Laurie Blakeney workshop: doing fewer Asanas with more in them

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I am still reviewing my notes from the last workshop I attended with senior teacher Laurie Blakeney which ended two weeks ago. One thing I appreciate about Iyengar yoga is that it does not try to re-invent the wheel with new poses, but takes what is available and makes it better.

There were many new ideas I was exposed to during the workshop, but the one thing that left the biggest impression is the fact that she could have a two hour class and only do a handful of poses.  Like 6 to 10. She would start class with a concept. The large concept was drawing the inner legs into the abdomen. She kept that theme during the whole five days of the workshop, but it never got redundant. Only deeper.

What really took the cake for me was one intermediate level class where we spent 45 minutes working on Jatara Parivartanasa (stomach churning pose). First with abdomen awareness, then with bent knees, then with straight knees, then with a “J” shape, then with the perineum aligned with the crown of the head and a dozen more points. By then end we really had a deeper understanding of this pose and did not feel short changed that we didn’t learn a dozen new Asanas.

jatara parivartanasana

One of my basic level students asked me if intermediate level classes were harder in her workshop. I answered that they were not as hard as her basic level classes, but they had more refinement and awareness that a basic level student may not appreciate as much as a seasoned student. Of course one also had to be able to do a 10 minute Salamaba Sirsasana with variations in the middle of the room as well!

I have noticed in my own practice and teaching since the workshop, I am more apt to repeat a pose a half dozen times instead of two or three like I normally do. Again I notice that each time something deeper and more magical happens.

Thank you Laurie for the wonderful workshop!

May you have a blessed week

Gayatri

As a mental health worker, I can attest that the transition between the weekend and the work week can be one of the most stressful points of the week for people. Mantras can a powerful tool to direct internal energies toward the devine and away from anxious feelings. Below is a link to the Gayatri Mantra. The Gayatri Mantra is considered to be one of the great boons given to humanity. It is a Vedic hymn from the Rg Veda. It is curious in that it is considered both about the object of devotion, and as an act of devotion itself. If that does not fit into your belief system you can at least enjoy the beautiful singing. This particular version offers deep explanation to each word while the mantra plays.

Oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥtát savitúr váreṇ(i)yaṃbhárgo devásya dhīmahidhíyo yó naḥ pracodáyāt

The gist of the mantra is that it is a request of the devine to provide us with guidance. Also it asks to enlighten our intellect to make proper decisions and provide spiritual wisdom. Enjoy and have a great week!

The Yamas and Niyamas of Śāṇḍilya Upanishad

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If you give any depth of study to Patanjali, you will find he is often quoted as a “codifier” of Yoga. He was a journalist of the highest order writing down all the practices at his time and also referencing practices of the past. He was quite diplomatic in the Yoga Sutra-s giving a nod to all the different practices. And he put all the practices in terse format, so it would be easier to memorize for generations through the millennia.

One of the references that Patanjali may have drawn from come from the Śāṇḍilya Upanishad, an Atharvavedaic text dating back between 1000-1500 BCE (Patanjali existed around the second century BCE). This is a short treatise that mentions eight limbs of Yoga. It begins with a teaching between Arthavan and Śāṇḍilya:

Śāṇḍilya: “Please tell me about the eight angas of Yoga which is the means of attaining Atman.”

Artharvan: “The eight Agnas are Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. Of these, Yama is of ten kinds and so is Niyama. There are eight Asanas. Pranayama is of three kinds. Pratyahara is of five kinds; so also is Dharana. Dhyana is of two kind and Samadhi is of one kind only.”

The ten Yamas of this Upanishad are:

Ahimsa (not causing pain of anyone both physically and mentally)

Satya (Truthfulness)

Asteya (Not coveting)

Bhramacharya (Celebacy)

Daya (Kindliness)

Arjava (equanimity of mind in actions)

Kshama (Patience)

Dhriti (Preserving firmness of mind in periods of gain or loss)

Mitahara (Taking of only oily or sweet food leaving one fourth of the stomach empty)

Saucha (Both internal and external cleanliness)

There are also ten Niyamas:

Tapas (Empanciation from the body through penance)

Santosha (Contentment)

Astika (Belief in merits or demerits of actions set forth in the Vedas)

Dana (Charity)

Isvarapujana (Worship of God with a pure heart)

Siddhanta-Srivara (Inquiry of the significance of Vedanta)

Hrih (Shame when straying from actions set forth in the Vedas)

Mati (Faith in the paths laid out in the Vedas)

Japa (practicing the Mantras)

Vrata (Regular observance of Vedic actions, and non observance of actions that are not in the Vedas).

The text then expounds on Asanas and Pranayamas. Perhaps that will be another blog post. The scholar/historian in me is fascinated by this text. I find it comforting and reaffirming that these practices have been around for thousand and thousands of years. The fact that we can still access this text in 2015 shows that it is true enough to stand the test of time.

 

Listening to your practice: Asanas will tattle on you

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I was fortunate enough to start my work week with a home practice. That has been rare for me lately as I started a new job which demands that I be in the office more often. My practice felt strong this morning, but when I got to Halasana (plow pose) my legs felt stiff and my hamstrings felt “short.” Then I heard a whisper: “your legs are stiff because you are sitting too much and not doing enough Supta Padangusthasa.”

Before you think I have a diagnosis of schizophrenia, I don’t hear this “whisper” all the time. But when I am doing Asana with a sattvic mind, like it is after a good night’s rest, I tend to be bit more aware of what my body is telling me.

The body has a perfect memory unlike our mind. It “remembers” all the bad stuff you did to it all week: sitting too long in a bad posture, eating greasy food, and staying up too late. The body in its wisdom does not tell you right away when you are not ready to “hear” it. It waits until Asana practice to tell you exactly what you are doing wrong and tells you exactly how to fix it.

On a deeper level, the body then tells the mind what it’s doing wrong and how to fix it. By using the breath and Asanas, the body puts the mind in its place. It douses the constant shouting of the sensory organs with prana flowing through purified and aligned nadic channels.

So our job as Yoga practitioners is to listen. Listen deeply. Our body tells us all kinds of things. We just have to get the mind out of the way. Once we advance enough in our practice, then our purusha then starts to tell us things. To listen to the purusha is the highest form of Yoga.

After my practice I felt refreshed and ready to start the week. I am very grateful I got a chance to do Asanas today.

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A few approaches to a hyperextended knee in Asana

hyperextended knee

II.16. heyaim dukham anagatam

The pains which are yet to come can be and are to be avoided.
—Yoga Sutras, translation by B.K.S. Iyengar

I have gotten an overwhelming response from my post about the process of straightening the legs in Iyengar Yoga. Of course there are two sides to every coin, and in this case it is the plight of the knee hyperextenders.

A hyperextended knee occurs when the knee is bent backward (see above) and can damage ligaments, cartilage and other stabilizing structures in the knee. It may sound cliche, but the statement holds true that flexible people have a much more distinct disadvantage in Asana than those of us who are naturally stiff. That is because often times knee overextending practitioners are not aware that they are pushing too hard in the back of the joint until one day they are met with severe knee pain.

As a diagnostic test, do Utthita Trikonasana in front of a mirror and look at the back of your knee on the side you are leaning toward. If it is this shape (see below) than you are overextending. There is a distinct “look” to a hyperextended knee as fellow blogger mbdyoga commented the “tibia head is way behind the lower femur.” From a distance, the leg appears as though it is caving in from the knee joint.

hyperextended knee trikonasana

Here is what the knee should look like:

arun utthita trikonasana

If you are in the hyperextending camp, here are a few exercises you can do to create awareness of what a “normal” knee should feel like.

First, place a block in the back of the calf in Utthita Trikonasana. This will allow you to press against something without hyperextending the knee.

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Next, do Upavistha Konasana (Seated Angle Pose) on the floor with no blankets underneath the buttocks. This will allow you to again press down on the floor without risk of knee hyper extension. In forward bends don’t sit on height because you will hyperextend the knee.

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Lastly, find a corner or a door jamb and extend one leg up into a modified Supta Padangushthasana (Reclined Big Toe Pose). Notice the other knee is bent to avoid hyper extending that leg too. Press the whole back of the leg against the structure to get a feel of what a “straight non-hyperextended knee leg” feels like.

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Then take the awareness gained from these exercises into you daily practice. As a warning, I have heard that it feels like you are not stretching at all if you are ultra flexible. Be okay with that.

And until you have integrated this awareness of non hyperextension into your practice, I would advise doing “bent leg” forward bends in lieu of straight leg forward bends.

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As I normally say, these exercises are only the tip of the iceberg. Fellow blogger Stephanie Tencer from Studio Po in Toronto, Ontario has further reflections on this subject from her own experience with hyperextended knees. To be safe, find a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher in your area. I hope many of you find this post helpful. As always, I am open to commentary and criticism. It only creates more awareness for my own sadhana.

Blessings!

Rise to the challenge of thinking deeper about Asana

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Ramana Maharsi

 

I’m not the first to say this, but Yoga has saturated the market. Yoga in the West has now manifested into a thousand and one faces. Most of the Yoga we read about is Asana, with people giving a brief superficial nod to the other limbs. Even with Asana being the focal point, this too is getting the superficial treatment in most blogs and news feeds. So my challenge is to up the ante. In order to understand what Asana actually is and its true purpose, we as Yoga practitioners have to dig a little deeper.

Prashant Iyengar says that Asanas are a maya (illusion) to the lay person. When the average Joe sees me doing Asanas in the park during my lunch break, he probably thinks I’m off my rocker…but at best just thinks I am exercising or contorting myself. What the average Joe does not “see” is what is going on inside of me. Nobody but me can.

One of the problems to our Western approach to Yoga is that we give over emphasis to the organ of sight, and not as much emphasis on the other organs of perception. Asana are extremely visual. It is easy to see what is bending and what is extending. But we have not given much thought for example of what an Asana “sounds” like.

It is said that the highest form of Yoga is done with the ears, as that is the corresponding organ to akasha, or space. That is because you can “hear” complex ideas that are beyond the realm of vision. For example, we can “see” a dog or a cat, or a squid, but we cannot “see” concepts like democracy, or glotteral clicking sounds that Japanese verb intonations make. These concepts are understood through the organ of hearing if you learn using an oral tradition.

A few years ago, Senior Iyengar Teacher Laurie Blakeney, who is a piano tuner by trade, had us utter the mantra “OM” while doing a difficult asana. She said when the “OM” sound lost its clarity from stressed vocal chords, the Asana was being worked too hard and deviating from its “Sthira Sukam Asanam” state which is a prerequisite from Patanjali. This is the first time I “heard” what Asana is supposed to sound like. That is just one example in billions of how we can use other senses to perceive the depth of Asana.

So my challenge to you before posting that next pose on Instagram is go a little deeper into thinking about the pose you are posting. In your practice are you digging a bunch of shallow holes, or are you digging a deep vast well? That of course has to do with what you want from Yoga: do you want pot holes, or a water supply to irrigate your crops?

 

Several approaches to the eight limbs of Yoga

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When one first reads the eight limbs in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra-s, there are many questions that arise. Are the eight limbs practiced sequentially, like rungs in a ladder, or are they practiced all together? That really depends upon your point of view and also which tradition you follow. This post assumes one has read the eight limbs. If not here is a link to review them. I will provide a few points of view from my training and personal practice on following the eight limbs.

Say like you are a sincere practitioner and want to follow the eight limbs sequentially like a staircase–not proceeding to the next limb until you have “mastered” the previous. Then you meet a formidable challenge like the Yamas. The first Yama is ahimsa (non-harming). On your way to your practice, you accidentally step on a bug, injuring it. Can you proceed to the next limb? What about telling the truth (satya), not stealing (asteya), staying sexually continent (brahmacharya), and not being greedy (aparigraha)? Then what about the Niyamas of saucha (internal and external cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapas (ardor for practice), svadhyaya (self study), and Ishvara pranidhana (complete surrender to God)? If you had to master one limb before proceeding to the next, it would most likely take several lifetimes to qualify for Asana!

We have to keep in mind that the aim of Yoga is to still the citta. So living in observance of these ethical guidelines is highly conducive for stilling the mind. Imagine doing the exact opposite. What if you harmed others, lied, steal from others, had multiple sex partners, and were stingy and greedy. Your mind would be all over the place.

My point of view is that the first four limbs of Yoga: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama are things one can do externally to still the citta. The next two limbs: pratyahara and dharana are things one can do internally to still the citta. The last two limbs: Dhyana and Samadhi are what Yoga does to the practitioner who correctly and steadfastly practices these concepts.

The first four limbs, Yama, Niyama, Asana, and Pranayama, are called the bahiranga (the pursuit of external purity), pratyahara (detachment form the senses), and dharana (concentration) are called the antaranga (the pursuit of internal purity), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (illumination) are called the antaratama (the pursuit of the Soul).

In the West we like “goals.” Rather than viewing the eight limbs as a goal with Samadhi being the prize, I like to view the eight limbs as a toolbox one can use to get the mind to quieten. If there are any sincere “goals” of yoga, they would be to practice daily, and not be attached to things of with the ego identifies itself (abhyasa and vairagyam).

What if you were not able to practice Asana? Your practice would be to follow the Yamas and Niyamas to create stillness in the mind. What if your mind was too busy to focus on Pranayama?  Your practice would be Asana. These are examples of slotting in and slotting out limbs like gathering tools from a toolbox to quiet the mind.

Can you practice several limbs at once? Of course! When doing a sincere pranayama practice, you are already following the Yamas and Niyamas easily. You are in supported Savasana or a seated position and are therefore practicing Asana. B.K.S. Iyengar used Asana as a focus point to amplify the other limbs, just as Gandhi used the Yamas of ahimsa and satya to liberate India from the West.

The take home message here is whenever the mind is not quiet, Patanjali says you have access to many tools to make it quiet. Then you can see your true self and all your splendorous radiance.

Have a great weekend!