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A few approaches to a hyperextended knee in Asana

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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.

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Here is what the knee should look like:

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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!

The spiritual import of Pranayama

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By the time you have gotten to the point of practicing Pranayama regularly, you take your practice seriously. Pranayama is the end of the line of the physical practice. Like approaching the end of the high dive board, this is where the practitioner takes the “plunge” from the known physical practice, to unknown internal practice. In short, Pranayama is the most spiritual physical practice one can do.

Sutra 1.34 says: pracchardana-vidhāraṇābhyām vā prāṇasya, or the exhale and retention (rechaka and bahya kumbhaka) are a means to cease citta vritti (mind chatter). As you may remember from Sutra I.2 stopping the mind chatter the main aim of Yoga practice. B.K.S. Iyengar in Light on Pranayama (1999 ed.) takes this Sutra’s concept a step further:

Exhalation is the process by which the energy of the body gradually unites with that of the mind, merges into to soul of the sadhaka and dissolves into cosmic energy. It is the path of return from the peripheries of the body towards the source of consciousness know as the path of renunciation (nivritti marga). (Page 100)  and Bahya Kumbhaka (retention on the exhale) is the state in which the yogi surrenders his very self, in the form of his breath, to the Lord and merges with the Universal Breath. It is the noblest form of surrender, as the yogi’s identity is totally merged with the Lord. (Page 106).

Here, Iyengar may be referring to the “fourth” type of pranayama found in Sutra II.51. This “fourth” type of pranayama “surpasses the limits of the internal and external.” Then uncovers the thin veil between ignorance and illumination. Then the practitioner is qualified for Dharana (paraphrasing Sutras II.52-53).

In short, these Sutras are telling us that Pranayama is a destroyer of Karma which is a fundamental “goal” of the serious yoga practitioner. And like Pranayama cannot be commenced until Asana is mastered, the Sutras are suggesting that one must be proficient in Pranayama before intensive concentration (Dharana) can be undertaken.

I am very far from this level of progression in my personal practice. But the reason I am posting this is that it seems most Yoga we see and read about are just addressing Asana for Asana’s sake. In other words, “30 days to master scorpion pose” which we see ubiquitously on the Yoga news feeds of Facebook and WordPress. Perhaps this post will show that there is a progression along the eight limbs, and that each rung, like a peak of a mountain, must be ascended with much preparation and awareness. That in itself is an extremely spiritual undertaking.

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Approaching the victorious path of Pranayama (Part 2)

Now that I have covered some of the main prerequisites for Pranayama, now I will teach how to do Ujjayi I and II. The word Ujjayi combines the words “expanding” (Ud) and “victorious” (Jaya) which may refer to the expansion of the chest, and the feeling of being a “champion” with the posturing of a wide and lifted chest. The I and II levels are taught from supported Savasana (corpse pose.)

First you need a proper blanket setup. My preferred Pranayama setup is with three Mexican style blankets. Notice that the fringes are opposite to create an even surface and notice the trifold of the “pillow” blanket.

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See the instructions for Savasana for more detail about getting into the pose. The spine has to roll down evenly and the right and left side have to be even.

With the blankets you see the chest opening is exaggerated. This allows the lungs to open to their capacity. Also notice the chin relative to the sternum forming the basis for uddiyana bandha.

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Ujjayi Pranayama

Similarly to how Tadasana is the foundation for all standing Asanas and Dandasana is the foundation for all sitting Asanas, Ujjayi is the foundation and reference point for all the Pranayamas. Note that all Pranayamas are done through the nostrils.

Ujjayi I

  • From the reclined position, Ujjayi is commenced by first expelling all the “tidal air” out of the lungs.
  • Without manipulating the breath, commence normal breathing, but observe the four parts of the breath’s structure (Puraka, Bhaya Kumbhaka, Rechaka, Antara Kumbhaka).
  • Gradually when the mind slows to the pace of the breath, observe any imbalances in breathing patterns and adjust accordingly.
  • Eventually practice until there is no tension or quivering in the flow of the breath.
  • Maintain this process for 10 minutes.

Ujjayi II

  •  In Ujjayi II the exhale (Rechaka) is accented. From the above exercise, exhale completely until the lungs are emptied and don’t put pressure on the abdomen.
  • Inhale normally
  • Exhale slowly until the lungs are emptied.
  • Maintain this process for 10 minutes.

After Pranayama, undo the blanket setup for the chest and then commence Savasana for 10 minutes.

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It is interesting to observe that doing Savasana after Asana practice, Savasana  feels “deep” relative to the physical postures. However, doing Savasana after Pranayama, one notices how “shallow” the Savasana is compared to the Pranayama practice. It is one of the few physical evidences we have that Pranayama is a deeper progression along the eight limbs than Asana.

I hope you found this post helpful in your practice. I will emphasize that this post is merely a perfunctory view of Pranayama. For more details and refinements, please refer to Light on Pranayama by B.K.S. Iyengar and attend classes from an Iyengar Certified Yoga Instructor in your area.

OM Shanti

 

 

 

Approaching the victorious path of Pranayama (Part 1)

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To further refine one’s home practice, Pranayama is essential. It is not a practice one approaches in a standard one-size-fits-all format as everyone has their own cardiovascular and respiratory rhythms. But certain fundamentals must be learned before one tries on their own. The Iyengars and the Hatha Yoga Pratipika warn that Pranayama practiced unskillfully can have damaging effects on the nervous system. In short, Pranayama is not merely “breathing exercises.” Pranayama is just as the name implies: management of the body’s “pranic” or energetic system.

B.K.S. Iyengar warned that one must not approach Pranayama casually and mechanically. Just as there are refinements in Asana, there are extremely subtle refinements in Pranayama. Again, these cannot be seen easily if at all by the teacher, so it is up to the practitioner to understand what needs to be refined.

One’s mental state cannot be agitated before doing or while in Pranayama. If that is the case, the practitioner must go back to Asana until the mental state is calmed. As a mental health care professional, this took me years to figure out. As a counselor, a common “coping skill” to teach for one who has anxiety is to “take deep breaths.” That has had mixed results in my counseling profession especially of for those who smoke daily and have respiratory problems. Breathing deeply has actually made them panic more! Through the years I have found teaching my clients Tadasana and supported Adho Mukha Svanasana as much more valuable technique of addressing anxiety than “breathing deeply.”

In the hierarchy of practice, Asana must be mastered before one can commence Pranayama.  That does not mean one has to execute Asanas in the back of Light On Yoga to qualify.  But the quality of the asanas you do have to have Sthira and Sukham (steadiness and well being). The aim of Pranayama isn’t merely to get out of an agitated state. The aim is to cultivate Pratyahara, or detachment from the senses.

It is recommended that people don’t start doing Pranayama until they have had regular and steady Asana practice for six months. This not to be snobby, but it is because the body needs to attain a basic sense of proper alignment before any effective work on the extremely subtle pranic system can be done. If you are new to Yoga, please see my tabs on Asana and Yoga Sequences and practice these with the help of a Certified Iyengar Yoga Instructor in your area. It is highly advisable to obtain a copy of Light on Pranayama by B.K.S. Iyengar as he goes into tremendous detail of what I will cover briefly in these posts. With all of that, let us start to explore how to approach Pranayama.

Ideally, Pranayama is practiced separate from Asana. If you practice Asanas first, allow 30 minutes before commencing Pranayama practice. As Pranayama tries to cultivate Pratyahara, there should be no music playing and of course electronic devices should be silenced. It is very jarring to the nervous system to hear a cell phone go off while you are concentrating on the subtle body.

The four parts of the breath

To understand the basic structure of the breath, one needs to know at least the corresponding references in Sanskrit. The exhale is called Rechaka. The retention at the end of the exhale is called Bhaya Kumbhaka. The inhale is called Puraka. The retention at the end of the inhale is called Antara Kumbhaka. Kumbha means “pot” or “vessel” and the retention refers to the encapsulation of the Prana in the vessel. Eventually, the Kumbhakas increase in time duration according to the aim and skill of the practitioner.

Study these concepts, and in future posts I will show how to position the body for pranayama give basic instructions for UJjayi I and II Pranayama-s.

Many blessings!

 

Asanas are 1% of Yoga: Patanjali

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I write a great deal about Asana in my blog. One could argue that my blog is only about Asana and that I have not even come close to touching the other limbs. That would be a valid argument. I have been fortunate enough lately to devote much time to reading and studying the Patanjali Yoga Sutra-s. After hearing an interview with scholar Edwin Bryant, the idea has crystalized that has been inside of for much time: since Asanas are so powerful and profoundly life changing by themselves, the entire practice of Yoga is light years more powerful and transformative.

There are only three Yoga Sutra-s that address Asana: sthira sukham asanam (the seat/pose steadies and brings about comfort for the aspirant’s consciousness), prayatna-śaithilya-ananta-samāpatti-bhyām (mastery in the Asana is accomplished when the aspirant has a state of effortless effort in the body and in the consciousness), and tato dvaṅdva-an-abhighātaḥ (from then on the aspirant is not vexed by the dualities that exist between the pure consciousness and the perceived world.)

As Bryant points out, reference to Asana only encompasses 12 words in a 1200 word text, or 1 percent. But rather dismissing Asana as unimportant because of its brief “cameo” in the Sutra-s, reflect on how powerful Asana has been in your life. For many of my readers, Asana is only what they have practiced. That is not a bad thing, as Asana as Bryant describes is “plugged in” to a larger system of total transformation.

Now imagine how powerful it would be to practice daily and uninterruptedly a concept like telling the truth, or keeping yourself clean, or not being greedy. Just practicing those concepts for one day would be life changing to many. Then one only begins to gather how difficult and how deep the whole of the Yoga Sutra-s are in what they are trying to impart to the reader.

By all means don’t give up your Asana practice! B.K.S. Iyengar taught that all limbs can be practiced in Asana and has proved it in how he changed the world’s view of Yoga.

Gandhi liberated India with concepts in the Yoga Sutra-s like Satya (truth) and Ahimsa (non-violence) and inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. to duplicate these principles to create civil rights in the US. Similarly, the Patanjali Yoga Sutra-s teach how to emancipate ourselves not only from sorrows, but from all the Karmic and Samskaric imprints we have inherited.