How to reinvent the wheel, huh, the shoulder jacket

If you’ve been doing Iyengar yoga for some time, at some point or another you will have encountered the infamous shoulder jacket. Whether you’ve had shoulder / neck issues in the past, or you simply went to a workshop where the teacher was working on that region, the shoulder jacket is an easy way to help your posture by relaxing your neck muscles and bringing the shoulder blades close by each other.

A shoulder jacket can easily be made by using a long belt. You can find the description (and many more options for using belts and ropes to help your shoulders) in Lois Steinberg’s Iyengar Yoga Asana Alternatives: the Neck and Shoulders. A short description so that you can try it at home even if you don’t have the book:

  • take one handle of the belt in each hand.
  • bring the belt to your back, with the center of the belt on your spine, and one side of the belt going through between your arms and the sides of your chest. Repeat the other side.
  • the belt should be just under the armpits, with the belt’s extremities in front of your body.
  •  now bring (well, I “throw over” but that’s not very yogic) the belt’s extremities over your shoulders so that they are in your back.
  • cross the handles so that your right hand holds the originally left handle, and the left hand holds the originally right handle
  • make sure that the belt is not cutting through your skin, especially under the armpit, and that the part over your shoulders is on the bulky part of the trapezius muscle, not the bone.
  • pull the belt handles down. You should feel the shoulder blades going towards each other and the chest lifting. The downward pressure on the the trapezius should help relax them.

Strangely, I could find very few pictures of the shoulder jacket online. Intellectual property rights? Or is this gem an unknown secret shared by the Iyengar community? If so, I’m sorry, I didn’t get the memo. Please don’t remove my certification!!!! Joke aside, you can bring the crossed belts in between the belt and the shirt, or over – if you’re not helped by someone like in this picture it can be a tad tricky. Also, I would bring the belts on the top of the shoulders closer to her neck.  

While I was looking for the source of that picture, I found out it actually comes from this video where a shoulder jacket is used in down dog. It doesn’t need to be used with a partner, you can simply stand in tadasana with the shoulder jacket and pull the ropes down yourself.

Also, I don’t know if it’s me, but I’ve seen this “buckling” of the belt forward on multiple pictures, and while I understand why people do that, I feel it defeats a bit the purpose imo. I think it confuses the direction of the action. But maybe that’s just me – at this point sometimes I feel things and have been working on feeling the skin direction and such subtle aspects, but I’m a bit uncertain of whether what I’m feeling is correct or not.

Anyhow if you want to do standing poses (or other) with a shoulder jacket on, by all means do so, but I would advise to use a slightly shorter belt that can just hang, or a different version of the shoulder jacket. In that version, you make a large loop in the belt, step in the loop, position the belt on the back / under the armpits as in the previously described version, and bring the part of the belt in front of you over your shoulders. You now have a loop hanging in your back. Bring it in between the belt that it perpendicular to your spine and your shirt, adjust, and pull down. This should keep the belt in place as well as the imprint, without having a tripping hazard.

So. Did you try it at home? Is this your favorite thing ever? Do you talk about it to everyone you meet and their neighbor? Well, I’ve just saved you $30. Yep, I couldn’t believe it when I saw an advertisement for this product online today. A shoulder jacket is a better version (though admittedly probably less comfy) of this product, and a belt, if you’re not hang up on getting an Iyengar belt, can be as low as $5 (on Amazon, not sponsored) – and you can use it in so many other ways! True, you probably won’t go hiking with your yoga belt (even though…) but if you use the shoulder jacket everyday, even for 15 minutes, I guarantee you will see improvement in your posture.

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Serendipity

Have you ever wondered if your yoga teachers talk to each other at the beginning of the week and decide to work on a specific topic? That’s what I thought for a while as it regularly happened that my teachers had the same focus in class in the same week.

Once I become a teacher myself, and taught at the same studio, I realized this was very obviously not the case. So how did it happen that the teachers were somehow still focusing on the same teaching point at the same moment?

I still don’t really have an explanation for this, apart from it just happens. Of course, in Iyengar yoga there is a four week cycle, with the first week for standing poses, second for forward extensions, third for backbends and last week restorative. However there are so many poses, ways to link them, and possible teaching points, that this barely limits the teaching options. If you’re wondering why this rotation exists by the way, it is to ensure that students coming only once a week work on all types of poses evenly.

Yesterday was an amazing exemple of this serendipity at work. Last Wednesday I was practicing at home, working on some ways to introduce shoulderstand (Salamba Sarvangasana) to a student with a shoulder issue. I ended up in a Halasana with my shoulders high up on a bolster, and the pose kind of screamed for me to try and do Chakrasana.

If you don’t know what Chakrasana looks like, it’s a backwards roll from Halasana to downward facing dog. The only time I had previously been taught this at length (and somewhat managed to do it) was during a workshop with Garth McLean. But I hadn’t worked on this in months, and in the meantime had some neck issues any time I was holding long shoulderstands, so I was also unwilling to practice anything that looks like you’re possibly gonna break your neck.

Anyhow, I managed and was pretty happy about it, but this was highly propped up, and I was really wondering how I would transition from that to the floor (or at least much closer to the floor).

Well, yesterday, as I went to Lara Warren’s level 4 class, she announced that the focus of the class would be… you guessed it, Chakrasana! I don’t want to get into the details of the class, but by the end of it I had understood something in the lifting of the trapezius muscle in Halasana, and I didn’t feel stuck in that transition anymore. I need to work on this a bit more, but I managed to do Chakrasana on the floor for the first time, without feeling my neck at all.

Really interesting how it just happened to be that class’s topic, when I had just started working in it, and had not done so in a very long time. Maybe it’s an untold benefit of being an Iyengar yoga teacher noone tells you about, a manifestation of “when the student is ready, the guru will appear”!

Yoga citta vritti nirodha

Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.

I’ve been thinking about what yoga truly is recently, and I guess especially the state of samadhi (which I will translate here as meditative consciousness or one-pointedness of mind).

Now, when we refer to yoga or what most people think of as yoga nowadays is actually only one of the eight petals of yoga, asana, aka the postures. The eight-fold path or ashtanga yoga (not to be confused with the hatha yoga style developed by Pattabhi Jois) is often represented as a tree like below:

Credits to shaktianandayoga

But I have seen other representations such as this one:

Patanjali’s 8 Limbs of Yoga Study Chart | Daily Cup of Yoga

I am personally not a fan of this second representation because it seems like it is an order in which you do things, so if you have achieved yamas and niyamas you can start asana*, once you achieve that, you start pranayama, and so on until dharana, at which point if you practice enough dhyana will happen, and if you get to dhyana often enough, then samadhi will be bestowed upon you.

Guruji BKS Iyengar has “debunked” this linear progression many times. The limbs are intertwined and you can practice every single aspect during your asana practice, for exemple during asana practice your breath should be soft and controlled like in pranayama, your awareness should be spread all throughout your body, you should not harm yourself, etc etc. I remember he also wrote about Gandhi being a prime exemple of what can be achieved with a strong ahimsa practice**, though I do not think Gandhi ever called himself a yogi. The tree imagery represent much better how the different limbs are interconnected, and it’s not like once you have roots, a tree stops growing roots to grow its trunk; on the other hand a tree keeps on growing in all directions, roots, trunk, branches, leaves, flowers and fruits, all at the same time (at least if it’s the right season ;).

Anyhow back to the topic of what I actually wanted to write about. Samadhi. I sometimes have glimpses of what I believe Samadhi must be like. This only happens to me during headstand practice, and not always, sadly. Some days I am just struggling to stay back up for 5 minutes. But some days, I manage to settle in the pose and stay there in a state of what I can only describe of effortless effort. I am lucky if this happens for a full minute. However this made me wonder about senior teachers. Though I have never met Guruji, based on what I read, I do believe that especially in his later years, he was in a constant state of samadhi, whether he was practicing asana or not. So I wonder about the senior teachers: are they in a constant state of samadhi? Do they only attain it during practice? Is what I think of as being samadhi actually samadhi? It does certainly feel like yoga in terms of cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. But then again, if I practice in a class setting I am likely to get corrected on my headstand, so is it possible to attain samadhi in a somewhat imperfect headstand? If by any chance a senior teacher (or anyone else, really, but if a senior teacher comes by, please please please comment) reads this, I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic.

Meanwhile, I finally invested on the Astadala Yogamala anthology, so I’m sure many more questions about yoga will pop up as I go through the material.

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* Though I sometimes wish that yoga practitioners would “practice” yama and niyama before starting an asana practice… or at least have an idea of what it entails. So many people thinking yoga is just stretching :\ /rantover

**I believe this was in Light on life, but might be in Tree of Yoga.

 

 

Bonus tip: I finally made it to class, and I learned this amazing tip for backbends on the chair, the one where you curve over the lean of the chair towards the wall, with your feet on the legs of the chair. While you are reaching your hands down on the wall, stop for a moment where you are, and try to sit back on the chair (without moving your hands from where they are on the wall).  Then go back to walking your hands down on the wall, rinse and repeat, so that you’re basically oscillating in your backbend from more weight on your feet to more weight on your hands. Boy if that’s not a deep back opener, I don’t know what is!

Weekly Update: What's Been Going On At The Blue Osa Eco Resort

I’m talking about that one, whose name I’m not sure about. I’d say Chair Urdhva Dhanurasana, but usually that refers to coming up to Urdhva Dhanurasana from having your back on the seat of the chair like for the Introductory syllabus, so if anyone knows the “proper” name please let me know below. Image courtesy of blue osa

 

 

A balancing act

With a title like that, you probably thought this article was going to be on balancing poses. Sorry to disappoint, but this is actually going to be on balancing life. Hopefully you’re still interested!

How life feels right now, except I wish I could get into Mayurasana 😉

So, it’s been a few months since I moved to NYC, and I am now relatively settled into a routine. Work is going well, teaching at the shelter and living with the boyfriend too, and I am enjoying what the city has to offer in terms of art and events.

Yet I find it difficult to practice as much as I would like. Or rather, the way that I would like? Kind of both. It’s not like I stopped practicing, I still do – but less than before, and always self-practice. While I did probably not do enough of it while living in Utrecht, I feel like doing solely self-practice is making me stagnate a bit. While I rarely have the issue of “what should I do now?” which I often think of as the “entry barrier” to self-practice, I feel like I’m not exploring as far as I did in a class / teacher training setting. I guess I miss the teacher’s push to go deeper. I wish I were already at a stage where self-practice is sufficient to “unlock” new aspects of poses, but it simply doesn’t seem to be the case. So self-practice sort of “maintains” my level of yoga, but I’m not managing to go further. And I’m not talking physically, as I can feel that my handstands for exemple have progressed – I can more easily balance now than six months ago, but more at an understanding-of-the-pose level.

This is an issue as I fully intend to keep on deepening my yoga practice as well as my teaching. I initially planned to take my intermediate Junior I exam next year, but this feels premature at this point. For one, the style of teaching in the US is actually quite different from the Netherlands, which I find quite weird considering of all the rules we have to follow. Not that it is better or worse, simply a different way to present things, use props, or talk about certain movements. This might also be due to the fact that English is first language here versus in the Netherlands and even for myself (though teaching in French is always a bit weird for me as I very rarely do it!).

Turning the Mind Upside-Down | Through the Peacock's Eyes

Pincha Mayurasana, one of the balancing poses on the Junior I syllabus

Anyhow, I already mentioned that it is difficult for me to get to the Institute here in New York, because of very unpractical class times for working people added to a very impractical commute from work. It is quite frustrating to know that great teaching is happening so close, yet I cannot benefit from it.

Added to this is the difficulty to take holidays or days off as a scientist. Officially, I am not entitled to any days off this year. Unofficially, my supervisor is nice enough to have let me take a day here and there, and even a week in October. But clearly, I cannot take a day off every other week to go to a yoga workshop, or half a week to go to the IYNAUS convention. Let’s not even think about taking a month off to go to Pune… when I already have issues planning a trip to Europe to see my family.

Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute - India - Pune

So  finding a life-work balance is proving difficult. I’m not ready to become a full-time yoga teacher yet, if ever. As much as I like teaching, I also genuinely enjoy my research and I hope it will result in a drug which will save lives within a few years. And even if I did quit my job (which, reasonably, I anyways cannot do for visa reasons, but assuming I could get a different visa), I would like to spend more time doing animal rights activism and possibly finding a job in science policy. I could see how this would fit more easily with a yoga schedule though. Then again, in a few years I will likely want to raise a child, which will also take time. So is it possible to have it all? Am I too involved with my “day job”? If you truly want to teach yoga and walk forward on the yogic path, is there no other way but to become a full-time yoga teacher?

I think of Mr. Iyengar and the path he took away from the “traditional” yogis, as a house owner (grihasthin) and not a renunciate (sannyasin). At the time, being a yoga teacher was most certainly weird, and a very risky career choice… Yet it enabled him to spend hours and hours mastering the craft, and he not only mastered it, but spread it all around the world so far that nowadays everyone knows about yoga. He knew it was his calling, and he answered to it, leading him to create an amazing community and recording an incredible depth of knowledge. While I feel truly grateful for my situation as well as everything I have achieved so far, I can’t help but wonder: what do you do when you have more than one calling? Is it a case of “jack of all trades, master of none”? Or is it simply one of our time’s illness, and my inability to truly get to the essence of yoga, “stilling of the waves of the mind” (Yoga Sutras of Patanjali I-2)?

Internet Marketing Jack of All Trades and Master of ...

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments. How do you manage your practice / teaching and your regular job + family life? Were there times when it was more difficult? What tips and tricks helped you to find your balance? What made you want to teach full-time?

 

Teaching yoga at a homeless shelter

I find this a hard article to write, as there is so much to write about!

It’s been a bit more than a month since I started teaching a weekly class in a homeless shelter in the south of Manhattan. Well, homeless shelter is a bit of a misnaming in this case, since it is a “transition home”, which is mid-term housing for people who used to live on the street. So, technically, they are not homeless anymore.

The shelter is managed by the BRC, the largest association helping the homeless in NYC. There are 32 “clients”, as they are called, living there for a period from 6 to 24 months, until they can hopefully transition to stable housing. This specific location specializes in clients who have a history of mental illness and/or substance abuse.

It’s an interesting experience for sure, very different from teaching at an Iyengar studio.

  • I have very little space and / or props. Four mats, and a wall once I’ve pushed the chairs in that room to the side. I bring my own blocks and belt to help, and of course use the wall and sometimes the very impractical sitting chairs.

 

  • There is no planning possible (thankfully I was never truly a class-planning person anyways…). What I mean by this is that the class is supposed to be from 7PM to 8:30PM. But I never know when people are going to show up. Around 7PM, the security guy usually rings the bell to let residents know that the class is starting. Sometimes one of the students will actually be there at 7, sometimes I just wait until someone shows up. So far I have always had someone show up, but it can be 10, 15, 20 minutes after the class was supposed to start (I’ve put a limit on myself to leave if noone has showed up by 7:30PM). So I start when my first student shows up, and other students might join in (or not) at any point. Thankfully I already had a good training in this when I was teaching at my friend Daniel’s place, since he would regularly interrupt the class to go take care of his dinner.

 

  • The students themselves are very different from what people think as “yogis”. Their fitness level is very low, and the demographic is mainly black males aged 30-70. I actually think it is great, as it shows that yoga is truly for everyone. I’m glad they are interested in trying it, and that they keep on coming back and work hard to improve their lives.

 

  • A funny one to finish. You know how we all fart? It’s actually a question I’ve had a lot from people. What do you do when people fart, or when you, a teacher, farts during a demonstration for exemple? Well I’ve found that in regular classes, people just ignore it and go ahead with whatever was going on beforehand. They might be secretly judging the farter, but we’ll never know. At the shelter however, a fart is followed by a loud “SORRY!” and sometimes a laugh from the guilty and shameless farter, which I find both hilarious and refreshing.

 

Teaching in this setting has taught me a lot about myself as a teacher. I’ve had to let go of my Iyengar perfectionism. If I can get them to stretch a bit and get somewhat of the shape of the pose, that’s good. If I can relieve a bit of their back pain (main complaint), that’s awesome! And since they come back, I assume they find some value in my teaching. It has also stimulated a lot of my creativity, as even “easy” poses are sometimes out of reach. What do you do when child’s pose is a hard pose, and you don’t have props to help? Finally, I try to be more conscious of my adjusting students. Even though in my Introductory assessment I was told I don’t touch people enough, I am especially wary of touching people who have been through trauma, which this specific group of student most certainly has. So I try to ask every time if I can touch the student before adjusting them – but old habits die hard and I’m very guilty of regularly doing before asking.

Grief.com - – Books on Grief

For people interested in trauma and how yoga can help survivors, I highly recommend this book which I recently devoured. 

 

Finally, I’d like to advertise a Gofundme I created to collect money and purchase some more props for my students at the shelter. The money will go towards getting bolsters, blocks and blankets to make yoga more accessible to the students who have knee pain, difficulties to relax and a hard time stretching. I am sure they will be very grateful for any contribution you can make.

 

 

Don’t be like toothpaste, be like broccoli!

Last weekend, I went to the New York Institute to follow a workshop with Gabriella Giubilaro. Gabriella is a senior teacher from Florence, and she has been spreading the Iyengar yoga knowledge for numerous years, as you can see in the video below:

More interestingly for me, is the fact that she has a PhD in physics, so I can relate to her pretty well. She’s a great role model, and from her teaching you can see she allies the strictness that is sometimes associated with older Iyengar teachers (as yoga is, and should be, serious business) with a softer, caring side and a great humour.

It seemed to me that she was a bit disappointed with the practice level during the workshop (though she did not say anything of the sort). She had planned to work on the hips in headstand for exemple, but made us all come down and look at Bobby Clennel (who was participating) to show what a stable base looks like). I could only go on Sunday, as I am working on Monday, but the whole workshop was open to Level 3+ students. But somehow already previously have I noticed quite a big gap between the practice at Level 3 and Level 4, and a difference between what these levels mean between the Netherlands and the US (or at least NYC). Most definitely the headstand practice is not as strong in NYC. I’ve only been to a Level 2 class  in NYC once, and I was a bit flabbergasted to find out that everyone was expected to do headstand at the wall. In Utrecht, 90% of Level 2 practitioners would do headstand away from the wall, if not in the middle of the room. But then again, I always find the headstand practice too short during classes at the NYC Institute. Now, the Level 4s are true Level 4s, but I was under the impression that these are really targeted at full-time teachers (since who else can make it for a two hour class in the middle of the day?).

Anyways, back to topic. It was a 3-hour workshop, so relatively short. And initially, during the first hour of standing poses, I didn’t feel very inspired. I felt like I wasn’t learning anything, mainly because the cues were going everywhere. She did try to focus on the core / hips and even extension of the trunk, but she constantly was getting back to legs and arms, I guess because stability in the poses was lacking. But once we started working on sitting poses, I starting getting much more out of the workshop.

It was mainly a twist class, with the focus on even extension as I mentioned previously. In all poses (also standing) but especially forward bends, we should pay attention to getting an even extension of the front and the back of the body (true for all lims, but here she was talking about the trunk). As we learn to straighten up and lengthen the spine, the tendency is to push the lower ribs forwards / lower back in, which is fine to do in the beginning to get the lift or when beginners learn to stretch, but once more advanced practitioners bend forward the lift or extension has to be even on the front and back body.

We did Bharavadjasana II and Gabriella was very careful about how we should hold the Padmasana foot and said “it’s the foot that holds the hand, not the hand that holds the foot!” which resonated well with me as giving the power to the foot instead of trying to pull with the hand is not only less risky for the Padmasana knee, but it also left me feeling more even. At this point she was trying to get us to lift the spine more, and so she said this amazing sentence “Don’t be like a tube of toothpaste, be like… (she was looking for an exemple here) a broccoli!”

Would you rather look like this?

Or like that? Look at that extension!!!                                                                                                                           (now I keep on imagining my chest as a broccoli during twists)

After that, we practiced Janu Sirsasana and she mentioned that you do not want to turn the chest towards the straight leg, but instead you want to slide the ribs from the straight leg side out, while you slide the ribs of the bent leg down. Really interesting perspective on the pose, which I found very helpful to keep the chest more even.

Finally, in Paschimottanasana, she mentioned that having weight on the ankles help to improve extension. While we are supposed to keep the ankles heavy by ourselves, she said that we could also put weight on them to help feel the extension ( we did not do that in the class).

So overall I did enjoy the workshop and learn some new things. Gabriella is a great teacher, and you can get some pearls of wisdom in the classes available (for free) on Roads To Bliss on Youtube:

 

Moving on

Sorry I’ve been pretty quiet here recently. But that’s for a good reason: I finally moved to NYC! New country, new apartment, new job, and lots of things to take care of. There is still some furniture waiting to be assembled, but most of the paperwork has been take care of.

What still hasn’t been taken care of however, it my yoga practice and teaching. I bought a 20-class pass at the New York Iyengar Institute, and I’ve been exactly… once. When I bought the class package. I gotta say, even though it is not very far from work, it’s still a good 20′ walking (no subway), which with changing means I would need to leave work 30′ before class. And since I don’t really want to go for a class that’s less than Level 3, the timings simply don’t work. I mean, two level 4 classes are 12:15-2:15PM and the third one is 5:15-7:15pm. I can’t really leave work at 11:45 and come back at 2:45PM (and if I did, I would probably be very stressed out when coming back!), nor can I leave at 16:45! I thought I would be able to go to Level 3s, but it’s the same: leaving at 5PM is too early and arriving after 10AM doesn’t really cut it either. It might be ok if I do that once every two weeks? I’ll see. Anyhow, the last class that I could manage to go to is the Saturday 4PM, but my weekends so far have been busy settling down in the apartment and prepping the rest of the week. Anyhow, if the only time I can go is during the weekend, I’d rather go for workshops, so I’m kinda regretting getting the 20-class card. I feel a bit frustrated to be so close to great teachers and not manage to go to class…

Meanwhile, there’s a yoga studio less than 10′ away from the apartment, and they do offer Iyengar classes! So I’m planning on visiting, since it’s way cheaper and more convenient (also time-wise: Saturday 12:30PM and Monday 7:45PM). But obviously the level might not be the same, so I’ll have to see if it really does bring me something. If not, it might also be an option for teaching, as I am still looking for opportunities. I have applied to teach at the BRC (I am mainly trying to volunteer / teach for free because of my visa) but they have so many applications the next volunteer orientation is mid-March, so I have to wait to see what comes out of it. Another option is the gym in my work building, which has a studio. They already offer yoga classes, so I want to try one out tomorrow, and see what I think of it – but in any case their schedule is far from full so I should hopefully be able to teach some kind of free class there. Just got to figure out the details. This would really be ideal, as I’d like to teach twice a week, and I already have a 50′ commute to work, so I’d rather not add to it.

Anyhow, I’m sure this is gonna be resolved soon, and I’ll keep you updated on what turns out to happen. Meanwhile, I have a lot of space to practice in my new apartment, so I’m enjoying a renewed interest in self-practice: see below!