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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.

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what is yoga yoga practice

is yoga Hindu?

There’s a debate on about yoga’s origins, and it’s gone viral “—or as viral as things can get in a narrow Web corridor frequented by yoga enthusiasts, Hindu Americans and religion scholars.” This is the buzz covered in the November 27, 2010 article, “Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga’s Soul,” by Paul Vitello. What I found most fascinating about the article is that it interested enough readers to be near the top of the NYT top emailed list. I think it was #2 last night.

The gist is that Hindu-Americans want Hinduism to be credited with yoga. To be asked, “Oh! Do you do yoga?” instead of, “Oh, do you worship cows?” when a non-Hindu American learns of their religion. And because they want credit where they feel credit is due. Understandable. But the argument about yoga as religion is not new. It depends how you define Hinduism, which is a touchy subject. Do you ask scholars? Do you ask believers? Would you ask a Christian-American if you wanted to learn the facts about history? Would you ask a scholar, well, anything? (Relax, I’m teasing.) Do you ask Deepak Chopra? I, personally, would ask everyone and believe no one. I love that Hindu scholar, Diana Eck, is quoted in this article, but she doesn’t say what her opinion about the matter is. I’ve sneaked in her book as the image, because I’m probably not going to mention her again and that is a fantastic book. One of my undergrad religion professors gave it to me before I went off to India way back when (1998).

Yoga is one of the six astikas, or orthodox schools of Indian philosophy, though hatha yoga likely existed long before it was adopted as part of this tradition. Orthodoxy here means that they accept the authority of the sacred Vedas. Does that mean yoga is Hindu? Not necessarily. The yoga practiced in the West is arguably related to the Yoga astika only as a cognate. Again, It depends how you define Hinduism, and it depends who you ask. Because the answer isn’t that important to me, I’m not going to go further into this topic because I think the only answer is subjective. Those who say yoga is Hindu are coming from a very different place than those who say that it is not. As I find myself between those places, there is no convenient answer.

Paul Vitello

Categories
what is yoga

relax

yoga studio
Yoga Breeze, Yakuin Studio, Fukuoka, Japan. Photo: ©Govinda Kai

Often I mention articles in class that, if not about yoga, are yogic in nature. Yoga, we know, is everywhere. More and more frequently scientists and other “experts” are coming around to what strikes me as common sense. But if you’ve lost touch with common sense (who hasn’t?) and instead look to experts for your answers, there’s plenty of support out there. A quick search of yoga in PubMed yields 1,496 results, and about 206,000 in Google Scholar. Slowly, the ideas behind yoga are becoming more accepted, most especially when they aren’t identified as yoga.

Often I get the feeling that students don’t want to relax and just release into the slower, more restorative poses toward the end of the class. It might not be that they don’t want to—perhaps they simply can’t. Or they feel if they do, they’ll hear something they don’t want to hear from themselves, or lose that edge, or become weak. Or they are so far away from relaxation, they are just learning how.

Because it seems difficult, I try to encourage students to rest and relax, and to find time for it in their lives. In case my ramblings don’t convince, I sometimes share others’ thoughts on the matter. Recently I drew on a New York Times article about “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction” by Matt Richtel:

At the University of California, San Francisco, scientists have found that when rats have a new experience, like exploring an unfamiliar area, their brains show new patterns of activity. But only when the rats take a break from their exploration do they process those patterns in a way that seems to create a persistent memory.

In that vein, recent imaging studies of people have found that major cross sections of the brain become surprisingly active during downtime. These brain studies suggest to researchers that periods of rest are critical in allowing the brain to synthesize information, make connections between ideas and even develop the sense of self….

“Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body,” said Dr. Rich of Harvard Medical School. “But kids are in a constant mode of stimulation.”

Did you get that? “Downtime is to the brain, what sleep is to the body.” Oh, you don’t sleep, either? The brain needs sleep, too.

From the New York Times science section, “When the Mind Wanders, Happiness Also Strays,” by John Tierney: You want happiness? Focus on something. It “is now, at long last, scientifically guaranteed to improve your mood.” I find it depressing that we need “science” to verify the obvious—or what was once obvious to those in touch with their humanity.

What is yoga? The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Book One, Sutra Two: “Yogas chitta vritti nirodha. The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.” You know, focus.

1496

Categories
asana what is yoga

5,000 years?

I have to admit, I sometimes ask myself if I’m part of this world. The yoga world, I mean. On Tuesday, the New York Times wrote a piece on foodies and yoga, and it seems to be popular, given its rank on their most emailed list: “When Chocolate and Chakras Collide.”

My favorite part of the piece was  a comment from Sadie Nardini about judgment in the yoga world, about being “yogier than thou.” What do I think about sampling food on a yoga mat? To each her own. Is it yoga? Does it matter?

I′m not terribly troubled by what people choose to call yoga, as most of what is practiced now bears little resemblance to its history, and why should it? Traditions need to evolve to be relevant. I do have a pet peeve about the “5000-year-old practice” line (which appeared in that NYT article), stated as if yogis were hopping through sun salutations in 2990 b.c.e. They weren’t.

seal
I suppose I should say, I’m not terribly troubled by what people choose to call yoga, as long as it isn’t this 5,000+ year old seal.

The philosophy of yoga is fairly old and can be dated back to at least the mid-first century b.c.e. Some of the asanas (postures) can be definitively dated back to the 10th century c.e., as described in the Pāñcarātrika Samhitās (see Mallinson), but many date back only a century or two. Years ago, in one of the first books I read on yoga (I don’t read that much about yoga, I practice it), Joseph Alter’s Yoga in Modern India, he asserts that the sun salutations are adapted from Indian martial tradition in the late 1800s, when the Hindu masculinity movement was strong (I wax on about this in another post), and ever since it’s grated on me when people boast that yoga is 5,000 years old. The date of 5,000 b.c.e. comes from an ancient seal found in Mohenjo-daro with Shiva sitting in a seated position (though Shiva was not quite Shiva until around 200 b.c.e). All around, the argument is pretty weak. A picture of someone sitting = yoga? There are images of Egyptians in backbends. Were they yogis? You can imagine the fun academics have pulling that apart. Many agree that not only is it not yoga, but not Shiva, or even necessarily male. It’s important to note as well that the seal was found in a series of seals with figures depicted in other less formal, less yogic-looking seats (see Doris Srinivasan, “The So-Called Proto-śiva Seal from Mohenjo-Daro: An Iconological Assessment,”Archives of Asian Art, Vol. 29, (1975/1976), pp. 47-58).

Looking around the web, I’m glad to see that others seek historical accuracy as well, e.g. Kate Churchill and Nick Rosen in the documentary Enligthen Up! The next post flushes out my less quantitative take on the matter.