Sunday, December 16, 2007

As Simple as Herding Cats

I'm in the process of applying for another teaching gig at a new "wellness center" that has opened in the Stateline area. It's affiliated with Beloit Memorial Hospital and has a whole wing with doctors' offices and physical therapy, in addition to a very swank gym, pool and studios (Pilates and yoga have separate rooms). There will be some overlap from my students at the Y, but also a lot of new folks from Northern Illinois.

I've hit a snag. Because of the medical aspect, they want to make sure all the instructors are well-trained and certified. The certified part works well for the aerobics teaching and trainers, because of the rigor with which ACE, etc. keeps track of their teachers. They are having some trouble with the yoga teachers' credentials, tho--especially me.

I had a very intense training period with my teacher in DC and spent every other Saturday for a year at her house studying poses--how to teach, how to modify, how to sequence them. I also did some (not a lot) of student teaching at her studio and she observed some of my teaching. So, I think I had a good grounding (ha) in the basics and have tried to stay current with various workshops, etc. when I can get to Madison or other yoga conferences. For what it's worth, my students seem to be happy with my teaching. But none of this is work towards a specific Certification...and none of it is with Yoga Alliance members (altho I have studied with Iyengar, Kripalu, Ashtanga, etc. teachers), so I can't count towards a R.Y.T. designation. There are 5 YA-approved schools in Wisconsin and the nearest one to me is in Milwaukee (80 min. drive each way), so I can't really start over from scratch.

It's made me think about yoga teacher training in this country and how to organize (if that's possible) all the different styles and approaches so that outsiders can measure how qualified a teacher is. This is a huge debate in the yoga community--and while the Yoga Alliance has the right idea--I'm not sure it's possible to gather all of us under one governing body. And maybe we don't want one governing body, but how to assess the quality of different trainings? And is teaching yoga in a multi-purpose facility, such as a gym, less legitimate than in a studio? And consider the possibility of including yoga in a wellness plan that insurance companies would be willing to support, how would they measure its effectiveness? How about those of us who practice and teach in communities without a large yoga network?

I'm not sure how it will go with North Pointe (the aforementioned wellness center). I hope I can cobble together a resume that they approve of, but we'll see. In the mean time, what do all of you think of this subject and how have you dealt with the issue of multiple trainings/quality of trainings/lack of certification/etc? Any ideas?

How do you herd a group of cats and keep them in the corral...

Monday, December 03, 2007

Don't Think, Just Do...Parivritta Janu Sirsasana

In the interest of maintaining some sort of home practice, I'm going to put up a single pose each week for you (and me!) to drop into. Preferably there would be some sort of lead-in and some sort of follow-up, but 5-10 mins. of yoga is better than nothing at all. I'm not advocating headstands without any warm-up, obviously, but most of the standard poses will still give you a nice stretch in the moment. Maybe some time, in the not too distant future, I can have my own practice, again. Sigh.

Parivritta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head-to-Knee Pose)
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.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Playing With Yoga

Between turkey, colds, stomach viruses and writing another article for My Yoga Mentor (Yoga Journal's online newsletter for teachers), GTTSB took a pretty big hit. Sorry it's been awhile.

The article had the working title "Playing with Yoga" and was inspired by a Sept. 2007 YJ article called "More Fun." It was about various yoga hybrids out there (Acro-yog--acrobatics and yoga; trance dance; slack-line yoga--yoga on a tightrope) and I thought it might be interesting to talk to some of these people and see what advice they had for teachers. I was also a bit skeptical, since I wonder how much this kind of combining dilutes the original practice.

I've been convinced, however. I heartily agree with Yoga Dawg that a lot of the yoga community takes itself waaay too seriously. Playing around with asana is nothing new (where would Iyengar yoga be, if B.K.S. hadn't developed all his modifications) and being light-hearted with the results makes it all a bit more palatable to our Western hearts.
As I see it, whatever makes it compelling and helps you practice more should be celebrated. It is a testament to the discipline that it can handle all these variations and still deliver strength, flexibility and calm to its practitioners.

I really liked what Leah Kalish of YogaEd had to say about setting a context for asana when teaching to kids. She trains teachers to create an environment where kids are empowered by learning the mind-body connection; they do art projects (make a "centering box" filled with things that help you feel calm and in control), create music (what does good balancing music sound like?), play games and do yoga. I like the idea of creating a context for asana, so that the class has a theme, rather than just doing leg work or balancing poses. I think students of all ages respond well to this and it gives yoga a purpose and connects it to real life, which is very important to beginners.

I usually organized my classes by what part of the body is being focussed on and discuss how the physiology of the body responds to various asana (hip openers open hips, obviously, but also open up the lower back so that ending the class with some gentle twists might be the logical progression from Baddha Konasana, for example). But maybe something even broader might be interesting...what happens to the shoulders when you focus on thighs, how do high energy poses lead to greater calmness, etc. Or maybe even something silly, like how does 70s soul affect the practice (I'm not sure I have the guts to try that out in the classroom, but one of my best home practices ever was to Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra).

What do you think about yoga hybrids and playing with yoga? Do you or don't you? I'm all ears...

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Easing into it

Last week, after class, one of my newer students approached me after class asking what she could do to get into better "yoga shape." We had just finished an hour of hip openers and, while she was much more comfortable sitting in Sukhasana (easy pose) at the end of class, she felt worked over to the point that she was a bit sore. I suspect she was also frustrated with herself for not being able to do some of the poses that my regulars could do. I promised to think about good asana for a beginner to work on at home that would help increase flexibility, but also be easy to remember and pleasant to do. I thought some seated poses would be appropriate, because you can really focus on the alignment of the spine and pelvis--a crucial juncture in yoga.

A nice way to bring awareness to the arms, legs and side body is a combination of
Dandasana and Hastasana.
(Staff Pose + Overhead Arm Stretch) Extend the legs out in front of you, pressing the soles of the feet away evenly and engaging the thigh muscles. Raise your arms to the side and keep the shoulders away from the ears as you lift your arms overhead. Interlock the fingers and turn the palms towards the ceiling. After your initial stretch, bend the elbows slightly and let your palms come further back to deepen the rotation in the shoulder joints. Try to straighten the arms.

Another of version of this stretch is
Upavistha Konasana (Seated Wide-Angle Pose). It will work on the hip joints and inner thighs, so lift yourself on a couple of blankets, if you can't keep your lower back long. Extend the legs out to the sides, but only so far that you can keep your toes and knees pointed to the ceiling. Lift the side ribs and lengthen the spine. Stretch your arms towards the ceiling to get extra length in the torso. Start folding forwards from the hip joints as you stretch the arms out…don’t collapse the chest and keep the spine long. Lower the arms but continue to lengthen the side ribs as you fold a bit deeper.

I still think one of the hardest things to do in a yoga class is not to compare yourself to everyone else in the room. A good exercise for all of us is to just be able to focus on the sensations in our own bodies as we move through the poses. Sometimes a breathing exercise is best for this kind of work. Find a comfortable seated position (Sukhasana-easy pose or Baddha Konasana-bound angle are both good choices) and try this breathing exercise:

“Loop” breathing
Pay attention to the beginning and end of each breath.
Notice how much “silence” there is at the end of each inhale and exhale; the moment when there is no breath at all. On the next cycle, try to imagine your breath as a loop and let the exhale begin as soon as the inhale finishes, so there is no stopping. This will be a bit jerky at first, especially between the exhale and inhale (it is easier to let full lungs empty than to begin filling them again). Imagine the cycle as an oval, with the transitional points at each end and visualize the breath moving smoothly around those curves during the transition. Continue this for a while (5-10 mins.) and then let your breath return to its normal pattern.

Of course, there are lots of other beginning poses you can work, but I think this short series is good at increasing awareness of length in the spine and the work of the hips and legs. What asana do you think are good places to start, when easing into a yoga practice?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

15-Second Vacation

Take a look (as the Iyengars say) at Jenn's comment from "Getting Back on Track". She has attached an excerpt from a great article about the lessons of early motherhood. It is very pertinent to my frame of mind these days and is a nice set up for my thoughts in this post.

The lad and I are coming off a vicious yeast infection (for me), mild thrush infection (for him) which has made nursing excruciating. I have been using every breathing and pain management technique I can think of to get through this (the Sleeping Master has been refusing bottles, lately). Throw in a three-year-old who is tired of sharing his parents' attentions ("Any attention is good attention...I'm going to start throwing my cars") and things have been a bit dreary around here.

So I've been falling back on a trick
called "15-second vacation" a friend from grad school used to do. Polly would whip out a picture of some lovely vacation spot and imagine herself there for a quarter-minute to try and get out of the academic grind. I've been trying it with any sensory experience that is pleasurable...relaxing in the steam of a hot shower, reclining onto the support of a foam-topped mattress (before the next 2 hr. "nap" of the night), working my way through a left-over Halloween peanut butter cup, feeling my spine unclench during a quick Uttanasana. It's like a Mindfulness exercise, but I figure I've got to grab the peaceful moments while I can and be satisfied with 15-seconds. Most of the time it works.

I remember an episode from "Fraiser," where Fraiser's dad is berating the psychiatrist for being so neurotic. He gestures towards Eddie, his ratty-looking terrier, who is rolling on the floor and announces, "You know, Fraiser, you could take a lesson from Eddie. You know what makes him happy, an old sock!" I think about that sometimes and try to let the simple things make me happy...if all it takes is an old sock, I have a whole drawer of happiness in the bedroom.

I hope you find 15-seconds today to enjoy your old sock...

Monday, October 22, 2007

Secrets of Sequencing (Part Two)

I sort of left you hanging last week, with only the upper part of your body warmed and stretched. Here is the post that followed "Secrets, Part One." Now we’re ready to address the lower back and legs, which are the main supporters of all the standing poses (i.e. Trikonasana-triangle pose, Virabhadrasana-warrior poses, etc.).

A good place to start bringing awareness to the large muscles of the legs is Dandasana (Staff pose). The pose is relatively simple, sitting with the spine aligned and the legs extended, but an engaged Staff gets blood flowing into the legs and energizes the torso with the effort it takes to sit tall and ground through the back of the legs. If you combine it with an arm stretch (Hastasana-overhead arm stretch, for example) it becomes a very active way to work most of the muscles at once.

I usually include Padangusthasana (Hand-to-Big Toe Pose) at the beginning of class because it opens the back of the legs (hamstrings in the thighs and the gastrocnemius of the calf). As you lie on the floor, concentrate on maintaining the lumbar curve in the lower back (about enough space for your fingers) and ground down through the back of the hips. This keeps the pelvis level and increases the stretch in the back of the thighs. As you lift one leg, make sure to keep the leg on the floor as engaged as the leg that is stretching; this will increase the stretch and keep you balanced when you open your foot to the side. Give yourself time to open in this pose; this is one you don’t want to rush (as if any of them are), because the more you ease into it, the more length you will get out of your legs.

A combination of the two proceeding poses is Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend). In this position you keep the spine long as in Staff, while stretching the soles of the feet evenly away from you and grounding the backs of the legs as in Hand-To-Big-Toe. Bend at the hip crease, where the thighbone connects to the pelvis, instead of rounding the lower back. There isn’t a lot of forward movement in this stretch, but if it follows Hand-To-Big-Toe, you will notice more length in the back of the legs. If your lower back is flexible, you can eventually let the spine soften and round toward the legs into a more supported stretch.

The front of the thigh (quads) is the focus of Virasana (Hero Pose). Give yourself some help by lifting the sit bones with a folded blanket or block. It is very difficult to actually sit on the floor between the heels and often people let the lower back round in order to do so. Avoid this temptation, and notice how much taller you can sit if you lift your seat a bit. Try to let your exhales release the muscles in the hip joints, which will also let you lengthen the spine.

One last area to focus on is your back. Many of the seated positions require work of the abdominals in the side body to keep the spine aligned, but a little attention to the muscles running along side the spine will prepare you for later twists like Parsvakonasana-(Lateral Angle) or Marichyasana (Seated Twist). Bhujangasana (Cobra) and Salabhasana (Locust) are baby back bends that open the chest while working the back muscles to lift the upper torso and, in the case of Locust, the legs. You can try various modifications to make them easier (using the hands to support the chest in Cobra or keeping the arms to the side in Locust) or harder (crossing the arms at the lower back for Cobra or lifting the arms out to the front in Locust), depending on your target pose.

Take to time to prepare yourself for your later, more challenging poses. The more work you do on the floor, the more confidence you will have when you come to your feet or hands or head (!) in the center of the room. These preparatory poses have their own integrity and, if practiced with a quiet focus, are beneficial even if they don’t lead to something more difficult. Some days you want to shake and sweat; others you just want to quietly extend. And no matter what, always give yourself a few moments for a complete relaxation at the end of your practice so that your body has a chance to recuperate and release. Namaste (said with an enthusiastic exhale, because that was a lot of information to get through!)
©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Secrets of Sequencing...redux

Well, the life of a householder--especially one with two little kids--does not leave much time to blog. Or do anything else. I am starting teaching this week and have been thinking about what sort of classes to prepare after my maternity leave. I went back into the "archives" to see what I said about sequencing last summer, and this is what I found...

Secrets of Sequencing, part One (revised)
One of, if not the, best part of taking a yoga class is letting yourself be lead through a series of poses that progress logically so that by the end of the session your body is completely worked and refreshed. An asana sequence is most successful when it teaches you the various elements of your target pose, but lets each step of the way challenge your body to stretch and open to its fullest. When you reach the peak of the class, your muscles and limbs naturally accept the challenge of the headstand, backbend, etc. because they have been properly prepared.

As you become more familiar with the many of positions in hatha yoga, you will begin to see the connections between them and this will help you develop your home practice. However, until all the Sanskrit names become second nature to you, I want to suggest ways of linking warm-ups and poses so you can start sequencing on your own. Even if you read this blog to get ready-made home practice sequences, you can use this information for a quick “spot stretch” --to loosen a cramped shoulder or stretch a tight calf muscle.

Try and start with a short meditation, or few minutes of focused breathing. This can be while you are standing in Tadasana (Mountain) or sitting comfortably cross-legged in Sukhasana (Easy Pose). Let your mind release, focus on the breath and take some time to align and open the spine.

From the breath and the spine, move your attention into your upper body. Consider what your target pose is going to be and think about what you need to prepare. Backbends and Shoulder Stands need warmed shoulder joints and an open chest. Headstands need energized arms and a long spine. Standing balance poses need a lifted rib cage and squared hips. Evaluate the work of the asana and what muscles are most engaged (what is sore when you finish the pose?) and work backwards to what preparations warm and stretch those parts of the body.

Hastasana (overhead arm stretch) is always a good place to start, because you get the whole torso into the act. The shoulder joints are intensely rotated, the sides of the chest stretch to keep the spine long and the hips have to balance to keep the tailbone pointing to the floor. This stretch can happen while you are standing or in Virasana (Hero), Dandasana (Staff) or Sukhasana. Make sure to keep the neck relaxed, the shoulders away from the ears and breathe evenly.
Another option is using the arm position from Gomukhasana (Cow’s Head). This requires even more rotation in the shoulder joints, while it stretches the triceps in the upper arms and opens the chest. Try to focus on the opening of the shoulder joints and keep the neck and upper back relaxed. Also, keep the spine long and the lower back neutrally curved; it’s easy to arch when you are so focused on the arms. The arm position for Garudasana (Eagle Pose) also opens the shoulders and upper chest, but moves the stretch to the center back as the arms twist at the center front.

If Cow’s Head and Eagle are too pretzel-y for you, the Namaste hand position in back, also opens the chest and rotates the shoulders more gently. Work to deepen the stretch in the armpits by keeping the neck long and stretching the elbows down and back, as you press your palms together behind the shoulder blades. Keep your breath even, but notice the extra stretch you can sneak in by filling the lungs and lifting the rib cage on your inhales. Tricky.

Now the upper body is warm and open. You can come back Sukhasana and notice how you feel, compared to when you started. Store those observations because they will help you remember what stretch affects which muscles. This information is what will help you decide how to sequence your practice.

Next time, I’ll continue onto the hips and legs so you can develop well-rounded sequences. Until then, keep these warm-ups in mind during your next yoga class and notice which ones are echoed in the more difficult poses. And enjoy letting your teacher do the heavy thinking…

[Goodness, I was rather formal last year. You can also check out Yoga Journal's new Sequence Builder on their takes a bit of time to download, but it has good descriptions, pictures and you can share your sequences with other yogis]

Monday, October 01, 2007

On Becoming Yourself...

The Vicomtesse Marie-Laure de Noailles, a French patroness of 1930's Surrealist poets and painters, used to ask new friends the question, "At what age did you become yourself?" (for more on her read this abstract of an article in the September 24 issue of The New Yorker) I think she was doing it to be witty and unpredictable , but I find the question is a fascinating one to mull over. What are the most affecting events of your life and how did they shape the "final" (if there is such a thing) product? Finding a partner? Leaving home? Having kids? Studying yoga?

The last question may seem a bit of a stretch, but I suspect it might have more to do with your answer than you think (I know it does for me). Once you start a regular yoga practice, you start to notice some of the "noise" begins to slip away and you find yourself stronger, less stressed, even happier. I think I became myself around age 32 or 33. I moved to Washington DC from Los Angeles to be closer to my partner (now husband) and began working at the Washington Opera as a costumer. It was the first time in years that I had a steady gig (versus free-lance stuff) and the security of a regular paycheck was very comforting. I also began attending a weekly yoga class with the teacher I eventually trained with. All of these elements combined to make me feel very settled and centered and I think that's when a lot of the grad-school insecurity and unfocused energy of my 20s began to dissipate.

Of course, motherhood means a new phase has started, but a lot of the habits and traits that were established in DC have helped me juggle the challenges of parenthood. The combo of teaching and writing about yoga and chasing little kids around has made me even more focused (you can only get done what really has to get done) and able to let the pesky stuff go ignored. So, I guess you could say I've been "myself" for about 8 years.

How about you...when did you become yourself? Did yoga have anything to do with it? Can you really put a date on something like this? If nothing else, you have an ice-breaker for your next cocktail party...

Monday, September 24, 2007

Getting Back on Track

Well, the babe is officially four weeks old today. Sleeping and eating times seem to be settling into a routine, but I'm still having trouble imagining myself back up at the front of the yoga classroom in three weeks. Despite having practiced (and taught) into the eighth month of the pregnancy, I still feel like I have a ways to go to get back into shape. I've been trying to come up with a good "re-entry" practice that is gentle, but still strength-building, to lead up to a regular series of standing poses, etc. Here's what I've come up with, so far:

Gentle Abdominals
Obviously, everything in my torso is out of wack, so I'm working on sitting poses that require a lengthened spine. Sukhasana (Easy Pose) is an obvious one, but Dandasana (Staff Pose) is proving quite challenging not only to my middle, but also to the fronts of the thighs. Keeping the legs extended and engaged is not so easy and when you add the work required to lift the side ribs and open the chest, there is a lot going on. I try to include Hastasana in both seated poses, to get the shoulders open and engaged.

Chest/ Spine Openers
Although it wasn't a problem during pregnancy, with all the hunching over a wee one, my upper back is killing me. So, I've included some chest openers in my practice to counter my urge to slump forwards. A good pose for this, is Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-The-Wall pose). This is an inverted, more supported version of Staff, with the added bonus of releasing the lower back. I've added a gentle stretch to the backs of the legs by lifting one leg at a time away from the wall (sort of a Supta Pandangustasana --Hand-to-Big-Toe). Stretching the arms overhead engages the shoulders and also opens the chest.

Uttanasa (Intense forward bend) against the wall (feet about a foot or so away, bum resting on the wall, knees soft) is also a nice release for the back and stretches the backs of the legs as well. If I'm feeling especially open, I interlock my arms and let the added weight of the upper body deepen the stretch. A Seated Twist is also a nice way to stretch out the muscles on either side of the spine.

A great opener, but only if I've warmed up with all the others, is to just drape myself--face up--over my exercise ball. At first, I keep my arms at my sides but with each breath I try to move them up and out to the sides, letting the breath open the spine to allow the arm lifting. I also have to work on releasing my neck, but after this stretch I feel especially open and can feel the blood moving around my spine.

In addition to these restorative poses, I've been walking. It feels like I have a long way to go, but hopefully all of this will jog my muscles' memory and things will start coming back together. What about you all--have any of you had to come back to yoga after a long hiatus? What were your favorite poses to ease back with? If you teach, how do you help post-partum (or post-operative, etc) students adjust? I'd love to hear some other ideas for getting back on track...

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Your Ego and Your Teaching

Just a quick link to my latest article for Yoga Journal's My Yoga Mentor newsletter called "Your Ego and Your Teaching." (Check out their new website, especially the "Build Your Own Sequence" feature). The research and the interviews for this piece are what inspired the postings for the last month or so. It was very hard to condense it all into 750 words, so you got some of what I had to leave out. Even if you aren't a yoga teacher, there is some good advice for how to deal with one's inner control freak ("I put that woman down hours ago...").

Also, please be patient with my erratic posting these days. I am trying to juggle the responsibilities of mother-of-two-hood and, although I have a lot of help from my parents right now, I only have about a half an hour every night to do anything non-child related (which is usually taking a shower). Hopefully I'll get it together a bit more in a month or so and be more regular ("Don't hold your breath, sister," laughs all of you out there with two or more kids).


Sunday, September 09, 2007

A Buddhist Thought...

For my three-year old's second birthday, I bought a book called Zen Shorts, by Jon J. Muth because I loved the watercolors. The story is very sweet--about a peaceful panda that moves into a neighborhood--but we never got through the book. Eamonn just wasn't interested in koan-spouting bears. However, lately he has been picking it as an early morning read, so I finally finished it. One of the panda's parables is so appropriate to all my vairagya discussions, I wanted to post it. Since I am one that tends to stew, it is especially useful...

A Heavy Load
Two traveling monks reached a town where there was a young woman waiting to step out of her sedan chair. The rains had made deep puddles and she couldn't step across without spoiling her silken robes. She stood there, looking very cross and impatient. She was scolding her attendants. They had nowhere to place the packages they held for her, so they couldn't help her across the puddle.

The younger monk noticed the woman, said nothing and walked by. The older monk quickly picked her up and put her on his back, transported her across the water, and put her down on the other side. She didn't thank the older man, she just shoved him out of the way and departed.

As they continued on their way, the young monk was brooding and preoccupied. After several hours, unable to hold his silence, he spoke out. "That woman back there was very selfish and rude, but you picked her up on your back and carried her! Then she didn't even thank you!"

"I set the woman down hours ago," the older monk replied. "Why are you still carrying her?"

Monday, September 03, 2007

My New Guru

I've been a bit lax in my posting lately, while I've finished up a project I've been working on for the last nine months. Alexander Scott was born Monday, August 27 at 5:17 in the afternoon. He was a good-sized 20 1/4", 7lb. 14 oz. guy. The delivery was quick and I owe much of the speed to ujayii breathing and the pranayama focus I've been practicing the last few months. That and some good-sized hips.

So, give me a week or so, and I'll be back in the game. Juggling a 3-yr-old and a baby ought to be good for all kinds of yoga thoughts and lessons...

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Have a Look...

As you often hear in an Iyengar class--Have (or Take, depending on your teacher's first language) a Look. I have been reading a few new--to me--yoga blogs and there are several I think you will enjoy. There are some yogis with a nice sense of humor out there! Check them out:

Soul Jerky: YogaDawg-ish irony with lots of interesting links to yoga-related (sorta) articles, nice design
Isha Yoga: a snappy blog, with some very funny observations--most recently about nude yoga
Playin' the Edge: some nice observations about her own practice, quotes and sequencing ideas
Yoga, Dogs and Chocolate: a personal blog with topics ranging from yoga to vacation photos to reading lists
Yoga Buzz: Yoga Journal posts news from the yoga world...some of the discussions get quite heated

Let me know if you have any favorites that we should consider!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

In Remembrance of Things Past...

Maybe I am just torturing myself, but I thought it might be nice to think about Plank and some variations for a few days. I haven't offered much in the way of Yoga Practice lately, and its always good to pay some attention to the core. Of course, I'm not doing anything abdominal right now--or maybe I am only doing abdominal work, depending how you look at it (the Youngster is due in 2 weeks)--but I am looking forward to the future.

Here's a little something to hold you (borrowed from last summer)...for the next post I want to talk about vairagya (non-attachment) again and will be back to more Thoughts.

Variations for Plank Pose

Basic Plank: Set up in Table Pose as you would for Dog; heels of the hands are beneath the shoulders, knees are beneath the hips. From here, straighten the arms and stretch the legs out behind to bring the torso into a straight line from the ankles to the shoulders. Keep the shoulders away from the ears and the neck long. Notice the work in the torso--the abdominals do most of the work in this pose, more than the arms and legs, because they are responsible for keeping the spine long and the torso lifted. If your hips sag, or the body is bent, lower one or both knees to the floor, so that the abs are still engaged, but you can lengthen the back. Try to hold for 5 breaths and work up to 10.

One-Legged Plank: In this version, come into the Basic Plank and then lift one heel. Keep the weight balanced between both hands and stretch out thru the lifted heel. This requires even more work from the torso, so don’t try it if you need do the Basic Plank with one knee on the floor.

Tripod Plank: Make a tripod by interlocking the fingers, bending the elbows and resting the forearms on the floor with the elbows under the shoulders. Then lift the torso and straighten the legs. This version works the upper chest and triceps.

Ball Plank: If you want to take your Plank to an even more challenging level, try it on an exercise ball. Come into the Basic Plank with the legs resting on the ball, and walk your hands forwards until the lower shins and ankles are on the ball, while the shoulders are over the wrists. Notice how you have to engage the side body to keep your balance on the ball—this is in addition to the work that keeps the hips lined up with the legs.
©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Blogging as a Yoga Practice

I’ve been a self-publisher from an early age. In fourth grade I put out a monthly newsletter call Brenda’s Bugle that featured such goodies as book reviews, 4-clue crossword puzzles, some cartoons cribbed from the New Yorker and a contest that my grandmother always won (I knew she wouldn’t collect the prize money—usually a dollar). There was also a two-issue modern dance “magazine” that I forced my sister to subscribe to and a fanzine some friends and I intended to start in high school, but just ended up borrowing some disks from the campus record store with the intension of reviewing them (I wrote the reviews but never got around to printing them…or returning the records).

There were legitimate ventures, as well (journalism wasn’t just a way to scam money from people). In high school I wrote for the school paper and yearbook and even majored in journalism in college, until I decided art history seemed more dignified. So when I decided to start a blog, the writing came quite naturally.

Thank God for Blogger and TypePad and all the rest. I love the potential of each blog and the ease with which one can put together information, upload images and have a nicely laid-out post available to anyone with an internet connection. I appreciate the sense of obligation a blog provides; the discipline required to keep writing when you aren’t getting paid is hard to maintain on your own, but a blog’s audience, even if just a few readers, is enough to keep you on task. It is so great to hear from people out there and know that your musings are being read and thought about (even disagreed with).

Now that I’ve been at this for almost 15 months, I’ve noticed other benefits, as well. Originally my intension was simple; I wanted to provide my students with some additional practice sequences and information. However, trying to post every five days kept me thinking about yoga in my “off hours”—what would make a nice 20 minute sequence, what would be appropriate for the weather, how was something I had recently read applicable. I had to sharpen my descriptions of poses so that I could explain Adho Mukha Svanasana (Down Dog) with only minimal visual information. I also became more aware of how I demonstrated asana, so that my photos would be correct and useful, instead of revealing bad habits. My copy of B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga became even more dog-eared, as I tripled-checked the Sanskrit spelling of poses under discussion.

In a way, this blog has become my yoga journal. Instead of writing for myself, however, I spend a lot of time thinking about how my practice and teaching can be useful and interesting to my readers. I find I get the most response to posts that are “thinky” rather than just a description of a sequence. I hope both are helpful, but it seems that people who read yoga blogs—and respond to them—are interested in the more contemplative parts of the practice. So I contemplate more that I used to and I suspect this is a good thing. It is not quite so inner-directed, but it is very simpatico with the way I like to express my feelings about yoga.

I’ve been talking about journaling lately and so I wanted to draw the act of blogging into the mix. I’m afraid my feelings about private journals are more in line with Kristin’s (see last week’s comments), but I do think the regular exercise of having to write carefully and concisely directly affects the rest of your yoga practice.

So, I’m not holding my breath until some one sends me some yoga books to review or sticky mats to try out—never the intention of this blog, despite my past history. I can’t even think of what an appropriate contest would be (sorry, Grandma). But the benefits to my personal practice and teaching have been far above and beyond what I ever expected. How’s that for a Yoga Thought! ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Witnessing the Voices

Some interesting ideas have come up lately, both from my interviews for the “Ego and Teaching” article and in my readings on Pranayama. In the last couple of posts, I’ve been talking about other yoga practices besides asana, so I’m still thinking about that, too (so have some readers, check out the comments sections to see what Stella, Kristin and Gypsy Girl have offered about their non-asana practice).

The practice of journaling keeps coming up. I’m not a big one for writing about my feelings as a private exercise, but I can see the value of it. Michael Russell, a psychotherapist in Chicago, and Johh Schumacher, an Iyengar teaching in DC, suggest yoga teachers take some time to write about each class, once it is finished, and record the emotions and situations that arose. Richard Rosen, the Pranayama author, also recommends taking a bit of time after your breathing practice to reflect on what “came up.”

All three teachers stress the need to be non-judgmental in your journaling. You don’t want to call anything good or bad; you want to try and be as impartial and observant as possible. You aren’t trying to identify your faults (or praise yourself); you are trying to discover what is going on with your emotions and how they affect your teaching and practice.

Rosen refers to this as “the Witness” and wants you to think of this Observer as a guide and partner. Russell suggests you recognize each of these feelings with the thought “that’s interesting” and see what conclusions you draw from there. Were you agitated during the practice and your mind wandered—why? What is going on outside of yoga that makes your feel that way? Were you sleepy and had to force yourself to practice? Were you really happy and able to clear your mind with very little effort? That’s interesting.

Once you get used to watching yourself think without berating yourself, it becomes much easier to draw conclusions about why you are thinking that way. I find it a huge challenge not to judge or assign value to how I think. I’m very quick to scold myself, even for just not clearing my mind while breathing. I used to joke that my Witness was really my Inner Control Freak. So this is going to be an extremely useful skill to develop, and one that is going to take me a long time to refine.

I especially look forward to using the practice with my teaching. I think we teachers can be very hard on ourselves, because of the responsibility we feel towards our students and their development. I suspect watching yourself as a teacher and seeing what thoughts come up after class could be very useful in helping us mature and gain confidence in the importance of that role. I miss my students a lot, right now, and can’t wait to get back on the mat with them.

Do you journal, whether on paper or just in your thoughts? Do you have any secrets to keeping the practice going? How has it helping you in your work and daily life—or didn’t it? How did you get started? This kind of self-observation is very important to the process of self-acceptance (and non-attachment or vairagya) and is another yoga practice that is quite different than just sweating through a series of asana. Let me know what you’ve learned! ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Ego preview...

Whoa, have I been remiss. The combination of another Yoga Journal deadline looming and my 9th month low energy and resulted in a delay of blog posting. Sorry about that.

This next article—working title “Your Ego and Your Teaching”—has been extremely interesting to research. It’s a very complicated subject and paring it down to 750 words has been rough. During a conversation for an earlier article (“Enliven Your Teaching”) with Iyengar teacher Chris Saudek, she commented that you should practice detachment in your teaching; i.e. not get too emotional or involved with your own issues when dealing with students.

The idea of detachment, or vairagya, gets thrown around a lot. What my sources all emphasized was that it doesn’t mean you should disavow or disown the emotions that come up while teaching, but that you should try and understand them. You don’t want to remove your personality from the classroom, you just want to clear out the personal “stuff” (insecurities, arrogance, anger, etc.). A noble, but tricky proposition.

This all goes along with my current yoga-is-not-just-asana kick. So I have a lot more to say about expanding your yoga practice, but I need to do a bit more thinking. On Monday I'll start sharing these reflections.

Have a great weekend!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Practicing Yoga

It’s important to remember that yoga is not asana…although the other way around is true. Of course, depending how you use it, asana may be the only part of the eight-limbs of yoga that you have time or interest in. (For a basic, easy-to-understand description of these limbs, read B.K.S. Iyengar’s Tree of Yoga) Most Western students get completely involved in the physical aspects of yoga—refining their poses, building their strength, challenging themselves with more difficult and demanding sequences—but I think they miss out the greatest value of yoga if they take this approach.

To my understanding, what is really important about yoga is how it affects your psyche. Asana helps move the process of deeper understanding and self-acceptance along, but it is only one part of a much bigger system. You don’t want to get so absorbed in achieving the perfect backbend drop-back or lengthy headstand, that you miss the subtle, and in my mind, more demanding practice, involved in pranayama (breath work) and pratyahara (turning the perception inward) and even in observing some of the yamas and niyamas (behavior modification).

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because my asana practice is taking a big hit during this third trimester. Standing on my feet longer than 10 minutes is very uncomfortable and most twists, inversions or strength poses are either contraindicated or simply impossible. I know there are ways to modify a lot of asana, but most of the adapted poses aren’t really helping me right now. I kept thinking, “This stinks, how am I supposed to prepare physically for the big marathon at the end of August without my yoga practice!” (I am in love with swimming, tho…lose 40 lbs. in 2 minutes!)

I realized I needed to rethink what constitutes “practice.” As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been doing a lot of pranayama lately. The more I focus on clearing my mind and concentrating on the breath, the more I realize how useful this type of work is, both physically and mentally. You hear about the “mind-body connection” in reference to yoga, and it is very obvious when working on your breathing. As I settle into Supta Baddha Konasana, I can bring myself into a quiet, contemplative place quite quickly and can get my inhales and exhales to smooth and deepen within the first five minutes. I can feel the aches in my joints dissipate, the tightness in my ligaments soften and my circulation in my feet improve as I relax. The “fluctuations of the mind” (what pranayama is suppose to control) still flutuate a lot, but it’s getting a bit easier to concentrate.

If you beat yourself up about not finding time to practice asana, remember that you can still do yoga. There is a lot more to it than Sun Salutations and Down Dog. The physical practice is just one part of a series of “exercises” you can do to get yourself centered and calm. Try to incorporate some of the other limbs into your week and notice if they don’t make the asana practice that much more effective and useful. I am really curious to see how my postures have changed, once I get back on the mat.

Do you agree? Have you tried to work on the other limbs of yoga? What does practicing yoga mean to you? My ears (and comments page) are always open…©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved

Monday, July 16, 2007

Some Prenatal Thoughts (and Practice)…

Last week, Jim and I went to our first Birth Refresher course (as if we’d forget how to do this), to brush up on all the various pain-relievers/positions/stages of labor/etc. All good information to have but, man, I’m not really looking forward to the process. At the end of class, the teacher whipped out a relaxation tape and had the moms-to-be lie on the floor and work on relaxing, while our poor coaches had to crouch uncomfortably nearby and be soothing. Jim was a trooper, although he was making me laugh because the Velcro on his Tevas kept sticking to the floor and making a loud ripping noise every time he moved, not the most soothing sound.

I got into my fave relaxation pose, Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclined Bound Angle) on a wedge and did my hardest to ignore the tape. Maybe new age-y music and a narrator with a fake British accent (“Imagine yourself on a PAH-th in the forest, WOK-ing towards a pool of WAH-tah…”) is calming to some, but I thought it was supremely irritating. Silence as a Teaching Tool, indeed.

However, it did feel great to spend some time turning inward. I decided it’s time to get out Richard Rosen’s The Yoga of Breath; a Step-by-Step Guide to Pranayama, and start working on my relaxation skills. The book is down-to-earth and Rosen is very clear about how to establish and maintain and strong Pranayama practice. I think it is extremely difficult to just focus on your breath, but it is such a calming, healing process and really deepens your asana work when you put the two together. I am going to need some strong focusing-skills come August 30 (or sooner, hopefully).

Here is one of my favorite exercises:
Supta Baddha Konasana and Circular Breathing

Place a couple of blankets folded into a long tube, a wedge, or a bolster at the base of your spine, so that you can lie down on it with your hips lower than your shoulders. Bring your feet into Bound Angle Pose (soles of the feet together, knees bent) and loop your belt around the backs of the hips and over the outside edge of the feet. Lower yourself onto the blankets, etc. and tighten or loosen the belt so that you are stretching the hip joints, but not so much that the knees are popping up. Take some time to get really comfortable in this position so you can focus on the breath.

Once your breath has steadied, you can turn your attention inward. Begin to observe the breath—how long the inhales/exhales are, if they are different lengths, how long you pause between them. Slowly count the length of each, and try to make them the same count (usually the inhale is a bit faster). When you have done a few cycles of similar length, try to eliminate the pause. This will be much easier at the end of the inhale, because the relaxing chest muscles will automatically start the exhale. Imagine your breath as an oval, with the curves being the transition between in and out. Try to breathe while smoothing around those curves so air is constantly entering and leaving the lungs.

Keep the circular (ovular?) breathing going for a while, but not for much longer than 10-15 minutes. Give a big cleansing sigh, and let your breath return to normal. Stay in the pose as long as you like and then slowly remove the belt and return to sitting. ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Magnificent Wrist

June 26’s New York Times Science section had a fascinating article about evolution and how it affects genetic development. It discussed research on how fins evolved into wrists (or ankles), so that fish could begin to walk on land. I hadn’t spent much time thinking about wrists and their crucial role in facilitating terrestrial movement—altho I guess if you’ve ever broken that joint, you’ve been keenly aware of the role that joint plays.

So, I did some reading. The wrist is an impressive mechanism with a wide range of movement that assists the hands in doing all of their complex tasks. The joint is made up of the two big bones of the forearm (radius and ulna) and a group of smaller bones called the carpals. It is easy to foul up this part of the skeletal system, because its purpose is primarily motion rather than weight-bearing. And yet, we ask this joint to take a lot of stress in most of the inverted yoga positions and arm balances.

It’s important to be aware of the fragile nature of this crucial set of bones, tendons, and ligaments when practicing yoga. Strengthening the wrists is really strengthening the muscles of the forearms (flexors and extensors). You can make your hands stronger and more flexible by working with the fingers (ever had a massage from a potter? ouch!), but it is your arms, chest and abdominals that lift and support the torso in inversions and the wrists and hands are merely the base.

Listen to what your wrists are telling you. Just because they have wide range of motion, doesn’t mean you should twist or bend them as far as they will go. Try to keep the rotation of the forearm neutral when you are pressing onto the hands (inner elbows face each other, not forwards or back). Don’t force the angle of forearm to wrist past 90 degrees, and if you can open the joint even more than that, all the better.

If it hurts to press the palm flat in inversions, try increasing the angle of the wrist with a prop. A foam wedge, or even a rolled blanket under the heel of the hand, can relieve some of the pressure on the wrist and make Adho/Urdha Mukha Svanasana (Down/ Up Dog) or Plank Pose more comfortable; you can lengthen the arms and straighten the elbows more if you aren’t trying to accommodate for a sharp angle at the wrist. Many arm balances are easier if you lift yourself up on blocks, with the fingers curled over the edge. I find that I can balance more solidly on the palm of my hand in Bakasana (Crane) if the fingers aren’t stretched flat on the floor.

I’ve been in some classes where people wear wrist braces to protect themselves. I wonder about the wisdom of continuing a practice that can cause such violence to this important joint. Arm balances are such beautiful poses, but they can be very damaging and need to be practiced with great caution. Don’t force a pose on your wrists. Their delicate mechanism takes a long time to heal so if you do injure yourself, all inversions will be out-of-reach for a while, even the less challenging ones.

Think of those ancient creatures slapping their fins onto a rock to get out of the ooze and appreciate the marvel at the end of your arm. Anyway, you don’t want to be on Down Dog restriction, do you? ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved

P.S. If you haven't already, check out the comments from the last two postings. There are some really interesting thoughts from teachers and students about their preferences in yoga instructors. Look at their blogs, too, you might find a good recipe for granola!

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Reading the Classroom (part two)

Once you’ve been teaching yoga for a while (or anything, for that matter) I wonder if you can ever go back to being “just” a student. Whenever I attend a class or workshop, I find myself watching how the instructor deals with teaching issues, as well as simply participating in the practice. What modifications does s/he offer for Adho Mukha Svanasana (Down Dog)? What guidance does s/he give during Savasana (Corpse)? How does s/he deal with some one who refuses any suggested adjustments? I try to focus on my own practice but being in a class means interacting with a variety of students and I can’t ignore how other people are processing the information the teacher presents.

When I write a lesson plan, I try to imagine how the class will unfold for my students. Where will they need more instruction? Who will have difficulty with certain poses and needs a specific modification? I try to remember my student-only days and think about what made a class the most beneficial for me. I find a combination of words and action—and I’m not sure I could actually say how to create this combination—made the various asana come alive to me both physically and mentally.

I think the most important thing to me, as a student, is sensing that the teacher is tuned-in to the dynamics of the classroom. I want to feel as if s/he is watching how the instruction is being followed; if there needs to be more explanation; if we are getting the benefits of the pose or need to be adjusted; if s/he is willing to adapt the lesson plan to fit the needs of this particular group of students. I want a class to have a plan, but I want that plan to be organic so it can change if it needs to and the teacher is comfortable with going “off book.” And I like surprises: for instance, if the teacher sequences asana in an unexpected way that makes me experience the asana differently than I have before.

I also place high value on a sense of humor, a soothing voice and a deep level of understanding. Although it probably isn’t fair, I want my teacher to have more experience than I do with yoga. I’m not sure I would be happy with a teacher that was significantly younger than me (check out this New York Times article on the subject). I have never been in a class where youth and inexperience factor was an issue, but I’m pretty sure I would be skeptical…

What if your class and teacher are close to your ideal, but not quite? Pat asked last week about getting a teacher to talk less…I’ve been mulling the question, because I think it’s a good one. As a teacher, I want to know if some one is having trouble in the class and if I could do something to help them. As a student, I’m not sure I’d have the guts to comment of such a personal element of the class (good Midwesterner that I am)—especially if it seemed like the teacher was proud of his/her style of explanation. Maybe you could suggest a different approach to the teacher as something the class might try (adding a silent meditation? doing a class without music?) or ask if there are
quieter classes at your studio. I usually vote with my feet, if a class bothers me, but I’m not sure that is the most constructive solution.

What have any of you dear readers tried? How do those of you that teach prefer to get feedback? What do you all think are good/bad traits of a teachers (I realize it’s a personal preference, but I’m curious to hear what students value)? I’ve bared my soul (sort of) about what I like in a yoga class, now let me hear from you. ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Reading the Classroom (part one)

Wow, what a great response I received from the YJ article. I got a lot of hits over the past 5 days and quite a few nice comments, as well. It seems the concept of silence really hit a nerve with the yoga crowd, both teachers and practitioners. Instead of responding individually to the various comments, I've been inspired to write a bit about communication in the yoga classroom...partially in response to Pat's query, but also because I thought it might generate some interesting discussion about how teachers figure out what their students want/need and how students convey those desires.

I started my teacher training because, as a long-time student of yoga, I wanted to help people discover how energizing and useful it was as a practice. I had had so many good experiences both mentally and physically with the discipline that I wanted to share those discoveries. My own teacher's approach was based in Iyengar and was so common-sense and approachable and I wanted people to see that yoga was necessarily a bunch of turbaned pretzel-people chanting loudly and cleaning their noses out with string (altho if that is what you want, you certainly can find it), but a healing, sustainable practice available to everyone.

To that end, I try to be hyper-aware of whether my students are getting the benefits of the class and enjoying it, and try to check-in regularly to see if my assessment is correct. I can do some of this is just by watching faces during the practice; are people grimacing and tense or nodding, smiling, and closing their eyes peacefully as we hold a pose? I also watch bodies; are they in the pose correctly and attempting the adjustments I suggest or do they seem static or unengaged? At the end of class do people seem happy and relaxed or do they scuttle out of the studio as fast as possible, never to be seen again?

I also try more aggressive tactics, just to be sure. I pass out comments sheets towards the end of a session, with questions about likes/dislikes and even specifics about music, poses and commentary so that people have an anonymous way to communicate with me and, hopefully, feel they can be honest if something is bothering them. I encourage people to come early or stay late if they need to discuss something privately (especially if they have health concerns they'd rather not share with the class). I even have asked students directly how the class is working for them, but usually just if some one seems rather shy or is new--I don't want to put him/her on the spot, but want to offer a chance to say something if s/he seems reluctant to talk in front of my "regulars".

Some times I wonder if I may be a bit too concerned about my students' response to the material, instead of just letting the practice just speak for itself. However, I'd rather make sure some one is getting the experience I hope for them, instead of just throwing information out there and seeing if anything sticks. It is hard not to take a student's bad experience personally, even if they obviously just need a different kind of yoga, but I suppose that is something you get used to with more and more teaching experience. The whole point of asking for comments is to get them...the negative ones can be the biggest teaching tools.

If you are a teacher and wonder what effect your teaching has, maybe some of these ideas will help. Or, maybe you have some good suggestions for keeping the lines of communication flowing. For my next post, I'm want to take the student's side and turn the discussion around. Let me know what you think! ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

More Silence

In keeping with the Silence theme, I wanted to post a link to my latest article in Yoga Journal's My Yoga Mentor newsletter, "Silence as a Teaching Tool." It's geared to yoga teachers, rather than practitioners, but I think there are some good comments about incorporating more quiet into your life. I am definitely one to talk rather than be silent, so there was a lot of food for thought from these interviews. Hope you find something useful in it!

Friday, June 22, 2007

Silence as a Living Tool

I’ve been editing another article for Yoga Journal’s My Yoga Mentor newsletter; this one is titled “Silence as a Teaching Tool.” It talks about the importance of including quiet in a yoga class so that students have time to experience the poses without a lot of external distraction. I interviewed Cyndi Lee, Rama Berch and Joan White. Each had many interesting things to say and I had to cut a lot out of my initial story so it was short enough.

I think the theme of the article is a good one for everyday life, as well. All three teachers emphasized the need to decompress after a day full of sirens, car horns, yakking strangers (and familiars) and just the general noise of life. They also pointed out that it can be very scary to be quiet, because then it is just you and your thoughts, without any distractions.

Joan White asked the rhetorical question, “Why do you need to fill the space with talk?”—which I think is an astute observation. What is so threatening about just being quiet? Why do people need to turn on the TV or music as soon as they walk into a quiet house? When there are lulls in the conversation, does some body always jump in to fill the space (well, at a cocktail party, yes, but what about a chat between close friends)? Even music during yoga practice can be distracting, if you are trying to go really deep.

My suggestion is to try and include a bit more silence into your everyday life—even just 15 or 20 mins. a day. I think it’s healthy to confront the voices in your head (or, even better, learn how to turn them off) and just let the natural sounds of your environment be your accompaniment. I suspect it will improve your power of concentration and should give you a nice sense of peace. You may notice something about your world, or yourself, that you hadn’t noticed when it was hidden by all the noise. It’s not easy—and I’ve been working on it for awhile (especially the quieting the voices, part)—but it is a worthwhile endeavor. Let me know how it goes and if you have any suggestions! ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved