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!


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