Saturday, June 28, 2008

David Swenson Demo

This recording was from August 17, 2007, at the Yoga House, Edina, MN. I didn't realize the demo had been recorded and posted until just recently. I attended two sessions from that workshop weekend - absolutely fantastic.

David Swenson Demo.

And since I was parusing youtube in awe and facination (do you relize just how MUCH is on there?) I found a couple other things to draw your attention to. These are from David's Primary Series Video.

Here is a video of the Sun Salutation as done by Mr. Swenson. Please note, he has the ablity to go from up dog to down dog by pushing backwards. Watch here.

And I've always liked this bit: Swenson on Ashtanga Flow.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Bhastrika Breath

So last week we looked at Kapalabhati breath. This week I’d like to take a look at bhastrika as a comparison.

Remember, kapalabhati is a strong exhale with a passive inhale. The hard thing about kapalabati is that inhale. The tendency is to just sort of skip it or not fully utilize the inhale which leaves one rather short of breath at the end of the cycle.

Bhastrika breath is the “bellows breath” - a strong exhale AND a strong inhale. Like a bellows. And, like a bellows, you are fanning your internal flames. Air is pushed in and out of the lungs, generating heat within the body by vigorously working your cardiovascular system.

So why is this breath so great? What’s the big deal? The pumping action of the breath squeezes blood in and out of the digestive organs, tones the liver, spleen, stomach and pancreas, thus increasing digestive capacity. It's working the abdomen and the lungs.

How do we do this? Bring yourself to a comfortable seated position - a simple crossed legged position, kneeling, half lotus or full or even sitting on a chair. In all positions, avoid hunching the shoulders or rounding the back. If you are in a chair, sit on the edge and don’t lean against the back. Hunching and rounding compress the abdomen and inhibits the breathing motion. It is very important to keep the head and truck erect throughout the practice.

Take a long, slow, deep inhale. This ensures there is plenty of oxygen to begin with to counter exhaling more than inhaling. Remember, the exhales and inhales should be equal - attempt to coordinate the movement of the diaphram and abdominal muscles so air moves in and out like a bellows.

Begin slow. One recommendation is one breath every three seconds. There should be minimal movement of the chest and shoulders - only the abdomen. Make the breath smooth, without jerking or stopping. This breath can be quiet, or with sound. It is recommended to start with a rate of 20 breaths per minute up to 3 to 5 minutes. If you feel the need to take a deeper inhale, do so, and begin again.

Some benefits of this practice are: it clears the nasal passages, sinuses and lungs. It massages the abdominal organs. It stimulates the liver, spleen and pancreas, which then activate the intestines and it stimulates the cardiovascular system.

This is just a beginning look at pranayama with kapalabhati and bhastrika. There is more that can be done with these two practices, but it’s important to start at the foundation, the ground floor, before moving on.

I did not find a demonstration video that I liked on Bhastrika, but I did find this: B.K.S Iyengar on pranayama.

Sources: Tempering the Mettle,Michael Grady; Stroking the Fire, Michael Grady; Yoga International Publication. Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Kapalabhati Breath

It has been one of those weeks where everything seems a bit off kilter - so I thought this would be a good opportunity to clarify the breath (pranyama) exercise I was attempting to convey to my Monday class - kapalabahti breathing. I told my poor students it was bhastrika...similar, yet very different.

Kapalabahti pranyama - what is it and why should we do it?

Kapalabhati is a series of rapid strong exhalations, followed by a passive inhalation. This practice requires the practitioner to develop the ability to relax the abdominals quickly and completely after each exhale, and to keep the diaphragm relaxed throughout.

This pranyama can be practiced during a regular asana session. It is recommended to do after the postures and before nadi shodhanam (alternate nostril breathing) and meditation. Kapalabhati is energizing and cleansing and it enhances the practitioners sense of energy and awareness. This is noted to be a good practice for late afternoon or after work but before the evening meal and not recommended before sleep.

Why is it cleansing? Kapalabhati actively moves metabolic wastes from the tissues and into the lungs where they are expelled. The strong exhales increase the volume of air passing through the lungs which increases the flow of blood. When metabolic wastes are decreased the bodies tissues release additional stored waste into the blood which has a cleansing effect on all tissues and organs.

Why is it strengthening? Kapalabhati encourages increased cardiovascular activity and it requires focus on the abdominals and spine. The abdominals are used in a vigorous yet controlled manner and the spine assists in keeping the head and torso strong and erect. The contraction through exhaling gives the organs a lovely massage which stimulates the digestive system and increases blood and lymph circulation - which means a healthier digestive system. And, the exercised abdominal muscles are less likely to pop out from loss of vitality. Sounds good to me!

How is this practiced?
Find a comfortable seated position - this can be crossed legged, half lotus or full lotus. Even sitting upright in a chair is acceptable. Head, neck and truck are erect with the sitbones moving down into the ground (or chair). Do not lean back into a wall, slouch or collapse through the torso.

Begin by just connecting with your breath, breathing in and out of the nose. Once comfortable and centered, begin to lengthen the inhales and exhales slightly to establish long regular breathing.

At the end of an exhale, strongly contract the abdominals and force the air out through the nose. Use only the abdominal muscles - a good way to envision is to try and bring your belly button back toward your spine. This is the only part of you that moves.

Immediately inhale. Relax the abdominal muscles and allow the diaphragm to return to it’s natural position. We do not actively inhale here - this is what is known as a passive inhale.

Start this practice off slowly. Begin with 10 rounds per cycle, three cycles per session. Each cycle is separated by regular, even breathing until equilibrium is re-established. Increase as confidence and ability grows.

Make each exhale forceful with out straining. Think like a bear “woofing” it’s warning, or a deer snorting to alert others around it. Short, explosive exhales.

The rhythm of the breath should be like the ticking of a clock. It is recommended to begin practicing at a rate of one exhale per second. Increase when you feel comfortable.

Always practice pranyama on an empty stomach. If you feel any pain, are pregnant, have high blood pressure or heart disease, please forgo the exercise.

For your viewing enjoyment, I have found selected a video from YouTube: Kapalabhati Breath

Happy Breathing!

Sources: Tempering the Mettle,Michael Grady; Stroking the Fire, Michael Grady; Yoga International Publication. Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Modifications. People seem to dislike doing them. A lot. To paraphrase Gollum, "We don't's like'em, we does. Nasty modifications." I think it is because modifications are perceived as a sign of weakness. A non-verbal confession admitting they can’t do this aspect of the pose while their neighbor can. Doing a modification when the rest of the class (or so it seems) is doing the full expression of the asana is embarrassing.

So why do we offer modifications? Why do modifications?

One, it allows the practitioner to build the pose from the ground up. All poses should start from a firmly grounded foundation, allowing you, the practitioner, to find your center - your center of balance and your breath. This allows the practitioner to build strength and flexibility over time. As David Swenson likes to say, there is always someplace to work towards. I say, don't be in such a rush to get there.

Two, injury prevention! I can’t stress this one enough. Yoga, especially the Ashtanga practice, can be intense on the joints and muscles and only the practitioner knows their body best. Wonky knee(s)? Modify the pose to prevent over-extension or aggravation. Carpel tunnel issues in the wrists? Modify to prevent strain on an already sensitive spot. Rotator cuff problems? Go easy on that shoulder. There are many places to work from and still be able to progress in the practice.

Three, recovery from injury, surgery or pregnancy. The body simply isn’t capable of jumping right back into a practice after an injury, surgery or pregnancy. It needs time to recover and to rebuild. By returning to the foundations for the pose, the practitioner can safely work their way back. As the body re-learns the muscle memory and regains strength, the practitioner will see their practice grow. Granted, this depends on what your injury was. The practitioner might *not* return to the full level they were working on pre-injury, but by coming back to the foundation and working from there you will have a safer and more fulfilling practice.

Four, it allows the practitioner to build strength over time. I lead a beginning/intermediate Ashtanga class with a wide variety of students from all walks of life. Modifications are a huge part of this class and I see the desire to be at a higher level, but their bodies just don’t respond yet. Frustration sets in, because “they can’t do that”. It. Takes. Time. Look at how far you've come in the practice, then look at where you want to go and then, ask yourself, how do I get there? Patience is a must and it all comes back to number one: build the pose from the ground up.

And sometimes, the practitioner just has to admit to themselves that they will not be able to do X, Y, Z pose because of previous injury, short arms, excessively tight hamstrings, whatever. However, this does not mean they should abandon all hope and stop practicing right then and there. Practicing yoga means the practitioner understands that this is where their body is and this is where they need to practice.

Modification’s aren’t about what "can’t" be done, but are an acknowledgment that you, the practitioner, know where you need to work to move to where you would like to be. It is an acknowledgment that you can set your ego aside and practice each pose precisely where you need to be that day. When the instructor comes around and suggests you move into a lower level, it is because they see your body from the outside and can see that perhaps today, this is not the place for you to be working. Too much potential for injury.

However, next a different week.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Still Slowing Down

It appears that I'm not the only one with thoughts of slowing down. The following is an article by the co-director of Yoga North Studio where I am fortunate to be able to teach and study. Deborah writes so beautifully that I had to share.

(Picture taken at Red Rock Canyon, Las Vegas, NV)

"On a recent visit to a friend's home, I was entertained with her 16 month old son. He was quite pleased with himself, seemingly aware that his vocabulary and motor skills were increasing daily. He would run to a toy, pick it up briefly, and then drop it, quickly proclaiming "GO!" and off he ran to the next thing, repeating the process with a new toy. The morning was a delightful flurry of "Go", "Go", "Go", as he ran from one toy to another.

I couldn't help but think that what was so charming on this 16 month old, becomes deadly to those of us whose lives look like a similar flurry of "Go". It's almost as if we wake up in the morning and jump out of bed with thoughts of "Go, Go, Go" replaying themselves in our mind as we rush from one activity to the next, creating a jagged trail of activities. In this process we wreak havoc on our nervous systems, create scatteredness and lack of focus in our minds, and rob ourselves of any chance at real joy and delight.

Contrast this image with the breath. The breath is the glue that holds our body, mind, and spirit intact while we have this experience of human life. It is a truism in Yogic thought that if you know the breath, you know everything. On a less philosophical side, the well-known Dr. Weil has said that if he had to limit all of his advice to one thing, it would be to learn to breathe well.

A breath which facilitates a clear, healthy mind and a vital, healthy body is deep, smooth, slow, without jerkiness, without pause, and quiet. If the breath is shallow, jerky, or chaotic, it is a sign that we are out of integrity with ourselves. Somehow we are engaged in our "going" in a way that is harmful to our well-"being".

The breath is an amazing tool for beginning to bring our lives into integrity. By paying attention to the breath, we can notice when we are pushing ourselves too much. By consciously practicing a breath that is slower, deeper, smoother, without jerks or pauses, we can begin to impact our health and the well-being of our lives.

Can you imagine if the breath led our movements, rather than the command of "go"? Can you imagine what a life lived a little slower and deeper, without jerkiness might look like? The next time you begin to rush off to another thing, check in with your breath first. Let the breath guide you into a life lived in more integrity with your own body, mind, and spirit."

--Deborah Adele, Duluth News Tribune, June 1st, 2008

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Flow and Alignment

I come from a studio that is steeped in a strong tradition of alignment that focuses on moving into each pose with intent and awareness, assessing where the breath is, while internally adjusting this or that. Safety and appropriate level of practice as the student moves through the postures is stressed. However, I practice a tradition that emphasizes moving, following each breath, holding the posture for 5 breaths (or less if I’m doing vinyasa) and moving on.

In the workshops I’ve attended on the Ashtanga tradition, alignment is infrequently addressed. David Swenson is the only instructor I’ve attended that has even touched on it during a session. I have observed in other instructors that the focus is on the movement, the breath, bandha’s, and drishti and alignment is secondary - that alignment will come as the body gains flexibility.

So how as a student, a practitioner, and an instructor do I reconcile these two aspects? One tradition wants methodical alignment, one tradition wants meditative movement. Is there place for both? I think so, and in doing so, I think I have a stronger, safer practice because of it.

I believe I’ve mentioned before, that in the most traditional form of Ashtanga you would do only the Ashtanga practice under the guidance of an instructor and at home. The instructor monitors the student and when the instructor feels a pose or series of poses has been mastered to their satisfaction, the student is allowed to progress in the sequence. The individual would not be allowed to start Second Series until several key poses in Primary Series have been mastered.

In an Iyengar class, poses are taught from the ground up (foundation), emphasizing internal and external alignment and it may very well take half an hour or an hour to work through a pose. Poses are also held longer. I have heard, for example, in a traditional Iyengar class that a person is not allowed to do Salamba Sirasana (supported headstand) until they can keep their head off the floor enough to slip a piece of paper underneath. A traditional Hatha class is similar, focusing on individual poses that may target an area for the session (forward folds or hips for example).

I enjoy both of these forms and have determined there is place for both. When I lead an Ashtanga or Vinyasa class, I level the poses to encourage people to move into a place that is appropriate for them (or me, if I’m doing the sequence on my own). It’s the old adage here: you crawl before you walk, walk before you run, etc. How I approach poses is: what do I need to do to safely get from Point A (where I am working) to Point B (where I want to be).

I enjoy working outside of the Ashtanga sequence and I encourage others to do so as well: a Hatha or Ieyngar class focuses on the poses in such a way as to allow the body to gradually learn where it needs to go while utilizing and exploring a wide variety of poses not found in the Primary Series. This translates into a safe, strong, practice that builds confidence. A Vinyasa class helps with the breath and stamina necessary to move through an Ashtanga sequence, which also helps build strength and confidence.

So yes, I believe there is place for multipule traditions. Go, enjoy, and see what happens with your practice.

Pictures are from >> yoga poses