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asana emo yoga (emotion // self // &c.) favorites

stretching the east : on backbends

Nastya-fish

So, backbends. I’m not good at them. But I need them. I like them. They feel good. They used to feel like a jolt of coffee, because I take so little breath into my upper chest in my regular breathing pattern. To stretch the chest is crazy energizing, especially if you tend to hunch forward. Now that I do them daily, all sorts of things come up.

The more you do yoga, the more subtly you feel your body. The more you feel what it has to say. What you have to say. That is the trickiest thing in writing and talking about yoga. It’s a non-verbal endeavor, truly. Putting words to it can be difficult, and for a thinker, can run into territories of faith. It’s really something you can’t understand unless you have done it, and done it in a way that is accessible for you (i.e. the teacher and style resonate). It’s like meditation. I really can’t take anyone’s theories or analyses of yoga or meditation (eg Zizek) seriously if they haven’t sat on their ass for at least a weekend (that is very very generous. I do not mean you know anything after a weekend, but you now have an idea bigger than theory). Until then, you really have no idea what you’re talking about. It’s just head talk. Disembodied ideas. Blah, blah, blah.

Right. Backbends. I’ll quote from two books I encountered last time. The first, Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness by Erich Schiffmann. I only read the small backbends sections in these books, so I have no recommendation for or against them.

Backbends are especially tremendous poses…because they encounter a sense of emotional openness and confidence. They gently open the chest, abdominal organs, pelvic region, and the whole front side of the body—the tender vulnerable side. The chest is where the heart chakra is located. Many of us are closed down and defended in that area, either from a lack of love or from past hurts. The pelvic region is where the sex chakra is located and many of us have contracted and pulled back in that area. We attempt to protect ourselves emotionally by closing down, pulling back, contracting our bodies, and thereby forming a protective shield or barrier. Closing down is not healthy, though. It’s part of what makes you feel more separate psychologically, and it constricts and restricts vital energy flow, which will inevitably cause you to feel more depressed than you would otherwise, more fearful, less vital, and less alive. Not to mention the fact that most of us sit in a somewhat cramped or collapsed position much of the day, anyway—either at a desk, while driving or eating, or in front of the TV–which not only impairs the functioning of the lungs and abdominal organs but causes the spinal vertebrae to push backward out of healthy alignment.

Backbends open these closed areas, thereby releasing blocked energy while simultaneously building the strength needed to stay open. Strong back muscles, developed with backbends, make it easy to sit and stand erect all day long, so you are alert and comfortable more of the time. Backbends give you energy because they release tension and blocked energy in your chest and pelvic regions as well as through the ankles, knees, quadriceps, abdominal organs, upper back, neck, shoulders, and arms. They are rejuvenating. They encourage youthfulness by keeping the spine supple.

(Schiffmann, pp. 199-200)

I appreciate his mention of the pelvis here, which is absent from most discussions of backbending, but hugely involved. The more intense backbends, in fact, slam my major areas of stress. The “sex chakra” analysis is unfortunately simplistic. The root chakra is located in the pelvis as well, and there are all sorts of reasons one might hold in the psoas and pelvic region. When I talked to my Rolfer about my thoracic spine and kyphosis, she went straight to work on my right psoas, where I tend to hold, to release by back. “Whoa. Weird,” I thought.

We need to be careful about reducing matters to the “heart” and “sex” chakras. Though, sure, trouble in the second might well lead to imbalance in the fourth, and vice verse. Though linking sex and the heart almost seems far fetched in the postmodern era. [Tears.]

The other book with some interesting insight was Yoga for Wellness: Healing with the Timeless Teachings of Viniyoga by Gary Kraftsow:

As part of their sunrise practice the ancient yogis called their backward bending “stretching the east.” [They did?] Backward bends stretch and strengthen the front portion of the torso, the shoulder and pelvic girdles, and the legs. They stretch and strengthen the iliopsoas muscles, which lay deep under the anterior musculature of the abdomen and pelvis and bind the legs to the spine; the diaphragm and the intercostals, which are the primary musculature of respiration; the anterior muscles, which bind the shoulder girdle to the spine; and the anterior muscles of the legs. In addition, they strengthen the superficial and deep muscles of the back, which contract as we bend backward; strengthen the posterior muscles of the shoulder girdle; stretch the abdominal organs, relieving the visceral compression; gently compress the kidney/adrenal area, stimulating its function; and stretch the anterior muscles of the neck and throat, including the area of the thyroid and thymus glands.

(Kraftsow, pp. 49-50)

Again, mention of the psoas/pelvis and a nice anatomical view of backbending efforts. It’s weakened by the first line, though, as there’s zero evidence that ancient yogis had a sunrise practice or that they backbended. In fact, only a few backbends (e.g. dhanurasana) are mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pradapika, which, circa 15 C.E., is hardly ancient. Kraftsow studied with T.K.V. Desikachar, and perhaps that’s where he got his mythology. Regardless, it’s incorrect. Yes, the front body is east and back body west. But it’s quite a stretch to bring the ancient yogis daily regimens into the argument, stated as fact. We really have no idea.

I’m rambling a bit here, largely as a process of investigating something. My chest and spine feel locked into place and I’d like them not to be. Talk about the heart chakra, closing down, vulnerability is interesting but not that helpful. I’ve spent time in my body and mind. I know that. Telling someone to open isn’t an open sesame. And even if you are massaged open, if the same mental and behavioral patterns haven’t shifted, the body will go straight back to where it was.

We can all tell sad stories of difficulties and loss. These stories can be liberating or (more usually) just another trap and excuse. The liberation, I gather, comes from experiencing the true emotion behind the tales, rather than a disassociated dramatown plea for attention that wasn’t received when we needed it. But true emotions can be madly elusive, having been avoided and ignored for so many years.

Thus far, the breath has been the most helpful. Luckily, the chest is somewhere I can actually breath into directly (unlike, say, my hip). Taking time to really breath, gently, into the top of my lungs, when I’m practicing, and sitting, and writing.

Categories
asana favorites meditation what is yoga

tradition: ashtanga, vinyasa & 8-limbs lite™

Mysore Practice at Ashtanga Yoga Sadhana
Mysore Practice at Ashtanga Yoga Sadhana

The yoga history thread is on hold as I’ve picked up too many books on the subject to continue until they’re parsed. Much has been published since I first read up on it ten years back. If you must read something now I suggest Joseph Alter’s Yoga in Modern India. For a break, I’ll address a subject that’s come up a few times this year, that of how Hatha Yoga traditions should change.

Sometimes I explain that a way of doing an asana is a more traditional form of the pose, for example parivrtta parsvakonasana with the heel down, unbound. By “traditional” I mean over fifty years old, usually in the manner of Ashtanga or Iyengar.

There are arguments within these yoga communities about how the lineages should evolve, because as we hopefully know, most of the asanas we practice are dynamic creations of the modern era, rather than an unchanging set of postures created in the Indus Valley way back B.C.E. As Richard Rosen admonishes in his book Original Yoga, “You may have heard or read somewhere that yoga is five thousand years old, a number that’s continually cited by people who should know better, since there’s not a shred of evidence to back it up.”

Exactly.

Both Ashtanga and Iyengar are somewhat regimented practices that tend to attract intense and dedicated practitioners. While Iyengar is strict about his teachers following his method, e.g. one can’t engage in Iyengar teacher training if she doesn’t commit to teaching only Iyengar, I’ll focus this piece on Ashtanga because that’s what I practice and pay more attention to at present.

While I admit to heretic tendencies, I lean toward traditionalism when it comes to following a living lineage. One of the many things I love about ashtanga is that I know what I’m getting. I trust the wisdom of the asanas and sequences that come from Krishnamacharya, K. Pattabhi Jois, and Sharath. I can walk into a Mysore room from Rio to Seoul and know what I’ll get. We have a common language.

There are some major criticisms of ashtanga. It’s dangerous and unforgiving. It’s monotonous. It’s not for everyone. These are leveled from inside and outside the community. Several friends forwarded me a piece by Matthew Sweeney earlier this year called The Evolution of Ashtanga Yoga, which is an interesting piece, and I agree with most of it, except what we would call Ashtanga and the Ashtanga method, and who exactly should be evolving the practice. And, perhaps, on what Yoga inherently is. Sweeney argues, “Ashtanga Yoga does not suit everybody. It is not possible to teach it to everyone, despite what some teachers may say. If you consider the truth of that, therefore, it is a responsibility as a teacher to try to learn what you need to be able to teach anyone. Otherwise it is not Yoga, and too limited.”

I find the idea that any kind of yoga (much less Ashtanga) should be suited to everyone ridiculous, as well as the argument that a teacher should aim to teach every population at large. Otherwise it is not Yoga? By what definition? Hatha Yoga was developed by a fringe ascetic population, and definitely not available to or desired by everyone, and the Yoga of Patanjali’s Sutras was aimed at and permitted for the Brahmin (highest) class alone.

AYS-2If you’re bored of teaching Ashtanga sequences and want to shake up the method and the type of [aggro!] students you attract, do it. But when you’re adding moon salutes and yin yoga into the same practice, it’s no longer Ashtanga. It may be incredibly valuable, but it’s now vinaysa, or moon unit yoga, or even Reform Ashtanga. But it’s not Ashtanga. That on some level Sweeney agrees is obvious here: “For me it is simply a matter of timing, of when it is appropriate to introduce either the tradition – the Intermediate Series, for example, or an alternative such as Vinyasa Krama, or Yin Yoga or meditation.” Exactly. Vinyasa Krama and Yin Yoga are not the Ashtanga tradition, but traditions of their own.

Sweeney also argues:

In terms of human evolution and holistic development, sooner or later any technique or tradition you might adhere to becomes limiting, and a lessening of your full potential. For you to embrace a true spiritual perspective, you will need to move beyond a single method or one dimensional view.

Let’s break this down. First, to argue that Ashtanga (or Iyengar, or Yin Yoga, or Zen, or whatever) is “a one dimensional view” because it is a single method, is simplistic and incorrect. Further, to create a patchwork of practices sooner rather than later is tantamount to disaster, because as soon as things become a little bit difficult, uncomfortable, or boring, you will continue to seek distraction elsewhere, most likely at the moment you were starting to get somewhere. This is why most mature spiritual teachers and traditions advise making a commitment to one practice. For a long time. This is not to say that we as practitioners discount other practices or perspectives, but we know temptation when we see it. That said, when a certain level of mastery has been attained, after years and years of practice, it’s very helpful to see what other traditions can offer your own.

Sweeney finds it:

…curious that I am one of the few traditional Ashtanga teachers to actively embrace different sequences and encourage many students to practice them – without abandoning the standard Ashtanga.  Alternative sequences can enhance the Ashtanga method without altering or threatening its form and function. Why are the Ashtanga sequences treated as a sacred cow? It is a wonderful practice, but just Asana sequences at the end of the day.

As I understand it, the holders of the lineage, first P. Jois and now Sharath, have explicitly asked teachers not to change up the sequences. So, it’s not so curious as to why most teachers don’t. While I don’t hold the sequences sacred, I’ve taken enough bad vinyasa classes to know the genius of good asana sequences. I question the suggestion we all change them up at whim. At the end of the day, a good asana sequence is a rare thing, and the Ashtanga series are integral to the Ashtanga method. Altering them is a threat because if “It is up to each of us to work out what the advantages and disadvantages are,” then before you know it, anyone teaching anything can and will call themselves Ashtanga. And where does that leave us? With another vinyasa practice, now called Ashtanga, whatever that means to each of those who’ve redefined it.

And that, I suppose, is my real issue. Again, Sweeney:

I use alternative sequencing to aid and enhance the Ashtanga practice rather than to replace it entirely. It is all about what is appropriate and practical, rather than blind faith, dogma, or just doing random stuff because I feel like it – though honestly, sometimes the latter can be really useful.

So, we’re back to the alternatives being alternatives to Ashtanga rather than being Ashtanga, and I’m fine with this. While Sweeney likely has the wisdom and experience to change things up for the better of his students, some 23 year old who just finished a weekend workshop in Ashtanga may well not. But he’s certified! Do I really want to walk into his class and learn his new variations on secondary series? Do I want him teaching others this brave, new Ashtanga? No. Beyond no.

b10009
Poster care of Ashtanga.com

This is why Ashtanga is a lineage trad and vinyasa is not. Yes, the method should change, but that change comes from the holder of the tradition, which is at present, Sharath.

If we want to change up the series, perhaps we should call what we’re doing Reform Ashtanga. If we want to make it “accessible” to those who, in reality, don’t want to make the commitment that the Ashtanga method requires, perhaps we should call it YogaWithBenefits. If we want to break down the sequences and asanas so they can be taught by teachers who have never had a Mysore practice and students who don’t even know what that is (they’re out there, and certified as Ashtanga teachers by YA to boot), perhaps we should call it 8-Limbs Lite™. There is probably a lot of value in all of this. But it is not Ashtanga-Vinyasa Yoga.  I have no problem with changing things up, I just want to know what I’m getting. And that’s really the biggest problem with vinyasa yoga now. You really have no idea.

The Ashtanga method is impressive in part because of just what is accessible to someone who makes the commitment to Mysore six days a week. I once thought that Ashtanga was not for everyone, and I still do. I don’t believe that anything, aside from clean air and water, is for everyone. But I believe it’s available to far more practitioners than I did before I practiced it. And that is part of the beauty of Mysore Ashtanga. When it is watered down, it is lost.

It’s difficult to make this rigorous commitment, and it might not be possible for most householders. Maybe we do need a more accessible, codified Reform Ashtanga or 8-limbs lite™. But, please, call it what it is.

I wish Sweeney had been a little more clear on whether he thinks that Ashtanga + yin sequencing (etc) is still Ashtanga—in some places it seems yes, in others no. I also wish that he’d put his last paragraph first, as maybe we agreed all along:

It is not a question of right and wrong, it is a question of whether you can admit that wherever you sit on the spectrum, can you embrace both ends of it? Are you closer to the traditional centre, but do you deny the importance of those who change, explore and adapt? Or are you closer to the edge, finding new ways and expanding your horizons, but you find it hard to accept the strength and clarity of those closer to the centre? Embrace all of it and you embrace your full potential.

Other than the last line coming off like a weird platitude, and that I’m confused by the spectrum-both-ends-centre-edge-dichotomy metaphor, I agree. I practice Ashtanga in the morning and meditation, yin and restorative later in the day. I teach vinyasa, which is a little bit of everything I practice. I quite like it that way. It is important to be clear about what things are, and what we, as teachers, offer. It’s also important to respect the wishes of lineage holders as best we can, even if that means leaving the lineage. It is lovely to have lineage traditions, even if only as a point of reference. It’s equally important to have adapters and pioneers. But if we aren’t clear about which is which, in today’s yogamarket, it becomes impossible to discern.

Categories
asana favorites yoga practice

stretching, science, & the wisdom of ‘boring’ yoga asana sequencing

Kg_2004-08-18_Oomoot_070In the last few years, it’s come to light that static stretching isn’t a great thing before activities requiring muscle power. Most recently the New York Times reported researchers have discovered stretching is bad. The article mentions only once that static stretching, as opposed to dynamic stretching, is problematic. The rest of the article states time and again that stretching is bad. A skimmer might well come away with the idea she should avoid all stretching at all times. But static stretching is only problematic before you weight lift or row or do some other arduous activity. What’s with the dodgy reporting, NYT?

Static stretching involves holding the muscles in a stretch for a long time. Dynamic stretching stretches the muscles while moving, e.g. butt kicks, leg lifts, walking lunges, and these dynamic toe touches at right. Or, Surya Namaskara, sun salutations.

When I first read this a few years ago (my masters is in health, so I try to keep up), I couldn’t help but observe this is exactly what we do in ashtanga, and exactly how I sequence my vinyasa classes. Kind of like the research that revealed exercise before breakfast is better for weight loss. Yogis knew that. While I’m all for well-conducted and well-reported research (difficult and thus rare when involving human behavior), I strongly reject the notion that empirical evidence is the only valuable knowledge. Or as Jon Kabat-Zinn (PhD in MCB from MIT) said, “Oh my god. There is an entirely different way of knowing. Why didn’t they tell us this in kindergarten? An entirely different way of knowing.” In other words, something doesn’t have to be “science” to be valuable. But I’ll rant about that and the “Science of Yoga/Yoga Science” meme another day.

Occasionally I hear students complain about boring sequencing. I try to avoid condescending comments like, “If you are bored in your yoga practice, you are missing the point. You will never know anything about your mind until it has been bored.” If you aren’t doing yoga to learn about your mind, that’s fine. Either deal with the boredom anyway or find another teacher who likes to “change things up.”

yogaUPd
Dynamic Stretching!

I do Ashtanga Yoga. This practice involves doing the same set of postures in the same order six days a week for years until they are mastered to the extent that one can move on. That you, my student, have to do pranayama followed by 5 Surya Namaskara As and Bs once or twice a week really gets no sympathy in these quarters.

After sun salutations come standing postures (sometimes within freestyle sun salutations), then back bends, then seated forward bends, sometimes seated twists, then closing inversions, then supine spinal twists, followed by pranayama and savasana. That is my recipe. It is neither secret nor trademarked. It is a combination of ashtanga sequencing and basic Integral Yoga sequencing, as my students are not ashtangis (most don’t practice more than a few times a week), and I am not an ashtanga teacher.

Occasionally I teach more than one pose in succession on each side, but if I do, they are usually all standing asana. None of this standing, bending, sitting, reclining on one side of the body, then back up to stand for the other side. It’s just not right. Why?

Well, for one thing, as the NYT tells us, static stretching before using the muscles strenuously is not a good idea. It weakens them in the short term. For example: lying on the floor for ten minutes in hip openers and quad stretches then hoisting back up for a standing sequence culminating in Svarga Dvidasana (Bird of Paradise). It’s hell on the hips and quads. You might not notice this at age 22, or if you lean toward strength over flexibility, but the rest of us do.

More traditional sequencing understands this (by traditional, I mean it’s been around more than fifty years. Not 5,000. Fifty). How do we begin class? At least ten Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutations). What are Sun Salutations? Dynamic stretching. Followed by standing poses and back bends (usually on the abdomen), which are the most strenuous and strengthening for the muscles, and as the research of the last few years indicates, should not be done after static stretching. Finally, seated forward bends, and other supine (lying around) asana, which we hold for a minute or two. These are static stretches, and we do them last.

armCirc
Mabel Todd’s The Thinking Body, 1937

At a party recently, I overheard one yoga instructor telling another, “Yeah, she has really creative sequencing.” They teach in another tradition, which apparently values funky choreography and changing things up. This tradition is in the hatha-vinyasa family, so it can be very confusing to the dabbling practitioner. You can really never be sure what you’re going to get in such classes, as my classes, too, are hatha-vinyasa. This is why it’s a good idea to find one tradition and one or two teachers and stay there. While funky sequencing can certainly be fun, I’ve found that at best, it isn’t much different than a work out and at worst, my muscles are ruined for days or I feel jacked up from lack of calming asana toward the finish.

More important than stretching trends are the energetic properties of the asanas. Wha? I usually spare you such discourse, but not today. Moving around has a certain effect on the body-mind. As do standing asanas, backbends, forward bends, and so on. Good sequencing is organized with this in mind. A gross simplification: Standing poses ground, energize, and focus the body-mind. Back bends stimulate and energize. Forward bends calm and soothe. Inversions, once mastered, are both stimulating and soothing. Hopefully you get the idea. It’s an important one.

A related aside: If you wonder if you should workout before or after yoga, the answer is before. Apply lessons learned above.

Categories
asana favorites

adho mukha svanasana from a master

misskitty
Downward Facing Dog. Post nap.

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asana favorites slider yoga practice

how to work toward padmasana: lotus pose

NewYork_02-12-11_YogaAnastasia_094So you want to do padmasana. Because like headstand, lotus pose is an asana that comes to mind when people think of yoga. And for good reason. It’s one of the fifteen poses mentioned in the 15th century text, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which makes it one of the few asanas with a history. There is no shortage of stock photos of blissed out ladies sitting in lotus whilst meditating on the beach. And you want that. I must warn that while I’m something of a beachcomber, I have never once come across such a lady in a natural habitat. Or gentleman. Perhaps with a little work we can change that.

But my knees!

While padmasana can injure the knees and ankles, the knees aren’t the problem, unless you’ve already forced yourself into the position and hurt them. It’s the hips. Lotus requires a dramatic external rotation of the hip joints, and this is easier for some bodies than others. Some hip joints are happier in external rotation, and others internal rotation (e.g. virasana). It’s rare that a body is equally happy in both.

My hips seem externally rotated at the joint themselves, to the point that my internal rotation is laughable. I have to accept that atri-mu-pand work with it. Triang mukhaikapada paschimottanasana is easily my worst pose in primary series, and it’s easy for me to forget that while it’s still bad, it wasn’t that long ago I couldn’t bind without falling on my side. I had to ground my elbows on the floor by my extended leg to keep upright. With practice, I eventually learned to stay upright and bind. I say this because there are limitations and there are gifts. External hip rotation is easy for me. I have no memory of ever not being able to do lotus easily. If that is not the case for you, go slowly and be patient with yourself, as I must in internal hip rotations. If you practice daily, you don’t even notice the progress. But it eventually happens.

How to Get the Hip Flexibility Needed for Padmasana

Most of the Padmasana how to’s out there (e.g. image below left) are helpful only if you need some help going into the pose, but can pretty much do it. If you can’t do it, they are only frustrating. What you need help with is opening the hips. Folding your legs properly just isn’t the issue. Yet.

a_28Joints aside, the biggest culprit in difficult external hip rotation are tight piriformis muscles. This happens when you sit at a desk all day. Your gluts get lazy and your hip flexors fierce (also why you hate Utthan Pristhasana, aka lizard, but we’ll talk about that another day). This training article has an excellent overview and includes some exercises for external hip rotation.

The very best way to get yourself into padmasana shape? It’s the answer I give to 97% of questions. Practice frequently. Like headstand, you don’t have to do specific poses day after day to prepare yourself for lotus. A well-rounded class will open your hips. I include poses like Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II), Parsvakonasana (Side Angle), Trikonasana (Triangle), Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Bend), Ardha Matsyandrasana (Seated Twist), and Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (pigeon) in every class so that your hips are regularly coaxed into flexibility.

Equally important, if padmasana is a goal: Sit in ardha padmasana (half lotus) at your desk as often as you can. This will not only support your spine better than sitting with your feet on the floor, it will prepare you for full lotus. I’m writing this from a friend’s place, sitting in a fancy chair. But I’m much more comfortable at home, where I sit at my desk cross-legged on a flat, wooden kitchen chair with a pillow for lumbar support. This ergo-dynamic contraption I’m on now is all contoured out of proportion to a lotus seat, and the arms get in the way of my feet. I’m pretty much just squashed in, as I find it impossible to sit upright with my feet on the floor. I slouch. So get your feet up and cross your legs. When that’s tolerable for an hour or so at a time, move into half lotus (with one foot up on the hip instead of two) for as long as possible. Sitting like this daily will bring you to full padmasana much faster than just practicing in class.

Benefits of Padmasana

mushinpa
couldn’t find image credit on this one

Once you’re comfortable (and that could take years), lotus is incredibly supportive of the spine and your posture, because the pelvis sits very upright. It stretches the hips, knees and ankles. It’s also said to calm the brain and nervous system, stimulate abdominal organs, soothe menstrual cramps and sciatica, and if done during pregnancy, ease childbirth. According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, it also destroys all disease and awakens kundalini. And like the gentleman in the photo, you will become hairless. Maybe.

Personal Note

When I started doing lotus daily, my shins felt as if they were grinding into one another. It was painful. Why I cannot explain, but with daily practice, it just went away. Because I practice ashtanga, I always draw the right leg up first. If I draw up the left side first, I have the grinding pain. I imagine I’d have to do left side first every day to even this out. Perhaps it’s some remaining tightness in the hips that causes the sharp bones to press to firmly together, which eventually eases. Regardless, know that it will go away with regular practice.

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asana favorites yoga habits

how often should I practice yoga?

Why not everyday? Because yoga is not my life, you say? Oh. Okay then. The answer varies.

Yoga? But I’m Not Flexible (Beginners)

When I first practiced yoga, it was very sporadic. Probably not even once a week. Are there any benefits to practicing once in awhile? Yes. Most people feel good during or after yoga, if not both. This goodness can help a person decide to do more yoga. Long term benefits to sporadic practice? Probably not.

Some types of yoga, like ashtanga, require practice at least four days a week, beginners included. But if you are totally new to yoga, your ashtanga practice will only be about 20 minutes long. Practicing sporadically will only frustrate you. In fact, any highly vigorous (or heated) yoga done sporadically is going to leave you sore (or nauseous) and wondering if it’s right for you.

NewYork_2010-12-29_CellSnaps_094If you are still at the dappling stage, I recommend a basics class in a gentler style. You can find this in classes called or studios that offer, for example, Integral Yoga, Kripalu Yoga, Sivananda Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, Gentle Yoga, Hatha Yoga, and Viniyoga. There’s less chance of strain or injury, and it will give you the taste and foundation you need to do more. It is an untruth that yoga is for flexible people. It increases strength and flexibility, but that’s not the point.

An aside: when you meet a yoga teacher in a non-yogic situation, please do not announce your inflexibility to him. I mean, think about that for a moment. Really. (Up next, an essay about what not to say to yoga teachers in social settings.)

I Like Yoga, But I’m Really Busy (Advanced Beginners)

Okay, then once a week. But keep with a basic style, or Iyengar. I have students who practice only once a week, and while there is some minor progress in their asana, they are almost starting from square one each week. Twice a week is better. I do see marked improvements in my undergrads, who meet twice as week over a semester. Also, they are spring chickens and their bodies are quick to learn. My older students, even mid-20s, make less progress at that frequency.

Should I Be Doing Headstand Soon? When Can I do Headstand? (Intermediate)

To see real, long term benefits of yoga, I find you need to practice 3 times a week, minimum. It’s difficult to meet your body and notice what is going on if you practice less often. Practice does not have to be a 90-minute class. It can be 15 minutes of practice at home or in an office. A few sequences are posted here. These are meant to supplement classes, not replace your teacher. Yoga is best learned directly from a teacher, not videos, books, blogs, or podcasts. They can help supplement your practice until you’re ready to practice on your own without them (which is about now, at the intermediate level). If you practice three times a week, you will start to notice a difference in your body, your yoga, and hopefully your mind. And get over headstand. It doesn’t matter.

NewYork_2011-05-30_YogaAnastasia_012Yoga Dilettante! (Intermediate-Advanced)

You practice 5-7 days a week. No less. Please understand that advanced yoga is not back flips or contortions. It could be 60 minutes of ardha padmasana. This frequency is open to any level, though beginners should be cautioned against an over-zealousness that leads to burnout. If you practice this often, you will progress. You will also suffer ego trips and spiritual materialism, but that’s part of the practice. Notice and cut it out. No one’s style of yoga is the best style of yoga, and because you’ve dedicated over ten hours a week to your mat doesn’t mean you’re a better yogi than someone who’s never seen a mat. Nor are you superior because you don’t go in for an impressive asana practice but sure like to meditate.

Committing to something like an ashtanga practice is a major time commitment, but with that practice “all is coming,” as K. Patabhi Jois liked to say. The one thing that truly amazes me about ashtanga is what dedication and commitment can bring. This is true of any practice. Have fun.

 

Categories
asana favorites how to find yoga teacher/school yoga practice

ashtanga in new york :: finding a teacher

How to find a mysore ashtanga teacher in new york? LMGTFY. Because honestly, that’s how I found Lori. An internet search. I then asked two ashtangi friends if they knew her and heard good things about both her and her assistant, as well as a little gossip. I had a feeling that’s where I’d end up, but since I was searching I thought I’d check a few others out, first. Elephant Beans has a helpful list of Mysore and Led classes in NYC. It’s out-of-date, but it’s a more thorough listing than this. Definitely check the shala’s current schedule before you show up. I found that most led classes are really half primary, not full, even if they schedule doesn’t list it as half. That can be frustrating, but it’s due to the fact that many drop-in students just can’t do full primary. Half is more than enough.

Of the ashtanga shalas in NYC, the major contenders are: Ashtanga Yoga New York, Ashtanga Yoga Shala NYC with Guy Donahaye, and Ashtanga Yoga Sadhana with Lori Brungard. That’s a subjective list of places where I actually know people who practice. There are other studios with Mysore programs in the city as well, like Kula Yoga, Pure Yoga, and The Shala Yoga House, as well as studios that offer led classes.

Boulder 2002 by Dominic Corigliano
P. Jois Teaching in Boulder 2002
by Dominic Corigliano

I tried a few of these at Greenhouse Holistic in Williamsburg with Carla Waldron and John Schneider. Both were excellent, especially for led classes, which can be hard to teach. I found them both gentle and respectful of everyone in the room, which was full of people at different levels. I overheard Carla tell a student to press into his elbows to help takeoff in chakrasana. This turned into a major gem for me. I tried it later and it gave me a new confidence in the maneuver. I was quite pleased. The Roebling studio is pretty basic, with nice brick walls. It’s close to the L train, but still way too far for me to travel every day, though they are growing their ashtanga program.

Definitely a must try for Williamsburgers is daily mysore at Kula Yoga with Augustine Kim (pictured at top). I practiced in the lovely space once, and would happily practice there daily if it fit into my space-time continuum even slightly more easily. Augustine is a gifted teacher who truly cares about his students’ practices, which you may have noticed can be sadly rare in ego-maniacal NYC.

The East Village is the epicenter of Ashtanga in NYC, but I thought I’d try some teachers on the Upper West Side. There was a dreadful experience at a shala in Harlem and many spammy gems like this from Pure: “Autumn-that crisp trans-formative season where the evergreens become inflamed by Nature’s radiant change has truly manifested. In New York City no tree, flower, meadow or hill will go untouched by the bright colors of change. That is the allure of October, which brings to mind through the power of Yoga you can be apart of that change too. Pure Yoga, rated “Best Yoga” 2009 through 2011 encourages this type of transformation through our 130 classes taught by the best teachers in the city! [sic]” Wow. As hard as it was to pass up the BEST TEACHERS!! and OCTOBER FREE!! on October 31st, when we were all licking our hurricane wounds and unable to get uptown anyway, I gave it a miss. Any studio that has to rope you in with gym-style enrollment fees (they are owned by Equinox) is not the power of yoga I seek. Perhaps the teachers are great, but I was less than impressed with their management and “yoga advisor.”

buy localI had planned to try The Shala Yoga House, as it is the closest and most convenient for me, but I’d had enough roaming around, and I’d always avoided the place, as I’d heard the author of eat, pray, wank practiced there. Instead, I went to Ashtanga Yoga Sadhana with Lori Brungard in the East Village. A small shala with wood floors and brick walls, no spammy marketing (in fact, later, the teacher actually texted when she changed the schedule to be sure it would work for me), perfect schedule, amazing co-teacher (male, to balance), beautiful website, old school ashtangi (Lori studied with P. Jois), and a small, woman-owned business. What more could I ask? My friend Angela, an ashtanga teacher in Ann Arbor, had practiced with once her years back and found her present and helpful. I liked her immediately. The studio has great energy and is walking distance from home. It is a great find. Like the reviews on google+ report, Lori pushes you to your limits, but is gentle and compassionate at the same time. She’s also fun. The shala has some definite romper room moments, and both Lori and Augustine Kim, who teachers the 7am class (he’s since left for Williamsburg), have the twinkle in the eye that you look for in your yoga teacher. My practice is more fun, nuanced, and challenging than it’s ever been.

[Update: Summer ’13: I changed shalas because of a schedule conflict, and now practice at AYNY. But I still wholeheartedly endorse AYS!]

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asana how to find yoga teacher/school yoga practice

the search for a new yoga teacher/studio

Yoga Breeze, Yakuin Studio, Fukuoka, Japan, September 3, 2010
Yoga Breeze, Yakuin Studio, Japan (c) Govindakai

It took me about a month of heavy searching to find my yoga teacher. How you do it depends largely on what you look for. Instead of making a list for you: location, teacher’s experience, price, style, schedule…which I touched on in the last few posts.  I will tell you my story, and you can suss out how to go about it from there in a way that works for you.

I knew I wanted a Mysore-style ashtanga shala (school), so I asked my ashtanga friends for recommendations. I read about the teachers, schedules, locations, and prices online, and I had an inking about where I’d end up. In the weeks I researched this, I hit a few studios in my neighborhood I’d never tried. They weren’t ashtanga schools, but the convenience of a studio but few blocks from home was too ideal not to try, even if I knew I wouldn’t end up there.

The first, Yogamaya, is a gorgeous studio in Chelsea. I’d taken classes from the founders years back at Laughing Lotus, a vinyasa studio also in Chelsea, and the yoga is the same. I tried a $28/week newcomers’ unlimited pass and went to three classes. Two, taught by Bryn, were very good. I’m just not into their wild choreographic sequencing. I suppose that it’s good for people who feel bored with traditional yoga sequences, but being bored is part of the practice. I find it impossible to go into my body when I’m waiting to hear what unknown, awkward transition will come next. I also don’t like spending 10 minutes on one side of the body standing, sitting, arm balancing, inverting, and then getting back up to do it all over again on the other. This is not how it’s meant to be. In traditional styles like ashtanga and Iyengar, we do the right side and then the left for each and every pose before we move on to the next. I will not bore you with the art and reasoning of yoga sequencing and the energetic properties of different poses. But many years ago, I noticed that classes with unpredictable posturing make me feel high strung. Sometimes good, like I had a nice work out, but not balanced and in my body, like more traditional styles of yoga do. Plus the work-out effect.

Metrowest Yoga Studio
Metrowest Yoga Studio (c) Antonio Viva

The third class I took there was with a very young teacher. It featured the most questionable sun salutation sequencing I’ve ever encountered. From standing forward bend, we sat down into a squat, and then jumped back. At the end, we jumped forward into a squat, then came up to forward bend. This is hell on the knees. In a squat, the toes are pointing out, in the direction of the knees. In the other poses they are straight forward. The was no safe way to transition this sequence, and the fact that it was totally awkward and unpleasant was not even addressed by the teacher. Ouch. It was enough to keep me from trying other classes there during my paid week. That said, it is a beautiful studio and I’m sure they have some amazing teachers. If you like funky sequencing, chanting to a harmonium, heavy appropriation of Indian culture, and inspirational, personal talks by your teacher at the start of class, Yogamaya (or Laughing Lotus) might be just your thing.

Because I am frequently asked about both Bikram and Yoga to the People, I also went to the YTTP on W26th Street. Yes, I took a hot yoga class. As expected, it was hot, and because I like to be warm, I enjoyed it more or less. I’m not into locking out the joints, which is a hot yoga specialty. In all the types of yoga I’ve done, they all pretty much agree that locking out the joints is not a good thing. Further, there’s a lot of pushing to go further, and who can really feel her limits at 4pm in a 100+ degree room? The muscles are like rubber. It’s certainly not a not-quite-heated, 6am ashtanga shala, where coaxing the muscles to open of their own accord is the name of the game. There are also some poses that aren’t great for the masses, like supta virasana and a weird whipping up to paschimottanasana from lying flat on the back, which is done numerous times. I’m partial to the jump backs and jump throughs of ashtanga to strengthen the mid-region. But I’m obviously biased. The studio was fine. I didn’t find it any less posh than the Bikram studio I tried for a week years back in San Francisco. The teacher was nice enough. I don’t remember his name, and that’s likely because YTTP don’t emphasize teachers or even put their names on the schedules, I assume to avoid the cult of personality that can form around teachers. I get that, though I don’t agree with it. I want know to whom I’m subjecting myself for an hour and a half.

Further, In early December, Bikram and YTTP came to a settlement (Bikram sued them for using his copyrighted sequence of poses) and YTTP will stop teaching that sequence as of Feb 15, 2013. “So what?” I say. It’s hardly a brilliant sequence. Change it up a bit, make some improvements, and maybe I drop by on a moon day or two.

So, hopefully it’s evident that this is a process of trial and error. Because I’m not partial to these studios doesn’t mean you might not be. I went to Laughing Lotus for a year or two when I was moving from integral hatha to vinyasa. I enjoyed the work out and it’s what I wanted at the time. Then I found the amazing, must-be-experienced Iyengar teacher Genny Kapular. She instilled in me a love for mindful sequencing and I’ve had a hard time with overly creative sequencing ever since.

The next post will be about the ashtanga teachers I tried, their studios, and those I didn’t get to because I found what I was looking for first.

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asana favorites how to find yoga teacher/school yoga practice

how to find a yoga teacher/studio


Students frequently ask me upon graduation or a university break “Do you recommend a good yoga studio around here?”

Unfortunately, I don’t. Finding a yoga studio, or as you become more advanced, finding a teacher, is an extremely personal endeavor. It’s a mix of solid logistics, such as location, cost, and schedule, and an indescribable something, an intuitive ‘yes’ that cannot be reduced to a how-to list.

These comments are for a New York crowd, or an urban center with many options. If you have few options near you, well, try them all—a few times. You might not like a style or teacher one day, but another day realize it was just a mood. Keep trying until you find something. You will.

If you know what style of yoga you want to practice, that will narrow down your search. But if your only exposure has been at the gym, or the studio closest to your last address, you might want to see what is out there. Lifehacker has a list of what they call the nine internationally recognized styles of hatha (physical) yoga. I’m not sure where they got the nine from, but it’s worth a read if you don’t know the difference between Iyengar and Bikram. It’s also worth trying styles out, as you may think you want a demanding practice, but are pleasantly surprised by the energy you have after a restorative class.

Location, cost, and schedule are extremely important. If it’s out of your way or the schedule doesn’t fit yours, you might not go, or you might feel stressed getting there. If it’s more than you can handle financially, you might be put out by the cost. Keep in mind that expensive studios with mega-marketing aren’t usually where the best teachers are. And even if you’ve found an amazing teacher, you need to be honest about the logistics so you are sure to show up on their mat. Once you have that sorted, you can start worrying about the feel of it all.

I’ve wanted different things from my yoga studios and teachers over the years. I started doing very basic hatha yoga. The teachers were okay, but I was new enough not to be picky. The pranayama and basic asanas were what I needed to come into my body, and the set sequence of their level one class was very intelligent. A year later, I did vinyasa at a studio that energized me and built my strength, but their funky sequences and harmonium-induced chanting did nothing to center me. Then I heard about Genny Kapuler, an Iyengar teacher in SoHo who is still the top teacher on my list. I studied with her for a few years and learned anatomy and alignment in a very integral way. She is tremendously graceful, patient, and kind, especially among Iyengar teachers, who can be known for an authoritarian style. My schedule in grad school took me away from her studio to a home practice. I took some privates with her for guidance, and found a new depth by practicing at my own pace, at home. When it was time to studio shop again, I did some ashtanga while trying YogaWorks with a Groupon. I’d done ashtanga a few times in the past, and though I liked it, it never stuck. This time it did, and I started a Mysore-style practice, not least because I didn’t have to listen to the inane comments of an instructor leading a class. Two years later, location and schedule became a problem, and I had to shop for a new shala.

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to practice or not to practice: ladies’ holiday

menstruThere are as many takes on yoga asana practice during menstruation as there are euphemisms for it. Ladies’ holiday, your moon (not to be confused with the moon), ladies’ days, your flow, the curse, crimson tide, the rag, that time of the month, and, refreshingly, your period, are a few you’ll hear in wider yoga discourse.

The official line in Ashtanga is not to practice at all during your “moon.” Iyengar discourages twists, inversions, deep backbends and binds, and suggests specific practices based on what you’ve got going on (e.g. heavy cramps, bloating, no period at all). You can find these in Geeta Iyengar’s Yoga, A Gem for Women. Many schools advise not to invert, while others say listen to your body and figure out what’s best for you. I’ve heard Cyndi Lee of Om Yoga advise that women should invert, because it’s only a patriarchal edict that tells women they can’t. Honestly, I see the logic in all of it.

Don’t practice at all? This is the Ashtanga way, as K. Pattabhi Jois told women not to practice during their periods, and for traditionalists, what Jois says, goes. Yes, it’s easy to forget that is Yoga is a tradition developed by and for men. In India, women write books with lengthy introductions to convince readers that yoga is something women can and should do (e.g. Yoga, A Gem for Women). It’s hard to imagine in the female-majority yoga rooms of the west, but yoga is not historically a women’s endeavor.

I didn’t even have to add “yoga” to the “tampax” image search.  Of course she’s wearing white pants. And yes, it really says, “Who would have thought a tampon could get me to that Zen place?” Nothing like a mixed metaphor for ragtime practice.

While not practicing might sound silly to you, understand that Ashtanga is an intense practice that demands mula bandha, which is quite difficult to do during menstruation. I find it’s quite hard to pull up and in when I’m a bit swollen and tender. Do I practice? Usually, yes, but it depends on how I feel. There are some days a year I wake up and say, “No way will that feel okay right now,” and I go back to bed. But often (like last week), I feel great when I’m able to move and stretch my body, which actually seems to tighten and lock up in the days before, but relaxes again when my period starts. I like to practice.

To invert of not to invert? This debate has been going on for quite some time, and it seems to have three camps. The first: Traditionalists who believe that inverting interferes with apana, the downward flow of energy in the body. It is advanced in a retro-ditz-delicate-flower piece by Kathryn Budig on elephant journal. “I officially mark myself as senseless during the preceding days as the first few of the actual holiday. When you can normally find me working flips in a handstand till I can’t see straight, this time of the month it’s more common to find me propped up on the couch, my handy Jane Austen novel du jour next to me, and an artillery of spoons ready to attack a fresh mint and chocolate chip gelato.” Senseless, eh? Hmmm. What exactly is a Jane Austen du jour? Doesn’t she only have 5 or so novels? And Ms Budig reads one every day? How many spoons does one need to “attack” fresh gelato? I prefer to let it warm and soften a bit, so that it glides from bowl to spoon to mouth. In fact, I like to lounge about reading and eating chocolate every day of the month. I certainly don’t limit it to that time.

classygalBudig goes on to say that she believes not practicing on her period is a form of respect. For what? Her teacher? The moon? Patriarchy? Jane Austen? While she doesn’t like the suggestion that “blood will get stuck” if you invert (I’ve never heard it put quite that way before), she does argue that, “logistically speaking if something is trying to get out, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to turn it upside down. Or twist it. Or strain it. Or do anything more than supine postures, snuggling a bolster, light walks and all those bites of chocolate.” Well, logistically, if something is trying to “get out,” it makes a lot of sense to twist it, no? If you wanted fluid out of something soft, you’d twist, right?

This careless argument doesn’t do much to convince me to lie around during my period. And many are turned off by the red-tenting of women around the time of our periods. This second camp is well-covered in this Go With the Flow article on Jezebel. The medical risk of inverting involves retrograde menstruation, which some argue causes endometriosis. While most doctors say this myth has been debunked, Kathleen Lea Summers, MD, PhD, argues that as of 2011, “Retrograde menstruation remains the prevailing scientific hypothesis for what causes endometriosis. It’s complicated, and other factors play a part—things like genetics, epigenetics, immune function, environmental toxins, etc.”

Wow! Crazytown ad from the 1950s.
Wow! Crazytown “feminine” ad from the 1950s.

“For sure women who have more frequent periods, those that bleed heavier, and those that have a blockage to normal flow through the vagina are the most likely to develop endometriosis. That indicates the amount of backward flow is important in development. While there are no studies looking specifically at whether or not women who practice inversions during their periods are more likely to develop endometriosis, prudence is wise. Anyone with a personal or family history of endometriosis should never do inversions while on their period. Other women need to be careful too, especially during the days of heaviest flow. If they choose to invert during menses, then time in the posture should be limited to 30 seconds.”

That said, there are doctors, including Mary P. Schatz, M.D., who state that inverting won’t cause endometriosis, but it can cause vascular congestion (heavy bleeding). I’ve talked with a number of teachers and students who have found this to be the case. We are of the third camp—try it out for yourself and see how you feel. I inverted when I started years ago, but on several occasions got really intense cramps afterward. I’d never heard anyone else complain of this until a commenter on the elephantjournal article said the same thing. I also tend to bleed more. Further, I just really don’t feel like spending ten minutes upside down when my belly is heavy. So, while once is a blue moon (sorry), I will feel up to inverting, I usually don’t.

Wow! Crazytown "Outsmart Mother Nature" ad from 21C
Wow! Crazytown “Outsmart Mother Nature” ad from 21C.

Bodies are all extremely different, from person to person, but also from cycle to cycle. The only way to know what’s best for you is to pay attention. I find I’m often (but not always) extra stiff before my period starts. Some months I don’t even expect it (meaning no PMS) and other months, I do. Sometimes I feel tired and heavy, sometimes I’m energetic. I notice, and behave accordingly. The reason the Budig piece grates? It advances the notion that women are “senseless” and unable to work during their “moon.” In once sentence she tells her students, “Notice what is happening in your body and mind before you race past it to where you think you should be.” Then she races past everyone to tell us how we feel and where we should be—on the couch with bon bons. “Same goes for ladies’ holiday. Don’t ignore it by trying to keep life the way it is everyday.  Stop, acknowledge, observe, respect and rest. Honestly ladies, we’ve earned it. Period.”

We’ve earned it? What does that even mean?

An old friend, Lena Kim, MD and Assistant Professor of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at UCSF, advised: “There is no evidence that yoga and/or inverted positions are harmful during menstruation. If anything, exercise in general decreases menstrual cramps.” If you have personal concerns about irregularities, definitely seek out the advice of your doctor.

Do consider how you feel when you practice and invert every day of the month, and make your decisions from there. Yes, oddly, there is a huge social and political lens that will color how we look at this, instead of just feeling our bodies. It’s kind of weird, really. Having experienced everything from light, unnoticeable periods to some extremely intense cycles, my only advice is to pay attention to your body and do what feels right. You’ll know what that is in the moment.

Soon I’ll give some ideas as to what asana and pranayama help me at the more difficult times. They aren’t what I expected, but the doctor was right!