Wednesday, July 23, 2014


"Do not focus on where you want to go but on going as far as you can with dynamic extension." (Light on Life 34)

There is a difference between 'learning' and 'practicing' when it comes to yogasana. When we are in the learning stage, the pose is not yet wholly familiar to or comfortable within our body. We are still trying to understand where strength is needed, where flexibility is needed, and how much of each is needed. We need lots of instruction, and must very consciously position each body part. We experiment with modified versions of the pose, maybe incorporating props. We move in and out of the pose with some clumsiness, and maybe hold it only briefly and shakily. Our breath wavers if we're not careful. All of our attention is locked on to the brand new experience and how foreign it feels.

When we are true beginners in our practice, every pose we encounter is in its learning stage. Everything is new, everything is foreign, everything is a little bit clumsy and awkward. But soon we develop some experience, stability and mobility, confidence, intimacy with our body and its relationship to the asana. Then the asana emerge from us with grace and skillfulness, with only minimal effort and a relaxed kind of consciousness. It becomes like an exquisite dance you've performed your whole life. Your body seems to position itself whenever it thinks or hears the name of an asana. Instructions are mere background music which keeps you focused, but the rhythm is coming from within. That is practicing.

Learning requires active, wakeful awareness in which questions are constantly being asked and answers are necessary. What is right? What isn't? When should I practice and for how long? Where does this leg go? What does that arm do? Etc. Sometimes the questions and answers are literally spoken aloud between student and teacher. But it's also the inner dialogue you have with yourself when you act as your own best teacher. Either way the body, as well as the mind and heart, are each still dependent upon some kind of guidance and influence. They cannot yet act autonomously.

Practicing, on the other hand, is meditation in motion. When you are practicing an asana rather than learning it there is a sense of ease and joy which fills you from the inside out. There is no stress, no discomfort, no worry. Your body has memorized what to do, and the position unfolds organically. The right muscles tense for stability or open for mobility and in just the right amounts. Your breath remains steady. Your focus is fixed. Your movements are fluid. Learning is often more focused on "form" while Practicing tends to lean more towards "flow" because your body knows better how to take care of itself, and thus your attention can be on much more subtle aspects of practice. (That, of course, is not to say that beginners cannot flow or that those with more experience only flow or don't focus on form.)

'Practicing' is not better than 'learning' or vice versa. They are simply different stages of experience. We are constantly shifting back and forth between learning and practicing. Every time we introduce a new asana into our repertoire we return to our "beginner's mind," we are learning again. It is important to recognize them both because they provide us with different types of effects and benefits and challenges. They require different kinds of exertions and efforts. They leave us with different kinds of residual feelings post-practice.

The more invested we are in the learning stage, the more deliberate our movements need to be. We need to take time to think before we act. We need to emphasize good foundations and precise positions. We need to slow down.

The early weeks of DK focus on poses which are very commonly incorporated into many different kinds of modern yoga classes. The "basic standing poses" transcend nearly all lineages and interpretations and styles. It is likely safe to say that nearly anybody who has ever rolled out a yoga mat has some amount of experience with these asana. Even those who have never practiced yoga before are likely to at least recognize the basic shapes, if not the names, of poses like Warrior and Triangle -- we see them all the time in magazines, movies, television commercials, etc. Of course, looking at a picture of a pose doesn't mean you perform it well. Can you imagine if it did!! The point is that, for many of you, the first several weeks were almost like a review of an already known subject rather than a total introduction. And that means we moved fairly smoothly through the poses, through the sequences, through each week as it was presented.

We have approached something new, and we need to slow down. We will still see lots of asana which will be some amount of familiar to you in the weeks ahead -- still coming are poses such as Down-dog, Cobra, Camel, and different seated forward bends, for instance. When they appear in the sequence, it'll be like the basic standing poses, meaning more of a review than something entirely new. But other poses I am pretty certain are much less familiar because they are just simply not as commonly practiced for various reasons. So you may be a rather experienced yogi in regards to the amount of time you've been practicing, and yet not have much experience with asana such as Padahastana (91), Simhasana (135), or Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana (174). When those poses appear in the sequence we'll be back in the learning stage. And that's OK.

We are currently working on Weeks Nine and Ten Sequence. It includes some asana which are less familiar to many, namely Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (68) and Karnapidasana (221). It has been my experience that these poses -- and even Gate pose and One-legged Shoulderstand which are also in this sequence -- are not commonly included in public yoga classes. That is not to say that they are never included, or that variations of them aren't included, or that they should be or should not be. I am not universally claiming that nobody teaches or practices these poses, of course they do. They are simply less common, and therefore we need to grant ourselves time to understand them properly.

We started this series together with the intention of following the thirty weeks as prescribed. But strong intentions are flexible. If we want to Practice (in the strong sense) and we want to practice well, we owe ourselves whatever amount of time, effort, energy, patience, and perseverance it takes to move forward through the series with integrity and dynamism. If we get to the end of the series and have truly experienced the asana, learned them, learned from them, and shifted our awareness into a meditation in motion, and it takes us 31 weeks or 25 or 55 or 300, we will have gotten exactly where we intended to go. Remember "dirgha kala" means "for a long time." How long? -- however long it takes.

We will continue to move through the sequences as prescribed except that we will take time to learn new poses as they appear even if that means we linger longer on any given sequence than is stated. For instance, this past Sunday we were introduced to Weeks Nine and Ten Sequence, and we will stay with it for at least two additional weeks. That will give us time to dissect the essential components of the new poses and make sure we have a clear understanding of them before moving on to even more new poses. There is a lot to learn and no hurry to learn it. Let's do it well rather than fast.

In his book Light on Life, Iyengar discusses the difference between 'stretching' and 'extending':

"When most people stretch, they simply stretch to the point that they are trying to reach, but they forget to extend and expand from where they are. When you extend and expand, you are not only stretching to, you are also stretching from. Try holding out your arm at your side and stretch it. Did your whole chest move with it? Now try to stay centered and extend out your arm to your fingertips. Did you notice the difference? Did you notice the space that you created and the way in which you stretched from your core? Now try expanding your arm outward in every direction like the circumference of a circle. The stretch should bring the sensitivity and experience of creating space in every direction." (34)

Stretching is not just about where you are going; it is also absolutely about where you are starting from. Yoga Practice as a whole works similarly: we must look forward to where we are going, but we cannot ignore where we came from or where we are. We are extending ourselves toward the culmination of the series. The point of the series is not to finish it in thirty weeks, however. The point is to learn how to practice. What do you want and what are you willing to do to get it? If you want to practice and you want to practice well, slow down.

"Do not focus on where you want to go but on going as far as you can with dynamic extension." (34)

We will practice Weeks Nine and Ten Sequence on Sundays July 27 and August 3.

Sunday, July 20, 2014


We are well aware of the ways in which the physical body needs to be both strong and flexible while on the yoga mat: we know that excessive strength inhibits suppleness which means we lack adequate access to our joints' full range of motion while too much flexibility impedes those experiences that call for endurance and stability. An optimal practice focuses on generating equal amounts of physical strength and flexibility.

We also know that our inner self -- our mind, our heart, our metaphysical-ness -- needs a similar kind of balance. We need to be equal parts tenacious and patient, courageous and humble, vigorous and gentle, intuitive and open-minded. And it's really only when we've achieved balance between firm and supple on the outside as well as the inside that we wholly receive the benefits of our practice.

'Intention' is a word we hear frequently in class. We are constantly reminded to start our practice by setting an intention. What does that even mean?? As a student you may be thinking to yourself, "You're the one with the knowledge, the experience, and the planned sequence. How am I supposed to know the intention?" And that's fair. The teacher's intention for the class as a whole certainly influences your intention as an individual. However, even though the practice is taking place under the guidance of an instructor and likely in the presence of other students, it is in fact your own personal experience, and recognizing your own intention is imperative. The basic idea is that your practice will be much more fruitful if you go into it with a conscious purpose. But, like most things related to our time on the mat, there's more to it than that. Not unlike our bodies, intentions also need the right balance of strength and flexibility.

Bring to mind the image of an athlete and her ball. If I were more sports-oriented, I would provide a more explicit imagining, but instead I'll leave the details up to you -- a player of any kind of sport handling any kind of spherical equipment will do. As she stands with ball in hand ready to enact some kind of projectile motion, she is likely fixed intently upon a specific target in front of her. She has a purpose: act so as to either earn a point for herself or prevent someone else from earning a point. And she is committed to engaging herself in whatever physical and mental ways are necessary in order to achieve her goal. Her focus on that intention is certainly strong. If it's not, she's not likely to get what she wants. Is the sheer strength and conviction of her intention a sufficient condition toward her success? You already know that it's not.

Once that ball leaves her hands, it is no longer in her control. She has the power to set a proper foundation and initiate a well-formed launch. After that, the ball is at the mercy of any number of uncontrollable external influences: wind speed and direction, gravity, the slope of the field, interference by another player, etc. Those things can affect the trajectory and therefore final destination of the ball, and there's very little she can do about it. All she can do is witness it and use it to her advantage the next time. Even the strongest of intentions are susceptible to interference. And that's where flexibility comes into it.

Like an athlete with her ball in hand, we hold an intention in our mind and in our heart: we consider what it is that we want, we fix our gaze on it, and we launch it via our words (either silent ones to our self or out-loud ones for others to hear). Once the intention has left our mind and our mouth, it is susceptible to all sorts of external influences and is no longer entirely within our control. That means that we have to be willing to witness it changing, shifting, and evolving as it unfolds in front of us.

If you cannot allow your intentions some flexibility, you will butt-up against devastating disappointment when they inevitably fall short of expectations. No matter how skillful or experienced the athlete, how well-formed the launch, how wide-open the goal, or how strongly the score is desired, no ball will land just where you want it to every time you throw it. You take a stance, send the ball on its way, stand back and watch. And then accept with contentment the reality of its resting place. That includes reacting appropriately. React with an attitude of pride and satisfaction with your effort, genuine curiosity toward what happened well and what didn't, and excitement about doing it again and again and again. That acceptance and contentment is the supple side of intention.

Only acceptance and contentment, however, is all flexibility with no strength. It's all seaweed with no backbone. You have to know what you want and what you're willing to do to get it. Decide. Pick something. Want it. See it in front of you, aim, and extend yourself in its direction. Then go about making a practical and diligent effort at achieving it. Along the way, give yourself space for mistakes and setbacks. Allow leeway for obstacles and interferences. And react/adjust accordingly.

Intentions are strongly purposeful. They are not chiseled in stone and they are not guaranteed. Be strong enough to commit to something valuable and accessible, and then be flexible enough to surrender into its manifestation (which may or may not be the way you imagined it).

As a class, we need to make some adjustments to our intentions moving forward with DK. I am going to put some more thought into exactly what that will entail, and then I'll comment on it again in a few days. Look at, read through, practice if possible Weeks Nine and Ten Sequence this week.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


Remember: our schedule has been altered slightly. The following sequence is labeled as "9TH AND 10TH WEEK" in the book, but that no longer corresponds to the calendar. This sequence will take place on Sundays, July 20 and 27.

     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 (Triangle pose) [4 and 5]

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

Virabhadrasana I (Warrior pose first variation) [14]

Virabhadrasana II (Warrior pose second variation) [15]

Virabhadrasana III (Warrior pose third variation) [17]

Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon pose) [19]

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

*Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side-angle pose) [10 and 11]

Parsvottanasana (Intense Side-stretch pose) [26]

Prasarita Padottanasana I (Standing Wide-angle forward bend first variation) [33 and 34]

Prasarita Padottanasana II (Standing Wide-angle forward bend second variation) [35 and 36]

*Parighasana (Gate pose) [39]

Urdhva Prasarita Padasana (Upward Extended Legs pose, aka UPP) [276 to 279]

Paripurna Navasana (Full Boat pose) [78]

Ardha Navasana (Half Boat pose) [79]

Salamba Sarvangasana I (Supported Shoulderstand first variation) [223]

Halasana (Plow pose) [244]

*Karnapidasana (Ear-pressing pose) [246]

*Ekapada Sarvangasana (One-legged Shoulderstand) [250]

*Jathara Parivartanasana (Revolved Abdomen pose) [274 and 275]

*Ujjayi Pranayama with inhalation retention (Section 203) for five minutes in Savasana [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.


Yoga is meant to produce effects. Sometimes those effects are abrupt and overt, like crumpling a piece of paper. And sometimes they are so slow and subtle -- like the process of changing carbon into diamond -- that you're not sure if anything is actually happening. Only after all the right conditions have been met and the new material is exposed do we realize that something really important was taking place whether we knew it or not. However, if the conditions aren't just right, we either get poor effects or no effects at all.

One of the fundamental premises of yoga is the necessity of understanding that we are both a body as well as something more than just a body. Call that something else what you will -- soul, spirit, individuality, essence, Witness, Self, etc. The name isn't important; the point is that yoga aims at bringing awareness and energy to both of those parts of us as equally as possible. We practice for physical as well as metaphysical well-being. In order to do that well, we need to cultivate the kind of practice that most closely meets our particular needs. It needs the right conditions. It needs to be the right amount of supportive so as to be accessible and comfortable and inviting. It also needs to be the right amount of challenging so that we are constantly pressing up against and altering the edges of our comfort zones. That can be a very fine and intricate line to walk.

If our practice is merely supportive (without being challenging), we're likely to simply stay exactly where we are with all that we already have -- always carbon, never a diamond. While that isn't necessarily a bad thing, I think it's fair to say that very, very many of us could benefit from some positive provocation. On the other hand, challenge without support is destructively demanding. It lacks repose and repletion.

If your practice is producing the wrong effects or no effects in regards to your physical nature, your body will tell you. The message may not always be loud and clear (it may come across subtly like the changing carbon rather than the crumpling paper), but you will (sooner or later) notice that you have failed to produce the kind of strength or flexibility or coordination which you had intended (too much supportiveness, not enough challenge), or, worse, you realize that you have created some kind of injury or ailment (too much challenge, not enough supportiveness).

But remember that we are something more than just our body. That 'something more' needs its own kind of strength and flexibility. While our outer-self is toning muscles and loosening joints, our inner-self is developing resilience and patience, courage and humility, trust and compassion, etc. We each have certain of those characteristics naturally and in various degrees, and our practice is meant to both highlight what we already have and cultivate what we lack. But it can't do that without the right conditions.

If your practice is producing the wrong effects or no effects in regards to your metaphysical nature, would you know?? A too-supportive practice can equally coddle our material as well as our immaterial parts into inertia. Maybe you hoped your practice would encourage patience, but are you actively challenging yourself to suppress agitation when it confronts you? Or if you're seeking courage, are you boldly facing experiences which intimidate you? If not, you may be expecting effects which will never come because you are not producing opportunities for new states of existence. You are so far away from your edge that you can't even see your own boundaries, let alone have new experiences. Also, as we know, a too-challenging practice risks your safety because improperly assessing your strength or flexibility leads to injury -- you suffer outside and in. Rather than being curious and confident, you are impulsive and cocky. Instead of contentment, you feel doubt and disappointment. Instead of easing up to the edge in order to investigate and prepare for the next adventure, you dive headfirst into the unknown before it's been adequately illuminated.

Your practice needs to leave your body feeling energized without agitation, relaxed without depletion, strongly grounded, wide open, and well protected. And it needs to leave your 'something more' feeling all those things too.

Our DK practice sequence is changing soon. We are going to be incorporating some asana which may be less familiar to you than the basic standing poses which have been the primary focus thus far. You may or may not be ready (physically or otherwise) for them. If you are not, does that mean you cannot attend class anymore? No. It means you have to be willing to adjust your practice to meet your most current needs and capabilities rather than expecting a performance which your body cannot access. That may be a vague response, but that's because appropriate adjustments are entirely subjective to the practitioner, and learning what that is for you during any given practice is part of yoga's lesson. Remember we are seeking an ongoing and consistent practice which incorporates the right amounts of supportive and challenging. We are also seeking a practice which grants us awareness when we're lacking those things. You are a body, and you are more than just a body. And skillful yoga produces positive effects upon both.

This is one of my favorite Hafiz poems, and remembering it today inspired this post. I'll leave it to you to ponder why.

Damn Thirsty

The fish needs to say,

"Something ain't right about this
Camel ride--

And I'm
Feeling so damn



Tuesday, July 8, 2014


Week Eight introduces two one-legged balancing poses to the sequence: Virabhadrasana III (Warrior pose third variation) and Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon pose). Remember Iyengar says that "all the standing poses...are necessary for beginners" (p85), and four of the first thirteen poses presented in LoY are one-legged balances (Vrksasana, Virabhadrasana III, Ardha Chandrasana, and Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana). These poses tone the legs and core, open the hips, build stamina, and develop focus. They are very valuable. And quite commonly are a great source of frustration and intimidation. If these poses are a physical and mental struggle for you, I promise you are not alone. Aside from creating the strength and flexibility each one requires, the key to success in these poses is in the transitions from their respective foundations. And understanding and mastering that is definitely worth the effort.

Often the emphasis of any particular pose is placed upon the final form of the pose itself. In other words, the most attention, both physical and mental, is paid to those moments when you are holding the full expression of the pose. Certainly the full form is important. But there's much more to it than that. The moments spent in between poses are equally or more important than the actual poses.

Consider something as simple as getting yourself from home to work each day. It's something you probably take for granted when it in fact requires great amounts of concentration, commitment, and skill. You have to know where you've been, where you are, and where you're going all at the same time. You have to know what you're doing, why you're doing it, and how. You have to pay attention to all the details. And you have to do it well. Otherwise your intention to get from Point A Home to Point B Work may go terribly wrong. What would happen, for instance, if you lost your focus mid-commute and forgot where you were going or how to get there? Or became super impatient and demanding somewhere along the way? Or you suddenly began to doubt your plan of action or your abilities to follow it through? You may not arrive at work at all that day, and even if you did you would likely be too disoriented to perform your job appropriately. Your wellbeing at home is a priority. Your wellbeing at work is also a priority. But by themselves they're not enough. The wellbeing of the relationship between the two points -- that is, your successfully transitioning from home to work -- is dependent upon the success of the space you travel between each place. It's the accumulation of all those small but critical experiences and decisions which produce the desired effect. Moving between yoga poses is no different. It is not just about Pose A and Pose B. What happens in between them is absolutely essential.

We make countless transitions from pose to pose throughout our practices (not just balancing ones of course), some of which emphasize fluid flow and others steady form. But one-legged balancing poses are especially good at demonstrating this concept because they each begin from some two pointed foundation, shift into just one, and return to two, which means that there are no fewer than four opportunities to practice smooth transitioning per pose as each one-legged balance has two sides (right and left). And because, as we all know, balancing on one leg can go terribly wrong very quickly, having a firm foundation and transitioning well are paramount.

In regards to our new DK poses, Iyengar says that Virabhdrasana III is "an intensified continuation of Virabhdrasana I," (p73) which means that Vira III literally transitions directly from Vira I. The final form of Vira I is important. The final form of Vira III is also important. But it is the space between Point A Vira I and Point B Vira III which is the key to success. A poorly formed Vira I does not necessarily make Vira III unobtainable, but it certainly makes it more challenging. However, a poor transition between the two is almost guaranteed to ruin your Vira III experience. Whether you have a masterfully constructed Point A Vira I or not, if you lose your form, your focus, your confidence, or your resolve before you've fully reached Point B Vira III, it'll likely be shaky and underwhelming at best.

There is often an unnecessary and detrimental hurry to get into Vira III. It's almost a feeling of obligation to quickly enter the pose upon hearing instructions to do so. But hurrying is problematic as it creates physical and mental weakness. So, don't skip or rush the transition. Read Iyengar's instructions and look at his pictures carefully. In order to get into Vira III, a couple of preliminaries are necessary. First is a nicely formed Vira I. Then the transition begins, and it has several distinct parts. Notice that the stage between Vira I and Vira III -- as pictures on page 73 -- keeps the lower body entirely unchanged from Vira I, and the upper body unchanged except that it is now parallel with, rather than perpecdicular to, the floor. That's it. Simple. But crucial. AND he says "Rest in this position, taking two breaths." Rest in this -- the transition! -- for two breaths. It's as if the half-way point between A and B is itself a whole pose: it has a distinct form and function, and it's sustained for a specified amount of time. That's not an accident. Those two breaths are purposeful moments given for assessment, reflection, commitment, and adjustment -- one more opportunity to check in with yourself and make sure you really know what you're doing and where you're going.

The same is true for Half Moon which is simply a continuation of Triangle. Its transition is described and pictured on page 75. Again it has its own distinct form, function, and duration separate from (yet continuous with) full Triangle (Point A) and full Half Moon (Point B). Don't ignore it and don't rush it.

Again, one-legged balances are prime opportunities to embody these actions and ideas. But they are by no means the only time when graceful, skillful transitions are necessary. They're always necessary -- on the mat and off. It is never simply about the places of seemingly static or complete composure. The space between any two points (or poses) deserves just as much if not more attention and effort as the experiences on either side because Point A simply cannot becomes Point B without a quality transition.

Sunday, July 6, 2014


NOTICE: Change to the Schedule
The book says that the Week Eight sequence occurs just once, and then it changes again for Weeks Nine and Ten. However, we will practice Week Eight on July 6 AND July 13. Then, we will practice Weeks Nine (July 20) and Ten (July 27) as instructed, Weeks Eleven (Aug 3) and Twelve (Aug 10) as instructed, and then we will move immediately into Week Fourteen (Aug 17) without the pause as is suggested at Week Thirteen.

     Scheduled to take place on Sundays, July 6 AND 13
     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 (Triangle pose) [4 and 5]

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

Virabhadrasana I (Warrior pose first variation) [14]

Virabhadrasana II (Warrior pose second variation) [15]

*Virabhadrasana III (Warrior pose third variation) [17]

*Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon pose) [19]

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

Parsvottanasana (Intense Side-stretch pose) [26]

Prasarita Padottanasana I (Wide-angle forward bend first variation) [33 and 34]

*Prasarita Padottanasana II (Wide-angle forward bend second variation) [35 and 36]

Urdhva Prasarita Padasana (UPP) [276 to 279]

Paripurna Navasana (Full Boat pose) [78]

Ardha Navasana (Half Boat pose) [79]

Salamba Sarvangasana I (Supported Shoulderstand first variation) [223]

Halasana (Plow pose) [244]

Ujjayi Pranayama [section 203] for five minutes during Savasana [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.

REMEMBER even though the original schedule instructs us to change the sequence for Week Nine, we will be repeating Week Eight once more on July 13.