Monthly Archives: January 2015

Geeta Iyengar wins Jijamata Puraskar Award

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Geeta Iyengar fine tuning Utthita Trikonasana

 

I’m a little late posting this, but wanted to share the great news that Geeta Iyengar won the Jijamata Puraskar Award earlier this month. The award is given to mothers who brought up sons valuable to society.

Although Geeta does not have any of her own children, she encapsulates true matriarchal power in her teaching. She said “I do not belong to the category of mother as such. But still my family is a rather larger one.” With certified Iyengar instructors in over 80 countries worldwide, she has a large family indeed.

The award recognizes courage of  women who have transcended difficult circumstances, and who have established this spirit of courage their personal or professional life. The award also recognizes the pioneering contribution of an individual in empowering women and raising women’s issues. Geeta has done all of the above. Like her father, she has used Yoga to overcome illness in her younger days. She has also refined the Iyengar teaching method and has published several books on how Yoga addresses women’s issues.

Many continued blessings to Geetaji for her service to man and womankind.

Developing an eye for correct Yoga postures through drawing

vira III lior

Illustration by Lior Hikrey

 

I received quite a bit of response from my post “My habit of correcting bad Yoga postures in advertising.” I am not just randomly picking points of poses to criticize. It took years of training and discipline to “see” what a good posture is and what a poor posture is lacking. To fast forward this process, I would advise to do an assignment that was given to me years ago by my mentoring teachers: draw the poses then draw arrows in the direction each limb is going.

This will give you a sense of the base, direction, and correct proportion of each pose. To illustrate, I will do this with Ardha Chandrasana (half moon pose).

First, select a good specimen for a posture. I would recommend any of Bobby Clennell’s drawings. She is a long time Iyengar practitioner and teacher and has many books published with her beautiful Asana drawings.

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Then, try to recreate the drawing (sorry Bobby, I’m just a novice)

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Next, try to fill in the base of the drawing so that it is even. I inserted a “block” under the drawing’s hand.

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Then, look at the “base” of the pose. That means whatever is touching the floor or has the “earth element” which is learned later. Draw arrows of the direction the limb is pressing to get a more stable base. In this case the hand and big toe mound press.

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Next, work your self up from the base to the joints. In this case the kneecap presses back and the elbow is fully extended.

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Next, the rotation of the “top” of the limbs. In this case the thigh externally rotates and the upper arm externally rotates.

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Next, I draw the direction of the top leg and the trunk. The top thigh externally rotates and the trunk rotates toward the ceiling.

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Lastly, I draw the top arm action and put a pointy nose to indicate which way the head is turning.

 

 

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This is just a simplified version of this process, but a good way of using other parts of your brain to think about Yoga poses. Drawing the pose makes you slow down and really consider what each limb is doing to create the whole asana. It is also good to do if you are injured and want to still “practice” Yoga.

To give you an example of a more advanced execution of this exercise, practitioner Lior Hikrey offers this level of detail in Utthita Trikonasana:

lior trikonasana

 

I hope you find this exercise enjoyable.

 

If studios taught Yoga classically, they’d probably go out of business

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In preparation for my next level of assessment, my mentoring teacher asked me to summarize the first Pada of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra and relate it to my own experience thus far in my practice. Each time I read it I get more insight into what it really takes to study Yoga. Not Asanas, but Yoga.

Patanjali pretty much says unless you were born under divine intervention, the practitioner has very little chance of actually stilling the mind. Only through supremely intensive practice without attachment to the outcome will one still the mind just enough to get a glimpse of one’s true nature. Only then the path of Yoga can begin.

Fast forward to 2015.

I saw on today’s Facebook page that yoga studios in Colorado are protesting a proposal to have the state regulate them. Many are up in arms about how it will put their studio out of business. There are also plenty of studios advertising “advanced” teacher trainings for just $2,000 USD to “further deepen” one’s practice. In short, all of Yoga we see around us is about making money or not going bankrupt. Very little in modern Yoga is about practicing and not being attached to the outcome.

I’m not decrying this. We live in a modern society and have bills to pay. I even work in a studio that has those bills to pay and will go out of business without my and my teacher’s efforts. However, my observation is that there is so much emphasis put on Yoga as a means of making a living in the West, that much of the true Yoga teaching has been distorted or lost.

Under what conditions would we be able to teach classical Yoga? In India, Sadhu-s (holy men) go without homes, leave their families, barely eat just to follow the classical teachings. Not to say that all of these men are legit, but the commitment to the system is there.

My gut feeling says that studios in Colorado and other states will be regulated, studios will go out of business, “advanced teacher trainings” will be the new Amway, and Yoga as it is being taught in the West with endless 200 hour certification programs will be one of those things people will have remembered about the 2010s that won’t necessarily be around in the next 20 years.

However, classical Yoga will never die as long as there are human beings crazy enough to try to still their mind to get a glimpse of their true selves.

On that note, have a great weekend!

A standing pose sequence accessible to everyone

Standing poses, or Utthistha Sthiti, are the foundation of any good asana practice. They are accessible to anyone and allow the practitioner to work on the fundamentals that come up later in more “advanced” poses. Here is a standing pose sequence that is accessible to most people. I have provided links to instructions for some of the asanas.

Tadasana

tadasana

Urdvha Hastasana

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Utthita Trikonasana

shin triangle pose

Utthita Prarsvakonasana

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Vrksasana

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Ardha Chandrasana

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Prasarita Padottanasana

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Chatuse Padasana (use a strap over the shins to get greater access to proper shoulder action)

Chatuse padasana 9

Urdvha Prasarita Padasana

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(illustration courtesy IYAGNY)

Savasana

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Do this sequence according to your schedule. It can take 45 minutes to 1.5 hours depending on how many times you repeat the poses. Always allow at least 10 minutes for Savasana. A question I get a lot as an instructor is “how long should I hold the poses?” Each pose has a different effect and requires different actions. In addition, everyone is built differently. So the common answer is to try the pose, and come out. Then assess how difficult or easy it was, then try again and stay according to your assessment.

Have a wonderful and blessed practice.

My habit of correcting bad poses in yoga advertising

I should be committed to some type of institution. Everywhere I go I see bad yoga poses in advertising much like the kid in The Sixth Sense who said “I see dead people.” So to cope better with my constant “hallucinations,” I have taken it upon myself to “correct” the horrible postures I see in commercialized yoga. The pose I will focus on for this post is Ustrasana, camel pose.

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I ran across this at Target. Her Ustrasana isn’t as horrendous as the ones below, but it could use some work. If I were to give her instructions I would say “bring your hips back and place your palms on your feet while maintaining the hips over the knees.” What is nice about her pants is you can see the stripe is not completely vertical, giving away her shortcomings in the pose. She would also benefit from pressing her shoulder blades up more so her flexible lower back doesn’t do all the work. I would also have her point her fingers back toward the feet and move her thumb in in the same direction of the other fingers (instead of grabbing) as her grip in the picture closes the shoulders.

ustrasana

Our next specimen is lifted from the Lululemon Facebook page. The base of her pose is not much of a base at all with her toes tucked under exposing a big gap between the floor and her shins. Classic Ustrasana has a firm base from the knee to the toes like a blade. She is compensating for her lack of flexibility to touch the feet by tucking her toes under to lift her heels. If I were her teacher, I’d make her start over with the feet pointed backwards so she has that “blade” base. I would also give her a bolster on the shins to give her the height she needs (that wouldn’t sell as many overpriced yoga pants, however). Lastly, I’d tell her to press her hips more forward to keep them over the knees

The second problem with her pose is her shoulders. Notice the hands are pointed forward. Try that on your own if you want to feel your neck cruntch. The instruction would be rotate your wrists so the fingers are pointed back so the upper arms can externally rotate to spread and lift the chest. Love the $100 pants though.

yj ustrasana

I saved the best for last from our friends at Yoga Journal. Aside from being a pose filled with ego by posing at the camera, she is putting her shoulders at risk by going backwards asymmetrically. Practice this way for a few years and you will be seeing your chiropractor more often than you see your dentist. The obvious instruction would be to get out of the pose and start over by keeping hands on the hips and lifting the spine up and over, then reaching for the feet which she is capable of doing.

To give you my point of reference, here is Guruji’s Ustrasana:

ustrasana guruji

 

 

Have a great weekend!

Directing the “advanced” student to a suitable class

Parivrtta eka pada Sirsasana

Today after my morning class, a 40ish woman came huffing through the door. “I’m here for the basic 2 class.” I explained that the class was cancelled about a month ago when I took over as it did not accommodate my work schedule. I directed her toward other basic 2 classes on the studio flyer.”Do you have anything more advanced, she asked, because I’m an advanced student.”

I’m in no position to make any type of judgements on what exactly “advanced” is in Yoga, so I directed her to the open practice on Saturday where students do their own practice. If she were advanced, she would surely have her own practice. She back tracked and said “I’m more “advanced” than “basic,” but I’m not ready to do my own practice.”

Our studio only goes up to Intermediate 2. To be in that class, you need prior approval from the co-directors. That isn’t to be elitist, but for safety issues, as Salamba Sirsasana (supported head pose or headstand) and variations like Parivritta Eka Pada Sirsasana (see above) are practiced in the middle of the room for up to 10 minutes without support.

I educated her on the levels our studio offers: “Basic 1 classes do not have any inversions but work on standing poses and fundamentals, and Basic 2 classes introduce Salmaba Sarvangasana (supported shoulder stand),” I said. She mulled it over for a moment, and did not seem to know what shoulder stand was even though I gave her the translation. She asked “do you use props?”

Unless she was closing her eyes when she walked in the room, she would have noticed our rope walls, bolsters, blankets, blocks, back bending bench, etc. etc. “Yes we use props, have you ever heard of Iyengar yoga?” I said in the most straight faced way I could ask. She hadn’t, but would have if she would have read the large sign outside the studio, or see the many logos on in the studio that clearly said “Iyengar yoga.”

I gave her the schedule flyer and invited her to my lowly Basic 1 class. She exited quickly and probably won’t come back. Who would want to go to a studio that isn’t advanced?

 

 

 

 

Forward bends calm the mind

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“Yoga ceases the fluctuations of the consciousness,” says the the second sutra in the first chapter from Patanjali. That could  not have been a more appropriate sutra for this week. It was officially the first “work week” of the year and already there are many crises on my caseload. There are also worldwide crises with the Paris bombings. The world needs yoga more now than ever before. How can we have a peaceful world if we are not peaceful within ourselves?

I was fortunate enough to take a lunch hour to devote to forward bends (paschima pratana sthiti). For many years, I was taught that forward bends have a “calming effect” on the nervous system. I was so stiff at the time that I thought the teacher was nuts. “How can my screaming hamstrings have any calming effect?!” I would say to myself.

Seasons change for one’s practice, and the more one practices, the faster that season changes. I can now say my forward bends bring me a substantial calmness internally. Even with my tight hips and groins, poses like Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana are coming better. My mentoring teachers and peers have been working on this pose and using me as a demo student. I’ve notice it is making a difference in loosening my hips and groins.

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And there is nothing like a passive forward bend like hanging from the horse in an inverted Dandasana to elongate the spine and loosen tight shoulders.

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So much in the Yoga world now is about profit, jumping around to loud music, and wearing the latest fashion. Let this be a reminder that Yoga is not about any of that. It is about stopping your mind chatter so you can see yourself more clearly. Then you can be the change the world needs right now.

Have a great weekend!

Today’s self practice showed me my challenges for the new year

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It was a fun yule tide, wasn’t it? All that feasting and sitting and feasting and sitting. I have to say that my personal practice has taken a back seat between the holidays, three jobs, and teaching more classes. Teaching classes for me does not equal practice, because I actually teach. In yesterday’s class I was teaching twisting poses, and realized that my practice has been sorely lacking. Today, I had a gap in my schedule that allowed me to sneak in some asana time at the studio.

For the first half hour of practice, I used the rope wall just to elongate my spine in Adho Mukha Svanasana and Uttanasna and address my tight hamstrings. I then hung in rope Sirsasana for a few minutes. That felt wonderful.

rope sirsasana with baddhakonasana

A good self practice is much like improvisational jazz music. You start with a theme and realize variations in that theme and go with it. What started out as back pain perceived from my tight hamstrings led to realizations of tightnesses in my groins and hips. I did a long supta padangusthasana I and II, ardha baddha padmottanasana and eventually wound up in Matsyasana. My groins cried.

matsyasana

I finished with this chair Sarvangasana cycle that utilizes baddha konasana.

There is the famous saying “physician, heal thyself.” That applies even more to yoga teachers. I felt a profound relief after my practice, not just physically, but emotionally. My jobs are quite stressful and I am holding much of that stress in my body. My mentoring teacher Ray says that for every hour you teach, you should be doing double in your own practice. For me, that translates into 9 hours of practice. 7 more hours to go this week…

 

Ejecting a student from Yoga class?! Where to draw the line.

soup nazi

Doing Sirsasana during Savasana?! Two weeks, no class for you!!

 

I have an 8 am Yoga class on Saturday morning. That is a tough sell for potential students, but in spite of the inconvenient time, my class has grown to roughly 8 regular students. I am very forgiving when people are late to that class because God knows over the last ten years I have had my share of mornings that I struggled to get there at 7:30 to set up the room.

This was “backbending week” and I had a nice sequence progressing from easier to harder poses. The class started with two students. After the second pose, four students, after the third pose, three more students. That was fine. I knew the students who were my regulars.

Then, a half hour into the class, another new student whom I haven’t seen before comes walking up the steps. “I was at the Church rummage sale and wanted to try out your class, I have 40 years of yoga experience,” she said. I told her that we were already halfway through class and I asked her to come back next week because she was too late. She cursed and left, grumbling to others that she was “not allowed in class.”

It sounds like I was being a jerk, but I was actually practicing Ahimsa. Safety is always my primary concern as a Yoga teacher. The woman looked like she had some health concerns as she had an unsteady gait walking up the steps. She also appeared to lack good judgement by assuming that walking into an unfamiliar class that was already in progress was okay.

Before a new student comes to class, I like to get a brief history of any medical problems they have. I am not a doctor, but I am trained to give students alternate ways of doing the postures if they have certain medical issues. For example, if someone just had ankle surgery, I will not teach them jumpings and give them alternate instructions when doing asanas that require use of the ankle joint. I am not comfortable teaching students until I have this brief dialogue with them.

So what does a teacher do when students act unsafely in class? There was a recent Elephant Journal post about what to do when students do their own practice and ignore the teacher’s instruction. The commenters sided with renegade student behavior and said teachers should  have a dedicated space in the room for those who beat to their own drum. That does not sit well with me. In Iyengar yoga, there are very precise instructions. If the student is not mature to follow them and is doing things unsafely, I would probably ask them to try another teacher and refund their money.

That is easier said than done for many teachers who actually make a living doing yoga. If you teach in a gym/fitness center environment, you’d probably get canned if you showed someone the door. So therein lies the problem: does your teaching space allow for bafoonery at the expense of liability? Does ego win over proper Yoga teaching? Are you so desperate to make money off of Yoga, that you are willing to accept reckless behavior from a student who perceives themselves as more advanced than you? Not easy questions for many.

I used to do group substance abuse counseling. I used to kick people out of group so often for not following the rules, that it was rare when a group went by without any ejections. It is sad to say that it has come to this in the Yoga community. But if you don’t feel that the group is safe because of one student’s dangerous behavior, or if you feel that the student is a danger to his/herself, you have my permission to show them the door. You will gain respect from the true Yoga students. But be careful, you may just get the axe.

 

Some aspirations for the new year

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The word “resolution” has always troubled me. It is defined as “a firm decision to do or not to do something.” It has a future orientation that gets away from the here and now. So I will post some of my New Year’s “aspirations” as I continue to blog in 2015.

In my personal practice, I will continue working toward my Junior Intermediate 1 certification. 2014 was a year checkered with family crises that required me to do my Yoga as a householder doing his dharma, and not so much an aspirant. On the weekends, my mentoring teachers have been offering informal teachings to some of us going up for the next level. I appreciate the informality of their process this time around, as going up for Intro II was very painstaking. At this rate, I may be ready for certification by the 2016 assessment season.

The poses in the JI-one syllabus are a tier more advanced than in Intro II. They include basic arm balances and more elaborate forward bends than in intro II. But remember that in Iyengar yoga, one has to know each pose from about 20 different approaches to just get a “basic understanding.”

The quality of teaching is expected to be one tier higher as well. We can no longer get away with showing the shape of the pose and a few instructions. Now we have to link heavily from the origin of action. That does not always come from the base of the pose like we learned in intro II. Again, this process is radically changing my views on asana from once cherished “truisms.”

As far as blogging, I don’t intend to change much. I had a wonderful year with about 40k views and 850 followers. My goal is not to blog to get attention, but just to share my practice and insights with those who don’t have access to Iyengar yoga either because of costs or because of lack of teachers in the area. I also like to clarify the practice for those who are getting muddled in a sea of selfie and commercialized yoga posts out there. So whether I get 10 viewers or a million followers in 2015 is inconsequential to me. I am just doing my dharma by passing on what I know (which isn’t actually that much).

To put it out to the universe, I would highly prefer a more stable year free from family crises. I would also prefer a more stable year for my case manager job for severely mentally ill people. I wish my clients would find peace and less suffering from their illness and hope that I can in some way help them find that peace.