Tuesday, October 30, 2012

In search of a balanced practice, and why the Ashtanga Primary series isn't one (for me)

There's a discussion going on over at the Confluence Countdown about "holding students back" in the Ashtanga system. The blogger, Bobbie, makes some very interesting points about the system from a philosophical / psychological perspective, the discussion of which I'll leave to her blog. I'm outta that relationship, remember? ;)

What is interesting to me is the question of whether it's good for students to practice exclusively the primary series for too long. Bobbie and many of the commenters come to the same conclusion that I did, that practicing exclusively the primary series for years on end does not give your body a healthy or balanced practice. And since the system seems to have developed rules over the years about when/how students are "given" (I agree with Bobbie, I also dislike that word!) the next pose or series, e.g. being able to bind in Marichyasana D or being able to stand up from and drop back to Urdvha Dhanurasana, many students find themselves practicing primary for years.  Many, like myself, don't have regular access to a teacher who can "give" them the next pose or teach them 2nd series. Nonetheless, we are told not to do other yoga, to "pick a system and stick with it," that doing other yoga will somehow dilute the transformational power of the practice.

Bobbie and many commenters on the post feel what I felt, deep inside my body, and what led me to "break up" with Ashtanga and start practising other poses - that the primary series is not, IN ITSELF, a balanced practice. And quite possibley it wasn't intended to be that way, but that is another conversation. In any case it's good to hear that many of the senior teachers seem to agree.

Essentially the points made in the post and the comments, which may not be experienced by everyone, but which me and my body agree with wholeheartedly after practicing Primary for 3 years:

[NB: In response to a comment left on the blog, I realised that my original post used language that was a bit too absolute, so I've edited the original wording a bit to emphasise that what I'm talking about is relativity within the sequence. I've also added some more anatomical precision.]
  • Primary has a relatively greater emphasis on forward bending, stretching the muscles of the  back (in particular the erectors spinae and the quadratus lumborum) more often than it strengthens them (one of the best poses for that is shalabasana). In some people, an overemphasis on forward bending can be destabilising for the SI joint. Sciatica or SI pain, anyone?
  • It develops relatively more upper front-body strength (pec minors) without developing the corresponding upper back-body strength (rhomboids and rotator cuffs). My yoga therapy teacher believes that this is why many Ashtangis (and others who practice vinyasa-based yoga) develop shoulder injuries, because those crucial muscles that stabilise the shoulder blades can become relatively weaker on the back than the front. Another effect of this is that the front body, especially the front of the shoulders, while getting very strong, may become tight and "closed", as there are relatively fewer poses to open it up (the best stretches for here are back-bends with the arms extended behind the body, e.g. purvottanasana, ustrasana, shalabasana, dhanurasana).
  • While Primary certainly stretches the hamstrings, it doesn't provide space for deep hip-opening in certain directions. There is a lot of external rotation and flexion of the hip joint, but relatively little extension or internal rotation. The sequence also strengthens the psoas, the quads and the external rotators of the hip (the glutes, the piriformis) relatively more than it stretches them. These muscles are key muscles for postural stability and the health of your spine, and balanced hip-opening (internal and external) is important for maintaining the safety of the knees and the lower back.
Since I stopped practicing Primary about 6 months ago and moved to a more balanced practice, I am feeling my body in a whole new way. Most noticeable is that my back body is much stronger as a result of the targeted postures I have been doing, and this has significantly reduced the shoulder pain I used to often experience (which was also related to my scoliosis). This has also made my posture better and I've made some progress towards reversing the forward-hunch that my shoulders had developed through a combination of too much computer time and too much emphasis on forward-body strengthening (in particular the pec minors). No thanks, kyphosis, not for me!

The moral of the story, for me at least?
  • Listen to your body and think about finding balance in your long-term yoga practice. 
  • If you stretch a muscle, strengthen it. It doesn't have to be the same day, but overall!
  • If you stretch/strengthen somewhere, be sure to also stretch/strengthen its opposite (antagonist).
  • If you feel like your body is imbalanced from a practice you are doing (chronic pain or recurring injuries are a good sign), listen to those feelings and find a teacher or yoga therapist who will help you identify what's going on.
And above all, remember, it's only asana!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

On change, letting go, and lighting up your life

The equinox has passed, the Earth is shifting on its axis, and everywhere I look, change is in the air.

In times of change, we ourselves shift on our axes. Perhaps, unawares, we simply begin moving to a different rhythm, but it may be that we find ourselves questioning, doubting, or resisting the shifts in our bodies and minds. Perhaps we are clinging to the way things were before. Perhaps we are grasping at a future that has not quite manifested.

The changing of the seasons brings changes to our routines. As householder yogis, a change in the season will almost invariably bring about a change in our asana practice. We may find ourselves unable to practice as much, or practicing in a different way. As I browse around the blogsphere, I notice a degree of anxiety about these changes. I read words from bloggers who are hard on themselves, who judge themselves, who "beat themselves up" in their minds if they don't practice long enough, hard enough, if they don't do that pose. Now, we have all been there, and maybe this is part of the process that we all have to go through in order to let go of our egos, but it makes me think that it is easy to get too attached to our asana practice.

Now, wait, isn't that what yoga is all about? Well - no. In times like this I remind myself that asana is only 1 of the 8 limbs of yoga. I remind myself that the fundamentals of yoga are the yamas and the niyamas (the restraints and the self-restraints). They are like the roots of the tree, the soil that nourishes the soul, and they are a practice in themselves.

The yamas and the niyamas ground us when the road is smooth, and guide us through the bumps of transformation.  Like all ethical codes, they are there to help us handle hard choices. Most of all they are a lens through which we are asked to see ourselves - and this, of course, is the hardest journey of all.

The inspirational Nadine Fawell is no stranger to hard journeys. She has had to confront the emotional scars of childhood abuse and the damaging cycle of fear and self-sabotage that it left her in. She dug deep, and emerged on the other side with a profound insight into how to use the transformational power of yoga to "cut through your emotional B.S., get strong and comfortable in your body, and learn the art of radical self-acceptance."

And the best part? She wants to share it with YOU.  She has taken what she has learned and created a 4-week e-course called Light Up Your Life.  Combining yoga, yoga philosophy, journalling, healthy eating and relaxation techniques, Light Up Your Life is designed to help you identify the areas of your life, or yourself, that you want to shed light on - and to realise that desire.  I think what she has put together is amazing, and I am super-proud to be an affiliate of the course.

Does lighting up your life sound like just what you need this fall/spring? Head over to her website and bring on the light!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Because I am a girl

We take it for granted that we can realise our dreams. We take it for granted that we can choose who we will marry or spend our lives with. Choose our careers. Pursue an education.

Millions of girls around the world can't.  (I dare you to watch this video without tearing up!)

October 11th was the first-ever International Day of the Girl, a day to celebrate how girls make communities stronger and richer.  Feel moved to get involved? Find out more here.

Stuck for inspiration? How about setting up a donation bucket in your yoga studio, donating the proceeds of your next yoga class, organising a fundraising or awareness raising event, or donating your time to a local cause?

It's your yoga. Live it.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

When elephants fly, or, how a non-religious yogi interprets "Ishvarapranidhana"

I am not usually one to re-post old posts. But I came across this one from my archives the other day and couldn't help but re-post it.  

When you begin to dive deeper into the philosophy of yoga, some of the first things you encounter are the ethical principles that serve as guidelines to a 'yogic life'. Known as the Yamas (abstinences) and the Niyamas (self-restrictions), these principles are the foundations of any practice of yoga that goes beyond the physical body.

As a person with no religious upbringing, the ethical code of yoga both inspired and daunted me. And since I have never had the inclination to devote myself to a deity or God, I initially struggled with many of the devotional aspects of yoga philosophy, and with teachers who are on a devotional path. It wasn't that I didn't respect their views - I simply couldn't relate to their journey or understand their explanations of things. One concept in particular that stumped me was the requirement, as expressed by the Niyamas (which every yoga teacher must sort of 'swear' to uphold) of "Ishvarapranidhana" - Devotion to God.

So if you, like me, struggle somewhat with this concept, perhaps the following story about a loveable, big-eared elephant will speak to you, too...

Ishvarapranidhana: When elephants fly

Yoga is about transformation. In yoga philosophy, the five Niyamas, or "self-restrictions", teach us how we can prepare ourselves to receive this transformation, to become the change in our lives. By cleansing our bodies and our environment (saucha), we get rid of what is unhealthy, making space for positive growth. By accepting ourselves as we are and feeling gratitude for all our blessings (santosha), we are able to appreciate even the smallest transformations in our lives as a gift. By being disciplined and putting in effort (tapas), we turn wasted energy into the fire of transformation. By studying ourselves (svadhyaya), we strip away the ego and allow our True Self to manifest.

The final Niyama is "Ishvarapranidhana", or "devotion to God". It is a concept that I have struggled with, not being, or ever having been, of any religious creed. So for those of you who may also struggle to untangle this concept, I offer you the story of Dumbo. Yes, Dumbo - the baby elephant with the enormous ears.

Because of his huge ears, Dumbo is a social outcast. When his mother tries to protect him from a judgmental mob, she is imprisoned as a mad elephant. The people who run the circus make him an object of ridicule, dressing him as a clown and forcing him to fall from a high platform into a vat of pie filling. But then, Dumbo is given a magic feather and told it will make him fly. Desperate to change his situation and get his mother released, Dumbo grabs the feather and flaps his ears. And sure enough, he flies!

The next night he takes the magic feather to his act, but at the last minute he loses it. As he plummets down, Dumbo finds out that the feather has no magic at all, and, finally believing in himself, he opens his ears and soars through the air. The audience is thrilled, the circus loves him, and his mother is freed.

The moral of the story is that the feather never had any magic powers - it was the power of Dumbo's belief that allowed him to go beyond the limitations he was stuck in, and perform miracles.

Ishvarapranidhana, then, for me, is not about devotion to God, but about devotion to the Self. It teaches us that if we believe in transformation, it will happen, if we open our minds to the possibility of new patterns, we can manifest them. If we have faith in ourselves, walls can crumble, barriers can come down, and we can be free.  If we devote ourselves to the process of change, then miracles can happen and yes, even elephants can fly.

Readers, how do you interpret Ishvarapranidhana in your yoga practice?