Thursday, 20 November 2008
By Tim Miller
I can't seem to get anywhere with the action of jumping from Downward Facing Dog to sitting. I think I have broken my little toe trying to accomplish this task! I am not sure what is missing to do this.
Tim Miller's reply:
This is a question I get all the time and a source of frustration for many who watch their fellow students gliding gracefully through their arms while they feel themselves crash and burn. Some are convinced that their arms are too short, others that their legs are too long. Meanwhile, the toes and the egos suffer.
One of the key things to keep in mind is that the legs are longer than the arms. In order for the legs to come through the arms successfully they must be as parallel to the floor as possible while in flight. The most common mistake I see is that students keep their hips high as they jump so the legs remain too vertical.
To build a sense of confidence and competence, first try this maneuver with blocks under the hands. From Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog), exhale and bend the knees deeply so the ribs come back against the thighs, lift the heels and allow the hips to descend. Keep the hips as low as possible as you spring forward. Ideally, the body stays in a full forward bend even as it comes through the arms.
Remember to support the movement with your breath. Jumping through at the end of an exhalation, when you are completely empty of breath, is best because the exhalation also facilitates deeper movement into the forward bending position. You will also find strength and support by engaging the abdomen and pelvic floor in Uddiyana (Flying Up Lock) and Mula Bandha (Root Lock). So as you set yourself up to jump through, remember to exhale, keep the bandhas engaged, remain in forward flexion, and stay close to the ground.
One final tip: The practice surface can also be a factor. A surface that is either too soft or too sticky can present problems. Most people find it easiest to do this on a hardwood floor, and some even wear socks to help their feet slide through.
Tim Miller has been a student of Ashtanga Yoga for over twenty years and was the first American certified to teach by Pattabhi Jois at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India. Tim has a thorough knowledge of this ancient system, which he imparts in a dynamic, yet compassionate and playful manner. For information about his workshops and retreats in the United States and abroad visit his Web site, www.ashtangayogacenter.com.
Wednesday, 29 October 2008
I have been a big slacker lately and I haven`t written anything for a while. But here`s a piece I really like and that anyone who practices yoga should be able to relate to. So, dig in:
No matter how advanced your practice is, surely there are asanas you'd just as soon avoid. Here, five top teachers divulge their nemeses and what they've learned by practicing them.
By Nina Zolotow and Jason Crandell
If you've ever experienced negative feelings or even—dare we say it?—hate for certain yoga poses, you're not alone. In fact, you're in very good company. Many popular and accomplished yoga teachers have also struggled with certain asanas, including some of the most basic ones. Patricia Walden, one of only two advanced senior Iyengar teachers in the United States, spent years hating "that God-awful Marichyasana I." Baron Baptiste, who offers his popular yoga "bootcamps" all over the country, used to get horribly frustrated when he did Garudasana, because he'd fall out of the pose if he tried to wrap his foot around his ankle. And popular vinyasa teacher and yoga trance dance creator Shiva Rea still calls her least favorite pose "Poor Me Purvottanasana."
Yet, as these teachers would be the first to tell you, the very poses we hate are some of the most valuable ones for us to practice. Fortunately, there are many tactics that not only can make it easier to practice those bothersome poses, but also can make the experience less daunting—and maybe even fun. If you apply the tips and tricks outlined in this article, you'll see why it's so valuable to work on asanas you struggle with, gain insight about just why you hate the poses you do, and discover how to turn your nemeses into your greatest teachers.
EVERY DIFFICULTY HAS A SILVER LINING
So why, you might ask, would you want to practice poses you loathe? For one thing, these poses often specifically address your physical imbalances; they build strength and flexibility in exactly the places that need it most. If you sit hunched all day in front of a computer, backbends may be difficult for you, but they're also just what your body needs. Or maybe years of running have left you with tight hamstrings. It would be no surprise if you despise forward bends, but those are exactly the poses that will move you toward physical balance.
In addition, doing poses you find physically difficult or that scare you can be a great antidote to staleness in your practice; it's exhilarating to take on new challenges. And even if you don't achieve immediate results, you'll often find that a sweet feeling of relief arises when you face difficulties instead of evading them.
Practicing poses you tend to shun also teaches you to cultivate equanimity in the face of challenge. When you take the time during your yoga practice to study how you deal with difficulty, you may gain insights that will assist you with the tough stuff elsewhere in your life. Do you ignore difficulty? Approach it timidly? Rush at it headlong? Become overwhelmed by it? Once you identify habits that aren't serving you, you can begin the process of pausing, taking a deep breath, and searching for a more effective approach.
Regularly facing the poses you find most intimidating can also help you change your self-image—from incapable to capable, say, or from timid to brave. For instance, Patricia Walden says Handstand is a "power pose" for many female students. She's observed that learning to get up and stay up in it builds so much confidence and mental strength that the experience is often life-changing.
SEVEN TACTICS FOR TRANSFORMATION
OK, so maybe by now you're kinda sorta convinced that practicing poses you find onerous might be a good idea. But where do you start? The thought of forcing yourself to do one of your least favorite poses the same old unpleasant way probably feels discouraging—and it's not the most helpful method, either. Instead, stand back for a moment and consider the following steps for transforming your relationship with these poses.
Identify Your Discomfort. Your first step should be determining exactly why you loathe a pose. Understanding why you dislike it so much is the key to figuring out how to come to terms with it.
One of the most obvious reasons is that it causes you physical discomfort or even pain. Such discomfort can take a lot of different forms. Many students say Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) and Halasana (Plow Pose) make them feel trapped and claustrophobic. Others complain that their breathing feels constricted in twists, or that they just feel jammed and stuck in some forward bends and backbends.
Over time, you should be able to reduce and maybe even eliminate these discomforts. Do keep in mind, of course, that some mild muscle pain may be inevitable along the way as you ask your body to move and stretch in ways that it doesn't in daily life. (Caution: Always pay attention to sharp pain; it is usually an important message from your body indicating that you should back off immediately.)
Another reason you might hate a pose is that it causes you fear. Maybe you worry about harming yourself: hurting your lower back in backbends, straining your neck in Shoulderstand, or falling on your face in arm balances. Or you may experience so much disorientation—or sheer terror—in inversions like Headstand and Handstand that you find yourself making an unnecessary and exceptionally long trip to the restroom every time your teacher calls for them.
Finally, difficulties with a pose are often compounded by embarrassment or shame. Some students hate Chaturanga Danda- sana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose) because it makes them feel like a weakling; others suffer from performance anxiety in Virabhadrasana III (Warrior Pose III) and Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose), worrying that they are going to fall out of the poses in front of the whole class.
Once you've figured out exactly why certain poses are so irksome to you, you can begin to employ specific tactics to address your personal challenges.
Use props and pose variations. If you take a moment to think about it, you may realize that you already know variations and props to make a pose you find difficult much more accessible. If you need more suggestions, most teachers can give you a hand. Patricia Walden, Barbara Benagh, and Seane Corn all cite props and modifications as crucial in their work with difficult poses (see below).
As part of this approach, you can take small steps toward the pose without trying to do the full position. For example, your version of Handstand could be putting your hands on the floor and walking your feet up the wall. As you get stronger, steadier, and more confident, you can try lifting one leg at a time toward the ceiling. Eventually, you may find that you're prepared to tackle the full pose.
Repeat, repeat, repeat. Instead of holding a pose for a long time, do it briefly but move in and out of it frequently in a single practice session. With a difficult asana like Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward-Facing Bow Pose), this strategy can help you find opening and ease.
Create a supportive sequence. This can consist of just a few poses, or you can develop a lengthy series that helps prepare your body for a pose you struggle with. You may be able to design such a sequence yourself, or you can get them from yoga books, videos, DVDs, Yoga Journal articles, or workshops that focus on a particular pose or category of poses. If you do take a class that happens to focus on your most troublesome pose or seems to make it more accessible, make sure to write down the sequence immediately after class. You can also ask a teacher to help you piece together a sequence that's tailored exactly for you.
Improve your alignment. Ask your teacher for feedback about your alignment too. You may be surprised to discover how much easier a pose becomes once you improve your alignment. Even if that doesn't happen, it's important to learn proper alignment so you don't fall into bad habits, overworking the places that are already strong or flexible and underworking those that are weak or tight.
Buddy up. Practicing with a friend often creates a relaxed, informal atmosphere that makes the whole experience easier and more fun. And having the moral support of a yoga partner can encourage you to be a bit more daring than usual.
Cultivate playfulness. Bringing curiosity, lightness, and self-acceptance into your practice can have a huge impact. Just as Baron Baptiste did with Garudasana, make peace with the poses that frustrate you rather than fighting to master them.
POSES WE LOVE
As you confront your resistance and fears, finding new ways to tackle previously hated poses, you'll discover the exhilaration and empowerment that come from facing difficulty. But remember that you're only human; taking on more than one or two hard poses at once can be frustrating and might even discourage you from practicing. So be sure to include your favorites as well. Try starting and ending your practice with your most beloved poses, and use them as tiny treats throughout your sequence. After all, these are still the poses that are most likely to lure you to your mat and provide you with the relaxing, comforting, and even joyful experiences that are as much a part of yoga practice as the challenges are.
POSES THEY HATE
If you've ever had a least favorite pose, you're not alone. Even yoga teachers have them, and they've shared their struggles with you.
Patricia Walden on Marichyasana I
(Pose Dedicated to the Sage Marichi I)
When I first started practicing this pose, it was a real struggle. I had natural length in my hamstrings but not in my buttocks or paraspinal muscles, so I was unbalanced; all my weight fell on my straight-leg side, and I had no ability to bend forward. My body felt dense and contracted, like a closed fist, and my breathing was restricted. There was no place in the pose where I could find space and freedom.
But I kept practicing Marichyasana I very regularly as part of a traditional forward-bending sequence. I would start with a modified version, sitting up on a blanket and extending my arms forward rather than clasping them behind me. This made it easier to elongate my waist and rib cage. I would repeat this version briefly two or three times on each side; because I had so much physical and mental resistance, repeating it was better than holding it for a long time. When I would finally come into the full pose with the clasp later in the practice session, it would be easier because of all the preparation I had done.
After about 10 years, I finally began to feel in Marichyasana the internal spaciousness and surrender that I love. Now it is one of my favorite forward bends. I think when you work through any difficult situation, it is a form of tapas [discipline and purification] and builds confidence and mental strength. You've taken on something really challenging and come out on the other side.
Barbara Benagh on Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand)
For many years, Shoulderstand was more than frustrating—it was a horror. I had old shoulder, collarbone, and neck injuries from an auto wreck, and even though I practiced the pose using a mountain of blankets, sometimes I'd still have episodes of intense neck pain. One day in class, I had only one blanket to use when my teacher said "Shoulderstand," and I felt a huge wave of anxiety. How would I do it without my Band-Aid blankets? Later, in a different class, I received a terrible Shoulderstand adjustment, had a temper tantrum, and decided to divorce the pose forever.
Eventually, though, I realized I missed the soothing qualities of the pose. So I decided to explore it again. To get in touch with the landmarks of my shoulders, neck, and upper spine, I started with my back flat on the floor in Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose). Then I slowly developed my Shoulderstand through actions instead of by propping myself up. I found that if I pressed the back of my head and elbows down, my cervical spine and chest rose upward. Then, as I continued this rooting and slowly brought my pelvis higher, my legs floated and my body felt like a rocket ship soaring into space. To this day, when I lose that rocket ship sensation, I come down.
Shoulderstand continues to be difficult for me, but I finally feel at home while practicing it. It has taught me that you can try to avoid things, but ultimately they lie in wait for you. And it has also taught me that it's often best to walk away from something you're struggling with, chew on it, and return with a clearer perspective.
Shiva Rea on Purvottanasana
(Upward Plank Pose)
When I do Purvottanasana, I tend to feel compression around my sacrum. To avoid this, I have to work really hard to elongate my lower back and internally rotate my thighs to broaden my sacral area. Even when I do that work, I can't ground my feet well because my calves are so puny. And without that foundation, I can't lift my pelvis high enough to get a good opening in my front body. And the energy flow of the pose— it just feels so stuck. I did Purvottanasana almost every day for 10 years as part of the Ashtanga primary series, and it got incrementally easier, but I never really had a breakthrough.
Most of the time these days, I do Purvottanasana with bent knees. That lets me experience its strength instead of being blocked by my weakness, my spindly calves. I also use creative, fluid ways to approach the pose, like coming into it from Vasisthasana (Side Plank Pose) instead of lifting up from Dandasana (Staff Pose). This method creates more opening in the front of my torso and my shoulders. It also allows me to access my intuitive spirit to feel my way into my best expression of the pose. I think most of us experience lifting from Dandasana into Purvottanasana as a real grunt; coming into it more fluidly allows the inner bhava [the taste or flavor of the experience] to not be shocked by that energetic grunt.
Although I haven't exactly learned to love Purvottanasana, it's important to me not to avoid it, because it teaches me about my aversions and their roots. It has also helped me realize that there are many different paths up the mountain; there are ways to receive the opening of Purvottanasana without forcing my body or obsessing about perfect outer form.
Seane Corn on Parivrtta Trikonasana
(Revolved Triangle Pose)
I have a slight scoliosis [a sideways curve of the spine], so one side of my spine is really restricted. When I do Parivrtta Trikonasana on my challenged side, I have to be on my fingertips or even a block to get the spinal extension I need. On a physical level, the pose is really restricted; I can't breathe freely, and it often just doesn't feel good. And in terms of my ego, it's very humbling.
But unless I'm doing a restorative session, I always include Parivrtta Trikonasana in my practice, because I know the pose is one of my greatest teachers. Sometimes I'll just make it part of my warm-up. Other times I'll create an entire sequence around it and make it the apex of the session.
To prepare for the pose, I'll practice Sun Salutations to warm up my body and then do some hamstring-stretching poses and a series of basic floor twists. To come into Parivrtta Trikonasana, sometimes I start from Parsvottanasana with my hands on the floor, or I'll do a modified Parivrtta Trikonasana with my front knee bent so I can focus on the rotation in my torso. Parivrtta Trikonasana on my difficult side has definitely helped teach me humility—and patience, acceptance, and surrender. When I'm in a difficult situation these days, sometimes I think to myself, "Well, this is just Parivrtta Trikonasana." In the past, if something was uncomfortable, I might have just avoided it. Now, the more challenged I am, the more interested I am: Why don't I want to go there? What can this teach me?
Baron Baptiste on Garudasana
I struggled with Garudasana for years. I always had difficulty with the finishing act of wrapping my free foot around the standing ankle. There would be times when I could do it effortlessly, but other times I'd really have to work at it, which would often throw me off-balance. And it would really frustrate me to be in a group practice and see other practitioners who could do it so effortlessly. I had a lot of internal turmoil about the fact that I couldn't get the pose 'right."
But a few years back, I experienced a breakthrough with Garudasana, and this breakthrough wasn't physical, it was emotional—even spiritual. I just made peace with it. I started noticing that my emotions surrounding the pose were actually throwing me off-balance, so I stopped doing that finishing act; I gave up feeling that I needed to achieve anything in the posture.
I still include Garudasana in my practice, but I'm no longer working toward "accomplishing" it—or any other particular pose. I could probably do the classic, final form of Garudasana if I made that the focus of a practice session, using hip openers, lunge variations, Pigeon Pose variations, and even backbends to release my hips and pelvis. But these days, I focus my practice more on the movement of energy than on some physical outcome. My practice is a purification—a cleaning of the slate—so when I go into the rest of my life, I'm more at peace with things.
Nina Zolotow is coauthor, with Rodney Yee, of Moving Toward Balance and Yoga: The Poetry of the Body. Jason Crandell is a staff yoga teacher at Yoga Journal and teaches public yoga classes in San Francisco.
Wednesday, 2 July 2008
In April this year (2008), I went to New York to see my good friend Neil and to enjoy 10 days of überurban living. Neil's flat, full of personality and style that comes only with people who master the artistry of balancing out camp kitch with dark underground faboulosity, was also filled with boxes he still did't unpack after he had moved in. So, rolling out my yoga mat to do a little bit of holiday practice turned out not to be an easy alternative. No space for yoga??? Not being the one to be stopped by clutter, I got a pair of those yoga paws you see in yoga magazines. Prior to getting them, I really was a huge sceptic. Yoga paws are basically glove and sock looking thingies you put on your hands and feet and that work as a mat fixed to your palms and to the soles of your feet. Ana Forrest always uses them on her hands and before having to resort to them in NY, I never understood why. Now I know. So that you can practice anywhere. And practice I did - in this relativelly small flat, amongst boxes and kitchen utensils, I did my Sun salutations and parts of the primary sequence. Primary is always my first choice when I am out of my element. It´s very grounding and I feel it realigns my body. But the point is this: I didn´t have the time or space to work any of those exhalting Ashtanga acrobatics. Some days, I did some of the standing postures, simple backbending and an inversion or two. And that was it. The first thing is that this was far better than just skipping practice. The second is that doing these very simple things did wonders for my body. We did insane amounts of walking in the city - you know hows urban holidays exhaust one. But I felt great, my body didn´t stiffen and I had none of those tourist aches that sometimes appear when we are out of our element. No achey back, no sore feet, no leg pains. Nothing. Don´t you just love yoga?
Usually, people say that they skip practice because they don´t have time to do much. My point here is that doing just a little, as little as 10 minutes if you don´t have more, sometimes really is completely fine.
So, we came back to good old Norway. It turned out that I had picked up some nasty bug while in the USA and I got something that resembled a very nasty cold, only that this was a Godzilla of very nasty colds and it stuck its claws into me for about two weeks. I felt weak, tired, constanstly sleepy and cranky. During the worst days, I didn´t do any asana practice. When I got better, I got back on the mat for, if nothing else, some Sun salutations. One day I did the salutations, padangusthasana, padahastasana and sirsasana and I felt that it was definitely enough. During those days, I used the postures to wake my body up, to warm it up, to lubricate my unhappy joints and to sort of remind myself that the sickness that seemed to have grabbed hold of me wasn´t everything. Those short practice sessions (David Swenson - I love you for your short forms!) gave me glimpses of the healthy me. And while I practiced, I actually felt good. The sessions also reminded me of the importance of healthy discipline. B.K.S. Iyengar apparently says something like "Take an action. Any action. Just take an action", meaning that you should do what you can, no matter how small. Practice a few asanas and decide that that was today´s practice. It will be more worth it than you can imagine. It will keep you agile through difficult and stressfull periods and it will help you keep in mind that you are far more than the stuff, good or bad, happening in your life. A bit of modest yoga practice somehow removes the sense of drama from our lives, if just for a moment. But those are precious moment. If you can´t do a lot, well, do a little.
These are not pieces of transcendental wisdom that in a swami-esque manner set your awareness ablaze. These are small glimpses of knowledge gained while living a very regular life, while very regular things happen and obstruct us. We need not be obstructed. Do a bit of your practice if you can´t do it all. It is all practice. Practice is NOT giving it up. So, with your mat or without, with or without those weird yoga paws, work those asanas and pull yourself back into the moment. That´s whats it is all about. While fresh blood surges through your muscles and organs and you listen to your breath becoming more stable, there just might come a small moment of you being exactly where you want to be, being who you want to be, for a moment on your mat, or on naked floor (Edward Clark apparently never uses a mat, by the way). Then the moment will go away and you will have practiced when you thought you didn´t have the time to or whatever it was that told you that you couldn´t. This is some of the stuff that makes you a yogi. So, get to it and be one. You don´t need a turban. Remembering this during those short moments of sweet simple sessions is the glory of a modest practice.
Tuesday, 20 May 2008
David Williams posted an open letter to his students on his website, www.ashtangayogi.com, sharing some of his thougt on the AShtanga Yoga practice. The letter is insightful and based on many years of David Williams´practice and teacher experience. I felt it needed to be shared. So here it goes:
Greetings and Salutations from Maui!
When I teach Yoga, I am always reminded that there are some major concepts about how Ashtanga Yoga is taught and practiced, based on my personal study, observation, and uninterrupted practice, that I feel are important to share with my classes.
First, and foremost, I hope you can learn from me that in your practice, "If it hurts, you are doing it wrong." Through the years, I have observed that too many people are hurting themselves and hurting others. Yoga practice can be (and should be) pleasant from the beginning to the end. What is important is the mulabandha and deep breathing. With daily practice, it is inevitable that one will become more flexible.
I have learned from my own practice and observation that pushing your current limitations to get into a position can result in injury, which results in one needing to rest the injury to recover so they can resume their practice. This entire sequence of events is not only unpleasant, it is contrary to my belief that through slow, steady daily practice, one can achieve greater flexibility by generating one's own internal heat to relax into positions, rather than being forced into a position. I have observed this slower, steadier method is not only healthier, but it allows one to develop greater flexibility of a more lasting nature, than the kind that is forced. Unfortunately, as many have found, pushing one's current limitations can result in having to severely curtail or limit activity during recovery. This cycle can lead to unpleasant associations with one's yoga practice, rather than the pleasant experiences I work to instill, and that I feel are necessary for a lifelong practice.
In my workshop, I want to show each of you how you can do the Ashtanga Yoga series in a lifelong practice that is a totally pleasant experience. I suspect that when you first saw the practice, you said to yourself, "If I did this, it would be great for me!" So, here you are--you have observed the practice, and you want to continue it. The key is being able to continue practicing Yoga for the rest of your life. From over 30 years of observing thousands of people practicing Yoga, I have realized that those who continue are the ones who are able to figure out how to make it enjoyable. They look forward to their daily practice and nothing can keep them from finding the time to do it. It becomes one of the most pleasant parts of their day. The others, consciously, subconsciously, or unconsciously, quit practicing. It is my goal to do everything I can to inspire you to establish your Yoga practice not just for the few days we are together, but for the rest of your life.
Secondly, I hope to share with you my belief that the ultimate goal of Yoga is not to increase flexibility and strength. Increased flexibility and strength are simply the natural results and benefits of daily practice. While additional flexibility and strength are important and apparent benefits of Yoga, I believe the goals of Yoga practice are self-realization and keeping oneself balanced and healthy on a daily basis. Health is your greatest wealth. The body's DNA knows how to heal itself; all it needs is the energy. The energizing, rejuvenating Yoga practices can be the source of this energy.
Lastly, I hope you will find that my workshop is for everyone at all levels. I am occasionally asked if someone is "good at Yoga." I quickly respond that the best Yogi is not the one who is most flexible, but the one who is most focused on what he or she is doing, the one most intensely doing the mulabandha and deep breathing. It is with some sadness that I have observed people "competing with their Yoga practice." I have also observed others who are discouraged in their practice because they feel this competition and worry that they will never be able to do their practice with the flexibility and skill of others more advanced in the series. My goal is to convey the idea that the greatest Yogi is the one who enjoys his or her Yoga practice the most, not the one who can achieve the ultimate pretzel position. It is my belief, and I hope to convey to you, that in your practice of this moving meditation, what is really important, is what is invisible to the observer, what is within each of you.
I believe in the Yoga. I believe that anyone who has the desire can do the Ashtanga practice, perhaps with personal modifications, in a way that is totally pleasant. For years, I have said, "If someone said to me, 'You have 15 minutes, one hour, etc., do something good for yourself. You can use barbells, bicycles, or whatever,' I would start doing the Ashtanga Yoga Salutations to the Sun and First Series." If someone can show me something better, I am ready to learn it. In my 30 years of searching, I have learned five or six systems of Yoga practice. For myself, I have not found a better physical, mental, and emotional fitness program than the Ashtanga Yoga system. I hope you will feel the same after our days together.
I look forward to sharing my practice and experience with you.
Yours in Yoga,
Wednesday, 2 April 2008
As stated earlier, a lot of us come to yoga because we want or need an alternative to those standard health-club fitness regiments. When we stick to yoga for years, it is usually because we find that yoga is far more than another fitness fad. Here`s an article by Alisa Bauman about the research concerning yoga as an excercise system. So, knock yourselves out! ;-)
We sent three yogis to the lab to test the theory that yoga is all you need for optimal fitness.
By Alisa Bauman
When it came to the fitness benefits yoga can or can't provide, yoga teacher John Schumacher had heard it all. A student of B. K. S. Iyengar for 20 years and founder of the Unity Woods studios in the Washington, D.C. area, Schumacher was convinced yoga provides a complete fitness regime. But many people, even some of his own students, disagreed. Yoga might be good for flexibility or relaxation, they'd say, but to be truly fit, you had to combine it with an activity like running or weight lifting.
Schumacher just didn't buy it.
He knew three decades of yoga practice—and only yoga practice—had kept him fit. He didn't need to power walk. He didn't need to lift weights. His fitness formula consisted of daily asanas (poses) and pranayama (breathwork). That's all he needed.
Four years ago at age 52, Schumacher decided to prove his point. He signed up for physiological testing at a lab in Gaithersburg, Maryland. As he expected, Schumacher tested near the top of his age group for a variety of fitness tests, including maximum heart and exercise recovery rates. His doctor told him that he was in excellent physical condition and estimated that Schumacher had less than a one percent chance of suffering a cardiac event. "I've always maintained that yoga provides more than adequate cardiovascular benefits," says Schumacher. "Now I have the evidence that regular yoga practice at a certain level of intensity will provide you with what you need."
Evidence of yoga's ability to bolster fitness, however, goes well beyond Schumacher's personal experience. Yoga Journal's testing of three yogis also yielded impressive results. Even physiologists who don't do yoga now agree that the practice provides benefits well beyond flexibility and relaxation. Recent research—though preliminary—shows that yoga may also improve strength, aerobic capacity, and lung function. If you practice yoga, you already knew that. But if, like Schumacher, you've been told by friends, family, doctors, or even other yoga students that you need to add some power walking for your heart or strength training for your muscles, here's evidence that yoga is all you need for a fit mind and body.
What Is Fitness?
Before you can prove yoga keeps you fit, you must first define what "fitness" actually means. This isn't a simple task. Ask eight different physiologists, and you'll hear eight different definitions, says Dave Costill, Ph.D., one of the first U. S. researchers to rigorously test the health and fitness benefits of exercise.
Now professor emeritus of exercise science at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, Costill defines fitness simply as the ability to live your life without feeling fatigued. "For normal daily living you don't need the strength of a football player or the endurance of a marathon runner, but you've got to be able to perform your normal activities and still have a reserve," says Costill. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the largest exercise science association in the world, defines fitness as both related to your ability to maintain physical activity and related to your health (for example, people who become more fit reduce their risk for heart disease). According to ACSM, four types of fitness help to bolster health:
Cardiorespiratory fitness. This refers to the fitness of your heart, lungs, and blood vessels. The better your cardiorespiratory fitness, the better your stamina, the lower your risk for a host of diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Your ability to move without feeling winded or fatigued is measured by your VO2max (maximal oxygen uptake), a technical term that indicates how efficiently oxygen enters your lungs, moves into your bloodstream, and is used by your muscles. The more fit you become, the more efficiently your body transports and uses oxygen, improving your overall VO2max.
To test VO2max, physiologists ask you to cycle or walk or run on a treadmill with a tube-like mask over your mouth. The mask gathers the carbon dioxide and oxygen you exhale, and the ratio between the two gasses helps to indicate how efficiently your muscles use oxygen.
There are other tests that measure additional aspects of cardiorespiratory fitness, including a lung function test, in which you take a deep breath and then blow into a tube to measure your lung capacity, and heart rate tests, taken both at rest and during exercise. Since equally fit people can vary as much as 20 percent in heart rate,this measure best indicates your own progress: If you become more fit, your heart rate generally drops.
Muscular fitness. This refers both to muscle strength (how heavy an object you can lift) and muscle endurance (how long you can lift it). Without exercise, all of us lose muscle mass as we age, which can eventually result in weakness and loss of balance and coordination. Because muscle is such active tissue, it also plays an important role in regulating your metabolism, with every pound of muscle burning about 35 to 50 calories a day.
In a lab, researchers test your muscle strength and endurance on specialized equipment that looks like an exercise machine at a gym but contains sensors that read how much force your muscles generate as they contract.
Flexibility. As most people age, their muscles shorten and their tendons, the tissue that connects muscles to bones, become stiffer. This reduces the range of motion, preventing optimum movement of your knees, shoulders, elbows, spine, and other joints. Loss of flexibility may also be associated with an increased risk of pain and injury. Tight hamstrings, for example, pull down on your pelvis, putting pressure on your lower back. In general, tight muscles increase the likelihood you'll suddenly move past your safe range of motion and damage ligaments, tendons, and the muscles themselves.
Body composition. Your body composition refers to the percentage of your body made up of fat instead of muscles, bones, organs, and other nonfat tissues. Though the use of body composition as a fitness and health indicator has come under fire in recent years by those who argue that it's possible to be both fat and fit, the ACSM and many physiologists continue to assert that too much fat and too little muscle raises your risk for disease and makes movement less efficient.
Physiologists can measure body composition in several ways. The simplest method uses a pair of calipers to pinch the skin and underlying fat at various spots on the body. This method works best for athletes and others with little visible body fat. For those with more body fat, a more accurate method is hydrostatic weighing—being weighed while submerged in water and comparing the result to your out-of-water weight. Because fat floats, the greater the difference between your submerged and dry weights, the higher your body fat percentage.
Experts have long recommended that we do at least three different types of activity to achieve optimum cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness, flexibility, and body composition. For example, the ACSM recommends building cardiorespiratory fitness by exercising at an intensity that raises your heart rate to at least 55 percent of your maximum heart rate (the highest rate you can maintain during all-out effort, generally estimated as 220 minus your age); muscular fitness by targeting each major muscle group with eight to 12 repetitions of weight-bearing exercise; and flexibility by stretching.
No one argues against yoga's ability to satisfy the flexibility requirement. But until recently, few scientists had considered whether yoga could improve other aspects of fitness. Now that's starting to change.
Putting Yoga to the Test
In one of the first studies done in the United States that examines the relationship between yoga and fitness, researchers at the University of California at Davis recently tested the muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, cardiorespiratory fitness, body composition, and lung function of 10 college students before and after eight weeks of yoga training. Each week, the students attended four sessions that included 10 minutes of pranayama, 15 minutes of warm-up exercises, 50 minutes of asanas, and 10 minutes of meditation.
After eight weeks, the students' muscular strength had increased by as much as 31 percent, muscular endurance by 57 percent, flexibility by as much as 188 percent, and VO2max by 7 percent—a very respectable increase, given the brevity of the experiment. Study coauthor Ezra A. Amsterdam, M.D., suspects that VO2max might have increased more had the study lasted longer than eight weeks. In fact, the ACSM recommends that exercise research last a minimum of 15 to 20 weeks, because it usually takes that long to see VO2max improvements.
"It was very surprising that we saw these changes in VO2max in such a short time," says Amsterdam, professor of internal medicine (cardiology) and director of the coronary care unit at the U. C. Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. He is now considering a longer, larger study to authenticate these results.
A related study done at Ball State University offers further evidence for yoga's fitness benefits. This research looked at how 15 weeks of twice-weekly yoga classes affected the lung capacity of 287 college students. All of the students involved, including athletes, asthmatics, and smokers, significantly improved lung capacity by the end of the semester.
"The athletes were the ones who were the most surprised, because they thought their athletic training in swimming or football or basketball had already boosted their lung capacity to the maximum," says study author Dee Ann Birkel, an emeritus professor at Ball State's School of Physical Education.
From the perspective of a Western scientist, the few additional studies that have looked at yoga and fitness all contain flaws in their research design—either too few subjects or inadequate control groups. One study, conducted in Secunderabad, India, compared a group of athletes taught pranayama to another group who were not. After two years, those who practiced pranayama showed a larger reduction of blood lactate (an indicator of fatigue) in response to exercise; in addition, they were more able than the control group to increase their exercise intensity as well as the efficiency of their oxygen consumption during exercise. Other smaller studies also done in India have found that yoga can increase exercise performance and raise anaerobic threshold. (Anaerobic threshold is the point at which your muscles cannot extract enough oxygen from your blood and therefore must switch from burning oxygen to burning sugar and creatine. Unlike oxygen, sugar and creatine are dirty fuel sources, creating lactic acid and other by-products that build up in the blood and make you hyperventilate, "feel the burn," and lose muscle coordination.)
Although the research on yoga is only starting to build, a convincingly large amount of research has been done on tai chi, an Eastern martial art that involves a series of slow, graceful movements. Many studies have found that tai chi helps to improve balance, cardiorespiratory and cardiovascular fitness, ability to concentrate, immunity, flexibility, strength, and endurance of the knee extensor muscles.
Dina Amsterdam, a yoga instructor in San Francisco and graduate student at Stanford University, is one of many researchers conducting a three-year study that compares the psychological and physiological benefits of tai chi as to those of traditional forms of Western exercise such as aerobics. (The daughter of Ezra Amsterdam, Dina Amsterdam was the inspiration behind her father's U. C. Davis study on yoga and fitness.)
"Though there haven't been a lot of studies done on yoga that are considered valid, there are numerous studies done on tai chi, with the current Stanford study the largest to date," she says. Because yoga shares many elements with tai chi but can also provide a more vigorous physical workout, Amsterdam expects future yoga studies to produce at least similarly encouraging results. But Amsterdam says she doesn't need additional research to prove to her that yoga builds fitness. "I haven't done anything but yoga and some hiking for 10 years," she says. "When I came to yoga, I was 25 pounds overweight and suffering from a compulsive eating disorder. Yoga completely brought me back to physical and emotional health."
Many yoga practitioners echo such thoughts. Jack England, an 81-year-old yoga and stretching instructor at the Club Med in Port Saint Lucie, Florida, says more than 30 years of yoga have kept him flexible, healthy, and strong. He's the same weight and height as he was in high school, and his stellar health continues to amaze his doctor. He delights audiences at Club Med by practicing Shoulderstand and other poses while balancing on a float board in a water ski show. "I'm an inspiration to people of all ages," he says. "I do things that 14-year-old girls can't do."
Stephanie Griffin, a 33-year-old director of business development for a pharmaceutical research company in San Francisco, discovered yoga after years of running marathons, spinning, and weight lifting. Before discovering yoga, she thought her intense exercise habits had turned her into a poster child for health and fitness. During the last four years, however, Griffin began doing more and more yoga and less and less running, weight lifting, and aerobicizing. As she dropped back on her hardcore fitness pursuits, she worried she might gain weight or lose her muscle tone or exercise capacity.
She didn't. "I have maintained my fitness and even enhanced it through yoga," says Griffin, who no longer has a gym membership. "And I like the way my body looks and feels now better than the way it did before."
Why Yoga Works
Exactly how does yoga build fitness? The answer you get depends on whom you ask. Robert Holly, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in the Department of Exercise Biology at U. C. Davis and one of the researchers on the U. C. Davis study, says that muscles respond to stretching by becoming larger and capable of extracting and using more oxygen more quickly. In other words, side benefits of flexibility include increased muscle strength and endurance.
"My own belief is that the small but significant increase in maximal oxygen capacity was due to an increase in muscle endurance, which allowed the subjects to exercise longer, extract more oxygen, and reach an increased maximal oxygen uptake," says Holly.
Then there's the pranayama theory. Birkel suspects that yoga poses help increase lung capacity by improving the flexibility of the rib area, shoulders, and back, allowing the lungs to expand more fully. Breathwork further boosts lung capacity—and possibly also VO2max—by conditioning the diaphragm and helping to more fully oxygenate the blood.
Birkel, Dina Amsterdam, and others are also quick to point out that Suryanamaskar (Sun Salutations) and other continuously linked poses increase the heart rate, making yoga aerobically challenging. And many yoga poses—particularly standing poses, balancing poses, and inversions—build quite a bit of strength because they require sustained isometric contractions of many large and small muscles. Of course, holding the poses longer increases this training effect.
Finally, yoga tunes you into your body and helps you to better coordinate your actions. "When you bring your breath, your awareness, and your physical body into harmony, you allow your body to work at its maximum fitness capacity," says Dina Amsterdam. "Yoga class is merely a laboratory for how to be in harmony with the body in every activity outside of yoga. This improved physical wellness and fluidity enhance not just the physical well-being but also permeate all levels of our being."
Are You Fit?
Given all this evidence, can you now confidently tell your nonyogi friends they're wrong when they insist that you should add other forms of exercise to your practice?
Maybe, maybe not. The answer depends largely on how much you dedicate yourself to yoga. Studies done on yoga have included more than an hour of practice two to four days a week. The yoga sessions included breathwork and meditation in addition to typical yoga poses. Finally, the asanas used in these studies included not just aerobically challenging sequences, like Sun Salutations, but also many strengthening poses, like Virabhadrasana (Warrior Pose), Vrksasana (Tree Pose), Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), Navasana (Boat Pose), Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand), Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), and Plank.
So if you want to become and stay physically and mentally fit, make sure your yoga practice includes a balance of poses that build strength, stamina, and flexibility, along with breathwork and meditation to help develop body awareness. In particular, include a series of standing poses in your practice. As your practice expands, Schumacher suggests adding more challenging asanas such as balancing poses and inversions. "If you are just doing 15 minutes of gentle yoga stretches three to four times a week, you will also need to do some other form of exercise to stay fit," Schumacher readily admits. "I often tell my beginning students that they will need to do something in addition to yoga for a while until they can practice more vigorously."
Holly agrees. If you practice yoga for less than an hour twice a week, he suggests you either pair your practice with moderate intensity exercise like walking, or increase your yoga time or frequency. "But the best form of exercise is whatever you enjoy most and will continue to do on a regular, almost daily, basis," he says. "Should you do more than yoga if you don't enjoy other activities? No. Yoga has a lot of benefits, so do yoga regularly and enjoy it." Beyond fitness, yoga also offers many other gifts. It improves your health, reduces stress, improves sleep, and often acts like a powerful therapy to help heal relationships, improve your career, and boost your overall outlook on life.
All these positives are enough to keep former exercise junkie Stephanie Griffin hooked on yoga for life. Griffin had worried that, unlike her other fitness pursuits, yoga wouldn't give her the emotional satisfaction of aiming for and meeting goals. Soon, however, she realized that yoga offered her a path to constant improvement. "One day it hit me: I realized that my goal was to be practicing yoga well into my 90s," says Griffin. "For me, that is the new finish line. Practicing with that goal satisfies me more than any marathon."
Alisa Bauman stays fit through yoga, running, and fitness ball workouts. She lives and writes in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, where she is studying for yoga teacher certification under Mary Rosenberger at Accent on Yoga and Health.
Saturday, 1 March 2008
Vinyasa is one of the key elements of Ashtanga yoga practice. Vinyasa gives the practice its distinctive sense of flow and it keeps the heat up so that the body opens up and becomes agile and pliable. It is easy to forget this getting caught up in the acrobatics of asana. Yet, it is precisely the understanding and application of the vinyasa principle that fuels asana in Ashtanga sequences.
What most people seem to think of when they think of vinyasa in Ashtanga are the transitions between the positions that come after the standing sequence - the lift-offs and the jump-backs and the subsequent fly-throughs. This is probably due to the fact that these present a formidable challenge for most people, especially novices. In addition, they have a yogic acrobatic aesthetic quality that stimulates our egos, making us feel strong and agile when mastered. This is not to be looked down on, of course. Mastering unusal movement patterns is one of the tools yoga offers that teach us about moving beyond what we considered absolute limits, physically, energetically and otherwise.
Still vinyasa is much more than this. An often used translation of the word vinyasa is the "breath and movement system". John Scott writes in his "Ashtanga Yoga" book that in the literal translation of the word, "vi" means "to go" or "to move", while "nyasa" means, amongst other things "placing" or "planting". Vinyasa is co-ordinating breath and movement, so that they become one. In Ashtanga, there is no movement without breath. The concept of tristana - the union of vinyasa, bandha and dristi, points to the complexity of the system. In Ashtanga, there can be no vinyasa without ujjayi and these two without the gaze focus, or dristi, make for an incomplete practice. Every transition from position to position and within a single asana, every movement, has its own in- or exhalation. Surya namaskar A, for example, has nine vinyasas, starting from the first lift of arms putting palms together, to the last re-entering Samasthitih. I once read that Vinyasa in Ashtanga yoga practice isn´t something you do betwen the asana, but asana is what you do between the Vinyasas. This is actually a constructive way of thinking yoga practice. Vinyasa, supported by bandha, ujjayi and dristi is where the strength of our practice comes from. When the focus in Vinyasa is good and properly applied, one can feel stronger and more charged the further into the practice one gets. So, by the end of a practice session, when one would feel exhausted practicing most any other system of physical exertion, in Ashtanga practice with Vinyasa and bandha applied, one is more energized than when one started. Many yogis have experienced this: dragging oneself to the mat, tired and unmotivated and leaving the mat stronger and more energized.
Apparently, Vinyasa Yoga was designed specifically for householders. Householders are people who have social duties outside of their personal yoga practice. Unlike renunciates (sannyasi), householders (grihasta) cannot devote their entire existence to concentrated practice. Vinyasa yoga is meant to compress the practice of all eight limbs of Ashtanga into a two hours practice. The postures are not held for a long time, so that a yogi can´t identify with them. Vinyasa creates a relatively fast flow of one posture into another and, ideally, we create an awareness that witnesses our presence in different asanas. This is yoga.
The distinctive flowing quality of Ashtanga yoga is due to Vinyasa. Take Utthita trikonasana, for example: you breathe in - arms out - you breathe out - you bend to one side with your body centered over one leg. After five breaths, you breathe in to come up, breathe out and change side and so on. Every breath-coordinated movement is one Vinyasa, meaning that the flow comes entirely from Vinyasa. For people who are new to Ashtanga, this is one of the most fundamental things to learn, alongside understanding bandha and breath. Perfecting of individual asana can never happen without perfecting the transitions between the postures and between the fragmenst within a specific posture. The Vinyasa transitions are as much a crucial part of any posture in Ashtanga practice as whatever you might be doing while holding any posture. There are no pauses in a strong practice. It is all about movement linked by inhalations and exhalations. Very often, when people who have had too much focus on mastering the asana without paying attention to linking the postures, actually start learning Vinyasa, the whole practice and the feeling of it changes. This can feel like a fresh beginning og like being adjusted backwards and re-learning the practice. This is why the best way to start learning is to start with the fundamentals: ujjayi, Vinyasa, bandha dristi. This is what creates the flow.
Ashtanga yoga has spawned a great number of other practices, where different teachers have restructured the sequences and given the practice different names. You´ve got a gazillion types of power yoga, Vinyasa flow, Baptiste power yoga et cetera. A common denominator in all of these is Vinyasa. No matter what the sequences look like or how advanced or not the practices are, the movements are linked by breath and the focused by dristi. The rhythm of this powerful style of yoga comes from this linking of principles. And from this rhythm comes the beauty and strength. And the strength, of course, is built through the application of Vinyasa - this is how the practice gets its flowing ease. It might sound like a paradox, ease coming through exertion but this is perhaps the core of yoga - the ease and weightlessness amidst possible difficulty and challenge.
Vinyasa, bandha and dristi
For the flowing quality of Ashtanga practice to be possible, both strength and flexibility need to be built. The one doesn´t work without the other. Yoga give us countless insights about the operating principles of the body. One of the reasons for this is the fact that energetically and movementwise, yoga works by quite intricate principles. You can be strong, each part for itself, but if the strength can not be integrated, there will be yoga postures that just can´t be reached. Take arm balances, for example. If your arms, back and abdominals are strong, you will have a good physical platform for these postures. Still, if you can´t integrate the strength from these different bodyparts into a singular flow of energy and strength, you will probably have trouble balancing. That is why one sometimes sees people who don´t seem perticularly fit float up into handstands with their legs straight, while people with more obvious muscular strength can struggle to get their feet off the ground. This is first of all because it is not about the muscles but about sending the energy through your body by using bandha and channeling it into Vinyasa. And second - arm balances are about integrated strength. You can use only your arms to get up but you will lose strength rapidly. If the system works together, the energy will be rationed correctly and the movement will be executed with less physical effort.
This integration is reached by the union of Vinyasa, bandha and dristi. The energy locks, bandhas, need to be there for Vinyasa to happen at all - the psoas muscle well used is what swings you between your arms in float-through Vinyasa - and dristi, together with the ujjayi breath helps you to keep your focus. People often forget the importance of the focused gaze, dristi, while practicing. And yet, if you want to turn your practice into a moving meditation, which is what we are aiming for, the gaze needs to be focused. Just like every movement has its in- or outbreath, every asana has its focus point, or dristi. The efortlessness of a strong yoga workout is derived from a disciplined mind. If your mind is to be disciplined during physical exhertion, you cannot let your eyes go zooming from one place to another. Changing the visual focus will entertain the mind and there will be NO focus. This is the role of dristi - creating focus. Noticing where you are and observing. Even if you don´t know what the correct dristi is in a perticular asana, a rule of thumb can be to look in whichever direction you are streching. This will not always be correct according to the traditional Ashtanga method but it will, all the same, give you more focus than if you let your eyes rest on, say, whatever a person practicing next to you is doing. Focus the dristi, bandha and Vinyasa and you will breeze through your practice, no matter how hard it is.
Vinyasa heats up the body and makes the muscles more pliable. It also accentuates the importance of balancing the flexibility out with the strength. the lifting and jumping between the sides in each asana creates the stability needed to "bind" what has been obtained in the way of flexibilty. This is one of the most important methods of avoiding injury. The muscles need to be warm and where strength is used, flexibility creates the balance and vice versa. One should not aim for flexibilty that one is unable to support with strength.
Vinyasa is perhaps the heart of Ashtanga. One of the biggest mistakes many yoga practicioners make is giving all their attention to the individual asanas, while Vinyasa gets neglected. You are not doing Ashtanga if you forget Vinyasa. It is as simple as this. It is not so unusal to see practicioners who skip the lift-offs and jump-throughs between the sitting asanas. Because they find it easier. And the thing is that it actually gets easier if you do it the hard way and do your lift-offs etc. If you never spread your wings, you don´t fly. You fall. And crossing those ankles, pushing up and jumping back and so on and so forth is how we learn to fly.
The beauty of the Ashtanga vinyasa method is in this incredible ease amidst the apparently bone breaking movements. It is not what you do but how you do it. Being able to contort into the most difficult postures is not what makes your practice yoga. If it was, all gymnasts would make grand yogis and they don´t. Breath, focus, what happens inside and, in the case of Ashtanga, Vinyasa, is what makes it yoga. I once read that Krishnamacharya wasn´t impressively flexible. But his bandha control, and through this, his Vinyasa, was so strong that he executed the practice beautifully. You can see this in some contemporary superyogis: Edward Clark doesn´t consider himself to be especially flexible but his flow is phenomenal, his bandhas strong and vinyasa breathtaking. So, his practice is powerful and truly amazing. It is HOW he does what he does and not about how flexible he is or not.
And what does it all boil down to? Perhaps to the simple fact that the fundemental principle in all forms of Vinyasa yoga is that the emphasis shifts from posture to breath. Asanas, as everything in life, are impermanent. What we search for is the formless. Gregor Maehle writes that the yogis search is for the formless, for what was here before the form arose will be here when the form ceases. The Ashtanga system is therefore organized in such a way that nothing impermanent is held on to. "Vinyasa Yoga is a meditation on impermanence", he writes.
Don´t hold on - let it flow. Feel the heat arise. And see yourself burn. What arises from the ashes might just be the real you.