Tag Archives: asanas

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:

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

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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:

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

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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.

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Definitely not firelog pose!

 

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Iyengar Yoga cannot be defined

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BKS Iyengar was often quoted that he did not name his practice “Iyengar Yoga,” but that was a term his followers used to differentiate his style from others. He said at at a Guru Poornima lecture that there are many “write ups” about his teachings and that they are focused on his “physical alignment.” Guruji said that those writers did not have the discernment to tell that physical alignment is only part of the story. They were not able to tell that he was also teaching “prana-shakti” of the muscle movement which leads toward deeper aspects of Yoga. “Can you not do Dhyana (meditation) in poses other than sitting?” he retorically asked.

As a practitioner for a few years in Iyengar’s method, I can appreciate his frustration. Even more nowadays, this style is even described as “less physcial” than others like corporate driven vinyasa. And in silly blurb descriptions, like the kind you find on Yoga International, this style is just cast off as “the one that uses props and focuses on alignment.”

Very little of what passes as “yoga” now in the marketplace gives any semblance of value to the inner experience. Most now blast music as part of their “yoga workout” session, and skip Savasana altogether.  In addition, very few people actually have a home practice. And if they do, they are relying on sources like Yogaglo or other flash-in-the-pan flexible, young and lithe Youtube celebrities.

In essence, Yoga in the West is still in grade school. That is why so many are dazzled by Instagram, and not so much dazzled by Sutra-s that tell us that we are divinity in ourselves and that all the rest is a cosmic charade. I read somewhere that your “yoga age” starts when you first go to practice. With this definition, many are still in elementary school. Even more shocking, many are becoming teachers with this level of experience in the current commercialized climate.

If you read a book like The Alpha and Omega of Utthita Trikonasana, you are well aware that classroom instruction is just the first step. Just like going to grade school and learning the alphabet is the first step toward reading The Great Works. When one reads literature, one does not have to do so in a lecture, but has to do independently. Just like in asana practice, we have to use what we learned in class  to further our own practice. As practitioners in this style, we have to go beyond the physical. We have to monitor which asana-s produce certain emotional states. Which sequences give us peace when we face turmoil. Which pranayamas help us move away from the outside world and into our inner self.

Iyengar’s yoga can be deceiving to the naked eye. It appears very physical. Showing the book Light On Yoga to friends and family is often met with jaw drops at the postures toward the end of the book. That is the maya. Iyengar is using those very advanced postures to gain access to the inner self, the substance that cannot be photographed. Most cannot get beyond the physical and cannot comprehend what is not seen. But as all ardhent practitioners in this style know, Iyengar’s yoga touches all the limbs and touches all the Kosha-s.

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!

 

 

 

 

Why Sirsasana is done before Sarvangasana in the Iyengar system

Iyengar nirlamba sirsasana

My good friend and fellow blogger Irish Ashtangi brought up an excellent question: is headstand (Salamba Sirsasana) done before or after shoulder stand (Salmaba Sarvangasana)? As this question is a bit more complex than it seems, I am dedicating a blog entry address the question.

First full disclosure. I practiced Ashtanga for a brief period of six months should not be considered anywhere near an expert authority on the Asthanga system. I have experienced the First Series a few score times so at least I have some reference point to write from.

That being said, I later became certified in the Iyengar system. In my training, I was taught that Salmba Sirsasana (supported head pose) is unequivocally sequenced before Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported All Limbs of the Body pose, or shoulder stand).

First, we have to view these two asanas in terms of temperature. Salamba Sirsasana (I’ll refer to it as headstand from here to simplify) is a “heating” pose as it stimulates the nervous system. Salamba Sarvangasana (shoulder stand) is a “cooling” pose which pacifies the nervous system. Here are Guruji’s words on the subject from Light On Yoga:

Sirsasana and its cycle should always be followed by Sarvangasana and its cycle. It has been observed that people who devote themselves to Sirsasana alone without doing the Sarvangasana poses are apt to lose their temper over trifling things and become irritated quickly. (Light On Yoga page 189)

If you consider the eight limbs in logical progression, they go from the external to the internal. From this perspective, it makes sense to a practice a less stimulating pose like Sarvangasana near the end of  the practice to prepare for Savasana, then Pranayama to experience Pratyahara.

In defense of the Ashtanga system, which has Sarvangasana practiced before Sirsasana, the poses are only held for a short period of time compared to the Iyengar system. In the Iyengar system, one builds time in Sirsasana to 10 plus minutes and Sarvangasana a bit longer. From my brief practice of Asthanga, I recall the poses being held for a few breaths lasting no longer than 2 minutes. Please correct me if I am wrong as I am not an authority of the Asthanga/Jois system.

In my training, we are instructed to teach beginners Salamba Sarvangasna before we teach them Salamba Sirsasana. This is because students learn the required movements of the shoulders and the chest in Salamba Sarvangasna that they will take to Salamba Sirsasana when it is later introduced.

One last note about the sequences in the back of Light On Yoga. Most all of them start with the first pose being Salmaba Sirsasana. This has gradually changed in his later teachings, but Sirsasana still tends to show up early in contemporary Iyengar sequences. Also, inversions are more prevalent in an evening practice than a morning one. There are always exceptions to the rule depending on which “effect” you want from the practice. Thank you Irish Ashtangi for asking this question. He is an ardent practitioner and has a very inspiring blog chronicling his yogic journey.

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As a commemorative note, today marks the 13th day after Iyengar’s passing. The 13th day after death is considered an auspicious time. In your practice today, please keep Iyengar in your thoughts.

A restorative sequence for a tough week

niece in triangmukhaikapadapaschimottanasana

It has been a rough week for the Iyengar community for obvious reasons. To pick up with Guruji’s quote “My ending should be your beginning” I will continue to publish teachings on my blog to further yoga. Here is a restorative sequence for beginning students at the request of my friend Sudhanshu in Kolkata.

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Gomukhasana arms to open chest and shoulders

Chair downdog

Chair Adho Mukha Svanasna to address hamstring stiffness and further open the chest.

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Chair Trikonasana to charge legs and further open chest

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Prasarita Padottanasana stage I with blocks to get more concavity from upper back.

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Vrksasana for lift in the side chest and abdomen and to hone concentration

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Dandasana maintaining lift in side chest

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Virasana with lift in side chest

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Upavistha Konasana to recirculate knees and lift chest

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Supta Baddha Konasasna with bolster. If you don’t have a bolster use this setup of blankets.

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Setu bandha on blocks with feet same level as hips

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Viparita Karani (omit if menstruating and do Savasana instead)

If you don’t have bolster you can do Urdvha Prasarita Padasana against wall

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Savasana

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Note there is no time for each pose. Hold as long as you are getting benefit from them, but don’t overstay your welcome if you become agitated. You can even repeat poses until you feel you have gained the benefit from them as well.

Enjoy your practice and blessings to you all!

(Photo above is my niece in supported Triangmukaipada Paschimottanasana with Disney chair).

 

 

A backbending sequence for beginning students

adho mukha svan with real dog

This week’s clan of poses at our studio are Purva Pratana Sthiti (backward extensions) commonly referred to as “backbends.” Where foward bends “cool” the nervous system, backbends “heat” or energize the nervous system. Here is my lesson plan for tomorrow’s Basic I class designed for people new to yoga or who want to rework the fundamentals.

Tadasana/Urdvha Hastasna (Mountain pose with upward facing hands)

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Utkatasana (Fierce Pose)

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Adho Mukha Svanasana at wall (Downward facing dog pose)

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Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I pose)

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Chaturanga Dandasana (Four limbed staff pose)

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Bujanngasana I (Cobra I pose) notice how arms are straight

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Urdvha Mukha Svanasana (Upward facing dog pose)

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Salabhasana I (Locust I pose)

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Ustrasana (Camel pose)

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Chatuse Padasana (Four Footed Pose) note use of the strap to learn arm rolling out action

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Adho Mukha Svanasana arms and legs mat width to neutralize spinal muscles

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Savasana

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This sequence gradually contracts the back muscles which are released with the wide Adho Mukha Svanasna, so please don’t omit this pose from the sequence.  It is ill advised to do a deep forward bend immediately after a backbend. Why? Think of the spine as a wire hanger. If you bend a wire hanger back and forth it will break. Whereas if you bend it in the same direction, it gets stronger. If the back is tender after this sequence elevate legs on a chair or up the wall.

Have a wonderful practice!

Asana as a means, not an end

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We are in the age of yoga selfies. So much that it has almost become a form of spam. There are scores of blogs where people are trying to achieve this and that pose in 30 days. Yay! I did the splits, now what? Welcome to what yoga has become in the West. What if we were to discover that asana was just a way to penetrate the ego so we can see our true selves more clearly?

To put asana in context of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, it is the 3rd limb of yoga after Yama and Niyama, which are moral precepts. The 8 limbs of yoga do not come until the second book in the yoga sutras which focus on practice. And in the second book the 8 limbs of yoga are about 2/3 the way though. There are only three sutras that refer to asana, and they refer to the “state” of the citta (mind-stuff) in the asana rather than “how to.”

Were the 8 limbs of yoga deliberately placed far back in the text? Why did Patanjali only refer to asana three times in a 196 verse text? I don’t pretend to be a Sanskrit scholar. I am still quite a beginner at yoga as I have only been practicing 15 years. But my gut instinct after reading the Yoga Sutras is that Pantanjali placed asana achievement as low priority compared to the goal of having the practitioner silence the mindstuff to see his/her self more deeply and attain realization from that process.

The problem in the West is that Citta Vritti Nirodaha  (silencing the mind stuff) doesn’t Instagram well. Lululemon would not have market if Westerners valued silencing the mind instead of doing Scorpion Pose. The Wanderlust Festival would have to fire their DJs if pratyahara was taken seriously. As seen in my previous post, there was a recent study that says people would rather give themselves electric shocks than to sit silently for 15 minutes. Our society is chronically distracted. We do not value silence as a culture. We prefer doing more and more and more. Has that moved us forward as a society? It certainly has stressed a lot of people out. I see that in my job as a mental health worker daily.

So what are asanas for then? They are a means to penetrate your mind via the physical body. They are a direct laboratory to assess your inner self both physically and mentally. They build strength, increase circulation, provide physical health so the practitioner can carry out his or her dharma and be of service to the world.

And if you are going to do asanas, do them properly. Not just based on the teachings, but do them to learn about yourself. Don’t do them to show how “accomplished” you are. That is just ego and delusion. One day you will get older, and be less able, and God forbid get injured. Then what? If you have been practicing yoga properly until that point, it won’t matter. Your mind will remain still, and you will know that your consciousness has little to do with your body.