Tag Archives: standing poses

Why this is a perfect Virabhadrasana II

In this age of selfies we are inundated with people doing “advanced” yoga postures. This is a picture of a younger Geeta Iyengar taken years before digital photography. She is doing  Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II), a “basic” standing pose. But she is doing it with mastery few could match. I will show different segments of her posture that show why this one of the best Virabhadrasana II photographs I have seen….

The Base:

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 9.46.12 PM

The first thing that comes to mind in her posture is how wide her stance is. It seems infinite.

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 9.41.34 PM

Notice the outer edge of her foot is pressing down. That is keeping her from slipping on this oriental carpet. No sticky mat needed.

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 9.41.45 PM

The knee is at a 90 degree angle and the femur bone appears parallel to the ground.

The Torso:

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 9.50.25 PM

Despite the asymmetry of the legs in Virabhadrasana II (one straight leg, one bent knee leg), her torso is even and side ribs are lifted and shoulders are down.

The Arms:

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 9.42.07 PM

The level wall makes a nice point of reference for the arms. Notice how one arm is slightly above the other. That is not a mistake. The slight elevation of the arm gives the pose a sense of lightness. In your own practice, try level arms versus the bent leg arm slightly lifted and you’ll notice a huge difference in the prayatna shaithilya (effortless effort) aspect of the posture.

The internal practice:

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 10.01.04 PM

Virabhadrasana II is a strenuous pose. If it is held for more than a minute, fatigue rapidly sets in. It is not known how long she has been in the posture, but the softness of her countenance shows that she could stay for a long time. Her posture not only shows effortless effort, it shows the iconography of the spirit of a warrior. Geeta is certainly a warrior as today she continues to teach at 70 years of age.

Thank you for sharing this photo with the world!

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 10.13.36 PM

Advertisements

The element of Prithvi in standing poses

One unique feature about Iyengar yoga is that beginning students are taught Uttishta Sthiti (standing poses) first before learning other clans of Asana-s. From a layperson’s perspective, this may sound counterintuitive. Shouldn’t beginners start with seated postures which require less physical effort? After a few years of practice, and a few more years of teaching, I am starting to see clearly why this is the optimal method for beginners to start.

Standing poses are the “donkey work” of Yoga as my mentoring teacher is fond of saying. They require tremendous energy when done properly. They correct defects in wobbly, weak legs and inflexible hamstrings. They safely teach “alignment” which is now becoming a much “maligned” term in the modern Yoga world.

For those beginners with stiff joints in the legs, seated poses can be a nightmare. Have you ever seen a beginning student with tight groins sit on the floor in Swastikasana? Knees are up and the sacrum is bulging out with a hunched back. To correct a student in this position takes much effort: they have to get up, get blankets, reposition.

This is not the case in standing poses. If a student has a hunched back in Utthita Trikonasana, give an instruction. If the instruction isn’t received, manually adjust, or add height via a block. Worst case, take them to a wall or tresler. Not much effort is needed.

Now that I am starting to revisit much of the philosophical teaching of yoga, namely the Panchamahabhutas (five elements), it is clear why we start with standing poses before attending to “advanced” Asana-s.

Standing poses correspond with element of Pritvhi, or Earth. They are “grounding.” They are solid. They build foundation. They are tangible. They can be held for long periods of time. In short, they teach discipline which is becoming rarer these days.

Correspondingly,  the earth element absorbs unwanted qualities from the other elements: water, fire, air, and space. If this sounds too esoteric and new agey, just remember the last time you had do deal with someone who is “spacey” or has a “fiery” temper. The elemental tendencies are very real in people if we are not too much in our own head to “see.”

Standing poses slow the mind down and quiet it. You may not feel that way when doing Parivritta Parsvakonasana for more than 30 seconds, but wait for the after effect. I notice the quality of Savasana in my students is much more profound after standing poses then they are after restorative/pranayama.

parivrtta parsvakonasana

On a deeper level, the earth element corresponds with the Muladhara Chakra, the root. To manage this Chakra properly, it is said one can build a platform of dispassion (vairagyam) to create stability on one’s yogic journey. It is advised that raw beginners do at least six month of daily standing poses before attempting inversions. That may sound harsh and dogmatic, but the standing poses teach the legs how to remain stable even when there is no earth underneath them as is the case with inversions.

Muladhara

A standing pose sequence accessible to everyone

Standing poses, or Utthistha Sthiti, are the foundation of any good asana practice. They are accessible to anyone and allow the practitioner to work on the fundamentals that come up later in more “advanced” poses. Here is a standing pose sequence that is accessible to most people. I have provided links to instructions for some of the asanas.

Tadasana

tadasana

Urdvha Hastasana

Screen Shot 2014-02-11 at 4.16.30 PM

Utthita Trikonasana

shin triangle pose

Utthita Prarsvakonasana

Screen Shot 2014-01-31 at 10.34.44 PM

Vrksasana

Screen Shot 2014-02-11 at 4.06.47 PM

Ardha Chandrasana

ac IV

Prasarita Padottanasana

Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 1.27.00 PM

Chatuse Padasana (use a strap over the shins to get greater access to proper shoulder action)

Chatuse padasana 9

Urdvha Prasarita Padasana

Screen Shot 2015-01-21 at 2.22.39 PM

(illustration courtesy IYAGNY)

Savasana

IMG_0381

Do this sequence according to your schedule. It can take 45 minutes to 1.5 hours depending on how many times you repeat the poses. Always allow at least 10 minutes for Savasana. A question I get a lot as an instructor is “how long should I hold the poses?” Each pose has a different effect and requires different actions. In addition, everyone is built differently. So the common answer is to try the pose, and come out. Then assess how difficult or easy it was, then try again and stay according to your assessment.

Have a wonderful and blessed practice.

A sequence for raw beginners

During Iyengar’s trip to China a few years ago, he layed out a sequence for those who are fresh to yoga. He explains that all the actions in these asanas are the building blocks for furthering one’s practice. If you have never done yoga before, these are the poses from which to start. Here is the sequence, click on links for how to do each pose:

Tadasana

tadasana

Utthita Trikonasana

iyengar triangle

Utthita Parsvakonasana

Screen Shot 2014-01-31 at 10.34.44 PM

Prasarita Padottanasana

Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 1.26.40 PM

Parsvottanasna

parsvottanasana (2)

End with Savasana

savasana

 

This sequence appeared in an article by Senior Teacher Manouso Manos in the Fall 2012 Yoga Samachar. He says that  “It brilliantly links actions throughout the class and challenges practitioners to carry some actions from pose to pose and to change others–because it teaches straight leg and bent leg actions; it teaches twisting principles as well as stability; and it connects practitioners to their feet and composes the entire body into a cohesive unit.”

If you are brand new to yoga, I would try this sequence daily for a month. It can take between 15 to 30 minutes depending on your availability to practice. Try to devote at least 5 minutes to Savasana and gradually build up to 10. Never omit Savasana, it is the most powerful asana to link to the higher states of the eight limbs.

 

Making the leap from the studio to a home practice

Image

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.

Image

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.

The geometry of Utthita Parsvakonasna

Image

Utthita Parsvakonasana, or Extended Side Angle Pose is a prism of geometric shapes. Like a dynamic ramp, there is one crisp line from the base of the foot all the way to the finger tips. There is also a 90 degree angle in the leg that is difficult to properly attain without discipline from the practitioner. It is the pose I chose for my cover photo while I was visiting the battlefield of Gettysburg shortly after my Iyengar assessment in Pennsylvania.

I will present the classic asana the way I learned from my teachers.

First start in Tadasana.

Image

Jump the feet 4 to 4.5 feet apart (1.25 Meters) like in Utthita Trikonasana (see previous post). This is called Utthita Hasta Padasana. Notice I am using straps to illustrate how the wrists are above the feet when the distance is correct.

Image

Rotate the left foot to the right and the entire right leg to the right side (see previous post). This is Parsva Hasta Padasana.

Image

From here, keep the left leg firm as you bend the right knee. The knee should come over the ankle to form 90 degree angle. As a teacher, I look to see if the student’s femur bone is parallel to the ground.

UP 1

This is a common mistake I see which can be dangerous for the knee. When you bend the knee past the ankle, it puts too much load on the joint.

UP 2

To correct this, you need a longer stance. Get into the habit of moving the back leg to adjust as it is not bearing as much weight as the bent leg.

Screen Shot 2014-01-31 at 10.49.21 PM

Here is another mistake, not bending the knee enough.

UP 3

This may be because your stance is too long, or you are not bending enough. Remember, the femur bone should be parallel to the ground. If this much knee flexion causes you pain, use a chair using the natural 90 angle to adjust your pose and support weight.

UP 4

To enter the pose from here, keep the back leg firm while extending your right arm up to lift the chest.

UP $

Like in Utthita Trikonasana in the last post, extend your arm to the side wall instead of the floor to get LENGTH from the tailbone to the tips of the fingers. When you are fully elongated take the hand down to the brick or the floor on the OUTSIDE of the ankle.

UP 5

Make sure the right knee has contact with the right arm.UP 7

If the knee is dangling in space, it creates problems for the joint.UP 8

The most important part of the pose here is the thing you cannot see…the outer edge of your left foot. PRESS IT DOWN.

Screen Shot 2014-01-31 at 10.23.46 PM

If you don’t this is what happens…the inner groin sags to the floor and the hip droops in causing the crisp line of the “side angle” to zig zag.Screen Shot 2014-01-31 at 10.29.24 PM

From the outer edge of your left foot reach to the tips of the fingers to elongate the spine. Rotate the torso toward the ceiling. Look up and underneath the arm which should behind the head.

Screen Shot 2014-01-31 at 10.32.04 PM

Hold the pose for 30 seconds. Build more time as you progress.UP 6

To come out of the pose. Keep the back leg firm as you swing the top arm up at the same time as straightening the right leg. Rotate the toes facing forward and jump the feet back together coming back to Tadasana. Repeat other side.

Screen Shot 2014-01-31 at 10.34.44 PM

It is easy to learn Satya (truthfulness) in this posture. As geometry is based on “proofs,” you can easily see if your leg is 90 degrees which is the “true” posture.

proof

When you realize how much work it is to achieve this, you may think twice about this being another “basic posture” and realize how truly deep Utthita Parsvakonasana can be. There is a legendary class I read about where Iyengar held his students for 5 plus minutes per side in this pose. I wouldn’t recommend that if you are a beginner as you will clearly find that 30 seconds seems like an eternity when doing this pose correctly.

The archetype of Utthita Trikonasana

pyra fin

Utthita Trikonasana, or Extended Triangle Pose, is fundamental standing pose for most every yoga practice session. This pose inspires not because of its complexity, but because of its simplicity. Its smooth clean lines evoke the archetypal images of the Great Pyramids or a Sri Yantra as seen below.

sri yantra

This pose is accessible to just about anyone. I have even seen this pose taught to people who do not have use of their legs. In this blog post, I will present the classic asana as it was taught to me by my teachers, and give a few variations for those who cannot attain the classic pose.

To begin, lay out a sticky mat and two blocks.

Image

Stand in Tadasana (see last post). From here, jump the feet 4 to 4.5 feet (1.25 meters) apart. This is shockingly wide for many of my beginner students. A good measurement is to see if the wrists are above the feet. I placed straps around my wrists to demonstrate the length of the feet. Like Tadasana in my last post, the thighs press back until the kneecaps tighten. This pose is called Utthita Hasta Padasana (Extended Hand Foot Pose).

Image

Often times students do not mind their feet, and they are rotated out like a duck’s. This is incorrect.

Image

Incorrect feet

Image

Correct feet, toes are pointed forward

Next, pick up the left toes leaving the heel on the ground

UT 4

And rotate the foot to the right

UT 5

Then rotate the entire right leg from the hip socket to the foot to the right. Keep the quadriceps engaged. This pose is called Parsva Hasta Padasana (Side Hand Foot Pose)

UT 6

Make sure the right heel is intersected with the left foot’s arch.

UT 7

Now you are ready to come into the pose. Keep both sides of the chest the same length as you extend the torso laterally into the pose. A common mistake here is the student droops down to touch the floor. Instead, try to touch the imaginary side wall with the crown of your head and resist taking your hand down until the last moment.

UT 8

I was not able to get into the pose in the three seconds that my computer allows me, so I will show you Iyengar’s pose which is flawless.

iyengar triangle

Like a Sri Yantra, he becomes three triangles, and his self dissipates. Now there is now only Purusha.

Back here on Earth, these are some common mistakes made by beginners. First, the buttocks stick out and the head moves forward.

UT 9

Incorrect

To correct, move the tailbone forward and the head back until they are on the same plane.

UT 10

Correct

If you are not able to reach the block without the buttocks sticking out, use a chair.

UT 11

Many new students are also afraid to fall backwards by taking the head back. If you are experiencing this, use a wall to lean back on. Even experienced students benefit from wall work as it gives you a very quick assessment of your back body’s alignment.

UT 12

Another mistake I commonly see is that the bottom shoulder is not rolling out and the neck is crunched.

UT 13

Incorrect bottom shoulder

This may be a symptom of having too high of a block. First try rolling your downward shoulder back. If the neck is still crunched, go lower on your block.

UT 14

Correct bottom shoulder

This is just the tip of the iceberg of this pose, but not a bad start for beginners. Prashant Iyengar, the son of BKS Iyengar, wrote The Alpha and Omega of Utthita Trikonasana a book that gives systematic instructions on how to work your physical and esoteric anatomy in this pose. As always, I would recommend you find a certified Iyengar teacher near you as this pose has many many variations. In case you are wondering how the lady was taught this pose who couldn’t walk, she was taught lying on her back working her legs and arms in the “actions” of the pose.