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.”

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.

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.

how to find yoga teacher/school yoga practice

how I found ashtanga

an awkward kukkuṭāsana

I don’t talk about my own practice much here, but it’s time. Largely because when my students leave Columbia, they always ask.

My own yoga has always shaped my teaching, and it’s taken its share of twists and turns over the years. Until 2010, I’d been doing a hatha-vinyasa practice for the previous few years and I had issues with inflammation and injury. If I took classes, often the teachers didn’t warm us up enough for all the stretching that came after. Lunges hurt the ball of my foot (sesamoiditis) and my hips ached from weird sequences (starting class with pigeon is not “shaking things up.” For most bodies, it’s unwise). Classes that did have warm-ups didn’t have cool downs. Teachers had annoying ticks. Or unfortunate taste in music. My last studio, where I did my advanced teacher training, had some great teachers, but their schedule didn’t match mine and it was hideously out of my way. An hour commute, if our friends at the MTA were in a good mood. Before this, Genny Kapuler and her soho studio were my favorite, but I’m too tightly-wound to be 100% Iyengar. I need to sweat to calm down.

I ached for a studio and a teacher that fit.

I didn’t expect to find it at the YogaWorks corporation on the UWS. But, what can I say? There was a Groupon. I took a bunch of classes for a week or two last May because it was reasonably convenient to my life, and gravitated to Evan Perry’s ashtanga classes. There is warm up. There is breath. There is wisdom in the time-tested sequencing. There is little chatter. There is no music. There are intelligent adjustments. And there are faces that became quickly familiar. It was because of these classes I started a membership at yogaworks.

My first aśtanga experience (properly it is aśtanga, but is also written ashtanga and astanga) was around 2003 at a small shala with Angela and Sharada LaSpisa. They were great but it was too hard. I could barely do Surya As, and before long, I switched to Iyengar. Years later, in January 2008, I took a class with Evan when I did a trial with yogaworks. It was hard. I liked it. But my trial ran out and I was still in grad school. Then I did my advanced teacher training at ISHTA. During that period I did an ashtanga retreat in Sri Lanka for vacay, not chosen for the yoga but because my Aussie boyfriend did not find the surf in the Caribbean pleasing. So, I went back to South Asia. It was beautiful and fun. And ashtangis are funny.

So it wasn’t a total surprise when I started getting up at the crack of dawn for Mysore practice (this site explains how Mysore differs from teacher-led classes) last summer. By fall, I had moved downtown and things had settled a bit. I made it a point to practice astanga six days a week, as prescribed. If I couldn’t get to the studio, I did it at home, or even in the gym at work. I quickly learned that it could not be a choice, going. The only way to defeat the “I could stay in bed” dialogue is to not entertain it, not even on the rainiest or snowiest of days.

Mornings of greatest resistance were countered by thoughts of the others sweating it out. The warmth of the room. The adjustments. The room full of yogis having practiced for years alongside those who started last week. The camaraderie forged by breathing together in our otherwise silent daybreak ritual. The chats afterward in the locker room and by the water cooler. It is not just the bending and jumping and twisting we rely on to start our day. For that we can practice at home, and even steal some more time in bed.

So, how do you find a good yoga studio? It’s not easy. One size does not fit all, and I’ll share more thoughts in a following post.