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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.

 

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favorites pranayama

basic pranayama for beginners : प्राणायाम

Dear Students,

iyengar breathPranayama is the key to your practice. The breath is it. I often say “yoga and meditation” because in the West, yoga is considered to be something apart from meditation. It is not. Likewise, pranayama is no less yoga than asana (physical postures). The are all parts of a larger whole.

If you are only interested in yoga for exercise purposes, fine. As a friend says, “Diet yoga is probably better than nothing.” Even so, breath work is good for your body, metabolism, and stress levels. I really can’t recommend it enough.

The first type of yoga I started doing regularly was at Integral in NYC. The sequencing of their level one class is simple, straightforward and brilliant. I was never captivated by their more advanced levels in the same way, so I moved on. But no other style I tried included much pranayama, with the exception of Genny Kapuler (an amazing teacher for beginners and advanced practitioners alike. No one interested in yoga should pass through NYC without trying her class), who often includes it in asana class, as well as teaching a class devoted to pranayama every Monday. I began to notice in funky, free-for-all vinyasa classes that I had fun during and felt good immediately after, but the feeling didn’t stay with me long. It wasn’t much different than working out. Pranayama made the difference. The most pranayama you’ll get in popular yoga classes is some kapalabhati, which is great, but certainly not the most relaxing. And while you may want more fire from the skull shining breath (kapalabhati), I see your shoulders. You really could use some deep breaths.

pranayamaI keep pranayama very simple, partly in hopes that the practices will become second nature to you and you’ll do them on your own. If you want an hour and a half of pranayama, go to Genny’s. There are very deep and complicated practices, some known for destabilizing an unprepared mind. These aren’t on the menu. You should learn pranayama with a teacher, and then practice on your own. The most basic practice I teach is an antar kumbhaka, or breath retention on inhalation.

Antar Kumbhaka for Beginners

  • Sit or lie comfortably with an open chest. Once you’re accustomed to this breath, you can do it standing or even upside down.
  • Feel your breath. Notice where it is, how it feels, and how you feel. Then return your attention back to the breath.
  • Put your tongue at the back of your upper teeth, where it hits the gum. Keep it there for the entire practice.
  • Inhale through your nose to the top of your chest for 4 counts. Hold your breath for 7 counts. Exhale through your mouth, around your tongue, for 8 counts.
  • Repeat up to 4 times. Once accustomed to it, you can repeat up to 8 times. Do this practice as much as you like. If you do it twice a day, you will transform. (Haha. Just kidding. You will feel better though.)

This breath is very soothing. I sometimes do it once at the beginning of savasana, to settle in. It can also be done when you feel on edge, before you go to sleep, before you eat, before an interview, and so on. It’s more effective in these situations if you practice it frequently, but it’s always worth a try.

 

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yoga habits

yoga etiquette 201

Miss MannersYoga Etiquette 101 covers the basics of getting to the mat. This will get you through class and out the door. Keep in mind that it’s not the end of the world if you transgress once in awhile. It happens to everyone. But do avoid making these things a habit.

Try Not to Be Territorial About Your Space
This is difficult for most of us, myself included. While I am not attached to a particular space in a class, I do really like to be very close to the radiator and away from drafts. I also really dislike having things in my face, e.g. blankets, blocks, feet. I watch myself want to freak out when someone puts them at the front of my mat. It is, however, bad form to think you own 12 square feet of the studio, and to declare to others in the locker room that the class was ruined for you because some unknowing soul practiced in your space. It is also bad form to shoot that person anger beams throughout the class. Like the subway etiquette artist said, “It’s crazy this even needs to be mentioned.” It is unattractive to make faces when someone puts his mat down closer than you’d like. If you arrive on time but there’s no space left, ask the teacher where you should go. If he points out a space, those around it will be less salty about moving for you.

Avoid Setting Your Mat On Top of Someone Else
That said, don’t plunk down on top of someone else, or put your props in their space. When you set up, imagine how you’d feel if you were in the nearby spaces, and set up accordingly. And, please, please, please do not put your socks within five feet of anyone else. Gross.

Once Class Has Begun, Don’t Leave Unless It’s Incredibly Important
This means don’t leave to text, take a call, use the restroom, or because things are too hard. If you have to go, you have to go. But do you? This is for all the same reasons you wouldn’t want to come late (see last article).

Don’t Make Strange Noises
There is occasionally a student who feels the need to make lots of noise. It is wildly annoying. Don’t sigh dramatically or repeatedly unless the instructor has suggested it. Or breathe like a turbo engine. I took a led ashtanga class near a guy who was taking such bizarre, convulsive breaths that I feared he was ill. He was not. The ummm’ers and ahhhh’ers are irritating to everyone. It seems more like a bid for attention than something that occurs spontaneously. Please. Knock it off.

“While doing postures, as a general rule keep the airway wide open, breathe only through the nose, and breathe smoothly, evenly, and quietly. Never hold the breath at the glottis or make noise as you breathe except as required or suggested by specific practices.” – David Coulter, Anatomy of Hatha Yoga, 2010, page 17. See also pages 68-80.

If you use ujayii, learn it from an experienced teacher (ie someone with more than a 200hr training). Ujayii should be smooth and quiet so that you use effort to hear it yourself.

Ujjayi breath is characterized by a sound that results from closing the vocal cords a tiny bit while continuing to keep the tongue quiet and the lips softly closed. The breath makes a smooth, aspirate sound both as you inhale and as you exhale. It sounds almost as if you were whispering the word ah with your lips closed. As we know, whispering can be intimate. When you are close to someone, you don’t shout, and the ujjayi breath has the same intimate quality, as if you were whispering to your beloved. Listen for that sound and strengthen the breath, directing it with intention to be smooth, easy, and even. It is not simply a matter of letting the breath come and go in whatever pattern it happens to take, correct ujjayi breathing depends on a non-forced effort that, like a metronome, keeps the pace and tone of the breath consistent.

—Richard Freeman. The Art of Vinyasa: Awakening Body and Mind through the Practice of Ashtanga Yoga, 2016.

Or, as a senior teacher likes to say, “This is not a birthing class.”

Respect the Teacher
Ann Pizer explains it well: “When you enter a yoga class, you sign on to respect the teacher for the next hour and a half. You may discover halfway through the class that you don’t care for this teacher, style, or hour of the day. But you still should continue with the class, follow the teacher’s instructions, take your Savasana, and chalk it up to experience.”

Keep Variations Reasonable
In her take on Yoga Etiquette, Farnoosh Brock says: “Respecting your yoga teacher comes in many forms. The easiest one is following the poses or a modified version of them. I would not say this if I had not witnessed it many times. Do not do your own series in the middle of a guided class if you are bored or uninterested in the current pose. Finish the class and choose another teacher but during the class, respect the teacher enough to follow instructions and do so with an open mind.”

We have all felt trapped in a class at one time or another, and we have all needed to modify a pose or a sequence. There is an occasional student who wants to show everyone how much she knows by doing her own thing at her own pace. Not only does it disrupt the class and confuse other students, it generates a fair amount of eye rolling from others. I do have some advanced students who will practice in the back, and add a scorpion or split at an appropriate time. But these are students I know and have relationships with, and I am sure they know what they’re doing. If you aren’t sure about if your variations will be disruptive, ask the teacher.

Don’t Leave Early
It is disturbing for the same reasons as arriving late and coming and going, especially in savasana when people are trying to relax.

Don’t Ogle or Hit On Other Students or the Teacher
In the name of research, I just read a number of hideous pieces on how to hit on someone in your yoga class. Ugh. It is nice to imagine a space free from cell phones and pickups lines, but perhaps I am naive. I had a student disappear for awhile only to return and tell me that her boyfriend wouldn’t let her take class because he didn’t want guys looking at her bum. Who knew?

I guess the New York Times (the end of that article is particularly alarming) and The Inappropriate Yoga Guy (above). Miss Wingman has a whole essay on how to pick up women at yoga. Among other pointers: “Don’t be too good at it. If we wanted to date a guy who was Gumby-flexible or could hold a difficult pose indefinitely, we’d date a principal dancer in the New York City Ballet. There’s a difference between being open-minded enough to try yoga, and chipping away at your masculinity. Walk that line at your own risk.” Seriously? Who knew that flexibility was emasculating? Right Bruce Lee? Putin? Baryshnikov?

While a fan of romance, I am against hitting on someone in class, especially if you just want sex. That said, if you develop a crush, see where it goes over time and perhaps strike up a conversation leaving the studio. Use your intuition. If that someone is the teacher, just don’t do it. If why isn’t obvious, I’ll need to write another essay. Instead, use your crush as motivation to practice. Don’t make anyone uncomfortable or just hit on someone at random. If you aren’t sure what that means or are enamored of a number of men or women in class, again, don’t do it. It’s sleazy. Most people are looking for respite in their yoga class, not a date. If someone hits on you and you feel uncomfortable, talk to the teacher. Don’t let them ruin your experience or take your favorite class from you. It’s not right.

Be Neat and Patient When Putting Props Away At All Times
Fold blankets and mats properly, stack blocks neatly, and don’t cut in the line waiting to do so. In fact, keep the things near your mat during class to a minimum. You don’t need your cell phone next to you. If you take your specs off, put them on a block so no one steps on them.

Locker Room Etiquette
Do not lock yourself into the sole bathroom for ten minutes to change when there is a line. Change in the changing area and keep the bathroom free for others. Do not take lengthy showers, especially when others are waiting. If you use the last of something (soap, towels, etc), tell the management. Don’t use your phone here either, if it’s a yoga studio. No one showering after class wants to hear about your mother’s health issues or your dinner plans. Take it outside.

Again, a once in awhile transgression is not an issue. Bad habits are. Yoga classes and schools vary in etiquette, so get a feel for yours and if unsure, ask someone!

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favorites yoga habits

yoga etiquette 101

Like most subcultures, yoga has an unspoken etiquette. When it is spoken, or posted on signs in studios, it’s often ignored. Who reads signs when they could read a flirtatious text on their phone? Probably the person trying to get by, annoyed that someone is blocking the hallway, texting, totally unawares. But she already knows that phones, by now, should be off.

In some ways yoga etiquette is obvious and commonsensical, but perhaps not so to the newcomer. And perhaps not in a world where someone is driven to design subway etiquette signs. In the beginning of the semester, I find myself frequently explaining matters of yoga etiquette. I remind myself that these behavioral codes may not be obvious to everyone, especially in a gym.

Because my teaching manner is very direct, I’m sure I startle students who expect a yoga teacher to be nice at all times. Yoga is not about nice, or about love and light. (Yes, love is part of the equation. But we could also call it emptiness. Emptiness and dark. That’s for another day.) In fact, yoga is etymologically related to “yoke,” with all its implications.

As a yoga teacher, I am responsible for creating a space for students, and I am a bit of a mama bear about this space. Most find I am incredibly nice, when these codes of conduct are not transgressed. Some guidance:

Arrive On Time or Early
When someone comes into a yoga class late, it disturbs the class while he comes in, put his stuff down, gets props, and finds a space—if there is a space. If not, everyone has to rearrange. He literally disrupts a mood in the room, and no one appreciates it. It is difficult to settle into a class when people are sending beams of anger.

Choose an Appropriate Level Class
If you are totally new to yoga, start with something for beginners. If you aren’t sure, call and ask questions. When you take a class because it fits in your schedule rather than because it is appropriate for your level, you run the risk of confusion, injury, and general unpleasantness. A teacher cannot water down a intermediate class because one student can’t follow, nor can he break the flow of class to teach you what the other students have already learned. It’s also annoying to everyone if you just do your own thing, either because you can’t do what’s being taught, or you’ve deemed it too easy for you. (There is a difference between modifying poses to your needs and creating your own little sequence. More on this in the next post.)

Sign in
How you pay for class and sign in varies greatly by studio. Before you set down your mat and settle in, make sure you are properly signed up. If you aren’t sure what the process is, ask someone. Don’t assume you can take a class if you aren’t signed up for that class. It puts the teacher in the uncomfortable position of telling you no, especially because, unless it’s her studio, she doesn’t make the rules.

subETIQu
Art by Jay Shells

Turn off Gadgets
I suppose it was inevitable, but last year it happened. I had a student text in class. She was in setu bhanda. I was flabbergasted. My eyes got big and wide and I shook my head at her. When she didn’t stop I added, “That is not appropriate.” Yoga is about awareness. Awareness requires discipline, and separating yourself from your phone for an hour is one place to start. If this doesn’t interest you, try spinning. At the very least, have respect for others. The yoga studio is one of the last spaces left where we are free from soul-crushing electronic disquiet. If you cannot be away from your phone for the duration of the class, don’t go. Don’t use your phone in the changing room or lobby, either. This is the policy at most studios as it’s disturbing to those around you.

Cleanliness is Next to
Hygiene is such a big part of Hindu culture (from which yoga comes) that there are myriad rituals around it. Cleanliness is a big deal, and as well it should be. Did you know that you are meant to shower before, not after, yoga? My friend, Angela, explains this in her own memo on yoga etiquette: Arriving. It’s important that you, your clothes, and your mat be clean. There’s nothing wrong with sweating in class and the smell that may come with it. It is the stale odors that are objectionable.

Leave Your Shoes Outside
Take your shoes off and leave them outside the studio, or wherever you see shoes stored. Even if the class is in a space not exclusively designated for yoga, note what others are doing with their shoes and follow suit. Why? Because they are so filthy (especially in NYC) that there are symbolic rituals around them.

Wear Clothes
Cover up. You’d be surprised what can pop out in an up dog or revealed in down dog. In fact, try them in the dressing room before you buy. Pants that seem opaque in the delicate lighting of your home may well not be in the gaudy florescence of a gym. This is not a judgment about your sexual availability, nor is there judgment if your velcro fly rips open in a down dog assist and your pants come off in my hands (happened). It is simply about keeping distractions to a minimum. I prefer guys keep their shirts on. Women do. That said, your comfort is important. For more info on what to wear, try: yoga :: what to wear? and what to wear for yoga.

Pipe Down
When you enter the studio, please quiet down. This means don’t bang the blocks, whap the mat down, or yell across the room to a friend. It also means begin to draw your awareness in. Notice the light, the sounds, the temperature, your mood, your energy level, your breath. Give your full attention to yourself, by which I don’t mean getting your space before that new guy does (see next post). Begin this transition when you take your shoes off, and stay with it until the end of class. Not only is it impossible to do this if you are chatting with a friend, but it is impossible for those around you, as well. Even if you aren’t interested in yoga, please be respectful of those who are. Don’t chit chat until class ends.

Out of respect for your eyes and time, I’ll cover the second half in the next post on Wednesday.

Categories
art & yoga

art & yoga: photography as a daily practice

20130213-NewYork-Feb--322

Photography has always been something that brings me into the moment (except, perhaps, the few years I worked full time as a photog). It also makes me happy. Seeing something that strikes my interest and playing with it via the camera brings me joy. I’ve noticed that on these walks, a few shots can turn my mood around. I’ve often heard the argument that photography does the opposite, takes the seer out of the moment, by looking for a photo or trying to freeze time instead of just being with what is there. This may be true, and may be more true for some than others. Perhaps if you are on a trip and feel the need to snap away to show others you were there—but this is not photography, and the result is not interesting. Yes, there are definitely moments when it’s time to put down the camera. Personally, I’ve found that photography brings me far more into the moment than writing does. Not the moment of actual writing, when there’s little choice, but the stories I write in my head when walking down the street, when I see something funny I want to share. As it is told and retold in my mind, how much accuracy have I retained? How much have I missed passing by? As a form of creativity, I don’t see this as inherently bad. I just notice the power photography has to bring me into the moment and open my eyes. It’s inaccurate to say that photography is not an act of awareness. We don’t hear people complain that writers aren’t in the moment because they are crafting stories in their heads, but it is perfectly true.

Last year, I started carrying a point and shoot with me at all times. Not necessarily to Mysore practice, but everywhere. But because my walk to practice is daily, at my most focused time of day, a series of photos began: The Walk to Mysore. It’s also the walk from Mysore, which can include different paths. Read the full story…

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yoga mats: the good, the bad, and the crumbly

The yoga mat. It is very good to have your own if you practice yoga regularly. You can contract some pretty gross stuff from communal mats. What kind of mat you want will largely depend on your yoga. If you practice a few times a week and don’t mind PVCs, a cheap mat from Gaiam or anywhere will do the trick. Expect it to be slippery until you break it in. My teacher recently gave me the best advice ever on breaking in a mat: “Don’t cut your toenails for awhile. Then they’ll chip into the mat and it will have more traction.” Amazing. I usually just tell people to machine wash it and air dry. This is an upside to the cheap mats—but don’t try it with a fancy mat. Anything but the cheap, common mat will probably not survive a machine wash.

If you practice more seriously, or don’t want a PVC mat, there are better, but more expensive options. If you practice ashtanga, you will shred a cheap mat in a week, and the little mat bubbles will stick all over you. There are two solutions to this. The first is a towel (or mysore rug), most popular in Ashtanga and Bikram, which heavy sweaters will need anyway. You use the mat for standing poses, then unfurl the towel over it for the rest. I really don’t know one brand from another, as I don’t sweat that much and don’t use one. The next solution is a good mat. Ashtangis pretty much swear by Manduka because they don’t shred, and their PRO mats are guaranteed for life. Take note: the Manduka eKO®  collection are not. I bought one, expecting it to preform like my PROlite. Instead it shredded in just a few uses. It was also much more grippy—too grippy for my taste.

leaf bug on mat

It took me no less than 25 emails with their customer service to convince them that a $76 yoga mat should not shred after a few uses, even if it was natural tree rubber. They finally sent me a PROLite to replace it for a $12 shipping fee. Their rep was helpful, if a times a bit absurd, suggesting that a wipe down with apple cider vinegar would stop the shredding and offering to send a “slightly used mat” to replace it (see “gross stuff” above). This was, I acknowledge, after they ran out of the sale mats they’d originally offered because Hurricane Sandy delayed my reply. I am sure they found me equally absurd.

So, yes, I recommend the PRO/PROlite mats. The PROs are extremely cushy and durable, but heavy. Not for walking about town, but great for home, studio, or I suppose, people with cars. They are cushier than the PROlite, which I’ve read some people find hard. I don’t. I also don’t find them slippery, after a break in. I heard a teacher explain that mats are slippery when dry, but stick when you’re sweaty.

I don’t find that to be the case, but maybe for some. While they are expensive, they last forever. They are made of “an eco-certified PVC material and manufactured emissions free” (their site). It’s quite awesome to have a mat you’ve spent thousands of hours on. If you get a cheaper mat and have to buy a new one every week, month, or year, that’s much more expensive than getting a good one to begin with, and harder on the planet. While I don’t adore my manduka mat, I can’t really imagine getting that excited about a mat. It’s a good mat, and it doesn’t fall apart or shed into my hair or clothes. I got mine on sale at Gilt, so they were more like $55 than $85.

Another recommended mat, less expensive but less durable, is the eco-friendly Jade Yoga Mat. They have more traction than Manduka PROs and are made of PVC-free biodegradable tree rubber. I have a few students who like them, but I’m not sure how they’d hold up to an ashtanga practice. I see them shred within a year. They are super-grippy and you can catch on it if your jump-throughs don’t clear. Judging from web reviews, they are popular with vinyasa practitioners. I recommend them for people concerned about slippage who are not ashtangis. I’m also told this hugger mugger is cheap, not-slippery, and good.

Mats to avoid? Anything made out of jute (a word that comes from Bangla: “name of a plant fiber used in making coarse fabrics and paper, and the plant which produces it, 1746, from Bengali jhuto, ultimately from Sanskrit juta-s “twisted hair, matted hair”*) I got one on amazon years ago and it was a disaster from the get go, shedding its juteness all over me, the studio, and the practitioners after me. It is also hard and sand papery, and literally cut my feet open. There are blood stains on that mat. I’ve had similar issues with the super-thin travel mats, made by assorted companies. They are way too thin to practice on unless you’re on carpet or grass, and that’s not ideal anyway. I suppose better than nothing, and I still travel with mine, had for $12 on amazon. Buy a cheap one though, because the pricey travel mats are no better.

Categories
favorites the yoga consumer yoga habits

yoga :: what to wear?

part 2 of 2. See also part 1: “preferably something opaque” endures all trends

Because my shala is closed on the weekend, yesterday I took a led power class. This class is such a circus, and so different from quiet morning Mysore, that I take it almost to test my ability to focus. You know, kind of like how the aging Gandhi told young girls to sleep and bathe naked with him to test his purity. I enjoy every minute.

photo sexy yoga wear
Victoria’s Secret, high on the sweatshop list, breaks out with NEW! Yoga & Sexxxy Lounge. Hey, darling! You’re losing your shorts.

It’s been two years since I wrote a bit on what to wear for yoga and it’s time I updated, as my views have changed on a matter or two. The basic tenet to (please) wear something opaque still stands. So does: “You need nothing special to do yoga.” That said, some togs will serve you better than others. Especially if they are clean. You must launder your clothing. You are sweating. Yes, I am talking to you, undergrads. Maybe you have developed a tolerance for your personal odor, but we have not. Please. Wash your yoga wear.

There is just so much stuff. Everywhere. Especially after sales blitz December. It is overwhelming. So, to reiterate, you need nothing special to do yoga. If you are thinking that a cute new top will get you into headstand, stop. If that line made you want to run and check the Gilt sales in case there’s something great you might miss, get a hold of yourself. Take a breath and keep reading. Better yet, go practice in whatever you are wearing now. If it’s a t-shirt, you will find it bags around your head. So next time choose a snug-but-not-tight tank top. That’s my choice. They are fairly easy to find, but I’ll mention some stores in a moment.

gaiam2
Gaiam has some nice yoga stuff, and good intentions.

Pants are more troublesome. Years back Old Navy made a boot leg pant that I loved. They phased it out in 2005 or so, and I had to search for something else. I had to switch to capris, because they took over the market and it was hard to find anything else. It seems that yoga clothing manufacturers are as desperate for your money as the rest as the garment industry, because styles of yoga pants cycle. If you like leggings and slightly flared capris (flatters who?) are in vogue, too bad. This is why when I find a pant I like, I tend to buy five pairs in black, so I don’t have to go through the search again for a few years. If you really think you need the current style in the current brand of yoga wear to practice, you are missing the point.

I’ve been told by men that shorts are a concern. Last time, Rod said: “A good rule of thumb, especially for blokes, is to imagine that at some point you could be upside down in the clothes that you put on: how much will be revealed/concealed when this is the case?” I recently saw another student reiterate this concern in a shoulderstand comment on the faceboek.

Fibers. I used to prefer cotton, as weird blends smell more when you sweat. Then I read about how toxic and pesticide ridden most cotton is and I changed my mind. While it’s easy to buy from Old Navy because they’re cheap and convenient, it’s not so easy to think about the small child working in a sweatshop sewing your pants together. Though it’s easy to be cynical and toss off responsibility because basically everything you buy in today’s world is exploiting someone, in the end, it does matter. Check out The Story of Stuff for how all the unused junk in your storage space affects communities near and far (and what you can do about it).

When Gaiam learned of this being printed on their mats by CafePress, they pulled them immediately. Really, truly bizarre.
?????

Brands like Gaiam, Manduka, Patagonia, and Prana are smaller businesses that try to do something valuable for the planet we inhabit. Do they? To some extent, yes. When insanely distasteful slogans (Who wants to do yoga on a mat celebrating someone’s death? I’m so confused) were being printed on Gaiam mats by CafePress, Gaiam removed them immediately. “The Footprint Chronicles” at Patagonia examine their “life and habits as a company. The goal is to use transparency about our supply chain to help us reduce our adverse social and environmental impacts – and on an industrial scale.” One of my students works there, and she loves it. Prana is committed to sustainability and partners with some good organizations to that end. I’ll cover Manduka soon in a yoga stuff post. I do get my nice yoga stuff from Gilt when they offer these companies’ wares.

Yeah, it’s hard to know if “sustainability” and “community” claims are sincere or just marketing gimmicks in the brave new world of conscious capitalism. It’s simply gross when Whole Foods CEO states that global warming is “not necessarily bad” while promoting his new book: Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business. Ugh. (For an endlessly amusing look at commercial yoga culture, check out The Babarazzi.)

Walking home from that yoga class yesterday, I overheard two women talking as they passed by on Greenwich Avenue. One said to the other, “We could go drunk shopping,” in a dull monotone, as if there’s nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon in New York City. Did you even know this was a thing? Let’s get a collective grip. The bottom line is, how much is enough? Do you really need it? Figure that out, and buy appropriately. Then make a list of things you love to do aside from buying stuff, maybe things you wish you had more time to do. The next time you find yourself shopping to distract yourself or ease your pain, instead do something from that list. This seems simplistic, but it’s harder than it sounds. There will be some resistance, guaranteed. But it will feel really good. Especially if it’s some yoga. 🙂

Categories
favorites what is yoga

how yoga ruined my tan

This isn’t about the superficial layer.
It is about the body and its endless ability to amaze.

leg1
little white bumps

Last year, I photographed my friend Ilona making a tattoo. At the end, she told the woman she couldn’t work out for a few weeks because the sweat could damage the tattoo. I later mentioned this to a student sweating in class who had a fresh tattoo, and she said she’d never heard that before.

In November I took a short trip to Puerto Rico and spent hours upon hours swimming in the ocean. I tanned really quickly, instead the gradual tan I acquire in NYC summer. When I got home to dry, cold New York (to a Noreaster, in fact), I went to a sweaty yoga class. After, I went to an opening with a friend. At some point, I looked down at my arms and they were covered with gross little white bumps, the likes of which I had never seen. In a few days, they burst and turned into the regular old peeling skin we associate with a suntan gone wrong. When the same thing happened on my legs after a good sweat a week later, I realized the little bumps were created by drops of perspiration under the skin, which later popped open.

leg-peeling
full on peel

Really cool.

It reminded me of Ilona’s advice. I could see how the same process could affect a new tattoo.

I showed my teacher. Though at first it was clear he thought I was a crackpot, when he actually saw it he was fascinated. “Thank you for showing me that!” he enthused.

While I’m by no means a physiology nerd, the body is endlessly fascinating. I especially like to watch (and sometimes photograph) how it heals. I considered making a little list of my favorite books on the body, but it’s pretty eclectic, so I’ll just name a few. My beloved rolfer gave me an old edition of the 1930s book The Thinking Body by Mabel Todd. Anna Swir’s book of poetry, Talking to My Body (see below). And Gandhi’s Body by anthropologist Joseph Alter, who was about 15 years ahead of Mark Singleton but lacked the audience.

I Starve My Belly for a Sublime Purpose

Three days
I starve my belly
so that it learns
to eat the sun.

I say to it: Belly,
I am ashamed of you. You must
spiritualize yourself. You must
eat the sun.

The belly keeps silent
for three days. It’s not easy
to waken in it higher aspirations.

Yet I hope for the best.
This morning, tanning myself on the beach,
I noticed that, little by little,
it begins to shine.

~Anna Swir

You know, on days when I’m cranky, I ask myself if all of this yoga and meditation is worth it, if I’m really any better off than when I started. I then remember something like how much I used to think about what I ate, what I should eat, how much and when, and what my body looked like. I didn’t consider how I felt. That was denied. I rarely think of that, anymore. I just eat what I want, when I want. If I don’t want to eat or drink too much, it’s because I don’t want to feel gross. The denial of food is a denial of life and of the body. Trying to find spirit by denying matter can only take you so far. Seeking through the body is far more fun.

“I am not an intellectual, I write with my body.”  ~Clarice Lispector

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!]