Monthly Archives: January 2014

The archetype of Utthita Trikonasana

pyra fin

Utthita Trikonasana, or Extended Triangle Pose, is fundamental standing pose for most every yoga practice session. This pose inspires not because of its complexity, but because of its simplicity. Its smooth clean lines evoke the archetypal images of the Great Pyramids or a Sri Yantra as seen below.

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This pose is accessible to just about anyone. I have even seen this pose taught to people who do not have use of their legs. In this blog post, I will present the classic asana as it was taught to me by my teachers, and give a few variations for those who cannot attain the classic pose.

To begin, lay out a sticky mat and two blocks.

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Stand in Tadasana (see last post). From here, jump the feet 4 to 4.5 feet (1.25 meters) apart. This is shockingly wide for many of my beginner students. A good measurement is to see if the wrists are above the feet. I placed straps around my wrists to demonstrate the length of the feet. Like Tadasana in my last post, the thighs press back until the kneecaps tighten. This pose is called Utthita Hasta Padasana (Extended Hand Foot Pose).

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Often times students do not mind their feet, and they are rotated out like a duck’s. This is incorrect.

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Incorrect feet

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Correct feet, toes are pointed forward

Next, pick up the left toes leaving the heel on the ground

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And rotate the foot to the right

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Then rotate the entire right leg from the hip socket to the foot to the right. Keep the quadriceps engaged. This pose is called Parsva Hasta Padasana (Side Hand Foot Pose)

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Make sure the right heel is intersected with the left foot’s arch.

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Now you are ready to come into the pose. Keep both sides of the chest the same length as you extend the torso laterally into the pose. A common mistake here is the student droops down to touch the floor. Instead, try to touch the imaginary side wall with the crown of your head and resist taking your hand down until the last moment.

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I was not able to get into the pose in the three seconds that my computer allows me, so I will show you Iyengar’s pose which is flawless.

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Like a Sri Yantra, he becomes three triangles, and his self dissipates. Now there is now only Purusha.

Back here on Earth, these are some common mistakes made by beginners. First, the buttocks stick out and the head moves forward.

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Incorrect

To correct, move the tailbone forward and the head back until they are on the same plane.

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Correct

If you are not able to reach the block without the buttocks sticking out, use a chair.

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Many new students are also afraid to fall backwards by taking the head back. If you are experiencing this, use a wall to lean back on. Even experienced students benefit from wall work as it gives you a very quick assessment of your back body’s alignment.

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Another mistake I commonly see is that the bottom shoulder is not rolling out and the neck is crunched.

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Incorrect bottom shoulder

This may be a symptom of having too high of a block. First try rolling your downward shoulder back. If the neck is still crunched, go lower on your block.

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Correct bottom shoulder

This is just the tip of the iceberg of this pose, but not a bad start for beginners. Prashant Iyengar, the son of BKS Iyengar, wrote The Alpha and Omega of Utthita Trikonasana a book that gives systematic instructions on how to work your physical and esoteric anatomy in this pose. As always, I would recommend you find a certified Iyengar teacher near you as this pose has many many variations. In case you are wondering how the lady was taught this pose who couldn’t walk, she was taught lying on her back working her legs and arms in the “actions” of the pose.

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Climbing the mountain of Tadasana

ImageTadasana, or mountain pose, is the foundation of all the standing asanas. However, most do not give this pose it’s proper reverence and treat it like a transition to asanas that are “more fun.” There was once a class taught by Kofi Busia where he taught two poses in a two hour class: Tadasana and Dandasana (staff pose). We literally stood for one hour while he hammered us with instructions and did the same sitting in dadasana for an hour. The next day I could barely move.

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Like the Himalayas, Tadasana should be firm and unwavering. The base of the “mountain” is your feet. In architecture, the arch is one of the strongest structures. Your feet have three of them. That is why such a small structure can bear so much weight. To begin the pose, place the feet together.

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From here, press the big toe mounds down to tighten the quadriceps and press the top of the knee straight back. This will place the knee firmly into the socket. Here is what legs look like without engaging the toe mounds and quadriceps:

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 and with the knees engaged

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 Notice the gap closes between the thighs.

The next tendency I’ve noticed in my own practice is I tend to lean forward taking the weight into the front part of the foot. To illustrate, I’ve placed a belt over my shoulder to act as a plumb line.

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 You can see here my weight is forward as the strap is over the foot. To correct, I push back from my top thighs to bring the hip over the ankle:

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 Now you can see from the plumb line that my hip is on the same plane as the ankle.

The thighs “roll in.” Some may have a hard time with this term. To illustrate, I put a block between the thighs and “roll the thighs in” until the block goes out the back like a Pez coming out of a dispenser:

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 The next exercise is to address the back body. As we cannot see our back body with our eyes, we are largely unaware of what we are doing. By using a corner edge of a wall, can quickly tell where am over arching in the back and where I am not working enough:

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 The exercise here is to flatten as much of your spine on the corner as possible:

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 You can’t forget the arms in this pose. they are straight by extending the triceps muscle until the elbow recedes into the arm much like the knee recedes into the leg. The top arms roll out to open the chest and the back of the arms are even with the spine. Fingers are straight and thumb is slightly crimped:

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 Tada! …sana

Sketches of Ardha Chandrasana

ImageArdha Chandrasana, or half moon pose is a lunar yogic journey. You start off on the ground, get ready for launch, and blast off into the pose. But with every successful launch there is a successful landing. You have to come out of the pose with the same balance and equipoise from whence you entered. I was at the studio where I teach today and did some of this pose in my own practice to commemorate the half moon that is shining down now. Here’s a how to:

Start in Tadasana (Mountain Pose)

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Jump the legs 4 to 4.5 feet apart (1.5 meters) and extend the arms to the side.

Revolve the left foot a few degrees and turn the entire right leg and foot until it intersects the middle of the left arch.

Keep the legs firm as you extend the torso laterally to the right placing your right hand on a block or floor.

The left arm remains extended on the same plane as the right.

This is Utthita Trikonasana (Triangle Pose).

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From Utthita Trikonasna, bend the knee 90 degrees.

Take your left foot toward the right one foot (30 cm)

Move your right hand forward one foot (30 cm) and wait. This is what this stage looks like:

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Now place the block diagonal from the little toe one foot

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This gives you a base for balance for beginning students. As you advance, you move your hand to the center line and eschew the block.

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From here, move the armpit over the wrist, rotate the trunk toward the ceiling. You are ready to “blast off.”

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Press down with the big toe mound and straighten the standing leg. Top leg is firm.Image

To finish the pose, extend your top arm like Utthita Trikonasana and rote the head toward the ceiling. If balance is an issue, rotate the head to the floor:

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To exit the pose, repeat the above steps in reverse. Lower the leg to the floor, extend the legs back to 4.5 feet, press with the right big toe mound to Utthita Trikonasana.

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Here is a side note. Coming into Utthita Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) is a very different experience coming from the ground up than it is coming top down. It feels much more grounding and organic folding up from the floor like a flower blooming. Don’t throw this stage away! Doing that would be like eating all the artichoke leaves and not enjoying the heart.

From Utthita Trikonasana, keep the legs firm as you swing the top arm up to standing. Jump your feet back together to Tadasana.

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If you are having issues with balance and cannot do in the middle of the room. Use a wall.Image

And if you have the means, you can use a trestle. Many Iyengar studios have them. Notice I am using the trestle edge to further open the chest. My shoulders really felt this after an arm balancing practice yesterday.

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Ground control to Major Tom! By following these steps, you have done Ardha Chandrasana and nothing’s wrong. Happy half moon!

Iyengar Yoga with no props? No prop-lem!

ImageIyengar yoga has a mistaken reputation nowadays as “the style that focuses on props.” While it is true that props were introduced to recover from and prevent injuries through proper alignment (see Shoulder Stand Done Right), a main objective for Iyengar instructors is to develop the students to rely less on the props and eventually achieve the classic asana.

Here are two examples of Utthita Trikonasana:

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You can’t get any better than this. Notice how his palm is on the floor BEHIND the shin and notice what that does to his upper body. It makes his chest spacious and vital. This is the classic pose. Notice how there are many triangles in this pose emulating a sri yantra. See if you can count them all.

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This is how I see a lot of beginner students doing the pose. Notice how the hand is in front of the shin and the effect on her chest. It is collapsed and not vital. Her front leg is also slightly bent diminishing the structural integrity of the pose. She clearly needs a prop.

So what should she do if she does not have any props around? Use a shin! That is your body’s natural prop for Utthita Trikonasana.

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By using her shin, this woman is recreating the vital chest of the first example. For some of my students, I even have them put their hand on the thigh to get the correct chest. You want to avoid putting the hand on the knee as it is a joint and can cause injury.

For this blog, I am addressing primarily basic students. For the first five years of Iyengar yoga, students should have a strong emphasis on Utthista Stithi (standing poses) to develop a strong skeletal-muscular structure to withstand more advanced poses.

Next time you are at a park, or want to do some yoga during your lunch hour with no props around. Here is a good standing sequence:

1) Tadasana (Mountain Pose)

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2) Tadasana Urdvha Baddangulyasana (Mountain pose with bound fingers over head)

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Utkatasana (Fierce pose) most mistakenly call this “chair pose”

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3) Utthita Trikonasna with hand on shin

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4) Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II)

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5) Vrksasana (Tree pose)

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6) Virabhadrasana I

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7) Virabhadrasana III

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8) Dandasana (Staff pose)

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9) Upavistha Konasna (Seated angle pose)

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10) Vajrasana (lightning bolt pose). If this hurts your knees, omit and do more upavistha konasna work.

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11) Savasana (corpse pose) No photo needed. If you are are on a dirty floor or grassy surface, you can omit and end in Vajrasana.

The above is one of those “go to” sequences when you are away from your normal yoga practice. You could even build a practice on the above poses, but you want to eventually incorporate Viparita Stithi (inverted poses).

There are many “prop less” poses. The whole book of Light on Yoga shows asanas without props. Just remember than when Mr. Iyengar wrote and published those pictures, he was doing 4 hours of yoga daily for decades. But he started that practice with the basics of the standing poses like the ones featured above.

Why BKS Iyengar is a strong candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize

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Courtesy Sakal Times

This year’s field of candidates for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize will be vast. Among them all, one stands head and shoulders above the rest: BKS Iyengar. Why would this 95 year old man be such a worthy candidate? He has dedicated his life studying and teaching yoga according to Patanjali’s yoga sutras and adapting them to modern life. As a result, yoga has sprouted outside of India not only in the West, but in the most unlikely of places: Iran, The West Bank of Israel, and Yemen.

Iyengar has defied the odds for the sake of propagating yoga to the world. He was born a sickly child with malaria and TB and was extremely impoverished. He took up yoga from his brother in a law, Sanskrit Scholar Krishnamacharya. His teachings were very harsh, but Iyengar was able to withstand them. He took the teachings further, and refined them using available bricks and other tools as “props.”

He went through years of poverty, but was steadfast in his yoga practice. In 1966, he published Light on Yoga which has become an essential text for modern yoga. He has also developed a system of teaching yoga that is safe and accessible for all levels of students. His teaching program remains the most rigorous, taking a candidate up to 4 years to be fully certified through a series of peer reviewed assessments. This is his contribution to glean the best and most serious teachers from those who are casual in their approach to the subject.

Because of these high standards, Iyengar’s yoga system has brought peace and health to thousands worldwide. One of his most famous students, Father Joe Pareira, is using Iyengar’s system to treat substance abuse. He has also adapted his poses for medical purposes. There are numerous studies emerging from medical journals about how Iyengar Yoga is helping with a host of ailments that the medical community only treats superficially.

Philanthropically, Iyengar has donated a portion of his wealth to help build schools and provide clean water for his hometown of Bellur, India. His trust has built a special high school for girls, so they do not have to travel to a faraway neighboring town for their education.

At 95 years old, Iyengar still practices yoga more than 2 hours daily at his home and institute in Pune India. He can still do an uninterrupted headstand for 30 minutes! His daily practice is a testament to what is possible for the aged.

No Indian has ever won the Nobel Peace Prize (not Gandhi, not Mother Theresa). It is about time the world has properly recognized this country’s contribution to world peace. There is no greater representative of peace than BKS Iyengar.

Below is a link to petition BKS Iyengar to receive the Nobel Peace Prize:

http://www.rediff.com/news/report/petition-why-b-k-s-iyengar-deserves-the-nobel-peace-prize/20140114.htm