Category Archives: ashtanga

The Eyes of an Artist: Yoga Teaching

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You can read books on yoga, study pictures, read articles, and go to the ancient texts as much as you want, but hands-on instruction of students is where I learn the most.

I had a few ideas going into subbing Yoga for Beginners class last night, but I was mostly an open book. I started with gentle warming and I began to talk the class through Surya Namaskar A (Sun Salutation A). We explored every pose and talked about modifications for each. But mostly, I was emphasizing external rotation of the shoulders and internal rotation of the thighs. In every pose, I showed them how this was important.

To be honest, they started out like beginners. But they are SO smart! I would show them how a pose should look, and I’d also show them what happens when it falls apart. I’m sure they could see how awkward it looks when a body in not aligned properly. I wasn’t absolutely sure my ideas were sinking in since its a lot to remember. But then something amazing happened.

Once we got to seated poses, like one- and two-legged forward folds, I could see them applying the concepts without me even telling them. Well, I still told them. But they used the basic body alignments to find their own paths. Once we know how to walk, then we can learn how to run.

In anything you teach, you try to find the most effective ways to get your points across. I’m finding my way and it gets so much easier. Its a never ending journey, not just as a yogi myself, but as a teacher. There isn’t enough psychology, physiology, anatomy, history, spirituality, ….. and other know how that you can ever fully grasp.

I saw some work with acrylic paint that was layered in beautiful colors in a shallow tray. It was beautiful and complicated just how it was. Then, they started drawing through with tool making the colors change and shape into something even more marvelous. You can’t explain how that picture develops, but it continues to evolve into a spectacular amalgamation of color. That is how yoga teaching is. You can’t hardly define what will come next. Every person that you touch is different. They are all so unique. You can’t predict their reactions. You don’t know their heartaches and injuries. The colors of your interaction meld together and are beautiful regardless of the outcome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t say “Don’t”

In yoga teaching, it is more positive to not use negative words. I often see in writing and sometimes hear the word “Don’t” being used. It is more affirming to use and instruct with positive words and phrases.

I was listening to a Barbell Shrugged podcast, which is what incites many of my thoughts lately. They were talking about more effective coaching. Olympic weightlifting can be very complex to teach. The human brain can only handle so many cues and make them effectively express in the body. So instead of saying 5 or 10 things at once, they encouraged coaches to focus on 1 or 2 cues and let the athlete work on those things specifically. What was also encouraged was to be direct with what you say. Instead of saying “don’t straighten your hips in the second position and don’t allow the weight to pull straight under you or away from your hips”, say “knees back, sweep the bar back”. I tend to use these kinds of cues for coaching a lot. Say what you want to say directly without all the extra fluff.

When I was an Army Drill Instructor, we were told to always start with the position of “attention”. This is where we find the most military bearing and sets the example for our soldiers that we train. But we also refrain from weak gestures, like pointing your finger with a bent elbow. Instead, extend your arm and point with fingers extended and joined like a knife. This shows more strength in leadership than a weaker posture. We refrain from having our hands in our pockets, slumping against a wall, or lazily slogging in a chair. But that is only physical. We learn that what you say in direct ways are important too. You say things directly and to the point. “Halt, get down, Incoming, 50 meters left!!!” That is what commands authority.

When I teach yoga, I’ve seen all variations of Rabbit Pose (sasangasana). So instead of cueing and correcting after the pose, I’ve found a better way to teach it. This usually follows a deep backbend, so I have them sit up on their knees and look at me. I say “feet flat, arms straight, grab your heels, top of your head (not) your forehead, lift your hips”. Oops, I said “not”. There’s a time and place I suppose. I demonstrate as I do this. Then, as they get into the pose, I say all of that again. Invariably, someone still loses their way. But its a good example of using direct cues when they have their heads down and can’t see you demonstrate.

I would recommend that yoga teachers, and other coaches and parents, learn to use positive, affirming words. People get numb to the word “don’t” if that’s all you say. Like “Billy, don’t hit your sister, don’t jump on the bed, don’t run with scissors”. Instead, we say (when teaching shoulder stand), “keep your head centered, walk your hands toward your shoulder blades, and extend your feet toward the ceiling”. You can easily positively affirm “keep your head stable looking up” instead of saying “don’t look side to side”.

In simplest terms, tell people what to DO. Use direct verbs like “extend, reach, fold, bind”. BE positive with the words you use.

Rajasic Yoga: prelude to Metal Yoga, yeah!

There are 3 Gunas that describe in Hindu philosophy the essential nature of energy, personality, foods, Ayurveda, and other elements of nature. These 3 Gunas permeate our understanding of yoga as well. I will associate the Gunas in terms of the energies that are presented in yoga classes in particular.

Tamasic Yoga – For me, tamasic reflects a lower energy. It is calm, thoughtful, less physical, and more balanced with mindful, peaceful thoughts. Some relate Tamas to things like sour foods, negative energy, and chaos. But I am opting for the former in describing a yoga practice. In essence, nearly all forms of yoga have a tamasic element. Seated meditation and savasana would probably best depict the far end of the spectrum. Restorative yoga, Yin yoga, and maybe even Bhakti forms of devotion could present a more tamasic energy.

Rajasic Yoga – Again, my definition, would associate rajasic energy with more physicality. In yoga practice, this action-oriented energy is present in Ashtanga, Power, Hot, and other intense forms of physical yoga. And the physical could relate to a required focus that is indomitable, exhibits perseverance, and resolves to find mental sharpness. Warrior poses and other strongly energetic arm balances and inversions would find the far end of the spectrum.

Sattva – I would maintain that most forms of yoga seek to find sattva. This is when the body is in balance both physically and mentally. It balances the center between rajasic and tamasic energies. It represents balance, peace, contentment, and centeredness.

I was talking with yogi friends before I taught class about something called Metal Yoga. I’ve seen this in several settings. There ARE people who live fairly calm lives, relatively speaking. They are probably not listening to EDM, Hip-Hop, or hard rock types of music. They are not doing CrossFit or Strongman competitions. They most likely don’t raise their voices or have violent tendencies. I’d say for the most part, they are Tamasic but have found their balance in that realm. Whereas, if you go to any school playground, 99% of the kids are going to be running, climbing, and screaming at the top of their lungs. There are adventure junkies who are slack-lining a tightrope a 100 feet off the ground, mountain biking steep switchbacks, and, yes, probably listening to the likes of Metallica and Korn. In this case, their peace if found in the calm spaces between the storms. They have energy that is excessive and needs to be expended to find peace.

There is a time and place for these types of energy. Those who seek to practice Ashtanga or Power Yoga enjoy detoxing through sweat and expending energy. While others are completely at peace with a gentler form of yoga. Based on personality, people will strive to whatever form that helps them find balance, or Sattva.

So to answer the question, why Metal Yoga, is it in line with Yogic philosophy, and is it appropriate? That is debatable. Yes, maybe some words and imagery are war-like and harsh. But if you read ancient yoga texts, like the Bhagavad Gita, it is written in the context of war. In the mythological setting with Shiva, Daksha, and Sati, Shiva creates a hero warrior, Virabhadra, to avenge the death of Sati. This is the origin of the poses of Warrior I, II, and III. So while we seek Ahimsa, non-harming and non-judgment and non-violence, Rajasic energies are still present. So these more forceful, intense energies ARE a part of yogic philosophy. As long as Metal Yoga participants don’t harm others or harm themselves, it is a way that they are working out their Rajasic energies. For me, it is a very appropriate way to rid themselves of the chaos in their minds and bodies. It is not necessary for everyone. But for a few who have more Rajasic tendencies, it is the perfect solution to finding Sattva, or peace.

When Yoga Class is Hoppin!

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Hot Yoga class last night was totally full. Yogis just kept streaming in and we kept squeezing for more space. I was so excited to teach.

This happened before with another class I taught. My last class was full and SO exciting, and then I left. It made me so sad. Its easy as a teacher to regret leaving and moving to other things. I’m feeling the same about a Saturday yoga class. I keep being tempted to say “nevermind” and keeping my same ole schedule.

But for me, hot yoga doesn’t make a lot of sense when its 100F degrees outside. Yeah, I could do it, but I don’t understand it. When it gets cool again in the Fall, I’ll try to pick it back up again. But I’ll leave the hot yoga for other teachers for now.

The energy I felt in class last night was amazing. Usually, in hot yoga, I don’t do a lot of adjustments just because I know some people are very aware of how sweaty they are and don’t like to be touched. But I went ahead and did it and received good feedback. Sometimes as a teacher, I’m hyper-aware of the class energy. When I was an Army Drill Instructor, I felt like I could see everything. If someone had a thread out of place, I could see it from across the bay. Last night was similar. I was able to spot if toes were slightly turned the wrong way. I had x-ray vision into spines that weren’t twisting properly. I saw the slightest lack of engagement in a thigh. I really love when I have that feeling as a teacher.

I think sometimes yogis want to just hide in a class. They don’t want to be seen and will drift to a far off corner. Maybe they are tired or simply unmotivated. Maybe they can do full expressions of poses, but are simply not feeling it. But what I want to do is bring up their energy and to make most of the time we have together. I want them to be changed people when they leave class. I want moods to go from dreary and lethargic to bright and energized. The truth is, the people closest to me are less obvious than those who are in the corner. I flock to the edges because I know those are who need the most help.

Yoga goes beyond poses. It goes beyond what we’re wearing and how we look. It delves into the mind. It eliminates comparison and judgment. We live on our yoga mats in the now. What happened before in the day doesn’t matter. And we aren’t commiserating about the future even one little bit. It is about being present in mind and body. Our Kundalini rises and we look down at our physical self as if we aren’t even there. That’s the essence of yoga.

Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind

To Rest or Not To Rest

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That is the question.

I still hear the prevailing wisdom that says that you absolutely need to chill out and rest at regular intervals. As in, do nothing, sit, sleep, nada!

OK, I’m on board with that. But let me throw a few nuggets your way that may change your mind.

There is a lot we don’t know about rest, recovery, and DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). If you think about it, there are several ways that we gain and grow from exercise. One is the predominant idea that if you get sore, you have broken your body down so much that when you heal, you’ll be stronger than before. Another idea is in creating physiological and mechanical efficiencies in your body. If you repeat a movement, like running, rowing, or lifting, your body builds neural frameworks that enable that to happen better. In addition, if it has a heart pumping element, then the heart is continually laying down new cells and those individual cells become more efficient at pumping blood. I believe this all to be true.

The latter case where you’ve had a neurological or physiological challenge that improves efficiency, its quite possible that less recovery is needed. There isn’t a structural component that needs to be “cleaned out”. But for the former, where it is possible that muscle breakdown has occurred, fibrin and collagen and healing lymphocytes are sent to the site of trauma and a more defined recovery needs to take place. Picture the arms that connect an old choo-choo train’s wheels to make them rotate. Each one of these arms is now clogged up with gunk, whether sludge, mud, or other debris. You can either sit and wait for the rain, wind, or other natural processes to wash the gunk away. Or, you can go in there and clean it up manually.

First of all, I’m a firm believer that sleep is the numero uno (#1) priority in recovery. You don’t get any bragging rights for sleeping less. If somebody tells you they function just fine with 4 or 5 hours of sleep a night, they are blowing smoke up your nether-regions. You need those repeated 90 minute cycles that lead to hormone growth producing REM sleep. Each cycle is progressively deeper and more effective. Without this, you’ll not grow or recover and you’ll likely end up sick and injured. Sleep, then nutrition, should be your first priorities. You can’t make hormones if you are not eating healthy fats, proteins, and carbs.

So back to the choo-choo train’s clogged levers. Old school exercisers and mothers around the world would tell you to rest (aka do nothing). In the old days, the doctor would put you in a cast and tell you not to move for weeks if you had broken something. Now, we know that leads to frozen shoulder types of ailments. Today, you can get a major hip replacement and the next day the doctor has you walking laps around the 5th floor of the hospital. Its a totally different mindset from what was previously thought.

ACTIVE RECOVERY should be your mantra today. If you feel sore from doing Murph (run 1 mile, 100 pullups, 200 pushups, 300 air squats, run 1 mile for time), the answer is not to lay down for 3 days and let your body recover naturally. You need active recovery. That is, go for a walk, a run, get a massage, take an Epsom salt bath, or, heaven forbid, do a workout.

The massage and bath are passive ways to recover. But they are very effective in that kneading those muscle fibers clears out the junk around the muscles. It also moves the lymph, which doesn’t have its own circulatory pumping mechanism. Lymph is what carries all those T-helper cells and other healing hormones. It also carries the bad stuff away, the toxins and broken bits of tissue. All of this makes sense in old school recovery and shouldn’t be overlooked today.

What is a newer concept is the active recovery. OK, maybe not that new. We know that running, riding your bike, walking your dog, or swimming can all be effective tools to recovery. They are doing the same things as passive recovery. What many haven’t explored, however, is the idea of actually working out again. I mean, you just broke down the muscles, how can you possibly go back and do more? But its true.

When I wrestled as a kid, I was always sore. But somehow, we’d run, do some exercises, and get our bodies warm only to go back on the mat and work at 100% every day. In Ashtanga Yoga, the Primary Series is called the healing series. When someone was tired or sore, the founder Pattabhi Jois would say “You Do!” And somehow, you get on your mat and find yourself all better again. There is something to hopping back on the horse and getting stuff done. Its not a macho or boneheaded kind of thing. It is a matter of physiology and mechanical efficiency. You gotta clean out those levers of the Choo-Choo.

Olympic weightlifters train up to 2 long sessions a day for 6 days a week. And remember, they only have two primary movements, the snatch and clean & jerk. Runners often run every day. And a carpenter swings a hammer every day. Get your sleep, eat well, and try to workout often. Travis Mash, coach and record holding powerlifter, says that youngsters may do better to take a day off now and then. But as you age, he says that we should lower the intensity slightly and workout more often, like every day! This keeps us well-oiled and functioning at full capacity.

Sleep, eat, and keep moving EVERY day!

Rocket Yoga 3 “Happy Hour”

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I love all three of the Rocket Yoga sequences, but I especially like Rocket 3. I was just thinking on Saturday, when I taught Rocket 2, how uniquely designed each sequence is; particularly the first two. But Rocket 3 is really special. When I took Rocket training, we were given relatively strict guidelines for the sequences. And what I took away from it was more the “intent” of the practice than the sequences themselves. Do we meet the guidelines that uses a lot of energy, fun, and freedom in the practice? Yes?! Then we accomplished the goal. Larry Schultz, the founder, liked it that way.

Every once in a while, someone new comes to class. I can see that they have a style of their own. Maybe they’ve practiced yoga for years, but not necessarily Ashtanga yoga. Some poses, like triangle, side angle, and Warrior I, have a lot of variations that are possible. In Ashtanga, you would strictly apply a certain style to the pose. But in Rocket, I allow a lot of leeway. As long as they follow the “intent” of the practice, then I’m happy. Would I be happier if they applied the strict Ashtanga style? Yes. But that’s not so important. After coming to class for a while, they usually start to meet the style guidelines of Ashtanga.

Since Rocket 1 is closely associated with the Primary Series of Ashtanga, it tends to be the strictest in Ashtanga terms. But it is still fun and playful. Where we really play is in Rocket 3. I usually browse through Ashtanga series 2 through 6 and see what I can include in class. And then we jump in and out of the Rocket 1 & 2 sequences. Its a good time for experimentation, work-shopping, falling, and laughing. We even play with things like Zombie-presses, which we’ll probably do tonight.

I’m loving the practice and what it does for you. I’ve gotten so much stronger and proficient in the process. I see people on Instagram doing horse pose (vatayanasana) or some other higher level pose they’ve never done before and I think to myself, we do this every week in Rocket Yoga! People are sometimes amazed when they come to practice. Like “how is this even possible?!”

That’s what I love about Rocket Yogis! They are the cream of the crop!

Yoga Did Miracles for my Back

Medical Article on Back Relief Through Yoga

When I had a mid-life crisis (joking) and turned to ultra-marathon running, the result was a lot of back pain. I don’t mean just pain as in, take a pain pill and go to sleep. It meant I couldn’t lean over to tie my own shoes. If I laid on the couch, it took about 10 minutes to figure out how to get back up. Sitting and standing from the toilet was quite a chore. Being afraid of walking my 20 pound little dog since spotting a squirrel and tugging would result in intense pain, me letting go of the leash, and not being able to chase her down. I had to operate my vehicle with my left foot instead of my right because of intense sciatic pain. It was the most terrible kind of pain you can imagine.

I went to the back clinic and they gave me cortisone shots directed by x-ray to put the needle in the right place. The right place was my L4-L5 disk that was degenerating. The doctor showed me the CT-Scan and said, “see how your disk looks? This is how we’ll all look when we are 70 years old, but yours is happening now.” I also had slight stenosis and considerable pinching to my nerves.

The first physical therapist was no help at all. He prescribed bed rest, laying forward on a pillow as long as I could, and ice. Well, I had already been doing that. Then I went to a real PT who helped me. She did Manual Release Therapy (MRT), lots of nice adjustments, but mostly her prescription were exercises. And this is KEY!!!

Our skeletal system, even with dense connective tissue, would fall into a clump without muscles. You can have fairly major deficiencies in joints and back, but overcome it largely with strong muscles.

So she had me doing exercises to work the little finger muscles that go along the spine. Let me tell you, being “strong” is not enough. I was powerlifting with deadlifts and squats over 400 pounds. But then I’d twist under the dashboard to change a fuse and my back would go out. I couldn’t do anything for weeks and it took months to recover. And this happened yearly. What I didn’t have was asymmetrical strength. Like the strength you have for wrestling and gymnastics. Or strength like doing one handed lifts and strongman movements. But the best strength of all is YOGA!

There are old texts, Sutras and such, that say that there are 80,000 to 80 million poses in yoga. So when people think they invent new ones, they are kidding themselves. Every movement of the body has been done. All these twists, balances, and holds in odd positions strengthens every possible movement in your body. It is good for any sport and any body. It is clearly what solved my back problems. And yes, I still have an episode every couple of years, but nothing like I had before.

Think of the vertebrae in your spine like any other joint in the body. It needs strong support with muscles in all directions. If it is allowed to shift side to side or pinch in one direction, your nerves will not be happy. Yoga helps prevent drastic shifting of your spine.

Yoga is the best solution. But it also helps to lift weights, do your Zumba or other fitness, and do sports. Doing deadlifts and squats are not enough since they are too symmetrical and are not done with breath (you hold your breath in competitive lifting). You need to add single sided exercises with breathing; like one-armed lifts and presses with a dumbbell. You need to do side-to-side work, like side planks, oblique raises, and leg ab/adduction. You need lunges and pistols. Asymmetrical sports are good too: golf, softball, basketball, tennis. Anything where you are throwing, kicking, and twisting.

People rag on CrossFit all the time, so forget I even said that (or embrace the idea). Variety is key. You can’t do the same thing over and over and expect yourself to grow. And it is absolutely necessary for back health. You need to do different things. Yes, you can specialize in a sport, but add a ton of assistance work. If you are a Powerlifter, its OK to try a clean & jerk or pull a heavy sled now and then. You might even try a pull-up or, heaven forbid, try yoga! It won’t kill you. Add routine deep tissue massage or other bodywork and some cardio and you have health!

Yoga just might save your life.