Monday, February 26, 2007

Learning from a Corpse

No, I’m not going to enthuse about C.S.I. or, for you older yogis, Quincy. Today, I’m going to talk about what you can learn about yourself when relaxing in the final pose of a yoga class, Savasana (Corpse Pose). During interviews for my recent Yoga Journal article, I asked experienced teachers how yoga instructors could gauge if their class was successful. Several of them noted that the true sign of a good class was if the students were relaxed and quiet during Corpse.

The more I thought about it, the more it made sense...the power of yoga is how it creates a sense of calm and well-being in the practitioner, no matter how energetic the sequence. This calm is evidenced by how much you can let go during the final relaxation. A teacher needs to watch for agitated movement, clenched fingers or toes, fluttering eyelids—basically signs that the students cannot release their muscles, even in a quiet, soothing environment. That means the work of the class was not calming and the teacher needs to find a way to help the students relax. Or, even if the students appear to be relaxed, their minds are still racing and the students, themselves, have to figure out how to quiet their thoughts.

I think Savasana is one of the hardest poses to do, because it is so difficult to completely let go and just “be in the moment.” Here are some suggestions on how to relax the body and, once the muscles are released, to still the mind.

-Start with the body. This is not meditation, so you aren’t trying to alter your consciousness; you are trying to get the muscles in the body to relax and soften, so concentrate on the smallest and move to the largest. Start with the fingers and toes, which have the fewest motor neurons and, as a result, are the easiest to release. Then move up the legs and arms to the hips and shoulder and finally into the torso. The postural muscles (abdominals and back) are some of the most complex and it is much harder to release contracted muscles here, especially because the contraction may be habitual if this is where your store your stress, (i.e. upper shoulders, lower back).

-Stay focused on the muscles. It takes a lot of concentration to relax the muscles and keep them relaxed, so work on maintaining a released state. Sense the softening of your body with each exhale and imagine yourself sinking into the floor. Keep deepening the “melting” feeling, so each breath contributes to your continued relaxation.

-Stay in the moment. For me, it is hardest to quiet and release the mind. As the body relaxes, the mind wants to keep working so you have to shut it off or, at least, slow it down. Sometimes just repeating a simple phrase is enough: “Air comes in, air goes out,” with each breath, for example. Or visualize a scene that will keep the mind focused on the moment: clouds moving by in the sky or water passing over pebbles in a stream. Corpse is meant to be an “active” relaxation, so you want to stay present and aware, not distracted with the mind wandering.

-Do Savasana regularly. Being able to relax, but not fall asleep or zone out takes practice. But, once you figure out how to get your muscles to release and your mind to empty, you’ve got a powerful tool to help yourself stay calm and reduce stress. In a pinch, I’ve found being able to just “be” for 10 minutes is almost as good as a nap in terms of revitalization (almost).

Work on this during your next practice. See if you can get to that place where the body is completely soft and the mind is conscious, but not working. And if it’s really difficult, notice why that is. Being aware of where you are tense and can’t relax will give you a place to focus on next time (maybe by including some poses that target that area). Collect your clues and crack this case! ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Cow’s Head Sequence

Sorry for the silence. I’ve been working on another article for Yoga Journal’s newsletter for teachers and I got bogged down in my rewrites. I’ll let you know when “Enliven Your Teaching: from Routine to Animated” gets posted (March 28 or so).

So I’ve been hunched over a desk for the past week--time to open the shoulder and get the blood flowing into the hips and legs. Here’s a sequence using Gomukhasana (Cow’s Head Pose) we worked on last time:

Gomukhasana Sequence

-Sukhasana (Easy Pose) Sit in a comfortable, cross-legged position with the sitbones on a folded blanket. Increase the height of the blanket if you can’t sit without rounding the lower back. Take a few minutes to really concentrated on balancing the pelvis and lengthening the spine.
-Virasana + Namaste
(Hero Pose with Namaste hands in back) Lower your hips between your ankles (or onto a block), trying to keep the knees together. Keep the lower spine long and make sure the tailbone points down. Try to hold the pose for awhile and, if you can, lower your hips closer to the floor to deepen the stretch. This may work better with a folded blanket than a block under the hips. Bring the hands behind the back and either cross the arms at the lower back or bring the hands to the prayer position.
-Right Angle pose at wall Stand with the hands against the wall, even with the shoulders, and the step the feet back until your head, arms and side ribs are in a straight line. Press the finger tips to the wall as you stretch your sit bones back to lengthen the sides of the torso. To deepen the rotation of the shoulders, relax the upper back and let the head hang between the arms.
(Triangle Pose) Feet are grounded evenly (right toes to the side, left slightly off-center), the hips are square, the tailbone points down and the side ribs lengthen. As you start to lean to the side, begin the twist low in the back and then move it to the chest and shoulders. The arms stretch away from each other as you lower to the shin or thigh. Finally, the head turns to look at the ceiling as you keep your neck long. Switch sides.
-Garudasana (Eagle Pose) Bend the elbows and lift them to be even with the shoulders. Cross the left elbow over the right and center the elbows with your breast bone. Without hunching the shoulders, interlock the palms. If you can't do this with out hunching, rest the palms on the shoulders or try and grab the right pinky with the left thumb. Repeat with right elbow over left.
-Uttanasana (Intense Forward Bend) Fold from the hips while stretching through the backs of the legs. Keep the weight balanced between the balls and heels of the feet.
-Gomukhasana (Cow’s Head Pose) See last week’s blog.
-Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclined Bound Angle) Loop your belt around your hips and over the sides of the feet, as you draw the heels towards the pelvis. Gently lower yourself to the floor or a folded blanket and loosen or tighten the belt so the knees can open towards the floor. Stay as long as you like.
-Savasana (Corpse Pose) Try to let everything completely release in this final relaxation.
©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Cow’s Head or Cow’s Face Pose

Unless you’re one of the lucky ones in southern climes, you will agree that this past week has been rather challenging weather-wise. Here in Wisconsin we are getting “highs” of -2 and -4. I think there should be a rule about what meteorologists can call high…anything under 5 is not. We’ve been bundled up to the eyes so as not to expose skin to instant-frostbite and even in class we’re shuffling around with long johns and sweatshirt to stay warm. Nuts, I say.

All this shuffling and bundling is usually paired with hunching over. It’s warmer and there is less of you to catch a passing arctic blast. But it also leads to a sore neck and upper shoulders and throws the spine out of whack. A cure-all for this February Hunch is the pose Gomukhasana or Cow’s Head Pose. The full pose is very twisty and yoga looking, but if you want to skip the legs because of tight hips or knees, the arms are accessible to almost everyone if you have a belt.

Like Trikonasana (Triangle), there is a lot going on in all the joints and each side twists a slightly different way from the other. This means the synovial fluid in the joints is getting squeezed all around its cavity and blood flow is increased in the area to aid in the lubrication of the muscles. It’s not a particularly relaxing pose, or even all that comfortable, but it is very, very beneficial. Give it a try after you get unwrapped.

Gomukhasana (Cow’s Head Pose)
1. If you are doing the whole pose, start with the legs. Make sure you have a folded blanket to sit on, to lift the hips off the floor and sit with the sitbones on the blanket and backs of the thighs off. Come to Dandasana (Staff Pose), with the legs straight in front of you. Then bend the left knee and draw the left heel towards the right hip. Bend the right knee and cross that leg over the left so the right heel is at the left hip. Line the knees up with each other and then with the center of the torso. If you need to loosen the cross a bit, the heels can come a bit forward and the knees don’t have to stack.
-However, no matter what you do with your legs, make sure you can align and lengthen the spine. If your back is hunched over or rounded, come to Sukhasana (Easy Pose) so that your hips and lower back can release.

2. Place your belt over your right shoulder. Now stretch the right hand toward the ceiling and rotate it in the socket so your elbow is facing forwards. Bend the right arm and reach that hand towards your shoulder blades. Give the right triceps a gentle stretch by pressing on the right elbow with your left hand. Take hold of the belt with your right hand.

3. Bend the left elbow along side the body and reach up the back to take hold of the belt, or, if you have flexible shoulders, the right hand. When you adjust the hands, make sure they are lined up with your spine. Then check the alignment of the spine; its easy to start slouching when your are focusing so much on the upper body.

4. As you hold the pose, try to relax the shoulder and hip joints. Keep the spine long. Try to gently press the elbows back and slightly closer to the center. Breathe deeply and evenly. Then carefully release and uncross the limbs and repeat to the other side. If you do this in front of a mirror, you will see the cow’s head: your crossed knees are the lips, your chest the eyes and your elbows a couple of flopped ears. Mooo! ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Revolved Head-to-Knee Podcast

Okay, here's the first official podcast for you to try...37 minutes (to be exact) of yoga, based on the practice I posted this weekend. Be patient, because it will take a little while to download (maybe 10-15min.s). It's a medium-sized podcast--34MB--so if you're downloading it to your iPod, make sure you have room.

Please let me know what you think. I'm still a novice at this and can use whatever constructive criticism you have to offer. Enjoy!

Revolved Head-to-Knee Podcast

Friday, February 02, 2007

Podcast Sequence

So, I hope those of you who downloaded the Down Dog podcast enjoyed it. It took awhile to put together, but now I know what I am doing (mostly). Here’s my idea: I will post a sequence with directions and pictures, so you can see what I am going to “teach” and will follow up a few days later with a corresponding podcast. This way you can have an image in your mind during practice, but don’t have to crane your next or mess up your alignment to see the screen.

Since I’m on a Parivrtta Janu-Sirsasana kick, let’s do a series of poses that naturally lead to Revolved Head-to-Knee. It is a very intense twist and forward bend, so it requires some preparation.

1. Sukhasana (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 rolling forward or back.

2. Dandasana + 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.

3. Seated Twist Come back to Easy Pose and check your alignment. Starting with the lower back, start twisting gently to the right, then move the twist into the rib cage then the shoulders. Change the cross of the legs and repeat to the left.

4. Padangusthasana (Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)-Lie on your back and breathe deeply into the back of the legs as you draw your right foot towards you with the belt and press the back of the left thigh to the floor. Try to keep the pelvis balanced (there will be a small curve at the lower back). Lower the leg to the side and rest the thigh on a block so you can concentrate on opening the hip joint instead of tipping over. Bring the leg back to center and lower. Repeat on the other side.

5. Upavistha Konasana (Seated Wide-Angle Pose) 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.

6. Parivrtta Janu-Sirsasana (Revolved Head-to-Knee Pose) See Saturday’s post.

7. Supported Forward Bend Sit with the legs in Staff pose under a chair or stool. Relax the upper body onto the support of the chair and breathe into the stretch in the backs of the legs. Try to keep releasing the legs in this comfortable position and maybe you can fold further forwards.

8. Savasana (Corpse Pose) Extend onto the floor and try and keep your legs and hips totally relaxed. Hold for as long as you like.

Talk to (at?) you soon!©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved.