Monday, November 30, 2009

From Liz: Fointing, Pointing and Flexing

That is a great read and a good link. And it makes me ache for that teacher-student relationship even more. As much as I love self-sufficiency and alternative guru figures (online community, yogic literature, dvds), it's just not the same. I just am not sure how to cultivate the consistency and trust that you need as the basis of a solid bond.

[This also calls up some class issues: who in our society can afford there very own teacher? It's so hard to cultivate that kind of rapport in a group class.]

Not much going on practice-wise. Thanksgiving drives me into maintenance mode. If I avoid full on gluttony, I feel like that's my asteya for the month. It's a time for harmless play, minor investigations. For instance: a brief meditation on my feet.

They are the base of standing poses, the final expression of my legs in seated poses. They are bones, muscles and tendons, encased in skin and toenails of which I take haphazard care. When over-pointed, they cramp. When over-flexed, they lock my knees. So, I'll "foint." It goes by many names, "barbie foot" "yoga point," but for my purposes, I prefer "foint." It sounds like a bodily function, and I'm a fan of the un-lady-like. It is the midway expression between the two more extreme foot positions: extend your foot and pull back your toes. It keeps the front of the leg engaged, and a slight tone in the calf muscle, but extends the hamstrings. Try it in a seated forward bend. I'm going to give it a go in inversions too.

Next: in praise of my finger-tips.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

From Anna: The teacher-less teacher

Your mention of Georg Feuerstein and "psycho-spiritual technology" reminds me of an amazing lecture with Robert Birnberg who calls yoga "psycho-chiro-respiratory re-parenting"... He believes that although a home practice is invaluable, self-education commendable, and self-love absolutely vital to our practice - every student needs a teacher and every teacher needs a teacher. Even if that teacher is someone you only see once every few years, they hold you accountable in a way you cannot hold yourself. Birnberg's article on the teacher-less teacher is interesting and worth the 7 minute read. (There are some bits that aren't applicable because he specializes in Yoga for Addiction and Compulsive behaviors and at times, you can tell that it's written from that perspective).

As for the spiel of your previous post, what an eloquent clobbering. Truly. Your viewpoints are clear, justified and passionately articulated. I have nothing to dispute, no bones to pick. Admittedly, I'm not quite as fired up about it as you are, but if you start a revolution, I'd be happy to join. I'll even bring snacks.

We won't be able to take down the corporate octopus with hungry tummies....

Monday, November 16, 2009

From Liz: Compromise Tastes Like Vanilla.

Oh, sensible woman. I can feel the breeze from your wagging finger at a distance of 300 miles.

And I know, I know... I feel so torn at times about all of this stuff. At the end of the day, it simply feels like a case of "compromise makes no one happy." These American hybrids often amount to patchwork sadhanas designed to offend no one, and sell to all. You're right that on the face of it, YWorks is not "fitness yoga." But when you vacate the practice of all but the asana, and allow just any old shlub (meaning me) to teach a class, what are you left with? Basically a fitness-oriented, surface endeavor. I suppose that is what really leaves a bad taste in my mouth--the suspicion that yoga is being anesthetized and beautified for general public consumption. A complicity with American piety ("don't make them chant, Jesus gets annoyed.") that panders to the Church crowd for the sake of their fiscal fidelity. [I should disclose: the whole complicity thing brings my own religious baggage into play, so I am not an unbiased snark.] It's yoga that simply reinforces that status quo rather than radically undoing it, unseating our tamasic subsistence.

[another side bar: I know that you have had a different experience of this than I have. Your experience is somewhat exceptional. And my own analysis is replete with hypocrisies and ingratitudes, but I have to take some kind of stance, right?]

Basically, the glut of teacher training factories has put me over the edge. People are learning just enough to be dangerous. New teachers casually fling pranayama into a sequence like it's garnish. Or they will off-handedly mention moola-bandha like it's an optional side-dish. But worse than that, they will push new students into poses that are simply beyond them because they are teaching classes so overflowing that they cannot possibly anticipate everyone's needs.

So here, I suppose, is where we come together on this issue. YWorks does an excellent job of stemming the tide of injuries (read: "lawsuits"). The list of do-nots is a three inch booklet. Another thing that I will give to the institution, is that in pursuit of safety, they teach a certain stillness, and subtlety. At least the more Iyengar inclined teachers do (as is the case in NYC). YWorks will train the fidgets right out of you. I have to respect that. I came out of the program stronger, and with a respectable literacy in yogic texts/themes. But at the end of the day, it was a sturdy, liberal arts education. I'm missing an advanced degree.

And I should also point out, this vanilla-zation has not democratized the practice. It is still expensive and time consuming. Studios cluster in wealthy neighborhoods, or simply refuse to offer drop-in classes, forcing people to buy costly class cards. When I was teaching in gyms, and would encourage people to attend at studios, I would invariably hear, "it's just too expensive." Gym memberships offer way more bang for the buck. So we made do with our crappy equipment and tried to ignore the 'roid-heads leering through the glass.
So, you're right, I shouldn't conflate "'fitness-oriented power yoga' brand and the 'protect the risk factors' practice" but they come together in weird ways, all ensnared by the tentacles of the corporate octopus.

Georg Feuerstein refers to yoga as a "psycho-spiritual technology." He certainly isn't the first to use the term, but his book was the first time I really noticed it. YWorks, and some of its senior teachers, gave me view of the framework. I suppose I just assumed (I know, I know "ass out of you and me...") that they would help me to fill it in a bit more.

Maybe I'm blame-shifting though. After all, it is my practice.

Friday, November 13, 2009

From Anna: Couch-asana, the pose of champions

I apologize for a delayed response. I've had a nasty case of the flu which knocked the wind out of me, (more on that later), and am only now rounding my first bend.

I understand where you're coming from and I'm thrilled that striking out on your own has been both empowering and invigorating. However, I was struck by the clumping together of the 'fitness-oriented power yoga' brand and the 'protect the risk factors' practice. In my experience those two realms have been quite separate. In fact, it's been the studios and teachers with experience and integrity that have urged me to protect my body as I practice. Now that I think of it, another common thread (for the most part) is an Ashtanga background... which is more than just a little bit interesting....

For the sake of this discussion, I'm going to set aside the corporate yoga controversy (although it's a great topic! ) and jump into the risk factor discussion. I think that when having any conversation about risk factors it's important to remember that you and I are not the intended target of the caution. We are trained and conditioned to listen to our bodies and know how far is too far. But it's a whole 'nother bag of veggie chips for the inexperienced yoga student, looking around the room at what their neighbors are doing and essentially - making shapes with the body. I enthusiastically endorse your own windmill-chasing practice but I think that this is an excellent example of looking at what we prioritize in our own practice vs. how and what we teach. I'm sure you'd agree that one of our responsibilities as a teacher is to keep our students safe, in every sense of the word. Writing this post, I am realizing that more so than ever before, I'm in that mind-set because I am teaching so many beginners classes, as well as prenatal - where the safety issue is paramount. Perhaps if I was teaching fewer classes, or more advanced students, I'd feel differently.

Thank you, by the way, for the shoulder/Chaturanga explanation you offered. I think you're right about the mechanics of jumping back and the discrepancy between it being a stand alone pose vs. a transition.

As for the flu, this one has been a doozie. For 4 days I couldn't even bring myself to sprawl out on a bolster, but by Day 5 my body was craving some yoga. Forward bending proved too much for my congestion but Supta Baddha Konasana, Viparita Karani, and some other restoratives created a welcome opening in my chest. It still might be a few days before I attempt much more than that and when I do I'll focus on boosting the immune system with backbends and inversions.

This evening though, I am gearing up for some good old couch-asana. Risk factors: posture and media consumption. Benefits: debatable.

Monday, November 9, 2009

From Liz: Born Again in the Blood of Ashtanga.

First off, it tickles me that you just called me an "ashtangi." Even I hadn't said it out loud yet. This is a whole other tangent, but I'm not sure at what point you can really appropriate that term. I mean, I've never even been to a true shala (though I'm practically living in the cyber-shala), I hold no pedigree. But I guess in spite of my mutt-ly orginis, I'm settling into this [false] identification. I'm a renegade practitioner of an already renegade practice.

As for the chaturanga question: I think that it gets down to a matter of intention with this pose. In Iyengar yoga, it is a stand-alone asana. In Ashtanga, it is a transition, a part of a flowing vinyasa. The in-between, the YWorks variation, performs that sun salute/vinyasa in a very slow, steady fashion. Though you are jumping back, it is a jump-back with a pause; you sort of stick the landing. So, in order to protect your shoulders, etc, you keep a 90 degree angle at the elbow. In Ashtanga, there is a lot more juice and rebound to the action; you spring through the vinyasa with bandhas engaged (which is protective, if you do it consistently and assertively). I could be fooling myself, but it honestly feels perfectly safe.

Also, personally, the tendency to dip my own shoulders forward come from the action of picking up from a seated position to jump-back. For those of us with less core/shoulder/arm and upper-back strength, you need to use simple physics to propel you legs and tush to the back of the mat. That means that while you coil up through the mid-section, you also have to nose-dive a bit to get the height to clear your legs. If you try to keep your chest as forward and level as you do at YWorks, you won't get very far. At least, I wouldn't.

All of this YWorks chat has actually brought up an interesting (and sort of catty) series of thoughts for me. Did you see this article? I have complained to you about this before. Here it is again though. I'm glad for the teacher training that I had at YWorks. I appreciate the teachers who put up with my crunchy self-indulgence, and made my practice more honest. But I have to wonder if this corporate structure hasn't somewhat diluted the yoga. Since leaving the fold, I've been on a quest for inspiration and definition. I hit a wall with the power-yoga, fitness-oriented, "protect the risk factors" brand of practice. Am I being a snotty ingrate? Perhaps. But it's nice to feel like a true believer again. I'm loathe to claim religious affiliation, but I'm a born-again Yogini since striking out on my own.

Friday, November 6, 2009

From Anna: How low should you go?

Wow. That clip is pretty remarkable. If Pattabhi Jois' presence translates that clearly through a clip on youtube, I can't even imagine what it would like to actually be in a room with him.... Even if you close your eyes and just listen, the rhythmic nature of his voice combined with the breath in the room is enough to truly transport you. However, when I opened my eyes and saw how low their chaturanga's were, I was in disbelief. It may be the YogaWorks method deeply ingrained in me - 'protect the risk factors!' - but I was wincing just a bit.

(Interesting sidenote: according to the comments posted below the video, Maty Ezraty and Chuck Miller are two of the students in the workshop! Kind of ironic considering their role as Yogawork's co-founders... )

Anyhow, we all know that shoulder vulnerability in Chaturanga Dandasana is widely debated in the yoga community and for good reason. Watching this clip, I don't doubt that every leg is activated and every sternum moving forward - but why must they go sooooo low? Perhaps as an Ashtangi you can shed some light?....

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

From Liz: Enjoying the Sights.

Funny, this sounds a lot like "do your practice and all is coming." ;-)

And I agree. Sometimes I get really caught up in the outer aspect of a pose, commodifying the end product for my own consumption. But reading your post reminded me to be truly interested in the process; the pose is not a fixed object, but a forever unfolding and fractal experience. The series offers me direction, but only as a framework, the poses are not cages, but springboards for discovery. (Do I sound a bit like a yoga bumper sticker machine?) You know that moment when the pose sort of clicks? Like, "oh yeah, there's trikonasana." It's smug. And ultimately, it's a snake eating its own tail moment: noticing my alignment means that I'm away from the breath, dristhi, "dharana-ness" of the practice. This self-satisfaction is short-lived, because I'm not practicing for the sake of trikonasana (or say, something more virtuosic, to show off like a party trick, in place of lampshade wearing... not that I haven't been guilty of both.).

In a vinyasa sequence, such as the one that I follow, it's easy to just slide from one asana to the next, like each is only a step towards savasana. But I need to stop and see the sights along the way, or I'll get bored with this song and dance. It's like they say about raising kids, that you should "enjoy it now, it goes really fast." You get so caught up in day to day survival mode that you lose sight of the sweetness of each moment. The next thing you know, you have an ornery teenager who won't let you kiss him in public. Terrible Toddler got his head stuck in the wine rack today (don't ask) and I just laughed and thought, "guess this is one of the sights I should enjoy along the way."

In his dvds, Richard Freeman reminds us that "ultimately, this is a breathing exercise." It sounds like an off-hand remark, but it's kind of like footnoting a brief sermon with, you know... the entire Bible. Which reminds me of watching this clip.

Listening to the breath in the room made me cry. Does that make me a big cornball?

Monday, November 2, 2009

From Anna: A Watched Hamstring Never Opens

Ahhhh, the "curse" of the bendy body. Cry me a river. While I know that flexibility is a double-edged sword, for those of us with unyielding joints, it's hard to fully grasp the hindrance. The idea of your shoulders being something you can push through and sit into is both foreign and fascinating to me. I am picturing you in all of your blonde, leggy glory - flinging your body through the gateway of your arms in the manner of Red Rover.... It's quite an image to say the least.

As you well know, I am built in exactly the opposite way that you are. I am naturally strong but very tight - particularly in my hips and shoulders. (Thanks genetics!) After years of yoga I am finally starting to see teeny tiny steps towards opening, but for the most part, I'm still tight. Unsurprisingly, I tend to rely on my strength, all the while saying a little prayer that I'll wake up one day and my hips will have magically opened!

Early on in my practice, one of my teachers quoted Mr. Iyengar as saying that the first seven years that you practice yoga, you are opening up the hamstrings to prepare for the asana practice. (Interestingly enough, my google searches are not yielding results to confirm this quote so it may not check out.) Regardless, it's been burned into my brain ever since. You would think that this time frame would depress me. That the idea of something taking seven years to happen would leave me disheartened and weary. But it did just the opposite: it freed me from the daily waiting around.

If you took a phone book and tore one page out at a time, you would notice zero difference in the day to day. But over time, the phone book would start to dwindle in size. I think of this analogy often and know that each time I practice, it's one page in the phone book. Sure I have momentary lapses of impatience, for instance, seeing people in hanumanasana, a pose that seems like it was designed for another species. But for the most part, I try not to fret.

It isn't as though being able to bring my hands into reverse namaste would allow enlightment to ensue.... but then again, because of my tight shoulders, I couldn't say for sure....