Friday, June 24, 2011

Back To The Basics

I had the pleasure and privilege to spend a weekend among other yogis with Jonny Kest. Jonny has a yoga teacher training program in Michigan and has a profound way of uniting his students as he gifts to them the foundations of the yoga practice and principles. He helped me to remember the origins of yoga as well as the many benefits of the practice. I was certainly humbled in his presence.

Jonny Kest is a classically trained yogi and reminded his students of the foundation of the practice. He showed his trainees how to teach the Ashtanga Vinyasa Surya Namaskura Series A. We even attended one of his classes and experienced the Primary Series of the Ashtanga Vinyasa practice.

To break this down for you, and why I am writing about this in my blog, is that Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga sets the stage for many modern styles of the yoga practice. Ashtanga (meaning 8 limbs) was first made known in the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali. He saw the eight aspects of yoga as limbs of a tree. He states that "wisdom and spirituality unfold in the same manner as a tree grows.....every tree in the forest has the same goal; to reach the light."

K. Pattabhi Jois is the founder of the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India. He was taught a particular system of yoga by Krisnamacharya. This system has been handed down to thousands of students around the world and continues to be the hub for the basic yoga practice. Jonny Kest is a student of Pattabhi Jois and has continued this tradition.

Surya Namaskura is simply the Sun Salutation that we all know very well. The asanas (postures) in this series are designed to energize the entire body as it flows with the breath. The is the basis of Hatha Yoga. The Salute to the Sun is the basic foundation of Hatha Yoga, so I thought it would be beneficial to remind ourselves, not only of the history of Vinyasa Yoga, but the basics of our yoga practice and how it can thoroughly effect and change our lives and how we view it.

Surya Namaskara A (The Sun Salutation Series A)
(This text is taken directly from "Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual" by David Swensen, an acclaimed Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga instructor and practitioner.)

Samasthiti - Stand with both feet together. Legs active. Spine long. Engage the bandhas. Breathe deep.
One - Inhale raising both arms. The lungs should be full just as the hands touch. Gaze at the thumbs.
Two - Exhale fold forward taking chest toward your knees as you look toward your toes.
Three - Inhale lengthen your spine as you take your gaze to the horizon.
Four - Exhale step or jump back. Lower down while gazing straight ahead.
Five - Inhale straighten the arms and roll onto the tops of the feet. Knees lifted. Toes pointed.
Six - Exhale as you push the hips up. Lengthen the spine from your sacrum through the top of your head. Press the heels toward the floor and lift the kneecaps. Gaze at your navel. Engage the bandhas.
Remain here for 5 deep breaths.
Seven - Inhale as you either jump or walk the feet forward. Lengthen the spine and take your gaze to the horizon.
Eight - Exhale fold forward taking chest toward the knees and gaze toward your toes.
Nine - Inhale raising both arms high over the head until palms touch. Gaze at the thumbs.
Ten - Exhale lower your arms in preparation for the next Surya Namaskara or Vinyasa.
Repeat this series 5 times.

This sequence should sound and feel familiar to you. It is the foundation of our yoga practice. Remember, also, in your daily life that we can wander away from our humble beginnings, sometimes forgetting our roots. It is important to often stop, turn around, and look back at where we came from. It helps us to see our growth and our progression forward on this life journey.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Wring It Out

In the last blog entry, I discussed Fish Pose, it's story, and how the posture is related to self healing. Staying on that same theme, I thought I'd write about another type of pose that can also help with healing: twisting poses.

Whenever I instruct a twisting pose in a yoga class, I have the students imagine that they are a wet sponge ready to be wrung out. When a sponge is wet, it is typically heavy - saturated with a substance that is ready to move out. When one wrings out a sponge, all the water is released, leaving it light and virtually empty - ready to absorb new content. Hold onto this image as you practice this next pose.

Twisted Chair Pose (Parivritta Utkatasana)
As usual, start your practice in Mountain Pose with your hands at your Heart Center to set your intention. Perhaps you have been sitting heavy with thoughts, worries, aches, pains, and concern that you are ready to release. Think of those ideas and sensations as the water in the saturated sponge.

Inhale to extend your arms overhead. Exhale and sit back into Chair Pose. Keep your arms extended alongside your ears. Sit back as if you are sitting in an imaginary chair. Shift your weight back slightly so the weight is in the heels of your feet. (You should be able to lift or tap your toes easily.) Also, your knees will begin to move to be more aligned over your ankles. (This will also take pressure off the knees and shins.) Next, bring your hands to Heart Center.

With the next few breaths, remain in this pose to further elongate the spine. With each exhale, draw your belly button up toward your spine engaging the Abdominal Lock. When you are ready, exhale and begin a slow twist to the right. You want to be sure to make this a full abdominal twist to simulate wringing out the sponge. Here are some things you can be aware of while moving deeply into the pose:

1) Be sure your feet are still firm on the floor with an even weight distribution between them. Notice if you have rolled to the inner or outer parts of your feet when you twist.

2) Look down at your knees. Be certain that your knees are still aligned with one another. If you are twisting to the right and your left knee shifts forward, then you have moved out of alignment and have decreased the fullest twist possible. (Feel free to use a Yoga Block between your thighs to help stabilize your feet and knees.) If your knees remain aligned, this also means your hips will remain aligned ensuring a full twist rather than a simple turning of your body to the right.

3) Move slowly. There is no need to wring out the sponge all at once. Use several breaths to reach your fullest depth of the pose. Inhale to continue lengthening through your spine and twist a little bit more when you exhale. (Remember to draw your navel in toward your spine.) Keep moving like this until you have reached a full twist. Hold the pose for an additional 5 breaths.

Return to Chair Pose then Mountain Pose. As you unwind from this twist, imagine the wet sponge is now free of it's contents feeling light and newly absorbent. Repeat the pose on the other side.

It is easy for us to walk through our days, weeks, even months feeling heavy with pressure and stress. We become saturated with these feelings and can no longer absorb any more leading to feeling overwhelmed and burned out. Practice this twisted pose to relieve yourself of these burdensome circumstances.


Friday, June 10, 2011

Destroyer of All Diseases

I've been doing a little reading about some yoga poses and came across a story about Matsyasana or Fish Pose. Matsya means fish and is dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu. Vishnu is said to be the Source/Maintainer of All Things In the Universe. He could also transform himself. In one story, Vishnu takes the form of the Fish and overhears The Lord Shiva, who holds the key to the Universe and unlocks the mystery of Yoga, tell his wife about his discovery. As Vishnu, in the form of the fish, listens to Shiva, he becomes enlightened, thus, Vishnu becomes the first student of yoga.

Matsyasana is also known as the "destroyer of all diseases." Another story states that the world was becoming corrupt and was going to be destroyed by a great flood. Vishnu transformed himself into a Fish and is said to have saved the world from the great flood. Thus, the Fish Pose has restorative value for the human body particularly if one lives with back and/or neck pain. The nature of the pose provides spinal health which can aid in physical and emotional health. This story intrigued me and inspired me to write this blog entry.

As you set your intention, be aware of any physical pain or discomfort that you may be experiencing lately. If you're experiencing discomfort in your back or neck, this pose will provide great benefit. We often find ourselves in a constant state of hunching over: sitting at our computers, driving, etc. Your intention may simply be to add relief to your body. Allow the pose you're about to practice help move you toward greater relief.

Matsyasana: Fish Pose
Start by lying flat on your back on your yoga mat. Be sure your legs are straight out in front of you and your arms are alongside your body. Shift your body in order to bring both your arms completely underneath you. You may need to squeeze your shoulder blades together to help with this sensation. Your arms will remain straight: your hands (palms facing downward) will be underneath your buttocks. Point your toes to continue extending your legs. With an inhale, lift your chest/heart. Keep your bottom on the floor. You are actually arching your back. In order to help lift your chest, push your elbows into the floor. Once your head is off the floor, carefully allow it to drop back. Rest the very top of your head on the floor. You will be able to see the wall behind you - it will be upside down! Restrain from putting pressure on your head and neck. The sensation of staying in this pose comes from the lifting of the chest. You are now in the posture.

Remain in Fish Pose for at least 5-10 breaths. In the posture, you have created a minor back bend (often used as a counter pose after practicing Plow Pose.) As mentioned, it can bring relief to the back and neck. It further provides a re-alignment of the spine after being hunched over all day! If you do have regular back or next pain, practice this pose at least three times a week. If you experience other ailments, try this pose since it is said to be the destroyer of all diseases.


Saturday, June 4, 2011


Ever find yourself in a bind? You know, you have to get the kids to soccer practice AND you have to be at an important meeting at the same time. Or you've been asked to speak at a benefit event on a particular evening AND you have tickets to see your favorite music group in concert the same night. Or even more simply, you don't know which outfit to wear one morning. These may not seem like very significant binds to be in. There are certainly more emotional and/or physical binds that we can find ourselves in: should I really be in this relationship? which college should I attend? do I get surgery on my knee or live with the pain? The question do you get yourself OUT of these binds?

Sometimes we can feel overwhelmed when we are faced with such a question, especially when the decision appears to be quite confusing or nearly impossible to make. You may think, "how will this effect me and my life journey?" "How will my decision effect other people?" Before you have to make the decision, why not just take a moment, pause, and take a few breaths. A simple clearing of the mind may help your decision making to get out of the bind.

This yoga practice gives us insight into how we often put ourselves into our own binds, but it also shows how we have the strength and aptitude to get ourselves out of those binds.

Bound Extended Side Angle Pose (Baddha Utthita Parsvakonasana)
Start by standing in Warrior Pose with your right foot forward on your yoga mat. Your torso will be long and tall, perpendicular to the floor. Here you may set your intention. Take a few deep breaths to clear your mind. From here, slowly extend you right hand and arm forward out over your right thigh. This will create an angle in the torso, about 45 degrees. Once you can no longer extend your arm forward creating this angle in the upper body, rotate your arms so your left arm is extending upward toward the ceiling and your right arm is extending down toward the floor. (Be sure your torso remains open to the side of the room rather than facing down toward the floor.)

Here is where you will create the bind in the pose. Bring your left arm down behind you. See if you can wrap it around your waist or have your hand up close to your right hip rather that along your buttocks. Next, reach your right arm underneath your right thigh. Bend that arm to reach up for your left set of fingers. (If you are unable to bring your two hands together behind you in this bind, using a prop like a towel or strap may help you get into this pose.) See if you can keep your right arm along your hamstring rather than directly between your legs.

As you are able, continue extending your spine so that the crown of your head is pointing directly forward just as your right knee is pointing directly forward. Your heart and torso will still be open to the side of the room. Hold this posture for 5-10 breaths. Feel the pressure this creates in your legs, arms, back, and hips. Allow this to mimic the binds that we sometimes find ourselves in. Squeeze a little tighter to experience how challenging some of those life binds can be. After your series of breaths, slowing begin to move out of the pose....out of the bind. Take your time, so you can fully experience the sensation of release. Feel how the body, mind, and breath feel free as you have now moved out of the bind. Make your way back up to Warrior Pose. Come to a full standing posture (Mountain Pose) before you do the other side.

It is common for us to face situations in our lives where we will feel overwhelmed with complicated decision making. We worry about the outcome and how it might effect other people like our partners, co-workers, children, and friends. Be mindful that whatever decision that is made, has been made with honesty, a sense of honor and compassion, and with intention.