Yamas – the ethical underpinning of yoga

We have mostly focused to date on our asanas, or physical postures, as is mostly the case in contemporary yoga in the West. However, asanas are only one limb of the eight limbed yogic path, the third one at that.

The yamas, or ethical underpinning, are the first limb of yoga. Interacting with other sentient beings – and ourselves – while observing these ethics leads to a kinder and more compassionate way of being in the world.

Click on the audio below to learn a little more about each yama; a new audio recording will be added discussing each of the five yamas during the Winter 2019 quarter.

Apologies about the rustling – recorded during a walk! 🙂

Ahimsa, non-harming

Satya, truthfulness

Asteya, non-stealing

Brahmacharya, moderation

Aparigraha, non-coveting

What is the difference between pain and intensity?

One of the skills we develop as yoga practitioners is the ability to distinguish between pain and intensity. What do you think this difference is? Take a moment to think about this and write down your answer.

Pain, at least within the context of our yoga asana practice, is usually a sharp sensation that eases as soon as we move out of a pose that caused it. Intensity, on the other hand, tends to be a duller sensation: it might subtly increase as you hold a pose until it peaks, then it decreases and might even disappear.

Pain is a useful signal, but not a sensation in which we want to remain for any amount of time while practicing. It alerts us to something not being quite right, and we need to make a change to correct whatever that is. It’s possible that you are out of alignment, causing a strain to a ligament; for example, if your knee falls in towards your big toe during a bent knee standing pose (such as warrior I or II), then the inside of the knee might hurt, signaling this misalignment. A sharp pain in the back while rolling up from a forward fold might indicate a herniated disc or a pinched nerve.

Intensity is a normal and healthy part of our practice, and one which we ought to welcome. Intensity allows us to meet our edge, contemplate it, and move the boundary a little further out. This can take the form of stretching a little further in a pose, or becoming just that little bit stronger each time we practice. Embracing intensity by focusing fully on how it feels transforms it. Instead of tensing and cringing away from the sensation, leaning into it and breathing signal the body that everything is OK.

I often compare meeting our intensity edge to walking to the edge of a cliff: we walk to the edge, we peek over, we take in the view and breathe; but, we don’t jump off the edge! I suggest that my students go to an intensity level of seven or eight out of 10, no more – the body (and mind) begin to fight back beyond that point.

If these concepts are completely new to you, see whether you can find an experienced teacher to help guide you in these explorations. The concepts are subtle, yet vital to one’s mental, physical and spiritual development through yoga.

~namaste,

Sylvia

Fall 2018, Week 6: Spinal Extensions (note: there were no new blogs for weeks 4 & 5)

For our final class of the shortened, six week course, we are playing with spinal extensions again – such an important aspect of our practice, but, often, quite challenging. Our lifestyles and the structures surrounding us (car bucket seats, armchairs, etc.) certainly don’t help us extend our spines and “un-hunch,” so we have to be quite intentional about it during our practice, and remain aware of our posture throughout our days. Here is a practice to help you do just that.

Mid-Spine bolster variations:

Allow the spine to be like a “wet noodle” – especially the lower back. Open arms enough to relax them to floor, especially backs of wrists.
Bring elbows and palms together while lying over the bolster with relaxed spine. Stretch arms behind you to floor and beyond, if possible, as far as you can while keeping elbows together. Eventually, elbows and then hands will have to come apart. Relax lower back.
Lift hips and place arms as though getting ready for full backbend. Keep elbows near ears, draw shoulder blades down back. Slowly lower hips, if possible, keeping lower back long and elbows near ears.

Block between shoulder blades:

Place block so it supports neck by catching bottom of skull. Pull shoulder blades apart (give yourself bear hug), lift hips to really settle onto block and dig between shoulder blades, then release down slowly and open into cactus arms. Elbows higher than wrists.

Block under hips and external rotation of arms:

Place block under sacrum at whatever height is appropriate for you. Externally rotate arms, one at a time or both at the same time, if possible, hold ankles, then lift hips. These are progressions, go only to point that is comfortable – engage abdominal muscles, not glutes throughout.
Place forearms and hands parallel to each other, shoulder width apart. Lift knees and hips, keeping belly moving towards thighs (can bend knees)

Child’s pose -> Cat -> Cobra and back:

Begin in child’s pose, arms wide, draw belly in and up into cat pose, then shift hips forward and lift heart – either in cobra or spinhx (on elbows) depending on what the lower back needs (sphinx best if lower back is tight). Reverse process to return to child’s pose. Repeat 3 or more times.

Dhanurasana | Bow pose

Begin with forehead to floor, one leg stretched back, arm on same side stretched forward; hold inside of ankle with externally rotated arm on other side. Press top of long leg into floor. If back allows, hold both ankles with externally rotated arms. Engage abdominals, relax glutes as much as possible.

Ustrasana | Camel pose

Begin with toes tucked under – blanket under knees can help one feel more comfortable. If back allows it, place one hand on heel, then other, then both. If comfortable, try with toes pointed, but respect your back, please! 🙂

End with forward folds, plow pose (if appropriate) and twists.

Happy extending and heart opening! 🙂

~namaste,

Sylvia

Fall 2018 week 3: Balance

Balance involves not only the body’s ability to find its ever-changing place in the world viz. gravity, but also equanimity of mind – and the physical and psychological components of balance can both support and detract from each other. We need core, focus, and breath – the link between the physical and psychological -to achieve balance/equanimity, the magical place between effort and ease, in asana practice and in life. So, let’s practice!

Vrksasana | Tree pose

Draw energy up inside of standing leg.

Crescent lunge & Balanced Warrior I

Top photos: Remain on ball of back foot as you lower knee to hover just above floor.
Bottom photos: draw heel down as for standing poses, then lift both heels up and arms reach out; back leg remains straight.

Utthita padanghustasana | Hand to big toe pose

Step into strap, straighten leg, and extend forward, to side, adding twist only if your balance is steady. Keep seat bones level at all times (uplifted leg’s sit bone tends to hike up).

Natrajasana variations | Dancer’s pose variations

Hold back foot from inside and keep knee moving back (not to side). Push front of hip of uplifted leg forward, draw abdominals in strongly.
Keep elbows near ears, draw shoulder blades down. Push front of hip of uplifted leg forward, draw abdominals in strongly.

Happy, healthy balancing! 🙂

~namaste,

Sylvia

Fall week 2/6: Core

We focused on the core this week, although almost every asana and vinyasa between asanas involves using one’s core. May you move in your core power with a little help from the following practice! 🙂

Bird-dog curl (Tuesday) or Downward facing dog to plank curl (Thursday)

Breathe out with the curl, and move slowly and deliberately. “Cinch” your waist as though tightening a belt around it.
Move into 3-legged plank pose first, then curl knee either to nose, or one or other elbow. Press ground away with hands and arch back during curl. Exhale on the curl.

Vasisthasana | Side plank on elbow (Tuesday) or on hand (Thursday)

Keep body in straight line – hips have a tendency to fall back in this pose. Be sure to keep elbow below shoulder, and press well into edge of forearm. Use lower oblique to lift lower hip and ankle.
This variation is the classic side plank, but only practice it if your wrist is not unhappy here. Holding the toe o the upper leg is a more advanced option. Be sure to not let the hips swing back.

Upward facing tabletop (Tuesday) or Purvottanasana | Upward facing plank (Thursday)

Placing a block between legs helps one avoid over-using glutes. Keeping chin in chest prevents neck issues from being exacerbated.
Keep thighs rolling towards one another, and place soles of feet on floor.

Lolasana 

Curl into C-shape, with bellybutton lifting up into spine. If possible, pull feet off floor.

Block under sacrum, extended leg(s): A great counterpose to all the abdominal work is to place the block under the sacrum. Adding the leg lifts shifts the pose into another core working asana.

Raise one leg to hip height, then raise it higher. If you can balance on block without using shoulders, raise one leg and place foot of other leg on thigh, sliding foot down extended leg.

~namaste,

Sylvia

Fall 2018 Week 1/6: All-round practice

Although it doesn’t exactly feel like fall here, in Florida, just yet, we need to distinguish this course from the one before – so, we’ll call it Fall 2018 ;-). This shortened course is a “grab bag” of various practices, rather than the structured progression of the previous courses. We began with an all-round practice this week, and will focus on various areas of interest for students in the next several weeks, such as balance, core, vinyasa and a restorative practice.

Some suggestions for homework from this week:

Anjaneyasana | High to low lunge

Keep front of chest/heart center open. Touch down with back knee lightly – you may also remain on back knee, point toe and reach arms up for a deeper opening of hip flexors.

 

Utthita trikonasana | Triangle pose

Lower hip and knee remain in alignment, twist is in mid-spine. Imagine pulling mat longer with feet, placing more weight in heel of back foot.

Parivrtta trikonasana | Rotated triangle 

Here, wall is an excellent prop that helps one twist upper body. Keep hips even – there is a tendency to drop hip of back leg lower than hip of front leg. Core remains strong.

Ardha chandrasana | Half moon pose

As in triangle pose, keep knee and toes aligned, pull standing leg hip towards back edge of mat to prevent cramping of piriformis. Upper shoulder twists over lower shoulder, core remains strong. Second variation (with bind) is for those who are secure in their balance.

Ardha kapotasana | Half pigeon pose

Keep hips squared and extend front of body.

Mid-spine bolster (Ahhhh…)

Let your spine become like a wet noodle and drape over bolster. Place block under head if chin juts up or back of neck is cramped.

Happy, healthy practicing! 🙂

~namaste, Sylvia

Summer 2018 Rider’s Sequence part 2

We explored part 2 of our Rider’s Sequence this week, which involves more poses on the mat that are held a little longer and are meant to bring deep release (yin poses), rather than energetic standing poses (yang poses) of last week. The exceptions are the final backbends.

Below are select poses from the practice, which you can explore as a stand-alone sequence.

Half pigeon pose: Come to high plank pose, then bring the knee of one leg to the outside of the hand on the same side; slide onto the ground with your hips, keeping them squared. Gently bring the foot of the bent leg towards the front of the mat, but only to the point where you are not stressing your knee. Lengthen forward. Lovely piriformis stretch.

Keep hips squared and extend front of body. Pad under hip of bent leg if hip is dramatically off ground.

Moving towards eka pada raja kapotasana/king pigeon pose: With torso upright, bend back leg quickly and catch the foot. Once you have the foot, relax the leg completely – otherwise you’ll likely get a charlie horse cramp (and that’s one horse we don’t want in the barn…). Square your shoulders forward and breathe space into the stretch at the front of the hip and thigh.

Hold foot from inside, with arm in external rotation. Hip of bent front leg can still be padded.

Virasana/hero’s pose: Please be extremely careful when practicing this pose, and only practice with a teacher’s help if you have had knee problems in the past. One does take the knee slightly out of the hinge movement for which it is adapted, which can be very helpful, but also quite detrimental if done incorrectly. Place a block or other bolster under your hips to start, and make the bolster progressively smaller until you can sit between your feet on the floor. You do need to be sitting on something, though, not hanging in the air with your hips/seat bones – whether the floor or bolster. Take care that your feet point straight back or even slightly in – not out. The shins and tops of feet get a great stretch here, in addition to the knees.

Pad under seat bones enough that you feel a stretch, but not discomfort in knees. Place blanket under feet or whole leg if you feel too much pressure on bones.

Baddha konasana/cobbler’s pose: Counterpose to virasasana, to be practiced immediately after the previous pose. Sitting against a wall is helpful, as is sitting on a blanket. Place soles of feet together and drawn them in towards the hips. Open knees towards floor. (If you are a hyperextender, place block between feet – your knees will not go down quite as far, but you will build the strength you need in the hip ligaments.)

Roll thighs externally, and attempt to pull big toes apart, while little toes remain together (like opening book).

Upavistha konasana/seated wide legged forward fold: A blanket under the seat bones is useful for this pose as well. Keep toes and knees pointed towards the ceiling, even (and especially) as you stretch front of body forward. Do not hunch or round the back, and press bottoms of legs into floor for a deeper stretch. It’s totally OK if you cannot bend forward even a little when first practicing this pose! Your adductors will thank you (eventually!), especially as you are all riders….

Keeping front of body long is key to this pose – rounding will stress lower back.

Mid-spine extension with bolster: This is an excellent preparation for backbends. Note that if you cannot easily keep both heels of the hands down, elbows towards ears, and hips down without overarching the lower back, then you are not ready for more advanced backbends yet. This pose will give you plenty to work with, so please be mindful and compassionate with your body – not competitive, as you’ll just end up sore, or, worse, hurt.

Lift your hips to initially place arms into position, then slowly lower hips. Take care to allow upper spine to extend, rather than doing the work with lower back.

Ustrasana/camel pose: Holding a block between the knees helps engage the transversus abdominus muscles and keep the lower back from over-arching. Keep chin in if your neck or shoulders are sore/tight. Hips remain over knees, not behind them.

Keeping toes curled under helps one move into this pose initially; pointing toes comes with practice. Place blanket under knees if uncomfortable. .

Counterbalance the backbends with a simple seated forward fold, a headstand or headless headstand (for those who have practiced them), and/or halasana/plow pose with appropriate counterpose.

And don’t forget to breathe as you explore these poses! 🙂

~namaste,

Sylvia

Summer 2018 Rider’s Sequence part 1

As we enter the final four weeks of our summer course (where, exactly, did the summer go?!), we are starting the first half of the Aequus Anima rider’s sequence. The poses below are selected from the first 10 poses of the 20 pose sequence, and can be practiced as a shorter series in and of themselves.

Warm up however you prefer to do so, whether cat/cow, rag doll rollup, or sun salutes.

Anjaneyasana|Low lunge, with arms up and side stretch as option. While bending the front knee well, imagine drawing back thigh bone backwards (two contrasting and balancing energies).

Press top of back foot into ground, and imagine drawing front foot back to stabilize pose. Pad under back knee if needed, and place block under lowered hand if need be.

Utthita parsvakonasana | Extended side angle: Feel the entire side of the body extend, even as you rotate the sternum up towards the ceiling. You may keep the bottom arm on the thigh, as in the top photo below, or place it on a block or floor on the big toe side of the foot, as in the bottom photo below.

Press into outside of back foot well, and be sure to keep the bottom seat bone in line with front knee, rather than jutting out behind you.

Utthita trikonasana | Triangle pose: Second toe, knee and hip of front leg are all lined up with each other. This is an open twist, so be sure to allow for that movement in the spine.

Ensure that knee of front leg is well lined up with second toe of front foot. Imagine that you are pulling the mat longer with your feet. As in extended side angle pose, hip is in line with front leg, not jutting out behind.

Parsvottanasana preparation | Intense side stretch preparation: Keep spine extended over the front leg. Place blocks under hands if you need to curl the spine to reach the floor (or if you cannot reach the floor at all). Hips remain even, with hip of front leg drawing back and up, and hip of back leg drawing forward and down.

Line up front foot and back heel, pressing into big toe in front and heel in back.

Parsvottanasana | Intense side stretch pose: Place hands into reverse namaste behind the back, or simply take a hold of the opposite elbows behind your back. Like the preparatory pose above, the full pose requires good balance, achieved by pressing the front big toe and back heel into the ground. Spine extends above the front leg.

Keep extending spine – arms/hands remind one not to slouch!

End your practice with any pose that your body is requesting, whether bolster behind mid-spine, or a savasana with bolster down the length of the spine. Be sure to give yourself time to absorb the pose in final relaxation.

Happy practicing! 🙂

Summer 2018 balance

Balance requires three main ingredients: 1. a clear and focused mind, 2. tone in the core, and 3. breath.

During this week’s class, students brought up important aspects of balance, such as rooting through the tripod of the foot (the three arches – connections between the middle of the heel, and the spots on the bottom of the foot behind the big and little toes), and a gazing point or dristhi – indeed, these are vital for balancing, but they fall under the ingredients of “clear and focused mind.” Ultimately, all of these details fall away as one enters into that magical space where effort and ease balance each other (no pun intended!).

Onward with our practice – which really does make balancing easier.

Bound bird-dog pose: From hands and knees, stretch opposite leg and arm back and forward. Press ball of uplifted foot into imaginary back wall, lifting the leg from the inner thigh to straighten, and reach fingertips to imaginary front wall. Pad under your knees if they feel uncomfortable. If your balance allows, reach arm back, bend knee of uplifted leg, and hold foot with hand, creating a backbend. Tone in core and breath are vital.

“Cinch” your waist, lifting bellybutton to spine, and press top of ankle of bottom leg into ground. Keeping hips even is great practice for two-legged downward facing dog pose!

Thursday only, two-legged downward facing dog pose: From downward facing dog pose, lift one leg, keeping hips even. Slowly slide opposite hand lightly back along floor, then lift next to body.

Pressing arm down and forward on floor helps with balance, and even hips are vital.

Vrksasana/Tree pose: Stand with feet hip width apart, find a dristhi (gazing point), and grow roots through the tripod of the foot. Shift weight onto one leg, turn out other leg at hip, and place foot on inside of standing leg – anywhere along leg except with heel on inside of knee joint. Press foot and leg into each other. Arms extended to the side help with balance; raising the arms shifts the center of gravity, as does raising the gaze, providing more challenge. Breath and core are key!

If your balance allows, lift gaze up and peel your shoulders back into a backbend.

Standing thread-the-needle: Stand with feet hip width apart, bend knees over toes, shift weight into heels. Cross ankle of one leg over thigh just above knee of other leg. Press palms of hands together, and sit down deeper. If balance allows, lower torso so that triceps (just above elbows on back of upper arms) and shin of crossed leg press into each other; keep back extended (not rounded).

Be sure to bend standing leg knee and drop your seat. Two views of same poses (Left top and bottom, right top and bottom).

Ardha chandrasana/Half moon pose: Stand with one foot pointing forward, while other leg is behind, toes at 45 degree angle forward, heels lined up (preparation for triangle pose). Place block on pinky side of front foot, fingers holding it lightly. Come to ball of back foot, move block forward, slide back foot forward, then lift back leg, ensuring that it’s not swinging behind your back. Reach upper arm up to ceiling. If balance allows, turn head to look up at ceiling. If balance allows further, bend uplifted leg behind, and reach for foot with uplifted arm, binding into a beautiful backbend. When returning to standing, land back into starting position gracefully and lightly.

Keep hip of standing leg directly above foot.

As always, finish with savasana to help integrate all of this balancing into your very being. Happy practicing 🙂

~namaste,

Sylvia