26 July 2014

It's Never Easy


intransitive verb\ˈstrə-gəl\
: to try very hard to do, achieve, or deal with something that is difficult or that causes problems
: to move with difficulty or with great effort
                                   : to try to move yourself, an object, etc., by making a lot of effort

via merriam-webster.com

Think about the word struggle for a moment.

Now, consider how that word applies to your practice.

For me, it is applicable in several ways. 

  : to try to move yourself, an object, etc., by making a lot of effort

The very act of performing postures is a struggle, at least most of the time. I'm a big, ungainly guy who has trouble with his balance but more than makes for it at times with a perplexing lack of strength. When I finally get my balance right, I'm too weak or breathless to hold the damn posture. More often though, the opposite holds true: I can enter the posture but cannot keep my balance for more than a few seconds. this seems to have worsened in the past month. There was one class two weeks ago where I received correction from the instructor in Pranayama, Half-Moon, Hands-to-Feet, Awkward, and Eagle. That never happened before; all because I had so much trouble keeping my balance. Then there are my knees, one of which I injured in April and the other which is now exhibiting a lot of the aches I felt before injuring the first one (did that make sense?). Of course, I have attended only eight classes this month, which leads me to....

...deal with something that is difficult or that causes problems

Just getting to class can be a struggle. It's July. It's hot. I just want to sit by the pool/fire up the grill/take a nap/go to the zoo/etc, etc. Your friends or loved ones want to do those things as well, and you don't want to miss the fun. So you tell yourself you will take an extra class tomorrow/next week/next month. Sometimes you do and sometimes you forget and sometimes you just say "Forget about it". Then there are times when your friends balk at your going to class again and become upset or downright angry. It can be amazing how many of your old friends disappear when you try to change your life... and how many new ones you can make.

: to try very hard to do... something that is difficult... to move with difficulty or with great effort

Once in the room, there are struggles great and small. From trying to get your hamstrings to stretch to reaching down to your heels to the sweat pouring into your ears or nose. Perhaps it's as simple as running late and not getting your preferred spot in the room (let's be honest: ANYWHERE in the room is good). Maybe your body aches and it is really difficult just to get your arms up over the head sideways. Maybe your heart hurts. Maybe you just can't quite get your breath under control and your chasing it in every posture. Maybe you've decided to do a 40-minute Savasana and you see no reason to change your mind.
And yet.. when you make that conscious effort to get to class, to find a spot no matter how unpalatable, when you just try to clear your mind, lift those tired arms up and breathe in deeply...


 Don't deny yourself. Don't let anyone or anything deny you.

You are special. You deserve to be healthy and happy.

It is not, and never will be easy. And that is just fine.

See you on the mat!!



09 July 2014

"The Real Yoga Begins on the Floor" -- Part Two

To refresh: I recently attended a workshop detailing the Floor Series of Bikram's Beginning Yoga Class. Last time, I described the tips given for each posture from Savasana through Floor Bow. You can read about it here.

As always, your instructor is the most reliable source of information. I'm simply relating what I saw and heard to the best of my ability. I can and often do get things wrong. Double check with your instructor. Please leave a comment or drop a line to the email address above if I'm incorrect about something.

Now, on with the rest of the postures!!

Fixed-Firm: The most important point is this: If you cannot get your backside to touch the floor between your feet, go no further!! You risk injury if your butt isn't on the floor. After that, the most important point is to protect your head/neck. This means that when you exit the posture, after putting your hands to your feet and using your elbows to help you up, then and only then should bring your head up. Remember the dialogue: "... head comes up last."  Never bring your knees off the floor!!

Half-Tortoise:  The goal is to get your forehead to the floor AND keep your hips touching your heels. Most of us can do one or the other. The instructor said that she goes for forehead first because she likes the rush of blood to the brain that gives her a burst of energy. Personally, I try to keep hips to heels and work on moving my forehead closer to the floor. Important to just keep your pinky fingers touching the floor... you are attempting a stretching posture. This is one of the few postures that can be done outside the room safely (I believe wind-removing is the other).

Camel: The deepest backbend (and maybe the most disconcerting posture) we do in class. As I learned in the MasterClass , you should think of beginning the backbend by pushing your pelvis/pubic bone out as far as possible before bending back. Be safe: if you cannot reach back and grab your feet, do not try!! It can take a long time to get there, be patient! Here is what got me: you know in the dialogue the instructor says, "... I want 360 degrees for gravitation". I have always thought about being as circular as possible. I was wrong. The instructor is not looking for semicircles around the outside of the body. He/She is looking for a square: four 90-degree angles created when you are in the full expression of the posture. The angles created from hands to heels, the bend in your knees, the bend from hips to lower back, and from upper back to arms...  Why does this posture make you feel nauseous or nervous? It's your fight or flight response kicking in. When you perceive a threat coming toward you, you assume a defensive stance: knees bent, arms up, upper body bending forward to protect your heart and vital organs. In Camel, our body and mind want to override the backbend -- they want desperately to move you back to a more normal position. That is when you breathe slowly and deeply and work to let those fears pass. Again, exiting the posture is just as important as entering -- especially taking care when lifting your head back up.

Rabbit: First, make sure you have a good, solid, dry grip by using your towel or the back of your mat. Keep your stomach in throughout. Pull, pull, then pull some more. The first goal is to get your forehead to touch your knees while keeping the top of your head gently resting on the floor. From here the idea is to lift the hips up and get and try to get your arms as straight as you can. You must try to keep your chin tucked to your chest (I always pop back up here -- just too difficult for me to breathe -- I always feel as though I cannot draw any breath). Never stop pulling!

Head to Knee w/ Stretching: I have to admit that by this time I was a bit tired and dehydrated -- I had taken the regular class before this workshop. What I can tell you about this posture is that 1) it's very important, when bending either leg and tucking that foot against the extended leg, that the heel is as high up on the leg ad possible -- to your crotch if possible; and 2) that your foot is pressed hard against the femoral artery. As most of us know, this is your opportunity to practice Standing Head-to-Knee without the added task of balancing on one leg. Again, keeping your chin to your chest is important. Be honest with the sit-up -- don't cheat. When stretching, you must try to keep your spine straight, as opposed to during the first part, when you work with a curved spine.   

Spine Twist: Whichever knee is on the floor must stay there, along with your backside. When you inhale, try to lift your spine with stomach drawn in; twist during each exhale. 

Blowing-in-Firm: Honestly, by this time I was spent and I don't recall any special instructions other than this: the only muscles that move are your stomach muscles.

I hope that you were able to gain something from this post. PLEASE ASK YOUR INSTRUCTORS FOR HELP WITH POSTURES -- THEY LOVE NOTHING MORE THAN HELPING US LEARN MORE ABOUT THE YOGA -- AND OURSELVES. If you get the chance to go to a workshop, posture clinic, or Master Class, do it!! You will not regret it!!

One last thing: two of the people who attended the workshop had never taken a Bikram class!! They were friends of regular practitioners and wanted to see what it was about. How cool is that?  How much better would anyone's practice be if they had taken that chance?


01 July 2014

"The Real Yoga Begins on the Floor" -- Part One

Thanks to a quirk in my work schedule, I had this past Saturday off from work. How did I use this wonderful gift? Well, by attending the normal 10:00AM Bikram class, then staying for a special event: a beginner's workshop dedicated solely to Bikram's floor series. An extra hour and 45 minutes in the room with no Triangle Pose? Bliss...  ;)

Although we were there to work on floor poses, our instructor started by discussing the Standing Series -- why we start with Pranayama (to stretch the lungs in preparation for class), then Half-Moon with Hands-to-Feet (to begin to extend the spine in all four directions). She continued by explaining that in Awkward and Eagle, we begin to work the largest muscles in the body (thighs, glutes, hips, calves) as well as begin to open up the joints. Next, she reminded us that not only that one posture builds on the last and prepares for the next, but each group of postures builds upon the previous. The warm-up postures prepare us for the Balancing Series (Standing Head-to-Knee, Standing Bow, Balancing Stick), which prepare us for the Separate Leg Postures (Separate Leg Stretching, Triangle, Separate Leg Head-to-Knee, Tree, Toestand).

She then reminded us that (and I'm paraphrasing) :

"The Standing postures are the "sexy" postures -- the curves of Half-Moon or Bow; the beauty of a well done Standing Head to Knee or Eagle. We work very hard in those postures. You must always remember, however, to save as much energy as possible during the Standing Series. Why? Because the Standing Series is simply the warmup.

The true Hatha Yoga begins on the floor.

Hatha Yoga is defined by Yoga Journal as follows:

The word hatha means willful or forceful. Hatha yoga refers to a set of physical exercises (known as asanas or postures), and sequences of asanas, designed to align your skin, muscles, and bones. The postures are also designed to open the many channels of the body—especially the main channel, the spine—so that energy can flow freely.
Hatha is also translated as ha meaning "sun" and tha meaning "moon." This refers to the balance of masculine aspects—active, hot, sun—and feminine aspects—receptive, cool, moon—within all of us. Hatha yoga is a path toward creating balance and uniting opposites. In our physical bodies we develop a balance of strength and flexibility. We also learn to balance our effort and surrender in each pose.

The more basic definition we are given is, "Moving in and out of postures slowly and deliberately, breathing always normal." 

I say this because, before we began working on postures, our instructor took a moment to talk about the dialogue; specifically why it can be so wordy at times. Again I paraphrase:

"First the dialogue provides a precise way of entering the posture safely. From the podium, we see so many times where students jump ahead of the dialogue, sometimes forcing themselves into the posture in an unsafe manner, which can lead to injury. Second, the dialogue provides a way to keep you in the posture ('...keep kicking, don't stop kicking, the harder you kick you can balance forever'). In addition, the dialogue asks you to 'focus', 'concentrate', and 'meditate' to help you work on the mental aspect of the practice." Finally, the dialogue allows you to exit the posture safely. Please, slow down, listen to the dialogue, and follow the words exactly."

For the workshop, there was the lead instructor plus a second instructor who moved about the room helping to check alignment and answer questions. In addition, we had a young lady demonstrate each posture before we did the posture ourselves -- and she was outstanding. So, we were asked to move into Savasana for two minutes, and off we went!!

For each posture, I'm going to try and give the key points given during each demonstration. If there is an error then it is mine for not recalling correctly.

Savasana: You must learn to get into Savasana quickly and efficiently. Don't worry about the sweat dripping in your ear, or that your costume has bunched up in a most uncomfortable way. Each posture constricts the flow of blood to a certain area of the body. When you come out of the posture and assume Savasana, your blood flow becomes totally unrestricted, allowing the blood to flush out your joints and move toxins out of the body. Why is Savasana 20 seconds long between postures? Because it takes approximately 20 seconds for the blood to make one complete circuit of your body!!

When taking Savasana on your stomach, always work to get your ear all the way down to the floor, giving your neck muscles a gentle stretch.

Wind-Removing:  The grip is important: two inches below the knee. (At this point she had us grip our hands together tightly and look at how the knuckles/joints turned white because the blood flow had been stopped.) Always strive to get your shoulder, knee, and heel all in one line. There is always a tendency to roll to one side or another -- work to keep the opposite shoulder on the floor.  Chin always to the chest.

Sit-up: Should be all one motion. Too many people do it in two or more parts -- throwing their arms forward to yank themselves up off the floor, then roll forward to reach the toes. As I watched the demonstration, I thought of rolling up your mat -- arms always with the ears, try to curl up from head to waist and reach forward to grab the toes. I am horrible at situps; mainly because my core is so soft that I almost have to do the situp in segments. Still, after trying it as demonstrated a couple of times, I started to get the idea. Don't forget to grab the big toes and pull at the end (rarely happens for me). 

Cobra: How do you make certain your hands are placed correctly? Roll slightly to one side or the other and look down. If you can see the tops of your fingers, move them back. Legs together, knees locked, hip muscles/glutes contracted. When demonstrated, you could see the line across her lower back where blood flow was being restricted. Keep challenging yourself to look up higher -- "...where the eyes go the body follows".

Locust: Read the following dialogue (as best as I can recall):
"Get your arms underneath the body, lie on top of your elbows, palms facing down, pinky fingers touching, spread your fingers out and grab the floor, your elbows are supposed to hurt.
Chin to the floor."
What do the vast majority of us do first? We move our chin to the floor first, which is wrong. (See what happens when you listen and focus on the dialogue? I'm still reeling from that.)
Push your hands down and towards the back wall in order to gain the leverage to lift each leg or both legs. Remember that we are attempting to work the upper spine here, as opposed to the lower spine in Cobra. Another revelation for me: how high you lift the leg(s) is much less important than making sure your leg is straight, toes pointed, knees locked and hip on the floor. Don't roll your hip up to get height -- that ruins the alignment of the spine and renders the posture useless. Finally, you must keep your mouth on the towel when lifting both legs -- else you risk injury to the cervical spine.

Full-Locust: Now we are working the middle of the spine. When you go up, make sure that the arms stay level with your head, and that the arms go up, then back. Don't hold your breath when lifting up!

Floor Bow: When you grab your feet, placement of the hands is crucial. Try to grab the feet so that your pinky fingers touch your feet just where your toes join the foot (hope that makes sense -- if you can't see your toes your hands are too high, if you can see part of the foot between your toes and hand then it is too low). Just as in the standing version, you are not pulling the feet up with hands, you are kicking your legs up. Keep looking up and try not to rock back and forth -- roll forward and never stop kicking.

Halfway through and time to stop for now. Hope this helps rather than hinders your practice. As always, your instructor is the most reliable source of information. I'm simply relating what I saw and heard to the best of my ability. I can and often do get things wrong. Double check with your instructor. Please leave a comment or drop a line to the email address above if I'm incorrect about something.

Back soon with the second half!