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On the art of straightening the leg in Iyengar yoga

 

It is said much recently that a hallmark of Iyengar Yoga is its refinement on inversions. After years of practice, I will have to say another hallmark of Iyengar Yoga is the quality of the straight legs in Iyengar practitioners.

Straight legs are not something that happens overnight. Very much like that tear jerking scene in Forrest Gump when the young Forrest is bound by a confining leg brace, and then chased by bad kids, he finds his “real” legs and off he goes into an almost superhuman ability to run fast.

The same struggle, then liberation can be said of the years of practice it takes to truly straighten the legs in Iyengar Yoga. How many of you who have been to a bona fide Iyengar class for the first time heard “straighten your leg!” only to look down to your version of straight legs and wonder if the teacher is talking to someone else? That was my first 10 years of practice (with occasional relapses if I let my strong tamasic nature take over).

Let me show you a comparison of  “straight legs”  vs. “Iyengar straight legs” in a Padangusthasana (big toe pose), a forward bend.

uttanasana bent

This woman is flexible enough to touch her toes. But look at the angle behind the knee joint. It may appear to the untrained eye that her legs are straight, but her legs are not a straight as they can be.

pandangusthasana iyengar

This may not be a fair comparison, but look at Guruji’s pose during his prime. Very little angle behind the knee and the front of his legs are “poker straight” as he often described them.

So how does the aspirant get the legs of Iyengar? In addition to daily uninterrupted practice, there are ways in which you can start to address the tamasic nature of the strong and lazy legs.

For my basic students, I often have them do Pasrvottanasana (intense stretch of the side body pose) with one heel against the wall and with a chair.

parsvottanasna with chair

 

If there is a mantra in Iyengar Yoga, it would be that “contact is intelligence.” The contact with the back heel pressing hard on the wall cultures the leg to work properly as a “straight’ leg. Many are shocked at how difficult it is do this even though they are lithe and flexible.

Another exercise to straighten the leg is Supta Padangusthasana I with belt around the big toe mound.

sp mere mortal

 

Now the leg is in the air and doesn’t have the earth to press down on. The belt acts as a gauge to which degree you can press against. I like to use the metaphor of using a gas pedal where you slowly accelerate like you are trying to maintain a constant but slow speed like you are driving in a school zone. By pressing the big toe mound into the strap, one notices the effect on the knee and how the more your press, the more the kneecap recedes into the socket. Don’t completely plantar flex the foot like a ballerina. You have to temper that by extending up from the back of the ankle toward the ceiling. The proper foot in an inversion is partially dorsi flexed and partially plantar flexed.

Straight legs are a necessary element for inversions. Without the firmness in the legs the weight sinks on the the neck and head in Salamba Sirsasana. Notice the quality of the legs in Guruji’s Salamba Sirsasana and notice the corresponding lift in his shoulders.

sirsasana iyengar

 

To come full circle, inversions are an a hallmark of Iyengar Yoga. But you cannot have proper inversions until you have straight legs. Now “straighten your legs!!!”

The Solar System

earth

People come to Yoga for various reasons. The overwhelming majority come to the practice to address health concerns, followed by a few who come to the practice to address mental concerns. All paths which lead the practitioner to Yoga are valid.

Today I was thinking about the Solar system and how it relates to this concept. Imagine the Sun represents the merging of Purusha (the True Self) with Ishvara (God). Each planet represents our motivation to come to Yoga practice and how far away we are from the “Sun.”

Pluto is the farthest planet from the Sun. It is so small that there is a debate among astronomers whether it should even be classified as a planet. This can be representative of the student who is motivated to do Yoga because it is a means of making quick money.

The next closest to the sun is Neptune. It is a large planet, but still far away from the Sun. This can be represented of the student who is motivated to do Yoga because it is the latest fitness trend.

This is followed by Uranus. The next closest planet to the Sun. This represents the student who comes to the practice because of health concerns and that there are no other means of bring relief to his/her ailment aside from Yoga.

Then comes Saturn. Mighty planet with large rings made from ice. This represents the physically healthy student who comes to Yoga to develop refinement in his/her physicality.

Next is Jupiter, the largest planet of the solar system. This can represent the student who realizes that Yoga can address mental stress in addition to it’s physical benefits.

Then comes Mars, the red planet. This can represent the student who comes to Yoga because he/she is curious about the philosophical aspects of Yoga.

Our planet Earth is next. This can represent the student who comes to Yoga for its traditional aspects.

The next plant is Venus. This can represent the student who comes to Yoga to gain wisdom.

The last planet closest to the sun is Mercury. This is for the student who comes to the practice to be be closer to God.

Lastly, the Sun. This represents attainment in Yoga and realization of the practitioner.

Our Universe is much larger than we originally thought. There are an estimated 100-200 billion galaxies. Some of those galaxies merge into one. This shows that the practice goes beyond what we can comprehend or perceive.

merging galaxies

 

The point of the essay is that our motivation changes with continued practice. The more we practice Yoga, the more we get a “glimpse” of our True Selves and hence get a step closer to the Sun. May you all one day “merge” your True Self with the divine in your practice.

Religious pundits bash Yoga, confusing it with Hinduism

Pat v

I always find it amusing when other religions’ pundits bash Yoga. This week we are hearing from a televangelist who says Yoga “tricks” people into praying to Hindu deities, and a Catholic priest who says practicing Yoga is “Satanic.”

Pat Robertson said this week on The 700 Club said “stretching exercise is cool, praying to a Hindu deity is not too cool.” He was answering a woman’s questions who had concerns about her daughter’s interest in new ageism.

Meanwhile in Derry Ireland, Catholic Priest Father Roland Colhoun said while people may decide to take up yoga with good intentions, they could set themselves on a path towards “the bad spiritual domain” and even “Satan and The Fallen Angels”. This is stemming from statements from the Vatican’s chief exorcist that Yoga leads to a belief in Hinduism, and that “all eastern religions are based on false belief in reincarnation”.

Before offering a rebuttal to these statements, the larger picture is that many who are practicing “yoga” in the West are not doing so because they are seeking spirituality. Most are doing it because it is a trendy fitness regimen. Yoga in the West has become so far removed from the original purpose of the practice, that it should not be called yoga anymore, but more accurately crossfitized asana-like selfie posturing.

How many people who pack the yoga class at 24 Hour Fitness whose teacher has the “killer playlist” are there to dial down their mind chatter? Furthermore, how many people at the Wanderlust Festival are there to merge Purusha with Ishavara? Many will actually say they are, but they are really just trying to be part of the yoga rock star “in crowd.”

Yoga  in the true sense is beyond religion. It has many “religious” elements, but it is a practice whose purpose is to sublimate the mind chatter until the practitioner, undisturbed by viewing his/herself in the context of the revolving universe, starts to see the true self and grow from the fruits of that experience.

Now back to Pat and Father Roland. Viewing Yoga from an orthodox Christian lens it is easy to unleash the dogma that says you shall have no other gods before Me and you shall not make idols onto Hinduism. How come in the same vein an orthodox Hindu can’t say, “you can’t worship The idol of the Virgin Mary” or in Robertson’s case “you can’t worship the idol of power and political influence?” I am not saying this to offend those of Christian faith. But practicing Yoga is not practicing Hinduism as these two commenters are led to believe.

We are more alike than we are different. I wrote a blog post that displays the Ten Commandments next to Yamas and Niyamas. They are shockingly similar. So rather than fearfully criticizing other people’s faith from around the world, first seek to understand the commonalities and then work from that place.

On a side note, Pat Robertson would benefit from Setu Bandha to address his slouch.

 

half sirsasana

More Mary O. notes…

This is the continuation of my last blog post about Mary Obendorfer’s workshop. The intermediate classes I attended were more of a refinement of concepts we learned in the basic level classes.

The one concept that I will take home is how crucial the base is in every pose. We did an exercise in Adho Mukha Vrksasana (upward facing tree pose, or handstand) where the palm of one hand was smoothed along the mat along with each finger. The other hand did not get the “treatment.” The student had a markedly noticeable straightness in the side of the hand that got the “treatment” versus the side that didn’t have the hand manipulation. See the progression of photos below of how to manipulate the base of the right hand:

 

hand 1hand 2

 

hand 3hand 4

hand 5hand 6

Now compare the two hands. You may be able to tell my right hand (as seen on your left) it is much flatter. Try on your own for a more dramatic comparison.

hand 7

Mary uttered Geetaji’s words over and over that “Mother Earth feeds intelligence to the practitioner through the base of each asana.” Very profound to think about when you consider what part of your body is touching the floor and the “quality” of that contact.

 

As far as the workshop as a whole, we worked intensely on seated poses. As stated in the previous post, Mary imparted Geetaji’s words that regular practice of Upavistha Konasana and Baddha Konasana are extremely important to offset “suffering” in standing poses, and to address “pains that are yet to come” as the the practitioner ages.

There are many more things that she covered that I need to practice on my own before publishing my thoughts. She did a tremendous amount of partner work on Ardha Sirsasana (half head pose) seen below. In the intermediate class she held us in this pose for 30 seconds as per instructions from Light on Yoga before going into full sirasasana. I couldn’t last 15. She stopped and asked “did you come out because you are in pain, or did you come out because of something else?” It was something else I couldn’t describe. That is something I will have to unpack within my practice until she comes back next year.

half sirsasana

 

 

Notes from a Mary Obendorfer workshop

 

mary obendorfer

Mary Obendorfer was one of the teachers who gave my practice a complete 180. Back in the early 2000s, I attended a teacher training she conducted to inaugurate the center where I now teach. She introduced concepts of sequencing back then that I continue to use today in my practice and teaching.

At the time she asked us to come up with a sequence and then the group would critique it with her provisions. I actually handed her a sequence that started with Paschimottanasana (intense stretch of the West side of the body pose) as the first pose because that was what my teacher at the time was teaching (he was not Iyengar based). “Why are you starting with such a difficult pose?!” She asked, but not really wanting to know the answer. After her instructions, I now completely understand why starting a sequence with Paschimottanasana is a bad idea on just about every level. I won’t give you the answer if you don’t know, because so many of my previous blog posts have addressed it.

Fast forward 13 years, Mary Obendorfer still visits our studio annually. This year she is back from GeetaJi’s December intensive in Pune, India with more gems. What I have always enjoyed about the Iyengar system is that you get the knowledge eventually even though you may not be able to attend Pune intensives first hand.

Obendorfer gave us detailed instructions on two poses: Baddhakonasna (bound angle pose) and Upavistha Konasana (seated angle pose.) I will write posts about these poses later once I have integrated the teachings in my practice, reflected on them, and developed my on insights on them.

baddha konasana

Baddha Konasana

Upavistha-Konasana

Upavistha Konasana

The one thing that was imparted is that regular practice of these two poses will “decrease the suffering of your standing poses.” Obendorfer also relayed Geetaji’s message that these poses will also help to alleviate problems that people face when they age. With all the upward apanic (pelvic region) action required to do these poses, it is evident that Geetaji has noticed people suffer from GI problems as they age and has given us an “antidote” through Baddha Konasana and Upavistha Konasana to minimize the problems that manifest as we grow older.

Tonight I will continue the workshop with the intermediate class. More gems to come I am sure…

 

The pranic body revisited

Alex_Grey-Psychic_Energy_Sy

Artwork by Alex Grey

 

B.K.S. Iyengar was a genius. At the time he reinvigorated Yoga as a legitimate system, he eschewed talk of chakras, nadis, vayus, and other aspects of esoteric Yoga anatomy. Iyengar saved Yoga from becoming an antiquated esoteric practice by putting it into contemporary terms using the physical body as a starting point.

That is not to say that his system stopped using terms referring to esoteric anatomy, it is just not used for students who cannot comprehend them. What Iyengar did was to instruct movements of the physical body to facilitate movement in the esoteric body. For example, instead of calling it a “jalandhara bandha” to the raw beginner, Iyengar instructors teach the student to move the sternum toward the chin to get the “action” of Jalandara Bandha. Instead of basing instructions from the different vayus, instructors teach movement from tangible body parts to create an effect in those areas.

jalandara bandha

I learned a very important lesson recently: because of the gross movements in asana, the subtle body is also receiving the benefit. Let me try to explain from my limited perspective.

First we turn to artwork to see the subtle body. I am a big fan of Alex Grey’s artwork. In his artwork, he successfully fuses the physical anatomy with the esoteric anatomy described in yogic texts. In his Sacred Mirrors series, the viewer quickly understands that there is a physical body and a subtle, energetic body.

sacred mirrors

Artwork by Alex Grey

 

Recently in my practice I have been reflecting on the Earth Element as I am looking for more stability in my life. While in my poses, I recite the sound form “LAM” which corresponds to the Muladhara Chakra which corresponds to the Earth Element. When I breathe out the sound form, I notice a distinct awareness in the areas of the pose that make up the base.  Furthermore, I have noticed after my practices lately, I feel more “grounded.”

muladhara chakra

Muladhara Chakra

 

Is this hocus pocus? Some may think so. But practicing Yoga for me lately has been more of a laboratory, where I am integrating concepts from my readings into my practice. My experiences are perhaps too subtle to describe in this blog post. Although I am not in an authoritative position to describe my experiences accurately, I do notice a difference in my Asana practice when I do the sound forms versus not doing them.

I don’t always practice with the sound forms. Most times I just do the bread and butter practice to address my physical issues that come from driving in Honolulu traffic all day. Sometimes I just go to classes to learn more about Asana (which I have much much more to learn). I may even be overstepping my bounds by practicing with esoteric concepts. But after 16 years of practice, I am always seeking methods to move toward evolution. The practice of Yoga is so deep, I have not even scratched the surface.

LAM

Levels of practice in Yoga

 

sun

There is a lot of talk nowadays about “advanced” Yoga. There is a studio down the block from me that has a large banner that says “advanced teacher training.” I wrote a post about a woman who would not attend classes at my studio because the highest level is labeled “intermediate 2″ and she wanted something more “advanced” even though she did not practice on her own.  So what exactly considered “advanced” in Yoga?

Yoga Sutra 1.22 says mrdu madhya adminatratvat tatah api visesah, or the time necessary for success further depends on whether the practice is mild, medium or intense. Of course every practice in the beginning is “intense,” or at least “intense feeling.” The ego is quick to identify this as “intensive practice” or even “advanced.” But does that make one “advanced” at Yoga?

A raw beginner at yoga needs at least two years of standing poses done two or more times a week before that practitioner just gets a “glimpse” of what the body is supposed to do in Asana. From my experience as a teacher and practitioner, that figure is more like 5 years. Keep in mind I am only speaking in terms of Asana and not the other limbs.

The progression from what I can perceive is as such: first you learn how to do the asanas while maintaining the yamas and niyamas. Then you learn pranayama. Then you begin your own practice based on what you have learned and study the sutras. Then you start to have realizations that asanas are not merely physical postures and pranayama is not merely “breathing exercises,” but create certain effects in the mind and behavior. Then you have realizations that the practice is slowly stripping away parts of your self perception that don’t correspond with your own true self. Then, eventually, there is only the true self practicing. You are no longer doing asanas and pranayama, they are doing you. At this point, then one can say they are “advancing” in Yoga and not necessarily “advanced.”

If this does not fit into your concept of Yoga, then good! You will not have the aforementioned experiences in a yoga studio, in teacher training, in workshops. You will only experience these on your own in your own practice. Are you mild, medium, or intense? That’s up to you. Are you advanced? That is not for me to judge.