About a month ago I attended a two-day workshop with Donna Farhi at the Center for Yoga studio. Saturday’s three-hour workshop was titled ‘Coming Together- the Sacro-Iliac Joint’, and Sunday’s workshop was titled ‘Calm Heart, Calm Mind’. I was SOOOOOO looking forward to this because I have heard about Donna Farhi, master teacher, for quite some time and have read books and articles she’s written. I have been hoping for a chance to meet and study with her, but since she resides in New Zealand, and travels around the world teaching for many months out of the year, the opportunity rarely comes up. I was also excited about both themes for the workshops, as I have recently been having little twingey moments with my sacrum, and the heart-opening/chest theme is always a good one.
So Saturday I make my way over to the studio, which by the way became part of the Yogaworks empire a few years back, and it was swarming with students waiting to get into the workshop. I knew Donna was a pretty popular teacher, but I wasn’t quite expecting this kind of buzz. There were probably about 60 people in attendance. The room was set up with little cushy floor chairs because she was starting with a power point presentation on the anatomy of the SI joint. I was a little disappointed that she spent a full hour on the anatomy. Not that the information was boring or irrelevant, but it left so little time for the good stuff, like moving our bodies and relating the information to our asana practice. We had a small break and then we were back to it, mats unrolled, to begin some asana. I was excited to see what new tidbits I could pick up from her, as she is quite the esteemed teacher, with many years of practice and teaching experience. Overall I enjoyed her manner, her jokes regarding the intensity with which so many yogis practice, and her references to horses (she owns horses and rides daily, apparently). She went into a lengthy discussion about how so many teachers put beginning students into harm’s way by giving them poses like supta padangusthasana (reclining big-toe pose) without telling them how to bring stability to the hip joint while doing it. So she proceeded to put us into supta padangusthasana her way. I’m a visuals kind of person, so my instinct is to draw diagrams and show pictures to explain all of this, but that’s really too complicated for my blogging purposes. So I’ll just describe it as succinctly as possible. Basically we did the pose classically, but with two exceptions. 1- the leg that usually stays extended flat on the floor, was kept bent and out to the side a bit, at an angle, similar to ‘happy baby’ pose. 2- the leg that extends up (often with a belt over the foot, if you have tight hamstrings like me) only goes off to the side (for sup.pad. II) about a third of the way, instead of all the way to the floor. This allows the hip to open without straining the low back too much and therefore causing pain or intensity to come to the sacrum. She emphasized keeping the hip deep into its socket and bringing stability to the pelvic region. Not just hanging out in the pose and allowing the legs to open beyond what was safe for our individual bodies. It did feel pretty good and I could see if I had any pain going on that this would be a nice alternative to doing the pose classically.
After that we moved on to a little bit of partnering work and restorative poses. Not a whole lot gleaned from this portion, but always nice to rest in some restorative poses near the end of an afternoon.
Day two of the workshop was very similar to Day one. She went over another power point presentation in anatomy. One of the things she spoke about on both days that really stuck with me was the idea of working safely within the confines of our individual structure. Don’t fight your own structure. She stressed that we needed to make friends with our bodies and not force it to do things it just isn’t meant to do. To really be ok with our own limitations and to work within them instead of constantly battling them.
Another concept that she spoke about quite a lot was the image of our ribcage being a ‘down bucket’ and our pelvis being an ‘up bucket’. In other words they are shaped like buckets, one with its opening down and the other up. She talked a lot about keeping the two openings of the buckets aligned – keeping the lip of the down bucket sealed with the lip of the up bucket. She demonstrated in standing poses how when one of the buckets is tilted in the opposite direction to the other, there is instability, often causing the lower back to jam.
For instance, we each got a partner and one person got into Virabhadrasana II, while the second person pushed against the front knee (just under the knee, not directly on it!!) using the webbing between the thumb and index finger. If the ‘doing’ person’s buckets were aligned the weight should automatically shift straight back through their pelvis and down into their back heel. If the ‘doing’ person’s buckets were not aligned and their pelvis was tilting too far forward or their ribcage was popping forward, the weight would jam into their low back causing this area to pinch and cause pain or damage. These habits, or samskaras, of over-extending in the low back or pelvis cause instability and over time can cause injury. This whole concept is nothing new in the Iyengar system, but I’ve never had it described to me in this way. I loved seeing how the weight could be distributed just by shifting slightly in the pelvis or ribcage and I really like the imagery of the buckets. It made it simple for me to think about in the pose and to translate to my students (one day).
We went on to experiment with this in other standing poses like Utthita Trikonasana (triangle pose) and Parsvakonasana (extended side angle pose). Going inwards and finding our own bad habits and trying to create new ones. Which is the whole aim of yoga, to purify karma. Something we’ve been talking about a lot in teacher training, so I had to point that out.
We finished with a nice chest opener, Donna’s version of setu bandha sarvangasana (bridge pose). We took one blanket folded so it was twice the size of a headstand blanket and then made small 4″ pleats in it so it looked like an accordion. With a bolster under the knees, you lie back over this accordion blanket so that it is just under the thoracic spine. We put a rolled blanket under the neck, rolled only part of the way, just so the neck was slightly extended but completely supported. She kept us here for about 7-10 minutes and it felt so lovely! I’d like to add this one to my restorative sequence and the menstruation sequence. Or any day you just feel like you need to be really gentle with yourself.
Over all I enjoyed the workshop with Donna. It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, but I did walk away with a few ideas to chew on for the next few months and some nice alternative poses to give to any students I might come across with SI joint issues. I would recommend taking a workshop with her to find out your own perspective on her style. She definitely teaches from her own experience and does not seem to come from any particular style or lineage. I did not agree entirely with everything she said, being an Iyengar student- that happens all the time, but I think it’s good to challenge your own ideas and to really investigate why you believe something. Do I believe it just because my teacher told me so, or because I found it to be true in my own experience through my own practice? That’s where I’m at right now in my learning, trying to really be authentic to what happens in my own practice and finding the experiential truth in what I’ve been taught.