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yoga practice

yoga practice in class and out

oldsite

This post is part of an integration of the info on the first yoga site I made for students back in 2007, as I’ll be taking it down soon. Enjoy!

Q: Is there a minimum amount of time that you should practice? Is it worth practicing 10 minutes if that’s all the time you have?    –M.M.

M.M.— This is a difficult question. The standby, “it depends on you, your needs, goals, and schedule” is true, but also frustrating, especially if you are new to yoga and just want some steadfast answers.

Ten minutes is enough to make a difference, believe it or not. If I have to squeeze in a bare minimum, I do a:
2-minute Uttanasana (standing forward bend)
2-minute Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward dog)
2-minute Sirsasana (headstand, or substitute L-pose, dolphin, handstand or your favorite)
2-minute Sarvangasana (shoulderstand)
2-minute Savasana (relaxation pose)

Though it’s tempting, don’t skip the Savasana. It is the most important pose.

If you have only 5 minutes, or even 2, take the time to do a forward bend or down dog, and gently bring yourself back to the breath each time you stray. These few moments can shift your awareness, and it may open up time for more. This is especially true when you feel like you don’t have time!

Q: Would it be better to practice twice a week for an hour instead of doing once a week for an hour and a half?    –M.M.

Yes. An hour-and-a-half class is great, but if you don’t practice more at home, one hour, twice a week is better.

Q: How do I find the discipline and inspiration to make my home practice an every day occurrence?    –B.J.

One teacher told me that if you want to change your habitual patterns, and therein your life, simply dedicate 5 minutes a day to something you love and believe in. This can be yoga, meditation, drawing, singing—whatever it is that lights you up. Give yourself to it fully for those 5 minutes and do it everyday (not 5m. today, 0m. tomorrow, and 15m. the next), no matter what comes up. We humans are so fond of our fixed ways that we will create resistance to even this small act of awareness. Somehow, we can watch that and move past it, and those 5 minutes develop into something much larger.

Q: I’ve begun to wonder a little bit (and this is strictly based upon my own idiosyncrasies) what a yoga class would be like conducted in silence. Is it possible to do? Is it done? I think that listening is a very good practice but I worry about how much privilege we give to the voice. What does yogic philosophy say about this?    –R.W.J.C.

Mysore-style Ashtanga is more or less conducted in silence, but for the Ujjayi breathing that fills the room. The teacher does walk around and make individual corrections (using voice and touch), but it’s directed to one person rather than the entire room.

Yogic philosophy has much to say about sound as well as voice, which can be used for creating sacred sound, or a scattered, unfocused state of mind, and everything in between. Read the Upanisads if you are interested. The Olivelle translation is direct and free from extensive figurative translation.


C: Yes, I have a personal practice. I sort of weave yoga into my day every day…I can’t seem to help it.    –R.W.J.C.

Excellent, R. That made me grin. Let’s hope we all get there—I must admit there are days I’d rather just stay in bed and read.

to close, a short video of John Cleese on the benefits of laughing yoga.

Categories
asana favorites meditation what is yoga

tradition: ashtanga, vinyasa & 8-limbs lite™

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

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

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

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

Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

Sweeney also argues:

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

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

Sweeney finds it:

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

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

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

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

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

b10009
Poster care of Ashtanga.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
asana favorites yoga practice

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

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

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

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

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

yogaUPd
Dynamic Stretching!

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

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

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

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

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

armCirc
Mabel Todd’s The Thinking Body, 1937

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

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

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

Categories
asana favorites

adho mukha svanasana from a master

misskitty
Downward Facing Dog. Post nap.

Categories
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.

Categories
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.

 

Categories
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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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.

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art & yoga

art & yoga: photography as a daily practice

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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…