Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Where’s the Music?

Have you noticed that yoga seems synonymous with many things in our minds? Take a look at the plethora of advertisements bombarding our eyes: you see yoga promoting crackers, water, food, tea, clothes, and even cars. Yoga summons images of happiness, lightness, purity and all things good. People bring all sorts of expectations even to class - yoga will make them stronger, more flexible, calmer, and help them find enlightment. They come to a classroom expecting hushed voices, dimmed lights, and the sounds of ethereal chanting in the background.

But...perhaps this is not always so. Mayhap you’ve noticed in some classes there is no music. Where did it go? There is always music in yoga class. That’s a Rule!

Music is really a personal call for the instructor and it may be based on how they were taught or the dictates of the yogic tradition they teach. For example, in a traditional Ashtanga session, there would be no music. Your breath is the song you follow. You want to be able to hear the sound of each inhale and each exhale. You want to be focusing on the quality of the breath, the subtle work of the bandhas, the internal alignment of your muscles and bones, not the groovy Deval Primal or Krishna Das song grooving in the front of the room. Even the instructors voice becomes a distant second or third to what you need to be paying attention to inside of yourself. You let the practice become a moving meditation.

Another example would be a traditional Iyengar session, where you would be focusing even more on the voice of the instructor as they move you further into each pose, again, working on the subtle body alignment.

And some instructors just don’t like competing against a melodic background, feeling like they are shouting to be heard. It all becomes a cacophony of noise that distracts not only the teacher but the student as well. Some students find music a distraction, desiring only to have an hour of relative quiet before they are plunged back into the chaos of the day.

It has been noted, accurately I like to think, that we spend our lives surrounded by noise - our families, office mates, cell phones, i-pods, radios, CDs, TV’s. We like to talk, we like to wrap ourselves in sound. However, our brain craves quiet. It desires moments of stillness. So when you next come to a yoga class and the instructor turns off the music, allow yourself to sink further into the silence and give your mind a much needed break.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog)

Yoga Journal this month has a wonderful article on down dog (Adho Muhka Svanasana). This dovetails so beautifully with the Surya Namaskar A (Sun Salutation A) break down that I want to discuss another pose. Plus this way, for those of us who do receive Yoga Journal it gives us an opportunity to discuss the magazine. pose finder

The picture, as found on pg 55 (Mar 08) is a beautiful representation of what we are working towards: 90* alignment between torso and legs, heels flat to the floor, head moving toward the mat between the hands, lower abdomen uplifted, shoulders broad and open.

Reality is...a bit different. Let’s take a closer look at Down Dog:

The Feet
To begin with, for many of us, our heels do not touch the ground. This comes from a combination of factors which include but are not limited to our glutes, hamstrings, calves, thighs, and Achilles tendons. As the tendons and muscles of the legs gain flexibility, our heels will slowly creep downward. Do not try and rush this process. Let them sink naturally and avoid standing on the tippy toes. For some, their heels will never reach the ground simply due to the alignment of their bones and tendons.

The feet should be about hip distance apart. Some traditions of yoga have a narrower stance and some traditions move wider. For our Contemporary Ashtanga practice, keep them hip distance.

The Legs
The legs are active and moving toward the back of the room. If necessary, put a slight bend in the knees; especially if you know you hyper-extend or have difficulty lengthening the back (you round forward).

The Hips
It can be difficult to describe how to move the hips because everyone’s flexibility is so different. But try and envision this: try and keep your hips moving upward more so than directly behind you. Sometime try and do a down dog off your mat and on the carpet. Come into your down dog and observe what happens as your hands or feet start to slide forward. It suddenly feels like you have to suck everything up and into your abdomen to prevent your hands from shooting forward. This is the upward lift we are looking for.

(Interesting note: it wasn’t until recently that yogis started using sticky mats. Yogis used to practice on woven mats or, here in the States, carpet remnants. We are now used to pushing down into our mats with our hands because the mat keeps us grounded rather than lifting through our center.)

The Back
We are trying to make the spine long from the sacrum to the base of the head. Move the shoulder blades toward the waist, away from the ears. Shoulders should not crunch.

The Abdomen
Gently draw Uddiyana Bandha back toward the spine to assist in supporting the lower back and help provide lift.

The Arms and Hands
Keeping the shoulders moving away from the head and ears, while rotating the inner elbow to point upward. I’ve always enjoyed the saying, "you’re trying to catch raindrops with the inside of your elbow." Yes, catch raindrops!"

Hands are active, palm and fingers pressing into the mat. For some, this may not becomfortable - go ahead and bend your fingers so the palm and fingertips press into the mat. Hands are shoulder distance apart.

The Head
The top of the head is extending toward the floor. Your gaze can be toward your feet, your knees or finally, your navel. For the Ashtanga practice, we are breathing smoothly and fully utilizing the Ujjayi breath.

I love the suggestion to align the ears with the arms. For some flexy-bendy people, they are popping the chest open. This is a great way to do a self adjustment.

If you are just starting out in the pose and need to bring the pose down a notch, bend only the knees to bring them to the mat and stretch back through the hips. Your hands and feet should not move from where they have been planted. When you are ready, lift up through the knees to return to down dog.

With time, down dog becomes a resting pose. To further increase relaxation (if you are not doing the Ashtanga practice at the moment) put some blankets under your head and rest in supported down dog. This is said to be therapeutic for headaches.

Benefits to Downward Facing Dog:

  • Stretches the shoulders, hamstrings, calves, arches and hands
  • Strengthens the arms and legs
  • Enlivens the whole body
  • Improves digestion
  • Mr. Iyengar states "It strengthen the legs and makes them shapely." (Light on Yoga)
  • Envigorates the brain to reduce fatigue
  • An alternate pose to Sirasana (headstand)

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Philosophy of the Ego


We’ve all got one...whether you want to admit it or not.

For some it makes us competitive, always striving to be first, to be better than the person next to us, to go farther, faster, longer. For others, it drives the inability to say no, always volunteering for the next thing in hopes of praise and complements. And it contributes to the martyr syndrome, the one who continually feels they have to sacrifice their time because, tsk!, no one else can do it. It manifests itself in so many different ways: subtle, direct, altruistic, sidling, big and bold or manipulative and quiet.

As I grew in inner awareness, I began to be aware of my ego. I know it lies underneath the surface of my being, much like a shark under the brilliantly calm blue waters of the Caribbean. It glides around below the edge where water meets the sky. Meanwhile, my essence, my consciousness, floats upon the surface, happily dozing or interacting with other members in my flock of birds, when suddenly there is an upward explosion of water droplets, calmness shattered, feathers flying everywhere and with a giant SPLOOSH my ego is gone again, leaving behind waves that turn to ripples then calmness, and maybe, if I’ve been particularly unlucky, one less member in the flock.

Much is often said of the Ego in yogic philosophy and Buddihist Dharma talks. Often the ego is discussed in terms of "removing" it, or "suppressing the ego" and even, "letting go of the ego". I have found I am uncomfortable with these terms and concepts. After all, it’s my ego. Why would I want to remove this part of me any more than one of my limbs?

I forget where I heard this first, but I have carried it with me for several years now: the idea of the ego as a small child. And as you would raise a child: with firmness, discipline, joy and love, so too should you treat your ego. The ego IS your inner child in many ways. When he or she becomes surly and temperamental, give yourself a "time out". This can be as simple as taking a deep breath or as involved as excusing yourself the room or situation. If he or she becomes whiney, demanding, or petulant, step back and ask yourself does this become you? Does this behavior make you a better person? If he or she pushes hard for that finish line, that raise or promotion or business goal, remind yourself to stop and thank those who helped you along they way or wish well those you were competing against.

So when your ego does not become you or serve your better actions and thoughts, take your ego by the hand and firmly tell it that that behavior is not acceptable. If your ego has given you a positive competitive edge, warmly thank it, but don’t let it go to your head! So I say, don’t try and "remove" or "suppress" your ego, draw it to you in a warm embrace and know that it is uniquely yours to care for.

If you are interested in reading more on the philosophy of the ego, try this link:

Yoga Journal

Monday, February 11, 2008

I for Interesting Blog sites

Brenda from Grounding Through the Sit Bones wrote a comment on the last post to let me know that she posted me as one of her favorite blog sites this week! I am throughly touched that she thought of me amongst so many great sites on the web.

Now it is my turn to list my favorite sites. It's supposed to be 10, but I don't spend a tremendous amount of time on the computer so it's only 7. It's an eclectic mix that represents my hobbies: eating, knitting, science fiction books, and yoga. In no particular order:

Chocolate and Zucchini by Clotilde. A food blog from a Parisian's point of view.

Culinary in the Country by Joe. Another food blog with beautiful pictures.

Michael Ruhlman: Notes from the Food World by Michael Ruhlman. Author of Making of a Chef. A blog on "how to" make good food and the world of chefs as seen by a Chef.

Lollyknitting Around by Lolly. Crafts (weaving, knitting), photography and travel. Georgeous pictures.

The Daily Stitch by Dee

Grounding Through the Sit Bones by Brenda. The inspiration for this blog. Even though I do not teach an Iyengar style, I enjoy the practice for it's thouroughness in inner and outer detail.

Disorganized as Usual by Gail. Freinds since 7th grade...did our first science fiction convention in about, oh, 1986. Have since been to 14 Minicon's and 2 Worldcons. Convinced me to try knitting and blogging, too. Yes, I am a bit of a geek! :)

Friday, February 8, 2008

Focus Pose - Suyra Namaskar A (Sun Salutation A)

It is the beginning of the month and time to return to the Primary Series breakdown. We started by coming into Tadasnana (Mountain Pose) and began with our Opening Invocation, recalling this chant is a prayer of thanks to the many teachers who have come before us. Now it is time to move into Surya Namaskar A (Sun Salutation A). This is actually a series of poses linked together to generate the "sun salutation" or also known as a "vinyasa" when just part of the salutation is completed.

There are actually many different styles of the Sun Salutation. The three I am familiar with are a Hatha style, an Iyengar style and our familiar Ashtanga Style. We will, of course, be focusing on the Ashtanga style. We will focus more on the dynamics of the Sun Salutation and break down the individual asana as we move into the rest of the standing sequence.

To begin, start in Tadasana (see right).

Inhale - sweep arms out and up and let the palms touch overhead. If the room is crowded, sweep the arms forward and up. Or inhale palms together up through the heart, past the face and overhead. Dristi - hands.

In one variation, a slight backbend - an upward lifting movement from the ribs, shoulder blades and shoulders - is encouraged. The other variation is to remain straight, with only the head tilting back to look at the palms. Often it is a matter of what is more comfortable for the student.
Over time you may find one suits you better than the other. If adding the backbend, it is important to remember to lift through the sternum to avoid crunching into the lower back.

Exhale - come into a Forward Fold (see right - this is what we are moving towards. Note the length of the spine and she's not rounding her shoulders). No matter if your hands are on the knees, shins, ankles or floor, the back remains long and shoulders blades are broad. Try not to round the shoulders toward the ears. A little bend in the knees always acceptable. Drishti - nose.

Inhale - all varations: look up toward the horizon. IF your hands touch the floor, you can either come up to the finger tips OR for the more traditional form, palms remain on the floor. Drishti - horizon.

Exhale - Walk, lunge or jump back to a plank position, elbows remain by ribcage and lower yourself to the floor. Level 1: come into plank, bring knees to floor and lower down. Level 2: straight legs come all the way to the floor. Level 3: straight legs, lowering to 1" from the floor. Drishti - nose/floor.
It is important to remember while in plank, the hands must remain below the shoulders** and the feet flexed and strong. I teach to have the feet hip distance apart so as one moves into Ardo Muka Savasana the feet are in place and the foundation remains strong. In all levels, the abdomen is gently engaged to support the lower back.

(If the observant reader will note - she is slightly hyperextending her elbows in this posture)

**There is a variation on this where the arms make a 90* bend and the wrists are actually behind the shoulders. This is an advanced posture to be done as one gains proficiency in the practice.

Inhale - Move into Cobra or Up-Dog (see below) position. This is a small backbend! Keep the ribcage moving forward through the arms, the sternum is lifting upward, shoulders are opening and broad, shoulder blades moving down the spine. This motion applies if you are in a cobra position (Level 1) or a full up-dog (Level 3). Drishti - nose or ceiling.

Let’s talk about the feet for a moment: (all levels) the tops of the feet should be pressing into the mat, the toes point to the back of the room. Heels should be moving toward the ceiling and not "slopping" inward or outward. Thighs, knees and calves are active and engaged.
When we move into our down dog, you may "roll over" the toes if your feet permit, flex both feet at the same time to bring soles and toes back to the mat, or flip one at a time. Again, this is personal preference. The important thing is to work toward the roll over and be consistent.
Exhale - lift up through the hips. Press the thighs toward the back of the room. Keep the hips lifting. Hands are pressing fully and firmly into the mat. Heels are sinking toward the floor. It’s okay if they don’t touch, but don’t stand on your tippy-toes. However, DO NOT MOVE THE HANDS AND FEET. I cannot stress this enough. The hands and feet are our foundation, which was set when we moved into plank position. This foundation, if set correctly, gives us the correct alignment for the entire salutation.

Shoulders remain open - try not to let the shoulder crunch into the ears. Open the inside of the elbows toward the ceiling like you are going to catch raindrops. Dristi - Level 1 = toes; Level 2 = knees, Level 3 = belly button. HOLD FOR 5 BREATHS.

Puppy-pose modification

Inhale - Look up between the hands (very important! LOOK at where you are going!) and either walk, lunge or spring the feet forward, bringing toes together, knees together, thighs together. Straighten the legs and look up. Dristi - horizon.

Exhale - Forward fold as before. Dristi - nose or knees.
Inhale - Sweep the arms along side (if room in class) and overhead. Look back up at those palms adding the optional back bend. Dristi - palms.

Exhale - brings us back to Tadasana or "Samasthti".

I have omitted mulha bandha and uddyana bandha for the moment. I will discuss these when we move into the individual asana rather than in the whole the flow of Surya Namaskar A & B.

Try reading slowly through this sequence again, and visualize each movement as you would do it standing. Now take this to your mat - try this following exercise (as modified from a David Swenson workshop):

Do one Sun Salutation as done in class - each movement = one breath
Do one Sun Salutation V.e.r.y. S.l.o.w.
Do one Sun Salutation very fast! As fast as you can!
Do one Sun Salutation in two breaths (one exhale, one inhale)
Do one Sun Salutation with your eyes closed.
Do one Sun Salutation as done in class - each movement = one breath.
Check in with yourself - how did you feel moving through each variation and after the sequence was completed as a whole? Find anything interesting?
(All photo's are from, pose finder)