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:

 

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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!

Finding my inner teacher

I’m currently in California, away from my usual, well-organized life. “On holidays” before my thesis defense, though actually still arranging things for the defense and writing my second first-author article.

It’s the first time in a very long time that I not only keep an hour-long daily practice minimum, and probably the first time ever when I’m not going to or following classes. And it’s definitely an interesting experience.

This week is the third of the month, so I’m practicing sitting poses. I think it’s the first time I’m spending so much time sitting on my mat. In a way it’s not as difficult as I expected (for beginners – which I’m still somewhat part of, at least in the Iyengar system – sitting poses are the most difficult to stay in). On the other hand, it is sometimes very confronting to be only with yourself.

I was thinking how incredibly hard it must have been for Guruji to keep on practicing and exploring in the beginning after he moved to Pune. I do realize that his relationship with his Guru was very different from the one I have with mine, however he learned so much from Krishnamacharya. It must have been so challenging to move to a town where he didn’t know anyone to teach something that was considered “stupid” at the time, notwithstanding continuing his own practice and exploration of all that yoga has to offer.

In a way we have it so easy, being able to regularly follow classes and learn from amazing teachers who sometime travel from a different continent to get to us! If one feels a bit down, unmotivated or uninspired, it is very easy to just go to class and get energy from the “flow” of the class. Of course on the other side, I’ve noticed that I can be pretty drained energy-wise after teaching a class.

Anyways, this is a good lesson which I hope to keep with me for a while. I feel that we humans are often attracted to the opposite of what we need. For example people who would benefit most from staying longer in poses will be attracted to more flowy styles of yoga. Self-practice, though very beneficial, is rarely done by students. It’s actually really hard for many people to get started with a home practice, yet it is where there is most room for growth.

Do you practice at home? What have you learned from yourself-practice? And how do you keep practicing when you can’t go to class?

A parisian adventure

I spent last week in Paris, visiting my brother and sister in law. And as the obvious Iyengar-fanatic I am, I found a way to go to the Iyengar institute in Paris. I have to say it was quite the adventure. First, it was my first Iyengar class in French, ever. Second, my own teacher had told me that she was a little “impressed” by Corine Biria, one of the senior French Iyengar yoga teachers who teaches at the institute, so I was a little apprehensive – for Hiske is not one to be easily impressed.

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Corine Biria in Sheffield in 2002

Actually getting to one of the “high” level classes requires calling or dropping by the Institute beforehand, to check on your level. Even though they are clearly advertised as being tough classes on the website, I guess they had bad surprises beforehand. The class I ended up going to was a Level 4-5 2 hour class on Thursday morning. On the website they require that the practitioner is able to hold head- and shoulderstand easily for 15 minutes before attending. They have a Level 5-6 class for which the requirement is 20 minutes. While I felt relatively confident I would be able to hold a 15 minutes headstand (though probably not easily), I thought 20 minutes might be an overshot so I applied for the Level 4-5. When I called, the secretary asked for my level and I was like “huh, I have the Introductory certificate” – secretary: “I or II?” -me “huh, I-II?” -secretary “ok, are you aware this is an intense class?” – me, nervously laughing “huh, yeah?!” -secretary “alright well send me your name and birth date by email and I’m checking you in”.

 

Even though I had gone through the prescreening, when I actually got to the studio, I had to wait until Corine actually OK-ed me before I was in – a couple of minutes waiting that seemed very long… So I was a bit apprehensive about the class, as you can imagine.

 

If you’ve never been to the Institute in Paris, it’s in the XVIth arrondissement, aka the most expensive and chic part of Paris. It is located in a Haussmanian building, with amazingly beautiful wooden floors and murals. However, the practice room is small, even for Paris. Especially now that I am used to the immensity of the studio in Utrecht, it was a real change. I don’t know exactly how many people were attending the class, but I guess around 30, and every single inch of the floor was used. Mats were all touching and almost overlapping. I have to say that during balancing work I was quite afraid of falling over my neighbor and ending up in a domino effect.

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The practice room of the parisian institute

It was the first week of the month, so we practiced standing poses. Starting with wide stand Utthanasana, focusing on activating the feet and legs, especially the inner knee, then Urdhva Prasarita Ekapadasana, another Utthanasana this time with feet together. From there, classical sequencing of Trikonasana, Parvritta Trikonasana, Utthita Parsvokonasana via Virabhradasana II, Parvritta Parsvokonasana, Ardha Chandrasana and Parvritta Ardha Chandrasana. We did most poses twice, especially the Parvrittas, with what seemed like very long timings. The main focus was the buttocks, and we especially spent some time on the buttock use in Ardha Chandrasana and Parvritta Ardha Chandrasana.

 

NB: practice note for myself: I was corrected in Uttanasana because my right leg was not working as much as the left one.

 

I’ll try to describe the different actions. First, there are two planes of actions, which I will describe as being perpendicular or alongside the spine. In the perpendicular plane, the buttocks action can be separated into three components:

  • The lower part of the buttocks should go downwards and connect to the hamstrings. Corine insisted that many of us didn’t learn how to use our hamstrings yet (and I have to say I am having a hard time with this; since I injured my left hamstring I have realized how much I wasn’t using my hamstrings, which are long, but not strong. Working on it since, but it’s on and off).
  • The middle part should go inwards (towards the tailbone). This I find relatively easy / have learned to do during YTT.
  • The top part should lengthen upwards. Now, this I also sort of learned to do in teacher training, and it helped correcting my anterior pelvic tilt – but old habits die hard, and if I don’t pay attention or if the pose is a not-so-often practiced (thinking of you, vrikchikasana!), I end up losing the control on my abs and start crunching up my lower back again.

I think I have already referenced this article before, but there are some more details about these three components here.

Now for the spinal plane, I had never heard the instructions before. We looked at the pelvis of different people performing the pose and Corine pointed out which parts were open and which weren’t, after which we had to work on our own “issues”, with the instruction of getting both buttocks laterally away from the spine, so that the left buttock and the right buttock were both evenly giving space to the spine to stretch. We also practiced this with the help of the wall in the Chandrasanas, for more stability but ease of movement due to the wide angles between the legs and the trunk.

 

Thinking back, it was a very lateralized class, as I (and my side ribs) also remember the instructions of moving the breasts away from the sternum, and the right breast away from the left breast (with even more detailed instructions during the parvrittas).

 

Anyways, after all these we went on with Virabradhasana I and III, before Sirsasana finally got called up (we did have a couple of Utthanasanas and Prasaritta Padottanasana to recover in between some standing poses, and there was one Downward Dog at some point early on). I don’t know if Sirsasana was genuinely 15 minutes, but I stayed up the whole time and it didn’t feel so long; I think it is because 10 minutes without instructions is mentally exhausting whereas I most likely have the strength to hold longer headstands. Anyways, Corine said something incredibly poetic which I hope to translate properly: “In Sirsasana, think of the shoulder blades as of the wings of a bird beginning to fly”. Beautiful way to describe the outward rotation of the shoulderblades, isn’t it?

 

Finally, the class ended with Shoulderstand / Halasana, followed by Chatuspadasana before the final Savasana. I have to say I was surprised to hear the class was over; as often with great teachers, time flies (and yoga happens; it was two hours of living in the present moment).

 

In any case a very interesting experience, would definitely recommend going if you get the chance. I did have few vocabulary issues, but if I really didn’t get it Corine would point out what she was talking about on my body. And I gotta say that everyone in the class was incredibly nice and welcoming; they even gently made fun when I said I lacked some vocabulary after class and let me know that it was also “Corine words”.

Post-certification practice

I was recently reading this article from Fanny and her doubts about the “after” of certification. My own “after” brought a lot of change into my life, since I did not only graduate from YTT, but I am also getting my PhD soon, and leaving Utrecht. I actually already have left Utrecht and will only get back there for my PhD defense in November.

So it’s not only a question of maintaining a practice, but maintaining a practice away from my routine. I’m gonna be on the road a lot in the next few weeks, with little space to practice, and no classes to give or follow (except for one exception on which a post is coming soon).

In the first few weeks after the exam, I started practicing a lot “for fun”. Poses which were not in the syllabus, different ways of practicing, finding the initial “wow” again. The training to become a certified Iyengar teacher is hard and very regulated, and I needed this breath of fresh air, outdoor practice and arm balances.

After that, I moved to a new place where I couldn’t practice at home, and I was very busy, so my practice suffered a little. I still managed to go to classes about twice a week, but didn’t do any home practice. But now that I’m “on the road”, I’ve funnily managed to get back into a structured daily home practice. I’ve been working on building up strength and time in inversions. At this point, I practice headstand and shoulderstand/halasana for ten minutes each, but I want to build up to 15 minutes and ideally 20 minutes. I don’t think I will ever manage to go longer than that, not physically but simply because I don’t think I can spare more time than that during my day (it’s 40 minutes of headstand + shoulderstand without any other practice), especially since I would like to further my pranayama practice as well.

Anyways, I don’t really know where I’m going with this, and it’s probably different for many people, but I think that after getting certified, it’s perfectly normal to practice a bit less or a bit less seriously for a while – but it’s highly unlikely that you will stop practicing altogether. If only because you know what practice brings to you, and even without the guidance of a teacher, there is inspiration everywhere, in books, the internet, and your own body.

I don’t know whose credit this is… But I often feel like the Hulk!

Workshop with Manouso Manos – Day 2

After ~40 minutes of Q&A (Manouso mentioned one should always have at least 20 minutes of break between Pranayama and Asana practice), we moved on to Asana. It was a very long session (I believe around 5 hours, from 11:30 till 16:30), so I’ll try to stick to the main points. I think they were two main messages which were : dare, and have fun doing it. And a possible addendum: no props! We started with jumpings, which was killing us, but also a lot of fun, and took the seriousness out. Then we did standing poses (Trikonasana and Parsvakonasana), repeating them many many times, with a focus on rotating the chest to create a backbend. Ultimately, he has everyone get their palm flat on the floor. Many times through the class he was getting back to Light on Yoga and/or Art of Yoga to show us details of Iyengar’s poses. In this case, I learned that in Parsvakonasana the hand on the floor is actually behind the foot, with the thumbnail touching the middle of the heel. We also did Ardha Candrasana, and he had us move our hand from being in line with the little toe, to being in line with the big toe, to setting the palm of the hand flat on the floor. Challenging to say the least; I could feel my leg muscles burning – at that point he mentioned that strength is required for balance : working on it!

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Iyengar’s Parsvakonasana – notice how the hand is much more back than what we usually do!

We then worked on the pose I always forget to teach: Prasarita Padottanasana. He used this pose to learn more about inversions, so we did twice in “reverse order”, so that the first time we did the forward bend with head on the floor “headstand-style”, then we did headstand, then we did Prasarita lifting the chest up “shoulderstand-style”, then we did shoulderstand. In both Prasaritas he had us line the wrist with the heel.

In the first version, he used the side picture in Art of Yoga to show exactly how round the back has to become, so that not only the crown of the head if on the floor but also the back of the crown of the head is on the floor. Manouso demonstrated the pose and showed us not to lift the shoulders up with all our might, and not to bring the elbows too much towards each other (and writing this I can really see how much of an advanced group of students it was: it’s the exact opposite instructions to what we give to beginners!). He also mentioned bending the thumb slightly to extend the part of the palm at the root of the thumb and the hand line.

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“headstand-style” prasarita padottanasana

But as I already mentioned, this was to explore Sirsasana. We didn’t stay long in any of the inversions, as he said he’d rather have a good 1 minute headstand than a bad 20 minutes one where we only stay in the pose out of willpower. Once again, I already mentioned this was a workshop for advanced students. With that out of the way, he instructed us to start bearing more weight on our head and less on our arms and hands. Manouso explained that as a beginner, 90% of the weight should be on the arms, 5% on the hands and 5% on the head. However, with practice, as the neck muscles grow and become stronger, the weight should gradually increase on the head until 90% of the weight is on the head, 5% on the elbows and 5% on the hands. Ultimately, in the headstand variation where you are standing only on your head, you have 100% of the weight on your head, and apparently Guruji said to him once about this variation that he was doing it to “balance the four lobes of the brain”. Manouso explained that we can only stay in longer headstands if we can move the weight to our head. Interestingly, this is something I had somewhat gathered myself from self-practice, as I now regularly do 10+ minute headstands. While I still carry a considerable amount of weight in my arms and hands, I started doing regular arm variations in the middle of the room, and this forced me to bring more weight onto my head as I need to move the arms around.

For the second Prasarita, he had us line the heel of the hand with the heel of the foot again, and straighten the arms even if the heel doesn’t touch the floor anymore. The focus was on lifting the chest and creating a back bend in the thoracic area from using the arms – and yes, it was hard. But not as hard as what we had to do next.

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“Shoulderstand-style” prasarita padottanasana

For coming next was shoulderstand, which we did three versions of. We started with the regular shoulderstand. Then he had us partner up to use more blankets under the shoulders, and had the partner place a rolled blanket under the elbows. This was all so that we would learn to lift from the upper back and come more on top of the shoulders, and use less of our hands. Manouso said the hands are just there to give an upward direction – and not the whole hand, pretty much only the index finger. He had us remove the hands from our back as well. This felt very much like unsupported shoulderstand, which I prefer, so it was great. For the third version, I’d like to remind everyone once again that this was an advanced class. He had us remove all props, even the mats, and had us do shoulderstand with no support, with the fingers interlaced in the middle of the back and thumbs to the sides of the chest. We didn’t stay long, but I felt it was surprisingly great for the neck, and Manouso confirmed a short hold of this pose and help lengthen the neck.

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No belts, no mats, no blankets 

We finished the class with forward bends and twists, and to be honest I was getting exhausted by that point. We did multiple versions of paschimottanasana and janu sirsasana – for that one I learned that the buttocks of the bent leg is actually lifted up -which, again, you can actually sort of see on the Light on Yoga pictures. We were instructed to open up the legs in Upavista, then bend the knee so that the heel is at the inner groin. From there, using our thumbs, we rolled the heel out. Then press the hands down in front of you to lift the buttocks up (I had no strength left by that point and I felt very heavy!), and only let the straight leg buttock go down to the floor.

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Notice how the buttock is slightly lifted up and how far back is knee is?

We did a couple of other things, but I can’t remember anything else sticking out, and this post is already very long so I’ll stop here. Overall a great workshop where I could see just how much more depth there is to yoga, and it was both instructive and motivating to keep me studying!

Workshop with Manouso Manos – Pranayama

On the second day, we started with pranayama. And I have to admit I was completely out of my depth here – I don’t have a regular pranayama practice (yes, yes, I know I should). So I’ll try my best to describe what we did, but if by any chance a senior teacher reads this please please please comment and correct me. I’m also writing this without Light on Pranayama nearby as it is already back to my parents’ in prevision of my moving, so I have no way to check what I am writing. And obviously in the Iyengar tradition it’s not allowed to take notes during the workshop – which I actually is a good thing, as you then only remember what you understood IMO – so my descriptions might be relatively less detailed than if I had written down things.

The first thing we did was Shanmuki mudra to calm down the brain. It’s a different version from what is described in Light on Pranayama. We did this sitting (actually I did it standing because I couldn’t see the instructions otherwise and Manouso asked us not to move) as he explained that he cannot do it lying down. The main reason for this is that it’s very heavy on the shoulders. It goes like this : introduce both thumbs in your ears, palms down (you don’t want to have to turn the palm around in the ear). Then place the index finger on the eyebrows. The long fingers then go to touch each other and both sides of the nose. As you do this, the index fingers have to move slightly out to make place for the long fingers, but you’re not pulling them out, it’s just a natural movement arising from the positioning of the long fingers. Next, comes the ring fingers which gently pull the upper eyelid down. Once again, for this to happen, the first two fingers have to move slightly. Finally, the pinky finger touches the cheekbone. Anytime one finger is added, the rest of the fingers have to readjust. This is so heavy on the shoulders because the elbows have to be very much up in order to place the fingers! Finally, there should be no pressure on the pupil of the eye. It should not be the tip of the finger which is pressing down, but the first knuckle from the tip.

This is the closest exemple I’ve found, if this lady’s index finger was onto her eyebrows.

After this, we lied down in savasana over two trifold blankets lifting the chest. We did some Ujayi breaths while trying to touch all diaphrams: the pubic plate, lung diaphragm, up to the throat diaphragm. To help touching the pubic plate he instructed us to let the breath spread from the center of the belly to the sides. To exhale, let the flesh of the abdomen go down to the floor and let the skin follow.

The trifold blanket setting, also see this post by Iyengar home practice

Finally, he taught a short nadi shodhana or alternate breathing (only three cycles, sitting in simple cross-leg). I had really a hard time with this one, even though I have done it multiple times before, this time I had the feeling I could not draw in enough air on the inhale, and had to breathe quite fast as a result. This might have come from the positioning of my hand on my nose. As a result, I don’t want to give any indications on how to do this as I’m too unsure of if I’m doing it properly.