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?

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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!

What’s the best way to promote a lifestyle (aka: to instagram or not to instagram)

I’ve been considering starting an Instagram account. I keep on toying with the idea, yet not actually doing it.

On the one hand, Instagram clearly is an easy way to promote a healthy lifestyle, and inspire people. I believe that I am somewhat out of the regular yoga-crew, even though I am white, female, and relatively slim, since I also happen to be an Iyengar practitioner, who are relatively unknown on the interwebs, and I did my training while getting a PhD in structural chemistry, which I will defend and receive in November. I’m also a French vegan, which is still a rarity (though that is changing).

I genuinely would like to make Iyengar yoga more known and attract younger practitioners (I talked about age issues in the Iyengar community here). Few teachers are known outside of the Iyengar community, I would say Patrica Walden for sure but still mainly by older practitioners, and Carrie Owerko who is doing hell of a job at spreading the Iyengar world while making it seem fun and attainable.

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Interestingly, when I saw this cover of Yoga Journal, I did not notice it was Carrie Owerko initially, but my first thought was “wow she’s got her front foot really activated, really nice to see that in a yoga pic’ for once!”

Anyhow, the Instagram world, while full of yogis, is pretty void from Iyengar yogis, with the exception of yogi Zain who makes beautifully edited videos, and Fanny from Iyengar yoga notes. If you know of other follow-worthy Iyengar yoga instagrammers, by all means please leave a message in the comments.

So why am I not doing it? Well, I’m still wondering if having an Instagram wouldn’t make me addicted to a) taking pictures all the time and b) external validation. While I started this blog with the only intention to write down my thoughts, I would start my Instagram account with the idea of spreading my idea of yoga, veganism and generally my lifestyle to as many people as possible. First, I’m still not convinced I’m that worthy of an inspiration. Second, well, this blog is not getting many viewers, which I’m fine with, but what if my Instagram doesn’t either? Third, if it does get some traction, is it really promoting what I want to promote? Instagram posts are very short and centered around a picture. While it is easier to communicate and attract people through images, is an image-only medium really the best? Finally, the Iyengar community itself is quite critical about form. And I am too. If I would want to post picture of poses, they’d have to be pretty-near perfect… which might take a lot of time and fun out of my practice.

So overall, I’m thinking of changing the blog a bit, with maybe more short, Instagram-style posts. Maybe some “progress pics”. Maybe advertise my blog a bit more. But not a complete switch to Instagram.

What’s your opinion? Do you use Instagram? Do you wish there were more Iyengar yogis on Instagram? And what’s the best way to promote Iyengar yoga or simply a healthy lifestyle on the internet? Where should I promote my blog?  Looking forward to reading your comments and suggestions.

 

 

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.

The unevenness of being

Possibly due to my healing injuries on my left hamstring and right knee, I’ve been noticing the imbalance between my right and left side a lot. I’m definitely one of these people who never lies in the middle of the mat unless I pay special attention to it. While the injuries are making the differences between both sides quite obvious*, I’ve also started noticing much more subtle details, for exemple in the way I distribute my weight on my feet.

Interestingly, senior teacher Garth McLean came to teach a weekend workshop two weeks ago, and part of the teachings were directly linked to this. This was the 4th time I had the chance to work with Garth (I had already blogged about my experience two years ago here), and as usual I felt very grateful to be able to learn from him (such kindness! such energy! such wit!).

One of the main themes of the workshop was to imagine that we have 3 spines instead of one, so two extra outer spines let’s say, on each side of our usual spine. Most of the practice was then focused on keeping all three spines evenly extended. I found this incredibly useful to bring awareness in parts of the chest that usually get glossed over, so that the chest won’t sink in on one side more than the other. Since I am finally getting to a point where I manage to extend my spine in backbends and work from the upper back muscles rather than crunch the lower back, it made me aware of my tendency to shorten the right side…

But more than during the asana practice, what really openned a new window of understanding for me was  when he taught pranayama. Sitting pranayama is difficult for most people, myself included. There are two main things I struggle with: keeping the chest lifted, and not overdoing the breathing. Keeping the three spine imagery, he told us to exhale, thinking as if the inner side of the outter spines are lifting up. This made a huge difference for me. First, it strongly prevented my chest to sink on the exhale without feeling like I had to fight hard for it. It made keeping the chest lifted very natural. Since it seems conterintuitive to lift up during exhale, this also prevented me from exhaling for too long, which I tend to do – inhaling for long durations is usually harder for me.

So much more to learn, the yogic journey is such an exciting one!

* This was especially obvious during my exam for janu sirsasana: on my “good” side I was sitting on the floor with chin to shin; on the “doubly injured” side, I could not bend forward even while sitting on a height.

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PS: I got a bonus tip to help healing my knee. Garth made us do supta padanghustasana I with one belt on the knee that is up, the buckle just under the patella to the inner side. The belt handle goes behind the knee to the outside of the leg, then into the hand of the same side of the leg that is up. Another belt is on the foot of the up leg, with the buckle bringing the outer foot down. ‘t is great.

PPS: I just handed in my PhD thesis! Now waiting for the approval from the reading comittee, meanwhile taking some well-deserved holidays 🙂

 

5 years of yoga practice

It’s been five years people!!!! Five years since I started practicing yoga, so in yogic years I’m finally starting school and learning to read (which was my favorite part IRL so I’m very excited!). Of course, many things change in five years, whether you do yoga or not. I moved abroad, (almost) finished a PhD, met amazing people, became vegan, started teacher training, and learned so much.

The tip of the iceberg, but the most easy benefit to show, is how many of the things I thought I would never be able to do with my body, I actually can now. Two examples below:

Handstand, jumping up with two legs together. When I started, I couldn’t do handstand at all. After three months of practice, I started managing to get up there once in a blue moon, and at six months of consistent practice, I could consistently jump up one leg at a time. However, for the next four years, there was barely any progress on the handstand front, no matter how much I tried jumping up with two legs (and exhausting myself in the process). Until one day during teacher training, one of my co-trainees made me try jumping up with a bolster against the wall and her close by, and I very surprisingly got up into handstand! Incredible what fear can prevent you from doing…

Anyhow, after some more months of reproducing that result, with bolster, then without bolster, another teacher “forced” me to do it a little away from the wall, and once again, to my surprise, after a couple of tryouts I managed 😀 Next step: pressing up into handstand (it’s been my dream since seeing a video where Kino does it – like WTF she makes it look SO EASY).

Another one:

Scorpio. Long way to go until my feet get onto my head, but the fact that I can be stable enough to even attempt to perform it is quite crazy to me. As for handstand, it’s been a long journey, using first a belt, a block and a wall, to getting rid of the belt, then the block and the wall and practicing with either only block or only wall, learning how to fall, and finally doing it without props without my hands falling in towards each other.

I could go on for a while, with all the arm balances, and padmasana, and and and…. So many things I thought my body would never be able to do and actually can. Never give up! With practice, anything is possible.

So one of the things my practice gave me is confidence, and trust in my body. Self-love is probably the biggest gift I ever received from my yoga practice, and it all happened when I stopped caring about how I looked like and started caring about what my body could do.

Tomorrow I’m teaching my first ever “Level 2” class, I’m so excited about the opportunity! The theme is going to be effortless effort. My idea is to teach a challenging sequence leading to eka pada galvanasana (flying pigeon pose, which depending on who comes, we may or may not attempt but we’ll build up towards it) all the while reminding them of the importance of the breath, lifting up the abdomen and creating space in the groins. And of course, to take child pose whenever necessary.

I love the concept of effortless effort; I remember struggling so much as a beginner in any pose, and I’m so grateful to past me for sticking up with it. I remember feeling effortless effort for the first time while balancing in Sirsasana, and the quietness it brought to my brain. Recently it’s been spreading to the rest of my practice, starting with backbends and now standing poses. However, this leads me to wonder if I am not practicing bhoga yoga, so I try to keep on challenging myself; there is still so much to learn!  Re-reading The Tree of Yoga and Light on Life is as usual very instructive.

Linking to the concept of effortless effort, I have been trying to find literature about seemingly opposite actions in asana, like turning the upper arm out and the lower arm in, and how it helps with straightening the limbs and bringing awareness to the arm. I’ve recently been using this a lot also in my own practice, especially with standing poses which I think is what led me to the effortlessness (for example resisting the lower  bent leg in Virabradhasana I&II as if I wanted to straighten the leg without actually doing it, so that the direction of the shin is opposite to the one from the thigh). However, I was not able to find back where I learned this concept from, so if anyone reading knows of scripture talking about this, please leave a comment!