What’s with All the Pretzel Poses?

This video is less a How-to and more a chat about the wacky poses we often see in yoga–and in memes making fun of yoga. Bound twists, arm balances, upside-down and sideways–I thought yoga was about de-stressing and zoning out!

Actually, yoga is rarely about zoning out, even though that might happen now and again during shavasana. What’s happening on the mat is zoning IN, completely inhabiting the entire continuum of the self (body, mind, soul, spirit).

And de-stressing? Well that takes on many forms. We can’t always default to red wine or dark chocolate or deep fried pickles. (Well, we can, but on down the line, we’ll be adding new layers of stress to our already overwrought bodies.) One of the most effective ways of removing stress is physical exercise. Moving the body which increases circulation of oxygenated blood throughout the body helps clear the bloodstream of stress hormones. Sometimes our stress levels call for the heart-thumping push of a vinyasa practice. Other times we need to still the buzzing of the mind with a focused Yin class.

Three reasons pretzel poses are part of the yogic equation:

  1. Purely physical level: increased strength and mobility. Confession time: the first time I got myself up into crow and was able to hold it, I got a real sense of glee. Never in my youth was I able to do an effective handstand and there I was holding bakasana. We so often associate aging with being able to do less with our bodies than we did in youth. Exploring pretzel-y possibilities we learn that there are ways in which we might be able to do more than we did as bendy adolescents.
  2. Mental: developing a physical intelligence. We don’t just launch ourselves into astavakrasana (8-angle pose as shown in the title image) or hanumanasana (full splits) the first time we enter a yoga studio. We learn what muscles need strengthening, what areas need opening. We learn proper alignment–what it is and what it feels like. We begin to determine the difference between the sensation of sensibly overloading the muscles and potentially dangerous pain.
  3. Integration: the mat is our laboratory for the real world. The real world throws all sorts of chaos at us and we’re expected to navigate through the distractions to live an authentic life, a life that expresses our true selves. We are not our deadlines. We are not our frenzied schedules. We are not the flurry of emotions (fear, anger) that arise to try to deal with all of it. Somewhere inside, there is a still, quiet place. From that place, we make wise decisions. From that place, we are able to know and express what is needed. Problem is, when we’re standing in the whirlwind, that place is not so easy to access. Here’s where yoga comes in: on the mat, we put ourselves into physical chaos, a chaos that we have control over since we can come out of it at any time. In the midst of that chaos, we’re told first to focus on the breath. Consciously slowing down the breath tells our parasympathetic nervous system to relax. Focus on the breath also keeps us in the present. Stress often arises from worries about the past and anxieties about the future. On the mat, we train ourselves to slow down and come into the present so that we can honestly assess our edge in any given pose. We, then, come from a place of wisdom (Am I pushing too much? Are my fears holding me back?) and a place of kindness (I’m okay right where I am.)

How does that last point work with pretzel poses? For some, chaos is uttanasana; the second we start to fold over straight legs, our body is sending us complaints of discomfort. As we progress in our practice, we have to go somewhere else to call up the whirlwind, maybe svarga dvijasana (bird of paradise pose, as shown on the video thumbnail). There is always somewhere else to go in yoga, to go deeper, to hold longer, to reach higher. There is no final destination, and so one’s edge is constantly shifting. As we work the physical, we work the mental. As the body works harder, so too does the mind in order to maintain the “repose in the pose”–and we can bring that habit of mind (with its wisdom, patience, and kindness) out into the world.

 

 

Tapping into Gratitude

Since we are pretty much smack-dab between Canada’s and America’s Thanksgivings, I thought I’d put up a short gentle sequence of poses designed to bring out the gratitude.

 

Gratitude gets us out from under the pressure of the ego. The ego is the eternal critic: you’re not good enough, fast enough, you’re not doing enough. And yet, instead of motivating us to go out there and do better (whatever that may be), that internal criticism often binds us into a downward spiral of paralyzing inertia.

Even if we do manage to satisfy the ego, the flutter of self-approval is as short-lived as the taste of pumpkin pie on the tongue. Once it’s gone, we’re craving more. If we strive to assuage the ever-increasing appetite of the ego, we will never stop grappling after the next thing, we will never stop consuming. Our contentment will not be enduring nor will we ever find the time to fully appreciate (digest) the many blessings in our lives.

Fortunately, gratitude is a shift we can make right here, right now, on the mat. As with any other mental or physical habit, practice makes the shift easier and easier.

The ten-minute gentle sequence above is a gentle hip and heart opener. Gratitude tends be seated in the anahata or heart charka. If you imagine the exaggerated physical expression of greed–hunched over and curling around our hoard–you can see how opening the chest and hip flexors would embody its opposite.

 

Halloween Yoga Fun

I love doing yoga with my daughter. The instances are rare because she declares that yoga is a “Mommy thing”. However, I have my ways of luring the spirited bat-ling to the mat (costume, video, silliness). Mwa-ha-HA!

So for today’s journey we’ve got Halloween shenanigans with the kiddo and me. Can you spot the asanas in these scenes? (Spoilers below).

 

SPOILERS:

Shining Moon: Star to Triangle into Halfmoon

Enchanted Forest = Gnarled form of Tree

Haunted House = Downward Dog

Bats = very turbulent Airplanes

Howling Wolves = Updog with sound effects

Witches = Dandayamana Janushirasana (wiggly version)

Zombies = Shavasana (at first, anyway)

I hope you have as much fun watching as we did making this. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them down below.

Navigating the Fear: Tripod Headstand

Unless you have a history of dance and/or gymnastics, chances are going upside-down evokes anxiety. I get it. I’ve been there. As kids, we challenge our bodies every way we can, but as adults, we stay pretty much upright, thank you very much. Some of us still enjoy a looping roller coaster, but even so, upside-down is in not way a place of peace.

Let’s explore going there. If inversions never becomes peaceful spaces, at least we can approach them with a sense of adventure and fun–but safety as well. Children might be able to fling themselves into inversion exploration, but kids have more forgiving bones and less distance to topple.

 

In this video, I offer a quick sequence to prepare the mind and body to get into a tripod variation sometimes called the “teddy bear” pose, in which we have our knees resting on our elbows (not the headstand version pictured in the thumbnail–that’s just part of the ending headstand montage; those more comfortable in headstand might be inspired to try them). Physically, we need to prepare the arms and wake up the core, so the flow incorporates uttihita chaturanga dandasana (plank) and makara adho mukha svanasana (dolphin plank). Mentally, we need to get used to having hips above the head, so we have adho mukha svanasana (downward dog), prasarita padottanasana (wide-legged forward bend), and ardha pincha mayurasana (dolphin).

The first mental step, though, is taking stock of what truly makes you nervous about inversions. Most common is probably fear of falling. No shame in that fear; fear of falling is most likely an engrained trait. (From an evolutionary perspective you can see how that fear might help us out as a species.) So, we can address that fear by setting up next to a wall or even in the corner. If you want to give it a go in the middle of the room you can also place a thick blanket just behind your head. What is another fear? Hurting oneself in the pose because of lack of strength or agility. Fair enough. Putting ourselves into unfamiliar poses does run that risk. For our gentle version of the headstand, one danger would be if we tried to look around while there’s pressure on the top of the head. Our necks are built for mobility, not strength, so the neck needs to be held still and straight. (Those with neck/spinal injuries or high blood pressure should probably skip this one altogether.) If the pressure on the top of the head is too intense, put a folded blanket or towel under your head.

If you still have doubts, ask your teacher–that’s what we’re here for. Not only might she have words of encouragement to help build your confidence, she can also guide you through and double-check your alignment.

Wherever you are, remember this is a journey. We don’t need to crest Mt. Everest today or even next week, next year, or ever, for that matter. Maybe you get both feet off the ground, maybe one. Maybe you hang out with both feet on the ground but the hips over the shoulders. If that is where you are, breathe into it, enjoy the experience (or at least observe it with patience and kindness–for the situation, for yourself).

Namaste

 

 

Lowdown on the Five Tibetan Rites

Early in the week the forecast declared that a 5000-mile-long “river in the sky” (that’s over 8000 kilometers for my metric friends) had the Pacific Northwest targeted. Sure enough. All the rain that didn’t happen throughout the summer is happening now. I experimented with a new venue. I probably won’t use it again–too echoey though I managed to dampen the echo in post-production.

 

For this video, I go through the Five Tibetan Rites, a series of five simple yogic exercises that is touted as “the fountain of youth” among the ancient lamas of Tibet. They say that if you do 21 mindful reps of each exercise you can reap the vivifying effects: everything from erasing wrinkles and grey hair to normalizing hormones to stress release to increased mobility. Of those, I can attest to the last two, after all, I’d argue any series of large-muscle-group-targeting yoga poses done daily should release stress and improve agility and strength. With the one-breath-per-movement technique, these exercises are a great way to warm up the body, particularly the spine. They pretty much cover all the major muscle groups and their antagonists. The only things they leave out are twisting- and side bending movements, so if you wanted to embrace the Fountain of Youth as your primary practice, I recommend throwing in a few spinal twists and maybe a side angle or two.

The Source 

[Warning: esoteric history ahead. I geek-out a bit on this stuff. If you want to get right to the exercises and/or their elemental attributions, scroll down to the next sections.]

Where do these “Tibetan Rites” come from? The legend is that they’re 2500 years old, at least according to The Eye of Revelation by Peter Kelder, published in 1939 at the beginning of what some call America’s “proto-new age”. Esoteric spirituality was all the rage, and in the book Kelder relates a meeting he had in southern California with a retired British army colonel who went by the pseudonym of Colonel Bradford and who shared with Kelder stories of travel and the subsequent discovery of the Rites. The Colonel related a story he had heard from “wandering natives” about a group of lamas who discovered the “fountain of youth”. He had accounts of old men who entered a particular lamasery and became healthy, strong and full of “vigor and virility”.

According to Bradford via Kelder, the lamas teach that there are seven “psychic vortexes” in the body: two in the brain, one in the throat, one in the right side near the liver, one in the genitals, one in each knee. The spin rate decreases as we age. We can restore youth-speed by doing the Rites. Though these particular vortices don’t really align with popular chakra symbolism, they do line up rather well with a diagram from Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception by Max Heindel referring to the psychic centres in the “desire body” (astral body for my transcendental-meditation friends out there).

There are hints of a “sixth Rite” but only for those interested in leading a more celibate life complete with a particular way of eating. (I feel it important to note that Bradford was about 60 at the time and apparently looked his age).

It was not recognized by any contemporary Tibetan school as a practice. When yoga instructor Chris Kilham popularized the Rites in 1994, a lama and scholar (nameless) affirmed that they come from a tradition of Tibetan yantra-yoga. However, yoga as we know it didn’t appear until 1800 years ago, 700 years after the 2500 years claimed by Kelder. The date leads some to believe it comes from a Tibetan practice of Kum Nye (medical body practices, vaguely similar to Tai chi). Thus, they could just as easily have come from Nepal since it was a Himalayan lamasery Bradford talked about.

In Lesson Five of Modern Magick (the lesson on physical vitality), Donald Michael Craig introduces the Rites as taken from Kelder’s booklet and popularized the Rites among occultists back in 1988 a bit before Kilham.

The Exercises

Let’s get to the movements. Each exercise is meant to be done in groups of seven. Start out with seven, increase to fourteen, and eventually arrive at 21. Twenty-one is a sacred number in Tibetan Buddhism (Tara, a principal Bodhisatva, is said to have 21 forms).

  1. The Spin: Stand up straight with arms in a T and spin clockwise (left arm comes forward). When finished, stand with the arms out until equilibrium returns.
  2. Leg lifts: Lie supine on the floor and raise your feet at a 90-degree angle, lift your head off the ground and press the belly button down toward the floor. On the inhale, lower the legs as a unit until they hover off the mat and lower the head back onto the mat. On the exhale lift the legs and head to your starting position.
  3. Camel pulse: Inhale into camel (hands pushing the sacrum forward); exhale back to neutral, tucking the chin toward the chest.
  4. Staff to Reverse Tabletop: Start in dandasana (staff pose), palms at either side of the hips, feet hip-width apart. Inhale to lift the hips, roll onto the soles of the feet into Reverse Table Top, the shoulder blades supporting the chest. On the exhale, come back into dandasana.
  5. Down-and-Up Dog: Start in adho mukha svanasana (downward dog). Inhale through plank to an urdhva mukha svanasana (upward dog), but keep the toes tucked. On the exhale, lift the hips back up into adho mukha svanasana.

The Tibetans and the Elements

Yogis and occultists alike have tried to ascribe the five traditional elements to the Five Tibetan Rites, but none agree on the attributions. Here are a few that are out there and the reasonings behind them (my preferred elemental correspondences are first):

Order Movement Element
1 Spin (clockwise) Spirit
2 Leg Lifts Earth
3 Kneeling backbends (camel) Air
4 Staff/Table Top Fire
5 Up/down dog Water

Reasoning (and alternatives for consideration):

  1. Spin—all agree the spin is spirit/ether, and I see no reason to counter that. It’s a “volatilizing” action, done when the body is fully erect, and in every hierarchy of elements, spirit takes the top position.
  2. Leg lifts: Earth—fully on the ground, work on lower, earthly part of body

Fire—next in Western hierarchy from spirit; the movement generates heat in the abs, the typical location of the fire chakra

Water—lower abdominal work (water chakra)

Air—next in Eastern hierarchy of elements from spirit

  1. Camel: Air—opening the chest, correspondence with lungs, affects the heart (airy chakra)

Fire—the second “highest” physical position (western hierarchy of elements)

Water—unlocks the watery subconscious

  1. Reverse Tabletop: Fire—upward facing, working into arms, upper ab focus in staff (fire chakra)

Air—physical position next in Western hierarchy of elements

Water—correspondence with kidneys and hips’ link to water chakra

Earth—the table shape represents stability

  1. Up-Downdog: Water—action flows like water, correspondence to hips (which do most of the moving) and abs

Earth—large range-of motion (encompassing all the elements, as earth contains all the subtler elements), facing downward toward the earth

Fire—the range of motion generates heat

 

Downward Dog 101

I was ten years into regular yoga practice before I “got” Adho Mukha Svanasana, a.k.a. Downward-facing Dog. For that decade, my shoulder-alignment was passable, but it kept me from experiencing the fullness of the pose.

There is a reason Downward Dog is one of the most recognized poses in yoga. Despite the  differences between various types of yoga, Downward Dog tends to have a place in nearly all of them. When done right, it’s a relaxation pose, offering traction through the spine, bringing space between the vertebrae. It’s also strengthening, gently building the strength and stability of the shoulders (to take on arm balances if that’s where you’d like to go someday) and because it’s considered a weight-bearing exercise, it helps build bone density, particularly in the arms and shoulders. Meanwhile, it stretches the back of the legs from heel to hip, and encourages the natural hinge at the hip, which helps warm us up for the effective execution of any number of forward bends. You get the benefits of an inversion (improving circulation, clearing the head), without having to confront the challenges of a full inversion. By opening the chest, it counters the perpetual slump we tend to sag into. The list goes on.

Are you getting the full benefits of the adho mukha svanasana? The video and checklist below will guide you through the alignment so that you can all the sweetness out of the pose.   

Downward Dog Checklist:

HANDS

–shoulder-width apart

–star-fish out the fingers to distribute the weight out of the heel of the hands,

–fingers grip the mat creating a lightness in the center of the palm.

–root down particularly at the base of the index finger and thumb;

ARMS

–maintain the alignment between shoulders and hands

–shoulders are broad across the back

–wrap the triceps (upper arms) externally so the elbow creases tend toward the ceiling so that when you bend your elbows, they bend back toward the feet [This is the one that eluded me for years.]

–forearms wrap internally to bring weight more to the base of the thumb and index finger and less to the pinkie finger (do this by imagining you’re screwing the lids of wide-mouthed jars inward)

FEET:

–hip width apart

–toes in line with ankles

–heels sink toward the mat (if they never get there, no worries)

–the space between feet and hands should be such that if you were to lower into plank, you wouldn’t have to readjust them at all

PELVIS

–anteriorly tilted (the top tipping forward)

–sit bones (anatomically: “sitz” bones, the twin lumps at the base of the pelvic bone) reach up and back forming a peak to the mountain of the body

TORSO

–ribs move toward legs

–working toward a flat back (you may have to bend the knees to get there)

LEGS

–thighs roll inward (to “spread” the hamstrings)

–lift the kneecaps

HEAD

–ears can be in line with the upper arms

–eyes gaze toward the thighs (if not in drishti at the tip of the nose)

 

 

 

 

Breaking down the Suryanamaskara, part 1

I still remember early ventures into the yoga studio where it seemed everyone (except me) had been born doing the Sun Salutation–or at least had picked it up during childhood, some time between crawling and walking. These days, it is pretty much the new normal. If I go too long without starting the day with at least six rounds, I start to feel off. When the rest of my practice might get disrupted by the vagaries of life, I find a way to move through the moving meditation that is the sun salutation. If I can get outside to do them, all the better.

Through repetition, the basic form becomes almost second nature. Even so, I don’t think I’m done learning from suryanamaskara. It’s wise to approach any meditative practice with the humility of an eternal student, an eternal beginner, because there is always something to be learned, whether from the practice or from the self doing the practice. We are never done learning.

Because Sun Salutations figure so prominently in my personal journey, I intend to spend quite a bit of time sharing and reviewing them.

With freeze frames and slow-mo, the video below is over three minutes long. It covers a mere three cycles of breath, one of which is done in tadasana before starting out. I bring attention to the transitions as well as the poses.

Sun Salutation

Just posted an outdoor video for Surya Namaskar A over at the youtube channel and thought I’d share a few thoughts on the sun salutation.

In my personal practice, the sun salutation in all its various forms, is pretty much the backbone (my vinyasa roots run deep). As a teacher, I use it in full to warm up the body before holding poses as well as use it as a transition between standing and seated poses.

A literal translation of Suryanamaskara is “sun-salute”. Encoded in those simple words though is the idea of acknowledging and honoring not merely the material sun (the source of life on our particular planet) but the source of all light and life.

So, where did this series of asanas come from? The suryanamaskara that we know now may well be a modern development dating back to the 1930s with Krishnamacharya in Mysore, India. However, the seeds of the practice are said to be contained within rituals codified in the Vedas, which were written over 3000 years ago.

Explore a hundred different yoga sites and your searches will yield at least a dozen different “traditional” suryanamaskara. The one I normally warm up with is the variant of the A series with a lunge to step back into Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward dog) and to step forward into Uttanasana (standing forward fold). With enough practice, the flow becomes second nature, a moving meditation. The mind falls in line with the body via the synchronization of breath with movement.

Gentle Monday Warm-up

The rain has sent me inside for the second video:

 

It’s a rainy Monday morning, here, making it a little tough to get going. What better way to get things flowing than a gentle seated series that wakes up the spine and hips?

In this series, I spend time on the feel of the poses. It easy to fall into the trap of figuring if the look of the pose seems right, then you’re doing the asana correctly. However, one size does not fit all. The point of yoga (one of the many) is to bring awareness into your particular body so that you can hit the strengthening and/or opening targets in the asana–and thus get the most out of each pose.

Have a beautiful week.

Namaste.

Fall Equinox Flow

Happy Fall Equinox! Today at 1:02pm Pacific Daylight Time, the sun shines directly over the equator (the plane of the equator intersects the centre of the solar disk) giving us approximately 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night, and popularly the first day of autumn.

For many cultures, the day marks a balance (between day and night, light and darkness) as well as the harvest. This flow takes into consideration the symbolism of the seasonal event: standing balances interspersed with poses for reflexion on one’s personal harvest. If at all possible, get out under a tree.

IMG_3007

[Note: The video for this sequence is in production.]

Fall Equinox Yoga Sequence

Grounding and Centering: Tadasana (mountain pose); if outside, come off the mat; attention to the breath; drop the exhales into the connection between feet and earth.

To make this a moving meditation, pick one of the autumnal considerations to carry through the practice: 1) Falling leaves: what do you want/need to let go of? 2) Harvest: take note of your personal harvest, allow gratitude for what you have brought to completion, 3) Seeds for the spring: what seeds do you want to preserve for the future?

Movement with breath: inhale hands to heart center, exhale open arms

Warm up: Sun Salutation A (x2)

Standing balance 1: Warm-up the balance to Tree

Vinyasa to DD, drop to knees for balancing table (aka: bird dog)–>awkward airplane–>bird dog w/ leg grab.

Flow 1: DD–>low lunge–>half splits–>open twist (option to grab that back leg)–>lizard–>dolphin plank–>sphinx–>half-frog pose (each side pulse w/breath)–>Vinyasa to other side, replace half-frog with bow pose–>child

Standing balance 2: hand-to-big-toe pose–>dancer (option: remain on the one leg when transitioning)–>tadasana (mountain; re-connect w/intention)

Flow 2: Vinyasa to DD–>side plank–>star plank–>crescent lunge–>W2–>triangle–>half-moon–>half-moon w/quad stretch–>Vinyasa to do other side–>child (re-connect w/intention)

Coming down: DD–>jump through–>boat–>lolasana-variation lift (x3)–>Dandasana–>reverse plank (or reverse table top)–>Dandasana–>forward fold–>canoe–>shoulder stand–>plow–>fish

Cooling: reclined pigeon–>reclined twist–>shavasana