Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween! "Zombie yoga"

Happy Halloween!

I saw this first a year or two ago -- kind of silly, but good for the day :-)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Is Iyengar Yoga Rigid or Harsh? The process of "waking up"

This video is of John Schumacher, a Senior Level Iyengar Yoga teacher in the Washington D.C. area.  He talks about the perception that Iyengar yoga seems harsh or too rigid to some people, and he clarifies why we teach as we do.

Underneath the video is my summary of what he talks about, along with a few of my own thoughts.

John talks about the intensity of B.K.S. Iyengar as a teacher --  the yoga sutras of Patanjali say that a practitioner can be mild, medium, or intense.    Different teachers will have different intensities; different students have different intensities.   For many people Iyengar is too intense, or too harsh.   Many of his earlier students adopted this intensity and incorporated his mannerisms into their own teaching, until they found their own "voice" as teachers. 

 -- Those of you who know me know that I'm a mild person by temperament, and that's reflected in my teaching.    I'm seriously dedicated to this practice, but I couldn't adopt B.K.S. Iyengar's intensity and still stay true to myself (or retain students!).   But I've learned 98% of all I know about the practice of yoga through his teachings (mostly through higher level Iyengar yoga teachers, but also from him).

John talks about the perception that Iyengar Yoga is rigid.   He says we can let people do what they want to do in a class, and they may be fine and happy, BUT they don't learn as well as if they are guided.   If a teacher guides a student, is that "rigid"?   Some may perceive it as so -- probably Iyengar Yoga will not be a good fit for them.

John tells his beginning level classes that "this is not an exercise class, but a yoga class".   His job is to teach you about yoga; about "waking up", about learning to understand the connections within yourself and the connections between you and the rest of the world.    His job is to teach you to "be present".

To learn to "be present" you follow with the teacher's instructions.   That way you also learn the poses better, and avoid problems and possible injuries.  Paying attention and following teacher's instructions keeps us in the "here and now".      That's the "yoga" part -- to be mentally awake, to be present.   (He mentions Ram Dass's "Be Here Now")

If you're not present and paying attention, the teacher's job is to bring you back to awareness by pointing out what you're doing or not doing.   He gives the example of the instruction to make the feet parallel in certain poses.   Some students may think it's too rigid to insist that the feet be "just so".   Why should it matter?   Partly it matters because the position of the feet affects how the legs, hips and back work.   But also, more importantly, paying attention and following this instruction keeps us "present"; it brings us to awareness.   If the feet turn out after we initially make them parallel, it means that our attention has wandered (at least away from the feet!).   He says "If you're not doing what I'm saying, then you're daydreaming."  His job (and mine) is to "wake you up", to keep your mind from wandering, from daydreaming, and to bring your awareness, your concentration, back to the present, back to the body.   We can then become more perceptive, first of our own bodies and mental and emotional processes, and eventually of the rest of the world around us.   That is the aim of yoga!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Who, me, an Iyengar Yoga snob?

I've noticed that some yoga students who come from other traditions feel like the Iyengar Yoga community excludes them.    They may be seasoned yoga students who do difficult poses with grace, strength, and beauty, but if they ask about attending Iyengar Yoga workshops or experienced-level Iyengar yoga classes, they may be told that the classes are only open to students with prior Iyengar yoga background.    So why are they being excluded?   Why are we being so snobbish?   Do we think that Iyengar yoga is better than what they do?

No, it's not that, of course.   Well, at least I hope that's not it!

One of my yoga teachers likened it to different kinds of musicians.   Consider two trumpet players.   One may be a top-notch jazz trumpetist, and the other a lead trumpet player in a world-class philharmonic orchestra.   They both are excellent trumpet players, but both come from very different traditions.   The jazz trumpetist couldn't expect to play in the world-class philharmonic orchestra, any more than the philharmonic trumpet player could expect to be a member of the top-notch jazz band.     If they want to explore the other style of playing, they get this experience in the appropriate venue -- they learn in a more "beginning level" setting.

So it's not our goal to exclude non-Iyengar practitioners (not my goal, at least), but we do have certain expectations from the students who come to higher level classes.   They're  expected to already have a certain knowledge of the methodology and terminology of Iyengar Yoga.     You learn these in the lower level classes.   If you jump into an experienced level class that assumes a certain prior knowledge, you may be doing the teacher and the rest of the class a disservice since the teacher may need to spend more time teaching you what the others have already learned in a lower level class.   This applies to all fields, not just Iyengar yoga, not just yoga classes in general, but in any endeavor where there's sequential learning.  

I've been practicing yoga since 1993, only in the Iyengar Yoga method.   I do think a Vinyasa, or Ashtanga, or Yin Yoga class would be a lot of fun, and I may try one of those classes some day.  But I certainly wouldn't go to an advanced level class.   I'm experienced in Iyengar Yoga -- that's it.   Many of the elements that I know would translate well into other styles of yoga, but not all.   It would be hubris on my part to feel entitled to attend an advanced level class outside of what I know.

I probably wouldn't even attend an "advanced" Iyengar yoga class if taught by someone I'm not familiar with, for the same reasons as above.    Different teachers have different expectations for their students, and it is good for us students (teachers need to remain students too) to honor these expectations.   The teacher of an advanced class shouldn't have to back-track to help out the new student who doesn't have the prerequisite background.   This is unfair to the rest of the class.

Personally, since my more experienced-level classes are not large, I do enjoy having people from different traditions attend as long as they're willing to take my instruction.   There is a certain amount of discipline expected -- not a harsh, overly-strict discipline in my class, but still, the discipline to follow my instructions to the best of your ability even if you can do more.   I wrote about "Beginner's mind vs. Prideful mind" in an earlier blog entry.    Cultivate your own "beginner's mind" in my classes, even if you already have a vast amount of experience.   You will learn something this way, not just get a workout.   It's a good idea for you to contact me first, before dropping in, so we can come to an understanding of what I'd expect of you in class, and what you hope to get out of a class.   Our expectations may not mesh, but then again, it could be the beginning of a beautiful yoga relationship :-)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Manouso Manos yoga workshop at the Ann Arbor YMCA Nov. 13 -- 15

Senior Iyengar Yoga teacher, Manouso Manos, will be teaching workshop classes at the Ann Arbor YMCA November 13 -- 15.     Manouso is one of the  most capable and experienced senior Iyengar Yoga teachers in the United States.  A student of B. K. S. Iyengar since 1976, he holds one of only two Advanced Senior certificates granted worldwide  (the other is Patricia Walden).    He's methodical in his teaching, first helping us to develop a strong foundation in the yoga asanas (poses), then progressively helping us to refine the poses.  "His sense of humor and sensitivity shine through as his dynamic and challenging teaching style moves you beyond perceived limits." 

We've been lucky here in Ann Arbor to have Manouso come on a yearly basis to teach workshop classes.

Classes this year are open to yoga students who have at least 2 years recent Iyengar Yoga background.    This assumes that you are already familiar with Iyengar Yoga methodology, and know how to work in head balance and shoulder balance as taught in the Iyengar Yoga system (i.e. know how to set up for shoulder balance with the blanket platform).  

(So, this isn't for students in the Gentle class, or probably not for students in my Level 1 classes even if you've been taking classes for 2 years.)
Registration is through Yoga Focus (not the YMCA).

From my past experience in these workshops I can tell you that for the most part we'll be working more deeply within the poses that you are already  familiar with.   The 3 hour Sunday class will probably include about an hour of Q & A.   

Times and fees:
Friday, Nov. 13        6:00-8:00PM      $35.00

Saturday, Nov. 14    9:00-11:30AM    $40.00

Saturday, Nov. 14    2:30-4:30PM      $35.00

Sunday, Nov. 15       9:30AM-12:30PM  $45.00

For those of you who take classes with me, I have workshop flyers at the studio.   Otherwise if you're interested, contact Karen Ufer at Yoga Focus (link is above).

Friday, October 23, 2009

Yoga and Aging -- Growing older with grace

I've noticed that I've gotten stiffer over the last few years, despite my yoga practice.   I've seen this in some of my long-term students as well.    Our hips, ankles, shoulders, and back just don't move or stretch as freely as they used to, or at least not as quickly.     Our strength and sense of balance eventually start to decrease as well.

Apparently this is an inevitable parting of growing older.   This doesn't mean we give up on our yoga practice -- on the contrary, our yoga practice will keep us stronger, more limber, and overall healthier and happier than if we didn't practice.

I did mention that I am stiffer than I used to be -- this stiffness goes away during practice, although it takes me a little longer to get there.   I can't imagine what my body would be like without this practice, let alone my state of mind!    I'd probably be a hunched-over crank with bad knees and back, and a perpetual scowl on my face if it weren't for my yoga practice!    (Well, hopefully not, but I'm not going to test it!)

We have to practice differently as we get older than when we were younger.    Perhaps we can't throw ourselves into poses with the joy and abandon of younger practitioners, but our body awareness develops so that we can more intelligently and more skillfully work to increase our physical and mental health, or at least to maintain for longer our current level of health.

This photo of B.K.S. Iyengar is from the Vanity Fair article link, below.  This was taken when he was 88.
The Yoga Portfolio Outtakes Entertainment & Culture:
Of course this photo is meant to inspire-- most of us won't have such a beautiful back arch at any age perhaps, but it shows that the human body is capable of more than we think it is.    B.K.S. Iyengar doesn't "hit the perfect pose" right off the bat, however.   He moves his body with intelligence during his practice, skillfully moving deeper and deeper into his poses, with the aid of props and keen mental awareness.   This is how we all need to work as we get older -- mindfully and intelligently.

The photo of the woman doing paschimottanasana ( seated forward bend) is also inspiring, and more accessible to more of us.   But it's still a pose that needs intelligent and mindful work if we want to deepen the pose without injury.

In the Denver Post article, Turning Age on it's Head , one of the teachers that is interviewed says, " Iyengar is the safest yoga for older practitioners because of Iyengar's focus on proper alignment and the use of props — blankets, blocks, straps, chairs and ropes — to assist poses.
"Mr. Iyengar's genius engineering in the use of props and sequencing makes the essence and benefit of each pose available to any student, regardless of ability, strength, flexibility, experience or age,"

If you're new to yoga, and are starting to feel the effects of age, you may prefer to find a "Gentle" yoga class or a "Yoga for Seniors" class as your introduction into this practice, so that you're with other like-minded, and like-bodied people.    Yoga IS for everyone, but not every beginning yoga class will be suitable for all beginners.   Some will prefer an active, vigorous class (I think many younger people need this activity), while some need a slower-paced, more supported class that gently strengthens and stretches and opens the body.  

Again, from the Denver Post article, one of the interviewed teachers says,
"For those who practice yoga regularly, stiffness turns to suppleness. Closed joint spaces open so the life-force energy known as 'prana' can flow to bring vitality," Frechette says. "And the oxygenated flow of blood brings youth-promoting nutrients to all the nooks and crannies of our aging bodies."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune, India

I found this interesting little video recently on YouTube.   It shows some of the area around and inside the Iyengar Yoga Institute in Pune, India, where I studied in February 2006.

The Institute building is octagonal, and on each of the 8 side there's a bas-relief sculpture of B.K.S. Iyengar in a yoga asana (pose). There's also a statue of Patanjali, set into a wall. Patanjali is the ancient Indian "sage" who codified the philosophy of yoga in the Yoga Sutras about 2500 years ago. In front, there's a bust of B.K.S. Iyengar's wife, who died in 1993 just as the institute was breaking ground (the institute is named after her -- the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute -- RIMYI).  As the camera goes around to the back, you'll see the shelves for shoes before people enter the building. To the left of this, across the small courtyard is where B.K.S. Iyengar and his daughter, Geeta, live. His son, Prashant, lives in an apartment in the Institute itself.

There's a little garden with a statue of Iyengar doing Lord of the Dance pose -- I have a couple pictures of me in front of that statue :-)

The last 1/2 minute is of the main classroom area -- this shows one of the practice times. You can see Geeta briefly as the camera first comes into the room -- she's sitting on the floor, in white top and green shorts (her signature yoga class "uniform") (time 2:58)

The video brings back memories for me!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

"Beginner's mind" vs. "Prideful mind" -- A tip for being a successful yoga student

Recently I had three visitors attend my more experienced level class.   Two were less experienced than my regular students in that class.   The third was quite accomplished -- strong and flexible, showing off her beautiful and remarkable poses, carrying them further than anyone else in the class, adding various flourishes and periodically "doing her own cool thing" in between the poses I was teaching.

All three were delightful people and I was happy to have them in class that evening.    But who was being a "good" student?   Which kind of student is overall more successful? 

You don't have to be strong or flexible, or have beautiful poses to be a successful or "good" student -- just the willingness to learn and practice what the teacher has to offer during that particular class.  I'm not familiar with other styles of yoga and the accompanying teaching methods -- perhaps it is acceptable in some other classes "do your own thing" when you think you can do more than what is being shown and taught in class.   But part of the philosophy of the Iyengar tradition (and most likely many other yoga traditions) is to develop patience and discipline and a degree of humility.   Of course we can be proud of our accomplishments and of our beautiful poses, but pride can lead us to believe we know more than we really do, or are better than we really are.   This leaves no room for learning.    And there is always more to learn.

If there's no patience, discipline, and humility, then that student has already decided (even if unconsciously) that she has nothing to learn from this class.   So basically that student has come to class for a work-out (and possibly to show off).   That's not necessarily bad, but she misses out on the wonderful experience of learning something new.

In the following Yoga Journal entry --
Yoga Journal - Teacher Tells All - Yoga Blog
the writer/teacher describes "Beginner's Mind" in yoga as "that space where you examine everything as if it were new. By opening ourselves up to the possibility that there is always something new to learn (even when you have done the "same" downward facing dog a thousand times) all kinds of things can shift and change and evolve."

If we already think we "know it all", we can learn nothing.   When we look at the poses afresh each time we do them, they become endlessly fascinating and satisfying.

(Yoga Journal entry posted using ShareThis)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Yoga and Meditation -- Part 3

When we talk about Yoga and Meditation, many people consider them to be different although compatible practices.   We often think of Yoga as the physical practice of poses, and Meditation as sitting in contemplation.

The full practice of yoga, though, includes more than just the practice of poses.   It also includes meditation.

The eight limbs of Yoga are:
  • Yama --  ethical practices toward society
  • Niyama -- ethical practices towards yourself
  • Asana -- practice of poses 
  • Pranayama -- breathing exercises
  • Pratyahara -- withdrawal of the senses
  • Dharana -- concentration
  • Dhyana -- meditation
  • Samadhi -- enlightenment, being one with the universe
We can embody all of these limbs of yoga within the practice of asana (and in some later posting I may discuss these more fully).    Very briefly, the practice of Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses; looking inward) leads to Dharana (concentration), which leads to Dhyana (a more profound concentration -- or meditation), which leads to Samadhi (being at one with God or with the universe).

Many people have described the practice of yoga asanas as a physical meditation or a meditation in movement.    To practice well, to do the poses as a meditation, we have to turn our awareness inward while practicing the pose.  We learn to discriminate between the different movements of the body, we  learn to develop more of an awareness of our full self, as we move deeper into the practice of the pose, an awareness not just of the physical body, but also the physiological, mental, emotional, and spiritual layers of ourselves.

B.K.S. Iyengar writes in "The Tree of Yoga", "We must learn in our performance of asanas to express the outer form and beauty of the pose without losing our inner attention."  He talks about reflecting in the pose, judging whether we are doing it correctly -- where it is wrong, and where it is right.  He continues, "You have judged.  You have reached a state of balance, so there is oneness.   There is awareness through your whole being from the skin to the self and from the self to the skin.  Then you know how to see outside and how to see inside.  There is fullness inside and fullness outside."   Later, " Can I extend my awareness of my self and bring it to each and every part of my body without any variation...[...] ...I learn to how to be at one with my body, my brain, my mind, my intelligence, my consciousness and my soul without any divisions at all.   That is how I practice.  That is why for me there is no difference between asana and dhyana."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Aquarium video -- stress reduction

This isn't about yoga or meditation per se, but this is such a soothing, calming video.   I found it while browsing other blogs.

Yoga and Meditation -- Part 2

As I was writing Part 1 of Yoga and Meditation, I noticed that carried an article on meditation that same day (Thursday, October 8):
Meditation grows in popularity for both health and spiritual reasons

I was struck that the reasons given for practicing meditation are basically the same as the reasons for practicing yoga asanas (poses).   The second sentence, "Over the last few decades, meditation has evolved from a fringe practice to a mainstream stress-reduction technique that might be recommended by your family doctor"  could easily have been written with "yoga" replacing "meditation".

Both practices help to improve our physical and mental health and well-being.  Both are a practice of mindfulness and of staying in the present moment, and may develop into more of a spiritual practice over time.

People often choose to start either practice as a way to quickly feel better physically and/or mentally.    People may start a yoga practice to help with physical issues like achy backs or sore joints, and to develop strength and flexibility, as well as to reduce stress.   People may start a meditation practice because of emotional issues (that may lead to physical problems), and again, as a way to reduce stress.

I like what Carol Blotter says in the article about people beginning their practice of meditation (or of yoga) with the thought, “ ‘just give me something to do to make me feel better in this moment",  and over time it may change to, "Help me live my life with more honesty, clarity and openness from the heart."     She continues,  "Many people start with the motivation to ‘just fix this one thing right now,’ and, over time, it changes into an awareness of a spiritual nature.”

The sustained study and practice of either yoga or meditation will bring us greater knowledge of our own true nature and of our relationship to the world around us.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Yoga and Meditation -- Part 1

It's been interesting teaching our "Integrating Yoga and Meditation" class with my husband, David,  these last three weeks.     We are both passionate about what we teach, we've both been thoroughly trained in teaching our particular method, and we know that the two subjects, as we've experienced them, should go well together.  

We come from two very different teaching traditions though, and putting the two together, given our different traditions, has been a bit of a challenge.

I teach Iyengar yoga as a very practical, physical method of improving one's health and well-being.   Most of the emphasis is on learning and practicing the poses, especially for beginners.   There is some awareness of the breath, and occasionally some philosophical concepts introduced as we are practicing the poses, but the initial "thrust" of the practice is of learning and practicing the physical poses as a way to learn to pay attention to the body -- to learn to concentrate, which in turn leads towards a meditative state of mind.

David teaches Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation.   As he teaches it (as I understand it -- and my understanding is limited!), there is more discussion on the different aspects of meditation, often in the form of dharma talks (lectures on a topic), as well as the actual meditation practice.   There's also been time set aside for students to share their experiences and to ask questions.

These different practices (Iyengar Yoga, Vipassana meditation) tend to draw different types of people.   There's some overlap, but not nearly as much as we thought there'd be.    People who have a  background in Vipassana or other formal meditation techniques may have less of an interest in the strongly physical aspects of Iyengar yoga.   People with a stronger background in a physically active yoga tradition may have less  interest in sitting still in meditation for long periods of time.   We have students from both practices -- and trying to find the common ground between the two has been challenging.   Neither of us has time to teach as fully as we'd like during each class (we'd need a 3 hour class for that!), but hopefully it's giving students a taste of how the two practices can be used together.  

Both are practices in mindfulness.   Both help to improve our health and mental well-being.   And both are great stress-reducers.   And David and I learn from this challenge of trying to satisfactorily incorporate the two methods into one class -- it'll take time to "iron out the wrinkles", but the challenge is a good one!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Iyengar Yoga and Low Back Pain

In my most recent email newsletter to students and friends of Harmony Yoga of Ann Arbor (HYAA), I included information about a study that came out showing that the practice of  Iyengar Yoga provides significant improvement of chronic low back pain in individuals with mild disability.

One of the HYAA students (thanks Deb!) also pointed out that there's an article on the IYNAUS website (Iyengar Yoga National Association of the U. S.) that gives a brief overview on this research --  Research on Iyengar Yoga and Chronic Lower Back Pain.   This includes a link to a pdf file, "Therapeutic Application of Iyengar Yoga for Healing Chronic Low Back Pain".  

The overview and the article may be of interest to any of you who have low back problems.   The article includes a section on the philosophy of yoga and some of the key aspects of Iyengar Yoga.    Sequences of poses that are used to aid in healing low back problems are shown in drawings and photos.   Many of the poses that are shown are much more prop-intensive than how I normally teach them in class (I don't have all the props, and it wouldn't be time-effective to work on poses this way in a regular, general class), but the actions and the aims are still the same.  

I'm happy to work with any of you HYAA students who'd like extra help with low back issues, in private or semi-private sessions.   If you're interested, you can talk to me next time you're in class, or contact me through our Harmony Yoga website

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Desiree Rumbaugh Yoga Workshop Classes on Wednesday, October 14

Nationally-known Anusara Yoga teacher, Desiree Rumbaugh is coming to the Ann Arbor area on Wednesday, October 14, to teach two classes.     These workshop classes are being sponsored by Michele Bond, a local Anusara Yoga teacher, of Yoga House in Ann Arbor.      Registration information can be found here.

The morning class has a therapeutic theme, and it is appropriate for all levels of experience.   The afternoon class sounds like it will have an interesting mix of many different poses.

Unfortunately the deadline for a discount has passed (sorry!), but the classes are still very affordable.

Anusara Yoga, founded by John Friend in 1997, is an alignment-based yoga method developed in large part out of his extensive experience in Iyengar Yoga.

I haven't had any experience with Anusara Yoga, but feel that it is probably quite compatible with the teachings of Iyengar Yoga.   I'm considering attending her afternoon class (I teach during the time of her morning class).   Let me know if any of you are going!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The new Harmony Yoga of Ann Arbor blog site!

I can't believe it's already October!   We're half-way through our Early Fall session, and for the most part classes have been going very well (although a couple continue to be VERY small).   Our lovely, light and airy new studio location has been a delight to teach in.   Our old location was fine, but it's SO nice to get up out of the basement!

I am new to blogging, so I'll be feeling my way through what kind of posts I think are appropriate for this site.    I'll include news from the studio, info about current yoga and meditation classes and upcoming events, and possibly news about what students are doing (with your permission!).   I'll occasionally include practice sequences (a good way for you all to learn the Sanskrit names of poses!), and articles about different aspects of yoga practice and philosophy -- perhaps moving some of the "items of interest" from our email newsletters over to these pages.

My intentions are to add updates once or twice a week.   Let me know what kind of information you'd like to see here!