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Finally meeting the “prop master,” then “teaching” in his class

As far as Iyengar workshops in Hawai’i there are seasons of feast of famine. Let’s just say this past month has  been like “Thanksgiving” as two senior teacher workshops overlapped each other: last week Laurie Blakeney, and this week H.S. Arun. I have been fortunate enough to be able to attend a little bit of both. I finally met H.S. Arun at his book signing at Val Hobensack’s backyard studio in Kailua over the weekend. Arun remembered my blog post I wrote two years ago.

I attended his class yesterday. My blogging friend Luci Yamamoto (Yogaspy) gave me a primer on his classes and said it is okay to take pictures, so I kept my phone handy and snapped away at some of his beautiful demos using various props the way props aren’t supposed to be propped. It was nice to see how he actually taught the poses, as until now I have only relied on his photos. He made a nice adjustment in chair trikonasana by bending the elbow and holding the side rail of the chair back. Whenever I try to teach this, I get fouled up by varying arm lengths and chair sizes. Bending the elbow is an elegant solution.

IMG_1763He also taught Virabhadrasana II with the strap on the outside of his foot. This added a strong sense of the “earth element” on the back side of the pose and gave a sense of how to lift the torso from the armpit chest from the strap side.IMG_1770

As fate would have it, he asked if there were any teachers in the class after doing Virabhadrasana I with a strap. A few of us raised our hand, and he pointed at me and said “go in front of the class and teach Virabhadrasana I.” I took a deep breath and taught the complete classic pose with demo. I think that is the first time I was asked to spot teach in front of a room full of students. It brought back memories of my apprenticeship when I would be summoned by my mentoring teachers to teach a pose in class. Arun gave me a few nice corrections on my teaching the pose as I said “bend the knee.” He suggested to instruct lowering the buttock and let the knee follow with the buttock moving faster. Inside my head I felt my teaching was very dry and basic after a week and a half of hearing brilliant instruction from senior teachers. Despite that, most of the students did the pose well based on my instructions.

Arun finished class in a sophisticated setu bandha setup. He pointed to a plate of Iyengar in Sarvangasana and made note of the hand placement. He said that eventually, the sequence is to drop back into setu bandha in the sarvangasana hand position as seen below.

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The way setu bandha is normally taught to is with a single block under the sacrum. He used two blocks to mimic the placement of the hands in classical setu bandha. He gave options to move the blocks to the kidneys, sacrum or lower buttocks for different effects. I found the kidney placement quite soothing.

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On a side note, it was very nice to connect with Val Hobensack again. She was my original Iyengar teacher from many years ago. She spent many patient years hammering my poses even before I was capable of listening to her detailed instructions. Before moving to Kailua, she would teach out of her living room in her Diamond Head home. And thank you Robin Mishell for being instrumental in organizing this wonderful workshop!

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A few more Blakeney gems…

Before one of the classes at Laurie Blakeney’s workshop, she had us put a strap around our knees and behind the shoulder blades by the armpits. Knees are high and ankles are crossed. She said this is a common image seen with Hindu deities and she saw old pictures of Indian town leaders also in this seated configuration with strap.

About five minutes in this pose and the abdomen and groins soften tremendously. The strap also hits you in your mid thoracic making you lift your chest. I had my niece demo the pose.

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On the last night of the workshop she taught an intensive inversion intermediate level class. We worked on hand positions for Sirsasana I, II, and baddha hasta sirsasana. In her classic fashion of using her experience as a piano tuner has a vehicle for awareness, she had us utter parts of the Patanjali Innvocation while we were in these different Sirsasanas. If our voice was wavering that meant we were straining too hard. She then had us monitor the effect of our abdomen with the different hand positions. As this was a class with fairly seasoned practitioners, she encouraged us to “be very interested” in these subtleties of the postures to remain interested in Yoga, as the basic instructions which involve mere stretching cues have been rehashed ad nauseam after decades of practice.

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Baddha Hasta Sirsasana

She also did some work on the Salamba Sarvangasana I and II and Niralamba Sarvangasana I and II. Lately in my Sarvangasana practice I have felt an overwhelming panic sensation if I remain in classic Halasana for more than 30 seconds. It has been a strange phenomenon in since my prostate surgery several years ago. So rather than suffer through it, I shamelessly used a chair for halasana.

She rounded off the night by doing all the forward bend variations: Paschimottanasana, Marichyasana I, Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana, Triangmukhaikapada Paschiomottanasana, and Janu Sirasasana. She said just as a thoroughbred horse needs to to be run through the various drills, we as practitioners need to run through the different variations from time to time to stretch out our might. “But sometimes the horse starts to get old,” she said with corresponding chuckles. Can’t wait to see Laurie when she comes back next year…

 

“Asanas are just a puzzle” – Laurie Blakeney notes part 2

This is a continuation of the notes from the first basic class. The second hour was spent on standing poses: Vrksasana and a “vinyasa” of Utthita Parsva Konasana -> Utthita Trikonasana -> Ardha Chandrasana and back in same order.

In Vrksasana we did straight away in the middle of the room. Instructions were to lift from the perineum. She did not have us in udrvha namaskar, but a hybrid of urdvha hastasana and urdvha namaskar “lifting from the wrists.” She noted that bent elbows collapse the abdomen.

In our “vinyasa” we worked in depth on “skating” the back foot into ardha chandrasana from trikonasana. Rather than clunky movements getting the leg to lift, we moved the back foot in slightly and corresponded the straighting of the the standing knee to the lifting of the leg in one fluid movement. Then, with more sophistication, lowering the leg and bending the knee in the same fluid movement. She noted several time if the foot skates in too much it is a clunky lift and made reference to Guruji’s demo in Light on Yoga as seen below where is back foot is a healthy distance away just prior to the lift. We did this for about 30 minutes.

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She finished with prasarita padottanasana as a “headstand” substitute and setu bandha as a “shoulder stand” substitute with a intermediate transition with the lumbar spine resting on the block and knees bent before savasana.

During the course of all this, Blakeney made a statement that “asanas are just puzzles, and like a puzzle we put them away when we are done with them.” This is subtle, but comes from a deep philosophical approach from the sutras in which asanas are a vehicle to attain awareness to the inner self. The asanas certainly highlight areas that are unknown to us, as in the hips which were the emphasis of this class. Of course the next day I felt the hip work we did even though after class it did not seem like we did that much. That is the magic of a seasoned teacher!

*Laurie Blakeney has an advanced certificate in Iyenagar Yoga and is the Director of Ann Arbor School of Yoga.

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Notes from Laurie Blakeney’s workshop part 1

Laurie Blakeney has flown into the islands like the much needed trade winds and began her workshop this week. I attended the morning basic class. We started with an hour of seated poses: dandasana, swastikasana, baddha konasana, and upavistha konasana. The emphasis was to address stiff hips.

In dandasana, she had us engage both legs at a time and notice which one engaged first. Then she had us engage one leg at a time. It was telling on how we have a tendency to work one leg more than the other, and more minutely, how we work certain parts of each leg more than the others.

In swastikasana, we did a forward bend with a folded blanket under the cross of the shins. She called this “rolling uphill.” I had a tremendously difficult time in the forward bend as I am quite girthy. “It doesn’t matter what is hanging out, what matters in the interior abdominal muscles behind what’s hanging out,”Blakeney said.

In baddha konasana, we leaned to one side to get the whole side of the thigh on the floor, then slowly shifted back to the middle trying to keep the thigh on the floor as long as possible. This was quite effective in elongating the inner groin muscles.

We then did a quick transition between baddha konasana and upavistha konasana with our fingers behind the knee tendon. We monitored which knee tendon “snapped” our fingers first (of if they snapped at all). Again this built tremendous awareness on how one side often acts differently than the other, and how within the leg there are different movements. In upavistha she noted that the feet should not be the “shining star” but rather the work of the quadriceps. An ongoing theme over the past few years with Laurie is she noticed Hawaii practitioners have overactive feet, likely a symptom of wearing slippers, and wants us to soften them more in our poses.

More to come as I didn’t address the second part of her class, the standing poses…

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Danger Danger

As many of my readers know, I have an ongoing side story of having to take care of my elderly in-laws. Luke, as seen above, just got out the hospital yesterday and wanted to go right away to the commissary (grocery store in the nearby Marine Corps base). Luke is a cantankerous old man with a mind about as graceful as a Sherman tank. He was a Green Beret in the 70s and 80s and had risen to the rank of Master Sergeant which is a big deal. He dutilessly likes to ignore doctors’ orders, and just carries on doing his own thing regardless of the outcome.

Today he was yelling from down the stairs wanting to go the commissary and my wife who is at her wits end with him gave him a piece of her mind about his non-compliance. So by default, I took him to give my wife a bit of respite.

As we arrive at the commissary, Luke immediately bypasses the security check, goes through the back door and grabs a scooter shopping cart. I look at the security personnel who know him (he has been going to the commissary just about daily for the past 20 years) and tolerate his shenanigans.

Luke tears through the isles at about 20mph on his scooter (slight exaggeration, but not). All the other servicemen just let him do his thing because he is a Master Sergeant. After four wheeling around the store a few times, he plucks a few items off the shelves, and then bypasses the long queue of shoppers and goes straight to next available cashier. Nobody minds and seems to be amused at his rule breaking. After all, he does this every day.

Luke seems to prefer me as his caregiver probably because I don’t yell at him. Often times I am summoned to give him therapeutic car rides in the middle of the day when I am working at home. Luke has a very pronounced hunch in his back which I feel contributes (if not causes) his achalasia. That is a condition where the esophagus is so tight that as a reflex, every thing you eat comes right back out. In his last hospital admission, they had to botox his esophagus to loosen it up to allow food to pass through.

So to relieve his hunch, I put him on an Iyengar chair sitting on the edge, place my shin over the back of the chair seat an into his spine, and pull the sides of his shoulders back. He says this gives him tremendous relief.

It gives me relief too, as what ever frustrations I have towards him are displaced by pulling his shoulders back and jabbing my shin in his back:) Hopefully we can avoid another ER visit this week…

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Ode to my old meditation teacher

From 2000 to 2003, I sat weekly at a meditation group hosted by Tom Davidson-Marx pictured to the left above. Tom’s approach was eclectic, focused around Vipassana, Theravada, and Tibetan Buddhism. Tom’s teachings, rife with humor, bore many seeds in me which I feel are just starting to bear fruit. He has a very practical approach to meditation, and taught that you don’t have to go off to a cave, but can use daily life as a spiritual practice. He walks the talk as he is a dedicated family man who raised two wonderful children. His wife Katina also did tremendous work in preparing a comfortable mediation area complete with refreshments. Tom works as a nurse at the State Hospital helping severely mentally ill people.

Tom actually went the route of becoming an actual ordained Buddhist monk in Burma and Sri Lanka. Here is a link to his bio. He would often tell stories of his ordeals during our weekly sits. It did not sound like an easy time for him, as among other things he had to battle an intestinal fluke while doing is practice in Southeast Asia. When I reflect on my blog, I realize that his weekly talks were a huge influence in how I write and view my spiritual path.

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At 30, Tom was a Buddhist monk in Burma

 

I still get his weekly emails and last night he was hosting a Buddhist Nun, Karma Lekshe Tsomo, whom he had hosted many years ago when I sat with the group regularly. As fate would have it, I was nearby after taking my father-in-law to the ER. He was admitted for a procedure on his esophagus and taken away into the bowels of the hospital. I decided to go to the meditation to clear my head and get a sense of my old community.

It was a real treat to sit in the group again. Tom immediately recognized me and gave me a big hug and noticed my bald head. I used to have long hair when I sat in his group. There were only a few of the old students who I recognized, and a whole crop of new ones.

Lekshe gave a nice meditation and discussion on loving kindness and said it is easy to give loving kindness to those who are dear to you, but the more evolved practice is to be giving loving kindness to those who cause you discomfort and torment. I reflected on how this philosophy was taught heavily by Tom during my formative years and how that has shaped my own work in the mental health field and has allowed me to work with extremely difficult people without getting fatigued or burnt out.

And now with my ailing father-in-law, and my mother-in-law who has special needs, I see how Tom’s teachings of using the hardships of daily life as spiritual practice is very powerful indeed. Thank you Tom for all you have given me and your community!

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Practice…an old friend

Everyone’s sadhana has its different seasons. There are times when “all is coming” and there are other times when the plateaus are like a desolate mesa in the desert. And there are times when poses which came so easily are no longer available to you. It takes years of mature practice to not get caught up in “progress” but rather be grateful that you still have a practice at at all.

I have been listening to series of talks from David Godman who is a devotee of Ramana Maharshi and has written extensively on his teachings. From time to time Godman talks about his own practice. He reflects on his meditations at Ramana-ashram where Maharshi taught:

I think what I got from sitting here apart from a lot of peace, a lot of quiet, is a cultivation of a presence inside me. You can call that presence “Bhagavan” (term of endearment of Ramana Maharshi) you can call it “grace,” you can call it whatever you like. It’s like having a recognition of an old friend inside yourself. You know its there all the time. For me that is the concrete result of doing Bhagavan’s practice in this hall.

That captures the same feeling when I get to do my own practice after I teach my morning class in the Manoa studio. This is the studio where I had my first teacher training class many years ago. This is the studio where I stood in back of class and just observed my teachers conduct class during my apprenticeship. This is the studio where I stumbled through my first assessment jittery and nervously under the hawkish eyes of three senior assessors. This is the studio where I got my first job as an Iyengar Certified Teacher. This is the studio that almost went down in flames when the neighboring nail salon had an explosion. And this is the first studio that I have grown a crop of my own students to become better practitioners.

Because of my life events in taking care of my inlaws and working a full time job, I have decided to postpone my Junior Intermediate I assessment for another year. That gives me a bit of relief to take care of family and work. Most importantly, it gives me more time to develop my own practice and teaching skills further. There may even be a trip to India in my future.

There are a slew of workshops coming up and I am looking forward to the intensity of them. Workshops always have a way of converting my predominant tamoguna into sattva guna through the fire of rajas from the senior teachers who visit. But as the wise words of the Patanjali Yoga Sutras say, at one point we have to go beyond all the gunas to reach the ultimate liberation:

IV.34 puruṣārtha-sūnyānāṁ guṇānāṁ pratiprasavaḥ kaivalyaṁ svarūpa-pratiṣṭhā vā

Until then, I will continue steadfastly on my Junior I syllabus.