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So far sandy has created 8 blog entries.
Trvi Kramasana, Split Handstand, Hanumanasana
Vajrasana w/ Anjali Mudra
High vajrasana (on shins)/Balasana
Cat pose variation – cat alternating high vajrasana/balasana & downward dog
DD/pigeon lunge/basic lunge
Pigeon lunge w/ thigh stretch variations
Sun salutations w/ jumps (3 to 6)
Easy revolved side angle w/ arm circles
½ splits/ ½ virasana
3-leg dog at wall
Uttanasana variation – crossed arms folded to clap behind opp knees
Reverse warrior/ardha chandrasana w/ variation/standing splits/ warrior 1
Prasarita 2/ shoulder stretch
Uttanasana/ardha uttanasana/malasana/ ½ pasasana
Bird of paradise
½ supta virasana/ ½ supta padangusthasana
Supta trivi kramasana
Parvrtta triang mukhai pascimottonasana
Compass pose (seated koundinyasana)
Anjayasana w/ thigh stretches
Hanumansana w/ forward bending variations
Trvi kramasana – hold heel, reach overhead w/ opp arm for foot
Gomukhasana forward bend and/or fire logs
I turned 50 on Easter Sunday, and it felt like a real milestone. Not one to get hung up on age, my birthday only worries me if I’m not happy with where my life is when it rolls around each April. This past year has been too busy to take much time for reflection, but I have experienced it as a time of growth, and am grateful to be where I am. I took a vacation week to embrace the rebirth symbolism of my birthday coinciding with Easter (something I can’t remember happening before), celebrate my life, and spend some time with myself.
On Thursday, as my vacation week was winding toward its end, my friend Gerry and I drove down to Big Basin to spend the day hiking. I had always heard how spectacular the trails there are, and it was a gift to be able to make a day of it. Gerry had both run and hiked in the vast park and knew a good route that would take us through the old growth redwood forests and past three waterfalls. In the morning we packed a picnic and some water, and hit the road. It takes about an hour and forty minutes to get to the area we wanted to hike from, but even the drive was beautiful.
A day spent in nature is incredibly renewing, and it was a perfect way to spend one of my birthday week days. It was one of the loveliest trails I’ve ever hiked, and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. But six hours is a long hike, and we both had tired feet and stiff ankles and knees by the end. We did some stretching in the parking lot before getting back in the car, and I did a bit more at home before bed (pigeon lunge is a post-hiking necessity), but I could still feel the hike in my body when I woke up the next morning. I hit the mat, craving my yoga practice to balance out the efforts of the previous day.
That morning’s practice was a pretty standard forward bend practice, with some flourishes to especially target the key areas affected by a long hike—feet, ankles, calves, knees, quads, hip rotators—and it was very effective. I felt renewed and joyous from the combination of a day of hiking followed by a long, luxurious practice the next day.
Hatha yoga is such a wonderful tool for taking care of our bodies, and I’m so grateful for it. While a hatha practice doesn’t necessarily end with the physical, it does start there, and the way it enhances my experience of existing in the physical realm is something I treasure. As I move into a new phase of this life, I’m very happy that I’m 50 in a body that’s been doing yoga for 25 years.
Practice Sequence: Post Hiking Forward Bends
adho mukha svanasana/downward dog pose
vinyasa: downward dog/lunge/three-leg dog
adho mukha eka pada raja kapotasana/pigeon lunge, w/ quad stretches
vajrasana/thunderbolt pose, w/ toes tucked under to stretch feet
garudasana/eagle pose/standing variation, to stretch shins & ankles
virabhadrasana 2/warrior 2
utthita trikonasana/triangle pose
prasarita padottonasana/wide leg standing forward bend
parsvottanasana/pyramid pose/one-sided standing forward bend
repeat prasarita, w/ shoulder stretches including Namaste hands
parivrtta trikonasana/revolved triangle pose
uttanasana/full standing forward bend
anjayanasana/full lunge w/ back knee down, plus quad stretch variations
supta virasana/reclined hero pose
sandasana/seated staff pose
gomukhasana/face of the cow pose
janu sirsasana/head to knee forward bend
krounchasana/parivrtta kraunchasana/baradvajasana 2—heron pose/revolved heron/seated twist w/ 1/2 lotus
triang mukhaipada paschimottanasana/three point forward bend
ardha baddha padma paschimottanasana/seated forward bend w/ 1/2 lotus
baddha konasana/bound angle forward bend
eka pada koundinyasana, seated version—by which I mean this:
upavista konasana/wide angle seated forward bend
baddha kurmasana/bound tortoise
eka pada sirsasana/reclined foot behind head (aka supta padangusthasana 4 variation)
eka pada sirsasana/seated foot behind head pose, upright & forward bending
paschimottanasana/pose for the west side of the body/full seated forward bend
parivrtta paschimottanasana/revolved seated forward bend
viparita karani (10 minutes)
seated meditation (5 minutes)
Yoga comprises numerous practices—both physical and mental. These can be reduced to two major categories: abhyasa and vairagya. Abhyasa is the repeated performance of exercises or techniques that are intended to produce a positive state of mind in us. Vairagya is the complementary practice of letting go of old behavior patterns or attachments. Abhyasa gradually reveals to us the deeper, hidden aspects of the mind, while vairagya moves us step by step beyond appearance and toward reality. — Georg Feuerstein
I’d say last week was a medium/good practice week. I view a week as most successful when I get up early and practice first thing each day, including at bit of pranayama and/or meditation before my Friday morning class… and days when my practice gets delayed or derailed altogether are hard on me, even when it’s for necessary reasons. And sometimes, of course, it’s just procrastination, old habits, resistance. It’s funny to think of my practice in terms of success, especially since, at another level, just the fact that I can and do practice yoga regularly fills me with awe and gratitude. But I’m also clear that my intention is to cultivate varaigya and abhyasa with my practice. I can practice asana any old time, but the consistency that I’m working on is much harder than any pose I’ve found myself in during my time on the mat. And it’s easy to measure my progress, since on any given morning, either I practice as intended—or I don’t.
Last week was a mix of days that worked, days that didn’t, and a few in-betweens. A fairly typical week in the life of my practice, actually.
My Monday morning practice gave me a great and promising start. Monday is the day where I try set myself up for the week with a practice grounded in the basics. That can mean sun salutations, standing poses, or inversions, or some combination of those elements. Since I was feeling a strong need for hip openers after a lot of walking and hiking over the weekend, I decided to add some work on padmasana (lotus pose) to an inversions practice. I did work up to lotus, opening fully enough to add it to my sirsasana and then doing it again in supported bridge pose (something that I learned fairly recently and still feel tickled to find myself in), and then finished with shoulderstand plus dropping back into bridge pose. I felt unbelievably good after this practice; I’ll post the sequence later this week for those who want to try it out. Afterwards I spent a productive day reading papers written by my class of apprentices in the Berkeley Yoga Room ‘s Advanced Studies Program about their own yoga practices. All and all, very satisfying, and I was feeling very optimistic about my week at the end of the day. And then…
Tuesday was one of those mornings. I really cannot sit down in my desk chair to look at my schedule and to-do list for the day and reasonably expect to get up again in time to practice. I really know this—my experience here is terribly consistent — but sometimes, especially when the list is feeling out of control, the lure is too strong for me to resist. Then I succumb to the self-deception that I’ll just return a couple of the most important calls, and/or at least organize my list and figure out what the top priorities for the day are, before I practice. That’s one of those lies I tell myself, just like “only one more chapter and then I’ll go to sleep for sure!” And I’ve improved —mostly I do manage to set those things aside for after my practice time. But not always, and not this day. As is typical, one task flowed into another until I needed to eat something and get ready to go. And since Tuesday is currently my busiest teaching day, I knew the chances of fitting in a practice later in the day were remote. Breathe, accept, let go.
Wednesday I had a full schedule and knew from the outset that there wouldn’t be time for a full practice session, so I realistically planned for a shorter practice, using what I think of as my go-to practice sequence. This is an assignment I give in my class on developing a personal practice; it’s what one apprentice referred to as an “emergency practice,” a great concept. The idea is that, as with vegetables, any amount is infinitely better than none, so having a practice or two in your back pocket for busy days helps to ensure that practice doesn’t fall by the wayside altogether. Even ten minutes is better than nothing. This is something we all know but it can be hard to honor that knowledge, especially on a busy day. I have a couple of sequences of varying length for this purpose, and the one I did on Wednesday took about 45 minutes—which is a perfectly acceptable practice, but just a bit disappointing after completely missing my practice the day before. Still, my Wednesday morning practice definitely did its job on a multiple levels. First, knowing time was short, I got right to it with no procrastination. Then I didn’t dally or drag it out, which can sometimes happen (first I can’t get started, then I can’t stop). I stayed focused and it was, as intended, an “efficient” practice. And of course 45 minutes of practice did plenty for my sense of well-being, ease, and energy as I moved into my day. As I preach, so I practice. Or at least, that’s what happened that day.
Thursday I woke up before dawn and gratefully grabbed my opportunity to have a backbend morning. Backbends take longer to warm up for than other poses, and it also takes longer for me to put myself together again afterwards, so a backbend practice can be time consuming and involved. With my early start I had extra time and spent almost 2-1/2 hours, starting with sun salutations and peaking at urdvha dhanurasana 2 (dropping back from standing) before cooling down with shoulderstand and the hip openers I find so necessary following backbends. It was an invigorating and satisfying practice. I really do find backbends to be mood-elevating, and at times, unabashedly joyous. Too bad they’re so hard!
Friday and Saturday are my weekend days. My favorite thing to do on a Friday morning is to meditate, perhaps practicing some pranayama first if there’s time, before going to class with my longtime teacher and mentor, Donald Moyer, at the Yoga Room. It’s always a delight to take Donald’s class and to practice with the community of Bay Area yoga teachers that study with him. If I wake up super early (more likely in the summer), I just might get to stop at a cafe for a chai before class. If I think it’s going to be a mellow practice that day (Donald rotates his teaching focus on a monthly schedule, so I can predict with pretty good accuracy which week we’ll be doing inversions, which twists, etc.) and I have enough time to relax and digest a bit before heading to class, I might even enjoy a pastry with my tea. This is my idea of a perfect start to the weekend.
That ideal morning only happens once in a while, though. Far more often, I have phone calls and other loose ends that have piled up during the week to deal with, and I try to squeeze some of that in between meditating and rushing off to class. And this Friday, something work-related came up in the course of those calls that prevented me from getting to class at all. It was too late by that time to get any personal practice in that morning, so I substituted an evening class with Katrina LaShea at my own studio, Alameda Yoga Station. I thought this was a clever strategy — since practice put off until afternoon or evening is much less likely to happen, it was a way to ensure not skipping my yoga practice altogether that day. And as it turned out, it was also a lovely end to both my day and my practice week. Afternoon found me writing and working (student papers, studio admin work, endless, endless emails) at my favorite cafe, Julie’s Tea Garden, just a few blocks from my studio. It should have been easy to get to an evening class from there, but as the time grew nearer, I had to wrestle with myself to turn off the computer and rush up to the studio. And of course, as soon as I was there, lying over a bolster and sinking into my breath, I was so glad to have kept my promise to myself. And yet, so often it is a struggle to make that soul-nourishing choice. Later in the day, I prefer a gentle practice, and Katrina’s class was perfect for what I needed — a mix of standing poses and forward bends sandwiched between relaxation at the beginning and end of the practice. An hour-and-a-half of yoga at the end of the day was immeasurably better than an extra hour or two at the computer would have been. So why was it even in question?
Having satisfactorily completed my practice week, I started my Saturday morning with a bit of hip stretching and a short (15 minute) meditation session, and then rolled up my mat and put it away until Monday. Most often I don’t practice at all on Saturday or Sunday, but having missed a couple of my regular mornings, I wanted to reinforce the routine and the ritual of practice that I’m striving to observe, so the Saturday morning meditation was a nod to cultivating vairagya.
The Georg Feuerstein quote above resonates for me. To some extent I’ve mastered the abhyasa half of the equation—I really practice. I practice steadily, usually five or six days a week, occasionally four, virtually never less than that. Although I take most weekends off, it’s incredibly rare for me to miss more than two days a row, and when that did happen on a recent vacation, I felt it. And my regular practice does bless me with a profound sense of well-being, manifesting both in physical ease and a “positive state of mind” as Mr. Feuerstein promises.
If someone had told me at the beginning of my yoga journey that I would make yoga so central in my life and develop this kind of dedicated practice, it would have been unfathomable to me. It’s happened organically, not because I’m a super-disciplined person—I’m truly not!—but because I’ve had a strong desire to follow this path as it has unfolded before me, and to reap the benefits. And as I have, my habitual thoughts and unconscious behaviors have indeed been revealed to me. I’ve come face to face with my lack of discipline, and other flaws and challenges have become clearer. The journey of self-exploration is not for the faint of heart; there is always a mixture of gold and muck waiting to be discovered. As I’ve watched my personality, quirks and habits through the lens of my practice, I’ve unavoidably seen what changes need to be made in order to grow. So vairagya has become a larger focus, as I attempt to give up procrastination, resistance to limits and rules, and let go of trying to do everything, become simpler and more focused. And I have to admit it’s a bit scary to contemplate. Those pieces of me each developed for a reason. They may have outlived their usefulness but there’s no doubt that they’re part of my identity and anchor me to a sense of who I am. Practicing yoga and meditation has given me tiny glimpses of samadhi, of the infinite. Haven’t most of us had the occasional sense, following an especially deep or blissful practice — of the kind of spiritual merging the yoga texts speak of?
So I wonder, with some trepidation, if I continue on this path, and really move fully into the vairagya phase of the journey… if I become the person who practices every single day with discipline, serenity and surrender… who will I be then? Will I be giving up something of the essential “I” of me? Where will that take me, and am I ready to go that far?
If I give up what I am, I become what I might be.
— Lao Tzu
Finally! The practice sequence I promised:
Inversions & Lotus
constructive rest post & breathing awareness (about 5 minutes)
pavanmuktasana/knees to chest
recined lunge position/ardha sukha yoganidrasana
supta padangusthasana series/reclined leg stretches
thread the needle hip stretch
adho mukha svanasana/downward facing dog
downward dog + lunges
eka pada ahdo mukha svanasana/downward dog w/ one leg up
adho mukha eka pada raja kapotasana/pigeon lunge
utthita parsvakonasana + baddha virabhadrasana/side angle + bound warrior (I’ve also heard this pose referred to as bound side angle, which may make more sense, but I learned it as bound warrior)
uttanasana/standing forward bend
repeat downward dog
ardha adho mukkha svanasana/1/2 dog (aka dolphin) w/ block for hands
baddha konasana variation/butterfly
janu sirsasana/head to knee forward bend
gomhukasana/cow face pose
agnistambhasana/fire log pose
baddha konasana/bound angle pose
padmasana, baddha padmasana, etc./lotus, bound lotus, lotus forward bend, prone lotus
padmasana in sirsasana/lotus in headstand
repeat child’s pose
repeat downward dog
bridge pose/setu bandhasana
bridge pose supported on block + lotus in bridge pose on block
salamba sarvangasana/shoulderstand supported on blankets
sarvangasana to setu bandha/shoulderstand dropping back to bridge pose
karna pidasana/ear pressure pose
reclined twist/jathara parivaratasana
savasana/deep relaxation (aka corpse pose)
My weekly practice has a general rhythm that I’ve developed over the years. It’s a dynamic, evolving process, but currently, a typical week goes like this:
Monday– Basics, meaning some combination of the core poses i.e., sun salutations, standing poses and inversions
Tuesday — Backbends
Wednesday — Twists and/or arm balances
Thursday — Forward bends and hip openers
Friday — Wild card day. I often attend a class on Friday, in which case the only practice I do on my own is some pranayama and/or meditation. If I don’t get to class, I’ll practice whatever I feel I need most, anything from restoratives to more backbends to an ashtanga-vinyasa style practice, to balance out my practice week.
Mostly I don’t practice at all on the weekend; I take a walk and visit my neighborhood farmers’ market on Saturday mornings, and I teach on Sunday mornings. But, if I skipped a day during the week, occasionally I’ll do a weekend afternoon practice to make up for it… and if I’m feeling the need for a restorative practice, I might find a weekend time for that. But a weekend practice is a “bonus” practice — I don’t hold myself to any practice commitments on the weekend, and even if I’ve planned on one, I can easily let go of it if something else comes along.
This weekly rhythm makes sense to me on an energetic level. It’s all about creating balance; I move my body and energy from yang to yin, priming my spine and my joints with a basic practice, opening fully in backbends, neutralizing with twists or perhaps arm balances, and coming back into myself with the deeply internal experience of forward bends. This general “schedule” works well for me, and it eliminates the “what should I do? question, But, I don’t always stick to the plan. There are many reasons I might diverge from it during the week: I don’t have enough time or energy for backbends when I get up on a Tuesday morning, or, conversely, I wake up early some morning and decide to take advantage of the extra time to do a deeper, more involved practice. I get my period, which changes the practice options significantly for a few days (a topic that I’ll explore in detail at some future time). And sometimes I just don’t feel like doing whatever was on the menu for a particular day when I actually step onto my mat.
One thing that often inspires me to vary my routine is a full moon. I’m vaguely aware of a yoga tradition around the new and full moons; orthodox ashtangis don’t practice at all on these days of the month. But for me, mostly I just like the idea of practicing moon salutations on full moon days. And this day, the full moon happened to coincide with the fall equinox, which seemed kind of magical. Twice a year on equinox days, when the day and the night are of equal length, I make a point of practicing both sun and moon salutations, as a way of honoring the beginning of the new season. But with the spectacular harvest moon still looming large in the sky outside my window when I got up to practice, I chose to go straight to moon salutations and then into backbends as my theme of the day. Here’s what it looked like:
reclined constructive rest position/breathing awareness
chandra namaskar/moon salutations, about 6 sets
viparita virabhadrasna, ardha chandrasana/parsvakonasana/reverse warrior, half moon pose, side angle pose (right from one into another)
prasarita padottonasana/wide feet standing forward bend
virabhadrasana 1/warrior 1 (long hold, about 2 minutes per side)
adho muka svanasana/downward dog pose (1 minute)
child’s pose (1 minute)
virasana/seated hero + gomukhasana/cow face shoulder stretch
parsva dhanurasana/sideways bow
viparita dandasana/reverse staff backbend
viparita dandasansa to urdvha dhanurasana/repeat reverse staff then move into upward facing bow (aka full backbend)
urdvha dhanurasana/upward bow backbend, 3 more times
raja kapotasana/king pigeon pose
adho mukha svanasana/downward facing dog
adho mukha eka pada raja kapotasana/pigeon lunge
gomukhasana/cow face (legs only this time, bending forward)
agnistambhasana/fire log pose
parivrtta agnistambasana/fire logs w/ twisting variations
paschimottanasana/stretch for the west side of the body/full seated forward bend
reclined twist (I’m partial to the one where your legs are crossed in sort of an eagle position)
sukha yoginidrasana/gentle sleeping yoga prep (aka happy baby pose)
savasana/corpse or relaxation – 10 minutes
pranayama — ujayii & kumbkha breath, 5 minutes
meditation — 5 minutes
Not Enough Time For This Practice?
Try this 30 minute version: A few moon salutations, sit in virasana for some shoulder stretches, then one medium backbend — either dhanurasana or ustrasana — followed by child’s pose, pigeon lunge, and any twist, seated and/or reclined. Either savasana or straight into meditation to finish.
Notes & How It Went
Practicing moon salutations at dawn on the morning of a full moon is a blissful experience, how could it not be? I tend to wake up as dawn breaks and it usually takes me about 30 to 45 minutes to have a cup of tea and get organized to practice. I’m working on shortening this time, but for now, those mornings when I’m up before dawn are very special. giving me both a longer time to practice and the sense of peacefulness that comes with being up before the world outside is active. I also have a view of Oakland’s Lake Merritt from my window, and seeing the reflection of the first morning light hitting the lake is always wonderful; when I’m practicing, moving in tune with my breath and feeling connected to something larger than my individual self through yoga, it’s extra special, as if I’m part of that light and it is part of me. If only we could stay that connected when we move off of the mat and into our daly life, right? Well, that’s always the hope.
Moon salutations are a wonderful preparation for a backbend practice, especially a lighter kind of backbending as I did here. A more in-depth backbend practice in which I work into the more advanced backbends can take me two hours or more, and I don’t regularly have that kind of time these days. This practice took me about an hour and a half, and, with the moon salutations and a few straightforward shoulder openers, my hip flexors and front body were open enough to start moving into deeper extension; I got comfortably to the core intermediate backbends, viparita dandasana and urdvha dhanurasana, and then made one attempt at a deeper backbend, raja kapotasana, using blocks under my hands and a strap around my shins to draw my legs closer. I’ve been working on this pose a long time, and in that time, I’ve met quite a few four-year-olds who can do it without even trying. Humbling. As is, very often, my attempt. I notice that there’s a beautiful picture of this pose in the Yoga Journal calendar this month; mine does not look like that. But I think I might one day be able move all the way into it if I keep practicing, so I sometimes throw it in, even on days like today when I’m not warmed up to maximum capacity because, who knows? I stick my hair in a bun to decrease the distance between my feet and the top of my head, and occasionally I do manage to feel my toes brush against my hair. Fun! But not this day, so I move on.
Why bother? In fact, why backbends at all? They are formidable, and they take so much effort to warm up for and get into that they can make for an exhausting practice, and certainly, usually, a very challenging one. But they are also energizing and uplifting, they create so much opening, free up space for fuller breath and make for a freer flow of energy through the spine. This may sound like some kind of new-agey hokum, but in fact, it’s a place where the art of yoga intersects with real scientific evidence. As you stretch out the muscles that surround and support the lungs, those muscles move more freely, so the lungs expand more easily. Of course we all know how nature reacts to a vacuum; the breath naturally flows in to fill up this more open space, giving you access to more of your body’s natural breath capacity. Fuller breath equals your whole system receiving more oxygen, which creates more energy. And that’s one of the major, and very simple, concrete reasons that we feel better after yoga practice, and why backbends in particular are prescribed to combat low energy and even depression.
Backbends can be such a satisfying experience, taking me all the way to the maximum of my physical limits, and putting me in touch with a playful, youthful energy, reminiscent of a time when doing crabwalk” races — walking on all fours upside down in backbend positions– on the lawn with my sister was just for fun. I’m invariably energized after a backbend practice once I’ve gotten through it, and the energy freed up can help carry me through a long day. I’ve learned not to do them too late in the day — a lesson I might have learned from yoga books and teachers if I’d paid attention, but instead discovered on my own — so that energy doesn’t interfere with sleep. And no matter what time of day, a thorough cool down is essential following backbends, since leaving the mat with a hyper-extended spine can cause real problems.
As flexible as my spine is, I’m very careful never to push, and only to move as far as feels good, so I’m a big believer in lots of warmups, gradual opening, and respecting my limits as I experience them on any particular day. I’ll often reach a point in backbends where I sense “I’m done,” and when I hit that point, I start moving into counter poses and cooling down. This is a good place to make a distinction between “counter-poses” and “cool down” poses. There is generally some overlap between these two categories in any practice, but they are not synonymous terms. Counter-poses are designed to bring your body back to neutral after you’ve moved deeply in one direction, while cool downs move into gravity instead of away from it, and prepare the body and the mind for savasana.
The counter pose/cool down portion of this sequence is very effective for me after backbends. I’ve already mentioned in a previous post that I like to get that fire log hip stretch series in as a counter pose following backbends; my hip rotators are tighter than my hamstrings, and although I’m working on changing this, they tend to contract very strongly and overwork to bring me up and hold me in backbending postures. If I don’t stretch them out again, they continue, out of long habit, to tighten throughout the day. If you tend toward the opposite — more natural external rotation and tighter hamstrings — it’s probably your hamstrings that need more care and attention with your counter poses.
I subscribe to the Iyengar guideline that it’s not good for the body to move rapidly from one extreme to the other, so notice the gradual process of the counterposes: Cobra was the first backbend of the sequence (repeated many times in chandra namaskar); after my deepest backbend, I came back to it, moving back toward neutral with a gentler spinal extension. Then downward dog as a neutralizing pose, and gradually moving into flexion with pigeon lunge before some seated forward bends. No going from urdvha dhanurasana straight into paschimottanasana for me. Although this can be done without detriment by some people if it is practiced intelligently and mindfully, I find a less extreme approach much easier on my body. Although that particular combination is a standard part of Astanga sequencing, it’s a disaster for the average adult back. Especially for tight hamstring people, child’s pose is a much safer choice. So, as they say in Iyengar circles, I take my spine through all the gears, and don’t jam from highest to lowest with no transition.
Finally, backbends are often described as heart opening, and because they do open the chest, they are also lung openers. So I always hope to have some time for pranayama at the end of a backbend practice. Backbends can rev you up, especially someone like me who tends toward a more pitta, fiery temperament. That’s why I’ve cut down on my backbend practices, doing them once or at most twice a week instead of regularly two to three times. On backbend days, pranayama is centering, and brings me back to sense of peace and mindfulness. And the experience of drinking in the breath with fully opened lungs is delicious.
The sun was high in the sky and the moon long gone by the time I finished, and I was also bright and clear and ready to go.
Lately I’ve been moving toward a yoga practice that’s less asana focused. Which, for a hatha yoga practitioner, may seem like a contradiction. But after many years of diligently working on expanding my asana repertoire, these days I’ve been living by the mantra “it’s not what you practice, it’s that you practice.” Meaning, it’s not so important which poses I practice, or how many – it’s coming to the mat each day with clarity of intention, and doing something, anything at all, that is authentic, focused practice that matters.
I used to find a zillion ways to procrastinate. Oh, I’d still practice, but I’d end up being rushed, squeezing it in, and/or by the time I finally got to my mat, having to give up other plans an priorities in order to do a full backbend sequence and get in everything I wanted to “accomplish.”
This went on for years, and over time, got more and more out of control. Finally I realized that jamming through my practice and then rushing off to wherever I had to be was becoming counterproductive, not supporting me in the way that I want my practice to support me. The idea is to cultivate equanimity, calmness of spirit, and open-heartedness, to become more sattvic. There is both great joy and great learning to be had from working on advanced poses, but when it’s just that… ultimately I now find this an empty experience, one that feeds my ego instead of tempering it.
I say theoretically because once I’d eliminated turning on the computer before I practiced, a whole host of other distractions rose up to fill the procrastination void, everything from the endless task of re-organizing my to-do list to reading my horoscope and checking the weather report to cleaning up my house. My first response to realizing the computer wasn’t the real problem, but only an especially seductive outlet for what was actually resistance, was to feel discouraged. I’d made this enormous change, and it hadn’t completely transformed my routine. But gradually I realized that was the wrong lesson to take from the experience, and from “look, that didn’t work, so I might was well give up” I moved to “I successfully made one difficult change, and I can work on the underlying issue by continuing to make positive changes.”
On top of that, perhaps the most important lesson was realizing in a new and very clear way that this is always going to be process, a work in progress, and that it’s not a failure when it’s not perfect. In fact, some struggle and built–in imperfection is part of the deal with practicing. With being human. That’s why we practice. If it were easy, we probably wouldn’t need to.
I credit my long experience with practicing asana for helping me understand the value in perseverance, and also that the process of profound transformation is most often gradual and incremental.
I’m still working on, and sometimes struggling with, the big picture. For example, I know one upcoming change needs to be instituting an earlier bedtime. I’d like to get up earlier in the morning, to both give myself more time to practice and free up more productive morning hours. The idea of a proscribed (even by myself!) early bedtime for someone with my resistance to rules and authority is not going to be an easy sell. And I still find ways to procrastinate; some mornings and some weeks are better than others. But having now piled up a few victories, made little change after little change, I’ve also built up a great deal more confidence in my ability to make my intention stronger than my habits. I’ve gotten to the point that I do, in fact, practice first thing more mornings than not.
I’ve also let go of my attachment to getting to advanced asanas in every practice, and now I alternate strenuous practice sessions with quiet, meditation focused practices. I’ve finally integrated, a little more fully, the knowledge that asana practice is ultimately about preparing the body and mind for meditation. An advanced backbend or arm balance practice is sometimes the most fun (and sometimes truly needed, as well). But it’s the quiet, inward focused practice sessions that are often the most satisfying.
And more importantly, I’ve also realized that when time is short, it’s better to do a little practice than to try to cram in too much (aparigrha), or put it off for some theoretical later time when I can devote the two hours or more required for taking my body to the outer limits of its asana capacity. Because I tend toward haphazardness, the consistency of that morning routine is an essential component of creating a saatvic practice; getting myself into vrischikasana orvisvamitrasana is less important. So now, not always, but sometimes, my practice is a basic one: Just some gentle stretching and strengthening to wake my body up and prepare it to sit comfortably for meditation, a bit of clearing and focusing my mind with simple asana and pranayama to balance my state of being and bring it into balance between the ease of sukah and the sense of alertness present tejas, that state of quiet ease and open awareness that is the essence of yoga.
I got back from vacation last Thursday evening. It wasn’t a long flight, just the hour and forty minutes from Portland to Oakland, but on top of a week of very little practice, my body was craving a real yoga practice by the time I landed.
As much as I’m working on consistency in my practice, I figure a vacation is meant to be a break from routine— that’s one of the elements that makes vacation rejuvenating. So when I’m traveling, I let go of my regular two-hour, five mornings a week practice. If I’m staying in a hotel, I do occasional mini-practice sessions in my room, and make a point of going to a few classes in whatever city I’m in. I don’t even try to practice on my own if I’m staying in someone else’s home, but I always enjoy checking out the local studios and teachers.
Portland is home-away-from home for me, so I have a few places I go regularly for my yoga fix when I’m there. The day before returning home from this recent trip, I made it to Sarah Joy’s class at Amrita. She’s an exceptional teacher, and it’s always a treat to practice with her. Her class was the most yoga I’d done all week, so it felt especially great.
That’s an unusual amount of time for me to take off from practicing, so my intention was clear when I made it onto the mat the first morning back home. I’m going to admit that it was mid-morning by the time I got there. I didn’t turn on the computer—unless there’s something truly urgent, I’m pretty strict about that rule now that I’ve established it—but I felt compelled to get organized, sort through my mail, and do at least a bit of unpacking before I could give my practice my undivided attention. Getting back to an early morning routine would have to wait until Monday.
Once on the mat, I knew what I needed most was, first, to get grounded (I always feel the need for that after traveling—especially when it’s involved being literally off the ground in an airplane, but even just being away from home usually makes me feel the need to settle strongly back into myself again), and to re-establish a baseline. What I mean by the latter is that I’m accustomed to starting each day feeling refreshed, open and clear following my morning practice. The difference when I’m not getting that regular practice time is palpable. It’s a bit like feeling a little grubby when you’ve been too long without a shower, only it’s an inner grubbiness. The first practice back after a break acts as an internal cleansing.
So, my practice for the day was a no-brainer. Standing poses for grounding, and a variety of basic asanas to refresh my whole system. Here’s the recipe:
reclined constructive rest position & breathing awareness
gentle reclined twist, back & forth a few times, moving with breath
reclined hip stretch (aka thread the needle or number four stretch)
supta padangusthasana 1 & 2/reclined leg stretches
supta padangusthasana variation — ardha parivrtta supta padangusthasana? — basically you go toward a twist but stop halfway to stretch the IT area, so I’ll call it reclined half-twist
adho mukha svanasana/downward facing dog pose
adho mukha eka pada rajakapotasana/basic pigeon lunge
eka pada adho mukha svanasana /downward dog with one leg in the ground, one in the air
surya namaskar/sun salutations, 5 sets
prasarita padottonasana/wide-feet standing forward bend
virabhadrasana 2 + viparita virabhadrasana/warrior 2 + reverse warrior, 2 minutes per side
utthita trikonasana/triangle pose, 1 minute per side
repeat prasarita padottonasana, adding shoulder stretches
surya namaskar (once more)
salamba sarvangasana/shoulderstand, 6 minutes
halasana/plow pose, 2 minutes
karnapidasana/ear pressure pose, 1 minute
supta baddha konasana/reclined bound angle pose, back supported on blankets, 2 minutes
constructive rest pose, also over blankets, 1 minute
gomukhasana/cow face pose
agnistambhasana/fire log pose
parivrtta agnistambasana/fire logs w/ twisting variations
pacscimottonasana/stretch for the west side of the body/full seated forward bend
supta padangusthasana 3 & 4/more reclined leg stretches
parivrtta supta padangusthasana/reclined twist
sukha yoga nidrasana/gentle sleeping yogi (sleeping yogi prep, aka happy baby pose)
savasana/corpse pose (aka relaxation), 6 minutes
seated meditation, 6 minutes
Not Enough Time To Do this Practice?
For a shorter practice, try this: Cat pose, the standing poses, downward dog, then pick out one seated and one reclined pose, and finish with viparita karaani (legs up the wall relaxation pose) for a 20 – to 30 minute version.
How it Went, + Notes
I felt great after this practice—the sequence is pretty tried-and-true—and it accomplished what it was meant to. It took about an hour and forty minutes (the same length as my flight the night before!). When I was finished, I felt more grounded, more like myself, and was more at home in my body again. Whew!
I used to hate the standing poses, really dread them, and now I love and depend on them. I’ll write more about that process at some future time. I always find that the quickest route to feeling better is a combination of hip and shoulder stretches. These are the largest joints in the body and between them they are responsible for most of the major movements we make. When the muscle groups that support these major joints loosen their grip on the skeleton, the spine feels free and light.
Shoulderstand is one of those poses you either love or hate, and I’m a shoulderstand lover—it’s one of my absolute favorite places to be, and there’s nothing like it for opening the shoulders, chest and, as a result, the breath.
Fire log pose (sometimes also called stacked logs or double pigeon), including the twisting variations, have become a regular and essential part of my practice. Of the various names, I’ve settled on fire log because the image of fire seems to fit with the intensity of these deep hip stretches. I have a student who refers to this type of really intense stretch as a “wasabi pose,” and I think this is both hilarious and apt. Fire log stretches made my eyes water like wasabi for a long time, but now I’m more accustomed to and more open in them. And at this point I don’t feel quite right without them, so I’ve made them a daily part of my practice. My hip rotators are much tighter then the rest of me. I think I overdid backbends and inversions for many years earlier in my practice, and created an imbalance that I’m now working to correct. So I do pretty deep hip openers in just about every practice session, including as cool down stretches following backbends. It’s been a really long process, but it’s made a noticeable difference in how comfortable I am sitting in meditation.
It was great to get home from traveling a couple of days before I had to get back to work. I flew back Thursday night, had Friday to practice and settle in back at home, both literally and figuratively. Saturday was a last vacation day, which I spent mostly reading and relaxing, and then I came back to my regular routine on Sunday. I would not have felt ready to teach without this thorough, grounding practice. With it, I entered my work week feeling completely rejuvenated, and happy to be where I was.