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.

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

5 Exercises to Wed Your Yoga and Calisthenic Practices

5.) Anything plank (a.k.a. adho mukha dandasana / santolanasana): Who knows how long planks have been a feature of yoga? Plank postures are a fixture in Hatha Yoga, playing a role in most versions of Surya Namaskara (sun salutations), and being used to both to build core strength and to prepare for arm balances.

Planks have also gained immense popularity with calisthenic practitioners. In my gym class days, sit-ups and crunches were the go to ab exercises. No more. Now many bodyweight fitness practitioners are ditching sit-ups and crunches altogether for a number of exercises deemed more effective–include many variations on the plank.

High plank (adho mukha dandasana)

 

Low plank (chaturanga dandasana)

 

Forearm plank variation with leg up

 

High plank variation with alternating limbs extended

 

Side plank (vasisthasana)

 

4.) Back bridge (a.k.a. Chakrasana): This is another yoga classic that’s being brought into calisthenics training in a big way. You may note a recurring theme in my selections for this post, exercises and postures (asana) that help to build shoulder joints that are strong, stable, and yet sufficiently flexible. This is a big challenge for bodyweight workout practitioners. One can get stability by bulking the muscles up, but if you don’t have the range of motion to achieve proper alignment, it’s not going to do one a lot of good.

The back bridge (chakrasana, or “wheel pose”)

 

3.) L-sit (a.k.a. Bramcharyasana): Of course, the other recurring theme (besides building shoulder stability) is core strength. This exercise is both a yoga classic and is probably as old as gymnastics itself. Its Sanskrit name, Brahcharyasana, means celibate’s pose–but as far as I’m concerned that’s purely optional.

L-sit (Bramcharyasana)

 

2.) “Supermans” (a.k.a. shalabasana [locust pose]): Another core exercise, but one that strengthens the back muscles.

“Supermans” (shalabasana)

 

1.) Handstands and Handstand Preppers (a.k.a. adho mukha vrksasana): This practice isn’t just about looking impressive. As mentioned above, it’s hard to build shoulder joints that allow enough stability and range of motion to have the command of one’s body that one would like. Our shoulders are optimized to maximum mobility. That helped our ancestors to be awesome throwers of spears and rocks, but it makes it tough to support our weight in an inverted position. The handstand is a good way to build stability in the shoulders.

Handstand (adho mukha vrksasana)

 

If it’s too hard, use your legs to stabilize you (but still try to get that straight up-and-down arm position)

 

If it’s too easy, start doing push-ups

5 Courage Building Yoga Practices

Learning to manage and moderate one’s fears and anxieties needn’t involve strapping on a parachute, cold quitting a job, or bare-knuckle boxing in a back alley. In fact, it may be best to begin by quietly watching those anxieties at the other end of the spectrum, the one’s so subtle that conscious awareness of them can be blotted out by the noise of living–but which nevertheless have a physiological impact.

 

The ability to quietly and non-judgmentally witness one’s emotional state–as is taught in yoga and related practices such as Buddhist meditation–is crucial (and, in my opinion, is one of the most valuable lessons that these systems have to teach.) Crushing or repressing emotions is a demonstrably losing strategy. At best these feelings are tamped into one’s subconscious mind, still adversely affecting one’s outlook and, therefore, indirectly casting a pall over one’s life.

 

You’ll note that I’ve mentioned courage and moderating fear, but have not mentioned defeating emotions or quelling fear. Wrongly, our archetypes of fearlessness are characters like John McClane (i.e. the “Die Hard” movies), Katniss Everdeen (i.e.”The Hunger Games” trilogy),  or Yoda (i.e. the “Star Wars” movies.)  But neurologists who study patients whose brains have been damaged such that they are literally fearless tell us that the defining characteristic of such individuals is “paralysis by analysis.” In other words, Sheldon Cooper (i.e. “Big-Bang Theory”) is a more apt model. Also, the fearless tend to live short lives because they eventually do something fatally inadvisable.

 

We need our fear. However, while fear can keep us from doing stupid things, it can also turn us into the worst version of ourselves. Therefore, our fear needs to be moderated with courage and reason (to these, some would add “faith.”)

 

You may note that I tend toward the intermediate / advanced with the practices I mention. This is, in part, because that’s probably more likely the point at which one is ready to take this on. In beginning a practice, one may have one’s hands full to grasp the basics of alignment and breath.

 

Without further ado, here are a few yoga practices that I’ve used to help me witness my anxieties and learn to moderate them:

 

1.) Nauli (and other external breath retention [i.e. bāhya kumbhaka] techniques.): Breath retention can produce a subtle anxiety, even when one has full control of the timing of release and the next breath. In fact, subtle anxiety may cause one to have a less robust retention than one might otherwise. Truth be told, this practice has probably been more fundamental than any of the āsana practices that will follow, for me personally.  

Note: external retentions are relatively advanced practice and should only be added to one’s sadhana after one has been taught by an experienced teacher and is somewhat experienced with pranayama.

practicing nauli

practicing nauli

 

2.) Eyes closed: This is particularly effective with Surya Namaskara (Sun salutations), standing poses, and–at an advanced level–balancing poses. One should make sure that ones balance is solid throughout before attempting with one’s eyes closed. We have redundant systems to help achieve balance (i.e. inner ear, proprioceptive, and visual), but–for the sighted–going without vision can be nerve wracking.

ashwa sanchalanasana in Surya Namaskara

ashwa sanchalanasana in Surya Namaskara

 

3.) Inversions: Inversions are meant to be calming because when the blood pressure to the head increases, it triggers reactions in the body to reduce it. However, it may take some time before that promised is reached. I’ve done a more extensive post on inversions that can be read here.

shirshasana (headstand)

shirshasana (headstand)

 

4.) Standing Back-bends: (Ardha Chakrasana / Urdhva Triangmuktasana / full Urdhva Dhanurasana) Simple back-bending can create the feeling that one is about to fall back onto one’s head. One may want to begin with a simple back-bend as one might do in Surya Namaskara before advancing to the complete Urdhva Dhanurasana in which one moves into a wheel pose (Chakrasana) from a standing position. (Urdhva Triangmuktasana is an intermediary in which one’s knees are more deeply bent, and one reaches back towards one’s Achilles tendon.)

ardha chakrasana

ardha chakrasana

 

5.) Standing Balances: Depending on one’s level, anything from tree pose (vrksasana) to bound twisted half-moon pose (baddha parivrtta ardha chandrasana) may be applicable. I’ve shown the unbound version of the latter (parivrtta ardha chandrasana.) Twisting and balancing at the same time provides a great challenge, if one is already confident with balances generally.

parivrtta ardha chandrasana

parivrtta ardha chandrasana

 

Happy practice.

BOOK REVIEW: Yoga Body by Mark Singleton

Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture PracticeYoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice by Mark Singleton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

I was excited to stumble across this book because it proposed fresh insights into the history and development of posture-centric yoga. Singleton’s premise is that yoga as it’s practiced in studios around the world today (i.e. practices focused heavily on asana, or postures) has almost nothing to do with historic yogic traditions and is to a large extent European (or Western) fitness practices fed back to the world with a patina of Indian-ness instilled by a few Indian fitness teachers (e.g. T. Krishnamacharya and students.) This is a bold and stunning hypothesis. The problem is that Singleton leaves plenty of room to doubt his thesis. I’m not saying that I’m certain Singleton is wrong, but after reading the book I’m no more inclined to believe his hypothesis than when I first read the book blurb.

The book consists of nine chapters:
1.) A Brief Overview of Yoga in the Indian Tradition
2.) Fakirs, Yogins, Europeans
3.) Popular Portrayals of the Yogin
4.) India and the International Physical Culture Movement
5.) Modern Indian Physical Culture: Degeneracy and Experimentation
6.) Yoga as Physical Culture I: Strength and Vigor
7.) Yoga as Physical Culture II: Harmonial Gymnastics and Esoteric Dance
8.) The Medium and the Message: Visual Reproduction and the Asana Revival
9.) T. Krishnamacharya and the Mysore Asana Revival

One can see the flow of the book in this chapter listing. It begins by describing the ancient yogic traditions (e.g. Jnana yoga, Bhakti yoga, and Karma yoga.) Singleton then goes on to put immense weight on very few voices that were speaking globally about yoga in the late 19th century—largely European but notably including Swami Vivekananda. (This, by the way, is where I noticed the most glaring weaknesses of the book. There seems to be an assumption that what the most vocal people were saying during this time was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.) One will note that the late 19th century is an arbitrary point to make the critical juncture for a study of yoga—this era’s sole importance seems to be in that that’s when Europeans started entering the scene (and documenting it in English and Western languages to a large extent.) I understand that there may have been a dearth of information previously; however, I’m also skeptical of equating the sum of truth with the sum of what is documented.

The book then shifts into the early 20th century when Singleton proposes the proto-postural yoga is beginning to coalesce with both Western and indigenous Indian influences. Singleton writes extensively about this period, and presents what he believes is the path by which postural practice evolved over a short time into modern yoga as we know it. The book ends in the mid-20th century with an extensive discussion of T. Krishnamacharya and his pack of brilliant students (i.e. B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, T.V.K. Desikachar, and Indira Devi) who are responsible for a lot of how yoga is practiced today (for virtually all of modern yoga by Singleton’s reckoning.)

It should be noted that this book is put out by an academic press, Oxford University Press, and there’s all the front and post matter that one would expect of a scholarly press publication. This includes an introduction, notes, and a bibliography.

So, you might be wondering how I could have so much doubt about the veracity of the book’s central claim—a book written by a Cambridge educated scholar and published by Oxford University Press. It’s, after all, chocked full of facts that are designed to bolster Singleton’s argument. I’m certainly not suggesting that Singleton lied or presented false facts (however, I have–and will further–argue that he frames facts throughout the book to diminish those statements and facts that run counter to his argument while wholeheartedly accepting statements that validate his argument—even when the people whose statements he leaves unchallenged would seem to have their own agendas. I don’t know, perhaps T. Krishnamacharya was—as Singleton intimates though never explicitly accuses—lying when he claimed to have received his sequence and approach from a scripture he was taught by a Himalayan master. However, interestingly, he would be lying to minimize his role in the development of yoga rather than to increase his fame. This stands in contrast with the European authors who Singleton readily accepts who were seeking to build their bona fides as experts in the esoteric systems of India and the Himalaya, who arguably had a lot to gain from being seen as having a full understanding of these systems.)

The best way to understand the root of my skepticism is to tell a make-believe story. Imagine a race of aliens came down to Earth. For whatever reason, they want to understand (presumably among many other things) the Roman Catholic Church. One astute alien scholar notes that, after having reviewed not only the entire Bible but a vast canon of theologian discourse, there is scant mention of sitting or kneeling. However, when cameras came around, there came to be clear evidence of pews and kneelers in the church. The aliens conclude that Catholics had always stood during worship, but with the advent of the camera they began to sit and kneel. The aliens, having big and bulbous butts, conclude that the Catholics have become concerned that their own big, bulbous butts will be captured for posterity (pun intended) by the cameras and have, thus, opted to adopt postures that would more adequately provide cover. In the present day, sitting and kneeling are the bulk of what Catholics do with their bodies when [overtly] practicing their religion, and so it must be those postures–rather than abstract notions like achieving “grace” are now the most critical part of the practice. (Besides, the earliest photos of kneelers came from Protestant churches, so perhaps Anglicans taught Catholics how to kneel.)

If you haven’t figured it out, in my little scenario, the late 19th century Europeans who were writing the English language tracts that formed the heart of Singleton’s research material are the aliens with big, bulbous butts. I would propose that the Europeans aren’t viewing yoga completely objectively but through the lens of their own experience and desires. Furthermore, they are also only giving weight to what they see and hear (which may or may not be a full picture.) I would further argue that just like Catholics don’t devote much text to discussing sitting and kneeling in the documents of the Vatican library doesn’t mean there isn’t a long history of those practices. Postural practice is:

a.) not the critical end result that everyone is concerned with even if it takes up the bulk of one’s time in [overt] practice. It’s certainly true that there are a vast number of yoga practitioners whose only interest is in the fitness aspect of the practice. However, there are also many who spend most of their yoga reading time learning from Vedas and reading yogic philosophy even though the bulk of their practice time is asana.
b.) extremely difficult to convey via text but readily conveyed through demonstration and hands-on teaching. If you were a Catholic and wanted to teach someone kneeling, would you write them a three paragraph text description of the process, or would you just demonstrate how to kneel and correct any glaring (albeit unlikely) deficiencies in form.

At no point does Singleton get into the postural details of individual asana. He mentions another scholar that supposedly has done some of that work, but Singleton feels it’s not critical. However, it’s very hard to prove what he’s trying to prove without getting into that level of detail. Yes, there will be similarities between various systems of stretching because of the nature of the body. For example, European stretching systems had a forward bend that looks reminiscent of paschimottanasana (the body folds that way and stretching the hamstrings is one of the most important functions in any stretching regimen), and it shouldn’t be surprising or revealing if the first photograph of this posture was in a European gym (the fact that Scandinavians had cameras before Himalayan yogis isn’t a sound basis to conclude that Himalayan yogi’s learned to bend forward from Scandinavians.) A there are a lot of postures that two systems might reasonably independently discover, but one also can’t rule out that the Indian yogi taught the Europeans and not the other way around. (I know it’s hard to comprehend in the era of FaceBook, but failure to be documented does not equal failure to be true. The farther one goes into the past, the less of what happened is going to be documented, and some cultures are going to be more likely to document events than others. e.g. Would our aliens be right or wrong if they concluded that 85% of humans are females between the age of 12 and 24 years old because 85% of the selfies posted on the internet are among that group. )

Singleton’s book does have some graphics. They didn’t always help his case, however. I was struck by how few of the fine details of the European postures correspond to practice as we know them, while some of the very old paintings look almost exactly like present day asana. (If one accepts that the fact that they didn’t have the greatest grasp of capturing perspective back then isn’t indicative of how flat the postures and people were back then.) I’ll readily admit that I wouldn’t definitively count Singleton wrong on my subjective observation of the pictures, but it does leave me with a lot of room for doubt.

I suppose the next question is why I didn’t completely pan the book. Three stars isn’t a tragic rating. I thought the book contained a lot of good information and food for thought (even if it fell far short of proving its central hypothesis.) I particularly enjoyed the chapter on T. Krishnamacharya and his now-famous student body. I’ll also say that part of why I came away from the book with such a muddled perception of this history is that Singleton doesn’t hide facts that are damning to his case, but rather presents them and then tries to marginalize them. A prime example would be the Hatha Yoga Pridipika (HYP), a 15th century text that mentions a number of the asana considered classic yoga postures today (some of which form the core of a Hata practice)—though admittedly HYP emphasizes the importance of only four seated postures.

I can’t say that Singleton didn’t help give me pause to wonder about the truth of the received understanding of yoga’s evolution. I’ve practiced yoga in places as varied as India, the U.S., Thailand, and Hungary, and I found it shocking how similar the practice is around the world. This bodes well for the argument that yoga as it’s practiced today has coalesced recently. By way of contrast, there are many myths about how one martial art is the ancestor of another but the two systems often look nothing alike. (e.g. I’ve studied Kalaripayattu, which many believe was the ancestor art taken to China by Bodhidharma through Southeast Asia, but which today looks nothing like Kung fu or Muay Thai. Furthermore, Kung fu styles usually look quite unlike the Korean and Japanese martial arts that they are said to have inspired.) If the latter among these martial arts did come from the earlier, they evolved apart quickly. While the evolution into different martial art forms is quite possible, it raises the question of why yoga should be so similar internationally. A skilled yoga teacher would likely give a given student the same alignment adjustments for, say, Warrior I, regardless of whether the teacher was in Prague, Manila, Tokyo, or San Diego.

I can’t say that I’d endorse Singleton’s argument. It would take much more precise information for me to buy it (and it’s likely that said detailed historical information doesn’t exist.) However, if you’re interested in the history of yoga, you might want to check out this book. Your conclusions may differ from mine, but even if they don’t I suspect you’ll learn a thing or two of interest. Yoga Body was reasonably priced as a Kindle book when I bought it.

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Vinyāsa: A Few Thoughts

IMG_1254I attended a Vinyāsa Workshop this weekend at a1000Yoga in Bangalore. The workshop was taught by Bharath Shetty, who is the founder of the IndeaYoga Shala in Mysore, and who was a student of–among others–B.K.S. Iyengar.

 

The word vinyāsa has multiple meanings, but most commonly–and in this case–it refers to a style of yoga in which postures are linked together through transitional movements. (And, importantly, these transitioning movements establish a flow of breathing throughout the practice.)  Vinyāsa practices tend to be vigorous and challenging because one keeps moving when one isn’t holding a posture (i.e. there’s no down time), and the transitions require a lot of lifting oneself up, which necessitates a strong core and reasonably strong arms / shoulders.

 

Vinyāsa practices can have fixed-sequences (the same asana, or poses, are always done in the same order) or not have a fixed-sequence (the details of the practice will very from one session to the next.) There’s a great argument for the practice of a fixed-sequence. That is, one can get beyond focusing on crude alignment details and put one’s mind on fine details of breath, drishti (focal point), and keeping a slight tension in the perineum. Such facts can slip away when one is struggling to get the sequence and postural details down pat.

 

However, there’s a great counter-argument against fixed-sequence programs. The counter-argument goes like this, “If you get so bored out of your wits that you quit, you will also never get to the part where you focus on higher level details.” My advice would be “know thyself.” In other words, if you can keep to a fixed-sequence, you should. However, if your practice will peter out without constant fresh challenges, don’t force yourself into a fixed-sequence box. It’s better to take longer to get to a higher level of practice than to quit.

 

The most famous fixed-sequence vinyāsa style is the Ashtanga Vinyāsa system handed down by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. (Note: some people call this system Ashtanga Yoga, and others don’t like that name because it implies that this system is heir apparent to Patanjali’s yoga as described in The Yoga Sutras.  [In other words, there’s an argument that that name was already taken.] Furthermore, Jois’s system isn’t really any more of an Ashtanga Yoga [in the Patanjalian sense] than any other Hatha yoga style because it focuses on only a few of the limbs (i.e. asana, pranayama, etc.) at least until one gets to very advanced stages of practice.

 

The most famous vinyāsa style without a fixed sequence is probably Power Yoga, although many people practice classic Hatha asana in a vinyāsa.  Power Yoga emphasizes core strength building, and was originally developed by Ashtanga vinyāsa practitioners to give one the workout of Ashtanga vinyāsa without its monotony.

 

This was my first experienced with a fix-sequence vinyāsa program other than Ashtanga Vinyāsa, so I didn’t know what to expect. This was the second workshop I’d attended by Bharath Shetty, so I knew that he was a skilled and knowledgeable teacher. However, I didn’t know what Indea Vinyasa, itself, would be like.

 

It turned out to be much like Ashtanga Vinyāsa. The general organization is identical. That is, there are two versions of Surya Namaskara, a standing sequence, a floor sequence, and a finishing sequence. Note: I’ve only been taught the first series of each of these systems, and so I can’t say how they vary at more advanced levels.

 

The Surya Namaskaras of Indea Vinyāsa mirror those of Ashtanga Vinyāsa, but they aren’t identical. The Indea Vinyāsa Surya Namaskara-A is slightly more involved, and includes an Utkatasana. The Indea Surya Namaskara-B, like Ashtanga Vinyāsa, features Warrior I, but doesn’t include Utkatasana (chair pose.)

 

The standing sequences of the two systems are identical. However, the floor sequence is very different. The Ashtanga Vinyāsa preliminary series (as mentioned above, both systems have multiple series) focuses heavily on forward bends, but the Indea Vinyāsa  preliminary series is more balanced between forward and back bends. The finishing sequence is also quite similar between the two styles.  The sarvangasana-halasana-karnapidasana-matsyasana sequence is the core of both finishing sequences.

VinyasaWorkshop

BOOK REVIEW: Yoga Mala by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

Yoga Mala: The Seminal Treatise and Guide from the Living Master of Ashtanga YogaYoga Mala: The Seminal Treatise and Guide from the Living Master of Ashtanga Yoga by K. Pattabhi Jois

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Yoga Mala is a guide to yoga by one of the most influential yogis of the modern era, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Sri Jois, who passed away in 2009, developed an approach to Hatha Yoga that is alternatively called Ashtanga Vinyasa or Ashtanga Yoga. Herein, I will use the term Ashtanga Vinyasa to represent Sri Jois’s style of yoga, which relies on a fixed sequence(s) conducted with vinyasa, i.e. flowing transitions that link postures. The reason I chose one term over the other is that the term “Ashtanga Yoga” long predates Jois and is a more generic name for the practice of all eight limbs of yoga as described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

Having mentioned the “eight limbs of yoga,” it should be noted that this book really only gets into half of them: yama (rules for interacting with others), niyama (rules for conducting oneself), asana (poses), and pranayama (breath exercises.) Furthermore, three-fourths of the book’s pages are devoted to asana. This is not unusual as many yogis consider it a waste of time delving into the higher level practices (pratyahara [sensory withdrawal], dharana [focus], dhyana [meditation], and samadhi [liberation] with individuals who haven’t yet made headway into the more fundamental practices.

After brief discussion of yama, niyama, and pranayama, Yoga Mala launches into description of the postures of the Ashtanga Vinyasa preliminary series. This begins with the two variants of the Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutations) practiced in Ashtanga Vinyasa and progresses through the poses of the standing, seated, and finishing sequences in the order in which they occur in the Preliminary Series. There are clear black and white photos of the optimal version of each asana. The written descriptions explain the entire set of vinyasa for that asana—i.e. the flowing transitions that connect one pose to the next. Most asana have a header paragraph that tells how many vinyasas are associated with the pose and which vinyasa constitutes the asana proper. This opener is followed by a “Method” section that lays out the vinyasa in detail, and—in many cases–a “Benefits” section that explains what the posture is said to do for one–and occasionally what major the contraindications are. (However, this is a poor reference for contraindications as it mostly only says what pregnant women shouldn’t do and doesn’t get into much detail beyond that.)

There are a couple of things that I think could have been improved—mostly formatting / editorial critiques. The first is that the text increasingly lags the photos so that one has to flip forward several pages to view the associated photos. Also, the author often refers to a movement through a position using the numbering system of an earlier set of vinyasa, and this necessitates a lot of flipping back and forth. For example, the instructions often say “then go to the 4th vinyasa of the first surya namaskara sequence” whereas if he said “then do chataranga dandasana [or low plank]) they would have saved words and obviated need for the back and forth.

Sri Jois was very devout man. For those of a similar mindset, you’ll likely find the book resonates. However, if you’re the kind of person who prefers explanations rooted in a logical or scientific approach, then you may find explanations a bit summarily invoked for your tastes. In other words, he’s prone to say, just do what the Vedas and your teacher tell you and everything will be rosy. I don’t know that this is a critique so much as fair warning. If you think that the Vedas were divinely written by infallible authors, then Jois’s approach may sound good to you. However, if you think that the Veda’s reflect the biases and limited knowledge of another era (just like our present writings reflect our current biases and limitations), you may find a few comments suspect. For example, Sri Jois makes a point of saying that the Vedas state that one can do a headstand for three hours straight without adverse effects. (To be fair, he does point out that you must do it properly and under the supervision of a teacher.)

If you practice Ashtanga Vinyasa, or intend to, this is a must-read book, but it’s a useful book for those who practice Hatha Yoga of other styles as well. It’s a good summary of classic asana, and you may find something in Sri Jois’ explanation of yama and niyama to be helpful to you on your personal path.

I should point out that those who aren’t sure whether they want to practice this form should be forewarned that Ashtanga Vinyasa is an intense practice. The vinyasas require a high level of core strength as well as upper body strength for Uth Pluthi (lifts) and vinyasa motions requiring that one load all one’s bodyweight onto one’s arms. Also, the fact that one is doing the “Preliminary Series” shouldn’t falsely lead one to believe that these are all the “easy” asana. That isn’t the case; there are a number of challenging poses both in terms of flexibility and strength requirements. If you haven’t done yoga before, I would only suggest Ashtanga Vinyasa for those who have a fairly high fitness level.

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10 Things I Learned from Yoga Teacher Training

1.) Use your words. Don’t demonstrate unnecessarily. I came to teaching yoga in a backward way. It started with me doing my personal practice with my wife a few times a week. We were pretty much just practicing together, though I took the lead based on greater experience and knowledge of yoga. Eventually, a couple of other people began to join these makeshift sessions. I remember looking up and seeing a person doing parivrtta trikonasana (revolved triangle pose) in a dangerous manner. This was my first glimpse into the importance of keeping eyes up if you take on the role of helping someone with their practice.

Having a relatively high level of flexibility and many years of movement training (in the form of martial arts), I generally don’t have that much trouble mimicking postures and following corrective guidance. However, having gotten away from teaching for a little while, I quickly forgot how low the average level of bodily awareness is. Truth be told, I’d probably have been hard-pressed to explain what was so dangerous about that individual’s alignment at the time. I just had an intuitive notion that it wasn’t his skeleton or the correct muscles that were holding him up. I’ve since been working hard to move beyond an intuitive understanding. I’ve been voraciously reading everything about anatomy and body-reading that I can get my hands on–studies above and beyond the requisite anatomy instruction of the course–which itself was substantial.

IMG_12822.) Demonstrate in a smart (and not narcissistic) manner. Of course, demonstration does have its role when you have individuals who’ve not seen the movement or posture before–and if it’s a difficult posture to explain or likely to result in injury if instructions are misinterpreted. Such demonstration is best done with students watching and before they begin to move into the posture. Having only a small, closed group, whose capabilities are known to me, I’ve learned that it’s better for me to demonstrate in a manner that the participants are capable of doing while maintaining safe and stable alignment.

Of course, if one has a class of students with wide-ranging capabilities–or unknown capabilities–one will want to demonstrate as close to the idealized form as one can, so that the more proficient students can work toward that ideal. However, having struggled to master difficult asana (postures), there can be an incentive to show off one’s capability for the sake of… well showing off. If one demonstrates an idealized form that one’s students are incapable of performing, there’s a risk they’ll do something dangerous in an attempt to emulate that form.

3.) Lazy yogis aren’t without virtue. The primary purpose of practicing asana could be said to build a body with which minimal effort is required to maintain a given posture–be it a meditative seated pose or simply standing. Most people have subtle misalignments in their bodies of which they aren’t even aware. They may have chronic or occasional pain that they aren’t remotely aware is tied to being out of alignment.These misalignments end up costing a person a lot of extra effort and pain over the course of a lifetime. Being conscientious about one’s posture is the first step to fixing these problems, and if one spends all one’s time driven to master the next piece of mega-contortionism or acrobatics without learning to be a little lazy, one is missing the point of yoga.

4.) Props aren’t just for old ladies with bad hips. When I started yoga teacher training, I’d never used a block, strap, or bolster, and chairs only for sitting. Since then, I’ve learned a lot from the asana with props training both in the teacher training course, and by attending and observing such courses of my own volition. I think there’s a widespread notion that props are for those who lack the flexibility to do proper yoga and that such classes are exclusively for those people trying to ease into yoga. What one might not realize is that one ends up holding postures much longer in such a class, that one is usually discouraged from using the prop any more than one has to, and that props don’t always make asana easier.

I’m pretty flexible in most of my musculature, but I found that there were areas in which my alignment could definitely be improved by using a prop now and again.

Obviously, this isn't the aforementioned 4 year old boy, but rather one of the young men who could do a handstand while playing soccer.

Obviously, this isn’t the aforementioned 4 year old boy, but rather one of the young men who could do a handstand while playing soccer.

5.) Kids are born yogis. Among the course requirements beyond the studio/classroom was charitable teaching for a nonprofit organization. Our group was fortunate to find an orphanage that was interested in having us. However, we were faced with a challenge. Kids weren’t exactly a demographic we were trained to teach–and yoga isn’t an activity one associates with childhood exuberance. We knew we’d have to make it exciting and challenging to keep their interest, but we also didn’t know what their capabilities would be. Furthermore, we had a wide age range with which to contend. Some of the kids went to elementary school and some to college, as well as those grades in between.

It turned out that even the youngest–a boy of four–was ready to take on all that we could throw at him. Before we even began teaching he eagerly showed us his headstand.

6.) Sadhana is most productive when it’s least cerebral. Sadhana is one’s personal practice–away from the studio. We have to report our experience of 50 hours of Sadhana as part of the “beyond the studio” requirement. It took me a while to get into the grove of this. The act of having to think about and record one’s personal practice can definitely be a buzz-kill. There’s a risk of it turning something fun into a bureaucratic chore. Ultimately, I gave up on trying to capture everything. I get the most out of sadhana when I experiment and play with the flow. Sometimes things flow; sometimes they don’t, but there’s a certain degree of playfulness to it. I don’t like either writing down a sequence and practicing it, or writing it down as it comes to me on the mat.

7.) Avoid teacher – student pitfalls. An instructor in any fitness domain is in a challenging position. One needs to push the student to be the best that they can be. Students expect as much. That’s why they come to gyms and studios rather than just working out at home. Being pushy is part of the instructor’s value added. At the same time, one doesn’t want to push a participant into an injury or even let them push themselves into an injury–if you can avoid it.

Here’s a common interaction. A new student comes to class. Testing the water, the teacher tells them to do a task or posture in a more intense way (i.e. lower, faster, deeper, longer, etc.) One of two things can happen. The student either appears to comply or they don’t. If they don’t comply, it could be because they really think they did comply (new students may have horrible body awareness and lack proprioception [it’s a word; look it up.]) It could be because they are scared to try (new students may have very poor understanding of what their bodies are capable of.) Or, it could be because they really can’t (i.e. they may have a skeletal constraint or a past injury, etc.)

If the student doesn’t appear to try, there’s a risk that the teacher will just forget about trying to challenge that person. Call this pitfall #1–giving up. That person may then come to feel ignored or molly-coddled if they do begin to gain bodily awareness and or confidence that they aren’t going to tear in half like wet newspaper. That is, if they haven’t quit by then.

If the student does give a good-faith effort, the teacher is pleased and will continue to try to keep pushing them harder. This works out great for all concerned until eventually the student does begin to run up against their limits. When they do, there’s the risk that the teacher will begin to think they’ve become lazy (Pitfall #2–mistaking the wall for laziness, which reverts to pitfall #1.) If one has a student that doesn’t seemed challenged at first, one can almost believe their potential is limitless, but they will hit walls eventually. It’ll take time for them to get over the walls they can, and some they never will.

IMG_15498.) People do yoga for many different reasons. Most yoga practitioners are at least vaguely aware why the true believers practice yoga. For the believers, it’s all a road to Samadhi, or liberation from suffering. Of course, there are others who just want to be in better shape and to de-stress, and don’t really believe in Samadhi. Most yogis and yoginis seem to do a good job of tolerating people with other goals, but they don’t necessarily understand each other and their optimal path to where they are going can be quite different.

There are some pretty doctrinaire approaches to yoga out there. Is Power yoga yoga? It has “yoga” right there in the name, but it’s a source of controversy–even though it’s probably among the more yoga-esque of the Western Yoga offshoots. If you’re Bikram Choudhary no one is doing proper yoga unless it’s his patented 26 asana sequence in a room with precise heat and humidity specifications. Some people think you should only practice one sequence until you’ve mastered it, and others believe variety is the spice of life.

I guess the point is to be honest about one’s views on yoga, so that students can make up their own minds about whether one’s objectives align with their own.

9.) Beware of blaming the usual suspects. I have a problem doing certain arm balances. The assumption might be that either a.) I lack the upper body strength, or b.) that I’m afraid of losing balance and falling on my face. Those are the usual problems. I probably wouldn’t be diagnosed with the former based on appearance and performance of other asana (e.g. planks and whatnot), but I might be of the latter. However, countless break-falls done over many years has left me pretty much unafraid of falling from six inches off the floor. The actual culprit? I have one wrist with a poor range of motion (90-degrees of extension on a good day.)

10.) Water in the nose is not nearly as horrible as it would seem. Most people know that there are breathing exercises (pranayama) in Hatha Yoga in addition to the asana. However, some may be unaware that there are a series of cleansing practices (shatkarma or kriya) associated with Hatha Yoga as well. We had to practice some of these, but the only unnerving one we had to learn was jala neti, in which water is poured in one nostril in such a way as to make it come out the other nostril. I imagined it being like the horrible experience of getting a nose-full of sea water while swimming in the ocean. However, I found it entirely harmless. There was no burning, stinging, or feeling waterlogged in the nasal cavity. I will definitely do it again, which is more than can be said for some of the shatkarma practices.

BOOK REVIEW: Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar

Light on Yoga: Yoga DipikaLight on Yoga: Yoga Dipika by B.K.S. Iyengar

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I recently reviewed the book Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha [APMB] and used this book as a point of comparison, and so further insight into my thoughts on this book can gleaned from that review. This will be fairly short and to the point as the APMB review provided a great deal of detail.

Light on Yoga is the work of world-renowned yogi BKS Iyengar. Iyengar is one of several noted students of T.T. Krishnamacharya, and is celebrated for developing a system using props (belts, blocks, chairs, bolsters, etc.) to achieve correct alignment in yogasanas. You won’t learn about props in this book. Iyengar–at least the Iyengar of the 1960’s–didn’t need props to achieve proper alignment. In fact, he was capable of all manner of what can best be described as contortionism.

This book is a solid reference for Hatha Yoga. It covers all the basic asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), bandha (locks), and a large number of variations and advanced asana. Light on Yoga also has an introduction to the eight limbs of yoga (of which asana and pranayama are but two.) There are also helpful appendices like a glossary, a 300-week course outline, and a list of courses for various ailments. The book doesn’t cover shatkarma (cleansing practices) or mudra (sealing postures) in any depth.

The graphics in this book are beneficial and consist of black and white photos of Iyenger performing the asana with his perfect alignment. There are multiple shots of asana as needed either to demonstrate how to enter / exit the posture or to show the completed posture from multiple angles.

As I suggested in APMB review, my biggest complaint with Light on Yoga is that it doesn’t systematically address contraindications, and we don’t learn what evidence supports various claims of benefits.

I’d recommend this book for Hatha Yoga students and teachers. Its strengths make it a valuable text and its weaknesses can be addressed with other books.

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BOOK REVIEW: Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Asana Pranayama Mudra BandhaAsana Pranayama Mudra Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha [APMB] is one of two textbooks used in a yoga teacher training course I recently attended. The other text is BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga. Iyengar’s book is one of the most well-known yoga books in the world, and I, therefore, expected that I would prefer Light on Yoga to the much more utilitarian looking APMB—a book that you’re unlikely to find at your local bookseller (unless, like me, you live in India—in which case it is quite popular.) However, having now read both books, I think I would give an edge to APMB. I don’t usually frame a book review in comparative terms, but–in this case–the books are similar in subject matter, and comparison may benefit the many who have the Iyengar book.

Both works are largely collections of detailed descriptions of yogasanas (postures), breathing methods (pranayama), mudra, bandha, and, in the case of APMB, Shatkarma (cleansing practices.) Shatkarma is not well-known in the West, but it is a series of 6 cleansing practices that, along with asana and pranayama, are part of the trio making up Hatha Yoga.

Before proceeding with this comparison, it should be noted that the APMB is associated with the Bihar–or Satyananda–School of yoga. Indian yogis and yoginis will likely be familiar with this school as a form of Hatha Yoga that was founded in 1964 by Sri Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Western practitioners are less likely to be familiar with the Bihar school as it has not made the same kind of splash in the West as Bikram Yoga (the most famous “hot yoga” style), Iyengar yoga (which uses props when necessary to achieve proper alignment), Power yoga (a faster and more endurance oriented form of yoga), and many other yoga styles with a hook. (I don’t mean to suggest that Westerners need a gimmick to keep their interest in yoga, but, on a whole, they do.) At any rate, while the Bihar School was founded in 1964, the yoga it presents is classical Hatha Yoga, incorporating some of the knowledge gained from modern understanding of anatomy and physiology.

What I liked best about APMB–and why I liked it better than Iyengar’s book– is its superior organization. APMB lists not only the alignments and benefits, but systematically spells out the contra-indications in their own bold headed section. Iyengar indicates contra-indications only sparsely and puts them in with the “effects” section which is mostly benefits. This makes contraindications easy to miss in the Iyengar book. APMB also has bold sections for breathing, awareness, and variations. This might make it seem like APMB would be denser, but it’s not—it’s actually more concise. Most of these subsections are short and to the point. Each asana takes between one and two pages (unless there are several variations.) While Iyengar clumps asana together with a logic, APMB delineates different sub-classes of asana (standing, forward bends, backward bends, etc.) with separate chapters.

One thing that surprised me is that I found APMB to be more forthright and scientific in its approach. I’d always heard Iyengar was modern and relatively scientifically oriented. After all, this is the man who introduced props for students who cannot perform asanas without proper alignment otherwise—so as to avoid injuries. Now I know that the Bihar School is also known for integrating present-day research into its understanding of yoga, but I was initially not so familiar with Bihar. So while both texts are better than most about depicting the risks, as indicated, Iyengar gives short shrift to the contra-indications and occasionally suggests an extreme posture for a severe ailment. While I applaud Iyengar’s passion, I think it has made him prone to see yoga as a panacea for all ills and to downplay the risks—at least in the late 1960’s when Light on Yoga was written. (Both books were written in the late 60’s, but—based solely on the front matter—it appears there may have been more revised editions for the APMB.

I should note that neither book uses citations to provide supporting evidence about what is a benefit or a contraindication. Some of these claims may be supported by scientific studies, some may be supported by experience, but some may just be old wives’ tales handed down based on pseudo-scientific or outmoded beliefs.

APMB doesn’t win hands down in all dimensions. Graphics is one area in which Light on Yoga is much more useful than APMB. Iyengar’s book uses photographs, and given Iyengar’s penchant for perfect alignment, his book’s photos are quite informative. APMB has line drawings, but some of the drawings suggest incorrect alignments (e.g. the knee well forward of the toes in an asana for which the shin should be perpendicular to the floor.) This would be a damning criticism if I thought anyone should or could learn yoga from the drawings in a book, but since I think pictures are just there to remind one of the general form of the asana, I don’t deduct too much for this flaw. [On the other hand, Iyengar is so flexible that his photos can be a little demoralizing for a person incapable of touching his or her skull to his or her coccyx.]

Iyengar’s book also has more information. While Light on Yoga has many more asana, each book has a few postures that the other doesn’t, but—for the most part—both of the books hit all the classic asanas of Hatha Yoga. I don’t give a lot of credit for having more asana or variations because both books have more than enough material to keep beginner, intermediate, and advanced students busy.

What I think may be valuable is the fact that Iyengar covers more background material in greater detail than does the APMB. Iyengar writes extensively on yamas and niyamas, and the other legs of Ashtanga Yoga (not to be confused with Ashtanga Vinyasa–a flowing and strenuous set-sequence form of Hatha Yoga from Mysore). Of course, if you are interested in shatkarmas or mudras, you’ll only get that information in the APMB.

Both books are beneficial references for students and teachers alike(not to suggest that teachers shouldn’t remain forever students, but not all students should be /need be teachers.) I’m particularly pleased to review this book as it may be an opportunity to introduce this book to some outside of India who may not be familiar with it. If you practice Hatha Yoga, you should give this book a look.

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