Tag Archives: Props

This old Pune belt

After my father-in-law passed away in May, my mother-in-law is now wanting to go to a care home which means we will have to sell our house. My wife and I are surveying this daunting task and were in decision paralysis on where to start. We decided that the first thing to do was start cleaning.

While I was straightening out my “yoga room” I came across an old Pune strap that my mentoring teacher Ray Madigan gave to me many years ago when I first started on my assessment path. Back then the strap was slightly used from the studio. Now, as seen above, it is ripped in half and heavily stained.

It reminded me of my Karate training early in life. When I was young, like 7 or 8 years old, my father enrolled my brother and I in Karate classes. We were given fresh, white belts. The theory with the karate belt system is that as you progress and practice, your belt gets stained. So the progression is white, yellow, green, purple, brown, then black (at least that was our system in the school). The “black belt” is that way because of blood, sweat, tears, and a bit of grass stains over many years of ardent practice.

So as you can see above, I am probably a yellow/green belt in yoga (using the same belt system). Obviously this took far beyond 200 hours which is the current standard of most yoga schools.

Another thing about Pune belts is that they are extremely durable. They are a light weight cotton corduroy, so to break one takes repeated beatings. I am fairly gentle with my props, so the above strap is a product of time, pressure, and repeated use. I remember the day it ripped when I was going between halasana and sarvangasana. It made me a bit sad.

Interestingly enough, I have been studying the second pada of the Yoga Sutras. This week I am focusing on II.11 dhyāna-heyās tad-vṛttayaḥ, or the states of mind produced by these klesas (ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion, and fear to death) are eliminated by meditation. Vyasa, a famous commentator, likens removal of kleshas to washing clothes by hand. First you shake the clothing removing the large dirt particles, then you scrub the clothes in soap and beat them against a rock to remove the finer dirt. If the clothes are stained so badly, you burn the garment. As meditation “burns” the seeds of kleshas and samskaras, it purifies the being. I will definitely not burn this stained strap as it is more of a marker of my progress.

As change is the only constant in life, I will be better off in not being attached to my house, or yoga room, or straps and just surrender to what is in front of me. Perhaps the years of hard work it took to get my Pune belt it that condition will help me in this next phase of my adulthood. I wonder how many years it will take me to get a “black belt?”

 

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An afternoon with Bharadvaja and Matsyendra

After work I had a bit of time for practice this afternoon. I have been subbing heavily and taught eight classes this past week! Needless to say my personal practice has been neglected. Partly because of lack of time and partly because of sheer exhaustion. I absolutely love teaching, but it takes a lot of energy to do that many classes coupled with a full time job and family duties.

As I approached my mat, I wanted to work steadily and not strenuously. After supta padangusthasana, I was inspired to do twists. I started light, with Bharadvajasana I which is a simple upper back twist. I then remembered one of Laurie Blakeney’s classes where she spent 45 minutes on Jatara Parivartinasana, and thought I would have a similar practice with one or two twisting poses.

I haven’t done much Bharavajasana II since my assessment and not sure why. I remember it was one of my most challenging poses as I could only grasp the foot on one side and not the other. After trying it I realized I cannot grasp either foot now. So I went back and forth between the two sides using a strap around the foot. While I was preparing for my assessment, I neglected to notice how nice Bharavajasana II is for the hips and lower back. Even though I ended never finding my foot, the going back and forth was a satisfying practice. Below is Faeq Biria’s flawless pose.

faeq bv 2

I then kneaded Ardha Matseyandrasana into the mix. That is another challenging twist for me. I aspire to have a pose like Birjoo Mehta as he has a similar build than me and can easily negotiate the pose with a few choice props.

birjoo ardha matseyadrasana

I can’t even get my hand to the knee, so I use a strap around my front foot and hold that.

The nice part of ardha matseyandrasana is it gives a strong spine twist complete with “cracking.” It reportedly does wonders for the gastric region as well.

I found that the constant repetition for one hour in these two poses (sometimes one after another, and sometimes two times each) and losing track of how many I have done, I sensed that tato dvandvānabhighātaḥ state mentioned in the sutras where one is not concerned about the dualities. It didn’t matter if I caught my foot in either poses, just the practice was enough to reach the mental state.

It is interesting to note that Bharadvaja, of whom the asana is named, was one of the authors of the Rg Veda which is one of the world’s oldest texts (1700-1100 BC). He was considered a rishi who attained extraordinary scholarship and had a powerful meditative practice. Very fitting that studying and reaching a peaceful state can both be achieved in the pose dedicated to him.

 

Finally meeting the “prop master,” then “teaching” in his class

As far as Iyengar workshops in Hawai’i there are seasons of feast of famine. Let’s just say this past month has  been like “Thanksgiving” as two senior teacher workshops overlapped each other: last week Laurie Blakeney, and this week H.S. Arun. I have been fortunate enough to be able to attend a little bit of both. I finally met H.S. Arun at his book signing at Val Hobensack’s backyard studio in Kailua over the weekend. Arun remembered my blog post I wrote two years ago.

I attended his class yesterday. My blogging friend Luci Yamamoto (Yogaspy) gave me a primer on his classes and said it is okay to take pictures, so I kept my phone handy and snapped away at some of his beautiful demos using various props the way props aren’t supposed to be propped. It was nice to see how he actually taught the poses, as until now I have only relied on his photos. He made a nice adjustment in chair trikonasana by bending the elbow and holding the side rail of the chair back. Whenever I try to teach this, I get fouled up by varying arm lengths and chair sizes. Bending the elbow is an elegant solution.

IMG_1763He also taught Virabhadrasana II with the strap on the outside of his foot. This added a strong sense of the “earth element” on the back side of the pose and gave a sense of how to lift the torso from the armpit chest from the strap side.IMG_1770

As fate would have it, he asked if there were any teachers in the class after doing Virabhadrasana I with a strap. A few of us raised our hand, and he pointed at me and said “go in front of the class and teach Virabhadrasana I.” I took a deep breath and taught the complete classic pose with demo. I think that is the first time I was asked to spot teach in front of a room full of students. It brought back memories of my apprenticeship when I would be summoned by my mentoring teachers to teach a pose in class. Arun gave me a few nice corrections on my teaching the pose as I said “bend the knee.” He suggested to instruct lowering the buttock and let the knee follow with the buttock moving faster. Inside my head I felt my teaching was very dry and basic after a week and a half of hearing brilliant instruction from senior teachers. Despite that, most of the students did the pose well based on my instructions.

Arun finished class in a sophisticated setu bandha setup. He pointed to a plate of Iyengar in Sarvangasana and made note of the hand placement. He said that eventually, the sequence is to drop back into setu bandha in the sarvangasana hand position as seen below.

setu bandha iyengar

The way setu bandha is normally taught to is with a single block under the sacrum. He used two blocks to mimic the placement of the hands in classical setu bandha. He gave options to move the blocks to the kidneys, sacrum or lower buttocks for different effects. I found the kidney placement quite soothing.

IMG_1805

 

On a side note, it was very nice to connect with Val Hobensack again. She was my original Iyengar teacher from many years ago. She spent many patient years hammering my poses even before I was capable of listening to her detailed instructions. Before moving to Kailua, she would teach out of her living room in her Diamond Head home. And thank you Robin Mishell for being instrumental in organizing this wonderful workshop!

Clearing up a few misconceptions about Iyengar yoga

Sayanasana-Yoga-Pose-BKS-Iyengar

Now that the world’s attention has focused more on Iyengar yoga since his passing, I would like to take this opportunity to clarify some misconceptions about this style that I have seen in various blogs and social media.

Misconception #1: Iyengar yoga is prop based.

First, pick up a copy of Light On Yoga. You won’t find a single prop in his presentation of over 200 asanas…save a blanket and bench and a Noelle Perez-Christiaens. Iyengar designed the use of props to get students further into certain actions of the pose, and for those who could not otherwise attain the pose without supports. Further prop refinements, particularly in Salamba Sarvangasana (supported all limbs pose, or Shoulderstand) uses blankets for safety issues.

When Iyengar teachers go for assessment, we are advised to do and teach asanas without props in the middle of the room unless otherwise specified. Props are only used to get the student to do the correct “actions” of the classic asana. Once the actions are learned and mastered, we get rid of the props.

That being said, the use of props is to allow us to spend more time in asana. In an interview, Iyengar says that the Lion-diety Narasimha inspired him to use straps as devotional statues show that he used the prop to sit in meditation for long periods of time.

bronze-narasimha-a

Misconception #2: Iyengar teachers are mean.

Iyengar was quite stern in his teaching. One of my students who took a class from him in the 80s when he visited Hawai’i could not remember what he taught, but she did remember that he was strict. We are taught to say instructions in a verb-noun format like “extend your arm!” This may have a “drill sergeant” sound to it, but when you are in a precarious spot in an asana would you rather hear “softly guide your inner spirit into the pose” or “press your thighs up to take strain off your neck?”  One senior teacher said that once class ended, Iyengar was the nicest man you’ve ever met. Is the photo below that of a “mean” teacher? Don’t confuse “strict” for “mean.”

Iyengar coconut water

Misconception #3: Your first Iyengar class will tell you everything there is to know about this style.

In our studio, we have a five week cycle of classes. Week 1 is standing poses, week 2 is forward bends, week 3 is backbends, week 4 is miscellaneous which usually covers twists, and arm balances, and week 5 is restorative and pranayama. For the person who just shows up one time on restorative week, they will think all Iyengar yoga is about is lying around and breathing. Conversely if they come only on standing pose or backbend week, they will think we are too physical. It will take a student about three months of regular practice just to understand the basic underpinnings of the system. In our fast food Yelp culture, three months is too long. We demand results now! Iyengar yoga is quite subversive to Western culture. It requires discipline. It requires time…like years not days or months.

Misconception #4: Iyengar yoga is for old people.

I will admit that there tends to be more older people in Iyengar classes than in other styles. Early in the US yoga craze, there was a studio who would send all of its prospective teachers to  an Iyengar teacher who taught in the same area. All the prospective teachers were young and lithe and new to yoga. I would hear them all complain that there were too many “old” people in the class. When it was time for Sarvangasna, the younger students all had a banana shape, whereas the “old” students had straight spines and were not as jittery in the pose. Many of the prospective teachers did not return. What they did not know is that many of the “old” students had been practicing since their 20s or 30s and were well into their 50s and 60s.

Older people are drawn to this style for several reasons. The first is that it is safe. Teachers take great pains to learn how to get students safely in and out of poses and to make modifications for those who cannot attain the pose. Secondly, it is a discipline. It takes the patience of a mature practitioner to understand the depth of this style. As mentioned before, this does not come overnight. Lastly, the “old” people in class are the ones with the best poses. In Light On Yoga, Guruji is in his 50s.

That being said, our studio has a “yoga for kids” class. There is also a famous class at RIMYI on Sundays that caters to children only.  In my instruction to my nieces who are 3 and 8, I have found that they love to use the props and find the practice challenging.

Sasha ropes

Misconception #5: Iyengar classes are for injured people

There is a part of our practice that deals with therapeutics. We have many sequences to address particular ailments. There is even a “medical class” taught at RIMYI. In a sense, that has clouded the perception that this style is for injured people. I find it sad that this is the only way people find this style of yoga. The reality is that asanas when done properly are healing. But the teachings show us to get beyond that and venture to the inner work of the parts of us that are beyond injury: the breath the mind and the soul.

Misconception #6: Iyengar yoga is slow and boring

Iyengar yoga, when taught properly, is more instructional than experiential. The idea behind this style is eventually the practitioner will do a home practice to further what was learned in class. That is when you truly experience the beauty in this teaching. In an era of power vinyasa yoga, our classes appear slow. There is a part of our practice where Surya Namaskar is done, it’s just not every class. As seen above, there are many areas of this style. Some are faster than others.

This style is anything but boring. I have over 60 posts and have not even scratched the surface of this subject. The famous late teacher Mary Dunn would comment that the learning curve for Iyengar yoga is always straight up. There are no plateaus to the depth of this teaching.

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 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).

 

 

Some tips on how I survived assessment…and passed

 certification

Next month starts the assessment season in Iyengar yoga. There are still less than 1,000 certified Iyengar teachers in the US. This low number reflects how difficult it is to get though the whole assessment process. Since I am not as keen in my practice as others, it took me four years once I began my apprenticeship.

Getting certified in this style requires one to be a student in the Iyengar for at least 3  years. Then, the student has to find a mentoring teacher and a recommending teacher that are at least Junior Intermediate level. One then has to apprentice with those teachers for at least two years and not mix styles.

There is a syllabus of poses one has to adhere to. The Introductory I syllabus has 32 poses that initially look mockingly simple compared to other styles. But they are not. In the apprenticeship, one has to learn everything there is to know about those poses and how to teach them to somebody who just walked in the door without every attending a yoga class in their life. You cannot get away with instructions like “feel your breath as you fold forward…” You have to instruct how to get into the pose classically from the base up.

After a year of apprenticeship, there is the first assessment. This does not mean you are certified. Passing this means that you are now eligible for certification. It is a two day assessment.

The first day there is a demonstrated practice where you are observed by senior teachers. An official just says the name of the pose in Sanskrit, and the assessors watch what you do. You are rated on the quality of your practice. If you are injured or cannot do a pose, you have to show how your are working in the pose to your capacity. After the demonstrated practice is a demonstrated pranayama practice which is observed in a similar way. There is also a one hour written exam which covers the required readings from the syllabus.

The second day is the teaching skills portion. IYNAUS has recently revised this for the Introductory I from 40 minutes to 30 minutes. When I took the assessment, I had to teach 6 poses in 40 minutes from my syllabus that were given after day one. The only sure pose will be Salamba Sarvangasana (supported all body pose, or shoulder stand).

If that is passed, you have two years to complete the Introductory II portion. Passing this means you will be certified as an Iyengar Yoga Instructor. The Intro II syllabus has 42 poses with Salamba Sirsasana (supported head pose, or headstand) being the one sure thing on the teaching skills portion. The intro II is the same two day format with a 40 minute teaching skills portion.

For those who are approaching this daunting task, here are a few things that helped me survive…

1) Teach to what is in front of you, not what you are thinking in your head. In such a high stress situation, you have to remain focused. It is best to focus on watching your students and instructing them based on what you see, rather than trying to rely on your “script.” It is actually very grounding to tell someone to move a certain way, and having them do it.

2) Do a “props drill.” On days when you are too exhausted to practice, go through your syllabus and just arrange the props as quickly as possible for each of the poses. Some officials read quickly in the demonstrated practice and that does not give you much time to set up. By continuing these drills, it helps you set up without going through a mental brick wall.

3) Research your venue site, and notice the shape of the room and the types of props they use. Some studios have vast wall space, some use only wooden blocks, some use only Pune blankets, some have weird chairs, get to know the peculiarities and practice with those props.

4) Get to your venue site early, and take some classes at the studio if allowed. This will give you a good idea of how to use the space for certain poses and get to know the props better. The more familiar you are with the surroundings, the more comfortable you will feel during assessment.

penn studio

5) Most importantly, try to get enough rest each night before the assessment. This may be an impossible task, but sleep is very important for your level of performance. It is better to sleep than to cram.

Best wishes to all candidates!