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favorites practice at home yoga habits yoga practice

the daily minimum, at home

Tuesday I shared a basic ten (ok, fifteen) minute class to practice at home. Today we have a slightly more vigorous ashtanga-based option. We’ll call it “the daily minimum +.”

If you are just beginning to practice at home, make sure to the same things you’d do in a class. Turn off your phone. Take a minute to ground into your body, using some pranayama or mantra. Commit to spending the next 10 minutes (or hour, or two) on your yoga. If you don’t think you have the discipline to do this, you can pay me a handsome fee to come teach you some.

This sequence takes about 25 minutes, unless you want to dally. If you have less time, simply do the sun salutations, shoulder- and/or headstand, and savanasana.

Some good suggestions for abbreviated ashtanga practices can be found at the top of this FAQ. I especially appreciate these lines at the end, “While it is important to be sensitive to the needs of the body and mind, it is also important to look critically at these needs. Frequently, these needs are actually subtle avoidance mechanisms. If you are sore, tired, or don’t feel like practicing. Acknowledge those feelings and sensations, drop the expectations about what practice should be like and practice anyway.” Yup.

Savasana the movie (above, viaYogaDawg) is short (1 minute) and pretty funny.

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asana favorites what is yoga

bikram yoga: good or bad?

bikramBikram is thought of by many yogis as “not real yoga,” whatever that means. Why? Well, it’s incredibly body oriented, and most people attracted to it (it seems to me) are primarily interested in their bodies lookin’ good, as there isn’t much attention to anything but forcing yourself, asana, and some heating pranayama.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing. It is what it is. A bikram yoga studio is heated to a recommended 105° F/40.5° C to assist flexibility (warm bodies are more flexible than cold) and sweat, with the hope of detoxifying the body. Bikram Choudhury (the founder) has gained attention for claiming trademark and copyright on his sequence of 26 yoga asanas (poses) and threatening to sue anyone who teaches them without his approval. “This is enlightenment?” many ask, including Nora Isaacs at salon.com. Apparently so, as Bikram has compared his speedoed self to the Buddha (photo above, sans speedo but no less awesome, care of his website).

How do I feel about Bikram yoga? Mixed. I tried it at Funky Door Yoga every day for a week while visiting a friend in San Francisco in 2005 and I liked it a lot. I liked it most, probably, because I love to be warm. It felt great to sweat. I personally think Bikram might be trying to recreate the climate of India in those heated rooms, which makes sense in a certain way. I didn’t find it that hard—it wasn’t a vigorous vinyasa, but 26 poses performed one after another. Maybe some are repeated. I’ve forgotten.

My concerns about Bikram concern safety and health. Some of the asanas aren’t for every body, and there were people in the room trying to do poses that could be downright dangerous. One of the poses, supta virasana, is a standard pose that most western bodies just don’t manage without props (there are no props in Bikram). Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen once said that this asana sends more people to the emergency room than any other (blows out the knee) and yogajournal even issues a caution before explaining the pose on its site.

Another concern is that imbalanced people (most of us) tend toward what we don’t need. Bikram tends to attract hot-headed, aggressive, type-A people. In yogic thought, the last thing such people need to do is hop into a 105° room and sweat it up. Instead, they need to learn how to chill out. And I must say that the few people I’ve known to do Bikram regularly aren’t particularly relaxed or present (not that, ah, I judge). Even if this strikes you as hogwash, the question of how healthy it is to work out in that kind of heat does present itself, especially if the student has health issues.

I’m not so much into good or bad. If you like Bikram and it’s working for you, great. I think it might even be good for people who tend to be cold (physically), retiring, or in need of a boost.

2014 Update: Bikram is something of a scoundrel. If you are seriously interested, check out the book Hell Bent by Benjamin Lorr, or at the least read this Vanity Fair article about the rape and harassment cases against him.


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what is yoga

what are the different types of yoga? what is hatha?

The styles of yoga on offer are endless. Teachers often blend different practices to suit their needs, and give it a name that ends up on a class schedule, familiar only to those who frequent the studio. Most types of yoga stem from a few different schools, which have splintered into countless directions.

ardha_pinkYoga as we know it in the West—physical yoga—is but one of many types of yoga. It is called hatha yoga. Our appropriation of the term hatha to describe a style of physical yoga strays from the traditional Indian usage of the term. For most Indians, the term yoga is most closely associated with rajayoga philosophy, or with dhyana, meditation (though that’s changing due to hatha yoga’s popularity in the West). Unlike the general western concept of meditation, dhyana is not specifically body-oriented. It doesn’t necessarily mean seated meditation, nor does it necessarily exclude the body or hatha yoga.

When reading about types of western yoga, keep in mind that any physical yoga is hatha yoga (I won’t italicize when speaking in western terms), but it is also used to describe a style of yoga. More on that in the schools section.

Other types of yoga, as per Vivekananda‘s interpretation, which is, if not historically accurate, how yoga is commonly understood today, are:

raja yoga: cultivation of the mind/meditation
karma yoga: discipline of action
bhakti yoga: blissful devotion to the divine
jnana yoga: path of knowledge

In the West, we are best acquainted with hatha (physical) yoga, and usually use the term loosely to describe yoga that is fairly basic, slow, and relaxing, probably because it was associated with Sivananda and Integral Yoga, who also practice raja, karma, and bhakti yogas, and so they logically designated their fairly basic physical practice as hatha. And then everyone else did too. If you are new to yoga, a beginner’s hatha class is a good place to start, especially if you are out of touch with your body.

Because “hatha” is used so generally, ask what the class is like before you show up.

Sivananda, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Integral, and Kripalu are all traditions of hatha yoga founded by Indian gurus. They all stress the spiritual aspects of yoga and include chanting, as well as short periods of meditation. Viniyoga developed from the teachings of T. Krishnamacharya and his Madras-based student-son T.K.V. Desikachar. It stresses the adaptation of yoga practice to the needs of each person.

Keep in mind, these styles of yoga are hatha yoga. Viniyoga and Kripalu would also consider themselves to be styles of vinyasa as well. While other types of yoga, e.g. Iyengar, Ashtanga, Power Yoga, Bikram, etc. are not generally thought of as hatha in the west, they are hatha yoga in the physical sense and may be thought of as such.

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asana favorites yoga habits

how to do headstand (sirsasana)

In comments past, Merka asked:  “My vinyasa instructor LOVES inversions and headstands. However, I am slightly terrified of headstands because my arms are quite shaky when I do them. Do you recommend any arm exercises, in addition to downward dog, that would help build muscle? How do I encourage my body to relax when I’m in this position?”

I’m going to backtrack on this, because it also relates to M’s comment on virtual yoga, and because it seems to me that there is a lot of mystique and self-worth tied up with sirsasana and other inversions in a yoga practice. For some reason, many people seem to feel that if they can’t or don’t do headstand, they aren’t really doing yoga. I’m not suggesting this is you, Merka. It just reminds me that I know so many students who are fixated on it to the point of taking away from their overall practice. Yes, it’s cool to go upside down and there are many benefits. But it’s also very dangerous to do improperly because it can put so much weight on the neck, and those dangers can far exceed the benefits.

Sirsasana1
BKS Iyengar in headstand. Photo from haxoyoga.com

When I started doing yoga, I was quite weak. I did yoga because it relaxed me, and I had no designs on ever doing headstand, armstand, or anything I deemed fancy. But over the years (two?), a regular, well-balanced yoga practice gave me the strength and balance to do them easily. It was a natural progression that felt neither dramatic nor effortful.  And while I do practice headstand, I know much more accomplished practitioners than myself who don’t do headstand because of neck issues or other concerns. My point: if you don’t feel solid and safe in headstand, don’t do it. In this case, not doing headstand is being kind to yourself, and much more yogic.

So what do you do in class if everyone else is going up, and you feel inferior because you aren’t? Or feel like your being a wimp because you could, but…? Find your breath. It’s much better to feel comfortable where you are then to hurt yourself. Headstand does not make you a better yogi or a better person. Practice dolphin to forearm plank, which most instructors teach as a strengthening option for students not going up. If you are going up, use a wall. If the teacher doesn’t provide that option, and you don’t feel comfortable going to the wall anyway, then skip it and practice at home.

I often skip headstand in class if the teacher doesn’t know me well (or vice versa) and it’s taught in the middle of the room because I have a subtle twist through my body (because of dominant sight in one eye since birth. It’s been there through development) that often isn’t noticed until headstand, and I’m not interested in having that conversation or being misguided while upside down and unsupported in the middle of a stranger’s class.  So instead I do dolphin or whatever feels appropriate to me. And no one cares.

scorpion
If you fixate on headstand without looking at why you so desire to master it, as soon as you have, you’ll forget that accomplishment and chase after the next impressive pose. Image from dharmayogacenter.com.

Different schools have different ideas about how headstand should be done. Where I first trained, it was said that students shouldn’t be near the wall because they’d come to depend on it. I thought that was silly (training wheels, anyone?) and never tried headstand there for that reason. No way was I trying that in the middle on the floor. Other schools, like Iyengar, believe that it’s fine to have the wall behind you and come up one leg at a time when you are learning, as long is it is slow and careful, the abs are engaged, the forearms press down, and there’s no hopping. (I don’t mean press your body against the wall. I mean the wall is a few inches a way in case you fall back.) This is how I learned. Then I switched to a school that insists on coming up two legs at a time to protect the neck (which took some acclimation) but walls are fine. Yoga Journal advocates the two leg method, but suggests that hopping is okay: “Take both feet up at the same time, even if it means bending your knees and hopping lightly off the floor.” After years of safely lifting on leg at a time, I hurt my neck by “hopping lightly” with both legs. I don’t think it’s a good idea. Neither is throwing one leg up at a time, of course, or letting your head and neck take the weight.

I’m not interested in saying one way is right and another is wrong. All schools and methods are valid for their own reasons. Find one (one) that works for you and a good teacher who can guide you. Personal issues and injuries aside, you will progress to headstand when you have the strength, and you will move that into the middle of the room with the confidence and grace that come from a regular yoga practice. As they say, “Chit happens.”

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favorites teaching yoga habits

grammar for yoga teachers

When looking for a studio to complete my advanced training, I admit that somewhere in the process of choosing ISHTA, a deciding factor was that most of their teachers had a basic command of grammar. Perhaps I could be less judgmental, but it’s a matter of elegance. If you want your students to respect you and trust the knowledge you have to impart, it doesn’t hurt to know a few basics about words and phrases that are commonly used in yoga.

When to say “lay” and when to say “lie.” This is quite easy, as it’s generally used in present tense. The issue is not the action or the subject, it’s simply whether the verb takes a direct object. “Lay” takes a direct object, “lie” does not. Huh?

Lay your head down on the mat. Lay what? If you can answer that with a word in your sentence (your head, your hand, your iphone, yourself), use “lay.”

Lie down on the mat. Lie what? If there’s no word there to explain what (a direct object), then it’s “lie.” Lie over the bolster, not lay over the bolster.

(Note that “bolster” does not answer the question of what is to be moved.)

Fairly easy, if you quickly ask yourself if what is to be moved is in the sentence before you choose your words.

spine

Another frequent problem is vertebra vs. vertebrae. The first is singular, the second plural. We have 33 vertebrae, each one a vertebra. “Roll up to the top of your spine, stacking the vertebrae as you go.” “Roll up the spine, one vertebra at a time.” Same goes for scapula and scapulae, though scapulas is also correct plural form. Scapula is not.

I’ll refrain from some pet peeves, which aren’t exactly grammatical errors, such as suggesting the class enjoy a “juicy” hip opener. For the visual student, this is quite distracting. When not pertaining to food or weather, juicy connotes:

a. Rich in wealth, fit to be ‘sucked’ (quot. 1621); or  c. Suggestive, esp. in a sexual way; piquant, racy, sensational. colloq.

Is this really what we want to imbibe? (Definitions care of OED.)

Feel free to share your favorite yoga pet peeves. Perhaps we can learn something from them.

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asana favorites yoga habits yoga practice

ouch. my wrists/hands hurt in adho mukha svanasana (downward-facing dog)

I’m reposting this as many of you have had questions about wrist and hand pain in down dog.

It’s a quick post to answer MM’s question about her hands—the base of her hands hurt in down dog. This is a great question, because it’s a common problem. Often the wrists hurt for people who are new or who don’t do yoga regularly (more than once or twice a week), and I think the base of the hands is a similar issue. Press into your fingers! This takes strength and getting used to. You need to press into the index and thumb fingers especially. People usually press into outside base of the hands, which keeps the weight in the outside of the forearms on up to the trapezius muscle just below the neck, where we tend to hold a lot of stress. This habit doesn’t help.

Pressing into the thumb and index fingers as well as the other three takes weight off of the wrists and outer hands and arms and spreads the weight into the upper back. As you become stronger, flexible, and more comfortable in this pose, your legs will begin to take more of the weight. In fact, Iyengar says about this asana in Light on Yoga, “It strengthens the ankles and makes the legs shapely.” Fantastic.

modified-dogimage from wellsphere.com

A modification done daily to strengthen for down dog: practice it with your hands on the wall. This can be done almost anywhere. Here are links to an article and a video that show exactly how it’s done. This is great for beginners and those with hand or wrist pain. Every day! Ask your teacher after class if you aren’t sure you are doing it right.

Originally posted Aug 1, 2009 

 

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asana pranayama yoga habits

how to slide pranayama into your day

After working on my general blog all week, which includes some info about my ashtanga retreat in Sri Lanka, I’m tempted to write about nethra vyamamam (yogic eye exercises). My eyes are burning after staring at the computer screen all day and I haven’t done these practices regularly in years. Alas, I’ll stay on topic: fitting pranayama into the day. Lauren asked how to fit it in when not practicing asana, and Amy wants to know the same.

To Lauren, I say try to get a little bit of asana in every day, even if it’s just a long adho mukha svanasana (down dog) or a surya namaskara (sun salutation) or two. Even viparita karani (legs up the wall) is better than nothing. If you have ten minutes, consider these.

I try to do five minutes of pranayama in the morning or before bed. If I’m energetic, I just sit down and do it. If I’m exhausted, I make my way into legs up the wall and rest there a few minutes. Then I begin some gentle pranayama. If it’s morning, I might sit up afterward and do more vigorous pranayama if I have time, and end with a savanasa (corpse pose). If you don’t have five minutes? You need pranayama even more than when you do. Squeeze it in! It will create the space you need to minimize stress by stepping back so that you don’t overreact to situations and make small problems bigger by creating mind storms (vritti) over little things, like unpleasant service or a missed subway.

Which techniques I choose are similar to what I’d choose for a class, mentioned in the last post.

I suspect you want some ideas about pranayama on the subway and at your desk. Yes, you can take a 5 minute break and breathe. You know this—the real question is how to create the discipline to do it. Creating a habit is probably the best option. “Habit is a cable; we weave a thread of it each day, and at last we cannot break it” (Horace Mann). Until the habit is formed, make yourself take a break for pranayama everyday at the same time daily, or when you are doing something specific, like riding home on the train, or when you begin to feel a certain way. After hours at the computer, I begin to feel a bit spacey. That’s my time.

pranay.women
image from SarahLee.tv

Obviously, your choice of pranayama will be somewhat determined by where you are. In public, apa japa, deergha swasam or the krama breath are good choices. If your work space is somewhat private, you can do almost anything that won’t get in the way of your ability to return to what you were doing (nothing too intense). Make a note of how you feel after each exercise. If time permits, write it in an email or in your calendar so that you can reflect on how it’s helping. This can help to ingrain the habit.

If you find that you have trouble making yourself practice, do pranayama before whatever you usually do—before you open your book or ipod on the train, before tea, coffee, or chocolate, before calling a friend or searching out co-workers at the water cooler (Andrea). And make sure you’re practicing pranayama regularly with a teacher, which can be inspirational itself. If your teacher doesn’t do pranayama, ask if s/he’ll start. Many teachers are shy to instruct it because they think it’s not wanted.

In researching yoga blogs, I happened upon this bit about going home and getting on the mat instead of the internet, even for a minute. Yes! For me, that minute can turn into a 90 minute practice—even when I’d thought I was hungry.

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favorites pranayama

pranayama प्राणायाम

Thanks for all the excellent comments. Because I’m delighted and surprised that there’s an interest in pranayama (breathing practices), that’s where I’ll start.

Pranayama translates from the Sanskrit, प्राणायाम, as “restraint of life force.” Prana is life force, or energy, similar to qi (chi) in Chinese medicine. It is said to travel most easily with the breath, and prana is sometimes translated as breath, or even as spirit. Iyengar says that, “It is as difficult to explain Prana as it is to explain God….prana is the principle of life and consciousness. It is equated with the real Self (Atma)….Chitta [mindstuff, or thoughts] and prana are in close association.”

The suffix -āyāma translates as regulate, restrain, or most commonly, control. In the Indian edition of Light on Pranayama, the opening page explains, “Pranayama, the yogic art of breathing, leads to a control of emotions which in turn brings stability, concentration, and mental poise.” Who doesn’t need a bit of that?

Pranayama Yoga chart Reproduction of illustration from Yogini Sunita’s, Pranayama Yoga: The Lotus and the Rose: The Art of Relaxation, Walsall, England, 1965

This is a vast topic, and I’d love input from teachers more versed in it than myself. Some argue that pranayama is too powerful for beginners to practice. I disagree. I learned the fundamentals of yoga in a class at IYI that taught three pranayama techniques at the end of every class. When my practice advanced, I explored other classes around the city, and while many were amazing, I noticed that without the pranayama (which is absent in most classes), the classes weren’t as grounding and the effects didn’t last as long.

I don’t want to get into how to do pranayama here. It’s best to learn from a teacher in person, rather than by reading about it. I do think it’s valuable to talk about different types of pranayama and their benefits. The quick parenthetical explanations below are meant as quick descriptors or reminders—not instructions!

In the last post Sarah commented, “I love to do some sort of centering technique before asana to draw my attention to the midline, like nadi shodana (alternate nostril) or a ham-sa kriya (attention up and down the spine). I would love to hear what other people do after asana, if not going right into meditation.”

I, too, like to begin class with pranayama, not only because I find it impossible to squeeze into the end of my short, 60-minute classes. I usually start with a reclined apa japa (simple awareness of breath) or deergha swasam (complete, three-part breath), followed by krama breath on the inhalation (inhale-hold for three steps of inhalation), or a seated nadi shodana, sitali (inhalation through rolled tongue), or kapalabhati (skull-shining, with quick expulsions on the exhalation and natural, small inhalations). It depends on the mood of the class. If they need to settle, I’m partial to nadi shodana. If they need energy or if it’s cold in the room, kapalabhati. If it’s hot, sitali. If they’re a little dull, krama. I haven’t taught murcha (covering the ears) or bramuri (murcha with humming on exhale) yet, but I plan to start, as I love them. I think bastrika is too intense for my short classes, so I don’t teach it. I do teach the bandhas (locks), but subtly.

After asana, I don’t usually have time for pranayama, but in the IYI classes that I mentioned, deerga swasam was taught directly after savasana (corpse pose), followed by kapalabhati, nadi shodana, one minute of meditation, and closing chants (in that order).  If I had time, I’d definitely teach any of the above-mentioned breaths after asana, except kapalabhati or bastrika as there isn’t enough time afterward to ground. I also might add krama on exhalation as well. How do others approach this? And how do you discipline yourself to end in time for pranayama, if time is short?

In comments on the last post, Lauren said that she’s “interested in learning more on the different breathing techniques and how I can incorporate these techniques into my life when I am not practicing.” I’ll speak to this in the next post.

An aside: I imagined that all the unemployed were probably sending people to long term volunteer stays at places like Kripalu and other ashrams. Indeed, the New York Times did a story on it the other day.

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