Wednesday, June 25, 2014


In Hindu mythology, Indra is a major player -- God of War and Thunder. Stories attributed to him feature bravery, confidence, and steadfastness. He defends against evil, provides and nurtures, and embodies timelessness. As supreme ruler of the sacred Mount Meru, he cast a vast protective net around his kingdom. The net reached infinitely in all directions, and was held together at each intersecting knot by a radiant jewel -- infinite knots, infinite jewels. Each jewel sparkled with its own unique luster, and also reflected the brilliance of every other jewel in the net. Inside each reflection was every other reflection. Ad infinitum. Each jewel in Indra's net is both itself individually, and also the whole net. Each one is vital in its uniqueness and equally vital as a component of the bigger picture.

Our work on the mat is analogous. Each asana is vital for its own individual characteristics -- the way it strengthens or stretches or balances or grounds or stimulates, etc. Each asana is also vital for its contribution to the whole picture. Within each asana we find the reflections of all the other asana. That idea can be interpreted in a couple of ways, but what I mean to highlight here is the way in which each asana is simply a preparation for the next asana. Of course, basic hip-openers prepare the body for advanced hip-openers and basic backbends prepare the body for advanced backbends, and the rest. But it isn't about basic or advanced. It's about a continuous net of form and flow. Each pose provides a direct gateway into the next. For example, Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Brige pose) is direct preparation for Salamba Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand). Bridge pose is Shoulderstand with the feet on the floor! Anjaneyasana (Low lunge) is direct preparation for Ekapada Raja Kapotasana II (One-legged King Pigeon II). Low lunge is EPRK II without clasping the foot! Moreover, 'Runners Lunge' preps for Warrior I. Warrior I preps for Warrior III. Warrior III preps for Standing Splits. Standing Splits preps for Handstand Splits. And so on. Lunge is, of course, really important all by itself -- it strengthens the legs, opens the hips, tones the shoulders. And, in any particular practice, may not have anything to do with Vira I per se. Even if you never get into Vira I, lunge is still really important. But is has a whole new kind of importance and value when it's used as a preparatory stage to Vira I. Likewise, Vira I is really important all by itself. And it also contributes a whole new kind of value when it's done as directly preliminary to Vira III. And so on.

Part of our practice is about constantly challenging ourselves into new areas of experience and awareness. That's what new poses provide. Asana are building blocks in which foundations come first, and height and depth stack subsequently. But they are not only a linear growth straight up from the ground. Asana are also each intricately woven together like the knots of a net, reaching up and out and around and back again. The further we go into practice, the more apparent this becomes and the more necessary it is to understand.

Week Seven is a kind of pause in the DK sequence. Notice that it doesn't list any asana specifically. Instead, it says "Consolidate the asanas and increase the length of stay in all of them." This doesn't mean that nothing new is learned. And it definitely doesn't mean to not practice at all, or to skip ahead into the next sequence. The point is to pause. Reflect. Observe. Assess. And make sure you are on the right track. These 'pauses' in the series happen two more times -- at Weeks Thirteen and Eighteen. Each time the difficulty of the practice increases immediately after. That is noteworthy. This is a reminder that yoga is an entirely customizable affair. Some people will be fully ready to move on, and others may need more time where they are. That is not always easy to discern, but it is one of the skills we are working toward cultivating. We, as a class, will use Week Seven to continue working on all the poses that were introduced in the first six weeks.

Then Week Eight incorporates several new asana -- Virabhadrasana III (Warrior pose third variation), Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon pose), and Prasarita Padottanasana II (Wide-angle Forward bend second variation). If we have been practicing skillfully, steadily, and continuously (Sutra I.14) up to now, then we should be ready for these new poses with only minimal effort. Warrior III is simply Warrior I with the back leg lifted. Half Moon is just Triangle pose with the back leg lifted. Wide-angle II is only Wide-angle I with the hands on the hips instead of on the floor. Not only that, but Warrior III is only Half Moon with the torso facing the floor rather than turned sideways. They only seem like brand new poses. We have actually been working on their key components for weeks already. If you can do one, you have what is necessary to do the other because they are all reflections of each other.

Don't reinvent yoga for every new pose that comes into your practice. Look for the foundations and the reflections. Cast your net wide. And shine brilliantly like the jewel that you are.

Monday, June 16, 2014


In an ideal world many of us would elect to be full-time Yogis. We would have time for long asana practices every morning and evening with meditation and pranayama in betweem, savory and nutritious meals, plenty of restful sleep each night, and minimal stresses and responsibilities outside of our sadhana (yogic activities). Of course, most of us don't have that privilege. I have been lucky enough to experience short periods of that kind of lifestyle -- at teacher trainings and retreats, for instance. And it's awesome! But reality always returns. Because yoga has been my primary area of interest both personally and professionally for so long, I do get to practice more than most people. But I get busy and distracted just like everyone else.

The fact is that most of us are grateful when we can fit in a good hour-long practice a couple times a week, and otherwise yoga is a background thought at best. And that's okay! Maybe it isn't optimal, but some-yoga is better than no-yoga. The key is to know what you most need from your practice, and then be efficient with your time so that you get the most benefit from it. How you determine what you most need depends on a bunch of varying factors, and everyone's answer will be different. But you can at least take some advice from Iyengar to get yourself started. On page 468 of LoY is a list of "Important asanas in Course 1". There are 79 asana included in the course, and these 29 Iyengar considers to be especially important. He says, "If these asana are mastered then the others given in this course will come even without regular practice." It's not that the others deserve less attention, but that these poses provide a full range of necessary experiences and skills and they really prepare the body for future work.

Here is the list:

Important Asana in Course 1
NOTE: page numbers in parentheses may be slightly different in your book, and poses with an * are (in my opinion) especially, especially important

*Utthita Trikonasana
(Triangle, p63-64)

*Parivrtta Trikonasana
(Revolved Triangle, p64-65)

Utthita Parsvakonasana
(Side-angle, p66-67)

Parivrtta Parsvakonasana
(Revolved Side-angle, p68-69)

*Virabhadrasana I
(Warrior I, p69-71)

Virabhadrasana III
(Warrior III, p73-74)

Ardha Chandrasana
(Half Moon, p74-76)

(Intense Side Stretch, p78-80)

*Prasarita Padottanasana I
(Wide-angle Standing Forward bend, p81-84)

(Camel, p87-88)

(Standing Forward bend, p92-93)

(Locust, p99-100)

(Bow, p101-102)

*Adho Mukha Svanasana
(Downward-facing Dog, p110-111)

Paripurna Navasana
(Full Boat, p111-112)

Ardha Navasana
(Half Boat, p112-114)

(Adept's or Sage's Seat, p116-120)

(Hero, p120-123)

Baddha Konasana
(Bound Angle, p128-129)

(Lotus, p129-132)

(Fish, p138-140)

*Janu Sirsasana
(Head-beyond-the-knee, p148-151)

(Seated Forward bend, p166-170)

Salamba Sirsasana I
(Supported Headstand, p179-190, cycle in its entirety through p205)

*Salamba Sarvangasana I
(Supported Shoulderstand, p205-213, cycle in its entirety through p237)

(Plow, p216-220)

*Marichyasana III
(Marichi's Twist III, p 254-257)

Ardha Matsyendrasana I
(Half-Lord-of-the-Fish, p259-262)

(Corpse, p422-424)

Whenever you're wondering where to direct your attention -- "I want to practice, but I don't know what to do" or "I want to practice, but I don't have time to go to class" -- let this list be your guide. Then pick out the poses that fulfill your current desires: standing poses and backbends are energizing, forward bends are relaxing, arm-balances build strength, hip-openers are good after a long day of sitting. If you only have 20 minutes to practice, pick out just 5 or 6 poses. If you have an hour, pick out a dozen. If you're in the mood for something vigorous, include Sun Salutations. If you want to unwind, stick with seated and reclining poses. Etc.

Iyengar is particularly fond of inversions. He says that if you only have 15 or 20 minutes to practice, then Headstand variations, Shoulderstand variations, and Savasana are the best choices. Headstand variations are energizing. Shoulderstand variations are calming. Both sets of poses build strength in the trunk and flexibility in the hips. And Savasana should be a non-negotiable part of every asana practice (even if for only a couple of minutes). So the combination of these three poses provides you with a little bit of all of the best parts of practice, but in a very short amount of time. If you haven't read the sections describing Headstand and Shoulderstand in LoY yet, I recommend it. The Sirsasana cycle begins on page 179. He provides hints for successful practice (p186), and the explanation of its effects and benefits are particularly interesting (p189). The Shoulderstand cycle begins on page 205, and again the explanation of effects are worth reading (repeatedly!).

I think there are a couple of interesting things worth noting about this list:

  • It doesn't explicitly state Tasasana, but do not ignore the weight of that pose. Every asana is simply an expanded expression of Tadasana and without it, we'd get nowhere. The importance of learning to stand correctly in Tadasana cannot be overemphasized.
  • Notice that out of the thirteen standing poses which Iyengar says are "necessary" for every beginner to master (p85), nine of them are included here. That means that standing poses are very important. What isn't on the list? Virabhrasana II, for one. Viradhrasana I and III are, but not II. Why not? I'm not entirely sure, but I could probably make a good guess if I had to. Vrksasana is not included. After the first two weeks of practice, Vrksasana is not mentioned again. And Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana does not become a part of regular practice until week 36, which means we won't see it in DK at all.
  • I am glad that Downward-dog is included, but notice that both Cobra and Upward-dog are absent even though they are both a part of DK. The important backbends to learn here are Ustrasana (which Iyengar insists everyone should practice, even the sick and elderly!), Salabhasana, and Dhanurasana.
  • There are 4 different versions of a simple seated pose included (Siddhasana, Virasana, Baddha Konasana, and Padmasana) which I take to mean that conditioning the body to sit comfortably is a requirement.
  • Savasana is clearly stated. Savasana is a pose that requires your time, effort, and energy just like any other. We often expend a lot of our mental-energy during a practice anticipating the arrival of Savasana, and then there's a complete collapse into it. Either that, or we skip it all together. Iyengar says "This apparently easy posture is one of the most difficult to master." Don't ignore it.

  • Certainly more can be said on this topic, and developing a genuinely fruitful yoga practice is easier said than done. But the point (or part of it, at least) is that you don't need tons of time on the mat nor do you always need to be in front of a teacher. A good practice can be had at home, and with only limited time. Whenever you can make it to class, enjoy it! When you have time for a long practice, enjoy it! When you only have 20 minutes on the living room floor, enjoy it!

    Om namah shivaya guruve -- "I practice in honor of the true teacher, the one who resides within me and within all things." In order words, Be Your Own Best Teacher.

    Thursday, June 12, 2014


    If you have not yet read the Forward (by Yehudi Menuhin) and the Introduction in Light on Yoga, I highly recommend it. And if you have read them, read them again. It's worth it.

    The first sentence of the forward says, "The practice of Yoga induces a primary sense of measure and proportion." 'Measure' and 'proportion' mean observable and definable relationships, so yoga is an endeavor based on comparative relationships which can be observed, defined, and contained. I love that because it speaks directly to my analytical and methodical inclinations. It means that I can organize my practice sorta like a science experiment with structured steps which produce collectible data. Something like this:

         (1) Set out the guidelines by which the research will take place (i.e. plan and schedule my practice).
         (2) Proceed through carefully repeated testing (i.e. actually show up to practice) which objectivity (i.e. promote Santosha or 'contentment' and Vairagyam or 'non-attachment').
         (3) Evaluate the data and determine the implications (i.e. What do I feel and where do I feel it? What needs to be stronger; what needs to be softer? What needs encouragement; what needs restraint? etc).
         (4) Repeat (i.e. practice again).

    That works for me. It keeps me invested and engaged, because I have strong left-brain tendencies that thrive on systematic dependability. It's also why I like the meticulousness of Iyengar Yoga. But yoga is also very much about creativity and spontaneity. The very next sentence of the text speaks to those who crave a more artful experience. It reads, "Reduced to our own body, our first instrument, we learn to play it, drawing from it maximum resonance and harmony." Just as a musician has to carefully hone their ability to handle and manipulate their instrument, or an artist their tools, or a poet their words, a Yogi takes the time to become familiar with the instrument that is their body and then perform excellently.

    There is a base standard by which the sound of, say, a violin is measured, meaning that we do know what a 'good' violin sound is. But every violin is a unique instrument, and learning to play one well isn't about making its sound conform exactly to the sound of all other violins. Rather it's about learning to maximize the sound that is characteristic to that particular violin. In other words, instead of making the instrument conform to the notes, the musician plays in a way that allows the notes to conform to the abilities of the instrument. In this way, part of the musician's skill is ingenuity and intuition, and the result is maximum resonance and harmony.

    The same thing happens to the body in yoga. There is a base standard by which the body is decidedly 'healthy' or 'properly aligned.' Yet each body is unique, and part of practice is learning how to make yoga conform to the particular characteristics of your own body rather than making your body conform to what you think is 'good' yoga. Through creative and intuitive play (i.e. improvising sequences, incorporating props, retaining beginner's mind, etc.) we learn how to maximize our unique abilities. And in that way, we get from yoga what the Bhagavad Gita says is its main purpose: "deliverance from contact with pain and sorrow."

    The fact that Iyengar quotes this passage of the Gita at least three times in the introduction to LoY indicates its significance. The whole point -- of his book, of the Gita, of Yoga -- is to understand what it means to alleviate suffering. There are as many different ways to achieve that as there are unique bodies in the world. There is no one right way to practice. Sometimes we emphasize form and sometimes flow. Sometimes we're scientists and sometimes we're artists. But we are always Yogis whenever our practice maximally accentuates our individuality.

    Practice so that your yoga conforms to your Self, and not the other way around. What do you want and what are you willing to do to get it?

    "As a well cut diamond has many facets, each reflecting a different color of light, so does the word yoga, each facet reflecting a different shade of meaning and revealing different aspects of the entire range of human endeavor to win inner peace and happiness." (LoY 20)

    Wednesday, June 11, 2014


         Scheduled to take place on Sundays, June 15 and 22
         Sanskrit names are in bold.
         (English names are in parentheses.)
         [Numbers in brackets correspond with illustrations.]
         Poses with an * are new to the sequence.

    Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle pose) [4 and 5]

    Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side-angle pose) [8 and 9]

    Virabhadrasana I (Warrior pose first variation) [12 through 14]

    Virabhadrasana II (Warrior pose second variation) [15]

    Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle pose) [6 and 7]

    Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch pose) [26]

    Prasarita Padottanasana I (Wide-legged Forward Bend first variation) [33 and 34]

    *Urdhva Prasarita Padasana (Upward Extended Foot pose) [276 through 279]

    *Paripurna Navasana (Full Boat pose) [78]

    *Ardha Navasana (Half Boat pose) [79]

    Salamba Sarvangasana I (Supported Shoulderstand first variation) [219 through 234]

    Halasana (Plow pose) [244]

    *Ujjayi Pranayama [Section 203] for five minutes in Savasana (Corpse pose) [592]

    Take a look at each of these poses before practice. Make note of their Sanskrit and English names, their rating (printed just next to the name), the instructions (including how long he recommends holding each one), and their effects. What stands out? What is interesting? or unclear? or surprising? Come to class with questions and comments.

    The three new poses (UPP, Full Boat, and Half Boat) are each challenging core-strengtheners. The fact that they are introduced at this point is not an accident. The series starts with several standing poses (and we'll add several more in the coming weeks) which build strength in the legs, initiate flexibility in the hips, and encourage confidence and stability. In other words, they provide a really solid and healthy foundation (physical and mental) for the rest of the practice. Once the legs are strong, we begin to focus on the core/torso. That is because it is the combination of a solid foundation (i.e. the feet and legs) plus a strong trunk (i.e. the abdomen and spine) that allows us to eventually work with the more subtle areas of the body. Think of it like a building. The legs are like the concrete slab upon which the frame is set. The trunk is like the frame that provides width and height. They are necessary in that order -- first foundation, then frame. And they absolutely must work together in order to finish the structure; if either is weak or poorly built, the whole thing collapses. From there you add other necessities -- more fine-tuned load bearers (i.e. more strength building poses), pathways for easy circulation (i.e. flexibility and openness), various kinds of plumbing and energy conduits (i.e. breath work among other things), etc. And only after the walls are solid and the fixtures are installed do you start decorating and adding embellishments. In our yoga practice that would be analogous to adding the gradually more and more challenging/"advanced" poses. "Advanced poses" are decorative in the sense that they aren't exactly necessary. Instead, they provide a sense of personality to our practice. The same way we turn a building into something personal by adding paint and furniture and art that appeals to us, we enhance our bodies by taking it beyond the basics and into something more personally appealing and fulfilling. All bodies need basic strength, flexibility, and coordination in order to be healthy. But what happens after the basics is entirely customizable. The point is that, regardless of how "advanced" your practice becomes, you must must must start with the foundation and the frame. The more integration there is between the legs (the foundation) and the trunk (the frame), the deeper you can work with the hips, arms, and spine (the decoration). Therefore, we are adding some core-strengthening poses to our standing series in this week's sequence.

    The other new addition to the sequence is Ujjayi Pranayama during Savasana. Pranayama (breath and energy practice) is a necessary component of yoga. However, it is challenging and therefore often overlooked. "Just breathing" with a regular, everyday breath is better than nothing, of course. But the subtleties of the breath are important to understand. Pranayama can be an entire practice all by itself, and so much can be said about what, why, and how to practice it. For now, Iyengar wants us to keep it simple and to work on incorporating a comfortable and consistent Ujjayi breath while lying down. I strongly encourage you to read the beginning of the Pranayama section in Light on Yoga (pages 430-442) before Sunday, and if you have any questions or concerns, I'll be happy to address them in class.

    Monday, June 2, 2014


    A common response from people when I mention that I practice and teach Iyengar yoga is, "Is that the one with all the props?" Yep, it's the one with all the props.

    Iyengar talks openly about the development of his teaching style and his incorporation of props. When he was very young, he was sick and his body was weak and crippled from disease. He began practicing yoga in order to heal his body, and when people around him witnessed his hard work and how it paid off for him, they asked him to teach them yoga. Between working with his own fragile body and the bodies of sick, crippled, and elderly students, he began to realize that sometimes the body needs help to gain health; that not all of the poses come easily to every body, but that they can be guided and supported.

    Supported (salamba) and non-supported (niralamba) are words we find throughout our postural practice. For instance, we are already practicing Salamba Sarvangasana -- Supported Shoulderstand -- in which the hands are pressed into the back to help keep the spine erect. And later we will include Niralamba Sarvangasana -- Unsupported Shoulderstand -- in which the hands are removed and the body stays erect via strong muscles. In the case of Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand), the hands are used as a support or a prop in order to aid the proper performance of the posture and, just like a block or a folded blanket or a strap, the hands are there as a learning tool and will someday be removed. That's the nature of support -- it serves a particular function, but it ceases to be effective if it's depended upon permanently. Someday the support or prop is no longer helpful or necessary, so it is removed and one is able to maintain the same behaviors independently. Think about a cast on a broken arm, or braces on teeth, or the falsework of an arch bridge -- they serve a particular function, and when their job is complete, they're removed. What would happen if they weren't?? Props in yoga work similarly. Our work in class this Sunday with straps to support the proper functioning of the legs in the standing poses served a similar purpose -- the straps were meant to teach the body a particular way to behave with the intention that their help would only be temporarily necessary. As long as we have that external support -- be it hands in Shoulderstand or straps in standing poses or anything else -- we should be mindful about using it diligently and effectively. We should try to learn the lessons that the support is offering, yet not become dependent on it. Because in the end, we want to be niralamba -- self-supported, independent, autonomous.

    Salamba and Niralamba apply to more than just using or not using props in asana. In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali describes the difference between supported and non-supported practice (Salamba Sadhana and Niralamba Sadhana). Both are necessary. A supported practice includes, among other things, attending classes lead by a trusted teacher. The teacher is there as a kind of support to provide the foundation, to get you started, and to keep you safe. Your consistent attendance in class and thoughtful questions and comments helps your teacher to know what kinds of techniques and instructions to provide. In turn, their skillful guidance provides the knowledge and the confidence you need to practice even when you're not in front of your teacher. Salamba Sadhana (i.e. class with your teacher) is at least in part about learning how to develop Niralamba Sadhana (i.e. how to be your own best teacher). Niralamba Sadhana can be a lot of things, but if we're talking particularly about an on-the-mat physical practice, then it probably includes a personal practice at home. Your ability to be your own best teacher allows for a much fuller and more effective application of yoga which will follow you back on to the mat the next time you sit in front of your teacher. Then their support provides you with a new lesson which you again take away to practice on your own, and so on. It's a forever cycle. It's about balanced actions.

    A practice that is done exclusively in the presence of external support (i.e. a teacher) is not full-spectrum, is not whole and complete, is only Salamba without its counterpart. What would happen to your practice if you were suddenly to find yourself without a teacher? Would it cease to exist? Have you set the foundation for Niralamba Sadhana? Could you sustain your practice if you were to find yourself without a teacher? Or would it slip away from you? Is your yoga tool-bag a balanced collection of Salamba and Niralamba, or is it prop heavy? If it is more Salamba than Niralamba, are you at least working toward Niralamba even if only slowly?

    It could just as easily tip in the opposite direction. Rather than being dependent upon the guidance of a good teacher, you may have established a practice that is primarily self-guided and is missing the crucial element of skillful support. In which case your yoga tool-bag is shifted too far toward Niralamba, and is still a practice out of balance.

    More can certainly be said about when and how to use props in practice, how to develop a personal practice, and what Patanjali means by Supported and Unsupported Yoga. But to wrap up I'll say that support allows us to experience things that would elude us if the support were not available. Embrace it when it's offered, but know that it is temporary. A strap during standing poses, the hands during Shoulderstand, the instructions voiced by your teacher are all good things if they are part of a balance between seeking help and acting independently. In the end we want to fully embody the yogic idea of niralambaya tejase which means that we want to be innately and brilliantly illuminated independent of external circumstances. All of us must be a student and a teacher. All of us will sometimes receive help and support, and will sometimes be the one to provide help and support. Yoga is wholly customizable and is a balanced cooperation between internal and external -- internal strength and external props, internal guidance and external instruction, within the classroom and without, etc.

    Iyengar published Light on Yoga only after he was capable of performing all 200 asana without support. But he didn't start with that level of ability. He worked extremely hard for decades. He had a very good teacher, he practiced diligently on his own, and he used props. He knows as well as anybody that yoga is a balancing act between Salamba and Niralamba. Even though Light on Yoga does not include much in the way of practicing asana with support, there are many books which do. If you are interested in the support of some really great information to supplement Light on Yoga, the following are several of my most favorite Iyengar-based books:

         Yoga Wisdom & Practice by B.K.S. Iyengar
    This book is a fantastic collection of commentary by Mr. Iyengar in the form of an interview by the author in which he discusses everything from his personal practice to yoga philosophy, diet to stress-relief, and it includes tons of beautiful, full-color photos of poses. (On Amazon)

         Essential Yoga: The Practice Step-by-Step Course by Judy Smith
    Judy Smith is a senior-level Iyengar instructor who trained with Mr. Iyengar at his institute in India, and this book includes full-color photos of yoga poses with easy to understand instructions, props, and modifications. And easy to follow therapeutic sequences for things like headache relief, insomnia, indigestion, etc. (On Amazon)

         Cool Yoga Tricks by Miriam Austin
    Blocks, straps, blankets, walls, chairs, countertops, and other people are just some of the props that are used throughout this book. Each pose has multiple photos and instructions for multiple types of support and modification. This book is thorough, simple, and practical. (On Amazon)

         Light on Life by B.K.S. Iyengar
    This is not a "how to practice the poses" book. Here, Mr. Iyengar is revealing yogic practices in a much broader and inclusive sense than asana. He delves deeply into things like mental clarity, the role of ego, the cessation of suffering, and the creation of energy and creativity. He uses personal anecdotes and ancient wisdom to share yoga in a way that is relatable and attainable. The information in this book is part of the beginnings of Niralamba Sadhana. (On Amazon)