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