22 February 2008

Prana Practice

Saturday 23rd February 2008

This morning I drove to the other side of the city to do a practice with Kosta in his workshop-come-yoga studio.
We decided to do our own separate practices since it's Day 2 of that female time of the month again (has it really been 4 weeks since Glenn’s workshop?) and Kosta was complaining of a pinch in his lower back (he came up the wrong way from a supported backbend).

I opted for doing the tried and true primary series up to Urdhva Dhanurasana with the intention of finishing off with something other than inversions. Somehow Kosta slipped into it too and we ended up practising in unison, not intentionally, but probably the result of two strongly directed yoga energies running parallel in a slipstream, which was a lovely experience.
Having not been to the shala for a long time or to a led Primary for over a year, I’d forgotten about that special energy created when two or more people practice the sequence in unison.

At a cheat point, jumping from Marichi C to Navasana, he pulled me up...
“What about Marichy D?” he queried, looking innocently perplexed.
I had no excuse today so I shamefully went back and did it, binding easily on both sides and twisting with actual integrity.
Why on earth did I choose to skip this pose? Habit???
It was a little gift to have this highlighted, but after that insight I couldn’t possibly skip Bhuja through to Supta K as I'm also prone to doing on occasions.
Well, so pleased was I with my effort in Supta K that I sat up afterwards and put each foot (ankle actually) behind my head just to prove to my lower back that Supta K with both ankles crossed behind my head might be possible one day. Perhaps I might develop my yoga siddhis to such heights that I'll channell the spirit of Vanda Scaravelli into my body in my old age.

Breath is interesting in practice lately, or to be more specific, the flow of energy that rides on the breath. Ujjiya Pranayama is an integral part of my asana practice, even when I’m doing a quieter Iyengar sequence. I love watching the prana being generated, channelled, moving, ebbing and flowing, building up or draining away in relative proportion with my focus and stamina. Sometimes it’s dissipated weakly throughout the body, sometimes it whooshes through the central channel, sometimes I can discern it rising up through the front of my body and collecting in my throat (most noticabe in Utkatasana), other times it can flood my head blurring my sight and destabilising my inner ear balance (in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana, Matsyasana and Sirsasana).

The importance of grounding and energising the entire lower body can't be overstated when working with raising energy up through the chakras and channells. This activates the muscular earthy energy in the lower body so it can then be drawn upwards and refined. If the leg muscles are not engaged and the base of the pose is weak, there’s no foundation to work from. Yuk, even thinking somatically now about a weak base (imagining the feeling in my body) makes me feel insipid and impotent.
In seated poses too the legs have to be fully engaged or the strong earth energy will remain untapped. And in inversions/balances whatever part of the body is contacting the floor (eg. two hands in Handstand or Bakasana, the forearms in Sirsasana, neck and upper back in Sarvangasana, hands and feet in Urdhva Dhanurasana etc) must actively press down into the floor to activate and energise the rest of the pose.

Tapping into the presence and flow of prana around my body seems to be my main focus in my practice these days. It requires a refined and subtle awareness, something that has been developing over my many years of practising and teaching yoga.

I remember a friend quoting Shandor who often said that the first ten years of yoga is just ‘donkey work’. Well, 13 years after my first yoga class, I’m witnessing a quantum leap in the evolution of the yoga donkey.

Led Iyengar class notes

Friday 22nd February 2008

At the risk of overdoing the menstrual theme in this blog, I was doggedly determined to go to Darrin’s 6am led class this morning (having missed it three weeks in a row for quite valid reasons) but the female condition descended upon me last night.

‘To go or not to go’, that was the question.
‘See how I feel when I wake up’, that was the answer.
I felt fine. I went.

While the others did all their usual handstands and forearm balances at the start of class, I was sent to the wall for Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana. Rebellious me repeated it without permission at the end of my mat Ashtanga style, but thankfully didn’t get reprimanded.

Seeing the others struggling with the backwards hands Handstand variation (fingers are pointing towards the feet like Mayurasana before you kick up) I was quite relieved to be on the sidelines – this variation is a new one to me - but judging by the failed kick up attempts going on around the room, it must be pretty difficult. Definitely one to try out in a couple of days in the privacy of my own laboratory.

We did all the standing poses with the back foot against the wall (does this really make a difference?), then squatted down for Malasana, first with heels on a blanket and arms forward, then sliding in to the final pose holding our heels after variations supported by the wall.
Lots of seated twists next – the focus of the day I suspect…I got to do all the ‘open’ twists: Baradvajasana, Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana with a reverse twist, half and full Padmasana twists etc, but Darrin gave me alternatives like Janu Sirsasana and Upavista Konasana instead of the ‘closed’ twists: Marichyasana C, Ardha Matsyendrasana etc.

Then some supported but very dig-deep backbends over blocks and chairs including the one we did in Glenn’s workshop which I'll attempt to describe:
First you place a prop chair with the back of the chair facing the wall, then lay through it so your feet point to the center of the room. The tailbone has to be hanging down past the front edge of the chair, rather than towards the middle. Once threaded through the back of the chair and looking towards the wall, you reach the arms back, bend the elbows, and then with blind faith attempt to grab hold of the chair rung that's between the back legs. The hands are placed so that the little fingers are closest to each other and you pull on them to get the extra shoulder opening while trying to keep your elbows squeezing towards centre.

We all did Uttanasana and Dog Pose to close down after the backbends instead of my all-time favourite close down: Halasana over a chair (which I wouldn’t have been allowed to do anyway).
Funny that after a 2 hour Iyengar class it feels like I haven’t done any yoga at all.
Am I really an A-type Ashtangi in disguise?
All said and done, it's nice to have quieter, ‘restorative’ yoga session now and then, especially if the alternative at this time of the month is no session.

18 February 2008

Menstrual yoga practice

Tuesday 19th February 2008

In response to a comment/question from Alfia about the menstrual poses I did in the workshop, they were all fairly standard (Geeta) Iyengar female restorative poses.
I’ll often do a few of these instead of taking three days off practice because they encourage the apana/outward flow of energy and help alleviate that bloated PMT feeling.

In the workshop I did the standing poses and some backbends along with the others, but Glenn gave me the following alternatives when he had everyone else doing inversions:
- Supta Baddha Konasana lying back over a bolster (spreads pelvic floor)
- Setu Bandha over a bolster with two feet on a block touching the wall and a strap around the thighs to allow the pelvic area to relax (no need for the muscles to hold the thighs together) the closest you should get to an inversion at this time of the month
- Upavista Konasana with a forward bend (spreads the pelvic floor)
- Half Dog Pose with hands to the wall and spine parallel to the floor
- Uttanasana with feet apart and buttocks resting on the wall
- Janu Sirsasana with head resting on a bolster laid crosswise over the extended leg
- Seated cross legged forward bend
- Paschimottanasana with a blanket rolled up halfway and placed across the front thigh creases (don’t’ roll the blanket up completely or it will be too thick and press into the uterus)
- When the others did Headstand Glenn had me put a bolster vertical to the edge of the stage and lay on it (spine along the bolster) with my feet to the floor. The stretchy opening through the front of the pelvis was nice.

Having trained in both Ashtanga and Iyengar yoga, neither to the absolute exclusion of the other, I’ve been exposed to the different rules for those few female days of the month which can be confusing knowledge for some. In Ashtanga we’re told not to practice at all for the first 3 days; in the Iyengar tradition we do a special ‘menstrual practice’ which can include standing poses but always emphasises long, quiet, supported seated poses and forward bends that open the pelvis and groin area.
For me neither is right or wrong and I go along with whatever my body asks for on the day. Sometimes it’s a full Ashtanga practice, but replacing the inversions with a long Paschimottanasana at the end.

So the only rule I personally adhere to at this time of the month is NO INVERSIONS for the first 2-3 days. Menstruation is a time of elimination – the apana flow of energy is clearly discernable and the natural physical inclination is to assist he elimination process. There’s an innate sense that inversions oppose the downward flow of energy and can reverse the outward flow of the body’s waste matter (which makes me ponder the effect of inversions on those other two unmentionable waste disposal processes – urinating and defecating! - but I think I won't go any further with that today).

If you want to read further, Richard Rosen has recorded a nice menstrual sequence here and there’s an illustrated one here.
Thanks for asking Alfie…

Green smoothie

Monday 18th February 2008

Yoga practice on a Sunday evening is not something I normally do so last night was a little out of the ordinary.
Kosta and I met up at his workshop/studio at 7pm for a quiet yoga session – we’d planned to do some forward bends but after opening the session with Dog Pose and Uttanasana we went straight into a long Headstand and topped it off with some Headstand variations - 13 minutes in total (Kosta had a timer). Thirteen minutes standing on my head contemplating my navel and it felt more natural than right side up. Does this indicate that my life has been turned upside down?
While there, as occasionally happens, my mind wandered away to far away places, reliving scenes and conversations I’d had and might have had, inventing daydreams of future lives and loves, analysing and musing, happily rolling along with the entertaining repartee provided free of charge by my creative mind. But each time I snapped back into the present, I was surprised to find myself still upside down, still balancing on my head – and thinking what a weird position to be in while daydreaming.
After about 10 minutes in Headstand my nasal passages thickened as if I’d suddenly come down with a head cold. My breath wasn’t travelling easily through my nose by now, almost forcing me to breathe through my mouth, but I didn’t, I kept my mouth shut, and just stayed alert to the breath and all the new sensations taking place inside my head.

Shoulderstand was next, with Kosta leading me through variations including arching the back and lowering one foot to the floor into Eka Pada Setu Bandha and then repeating it with both legs lowering together from Sarvangasana into Setu Bandha and then the twisted version where the legs lower into Parsva Setu Bandha. There were quite a few other variations I haven't done for years since I mostly stick to an Ashtanga sequence when I do my own practice. The usual Halasana and Karna Pindasana followed and from there a most natural Chakrasana rolled me effortlessly into Downward Dog Pose.
As you roll back over in Chakrasana the head is pressed unnaturally forward – this probably shouldn’t be done if your neck is not strong and flexible. I think we do it three times (?) towards the end of the Ashtanga sequence, once after Supta Padangusthasana and also after Uttana Padasana and Setu Bandhasana, poses that arch the neck backwards. It’s quite a shock to then roll back over the neck in the opposite direction. So doing Chakrasana straight after Karna Pindasana was a dream.
A few forward bends came next holding most of them for a few minutes on each side. Then Kosta asked me to try and balance in Mayurasana on his back (only because he wanted to try it out on me after). Balancing on someone’s skin was a new experience – the skin slipping and sliding under my hands and me trying to lift off and maintain a precarious balance with my hands turned completely backwards. When it was Kosta’s turn he was a bit timid, afraid that his weight would crush me, but it was a glorious squish once he found the right part of my shoulders to balance on.

A green smoothie was the promised reward. I’ve been eager to taste one of these disgusting sounding concoctions ever since Kosta started raving about them during Glenn’s workshop – he’s been blending up a big batch in the morning and drinking it 3 times a day. This is what he put into the blender:
1 mango, 1 apple, 1 pear, a small knob of ginger and 2 cups of water. All this got blended up first then he added a handful of spinach leaves (no stalks, they’re too stringy) and 2 teaspoons of powdered spirulina. Blend again. It’s a thick drink that glows neon green with chlorophyll, but it actually tastes fantastic. You can vary the fruit and leafy greens - Kosta likes pear and spinach; he says kale and parsley are good additions too. Basically use about 70% fruit and 30% of any leafy greens.
After that mega-dose of orgasmic green enzymes, my stomach peptides were restored to normal with a block of chocolate – essential for maintaining a balanced diet.

8 February 2008

Workshop notes

Saturday 9th February

As usual I’ve be writing daily in my scrappy dog-eared exercise-come-yogajournal book but time just hasn’t allowed me to type, edit and post any of the entries here.

I’ve maintained an (almost) daily practice since 1st January. To be honest, I didn’t think I could do it, but somehow the initial promise to myself to practice yoga daily contained enough conviction to transform the intention into a firm resolve.
Some days I haven’t felt like practising. I’ve stubbornly resisted and procrastinated. But with the evening drawing to a close and bed calling, I’ve felt SO GUILTY that I’ve unfolded the mat for some quiet forward bends - “just 20 minutes” I’ve reassured myself - before gently diving into my inner yogaspace to emerge one hour later, at peace with myself and the world.

I did Glenn Ceresoli’s yoga workshop over the long weekend in late January which was a 2 hour morning session and 2 hour evening session each day for 4 days. Lots of props, lots of dialogue and lots of outrageously long holds in poses so we can observe discrepancies between left and right in our bodies and the incessant dialogue in our minds.
On the morning of Day 3 I started menstruating so I parked myself in a corner, and did menstrual poses, sometimes listening to Glenn instruct everyone else in the poses, sometimes immersing myself in my own female restorative pose.
Alas, I picked up nothing new for my personal practice – I figure I’ve done so many of Glenn’s workshops over the past 6 years that I’ve probably absorbed and integrated much of his methodology.

Going out to dinner after the final session with Glenn, Darrin (who runs the Iyengar studio) and a couple of others was probably the highlight and worth the entire money spent on the workshop - sharing a pizza and Tiramisu with Darrin just may have been the highlight of my entire year.

Here are a few brief notes from the workshop:
- Must always link asana practice to the larger intention of yoga
- One of the reasons we do asana practice is to correct the imbalances in our physical, energetic, mental and emotional system, to bring balance, peace and equilibrium.
- Dandasana: roll the inner knees down and watch the resulting effects on various parts of the body then consciously enhance all those effects.
- Cross legged seated forward bend: from the navel extend downwards to the pubis and upwards to the sternum, creating length in the spine, hollowness in the front body and space for the internal organs.
- In Prasaritta Padottanasana A (wide leg standing forward bend) take the head to the floor and press the hands down into the floor to lift and lighten the pelvis.
- Urdhva Dhanurasana – roll the top of the buttocks down towards the base of the buttocks while also drawing the hamstrings up into the base of the buttocks.
- One instruction has stayed with me and has made quite a difference to my forward bends. Try it first in something like Baddha Konasana but apply it to all forward bending poses, standing or seated. First you tilt the pelvis by rolling the pubis down towards the ground, but then you take the top of the pubis gently in towards the tailbone. It’s simple, subtle and effective in getting curvature to the sacral area.
Glenn often had us drawing the navel towards the tailbone and simultaneously drawing the back of the diaphragm towards the sternum, creating two diagonal but opposing flows of energy.

Unfortunatly it took me one whole week to recover from the workshop, not physically, but mentally. Glenn’s yoga intensives, with long holds and sustained focus in all the poses, is heavy and introspective, the opposite to my Ashtanga practice. And its effect on my mind is always like damp, heavy earth. But earlier on in my yoga history Glenn's workshops were instrumental in developing the subtle and precise inner work that I now incorporate in my Ashtanga practice.
So now it's finished and I can get back to my own beautiful practice.


Monday 4th February

We’d flown to Melbourne on Friday night, checked into a hotel and wandered out first to Federation Square and then to the south bank of the Yarra looking for dinner.
This was my first visit to Melbourne.

I managed to squeeze in a 1 hour practice on my yoga mat wedged between the bed and the cupboard in our tiny hotel room on Saturday morning – one arm slightly bending in the Surya Namaskars to avoid backhanding the cupboard.
I got quite easily to Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana, before graciously meeting my travel-companion’s patience half-way and skipping the rest of the seated poses so we could go exploring (but not before doing a few backbends and the finishing poses).

After 2 hours of inner-city street and market wandering we took to the road, visiting the surf capital Torquay and the surf break at Bells beach. A spontaneous urge to track down an old friend, Simon Buttonshaw on the way became an obsessive quest for the Holy Grail – Simon’s a dedicated yogi and teacher, a professional artist, a surfer and Quicksilver designer. We asked around some surf shops and got a few answers like “Yeah, was out in the water with him last week but got no idea where to find him”. D
ialling a long shot phone number I found out he’s in America for another week.

Our trip continued along the spectacular Great Ocean Road to Lorne, a picturesque coastal town where we spent the afternoon and evening on the beach. After checking out of the Lorne hotel on Sunday morning (no practice that day) we continued along the Great Ocean Road to Port Campbell, visiting the 12 Apostles (pictured above) on the way.

From Pt Campbell we drove back to Melbourne through the lush dairy country in time to catch the 5.40 flight back to Adelaide, a little sunburned and a little travel weary.
Just 2 days away on a mini-holiday and my head is pointing stubbornly in the opposite direction to 9-5 working life.