Ask Abbie

Ask Abbie

Why do we lie back on blocks or thread ourselves through a chair before class?

  Before class we encourage our students to use chairs and blocks for back bend  variations in  order to set up conditions for taking pressure off of one's lower back, opening up ones lungs and setting up a vision that  supports neurology, thereby attaining a backbend without one's usual effort or one's personal propensities. The blocks act as scaffolding to one's structure rather than asking students to come in and stretch themselves.  O ur supported backbends   are part of ones effort to tune one's instrument, open up the valves, adjust one's strings, make sure you are not flat or sharp, in preparation to use oneself as a participant in an orchestra.   Tuning the instrument allows one to participate in one's own well-being, resulting in an orientation of center and circumference.  This alerts our senses to what is deep within and directly without.  With proper boundaries,   disorder is organized, corners meet, strings have proper string tension so that when you play, the music is harmonious.  
 
 
           When we come to class we come to participate in community. We're asked to shed our first nature -- unconscious, habitual patterns which, as individuals, we unthinkingly identify with - and conform instead, to something counter-intuitive, foreign, and outside our frame of reference. What we call the "personal" is an elaborate intuition programmed after years of reacting to this capricious, exciting world. It's the way the body has come to operate on auto-pilot, sitting cross-legged on one butt, standing on one leg, favoring one direction, walking bow-legged, knocked kneed, slouching the shoulders, cocking one's head, etc...The act of measuring up in class, engaging our sheer awareness, working consciously, is the moment we engage our second nature, our most alert and conscious state. We can observe and process what is otherwise automatic and unnoticed. We learn techniques through asana, a highly conscious practice, to help us override the habitual first nature and become stable, competent, and imaginative. The use of props serve as formal boundaries rather than personal effort. 
 
            To reform one's first nature is to agitate and disturb this delicate status quo. It can be demanding and even painful.   Many of us navigate life as warriors, doers, achievers, perfectionists. Supported poses afford a moment of peace, engaging in the art of being rather than doing. Scaffolding with blocks, chairs, or poles allows one to let go of one's unconscious investment in habit and instead provide a supportive way to inform the body. One's structure is supported  for a determined length of time so that bodily fluids and  circuitry can move more freely through our bones, organs, and glands, thus facilitating the body's flow of internal energy.
 
Winter Becomes Spring: Back-bending Out of The Past
 
             A natural part of  life is that our bodies degrade over time. As we get older, our back starts to creep over the front, our vision blurs, our bones thin. One's future shortens, while the past only grows, and our sense of moving forward steadily dims. As we age we progressively lose touch with the exterior, while our interior life becomes richer.  Embedded in our greater journey is a repeated cycle of growth and decay that aligns with the four seasons. During Winter, we burrow for warmth, we consume heavy, heat-producing foods, and we open up our bodies with much less frequency and fervor. The liver bears a heavy load as the purveyor of our internal cleanliness.
 
Backbends help flush the liver and clean it. As we enter Spring, supported poses help rejuvenate the organs , taking pressure off where we habitually sit in our backs and setting up the structure so that the lungs and liver open up in the front. Supported backbends offer an opportunity to orient ourselves on a spit, a plumb line, a tai chi, setting up a center in order not to get lost in time and space. Biochemically, we are shifting the terrain, after crawling into ourselves during winter, tilling the soil, as it were, from where a sprout can grow.  
 
        The back is meant to support potential rather than diminish it. Supported backbends help establish one's stability (lower body) and open one's front body (torso), while setting up a vision (head). Boundaries(props) diminish the effort and muscle required for good form. Binding the legs as well, create a closed circuit flushing the hips, knees and ankles . A backbend takes considerable effort and is usually the pinnacle of any sequence.  When the front is opened fully, the articulation of the arches are fully expressed. Consequently the lungs are ventilated and pressure is taken off the kidneys. 
 
         A block under ones lower back takes the pressure off the roots by elevating the pelvis so that the front body(potential) becomes available. Elevating one's lower body takes pressure off the bottom by oxygenating the pelvis, flushing the liver, engaging the lungs by opening them in the front, making it easier on the heart (by giving it more space), and creating a cross breeze in the body.
 
 
VARIATIONS OF SUPPORTED BACK BENDS 
 
Blocks under upper back:  Sitting in baddha  konasana and laying back on four  blocks supports the back, taking pressure off of the kidneys, sending the lungs to the front of the body and supporting the neck to free up the vision.  The neck becomes a funnel from the lungs into the thyroid and up to the antenna. The thyroid governs the ability to self-express, to ventilate well and to regulate our chemistry.
 
 
Blocks under lower back (supported bridge):  Lie on your back, lift the pelvis with a block vertically underneath the sacrum, as though  jacking up the rear end of the car. In this way, you can pump up the back tires (kidneys) with air, taking pressure off the lower back, opening up the front of the pelvis and feeding breath to the kidneys. This calms down the adrenals. Positioning the knees and ankles at right angles substantiates the hips. The front of the thighs (bottom window) is where the backbend is initiated.
 
 
Supported fish:  Sit in virasana with a block under the shoulder blad es (just  above bra line). Ideally, the crown touches the floor allowing the pineal gland to make light contact. The pineal gland is like a homing device.
 
 

Supported supta virasana: Place the legs through a chair laying back on the seat while holding the feet. The backbend creates a closed circuit of energy throughout the form. This allows the nervous system to calm down, the liver to stretch, the lungs to open and the eyes to flush. Thereby  

glands are restored, reset, and renewed.

 

Supported backbends help facilitate a good nervous system. The above series of backbends restore energy by refueling our internal reserves of current.  The imagination is used to set up a stable structure so that breath can move through it.  This sequence unites the mind, the body and the breath in preparation to participate in a conscious practice.

Why do we cross our legs in the Katonah Yoga sun salutations?

 We teach our students to consciously organize the four corners of the torso -- two shoulders, two hips -- in right angles to scaffold a robust structure for the body. Organs need space to function, as their work is mostly mechanical, 
 reliant largely on pumps and piping and itinerant fluids; 
 likewise, the health of a joint depends on whether the 
 pendulum is swinging straight. When structure is framed according to measure, the body's natural organization is realized and the interior enjoys greater function. One's work in yoga is to set up conditions that situate these components without pulling, yanking or compromising, in a frame that holds.   

 

   But a simple frame, under fire from life's disquiet is inadequate. Life is not polar, it is dimensional. Life is not linear, it is interconnected. Parallel lines end up separating, not

holding up, like pigtails rather than a braid. Our habits, too, often don't serve us. Posture, subconscious reflexes, the way we very literally carry ourselves are all directives from an unconscious first nature, regularly stressing the fine adjustments we implement in our practice.

  

           Cross-referencing is a way to situate the center of a structure such that each pillar adheres to a common design. One sets up an "X marks the spot", much like a common engineering practice used to fortify structures with cross-beams. Think of the Eiffel Tower, with all of its cross-crossing joists in its grid-like structure: while vertical studs carry the lion's share of the load, cross-beams ensure the distance between each stud is uniform and in agreement with the center. 

 

             So it is within a body. Cross-referencing the body's frame in a yoga pose consciously establishes a center, a second nature. It becomes a surveying tool, a technique used to connect, through one's imagination, the upper and lower body, the right and left sides of the body, and all of its possible diagonals. The result is a voluminous form that references and reconciles the center. When we cross-reference in a pose, we create a contact point in our imagination,  interconnecting and substantiating the frame -this makes our structure dynamic and self-correcting. We're creating a robust mental map of the body, and a shape to occupy with more precision, more stability, and more organization. 

 

             But the purpose of practicing yoga is not to perfect yoga poses. Although we set up our poses to conform to right angles, a formal practice is a means to unlocking greater fluency and stride in the organic, curvaceous, and spherical shape of  
 our bodies. Not unlike learning a foreign language, whereby studying formal grammar leads to spoken fluency,
becoming conscious of the formal space the body occupies begets a comparable fluency of imagination. By using the mind to organize the body, we exercise and stretch the imagination alongside the body, stimulating greater insight and health. The right references information on the left, the left substantiates and references the flow on the right; the up, the down; the down, the up; the shoulder, the knee; the knee, the shoulder; the right nipple, the left shoulder blade; the left nipple, the right shoulder blade; when finally, all corners are interconnected, having lots of conversations, dynamic, a cacophony of stability, all through one's imagination. As is life.

        

The original question referred to crossing over our legs in sun salutations. (watch our sun salutations here) Parallel legs can hold only so much stamina, so we create a "bolt" by crossing-over, substantiating the sacral plate. With so many repetitions of our sun salutations, and so much demand on the legs and lower back, crossing over is like braiding the legs, enabling one's lower body to hold up better, developing stamina and stability rather than unraveling or leaking out energy. The more connections our poses afford, and the more precise that contact is, the better we use our poses as closed circuits, making us spherical, and therefore more buoyant. 
     The Eiffel Tower's strength comes from the combined organization of each stud -- the intelligence in the structure -- not load-bearing beams. Our crossed-over legs and arms are neurological circuitry, channels for information to move through. Cross referencing creates more facility of getting around oneself, making one more spherical, less rigid; by coming around rather than just driving through, one develops more perspective, more vision, and greater dimension.  

  

 

 

 

Example of Cross-Refrencing 

Gomukhasana:

In Gomukhasana one crosses over ones's legs, engaging one's hip joints so that, like a scissor, the real strength and function of the pose isn't one's legs as much as the contact point, the bolting of the hips. A scissor's functionality is not the sharp blades (legs) of the tool, but rather a function of the bolt at the center which allows the scissor to cut. In a body, this develops more pliancy in one's hips. But, in order to move currency through ones body, a fluency of imagination is required. Engaging in a pose consciously (using your imagination) ups its function. For  example, sit in gomukhasana; engage your right foot and find its cross-reference to its own buttock bone. Find your left foot and cross-reference in your mind (and body) to its own buttock bone. Take your right hand and hold your right heel, while your left hand holds the left heel. You are cross-referenced in mind and body, creating more leverage and more energy through this form. Once bound, the structure, (two shoulders, two hips) is cross-referenced, not simply framed, giving the form more dimension and better hold. With a center bolt, the stable form transforms into a richer dimensional conversation between a center and its circumference.

 

Why Do We Flip our Wrists?

Alex asked in utter frustration, "Why do we flip our wrists"?

It is impossible to address an organ independently from the structure around it, the bone framing it. Every component of the body functions with respect to the whole, whereby the dysfunction of one part is caused by the disrepair of another. This is the defining narrative of our practice.


We work the wrists in order to access, strengthen, and open the lungs. The wrist is a mini collarbone – whatever condition is set up in the wrist is repeated in the collarbone – and together their organization acts as a frame for the lungs.


In setting up a right angle in each wrist, palms faced down and arms straight under ones shoulders, the wrist, shoulder, and collarbone support the lungs. These right angles literally make a house for the lung. If the wrist isn't straight or the collar is skewed, the lung doesn't get enough air. When we flip our wrists, palms down, fingers facing us instead of out, we are rotating the armpit and opening up the collarbone. This taxes the wrist joint to open in a direction we don't normally demand of it, drawing attention to the relationship between the lung and what's around it, like a window and its frame.

 
Installed in a well-measured sill, a window can open and close to full capacity. So it is with a lung: the wrist work we do initiates a dialogue between the lungs and the bone supporting it, developing dexterity. The better the structure - wrist, collarbone, shoulder blade, rotator cuff - the better our lungs can function.


Finally, the purpose of well-functioning lungs is to fully take in and eliminate air, to hold a full capacity of breath. Our lungs are a container for holding emotions, like joy, depression, and grief, so lungs build our emotional competency. When our lungs are full, we are more dimensional, both physiologically and psychologically. Even our skin glows.

So, Alex, what better reason to flip our wrists than to more fully house the spirit?
 

Bringing the Practice Home: Developing a Personal Longevity Practice


Nevine Michaan & Abbie Galvin

        When we take a yoga class, we are offered an opportunity to engage with others. Techniques are taught, shared, and practiced within the group. A well-organized, well-orchestrated general class encourages a collective spirit. It is as though we are all learning to play the same piece of music. The collaboration between the personal and the collective informs the group setting. Each individual student is asked to measure up, keep up, and be part of the communal effort.
             A home practice changes the orientation of skill building and awareness. In a home practice, the teacher within becomes the focus of attention. Techniques that were taught by others, learned with others are brought into the personal.
      The goal of a home practice is to use one's techniques to support personal health and well being, within a ritualized use of personal time and space. One closes the door to the outside world, and the practice of the mind and the breathing  are attuned to an inner conversation.
           The postures, breathing techniques, concentration and orientation methods  are the tools of the practice. While all practice influences one's physiology and psychology , a personal longevity practice addresses the vision and virtue of personal health , well being, and long  life.  
 
...a longevity practice holds a commitment to spend time alone, participating in a technical integration of mind, body and breath
...a longevity practice is ritualized, the same sequenced poses are defined, refined and redefined
...a longevity practice is set to a breath count. A count is established, , then marked by the inflow /outflow of the breath. As one develops facility with the pose, the breath  becomes more fluid, time becomes more malleable.
...a longevity practice strengthens one's personal organization, setting goals, following through
...a longevity practice is designed to be evolutionary, maturing in time; deepening understanding and developing techniques.
 
 
3 longevity sequences.  Have some props! Sandbags, blocks, blankets....

1. A Substantiating Longevity Practice
Start by holding each pose for 25 breaths
Orient center of sphere
     
Pigeon pose

Double  pigeon

Cow pose

Cat/cow pranayama
Rounded plough

Forward bend

Hero pose
 Arms up in equilateral triangle, pumped breath 25 counts

Seed

Center


2. A Restorative Longevity Practice
Start with 25 counts each pose
Orient center of sphere

Rounded plough

Forward bend

Rounded plough

Forward bend

Hero pose

    Breathing practices in hero with arm variations

Block under upper back, fish variation in hero

Supine hero

Seed

Center



3. A Spherical longevity Practice
start with 50 counts in each pose

Orient center of sphere
Rounded plough

Forward bend

Buddha's sleep

Flipped rabbit

Hero pose

Breath work

 

Fish from hero

Supine hero

Flipped wheels

Seed

Center

As the practice becomes more personal, more skillful,  more satisfying, adjust the space around the personal...
 make your environment smell good, look good, feel good

We encourage pranayama practices- come to classes and learn our techniques
 

Men

 

My husband is afraid to come to yoga" is something I hear a lot. Men are used to using their upper bodies for competency, for their ability in the world, using muscle and the drive of their heart to pump for stamina and strength. As they age they grow more aware of their lower bodies, how "tight" their hips are, how much their shoulders are over burdened, how frequently they have to pee, and how little they are actually breathing. Many men consider yoga the domain of women who are by nature more pliant in the hip joints, more apt to attend a class even if they aren't the best ones, and are more likely to do yoga with a friend just for fun. Men come for many reasons not the least of which is a wounded shoulder, a chronic lower back-ache, or a prostate that scares them.   Their reasons are usually pragmatic; that they feel hindered or injured, although it matters not at all why anyone graces our yoga center. Yoga doesn't fix anyone, rather it serves to re-inform ones habitual nature in order to renovate a structure that is slowly collapsing, that may be off-center, with organs that aren't functioning well, and that suffer from a lack of oxygen. And that is all of us.

 

Bradley, a financial consultant who has not revealed his weekly yoga sessions to his colleagues, started yoga in order to relieve back pain that inhibited his daily walk to and from work. His daughter was concerned that he could barely move and his formerly little tummy was now a big gut. When he agreed to begin, his stiffness was discouraging. His enthusiasm was for the theoretical idea that if he learned proper form and was able over time to master poses that at first he couldn't even attempt, he could change the shape he was in. Bradley has staying power. He worked and worked and practiced between our sessions determined to show his family that he could change. He now fully enjoys his walks, adding bird watching and has recently asked me to take a picture of him upside down in a shoulder stand to show off to his children.

 

           My brother-in-law is odd man out in a family who practices yoga, Qi-gong, and pranayama. His first resistance was that I am too bossy. That being true, I love my brother and would love to assist him in his quest for healthier lungs, a more robust immune system, and hips thatwill give him more mobility. Like other men he is strong and has the stamina to effortlessly bike 60 plus miles in an afternoon. But his joints are stiff, his walking stride is appreciably shorter than it once was, and his respiratory system is far from functioning at full capacity. Doing classical yoga poses will ensure that his structure will support the function of his organs and glands. We have yet to convince him that while yoga is outside his comfort zone, its many benefits will 

eventually far outweigh his objections. Apparently my bossiness is interfering with my brother-in-law's health.

 

             Tommy started yoga to please his naggy wife who has her own practice, comes to class and is in enviable shape. 

She thought it would be good for him to begin a yoga practice given the fact that he was over weight and unfocused. Tommy was afraid he wasn't flexible enough to do yoga but as we began our work together he experienced more lung capacity, his back stopped hurting, and now as he puts his hands together in reverse Namaste he has all but forgotten his shoulder injury from a long forgotten face plant. He surf's the web for male yogis who inspire him and is almost ready to "out" himself at work.

 

          John was considering shoulder surgery but he started yoga as a way to avoid it. Although his doctor make it clear that surgery was inevitable, his wife implored him to give yoga a whirl. Through our work together, John was interested in the idea that one's body is one's house, whose rooms are like organs, each having its own function. The floors of the house, basement (lower body) living quarters (torso) roof- top (neck and head) work as a well-integrated organism. He realized that his torso, where he spends his entire effort, was overworked,crooked, and crumpled in one corner. Because his torso was crooked it sat on his lower body awkwardly, which was killing his lower back. Therefore surgery on one corner of this house wasn't going to repair it. The whole house needed a renovation rather than working piecemeal on each sensation of pain. This is all accomplished through the practice of articulating classical yoga poses over and over again until the repetition of correct form transforms the damage into health. John is happily playing squash again with his doctor who is, by the way, his squash partner.

 

            Bob came to yoga to explore a part of himself he wasn't acquainted with yet. He was restless in his work, disinterested in participating in sports or working out, and was in general, searching for an intangible way to feel healthy and more alive. He started attending classes even though most of the other attendees were women, more adept at the practice, more chatty than he would have liked, and clearer about what they were getting. He found the Katonah Yoga teaching compelling and made a personal commitment to attend three or four classes per week. The shear hours he clocked

bore fruit. Through the repetition of forms he let go of his propensity to use muscle rather than his structure, he has increased his lung capacity by developing a breathing practice, and is more imaginative about how to keep his immune system functioning well. But more importantly he is using his practice to get more joy out of life.

  

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