"Anyone can learn to safely practice yoga and experience its healing effects. A beginner's mind is required, a flexible body is not." - Michael
Like all things, my approach to teaching has changed over the past few years. When I started my goal was largely to make it hard, to get some arm balances in there to impress people and convince them I knew what I was doing. These days I look at the room and find adaptations of the essential movements that everyone can easily approach, then communicate a set of alignment actions that are necessary to safely progress. I teach very few fancy arm balances in class (though I practice crazy stuff) even when I see that people can do them, because often they are lacking in hamstring and shoulder flexibility and stabilization as well as certain technical details.
My experience in working privately with experienced teachers, knowing their practices over a few years, and a bit about their problems, and teaching the young and old of all levels is that most people tend to be missing certain alignment principles that eventually impede progress or cause problems. This is also born of my own past experience for 11 years with being very strong on the superficial core areas (which relate to arm balances and planks) and unknowingly weak in the deep core up until the last 4 years (which relates to sitting up straight, a solid upward dog and the ability to do anything in yoga properly over the long-term).
Sometimes I wish I could bring myself to continue teaching a flow of flashy asanas but we have to look at practice as a longterm thing, and focus on our weaknesses and imbalances. Usually people don’t figure this out until the problems start showing up, and then they stick with practice and slowly figure it out, or they abandon practice altogether. Actually just about every teacher I know who is amazing learned from injuries. Without them, its hard to take the subtleties seriously, the artform of balancing opposite muscle groups all the time. I love teaching seniors because they are often the best students, having lived through more problems than most.
Once you have an experiential understanding of the conflicting ideas that make up a good alignment system, you can look at pictures of people doing a few poses and guess where some of the problems may be. Often its too much crow, overemphasis on situp movements, doing planks and low planks with confusion about how to best transit into a backbend like upward dog. The stiff upward dog with sleepy hamstrings and overly contracted glutes to just barely prevent low back strain, stiff shoulders and chest unable to open because we were too concerned with holding low plank and preventing the heart from opening. Decades of continued misinformation about “how low you shouldn’t go” and what constitutes “cheating.” Confusion over how using the toes and feet can release the hip flexors… I think these are the essentials to learn.
I have deep backbends and ability to access the crazy stuff because I changed my approach in practice 4 years ago and sought out clarification on subtleties from a few masterful practitioners. They didnt always agree with eachother, but the consistencies in their teachings were what struck me. But how do you know who to listen to? You don’t until you can do it all, and experience the bigger patterns underlying everything (Prana & Apana). The best advice I ever heard from Ray Long was that complete techniques should have portability in most other movements.
How do you define a good practice? That’s very individual, but its obviously much more than just good posture. If yoga was merely about the poses, gymnasts would be the masters. Integrating breath with large sets of alignment patterns is one unique characteristic of yoga. Hatha Yoga has a few definitions. “Sun and moon,” which correspond to duelling energy channels is one. “Forceful Yoga,” is another. Both definitions apply some internal tug of war between poles of opposites. The word yoga means “union” or “meditative absorption,” which tells us we have to make peace with the many contradictions that will arise in our own experience of something as externally oriented as perfecting posture.
“Every turn, every spiral, every extension has to be tempered by a counterturn, a counterspiral, or a flexion; sometimes strong, sometimes subtle.”
- Richard Freeman, The Mirror of Yoga
Here is a brief overview of how long-term success in Yoga practice can unfold. My hope is that you see your own ways of approaching practice somewhere in this tale, and get some insights into how to keep moving forward…
In the beginning, you walked into the yoga studio with your chest collapsed, shoulders and back slumping forward, and maybe you even had a strong superficial core (rectus abdominus) – the various elements that comprise this posture are coined the Apana pattern. When sitting on the floor, this tendency would be further exaggerated, then someone taught you to ‘lift your sitbones’ in downward dog, and finally, the stretch went into your hamstrings. You added bending your knees to the equation, and you were able to find your “neutral spine” and open your chest, instead of being in a slump.
You found this technique had portability to most other movements, and you learned to sit on the ground this way over the course of a few years. But you still find it difficult to sit-up straight, and your hip flexors are really sore, so you try to avoid that class where the instructor makes you do the boat posture (navasana) and other postures that demand you create a neutral spine while strongly flexing the hip. Sometimes those poses make your hip flexors even more sore, and you can’t figure out why they hurt your lower back.
You’ve been trying to squeeze your anus upwards when you practice yoga, even though it sounds a little weird. You’ve also learned by now that belly breathing is an incomplete technique, and so you keep your lower belly draw inwards about 2 inches below the belly button all the time—those boat poses aren’t so bad now.
A few months or years go by, you’re getting really good at touching your toes and breathing into your chest, ribcage and upper-belly simultaneously, but wondering why your upper hamstrings are sore, right where they insert near the bum – a common problem among yogis who take the Prana pattern of alignment actions to extremes for too long.
So you’ve started doing this thing in downward dog and lots of other forward folds where it feels like you might be “curling the tailbone”, and for some reason, the hamstring stretches feel way better. This is the beginning of merging the Prana and Apana patterns together.
A few more years pass, and you’ve realized that in downward dog and other hamstring stretches you can also engage your superficial core pieces like rectus abdominals, and contract your hamstrings and calves as they stretch (heavy hamstrings, rectus abs and exhaling the breath out are all part of Apana). When you do that, it feels like your hip flexors are relaxing for once in your life.
At the end of practice, you sit on the floor in that cross-legged position. You go through your usual motions to sit up tall: gently arching the back, shoulder blades down and back low belly in, pubic bone dropping so the sit-bones press down into the floor. You take a deep breath with sound and expand your chest, ribcage and upper belly, then with the exhale you contract 2-inches below the belly more firmly and then engage your rectus abdominus to squeeze out all the air. Then something happens… That area around the anus that you dogmatically contracted the last five years seems to engage on its own. At the same time, you feel the tailbone dropping in relationship to the pubic bone. The hip flexors are relaxed and the posture is stable and comfortable you could sit there for hours. You feel the root of the spine tone with the end of the exhale, then are able to meditate on the residue of that toning while inhaling.
A deep sense of calm overtakes the nervous system. The breath slows to epic proportions. There is a sense of energy rising from the root of the spine to the crown of the head. The alignment patterns of Prana and Apana have been fully balanced in the seated position. What once seemed like a bunch of overly-mechanical instructions on how to do everything from touching your toes to reaching your arms up reveals it’s brilliance as the art of yogic meditation on the entirety of hatha yoga: uniting the dualities of the inhale pattern (prana) and the exhale (apana), the left energy channel (ida) and the right energy channel (pingala), and experiencing their union through the central channel (Sushumna nadi).
After half-A-million chaturangas, it turns out that the keys to yoga we’re in understanding how to use your breathing and tilt the pelvis forward while dropping the tailbone, which didn’t make any sense until it finally happened, as the breathing technique triggered the “shadow side” of the alignment picture.
The breath continues to slow down, and without any extra effort, meditation on the infinite spontaneously occurs.
“Now is the time for yoga.”
- Sutra 1.1, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Too often we run from pain, but it is there to teach you something!
This morning I had one of those special practices where I got to practice beside my teacher, just the two of us. The experience had me reflecting back to before I met her five years ago. My body was such a mess. My physiotherapist kindly advised me not to practice backbends, and to wait at least two hours in the morning before doing any yoga. Keep in mind I had very poor core awareness, “the back of a 60 yr old lady,” according to several massage therapists, structural scoliosis and an excessive curve in my lower back. All this despite having practised yoga off and on for 9 years.
Ultimately, I had a choice to make, play it safe and listen to my health professional, or become committed to practising yoga with consistency and finding a great teacher nearby. That was when I met Janice. At the same time, I was introduced to the book “Ashtanga Yoga: Practice & Philosophy.”
For a time I really believed “this practice is magic, if I just do it everything will continue healing.” But it’s not magic, you have to put the time into continuously refining your alignment or there will be problems. You can get away with poor technique for a few years, but this can easily take the body further out of balance and lead to problems.
When we first learn yoga we usually learn a collection of ideas about what is correct, but with practice we see how these were just safety nets that actually prevent the development of correct technique. This is why having a system of alignment that lays out the science of balancing opposite muscle groups is so important. A tighter person needs to focus on learning the Prana system first, which essentally means learning to open the body and to create the neutral spine position before entering any posture. With more flexibility, the Apana system is re-introduced, with involves the use of superficial core aspects to stabalize and protect the body so stretches can be distributed across many areas, rather than concentrated in naturally flexible areas prone to compression.
My body has healed beyond what I ever thought was possible. It took over 3 years of (almost) daily practice and loads of independent student of alignment and technique before it all began to feel right and safely become a meditation on the breath.
The process involved jumping into the fire, committing to practice on days where it was the last thing I wanted to do, and recognizing that pain is no reason to quit – just a reason to be smarter, a reason to question things, to dial down the intensity in some directions while increasing it in others, to practice, study more, and untrain bad habits while learning new ones.
Over the course of a few years the seated series of Forward Folds is a preparation for doing Backbends properly. You might never guess that from looking at the series (shown below). But the body is so much more than our theories. Often people think that stretching the hip flexors in a lunge is the key, and they avoid movements/postures that “stiffen” the hip flexors, like Boat Pose (Navasana). But if the hip flexors are stiffening up too much, this is likely a sign that there are missing connections in the body that are necessary to backbend properly, such as being able to lift the pubic bone while expanding the chest.
Ashtanga seated series
The seated series is a safer way to lengthen the lower back and establish the bandhas, as the risks of doing forward bends improperly (disc bulge) are far lower than the risk of doing many backbends without technique.
Here’s the seated series (which follows a sequence of standing postures):
The last few postures are entered from laying down on the back by “rocking-up” into balancing on the sitbones. This requires use of core (bandhas) while in a forward bend, and some fancy footwork. The twists teach the body to simutaneously weave together the elements of a backbend in the upperspine with a microscopic rounding of the lower back (the controversial and overlooked “shadow-side” of the twist), developing deep core, as well as the abdominals and obliques. These help form the recipe for a solid backbending practice
Contest Runs until Sept 13, 2013 – This is your chance to win $1,500 scholarship towards Mark Laham & Todd Lavictoire’s Yoga Teacher Training!
We know how so many of you would love to take a yoga teacher training but just can’t afford it. So we wanted to share the love. This training program runs from Nov 2013 to June 2014 (more information, topics covered and dates).
Here is how it works:
1) Submit a 1-5min video. This will be your official entry into the contest and the video should cover the following:
• Why do you love yoga?
• Why do you want to become a yoga teacher?
• What inspires you?
• Why do you want to take a yoga teacher training with Mark & Mike & Todd?
• How do you plan to make an impact in the world as a yoga teacher?
2) Embed your video on YouTube
3) Email firstname.lastname@example.org the YouTube link.
5) Tweet your video & friend us.
6) Encourage your friends to like, comment & share your video, so you get more hits.
Voting ends Sept 13th, 2013. The person who has the most “youtube views” for their video by Sept 13th, 2013 will win $1,500 scholarship towards the full price of the yoga teacher training program!
Q: How will I find out if I won?
A: We will call you and email you sometime in the first week of June 2013. But make sure to follow us on Twitter and friend us on Facebook as we will be sending updates there as well.
Q. Can anyone in the world apply for this program?
Is this program open to students of all levels? Including those who already have a 200-hour certificate?
A: Yes it is.