Monday, May 21, 2007

More Adjusting (Attitudes and Bodies)

Sunday morning of the conference, we had a session with David Swenson on “Safe Adjustments.” David is one of the foremost teachers of Ashtanga-style yoga in this country. Ashtanga requires a very strong upper body (and resilient wrists) and is often practiced with an athletic series of Sun Salutes that uses jumps between each pose and a lot of challenging work in the upper arms. Again, a better style for younger, more flexible bodies—and was actually developed by K. Pattabhi Jois for energetic teenage boys—but is very popular because of the work-out it provides and, I assume, for the focus it requires.

As with Ana Forrest’s class, I wasn’t expecting to be able to do much of the work--not that my Chaturanga Dandasana has ever been that impressive--but I figured I’d see what he had to say. He was such a refreshing presenter! His discussion was funny and laid-back and he never proselytized. He was very upfront about Ashtanga and said (I’m paraphrasing, a bit), “I don’t think Ashtanga is necessarily the best yoga out there, but I do it because I happen like it the best of all.” How pleasant to not get a brow-beating about what’s wrong with the other approaches or complaints about other teachers’ egos. He was rangy and bouncy--sort of like Tigger--and used his body to demonstrate common mistakes in basic poses that had us all laughing (for example, keeping the neck stiff and lifting the head above the arms in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Down Dog)—solved by having the student bend his/her knees to release the lower back and allow more rotation in the shoulders).

I’m still a bit leery of Ashtanga (and I read about a lot of practitioners who have to stop because of injuries), but I really enjoyed David’s manner. His information was good and we did a lot of partnering, which is always useful for teachers to get some practice on a real body. Some of the adjustments were a bit advanced, and I’d hesitate to do much with many of my students’ Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangles). However, the session put everyone in a good mood as we were all starting to get a bit tired at that point. I appreciated the feeling that he was merely imparting some useful information, rather than trying to sell us a line. And, believe me, there was a lot of “line-selling” that weekend.
©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved

**On a more tropical note, I’m off to Maui tomorrow, for a vacation and one (four!) last plane trip before I’m grounded for the rest of the summer. I’m going to try and post a few ideas for pregnancy modifications, unless the spirit of aloha moves me to write something else. We’ll have a computer with us, but I’m not sure how much internet access we will have. It seems like everyone is online over there, tho, so I don’t think it will be a problem. Catch you from the Pacific!**

Friday, May 18, 2007

Attitude Adjustment

At Yoga Journal’s Lake Geneva Conference a few weeks ago, I attended the Teaching Intensive, which ran from Friday to Sunday. We spent 6 three-hour sessions with various well-known teachers, who shared their philosophies and approaches to the discipline, and their frustrations with those who teach it. They all have an overwhelming concern (not necessarily unfounded) with the state of teacher training—3-day certification courses, yoga being presented as “therapeutic” by inexperienced teachers, dangerous adjustments and so on. Some were quick to push their training programs and distributed flyers, other were content to let their demonstrations do the recruiting.

Having trained with an Iyengar-influenced teacher and mostly studied that style of slow yoga, with its careful attention to alignment and proper positioning, I have always been skeptical of the hot, athletic yogas. I figured that was for sweaty 20-yr olds, or show-offs who were mostly interested in displaying their upper-body strength. I’m sure some jealously was involved, but I dismissed it as a lot of unsustainable kids’ stuff that wasn’t really worth serious consideration.

So, it was with great skepticism that I arrived for the morning session with Ana Forrest, “Therapeutic Backbends.” Forrest Yoga requires a lot of upper-body strength and Ana, herself, often gives controversial demonstrations at conferences that involve complicated twists and wraps and arm balances not often seen outside of Cirque du Soleil. She and her sleek assistants arrived en masse, several with wrist braces (Gary Krasftsow often wondered what the point of doing yoga was, if the practitioners repeatedly injure themselves) to begin our session.

I was ready to do a lot of observing, since there is little in the backbend world that will serve some one whose expecting—most of those asana are contraindicated for pregnancy because of the stretching and contracting of the abdominals. I discussed my situation with Ana, so she was aware, and she alerted her assistants. Much to my surprise (and a bit, my embarrassment) they all were extremely attentive and made sure I always had an alternative pose to do with similar effects as the rest of the room’s work. Some of their directions were a bit goofy; one girl kept encouraging me to fill my lungs to make room for the baby—tricky to do, when said baby is squashed up against my diaphragm—but mostly they were gentle and careful.

I felt as if I was getting a personal class—which was great, although I hope the rest of the students didn’t resent the attention. That is always a possibility if you have a special needs student, but I also figured it was good for all these teachers to see modifications for pregnancy. By the end of the three hours I felt a great openness and length through my torso, and no sense of having overdone anything. Baby X was kicking away (with all that new room ?!?!) and I had a newfound respect for Ana and her students. I would be interested to see how she modifies some of her more aggressive arm balances for weaker students, but never felt left out of the practice. Some much for sweaty kids’ stuff.

Here are a couple of the preparatory poses that we did that are wonderful ways to create awareness and openness:

Individual Finger Stretch
This would be great after a long day of using your hands and really increases the circulation in the forearms. Sitting in Sukhasana (Easy Pose), extend one arm with the palm out and, one at a time, take hold of a finger with the other hand and gently pull it towards you. For the thumb, turn the stretching hand palm up and press the back of the other hand to it. Then reach the fingers up and grab the stretching thumb and pull it towards you. Repeat on the other hand.

Neck Stretch Realign yourself in Easy Pose and then reach the right arm out and tuck it, palm down, under the right hip. Place the left hand on top of the head and let the weight of the hand and arm gently pull your head toward the left shoulder, stretching the side of the neck out. The right arm under the hip will serve as a counter-stretch to really open up the neck. Let the head come slightly forward, still with the left hand on it. Then come forward a bit more, but still not to the center, and notice how the stretch moves into the back of the neck and upper shoulders. Release the head at the center and then, using the left hand on the forehead, gently press the head upright. Repeat on the other side. ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Opening Comments...

I’m a little side-tracked with my next Yoga Mentor article right now (“Silence as a Teaching Tool”), but I wanted to post a few of my observations from the Yoga Journal conference that I went to last weekend in Lake Geneva, WI.

I attended a special teachers’ intensive that was three days of three-hr.s sessions with such yoga stars as Gary Kraftsow, Ana Forrest, Aadil Palkhivala, David Swenson and Rodney Yee. We were about 50 teachers, crammed mat-to-mat in a generic conference room, but the energy was good, the intentions were genuine and I think everyone learned a lot. I got the sense that we all were a bit startled by the contradictions between the various experienced teachers—either sniping about other styles or approaches or how to set up and adjust poses, but that stuff, in itself, was educational. I have a lot more to say about that.

There were a variety of free events, including a number of panel discussions. I attended a couple, one on “Why do We Teach Yoga” and “Is Yoga a Religion.” Again, a lot of food for thought and a lot of, uh, debate. What’s with these advanced teachers and their need to be right? Maybe they were picked especially for the panels, because it was known that they would make challenging comments and mix it up a bit. It was a bit disconcerting, but it was good to hear a variety of opinions and to think about the questions that they inspired.

I also have some thoughts about my own experience with the sessions and the sequences--from the perspective of a pregnant woman. Yeah, that’s right, I’m about 6 months along and due at the end of August. I’ve been recycling a lot of my old pose-pictures, but I think it's time to bring this element into the blog; some of you out there may be expecting, too, or dealing with moms-to-be.

Being a “special population” at the conference gave me a lot of perspective on how teachers deal with unexpected “problem” students. Some were great and kept me busy, even if I can’t do a full-blown paschimottanasa (seated forward bend) any more; others just looked at me and shrugged as if to say, “your condition is not my problem.” Luckily, I know a variety of modifications I can do for most poses…but what if I was a beginning student and figured Navasana (Boat Pose) might be a good way to build strength (not for some one who’s expecting, too much contracting in already stretched-to-the-limits abdominals)?

So, this is something of a preview for the next few weeks. I have a lot of things I’m mulling right now, and I think writing about them will help me clarify what I think. Plus, I’m interested to see how the rest of you respond to this information. Yoga is at a very interesting place right now, in our culture. As more people start to take classes and realize the benefits and as more study is done by scientists to unlock how these benefits manifest themselves, I think the discipline and how it is taught is going to change. I think it’s fascinating to be in on the discussion and I hope you do too.

Mas tarde…

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Forward Bends, redux

This week in class we’ve been working on forward bends. I wrote about this group of poses back in March, emphasizing the actions of the pelvis and hip joints and the flexibility in the legs and lower back. You should also be aware of the role of the spine in all of this hinging and folding. Try to do the following series, but really focus on lengthening the spine before you begin to bend. As you lift the top of the head up and ground into the sit bones, you will feel the side ribs lengthen and the lower back open. This increased space, especially in the lumbar spine, will allow the pelvis to tip farther forwards and deepen the fold at the hip crease.

It may not be a dramatic increase (who’s judging, right?), but you are trying to create space and with space comes awareness. Move slowly into the poses. Hold each stage for a few breaths, deepen on an exhale and then hold a bit longer. All the while, stretch up through the top of the head instead of pressing forward with the belly button. Let gravity and the weight of your torso initiate the fold.

This weekend I am going to be in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin for Yoga Journal’s spring conference. I am attending the sessions especially for teachers, so I should come back with all sorts of ideas of deepening your practice. I am also doing a couple of interviews for my next article, Silence as a Teaching Tool, with Rama Berch and Cyndi Lee. I imagine that ought to provide some food for thought, as well. So, lengthen, fold and stay tuned!

Forward Bends
(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. Stretch the arms overhead to feel the lift in the side ribs, and then lower the arm but keep lifting in the side body.

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. After your initial stretch, begin to fold forward from the hips; keep the arms long and the side ribs lifted. Lead with the belly button as you lengthen the backs keep stretching the spine and notice if the fold deepens. Sit up and relax the legs.

Upavistha Konasana Fold your blanket into thirds, so you have a higher base for the sit bones. Spread the legs to either side, but not so wide that you can’t keep the knees and toes pointing to the ceiling. Lengthen the backs of the legs as you press the soles of the feet away, like Staff Pose. Stretch the arms overhead, lengthen the side ribs and begin to fold at the hip crease. As with the earlier Forward Bend, keep you attention in the length of the spine to create space around the hip joint. Let gravity and the opening of the muscles as you exhale increase the fold, but don’t force yourself forwards. Return to center and relax the legs.

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-facing Dog) This is a good time to release the hips, but also continue stretching the legs. Start the series in a well-measured dog. Begin in Balasana Your outstretched arms should now be placed with the heels of the hands beneath the shoulders. Lift the hips up and back, with the knees bent to get the upper body aligned and then press the thighs back to begin straightening the legs. Don’t worry about pressing the heels to the floor, when you lengthen the backs of the legs the heels will start to sink. As with the other poses, be very aware of the length of the spine and try to increase the distance between the top of the head and the tailbone. Come back to Child’s for a release pose.

Parivrtta Janu-sirsasana (Revolved Head-to-Knee Pose) Begin in Staff 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. As you sit tall and concentrate on lifting the side ribs and start twisting to the right (towards the bent knee). Begin 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 back. Place your hand flat on the floor to assist the twist, or take hold of your foot.

-Bring the right arm straight up and then drop is slightly to the back to increase the twist. Bring it down 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 by stretching the top of the head away from the tailbone. Slowly release the hands and bring the torso upright. Untwist and then return the legs back to Staff Pose. Repeat on the other side.

Savasana (Corpse Pose) Release yourself onto the floor and draw your knees up to your chest. Rock back and forth to massage and release the lower back. Then extend your legs, release your arms and allow yourself to sink into the support of the floor. Let each exhale be a point of deepening. Stay for as long as you like. ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved