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:



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.

Workshop with Manouso Manos – Day 1

My last weekend in August was spent at a workshop with Manouso Manos, where I also got to receive my Iyengar teacher certificate.

On the first day, he went back to basics: the feet, especially the heels, and how a different weight division influences the rest of the body. While I had often heard about the four corners of the heel, he told us to visualize a circle around the heel and try to get the whole outer circle down to the floor in Tadasana. We did quite a few repetitions of this Tadasana throughout the class, without mats – feet on hard wood. I realized that it is very hard for me to feel the front of the right heel and the back of the left heel.

Then we worked on standing poses (Trikonasana, Parsvakonasana) with a focus (Aparigraha) on getting the back outer heel down, and keeping it down as we move the chest or the arms. It was difficult for me to keep my attention there, as I was trying not to overextend in my front leg – I’ve just discovered during self practice that I need to press the front of the front foot more in order to do that. Manousos brushed upon this as well, as he said in parallel to “the weight of the back foot tends to go to the front of the foot as we move the chest down” (since the focus point was the back outer heel), that the weight of the front foot tends to go to the heel.

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The outer heel

We did Parivrtta Trikonasana as per Light on Yoga, so with a very short distance between the feet. Here, the focus was on the lower back – overall the whole class was designed to help with lower back issues. Manouso said that in Parivrtta Trikonasana, the lower back should be rounding like in a forward bend, and this opened a new window of understanding for me. He said that we often go down from stiffness or compactness and grinding of the hip joint, while the lower back should not be so rigid.

He also taught Downward Dog with a shorter distance, trying to get the inner heel to go to the outer heel (without moving the feet) so that the point under the ankle bone would go in, creating wrinkles there. Jury’s still out on that, I felt like it was a “touch and go” experience for me. However one thing I clearly did not understand was to bring the groins down towards the knees. Gotta revisit that instruction in a couple of years, probably.

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Between the finger and the ankle bone the skin should wrinkle 

We then moved on headstand and backbends, but I can’t remember anything really sticking out there. In headstand we were still working on the heel / ankle thing. For backbends we worked on getting the little toe and ball of the little toe down (Ustrasana and Urdhva Mukha Svanasana).

More noticably, we did a version of Setu bandha I had never done before, with the block not under the tailbone but rather in the lower back – so that the buttocks are not on the brick but falling over, and the other end of the brick touches the lower ribs. Very intense pose, especially since he made it very clear that we should feel either one edge of the block or two but not the middle, for if our lower back was heavy on the middle of the block we would be assured of getting lower back pain. NOT an easy variation, which I felt was even harder for me because we were also doing this pose without mats in order to be able to slide the feet, but I then had no resistance from my feet to be able to curve over the block. #sweatyyogi

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Classical Setu Bandha position where the block is under the tailbone. Credit

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More like the position of the block we used, with the buttocks falling over the block. But we had legs straights – Manouso instructed us to keep the legs hip width though.  Credit.

From Setu Bandha we moved to Shoulderstand, and finished the class with a Supta Padangusthasana II variation, first with the belt, then holding the bone just above the heel on the outside of the foot.

outside foot pain

Part of the foot we had to hold for Supta Padangusthasana II