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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.

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favorites practice at home yoga habits yoga practice

yoga at home for the holidays

Last week I was commiserating with a student who’d missed class about how difficult it is to establish a home practice. It took me about two years of consistent classes to really get into practice on my own. Establishing a daily home practice took not only dedication, but concentration. It’s much easier to make yourself go to a class than to maintain focus amidst the endless distractions of your home. But once you’ve got it going, it’s really harder just to do yoga once in awhile when you can’t make class because it’s not habit and you have so many (pitiful) reasons not to do it.

It took a little trickery to get me started. If I thought of the whole 1.5 hour series, I wouldn’t do it. I was too hungry or tired or pressed for time. So I told myself I’d do one pose (which was usually the lazyman’s legs up the wall. It’s the best pose ever. We need, most of us, to be lazier), then I could relax. After the one pose, I was relaxed, and liking it, so I did one more. This went on through the whole series, often ending in seated mediation two hours later. No way? Believe me, it will happen.

Whether you are looking to keep the hamstrings happy until you get back to class next week, or you’re trying to establish or motivate a personal practice, a few minutes of yoga a day are enough to shift things into habit. As Ethan likes to say about meditation, “You wouldn’t skip brushing your teeth for a few days, then brush for an hour on the weekend, would you?” And so it is with yoga.

So here’s a 10-minute home practice that my Iyengar teacher Genny Kapuler gave me as a daily minimum of sorts years ago. Tomorrow or Friday I’ll post another that is more Ashtanga influenced.

So go get your mat (though you don’t really need one) and do some yoga.

Don’t even think of skipping savasana.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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asana favorites slider yoga habits yoga practice

to practice or not to practice: ladies’ holiday

menstruThere are as many takes on yoga asana practice during menstruation as there are euphemisms for it. Ladies’ holiday, your moon (not to be confused with the moon), ladies’ days, your flow, the curse, crimson tide, the rag, that time of the month, and, refreshingly, your period, are a few you’ll hear in wider yoga discourse.

The official line in Ashtanga is not to practice at all during your “moon.” Iyengar discourages twists, inversions, deep backbends and binds, and suggests specific practices based on what you’ve got going on (e.g. heavy cramps, bloating, no period at all). You can find these in Geeta Iyengar’s Yoga, A Gem for Women. Many schools advise not to invert, while others say listen to your body and figure out what’s best for you. I’ve heard Cyndi Lee of Om Yoga advise that women should invert, because it’s only a patriarchal edict that tells women they can’t. Honestly, I see the logic in all of it.

Don’t practice at all? This is the Ashtanga way, as K. Pattabhi Jois told women not to practice during their periods, and for traditionalists, what Jois says, goes. Yes, it’s easy to forget that is Yoga is a tradition developed by and for men. In India, women write books with lengthy introductions to convince readers that yoga is something women can and should do (e.g. Yoga, A Gem for Women). It’s hard to imagine in the female-majority yoga rooms of the west, but yoga is not historically a women’s endeavor.

I didn’t even have to add “yoga” to the “tampax” image search.  Of course she’s wearing white pants. And yes, it really says, “Who would have thought a tampon could get me to that Zen place?” Nothing like a mixed metaphor for ragtime practice.

While not practicing might sound silly to you, understand that Ashtanga is an intense practice that demands mula bandha, which is quite difficult to do during menstruation. I find it’s quite hard to pull up and in when I’m a bit swollen and tender. Do I practice? Usually, yes, but it depends on how I feel. There are some days a year I wake up and say, “No way will that feel okay right now,” and I go back to bed. But often (like last week), I feel great when I’m able to move and stretch my body, which actually seems to tighten and lock up in the days before, but relaxes again when my period starts. I like to practice.

To invert of not to invert? This debate has been going on for quite some time, and it seems to have three camps. The first: Traditionalists who believe that inverting interferes with apana, the downward flow of energy in the body. It is advanced in a retro-ditz-delicate-flower piece by Kathryn Budig on elephant journal. “I officially mark myself as senseless during the preceding days as the first few of the actual holiday. When you can normally find me working flips in a handstand till I can’t see straight, this time of the month it’s more common to find me propped up on the couch, my handy Jane Austen novel du jour next to me, and an artillery of spoons ready to attack a fresh mint and chocolate chip gelato.” Senseless, eh? Hmmm. What exactly is a Jane Austen du jour? Doesn’t she only have 5 or so novels? And Ms Budig reads one every day? How many spoons does one need to “attack” fresh gelato? I prefer to let it warm and soften a bit, so that it glides from bowl to spoon to mouth. In fact, I like to lounge about reading and eating chocolate every day of the month. I certainly don’t limit it to that time.

classygalBudig goes on to say that she believes not practicing on her period is a form of respect. For what? Her teacher? The moon? Patriarchy? Jane Austen? While she doesn’t like the suggestion that “blood will get stuck” if you invert (I’ve never heard it put quite that way before), she does argue that, “logistically speaking if something is trying to get out, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to turn it upside down. Or twist it. Or strain it. Or do anything more than supine postures, snuggling a bolster, light walks and all those bites of chocolate.” Well, logistically, if something is trying to “get out,” it makes a lot of sense to twist it, no? If you wanted fluid out of something soft, you’d twist, right?

This careless argument doesn’t do much to convince me to lie around during my period. And many are turned off by the red-tenting of women around the time of our periods. This second camp is well-covered in this Go With the Flow article on Jezebel. The medical risk of inverting involves retrograde menstruation, which some argue causes endometriosis. While most doctors say this myth has been debunked, Kathleen Lea Summers, MD, PhD, argues that as of 2011, “Retrograde menstruation remains the prevailing scientific hypothesis for what causes endometriosis. It’s complicated, and other factors play a part—things like genetics, epigenetics, immune function, environmental toxins, etc.”

Wow! Crazytown ad from the 1950s.
Wow! Crazytown “feminine” ad from the 1950s.

“For sure women who have more frequent periods, those that bleed heavier, and those that have a blockage to normal flow through the vagina are the most likely to develop endometriosis. That indicates the amount of backward flow is important in development. While there are no studies looking specifically at whether or not women who practice inversions during their periods are more likely to develop endometriosis, prudence is wise. Anyone with a personal or family history of endometriosis should never do inversions while on their period. Other women need to be careful too, especially during the days of heaviest flow. If they choose to invert during menses, then time in the posture should be limited to 30 seconds.”

That said, there are doctors, including Mary P. Schatz, M.D., who state that inverting won’t cause endometriosis, but it can cause vascular congestion (heavy bleeding). I’ve talked with a number of teachers and students who have found this to be the case. We are of the third camp—try it out for yourself and see how you feel. I inverted when I started years ago, but on several occasions got really intense cramps afterward. I’d never heard anyone else complain of this until a commenter on the elephantjournal article said the same thing. I also tend to bleed more. Further, I just really don’t feel like spending ten minutes upside down when my belly is heavy. So, while once is a blue moon (sorry), I will feel up to inverting, I usually don’t.

Wow! Crazytown "Outsmart Mother Nature" ad from 21C
Wow! Crazytown “Outsmart Mother Nature” ad from 21C.

Bodies are all extremely different, from person to person, but also from cycle to cycle. The only way to know what’s best for you is to pay attention. I find I’m often (but not always) extra stiff before my period starts. Some months I don’t even expect it (meaning no PMS) and other months, I do. Sometimes I feel tired and heavy, sometimes I’m energetic. I notice, and behave accordingly. The reason the Budig piece grates? It advances the notion that women are “senseless” and unable to work during their “moon.” In once sentence she tells her students, “Notice what is happening in your body and mind before you race past it to where you think you should be.” Then she races past everyone to tell us how we feel and where we should be—on the couch with bon bons. “Same goes for ladies’ holiday. Don’t ignore it by trying to keep life the way it is everyday.  Stop, acknowledge, observe, respect and rest. Honestly ladies, we’ve earned it. Period.”

We’ve earned it? What does that even mean?

An old friend, Lena Kim, MD and Assistant Professor of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at UCSF, advised: “There is no evidence that yoga and/or inverted positions are harmful during menstruation. If anything, exercise in general decreases menstrual cramps.” If you have personal concerns about irregularities, definitely seek out the advice of your doctor.

Do consider how you feel when you practice and invert every day of the month, and make your decisions from there. Yes, oddly, there is a huge social and political lens that will color how we look at this, instead of just feeling our bodies. It’s kind of weird, really. Having experienced everything from light, unnoticeable periods to some extremely intense cycles, my only advice is to pay attention to your body and do what feels right. You’ll know what that is in the moment.

Soon I’ll give some ideas as to what asana and pranayama help me at the more difficult times. They aren’t what I expected, but the doctor was right!

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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 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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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.

Next: how to slide pranayama into your day