earth

The element of Prithvi in standing poses

One unique feature about Iyengar yoga is that beginning students are taught Uttishta Sthiti (standing poses) first before learning other clans of Asana-s. From a layperson’s perspective, this may sound counterintuitive. Shouldn’t beginners start with seated postures which require less physical effort? After a few years of practice, and a few more years of teaching, I am starting to see clearly why this is the optimal method for beginners to start.

Standing poses are the “donkey work” of Yoga as my mentoring teacher is fond of saying. They require tremendous energy when done properly. They correct defects in wobbly, weak legs and inflexible hamstrings. They safely teach “alignment” which is now becoming a much “maligned” term in the modern Yoga world.

For those beginners with stiff joints in the legs, seated poses can be a nightmare. Have you ever seen a beginning student with tight groins sit on the floor in Swastikasana? Knees are up and the sacrum is bulging out with a hunched back. To correct a student in this position takes much effort: they have to get up, get blankets, reposition.

This is not the case in standing poses. If a student has a hunched back in Utthita Trikonasana, give an instruction. If the instruction isn’t received, manually adjust, or add height via a block. Worst case, take them to a wall or tresler. Not much effort is needed.

Now that I am starting to revisit much of the philosophical teaching of yoga, namely the Panchamahabhutas (five elements), it is clear why we start with standing poses before attending to “advanced” Asana-s.

Standing poses correspond with element of Pritvhi, or Earth. They are “grounding.” They are solid. They build foundation. They are tangible. They can be held for long periods of time. In short, they teach discipline which is becoming rarer these days.

Correspondingly,  the earth element absorbs unwanted qualities from the other elements: water, fire, air, and space. If this sounds too esoteric and new agey, just remember the last time you had do deal with someone who is “spacey” or has a “fiery” temper. The elemental tendencies are very real in people if we are not too much in our own head to “see.”

Standing poses slow the mind down and quiet it. You may not feel that way when doing Parivritta Parsvakonasana for more than 30 seconds, but wait for the after effect. I notice the quality of Savasana in my students is much more profound after standing poses then they are after restorative/pranayama.

parivrtta parsvakonasana

On a deeper level, the earth element corresponds with the Muladhara Chakra, the root. To manage this Chakra properly, it is said one can build a platform of dispassion (vairagyam) to create stability on one’s yogic journey. It is advised that raw beginners do at least six month of daily standing poses before attempting inversions. That may sound harsh and dogmatic, but the standing poses teach the legs how to remain stable even when there is no earth underneath them as is the case with inversions.

Muladhara

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Westernized Yoga can use a dose of Aparigraha

I got the strangest “job offer” from an acquaintance the other day. She said “I’m thinking of opening a yoga studio downtown. It will double as a smoothie stand, will you teach for me?” I asked her if she has ever done yoga before and she replied she had tried if a few times and it made her feel better, and that is what gave her the idea for the studio/bar/what-have-you.

I politely declined without an explanation, and suggested that she at least “acquaint” herself with the practice before her business venture. After reflecting on this job offer, it dawned on me that this is how Yoga is being propagated in the West. Corporate burn outs are going to a yoga class, they feel great afterwards, and it doesn’t take long before they are printing studio fliers.

Rewind a few years back. I used to be part of a mediation sangha that would meet weekly. Once in a blue moon, we would meditate in a tree house that could hold 20 people in the back of the verdant Manoa Valley. We had guest speaker Rev. Lekshe Tsomo, a buddhist nun who works with the Dalai Lama, run the group. We sat for an hour, then she gave her talk.

“The tree house is nice, isn’t it?” She inquired. “Don’t you want to own it?” Most agreed. “How come we can’t just enjoy it for this time, without having to want to own it?” A deep question indeed.

There is this strange phenomenon in Western yoga in that people to want to “own” yoga. That is, cash in on all that yoga has to offer. Just go to your local corporate chain yoga studio and drop in rates run as high as $25. People pay. The studios keep charging.

Teacher trainings are offered to students who just walk in the door without an iota of yoga experience, nonetheless teaching experience. “For $4,000, you can join our teacher training to deepen your practice.” People pay. The studios keep charging.

J. Brown just wrote a scathing piece on teacher trainings. In the comment section, a representative from Yoga Alliance gave an interesting statistic: 50%-75% of YTT (yoga teacher training) students do not intend to teach. If they are not intending to teach, why shell out 4 or 5 grand when you can just learn to “deepen your practice” in a classroom setting? Unless studios aren’t actually “teaching” instead of just doing a follow-the-teacher class with a killer playlist, very much like aerobics classes a decade ago with a savasana thrown in. Then it all makes sense.

This may sound like a crude comparison, but I felt like my friend’s job offer was akin to someone asking a devout priest if he would like to join a money making venture on teaching people how to pray. Of course any priest worth his salt would simply say: “just pray.”

Putting the community back into Yoga

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III.23 Maitryadisu balani — By samyama (intensive meditation) on friendliness, great strengths are acquired.

I received a compliment from one of my students over the weekend. It had nothing to do with my instructions, or my sequence, or even my holding class on the holiday. The student said “I really appreciate the sense of community I feel in your class.” “Thanks!” I said and left without really thinking about it.

That comment from my student has been sticking with me for a while. I have been teaching at Unity Church of Honolulu since 2004 and still have 3 of my original students. Teaching over a long period of time in the same spot grows deep roots.

The simple act of showing up consistently week after week on time is a much harder task than teaching “advanced” poses. Some weeks I have only one student, some weeks none at all! But over the years, I’m fairly confident that at least a handful show up. I rarely cancel class. Only during special events, major holidays, or if I’m too sick.

The class has always been small with about 7-8 regulars. Saturday morning at 8 am is a hard sell for most. Keeping this time slot has produced a special type of student: the kind who is serious enough to wake up early on a weekend.

I accept “love offerings” as Unity Church calls them which makes it a donation based class. But I don’t have a “suggested donation.” If students don’t feel like paying, I don’t take issue. I make enough money at my main job to cover expenses. Unity Church has been gracious about the arrangement. My students aren’t chintzy though, they give me enough to keep the church happy.

My priority is to have students return weekly over a long period of time, not to make a quick buck, sell merchandise, or up-sell a teacher training program. I am barely a beginning teacher myself, how could I ethically instruct others how to teach?

My students return week after week. They say they get benefit from my teaching. But I also feel they come back because it is one of the few places in our fast paced society where they feel a sense of connection with others. They notice when a student has been away. They celebrate each others’ good news, and are sympathetic to each other when there is not so good news.

Prior to my starting the Unity Class, I was part of a Vipassana-based Sangha that met weekly for a one hour meditation, and then a one hour discussion. I remember how much that group gave me a sense of community, and wanted to pass the feeling on.

Even as far back as childhood, I remember my Dad would take my brother and I to an annual Jazz festival in Madrid, New Mexico. Madrid is a ghost town that had an abandoned baseball park where the festival was held. As we were kids, we did not give a hoot about Jazz, so we brought a kick ball and utilized the baseball diamond. It wasn’t long before we had  game going with all the other kids whose parents dragged them to the festival. I think that is what planted the seed for me understanding how important it is to have a community. The other kids sure appreciated it.

Yoga is a big business now. Across the street there is a studio that packs ’em in, blasts the tunes and people pay via the internet. I am sure I “missed out” on the big payday in the Yoga world. But again, for me it’s not about the money, it’s about the personal satisfaction of watching my students grow with me as a teacher. It would sure be nice if I can teach here another 12 years.

International Yoga Day Everyday

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Happy International Yoga Day! In some parts of the world it is June 21 already. We are very fortunate to live in a time when the world can recognize India’s gift to humanity: the art, science, and philosophy of Yoga. Here is the UN’s official statement on this day:

Addressing the UN General Assembly on 27 September 2014, the Prime Minister of India Mr. Narendra Modi had said: “Yoga is an invaluable gift of India’s ancient tradition. It embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfilment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being. It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature. By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change. Let us work towards adopting an International Yoga Day.”

To commemorate this day, Geeta Iyengar constructed a sequence. Some of the poses here can be found in my blog’s “Asana-s” page.

  • Tadasana – Mountain Pose
  • Namaskarasana – Palms together (prayer pose)
  • Urdhva Hastasana – Extend arms upward
  • Uttanasana – Standing forward bend
  • Adho Mukha Svanasana – Downward facing dog pose
  • Urdhva Mukha Svanasana – Upward facing dog pose
  • Uttanasana – Standing forward bend
  • Tadasana – Mountain pose
  • Utthita Trikonasana – Triangle pose
  • Utthita Parsvakonasana – Side angle pose
  • Virabhadrasana I – Warrior Pose I
  • Parivrtta Trikonasana – Revolved triangle
  • Parsvottanasana – Intense side stretch forward bend
  • Prasarita Padottanasana – Wide stance forward bend
  • Dandasana – Staff pose
  • Janu Sirsasana – Head to knee seated forward bend
  • Adho Mukha Upavishtakonasana – Upright wide angle seated pose
  • Virasana with Parvatasana – Hero pose, clasped hands up
  • Swastikasana with Parvatasana – Cross-legged pose, clasped hands up
  • Parsva Dandasana – Staff pose twist
  • Bharadvajasana I – Twist named after the sage Bharadvaja
  • Marichyasana III – Twist named after the sage Marichi
  • Urdhva Mukha Svanasana – Upward facing dog
  • Dhanurasana – bow pose
  • Ustrasana – camel pose
  • Adho Mukha Svanasana – downward facing dog
  • Sirsasana – head balance
  • Sarvangasana – shoulder balance
  • Halasana – plow pose
  • Chatushpadasana – bridge pose variation
  • Setu Bandha Sarvangasana – bridge pose
  • Savasana – corpse pose
  • Sit in dhyana (meditation)

May you have a peaceful and happy International Yoga Day!

Required reading for the student who is new to Yoga

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I was watching a video of B.K.S. Iyengar during the 2013 Guru Poornima, which is an annual observance and celebration of all of our teachers. In the address, he showed two books that were recently pressed from the Institute. He commented that when he started Yoga, there was no written material on the subject of Asana. Now it has gone the other way. There is now so much information about Asana on the internet and in books, that a new comer to yoga may be easily overwhelmed.

I often reflect on the reading materials that I first encountered when I came to Yoga and what continues to guide me on my path. The clear text would be introduction in LIght On Yoga. It is not just written well, it draws from a series of classical Yoga texts and digests it into an easy to understand essay coupled with Iyengar’s experience.

One does not need to be an practitioner of the Iyengar style to appreciate this text. Renowned Ashtanga Yoga practitioner Chuck Miller writes:

One day in 1974, I was in a bookstore and picked up a copy of Light on Yoga. A girl whom I’ve never seen before just looked over and said, “That’s the book.” I took it as a sign from above and bought the book. I went home that night and read the introduction, fifty-five pages, and it blew my mind. It changed my life. I felt I had my hand on the operating manual for the human being.  – From Iyengar, The Yoga Master 2007 Kofi Busia Shalamba Publications, Inc.

One of the gists of the text that I remember every day is that he views the ability to work as a gift. He draws this concept from the Bhagavad Gita, and links it wonderfully to how we integrate our daily practice as our dharma.

He also gives a brief overview of the limbs of Ashtanga Yoga (the classical eight limbs from Patanjali Yoga Sutras). In subsequent texts, The Iyengar family asserts that Ashtanga Yoga is the ABCs of Yoga, and that the other forms like Hatha, Laya, Jnana etc. need a firm rooting in Asthanga Yoga before other forms can successfully be commenced.

In Light on Yoga, Iyengar also gives a brief overview of the obstacles on the path and how to overcome them based on the Patanjali Yoga Sutras. Iyengar had many obstacles that he overcame in his lifetime including childhood diseases, poverty, the early death of his wife, and two auto accidents just to name a few. He practiced Yoga up until he passed away last year at 95 years old.

Keep in mind that Iyengar Yoga style was not my first choice when I started Yoga. I went though many of the different systems until I have decided to pursue Iyengar as my path. Perhaps you may have another system of preference. But there is one common agreement among many practitioners is that the introduction of Light On Yoga is one of the classic passages.

Can we now retire the phrase #namasteeverydamnday?

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Would it be too much to ask to retire phrases #namasteeverydamnday and #yogaeverdamnday? I have many reasons for this request, but what made this phraseology hit close to home is in my work as a mental health counselor.

One day I was counseling a client who had a recent suicide attempt. I asked her how often she struggles with depression and anxiety. Her reply: “I struggle with depression and anxiety every damn day.”

At that point I knew that she was speaking of a place of deep pain and suffering. At that moment she felt her existence was cursed with little hope. With therapy she eventually got better and now lives a more normalized life which she feels she does not view every single day as a curse.

When I see this hashtagged phrase on my newsfeed, it reminds me of that woman’s suffering. Those who post this hashtag don’t seem to be suffering. New trendy yoga blogs like DoYouYoga.com use this phrase liberally. People posting this are usually bikini clad and have an attitude like they don’t have a care in the world.

In my own practice, I am extremely grateful when I can carve out an hour or two of uninterrupted practice. I feel like every day is a blessing with yoga, not cursed. I know it sounds like I am overreacting. Some people I see blogging about yoga use foul language without missing a beat. Much like a truck driver.

Recently, I have been practicing with mantras by repeating the names of Narayana, and sacred hymns from the Vedas. I believe these are creating much positive change in my life. Coupled with my yoga practice, the effects have been quantamized. Again, it has given me the insight to know that every word said and written has latent power which like tiny drops of water an eventually take down a massive structure.

So my request is to be careful what you write and say. Soundforms become words, words become thoughts, thoughts become actions, repeated actions become Karma, wrong actions become Samskara.

Therefore: #namasteeveryblessedday

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!