Friday, July 6, 2012

Don't Call it Yin Yoga

For my final practicum class for my teacher training, I'm required to lead a "Yin Yoga" class. Although I appreciate the benefits of a practice where you will hold postures for an extended period of time, I have a problem with the term "Yin Yoga" for a couple reasons.

I believe that all true yoga is a balancing of both male and female energies and likewise, the qualities of tension and relaxation, or, Sthira and Sukha (read a great article on this concept here). Even in a vigorous practice such as Ashtanga we are always balancing on the edge of strong muscular stability and finding ease and lightness in the postures. Also, yoga is an Indian tradition so the use of Chinese concepts and terminology just causes confusion and division. I do however think that it's beneficial for people with limited strength or mobility to practice these longer held postures, and helpful for all practicioners to occassionally slow down and experience the relaxation and opening that can occur in what I like to call simply, "Slow Yoga" or, Ashtanga ½ Speed Primary ;-)

Here's what I'll be presenting later today:

Throughout this sequence be mindful of your breath, keeping it steady and deep. We don't practice any specific form of pranayama or breath control here, but we can still utilize the breath to help us to journey deeper into the held postures, staying conscious of not holding the breath and observing when it has become shallow or forced, perhaps signaling that you've gone farther than is comfortable into a posture.

We'll be holding the poses for 2-5 minutes, so it's good practice to find your way into the posture slowly and mindfully, gradually approaching your edge, and then either venturing deeper into it, or backing off—listening to your body and allowing your inner teacher to guide you.

1. Start with 5 mini sun salutations
  • Virasana
  • Inhale, arms overhead lifting the buttocks, lengthening the spine
  • Exhale, folding at the hips, sit buttocks back on heels, arms stretched forward on mat
  • Inhale, use hands on mat to pull hips up, shoulders over wrists, hips over heels
  • Still inhaling, lift tailbone and head, performing an easy backbend (cow pose)
  • Exhale, push mat away, arching spine, broadening shoulders (cat pose)
  • Repeat Cat/Cow 4 more times
  • Exhale, drop hips back, relax into child's pose
  • Inhale, lift hips, raising arms overhead, hands meeting in prayer
  • Exhale, sit back in Virasana, hands in Anjali mudra (heart centre)
2. Paschimottanasana 
3. Reverse Tabletop, or Purvottanasana (hold only long enough to feel release in spine) 
4. Janu Sirsasana A 
5. Marichyasana C, or Sage pose with twist 
6. Supta Virasana, or Ustrasana AKA Camel Pose 
7. Baddha Konasana
8. Lift hips with legs in Baddha Konasana, or do a few windshield wipers to release tension
9. Supta Pandangusthasana with strap. Lie down, perform leg raises with strap, first straight up, then out to side, then across opposite leg
10. Supine twists; bring knees into chest, then allow them to fall to each side 
11. Supported Matsyasana
12. Viparita Karani, or "Legs up the Wall" 
13. Savasana 
14. Close in Sukhasana
Remember, take it easy, take it slow, and enjoy!


Monday, June 25, 2012

Asana Research Lab: Paschimottanasana

Where "B" equals your Butt.

My 5 days with Chuck Miller (see my last post) encouraged me to step back and take a look at all the fundamental postures of the Ashtanga practice and ruthlessly assess the quality with which I'd been practicing them. One of the postures I decided I needed to reel in a bit and rebuild from the ground up was my Paschimottanasana (POSH-chee-moh-tan-AHS-anna), or seated forward bend. Often when we're striving to achieve what we think is the end posture — usually what we've seen a very advanced practitioner demonstrate in a book, video or website — we rush through or skip over the fundamentals and jump right into a simulacrum of the gross expression of the pose. 

Sketch from Jérôme Terrier's great Flickr stream of yoga drawings

In Paschimottanasana, this often translates into rounding the upper back, hunching the shoulders up by the ears and pulling ourselves forward, reaching the face desperately towards the feet. While a seated forward bend with a round spine can feel good, it's not the goal of this posture. In Paschimottanasana we're looking to stretch the hamstrings and spine, extending the crown of the head and the heels like two rays extending from the vertex of the hips, diminishing the degree of the angle as we progress further into the posture.

A few tips to follow when working mindfully on this pose:
  1. First, sit with legs extended and plant the heels into the ground.
  2. As in all seated forward bends, keep the foot active but not reaching back towards the shin as in Dandasana. From the heel, reach forward with the balls of the feet, toes spreading, almost like you were wearing invisible stilettos.
  3. Keeping the quadriceps active and knees lifted will allow the hamstrings to release.
  4. Think about lengthening the leg from the planted heels to the front of the sit bones. This requires a forward tilt of the pelvis. You might need to sit on the front of a block or folded towel at first if your hamstrings are especially tight.
  5. Focus on rolling the upper thighs inwards, spreading the sit bones and dropping the pelvic bone towards the floor, tailbone lifting.
  6. Draw the spine long up out of the rooted sit bones to the crown of the head, slightly tucking the chin and lifting the heart.
  7. Think about moving the sternum — not the head — forward out over the extended legs, keeping the chin in and neck long. 
Additionally, give the exercises in this video a try. I found them super helpful.

Most important to remember: it's not how far you go! It's about doing the work that you need to do, and being honest, uncompromising and gentle with yourself while you do it.

Additional Reading

This excerpt from Gregor Maehle's book on Ashtanga Yoga is one of the most beautiful passages I've ever read concerning the interconnectedness of our physical bodies and our emotional and etheric bodies. I highly recommend buying his book if you are interested in deepening your practice!

Psoas — The Seat of the Soul
Excerpt from Ashtanga Yoga: Practice & Philosophy by Gregor Maehle 

The hip flexor muscle group includes the rectus femoris of the quadriceps, the sartorius, the tensor fascia latae, and the deeply internal psoas muscle. Continuing to contract the rectus femoris after it has tilted the hips in a forward bend causes it to bunch up in the front of the hip and prevent one from working deeper into the posture. The psoas muscle originates from the sides of the body of T12 (the lst thoracic vertebra), where it touches the diaphragm and all five lumbar vertebrae. It runs along the back of the abdominal cavity (the front of the spine) through the pelvis and inserts at a mount on the inside of the thighbone (femur), the lesser trochanter. It flexes the hip joint and laterally rotates the femur in the process.
When the thigh is fixed, as in standing and seated postures, the psoas is flexed. Ida Rolf states that a healthy psoas should elongate during flexion and fall back toward the spine. It is necessary to release and lengthen the psoas, once the hips are tilted forward, in order to deepen any forward-bending postures.
 The superficial muscles of the body relax completely after they have been worked, but the dep muscles always retain a certain tension, even at rest. This is especially true of muscles that originate on the spine, like the psoas. They are therefore prone to spasm if worked intensely. The conscious relaxing of these muscles is as important as exercising them.
The psoas is the deepest muscle in the body. Its importance is such that it has been described by some as the "seat of the soul." To see the psoas in action one has to imagine the graceful gait of African or Indian women carrying large water containers on their heads. To do this, the head has to maintain a continuous forward motion without any sudden jerks. The movement is only possible with a strong but relaxed psoas muscle. The psoas swings the pelvis forward and backward like a cradle. This swinging action initiates the movement of the legs with the rectus femoris (the large hip flexor at the front of the thigh) only coming into action well after the psoas. The swinging of the pelvis creates a wavelike motion up the spine, which keeps the spine healthy and vibrant, and the mind centered in the heart. If you have ever tried to walk with a large object balancing on your head you know how difficult this makes it to follow the tangents of the mind. Connecting with the core of the body (the psoas) shifts the attention from the mind to the heart — this is why the psoas is regarded as the seat of the soul. 
The other extreme can be observed when we watch an army march. Soldiers are required to keep the psoas hardened. Being constantly shortened, the muscle spasms and is weakened. In the military attention posture, when the chest is swelled, one naturally dips into the low back, which also weakens the psoas muscle. When marching, the pelvis is arrested and the thighs are aggressively thrust upward and forward. This movement only uses the rectus femoris. The spine is frozen, and this keeps the soldiers' attention in their minds. In this state the mind can more easily be convinced to be non-compassionate to fellow human beings, who are instead labeled as the enemy.
If we all walked with our psoas active and our spines caressed with the wavelike motion this produces, our minds would possibly arrive at a state of silence. we would then see every human being as part of the same consciousness that animates us all. One of the reasons our Western culture has conquered much of the world with its arms is that we have abandoned natural awareness and have fallen under the tyranny of the mind. Yoga calls for restoring this awareness, which draws us to naturally abide in nonviolence. Nonviolence becomes a non-imposed ethical law.
As one starts  practicing yoga it is very important to abandon the Western aggressive conquering attitude of wanting to derive an advantage out of yoga, but rather to approach the postures from a deep surrender into what is already here. All forward bends inspire this attitude. If, rather than developing yet another wish — such as to lengthen the hamstrings, which actually shorten and contract with greed — we let go into the knowledge that everything we may ask for is already here, the hamstrings will release by themselves. Ambition shortens hamstrings.


Friday, June 15, 2012

"Are you ready to be a beginner?"

Me and Chuck. Do I look happy? Because I was.
This was the question that Chuck Miller asked us again and again over the course of the 5 days I got to study with him at Babylon Yoga in Vancouver. It's an important question that forced us to re-evaluate our personal practices and our reasons for showing up to these workshops. In effect, he was asking us if we were willing to tear down the practices that we had built over months and years, letting go of our ideas about progress or achievement, and slowly, painstakingly start over — assessing with an unflinching eye all of our bad habits, lazy tendencies, misalignments, and ego-driven striving.

It was tough, tough work. But so incredibly rewarding.

Even for me, as a relative newcomer to Ashtanga, it was difficult to mentally let go of any notions I had about how far I am in the primary series and to be exactly where I need to be in order to do the work that I need to do. Am I over-flexing my back in Paschimottanasana to compensate for tight hamstrings, reaching for my feet with my chin because that's what I think the pose should look like? Is this where I need to be, or am I ignoring the real work I need to do because I'm striving to go farther...maybe farther than I should? It's very humbling to admit to your shortcomings and it takes a lot of control to back up and fix what you've been avoiding — but isn't that why we're doing yoga? Chuck reinforced in us the idea that these "shortcomings" (i.e., stiff back, tight hamstrings, weak arms) are in fact "gifts", as they illuminate the places where we need to work to unravel tension, release blockages and repair our bodies to a "yoga normal" state.

Chuck working his magic on another "beginner".

Ashtanga yoga, at its core, is a tool for self transformation. It's not a display of our physical attributes. It's not even physical exercise. The vigorous exercise and resulting physique is a byproduct of an intense process that we choose to engage in to clear mental obstacles through the conscious linking of breath and movement. Letting go of the idea that progress means obtaining the next asana in the sequence is incredibly liberating, and as this started to really sink in (around the third day), I felt a massive shift in approach to my own practice occur. After hours of painful, intensely focussed work on the absolute basics, I had never felt like — or been ready to be — such a complete beginner.

I'm not going to go into all the details of what he showed us this past week — it turned out to be a week of incredibly personal inner transformation and growth — but I will encourage you to seek him out if he's teaching anywhere near you and allow him to show you how you can take your practice deeper, not farther. I'll give you a hint though — the answer lies in that very first pose, Sama-sthiti.



Thursday, June 7, 2012

Meeting the Witness

Even comic books in India are spiritual.

It's been a very busy month! With my teacher training wrapping up and gearing up to lead my first classes at the end of this month, along with the usual activities of everyday life, there has been a lot to keep my mind and body busy, busy, busy — so much so that I truly relish the moments of stillness I can find throughout the day, whether it's on my mat in Savasana, in the bath after a gruelling yoga practice or sitting by the fire after a day of sledgehammer swinging.

During the drive to and from the yoga studio (about 20 minutes each way), I try to use that time to catch up on the few podcasts I still listen to. One that I look forward to every week is Ram Dass' new podcast Here and Now. Each podcast interweaves segments from classic Ram Dass lectures with stories about the host Rhagu Markus' own journey from Montréal to India and subsequent spiritual transformation. They are wonderfully produced and Ram Dass has a unique gift for communicating some heady esoteric subject matter in a way that is very engaging and relatable.

This week's episode (ep. 7 "The Veil") deals with the idea of inviting "The Witness" into your daily life, and learning to disassociate your true self (or, Atman) from your thoughts, actions and body. The idea is that when you are able to observe your thoughts and actions without judgement, you are "witnessing" them from that which is not the ego, but that which is able to observe the ego: your true self. This practice has been incredibly useful for me in dealing with various issues that I had wanted to overcome for many years, but couldn't figure out how. For instance, I recognized that at times I had a tendency to lose my patience and get angry even when it wasn't justified, but I didn't know why or how I could change it. I just knew that I desperately wanted to get over it and be done with it for good!

I think the breakthrough came for me during my first session in an isolation tank. If you've never experienced a float tank, it's basically a large metal egg that you climb into naked, close the door, and submerge yourself in a very dense salt water solution that is the exact temperature of your body, and float. The effect is one of total sensory deprivation. Your body doesn't feel the water, you're in complete and utter darkness and the only sounds are those produced by your organs. Because you float with complete ease, you can completely surrender your physical body and let your mind take front stage. Getting to that point can take a while — you'll probably fidget and move around a lot at the beginning, your mind will wander, and your pesky ego will distract you in every way it can think of — but when it happens, things can get interesting.

I won't describe my whole experience as it's very personal and has no relevance to your own experience, but there is one moment that I attribute to a very profound shift in my own consciousness and relates directly with the idea of "The Witness". At a certain point in my journey, I was presented with the image of my body, and floating just above and behind my head was a large cloud of swirling colours — very much like a cartoon thought bubble, but instead of dots leading to my mind, this cloud was tethered to the back of my head and connected to all of my sensory organs — eyes, ears, nose and mouth etc. I immediately recognized this cloud as my true inner consciousness (or spirit) and saw for the first time that my body was merely a vehicle and input device for my Self. More than that, it wasn't even contained by my body. It just uses it to get around!

The sketch from my float tank journal entry.

From that point on, things really shifted for me, and it's become of utmost importance to take care of my vehicle as best as I know how — and I'm learning more every day. Part of my hatha yoga practice is just that — body maintenance. The rest of it is a wonderful, challenging, entertaining inner game of tennis between my Ego and my Self rallying back and forth.

Awakening to the presence of inner Witness has empowered me in overcoming habits, both mental and physical, that I previously felt completely powerless to. It has allowed my true Self to shine through after many years of being locked in a little room. For me, it's a daily practice to remind myself that my Self is there, observing it all, and that my ego will only run the show if I allow it.

I invite you to take a moment today to welcome the Witness into your life, have a chuckle at the antics of your monkey mind, and find some love and acceptance of your meat body with all of it's creaky joints, banged up limbs and weathered finish.



Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Asana Kitchen: Bhujapidasana

David Garrigues provides a fantastic in-depth study of Bhujapidasana, which I've recently started playing around with. Now I can stop playing and start flying!

Asana Kitchen: Bhujapidasana

Friday, May 25, 2012

The View From the Sidelines

Image from the awesome Broga Melbourne

Yesterday when I was standing at the top of my mat in Samasthitihi, reciting the opening mantra, I noticed  subtle sensation in my lower back, right around the sacrum between the two illiac crests of my hip bones. Normally, it takes me a few sun salutations to loosen up in the early morning as I'm generally pretty tight when I get out of bed, so I didn't think too much of it. After a couple Surya A's it became clear that this wasn't typical morning stiffness. Every time I rose out of forward fold to standing, I noticed a sharper pain from the low back area. I used to have trouble with my back after injuring it moving a washer/dryer by myself, so this "pre-spasm" feeling was familiar to me, even though I've been free of any back issues since starting a daily practice.

Great. I'm a couple weeks away from finishing my teacher training and my back is messed up. I love routine, hate being forced to not practice and this happens? I finished out a very gentle, slow practice, spending a lot of time in forward folds and easy counter poses, hoping that I just needed to loosen up a little. When I finished, it was clear that this wasn't going away today and that I'd need to cancel the farm work I'd gotten called in for and take an unscheduled rest day.

I was feeling pretty bummed out, sitting in bed propped up with a pile of pillows, sullenly staring at a book, when Deb stopped in before leaving for work to encourage me to see this as a blessing and to enjoy the time out. She's right. I rarely take a true day off — I'm always buzzing around doing something, seeing a "day off" as an opportunity to get a million "other" things done — so I decided to give in to the situation and chill out.

A minor injury like this one really is a blessing, and the timing of it is kind of perfect. Just as I'm finishing my teacher training — having made huge strides in my practice, overcoming injuries I had before starting this training (I can't believe three months ago I was writing about my bum doesn't bother me at all now) — it's a great reminder that stuff does happen, and that we need to cultivate the internal flexibility to be able to roll with whatever unexpectedly pops up.

Here are some ideas for things to do if you're sidelined temporarily:

1) Read. I rarely make the time to sit and read anymore. When I was a kid, I used to lock myself in my room and spend the entire day immersed in whatever world I was reading about at the time — whether it was Narnia, Middle Earth or the latest Stephen King epic that my mom would pass on to me. Those were magical days and did a lot to open my mind's capacity for imagination, empathy and creativity. Yesterday, I finished reading Bhagavan Das' memoir "It's Here Now, Are You?", which allowed me to live vicariously as a saddhu in India, a used car salesman in California, and eventually as a guy who finally found peace and fulfillment as a musician. Great story.

2) Start a new habit. Today I woke up and my back still felt a bit tricky, so I decided to not take practice until later, which left me with the question "what now?". I decided to try making a green smoothie. I love greens and am always looking for ways to incorporate them into my diet, but I think I was a little swayed by the marketing and figured I couldn't do a green smoothie without a $700 Vitamix or Blendtec blender.

I washed up some spinach and kale in water with a splash of the super magical and multipurpose Apple Cider Vinegar (which is a good idea if you don't have organic on hand), threw a handfull of each (no stems or spines!) in our trusty KitchenAid along with half a Bosc pear, a 1/4 pineapple, a shot of hemp oil and about a 1/2 cup of water and started blending. To my surprise, our common $150 blender did a great job of breaking everything down and making a nice, tasty slurry.

3) Cultivate empathy. This week I've been working on a Yin Yoga sequence for teacher training, so this is a great opportunity to give it a test run and experience what it might be like for someone that doesn't have a daily practice and may be dealing with some physical limitations, and low back pain is pretty high on the list for the demographic around here — lots of aging labourers and farmer/gardeners.

4) Practice Ahimsa. I wrote about this back when I started training, but Ahimsa is the first of the 5 Yamas, or restraints, that we practice in Ashtanga — meaning "to do no harm". An injury is a great was to practice this obligation on yourself, which of course leads to empathy and compassion for your students who might be dealing with injuries themselves. Not taking my usual asana practice and spending half the day in bed definitely feels like a restraint.

5) Write about it. Not only does journalling privately help to put things in perspective, but if you can't publicly gripe and share your breakfast and bathing rituals with a group of faceless strangers, then what's the internet for anyway?



Thursday, May 17, 2012

Yoga and the Art of Motorcycling

No, a top bun does not protect against injury.
Good karma on the other hand...
I just returned from my final motorcycle road test, and having successfully passed, felt the need to share. I'm travelling a lot between our home in the sticks and my yoga studio about 20km away, so the bike will really help in keeping fuel expenses down. Over the past few months of learning how to ride, it's really become clear to me just how much yoga has helped. I've been a cyclist forever — and that does provide some crossover skills — but in terms of handling and overall comfort on the motorbike, I'd say that yoga has really prepared me the most.

When you're riding on the bike — at least my little 250cc Sherpa — the most comfortable position is pretty much Utkatasana, especially if you've practised it Bikram-style with your arms forward:

Bikram's version of Utkatasana,
or as they call it "awkward pose".
Perfect riding posture.
I find it really nice to be able to tilt my pelvis up and hinge at the hips when I'm going faster, keeping my torso stretched over the gas tank, calling on those Paschimottanasana skills.

Keep Calm, Motor On
Talk to any motorcycle instructor and they'll tell you one of the best ways to stay safe on the bike is to remain calm and relaxed while riding. Yoga really helps with this, as you're practising the concept of Sukha and Sthira, or balance between comfort and steadiness constantly. This is exactly the state you want to be in on the motorbike — grounded and secure on the pegs with your legs hugging the tank, but with a relaxed hand grip and posture.

A key to staying calm and relaxed on the bike is remembering to breathe. The breath is the focus in Ashtanga yoga, so I've got this down, and I really noticed today how relaxed I was even with the test car tailing me and the tester giving me instructions through an earpiece. At one point she joked, "Don't forget to breathe!", and I thought "I'm way ahead of you honey...I practice breathing."

Another key element of safe riding is being able to maintain focus — even when you're presented with a long winding seaside road, beautiful vistas on either side, eagles flying overhead, baby sheep frolicking in the meadows and horse riders trotting along the shoulder. Just as we keep bringing the mind back to the breath in yoga and meditation when we're distracted, the same goes for riding. Only the stakes are way higher. In yoga you might miss that transition, but if you miss a corner or that barn cat darting across the road while you're on a motorbike...

Keep the rubber on the road and under your toes.