Monthly Archives: December 2013

Is Your Practice Too Rajasic?

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Now that I have more time on my hands during the holidays, I have been able to get to some leisurely reading. Among the books I have picked up are Benjamin Lorr’s “Hell Bent” a book that is critical of the Bikram Choudury teacher training program. The writer is in a seminar called the “Back Bending Club” with one of Bikram’s senior students. They are training for a “yoga competition.” Here is an excerpt:

“The women are doing backbends so severe their ribs are popping out of place. The chiropractor pops them back in and the women return for more backbends. I know this because as one of the only people with a car, I drive them to and from the studio when it happens.”

Excerpt From: Benjamin Lorr. “Hell-Bent.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/jrm0E.l

If you are having to go to a doctor regularly for you to maintain your practice, my guess is that your practice is too Rajasic. Rajas are one of the three Gunas of yoga that corresponds to frenetic, firey energy.  Your practice may not so intense that your chiropractor is factored into your commute home from the studio, but if you have elements of recurring pain that you know is stemming from your asana practice, it is time to reevaluate.

Yoga practice should be intelligent. You should be discovering how your body works (Swadhayaya) instead of pushing your body until you have to visit a doctor just to function properly. Intelligent practice would be recognizing that your ribs are being damaged, questioning yourself why you are doing poses to perform in a competition, and realize that your true nature is to do yoga to gain health to help others, instead of boasting in a contest.

When you are injuring your body for the sake of a yoga competition, you are not adhering to the Yamas and Niyamas. The rib-maligned students from the excerpt were not practicing Ahimsa (non harming), Aparigraha (non greediness), and Santosa (contentment). They were mired in the Kleshas or the obstacles to yoga because their intent was to win a contest, rather than to remove the fog that is covering their true being.

A good way to bring your practice from Rajasic to Sattvic (balanced) is to focus on one clan of poses every week. For example, the first week of the month do Utthistha Sthithi (standing poses), the second week do Paschima Pratana Sthithi (forward bends), the third do Purva Pratana Sthithi (backbends), the fourth miscellaneous poses, and the fifth week Visranta Karaka Sthithi (restorative poses) and Pranayama. In many ways you satisfy Rajasic tendencies by getting deeper into poses that you avoid or don’t have time to do in your practice. By changing the type of poses each you do each week, you move towards Sattvas by having a sense of balance in your practice.

An important part of this cycle is the restorative week. This is where you can move toward the higher limbs of yoga aside from asana. By doing Pranayama (regulation of prana via the breath), you can cultivate Pratyahara (detachment from the senses), and Dharana (concentration).

In restorative week you can also hold poses longer which cultivates other parts of your practice, mainly patience and forebearance. You can work at “building time” in Sirsasana (head pose), Supta Virasana (reclined hero pose), and Baddha Konasana (bound angle pose). Working to build time is very different than trying to attain a backbend at the expense of your ribcage.

There is a time and a place for Rajas. During the holidays, we tend to lean towards Tamas, or dull lethargy. The reason why I am posting this topic is because once the New Year celebration is over, many people will return to the gyms and the studios with zealous enthusiasm. Just remember that jumping into a Rajasic practice after a period of Tamas is a good recipe for injury.

Yoga during the holidays? Making the impossible possible

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This year’s going to be a doozy! I have guests coming in from Germany and New Mexico. My brother is getting married. I have three extended families. Needless to say, my yoga practice will succumb to the festivities.

And that’s okay! Holidays are a special time of year where you take time out of your normal routine to appreciate family and friends. But it doesn’t mean I have to completely stop doing yoga. Here is my “blog out loud” strategy for sneaking in some yoga time during yule time.

  • Do yoga when everyone else is doing touristy things. “I will drop you off at the mall and meet you in 3 hours” (sneak to yoga class).
  • Include your family in your yoga practice. “Let’s all do stretches!”
  • Accept that less than an hour of practice will be the norm. Even 30 minutes can be enough with consciousness.
  • Break up your practice into manageable chunks. Do a 15 minute surya namasakar in the morning. A 30 minute pre lunch standing pose sequence. And a 20 minute inversion practice in the evening.
  • Do more pranayama.
  • Use laying around the house watching TV with family time to be in a restorative pose. See my post about reading the NY Times in Baddha Konasana.
  • Play cards in Virasana.
  • Does your uncle have back pain? Teach him some therapeutic applications (if you know what you are doing).
  • Teach your young nieces and nephews how to do headstand.

Being a reclusive yogi has it’s merits, but it is a very lonely place. Even BKS Iyengar shunned that approach to being a family man. In the end his family made him stronger by being able to carry on his teachings. Just as your family will make you stronger with their love and support.

Shoulder Stand Done Right

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Salamba Sarvangasana (supported all body pose) or popularly known as shoulder stand is considered the “mother” of asanas. It has therapeutic benefit for every system in your body. That’s why it’s probably called “all body pose.”

If done incorrectly. it may cause damage to the cervical spine. I will attempt in a series of picture to illustrate the correct approach to this pose.

First the setup: you will need 4 blankets, a chair, a sticky mat, and a block. See below for the visual:

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Correct shoulder stand/halasana setup for beginners

On a sticky mat laid out flat, put the blankets at one end with the smooth edges facing the chair. Fold the sticky mat tail 2/3 over the blankets as seen in photo. Make sure the edges of the blankets are in one straight vertical plane. If you have the fringes out it will create unevenness in the base:

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Correct edges

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Incorrect edges

Lay on your back on top of the blankets and have your shoulder tops  1 to 1.5 inches (3-4 cm) from the edge of the blankets. 

Reach back and hold the bottom part of the legs of the chair, push the chair back until your arms are straight.

From this point NEVER TURN YOUR HEAD as you can damage the C7 part of your spine.

Pushing down with the elbows, swing your legs overhead until the feet reach the chair.

SS halasana

This is called Halasana (plow pose). Push the thighs up toward the ceiling until the legs are taut.

From here, straighten your arms behind you and hook your thumbs with the fingers pointed toward the ceiling, roll to the right side and tuck your left shoulder underneath. Then repeat right side. Do a few times until the skin of the shoulder is well underneath.

Support the back with the hands with the palm touching the flesh of the back (not cloth) and fingers facing toward the ceiling.

Keeping taut legs, take one leg up at a time until the ankles knees, hips and deltoids are in one vertical plane.

10-Salamba-Sarvangasana

At first just practice getting in and holding for one minute. Eventually you build your time up to five minutes.

To come out, KEEP YOUR LEGS TAUT, as you lower one leg down the chair at a time. If you allow the legs to go limp you will crash your feet on the chair. Then reach your hands to the chair, bend your knees and roll down.

Here is why you need blankets in this pose. This strap represents the angle of your spine with blankets. Notice there is gentle, gradual plane that is minimally weight bearing.photo-11

Now, here is your spine’s angle without blankets:SS 90

And then your pose will look like this:

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OUCH!!

Banana shaped!!

Or worse:

ss sans blanket

90 degree angle of the neck is bad news

You should not do this pose if you are menstruating (or any other pose where the pelvis is elevated). In ayurveda, which is the sister science to yoga, it is advised that one should not interrupt the direction of drainage from the body.

It would be highly advisable to find an Iyengar certified yoga teacher to instruct you to do this pose initially, than use this blog entry as a reminder.

Poses you dread…getting to the deeper problem

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Parsva Halasana (Side Plow Pose)

 

We all have them. The dreaded poses that make us feel uncomfortable, self conscious, and downright miserable. Some people may have an entire clan of poses that they can’t stand. During my Intro II apprenticeship and teacher training, that pose for me was Parsva Halasana (side plow pose.) To preface, I had an unknown diagnosis of Benign Hyperplasia of the Prostate (BHP) for the first half of my training, and required surgery. Prior to the procedure, I was not able to evacuate without pain and discomfort and felt bloated most of the time. Hence, any forward bend, twist, or inversion was extremely uncomfortable. The combination of all three (Parsva Halasana) was pretty much unbearable before the operation. 

Because of all the pain before the procedure, I was hesitant to try the pose for a few months. When I got into again, there was no pain like before, but a dreaded sense of anxiety. Coupled with Karna Pidasana, I felt claustrophobic. In short I hated Parsva Halasana! My fellow trainee, Azi had a similar dislike to Parivritta Parsvakonasana. One day after a difficult teacher training session, I asked Azi about the poses she hated on our syllabus and why. I also asked myself the same question and wrote down the responses:

  • It hurts like hell!
  • It makes me feel fat!
  • I want to vomit while in the pose!
  • This assessment process sucks, why do we have to do poses we hate?!
  • It makes me feel self conscious!
  • I don’t want to shit or piss myself while in the pose!

The exercise was cathartic. I started crying. All the buildup of pain and frustration in the pose, coupled with the stress of a demanding teacher training had taken it’s toll. Once I let it all out, the pose magically stopped hurting both physically and psychologically. One year after the surgery, I took and passed my Intro II which involved holding Parsva Halasana for one minute each side. I did not have any discomfort at all!

Asanas are excellent diagnosis tools for health. If you have extreme discomfort in certain poses, you may want to investigate with your doctor. That is not to be confused with getting injured in class or just being stiff. I am talking about chronic discomfort that arises from poses that previously did not give you a hard time. When I realized I needed to see a doctor about my BHP is when I lost control of my bladder during Parivrtta Pasrvakonasana. I made an appointment the next day and was on the operating table within a week.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Nausea after back bends
  • Eyesight problems after inversions 
  • Losing circulation, feeling numb well after the asana
  • Vertigo

The list can go on and on. When you become seasoned in your practice, you can assess pretty quickly that there is a problem in your body. Asanas are like a lab in which you can spot a problem well before the doctor can. Use your yogically honed instincts and get those problems checked out.

Can’t think of a pose to start your practice? Do Supta Padangusthasana

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Iyengar-tier Supta Padangusthasana

Good Job! You set aside time to do your own practice. You’ve got your props, your hour or so, your motivation, and bam! What the heck to I do now? You say to yourself “I’m too tired for standing poses, my back, hip, shoulder (etc etc) is sore.” Stop everything, grab a strap, and do Supta Padangusthasana (reclined big toe pose).

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Mere mortal-tier Supta Padangusthasana

Why would I suggest this pose? I have found in my own practice Supta Padangusthasana does many things. You are lying down, so it’s not that energy draining. You address those stiff hamstrings that were victimized by your day of sitting (or from a night of sleeping). But more than anything it is an excellent “diagnostic” pose. By doing Supta Padangusthasna in my own practice, I can tell fairly quickly what I need to work on it terms of stiffness, in terms of energy expenditure, and in terms of inward balance. Like magic, an internal guide kicks in when I am in this pose to try out things I have recently learned in class, or to get after my tightnesses from the previous yoga session.

Here is a quick “how to” for Supta Padangusthasana I:

  • Lie on the floor on your back in Supta Tadasana (reclined mountain pose).
  • Keeping the left leg straight, bend your right knee and place strap around ball mound of right foot.
  • Press the right “big toe” mound into the strap to straighten the leg.
  • Hold the belt in each hand and keep the arms straight like you are trying to reach your foot.
  • If you can reach the foot, grasp the big toe with the right thumb, middle, and index fingers.
  • Top leg should be straight. Arm or arms should be straight.
  • Keep the bottom leg straight with toes pointed toward the ceiling. Put the left hand on the left thigh and press down if you are using one arm.
  • Do one minute per side and repeat several times.

The shoulder should not travel up toward the foot, but should be rooted on the ground. If the back the neck curls up, place a folded blanket to fill the space behind the neck to the floor. The forehead should be slightly above the chin.

This is considered and “abdominal pose” and not a “forward bend” as it may appear. Therefore, when in the pose, make sure your abdomen is soft and deep. How deep? Look at Mr. Iyengar’s pose above. You can see his ribs are very pronounced from his abdomen deepness.

As I said in my previous post. The buttocks should be soft enough that the back thigh can touch the floor. You can see in the “mere mortal” pose her back thigh has plenty of light shining through.

When I first started my teacher training, my mentor took one look at my bowed legs in standing poses and gave me a never ending homework assignment to do this pose daily. It started bringing life into my forward bends.

When I was recovering from my prostate surgery a year ago. I did this pose after getting okay’d by my doctor to practice yoga. Coupled with Supta Padangusthasana II, and Supta Baddhakonasana, I feel it aided greatly in my recovery.

Iyengar Turns 95

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BKS Iyengar, one of the last true yogis, turns 95 today. His legacy on yoga is beyond tremendous. He took yoga from his own country when it was akin to doing something that your grandfather did, like playing lawn croquet, and making it into a worldwide phenomenon. He began when he was 17 after a childhood of malaria and TB and used the discipline to cure himself from guidance from his brother in law, the Brhamin Krishnamacharya.

After many years of being poor, he continued steadfastly in his practice. It wasn’t until he was in his 50s until his practice started bearing financial fruits.

He published the foremost text of yoga – Light On Yoga, which continues to be relevant and thought provoking.

There are Iyengar studios in 57 countries throughout the world. To become certified in this style continues to be the most rigorous and disciplined.

When he turned 60, he was in two consecutive moped accidents rendered him unable to use his arms. He used yoga to heal them and now has complete range of motion in both arms.

In 2004, he was Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.

At 95, he continues to practice 3 hours per day!

For those and many other reasons, today is an auspicious day. Happy birthday Guruji!

Here is a video of Iyengar during an intense practice…especially toward the end:

“Latitudes” of the back legs

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Straps illustrate the “latitudes” of the back of the leg

During the last class of Mary Obendorfer’s workshop, she talked about three “latitudes” in the back of the legs: one just below the buttock, the other just above the knee, and the third behind the ankle. It was mainly a forward bending and abdominal sequence she taught. She asked us to be aware of the “aliveness” of these three points during each asana.

In today’s practice, I used straps on the points because “contact is intelligence.” In each pose I would study my leg in how it moved against the strap on each of the corresponding latitudes. These straps work well for forward bends in creating awareness.

In Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog pose), try to each with your senses these three points and you will notice your pose takes a very different personality. The pose has more length not just behind the legs, but of the spine as well. 

I often tell my students they have to use other senses when working with the back of the body that the eyes cannot see. In this case, the straps gave me an extra set of “eyes” on those latitude points. As it turns out, we are often “blind” to these areas behind the leg. 

Another exercise Mary had us do throughout the workshop is to image our whole back body making a “print” into an imaginary glass plane. In Supta Tadasana (reclined mountain pose) she had us push our back thighs until they touched the ground. This is no easy feat with those buttocks in the way! Her instruction was to “soften” them, and we also had a helper push down on our front thighs until the back thighs made their “imprint.”

You can do a whole month of practice just working deeply on these three points. In the Yoga Sutras, there is a concept of “Ekagrata” or one pointed attention. You develop keenness in the asanas when you focus on just one point and how that point reacts differently to different asanas.