Yoga Journal Conference – Pt.2

After my 8am session with Scott Blossom I had a 30 minute break to get myself over to my next class with Patricia Walden. The session was titled “The Art of Twisting: From the Outside In”. Patricia has quite the following and this occasion was no different. I found a spot up near the front and unpacked my massive bag of props. You can always spot the Iyengar students because they’re the ones carrying an unbelievable amount of blankets, blocks, and whatnot.

She began with a short meditation and then began a long sequence that unfolded into twists of all kinds. We began with standing poses, warming up with Parsvottanasana (intense side stretch pose) then straight to Parivrtta Trikonasana (revolved triangle pose). She did this to emphasize the action of extending the spine, which was the theme running through all the twists. She explained you must extend and lengthen the spine before any twisting can happen. One thing I liked about the sequencing was she had us come into both of these poses exactly the same way – starting at the top of our mats and stepping the left foot back. We went through all of the points for Parsvottanasana before finally twisting our torso into revolved triangle. I liked this approach because you get the extension of the spine and it links the poses together, which is an Iyengar trademark.

BKS Iyengar demonstrating Marichyasana III

We moved on to seated twists, where she showed us how to use the belt in many different ways for leverage and for making the clasp, like in Marichyasana III. After several seated twists, we did one more standing twist, parivrtta parsvakonasana, coming in to it from a lunge with the knee on the floor. This is a tough pose and I liked how she broke it down into small segments so you felt like you really got the alignment step by step, instead of throwing yourself into the pose (which is what I often try to do).

We finished with an unusual sivasana. She said that when she studies in Pune with B.K.S. Iyengar, he would often give them uttanasana with a ‘sivasana mind’ as their final pose. We rested our head on a block and quieted our mind to a sivasana state.  I felt good afterwards and surprisingly was not missing the traditional sivasana.

After this class we were given a three hour break to have lunch, rest, and check out the other offerings going on around the Hyatt. There’s a massive marketplace set up with vendors doing demonstrations, giving away free samples of products, and selling all sorts of things from clothes to props to jewelry. There was a pop-up bookstore set up by a local bookshop from West Portal that was a real treat for me. I stood around for ages perusing the books on Ayurveda, vegan cooking, meditation, yoga sutras, you-name-it. Since I didn’t want to be sucked in to the clothing booths because my current collection of yoga clothing is ridiculously huge, I set off to find good eats.

After a nice lunch, I found the room where my last class with Patricia would be held, and I set myself up for a nice long supta baddhakonasana.  This session was titled “Cultivate Willpower and a Fierce Heart through Asana”. I definitely wanted to rest before this class and it’s a good thing I did. It was a really strong practice, pushing us to our limits and examining what you’re made of! She took us through a series of ten poses that cultivate strength, but her process was more about seeing what happens when you go beyond what you think you can do. So much of yoga is really about the mind and how it puts limitations on us. This class was set up to show you where your mind places those boundaries and how you approach them.

We started class against the wall, with a five minute downward dog. A five minute downward dog may not sound like much to you, but go and set yourself up with a timer and give it a shot! You’ll soon see how five minutes feels more like twenty. This wasn’t one of those restoratives down-dogs where your head’s on a block and you’re hanging out. This was a full five minutes of giving it your best shot at your best down-dog. When she finally called us out of the pose I literally thought my arms and shoulders would fall off. Just when I thought my shoulders were completely burnt out, she took us through several rounds of Warrior II and Warrior I, without letting us drop our arms between sides or poses. Then it was back to the wall for more shoulder-busting full arm balance! Needless to say, my arms were frazzled and there was no way I was getting up in this pose. I have a hard enough time doing handstand when I’m fresh as a daisy. At this point we all started to have a good laugh together and this is one of the reasons I adore Patricia. She is incredibly light-hearted and compassionate in her teaching, and always encourages you to enjoy the practice and smile. Even though I wasn’t getting up in the pose, I enjoyed her explanation of ways to work towards going up and coming down with legs together and straight. Ah, something to look forward to.

She moved on to more powerful poses, like Warrior III and the ever-popular Chaturunga Dandasana. Then for fun she had us try Nakrasana, crocodile pose. If you’ve never tried this, it’s actually kinda fun, but certainly not easy. There was a lot of groaning and giggling going on around the room. If you don’t know this pose, there’s a great description with photos in ‘Light on Yoga‘.

Next we did all sorts of backbends, beginning with Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (upward facing dog) and moving through Salabhasana (locust pose) to Urdhva Dhanurasana (upward facing bow). We did what felt like 500 backbends to finish off the class, before ending with a nice, long, lovely sivasana. It was a well-earned sivasana that felt like icing on a cake.

I never would have pushed myself this much in a class without Patricia’s steady guidance and supportive manner. Don’t misread me, at no time did she push anyone to go beyond what was appropriate for them or endanger anyone in the class. She simply created a space where you could investigate yourself and your mind, to find out what happens when your mind says ‘I can’t possibly do that’ and you decide to try it anyway. She really made me question my attitude towards my practice and revealed to me how sometimes my limitations aren’t physical limitations at all, but rather the mind has become bored or fatigued or simply unsure. I realize now that maybe the reason I think I have to come down after three minutes in sirsasana is because my mind is bored and wants to move on. Learning how to push through the dullness in the mind is one of the biggest reasons I practice yoga and sometimes I lose sight of that because the practice itself becomes so habitual.

That was the end of my day at the conference and obviously I was beyond tired when I left! But I had a big smile on my face and felt full of gratitude for having the opportunity to be with two wonderful and inspiring teachers. If you have the opportunity to study with Patricia I highly recommend it. She is a lovely person and a very skilled, devoted teacher. I always take something new away from the time I’ve spent with her and she’s a great role model for anyone aspiring to teach the subject of yoga.

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Yoga Journal Conference – Pt.1

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

I’ve taken a big fat break from writing any new posts, but I’m ready to get back on the blogging saddle. What better way to start my first post of the year than to write about my day’s worth of classes at the Yoga Journal Conference in San Francisco. I’m generally not a huge fan of the YJ conferences, mostly because they don’t often have Iyengar teachers participating. But about every other year or so, they manage to book Patricia Walden for their SF conference and this year was one of those years.

The conference is pretty expensive, so I opted to register for a one-day pass. Each day of the conference consists of three two-hour sessions, where you can choose from many different teachers and class themes. My goal was to sign up for as many sessions with Patricia as I could, which meant I would have two sessions with her: the late morning session and the end of the day session. I decided to choose Scott Blossom for my early morning session because he was going to lecture about Ayurveda and then do a short Shadow Yoga practice. I’ve always been really curious about Shadow Yoga after studying with a teacher who was deeply influenced by this style. It has its roots in Hatha Yoga, but is influenced by martial arts, and looks very much like a Tai Chi/Yoga combo. Needless to say, I was really excited about the day I had planned for myself.

I showed up to the Hyatt at 7:45, checked in at the registration desk, got my goody-bag of free samples and swag, then headed upstairs to my first session with Scott. The session was called “Yoga and Ayurveda: Wintertime Mojo”. As Scott explains in his handout for the class, we are in the transition between the dry, cool Vata season, and the wet, cold season of Kapha. In the wintertime he suggests we focus on a practice and a diet that brings warmth to balance the cold, dark days of winter. It overcomes our tendency for stiffness, depression, and it boosts the immune system. He quickly opened up the topic for questions, since time was precious and he wanted to make sure there was time left for an asana practice. He talked about things we could add to our diet, like sesame oil, coconut water, nuts, and licorice tea – all good things to add in the wintertime. Also eating beans and stews hold in moisture and are anti-diuretic. He also cautioned against doing a very rigorous practice. It seems logical to work the body hard to build up heat, but it can be counter-productive because the body will naturally stagnate, draw in and slow down when it feels overworked and stressed. He recommends working the legs, heart and lungs which helps the colon and circulation. Things like standing poses, inversions and backbends are particularly helpful. In the practice that followed, he

Hanumanasana pose

emphasized doing hanumanasana (encourages circulation) and bakasana (good for the internal organs). I had never done a Shadow Yoga practice before so the sequence he took us through was interesting, although I was sort of lost half of the time. He had several assistants wandering through the class and helping us to figure out what arm goes where and which hand grabs which foot. Overall, I really enjoyed it and it was fun to do something I don’t usually do.

I’d say the thing I took away from this session that stood out the most was his idea of using a ‘zen clock’. It’s a timer, that sounds a bell at a particular increment of time that you set it for, and the idea is that you stop whatever you’re doing at that moment, relax, take a deep breath (or two, or three) and just drop in for a minute, to a moment of relaxation and calm. I told my coworkers about this idea when I returned the next week to work and we decided to try it. We work in a fast-paced office with tight deadlines and find ourselves hunched over our computers for hours at a time, with no break. Every hour on the dot my coworker’s phone would chime, signaling us to let go of the computer mouse, sit up straight and tall, lengthen our spines, relax our facial muscles, close our eyes, and take several deep breaths. I can’t tell you what a great day we had and we all left work feeling a bit more relaxed and stress-free than we usually do. Maybe I won’t be able to do this every hour of every day, but if I can just remember to do it a few days a week, I know it will become an incredibly beneficial habit that just might stick.

If you’re interested in learning more about Ayurveda, Scott recommends the book “The Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies” by Dr. Vasant Lad. I really enjoyed learning more about this sister science to Yoga, and how I can balance my constitution through a particular asana practice and diet. I’m really looking forward to our Ayurveda studies this year in my teacher training program. I’ll share whatever I learn on the subject in my future posts.

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Happy Birthday to B.K.S. Iyengar

B.K.S. Iyengar

Image via Wikipedia

December 14th marks the 92nd birthday of B.K.S. Iyengar, or Guruji, as many of my peers respectfully refer to him. I have never had the honor of studying with him nor have I ever been in his presence, but I have a profound respect and admiration for him. He has committed his life to the learning and teaching of yoga and its gifts. He has given us, the yoga community, so very much, and has asked for very little in return.

Last weekend there was a birthday celebration in his honor at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of Los Angeles. Lisa Walford, a senior teacher, gave a beautiful two-hour presentation on his life and the events that shaped it. As she gave her presentation, she added stories of her own experiences with this great man and other teachers stood up to share their memories of studying with him. Everyone described an intellligent, powerful man, a living legend, with charm and poise and a deep love for his students. We watched as she presented photos of the institute in Pune where he teaches, his family, the many prominent people that he has taught and been associated with, and beautiful pictures of his unwavering yoga practice. He has inspired so many wonderful teachers and students in this practice and I thought it was fitting to mention this auspicious day and wish him many more healthy years of life.

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Workshop on Boosting the Immune System

Viparita Karani

Image by tadasana via Flickr

Today I took a two-hour workshop with senior Iyengar teacher, Lisa Walford. The workshop was about how to boost the immune system, which is especially helpful around the holidays and in the months where everywhere you turn someone is coughing or sneezing. She talked about the sympathetic nervous system which puts us in a ‘fight or flight’ mode and how the parasympathetic nervous system puts us in relaxation mode. Obviously we want to live in the latter! Combatting stress with a slow, peaceful, supportive yoga practice/sequence  done on a regular basis can help put our body into relaxation mode and not ‘fight or flight’, which has a huge impact on the immune system. I think most of us would agree that we could use a little more of that in our lives.

A key element in restoring ourselves is the practice of inversions. They are vital to our well-being and do so much to reverse the effects of a stressful life. Inversions are most helpful as an immunity booster when they are held for longer periods of time. Therefore her sequence today had us holding sirsasana (headstand) for ten minutes. This of course, is not a possibility for everyone and there are variations that one can do that still gain all the benefits of a long-held inversion practice. If you can hold sirsasana comfortably for 5-6 minutes, that’ll do it. Otherwise, you can do viparita karani (legs up a wall) for 5-10 minutes. Another important pose to add is salamba sarvangasana (shoulderstand). If you have trouble with the standard variation of shoulderstand you can do it supported in a chair. This was also held for 5-10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of supported halasana (plow pose) with our thighs resting on a bolster on a chair.

All of the poses in her sequence are held for long timings and are with support. A great deal of support. At one point I thought I was building a house out of blankets! But once I was in the pose, I was grateful I’d taken the time to set it up properly and it was deeply relaxing.

Lisa suggests making an immunity practice part of your weekly routine.  If you can only squeeze in 15-20 minutes for this practice, then try to practice it a few times a week. Otherwise, you could do a 60-minute practice once a week. Especially during those times when we feel most stressed and run down. I know lately I have been feeling the pains of a deadline-driven job and the stresses that the holiday season brings. My yoga practice has suffered more than anything else because of this and that has made me feel even worse.  I’m vowing to spend more time during the week on a few of these poses, whether I squeeze one in before bedtime, or if I start the day with a ten minute supta baddha konasana (reclining bound angle pose). Every little bit helps and if I can slip past getting the flu this winter then it’s definitely worth it!

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Restoratives – different sequence for a different you

Restoratives always seem to get a bad rap. Many believe that they’re boring, easy, only for beginners, or for those who are injured, and some believe they’re not really poses at all.  When I was taking my first teacher training program, we had a wonderful teacher instructing the module on restoratives. We were all looking forward to a day of lying around on our backs and taking it easy. Boy, was I fooled!

 

supported uttanasana with blocks

 

One of the first things he had us do was a variation of uttanasana (standing forward bend). We had our hands on blocks, with our fingers in the shape of a claw on top of the block, and the crown of our heads down on another block (or two, or with blankets, depending on one’s flexibility). We held this for what seemed like ten minutes. We were instructed to extend the sit bones up to the ceiling, rotate the thighs inward, resist the shins forward while pressing the tops of the thighs back, lengthen the spine, and draw the scapulae up and into the back. This was not boring, this was not easy, this was not for beginners, and this was definitely a pose! Of course, like many poses you hold for awhile, it started to become lighter, a little easier, and as my hamstrings stretched and my breathing took over, I was able to find a place of ease. And then it became almost meditative. This was just the beginning of what can be called a restorative sequence.

He went on to explain to us that many people, especially city-dwellers, find it hard to just come into a classroom, lie down, and begin to relax in a pose like supta baddha konasana (reclining bound angle pose, or reclining cobbler’s pose). Many people find it easier to get out some of their energy and stress first, before delving in to the more supportive and restorative poses. For instance, you could start out a restorative sequence with some surya namaskar asanas (sun salutations), or a short sequence of inversions, or maybe some standing poses. All that frenetic energy needs to come out first, for some, before they’re able to handle the supported poses, otherwise they might actually feel more agitated than relieved by them. What I liked most about hearing this from our teacher was that it gave me permission to do what I need on any given day, that suits my body and my mood. Obviously a restorative sequence needs to somehow eventually lead to restorative poses. But even that can be what you make of it. The uttanasana variation we did was considered restorative because it was supported and was held for a longer time than we might hold in a regular class. I often do sirsasana (headstand) during my restorative sequence because it allows me to go inward and I can do it against the wall. My point is that these practices are for you – it’s a time you can check in with yourself, see what you might need that day, and recharge the batteries and the nervous system with some refreshing supported poses.

In my current teacher training program we are required to practice a restorative sequence once a week. In the beginning I sort of hemmed and hawed about it because, as a driven, energetic person I wasn’t sure I would always feel like taking time out to slow down and reflect. But now that I’ve been doing it consistently for several months, I often look forward to it. The surprising thing has been that sometimes I have to force myself to do it because I don’t think I need a restorative practice that day, but afterwards I realize just how much I really did need it.

Here is the restorative sequence I’m currently practicing. Try it out and see if you surprise yourself too.

  1. Urdhva Prasarita Padasana -upward extended leg pose, done with legs up the wall
  2. Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana – two legged inverted staff pose over crossed bolsters
  3. Adho Mukha Svanasana – downward facing dog, with head on a block, feet at the wall
  4. Sirsasana
  5. Supta Baddha Konasana – reclining bound angle pose, over bolster with belt around ankles and hips
  6. Salamba Sarvangasana – shoulderstand, done in a chair
  7. Ardha Halasana – half plough pose, done with legs in chair with bolster under thighs
  8. Bharadvajasana – seated twist, done in a chair
  9. Setu Bandha Sarvangasana – bridge pose, done over a bench or on bolsters
  10. Viparita Karani – legs up the wall pose
  11. Savasana – corpse pose, can be done with blankets or bolster

 

 

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Diwali: A New Year and maybe a new perspective

Diwali: the festival of lights

I just felt like writing this morning about my excitement and anticipation for things to come. It’s been kind of a crazy week or two around here. The weather is changing, the holidays are fast approaching, and there is that feeling of hibernation and winter chill lurking in the air. This weekend I took a sweet puppy, that I had been fostering, over to her new adoptive family. It made me feel so sad and lonely when she left and all these emotions came over me this weekend. Old feelings of regret, worrying over my lack of work, money woes, having an empty nest, and the general gloom I feel when winter is approaching.

Tonight is the last class in my teacher training program for this year. We will be saying goodbye to the third year students who have essentially ‘graduated’ as of tonight. I look back on this year and think about how I felt when I started the program. Even though I have so much work still to do on my path to teaching, I’ve come a long way. I’ve made some wonderful yogi friends in the program, learned so much about yoga philosophy and anatomy, and I began teaching my peers, which is something I’ve never done before. I’m partly excited and partly nervous to have this break before we start up again in the new year. I hope to take the free time to get a jump start on next year’s assignments and to find some friends, or strangers, that I can start to teach on a somewhat regular basis. I hope I will use this time to read more philosophy and to strengthen my on-again-off-again pranayama practice. But I also hold the fear that I will squander this time and not make good use of it. I’m definitely one of those people that needs structure and framework. I need that looming deadline, otherwise it’s too easy to put it off to another day.

The good news is I have a couple of really great things to look forward to. My senior teacher, Manouso Manos, is coming for a workshop in December. A full weekend of classes with him will be just the right thing to keep me on track if I’m waivering. I’ve also just signed up for the Yoga Journal Conference in San Francisco held in January 2011. I think it’s over-priced and there are not a lot of Iyengar teachers, very few actually, that are participating this year. BUT, and that’s a big but, Patricia Walden is coming!! She is a senior teacher that I highly admire and very rarely get to study with. She lives on the east coast and rarely makes her way out this far for workshops or classes. So I’m thrilled she is coming to my hood and I’ve just signed up for two sessions with her, four straight hours of classes. I can only afford a day pass this year, so I’m just taking the Saturday sessions. But I was able to get into both of her classes that day and couldn’t be happier. She is teaching an all-day intensive on Friday, which I’m sure will be wonderful too. If I was working full-time and making some dough I would sign up for that too. But hey, I’m still lucky to even get an afternoon with her!

Long story short, even though recently it has been a time of sadness and introspection for me, I have a lot of things to look forward to and the excitement of that is pulling me out of my weekend funk. I just wanted to share my lighter mood since it has been hiding from me recently.

Happy Diwali and Sal Mubarak to all who celebrate. It’s a New Year and a time to look forward to new things. I hope you all have something to look forward to.

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Book Review: “Iyengar – The Yoga Master”

Cover of "Iyengar: The Yoga Master"

Cover of Iyengar: The Yoga Master

A few weeks ago I purchased and began reading the book “Iyengar – The Yoga Master”, edited by Kofi Busia. This book is a collection of articles, essays, and interviews written by a wide variety of teachers and students of B.K.S. Iyengar. It was put together and edited by Kofi Busia, a highly regarded and well-respected Iyengar teacher.

I’ve only gotten through a third of the book so far, but what I really like about it is the diversity of authors and their telling of their very unique and personal experiences with Mr. Iyengar and his teachings. Clearly all of them have been deeply affected by their practice and interaction with him.

My favorite article/essay in this book so far is one by Inez Baranay. She is an Iyengar yoga teacher living in Australia, and she’s also a writer. Her story is titled ‘Your Guru is Your Practice,’ which is a quote from Iyengar to her during an interview she had with him. Her story is a very interesting look at how her yoga practice and her writing are related, and she looks at the various stages of one’s practice. She talks about developing momentum in your practice, how we often question ourselves and become dejected, reaching plateaus, and the many discoveries along the way. Her writing is beautiful and very relatable. I found myself highlighting passages that stood out to me, which is something I am very rarely inspired to do.

Other contributors to this collection include T.K.V. Desikachar, Judith Hanson Lasater, Patricia Walden, Ramanand Patel, Annette Bening, Rodney Yee, and John Friend. There are many more included in this book and all of them offer something unique and personal about their experiences meeting and studying with B.K.S. Iyengar. He is a fascinating man and has profoundly impacted the world of yoga. I recommend this book to anyone interested in yoga, for its interesting stories and interpretation of this practice.

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