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My teacher made me work for it!

Jade & Sharath

Jade & Sharath

Today’s dispatch from abroad is by our favorite little Ashtangi, St. Petersburg’s own Jade Skinner. She’s been studying in Mysore, India. We’re looking forward to her return to teaching this month!

When you come to the shala to practice there are rules to follow as there should be. Studios in the west I find are too lax. Students bring in cell phones, big water bottles, wear shoes on the shala floor and talk really loudly before class. Listen, that shit don’t fly in India! Leave your shoes outside, turn your phones OFF, leave your water in the locker room, and KEEP SILENCE! The shala is a sacred place where we come to learn the knowledge of yoga, dive deeper into our practice, and we should respect that. All of us are given a specific time to practice and are expected to be there 10 minutes before. Here’s the tricky part… shala time is 15 minutes fast, so this means we need to be there about 30 minutes early. I think they do this to see if you’re paying attention. If you are late it shows that you are not dedicated, not devoted to the practice. You lack respect for the teacher who has taken his time to be there for you and the students who are there to learn.

I’ve watched as Sharath has scolded students for showing up late. He says “What is your time? What time does the clock say? Why are you late? You should really think about what is important to you. If you don’t want to be here, then don’t waste my time and your money!” I’m sure we all can come up with a whole bunch of excuses as to “why?” The answer to the “why?” is about respect. We can have a discussion about that when I return in February. By the way, I was always way early and never late for class!

In the West we do yoga in small classes that we think are too packed. We have the attention of our teacher to help us when we’re looking a little lost or uncomfortable. You don’t have this luxury when you’re practicing at the Shala during the busiest time of the year! Yes, there are assistants in the room and Sharath is walking around giving out new poses, helping a student here, talking to another there, but the adjustments are few and far between.

BKS Iyengar

BKS Iyengar in Pashasana (Noose Pose)

It’s Tuesday, 22nd of January 2013 and I’m on my mat. I was in Janu Sirsāsana C when I came to the realization that my Mysore (self-guided) practice is like doing math homework, learning to play a musical instrument, or speaking a foreign language. You can pretty much relate it to anything that you’ve done that was enjoyable, but challenging enough that you kept coming back for more. I’m going to go with math since it was not one of my strong subjects, but it rattled my brain enough to keep my attention. Now if you remember in math class the equations get tougher the further you get along. Math equations work two ways: 1.) You have the answer and are trying to figure out the formula; or 2.) you have the formula and are trying to figure out the answer. Mysore practice is in a sense somewhat the same. This doesn’t mean find the fastest way in and out of a pose or even skipping one because you don’t like it. It’s about showing up and putting the work in. Here’s my experience and maybe you can find some relation…

I was given a new pose, Paśāsana (the first pose of second series), about three days ago. I asked Simon, one of the assistants, if he could help me find the missing connection. I said to Simon, “I can’t seem to keep my heels down and stay in the bind at the same time. What am I doing wrong?” In the middle of his own demo Sharath, very directly, said “No demonstration! Let her figure it out on her own!” For a moment I was upset that he wouldn’t help. In my head I was like, “WTF? Does he not see me struggling over here? He has no idea how long I’ve been wrestling with this pose. It’s been over a F*N year!” It left me questioning. “Why am I here if he won’t give me any assistance? What’s the lesson he wants me to learn? Maybe I should just not put in any effort then!” Total mental breakdown.

Next day I’m up against the same wall trying really hard to make friends with Paśāsana. I’m striving to figure out how to stay in the bind with my heels down and not bust my ass. Fear of past injury starts resurfacing in my head. Frustration and doubt set in. Binding or not I’ve managed to find the quickest way in and out. I wanted an answer; no one would give me one, so I didn’t really give it my all. I let my ego take over. Practice was tough, and I learned nothing! Later that night, I watched a clip of one of my teachers, Kino MacGregor, from the film Mysore Magic. In it she says,

Yoga is not an escape. It’s not gonna take away your problems or make you think, ‘Oh, everything’s perfect.’ When I’m practicing, everything that presents itself is an opportunity to use the physical practice as a mirror to look within. The thoughts that come up during practice I find are often indicative of the most repetitive psychological patterns that we have….

It’s Thursday morning and Paśāsana is already on my mind as well as drop backs (that’s a whole other topic). Look, we all have our days and yesterday was one of mine. Today my attitude has shifted to a more positive outlook. My focus is on being fully present, so I can immerse myself more deeply in every asana. As I approached Paśāsana I paused for a moment to sit with my thoughts. I took a rewind in my mind to which asanas (formulas) are preparatory for Paśāsana. Ahhh, lo and behold my favorite of the primary series…Maricāsana C & D. I set myself up for acceptance of whatever was to come and let go of any expectations of what I thought should happen. “Letting go” I find is a  precious tool to have in your yoga toolbox.

Paśāsana on the first attempt is almost a success, but lacking a little heart and stability of mind. So I go for it again, and this time with steady breath…BAM..it’s like magic. I nailed it on one side! Finally, perfection (stability of mind and body) of Paśāsana is here! At least on one side that is. Inner glory is going off like church bells! As I wrestle a bit with the opposite side I can feel triumph is on it’s way… “I just have to give a little more effort and it will come” is what I’m telling myself. I have it, but my heels are about an inch away from the floor. I’m driving to hold on and trying to maintain my breath at the same time. Some serious Nadi Shodhana (nerve cleansing) is going on here!! In my head I’m screaming “will somebody please help me for crying out loud!” Right as I’m about to relinquish, panting my ass off like a dog in heat, Sharath steps in to give a little assistance. I almost gave up on hope there for a minute.

Today is Wednesday, the 30th of January 2013. It’s my last day at the shala. I’m on my mat flowing through Primary series with contentment in my heart. No expectations as I arrive at Paśāsana…yay!!!. Once again the struggle to hold on to the bind with my heels down is starting in my mind. My approach this time is more in-depth. Taking the easy road is out of the question! Breathing deeply I took a few moments prepping myself. With concentration I master the connection and nail the left side. “Right side isn’t going to be so easy” is what I’m telling myself. So, I go for it once, twice and I’m already defeated. I didn’t even look around to see if Sharath was watching me. Since three is my favorite number I thought I’d give it one more go. My thoughts were “you can do this! suck in your stomach, twist, grab your hand and lift your ass!” Inching toward Paśāsana for the last time today I did exactly that! And for the first time in over a year I’ve finally perfected Paśāsana all on my own!!!

Exhausted from the many attempts, I plopped on my bum and released myself from the pose only to look up and see Sharath there with a smile. Trust me when I say “he made me work for it!” Laughing a little, he commends me with words of hope “good, very good…now do Krounchāsana and finish.” At that moment, I came to appreciate his teachings. It’s like this: My classmates and I are attending the same school. We’ve all been given homework with the same guidelines to follow. Now we have to show that we’ve been doing our homework. If you really want to figure out that math equation you will! With a little determination and effort the solution will come, right? You’ve got to be dedicated and willing to learn. It’s the same with YOGA! Sometimes you just have to go deeper than you ever have before. If the teacher always gives us the solution to the formula then what good is it doing you? “You’re just bending the body” is what Sharath says. Advancing further in your practice means working harder, contending a bit with what comes up and simply figuring it out. This doesn’t mean don’t ask for help or dwell on it. Dig a little deeper and give it all you’ve got. Later down the road you’ll need that same formula in one or more challenging asanas. In the end you see, I really didn’t need the demonstration after all.

What it means to practice yoga is to have faith, let go, trust in yourself, and work hard. The āsana practice of yoga is to bring stability to the mind and body. All the rest will follow. Yoga is that opportunity for us to become the observer, to feel every bit of comfort and discomfort that arises. Not to escape, but to be fully present with our breath, body, and mind. Sometimes we have to face ourselves on the mat and ask “what do I want out of my practice? What do I want in life?” Do the inner work and you will find the answer. Yoga is lifelong and goes much deeper than the physical. Sharath says that Yoga should be practiced 365 days, 24 hours a day.

I’ll leave you with this quote from “Giving up the Green Bitch” by Graham Hancock.

To live is to bring insight and give us the chance to change our behavior in the future, to be more nurturing and less toxic, to be more considerate of others and to be more aware than we were before of the incredible privilege the universe has given us by allowing us to be born in a human body – an opportunity for growth and improvement of the soul that we absolutely must not waste.

~ Jade Skinner
Karnataka, Mysore

Messenger: Pigeon

The Common Pigeon in its natural environment: a residential sidewalk. Actually this is a variation with rear leg bent, but you can see that.

Pigeon! Love it or leave it. I really don’t want you to hurt your knee while practicing this pose. A couple of friends of mine, and my dad, have injured or re-injured their knees in yoga classes. All are strong athletes with tight hips, and all got hurt doing Pigeon (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana) or Reclined Hero (Supta Virasana). These postures can really strain the knees, and although they are less likely to mess you up if you’re properly aligned, and using props, and flexing your front foot, yadda yadda yadda, let’s be real — we don’t always take time or have time or realize we’re out of alignment until it’s too late.

Read More…

Yogis ≠ Acrobats

ImageWe went to see Cirque Dreams last night, and I’m not going to critique the production, but I’ll say it solidified my opinion that competitive yoga is utterly unnecessary.  Yes, National Yoga Champeen Afton Carraway’s one-handed peacock was impressive, but when you see a man performing the same posture while balanced upon the head of another man, well…..and that was at the tail end of a lengthy performance during which he’d already demonstrated all manner of one-armed handstands, splits, flips and backbands, held up by another man; and when you’ve seen him in a perfect candlestick pose perched on the back of someone else’s neck, you realize that shit yogis do ain’t made for Broadway or SportsCenter.  Like I said, yoga practice is a rich and wonderful thing, but when stripped down to its postures, it’s just some Grade C gymnastics.  For great feats of strength, flexibility, balance, and smiling while ya do it, competitive yoga’s got nothing on the circus.  Or on Olympic gymnastics.

Leave it to the professionals, eh?  Yoga’s awesome, but presenting it in competition form only shows what it’s not.  I submit for your further consideration some pictures from the internet. If you need more persauding, here are a thousand more.

The national yoga champ is a former professional dancer, yoga teacher, and bartender from Orlando. Naturally. Tampa Bay Times’ Stephanie Wang Q&A’d her in today’s pape: National yoga champ to try for world title. The print headline was a little better.

I’ll leave the debate about yoga competitions to people who care. But, damn! Look at that one-armed peacock! You always know when you’ve got an ex-gymnast or dancer in your class. Even if it’s their first time doing yoga, they’re so body-aware and good at following cues that they’re comfortable right away. Also: serious strength and flexibility. And style. You know what other people are awesome at following voice cues? Blind people. Their balance is also crazy amazing. If you don’t believe me, just try standing in Tree pose with your eyes closed.

Beerasana cheers Floridian Afton Carraway! Come have one on us, champ.

Upward Cock Pose

Tomorrow, hopefully, I’m going to post a little beginner’s flow, and sometime this week we’ll make a murderous abs series by request. But today we have Katelyn demonstrating a fun arm balance with a funner name: the Upward Cock Pose. It’s named after chickens. In Sanskritia Land, they call it Urdhva Kukkutasana. Ku-ku! Also called Siracha. It’s good on everything.

We drove north to Asheville, NC for the weekend to attend a lovely wedding. The extreme socializing and resultant crispiness DID NOT PREVENT YOGA. We yoga’d in the parking lot of the Day’s Inn. Did people make fun of us? Yes. We also did some yogas at a Rest Area in Georgia. Don’t let traveling get in your way, wee yogis. Don’t hide your yoga in the closet. Be out and proud-ish.

Here we go here we go here we go*

Warm up. Stretch your 17 hip muscles. DON’T MISS ANY. Ok, if you can get your legs into Lotus without using your hands, this is a good way to get into the pose. If you can’t get into Lotus (it’s called Padmasama in yoga-ese) without yanking your ankles onto your knees, then you have to do it the other way — from seated, crawling your knees up your arms. Creepy.

1. Wide-legged forward fold (Prasarita Padottanasana)

kt_cock1

2. Tripod headstand with legs in Lotus. No animals were harmed in the making of this pose.

3. Ass Down

Here KT lowers her knees onto her triceps, as high up towards her armpits as possible (I really hate that word, but very occasionally it can’t be avoided). She then backs that ass down toward the asphalt, which draws her shoulder blades down her back and makes her head lift up off the ground. It’s a lot about counterbalancing, head vs. butt. It’s also about maintaining good, steady control. Grip the mat, and up you go. Notice how nice my foot looks.

5.Cock Up

Hold it for as long as you can [joke]. Gaze up, and breathe. If possible, get someone to take a picture. Ta-dum! Nice job, KT.

This dude at Om Shanti does a cool flow into it: down dog to tripod headstand, to side crows, to upward cock. If you can’t do the upward cock, maybe you can just work on the headstand into side crows. That’s what I’m going to work on tomorrow. Goodnight!

*My sister’s upstairs neighbor’s announcement that the magic is happening.

Crow

Do or do not… there is no try

This video’s pretty painful, but if you skip to 1:50 you can just watch Chris Sharma falling out of crow pose. Jackson sent it because she’s also a sick climber who had some issues with Bakasana (a rare and inadvertent Sanskrit onomatopoeia!).

K. Jax says, “Even Chris Sharma, arguably the strongest climber in the world right now, has some troubles with crow.”

Chris Sharma Does Wanderlust from Prana Living on Vimeo.

PS. Come to class tonight.

PISCES (Feb. 19-March 20). There will be a tribal aspect to your dealings, and there really will be strength in numbers. It will feel right to move together and contribute to the causes of the whole group.

All-Members Pose

Panaceas

Shoulderstand! In yoga-speak, it’s the Queen to the King Headstand. Some people (my sister) are afraid of shoulderstand, because of its “wind-releasing” properties. Some people don’t like it because their cores aren’t strong enough to hold it comfortably, or because they have stiff or painful necks. But, that’s why you should do it, and someone’s made a cute little series for it that you can use at home: 75-minute intermediate focus on shoulders and shoulderstand.

Let’s turn again to this funny site out of Toronto for a description of the pose, and its many alleged benefits. Yeah, do it today!

6. Sarvangasana (All-Members Pose)

This is a mysterious Asana which gives wonderful benefits. Spread a thick blanket on the floor and practise this Asana on the blanket. Lie on the back quite flat. Slowly raise the legs. Lift the trunk, hips, and legs quite vertically. Support the back with the two hands, one on either side. Rest the elbows on the ground. Press the chin against the chest (Jalandhara Bandha). Allow the back-shoulder portion and neck to touch the ground closely. Do not allow the body to shake or move to and fro. Keep the legs straight. When the Asana is over, bring the legs down very, very slowly with elegance and not with any jerks. In this Asana the whole weight of the body is thrown on the shoulders. You really stand on the shoulders with the help and support of the elbows. Concentrate on the Thyroid gland which lies on the front lower part of the neck. Retain the breath as long as you can do with comfort, and slowly exhale through the nose.

You can do this Asana twice daily, morning and evening. This should immediately be followed by Matsyasana (fish-posture). This will relieve pains in the back part of the neck and intensify the usefulness of Sarvangasana. Stand on the Asana for two minutes and gradually increase the period to half an hour.

sarvang.jpg

SARVANGASANA

BENEFITS

This is a panacea, a cure-all, a sovereign specific for all diseases. It brightens the psychic faculties and awakens Kundalini Sakti, removes all sorts of diseases of intestine and stomach, and augments the mental power.

It supplies a large quantity of blood to the roots of spinal nerves. It is this Asana which centralises the blood in the spinal column and nourishes it beautifully. But for this Asana there is no scope for these nerve-roots to draw sufficient blood-supply. It keeps the spine quite elastic. Elasticity of the spine means everlasting youth. It stimulates you in your work. It prevents the spine from early ossification (hardening). So you will preserve and retain your youth for a long time. It helps a lot in maintaining Brahmacharya. Like Sirshasana, it makes you an Oordhvaretas. It checks wet-dreams effectively. It rejuvenates those who have lost their potency. It acts as a powerful blood-tonic and purifier. It tones the nerves and awakens Kundalini. Spinal column is rendered very soft and elastic. This Asana prevents the early ossification of the vertebral bones. Ossification is quick degeneration of bones. Old age manifests quickly on account of early ossification. The bones become hard and brittle in the degenerative process. He who practises Sarvangasana is very nimble, agile, full of energy. The muscles of the back are alternately contracted, relaxed and then pulled and stretched. Hence they draw a good supply of blood by these various movements and are well nourished. Various sorts of myalgia (muscular rheumatism), lumbago, sprain, neuralgia, etc., are cured by this Asana.

The vertebral column becomes as soft and elastic as rubber. It is twisted and rolled as it were like a piece of canvas sheet. A man who practises this Asana can never become lazy even a bit.  He is a two-legged talking squirrel. The vertebral column is a very important structure. It supports the whole body. It contains the spinal cord, spinal nerve and sympathetic system. In Hatha Yoga the spine is termed as Meru Danda. Therefore you must keep it healthy, strong and elastic. The muscles of the abdomen, the rectic muscles and the muscles of the thigh are also toned and nourished well. Obesity or corpulence and habitual chronic constipation, Gulma, congestion and enlargement of the liver and spleen are cured by this Asana.

More if you’re interested: Extended description with tips for neck pain, by Barbara Benag.

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