Category Archives: Teaching

A few days until my assessment

I’ve been a bit of a stranger on WordPress the past few months. Mainly in part because I am juggling teaching and my full time job, caregiving, and of course preparing for my Junior Intermediate I assessment this Friday and Saturday. I will be flying to the venue in Los Angeles.

At one point in Iyengar assessments you have to resign yourself to knowing what you know, being able to do what you can do, an hope the assessors see that you are working intelligently even if you can’t attain all of the poses on the syllabus.

There are a few poses I struggle with on this syllabus, but the one that has been really getting my goat is Eka Hasta Bhujasana, or one arm shoulder pose (it not called elephant trunk pose!!!!).  It has taken a village of Iyengar teachers to teach me this pose, and I am still having trouble with execution. I am a bit girthy which contributes to my difficulty, but also my long arms don’t seem allow me to get the torque I need to lift my buttocks off the ground.

My mentoring teachers Ray and Shelley, and their more advanced student Laurie have been very encouraging and getting me to try different strategies. Even Stephanie Tencer in Toronto gave me some good tips.

I feel in the Iyengar system that the poses that give you the most problems are the ones you can teach the best. Because you literally explore 100 ways to do them, or at least some action pertaining to them. So on Friday afternoon when I get my “sealed envelope” of six poses, I shouldn’t dread it if Eka Hasta Bhujasana is on the list. I won’t have the greatest demo, but I sure will give my students a plentitude of options to get into the pose.

Many blessings to you all!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!!!”

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!

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?

 

 

 

 

Savasana: “the most difficult pose to master”

 

savasana

Savasana, or corpse pose is the bridge between the external practice to the internal practice (bahiranga to antaranga). It is the linking pose between Asana and Pranayama (breath/vital energy control). It is one of the few asanas where one can attain Pratyahara (detachment from the senses). In short, it is arguably one of the most valuable postures in Yoga. But because of its absence of physical challenge, it becomes very difficult for the aspirant to stop the mind chatter (citta vritti) which is one of the major aims of true Yoga practice. Because of this, BKS Iyengar often referred to Savasana as “the most difficult pose to master.” Here is a brief tutorial:

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Props needed are a sticky mat, a strap, and a blanket

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Lay the sticky mat flat

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And use the strap as an intersecting line. This will be a guide for the spine.

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Sit on the sticky mat with knees bent and both feet on the strap.

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Symmetrically roll the spine down the strap measuring vertabrae by vertebrae.

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When the head touches the ground see that the chin does not project back like seen in the photo. If your neck does this you need a folded blanket…

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You can now see the neck is soft here.

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Using a chopstick, the measurement should be that the forehead should be well above the chin so the crease in the neck deepens.

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Now grasp the sides of the sticky mat and push the hands towards the feet. This lifts the chest.

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Keeping the feet along the midline…

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Slide one foot out at a time

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And let both feet fall to the side.

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Now release the arms

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And take them to a 60 degree angle away from the torso

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From the base of the arms, roll them externally pressing the index finger knuckle to the floor to spread the sternal area

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Then gradually let go of all effort, closing the eyes

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To create softness in the face, and block out light, you can gently lay the strap over the eyes.

To come out bend the knees to the chest and roll to the right, propping yourself back to a seated position.

In Light On Pranayama by BKS Iyengar, he dedicates 22 pages to teaching this pose (more than any other Asana). In subsequent years he had also taught many more refinements. So my demonstration is just the tip of the iceberg.

Eating crow…and cinnamon biscuits

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After officially declaring how teaching Yoga does not make one rich, the universe keeps pounding me over the head with refuting evidence. Today another student brought me homemade cinnamon biscuits and left a note: “Michael you can heat these up and eat with butter or eat them as they are.”

Since when after Mayberry times do people actually bring you home baked goods just of the kindness of their heart? My student who brought them to me was simply grateful I did not turn on the ceiling fan near where she practices because she gets vertigo. She was very worried that I would not honor her request. What kind of Iyengar Yoga instructor would I be if I didn’t listen to my students?

So my official “paycheck” for teaching my new class so far has been one bag of fruit and one tin of cinnamon biscuits. Back in the ancient times, sadhus (wandering Yogi holymen) would receive a bowl of rice by townspeople for their teachings and practices. My bag of fruit and biscuits remind me that I am on that same path…just with updated offerings.

Of course I get paid by my studio for teaching. But if gifts like these keep coming, I may have to call my tax lady to see if I am in compliance with federal income laws. Many Iyengar teachers who are starting out like me remark how the money they make from teaching usually goes back into paying for classes and workshops. I haven’t even made enough to do that much. Perhaps when Kofi Busia rolls back into town, I will give him some homemade ratatouille 🙂

Thank you students for your kind gifts!