Tag Archives: practice

Sunday backbends

Today was a nice day to reclaim part of my practice as I have been subbing heavily for my mentoring teachers who are teaching in China. During my own teacher training years ago, my mentoring teacher Ray said that a teacher gives up part of his practice for his students. I understand how true that is as time studying to prepare for weekly classes cuts into one’s one personal sadhana. But that is the sadhana of a teacher.

This is “backbend week” (save Tuesday’s forward bend sequence for International Yoga Day), and I am working on a sequence and modifications for one of my students who has a wrist injury and another student who gets severe headaches after backends. I am grateful for Guruji’s innovations to accommodate injuries and medical conditions of all kinds.

Because of the body I have been given, backbends come fairly easily for me. It has been a blessing as I see how other struggle with this clan of poses. Because of that, I don’t practice backbends as often as other clans which I truly struggle with–namely twisting poses.

But today I cut loose and did a few cycles of Urdvha Dhanurasana at the wall. I am nursing a shoulder injury which I attribute to my sedentary desk job and hours of driving. Today, my shoulder cooperated and and gave me the freedom to push up into the classic  pose.

I have heard that injuries are a blessing for a teacher as they make one think of how to practice around it and then utilize actions that benefit and heal it. That gives much potency to one’s teaching to another student who has a similar injury. My left shoulder struggles in Gomukhasana due to a pinched nerve. But the more I work on other actions, the Gomukhasna eventually comes.

When one delves into the deeper yogic philosophy, we see that we have many sheaths of our being and that the physical body is only part of it. I find it a bit humorous that it is referred to as the “food” layer (annamayakosa) and is the most transient layer of who we really are. It is always changing.

Home practice is a charming endeavor. In between poses, my wife calls and asks me to find some cabinet clips. Being a husband is my first duty, so I help. Then back to practice. I read a few pages of Light On Yoga here, google a few photos there, then try something new. I fail, then re-check the picture, then redo. It is like doing homework with your own  body.

Home practice feels comfortable and satisfying. I am now grounded and recharged for the hectic week ahead…

 

 

Practice…an old friend

Everyone’s sadhana has its different seasons. There are times when “all is coming” and there are other times when the plateaus are like a desolate mesa in the desert. And there are times when poses which came so easily are no longer available to you. It takes years of mature practice to not get caught up in “progress” but rather be grateful that you still have a practice at at all.

I have been listening to series of talks from David Godman who is a devotee of Ramana Maharshi and has written extensively on his teachings. From time to time Godman talks about his own practice. He reflects on his meditations at Ramana-ashram where Maharshi taught:

I think what I got from sitting here apart from a lot of peace, a lot of quiet, is a cultivation of a presence inside me. You can call that presence “Bhagavan” (term of endearment of Ramana Maharshi) you can call it “grace,” you can call it whatever you like. It’s like having a recognition of an old friend inside yourself. You know its there all the time. For me that is the concrete result of doing Bhagavan’s practice in this hall.

That captures the same feeling when I get to do my own practice after I teach my morning class in the Manoa studio. This is the studio where I had my first teacher training class many years ago. This is the studio where I stood in back of class and just observed my teachers conduct class during my apprenticeship. This is the studio where I stumbled through my first assessment jittery and nervously under the hawkish eyes of three senior assessors. This is the studio where I got my first job as an Iyengar Certified Teacher. This is the studio that almost went down in flames when the neighboring nail salon had an explosion. And this is the first studio that I have grown a crop of my own students to become better practitioners.

Because of my life events in taking care of my inlaws and working a full time job, I have decided to postpone my Junior Intermediate I assessment for another year. That gives me a bit of relief to take care of family and work. Most importantly, it gives me more time to develop my own practice and teaching skills further. There may even be a trip to India in my future.

There are a slew of workshops coming up and I am looking forward to the intensity of them. Workshops always have a way of converting my predominant tamoguna into sattva guna through the fire of rajas from the senior teachers who visit. But as the wise words of the Patanjali Yoga Sutras say, at one point we have to go beyond all the gunas to reach the ultimate liberation:

IV.34 puruṣārtha-sūnyānāṁ guṇānāṁ pratiprasavaḥ kaivalyaṁ svarūpa-pratiṣṭhā vā

Until then, I will continue steadfastly on my Junior I syllabus.

 

 

Yoga is beyond body issues

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There is a great deal of talk about body issues in Western yoga. This discussion is by fed an industry called LOHAS (Lifestyle Of Health and Sustainability) which is making millions off of yoga fashion and dietary products. The latest issue of Yoga Journal has a woman who is considered “full figured” on the cover and a full article about body issues. There is another article that talks about diet. We are fed these ideas that all a practitioner needs to do is get a xyz brand yoga mat, do xyz style of yoga, eat an xyz type of diet, and viola! you fit into xyz brand of sized 5 yoga clothing, or shouldn’t worry about being sized five because you read Yoga Journal that tells you it’s okay to be full figured and practice yoga.

But yoga, when done classically, instructs you right from the beginning that your own body is not who you truly are. That may sound strange. “Of course my body is who I am…” (then ego kicks in with lengthy explanation). In classical yoga there are the concepts of Purusha and Prakrti. Prakrti means “nature” in a loose translation. Like weather, it is ever-changing and never constant. Purusha is that part of you that cannot be changed and is your “true” self. That is the part of you that witnesses all the madness your physical body puts you through. Your physical body is Prakrti. It changes every day, cells die and new cells form. Hair gets grey. Muscles get firm, then they atrophy. We age, then die.

The true aim of yoga is to cut through all the Prakrti to find the diamond that is residing inside of you. Yoga Sutra 1.4, vrtti sarupyam itaratra, means that sometimes the aspirant identifies more with the ego than the reality of his/her true splendor. By focusing on your body perception, you are caught up in the delusion of something that is ever-changing like a wild river.

In my work in the mental health field, I have encountered many clients with eating disorders and body dysmorphic issues. It is a tough mountain to overcome. In unpacking a lot of the problems these people face, it usually stems from not accepting that part of themselves that does not change. That is when they compensate by limiting their dietary intake to “fit” into what they feel should be their right size. The problem is that size is never good enough. And that perception is reinforced by the LOHAS industry.

Sometimes to get perspective, we have to look at the great masters. Ramana Maharsi. His later years were spent in a cave and he became ill and unable to ambulate. He developed tumors in his arms and refused medical treatment. His followers urged him to get medical attention to which he replied “Why are you so attached to this body? Let it go.” This is not to say one should do the same, it just show that Maharsi was not concerned about his body as it did not have much bearing on his soul.

Sri_Ramana_Maharshi_-_Portrait_-_G._G_Welling_-_1948

We should practice yoga no matter what. If you are feeling that your local studio is judging you by how you look or what you wear, chances are your local studio does not practice yoga, they practice avidya (ignorance). If this is the case, I encourage you to study the yoga texts to find out how to liberate yourself. You cannot attain liberation in a yoga class, it has to be done individually.

 

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.

 

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.

gomukhasana arms

Gomukhasana arms to open chest and shoulders

Chair downdog

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

U T in chair

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

dandasana

Dandasana maintaining lift in side chest

prop virasana

Virasana with lift in side chest

upavistha konasna

Upavistha Konasana to recirculate knees and lift chest

supta baddha konasana

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

pranayama blankets

setu bandha

Setu bandha on blocks with feet same level as hips

viparita karani

Viparita Karani (omit if menstruating and do Savasana instead)

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

legs up wall

Savasana

savasana

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).

 

 

“Your hips are sensitive to the commands of the feet” Kofi day two

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“Twenty five percent of the bones in your body are in your feet,” Kofi Busia began as he started the class in Supta Padangusthasana (reclined big toe pose). In tonight’s class, no strange sequences, but just straight up classic yoga asanas in what appeared to be a forward bend sequence. Kofi talked at length about the relationship between the feet and the hips.

He talked about how arthritis in the hips is directly related to how you use your feet incorrectly while walking. “The difference between us and our simian friends are that our feet stay rigid when we lift them off the ground,whereas a primate’s feet go limp,” said Busia as he related that concept of how we stand straight in Tadasana by using this rigidity in our feet like we do when we anticipate stepping on the ground. He talked about how in walking and running, our nervous system anticipates the “heel strike” of hitting the floor repeatedly, and how the bones slot into each other to accommodate each step.

Kofi’s sequence was subtle in how it released the hips. We did standing poses Utthita Trikonasana, Utthita Parsvakonasana, Virabhadrasana II, Utkatasana, and Prasarita Padottanasana, the rest were seated forward bends and reclined “difficult poses” like Supta Virasana and Matsyasana. In tonight’s class, I chose to to Supta Virasana without props (he does not give instructions on how to do the poses). Soon afterwards, he had us in Matsyasana as seen below.

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I love the internal process of these reclined Padmasana postures. You can literally feel every fiber of your groins release as the knees and the outer thigh get heavier on the ground. This can be painful at first, and all I could visualize were my thick thighs from years of competitive bicycle racing in my youth unwinding like a large dense python.

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Kofi then did Salamba Sirsasana and Salamba Sarvangasana in succession. He held us in Halasana forever (see Poses You Dread). I went through the whole gamut of emotions in this pose. What every Kofi was saying just sounded like listening to an Encyclopaedia Brittanica CD about hip structures playing in the background. This Halasana was so internal that I experienced glimpses of Pratyahara.

He then had us do a drop back setu bandha which I felt was very liberating. He held us here forever too.

Then, out of left field, he has us do Ardha Matseyandrasana II. I was never able to do this pose well and tonight I got my hand to the thigh! This seemed to be the target asana and the prize he was preparing us for all class.

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The twist was effective in releasing my tight back from the previous night’s class. I was able to ask him what the word he used last night for muscles. It was “mamsa” which is Sanskrit translated into flesh or meat and refers not just to the muscles, but to the ligaments and tendons. It is an aruyvedic term. Kofi appears to use many ayurvedic principles in his teaching.

There is always that sadness when class is over and another year will go by before I see Kofi again. The concepts I will take from this workshop will be that it is sometimes okay to do things in an unorthodox way when you know enough to keep yourself safe. I also have the confidence in “earning” an new posture in Ardha Matseyandrasana II.

What are the effects of today’s yoga practice one year from now?

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In Iyengar yoga, there is much about teaching the “effects” of the asana, the sequence, and pranayama. We all know the immediate effects of our practice…we feel less tension, more relaxed, our mind is less busy. But what about one hour later? Two hours later? One week later?

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There is much in nature that we cannot see or measure. Yoga obviously works the muscles and glands, but what about the subtle parts of ourselves that are beyond measurement? If we have a daily yoga practice, do these effects compound overtime like interest? Einstein said that compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe.

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Think back at a major accomplishment in your life. What were you like when you attended your first class at a university? What were you like when you walked down the graduation isle? You probably didn’t notice the difference while it was happening, but in hindsight you can clearly see the evolution.

FractalTree

When you first start yoga, it is all physical. You ache all over. You lose weight. You are calmer. You gain strength and flexibility. After time, the aches are not as intense. You can practice longer and more deeply. You start to become more aware of your body and it’s tendencies.

large drop of water

With correct practice, the impurities will start to burn away, not just from your physical body, but from your consciousness.

zozobra

With continued intense practice, they will burn more.

zozobra II

Until you are just a ball of fire.

Zozobra III

Then come the “obstacles” of yoga practice. Illness, relationships, work duties, child rearing. Has the compounded effect of practice made a difference, or does it stop? During times when you cannot do asana practice, does your yoga still stay with you?

arctic desert

I have found that yoga is very forgiving to those who have taken time away. The wave you were producing with your droplet has turned to light and is showering you with grace.

aurora bor

The Bhagavad Gita patiently reminds us: “In this yoga there is no loss of any endeavor, there is no diminution of result and even the slightest effort performed righteously saves one from the greatest of danger.”

I like the science experiment of adding cornstarch and water to a sub woofer to capture what sound “looks” like. It is more evidence that there is much more in the universe than we can perceive.

I can only imagine what daily yoga practice over years does to one’s whole being.

Yoga during the holidays? Making the impossible possible

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This year’s going to be a doozy! I have guests coming in from Germany and New Mexico. My brother is getting married. I have three extended families. Needless to say, my yoga practice will succumb to the festivities.

And that’s okay! Holidays are a special time of year where you take time out of your normal routine to appreciate family and friends. But it doesn’t mean I have to completely stop doing yoga. Here is my “blog out loud” strategy for sneaking in some yoga time during yule time.

  • Do yoga when everyone else is doing touristy things. “I will drop you off at the mall and meet you in 3 hours” (sneak to yoga class).
  • Include your family in your yoga practice. “Let’s all do stretches!”
  • Accept that less than an hour of practice will be the norm. Even 30 minutes can be enough with consciousness.
  • Break up your practice into manageable chunks. Do a 15 minute surya namasakar in the morning. A 30 minute pre lunch standing pose sequence. And a 20 minute inversion practice in the evening.
  • Do more pranayama.
  • Use laying around the house watching TV with family time to be in a restorative pose. See my post about reading the NY Times in Baddha Konasana.
  • Play cards in Virasana.
  • Does your uncle have back pain? Teach him some therapeutic applications (if you know what you are doing).
  • Teach your young nieces and nephews how to do headstand.

Being a reclusive yogi has it’s merits, but it is a very lonely place. Even BKS Iyengar shunned that approach to being a family man. In the end his family made him stronger by being able to carry on his teachings. Just as your family will make you stronger with their love and support.