Tag Archives: Iyengar

Sequence as Mantra

It may not be necessary for all yoga practitioners to have a mantra practice. However, I do feel if you are earnest in your practice, you tend to develop one anyway as a consequence. Most Iyengar practitioners have had some exposure to the invocation of Patanjali, which is normally chanted before class. After Iyengar’s passing in 2014, some may have even heard the Guru Mantra which has been added to the end of the Patanjali Invocation.

Iyengar said a curious thing in one of his many writings to the effect that doing asana is like doing japa, or a practice of repeated sound forms or mantra-s. As I am heavily subbing for my teachers this month who are in China doing a teacher training, I have been writing out as many as three times as many sequences to prepare for classes.

Writing a sequence is much like writing an essay, or music composition. It is best to start with a theme. I have been taught to stay within a “clan” of poses or poses of a similar action. For example, standing poses or back bends or abdominal poses. There is a definite beginning, middle, and end to each good sequence. There is also a “sirsasana” and “sarvangasna” in each Iyengar sequence, even though you may do something in lieu of those poses. Typically, dwi pada viparita dandasana is substituted for sirsasana, and setu bandh is substituted for sarvangasana.  I have been studying long enough to see that all rules can be broken, but it is best to stay within logical limits unless there is a deliberate effect you are trying to achieve through the sequence.

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As I utter my daily mantra-s I notice too that they have a logical beginning, middle, and end. Take the Ganesh mantra of Om Gam Ganapataye Namah. Most of the times mantra-s begin with the Pranava or OM. Then there is a seed syllable like “Gam.” Then there is a name of the diety Ganapataye.” Then the ending “Namah” which means this is not my “self”  or not my “ego.”

It is said if you utter a mantra enough times, you develop the siddhi of that mantra, or obtain the power that it beholds. Not an easy task. Some mantra-s are said to have be uttered thousands of times before this takes place.

However, if you do a sequence only a few times, you immediately understand its benefits and its limitations. In essence, the “siddhi” of the sequence is revealed to you much sooner than in the mantra practice.

As pictured above, I write my sequences in spiral notebooks and file them away once the book is completed. I have dozens of these filed away through my years of teaching. I like to look in the old ones to see where my practice and teaching have developed, or more importantly how they have stagnated.

Many blessings!

 

 

 

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!

 

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!

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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…

Ducks!

Hi all! I had taken about a month or so off writing when my dear friend Sonia encouraged me to start posting again in a kind email. The nice thing about not writing for a living is you can take a hiatus when your inspiration is lowered, or you simply have ran out of ideas to post about. In the past month we had unusually hot weather and low rainfall in Hawaii. I am finding a symbiotic relationship with my garden and my writing habits. In short, when my garden isn’t producing, I get writer’s block. Happily, a cold weather front came through the islands bringing lots of rain. So here are my fingers flailing on my keyboard again 🙂

As far as my yoga practice, I bit the bullet and signed up to take my Junior Intermediate I assessment this year. It is a bit scary to be going up for assessment this year. Compared to how I have been normally practicing for the past several years, this year would definitely land more on the mrdu end of the meter. I will let those who study the sutra-s figure out what that means.

That doesn’t mean that I haven’t practiced though. I still teach all my classes and take some time when I can to get through a sequence or so. And I just got finished with a workshop with Laurie Blakeney who is now the IYNAUS assessment chair. In addition, I still do my mantra practices in the morning and evening. I honestly don’t see how I can get through the day without them.

My mentoring teachers are gracious and wrote me recommendations which are needed for the applications. They have been understanding of my family and personal needs this past year which has drastically changed my ability to regularly practice evening classes at the studio with them. I will post updates about my progress towards this goal. Just don’t be too hard on me if things don’t go the way they should. The J-one syllabus is tough!

As far as my garden, it continues to enrich my life in ways I never realized. I remember reading one of Masanobu Fukuoka’s books and he said that he would regularly get visits on his farm/garden from ducks who would graciously poop on his plants providing wonderful fertilizer. I felt kind of sad when he said they built a big highway by his property and the ducks could no longer cross safely, so he was subjected to spread his own pelleted chicken manure in their abscence.

Yesterday I went outside in my garden and found these two hooligans (see picture above) waddling about in my garden. They are ducks from the nearby marsh. My wife ran and grabbed some bread and fed them heartily. Don’t worry Home Yoga Practice fans, I won’t
“duck” out on another month without posting 🙂

Saying bye to an old friend

Tonight I attended services for Evelia Pineda Torres, who succumbed to breast cancer two weeks ago. The event tonight was a celebration of Evelia. There were about 250 people who gathered at the Elk’s Club in Waikiki in a beautiful sea side ceremony.

Even though it was a somber occasion, I was happy to see a lot of faces I haven’t seen for years and a whole lot of new ones. I was in sheer awe of the breadth of Evelia’s influence on not just the O’ahu yoga community, but other communities as well on our island. For example, there was a large contingent of Ultimate Frisbee enthusiasts. Evelia was a massage therapist and would offer the frisbee participants massages during competitions. She was well remembered by that group.

She was also an avid hiker and many who shared the trails with her were in attendance as well. Not to mention her neighbors, and family who flew in from her native Mexico. Her husband was surrounded by love and and support from her large community.

I have know Evelia since 1999-2000 when she was a student with Daws, my original yoga teacher. I remember her back then doing yoga-nidrasana, which is a pose where you have both legs behind your head lying on your back. That was her practice back then, and she had evolved even more through the years.

Many at the services said they were shocked when they found the news that she had stage four breast cancer which was announced in December. She continued to teach classes until just after Christmas. Her students remembered her as a strong teacher who challenged them, but also showed a tremendous amount of compassion and was encouraging to new students.

One of the ceremony’s speakers said that a theorem in physics is that energy never dies, it just gets transformed. Evelia’s light burned brightly in this plane, I’m sure she continues to radiate her divinity on her next journey. She will be very missed here on Earth.

*featured image courtesy of Iyengar Yoga Silent Dance Center Facebook page

 

Nose to the grindstone

My teachers are in Pune for March and that means subbing for me. I was not able to sub as much this month as I did when they went to China six months ago because of new care giving duties. The woman who was helping back in October found another job, and my wife and I have been tag teaming like parents to get my mother-in-law to daycare and other duties.

I do have to admit I got a bit burned out when I subbed last October which meant I taught upwards of eight classes per week. Of course that was coupled with a lot of personal loss. Now I will be teaching about 5 classes per week. Not as intense.

The good thing about my studio is that the next crop of teachers in training will get opportunities to assist with classes which takes a lot of pressure off. They are the cream of the crop of my teacher’s classes and it will be exciting to see how they develop as teachers themselves. Teaching is an entirely different skill set than practicing.

My teacher Ray left us all a nice note at the studio to take time to work on our own Sadhana even when we are subbing. It was a gentle reminder. As yoga teachers we have to take care of ourselves. It seems like a no brainer that we would, but I have seen a lot of teachers neglecting their own health and relationships to teach insane schedules in addition to having a job and families.

Balance is always something I try to fight for. The universe can sure flick a lot of responsibility your way. A good practitioner can manage, but must be constantly vigilant about conserving one’s energy.

So I am looking forward to the challenges of this month. I look forward to seeing students I haven’t seen for a while in addition to new faces. Hopefully I can maintain the standards of my teachers and even teach their students something new. But the main service is keeping our humble studio moving ahead in the absence of my teachers.

Many blessings!

 

 

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.