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...