After a long, tiring week, I was slightly regretting my offer to sub the early morning Meditation and Mindful Yoga class today. I would rather have mindlessly spent the evening yesterday unwinding, instead of planning a class, and the morning today in bed instead of tiptoeing around the house.
But there’s something slightly thrilling about opening up a yoga studio, turning on the lights, and preparing the space to welcome everyone. And the students were lovely, of course, well worth the minor sacrifices; I felt honored to have shared their practice.
I drew from the quiet morning to theme the class on Kumbhaka, that pause at the top and bottom of the breath. In his wonderful book on pranayama called “Refining the Breath”, Doug Keller describes kumbhaka (literally “empty pot”) as the “moment of suspension of the breathing which the prana becomes still, whether inside the body or out, before ‘turning around’ and continuing its movement as the breath” (p.56). Donna Farhi describes it as “entering the [glistening, luminous] stillness within the breath”, a place so spacious and supportive that you can “recline into that pause as if lying back into the arms of someone you trusted with your life” (The Breathing Book, p195).
We started with about 15 minutes of meditation, guided by an exercise to facilitate reclining into the pause, and then moved into slow flow vinyasa built to highlight the moments of stillness. The practice was complemented by music that included a number of tracks from the Kronos Quartet’s amazing album, Floodplain.
I have never been a fan of the concept of New Year’s resolutions. It’s not that I don’t believe in continuously trying to progress, but the resolution practice has always struck me as a quest for perfection, rooted in a sense of flaws, rather than a quest for progress, rooted in a sense of acceptance. So a few years ago, I designed a New Year’s Day class built around starting from a different place: embracing yourself as perfect. Since then, I’ve been continuously refining the class.
This year’s version fit right into a theme I’ve been teaching variations on since the beginning of the fall: Happiness. I riffed on the concept of santosha, or contentment (yoga sutras II.42), which is built on acceptance of reality, and a sense of satisfaction with what it encompasses, rather than a sense of lacking and its accompanying sense of dissatisfaction.
For my students, here are the quotes I used in the class!
“The second niyama is santosa, or contentment. This is the choice to end our war with reality.”
“Everyone is already the living Buddha, complete, whole, perfect as you are. All this action and effort to become special is just making you very unsocial and creating a tremendous amount of pain and suffering.”
Zen master Dennis Genpo Merzel
In a world in which we are not enough, the practice of contentment appears unwarranted. Before we can begin to make santosa a regular aspect of our experience, we must first confront the avidya, or spiritual ignorance, behind our striving and dissatisfaction. Any effort that begins with the belief “I am an imperfect person acting in an imperfect universe” will be in opposition to the aims of yoga. The practice of contentment begins with an awareness of how we evaluate ourselves and our surroundings.
In the military I was taught the art of land navigation with a map and a compass, and over the years, as I grew competent at navigation, I developed habits that kept me from getting lost. The most important habit was the precise establishment of the start point. The use of a map involves rudimentary geometry, and all of the calculations you make are based on your original estimation of where you began. if your start point is off, none of your subsequent calculations will bear any connection to reality. Happiness is like that. The work we do to find happiness flowers from the manner in which we have defined ourselves. Too begin, simply shift focus. When you experience conflict or discontent, stop and get a sense of your start point. What are the original calculations that have brought you to this point? Are you striving to be special when you already are?
How often do we catch ourselves complaining about how we look or feel or how poorly we think we’re doing in our yoga practice? How often are we frustrated when our bodies won’t bend the way we think they should? Let’s be honest: How chronic is our need to be different from the way we are?
In hatha yoga, we have a wonderful opportunity to practice contentment. However, many people use yoga as a way to compete with others or to drive themselves to achieve their ideas of perfection…
Of course we like to be good students and we don’t want to be lazy, but comparing ourselves negatively with others and obsessing about what we think is wrong with us is not good practice—it simply reinforces our discontent. The true purpose of doing asanas is to learn about ourselves and understand the very real physical reasons for our own individual expressions of poses.
Loving Ourselves As We Are
Can we learn to fall in love with who we are? This includes our lives, our bodies, and our dharma, or purpose. Practicing with contentment teaches us that we really do have everything we need right here, right now. When we are constantly focused on what we don’t have, we only get more of what we don’t have! If most of our thoughts center on not being thin enough, not being strong enough, not being attractive or rich enough, we will continue to experience lack in our lives. Shifting into a vibration of thankfulness changes that.
Let’s learn to recognize and honor our limitations, rather than push past them. Let’s remind ourselves—at the start of our practice and during it—that what is currently happening is perfect, even if we are not as strong as we were yesterday. Then let’s feel proud of our accomplishments and be thankful for all of the wonderful things that we have.
Look around you and see what you have to be content with right here in this moment. Focus on that and watch your stress levels drop and your mood start to lift.
In nearly every translation of Yoga Sutra II.42, santosha is interpreted as the greatest happiness, the underlying joy that cannot be shaken by life’s tough moments, by injustice, hardship, bad luck. “Contentment is really about accepting life as it is,” says Bell. “It’s not about creating perfection. Life will throw whatever it wants at you, and you ultimately have little control. Be welcoming of what you get.”
You can practice this on the mat quite easily, by acknowledging your tendency to strive to do a perfect pose and accepting the one you’ve got. “There’s no guarantee that you’ll get enlightened when you do a backbend with straight arms, or touch your hands to the floor in Uttanasana,” says Bell. “The process of santosha is relaxing into where you are in your pose right now and realizing that it is perfect.” Lasater compares santosha to the deep relaxation possible in Savasana (Corpse Pose). “You can’t run after contentment,” Lasater says. “It has to find you. All you can do is try to create the space for it.”
On entering your solitude, one of the first presences to announce itself is the negative. Nietzsche said that one of the best days in his life was the day when he rebaptized all his negative qualities as his best qualities. In this kind of baptism, rather than banishing what is at first glimpse unwelcome, you bring it home to unity with your life. This is the slow and difficult work of self-retrieval. Every person has certain qualities or presences in their heart that are awkward, disturbing, and negative. One of your sacred duties is to exercise kindness toward them.p117
When you decide to practice inner hospitality, the self-torment ceases. The abandoned, neglected, and negative selves come into a seamless unity. The soul is wise and subtle; it recognized that unity fosters belonging.”p118
“You can never love another person unless you are equally involved in the beautiful but difficult spiritual work of learning to love yourself. There is within each of us, at the soul level, an enriching fountain of love. In other words, you do not have to go outside yourself to know what love is. This is not selfishness, and it is not narcissism; they are negative obsessions with the need to be loved. Rather this is the wellspring of love within the heart…p25 This is not a question of forcing yourself to love yourself. It is more a question of exercising reserve, of inviting the wellspring of love that is, after all, your deepest nature to flow through your life…p26 If you trust that this wellspring is there, you will be able to invite it to awaken. The following exercise could help develop awareness of this capacity. When you have moments on your own or spaces in your time, just focus on the well at the root of your soul. Imagine that nourishing stream of belonging, ease, peace, and delight. Feel, with your visual imagination, the refreshing waters of that well gradually flowing up through the arid earth of the neglected side of your heart.p28”
Back in the fall of 2013, I took a pause in my teaching (and, clearly, in my posting as well), and then found my way back last summer. My hiatus turned out to be the best possible thing for me, as being away from teaching made me realize not just how much I enjoyed it, but also how it reinforced my own practice and (unexpectedly) my sanity as well. Apparently, reminding people to breath, and instructing students in mind-body connection, works pretty well even if you’re not the person actively practicing at that moment. But even more, being entirely focused on guiding people through their practice is, I discovered, a form of moving meditation for me. And one that I sorely missed.
So it is that almost every week since I recommitted to teaching has brought me more enjoyment, and deeper understanding (of yoga, of teaching, of myself). So much so that it was almost good last weekend when I subbed in for a 90-minute advanced class I used to teach and pretty much flubbed it. There’s always a learning curve to the rhythm of class (at least for me) when teaching a different class length, and I was a little rusty in returning to 90 minutes after a steady diet of 75- and 60-minute classes. Worse, the start time changed since I stopped teaching that particular class and I mentally fixated on the wrong stopping time, and then, to compound things, I screwed up my carefully timed playlist by uncharacteristically leaving my iPod on random. I fixed the latter early in the class, but still ran out of music early, and sorely missed the subtle transition cues I build into the music. The net result was that I was just slightly off my game the entire time, stretching out parts of the class that shouldn’t have been, and foreshortening the end to bring things to a rapid close when I suddenly realized I was running out time.
Why was this good? Because it’s easy to be committed when things are going swimmingly, when you’re walking away feeling as if you’ve offered your best to your students. And offering my best is the bedrock of my commitment–it is why I spend hours studying texts and textbooks, building up sequences, polishing queuing phrases, compiling playlists, etc., and why being early to teach and on time to beginning/ending classes is essential to me. But it’s also why I hesitate to just pick up a class at the last minute, and why I had to take a hiatus in the first place–feeling underprepared, despite years of experience that should give me a firm foundation for improvisation, gnaws at me, and so sometimes I over-prepare or am simply too over-reliant on the (exhausting) preparation.
I subbed a second class one very early morning this week and had a couple of my one-time regulars who were also in the flubbed class. Chatting with one briefly after class, I told her how nice it was to have the opportunity to see her, since she can’t make my evening classes. And she smiled and said she felt fortunate to have the opportunity to take not one but two of my classes this week. Perhaps it was graciousness, or perhaps she legitimately didn’t feel as robbed as I thought someone like her would feel from the class that went somewhat awry. Either way, these recent experiences were humbling, and deepened my learning of my craft. I’m looking forward to what 2015 will bring.
Or rather, I am. After a much-needed vacation and a few more weeks off of teaching, I’ve been subbing now and again. Last week, I taught some lovely fellow graphic facilitators some yoga-based wellness tricks–breathing awareness and trigger point therapy make happier, healthier facilitators! Then today, I spent some time with a local cycling coach working on bike positioning, which furthered my thinking about some cycling-specific yoga training for improving proprioception and positional awareness. (That’s one of the things I’m working on during my sabbatical this fall.) All in all, I’m making good use of my down-time from teaching. I keep running into students, and every last one of them has been stunningly supportive (thanks to all of you out there, too). I’m a very fortunate person.
And I WILL start working through my backlog of sequences very soon, so stay tuned!
Recently, and after a great deal of thought, I decided to take a sabbatical from teaching yoga. I’ve been struggling for awhile to bring my personal life and practice into balance with my responsibilities to both my full-time job and my teaching. While I draw enormous personal satisfaction and meaning from my interactions with both my students and my colleagues and clients at work, the “energy deposits” I was getting back from those interactions wasn’t making up for the withdrawals I was making to support them. The thinner I stretched myself, the less inspiration and excitement I had to share. And yet, I had built little communities of regular students who still told me how much the classes meant to them, so I persisted longer than I should have.
When I finally made the decision to take a pause, I had a series of revelations. First, I was almost immediately at peace with the decision, which told me it was the right one. Second, I realized it had been egotistical of me to place myself at the center of my students’ experiences, as if another teacher wouldn’t offer them something equally fulfilling and unique. Third, I was excited again at what I would do with the time–among other things, renewing my own practice and fitness, working on some cyclist-specific yoga material I’ve been mulling for months, and devoting some free time to my creative writing, too long neglected and eating at me.
Over the last week, I told my employers about my decision, noting in each case that I accept there may not be places for me to resume teaching in the winter. It remained to tell my students.
For a couple of my classes this summer, I’ve been teaching lessons themed on the chakras. This week’s theme is the fifth chakra, Visuddha chakra or the throat chakra (and by total coincidence brought about by some intervening travel, my classes will end with the seventh chakra, Sahasrara). As I started researching material for my class plan this week, I began to realize how a class themed on Visuddha chakra was truly a perfect theme for a class in which to announce my hiatus. Visuddha chakra is all about inner truth and expressing ourselves, which is what I am doing through announcing this sabbatical and what I hope to do more of during it. Among the quotes I discovered with great meaning to me were these:
Located in the neck, throat, jaw, and mouth, the Visuddha chakra resonates with our inner truth and helps us find a personal way to convey our voice to the outside world. The rhythm of music, creativity of dance, the vibration of singing, and the communication we make through writing and speaking are all fifth chakra ways to express ourselves. —Barbara Kaplan Herring @ Yoga Journal
“The throat center governs the expressive and externalizing mind, movements and mental forces—the transformation center.” —Sri Aurobindo @ All Good Things
So what does this mean for this space? Well, I still have a big backlog of class plans to share (including the Visuddha Chakra class itself) and will keep them going. I also think I’ll post more yoga-related thoughts and inspirations, so it may also branch out a bit. Anyway, stay tuned!
A few weeks before I put this class together, I had to stop one of my classes because my students were all over-using their pecs, traps, and biceps in their cobras, courtesy of their sneaky, enabling hands. So I designed an entire class of hands-free backbends (well, not upward bow, I’m not that crazy) to try to train them out of it.
In my classes, we often start out with a couple of classic-style sun salutations (working through some variation on runner’s lunge) that incorporate a wide-arm, spider-finger cobra. This is yet another thing I picked up from the wonderful Doug Keller. It’s ingenious because you with perpendicular arms (T-arms), you can’t rely just on the pecs to lift the body, and up on the fingertips it’s hard to overuse the biceps as well. A proper wide-arm cobra thus initiates movement from the back body (at about the bra line or heart-rate-monitor chest-strap area) with a lift and curl of the heart center forward (thus eliminating the leading-with-the-chin problem as well). We do it most weeks as a little reminder and reset for the rest of the cobras in class. This time I told my students to enjoy it, as it would be their last assisted cobras for the day!
(And, yes, I do realize that a cobra without hands is actually a locust pose or some similar asana, depending on the arm placement. But, bear with me.)
For the remaining “cobras”, I played around with some arm positions that all required slightly different muscles for the lift (remember, all of these are “hands-free”).
The first variation was “cactus” arms, held perpendicular to the body with elbows bent at 90 degrees. I think this positioning emphasizes a flattened shoulder blade, maximizing the space between the blades and the spine and creating a lift from the rhomboids and middle traps…
The second variation was regular “T-arms”. I noticed most of my yogis initiated the movement from out to in, lifting hands then armpits then torso, for a totally different sensation from cactus. A completely different way of practicing this same position is to carefully plug the humerus bone into the shoulder socket and draw the arms deeper in to lift, as if from the armpits.
The third variation was a backwards V, or “swept wing”. This position allows you to initiate movement by drawing the shoulderblades towards the spine (or, unfortunately, by pinching the muscles between them)…
After we worked on all three variations, students could choose their favorite for the remainder of class (or vary them with each vinyasa). We used some arm variations in the warrior positions to open the chest (hands clasped behind or in reverse prayer position) and worked on a bind to open the heart center in extended side angle. We then began a series of backbends starting with Ustrasana (camel) and moving through Salabasana (locust) variations before closing out the class.
(I notice I mislabeled Bharadvajasana below - it’s a twist I especially like to incorporate when we’ve done backbends, heart openers, or ab work because I find the hip positioning enables students to really open up the chest and lengthen the collar bones apart in a restorative manner.)
The playlist for the week was entirely made up of songs from my favorite musical group, Paris Combo, for no good reason other than I was seeing them in concert a few days later and the music always makes me very happy. (Also, they tend to have a good rhythm for class and the words aren’t too distracting since it’s entirely in French.)
One of the most useful lessons I’ve ever learning for teaching handstands came from a workshop some years ago with @sharon_gannon and David Life (Jivamuktiyoga.com): always do handstands early in the class while bodies are fresh. I build classes with plenty of targeted stretches and to warm up the body a bit, but then try to jump straight into handstands/handstand prep before people get tired out from lots of vinyasas.
So that’s what you’ll see in the sequence below. It’s important to open up the wrist, hip, and knee flexors as well as the shoulder and back extensors before wading in (see @TeachingYoga Mark Stephen’s entry on Adho Mukha Vrksasana in Yoga Sequencing for more detail and suggested preparatory asanas). I like to also do some shoulder and ab work to remind everyone to stabilize both their shoulder girdle and core while they’re upside-down (it does make life much easier). The wall exercises for both opening and stabilizing the shoulders are all from Doug Keller's Advanced Yoga as Therapy workshop.
I like the handstand prep work that involves a pike against the wall because it gives yogis a proprioceptive sense of vertical shoulders, back, and hips in a stable situation. When students simply kick up against a wall, they tend to move past vertical to rest their feet on the wall behind them. The fast kick-up also sometimes allows sloppiness in the shoulder girdle that will prevent students from attaining a wall-free handstand practice.
After playing with handstands, I always provide resting time in child’s pose and some wrist therapy to recover for the rest of class. After the remaining standing and backbend poses in this class, we took advantage of all the shoulder work to play a little with Pincha Mayurasana prep. I then gave students a choice between two recovery poses: an individual supported fish pose draped over a block (the key here is to line up the top of the block with the bottom of the shoulderblades) or paired partner work (also from Keller’s workshops).
The partner work looks a little complicated but feels amazing: the receiving partner faces the wall in a Pincha Mayurasana prep position and the giving partner leans against the wall and kneads the balls of their feet against the upper and middle back of the receiving partner. Keller says you pretty much can’t go wrong with where you knead your feet, and I can attest the pressure works the kinks out beautifully.
I built this playlist out of some favorite (mostly) guitar music for a nice upbeat rhythm without too much distraction of familiar songs or words. I have no good excuse for calling it “ethnic guitar” other than that I couldn’t come up with some better connection between all the different regional music represented in it.
Resources are all listed in the blog text above today!
I do lots of feet-centric classes, so I wanted to finally build a hand-centric one instead. Mayurasana (Peacock pose) seemed like a nice focus for such a class as it requires real softening of any tight wrists and forearms to do properly. We started class with the same kind of tennis- and golf-ball therapy that I usually use in feet class, drawn from the Trigger Point Therapy Workbook (see resources at bottom), of which I’m a Big Fan. We started with the tennis balls standing up against the wall to work on the various forearm muscles, and then returned to our mats to use the golf balls under our hands.
I threw in the Mayura Mudra in our opening grounding/meditation to keep with the peacock theme. Then we did some additional wrist therapy and Dragonfly pose, which I picked up from Peter Sterios’s article (linked at bottom), to further open up the shoulders before beginning the full practice. The practice itself features a lot of hip openers and shoulder openers leading up to Mayurasana itself, and then some additional wrist therapy to recover before the finishing sequence.
I have lots of modern and classical Asian music because I find it incredibly peaceful, as if it transports me to a Kyoto zen garden. I thought this playlist would be
Sometimes I look around my classes when everyone is in Warrior IIs, and all I see are determined looks and shoulders hiked up to the ears. Tension, everywhere! The Warrior II stance reminds me of a surfer on a board (I have no idea if that’s accurate, but it looks like it to me), so I’ve taken to telling my students to relax like surfers and hang ten. Shake out the arms, bring them forward and up until the shoulder blades relax down the back, and soften the tops of the fingers (those latter two cues borrowed from Doug Keller). All the power of Warrior II is really waist down, from the core, and above that is just about suppleness.
I built this class to remind people of those cues, and to include positions that require strength in the core but suppleness in the upper torso (unless inverted, in which case, reverse those cues!).
I modified a sun salutation to include shoulder/heart openers like Puppy Dog and Sphinx, as well as Rabbit. We did this modified version for our vinyasas.
The modified Sun A is from Sadie Nardini (see resources at bottom), lifting the heart off the thigh in Warrior I and curling the torso up to the fullest expression of the pose. I find this isolates the core and also softens the shoulders.
Today’s playlist was very zen - lots of yoga-centric music.
We did this class at Easter time, which reminded me of Rabbit pose (Sasangasana), which reminded me, in turn, of a bunch of neck- and upper spine- therapy exercises I’ve picked up from Doug Keller and various articles. So I pulled them all together into one class to loosen up the upper back, shoulders, and neck, and emphasize fluidity in spinal movements.
I underlined the cool, fluid tone of the class with a classical music playlist.
I try to complete a yoga mala, 108 sun salutations, every fall and spring equinox. I used to do these in workshops at my home studio when they offered them, and always loved the meditative practice of being guided by someone else and the energy of the group. (I practice them now at home but find it’s less meditative when I’m having to keep track of what number I’m on.)
Anyway, my Sunday classes are full of athletic yogis who are wonderfully capable of the yoga mala, although I suspect not all of them believe it. So for the spring equinox this year, I wanted to design a class that would give them a taste of the meditative experience, and the sense of accomplishment, without scaring them off (or boring them).
So we started first with extended ujjayi pranayama and an “aaaah” (inhale) “aum” (exhale) mantra from Doug Keller’s pranayama book (see resources at bottom). Then we very slowly performed a single sequence of the Classic Surya Namaskar asanas, being especially attentive to the details of placement and alignment, and to the linkage with the breath mantra (“inhale arms overhead on an "aah”, exhale fold forward on an “aum”, etc.). Several students later noted that this was an especially effective technique for them and helped them make the experience a true moving meditation.
The first six sun salutations were slow, with lots of breaths between movements, and ended in Padangusthasana. The next six established a rhythm, and ended in Padahasthasana. Thereafter, we kept the same rhythm and did groups of 4 consecutive salutations, followed by two sun salutations that each ended in standing poses… I chose the “core” standing poses and added one more with each round.
We did all Classic-style salutations with a knees-chest-chin transition, as I worried about the outcome of repeated chaturangas. I tried to provide them with repeated alignment cues, particularly as they grew tired, so that they didn’t get sloppy and injure themselves. (Several people shared with me later that they were most sore in the hamstrings, which is better than any latent wrist or shoulder injuries.)
At the end of the standing sequences, I announced they’d done half a yoga mala (54 sun salutations). I think it’s fair to say there was both relief and elation. We spent the rest of the class doing poses to cool and relax the body.
I initially prepared the full 108 vinyasas, as I wasn’t sure how long they would all take. It takes me less than 90 minutes to do this sequence on my own, but we only got through half a mala with the class. A couple of notes - I think there’s actually an extra sequence in the 108 salutation version now that I look at it again, and there’s an extra couple of vinyasas accidentally written into the opening sequence of the 54 salutation version (just beware).
I built the accompanying playlist strictly based on beat–keeping a pretty steady tempo to match the repetitive nature of the sequences. (The first couple of songs are for the warm-up before the sun salutations begin.)
Following on a class about the pause in the breath, I thought we should focus on one of the key muscles that support deep breathing. The quadratus lumborum, or the “rectangular muscle of the loins”, bridges the lowest rib and the crest of the pelvis, drawing the floating ribs down as you breath. Tightness in the QLs inhibit deep breathing, so it stands to follow that a focus on loosening them would enhance robust breath.
Of course, the QLs also flex the torso from side to side, so these asanas were selected for strengthening and stretching the sides. Modifications like rotating towards the face the pinky of the hand corresponding to the back leg in both Warrior I (Virabhadrasana I) and Extended Side Angle (Utthita Parsvakonasana) provide an extra stretch along the side body. Lengthen the tailbone (“make it feel heavy”) and the sides of the waist in Crescent, Chair (Utkatasana), Noose (Pasasana), and even Camel (Ustrasana). Naturally, lots of twists are also included.
The playlist wasn’t inspired by the class but by a holiday the week of class: St. Patrick’s Day. So, I give you a big Irish celebration:
I absolutely love the pause at the top and bottom of the breath, the kumbhaka. It reminds me of being suspended underwater, neither sinking nor floating, not needing to breath or move, simply being. These quotes about the kumbhaka beautifully capture that moment of peace for me:
“Become that luminous stillness” ~ Donna Farhi
“A moment of inner calmness and joy” ~ Doug Keller
“Become established in your own natural inner silence” ~ Doug Keller
I thought that inner stillness would make a good theme for one of the last classes of this session, for weaving together the main sequences from the previous weeks without overwhelming everyone. See previous posts for explanations any particularly funky moves or transitions! The class as written ended up being too long for a 90 minute class, so sample what you like.
For this class, I built a playlist around a relatively new discovery, the Kronos Quartet’s album “Floodplain”… because I loved it and because I felt like it just worked with the theme.
Doug Keller. Refining the Breath: Pranayama. (DoYoga.com)
Ah, the perennial hamstring class. Just for fun, I decided to make Krounchasana the queen pose of the class, instead of working on Hanumanasana.
As always when working on hamstrings, I had my students spend a bit of time massaging their feet (it’s a magical link from feet to hamstrings, and it makes such a big difference!). We also started with a little supine hamstring stretch using a strap looped over the heel and criss-crossed behind the calf, which is a little trick I picked up from Doug Keller’s workshops (see resources at bottom). The key is to keep the femur grounded deep into the hip socket while straightening the leg.
I built some quad and hamstring stretches into the early sun salutations (I was notating them as Sivinanda-style, which isn’t wholly accurate; they are more like a modified “classic” style).
I threw in some Ardha Bhekasana during these sun salutations – just make sure to press the full forearm into the mat and open the chest up while pressing the hand onto the foot of the bent knee.
During Surya Namaskar B, you transition from standing split to Gomukhasana by pulling the knee of the extended leg to the outside of the standing leg as it bends and then stacking the knees as you sit down.
Another tricky move is to criss-cross the hands over one of the feet in Uttanasana and then microbend the other leg, lifting the foot between the hands up, with knee straight, into the full expression of Hasta Padangusthasana. As with the Russian Squat in the last post, there’s more of a psychological than physical barrier to this movement, but there is a moment of transition you have to just push through.
The last movement in this class that probably requires a little extra explanation is the hamstring activation at the end of the fifth line (after the Uttanasana-Hasta Pad sequence). This little baby is from Pilates, where we usually practice it with magic circles between our ankles. In yoga, I have students place a block between their ankles, squeezing the hip points together at the front of the pelvis and the legs towards the midline throughout the entire sequence. First, bend the knees until the feet are perpendicular to the floor, continuing to squeeze the block as you do so that the movement isolates the hamstrings. Second, lift the knees off the floor by pressing the hamstrings up towards the ceiling and activating the glutes. Third, sloooowwwly extend the legs, drawing a big arc with the feet and keeping the knees off the floor as you continue to squeeze the block. This movement is an eccentric strengthening exercise for your hamstrings (activating while lengthening). At the end, both legs will be lifted with straight knees (the feet will only clear the floor by a couple of inches and the knees may just hover over the floor). Fourth, hold there for a breath or two, and then relax fully onto your belly. Repeat ten times!
I built a “Gypsy Guitar” playlist for this class, for no better reason than that I love gypsy guitar and it makes a nice upbeat but undistracting accompaniment.
Resources for this class:
Doug Keller. Yoga As Therapy Volume II. (DoYoga.com)
I designed this class to bring out your inner Kali, the fierce Goddess of Enlightenment who wears the skirt of heads and who defeated a hord of demons by licking up their blood as it was spilled so each drop couldn’t form a new demon. (The Little Book of Hindu Deities, by Pixar animator Sanjay Patel, has an awesome picture and description of her.) It seemed a natural fit to focus on the gluteals (the gluteusmaximus, medius, and minimus, not so much on the tensor fascia lata) as they include the largest muscles in the body and are key to holding the goddess pose itself, Utkata Konasana.
The class begins with Lion’s Pose and Lion’s Breath, which always reminds me of the haka, the Maori war dance. (We repeat the fierce exhale with tongue out and a sharp “ah” later in the class while practicing Goddess Pose.) We start slowly with some movements from tabletop position, including small (~10 degree) lifts of the leg behind you in tabletop. These lifts, and all the various repetitions of them in later poses, are meant to be very small, isolating the glutes and hamstrings while holding the hips and core still.
A few additional notes: you’ll see these Russian Squats from Hasta Padangusthasana recur in some of my classes. The key to them is to fire up the psoas corresponding to the extended leg by integrating the femur bone deep into hip socket in Hasta Padangusthasana, and to squeeze everything in towards the midline while moving through the squat. There’s inevitably a moment as you drop your hips close to the ground when you think you might lose your balance and simply collapse to the floor; if you can engage the core and glutes even more and squeeze towards the midline, you will transition through it and end up in the full expression of the pose, with seat close to the ground and leg still extended (just like a figure skater’s sit spins).
Likewise, the gluteus medius lifts from Prasarita Padottanasana also reappear in many of my classes. Bring the thumbs and forefingers to touch and shift the weight forward until it is partly borne on the arms, then lift one leg directly to the side (it’s easier to swing it forward–that’s also cheating) and hold it there for at least five breaths. It’s much harder than it looks, and most people can barely clear the floor the first few times they try. Persevere and you will get stronger!
Finally, I borrowed the “side series” indicated below directly from pilates. Athleta.net has an excellent description of the proper positioning and some of the exercises, but if you’re intrigued and want to learn more, an excellent resource is Alycea Ungaro’s Pilates: Body In Motion book.
For this class, I used a playlist called “Drums”, featuring (shocker) lots o’ drums!
With apologies for the long delay – I was taking an online class that ate up my free time and that just finished last week – I’m continuing to post the series of classes I started back in January. This one built on the previous classes with the additional focus on the adductors, most of which attach from the sit bones and pubis to the thigh bone (one, the gracilis, runs all the way to the knee). Among their actions, they enable us to squeeze our thighs together… which presents a range of fun teaching moments in the class sequence.
I like to start adductor-focused classes out by using a block between the thighs during sun salutations, which tends to establish a good awareness of the squeezing/firing up sensation. In this class, I used some queueing from Doug Keller (annotated below) to keep the engagement in the inner thighs through a series of standing poses. These culminated in a couple of arm balances (kakasana and tittibhasana) that require strong inner thighs pressing isometrically against the arms to maintain stability and balance.
Subsequent asanas worked on both stretching and stimulating the adductors. I included a couple of PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching exercises, from Ray Long’s Bandha Yoga, that were designed to optimally stretch the adductors.
The playlist for this class was “techno chill”, for no particular reason other than it has a pretty good beat to keep people going during some tough asana series.
This class continued to explore the psoas and piriformis, adding in the abductors, and building towards a couple of ardha chandrasana (Half Moon) exercises against the wall. I find it’s very common for students to collapse the hips toward the standing leg in Half Moon, aided and abetted by a floppy lifted leg. By pressing the sole of their lifted foot against the wall (standing perpendicular to the wall), students discover why it’s so important to keep that outstretched leg and foot active, as well as find the support necessary to open the hips. We practice both against the wall and then stepping away from it to try to find the same sensation.
(As the class notes show, I also like assist individual students away from the wall with a hand either above the outstretched ankle–for students whose leg sags–or below it–for my gumbies who can’t find 90deg.)
While we’re at the wall, we also practice parsvottanasana (intensive side stretch). I always teach this pose to beginners using the wall, and like to throw this variation in to remind even advanced students that even though they may feel it primarily in the hamstrings, it’s really about lengthening the sides of the waist and narrowing front hip points together while grounding down through both big toes (both of the latter cues help students square off the hips without explicitly directing them to do so, since I find that often causes them to pull the hips out of whack or to over-rotate the pelvis). Once they get used to stretching the spine out to come into the full expression of parsvottanasana, transitioning to parivrtta trikonasana (revolved triangle pose) becomes very easy.
This class also introduces a little gluteus medius and abductor exercise I picked up from a teacher at the old incarnation of Georgetown Yoga (not affiliated with the current studio). From prasarita padottanasana (wide angle forward fold), walk the hands out about a foot beyond the toes and bring thumbs and forefingers to touch with the rest of the fingers spread wide. Slowly begin to shift the weight forward until it’s spread between the hands and the feet, and then lift one leg straight to the side. Most people can only manage to hover it right off the ground until they begin to build strength; it’s not necessarily to lift it more than a few inches. I try to have them hold it for a count of 3-5 breaths, and then release the leg and walk both hands around to that leg for a bit of a twisted stretch in prasarita. It’s easy to cheat in this exercise by sweeping the lifted leg forward, so be sure it’s being lifted directly up to the side.
The playlist for this class was themed around–what else!–Moon. (A surprising number of students were particularly delighted about the inclusion of Moon River at the end.)
Wonderful opportunity for Washington, D.C., area yogis next weekend at Pure Prana Yoga Studio in Old Town Alexandria!!! Guest teacher Sandrine Harris will be joining us from the NYC area, where she is a Feldenkrais practitioner and teaches Kinesoma (the pursuit of learning through movement). She’ll also be giving a Kinesoma class and a separate Feldenkrais workshop for pregnant yogis.
This class was inspired by another Doug Keller quote, “The piriformis is frenemies with the psoas - they send angry texts to each other through the hips.”(1) I wanted to build on the previous class on the psoas with one on the muscle that should, in balanced bodies, be working in concert with it.
As I note at the top of the class sequence page, the piriformis attaches at the sacrum and the head of the femur, forming a hammock in which the sacrum and tailbone sit. During walking, it contracts in response to the heel strike to stabilize the SI joint, while the psoas reacts to extending the big toe by swinging the leg forward. Thus, grounding the outer heel keeps the piriformis happy, and extending through the big toe keeps the psoas happy. (The piriformis also balances the weight in side-to-side movements.) (2)
The emphasis on grounding through the outer heel reminded me of the groundedness and stability sensations of the root chakra (muladhara), so I decided to build sequences that would explore them both at the same time.
We started (and ended) class with a reading I modified from this Yoga Paws article on the root chakra (“Imagine a great ancient tree with a wide trunk and roots digging deeply into the earth...”). I actually had several students remark afterwards how this reading resonated with them. We sat in baddha konasana for the reading and meditation, and I used another trick picked up from Keller (lifting both knees up and extending the sit bones like two little feet before slowly releasing the knees back to baddha k) to emphasize the growing of roots into the ground before we started.
The class sequence was built to sequentially warm the muscles to prepare for big hip openers like pigeon, gomukhasana, and fire log positions: (3)
I created a playlist themed on the root chakra, with some specific root chakra (gong and Tibetan bowl) music, and some that simply reminded me of it.
Completed my vernal equinox 108 sun salutation series before sundown… first time just on my own. Entirely coincidentally, I did it in 1 hour and 8 minutes (half the time of previous group outings). Think I might have actually done more than 108 in the end because I was doing groups of 10 and was in such a zone towards the end that I kept forgetting what number I was on. Hoping that a nice epsom salt bath keeps the sore arms at bay!
One of the more memorable quotes from Doug Keller’s Advanced Yoga As Therapy workshop at the lovely Asheville Yoga Center last year was that you store your whole life in your psoas. What it means is that the psoas actually chemically contracts in response to stress, trauma, and emotions (this is why we speak of feeling emotions in the gut); prolonged contraction affects the breathing patterns because of the connection between the psoas and the root of the diaphragm.
I was actually thinking about that connection when I began contemplating the theme of series 3, which is what lead me to starting out with the breath. (Also I thought it might be good to focus on taking a good breath after the long holiday season.) After that, the next natural focus was moving from the diaphragm to the psoas.
A key thing to know about the psoas is that it must be released and lengthened, not stretched. Since so many of us walk around with chronically tightened psoas, we begin the class with a series of gentle exercises designed both to release the psoas (before any strengthening exercises) and to simply put us back in touch with its sensations. As we build on the sun salutations, we begin to integrate some cues (such as the isometric pressure between hands and shin in hasta padangusthasana prep) that should help “fire up” the psoas. We progressively work on the psoas and related muscle groups, building up to big psoas stretches like pigeon and psoas toning exercises such as ardha navasana and salabasana lifts.
I put together a playlist called “Time/Life” to accompany this class (happy to send the xml file upon request).
A few tips to shortcuts I use in my handwritten class sequencing notes:
Props you will need are written somewhere across the top – typically in upper left hand corner.
Any readings I use for the opening grounding/meditation/pranayama portion are also in the upper left hand corner.
A pair of dots like a colon : at the end of a sequence is just like the musical notation - repeat that sequence, using other leg as necessary (sometimes I write x2).
A backwards S is my notation for vinyasa (plank-chatturanga-updog-downdog).
Surprise: the little sun icon means sun salutation! Usually indicated as A or B (ashtanga style). With B variations, I often only notate sequences that I add after or substitute for Warrior I (assume the rest of the vinyasa should be performed as usual).
Most asana names are abbreviated.
Until recently, these notes were for my private use only and I didn’t do a great job of recording my sources of information (I’m sorry!). I’m endeavoring now to put a block of information sources in the upper right hand corner and to specifically note under the asana when I’ve borrowed from that source.
FYI, there are often a bunch of long notes across the top. If they are about anatomy and kinesiology, they are mostly so I can refer to them if needed during class or for refreshing my memory if I re-use the class later. Sometimes, however, they are actual readings (for meditation or to read while students are warming up).
The sequences I am posting were created for a 90-minute vinyasa class for experienced yogis. (I teach other, shorter classes for mixed-level and less experienced students, but am focusing on sharing only the 90-min classes.) The class sequences include limited cues for teaching purposes, but are not comprehensive enough to keep less experienced students safe in a home practice. Please practice with attentiveness to your own body and needs and at your own risk!
I started teaching a new session of alignment-based vinyasa back in January with a class focused on reconnecting with the breath. We started with the “Just This” meditation from page 191 of Donna Farhi’s “The Breathing Book”, and I designed asana sequences to emphasize a meditative flow so that my students could continually primarily focus their minds on “just this”.
The 90 minute playlist was themed “Breathe” (of course) – some songs by title or theme, some because they feature breathing. My intention is to find a way to upload playlists here (in XML or TXT format), but so far it’s a big #ITfail. In the meantime, if you were in class and liked the music, or are just curious, email me and I’d be happy to share it.
I teach yoga in the metro DC area when I’m not at my full time job or doing one of a number of sports I pursue (cycling, kickboxing, speedskating, pilates, etc.) To me, yoga is a complementary practice to other athletic or artistic endeavors. In nearly 15 years as a yogi, I’ve done just about every kind of yoga out there, but I am certified in holistic yoga and primarily influenced by my Ashtanga and Anusara roots. I also study Yoga As Therapy, and am particularly interested yoga as a practice to rebalance muscle groups or body asymmetries, as well as a meditative experience in its own right. My classes are carefully designed to progressively awaken muscle groups (I’m a Big Fan of Mark Stephens) and are intended to help yogis fully inhabit their bodies in their own practices.
I intend this site to be a place to post my class sequences and (very eclectic) playlists, as well as any other yoga- or athletic-related stuff that strikes my fancy. If you’re interested in what you find here, ping me or drop into my Sunday morning extended vinyasa class at Pure Prana in Old Town Alexandria. (I’m also available for private yoga instruction at Pure Prana.)