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.



Friday, May 4, 2012

Asana Research Lab: Marichyasana

Marichi, son of Brahma, namesake of one killer asana.

If you're anything like me and have tight hips and shoulders from years of cycling and desk work (and neglecting stretching them out daily), you probably find Marichyasana as challenging as I do. When I started my Ashtanga practice, I thought it was a new pose to me but after a little while it dawned on me that I had practiced a variation of it for years in "regular" Hatha practice.

Rodney Yee always calls it "Sage Pose", which kind of makes sense, as the "Marichi" in "Marichyasana" was the son of Brahma (the creator in Hindu mythology), the original man and one of the original Rishis — or sages, responsible for channelling the Vedic hymns. So, he's sort of like Jesus crossed with Adam. Or something. The complex Hindu mythology is a whole 'nother rabbit hole that I won't open up here.

Regardless of what you call it, you'll most likely encounter a version of it in most yoga practices, with the beginner posture looking something like this:

"Sage Pose"

Practiced like this, you're going to be working mostly on the spinal twist aspect of Marichi, and this is a good place to start if you're new to yoga or haven't yet worked on deeper twists yet or have tight hips. When this feels easy and you feel like you can take the twist deeper, try working the non-supportive arm to the outside of your bent leg, bending it at the elbow, maintaining a straight spine and using a folded blanket or blocks if you need to. This should look something like this (bent arm can point up or down):

Add props if you need to!
I don't recommend practicing in such dour decor however.

You can also take the bent leg over the extended or bent bottom leg which is a good IT band stretch:

Another version of "Sage Pose"

All of these variations can be considered practice for the Ashtanga version of "Sage Pose", Marichyasana, which is actually a sequence of four postures which themselves are progressive in nature — Marichi A works to open the hips and shoulders:
Marichyasana A
Notice how much the bent leg's hip and both shoulders
need to open up in the full expression of this posture

Marichi B then introduces the half lotus leg, further opening the hips while continuing to open the shoulders:

Marichyasana B
Bringing the bent leg into half lotus encourages further hip opening

Once you've mastered B, you then move on to C, which introduces the twist:

Marichyasana C
Notice how deep the twist needs to be here compared to the "Sage Pose" variations

Marichyasana D then brings it all together with the extreme hip opening of the half lotus leg of B and the deep spinal twist of C:

Marichyasana D
See his little toes poking up there?

I hope all of this illustrates just how well designed the Ashtanga Series is. It's one of the reasons I love it so much — it really appeals to the rational design-oriented part of my brain.

The Primary Series, as the name implies, is preparation for the next five series, and within this first series there is preparation and progression. The poses leading up to Marichyasana will help you realize version A, and version A will help you realize version B and on and on.

Regardless of where you are in the sequence, the work you do on the mat is preparation for whatever life off the mat will throw you. In cultivating the postures we need to practice patience, discipline, diligence, presence and self-love. I like to think we call it practice, not because we're practicing yoga, but because we're practicing for life.