Category Archives: Asana

Sunday backbends

Today was a nice day to reclaim part of my practice as I have been subbing heavily for my mentoring teachers who are teaching in China. During my own teacher training years ago, my mentoring teacher Ray said that a teacher gives up part of his practice for his students. I understand how true that is as time studying to prepare for weekly classes cuts into one’s one personal sadhana. But that is the sadhana of a teacher.

This is “backbend week” (save Tuesday’s forward bend sequence for International Yoga Day), and I am working on a sequence and modifications for one of my students who has a wrist injury and another student who gets severe headaches after backends. I am grateful for Guruji’s innovations to accommodate injuries and medical conditions of all kinds.

Because of the body I have been given, backbends come fairly easily for me. It has been a blessing as I see how other struggle with this clan of poses. Because of that, I don’t practice backbends as often as other clans which I truly struggle with–namely twisting poses.

But today I cut loose and did a few cycles of Urdvha Dhanurasana at the wall. I am nursing a shoulder injury which I attribute to my sedentary desk job and hours of driving. Today, my shoulder cooperated and and gave me the freedom to push up into the classic  pose.

I have heard that injuries are a blessing for a teacher as they make one think of how to practice around it and then utilize actions that benefit and heal it. That gives much potency to one’s teaching to another student who has a similar injury. My left shoulder struggles in Gomukhasana due to a pinched nerve. But the more I work on other actions, the Gomukhasna eventually comes.

When one delves into the deeper yogic philosophy, we see that we have many sheaths of our being and that the physical body is only part of it. I find it a bit humorous that it is referred to as the “food” layer (annamayakosa) and is the most transient layer of who we really are. It is always changing.

Home practice is a charming endeavor. In between poses, my wife calls and asks me to find some cabinet clips. Being a husband is my first duty, so I help. Then back to practice. I read a few pages of Light On Yoga here, google a few photos there, then try something new. I fail, then re-check the picture, then redo. It is like doing homework with your own  body.

Home practice feels comfortable and satisfying. I am now grounded and recharged for the hectic week ahead…

 

 

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The striking similarities between physical therapy applications and asanas

A co-worker of mine recently had knee surgery and said he is in physical therapy. I am always curious as a Yoga teacher what what the medical community does to treat ailments via physical movement. He graciously copied his sheet of exercises his physical therapist prescribed to him.

I saw immediately that the actions being taught in physical therapy mimic many of those is asana, with asana being a bit more extreme in range of motion. Here are a few interesting examples:

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“Hip and knee strengthening quadriceps sets” and Dandasana (Staff Pose)

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“Straight leg raise phase 1” and Urdvha Prasarita Padasana (Upward Expanded Leg Pose)

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“Prone knee flexion stretch” and Ardha Bhekasana (Half Frog Pose)

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“Bridging” and Chatuse Padasana (Four Footed Pose)

The above illustrations are not a sequence, but just a visual of the similarities. I am a yoga teacher and not a doctor or a physical therapist, but in this art I can’t help to recognize the correlation between movements and the therapeutic effect of the asanas. My mentoring teacher often comments on how asanas are therapeutic in and of themeselves if people practice them ardently.

A major difference between physical therapy and Yoga is that physical therapy ends when the injury is healed, whereas in Yoga the practitioner goes on to the next level of asana and then beyond to the breath, mind, consciousness, and soul.

Many blessings to you all!

 

 

 

 

Listening to your practice: Asanas will tattle on you

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I was fortunate enough to start my work week with a home practice. That has been rare for me lately as I started a new job which demands that I be in the office more often. My practice felt strong this morning, but when I got to Halasana (plow pose) my legs felt stiff and my hamstrings felt “short.” Then I heard a whisper: “your legs are stiff because you are sitting too much and not doing enough Supta Padangusthasa.”

Before you think I have a diagnosis of schizophrenia, I don’t hear this “whisper” all the time. But when I am doing Asana with a sattvic mind, like it is after a good night’s rest, I tend to be bit more aware of what my body is telling me.

The body has a perfect memory unlike our mind. It “remembers” all the bad stuff you did to it all week: sitting too long in a bad posture, eating greasy food, and staying up too late. The body in its wisdom does not tell you right away when you are not ready to “hear” it. It waits until Asana practice to tell you exactly what you are doing wrong and tells you exactly how to fix it.

On a deeper level, the body then tells the mind what it’s doing wrong and how to fix it. By using the breath and Asanas, the body puts the mind in its place. It douses the constant shouting of the sensory organs with prana flowing through purified and aligned nadic channels.

So our job as Yoga practitioners is to listen. Listen deeply. Our body tells us all kinds of things. We just have to get the mind out of the way. Once we advance enough in our practice, then our purusha then starts to tell us things. To listen to the purusha is the highest form of Yoga.

After my practice I felt refreshed and ready to start the week. I am very grateful I got a chance to do Asanas today.

A few approaches to a hyperextended knee in Asana

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II.16. heyaim dukham anagatam

The pains which are yet to come can be and are to be avoided.
—Yoga Sutras, translation by B.K.S. Iyengar

I have gotten an overwhelming response from my post about the process of straightening the legs in Iyengar Yoga. Of course there are two sides to every coin, and in this case it is the plight of the knee hyperextenders.

A hyperextended knee occurs when the knee is bent backward (see above) and can damage ligaments, cartilage and other stabilizing structures in the knee. It may sound cliche, but the statement holds true that flexible people have a much more distinct disadvantage in Asana than those of us who are naturally stiff. That is because often times knee overextending practitioners are not aware that they are pushing too hard in the back of the joint until one day they are met with severe knee pain.

As a diagnostic test, do Utthita Trikonasana in front of a mirror and look at the back of your knee on the side you are leaning toward. If it is this shape (see below) than you are overextending. There is a distinct “look” to a hyperextended knee as fellow blogger mbdyoga commented the “tibia head is way behind the lower femur.” From a distance, the leg appears as though it is caving in from the knee joint.

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Here is what the knee should look like:

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If you are in the hyperextending camp, here are a few exercises you can do to create awareness of what a “normal” knee should feel like.

First, place a block in the back of the calf in Utthita Trikonasana. This will allow you to press against something without hyperextending the knee.

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Next, do Upavistha Konasana (Seated Angle Pose) on the floor with no blankets underneath the buttocks. This will allow you to again press down on the floor without risk of knee hyper extension. In forward bends don’t sit on height because you will hyperextend the knee.

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Lastly, find a corner or a door jamb and extend one leg up into a modified Supta Padangushthasana (Reclined Big Toe Pose). Notice the other knee is bent to avoid hyper extending that leg too. Press the whole back of the leg against the structure to get a feel of what a “straight non-hyperextended knee leg” feels like.

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Then take the awareness gained from these exercises into you daily practice. As a warning, I have heard that it feels like you are not stretching at all if you are ultra flexible. Be okay with that.

And until you have integrated this awareness of non hyperextension into your practice, I would advise doing “bent leg” forward bends in lieu of straight leg forward bends.

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As I normally say, these exercises are only the tip of the iceberg. Fellow blogger Stephanie Tencer from Studio Po in Toronto, Ontario has further reflections on this subject from her own experience with hyperextended knees. To be safe, find a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher in your area. I hope many of you find this post helpful. As always, I am open to commentary and criticism. It only creates more awareness for my own sadhana.

Blessings!

Rise to the challenge of thinking deeper about Asana

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Ramana Maharsi

 

I’m not the first to say this, but Yoga has saturated the market. Yoga in the West has now manifested into a thousand and one faces. Most of the Yoga we read about is Asana, with people giving a brief superficial nod to the other limbs. Even with Asana being the focal point, this too is getting the superficial treatment in most blogs and news feeds. So my challenge is to up the ante. In order to understand what Asana actually is and its true purpose, we as Yoga practitioners have to dig a little deeper.

Prashant Iyengar says that Asanas are a maya (illusion) to the lay person. When the average Joe sees me doing Asanas in the park during my lunch break, he probably thinks I’m off my rocker…but at best just thinks I am exercising or contorting myself. What the average Joe does not “see” is what is going on inside of me. Nobody but me can.

One of the problems to our Western approach to Yoga is that we give over emphasis to the organ of sight, and not as much emphasis on the other organs of perception. Asana are extremely visual. It is easy to see what is bending and what is extending. But we have not given much thought for example of what an Asana “sounds” like.

It is said that the highest form of Yoga is done with the ears, as that is the corresponding organ to akasha, or space. That is because you can “hear” complex ideas that are beyond the realm of vision. For example, we can “see” a dog or a cat, or a squid, but we cannot “see” concepts like democracy, or glotteral clicking sounds that Japanese verb intonations make. These concepts are understood through the organ of hearing if you learn using an oral tradition.

A few years ago, Senior Iyengar Teacher Laurie Blakeney, who is a piano tuner by trade, had us utter the mantra “OM” while doing a difficult asana. She said when the “OM” sound lost its clarity from stressed vocal chords, the Asana was being worked too hard and deviating from its “Sthira Sukam Asanam” state which is a prerequisite from Patanjali. This is the first time I “heard” what Asana is supposed to sound like. That is just one example in billions of how we can use other senses to perceive the depth of Asana.

So my challenge to you before posting that next pose on Instagram is go a little deeper into thinking about the pose you are posting. In your practice are you digging a bunch of shallow holes, or are you digging a deep vast well? That of course has to do with what you want from Yoga: do you want pot holes, or a water supply to irrigate your crops?

 

Several approaches to the eight limbs of Yoga

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When one first reads the eight limbs in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra-s, there are many questions that arise. Are the eight limbs practiced sequentially, like rungs in a ladder, or are they practiced all together? That really depends upon your point of view and also which tradition you follow. This post assumes one has read the eight limbs. If not here is a link to review them. I will provide a few points of view from my training and personal practice on following the eight limbs.

Say like you are a sincere practitioner and want to follow the eight limbs sequentially like a staircase–not proceeding to the next limb until you have “mastered” the previous. Then you meet a formidable challenge like the Yamas. The first Yama is ahimsa (non-harming). On your way to your practice, you accidentally step on a bug, injuring it. Can you proceed to the next limb? What about telling the truth (satya), not stealing (asteya), staying sexually continent (brahmacharya), and not being greedy (aparigraha)? Then what about the Niyamas of saucha (internal and external cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapas (ardor for practice), svadhyaya (self study), and Ishvara pranidhana (complete surrender to God)? If you had to master one limb before proceeding to the next, it would most likely take several lifetimes to qualify for Asana!

We have to keep in mind that the aim of Yoga is to still the citta. So living in observance of these ethical guidelines is highly conducive for stilling the mind. Imagine doing the exact opposite. What if you harmed others, lied, steal from others, had multiple sex partners, and were stingy and greedy. Your mind would be all over the place.

My point of view is that the first four limbs of Yoga: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama are things one can do externally to still the citta. The next two limbs: pratyahara and dharana are things one can do internally to still the citta. The last two limbs: Dhyana and Samadhi are what Yoga does to the practitioner who correctly and steadfastly practices these concepts.

The first four limbs, Yama, Niyama, Asana, and Pranayama, are called the bahiranga (the pursuit of external purity), pratyahara (detachment form the senses), and dharana (concentration) are called the antaranga (the pursuit of internal purity), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (illumination) are called the antaratama (the pursuit of the Soul).

In the West we like “goals.” Rather than viewing the eight limbs as a goal with Samadhi being the prize, I like to view the eight limbs as a toolbox one can use to get the mind to quieten. If there are any sincere “goals” of yoga, they would be to practice daily, and not be attached to things of with the ego identifies itself (abhyasa and vairagyam).

What if you were not able to practice Asana? Your practice would be to follow the Yamas and Niyamas to create stillness in the mind. What if your mind was too busy to focus on Pranayama?  Your practice would be Asana. These are examples of slotting in and slotting out limbs like gathering tools from a toolbox to quiet the mind.

Can you practice several limbs at once? Of course! When doing a sincere pranayama practice, you are already following the Yamas and Niyamas easily. You are in supported Savasana or a seated position and are therefore practicing Asana. B.K.S. Iyengar used Asana as a focus point to amplify the other limbs, just as Gandhi used the Yamas of ahimsa and satya to liberate India from the West.

The take home message here is whenever the mind is not quiet, Patanjali says you have access to many tools to make it quiet. Then you can see your true self and all your splendorous radiance.

Have a great weekend!

Asanas are 1% of Yoga: Patanjali

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I write a great deal about Asana in my blog. One could argue that my blog is only about Asana and that I have not even come close to touching the other limbs. That would be a valid argument. I have been fortunate enough lately to devote much time to reading and studying the Patanjali Yoga Sutra-s. After hearing an interview with scholar Edwin Bryant, the idea has crystalized that has been inside of for much time: since Asanas are so powerful and profoundly life changing by themselves, the entire practice of Yoga is light years more powerful and transformative.

There are only three Yoga Sutra-s that address Asana: sthira sukham asanam (the seat/pose steadies and brings about comfort for the aspirant’s consciousness), prayatna-śaithilya-ananta-samāpatti-bhyām (mastery in the Asana is accomplished when the aspirant has a state of effortless effort in the body and in the consciousness), and tato dvaṅdva-an-abhighātaḥ (from then on the aspirant is not vexed by the dualities that exist between the pure consciousness and the perceived world.)

As Bryant points out, reference to Asana only encompasses 12 words in a 1200 word text, or 1 percent. But rather dismissing Asana as unimportant because of its brief “cameo” in the Sutra-s, reflect on how powerful Asana has been in your life. For many of my readers, Asana is only what they have practiced. That is not a bad thing, as Asana as Bryant describes is “plugged in” to a larger system of total transformation.

Now imagine how powerful it would be to practice daily and uninterruptedly a concept like telling the truth, or keeping yourself clean, or not being greedy. Just practicing those concepts for one day would be life changing to many. Then one only begins to gather how difficult and how deep the whole of the Yoga Sutra-s are in what they are trying to impart to the reader.

By all means don’t give up your Asana practice! B.K.S. Iyengar taught that all limbs can be practiced in Asana and has proved it in how he changed the world’s view of Yoga.

Gandhi liberated India with concepts in the Yoga Sutra-s like Satya (truth) and Ahimsa (non-violence) and inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. to duplicate these principles to create civil rights in the US. Similarly, the Patanjali Yoga Sutra-s teach how to emancipate ourselves not only from sorrows, but from all the Karmic and Samskaric imprints we have inherited.