Tag Archives: poses

The Not-So-Scientific 7-Minute Yoga Class

12well_physed-tmagArticle

I love exercise sequence diagrams; I have a whole binder full of them. A favorite, lately, is the Times’ Scientific 7-Minute Workout. Twelve exercises, done for 30 seconds each (with a 10-second rest in between), with a focus on increasing heart rate and working all the main muscle groups. It’s great when you’re traveling and have no equipment.

This morning I wondered what a yoga version of that might look like. So, I kept the diagram in front of me as I practiced this morning. It kept me going for 45 minutes, and felt great!

 

The Not-So-Scientific, Not-7-Minute Yoga Class

inspired by the NYT’s Scientific 7-minute Workout

7-9 breaths in each pose, if possible

 

  1. breathing:
    • standing arm raises w/breathing
    • standing crescent (side, side, back, front)
  2. leg warmup:
    • chair
  3. arm warmup:
    • sun salutation A x5, one breath each
      • step back right, step forward
      • step back left, step forward
      • step back right, jump forward
      • step back left, jump forward
      • jump back and forward
    • sun salutation B variation, x2, one breath each
      • jump back
      • up/down/split dog
      • warrior I, II
      • extended side angle
      • chatarunga
      • up/down dog
      • jump forward
  4. abs sequence, 5x
    • boat
    • half boat
  5. lunge sequence, each side:
    • down dog
    • lunge
    • leaning lunge
    • revolved lunge
    • revolved bound lunge
    • revolved bound half moon
  6. revolved chair
  7. handstand practice, each side:
    • L-shaped / splits at wall
  8. forearm plank
    • dolphin
    • forearm plank and hold
  9. leg lifts, each side
    • standing hand to big toe
    • standing hand to big toe expanded
    • standing hand to big toe, no hand
    • dancer
    • standing half ankle to knee
    • flying crow
  10. hip stretch, each side
    • split prep
    • splits
    • splits forward bend
    • revolved pigeon prep
  11. arm strength, each side:
    • side plank
  12. relaxation
    • foam roller on the IT band
    • meditation (grounding)

Learning to Fly

“If you make a rule [or tell yourself a story], be prepared to stand by it with conviction. Also be prepared to change it at any moment.” ~ Will Duprey

My brain is growing exponentially. I’ve been practicing yoga, mostly at home, for 11 years. I read about it, write about it, talk about it, practice it almost daily, and yet this teacher training is growing my practice and consciousness by leaps and bounds, and we’re only two weeks in to a 12 week program. Today Will Duprey, one of my teachers, taught us to fly by grounding us. Continue reading

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!

Teaching, Beginning, Being One Piece

Yesterday I taught a workshop for Internet Week NY. I’d randomly decided their schedule of events needed “yoga and teatime” in addition to the lectures and cocktail parties. I set up an RSVP form, so I could gauge interest and experience levels, and had 40 people “interested”, and 14 people RSVP. Nearly all marked their experience level as “0–10 classes”; none marked “over 100″. So I got to thinking about what I wanted to teach in a true beginners’ class — the last time I taught beginners, I was still teaching the Atmananda Sequence verbatim.

I knew that Sun Salutations were a good place to start; they supposedly contain every essential alignment, and since students are forced to do them all the time in classes, they would be valuable topics to cover.

I was also thinking about the specific audience: Internet Week participants, i.e. people who sit in Computer Pose 40 hours a week. So I thought some wrist, shoulder, neck, and back movements might be good: Table Top, Locust, Rabbit, Seated Crescent, Spinal Twist, Bow. Also some stretches for the hip flexors, which sit in 90º forward bends all day: Lunges, Hero, Camel.

And I was chewing on something Leslie said last week: “the PRINCIPLE of Chaturanga is learning to hold the body all in one piece.” (Quote is approximate.) It was so interesting to think about a single lesson we can learn in each pose. And then I thought, well, this is a good thing to work on in ALL poses: finding the unity and integration of the body. On a practical level, it teaches us to avoid injury by using our whole body to lift boxes, get out of bed, stand on our heads, etc. On a mental/emotional level, it reduces the hierarchical war of head, heart, gut, and hips; we want them ALL to be happy and acknowledged. And it’s a good metaphor for the Internet: bringing vast and varied communities together in one piece. It’s kind of the whole point of yoga: union, coming together.

Finally, I was feeling like challenging Down Dog. Ever since my shoulder injury, I have been realizing how complex this pose actually is. There are a thousand ways you can arrange the shoulders in this pose, and a thousand points of emphasis. It’s a subtle balancing act of how much to widen the shoulders (or not), externally rotate the upper arms, internally rotate the forearms, straighten the arms (or not), send the sitbones or the tail to the sky, lengthen the spine or relax the neck… and that’s not even getting into the unique upper body strength one must build. (Practicing Half Down Dog standing at the wall is a great start, but still we need something to fill the vinyasa.) So, all I needed was another relevant aside from Leslie (“Down Dog, for all its ubiquity, is not really a beginner’s pose…”) to have the validation I needed to try something new. (Leslie, here’s a prime cut of someone taking your ideas and bastardizing them straight into yoga class ;) Child’s Pose is the usual substitution, but I didn’t want to lose the upper body strengthening entirely, so I played around with Dolphin, the forearm stand version of Down Dog, where I could focus on the shoulders and upper arms more clearly. So this is a full-fledged Vinyasa class with absolutely no Down Dogs.

And then I took some of my favorite poses and glued everything together in an order that flowed. Here it is. It went well enough that I got a round of applause at the end of the class :) :) :) For those of you that attended the class, I hope you enjoyed it and find a way to make it your own!

Continue reading

I Hate This Pose

The last couple days, I’ve returned to Sun Salutations. They are a perfect practice in and of themselves. I used to hate them. Always forced myself through them, knowing I needed the warm up. Finally I realized: if you hate a pose in yoga, you’re doing it wrong. There is some other alignment, variation, or way of breathing that will work for you. Even burning, strengthening poses are enjoyable if you’re at your edge, and not over it. A few examples:

“I hate Warrior I.”
Many standing poses create intense burning in the legs. This pose in particular has some goofy alignment on top of the fire. Back foot rotates out while hips face forward? Are you kidding? Just know that different traditions have different expressions of the pose, for different reasons. Iyengar aligns front heel to back arch; Kripalu has the back heel up, like a Lunge! Once you learn or decide the intent of the pose (for me, it’s a heart opener with a lot of fire underneath), you can wiggle the hips and explore the breath until you feel that intention with full-body participation. We all have different skeletons, no two poses will ever look alike. The stance can be very narrow if that is where you breathe fully and feel stable. The hips can turn towards the side if it lets you lift through the heart and stop sinking into the lower back. You want ease but not easy. There’s a lot of room for exploration. Your teacher’s head might explode, just tell them you have a doctor’s note for self-medication. Adjust.

“I hate Ankle to Knee.”
One of the most intense hip openers, Ankle-to-Knee (aka Fire Logs) gets right into the freaky tightness in a mysterious corner of the hips. All around the classroom, students avoid the full parallel of the shins and round into a cross-legged ball. Try not to care that they’re cheating. See above. For full sensation, keep the ankles right on the knees, not on the thighs. Flex the feet and try to relax. In martial arts tests, you hold squats for 1, 10, 20 minutes to get your belt. The secret is apparently to focus on the sensations of breathing, not the sensations of pain. Like life: if you run around thinking about your problems all day, you will not be smiling very much. So, sit up tall, and breathe up and down the back. Maybe an exhale tips the hips an inch forward; maybe not. As Leslie Kaminoff says, think about spinal movement, not spatial. A new door opened on intense poses when I learned to stay where I was. Relax.

“I hate Handstand.”
This inversion uses an invigorating combination of muscle and fear. Even against a wall, I used to freak out. I was sure I didn’t have the strength to hold it. Heart openers immediately prior helped — a little clasp of the hands behind the back before diving forward — but I still hated the feelings of panic and wobbly weakness while in the pose. It was too unfamiliar, there was too much going on. So, I simplified. An L-shaped Handstand allows both feet to be firmly on the wall, which somehow feels much more familiar and secure, so that the alignment of the shoulders can be the focus. (Since we want to work from the ground up, we have to tackle the hands and shoulders before the core and legs.) Eventually, each leg could take a turn extending to the sky.  I firmly believe it’s better to do one piece of the pose well, then all of them terribly. Simplify.

And finally, “I hate Sun Salutations.”
The jump backs. The Down Dogs. The repetition. There’s so much to hate! My attitude finally changed I think at Sivananda, when we were led through two rounds of Surya Namaskar, and then told to do three more at our own pace. It’s a shock to realize that you don’t know what your own pace is. Suddenly, this exercise was an exploration of how I actually wanted to move. I started skipping Up Dog, and appreciating Cobra. Keeping the step-backs, and their connection to the core. Hearing the breath more like a breeze than a freight train. Since then, I’ve noticed how different the speed of my breath is at different times of day — sometimes it wants to race, sometimes it wants to relax. Following the breath is like letting an alternate brain lead. It’s a different choreographer each day; the quality and rhythm of movement changes subtly and sometimes drastically. Breathe.

Acknowledging, deciphering and accommodating irritants will create positive reinforcements for your practice instead of negative. Practice in a way that leaves you looking forward to the next one, not holding subconscious dread. You will start to get it.

The Blissful Spine

This came from some notes for a class I recently gave — thought I’d share.

What does Bliss feel like? Is it extreme pleasure, or is it (as Swami Satyananda Saraswati, among others, says) more accurately defined as the absence of pleasure or pain, a state beyond mere pleasure and pain, a pure merging with all that is.

So, what does this mean for our yoga practice? That yoga is not practiced to make us FEEL anything — although certainly both agony and ecstasy can be induced. It is all too tempting at times for some of us to push for a feeling (of ecstasy) and through pushing too hard, wind up in agony. The reverse can be true, too……that by enduring a bit of agony, ecstasy may come as the reward. Then again sometimes, for some of us, it’s just about feeling something, ANYTHING (see my earlier post, The Yoga Addict :).  However, this is not the true goal in asana.

The nature of the spine is to be blissful.  The nature of the spine is to be a channel for force to flow through. It is not for force to act on. THIS IS SO IMPORTANT! Sadly, so many of us are so accustomed to feelings of pain in the spine that the mere absence of pain may translate as pleasure. To be an effective channel, the spine should not be obstructed. It should not be disturbed. The spine should be supported, but not locked in a vice grip. The spine should feel free.

Of course, this is not to say that the spine does not move in yoga and in life! As we know, the spine has an incredible range of movement. Healthy mobility and healthy stability are not mutually exclusive. They always coexist. They rely on one another.

If there is an obstruction to the flow of energy through the spine, how can we remove the blockage without putting force on the spine? We utilize the breath to unclog the channel. We use the breath to access the force behind the breath — prana, chi, life-force, mojo.  This is the key: movement of the spine, whether slight or extreme, is always initiated from the inside, from a base of support and freedom.  Movement of energy through the channel of the spine  inspires the outward movement of the body, rather than forcing movement of the outer body in hopes of clearing the spine.  So, from a practical perspective, what does this mean? How do we support the spine in an authentic way, through a wide variety of movements?

Let’s first re-think the spine. What are some words we would use to describe the spine? Perhaps what comes to mind first is the skeletal spine. Which is, of course, important, but over-emphasis on this one system may lead us into a narrow experience of the spine described by words like “bony”,”fragile”, “segmented” …all of these are accurate descriptions of the spine in a sense, but they are not the whole story. The spine, like the rest of the body, is multi-dimensional. All of the body’s systems operate through movement of energy through the channel of the spine. And all of the body’s systems support one another, not just the skeleton supporting everything else.

What about the digestive system? My current yoga teacher Lisa Clark poetically refers to the digestive tract as the “serpentine spine”, and emphasizes using the digestive tract as support for the skeletal spine in asana practice. This has been incredibly effective for me in finding not just fluidity but also strength in my practice, as I learn to source strength from the dense, buoyant and moist quality that the organs offer. In fact, developmentally, the organs form before the skeleton. The spine and ribcage grow around and in response to the organs. So it makes sense to move from the organs and allow the skeleton to follow, thinking of the body as a suspension in the matrix of gravity and levity, rather than letting the organs just “hang” from the outer structure. Considering the entire digestive tract — from mouth and soft palate to the anus — as an aspect of spine is a powerful tool for rethinking the axis of the body and where movement comes from, which in turn can profoundly affect the quality and experience of movement itself.

What are some other aspects of the spine? There is the nervous system, that delicate and sensitive passageway for electrical impulses and cerebro-spinal fluid, that precious transmitter of movement from the brain to the body at large, of sensation from the rest of the body to the brain. What are the qualities of this dimension of spinal awareness? How does awareness of these qualities affect movement?

A useful exercise may be to practice a simple movement (like rolling up from uttanasana to tadasana, or good old cat/cow) initiating movement of the spine from different systems — from bones, from the jelly-like disks between the vertebrae, from the lungs, from the nervous system, from the organs, etc. To take it a step further, allow the movement to evolve carried by whatever system is being focused on. See what asanas may spontaneously arise from awareness of the different aspects of “spine”. I have found that by allowing the bony spine to be supported and “carried by” other systems, instead of trying to use the bony spine and muscles to support and “carry” the other systems, the inner channel of the spine is liberated, and energy may flow more freely, thereby inspiring further movement (or stillness).  When the spine is calm in asana and we are not distracted by extreme physical sensations, we can attune ourselves more fully to our breath and the  subtle sensations of prana  moving through sushumna, the etheric level of spine, the true “core” of the body. When the central channel of the body has been cleansed this way, gently and  from the inside, that is when the illusive feeling (or non-feeling) of Bliss is likely to spontaneously arise.  That “pure merging with all that is.” And that’s what it’s all about, right?

The Root of Flexible

Standing Forward Bend by Yoga Art & Science

In these chilly winter months, it’s good to remember that the root of flexible is FLEX. When you’re tugging away in a yoga pose, remember to support whatever you’re stretching by FLEXING the opposing muscles. This creates heat, which is essential for safe stretching. For example, in a Forward Bend, the more you flex the front of the legs (the quads), the more the back of the legs (the hamstrings) can release. You should feel a burning heat, not a pulling tweak, when you’re stretching.

Warrior II by Yoga Art & Science

Flexing also creates a safe boundary. If you pull and pull and pull with no resistance, you will eventually overstretch or dislocate something. Ligaments and tendons receive very little blood flow, so they are slow or impossible to heal once you’ve overdone it. In Warrior II, for example, you are stretching the hands away from each other at about 80% effort — not 100 or 110% — and pulling the shoulder joint BACK into its socket with about 20% effort.

If flexibility is one of your goals, I think Extended Side Angles (all the many variations) are the best poses ever. You get deep stretching in the hips, thighs, and hamstrings, as well as the chest, shoulders and neck. BUT to get there you must:

Extended Side Angle by Yoga Art & Science

  • keep pressing the outside edge of the back foot firmly down
  • keep flexing the back quad strongly
  • keep dropping the hips
  • keep rotating the front hip under and the back hip over
  • keep the front knee directly over the ankle, in line with your second toe
  • keep pressing 1/3 of your weight into the bottom hand
  • keep pressing your bottom arm into the front knee
    (unlike the picture, I prefer the hand inside the foot)
  • keep lifting the navel up and in
  • keep spiraling the heart towards the sky
  • keep spiraling the neck towards the sky (gently)
  • keep straightening the top arm
  • breathe calmly and slowly!

Just try doing all that at once, and imagine a yoga practice with that much engagement in every pose. You’ll break a sweat in the first five minutes.

Happy New Year’s Resolutions!

Images courtesy of Yoga Art & Science, Creative Commons license

The Threats of Twisting

Dont make me do it!
Don't make me do it!

If you’ve had low back pain, you know how incapacitating it can be. One wrong step, and some mysterious stranger stabs a knife between your vertebrae. If you haven’t, and you’re practicing yoga, please read this article from My Yoga Online:

The Threats of Twisting

The one thing I would add is an insight from Leslie Kaminoff (again): the lower back does not twist. Really. There’s only 5º of rotation possible in the lumbar spine. It just follows the direction of the sacrum. We can get a feeling of twist there, by engaging the abdominal muscles and feeling them wrap around the spine, but most of our twisting happens in the thoracic and cervical spine. So T11-T12 is a common place for injury, since it’s the first really rotating spinal joint. Make sure you’re spreading your twist throughout the spine.

So, go! Molly (no longer at) Greenhouse

I just went to a new (for me) class (at Greenhouse) and loved it. Even though I had decided to do a Pilates routine today so I could work more, the teacher’s bio won me over:

Molly’s yoga class is known for it’s [sic] intelligent Hatha flow in a vigorous and dynamic style that heals, balances, and promotes adventure in the way of transgressing personal boundaries. Using precision in asana (physical postures), pranayama (breathing techniques) and practive [sic] as well as the tools to develp [sic] an individual connection to the art of yoga. Classes are paced moderately and are designed with modifications for all levels and abilities. Molly is inspired by the teachings of Tantra, and infuses these teachings into her classes. “When we change the way we look at things; the things we look at change.”

She was calm and well-paced and had a lot of unusual alignment instructions (engage the spinal extensors in Warrior III; shoulders over the elbows in Dolphin). She said she studies with Irene Dowd at Julliard, who teaches anatomy for dance, which sometimes conflicts with the specifics of yoga alignment but is often better at getting the general direction across. For example, “drop your shoulders” might make students collapse through the whole chest.

Turns out this was Molly’s last class at Greenhouse; her school schedule has changed so she has to drop that class for now. I’m so glad I went. This is kind of the whole feeling behind this site, that your brain and habits will talk you out of so many things so stop thinking and go now!

(She’s also at The Well, a new-ish Pilates studio at 25 Broadway, at Wythe.)

No More Mommyspeak

I had such a bad week last week. For various reasons I was in a fog and didn’t practice for six days. Friday I finally took class, and my appreciation for each pose was enormous, almost worth the stiffness. The risk of daily practice is getting into a making-myself-do-it mindset, where I’m at war with my discipline. I should quit more often! Not that I recommend sitting around eating cookies though.

Unfortunately I was a bundle of anger in Saturday’s class. It was a strength-building vinyasa class, where we held lots of warriors and triangles for 5-9 long breaths. Boring, imbalanced and painful. We did a long, physical and emotionally-challenging Hanumanasana (splits), and then without a transition took wobbly, vulnerable legs up to Forearm Stand — freakout recipe for me. I took child’s poses as needed, stretched it out a few times, but couldn’t escape the worst part: Aerobic Mommyspeak. I have a pet peeve of pet peeves, whiny little grievances, but I really react (poorly) to instructors who travel two octaves per phrase, imploring you to “push push push GOOOOOOOD!!! Lift and hoooooooold it there and breaaaaaaaaaaaathe… YES!” without a pause to think. I know I should just breathe, and let it flow over me without reacting, but such theatrical drama is intended to trigger an emotional response, so of course I have one. Moods flavor a class as much as any theme, so the yippy stressball instructors can please stay at the gym. To date I have found one single pilates instructor that I like; they tend to use this language. No offense — some people love the cheerleader pep-talks, but I don’t. I had to appreciate the muscles she gave me and get out of there.

Sunday was much better, a nice blend of poses and breathing. There are some new instructors at my local studio, I hope they are good. I made a note on my calendar, “everyone has something to teach you” — but it is hard to listen some days…