Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Power of Movement

(Photo: Matthew Sweeney, Ashtanga, Australia)

I had an absolutely fascinating and reaffirming experience this past weekend - but I need to back up a bit to tell the whole story. This Thursday past I led three yoga classes - my usual two Vinyasa sessions and one beginning Hatha. I confess, I overdid it. By Friday my triceps, deltoids and shoulders absolutely ached. No, they downright hurt. Saturday morning I gamely went forth and met up with the “Saturday Regulars” for our Ashtanga session. I had to modify the first 10 sun salutations - my arms protested loudly at any attempt to do otherwise. But I kept moving.

They continued to chatter at me through the first vinyasas, but I kept modifying and moving. It wasn’t until I came to Navasana (boat pose) that I realized, that while still a bit achey, my arms didn’t hurt anymore! There was a tiny background ache, but nothing like when I started.

I have experienced this before in a workshop setting, where I am doing a lot of intensive yoga in a very short period of time - often starting with a Friday night session, two or three Saturday sessions, and two or three Sunday sessions. By the time I get to the Sunday morning or afternoon session, the body just doesn’t want to move anymore. Bits and pieces ache. The mind is full. Physically and mentally I want to be done NOW! But there I am in Samasthti, about to move through another sequence, the mind and body going “oh, not again...”.

And the Sun Salutation begins, and the breath moves, and the body flows... and by the end, I don’t hurt.

This power of movement amazes me. The body’s inclination is toward stillness - the muscles hurt, it’s achy, so avoid movement till everything feels better. I cannot stress enough to counter this tendency - get off the couch and move! A gentle walk. Some basic stretches. Maybe a shortened or modified sequence. I feel the recovery period is quicker and it’s more restorative for the body; the blood starts flushing out the muscles and the toxins that have accumulated.

One final story. I led a mixed level beginning Hatha class as a sub. There was a gentleman in the session who worked construction. I challenged the class a bit more than their regular teacher and heard back through the grapevine the following week that he claimed he had to take off two days from work because he couldn’t move. (In case you think I was a yoga fiend or something horrible, the rest of the class did say they enjoyed the session.) I can’t help but think, he a) should have done the modifications I offered (but that’s another story) and b) if he had only gotten up and moved the next day, he would have felt a whole lot better.

So I say unto thee, get out there and move!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Is Western Yoga Sexist?

I had an interesting conversation with a student practitioner this week. He noticed a flyer that had yet another female model and commented that it would be nice to see a male model on, well, just about
anything. As our conversation progressed, we noted that female models are the standard - to my recollection Yoga Journal has not used a male cover model in the 5 years I've had a subscription, I have not seen a male model on Yoga International or Yoga Fit, the other two magazines I occasionally pick up. To the best of my knowledge, I have seen one poster advertising a Yoga Journal Convention with a guy on it - but that was one out of 3 or 4 they do yearly and I haven't seen any since then.

He went on to extrapolate that when he's out on a date or talking to other gals, he has to get to know them - and their attitudes toward yoga - before telling them he does yoga because they might take it the wrong way. I found that simply appalling.

How ever did yoga shift to this female dominated presence? And why such negative attitudes towards guys doing yoga? Or guys modeling yoga?

Let's review the history of yoga here folks:

It's from India.
It's over 5000 years old.
It was practiced by guys. In some sects, you could only practice if you were a Brahman, a renuciate, or a young male.
Women were not allowed to practice yoga until the early 1900's and even then many were discouraged from doing active postures.

Krishnamacharia was the first to be willing to teach a woman (1920s), and he was a harsh taskmaster. Indra Devi had to prove she could handle anything he challenged her with, and she exceeded her teachers expectations and went on with his blessings to become a world renown yoga instructor.

Pattabhi Jois began teaching women in the late 1960's early 1970's.

Even in India today, classes are predominantly male with most female students from other countries.

As we talked, I also pointed out that the majority of weekend workshops (Ashtanga based) I attend are led by male instructors: David Williams, Doug Swenson, David Swenson, Manju Jois, Govinda, Matthew Sweeney. Upcoming workshops are again, male dominated: Michael Gannon, Michael Hamilton, Govinda. My favorite in town instructor is a guy. I've attended only two workshops (again, Ashtanga based) led by women. I know there are fantastic female instructors out there: Kino MacGregor, Beryle Bender Birch, Nancy Gilgoff all come to mind, but they are in a minority.

I popped over to the YJ website and perused their yoga photos. 98% are women. I googled yoga photos under free clip are. Again, predominately women. I begin to understand why guys don't want to do yoga in the States. They are constantly bombarded with pictures of young uber flexy-bendy women in their fashionable outfits doing pretzel poses. I can see where a guy would draw the conclusion that a yoga class is going to be full of flexy-bendy gals and there is no place for a lumpy stiff-as-a-board middle aged-fellow who just wants to get in shape. Ya know, all that marketing turns me off too.

So I come back to my main question, why is it so unpalatable to have a male model on the cover of a magazine or a flyer? Afterall, guys do yoga too, and have been for 5000 years.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

10 Guidelines - Satya (truthfulness)

Life is constantly giving us little lessons - whether we learn anything from them is up to us. Recent adventures to Denver reiterated my need to go back and review - again - the 10 Guidelines to Rightful Living. I think these Guidelines are truly fascinating - Christianity has the 10 Commandments, Buddhist have the Noble 8-Fold Path, Paganism sums it up with one sentence - how nearly all major religions and philosophies have Guidelines for proper spiritual and ethical behavior. At least I find it interesting and someday would like to know what the others have.

When I last wrote about the 10 Guidelines, also known as the Yama’s and Niyamas, I discussed Ahimsa (non-violence). Here’s a quick review of the rest:

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

The definition of Satya in Sanskrit means:
Satya ("truth/truthfulness"): truth, a designation of the ultimate Reality; also the practice of truthfulness, which is an aspect of moral discipline (yama)

Buddhism, for example, has Right Speech, meaning ones actions should be absent of false-hoods, harsh words and useless chatter. Non-violence and truthfulness go hand in hand. Can you be truthful without harming in speech and action? Can you observe without being judgmental? Useless chatter - gossip perhaps? While the target of idle talk may never hear, it is still harmful to be speaking about another in a negative manner.

Satya is presented as one of the Five “restraints”, to recognize and carefully consider what our words and actions (not all truths or non-truths are spoken) may impart. Paganism, for example, just says “And if it harms none, do what you will.” And we’ve all heard the words from our childhood, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” But now the difference is we are being asked to put this into practice, so our words, thoughts and deeds match our intent and actions. That we become aware of how our behavior affects us and those around us. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Give it a whirl for one week and see what you discover about yourself.

As a final thought, I’d like to leave you with this quote:

Judith Hanson Lasiter writes in To Tell the Truth (Yoga
“When we experience a person speaking from satya, we resonate with those words. Hearing words that express truth helps us to experience a deep recognition that unconsciously we already know the truth. Upon hearing such words, we feel that some deep, essential part of us has been seen, hear, and understood.”

For further reading on the Yama's and Niyama's please check out these:
Yoga Journal
Yoga of the Heart (will have to come back and add the author!)

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Focus Pose(s) - Padangusthasana and Padahastasana

Oh my goodness! I have been quite remiss about getting back and breaking down the Primary sequence! So many interesting things to talk about. I do really enjoying working my way through the Primary Series pose by pose. It's a great way for me to really review the asana and break it down to its essence. I am always amazed by something new I learn.

I was still hoping I could pin down the Husband and have him take a few pictures of me in the poses this month, but no luck so far. Our schedules have been crazy busy and he's been swamped with homework. Barely anytime to do garden and yard stuff much less fart around taking pictures.

So far in our review of the Primary Series**, we've discussed Suyra Namaskar A and B, Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, Adho Mukha Svanasana and plank, and now were moving into the Standing Sequence with Padangusthasana:

Pada = Foot
Angustha = Big Toe

and Padahastasana:
Pada = Food
Hasta = Hand

After completing Surya Namaskar B and coming back to Tadasana at the front of our mats for Padangusthasana :

Inhale: step or jump the feet 8-12" apart.

Exhale: hands to waist.

Inhale: lift the sternum and look up (a small backbend only if it's comfortable for you.

Exhale: forward fold to grasp the big toes with two fingers.
MODIFICATIONS - Level 1, grasp behind knees; Level 2, grasp behind ankles. Both level 1, 2 can keep a slight bend in the knees. OR if you know you hyper-extend your knees, keep a slight bend in your knees.

Inhale: look up toward the horizon, and,

Exhale: lengthen the crown of the head toward the floor as the elbows move toward the ceiling.

Hold for 5 breaths. DRISTI - Nose

We move right into Padahastasana:

Inhale: lift the sternum and look up.

Exhale: slide the hands under the feet, palms touching soles, toes touching the wrists.

MODIFICATIONS - Level 1, grasp behind knees; Level 2, grasp behind ankles or stay in Padangusthasana. Both level 1, 2 can keep a slight bend in the knees. OR if you know you hyper-extend your knees, keep a slight bend in your knees.

Inhale: look up toward the horizon, and,

Exhale: lengthen the crown of the head toward the floor as the elbows move toward the ceiling.

Hold for 5 breaths, DRISHTI is Nose.

Inhale: look up toward the horizon.

Exhale: hands to the waist (keep the spine lengthening) and,

Inhale: come all the way up, adding the slight backbend if it's comfortable for you.

Exhale: step or jump back to Tadasana (samasthti)

Some important considerations - keep the back lengthening by keeping the shoulders moving away from the ears. We have a tendency to "hunch" or "round the back" in both of these poses.

For some, focusing on the nose makes them dizzy (if you wear glasses for example). Then pick a focal point at the back of the room or slightly behind you on the floor. The important thing is to pick a drishti and keep your gaze there.

You can deepen the stretch gradually (and keep your attention in the pose) by exploring the area around you on the inhales, and exhaling, move into that new space.

It is also important to keep uddiyana bandha engaged here to protect the lower back - plus, by keeping the abdominals engaged, you give yourself room to fold.

Keep your weight over the balls of your feet. We have a tendency to lean back in this pose. As an experiment, try doing the pose against a wall to see where eventually we want to be.

Benefits of this pose:
Tones the abdominal organs
Increases digestive activity
Helps relieve gastric troubles
Calms the brain and helps relieve stress and anxiety
Stretches hamstrings and calves
Can help relieve headaches and insomnia

**I practice and teach what I call Contemporary Ashtanga rather than the Traditional Mysore Ashtanga. It's the same sequence, but without the chanting, Sanskrit counting and a few minor differences in poses.

(All photos from - pose finder.)