Posts Tagged With: sukham

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

36 backbends, 1/3 of the way there.

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“Life is a great big beautiful three-ring circus. There are those on the floor making their lives among the heads of lions and hoops of fire, and those in the stands complacent and wowed, their mouths stuffed with popcorn.” -Christopher Hawke

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Bending the light backwards.

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Arching with the morning light.

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Sometimes backbends feel like you’re in a tight spot.

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Backbends can be a heavenly experience.

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Bow! Wow! Wow! Yippee! Yo! Yippee! Yay! It’s another great day for backbends.

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“Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.” – Bruce Lee

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“It’s not the daily increase but the daily decrease. Hack away at the inessential.” Bruce Lee

Crazy ideas are great! They are what keep life juicy. In Ayurveda it’s called “ojas”. We all could use a little more juiciness, right? You know how awful it is when you’re eyeballing a piece of fruit sitting on your counter, just waiting for it to ripen to perfection. You finally take a bite, only find its spoiled and all dried up. That’s what happens when you sit on ideas for far too long. They go bad, from all the ways you talk yourself out of moving forward with them. Well, this is one of my recent crazy ideas, which is a small part of a bigger one. I’d like to share with you what I have learned so far. I am only 36 pictures in to the plan of taking 108 different pictures of backbends, all over the place. I’m at the 1/3 of the way there mark, like the 1st 1/3 of the sound of Aum, aaaaaaaaaah. I’m hoping there is a shift in the next third and a final explosion of insight in the final third. Just like we have to create that verbal sound of “A” way in the back of our throats, I had this idea brewing in the back of my mind for a while. The courage I needed to do it finally moved forward out of the dark shadows of all my doubts. One of my students inspired me to take this journey. Everywhere interesting that he went he did a headstand and snapped a picture of it. Now that I am 1/3 of the way in, I’m slightly wishing that I had chosen a pose like headstand (Sirsasana) or downward facing dog (Adho mukha svanasana) to photographically journal, instead of wheel, as I am a natural forward bendy kind of girl. The word natural and backbend don’t belong together in my case. Too many years of running, or too much comfort in protecting myself. I’m not much of a risk taker, I am more a creature of habit. I find comfort in the consistencies in my life. For me, forward bending has always been consistently easy. Backbending (Urdhva dhanurasana), however, doesn’t have much consistency. I am sure you will see that in my pictures. I hope you enjoy the photos. If you’d like to check out all of them, you can follow me on Instagram @catherinewoods. I’m really starting to enjoy the challenge of finding interesting backdrops, trying new shapes with my body and sharing quotes. But maybe next time I get a crazy idea like this I’ll do 108 child’s postures (Balasana)

So here is what I have learned so far.
1) Not all surfaces are conducive for backbends
2) Backbends are cruel without the proper warm-up
3) Bending your spine in the wee morning hours is for the young, and I mean like the 8-year-old gymnast, not the 42-year-old runner/yogi. (However I prefer to shoot these pics in the morning as I do not care for an audience and the morning light is beautiful. So for that reason, I must suffer. Art is an expression of suffering, sometimes.)
4) Some places and or surfaces are very scary to lift yourself up off the ground in a vulnerable, belly exposed position.
5) Backbends on treacherous surfaces drive the point home of sutra 2.46 Sthira sukham asanam. First and foremost sthira! Steady! Then ease comes.
6) Since I am doing most of the pictures as selflies this has made repetition a great teacher. My teacher, Tim Miller taught me the benefit of repetition years ago with backbends. He has a way of inspiring you to do 12 backbends.
7) Pictures always speak louder than words. I have become immensely informed by my photos as to where I need to do some work and research. Try it, you will see things that you might not yet be able to propriocept.
8) From sharing my photo’s, so far to date (By what people have chosen to share with me privately), I have inspired 3 random people to try to do a backbend and to keep them incorporated in their practice. (I’m finding backbends in some yoga communities are becoming a lost art)
9) My lazy habits are being exposed, my external hip rotators overwork, while my internal rotators underwork. My cervical spine is stiff.
10) I have learned that I am a dreamer, that I believe I can fit into tight places and do things my body has never done before. Not only am I a dreamer, but I’m not afraid to leave my comfort zone after all.

Questions I am wondering if I’ll have answered at the end of this 108 photographic journey
1) Will my backbends improve in such a way that I will be able to do tic toc’s?
2) Will I understand my psoas better? And get better movement and expression through it?
3) Will my body require less backbend preparation to experience a good, comfortable and correct backbend?
4) Will I be able to grab my heels in Kapotasana, by myself?
5) As I have been enjoying finding murals to use as a backdrop to my photo’s, I wonder if I will finally make some room to start painting again. Long before being a yoga teacher, I was an artist. I admire each and every one of the artist I have used in my photos. They have embodied the “Go big or stay home.” mantra with their art and I thank them for that.

I think at the pinnacle 108, it will just be a landmark. I imagine at this point that I have caught some sort of backbend bug. If you were to talk to my students this wouldn’t be a surprise, as I have been driving home the numerous benefits of backbending for years now. I now feel like I am on a mission to find the most unique expressions of backbends and the most unique backdrops to accent the experience. I intend to be 80 years old and still standing up out of Urdhva dhanurasana. Join me. I promise, it will be good for your health.

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