Monthly Archives: March 2014

When Life Hands You Mangos…

Image

There are many fringe benefits of being a yoga teacher. That includes the occasional gift from a student. The other day, one of the students at Iyengar Yoga Honolulu brought me two bags of mangos from her tree. It is a bumper crop season here in Hawai’i as we have had a rain-filled winter.

The catch is that these particular mangos have a shelf life of about 3 days before they start to go bad. You can see the black forming around some of them. So I have been giving as many away as I can eat.

Seated_Buddha_holding_a_mango_from_Thailand,_Bangkok_style,_18th-19th_century,_gilt_bronze,_HAA

 

After reflecting on my windfall of fruit, I realized that mangos have been a staple food for yogis for thousands of years. I remember going to the Honolulu Academy of Art and seeing a statue of Buddha with a mango similar to the one seen above.

I don’t usually like to talk about food or diet because to each his/her own. BKS Iyengar says that one should gauge his/her diet by how it effects one’s yoga practice and vice versa. But it may be safe to say that mangos are an ideal food for yoga practitioners for several reasons.

First, they are loaded with fructose. Although not so good for those prone to diabetes, it is great for teachers who need a sugar rush before they teach a class. I have noticed that when I sub a lot, my eating clock becomes critical especially for morning classes. I don’t like to eat a whole lot before I teach, but I don’t want to not eat and lose all my energy. I find that mangos are a good solution to pre teaching breakfast.

Secondly, they have lots of fiber. So much that you just about need to see a dental hygienist after eating one because of all the fiber stuck in your teeth. That fiber really moves things along if you know what I mean.

Thirdly, they are delicious. Imagine eating sorbet in fruit form.

Other interesting facts are that mangos are actually in the cashew nut family and more mangos are eaten world wide than apples.

So thank you to the student who brought the treasure trove of mangos. They have made many people happy!

My battle within: the request to sub a recently deceased yoga teacher’s class

scdII

A few Sundays ago, I got an email that kept me up all night. It was a request from the president of the other Iyengar yoga studio on the island asking me to sub. There was a catch: the class is for a teacher who succumbed to breast cancer and passed away two weeks ago. Her services were last week.

This request created an internal conflict for me. First of all, I could not even imagine how to approach these students who are bereft of their teacher. The late teacher had taught the class up to two weeks before her passing!

The right thing to was to teach the class. I had known the teacher and she gave many years of service to the community. Yoga Sutra I.4 talks about how sometimes the seer identifies with their mind-stuff agitation and that causes pain. As you can tell, I let my mind go everywhere!

The next task was to design the sequence for the class which is advertised as “Level 1” and is an hour long. The president of the studio requested I do a restorative class, but from my counseling experience (that is what I do for a living) I felt that 10 minutes in Supta Baddhakonasana would only have the students dwell more deeply in their loss.

I considered back bends as they are good for depression. But these students are not depressed, they are just grieving. The first stage of grieving in the Kubler-Ross model is shock. I was shocked when I found out about this teacher’s death as I had known her and saw her looking healthy just a year prior. The students were probably just as shocked because they saw the quick progression of the illness on their teacher.

It is forward-bending week at my studio, and I felt that nothing is better for shock than a forward bending sequence which quiets the nervous system. So my sequence involved a few standing forward bends like Prasarita Padottanasana and Parsvottanasana. I also had them do Janu Sirsasana toward the end finishing in a not-too-long Savasana–remember I did not want them just to lie there and think about their loss.

I arrived at the locked studio 15 minutes early and there were a few students waiting. They did not say much and their body language did not indicate they wanted to socialize. Soon afterwards, the student with the studio key came riding up on her bike–it was my first yoga teacher from 15 years ago! She did not stay for class as she was attending a workshop (thank goodness, as the only thing more stressful than teaching this class, would be to teach it in front of my first yoga teacher).

I started the class with the invocation to Patanjali and informed the students that as an Iyengar community this is how classes begin. Some knew the chant, while others just stayed quiet. The air was thick with stoicism which I could not tell was coming from me or from the students or a little bit of both.

As I started with my first few poses, I even took a few stabs a humor which was met by silence. Ugggh, this was going to be a long hour! I felt much like a comedian who was bombing his act with a hostile crowd. I stuck to the sequence I laid out and got into the instructions. Once I settled into the rhythm of the class, the students lightend up and responded well to my corrections of their poses.

At the end of class I was demonstrating Savasana and had a terrible tongue slip. I said that most people just flop down and “die” in Savasana, and you have to “die formally” by rolling the spine down symmetrically. I grimaced internally at my poor choice of words. But rather than rebuke, the students all laughed heartily. For some odd reason, this was the right thing to say.

After the class, the students thanked me for teaching and commented how good the class made them feel. A few other students stayed back an processed their feelings about the deceased teacher and how traumatic it was for them to watch her deteriorate each week. She had taught the last class in a wheelchair with assistance from another teacher and she could barely talk.

Waiting for me after class was my wife and my hanai niece Sasha. This was supremely normalizing. My niece was happy my wife bought her the “Frozen” dvd, and we all went to the Old Spaghetti Factory for dinner. When I returned home, waiting for me in the mailbox was my diploma signed by BKS Iyengar. Perhaps this was my final rite of passage before becoming fully certified. May my colleague rest in peace and know her teaching has brought peace to many students in her community. I would also like to thank her for the opportunity of teaching her students.

diploma

Studying the Yoga Sutras, 5 lines at a time

Image

One of my mentoring teachers said a curious thing while I was training for my Intro II certification. She said that one of the best things she had ever done in her life was to memorize the Patanjali Yoga Sutras in Sanskrit. My teacher has accomplished much in her life, including opening and maintaining a successful studio for over ten years. So I took her words to heart and started my path committing these to memory. I am forging on to  learning five lines of Sutras in Sanskrit per week.

I am finding there are delightful resources and tools for accomplishing this goal both on the internet and through texts. Many years ago, I bought RIMYI published cassettes of the Yoga Sutras from my mentoring teachers. When you confront the Sutras in their original language, you quickly realize how brilliant Patajanli was to lay these deep statements down in what sounds like a song or poem in iambic pentameter. Chanting them makes you appreciate how every vowel and consonant sound is sharply pronounced, and how each sound creates a certain vibration.

By chanting them, you also tend to reflect on the meaning on a not-so-superficial level like you are when you are trying to memorize them for a test. I am beginning to realize that the cittavrtti (agitation of the mind stuff) can be as subtle as having your boss ask you to do something at work, and you identifying your whole being with that one task. Of course the Yoga Sutras say that our practice will stop this process so we can see our true selves more clearly.

Oddly enough, I find that when I study the Sutras, then work on writing my asana sequence for the next class, the thought process flows effortlessly. There have been times when I have agonized about building a sequence based on certain actions of each pose. The post-sutra sequence has all the nuance and progression as my sequences I designed before, but with a sense of confidence and precision that I seemed to lack prior to my Sutra studies.

As I am progressing from a beginning teacher to an intermediate teacher, I feel that deeper studies in the Sutras are essential. I am finding memorizing these Sutras to be an immensely enjoyable and difficult task. That may sound contradictory, but anyone who has learned asana from a point of stiffness, then experienced the freedom once that stiffness relents to the practice can understand this process.

“Your hips are sensitive to the commands of the feet” Kofi day two

Image

“Twenty five percent of the bones in your body are in your feet,” Kofi Busia began as he started the class in Supta Padangusthasana (reclined big toe pose). In tonight’s class, no strange sequences, but just straight up classic yoga asanas in what appeared to be a forward bend sequence. Kofi talked at length about the relationship between the feet and the hips.

He talked about how arthritis in the hips is directly related to how you use your feet incorrectly while walking. “The difference between us and our simian friends are that our feet stay rigid when we lift them off the ground,whereas a primate’s feet go limp,” said Busia as he related that concept of how we stand straight in Tadasana by using this rigidity in our feet like we do when we anticipate stepping on the ground. He talked about how in walking and running, our nervous system anticipates the “heel strike” of hitting the floor repeatedly, and how the bones slot into each other to accommodate each step.

Kofi’s sequence was subtle in how it released the hips. We did standing poses Utthita Trikonasana, Utthita Parsvakonasana, Virabhadrasana II, Utkatasana, and Prasarita Padottanasana, the rest were seated forward bends and reclined “difficult poses” like Supta Virasana and Matsyasana. In tonight’s class, I chose to to Supta Virasana without props (he does not give instructions on how to do the poses). Soon afterwards, he had us in Matsyasana as seen below.

Image

I love the internal process of these reclined Padmasana postures. You can literally feel every fiber of your groins release as the knees and the outer thigh get heavier on the ground. This can be painful at first, and all I could visualize were my thick thighs from years of competitive bicycle racing in my youth unwinding like a large dense python.

Image

Kofi then did Salamba Sirsasana and Salamba Sarvangasana in succession. He held us in Halasana forever (see Poses You Dread). I went through the whole gamut of emotions in this pose. What every Kofi was saying just sounded like listening to an Encyclopaedia Brittanica CD about hip structures playing in the background. This Halasana was so internal that I experienced glimpses of Pratyahara.

He then had us do a drop back setu bandha which I felt was very liberating. He held us here forever too.

Then, out of left field, he has us do Ardha Matseyandrasana II. I was never able to do this pose well and tonight I got my hand to the thigh! This seemed to be the target asana and the prize he was preparing us for all class.

Image

The twist was effective in releasing my tight back from the previous night’s class. I was able to ask him what the word he used last night for muscles. It was “mamsa” which is Sanskrit translated into flesh or meat and refers not just to the muscles, but to the ligaments and tendons. It is an aruyvedic term. Kofi appears to use many ayurvedic principles in his teaching.

There is always that sadness when class is over and another year will go by before I see Kofi again. The concepts I will take from this workshop will be that it is sometimes okay to do things in an unorthodox way when you know enough to keep yourself safe. I also have the confidence in “earning” an new posture in Ardha Matseyandrasana II.

Notes from an unorthodox Kofi class

Image

Kofia Busia is back in town. He is a longtime practitioner who was originally taught by BKS Iyengar. His classes never fail to challenge my thinking on yoga. Last night he broke all the rules. He did forward bends and back bends in the same sequence (a big no-no for traditional Iyengar teachers). He kept repeating three poses: Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose), and Prasarita Padottanasana (Expanded Intense Leg Pose) and intersperced many poses in between this trilogy of different-clanned poses.

Image

He further upped the ante by teaching Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III) after Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported All Body Pose, or shoulder stand). We are traditionally taught that after Sarvangasana, there should be cooling poses on the way to Savasana. The one rule he stayed with is teaching Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Head Pose, or headstand) before Salamba Sarvangasana.

The way Kofi teaches is not the Iyengar method. Kofi just says the name of the pose in Sanskrit and has you fill in the blanks. He rarely makes corrections. When he does make manual adjustments, it’s to get people deeper into the pose. 

While in the pose,  he will tell some story or anecdote which somehow relates to his sequence. Last night he talked about the circus attraction of a knife thrower and the live target. He said the trick is to get the knife as close as possible to the target without hitting it. He related that to the odd sequence he was teaching. He said we have to use our internal matter (I cannot recall the Sanskrit word he used) that is not just the muscle, but all the “hardware” of our being to allow us to perform each asana safely despite the odd order of poses. He also stated that all the great artists in history first learned the rules, and then broke them to create something new.

He also talked about how people who are masters in their craft deliberately add obstacles to their practice. He told how Billie Jean King would compete against two men at the same time. He told about how a writer in England went through the whole play of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and took out words with the letter “I” and “recast” them with another word. Thirdly, he talked about how Jazz Guitarist Django Reinhardt, who lost use of some of his fingers, but mastered his instrument despite his disability. Kofi said that other jazz guitarist taped their fingers to try to emulate Reinhardt’s style.

django

As I am writing this the next morning, I notice that the sequence did not injure me, but my back is a bit stiff. I consulted another student in the class who said her back is stiff too. I will return tonight to his class to see what he conjures up next. Stay tuned!!!