Thursday, April 24, 2008

10 Guidelines - Ahimsa (non-violence)

Each week I sit down in front of my computer to compose the current blog entry. Some weeks the words fly across the screen and I’m bipping here and there for pictures and quotes. Other weeks it takes longer to establish my thoughts and to pick a topic out of the infinite variety available. This is one of those weeks where my focus is scattered, so I decided to review my previous posts and bring forward one of those “we’ll discuss this later” topics.

Back in December I wrote about the 8 Limbs of Yoga and mentioned the Yamas and Niyamas, 10 guidelines encompassing rightful living. These aren’t resolutions to be made at the turning of the new year, then forgotten after about March. These aren’t commandments to be followed in the strict orthodox sense. These are concepts that the yoga student practices to develop self awareness while on the yogic path. These are better thought of as an intent to practice the self-restraints and observances over a long-term duration of years and years.

As a review, the 10 guidelines for rightful living are:
Yamas (or self restraints)
Ahimsa - non-violence
Satya - truth
Asteya - non-stealing
Brahmacharya - chastity or walking with the divine
Aparigraha - non-attachment

Niyamas (or observances)
Saucha - cleanliness
Santosa - contentment
Tapas - self discipline
Svadhyaya - self study
Isvara pranidhanani - surrender to the divine

They seem overwhelming at first, don’t they? It’s kinda like “Holey Batman! I’m supposed to practice all of those?” Yup! Let’s take a look at the first, and what I consider to be the most powerful, guideline:

Ahimsa or Non-Violence : Don’t bring or cause harm others...don’t harm yourself.

Seems simple on the surface. We know not to strike out in anger, not to kill, not to shove, and not to yell. But what about the not so obvious things - Gossip. Over or under exercising. Over indulging in food or drink. Nasty comments to or about friends, family, coworkers. Or no comment at all when thanks or compliments should be given. I was recently reminded that it takes 20 positive comments to over come one negative comment - when was the last time you thanked someone? How do you treat your self during the day? Do you skip meals? Push when you know you need to rest? Ahimsa is not only non-violence towards others in words acts and deeds, but it’s non-violence toward yourself as well.

This month let’s take a look at our actions towards ourselves and others and observe where a little more ahimsa just might make our lives a little bit better. Kinda like Earth Day...every day.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Tanya Boigenzham; Guest Instructor at Yoga North, April 18 and 19

I know I’ve gushed before about workshops, but I really can’t speak highly enough about them. You get to experience a different instructor, your practice will move to a new level and while they can be a lot of work (you are often doing more intense yoga in a couple of days than you would during a regular week), workshops are usually darn fun!

Photo from Yoga Cntr of Mpls

So it was with Tanya. She hails from Minneapolis where she teaches at the Yoga Center in Mpls and has her own Thai Yoga Massage business. Tanya did three sessions with us this weekend: Friday night was a walk through of the Primary Series concluding with yogi nidra. This state of alert relaxation can be difficult to do after a vigorous Ashtanga practice, which makes it an interesting practice. The body wants to drift into a state of light sleep but you must counter that with mindfulness. Often, easier said than done.

Saturday morning Tanya took ten of us through the first level of the Rocket Series. This series was developed by Larry Shultz, of It’s Yoga in San Francisco. Larry took the Ashtanga Series 1-3 and inter-mixed them to create a dynamic and challenging sequence. Think vinyasa flow with a strong ashtanga emphasis.

Yaowza! This was so much fun! We stretched and laughed and giggled our way through some incredibly challenging poses and felt stronger and inspired because of them. I told my students that we will continue to work on some of these starting next week…I guess I have my homework cut out for me!

Saturday afternoon Tanya worked on “Floating like a Butterfly”. For those of you not familiar with the Ashtanga sequence or a vinyasa flow, “floating” happens in several places during the Sun Salutations and vinyasas. The idea is you move with lightness and air as you “float back” from a forward fold to chataranga, and again when you come from down-dog into a forward fold. When on the floor moving through the vinyasas, you work towards “floating” from down-dog into your seated posture. This “floating” is a work in progress for many of us and to watch Tanya move so light and effortlessly was beautiful and inspiring to behold.

She also spent time working on our inversions. Inversions can be scary and fun at the same time, but not necessarily both to most people. We worked on peacock feather and hand stand and head stand and how to move safely and strongly into and out of the poses using our core and drishti to support and stabilize the asana. Speaking for myself, I have never felt as stable in my inversions as I did on Saturday.

So how do I feel on the day after? Pooped, refreshed, elated, excited and yes, a tich bit sore. How ‘bout anyone else who attended? Thoughts? Feedback?

Further information about Larry Shultz and the Rocket Series can be found here: It's Yoga

About Tanya Boigenzham can be found here:
and here: Yoga Center of Minneapolis

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Focus Pose - Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog)

Continuing in our focus pose series, we are moving into Surya Namaskar B by breaking down some individual poses that we see several times while moving through the Sun Salutation. Last week I took a look at plank pose. This week I am going to tie plank pose and Urdhva Mukha Svanasana together.

From Plank, we exhale and lower ourselves down. In the full expression, only our hands and feet will touch the ground and on a strong uplifting inhale, we lift our torso and head into Urdhva Mukha Svanasana - Upward Facing Dog position. This is a small backbend! Keep the ribcage moving forward through the arms, the sternum is lifting upward, shoulders are opening and broad, shoulders are moving away from the ears and 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). It is important not to crunch the lower back in any level.

Drishti - nose or ceiling.

Wrists are directly below the shoulders and arms are strong. If you know you hyper extend, put a slight bend in your elbows.

The tops of the feet are pressing into the mat and 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.

MODIFICATION(S) - Come into plank and lower you knees and only your knees to your mat. Proceed through a cobra or into up-dog. (Level 1 or 2)

If it is not comfortable to support your whole body with just wrists and ankles at this time, keep the knees on the floor, extending out through the soles of the feet as if you were doing the full expression of the pose. (Level 2)

When we move into our downdog, 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 to move into Adho Mukha Svanasana (Down Dog) 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.

Benefits of Urdhva Mukha Svanasana
Strengthens the wrists and arms
Develops flexibility in the spine (for all those backbends!)
Stretches chest, shoulders, and abdomen
Reported to help relieve sciatica

Be careful if you have issues with carpel tunnel or are pregnant.

My hope as we move into summer is to be able to provide some better pictures! It’s hard to take pictures when it’s cold and snowy. For now, pictures are from

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Focus Pose - Plank Pose

Finally! A quiet moment to attend to my blog. My apologies for such a late posting - I was on vacation last week and hit the ground running at work on Monday. It is now Thurs and while the meetings and frantic activity of the week have past, a massive snowstorm is bearing down upon the Duluth area for Friday. We are seriously wondering if summer has passed us by...

In the meantime, let’s look at another pose! A student recently inquired what she could do to improve her core strength which got me to thinking about the next pose in our Ashtanga sequence - which is actually Surya Namaskar B, but we’ll approach it differently this time. Let’s take a look at Plank Pose which we move through three times during Surya Namaskar B.

I love plank pose. It targets so many muscle groups at once. We are working on shoulder and upper arm strength, we are targeting our core and lower back muscles, our thighs must stay active and strong, our neck stays long to keep our head lifted and in line with our spine. With so much going on, it takes awareness of your body to determine what you need to do and where you need to do it.

Let’s break the pose down into it’s elements:

1) Envision entering the pose from your forward fold, as if moving through a sun salutation. Your hands press firmly into your mat, palms flat**, fingers spread to provide a strong base. It is important that your wrists be directly under your shoulders.

2) Your shoulders move away from your ears, broaden your back. A tendency here is to “hunch” into the shoulder blades - counter this by rolling your shoulders toward the floor and not your ears.

3) Here comes your mid-section! Move your abdomen toward the ceiling, this is where the support and strength for this pose comes from. However, resist the tendency to lift the tailbone upwards as well. Keep the thighs active, also lifting upwards.

4) Speaking of head, the gaze should remain on the floor about a foot in front of your hands. Avoid looking up, avoid sagging the head. If you can see behind your hands, lift your head.

If you can, practice in front of a mirror - you are trying to establish one long straight line from heels to head.

From your forward fold, move into plank pose and establish your foundation with your hands and feet. Then, keeping the hands and feet glued to the floor, allow your knees to come to the mat. Your abdomen should still be lifting toward the ceiling, thighs engaged. This is a great place to work from - a modified push up position that will allow you to work on shoulder and mid-section strength but take some of the strain off the lower back.

**If you have wrist issues and flat palms are not a comfortable or feasible place to work, this pose can be done with clenched fists. You would make a fist and place your knuckles on the floor. Inside of the hands would face each other. Then continue to move through the pose.

To further target the core, bring one leg parallel to the floor, hold for several counts and switch legs. Increase the duration of the counts over time.
Or, move into a modified plank pose by bringing the elbows to the floor directly under the shoulders and press the palms together. Hold for as long as you can!

Further information can be found here at the Yoga Journal website: plank pose and modified plank pose.

**both pictures are from