Tag Archives: Forward Bends

Message from Geeta-ji

This came straight from the institute (RIMYI) regarding International Yoga Day on Tuesday June 21:

 

A Theme for Your Practice

In his early days, Guruji used to practice and teach forward extensions on Tuesdays.
Forward extension asanas: Janu Sirsasana, Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana, Trianga Mukhaikapada Paschimottanasana, Adho Mukha Upavistha Konasana, Paschimittanasana, Krounchasana, Kurmasana etc.
Then the Eka Pada Sirsasana cycle: Eka Pada Sirsasana, Skandasana, Bhairavasana, Kala Bhairvasana, Chakorasana, Durvasasana, Ruchikasana, Yoga Nidrasana etc.
Finally ending with the twisting asanas such as Bharadvajasana, Marichyasana III, Ardha Matsyendrasana, Pasasana.

He would do the forward extensions for 2 to 3 minutes on each side and stay for as long as
10 minutes in Paschimottanasana.

This will be the theme for our practice on yoga day this year. Let us do asanas from this
category according to our level of practice and ability.

…Below is from IYNAUS….

RIMYI also advised us that “As regards the other events, we can open out our centres for new students to experience a class of Iyengar Yoga. This would mean following the simple asanas as listed out last year from the Preliminary Course. We can also show a film/video of Guruji’s practice, talks, teaching as that is ever inspiring.”

For those of you who would like to take up the suggestion of following a forward extending sequence suitable for early and intermediate level students, we offer the following sequence as an option. Please use any modifications you are familiar with that are suitable to your condition.
Adho Mukha Virasana
Adho Mukha Svanasana
Uttanasana
[If you have a regular practice of inverted poses, add those here.]
Paschimottanasana, feet apart
Janu Sirsasana
Trianga Mukhaikapada Paschimottanasana
Marichyasana I twisting
Marichyasana I forward bending
Paschimottanasana feet together
Upavistha Konasana
Bharadvajasana I
Marichyasana III
Ardha Matsyendrasana I
Adho Mukha Svanasana
Supta Baddha Konasana
Savasana

iyengar paschimottanasna

 

Be well, and best wishes for International Yoga Day 2016.

 

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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.

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!!!”

Forward bends calm the mind

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“Yoga ceases the fluctuations of the consciousness,” says the the second sutra in the first chapter from Patanjali. That could  not have been a more appropriate sutra for this week. It was officially the first “work week” of the year and already there are many crises on my caseload. There are also worldwide crises with the Paris bombings. The world needs yoga more now than ever before. How can we have a peaceful world if we are not peaceful within ourselves?

I was fortunate enough to take a lunch hour to devote to forward bends (paschima pratana sthiti). For many years, I was taught that forward bends have a “calming effect” on the nervous system. I was so stiff at the time that I thought the teacher was nuts. “How can my screaming hamstrings have any calming effect?!” I would say to myself.

Seasons change for one’s practice, and the more one practices, the faster that season changes. I can now say my forward bends bring me a substantial calmness internally. Even with my tight hips and groins, poses like Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana are coming better. My mentoring teachers and peers have been working on this pose and using me as a demo student. I’ve notice it is making a difference in loosening my hips and groins.

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And there is nothing like a passive forward bend like hanging from the horse in an inverted Dandasana to elongate the spine and loosen tight shoulders.

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So much in the Yoga world now is about profit, jumping around to loud music, and wearing the latest fashion. Let this be a reminder that Yoga is not about any of that. It is about stopping your mind chatter so you can see yourself more clearly. Then you can be the change the world needs right now.

Have a great weekend!

Paschima pratana sthiti for beginners

My dear friend Sudhanshu Srivastava from Kolkata has been suffering when doing forward bends. He says in Paschimottanasana (Intense stretch pose for the West side of the body as seen below) that he is not able to bend forward but only a few degrees.

paschimottonasana

This is a difficult pose for any beginner and should not be considered until two things happen: the hamstrings loosen and the abdomen softens. That takes a few years of correct practice in the Iyengar method. Otherwise there is a risk of injury, particularly tearing a hamstring muscle. This pose does not appear until the second (Intro II) syllabus which assumes the practitioner has had at least three years of practice in the asanas preceding it.

Here is a sequence of forward bends for people with tight hamstrings and a hard abdomen.

ardha uttanasana

Ardha Uttanasna with wall (hips directly above ankles, wrists on same plane as hips)

Chair downdog

Chair Adho Mukha Svanasna (note heels are pressing down)

U T in chair

Chair Utthita Trikonasna

parsvottanasna with chair

Parsvottanasna Stage I with chair and back heel pressing against wall

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Prasarita Padottanasna Stage I with blocks

rolled blanket

First roll a blanket about half way of what it is in picture…

 

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Then insert it in the crease between the abdomen and thighs in a bent knee Uttanasna. Make sure the cavity of the abdomen fills with blanket. Eventually try to straighten the leg keeping the blanket in the cavity. This will be very uncomfortable because the abdomen is tight. Do what you can.

sp mere mortal

Supta padangusthasana with belt keeping abdomen soft.

savasana with chair

Savasana with legs on chair, knees slightly in front of hips as seen above. Note that abdomen remains soft.

This is just an example of a simple forward bending sequence and should not be considered dogma by any means. My aim here is as mentioned above, to address tight hamstrings and abdominal muscles. I put a lot of emphasis on the “softness” of the abdomen because the rock hard “six pack” abdomen makes it very difficult to do forward bends due the overuse. The rectus abdomini are just superficial muscles. The muscles I am concerned with are the much deeper and stronger are the transversus abdomini.

paschimotonasna with kofi

To lastly illustrate my point, the above picture is taken at a Kofi Busia workshop a few years ago. That is me in Paschimottanasna with a little help from Kofi. I weighed about 175 lbs (80kg) in the photo and have a roundish soft abdomen. The red haired lady in the background is obviously much lighter and has a “six pack” style abdomen. That is as far as she got in the pose.

 

A simple forward bending sequence for experienced students

paschimotonasna with kofi

Some readers have requested that I give more sequences in my posts. Here is my lesson plan for tomorrow’s class. It is forward bending pose (Paschima Pratana Sthiti) week at my studio. Forward bends are nice to “cool” the nervous system during these hot summer days in the Northern Hemisphere. I provided links with some of the poses for instructions.

Tadasana with Gomukhasana Arms

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Adho Mukha Svanasana at wall

penn studio

Utthita Trikonasna

iyengar triangle

Utthita Parsvakonasana

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Parsvottanasana

parsvottanasana (2)

Prasarita Padottanasana

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Salamba Sirsasana (Use wall if new to pose. Don’t do if menstruating, have glaucoma or high blood pressure. Omit and go to next pose.)

Salamba-Sirsasana-I-BKS

Baddha Konasana

baddha konasana

Janu Sirsasana

janu sirsasana

Paschimottonasana

paschimottonasana

Halasana (Don’t do if menstruating, go to savasana instead omitting next two poses).

SS halasana

Salamba Sarvangasana (see above note).

10-Salamba-Sarvangasana

Savasana

savasana

If you do this at home it could take you between 1 to 1.5 hours depending on how long you hold and repeat the poses. If you have time constraints, please do not sacrifice savasana. For my classes I will repeat the standing poses a few times and teach to points I see my students need to work on. Inversions should only be done once for beginners, particularly Salamba Sirsasana. I started with Gomukhasana arms to get the chest opened and prepped for the stage I concave back position in the above forward bends and for the shoulder work in Salmaba Sirsasana. Have a wonderful practice!

Making the leap from the studio to a home practice

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The other night I was subbing a class and asked some of the students if they had a home practice. These were students who have been practicing for years, and their responses were a bit surprising. “I don’t know which poses to do,” one said. “I prefer just doing yoga in the studio,” another said.

I am finding that not practicing at home because of these two reasons is very common. Doing yoga without a teacher is very much like studying Spanish for 10 years in a classroom and being asked by someone from Spain where the bathroom is and drawing a complete blank. And then when the Spanish guy leaves and finds the bathroom on his own, you come up with a beautifully crafted sentence with agreeing tenses on how to find the loo.

Making a jump from studio practice to home practice is tantamount to that scene in 2001, A Space Odyssey where the caveman throws the bone in the air and it jump cuts to a large spaceship. You get a much richer experience trying it on your own! I remember when I started supplementing my classes with a home practice, my yoga experience increased exponentially.

A bit of history about my own practice. I was one of those people who picked up “Light On Yoga” got inspired, and tried the courses at the back of the book…the kind with 40-50 poses for a single practice. I remember those days. I would blast Coltrane while trying to do Parsvottanasana which I thought was a backbend in stage I because Iyengar’s chest was so open.

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Of course Parsvottanasana is actually a forward bend and the prep as seen above is to open the chest. To get to my point, I had to do the manual labor of those courses and fail miserably in my own practice before I could appreciate what my teacher was actually trying to tell me. But a magical thing happened while I was trying out those courses and could not make it past week 16 in Light On Yoga…I developed some type of internal discernment about how to sequence poses.

One of my top posts is to do Supta Padangusthasana if you cannot think of any other pose to start your practice. To develop that idea a bit further for seasoned students, I would start doing a home practice by first selecting a clan of poses on which to focus. There are Utthishta Sthiti (standing poses), Paschima Pratana Sthiti (forward bends), Purva Pratana Sthiti (Backbends), Upavistha Sthiti (seated poses), Viparita Sthiti (Inversions), Udara Akunchana Sthiti (abdominal poses), and Visranta Karaka (restorative poses). Each clan has it’s own personality and effects.

Standing poses are vigourous and are the “donkey work” of yoga. It is said that raw beginners should do at least 6 months from this clan before proceeding if their practice is regular. I would say more like 2 years for the practitioner who does yoga twice a week.

Forward bends are considered “cooling” as they calm the nervous system when done properly. However, if you have tight hamstrings, parsvottanasana (see above) is anything but “cooling” and that is why you need the prerequisite foundation of standing poses.

Seated poses are “quieting” and allow the practitioner to learn how to build time in poses. With a strong earth element in the pose, they ground the practitioner. With experience, one later uses this clan for pranayama and dhyana.

Backbends are approached with caution. The are “heating” and energizing, but you can blow a gasket (or a vertebrae) if you don’t respect this clan. It is best to start with the “baby back bends” like salabhasana before getting too adventurous.

Inversions are also approached with care. They have an assertive effect on blood circulation. If you have any blood pressure issues, you should consult your teacher and your doctor. It is also not advised for women not to do this while menstruating. Once that is out of the way inversions should be a daily practice and advised to do in the evening as they contract many of the ill effects of sitting throughout the day.

Abdominal poses can be treated more like a garnish, more than an entree and can be interspersed between poses in certain sequences. These are poses like Paripoona Navasana, and Supta Padangusthasana. However, I have been to many classes where all we did was abdominal poses.

Lastly, restorative poses are done for several reasons. I like to think of them as “repairing” myself for any mistakes I made in my other clans. In the Iyengar style, women who are menstruating should adhere to restorative practice during their cycle and omit inversions. Yoga in the West nowadays is turning into a glorified aerobics craze, and this clan allow the practitioner to start focusing on the inward aspects of the practice.

To start one’s own practice, I would chose a clan according to experience and energy level. Yoga is an art, a science, and a philosophy. By doing your own practice, you practice the art. You construct what you need to do. You explore concepts that you are curious about. You will fail. You will succeed.

My battle within: the request to sub a recently deceased yoga teacher’s class

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A few Sundays ago, I got an email that kept me up all night. It was a request from the president of the other Iyengar yoga studio on the island asking me to sub. There was a catch: the class is for a teacher who succumbed to breast cancer and passed away two weeks ago. Her services were last week.

This request created an internal conflict for me. First of all, I could not even imagine how to approach these students who are bereft of their teacher. The late teacher had taught the class up to two weeks before her passing!

The right thing to was to teach the class. I had known the teacher and she gave many years of service to the community. Yoga Sutra I.4 talks about how sometimes the seer identifies with their mind-stuff agitation and that causes pain. As you can tell, I let my mind go everywhere!

The next task was to design the sequence for the class which is advertised as “Level 1” and is an hour long. The president of the studio requested I do a restorative class, but from my counseling experience (that is what I do for a living) I felt that 10 minutes in Supta Baddhakonasana would only have the students dwell more deeply in their loss.

I considered back bends as they are good for depression. But these students are not depressed, they are just grieving. The first stage of grieving in the Kubler-Ross model is shock. I was shocked when I found out about this teacher’s death as I had known her and saw her looking healthy just a year prior. The students were probably just as shocked because they saw the quick progression of the illness on their teacher.

It is forward-bending week at my studio, and I felt that nothing is better for shock than a forward bending sequence which quiets the nervous system. So my sequence involved a few standing forward bends like Prasarita Padottanasana and Parsvottanasana. I also had them do Janu Sirsasana toward the end finishing in a not-too-long Savasana–remember I did not want them just to lie there and think about their loss.

I arrived at the locked studio 15 minutes early and there were a few students waiting. They did not say much and their body language did not indicate they wanted to socialize. Soon afterwards, the student with the studio key came riding up on her bike–it was my first yoga teacher from 15 years ago! She did not stay for class as she was attending a workshop (thank goodness, as the only thing more stressful than teaching this class, would be to teach it in front of my first yoga teacher).

I started the class with the invocation to Patanjali and informed the students that as an Iyengar community this is how classes begin. Some knew the chant, while others just stayed quiet. The air was thick with stoicism which I could not tell was coming from me or from the students or a little bit of both.

As I started with my first few poses, I even took a few stabs a humor which was met by silence. Ugggh, this was going to be a long hour! I felt much like a comedian who was bombing his act with a hostile crowd. I stuck to the sequence I laid out and got into the instructions. Once I settled into the rhythm of the class, the students lightend up and responded well to my corrections of their poses.

At the end of class I was demonstrating Savasana and had a terrible tongue slip. I said that most people just flop down and “die” in Savasana, and you have to “die formally” by rolling the spine down symmetrically. I grimaced internally at my poor choice of words. But rather than rebuke, the students all laughed heartily. For some odd reason, this was the right thing to say.

After the class, the students thanked me for teaching and commented how good the class made them feel. A few other students stayed back an processed their feelings about the deceased teacher and how traumatic it was for them to watch her deteriorate each week. She had taught the last class in a wheelchair with assistance from another teacher and she could barely talk.

Waiting for me after class was my wife and my hanai niece Sasha. This was supremely normalizing. My niece was happy my wife bought her the “Frozen” dvd, and we all went to the Old Spaghetti Factory for dinner. When I returned home, waiting for me in the mailbox was my diploma signed by BKS Iyengar. Perhaps this was my final rite of passage before becoming fully certified. May my colleague rest in peace and know her teaching has brought peace to many students in her community. I would also like to thank her for the opportunity of teaching her students.

diploma