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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.

Categories
asana how to find yoga teacher/school yoga practice

the search for a new yoga teacher/studio

Yoga Breeze, Yakuin Studio, Fukuoka, Japan, September 3, 2010
Yoga Breeze, Yakuin Studio, Japan (c) Govindakai

It took me about a month of heavy searching to find my yoga teacher. How you do it depends largely on what you look for. Instead of making a list for you: location, teacher’s experience, price, style, schedule…which I touched on in the last few posts.  I will tell you my story, and you can suss out how to go about it from there in a way that works for you.

I knew I wanted a Mysore-style ashtanga shala (school), so I asked my ashtanga friends for recommendations. I read about the teachers, schedules, locations, and prices online, and I had an inking about where I’d end up. In the weeks I researched this, I hit a few studios in my neighborhood I’d never tried. They weren’t ashtanga schools, but the convenience of a studio but few blocks from home was too ideal not to try, even if I knew I wouldn’t end up there.

The first, Yogamaya, is a gorgeous studio in Chelsea. I’d taken classes from the founders years back at Laughing Lotus, a vinyasa studio also in Chelsea, and the yoga is the same. I tried a $28/week newcomers’ unlimited pass and went to three classes. Two, taught by Bryn, were very good. I’m just not into their wild choreographic sequencing. I suppose that it’s good for people who feel bored with traditional yoga sequences, but being bored is part of the practice. I find it impossible to go into my body when I’m waiting to hear what unknown, awkward transition will come next. I also don’t like spending 10 minutes on one side of the body standing, sitting, arm balancing, inverting, and then getting back up to do it all over again on the other. This is not how it’s meant to be. In traditional styles like ashtanga and Iyengar, we do the right side and then the left for each and every pose before we move on to the next. I will not bore you with the art and reasoning of yoga sequencing and the energetic properties of different poses. But many years ago, I noticed that classes with unpredictable posturing make me feel high strung. Sometimes good, like I had a nice work out, but not balanced and in my body, like more traditional styles of yoga do. Plus the work-out effect.

Metrowest Yoga Studio
Metrowest Yoga Studio (c) Antonio Viva

The third class I took there was with a very young teacher. It featured the most questionable sun salutation sequencing I’ve ever encountered. From standing forward bend, we sat down into a squat, and then jumped back. At the end, we jumped forward into a squat, then came up to forward bend. This is hell on the knees. In a squat, the toes are pointing out, in the direction of the knees. In the other poses they are straight forward. The was no safe way to transition this sequence, and the fact that it was totally awkward and unpleasant was not even addressed by the teacher. Ouch. It was enough to keep me from trying other classes there during my paid week. That said, it is a beautiful studio and I’m sure they have some amazing teachers. If you like funky sequencing, chanting to a harmonium, heavy appropriation of Indian culture, and inspirational, personal talks by your teacher at the start of class, Yogamaya (or Laughing Lotus) might be just your thing.

Because I am frequently asked about both Bikram and Yoga to the People, I also went to the YTTP on W26th Street. Yes, I took a hot yoga class. As expected, it was hot, and because I like to be warm, I enjoyed it more or less. I’m not into locking out the joints, which is a hot yoga specialty. In all the types of yoga I’ve done, they all pretty much agree that locking out the joints is not a good thing. Further, there’s a lot of pushing to go further, and who can really feel her limits at 4pm in a 100+ degree room? The muscles are like rubber. It’s certainly not a not-quite-heated, 6am ashtanga shala, where coaxing the muscles to open of their own accord is the name of the game. There are also some poses that aren’t great for the masses, like supta virasana and a weird whipping up to paschimottanasana from lying flat on the back, which is done numerous times. I’m partial to the jump backs and jump throughs of ashtanga to strengthen the mid-region. But I’m obviously biased. The studio was fine. I didn’t find it any less posh than the Bikram studio I tried for a week years back in San Francisco. The teacher was nice enough. I don’t remember his name, and that’s likely because YTTP don’t emphasize teachers or even put their names on the schedules, I assume to avoid the cult of personality that can form around teachers. I get that, though I don’t agree with it. I want know to whom I’m subjecting myself for an hour and a half.

Further, In early December, Bikram and YTTP came to a settlement (Bikram sued them for using his copyrighted sequence of poses) and YTTP will stop teaching that sequence as of Feb 15, 2013. “So what?” I say. It’s hardly a brilliant sequence. Change it up a bit, make some improvements, and maybe I drop by on a moon day or two.

So, hopefully it’s evident that this is a process of trial and error. Because I’m not partial to these studios doesn’t mean you might not be. I went to Laughing Lotus for a year or two when I was moving from integral hatha to vinyasa. I enjoyed the work out and it’s what I wanted at the time. Then I found the amazing, must-be-experienced Iyengar teacher Genny Kapular. She instilled in me a love for mindful sequencing and I’ve had a hard time with overly creative sequencing ever since.

The next post will be about the ashtanga teachers I tried, their studios, and those I didn’t get to because I found what I was looking for first.