Monthly Archives: June 2014

Making the leap from the studio to a home practice

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The other night I was subbing a class and asked some of the students if they had a home practice. These were students who have been practicing for years, and their responses were a bit surprising. “I don’t know which poses to do,” one said. “I prefer just doing yoga in the studio,” another said.

I am finding that not practicing at home because of these two reasons is very common. Doing yoga without a teacher is very much like studying Spanish for 10 years in a classroom and being asked by someone from Spain where the bathroom is and drawing a complete blank. And then when the Spanish guy leaves and finds the bathroom on his own, you come up with a beautifully crafted sentence with agreeing tenses on how to find the loo.

Making a jump from studio practice to home practice is tantamount to that scene in 2001, A Space Odyssey where the caveman throws the bone in the air and it jump cuts to a large spaceship. You get a much richer experience trying it on your own! I remember when I started supplementing my classes with a home practice, my yoga experience increased exponentially.

A bit of history about my own practice. I was one of those people who picked up “Light On Yoga” got inspired, and tried the courses at the back of the book…the kind with 40-50 poses for a single practice. I remember those days. I would blast Coltrane while trying to do Parsvottanasana which I thought was a backbend in stage I because Iyengar’s chest was so open.

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Of course Parsvottanasana is actually a forward bend and the prep as seen above is to open the chest. To get to my point, I had to do the manual labor of those courses and fail miserably in my own practice before I could appreciate what my teacher was actually trying to tell me. But a magical thing happened while I was trying out those courses and could not make it past week 16 in Light On Yoga…I developed some type of internal discernment about how to sequence poses.

One of my top posts is to do Supta Padangusthasana if you cannot think of any other pose to start your practice. To develop that idea a bit further for seasoned students, I would start doing a home practice by first selecting a clan of poses on which to focus. There are Utthishta Sthiti (standing poses), Paschima Pratana Sthiti (forward bends), Purva Pratana Sthiti (Backbends), Upavistha Sthiti (seated poses), Viparita Sthiti (Inversions), Udara Akunchana Sthiti (abdominal poses), and Visranta Karaka (restorative poses). Each clan has it’s own personality and effects.

Standing poses are vigourous and are the “donkey work” of yoga. It is said that raw beginners should do at least 6 months from this clan before proceeding if their practice is regular. I would say more like 2 years for the practitioner who does yoga twice a week.

Forward bends are considered “cooling” as they calm the nervous system when done properly. However, if you have tight hamstrings, parsvottanasana (see above) is anything but “cooling” and that is why you need the prerequisite foundation of standing poses.

Seated poses are “quieting” and allow the practitioner to learn how to build time in poses. With a strong earth element in the pose, they ground the practitioner. With experience, one later uses this clan for pranayama and dhyana.

Backbends are approached with caution. The are “heating” and energizing, but you can blow a gasket (or a vertebrae) if you don’t respect this clan. It is best to start with the “baby back bends” like salabhasana before getting too adventurous.

Inversions are also approached with care. They have an assertive effect on blood circulation. If you have any blood pressure issues, you should consult your teacher and your doctor. It is also not advised for women not to do this while menstruating. Once that is out of the way inversions should be a daily practice and advised to do in the evening as they contract many of the ill effects of sitting throughout the day.

Abdominal poses can be treated more like a garnish, more than an entree and can be interspersed between poses in certain sequences. These are poses like Paripoona Navasana, and Supta Padangusthasana. However, I have been to many classes where all we did was abdominal poses.

Lastly, restorative poses are done for several reasons. I like to think of them as “repairing” myself for any mistakes I made in my other clans. In the Iyengar style, women who are menstruating should adhere to restorative practice during their cycle and omit inversions. Yoga in the West nowadays is turning into a glorified aerobics craze, and this clan allow the practitioner to start focusing on the inward aspects of the practice.

To start one’s own practice, I would chose a clan according to experience and energy level. Yoga is an art, a science, and a philosophy. By doing your own practice, you practice the art. You construct what you need to do. You explore concepts that you are curious about. You will fail. You will succeed.

Why I only teach two classes per week

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My most viewed blog entry certainly isn’t one of my “great” writings about asana or insights into my practice. It’s my teaching schedule page. I’m sure an equally shocked reaction is “he only teaches two classes per week?! Why should he have any merit in his writings for teaching such a low number of classes?”

First of all, I deliberately choose NOT to make a living by teaching yoga. If I had to make a living by teaching yoga, I would be forced to do things that would attract masses of students, like play music, do some type of group vinyasa flow, or advertise. I would have to teach to what students wanted to learn and not what they need to learn. I would teach poses that I have not myself fully mastered because that is what all the other teachers are doing.

If I had to make a living teaching yoga, I would probably be begging Lululemon to mention my studio and would sell my soul to just maybe become an ambassador. I would be begging Wanderlust to have me as a guest teacher and would “do the circuit” like a circus performer.

I am always flattered when I have more than 6 students show up for class, but not disappointed if I don’t. The church I rent a space from has a nice arrangement with me, and I end of giving all my donations away to the church anyway. I have a day job that pays me enough.

My mentoring teachers are great. They allowed me to take over their Friday afternoon class which is a traditionally bad time for yoga attendance as most are through of the week and want to relax. That class is not as well attended.

The one phenomenon is that my students who stay are die hard. I have had some students for more than 10 years. They have gone through all the vicissitudes of life and still come back week after week. I thoroughly enjoy watching those students change and evolve.

But by far the largest reason why I don’t teach yoga for a living is that it allows me to practice my own yoga. Some of my greatest insights have come from my personal practice and from attending classes and trainings with my mentoring teachers. If I were too busy managing a yoga business, I wouldn’t be concerned with my evolution as a practitioner, I would be concerned about rent.

Lastly, not teaching yoga for a living allows me to be at hand when my teachers need me to sub. This allows them to continue their training and allows their students to continue their practice when they are away. It is a form of Bhakti I practice.

Down the road I may add a third class to my weekly rotation. One day I may even be good enough to have yoga pay a few bills. But for now I will keep my day job. Yoga in America is trendy now, and if Lululemon’s stock price in the past year is any indicator of how yoga in the West is heading, most who are doing it for a living will quickly find some harsh realities.

I am not criticizing those who do make a living teaching yoga and I am sorry I if this post offends some of you. I am actually quite awed in how you do it. I just don’t have the charisma or business mind to make it work for what would make me feel good about myself.

 

Use part of your lunch hour to add a daily pranayama practice

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Yoga must have been very different back in the day. Imagine if you had joined a yoga school in India around the time of Patanjali. You would have left all of your earthly belongings to study yoga. A portion of your daily practice, aside from learning Sanskrit, doing asana, practicing devotion to your teachers, doing japas and cleaning the temple, would be a regular practice of pranayama in preparation for meditation.

Fast forward to 2015. There is no temple. There is no renunciation. You have bills and if you are lucky you have a job. To top it off, yoga is becoming now a fad with endless selfie pictures on the news feed. Had enough? Perhaps you can reclaim some elements of the past by finding a quiet place, shutting off your devices, and doing 10 to 15 minutes of pranayama. That is not much to ask considering 15 minutes is only 1.042% of your day.

Pranayama is an extremely subtle practice on the nervous system, and the esoteric yoga anatomy. In the Iyengar system, pranayama is kept separate from asana practice. It requires total concentration. For beginners, pranayama is learned in Savasana (corpse pose) with support that expands the chest cavity. I would highly recommend getting Light On Pranayama and studying with a certified teacher before getting too “experimental” with pranayama. Iyengar strongly suggests it could be harmful if done improperly.

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I have found lunchtime to be optimal for my pranayama practice. It corresponds nicely to one’s natural circadian rhythm around “siesta time.” I can find a quiet place, set up my blankets, do 15 minutes of pranayama/savasana, and then eat my lunch. Since I am a case manager, I usually have the freedom to choose where I can do this. If you are in an office you can find an empty room or quiet area.

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My preferred pranayama setup

Today, I did pranayamas with a “breathing out” emphasis to reduce my job related stress. I did Ujjayi II, Viloma II, and Bhramari 2A and 2B (see Light on Pranayama). Afterwards it was like hitting the “reset” button. I was able take on my challenging daily tasks with a clear mind and and a sense of hopefulness that had been absent for the previous part of the day.

Another advantage of doing pranayama is that you don’t need any special workout/yoga clothing. Just make sure your clothing does not constrict your breathing. Having a regular pranayama practice is nowhere near as flashy as the ubiquitous #instagramyogis that swarm the interwebs, but true yoga is done for the inward experience.