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...