Beginning A Home Practice, Part 3: What To Practice.

This introductory group is a stripped down collection of poses, predominantly standing, that are the most useful with which to begin. They will provide your body with the full variety of ranges of motion for you to work with. Once you have come to grips with these, you can begin to work in other poses and variations.

Standing Poses


Tadasana (Mountain Pose)Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Hands Pose)Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Hands Pose)
Urdhva Baddha Hastasana (Upward Bound Hands Pose)Urdhva Baddha Hastasana (Upward Bound Hands Pose)
Urdhva Baddhanguliyasana (Upward Bound Fingers Pose)Urdhva Baddhanguliyasana (Upward Bound Fingers Pose)
Gomukhasana Arms (Cow Face Pose)Gomukhasana arms (Cow Face Pose)
Pashchima Namaskarasana (Reverse Prayer Pose)Pashchima Namaskarasana (Reverse Prayer Pose)
Garudasana Arms (Eagle Pose)Garudasana arms (Eagle Pose)
Vrkshasana (Tree Pose)Vrkshasana (Tree Pose)
Utthita Hasta Padasana (Extended Hands and Feet Pose)Utthita Hasta Padasana (Extended Hands and Feet Pose)
Parshva Hasta Padasana (Side Hands and Feet Pose)Parshva Hasta Padasana (Side Hands and Feet Pose)
Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose)Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose)
Utthita Parshvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose)Utthita Parshvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose)
Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I)Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I)
Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II)Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II)
Parshvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch Pose)Parshvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch Pose)
Prasarita Padottanasana I (Widespread Feet Pose)Prasarita Padottanasana I (Wide Spread Feet Pose)
Uttanasana (Intense Stretch Pose)Uttanasana (Intense Stretch Pose) - feet apart

Seated Poses


Dandasana (Staff Pose)
Baddha Konasana I (Bound Angle Pose I)
Upavishtha Konasana I (Seated Angle Pose I)
Sukhasana (Easy Pose)
Vajrasana (Thunderbolt Pose)
Virasana (Hero Pose)

Forward Extensions


Child’s Pose
Adho Mukha Shvanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose)
Adho Mukha Sukhasana (Downward Facing Comfortable Pose)
Triang Mukhaikapada Paschimottanasana (Three Limbs Facing Intense West Stretch Pose)
Pashchimottanasana (Intense West Stretch Pose)

Reclined Poses


Supta Tadasana (Reclined Mountain Pose)

Core Poses


Urdhva Prasarita Padasana (Upward Extended Feet Pose) (90°Winking

Twists


Utthita Marichyasana (Extended Marichi’s Pose)
Bharadwajasana in Chair I (Bharadwaja's Pose)
Bharadwajasana in Chair II (Bharadwaja's Pose)

Backward Extensions


Viparita Dandasana (Inverted Staff Pose)
Setu Bandha (Bridge Pose) (on block)

Inversions


Salamba Sarvangasana I (Shoulder Stand) - at wall
Sarvangasana over chair (Shoulder Stand)
Halasana (Plough Pose) - feet on chair
Supta Konasana (Reclined Angle Pose) - feet on chair
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose in Shoulder Stand) - feet on chair

Restorative Poses (supported variations)


Viparita Karani (Upside Down Pose)
Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclined Bound Angle Pose) - over bolster
Setu Bandha (Bridge Pose) on bolsterSetu Bandha (Bridge Pose) - over bolster
Shavasana (Corpse Pose)


Printable PDF
|

Beginning A Home Practice, Part 2: How To Sequence A Practice.

Sequencing a practice is a subtle art with many different approaches. The most general and well-rounded way is to approach it from an energetic perspective. Just as a workout at the gym has a progression, so should an asana practice. The different categories of poses have different effects, which need to be taken into account. We will think of the poses in terms of whether they are activating, balancing or settling.

Standing Poses


Standing poses are usually introduced first to the new student. No matter how stiff you are, they give you a chance to open up the legs, hips and lower back with more control than seated poses and forward bends. They also begin the process of opening up the shoulders and trunk in preparation for back bends. They are energizing and invigorating, and are the easiest to move through safely when you want a more active practice. Generally speaking, these can be considered activating poses, though they are also stabilizing for the nervous system. Standing forward folds such as Uttanasana (Intense Stretch Pose) and Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide Spread Feet Pose) can have a balancing and even settling effect if practiced with the head resting lightly on some kind of support such as the seat of a chair or blocks.

Surya Namaskar


Surya Namaskar, or the Sun Salutation, is a way of linking several poses together in a smoothly flowing sequence. (See the article "Surya Namaskar: The Sun Salutation" from April 2006.) Some variation of it is often thrown in at the beginning of yoga classes in order to warm the body up. It can be modified to make it easier or more challenging, to make it gentler or more vigorous. It can be immensely challenging for those with a limited range of motion. Sometimes people think that you are not doing yoga if you do not have a Sun Salutation in your practice. This is entirely untrue. It is not the external trappings, but the inner awareness of a practice that make it yoga. The Sun Salutation is merely a tool, as are all the asanas, with which to anchor your awareness in the body, in the present. Depending on which poses you choose to include, Surya Namaskar can be more or less invigorating and challenging. For the purposes of sequencing, it should be considered activating.

Seated Poses


These are perhaps the original yoga poses, the “asana” that Patañjali refers to in his Yoga Sutras. Just as Tadasana (Mountain Pose) is the foundation of all standing poses, it is in the seated poses that we find the foundation of all the forward extensions. Here we look for the calm, steady base necessary for meditative practices. They are balancing and settling and can be used as a transition from Standing Poses into floor work.

Forward Extensions


I prefer to think of these as “extensions” rather than. Extension of the trunk is essential to the effective practice of these poses. Forward extensions can have a deeply calming effect on the nervous system. This is only achieved by proper extension of the front of the body in order to balance out the stretch of the back of the body. They are balancing and settling introspective poses.

Reclined Poses


At first consideration, it would seem that these poses primarily target the hips. This they most certainly do, but at the same time they get deep into the pelvis, lengthening and balancing the core muscles. Energetically speaking, they are balancing poses.

Core Poses


This small group of asanas are often thought of as "abdominal" poses. It would be fairer to say that they are full body poses. Certainly, at the outset, you may feel their effects in the lower abdominals, thighs and hip flexors, but the challenge is to engage the whole body to distribute the effort evenly throughout the frame. These are activating poses.

Arm Balances


By "Arm Balance" I am referring to such poses as Bakasana (Crow Pose) or Tittibhasana (Firefly Pose). Up to this point, the poses have focused mainly on the lower part of the body. Here weight is borne on the arms, strengthening the whole upper body and core. These intermediate and advanced poses are extremely activating.

Twists


These revolved poses start to take you deeper into the trunk. The twisting action has a two-pronged effect of toning and massaging the internal organs, promoting improved functioning of the gastrointestinal system and blood circulation in the viscera, as well as accessing the deeper muscles of the trunk which will be used in backward extensions and inversions. These can be activating after seated or reclined poses. After standing poses and backward extensions they would be considered balancing.

Backward Extensions


Powerful and exhilarating, these poses need to be approached with care. Just as with forward extensions, “back bend” is perhaps not the best way to describe them. In none of them are you, in fact, asking the back to bend. More appropriate would be to say that you were asking the back to arch so that each segment of back and spine contributes evenly to the pose. They are generally activating, as they stimulate the nervous system. Restorative backward extensions, where the extension is less and the body is fully supported, can be considered balancing and settling.

Inversions


Inversions are thought to have the most powerful effect on the body of all the poses. The nectar of immortality is said to be housed in the skull where it drips down steadily to be consumed in the fires of the belly. Being upside down prevents this from happening. The reversal of gravity on the internal organs is thought to be rejuvenating for them. The greatest effect of these poses is that on the nervous system. The attention necessary to invert the body, coupled with the literal change of orientation can profoundly alter your mood and your frame of mind. There are four basic inversions (with many variations): Hand Stand, Forearm Stand, Head Stand and Shoulder Stand. Hand Stand and Forearms Stand can be thought of as preparations for headstand and are extremely activating. Head Stands are thought to be invigorating and heating whereas Shoulder Stands are thought to be calming and cooling. These balancing and settling poses are often best performed towards the end of a practice.

Restorative Poses


These balancing and settling poses can be thrown into a practice pretty much anywhere: at the beginning as a nice transition into a contemplative frame of mind after a hectic day or a night’s sleep; in the middle as a transition from one set of poses to another, at the end as a period of integration after the work you’ve done. You don’t even have to get involved in a full practice to enjoy these poses. I will often set myself up in a simple restorative pose between classes to center myself and gather myself up for the rest of my day.

It is extremely important not to neglect the restorative poses, as they give the both the physical body and the subtle body a chance to recover. Women in particular need to avoid practicing inversions and focus on restorative poses during their menstrual period. And, even though men do not have the monthly physiological changes of the female menstrual cycle, they also ought to allow themselves regular periods of an exclusively restorative practice that does include inversions to help regulate their hormonal balance.

Shavasana (Corpse Pose)


This is, unquestionably, the one pose that does make a yoga practice. (See the article "Shavasana: Corpse Pose" from April 2006.) It is in Shavasana that the gross and the subtle have a chance to merge. The shifts and changes you have put your body through have a chance to integrate in this pose, both on the gross and the subtle level. The release of body, mind and breath in the pose is the first step towards practice of pranayama (breath control), and dhyana (meditation), the more subtle and internal practices of Patañjali’s eight-limbed path.

The Flow of a Practice


Think of this as an extremely general guide that should be altered according to your mood and energy:

    1) CENTER your mind and body with a few moments in a seated pose.
    2) ACTIVATE the body gently or BALANCE/SETTLE the body if anxious, stressed or over-worked with simple poses.
    3) ACTIVATE the body further with standing poses and/or backward extensions.
    4) SETTLE the body and mind with seated poses, inversions or twists.
    5) BALANCE the body with forward extensions, twists or restorative poses.
    6) SETTLE the body and mind further with deep relaxation.



|

Women, Menstruation and Yoga

I find it hard, as a man, to dictate what women should or should not be doing in class because of their menstrual period. Mary Pullig Schatz, medical doctor and author, has written an excellent article on the subject which can be found here:

http://www.yoga.com/ydc/enlighten/enlighten_document.asp?ID=74§ion=9&cat=93

|

BKS Iyengar Practicing in 1938, Part 1

This amazing footage was uploaded to YouTube.com by MCPetruk. It comes from a 1938 newsreel that features footage of both BKS Iyengar (aged 20) and his brother-in-law and guru, Krishnamacharya, demonstrating advanced yoga poses. This was long before Iyengar developed and refined his method of yoga into the Iyengar Yoga we know today.



To begin with he demonstrates part of what he refers to as the "Eka Pada Shirshasana Cycle" (Single Leg Behind The Head Pose) in Light on Yoga:

All on on one side:
Chakorasana (Partridge Pose) - Light on Yoga plates 379 + 380
Durvasana (Durva's Pose) - plates 381-383
Richikasana (Richi's Pose) - plates 384-385
Chakorasana (Partridge Pose)
Skandasana (Skanda's pose) - plate 372
Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose) - plate 66
Urdhva Mukha Shvanasana (Upward Facing Dog Pose) - plate 74

The footage skips for a moment and we see him briefly in Padmasana (Lotus Pose) from behind.

From there he jumps from Adho Mukha Shvanasana (Downward Facing Dog) - plates 75 and 76 - into stage 1 (plate 342) and then stage 2 (plate 343) of Ashtavakrasana (Ashtavakra's Pose). Then back up into stage 1 before the footage shifts again.

Then he goes through the stages of Ganda Bherundasana (Terrible Cheek Pose) - plates 571-583 - a formidable backward extension. He comes out this almost casually into Tadasana (Mountain Pose).

The footage cuts once again to show him flow from Adho Mukha Shvanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose) into Chaturangan Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose) and back before jumping into Vajrasana (Thunderbolt Pose) and going up into Shirshasana (Head Stand).

This is perhaps the most amazing part of this clip.

He comes up slowly into Shirshasana through Urdhva Dandasana (Upward Staff Pose) and takes the legs over his head with complete control, not dropping back, to place them lightly on the floor in Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (Two Legged Inverted Staff Pose). He then takes one leg up and then the other to go into Eka PAda Viparita Dandasana (Single-Leg Inverted Staff Pose). He walks his feet in to grab one heel and raise the other leg for Eka Pada Viparita Dandasana II. From there he straightens the arms into Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Wheel Pose) and then rolls up to Tadasana once again. He repeats the whole thing facing the other way. He flubs the roll-up to Tadasana, so he does it again, impeccably this time.

It's hard to judge the pacing of the practice. The footage appears to be a little slowed down in a couple of places but, regardless, his control is amazing to see. We mostly see him in the form of the static pictures in LoY from the 1960's, when he was in his late 30's and early forties and from the pictures taken in his later years that adorn Iyengar Institutes around the world. To see him at the height of his youth working away like this is quite breathtaking. It makes me think that if this man tells me to turn my thigh in a certain way, or to firm this part or that, I should bloody well listen and do as he says!



|

Beginning A Home Practice, Part 1: Preparation.

In this series of articles we are going to address how someone who is taking classes on a regular basis might begin a home yoga practice. In this post we'll consider some basic practicalities. First we’ll look at how to set up your space in the manner most conducive to practicing your yoga poses. Then we’ll talk about your mental approach and motivating yourself to unroll your mat regularly and consistently. After that we’ll begin to address the different ways to look at poses as a means of exploring the body and deepening the connections between body and awareness.

Let’s begin.

Setting Up Your Space


For many of us space is at a premium in our homes, but if you are going to practice regularly, you are going to need to designate a space for your practice, if for no other reason than having all your yoga equipment readily at hand. If you have to go around hunting down your various accoutrements every day, I can almost guarantee you that your practice will last maybe a week at best. No matter which school of yoga you follow, the technologies of transformation provided by yoga are useless unless you do them regularly, even for just a few minutes each day. Your yoga corner can be just that, nothing more than a corner, with the option to move the furniture around if necessary. I live in a very small studio apartment in Manhattan, New York. I have my personal mountain of props on a wheeled cart under the window in the corner behind the sofa. There is just enough room for me to spread out and do Shavasana (Corpse Pose) on the mat and a bit of wall space to use as a prop. It’s the one part of the room that I am meticulous about keeping neat and tidy (much to the amusement of my friends). If I’m being adventurous and I need to spread out, or if I have a friend over to practice, I can move the sofa out of the way for more room. A whole room in which to do your yoga isn’t necessary, though if you have the space, go for it. A friend of mine has converted her spare bedroom into a beautiful yoga studio. Here are some guidelines to think about:

    • Find an area in your home that is accessible and easy to keep tidy.

    • Your yoga area should be light and airy.

    • If you are near a window, make sure there is adequate blind coverage. Aside from scaring the neighbors when you’re doing your head stand, it is best not to practice in direct sunlight, especially if the sun is particularly strong. As nice as the idea of practicing outside in the sun may be, the heat and sunlight can be dehydrating. And you don’t want to get sunburned.

    • Organize your props so that they are readily available and easily accessible. There is nothing worse than getting into a pose and realizing you really need that block that is propping up a precarious stack of books halfway across the room.

    • Dress your yoga area in a way that is pleasing and conducive to an introspective frame of mind. This will have a lot to do with your personal taste. For some people pale colors are more restorative than bright colors. Some people like to have plants around, or artwork or spiritual accessories. I find strong colors to be most soothing. I have one wall painted a vibrant orange and I tend to do my poses facing that wall, especially since the kitchen is along the opposite wall. I love plants, but I have black thumbs, so for me the compassionate thing is to not have them around. Luckily there is a woman across the way who keeps the most beautiful garden on her terrace, so I can look at that when I am practicing and be reminded of life and nature. I have a tiny altar in one corner with one or two objects that set the tone. The key is that your area should be non-distracting. Anything that you have around you should bring you back to the reason you are there. The idea is that, eventually, you become so focused on your inner state of being that you could be anywhere. After twelve years of doing yoga, I find I can even practice at the gym with weights clanking and bad music blaring at me without being disturbed.


Attitude And Approach


Having a welcoming corner calling out to you will make it that much easier to get started. And that’s often all it really takes, I find. It’s a lot less intimidating to focus your motivational energies on getting yourself to your mat and taking it from there. Having the weight of obligation over your head (“oh I have to practice, have to do shoulder stand and head stand, have to do standing poses, have to get in at least half an hour&rdquoWinking is a recipe for resistance. When I need to get kick started, all I think about is getting to the mat and how much better I always feel once I’ve done my practice for the day.

    • Bear in mind that you are doing something good for yourself.

    • Practice with a friend to make it more enjoyable.

    • Use a journal to help motivate yourself. Write down what poses you’ve done and any insights you might have about your practice that day. I’ve kept a practice journal in one way or another for a number of years. I rarely refer back to it, except sometimes to come up with ideas for teaching, but the act of writing down what I am going to do, or what I am doing while I’m practicing, or what I’ve done after, somehow is very grounding. The fact that I have this book sitting on my props that somehow represents what I’ve been working on is very comforting. In some ways it’s a little shallow and materialistic of me. The true record of my practice is my own body, my mind and soul. The external reminder does, however, help.


Time Of Day


Consistency is always preferable. If you can make a habit out of practicing at the same time every day, this will make it much easier. However, that doesn’t always work, and it is important to respect that. Flexibility is key in mind and body. I have gone through stages where I can get up at seven every morning and practice for a couple of hours. This will go on for up to nine months at a time. Then I’ll get up one day and be completely unable to practice in the morning. For the following months I will have to steal time here and there throughout the day to practice. Then, suddenly, I will find myself practicing regularly in the evenings for several months. We go through many different kinds of physical, mental and emotional cycles in our lives, and, although it is important to be disciplined, it is just as important to be compassionate. (Do bear in mind, however, that this is not a license to get nothing done. Practice, practice, practice.) Here are some points to consider:

    • Look realistically at your day. Is there a consistent daily time you can devote to practicing regularly? Before I started teaching and I was still working in an office, the only time I could guarantee I would be available was at 7am, before work. Perhaps you have a similar situation at another time of day. Right after work, perhaps, or at lunch.

    • If you do not have a consistent time, consider making dates with yourself to practice. Because of my teaching schedule, no two days in the week are the same. So I make appointments to practice – Mondays at 5pm, Tuesdays at 10am, Wednesdays at 3pm. I’ve even gone so far as to write them down in my date book.

    • Take into consideration the time of day. We tend to be stiffer in the mornings than the evenings. This means that a consistent gentler practice first thing in the morning can be as effective as a stronger practice later in the day. I spent a month at the Yogaville Ashram in Virginia a few years ago. We would be woken up at 5:30 every morning for two hours of meditation and practice. At that hour of the morning I am barely able to touch my toes. I generally find I am stiff and extremely lethargic until about 10am. Not the traditional image of the early rising yogi on the mountain top, I know. Even so, a simple practice at that hour of the morning was incredibly beneficial, giving me very real results by the end of the month.

    • Be sure to practice on an empty stomach. Some people insist on not having eaten for up to four hours before practice, which is why practicing first thing in the morning is often a good idea. If you need to eat, eat. Be respectful of your body’s needs. Just bear in mind that all that food inside you requires energy to digest, and that it takes up space inside your body. A heavy asana practice will take energy away from the digestive process, which will be further compromised by the manipulations to which you will be submitting your internal organs.


Breathing


There are some styles where you are asked to perform very specific types of breathing synchronized to the poses and transitions between them. As you practice the poses here, the breathing is important in that it should be as natural as possible. Obviously, in some of the poses the trunk is restricted and it will not be possible to take a full breath in quite the same way as if you were simply standing or lying on the back. Regardless of the pose it is important not to restrict the breath consciously. Keep the throat unrestricted and allow the inhalations and exhalations to come as they will. It is very easy to forget to breathe when you are exerting yourself. If you allow this to happen you will bring hardness into the body and the natural flow of energy will be restricted.

Equipment


Yoga props have become increasingly easy to obtain, even showing up in bookstores and supermarkets. The internet is a further resource for any number of yoga accessories of varying degrees of usefulness. Here are the basic props, all developed by BKS Iyengar. Though essential for a balanced and supportive asana practice, household objects can often be found as adequate substitutes. When Mr. Iyengar started in the 1930’s he was using bricks and planks of wood to support him. When you get skilled enough in the use of props, no solid object will be safe from your practical gaze. Any table or piece of furniture can suddenly become a yoga prop.

Mat – Useful for two reasons: to provide cushioning underneath you when you are lying on the floor and to provide traction for your feet in standing poses. Some mats now come with lines printed on them to help with the alignment of the body. You could also draw the lines yourself with a permanent marker and a long piece of wood as a ruler.

Block - The block is perhaps the most versatile of yoga props, for under hands and feet, to act as spacers or supports for the trunk or head. Books can often be used as substitutes. Old phone books are particularly useful. Tape them up with packing tape or gaffer’s tape to make them sturdier.

Belt – Another useful prop, especially if the backs of the legs are tight and you need to reach your feet in poses such as those where the legs are raised and in forward extensions. A sturdy buckle will mean you can make a loop out of the belt to keep the various limbs together.

Blanket – Firm blankets are best. It is important to fold blankets well, making clean edges and even surfaces. Unevenness in the blanket underneath you will lead to unevenness in your body.

Chair – A sturdy metal folding chair with the back knocked out is the most ideal. Such chairs come cheap if you want to do the work yourself. As long as you are able to fit your legs comfortably through the back of the chair, however, you are in business.

Bolster – It is possible to fake a bolster by rolling up several blankets and tying them off with a belt. A good, sturdy bolster filled with cotton batting, however, can provide a lot of support for restorative poses.

Sandbag – any form of weight can be useful, even free weights and ankle weights.

Why Props?


Props are an essential part of a yoga practice. Rather than an impediment, or even an admission of failure, props are there to help you achieve opening and balance in your poses. What good is getting your hand to the floor in Utthita Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) if you strain the back of your leg, crunch into your neck and push into your lower back? Doing a pose in this manner is worse than not doing it at all. You will merely damage yourself, either in the moment or over a period of time, and you will certainly not be able to achieve any form of meditative insight in your poses.

Here are some situations in which to use props to modify poses:

    • In standing poses, when you are unable to place your hand on the floor, put it on a block, or even a chair.

    • In any pose where you are unable to grab your foot where required, such as a forward extension, loop a belt around the foot and hold onto the ends of the belt.

    • In any pose where you need to stabilize the legs and prevent them from coming apart, such is in a backward extension to protect the lower back, bind the legs with a belt.

    • In any seated pose when you are unable to elongate up out of the pelvis and there is pressure on the lower back, sit up on folded blankets, a block, or even a bolster.


Think of the props as extensions of your body. Even better, think of them as your teachers. You don’t have to use every prop and do every variation. I would encourage you to experiment and discover, to practice and play. Eventually the props will become invisible to you. They will be no more inconvenient than the air around you and the floor beneath you. All you will be aware of is your inner state of being: physical, mental and spiritual all in one.



|