Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga Explained

“I have found Ashtanga Yoga to be the most complete and balanced routine of physical for the development of stamina, strength and flexibility. Further, its application as a therapeutic tool in the treatment and recovery from sports related injury is unsurpassed.”
Dr Calvo (President, Texas Center for Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Surgery)

So you think that Ashtanga is that Power Yoga practice, where you need to be an athlete to do it? You're burning calories and working up a sweat. This is the Yoga to take if you want to get into shape. It's not about that meditative-type stuff. Let`s separate the myths out – yes you do get pretty sweaty practicing Ashtanga Yoga and actually, yes, you will become very physically fit if you practice it regularly but it's also all about focus and meditation, along with breathing. If you want to get really literal about it, Ashtanga is Yoga.

The heart of Ashtanga practice is the six series of linked postures which last anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours. Most people only get as far as the first two series, the Primary Series, or/ and the Intermediate Series. The Primary Series is the foundation and meant to detoxify the body. Many Forward Bends are included. The Intermediate Series cleanses the energy channels, and back bends are involved. The four advanced series were originally only two, but they were eventually divided up into four because of their inherent difficulty. Those who accomplish them have an extraordinary amount of strength, flexibility - and humility. Linking the breath to the moves is what Vinyasa (flowing posture) is all about. Ashtanga is sometimes called Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga (and occasionally you'll also see its alternate spelling, Astanga).

Repetition of a sequence is part of the nature of the style but it is a comprehensive physical routine – working every facet of the body – the ritualistic nature enables the meditation because you don’t need to be concerned with what posture comes next and this allows you to focus on the breath.

Pranayama, or breathing, is one of three additional aspects which are crucial to Ashtanga. The specific pranayama performed is Ujjayi, in which the breath is inhaled and exhaled through the back of the throat, making an echo-like sound (some call it the "Darth Vader" breath). The other important practice involves the Bandhas or locks - tensing up parts of the body to control and enhance energy flow and protect the body. The two locks most often used are the Mula Bandha, or root lock, located around the perineum (between the sex organs and the anal orifice). The second lock is Uddiyana Bandha, or Upward Lock, in which the lower part of the belly, below the navel, tightens. There's also a third lock, the less-discussed chin lock or Jalandhara Bandha. The third key element is the Drishti (or gaze point) which is the focal point for the eyes. This soft focus point on or around the body stops the eyes and mind from being distracted by things around you, allowing you to focus on your own body and mat.

Sun Salutations are practiced to warm up the body (and usually Ashtanga is practiced in a warm room - although it's not as hot as some styles). Then comes the series of poses for whichever level of Ashtanga is being taught. Every Ashtanga class ends the same way - with a set of cooling-down postures and a good, long Shavasana.

Because Ashtanga Yoga is strenuous, it is possible to injure yourself and in truth, most injuries that happen during Ashtanga Yoga are the fault of the student themselves. The students that Ashtanga draws in are often go-getters who tend to be ambitious. Sometimes they push themselves far harder than they should, and that's when they get hurt. That is why humility and patience are so important in Ashtanga practice. And while Ashtanga doesn't have the precision of some forms of yoga, it is very important to get the technique right - the combination of breathing, locks and Asana. The proper technique, combined with the proper attitude, will keep injury at bay.

Ashtanga’s physical nature does not however mean that it is not accessible to everyone – irrespective of age, conditioning, fitness, flexibility, weight, etc. By using variations to suit you, focusing on the breathing, not being competitive and taking breaks whenever you need to, you can tailor the practice to meet your daily needs. As David Williams (one of the first Westerners to learn the style in the ‘70’s) says: "Real yoga is what you can't see. It's invisible. Otherwise you would have to tell people with physical limitations that they can't do yoga. Yoga is about union. You can't exclude people. You don't have to do this to do yoga . If you're not flexible, don't worry - there will always be someone with more flexibility, more strength, better hair. Ashtanga is for everyone, but the poses don't look the same on every body.”

The best aspect of Ashtanga is its freedom to teach you about yourself. It is not an easy Yoga style, and it will bring out all your frustrations, delusions of grandeur and petty emotions. The only real way to progress is not by becoming more strong and flexible, but by conquering these negative ego traits first. If you master your ego, the strength and flexibility will follow. Always remember - you outer world is only a reflection of what is going on inside you.

For a beginner to Ashtanga, we recommend guided classes. In the Self Practice format, students can practice Ashtanga at their own pace with more individual attention from the teacher, which provides an opportunity to move into new postures when it's appropriate. Guided classes are great for learning how to practice and also for the energy and esprit de corps that comes from everyone breathing and moving together.

Generally, most serious students gravitate toward Self Practice classes, where they are expected to know the proper pacing and sequencing of the practice, and supply their own motivation. Once Suryanamaskar A and B (Sun Salutations) and the traditional sequence of standing poses have been committed to memory, then one is ready for it. Some people prefer being told what to do and when to do it (another option here would be to do a Beginners Course to develop a foundation for your practice). For these people, obviously, a guided class is good. Others prefer to work independently and figure things out on their own. For them, a Self Practice class is good. But perhaps another perspective is that some independent spirits may benefit from the discipline of a guided class and some more dependent spirits could benefit from the independence that the Self Practice format provides. The most important thing, of course, is to practice, both regularly (at least 2/3 times a week) and for a sustained period of time.

“Practice is the best of all instructions.” Aristotle

Sources: Yoga Journal, All Spirit Fitness and David Swenson.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Embodying The Spirit: Understanding The Meaning Of Asana

I recently read Judith Lasater`s incredibly insightfull article on the meaning of the physical side of yoga practice: asana, or yoga postures. I wanted to share it with you, so here it goes:

All I remember of my first asana (posture) class is the ceiling. Between movements we would be instructed to lie down on our mat and rest. I do not remember very much about what we did, but I do remember I wanted more. The next morning at home I practiced what I did remember; I was hooked and asana became a central part of my life.
What drew me to the practice of asana was an intuitive feeling that these movements were not just “stretching”; they seemed to have some greater connection with my soul. It was only later after years of training that I began to learn the deep symbolism each asana represents. I now believe that each
asana represents an aspect of myself and as such offers me a powerful doorway inward. Thus for many people the practice of asana can become more than a physical act; it can be a form of moving meditation.

The word “asana” is Sanskrit and is actually the plural form; the correct word for one pose is “asan”. However in English we tend to use “asana” as singular and “asanas” as plural even though this word does not exist in Sanskrit. Whichever word we use, asana are virtually as ancient as civilization itself. In fact, there are carvings dated from 3000 BCE which show figures sitting in the
lotus pose.(1) It is sometimes reported that each asana was created or “emerged” when a “rishi” or “wise forest dweller” spontaneously moved into an asana during deep meditation. Asana both reflect and are named for animals and objects as well as being named after sages from the Hindu tradition. Instructions for the practice of specific asana can be found in such ancient Indian source books such as the Siva Samhita and the Gheranda Samhita as well as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

Paradoxically, in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, generally considered the most well-known source book on the wider practice of yoga, no specifics of practice are given and asana is only mentioned in three verses, chapter II v. 29, v. 46 and v 47. Patanjali presents asana as the third step or rung in his ladder of practice after the ethical precepts (yama) and prescribed practices (niyama), and
apparently expects the disciple to explore more about asana on his/her own. More interesting to me than specific practice techniques however, are two other ideas about asana. First, that asana is both a spiritual practice all its own and secondly, that the practice of asana can beneficially effect our relationship to living a spiritual life in the modern world, far from the protected ashrams and retreats of ancient India.

In our Western culture of the late twentieth century asana has taken on a different face from what Patanjali would probably recognize. As asana practice has become more known and accepted it has permeated many corners of society. Yoga asana can be seen in the slickest fashion magazines as well as in popular health magazines, and the media quickly informs us which movie stars are now
practicing yoga. Asana has become a popular form of exercise for those suffering from over-doing strenuous physical fitness techniques. Asana is therefore being used as a palliative and therapeutic for physical injury.

Traditionally many teachers have taught that the main value of asana is to prepare the body for meditation by creating a strong back and supple legs so that the disciple can sit still for long periods of time. From this teaching comes the belief that asanas are “lower” or not as “spiritual” as meditation. But I feel the practice of asana has an even greater potential in the West. We may be captured at first by the lure of flexibility and strength, but we stay for another reason. Scientists are continuing to “discover” the pathways of connection between mind and body; in fact, some even say there is virtually no separation. (2) Yogis were aware, I believe, of this connection thousands of years ago and the asanas honor this connection. When we practice asana we honor that connection as well. But in the end we stay with the practice of yoga asana because it is a powerful non-verbal expression of the sacred. And practicing and living the sacred part of life is often sadly lacking for many people in the West today.

The expression of this sacredness has to do with the nature of asana practice itself. No matter how many times one has practiced a certain asana, when it is practiced now it is absolutely new. When one practices an asana that particular asana has never been practiced before; each asana is absolutely of this moment. Thus the practice of asana is a living artistic creation that has never existed
before and will never exist again, just as this moment is fresh. When we practice asana we have a chance to become present in this very moment. When we practice asana we have the chance to bring our attention to here and now, to the sensations and awareness we are feeling. We can observe our reaction, both positive and negative, to the pose; we can observe the sensations of ease and difficulty that arise as we stretch and bend. This is what meditation is, the consistent willingness to be in the here and now without being lost in our thoughts about the here and now.

The practice of asana, and especially savasana or corpse pose, is meditative. It can be the doorway to deeper states of meditation and gives the student the most important gift that can be given. This gift is called dis- identification. In Chapter I of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali discusses the false identification of thoughts and Self. He teaches that this false identification is at the root of all misery. He further teaches that the practices of yoga are about dissolving this false identification. The great gift of savasana, for example, is that the student can begin to separate from his/her thoughts. As one moves more deeply through relaxation one begins to enter another state in which thought is experienced a surface phenomenon. Then one can begin to experience a little space between the thought and what is perceived as Self. One teacher has said, “The problem with our thoughts is that we believe them.” The problem with believing our thoughts is that we then act from them in a way that can cause suffering in ourselves and others. When a little space is experienced between one’s thoughts and the consciousness which is the background for thought, then thought does not have the same power. Thus with this dis-identification comes choice. When one dis-identifies with the thought one can chose to act from that thought or not; it no longer has as much power to control.

When one can act from choice this leads to freedom. The gift of beginning to understand the process of dis-identification is arguably the most powerful gift there is to receive. Another immediate gift that one can gain from asana has to do with the contrast between movement and stillness that each asana represents. In verse 46 Patanjali defines asana by writing, “Staying with ease is asana”. This means that asana has two main components. First, an asana is about staying still.
The word that Patanjali uses is translated as “abiding”. It is ironic that most people think of asana as the “movements” of yoga when actually asana represents the ability of the practitioner to stay still. And this staying still is a powerful practice. When one learns to hold the pose one learns to let the
stillness of the body become a backdrop for the constant movement of the mind.

This art of consciously staying still begins to teach the art of meditation. To explain further, during normal waking time, we tend to move the body around; we rarely sit still. I can remember the torture of my early years at school. I abhorred sitting still in my desk for hours at a time. Because we are normally moving our body around the movements of the mind are not so apparent. But when we learn to hold the pose and remain still, suddenly we notice clearly how
agitated the mind is. This “noticing” is at the heart of a meditation practice. When we notice something we then have choice, we have the choice to continue with that agitation or not. The second point that Patanjali makes about the definition of asana is that not only is it about being still but it has another. Patanjali teaches us that in order for a position to be an asana we must abide there with “sukham”, or ease. This is the most challenging of ideas. It is usually true for most of us that when we move into an asana we are at first most aware of the difficulty, the tightness and even the resistance we are feeling at that moment. It is rare that we have a sense of ease. So what can Patanjali mean by the use of the word “ease: in relationship to asana? One way I have come to interpret this “ease” has to do with my willingness to be in the pose. The ease then comes in my interpretation of the difficulty, not in the difficulty itself. In other words, the pose can continue to stretch and challenge me; perhaps that will never change. But I can become “easeful” in my interpretation of that difficulty. I can choose to remain present and allow the difficulty to be there without fighting it, reacting to it or trying to change it.

The wider practice of yoga is not about arranging our life so that it is perfect and easy and non-challenging. Rather it is about using the discipline we find in asana practice (and in the other practices of yoga as well) to be able to remain “easy” in the midst of difficulty. That is the true measure of freedom. When we learn this then everything we do and everything we say becomes an“asana”, a position of body, mind and soul which requires the attention that brings us into the present.


(1) Barbara Stoler Miller. Yoga: Discipline of Freedom. New York City, New York: Bantam Books, 1995. Page 8 back
(2) The New York Times. “Complex and Hidden Brain in the Gut Makes Cramps, Butterflies and Valium”. January 23, 1996. Page B-5 and B-10.

Monday, 23 July 2007

Good Yoga?

By Vedran

The quality of your practice is, for the most part, defined more by what you bring into the practice than what you get out of it. Because what you brought in tends to color what you get given.

I used to be a freak about yoga. I struggled with my discipline in a following way: I would practice almost every day but I had a preconcieved notion of exactly what I had to get done in order to be able to see my practice asy "good". This, of course, resulted in quite a bit of strain as my daily yoga turned into a chore. So, "good" meant that I reall made myself feel the burn, that I was satisfied with the definitiaon of my muscles when I was done or that I finally did some position right. While I practiced, my mind was erratic. If I did my asana practice, I was good. If not, I was bad.

Over the years, I have come to learn that putting labels such as "good", "bad" or whatever on my yoga practice not only limits the practice but that it actually dulls it. Judith Lasater says that practice is being present in each moment. No matter if you are working the coolest bakasana ever or doing the dishes - you are practicing.
Yoga is not so much about thinking - it is very much about doing. This is reflected in what we often call good discipline: Overthinking what you are going to do, when you are going to do it, if you are hungry or not or maybe if you are tired often results in NOT getting things done at all. Do not think too much: Just roll out your mat. I find that this approach works well for me. I do it from the point I am at at that given moment. Wholesome practice is maybe not so much about the level of your athleticism but about you doing what you`re doing in the best way that you can. This means that 20 minutes of flowing, breath fueled practice done regularly is better than two strained huffing and puffing hours during which your thoughts race from yesterday`s bowel movement to today`s dinner. Yoga requires focus. In many ways yoga actually IS focus. So, we have to practice the dristi and we have to focus the breath and be aware of bandha control. If we are not, it means that we are preocupied by something else. In this way, your asana is not necessarily yoga.
Having said that, a little bit of self indulgence now and then can support your practice. Most of us who are mere humans aren´t always capable of keeping that guru-esque 100% fixed gaze on just the right points and that mula bandha sometimes gets forgotten. Or maybe a little bit of music helps you get through your practice? Maybe you don´t exactly follow the prescribed asana sequence?
On the one hand, you have got the so called bhoga yoga that Mr B.K.S. Iyengar calls "look good, feel good, do no good yoga" that pets your ego parading as your deepest Self, telling you that your pincha mayurasana makes you look like a yogic god(dess). On the other hand, there´s being honest about wherever you stand at any given point and simply taking your practice from there. This is not to say that you should aim for a sloppy practice. On the contrary - by being honest about the state of your body and mind when you are about to practice, you can practice truthfully and constructively.
It is naive to expect the same standards in your yoga practice no matter what state you yourself are in when you are getting on the mat. If you are agitated or nervous, a vigorous, strong practice can help you vent and balance out your energy. If you are tired or sleepy and expect yourself to have a vigorous practice (especially home practice), sometimes it will work but you will mostly have to push yourself instead of focusing on what you are doing and the practice will be strained and exhausting in an unwholesome manner. So, if you are tired or coming down with a cold, it might be better to do a softer practice or even restorative practice than doing nothing at all or going too strong and spending all your energy on asana practice.
90 minute full Ashtanga Vinyasa practice is great but if the options are doing nothing or doing something shorter or softer, go for the milder alternative.

What it boils down to, I think, is the following: What we aim for in yoga is far beyond words. It is beyond bendy hamstrings and supple spine. We train our bodies to be good transporting vehicles or containers, if you will, for kinder and more loving human beings. We are training and disciplining our minds as much as we are working our muscles and bones. If the body is strong and healthy, it will not be an obstacle when you are working on your Spirit, which of course is what we really are doing (so if you think you are the ultimate aim is scultping those gorgeous yoga arms, isn´t it great to know that the arms are just a bonus you get from working on becoming a better person? :-D ).

So, if there is anything that can be named "good yoga", then it would have to be a truthful practice that honours your body and mind. It is doing what you can, as often as you can. So, you have only 15 minutes? Well, do 15 minutes. You are guaranteed to feel much better just having done a modest practice on those days when less just has to be more. This is the best way of developing a regular home practice. Small chunks several times a week, or every day. This builds habit and regularity. Doing yoga becomes like brushing your teeth. You wouldn´t dream of skipping brushing your teeth when you are tired and in the same way, you wouldn´t dream of skipping your yoga.
Aim for longer practice when you can. When you can´t, there are myriads of approaches, depending of how much you can do. For example, do some Sun salutations, pick three standing postures, three forward bends, three backbends, three twists and throw in an inversions at the end. End doing at least five minutes of Savasana (basic-relaxation-posture). Selections like this can take you anything from 15 minutes to about 45. Make sure you always do some core work (remeber your bandhas) and some upper body work. No matter how little you do, always do at least one asana that you find difficult. This never fails to give you a kick. And don´t go crazy. Remember, you should love your practice. Difficult times that make practice difficult to hold regular show you, in a way, that you are NOT your mind. Your mind will try to trick you into thinking that you should drop it. I recently had an entire day when I was tired, scandalously unfocused and sleepy the whole day. My mind was telling me "Oh, no practice is the best practice today!". This is when the "no-thinking" approach is useful. I chose not to delve into why I should or should not do my asana practice. At one point I just rolled out my mat and did a modest, rather soft practice of 30+ minutes. I can´t tell you how delicious it felt! I felt better and my lack of focus was no longer a problem. What´s more, I rememberd what matters in life. It might sound mundane but it´s not. It is simple but not mundane. When I say, "don´t think", I don´t mean that you should turn into a moron. On the contrary, this is about a much deeper intelligence. Intelligence is much more that what is happening between your ears. Intelligence is not being the slave of your thoughts (who hasn´t experienced thoughts that tell us things we intuitively know are wrong?) and instead being aware in every fiber of your being! THIS is the real intelligence. This is what we are doing with our yoga practice. This is not the obsessive compulsive kind of control but calmly knowing what your real priorities are. It honestly turns you into a better person.

Finally, as if it is necessary to repeat it, your practice is not about how well you do any position. It is about you lovingly and truthfully doing all you can. Every day. Or getting there!

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Here Comes The Sun

That most familiar of asana sequences, Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) is as rich in symbolic and mythic overtones as it is in physical benefits.

By Richard Rosen

In many cultures, light has long been a symbol of consciousness and self-illumination. "The world begins with the coming of light," wrote Jungian analyst Erich Neumann in The Origins and History of Consciousness (Princeton University Press, 1995). "Opposition between light and darkness has informed the spiritual world of all peoples and molded it into shape."

Our primary source of light is, of course, the sun. When we look at our closest star, we may see nothing more than a big yellow ball. But for thousands of years, the Hindus have revered the sun, which they call Surya, as both the physical and spiritual heart of our world and the creator of all life itself. That's why one of Surya's many other appellations is Savitri (the Vivifier), who, according to the Rig Veda, "begets and feeds mankind in various manners" (III.55.19). Moreover, since everything that exists originates from the sun, as Alain DaniŽlou wrote in The Myths and Gods of India (Inner Traditions, 1991), it "must contain the potentiality of all that is to be known." For the Hindus, the sun is the "eye of the world" (loka chakshus), seeing and uniting all selves in itself, an image of and a pathway to the divine.

One of the means of honoring the sun is through the dynamic asana sequence Surya Namaskar (better known as Sun Salutation). The Sanskrit word namaskar stems from namas, which means "to bow to" or "to adore." (The familiar phrase we use to close our yoga classes, namaste—te means "you"—also comes from this root.) Each Sun Salutation begins and ends with the joined-hands mudra (gesture) touched to the heart. This placement is no accident; only the heart can know the truth.

The ancient yogis taught that each of us replicates the world at large, embodying "rivers, seas, mountains, fields...stars and planets...the sun and moon" (Shiva Samhita, II.1-3). The outer sun, they asserted, is in reality a token of our own "inner sun," which corresponds to our subtle, or spiritual, heart. Here is the seat of consciousness and higher wisdom (jnana) and, in some traditions, the domicile of the embodied self (jivatman).

It might seem strange to us that the yogis place the seat of wisdom in the heart, which we typically associate with our emotions, and not the brain. But in yoga, the brain is actually symbolized by the moon, which reflects the sun's light but generates none of its own. This kind of knowledge is worthwhile for dealing with mundane affairs, and is even necessary to a certain extent for the lower stages of spiritual practice. But in the end, the brain is inherently limited in what it can know and is prone to what Patanjali calls misconception (viparyaya) or false knowledge of the self.

History and Practice
There's some disagreement among authorities over the origins of Sun Salutation. Traditionalists contend that the sequence is at least 2,500 years old (perhaps even several hundred years older), that it originated during Vedic times as a ritual prostration to the dawn, replete with mantras, offerings of flowers and rice, and libations of water. Skeptics of this dating maintain that Sun Salutation was invented by the raja of Aundh (a former state in India, now part of Maharashtra state) in the early 20th century, then disseminated to the West in the 1920s or 1930s.

However old Sun Salutation is, and whatever it may originally have looked like, many variations have evolved over the years. Janita Stenhouse, in Sun Yoga: The Book of Surya Namaskar (Innerspace Map Studio, 2001), illustrates two dozen or so adaptations (though several are quite similar). Our sequence here consists of 12 "stations" composed of eight different postures, the last four being the same as the first four but performed in reverse order. In this sequence, we'll start and end in Tadasana. (Station 12, not pictured, is the same as station 1 on p. 91).

The eight basic postures, in order of performance, are Tadasana (Mountain Pose), Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute), Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), Lunge, Plank Pose, Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose), Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose), and Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose).

The transition from posture to posture is facilitated by either an inhalation or an exhalation. As you move through the sequence, watch your breath closely. Slow your pace or stop and rest entirely if your breathing becomes labored or shuts down altogether. Always breathe through your nose, not your mouth: Nasal breathing filters and warms incoming air and slows your breathing down, thereby lending the sequence a meditative quality and reducing the risk of hyperventilation.

To perform the sequence, start in Tadasana, with your hands together at your heart. Inhale and lift your arms overhead to Urdhva Hastasana, then exhale while lowering the arms down and fold your torso into Uttanasana. Then inhale, arch your torso into a slight backbend with the fingertips or palms pressed to the floor or blocks, and exhale while bringing your left foot back into a lunge. Inhale forward to Plank, then exhale and lower yourself into Chaturanga Dandasana. On an inhalation, arch your torso up as you straighten your arms into Upward Dog. Exhale back to Downward Dog; step the left foot forward on an inhalation into Lunge. Swing the right leg forward to Uttanasana on an exhalation, then lift your torso and reach your arms overhead on an inhalation to Urdhva Hastasana. Finally, lower your arms on an exhalation and return to your starting point, Tadasana.

Remember, this is only a half-round; you'll need to repeat the sequence, switching left to right and right to left to complete a full round. If you're just starting out, it might help to work on the poses individually before you put them together. (Visit for more how-to information.)

Many of the variations of Sun Salutation begin in Tadasana with the sacred hand gesture mentioned earlier. Most students know it as Anjali Mudra (Reverence Seal), but—in honor of the ancient yogis—I like to call it by one of its other names, Hridaya Mudra (Heart Seal). Touch your palms and fingers together in front of your chest and rest your thumbs lightly on your sternum, with the sides of the thumbs pressing lightly on the bone about two-thirds of the way down. Be sure to broaden your palms and press them against each other evenly, so your dominant hand doesn't overpower its nondominant mate. The pressing and spreading of the palms helps to firm the scapulas against, and spread them across, your back torso.

Since the sequence is, in essence, a humble adoration of the light and insight of the self, it's essential to practice Sun Salutation in a spirit of devotion and with your awareness turned always inward toward the heart. Make each movement as mindful and precise as possible, especially as you near the end of your rounds, when fatigue can lead to sloppiness.

Deepening the Practice
The sequence itself is fairly straightforward, but beginning students often stumble in two parts of it. The first of these is Chaturanga Dandasana: Lowering from Plank, students who lack sufficient strength in the arms, legs, and lower belly commonly wind up in a heap on the floor. The short-term solution is simply to bend the knees to the floor just after Plank, then lower the torso down so that the chest and chin (but not the belly) lightly rest on the floor.

The second sticky part is in stepping the foot forward from Downward-Facing Dog back into Lunge. Many beginners are unable to take the full step smoothly and lightly; typically, they thump their foot heavily on the floor about halfway to the hands, then struggle to wriggle it the rest of the way forward. This is a consequence both of tight groins and a weak belly. The short-term solution is to bend the knees to the floor right after Downward Dog, step the foot forward between the hands, then straighten the back knee into Lunge.

Success with Sun Salutation, as with all aspects of yoga practice, depends on commitment and regularity. An everyday practice would be best, but you might at first aim for four times a week. If possible, don't skip more than a couple of days in a row, or you might end up back at square one.

Traditionally, Sun Salutation is best performed outdoors, facing east-the location of the rising sun, a symbol of the dawn of consciousness and jnana. This might be a perfect wake-up routine in India, where it's usually warm outside, but it's probably not feasible in Michigan in late December. Nowadays, Sun Salutation is used mostly as a preliminary warm-up for an asana session. I do 10 to 12 rounds at the start of every practice—or after a few hip and groin openers—and a few more on each equinox and solstice to acknowledge the change in the light. On days when only a quickie practice is possible, an intense 10-minute Sun Salutation and five minutes spent in Savasana (Corpse Pose) will do you just fine.

Launch your practice slowly with three to five rounds, gradually building up to 10 or 15. If this seems like a lot, remember that the traditional number of rounds is 108, which may take you more than a few weeks to work up to. You can pace the sequence briskly to generate heat and cleanse the body-mind, or more moderately to create a moving meditation.

If you're looking for a more vigorous Sun Salutation, consider the approach of the vinyasa traditions such as K. Pattabhi Jois-style Ashtanga Yoga, which uses a jumping version of Sun Salutation to link the individual poses in their fixed series.

Variations of Sun Salutation are legion, and because of the sequence's malleability, it's easy enough to cook up a few of your own. For instance, you can make things more challenging by adding one or more poses: Insert Utkatasana (Chair Pose) after Urdhva Hastasana, or from Lunge, keeping your hands on the floor, straighten the forward leg to a modified Parsvottanasana (Side Stretch Pose). Let your imagination run wild and have fun.

Richard Rosen is a YJ contributing editor.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Come Rain, Come Shine

By Vedran

All too often, when the Sun is shining bright and the weather is all nice and summery and I step into a yoga class, I think to myself "Naw, I don`t think that many people are coming today!". And all too often, it actually turns out to be true. It is very human and not at all strange to think that "On a beautiful day like today, why not skip my practice?". But what about those days when it rains and it`s too dreary and we skip our yoga classes? Or it snows and "it`s too cold to go to a class". Or something or other happens and we chose to do something other than our yoga practice? There is always and there will always be a reason to skip yoga practice. Observing things like these is a good opportunity to try to find out what your yoga is all about. Is it just about lifting your bottom a notch or three, streching your hamstrings or looking like your trendiest self as you strut through the streets carrying your yoga mat? Or is it about changing much more than your muscle tone? Yoga is a demanding lover. You get a lot but you have to put in a whole lot yourself. Yoga practice is not merely an excercise system. It is a spiritual, devotional practice that accidentaly (or not) includes amazing physical benefits. Our yoga practice mirrors the rest of our lives, like it or not. The physical part of it is there to remove physical obstacles form your path toward self-realization. If you skip practice in order to go get some suntan, it does say something about your priorities.
Yogananth of Pure Yoga, Hong Kong, quoted one of his teachers who said that doing one hour of yoga a day keeps the doctor away. And if you are a yoga practicioner and you think that you don`t have time to do half an hour of yoga practice daily, you might want to consider what this says about how much you value your life. You don`t have HALF an hour? Exactly what did you spend those thirty minutes doing? How much tv have you seen? How much time do you spend blindly surfing the internet? Or on mindless chatter about nothing and everything? So, you don`t have time to do your yoga?
Far from me fanatically propagating yogic asceticism, I think it is important truthfully reflecting on what you practice yoga for. We should all practice yoga because we LOVE it. We love it when it`s a breaze and we should love it when it`s hard. In his fabulous book "Light On Life", B.K.S. Iyengar says that there is so much focus on the negative in yoga because that is exactly the stuff we are working on. Those are the things we are working our way out of, be it physical weakness or rigidity or their mental and emotional counterparts. That is why we talk so much about the negatives. Our apparent helplessness in face of all things that stop us from being all the amazing stuff that we can be. In all respects. So, you want more strength, flexibility, you want to develop wholesome discipline and focus, you want to free your mind? You want to be the master of your mind? You want to get that vinyasa or your headstand right? And you don`t want to practice because it`s sunny or raining or snowing or because your favourite talk show host has announced a "shocking surprise" on television? Well, maybe you should reconsider. Nothing comes without a cost. The Sun will be there when you get off your mat.
Having said all this and having ranted about how we should practice relentlessly, I do firmly believe that not practicing is sometimes the best practice. Yoga practice should never be your bondage. It doesn`t always have to be pleasant, because often it isn`t, but fundamentally you should always love it. Yogis can sometimes slip into a kind of obsessive compulssion that torments them when they don`t get to practice. There will be times when you sleep in and you don`t get to do yoga. Or you`re somewhere where you just can`t roll out your mat. Or you`re exausted. There will be times when you in all honesty know that you just can`t practice. Well, rest, I say. Your yoga shouldn`t drive you nuts. At these times, we have yet another chance to remember that yoga practice is not just what you do on the mat. It`s also everything else! It`s being present where you are. It`s about honouring every breath and every moment. It`s about being your best self given the circumstances. It`s about seeing yourself mirrored in everything, knowing that awareness can take you through anything, being ancored in your breath and the feeling of your feet on the ground (or off). THAT is what makes you a yogi! And that is exactly the attitude that will get you on the mat when you actually both can and should practice, come rain, come shine.

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Redefining Great Abs

Forget all about the six-pack. Yoga builds strong, balanced abdominal muscles in a healthy, holistic way.

By Carol Krucoff

The instruction seemed so shocking, I assumed I'd heard it wrong. Then the teacher repeated herself: "Soften and release your abdominals." This was the early 1980s, and I'd just started taking classes in Iyengar Yoga. Conditioned to hold in my abdominals by more than 20 years of dance training, traditional fitness classes, and our "suck in your gut" culture, I found it surprisingly difficult to let go in that area. Yet over time, I learned to relax my belly and fill it up with breath. Free at last!

Then I moved to another city and began taking yoga classes with different teachers schooled in various styles of hatha practice. Each instructor presented an alternative approach to working with the abdominals. In one class, we were told to "draw the pit of the abdomen up" and "hollow the belly." In another, we were instructed to "lift the side waist" and "pull the belly toward the spine." A third class emphasized Uddiyana Bandha (Upward Abdominal Lock), engaged by "contracting the abdomen above and below the navel toward the back." When yet another teacher asked us to "lift from the center but without creating hardness," I found myself wondering if I was the only one who didn't quite get it.

Were these completely different viewpoints about the abdominals? Or were my teachers saying the same thing in different ways? Everyone seemed to agree on the belly's energetic importance--as the body's center of power, the abdomen initiates movement and is a repository for strong emotions, or "gut feelings," ranging from fear to anger. But the directions for engaging the abs were often very contradictory, esoteric--more metaphysical than practical--and at times, frankly, quite puzzling. What does it mean to have strong and healthy abdominals? How much does the yogic view differ from that of Western fitness? And just what did all those teachers really mean by their cryptic instructions? I intended to find out.

Clearing Up the Confusion

"There's a quagmire of confusion about the abdominals," says Jean Couch, yoga teacher, author of The Runner's Yoga Book (Rodmell, 1992), and owner and director of the Balance Center in Palo Alto, California. The central problem, she says, "is that people think they should hold their stomachs in, because the shape our society values as healthy and attractive is abnormally thin and held.” Since most people hold a low amount of tension in their abdominals all the time, she says, "they're unable to build abdominal strength, because you can never, ever strengthen a tense muscle. The only way you can strengthen your abs is to continually relax them--then you can exercise them as much as you want."

Despite the American fascination with rock-hard, washboard abs, she explains, a healthy muscle is actually "springy and elastic." Yet most people's abdominals go from "being held to being flaccid," says Couch, who urges her students to release their bellies and "align their bones naturally" so their abs can relax. "I never say, 'Pull your belly in,'" she adds. "I tell people, 'Elongate your spine,' which makes the belly automatically pull in." From this pulled-in--yet relaxed--place, she says, the abs are soft enough to allow deep breathing but elastic enough to be contracted when called upon, for example, to stabilize the body while balancing on one leg in Vrksasana (Tree Pose). Abdominal strength is important, Couch explains, "not to create washboard abs but to support vital organs and stabilize the skeleton."

This strength should be balanced with flexibility, says Joan White, an advanced Iyengar teacher and national chair of certification for Iyengar Yoga in the United States, "so we don't create further hardness and tension, but also so we're able to soften and release."

Many in the yoga community point out that the sedentary American lifestyle has created an epidemic of weak abdominals and a dangerous tendency to use back muscles to compensate. "Many people don't understand the difference between moving from the lower back and moving from the abdomen," says White. "When the abdominals aren't strong enough to do a pose, such as a [supine] leg lift, people will lift their legs by pulling from the lower back, which can cause injury."

Most yoga teachers agree that a strong, healthy abdominal region is essential to a strong, healthy practice. But it is difficult to find consensus about how to use yoga to develop that area. It's not as if each school of yoga consistently teaches abdominal awareness in the same way, using the same language. In fact, many teachers reacted strongly--almost as if offended--when asked how to examine this area in a detailed, muscular way. Because yoga is a discipline that seeks to unify, pinpointing one body part can seem inappropriate, almost baffling.

As Shandor Remete, an instructor at Shadow Yoga in Australia, explains, "Yoga isn't an exercise system, it's an energetic system. It's not about the size of the muscles but about the quality of the circuitry of wind, blood, and nervous energy that flows throughout the body." In fact, overdevelopment and hardness of the abdominals--or of any single muscle group--can be harmful, because excessive muscle bulk can obstruct energy flow and decrease the body's vital forces.

The Western focus on the body's physicality often ignores the emotional importance of the abdominal region, says Ana Forrest, yoga teacher and owner of the Forrest Yoga Circle in Santa Monica, California. "Some of our abdominal problems are related to lack of skillfulness in dealing with our gut feelings," she says, adding that "whatever happens on the mat is a paradigm for our lives. If we're not good at connecting with our center, perhaps we're not good at taking a stand for our truth and ourselves."

Forrest emphasizes abdominal work in each class, believing that it is helpful "for relieving emotional and physical constipation." But this very emotional component prompts some teachers to shy away from abdominal work in certain circumstances. "I've observed a lot of psychological baggage connected with the abdomen," says White. "It's a common place for people to hold anxiety, so if someone's feeling anxious, I don't want to create further anxiety and tension by giving them the chance to harden and tighten more in this area."

The Anatomy of Abs

Although many yogis are reluctant to focus directly on the abs, most exercise physiologists and fitness professionals have no such compunction. In our midriff-baring culture, "abdominals are one of the main areas people want to develop in an exercise program," says Tom Seabourne, an exercise scientist, martial artist, and coauthor of Athletic Abs (Human Kinetics, 2003).

Many fitness enthusiasts focus on developing the "six-pack" muscle, or rectus abdominis, which is actually a "10-pack" that runs from the pubic bone to the breastbone. "A straplike muscle designed for smooth, long movement, its main purpose is to raise your body from bed each morning," Seabourne explains. "The rectus is the most superficial and visible of four abdominal muscle groups that work synergistically."

The internal and external obliques, on the sides of the torso, rotate and bend the torso. "Your obliques are used in almost every activity," Seabourne says. Twisting is the key to training them.

The deepest layer is the transversus abdominis, which is located horizontally underneath the rectus abdominis and the obliques. One of the few muscles with fibers that run from side to side, the transversus generally functions along with the autonomic nervous system to flatten the stomach in "bearing-down" activities, such as childbirth and defecation, and is activated in expelling actions, such as coughing and vomiting.

Yoga is excellent for building healthy abdominals, Seabourne says, because it involves moving the body in various directions and angles through postures requiring stability and balance--often in an unusual relationship to gravity. "The key is flexible strength, and that's what yoga develops," he explains. "Too many people still think ab training is doing crunches, which does nothing for flexibility. If you just train for strength, your muscles can actually shorten. And if you train in only one direction, you're limiting your range of motion."

Alternative Perspectives

Building strength and flexibility in the abdominal and back muscles, which form the body's "core," is the main goal of Pilates--one of the most rapidly growing exercise systems in the nation. Unlike in yoga, students in Pilates always "exhale through pursed lips, because this creates a resistance that helps people feel the abdominal contraction," says Moira Merrithew, program director of Stott Pilates in Toronto. Throughout all Pilates exercises, she says, the inhalations are done through the nostrils and the exhalations are done through the mouth to help students focus on their core and strengthen the deep abdominal muscles.

Several classic Pilates exercises focus on strengthening the abs, with the goal of creating "optimal functional fitness," Merrithew says. One of the best known is the "hundreds," performed supine with the head and shoulders raised while the arms pump up and down by the sides in time with the breath to the count of a hundred.

To help people learn the often subtle engagements of the abdominals, "hands-on work is invaluable," says Michael Feldman, a certified Rolfer in Sausalito, California, who teaches functional-anatomy workshops. He suggests that instructors teach people how to engage the transversus by first palpating the hip points at the front of the pelvis, then asking the person to "draw the two hip points together by lengthening the back and hollowing the belly." Another important aspect is finding the sitting bones, "so people can learn to sit on them properly," Feldman says. "One reason the abdominals are so weak is that most people sit with their backs rounded, which makes the abs go slack."

Using alternative modalities and systems, such as Pilates and Rolfing, to access the abdominal region can be a helpful way to create a connection if you're not feeling it in your yoga practice. To truly augment your yoga, be sure to take what you have learned and experiment with it the next time you're on the mat.

Let Your Breath Be Your Guide

Tuning in to your breath through yoga practice offers yet another way to access and tone the abdominals. Many yoga teachers find it most effective to teach ab work and awareness through breathing exercises.

Toronto yoga instructor Esther Myers recalls that after a hysterectomy, she experienced "an inner emptiness that left me feeling unstable in standing poses in a way I found surprising." Deep abdominal breathing proved particularly restorative for Myers, who used pranayama (breathwork)--especially the pumping action of Kapalabhati Pranayama--to strengthen and tone her abs without the shortening and contraction of sit-ups and crunches. Intended to clear the nostrils, ears, and other air ducts in the head, Kapalabhati--which means "shining skull"--activates the deepest abdominal muscle, the transversus, to perform an action she describes as similar to a controlled sneeze.

Kathleen Miller, a yoga teacher and therapist in the Viniyoga tradition, says that "many people find it difficult to access the [lower belly] area from the pubic bone to the navel." To help students awaken this "sleepy area," she has them lie on their backs with their legs bent, feet on the floor and one hand just above the pubic bone. She then has them tune in to their breath and contract this area on an exhalation, feeling how the navel moves back toward the spine, stabilizing the pelvis and lengthening the lower back. "In time," she explains, "people begin to feel that every exhalation can be an abdominal event."

The lower abdominal region is the site where Uddiyana Bandha is performed; this bandha "has the effect of bringing one's awareness to this energetic core," says Tim Miller, director of the Ashtanga Yoga Center in Encinitas, California. "At the end of the exhalation, there's a natural flow of awareness to this area. Uddiyana Bandha occurs in a very specific location and is a subtle contraction that is fairly light and mostly energetic in nature." To locate this area, he suggests "exhaling the breath completely, then sitting for a moment in that state of emptiness."

In response to the many people looking to strengthen their abdominals, Miller assures them, "Each time you take a complete breath, you're toning the muscles of the abdomen." In addition, he says, "there's an incredible amount of ab work within the [Ashtanga] vinyasa--jumping back and jumping through require grace and control in the center of the body so you get a sense of lightness." A large part of the Ashtanga practice--especially the primary series--is "detoxifying and ridding the body of waste material," he says. "And a common place that tends to get stored is in the gut."

Once it's clear to a student that yoga practice centers on energetics and unification--rather than getting something exactly right muscularly--some teachers will suggest specific asanas for abdominal development. For example, Shandor Remete recommends working the abdominal region in many different directions, such as in Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation). This series contracts the abs in forward bends, such as Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), and lengthens them in backbends, such as Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose). He also suggests doing Hanumanasana (Pose Dedicated to the Monkey God, Hanuman) and Mayurasana (Peacock Pose), because they both build and require strong, supple abdominal muscles, as well as Navasana (Boat Pose) and Nauli (abdominal churning).

Go Exploring

Since weak abdominals and damaged lower backs are common in our culture, Forrest encourages her students to perform ab exercises daily to help stay injury-free. "Core strength is essential in every pose--and absolutely mandatory for doing advanced 'gravity surfing' postures and series," she says--for example, moving through a series of Handstand variations or doing arm balances such as Eka Pada Bakasana (One-Legged Crane Pose), Tittibhasana (Firefly Pose), and Astavakrasana (Eight-Angle Pose). Plus, Forrest says, "building core strength and awareness in the abdominals can translate to feeling centered and strong in daily life."

Forrest includes at least 15 minutes of abdominal strengtheners in every class, in part because she found that strengthening her own abdominal area was critical to her recovery from a back injury. "At first, people tend to really hate doing abdominal work, because it's a painful area that many find hard to access," she says. "But after a while, it feels really good to wake up and cleanse our insides."

On the quest to create healthy abdominals, it's crucial that students learn to trust the body's messages. As Esther Myers explains, "If pulling the belly in improves your posture and makes you feel energized and confident, that's telling you something. If it makes you feel tense and strained, that's also telling you something. In yoga, you can make decisions based on an inner knowledge of what the practice is doing for you."

And how to develop that trust? "Go exploring," says Forrest. "Find out what works best for you."

A frequent contributor to Yoga Journal, Carol Krucoff is a journalist, registered yoga therapist, and yoga instructor in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She is coauthor of Healing Moves (Crown, 2000).

Sunday, 29 April 2007

Yoganista Fashionista

By Vedran

Some years ago, I saw a billboard campaign by a major sportswear manufacturer (I´m not telling which) that had just launched a line of clothes and other gear apparently specially designed for yoga practioners. The message these billboards conveyed was that the manufacturer in question had stuff for you no matter what kind of exercise you were into. Their yoga posters sported the word "Yoganista?". I don´t know if this word existed before but since this campaign, I have heard it spoken by several people. Yoganista, then, is apparently a person who practices yoga and now there´s a whole collection of stuff, including some kind of yoga slipper that we can get to make our practice better. A yoga slipper? What does one do with a yoga slipper?
It happens that, when I tell people that I "do yoga", they reply "Oh, that´s very popular these days". 90% of these people go on to tell me that they have been thinking about doing yoga for ages. Because it´s popular these days. Yoga is being offered in most gyms, yoga studios are booming in most cities, celebrities tell us about how yoga has changed their bodies and lives. There´s no escaping - yoga and fashion have intermingled and it doesn´t seem likely that it´s going to change.
In the late 1990´s, the media wizzard Madonna publicly proclaimed her love of Ashtanga yoga. She sported an incredibly well trained and defined body and said she had become "gym free". She even took the renowned yoga teacher Duncan Wong, the creator of Yogic Arts, with her on her Re-Invention Tour so that he could be a spot on instructor while she was on the road. Yoga and pilates were the thing. The whole world followed, as it often does. Supermodel Christy Turlington wrote a book on yoga and launched a line of clothes meant for fashionable and comfortable yoga practice, Madonna´s friend and Oscar winning actress, Gwyneth Paltrow, appeared in the documentary "Ashtanga NY" on Sri K. Pattabhi Jois´ trip to New York, alongside Willem Defoe and a member of the Beasty Boys. Former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell released a yoga dvd, promising that everyone could attain a "Geri body" if they did yoga. Many yoga teachers reached celebrity status. Then Madonna fell off a horse and couldn´t do yoga for a while. She is apparently doing somethig else now. A new fad on its way?

It is easy to cringe about this. If yoga is about anything, it certainly is NOT about being a money machine and an exercise fad fueled by supermodels in Sirsasana. Trends come and they burn out. People get their fix and go on to seek the next big thing.
I have often rolled my eyes when someone told me how their gym now offers yoga classes. On the other hand, there might be benefits to be reaped here. Yoga has proved to be more than a proverbial flash in a pan of the exercise world. It stuck around for thousands of years before Raquel Welch and Madonna got turned on to it and it has displayed staying power for quite a few years after that as well. I actually taught a class in a gym for a short while and while I definitely noticed how people who had no idea what they were coming to, turned up in my Ashtanga class to "relax" after they had pumped iron, ended up facing their physical demons, often caused by pumping iron, and never returned again, there were others. These "others" seemed to have sensed that this "yoga thing" was something else. To my great joy, I noticed how some of them got themselves their own proper yoga mats and started developing into real yoga practicioners. People actually got the connection between breath and posture and noticed how their emotions got touched by the practice! What I realised was that yoga in gyms and on Madonna concerts can present yoga to a lot of people who would never be exposed to it otherwise. It turns on their inner yogis and turns them on to a lifetime of practice. Of course, there will always be people who try a yoga course or two and realise that yoga takes work and sweat and effort and that it´s by no means a quick fix and they go back to whatever they did (or did not do) before yoga. But what inspires me are those myriads of others who start up thinking they´re in it for the exercise and end up reading books, going to workshops, perhaps travelling to India and ultimately (India or not) understanding that yoga is a lifestyle and that the fat burn, flexibility and the "yoga body" are just side effects of something else, far more enormous. For amidst the nonsense of yoga slippers, teachers turning into tacky franchise owners and what not, there are so many people turning into bona-fide yogis, lives being changed and incredible teachers getting a chance to reach practicioners around the globe. This, I think, makes it worth while. Those chasing trends will go on chasing trends. They would with or without yoga. Some of them might realise along the way that they should give that sticky mat yet another try. And maybe they will stay. When I think about it, my practice didn´t start after three months of deep meditation in a cave in Tibet. It was because I had heard that people I respected and admired had started practicing. So I tried and stayed with it. I have an expensive and fabulous mat that somebody probably earns good money on. The bottom line is that using our heads is as good thing as ever. Has Geri Halliwell inspired you to do yoga? Great! Just realise that your practice will be yours and not Geri Halliwell´s or Madonna´s or Willem Defoe's and your body will end up looking like yours and not theirs because you´re you and not them. Staying with it is what it´s about, no matter what (or where or who) the starting point was. What makes us yogis is a steady, discipined practice and not developing the "yoga body". The fashionism in yoga should, if anything, be an ignition point for a lifetime of good practice. I think that it often is. If not, you´ll come and you will leave.
For all of us who have stayed: Go on - get those yoga pants if you REALLY want to (and can afford them), as long as you keep in mind that it´s about the effort. And breath and sweat. Never about the pants.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Face Your Fears Of Falling

If you are avoiding arm balances, bear in mind that they develop core strength, keep the bones sturdy, and sharpen mental discipline.

By Julie Gudmestad

When an arm balance appears in the Yoga Journal calendar or magazine, interesting discussion ensues at my studio. Some students are intrigued, wondering when we will work on the pose. Others, from the tone of comments like "Not in this lifetime," appear to be in awe. One student, a triathlete who competes in Ironman events—a 2.4-mile open water swim followed by a 112-mile bike ride and a full marathon—provided my favorite arm-balance remark: "Why in the world would anyone want to do such a thing?" To which I replied, "I bet people ask you that too!"

Actually, my student's question is a very good one. Why should you bother practicing these challenging poses? Even though they are hard for most people, are there benefits if you accept the challenge and really work on them? And what can you add to your practice that might make these arm balances come just a little easier?

One reason arm balances are so challenging is they require both strength and flexibility. You may be very strong but still not be able to do arm balances if you don't have the necessary flexibility. And yet excellent flexibility is no guarantee of success if you don't have the needed upper body and torso strength. Many people, especially women, come to yoga relatively weak in the upper body. This weakness may be due to a lifelong lack of regular work with the arms, shoulders, chest, and abdomen. Unfortunately, the weakness usually progresses as the decades go by and is often a factor in loss of independent living skills; many elderly folks can't open heavy doors or carry their own grocery bags. Over many years, the lack of hard work that challenges the upper body muscles and bones also contributes to loss of mineralization in those bones—osteoporosis—which can be a serious health problem.

So the practice of poses that include weight bearing on the arms is a good idea to help prevent osteoporosis as well as to build upper body strength. In addition, practicing any balance pose, including arm balances, helps strengthen the balance reflexes and prevent falls. The combination of osteoporosis with poor balance reflexes can lead to falls and broken bones (wrist, shoulder, and hip fractures are most common), with potentially life-threatening consequences for the elderly.

Building Strength
Armed with this information, do you feel more motivated to work on those arm balances? Good, because it's quite a bit easier to build and maintain strength and bone density earlier in life, rather than try to regain later what you've lost. However, it's never too late to begin work, because studies have shown that the body responds to challenge by building muscle and bone mass even in the later decades of life.

A good place for most students to begin, at any age, is with regular practice of Plank Pose and Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose). Both of these poses put moderate weight on the arms and shoulder bones and build good isometric strength in the pectoral muscles (chest), deltoids (cap of shoulder), and triceps (back of upper arm). All of these muscles must be strong for arm balances, and it may take months of regular Plank and Down Dog practice to build the strength required.

Plank is an especially good preparation for arm balances. It strengthens the weight-bearing muscles of the arm at the same angle, 90 degrees to the torso, that is needed for the prototypical arm balance Bakasana (Crane Pose), as well as many others. Scientific studies indicate that muscles are strengthened in the exact range of motion in which you work them, so you may be strong in one position, but the strength won't apply in another position.

While you're in Plank, it's a good idea to throw in some push-ups. If you're not so strong in the upper body, start with "mini-push-ups": From Plank on your knees rather than toes, let yourself down toward the floor just a few inches, then push back up.

With regular practice, you'll be able to go down a little deeper and do a few more repetitions. Eventually, you'll be able to go all the way to the floor and back up, and then it's time to start working full length from your toes. When you've lowered all the way down near the floor, bearing weight on only your hands and toes, you will of course be in Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose). This is also a good arm balance preparation, because you are bearing weight on your arms with the upper arms in line with your sides (instead of forward or overhead), as in arm balances like Astavakrasana (Pose Dedicated to the Sage Astavakra) and the rather advanced series of poses dedicated to the sage Koundinya.

Success in arm balances has another hidden ingredient: abdominal strength. Most balance poses, including inversions, require abdominal strength to support and stabilize the center of your body. In many arm balances, like Bakasana and Lolasana (Pendant Pose), the abdominal muscles must contract even more strongly to lift the weight of your pelvis and legs off the floor. So if you come to yoga without a regular practice of abdominal work, arm balances are likely to be a study in frustration. What poses can you include in your basic practice to build a solid foundation of abdominal strength? Plank Pose is again an excellent choice. Besides building chest and shoulder strength, it also works the abdominals. In an informal biofeedback study at our studio, one of our teachers found that Plank Pose elicited a stronger abdominal contraction than any traditional abdominal exercise, including crunches and sit-ups. This makes sense when you consider that in Plank the abdominals are supporting the whole middle of the body, preventing it from sagging with the pull of gravity.

Another great pose for abdominal strengthening isNavasana (Boat Pose). The abdominals contract in the pose to hold the torso up at an angle to gravity—and to keep you from falling over backward. In addition, Navasana strengthens your hip flexors (the iliopsoas and rectus femoris) and thigh muscles (the quadriceps, including the rectus femoris) and is obviously also a balance pose. For all these reasons, it is an excellent conditioning pose for arm balances; unfortunately, it's also a pose not often included in home practices.

To make Navasana a little easier and to inspire you to include it more regularly, try coming into the pose by sitting on the floor with your knees bent up toward your chest, feet on the floor, and hands wrapped around the tops of your shins. Sit tall, lifting your chest and lengthening your spine. Slowly tip back, getting your balance as your feet lift off the floor. Keeping your chest lifted, release your hands and stretch your arms out parallel to the floor. In the first few weeks, you don't have to straighten your knees completely: Even with bent knees, you can feel the abdominals contracting. As you get stronger, you can gradually straighten your knees, keeping your chest lifted and lifting your feet above the height of your eyes.

Creating Flexibility
While you are working on your upper body and abdominal strength, a few key areas also need work on flexibility. These include the spine—in flexion (rounding forward) and twisting—and the hips. Squatting in Malasana (Garland Pose) works on both spine and hip flexion, which are so important in arm balances like Bakasana. To come into Malasana, start by standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Next, hang forward into Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), placing the feet together so the inner edges of the feet touch. Then squat, allowing the knees to widen enough so the arms and shoulders fit inside the knees. Try to keep the heels on the floor; if they won't stay down, put a block or blanket under the heels.

Let your hips be heavy and your head hang down, relaxing your neck. Stay in the pose for a minute or so, letting your hips and back relax into the stretch. Eventually, your arms can wrap around your outer legs and your hands clasp behind your back.

Any of the sitting twists will help build rotational flexibility in the spine and rib cage, which is needed for arm balances like Parsva Bakasana (Side Crane Pose). However, the squatting twist Pasasana (Noose Pose) is especially helpful as a preparation for the twisting arm balances. In the beginning, it's good to use the support of the wall to add leverage and avoid struggles with balance. Stand near a wall with your right side about a foot from the wall. Squat down, again supporting your heels if they come up off the floor. Lengthen your spine and rib cage up, turn to face the wall, and place your left forearm between the wall and your right knee. Place your palms flat on the wall and use the leverage of your arms against the wall to help you twist more deeply.

Now that you know some ways to condition your body for arm balances, it's time to consider another necessary ingredient for progress: mental discipline. Just as much as you'll be excited by your first successes, you'll be deeply frustrated and discouraged by your failures. Arm balances are therefore the perfect poses to practice persistence in the face of challenge, as well as non-attachment to the fruits of your labors.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

Balancing The Edge

Sharon Gannon and David Life have written "Yoga is who you are.". Rather than being a quirky cliché, what it means is that whoever we are, our stuff- good and not so good - will show through our practice. The more challenging the practice, the more stuff will come up. This is when yoga really is revealed as far more than a physical practice. I find this to be especially true for balancing postures (for other people, other postures will trigger their target issues).
When I'm really tired or agitated, I often feel a tinge of flight reflex when I know that standing leg raises (Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana) are drawing nearer and nearer in my standing seqence. Leaning my chin toward my shin seems like such a chore and I am often tempted to just do the asana without leaning forward. Far from it being a purely physical thing, it is clear that what throws me out of balance is my generally unbalanced energy at that moment. I have done the posture countless times during years and years of my practice and STILL when my energy is a bit off, I find it challenging. On "good" days, it comes so easy that it`s difficult to imagine I ever found it difficult and then there are other days...
As in any other asana, what I find happens is that the practice communicates to us exactly what it is that we need. More stability, more strength, more focus, more breath. It tells us that in order to get to where we need to be, we need to release the mundane jitters of everyday life. Acknowledge them, keep your breath steady and release them. Shit happens and you don´t need to roll around in it but acknowledge that it happens and why it happens and take it from there. We need to know ourselves better and more honestly in order to get those asanas steadier and stronger. We all need to be truthfull to ourselves, both in our asana practice and at any other time, if we are ever to get to any place sensible. Mr Iyengar says that every cell in the body needs to know what to do. Now, this is a great truth. Since who and how we are, both at the moment and at any given time, is bound to seep into any posture we do (the harder the posture, the more of a challenge this will present), we need to direct our energy in a way that serves our purposes. This is extremely metaphoric for life. Things will happen as they do. Often times we like it, other times we don´t. And so what? Like leaning your chin toward your shin in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana, the goal is knowing where you need to get yourself. Where do you need to go? So, at those jittery moments, I tend to take an extra breath, remind myself of exactly what it is that I am doing. I anchor my standing foot and try to spread the energy of my steady breath through my body. I try to inform every cell in my body of what the task is. And I relax. At a workshop Edward Clark did in Oslo, he said to us that we should think of what our dharma is, what we have to give to the world and put that into our practice. I loved this - it truly struck a major chord in me. The practice will inform us of where we´re at and who we are, if we are willing to listen. Now, we can choose to ignore this, but if we´re ever to get to any kind of goal that is worth while, where we really are at needs to be respected and acknowledged. If we don´t, something might snap, or the asana will seem impossible, or the breath will get uneven, or all those things at the same time. I remember when I started practicing Koundinyasana B (check out the picture), how I got all panicky and panting. I was all in my arms and I tended to forget to breathe. It was SO hard. So, first I decided that I just wasn´t strong enough. Then I tried it again and I just floated up. The difference wasn´t in my strength. What happened was that instead of just practicing the physical posture, I practiced yoga. Meaning that my breath was there, my focus was there, I was being honest and I took it from where I really was, instead of where my frantic, panting delusion told me I was. And It was delicious. The way it needs to be. The way my arms shook a little was delicous. The way it didn´t matter because I was really steady and there was delicous. Gannon and Life say that you can´t hold your balance - you have to reach for it. This, I think, is one of those things you can´t really grasp by analyzing what they might have meant by that. I honestly think that this needs to be practiced to be experienced and understood. You need to be thrown off balance and get yourself back into it to really understand. And then, the time comes when it actually does work. That´s how we balance the edge. That´s what yoga practice is all about.

Saturday, 21 April 2007

Upcoming workshops in Oslo

Here´s an update on what`s up on Oslo´s yoga front these upcoming weeks and months:

Yogacharya Venkatesh
A unique opportunity to study with a true Indian yoga master and to establish a full yogic lifestyle, incorporating all elements of Patanjalis sutras that will compliment your asana practice.

He is a very advanced practitioner, having earned the title of YOGA SAMRAT (Emperor of Yoga)and has developed his own system of ten asana series (atmavikasa). You will receive a lot of individual attention and Venkatesh's teaching style is well known for his precision, dignity, discipline and ability to grade and progess students of all levels.

Though he is an expert in all sections of Yoga , his
special and rare expertise is in back bending asanas.
He is the first pers onto introduce special courses on
flexibility improvement tecniques which are based on
very strong scientific yet traditional grounds .

Yogacharya Venkatesh and Hema
.Five day Workshop starting
Monday april 23rd - Friday 27th
The cost is 4,250.00 Kroner or £350.00

Weekend Workshop
Saturday april 29th - Sunday 30th 2007
The cost is 2,000.00 Kroner or £150.00

3 hours 600 kr per class
2 hours 400 kr per class


Open to those who are interested in developing and
progressingtheir understanding of yoga in a small
intimate class
maximum of 14 students
The cost is £1250 which includes
accommodation , organic food and teacher training.

Deepen and develop your own practice with the amazing
Andrew Eppler at PRESENCE YOGA

Booking fee 1850kr
Contact: Gaute 0047 90 848412
e-mail :
e-mail Elizabeth :

Actually, check out for more info on all of the above.

David Keil will hold a workshop at Ashtanga Yoga Oslo from 26 May to 30 May. The focus will be on a deepers understandning of yoga anatamy. This will probably be an excellen one, both for those who attended his last workshop at Ashtanga Yoga Oslo and for those who are interested in the anatomy of yoga. Check out AYO´s website for more info.

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Hot Buddha, Cold Buddha

Commitment to practice is evidenced by your willingness to be present on the mat for whatever comes up right now.

By Judith Hanson Lasater

No matter how hard it may be to drag yourself to yoga class at the end of a busy day, inevitably you feel better when it's over, walking fluidly out the door with your sticky mat rolled neatly under your arm. At that moment it may seem inconceivable that you would ever resist practicing again. But somehow even the very morning after a great class, resistance to practice can arise. You may experience a mental struggle as you lie in bed, trying to decide if and when to get out of bed and onto your mat for that first Downward-Facing Dog Pose.

This experience of resistance is not just a modern phenomenon plaguing our overly congested culture. Throughout the history of yoga, students have struggled with exactly what it means to practice, what discipline is, and how to overcome recurrent resistance to practicing.

Very early in his classic Yoga Sutra, Patanjali provides a few verses that speak directly to these questions. After defining yoga as "control over the fluctuations of the mind" (Chapter 1, verse 2) and describing the basic categories of these fluctuations, he says, "Control over the mind's fluctuations comes from persevering practice and nonattachment" (1.14). These two guiding concepts—abhyasa (persevering practice) and vairagya (nonattachment)—are not just the key to overcoming your resistance; they are also the key to yoga. On the surface, abhyasa and vairagya would seem to be opposites: Practice requires the exercise of the will, while nonattachment seems more a matter of surrender. But in fact they are complementary parts of yoga, each requiring the other for its full expression.

Cultivate Compassion
Abhyasa is usually translated as "practice," but some have translated it as "determined effort," or what I am choosing to call "discipline." Unfortunately, there are few words as off-putting to most of us as "discipline." It brings back memories of being told to sit on that piano stool for 30 minutes and practice no matter what. Or in our minds we may have connected discipline with punishment. But the kind of disciplined effort Patanjali means by abhyasa is very different from the sense of force and even violence people associate with the word "discipline."

To me, discipline is not something that I force upon myself. It is something that I cultivate and which arises in me as a result of two things: my clarity of intention and my commitment.

To have clarity of intention requires that I take the time to examine and understand what my yoga practice is all about. Is it about stretching my hamstrings or about transforming my life? Do I use my practice to have a healthier and more attractive body, or to develop the awareness necessary so that my thoughts no longer run my life? Maybe I want both. After all, having a healthy body is not an unworthy goal. But in any case, it's important that we become as clear as possible, to the point of being able to write down what we want from our yoga practice. Over time, of course, this can change. When I started doing yoga, I thought I wasn't interested in "all that spiritual stuff." I thought I was doing yoga only to help cure my arthritis. But from my first class I felt deeply drawn to the whole of the teachings of yoga.

To lessen your resistance to practice, spend some time with this question of clarity. For just a few moments before you step onto the mat, ask yourself what your yoga practice is about today. Let your first focus be on clarity, not action. Whether your answer leads you to choose a physically challenging practice or a restful one, you will be more present with it if you are acting from a place of clarity. When you practice from clarity, you diminish the time you spend caught up in doubt and questioning. With your energy more focused, I predict you will enjoy your practice more-and thus, over time your resistance will decrease.

Beyond Clarity
While clarity is one of the necessary ingredients for abhyasa, a second equally necessary ingredient is commitment. Patanjali states in verse 13 that persevering practice-what I am calling discipline-is the effort to stabilize the state in which the mind's fluctuations are most often restricted.

These days, it seems many people are confused about the concept of commitment. For instance, I sometimes overhear people say that they would make the commitment of marriage if they knew how it was going to turn out. But that suggests they do not really understand what commitment means. In fact, if you know the outcome of an action in advance, it does not require that much commitment. What makes your commitment to practice is the fact that you don't know for certain how it will turn out, yet you still choose it as the best course of action.

Yoga is a practice not only of action but also of observation and faith. When we observe our resistance to practice and then choose to act anyway, our practice becomes an expression of our faith in yoga-a faith that comes from both our past experience and trust that our practice will sustain us as we jump into the unknown.

And so I practice without knowing how it will all turn out. Clearly, along with clarity and faith, my commitment requires some will and effort. As Patanjali says in verse 14, establishing a firm foundation in practice requires sustained exertion over time. Commitment to practicing means I practice if it is easy for me, and I practice if it is hard for me. If I am bored, I practice; if I am enthusiastic, I practice; if I am at home, I practice; if I am on vacation, I practice. There is a saying in Buddhism: If it is hot, be a hot Buddha. If it is cold, be a cold Buddha. This is the consistency and determination in practice that Patanjali means when he speaks of abhyasa. In the beginning, this sustained exertion may be an act of will, an act of ego. But as we continue, the practice itself creates a momentum that propels us through the difficult moments of fear and boredom.

This consistency of commitment is evidenced by the willingness to get on the mat and be present for whatever comes up in your practice right now. Practice is not simply about achieving a particular physical or emotional goal. In fact, when you exercise your clarity, commitment, and faith—when you choose to practice—you have already reached many of the goals of yoga.

Exercise Nonattachment
But to truly achieve the kind of commitment and constancy that Patanjali calls abhyasa, we have to exercise the second activity he mentions in verse 12: vairagya, or nonattachment. Patanjali describes vairagya as the state in which one no longer thirsts for either earthly objects or spiritual attainments. Vairagya can also be thought of as release, surrender, and letting go. But just blindly letting go is not vairagya. Rather, the first constituent of this practice must be the wisdom of discrimination.

I learned this lesson very clearly one day on the streetcar. Fresh from teaching, feeling high and thinking myself full of compassion, I boarded the streetcar for the ride home. I felt full of love and grace and beamed at everyone around me. Suddenly, a very drunken man staggered down the aisle, leaned over me with a leering smile, and breathed alcohol into my face. This had never happened to me before or since. Maybe I was not as full of love and compassion as I thought; full of judgments, I recoiled and turned away. I learned that I was not as open and loving as I imagined-and also that perhaps the streetcar was not the best place to have "all my chakras hanging open." The universe had just given me a little lesson about discrimination.

The practice of discrimination leads to the next part of vairagya: understanding the difference between acknowledgment and acceptance. Many years ago, I somehow concluded that to practice letting go was to accept everything exactly as it is. I now have a different perspective. I have learned that there are certain things I will never accept: child abuse, torture, racism, willful environmental damage, the inhumane treatment of animals, to name a few. However, if I am going to practice—and live—with clarity, I must acknowledge that these things exist and not live in a state of denial.

Paradoxically, when I live with the deep acknowledgment of what is, then and only then can I live in clarity. Once I am living in clarity, I can choose my actions and let go of the fruits of my labors, becoming deliciously lost in the process of acting from compassion. If I just accept things as they are, I may never choose to alleviate my suffering or the suffering of others. This so-called acceptance is really complacency disguised as spiritual practice.

I have heard this called "idiot compassion." It means offering forgiveness and acceptance with no discrimination. Failing to hold the thief accountable for his crime is not proper application of vairagya; we can have compassion for his suffering and still require that he spend time in jail. Our compassion is only real and valuable when it will serve to reduce suffering. When we let go of our beliefs of how the world should be and instead acknowledge the world as it actually is, we can then work from a heart of compassion to alleviate suffering and to serve others (and ourselves) in the highest sense possible.

Only through discerning and acknowledging what is can we exert the determined effort of abhyasa in a way that does not resort to force or even violence against ourselves and others. When I am lying in bed, resisting practice, instead of blaming myself for my reluctance, I can marshal both vairagya and abhyasa. As I lie there, I can clarify my intention and refocus my commitment; I can acknowledge my state of resistance without accepting it; finally, I can choose to let go of attachment to the outcome of my practice session.

I can also let go of my doubts, fears, insecurities, and struggle, and let go into my clarity, strength, determination, and faith in the process of yoga. And I can remind myself that no path through life can be free of difficulty. Rather than trying to avoid difficulty, I can choose which challenge I want: the challenge of change and its growth or the challenge of remaining where I already am. Would I rather face the difficulties that might arise in my practice or the difficulties of remaining in resistance and living without the positive effects of my practice?

If I bring all this to mind, I am likely to get out of bed, step onto the mat, and enjoy my practice—and I'll be that much less likely to feel resistance when I wake up tomorrow.

Judith Hanson Lasater is the author of Relax and Renew (Rodmell Press, 1995) and Living Your Yoga (Rodmell Press, 2000). For more information on her teaching and workshop schedule, visit

December 2002

Living Ashtanga

This site is about the study and practice of yoga. Since my personal practice primarily focuses on Ashtanga vinyasa yoga, there is bound to be a lot of focus on this type of yoga practice. Still, over the years I have realized the vastness and beauty of other kinds of practice - the precision and beauty of Iyengar method, the fierceness of Forrest yoga, the phenomenal force of Tripsichore yoga, the healing, soothing softness of restorative practice and so on and so forth. Or the blazing love of Bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion. Some people who see yoga as purely a physical practice shun the kind of practice Bhakti yogis do. And the truth is that Bhakti is what it all boils down to. Why we practice and why we breathe. It should all be devotion. If your practice is purely physical, it might be a nice start but a good headstand is not neccessarely good yoga. A good headstand is not neccessarely yoga at all. It is about much more than a toned triceps. It is my firm belief that no one way is the only way. Some fresh ashtangis will look down on other forms of hatha practice, as Ashtanga is a "strong" practice. The truth is that you can put strength in any practice. And you can have a weak and floppy Ashtanga practice if you practice without breath and focus. And you can have a strong, vigorous Yin yoga practice if your whole being is in it. That`s what I love about yoga practice. It really will tell you where you`re at, on every level. The thing about many of us is that we have no idea about where we`re at and we live caught up in our mundane, delusional everyday spin cycle. If this is the case, your practice will tell you this, if you`re willing to listen. So, this site is for all the yogis, it is for me and it is for those who are curios about yoga. It is for anyone.
Since I live in Oslo, Norway, I will try to hold anyone who is interested updated on yogic goings on in Oslo and in Norway. Still, I have decided to do the site in English so that it will be accessible for more people. So, whoever you are - enjoy! Namaste.