Sri K Pattabhi Jois said, "Yoga is 99 percent practice, one percent theory." This blog is a resource to explore the one percent theory and to inspire you on the mat.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Great Courage, Mighty Enthusiasm, and Full Strength

Happy New Year!! I have a new blog If you would like to continue to follow my blog you can subscribe to it on the new site. I hope you have a wonderful holiday and I'll see you in 2011!!

During my 20 plus years of Yoga study, I have had the joy and challenge of practicing under a great variety of circumstances. I used to practice religiously outside in Chautauqua Park, Boulder Colorado in the icy winter, pre dawn darkness wearing full winter clothes including hat and mittens. On the other hand in Mysore, I had my 'spot' in the back right corner of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois's original shala, the spot where I showed up every day for an entire year to learn the 3rd series. And more recently I had magical, centering experiences practicing in temples in Southern India while shooting my primary series DVD. In this week's post I want to tell you about the unlikely, ghetto style spot where I currently do my daily Yoga practice and how I've come to so highly value that unsavory spot.
I live in a slumlord managed, falling apart Philadelphia brownstone row home. I have three house mates, two cats and our two main living rooms are crammed full of recording and musical gear. My living situation lacks space. In fact there isn't a consistent spot in any of the rooms to lay down my mat for practice. However if I time it right, there is one spot in the entry to the house just inside the front door, the thin carpeted floor is far from clean, there is precisely enough space for my mat between the door, two crumbling walls immediately on either side and a vent on the floor in front. I have to practice in the very early morning hours before dawn-- enforced Brahma Muhurta practice time!- ( between 3 and 6am --the most auspicious time of day to take practice)!! At that time everyone else is asleep and the chances of traffic needing to tramp across my yoga mat is reduced.
When I do seated postures in this cosmically designated, exclusive spot, my gaze naturally falls along the back wall of a vintage piece of recording gear that sits there. Down near the base of this large wooden box is an old bumper sticker that reads: When All We Ever Wanted Was To Learn, Love, and Grow. My attention has been rather forced on this little sticker, and my mind has begun to ponder it, to puzzle through it, and chew on it with zen 'koan' like curiosity. I see it as I would a dream, a coded message from my inner depths to my ego, the small self who frequently likes to go 'negative' in response to all manner of experience.
Scores of unknown brilliant people with talent and creativity have succumbed to some form of negativity within themselves only to turn away from or misdirect their inner gifts, to give up or quit. Jack Kerouac had this to say in his legendary novel The Dharma Bums: "I was very devout in those days and was practicing my religious devotions almost to perfection. Since then I've become a little hypocritical about my lip service and a little tired and cynical. Because now I am grown so old and neutral…..But then I really believed in the reality of charity and kindness and humility and zeal and neutral tranquility and wisdom and ecstasy, and I believed that I was an old time bhikku in modern clothes wandering the world…".
This is a sad and tragic statement, a statement that could be coming from any of us. We can become tired, 'grown so old and neutral' and lethally cynical. There is so much about our lives that can bring us down, give us reason to become bitter, to give up and stop trying to create and grow and transform, to say a fundamental NO to cosmic Goodness, to Wisdom, to ecstasy, to the symbolic life within us where the Sacred is created and brought to the light of consciousness.
Like Kerouac I remember a younger more innocent time in my life. A time when being positive came more naturally, I had more youthful exuberance, more joie de vivre, and more unquestioning optimism about my spiritual quest. It was before a jaded, at times surly voice entered the stage of my mind, a negative voice that can zap my resolve to respond with care and love to my experience. This tired attitude can cause me to complain and whine about people or things and give way to anger, apathy, judgement, envy, self doubt, pessimism or isolation.
This turning away from spirit, affirmation, and meaning can lead to perpetual negativity, to suicide, drug abuse, obesity, consumerism, apathy or paralyzing cynicism. Many of us are spiritually hiding either too jaded or afraid to seek depth and meaning within ourselves with enough passion to 'break through' and learn to share our visions with others. How many of us are working at things with our whole heart, working on creating and being part of something greater that we could all share and benefit from?

There are many people with their eyes open whose hearts are shut.
And what do they see?

This line from a Rumi poem points out that in order to open my heart I have to see beyond 'matter', beyond the rational, beyond the seeable and be able to translate my experience of matter into something personally meaningful to me. My outer experience must become symbolic to me, giving me signs and messages that point me to inner direction, spiritual direction. I practice Yoga to be able to continue to believe in those qualities Kerouac felt he had lost, qualities of 'charity and kindness and humility and zeal and neutral tranquility and wisdom and ecstasy'.
Each day's practice holds the key, gives me the renewed possibility for my full expression of 'living, loving and growing'. Practice is essential because often when challenging circumstances arise, even though I'm not directly conscious of it, all I see is 'matter', my heart closes and I'm not able to access it. That is why I need to be involved in 'sadhana' (spiritual practice) to open my other eyes and really see the heart and Spirit of things beyond matter. From the same poem a few lines later Rumi says:

If you are not one of those light filled lovers
(ie if you see only matter)
restrain your desire-body's intensity.
Put limits on how much you eat
and how long you lie down.
(ie do Yoga)

Presently my practice space sucks, it's cold, unkempt, cramped and it's available for only a limited time each day. But I love that spot; I cherish it when I'm alone and silent at 4am and able to practice. My effort, sweat, concentration, and surrender are the qualities that prevent me from giving in to negativity, to cynicism, doubt, lethargy and worse. I am reminded that it doesn't matter where I lay down my mat, it can be anywhere. Almost all variables are nullified when I make my start in Surya A. It doesn't matter that the floor is dirty or the walls are peeling or that I'll be interrupted by inner gremlins that have an aversion to concentration and breath.
Practicing Yoga causes me to continue to say YES to my real life, the life within, its inner meaning and how that meaning finds expression in outer forms, even when my habit patterns continue to tell me to say NO to my inner life. Yoga gives me the power to respond with more openness and love when I'm feeling like closing my heart.
When we've practiced Yoga for a significant period of time, time enough to be transformed from the inside out, there is a force that develops in us, a strength that causes us to want to keep making the effort to heal and transform ourselves, our relationships, and our world-- no matter what inner or outer circumstances we find ourselves in.
"The following qualities are found in the bodies of every Yogi: great courage, mighty enthusiasm, and full strength."---The Siva Samhita

Monday, December 6, 2010

Asana Kitchen: Dropping Back (PT 3)

Namaste! I'm pleased to offer Part 3 of The Asana Kitchen's drop back series. I encourage you to get out your mat, warm up your back and practice along with the video and instructions. This time I've also included written notes to supplement the video!
After this I'll have one more post before the New Year. Thank you for following my blog by watching my videos and reading my writings. I'm excited for another year of sharing Yoga with you all. If you have benefited from my blogs I'd appreciate you sharing them with your Yoga friends through any of the social media channels. I'm available as a resource to you and your Yoga community. I would love the opportunity to work with you in person. To invite me to teach at your studio, please send me your contact information and we'll make it happen! Be sure to check back for my last post of the year because I'm going out with bang...! Hari Om!! Jai Ma! Enjoy! David

Review of Alignment Principles for dropping back and coming up:

The arms vertically, actively reach up palms facing each other
Lift the upper spine upwards and curve it far forward into the body.
Move the sacrum forward into the body causing the hips to move forward. Resist the forward movement of the hips by grounding the thighbones, make the thighs powerfully firm and stabilize the legs.
As you start to go back reach up, out and over.
Continue to lift the chest and curve the upper spine up and forward into the body. Keep the legs straight and firm as long as you are able. The stronger and more flexible you are the less you'll ever have to bend your knees when you drop back.
As you drop back, touch down, stabilize the arms, land with as much control as possible, and then let the body sway slightly further in the direction it was already going. Use momentum to rock forward as you prepare the legs to support the weight of the spine. Keep the head back, keep your eyes fixed on a spot between the hands.
Lead with your chest, try to lift and curve the spine creating the exact same action that helped you drop back. Project your spine and hips forward until you feel your legs underneath you supporting your curving spine and head. Keep your head back until the very end finally bringing the head up when you are standing upright.

*Use the wall or other props as is necessary to create a healthy, sustainable step by step progression for learning to utilize the alignment principles.
*Don't go for 'too much too soon'. The true enjoyment and benefit comes from flowing with the dynamic, rhythmic play safely within the limits of your body. Not in reaching an end goal. Use your alignment knowledge to know where your particular edge is.
*Be patient allow several months or however long it takes for the proper knowledge and body intelligence to come to you in order to master this life affirming, dynamic move.

***Note about the pelvis as you set up to drop back: rotate the pelvis in a slight backward tilt (like a gentle tuck, but not a tuck that flexes the lumbar spine)
achieve the feeling of this backward rotation by imagining the pelvis as the paddle wheel of a mississippi steamboat. (the axle passes through the hip joints). Imagine the paddle wheel turns in a counter clockwise direction, moves up and over from front to back.
*****Also note lengthening the coccyx means cultivating a sense that your vestigial tail is actually a real tail with length and weight. Imagine that you have a tail like a monkey or a great cat, a tail that has weight and dangles down behind or between your legs. Let this feeling of having a tail ' drag' the back of the pelvis downwards towards the earth. This action helps awaken uddhyana and mula bandha's.

Additional Notes

Focus on the drop back first as a way of getting started. Dropping back is generally easier than coming up.

First get ready action, for the significant play of forces you are about to set in motion. Center your self as though you are about to surf, to catch and ride an ocean wave, it's THAT kind of readiness--poised ready to respond, to execute, and balance.

Go through your set up progression (see above) to ensure maximum opening of the chest and thus maximum participation of the upper spine and in order to optimize the use of your legs.

Clearly center yourself over your foundation even as your center of gravity shifts forward as you go back.

As you reach up and over make sure you take the head back and look for a spot on the wall, pad or ground, a spot between the hands that will help visually orient you to prepare you for landing.

There should be a tiny bit of give in your landing for softness but keep the arms straight.
If you let the elbows bend and give way to easily you'll increase the chances of bonking your head upon landing.

Once you have the feeling for dropping back, think about coming back up. Initially a fair amount of rhythm and momentum can provide you with the extra surge you need to come up.

In order to use momentum effectively you have to attempt to come back up utilizing the motion that was generated when you dropped back. When you drop back your body's weight will be going down and back towards the wall (even though you have lifted your spine up and forward in opposition to this) In order to come back up, you want to let the body continue in the direction it was already going for a little longer. Keep the arms straight and let the body move in the opposite direction than you want to go to come back up. This step is key to creating momentum to push off and come up. You drop back, touch down, let the body sway slightly further in the direction it was already going then prepare the legs to support the weight of the spine. Keep the head back, keep your eyes fixed on your spot between the hands.

Lead with your chest, try to lift and curve the spine creating the exact same action that helped you drop back. Project your spine and hips forward until you feel your legs underneath you supporting your curving spine and head. Keep your head back until the very end finally bringing the head up when you are standing upright.

1) use the wall:
A) as an effective, safe way to begin.
B) as a way to progress step by step while staying in control of some of the important alignment principles.
C) to help you work with your fear of dropping back.
D) to feel of the essential role of rhythm in learning to drop back and come up.
2) Use firm foam pads
(as shown in part's 2 and 3 of the series. the pad dimensions: 2" high 12" wide 24" long)
A) when you can drop back with wall and are able to get most of the way to the floor.
B) when you've become comfortable enough using the wall to skillfully and rhythmically drop back and come up with clear breathing
C) when you want to focus more on learning to come up.
D) when you can drop back and come up from the floor but want to refine specific points and work with aligning the legs or get the feeling of keeping the heels more grounded.
E) when you want to use less momentum to come up.
F) when you want to soften your drop back landing.


*Contemplate the role of the earth and the importance of feeling grounded when working on drop backs
*Find the earth through the legs and then trust the earth! Trust the legs!
*consciously lower your center of gravity so that you feel physically closer to the earth.
*work with imagery to enhance the stability of the legs in your posture. Imagine that the feet and legs have thrust up through the earth similiar an outcropping, an island that has thrust up from the ocean bottom.
*learn to lift and curve the spine forward into the torso in order to use the support of the legs to center your self and control your speed dropping back and coming up.
*use momentum and rhythm to invite the entire body to participate dynamically in dropping back and coming up.
*co-ordinate the rhythm of the breath with sweeping rhythm of the skeleton
* feel an ascending, uninterrupted curve through the length of the spine.

*gaze over and down at a spot on the ground between your hands leading with the eyes on the way down and allowing the eyes to follow on the way up.
*proceed confidently, knowing that you will be able to execute the move. Hesitation causes you to interrupt the rhythm and gives you the message to close the chest and not to rely on the foundation of the posture.

To purchase pads go to the Friendly Foam shop
You need 24"L x 24"W x 2"H If you mention you need a yoga prop, with those dimensions, and say you want the firmest kind of foam they will understand.