In the last few days of our training, Tony suggested that we try at 70% of what we usually do. At the time I thought he was letting us rest, encouraging us to be gentle and safe with our tired bodies. Now I realize that he was leading us to a deeper, more complete practice.
When I push myself physically to 100%, I push past where my body tells me is okay. I push to the edge of my physical capability to where I can't possibly stretch farther, I can't possibly squeeze tighter. While this makes 100% for my body, it numbs my mind. When my mind says "Far enough," I say "A little more." When my body says "This is a good stretch," I say "Harder." I am ignoring the natural signals from my body. I am overpowering myself.
When I back off my physical exertion, I go to the place where my body says "Enough." I stop there, and now I can be quiet, I can be still. My body can speak to me and, more importantly, I can hear it because I am not using every ounce of effort to push. When I can hear my body, my alignment becomes clearer, my effort becomes right, and the connection between body, mind and energy becomes strong.
From here my body begins to trust me and opens up. When it asks for a movement from me, a realignment or backing off, I oblige. This way we begin to work together. Less effort on my part now leads to greater depth and stronger energy.
Because no matter how hard I push my body, it is not as strong by itself as it is when in harmony with my mind and energy.
The "Practice" posts are about progress and learning. The pictures and analysis of my own practice help me find areas that need improvement.
Backward bending is one of the keys that continues to unlock my practice. The courage, strength and openness required to bend backwards means that it is always challenging and also very rewarding. It can be frightening business, especially in the early moments of Bikram's class when we are not entirely warm and not fully confident but we are asked to do a full Standing Backbend. And many classes I have attended don't give the student nearly enough time to acclimate and develop the backbend. It takes awhile in the posture. A good 10 breaths and 30-60 seconds before I can get to a place of strength and opening. Patience.
Here are a couple of preparation exercises that I do to open my body and mind to get ready for the full standing backbend.
First, I start with my hands together in front of my chest. (This backbend is common in Ashtanga.) This keeps the center of gravity closer to the pelvis when we bend back, making it less strenuous. This way I can focus on the opening in my front side and worry less about balance and over-compression of my lower back.
I start by dropping my chin back. I generally feel a good stretch on my throat and into the top of my chest. This is my goal in this exercise - to open the front side. Then I slowly begin bending backward, leading with my chin. I pull it away from my pelvis and stretch my front side as much as possible. The magic happens about halfway down when I am looking straight back. My abdominal muscles release and stretch. I go as far as I can and hold it for a few breaths in stillness. Then come back up. (I used to do this before Bikram's class began so that my Standing Backbend was more open. A little bit of cheating.)
Here is a second preparation exercise. This one opens the mid and lower chest more. I start with my hands behind my head. Then drop my head back, stretching my chin up like in the previous exercise. Then I push my chest up and forward, pulling my elbows back to create a stretch across the chest side-to-side as well as up-to-down. Then I deepen the backbend, dropping back. My backbend isn't as deep in this position because of the stretched nature of the chest, but the opening across the front side is intense. This will help when I do the full Standing Backbend.
Next is the Lateral Half Moon. The great Mary Jarvis said that this isn't an actual posture, but a preparation for the real Half Moon which is the backbend. I don't necessarily agree, since this is one of the few postures that achieves a sideways bend in the spine, but it is true that this really does help the backbend. The Lateral Half Moon stretches the sides, shoulders and chest, and it has the same falling motion of the backbend.
You many notice that my palms are flat together instead of interlaced fingers the way that is taught in Bikram's class. This hand position shifts the energy of the posture into the torso and spine. Interlaced fingers encourage pulling with the arms which shifts the energy of the posture into the shoulders and arms. Palms together is slightly more advanced, so beginners should start by interlacing their fingers (like in the pictures below).
An important engagement detail is on the compressed side of the body. This posture is meant to stretch one side of the body, so that side should be as relaxed as possible. There is a certain amount of fear that makes this difficult at first, but it is best to just let the body fall to the side (with proper alignment, of course). To increase the stretch of the posture, instead of pulling through the arms, I engage my compressed side, compressing it further and pushing it upward into my spine. This bends the spine a little more and supports the posture with more strength.
The two sides are going to feel quite different. Welcome to the human race. Our lungs are different sizes on each side (2 lobes on the left, 3 on the right, to make room for the heart), our stomach is on the left, liver on the right, heart on the left, ascending colon on the right, descending on the left, not to mention muscular tightness or any injuries from the past. This posture illuminates asymmetries from the ankles all the way to the wrists. (Especially if you take pictures and look at them side by side!)
Finally, the pose we are building up to, the Standing Backbend. Once I have done all of the previous warm-ups/preparations, my body is sufficiently open to do this backbend without fear, or at least with less. It is true what they say, that the hardest part of backbending is fear. Fear that I will fall on my head, fear that my back will snap in half, simple neurological discomfort from stretching the energy meridians on the front side of the body.
In my experience, the sticking point in the Standing Backbend happens about 1/4 of the way into the posture (the 2nd picture above). This is a valid backbend, opening the front side of the body and beginning to challenge the balance. We are not used to shifting our center of gravity in this direction. It is scary.
This is the point where courage is necessary, and Bikram's cue "fall back" is so valuable. It is very tough to power slowly further into the pose. I have to release my front side muscles, which means that they will stop holding me up. A terrifying prospect. Hopefully all the warm ups we have done have prepared us for this point. I basically have to let myself fall until I am about parallel to the ground (picture 3 above). That is the extent of my front side flexibility, where my body stops me.
From that point I compress the muscles in my back as evenly as possible, relax my front side, especially my abdominal muscles, and I stretch long with my arms, opening my upper chest and shoulders. Hold stillness here for a few breaths. Then come up.
In conclusion, it seems to me that Backbending is about two major things: stretching the front side and overcoming fear. When I am not warm enough and I try to bend back, my throat and chest lock up and I panic. So I have begun stretching the front side first with these exercises, and I can prevent a lot of that tightness and fear from happening. If you find your front side locking up or are having difficulty bending back very far, try lowering your arms to your chest. The fully extended Standing Backbend is really a demanding posture, one that should be approached with more respect and preparation.
According to Swami Rama, a yoga guru who could control the temperature of his skin and the rate of his heart, the real goals of yoga are to attain serenity and total freedom from suffering.
From "Yoga As Medicine" by Timothy McCall, M.D.
Why does doing yoga give us more confidence? It is simple. It gives us greater understanding and control of the vessel in which we exist - our body. And it makes that vessel stronger and more capable.
Do you remember when you were 15 years old and you got behind the wheel of a car for the first time? How slowly, awkwardly and timidly you operated? You didn't understand the machine you were operating, so you did it with caution. The same is true for our bodies.
When we disregard our bodies, when we let them get stiff and weak, feed them bad food, we lose the connection. We become like a 15 year old behind the wheel of a car. We move slowly, awkwardly and cautiously. Yoga practice is largely about understanding and connecting to this wonderful piece of machinery we were all given - our body. We test it, we stretch it, we strengthen it, we give it the right fuel. It is no wonder that our confidence builds, our comfort and ease build.
As I learn, my understanding grows and my questions get more demanding. I continue to find depth and completeness in the Ghosh system and specifically in Tony's approach to the yoga.
Today I am appreciative of the balanced physical approach to the body. Two things: the strength and flexibility of all areas of the body, and the therapeutic compression and extension of the internal organs and structures. These two focuses, which are significant in and of themselves, make what I perceive to be a complete physical practice. They will make the body healthy and strong.
Of course, physical practice, physical health is only one part of yoga. One of the first steps. Ghosh/Tony also focus on stillness, and I am now realizing that the stillness is less for the physical benefits than the mental. Creating stillness in the body calms the mind and connects it to the body. This is Pratyahara, turning the focus inward.
What of the breath? During posture practice, Ghosh does not emphasize the marriage of breath and movement the way that other traditions do. There are specific Pranayama exercises for this, but it is not at the center of the posture practice. I am beginning to think of Pranayama (breath/energy awareness and control) as linked to Pratyahara (inward awareness). Our breath is something we can observe or we can control. When we observe it, Pratyahara. When we control it, Pranayama.
As I move forward with my practice, I think about what to present to students of yoga as I become a teacher. What of the physical aspects, the anatomy and physiology? What of the breathing, inner strength and focus? What of the calm mind? What of the integrating lessons from yoga into life at large?
Hip instability is a very common problem among yogis. Most postures move forward and back, especially in beginning classes, allowing significant adduction and abduction weakness. More women than ever, especially yoginis, are requiring hip replacements at a young age. And I have weak hips that have caused IT Band and knee issues. I just came across this publication full of pelvic stabilization exercises from Princeton University. This is from the paper's introduction:
Pelvic Stabilization program is geared toward improving the function and strength of the pelvis and hip regions which will address faulty movement pattern. Lower back, hip, knee and ankle problems can be affected
The whole thing is here.
Yesterday I attended two classes. The morning class was a semi-private affair at a friend's house. Only five of us including the teacher. She led us through a pretty rigorous sequence of twists and headstands, so by the end of the practice my back and shoulders were completely worn out. I left feeling like I had a workout, but lacking that sense of calm and completeness that usually accompanies a yoga practice.
Then in the evening I attended Ida's class at Puja. Again it was a small affair, 5 of us. But it was late in the day and the energy level was much lower. After the warm up, she skipped the standing balancing postures and went straight to the therapeutic ones. We spent most of the class doing the Cobra Series, Fixed Firm Series, Stretching Series and Double Sided Series. At the end I was calm, centered, balanced. Feeling good.
Here are some things that Tony Sanchez said during our time with him.
ON YOGA IN GENERAL:
The only thing we are going after is health.
The foundation of yoga is nutrition.
Are you here to master the postures or are you here to heal your body?
Most people, teachers included, have been trained to look at postures from the outside in. We must look at the postures from the inside out.
ON PRACTICE AND PROGRESS:
Go to the place where you can be proper and find stillness. This will give you the greatest benefits. If you push past this point to your extreme, the benefits will not be as great.
The postures that are the most difficult are the ones that you need the most. Go into them slowly. Let your body adjust, strengthen and stabilize. When doing the exercise, when you reach the point where you feel your body go out of alignment to go deeper, stop there.
The objective is not to do the exercise perfectly, but to do it as perfectly as your body can at this moment, then to find the stillness.
Even if we can never put ourselves into the postures perfectly, the struggle, the process makes us learn, makes us wise.
The postures don't adapt to us. We adapt to the postures.
Don't modify the posture to accommodate the weakness in the body. Modify the body to fit the alignment and posture.
As you practice, certain things that you had to focus on before will be unnecessary. That is progress. Allow yourself to embrace new techniques, new concepts.
When you teach, you have to be able to work with people as a group and with people as individuals.
If you present a violent, aggressive class, people become that way. If you present a still, calm, focused class, people become that way.
Teaching begins with individual understanding. When the path is maintained for a period of time, a certain clarity is achieved. With this clarity, one can begin to explain steps or a path to other people.
Communicate with the students. Find out about injuries, what may not be working for them. Don't be afraid to say you don't know and then do research.
We must find what the student needs. If they have showed up there is some sort of desire on their part. There is some openness. Start there.
When you practice yourself, you use discretion in your choice of postures and how hard you push yourself. Many students, especially beginning students, won't have that awareness or discretion. As the teacher, you have to be extra aware and act as their discretion.
Focus your energy on the people who are struggling with the postures. Make the corrections. They need your help more. The advanced practitioners are already on their own path.
Help the people that need help.
If people benefit, that is your reward. You don't have to get credit for it.
Share your knowledge. Give it to the world with no strings attached.
Behave the way you want to see the world behave.
Everything from the outside is borrowed knowledge. From the inside is true knowledge.
There is no longer a need for a guru. So much knowledge is readily available, all you need is the discipline to seek it. In other times, if you wanted knowledge you had to surrender to a guru to get the knowledge.
A lot of people have been taught to be dependent. They have not been empowered.
The "Practice" posts are about progress and learning. The pictures and analysis of my own practice help me find areas that need improvement.
This morning I took some time and tried to improve the engagement and alignment of my Chair Poses. There are 3 main variations of Chair in the Ghosh Lineage, and even though they look similar, the engagement of the back and legs is actually very different between the postures.
The first part is simple enough. Feet flat on the floor and sit down halfway. The tricky part is in the back. Some teachers encourage an arched back where you pull your chest up and curve your lower back so your upper body is upright and looks like a ski slope. When we discussed this posture with Tony and he demonstrated, his back was almost completely straight. I have looked at some pictures of Chair Poses from other traditions and read some anatomy books, trying to figure out if there is a good reason to either arch the back or keep it straight. I have found evidence of straight backed and arched back Chair Poses. But I can't find any good anatomical evidence to arch the back in this pose, so I am going to practice keeping it straight for awhile.
Keeping the back straight is complicated in this position because the quads are so engaged. It is easy to just let them pull the top of the pelvis forward which would then arch the back. Straightening the lower back requires some relaxation of the quads and some engagement of the hamstrings to tilt the pelvis back a little and flatten the low spine.
The second part, Chair On Toes, is the power posture of this little sequence. Being up on the toes really changes the alignment of the legs, so the calves, quads, hamstrings, abs and back all engage differently. The flat back is easier to achieve in this position because the center of gravity is further forward. I was surprised to find that my hip and back engagement was easier and stronger from practicing the first part with a flat back. (This reminds me of the pelvic tilt in Eagle Pose, where I have been finding more stability and power by tilting the pelvis back. But that is for another time.)
The third part, Chair On Heels, is challenging in its simplicity. This is a posture that requires very little muscular effort compared to the first two parts, and yogis have been trying to make it harder and harder. This is actually a pretty gentle posture, a safe and engaged way to bend deeply into the knees, warming them up. Some yogis like to hold their hips up an inch off of their heels for the power in the quadriceps. What this is more likely to do, especially over time, is to strain the tendons in the front of the knees. The same goes for the 'bouncing,' another great way to strain the knees. We are still warming the body at this point in the series, and we need to open it gradually.
Standing up out of Chair On Heels is another great place to strain the knees. A gentler way to come up is to bring the upper body forward, letting the hips go back and the feet come flat on the floor. It doesn't look nearly as bad-ass as powering straight back up out of this position, but it takes the pressure off of the knees.
I have been doing some strength training for the past couple months to compliment my yoga practice. From the start I have been worried that lifting weights and doing exercises to build strength would limit the range of motion in my muscles and joints. I have been monitoring the depth of my postures as I start to lift more weight, and to my surprise all my postures have gotten deeper. I have seen absolutely no stiff side effects to the weight lifting. Quite the opposite, really. I think the strength training is making me more flexible. I have two theories why that may be true.
1) Stronger muscles mean that I can engage with more power. With more back strength I can straighten my back more. With more abdominal and quad strength I can pull my upper body and lower body together with more force. But the place where I have noticed it the most is in my hips. I have been doing Squats, Deadlifts and One-Legged Bridges (like the Bridge pose in yoga) that have made a huge difference in the strength of my hips, gluts, hamstrings and quads. So in a posture like Tree Pose, I have much more strength to pull my knee back. I never realized how the strength of one muscle can aid the stretch of another.
2) My second reason is a little bit more theoretical. I think that the strength in my muscles is increasing the stability of my joints. And since "flexibility" is a neurological relationship between the muscles, the nerves and the brain by which our nervous systems halt further movement when they sense danger, I think that increased stability in my joints is relaxing my nervous system. My body can sense greater stability and therefore it is willing to permit greater length and greater depth. More strength means less chance of injury, so a deeper stretch is possible.
This journal honors my ongoing experience with the practice, study and teaching of yoga.
1) Sridaiva Yoga: Good Intention But Imbalanced
2) Understanding Chair Posture
2) Why I Don't Use Sanskrit or Say Namaste
3) The Meaningless Drudgery of Physical Yoga
5) Beyond Bikram: Why This Is a Great Time For Ghosh Yoga