Kasper Van Den Wijngaard, the 2010 Asana Champion. Beautiful. Humbling.
I practiced the Ashtanga Primary Series today. Holy crap, it is hard! I am not super-familiar with the postures, so I had to expend a lot of effort aligning and assessing. Not to mention all the Vinyasas and the movement to breath. So many complex postures, too. Half Lotus folds, full Lotus and twists. This is hard stuff! I have a lot of learning to do.
Last night, in place of my usual posture practice, I did about 90 minutes of Pranayama (energy, focus and breathing) exercises followed by a Qigong standing meditation.
During the Energy Extensions (Pranayama), I focused on breath retention and evenness of breath and stillness of mind, noticing the changes within my body as I practiced.
The Qigong standing meditation puts the body in a position to allow free flow of energy and holds it there. Over time, about 10 minutes, the energy in the body starts to break down blockages and flow more strongly.
I did this practice last night in an attempt to calm my mind and strengthen my energy. I woke up this morning feeling the most focused and centered that I have in weeks.
Prana is energy. It fills each of us and the whole universe. Physically it manifests as heat, light and electricity, and these things effect our bodies and minds profoundly.
For years, I have noticed that I have more energy when I practice in the daytime. Noon is best for strength and focus, the brightest time of day. In the evening when it gets dark, my energy diminishes greatly. I clearly draw strength, energy and focus from the light.
I think the same can be said for practicing in heat, because heat is powerful energy too. When we are surrounded by heat, our bodies and minds become supercharged with energy. We are stronger and more focused, filled with Prana.
The tricky thing about practicing in heat is that it raises our body temperature, and our body reacts in a multitude of ways. Often our bodies continue cooling themselves long after we have left the hot yoga room. Our body temperatures are still high, and they continue to shed heat for some time. I usually feel deeply chilled 30-60 minutes after leaving a hot class because my body has dumped so much heat.
We might be able to counteract this heat loss by staying after a practice and "cooling down" in the warm room. Somehow we need to keep our bodies in a safe and warm environment until our core temperature returns to normal and our body restabilizes.
As I read Desikachar's The Heart Of Yoga, he writes about going very gently into postures, only as far as we can go without changing the depth and quality of the breath. I find this in contrast to the Bikram philosophy that we are capable of far more than we think, so we should push ourselves past our comfort. Only then will we even approach what we are truly capable of. I find myself torn between these two philosophies, but leaning a bit toward Bikram's.
So often, our physical body manifests the fears of our ego. We find backbending difficult, deep stretching of the hips is frightening and uncomfortable. These are places in our body that have become shelters for emotional distress and neurological self-soothing. If we are to unify the body and mind, we must be courageous enough to approach, experience and face discomfort and fear head on.
When I practice postures, I strive to have a clear, calm and courageous mind. Some say that the breath is a signifier of the state of the mind, but I don't agree. The breath is a physical action, moved by muscles that might be compressed, extended or twisted. So the nature of the breath can change. But the mind can maintain its calm observation and connection throughout.
The breath is a signifier of what is happening physically - how much we are pushing, how comfortable we are or how extended. But I can be in a posture, physically uncomfortable and extended, and still have a calm observing mind. Perhaps even more 'out there' - there may be a separation between two minds during practice. One mind is my ego, full of pride and fear. The other is calm and observant, connecting with my body, noting pain or discomfort, both patient and unafraid.
A response to 6 Reasons You Should Stop Obsessing Over Alignment In Yoga Class by Maya Devi Georg.
1) Alignment Connects the Body and the Mind
Before we can become connected to the community around us or to the divine, we must first become unified within ourselves. This is the first separation that Yoga (union) strives to overcome: the separation between the body and the mind.
To connect the body and mind we must get them to work together, so we practice Asana. In Asana practice, alignment is simply the mind's way of understanding what happens naturally in the body. When we understand the body’s anatomy and the proper alignment of its parts, we strengthen the connection between the mind and the body.
If we ignore anatomy and alignment and teach the student only to be comfortable, the separation between the body and mind will not be broken down. The separation will only be reinforced as the student avoids discomfort and does what makes them feel safe.
2) Alignment Is Necessary To Avoid Injury.
If we understand anatomy and kinesiology, which deal with how the body is put together and how it works together, we have a much better chance of distinguishing between what is uncomfortable and what is damaging. There is a right way for our spines to curve when we stand, and there is a right way for our shoulders to move when we lift our arms. When we understand the body and its proper function, we can use it more effectively and more safely. Without a thorough knowledge of anatomy and alignment, how will we know when we, or a student, is doing a posture in a way that will hurt us/him/her?
3) Proper Alignment Will Take You Deeper, Safer
When we put our bones, muscles and tissues where they were designed to be, and when we ask them to do what they were designed to do, it is remarkable how they accommodate us. When we align our bodies properly in the postures, the body and mind relax and our energy becomes unhindered. We end up being able to move deeper into the postures simply because we are using our body correctly. It may start out uncomfortably as the muscles try to do what they've never done, but when our body is in alignment, ease and steadiness appear.
4) Proper Alignment Will Allow You To Practice For Your Whole Life
We can push ourselves into mis-aligned postures for a while, especially if we are young. Over time, a few years perhaps, this takes a significant toll on our joints and our connective tissue. Our tendons and ligaments will become strained, our joints will become loose and imbalanced. (Our muscles will probably be fine because they can heal so quickly.)
Yoga can be a lifelong practice, not just acrobatics for the young. If we intend to practice into old age, we need our bodies to be strong and healthy. We cannot be pushing them in ways they were not meant to be pushed. We must learn how our bodies are designed and work with them using proper alignment.
5) No Two Bodies Are the Same, But They're All Similar
We have physical differences, but we are mostly the same. We all have tibias and femurs that connect in a hinge at the knee. We all have vertebrae with discs in-between, muscles that wrap our shoulders, and muscles that run down our stomach.
It is our job as teachers to recognize the diverse physicality of the students - where are they strong? where are they tight? - and modify the postures for their bodies. By teaching the students what is happening in their bodies, they can begin to connect with what they are feeling. When they understand both the intent of the posture and the unique limitations of their own bodies, they can modify the posture for themselves. Until then, it is up to us to uphold the integrity of the posture and adapt it to the student's unique body and mind.
6) We Need More Alignment, Not Less
With so many bodily variables in mind, we need to consider alignment and anatomy even more deeply and with more complexity. We need to understand each different body and be able to respond to any limitation. While there may not be one single way to do a posture, ignoring anatomy and alignment is running away when we should be staying to fight. As teachers and as yogis we should understand the body, the mind, and the connection between the two with as much sophistication as possible. And we should pass that knowledge on. We must promote an expansion of knowledge instead of an abandonment of it.
"We should endeavor to bring [the] qualities of gentleness and steadiness to our asana practice, all the while making sure that we exert progressively less effort in developing them."
From 'The Heart Of Yoga' by TKV Desikachar.
Cobra Pose is one of the greatest gifts that Hatha Yoga has to offer us. It also just happens to be one of the few postures that has been studied, albeit only slightly, by modern science. Among its greatest benefits are strong erector muscles along the back of the body, a powerful remedy for our western culture's tendency to sit for long periods of time hunched over.
The front side of the chest and throat get good stretches, improving our posture and spines and doing more mystical things (until we can quantify them with our science) like opening energy channels and chakras. Our heart and throat chakras house our confidence, love and our expression.
Internally, the Cobra compresses the kidneys, adrenal glands and pancreas in the mid-back. It compresses the back-side of the lungs while stretching their front, same for the intestines.
Scientifically, the Cobra has been shown to decrease Cortisol levels. The compression of the adrenal glands helps them relax. Lower Cortisol means lower stress. Lower stress means better health everywhere in the body. And in a fast, high-pressure culture like ours, lower stress could save our lives.
Also, the Cobra has been shown to increase Testosterone levels in both men and women. The pressure of the pelvis and reproductive organs into the ground stimulates its production. This means greater self-confidence and self-esteem, a stronger sense of self. Combine the two, lower stress and higher self-esteem, and the Cobra becomes a kind of one-stop anti-depressant, anti-stress posture.
That said, I used to hate Cobra Pose. Hate it. The strength required from the back muscles was terribly uncomfortable, and the distress caused by the front-side stretch was intolerable. I hated it so much that when we got to it in class, I would pretend to be tired and just lay resting until it had safely passed. This went on for a period of a few months. The same pattern: work hard in the first half of class, act tired during the Cobra series, and then rejoin the class once Cobra was done.
One day I figured I had to face my demons if I wanted to make any progress. I wasn't getting any better at the Cobra by avoiding it. And they say that the postures that are the hardest are the ones we need the most. So I decided to start doing the Cobra. I started small, barely lifting my head and shoulders off the ground. I just tried to get my body alignment right and breath through it. The psychological stress was far more taxing than the physical effort, but I tried to remove as much fear and discomfort from the posture as possible. If I started feeling claustrophobic, I would simply back off to a place where my mind could observe calmly.
A few months went by like this: me barely in the posture, but slowly becoming comfortable with the physical sensations and watching my neuroses evaporate. I could feel my back muscles strengthening, gradually lifting me higher. I experimented with lifting my chin, which was a great way to remind myself how tight and close to panic I really was.
About a year after I began to face the Cobra head on, I realized that I had come to love the entire Cobra series. I had overcome a lot of systemic fear in my body, so my backbends were deeper and my confidence was generally higher. And because I had approached the pose with such delicacy and patience instead of just pushing into the stretch and fear, I developed a calm intimacy with my body in the posture.
Now the Cobra is one of my favorite postures. Even if I can't get a complete practice in, I try to find time to do the Cobra everyday. I can feel it calm me and empower me.
Why doesn't my body want to move today? Why doesn't it want to stretch? Why is my mind wandering like a stray dog? Why am I craving sugar and television? Why do I want to sit, immobile?
I know what is good for me and what is bad. My body knows too. Why isn't it easier to be healthy? Why isn't my body craving motion, stretching, strength and spinach? Why is it so desirable to be stationary, caffeinated and unhealthy?
I will be teaching a new class called Yoga XL. The class will be designed for people with larger bodies, tall or wide. The yoga will be very slow, focusing on strength, flexibility, internal health and digestion.
Yoga XL will be every Tuesday from 12-1pm at Satya Yoga on Madison's west side.
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