Friday, August 24, 2012

a perspective from my Vinyasa teacher Mark Stephens

This post comes from my wonderful teacher and mentor, Mark Stephens, in conversation about the differences between Ashtanga and Vinyasa yoga. I hope this blog encourages more such conversations in the future. Thank you, Mark!

"What a wonderful set of reflections on Vinyasa Flow and Ashtanga Vinyasa. It's a familiar aire having spent many years doing Mysore-style Ashtanga Vinyasa before jumping off that train about eight years ago. Why? A slightly different take on some of these differences.

On #1: Where do energetic actions and refining movements arise from? How "subtle" is the source or the quality of the asana? A case can easily be made that we anything but static being, and that part of the practice involves bringing stability to our natural dynamism not by "holding" but rather by going with that dynamism. In every breath there is movement. Allowing this to happen, even going with it to find a simpler way to a deeper opening (or, as you put it, "to do what feels good") as part of the process of vinyasa krama, or gradual progression into deeper practice.

On #2: Offering a Vinyasa Flow class variations in asanas is really no different than what happens in a Mysore-stytle class whewre different people are doing different practices. The prmary difference is that in a Flow class it is offered to the entire class (or not!) and guided. One certainly is likely to challenged in any of the six set series in Ashtanga Vinaysa, starting with the "beginning level" Primary series which contains several complex and bio-mechanically questionable asanas, including Marichyasana D and Setu Bandhasana, both notoriously injurious. There's also the added factor of repetitive movement (and thus repetitive stress risks) that arises from doing the exact same sequences of asanas six days per week, which would less an issue for the physically resilient teen yogi's for whom Krishnamacharya designed these sequences that say, your typical Westerner diving into yoga at age 35.

#3. It's been great to see qualities of Iyengar and other styles of yoga seeping into Ashanga Vinyasa over the past 20 years, including the use of props. I suggest no limit to props at all, but rather use them as much as it takes to have a safe sustainable and transformational practice!

#4. Down Dog to Warrior I on that single inhalation is prescribed in Ashtanga Vinyasa is probably the prime suspect is this being among the most sloppily expressed asanas among Ashtanga Vinyasa practitioners: a compromised foundation as the back foot is usually not well established with pada bandha, excessive anterior rotation ofthe pelvis and consequently undue (and unnecessary) pressure on the lumbar intervertebral disks, and limited internal rotation of the back leg... The technique of inhaling the leg up behind from Down Dog and then exhaling the step forward for Warrior I allows the more natural flow of the breath and the more patient set-up for Warrior I.

#5. One can be equally "meditative" or "distracted" doing anything, or any style of yoga. Even the student with gaze to nose and steadily audible Ujjayi breath might be thinking about...who knows! And the students in the flow class, or Gentle Yoga, Power Yoga, Pre-Natal whether one gets off their mat, pauses to sip water, or looks around may or may not reflect their depth of their practice. I certainly encourage "staying with it," meaning to stay on one's mat, the breath a seamless sutra, from Samasthihi to Savasana, regardless of style..

Thank you again for bringing up these questions and sharing!"

Monday, August 20, 2012

A love letter to the Intermediate Series

Dear Intermediate Series:

 I am no longer scared of you, I think you should know.

You are a fun, playful thing, aren't you? Nakrasana? The sheer madness of your Karandavasana? Ok, I'll play...however exhausted by that point in the game, I'll play... But can you tell me when the hyperactive, super-alert, climbing up the walls feeling will subside? Too. much. Prana! I'm like a cracked out puppy after we play.

I am slowly falling in love with your beautiful, strange arc. The way you start with a hanging foreshadows what is yet to come. Your multiple peaks leave me breathless, and just when the twists make me feel like we are winding down, you go out with SEVEN headstands.

Really? Seven?! Is that necessary?

Sometimes, after we play, I worry that I may be forever broken. You are opening me in such new ways: seismic shifts are taking place in my hips, they often feel unhinged. I wake several times during the night with this surprisingly calm thought: I wonder if I'll be able to walk in the morning...But mostly, it's that you bring to surface my deepest worries and fears, and make me look at them with an unflinching gaze so that I don't have to carry them around any longer. The bag gets heavy and it's time to purge. You have made me intensely aware of my fear of death in the past month; I have wept at the realization that I am afraid not of death itself, but the process of aging and dying. I hope you know that I do not speak of wrinkles and silver hair when I say 'aging', but of illness and physical pain; of the grotesqueness of the human body when broken, this grotesqueness that no one wants to speak of for fear of reminding themselves of its reality. We are made of flesh and bones, organs and viscera that will, with time, fail. I am once again reminded of what Chuck Miller said: All around me I see people dying, yet I live my life as though it will go on forever.

Perhaps it is not so much that I fear not being able to walk come morning; it's the knowledge that I'll be walking in a different way, a new way. It is the intense, unbroken awareness that my old ways are dying that makes me feel fully alive.

With love and gratitude,

Erika A.

Monday, August 13, 2012

More on the (cultural) differences between Ashtanga and Flow style classes

While the previous post dealt mostly with the physical differences between the two practices, this one deals with the environment and the culture of the two styles.

1. In Flow style classes, the teacher might start with a few words, maybe set an intention or ask the students to set an intention, and possibly lead an Om as a group. In an Ashtanga class, all classes start in Samastithi and the teacher leads the Invocation to Patanjali. The opening chant is always the same, and its intention is to pay respect to all the teachers who have come before us. Some led classes can end with the closing chant.


2. While music, playlists, and in some cases live bands and DJs are part of many flow style classes to make yoga a fun, get-out-of-your-head-and-into-your-body experience, and, to create a dance-like flow to the practice, in Ashtanga classes, the environment tends to be a lot more austere. There is largely silence against the constant, rhythmic presence of the Ujjayi breath. The rationale being that the practice is a moving meditation, and as such, the awareness needs to be drawn inward, with careful attention given to the sound of the breath.

3. More on the sounds in the room: while most Flow teachers might use many words and images to guide the students into postures (both technical cues and inspirational words), in a traditional, led Ashtanga class, the instructor mostly counts the breath and calls out the Sanskrit names to the postures. This is of course different, I’ve found, when one takes classes with some senior teachers, who often use imagery, energetic actions, and inspirational language, and, who may often break down the postures into more easily digestible portions.

4. In most Ashtanga classes, the teacher rarely demonstrates the postures. Instead, the students are encouraged to maintain their drishti (gazing point), and also, to have enough interest to study the names of the postures and their place within the sequence. Since the emphasis is on developing a self-practice (Mysore), this approach fits in the over all philosophy of the practice. In Flow style classes, perhaps because the sequence varies from instructor to instructor, but also from class to class with the same instructor, much more demonstration and technical cuing is needed. Most Ashtanga teachers tend to teach alignment with their adjustments, again, focusing as much as possible on individualizing the practice.

5. Although some Flow practitioners practice almost everyday, for most, the frequency is less than that. In Ashtanga, the expectation is that you work your way up to a six days a week practice, with the exception of lady’s holiday (when applicable), moon days, and Saturdays. Again, this is traditional, yet I know of many Ashtangis who, to accommodate both the practice and their life off the mat, don’t take Saturdays off; they rather take a different day to rest. Moon days tend to be welcome breaks for most people, and have the added benefit of making the practitioner highly aware of the phases of the moon. This final bullet point deserves its own post, since I believe a major hurdle for many people who are curious about Ashtanga can be the daunting commitment required to practice six days a week. I think it's important to emphasize that most people do not go from 0 to 6 days a week; that we work our way up to it, again, at our own pace (much like the rest of the practice). Also, the practice can, on some days, consist only of a few sun salutes and maybe sitting for meditation for a few breaths. It is better to have more frequent, shorter practices than infrequent, long practices.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A signpost: on the (cultural and physical) differences between Vinyasa (power, flow, etc.) yoga and Ashtanga Vinyasa

As someone who teaches both Flow and Ashtanga, I am often struck by the subtle and not so subtle differences between the two practices. Lately, as I get ready to teach Ashtanga at Breathe, I'm finding myself making a list of the common differences and the possible reasons for them. I've chosen to break them down so as not to overwhelm the reader. This is by no means exhaustive, nor is it intended to be a critical list of either practice. Please feel free to ask questions, or add any new items to the lists. 

On the (mostly) physical differences:

1. In a traditional Ashtanga class, you don’t walk, bicycle, or wiggle your downward dog. While in many Flow style classes the teacher might encourage you to move around in downward facing dog, and 'do what feels good' (the pros/rationale being that you use the stretches to wake up the body, warm up, move to not become static, etc.), in Ashtanga Yoga, you hold this posture for the duration of the breath count (the pros: with the movements coming from a more subtle place, we work the body into alignment with small, energetic movements and actions).

2. Variations are commonplace in most Flow style classes. Variations like binding in Parsvakonasana, moving the legs into different positions in headstand, adding full handstands in the transition from standing to chatturanga dandasana give more advanced students in a vinyasa class new challenges, and also add a degree of variety to the class. In an Ashtanga class, since the series are set and the student progresses through them at their own pace, the thinking is that one is always properly challenged within the set series.
3. Modifications are also commonplace in Flow style classes for obvious reasons: to prevent injury, and be mindful of where the body is today. Modifications such as using a block in revolved triangle, and bringing the elbow to the knee in parsvakonasna help the students with tighter hips and hamstrings to safely approach the postures. Although in a strict Ashtanga class props and modifications are not offered, many senior teachers who appreciate and have studied the Iyengar system encourage the students to modify as needed. I especially recommend the blanket-supported shoulderstand, and use of blocks in revolved triangle.

4. How one enters into the postures matters in Ashtanga. For example, the transition to warrior 1 is connected to the breath count, and it does not involve the lifting of the leg. It is downward dog (2 feet on the ground) to warrior 1.  In Flow style classes, there maybe several options for entering and exiting an asana, again to properly challenge and engage students of varying abilities.

5. In a Flow class, it’s not uncommon for students to stop to drink water, use the restroom, walk to get a prop mid-practice, etc. In Ashtanga, one is encouraged to have everything one may need nearby before the practice starts. Though virtually impossible, the goal is to stop the flow of the practice as little as possible to keep it a more meditative process.

Stay tuned for my post on the cultural differences between the two styles of practice...

Friday, August 10, 2012

Darby rooting through the hands

...this is why coming to the fingertips to lengthen can lead to donkey kicking and crash landing into chatturanga dandasana. and, I love Darby.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The lessons of the Intermediate Series

As I move deeper into the second series, postures that came easily for me are becoming increasingly more difficult, while those postures that for years eluded me, are finally coming. I was started on the second series within weeks of starting the practice, largely due to a hamstring tear that made the forward folds of the primary series impossible. Backbends, with their back body releasing potential, are a great way to heal and release hamstrings. When I started practicing yoga, my back was open, and I lacked strength. I practiced the postures of the intermediate series without really having any context for them. I stayed mostly with the backbends for a long time. I think I grabbed my heels on my first attempt at Kapotasana. I didn't know that it was a dreaded posture; I had no idea what it even looked like until after my teacher had guided me into it.

Fast forward to now: years of practicing the primary series have made it feel like home. The postures are comforting and familiar; I am fully attuned to their rhythm. No longer am I daunted by all the forward folds that either felt impossible or bored me to death in those early years. Supta Kurmasana is not so bad if I give myself some time and extra breaths. I have a special love for the primary series; it's been a learning ground for much of what I know about my body and about this practice. We've spent a lot of time together, the series and I. I've been reluctant to move on, which is ironic, since in the early days of my practice I used to covet all the strange leg-behind-the-head postures and arm balances of the later series. Now, when I unroll my mat to practice, I come up with reasons (excuses) why I should not practice the second series: my back is too tight, it’s too late in the day and I won’t be able to sleep, I don’t have enough time, etc. I have developed an aversion to the intermediate series. It frightens me. Kapotasana? It makes me feel like I may die. Titibhasana? Those puny five steps back and forth make me feel like I have ran a marathon; they lead to a deep, strange fatigue in the bones of my hip joint that takes my breath away. 

From Patanjali:

The five obstacles are: lack of knowledge, egotism, attachment, aversion, and clinging to bodily life.

(Enough said, right?)

I have had sleepless nights after practicing the series. I have felt intense anger for no apparent reason. I have shed tears that come out of nowhere. I have sudden jolts of what feels like electricity running through my body, a buzzing, vibrating sensation that catches me off guard. And, I have developed a sudden, intense fear of backbends. This, from someone who usually cannot get enough backbends. Now, I do everything in my power to avoid them.

Nadi Shodhana, the Sanskrit word for the second series, translates to ‘Nerve-cleansing.’ To say that I am more aware of my nervous system and what it’s going through is an understatement.

Perhaps what keeps me going is the knowledge that this is how this particular series, with its intense backbends and hip openers, is opening me up, cracking me, showing me my own tendencies of self-preservation, of avoidance, of holding on. 

'The fundamental fear we have to work with is the fear of losing ourselves. When the stronghold of ego is threatened, fear is one of our strongest defense mechanisms. Beginning to dismantle it is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves or others.'
-from the introduction to Trungpa's Smile at Fear

So this is my work these days, recognizing that I am afraid, that my tendency is to avoid that which I am afraid of, to cling to the comfortable and the familiar; that my mind will pull out all the stops: will try to make me believe that my very life is on the line. My work is to recognize all of this, and then do it anyway. To dismantle the fear. I know enough to know that the fear is not about the postures themselves, that the practice is merely a mirror that shows me my tendencies and habits. We don’t see the same image each time we look in the mirror: some days there are new wrinkles and lines, some days we see the face of someone who is at ease and kind-featured, and some days, we see a reflection we do not like.

The idea is to look, and, to really see.

The seeing is sometimes, the hardest part. Being honest with yourself about what you see is also, not easily done. I find that once I admit an unpleasant truth to myself, then it becomes impossible for me to ignore it; the act of observing changes that which is being observed. The fear becomes dismantled; it dissipates.

Practicing the second series makes me feel like a beginner. After refining the primary series for years, I now run out of breath, huff and puff, have messy, shaky transitions, and want to plop down midway through a posture and give up the whole endeavor. It’s difficult to find the flow when many of the poses require so much from me. I often feel drained and have detox headaches after practice.

It sounds terrible, I know. But it’s actually quite exciting. I get to be a beginner. I get to experience the process of learning something new, something that challenges me, something that asks me to show up with all I’ve got. I get to be fully present, because if I’m not, this shit’s impossible.  I get to release my idea of who I am as a practitioner and teacher of yoga and find what kind of a student of this practice I can be. I get to experience a new-found level of empathy for my students, those who are brand new to yoga, those who have a difficult time following my cues and breathing and being present all at the same time.

I get to practice releasing my attachments to the familiar. I get to, as Rilke said, 'trust in what is difficult.'

I realize that with time, this series will get easier, will perhaps feel as smooth as the primary series. That the transitions will become more and more elegant, my breath steady and long. And the beauty of it? There is no end to this practice. There will always be another image in the mirror to look at, and, to truly see.

Friday, August 3, 2012

How to develop a life long yoga practice

Stepping into a studio to take a yoga class is different than having a personal yoga practice. When we make this subtle shift in our approach to yoga, we open ourselves up to the transformative power of yoga as a life-long discipline and commitment. This means, the practice is just that: something that takes time, dedication, and focus, like learning an instrument or a new language. By choosing to adopt yoga as a life-long practice, we begin to see it as a relationship, one that requires patience, compassion, and perseverance. When we open to this approach to yoga, we begin to see through the obstacles that the mind puts forth--I am not strong, flexible, healthy, young, etc. enough--which either cause us to abandon yoga altogether, or cause injury and burn-out, fruits of a competitive, aggressive approach to yoga. When we step onto our mats with curiosity and openness, we begin to notice that where we are right now is exactly where we need to be. Yoga is not something to be ‘mastered’ in a finite time; it is endless and ever expansive. Stay open to learning, and the lessons will come. One need only show up.

Tools to help you develop a personal practice:

-Breathe deeply. The Ujjayi Pranayama not only creates warmth in the body and helps loosen the muscles from the inside out, it also has the added benefit of calming the mind and relaxing the nervous system. If you are new to the practice of yoga, and the technique eludes you, don’t worry. Just focus on taking deep, long inhalations, and letting the breath out slowly. Overtime, once you feel a bit more settled in the practice, begin to bring the subtleties of Ujjayi to your breath.

-Cultivate the drishti, a steady gazing point to focus the mind, and withdraw the senses inward. By keeping the eyes soft, we relax the nervous system, and even in the midst of the most challenging postures, tap into our inner sense of balance and equilibrium. Looking around the room or at the teacher can bring about tendencies to compare one’s body to those around us, and create ungrounded energy. Instead, try to open the ears and stay present with what the teacher is cuing rather than looking around for guidance. To that end, try to stay present on your mat for the duration of the practice. Moving around the room, drinking water, and ‘zoning out’ bring you out of the rhythm of the breath and therefore, out of your practice. If you need to rest, do so in child’s pose, and focus on breathing deeply to be better energized.

-Be receptive. Every day is different; every practice is different. By staying open to what may come, and not approaching the practice with a pre-set expectation of what makes a ‘good practice,’ we open ourselves to be true students. Cultivate softness and receptivity, and with time and practice, the impossible will become possible.

-Practice as often as you can. Even if you unroll your mat and do one sun salutation, and then take a few conscious breaths in a simple seated posture, it sends the message to the body to relax and open, and when the body relaxes, the mind follows suit. It also reinforces the idea that not every practice needs to be physically intense to be worth doing. What matters is the intention and awareness that you bring with you onto your mat.

-Be kind to yourself. Practice Ahimsa, nonhurting, in both thought and action. This means not comparing your body and your practice to others in disparaging ways, and not pushing past your edge into the territory of injury and pain. Just because someone can do an advanced posture it does not necessarily make them an advanced yogi. This, after all, is a personal practice and not a performance.