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Making Yoga Safer: 5 tips on What We Should Do in Asana ( A response to Matthew Remski)

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Preventing yoga injuries

By Chrys Kub, P.T., yoga therapist - 

Author, blogger and Ayurvedic practitioner Matthew Remski has recently started a project called WAWADIA (What are We Actually Doing in Asana?) which is creating lots of discussion in the yoga community. As a physical therapist and biokinesiologist, this question has been loudly blaring in my mind since I have started my yoga practice over 14 years ago. In the beginning, I assumed it was because I did not know enough about the practice, so I would just follow my teachers when they would confidently say things such as "this is the pure posture as taught to me by Swami What’sHisName when I was studying with him for the last 15 years, so just do it!" As time passed and I deepened my knowledge of the practice, doing the requisite 500 Hour Teacher Training and eventually studying yoga therapy, I realized the dirty little secret that Matthew so astutely reveals…we don’t really know What We are Actually Doing in Asana! And neither did Swami What’sHisName.

In a recent podcast,The Liberated Body hosted by Brooke Thomas, Matthew mentions that in addition to this question, he would like to ask "what can we do in asana to make it a safer, more efficient practice biomechanically for the body?” This response is to offer some suggestions, based on my 25 years in the field of physical therapy, the last 10 which have been working with persons on an individual basis using yoga asana as one of the tools to help them heal structural injuries, not just a few of which have been "because” of yoga. These are things you can do now, until the time comes when the majority of yoga instructors begin to understand that the in depth knowledge of how the body moves can only enhance their teaching and help their students keep coming back, without injury. 

Just to be clear, I love the practice of yoga. It has helped me become healthier and happier and I have seen this occur in the many clients who I have worked with who have embraced the practice. My livelihood is dedicated to spreading the practice of yoga to others, and helping them learn how to use it as a tool to help them in their lives, but it is only one tool. I am not condemning anyone who teaches asana practices, but instead challenging them to perhaps dig a little deeper, not to accept and teach practices that they don’t fully understand and to get in on the discussion and conversation that Matthew started.

We all know that asana is only one small part of yoga, but let’s face it, it is the biggest part that modern society is now practicing, and it’s the part that is causing the physical injuries that William Broad discussed in his now infamous article, How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body in the NY Times. This article got national exposure, and scared (maybe appropriately?) many people away from yoga practice. Below are some tips to address some of the things we can start today, things which on the cutting edge of modern research I might add, to help us prevent injury from the practice of yoga, as well as use it to maintain structural health and possibly heal a structural injury.

1. Stop practicing yoga to stretch tight muscles, it doesn’t work!

This radical thought will probably rock the yoga world. When the general yoga population is polled as to why they practice yoga, the majority state it is to gain flexibility. Unfortunately, the latest research is showing that stretching does not really change your flexibility and that flexibility probably does not help improve function or performance. Any changes you are seeing in flexibility are due to the changes in the nervous system, not how hard you pull on your hamstings or how deep you go into a backbend. For a deeper discussion on this particular issue, read a few blogs by my wonderful colleague Jules Mitchell, who spent the past two years investigating the research on stretching and yoga. She describes what stretching is and what is isn’t, and what we really need to do in asana to actually increase muscle stiffness to improve efficiency.

2. Get a one on one assessment of your body’s structure and weak links by a qualified yoga teacher, personal trainer, physical therapist or yoga therapist trained in structural assessment. This is probably the most important tip. You may think that I am just promoting my profession (which is true), but I have good reason. It is virtually impossible for your yoga teacher to know what your individual body’s’ needs are and address them adequately in a group yoga class. We all have our body’s history of lifestyle and trauma; emotional, physical and mental. This is held in our body and manifested through dysfunctional movement. When we practice yoga, we are moving the body biomechanically, with various levels of force and contraction through movement patterns. These movement patterns are affected by our individual alignments, weaknesses and strengths. In order to make your practice fit your body, you must know where you might be compensating, where your muscles might be overworking and learn to use the asana practice to create more efficiency and balance in your movement patterns.

3. Individualize your practice to address your needs.You may think that getting an individual assessment means you have to practice alone, and not attend a group class. But to the contrary, having this knowledge will transform your practice to one that is specific to your needs and instead of getting hurt, you will stay healthy or even begin to heal. Attend the group class after you learn from your yoga assessment session how to adjust the postures to meet your goals. Yes, they probably will tell you to do a short 15 minute home practice a few days a week to target certain areas more intensely, but you can take that knowledge into your practice, be it Bikram, Ashtanga, general vinyasa or restorative, and make that practice your own.

4. Consider adding foam rolling for myofascial release into your asana practice. Since we now know we don’t really stretch our muscles (i.e. change their length), we can use the foam roller to help improve mobility of the muscles and connective tissues to allow the nervous system to more efficiently activate your muscles. Research into foam rolling has found some wonderful benefits which will help you learn to release overactive muscles and activate those that need to awaken in order to improve efficiency and alignment. As described in the review by Chris Beardsley entitled Does Research Support Foam Rolling, foam rolling is beneficial pre exercise to reduce muscle fatigue and possibly improve exercise performance. It will improve the joint range of motion without decreasing performance. Post exercise, foam rolling can help decrease muscle soreness, possibly improving your ability to train again sooner and with less discomfort. Foam rolling is not utilized in order to improve flexibility, but to decrease the neural activation of the resting tone in the prime movers (which are usually the muscles you think are "tight”) Once you reset that neural tone of the tissue, the muscle is better able to release and relax, thus allowing an increased range of motion of the joint. This results in more efficient movement of the joint and allows one to begin to activate those muscles which may have been "lazy” and not doing their job. Those lazy muscles are what caused the brain to tell the compensating muscles to "tighten up” in the first place in order to perform the movement or protect you from injury. To learn how to incorporate myofascial release into your yoga practice, check out Yoga TuneUP and Rollasana.

5.  Finally, move through your practice with BAMA (Breath, Alignment, Mostility and Awareness)
a. Breath: the foundation of the asana practice. We all know it, it’s undeniable, yet I have been to many a yoga practice where I did not hear the students breathing or the instructor really cuing the breath. All I can say is please include this as the foundation of your practice.

b. Alignment: if your body is out of alignment, your movement is inefficient and you will create overuse injuries from repetitive stress. This is well established in the literature. Shirley Sahrmann, PT, PhD, FAPTA was a ground breaking physical therapist in the area of movement dysfunction. Her philosophy, if we move with poor initial alignment, we are setting ourselves up for failure and possible pain. If you are a kinesiology geek, her text, Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes is a must read. If you aren’t, just trust me, alignment is important.

c. Mostility: Mobility and Stability are the keys to efficient movement. Since one is codependent on the other, I came up with a new term, Mostility. If you have decreased mobility of a joint, it is usually due not to a tight muscle, but to a combination of fascial restrictions and connective tissue from an injury or repetitive movement dysfunction coupled with poor activation of the prime movers as well as some muscles compensating for that poor activation with over activation. A prime example, the hamstrings in someone who is active in athletics tend to get what they perceive as tight. This tightness is actually increased contraction of the hamstrings to compensate for relative inactivity of the gluteus maximus, which is the primary hip extensor. Once the athlete learns to turn on the gluts as the prime mover instead of the hamstrings, his tightness miraculously decreases. This athlete could practice this in an asana practice by paying attention in poses like Shalambasana as to how he turns on his hip extension, activating the gluts before the hamstrings. This is just one example of how knowing what to activate and how can change your movement patterns.

d. Awareness: One word, Feldenkrais. What is it? The Feldenkrais Method is experiential, providing tools for self-observation through movement enquiry. It is used to improve movement patterns rather than to treat specific injuries or illnesses. Feldenkrais taught that increasing a person's kinesthetic and proprioceptive self-awareness of functional movement could lead to increased function, reduced pain, and greater ease and pleasure of movement. Wow, that sounds like yoga with awareness to me.

So what is the conclusion? What We Are Doing in Asana is still being debated and investigated. It is only through the work of those who are brave enough to bring this issue to our attention that we can begin to address the impact of this practice in creating injuries. Purists may balk that this is taking the yoga out of the yoga practice. But to the contrary, what could be more in line with the practice of yoga than practicing ahimsa in our asana practice? That is…do no harm.

 

Chrys Kub is an integrative physical therapist who incorporates therapeutic yoga as a tool in her practice. She is also an educator in therapeutic yoga through teacher trainings and the yoga therapy program with Holistic Yoga Therapy Institute. She provides continuing education in yoga therapy online through YogaUOnline, HomeCEUConnection.com and PTCourses.com. She also travels throughout the United States presenting yoga therapy at conferences and to health practitioners to help spread the benefits of yoga to all who are willing to learn. You can contact Chrys at chryskub@yogaclub.us

Ana Forrest on Clearing Psychic Smog: Learning to Walk in Beauty

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Ana Forrest - Walk in Beauty

In this interview, Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D., Co-Founder of Yoga U Online, speaks with Ana Forrest, an internationally recognized pioneer in yoga and emotional healing about how to tap into the deep heart and spirit yearning inside to heal the body and ignite the spirit within.

Ana Forrest is the author of Fierce Medicine—Breakthrough Practices to Heal the Body and Ignite the Spirit, as well as the creator of Forrest Yoga—a unique fusion of traditional yoga, new poses and sequences created by the author, Eastern wisdom, and Native American medicine.

Q. In your book, you show us how, indeed, life sometimes serves up some fierce medicine! But ultimately your book—and your path in life—seems to be about teaching others to reconnect with our bodies, cultivate greater balance and start living in harmony with our spirit. That’s a wonderful message! Of course, spirit means different things to different people. Talk a little about what, to you, is soul or spirit.

Ana Forrest. I consider spirit to be the sacred essence within each person. And yet, there are people who have lost contact with their spirit.

Forrest Yoga ultimately is about trying to teach people how to embody their spirit. This is crucially different than most of our religious teachings. What I teach is how to get back to a visceral feeling sense, a visceral sense of embodying your spirit.

What does it feel like when your spirit is in your body? And how do you spread it through your whole body? Through your fingertips, down into your genitals, up into your brain. Your brain absolutely needs to have spirit in there because it’s a little bit like the insane dictator up in its ivory tower. It must connect with the rest of you so it’s not so nutty.

Q. How did this focus of cultivating your connection with spirit become a central theme for you?

Ana Forrest. When I first started yoga, I had no clue how to connect with my spirit. And as I actually began to think about that, I couldn’t find my spirit anywhere in my body because it wasn’t in my body. It had fled. It took a whole lot of work to generate enough care for myself to do this work.

I had to learn to be aware of when I would be doing things or thinking in a way that would drive my spirit out. When I would be thinking in a way that I was spewing smog internally, in my own internal wilderness, my spirit would leave. And I didn’t know that.

I didn’t have anybody really teaching me about spirit. I didn’t know that once I connected to my spirit, it wasn’t permanent. Just like any other relationship, it’s one that needs attention and love and cultivation, and study. If you attract someone to you in a loving way, if you then ignore them, you lose them. It’s the same in building relationship with your spirit. It’s a part of you to interact with every day. It will make every aspect of your life so much richer. Will it solve all of your problems? No. But going through your problems, embodying spirit, and having that brilliance and that wisdom and that sacred energy is part of your resources for solving the challenges in your life. That makes a huge difference.

I had to do the work to clear the backlog of painful past experiences, at least somewhat, to make some room for my spirit. I needed to put out a really deep heartfelt call over and over again. It’s almost like putting out a light to guide your spirit home.

Q. And in your experience what drives away that sense of connection with spirit?

Ana Forrest. You have to be really be mindful of not creating filth internally which would drive my spirit back out. So each time, I would have to catch it, like, “Wait, I’ve lost touch with my spirit and all I’m doing is I’ve been raging for days and days and days.” I’m very comfortable in rage because at least that makes me feel strong which is much better than feeling a victim. I would much rather default to rage than feeling my pain or helplessness. But what I noticed is that when I have that sort of diversionary tactic going on, if I indulge that for too long, I lose touch with my spirit.

You also have to make a warriors choice. As soon as I can recognize that I’m doing that, to go, “Whoa, let me take a breath and reset. This is stuff so important to me that I will let it drive my spirit out in order to indulge it,” because I’m basically having a tantrum inside.

I had this experience once, where I basically realized that I was creating psychic smog all around me. This happened at a time when I had my yoga center in California, on Montana Avenue. I was walking from my yoga center down to the health food store to go get something to eat. And I’m walking down this sunny, pretty street. Inside, I’m totally raging. And I’m having a fight with my business manager. I’ve concluded that fight to my satisfaction. Of course, I won because it was inside of my own head! And then I just went right on to the next person I was pissed with, basically shooting everybody I was annoyed with.

As I was doing this, this really amazing thing happened. I was having a vision in the middle of this whole crazy thing. And there’s a part of me that stepped about forty-five feet back from this woman in boots and yoga clothes stomping down the street.

I could see myself walking down the street but I could see the energy that I was generating. And it was absolutely filthy.

It was very shocking to see because it’s like, my spirit pledge is everything to me. I had made this pledge to bring mending to the hoop of the people. But instead, what I see myself actually giving to the world at that moment is filth!

That’s when I realized, “This is something I can responsible for right now. I can stop spewing this filth into the world.” Instead of beating myself up about it, which perpetuated the anguish, I finally just recognized it, and stopped it.

Ultimately, you hurt yourself the most, because when I am doing my psychic smog thing, I am running filth through my blood stream. I am hurting my organs by the way that I think.

Does that mean, if you get angry once in a while, that you’re hurting yourself? No. But if you are a perpetually raging, then yes. If you’re always in fear, yes. You are hurting yourself because you are running your adrenal glands into exhaustion. We’re sending all this other stuff into your brain and into the way you respond to your world.

So it’s very important to begin to honor that the way that you think and the patterns that you think, it’s worth hunting them. And I call that tracking and hunting. It’s worth really studying them because it’s fascinating. What we do and how we use our thinking are filters for perceiving the truth in the world because our thinking is seldom connected to the truth. But it is very much connected to our life experiences and our decisions we made about them. And so, to choose to perceive more of the truth, even when we are triggered, is quite a warrior stance.

Q. You have this beautiful principle, which is almost the opposite of creating psychic smog: Learning to “walk in beauty.” How can we learn to “walk in beauty?”

Ana Forrest. I learned to “walk in beauty” from the Navajo people, and it comes from a ceremony called the “Beauty Way.” It helps the person that’s in the ceremony to re-establish the balance in their life when they’re ill or depleted or sad.

It doesn’t negate that there is tragedy, unfairness, illness, sadness and there is craziness. But to walk in beauty is connecting to your breath and then finding something during your day to connect to that beauty. You deliberately allow it to dance in your heart. So it could be playing with kittens. It could be doing your yoga in a way that your heart dances. It could be choosing to have an interaction with a friend.Ana Forrest, Forrest Yoga

One of the assignments I give to my teacher trainees is to gather beauty reports. In other words, as you go out and do whatever you’re doing in life, look for beauty. When you go to Whole Foods to buy lunch, can you have something that you connect to in a beauty way?

It could be tasting freshly-squeezed carrot juice, like having that fresh, wonderful, nutritious flavors that’s exploding on your tongue and feeling how your cells just go, “Ooh, that’s really good. I really need that.” That could be your experience.

Or to see a flower and drop your feeling and your numbness and your blasé attitude in the face of the wonder that flower truly is. Or to maybe look in the mirror and actually see the person that you are, to see the truth of all of who you are, if only for three seconds.

Creating beauty is the exact opposite of the spiritual smog experience. And ultimately, it’s a wonderful way to connect with spirit

This is an excerpt from a longer talk Ana gave as part of Yoga U Online's Sadhana Sundays Series. For more information and to register to join Ana for a free Q&A as part of Sadhana Sunday on March 30, see here:

Sadhana Sundays Registration

 

Ana T. Forrest is an internationally recognized pioneer in yoga and emotional healing. The creator of Forrest Yoga—a unique fusion of traditional yoga, new poses and sequences created by the author, Eastern wisdom, and Native American medicine. Ana teaches worldwide at yoga conferences, workshops, retreats, and teacher trainings. 

 

Changing the Energetic Experience of the Body-- A Yogic Approach to Healing Chronic Pain

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Can changing our perception of the energetic dimension of the body help relieve chronic pain conditions?

In this interview, yoga therapist and physical therapist Marlysa Sullivan discusses the interface between new discoveries into the neuroplasticity of pain, and the ancient science of Tantra Hatha Yoga. The focus of Tantra Hatha Yoga lies in creating change and transformation by changing the energetics of the body. Marlysa shows how teaching students to interact with, rather than react to, the flow of energy and sensation in the body can open the gateway to greater freedom and relief from pain.

Q. Marlysa, you are trained as a physical therapist, but have now dedicated yourself 100 percent to working as a yoga teacher and yoga therapist. What inspired that journey?

Marlysa Sullivan: Well, as a physical therapist, I was always really interested in more complicated patients, particularly those with chronic pain, like chronic lower back pain, headaches or fibromyalgia. But even though I took a lot of physical therapy continuing education and was trained by a lot of wonderful physical therapists, I always felt like I was really missing a significant piece of the puzzle to be able to really help this group of people.

So I started to explore yoga, but it wasn’t until I met Yoganand (Michael Carroll), of Pranakriya Yoga that I felt I had found what I had been missing. Through studying with him,I learned the psychological and emotional energetics of what happens to us in pain. When we can understand this multidimensional approach to who we are, we can have more of a transformational healing.

That was my inspiration. I began to experience and understand that there was a level of change that we could access from somewhere else deep inside. I learned that there was a connection between the mind and the body, but also in the energy underneath. He talks a lot about creating change by changing the energy. This is an internal experience of change which then allows for a change in our thoughts, our emotions, and our whole physical being. And it was really an integrative, meditative practice of asana and Pranayama.

Q. Yoganand comes from the Kripalu Yoga tradition. But he has created his own system of yoga.

Marlysa SullivanYes, he calls his style of teaching Pranakriya yoga, which is based on his interpretation and experiences of Swami Kripalu’s work and teaching.He really emphasizes that we have to create a strong discipline, a strong witness, a strong container. Once we’ve created a strong enough container in the mind and body, then we can dive in and understand our experiences and let them change. When you watch what arises inside, then you can allow whatever arises to arise. I can change the way I’m re-acting, so that I can change the way I’m interacting with physical, mental, emotional stimulus.

Q. Since you have integrated this this into your work, are you still practicing as a physical therapist, or you completely focused on yoga therapy?

Marlysa SullivanOne hundred percent yoga therapy now. At the same time, one of my really strong passions is integrating this into more current biomedical work and sciences. So when we look at the field of chronic pain, we’re looking at what happens in the body and the nervous system. We integrate with what is being done with psychology and trauma, Tantra Hatha Yoga is this amazing model that we can use to treat more chronic conditions. We can use the language of the nervous system together with the language of psychology to help people understand what the ancient yogis were teaching us.”

Q. You talk about the integration of Tantra, Hatha Yoga, and the previous scientific findings about chronic pain. So how do we create that bridge, at least for Western minds, between the gap of Tantra Hatha Yoga and chronic pain?

Marlysa SullivanIf we look at the field of physical therapy and pain science, there are changes that happen in the nervous system in chronic pain. And they create common patterns of musculoskeletal imbalances. So we can look at the language of the nervous system as far as the sensitization that happens in chronic pain and the creation of musculoskeletal imbalances.

Then, we can also use the language of psychology, talking about understanding what happens in trauma, what happens to the nervous system, looking at the windows of tolerance to sensations, nervous system variability and resilience. If we tie those two fields together, the philosophy of Tantra Hatha Yoga helps to really integrate those two. We can use practices in Tantra Hatha Yoga to focus more on that physical aspect of sensitization through asana. We can use practices of meditation and Pranayama to focus more on the psychological aspect. But then, we can also look at this underlying dimension of energy, and how that plays a role in what we feel and how we perceive bodily sensations.

Q. As I understand it, there’s a changing understanding in the medical field of chronic pain and what causes it. In particular, there’s some interesting work being done on the nature of pain as it relates to neuroplasticity. Could you tell us about that?

Marlysa Sullivan: Yes, it’s very interesting. Researchers are finding that the nervous system gets sensitized in chronic pain, which means that the nerves and pathways are activated more easily. There’s less inhibition of information, so people perceive more pain and they experience more pain.

Over time, there’s even changes in our perception and our ability to be aware of parts of our body, to know where they are in space. There’s actual changes that happen in chronic pain in the brain and nervous system, which result in greater nervous system sensitization, and lower tolerance to sensation, so people get more easily overloaded.

So part of what we do through asana and pranayama is begin to work with increasing the windows to tolerance to sensation, which is going to change that sensitization of the nervous system. And because Tantra Hatha Yoga focuses on helping people develop more of a witness awareness in how they perceive and react to physical and emotional sensations, it can be a very powerful tool for people with chronic pain.

Q. Are you applying this in working with people with a wide range of pain conditions?

Marlysa Sullivan: Yes, I see patients with fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, chronic lower back pain, disc herniation, migraines and chronic neck pain. Usually, the people I see have those conditions and they also have some anxiety or depression that they’re working with.

Q. Could you give an example of how you’d use this approach to teaching yoga to work with someone with back pain?

Marlysa Sullivan:Thephysical, the musculoskeletal assessment and the physical piece of their lower back pain of course is always the place to start. That really determines and drives which asana I have them do. But then, the way that I have them do the asana and Pranayama techniques and meditation techniques is more directed towards the energetics. So for example, I might want a person to do a bridge pose. But depending on what their underlying energy is, you can have them do different variations of bridge posture: you can have them do a rolling bridge or you could have them hold bridge pose with a lot of stability. Or you could have them stay in bridge pose with a focus on the breath. For example, if you have someone who tends to tighten too much and guard in response to strengthening, instead of focusing on muscular engagement, you can have them focus on the breath and learning to let go and release.

Q: Interesting. So do you just watch your students to see what is needed as they go through the practice? Or do you have a dialogue going to see what’s happening with them?

Marlysa Sullivan:  I usually have a dialogue, because there’s only so much that you can tell from looking at someone. To understand the internal experience of the person and how they’re reacting and responding makes a big difference. So I ask simple questions like “what are you noticing,” “how are you noticing that,” “can you be with that?” This helps create a meditation around it the sensations in the body, and you can then go the next step and ask people, “can you be with whatever sensation you’re feeling and add breath?” or “can you add a visualization, a word, an image?”… So you’re adding a lot of the meditative and pranayama techniques within the asana to change the energetic experience of the asana.

Q. What are some of the results that you are observing?

Marlysa Sullivan: With my patients with lower back pain and neck pain and headaches, I’ve definitely seen progress. I’ve seen people who were very scared of doing even standing postures really get in tuned to their strength to the point where they’re able to go vacations and do a lot of things in their life that they couldn’t do before.

I’ve also seen people begin to really develop more of a witness to the sensations in their mind and body and learn to control their anxiety through that. Many people also begin to recognize how their musculoskeletal imbalances are perpetrated by their thoughts. So they notice, “Oh, every time I’m at work and this happens, I feel this in my psoas,” or, “I feel this in my jaw,” or, “I feel this here.” And once they reach that realization, they can begin to change the mental-emotional patterns that’s causing the physical tightness and pain.

Marlysa Sullivan, P.T. runs a private yoga therapy practice in Atlanta, GA. Her works as a yoga therapist is guided by her strong passion for bringing together the deeper aspects of yoga and anatomy and integrating that with scientific teachings about body and mind. She directs the Pranakriya Yoga Therapy program with Yoganand Michael Carroll and teaches this program at studios across the country. Sullivan also teaches the integration of yoga into physical therapy at Mercer University and Georgia State University as well as the psychology of yoga at the graduate level at West Georgia University.

Q & A With Doug Keller: Just Breathe: Cultivating Healthy Breathing Patterns


Breathing seems simple—you breathe in and you breathe out. But there are patterns to our breathing that are of our own creation. These patterns are often artificial strategies for dealing with events in our lives. Many people coming to yoga classes have limited, or even unhealthy breathing patterns, and need basic breath training before moving on to more advanced yogic breathing practices.

In this interview, Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D., Co-Founder of Yoga U Online speaks with yoga therapist Doug Keller to explore the basics of healthy breathing. He shares best practices for helping students develop more healthy breathing patterns and how to deepen the breath in a natural, non-forced way.

Q. We all know how important the breath is to our health and well-being, especially since we can live without water or food for some time. But when it comes to the breath, we maybe have three to five minutes before we die from lack of oxygen. What impact does breathing – properly and not - have on our well-being?

A. A broad spectrum of health problems are connected to problems with how we breathe. Many diseases, like asthma, are often tied to bad breathing habits. Hyperventilation is one of those breathing problems that impacts six to 10 percent of the population and is a disorder that leads to a lot of diseases.

Simple Pranayama practices can play a significant role in correcting breathing problems. These simple breathing techniques that tend to extend the exhalation and also create comfort with pauses in the breath or small Kumbhakas, are proven by the scientific community to help and can be beneficial for a wide range of health problems.

I have been practicing and teaching Pranayama as a way to recalibrate people’s breath. The healthier, deeper and longer breath helps people to overcome a lot of problems, including both emotional and mental stresses, as well as physical diseases and symptoms of physical diseases. Pranayama both retrains the breath to make the breath more appropriate to the activity that you’re doing  and, at the same time, it puts you in much more conscious contact with exactly how you’re breathing. This helps you catch yourself in the moments in which your breath doesn’t really fit what you’re doing.

Q. Are you saying that a lot of people come to yoga with preexisting breathing imbalances?

A. It’s basically a pattern people develop. As I mentioned one of the most common problems is hyperventilation (over breathing), which has become a habit for many people. This typically happens when you’re doing something active like jogging or doing asana practice. Your breathing rate and depth is going to be different from when you’re doing something else like sitting and meditating or doing a quieter activity.

Stress patterns and habits like sitting at the computer also create improper breathing patterns and we get disconnected from our breath. We don’t realize how much stress we cause for the body and even how many problems we cause for the mind in terms of dizziness or foggy brain syndrome, asthmatic breathing patterns.

Q. What are the challenges of teaching Pranayama breathing?

A. Pranayama is meant to bring people back in touch with their breath and then start to remove the limitations upon the breath that come from that habit. The idea is not to impose new limitations on the breath and force people to do that because the first reaction you get is you don’t feel relaxed. You don’t feel centered. And that’s usually a sign that there’s something going wrong in terms of what you’re doing.  Instructors need to and you need to find a way to introduce this kind of breathing in a way that makes the breath more productive, centering and relaxing.

The challenge with Pranayama breathing in yoga is basically people try too hard.  One of the translations you can give of Pranayama actually means expansion of the experience of the breath. Ayama means to expand or extend or to widen. And so, the purpose of Pranayama is not so much to control the breath but rather to expand your experience of it.

Q. One of the first things we do when teaching a new student is to try to introduce diaphragmatic breathing or three-part yogic breath. How do you work with that when you teach your students?

A. I think Pranayama always starts with first an element of kind relaxation where you move from an active mind to a receptive or perceptive mind.  The difference is in an asana class, you’re following instructions. You’re very active and telling the body to do thing. The mind is in of a command mode. The shift to Pranayama is to move from that command mode to a receptive mode. Instead of trying to tell people what to do with the breath from the start, which often gets in the way, you have them start to feel exactly how they’re experiencing the breath as it is without putting any conditions on it or directions or rules.

Once they start to tune in to that experience, you can  bring people’s attention to the diaphragm, what it feels like to breathe into that part, what you feel happening in the body.

Q. What effect does breath have on our sleep?

A. I find it kind of humorous question that I get more often than anything else is form people on how to sleep well or what kind of pillow to use. Working with the breath practice particularly before going to sleep at night does more than anything else to help you have a deep and restful sleep and to get to sleep quickly. So there are a lot of benefits to doing it.

Q. Can you give us an overview of what you will be covering in “The Art of Yogic Breathing?”

A. It will cover the basics of the breath and a step-by-step guide through natural and diaphragmatic breath in three parts: 1) Improving breath patterns. 2) Tips for calming down and going to sleep. 3) Centering yourself emotionally. 


For more information on Doug's course, see here:
Yoga, Breath, and Health—An Introduction to Yogic Breathing

 

 

The Adductors and Alignment in Yoga Postures: Interview with Julie Gudmestad

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Most yoga teachers are aware of the alignment issues that tight hamstrings cause in yoga postures. However, the adductors of the inner thighs create their own problems, if they are either too tight or too weak, says Iyengar yoga teacher Julie Gudmestad. In this interview, she highlights some of the critical points all yoga teachers need to know about this important, but much overlooked, muscle group.

Q: The adductors don’t often get mentioned in presentations on yoga anatomy. But you say we should be paying more attention to this muscle group?

Julie Gudmestad: Yes, the muscles of the inner thighs are important stabilizers. If they’re tight, they limit our ability to do many of the standing poses and forward bends. In fact, they are important in a large variety of different yoga poses, including inversions, arm balances, and many of the standing poses. For best results in our yoga practice, the adductors need to be both strong and flexible.

Q: Can you give an example of a standing pose that would be limited by tight adductors?

Julie Gudmestad: Trikonasana is the one that I think of first because it’s an often-taught and often-practiced pose. Tight adductors can contribute to people not being able to open the pose up, so they end up with their chest – their front body – facing the floor. When they try to turn their head to look up, they feel a lot of strain in their neck. Tight adductors will cause people to face the floor instead of being able to roll the pose open.

Q: How would tightness in the inner thighs limit the ability for the torso to roll open and contribute to neck strain?

Julie Gudmestad: It is kind of counterintuitive. What happens is the tight adductors limit your ability to open the pelvis. So your pelvis, navel, and pubic bone want to face the floor rather than the wall in front of you. If you can’t get the back of the pelvis to open, then you limit how much you can rotate through your spine and torso to face the wall in front of you.

Q: Many older students over fifty are often unable to actually open their legs into what a wide stance.

Julie Gudmestad: That, of course, is due in large part to the adductors and maybe other muscles that are part of the equation. Think about how people use their bodies in normal American living – we stand, we walk, we sit in chairs. We rarely do things where we take our feet wide apart.

If you don’t take those wide-legged stances, then you lose the flexibility to go there. Not only does that impact our yoga poses but it can also impact, as we get older, our ability to balance in a variety of positions that we might use in activities of daily living. If you can’t separate your feet apart, then sometimes you might put more stress on your back when you’re trying to move something or lift something. Sometimes you might fall because you get into an awkward position and you can’t separate your feet. The mobility of the adductors is important both in yoga and in daily living.

Q: The average American sedentary person, for the most part, has lost the ability to balance. I presume a sedentary lifestyle is bad news for the adductors, too?

Julie Gudmestad: Yes, and it’s having the same impact on all the leg and hip muscles. While there has been a lot of discussion about a sedentary lifestyle weakening the core, it’s also bad for the hips and legs. Some therapists and rehab specialists now feel that the core muscle strength might actually be less important than the strength in the muscles in your legs and hips. I’m inclined to think that it’s not one or the other; I think we need both core strength and hip and leg strength.

Q: Clearly, the adductors are important for standing postures and balancing postures. Do they also play a significant role in other groups of yoga postures?

Julie Gudmestad: Arm balances where you have to squeeze your legs onto your arms and inversions where we hold the legs together rather than letting them go apart. Weak adductors make it hard to stay in an inversion because people can’t hold their legs together for a long time. The adductors start getting tired. 

Those are the main yoga poses where strength is an issue. But the adductors also play a role in many of the forward bends where you spread your legs apart, whether the feet are together or the feet are apart.

Q: How can yoga teachers help students with tight or weak adductors make progress?

Julie Gudmestad: It’s important to know the anatomy of the muscles, where they are, what they do when they contract, why are they important, how do they stretch, what position to put them in to get them to stretch, and how to strengthen them.

With whatever muscle group we’re talking about (in this case, the adductors), the muscles need to be both strong and flexible. We have problems if a muscle is strong but it’s lost its mobility and we also have problems if the muscle is very flexible but not strong. Sometimes that’s the problem with long-time yoga practitioners who have done a lot of stretching. They have fabulous flexibility, but the muscle is not strong. Then it’s vulnerable to tearing and gives instability around the joints that it works on. In this case, that’s the sacroiliac joint, the low back, and the knees. Those are the joints that could be impacted by hypermobile, weak adductors.

Q: In your own teaching experience, how realistic is it to have students make progress to a degree where they can actually participate in a standard yoga class without major alignment issues, even if they first come to class with tight or weak adductors?

Julie Gudmestad: Unfortunately, once a week, it’s hard to make progress with either strengthening or stretching. So the person has to be willing to work at it hopefully two or three times a week. If somebody has really tight adductors, a little bit of stretching may not counterbalance the amount of strength work that they’ve done.

But having said that, I’ve seen some amazing things that people have done, if they’re willing to put in the time. The human body has an amazing ability to evolve, even in the later years of a lifetime. There have been a lot of studies that have shown that people can get stronger and more flexible, no matter what their age.

For information on Julie's course on the adductors, see here:
Romancing the Cinderella Muscles: The Adductors and Keys to Proper Alignment in Yoga Postures

Julie Gudmestad is the founder of Gudmestad Yoga in Portland, Oregon. For almost a decade, she wrote the Anatomy of a Yogi column for Yoga Journal. Julie is widely regarded for her unique insights into anatomy as it relates to alignment in yoga postures, and for her ability to share this knowledge in an interesting way. She has been teaching yoga since 1970 and became a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher in 1988. In addition to teaching yoga, Julie is also a practicing licensed physical therapist specializing in orthopedic problems, chronic pain issues, and stress-related problems.

Cleansing for Health: User-Friendly Yoga Techniques for Detoxification

In this interview, Kristine Kaoverii Weber, founder of Subtle yoga and author of Self-Healing Massage, discusses the yogic approach to detoxification and ways to open the subtle channels in the body to facilittate the flow of Prana, or life force.

YogaUOnline:
Many of us think detoxification as something you do when you’re sick and you may go on a lengthy fast. But you seem to have a different idea of what detoxification is and why it’s necessary. Could you talk a bit about that?

Kaoverii Weber: Well, yoga, as well as the numerous Ayurvedic cleansing practices, focus on cleansing the Nadis, or rather, removing the sediments and toxins from the Nadis. The Nadis is the Sanskrit term for all the channels that run through our body. This includes all the well-known passage ways of the body – the intestines, the veins, the arteries and nerves. But it also includes all the subtle energy flows in the body.

Cleansing is considered important in the yogic tradition, because the ancient yogis understood that if the body is toxic, it’s difficult to meditate, it’s difficult to do deep practices, it’s difficult to achieve self-realization. So, cleansing and detoxification sometimes precedes some of the deeper meditation practices. But it’s an important step for everybody.

In the West, when we think of yoga and detoxification, we tend to think of a hot, sweaty, power Vinyasa practice. And yes, anything that makes you sweat, without a doubt, is useful for detoxifying. However, the yoga tradition has also provided us with very specific practices that help to detoxify the digestive organs and to cleanse and stimulate the organs of digestion in many, many other ways. There are other practices you can do that are really helpful, and which are not so time-consuming.

It’s also important to distinguish between cleansing and detoxification. Longer fasting detoxification practices are very powerful and very useful, when you’re dealing with a specific illness or you’re dealing with a long history of inappropriate eating, or even substance abuse. But there are many practices that are more applicable for all of us in daily life, which facilitates daily cleansing, without the hardship of long fasts and more intense detoxification. Such daily cleansing practices are important, because they can keep us feeling well, feeling healthy, and able to live with greater energy, more happiness, and a greater feeling of aliveness.

YogaUOnline: Most of us think of detoxification as something that’s needed because in modern society, we’re exposed to so many environmental toxins. However, that was not the case for the ancient yogis. Why would the ancient yogis think that including cleansing procedures as part of your daily routine was important?

Kaoverii Weber: Well, the body is aging. As we age, the system starts to break down, and we increasingly need practices that help us to retain some of our vitality, so that we can age gracefully, retain energy, and still enjoy life!

According to the ancient yogis, if impurities or sediments are allowed to accumulate in the Nadis, our health gradually deteriorates. And it’s not just about cleansing on the level of the body.  Even if we only ate high quality, nutritious, organic food, if the mind has any kind of heaviness or stress, our mental state also produces toxins.

That is often overlooked in our Western culture. We think, “If we can only find that magic bullet, if we can only find that perfect food, then we would be completely healthy. But you can eat completely healthy foods and still be toxic, because the mind is converting the foods and anything else in your experience into toxicity.

So this is a really important piece. How do we shift what’s going on in the mind, so that whatever we take in is converted into nourishment as opposed to into toxicity?  Eating healthy foods is not enough, we need to also take time to self-nurture, do meditation practices, the things that help that food then to be converted into essence, into vital nutrition as opposed to into toxicity.

YogaUOnline: Yes. It sounds like what you’re talking about is the Ayurvedic concept of Ama. Ayurveda describes Ama as a sticky, metabolic residue, and it doesn’t just result from the digestion of foods, but from mental and emotional stress or, for lack of a better term,  ‘stuck-ness.

Kaoverii Weber: Yes, exactly. If we’re not vigilant about our state of mind, it doesn’t matter how many wonderful vitamins and nutrients we take in. The mind is going to convert that stuff into toxicity. That piece has offered me so much solace over the years, just the understanding that I don’t have to be perfect. My diet doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be good and it should be good. But what’s just as important is my state of mind.

If we are hyper-focused on what we eat and drink, we’re not necessarily looking in the right direction. The yogic model tells us to look up into who you are instead of just looking down to the ground for your answers, that it’s not just about nutrition, vitamins and minerals. Instead, the yoga tradition prompts you to look up into who you are and find your source of strength from that direction. Then your life will not necessarily have to be so measured out and so careful.

Ultimately, all the yogic cleaning practices are important and useful, but the most important way to cleanse the body, from a yoga perspective, is to look into our spiritual source, look to what fills us with light, what fills us with happiness, what fills us with contentment and peacefulness. Then what we take into our body is much more likely to be converted into healthful nutrition, as opposed to toxins.

YogaUOnline: What are some of the symptoms of toxicity that might indicate that you have too much Ama, too many toxins in your body—whether it be mental toxins or just metabolic residue of incomplete digestion?

Kaoverii Weber: Well, fatigue, lack of energy or zest for live is one typical sign. Incomplete digestion is another big sign that something isn’t right, either constipation, loose stools, or undigested food or mucus in the stool. Also, skin issues are a sign that detoxification would be a good idea. Headaches often are another indication.

These are early warning signs that the body’s internal balance is disturbed. But before it gets to the point of disease, we can work with cleansing practices that can help us bring the body back to balance. And with this, there are things we can do that are very manageable and gentle, and don’t involve intense detoxification.

But it’s important to pay attention to the signs we’re getting from our bodies, and to work with the cleansing practices a little more strongly, if we need to in order to help prevent later stages of disease.

YogaUOnline: When we think of cleansing and detoxification, we think about preventing disease and pave the way for healthy aging. However, for the ancient yogis, keeping the Nadis open and clear was really a matter of facilitating the flow of vital energy, or Prana. So, from that perspective, cleansing practices are really a preparation for spiritual deepening and spiritual experience. Could you talk about the Nadi system and how that relates to spiritual efforts? I think, according to the Indian tradition, there is said to be seventy-two thousand Nadis in the body.

Kaoverii Weber: Yes, it’s fascinating, isn’t it? When we in the West think about detoxification, we think about the gross organs, the liver, the kidneys, the digestive tract. But clearly, there is a flow through the entire body, and that gets stuck on other levels as well.

Certainly, that’s how acupuncture works, the idea is to release blocks in the subtle energy flow. That principle is common in all the oriental, the Asian medicines: If  we can unblock the flow of energy in the subtle body, it will affect the gross body in a deeper way, than if we were to go in the other direction.

This is exactly what I was talking about with toxicity, or mental and emotional ama, being on the level of both the mind and the body. There are the deep Samskara patterns that all of us have and all of us need to work with. If we can release energy from the blockages of the mind, it can then flow into the gross body. And the gross body will benefit greatly from shifts that we make in the way that we think.

So it’s a two-way street. The body fixes the mind, the mind fixes the body. In our culture, we tend to overemphasize the body. We tend to think that if we fix everything with the body, everything else will be alright, the mind will be alright. That comes from a materialistic reductionist worldview that we have long embraced in the West.

The yogic system gives us a much bigger picture and offers a different perspective on how we can influence the body and the mind. It offers a bigger perspective, that there are other ways we can do this.

Also check out Kaoverii's course on Yoga U Online:
Yoga Detox Practices for Long -Term Health

Kristine Kaoverii Weber is is the director of the Subtle Yoga Teacher Training and Personal Transformation Program, which offers a 200-hr. teacher training for social workers. She is also the author of Self-Healing Massage. Kaoverii has been teaching yoga since 1996, and has a background in Viniyoga, Iyengar, and Anusara Yoga. In her yoga teaching, her focus is to assist students in discovering optimal alignment and flow of Prana in their practice as well as to help students experience their yoga practice as a vehicle for self-transformation.

The End of an Era—Is Yoga at a Crossroad?

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By Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D.

"This body is only an instrument of the soul to reach what is within." ~ B.K.S. Iyengar

BKS Iyengar was the last of the living Masters who brought yoga, meditation and yoga philosophy to the West. His passing marks the end of an era, and in more than one way.

In the West, we have developed a weary, love-hate relationship with the Indian concept of guru. Since the 1970s when the Indian guru phenomenon really took hold in the West, gurus purporting to be spiritual Masters have brought us great blessings, and just as equally, great disappointments and disillusion. And more often than not, all of these were embodied in the very same person. Most anyone following a so-called guru has been touched and inspired by his or her unparalleled greatness, and at the same time had their beliefs, dreams and aspirations shattered, when learning that the infallible Master was/is, after all, a very fallible and very human human being.

This conundrum was perfectly exemplified in B.K.S. Iyengar himself. He was a true Master, who developed yoga to the heights of what the human form is capable of, while never losing sight of the essential spiritual aspects of yoga. At the same time, while he notably never was trapped in the stereotypical scandals of the ‘fallen guru,’ he also was known to be demanding, harsh, controlling, and in some cases, even abusive. And, to his credit, he never made a pretense of being perfect.

The concept of the infallible guru has been rightly discredited. Still, what the Indian Masters brought us, which we may never see in quite the same way again, is a true Master Teacher, i.e. someone who dedicated his or her life to the perfection of one single thing, who forged new pathways into what it is possible for human beings to achieve physically, mentally, spiritually.

BKS Iyengar made yoga his art form, and his medium was the body. He spent six years, by his own account, learning how to use yoga postures and techniques to transform his body from a diseased frame that doctors had predicted wouldn’t live past the age of 20, to a strong, vital physiology, which was able to continue a daily yoga practice well into his 90s. And then he made it his mission to bring the knowledge he had gained to the world, to share what he had learned about how yoga asana can be used to heal and transform body, mind and spirit.

And for this reason, with the passing of BKS Iyengar, we face the end of an era. Symbolically speaking, his passing puts us face to face with the fact the yoga is at a crossroad. Yoga has been at a crossroad for many years, of course, but with the passing of one of yoga’s last great masters, the question of where yoga will go in the future becomes even more poignant.

What will shape the shape and form (no pun intended) of yoga going forward? On one hand, we see the growing commercialization of yoga, something that Mr. Iyengar himself viewed with concern. On the other hand, we have a profession whose very success has created immense challenges, which it has few structures in place to address. Let’s discuss each of these individually.

When Yoga Becomes Mainstream, Does Mainstream Become Yoga?

The growing commercialization of yoga, of course, is a trend that has been around ever since yoga became popular. The way yoga has been co-opted, often by people with little in-depth experience with the practice, concerned even BKS himself.

“It does disturb me, because yoga is a science,” he said in a 2007 CNN interview. “Yoga is a science, which makes one to associate the body to the mind, and the mind to the intelligence, and intelligence to the consciousness and consciousness to the Self. When such a noble subject, today, it has become a commercial presentation, it's painful to me. But many people have taken the advantage, learning something and calling different names and attracting people. I don't think that yoga is going to survive.”

That yoga has become mainstream is aptly symbolized by the new Yoga Journal—complete with pics and articles on Hilaria Baldwin and her mom-balance-it-all-techniques, blog posts on Celebrities Becoming Yoga Teachers, designer Trina Turk’s Essential Yoga Gear, and so on. Yoga Journal, of course, should not be singled out as the only media outlet driving this trend, but disappointingly, it is jumping on this YogaLite bandwagon more whole-heartedly than ever.

And of course, that begs the question, when yoga becomes mainstream, does mainstream become yoga? In other words, once what aspects of yoga are covered in  media outlets becomes driven by attention to, ultimately, what sells ads, does what we know about and perceive as yoga eventually become synonymous with the lowest common denominator of current mainstream status quo—including our voyeuristic interest in all things celeb?

A Profession at a Cross Roads

The other major trend unfolding in parallel in the world of yoga has to do with how we handle the growing challenges facing yoga teachers. As yoga becomes mainstream, yoga teachers are increasingly called upon to teach to mainstream bodies—and of course, that means ALL types of bodies, not the young, thin, beautiful and fit that grace magazine covers.

In one of Yoga Journal’s Yoga in America surveys, one out of two (!) respondents said they were interested in trying yoga. That includes the some 77 million baby boomers, who are fast and furiously entering their golden years determined to keep them golden. It includes football players, veterans of war, Wall Street stockbrokers, cancer survivors, victims of domestic violence or other form of trauma, athletes, people who are overweight, people who are too skinny, too out of shape, people who are too something, too anything.

And of course, with the widening audience and greater demand for yoga comes much, much greater teaching challenges. When the teaching of yoga was formalized as a profession, it was okay to ‘just’ be able to teach skinny, moderately fit 20-30+ somethings. But today, most any yoga teacher teaching mixed level classes has had the same experience: In a class of ten people, students do the postures with ten different kinds of improper alignment, and teachers do not have sufficient knowledge of biomechanics to offer effective, individualized suggestions. Because let’s face it, while the traditional modifications and props taught in yoga teacher trainings may work for the 20-30+ year olds fit and skinny somethings, they do not suffice to help the new type of mainstream students with mainstream bodies.

With this, of course, comes also the ongoing debate about yoga injuries. Surya Namaskar, for example, is standard fare in most Vinyasa classes, but the average American body is not really equipped to handle S.N. right from the get go. So something has to give: Either the person gives up trying yoga and concludes it’s not for him/her (as many do), or he or she persists, and unfortunately runs the risk of eventually incurring an injury.

One of the encouraging features of modern postural yoga is the increased focus on understanding and teaching the basics of biomechanics in postures and developing forms of yoga suitable to different types of groups—be they veterans of war, cancer survivors, people who are obese, people suffering from chronic pain. Yoga can be made accessible to everybody, but it requires a specialized level of knowledge and skill. And it’s not the same type of yoga that will work for every type of person.

And this is where yoga is at a crossroads. Few people are as passionate about their craft as full-time long-term yoga teachers, and there are many, many innovators out there doing great, brilliant work. They may not fit our image of the typical Indian guru, but they are in their own right Masters, who have dedicated their life to perfecting one way of teaching yoga to one type of body or one type of challenge.

The issue we are facing is that yoga as a profession does not have a medium for compiling this knowledge and making it more widely available. With the media increasingly chasing celebrity style yoga stories, the 6 Steps to Perfect Happiness and the 12 Minute Downward Dog, they have abdicated their role as a medium for the exploration of the finer points of yoga teaching and practice.

One encouraging trend, of course, is the work of the International Association of Yoga Therapy and the 1,000 hour standards they are developing for yoga therapy as a profession. But while developing the standards for offering yoga as therapy to those struggling with ailments is important, it still doesn’t fill the gap or address the challenges everyday yoga teachers face in teaching the wide range of bodies that come to classes.

And so, we remain at an important crossroad. The debate about yoga injuries is important because it is a reminder that the profession of teaching yoga is still in its infancy and much work needs to be done to bring the teaching of yoga to a level where teachers can serve the much wider range of needs of today’s typical yoga students. But we need to extend that debate to a discussion of how we, as a profession, can do the kind of things a profession does: Develop a shared and growing body of knowledge with effective channels for widely disseminating that knowledge.

This is why the passing of BKS Iyengar marks the end of an era. Yoga as a profession has grown past the point where it can be effectively be distributed via the traditional Master-student relationship. It is up to us to decide what comes next. And if we do not, in the long run, we run the risk of getting stuck with the celeb-gossip style lite yoga that feeds ad sales, and little more than that.

B.K.S. Iyengar, My Teacher. ~ Judith Hanson Lasater

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By Judith Hanson Lasater:

B.K.S. Iyengar was a human being with a superhuman talent for understanding the body and how it moved.

But he also understood that the body represented all of who we are. He said,

“The body is the surface of the mind, the mind the surface of the soul.”

He was not born into privilege, and in fact, had a hard early life.

But he found in that experience strength and it sharpened his will.

He also had just as sharp a sense of humor. One day I was driving him from the airport to his hotel in San Francisco; I asked if it was all right by him if I opened the window, as I was too warm. “Yes”, he said, “I have been known to be a bit fiery myself.” I turned my head away from the road briefly and shot him a grin. I found he was already grinning at me. “We are both a bit pitta dosha,” he said with droll understatement.

One day in class in Pune, India, standing near me, he gave us all a stern look and moved his incredibly bushy eyebrows up and down. He said, “God gave me these eyebrows to frighten you”. I replied cheekily, “It’s working.” He roared with laughter, and we joined him.

One of the things I most admired about Mr. I, as we affectionately called him, was his integrity around practice. I saw him numerous times in the practice studio in Pune. He was on the floor on his mat, simply practicing, while we were informally scattered around the studio practicing ourselves, sometimes sneaking the occasional peak at the Master. He often practiced in public. We saw when he succeeded; we saw when he didn’t. We watched as he struggled with a pose or with a prop to create the effect he wanted.

His struggle inspired us by reminding us we did not have to be perfect in our practice, just faithful to it.

He was renowned for his impatience. This stemmed, I believe, from his passion for giving to us everything he had learned, from wanting so much to help us avoid the mistakes that he had made, from his desire to help the world be a better place.

I once saw him demonstrate Warrior II. He pointed out that when he did the pose without concern about alignment, the hairs on this thigh stood up. Then he showed us Warrior II with his legs in the alignment he wanted, and the hairs on his legs lay down. Simply spontaneously lay down. I was impressed. Not just because this happened but also because he did not miss this detail.

The picture accompanying this article holds a story. It was 1984 and we were sponsoring the first-ever Iyengar Yoga Conference in the USA.

I was teaching my regular class at the Iyengar Yoga Institute in San Francisco, California.

He walked into the class unannounced and, needless to say, I was nervous. He watched the class for a while, then as I continued teaching he offered me teaching points to help me explain the poses better to my students. He kept interrupting me, throwing my rhythm off. He was teaching me how to teach. I would then turn and attempt to teach my students while putting into immediate practice what he has just told me. He would interrupt me again and again. It was nerveracking. Finally he said something about this being my class. “No, Mr. Iyengar,” I said,

“This is your class.”

He laughed, and to the great delight of my students, he took over and taught the rest of the class. It would be a precious lifetime memory for those students who otherwise would not have had the chance to study with him directly.

Mr. Iyengar challenged me; he challenged everyone he ever taught to create a habit of reflection, then action, reflection then action, over and over again while practicing. He wanted us to never stop noticing how our actions affected the pose, our nervous system, our mind, the world.

He filled the room when he taught and he filled our hearts when we listened. My life, and the life of millions of others has been made richer and fuller by what we learned from him. I have absolutely no doubt that wherever he is right now, he is helping a yoga student to find the most precious thing we can all ever find in this world: our true selves.

 

This article originally appeared on Elephant Journal. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Yoga's Body Image Issue - Learning to Love Your Curves

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yoga and body image

by Holly Penny:

Yoga in general and Yoga Journal in particular has a major body image issue, and by issue, I mean problem. I’m not talking about the latest one with Hilaria Baldwin on the cover. Actually, I kind of am, but it goes a lot deeper than that. Yogadork.com recently posted a peek at the suspected new Yoga Journal website, complete with diet tips and lots of Lululemon sponsorship, to the tune of many in the yoga community canceling their subscriptions. It’s been a long time coming and Yoga Journal is finally getting hip to the yoga trends, except they’ve got it all wrong and it doesn’t look good. But it’s not for a lack of trying.

The latest issue did show a glimmer of hope. The “Love Your Curves” article sounded like a great way to embrace this positive body image movement that’s been shattering the “typical yoga body” stereotype and cutting through the layers of thin, white women we’ve been seeing for years in the pages of their magazine (we still love you thin, white women! we just want to make room for everyone else, ok?). But instead of taking the opportunity to celebrate our differences, our shapes, bulges, and dimples, YJ chose to share tips on how to hide them instead.

For instance, do you have an hourglass figure with wide shoulders? Better wear broad-strapped tops. Want to hide your butt dimples aka cellulite (*gasp*)? Dear god, don’t wear thin yoga pants, go for the “yoga version of Spanx,” we’re told. Want to slenderize your apple bottom? For the love of all that is holy, WEAR BLACK. But if you must wear a print, only vertical stripes for you, “to draw eyes away from the tummy,” because tummies are unacceptable for yoga class.

You’ve got to be kidding, YJ. Only they’re not. The whole article is about how to hide your body to look leaner, more slender and more like a homogenized, vacuum-sealed yoga pants mannequin who’s finally acceptable enough to be seen on a mat in public. I’ve taken issue with the whole body type thing in general – who says I look like an apple, hourglass, rectangle, or pear? I look like my body, thank you very much.

The reaction from both the article and from the new website design has been overwhelming, in a not so good way. Swarms of yogis have been calling them out for body shaming and for hopping on the body positivity train without really getting it.

In her post entitled “Why My Butt-Dimples Just Unsubscribed From Yoga Journal,” which has been shared hundreds of times, Rachel Meyer, a mom, yoga teacher, and writer, explained her reasons for canceling her subscription:

I felt sad. And dejected. And not good enough, especially since I’m a butt-dimpled new mom with a muffin top and it’s been awhile since I’ve done Natarajasana in high heels on a rooftop like Hilaria Baldwin. But mostly, I felt disappointed, because I’ve written a few pieces for YJ in the past and have always felt proud of finding a market for intelligent mindful writing amidst the glossy mainstream rags.

Today I’m sitting on the floor with my kid in my lap and he’s chewing on a soft fabric car with wheels that spin across the 3 sheet-covered yoga mats that we’ve laid out across the living room floor as a playmat. We’re making frozen toaster waffles (nope, not organic) with maple syrup and reading Where The Wild Things Are, which, incidentally, includes no fashion supplements. He’s learning how to sit by himself, and falling forward into Paschimottanasana every time. I’m wearing old black tutu-leggings with a hole in the crotch, my peeling, calloused feet haven’t had a pedicure since January, I ate 27 dark-chocolate-covered almonds from Trader Joe’s for breakfast (after finishing the peanut butter cups first), and my bare face is blotchy with postpartum rosacea.

It doesn’t look anything like a Yoga Journal spread. There are no high heels or probiotics to be found. And yet, it feels very much like yoga and body shaming.

Another yoga teacher, Carling Harps, had a few words as well. She wrote in a recent blog post:

I think they must have heard some of our cries, but sorely missed the point. Including different body types other than the usual waif-ish woman or slender white man in tiny shorts does not count if you are only going to use them to serve up more negative body talk. We can love our curves, or love our lack of curves without being talked down to and promptly instructed how to cover them up. Love your curves! but dear lord, please don’t make us look at them. Pear, wedge, hourglass, rectangle, apple, this is just the same crap article that every fitness magazine publishes each month reminding us that we need to fit into their consumer demographics. Don’t you dare wear spaghetti straps, you’ll totally flatten your chest! Pear shaped and you want to wear crops? Oh honey, you’ll look 3 inches shorter and that will have a serious impact on your meditation practice.

(Interestingly – ironically? – Carling is a Seattle Lululemon ambassador as well as being represented with her partner Patrick by YAMA Talent Agency.)

It should be said, though, that the best part of this whole YJ body image fail is the wonderful women posing in the photos who DO represent different shapes and sizes (not colors though. nooo, YJ isn’t quite ready for that, yet.) The quotes from these women about being comfortable in their own skin, owning their shapes and loving their bodies is refreshing but only stands to reinforce the glaring juxtaposition between their empowerment and the shoulds and shouldn’ts of what they can and can’t wear to be “beautiful” on their mat.

Unfortunately, we don’t think Yoga Journal is getting the message. And when they do, they get it twisted, like a really uncomfortable parivrtta ardha chandrasana. My best advice? Peace out. Leave now while you still can. Set your bulges free!

I leave you now with a few words from Hally Marlino AKA YogaBeast, who maybe said it best:

I wish I could cheer for Yoga Journal. *puts poms poms aside*

The current issue is breaking my balls though.

PS. Yoga Journal just posted their new website (in beta). Who can say what prompted it? The curves article is yet to be found online.

This article first appeared on Yogadork.com. Reprinted with permission.

‘Yoga Saved My Life’ A Tribute to B.K.S. Iyengar

Image: 
B.K.S. Iyengar

“Yoga saved my life. I took it for my health, and then I took it as a mission.”

         B.K.S. Iyengar in The New York Times 

B.K.S. Iyengar made it his mission to bring yoga to the world, and what a mission it became. When he passed away this Wednesday morning, August 20 at the age of 95, he had become one of the most influential yoga masters of our generation, leaving behind a worldwide organization, yoga institutes on six continents, and thousands and thousands of some of the most highly trained yoga teachers in the world, and most significantly, a profound spiritual legacy.

It was apt that the Master whose yoga excelled at making yoga postures accessible to every body, no matter what condition, himself had seen his body transformed by the practice. As a child, he suffered from tuberculosis, influenza, typhoid and malaria, and doctors predicted that he wouldn’t live past 20.

By the time he discovered yoga at 16, he has said, it took him six years to return to health. “Yoga,” he observed wryly at the age of 84, “has given me a bonus of 65 years.”

Well, make that a bonus of 75 years. When Mr. Iyengar took up yoga at 16, he first studied under the tutelage of his brother-in-law, T. Krishnamacharya, who trained a generation of teachers in India. But he soon went on to create his own very unique form of yoga.

Mr. Iyengar never forgot the experience of being trapped by physical limitations, and kept up a demanding daily practice well into his 90s. His yoga has become known for its focus on precise alignment in yoga postures and extensive use of props to enable students of all abilities to move into even complex postures with proper alignment.

“I saw lots of people practicing yoga where there is absolutely no foundation or firmness in the presentations, and I thought that this type of yoga is not going to help anyone, because it's going to die, because it's like a dust, gathering dust,” he said in a 2007 CNN interview. “So I made up my mind, that in order to attract people, . . . each and every fiber of my body, while presenting the asanas, without contortion, without distortion, without attraction, that each and every part of our fibers, sinus, muscles should run parallel to each of them in the core areas. So I started practicing to bring alignment on the joints, on the wrists, on the fingers, on the muscles, on the right and the left, the back and the front... Then it gave me an idea that asanas have to be presented in a measured form.”

Mr. Iyengar first brought his teaching to the U.S. New York, in 1956, but it took years before yoga really began to take hold in the West.  It was the healing aspects of yoga, he once commented, which really took the West by storm. Only later did people develop an interest in the spiritual aspect of the physical cultivation of the body that was central to Mr. Iyengar’s own approach to practice.

Even with the intense focus on the physical form of postures that characterizes Iyengar yoga, Mr. Iyengar never lost never lost sight of the ultimate goal of yoga: “It is through your body that you realize you are a spark of divinity,” he if often quoted as saying.

"In order to find out how to reveal our innermost Being, the sages explored the various sheaths of existence, starting from body and progressing through mind and intelligence, and ultimately to the soul. The yogic journey guides us from our periphery, the body, to the center of our being, the soul. The aim is to integrate the various layers so that the inner divinity shines out as through clear glass." ~B.K.S. Iyengar  –Light on Life

In his wake, yoga in the West has developed into an industry that is far more commercial and purely physical than the practice he taught and advocated. "The commercialism may wash off sometime later," he commented wryly in a New York Times article in 2005. But he was concerned that the commercialism of yoga eventually would dilute its original intent and essence.

Mr. Iyengar’s legacy includes some of  the most influential writings on yoga asana and yoga philosophy, including his most widely published book, Light on Yoga, which has been translated into 17 languages, as well as his books Light on Pranayama and Light on Life.

BKS Iyengar’s Spiritual Legacy – Quotes from a True Master

"The supreme adventure in a man’s life is his journey back to his Creator. To reach the goal he needs well developed and co-ordinated functioning of his body, senses, mind, reason and Self." ~B.K.S. Iyengar -Light on Yoga

"Yoga recognizes that the way our bodies and minds work has changed very little over the millennia. The way we function inside our skin is not susceptible to differ either in time or from place to place. In the functioning of our minds, in our way of relating to each other, there are inherent stresses, like geological fault lines that, left unaddressed, will always cause things to go wrong, whether individually or collectively. The whole thrust of yogic philosophical and scientific inquiry has therefore been to examine the nature of being, with a view to learning to respond to the stresses of life without so many tremors and troubles." ~B.K.S.Iyengar -Light on Life, p. xv.

"Yoga, an ancient but perfect science, deals with the evolution of humanity. This evolution includes all aspects of one's being, from bodily health to self-realization. Yoga means union -- the union of body with consciousness and consciousness with the soul. Yoga cultivates the ways of maintaining a balanced attitude in day-to-day life and endows skill in the performance of one's actions."  ~B.K.S. Iyengar 

"Health is a state of complete harmony of the body, mind and spirit. When one is free from physical disabilities and mental distractions, the gates of the soul open."  ~B.K.S. Iyengar

"If you take up any noble line and stick to it, you can reach the ultimate. Be inspired, but not proud. Do not aim low; you will miss the mark. Aim high; you will be on the threshold of bliss." ~B.K.S. Iyengar  - Light on Life, p. x.

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