Posts Tagged With: asana

Fast food yoga anyone?

Yoga has succumb to the fast food influence. Everyone wants the cool poses and they want the cool poses NOW! People would also like to pay as little as possible for their time spent doing these trick postures. These circus trick postures seem to be as tempting as the little plastic super hero figurine in a happy meal. The “high” from these postures is addictive, and it has power that can alter your life. But not all things we do are good for us. The surgeon general warns us that cigarette smoking is bad, yet people still do it. So what are we to do when we feel tempted to only be pleasure seekers and pain avoiders? Always start with awareness.

We have gone mad with yoga in the United States with classes called happy hour, wisdom warriors and rockasana. These classes branded with big promises of happiness, knowledge and the “Cool” factor. If anything, when I head to a yoga class I am usually looking for less, not more. I want to walk away feeling liberated of the heavy load I’m carrying. I don’t want to worry about how cool I look, while losing a percentage of my hearing because I’m jamming out to Eminem in Triangle pose. What has happened to yoga in America? In my opinion, it has just become another thing we have tried to control, stamp a label on, and declare it ours. Now let’s see how cheap we can make it, how trendy and nutritionally devoid. Sounds a lot like fast food doesn’t it?

Now I don’t want to be the Grinch that stole Natarajasana from the towns people, but I wouldn’t mind stealing a few things away from this Americanized yoga. Like Loud music, cute little names for the postures (like fallen angel and baby grasshopper), lavender-scented hand towels, foot rubs in savasana, and arm balances. Now hear me out, I know I few of you just gasped; If you like loud music, listen to it in your car on the way to yoga because it’s not possible to listen to your breathing in a Rockasana class. Which is the primary tenet of yoga’s methodology. If you like foot rubs, pay a trained massage therapist to assist you in your healing. If you like lavender-scented towels then launder your clothes with a little lavender added to it. Remember the 4th limb of yoga Pratyahara – sense withdrawal, not sense overload. And if you like your practice to have a heavy portion of arm balancing, this could be a good time to examine why? Has your yoga become a place for an addiction? Is this kind of yoga possibly feeding narcissism?

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I know arm balancing postures are very empowering! I’m not trying to say that they have no place in yoga, as they have many benefits, different for each student. I’m not saying that we should take any of these things I speak of away from the students. But teachers should ask the question “Am I teaching this class to be popular? to be famous? to fill my ego and get my number of followers to a million on social media?” or “Am I teaching it for the people who show up? Evaluating their ability and analyzing their patterns of weakness and or stubbornness. Is it for me, or is it for them?” No doubt there is a “high” that can come with being up at the front of the room demonstrating great skill in front of 40 people, their eyes wide from being enamored by your grace and beauty. It is this “high” we must be careful with. I took a great workshop from Sean Corne, a very beautiful and gifted teacher. She said, “do you want to be popular, or do you want to be a good teacher?” That question has always stuck with me through 14 years of teaching. I try to check my motive behind my teaching with that question. Sometimes you have to sacrifice the trick poses so that you can teach an intelligent sequence that informs and educates as you go.

Some teachers do a beautiful job, sequencing, cueing and supporting the student, but too many times I have seen the opposite – where 80% of the students are at a basic level ability, but the teacher is handing out advanced level postures. 20% of the students achieve the asana, 50% are plain sitting it out, 10% are putting in good effort and 20% are setting up patterns of future injury. This is not good teaching. I believe the source of this kind of teaching has to do with the fast nature of the industry now. Yoga studios are graduating large groups of trainees every couple of weeks. This side of the industry is becoming like an assembly line. The fact is that you can get certified to teach yoga in 1 month, accumulating as little as 200 hours of knowledge, and in the end all you have to do is pay your 95$ to Yoga Alliance. Which only proves you finished the training. It proves nothing of your knowledge or commitment. Graduates do not have to take a test, or submit competency of any kind to the governing body of yoga. This seems like a slippery slope for yogas future.

In traditional ashtanga yoga, a teacher can hold you back from future postures until you have done the work necessary to move your body into and out of it in a safe and appropriate way. This is just one of the reasons why I love Ashtanga and its old school principals. There is nothing wrong with taking things slow. I love that my Ashtanga yoga teacher, who I greatly respect, doesn’t even offer a 200 hr course. He offers instead two separate 100 hour trainings and they are spaced a year apart. This helps to ensure that the student stick with it for at least a year. It proves a teacher’s level of dedication when they are willing to wait, continue to practice and come back a year later to complete the course.

Now a days, a student can start yoga in February, practice on and off for a couple of months, take a 1 month teacher training, and maybe a few months later they open their own studio and begin teaching something that they have only just begun. This would be like opening a restaurant because you own some cook book’s. Or opening a doctor’s office because you are really proficient at taking temperatures, and giving boo boo’s kisses. There is a reason why so many professions take years of schooling. Many have boards that you must pass before you can practice your profession. It’s the reason why restaurants receive reviews from the board of health, to help prevent you from getting bad food. Who is going to protect the public from getting bad yoga?

Change will come when people no longer want it fast and cheap. When they decide to no longer be glazed over by the shiny big promises of the cool poses and fancy tricks, but start to enjoy the simplicity of what yoga can do for you – like a better nights sleep. Maybe it’s time to teach “bran muffin-nutritionally packed” kind of yoga, with thoughtfulness to the actual students that show up and organized progressively towards a specific posture. Instead of teaching a “donut-empty of nutrients” kind of class, devoid of any substantial thought and or observation to the students participation and progression. These kind of classes that has as many arm balances thrown in as possible, with each one behaving like a sugar spike the way nutritionally devoid food behaves. These sugar spike postures are bound to create a big crash, or as I have seen – a real crash to the very hard and unforgiving floor.

Yoga is a lifelong journey that requires time on a yoga mat – alone and with a professional teacher. It requires time to digest and adapt the information. It requires the student making wise choices to practice with qualified teachers who have done their time on the mat. So don’t be afraid to ask your teacher qualifying questions like “How long have you been teaching?”, or “With whom have you studied?” There are enough qualified, elder and senior teachers out there – with more than 10/15 years teaching experience. You don’t have to settle for the studio that is the closest, the cheapest, or even the fanciest. That could be buying you yoga devoid of any expertise.

Keep your awareness sharp and make sure you aren’t falling for nutritionally empty yoga. Be ware of gimmicks. Play with those postures within reason. Stay aware of some of the poisons there are in a yoga practice like aversion and attachment.

When are you an addict? When you are so attached to something that it causes you great suffering to go without. It’s easy to get addicted to just about anything. By constantly re-examining your motives you will keep your addictions in check. Go for sustenance, commit to the long haul and enjoy the subtle flavorings of a good practice with a very qualified teacher. Sometimes the best flavors come out of a long slow cooking process. Soak in the wisdom from the years some of these teachers have invested. Be willing to let your yoga progress slowly at times. A good teacher will help you do that by calling you out on your aversions, and your attachments. And always try to remember this simple advice from the yoga sutra’s.

Sutra 1.12 Abhyasa Vairagyabhyam Tannirodhah. Mental fluxes are restrained by practice and non-attachment

Sutra 1.14 Sa tu dirgha kale nairantarya satka-rasevito drdhabhumih. Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break and in all earnest.

Sutra 2.3 Avidyasmita raga dvesabhinivesah klesah – There are five primal causes of suffering: ignorance of your True Self and the value of spirituality, egoism and its self-centeredness, attachment to pleasure, aversion to pain, and clinging to life out of fear of death.

Categories: For the beginner, My viewpoint | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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

We’re getting the bandhas back together!

Ugh Bandhas! For a yoga teacher, they are one of the hardest things to teach. For starters, you cannot show them to people. So You’re left with trying to explain something to people that on a day to day basis fluctuates a bit. Also, in the yoga world there’s this talk that you should be doing bandhas  24/7. That’s a tall order along with everything else we have to do. But they are interesting, and once you start to figure them out for the first couple of times, they actually become very intriguing. If you can execute them properly, they will make things easier. Maybe “easier” isn’t the right word. But instead, they will make things more accurate. Or an even better idea is they will direct your energy. When I do them to the best of my ability they seem to keep my practice on track, kind of like the way trains follow rails. But there definitely seems to be a learning curve to them. At 13 dedicated years of Ashtanga yoga practice, I think I’m still on that curve.

Chaturanga Dandasana. Holding it is a good bandha check.

It seems like with every new pose I take on in my yoga journey, there is a new process of learning how to use my bandhas properly. They are not as easily executed in every pose. Yes, for the most part they are an energetic movement that is inward and upward. I think of their engagement a lot like the way a suction cup engages to a surface. That when you engage your bandhas, in essence you are creating a sealing effect of keeping your energy secure, stationary. Once this seal or mudra has been executed, you then can work to direct your attention to the innate lightness we all are capable of. It’s as the yoga sutra’s say, Sutra 46 chapter 2, ” Sthira sukham asanam; a yoga asana should be steady (sthira) and at ease (sukham) at the same time.” But the most truthful part about that sutra is its order. Sthira is first, because you can not be at ease if at first you are not steady. A seal or mudra happens when two things come into agreement or alignment. Right? Your front door won’t seal closed if the door is not aligned?

I know if you translate the word “bandha” you actually get the definition as a lock, like a lock at a dam. A dam couldn’t work effectively if it didn’t seal properly. In my opinion “to seal” would be more appropriate definition. So how do you get this alignment to take place, to create this sealing sensation? Let’s be real. The bandhas are more sensation then they are an anatomical action. I mean don’t get me wrong, there are specific muscles involved. But even if you know definably which muscles to contract, does that then make bandhas automatic? Absolutely not. Especially interesting is that even when we do know which muscles to activate, we don’t tend to be the most adept species at things that are subtle. We are definitely much more in tune with gross movements. But that’s the beauty and the mystery of the bandhas. Which is that they, more than anything else in yoga, are teaching us about the subtle, sensitive, and more mysterious side of the practice.

Here’s another way that you can try to understand the use of bandhas in your practice. Have you learned yet how to drive a stick shift car? Just a sidebar: You should, because you never know when or why you might need to drive a stick shift car. What a process it is, right? Intimidating and yet so liberating once you master it. Well, bandhas are a lot like the clutch in the stick shift experience. You must learn how to operate it to get the car in gear and maneuver your way through traffic. Seems like it should be an easy enough process, but using two feet and one hand, all coordinated together turns out to be a lot harder then you would think. Sounds like the things we do in yoga. Sometimes yoga and stick shift driving have that feeling of trying to pat your head and rub your belly at the same time.

You first have to take your foot off of the brake to get anywhere. In yoga, for some of us that means getting the “I can’t” thoughts out of our way. Doing yoga thinking “I can’t” is a lot like driving your car with your foot on the brake. Then you have to push down on the accelerator while easing off the clutch smoothly at the same time. If not, you will bounce the car forward or stall out completely. They are subtle movements, it requires a sensitivity of how much to release the clutch and how much to push the accelerator. You might think of the clutch as the mula bandha and the accelerator as uddiyana bandha. They must work in unison. You can’t have one with out the other, and you must first engage the one before you can effectively engage the other. In yoga, mula bandha is sometimes called the roots and uddiyana bandha is called the wings. You could say then that mula bandha is the element of sthira and uddiyana is the element that creates the ease of execution, sukham. Just like you have to ease off the clutch and push down on the accelerator.

What’s interesting, is when you first learn how to drive a stick shift car, you are taught on a flat surface because it’s easier. But then when it’s time for you to refine your stick shift driving skills, you have to try it on an incline. It is a whole lot harder to know what degree of effort to apply to the gas and how much to release the clutch, all at the same time while  worrying about drifting backwards. The smaller the hill the easier to figure out. Just like the easier the yoga asana, the easier it is to activate your bandhas. But the more things in an asana that you have to pay attention to, the harder it seems to be to remember to engage your bandhas. You put people upside down in yoga and it seems that the last thing on their radar is bandhas. Lucky for them, bandhas automatically engage a bit when inverted, not completely though. Asking people to engage their bandhas when attempting a new, more advanced asana is a lot like trying to ask the driver to take their foot off the brake when sitting on a steep hill, in a stick shift car.

Sometimes we might accidentally let our bandhas out, and then our energy flows but without any guidance. However, we need to have the ability at a moment’s notice to activate the bandhas and get our energy and attention back on track. First, learn how to find and use your bandhas in easier poses, then as you advance you will know what to do with them. Bandhas are much more fun when we know how to use them to make our practice freer and lighter.  Bandhas are most effective when activated together.

You may not remember this cartoon from the 1970’s; The Super Friends. It had these two characters named the Wonder Twins. According to wikipedia “The Wonder Twins powers are activated when they touch each other and speak the phrase, “Wonder Twin powers activate!” This phrase is unnecessary and just a habit of theirs. Physical contact, however, is required. If the two are out of reach of each other, they are unable to activate their powers. As they are about to transform, they would each announce their intended form. “Shape of…”, “Form of…”” Our Bandhas are a lot like that. They need to operate together .And when we do activate them, they allow us to take on new forms and shapes.

Me and my brother just before releasing the fish I caught the summer of 1980.

I’ll give you one more story of how I see the bandhas operating before letting you run off and experiment with the cause and effect of bandhas in your asana. Have you ever been fishing? When I was young and before many years of being a vegetarian, I went fishing a few times from a shore of  Lake Pymatuning, in Ohio. Nothing fancy. We used the worm, weight, and bobber system. In order to catch the fish we needed the worm to dangle below surface, so we put a tiny weight on the fishing line. Nothing that was too heavy that would cause the line to drop to the bottom of the lake, but enough weight to give the look of the worm dangling. Then a foot or so above that on the line we attached a plastic red and white bobber to allow the line to float so that we would be able to see when the fish took the bait. The weight on the line is your mula bandha and the bobber giving the line buoyancy  is uddiyana bandha. We must be grounded, but buoyant in our asana’s. Just as it can be tricky to catch a fish, it will be tricky to catch your lightness of being. As my teacher, Tim Miller says “somethings in yoga can be taught but other things must be caught.” Go fish for your bandhas. Be patient, be sensitive and don’t be too attached to your results. Sutra12, Chapter 1, “Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah; Steady practice, with non-attachment, will stop the mind from fluctuating.” Just as I let go of all the fish I did catch, we need to learn to let go of our expectations. If you always want to go fish for the biggest fish out there, you might miss out on the beauty of the little one’s.

So let’s get the bandhas back together and make another great album. Maybe we’ll call this bandha album,  THE ROOTS and WINGS, or THE CLUTCH and ACCELERATOR, or  The WONDER TWINS, or The WEIGHT and BOBBER? But no matter what you know or think you know about the bandhas, they are definitely worth your consideration and examination. Whether you think of them as a suction, clutch, roots, wings, super hero powers, weight and buoyancy, or anything else creative you have heard, they are a necessary tool to the practice. Before you know, it you will be reeling in your bandhas. They will help create a greater mastery of the mystery.

Categories: For the beginner, My viewpoint | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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