Monthly Archives: February 2014

Aeroplane Yoga!

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Flying is taxing on the whole being. Between jet lag, bad airplane food, getting your immune system assaulted by travelers from all over the world who are sick, and bad posture from narrow airplane seats, you run many risks of getting ill.

During a weekend trip to San Francisco, I had my wife take a few pictures of me doing some asanas that are possible on a long plane ride. These postures combat some of the ills of sitting for five hours.

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This is Gulphasana (a variation of Uttanasana where you put your hands around your Gulpha, or the Marma point around your ankles). I like this variation because it gives the spine more traction and the ankles give you leverage to pull against. If you are stiffer, you can simply hold the elbows in Uttanasana. You can do this pose by in the area for the loo queue.

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Lolasana (Earing Pose). This pose does many things whilst traveling. If you think about your internal organs of digestion, they are sitting heavy for many hours on the plane. This arm balance, which is easy with the chair configuration extends the internal organs and gives them a “rest” from being sedentary. It also stretches the arms and gets the heart rate going. You cannot see, but the calves are crossed at the shins to form an”X”. Also note this is not the final stage of the pose where you bring your knees to the chest. Again, this stage is presented just to give the internal organs a nice stretch.

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Simhasana I variation (Lion pose). From Lolasana, bring all the weight on to your calves that are still in the shape of an “X.” One of the great dangers of flying is deep vein thrombosis, where you can get a blood clot in your legs from a combination of sedentariness and change in pressure from altitude. By sitting on your calves, you squeeze the lymph nodes and promote circulation. The spine also gets a nice reprieve by naturally stacking up straight when sitting on the calves. One warning is that this pose can be very painful if you have stiff calf muscles. My mentoring teacher would often tell me that  the stiff calf muscles go hand and hand with poor digestion. As flying can make one constipated, this pose may give you aid in moving things along. Don’t do this if you have knee problems. The classic posture is with the tongue sticking and the eyes looking up toward the tip of the nose. Because of stricter air policies, I would use caution as it may be draw unwanted attention from the air marshall.

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Supta Vajrasana (reclined lightning bolt pose). This is a variation of Supta Virasana where I sit on my heels and recline the chair back. This provides tremendous relief for the spine and digestive system. It provides an assertive stretch on the front thigh muscles (quadriceps). I would try to build time up to five minutes in this pose. Be careful on getting out of the posture and use the lolasana technique of lifting yourself with your arms and extend one leg out at a time to avoid injuring the knees. If you have knee problems omit this pose.

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When you get to your destination, I would recommend that you do inversions to offset the invitation of deep vein thrombosis. Viparita Karani as seen above is always nice to restore yourself.

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Simple legs up the wall (Urdvha Prasarita Padasana) would work too if you don’t have props handy. If are menstruating or cannot do inversions, Supta Baddha Bonasana will also provide some benefits for digestion and restoration.

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Some airports now feature yoga rooms where you can do these poses during your layover. If your airport does not provide them you can just find an empty gate area and find a wall. Bon Voyage!

Triangles from my travels

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My wife and I have travelled quite a bit since we’ve been married. Here are some shots of Utthita Trikonasana from around the world.

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Cannes, France

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Lisbon, Portugal

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Oui, oui!

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Helsinki, Finland

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St. Petersburg, Russia

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Tallinn, Estonia

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Stockholm, Sweden

 

 

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Mespelbrunn, Germany

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Bandelier, New Mexico

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Vegas!

What are the effects of today’s yoga practice one year from now?

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In Iyengar yoga, there is much about teaching the “effects” of the asana, the sequence, and pranayama. We all know the immediate effects of our practice…we feel less tension, more relaxed, our mind is less busy. But what about one hour later? Two hours later? One week later?

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There is much in nature that we cannot see or measure. Yoga obviously works the muscles and glands, but what about the subtle parts of ourselves that are beyond measurement? If we have a daily yoga practice, do these effects compound overtime like interest? Einstein said that compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe.

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Think back at a major accomplishment in your life. What were you like when you attended your first class at a university? What were you like when you walked down the graduation isle? You probably didn’t notice the difference while it was happening, but in hindsight you can clearly see the evolution.

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When you first start yoga, it is all physical. You ache all over. You lose weight. You are calmer. You gain strength and flexibility. After time, the aches are not as intense. You can practice longer and more deeply. You start to become more aware of your body and it’s tendencies.

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With correct practice, the impurities will start to burn away, not just from your physical body, but from your consciousness.

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With continued intense practice, they will burn more.

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Until you are just a ball of fire.

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Then come the “obstacles” of yoga practice. Illness, relationships, work duties, child rearing. Has the compounded effect of practice made a difference, or does it stop? During times when you cannot do asana practice, does your yoga still stay with you?

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I have found that yoga is very forgiving to those who have taken time away. The wave you were producing with your droplet has turned to light and is showering you with grace.

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The Bhagavad Gita patiently reminds us: “In this yoga there is no loss of any endeavor, there is no diminution of result and even the slightest effort performed righteously saves one from the greatest of danger.”

I like the science experiment of adding cornstarch and water to a sub woofer to capture what sound “looks” like. It is more evidence that there is much more in the universe than we can perceive.

I can only imagine what daily yoga practice over years does to one’s whole being.

The ecology of Vrksasana

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This is a  Koa tree my wife and I came across during a walk we took in Maunawili on the Windward side of O’ahu. Due to overcutting, you don’t find many Koa trees this size anymore on this island. Koa wood is a magnificent tropical hard wood that has a beautifully deep pattern as seen in this picture of a Koa wood door we took at the Hawai’i State Legislature. It also is made for Koa bowls which are worth their weight in gold.

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This Koa tree reminds me of Vrksasana, or Tree Pose. It is a rare tree that is getting rarer with demand. It is like how yoga is becoming in the West. In today’s practice, there is too much emphasis on yoga as a workout, or yoga as a fashion enterprise instead of its original purpose: to stop the mind so the practitioner can see his or her own splendor. Because of this, all the old teaching is dying out in favor of trendy yogas which incorporate style over substance. Soon the old teachings will be dead if we don’t preserve them.

Here is a presentation of Vrksasana the way my teachers have taught me.

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As many have difficulty balancing in the middle of the room while maintaining the proper actions of the pose, I will teach with a wall.

Start in Tadasana with the wall by your right side.

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Extend your right arm up and lean into the wall with your hip.

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Rotate your left leg and place the left foot high to the root of the thigh. Rotate your ankle so the toes are pointed straight down.

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As the thigh is shaped like a cylinder, placing the foot to close to the edge will make your foot roll off.

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Correct foot in the middle of the thigh

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Incorrect, foot too close to edge

From here, squeeze your hips together intensely until the hip comes off the wall. Keep the right arm up to maintain balance.

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Then extend the left arm up to match.

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Now work the hands together but not by bending the elbows.

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Incorrect

Because abdomen and the chest sink.

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Instead work your hand together by lifting them higher and higher until the meet at a point like railroad tracks in the distance. This is Urdvha Namaskarasana.

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Then the abdomen and chest lift.

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Hold the pose for 30 seconds to a minute. And repeat on the other side. Eventually Work towards balancing in the middle of the room.

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Preserve old growth trees. Preserve old growth teaching!chris_hug_koa

Chasing rainbows…the never ending quest to attain perfection in asana

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Winter is Hawai’i’s rainy season, and there are rainbows to be seen daily during one’s commute. While my wife was driving over the Pali Highway, I was lucky enough to see this low flying rainbow and snap a photo. This rainbow would disappear and reappear around every bend. It was a delicate play of light and speed to be able to capture this rainbow on film, ultimately for a fleeting moment before we hit the tunnels leading to the Windward side.

This dance with the rainbow reminds me much of my daily yoga practice. I have certain postures that elude me. I have glimpses of the posture, but the reality of how my body is today and the vast chasm in between. Patanjali says in Sutra 11.47:  Prayanta saithilya ananta samapattibhyam or “Perfection in asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached.”

I reflect on this sutra often.  If I am struggling too much to attain an asana, perhaps it is not my time to go there yet and I need to work on more fundamental actions “lower” in the clan until I can perform them without effort. Although this may not be in the time that I want, this assures that I will not get injured, that I can continue practicing yoga into my old age, and it keeps my ego in check. Practicing yoga is not about the physical postures, it is about the full conquest of one’s ego. The asanas just happen to provide a valuable tool in doing so.

Perhaps one of my most frustrating times as a teacher was when I was preparing for the Intro I assessment. The syllabus of poses appeared “too easy” for my “advanced practice.” The poses included Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose), Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose), and 30 other “basic” asanas with the target being Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported All Body Pose or Shoulder Stand). I had to work on these poses for two years. I would see others in different yoga teacher trainings do arm balances, drop backs, and other “advanced” asanas. Meanwhile I was “stuck” with these asanas I had learned 10 years prior when I started yoga.

Then a magical thing happened. I came to the realization that these were not “basic” asanas at all, but were very complex once I peeled the thin veneer of the “shape” of the pose back. When you apply the correct actions to any pose, it becomes more difficult by an order of ten. I often refer to one of Kofi Busia’s two hour class where he taught 2 postures: Tadasana and Dandasana.

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He held each pose of one hour. That experience takes one beyond what the asana is and introduces one to the other other aspects of yoga: namely Dharana (concentration), and Dhyana (meditation). Asana means “meditative seat” and as the name implies, it is a vehicle for meditation.

I am reading about people who are injuring themselves preparing for yoga competitions. I have much compassion for these people as they feel a need to show off their asanas in front of others to gain approval and “win” something. What exactly does one “win” when achieving Vrischikasana at the expense of dislocating a rib?

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We all want to have “perfect postures” to instragram to the universe. We all want to attain the most difficult poses in the shortest amount of time. Does it do us any good? There will undoubtably be someone who does it better and with less effort.

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This is Alice. This is what I aspire to be as a yoga practitioner. Alice is well into her 80’s. She has difficulty seeing with her glaucoma and cannot do inversions because of that condition. She needs a wall to support herself in Utthita Trikonasana. Alice has a daily yoga practice, and has had one for many years. This woman is unstoppable. She does not give a rip about what she looks like in her postures. The only thing she cares about is doing the proper actions so she does not injure herself. To me, she embodies what true yoga is all about.

Like the Rainbow on the Pali Highway, our asanas will shine and disappear just as quickly. Injury, old age, life events, will all get in the way of our yoga practice. But what we don’t realize is that these life events “are” the yoga practice. Sometimes asanas just get in the way.

Which yoga pose can you do daily?

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If you could pick only yoga one pose to do daily, which one would it be? As many of us have jobs, are busy with kids, and have maybe a few scraps of time to ourselves everyday, the question becomes “which yoga pose can we do daily?”

Before I reveal which one, let me tell you why you need to do this mystery pose. This is the position our body is in for 8 hours a day at work:

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And this is what position our body is in during a 1-2 hour commute five days per week:

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What do you think our shoulders are like after 10 hours of being hunched over something? They are tight as heck! Therefore, the pose one should and can do everyday is Gomukhasana arms (Cow’s face pose). Not only can you do this pose everyday, you can do it several times per day. You don’t need a yoga studio, you don’t need a teacher, you don’t need incense, you don’t even need a playlist. All you need is the ability to stand up and swing your arms around.

Gomukhasana arms are among the very first of the asanas one has to learn on the Iyengar certification syllabus. I think this was deliberate, as many have horribly stiff shoulders. Having pliable shoulders opens up worlds of asanas, particularly in Purva Pratana Sthiti (back bending clan). Conversely, having chronically stiff shoulders is just a miserable way to function.

Most people have difficulty doing classic Gomukhasana arms as seen below.

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There is no need to fret. Here is how to get the same actions of the classic pose with one arm.

(Step I)

First stand in Tadasana.

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Then take your right arm and rotate it inward from the top arm.

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Bring your arm forward across the front plane of your body.

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And swing your arm diagonally bringing your hand to your back.

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From here, hold the right hand with the left and pull to close the gap between the arm and the torso.

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Then move the hand between the shoulder blades

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Repeat the other side.

(Step II)

Stand in Tadasana and raise the right arm to Urdhva Hastasana.

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Rotate the arm out from the upper arm. You can use your left around the bicep/tricep to guide the rotation. Keep the upper arm near the ear.

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Bend the elbow and see if you can place the hand in the middle of the shoulder blades.

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Now combine Step I and Step II.

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If you cannot reach the fingers, use a belt, towel, jacket, or anything made of cloth lying around.

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Once you have hold of the fingers or strappage, roll both upper arms out to expand the chest.

This may not be the most glamorous way to practice, or even the most preferable. But any yoga is better than no yoga. And you will be amazed at how big of a difference this pose makes if you do it several times a day for a month. You will definitely be able to throw away your back scratcher.

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Devoting part of your yoga practice to experimentation

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My teachers are making me an offer that is hard to refuse. They will give me free constructive criticism on my teaching for the next level, Junior Intermediate I. The JI1 syllabus is rife with arm balances. In Iyengar yoga, it’s not just one thing to be able to have complete competency in doing the pose. That’s a given. You have to have complete competency in teaching the pose SAFELY to someone who has little experience or has never tried it before. That changes the way one approaches the asanas. One has to try different ways of doing the pose to make them more accessible in stages. Today, after doing an hour of standing poses, I worked on Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Downward Facing Tree Pose) and Pincha Mayurasana (Tail Feather of the Peacock Pose).

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A nice way to approach poses that counter gravity is to first try the actions of the poses taking gravity out of the equation. Here is how I worked the arms and the chest for Adho Mukha Vrksasana.Image

I used a wall for Tadasana, and extended my arms to urdvha hastasana. The second action was lying on a block with the far edge at the corner of my C7 and T1 and pressing my hands against the wall. This creates a tremendous opening in the chest. Image

I would not recommend this pose for beginners until you can do Gomukhasana arms without a strap as seen above.

Next, I used wall ropes to take the weight out of the wrists. Image

 

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Now I try the pose kicking up to a wall with the hand rotated to the side which is the final version for the JI1 syllabus.Image

I give Pincha Mayurasana a similar treatment.Image

I wanted to finish my practice with Supta Baddhakonasana (Reclined Bound Angle Pose). I normally practice with a strap, but today I experimented with a blanket which presses the soles of the feet completely together giving a different effect to the groins. Image

And then I tried classic Supta Baddhakonasana. I was inspired by a blogger earlier today who was lamenting about the use of props in yoga practice. Note there are no props with this variation.

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The genius of BKS Iyengar is his ability to take the classic pose apart, work on the individual pieces, then put the pose back together. He did this through experimentation with props. Very few would argue that he does not teach “real yoga.”

The advantage of home practice versus taking yoga in a class, is you have the time to experiment with concepts you are curious about. I would advise to experiment within the scope of your ability.