Thursday, July 31, 2008

"Appropriate Poses"

Picture from: yogabeginnings.com


"Appropriate Poses" seem to be a theme lately in my reading and from the workshop I recently attended. One magazine article (sorry, I don't recall which one at the moment), placed a strong emphasis on not doing poses until you are ready for them. I understand the view point of the article - you don't want to be attempting poses beyond where you are currently working for safety and injury prevention.

And this is true. A beginner should not be attempting certain "advanced" poses -for example, inversions - until they have grown in body and balance awareness and strength. There are certain poses a person should not attempt if they have issues with injury without the assistance solid foundation poses. For example - neck and shoulder injuries.

This is a two part awareness, I feel. One, it is the blossoming awareness of the practitioner. To know what your body is capable of - that a stiff back and shoulders are not suddenly going to open up and permit you to do a full wheel (Urdhva Dhanurasana) overnight. That if you have problems with balance in standing poses, you are not going to be rock steady in headstand. It's the understanding that you may have to set your ego aside for a while and work on the basics of the postures. Ah! Therein is the yoga practice!

And the second part is the awareness of the instructor. They can see from the outside how you and the rest of the are moving. Over time they learn how your body moves, where you are tight and what you could use more practice with. When the instructor comes over and suggests you move back a level in the pose, they most likely saw a need for work on the basics. Yet, they may very well come over and invite you to move into the next level, seeing that your body has responded to something and it's time to start pushing boundaries a bit.

And that comes round to "appropriate poses". First, I completely agree for myself and my students, I/we shouldn't practice poses beyond our capabilities. I don't want to hurt myself and I certainly don't want a student to injure themselves.

However, how can I advance my practice and that of my classes, if I don't explore the next level? In the true traditional Ashtanga series, we would not practice beyond the primary series. In fact, most of us would only be practicing up to Marichyasana D and then we would all be done because we don't have the shoulder and hip flexibility to bind. But there are so many other postures out there that can assist in increasing flexibility and strength! You know, I've never done well with someone telling me "you can't do this because tradition says so".

I also believe by gently exploring the next level, you can learn what you need to work on to move into that next pose. Maybe it's shoulder strength. Maybe some more hip openers. Or core strength. You step back, work on a variety of poses and come back to that challenging asana at a later date and re-assess then. The important thing here is you RECOGNIZE you are not ready. You RECOGNIZE you need to work on some foundation poses first. And you RECOGNIZE your ego needs to be patted on the head and told "not today".

So I say, go forth and explore, but with awareness and mindfulness, and see where your practice will lead you.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Matthew Sweeney Workshop, Sunday July 13

I have my notes with me now and I can quick recap a couple of points from Saturday’s session (this was the full primary series with the jumpback workshop in the afternoon) that I will be bringing back to my practice and classes:

Do the EXACT same thing on both sides for symmetry.
Govinda urged this as well when I attended his workshop. This is a long-term approach to the practice. If always work on the side that is easiest (ie - looser) and do not bring the tight side to that same level, it puts your body “out of wack” so to speak. It is highly recommended you do the exact same thing on both sides. Which means you are catering to your tight or weaker side and bringing it into alignment with your loose or strong side.

No more “watching TV” pose for Marichyasana B and D.
Apparently this does nothing to work on those hips. Do modified seated pigeon instead.

To further work on those hips, do baddha konasana against a wall.
Start with 5 minutes and work up to half an hour. Counter balance with hero’s pose (supported as needed) for 10-15 minutes maximum. Further, if you cannot bring your knees flat in baddha konasana, it is not recommended to do the Marichyasana poses B and D.

When you become strong in a posture, your chances of hurting yourself are less.

It was recommended that if you cannot do full lotus in garba pindasana, to work on hip openers instead.

Okay, I think that’s enough re-capping. I took more notes than I realized!


Sunday’s sessions were just as fantastic as Friday and Saturday. We started with the Standing Sequence of the Primary Series and moved into the Secondary Sequence. He moved us through about ½ of the Secondary Sequence, then stopped, went back and began breaking down each posture individually. I really appreciated this approach. It allowed me to get a feel for how each posture flows into the vinyasa and then into the next asana. Then I was able to see what the modifications were for each posture.

This then moved right into back bending: from the floor and down the wall. Much to my great surprise, I was in no way sore after doing an hours worth of backbends. We worked on a variety of techniques and methods to move into and out of backbends safely, and a lot revolves around the use of ones thighs. Now those ached by the end of the day!

Sunday afternoon we looked at headstand and handstand. His message here was: “The bits in between are more important.” Matthew also felt that you need to have established jumps in the vinyasa’s before you can work on HAND stand. He demonstrated....wow...this guy can truly float.

But back to headstand. He emphasized three levels:
1) Rock to lift over hips. Keep knees bent. Work here.
2) Curl over hips. Keep knees bent. Work here.
3) Lift over hips - now with straight legs.

This was rather a sub-theme throughout the whole weekend - make everything a progression. It’s a journey where you don’t know where you are going to end up so you might as well enjoy the ride.

I know I certainly enjoyed this workshop!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Matthew Sweeney Workshop, Saturday July 12

I left my notes at home so I’m doing this from fuzzy memory. Saturday morning we began by moving right into the Primary Series. He has taken significant instruction from Pattabhi Jois and teaches the most current version of the Primary Series. It seems surprising that something of such long standing tradition changes, but his yoga shala is called the Mysore Research Institute after all.

And it was subtle things - less breaths to move into and out of several postures, the elimination of bakasana (crane pose) around navasana (boat pose), no more handstand during navasana, no leaning back before moving into forward folds. For me they were small things - I do not yet have the strength to move from navasana into handstand and back; I didn’t learn the sequence with the bakasana (though I do use crane pose as a modification pose for bujapindasana - many students hips just don’t allow them to move into bujapindasana); and now that I’ve been practicing for a while, less breaths to move into and out of postures seems more natural to me.

We went through the whole sequence, then he spent the last hour breaking down the sequence and why we do what we do when. He expounded on his - Pattabhi Jois’s - philosophy about the Primary sequence. Then (thankfully!) we broke for lunch. I was hungry!

The class reconvened for a two and a half hour breakdown and discussion on the jump throughs and jump backs in the vinyasa system, including chakrasana (the rollback). This ties in with the slight change in hand placement we learned in the Friday evening class - the need to keep the shoulders open to allow you to move through.

This was perhaps the most intense part of the weekend (or a close second with Sunday morning’s class). So much to try and do! Keep the shoulders back and relaxed, use the thighs and abdominals, watch where your drishti is, keep the hands firmly planted on the ground. I thought Matthew did a great job of breaking each movement down and building it back up again. I came away with a great many things to work on and some very tired quads and shoulders. An afternoon very well spent.

I’ll expound on some of Matthews thoughts on philosphy in my last posting about the workshop weekend when I have my notes in front of me.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Matthew Sweeney Workshop, Friday, July 11

How to begin? Like he did, with this quote: "When you stop trying to get someplace in your yoga practice, that is when you start practicing yoga."

This is not the first time I have heard this, but for some reason it stuck with me this weekend.

Or how about this one: "It's not how you practice, it's what you practice."

A good saying for the sequence Matthew was about to take us through.

Friday night Matthew introduced the Moon Seqence. This is an alternative, complementary practice to the rigors of the Ashtanga practice for Full Moon, New Moons, the woman's cycle or for whenever the practitioner feels they need a more restorative practice. This is also supposed to be good for Friday nights, as it encourages rest. HOWEVER, this sequence is NOT intended or meant to replace the Primary series.

What is this Moon Sequence? This is a passive sequence, utilizing some key points: instead of a sun salutation (or salute to the sun as he calls them), you do a moon salutaion. There is a greater emphasis on the hips and the vinyasa is done while laying on the back. The ujjayi breath is softened, closing the eyes during the seated portion of the sequence is encouraged (but still stay aware and with the breath) and all postures are done with the left side first.

This sequence did indeed feel very restorative. Initially it was odd to be doing everything on the left first, but after a while it felt very natural. All the hip openers were lovely, and I certainly did feel them the next morning. But in a good way. He warned folks that they may feel more tired after doing the practice, but I didn't notice that (mind you, I had a three hour drive to the Cities, after getting off to a late start, it was 95* and humid once I got there, and I had to wait-out a fast moving, very severe storm after the session got done so I didn't get to my sister's until after 9:30pm. Long day.) I CAN say, I slept rather well.

I really look forward to learning this Moon Sequence. I can really see the advantages of this in the Ashtanga practice.

Stay tuned for Saturday and Sunday's workshop report!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Yoga for Every Day

It is not uncommon to think of yoga as something that is relegated to a studio or fitness center or even the community ed room at your local school or church. We start or end our “workday” there, feeling good that we made it to our session. But when we walk out of the session, we are often done with yoga - but think about it, yoga can be brought beyond that studio or room in all sorts of small, subtle ways.

You can bring a variety of breathing techniques to your day – the Ujjayi Breath to focus and center yourself before, during or after a meeting. Or maybe you are feeling chilled, warm yourself with ujjayi breathing. Bhastrika breath to invigorate you in the middle of the afternoon doldrums. 2 to 1 breathing to calm yourself down after a confrontational or stressful phone call. How about going for a walk or a run? See how smooth and even you can make your breath with each stride.

You can add in the bandha’s while out working in the garden or cleaning house. Combine the breath and the locks as you vacuum, mow the lawn, or shovel snow (ooo, I said the “snow” word!). As you are bent over raking, hoeing, or pulling weeds, bring your awareness to Uddiyana bandha to protect your lower back. Check in with Mula bandha to add additional support.

Just getting back from a swim? Run? Bike ride? Find a spot on the grass and do a few sun salutations to stretch out and re-connect with a calmer breath. Playing with the kids? Teach them up-dog, down-dog, snake, seal, pigeon, crane, chair, the warriors – make it a game to see how many they can remember, like Simon-Says.

Yoga doesn’t have to be relegated to just a room. It can be brought to your daily life in all sorts of fun and unique ways. And that is just part of the beauty of a yogic practice. I'm sure there are other ways that I'm just not thinking of. If something you do comes to mind, feel free to post it in the comments section.

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Workshop Opportunity


Matthew Sweeney is coming to the Yoga House in Edina, July 11-13.

This should be a fabulous weekend!

Just who is Matthew Sweeney? From his website:

Matthew's knowledge of Yoga encompasses 20 years of practice and 14 years experience as a teacher. His education includes Shiatsu massage, Yoga therapy, Iyengar Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga. Matthew's teaching combines the tradition of Ashtanga Yoga with the therapeutic needs of each student. He provides an individual approach to the Mysore method and is renowned for the attention he gives to both novice and advanced students.

Matthew is widely regarded as one of the world's most advanced exponents of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga as taught by Shri. K. Pattabhi Jois. His Asana practice includes "Advanced B", or 4th Series. He studies regularly at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore India where he completed "Advanced A", or 3rd Series in 1996.

After many years of Ashtanga practice Matthew has developed his own unique Vinyasa sequences which he promotes and teaches as suitable alternatives to the standard series. These unique Vinyasa classes are conducted to encourage students to apply a therapeutic approach to their personal practice and to encourage a creative and adventurous heart.