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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) ###

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Kiss My Asana #14: Strong As A Diamond! February 15, 2016

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Books, Changing Perspectives, Dharma, Donate, Faith, Fitness, Healing Stories, Health, Hope, Karma Yoga, Life, Meditation, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Pain, Peace, Philosophy, Science, Twin Cities, Volunteer, Wisdom, Women, Yoga.
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“As a well cut diamond has many facets, each reflecting a different colour of light, so does the word yoga, each facet reflecting a different shade of meaning and revealing different aspects of the entire range of human endeavor to win inner peace and happiness.”

– Excerpt from Light on Yoga by B. K. S. Iyengar

 

 “We women must listen to our inner voice. It is easier for women to do this as they are not afraid to say what they feel. We must keep both our femininity and our strength.”

Indra Devi

You might not realize it if you don’t know her, but Yogi #14 (Ruth) is different from most of the previous yogis profiled this month: She doesn’t practice with me. In fact, Ruth is one of the people I met for the first time at the beginning of February. Her passion and dedication are evident in the way she talks about yoga – and in her willingness to answer my questions even we had just met when I mentioned my 2016 Kiss My Asana commitment to her at the beginning of the month.

Listening to Ruth talk about yoga made me think of Indra Devi. From what I’ve read, Devi fell in love with yoga at an early age, persistently pursued her interest, and made yoga a life-long passion. While many people in the West think of yoga as something for women, Devi is notable because she is known as the first woman and one of the first Westerners to study with T. Krishnamacharya (“The Father of Modern Yoga”), beginning in 1937 – a time when yoga was recognized as something for men. She (along with Sri Pattabhi Jois, TKV Desikachar, AG Mohan, and B. K. S. Iyengar) was one of the people responsible for bringing the physical practice of yoga (hatha yoga) to the western world. However, because she was a woman and a Westerner, Devi couldn’t just saunter into Mysore and start practicing yoga with the Maharaja’s teacher. She had to be steady and persistent in her efforts. She had to pass all the “tests” or challenges thrown her way. It helped that the Maharaja intervened on her behalf – but that just got her in the door. Devi had to make the continued effort.

 “Abhyasa (steady, repeated practice) means choosing, applying the effort, and doing those actions that bring a stable and tranquil state.”

Yoga Sutra 1:13 (translated by Swamij)

 

“Success in Yoga is not obtained by the mere theoretical reading of sacred texts. Success is not obtained by wearing the dress of a yogi or a sanyasi (a recluse), nor by talking about it. Constant practice alone is the secret of success.”

Hatha Yoga Pradipika I:67-68

Ruth wasn’t cavalier in her acceptance of my invitation to answer my seven questions. Since she practices yoga based on the teachings of B. K. S. Iyengar, she wanted to make sure that our exchange would honor the correct practice and study of yoga. So, Ruth essentially interviewed me before I interviewed her (and Yogi #15).

 “Yoga is an art and science of living. Yoga means union, in all its significances and dimensions. Through a certain amount of physical and mental disciplines we can learn how to stay healthy, alert, receptive and to improve our perception of the external world in order to feel internally harmonized, with a better life condition and spiritual balance.”

– Indra Devi

 

Though the yogi does not underrate his body, he does not think merely of its perfection but of his senses, mind, intellect and soul.

The yogi conquers the body by the practice of the asanas and makes it a fit vehicle for the spirit. He knows that it is a necessary vehicle for the spirit.”

– Excerpt from Light on Yoga by B. K. S. Iyengar

 


One of the significant things about Indra Devi’s story is that her steady, persistent, and disciplined efforts enabled her to practice (and teach) into her tenth decade. She was, apparently, still practicing 4 -5 poses up until her death at 102. While she has quite a ways to go, I can easily see Ruth’s practice extending into her centennial years. In fact, after everything was said and done, she mentioned that I should have asked her how her practice has changed over 25 years and what poses she’s doing as her mind-body changes.

That’s a great question. It’s a great question not only because our mind-body changes with age, but also because we change when we experience trauma, loss, and disability. We change when we hold space for other people experiencing life-changing moments. Matthew Sanford and Mind Body Solutions are living that question, in order to help more people live (or practice) their way into the answers. If you’ve experienced changes in your mind-body, please KISS MY ASANA!

 

~ Jai Guru Dev Jai Jai ~