Monthly Archives: July 2015

The element of Prithvi in standing poses

One unique feature about Iyengar yoga is that beginning students are taught Uttishta Sthiti (standing poses) first before learning other clans of Asana-s. From a layperson’s perspective, this may sound counterintuitive. Shouldn’t beginners start with seated postures which require less physical effort? After a few years of practice, and a few more years of teaching, I am starting to see clearly why this is the optimal method for beginners to start.

Standing poses are the “donkey work” of Yoga as my mentoring teacher is fond of saying. They require tremendous energy when done properly. They correct defects in wobbly, weak legs and inflexible hamstrings. They safely teach “alignment” which is now becoming a much “maligned” term in the modern Yoga world.

For those beginners with stiff joints in the legs, seated poses can be a nightmare. Have you ever seen a beginning student with tight groins sit on the floor in Swastikasana? Knees are up and the sacrum is bulging out with a hunched back. To correct a student in this position takes much effort: they have to get up, get blankets, reposition.

This is not the case in standing poses. If a student has a hunched back in Utthita Trikonasana, give an instruction. If the instruction isn’t received, manually adjust, or add height via a block. Worst case, take them to a wall or tresler. Not much effort is needed.

Now that I am starting to revisit much of the philosophical teaching of yoga, namely the Panchamahabhutas (five elements), it is clear why we start with standing poses before attending to “advanced” Asana-s.

Standing poses correspond with element of Pritvhi, or Earth. They are “grounding.” They are solid. They build foundation. They are tangible. They can be held for long periods of time. In short, they teach discipline which is becoming rarer these days.

Correspondingly,  the earth element absorbs unwanted qualities from the other elements: water, fire, air, and space. If this sounds too esoteric and new agey, just remember the last time you had do deal with someone who is “spacey” or has a “fiery” temper. The elemental tendencies are very real in people if we are not too much in our own head to “see.”

Standing poses slow the mind down and quiet it. You may not feel that way when doing Parivritta Parsvakonasana for more than 30 seconds, but wait for the after effect. I notice the quality of Savasana in my students is much more profound after standing poses then they are after restorative/pranayama.

parivrtta parsvakonasana

On a deeper level, the earth element corresponds with the Muladhara Chakra, the root. To manage this Chakra properly, it is said one can build a platform of dispassion (vairagyam) to create stability on one’s yogic journey. It is advised that raw beginners do at least six month of daily standing poses before attempting inversions. That may sound harsh and dogmatic, but the standing poses teach the legs how to remain stable even when there is no earth underneath them as is the case with inversions.

Muladhara

Westernized Yoga can use a dose of Aparigraha

I got the strangest “job offer” from an acquaintance the other day. She said “I’m thinking of opening a yoga studio downtown. It will double as a smoothie stand, will you teach for me?” I asked her if she has ever done yoga before and she replied she had tried if a few times and it made her feel better, and that is what gave her the idea for the studio/bar/what-have-you.

I politely declined without an explanation, and suggested that she at least “acquaint” herself with the practice before her business venture. After reflecting on this job offer, it dawned on me that this is how Yoga is being propagated in the West. Corporate burn outs are going to a yoga class, they feel great afterwards, and it doesn’t take long before they are printing studio fliers.

Rewind a few years back. I used to be part of a mediation sangha that would meet weekly. Once in a blue moon, we would meditate in a tree house that could hold 20 people in the back of the verdant Manoa Valley. We had guest speaker Rev. Lekshe Tsomo, a buddhist nun who works with the Dalai Lama, run the group. We sat for an hour, then she gave her talk.

“The tree house is nice, isn’t it?” She inquired. “Don’t you want to own it?” Most agreed. “How come we can’t just enjoy it for this time, without having to want to own it?” A deep question indeed.

There is this strange phenomenon in Western yoga in that people to want to “own” yoga. That is, cash in on all that yoga has to offer. Just go to your local corporate chain yoga studio and drop in rates run as high as $25. People pay. The studios keep charging.

Teacher trainings are offered to students who just walk in the door without an iota of yoga experience, nonetheless teaching experience. “For $4,000, you can join our teacher training to deepen your practice.” People pay. The studios keep charging.

J. Brown just wrote a scathing piece on teacher trainings. In the comment section, a representative from Yoga Alliance gave an interesting statistic: 50%-75% of YTT (yoga teacher training) students do not intend to teach. If they are not intending to teach, why shell out 4 or 5 grand when you can just learn to “deepen your practice” in a classroom setting? Unless studios aren’t actually “teaching” instead of just doing a follow-the-teacher class with a killer playlist, very much like aerobics classes a decade ago with a savasana thrown in. Then it all makes sense.

This may sound like a crude comparison, but I felt like my friend’s job offer was akin to someone asking a devout priest if he would like to join a money making venture on teaching people how to pray. Of course any priest worth his salt would simply say: “just pray.”

Putting the community back into Yoga

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III.23 Maitryadisu balani — By samyama (intensive meditation) on friendliness, great strengths are acquired.

I received a compliment from one of my students over the weekend. It had nothing to do with my instructions, or my sequence, or even my holding class on the holiday. The student said “I really appreciate the sense of community I feel in your class.” “Thanks!” I said and left without really thinking about it.

That comment from my student has been sticking with me for a while. I have been teaching at Unity Church of Honolulu since 2004 and still have 3 of my original students. Teaching over a long period of time in the same spot grows deep roots.

The simple act of showing up consistently week after week on time is a much harder task than teaching “advanced” poses. Some weeks I have only one student, some weeks none at all! But over the years, I’m fairly confident that at least a handful show up. I rarely cancel class. Only during special events, major holidays, or if I’m too sick.

The class has always been small with about 7-8 regulars. Saturday morning at 8 am is a hard sell for most. Keeping this time slot has produced a special type of student: the kind who is serious enough to wake up early on a weekend.

I accept “love offerings” as Unity Church calls them which makes it a donation based class. But I don’t have a “suggested donation.” If students don’t feel like paying, I don’t take issue. I make enough money at my main job to cover expenses. Unity Church has been gracious about the arrangement. My students aren’t chintzy though, they give me enough to keep the church happy.

My priority is to have students return weekly over a long period of time, not to make a quick buck, sell merchandise, or up-sell a teacher training program. I am barely a beginning teacher myself, how could I ethically instruct others how to teach?

My students return week after week. They say they get benefit from my teaching. But I also feel they come back because it is one of the few places in our fast paced society where they feel a sense of connection with others. They notice when a student has been away. They celebrate each others’ good news, and are sympathetic to each other when there is not so good news.

Prior to my starting the Unity Class, I was part of a Vipassana-based Sangha that met weekly for a one hour meditation, and then a one hour discussion. I remember how much that group gave me a sense of community, and wanted to pass the feeling on.

Even as far back as childhood, I remember my Dad would take my brother and I to an annual Jazz festival in Madrid, New Mexico. Madrid is a ghost town that had an abandoned baseball park where the festival was held. As we were kids, we did not give a hoot about Jazz, so we brought a kick ball and utilized the baseball diamond. It wasn’t long before we had  game going with all the other kids whose parents dragged them to the festival. I think that is what planted the seed for me understanding how important it is to have a community. The other kids sure appreciated it.

Yoga is a big business now. Across the street there is a studio that packs ’em in, blasts the tunes and people pay via the internet. I am sure I “missed out” on the big payday in the Yoga world. But again, for me it’s not about the money, it’s about the personal satisfaction of watching my students grow with me as a teacher. It would sure be nice if I can teach here another 12 years.