Category Archives: yoga

Top 5 Elements of a Yoga Class

There is a trend I’m seeing in yoga that I don’t like. It largely comes from a Westernizing of yoga and making it a “Creative Exercise”. Yoga is drifting away from its meaning by moving away from its roots. So here are my top 5 aspects of Yoga that are being overlooked.

1. Long, “quiet”, restful Savasana

Let’s start with the purpose of yoga. Patanjali’s 2nd Sutra states “Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah“. This translates as “the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” Imagine getting a restless child to take a nap. Or maybe getting a puppy to settle down. What I would do is take them for a walk, play with them outside, and really get them to release their pent up energy. Then, make a conducive place that is warm and quiet for them to rest. Its the perfect recipe. When yoga began 5,000+ years ago, it was a seated meditation. What they found is exerting energy, moving the body, stretching the muscles, and using the breath was the way to find peace, or Samadhi (the 8th and highest limb of Ashtanga Yoga). In my yoga teacher training, a general guideline was 1 minute of savasana for every 15 minutes of class. What I’ve seen in fitness studios where the “Mind-Body” connection isn’t highlighted, they often skip savasana. When I would teach savasana, several people would get up and leave. They weren’t embracing the REAL purpose of yoga. Instead, it was just exercise. Yoga isn’t exercise. It is a spiritual practice (sadhana). In fact, it is more about the mind than the body. But people in the West want to make it all body. They are perverting the practice of yoga. No, yoga isn’t what you make of it or your own personal thang. It has meaning. Savasana is the central focus of a class; the longer the better. It should be quiet and calming, not loud and energetic.

Savasana is “corpse pose”. I heard an exhaustive commentary on this by one of the original Ashtangi’s who studied in Mysore under Pattabhi Jois. She alluded to corpse pose as really being death.

All that baggage of the past is gone.

Then you arise renewed and with a clean slate. It is almost Biblical in a sense. It is a reawakening. Its a spiritual renewal.

2. Two-thirds standing poses/ One-third seated/supine

This is the biggest problem I see today in general vinyasa and hot yoga classes. The classes end up being all standing with maybe one or two poses on the ground before savasana. That is NOT a complete yoga class. They are missing so much of those wonderful poses. Granted, my primary instructor in teacher training was an Ashtangi. So we were rooted in the Ashtanga practice. So the 2/3 to 1/3 rule basically follows Ashtanga. You can’t overlook the importance of seated, supine, and prone poses in a yoga class. Its where we find the benefit of stretching without being under the bodyweight load of standing. Standing is good for warming and general opening, but the seated portion is where you find the greatest depth. The standing poses are the warmup for the deepest part of the practice on the ground.

3. Inversions and maybe Arm Balances

I say arm balances as only an option. It is not necessary for a general yoga class and is often more advanced than what beginners can accomplish. But I teach the basics of arm balances even in beginner classes. What people want is a challenge. There are ways to introduce arm balances without making people feel defeated. It is not always something accessible in very hot classes since it gets slippery. But done early in a class before the sweat pours, or with people who have leggings on that are not as slippery, or even using a towel on slippery spots is helpful for success. While I love arm balances, they are certainly optional but highly recommended by me!!

What can’t be avoided are INVERSIONS. I’ve gone to so many vinyasa classes where inversions just didn’t happen. Teachers are often worried about a crowded room or not being able to safely spot and care for every student. But even in beginner classes, I teach inversions. I teach a supported headstand where the feet don’t ever come off the floor. But they are getting their body mostly over their heart and the heart above their head. So they are getting the reverse circulation that is so useful in yoga. However, you don’t even need to do that. You can do a bridge pose or restorative bridge on blocks. It still classifies as an inversion. This can transition into a half shoulder stand with legs either bend or straight above the hips. The best and easiest inversion of all is legs up the wall. It is the supreme pose for feeling an inversion since you can stay in it a long time. Don’t skip out on inversions in any class.

4. Variety

Some of the ancient writings say there are 80,000 poses and others 80 million. Yet with all the poses available, teachers feel the need to repeat poses. I think in the day of “creative sequencing”, we lose sight on what is important. I really wish we wouldn’t teach creative sequencing at all. What kids like to do is have a signature. They want long sequences where the student gets lost in what’s next but the teacher gets to pride themselves on something complicated. That is largely ego driven. So they sequence poses, do the sequence on the other side, and then they do the whole sequence again in a different way. When they begin to repeat a long sequence, my balloon totally deflates. In fact, I may not have enjoyed the original sequence; now we have to do it again. Talk about me getting out of Yogic Character. I feel like walking out. I know, advanced teachers try to convince young pupils to create “themes”. And this leads to repeated poses and drawn out sequences. You can do a theme without repeating poses. There are plenty to choose from. If you do a certain pose or group of poses that are similar, there are so many others you leave out. Instead of removing the vritti, or chaos, from our bodies, you create more. A body becomes one sided with forward folds and standing poses when there is so much more you can do. I feel some of this is a lack of confidence in a teacher’s abilities. If they only have to do 10 poses instead of 20, that gives them a lot less to think about. And if they develop a sequence they can repeat over and over, then they don’t have to think as much. This doesn’t serve the student one bit. In fact, it creates both vritti and imbalance.

5. Backbends

I will be the first to admit that the Ashtanga primary series has a majority of forward folding poses. It is why I recommend that Ashtangis practice the Second series too since it has more backbends to balance out the body. We do this in Rocket as well. Yoga standing poses in general are very forward folding dominant. There are rarely backbends at all. Yet you have classes that are all standing and don’t add backbends at the end. We are hurting students instead of helping them by doing that. I’m not sure the reasons why teachers avoid backbends. Maybe they don’t feel good in their own bodies because they teach what they practice. Or maybe they don’t want to demonstrate them in class. But there are options that are less taxing than say a full kapotasana or upward bow (urdhva dhanurasana). Maybe camel pose is accessible or half camel? A wild thing is such a fun option. All locust variations are good. Even focusing on cobra pose, which I see as a very advanced backbend if you teach it corrrectly.

But the primary reason we need backbends is LIFE. In LIFE, we sit in chairs, we drive cars, we work at computers, and we sleep in a fetal position. It is hugely crucial in LIFE to do backbends to counter LIFE. Its what releases emotions and hardness in our bellies and hip flexors. Backbends are critical for LIFE.

Final Statement:

I once left one of these modern classes with a colleague of mine. I didn’t bring up the issue, but she did. She said “does your body feel angry too?” After a hard day’s work, you need that physical and mental release. If you go to a gentle or restorative practice, it means you already have had the stress of a hard day. You are ready to balance the Yang with some Yin. But if you’ve sat in an office all day, or were driving in a car for a long time, you need the Yang. My fellow teacher mentioned that the practice wasn’t something that helped her release her tension. And in doing so, it created greater tension in her mind. Anger describes it well. I felt this too. Sometimes I leave a yoga class and end up having to do my own practice to counter what was missed. I miss the backbends, inversions, and arm balances. I miss the seated poses. It wasn’t a full yoga class. It was totally inadequate.

If you pay money to take a yoga class, you want it to be complete. You want to go to a yoga class where it focuses on YOUR needs, not the teacher’s. You want to feel special, like its the only class the teacher teaches all week, and it was made especially for you. You want it to cover all your needs and leave you feeling rejuvenated.

#yoga #yogateacher #yogateachertraining #yogatraining

Overdoing Warm-Ups

Is it possible to warm-up too much?

It was so funny when I ran ultra-marathons. They’d announce 5 minutes to start time and most people are still sitting in chairs or just gabbing with each other. These are usually trail races that extend past the normal 26.2 mile marathon. They last from 5 to 24 hours and beyond. The goal is to expend the least amount of energy possible for the long haul. So warming up is really a waste of energy.

During this time, I signed up for a 5K or two. It was hillarious because you’d see people running and sprinting all over the place. I mean, its a 5K right? I really think they ran a 5K before they even toed the starting line.

So is it possible to warm-up too much? I think it depends on what you are doing. For a very low-intensity exercise of extended time, your workout is basically your warm-up. Say you are on a rowing or elliptical machine. They are low impact so you can start slow and work into a sweat. There isn’t much worry at all about getting hurt. Well, unless you are a very out of shape person who has lived a very sedentary life. But that excludes most of us who are working out.

Now, picture a Top Fuel Eliminator dragster that is doing a quarter mile in under 5 seconds. It pays to have the engine up to full temperature. They also do an intense burnout to heat the tires before they go. This also tells you that your engine is ready. So for an Olympian doing a 100 meter running sprint, yeah they are going to do a serious warmup of movements and stretching. The wheels can come off so easily with that intensity. The same for a heavy CrossFit workout that includes heavy deadlifts. Or maybe a Strongman competition where intensity is through the roof. These are the times when you warm-up in a very precise way.

Just about the time I was getting ready for my CrossFit Trainer certification, I was watching a lot of videos and reading as much as I could. One video was a road tour with Spencer Hendel and James Hobart. They would visit CrossFit boxes and join in on a workout wherever they went. They were so funny because they called their most intense efforts as going HAM (Hard as a mother *censored*). They always seemed a bit tired since they were on the road a lot. So they often skipped a dedicated warm-up. They called it going JAGUAR. I love that term. They just jumped in and got down to business.

I used to go to a CrossFit box in town. The hour flow always went the same way. You do a warm-up, often a run, row, or calisthenics. This led to mobility that related directly to the Workout of the Day (WOD). And then a strength segment that was also related. At the end, you’d do the WOD. You’d be totally smoked and then go about your day.

The problem I had with this idea is often you were doing a benchmark workout where you wanted the best time you could get. Say you were doing Diane with heavy deadlifts and handstand pushups. But you already did deadlifts and handstand holds in the strength portion. Yeah, it warmed you up, but maybe it took a lot out of you too. Then you can’t go 100% in the WOD. If I were the coach, I would program a specific warmup to the WOD, and then go right to the WOD. Then you guarantee success for your athletes. It would be perfect to do a burnout session after with an EMOM or strength with deadlifts or presses overhead.

TBH, I go JAGUAR in most of my workouts. I don’t do any warmup at all. I might do a rep or two or something that relates. But otherwise I jump right in. A WOD is an amazing warmup for a strength portion. I often blow my wad so badly with strength, I wouldn’t have energy for a WOD at the end. Another way around a warm-up is to have a buy-in and buy-out. So as part of your WOD, you tack on a 1K row or 800m run or something before and after the AMRAP or couplet that you have prescribed. Then you have the best of all worlds. Sometimes, I even add the strength into the WOD. So if you do a Deadlift workout, it could look like this.

500m row buy-in
WOD 5 rounds for time:
deadlift 285 pounds x5 reps
20 burpees
20 situps
rest 1 min*
500m row buy-out

Then you have everything covered. And the little rest keeps your back safe during a heavy WOD.

So to answer the question, it is possible to warm-up too much. A majority of us doing fitness don’t need much of a warm-up. Maybe for some of the Top Fuel people out there, yeah, its smart to warm-up. But don’t overdo it to the point where you end up with poor performance.
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Let The Games Begin!

Part 1 of 3
I’m not signing up for the actual CrossFit Games Open this year like I’ve done in years past, but I do plan to do all the workouts on my own. What makes CrossFit different from many other fitness endeavors is that its a community. We all are doing the exact same workout. Its why I love Ashtanga Yoga too. Somewhere, someone is doing the exact same sequence I’m doing. So when I’m doing the CrossFit WOD and I’m struggling with something, I know there are thousands of others feeling the same struggle. I know I don’t have to feel pity on myself even though I’m doing this by myself. And, since years of teaching yoga, I’m not fraught with comparisons anymore. But I’d still like to know that my effort is comparable and that I’m on track with my fitness.

Part 2 of 3
Since I am a Master’s athlete, I am strongly considering doing the Festivus Games (for real). I honestly struggle with some CrossFit movements, so actual competitions would be difficult. But this is made for the novice-intermediate athlete. And I’m sure I could work with the Rx weights and movements of the intermediate athlete, I’ll probably do the Master’s options. Yes, I can do lot of pullups, but I’m not going to be shy with only doing ring rows. Being a yogi means that I’m OK with whatever I do. No judgement, no self harm.

Part 3 of 3
I am signed up for the Wanderlust event in Chicago this May. I used to be an ultramarathoner. Going out for a 6 hour training run wasn’t a big deal at all. And a 50K race was my jam! But injuries started to creep in to where it was difficult to run a half mile without my calf going haywire. In the old days, a 5K was a warm-up for something bigger. Now, that’s going to be my race. But you know what? Even in the little things, we should strive to do well. So I’m using the Festivus Games training as my training for this race. I can shift to more specific running in the few weeks prior. My muscles and heart will be strong already.

So that’s my plan and should keep me occupied until Summer. Then I’ll be ready for swimsuit season — haha!!!

Thai Yoga Anatomy

thai-yoga-massage (1)

To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t super excited to take my required Thai Yoga Anatomy course. I had two-semesters of human anatomy, comparative anatomy, gross human anatomy (yes, dissections), and kinesiology (I think it relates in this context). I had numerous courses in biology that covered aspects of anatomy. I studied cell biology where we went into detail of muscles, fibers, sarcomeres, blah-blah-blah. I knew I’d learn something, but I didn’t know how much.

Boy was I wrong!!

It started out with 12 hours of online instruction. The videos were well done and involved not only the rudimentary topics of names, origins, insertions, etc…. It also had sections on palpation, range of motion, and other tests of muscle function. When I arrived for the on-site training, we built heavily upon the online portion. Most of our time was spent feeling the muscles and doing various tests. It makes a huge difference from seeing something with your eyes or looking at inanimate models of bones and muscles, to actually evaluating muscles on different bodies.

So instead of poo-pooing the idea of learning more anatomy, its all I think about now. Mind you that in early Thailand, and maybe today, human dissections are not considered. In the West, we always seek a scientific reason for why things have worked so well for thousands of years. Yoga is 5,000+ years old and Thai Yoga Massage has roots to more than 2,500 years. They worked fine without human anatomy. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t raised as a child being around Thai healing and having decades of innate knowledge at our fingertips. We have to catch up with less intuitive studies and more scientific reasoning. But its all good, right? In a sense, we greater legitimize the practice by bringing it into mainstream science.

We had similar training when I did yoga teacher training. The focus was different in that it was solely about human movement. I think there is great value in taking this in depth course. It is actually listed as training for Yoga as well as Thai Yoga massage. There is a lot that was missing in my initial yoga training, not to mention the years of college anatomy. Not only has my Thai Yoga massage cranked up many notches, but also my yoga teaching. I had a yogi come up to me last week asking about pain in the back of her knee during wide leg forward folds. Before this training, I wouldn’t have been able to tell her confidently that it was her gracilis muscle. Now I know! And I gave her tools to work on to heal it herself.

If you’re interested, look up Thai Bodyworks in Evanston, Illinois. They have a lot to offer!

 

 

Oh Not That Again!

crossfit hspu

I had a back injury (non-CrossFit) that kept me from working out late last Summer. Then I did my own rehab for about a month. When I felt I could start taking a load again, I went back to CrossFit. I started with the daily CrossFit.com WODs and eventually shifted to my own programming. Then the holidays kind of derailed all my good intentions. I ate a lot and sat in a car for hours to and from family visits across the country. Good habits can be broken.

So at the New Year, like most people, I vowed to make some changes. I don’t do resolutions because I think resolutions are made to be broken. I wanted to get back to a strong deadlift. And I wanted to make some body changes. So I start programming for those things. Lots of powerlifting and bodybuilding were thrown into the mix. And just because I know I need to control my bodyweight, I did some cardio as well. I was rowing, ski erging, and running. But all of that gets very boring. I started skipping workouts. I didn’t have time to get through all I wanted to get through and then would just not do it. It just wasn’t working.

So last night, I look at my sheet that has all my tasks for the day; the same things I’ve been doing since the New Year. I glared at my sheet and threw it in the trash. I programmed a triplet of trap bar deadlifts, dips, and wallballs. Nothing crazy, just something simple. Three rounds only took me 4:50, but it gave me that air sucking, nerves tingling into my fingers and toes, wanna lay down and die kinda feeling. But when the waves of pain goes away, you know you’ve done something. It combined all the things I had been doing for an hour into 5 minutes. Did you hear that? 5 minutes!!! That’s not all I did, but that’s all I had to do. I’m lightly sore this morning and its all good.

The key is: do a little warmup (something fun: I do hula hooping, pole dancing, trampoline hopping, BOSU ball balances). Then set up a wod. Make it something DO-able. Don’t make it crazy. Maybe add a moderately heavy movement and a bodyweight movement. Optionally add a cardio component like box jumps, burpees, or double unders. Then that’s all you have to do!! If you feel you have more energy, do some heavy work or bodybuilding. Olympic weightlifting is my Go-To since its mostly concentric (i.e., it doesn’t make you so sore). But the Oly’s also test mobility, balance, speed, and power. That’s it. Just do the WOD if you don’t have time. Then you’ve already done a lot!

I’m back baby!!

 

 

Thai Yoga Massage Jan2018

cheri neal yoga thai massage
{picture from Cheri Neal Yoga}

I’ve only just begun this journey, but it seems like a lifetime already. I took the level I Thai Yoga Massage course last November. I started practicing on my fellow yoga teachers and eventually students and friends. The response I’ve gotten is what pushed me to take the leap into getting certification. With my first course, I learned a basic sequence that is grounded in the original sequence that everyone learns in Thailand. I was starting to feel so good about it. I watched videos to learn the nuances of flow and intensity. It is a poetic dance that is graceful and purposeful. I started to add new poses that I saw and started integrating them into sessions. Despite being so new to this, I was feeling like a Pro.

Then, the rude awakening is when I went back for more training. The format for the school at Thai Bodyworks in Evanston, IL is going through a slight transition. And I benefited greatly from these changes. So what I learned the next weekend was additional poses for the original sequence. It helped so much to already have practiced that sequence a lot. But it was still a steep learning curve. We had two instructors as well as very experienced students who critiqued my work. I rushed my pace at times. My thumb pressure was all wrong. I use too much muscle in my technique. And I realized I have so much more to learn about trigger points, assessment, and clinical techniques. I love to be humbled that way. You train what you know, develop mastery— then you erase the whiteboard and start building all over again.

I’m working on the new techniques and poses with my student practice. And I had my first semi-clinical session. Although everyone comes to me with different needs and pains. My first goal has been to do no harm. So it is complete icing on the cake when I hear that I’ve actually made a dramatic improvement in someone’s life. And the proof in the pudding is what my instructor did to me:

When I was in training, we were doing shoulder and pectoral work. It was the last segment of the training. I tore a pectoral muscle pretty badly a few years back and it has been painful and tight ever since. But in one 5 minute demo followed by an intense session of focused work on it, my instructor opened me up like I haven’t been in years. I was able to bench press and press overhead with a barbell without any pain at all. My yoga has improved too. I am more open in upward bow and other poses. I’m hoping I can do more binds now that my chest is open. This stuff really works.

I have a clinical assessment checkout with one of the instructors this Friday. And then more training. I love when my fellow Thai students ask if I am a trained bodyworker already because it feels so natural. It is becoming more instinctive for me with every practice. But not only for my Thai Yoga practice, but in my yoga teaching as well. My adjustments are becoming much more refined. I’m not afraid to get exactly where I need to be to effect a change in a student. It feels like I’m winning at life.

 

 

Yoga Class Sequencing

A good friend of mine just finished teacher training and she got me thinking about sequencing. We learned different ways in teacher training and they were different from what I read in books. I don’t know that I’ve seen a lot of hard and fast guidelines about this. I think much depends on the kind of class you are teaching. But the structure usually finds commonalities across disciplines.

The yoga teacher who I emulate most taught a Sunrise class on Saturday mornings. He was an incredibly introspective and kind person. He was also very capable to not only teach but to demonstrate technical postures. I loved his tone and his demeanor. He was very stern about certain things. When going into chaturanga he would insist “don’t you dare look down”. When we brought our leg forward and back in Surya Namaskar B, he would push us to not make a sound on the mat thereby engaging hip flexors and lower abdomen. Occasionally, he would look at his sheet to see where we were. I admired how much he thought about his classes. You could see him practicing his sequence before class. While I was in training, he showed me his process and what he wrote. It was all in Sanskrit.

I once mentioned this in teacher training and my teacher humbly acknowledged that his procedure was a good one. But she confidently said that what she does in a vinyasa class just comes from experience. Her sequences are creative and largely fall onto her Ashtanga base. As I look at what I do today, it combines both approaches. Sure, a general vinyasa class takes no preparation at all for the most part. You just go in and teach. You may ask students what body part or pose they would like to focus on, but otherwise its up to you. In specialty classes, you need to develop a more thought out plan. Slow flow, gentle, restorative, beginners,… all require some level of focus if you don’t teach that all the time. So you may scribble out some ideas. So what I do is usually off the cuff, but I write down a few peak poses now and then that I’d like to cover.

The general rule my teacher gave us was 2/3 standing and 1/3 seated. I follow this pretty well:
Warming – I once went to a class where the teacher’s first pose involved a deep hamstring stretch. I cringed with worry that someone would hurt something. Sun Salutations are the go to for Ashtanga Yoga. It covers the most ground while building heat. However, most beginner/intermediate classes require more warming than that. Child’s pose, tiger, cat/cow, seated twists. These are good starting points. I also like standing sun flows.
Heating – Once we are warm, I go into stronger poses. Planks, chaturanga, arm balances, warriors, triangles, side angles. These fit along with my Ashtanga bias as well. If I feel we are getting tired, I mix some balance poses along the way.
Forward Folds – Now that we are nicely opened, we can do wide leg forward folds, goddess, and hand to foot type poses.
Seated poses – The last third of class I do one and two legged forward folds; reverse plank and boat pose; then maybe marichyasanas and baddha konasana.
Backbends – Bridge pose and upward bow are stalwarts of any class. They are good completion to seated poses.
Inversions – Even if it is a beginner class, we do some form of inversion (meaning heart higher than the head). It may be hand stand prep, supported shoulder stand, or legs up the wall. Or we may go for headstand, forearm stand, shoulder stand, and handstand.
Twists – We always try to finish with twists and maybe crunched positions like knees to chest. This is what makes our bodies feel accomplished and ready for what life has for us.
Savasana – I come from a traditional and Ashtanga based practice. Since Samadhi is the highest of the 8 limbs, I feel it is the most important. We feel our greatest peace and bliss in corpse pose. The general rule is 1 minute of savasana for each 15 mins of practice. When I’ve taught in fitness gyms, they don’t acknowledge its importance. To some its just a waste of time. Its one reason why I prefer to teach in a yoga studio. Students there have been trained to understand the why.

I’ve been to a lot more classes lately where many of the rules I follow are different. I really love Baptise style yoga, but it seems we miss out on most of the seated postures. A lot of Vinyasa classes do very few seated postures, if at all. I think its how people are trained these days or maybe they don’t come from an Ashtanga background. We also see a lot of repeated sequences and postures. I can understand the reasoning, but it bores me a bit because I know there are so many other poses that we can experience. And I get a little tired of just standing for an hour. But people embrace these classes and it makes me happy for those students. I personally prefer the variety of a complete practice.

My best advice to a new teacher is to find a basic sequence that includes all the required elements. Then you can add and subtract from that sequence. We are taught in speech classes that you don’t want to read a text word for word. You bore the heck out of your audience that way. Instead, speak extemporaneously and maybe have a few key points listed. Write out a few peak poses or area of emphasis. But you don’t need to memorize a sequence or write out an entire list. You have to interact intuitively with a class to know what they need and want. If beginners wander in, you need to meet their needs while also making it challenging for the most advanced student. Give options and make it possible for everyone to practice.