Asana, Pranayama, and Yoga Practice

Discussion of physical aspects of yoga (on and off the mat)

Sankalpa (Intention)

In the tradition of our culture’s “new year’s resolution” I like to practice yoga nidra at this time of year to help establish a new sankalpa or intention.  A sankalpa is different from a new year’s resolution.  It is short, affirming, and is both in the present and forward-looking.

Usually it takes a couple of weeks for me to be certain of what sankalpa is right for me to work with for a period of months.  One year, I had been very sick for the entire fall and early winter, so it was easy to choose “I am healthy.”  For the past two years, as I struggled with my place this time of war and societal struggle and thought about my own role in creating and avoiding conflict, I chose the sankalpa “I will come from the light in all I do” (“light” for me meaning an inner place of peace, compassion and spaciousness).

In the past several months, mostly due to having thoroughly enjoyed creating meals from the garden and the farmers’ market, I am a little heavier than works with the clothing I own and my sense of comfort with my body image.  Instead of having a new year’s resolution to lose five pounds, which would likely fail, I am working with the sankalpa “I love and respect my body.”  The former buys into societal expectations of what my body should look like, imposes mental will over my body, and reinforces a mindset of negative judgment and denial.  The latter is joyous and affirming.  I believe that if I truly love and respect my body, I will eat in a way that is healthy for my body and the earth.  I will either lose the few pounds or be more accepting of my body as it is.  This sankalpa thus gives me much to contemplate in terms of my relationship to the mirror, my clothes, my asana practice, and my way of eating.  How much it gives me to contemplate expands if I think of the body extending beyond just my flesh and bones and physical appearance, but also to my energy body and all that I bring in through the senses.

What sankalpa would be transformative for you this year?  What would help you embody your sankalpa (other than, of course, establishing a regular yoga nidra practice — see yoga nidra resources).

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Yoga Nidra Resources

The practice of yoga nidra is a wonderful way to deepen the connection between the full range of consciousness and your physical body.  It is enjoyable and helpful to practice it on an occasional basis — we did it for the last class of the session in the Willow Street gentle/therapeutics class and you all are welcome to come to the New Year’s Yoga Nidra workshop on Sunday, January 4th — but it can be even more productive as a regular weekly practice.

Here are some good resources if you have found yoga nidra helpful and want to find out more about it and establish a home practice:

To read more about yoga nidra, I recommend the following books, both of which I believe are available at Willow Street Yoga Center.

  • Yoga Nidra, Swami Satyandanda Saraswati, Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, India, Bihar School of Yoga (1988)
  • Yoga Nidra, The Meditative Heart of Yoga, Richard Miller, PhD, Integrated CD Learning, Sounds True, Inc. (2005) [this comes with a CD]

These CD’s lead you through yoga nidra practices of various lengths and emphasis:

  • Experience Yoga Nidra — Guided Deep Relaxation, Swami Janakananda, www.skand-yoga.org [my favorite — maybe it is the soothing tones of an Indian swami speaking English with a Swedith inflection]
  • Yoga Nidra with Robin Carnes, Robin Carnes leads a yoga nidra class at Willow Street Yoga Center.
  • Moving Into the Garden of Your Heart, Betsy Downing, Ph.D [Betsy Downing, the “grandame of Anusara” will be at Willow Street Yoga in January 2009]
  • Relax Into Greatness with the Treasure of Yoga Nidra, Rod Stryker [Rod Stryker is an exceptional master and leader of tantric yoga practices, such as yoga nidra, and I highly recommend his meditation CDs and his workshops. This is an older CD, and I sometimes find that the body scan is a little fast for my comfort].
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Four Cats

Between Christmas Eve and Christmas dinner I spent time with four cats in four different households.  One is the cat who lives with me — Becky, who has been with me since she and her sister Henrietta were just under five weeks old.  Becky will be 21 years old in April.  Becky likes to be near me, but prefers to just sit still on my lap and be petted very gently.  She still goes up and down pretty steep steps several times a day, but she needs a cushion next to the bed and a low coffee table next to her favorite sofa to be able to climb up to her favorite sleeping places.  She is very affectionate.  When I have guests, she always comes out to greet them.

On Christmas Eve, I went to a party at a neighbors’ house.  There were lots of children running around, tumbling with each other; those who were not in the play basement climbed on adults and furniture, filling the house with energy.  After most of the children went home (departing early in bright-eyed anticipation of Christmas morning), Tabitha, who is about 13 came downstairs to visit.  She checked out most of the people in the room and jumped up and down off of the sofas several times before picking my lap for a nice petting.  Although she is still is solidly, physically able, she has slowed down since I first met her 8-10 years ago.

At lunch on Christmas Day, Sunshine, who is about three, sat in my lap, wildly draping herself into fabulous contortions as she was petted.  She lives with two elderly huskies.  She was feeling spunky because one of them just had a major operation, and she was feeling safer and more confident, being far the nimblest of the three animals.  She even played with her feathery thing on a string toy right in front of the huskies, neither of whom had the energy to disrupt her play.  She engaged in some tolerably strenuous antics, but only for a short while before she got bored and took herself off for a bath.

The cat guest at Christmas dinner was seven-week old kitten Toulouse.  She does not walk.  She bounces.  She likes to dance around on her hind legs.  She has figured out that if she gets a running start, she can leap onto, instead of clambering up, the sofa that is about five times her height.  She played the whole time before dinner and then after dinner played madly with any hand, string, dust mote, rumpled up piece of wrapping paper, computer cord, shoelace, shadow, rug corner, pants leg, cat toy, etc, etc, that flitted across her vision.  Like the children, she is still building her strength and flexibility and discovering how to get around and where she can go.

Watching those cats made me think of my continuing coming to terms with the range of my asana practice.  I often practice with a group of yogis who are, for the most part, 10-20 years younger than I am.  They are beautiful and flexible and strong and a joy to witness.  Sometimes when I am practicing with them and I am feeling the aches and pains of an aging spine, it is hard for me stay at peace with the fact although I have a fairly strong physical practice, I cannot have the same one that I would have had if I were working from my level of competence and was 15 years younger.  Even when we stay physically engaged throughout life, the realities of aging will change our way of being in the body.  Just as it was a delight to sit with all four cats at such different places in their lives and observe their grace, we will age more peacefully if instead of fighting always to have the physical state of youth, we celebrate what enhances our feeling of well-being wherever we are in life.  And regardless of previous practice or physical fitness, a steady asana practice at every age, like the play of a cat, can help keep us more vital.

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Playlist for Hanumanasana Workshop

Many thanks to all who came out, got deep into their practice, and gave support to the Seva Foundation and the Willow Street kula.  Per T’s request, here’s the playlist for the workshop:

Mountain Chalisa, Krishna Das, Pilgrim Heart

Sita Ram, Jai Uttal, Kirtan

Sri Ram, Shantala, Sri

Veerapuram Dham, Hanuman Foundation, Songs in Praise of Hanuman

Shri Ram, Jai Ram, Dave Stringer, Japa

Rock on Hanuman, MC Yogi, Elephant Power

Hanuman Chalisa, Bhagavan Das, Now

Good Ole Chalisa, Krishna Das, Flow of Grace

Anjani Putra, Hanuman Foundation, Songs in Praise of Hanuman

Enjoy!

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Hanuman — Adamantine

When I prepare to teach a workshop, I usually do a fair amount of background reading in addition to preparing the asana practice and contemplating the theme.  Right now, I am getting ready to teach a workshop on the hidden powers of hanumanasana (See Workshops page for more info).  A few weeks ago, I came across a tattered 1987 edition of an Indian publication of the Ramayana by Chakravarti Rajagopalachari. I was planning to read other works about Hanuman, but thought that I must be meant to read this one.

It is an interesting little book.  Chakravarti, also known as “Rajaji” was the first Indian governor-general of India and a close compatriot of Gandhi.  The work is interesting from a historical perspective.  It was first published in 1951 in Tamil and then translated from Tamil into English.  The purpose of the work was to make the Ramayana accessible to those who were not educated in Sanskrit and philosophy.  Although purportedly for children, it obviously had appeal for a wider audience (the 1987 edition I found was the 25th).  Rather than a translation, it is a retelling of the story, filled with homilies and somewhat paternalistic commentaries. Although because it is faithful to the story it still has the relentless sexism of the original, Rajaji does tell his readers in his commentary that the commonly held belief (supported by the language of the Ramayana, which is regarded as a religious text) that a woman has sinned or is shamed if “a villain behaves like a brute” to her is just wrong.

What was most interesting to me about this particular telling of the Ramayana, aside from its historical and social context, was how it resonated with my Anusara studies.  When Hanuman first battles the demons, Rajaji says the demons “showered missiles on him which mostly glanced harmlessly off his adamantine frame.”  Rajaji uses the word “adamantine” to describe Hanuman elsewhere in the work. Here, Hanuman is adamantine because his devotion and steadiness make an energetically impermeable boundary.  Hanuman is able to love deeply and to engage in battle fully, but is protected from the inside out by his practice and his devotion.  John Friend speaks often of using one’s practice to become “adamantine.”  He suggests that the practice of opening to grace, and then pulsing a perfect balance between drawing in and reaching out energetically (muscular and organic energy), gives us an adamantine core that enables us to be open to a full range of experience without being harmed by negative things.  I have experience myself from six steady years of Anusara practice, how the principles can indeed help me be open, while keeping negative energy from invading my space.

A used copy of this edition would likely have been around when John Friend was traveling in India when he first went to the Siddha yoga ashram.  Did reading this particular edition lead him to use the word “adamantine” in the context of his teaching of the energetics of asana?  I do not have an answer to that question, nor should I conjecture.  What I do know, is that regardless of how I feel about some of the exterior social influences and teachings of the great Indian texts (think how I might feel about the Spanish Inquisition as it relates to the Bible), there is much to learn about meditation, yoga practice, and personal integrity interwoven in the stories.

Other readings:

The Concise Ramayana of Valmiki by Swami Venkatesananda (much more scholarly — the translation you would read if you were taking a university course, but didn’t know Sanskrit)

The Ramayana retold by William Buck — easy to read; like reading a novel-length fairy tale rendition for adolescents (changes the ending to make what happens to Sita more palatable)

The Ramayana — A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic by Ramesh Menon.  Great novel.  Cannot recommend highly enough, but probably won’t resonate as much unless you are familiar with the Ramayana and other Indian epics and philosophy.

The Monkey Grammarian by Octavio Paz, trans. from the Spanish by Helen Lane.  From the back cover:  “Hanuman, the red-faced monkey chief and ninth grammarian of Hindu mythology, is the protagonist of this dazzling prose poem — a mind journey into the temple city of Galta and the occasion … to explore the nature of naming and knowing, time and reality, and fixity and decay.”

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Music for Asana Practice

Yesterday the mysterious beeping was beeping again in Studio 1B.  I have all sorts of approaches to teaching with the beeping.  One of them is to switch the attention of the ears to music.  We flowed to Now by Bhagavan Das (because it was already in the CD player and I like it well enough) and listened to selections from Love Reigns by Diana Rogers during final relaxation.  Monty asked me after class to give a list of some good music for home practice.  Here are some of my favorite “yoga” cds in no particular order:

Krishna Das — Live on Earth; Faith of the Heart

Wah! — Hidden in the Name; Jai, Jai, Jai

Jai Uttal — Kirtan (this double CD also has a useful spoken background piece on what is kirtan)

Deva Premal — Love is Space; The Embrace

Ragani — Best of Both Worlds

Dave Stringer — Mala; Japa; Divas and Devis

Shantala — Sri; The Love Window

Many of these are available at the Willow Street Yoga Center shops.  Most should be available on-line directly from the artists.  Dave Stringer also has other music available for download.  The rest can be obtained from Amazon.  Also great listening is Invocation, which was put together by Ty Burhow.  It is a collection of different artists offering versions of the Anusara invocation.  Willow Street work studies are raving about MC Yogi’s Elephant Power, which is rap music telling the stories of various deities — funny and delightful.

Mostly, I prefer to teach and practice without music, but I was a dancer and find music helps to lead me into heart and body simultaneously.  I find bringing music into a practice session especially helpful when I am having trouble getting settled on my mat.   I do not just play “yoga” music, but play whatever gets me into the spirit of play or relaxation and contemplation as I am moved.  My bias is towards chamber music (especially Bach) and Indian classical music for a late evening quiet practice and for an upbeat daytime practice anything that would go with being outside on a grassy field on a bright sunny day with frisbee players around.  Alice Coltrane is also wonderful if you haven’t discovered yet her discography.

Play what enhances rather than what distracts.  Also, check out the artists when they come to town:  Wah!, Dave Stringer, and Shantala (Heather and Benji Wertheimer) all come to town.  Enjoy!

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Putting the Garden to Bed Sun Salute

Yesterday (latest in the season ever — see interesting articles in the New York Times last month about Thoreau as a climatologist) I spent the morning bringing all my tropical plants inside.  Part of the reason it was later is that I have learned that the orchids and night-blooming cyrius like nights in the low 40s and can tolerate the occasional single night in the high 30s, but most of it is that it is a warmer season than any in the decade I’ve had a significant number of tropical plants.  I also bring inside the lemongrass and lemon verbena (annuals here; perennials where they are native).  I also like to bring in rosemary in a container.  Also, what were once small plants in growers pots are now a huge jasmine and a bay tree.  When I bring all of this inside in the winter, I transform the house into a retreat.  When I bring it all outside in the early spring, my tiny yard is full and lush before the annuals start flourishing.

Once the tropicals were all inside, I cleaned up, tended the beds and containers, and strew some more winter kale and baby spinach seeds (no frost in the forecast for the next 15 days — so I could have new kale and spinach through December; also, some of the seeds will wait and be the early ones that come up during that warm week we always have in February).

Putting the garden to bed has a sweetness to it.  I prepare for next year, but also engage in tending what will flourish best when the days are coldest and shortest.  It is a going inside, knowing that there is a need to go inside and let some things be dormant in order to flourish fully when the sun is bright and hot and calls me outside.

This type of gardening is stressful for the lower back, hips, and shoulders.  Throughout the hours I am gardening,  I like to engage my alignment by intermittently doing some poses, strongly integrating my shoulders, hips, and core:  working strong “shins in/thighs out” I practice uttanasana (standing forward fold), utkatasana (chair pose), and adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog), and maybe even handstand.  It is critical to make sure not just to bend from the knees, but also to make sure you have a good lumbar curve and your tailbone is tucked, when picking up containers or other heavy objects.

At the end of several hours of gardening (bringing the tropicals inside also entails vaccuuming), I need to realign, stretch, and reintegrate, but I’m tired.  I also want to practice in a way that honors and celebrates the sweet inward nature of the work I have just done.  This is what works well for me:

1.  Seated foot massage.

2. Balasana (child’s posture) with arms stretched out, palms, forearms, and armpits lifted.  Inhaling lift underside of arms to strenthen, exhaling soften between shoulder blades to integrate.

2. Chakra vakrasana (cat/cow breathing).

3. (putting the garden to bed sun salute):  Table pose (if you make sure you have good lumbar curve, table is one of the best postures for making sure hips, back, and shoulders are aligned well); Downward facing dog (play in the pose to integrate and stretch the legs and arms and strengthen your core); Palakasana (plank);Table pose; Balasana;Table.

Repeat the series several times.  Add in lunges (coming into the lunges from table).  Add in twists from table, threading one arm through and coming down onto that shoulder).  Add in pigeon pose (with a forward bend).

4. End with legs up the wall, a supported or seated forward bend or two, and savasana.

Enjoy how this practice nourishes and realigns, but generally draws the attention inside, getting you ready to enjoy the inside while waiting for the next growing season.

E

ps While I was practicing, I had a big vat of tomato sauce cooking from the last (perhaps second to last) harvest of cooking tomatoes.

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