Thursday, January 31, 2008

Opening Invocation

I have been remiss! In my enthusiasm to start the standing sequence of the primary series, I neglected a rather important detail: the opening Invocation. And once again we come back to that slight division between the "Traditional" practice and the "Contemporary" practice.

In the Traditional practice you come to the front of your mat, hands in namaste, and the class would either chant this all as one or as a call and response as led by the instructor. In a Contemporary practice, in deference and respect to the students personal beliefs, this might be omitted. If you are well acquainted with the chant and the moment allows, you may find yourself quietly chanting the invocation as the instructor grounds the class.

The Invocation itself is simply a prayer of thanks to all the instructors that have come before us. The Oms are chanted together, then the instructor may begin the call and response. Below is the chant in Sanscrit as it would be done before the session. The second is the literal translation. The third is a translation as done by the yoga studio in Burlington, VT.


I bow to the lotus feet of the
Supreme Guru who teaches the good
knowledge, that awakens us to great happiness;
who is the doctor of the jungle,
able to remove the poison
of conditioned existence.
To Pantanjali, an incarnation of Adisesa, white
in color with one thousand radiant heads,
holding a sword, a wheel of fire and a
conch, I prostrate,

thank you, thank you, thank you
Thank you to all of those who made this up,
practiced, passed it down, practiced, changed it,
passed it down, over and over
until today when it is my turn to
practice now. And thank you
to everyone who will practice in the future.
thank you, thank you, thank you
(From Yoga Vermont)

I know there is a version avaliable to listen to on the web, but I can't seem to find where it. I shall keep looking and link to it at a later date.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Home Practice, Part II

Last week I began to talk about the "Home Practice". In the Traditional Ashtanga practice as a practitioner you would be practicing 6 days a week, with Saturday’s and Moon Days (Full and New Moon) off. You would be doing the full primary series from the first sun salutation all the way through headstand and the three closing postures. I will be the first to say, that’s a huge commitment and it may take years to work to that point if that is the path that calls to you.

In some variations on the Traditional Practice - let’s call them Contemporary Ashtanga - the practitioner is encouraged to practice 6 days a week, but at a minimum doing 5 surya namaskar A and 5 surya namaskar B, the three closing postures and savasana. In our modern lives with 8-6 jobs, family needs, drive times, dinner, errands and just some plain ol’ downtime that seems much more obtainable. To practice once or twice a week in a studio setting and then find time elsewhere for a 15 minute practice.

But, as I mentioned last week, even 15 minutes a day may make one feel overwhelmed. It becomes another thing to try and cram into an already busy day, rather than the comforting release it should be. Or again, perhaps your space doesn’t allow for it. I know I drool over the pictures in the yoga magazines that show these beautiful, serene, almost Buddhist like homes with an empty room just for yoga or meditation. I don’t know about you, my gentle reader, but I certainly don’t have that kind of luxurious space.

So what is a practitioner to do? You want to practice yoga at home, but it’s simply too much at this juncture in life?

Ahhh....there is more than one way to practice yoga! Let’s take a look again at the 8 Limbs of Yoga or "Ashtanga":

1) Yama (self restraints) 5 which include:
  • Ahimsa - non-violence
  • Satya - truth
  • Asteya - non-stealing
  • Brahmacharya - chastity or walking with the divine
  • Aparigraha - non-attachment

2)Niyamas (observance) 5 which include:

  • Saucha - cleanliness
  • Santosa - contentment
  • Tapas - self discipline
  • Svadhyaya - self study
  • Isvara pranidhanani - surrender to the divine

3) Asana (postures)

4) Pranyama (breath control)

5) Pratyahara (sense withdrawl)

6) Dharana (concentration)

7) Dhyana (meditative absorption)

8) Samadhi (to bring into harmony)

As westerners we tend to focus in on just the Asana (posture) practice. Hence the fascination with "Do you have a home practice?" However, there are seven other limbs one can work on at home! For example, under the Niyama’s, Svadhyaya or self-study: take some time in the evening to read about yoga - a magazine, a book, a pamphlet. Perhaps sign up for a non-asana workshop that studies the 10 Guidelines, or the Chakra system, or something else.

Or you can begin to work on the Yama’s, as this alone is lifelong journey. Start with Ahimsa, non-violence. This would include actions not only towards others, but those actions that may be harming yourself as well.

These would be the start of a home practice that you CAN incorporate into your daily life. These can be taken incrementally and at a pace that accommodates you, your family’s lifestyle and the space in which you live. And when next someone asks "Do you do a home practice?" you can smile, look them in the eye and say, "Yes."

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Home Practice, Part I

One of the most common questions I hear people asking each other and myself is - do you do a home practice? This is often an awkward question to answer. So what truly constitutes a home practice? Isn’t yoga all about making the practice your own? Why are people so fascinated with what someone else is doing outside of the classroom?

Granted, one of the beautiful aspects of yoga is you don’t have to do it in a studio/classroom setting. When you start to become comfortable with the poses you can begin to bring the practice to your living room. It doesn’t have to be much - perhaps 5 surya namaskar A and 3 surya namasar B and the three closing postures. Maybe you are feeling more energetic and want to do some standing and seated postures. And of course, don’t forget everyone’s favorite, savasana (corpse pose). It can be a 15 minute practice or a full hour and a half. It can be Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Hatha, or meditation.

You can even take your practice on the road. You find yourself in a hotel room after a long drive or plane ride, but no workout room in the hotel. Or maybe the weather is -20* and the wind that started in the Canadian Rockies hasn’t slowed down as it roared over the Dakotas. Not the best for an outside walk or run. What’s that? No mat? Take a couple of towels, dampen where your hands and feet hit and set them out. Again, it doesn’t have to be much - maybe just a couple sun salutations and savasana to work out the kinks of prolonged sitting and to calm the mind. Or perhaps you’ve been on a more active vacation - hiking, biking, ultra marathon - where a few end of the day/beginning of the day stretches might help with muscle recovery and limber those joints.

Still not entirely comfortable going from memory? If you have an ipod, you can now go online and download hatha or vinyasa sessions. For the Ashtanga practice there are CD’s and fold out cards you can follow.

But! But! But! I hear you cry. Kids! Pets! Small house/apartment! Work schedule(s), your house mates, significant other, dinner, breakfast, commute, laundry, errands, know the rest. Alas, it is true, these are significant factors that may inhibit moving into a home practice. We live very busy lives and to try and "cram" another thing in in our few hours in the morning or evening is not for everyone and in fact may be counter productive. For many the studio time becomes their practice, the place where they can practice fully and truly uninterrupted.

And. That. Is Okay.

I often think this is the hardest part for students beginning on this path. It is okay - fantastic! in fact! - to do a practice once or twice a week. Perhaps that is all your schedule will permit. Great! It is okay to acknowledge that you may not have the space or conditions within your home walls to bring a practice home. I have two hunting dogs and a small house. I roll out my mat, carefully avoiding the dog pillow, overhead ceiling fan, couch and TV. It doesn’t take but two sun salutations and I have my lab laying across my mat and my setter licking my ears every time I’m in down dog. I’ve tried gating them out, but then they whine. I now accept this. My on-the-mat practice is going to be elsewhere. Do what you can, and be content to be in that spot.

But...this doesn’t mean you can’t practice yoga at home at all. (To be continued...)

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Focus Pose - Mountian Pose (Tadasana)

When I started this blog, I thought it would be fun to look at a variety of topics, ranging from history, philosophy, the Sanscrit language and the poses themselves. Since we are starting a new year and a new session in our classes, I thought we should start with some focus poses.

I am obtaining my asana information from a variety of sources: Yoga Journal, other blogs, personal practice and knowledge, and several books - some of which are listed at the side. Let’s start to look at the Primary Series as if we were just coming to our mats.

Mountain Pose (Tadasana)

Thighs, Abdomen

Improves posture

Strengthens legs, abdomen and glutes

Cautions (when to be mindful in a pose):
Low blood pressure

(photo from Yoga

Begin by rocking back and forth between the heels and balls of your feet, bringing equal balance between the two. Come to stillness and lift and spread the toes to create a natural arch in the foot. Gently release them back to your mat. Your feet can be touching or 3-5 inches apart if still working on balance or if you have leg, knee or foot issues. For some it is more comfortable to stand with the knuckle of the big toes and the outside of the big toes touching with 1-2 inches between the heels.

Bring awareness to your knees by gently lifting up on the knee caps, and lightly engage the thigh muscles. Do not lock the knees. If you are prone to hyper-extension, put a slight bend in the knees. This will seem awkward initially but have long term positive benefits for your joints.

Move your awareness to your hips by gently tilting the pelvis forward. This engages the lower abdomen (uddiyana bandha or abdomen lock) and lifts the rib cage. In the Ashtanga practice, we begin to engage mula bandha (or root lock) here as well, lifting and holding the pelvic floor (see previous posts for definitions or click on the "terminology" link below).

Broaden the front of the chest, lifting the sternum while rolling the shoulder blades down the spine while moving the shoulders away from the ears. Arms and hands are active beside your hips, but not military rigid. Chin remains parallel to the floor and the gaze is straight ahead. In our Ashtanga practice, we begin to move more fully into the ujjayi breath, bringing our attention to the bandhas and breath-as-mantra.

Next Focus Pose: Sun Salutation A

Thursday, January 3, 2008

What makes this Ashtanga - The Foundations of the Practice

It has been said, that one could compare Ashtanga yoga to beads on a string: the postures are the beads, and the foundations (root lock, abdomen lock, drishti and ujjiyi breath) are the string that connects the all the beads together. I like this analogy, so lets explore this "string" a little more closely.

First, we have the locks, and there are three of them. In our classes we currently focus on the first two, mula bandha, or root lock and uddiyana bandha, or abdomen lock. Jalandhara bandha is the chin lock and we start to bring that in as we become more familiar with the practice. To further summarize (and I'll break these down more in depth at some later point):

Mula bandha (root lock) - a lifting of the perineum or pelvic floor. For women, think of holding a "kegel exercise". Gentlemen, you are lifting and holding the perineum which is behind the boys and in front of the anus. It is our objective to someday holding this slight contraction and lift throughout the entire practice.

Uddiyana bandha (lesser uddiyana, abdomen lock) - There are two variations of Uddiyana Bandha. One is practiced in the Hatha tradition, where you are lifting the entire abdominal cavity up in a very controlled manner in conjunction with pranyama. In the Ashtanga practice we are engaging the lower abdomen, gently drawing back the area below your belly button as if trying to touch your spice. We are also trying to hold this action throughout the entire practice.

Drishti (focus point) - is a point of gaze or focus and is meant to direct our attention to the subtle practice ("it’s what you can’t see that matters"; the breath and bandhas). We want our gaze move in the direction of the stretch, and thus our attention stays within the body and the practice rather than wandering around worrying about our pedicure, dentist appointment or work day. In conjunction with the breath, this is what helps make the practice a moving meditation. We are turning down the volume on our internal thoughts.

Ujjayi Breath (victorious breath) - a slight constriction at the back of the throat which becomes an audible breath on which to focus our attention during the practice. Why? To create a rhythm in the breath and ride it gracefully through the practice, the breath becomes a mantra to focus the mind, and this tells us the quality of our practice. So the breath becomes the mantra to facilitate the moving meditation, to focus the ear upon and gauge the quality of the practice.

Why do we do all this? To trap heat/energy in torso; the ujjayi breath is regulating heat from the top and the bandhas are preventing the release of heat and energy from below. In creating this internal furnace we burn off and purge our body of excess toxins. By engaging uddiyana bandha we encourage the exercising of internal muscles by supporting and lifting the organs and we support the lower back throughout the practice. By combining all these elements, we focus our attention on the subtle body and bring a meditative quality to our practice.

That’s quite a bit for a bunch of little "strings"! Truly, Ashtanga Yoga is about what you can't see.