Ask Abbie

Ask Abbie

Pattern, Paradox and Katonah Yoga

 
We are constantly asked to describe  Katonah Yog a.  Although there is no handy answer, Katona
h Yoga is a Hatha practice with Chinese Taoist philosophy and classical geometry deeply embedded  in the theory and physical practice. While most yoga practices reference Hinduism and Indian culture as their philosophical matriarch, we filter our practice through Taoist concepts.  With a western narrative, Katonah Yoga uses metaphor and the language of archetype. 
 
              There are three main principles found in Taoism. The first is yin and yang, the second is that nature reveals its intelligence through pattern, and the third is that pattern repeats. Repetition of pattern develops our capacity  for having a new insight. For example, the repetition of a wave hitting a rock over and over, changes the nature of that rock. Taoism takes us from nature to our bodies and to our minds via a very pragmatic methodology. Katonah Yoga uses the poses to help each student move from first nature, ones's unconscious habitual patterns, to a second nature which is a conscious construction of a new more fully functioning self, to a third nature which involves conscious and unconscious integration and resiliency. This is the goal and the uniqueness of Katonah Yoga.
 
                While Katonah Yoga poses are classically Hatha in nature, we use techniques of origami folding, geometric measure and the use of ancient numerical archetypes to infuse the practice with dimension, energy, and refinement. These techniques offer us a map with which to navigate a practice rather than overly relying on feelings or sensations. If a pose is measured well, if the geometry is correct, the body is supported by its own structure rather than relying on muscle. 
Real strength is not a muscular grip but a matrix that is consciously constructed in our minds and embodied through physical effort. Reconstructing one's own container, one's body, through its structure, is the way to organically organize one's abode, thus re-informing the function of one's organs and glands.  The poses are the tools with which to set up conditions in order to explore the magic of the practice.
 
Taoist Principals in Katonah Yoga-
               Taoism teaches us to follow the organic patterns found in nature. The first principal that we play with in our yoga practice is the relationship between yin and yang. In reconciling any two polarities, a third factor is established
which braids together the two principles which at first seem like opposites. Male and female are made necessary to each other through their opposing but complementary virtues. Alone we are but one facet of a whole, while together we can participate in creation. We see this paradox repeated in nature again and again. This grand schematic motif can be seen on the minute scale in the body. We have a left side, and we have a right side and our job is to find the middle thus cultivating a center; a third foot, a third hand, a third eye.
 
             Off the mat, learning to adjust our awareness of how much we give and take from relationships refines those relationships into healthy balances of power and receptivity. So while yin and yang appear as opposites, the usefulness of their relationship is the yin in the yang and yang in the yin; an integration mediated by a third thing, you. When you make pigtails, which require only two strands, into a braid, requiring three strands, it is less likely to unravel, to be messy, to loose contact. Two hands clapping, making contact, makes a third thing, sound. And not be obnoxious, but the orgasmic integration of your parents, two people, make a third, you.
The second principle of Taoism that we explore at Katonah Yoga is the universality of pattern found in nature, including the cycles of the sun, in the tidal rhythms of the ocean's waves, menstrual cycles and as Freud taught us, the unconscious compulsion to repeat behavior. Everything that is part of nature reflects a larger pattern. The body is no different.
 
               From the subtle patterns like our sleep cycles and digestive cycles, to more obvious patterns like the seasons or aging, we are part of the natural world. Our job in yoga is to manipulate the patterns that don't serve us, and to cultivate and develop new ones that help us function better. And because the narrative of our lives is reflected in the body, changing physiology alters psychology.
The third principle underlies the discipline of esoteric training: repetition of techniques.  By virtue of repetition , one potentially develops insight.
 
            Working on the mat becomes more than just doing poses.  It becomes a place for us to address the patterns in our lives via the patterns in our bodies. We can change a pattern only by being conscious of it. And the insight comes through conscious repetition. To repeat a pose in yoga refining it each time, is to build new habits, so as to install refined and reflected techniques into our physical and psychological lives.
Repetition is the soul of insight. Every time you consciously repeat a pose with new information ­ utilizing origami folding, geometric measure and how one's body fits itself rather using familiar habits, ­ you evolve, you revolve and eventually your revolution becomes truly revolutionary and changes your awareness of who you are.: Revolution becoming revelation. While I still don't have a crisp response that describes Katonah yoga, my best counsel is: Come to class and we will help you have a revolution. 

Archetypal vs Personal: Poses practiced with personal information hold in damage while poses practiced with archetypal information release your magic

 

When I was six, our piano - that island of sitka spruce and yellow birch regally inhabiting a third of our living room and echoing through our entire neighborhood - called to me. It was large and gorgeous, and I wanted the alchemy of its majesty and the richness of its sound to be mine. I wanted that big sound to come through me, instead of through my siblings. My first piano teacher told me that I had a good ear, which I assumed meant that, as a six-year-old, I was already a virtuoso. In reality, I knew nothing of technique or skill or of refining whatever gifts I had started with. What a buzzkill when I was asked to play, for protracted hours, every scale to "Mary Had a Damn Little Lamb." When would I get to play a Beatles song or Beethoven? My music book, Songs for Tots, had sailboats and stars on its pages. I was ready for the kind of music my parents took seriously. It took 10 years of scales, repetition, studying theory and revolting recitals where all the kids were playing "Moonlight Sonata" -- most of them better than me -- to feel as though I had developed any technique at all to finally play Chopin, Debussy, or Bach. At that point, I was ready for college and all I really wanted to play was Joni Mitchell. Even though she wasn't playing classical, for which I was trained, I had technique which allowed me to expand my repertoire. I had formulas and codes, I could sight read and I had dexterity from hours of practice. I knew how to approach a piece of music. I knew how to read signatures, timing, notes and rhythm. I had become familiar with the archetypes for playing music, and this is how I was able to grow as a musician.
 
        It is the same with yoga. To use an archetype as a reference is the foundation of a well-informed yoga practice. An archetype can be a number, an animal, a geometric shape, or any pattern in nature like the pattern found in wood, in jade, or in the seasons. An archetype represents an ideal and an ideal yoga pose has a specific measure, a shape, a fit. An archetypal dog pose, for example, is a 60 degree triangle, which sets up the conditions for strength, structure and stability. Lungs and liver come forward while kidneys fully open in the back. Arms are shoulder distance while feet are hip distance and knees are bent, enabling the hips to rise in order to find the zenith of the pose. 
 
  Following the formal patterns of a yoga pose puts you in a position to cultivate a deeper physical awareness, as you must override your own propensities and transcend the personal. These techniques are your recipe, your musical score. Whether it's a dog pose, a warrior pose, or a wheel, real technique provides a template to embody, rather than stretching or feeling our way into a pose, or imitating a teacher who is demonstrating. We can use archetypal technique everywhere in our lives - brushing your teeth so that your teeth won't fall out, making a souffle by recipe that won't collapse, or following a business plan that promotes success rather than mere survival. Having techniques is what it means to develop real skills, which, when faced with a challenging class, will be exhilarating to deploy and use rather than surviving by the seat of your pants. 
 
  The effort to embody a physical archetype employs the imagination to achieve a form, the pose at its optimum. By working consciously, we open up a field of experience previously unknown, which in turn helps us grow. For example, all twists require a 180 degree turn to each side, a revolution on a plumb line (axis mundi), and breathing on the side that your head is facing, so that one is flushing a kidney and opening up the opposite lung. By doing the twist formally, you are opening your entire body to the experience, something you don't normally do. If you only go halfway around without completing the 180 turn, you won't get the goodies that referring to the archetypal 180 degrees offers. Opening up a lung is like ope ning a window, which opens up a vision to see more, smell more, perceive more, and access a new field of imagination for greater capacity and exuberance. In th is way, you can participate in your own health. And if you are a musician, you can play with other musicians, or play for grandma, and even alternate between Elton John and Bach. 
         
If one does yoga without a reference (a recipe, pattern, formula, map), the practice is less conscious, measured, and articulated. Your practice will only go as far as your unconscious habits, imagination, and personal effort can take you. I recently attended a yoga class where the well-intentioned teacher instructed us to stretch, reach, have an open mind, and imitate the way she performed. While she demonstrated beautiful poses, we weren't instructed to orient ourselves within any archetype. Much like reading a map, knowing how to orient oneself in time and space helps us understand where we are going, how to go there, and maybe most importantly, why we are traveling there at all.
 
Often, new students come to class with past injuries and request "modifications" in order to make their efforts less arduous, to allow them to alter the practice and for the poses to mollify their wound; to their dismay, I tell them that in order to renovate or re-inform whatever is damaged, torn, pulled, or bruised, the trick is to use the piece of the puzzle that popped out with better information so that they can heal. We diminish ourselves by trying to protect what is compromised or injured. Not using our trashed shoulder, knee, hip, or wrist the way it's designed to be used will eventually do us in. If your heart is broken by your last relationship, you don't stop dating, you use the information from your emotional wound to refine your technique. Maybe next time you won't be such an emotional lubber and you might make better contact. In other words, reframe yourself. 
 
         Meanwhile, back in the doghouse, in our struggle to conform to this ideal dog pose, we shed the effort that comes with adapting personal style and instead reference the archetype which tells us where to go. One doesn't alter the practice to fit oneself - one alters oneself to fit the practice. I explain to a student who is in pain from an injury to use a formula to renovate their damaged structure, rather than to use a personal technique that allows them to avoid pain. When we surrender our struggles to the formality of the practice, we are given the opportunity to supercede our personal techniques that damaged our knee or torqued our ankle in the first place. When we shed our investment in the personal, and do poses formally - in referencing an archetype - we can make contact with the universal, gaining insights that weren't available to us before. In this way, we become aware of how to specifically re-direct our efforts to rehabilitate, straighten, correct, and restructure our body's frame. This is the process by which we reinform our organs, glands, bones, and body chemistry to function more efficiently. So that rather than working harder, we work smarter, with techniques that measure up.
       
           This is the work in a yoga pose. A pose is never static, it's dynamic. A pose is a channel for energy to move through you, waking up every fiber of your being. Referencing an ideal pose becomes a therapeutic technique for re-informing a deformed form, for straightening out a crooked wrist, for rehabilitating a torn shoulder. And because the wonky wrist and the torn shoulder house the lungs, by adjusting the shoulder and the wrist, one is actually addressing the function of the lung. So in renovating the wrist and the shoulder (the frame), the stability of the whole person is ultimately altered. 
  
Within our practice, the information found on the right side of your body is pragmatic, while the information found on the left is esoteric. Information found in the territory of lungs (grief, sadness, exuberance, expansiveness) is different from that of the liver (creativity, vision, neurology). If your shoulder hurts, for example, and you know how to rotate that corner so that your collar bone sits properly, you might discover that not only are you using your wrist and collarbone incorrectly, but the lung housed underneath it is being compromised. If you reposition the shoulder, so it works as a real frame, it becomes a better vessel for the lung. Now you are in territory that will give you real information, which can lead to an actual reformation. Doing what feels good or what is painless, when all you have are your feelings, is information that is personal and only referenced from habits and personal damage. If you reference the archetype of a pose rather than your own feelings, your practice has options beyond that which you already know or think you know.
 
             
"I'm trying" is often uttered in a yoga class, but rather than working harder at something you are already doing, the first step in getting an insight is giving up the habit of your compensatory skills. If you can let go of your yoga tricks like clenching your butt, using your flexibility, muscling the pose - no easy feat - you'll probably begin to discover that your poses aren't holding up without them. Don't despair. The next step is to use a formula, like a recipe for baking, a score with which to play music, a map to find your way, in order to develop techniques that not only hold up better, but that will promote stability, ability, and imagination.
 
              When we're not getting what we want in our practice, or anything else in life, we are often loathe to find another angle, pierce a new veil, develop a new skill, and re-direct our efforts. The familiarity of how we have always performed our work is often confused with what is correct or safe, when in reality it only perpetuates habits. It often takes profound self-awareness to change the way we practice. Most of us suffer an injury, a crisis, some form of wake-up call before we are willing to alter the way we were trained or to shift away from what comes "naturally".Rather than finding one's way by feeling or intuition or imitation, the skill of orientation tells you where you are and how to redirect yourself so that you can get where you want to go and be who you want to be.

 

Beginning Your Practice in Pigeon Pose: Establish Your Ground of Being

          Many yoga students are appalled when asked to start a yoga class in a pigeon pose. Some have been taught that before setting up any pose, one should "warm up" with 108 chatarungas, sun salutations or with a good stretch. At Katonah Yoga we work in the bones and joints, the structure, and the best way to warm them up is to fold.  A pigeon establishes one's ground of being.
           One's ground of being starts from ground zero; the perineum making contact, plugging in and finding the ground. Your legs are the pillars of your perineum. Think of the right foot as the male root, the left foot as the female root so that your perineum is like the third foot which is you; the integration of your male and female aspects, your personal ground.

 

            The perineum for women is located between the pubis and anus - it's the opening of the vagina. The perineum for men is between the coccyx and the genitals. The lower body, one's pelvis, is your stability. It's like the foundation of a building, or the root of a plant; it sets up a pattern that all future growth follows. It is by making contact, perineum on a surface, that you substantiate yourself.
           If you were a radio, you would ground your wires in order to move your current (energy) through, plugging it in (lower body) before using the dial (the upper body) or setting up the antenna (your head). You wouldn't build the penthouse without building the foundation first. By establishing a ground, descending into the depths becomes a  requirement for ascending to ones heights. So why try to turn the radio on before plugging it in?
             Grounding the lower body in a pigeon pose allows us to orient ourselves in time and space. Like a clock, if the perineum is the center, the pubis is 12:00, the coccyx is 6:00, the right hip is 3:00 and the left hip is 9:00. By orienting our lower bodies within a wide circumference, we can find weightlessness in our upper bodies; which is how we get the yummies out of the pose.
              A pigeon struts around in a backbend, a body lifting off and taking flight. A backbend is the pubis, navel and sternum coming forward and up. Consider the front body is one's potential while the back body is the past. In order to move forward in life, to take flight, one sets up their memories (the back) to support the future (the front). One does not change themselves by manipulating the past, or by bending back. It is the front body substantiated by the lower body, where one begins to come forward into the future

           Therapeutic and spiritual work is often counterintuitive. If we knew how to change ourselves, how to have full lungs, a voluminous heart and liver that filters, we would have done it already and we'd all be well adjusted and we wouldn't need yoga. But real transformation comes from knowing your own blind spots, opening up a field of awareness that is unknown to you and making choices that contradict your habits. In this way you, the student, become the person who benefits from the poses rather than the poses conforming to whatever already suits you.
             By conforming to the formal practice, the student gains an awareness of the personal propensities that keep him or her from living consciously. Thus to start a practice in a pigeon we emulate this bottom feeding bird by substantiating our roots, which enables us to embody their avian nature in order to rise above ourselves so that eventually we can all dwell in the field of the imagination, which is the purpose of it all.

 

 

 

Have you always been able to do a lotus?

 

   
 
When I started my yoga practice years ago, I lusted after the lotus pose, convinced that the man I was dating would fall in love with me. So impressed, he might even pay attention to me and listen to my deep thoughts about life. As I toiled - as I do - I glanced over (a lot) at my then-boyfriend and saw how effortlessly he slid into the pose, closing his eyes and disappearing into his own reveries, lost to me. 
 
He introduced me to all things spiritual, poetic, and esoteric. I was his student, eager for wisdom, insight, and affection. My pursuit of this apparently elevated being's affection fueled my efforts to shove myself into lotus. Instead of leaving me in the throes of knee pain, I would one day join him in his depths and share his experience of enlightenment. 

Lotus would deliver me, and make me a legit yogi instead of a homesick college freshman calling home eight days a week.

   
Alone in my dorm room, I stuffed myself into the pose. I then greased my arms with Vaseline and rammed them through the stubborn gap between my legs, proving I could have perfect posture and be free of diseases. What more could anyone ask of me?
 
I spent every night mastering this feat. One day on the way to weekly yoga class he introduced me to macrobiotic food, explaining that it was a must if I were going to be with him. I wanted to crave soba noodles and have my skin turn grey from this macro diet just like all the skinny girls in class. 
 
One weekend, we went to Kripalu for chanting with the Hari Krishnas. I cringed when he couldn't carry a tune, and he embarrassed me by singing louder than everyone else. I come from a family of great singers and good manners; I would be mortified if I sounded like that, but in that moment nothing commanded my attention more than the urgent spiritual work I had to do. I had no idea that the lotus, while worth aspiring to, comes as a result of the achievement of many other postures. All I wanted was to perform my new stunt. But alas, my hopeful audience of one was swallowed whole by the sitar music, and I lost track of him altogether after the first half hour when he'd sidled up to the guru, leaving me in the back with all the other losers, the ones without the right outfit, Sanskrit name, or shaved head. So there I was, going after a lotus for which I had no map and after a man who I pursued with an equally misguided technique. 
 
Hours later, I ended up not where I had hoped to be, showing off my lotus to Mr. Macrobiotic, but on a grassy slope near his car so he wouldn't leave without me. And as I sat and waited I had nothing to do but take full measure of this man, The Hari Krishnas, myself, and my greasy lotus. We drove home in silence and the following week he dumped me for a waitress at the Broome Street Bar. So she got him but I got my Lotus. 



40 years later I sent my nephew Julian to share Passover with old friends. He reported to me afterwards that he met a man there who captivated him all night. When I hounded Julian for details, he reported that Mr. Macro was fat, twice divorced, and complained to him about his sciatica. If only he still had his lotus.

As much as my lotus ordeal humiliated me and left me hankering for its nectar, it launched my young self on a path to developing an inner life. And as I am prone to beat a dead horse, I stayed with the lotus, even though I didn't have the twelve other poses that should be mastered before it. I had no technique to make my lotus possible. So instead of hog-tying myself, per usual, I began to read Freud, EF Schummacher, and Rob Pirsig, and was soon comforted by the Buddhists, the Hindus, and the Egyptians, who corroborated my need for a solid lotus. These ancients considered the lotus flower a representation of our longing for spiritual enlightenment. 
 
The Egyptian Book of the Dead is said to include spells that are able to transform a person into a lotus, thus allowing for resurrection and personal renewal. As myths hold truth, this mythic idea beckoned me. When my hips gave way, and I solidly felt the seat underneath me, this manifested my own renewal. I felt that I had become the lotus. 
The Hindus describe the flower that emerges out of muddy waters, un-spoilt and pure each morning, as the emblem of possibility for personal transformation. But as students who are developing technique we want to embody it, become it, not just represent it. Of all the yoga postures, the lotus demands the most rigorous technique. 
 
And just like every other archetype, it is ours to embody if we come to class, stay on the mat, participate, measure up, develop good boundaries, and fight the depth of our unconscious propensities. It's a life's work. 
 
The reason we modern practitioners want to embody the archetype of a lotus, is that we are using our bodies as a conduit to change our lives. The value of a lotus pose is to guarantee that we won't unravel. And as it is my propensity to harp, if your body doesn't unravel, neither will you.
When a lotus is measured well, the legs are folded so that they are bound with a central bolt. Your hips, knees, and ankles are cross-referenced so that your pelvis is tied together. Much like a pair of shoelaces, criss-crossed to tie a good knot so that your shoes won't fall off, a lotus bind ties up your pelvis so your hips don't come apart. 
 


Lotus provides a way to tone up your kidneys by building the pelvic floor. A lotus will hold you together. It adds fluency to the hips, demanding a form that flushes energy through ankles, knees, and hip joints, much like a closed electrical circuit functions. And, while at first one fights for the proper form of the bind, the real benefit is the flow, the energy, the currency that moves through your body all bound up. Real freedom is found in confinement. A good lotus will help you address your metabolism (thyroid), flush your toilets (kidneys), adjust your vision (liver), open your windows (lungs), and refine your speech (heart). 
 
A pose like lotus is difficult at first ("at first" could mean years) because it demands a certain amount of pliancy in the joints and a measured process of origami pleating in order to fold one's legs in that pretzel-like bind, instead of stuffing yourself in and mistaking a squish for a good fit. Once we've slid in, the lotus makes other poses easier. A headstand or shoulder stand with legs in lotus gives those poses with no folds a surge of power. A cobra with legs in lotus opens the front of your pelvis, yielding a richer backbend and a fuller arch from intestines to lungs. A twist sets up a double helix, flushing kidneys much like squeezing a sponge. In a lotus, the same twist sets up a curve that is exponentially delicious.

 
 
And not to worry if you don't have your lotus yet. If you are sitting at a right angle, on your perineum, in your hip joints, in the center of your sphere, you will never need Vaseline.

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.

  

Will spinning cause bulky quads?

 

The question below, from WellandGoodNYC.com, discusses whether or not spinning leads to bulky quads.  In this entry, Abbie gives her two cents about this issue.  To read the full article visit www.wellandgoodnyc.com

 

 We've heard this comment about eight million times (maybe you have, too): "I love to spin, but I don't want to bulk up my quads." While no one who said this wanted to be quoted, I've  literally heard such comments as, "I can't fit into my Rag & Bone jeans anymore." So amid the growing chatter and concern that this popular cardio workout may be a great way to torch calories, but at the expense of thicker thighs, the question was asked: " Is this an urban fitness myth spun out of control? Or does spinning really lead to bigger quads?"

 

As a yoga teacher for many years, this is what I tell my sister, Carol Pratt, an avid spinner at Soulcycle with an equally avid thigh obsession: While spinning

demands that you work your legs, the real demand is in the hips. Your legs are extensions of the pelvis. Spinners should be sitting on the perineum, their center, equidistant between the pubis, coccyx, and two buttock bones. In this way you fully engage the hip joints, rather than overplaying the leg muscles. If spinners only push with their legs and bypass their pelvis, the pelvis gets no oxygen, squishing the organs that are meant to give you access to the biggest joint in your body which gives you stability as well as mobility. If you are sitting on your center, you are basically supporting your most primitive organs: your endocrine glands, adrenals, spleen,  and pancreas. 

The glands are your circuit breakers. When you spin in your quads instead of your hips your lower body isn’t oxygenated so your muscles get dense, like hard packed dirt, thus bulky quads. When you work from the hips and pelvis you get a longer muscle, more air (lungs), a longer battery charge (kidneys), and a heart that pumps more efficiently. I staunchly disagree with those who contend that we are stuck with our DNA. The body is organic material and like anything else in nature it’s constantly changing in response to weather, diet, habit, thoughts and behavior. Good form can reform, transform and inform the body. Because the body learns through repetition, you  can set up conditions differently from what your habits dictate. So as I tell my twin sister, be a wise, esoteric yogi and stick your ass out, sit on the opening of your vagina, and back bend. In this way your are not bulking up your thighs, you are making your lungs powerful. It will make you powerful. Watch my sis to see if she’s listening.

What do I do about my Flat Feet?

 

 

 

   What's at issue isn't merely the feet but the whole body, as revealed through the structure and form of the feet. The feet are like the bottom floor of the building, or part of the root system of a plant whose identity is contained within its seed and then repeated all the way through it 

    The body's pattern can be seen in the arch of the foot in particular, because the arch of the foot, shaped like a wave in the ocean, repeats that same arc in a module throughout the body. It matches the arch in the back of the knee, the lower back, the perineum, the shape of the elbow, the back of the neck, your palate, the arch of your spine, even the arch of your armpit! This pattern, the crest and fall of this wave, is like your personal thumbprint, and a roadmap of sorts to your true and personal propensities.

       According to Taoist teaching, the height of the arches in the feet indicates the nature of your alertness, awareness, and acuity of hearing. Flat feet reveal a person with less stamina and less acuity in their nature, but calmer and less excitable. Similarly, calluses can tell us where that person takes the psychic "hit." If a callous is found in the heel of the foot, are you too hard on yourself, or do you dig your heels in? If the callous is in the ball of the foot do you work too hard in the upper body, demanding too much out of your competency and overworking the lungs? If it is in the big toe, the question could be asked do you worry too much or are you trying to cope by keeping your head above water?

           The foot is a concentration of the somatic whole. When we look at your feet, we know from their curves where you are is well-adjusted and where you need support, better bounce, more fullness, better contact,  which all give you higher function and more joy. To change your feet means to change your self, and to move from being flat to being buoyant, from having calm waters to a wave with a richer crescendo.

             To engage in a dialogue with your feet, begin by sitting in Virasana, the virility pose, which is designed to build up an arch that is too low and to break down an arch that is unnaturally hiked up. Sit at a right angle, centered on the perineum, so that your lungs are available in the front and your adrenals are free in the back, with your feet hugging the sides of your hips. In this way you will begin the process of flushing your hips, knees and your ankles while fully engaging your feet.   

            While we are considering the feet, you may actually begin anywhere in the body, and through an imaginative and conscious practice move your personal information into the archetypal form.  This practice will eventually lead to personal transformation.

A Breathing Practice

 

 

by Abbie & Nevine
 
       Pranayama is the art of using breathing  techniques to participate in personal well-being.  Prana,  akin  to the Taoist term Chi, references the universal energy which informs all life through inspiration and expiration. One's breathing is profoundly influential in one's  physiology and psychology. The benefits of a sophisticated breathing practice are enormous. Knowing how to catch one's breath, hold one's breath, empty oneself  and fill oneself allows the individual to modulate and regulate responses to external and internal stimuli.  Pranayama is a gateway to meditation, a state of being predicated on a regulated dialogue between's one's body and one's breath: the state of mediated well-being.  We encourage you to join us for  Katonah Yoga Pranayama classes.
 
        The practice outlined below includes seven breathing exercises.  The sequence moves through integrating the breath first in the lower body,  enhancing organ function through breathing linked to movements. and then  moving into stiller techniques of breathing , moving minerals, adjusting the tonality of one's breath,  with the goal of informing, adjusting, and enhancing one's self.
 
 
          Sit in Virasana  or lotus or half lotus.  Put yourself on a slight incline. Attempt a conscious form ; sitting at a right angle so that your adrenals and lungs are free , make effort for a formal posture.
 
Open your imagination ;  make contact with the universe by sending a line from above, through your skull, through your torso, through perineum to the center of the earth.  This  line in taoism is called the tai chi, in sanskrit it is the sutra atman.  to an architect it  is the plumb line. Use the center of the heart, the focal point of contact, and imagine the  line rising  up through your heart through your head finding north. Use the line down from your heart to find south. Send the line in front of you finding east into your future, and then send the line west, behind you, into your memory. Set your mind and body on grid,, anchoring your orientation in your heart.
 
Flip your palms upwards, back of the hands lightly resting on knees.  Make a contact of your thumb and your first finger. Make another contact of your  tongue on your upper palate. Make the contacts very light. Set up a geometry in your imagination that allows you to establish a trinity of contact -  tongue and palate, fingertip to fingertip.
 
 Establishing  and maintaining a formal, efficient sitting posture is fundamental . The art now is fill this form with breath.
 
 
Exercise 1
 
      Take a deep breath in and imagine that you are rising to the top of a mountain. Then on the exhale, go down to the bottom of a well. Then again, inhale and go up to the top of a mountain. Exhale, and go down to the bottom of a well. As you are breathing in and out  be aware of four parts to every breath. Filling it up, holding it full, letting it out, and holding it empty. As  you rise to the top of the mountain, look around as you hold the breath in, and see the perimeter of the top of that mountain. As you exhale imagine yourself descending to the bottom of a well .  Hold your breath empty for a moment..When you go to the top of the mountain, carried by your breath, image a bird in the heights, and as you go down to the bottom of the well see an ant crawling on the bottom of its surface. Breathe in and out 10 times,  rising and descending on the breath, pausing to adjust your  orientation,  all the while holding the formal form of your sitting , holding the geometry of the fingertip to fingertip to the tongue on your palate, and keeping a count.
 
Between each technique, take a moment to absorb the experience.
 
 
Exercise 2 
 
 
          Keep your eyes closed and put your hands on your knees. Imagine your knees shaped like balls and your hands shaped like mitts.  Fit your palm around your kneecap, . Press and push through  the contact of  hands with knees  to support undulating your spine in and out,(front to back) in rhythm with your breath.  Try to maintain the rhythmic movement mainly in the lower body; rocking back and forth between  your pubis and anus.
 
For 50 breaths maintain the count. Add  a rhythm, and a speed that suits you. You are establishing a pattern that moves all the way thru the body, engaging every arch starting from the foot moving thru the arch of the knee, thru the arch of the groin, the spine, the neck, the roof of the upper palate .Keep undulating until you have completed your count so that the technique has a beginning, middle, and end.
 
When complete, reorient yourself in your center and give yourself a moment to absorb the energy accessed in the practice.
 
Exercise 3
 
         Maintain the contact of your tongue with your palate and your hands cupping your kneecaps. Keep your mind oriented on the center line .  Engage the movement of the lower body to mimic "stirring a pot". Use your  hands on your knees  applying pressure and direction to leverage the momentum.   25 counts in each direction, clockwise and counter clockwise,  inhaling and exhaling as you move around yourself..  The motion of this exercise is very circulatory, helping the hips and legs to be supple and fluid.
 
 
Take a moment  to reorient yourself, letting your breath rise and fall.
 
Exercise 4
 
         Take your arms and put them on your shoulders. Image each shoulder as a ball, image your hands as mitts. Once you have your palms fitting over your shoulders lift your elbows high so they make a line straight across . By rising the  the arms up, the liver gets stretched   and pressure  is taken off  the lungs and  the heart . Keeping your arms up, when you inhale turn yourself to the left, and when you exhale spin yourself to the right. Spin this way inhaling to the left exhaling to the right 50 times making your spine pliant, oxygenating yourself, flushing your liver, cleaning your kidneys, and orbiting around the arc in front of you, your potential.
 
Allow yourself to find your equilibrium.
 
The first part of the practice was dynamic, it was meant to move you, to open you, to flush you. The next three techniques work with hearing and breathing in still form.
 
 
Exercise 5
 
        With eyes closed, embody an inner smile, consciously addressing your heart, lungs, eyes, ears... to be radiant. Sitting in a formal pose, track the hearing to the breathing. Connect your breathing to  a mindful image of the ocean. Every time you  inhale try to make the breath sound like the tide moving in and when exhaling, image and orchestrate  the tide moving out. That oceanic sound of the breath is designed to soothe the kidneys. The kidneys are the water balance of the body and the sound that your ears like to hear  most is the oceanic sound of the breath. The easiest way to calm yourself is to track the sound of the ocean with the breathing and the hearing manipulated by the imagination. Try to complete 10 oceanic breaths.
 
 
Exercise 6
 
       Staying in the same form orchestrate the breath in the throat. This is the ujjai breath. It is a guttural breath, where you are pulling the breath in and out of the throat. You should be hearing a sound like a filter. The Thyroid is like a sieve in this breath technique, extracting minerals out of the atmosphere. When you pull the breath through your throat there is an act of will, a demand, that the breath fills you, ,  feeds you,  liberates you, vanquishes your weaknesses . Try to complete 10 filtered breaths.
 
 
Exercise 7
 
        Still sitting in the same form, embodying an inner smile, maintaining orientation, attentive to the conversation between hearing and breathing,  use your imagination to hear nothing as you breathe.  You are going for silence in the breath. The breath is forceful but you are tracking for silence. The image is threading through the eye of the needle. The goal is to thread with such precision that you don't hit the needle, at which point you don't hear any sound. When the breath is tracked this way it moves the breath into the heart. The silence of speech; It is only when there is silence that the heart can hear.

My Shoulder Hurts!

 

One of my favorite students told me that her shoulder hurt after doing her yoga practice. She was concerned that she was "doing it wrong.”  While it is hard for me to know what someone is doing with their shoulders without watching them work, I can safely say that you don't do yoga to stay the same. The body learns through the repetition of proper form, not setting up your structure so much as re-setting it up. In a sense, every yoga practice is an opportunity to renovate your body that is your "house.”  We engage in this effort to renovate so that we can live in our bodies well, so that our structure, that is, our bones, our frame, the boundaries will contain the interior (organ, glands, feelings) better. Our bodies and minds coming into a practice are holding all of the "damage" of our life in it, our daily burdens as well as those deeper ones that take years to let go of. 

Our daily practice, whether it be a home practice done by ourselves or one in community with a teacher leading us through it, agitates, bothers, shakes up, whips up, and expands the physical body, and in the doing enables us to  let go of the deeply embedded habits of our psychology, our physiology, and the way that we think. Our greatest task is to develop the skill of mediating between our practice in the moment (the personal) and where we would like to be (the ideal). And then our shoulder pain is relegated to its rightful place, as a nudge to use our shoulders as part of the scaffolding for our lungs, which enables us  to have more volume, air, and joy.

Walking the Dog

 

Anyone who has ever taken a yoga class is familiar with a downward facing dog pose.  The dog pose expresses the archetype of this primitive animal.  Dog owners who practice yoga often say that their precious pets can do a  perfect dog pose. This is because dogs instinctively do an ideal version of a dog pose; It is a stretch that demands the full arch of the back and front of the torso with four equal points of contact on the ground.

        You simultaneously press into the floor with your feet and your hands and lift off yourself, through the joint spaces of your wrists and ankles. It is a posture that is expressed through a 60 degree angle, from the heels of your hands, to the fulcrum of your buttock bones, to the heels of your feet.  
        In order to find the ideal pose, begin on your hands and knees and lift through your hips, straightening your arms and bending your knees so that the pinnacle of the pose is the sacrum. Like any other pose, the most functional dog pose uses the geometry of an equilateral triangle.While Geometric shapes are static and linear,the true archetype of a dog is not static, but one that is in motion. Instead of holding a dog pose use your imagination to fully explore its weight-bearing nature.    In the dog pose, find the center of each hand, which puts you in the center of the bone of your arm and shoulder rather than sitting in a muscle. In this way the strength, structure and stability of the pose supports you instead of your effort to hold it. 
        In this pose, cross reference your left  hand to your right foot and your right hand to your left foot  so that you are  engaging your neurology as you play within the form. Think of your hands and feet as four plugs in sockets  which draw a currency up through the joints of your  wrists and your ankles and move a flow of energy through your arms and legs.   
        Finally, know that this pose contains a perfect forward bend and a perfect backbend.  Know that in the dog pose there is a 60 angle that is both dynamic and stable, a true characteristic of the nature of most doggies.

 

Do I need to be flexible to do yoga?

 

Actually students who are a bit stiff have an advantage over students with  loose limbs. Tight people tend to be more linear in their bodies and in their thinking. They understand neurologically how to embody a shape; so that teaching them how to orient themselves to hold the center is easy. People who have a lot of range (flexibility) in their joints tend to struggle with boundaries. Their tendency is to stretch themselves like taffy in order to feel something in their bodies that satisfies them. Tight people simply have to "open up" and they feel wonderful.

Is Yoga Good Exercise?

 

 

The art of good yoga is to fight your propensity to be habitual. By practicing yoga in this manner you generate heat, moisture, and agitation. Your body is designed to" fit"  so that  it fits your environment. The practice is designed for each of you to demand out of yourselves that "fit".
 
When you begin studying yoga you come to the mat "personally" with your " first nature" as your information.  The way that you naturally do a pose, is to use whatever is available to you, your strong back, your strong legs, etc. Eventually you develop a "second nature":  the capacity to work not personally but archetypically to find a pose. In this way you have to be conscious, and purposeful.  You have to use the imagination, the forms and the breath to practice consciously rather than using whatever information you already have.  While yoga isn't specifically designed for aerobics, it demands a physical effort to build a cathedral inside your body,  which by its very nature is rigorous.
 

Why do we do Inversions?

 

 

 In our yoga theory we teach our students that your pelvis and legs are like the root system of a plant. They are your body's depths; the part that makes you stable like the foundation of a building. The upper body, which houses the heart and lungs is your ability to hold feelings, take in and eliminate breath, and enables you to participate well in the world. Inversions are about turning your body upside down so that your stability (lower body) and your capacity(upper body) are reversed.  In an Inversion you support yourself from your capacity instead of from your base. An inversion is like turning a house upside down to air it out and clean it out.  You get a different view.  By moving a currency through all of the rooms of the house(your body) you flush out your bones and create an  infusion of energy.

Why Start in Pigeon?

 

 

Laura was new to my Saturday morning advanced class. She cited several well known NYC yoga studios where she has practiced yoga for 13 years. As the room settled down and class began I asked the students to begin the practice in a pigeon.  Laura, our guest student, balked at this plan and announced that she has never started class in a pigeon, and that she requires sun salutations and warrior poses before she demands so much out of her hips, at which point, she left. At that moment I surmised she was having an emotional reaction, so any theoretical explanation  I would  have given her would not have been useful. But since any one person’s doubt can lead to an insight for all of us, here are some thoughts.
 
 The body is your house. You can start in any of its rooms to clean it out, and make it function more efficiently. You can start by warming up the whole house (body) making it fluid and available for the work ahead. You can open lungs (windows) first in order to initiate your breath and  get a cross breeze, so that breath and energy move through through smoothly.   Or you can start in the basement (your  lower body) to ground the practice in your stability (kidneys).  This is similar to establishing the foundation of a building. Starting practice in a pigeon allows each of us to orient ourselves in the center of the pelvis, with the pubis forward, the coccyx behind and buttock bones east and west. When we begin this way, we establish our ground of being as we make contact with our perineum to the floor, essentially plugging ourselves into the big socket of the earth to find the stability and safety found in the lower body.  This practice sends a current  up to the upper floors  which develops our capacity and our vision.
 
It is a possibility that Laura did not feel safe. Starting in her hips was counterintuitive to her. . If Laura could go into any yoga class and do whatever is asked, this is the nugget she could have taken away with her:  to engage in therapeutic or spiritual work is itself a counterintuitive process. It is making choices that contradict our habits.  In this way you, the student, become the person who benefits from the practice rather than the practice conforming to what ever suits you the student.

 

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