoga for kids” class. There is also a famous class at RIMYI on Sundays that caters to children only.  In my instruction to my nieces who are 3 and 8, I have found that they love to use the props and find the practice challenging.

Sasha ropes

Misconception #5: Iyengar classes are for injured people

There is a part of our practice that deals with therapeutics. We have many sequences to address particular ailments. There is even a “medical class” taught at RIMYI. In a sense, that has clouded the perception that this style is for injured people. I find it sad that this is the only way people find this style of yoga. The reality is that asanas when done properly are healing. But the teachings show us to get beyond that and venture to the inner work of the parts of us that are beyond injury: the breath the mind and the soul.

Misconception #6: Iyengar yoga is slow and boring

Iyengar yoga, when taught properly, is more instructional than experiential. The idea behind this style is eventually the practitioner will do a home practice to further what was learned in class. That is when you truly experience the beauty in this teaching. In an era of power vinyasa yoga, our classes appear slow. There is a part of our practice where Surya Namaskar is done, it’s just not every class. As seen above, there are many areas of this style. Some are faster than others.

This style is anything but boring. I have over 60 posts and have not even scratched the surface of this subject. The famous late teacher Mary Dunn would comment that the learning curve for Iyengar yoga is always straight up. There are no plateaus to the depth of this teaching.

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.

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.