The Case for a Quiet Yoga Practice

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When we meet for dinner parties where we expect people to talk we play some background music to cover the noise of the chatter that is gentle enough so everyone can hear themselves but not the immediate others. When it is a dance party then the DJ decides what to play. In this case, there are not long conversations in the room because people dance or go out to talk to each other. They play loud music at various gym classes like Step, Zumba or whatever, where everyone sort of moves to the beat so the music is an essential part of the class, also the instructor is able to cue over the loud music because s/he is wearing a microphone. 

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Ohm, Now!

WHAT IS OM & WHY DO WE CHANT IT?

Om (pron.: əʊm or ɒm) is said to be the oldest sound in yogic tradition of Hinduism and Tibetan buddhism. Sometimes spelled and chanted as “AUM”, it contains reference to three states of mind:

  1. A: Jagrat – Creator –
  2. U: Swapna – Preserver,
  3. M: Shushupti – Destroyer.

(some more information on this view here)

In another (not very different) view, the mantra “OM or AUM” represents God, the absolute and the vibration of the Supreme. It is pronounced with a strong nasalised or hummed m.Thus, A-U-M represents the divine energy (Shakti) united in its three elementary aspects:

  1. A- Bhrahma Shakti (creation),
  2. U – Vishnu Shakti (preservation),
  3. M – Shiva Shakti (liberation, and/or destruction).

Maybe, in a more modern understanding, we can think of these letters to represent the beginning/birth, the process of life and the death/end of the universe or all things.

When chanted at the beginning of the yoga practice, it sets the tone of the class and helps bring concentration to the mind, marks the beginning and the end of the class. In order to achieve a state of content, yoga needs to be practiced with focus and presence of mind. So, the resonance that occurs during the chant creates a sense of relaxation and helps with the elasticity needed to expand the lungs further.

I, personally, stick to the latter understanding and that is why I like to chant at the beginning and at the end of each class.

Namaste,

e.

What are your feet doing?

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This is a question I ask often when I see idle feet, just lying around, not doing their part. I like to think that they know that I mean that yoga poses usually require the whole body get involved and even the tiniest body part has a role to play to bring about the “ease and steadiness” to the pose. Therefore, being more present in the pose will facilitate this ease and steadiness. Or. maybe, they just think that I am weird!

In my experience, yoga asana is more mental than physical. Whilst it is certainly possible to bend a knee without thinking too much about it, what makes yoga yoga is the fact that we pay attention, not to perfect the pose, but to observe and notice how it feels to be in the pose. The ultimate objective of asana is said to be to prepare the body to train the attention. Some would say that this should/can only be done in a sit-down meditation but I beg to differ, there is no reason why we shouldn’t train the attention to be more present in yoga asana and actually and sincerely mean to practice.

The following quote by Ray Long is an example of how our little big-toes go a long way to support our largest muscle, gluteus maximus:

… So how does the anatomy work? Muscles in your big 
toes support the ligaments 
and bones that make up 
your arches. Healthy arches 
(as opposed to fallen ones) 
act like shock absorbers, transmitting kinetic forces, or the forces of motion, up through the ankles to the knees and up the kinetic chain of the body, potentially causing issues with alignment, joint health, and muscle strength. For example, weak big-toe flexors, the muscles that bend the toe, may change the strength and effectiveness of your largest glute muscle, gluteus maximus. And the glute max is critical in supporting most poses. For the big-toe muscles to do their job well, protecting your body from impact and instability, they need to be dynamically stable, meaning they should respond to shifts in movement, weight, and balance. … * – Ray Long (M.D) full article

Big toes are important but other toes, too. So, next time instead of looking at the chipped  nail polish on your toes or trying to carry your weight with your hands in phalankasana, put your toes to work and observe how that feels. 🙂

Namaste,

e.

Where do I stand? Head and Shoulders?

I don’t think any particular movement or yoga pose is inherently dangerous, but I do think that certain movements or yoga poses can be dangerous if done carelessly and mindlessly. Each asana is a challenge to contort the body, and therefore the mind, and some more than others. I’ve been reading about the demonisation of salamba sarvangasana (shoulderstand) and salamba sirsasana (supported headstand) for a while now and I fail to understand the particular problem with these poses. Meanwhile, I don’t see anyone talking about the dangers of super deep back bends, arm balances, or nasty twists, not to mention handstands. If anything, I have to scroll through numerous handstand photographs on Instagram or Facebook! But no-one is writing blogs about how they stopped teaching chaturanga dandasana or phalankasana because the shoulders and wrists have to carry a lot of weight and might easily get injured, instead we talk about the ways to perform such poses safely. Although, one obvious reason for this maybe the relative importance the neck and the head compared with the wrists and the shoulders!

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On Chaturanga Modifications

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Just yesterday, I watched online an Ashtanga Primary Series class with full vinyasas between poses and half vinyasas between right and left sides of a pose. A full vinyasa in the context of Ashtanga yoga is Sun Salutation A. A half vinyasa, a.k.a THE vinyasa in popular yoga jargon, is the transition as such: (plank)-chaturanga-urdva mukha savanasana-adho mukha savanasana. 

This class lasted for two hours and everybody was really really tired at the end. In the normal practice, when we are not as ambitious, we do half vinyasas between poses and between sides of each pose. 

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Stretch or Not to Stretch?*

In my classes I use stretching cues to get parts of the body going. I use it as a pseudonym for turning the students’ attention to their bodies or like in the first downward dog of the day, I tell them to move around a little and get the juices start flowing and body heat up and prepare for the practice ahead. Apart from that I have never found stretching particularly useful or meaningful, to be honest. I don’t stretch before my run or after it. I don’t think my muscles need to stretch to cool down or warm up. The funny thing is that I’ve always felt guilty about it. I ‘knew’ I had to do some stretches but I was resisting it. Turns out, my hunch (in this case!) wasn’t wrong.

You know by now that I am more the physical practice type of yoga person that the spiritual, mantra chanting type. Therefore, I read a lot about anatomy, exercise and biomechanics. There are articles, posts, etc. that make sense; that might make sense, that are clueless but full of assumptions of any kind. So, I read with great caution and scepticism. I tend to seek some empirical results quoted or cited. So, here are a few articles that can recommend about the issue of to stretch or not to stretch.

  1. Stretching Doesn’t Work (the Way You Think It Does): This article explains how human nervous system reacts to stretching and has links to webpages, article books  by Katie Bowman and Jules Mitchell, both of whom I find very competent.
  2.  Stretching Is Not Improving Your Ability To Perform: This one is a similar one about nervous system and the muscles work.
  3. Pandiculation – The Safe Alternative To Stretching: The last is an interesting one. It suggests an alternative to stretching. It makes sense to me as I used to teach (as a psychologists) a similar method to relax a tense part of the body in my stress and anxiety management trainings.
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Above is a master of pandiculation performing her art. 🙂

As there are more studies conducted on biomechanics, movement, exercise and evolution. our understanding changes. And this is the beauty of relying on science instead of some personal experience: that one can replace an old method, technique with a brand new one instead of following some 2000 year old manual written by unknown person.

There is actually another blog post inside this one and that is about how so many people are trying to make yoga a ‘better’ exercise but still keeping the same assumptions but I have to think about it a little as I don’t like ranting for the sake of ranting.

namaste,

e.

*I couldn’t skip the opportunity for this title, especially given that it was Shakespeare Day yesterday. 🙂

The Yoga Hand vs The Natural Hand

After I posted the article on adho mukha svanasana, I came across a Facebook status update by Diane Bruni that she called The Hand Rant. In the rant Diane Bruni challenges the generally accepted alignment principles of the yoga hand. She first explains how she was taught to align her hands in Iyengar yoga, which is how we normally teach: press down all four corners of the hands and later argues that this may not really be the best alignment to protect the wrists. Bruni suggests, instead that one should release the knuckles and let them form the natural dome of the hand. Here is what she means:

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As someone with very fragile wrists and generally very rigid joints, I am always aware of my hands and wrists during my practice. I get the occasional wrist pain in upward facing dog and other arm balances. The alignment of the hands when the hands are to bear weight, of course, has a lot to do with how the weight of the body is distributed. General tendency amongst new beginners is, to lift the hand off the floor and leave the wrist to carry the entire weight. This is no good for the wrists. So, we tell them to press the entire hand down. This i.e. turning the palm down also pronates the forearm and directs the weight from shoulders down through the wrist to the hands. Bruni’s suggestion makes sense because it leaves enough room for shock absorption when more weight is loaded upon the hand.

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