Tag Archives: iyengar

Little Lesson: Pain Isn’t Progress

From Stephanie Sandleben, at Kula Yoga:

Stephanie: So, in my own practice, I’ve been thinking about the difference between sensation, and tapas. And realizing that they’re not the same thing.

Rough quote, I’m forgetting more of it, but her words hit the spot. It’s taken me years to realize that yoga is not the Marines, pain is not “a sign of weakness leaving the body.” Tapas, the purifying burn that is a big reason we practice asana, is achieved through appropriate challenges for the body. Not masochism and ignorance.

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Iyengar I with Lara Brunn at Hip Joint Studio

Lara Brunn
Lara Brunn

Last night I treated myself to a drop-in class at the Iyengar studio nearby. I’ve been feeling a little wonky and uneven in my poses lately, and haven’t been able to figure out why. Time for the Lion’s Roar.

(Kung Fu Hustle style! Watch 9:02 on. Or the whole hilarious thing.)

Iyengar yoga is famously strict. Iyengar himself is called “the Lion of Pune.” The furrow between his brows never seems to depart. His students inherit it. They range from friendly and normal, to straight up mean. If you don’t like to be yelled at, you might want to check a teacher’s reputation. Or your baggage.

But I’ve acquired an occasional taste for teachers who yell at me — it expresses a certain concern for my well-being. Even if they’re in mid-sentence, leading the class, adjusting someone across the room, they still have the presence of mind to see (and communicate) that it would be good to stop that particular habit RIGHT NOW. And if they have the chutzpah to yell, they (hopefully) know their stuff.

Iyengar is the most detail-oriented practice I know. If you want to know how to align every single joint in each pose, go for it. The teacher training is two years instead of the standard six months, and extremely anatomy-focused. Most other schools base their alignment instructions on Iyengar’s. I’ve heard “you can always spot an Iyengar student — they’re the ones with a beautiful practice who look like they’re not having any fun.” It’s also nicknamed “furniture yoga” since it uses so many props: belts, blocks, bolsters, boards, multiple blankets, even rope walls. Mr. Iyengar wanted every body, no matter what condition, to be able to experience each pose.

So what do you get out of all this? A spiral through the hips that begins in the outer edge of your foot. A release in the belly that spreads up the whole ribcage. An outward rotation in the upper arms that brings your head back over your shoulders, centered.

I couldn’t have taken it five years ago. Perfectionism goes CRAZY with the myriad details. You’ll never get them all right. You’ll freeze up and stop breathing.

But now, slowing down, I find it fascinating and absorbing. The energy isn’t geared to moving forward or around; you’re arranging the systems inside the skin. It’s incredibly intense, and burning, as you lift lift lift and hold the pose. That’s true of many classes, but here there are ten more directions engaging ten more layers of mind/body. You can feel the muscles wrapping around each other, weak and strong. You can feel the transfer of weight upward, backward, or in spirals. You can feel the connection of each distant limb to the floor, through new pathways (superficial or deep). There are enough sensations that you’re not bored, and so you work even harder and breathe. And later relax.

Here’s an interview with John Schumacher describing a similar feeling.

Or maybe it’s just the teacher, Lara Brunn. She narrates nonstop (with only occasional yelling). She can demonstrate the wrapping of a muscle down to its root. She’s high energy, but with passion/compassion, as if she just can’t stand for you not to know all the things she knows, she just wants to get them across as directly as she can.

I walked out of class with new posture. (And a crazy openness in my belly that left me loopy.) I literally felt like I was inhabiting someone else’s skeleton.

Yoga changes how we interact with the world. Literally, in our physical forms and the way they take up space, and conceptually, in our mental constructs and the way we direct our attention through the cloud of stimulation. But it’s rare to have a flashbulb moment and see these changes. I was reinvigorated with possibility. I’m grateful for the reminder.

9 Questions with Yogoer

What are you looking at?
What are you looking at?

Ahoy people! Someone nice has gone and interviewed me. What are the hidden gems of the NYC yoga scene? What’s the best music for yoga practice? How awesome is the Yogoer iPhone app? I know these are the questions keeping you up at night. So go ahead and read the full interview on MindBodyGreen!

Q & A with Erica Heinz of Yogoer: Hidden Gems of NYC Yoga, Her Favorite Yoga Music, iPhone App, and More!

You can spend quite a while there, reading inspiring interviews and illuminating overviews. MindBodyGreen is a great new digest of healthy living content. I just learned The 7 P’s of Goal Setting! Plus, you can vote up any news article, or submit one yourself. Enjoy!

Full Wheel: Go Short or Go Long?

Isaac Peña

Last week I dropped by Sankalpah Yoga to take a class with Isaac Peña. He used to teach at Exhale, and I remembered his classes being nice and firey.

(My favorite story about Isaac: He’s teaching at Exhale, and tells the class to come into a Squat. “If your heels don’t touch the ground, put a blanket under them.” One guy, heels way off the ground, doesn’t move. Isaac repeats, “If your heels don’t touch the ground, PUT A BLANKET UNDER THEM.” Still no movement. So Isaac erupts, “I’M NOT SPEAKING SANSKRIT HERE!!!”)

Sorry. Sidetracked. Sankalpah is great. It’s the space that Jude English and Isaac started after they left Exhale. (I thought it went under, but they’d just changed their website from www.sankalpahyoga.com to www.sankalpah.com.) And now they’ve pulled Mary Dana Abbott away from Laughing Lotus, so you have three senior teachers in the same studio. And, they offer $14 classes ($12 if you buy 10!) to yoga teachers who show them a pay stub.

Class was indeed firey, and full of a million twists. I was woozy for two days after, didn’t drink enough water to flush whatever demons I’d riled up. Isaac does a lot of good adjustments, and there was no place to run and hide.

The best part was a little backbend instruction I got at the end. I went up into a Full Wheel, and stepped my feet a bit closer to my hands. (Not as much as normal; I’m trying to back off the extreme shapes and get out of my lower back.) Isaac comes over, and gives me a look. “How does that feel?” he asks as I come down.

I expect the wrath of Iyengar. “Fine…” I say.

“How does it FEEL?” he repeats.

“It pinches a little, in the lower back… I’m trying to move out of it.”

So he schools me. “Well, in contortionism that’s called a Short Backbend. That works the lower back, but you’ve already got that flexibility. A Long Backbend, with the feet further from the hands, will get into the upper back and shoulders.”

Awesome. I love when something is clearly broken down. And when a sentence begins with “In contortionism.”

I’ve seen and practiced several versions of Full Wheel, but somehow it never occurred to me to think of them as different poses, since they have different functions. Thanks Isaac!

Yoga Anatomy with Leslie Kaminoff at the Breathing Project

Leslie Kaminoff at the Breathing Project
Leslie Kaminoff at the Breathing Project

I just had to make a quick post about the open house I attended Wednesday at The Breathing Project. Leslie Kaminoff gave an amazing lecture on breathing and anatomy in yoga, I’m seriously considering signing up for his anatomy classes instead of heading for the Iyengar Institute. His approach is less detail-oriented than Iyengar’s; he says it’s “impossible” to manage a laundry list of alignment instructions while you’re doing a pose. “As soon as you’re focused on your right pinky, your left eyelid goes out of alignment.” So at the end, he says the guidelines for each pose have to come from inside. After all, “There’s no such thing as an asana — where are they right now? where are they stored? — there’s only people. Individuals. There’s Amy’s Down Dog, or John’s Down Dog, but there is no universal Down Dog.”

I think this approach is much more in line with the book I’m working on with Sabina Stahl, which is called Intuitive Lifestyle. It’s more about finding your intuition in asana practice, eating, and general life. So I’ve been reviewing a lot of anatomy notes, but wondering how precise and thorough we’re going to get. Also, in the four years since I did my teacher training, I’ve encountered some conflicting directions on anatomy, so I’ve been wondering how we’re going to reconcile those.

Leslie has a really interesting background. He started out at Sivananda in the seventies, when his father invited him to a class over on 25th Street. He ended up becoming a swami and heading up the LA center. “The early eighties were an interesting time to be a swami on the Sunset Strip.” Jane Fonda had her studio just down the road, it was the birth of the aerobics and body building movements, and the Nautilus machines allowed people to weight-train safely for the first time. He ended up leaving the ashram and working at a Sports Medicine center. There, they treated all the injuries associated with the exploding popularity of high-impact aerobics etc.; they treated Jane Fonda herself. He saw hundreds of x-rays of spines, and was startled to realized most spines don’t look anything like the nice straight columns we see in the books. The idea of asking these spines to do these yoga poses was terrifying, and he stopped teaching yoga for a few years. Eventually he went back to New York, to work for a famous osteopath, and then to the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in India. He would ask Desikachar WHY these poses had such profound effects, but no one there could answer his questions. So he began researching the anatomical basis for yoga’s benefits, and that study culminated in his book with Amy Matthews, Yoga Anatomy. The book is in its fifth printing in one year; there was “a real hunger” for this type of information.

It was also interesting to hear “you know, the study of yoga anatomy is only 30 years old. At Sivananda, it was ‘Now we will do Shoulder Stand. Do it.’ Maybe they would say ‘work the hands towards the middle back’ but that was it. Only when Mr. Iyengar landed in Ann Arbor did we start to get details.” Likewise, “the study of Bandhas is only 12 years old. Ashtanga was the first system to really make a big deal out of them,” so the precise study is still young.

One last nugget: “As a teacher, you can focus someone on a spatial goal, or on a spinal goal.” The former is trying to push them into a particular shape, the latter is more about the relationship between the parts.

Or one more: “Either we’re doing these postures to get them right, or to be free.” Eventually, we will lose any pose we’ve achieved (to age or infirmity), so we should aim for freedom and not achievement in the asanas.

Amy Matthews also taught a wonderful class about anatomy according to the Body-Mind Centering principles of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, and Jill Satterfield led us through a deliciously slow, mindfulness-meditation-oriented hatha class. Is New York City finally slowing down?

PS — All quotes are approximate.

Iyengar-Inspired Vinyasa with Paul Manza at Greenhouse

Paul Manza
Paul Manza

Last night there was a new sub for Nancy (who has mostly departed Greenhouse for acupuncture school). The sub was Paul Manza, and I’d somehow heard of him before in a random blog I read, so I hopped on over.

Oh, I just realized he might be the Paul that used to teach at Laughing Lotus! That explains why he looked familiar, and why he played a full-volume party mixtape (Lotus-style): RJD2, Bjork remixes, and Aphex Twin. I almost said something after class, that I played a lot of the same tracks during yoga, but the lameness of that comment was reserved solely for my blog.

Paul was super excited to tell us about his current study of Iyengar yoga. This did not mean he departed from his super calm voice. Rather, we heard 10 minutes about how to keep the chest open while standing, moving, jumping back, all in the support of eventually meditating. “If we’re going to practice all these movements while collapsing the chest, practice collapsing the chest, we might as well do drugs or something. The whole point is that we can open up like this [with arms and chest open] in meditation.” (Not a perfect quote, it was something like that.) His other classes are listed as “Iyengar-inspired Vinyasa,” which has amazingly not been shortened to Iyengasa or Vingar or other Tex-Mex naming mashup. Power Super Vinyaya Glow.

One of his repeated ideas that I really liked was “stay awake, but passive.” This word passive has such negative connotations for me — 50’s housewives, wimpy men, poor grammar — that it was helpful to reclaim it as a good thing. Similar to the Vipassana meditation practice of not doing anything, just being there. (In their retreats, you are not allowed to practice yoga or anything energetic, because their focus is on NOT trying to change things, just becoming aware and accepting things.) I am very visual — if my eyes are open I want to adjust my pose (or someone else’s) — so it was helpful to have a word to direct that energy. (He wouldn’t let us close our eyes.)

We held poses for quite a long time, Iyengar-style. I had a pool of sweat roll off the top off my head and POUR, not drip, onto the mat between my hands. (Luckily, at Greenhouse you scrub your own mats after class.) We did a variation on Extended Side Angle, with the front foot moved to the middle of the mat, that really helped rotate the front hip under. We did a passive Half Moon, stopping in each prep pose, that turned out wonderfully stable and calm.

That’s all for now, it was a good day.

Iyengar Intro with Michelle at the Iyengar Yoga Institute

Yesterday I finally made it to the Intro class at the Iyengar Institute. Before you take any classes there, you must take a 90-minute intro class covering the basics. They only hold it once a month, and last time it was sold out.

I forgot to bring my camera, so I’ve included some Flickr photos by Gerry Visco. Hope that’s okay!

Michelle, the instructor
Michelle, our instructor

Iyengar Yoga is known for its precise, detailed alignment instructions. Their teacher training is 2 years; most others are 6 months or even 1 month (intensive). It’s the most popular form of yoga in the U.S., because it’s commonly recommended for physical rehabilitation, beginners, and older bodies. (In New York, however, I’d guess that less than 10% of classes are Iyengar.) Most schools base their alignment principles on Iyengar’s seminal Light on Yoga, although they veer off to varying degrees. (“We would now say that Mr. Iyengar is hyperextended [in Down Dog],” my anatomy teacher said.)

I’m designing a yoga book right now, so I’ve been wanting to take some Iyengar classes and review alignment. I think I’ve forgotten a lot of my beginner’s insights and instructions; I wish I’d kept a practice journal then!

The instructors stage
The instructor's stage

The space was, I dare say, ideal. I love when studios put the contrasting stripes of wood in the floor, to let students know where to line up their mats. The floors were spotless, and the changing rooms spacious. In each classroom, there’s an elevated stage for the instructor, so that everyone can see the demonstrations. One wall is custom-fitted with ropes and hooks, for more involved uses of props — Mr. Iyengar believed that all people, no matter their strength or flexibility, should be able to access yoga poses, so he taught an extensive use of props — so much that Iyengar is nicknamed “furniture yoga.” (We stuck to blocks and bolsters.)

The west studio
The west studio

The class was a good overview, we did:

  • Easy Pose — how to sit
  • Mountain Pose — how to stand
  • Chair Pose — bending from 3 joints, torso lifted
  • Triangle Pose — bending from 1 joint
  • Warrior II — bending from 3 joints, torso lifted
  • Extended Side Angle — bending from 3 joints, torso bent
  • Wide-Legged Forward Bend — how to arrange the feet
  • Hero Pose — therapy for the legs and feet
  • Child’s Pose — how to rest
  • Downward Facing Dog — lifting up
  • Cobbler’s Pose / Butterfly — hip opening
  • Bridge Pose — using a bolster
  • Corpse — final relaxation
The rope wall
The crazy wall

Michelle started with some helpful little exercises that really got some key points across. For example, we started sitting on blankets and then moved to the floor, so we could really see how flat sitting compromises the straightness of the spine and the relaxation/drop of the hips. Or, we sat on a block, and pulled the flesh of just one buttock out from under the sitbone, so we could feel the pelvis straighten on one side only. Or, we stood with legs wide, turning the feet out, parallel, and slightly in, so we could feel how the turn-in gave the most support to the hips.

Another great note was given in Triangle: turn out the foot with the thigh, so the rotation is coming in the hip and not the knee.

I had to remind myself to breathe; there are so many instructions in an Iyengar class that it’s easy to get a little mental and up-in-the-head. (I’ve heard it’s not the best yoga for perfectionists, who will just reinforce obsessive tendencies.) Remember: the benefits of the poses come from deep breathing in the poses, not from the poses themselves. (I don’t know if Mr. Iyengar would agree with that.)

I am excited to try a few different teachers at the Institute. They arrange their classes mostly in series — you sign up for a 5- or 13-week series of classes, instead of just showing up when you feel like it. (I have always thought studios should do this! It’s so chaotic to have everyone be drop-in.) Before you commit to a series, however, they recommend that you try a few different teachers, to find a good match. Some students like a strong commander, others prefer a softer, sweeter teacher. The people at the front desk said popular teachers are Carrie, Marcela, James… and a couple others I’ve forgotten. Lara Brunn also teaches there, she’s the Williamsburg teacher who fixed my pinchy backbend. I will probably end up back at her studio, it’s closer and cheaper ($16 drop-in versus $20), and she’s very very articulate and knowledgeable.

It’s weird to be going for this yoga that is not necessarily my ideal style, but it’s definitely the knowledge I want or need right now.