Sunday, January 28, 2007

Last weekend, I went to a workshop at the Yoga Coop in Madison, led by Chris Saudek, a Senior Intermediate Iyengar teacher from La Crosse. The focus was forward bends and twists, with a few inversions at the end. The approach was All Iyengar: each pose was identified only by its Sanskrit name; we held each pose for about 3-5 mins. and we concentrated on lengthening the “dorsal spine” (opposite the sternum) to align the torso. It was very careful and intense and, although we were all stretched out at the end of class, several of us almost fell down the stairs we were so loose (myself included).

One pose we worked on for awhile was Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head-to-Knee Pose), never a favorite of mine. But the way we approached it was different than I was used to, and the opening I felt when I was done was new. It works diagonally across the back, so after completing one side you can feel how uneven you are until you finish with the opposite side. I won’t say that it’s replaced Down Dog as my favorite, but its standing has improved. Here’s how we did it…

Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana
1. Begin in Dandasana (Staff Pose) with the spine long and aligned. Then slide the left knee to the side and, using both hands, gently roll the shin and top of the foot towards the floor. Try and line your heel up with the center of your perineum, but don’t loose the length in the lower back. Extend the left leg to the side so that your legs make a 90-degree angle. Keep the left big toe and knee pointed towards the ceiling.

2. Sit tall and concentrate on lifting the side ribs and lining the shoulders up with the hips. Start twisting to the right (towards the bent knee), concentrating the twist in the lumbar spine.

3. Keeping the twist in the waist and the length in the spine, start folding towards the extended left leg (leaning backwards, sort of). Slide your left hand along the left leg, or lower onto your forearm if you can still keep the spine long. With each exhale, deepen the twist as you lengthen the thoracic spine (the spine behind the rib cage). Place your hand flat on the floor to assist the twist, or take hold of your foot.

4. Bring the right arm straight up and then drop is slightly to the back to increase the twist. Then bring it to your right hip, or, if it doesn’t affect the length of the spine, reach over and take hold of the other side of your left foot. Breathe deeply and try to extend into the pose every few breaths.

5. Slowly release the hands and bring the torso upright. Untwist and then return the legs back to Staff Pose. Repeat on the other side.

6. After you’ve finished the left side, give yourself time to release in a supported relaxation pose (Savasana-Corpse Pose, Supta Baddha Konasana-Reclined Bound Angle Pose). And, whatever you do, be careful on the stairs when you’re done! ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Here Goes Nuthin'

After much careful deliberation, I am ready to post my first podcast. It is just short Down Dog practice (about 8 min.s), so I could practice with my digital recorder,experiment with the editing software and learn how to turn it into an MP3 file. Not difficult, but a bit time consuming. So, give it a listen: Downward-Dog Podcast.

The only big mistake is that I called it Adho Mukha Savasana (Corpse Pose) instead of Svanasana (Dog Pose)...but I promise you are not doing Downward-Facing Corpse Pose. That would be rather ghoulish and depressing and I hope you find Dog uplifting and fun.

If you want a review of the pose, or to see modifications, check my posting from September 9. Good luck, and let me know what you think!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Week Three

This week was the third of my current session at the Y, so we are working the core muscles. My classes usually progress from the base (feet, sit bones) thru the hips into the torso and up to the shoulders and upper back. The last week of the session usually focuses on Sun Salutations or flow sequences…sort of a “putting it all together.” This approach serves new students, so they can see how a pose is “built” but also is a nice reminder for continuing yogis pay attention to all elements of a pose.

The following sequence features poses that utilize core strength. Some of it is abs work, but other contributors to the core include the big muscles of the back and the thighs. These are the muscles that work together to keep you balanced and aligned and, most importantly, protect and support the lower back. This work may give you a nice figure (as my grandmother use to say), but it is crucial to keeping the spine healthy and strong. Remember to keep the breath full and even; it is easy to hold your breath when concentrating on your abs. (You may also notice that several of these poses show up in Pilates—Josef Pilates borrowed heavily from yoga when developing his system).

Strengthening the Core
(Easy Pose) Concentrate on lengthening the side ribs to create space in the lower half of the torso. Balance the pelvis so you are resting on the center of the sit bones, not leaning forward or back.

Dandasana + Hastasana (Staff Pose and Overhead Arm Stretch) Extend the feet in front of you and, while pressing a block between the palms, stretch your arms overhead. Keep the shoulders down and the neck relaxed. Breathe into the lengthening along the side body.

Seated Twist Come back to Easy Pose, with the right shin crossed in front. Starting with the lower back, start twisting gently to the right, then move the twist into the rib cage and then the shoulders. Release and repeat on the other side with the left shin in front.

Balancing Cat Come to Table Pose, with the hands beneath the shoulders and knees beneath the hips. On an exhale, stretch the right hand forward and the left foot back so you are making a straight line from the foot diagonally across the torso and out the fingers. Hold for a few breaths and then switch sides.

Plank Come to your hands and knees and, with the heels of the hands beneath the shoulders, step the feet back so that the body is now in a diagonal line: ears-shoulders-hips-ankles. Keep the neck long and the breath even. Don’t let the lower back sag or the hips lift up. The majority of the work in this pose will be in the chest and abdominal muscles.

Seated Twist

Navasana (Boat Pose) Sit with the knees bent and the hands behind the thighs at the knees. Lower the torso back to a 90-degree angle from the thighs. Keep the chest lifted and the neck long. Gently roll back onto your sitbones and balance with the shins parallel to the floor. Keeping the spine long, straighten the legs and, if you can keep your chest lifted, release the hands and straighten the arms with the palms down. Keep Breathing!

Supported Forward Bend Sit in Staff with a chair over your legs or a block between your knees. Gently fold forward, leading with the belly button and rest with your arms crossed on the seat of the chair or the block. Relax into this support and feel the backs of the legs lengthen and the spine releases.

Savasana (Corpse Pose) Lie on the floor and take a minute to realign your whole torso, so the neck is long and the head is lined up with the tailbone. Sink into the support of the floor and concentrate on letting all muscles relax. ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Un-box the Block

Last week I discussed a variety of ways to make poses more supported using the wall, a chair or your belt, so you could hold them longer. Your block is a versatile tool, also, and you can use it for as a support as well as a prop for helping align or adjust a pose. While there are a variety things around the house you could use as a yoga blanket or belt (for a long time my belt came off my bathrobe), a 3” or 4” foam block is what it is and you should try and track one down. I tried to use thick books for awhile and mostly managed to break their spines. Check Nu-Source for affordable yoga supplies.

You can use the block against the wall in a number of poses, so that you have a cushion between your body and the solidity of the wall. You can do Virabhadrasana II (Warrior 2) with the block between your shin and the wall (see Jan 9) to establish a crisp right angle in the shin and thigh of the bent leg. If you hold the block between the thumbs and index fingers, you can press it against the wall in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-facing Dog Pose) to help keep the arms stable so you can really press the back thighs away and lengthen the spine.


Your block can help you keep the edge of your feet parallel (Tadasana-Mountain Pose, Dandasana-Staff Pose), or to keep the edge of a single foot perpendicular to the floor (Janusirsasana-Head-to-Knee Pose, Padangusthasana Hand-to-Big Toe Pose). Either gently press the block between both feet to keep them parallel, or rest the block against the inside edge of the foot when the heel is on the floor as a gentle reminder. Press the palms of your hands into the sides of the block in Hastasana (Overhead Arm Stretch) to help you align your upper arms and elbows.

A little lift

The block can also add 3” or 4” of length to your arms. If you can’t reach the floor in Uttansana (Intense Forward Bend), press your fingertips into the block so you can still support the torso and lengthen the spine. You can use the block in Parsvakonasana (Lateral Angle Pose) and Ardha Chandrasana (Half-Moon Pose) to help you reach the floor; the few extra inches of the block will help you keep the spine aligned so you don’t collapse at the chest as you reach down. If your hips can’t settle between your heels in Virasana (Hero Pose), you can place the block under the sit bones. You can even use the block under your head in Down Dog or Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Angle Forward Bend) as you bend forward so that the inversion is supported; the poses are more restful this way, so you can hold them longer.

Your block is an indispensable tool…you may even want to have two. I promise you will always find a use for them in yoga and you will protect your library as well! ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved.
(P.S. Does anywhere beside Washington DC use the term “block the box” for entering an intersection in your car but not being able to pull on through, thereby blocking oncoming traffic?)

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Deflect the Reflex

Sunday night, I settled back into Supta Baddha Konasana (Supine Bound Angle Pose)—I still haven’t ventured into any standing or balance poses, yet—and immediately felt resistance in my hip muscles. I slid a couple of cushions under my knees, so they could relax, and kept breathing into my hip joints to try and get them to open. In a minute or so I was able to slide the pillows further out and finally I got rid of them all together. At the end of the five minutes, I was flat on my back and my knees were very close to the floor…a turnaround from my position at the beginning.

What is fascinating about this pose-a-day practice is how much the poses change over the five minutes. Moving slowly into a pose is the best way to maximize the stretch of your muscle tissues. You are trying to counteract the Myotatic Stretch Reflex, which is the muscle reflex that makes your foot bounce when the doctor whacks your knee with his little hammer. It is also the reflex that keeps your body upright when you’re engaged in activities that require the muscles to absorb frequent dynamic shocks (jumping up and down on a basketball court, jogging on an uneven surface). The muscles involved in the action immediately contract so they are ready to work, which is great in the moment but can lead to tightness and decreased flexibility (why runners often have tight hip joints).

H. David Coulter has an extensive discussion of how your muscles respond in this reflex in Anatomy of Hatha Yoga, pp. 39-40.

This reflex can also be triggered by forcing your body into a position that it’s not ready to assume. If you can move slowly into a pose, it keeps the muscles loose and receptive and you can come deeper into the final position. As you hold the pose and breathe deeply, you will relax the muscles allowing for even greater lengthening. Here’s an example:

Uttanasana “over time” (Intense Forward Bend)

Roll your blanket—tightly if you have fairly flexible calves, looser if not. Now stand with the toes and balls of the feet on the blanket and the heels on your mat. Straighten and come to Tadasana (Mountain) making sure the tailbone points down to the floor and the shoulders are balanced over the hips. Breathe into this alignment and feel the calves start to open.

-With the hands in the hip crease (where the thighs meet the pelvis) begin to fold forwards from this joint, keeping the lower back long and the chest lifted. Reach down for the floor or your block when you are as far as you can fold. Try to sink your heels and balance your weight between the front and back of the foot. Breathe into the length of the spine and the continued opening of the calves. Hold for several minutes.
-Now, slightly bend the knees and step off the blanket. Stay in the forward bend position, but notice how much further you can bend forward—or how much more comfortable the position becomes. Continue lengthening the calves and, if you want to deepen the pose, release the spine and let the head and shoulders hang down towards the floor. Cross the arms and tuck your hands into elbow crease so the weight of the upper body helps open the spine and increases your stretch.
-Slowly re-engage the spine and, with your hands on your thighs, come back to standing.
©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Not-so Easy Pose

Well, one thing is for sure, there is no such thing as just five minutes. I’ve been working on resolution #2 for four days and if I don’t choose a supported pose to hold, I start to have trouble after about two-and-a-half minutes. On Jan. 1 and 2, I decided to try Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose) and Sukhasana (Easy Pose). Each time I sat with my back against the wall so I had some support. The five minutes passed quickly and I stayed a little longer because the poses were so restful and comfortable. On the 3rd, I cheated, and didn’t do my own yoga…but I did teach that day, so there was some yoga (the resolutions get broken so fast).

Yesterday I settled into Dandasana (Staff Pose) in the middle of the floor without any support. I tried to focus on my breathing, while occasionally realigning my spine and grounding thru the back of the legs. I just rested my arms at my sides. Halfway into the pose, my quadriceps (top and outside of the thighs) began to burn and it was all I could do to keep adjusting and breathing steadily. I added an extra pose that day, because I had to flop into Savasana (Corpse Pose) just to give my legs a rest after Staff. Whew.

I think it’s going to be awhile before I try anything really challenging like Parsvakonasana (Lateral Angle) or Virabhadrasana III (Warrior 3).

Here are some suggestions for making various poses more supported. Even if you don’t have a-pose-a-day resolution, it’s a nice way to end the day and you still can get some benefits without overdoing it. Most poses can be done against the wall, so that you can lean slightly back; others can be done with a chair support the torso. Even the belt can give you some help, so you can stay aligned longer.

Up Against the Wall
Most standing poses can be done against the wall to either remove the need for balance or to help support an element of the pose that normally requires strength. Trikonasana (Triangle), Parsvakonasana (Lateral Angle), Vrksasana (Tree Pose) or Ardha Chandrasana (Half-Moon Pose) can be done with the back of the hips gently resting against the wall. The backs of the heels should be an inch or two away so that you don’t fall forwards. Virabhadrasana II (Warrior 2) can be done with a block between the shin (below the knee cap) of the bent knee and the wall, as you stand with your side to the wall; you will find that you can bend that knee a bit deeper and hold the pose longer with the help from the block.

Various inversions can also happen against the wall. You will find that it is easier to be aligned in Salamba Sirsasana (Headstand), Salamba Sarvangasana (Shoulder Stand) and Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-legged Forward Bend), when done at the wall. You can more easily line the upper and the lower body in Head- and Shoulder Stand, and keep the hips over the ankles in the Forward Bend.

Many sitting poses will be good for meditation or breathing exercises if you lean. The aforementioned Easy and Bound Angle Poses, for example, or even Staff and Upavistha Konasana (Seated Wide-Angle Pose) are much more relaxing if the back is against the wall. Even Virasana (Hero Pose) would benefit from the extra alignment, although you’ll need to give yourself a little space for the toes or place a block between the shoulder blades and the wall.

Help from a Chair or a Belt
In many forward bends, you can rest your head and/or chest on a chair or stool. By relaxing the torso onto a support, often times the hips will release and you can stay in the position longer. Paschimottanasana (Forward Bend) and Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Legged Forward Bend) both work this way.

We often use the belt as an extension of the arms, but, as a long loop, it can also aid in challenging poses. In Bound Angle Pose, you can loop it around the top of the pelvis and over the outside edge of the feet to help keep the knees bent, so you can concentrate on the opening of the hip joints. That same loop can help in Navasana (Boat Pose)—in this pose, the belt wraps around the entire body, across the middle back and behind the thighs, so that you can focus on leaning back on the sitbones and lifting the chest rather than on keeping the legs lifted.

The block has its own series of support functions, but I think that’s a discussion for next week. Let me know you can come up with some other modifications and I’ll post those too. Good luck and good relaxing! ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved.