If you tend to slip on mats and are not an ashtangi or doing jump-throughs, you might prefer the jade yoga mat, which is extremely grippy (so much so you can get caught on it and hurt yourself if you are just learning to jump through). These mats wear through fairly quickly, down to a mesh, but are good while they last.
If you want yoga blocks for class, these are good (I use them).
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.
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.]
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.
Is yoga spiritual? Is yoga religion? Is yoga science? What is yoga? These questions matter to me because it affects how I relate to students. I teach yoga in a university gym largely because I have the autonomy to do what I want, as I’ve yet to find a like-minded studio in NYC (great teachers, yes, but they all seem to be pretty autonomous as well). At Columbia, I’m not pressured to teach a certain way. For example, I don’t chant because most Columbia students aren’t comfortable with it. In fact, it can take them a few weeks to exhale with a sigh at the end of class (but once they do!..). The spirit is in the breath. Because I find that the subtler aspects of yoga happen through the experience of refined breath and focus rather than coaching (they certainly don’t happen on command), I don’t have a vocabulary for them. Wooey juicy-KrishnaLove-healing-chakra babble just does not describe my experience of the energetic experience of yoga. It’s not that I don’t believe. Genny Kapuler once explained that she doesn’t talk about the chakras much because there are entire libraries written about them. She doesn’t feel her knowledge, acquired in over thirty years as an Iyengar teacher, is adequate to teach them well. To boil down the fourth chakra to “My heart chakra was stuck so I really had trouble finding the right guy. But I took a workshop and could feel it open. I’m so excited about the possibilities!” is wanting, at best. I’m very hesitant to talk about energetic and emotional experiences in yoga not only because I don’t have the words, but because it’s important that we speak intelligently. Yoga practice is powerful and immediate. When energy and spirituality is discussed flippantly, it’s too easy to be thrown out as New Age nonsense. Horton conveys a “weirder experience” of yoga in her book Yoga PhD:
One day, during a deep hip opener (Pigeon pose, for those who know it), I had an intense, PTSD-like flashback of an emergency C-section that I’d undergone eight years previously. Holding the pose, laying forward with one leg bent under my torso, the other extended straight back behind me, eyes closed, breathing deeply, feeling inside, and suddenly, BOOM. I could see the operating room – smell it, even. It was intense, enveloping, vivid, real. But – and this is the crucial thing – it was not overwhelming. I was able to psychically revisit what had been a highly traumatic experience without panic or pain. On the contrary, I felt solidly anchored in that abiding, compassionate center that’s often called “witness consciousness”: that is, the part of the mind that is capable of staying calmly present in any storm.
(Yoga PhD, p. 9.)
This story is good because she communicates effectively. We all hold. And we all resist letting that go. What does that even mean, let go? It’s become a platitude. But when it means something, it’s a tricky thing. Here Horton “let go.” She wasn’t told to let go. She wasn’t looking to let go (at least not in that moment). But she did. I hold. In my chest and upper back, especially, and my lower right pelvis/hip. Sometimes I feel close to it. But I’m afraid, frankly, to be overwhelmed by the pain of it. That witness consciousness can take over in the experience is all very nice, but not everyone’s pain is as clinical as a C-section and this experience far more cleansed and tidy than the reality for many. In fact, according to neuroscientists like van der Kolk, such removed experience “psychically revisited” may not even help, as the healing is in processing the held, unfelt pain, rather than watching from a dissociated state. Unfortunately, facing and feeling this isn’t always as proper and removed as Horton suggests. This doesn’t mean we don’t have the strength to do it—simply that it might not be so sterile and detached as to keep a school marm comfortable.
A student wrote on an evaluation this semester “Non-cheesy Yoga = Awesome.” It’s true. Personally, I find it hard to focus, much less be open, if someone is telling me to let my shoulder blades kiss, or to enjoy a juicy hip opener. I also find it hard when someone is barking at me to open my chest. “Hey! Heartache! Be gentle!” I silently cry. This is where a personal practice can create a space you can explore in, taking time in poses when you feel something going on there, something that can be difficult in a class. It is hard, as a teacher, to make a space for this experience, especially in a gym-type environment. But the possibility is there. Horton:
When I first started practicing yoga, the idea that its psychological benefits could be just as, if not more beneficial than its physical ones wouldn’t have made any sense to me. It’s funny looking back. Because today, I take it for granted that one of the things I cherish most about my practice is that it weaves an organic process of psychologically healing and growth into my everyday life.
(Yoga PhD, p. 61.)
Because this is true for many practitioners, it’s time to work on my vocabulary for, and comfort with, talking about this aspect of yoga.
Many yogis are obsessed with their diets. It stands to reason. We are pressured to look a certain way, and the majority of food on offer is not only fattening and unhealthy, but not really even food. There is a multi-billion dollar industry that banks on telling us how to eat for health, though that is usually a marketing euphemism for thin. So, figuring out what is actually good for you can be difficult.
We are neurotic about what we eat. This is why I don’t have much to say about yoga and diet. Eat what you want. If you really pay attention to what that is, after a few chocolate croissants you will likely discover that you want food. Real food. Michael Pollan has a number of rules around this idea (indeed, a whole book). Those of most interest to me are (paraphrased):
Don’t eat food your great grandparents wouldn’t recognize. My addendum: unless it’s from a different culture.
Don’t eat food products with more than five ingredients.
Don’t eat foods with ingredients you cannot pronounce.
Eat as simply and locally as possible.
That’s it. That’s all you need. “But what about the traditional yogic diet?” you cry! Yes, it’s vegetarian, with dairy. There are all sorts of ideas about tamasic and rajasic foods, and people become quite obsessed. I know. I’ve been there. Garlic and onions? Stimulating! Bad. Coconut? Unfolds love and compassion! (I just learned that now.) Good. Meat? Violent! Very bad. Mung beans? Cleansing and light. Very very good.
While it’s important to be aware of what you eat, and what makes you feel good and bad, it’s a problem when people are overly preoccupied with what should and shouldn’t be eaten. It is not healthy. It is not social. The desire to control what is eaten seems like an unconscious attempt to control life itself, or at least have control over something. There is also a desire to nurture, or reject nurturance, through the foods we eat (or don’t). Sweet, rich foods can be soothing. It can be difficult to understand what we really need and when. (For excellent books on eating, emotions, and intimacy, read Geneen Roth.)
This is where the yoga comes in. When you pay attention to your body, if only during your yoga class a few times a week, you begin to learn how you feel. And once you begin to connect to how you feel, you understand when you are hungry, and even what you really need to eat. Protein. Salad. Pork chops. Whatever. You might notice that you want chocolate to avoid a feeling you have. Even if you still eat the chocolate, you know what you’re doing. You might notice that a few blocks of chocolate do better than a few bars. A few bites of ice cream instead of a few cones. You know that feeling gross for a day is not worth a gallon of comfort now. Your body tells you, not your control freak ego. The more you get to know your body, the less you think about food. This was my experience. And that yoga has its own way of nurturing.
Yes, I’ve tried all sorts of food crazes. I studied nutrition. I was a vegetarian for four years. I had so little energy I thought there was something wrong with me. While a vegetarian diet is unquestionably best for our furry friends and best for the planet, I discovered I need to eat meat a few times a month. (Did you know the Dalai Lama eats meat?) My iron levels demand it. I also do well with protein and fat. If I eat too much carbohydrate, I feel heavy and sleepy. That’s my body. I have a vegetarian friend who can eat salad and beans and be full of energy. I can’t. But that’s what works for me. Bodies vary greatly in what they need. Maybe it’s ethnic, maybe it’s genetic. It’s probably many factors that don’t really need to be teased out.
Svadhyaya, or self study, is a major part of yoga practice. It is not obsessive, compulsive or product oriented. It is largely quiet and observational. If you practice and pay attention you can tune in to how you feel and tune out all the idiotic food trends (is any community more susceptible than ours? I’m sorry, a seed will not save you). When this happens, food can be fun and an anxiety-free joy.
and some books I’ve been reading have me asking why you do yoga. I know why I do it, and why I teach it. But sometimes I wonder if I’m teaching to your needs.
The other night, in a last class of the semester, I asked students what they wanted from yoga. If they came to class as a happy bubble from the outside stresses of life. Eyes got big and heads nodded, almost as if to say, “Please don’t ask more of us. Please don’t ask more.” And for good reason, as exams and finals and graduations are upon us. I remember the stresses of grad school and just trying to maintain. And honestly, this is fine. To feel good for a few hours of your week, to forget all the headaches that will just change into a different stress in a week or a month or a season, is a wonderful thing.
But yoga can be much, much more. It can allow you the space to shift your attention from an external experience of self—how you look, how you’re performing in school or work, what your friends/partner/community thinks of you—to an internal experience of self. How you feel. What your thoughts are. How your thoughts shift. How your muscles feel. How all of this constantly changes.
As a culture, we build up tremendous habits against internal awareness because frankly, we don’t feel that great much of the time. The pressures we take on in modern life to keep up and impress require that we treat ourselves like robots. But we’re not. We aren’t a mechanical airbrushed consumer in a glossy ad. And that’s a good thing. But we often forget that, and how to relate to anything else. Yoga shifts this, which is why it can feel so good.
Most people probably do yoga for this reason. Exercise and a time out. This works, especially as maintenance a few times a week. Many people sense there is more to yoga, but don’t really have the time or need to pursue what that is. And that is a great and healthy thing. Others get hooked and begin to practice more, or look into the other dimensions of yoga. Also great.
There comes a point in a serious practitioner’s practice, and maybe for less dedicated yogis as well, that yoga will make you feel worse. That may or may not be totally conscious. You might start to dislike your teacher, people you practice with, or the style of yoga you recently raved about. You might find it impossible to get to the class. You’ll start missing practices. Or drift away from the mat for long periods of time. But this is when it is most crucial to get to your mat. Your yoga is starting to work on a deep level. It’s when you start to see things you don’t want to see. If you want to shift your incessant patterns, you need to see. But your ego and defense mechanisms resist this. Hate this. Suddenly those patterns seem not so bad. Comfortable. Reasonable. Much better the devil you know, eh?
When I first left a job I disliked to do work I love, I was shocked to find my resistance and procrastination was just as strong for things that I love as those that I don’t. Maybe stronger. It can be so hard to get to the mat, or sit down, or stand up and just do the work. Why? Because we like the comfort of where we are a little more than we’re willing to admit?
I could give you a long list of cliches to help you fight resistance, but honestly, nothing will get you there but discipline and an iron commitment. Yes, routine helps. A support system helps. A great teacher helps. But if you are patterned to distrust, the best sangha (community), routine or teacher in the world won’t stop you from mounting a case against them if that’s how you’ve programed things. You know this by experiences past.
Go and meet the hate. Get up and make the phone call. Sit down to your research. Start sewing the dress. Face the terror of doing whatever it is you so long to do. Yoga can help you do this—but you’ll begin to resist the yoga, too. Just keep doing it. Because when you do, you see what’s going on. It is slow and painful and terrifying, but you have begun to develop the tools to work with that. You’ve started to make shifts consciously and unconsciously. Do anything but give in to the devil you know. You’re closer than you think.
This is why I don’t advocate shiny, happy yoga. I wince at the idea of yoga as a happy bubble time that will keep you comfortable enough, when it can be the vehicle for profound change. But I do understand that there’s great value in just feeling good for a few hours a week. Honestly, I’m happy to be a part of that too.
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.”
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.
If 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.
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.
In 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 Timesreported 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.”
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.
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.
So 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 and 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.
Joints 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
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.
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.
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.
If 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.
Yoga 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.