Category Archives: Iyengar yoga

Required reading for the student who is new to Yoga

Screen Shot 2015-01-01 at 2.07.50 PM

I was watching a video of B.K.S. Iyengar during the 2013 Guru Poornima, which is an annual observance and celebration of all of our teachers. In the address, he showed two books that were recently pressed from the Institute. He commented that when he started Yoga, there was no written material on the subject of Asana. Now it has gone the other way. There is now so much information about Asana on the internet and in books, that a new comer to yoga may be easily overwhelmed.

I often reflect on the reading materials that I first encountered when I came to Yoga and what continues to guide me on my path. The clear text would be introduction in LIght On Yoga. It is not just written well, it draws from a series of classical Yoga texts and digests it into an easy to understand essay coupled with Iyengar’s experience.

One does not need to be an practitioner of the Iyengar style to appreciate this text. Renowned Ashtanga Yoga practitioner Chuck Miller writes:

One day in 1974, I was in a bookstore and picked up a copy of Light on Yoga. A girl whom I’ve never seen before just looked over and said, “That’s the book.” I took it as a sign from above and bought the book. I went home that night and read the introduction, fifty-five pages, and it blew my mind. It changed my life. I felt I had my hand on the operating manual for the human being.  – From Iyengar, The Yoga Master 2007 Kofi Busia Shalamba Publications, Inc.

One of the gists of the text that I remember every day is that he views the ability to work as a gift. He draws this concept from the Bhagavad Gita, and links it wonderfully to how we integrate our daily practice as our dharma.

He also gives a brief overview of the limbs of Ashtanga Yoga (the classical eight limbs from Patanjali Yoga Sutras). In subsequent texts, The Iyengar family asserts that Ashtanga Yoga is the ABCs of Yoga, and that the other forms like Hatha, Laya, Jnana etc. need a firm rooting in Asthanga Yoga before other forms can successfully be commenced.

In Light on Yoga, Iyengar also gives a brief overview of the obstacles on the path and how to overcome them based on the Patanjali Yoga Sutras. Iyengar had many obstacles that he overcame in his lifetime including childhood diseases, poverty, the early death of his wife, and two auto accidents just to name a few. He practiced Yoga up until he passed away last year at 95 years old.

Keep in mind that Iyengar Yoga style was not my first choice when I started Yoga. I went though many of the different systems until I have decided to pursue Iyengar as my path. Perhaps you may have another system of preference. But there is one common agreement among many practitioners is that the introduction of Light On Yoga is one of the classic passages.

A few approaches to a hyperextended knee in Asana

hyperextended knee

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.

hyperextended knee trikonasana

Here is what the knee should look like:

arun utthita trikonasana

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.

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 7.23.44 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 7.28.42 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 7.30.56 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 7.38.30 PM

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!

Several approaches to the eight limbs of Yoga

Patanjali35

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!

Approaching the victorious path of Pranayama (Part 1)

1-wind-turbines-north-shore-oahu-1

To further refine one’s home practice, Pranayama is essential. It is not a practice one approaches in a standard one-size-fits-all format as everyone has their own cardiovascular and respiratory rhythms. But certain fundamentals must be learned before one tries on their own. The Iyengars and the Hatha Yoga Pratipika warn that Pranayama practiced unskillfully can have damaging effects on the nervous system. In short, Pranayama is not merely “breathing exercises.” Pranayama is just as the name implies: management of the body’s “pranic” or energetic system.

B.K.S. Iyengar warned that one must not approach Pranayama casually and mechanically. Just as there are refinements in Asana, there are extremely subtle refinements in Pranayama. Again, these cannot be seen easily if at all by the teacher, so it is up to the practitioner to understand what needs to be refined.

One’s mental state cannot be agitated before doing or while in Pranayama. If that is the case, the practitioner must go back to Asana until the mental state is calmed. As a mental health care professional, this took me years to figure out. As a counselor, a common “coping skill” to teach for one who has anxiety is to “take deep breaths.” That has had mixed results in my counseling profession especially of for those who smoke daily and have respiratory problems. Breathing deeply has actually made them panic more! Through the years I have found teaching my clients Tadasana and supported Adho Mukha Svanasana as much more valuable technique of addressing anxiety than “breathing deeply.”

In the hierarchy of practice, Asana must be mastered before one can commence Pranayama.  That does not mean one has to execute Asanas in the back of Light On Yoga to qualify.  But the quality of the asanas you do have to have Sthira and Sukham (steadiness and well being). The aim of Pranayama isn’t merely to get out of an agitated state. The aim is to cultivate Pratyahara, or detachment from the senses.

It is recommended that people don’t start doing Pranayama until they have had regular and steady Asana practice for six months. This not to be snobby, but it is because the body needs to attain a basic sense of proper alignment before any effective work on the extremely subtle pranic system can be done. If you are new to Yoga, please see my tabs on Asana and Yoga Sequences and practice these with the help of a Certified Iyengar Yoga Instructor in your area. It is highly advisable to obtain a copy of Light on Pranayama by B.K.S. Iyengar as he goes into tremendous detail of what I will cover briefly in these posts. With all of that, let us start to explore how to approach Pranayama.

Ideally, Pranayama is practiced separate from Asana. If you practice Asanas first, allow 30 minutes before commencing Pranayama practice. As Pranayama tries to cultivate Pratyahara, there should be no music playing and of course electronic devices should be silenced. It is very jarring to the nervous system to hear a cell phone go off while you are concentrating on the subtle body.

The four parts of the breath

To understand the basic structure of the breath, one needs to know at least the corresponding references in Sanskrit. The exhale is called Rechaka. The retention at the end of the exhale is called Bhaya Kumbhaka. The inhale is called Puraka. The retention at the end of the inhale is called Antara Kumbhaka. Kumbha means “pot” or “vessel” and the retention refers to the encapsulation of the Prana in the vessel. Eventually, the Kumbhakas increase in time duration according to the aim and skill of the practitioner.

Study these concepts, and in future posts I will show how to position the body for pranayama give basic instructions for UJjayi I and II Pranayama-s.

Many blessings!

 

On the art of straightening the leg in Iyengar yoga

 

It is said much recently that a hallmark of Iyengar Yoga is its refinement on inversions. After years of practice, I will have to say another hallmark of Iyengar Yoga is the quality of the straight legs in Iyengar practitioners.

Straight legs are not something that happens overnight. Very much like that tear jerking scene in Forrest Gump when the young Forrest is bound by a confining leg brace, and then chased by bad kids, he finds his “real” legs and off he goes into an almost superhuman ability to run fast.

The same struggle, then liberation can be said of the years of practice it takes to truly straighten the legs in Iyengar Yoga. How many of you who have been to a bona fide Iyengar class for the first time heard “straighten your leg!” only to look down to your version of straight legs and wonder if the teacher is talking to someone else? That was my first 10 years of practice (with occasional relapses if I let my strong tamasic nature take over).

Let me show you a comparison of  “straight legs”  vs. “Iyengar straight legs” in a Padangusthasana (big toe pose), a forward bend.

uttanasana bent

This woman is flexible enough to touch her toes. But look at the angle behind the knee joint. It may appear to the untrained eye that her legs are straight, but her legs are not a straight as they can be.

pandangusthasana iyengar

This may not be a fair comparison, but look at Guruji’s pose during his prime. Very little angle behind the knee and the front of his legs are “poker straight” as he often described them.

So how does the aspirant get the legs of Iyengar? In addition to daily uninterrupted practice, there are ways in which you can start to address the tamasic nature of the strong and lazy legs.

For my basic students, I often have them do Pasrvottanasana (intense stretch of the side body pose) with one heel against the wall and with a chair.

parsvottanasna with chair

 

If there is a mantra in Iyengar Yoga, it would be that “contact is intelligence.” The contact with the back heel pressing hard on the wall cultures the leg to work properly as a “straight’ leg. Many are shocked at how difficult it is do this even though they are lithe and flexible.

Another exercise to straighten the leg is Supta Padangusthasana I with belt around the big toe mound.

sp mere mortal

 

Now the leg is in the air and doesn’t have the earth to press down on. The belt acts as a gauge to which degree you can press against. I like to use the metaphor of using a gas pedal where you slowly accelerate like you are trying to maintain a constant but slow speed like you are driving in a school zone. By pressing the big toe mound into the strap, one notices the effect on the knee and how the more your press, the more the kneecap recedes into the socket. Don’t completely plantar flex the foot like a ballerina. You have to temper that by extending up from the back of the ankle toward the ceiling. The proper foot in an inversion is partially dorsi flexed and partially plantar flexed.

Straight legs are a necessary element for inversions. Without the firmness in the legs the weight sinks on the the neck and head in Salamba Sirsasana. Notice the quality of the legs in Guruji’s Salamba Sirsasana and notice the corresponding lift in his shoulders.

sirsasana iyengar

 

The contraindication for this exercise is for those who hyperextend their knees. The instruction would be for those practitioners to learn where they are pushing too hard in the back of their knee and decrease the effort to preserve the joint over years of practice. For more on that, see this blog post.

To come full circle, inversions are an a hallmark of Iyengar Yoga. But you cannot have proper inversions until you have straight legs. Now “straighten your legs!!!”

Notes from a Mary Obendorfer workshop

 

mary obendorfer

Mary Obendorfer was one of the teachers who gave my practice a complete 180. Back in the early 2000s, I attended a teacher training she conducted to inaugurate the center where I now teach. She introduced concepts of sequencing back then that I continue to use today in my practice and teaching.

At the time she asked us to come up with a sequence and then the group would critique it with her provisions. I actually handed her a sequence that started with Paschimottanasana (intense stretch of the West side of the body pose) as the first pose because that was what my teacher at the time was teaching (he was not Iyengar based). “Why are you starting with such a difficult pose?!” She asked, but not really wanting to know the answer. After her instructions, I now completely understand why starting a sequence with Paschimottanasana is a bad idea on just about every level. I won’t give you the answer if you don’t know, because so many of my previous blog posts have addressed it.

Fast forward 13 years, Mary Obendorfer still visits our studio annually. This year she is back from GeetaJi’s December intensive in Pune, India with more gems. What I have always enjoyed about the Iyengar system is that you get the knowledge eventually even though you may not be able to attend Pune intensives first hand.

Obendorfer gave us detailed instructions on two poses: Baddhakonasna (bound angle pose) and Upavistha Konasana (seated angle pose.) I will write posts about these poses later once I have integrated the teachings in my practice, reflected on them, and developed my on insights on them.

baddha konasana

Baddha Konasana

Upavistha-Konasana

Upavistha Konasana

The one thing that was imparted is that regular practice of these two poses will “decrease the suffering of your standing poses.” Obendorfer also relayed Geetaji’s message that these poses will also help to alleviate problems that people face when they age. With all the upward apanic (pelvic region) action required to do these poses, it is evident that Geetaji has noticed people suffer from GI problems as they age and has given us an “antidote” through Baddha Konasana and Upavistha Konasana to minimize the problems that manifest as we grow older.

Tonight I will continue the workshop with the intermediate class. More gems to come I am sure…