Tag Archives: salamba sirsasana

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!!!”

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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.

 

Inversions and eye problems

Image

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.

Image

Viparita Karani