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.
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:
Block between shoulder blades:
Block under hips and external rotation of arms:
Child’s pose -> Cat -> Cobra and back:
Dhanurasana | Bow pose
Ustrasana | Camel pose
End with forward folds, plow pose (if appropriate) and twists.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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….
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.
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.
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! 🙂
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.