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!
McGraw-Hill Publishing was kind enough to send me their latest yoga book to review. Anatomy for Yoga: An Illustrated Guide to Your Muscles in Action, by Nicky Jenkins and Leigh Brandon, is a helpful guide to a personalized yoga practice. The authors provide an overview of yoga anatomy, including terminology, main systems, and breathing. They also review meditation and the chakra (or “subtle”) system, and how it might affect your physical systems.
From there, they identify four major postural types: kyphosis (round shoulders), lordosis (overarched lower back), flat back, and swayback (hips forward). Each type has a few possible causes; you might have a head-forward posture because of your computer setup, the sports you play, or the emotions trapped in the chest.
Last night I went to Flavorpill‘s monthly decompression, Get Your Dance On. It’s kind of my ideal situation: great DJs, friendly people, lots of gorgeous space, and healthy snacky treats. All before 11pm. They serve free kombucha, wine and chocolate all night, plus coconut water and granola bars. (Well, I guess it’s not free — it’s $20, but that gets you a week at Yogaworks, too.) Totally hippie but WAY fewer men with ponytails than the old Body Temple parties. Maybe zero. And like 90% of the crowd is dancing.
Yesterday morning I headed up to Union Square. Slushy weather and train delays didn’t help the trip, and I began my meditation practice a bit early as I tried to let the irritable thoughts float up and away.
9:35 was still a fine time to arrive, it turns out. I settled onto a bolster and blanket in the middle of the large, elegant room. Plain white walls and smooth dark floors led up to a colorfully preserved door frame, in front of which sat a beaming Alan Finger.
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!
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.
…as Baryshnikov explains it, what made Pushkin [his revered teacher] so effective was the logic of the step combinations he taught — the fact that they were true not just to classical ballet but also to human musculature. They seemed right to the body, and so you did them right. And the more you did them the more you became a classical dancer. Another thing about Pushkin, his students say, is that he was a developer of individuality. He steered the students toward themselves, helped them find out what kind of dancers they were. “Plus,” Baryshnikov says, “he was extraordinary patient and extraordinary kind person. Really, really kind.” If there is a point in classical art where aesthetics meet morals — where beauty, by appearing plain and natural, gives us hope that we, too, can be beautiful — Pushkin seems to have stood at that point, and held out a hand to his pupils.
Last night, at the invitation of my “friend”, I went to a Bikram class in the West Village. I haven’t been to Bikram in five or six years, but I practiced it for about six months when I first started yoga. At that time I was fresh off of rowing crew, and looking for something similar (that didn’t require 7 other women and a 200-pound boat). Rowing is just two poses, the catch and the finish, and you jump between them 1000 times each morning until it’s muscle memory, leaving just you and your willpower. Bikram’s 26 poses was the simplest sequence I could find.
Bikram is great for beginners: practicing the same poses each class gets you past their novelty, into details and then concentration. I like repeating each pose twice; seeing improvement from the first attempt to the second is an obvious reminder of the benefits of regular practice. It’s also one of the few schools where they use mirrors, so you get visual feedback on your posture as well as sensory. And the script (although I’ve never heard it delivered the same way twice) is chock full of alignment reminders.
But the genius of Bikram, the horrible unescapable challenge, is the heat. The poses are almost irrelevant compared to the stress of the sweat lodge. It’s just you versus the heat; your whole body yelling GET OUT OF HERE while your mind thinks maybe it can manage one more pose… Meanwhile the sweat is pouring out of you, the air seems to lack oxygen, and your muscles are going limp. Which is a good thing, you’re sweating out drugs you did in high school, and you’re only safe to stretch when you’re warmed up… but the only thing that gets me back into a Bikram class is my bad memory; I forget what a steamroller it is.
Last night’s class was at Bikram Yoga Manhattan, the Greenwich branch. They have a ridiculous 30 days for $30 special — that’s cheaper than going to the Russian baths for one night. The center was small, and of course smelled like a gym sock (they all do). But things were clean, and the owner was super friendly.
Stepping into class, the room felt invitingly warm. (It was a rainy December night in New York). Twenty minutes in, I was red-faced and sitting on my butt. Just the first few standing poses wiped me out — Side Bends, Back and Forward Bends, Eagle, Awkward Chair, Head-to-Knee, Dancer, etc. They were fairly familiar poses, but the continuous squeezing, pulling, and flexing was a muscular triathlon. In Kenya. And next time, I will start hydrating two days in advance. Apparently coffee does not count as one’s daily water intake. I got seriously light-headed, and since I occasionally faint, I was happy to listen to the instructor telling me “You know you can sit down, right?”
I thought it would be better once we got to the floor poses. I remembered that much. Instead, I felt my broiling skin smothered against a sweaty towel and rubber mat. How I wished I’d gotten a spot by the window! (Benevolent teachers will sometimes open a window a crack, to improve the ratio of students actually practicing to those collapsed on the floor.) But this was just the joy of the first-timer; it’s always horrendous the first time you run, swim, etc. after a long break. (The second time is SO much better.) And it was a reminder to BE a first-timer, and not see myself as “an experienced Bikram practitioner.” The only goal of Bikram Class #1 is just to stay in the room for the whole 90 minutes. ‘Cause if you go, we all go.
Finally, we made it to Corpse pose. Lying there, slowing my breathing, feeling the room cool bit by bit as each student departed, I reconsidered my mid-class swearing to never come back. Bikram is great to warm your bones in the winter, and I’ve been missing the sauna… why did I leave it?
I remember hearing Ashtanga was a “better” sequence — more complete, more challenging, less artificial. At the time I was Type A if I was anything, so I had to try it. (I’ll save my comments on Ashtanga Vinyasa for another day.) And there are no inversions in Bikram — no Headstand, Shoulder Stand, etc — since you’d pass out in the heat. I wondered if Bikram was indeed the best yoga… marketing.
Returning to the sequence, I realized it was not actually missing as much as I’d thought. Forward Bend and Wide-Legged Forward Bend are actually inversions, since your hips are over your head. Rabbit puts pressure on the crown of your head like Headstand, and creates a throat lock like Shoulder Stand. And there’s much more glandular work than I realized… the Standing Head-to-Knee and the Forward Angle (Parsvottanasana) are held with a rounded back (Pilates style) and the forehead to the knee, prioritizing pressure on the abdomen and forehead instead of the usual stretching of the hips/hamstrings. Other poses similarly claim to clear the glands and blood vessels by creating pressure or blockage in an area, to create a cleansing rush when the pose is released.
And if we look at the Sivananda sequence, which narrowed the “essential asanas” to only 12, we see that the Bikram sequence has covered the same bases (if we accept Rabbit and Forward Bends as a substitute for Headstand and Shoulder Stand, and Camel and Bow as a substitute for Bridge and Fish). Yes, there could be more twists. Yes, it’s too focused on achievement. But it is a good sequence.
I don’t think I could give up the creative dance of Vinyasa and go back solely to Bikram… my art teacher always said it’s much easier to loosen up than tighten up. But it will (well, it might) be making a nice adjunct to my winter practice for the next 30 days.
I was only half joking in the title of this post; Mr. Bikram tried to kill me. But that’s the path — the death of the ego, right? He created a crazy environment, trying to flatten my ideas about what I could and couldn’t do. He forced me into survival mode, a struggle through the heat of each moment. He tried to drown my internal narrative with his verbose, scripted instructions. But of course, he did not succeed; my ego remains in all its annoying glory. I’ll have to walk the boring path a bit longer than one class.
I hit another dry spell, just four classes in two weeks. (I usually do a bit of stretching and meditating in the mornings, but my asanas were being neglected.) I did two home practices, but they petered into staring at the wall, and not in a meditative way. I’ve started the Yoga Anatomy and Application of Breath-Centered Yoga classes on Wednesdays, so I have all this great new information to explore, but I have just not been excited to move.
When I get out of my practice habit, all sorts of justifications and confused rationalizations arise. Like, isn’t walking a meditation anyways? I walk a lot! Aren’t asanas just intended to clear the mind for meditation? I meditate! Yoga is not just asanas, and I keep up the other parts, so aren’t I still practicing yoga? It’s like when I am so far past needing a haircut that I tell myself it’s actually a new, shaggy layered cut that looks really good. (Photos eventually advise me this is not the case.) Plus, I’m trying to stop doing things I think I should do, and start doing things I really want to do. (It’s my secret plan for growing up.) And yoga (asana practice) is in this weird place where I love doing it, but I don’t often want to do it. I used to practice very very athletically, and I think there’s all that memory of stress and strain that’s off-putting. Or I’m just laaaaaaaa-zyyyyyyyyyy. (And my boyfriend was living here for a week! It’s all his fault!)
Actually, I don’t have a regular lifestyle right now, and that’s probably the real root. Each day is different, each week is different, which means there’s a lot more decisions to make. And opportunities to skip. When I committed to Julianna’s Wednesday morning class, I went every week. The commitment got me out of bed when I didn’t want to get up, and gradually created positive associations for doing so.
But then I’ve had this whole other drama of wanting to practice on my own. I used to teach the morning classes at Om Factory, and it was usually just me and Fara (the owner), so I got to teach whatever I felt like each day, and practice too. It was the best. I had to show up, since I was teaching, but it ended up being this sweet buddy practice where I came up with a million new vinyasa routines. So obviously I do more when someone is watching me, but of course what matters is what you do when nobody is looking…
I got a good tip from Ariel (my new favorite teacher, why have I not blogged about him yet? Another Laughing Lotus expatriate, he and Julianna are the best and although this blog purports to be about good classes, I have not posted about either of them. Looks like I’m trying to hog them for myself). I told him I was having trouble practicing vinyasa at home, and I was wondering if I should keep trying to go with the flow, or go back to more of a set sequence. He said that when he started practicing at home, he would think of a pose he wanted to get into, and then think how he needed to prepare the body to get into it: open the hips, square the hips, etc., and then write that down.
So, I’m going to think a little bit further ahead. I get so “be here now” with all the present-moment focus of meditation, that I forget that it’s okay to be goal-oriented. I have been approaching my home practices one pose at a time, “how do I feel right now and which pose should come next,” instead of “which pose do I feel like doing, and how am i going to get there,” — acknowledging the preparatory work that is needed. The stream-of-consciousness flow can come later, not in the difficult opening minutes.
And, I’m going to try to commit to a regular time. (Note that I can’t even commit to saying “I commit” yet.) 4pm has been good lately; it’s when I hit my afternoon work slump, and there are a lot of teacher-focused (or cheap/community) classes then if I decide to go out for class. Plus, I read that Vatas (and people with sleep disorders) do better practicing in the evening, since it clears their minds for sleep. Finally I can let go of my guilt at not doing the almighty morning practice!
I guess the biggest lesson for me here is that while it’s good to keep a sense of perspective, there’s help to be found if you look for it.
I’m thinking more and more about teaching regularly, since I’m working on this yoga book and need my vocabulary back. I should probably try to pick up a class at my local studio, but I haven’t gotten around to calling them. My boyfriend is a member at Equinox, and he’s been working on me to teach there — the Soho branch has no classes on Thursday nights. I could teach the Atmananda sequence, and its stretching/strengthening series would be a good complement for their Tuesday night Ashtanga junkies.
So, I went to take a class there, the BF got me a guest pass. He likes the Wednesday night class with Derek, who happened to be in my teacher training. I’m always curious what Atmananda graduates are teaching, if any of them are still teaching the sequence. Derek studied Budokon for a while, and now calls his yoga “EarthRise,” so I was excited to see it. He’s always been a clear, solid teacher, and he teaches 10 or 15 classes a week at Equinox so I know he’s popular there. I’ve done one group fitness audition, for NYSC, but I didn’t know if Equinox classes tended toward spirituality or aerobics. I mean, obviously the latter, but my question was, to what extent do the popular teachers focus on meditation, philosophy, etc.
Class was a physical challenge. The focus was strengthening, and of course it was the day I’d moved a vanload of furniture in and out of my fourth-floor apartment. We did some crazy Down Dog and Chaturanga variations that left my arms wobbly. (They could probably use the work — inversions are my most unsteady poses.) The climactic sequence was something like:
Down Dog Split
Plank with one knee outside the shoulder
Push-ups with knee outside the shoulder
Flying Crow with knee outside the shoulder
Down Dog Split with knee bent
Dancing Dog (touching bent leg down towards Full Wheel)
Side Plank on the other side
Dancing Dog Split (top leg slides under the body at 90º)
The sequencing was really creative, BF says the class is different every time. It’s been a while since I’ve experienced so many new poses and transitions in one class, and it was nice to return to the novelty and exploration of beginner’s mind. The first half of class was a strong workout, with plenty of variations offered, and good reminders to have fun. He had the class laughing a couple times, which cut through any competitive kill-face. We spent about 40 minutes in standing / challenging poses, 20 minutes in fixed / meditative poses, and 15 minutes in pranayama and cool-down poses. I was surprised to have so much cool-down, but it was much appreciated. About 40 minutes in, my sore muscles were like, “we have another 50 minutes of this???” but the class eased up shortly after and closed closer to 75 minutes than 90. The steam room after class was heaven, almost reason enough to become a member.
The students were mostly mid-level, and not very flexible, so that is good to know if I ever try to teach there. The more muscular we are, the tighter we are, so of course a gym population is probably stronger and tighter than a yoga studio’s students. I’m not sure what I would teach at an audition; the last one was 40 teachers taking turns teaching 5-minute segments. I could do a key pose like Wide-Legged Seated Forward Bend, where there are a lot of alignment details or variations to share, or a quicker sequence of a few poses that is more creative and feels better, or even a meditative pose with more of an inward focus. I guess this reflects my wandering spirit right now; on one hand, I feel kind of weak and scatterbrained, so strong vinyasa classes would seem to do me good, but on the other hand I’m wanting peace and quiet, so I resist them.