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Please read this first.

"Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured." ~B.K.S. Iyengar

Table of Contents

Practice tips (5/17/08) Crow (1/14/06)
Upward Rooster (7/26/06) Side Plank (10/06/05)
Lotus (7/25/06) Headstand (10/05/05)

Yoga Practice Tips, Guidelines, and Etiquette
Saturday, May 17, 2008

New New to yoga class? Behavioral guidelines differ from other group activity classes. Here are some guidelines for etiquette and making the most of your experience.

1. Do not eat a meal right before class.
It's best to allow 60-90 minutes if you've eaten a small meal or snack, and three hours after a large meal. When your belly is full of food, your body is focused on digesting, and this can negatively affect your practice and energy level. Also, twists and postures that put pressure on the stomach can cause you to feel like you're going to toss your cookies.

2. Drink before and after class, but not during.
Drinking during class cools the body, and our goal in class is to keep heat levels up to make the postures safer and to detoxify. If you have a medical condition that requires you to drink, then use your discretion; but it isn't generally recommended.

3. Arrive early.
Occasional lateness to class is understandable, but continually walking in late is disruptive to the class and damaging to you and your practice, as the early warmups and breathing are essential to performing the postures safely. If you do arrive late, enter as quietly as possible, set up in the back, and perform a few sun salutations on your own until you feel ready to join the class. If you are new to a class, never arrive late. It's essential to meet the teacher and give the teacher an idea of where you are in your practice and of any limitations you have.

4 . Wear appropriate clothing and remove socks.
The best choices for yoga are form fitting but stretchy to allow movement, do not fly up or move out of place when you're upside-down, absorbent, and modest. Practice in bare feet to avoid slipping.

5. Bring your own mat.
There are many reasons to have your own mat. The first is hygiene. You can't be sure the mats at any facility are cleaned between students, and when you consider all the sweaty, dirty feet and hands that may have been on it, you'll realize that using a public mat is like wearing someone else's dirty socks. Second, a mat that is familiar and used only by you feels familiar and comfortable. Some people feel the mat eventually takes on your own energy, a big boon for your own practice. Most yogis become very fond of and attached to their mats. Also bring anything special you need for your practice: a sweatshirt or socks to stay warm during shavasana, for example.

6. Be clean and free from perfumes.
The name of the game is to be as considerate of your fellow yogis as possible. If you have body odor (which will be amplified during a sweaty practice) or are doused with reaction-causing perfumes, it shows disrespect for those around you. Some schools of yoga teach that you should always bathe right before practice. This isn't always practical, but make sure you are ready to be in close quarters with others, and touched/adjusted by your teacher.

7. It's acceptable to ask for clarification during class, but holding side conversations or making loud comments
is distracting to students and disrespectful to the teacher. The class should have a calm and meditative atmosphere, and anything that detracts from that is best avoided.

8. Never, ever get up and leave during shavasana (rest).
If you must leave class, make sure you do it before final relaxation.

9. Follow the teacher's instructions.
Doing your own side practice while in class is distracting to the other yogis and disrespectful to what the teacher is offering. If you do your own thing in class, what is the purpose of being there?

10. Communicate with the teacher.
It's essential that the teacher know any physical limitations or injuries you have. Also, if the teacher adjusts you, make sure you let the teacher know what feels good and if any adjustment is going too far. It's also acceptable to tell the teacher you prefer not to be touched.

11. Take responsibility for your own well-being.
Don't push too far, and don't compete with anybody else. Yoga is a personal practice, and everyone in class should be on his or her own track. The teacher's suggestions are merely that. If a posture is not appropriate for you, skip it. There is always another option.

12. Keep your focus, and be patient with yourself.
Your attention follows your gaze. It's great to check out other students occasionally to help yourself in your own practice, but avoid competition -- likewise, ignore the mirrors as much as possible. We've all seen the student in love with his or her own reflection, and that is not yoga. Second, if you're paying too much attention to what you look like in a posture, then you're missing the point of what you're doing. Always adjust the posture to suit your own body rather than forcing your body into a preconceived notion of what the pose should look like. Don't worry about what you look like. The hardest part of beginning yoga can be overcoming a goal-oriented mind. Practice for the sake of practicing, and know that whatever you're doing and wherever you are NOW is exactly where you need to be. Know your actions will produce fruit, but let go of the fruits of your actions as much as possible. Be open to what the practice brings, and most importantly, have fun!

Urdhva Kukkutasana (Upward Rooster Pose)
Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Urdhva kukkutasana is an advanced posture, and I highly suggest the following before you attempt it:
a) You are comfortable sitting in lotus (see previous essay). b) You are very confident and steady in headstand with varying arm positions, as this posture requires entrance from a headstand and the ability to place your legs in lotus while upside down. c) You are familiar with and proficient with the use of mula bandha (root lock) and uddiyana bandha (abdominal lock). d) You have a lot of strength through the arms and abdominals. e) You are proficient in bakasana (crow pose) and able to lift into crow from a headstand position. f) You are very warmed up.

Stage 1: Learn Inverted Lotus
Learn to assemble a lotus hands-free while inverted by practicing it in sarvangasana (shoulderstand). Your back is supported with your hands, and this is a little easier and not quite as scary as attempting it while in headstand, and will teach you the necessary actions. With legs pointed straight up, point your left leg back and bend your right knee so that your legs are in sort of a split position with your front leg bent (in stag position). While pushing that left leg back and down as far as possible, externally rotate your right hip and bring the right foot up to the left hip. You will need to snuggle it in as far up as possible; in order to get that second leg into lotus, your half-lotus on the right needs to be as tight as possible.

Now, bring your left leg back up to vertical and push forward with it to further snuggle that right foot in. Bend your left knee and before attempting to complete the lotus, externally rotate the right hip farther by pushing your right knee backward as much as possible. Try to catch the front of the right shin with your left foot, and use your left toes to scoot your foot in. Once you have caught the shin with your foot, you can usually squeak that foot in fairly easily. Now point both knees upward as much as possible to tighten your lotus. The tighter the lotus, the easier time you'll have descending to your armpits when you are in headstand.

Stage 2: Invert and Wrap
From a headstand with hands in tripod position, steady yourself. Make sure your arms are at right angles and you are resting squarely on the crown of your head. Take a deep breath and relax. By now you have hopefully gotten the hang of placing your legs into lotus while inverted because you practiced in sarvangasana. Follow the steps in stage 1 and once you have placed your legs into lotus, take a minute to refocus and relax. If your arms are getting tired, just practice a lotus headstand for now and try the rest later.

Stage 3: Drop
If all systems are go, you will start to drop your lotus down so your knees are in your armpits or as close to them as possible. If you only hit the backs of your triceps, your legs will probably slip off your arms when you attempt to lift, so if the process requires some extra scooting, give it a try. It's not a pretty process, but one that will speed up with time.

Before dropping your legs down, fully engage mula bandha and uddiyana bandha. Dropping your knees into your armpits is 100% abdominal strength, so go slowly and with control. Once you're down there, take another moment to refocus and catch your breath. This is a tight fit and not very comfortable. For a long time I would get bruises on my lower shins from the pressure of the lotus pressing into my chest and arms; another reason to make your lotus as tight as possible.

Stage 4: Liftoff
Urdhva kukkutasana is much like crow pose (bakasana) but with the legs in lotus. Like crow, before lifting, you must counterbalance your weight by dropping your hips backward slightly. This will also allow you to free your head. Take a deep breath and on the outbreath with bandhas fully engaged, drop the hips while lifting the head and push up. You may fall; in fact, you probably will. If you do, it's a loud 'thud" on your butt but luckily, it isn't too far to fall. If you make it up, straighten your arms as much as possible while looking straight ahead. Further engage your abdominals to pull your hips up a little more.

Stage 5: Argh, How Do I Get Out of This?
You exit urdhva kukkutasana the way you came into it: drop your head back down into a headstand. Again, don't worry if you fall while trying this, because you don't have far. With bandhas and arms engaged, lean forward slowly, applying counterpressure with your hands, and place your head back on the floor. Now, continue to apply counterpressure with your hands and use your butt muscles and abdominals to lift your lotus-legs back up to vertical. If you make it this far, you're home free. Untangle your legs (they will come free very easily), and find yourself back in mukha hasta sirsasana A.


How To Get Into Lotus (Hip Opening 101)
Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Being able to wrap your legs into lotus, or padmasana, is the gateway to many other postures. Lotus requires flexibility in your hip rotators, something that doesn't come easily to most modern people who sit in desks, drive cars, play tennis... just about everything causes tightness in the hips. (at left: baddha padmasana, or lotus with bound hands).

Lotus is not a posture that can be pushed. The reason is that if you attempt it without the necessary flexibility in the hips, the torque will go to your knees. It doesn't take much to damage your knees, so proceed carefully and slowly.

The general rule is that if your outer thighs can't reach the floor in baddha konasana, your hips are not yet open enough to perform lotus safely. Until they are, sit in sukhasana (easy pose) or half-lotus. And work on opening those hips!

Hip opening tips:

1. Quit spinning/running/step aerobics/bicycling/stair stepping. OK, I know this probably isn't very realistic, but those things make it so much harder. If you do a lot of aerobic exercise, spend extra time afterward lengthening hips and hamstrings.

2. Spend a lot of time sitting cross-legged, such as eating dinner on the floor, to open your hips over time and help you into lotus. Sometimes I watch TV sitting in baddha konasana or even pigeon. OK, not the whole time, but you get the picture. When in baddha konasana, really work on getting your outer thighs to the floor.

3. Try to incorporate a hip-opening focus class. I saw drastic improvement when I started going to a chest and hip opening class at least every other Sunday, and adding in routines like Eoin Finn's 55-minute Magically Hips. The good news is, that class is available as a free mp3 here! I love Eoin!

4. Partake liberally of hip-opening postures, and hold them as long as possible. My teacher recommends, for example, practicing hanumanasana twice a day for at least 10 breaths to eventually get into the posture, and I think it's probably the same deal with hips. Here's a list of great hip opening postures:
1. Rajakapotasana (pigeon) and all its variations, seated, standing, and lying down
2. Gomukhasana (cow face posture)
3. Half-lotus and lotus (padmasana)
4. Garudasana (eagle pose)
5. Baddha konasana (cobbler's pose)

Advanced Variation

Lotus is a snap? Great! Here is a great sequence that will eventually get you, inch by inch, into eka pada sirsasana (seated leg behind head, at right).

Bring your shin up toward your chest, trying to keep it parallel with the floor and the foot and knee in the same line. (Careful of the knee.) Work on hugging it in toward your chest, and if you can, wrap your forearms around the front of your leg and clasp your hands. I've heard this called "rock the baby." Move your leg back and forth in the hip socket and hold as long as possible.


If that's fine, touch each foot to your chin, and then to your forehead. From there, try to touch the foot to the ear. Try working the leg behind the shoulder and draping it over the shoulder, using your shoulders to push the leg back. Eventually, grab the foot with the opposite hand and straighten it up (surya yantrasana, at left.) If that's OK, rotate the hip a bit and try to place the leg behind the head, but keep holding on to the foot. Eventually you'll work your way into the posture, fractions of an inch at a time.

It's actually a lot easier to do this at first while lying down (kashyabasana, at right) because gravity will help you, a lot, and will keep you from putting too much weight on your neck. Lie back and bring the leg up and try to push the knee back to the floor beside you to help open the hip. Then, grab the foot with the opposite hand, pull it up toward your head, and try to insert your head into the space under your ankle. This is a preparatory posture that B.K.S. Iyengar recommends in "Light on Yoga."

Now pull the opposite knee into your chest while trying to place the other leg behind the head. When doing this, it's important to move your shoulder as far in front of that thigh as possible. You'll probably have to do a lot of scooting and pushing and fidgeting to get there -- the process sure isn't pretty for awhile! You'll know whether you have the leg far enough back and down to let go of your foot. Your leg will exert a lot of pressure on your neck, so open your chest and don't allow your torso to collapse. Hold as long as you can. Getting my leg back there wasn't the biggest challenge -- it was finally being able to let go, and really working that shoulder around was the key.

Have fun!

Bakasana (Crow Pose)
Saturday, January 14, 2006

Bakasana, or crow pose, is probably the most accessible of the arm-balancing postures, and the good news is, it's easier than it looks. Why bother with arm balances? Many yoga classes and practices focus more heavily on the legs, particularly in balancing postures, because balancing on the legs is much easier. We're not using to standing using our arms, yet we forget that as infants, it took most of us more than a year of near-constant practice to learn to balance on our legs. Some yoga masters believe that equal time, or nearly equal time, should be given to the arms to attain balance in the body. At the very least, a balanced yoga practice should include some work on arm balance and strength.

Bakasana stretches the lower back and strengthens the arms, but much of the power of the pose comes from the abdominals. This is true of most arm balancing postures. It may seem that it takes brute arm strength to hold the postures, but it's mostly a combination of abdominal strength, and balance. Bakasana is called "crow" because the final pose looks like a crow that is cawing, with the legs being the bird's wings.

Don't worry about falling out of crow pose. As my yoga instructor says, you're only a few inches from the floor. If you're still afraid, just put a pillow on the floor in front of you and a face-plant won't seem so awful. The preparatory postures also allow you to ease into crow little by little.

To prepare for bakasana, from squatting, place your hands on the floor, shoulder-width apart. Spread your fingers wide and make sure your index fingers are pointed straight forward. Come up on your toes, and walk your feet in until you can place your knees high on your triceps. To attain crow, you must have the flexibility to get your knees as close to your armpits as possible. If you place your knees too far down, you will have to lean farther forward and bend your arms farther to support your weight, and it will be harder to balance. If possible, place your knees completely into your armpits and then angle them slightly out to the side so your shins angle in toward each other. As you place your knees into position, you will feel your weight shift slightly forward, and you will need to come up higher onto your toes. Your arms will be slightly bent.

Do not look down, but keep your gaze forward and angled slightly down. Keeping your head up is also key to keeping your balance.

Now, begin to lean forward gradually, keeping your gaze steady and your hands pressing into the floor. As you shift, you'll feel more weight coming off your legs and onto the backs of your arms. When you've come forward to the point that you feel the weight shifting, lift one foot off the floor. This is called "baby crow." There is no need to go farther than this until you feel comfortable, however, as you lean forward, your triceps pushing against your shins will naturally cause your feet to come off the floor.

Once my feet are off the floor, I dig my fingers into the ground to provide more stability. If you can get this far, hold this position and feel for your balance. Notice the distribution of weight and see if you can stay in the position. Remember that at this point, your feet are probably only a few inches off the floor, so you can set a foot down quickly, if needed. If your wrists begin to hurt, come down. It takes awhile to build up the wrist strength and flexibility for arm balances (note that your wrist should also be able to bend in an extended position to 90 degrees), so any sign of discomfort is a sign you've done enough for now.

If you are steady, continue to refine the pose. Bend both legs farther up toward your butt and cross your feet over each other. (To test your balance, you can try crossing the feet, then uncrossing them and crossing them the other direction.) Now, pull in your abdominal muscles while at the same time pushing hard into the floor with your hands. The opposing forces create more lift. You will notice that this causes your back to arch up slightly like a cat, and also relieves some of the weight on the backs of your arms. (Side note, when I started doing this, I would rest all my body weight on the backs of my arms and couldn't figure out why the backs of my arms were always covered in bruises!) Now, begin to straighten your arms a bit, lifting your head up slightly as you do. To straighten your arms, your weight will shift even farther forward. Do this slowly so your body has the opportunity to adjust to the changes in balance. In the full pose, your arms should be nearly straight.

Try to hold for at least five deep breaths. To come down safely, just lean back slightly and touch your feet to the floor. Rest in child's pose.

Vasistasana (Side Plank Pose)
(Originally a blog article
Thursday, Oct. 6, 2005)

Vasistasana is named for a sage Vasistha -- there were several with that name. According to Yoga Journal, there’s a Vasistha numbered among the seven (sometimes 10 or 12) seers (rishis) or lords of creation (prajapatis), and a Vasistha who’s author of a number of Vedic hymns. He’s also said to be the owner of the fabulous “cow of plenty,” Nandini (“delight”), which grants his every wish and accounts for his infinite wealth.

Also known as side plank and side arm balance, Vasistasana is usually the first arm balance people attempt. It strengthens the legs, upper back, shoulders, triceps, and the side abdominals.

To master vasistasana, as in headstand, you must use opposing forces to achieve balance, take pressure off the wrist, and support the body. Some poses that will help you gain the necessary strength for vasistasana are chattaraunga dandasana, navasana, and adho mukha svanasana.


Stage 1


Vasistasana has several stages. For the first stage, come to a plank position. If your knees are not already on the floor, lower one knee and turn onto the hand on the same side. The supporting arm should not be completely perpendicular to the floor, but rather an inch or two forward from the shoulder. Extend the top leg straight out, resting on the side of the foot. However, the lowered knee will take most of the weight out of the hand and opposite foot, shown at left. Now, press down with the hand while extending the opposite arm upward. Create as much length as possible throughout your "wingspan." It helps to spread your fingers a bit and press into the index finger side of your hand. At the same time, using the lower side abdominals, push upward to keep your body in a straight line, or contract further to create a slight side arch. This action should be made easier by the pushing down with the hand, and with the knee. If you can, turn your head to look up at your hand. Do not allow your torso to sag toward the floor, or you will put stress on the wrist. Continue ujjayi breathing and hold the position as long as possible.

When turning to the side from a plank position, do not place your knee on the floor. Instead, rest on the knife edge of the lower foot. Stack the feet directly on top of one another, flexed, and use the edge of the foot and the hand to push downward, the upper hand and the lower side abdominals to push upward. If you can, turn your head to look at your upper fingers. If this is uncomfortable for the neck, then look straight ahead.

Stage 2

 

When you have achieved sufficient strength in the arms, wrists, hips, and abdominals to hold stage 2, try some leg variations. One is to place your upper leg into tree position. You can also slightly intensify stage 2 by just lifting your upper leg a few inches off your lower leg and holding it. You'll feel this in your upper hip and upper-side abdominals. You can also place the upper leg in half-lotus, reach around the back and bind for kasyapasana.

To try the full pose at left, bend your top leg up toward the opposite knee. Reach down and yogic-toe-lock the big toe, then slowly straighten the leg. If you can't straighten the leg completely, straighten it to your personal limit. You'll immediately notice a bigger stress on the hip of the lower leg and will have to accommodate the extra weight by further engaging your side abdominals. In the full pose, it takes a tremendous amount of strength in the side abdominals to keep the body from sagging toward the floor, however, you will naturally not be able to push as high in this version of the pose.

Note that this pose isn't recommended for people who have significant injuries to the wrist or shoulder.

 

Stage 3

 

 

Sirsasana (Headstand)
(Originally a blog article
Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2005)

Headstand, or sirsasana, is called the King of Asanas. That's because it grounds the sahasrara chakra at the top of the head (the most spiritually based of the seven, symbolized by the thousand-petaled lotus flower) and facilitates meditation. There is also some evidence that the rush of oxygenated blood to the head while upside down is beneficial, and that inversions help balance the thyroid gland. Sirsasana refines your sense of balance; strengthens your neck, shoulders, and upper back; and helps you overcome your fears.

That said, it's also a very tricky posture and one fraught with possibilities for injury if not done correctly. You must rest exactly on the crown of your head and the vertebrae of the neck must be stacked directly on top of one another to avoid stressing the discs. If your alignment is off in headstand, you will feel it. In addition to feeling balance shift, your eyes will feel like they're bulging out of your head, and your face will turn red. If there is any strain, come down.

Baddha Hasta Sirsasana A

The first and safest of the seven headstand positions in ashtanga yoga is called baddha hasta sirsasana A. (bound-hands headstand). In this position, the forearms are a tripod around the head and take a considerable amount of weight off the head. As one progresses through the headstand positions, one puts more and more weight on the head as the neck strengthens and balance improves.

Come down to your hands and knees and place your elbows on the floor with your upper arms perpendicular. Grab the opposite upper arms just above the elbows. This is the proper distance for your arms, shown at left.

Now, without moving the elbows, clasp your hands at a 45-degree angle in front of you to make a triangle. The outer edges of your hands should also be perpendicular to the floor. Carefully place your head on the floor between your hands, resting exactly on the crown of the head. The back of your head should be up against the palm of your clasped hands, and you can use the hands as a cradle.

Now, come up on your toes and begin to walk your feet forward slowly until your upper body is completely vertical (at left). If you are a beginner, stay here. You still receive the full benefits of the inversion, so be happy with your progress, and relax in this position. Push down slightly with the forearms and broaden the shoulders to provide a stable base.

When you are comfortable and you can't walk your feet in any further, your legs will seem to want to lift into headstand. The proper method is to lift your legs while keeping them straight, but you can push off slightly with your toes and bend your knees in, then slowly lift them up to vertical, while pressing down with your forearms and lengthening your torso. Sometimes it's easier for me to straddle them slightly out, then bring them together slowly. Whatever you do, don't kick up. Momentum won't allow you to find your balance and will probably send you sailing over backward. But if you fall, don't panic. Somersault out of it as at left -- your upper arms will help protect your neck.

Learning Against a Wall
If you learn headstand against a wall (and I personally think that's fine... it allows you to learn the balance first before addressing the fear), then practice in a corner rather than against a flat wall. This allows you to be straight up and down with your hands folded close to the corner. Doing headstand against a flat wall doesn't allow proper alignment, because the position of your hands will force you farther from the wall and you will have to arch your back to bring your feet to the wall, if you don't yet have your balance. However, if you just want the wall as a safety net and don't need to touch it unless you fall, it's fine to practice against a flat wall. Practice a foot or two away to avoid the temptation to rest your feet against the wall.


Once You're Up There
Once you're in sirsasana, continue to broaden the shoulders and lengthen from the shoulders to the forearms, pressing down to take a little bit of the weight off your head. Create as much length as possible by stretching your legs upward. It may be hard at first, but continue your ujjayi breathing and focus straight ahead. Take stock of the position of your neck. If you feel any strain and you are unable to recover proper alignment, come down! One temptation is to be leaning ever so slightly forward to keep yourself from going over backward. if this is the case, you'll find yourself needing to dig your forearms into the floor hard to keep yourself up. When you're vertical, staying up won't require so much effort.

See how many breaths you can take in the position while maintaining your composure. Once you're sure of your balance, try varying the position of your legs by trying straddles, splits, konasana, and even lotus.


Coming Down
The proper way to come down is to shift your hips slightly backward and lower your legs slowly in a pike position. To do this without crashing, you have to utilize opposing forces -- shift your hips slowly as far backward as possible while keeping your balance. After completing headstand, rest in child's pose to allow your body's equilibrium to reestablish.

This pose isn't recommended for anyone with neck injuries or problems.

 

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