Sunday, September 21, 2014


As a group of students committed to sharing the experience of learning yoga, we have spent a lot of time discussing the importance of time in regards to our practices -- how often to practice and for how long, how many seconds or minutes or breaths any particular pose should be held, how long it may take to "master" some pose(s), how many weeks is it appropriate to devote to some sequence, etc. Right timing is an ongoing part of Yoga. And this post will present even more ideas on timings.

We are currently in the process of learning the new poses which constitute Weeks 14 & 15. We are not yet ready to experience that sequence in its entirety, and that's OK. We stepped away from the sequence completely for two weeks in order to introduce the components of Salamba Sirsasana I (Supported Headstand First Variation), and I have been very pleased overall. I am witnessing good choices being made, and the integrity in the room is palpable!

There are several new asanas left to learn, and I am going to insist that we learn them well before moving on. It will absolutely be worth the time and effort. In the meantime, however, I do not want us to lose our familiarity with the sequence as we've gotten to know it thus far. I want to focus on continuing to master what we already know while also incorporating all that is new. With that in mind, we practiced a "Sort've Week Fourteen" sequence today (09/21): we followed its order as prescribed, but omitted the poses we have not yet learned. From my perspective, it went rather well.

The "Sort've Week Fourteen" Sequence Part 1:

     Opening meditation and Warm-up. Consider giving yourself time for a brief (5 minutes) warm-up which can include Cat/Cow variations, Surya Namaskar variations, and/or poses which specifically target the areas which you know are inhibiting your Sirsasana. Or start immediately with Sirsasana.

     Salamba Sirsasana I


     Parivrtta Trikonasana


     Parivrtta Parsvakonasana

     Virabhadrasana I, II, & III

     Ardha Chandrasana


     Prasarita Padottanasana I & II





     Urdhva Prasarita Padasana (UPPs)

     Paripurna Navasana

     Ardha Navasana

     Salamba Sarvangasana I



     Ekapada Sarvangasana

     Jathara Parivartanasana

     Ujjayi Pranayama with inhalation retention in Savasana

If the form of any of these poses still needs attention, then continue to focus on that. If the form has been well-established, then shift your focus to something more subtle, such as the steadiness of the breath, smooth transitions in and out, the interrelationships between poses, and/or extending your stay.

In regards to how long poses should be held: the standing poses each range from 20-60 seconds. Sixty seconds is longer than you think, and if you have never experimented with holding each of the standing poses for that long, I recommend it. It is deceptively challenging, but informative and valuable. If Full Boat pose is accessible to you, try adding some time to it -- 30 seconds is good in the beginning, but build up toward a full minute or a little more. Similarly, Half Boat should eventually grow from its initial 15 seconds to 30-60. However, remember that increasing the amount of time you spend in these poses (in any pose for that matter) should be done in response to your having improved its form. By that I mean, if you are still in a preparatory, or less-than-full-form variation of the pose, then your attention should be more on its physical components and less on its longevity. The suggestion of adding more time to the poses is only applicable if the form is well-established.

We added some time to Shoulderstand today. Everyone maintained good posture for at least five minutes, and a few for as long as seven. We will be comfortable with ten minutes before you know it! If your Plow Pose has good form and is comfortable in its current state, it can also be held longer; as much as five minutes. But like anything else, build up to that gradually in, say, 30 second increments. The other variations of Shoulderstand (Karnapidasana and Ekapada, for now) are typically not held very long -- 15 seconds at first, and up to a minute with proper experience. Also, keep in mind that along with proper form, another prerequisite to adding time to a pose is proper breath. An ability to maintain consistent Ujjayi is imperative. Focus on form, focus on breath, and your practice will grow organically.

Om Kala Vide Namaha

(Om Kah-lah Vee-deh Nah-mah-hah)

Om and salutations to the knower of the right (or proper) time.

Friday, September 19, 2014


The thirty-seventh verse of the second book (II.37) of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra says ASTEYA-PRATISTHAYAM SARVA-RATNOPASTHANAM. A few of my preferred translations of this Sutra are:

When abstention from stealing is firmly established, precious jewels come. (B.K.S. Iyengar)

For those who have no inclination to steal, the truly precious is at hand. (Chip Hartranft)

To one established in non-stealing, all wealth comes. (Swami Satchidananda)

And my favorite:

If you keep up the practice of never stealing from anyone, then there will come a time when people just come to you and offer you all that you need. (Michael Roach)

In Sanskrit, the word asteya literally means "to not steal." And discussion of this Sutra often regards not taking material things which do not belong to you -- don't shoplift, don't burgle. That is clearly only a very superficial rendering of its meaning. It also reminds us to not steal other people's time by being late to appointments. Or to not steal by way of delaying the return of something which you have merely been loaned. Also, don't prevent others from having what they need by hoarding more than your fair share. If you can be a person who avoids stealing in all senses of the word, then you will be rewarded with everything you need. If we can master non-stealing, then we get to have wealth.

This, to me, sounds an awful lot like what Mr. Iyengar is teaching us about our bodies when he says:

"If the standing poses described earlier (Plates 1 to 36) and the various movements of Sarvangasana and Halasana (Plates 234 to 271) are mastered first, Sirsasana will come without much effort. If these elementary asanas have not been mastered, the period taken to learn Sirsasana will be longer" (LoY 189).

This is yet another reminder that yoga is systematic: it is structered and progressive. It is designed around a logical series of building-blocks wherein each layer is dependent upon the one below as well as the one above. When you ignore the building-blocks and dive into a pose for which you are not prepared, you are stealing from yourself. You are stealing time from yourself by impeding, halting, or even reversing the progression of your practice. You are stealing healthy boundaries from yourself by pressing beyond reasonable limits. You are stealing intelligence from yourself by ignoring validated authoritative advice. And you are stealing your own physiological well-being by placing undue stress upon your nervous system, as well as physical well-being by holding your muscles and joints accountable for a level of stability and mobility they do not have. You are taking something which does not belong to you; namely, a pose which you have not earned.

In this passage, Mr. Iyengar reminds us that Standing Poses and Shoulderstand First Variation are the focus of the first thirteen weeks of practice because (among other things) they are directly preliminary to Sirsasana. In that way, Sirsasana is like a kind of reward for a job well done, a gift received in recognition of proper preparation. If you master the standing poses and the basic Shoulderstand, then you get to practice Headstand. If you can be honest, disciplined, and patient enough to truly learn how to stand on your own two feet, then you will be given the capacity to view your world from upside down.

However, if you try to take what doesn't belong to you -- if you pretend to be more physically, physiologically, or psychologically adept than you actually are, and attempt poses for which you are not prepared -- then your efforts to progress will be much more difficult.

This isn't limited to Sirsasana, of course. Every pose has necessary preparatory components. So please do not read this and think "Oh no, she's telling ME that I'M not ready for Headstand!" What I'm saying is pay close attention: when he says things such as "x & y are necessary prerequisites for z," or "continue to practice a, b, & c until they are mastered," that is probably advice being given rather sincerely. Remember that practicing any given asana means truly understanding what it is, how to do it, and why. That is what it means to have mastered the pose.

Moreover, having mastered the standing poses and Shoulderstand isn't a guarantee that you will practice Sirsasana. He says that it "will come without much effort," but that is not the same as "no effort." Sirsasana definitely requires effort -- from the outer body, from the inner body, and from the "more-than-your-body" -- regardless of which other poses have been mastered. But here is an explicitly stated list of things which will make the effort as smooth and pleasant as possible. Yoga is a never-ending practice of challenges and discipline and obstacles, and part of what we are learning to do is to face those inevitable moments of upheaval with grace and equanimity. So whether you are working to attain Sirsasana or any other asana, don't make it any harder on yourself than it already is.

And don't take what doesn't belong to you. If that is a tenet by which you live and practice, then you will be justly rewarded. Through the cultivation of asteya, you get all that you need. If you keep up the practice of never stealing from YOURSELF, then there will come a time when your practice offers you all that you need.

Image: Yoga Sutra II.37 as translated by Chip Hartranft, 2003

"Upon the man who does not take what does not belong to him, all riches are showered. Being without desire, he effortlessly attracts what is precious, both materially and figuratively, including the gem of all jewels, virtue." (Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras, 1993, 142)

Sunday, September 7, 2014


The Shoulderstand is the queen of postures and the headstand is the king, the yogis say--the former nurtures the body and the latter celebrates power and consciousness. These concepts will resonate with anyone who has had a lot of experience with both postures. Together they make a team. The headstand needs balance, and the shoulderstand, with its variations and sequelae, makes the best complete practice for providing that balance." (Coulter 499)

"[Headstand is] one of the most important Yogic asanas. It is the basic posture...The ancient books have called Sirsasana [Headstand] the king of all asanas and the reasons are not hard to find...A country cannot prosper without a proper guide it; so also the human body cannot prosper without a healthy brain...Regular and precise practice of Sirsasana develops the body, desciplines the mind and widens the horizons of the spirit. One becomes balanced and self-reliant in pain and pleasure, loss and gain, shame and fame and defeat and victory.

The importance of Sarvangasana [Shoulderstand] cannot be over-emphasized. It is one of the greatest boons conferred on humanity by our ancient sages. Sarvangasana is the Mother of asanas. As a mother strives for harmony and happiness in the home, so this asana strives for the harmony and happiness of the human system...It is no over-statement to say that if a person regularly practices Sarvangasana he will feel new vigour and strength, and will be happy and confident. New life will flow into him, his mind will be at peace and he will feel the joy of life." (LoY 179, 189, 212-13)

Nearly all major lineages of yoga recognize some variations of inverted postures, although they place emphasis on them differently. For Iyengar, there is nothing more profoundly superior to one's practice than the coupling of Sirsasana and Sarvangasana. Individually, they are essential and beneficial. But when paired together, their majestic forces have the power to regulate, influence, and affect change in a way unrivaled by any other aspect of practice.

I strongly encourage you to read the sections related to these poses within LoY if you haven't already. If you have, do it again. Sirsasana and its variations are on pages 179-206, and Sarvangasana and its variations are on pages 205-237. While we won't experience all the different variations of either pose within the parameters of DK, there are useful and interesting bits of information, hints, tips, etc. interspersed throughout both sections making it worthwhile to familiarize yourself with the entirety of each one.

Beyond what is explicitly stated in the book (and, by the way, there are tons of other readily available sources of information regarding how and why to practice these asana--books, magazines, videos, blogs, etc. Don't feel limited to only what's presented in LoY.), there are a few things worth mentioning and understanding in order to incorporate these poses into your practice as effectively as possible.

Lots of people are surprised to learn that Iyengar encourages students to practice the inversion cycles at the beginning of practice. It's pretty typical in other traditions to save inversions for the second half, or even the last third or quarter, of practice, and they have their own reasons and explanations for doing so. For Iyengar, including inversions in one's practice is crucial, and if they are practiced first (or at least early) you are much more likely to have both sufficient energy and time to practice them well. Sometimes (often times), whatever we save for the end of practice suffers in quality because we're feeling tired and/or hurried. Rushing, lessening, or excluding inversions because you waited too long to practice them is, according to Iyengar, a devastating disservice to you and your practice.

Practice them first and practice them well!

Even better: if you are in fact feeling weary, unfocused, or short-on-time, then this pair may be exactly what you need. There are so many different reasons for feeling like a full-length, full-spectrum practice isn't appropriate on any given day, but that shouldn't keep you from practicing. (By "full-length" I mean 60-90 minutes, or more. And by "full-spectrum" I mean a practice that includes a few poses from all/most of the major categories of asana: standing, seated, reclining, arm-balancing, hip-opening, forwardbending, backbending, twisting, etc.) Something is better than nothing, a short practice is better than no practice.

And, while other lineages may provide a different answer to this question--What should I practice when I'm feeling limited by time and/or energy?--Iyengar's answer is going to be, "Sirsasana and Sarvangasana". Why that is can be answered in a number of ways, but one reason is that, when both cycles are practiced in their entirety (or nearly so), the poses provide almost all of the most important physical and physiological benefits that one would otherwise gain in a full-spectrum practice: they provide both strength-building and mobility-enhancing qualities; they tone and open the shoulders, chest, and upper-back; they condition the core; they open the hips and stretch the legs; they include forwardbending, backbending, and twisting components; and they're balancing poses. That is to say, they are a self-contained full-spectrum practice. And one need not exert a tremendous amount of energy nor spend a great amount of time to experience that.

Something else worth mentioning is the fact that these two asana really are a team, and should be practiced as a pair as they balance each other very well. Sirsasana generally has uplifting, stimulating qualities, while Sarvangasana generally has calming, soothing qualities. And practicing one without the other can confuse the nervous system. Upward moving (Sirsasana) and downward moving (Sarvangasana) energies each need their opposites in order to find equilibrium. Mr. Iyengar makes note of this in LoY. He says, "Sirsasana and its cycle should always be followed by Sarvangasana and its cycle. It has been observed that people who devote themselves to Sirsasana alone without doing the Sarvangasana poses are apt to lose their temper over trifling things and become irritated quickly. The practice of Sarvangasana coupled with Sirsasana checks this trait" (189).

Again, different lineages and different practitioners may have different experiences of this. And that's fine. This isn't the only way to practice these poses, and this isn't the only source of valuable information regarding their forms and functions. This is just one (albeit one which is highly esteemed and trustworthy) philosophy, and there are certainly others which are "equally right". So much more could (and should) be said about this couple of asana. For instance, we haven't talked at all yet about how to practice them, only why, nor have we mentioned yet their respective cautions and contraindications. The message for now is that they are powerful and important. They are (generally) appropriate for (many/most) beginners, but they are challenging to master. They should be respected, but not feared. To turn your world upside down, both literally and figuratively, is to embrace, as well as to play with, reality in a way that is life-giving, confidence-building, and enriching.

Let feet-off-the-floor be just as normal as feet-firmly-grounded!

"If Sarvangasana is the Mother, then Sirsasana may be regarded as the Father of all asanas. And just as both parents are necessary for peace and harmony in a home, so the practice of both these asanas is essential to keep the body healthy and the mind tranquil and peaceful." (LoY 189)

Coulter, H. David. Anatomy of Hatha Yoga: A Manual for Students, Teachers, and Practitioners. Honesdale: Body and Breath, Inc. 2001. Print.

Saturday, September 6, 2014


Today, September 6, marks my ninth year of teaching yoga. I remember my very first class quite clearly. It was a Tuesday morning following the Labor Day weekend. I remember the names and faces of students in the room, a few of whom remained dedicated students of mine for several years and followed me to four different practice-spaces before I finally left the area permanently earlier this year. At times I can remember parts of that first teacher training program and some of the first teaching experiences following it so vividly that it's hard to believe so much time has passed. I also remember that in the months and weeks leading up to attending my first training program I thoroughly contemplated the appropriateness of doing so -- just one of the many questions I was pondering was Is teaching yoga the best decision to make for myself right now? And looking back, I can honestly say that I cannot imagine anything being more fitting, more pleasurable, or more fulfilling. So, cheers to me and my nine years at the front of the room, cheers to all of the teachers at the front of the room when I am the one in the audience, and cheers to each and every one of the students who share space with me and allow me to share with them this incredibly rich and dynamic trove of goodness we call YOGA.

Let's talk asana. We are moving into a new sequence which includes ten new poses -- new inversions, backbends, and forwardbends. Some of them, like Bhujangasana (Cobra, 107-8) and Paschimottanasana (Seated Forwardbend, 167-70) are likely to be at least vaguely familiar to most practitioners as they are common poses in lots of different types of classes. A few of the others are less-commonly practiced, and may need more attention as a result. We are, of course in no hurry, and will take at least four, possibly five, weeks (as opposed to the two which are scheduled) to focus on the forms of each of these new asana before moving on.

In an interview which took place roughly thirty years after the original publication of LoY, Mr. Iyengar was asked to talk about how he would advise a student to regularly practice yoga, and in particular the set of sequences in which we are currently engaged (what we are calling Dirgha Kala). Here is part of his response:

"In the sixties, when I wrote my book Light on Yoga, I outlined a course of 300 weeks (more than five years). I had in my mind my own practice and measured, according to my dedication, the possible time it would take to learn, but I never thought of practitioners at large. I didn't think that people who follow my method could dedicate ten hours a day that took me to come to that level. Now, as a mature man, I realize I should have divided the course into 900 weeks. At least that much is required to this measured control of asana." (Yoga Wisdom and Practice, 76)

Did you catch what he said there? His practice consisted of upwards of ten hours a day, typically six (or more) days a week. And with that in mind, he designed the three courses presented in the back of LoY. Do you practice for ten hours a day, six days a week? Probably not; very few people do. But should your intentions, expectations, and reflections be adjusted accordingly? Absolutely! He says it's more likely to take the average modern yoga student three times as long (900, rather than 300, weeks) to master the entirety of his system of practice. So who cares if we spend two weeks, or five weeks, or more weeks, working on any particular sequence of asana? We'll keep doing it, and happily, until we do it well. In regards to those students who practice less often than was his privilege, Mr. Iyengar says:

"Something is better than nothing. Today people cannot find sufficient time to practice. Under the guidance of a teacher, if they work once a week, the right thought will be imprinted on their minds and it will have a good effect. And this effect will last for about two or three days on the entire human system. Then it starts deteriorating. If people go to a teacher once a week and learn correct presentations and practice at home twice or thrice a week, retardation will not take place. The functioning of the human system, and the clarity in the brain and maintenance of equilibrium in body and mind will increase if one practices daily." (77)

Yoga is worth doing well without any attachment to time. Practice a little. Or practice a lot. What matters is the quality, the intention, the awareness, the passion. Whether you can count your time on the mat by minutes or months or decades, if you walk away from your practice feeling better than before it, then you did it right.

Our set of asana for the next several weeks will be based on the following:

     Sanskrit names are in bold.
     (English names are in parentheses.)
     [Numbers in brackets correspond with illustrations.]
     Poses with an * are new to the sequence.

*Salamba Sirsasana I (Supported Headstand first variation) [184]

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

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

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

Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side-angle pose) [9, 10 and 11]

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]

Parsvottanasana (Intense side-stretch pose) [26]

Prasasarita Padottanasana I and II (Wide-angle forward-bends first and second variations) [33, 34, 35 and 36]

Padangusthasana (Big-toe pose) [44]

Padahastasana (Hands-under-feet pose) [46]

Uttanasana (Standing forward-bend) [48]

Parighasana (Gate pose) [39]

*Salabhasana or *Makarasana (Locust pose or Crocodile pose) [60 or 62]

*Dhanurasana (Bow pose) [63]

*Bhujangasana I (Cobra pose first variation) [73]

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

Paripurna Navasana (Full Boat pose) [78]

Ardhva Navasana (Half Boat pose) [79]

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

Halasana (Plow pose) [244]

Karnapidasana (Ear-pressing pose) [246]

*Supta Konasana (Reclined Wide-angle pose) [247]

*Parsva Halasana (Side Plow pose) [249]

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

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

*Mahamudra (Great Seal pose) [125]

*Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-knee pose) [127]

*Dandasana (Staff pose) [77]

*Paschimottanasana (Seated forwardbend) [160]

Ujjayi Pranayama with inhalation retention (Section 203) in Savasana [592]

We will spend this upcoming Sunday (9/7) focused on preparing for Sirsasana (the first variation of Headstand). You will, by no means, be required to enter the full inversion (meaning your feet do not have to leave the floor), but you will be provided with the opportunity to do so if it is appropriate for you. We will spend time working on preparatory as well as alternative variations so that you are fully equipped to make good choices in regards to what, when, and how you practice the pose. The following week (9/14) will likely be spent focused on the new backbending postures. And the week following that (9/21), on the new forwardbending postures. Along the way, we will incorporate the new Shoulderstand variations, and continue working on the poses which are already a part of the sequence.

As always, I encourage you to take a look at each of the poses before practice, particularly the new ones. 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.