(Iyengar) yoga is freaking hard

Yoga: union, or to yoke. What are you looking for in your yoga practice? For me, union is definitely the goal. Union of body and mind, that was what drew me in from my first ever yoga class. After not listening to my body for years, my mind got blown by how good it felt to feel my body, at home in my body. But getting there, creating more connection, that’s tough! While I do believe that Iyengar yoga is one of the best techniques to get there, I understand why one of my best friends told me that she wasn’t going to Iyengar classes anymore because it was too challenging and sometimes she doesn’t want to work that hard.

In Iyengar yoga, I’ve often heard that you’re a beginner for the first 10 to 15 years of practice. Students often laugh when they hear this the first time, they think it’s a joke. But it’s serious, and I agree with it. I still feel like a beginner, because I am still trying to make connections. And I’m not talking subtle things. I’m talking actually straightening my arms / legs and not overextending. I’m talking connecting the thigh bone into the hip socket. These are large connections which are sometimes still missing in my practice. I feel like only after these “gross” connections have been made you are not a beginner anymore, because you can start focusing on the connections of the soft tissues, internal organs, and the skin direction. Not that it’s completely separated; of course I already feel some of these things at times.

From August 19th-23rd I followed a course called the Wisdom Body, with Lara Warren and Nikki Costello. I could only join the afternoon sessions since I was working in the mornings (I was actually going to work before 7am so that I could be at the course at 2:30pm!), which were kind of “teacher training”. Or maybe I should say “continuing education” which is the name of this type of classes at the institute. Mainly people working on the Intro I-II syllabus, one other teacher working towards the Intermediate Junior I assessment.

It’s always humbling going to teacher ed. Of course, you willingly subject yourself to criticism so that your teaching improves. Of course, senior teachers are there to help you improve. Yet you have to be ready to accept the feedback, accept that your knowledge is limited, accept that you are really not that far along that yogic way. And usually your teaching is sub-par because you’re being watched and assessed. Yet these are some of the most useful classes I have ever been to, usually because when you teach, it becomes obvious what part of the pose you don’t understand, and the feedback you get is really on point.

I finally “got” Lolasana (which interestingly is the first arm balance of the syllabi). It’s one of the poses I had a hard time getting into, not to mention teaching: how do you teach a pose you cannot achieve yourself? It’s not impossible, but you need to understand the actions needed in the pose, which you can do from understanding which other poses it’s building on. This is how Matthew Sanford can teach standing poses incredibly well when he cannot practice them himself. Anyhow, some time ago in continuing ed. I was trying to teach Lolasana and it wasn’t working – I got some feedback which I didn’t really find helpful, and all in all I couldn’t teach it because I didn’t understand it. I started working on it with Light On Yoga, got better at it, and this week it was the first pose I tried to teach. Not only did it work, but the feedback I got made the pose so much clearer to me! The last pieces of understanding I was lacking suddenly got filled (for the curious: I was placing my blocks *hum, still T-rex arms here, hum* in front of my hips to “launch myself up” when really I should have had my hands on the blocks as in Dandasana and pulled my hips back!).

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Mr. Iyengar in Lolasana, LOY

Anyhow watching the teachers preparing for Intro II teach, especially the silent demonstrations, there was so much for me to see. It’s hard for Lara not to “go into content” when assessing teaching, and I understand why. At my humble level I can already see so much about what they don’t understand about the pose, and it is clear why their teaching is difficult. Practice, practice, practice. Practice to understand the pose. Once you know the actions, show just that. A clear demonstration of the actions in the pose is better than a thousand words. So if the actions aren’t understood, how can you teach the pose??? It’s so funny for me to see how much I can see on others, when when I started teaching seeing aka observing was definitely what I found the hardest. I remember having to look at the Tadasana from my co-teacher trainees and not knowing what to look at. Now I look at people and their body tendencies everywhere, it’s a professional deformation at this point (my boyfriend even says I am obsessed with people’s feet…). Still, I know that it is easier to see the lack of action on other people than to feel the lack of action in my own body. So back to the mat I am, to deepen my understanding and give clearer instructions. ’cause that’s the reward in teaching yoga: when you see students making a connection.

What about you? Why do you practice? What was the latest connection you made?

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Memories from my first ever yoga class

I wrote this a while ago as a reply to a Facebook post by Tiffany Hambley from Iyengar Yoga with Tiffany. Thought others here might be interested in reading it as well!

I remember going to my first yoga class with one of my best friends as I was too afraid to go on my own. I had wanted to go ever since I read Siddhartha and heard from another friend that he really liked it, but at the time (2011 only!) in France, yoga was thought of as some kind of cult. When a studio opened between my apartment and my school I decided I had to give it a try and chose a “Californian yoga” class as less likely to be a cult. I remember thinking my teacher was very beautiful. I remember the class kicking my *ss, and being very sweaty. I remember being unable to do a side plank, and struggling with the bent knee with foot in front version. Still, i remember having fun trying inversions (this didn’t change!). I remember looking at my teacher demonstrating poses and thinking I would never be able to do that (spoiler: I was wrong). But I also remember closing my eyes in savasana and feeling SO GOOD. Connected to my body in a way I had not been in years. I had been living in my head for so long, it was blissful. I remember getting immediately hooked. It was love at first sight! I will always be grateful for my first yoga teacher Joelle Piedra (http://www.yogivibe.fr/).

A hamstring targeting sequence

Similarly to the low-back pain sequence, this was requested – though this time by students. It is also a relatively short sequence that can be practiced everyday, by anyone, and would take 15 minutes max. The goal here is to become more flexible and lengthen the hamstrings.

You will need: a wall, and a belt. Bolster and blocks not necessary but if you have them I will indicate where you can use them.

Start with your legs up the wall (viparita karani), no bolster under the hips. Press your heels up towards the ceiling and against the wall. Press the ball of the big toe up towards the ceiling. Open the back of the knee, knee caps “up” (towards your hip), bring the back of the thigh towards the wall. Relax the throat and tongue, hands pressing down into the floor by your hips (palms down).

Repeat 5 times with one or two breaths of rest in between (total around 3′).

 

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See the space between the back of the thighs and the wall? You want to make that space inexistant so that the whole back of the legs presses against the wall. You can bring the palms of the hands down and press them into the floor.

 

Bend the knees and slide back towards the center of the room until you are in supta tadasana with both feet pressing against the wall. Grab the belt, bend your right leg and bring the belt over your right foot, then straighten the leg up. Both legs need to be straight, so only get the leg up to 90 degree angle if you can do so with both  legs straight. Otherwise lift the leg up as high as you can without bending either leg. Make sure your left thigh is also going down towards the floor (no gap between the thigh and the floor).

 

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Supta Padangusthasana I with the wall and a belt. Both sides of the trunk are even, foot presses against the wall, arrows indicate directionality. Credit: https://www.iyengaryoganotes.com/

 

Change sides, 1′ each. Repeat both sides once. Repeat again, quickly bring the leg to the left over the midline, grab the belt closer to the foot and then bring the leg out to the left side (Supta Padanghustasana II):

 

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If you have a bolster, you can use it for support as demonstrated here. If this is a very difficult pose for you bring the bolster closer to your outer hip. Credit: https://sunfloweryoga.net/

 

Keep both legs straight, left thigh presses down towards the floor. Stay as long as you can maintain both legs straight. Change sides. Bend your knees to your chest, roll out to the side and come up to standing.

Ardha Uttanasana with the wall (or blocks, 1′ or as long as you can hold it): this is a great demonstration, nothing more to add – please follow these instructions up to point 4! Use the blocks only when you can keep the chest lifted with straight legs:

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If you have time (optional): Ardha Hanumanasana (half monkey pose or half splits). Kneel onto the mat and bring your hips on top of your knees. Extend your right leg in front of you, heel on the floor – toes up, and slide the leg away from you. Straighten the leg by strongly pressing the heel down into the floor and bringing the knee cap up. Bring the chest slightly forward, back straight. Take support for your hands onto blocks if you have them. Stay 30 seconds up to a minute each side.

 

And finally, downward facing dog – Adho Mukha Svanasana with the hands up on blocks if you have them and heels up against the wall:

 

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Downdog with the heels up against the wall, credits Kasia Zacharko.

 

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Exemple of hands on blocks which you can combine with heels on wall. Having the hands higher up helps taking the weight back onto the legs and feet, which helps with keeping a neutral spine so that the work can be focused on straightening the legs, aka working out these hammies! Credit bodypositiveyoga.

 

Stay in the pose as long as you can maintain the right alignment, then rest in child’s pose. Repeat twice for a total of 3 times. Finish in child’s pose with the forehead resting onto the floor or savasana for a couple of minutes.

As usual, happy to take comments / suggestions / feedback! Let me know if you tried it, and if you liked it! Also if something doesn’t work for you it’s always interesting for me to hear it and find out a way to make the pose work for you.

 

 

 

Experimenting on myself

Today during savasana I had this realization that I was truly experimenting on myself. I never made the parallel to my day job to that extent before, and how I could rewrite Mr. Iyengar’s quote “When I practice, I am a philosopher, when I teach, I am a scientist, when I demonstrate, I am an artist.” by switching philosopher and scientist – I feel like I think and speak a lot more about philosophy when I am teaching or preparing teaching than when I am practicing. Maybe this reversal happens when a yogi’s more advanced than I am! Or maybe this is the influence of my day job?

Anyhow my home practice has changed. I practice a lot “by the book” or “with the book” now (Light on Yoga, obviously). What didn’t change is that I rarely practice pre-prepared sequences. I “go with the flow”. Interestingly I find that my body often goes against my brain and I end up practicing poses I wasn’t planning to do. Cause not practicing pre-written sequences doesn’t mean I don’t have any idea of what I’m gonna do; usually I have something I want to practice, either a “peak” pose, or a type of poses, and I sequence as I go. Today I thought I would practice backbends. I wanted to do a couple of vinyasas, then go to deep backbends like ustrasana and urdhva dhanurasana. But that’s not what happened, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this blog post.

I did start with the vinyasas and my usual handstand / forearmstand practice (balancing away from the wall is getting much more stable, yeah!). But then I don’t remember why, but I did Malasana. And it felt great, but with my T-rex arms, I can’t bind my hands behind my back. So I was working on that, trying to see how far my hands really are with a loop in a belt (answer: VERY.), and I ended up pulling out Light on Yoga. This has been happening almost every time I practice recently. I believe since I cannot manage to get to class regularly, the book has become my teacher right now.

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I really have short arms compared to the rest of my body – I measured them once to prove a point. I compensate with very open shoulders so I can do a lot of the binds; but arm balances like lolasana or jump throughs are terribly tough for me as I just can’t lift up very high.

I’m almost certain it’s physically impossible for me to clasp my hands behind my back in Malasana, but I’d love to be wrong – I have been wrong before about what my body can and cannot do, so…

Somehow after Malasana I ended up practicing more forward extensions, half following Light on Yoga and half what I was feeling like. Reading the explanation on Maha Mudra was very helpful, even though I didn’t feel as intense as when I practiced it in Continuing Education a few months ago (it’s on my syllabus. I was supposed to teach it, but we ended up just practicing it).

I also worked quite a bit on Marichyasana I, which I don’t think I had ever read the description for in LOY previously, shame on me. Between the reading and the studying the picture, I realized I was doing a couple of things wrong, like keeping both hips down on the floor and flexing my foot, which was preventing me from getting forward and touch my forehead to the shin/knee. I am pretty sure I had heard the hip thing once before, but hopefully now it will stick with me.

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Twist only, hip is down, foot pointed

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Forward extension, hip is up, foot still extended. Sorry for the poor picture quality, I could not find any better.

As my practice ended  and I had mainly practiced forward extensions, I realized that my body knew better than my brain. My brain wanted to do the backbends and physically demanding poses, but it’s over 90F in NYC right now, and it was so hot that I took my clothes off to practice (reminder: this is home practice.) even with the ceiling fan on the highest setting. My body was much wiser and dragged me to a practice that was cooler, quieter, and overall really needed to refresh both body and brain. Sometimes you just gotta listen, your body already has the wisdom!

PS: happy 4th of July!

 

 

A quick, daily sequence for (lower) back pain

I just made this sequence for a friend of mine and thought others out there might benefit from it. If you do, let me know what you think! If you have suggestions and/or modifications, by all means leave them in the comments below.

This is meant to be a daily 10-15′ morning practice, but it could also be done in the evening, and could be quite easily shortened or lengthened depending on how much time you have. This sequence is OK for beginners, though you might want to check with an Iyengar teacher in your area first if you can; it’s always a good idea to check with someone who can see your body and who you can talk to directly about your history.

You will need a wall (and a bolster if you have one):
– start with supported supta padanghustasana using a wall:
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Ideally the hip is against the wall / under the foot (90 degree angle) but if that doesn’t work out for you it can be at a smaller angle – this should be relaxing.

(both sides, 1-2 minutes each)

– ardha uttanasana with the wall, hip width apart. 1′, walk forward towards the wall, rest forehead, repeat. Hips on top of the feet, 90 degree angle between the chest and the legs. Bring the hips and thighs back (knee caps up!), lengthen the side chest. Keep the head in between the arms, inner upper arm goes up towards the ceiling.

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– then Downward Dog with heels up on the wall and knees bent. Here you’re not working on straightening the legs / lengthening the hamstrings but rather on lengthening the sides of the trunk and bringing the hips up and back.
I would say hold as long as you can maintain the extension in the spine, so 30 sec to 1′, repeat 3x. Take child’s pose to rest in between, same amount of time. When in child’s pose, after resting, extend the arms forward as much as you can with hands in “cup shape”. On the last repetition you can also walk the cup-shaped hands to the right and to the left.

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Imaginary wall behind her heels that she’s pressing into. Heels can be higher up and knees more bent.

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Child’s pose with “cup-shaped” hands

(bolster / blanket not necessary but can be nice if you have them and then you can also have your forehead resting on them during downdog).

– Jathara parivrttasana, knees bent and resting down on the floor. If you have one you can use a bolster in between the knees. 30sec-1′ each side.

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Use a bolster instead of the block (https://rickphoto.com/gallery/yoga/)

– Savasana (with bolster under the knees if you have one)

If you have more time you could add in “legs up the wall – viparita karani” either with a bolster before savasana, if you don’t have a bolster I would put it between supta padangustasana and ardha uttanasana.

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Viparita karani with bolster (the bolster isn’t against the wall but a block’s distance away so that we buttocks have space to sink in behind it).

Disclaimer: I didn’t think I was going to publish this when I wrote this for my friend, and didn’t write down where the images are from. Google’s reverse image search is not being helpful. If an image from this post belongs to you, please let me know and I will credit you appropriately and/or remove it if you wish it so.

LIGHT ON LIFE, CHAPTER 2: STABILITY – BY REBECCA LERNER (DAY 2)

Alright, alright, let’s be real here. It’s been over 4 months since the workshop and I didn’t take notes at the time, so I remember very little from what we did on day 2. But hey, I guess what I remembered did stick with me!

We kept on working on twists, first standing, then seated. I remember we worked quite a bit on Marichyasana III, going through the different stages.

Light on Marichyasana C

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LOY, Mr. Iyengar demonstrating stage II with the bind.

I believe we also practiced Ardha Matsyendrasana II, which was one of the first times I tried that pose:

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LOY, Ardha Matsyendrasana II

After this we went back to Marichyasana III and practiced going to Dwi Pada Koundinyasana from there (which I always thought was just “straight-legged parsva bakasana”!) though it was ok to use both arms for support.

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Finally we practiced Eka Pada Koundinyasana II which I don’t think I had ever been taught in a class setting before. That was quite interesting. For those who couldn’t practice the full pose, she has the students starts from having the hips resting on one (or two) bolsters and work on getting more and more weight onto the arms. I tried it too, but I found it a bit confusing as I can do the full pose and it felt like I wasn’t getting any lift. I should try it again when I have some time.

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Eka Pada Koundinyasana (EPK as youngsters say) I

Overall I enjoyed the workshop, and it was a good mix of challenging while still able to bring something for all levels.

Thanks again to Rebecca Lerner for coming all the way to NYC and the great teaching.