3 Yoga Poses to Reset Your Body

By Wellness, Yoga PosesNo Comments

I had a job once that required a one hour commute each way, with eight hours at a desk in between, five days per week. It was a lot of sitting. I wish I had yoga then! Excessive sitting, especially at a desk, in front of a computer, hyper-focused, and very possibly stressed, can result in a lot of discomfort and tension in our bodies. If your job requires you to sit for long periods of time, try out these three yoga poses to reset your body and mind. These postures are also foundational to a more comprehensive āsana practice and worth the extra attention. Practice them often to help counteract the toll sitting takes on your body. And remember to breathe deeply in each shape.

Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Śvānāsana)

While not a full inversion, like Supported Headstand (Sālamba Śīrṣāsana) for example, Downward Facing Dog reverses our innate upright way of being. This posture, wherein the head falls below the heart and the arms and shoulders begin to bear the body’s weight, literally switches up our perspective. The position of our heads in this pose permits only one point of focus: our feet. Our eyes can’t dart around the room, making us prone to all sorts of distractions. In this mild inversion, we’re more inclined to invert our focus as well, to catch a glimpse of the calm beneath the heavy cloud cover of our busy minds.

If set up properly, Downward Dog can actually release stiffness in the shoulders and upper back, which are common sites of stored tension. Begin on your hands and knees. Place your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and spread your fingers. Lift your hips up, lower your chest towards your thighs, and relax your head completely, as if it were weighted. Align your torso and arms so your chest doesn’t dip below your shoulders. Draw your shoulder blades away from one another, engage your chest muscles, and roll your elbows down towards the floor. Notice how your collarbones broaden and the space in between your shoulder blades expands.

Low Lunge (Aṅjaneyāsana)

This is quite possibly my favorite yoga pose of all time. A pillar of Classical Sun Salutations (Sūrya Namaskar), Low Lunge is grounding, strength-building, and lengthens the iliopsoas muscle. The psoas starts in the Thoracic region of the spine (T-12), runs along the lumbar vertebrae, and connects to the top of the femur bone, or thigh bone. Because it links the legs and the torso, the psoas stabilizes the spine, which is important for balance and proper posture. However, this muscle contracts when we sit, and if we sit for long periods of time without movement or stretching, tension in this muscle can sometimes result in lower back pain.

With the knee of your back leg down, frame your front foot with your hands. Place them either on the ground, two yoga blocks, or whatever you have handy. Elevate the chest so the spine is straight and not curved. Now move your hands to the top of your front knee. Take a few deep breaths. Then, lift them overhead for the full expression of the pose. Notice how the position of your arms and torso in each variation changes the intensity of the stretch in your hip.

Garland Pose (Mālāsana)

This wide-legged, deep squat stretches the lower back and strengthens the legs. This āsana also opens the hips and exercises the muscles of the ankles and feet. It’s all together a very helpful pose for soothing tension in the lower back and improving posture, which can get thrown off from long hours of desk work.

For this pose, press the soles of your feet into the floor, and engage your lower legs and glutes. Place a prop of sorts underneath your seat, allowing gravity to lengthen your lumbar spine as you relinquish some of your weight to the support of your prop. Press your palms together at your chest. Position your elbows inside your legs, pressing them against your knees. Use this action as leverage to lift your collarbones, sitting taller. If it feels right, remove the prop and practice this pose with your seat hovering over the floor.

When practiced with focused awareness and proper form, yoga āsanas can bring our bodies back into alignment and help to relieve the aches associated with sedentary work. Begin and conclude this mini-flow either standing or seated, close your eyes softly, and take several long deep breaths. With each inhale fill your lungs a little bit more, and with each exhale relax your shoulders away from your ears, releasing tension and stress from your body.

Why Structure is Important: Effective Sequencing Through the Lens of Backbends

By Yoga Poses, Yoga TeachersNo Comments

I adore the feeling of floating off my mat after Śavāsana, feeling strong and limber, my hips yielding gracefully to every step, and my mind ever-so quiet. This post-yoga experience is no accident, but rather the result of deliberate sequencing and a well-thought-out lesson plan. As yoga teachers, if we lack a clear objective and an anatomically-informed roadmap to get there, it will likely be harder for our students to retain the lessons that lead to greater body awareness. Leading structured āsana classes offers our students opportunities to not only connect deeply with the postures, but also calm and focus their minds. It’s important to pick one thing to teach and teach it well.

It can be intimidating to lead a back-bending sequence because backbends involve so many moving parts that must be addressed throughout the class to ensure students practice these particular āsanas safely. If the body is not properly warmed up, back-bending could lead to discomfort or injury in the lower back or shoulders. As is true for all āsana sequences, but is especially important for back-bending, each pose should serve a purpose.

Let’s take Wheel Pose (Ūrdhva Dhanurāsana), for example. This āsana is an intense backbend that expands the chest, but with support from the core and the hips. To prepare your students for this pose, incorporate postures like Upward Facing Dog Pose (Ūrdhva Mukha Śvānāsana), Plank Pose (Phalakāsana), Locust Pose (Śalabhāsana), and Cow Face Pose (Gomukhāsana), which engage and open the chest and shoulder muscles. With equal importance, address the muscles involved in hip extension, which is when the angle of the hip joint increases. In order for the hips to extend and the spine to bend backwards, the abdominal and iliopsoas muscles must be properly warmed up.

The psoas muscle starts at the Thoracic spine (T-12), hugs the lumbar vertebrae, and attaches to the top of the femur bone (thigh bone). It flexes the hip joint and stabilizes the spine. Because it connects to the lumbar vertebrae and stretches when the hips extend, working the psoas through various āsanas like Low Lunge (Aṅjaneyāsana), Warrior I (Vīrabhadrāsana I), and Extended Side Angle Pose (Utthita Pārśvakoṇāsana) is essential to supporting and preventing injury to the lower back in back-bending postures. Along with various abdominal exercises and core-activating āsanas like Half Boat Pose (Ardha Nāvāsana), incorporating several rounds of various Sun Salutations (Sūrya Namaskar) will help students generate the internal heat needed to open their bodies in a pose like Wheel.

Those are the essential components of a back-bending class. But arranging poses together is not the same as teaching something specific. Within this framework, what insight or information can we offer our students to help them experience Wheel Pose in a new, deeper, more effective way? Let’s circle back to hip extension, which is a mechanism of Wheel Pose. But this posture, among others, also reveals something interesting about hip extension. In Wheel, the hips extend so the spine can bend backwards, but hip extension itself requires the strength of the legs in order to effectively support the backbend. And therein lies the focus of the class – the glutes and hamstrings.

Teach back-bending but do so in terms of how the glutes and hamstrings work in these postures. In Bridge Pose (Setu Bandhāsana), cue your students to engage these muscles to support the elevation of their hips. In Locust Pose (Śalabhāsana) and Bow Pose (Dhanurāsana), hip extension alone does not account for each action; the hamstrings and glutes facilitate the lift we experience in these postures. As well, include āsanas like Garland Pose (Mālāsana), Chair Pose (Utkatāsana), and Warrior 2 (Vīrabhadrāsana II), among others, for building leg strength. When it comes to Wheel Pose, make the connection for your students between these leg muscles, hip extension, and the backbend. Engaging the hamstrings and glutes specifically, along with all the leg muscles, stabilizes the hips so the spine can bend backwards in one fluid arc, without compressing the lumbar spine.

Keep in mind the purpose of āsanas; they are postures, intricate compositions of skeletal alignment and muscular engagement intended to keep our bodies fit for what they contain – our souls. As technical physical shapes, āsanas require time and attention to detail; and as gateways to Spirit, call for sincerity and reverence as well. By sequencing with purpose, we offer our students something to focus on, rather than their fluctuating thoughts, revealing the true gift of āsana: when our minds are steady and calm, soul-nourishing truths begin to emerge.

Functional Foot Fitness

By Wellness, YogaNo Comments

Yoga can and should be a tool to better many aspects of wellness. Flexibility, endurance, strength, balance—and functional fitness. Functional fitness is just what it sounds like: Working towards achieving and sustaining a level of fitness that serves functional purposes in your life. As we age, we naturally lose functional fitness to varying degrees. If you’re a westerner, your lifestyle has probably drastically stunted your innate functional fitness, too. Desk jobs, Netflix binges on couches or in bed, western-style toilets, and wearing comfy socks and shoes destroy functional fitness.

A popular doctor’s test for a patient 55+ is to ask them to stand up from a seated position on the ground without using their hands or arms. A lot of people can’t do it, and you certainly don’t need to be in your golden years to fall into this camp! It’s a simple test that can tell you so much. However, it’s just one example of functional fitness that we lose.

You don’t want to be unable to get up from the ground without using your hands. You don’t want to be traveling in Asia and find yourself incapable of using a Turkish toilet (especially if said toilet is in a bar with unmentionable liquids surrounding it … trust me). You don’t want to have poor balance simply because you wore socks (or as I like to call them: foot mittens) and shoes for so many years that your toes have atrophied and stick together.

Function. It’s our job to practice it and keep it.

Putting the “Fun” in Functional

Okay, that was a pun I couldn’t resist thanks to the writer in me (and general love of puns). Still, functional fitness pairs perfectly with yoga and is ideally a part of every practice. A synonym of “functionality” is “purpose,” and that’s exactly what we all need more of in our life. A life of purpose is one that helps you thrive.

One of my favorite asanas (poses) for functional fitness is prayer squat. Work towards getting your heels to touch the floor if they don’t already. And if they don’t, know that it may never happen. Every body is different, and prayer squat can be especially challenging for distance runners who need those tight hamstrings to stay safe.

I also like to earmark part of every practice for foot fitness. Your feet have 52 bones, which is one quarter of all the bones in your body! Each foot also has 19 muscles and tendons, 107 ligaments and 33 joints. They were designed to move and flex (in both directions) a lot. Toes should be able to separate, flex, and lift individually (seriously!) just like our fingers. Think they don’t move as much as fingers because they’re so short? That’s just not true. Children’s fingers are very short, and our thumbs are relatively short, yet we know just how strong and flexible they are regardless of length.

Get a Foot Fetish

During each yoga practice, and at least once a day regardless, dedicate a few minutes to working out your feet. Try to lift and spread all toes while keeping the rest of your foot squarely on the floor with equal weight distribution. Practice lifting each toe individually. This might take a lifetime of practice and you’ll never fully get there, but you will certainly get better with practice.

More importantly, embrace the barefoot lifestyle whenever you can. Go without shoes, no matter how “good for you” marketers claim them to be. All shoes, even the Vibram five-finger shoes, are no match for barefoot. Ditch the socks, too, which gently squish your toes together. Recognize that in the western world, we’re very spoiled when it comes to surface areas. We walk on pavement, hardwoods, and carpets, which all weaken our foot and ankle bones that are begging for a challenge. Go off course, walk on trails, take a hike, and trust the lowest part of your body to find balance on uneven ground.

Finding balance. It’s a goal that we never fully achieve for more than a few brief seconds. It’s really the journey where the magic happens. The destination? Well, it doesn’t really exist, so allow yourself to fall in love with the ups and downs, those peaks and valleys.

What Does it Really Mean to Let Go? (plus yoga teaching tips!)

By Yoga Philosophy, Yoga Poses, Yoga Practice, Yoga TeachersNo Comments

In my early days of practicing yoga, I found myself curious about what seemed to be a very common yoga theme – letting go. I’d hear it at the studio, I’d see it on social media, and in blog posts, but I didn’t quite understand what it meant. When in a yoga pose, let go seemed to be a cue to relax where possible. In terms of yogic philosophy, I took letting go to mean loosening my grip on the things I couldn’t control. In a sense, both are true, but as I dove into the nitty gritty of yoga, I discovered more.

Letting go is a simple phrase, but the instruction isn’t. Even for the most seasoned yoga practitioners, relinquishing control, detaching from sense distractions, and demonstrating faith is a constant, daily practice that can ebb and flow between graceful diligence and downright frustration. The following paragraphs offer another perspective of letting go, plus suggestions for teaching this topic in a yoga class.

Detachment isn’t enough – we must seek out something higher.

Like letting go, the concept of detachment or dispassion – called vairāgya in Sanskrit – suggests a release of something. But what are we letting go of and what fills the gap left behind? Vairāgya – the necessary counterpart to abhyāsa, or practice – is more than severing our attachments to the shiny objects of our sense world; it also entails repositioning our energy towards what really matters – our souls. And the texts speak to this. Translators of the Bhagavad Gītā agree that detaching from material desires is not enough; we must also engage in something greater than ourselves 1,2. Yoga Sūtra commentators mirror this understanding of vairāgya, explaining that detachment means pursuing the soul3,4.

Letting go is a choice to focus on the deeper essence of who we are, and this perspective is a powerful lesson to weave through a dharma talk, or the spiritual message of a yoga class. I’ve met this moment again and again, of realizing that a job, a relationship, or routine distracted me from Spirit, and from knowing myself. At those times, I’ve had to practice quieting my mind in order to refocus inwards. It’s really impactful to share this type of experiential knowledge with our students, backed by yogic teachings, because relating these concepts to modern life makes them more understandable and transformative.

It all comes back to calming our fluctuating thoughts.

So how does this all translate to an āsana practice? Yogic postures are tools for shifting our awareness from the actions of our bodies to the energetic levels of our souls. The reason why the postures should be steady (sthira) and comfortable (sukha) is so we can maintain them for meditation5. It all comes back to quieting our minds. In order to turn our attention within, we need to bring our minds under control so we can untangle ourselves from material lures.

To help students experience āsana as a mental discipline, pair movement with breathwork (prāṇāyāma). Focusing on our breathing gives our minds something to do, rather than fixate on our fleeting thoughts. Regulating the pace of an āsana sequence is also important. If we tire out our bodies a bit with steady to fast-paced vinyāsa before holding stationary poses, our minds have a better chance of slowing down. This might look something like multiple Sun Salutation (Sūrya Namaskar) variations to start, followed by 10 breaths in Warrior II (Vīrabhadrāsana II), several counts in Chair Pose (Utkaṭāsana), Fierce Angle Pose (Utkaṭā Koṇāsana), and Garland.

Pose (Mālāsana), and so on and so forth. This approach combines physical endurance with mental focus – the two dynamic components of āsana.

When it comes to letting go, presenting this deeper meaning opens doors for our students to connect, in even small ways, to something bigger than themselves. Letting go of the things we can’t control is part of it, as is releasing tension and giving up expectations of ourselves for our practice. But, in truth, letting go is more than a single moment; it’s a lifelong process of connecting to what’s most important, of devoting our hearts to the eternal, divine truth knitting us all together.

1. Prabhupāda, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, translator. Bhagavad Gītā, As It Is. The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1983, p. 288.

2. Goswami, H.D. A Comprehensive Guide to Bhagavad Gītā, with Literal Translation. Krishna West, Inc. 2015, p. 95.

3. Iyengar, B.K.S., translator. Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. Thorsons, 2002, p 62.

4. Bryant, Edwin F., translator. The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. North Point Press, 2009, p. 53.

5. Bryant, Edwin F., translator. The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. North Point Press, 2009, p. 284.

Teaching During COVID: A Pep Talk for New Yoga Teachers

By Yoga Philosophy, Yoga TeachersNo Comments

It’s true – becoming an effective and confident yoga teacher takes practice. While opportunities to teach āsana may currently be in short supply as a result of COVID-19, being a yoga teacher is not dependent on having access to public spaces to teach. Discovering who you are and sharing that person with not only yoga students, but also the people you encounter throughout your life is at the heart of being a yoga teacher. It’s a process that has the potential to transform you and impact those around you in profound, and sometimes unexpected, ways.

Yoga is more than the āsana, and so are you.

By no means are the postures insignificant; Iyengar asserted that, for the average person, practicing āsana and prāṇāyāma are the two most effective disciplines for quieting the mind. But, in reality, the postures are only a piece of a much bigger process of self-discovery and transformation. Teaching āsana is not the only way to share yoga.

I once supported someone through the death of a loved one. To help her manage the mound of tasks that surfaced in the wake of her loss, I would remind her to take breaks, to take deep breaths, and assess situations before acting. In essence, we practiced a little yoga every day. By helping her to hold the space between stimulus and response, she was able to control her thoughts enough to meet her responsibilities, while also honoring her grief.

Ask yourself these questions: Beyond the postures, how have I shared yoga with others? And, how can I continue to do so? Maybe it’s been through writing, conversation, or relationship, but if you’ve offered any of yoga’s gifts to another person, that’s teaching too.

Memberships expire, but knowledge doesn’t.

Several years back, I moved from my home of four years. In the two years that followed, I taught yoga in studios sporadically, struggling to find my groove in new places. When it came time to renew my Yoga Alliance registration, I didn’t have many teaching hours to log. For a moment, I felt like I had lost my legitimacy as a teacher. Then I realized that, while memberships expire, knowledge doesn’t. My connection to yoga hadn’t gone anywhere, and that’s because I never stopped practicing.

During those tough two years, I maintained a very disciplined morning practice of worship and meditation. When I started teaching in studios again with regularity, I did so with ease and authenticity. Through a committed daily spiritual practice (sādhanā) and self-study through sacred texts (svādhyāya), my relationship to yoga shifted from a set of practices I performed to something that I lived.

Being a yoga teacher means being a student first. If you don’t have many opportunities to teach or share yoga right now, weaving yogic practices and philosophies into your everyday life is essential to uncovering what you’re meant to offer as a teacher.

Keep your eyes on your own mat.

In other words, don’t compare yourself to others, and commit to what feels right for you. If we’re focusing on what someone else is doing, we may stray from the work we’re meant to do. Krishṇa speaks to this in Bhagavad Gītā 3.35 when He explains that no one else can perform our dharma (spiritual purpose) for us, nor can we perform another’s. In fact, it’s dangerous to attempt to do so.

I run into this trap all the time. I’ll notice someone else’s work on social media, make a snap judgement, and then I’m full-steam ahead down one continuous, self-critical scroll. I eventually catch myself, realizing I’d been investing time in an idea of who I think I should be, rather than nurturing who I am. It happens, especially when the digital world tends to showcase large and enticing markers of success. Focusing on what it is we do well is really just another way to practice yoga.

If you recently completed a yoga teacher training, it’s both possible and important to continue your journey as a teacher right now, despite the plethora of unprecedented challenges we face today as yoga teachers, studio owners, and simply human beings. These perspectives are not meant to be magic-fixes, but rather things to practice. If there’s one thing that yoga reveals to us, it’s that we can show up imperfectly and make progress, even if we can’t immediately see the transformation taking place.

1. Iyengar, B.K.S., translator. Light on Yoga. Schocken Books, 1979, p 27.

Building Spinal Strength from Cobra Pose to Upward Facing Dog

By Yoga, Yoga PosesNo Comments

In vinyasa yoga, Cobra Pose is usually considered a basic posture for beginners. Alternately, Upward Facing Dog, an intermediate pose, is regularly taught in a vinyasa sequence. In vinyasa, either of the poses can be used interchangeably during transition, though they are distinctly different. Due to the quickened nature of a vinyasa practice, these poses are usually held only for the length of an inhalation. Because of this, many vinyasa students have not experienced a full range of extension in Cobra Pose, nor have they properly aligned their Upward Facing Dog. However, when practiced regularly and correctly, both Cobra Pose and Upward Facing Dog build spinal strength and flexibility, allowing students of all levels to participate in flow-style vinyasa practices.

Vinyasa yoga has its roots in Ashtanga yoga; a style of practice developed by K. Pattabhi Jois in the mid-twentieth century, which is considered to be the backbone of modern Western yoga. Ashtanga yoga’s formulated sequence of poses is preformed in a specific order, whereas vinyasa yoga is a freeform practice with limitless variations. Both styles are energetic, dynamic, and steadily paced. The term vinyasa is a linkage of two Sanskrit words: nyasa, meaning “to place”, and vi, “in sacred accord.” To vinyasa, therefore, is to preform poses in accordance to the breath, each transition synchronized with either an inhalation or exhalation.

While a vinyasa style class known for its flowing sequences, its claim to fame is the transition of Chaturanga to Upward Facing Dog to Downward Facing Dog. In the heighted pace of a one-breath-one-pose setting, learning the mechanics of a proper Upward Facing Dog often requires a greater length of time then allotted for in a general vinyasa practice. Due to the highly mobile structure of the hand, elbow, and shoulder, an improperly aligned Upward Facing Dog places the practitioner at a physical disadvantage. Because we often misuse our hands and arms in computer-related activities, it is essential that we execute the vinyasa transition, particularly Upward Facing Dog, with precision and awareness. Because the vinyasa transition can occur with frequency, taking the time to learn proper alignment, and to build the supportive muscles of the spine, is important to prevent injury. To this end, Cobra Pose offers a well-suited alternative to Upward Facing Dog, and prepares the body for the rigors of vinyasa.

Cobra Pose is a fundamental posture within a solid asana practice. As a floor pose, it is both accessible to beginners and well suited for daily practitioners. Cobra Pose can be used during a vinyasa sequence as a substitute for Upward Facing Dog without breaking the flow, offering a variation that is gentler on the back, shoulders, neck, and wrists. To practice Cobra Pose, lie down on the floor with the stomach downward. Press the hands flat on the floor on either side of the ribcage, just below armpit level. Curl the toes under, and while keeping the ankles together, pull the heels of the feet back, lifting the knees from the ground. With an inhalation, lift the chest and upper back upwards. With an exhalation, roll the shoulders back and downwards. Keep the entire abdominal sheath on the floor while pressing the chest forwards, creating traction by firmly pressing the palms down and pulling the elbows back and in. When done correctly, Cobra Pose stretches and strengthens the upper back, chest, and shoulders, while also developing the musculature of the upper, middle, and lower back, as well as the upper arms. To fully experience the benefits of this pose, it should be practiced daily to build strength, flexibility, and the habit of good alignment.

Building from Cobra Pose, Upward Facing Dog strengthens the entire spine, deepens flexibility, and is incredibly rejuvenating. When practiced properly, Upward Facing Dog can elevate spinal stiffness, aches, and pains. To practice Upward Facing Dog, lie on the floor with the stomach downward. Press the hands on the floor on either side of the ribcage, just below armpit level. Push the hands down and straighten the elbows, lifting the body off of the floor, leaving only the tops of the feet and the palms of the hands on the mat. Engage the muscles of the legs; lift the chest forward and up, drawing the shoulders and upper back downward. Look forward, or upward, if it causes no tension. Press the pelvis forward, and the back of the knees upward as much as possible. Because all of the body’s weight rests in the hands and on the tops of the feet, avoid sinking into the joints of the shoulders and lower back by actively lifting forward and up. Engage the muscles of the legs and arms as much as possible, and avoid bending the knees or leaving them on the floor to prevent injury or soreness in the lower back.

While it might seem that established practitioners of vinyasa yoga prefer Upward Facing Dog as the gold standard of backbends, Cobra Pose is a viable alternative that builds strength, flexibility, and healthy alignment. Far from being a simplified variation of Upward Facing Dog, Cobra Pose offers tremendous benefits both physically and subjectively, especially with daily practice. When properly preformed, both Upward Facing Dog and Cobra Pose are fundamental components of a healthy asana practice. It is important, therefore, to take the time to learn proper application and alignment of these poses, especially in vinyasa practices where the length of time spent in the pose may only be a breath. When the alignment becomes second nature, and the breath is steady, both Cobra Pose and Upward Facing Dog can be preformed smoothly, and used interchangeably as needed.

 

By Holly Beck

Crow’s Game

By Gaming, YogaNo Comments

It took me six years of consistent practice before I managed to lift off my toes in bhakasana. The first time I came into the pose I was practicing yoga on the cement walkway in my backyard. Previously, I had always tried to pick my toes off the mat purposefully. On this day, however, I decided to track a little ant making its way towards the top of my mat with my nose. I leaned forward over my flat hands, covering the ant with the shadow of my head, causing it to speed forward towards the sun. I leaned forward more, and… POP! My toes pulled right off the ground, just as I looked up to see the ant trekking along in the sun, about 10 inches above my mat. Did I breathe? Did I balance long? The only lingering memory is the elation of having lifted into bhakasana for the first time, and the eagerness to do it again.

So, I play a little game with myself every time I practice Crow. Midway through my asana practice, I set up for Crow and tell my feet, “Hey toes, don’t come off the ground.” In my mind, in my voice, I say those words to myself, “Hey toes, whatever you do…don’t come off the ground!” Its playful, it’s silly. After all, crows are the pranksters of the animal kingdom. Crows caw in a way that’s practically a laugh out loud. They delight in shiny objects and trinkets, and won’t hesitate to swoop down and grab a bobble right off your picnic table in front of your face. This pose is all about fun. I’d been too serious in my earlier attempts at Crow. In the spirit of jest, I say, “TOES! Do not lift off the floor!” And, POP! There they go again! Toes up and at ‘em, Crow in motion, I smile and look up to see not an ant, but the smiling faces of my yoga students as I play my little game aloud while teaching class.

Crow is contagious. You know, they rarely fly alone. When one person “gets it,” or masters the pose, and can explain the how-to, crows begin to pop up on yoga mats throughout the class, throughout the entire yoga studio, even. Bhakasana practice is so beneficial; especially to build upper-body strength, even if the toes, truly, do not come off the ground. And that is fine! Maybe it’ll take you six years to “get it,” like me. But, nah! I did those years of groundwork as a service to all of us. If you’re ready lift off into Crow, play the game the little ant taught me! You’ll gain Crow pose, and so much more…but let me not get ahead of myself!

OBJECTIVE:

Bhakasana

SET UP:

Spend five to ten breaths in malasana, squat pose, while practicing mulabhandha. Mulabhandha is a concentrated contraction of perineum muscle applied on the exhale. This engagement feels similar to withholding the flow of urine. Release mulabhandha on inhale, drawing the breath down the length of the spine. Apply this same breath technique throughout the practice of Crow.

Now, position yourself: Flatten your palms on the ground shoulder distance apart with spread fingers. The elbows should bent inward, towards the ribcage, with the upper arms parallel to the floor. Lift the hips high, lift the heels up, and place the knees on the upper arms. Use the upper arms like tables to support the knees.

PLAY THE GAME:

Now you’re ready to play! Crows are flyers! Let your eyes follow an upward path, look up as much as you can, and begin to lean your body’s weight forward into your hands, arms and shoulders. Look up! You’re a bird! Just move forward and look to your trajectory. Now, in your mind, say, “Hey toes! Don’t pick up off the floor!” HA HA HA! Laughing like a crow, how silly you are, talking to your toes! Try it again, “Hey toes! Whatever you do, don’t come off the floor!” Its no big deal, this isn’t about our toes, or our legs, we are using our arms and our eyes to fly! Lean forward! Look up! Breath! Apply mulabhandha on exhale, lifting your hips up to the sky.

HOW TO WIN:

Play Crow pose for five breaths, three times a week, for one month.

Dare to play? There is only one winner in this game, and that is the one who plays it. Crow is such a lighthearted pose, after all, how can you fly weighted down? Put a smile on your face, and learn the lesson of the little ant. Look forward, look up, chase the sun, and keep going! Many asana poses are named after animals. There is a sort of childlike magic we can tap into when we embody the energy of the animals the poses are named for, as if they lend their characteristics to the shape. All we have to do is animate those shapes with our breath. Animals teach us to not be so serious, to live in the moment, and just go about the business of being exactly what we are.

The beauty of Crow is that it unlocks a pantheon of inversion postures. Crow pose is more about upward motion and steady balance than it is about strength. The dynamic upward lift of the posture is not conducive to force. No matter how much we try to lift our toes up, feet up, legs up, until we are balanced on the edge of flight, we’re earthbound. However, at some point, weightless occurs within bhakasana. Once you “have it,” Crow sets the foundation for handstands, forearm stands, and crazy fun animal poses like titibhasana, Firefly pose, urdhva kukutasana, Upward Rooster pose, and pincha mayurasana, Peacock Feather pose. All the flying animals come out to play once Crow takes flight! Have some fun on your mat, and play this little game with yourself. You just may find you’re no longer a busy ant trekking along your way, but a heralding Crow, calling in the power of flight.

 

By Holly Beck

The Teaching, the Lesson, and the Breath

By Yoga Practice, Yoga TeachersNo Comments

Within the practice of yoga there is a natural give and return. This principle is at its most obvious in the breath. We can breathe consciously. We can breathe unaware. We breathe, and we breathe, and we breathe, until we breathe no more. The efficacy of yoga lies in becoming aware of the breath. Breathe in. Breathe out. When we practice ujjayi breath, we hear the inhale as it passes though the airway, and into the lungs. We feel the inhale as it moves deeper, depressing the diagram, causing the abdomen to expand. When we exhale the breath, we feel the abdominals contract inward. We hear the exhalation in the inner ear as it passes through the throat and nostrils. Muscular engagement and release occur in tandem with the breath. In virabhadrasana I, for instance, we can tighten and relax muscles in coordination with the alternating breath cycle. On inhalation, we can create foundation, strength, and stability in the pose by tightening our back quad, and planting the back heel down firmly while straightening the knee joint. In exhalation, we can create openness and flexibility by allowing the hips to get weighty as the bend in the frontward leg is deepened. The principle of give and return can be found throughout the entirety of yoga, not only in asana, but in its philosophy, codes of conduct, and in the subtle practices of yogis that are direct descendants of its ancient lineages.

In the beginning, there is the breath. Until the end, there is the breath. The underlying principle of yoga is the awareness of breath, an awareness that is practiced in the now. Compiled over 2000 years ago by the sage Patanjali, Raja Yoga, also known as the Yoga Sutras, lays out the entirety of yoga in short, succinct, seed words. The first of 126 sutras states, “atha yoganusasanam,” translated, “Now, the practice of yoga is explained.” The very first thing Patanjali teaches us of yoga is that it is a practice of the NOW. NOW explains the practice of yoga. This teaching is both simple and profound. NOW. NOW, we breathe. Awareness of the breath brings us into the now. Yoga teachers begin and end each asana within the breath because the poses are interchangeable, secondary to the primary practice of breathing. The lesson of breath is a life-long teaching. Through the breath, it does not matter what tradition is practiced, where it’s practiced, or with who. It is the breath alone that links the movement of the moment to the NOW.

Contemporary yoga lineages in non-Eastern countries are diverse, convergent, and ever evolving. In this era of globalization, technology makes it possible for practitioners of an array of disciplines and cultures to come together in collaboration, inspiring one another by sharing their practices. While some modern yoga styles may be unidentifiable to the sadhus and yogis of traditional Vedic lines, there is an undeniable unifying link between them: the giving of teaching, and the practice of learning the lesson. Just as the breath brings life-nourishing prana into the body, is must it be released after completion in order for a new cycle to begin. The role of teacher is bestowed only after the role of student has been fulfilled. Then the new teacher teaches, and another student begins their lessons.

An authentic teacher gives lessons from experience. A lesson is a scope of inward examination. Life lessons, and the teachings that deliver them, can only be received in an open vessel. In other words, true lessons are learned in an open mind, an open heart, and a humble soul. Lessons take place through honest introspection, a focus into the recesses of the self. We all have those parts of ourselves that are uncomfortable, tense, agitating… those restricted places usually left “off-limits” in day-to-day thoughts, but linger on as proverbial skeletons in the closet. Effective teaching gets to the point, and aims to the heart of the matter. A lesson learned releases arrant and excessive elements of the psyche, tight aspects of the self that have been withheld from view. The key to mastering any lesson, any teaching, lies in humility and acceptance. In the NOW, all things are present at once, both the beauty and the beast. The breath teaches us this. In virabhadrasana I, flexibility and tightness are linked simultaneously in our consciousness through the breath. At once, strength and weakness are experienced NOW, within the breath. NOW is the teaching. NOW is the lesson.

In concession, exploring the deep nature of the NOW, and the cycle of give and return, is at its easiest within the practice of yoga asana. The body is tangible, accessible, and immediate. For most newcomers to yoga, the body is the easiest aspect of the self to connect with. We feel the breath in the body. We have aches and pains in the body. We get the body to class, move the body, sweat the body, and feel the effects of effects of asana in the body. With practice, and moderate advancement on the mat, a novice yogi usually becomes attracted to the philosophy and subtle elements of yoga. In these deeper studies, the student encounters dualities that will challenge the notions of the self that lie beyond the body. With the guidance of a teacher, the workings of the mind and ego will be revealed in a continual process of teaching and lessoning. And all the while, the presence of the breath is established as the connection to the NOW. A teaching with every inhale, a lesson in every exhale, breathe by breath, guided by the inner-eye of awareness.

 

By Holly Beck

Om Sweet Om

By Yoga Lifestyle, Yoga TeachersNo Comments

Once, my yoga studio was my home away from home. My fellow yoga teachers were closer to me than my family, and that familial love extended to our students. After ten years of service, I departed my cherished yoga studio to pursue an academic career. Far from home, and craving like-minded community, I became “yoga tourist,” trying out new studios and teachers. I was open to exploring new ways of practicing yoga, and was really curious about the yoga community at large. During my years of “yoga tourism,” I recognized specific traits and values that make a yoga studio great, and the qualities that set exceptional yoga teachers apart from an industry saturated with choices.

A likely place to begin a search for a new studio is on a customer review-based website. Though everyone’s needs are different, certain aspects may standout in multiple reviews. If a teacher’s name is mentioned over and over again, his or her class might be worth trying out. It could be that multiple reviewers note that the musical volume is loud, which may draw some students, while deterring others. Overall, I would look to see comments that indicate a studio is clean, has plenty of yoga props, and is reliably punctual. While all businesses would prefer to have a high customer rating, don’t let the amount of stars keep you from trying out a studio. It takes time for newer studios to develop a demographic; while more established studios could have such a loyal student base that their reviews are favorably weighted. A general online overview of your local studios can provide you with several studios to try out, sometimes with the added bonus of a free class, or discounted class packages for new students.

When I try a new yoga studio, I always take my first class with the owner, if he or she is a teacher. I believe that the owner of the studio sets the standard for the other teachers to follow. If I like the studio owner’s vibe and his or her class, chances are the rest of the teachers also offer quality classes. On the other hand, if the studio owner begins class late, engages socially with known students while not introducing themselves to newcomers, or ends class too early or late, the other classes at the studio are most likely managed the same way. Most studios require their teachers to complete in-house training or mentorship to insure a similarity in teaching styles, and consistency teacher to teacher. If you enjoy a specific teacher’s class, ask him or her to refer you to other classes of like instruction. Chances are that a skilled yoga studio proprietor is unifying the efforts of an equally skillful teaching staff.

If you are used to practicing a certain style of yoga over others, it may be difficult to replicate your preferred practice. While touring studios, I decided to practice hot yoga because the sequence of postures, and the temperature, was very different from my regular practice. Without comparing the practice to what I was familiar with, I was able to sense the demeanor, tone, and presence of the instructor. In this unfamiliar territory that I realized I preferred teachers who both demonstrated the poses, while also moving throughout the room in order to connect with the students.

I also discovered that many yoga teachers talk throughout the entire class, giving little room to experience the sound of breath alone. And, importantly, I learned that shavasana, the final relaxation at the end of an asana sequence, was oftentimes too short for my liking, or not offered at all. I then tried Iyengar yoga, a practice that focuses on alignment and holds with the use of props. This practice was generally cooling, slowly paced, and relaxing. While I enjoyed the calming environment and soothing sequence of Iyengar yoga, I found that my mind was busy and my physical energy level was too high for this practice. Ashtanga yoga was next on my yoga tour, a practice more closely aligned with what I was familiar with. Even yet, I had a challenge settling into myself. Rarely could I attend a class without a teacher overly adjusting my poses to fit into standard form, even though I just wanted to slip into anonymity at the back of the room to get a feel for myself moving in new ways.

Though my tour through the yoga community oftentimes met dead ends, I discovered subtle nuances within teaching styles, varying practices, and methodologies that I would not have if I had stayed in my home studio. Ultimately, I became a more masterful teacher in the process. This journey taught me how to hold space for students who practiced differently from what I was accustomed to seeing, without needed to alter their practice, or to change the shape of their body into something I considered to be more proper. I learned to speak less, and let the breath hold its own space in silence. I learned that my sequences and choice of words were of equal importance to the way I used my body to demonstrate postures. And, importantly, I recognized that the breath that is the lifeblood of the practice, regardless of the style. Lastly, I came to regard every student as a master in their own right, regardless of their prior yogic experience.

Though my days of yogic tourism are behind me, I use these same practical techniques when looking for a studio to offer my services in. If you’re new to yoga, searching for a studio to practice in, or established in your own practice but curious about what’s new in the yogic community, the sweet spot is where you feel challenged, nurtured, and comfortable despite a new setting or pose. Ultimately, the essence of a yogi is that of conscious, external activation, paired with a sense of relaxation and awareness. That attainment occurs from within, regardless of where the practice may take place.

 

By Holly Beck

Śraddhā: Faith as Yogic Practice

By Sanskrit, Yoga PhilosophyNo Comments

We all have a story to tell, a story of collapsing to our knees, winded and weary, and then picking ourselves up from wherever we’ve fallen in order to keep going. What fuels our ability to persevere through loss and adversity? One short answer is faith. But what is faith and how does it really work? Because faith relates more to the heart than it does to logic, it’s something we can feel but not necessarily define with absolute certainty. We tend to think of faith as something we have or we don’t, as in having faith in God or the Universe, or in a worldly sense, as having faith in humanity or a particular organization. Yoga offers another perspective, one that links faith to personal practice.

The Sanskrit word śraddhā translates to faith or trust. But encased in this word is a deeper, more illuminating meaning. B.K.S. Iyengar describes śraddhā as mental and intellectual firmness, which fosters an innate trust (1). Vyasa, an original commentator on the Yoga Sūtras, interprets śraddhā as clarity of mind that sustains us as we move along with our yoga practice. When the mind is clear, truth reveals itself; With untainted vision, we can see the way forward and trust it (2).

Faith is something many of us long for, and it’s also something we need – a deep trust in our purpose, preceded by mental clarity and fortitude. Faith is, without question, a necessary component of yogic practice. It’s our sustenance, our spiritual nourishment. But faith is also a practice in and of itself. It’s a quality of being that need not be left up to chance, but rather is something we can cultivate. Just as any type of personal growth stems from effort rather than luck alone, we can develop a relationship with faith wherein it becomes a reliable and vibrant force in our lives.

Whether it’s faith in the potential for personal transformation, faith in humanity, or faith in the goal of equity and justice for all, it starts with quieting our minds. Cultivating faith is not a linear process, and that’s because focusing the mind and removing obstacles, like ignorance and attachment, are by no means easy undertakings. Our minds are wild and turbulent like the wind, and therefore seemingly impossible to control, so exclaims Arjuna in Bhagavad Gītā 6.34. But, Lord Krishna replies in 6.35, it is possible to control the mind, however obstinate it might be, through practice and detachment. Yet, try as we might, sometimes the mind is steady and focused, revealing our true nature, and at other times we identify with our fluctuating thoughts (See Yoga Sūtras 1.3 and 1.4). Such is the nature of practice.

As we work to transform ourselves and better the world around us, it’s normal and necessary to fall down from time to time, whether from the weight of doubt and despair, a wave of humility, or just exhaustion. But within spiritual work like yoga runs a river of grace. Each moment is an opportunity to examine ourselves, to course-correct, to try again, to make real change happen. If we give it the time faith will lead us somewhere special, towards authenticity, deeper empathy and compassion, so we truly become caretakers of each other. If we work to still our minds, truth will arise and reveal the next right steps.

We can’t force faith upon ourselves through any type of logical thinking, but we can allow it to expand within us by creating the necessary conditions to reveal our inner selves as holy places where truth does exist. In times of great despair and hardship, it may feel like we’re dragging ourselves across the floor, hoping for just a shred of strength to peel ourselves up. In those moments, practice faith like medicine. Be still and listen. Just like a sailor must know the direction of the wind in order to guide the ship, we must know truth in order to persevere. We must seek out that divine wisdom, adjust our course accordingly, and then allow that steady breath to fill our sails. It will lead us to where we need to go.

 

(1) Iyengar, B.K.S., translator. Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. Thorsons, 2002, p 75.

(2) Bryant, Edwin F., translator. The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. North Point Press, 2009, p. 77-78.