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2017 KISS MY ASANA QUESTION #8: When Do You Practice? April 22, 2017

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in 31-Day Challenge, Abhyasa, Confessions, Dharma, Donate, Faith, Fitness, Gratitude, Healing Stories, Health, Hope, Karma Yoga, Life, Loss, Meditation, Men, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Mysticism, Pain, Peace, Philosophy, Surya Namaskar, Texas, Twin Cities, Vairagya, Volunteer, Wisdom, Women, Yin Yoga, Yoga.
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When do you practice? – B (who practices “about once a week,” but not with me – yet)

About once a quarter, someone expresses gratitude for their practice and then asks me when I find time to practice. The question is usually associated with their appreciation of the benefits they experience from yoga and their observation of me not practicing the physical poses when I lead a yoga practice. The “quick and dirty” answer to B’s question is that I practice before I teach. The “not so quick and dirty” answer is that I practice before I teach, while I’m teaching, and after I’m teaching.

The physical practice before I teach may happen in a variety of ways. Sometimes I take a class or a workshop, sometimes I stream a class or use some other form of media. However, since I currently teach six (6) days a week, and teach during peak hours, I find it challenging to take a class. So, more often than not, I find a quiet spot and hit the mat on my own.

When I take a class or workshop, I gravitate towards alignment-focused yoga classes or intensely physical yoga practices with a teacher who emphasizes the emotional, energetic, philosophical and/or spiritual aspects of yoga. (Hmm, sound familiar?) When I practice on my own, the physical elements change based on how I’m feeling and what I’m teaching. In general, I practice a template of the first sequence I’m going to teach. My current practice schedule looks a little like this:

Monday – Yin Yoga

Tuesday – Vinyasa

Wednesday – Yin Yoga

Thursday – open day; rest day, Yin, Vinyasa, meditation and/or other physical activity

Friday – Vinyasa

Saturday – rest day, Yin, Vinyasa, or some other tradition

Sunday – Vinyasa

That’s the “quick and dirty” answer, but there’s a story behind why I practice before I teach.

During my initial yoga teacher training, I was fortunate enough to be part of a small group talking to a teacher named Kim. A few things to note about Kim: first, she was not one of the teachers leading or facilitating the teacher training; second, she was not the stereotypical CorePower teacher; third, she had the brightest smile and one of the biggest spirits. It’s her spirit, I think, that instigated the conversation where she shared with us something she wished she had been told during her teacher training: take a class for every class you teach.

Being young pups, full of the enthusiasm and power that comes from being in an intense learning situation, parts of us dismissed Kim’s advice. We were in teacher training because we loved yoga and couldn’t imagine a time when we wouldn’t take a class (or practice on our own) on a daily basis. We couldn’t imagine that teaching yoga creates a scheduling dynamic which is really different from the scheduling dynamic of squeezing our yoga practice in between our work and family life. We hadn’t yet grasped that once the learning-teaching brain engaged we might not be capable of getting back to a learning-only brain. Many of us, also, didn’t yet understood that teaching hath yoga (the physical practice of yoga) requires actively practicing the yoga philosophy. And that’s where my “not so quick and dirty” answer comes into play.

The 8-limb philosophy of Yoga begins with an ethical component: 5 yamas (external restraints or universal commandments) and 5 niyamas (or internal observations). The yamas and niyamas, like any other moral compass, may guide a person on and off the mat. In the philosophy, these ethical considerations precede the asana (seat or pose) and pranayama (awareness or extension of breath), which means we can use our time on the mat as a way to practice our ethics in a controlled environment. For example, the first and second yamas – ahimsa (non-harming) and satya (truth) – may be practiced by being honest about the mind-body strengths and weakness in order to practice a pose safely. At the same time, second, third, and fourth niyamas – santosha (contentment), tapas (heat, discipline, and/or austerity) and svadyaya (self-study) – may be observed by focusing on the alignment of a challenging pose while also noticing how you react to using a prop, needing/taking a modification, or not completing the pose and, simultaneously,  accepting where you are in the practice.

I practice these elements while I’m physically on the mat, but I also need to practice them when I’m leading other people. For example, I need to consider if the options  I’m suggesting are safe for the individuals in the room and if I’m providing enough options to meet and accept everyone in the room – all while noticing my reaction to things not going the way I planned when my mind-body on the mat was the only consideration. If I’m demonstrating a peak pose, I need to make sure I’ve prepared myself along the way (despite not doing all the preparatory poses) to demonstrate without injuring myself. Finally, after I teach, there are several things I do as a kind of mental Savasana (Corpse Pose), to decompress and allow the mind-body to absorb the work.

Even though I didn’t initial understand them, Kim’s words really stuck with me. In fact, they were some of the most important words I heard during yoga teacher training.

Thanks for the wisdom, Kim!

 

The teachers at Mind Body Solutions are awakening the connection between mind and body in a way that transforms trauma, loss, and disability into hope and potential. They say the practice is humanity disguised as yoga. So, clicking here to Kiss My Asana with a donation practices humanity off the mat, in a way that allows someone to practice humanity on the mat. When I’m able, I drop-in to Matthew Sanford’s Monday morning class. Maybe I’ll see you practicing your humanity on the mat!

 

 

### On and Off the Mat ###

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2017 KISS MY ASANA QUESTION #4: IS THERE A WAY TO MODIFY…? April 10, 2017

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in 31-Day Challenge, Abhyasa, Books, Dharma, Donate, Faith, Fitness, Gratitude, Healing Stories, Health, Hope, Karma Yoga, Life, Men, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Pain, Peace, Philosophy, pro, Science, Suffering, Texas, Twin Cities, Vairagya, Volunteer, Women, Yoga.
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“I’m not very flexible and when I do yoga, every pose seems to stretch/work the backs of my legs. They are definitely my limiting factor. Is there a way to modify poses, down dog for example, to work/stretch other muscles?” – YogaNovice

YogaNovice’s question about modifying a pose, like down dog, in order to work/stretch other muscles required a little follow-up, because (a) I’m not familiar with the practitioner’s body or practice and (b) the words “stretch” and “work” convey different engagements to me. However, even before asking some follow-up questions, my answers came down to intention and alignment.

Before practicing a pose, consider the purpose of the pose in general and then the specific purpose of the pose within the sequence. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog) is a standing pose, an arm balance, a forward bend, an inversion, and includes a slight back bend. It can be used to strengthen the limbs of the body, alleviate pain and stiffness in the legs, ankles, feet, arms, wrists, and shoulders – while also helping a practitioner engage core muscles. In vinyasa, it often feels like the least strenuous pose and therefore becomes a re-set moment. As an inversion, it can be exhilarating, since the head is below the heart, but does not require pressure on the head and neck. I refer to it as “a full body stretch” – and yet, all the benefits of the pose may be lost if the pose is misaligned.

As my friend Tom Bushlack pointed out in a recent post on alignment (and misalignment), B. K. S. Iyengar and his Light On Yoga are the first resources many people in the West mention when discussing alignment.  Other great alignment resources include Leslie Kaminoff and his Yoga Anatomy, as well as Dr. Ray Long’s series of books. Many of these may be a little much for a yoga novice and, therefore, I also recommend Iyengar’s Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health. Ultimately, however, the greatest alignment resource is practicing with an anatomy-focused teacher (like Matthew Sanford or the other teachers at Mind Body Solutions).

Alignment-focused yoga offers the opportunity to use props for better engagement. So, rather than muscling into a pose and experiencing strain or injury, props enable a practitioner to find the balance between effort and relaxation and to, as Patanjali states in the Yoga Sutras (2:46 – 2:48), cultivate a steady (or stable), easy (or joyful) seat (or pose). A person could use a wall, blocks, blankets, an extra mat, a strap, and/or another person in order to find more balance in pose.

Practicing with my big dawgs20151122_191851

Here’s a practice to help YogaNovice find more ease in Downward Facing Dog. Read through the sequence before practicing it, and remember to check with your health care practitioner before starting any new exercise. Each step below may be practiced in 1 minute increments.

  1. Establish what your body feels like when standing in a neutral (spine and hip) position, like Tadasana/Samasthiti (Mountain Pose/Equal Standing).
  2. Establish what your body feels like when the spine is in neutral Table Top (on hands and knees, with shoulders and elbows over wrists and hips over knees) versus when inhaling into Cow Pose (spinal extension), exhaling into Cat Pose (spinal flexion).
  3. If it is accessible to you, move into Puppy Dog variation of Balasana (Child’s Pose) with feet and knees the same distance apart and extended on the floor over your head. Release/relax.
  4. Sitting on a block or blanket (for extra support) and with your hips and back against a wall – or sitting on a chair with spine in a neutral position, lift your arms overhead with fingers pointed toward the wall (palms will be facing the ceiling). Play with how the arms and back feel when the legs are fully extended versus when the legs are slightly bent (at the knees). Once you’ve established a leg position that feels like balanced effort, then, play with how the arms and back feel when the arms are fully extended versus slightly bent (at the elbows). (Again, you want to experience a kind of lightness in the final pose that indicates balanced effort.)
  5. Stand, facing a wall, with feet 18 inches (45 centimeters)* apart and arms extended at shoulder height so that the fingers barely touch the wall. Then, maintaining the established arms’ length, flatten the palms and fold until the back is “parallel” to the ceiling. Now, notice how it feels when the knees are bent versus straight, (Again, you want to experience a kind of lightness in the final pose that indicates balanced effort.) Next, experiment with the arm position to find balanced effort. Don’t forget: Balance comes from all accessible limbs sharing your body weight!
  6. If it is accessible to you, move back into Puppy Dog variation of Balasana (Child’s Pose) with feet and knees the same distance apart and extended on the floor over your head. This time, curl the toes under and actively press the hands and feet down while actively extending the spine into a mini-back bend. Relax after a few breaths.
  7. From Table Top (on hands and knees with a neutral spine), curl the toes under and lift the hips up into an upside down “V” for victory, with spine and thighs pressing towards the space behind you. Now that you’ve moved into the shape of Downward Facing Dog, active the pose as follows:
    • Make sure middle fingers are pointing forward (with fingers spread wide), pressing into the thumb and first finger (so there is less weight on the outer wrist). As much as you’re able, maintain the hand position and rotate the elbows towards the knees.
    • If experiencing wrist issues, use a wrist guard or return to hands and knees to set-up Dolphin Dog.
    • As you lower your head and shoulders, make sure big toes are parallel to each other. In Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health, Iyengar recommends placing feet 18 inches (45 centimeters)* apart. Note that in an actual Iyengar class, Matthew Sanford has commented on how people have their feet too close together – in part, because we’re often practicing someone else’s alignment (versus our own body’s alignment). (This kind of individual instruction is why practicing with an alignment-focused teacher is invaluable!)
    • Spread the toes and let the heels reach towards the earth, but don’t focus on pressing/forcing the heels into the earth. Bend the knees, as needed, to achieve the previously experienced lightness of balanced effort. (Extreme knee flexion may mean you bring knees to the mat and practice an active Puppy Dog.)
    • You’ll find in an Iyengar practice that props may be added under the head, heels, and hands to provide support. A teacher can provide hands-on assistance to encourage the hips to lift as the spine extends.
  8. Release/relax in Balasana (Child’s Pose) with toes pointed behind the body and arms resting by the hips. If Child’s Pose is not accessible, lie on your back.

Yoga requires patience and dedication. In the Yoga Sutras (1:12 – 1:16), Patanjali emphasizes that mastery comes from combining abhyasa (repeated and consistent practiced) and vairagya (non-attachment). Consistently practicing the above over a period of time is one way to experience abhyasa; practicing any of the steps above as an alternative to practicing Downward Facing Dog as it appears in a book or a magazine is a form of vairagya.

YogaNovice AMS

Thank you, YogaNovice, for helping me fulfill my 2017 Kiss My Asana commitment. If you haven’t already, I strongly encourage you to check out one of the classes at Mind Body Solutions, where awakening the connection between mind and body transforms trauma, loss, and disability into hope and potential.

 

Please consider joining the yogathon by making a donation, joining the team, and asking a question.

### JAI JAI GURU DEV (SHINE ON) ###