Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Stop and Smell the Flowers - The Practice of Slowing Down



I was contemplating what I wanted to do for this weeks post, when inspiration came to me from an unlikely place: Lolly-knitting Around

When was the last time you slowed down? Have you noticed how much we rush from place to place? We buzz from work to home to the kids soccer practice to the grocery store to the cabin to the meeting to the kids piano practice to the luncheon to the relatives to Target to walk the dog to...

STOP! Take a BREATH! Take two! In fact! Take several!

One aspect of yoga is the state of slowing the mind down, but the question arises, how can we slow the mind down if the body is running on automatic? Personally, I think the two go hand in hand.

Point of observation: I spent a lovely weekend up in Grand Marais doing a bit of hiking and hanging out. Nothing encourages hanging out more than when you are camping and it is 52* and raining. Thankfully, we were in a camper. One has a cuppa hot tea and perhaps another, you play some cards, contemplate the fog, read a book, let the dogs out to piddle and have another ‘cuppa. Life. Slows. Down. However, when I pulled into the drive way Monday evening, I found myself winding back up again: everything had to be unloaded, the laundry done, the dryer’s busted, quick run the vacuum around, unpack the hiking bags and suitcase, gotta check e-mail, put dishes away. How do we manage to lose that calmness so quickly?

For those of us to practice the Ashtanga series or a Vinyasa flow, it seems almost contradictory to try and slow the mind down when we are moving and flowing from asana to asana, but that is what the Ashtanga practice is in part designed for. Recall the purpose of the ujjayi breath: a controlled breath that acts as a focus for the mind...to calm the mind down. A set sequence where we are focusing on the pose we are in for 5 breaths.

In many yogic traditions, asana is done to help calm the body before a meditation practice. For if the body is calm, then the mind can focus on internal aspects rather than that foot falling asleep.

There are other ways to slow down: one of my favorite is on a beautiful afternoon, after I’ve come home and let the dogs out, I just sit on my front steps and watch the birds in the yard. Gardening is another favorite (specifically, pulling weeds or cultivating). You just can’t hurry when you are gardening. Recently I’ve taught myself how to knit. It’s amazing how calming this simple activity can be - I feel productive, yet my breath slows, I’m watching my stitches as they grow into the project, my mind is counting the pattern...and I’m suddenly aware that an hour has gone by and I am content to sit for another hour. It’s a beautiful place to be.



I’m not saying I’ve mastered slowing down by any means, but I’ve come a long way. What ways have you found to slow down?

“Yoga is the cessation of the fluxuation of the mind”. Pantanjali

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Focus Pose - Suyra Namaskar B

In picking the next focus pose, I had a bit of a conundrum - if I pick a single pose as part of Suyra Namaksar B as I've been doing - I would be repeating it in again in just a few short weeks. Padangusthasana (forward folding), Utkatasana (Chair) Virabhandrasana I and II (Warriors) all show up again in the standing sequence. I decided to wait to break down those asanas and touch on Surya Namaskar B as a whole sequence at this time.

Suyra Namaskar B is where the body really starts to generate some heat and is often the most strenous part of the series for a student. Depending on what tradition of the Ashtanga practice is being taught or the time limit of the class, Suyra Namaskar B will be repeated 3 times or 5 times.

The important thing is to follow the breath, making each movement match the inhale or exhale - full, smooth and without strain. At the end, I've included a couple modifications if you are initially finding moving through this rather strenuous.

There is no break between Surya Namaskar A and Surya Namaskar B. When finished with the first, one moves right into the next.

Starting from Tadasana;



Inhale - reach down, touch the floor with your finger tips then sweep the arms overhead to come into Utkatasana (chair pose). Alternately, one can just "sit" into chair as they bring the arms overhead. There are two mind sets on how to move into this first chair - they are both correct. Either variation, Drishti is straight ahead or up at the thumbs. Often it is a matter of what is more comfortable for the students neck.

Exhale - come into a Forward Fold THEN straighten the legs. 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 levels: look up toward the horizon. IF your hands touch the floor, you can either come up to the finger tips or palms can 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 (called "Chataranga"). 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.

Remember ! While in plank, the wrists must remain below the shoulders* and the feet flexed and strong. Have the feet hip distance apart so as one moves into Ardo Muka Savasana the feet are in place and the foundation remains solid. In all levels, the abdomen is gently engaged to support the lower back.


Inhale - Move into Cobra or Up-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, 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.

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. Remember! 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.


Inhale - Right foot comes to the right hand. Left foot presses completely into the mat. Envision the space between your pinkie toe and your heel anchoring you into your mat. Further inhaling, your arms sweep forward and up, palms touch, hips moving forward. We do not hold this pose...

Exhale - sweep the arms back down and plant the hands on the map. Step the right foot back into a plank plank position(chataranga) as reviewed above. One exhale should bring you from Warrior I down to the floor where on your next...

Inhale - Move into Cobra or Up-Dog position.

Exhale - lift up through the hips, rolling over the toes or flipping the feet, to move into Down Dog. We do not hold this pose...

Inhale - Left foot comes to the left hand. Right foot presses completely into the mat. Envision the space between your pinkie toe and your heel anchoring you into your mat. Further inhaling, your arms sweep forward and up, palms touch, hips moving forward. We do not hold this pose...

Exhale - sweep the arms back down and plant the hands on the map. Step the right foot back into a plank plank position(chataranga) as reviewed above. One exhale should bring you from Warrior I down to the floor where on your next...

Inhale - Move into Cobra or Up-Dog position.

Exhale - lift up through the hips, rolling over the toes or flipping the feet, to move into Down Dog. HOLD FOR 5 BREATHS. Drishti - toes, knees or belly button.

Inhale- LOOK up between the hands, bend the knees and walk, lunge or jump (float) the feet forward. The feet DO NOT need to be in a straight line with the hands when they land. Lengthen the spine as the gaze continues toward the horizon.

Exhale- come into your Forward Fold. Drishti - nose.

Inhale- sweep the arms alongside the body and overhead as the sitbones drop down into chair position.

Exhale- Straighten the legs, sweeping the arms actively along side the body to return to Tadasana.



This is where the body really starts to generate heat and is often the most strenuous part of the series in my opinion. Depending on what tradition of the Ashtanga practice is being taught or the time limit of the class, Suyra Namaskar B will be repeated 3 times or 5 times.

Some suggested modifications:
If you are just starting out, you can move into half dog when you come to the down dog for 5 breaths. This is a great place to re-connect with the breath and to take out some of the "aerobic" aspect of the sequence.

A beginning student can also take a high lunge rather than coming all the way up into Warrior I. This is especially true if bringing the leg fully forward is an awkward motion at this time.

If you are feeling short of breath, remain in Tadasana for one cycle following the breath and envisioning each movement. Join in on the next set.

I was hoping to start taking my own pictures now that the snow is gone, but the weather didn't cooperate this week. All pictures are from pose finder feature at Yoga Journal.com.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Forward Folds

Brenda Plankens from Grounding Through the Sit Bones posted a great article on forward folding: Pelvic Folds

Pop over and take a moment to read it!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Just Breathe

I don't think I have touched on the breath much yet. I know I've talked briefly about the ujjaiyi breath, that audible whisper that becomes a mantra during the ashtanga practice, but I don't think I've talked about the breath proper. I think this would make a great topic for this week.

What do we know about the breath? We know that the breath is the foundation of practice. When we inhale, we expand into the pose. When we exhale, we contract into a pose. Think about Surya Namaskar A (sun salutation A):

Inhale - arms come overhead and we are lifing through the sternum.
Exhale - we swan dive into our forward fold.
Inhale - we are looking up at the horizon, lengthening our spine
Exhale - lowering ourselves to the ground
Inhale - lifing into Adho Mukha Savasana (up dog)
Exhale - folding into down dog
Inhale - brings us back to our feet and lenghtening our spines again
Exhale - forward folding
Inhale - reverse swan dive, arms over head, chest exhanding
Exhale - samastihi

Each pose in the yogic tradition follows the movement of the breath, be it the mindful movement of an Iyengar or Hatha practice, the spiritual nature of Kundalini, or the flow of vinyasa or ashtanga.

But there is more than just inhaling and exhaling. There are 5 qualities to good breathing (Mastering Yoga Basics, pg 64).

The breath should be deep, but not forced.
The breath should be smooth, without strain.
The breath should be even, the inhales and exhales the same duration.
If using the ujjaiyi breath, the sound should be full.**
The breath should be with out pause, exhale rolling right into the inhale.

**In some practices, the breath would be silent.

We also tend to do a fair amount of twists in the Vinyasa and Ashtanga practice, which can make it hard to breath. But remember! You can breath from more places than just the abdomen! Expansion can be found front to back, from side to side, and up and down. Experiment sometime, move into Marichyasana C asana and try breathing from the sides of the ribs, from the back of the ribs and from the upper part of the ribs.

Here is a good technique for building breath awareness that also can help tone the abdominal muscles. **Please, don't do this if you are pregnant, have high blood pressure, circulation concerns from a past stroke or heart disease, or if you have or had an anurisium.**

Take a 5lb bag of rice. Lie in savasana and breath through your diaphram. Most people do this automatically when they are resting on their backs. Now slide the bag of rice on to your abdomen and just breath. Feel the slight pressure of the rice, feel the bag rise and fall as you inhale and exhale. After a few moments, slide the bag off and just breath with the lingering sensation of weight. Observe how it feels.

With practice and time, you can increase the time and weight gradually, but not more than 20lbs. (That's a lot of rice...)

Wow, who would have thought there was this much to breathing?! Remember, let the breath unfold, just like your practice.

Om
Shanti
Namaste!

Monday, May 5, 2008

Balance

During my Saturday morning practice, I was wobbling around in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana(Standing Hand to Toe) and reflecting on how unbalanced I am in this morning session. It’s not just this particular Saturday, but every Saturday. I bounce. I hop. I lean and wobble. Sometimes I can hold steady, most of the time not. Admittedly, the carpet I practice on doesn’t help (I really dislike that carpet for several reasons). Now come afternoon or even more so evening, I tend to be pretty solid and can add the forehead to shin or additional lift to the foot. Not always, but more so than my Saturday morning wobblies.

I’ve also discovered the more I try and compensate or fight my wobbly mornings, the more frustrated I become and the more unbalanced I feel, which throws my subconscious out of the practice. When I accept the fact that I am going to be tippsy and I move into a lower level of the asana and tell myself, well, maybe next time, I feel more sure of myself, more solid, and much calmer. I didn’t say I was happier - because I know where I can work - but I can continue to follow my breath, staying with the count and the practice.

Balance is kinda like life. There are times when we seem grounded and solid and can move through our day with ease. Phone calls go smoothly, our relationships seem more content and fulfilling, work at home and in the office seems less like a chore and more of something to be accomplished and the days sail along. When we are not grounded or balanced, we become frustrated, cranky, we push ourselves and others. Our daily dealings become like a raspberry thorn in the thumb - you can feel it but you can’t find it to set things to right and so become more frustrated.

What if we approached these times with the same attitude we try and approach our practice with? What if when we are feeling unbalanced, we step back and acknowledge we are unbalanced and move to a “lower level” of attitude. Try telling your significant other or those you live with, “I am feeling today.” It seems a verbal acknowledgment addresses not only those around you, but creates acceptance within yourself as well. And don’t forget to tell yourself that while today is not your day, tomorrow is a different day.