Tag Archives: inversions

A few more Blakeney gems…

Before one of the classes at Laurie Blakeney’s workshop, she had us put a strap around our knees and behind the shoulder blades by the armpits. Knees are high and ankles are crossed. She said this is a common image seen with Hindu deities and she saw old pictures of Indian town leaders also in this seated configuration with strap.

About five minutes in this pose and the abdomen and groins soften tremendously. The strap also hits you in your mid thoracic making you lift your chest. I had my niece demo the pose.

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On the last night of the workshop she taught an intensive inversion intermediate level class. We worked on hand positions for Sirsasana I, II, and baddha hasta sirsasana. In her classic fashion of using her experience as a piano tuner has a vehicle for awareness, she had us utter parts of the Patanjali Innvocation while we were in these different Sirsasanas. If our voice was wavering that meant we were straining too hard. She then had us monitor the effect of our abdomen with the different hand positions. As this was a class with fairly seasoned practitioners, she encouraged us to “be very interested” in these subtleties of the postures to remain interested in Yoga, as the basic instructions which involve mere stretching cues have been rehashed ad nauseam after decades of practice.

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Baddha Hasta Sirsasana

She also did some work on the Salamba Sarvangasana I and II and Niralamba Sarvangasana I and II. Lately in my Sarvangasana practice I have felt an overwhelming panic sensation if I remain in classic Halasana for more than 30 seconds. It has been a strange phenomenon in since my prostate surgery several years ago. So rather than suffer through it, I shamelessly used a chair for halasana.

She rounded off the night by doing all the forward bend variations: Paschimottanasana, Marichyasana I, Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana, Triangmukhaikapada Paschiomottanasana, and Janu Sirasasana. She said just as a thoroughbred horse needs to to be run through the various drills, we as practitioners need to run through the different variations from time to time to stretch out our might. “But sometimes the horse starts to get old,” she said with corresponding chuckles. Can’t wait to see Laurie when she comes back next year…

 

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.

guruji pali II

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.

The King of Asanas

King of Asana

In this post I will demonstrate a safe way to practice Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Head pose, or headstand). It is called the “king of asanas” for various reasons. It is mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pratipika as an asana that will cure diseases as the practitioner builds time in the pose. Before you scoff at such claims, realize that Guruji practiced this pose well into his 90s.

First clear the room.

Sirsasana A

The setup is a folded sticky mat with the folded edge toward the wall and a folded blanket with a the folded edge toward the wall.

Sirsasana C

Now stand in Tadasana to learn the “base”

tadasana

Interlace the fingers all the way to the webbing so they are facing straight across. this is the correct hand position.

Sirsasana D

 

Now find the tops of your ears with your index finger

Sirsasana F

 

And trace it all the way to the top. This is the top of your head where you will be balancing. Make a finger nail indent so you know what part of the head to place on the ground.

Sirsasna G

Next, take your folded hands behind the skull and move your elbows in shoulder level. This is much more narrow than you think.

Sirsasana H

Now take this knowledge to the props. Kneel down and place folded fingers at wall on props and bring your elbows well in to be shoulder width.

Sirsanasa I

Place the head in cupped shaped fingers and the finger nail indent spot directly on the floor.

Sirsasna J

Tuck toes under and press thighs up toward ceiling like Downward facing dog pose.

Sirsanasa K

Walk in, bend knees and raise one leg high in the air.

Sirsasana M

Hop up and quickly straighten legs.

Sirsasana N

Press forearms down mightily, don’t let the shoulders shrug.

Sirsasana N1

For balance take one toe mound off wall and press up. Repeat feet.

Sirsasana Q

Sirsasan R

 

Then flex heels.

Sirsasana S

Then both toe mounds up and tailbone forward at the same time. You are in the classic pose now.

Sirsasana T

 

To safely come down land both heels at wall again.

Sirsasna P

Bend knees.

Sirsasana O

Come down one leg at at time.

Sirsasana M

Turn around and do adho mukha virasana with cupped shaped fingers to release the neck.

Sirsasana V

At first don’t hold for long. Just learn how to safely enter and exit the pose. You can only go up ONCE if you have not been practicing this pose for less than a year. See Inversions and Eye Problems for explanations.

That being said. Don’t attempt if you have neck problems, high blood pressure, glaucoma, or are menstruating.

10-Salamba-Sarvangasana

Also Salamba Sarvangasana must be done after this pose to calm the nervous system. See Light on Yoga for ill effects of solely doing Salamba Sirsasana without Salmaba Sarvangasana.

Inversions are a hallmark of Iyengar yoga practice and will bring many wondrous effects to your body’s many systems with regular 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.

Inversions and eye problems

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I had been teaching Salamba Sirsasana (supported head pose, or headstand) to one of my students. She had struggled hard to learn the pose, first conquering fear, then strength, then equipoise. Then another barrier came her way. Her ophthalmologist diagnosed her with low tension glaucoma. One of the first things we learn in Iyengar yoga when teaching Salamaba Sirasana is when not to teach it: in cases of high blood pressure, menstruation, and eye problems.

My wife who works as an opthalmic assistant directed me to an article (now deleted) where the author of this study painstakingly measured eye pressure in each of the inverted asanas in the Iyengar method. As expected, Salamba Sirsana is off the charts in terms of high ocular pressure. A major finding is that pressure increases the most during the first minute of the Salamba Sirsasana, then it stabilizes up to 13 minutes mark, then it increases again. This means for those who have eye problems and are wanting to try headstand “just for a little while,” that first minute can be the most damaging to the optic nerve. Here is an article with similar information to the deleted one.

So should people completely omit inversions in their yoga practice if they have eye problems? The answer is “no” as some inversions decrease eye pressure. Conversely, in Viparita Karani (inverted lake posture), the study showed eye pressure actually dropped to levels equal below that of the resting measurement.

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Viparita Karani