Tag Archives: Asana

What’s in a name? The subtle differences between Sukhasana and Svastikasana

Before one of H.S. Arun’s classes in this past weekend’s workshop, he mentioned that Sukhasana (happy pose) and Svastikasana (cross pose) were different poses when instructing a student about another topic. Another student asked him “you mean ‘firelog’ pose? He laughed and said “there is no such thing as a firelog pose, that’s made up.” I asked him, “what is the difference between Sukhasana and Svastikasana?” He said “it’s in the feet,” and then moved on without explanation.

In the next day’s class, he built a whole sequence around the two poses. The short of it is that in Sukhasana the feet are passive, in Svasktikasana the feet are active. But there is much more to the story than that.

Student Chris was gracious enough to model these to poses after class today. Here is Sukhasana:

IMG_2821

From this angle you see that the feet are passive.  From this next angle you see what happens to the spine.

IMG_2824

Her left knee is slightly higher than her right which causes a subtle curve in the spine, or as Arun said “it looks like the student has scoliosis.”

Now here is Svastikasana:

IMG_2822

You can see the feet are now active. That gives this corresponding effect to the spine:

IMG_2823

You can see that her knees are now even and her spine is correspondingly straighter.

So should we throw out Sukhasna because it is not as symmetrical? Of course not. One of Sukhasna’s great features is that it is passive, unlike Svastikasana. That makes it more appropriate for chanting the invocation to Patanajali, or reciting mantras as there is a receptive element to the pose.

On a side note, Svasti, or Swasti denotes “well being” in Sanskrit. Unfortunately, the symbol of Swasti was stolen and used as a symbol of hatred, whereas before it was a sacred symbol of both Asian Indian and Native American cultures.

native american

Definitely not firelog pose!

 

Advertisements

Arun back in the islands

I was lucky enough to attend H.S. Arun’s latest workshop which was just a few blocks away from my house. I have written about Arunji in previous posts. To express the magnitude of what that means for me, imagine if you studied physics and Richard Feynman gives a lecture at your friend’s house who lives nearby. Or if you like cooking and Emeril Lagasse happens to show up at your neighbor’s house and you are invited to a barbecue. For me it’s that a big of a deal!

IMG_2813

This banana tree and rusty Iyengar chair is the entrance to Val Hobensack’s home/outdoor/garage/beach studio. Val was my first Iyengar teacher years ago and still teaches a few classes a week out of her home. She graciously hosted Arun this past weekend.

I am trying to recap a few gems from the workshop. Here are some of the highlights that stuck with me:

  1. Try to emulate Sarvangasana in the pose. If you watch Arun practice, he is always lifting his ribs and taking his chin down. He says he tries to capture the “bhavana” or feeling of Sarvangasana. Not just the shape of the chest, but the internal feeling of that pose.
  2. “Take the twist out of the twist.” He said that is a Prashant quote, but he illustrated it in several of the many twists he taught. For example in Bharadvajasana, he would ask us to take our navel to the left if we were twisting to the right. It was counterintuitive to me, but the more he repeated the instructions throughout the workshop, the more it made sense internally for me in the pose. With my girthy frame, twists have always been a challenge for me. With this instruction they became much more accessible.
  3. Learn to modify poses by practicing one pose for your whole practice that day. Arun said he sometimes practices a pose like Utthita Trikonasana for an hour and a half. I asked him half jokingly if he held it for that long. He said that he will hold for one minute each side, then three minutes, then try a chair, then try a belt, then other props. This is what led him to many of his prop innovations. IMG_2815

Outside the teachings, I had a few before and after class chats with him. We share similar sentiments on the perils of the commercialization of yoga. He said he has much sadness about “beer yoga” and Lululemon’s new “Mula Bandha” underwear which he said he feels disgraces the practice. Arun is on a mission to bring authenticity back to the practice as he literally tours the world teaching. Shortly after the last class, he was on a plane to Seattle en route to Mendocino, Calif. for the next day’s class. Thank you Arunji for the wonderful workshop. I’ll try to post more insights later…

MPY is an outdated term

Seven years ago, Mark Singleton published a made-for-the-average-Joe version of his thesis in Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice which states in so many words that yoga as we know it today is less than 100 years old. This has started a whole wave of thinking that yoga is some kind of scam dreamed up by Hindu nationalists who pirated asana-s from Kerala wrestlers and Swedish gymnastics manuals. Sadly, this has also inspired a new wave of yoga commentators in pushing a hate-filled anti-Indian agenda that is critical of teaching techniques by Krishnamacharya and his disciples. It has also given a slew of yoga teacher trainings self made license to do what ever kind of contortions they want to do and call it “yoga” which has led to an epidemic of yoga-related injuries. I have been reticent to delve into this debate as I had to educate myself more on the issue before having an intelligent voice in the matter.

Recently Singleton has teamed up with researcher James Mallinson to go on a fact finding trip to India to really find out where yoga came from. In the forthcoming press about Mallinson’s recent book Roots of Yoga, he states that yoga is not exclusively Hindu, but draws from Buddhist and Jain practices as well. Just like in a rainforest, a botanist finds a mysterious leaf peeking out of dense foliage and tries to find the root of the leaf only to find it is part of much larger matrix of life from which it is impossible to find a single source, it seems as though Mallinson et al. have found themselves in a similar conundrum. I have yet to read the book, but the press that has come from the findings of this team is leaving one with more questions than answers.

Which brings me back to the point of the title of this post: MPY or Modern Postural Yoga is an outdated term. We are not sure how old asana-s are and if what we are practicing today even resembles asana-s of yoga past before photography. What some of us know who are Iyengar practitioners is that the asana-s that our teacher taught have given us far more than we bargained for when we first stepped foot in class. Iyengar’s method of teaching and asana-s that he presented are transformative to one both physically and mentally. For those of us who stuck with it for several years, the practice continues to bring us more fruit with each consecutive year. At least that has been the case for me.

I am not a scholar, but a practitioner. But being a good practitioner means one has an element of scholarship in one’s sadhana, particularly in reading the classic texts like Patanjali Yoga Sutra-s. I read several translations as I am not fluent in Sanskrit so I can get a better gist of what the Sutra-s are trying to impart. The one truth I continually glean from my readings is that when one’s mind is silent from practice, one gains insight based on one’s own reality. The true yogic knowlege is gained from direct experience. Just like when you first learned to tie your shoes without help from your parents, you were forever empowered with that skill. There are many “tied shoe” experiences with continued uninterrupted practice.

So may the term Modern Postural Yoga find its way into the lexiconic trash bin of tired phrases. The yoga we practice today is from the same body infrastructure of humanity’s several millennia. The body of 2017 reacts the postures the way the body reacted to it in the times of the Upanishads. In case you didn’t know, that is far more than 100 years old.

 

 

Jupiter’s South Pole…the great mandala

This image just came back from the NASA satellite Juno launched in 2011 to explore Jupiter. When I was a kid, I was fascinated with Jupiter from the Voyager missions. It is such a turbulent planet with a toxic gaseous atmosphere and a great storm with winds up to 400 miles per hour. Jupiter’s beauty lies in its turbulence.

It also has many moons among which is Io, a volcanic moon which is a pure firework spouting sulfur hundreds of kilometers into space. That makes it visible from Earth, as Galileo discovered it in the 1600s from the crude astronomical instruments at the time.

io

Io

I am part of a Hubble Image discussion group on Facebook on which there are serious astronomers. I am just there because I like to see the images from the universe. One scientist in the group commented that he does not like people referencing the spiritual or God when commenting on these images. To me, one can simultaneously be scientifically minded and still view the wonders of the universe as spiritual experience. In fact one who can’t do both is quite limited in my opinion.

As one gets into their yoga practice for several years, one starts to see that they are not separate from anything. The Upanisads say that Brahman is everywhere in the universe. When I see these images, I feel a deep connection, as though I am a part of them in the farthest reaches of the galaxy. The galaxy is full of wonder. Not only with its contents, but with its sheer vastness. The opening mantra of the Isa Upanishad talks about how all is infinite and perfect, and that we are very much a part of that infinity and perfection.

Carl Jung theorized about the archetypes, or images that recur throughout all of humanity. One he was particularly fascinated with was the mandala. One can see forms of mandalas in all religions. From the stained glass at in the Chartres Cathedral, to the dancing pattern in Sufi’s whirling dervishes, to Tibetan sand forms. When one sees the underside of Jupiter, one sees all of these and more.

Each ring in the photograph represents a different “belt” of clouds. Very much like the Earth’s tropics above and below the equator, these belts represent a different direction in which the weather patterns move. When we do twisting asanas like parivrtta trikonasana, our bodies take on this very same phenomenon with different fluids and gases of the body moving in spiraling patterns. When we do pranayama, the air enters our system and heats up immediately. This causes “storms” in our different bodily region and regulates our prana. When done correctly, the weather in our body is harmonious. When done improperly, like Jupiter, our nervous system becomes turbulent. We are not different than the universe. The universe is not different from us.

 

 

 

A standing pose sequence if you have minimal props

If we want to do more yoga outside the studio, it is best to be practical. I like to integrate yoga into my work day, and therefore keep a few props at my desk at work. For this sequence, all you need are a mat, a block and a strap…

 

1 Tadasana

tadasana

2 Urdvha Hastasana

urdvha hastasana

3 Urdvha Baddanguliyasana

tadasana_urdhavbaddhahastas

4 Gomukhasana Arms (use strap if you can touch hands)

gomukhasana arms

5 Utthita Trikonasana (illustration Lior Hikrey)

lior trikonasana

6 Utthita Parsvakonasana (use block if needed)

Gettysburg U. Parsvakonasna

7 Ardha Chandrasana (use block if needed)

ac IV

8 Prasarita Padottanasana (use block under head if can’t reach the floor)

Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 1.27.00 PM

9 Salamba Sirsasana (omit if mensturating, high blood pressure, or eye problems)

sirsasana iyengar

10 Dandasana

dandasana iyengar

11 Upavistha Konasana

upavistha konasna

12 Baddha Konasana (use strap around feet if you can’t reach them)

baddha konasana

13 Setu Bandha (bend knees, feet on floor if only one block)

setu bandha

14 Savasana

savasana

Enjoy your practice!

 

 

 

 

This old Pune belt

After my father-in-law passed away in May, my mother-in-law is now wanting to go to a care home which means we will have to sell our house. My wife and I are surveying this daunting task and were in decision paralysis on where to start. We decided that the first thing to do was start cleaning.

While I was straightening out my “yoga room” I came across an old Pune strap that my mentoring teacher Ray Madigan gave to me many years ago when I first started on my assessment path. Back then the strap was slightly used from the studio. Now, as seen above, it is ripped in half and heavily stained.

It reminded me of my Karate training early in life. When I was young, like 7 or 8 years old, my father enrolled my brother and I in Karate classes. We were given fresh, white belts. The theory with the karate belt system is that as you progress and practice, your belt gets stained. So the progression is white, yellow, green, purple, brown, then black (at least that was our system in the school). The “black belt” is that way because of blood, sweat, tears, and a bit of grass stains over many years of ardent practice.

So as you can see above, I am probably a yellow/green belt in yoga (using the same belt system). Obviously this took far beyond 200 hours which is the current standard of most yoga schools.

Another thing about Pune belts is that they are extremely durable. They are a light weight cotton corduroy, so to break one takes repeated beatings. I am fairly gentle with my props, so the above strap is a product of time, pressure, and repeated use. I remember the day it ripped when I was going between halasana and sarvangasana. It made me a bit sad.

Interestingly enough, I have been studying the second pada of the Yoga Sutras. This week I am focusing on II.11 dhyāna-heyās tad-vṛttayaḥ, or the states of mind produced by these klesas (ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion, and fear to death) are eliminated by meditation. Vyasa, a famous commentator, likens removal of kleshas to washing clothes by hand. First you shake the clothing removing the large dirt particles, then you scrub the clothes in soap and beat them against a rock to remove the finer dirt. If the clothes are stained so badly, you burn the garment. As meditation “burns” the seeds of kleshas and samskaras, it purifies the being. I will definitely not burn this stained strap as it is more of a marker of my progress.

As change is the only constant in life, I will be better off in not being attached to my house, or yoga room, or straps and just surrender to what is in front of me. Perhaps the years of hard work it took to get my Pune belt it that condition will help me in this next phase of my adulthood. I wonder how many years it will take me to get a “black belt?”

 

Teaching at a special event

Every now and then I take a the opportunity to teach at special events. Today was the “Plants and Healthy Living” expo at Foster Botanical Garden in Honolulu which was set up by my old friend Naomi. You never know what to expect when teaching at an unknown venue, so it is best to keep things simple.

There are so many different types of yoga styles out now, I wanted to find a way to promote Iyengar that showed the subtlest difference with the largest impact. Since this was an outdoor venue, the only props I brought were my bag of Pune straps.

I taught two 30 minute demo classes with a very basic standing pose sequence that can be done in a park setting:

Tadasana/ Urdvha Hastasana

Virabhadrasana I

Utthita Trikonasana

Vrksasana

Swastikasana

I had everyone get a strap and put it around their wrists for the urdvha hastasana action. This creates a dramatic chest profile which is hard to attain without the prop. It was well received by the attendees.

It is not until you teach people with little to no experience that you realize the value of this method. It is step by step and un-intimidating. An attendee approached me afterward and said “I have never seen warrior broken down and taught that way before, I helped me a lot.”

What I appreciate about being a teacher of this style is that instructions are given for each movement in the asana one at a time. This allows the teacher to watch and see if the instructions are taken. I feel this prevents a lot of injuries for one. Secondly, it forces the student to pay attention taking them into a focused state. This in turn shuts down the mind chatter.

IMG_2064

I passed out a few class coupons and schedules at the event to drum up some business. It is best to get students from a grass-roots level instead of mass marketing because you have a deeper sense of connection with them. The one thing I have found out about Iyengar yoga students is they tend to stick around for years once they see the benefits. Thank you Foster Garden for the opportunity to share my practice.