Friday, September 28, 2012

Cool Yoga Stuff # 3: The Less Tangible Aspects of Yoga

There are so many layers to a yoga practice.  There’s the tangible asana or postures – the flow of a sequence with the vinyasa transitions/re-sets.  There’s the balance of achieving the same depth or expression of a posture from right side to left side.  There’s literally balancing on one leg or on the backs of your arms.  There’s flexibility and strength and finding consistency between these two separate-but-equal aspects of practice.  These are all visible, touchable, explainable things that are fleshed out, focused on, and progress-measured for any given yogi.

And then there are the less tangible aspects of practice.  There are mental and emotional challenges or releases; there are energetic realizations.  It’s often said, and is true for me, too, that time on the mat teaches a degree of letting go, of surrendering the mind to the physical awareness of being in this moment only, not dwelling in the past or pushing for the future.  Depending on the dogma of any given yoga teacher or studio or individual practioner, even, the unseen inner progress (which, granted, eventually does morph into a tangible outer result, like it or not – to quote O2 Yoga founder Mimi Loureiro:  “I teach yoga because it makes people nicer.”) is often the most beneficial part of a complete yoga practice.  Yoga almost gives you permission to stop, breathe, and discover the best version of yourself there is. 

The energetics piece of yoga is truly interesting to me and is the next layer I’m exploring.  Does it make a difference if I flip my palms up towards the sky as I sit cross-legged versus flipping my palms down on my knees?  One is said to be a lifting energy, the other grounding.  Does that work?  Is it placebo?  Does it matter either way?  What about mudras like gyan mudra (connecting your thumb and forefinger when the arm is extended) or taking a chin lock in various seated positions – what does that actually do?  It feels more yogic to employ these things, so I do them and I think they make my practice feel more complete, but who knows?  To me, using them is almost like learning correct grammar – if you want to seem less pedestrian, you will take gyan mudra in your twist.

Where I have noticed an actual difference, however, is with my savasana mantra, of all things.  I’ve written about this several times, but it’s something I definitely think is worth repeating as often as humanly possible.  O2 Yoga instructor Carol Ciaravino closed a practice once by asking the class to think “I am” on the inhale and “here now” on the exhale.  So simple.  So revolutionary.  This mantra completely changed my practice.  I started using it in every class and the next thing I knew, I was leaving every class feeling as if I were literally an improved human being.  I felt focused, grounded, and renewed.  And all I did was remind myself to remain present for five minutes at the end of class.  How could anything be this easy?

I discussed this mantra with anyone who would stand still long enough to listen and had some especially interesting conversations with my friend Tom about this topic.  He suggested an alternative to “I am/here now” by thinking “I” on the inhale and “Am” on the exhale.  I experimented with this, too, and for me, “I/Am” was a much louder, bolder statement than “I am/here now.”  My mantra felt grounding, calming, and restorative.  His felt empowering, bold, and energizing.  So when I taught Dedication Yoga last Sunday, this was the energetics option I gave the students – instead of asking them to flip palms up or down, I asked them to pick one mantra or the other, depending on what their energetic needs for the day were.  It’s kind of like a yoga revolution – or a yoga evolution.  The options – the variations – the modifications – are endless.  Do what works best for you and your practice, that’s the bottom line, right?  Simply breathing works wonders for me.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Guru Inside

Kumare is a social experiment.  Filmmaker Vikram Gandhi wanted to see if he could impersonate a guru, invent a bunch of phony rituals, and find a following.  This film, now playing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is an amazing experience and ripe with debatable topics.  Is this just a cruel trick he plays on people looking for something genuine?  Does he prove that his theory that the guru inside is all the spiritual leader you need?  Is this man simply a sociopathic genius?

I loved this film.  I loved how awkward it was and how frankly honest this fake guru was about his "true self" and how he seemed to be proving unequivocally that people hear what they want to hear and see what they want to see.  His thesis seems to check out -- many of his followers do learn to believe enough in their inner voices to live by their own code instead of seeking validation and blind guidance from an external source.  But what about the people who simply feel duped?  Was the experiment worth exploiting these "innocent bystanders" -- were they actually innocent bystanders?  The moral, social, and ethical ramifications of the Kumare experiment are beyond fascinating.  

Please go see this film so we can discuss it.  Thank you for your cooperation.

Sarah W.

p.s. Blue Light meditation anyone???  KABAM!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Conquering the Dolphin Vinyasa

A couple of weeks ago I went to a class at Samara Yoga that focused on upper body strengthening and reconceptualizing the "vinyasa" with that goal in mind. Pretty interesting, not to mention tough, stuff. Lately my own practice and my thoughts about teaching have wandered away from the traditional way of doing things. I have been, you might say, testing my "yoga wings" by learning from new teachers and trying to push myself to think outside the box.

I brought this sense of experimentation to Dedication Yoga on Sunday, where I taught something I'll call the Dolphin Vinyasa.

A full vinyasa from standing is pretty much the same as a Sun A:

Inhale as you sweep up to urdhva hastasana
Exhale as you fold forward to uttanasana*
Inhale to lengthen and then step back to plank
Exhale to chaturanga (pushup)
Inhale to urdhva mukha svansanasa (up dog)
Exhale to adho mukha svanasana (down dog)

*Some teachers will add another inhale to ardha uttanasana (emphasizing the flat back), followed by an exhale back to uttanasana.

Often we cue a "half" vinyasa between in between doing a sequence on the right and left sides. This starts with a shift forward to plank from down dog and then moves through the chaturanga pushup and up dog before returning to down dog.

The Dolphin Vinyasa starts from down dog.

1. First, internally rotate your arms, scooping your elbows in and spinning the creases up to the sky (ideally this action is also at work in down dog; get a feel for it by bringing your elbows wider than your shoulders and noticing what it feels like when you hug them in close to your body in proper alignment) while gently lowering to your forearms to the ground (it takes a lot of strength and control to get the left and right forearm to land at the same time!). Hips stay high.

2. Now you should be in dolphin pose.

3. Unlike when you kick up to a forearm stand, you'll want your Dolphin to be long, like a down dog. If you want to get a feel for the right "length," start in a forearm plank and just shift your hips straight up and back (instead of coming into the pose from down dog).

4. On your inhale, come up onto the balls of your feet (think forward motion).

5. On the exhale, shift forward to chaturanga. This sounds, and initially feels, like an impossible transition! But it's just a matter of keeping your elbows bend and closely hugging your ribcage and then shifting the weight forward and moving it from your forearms to your hands. Elbows begin bent and remain bent as you transition from dolphin to chaturanga.

6. Inhale through up dog.

7. Exhale to down dog.

We had an interesting time playing with this Sunday. Both the chaturanga pushup and dolphin are great preparation for other challenging poses, like headstand. Plus, it's always nice to switch things up a bit, if only to remind ourselves why we like our routines.