iyengar

…one year later

iyengar

It’s hard to believe almost one year has passed since Guruji left this earth. I remember the afternoon vividly. Guruji had been hospitalized and there were many keeping vigil. I was frantically checking the news feeds for news all day in between working.

Then there was a message on HS Arun’s Facebook page:  “It was great to have Guruji in our institute. It’s hard to believe that he is no more with us.” At that point I called my mentoring teacher. He had just gotten off the phone from a friend in India confirming the news.

Soon afterwards, news spread like wildfire, first on the yoga blogs, then the Facebook feeds, then the mainstream news. News of his death even out trended Nikki Minaj’ latest publicity stunt. There were many beautiful tribute posts. Notably, detailed accounts came from Luci Yamamoto’s Yoga Spy blog. She was at RIMYI at the time of his death.

Kofi Busia wrote healing words as well:

 I have to say, however, that I find it difficult to be sad. Of course I would like to see him again. But I also know that I only ever need to look for him in the place that he taught me to look for him. I can see him again there any time I want. After all, he was a great teacher because he taught constantly that that which is not here should always be a part of what is, otherwise we will never be content.

Today I had a student new to Iyengar Yoga. He was amazed (like all of us) of all the postures Guruji could do in the plates surrounding our studio. He said he enjoyed the class, enjoys the style and plans to be a regular student. There is always doubt that once a leader passes if his legacy will hold. But because of Guruji’s integrity and uncompromising standards in not only his teaching, but in how his teachers are taught, I am confident his legacy of Iyengar Yoga will endure the test of time.

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Disturbing trend: booze and Yoga classes

There are plenty of yoga “blends” out there now that the practice is becoming mainstreamed in Western culture. There is Stand Up Paddle Yoga, Yoga with weights, spinning class yoga, the list is tireless. At least these yoga strains are working toward a healthy end. But now things have taken a turn for the worse: the proliferation of combining alcohol with yoga practice.

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Ty Ku Sake has a new campaign #ApresYoga which is a spinoff on the Apres Ski where after a nice day of skiing, there is an unwinding which involves a hot tub and alcohol. They make it sound “fun”: do yoga and drink up. The only problem is that Yoga is supposed to be a practice of awareness and not to be combined with substance use (yes alcohol is considered a substance).

As I have been blogging for a while, I am aware that there is a sizable segment of the yoga community who is in recovery from substance abuse. Many have come to yoga as a solace from mainstream culture. Now Big Alcohol has identified yoga as an untapped marketing mecca and is wasting no time in exploiting the practice to increase alcohol sales.

The Facebook page for DoYouYoga.com is pushing this product, interlacing it with articles about yoga practice. This isn’t the only mainstream yoga outlet pushing drinking…

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Yes, everyone’s darling Lululemon is even producing its own line of beer. Granted this was for a limited event which involved running, it shows how a company who tells you how committed they are to certain yogic principles quickly take to low road for a quick buck.

A studio in New Mexico, a state which has one of the highest DUI and drinking and driving related fatality rates in the US, recently started this event which actually has people drinking beer during Yoga practice.

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And it doesn’t help that celebrities like Nick Lachey are using yoga to to promote alcohol, as he is here drinking beer after a hot yoga class. That sounds like a nice recipe for severe dehydration.

Lastly, the new editor of Yoga Journal Carin Gorrell endorsed “brewery yoga” during her interview on Elephant Journal last year. Calling yoga in a brewery “perfect.” You can see the interview at the 6:40 mark. What is a yoga community to do when even the editor of one of the largest yoga publications endorses drinking and yoga?

I am not here to preach abstinence or be a tee totaler. My point is that yoga is sacred to me and that combining yoga with alcohol goes against many concepts of Patanjali’s teachings: namely ahimsa (non harming), saucha (cleanliness), and sutra II.16. Heyaim dukham anagram “The pains which are yet to come can be and are to be avoided.”

If you don’t think consuming alcohol is potentially life threatening, here is what the Centers for Disease Control have to say about it:

Drinking too much can harm your health. Excessive alcohol use led to approximately 88,000 deaths and 2.5 million years of potential life lost (YPLL) each year in the United States from 2006 – 2010, shortening the lives of those who died by an average of 30 years. Further, excessive drinking was responsible for 1 in 10 deaths among working-age adults aged 20-64 years. The economic costs of excessive alcohol consumption in 2006 were estimated at $223.5 billion, or $1.90 a drink.

I hope this blog post generates awareness and discussion on the topic. My views come from my “mental health counselor” lens in which I see the devastating effects of alcohol dependence daily in my work. It seems as though this trend of drinking and doing yoga has taken the evolution of Yoga back a few steps.

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Why this is a perfect Virabhadrasana II

In this age of selfies we are inundated with people doing “advanced” yoga postures. This is a picture of a younger Geeta Iyengar taken years before digital photography. She is doing  Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II), a “basic” standing pose. But she is doing it with mastery few could match. I will show different segments of her posture that show why this one of the best Virabhadrasana II photographs I have seen….

The Base:

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The first thing that comes to mind in her posture is how wide her stance is. It seems infinite.

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Notice the outer edge of her foot is pressing down. That is keeping her from slipping on this oriental carpet. No sticky mat needed.

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The knee is at a 90 degree angle and the femur bone appears parallel to the ground.

The Torso:

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Despite the asymmetry of the legs in Virabhadrasana II (one straight leg, one bent knee leg), her torso is even and side ribs are lifted and shoulders are down.

The Arms:

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The level wall makes a nice point of reference for the arms. Notice how one arm is slightly above the other. That is not a mistake. The slight elevation of the arm gives the pose a sense of lightness. In your own practice, try level arms versus the bent leg arm slightly lifted and you’ll notice a huge difference in the prayatna shaithilya (effortless effort) aspect of the posture.

The internal practice:

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Virabhadrasana II is a strenuous pose. If it is held for more than a minute, fatigue rapidly sets in. It is not known how long she has been in the posture, but the softness of her countenance shows that she could stay for a long time. Her posture not only shows effortless effort, it shows the iconography of the spirit of a warrior. Geeta is certainly a warrior as today she continues to teach at 70 years of age.

Thank you for sharing this photo with the world!

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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.

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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.

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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!