Who are these guys?

The ‘goals’ of yoga seem pretty lofty. Stillness of the fluctuations of the mind, bliss, ultimate freedom… they can seem to be quite far-fetched from a modern perspective. However, we think that our students can indeed experience freedom when they learn yoga. Whether that be the freedom from pain through more strength or flexibility, or the kind of freedom you feel when you’re finally able to come up into handstand, or the freedom you experience when you alleviate stress, anxiety or depression through relaxing or uplifting poses. The ‘ordinary’, daily life kind of freedom. And that is not a less meaningful experience than any of the ones mentioned in the ancient yoga texts.

This is why we worked together with Studio Airport to create the cartoon characters you see on our home page, and soon in more ways of communicating. FlexiFloortje. EnergyErik. Wouter Warrior. Betty Balans. Harry Handstand. Krachtige Katie. They are the people next to you on the yoga mat. In their daily life, they may be accountant, mother, artist or web shop owner, student or gardener. Ordinary people – who just have a little more awareness of their inner power.

Like Clark Kent has his inner Superman, everybody has a core of greatness. Namaste.

Why practice difficult poses?

This weekend my yoga practice and teaching were assessed, and I passed the assessment. As I wrote on facebook, all this means is that I will be certified to, basically, still be a yoga teacher… so in effect nothing much changes, even though I am suddenly ‘bumped up a level’. The levels of certification in Iyengar yoga are very layered, with non-descriptive names like Junior Intermediate III. Does anybody out there even know what those words mean? Or do they care?

Of course not. A new certificate just means that my practice and teaching have been seen and evaluated by a group of my peers more experienced than me, and they have given me a certain qualification within the system.

Iyengar yoga is methodical, and this is also reflected in the way teachers are trained – methodical and gradual. For each level of certification, the students/teachers learn a new syllabus of asanas, along with a new set of pranayamas and selected parts of yoga philosophy. With each the poses you practice become more and more advanced. Now that I have passed a certain number of assessments and spent time to get intimate with all of those syllabi, it is slowly dawning on me that the sequence of the syllabi, put together by BKS Iyengar, is more meaningful and deeply thought out than I could have conceived before. But the question is: why is practicing more ‘advanced’ or complicated poses necessary? Is it just fun? Do they help you get healthier or more meditative or enlightened?

krama

The picture on the right was sent to me by a friend on the day of my exam, coincidentally – she had no idea I was taking it, or even that there are levels of certification in Iyengar yoga, but it was so well-timed (and how could she have known that this pose – parivrtta paschimottanasana – was also in my syllabus?).

In yoga philosophy, there’s a concept called krama (not to be confused with karma, the universal and lifetime transcending system of keeping tabs…). Krama can be translated as sequence, succession or order. It is introduced in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and talked about often in classes or workshops.

Sutra III.15: Krama anyatvam parinama anyatava hetu

Successive sequential changes cause distinctive changes in the consciousness

- BKS Iyengar in Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

evolution

I try to think of this as an evolutionary development. In all development, there is a starting state or material, then certain events happen and the original state or material is transformed into something else. Take as a simple example the act of baking bread: you start out with a bowl of flour, some yeast and water. You knead this mixture and let it rest, knead and rest it again and then bake it into a bread. The order of the kneading, resting and baking has influence on the end product – if you would bake before you knead, you would end up with something else than bread. But even smaller and more subtle changes, like the temperature of the resting environment or the kneading time or intensity, can give big changes in the outcome.

Krama is also very applicable in asana practice. The way we sequence asanas within one session can profoundly influence our physical and mental state. And even the order in which we perform certain actions within an asana influences our experiences – not only of the asana, but of ourselves in that asana. If we change the order, the effects will be different. And just like in baking bread, the order can be modified in increasingly subtle ways with different results, not just within one practice but also over a long time of practicing.

advancing

Now, back to the syllabi and the question how necessary it is to practice more advanced poses. As I have started to understand, the asanas throughout all levels of certification are built up in a determined, specific order, so the level of understanding of the teachers increases as they practice. So the krama does not only apply to the order in which you do the actions within a pose, or the sequence of the poses in a class, but also in the poses you practice over the years.

Hence we start to practice more complicated poses as our practice advances. Not (just) to look cool, but to research principles in more extreme and simultaneously subtle ways. Eka pada sirsasana – see Madonna here on the right – was in my current syllabus, and even though I’m still not any good at it, it taught me a lot about the actions of the hips, as well as a lesson or two about patience and not working for result. Not the pose itself but the path to reach it brings you understanding about the deeper layers in basic asanas.

For me, working within a clear and methodical system is immensely valuable. This is why I go through the process of assessment and evaluation, this is why I practice the stranger-looking asanas. Even though this moment of ‘touching my toes’ is a reason for people to congratulate me, what really matters is what happened on the way.

Start your home practice

I know. It’s hard, dude.

Practicing for yourself, by yourself, is at the very essence of yoga. If you only practice within the safe container of the class situation, you miss out on one of the  main subjects of yoga: the study of yourself (svadhyaya, the study of the self in the context of teachings, as it is called in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (sutra 2.1 & 2.32)).

But with the full schedules and many distractions we have nowadays, setting apart the time to practice is difficult. The hard deadline of a led class schedule is very helpful for many people. So is the relationship with the teacher; it is soothing to give over the control and just learn and follow. This feeds directly into the main obstacle to having a home practice that I find my students encounter. They are unsure about what to practice. Which poses to do, how long to hold them, what points they should observe while practicing.

class vs. practice

Many people are confused about how much a home practice should resemble a class at a studio or gym. Why should a yoga practice last at least 60 minutes, cover a certain minimum amount of poses, and have you get pretty sweaty in the process? That way of thinking lets the way yoga studios are organised dictate what your personal practice looks like. Yoga studios offer a schedule with classes that start at a certain time and end at a certain time, and have a certain duration. That makes sense, because otherwise nobody would know when to show up. A group setting also has a dynamic and rhythm to it, that begs for some time to introduce a theme, build it out, and then round it off in a balanced way. That is a nice class.

But that is not yoga.
It’s organisation.

In a studio setting, organisation according to the principles of time and group dynamics is useful and necessary. But in your own practice, you have different frameworks to work within. The frameworks of your household, your family, your job, health, space, energy level… So maybe the time you can spare is 20 minutes on some days. Or three hours on other days. Maybe you can do a short practice in the morning and a longer at night. Or maybe you like to get it over with as early as you can. It’s possible that your preferred practice times change with the seasons. Or with the years.

What I’m trying to say is, you have the freedom to experimente. The only thing you have to do, is start. As US-based senior teacher John Schumacher says in one of his Q&A-sessions (totally recommended, listen here at iHanuman), “if you only do one pose a day, that’s a home practice”.

Start somewhere

There’s no way to go wrong. If you don’t remember everything you’ve been told in the classes, then probably what you don’t remember is not what need to be working on right now. Start with what you do remember and work from there.

Some ideas to start: here is the link to the home practice sheets (level 1, level 2) from the amazing Iyengar Yoga Center in New York. Or go to the Yoga Journal website, they have great resources about home practice. Read books. Get dvd’s or audio classes to practice to (and I bet you’ll be doing your own thing before you’re halfway through it!). Look at youtube. Or, ask your teacher where you should start. I know I am always willing to give some advice or even spend a private session or 2 on how to best practice at home.

It’s about the spine, stupid!

We all used to be nothing but a spine. The spine split to form arms, legs and a head in order to express itself. It is very clear when you look at evolutionary and embryonic development. It’s no different for a human being, a rabbit or a lizard. We all used to be just spines. And our spines still seek expression.

This is one of the astonishingly simple insights Matthew Sanford brought to me in his workshop last November. It took me some time and a lot of practice to be able to condense what I learned into my teaching and writing.

extraordinary teacher

Matthew Sanford is an extraordinary yoga teacher. Of course, it is quite extraordinary that he teaches Iyengar yoga while he is paralysed from the chest down. And ordinary yoga teachers are not all great storytellers and don’t generally write breathtakingly beautiful books. But to me, those are not his main characteristics. To me he is a teacher that opens doors and puts things into perspective in a way that only extraordinary yoga teachers can. This year was the third time I went to London to take his workshops and each year he has brought me clarity about what I almost understood before.

This time I participated in a workshop for teachers who want to teach adaptive yoga. When you are teaching a basic level asana class to the general public, you can sort of get away with giving a running commentary to the outward shape of the poses. But if you want to share yoga asana with people with different physical or mental challenges, you can’t solely rely on the position of body parts in space or referring to use of muscles. You have to search for deeper layers and general aspects of the asanas in order to figure out new ways to share what you know. What struck me is how similar this is to teaching on a ‘higher level of certification’ (as we have in the Iyengar system), or to students with more experience. You have to open your eyes to observe in a more subtle way, and dig deeper to find more subtle layers to touch on with your teaching.

make shit up

Matthew has lost the more overt connections between his brain and the paralysed part of his body, which has forced him to pursue the more subtle connections without the ‘distractions’ that are presented to a non-paralyzed person. This has elicited a creativity and inventiveness that makes his teaching a tremendous source of insight for every student. During the two days he took us through some general principles and gave us practical ways to teach them. But his main motto was: ‘be creative: make shit up!’. We have to practice, find out about the connections between our own body and mind, and – as mr. Iyengar says – go from the gross to the subtle levels in our own practice before you can teach in a more subtle way.  And in that same way we have to work alongside our students – whether they are more or less able-bodied. Be there next to them with a receptive mind, curiosity and willingness to learn. We have to be open to surprise and wonder. Matthew Sanford is a great example of those qualities – and at least I can say I’m inspired.

Practising the scales with Christian Pisano

If it is possible to judge a teacher by his students, I was sure Christian Pisano would be an amazing teacher. Having met and practiced with a group of his students, as well as his lovely wife June in Pune in 2010, I expected to like their teacher. Their practices were great, well-balanced, and they were overall very nice people. So I came to Yoga Moves with high expectations. And, to take away the suspense: he didn’t disappoint. Unfortunately June was in India so she couldn’t join him – I would have loved to meet her again. But it was great to see a big Iyengar crowd gathered in Utrecht for the first time on 13 and 14 October.

Back to basics

The practices we did during the weekend were wonderfully simple. Maybe less physically challenging than some people would have expected, but with great attention to detail and a sound philosophical grounding. The title of the workshop was Preliminaries of Iyengar Yoga and that’s exactly what we did. Christian took us back to the base, and back to the breath. He stressed the importance of the introduction, in order to be able to see the background, the reason of coming to workshops like this. He told us that as practitioners, the practice can be difficult and sometimes lonely. Going to a workshop or a retreat can bring clarification of our practice of asana and pranayama in their context – and the context is yoga. He also emphasised starting at the beginning, ‘practicing the scales’, and going through the stages of asana practice one by one.

Vinyasa, vinyasa krama, viniyoga

These stages are referred to by the terms vinyasa, vinyasa krama and viniyoga. Vinyasa refers to the way we enter and exit a pose, moving in a deliberate way, and taking the breath into account. Vinyasa krama then, refers to the sequence of poses. We have to pay attention to the starting point, how to move into, stay in and come out of a posture in accordance with the breath, as well as the gradual flow of postures synchronised with the breath, and the unfolding of variations, modifications and intensifications of postures.

Mr. Iyengar often likens sequencing to making a garland of poses, stringing them together by the thread of consciousness. Sequencing one pose after the other gives the poses a richness and meaning that transcends the meaning and effect of a single pose.

Viniyoga, finally, is the application of means or techniques adapted to the individual needs at the moment of practice. Viniyoga is a Sanskrit term that implies differentiation, adaptation, and appropriate application. So in practice this means for both student and teacher, finding what is needed at this specific moment is an art, and never-ending process.

In the workshop, Christian not only talked about these concepts but also let us materialise them in our practice.

Emphasis on spaciousness

“Read the contraction you meet” is perhaps the phrase that stuck with me most. The goal of asana and pranayama is not just the physical exertion, or even the healing practice. Through these practices of the body and mind, we get to know that we are not the the body, nor the mind. At the same time, the body is an expression of the universe, and the universe is an extension of the body. That is why learning to read the body and mind is important. It is the start of all knowledge. If in the study of body and mind you meet a ‘contraction’, for instance physical tension, or mental aversion, Christian invites  you ‘read’ it. Finding out where it comes from, what it means, is more important than making it go away or deepening it.

Options for everyone

Closing and opening the days with quotes from the Vijnana Bhairava, Christian effectively drew the philosophic backdrop to the asana practice. For instance, he read the following sloka as an introduction to the concept of spaciousness or vacuity in relation to yoga asana.

The yogi should contemplate over the skin-part in his body like (an outer, inconscient) wall.
“There is nothing substantial inside it (i.e. the skin)”;
meditating like this, he reaches a state which transcends all things meditable.

-Vijnana Bhairava verse 48 (read the Vijnana Bhairava online here.)

We had the chance to read our contractions in a broad range of postures from basic standing asanas through twists and a long restorative session, and even in padmasana in sirsasana – for those that had the ability, of course. Both in the philosophic readings and in the asana and pranayama practice, Christian offered options for all levels of students.

We were very grateful to have this opportunity to study with him, and hope to see him back in Utrecht!

Further contemplation

The balance between philosophic study of texts and the applied practice of yoga is always a delicate one. Some people feel like ‘stop the babbling, lets get on the mat’, while others struggle to become concrete and get lost in theory. I think it helps to see other people’s experiences, even (or perhaps, especially) when they’re not coming from a yoga perspective. On the subject of the need to study our body and mind to realize that they do not define ‘us’, see this moving video of a woman who realises that she is not defined by her body. It becomes clear here how enormous the gap is between the intellectual concept, and the profundity of the actual realisation that we are not our bodies. Of course it’s not quite the same as Janine Shepherd’s story that’s shown in the video on the right.

Now, the concept of not being our mind is even harder to realise, and breathtakingly illustrated in the next video: Jill Bolte Taylors Stroke of Insight… I know this has been shown very often already but it’s still so worth watching.

Take a breath

Breath is a very simple and natural process. Such a simple thing – how could you possibly get it wrong? Everybody does it, all the time. You can’t ‘forget’ about breathing because obviously, you’d die. The tricky thing is, though, that breathing is controlled both consciously and unconsciously. Conscious breath control is applied in pranayama (Sanskrit: prana = life, or the ‘life force’, in this case loosely translated as breath, and yama means control or discipline) and some forms in meditation, but also in training of swimmers or singers. Even talking requires a conscious control of the breath.
Unconscious respiration

The unconscious processes of the body, like the digestive or hormonal systems, are not controlled by willpower. Also the unconscious respiration proces is not controlled by willpower, but by parts of the brain that react to chemical factors like the level of carbon dioxide in the blood. These reflexes adapt your breath pattern to the circumstances – for instance, while excercising, the level of carbon dioxide increases. This triggers a series of biochemical reactions which ultimately cause a higher level of respiration. And during rest, the level of carbon dioxide lowers again so the need to breathe rapidly is decreased appropriately. These biochemical processes also prevent you to die from holding your breath – when the carbon dioxide levels become too high you will lose consciousness and the breath reflexes take over again.

So the human body seems to be well adapted for unconscious breathing. Why do people put so much effort into developing breathing techniques and exercises? Well. It seems that interactions between the conscious and unconscious respiratory processes do not only occur in case of toddlers holding their breath until they faint. Adults also mess with their breath. Only they don’t do it on purpose.

“When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life.” – Hatha Yoga Pradipika

Breathing rates

A healthy breathing rate in rest is somewhere in between 6 and 10 breaths a minute (although opinions vary widely). During exercise, the breathing rate increases to up to 40 breaths per minute. For endurance sports like running or cycling, 20 to 30 breaths per minute is quite high – just try to inhale-exhale-inhale on each second for a minute and see how that makes you feel (= 30 breaths per minute). Of course, as described above, breathing faster if necessary is no problem at all. Your body responds adequately to the increased level of carbon dioxide that needs to be expelled and the need for oxygenated blood to keep your muscles working. So far, so good.

However, it turns out that for many people, this interaction between respiratory rate and physical activity is disturbed. People that are stressed out, emotional or even just unaware, often breathe with the rate as if they were cycling against the wind, without being aware of doing so. No wonder their heart rates are high, their entire nervous systems are in full fight-or-flight mode, and they are too tired to fall asleep at night.

‘Quietly’ sitting in a chair, millions of Dutchmen pretend to be in danger. In a dangerous situation, the body is fully prepared for action with a high heart rate, a lot of adrenaline – and for this book the most important thing – a heightened respiratory rate.  When you are breathing too fast you use a lot of energy, and continuous rapid breathing leads to many physical complaints.

- from ‘Verademing’ by Bram Bakker and Koen de Jong

(translation is mine and so are all mistakes)

Change your mind: start with the breath

There is a direct relation between the breath, the body and the mind. A change in any one of these aspects will bring about a change in the others. The nervous or hormonal system are not powers that can be changed at will, as we have seen above. To train the mind into non-stressed behaviour is a process of years and variable success, as any meditator can tell you. So taking your chances with some breathing exercises might be your best bet. Yoga practice can help you to increase your postural awareness and train your ‘breathing muscles‘, as well as give you more breath awareness and breathing techniques.

It is interesting to see that also outside of yoga, people are working with the breath. In the Netherlands, Bram Bakker and Koen de Jong wrote a book called Verademing (translated as Respite but the ambiguity is sadly lost), in wich they describe a lot of the problems that can follow from breathing too fast. They also give solutions, in a very clearly written and accessible form. One of them is a very simple breathing exercise:

  1. inhale, counting the seconds
  2. exhale for twice as long as you’ve inhaled. After the exhalation, pause for as long as you inhaled.
  3. repeat for 10 minutes

Or, you can start with just one breath.

 

Happy handstands

A google-image search for ‘handstand’ clearly shows the archetypical quality of this pose: the pure joy of standing on your hands. Apart from the possible benefits of being upside-down, arm balances seem to give something extra. When you can do them, they’re fun! But why is that?

Standing on your hands is a play with gravity. An expression of balance and strength. Swooping your legs over your head to jump up is of a childlike playfulness, and even if you don’t succeed, gives a rush. Being in a totally opposite position from day-to-day life requires you to be fully present. Handstand requires balance; not just in the literal sense of balancing away from the wall, but also the balance between control and letting go. Control over the strength of your legs, the stability in your arms and shoulders, and control over the core muscles (especially when you’re trying to jump up with both legs together). But also letting go of fear, letting your feet get over your head, and letting go of your normal perspective. It’s hard to know what up and what’s down, what’s forwards and backwards.

On a more philosophical note, overcoming the fear complex, as Geeta Iyengar often calls it, is a powerful tool in self-exploration. And jumping up to balance on your hands certainly requires fearlessness.

Handstands have a distinctive un-adult-like quality. Many of our students remember being fond of handstand as a child, but when they attempt to jump up years later, they are surprised by their own fear. Childlike innocence, as our respected teacher Charles Hond used to say, is lost in adulthood and replaced by fear. Fear of falling on your head, banging your head against the wall, fear of your arms not being strong enough to carry you, or fear of breaking your shoulders or hurting your back. All of those fears are not completely ridiculous, of course, but in reality doing a handstand is not a lot more crazy and dangerous than driving a car along a freeway at 130 km/h.

Some fears in life are justified, and some are harmful. Having the clarity of mind to know which one is which comes in handy, because unnecessary fears can eat up a lot of our energy. Patanjali, the author of the ancient Yoga Sutras, defines fivekleshas or afflictions that affect the mind and stand in the way of spiritual freedom. The fifth one he identifies is abhinivesha - the fear of death or clinging to life. He identifies this as the root of all fears. Patanjali also tells us that overcoming these kleshas can be done through tapas (disciplined effort), svadhyaya (self-analysis) and ishwara pranidhana (surrender).

Handstand, for many people, is a great example of how a yoga asana can challenge you to find your edge, observe and overcome your fear. Handstand is your fear laboratory, because the fears that come up in handstand are unlikely to be justified. Granted, you may hit the wall a little too hard in the beginning or even fall over, but there is relatively little ‘real’ danger – unlike in traffic, for example.

By continuous and disciplined effort you can learn how to jump up in handstand. Overcoming the fears that come up can take you to a place of self-confidence and strength. And if you do this consciously and observe yourself through this learning process, this experience can help you to overcome other fears you will encounter in your life. Eventually, getting upside-down is all about surrender, and trust that in the end you will get back on your feet.

Of course, for some people handstand comes easily – so they might find their edge in other poses. In the silence of long forward bends, for instance. Everybody knows the poses that bring up their edge. And that’s where it becomes interesting.

But this post is about handstands. So here’s a bit of inspiration, and I hope you try at least one handstand today! And tell us how it was.

Yogi on the run

I live in two worlds. The world of runners, where shoes, GPS-devices and times per kilometer are subject of lengthy discussions. And the world of yogis, where dinner-talk consists of exchanging class reviews, how the tailbone can actually! Move! In! and babble about how this visiting senior teacher taught baddha konasana leaning back.

Both worlds seem to be slightly suspicious of each other. The yogis have a hard time fathoming how I can run and not get stiff legs. The runners look at me bending forward during after-run stretching and smirk at my ability to not only reach beyond my knees, but even touch the floor with my hands.

Yogis are worried about my knees – how can they take the pounding of running 30k?

And runners… well, they worry about my knees as well. How can they take a pose like supta virasana or padmasana and not be broken?

Meanwhile, I need both. Not only does my yoga practice keep me flexible and strong enough to sustain my running, it also gives me more insight in my own behavioural patterns – both on the physical side as well as the mental side of things. My practice tells me when my left hip is pulling again before it results in pain. It teaches me to stand tall on my legs and use my core. And it tells me when I’m tired and need rest.

It teaches me to hang on and deal with fear. The fear of pain during a long run. The fear of falling out of inversions. Of getting out of breath. The fear of actually succeeding in something, a pose, or a run, and not being able to hide behind external factors anymore. It teaches me to quietly listen to my inner choir of critics who tell me that I can’t do this, I will surely injure myself, it’s too cold/hot/rainy/windy to go out on a run, I can’t stay in this pose any longer. Listen, without responding. And let the critics fight their battles until they become silent.

On the other hand, my running teaches me things about my yoga practice. Going outside to run, never mind the weather, makes me feel more able to deal with whatever is ‘out there’ as well as with what is inside of me. It makes me feel more in tune with the world – the space around me – never mind if it’s speed work in the city or a long slow and sweaty run through the glorious summer countryside. Snow-coated landscapes or steamy canals in the rain. It teaches me that all circumstances are actually okay, once you just stop fighting them.

Many yogis will say that yoga is actually the only thing they need to stay fit. Runners will say the same about running. But I’m a Jack of two trades… I see the beauty in both and alternating between the two helps me not to become too attached to the results of either one.

Now, if that isn’t yoga, I don’t know what is!