Thursday, February 26, 2015


I have been really pleased with things taking place in the classroom lately. Even though there was a week-long weather-related interruption to the schedule, I have had the opportunity to lead several really fun and engaging events in the last couple of weeks. It has provided me with some new insights to ponder, a couple of new projects to develop, and a sense of invigoration as both a teacher and a student. Because of that, good things are forthcoming.

In the meantime, I invite you to read a blog post titled "What Is Yoga?" which I recently contributed to the "Live a Grounded Life" blog hosted by Solid Roots Yoga. I hope you find it enjoyable.

And, as always, let's practice together soon and often.

Saturday, February 21, 2015


I am not a fan of winter; it makes me grumpy. I do not like the cold temperatures or the short days. I think blankets of snow are beautiful from afar, but I do not want to interact with snow in any way other than visually. And I am greatly averse to the ways it interrupts and interferes with "normal" life -- the travel and traffic hazards, the schedule changes and cancellations, and the forced confinements.

This week, like lots of other folks I'm sure, I found myself with extra time on my hands because the winter weather prevented me from adhering to my regular schedule of events. While I couldn't go to work or the yoga studio, was I able to take advantage of the situation and find other ways to be productive? ::sigh:: Nope. I would have loved to use the unexpected unoccupied time to practice yoga, to write, to read, to do chores. But I never unrolled my mat, never picked up a pen, and my house is a mess. Instead I did what winter often causes me to do: I neurotically paced from room to room incapable of any effective attentiveness, obsessively looking out the windows hoping to see something different with each peek, and then being inexplicably disappointed when it was exactly the same as it was six minutes earlier. I mean, what did I think I was going to see: a blizzard at 10:23 and the first buds of spring at 10:29? Yet some irrational part of me can't stop watching it happen, and while I am fixated on wishing it away, I'm not doing...well, anything else.

I finally got out of the house (and out of my head) for a while last night just before Arctic Blast 2015 Round 2 struck, and, even though I am frustrated that it has yet again interfered with the events I desired for this weekend, I do feel a little bit recharged and refocused today. It was like a cabin fever cure, and I can feel my wintry blues starting to thaw. Enough so to prepare this post to share with you at least, and maybe to get the vacuum out later.

My sticky mat is calling my name; perhaps yours is, too. If getting to the studio for class isn't an option for you either, then finding a spot in the house to practice could be just what this frosty day needs most. The following is a modified version of the 16th and 17th Weeks sequence we have been working on. A few extra poses have been added and a few others omitted. If there is anything in the sequence that you aren't familiar with or can't do or just don't want to do, then leave it out. It's your cabin fever; heal it anyway you see fit.

     Sanskrit names are in bold.
     (English names are in parentheses.)
     [Numbers in brackets correspond with illustrations in Light on Yoga.]

Balasana (Child's pose)

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-facing Dog pose) [110]

Down-dog lunge

Anjaneyasana (Kneeling lunge)

Lizard lunge

3-5 rounds of Surya Namaskar A (Sun Salutations)

3-5 rounds of Surya Namaskar B (Sun Salutations)

Salamba Sirsasana I (Supported Headstand first variation) for 1-3 minutes [184]

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

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

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

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

Virabhadrasana I (Warrior pose first variation) [14]

Virabhadrasana II (Warrior pose second variation) [15]

Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon pose) [19]

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

Padangusthasana (Standing Big-toe pose) [44] into Uttanasana (Standing forward bend) [48]

Utkatasana (Fierce pose) [42]

Parighasana (Gate pose) [39]

Ustrasana (Camel pose) [41]

Salabhasana (Locust pose) and Makarasana (Crocodile pose) [60 and 62]

Dhanurasana (Bow pose) [63]

Bhujangasana I (Cobra pose first variation) [73]

Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-facing Dog pose) [109]

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-facing Dog pose) [110]

Virasana (Hero pose) [86]

Salamba Sarvangasana I (Supported Shoulderstand first variation) for 5-8 minutes [223]

Halasana (Plow pose) [244]

Supta Konasana (Reclined Angle pose) [247]

Ekapada Sarvangasana (One-legged Shoulderstand) [250]

Jathara Parivartanasana (Revolved Abdomen pose) [274 and 275] or another reclined twist of your choice

3-10 rounds of Urdhva Prasarita Padasana (Upward Extended Legs pose, aka UPP) [276 to 279]

Janu Sirsasana (Head-toward-Knee pose) [127]

Paschimottanasana (Seated forward fold) [160]

Purvottanasana (Upward Plank pose) [171]

Sit comfortably and practice Ujjayi Pranayama for 1-5 minutes (Section 203)

Savasana (Corpse pose) for 5-15 minutes [592]

Let's hope we can practice together again soon and often, and maybe in the meantime you can work on mastering your snow angel-asana.

Saturday, February 7, 2015


Let's talk a little bit about Surya Namaskar, otherwise known as the Sun Salutation. In its most basic form, it is a collection of poses (the exact number of which varies greatly amongst differing interpretations, see examples below) whose continuous movements are matched with specific breath cues, all of which are designed to alternately flex and extend the spine while also mobilizing the other major musculoskeletal joints and stimulating the nervous system. That is a big, intricate task. And it is possibly the single most identifying and ubiquitous characteristic of modern yoga practice. Therein lays its impact: it is a powerful combination of inescapable and demanding.

Nearly every major lineage of asana-based practice recognizes some variation(s) of the Sun Salutation; you can hardly roll out a sticky mat without it. It is the go-to method for warming and preparing the body, and, in some cases, the whole class seems like an hour-long sun salute. We have all been in that flow class that just won't stop flowing -- at some point you realize that the only thing you can hear is the Top 40 playlist harmonizing with the furnace, you aren't sure if you should be more concerned about the jelly-like feeling in your arms or the distinct possibility of slipping on your own sweat-puddle, you've decided that gravity is the universe's cruelest joke, and you are thinking to yourself if I hear her say "take a vinyasa" one more time, I am going to scream!

Even the most yoga-loving among us is familiar with that scenario. But we keep learning that frustration and aversion can almost always be minimized, if not eliminated entirely, by carefully considering what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how you can do it well. Surya Namaskar is no different.

It hasn't existed all that long, actually. Unlike some other aspects of yoga, it isn't ancient. To the best of history's knowledge, it was first practiced sometime around the early-to-mid twentieth century when Mr Jois was establishing what came to be known as Ashtanga Yoga, and Mr Iyengar included his own (briefly mentioned) version of it in Light on Yoga (468). That makes the Sun Salutation less than a hundred years old. Nonetheless, it is vastly popular, and it doesn't seem to be going anywhere any time soon. There is no shortage of classes which include some use of it, either as a warm-up or as the framework for the entire sequence. So if you intend to continue attending public practices, it is probably worth the effort to learn what this whole "take a vinyasa" thing is all about.

The meaning of Surya Namaskar, like most things in yoga, is both literal and figurative. The words actually mean "to salute the sun." Namas means "salute" or "bow" or "homage." It is the same root as the word Namaste which we exchange at the end of class (namas: "salute" + te: "you"). Kara means "to do" or "to make." Namaskar, therefore, means to offer a reverent greeting.

Surya is the Sanskrit word for sun. It is referring to the real sun, that which lights and warms the earth, and has been revered for eons as an essential life-giver, ever-deserving of admiration and sacrifice. It also refers to the light within, that part of your inner-being which burns just as brightly, just as reliably, and is just as deserving of recognition and adoration as the star in the sky. So, philosophically speaking, the act of Surya Namaskar is a gesture of graciousness toward all those things which are bigger than you -- the very real and strange things that constitute our universe as well as the unique parts of you that are your humanness.

Clearly Surya Namaskar's metaphysics are interesting, but understanding them alone won't alleviate your chronic wrist pain or keep you from belly-flopping through Chaturanga or turn your donkey-kick into a graceful hop. To be honest, this blog isn't going to address any of those things at all. That is what the sticky mat and the classroom are for because learning how to do it well isn't theoretical; it's practical and experiential. But we can take a closer look at its form and function to better clarify what it is and why we do it from a more physical-oriented point of view.

Although variations are nearly infinite, the sequence most traditionally includes Mountain pose (Tadasana 61), Standing Forward bend (Uttanasana 93), Chaturanga Dandasana (104), Upward-facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana 109), and Downward-facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana 110). Each pose is linked to the next via movement and breath. And, because it targets each of the major joints in the body by (mostly) alternating between forward bends and back bends which creates a corresponding alternation of weight-bearing and stretching, it is capable of being a whole practice in itself, although it is usually contained to just the first few minutes of a fuller-spectrum sequence. The fluid movement synchronized with the deep respiration and then repeated multiple times gives it an aerobic quality which conditions the body physically and physiologically.

When you are instructed to "take a vinyasa" in a flow class, it most commonly refers to the middle of the Sun Salutation; namely, Down-dog to Chaturanga to Up-dog and back to Down-dog. It is often meant to be a transition between poses (the way to get from Standing Pose A to Standing Pose B, for instance). Sometimes it's meant to be a kind of palette-cleanser in order to switch between categories of poses (say, after back bends and before seated forward bends). And sometimes it's simply the means by which you sustain continuous movement if that is what is most important to you. That particular mini-set of poses has become known as "a vinyasa." But the idea of vinyasa is, thankfully, more elegant (and less sweaty) than that. In Sanskrit, the word means "to arrange" and "to connect." So "a vinyasa" is actually something which has been placed in a special way, with specific intent. The fact that our yoga practice so often incorporates Surya Namaskar which is a vinyasa serves as yet another reminder that our practice is an act of reverence -- it is about skillfully doing this important thing for a good reason.

Additionally, its repetitive choreography provides a mental clarity that can only be experienced when you are engaged in a familiar activity. New things require a lot of dynamic cognition; they are mentally expensive, but when an activity becomes well-known, it develops its own kind of autonomic pulse which allows you to think less and feel more. By repeatedly practicing and mastering this series of poses and their transitions, your mind quiets and concentrates. In that way, Surya Namaskar is a moving meditation.

Thus its purpose is to provide an all-inclusive whole-self exercise -- physical, physiological, psychological, and philosophical.

Again, that is a big and intricate task. It is no wonder that it is so difficult to do well, or that we are so often left feeling more exhausted than enlightened by the time it is over. It requires strength, flexibility, stamina, and precise alignment. It requires some defiance of gravity. And it requires that you first learn the components of the individual poses for their own sake -- their particular forms, functions, and refined forms.

Below are four commonly practiced variations of Surya Namaskar with their corresponding breath cues. Try them each a few times to the best of your ability. Notice their similarities and their differences. What stands out? What comes easily? What isn't clear? And we will tackle the question of how do I do it well? together in class.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


Yoga Sutra I.12-14: "The vacillating waves of perceptions are stilled through consistent earnest practice and dispassionate non-attachment. Of these two, practice is the continuous struggle to become firmly established in the stable state of the Truth Self. That practice is indeed firmly grounded when it is pursued incessantly, with reverence, for a long time."

I talk about repetition a lot. That is because it is inherently imbedded in what we do. We are students learning how to practice yoga. The word practice literally means "a habit;" "a repetitive action for the purpose of acquiring skills." Its Latin roots mean "to do; to act." As yoga practitioners, we are defined in part by the repetition of our actions.

Etymologically, to repeat means "to go toward again" and "to strive for again" (re-: "again" + petere: "to go to," "to reach towards"). It is how we gain ground, literally and figuratively. To literally put one foot in front of the other in a repetitive manner is obviously called walking, and it causes you to go toward some real thing. Likewise, one figurative foot in front of the other leads you toward understanding and achievement. Repetition is the means by which we move forward, the means by which we reach toward something we want or need.

In Sanskrit, one word for "practice" is abhyasa. The first part of the word -- abhya -- means "intense" and "repetitious." The second part of the word -- asa -- means "to sit" and "to be established." It is the same root that forms the word asana which literally means "a fixed position." So abhyasa means to be established in intense repetition. The Sanskrit words for "multiply," "exercise," "study," and "strive for" are all very closely related to the word abhyasa, and you can see in each of them a similar idea: the necessity of repetition.

It is more than just repetitiveness, though. Patanjali's fourteenth Sutra says that practice is achieved from continuous action performed for a long time (see post "What Does Dirgha-Kala Mean?"). It is necessary that the repetition be done with respect and graciousness; it must be in the context of gaining some greater good or as an offering to some higher purpose. Remember, yoga is a means by which you are affecting change, but change for a specific reason. Yoga practice is an act established in repetitive action with the intention of changing your body first, and then your something-more-than-just-a-body, from one state to another. Through the endurance of intense experiences, you are moving toward things like strength, patience, resolve, and humility. But it isn't strong for the mere sake of strength, nor is it humbling for the mere sake of humbleness. It is because those are qualities and capacities with which you move toward the steady, non-vacillating state of existence which is the whole underlying premise of Yoga. That is the way you affect change: through the endurance of repetitive, reverent intensity.

This idea fits into the conversation of "form, function, refined form" from last time. Recall that "form" answers the question "what am I doing?", "function" answers the question "why am I doing it?", and "refined form" answers the question "how am I doing it?" We used Down-dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) to answer what, why, and how: Down-dog's "form/what" is an inverted-V, its "function/why" is a counter-pose to back bends, and its "refined form/how" is a particular positioning and engagement of the body determined by its function.

Your practice as a whole follows a similar pattern; it also answers what, why, and how. When you are on your sticky mat, the "form/what" of your practice is the sequence of poses you are practicing. It could be alignment-based, vinyasa flow, yin, restorative, a public class, at home, beginner or advanced, or any other variation thereof. What am I doing? I am performing asana.

"Function/why" provides purpose. Yoga is hard; it is too hard to do without a good reason. Your purpose, your intention, for practicing keeps you focused and motivated. When your body is strong, flexible, and healthy, you are much more likely to create that same kind of fitness and wellness for your mind and your heart. In other words, physical well-being leads to mental and emotional well-being. That is nearly universally why people invest so deeply into yoga: they want to feel better inside and out. So the "function/why" of your asana practice is to cause physical change in order to eventually cause other types of change. Why am I doing it? Because it affects me.

However, physical fitness does not necessarily entail mental or emotional fitness. The former does lead to the latter, but only with the proper "refined form/how." Remember when we changed our answer to the question why in regards to "why am I practicing Down-dog?" When its function is to counter-act back bends, Down-dog requires a certain use of position and engagement which is different when its function is a means of hopping from the back of the mat to the front. In order to know how to perform any individual pose well, you must first know why you are doing it. Likewise, in order to know how to practice yoga well in a broader sense, you must first know why you are practicing it at all.

Patanjali's Yoga Sutra answers "what" and "why" in its opening verses. Verse one and two say "You are engaged in the act of yoga which will stop the disturbed nature of the mind." Verse three says "You want that because an undisturbed mind is free and liberated, the way it is meant to be." Because Patanjali understands that that is easier said than done, the rest of the Sutra explains "refined form/how." How am I doing it? How do I do it well? Again, he tells us that yoga must be practiced continuously and reverently for a long time. In other words, I do it well by doing it frequently, endlessly, and respectfully.

This doesn't just apply to yogasana. The formula isn't particular to yoga poses. The same is true if your practice is seated meditation, or scriptural study, or mantra chanting, or gardening, or writing poetry, or parenting, or nearly anything else for that matter. Ask yourself what am I doing, why am I doing it, how do I do it well? And because every what has its own why, and every why has its own how, the questions are ceaselessly repetitive; not merely for the sake of repetitiveness, remember, but because that is the way we progress, that is how we move forward, that is putting one foot in front of the other in order to reach toward what you most want and need. Therein, yoga becomes an abiding walking meditation.

Yoga Sutra I.12-14: "The vacillating waves of perceptions are stilled through consistent earnest practice and dispassionate non-attachment. Of these two, practice is the continuous struggle to become firmly established in the stable state of the Truth Self. That practice is indeed firmly grounded when it is pursued incessantly, with reverence, for a long time."
(Stiles, Mukunda. Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, San Francisco: Weiser Books, 2002. Print.)