"Anyone can learn to safely practice yoga and experience its healing effects. A beginner's mind is required, a flexible body is not." - Michael
The world needs more handstands. In this workshop, we will lay the fertile ground necessary for that seed to sprout in your yoga practice. The connections to make it happen come from a heightened awareness of ideal joint positioning, knowing where to engage and where to let go, and refining the breath. When you move around the central axis, you begin to see how all movements in yoga are part of a unified pattern of structural support, potentially therapeutic.
- Learn the elements of crow, crane, handstand and forearm stand posture
- Experience how meditation can enhance your arm balancing (10 min)
- Move in and out of simple backbends in a way that strengthens the connections between the upper and lower body, progressing towards full handstand.
- Techniques to work effectively with common physical and psychological blocks.
Todd Lavictoire, Mark Laham and I are offering a July Yoga Training program. This if for anyone who has a love of Yoga, one does not need a desire to teach… Actually if you ask any of us, we all took our first 200HR training to become better students, with no intention of teaching:
- Deepen your personal practice
- Develop a heightened self-understanding
- Functional anatomy & alignment biomechanics
- Yoga’s evolving potential as a therapeutic tool
- Putting Yoga Philosophy into Practice
- Teaching Skills & Hands-on adjustments
- The Art of Sequencing
- Tools for transformation, meditation & breathing techniques (pranayama)
Check out www.OmSchooled.ca or contact us if you or someone you know is interested.
“Tradition” is a funny word in yoga–it immediately turns some people off who are in search of the best, newest thing. On the other side, the most advanced practitioners in the world all swear by tradition. I think it’s safe to say that traditionalists could do a better job at explaining why it seems to work at simultaneously developing so many human capacities: the body, the mind, the intellect and the ability to let go of the ego-structure and experience pure being and connection with others.
Alignment science was not rigidly defined within the Ashtanga Yoga as it was in Iyengar Yoga. In fact, dedicated students mostly practice in complete silence, and have the ability to adapt the various movements, duration of practice and intensity too their own needs. Practitioners have been able to evolve within what appears to be a rigidly sequenced system from the outsiders viewpoint. Ashtanga is a template from which modern insights into the practice have flourished. Richard Freeman, Gregor Maehle and Simon Borg are but a few of the lifelong practitioners who have used the combination of personal experience and theoretical study to minimize the risks of the practice and maximize the potential benefits. Love it or hate it, Ashtanga is a true science where millions of people have been able to reproduce the same experiment with few tools—their own bodies, breath and minds following specific vinyasa guidelines (breath-linking movements).
By contrast, the Iyengar system was adaptable to the individual, and characterized by lots of ‘how-to’ information. As a deeply practised yogi who briefly trained with Krishnamacharya practising the Ashtanga third and fourth series, Iyengar earned his stripes. When he came to the west to teach, it became evident that his students needed something very basic and beginner safe, for those accustomed to western style toilets and chairs. He pioneered alignment science with the introduction of props (straps, blocks, bolsters, chairs, furniture, etc) to help people manage their limitations and receive benefits of postures that would be outside their skill range otherwise. This approach invited an element of precision in the placement of each limb, of attention to sensation to work, and the teachers he trained followed his blueprints. He defined yoga and movement under very strict parameters, many of which have withstood the test of time. But of course, every system has some flaws.
Upon embracing the paradox of discipline and freedom within Ashtanga, or any other yoga style besides Iyengar, we realize just how heavily influenced culture was by his teaching. How many times have you been told to do triangle or extended side-angle imagining yourself between “two-panes of glass?”
Why do we never question such claims when there are so many hip rotation movements that take you inside and outside the pane of glass image? Some examples include Uttitha Hasta Padangustasana, or laying on your back with a strap on your foot and exploring abduction of the hip — its the same action as triangle pose, but offers more freedom to explore.
Iyengar, it seems, was in part going for a certain aesthetic to make yoga attractive. The two panes of glass imagery continues to be popular in many programs that train yoga teachers, but actually puts up an imaginary wall preventing the science of discovery from unravelling, like training wheels fastened on so tightly they prevent natural movement.
Rumour has it that what Iyengar actually meant from that instruction was a refinement, or what Richard Freeman might call a “counter-spiral,” which comes in and fixes the pose as it’s secondary pattern. However, missing from the panes of glass instruction is how you actually enter the posture, the primary pattern.
It’s all in the entry of the posture, and goes a little something like this:
- Primary Spin: The back leg rotates inwards (not in a pane of glass) but keep the spine straight as you do that, so the pelvis rotates around the hip joint.
- Secondary Spin: Once in the posture, reverse the actions of the legs, which resembles the function of the “two panes of glass” cue, but will not create quite the same aesthetic.
- At this point in the posture, the secondary action can slightly flex the spine laterally, curling the pelvis back (posterior tilt), which prevents the neck of the femur from wearing down the hip joint.
You can actually see the difference in these two photos of Iyengar, a youthful version of him that is solely using the secondary pattern (not good), and a more recent photo of the aged master balancing the primary and secondary patterns on the right (great). But the body is definitely not between two panes of glass, the top hip is forward of the bottom hip, an action set by the primary pattern to enter the asana.
You apply this principle of theory and counter theory to any movement the body is capable to minimize the odds of several common slow-motion injuries to the hip. Take these cautions to prevent gradually wearing down the hip joint and prevent femoral acetabular impingement::
- Problem 1: When the spine is “too straight” in a posture with deep hip flexion: Any twist posture you can imagine, as well as forward folds. This is where “curling the pelvis back” and externally rotation of the hip come into play, usually as the seconary counter spirals. Stiff people don’t have to worry about this, but flexible people – beware.
- Problem 2: When the legs are abducted too far apart and one folds forward to touch the ground, as in entering the standing wide leg fold, prasarrita padottanasana). Simply start with the legs 3-4 feet apart, then fold forward with internal rotation in the thighs. Once the hip is near its reasonable flexion limit, you may walk the feet further apart if necessary and counter-spiral the legs with external rotation of hips/feed sitbones to eachother, and slightly engage the hamstrings and PC muscle (pelvic floor) to drop the tailbone, tilting the pelvis slightly back.
For every theory, there is a counter-theory arising in the backround. You can easily tune that voice out if you don’t practice much. When we practice, if the experience is focused inwardly enough, we can feel the pull of opposite viewpoints everywhere in our bodies—it’s in our breathing patterns, the internal rotation of the back leg being resisted by its external rotation, the backbend being restrained by the elements of the forward bend. A gentle physical adjustment can open our minds to the experience, beyond our ability to accurately describe. By contrast, too many words draws the minds focus out of the experience, either by confusing it or thinking it already knows that.
The Ashtanga Yoga sequences have survived because it honours the ritual of practice, and more importantly, the science of discovery. Indeed, it is often better to say nothing and let the wisdom unfold itself. The more I learn about alignment, and how the dominant postural patterns in our bodies will demand that two people approach the same general position with different muscular emphasis, the more I realize—it’s sometimes better to say nothing.
- Aum -
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.
The image on the right is where the deep core related to, but not limited to, the neutral spine can go. The superficial core is the secondary strength, used in a smaller dose and layered over top of a solid foundation in deep core. Notice the similarities between this shape, and sitting in Dandasana (shown above).
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