Light on life, chapter 2: stability – by Rebecca Lerner (Day 1)

This weekend I went to a workshop at the New York Institute with Rebecca Lerner. The theme of the workshop was the chapter 2 of Light on life, which was great for me, as I often lack in stability compared with flexibility. Also, light on life is my favorite yoga book and very high on my list of favorite books, and it was the first time I heard of someone having a workshop centered around a chapter of that book, so I was pretty excited.

There were three sessions: standing poses with a special attention to twists (Day 1), restorative & pranayama (Day 1), and finally arm balances and backbends (Day 2).

We started the standing poses session by working on parsva adho mukha virasana. Keeping the stabilizing arm (right arm while turning to the right) bent, extend the other arm as far forward as possible. Use your hand to help the belly to turn further, then extend again, and finally extend both arms. This created a very intense twist that one might not think possible in parsva adho mukha virasana.

Parsva adho mukha virasana with the stabilising arm bent by szkolajogi

After doing both sides two or three times, we went back to the center and up into Downward Dog. All following poses were stepped into from downdog and we changed sides sliding through prasarita padottonasana with a short rest with the head down. Rebecca mentioned that staying low would help both maintain the energy levels and help with the grounding and stability of the asanas.

The sequence itself was quite classic: parsvottanasana, parvritta trikonasana, parvritta parsvakonasana, parvritta ardha chandrasana. But the focus was on the revolving action, especially the turning from stability in the legs and the hips. She had us touch our hip bones and use our hands to give the right directions to the legs and the trunk. For exemple in parvritta trikonasana, she made us give the direction of inward rotation at the front hip bone to soften the abdomen and allow turning the chest from the stability in the hips. She mentioned that if this slight inward rotation was there, there would be no swaying of the hips on either side while we tried to turn. Furthermore, in all these poses she had us use our hand flat on the floor (as much as possible obviously, if you needed a brick you could use one) and stamp the heel of the hand down. I found it particularly helpful to work that way in terms of stability and connectivity for the shoulder.

Parvritta Parsvakonasana by BKS Iyengar

We then proceeded to sirsasana. There was much attention brought to the positioning of the hands; it seems we are often overcompensating the clasping of the hands and inward rotation of the wrist / lower arms. She had us clasp the hands but not so much that the thumbs would be crossing, simply resting on top of the index fingers. I had my small “yes!!!” moment when she mentioned bidirectionality in the arms, that we are used to going from the elbow to the wrist, but that we also need to learn going from the wrist to the elbow. This change in the hand position seemed to be very strange for most people and quite impactful, but I had been practicing that way for a while now, so it wasn’t a big shock to me. It was more of a shock that the way I was practicing headstand was seemingly not the “taught” way anymore; apparently along the way of home practice I improved (?) or at least let go of thing not serving me. I think at some point I was bringing in my elbows to close by in headstand which was creating issues with my neck, and when I went away from that my grip on the hands changed. I have also been practicing changing hand positions while in headstand quite a bit (I started doing that when I realized most of the weight was on my head anyhow, I could keep my shoulders lifted, and balance quite easily) and I believe that has improved my alignment, or vice-versa. Sometimes you’re really not sure of which came first…

We also practiced a few poses which are not in Light on Yoga, which was quite interesting. Rebecca mentioned that many poses didn’t make it into the final cut of LOY, as otherwise the book would have been too big and too expensive. We practiced two of those poses in headstand: parsva parvritta eka pada sirsasana (like parsva eka pada sirsasana but with the foot on the floor going to the direction of the foot still up, so if your right foot is touching down it would cross the midline towards your left) and akunchasana / parsva akunchasana: knees bent and thighs touching the chest, then swinging the knees to the right, staying and to the left, staying. My abs still remember this pose… But it was very interesting and I’m definitely gonna work on this pose more at home.

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The only picture I could find of akunchasana, not sure where the credit is due, please let me know if you know…

Finally (I think, I’m not so sure anymore about the timeline) we finished the morning with mulabandhasana sitting on a bolster, then going into vamadevasana I from a kind of wide knee vajrasana. I was actually very surprised to see I could do this, as I had never even attempted that pose before! I had no idea where we were going and just found myself in the pose, which was a great beginner’s feeling I hadn’t had in a while.

Vamedasana I by Jack Cuneo

Speaking of which, there were lots of talk about aparigraha and not coveting the neighbor’s pose and staying safe, in particular with all of these knee-heavy poses, which I thought Rebecca was very elegantly bringing into her teaching.

After a short viparita karani, we went for lunch, and reconvened two hours later for some digestive poses (supta virasana and supta badakonasana), shoulderstand and variations (we also practiced akunchasana / parsva akunchasana among other variations here, and Rebecca showed us how all the turning in parsva akunchasana was a great preparation for parsva sarvangasana as it enables us to bring the supporting hand really nicely under the tailbone. She also mentioned we could work on extending the legs in this pose using a chair to support the feet, which I’m really looking forward to work on at home). After this, we started pranayama, first lying down in supported savasana, then sitting, and we finished in prone savasana.

I always feel very inadequate writing about pranayama, as I feel very “meek” (Rebecca’s / Mr Iyengar’s words) in that practice. I do not practice pranayama very regularly. I feel guilty about not doing it more often, and I have started working on it a bit more (I even opened Light on Pranayama and read through some passages in the past few weeks) but I still feel very uncomfortable about giving pranayama instructions. However, I was surprised as I could easily sit through the whole session without fidgeting, which is definitely an improvement since teacher training. I guess all this sitting I’ve been doing is starting to bear its fruits. As for the pranayama itself, the only thing I will say is that we focused on keeping the chest bone / sternum lifted, and in particular lifted not only up (towards the head) but slightly forward (towards the front of the body) on the inhale.

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Bidirectionality

Movement and resistance. I’ve been working on the bidirectionality in poses, mainly in standing poses for which I feel it is easier to work on this concept. Especially on how bidirectionality in poses helps create connection.

 

I feel like when we try to extend the legs and the arms, we often go only in one direction: from the center to the extremities. And while that is likely useful in the start, when learning to straighten the joints, at some point we need to learn to go back, from the extremities to the core. The awareness should flow freely in both directions, from the chest to the fingertips, and back from the fingertips to the chest. Awareness spreading and centering at the same time.

And I know, in the beginning I didn’t understand these seemingly opposite instructions in class. I remember being puzzled with opposite turning directions, like turning the thigh out in Trikonasana (NOT easy for me, still not today), against which I need to turn the lower leg slightly in if I want to keep standing, as otherwise balance will be lost. I also remember the light bulb moment from my second (?) year of teacher training, when I understood the push-pull of the bent knee in Warrior poses. Yes you want to bend the knee as much as possible, but you also need to draw in from the knee to the hip, especially the outer hip, and I like to imagine one arrow going from my inner hip to the inner knee, and one from the outer knee to the outer hip, with the stability coming from pressing the feet down.

One of my favorite poses to observe bidirectionality in is Parsvottanasana. After I had somewhat mastered how to keep my hips even in the pose, I learned to slide my feet towards each other without actually moving them, and this helped me a lot to keep my hips firm and my inner back thigh rolling back. Then in a class I heard the teacher asking to do the opposite, slide the feet away from each other, and I didn’t get it at all. It seemed completely opposite to what I thought I had learned and was working for me!

Parsvottanasana or intense side stretch. I advise not to work on the end pose with the slippery socks but on the preparatory phases with the hands on blocks / the floor / the hips.

It took me a while to understand that “opposite sliding”, until I decided to work with slippery socks. That’s not the entire reason I started to wear slippery socks for that yoga practice, as I was actually working on jump backs and jump throughs, which for the love of my short arms, I still cannot do even though I am finally getting to a point were I can lift up in Lolasana with the help of blocks. Anyhow, I tried Parsvottanasana with the socks, and it showed me the value of this “sliding away”: more weight onto the front of the front foot, because of that, less overextending of my front leg due to my backslamming of the calf, and more weight also to the outside of the back foot. This resulted in a better pose where both the top of my thighs were more back compared to the sliding in only. While the compactedness of the hips is important for me with my chronic SI problems, I was keeping the hips compact at the expense of the proper extension in my legs and my trunk.

When I slide the feet “in”, then the direction is from the feet to the hips. But when I slide the feet “out”, then the direction is from the hips to the feet. Both are important and bring different parts of the body into action and awareness. Even though this is an easy concept that I had understood in other poses previously, I find interesting it only dawned on me recently in Parsvottanasana. Does this also happen to you, finding out that a concept you learned and understood in a pose can be applied to a different pose? With possibly months or years of practice in between the two “aha” moments? Do you sometimes feel like you’re reinventing the yoga wheel?

Not talking about this yoga wheel, though I’m curious to hear what you think of it if you’ve tried it! (credits to Givamie)

We do not know how to teach

is the title of an article by Lois Steinberg, just published in Yoga Samachar Fall 2018 / Winter 2019.

Lois talks about how to teach beginner students, which should not be how we teach for the assessment, and generally talks about why there are so few younger students in Iyengar classes, an issue I had already discussed here. She advocates for more dynamic classes.

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Lois Steinberg

Overall, I thought it was a good read and I agree with the points raised. She asked to comment on the US Iyengar Yoga association facebook page to further the discussion. Thinking my reply would be very long for a facebook comment, I am writing a blog post with hopefully an extensive response, which I will link in the comments there.

But first, why I think I have some things to contribute to on this topic. First, for a couple more months, I am still in my twenties, and as such I feel like I can relate quite a bit to the “twenty-year old students” she mentions. Second, I have experienced Iyengar yoga being taught in several countries, mainly the Netherlands and now the US but also France where I come from. Though I have never been to Pune, I have thus experienced Iyengar yoga being taught in different cultures. I also didn’t start yoga with Iyengar yoga, but I initially studied Anusara, which I started practicing at 22, and moved to Iyengar yoga when I moved to Utrecht, and looked for a new studio.

First, you gotta understand that the yoga scene in France in 2011 was quite different from what it is now, and from what it is in the US in general, even 2011 US. When I started practicing, my main concern was that I wasn’t getting into a religious cult. It was still seen as a very esoteric pursuit, and I chose a “californian yoga” because it seemed way less risky. Now, I fell in love with the practice at first class, so all my apprehensions quickly disappeared. When I moved to the Netherlands, I wanted to find a “good” class, which at this point for me basically meant a class with inversions, which was surprisingly hard to find.

I started going to a yoga studio called Yoga Moves, which offers multiple types of yoga, and through an unlimited class pass, I tried many different classes, hoping to find a teacher I liked. I ended up getting into Hiske‘s class at some point, and I knew I had found my teacher then and there. When she opened her studio with Claas, I followed them there, and when she started a teacher training, I enrolled immediately. If you’ve followed my blog for a bit, you know I got my Introductory certificate last year in 2017, and then moved to New York where I’ve been living for almost a year now.

It is very clear to me that if I had moved to NYC when I moved to Utrecht, I would not be a CIYT now. And one thing Lois does not mention and I believe is a huge issue here, is simply the cost and availability of Iyengar yoga compared with other styles. I was able to pursue my PhD, go to classes at least three times a week, assist in one class a week, and attend weekend teacher trainings, all at the same time. My commute, by bike, was half an hour at most after the studio moved away from its initial location, before that it was 15 minutes. The classes were all at times I could go to after work. Trainings, as I mentioned, on the weekends. Classes, even workshops, on holidays (whilst here the Institute is closed on holidays). Overall, relatively easy to combine a busy work schedule with classes and even teacher training. Plus, the cost. Unlimited classes for 65 euros per month, 1000 euros for a year of training including books, with discount on classes and workshops.

Now, I realize that the rents in NYC are not the same as in Utrecht, so clearly, class prices have to go up. But one non-member class at the institute is $27. So for the same price as I could get unlimited classes in Utrecht, I can go less than once a week to the Institute (though to be fair if you get a 5-class pass it’s a bit cheaper, but not much). And my salary isn’t much higher here. I live in Queens, with my boyfriend, so we can afford a two-bedroom, which means I have a practice and teaching space. But what about people who can only afford a studio? If it was my case I would most likely go to a place that offers an unlimited package. As the classes at the Institute are also inconveniently timed for me (and the institute itself is far both from my work and my home), I try and go to workshops in the weekend. I just purchased a couple for January and February, which added up to around $500, which places my yoga budget almost as high as my food budget of $300 per month and the second most expensive item after rent.

All of that to say that at least in New York, not taking into account class prices and ease of accessibility might be a big reason why there just aren’t young people in class (and in Teacher Training, someone will have to explain me how you can have a full-time job and do YTT here?!) . If I had done my PhD here, not only wouldn’t have I been able to afford teacher training, but I wouldn’t have been able to take a whole weekday off to go to training.

Now, about the teaching itself. In my teacher training, we learned how to teach a class, and how to teach for the assessment. They are different skills, as Lois mentioned, and while I understand why the assessment is the way it is, it also means that even if you get your certificate, you might not be a good teacher (yet, hopefully it will improve). Is that an issue? I’m not sure. The bar for certification in other systems is so low that I am sure anyone Iyengar-certified is at least an OK-teacher, in that they will not endanger their students. But the style can feel SO RIGID, as I had mentioned in my previous article on the topic, I feel it’s really a pity. I remember my teacher saying during teacher training “Anyone can learn to say “turn your right foot in, left foot out”. I’m teaching your to be yoga teachers, not instructors” and I think this hits right on the nail. I’ve always felt the odd one out as I do not write sequences before teaching. It’s not that I don’t think about the sequence, or the poses, or don’t prepare class. I did write sequences in the beginning, but I quickly stopped when I realized I could never follow through. If I planned twisting, half of the students would be menstruating. If I planned X or Y, students would have knee pain or be pregnant or or or… When I started teaching at the shelter, I not only had to take into account the limited abilities of the students, but also their mood, as if pushed too hard on the wrong day, they would not come back. So now I think about a concept I want to explore, and teach based on what I see, which might mean that I might not talk about said concept at all.

I was quite surprised to read in Lois’ article that many teachers teach the way we have to teach at the exam. As I mentioned, in the Netherlands I have never been to a class taught “the assessment way”. I haven’t been to any here either, but I tend to go to non-beginner classes, so that might be why.

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Astavrakasana, eight-angle pose

Finally, about dynamic classes and “fancy” poses. I love both. I have learned to love “fundamental poses” such as Trikonasana and Tadasana during teacher training, but my love of Sun Salutations, Handstands and arm balances was immediate. I’m not sure I would have gotten into yoga at 22 if the first class I dropped into didn’t have those. I remember being in awe of my teacher demonstrating Astavakrasana and thinking I would never manage to do it (spoiler: I eventually did). And starting one’s yoga journey through a dynamic style does not prelude of an incapacity to appreciate the tiny actions one can do to go deeper inwards. In my case, it was a logical progression. And I still enjoy a dynamic, non-perfectly aligned once in a while, and it’s a pity that it has to happen at home or in a non-Iyengar studio. I know of other teachers who guiltily go to a vinyasa class once in a while to get their “dynamic fix”, and that truly shows an issue with the Iyengar world as it is now. We have lost the fun of the practice, the exploration, and it’s not attractive for younger students. I had tried other Iyengar classes before I found Hiske’s, and I thought they were boring. I am glad I gave Iyengar another shot, all these years ago, for my life, and my practice, would not be the same if I hadn’t. Let’s get more young blood in!

Thank you Lois for raising up this important topic. As I have the opportunity to start teaching a beginner’s course for the postdocs of NYU Langone (more on this exciting opportunity soon!), a group in their late twenties – early thirties, this is a good reminder to add up some fun and movement, especially since there essentially won’t be any props available.

 

Goodbye Geeta

On Sunday, Dec. 16th, I woke up and checked my phone. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Geeta Iyengar, the daughter of BKS Iyengar, seniormost teacher in the world, had passed away just after the workshop celebrating the 100th anniversary of Guruji had finished.

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Celebration blanket I received from the Dutch Iyengar association for the centenary. 

The loss was brutal. Only two days before, she was teaching at the convention. Apparently, she had said multiple times that she was hoping to see the celebration through, as it was both her duty and her destiny to honor her father and guru.

I wish I had gone to the celebrations. Now I won’t ever have a chance to learn directly from “the source”, though of course Prashant and Abhijata remain. But it truly feels like a new generation. A new generation of teachers and practitioners who will never have met Guruji or Geetaji, and I am part of it. I am quite sad about this lost opportunity. Even though Prashant is still there and teaching, I personally cannot relate much to his teaching. I think the fact that he refuses to travel is for much of that, as it makes him a bit unrelatable to me, notwithstanding the fact that his teachings are much less asana-based, and more philosophy-based. While I enjoy reading the prashnayantra problems and incorporating them in my practice, I don’t think I would ever be an Iyengar practitioner if Prashant had been the one developing the practice.

But now Geeta is gone. I have been reading the homages, and the ceremonies following her death. And today is the day when, according to Hindu tradition, her soul leaves her body. As thousands of practitioners mourn, I have nothing to offer but gratefulness. For I, and thousands, if not millions of others, through her and her father’s teaching, have lit the flame of yoga. And for many of us, that light has become a fire.

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It took me a while to write this post. I felt unprepared. Even though I never met her, I deeply felt her loss from the bottom of my heart. But there is only one thing to do in her and her father’s memory: practice. Practice. Practice.

Goodbye Geeta. The title of your book could have described you as well: a gem, for women, and all yoga practitioners. 

12/14/18

Yesterday was the centenary of the birth of BKS Iyengar, and even though I never had the chance to meet him, his life has greatly influenced mine through the pursuit of yoga. His contributions to the field of yoga are innumerable, and I am very grateful to be part of his lineage, both as a teacher and as a student. His writings hold so much depth and layers about the subject of yoga, that anytime I read them again I learn something new. My favorite concept will always be the one of effortless effort, a guiding principle I strive to attain daily in my practice. As I moved away from the Netherlands and the lovely Dutch Iyengar community, to NYC where it is difficult for me to go to classes, his writings have helped me maintain a sustained self-practice.

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End of practice yesterday morning. Credits to BF.

I wanted to end with a quote from him, but I couldn’t choose so here are my favorites:

“Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured”

“Action is movement with intelligence. The world is filled with movement. What the world needs is more conscious movement, more action”

“Yoga allows you to find a new kind of freedom that you may not have known even existed.”

“Yoga allows you to rediscover a sense of wholeness in your life, where you do not feel like you are constantly trying to fit broken pieces together.”

“Yoga is a light, which once lit, will never dim. The better your practice, the brighter the flame.”

Last night I dreamt of yoga

I don’t know why, but last night I dreamt of yoga. Well, asana. I dreamt I was practicing backbends. I was easily getting in Rajakapotasana (King Pigeon pose) and it felt great.

Rajakapotasana (credits go to Sandy Blaine)

It’s quite interesting because I don’t think I have ever even attempted to do this pose. But in my dream, my feet reached to my head so easily, and my back felt amazing.

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I also did this variation in my dream. (BKS Iyengar, LOY)

I think I remember I could do this quite easily as a kid. Which is quite interesting, because I wasn’t a flexible kid, funnily enough. I couldn’t do the splits, I couldn’t put my foot behind my head, and all of the “crazy” things that sometimes come naturally to children but we lose as we age, I couldn’t do any of those. I was terrible at cartwheels, and not great at gymnastics in general. I was always, however, a dancer. I’ve got good rhythm and moving my body to music feels very natural – and I often surprise people that way (as I am relatively shy, people are often floored to see me dance unrestrictedly).

I think it’s the first time I dreamt about yoga. And to be fair, I’m really wondering why now. Maybe it’s because of the Iyengar Centenary Celebrations in Pune, that I keep on seeing pictures of and wished I could have gone too. Maybe it’s because I miss my Dutch Iyengar community, as I’ve found it really hard to integrate in the one here in NYC, partly because I just don’t manage to make it to class, and partly because it feels a bit more closed up than the Utrecht / Dutch community.

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The Dutch contingency at yoganusanam 2018

It’s also interesting because even though I have not been to classes recently, my practice has picked up again. My handstands are finally somewhat stable when free-standing, I can lift up in Lolasana (with blocks) and do a L-sit* (with a belt, but still it proved to be that my arms aren’t so short that I can’t do a L-sit, and taught me a whole lot about where my butt needs to go if wanna have a chance to do it without). I’ve started considering taking the Junior I exam again, either going back to the Netherlands for it or taking it here – where I know that I will clearly have less chances of passing, as interestingly the way of teaching is different from the Netherlands in subtle, but real ways.

In a way it’s funny to think about the assessment. I understand why the assessments are so rigid, but as the teaching is different here and in NL, it sometimes makes me feel really awkward as “a teacher” that things are done this way (here). For exemple, I’ve learned  how to get in headstand (Sirsasana) away from the wall by drawing my knees to my chest and slowly using my core to lift up my legs, until my knees are up to the ceiling, after which I can stretch the legs up. Here, I should teach getting into headstand by jumping the legs up and back until the feet are on the wall, and from there stretch up one leg after the other. I had never seen anyone get up that way before I moved here.

I don’t know if one technique is better than the other, but I know that if I taught “the Dutch way” at the assessment here, I would likely not pass. And of course it’s not only for one pose that these subtle changes might be an issue. On the other hand, I don’t *really* care whether I pass or not, I kind of just want to take it to see how my practice has evolved. Still, I also don’t want to take the exam knowing I will fail, and lose everybody else’s time.

Another issue in terms of teaching, is that I don’t have all the material that a studio usually has at home. In particular so far I was missing a chair (which I will get for Christmas, yay!), but I also don’t have ropes, and not really enough blankets or blocks if I have more than two students. Which is annoying, especially when on my syllabus are poses like Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (and a certain way to do the pose once again).

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Supported Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana. Credits

Anyways, I am a bit uncertain about what to do. Since yoga isn’t my primary occupation, I sometimes feel guilty of not practicing and/or teaching more, but my practice has to stay sustainable while living in a large city, with a demanding job, and spending time with my loved ones. I think I might take a plunge, pay way too much money for a couple of private classes with Lara Warren and ask her opinion about it all.

Meanwhile I will be happy for my friend and early-morning-yoga-partner Tally who took and passed her Intermediate Junior I exam brilliantly!

*I don’t think this is an “official” asana, though the word “Bramcharyasana” keeps on coming back when I search for it. Though I guess it is practiced as jump through / jump back transitions in sun salutations?