Wednesday, May 24, 2006

An Ode to The Dog

I once had a teacher who recommended “a dog a day” as a healthy yoga habit, and I find it to be as true as the admonition on apples. It is one of the most efficient poses and engages all the usual trouble spots with an elegant folding and inverting of the body. Shoulders stabilize while the back extends; hips lift while the legs lengthen. The head is lower than the heart, which calms the mind, while the large muscles of the back and legs are energized in order to ground through the hands and feet. This combination of engagement and release is what makes Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog) such an effective pose.

Downward Dog is very adaptable and it is fun to try different modifications to see how the pose changes depending on where your body is placed. Experiment to see which variation best complements your regular Dog. You can:
-Lift your heels three or four inches and press them to the wall instead of the floor. Notice the additional rotation in the shoulders.
-Press the inside edge of the hands to the wall and feel the heels stretch closer to the floor, opening the backs of the legs.
-Place the hands and feet as wide as your mat and feel the engagement in the back muscles.
-Invert the dog at the wall by pressing the hands to the wall at hip height and stepping the feet back until they are beneath the hips--making a right angle between the body and legs. Notice how this position stretches the armpits and sides of the torso. You can deepen the rotation in the shoulders by relaxing the upper back and letting the head hang between the arms (this is a good modification if a regular Dog is too much weight on your arms and wrists).

If you don’t have time to do anything else, or it is your day off from yoga, try to press up into a Dog for a quick 5-minute session. It is a complete practice in itself, especially if you can hold it long enough to let your mind settle into the rhythm of your breath. There is nothing more exhilarating than entering the weightless feeling of a completely balanced Downward-Facing Dog!

If you have a half-hour, here is a simple sequence, culminating with a freeing Downward-Facing Dog:
-Sukhasana (seated meditation)-concentrate on lengthening the spine so the back muscles are warmed.
-Hastasana (overhead arm stretch)-keep the shoulders low as you press your palms to the ceiling.
-Dandasana (Staff pose)-begin to warm the leg muscles.
-Padangusthasana (Hand-to-Big Toe pose)-focus on opening the backs of the calves and thighs.
-Tadasana (Mountain)-continue the alignment from the earlier Sukhasana as you stand.
-Gomukhasana-arms only (Cow’s head pose)-focus on the rotation in the shoulders as you stretch each elbow away from the other and toward the center.
-Uttanasana (Intense forward bend)-fold from the hips and release the head towards the floor, stretching out the spine.
- Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-facing dog)-come up from hands and knees, lifting the tailbone up as you ground down through the palms of the hands and soles of the feet…find the center of the pose so the hands and feet are supporting your weight equally.
-Balasana (Child’s pose)-fold down to the mat, resting the head and arms on the floor and releasing the hips.
-Twist- roll to the back and let the knees fall to one side, while grounding through the shoulders, then repeat with the knees on the other side.
-Savasana (Corpse Pose)-relax with the arms and legs outstretched and let the body release to the floor with each exhale. ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Yoga is a Language

What never ceases to amaze me about Hatha Yoga is its adaptability. It is comprised of about 200 asanas (according to B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga) that can be combined in seemingly infinite combinations. In this sense, Yoga is a language; it has a vocabulary of 200 “words” that take their meaning from how they are combined and with what dialect they are spoken. A more traditional yogi will see these words as immutable--they should only be used with the proper accent and correct grammar. A inventive practitioner is more flexible with the language and is open to new and unusual definitions of the words. One approach is faithful to the history of yoga; the other keeps it alive and relevant to today’s world.

The beauty of this language is that it benefits and illuminates no matter how it is spoken. Some teaching styles, such as Iyengar and Ashtanga, are exacting in their approach—there are proscribed ways to practice and strict arrangements of the asanas. Other yoga styles, such as Kripalu and Vinyasa, are more fluid and allow students to determine the rhythm and manner of their individual practice. With any of these traditions, you can choose which poses in what sequence fits your day’s mood, energy level, anatomical focus, etc. Depending on what you bracket a particular pose with, it can have a completely different feeling and style. These asana/words are so powerful and affecting that it doesn’t really matter how you choose to interpret them—they will help you focus and center.

So as you continue to deepen and expand your personal practice, keep in mind that you are participating in a dialogue between your body and this ancient art. How you choose to interpret and use this language is entirely up to you and can (should) change on a daily basis so it stays vital and interesting. No approach is better than another, it just depends on what you want and need on that particular day for that particular practice.

Examples of different pronunciations:
Using Trikonasa (Triangle Pose) as an example, note how the feeling of the pose changes depending on how it is approached.
A Formal Approach
1. Step the feet apart 3 ½ to 4 ½ feet, establishing your normal triangle stance.
2. Stretch your arms up overhead, keeping the shoulders away from the ears, and feel the side ribs lift.
3. Lower the arms to shoulder level, but keep the side ribs lifted, noticing the openness and lift in the chest.
4. Now, turn the right foot to the side and the left slightly towards the center. Shift the hips towards the left foot, keeping the arms stretched to the side and still focusing on the lifted ribs.
5. Stretch out and over the right foot, always lifting the ribs, and fold over the right hip into Triangle. (Notice the space you get through the torso with this approach).
6. Repeat on the other side.
A Flow Approach
1a. This time step your feet apart, turn the right foot out and the left foot slightly in. Lift the arms to the side and bend the right knee to come into Virabhadrasanana II (Warrior II). Hold for a couple of breaths.
2a. Now fold the right arm and hinge from the right hip towards the right thigh and rest the forearms on the thigh. Stretch your left arm overhead and twist the torso and head toward the sky, moving into Parsvakonasana (Lateral Angle Pose). Again, hold for a few breaths.
3a. From Lateral Angle, straighten the right leg and extend the right arm, reaching for the shin. Move the left arm back to center and twist the torso and head to look at the left hand. Now you are in Trikonasana (Triangle). Breathe a bit, and then come back up to center. Turn the feet back to center and lower the arms. (Notice the feeling of fluidity as you smoothly move from pose to pose. Enjoy the feeling of connection between these different poses as you experience their similarities and differences).
4a. Repeat on the other side. ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Hello and Welcome!

I decided it was time to set up a yoga blog because my students often ask for additional resources and additional practice to complement their weekly classes. I figured I could take a little time each week to compose a 20-30 minute session and include some thoughts on that series of poses. This way readers of the blog could bring their yoga practice home and expand on anything they had been working on in class.

I have written these sequences assuming readers already have a nodding acquaintance with yoga terms and poses. My explanations are short, because I figure everyone either knows the position or they can check out one of my links to study it. None of these short practices should replace a regular class with a trained teacher; this is just to help make yoga a daily, or every-other daily habit rather than just a once-a-week occurrence.

I hope this helps and I hope you enjoy it!