Happy 2019 ending and 2020 beginning.
I suppose I should say something meaningful about yearly cycles, new beginnings, intentions v. resolutions, and all that. Instead, I am writing a nerdy entry on how I work with a sequence in my home practice. These reflections may or may not help you with your New Year, New You project. I will leave that up to you.
For the record, I am on the New Year, Same Me program, which is another blog entry I could be writing. The thing is that I feel like I am growing and living into an ongoing inquiry into how best to bring that growth into a meaningful, authentic expression. A new calendar year isn't really part of that process for me. Don't get me wrong - I am all for whatever helps someone align with themselves, so if New Year's intentions and resolutions do that for you, use them. No judgement from me. With much of the world engaged in the resolution process, you just might be able to tap into the collective energy quite effectively.
So - home practice.
I generally write a sequence for my practice. The sequence functions like a plan and helps me stay focused on my asana practice rather than on Facebook, Instagram, or dust bunnies. I have not always practiced with a set plan, but currently I find that heading into my practice with a plan provides a valuable structure.
Pictured below (on the very same piece of scratch paper that I wrote it on) is my plan. Down the right hand side of the page is what I wrote down and planned to do.
I often start with virasana, baddha konasana, malasana and uppa vista konasana. These leg positions help mobilize my hips and have the added bonus of being poses I can do sitting down! When I was younger and asana was my primary athletic endeavor, I always started with more dynamic postures like sun salutations and standing poses. Now, I hike, bike, snowboard and such and my legs are generally tired when I get to my mat. The seated hip work serves me well and helps me ease into things.
The other thing I like about these four poses is I can go in just about any direction I want from there. You see these leg positions in the forward bend syllabus - virasana becomes triang mukaikapada pascimottanasana. baddha konasana informs janu sirsasana and ardha pada padma pascimottanasana. Malasana relates to all the maricyasanas. And uppa vista konasana has its twisting and forward bending expressions and relates to the straight leg of poses like janu sirsasana, etc. (if the sanskrit is all too much, look in Light On Yoga and see plates 125-152 and you can get a sense of the way the shapes repeat.)
Additionally, these leg positions become the eka pada raja kapotasana back bends, so they can take me to back bends. Also, the hip mobilization prepares padmasana, all the standing poses and so on. As a jumping off point, these poses are excellent, provided you have knees that can do them, which is not always the case and would be a different blog entry, For a glimpse at the eka pada raja kapotasana back bends, head back to LOY and look at plates 539-547 and for fun with padmasana look at plates 104-124, then back up to the previous section where you will find baddha konasana and virasana variations.)
I am directing you to Light on Yoga for additional references and pose education to stimulate your thinking about how my sequence makes a certain sense. You can also take my online course where I explain a lot of Light on Yoga stuff.
From there, my plan was to take those basic leg positions into supine, hip extended versions. Then to a little side stretching, thigh stretching and upper back mobilizing, before taking those same leg positions into the eka pada rajakpoatasana preparatory cycles with quad stretching. Then into back back bends like ustrasana, dhanurasana, urdhva dhanurasana and some deeper work with the chair.
NOTE - these are not the full eka pada rajakapotasana (EPRK) backbends, just the leg positions with cobra-like back work. So, preliminary EPRK.
Also, I think about the three primary categories of backbends and incorporate them when I can into a back bending session. Some back bends are lifting up into spinal extension with the belly down, such as dhanurasana here. Some have one end anchored and lower down which requires an eccentric contraction of the muscles, like in ustrasana or drop backs where the abdominal muscles are toned as they lengthen. Other back bends have two ends anchored like urdhva dhanurasana.
So that was my plan.
Once I got into the sequence, however, I found my body needed more preparation than I planned. So what you see down the left side is what I actually did.
Also, sometimes when I am into things, I get ideas or creative inspiration and I think, "Oh, now, how might that fit in?" Or, "hmmm... you know, I forgot about that other thing, let me give it a go and see what it gives me."
For me, a plan is not a rigid, fixed or problematic constraint. For instance, Kelly and I had gone snowboarding the day before I wrote this plan. When I sat in virasana, my feet felt tight, my ankles felt restricted, and my calves felt bulky, making it harder than usual to get the deep knee flexion of virasana. So, I added in a whole big series of work for my feet and lower leg. (Many of you who are long-time students of mine affectionately know this work as the "foot and calf smashing routine.")
Then, back over to my original plan, after which I realized that some focused quad stretching and hip flexor work would make supta virasana a much more pleasant experience.
As I went on into the next part of my plan and I was down on my belly stretching my quads, I added in some twists, some cobras, some upper back opening with blocks.
I didn't plan on the twists, but I do like how they help my back bends. And there I was doing supta padangusthasana to the side and them anatasana and I thought, "well, supine twists would feel good." And then by the time I did anahatasana I figured, "Hey, I should do some cobra to get even more going on in my upper back." Once again, a plan does not limit me, it just gives me a basecamp from which to explore.
Now, the downside of all these exploratory trips down the left hand side of my page is that they took some time. So when I got to the back bends I did ustrasana and then a bunch of urdhva dhanrasana, I cut out the dhanruasanas, I didn't get to the chair work. But I did make a significant deposit in the bank of urdhva dhanurasana.
So here is a sped-up glimpse into my practice. And while this is a fast recording, I used a timers so most poses were 1-minute holds.
Pro tip - Use a timer for home practice. I use one on a basic Timex Ironman watch. The timer function has a repeat setting. I generally set the timer for 1-minute so I hear a beep every minute. This has been an invaluable tool for me in developing the capacity to self-generate intensity and focus. And, like a plan, a timer is not a rigid thing-- if I need to come out of a posture, I just come out. Plain and simple. No problem.
It's my practice, after all.
All in all, a good day's work.
I revisited the sequence two days later. I did the whole shebang, incorporating the side trips as part of my plan, since I had found them useful.
Which brings me to Sunday afternoon, a few days later. VIsit #3 to the sequence.
Down the left hand side of the page was my plan, incorporating the two previous days. You can see the basic repetition. (Also, figuring I was going to post the sequence, you can also note that I wrote more neatly and used a fresh piece of paper, rather than scrap paper from my pile.)
Down the right hand side are the notes of what that I actually did.
I used side stretching and twisting variations in the opening hip work. Once again, these were 1-minute timings so I was in virasana a minute, then each side stretch a minute, then each side twist a minute. I love side stretching in these four basic seated poses, whether I am going to forward bends or back bends. I get length for my side body, some deep opening in the groins, a lot of which I think has to do with the fact the psoas attached in the leg at the lesser trochanter so changing the leg position while stretching along the sides is not just a side-stretch only. And, as most of you know, nothing in yoga is only one thing. (Again, a different blog entry for a different day.)
Not included on my list of postures are the Down dogs I did between these long bent-knee holds. Once again, a plan is simply a plan - need something more or less? Add it in. Simple.
I should note, that this kind of planning is my approach for teaching as well. I always have a plan. I almost alway veer from the plan. In the words of Winston Churchill (I think): "Plans are useless. Planning is essential."
I stayed reasonably close to the plan through the supine segment and then the upper back work, but began to realize that my body felt pretty ready for back bends. So, I did not do the entire eka pada rajakpotasana prep work as I had planned. Once again, I skipped the dhanurasanas. (There is a theme here emerging - I am generally happy to skip those poses. Note to self - practice those poses.)
I got to some chair work. and while it says urdhva dhanurasana, what I actually did was:
Then I added in some supine closing postures and simple forward bends and then did my evening meditation session. I would have like to do savasana after that, but life was calling and I answered and went on to the next thing.
So that's a wrap, except for my shameless promotions. If you are still reading, then you are just the kind of yoga practitioner who would love my upcoming online offering Studies in Form and Flow. This is an in-depth, year-long, online program where I will:
So, that's a lot. It is a lot because there is a lot to cover and I want you to know a lot as a practitioner and teacher.
My main aim in a program like this is to give you the reasons behind the sequences, the cues and instructions, and the principles behind the methods. This is a program for people who want to understand what they are doing in practice and teaching so that they can more consciously and skillfully participate in the the thing that is transforming them. Almost everyone reading this blog loves asana and has felt it change their life. That is one thing asana practitioners - no matter what style or approach - seem to share. What I want to help teachers with is unpacking the practice in such a way that they understand more about the practice they love and love sharing with others.
And, while I am primarily a "Form teacher" I am included Flow sequences because I am continually asked about the interface between alignment and flow, because I enjoy vinyasa practice when done intelligently and because I think you can have form in flow and flow in form and both have tremendous value.
Studies in Form and Flow is a stand alone program or can be paired with a series of intensives and workshops (done over 2+ years) for a 300-hour advanced teacher training program.
I took a snowboarding lesson last week. Among such gems as “Alignment is something we need to be vigilant about” and “Your breath is the best tool you have on the mountain,” my teacher taught me an acronym for riding that seems relevant to yoga practice both on and off the mat: Visualize, Commit, Execute, Celebrate.
See yourself riding in good form. If you come up on challenging terrain, see yourself navigating the situation skillfully and confidently.
Decide to ride. Half way down the mountain is no time to be half-hearted or half-committed so commit to the course you have visualized.
Well, this one seems obvious enough, right? Do the thing.
If the ride went well, great. If you fell into a pile of powder and spend 30 minutes swearing and digging yourself out, well, great- you got out. Whether the execution was what you had hoped for or not, there is always something to celebrate such as survival, a learning moment, and so on.
These four steps may happen in the blink of an eye or be a thoughtful, more involved process, but one of the things this approach does is help us “take hope out of the equation.” Whether it is snowboarding, kicking to the wall in handstand for the first time, opening a studio or launching a new teacher training program, “hope is not a plan.”
And sure, life is uncertain and there are variables beyond our control that affect outcomes. Still, having a clear vision for our endeavor is better than beginning with a vague sense of hope.
Don’t get me wrong, I am all for hope in the Big Picture- hope for humanity to pull its collective head out of its collective you-know-what to confront the challenges of our times and the fears that have lodged themselves deeply in our individual and shared psyches and made their way into our institutions, sure. I have hope for that because I have faith in the ever-present nature of Grace and Love to triumph and yet, in the immediate sense I think education, soul-searching, some good therapy and difficult conversations with self and others is going to be the means through which my Big Picture Hope comes alive. And voting. But I digress.
Visualization is not magical thinking. Visualization is grounded in skills. In snowboarding, I can imagine myself soaring down the hill all I want, but if I don’t understand edges, weight distribution and speed management, well, I am most likely going to be in a pile of snow with something broken not long after I begin my run. In snowboarding, visualization is not just imagining myself going down the hill but imagining how I am going to do that.
In asana, I may want to balance in handstand, do a drop back, or get my leg behind my head (although, let’s be clear, you can live a happy life without ever doing any of those things) but if I do not understand the mechanisms through which these postures occur and the progressive stages that mitigate the inherent risk of such endeavors, I will be disappointed at best, and hurt at worst. I need to know how to do the poses.
And, if I understand the steps and can see clearly where I am in terms of my skill, then I need to commit and execute. Take a drop back from tadasana to urdhva dhanruasana, for instance. I need to know to keep my weight in my legs, to bring my pelvis way forward, to lengthen my spine, lift my chest, and coil my upper back like crazy. And, even with all those things going for me and a good sequence as preparation, if I can’t see the floor behind me, I am not ready to go. Furthermore, “let’s just see if I can do it” is not really a good way to approach a pose where I could land on my head. And, if I can see the floor and I am gonna go for it, my arms need to be straight and nothing good will happen if, half-way to the floor, I am half-hearted or inattentive.
I think one reason why so many people are getting hurt in advanced poses is because they do not truly understand the process by which the poses occur. Not enough information, skill development and then the commitment and execution is either “lets see what happens” or is so full of willful zeal that there is no recognition of whether the poses is appropriate or not.
And, so, here we are having done the thing and it’s time to celebrate. Celebrate is not a simplistic, “it’s all good, life is a celebration” kind of concept but is actually an honest self-review with a mindset determined to learn, grow, and evolve through the ups-and-downs of learning through practice. When my run or pose goes “well” and I feel like “I did it!” do I know why? Can I articulate the reason behind my success so I increase the chances of being able to recreate the success and/or help others? (Teachers, we need to know why we can do things as much, if not more than we need to understand why we can’t. This is especially true for those teachers for whom many poses came easily.)
If the run or the pose didn’t go as I had hoped, do I know why? Can I identify my growing edge and acknowledge my mistakes without— and this part is key— beating myself up, criticizing my personhood or invalidating my sincerity? Can the exacting self-review be done in a spirit of compassionate celebration or at least be in a movement toward greater love? Celebrating is celebrating the fact I am on a learning journey, not celebrating that I am super competent and always kicking ass.
So, that’s what I have today in terms of learning, practicing and teaching. Lots of opportunities coming your way to join me in the process— Online Teacher Training Studies in Form and Flow, 2020-21 Advanced Teacher Training, Intensives and Workshops and online classes with Yoga International.
Regardless of your vision— snowboarding, asana studies, teacher development, or getting through holidays with a semblance of equanimity, I hope this entry finds you developing your skills, committing to what maters, doing your thing with joy and recognizing the many ways Life is always there to help you learn.
“How you travel is where you are going.” - Richard Rohr
“Work is love made visible.” - Kahlil Gibran
"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!"
-2 Corinthians 5:17
I am returning from a great trip to Arizona, the first part of which was my annual 3-day intensive with Darren Rhodes at Yoga Oasis, which we have come to call “The Work”. This year we worked with a poem from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran and included reading, dharma talks, writing and discussion along with the asana offering.
For all of the technicalities of asana and the intricacies of philosophy, the heart of the Path for me is the Heart- the revelation, recognition, and expression of Love. And, as I have come to realize with increasing clarity, I simply cannot bully, force, intimidate, criticize or otherwise hate myself into Love. I must travel towards Love with love.
I am not talking about sentimental, Hallmark-card, pop-song love. I am talking about Love as the ground of Being, Love that is big enough to hold the paradoxes of my beauty and my rough edges, my capacities and limits, my profundity and my pettiness. I am talking about Love in its fire, in its sweetness, in it’s demands and in it’s ever-present affirmation of the All That Is As It Is. So, Big Love. (Not to be confused with the excellent TV show by the same name which is a different topic for a different day.)
As many of you know, Darren and I have spent over 1200 hours teaching in the room at Yoga Oasis together (he added it up a few years ago) and this year felt to me like “old times made new.” I felt like we found the current we used to ride together without having to go backwards to do it.
Truth be told, backwards is never really an option, even if the old times were good ones. After the intensive, I spent five days at my guru’s ashram with three of those days on solitary retreat. On the drive into the retreat center there is a road sign off to the left that reads “Private Drive. No Turn Around.” I remarked to my friend who was driving me, that the sign had good spiritual advice.
At a certain point on the Path, there is no turning around.
I have found that while there is a need for honest self-review, which includes integrating past insights, lessons and experiences, there is really no way to turn around. Sometimes nostalgia comes calling and the innocence of past times feels sweeter than living into the wisdom that periods of disillusionment so often bring.
And still, there is no way to turn around.
Darren and I consider ourselves siblings on the Path. In the Indian tradition, he would be called my gurubhai, which means brother in the guru. We both practice and teach in the lineage of Lee Lozowick, Yogi Ramsuratkumar and Swami Papa Ramdas. And, like any brother and sister, we have had ups and downs; long periods of time when Love was sweet and a few periods when Love tasted a bit bitter. And, through Grace and work, we are still in the game together, blessed with and by, the many students who have stuck with us through our (and their) growing pains.
The weekend was fun, tender, raw, real and full of good company from near and far. One of the closing teachings I gave is inspired by the Baul tradition of Bengal. The Bauls are itinerant beggars whose practice is aimed at the the recognition of the Inner Beloved. They sing, dance, practice Hatha yoga, wander, beg and occasionally come together in small and large groups for satsangs of different varieties. Eccentric, iconoclastic and somewhat radical, their path is a dynamic synthesis of tantra and bhakti, grounded in and through the natural ecstasy of the body. Their traditional garb is a patch work jacket made from discarded, unwanted scraps of material.
I can think of no better metaphor for the old being made new than these jackets.
My own life is a patchwork jacket of past experiences— both joyful and painful, some eliciting pride, while others are more challenging to include in my own loving tenderness. Be that as it may be, these experiences are the pieces of my life and they are stitched together by the thread of Grace which has kept me walking the path even when I wished I could turn around and return to some moment in time when I was not so aware of the cost of transformation. And, as many of you know, while the cost may be great at times, so too is the reward.
As I return home for some R&R and some online work and to finalize the details of my 2020-2021 teacher training program (with deeper, more formalized curriculum and requirements), I do so feeling the rewards of not turning around, of walking forward, of shifting my bearings occasionally to recalibrate my trajectory to align myself with my path and to make sure my path is aligned with me. (Different entry for a different day, but both side of the equation need to be considered, in my opinion.)
And I hope that for you— whether your path feels easy-going or rocky and filled with land mines, whether you have energy for the journey or you have sat down in the road to rest—that you find some way to keep moving forward. I pray that each step forward stitches you together, makes you more whole, provides you with the courage to include what was discarded, to make the old new and to travel toward Love with love.
An student of mine recently completed one of my courses on Yoga International and wrote me a few reflections, one of which was “You taught to lift the legs first in the back bend which was a lot harder for me to then to lift my chest first.”
Her comment made me think about my learning process with asana studies. For many years, I studied the shapes, the forms, the “how to” of getting into and out of the postures, the application of the actions that help activate the shape or mitigate the inherent dangers of the shape, the ways to make the pose more accessible and, in a sense ,“easier” and so on. I learned (and learned to teach) all about the poses as though doing the pose is the point of the pose. Fair enough. After all, the execution of asana is part of our subject matter as is understanding the means by which we might practice the poses with greater proficiency and/or help others do the same. We might call this stage “learning the language of asana.”
So far so good, right?
Once I learned the language of the asanas and had some familiarity with the “how to” as well as the “how to do what I need to do for ourselves within the pose” then I got to use the poses as tools for explorations, not as the subject of the study itself. Once we learn dhanurasana, for instance, we can practice it by lifting our chest first, by lifting our legs first, by lifting both as evenly as possible, by belting our legs, by squeezing a block between our legs, by adding height under the top of our hips, by adding height under the lower part of our pelvis, by changing the placement of our grip and so on, ad infinitum. And, like my online student noticed, not every variation makes the pose easier, better, more enjoyable, or is even going to be consistent with other variations or common interpretations of the posture.
Using the asana as a means of exploration rather than simply the subject of study opens up a world of possibility, although the leap is not for everyone. For those people looking for any form of certainty, the exploratory work is often frustrating. For those who enjoy competency and being good at things, the fact that the exploratory work often makes poses more difficult and not always more doable, is sometimes too much to bear. For those seeking the safety of “right” and “wrong” the exploration through asana contains too many variables to manage with way too much gray area to navigate. And, of course, for those folks who don’t want to reflect, analyze, observe, make distinctions and/or find nuances within the asana experience, this work will be way too mental to be enjoyable. Or sustainable. (Like black licorice- people like it or they don’t. Although, some occasionally acquire the taste for it.)
For me, the exploration is where the fun of alignment is. I know some people look to alignment for the how-to of the pose and we have great information for that domain of interest. Others see alignment principles primarily as safety protocols and I believe we have some of that to offer. Others practice alignment as a means by which to be certain, to be right and for others to be wrong and that is a possible application. I see alignment in asana as a means through which we explore ourselves through the postures. While it can seem like “working on the pose” and can easily tip into obsessively tracking details or imposing something on ourselves from outside-in, alignment-oriented approaches offer a means by which I can develop a relationship with the pose and my body as well as with my attention, awareness and consciousness.
I get to see, “Wow, that approach is more difficult. Why? What does it require differently of me, of my body?” Or maybe, “Wow, that is so much easier the way! What do I get from the variation that I don’t normally have? What can I build to move in the direction of this new-found ease? What might I let go of?” And, perhaps topping the list of important in my book is “Wow, that approach is harder and I am not good at it. How am I with myself when my competency isn’t high? Am I nice to myself? Might I learn to be?”
And so on.
At some point my interest changed from the “How To Do The Shape” domain of study to the “Interest in the Exploration” domain of study. In the “Interest in Exploration” domain, that I notice the difference is what is compelling and vital, not that the difference makes me better or worse at the pose or makes the pose easier or harder to perform. Noticing, rather than performing, is the skill-set being developed.
And of course, there are other games to play beyond the work of observation, noticing, and tending to the cascading effects of the instructions within a pose while we study the the cause and effects of the alignment within ourselves. The work in asana is never-ending and the depths never reached in their entirety. And, so we are clear, I am naming these domains as categories as through they are distinct, when in truth, I think they are intersecting sets, like a Venn diagram. All those different explorations often yield proficiency in execution. And greater awareness will often take us to deeper non-analytical absorption and experience. And a more compassionate relationship with difficulty and a more curious relationship with ease are actually life-skills where as balancing in handstand does not pay the bills, make relationships function smoothly, or provide much in the way of soothing one’s existential angst, fun as handstands may be for some folks.
Well, I am up agains my 1000-word limit so I will close it out now.
I am in Tucson this weekend for 3-day intensive with Darren Rhodes at Yoga Oasis. This is a yearly team-teaching program we offer and I always look forward to being in his good company and in the supportive community of Yoga Oasis. This is my last out-and-about teaching gig for 2019 and I am taking a few days to go on retreat at my guru’s ashram after I finish. Then I’ll head home from some R&R (Snowboarding, here I come!) and some online program development I will launch early in 2020. (So stay tuned for details on that!)
Love to you all.
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