Thursday, October 23, 2008

Flowing or Muscling?

(2008 Le Tour de France)

In the last couple of weeks over the course of a couple of discussions, the concept or idea of “muscling” ones way through an ashtanga or vinyasa session has come up. I am familiar with this from my own practice, and I see it in others. Part is our competitive nature - we gotta keep up with Nancy in the corner and Joe on the mat next to us. Part is we feel we Gotta. Get. Through. Darn it. Or, I’m gonna get into this pose if it kills me! But this drive, this push, is just the opposite of what we need to be doing.

For one gal I was talking to, her enlightenment, so to speak, came from an unexpected place - a workshop focusing exclusively on core strength. She realized during the workshop that she powers her way through life, and thus, she powers her way through class. She found, that by letting go of the drive when she steps on her mat, her practice actually improved.

Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Let’s reason this out:

The ashtanga system, and to a degree a vinyasa flow class, is about a moving meditation. If we are powering our way through, are we really meditating? No, we are focusing on getting into the next pose, not on where our breath is and it is the breath that matters.

If we are powering our way through a session, are we truly relaxed? Probably not. We are subconsciously tensing our muscles to push ourselves into the posture rather than letting go and letting the body flow into the next asana. A tense muscle is going to remain rigid and inflexible and more prone to injury.

Some signs that you might be pushing rather than flowing are: clenched jaw, grunting, face is pinched and neck muscles straining, shoulders keep moving toward the ears, ujjayi breath is tight and strained or completely gone and your thoughts are on the clock rather than on your breath or drishti.

So what can you do to build awareness?
Listen to your breath
Ride the practice as you would ride a wave - smooth, bobbing up and down gracefully with each inhale and exhale. .
Move your shoulders away from your ears.
and, lastly, enjoy yourself. If you enjoy the session today, it is more likely that you will continue to enjoy it tomorrow.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Focus Pose - Utthita Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)

It’s Focus Pose time again! It’s been a while, I know, but I’ll make an effort to come back to poses more frequently. For those of you tuning in this week, I have been breaking down the standing sequence of the Primary Series (Ashtanga) pose by pose, breath by breath.

Currently, I have reviewed (if you click on the “focus pose” link under “Labels” it will take you to these):
Suyra Namaskara A
Suyra Namaskara B
Adho Mukha Svansana
Urdva Mukha Svanasana
Plank Pose

This brings us up to Utthita Trikonasana - Three Angle or Triangle - pose.

There is SO much happening in this asana. We are stretching our calves, shins, thighs, hamstrings, hips, groin, and the chest as we twist gently through the spine. We are strengthening our obliques and ribcage.

Because there is so much going on and so much that can be talked about, I am going to focus on moving into this one mindfully. A great place to work on breaking down the pose bit by bit is a regular hatha or Ieyengar session - which I strongly recommend taking. These classes truly compliment a regular Ashtanga or Vinyasa practice.

From Tadasana, on an Inhale, we step or jump to the right about 3feet. This stance will depend upon your flexibility. For those with more flexibility through the hips, legs and torso, a wider stance is appropriate. Not so flexible, keep the stance shorter. The right foot points straight back, left foot is coming in at an angle.

Inhale the arms wide, opening through the chest, shoulders, back and hips.

Exhale, stretch long toward the horizon. The tendency here is to reach for the knee/shin/ankle/floor first. THEN let the lower arm gently drop down to wherever it rests without trying to force your way down farther. Avoid leaning or resting on your leg - keep the lower palm open and along side the knee or calf to work the obliques and prevent injury to your knee. This helps keep the whole pose active and energized.

By stretching long first, you find where your body’s strength and flexibility lie and you can work safely into the pose.

By stretching long first, we avoid collapsing into the waist, ribcage, and shoulders.

Inhale, gently open into a twist, left arm moving toward the ceiling, fingers together. IF it is not comfortable to raise the left arm, bring the hand to your waist, elbow moving upward.

Gaze is up toward your raised thumb, straight ahead or, if necessary, down at the floor.

(Picture from here.)

While we are holding the pose, let’s bring our awareness to the front/extended leg. Gently rotate the knee so the kneecap is moving in the direction of the pinkie toe. This gentle outward rotation protects the knee over the long term. Press down equally through the ball of the foot and the heel. Let the toes be soft.

Bring your awareness to your rear leg. Press down actively through the whole of the foot, feel the mat from the heel to your pinkie toe and under the ball of the big toe. Again, toes are soft.

Please note: in the picture the model is actually practicing a very wide stance of this pose. In the Ashtanga practice, I prefer to see the fingers of the front hand in line with the toes or grasping the front toes.

Inhale, lift STRAIGHT up, reverse the foot position, and repeat on the opposite side for 5 breaths.

Even though the poses are held for 5 breaths, use each breath to bring awareness to an aspect of the posture. For example, on an inhale, expand through the shoulders and chest to deepen the twist (note, I did not say move farther down the leg!). On an exhale, check in with the legs and feet. Explore where you are physically and spatially with each breath. Next inhale, lengthen out through the crown of the head as if you are trying to touch the wall ahead of you.

Again, there are numerous ways to approach this posture. Please take a moment and check out Brenda's comments on Grounding Through the Sit Bones.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Bhagavad-Gita (Part 1 of 3)

By Eknath Eswaran.

I haven’t taken a philosophy workshop in a while due to life circumstances, but this one not only worked out financially, but time wise as well. Sunday was the first meeting and it was a group of about 15 who gathered at the studio on a very blustery, misty night. I am excited to be delving further into this ancient and revered text and so far I have not been disappointed.

To summerize greatly, the Bhagavad-Gita takes place on an ancient, but very real battlefield. The story actually begins in the great text known as the Mahabarata, but we pick up the battle here in the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna, one of 5 brothers, is leading an army into battle against his upsurper uncle who has banished Arjuna and his brothers for the last 12 years. The uncle was to be regent until Arjuna’s brother came of age, but he decided he liked the power and refused to reliquish the throne. Arjuna, the warrior, is fighting for the rightful heir, his older brother.

On the eve of battle, Arjuna has asked his charioteer, Krishna, to show him both armies. As they ride by, he observes his uncles, cousins, former mentors and teachers. Arjuna is overcome with despair, for how can he justify fighting against family, friends, mentors and teachers who will only be slaughtered in the coming fight? There can be no good outcome from this battle, and Arjuna throws down his arms. Krishna must convince Arjuna to choose the right path.

While on one level this seems like a fantastic story (and it is that), on a much deeper level this is an analogy of the “battle” between our ego and our spirit . Our spirit here represents the Divinity found in all of us. Through Arjuna we witness the struggle between the ego and the spirit/Divinity as Krishna guides Arjuna.

The First Chapter sets the stage as described above. We are introduced to the characters, plot and the setting. It is here Arjuna loses his courage and refuses to fight.

In the Second Chapter Arjuna asks Krishna to be his spiritual guide. Krisha goes on to explain that only the gross physical body may be killed, but the eternal self is immortal. Krisha tells Arjuna to get some kahunas and stand up and fight as is his duty as a warrior.

These passages in particular have resonated with me:

(2:40-41) On this path, effort never goes to waste, and there is no failure. Even a little spiritual awareness will protect you from the greatest fear. Those who follow this path, resolving deep within themselves to seek me alone attain singleness of purpose. For those who lack resolution, the decisions of life are many branched and endless.

(2:47- 48) You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the fruit of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this a man established within himself - without selfish attachments and alike success and defeat. For yoga is perfect evenness of the mind.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Kudo's to Hugger Mugger

A while back I did a post on the lack of male models in yoga advertising. This generated some interesting comments from others in the yoga community (online and in my classes) about how it is not just a lack of male representation, but also of other ethnicity's, ages and body shapes.

Can you imagine my delight and surprise when I opened my mailbox (well, I had to wait till I got in the house because it was dark outside) and there was the most recent issue of Hugger Mugger with this cover:

Now this is what I like to see! In case you don't receive their catalog, on the inside, they had a little blurb about each person from the cover - how long they have been doing yoga, why they started, where they are from, where they work and what inspires them.

I can relate to this group of people. I work. I do yoga. I enjoy the benefits I've gotten from doing yoga. I don't wear the most fashionable outfits (I live in MN, it's winter 9 months out of the year especially by this big Lake. Boots, down jackets, hats and mittens are spoken here.)

Has anyone else seen any other company, magazine or advertising showing everyday folks promoting yoga lately? Maybe we could generate a Kudo's list...