5 Challenging [Int.] Standing Balances

Vīrabhadrāsana III (Warrior III)

5.) Vīrabhadrāsana III (Warrior III):

What makes it challenging?

Substantial core strength is needed to obtain the capital “T” position. Straightening the lifted leg and getting it in line with the torso is the first challenge. Also, there is a tendency for the hip of the lifted leg to angle upward into an position in between Warrior III and Half Moon Pose (see below.) The front of the pelvis should be squared toward the floor. The drishti (focal point) at the extended hands also creates more of a challenge than looking straight down at the floor.

 

Ardha Chandrāsana (Half Moon Pose)

4.) Ardha Chandrāsana (Half Moon Pose):

What makes it challenging?

Largely, the same challenges that make Warrior III difficult. However, “stacking the hips,” i.e. getting the front of the pelvis squared to the wall (not the floor or at a downward angle) requires a high degree of hip flexibility. Hip openers may be necessary to be able to stack the hips without the torque of lifting the top hip up throwing one off balance.

 

Parivrtta Ardha Chandrāsana (Twisted Half Moon Pose)

3.) Parivrtta Ardha Chandrāsana (Twisted Half Moon Pose):

What makes it challenging?

Again, this posture shares challenges with Warrior III and Half Moon. While it’s less difficult than Half Moon in that it doesn’t require hip stacking, it makes up for it in that twisting motions tend to make staying on balance difficult. This is because one has to remain stable on the standing foot as the torso rotates and if one can’t stack one’s shoulders the weight distribution may be hard to keep balanced. Also, achieving the drishti (looking at the upper hand) without breaking balance is no easy feat.

 

Ardha Baddha Padmōttānāsana (Bound Half Lotus Pose) [Standing]

Ardha Baddha Padmōttānāsana (Bound Half Lotus Pose) [Folded]

2.) Ardha Baddha Padmōttānāsana (Bound Half Lotus Pose):

What makes it challenging?

The knees should be next to each other, but the knee of the folded leg wants to be forward and to the outside. Also, one must get the heel aligned on one’s centerline (below the navel) so that when one folds the foot is in a position where it can compress into the soft, fleshy tissue rather than being wedged between bones.

 

Ūrdhva Prasārita Ekapādasana (Standing Split)

1.) Ūrdhva Prasārita Ekapādasana (Standing Split):

What makes it challenging?

Straightening the lifted leg without throwing oneself off balance is the big challenge. It’s possible to put both hands around the support leg ankle, to make it even more challenging, but one must have an exit strategy in case one loses balance.

To What Degree Can Yoga Be Whatever One Needs It to Be?

Chennakesava Temple, Somanathapura

 

To what degree can yoga practice be whatever one needs it to be?

 

If one is expecting the definitive answer to this question, one won’t find it here. While I’ll share my views, I’d love to get some comments, because shared wisdom may help myself and others to hone in on a more coherent answer.

 

There is a continuum of views on this question.  On one hand, there are people who have very rigid notions of what a yoga practice can (or should) consist of. “Everyday, one should do precisely x repetitions of Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutations), y repetitions of nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), z repetitions …, and every full moon one should do…, and every six months one should do… shatkarma, etc.” In some circles, this rigidity may extend to what deity one worships, the nature of one’s personal philosophy, what one should eat, how one should dress, and how vigorous one’s practice should or shouldn’t be.

 

Near the rigid end of the spectrum are those who rail against drawing secular and / or culturally-neutral elements from yoga, and / or engaging in a revision of yogic culture. [Cultural revision, in this case, referring to a shift from the traditional culture which is Indo-centric to a more Westernized approach (e.g. this may be seen in different modes of teaching and / or in interaction between students and teachers.) I’m afraid this may remain unclear to anyone who hasn’t spent time in both: a. a traditional yoga ashram / shala; and b. a Western-style yoga studio. To those who have, it’s likely apparent that these two places each have a culture that may share elements (especially superficial one’s like symbology, etc.), but which aren’t identical.] The recent controversy generated by a paper by a Michigan State University professor, Shreena Gandhi, who suggested that Americans practicing yoga were engaging in a kind of white supremacy is a case in point.

 

I find myself rejecting the aforementioned extreme for a number of reasons. First, if yoga practice should be one thing, how come there are so many different “one things” that it should be? If one set was objectively superior, one would expect it to come to dominate, but we don’t see that. Secondly, it fails to acknowledge the wide variety of varied needs. There can even be logical inconsistencies embedded in these rigidities. For example, if one says that a practitioner should do 15 rounds of Surya Namaskara per day, and, also, that they shouldn’t increase the rapidity of breathing by much, then one is limiting the base of students. Some students simply can’t do 15 rounds in a session, while for others it’s an inadequate warm-up because it doesn’t tax their system in the slightest. Thirdly, while I’m not a Sanskrit scholar, from what I’ve been taught, the early writings don’t suggest the kind of doctrinaire approaches to yoga one sees today. One can see in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras a sparse and vague set of dictums that aren’t consistent with the idea that one needs to accept and embrace any and all of the trappings that have come along in the past few thousand years.

 

Now it might seem that I’m at the footloose and fancy free end of the spectrum. But  I’m afraid that I cringe too hard every time I see a story about “ice cream yoga.” (Or fill in the quote marks with whatever the mashup-du-jour consisting of an activity that some individual finds nifty, and, therefore, assumes will pair excellently with yoga.) At the far end of the spectrum are people who think one can engage in any activity (or set of activities) and label it yoga, and it is yoga. I don’t think I can quite get on that bandwagon either. While I don’t offer my support to the people who have very fixed and limited views of what yoga is, I can empathize with them at times. These include: 1. the person who has the Om symbol emblazoned over 80% of their wardrobe [or — more astoundingly — has it tattooed on his body] but who thinks it translates to “namaste,” “yoga,” or to any other mistranslation. 2. the practitioner who believes the ultimate question of the universe is which print of Lululemon captures her spirit animal, or, 3. the individual who thinks the sports bra and yoga pants she wears for practice seems like reasonable attire in which to visit a Hindu (or virtually  any other) temple.

“Om,” not “namaste” etc,

 

This leaves me somewhere in the middle on the issue. The single question I would ask to determine whether something is a yoga practice or not, is:

Is one working towards quelling the turbulence in one’s mind by dispassionately observing one’s body, breath, and / or mind?

 

This probably seems like an insane criteria because if one is doing the Gerbil Yoga version of setu bandasana (back bridge while devoting one’s attention to petting a rodent) then one isn’t actually doing yoga. However, if one is sitting at a bus stop watching the air go in and out of one’s nose and adjusting the pace of said flow, then one is doing yoga. Crazy, right? A back bridge is much more yoga-esque than sitting at a bus stop apparently doing nothing. Don’t even get me started on how one could be in a yoga studio doing a perfectly traditional yogasana like ardha chandrasana while your mind is in an internal monologue — i.e.  rant — about how miserable one is in the and how one can’t wait to hit the bar after class, and you’re not really doing yoga. On the other hand, one could be being screamed at by one’s boss in the office while watching the emotional turmoil bubble up, and one would be doing yoga. Crazy as it may sound, it’s the best I’ve been able to figure.

 

Let me know where you fall on the question.

BOOK REVIEW: Sure Ways to Self-Realization by Swami Saraswati

Sure Ways to Self RealizationSure Ways to Self Realization by Satyananda Saraswati
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book is one-stop shopping for the yogic meditator. The first half of the book explores many of the most common yogic practices of dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) in step-by-step detail. The second half of the book situates yogic meditation in a global context of meditation by introducing various techniques of meditation and mind science seen around the world. This allows the reader to compare and contrast the yogic approach to that of other systems — be they closely related systems such as Buddhism or Jainism or more remote ones such as hypnosis or moving meditations like dance or the martial arts.

I found this book to be incredibly useful. While there are mountains of books on yoga, there are relatively few that shine a light on the practices of the mind, and among those that do only very few are nonsectarian. Many books look at meditation solely as a spiritual practice and a few others present it exclusively as a secular scientifically grounded practice. This book skillfully bridges between, and does its level best to get the accounts of different systems right. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few oversimplifications or minor misunderstandings here and there, but the good overshadows them by far. It should be noted that even within the domain of yoga, many authors warp concepts such as jnana yoga and tantric yoga to fit their worldview or sect instead of reporting on how practitioners of those systems would see them. This book seemed to me to be much fairer than many in this regard.

The book consists of an Introduction and seven chapters. Chapters 1 and 2 discuss tools and aids used in meditation. The primary difference between the two chapters is that the first looks at traditional aids such as mantra, mandalas, and symbology, and the second discusses more modern scientific aids such as biofeedback, drugs, and sensory deprivation tanks.

Chapter 3 is one of the largest (more than a quarter of the book) and it explores the many yogic meditation techniques, including: antar mouna, japa, ajapa japa, chidakasha dharana, yoga nidra, prana vidya, trataka, nada meditation, jnana yogi meditations, kriya yoga techniques, and tantric techniques. While the later discussion of non-yogic approaches generally includes instructions for basic exercises, the descriptions in this section are much more detailed, and some include variations on the primary practice.

Chapter 4 is about the same length as chapter 3, and it investigates many of the other systems of meditation from around the world. These include religious systems such as those in: Hinduism, Jainism, Taoism, various sects of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, the mystical branches of Christianity and Islam (Sufi,) and Native American animist traditions. It also includes secular systems such as hypnosis and autogenic therapy.

Chapter 5 delves into how movement of the body is used as an anchor point in meditation in yoga, on pilgrimage, in Tibetan Buddhism, in Zen Buddhism, in the martial arts, in dance, and in sports. This is where I saw those few of the aforementioned minor oversimplifications and misunderstandings (e.g. referring to all martial arts under the rubric “karate.”) However, I greatly appreciated that the authors included discussion of this important topic, and so I can’t say that there was anything that detracted from my enjoyment of coverage of the topic.

The penultimate chapter is a catch-all for miscellany not covered earlier in the book. It includes meditations for kids (who require a very special approach, I can attest.) It also has a section on meditation on death, which I believe to be an immensely important topic for helping people shed their fear so they can get the most out of their lives. The other two sections are on nature and sensory meditations, respectively. The last chapter is short and discusses samadhi as the goal of meditative practice.

There are only a few graphics in the book, mostly symbology, but there is a glossary and a bibliography.

I would highly recommend this book for yoga practitioners and those who have a broad interest in meditative and mind science practices.

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5 of my Favorite Books on Yoga

5.) Sure Ways to Self-Realization by Swami Satyananda Saraswati: All you need to know about meditation and more. The first half of this book examines various yogic approaches to meditation and offers in-depth explanation of said techniques. The second half puts yogic meditation into a larger context by providing a survey of meditative approaches from around the world. It’s as close to one-stop shopping for the yogic meditator as one is likely to find, and the presentation of material on topics such as Jnana Yoga and Tantra is much more balanced and illuminating than many books.

 

4.) Your Brain on Yoga by Sat Bir Singh Khalsa: This Harvard Medical School Guide provides an overview of the scientific evidence for the benefits of yoga practice.

 

3.) A Search in Secret India by Paul Brunton: Brunton traveled India looking for the needles of yogic sagacity amid a haystack of charlatans and posers, and he found a few.

 

2.) Warrior Pose by Brad Willis: As the sub-title suggests, this book is about how yoga saved the life of a war correspondent who suffered from a severe spinal injury that had repercussions beyond his back — re: his state of mind.

 

1.) The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar: This book provides one-stop shopping for building one’s yoga practice, and it does so in a very down-to-earth, secular, and non-doctrinaire way. It also includes a translation and brief commentary of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras — hence, the reason I didn’t need to include that work on this list.

5 Considerations for Sun Salutations





Sun Salutations (i.e. Surya Namaskara) are a sequence of poses (asana) popular in Hatha Yoga for warming up both the joints and the core — among other reasons. There are a number of variations on this practice. The version I demonstrate in the video is common, and is often associated with Swami Sivananda. Below are a few points for consideration.



5.) Don’t forget the quad when in the Lunge (Ashwa Sanchalanasana): While stepping back and forward into the lunge position (ashwa sanchalanasana), sink the thigh of the backward extended leg down to get a stretch in the hip flexors and quad. This is commonly glossed over, missing a good opportunity. Secondary note: look forward in the lunge or at least not back and down between the legs (the latter suggesting excessive rounding of back.)



4.) Lift up into Plank (Utthita Chataranga Dandasana): If you have a valley between your shoulder blades, engage the serratus anterior, lift the torso up away from the floor, and turn that valley into a small, gentle-sloping hill. In other words, try to get the shoulder blades to come further apart.



3.) Place the ankle under the knee in the return Lunge (Ashwa Sanchalanasana): This is a challenge for many students depending upon a range of factors from flexibility to thigh girth to waist girth. It’s better to put the back knee down and use your hand to pull the lower leg into place than to try to stand up with the knee considerably forward of the toes. The latter puts a lot of load on connective tissues rather than transferring it down the length of the shin into the foot and floor.



2.) Keep hips up in “Knees-Chest-Chin-Down” (Ashtanga Namaskara), if you can safely do so: This is another challenging one for many students, particularly given the common nature of thoracic hyperkyphosis (i.e. excessively rounded upper back.) If one does have hyperkyphosis, one doesn’t want to force the matter. However, this does counteract that forward rounding tendency by stretching tight muscles out.



1.) Keep shoulders down and away from ears in Cobra pose (Bhujangasana): Unlike the previous common errors, this one seems to come down to lack of awareness or effort as much as it does to physical limitations. Of course, thoracic hyperkyphosis can also make Cobra challenging because the spine wants to bend the other way. I see students who have trouble keeping their navel on the ground and their arms bent because they have an almost “S” curve in their backs.

BOOK REVIEW: Jnana Yoga by Swami Vivekananda

Jnana-YogaJnana-Yoga by Swami Vivekananda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

For those for whom the term “Jnana Yoga” is unfamiliar, it’s one of the three original branches of yoga. Jnana yoga is the path of knowledge, which sounds more scholarly than apropos and so maybe the alternative translations of path of self-realization or of wisdom might be more informative. For the most part, Jnana yoga isn’t about reading books and collecting facts, although studying texts is traditionally a part of the approach, it’s more about turning inward and expanding understanding through practice and personal inquiry. The other two branches are bhakti yoga, which is the path of devotion followed by pious true believers, and karma yoga, which is the path of [unselfish] action or charitable work.

This is a hard book to rate. As a book about yoga and the philosophy thereof, I give it four stars and might even give it five in a gleeful moment. However, if I were to rate it as a book specifically on jnana yoga, I’d give it two. The book reads more like a bhakti yogi’s take on jnana yoga than a book on jnana yoga itself. In other words, Swami Vivekananda devotes a lot of space to telling the reader what they should take on faith and relatively little to discussing how one can glean one’s own insight through practice and introspection. I realize that if I were a bhakti yogi, my perspective would be different and I’d likely see the book as insufficient in its efforts to suggest that the reader should sing the praises of the almighty. But I’m not, and I obtained a book entitled “Jnana Yoga” thinking I would learn about the titular subject and so I was a bit disappointed at the approach of the book. There are some insights into jnana yoga here and there, but it’s not the focus. It’s telling that Chapter one is entitled “the necessity of religion” and that it begins by explaining why the existence of God must be taken as axiomatic.

There are sixteen chapters in the book. The general flow goes: a few chapters on “maya” (which is typically translated as illusion / delusion, but which Vivekananda argues is best thought of in a different light, which he goes on to explain in detail), some chapters on the cosmos and its nature, and the last few chapters are on atman (i.e. the self, sometimes translated as “soul.”) It should be said that these topics are consistent with a consideration of jnana yoga. Jnana yogis concern themselves with these big questions such as the nature of reality, the universe, and the self. However, the approach of saying that this is what the Vedas say (and thus it’s the reader’s truth) is inconsistent with the path of the jnana yogi. Swami Vivekananda is clearly highly knowledgeable and he does bring up some thought-provoking approaches. There are occasional errors on matters of science, but one must keep in mind that it was written before the turn of the twentieth century and so the state of knowledge has changed considerably in the intervening years, and so I don’t discount for them — especially, because one is often surprised by the author’s level of understanding of the science.

The book is straight text. The edition that I read had some annotations, but the book neither has nor needs any ancillary material.

My recommendation would be contingent on what the reader is looking for in a book. If one is seeking a general understanding of yogic thought on the nature of reality, the universe, and the nature of self, then this is an insightful book. If, however, one is interested in the path of the jnana yogi and what it entails, I’d suggest you look elsewhere (e.g. Swami Saraswati’s “Sure Ways to Self-Realization.”)

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5 Fun Arm Balance Transitions

5. Eka Hasta Bhujasana to Astavakrasana




4. Adho Mukha Svanasana to Eka Pada Koundinyasana





3. Bakasana to Salamba Shirshasana II





2. Utthita Ardha Padmasana to Eka Pada Galavasana





1. Parivrtta Utkatasana to Parivrtta Eka Pada Koundinyasana

BOOK REVIEW: Tantric Yoga by Gavin and Yvonne Frost

Tantric Yoga: The Royal Path to Raising Kundalini PowerTantric Yoga: The Royal Path to Raising Kundalini Power by Gavin Frost
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Whenever I review a book about tantra, I have to start by clarifying which tantra I’m talking about. For tantra is one of those concepts that everybody thinks they know the meaning of, but few agree about what it is exactly. There are at least three broad interpretations of tantra. Among old-school Indian Tantrics, tantra involves the use of practices and rituals to elevate one’s consciousness, and at least some of said practices involve activities that mainstream religions (i.e. Hindu, Buddhism and others) consider vices. Two alternatives can be considered in contrast to that baseline view. The first of these is the mainstream religious view of tantra that keeps the unobjectionable practices and dismisses those practices that the fly in the face of religious prohibitions, saying that they are just misunderstandings or misinterpretations and not to be taken literally.

The second view, and the one relevant to his book, is the modern and mostly Western notion of tantra as being all about sex. This isn’t to suggest that these modern Tantrics are just guided by base desire and are only seeking tips to be better in the bedroom. Most of them see tantra as a road to an altered state of consciousness, but that alpha and the omega of that route is in sexual activity. I’d like to read a book dealing in the first view, but either that is dying out or those kind of tantrics don’t write books. This has left me with books on the alternative perspectives. I’ve already reviewed one on the mainstream religious perspective, and so here is one on the modern / Western sex-centric approach. It should be noted that the authors are aware of the differences in strains and refer to the branch they are offering as “Reconstructed Yoga” or “Neo-Tantric Yoga.”

The book that Frost and Frost deliver is designed to be one-stop shopping for those who would like to join or start a “tantric house.” A tantric house is sort of like an ashram, but smaller and focused on the “Neo-Tantric Yoga” (sexually-oriented) practices. Needless to say, there is a great deal of protocol to consider when living under such conditions. The book is logically organized. It starts with sort of philosophical and conceptual background and progresses to delving into the specific details of various practices. The ten chapters are arranged into three parts that deal, respectively, with basic precepts, preparation, and the details of the practices.

I should point out that it’s not just in the emphasis on sexually-based practices that this book differs from the traditional view of tantra. One of the best examples of this can be seen in the first sentence of a preface entitled “How to Use this Book” which says, “Many believe that teaching requires gurus, but that belief became obsolete centuries ago with the invention of printing. This book will be your personal guru…” In the old-school view of tantra, the importance of an actual teacher is considered paramount both because ritual and practice are so central to the activity and because there is so much opportunity to lose oneself in the weeds.

The book includes a great deal of ancillary matter. There are many black-and-white line drawings and diagrams. There are two appendices. The first appendix delves into the logistics of a tantric house from pet ownership to floor plans to issues to consider in considering applicants (needless to say many of these items wouldn’t be appropriate – or legal – to ask about when considering a prospective roommate or employee.) The other appendix is offered for gay participants because the rituals described throughout the book anticipate heterosexual coupling. There is a short bibliography and some brief assorted front matter as well.

This book is well written and organized for delivering what it’s intended to deliver. While it covers a lot of background information, it’s put together in a “how-to” format. This means that there are a lot of step-by-step instructions that could be useful if you intend to carry out the practices, but aren’t the most pleasant reading if one is trying to get a feel for the subject and / or to compare and contrast it to approaches with which one might be more familiar. There is certainly some intriguing food-for-thought peppered throughout, but it’s a how-to manual through-and-through.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who is interested in getting insights about life in a tantric household – particularly if one is interested in the details of ritual as well as the logistics and practical issues of such living. I’m sure there are more entertaining accounts of living in such a house, but which will not provide as much systematic explanation.

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POEM: Sensation

i can feel my heartbeat
i shouldn’t feel my heart beat
but i’m sharply folded
when i stand and blossom
the warmth rushes through me
and the pins and needles
trickle through my body
subtle the sensation
time attuned sensation
now i know my heartbeat
subtle silent heartbeat