Pushing our bodies actually widens the divide between our egos and our true, unified self.
Our bodies are constantly giving us signals about their status. Pain, tightness, soreness, energy and sluggishness are all signals from our bodies about how they are feeling and what they are capable of at any given moment. In yoga practice, we become acutely aware of these bodily signals, and we adjust our effort and intention accordingly.
Anytime our bodies say "back off," we should respect that and back off. If we ignore our bodies' cues, or worse, push past them, we are simply exerting ego/mind control over our bodies. Ignoring the bodies' signals does not promote the unity or cooperation of mind and body. It makes the body submissive to the mind and declares that the concerns of the body are not the concerns of the mind.
Strength and flexibility are not a function of will, but a function of cooperation, understanding and trust between the mind and body. To establish this trust, we must be gentle when our body gives us signals of pain or soreness. Our body will then reward us by unlocking some of its capability. When our body and mind become unified, the body begins to trust and feel comfortable with more vulnerability, like deeper opening.
If we force the body or try to open it through willfulness or power, it will resist us in order to protect itself. Why would our bodies open if we show them that we are willing to use force regardless the feedback? Or if we are careless and thoughtless with how we use them?
The other day I posted a short version of the Full Cobra Series to Instagram. Since those videos have to be cut down to 15 seconds, I thought it might be nice to post a longer version here, to show the transitions a bit more.
This is the Full Cobra Series. I practice this after the regular Cobra Series that consists of Cobra, Locust, Full Locust and Bow. The Full Cobra Series has 6 postures and one preparation pose.
1) Full Cobra 1 - This pose uses the strength of the arms to bend the back. I focus on opening my chest, throat and shoulders in this pose.
2) Full Cobra 2 - This is the same body position as Full Cobra 1 but without the aid of the arms. This posture is all about the strength of the back lifting the body.
3) Full Cobra 3 - This pose adds the bend of the legs, bringing the feet to the top of the head. A full circle of energy created by the foot-head connection.
Full Bow Preparation - I use this Preparation to open the shoulders and chest. The hand position is the same as in Full Bow, but without flipping the shoulders forward.
6) Full Bow 1 - Feet kicking straight up, stretching the chest and shoulders and bending the back deeply.
7) Full Bow 2 - Feet come to the head. A peaceful pose.
8) Full Bow 3 - Feet come to the shoulders. This challenges the length on the front side of the body, stretching from the chin through the abdomen to the toes.
I have been meditating a lot lately, and doing a lot of breathing exercises. It was just the other day that I realized I had been sitting comfortably for 45 minutes. I hadn't fidgeted or been distracted by a sore foot, knee or back.
This is a significant landmark in my practice - the ability to sit still and focused to meditate and breathe.
Since I began practicing yoga I have had trouble with meditation, mostly because I had trouble sitting still without discomfort. Now, after 3 1/2 years of dedicated practice, I think I am at a new level - I can begin to meditate and breathe in earnest. My body is ready to begin (or move forward).
The Postures of yoga are largely intended to get us to this point - to make us flexible enough and strong enough to sit still and free of distraction. I am happy that my yoga posture practice has brought me to this place.
"Developing a yoga practice according to the ideas expressed in the Yoga Sutra is an action referred to as vinyasa krama. Krama is the step, nyasa means "to place," and the prefix vi- translates as "in a special way." The concept of vinyasa krama tells us that it is not enough to simply take a step; that step needs to take us in the right direction and be made in the right way."
"Vinyasa krama thus describes a correctly organized course of yoga practice. It is a fundamental concept in yoga having to do with constructing a gradual and intelligent course for our practice, and is important to employ irrespective of whether we are dealing with asana practice, pranayama, or some other aspect of yoga. We start our practice where we are and look toward a certain goal. Then we choose the steps that will lead us toward realizing that goal and will then gradually bring us back into our everyday life. But our daily practice does not return us to the exact place we started. The practice has changed us."
"A famous yogi of old named Vamana is reputed to have said that without vinyasa the asanas of yoga cannot be mastered. The concept of vinyasa krama is useful as a guide for carrying out not only our yoga practice but also all the tasks of our everyday life."
From "The Heart Of Yoga" by TKV Desikachar
Our bodies are assaulted by a constant and significant downward force: gravity. It has weighed us down since the moment we were born and it will continue to do so even after we die. We are fortunate to have a rigid structure in our bodies that allows us to be upright, even against the force of gravity - our bones.
Muscles are designed for motion, not stability. Quite simply, muscles move the bones into position so the bones can transfer our body's weight into the ground. The muscles themselves do not transfer the weight.
The goal of physical yogic practice (asana) is to optimize the systems of the body so they can function with the least amount of effort - maximum efficiency. One reason that so many yogic traditions emphasize alignment is that an aligned position is the way in which our skeletal structure can most efficiently transfer our weight into the ground. This means that the best alignment is often the position of least effort.
To develop our muscles, we can take our bodies out of alignment so that our muscles instead of our bones bear the weight of the body. Good examples of this are Low Plank and Chair Pose. We purposely circumvent the body's weight bearing structure by bending the arms or legs. Then the muscles of the arms (Low Plank) or legs (Chair) become responsible for bearing the weight. These positions are good for short periods of time to build muscular strength.
Our heels are huge powerful bones, as are our femurs (thigh bones), tibias (shin bones) and pelvis. These are the structures designed to hold the hundreds of pounds of our bodies upright against gravity. Our toes are not designed for weight bearing. They are small, mobile structures for balance and motion. We can bear weight on them for short periods of time, but there is little value in over-building their strength.
The goal of yogic physical practice (asana) is to develop the body to it's greatest natural capacity, not to exert our mental control over its abilities and shaping them to our will. We must understand the natural functions of the body before we begin to practice. Anatomy, physiology and kinesiology are great places to start - learning how the body's systems are designed and what their purposes might be.
Bikram's class, consisting of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises in 90 minutes and 105 degrees is for beginners. Bikram himself even calls it "Bikram's Beginning Yoga Class." The same elements of this class that make it great for beginners make it bad for more advanced practitioners. Here are 4 specific examples: the mirrors, the heat, the dialogue and the constant effort.
1) The mirrors. Each Bikram studio is outfitted with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, so we get to watch ourselves do every posture and sweat every drop. For beginners this is great because it encourages a connection between what we look like and how our body feels. We can start to associate what a straight leg looks like with how it feels. The same is true for straight arms, even hips, straight spine, engaged muscles, right angles, etc. With the mirrors, we can see the alignment and then our body can remember how it feels.
As our practice becomes more advanced, we can get rid of the mirrors and even our eyesight altogether, using only the feeling of our body to do the postures. If we continue to use the mirrors, our eyesight draws our attention out of our body, away from inner presence and feeling.
2) The heat. Bikram's yoga is hot. We sweat like crazy, our blood pressure drops and our heart rate increases as our body tries to cool itself. The heat is great for beginners because it warms and loosens the muscles. This means that we can stretch further and faster than we ever could at room temperature. With the heat our progress into flexibility is very fast. We gain confidence quickly.
As our practice becomes more advanced, the heat becomes our enemy for two reasons. First, it short circuits the nerves in our muscles, so we can't feel pain or sensation in them. While this was helpful to get beginners to stretch farther, once we are moving deeply into the postures, our muscle-nerve feedback is of the utmost importance. It is how we relate to the posture and know when we are going too far. Second, the heat drains our energy. When our body is in such a hot environment, it sheds energy (as heat) as quickly as possible. So after a class, our body is depleted of its life force and, as any yogi will tell you, a significant element of yoga practice is retaining and working with our body's natural energy supply.
3) The incessant dialogue. In Bikram's class, the teacher talks non-stop. Every second is filled with instruction and guidance. For beginners, this is wonderful because it prevents us from thinking about anything else. It is impossible for our minds to wander when the teacher is talking at us constantly. Our minds become present, and that is important.
As our practice becomes more advanced, our minds can be present and free from wandering without the constant talk from a teacher. When this peace and stillness can be achieved in the mind, the Bikram's dialogue actually becomes the distraction, pulling the attention into the ears and the brain as we listen. We want our attention to be internal, not drawn outward by the senses.
4) The push push push. One of the hallmarks of Bikram's class is the constant demand for more effort. We are never working hard enough, never pushing far enough. For beginners this is great because we generally have far greater physical capacity than we think we do. We are fearful so we don't stretch very far. We are insecure so we don't push very hard. By demanding more effort, Bikram's class pushes us past what we think we are capable of doing. This is another reason why progress is so fast for beginners - the mental barriers and limitations get broken down quickly.
As our practice becomes more advanced, we become more familiar with the limitation of our bodies as we approach their true capability. At this deeper level, pushing can lead to injury almost as easily as it can lead to progress. As we move deeper we must listen to our bodies more than we tell them what to do.
Aside from those four elements, Bikram's class is brilliant and powerful yoga for all levels, even the most advanced practitioners. The postures, the sequencing, the second sets - it is hard to find fault with those elements.
Every atom in our bodies is made of energy
Nothing more, nothing less
The same energy that makes the atoms of the air around us
The buildings and the people
The stars and the mud
Are all made of atoms, of energy
We are all connected, but it is more than that
We are all the same, but it is more than that
There is no "we"
If there are any postures that we hate, there are two possible reasons:
1) We are doing it wrong. Our physical alignment or our muscular engagement could be off, not allowing our body to settle into the posture. Each posture is designed to work with the human body, so (aside from the unusual exception) they should all work for all of us. If it feels wrong, chances are we are not doing it properly.
2) We have a blockage. Physical, emotional and spiritual injuries manifest in our bodies. They can appear as tight muscles, sore areas, fear or upwelling emotion. We all have these blockages. Common areas are in the hips and pelvis, the lower abdomen and intestines, the heart and chest and neck, and the shoulders. When we start to open these areas and are overwhelmed by panic, fear, anger, grief or other emotions it is because of a blockage. Be patient, back off a bit and work into it slowly and with courage. It will heal bit by bit.
I have had my share of postures that I considered my enemies. Warriors 1 & 2, Cobra, Locust, Camel. When I get tired of fearing the postures and skimming through them, I slow everything down. I go back to the start, build the posture from the ground up and try to relax as much as possible. I usually start very shallow in the posture but doing it correctly. Before long, my muscles grow strong, my joints open and my body comes to love the pose. Then the pose deepens. Next thing I know, I am doing the pose well and deeply on a physical level and also loving it and learning from it on a psychological level.
We should try to love every posture. They love us.
This weekend Ida and I went to Chicago to spend 3 days with Ana Forrest. The weekend was split into 5 classes with slightly different focuses: Celebrating Your Practice, The Heart, The Core, The Back and Inversions.
The first thing that a person notices about Ana is her no-nonsense style. She is not afraid of plain language, even cursing. She tells us not to indulge our usual 'shit' and to stay present and in our bodies. She tells us to be stronger, because letting our weaknesses define us is selling ourselves short.
The room is full of women. In a group of about 100 students, I am one of 5 men. The energy is palpably feminine. Ana's love yourself, heal yourself message apparently speaks very strongly to women.
In regards to the postures that Ana teaches, she is set apart by 4 things: 1) Long holds, and I mean long. There were times when we spent more than 10 minutes in variations of Warrior 1 and Warrior 2. 2) Abdominal work. Every class has substantial ab strengthening near the beginning. It warms the body and strengthens the midsection. 3) Active Feet. She encourages engaged feet with toes spread and pulled back at all times, in every posture. 4) Relaxed neck. Almost always, she doesn't want us holding up our heads or twisting our necks. They stay relaxed and drooping, stretching the neck muscles and staying away from tension.
Every class started with a significant Pranayama/Breathing section. She usually put us into a hip opening seated posture like Cow Face (she calls it Knee Pile). We proceeded to practice breath retention, balancing breath, even Uddiyana Bandha. I was so happy that she taught Uddiyana. I haven't found anyone else that incorporates it into their classes. She even did Agni Sara (Breath of Fire) during two of the classes.
Ana's practice is very advanced. She can demo every single posture that she teaches, and her demonstrations are deeper, stronger and stiller than any of the students. Certainly a mark of a great asana teacher.
There were 3-4 assistants for every class. They walked through the students, adjusting postures and assisting. Their strength, calm and understanding was amazing. Their touch and guidance never failed to move a student deeper or more correctly into a posture, and their control of energy was also apparent. If nothing else, the depth of understanding of the Forrest Assistants speaks very highly of the training that Ana offers.
My least favorite part of the experience was the boisterous way that many students approached the classes. There was more than a little moaning during long holds, loud sighs of relief on their release, and all out cheering when the abdominal section was finished. It was a bit tribal for my conception of yoga practice.
Over the course of 5 classes, I grew very fond of Ana herself. She is tough and uncompromising while also being incredibly gentle and patient. Her joy and generosity in teaching is inspiring.
There is much debate over Bikram's "locking the knee" in balancing postures, especially in Standing Head to Knee. There are a couple good reasons to straighten the standing leg, but oddly none of them have to do with the strength of the quadricep or the health of the knee. I will write about those another time.
There are three significant and concrete reasons not to lock the knee, especially for beginners.
1) Locking the knee engages the quadriceps on the front of the thigh which sympathetically relaxes the back side of the thigh, our hamstrings. But our hamstrings actually carry a lot of the weight of this posture. As we bend forward our center of gravity shifts forward. In order to hold the posture, the back side of our body becomes tight to transfer the weight through our torso into the standing leg and then the ground. People talk a lot about hyperextension of the knee, which is a symptom of this hamstring dis-engagement. The hamstrings should actually be engaged and strong in any standing posture.
2) A slightly bent knee shifts the center of gravity backward, centering it over the standing foot and allowing for even engagement of all the muscles of the body. If we try to shift the weight forward, putting the hips directly over the standing foot, we put tremendous strain on the body as it tries to overcome the laws of physics to keep the body from falling forward. If we bend the knee slightly, the hips shift back and the posture becomes much more balanced and effortless.
3) A slightly bent knee allows for easier balance. When the knee is bent and mobile, it becomes another point that can move and adjust to aid in the balance of the posture. Quite simply, if we immobilize the knee, any balance adjustment has to come from somewhere else. We become perched upon a 3 foot rod (our locked leg) that makes balancing very difficult. For this reason, "locking the knee" is one of the most advanced things we can do in Standing Head to Knee. It demands tremendous control and balance.
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