Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Learning to Fly: Bakasana

Juliana from Shakti Mama left a comment on my previous post with the following question: "When I attempt to do crow, sometimes the backs of my arms and knees slide against each other and I lose my balance. Is there anything I can do to help keep my knees firm against the backs of my arms, or is this a matter of practice?"

I used to struggle with this (and most other, let's be honest!) aspect of bakasana, or crow pose (also known as crane pose, kakasana), too.  That, and the fear of falling flat on my face...  Then one day about a year ago, I took an Anusara workshop with the fabulous Desiree Rumbaugh and her partner Andrew Riven, and their way of teaching this pose made it all come together for me.  So, I thought I'd share it here!

The key difference is the starting position.  Most of us learning bakasana are told to put our knees up against the backs of our arms, like this:

Desiree and Andrew teach it a bit differently.  First, they had us squat down with our feet touching and our hands shoulder width apart, like this:

We stayed here for a few breaths, focusing on hugging the knees against the back and outside of the upper arms and engaging the core to squeeze the knees in.

Then, we straightened the arms and walked the hands and feet closer together, still squeezing in, and finally coming up on tiptoes to come to a position like this:

From there, we kept pressing the knees firmly against the upper arms and practiced elevating one foot at a time, keeping the other safely on the ground:

And finally, we gently transferred more weight onto our hands and used our core muscles to lift the feet up!

For me, this method has two serious advantages.

1) There is much less knee slippage - hugging the knees in keeps the knees really nice and stable.
2) The preparatory position is almost exactly the same as the final position! Notice that the feet are together, and the back is rounded like child's pose, just like in the final expression of crow.  So all you have to focus on is lifting your feet.

The one disadvantage is that if you are not very open in the hips, the prepatory position can be a bit tricky.  To help with this, they suggested using a block or blanket under your feet, to elevate the feet a bit and reduce the load on your hips, like this: (a nice fat pillow in front of you also doesn't go amiss...).

Here's a shot where you can see how the two knee positions compare.  It's a subtle change in position but for me, it made a WORLD of difference.

Finally, remember that to come into bakasana from this position, you are not moving forward and down, as it might feel.  Your body is staying in almost the exact same place but your feet are lifting up.  So the gaze, or drishti in this pose is NOT the floor where you are afraid you are going to face-plant, but forward and upward as you hug your feet - one at a time, or both - up towards the mid-line.

Was this helpful to you? It sure was to me. :)  Have you ever had a "revelation" in a pose or a teacher that suddenly opened it up for you? I'd love to hear about it!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Hello, Psoas! And other impossible things you did today

When I started to think about Eka Pada Rajakapotasana, One-legged King Pigeon, it was one of those 'impossible' poses.

My body has a lot of issues with this pose, the main ones being: the length of my quadriceps (not long enough lol!) and hip flexors, side and shoulder muscles (longer armpits would be nice...) and bendiness in my lower back.  My scoliosis mostly affects the lumbar area, and on one side I have hugely built up muscles, while the other side is a bit convex.  Yoga helps a lot to balance it, but the imbalance really comes out when I attempt deep backbends that require more flexibility in the lumbar spine, so my backbends in this area are much easier on one side than the other.  The entire pigeon set of backbends, to me, seems like a pipe dream.  And yet, with slow and hard work, I AM making progress although I am nowhere yet near the final pose!

Anyway, in the spirit of doing as many impossible things as you can before breakfast, I've been working with a sequence that includes another of those 'impossible' poses - hanumanasana, or splits pose.  Another pose that I thought I would NEVER EVER IN A MILLION  YEARS be able to achieve... And yet, a few months ago out of the blue I slipped into it almost without trying (now it's hit and miss depending on how warmed up I am... and it's actually easier when I'm not trying).  Go figure.

Like some others involved in this discussion on Nadine Fawell's blog, I have been finding that my primary series Ashtanga-based practice just does not open up these areas enough for me.  So here is a sequence that I have been enjoying lately.  To practice it, you will need two blocks (or sturdy books) and a strap.  You might also want to put some extra padding under your knees for the lunges!  Although some of the poses in this sequence might look a bit advanced, with the use of props I think it's accessible to everyone.  Just respect your limits and remember, as I read in the blogsphere recently: "Yoga is a practice, not a perfect!"

1. Warm ups - start with your favourite warm ups, making sure you really warm up your hamstrings and your lower back.  5 sun salutations should just about do it, but any warm up works.

2. Lunges

a) Find your way into a low lunge, placing padding under the back knee if you need it.  Now, place the two blocks either side of the forward foot.  Press your hands into the blocks and lift up through the spine, opening the chest and shoulders.  Extend from the back knee, keeping it active and feeling a nice stretch the length of your back thigh.

b) Bring the blocks up so they are standing at their tallest, and walk them back a bit.  Using your hands to ground into the blocks and keeping the legs strong, extend the spine upwards from the pelvis and curl backwards.  This is called Monkey Lunge! If you are comfortable you can even release the hands and let your fingertips brush the floor.

c) Coming back to lunge, ground the forward (in this case the left) hand on the block and gently lift your right lower leg, catching the foot with the hand or using the yoga strap.  Keep the right thigh engaged slightly to protect your knee, and gently pull the right foot closer to your body for a nice, deep stretch.

3. Hanumanasana

a) To prepare for splits pose, from lunge turn your left toes back towards you to straighten the left leg, and take a gentle forward bend to stretch out the hamstring.

 b) Place your hands on the blocks and start to slide your left foot forward. Keep the heel on the ground and the toes flexed towards you.  Support your weight on the blocks as much as possible and focus on your breath.  When you have found a comfortable extension, focus back in on the right leg, lengthening it away from your body and feeling the hip flexor stretch! Don't worry about how far you can go - just breathe and be where you are with this one.

3. Kapotasana Poses

Warm up with your normal variation of supine pigeon, folding forward and staying there for as long as you like.  When you are ready, come back up for some pigeon variations and backbending work.

a) (NB I switched legs on this picture so you can see the pose better).  Support your weight by pressing your hand into a block placed outside your forward knee.  Then bend the back knee and gently bring the back foot up towards your body, grabbing it with your hand, or elbow if you choose.  Keep the thigh muscles engaged slightly and try to enjoy deep breaths here.

b) A nice way to get used to the idea of backbending is to use a yoga strap.  Loop the strap around the back foot (right foot again in the photos!) and bring the forward end over your shoulder on the same side.  Get comfortable in pigeon, and when your ready grab the strap with one or both hands.  Lengthen the spine from the waist, open up the chest, and start to curl back by walking your hands down the strap.  Again, don't worry how far you can or can't go! Just focus on breathing fully and exploring new sensations.

c) Now try coming back into the first variation with the strap looped around your ankle, and play with catching the strap and bending backwards! (NB: this is a hard one to get into on the 10-second self-photo timer, so I haven't quite come fully into the backbend, opening up the chest and bringing the head back.  But you get the idea!)

4. Finish up after you've done both sides with a nice long forward bend to counter the back-bending, and then take savasana or any other resting pose.

I hope you enjoy some or all of these ideas! What are poses that you used to think impossible that you are now working towards?  What is your experience in King Pigeon? Any tips for me?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

In pictures: Ubud, Bali

 Well, I am back home from a lovely break in a small town in the mountains of Bali, Indonesia!  Ubud is a town nestled in the hills, surrounded by rice-fields and in the last decade or so has become a veritable mecca for tourists seeking culture, yoga, healing and other delights.  Despite the throngs of soul seekers and art purchasers, it is one of my favourite places and I always manage to have a lovely time there.  Here are a few pictures for you all!

The entranceway to my homestay compound...

Once inside... my little room was upstairs on the right-hand side.

Some good advertising...

Kafe, one of my favourite hang-out spots

Check out the fabulous menu!

The Yoga Shop...

The specials menu at another favourite restaurant, Sari Organik

Which is located in the middle of rice fields and surrounded by their very own organic gardens!

Mmmmmmm.  But of course, despite it all, there's no place like home! No place, that is, with a mountain of work waiting for you, an empty fridge and a lovely fluffy cat who is in need of a LOT of attention after you left her with a babysitter for 10 days. :) 

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Virtual Community Won't Stock Your Fridge...

First of all, thank you thank you blogger for finally updating your template designer with so many lovely, customize-able blog templates.  Yippee!  Nothing more pleases the esthetic geek in me.  Love love love it.

Secondly, I'm about to head off to the infinitely beautiful island of Bali for a short break.  My favourite luxury of living in this part of the world is my proximity to Bali, and the wonderful community in Ubud that is a haven for yoga, healing and relaxation.  And, not to be outdone, imported CHEESE!!!

While I'm away, I may blog, or not.  But I will be indulging in the delights of a few things I don't have access to at home, including:
  • Yoga classes in a yoga studio! With wooden floors! Where I'm not teaching! Whee!!
  • Vegetarian restaurants... oh my mouth waters
  • Shopping
  • A vibrant arts community
  • Did I mention, about the cheese???
I am also going to see an old friend and meet his 6-month old son, and to top it all off, I'm ending the trip at a wedding with a bunch of people dear to my heart.  Which leads me to my post for today...


I am feeling like the luckiest person on Earth right now, in great part thanks to the amazing community that I have been a part of in the 6 years I've lived here.  We are a tight-knit bunch: all thousands of miles from home, we become like family.  This community and I have shared many good times, and when the bad times roll around they are right there propping you up, the way it should be.  Supporting you, cooking for you, dropping things off at your house without even needing you to acknowledge the individual bearer of the gift.

As part of #315800, Bindu Wiles blogged yesterday about the online community that the event is generating.  She publishes some lovely thoughts on community which are heartfelt and true.  But it got me thinking of the changing nature of community in our modern world.  More and more we are creating these virtual networks, like my own beloved blog community that if you are reading this, you are a part of!

In so many ways this is a lovely thing, and I cannot sing its praises enough.  Closing the gaps of space and time, allowing us to connect with those who are like-minded no matter where in the world they may be, allowing us to pool our thoughts and create spaces where so many people of similar ideas can engage with each other.

But the virtual community is as two dimensional as this computer screen.  Sometimes, that's a good thing - if someone rubs you the wrong way, you don't have to engage with them.  There are blogs that I visit and don't go back to for whatever reason, or comments in forums like ElephantJournal that I would choose not to engage with.  The converse of that is, of course, that it sometimes seems that the virtual interface brings out the worst in people.  People might feel free to say things online that (I hope) they might not say in a face-to-face dialogue.  Because the online world requires an interface, it leaves us free to create a persona that may not be a complete picture of who we are.  We focus on some elements of our personality and not others.  We interact with words instead of faces and bodies and voices.  Or, people might deliberately mis-represent themselves.  Masquerading as someone more successful, more together, younger, taller etc. etc.  In it's worst incarnation, this two-dimensional nature of the online community ends in three-dimensional tragedy in the form of internet stalkers and child predators.

In a virtual community, we are removed from the physical interface that, for me, is the foundation of a connection between two human beings. That physical, instinctual, energetic connection makes up the building block of our real-world relationships.  It's the good-day-bad-day flux of our beings.  It's the good-year-bad-year tide of how we relate to one another.  And that is what I love about a physical community, is that it is diverse, complex, and challenging - it is not always a comfort zone, not always a place where everything is easy and where you can just hang out with people from the same side of the fence as you are.  Because, it's real.  (Now obviously there are some rocking online debate forums and those are real too, but you know what I'm talking about.  That body-to-body, face-to-face kind of real.)

Your physical community are your family, your friends, your work mates, your neighbours.  They are the people you interact with at the shops, the drivers stuck next to you in the traffic, the people you cross paths with without even knowing it, like in those movies where everyone has a different story but they're all connected in some way.  And as we all know, it is often easier to like or love people who agree with us than those who don't.  The real challenge is extending that compassion to everyone around you.

There are many people in my community who I don't necessarily even like.  And there are others who I love beyond words.  But towards all of them, in this moment I feel compassion.  We didn't choose each other - life put us here, in the same place at the same time.  And that's the thing.  I might not have picked them out of a hat - but they are here, and I am here, and somehow, that makes us something together. 

And for that, I feel blessed.  Because more and more I feel like people are living the reality that Gwen Bell expressed when Bindu Wiles (and I can't find the link...anyone?) interviewed her, saying "I don't know my neighbours' names, but I know the handles of thousands of people on Twitter".  Woah.  [Now, this is not personal - I'm sure that Gwen has a fabulous personal community.  It's just the sentiment, expressed so easily like that, kind of triggers me.]  For me, that is not something to be celebrated.  I mean, we are so ready to connect with random strangers online, but we just seem to accept that the people living mere metres away with us are anonymous faces in our landscape? 

Because when it comes down to it and life falls apart, it's your physical community who sit in your living room and cry with you.  Who make tea, keep your fridge stocked and magically produce ready-made meals.  Rescue you from the bathroom of a manky bar and drive you home even when you don't know where you live ( ;) sorry for telling that one honey!).   Lend you money when you can't find your wallet, offer you a lift when you're walking home in the dark, watch your pets, compliment your cooking, fawn over your children/pets/new shoes.

Who, as Melinda so movingly recounts in this post, might one day just save your life.

So here's our homework, kids: find one person in your physical community today and introduce ourselves. Or, find one person you already know and let them know how special they really are.  Cause that's where life is.

Who are your three-dimensional community and what do they do for you?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Yoga for Africa

Stand aside, all ye who think that yoga is for rich white folks.  Because thanks to the Africa Yoga Project, yoga is rocking the worlds of slum communities in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.

The BBC's Focus on Africa posted this story yesterday which, as you can tell, has got me all fired up.  So I went to the Africa Yoga Project website to check it out.  The website says that the style of yoga is inspired by Baron Baptiste's Power Yoga, with a bit of Acro-Yoga mixed in.  The project is working with a larger umbrella organization dedicated to combating poverty with culture and arts.

The best part? The classes are free, and the teachers are paid by the organization.  And even cooler, the teachers are all Kenyan, although if you want to volunteer you can co-teach, donate mats, or help out by fundraising or assisting with the administration of the a project.

The innovative spirit of the project is totally inspiring to me - this yoga is all about community and personal transformation, and not about the profit.

Is the future of yoga here? I'm into it...  And while we're at it, maybe we in the west have a lesson or two to learn from such a venture...

What do you all think?

In other news, a Swiss man has engineered a low-cost solar cell that mimics the way plants turn light into energy.

There is hope for humanity yet, don't you think?!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

How do I write? 21 days of words.

On the spur of the moment yesterday I decided to join many of the peeps in the blogosphere at the 21.5.800 challenge, 21 days (huh, I thought it was a month.  Bonus!) combining yoga and writing.  To be honest, the yoga is not really the issue for me since I practice at least 5 days a week anyway (and teach!), but I thought it would be a nice opportunity to re-connect with my writing.  Also, I have 10 days of lovely holiday time coming up, so what better way to use them than spending some time every day curled up with that lovely journal I got a while ago...

I used to write a lot... ok, you might say obsessively.  Journaling to be precise.  Recording the intimate and inane details of my daily existence, page after page, book after book.  Private thoughts, social thoughts, and totally random thoughts, beginning when I was about 12 ("Today in class the teacher said..."), taking me through my teenage years (which I recall were mostly devoted to trying to figure out how boys minds' worked... big waste of time that one... ;) ), and into University (filling secretive notebooks with dreadfully important existential ramblings and social rants).  Blogging has been a nice way to take that compulsive self-expression to a higher level - writing for an audience, albeit a virtual one, is a very different animal, and one I'm enjoying thoroughly.  Cause you all really don't care what I had for breakfast (banana-cinnamon smoothie) and tomorrow, neither will I.  Blogging has been a way to focus my thoughts and my words on issues that I feel may actually be of interest to other people, and connect with you all through those ideas.

However my personal writing has really dropped off in the last 5 years or so (funny how that happens when you start working and you spend your free time enjoying yourself instead of procrastinating!) so I'm taking this challenge as an opportunity to re-connect a bit with that.  Which means that I will not be posting my writings as a daily blog entry, although the occasional bit might slip into my blogging!  I have to say from my experience yesterday the first thing I noticed was "darn, I am out of practice handwriting"!  Maybe a month of journaling will fix those cramped hands and scratchy scrawls.  I know that holding a pen used to be a source of joy to me!

I think most of us are here in the blogosphere because we love to write and read.  So tell me, what is your relationship with the written word?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Sea of Change - An exercise in Link Love

Obviously there was something in the air this weekend, and I found out what it was at The Devil Wears Prana: did you all know we are in the "Greatest (astrological) event of 2010"?  Huh.  Maybe that's why Suburban Yogini had such a speedy birthday recovery!

Maybe that will help
Chief Arvol Looking Horse with his plea of Great Urgency that we all unite to put our energies towards healing the wounds being caused by the Gulf Oil Spill.

The echos of the macro are everywhere in the micro.  This disaster, in its horror, is bringing people together.  Is making us reflect on how to change our carbon-munching ways, creating a community of people who long for a return to Simpler Times.  Around the world, we are burning with Transformative Fire, striving to make a more Sustainable Yoga of our everyday lives, to Tell a Story that we can be proud of.

The world is changing - this is nothing new.  The world is always changing.  But humanity? Can we change?

I hope so...


Edited to add: check out my guest post @ Suburban Yogini on one of my favourite restorative poses / sequences: Supta Padangusthasana! :)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

My day job

Like most of us, I have a day job.  In the context of my blog, it's like this other life I never talk about.  Today, reading the fabulous blog of an acquaintance, yoga teacher and development worker Marianne Elliott, I was reminded that maybe, the two can mix...

In my day job, I do communications work for development organizations here in East Timor.  That means anything from advising people how to develop and communicate key messages, to creating the products by which they mean to communicate (posters, brochures, radio programs, videos).  And a lot of random stuff in between.

Doing development work is a study in living contradiction.  In fully comprehending the privilege that is awarded by the randomness of birth.  I was born in Canada, and not in East Timor.  And thus, I had a childhood full of things like toys, amusement parks, camping trips, education, proper nourishment and medical care.  Instead of a childhood of hunger, poverty, hard work, conflict and violence - which is the reality for not all, but many children in East Timor, and many other places in the world.

Living in the midst of that is like being an oasis of wellness in a sea of hardship.  My house may be simple by western standards, but here I am like the fairy-tale princess.  I work alongside national colleagues who earn 1/10th of my salary or less.  I live in the capital city alongside families who tend to their livestock and hop the fence to pick fruit from a tree that grows in my yard, a part of their yearly income on which they deeply depend.  I express sympathy for colleagues when their infant children die of completely preventable and treatable diseases.  I shop amidst the harassment of child and adolescent fruit sellers carrying a stick across their shoulders hanging with mangoes, oranges, passionfruit, their young muscles hardened by carrying their heavy load day-in, day-out.

In East Timor:
  • Life expectancy is less than 60 years of age;
  • 2 out of 5 children will die before they reach the age of 5;
  • The average woman has no access to birth control, and will give birth to between 7 and 9 children in her lifetime; many of them will have their first child before the age of 18;
  • Barely half the population have access to clean water or sanitation facilities;
  • Nearly half the population live a subsistence life, on less than $1 per day (and in a US dollar economy, yes that's right, this really does not go very far).
I could go on, but these are just numbers, right?  Wrong.  These are my neighbours.  These are my colleagues.  These are my partner's godchild, by all accounts a fairly privileged child living in the capital city, with access to clinics and a hospital, but who died of Tuberculosis just short of his 5th birthday.  Tubercu-bloody-losis.  A totally treatable illness.  But he was never even diagnosed.  A young victim of ignorance, poverty, and underdevelopment.

What can I do about it? Not very much, really.  And I guess that's why I don't blog about it often. My blog is like an escape into this little yoga world, the world that I share with all of you, the way that I find peace.

If you'd like to know a bit more about East Timor, I've put a page on my sidebar that tells a little bit of its story...