Asana

Post written on a feature pose.

The sign says “pull”.

Have you ever found yourself pushing against a door and it won’t open because it’s a door you pull- not push? Do you find yourself chuckling when you realize there’s a sign right in front of you – “PULL”? I find people behave this way in yoga too. Which is, they use the wrong energy to try to achieve a particular result. I see people pushing their hips back while they should be trying to pull their hips forward. I see people pulling themselves up into headstands but not remembering to push down into the floor. I see people pulling themselves forward with their arms, but not pushing down through their legs. It seems a little bit like trying to get people to pat their head and rub their tummies. Why can’t we do two things at once? I thought we were the great multi-tasking society of highly evolved people. Seeing the way people practice yoga always makes me question how effective they really are at multi-tasking? If we can’t push and pull at the same time, we are truly missing the beauty of our universe. It’s made of opposites and it’s how we use these opposites that will truly make us successful.

The space shuttle get’s lift off by pushing down against the earth. It all begins with the way we push down, in every posture. It’s in the downward effort that you get upward momentum. It’s in the setting of your foundation that the posture is constructed. I see the opposite of this all the time in yoga, particularly with headstands. Pushing and pulling are both necessary to stay inverted. You should pull your legs above you using your hamstrings, but all the while keep pushing down with your forearms. Then once you’re there you need to push your thighs back but your hips forward. You need to pull your ribs in, and push/broaden your shoulder blades out. All of the poses we do have opposites at work. Downward dog you push with your arms and pull with your legs. In upward dog you push with your arms, pull with your back, you push with your quads, and pull with your inner thighs. This goes on and on. When you start to look for the duality and learn to use it effectively, the posture will start to stabilize. You can be damn sure that if you are not stable in an asana then you have not yet found this balance of the opposites. As sutra 2.46 says “Sthira sukham asanam”, first – steady yourself. Balance is crucial, it’s why a ship has ballast that keeps it from tipping over to one side, and why a plane can’t land if it is tipping to one side. Even my car tells me when it’s out of balance by sending an alarm when one of the four tires is not equal to the others.
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Let’s look at things that you have probably experienced to help you understand this application of opposites. The first thing I think of is a swing – if you pull to hard with your right arm it immediately makes you swing crooked. How about this… why does someone limp? Because one leg is doing more of the work. Injury or weakness sets in motion a change in their gate. It’s like trying to push a grocery cart with one hand, or riding a bike with one hand. You can do these things, but you should notice that you have to do twice the amount of work and twice the amount of correcting. Where if you would use duality to your favor, you would be exerting less effort. You’d be more efficient and hence experience better balance. Harmony comes through equally applying effort and resistance to all your muscles that are set up as pairs.

You have two groups of muscles – the agonist and the antagonist. The antagonist resist what the agonist is trying to do. When the antagonist resist equal to the effort, the movement is smooth and balanced. The sooner we come to realize this the easier life becomes and the more we learn to ride the duality gracefully. It plays out like this – the Quadriceps oppose the action of the hamstrings and vice versa. Just like the opposite of being lazy, is hard work. Duality exists everywhere. Because it’s such an ingrained part of our life, we forget how these forces can work together harmoniously.

If yoga students would take a greater interest in the way their body works, they would find themselves in a state of auto-correction all the time. They would see that the adjustments that their teachers are making can be made with their own applied effort of the right muscle. As things go, there is either an excessive amount of energy or deficient amount. Tightness is too much energy, where as looseness is too little. Here is an example from one of my most favorite yoga asanas – Urdhva Dhanurasana; if your quadriceps are stiff and tight which means they are short, and at the same time your hamstrings are weak and slack it is no surprise that you would struggle to get up off the ground. And that is just one example, keep in mind you have 640 muscles in your body. Take that idea and apply it to 10/12 more pairs of muscle and then you might begin to understand this amazing kinetic chain that you walk around in all day. This might give you a better understanding to why upward bow is difficult, but not impossible.

When our body is in harmony it feels easy to be human; to be alive, vibrant and capable of some of the craziest looking yoga asanas. At 42 I am still surprising myself. I am still taking risk with my self implied limitations. The space shuttle has put astronauts out there to explore uncharted territories and to continually make new discoveries. Your body is capable of shuttling you to new discoveries. It is in the space of disbelief that you will find that you are pushing yourself into new territories.

Pattabhi Jois was said to have much “Gravitas, meaning his energy pulled people towards him, that what he was putting out was magnetic. Find something that is powerful enough to rotate around, the way the sun is powerful enough to keep our planet in orbit. I have found that Yoga is my sun. It keeps me moving, it keeps me illuminated and well balanced. Yoga is my anchor and my engine all at the same time. I can PULL myself back down to earth with yoga or I can PUSH myself to shoot for the stars. But it’s only going to work if I know how to push and pull myself in all manners of speaking.

Good luck and I hope you find lift off in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

Categories: Asana, For the beginner, My viewpoint | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Primal is all the craze!

It seems these days that primal is all the craze. If you’re in the loop you’ve read Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall, or if you’ve ever picked up a weight you have probably heard of the Paleo trend. These are trends that are about getting back to simpler times, not needing high-tech shoes or equipment and not consuming processed foods. If it comes in a box don’t eat it. If your shoe’s came out of a box don’t wear them. Seems like boxes are bad. The idea is that 4 walls limit your thinking even all the way down into how your muscles think. By confining our feet we limit their strength and potential. This really isn’t news to a yogi. We have been going barefoot – all natural since yoga came into existence. There is nothing more primal then going barefoot. There are other things that we do in yoga that keep it primal like dog pose, camel pose (Ushtrasana), fish (Matsyasana), eagle (Garudasana), and duck pose (Karandavasana). Those are just a few of the animals we try to embody in the course of a good yoga practice. We don’t need anything except our bodies to do yoga, no weights, no prop’s, no mirror’s and definitely no shoes, so if you want primal this is the way go.

(Excerpt from Born to Run – “No wonder your feet are so sensitive,” Ted mused. “They’re self-correcting devices. Covering your feet with cushioned shoes is like turning off your smoke alarms.”)

What else about going barefoot ties into that primal urge? In the Ashtanga opening chant we pay respect to the dust of the guru’s lotus feet. When you see pictures of the great indian mythological Gods you don’t see any of them tucked into lotus with a pair of Nike’s on. After Gandhi died they bronzed a pair of his sandals, symbolising all the great work he had done while he walked this earth. Feet are considered a representation of the journey our great teachers have taken, the idea the dirtier the feet, the more they have experienced. There are other cultures that embrace this foot thing in different ways. In japan you never wear shoes into a home. In India you never wear shoes into the sacred space inside a temple. It’s also consider offensive to have the bottoms of your feet face your guru. But here in America our feet pretty much live inside a pair of shoes and these shoes go everywhere. We traipse all over the place in shoes that can be dirty and grimy, but supposedly comfortable. But are they really?

Many people visit their doctors because they have foot or knee pain. Take it from me, I have seen my fair share of feet over the 13 years that I have been teaching yoga and we don’t exactly have pretty feet. Proof of this is that many women try to decorate and disguise their feet by painting their toes all sorts of colors. We will put just about anything on our feet. But yet it can be hard to get some people to embrace doing yoga barefoot. Our feet are crying to be set free. Your feet can send pain to the knee and possibly all the way up to the back. Our bodies first defense against the stress of being bipedal begins at the feet. So many people don’t have a healthy defense to these stresses because their feet have become weak and even deformed.

It’s time for people to go bare. To let their feet get tough and strong, to let the toes stay spread apart instead of being squashed together, and to let the arch of the foot be just that – an arch. I see bad foot mechanics every class I teach. I see people who can’t stand on one leg because their feet are so weak. We should be treating our health and fitness in the simplest way possible and quit complicating matters with machines, shoes, and gadgets. Let’s just get back to pushing and pulling, jumping and pressing, twisting and flipping and contradicting. For every movement we do, we want to do one of opposition. If we point, we should flex, if we collapse we should extend, if we stand, we should fall. Ashtanga yoga has all of this, and then some. We drop back into back bends, we jump forward to standing, we point our feet, extend our spines and twist just about everything we can, all in an hour and half…and all barefoot.

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The first series/yoga chikitsa alone has enough movements in it to make you realize that your feet aren’t well. This should make you stop and wonder. If your feet aren’t functioning optimally, then what effects are they having on your knee? Ankle? Back? My two greatest loves are running and yoga. The reason is… I need nothing to do either. I don’t need a gym, and I don’t need equipment. They both can be done from my home. I can step out my front door and go for a run, and I can bust out some yoga moves in the middle of my bedroom. They are both freeing to me because of this, which means they leave me feeling liberated. One of the goals of yoga is just that; to become a liberated soul- jivanmukta.

I believe one thing that can liberate you in life is when you eliminate excuses. There is nothing more freeing than not needing a lame excuse. We all know that 90% of excuses are lame. So one of the other beautiful reasons to fall in love with Ashtanga yoga is it’s a sequence designed for memorization. Once you have committed the sequence to memory you can do yoga anywhere, no excuses. I have done it on a beach, in a little cabin in the woods, in Honduras and a small island in the Atlantic just to name a few. Having no excuses is very liberating, I promise.

Yoga and running are not going to be comfortable but there-in lies the beauty. They aren’t supposed to be. It’s in the discomfort that you will experience your primal nature of being stronger than you thought you were. Discomfort and bare feet take you back to the root of your ancestors. They made the place you call home what it is. Their survival, and their hard work got you where you are. So every time you stand barefoot at the top of your yoga mat, you should feel plugged into to centuries of hard work and discomfort. And you should fear not just a little more of the same. Being comfortable never got anyone somewhere new, different or exciting. All the brave souls that didn’t have the choices you do, that had to go barefoot, that let their feet collect a little more dust, that had to lift one more bale of hay, that had to plough one more line in the field, that had to climb one more tree to harvest the coconuts. They gave you your freedom to stay liberated.

So out of respect to all souls past that laid the ground work for your comfort, let’s get a little uncomfortable. Let’s get a little more primal. Go barefoot. Spread your toes, pull up your arches and feel the sole of your foot tapping into souls of the past.

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(Excerpt from Born to Run – “Just look at the architecture,” Dr. Hartmann explained. Blue print your feet, and you’ll find a marvel that engineers have been trying to match for centuries. Your foot’s centerpiece is the arch, the greatest weight-bearing design ever created. The beauty of any arch is the way it gets stronger under stress; the harder you push down the tighter it’s parts mesh. No stonemason worth his trowel would ever stick a support under an arch; push up from underneath, and you weaken the whole structure. Buttressing the foot’s arch from all sides is high-tensile web of twenty-six bones, thirty-three joints, twelve rubbery tendons and eighteen muscles, all stretching and flexing like an earthquake-resistant suspension bridge.)

Categories: Asana, For the beginner, My viewpoint | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

99% Practice!

I decided to let my practice do the talking this week. This was shot using my iPhone, with natural light, so the quality does waver, but my dedication to yoga never has. I practice even when I don’t feel like it, because I know from enough experience that once I get going it will work itself out. As the late, great Sri K. Pattabhi Jois said “Practice and all is coming”, and it does. He also said “99% Practice, 1% theory.” No matter how much theory you might read about yoga, it will only make sense if you experience it. All talk, and no action can only get you so far.

Remember Patanjali’s sutra  1.12″ Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodah.”
Steady practice, with non-attachment will stop the mind from fluctuating.

I hope you enjoy.

Categories: Asana, For the beginner | 2 Comments

Stacking stones, stacking bones.

Moonlight beach, Encinitas, CA 2010

I have studied with my teacher, Tim Miller many times and in many different places. I have been to Mexico to study yoga under a thatched roof that is 20 yards away from the Carribean Sea and I have studied in his hometown of Encinitas, CA, where his studio is also just a stretch from the pacific ocean and here in my hometown of Charleston, SC, with many beaches available. My 1st  visit out West was to take his first series Ashtanga teacher training back in 2008. I remember going for my first walk on the beach and being challenged to shift my preconceived notions of what a beach is. I grew up having to travel to the east coast for some beach time, where the water is warm and sea shells are washing up on the beach everyday like individual precious reminders of the creation that’s going on under the sea. I would seek to collect memories amongst the vastness and variety of shells that would wash up on the beach. This was one of my favorite past times. Well, the Pacific isn’t anything like the Atlantic. The Pacific water is very cold. When I was there it was 54 degrees. It’s clearer than the east coast. You can see your feet getting bright red from the cold water, if your standing knee deep in the ocean. But the oddest thing to me was the lack of shells. Instead, what was scattered on the beach were stones – smooth stones, that varied in color and shape, but were all relatively similar in appearances. I was first disappointed, as I find it very meditative to walk a beach looking down at each step to see what washed up, artistically-crafted shell I can find. I can seem to do this for hours, peacefully. Since these stones were my only option I decided to start collecting them. Each one in my hand was different and when I stopped expecting them to be shells, I started to see the beauty in each one. The ocean had been rolling and polishing them to the smoothness and shape that made them each very individual. But, what was I going to do with a handful of stones?

There is a practice of stacking stones in Buddhist cultures, where the stones are stacked as prayers. The number of stones might correlate to the number of family members. These stone prayers were stacked around temples. Closer to home, when I was young I remember being taught about hiking safety in girl scouts. We were taught to mark out trails using sticks or  stones in the form of arrows to guide us safely back to where we began. You will see fancier renditions of this by some hikers who will opt to stack stones instead. I have hiked a few trails in my time and have come across these expressions. They always leave me wondering…How long had they been there? Who stacked these and why? How many other people had walked past and been intrigued by this natural art? So I decided to take a whirl at stacking stones, and it became a very interesting experience for me.

I started with the collecting process, which naturally made me feel like a little girl again collecting things from nature. Carrying them back in the hem of my shirt, excited to see my loot dropped in a pile at my feet. I knew since I wasn’t going to spend a day frolicking in that very cold ocean, this could be a fun way to spend a day at the beach. So as I started to make a stack of stones, I kind of figured I’d do one, and that my attempt to balance stones would be a passing interest. But after I stacked one, I began the second, and then the third, until I had 5 stacks of stones. I started to enjoy the challenge of pairing the stones. The effort it took in patience to find the stones perfect balance point and the delicacy required to stack stone number 6 on number 5 without affecting all the stones below. You might get to stone 4 and knock them all down while adding stone 5. This process was slowly forming a very quiet space in my mind. I had begun to appreciation each stone’s character points that were ultimately going to influence their balance point. I started to see the parallels that stone stacking had to the alignment process of my bones in all the asana’s I had traveled out here to learn from my teacher’s 30+ years of experience.

I remember a workshop I took within my first year of practicing yoga with Rodney Yee. I remember him demonstrating a pose called Trikonasana (three angled posture). He taught me a great lesson that day. It was the art of refinement. Small movements create a chain reaction in all areas of the posture’s alignment. Rodney Yee’s background was ballet. So he seemed to be demonstrating an impeccable understanding of his body and the ability to influence it’s alignment with a intelligent approach to movement, which was done without force. At the time, I am pretty sure that I was coming at my yoga practice with all braun and no grace. After seeing him make a few tiny movements and watching his posture go from what seemed disintegrated to integrated, it opened my eyes to a whole new approach to alignment. I had to find the balance point of each individual muscle and have the patience to allow all the muscles to work together with appropriate effort and sensitivity. Much like Patanjali’s yoga sutra 2:46 “Sthira Sukham Asanam” : Asana’s should have equal parts steadiness and ease.

As you build a yoga posture, it becomes just like stacking stones. First you have to have a good foundation, which is why it’s just standard to do yoga on a firm service. Then you have to start from the bottom and work your way up.  It begins in our feet, hands, arms or our sit bones (Ischial tuberosities). It really just depends on the asana that you are trying to build. It begins at the part of the body that will have the most contact with the floor. But what isn’t always paid attention to is that even once your foundation is set, the way you stack the rest of the stones/bones matters too. It’s the teeter totter principal. Too much weight in any one direction will throw off how the load is carried.

As I am looking at each rock and feeling its weight and character in my hands, I have to try and feel for it’s balance point. I would roll the rock around to feel where it was heavy and to try and find a flat, smooth point. We can do this to with our bones by contracting back and forth between the opposing muscles that make the bone move in a given direction. The size and strength of a muscle can influence the impact it has on the movement of the bone. So you start to look for misalignments, areas where there is not equal movement. We all get the same muscles but we don’t all develop the same. Some of us have stronger abductors then adductors, or quadriceps vs. hamstrings, or core vs. back strength. These disproportionate make up is bound to create bad mechanics in our movements. But yoga is the process of tuning us into these things with awareness being the tool. Training our sense’s to feel more intimately stress and strain on the joints and ligaments. Sometimes, one of the only ways you can know what balance feels like is by pulling your body out of balance in both directions. Then start refining your movements slowly to where the center point lies.

It’s the pendulum swing. Sometimes you have to try the good and the bad to find what is just right. It’s very much a Goldilocks approach to yoga. Is the porridge too hot, or too cold? Does my pose need more of this, or less? Looking for the greater then and less then symbol in each muscle to find the appropriate give and take to the movement you are trying to isolate. Give it a try: tilt your pelvis posteriorly, and then try and tip anteriorly, and then try and negotiate the neutral point, where there is no stress on the pelvis as it comfortably holds a neutral position.

There was an interesting scenario that happened a couple of times when I was trying to stack the stones. Even though 5 stones seemed perfectly balanced if I placed the 6th stone wrong it caused the other stones to misalign. This is what is going on in our bodies everyday, under our skin, beneath our muscles. There is disintegration instead of integration. My teacher, Tim, likes to talk a lot about integration. It’s a great word to describe a balanced yoga posture. If we pick up a bad pattern of movement in our hip, it can create a reaction outward from there. An example is, if the hip is not functioning optimally, then it may create a strain and weakness in the knee. Or, it can create a imbalance all the way up in to our shoulder eventually affecting our neck. You could relatively look at areas of the body as representations of each stone you are trying to stack. 1st stone – ankles, 2nd stone – knees, 3rd stone – hips, 4th stone – lumbar spine, 5th stone – thoracic spine, 6th stone – cervical spine, and 7th stone  – the head. It’s not only about the bottom stone/bone, it’s about how they all work together and distribute their weight on one another.

It took me about 2 hours to collect and balance 5 towers of stone. And in that time, I learned a lot about my level of patience. I learned that speed does not assist delicate things well, and that force will not create balance, and that center isn’t as it outwardly appears. Center is where things meet, they don’t compete and they seem harmonious. Can I describe yoga asana’s that way? I can now. During my attempts at asana’s, day in and day out, I am looking for a point of balance that I feel my way into patiently and gently. When I move this way the poses that I’m striving for comes surprisingly easy. So, I say : if your having a hard time with your asana development, then take a break and go stack some stones, and see what you can learn. Then go back and try and stack your bones with the same interest, sensitivity, kindness and maybe even a little prayer while you do it. Stacking stones on a hiking trail will always get you back to the beginning. Maybe reminding ourselves of how far we have come from that beginning by looking back down the trail for the markers will give us a greater appreciation for our progress and abilities. Stop on this yoga path every now and then and stack some stones so that you don’t lose your way by being clouded with frustration and lack of patience.  Pattabhi Jois said “Practice…and all is coming. ” Whatever it is we practice, stacking stones or stacking bones?

Successfully stacked stones!

Categories: Asana, For the beginner | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Words

I had a yoga studio – a great space for people to practice together. We practiced breathing, moving, supporting and maybe growing together as like minded people who knew inspiration was a great fuel for fire. To help that happen, I had stenciled words on all the studio walls, with the help of a dear friend. These words were there to be glanced at whenever the eyes would wonder off the yoga mat, and to help the student remember their optimum self.

Cathy Woods in Padmasana @ The Practice Space

Here are those words-

Flourish • Cultivate • Strength • Breathe • Forgive • Patience • Courage • Trust • Believe • Resonate • Embrace • Flow • Give • Dedicate • Bliss • Laugh • Nurture • Heal • Discover • Ease • Luminous • Health • Sense • Devotion • Happy • Express • Organic • Listen • Achieve • Content • Balance • Pride • Kindness • Power • Intent • Faith • Joy • Create • Receive • Shine • Peaceful • Honesty • Progress • Silence  • Beauty • Honor • Quiet • Smile • Clarity • Release • Learn • Exercise • Celebrate • Grow • Share • Encourage • Live • Respect • Accept • Love • Practice • Support • Care • Change • Engage • Gratitude • Play • Hope • Heart • Try • Appreciate • Imagine • Commit • Explore • Study

Ryan Stone in Utthita Parsva Konasana @ The Practice Space

Categories: Asana, For the beginner | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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