Moving through my thirty some years of personal yoga practice, I have definitely fallen into ruts and habits from time to time. It usually takes a good workshop to redirect my ways. A workshop is also a good vehicle to reenergize my practice and my teachings. Last week, I shared a portion of my newest discoveries. I hope that it was a spark to rekindle your yoga flame.
Today, I am continuing with the idea of stability and fluidity by focusing on the posture Parighasana or gateway pose. This sequence includes some of the key takeaway points I learned in my online Yoga Journal Master Class with Carrie Owerko. If you are looking for a fresh take on traditional postures, this is a worthwhile class.
I created my own warmup and added transitional poses to construct this unique sequence.
Happy to be back writing Yoga Posts! While I was gone, among other things, I took a Continuing Education class based on the Iyengar style of yoga. It felt good to revisit the principles of alignment. I was reminded how important it is to study the core elements from time to time; especially when your practice is more advanced. In moving back to the essence of Iyengar, I have refreshed my way of practicing yoga.
So this week, I would like to share what I have been learning. The first concept I focused on was how to generate mobility through stability. While I know that grounding is important to keep a pose steady, through this training, I’ve discovered that establishing an effective base can actually improve your pose.
I created the following sequence for my personal practice and class sessions by choosing a group of poses for the upper body – specifically the neck, shoulders and main torso.
Centering and Warming Postures:
Seated Melting Meditation is a great way to bring awareness to the upper back body. Sit comfortably and visualize yourself melting from the base of your skull to your hips.
Experiment with this MyofascialNeck Release to relax the deep tissues of the neck. Briefly stretch your right ear towards your shoulder then return your head to center. Massage your left ear cartilage and the area around the ear. Then, repeat the stretch to feel the effects of the massage.
Try this mini vinyasa flow that moves from a Kneeling Urdhva Hastasana to Anahatasana to build stability for the upper body. You can also add a kneeling open twist with your arms extending forward and backward.
Practice Standing Marichyasana and Revolved Side Angle by using a chair facing the wall. This is the heart of the Iyengar workshop I took with Carrie Owerko. It is an awesome method for focusing on what needs to be grounded or stabilized for the openings to occur. We placed our hands on the wall to activate the shoulders and used a yoga strap to anchor the hips (by connecting a large loop from the back foot to the front hip).
It is amazing how effective this was for myself and for my students. We could truly create space to move more deeply into these poses.
Then, I chose to isolate the upper body with Warrior I variations. First, flowing from a cactus arm position to a shoulder hug and then by pushing and pulling the arms away from and into the body. In the end, the traditional pose felt easier and more stable.
Poses to Wind Down:
The sequence winds down and resolves with Constructive Rest Pose. Simply lie on your back, bend the knees and place your feet mat width apart. Allow your knees to rest together to neutralize the pelvis.
End with a version of Supported Savasana. In the example below, the spine is lifted with a bolster to open the shoulders and a blanket wrap anchors the ankles and feet in Buddha Konasana.
This is a practice I will revisit often. Its lesson is invaluable as it affects us both physically, mentally and spiritually. It is particularly important to keep in mind when we are transitioning or facing new challenges in life.
Through preparation, we can provide ourselves with a stable base so that we are better equipped to move into action. A pretty important concept for those of us who like to step out onto the ledge from time to time.
Typically the final resting posture is the most relaxing part of a yoga session. In Savasana or corpse pose, yoga students learn to focus on their breath and completely release any effort of body and mind. The reward is a sense of peace and equanimity that can lead to a reduction in stress and an easing of ailments caused by anxiety or tension.
If you are a practicing yogi, you know what a sun salutation is – a set of postures linked together in a particular sequence. Although there are slight variations, most sun salutations include plank, chaturanga dandasana, upward facing dog and downward facing dog. Chaturanga dandasana (or 4-limb staff pose) is that tricky transitional pose that occurs between plank and upward facing dog. It takes awareness, alignment and strength to avoid injuring the shoulder joint. The question is, should everyone be using it?
Well, how else can you get to the floor? Sure, you can start in 1/2 plank or ardha phalakasana to make the transition easier. However, it still takes good alignment and overall strength to get safely to the floor. It also requires full body awareness – and that is the key.
Shoulderstand is considered one of the most beneficial postures of yoga. It is both energizing and soothing – it brings equanimity to its practitioner. Over the past three years, I have written several posts on its advantages. Here is a concise summary of why you should be practicing it. Continue reading “Three Reasons to Practice Shoulderstand”→
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” – Socrates
To stoke our inner fire this week, we are connecting with our Manipura or Solar Plexus Chakra and the asanas that relate to this energy source. The solar plexus is the region that covers the mid-body and can be associated with the stomach or gut yet is literally a ganglia of nerves located behind the abdominal region at the level of the first lumbar vertebra.
The third chakra is related to our power, our intention and desires. The balanced movement of prana through this area gives us self-confidence, motivation and direction.
Today we address a more delicate subject. A part of our anatomy that is not discussed often but plays a huge role in our day to day lives. Commonly known as the pelvis, it’s the “basin” for many biological systems and the root of our support. Not only is the pelvis the foundation of our stability but it is home to our organs of elimination and reproduction – thus the sensitivity.
As a structure, the pelvis is more like an architectural feat rather than a mere bony skeleton.
It shelters and provides entrances and exits for a vast number of muscles, ligaments and nerves that feed and bring movement to our upper and lower bodies.
Therefore, the pelvis needs to stay fluid. Not too tight yet not too loose. The stability of its frame and the musculature within is easily off balanced. Pelvic distortion can lead to chronic hip misalignment, lower back pain and scoliosis. Strain or misalignment at the spine base can also lead to pelvic floor abnormalities affecting both women and men. Muscle weakness or even tightness can bring about urinary incontinence, urinary frequency, cystitis, irritable bowel syndrome and prostate problems.
Luckily, yoga can help stabilize the pelvis, engage, strengthen and relax pelvic bowl muscles. A study performed at the University of California San Francisco studied urinary incontinence and found that participants who practiced specific yoga postures experienced a 70% reduction in this abnormality. Some of the postures included in the study were baddha konasana (bound angle pose), salamba setu bandhasana (supported bridge pose) and utkatasana (chair pose).
In addition, the yogic practice of mūla bandha is helpful in generating awareness and encouraging blood flow into the hips and pelvic floor or perineum (the perineum can be thought of as a hammock of muscles between the sitting bones and the pubic bone). Although mūla bandha (along with the other bandhas) is considered an advanced yoga practice, it can be more simply characterized as a set of pelvic floor contractions much like Kegel exercises.
Sitting in a cross-legged position, “align the center of your skull over the center of your pelvis. Be sure to release your jaw and tongue…begin by relaxing the tissues in and around your pelvic floor. Take several long, slow breath strokes. Once your breath has settled, exhale deeply and, at the end of the exhalation, contract your perineum (or pelvic floor) rhythmically in a set of seven pulses, in what amounts to a catch and release action. Then take a long inhalation brushing your breath against your spine. Repeat 5-10 times.
There certainly is strength in numbers. Take joint ventures, joint commissions, joint statements, joint maneuvers or joint peace talks. The joint effect of most things is stronger than the result of standing alone.
There is also strength in forming a joint connection between two things such as mortar between bricks or a wood joint that links the ceiling to the floor or a knee that connects the lower leg to the upper leg. They all work to create a thing that is stronger, more complete, more effective than the single component.
Your challenge for the week is to apply this principle to your yoga practice. We’ve explored strength through alignment, now we will investigate the balanced effort of flexibility and strength. This is critical for the health of our joints. Hips, shoulders, elbows, spine, knees, ankles, wrists, and even the fingers and toes all benefit from this “joint concept” of mobility and stability.
Focus on one area each day this week to create joint mobility and stability. Be sure to warm up with a gentle sun salutation prior to beginning these sequences.
HipsStabilize: Warrior III Mobilize: Eka Pada Rajakopatasana
Last week I revisited the island of Oahu in Hawaii – a place I have held dearly in my heart since living there in the late eighties/early nineties.
During my trip, I was reacquainted with the ancientness of the land and its rich beauty. Despite the fact that there were more high rises and roads than I remembered, the nature of the people on the island was just as dynamic and compassionate as years gone by.
The root of these virtues can be traced back to the Polynesian heritage of the Hawaiians. A prime example is the ancient culture of Samoa. Its foundation was centered around the principle of vāfealoa’i, the relationships between people. These relationships were based on respect, or fa’aaloalo. This sense of respect continues today in the way the islanders show admiration for their land with all its gifts and the kind treatment they bestow on each other.
As ancient warriors, Hawaiians valued compassion as well as powerfulness. The most revered chiefs were those that held the wisdom of healing in as much esteem as the knowledge of war. This balance between power and humanity was their most treasured quality and has been carried down to the present time.
Your challenge this week is to evoke the ideal warrior character in yourself. To master the art of inner peace while practicing the robust qualities associated with Virabhadrasana or Warrior I.
Points of Action for Virabhadrasana I
Bend the forward leg deeply while keeping the knee aligned with the ankle
Extend the back leg strongly, pressing into the outer heel to secure your base
Lift the torso firmly, drawing upward from both sides of the chest
Draw the upper back forward, extending the sternum proudly
Rotate the upper arms externally to fully project the arms upwards
There can be conflict within this pose as you experience extension vs compression, twisting vs backbending and internal vs external rotation. However, the non-harming nature of yoga should lend a peacefulness to this fierceness. In order to balance the two qualities, locate within yourself a sense of triumph for the spirit within – be mindful that the breath is your support as you yield to the true warrior who is both harmonious and powerful.
I could have titled this Friday Focus as “Maximizing Your Glutes” or even “Glute Camp”. But I really want to generate a positive, more yogic vibration. No calisthenic connotations here. Then came the idea “Glutton For Glutes”. Although the word “glutton” most often refers to a glutton for punishment, a glutton can also be someone who is extremely eager for something, whether that be food or adventure…hmmm.
Lately, I am a glutton for glorious glutes. Because I have come to realize how vital this set of muscles is to my strength, alignment and overall well-being. Also, I am discovering that as my backside slackens (yikes), my quadriceps tighten. There is always a give and take within the body.
Here are some of the ways that the strongest muscle in your body, the gluteus maximus, and its supporting actors, the deep rotators, help with developing the overall best picture.
stabilize hip joints
allow you to stand straighter
ease strain on knees and low back
support entire back, pelvis and legs
All great points for ranking these muscles as number one for strengthening this month.
As we addressed in class, many of the one-legged standing poses do this job nicely. Vrksasana (Tree Pose), Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III), Ardha Chandrasana (Half-Moon) and Natarajasana (Dancer’s Pose) all assist with activating the glutes as does Salabasana (Locust Pose).
However, there is one other posture that we didn’t have time for in class today. It is the One-Legged Bridge Pose or Eka Pada Setu Bandha Sarvangasana. As you practice this pose, an important thing to remember is to push downward through your shoulders as well as your grounded leg. As you hold the posture, try to interject tiny pulses upward through your extended leg. The trick for persevering with this is to focus on your breath. Extend upwards as you inhale and ground down as you exhale. Remember if it’s not with the breath, it’s not yoga!