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sun salutations sun

I had three months off teaching this summer, mostly because I spent June in India, studying at the Iyengar yoga institute in Pune.
Anyone who has studied at RIMYI knows that a month there doesn’t really qualify as a holiday. Not with a two-hour class and a three-hour practice six days a week, along with observing as many classes as you can absorb. Still, I wasn’t teaching, so let’s call it a vacation.

On the third weekend of my stay, I escaped the noise and pollution of the city and went to KARE, an Ayurvedic spa located in the hills above Mulshi Lake, about 90 minutes outside Pune.

The countryside was lush and gorgeous, and washed with full-on monsoon rains. In two days, I had two consultations with an Ayurvedic doctor, a nutrition consultation, four treatments, including Shirodhara, – a full body massage followed by warm oil pouring in a steady stream over my forehead for what was either 20 minutes or a float in eternity – and four Iyengar yoga classes.

Monsoon beauty at Kare

Monsoon beauty at Kare.

Both mornings started with a two-hour “dynamic yoga” class at 7 a.m. Both classes began with 10 rounds of sun salutations, which were followed by a very welcome rest in face-down Savasana. Then we went on to other poses.

It’s been a very long time since I did 10 sun salutations in a row. In fact, looking back, I can’t remember a time when that was ever a regular part of my practice, even during my days as a Vijnana student.

At first what I noticed was how much this simple practice lifted my energy. So when I came home, a week later, I kept on doing it, starting every practice with 10 sun salutations.

Let me just say here that these are modified sun salutations.

I wear a brace on my left arm, which helps keep unhealthy strain out of my vulnerable inner elbow. I do some preparatory work getting my inner upper arm muscles to wake up and work for me. And on the advice of Gulnaaz Dashti, whose classes I took on Sunday mornings in Pune, I do a bent-knee Chatturanga (yoga pushup), because I want to protect my shoulders.

I was never a light jumper. Now that I’m older, jumping feels jarring to my eyes, so I step, imperfectly. Even after all these years, the left leg remains less willing to step forward than the right.

So where does the magic come in?

I can immerse myself in this practice, so much so that I need to count on my fingers so I don’t lose track. When I’m done, I feel like I’ve woken up my body, united it with my breath, and settled my mind, all in less than 20 minutes. And as I work with it, day after day, my work in the poses gets deeper.

Some days, for example, I concentrate on the chest opening.

My habit has always been, in downward dog, to look through to my feet right away. Now I spend more time in the preparatory part of the pose, eyes looking either to my hands or the end of the mat, forearms lifting, shoulders stable, bringing my thoracic spine toward my thighs. I do my best to keep that opening as I move through the rest of the cycle. By the 10th time through, my normally stiff upper back is alive and mobile.

Other days, I work for abdominal support, finding the actions that lift my belly toward my spine.

Often, in a flashback to June’s classes at the Institute, I hear the voice of Prashant Iyengar, Guruji’s son, saying, “Exhale deeeeeper. Exhale extra-ooooordinarily deeeeeper.” So I do.

Then, if I strengthen one leg action in downward dog after the exhalation and before I inhale (perhaps rolling the buttock creases at the tops of the thighs away from each other, or pushing the top front thighs back), my belly sucks back and up like the tide going out before a tsunami. I do my 10 cycles working to keep that lift and connection as I go.

I can focus on the work of my arms, the work of my legs, or both. Or I can put all of it together at the beginning, and then let myself be absorbed into the meaning of the cycle, bowing (namaskar) to the sun (surya), paying homage to the source of life on earth.

More yoga magic: a few weeks ago I was immersed in a quiet forward bends practice when out of the blue, Eka Hasta Bhujasana suggested itself. EHB is a hand balancing pose. From a seated position, you bring one leg over its own shoulder. The other leg stays poker straight on the floor. Then you press both hands down by the side of your pelvis and lift, buttocks up off the floor, straight-leg thigh parallel to the floor.

I have always struggled with this pose. When I taught it for Jr. I certification, I used bricks under my hands because it was the only way I could achieve lift-off. So I tried it with bricks first. But the pose felt unusually strong. So I put the bricks aside, and lifted up without them.

The pose was a time-limited offer – a second or two at most. But there it was, a dramatic improvement in a tough pose. We do, yes, have to change our practice as we age. But happily it isn’t all about dwindling strength and lost capabilities.

As I gear up for September’s new session of classes I intend to keep on saluting the sun, even as it gradually spends less time here in the northern hemisphere. I’ll be urging my students to join me, and hope you’ll consider it too.

More resources:

If sun salutations are new work for you, start with one or two rounds and work up. Check out this video from the Yoga Journal for a modified sequence.

For beginners, the hardest part of sun salutations can be stepping forward from downward facing dog. Look here for advice on how to make it easier.

For an excellent article on the history, meaning and practice of Sun Salutation by Richard Rosen, go here.

And check out will-power expert Kelly McGonigal’s story on the devotional aspects of the series.


Lessons in letting go from B.K.S. Iyengar

livehappilydiemajesticallyIn the week and a bit since B.K.S. Iyengar died, this has become my new favorite quote. And as each day passes, I am more grateful to him for setting such a good example of a happy life and a majestic death.

Yes, he could glower. Yes, he yelled in class. But he was not an angry man. He was impish. He took on his role as the traditional tough-love Indian teacher and played it to the hilt, impatient, frustrated by his students’ inability to grasp immediately what he taught.
But anyone who has read Basic Guidelines for Teachers of Yoga, a RIMYI publication from 2002, will see a different attitude:

“After class, your homework is to understand why the student is not getting the asana. You have to reflect on their problems. Think and re-think. And then work on your own. This way you will find that the students improve as the quality of your practice in teaching improves.

“Externally treat your students as students, but internally treat them as God-sent. You are learning by helping them. They make you understand and you must give them respect.”

He lived his own advice, endlessly, inventively finding new ways to transmit understanding. He created a body of work that was never static because he was always teaching new actions, new meditative pathways, new adaptations to take us so deeply into the poses that we would be able to connect to our true selves.

GurujiandmeI have, by the way, my own picture of Guruji glowering, but remember, this is a man interrupted at his work by an unknown student looking for a souvenir photo – and he didn’t say no.

The longer he lived, the happier he seemed to be.

And then came the majestic death: clarity until the end, and no sign that he had changed his mind from the days when he’d say, “when death comes I will welcome it.”

Death might be the ultimate opportunity to practice letting go, but Guruji also gave a much longer, more public lesson in perfecting the art of losing.
Watch a video of him demonstrating his practice when he was in his prime, anywhere from 20 to 80, and you will see how able he was, what astonishing poses he could do.

Then gradually he let go, not of the practice, but of the asana work that was no longer possible for him. A 45-minute headstand with full variations became headstand at the wall, then headstand in the ropes, then headstand with the support of the trestler, a wooden horse used in Iyengar work.

Fully supported, he still did astonishing backbends. And he was present in each pose completely, no wavering of attention, no loss of awareness. His practice remained meditation in action, performed with the joy and gratitude of one who famously said: “The body is my temple, asanas are my prayers.”

As he aged, he let go of what he could no longer do, but always did as much as he could. He never gave up, never said, “I’m too old to practice.” In his last years, he used an elevator to get to the practice room because he couldn’t manage the stairs, but he was there every day. He always practiced with his students. He never hid his losses. He continued, day by day, to do as much as he could, with humility and gratitude.

I think about my own struggle with full arm balance, a pose I find both difficult and magical. I worked for so long to be able to kick up, and had a few glorious years of a reliable pose. Now it’s gone again. I had a niggling elbow injury that made weight-bearing on a straight arm undesirable, so I stopped trying to kick up, and now I can’t.

Could it be that it’s time for me to quit trying? To accept that I’ll only do the full pose with a helper? Logically, there will be a last time for every pose. I have plenty of preparations I can work with, ways to practice that will keep me strong without needing to kick up.

Could I let go of that pose with such grace? Start teaching arm balance without being able to demonstrate it? Could I be honest in saying: “this is not a pose I do any more”?

If B.K.S. Iyengar didn’t magically escape death through the practice of yoga, then I won’t either. If age diminished his extraordinary asana practice, then it will surely diminish mine.

I will always be grateful for having found Guruji’s work, this method of rigorous questioning, of growing inwardly through exploring the asanas.

I suspect that as years go by I may be even more grateful for his lesson in how to consciously surrender to the reality of an aging body, while living happily, and aiming for a majestic death.

Related posts:
Happy Birthday to the Man Who Changed My Life
Life, Happiness and the Pursuit of Liberty?
Arm balance: A love story continued


yoga and belly fat.supta baddhakonasana

Who knew that working on your abdominals could be so relaxing?

Belly fat has been more than usually on my mind for the past few weeks.

First Style Craze, an Indian style and beauty blog, asked me for my “Three Best Yoga Tips to Lose Belly Fat” for a yoga expert roundup.

My purist side wanted to say: “don’t practice yoga for anything, especially not for tailoring your body to beauty industry standards.” But my broader and more optimistic side thinks that any path to yoga will do, as long as you keep walking it. Besides, there are very clear health benefits to keeping your waist measurement on the smaller side. In this case, society’s norms for beauty coincide with good health. So I sent them off an answer, and haven’t heard back.

Meanwhile, I can’t clean out my junk email folder without finding invitations to “blast” my belly fat. Far too often, I open a page on the internet and find an animated cartoon of an undulating belly, or a drawing of a banana under the headline: “Five foods never to eat for a flat belly.”

Even when I’m reading about yoga – in this case Edwin F. Bryant’s translation of the Yoga Sutras, – belly fat keeps popping up. Here’s an image of Lord Vishnu, described as a subject for meditation so beautiful that the mind resists ever being drawn away: “his navel is deep and his belly has three folds.”

What? Not a six-pack? Perhaps he’s been eating too many bananas.

So here are my thoughts on yoga and belly fat:

• What you eat is much more likely than yoga to influence your belly fat. If like me you are a naturally apple-shaped person, who carries any extra weight in their abdomen, then the best way to reduce belly fat is to avoid eating sugar and other simple carbohydrates. My own belly fat expands and contracts depending on how many cinnamon buns, custard Danishes and other forms of Scandinavian comfort food I eat. The strongest connection I’ve found between yoga and belly fat: a balanced practice takes away my need to self-soothe at the bakery.

• Your “belly fat” might have more to do with your posture than it does with slack muscles or extra weight. If you habitually round your upper back, a posture that’s encouraged by computer use, cooking and driving a car, then your belly is likely to protrude.

The same thing will happen if you tip your pelvis forward when you sit and stand. Imagine your pelvis as a bowl full of cherries. If you let the front of the bowl tip down toward the floor, the cherries (or in this case, your belly) will fall out. If you lift the front rim of your pelvis until the bowl is level, you’ll feel your belly move in and up, all by itself.

• What we really want in a yoga practice isn’t so much a flat belly as a functional belly. We want core muscles that will support us as we move through the poses. That includes the deep muscles of the back as well as the abdominals. We want awareness and connection. We want a belly that is strong, but relaxed, capable of work, but not gripped.

• Abdominal work is useful only when it’s based in relaxation. You want connection, not strain. When your belly puffs up and you can’t breathe well, you’re in the mindset of cutting out, getting rid of or “blasting.”
Instead, work from curiosity and respect. Bring awareness to your abdominal muscles, and to learn how to engage them in a healthy way in all postures. Instead of taking on the obvious abdominal strenghtening poses, look at what your belly does in all categories of poses. One example: we don’t normally think of seated forward extensions as poses to work the core body. In fact, they’re a great way to connect with your abdominal muscles, because the work is moderate enough that you can gain strength without strain.

Today’s pose is perhaps the most relaxed way I know to feel how a lively, activated belly works in asana practice. It will do you more good than a thousand grimly determined but mindless crunches.


Put the smaller of your two bolsters under your chest.

Set up a mat with two bolsters and a blanket. (If you have only one bolster, put a stack of blankets or chip-foam blocks under your feet.) Place the blanket so it will be under your head, and put the smaller of the two bolsters closer to the blanket.
Lie down with your shoulder blades on the smaller bolster. Slide backwards so your head comes to rest on the blanket and your arms fit between the bolster and the blanket. Your shoulders will not be resting on the floor.

If your head doesn’t reach the blanket, add another blanket. You want your neck to feel neutral, not arched so your chin lifts to the ceiling. If your shoulders are stiff, try supporting your arms on chip-foam blocks or folded blankets.

Bring your feet onto the second bolster. Lift your pelvis away from the floor very slightly, and draw your buttocks toward your heels. Then slowly lower your buttocks back to the floor, keeping the length in your lower back.

Put the soles of your feet together and let your knees release apart. If your inner thighs feel strained, bring a looped belt around your outer knees, just tight enough to support your legs while allowing your maximum comfortable stretch.

Then relax. This is a great pose for letting tension go from your belly.
For five minutes, settle into your breathing, relaxing your face, eyes, ears and brain, and watching your natural breath come and go.

When your eyes are soft, your front throat is soft, and your breath is quiet and regular, start to direct your inhalations. Be gentle. Rather than “doing” try seeing your inhalations move from the sides of your pubic bones, down toward your spine, then rising up the front of your spine, in line with the sides of your navel, toward your diaphragm. As the breath travels up your belly, notice how it also moves deeper, down toward the floor, and broadens.

Stay for as long as you have time. Ten minutes would be lovely.
Roll to your right-hand side to come out. Stay on your side for at least two relaxed breaths, then slowly sit up. Sit in Sukhasana on one of the bolsters. See if you can maintain the feeling of your soft, broad, lifted belly as you sit.

Next: How a simple strap can help you tame two of the most demanding abdominal poses.

If this was your kind of post, you might also like:
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Supported bridge pose: cross over into quiet
Five-Minute Yoga Challenge: Lie Down and Stretch Your Outer Hips

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downward-facing dog on bricks2

Yes, you get marks on your hands, but the work in your arms is worth it.

How do you walk your downward dog?

I’m tempted to say, “let me count the ways,” but there are so many. Let’s just look at one breed of dog, the group that uses height to get a specific effect.

downward-facing dog on bricks1

Put your hands on the bricks as close to your wrists as you can.

If you’ve spent much time in Iyengar yoga classes, you already know that raising your feet on bricks or a stool eases your hips in downward dog, but makes your shoulders work harder. Putting height under your hands, on bricks or a chair seat, eases your shoulders and helps you put more weight into your legs.

But lift your fingers, and you’ll feel the effects all the way up your inner arm – in the same way that lifting your toes in Tadasana brings your legs alive all the way to the tops of your thighs.

Our inner arms tend to be shorter than our outer arms. When you lift your fingers, you can increase the work of your inner arm, lifting and lengthening your biceps.


In the preparation, focus on pressing your inner hands down and pulling your inner upper arms up, all the way to your collar bones.

That’s especially useful for all of us who have overly flexible joints – “leaky elbows” that move too far toward each other when we straighten our arms.

Here is the raised fingers dog pose that Jawahar Bangera taught in his recent Vancouver workshop – a pose he prefaced by saying: “This is painful.”

I don’t find it so myself, at least in a moderately long holding, although the word “uncomfortable” certainly springs to mind. And you do end up with impressive lines on the heel of your hand.

Place two wood bricks on their lowest side at the wall. (we took the picture with the bricks away from the wall, because it’s easier to see the work in my arms.)

Place your hands, as close to your wrists as possible, at the front edge of the bricks. Come onto your hands and knees, lift your fingers as much as you can away from the brick, and begin to work your arms. From your thumb mounds, lift up your inner arms toward your collarbones. Broaden across your collarbones, then firm your outer shoulders in toward the shoulder joints – without losing the width of your collarbones.

downward dog on bricks 3

Keep the actions in your inner arms as you slowly move into the pose.

Keep those actions as you lift your pelvis. Move slowly, keeping your awareness on the actions of your inner arms as you move more deeply into downward dog.

If you do find the wooden brick painful on your hands, there are a few work-arounds. You might, for example, pad the edges of the bricks with sticky mat – mini-stickies made from cut-up old mats work well.

Or you could use a chair, as in Eyal Shifroni’s excellent book, A Chair for Yoga. (Buy it. You’ll love it.)

The chair back goes upside down against the wall, with the bottom side of the chair seat facing out. You’ll get the same effect of lifted fingers, without the sharp-edged pressure into your wrist.

downward dog on chair

Using the chair gives you much of the the same effect as lifting your fingers, but without the fancy marks on your palms.

No matter how you set up the pose, spend plenty of time working your arms with your knees still on the floor. It’s more important to feel the lift of your inner arms all the way to your collar bones than it is to “complete” the pose.

Besides, in the preparation, you can focus on one arm at a time. I find it hard to get the action in both arms at once. It helps to look at one arm and focus on lifting that inner arm, then hold the action as I transfer my gaze to the second inner arm. It’s rewarding to see the muscle elongate and lift.

So how does this work for you? Do you know an especially enlightening breed of downward dog? Do tell.

If this was your kind of post, you might also like:
Get a leg-up on downward dog
Step Forward from downward dog: Five-Minute Yoga Challenge
Spend a week walking your dog: Five-Minute Yoga Challenge



Lots of birds, and lots of cover for them.

Alan and I met the bird watcher in the parking lot of the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve a few miles north of Palm Springs. He was sitting on the tailgate of his car, a thin gray man in full birding gear: Tilley hat, multi-pocket vest, high-powered binoculars. He looked tired, and not very friendly.

We said hello, and asked if he’d seen any birds.
“Just house finches,” he said. “I get them at my feeder in South Carolina.”

We wished him luck and set off to hike the preserve. At its heart lies a small wetland, a lush green valley at the base of dry desert hills.


Bewick's Wren, at attention, as ever.

As we walked on the boardwalk in the bushy part of the preserve, we encountered two Bewick’s Wrens, facing each other from separate bushes, tails as upright as small territorial flags: much chatter, a chase, and then they disappeared.

Where the trail moved out into the dry hills, flocks of White-Crowned Sparrows, cousins of the ones who spend their summers in the parking lot across the street from Yoga on 7th, foraged on ground that looked as barren as asphalt.

Then we saw something we couldn’t identify: a glossy bird perched on the top branch of a low-growing tree. It could have been some kind of blackbird, except for the crest and the red eyes.

We rejoined the marsh trail, with its even boardwalk, and there, on a bench, sat the South Carolina bird watcher. I asked him what birds he’d seen.

“Just some Bewick’s Wrens,” he said. “The birds have a lot of cover in here.”

I mentioned a small yellow bird we’d glimpsed a short way down the path, but didn’t get a good look at, since it was wisely taking advantage of the cover. Then I walked on, wondering how it was possible not to be glad under a blue dome of a sky, in a lush oasis filled with bird song. Isn’t a Bewick’s Wren miracle enough?


Phainopeplas eat more than 1,100 mistletoe berries a day, each, when they're in season.

Back at our temporary home, I scoured the bird book, while a male house finch with a flaming red breast – we get them at our feeder too – sang from the highest spike of the nearby Ocotillo cactus. I couldn’t find the shiny black crested bird. Nothing even came close.

Hours later, I picked up the book again. Flipping idly through the rare birds section in the back pages, I found it. We’d seen a Phainopepla (pronounced fay-no-PEP-la), a silky flycatcher. The name is Greek for “shiny robe.”

I was ecstatic, not least because Phainopepla is fun to say, and I can make Alan laugh now, almost any time, by gazing at him intently and saying: “Phainopepla.” I don’t keep a life list – a list of all the birds a birder has seen – but if I did, I’d have been very happy to add my first silky flycatcher.

Yoga practice can sometimes be like birding. It’s only natural to want a long life list, to be eager to learn new poses, to believe that novelty trumps familiarity. The poses we know well can be like birds at the feeder, welcome, but no longer commanding rapt attention.

Jawahar from a conference in Glasgow in 2011.

Jawahar at a conference in Glasgow in 2011.

My first day back home in Vancouver was the first day of a weekend workshop with Jawahar Bangera. Jawahar has studied with B.K.S. Iyengar since 1969. The poses were simple, and all familiar: Tadasana, Trikonasana, Parsvakonasana, Supta Padangusthasana, Paripurna and Ardha Navasana. Every pose we did was on the introductory syllabus.

And every pose was also new, including Tadasana, simple standing. Jawahar wanted stronger, straighter arms than I’m used to creating. The deltoids, at the top outer arm, were to set the arm bones into the shoulder sockets. Then the muscles, particularly in the inner arm, were to stretch to the floor.

“Tadasana is to show you how compact the body can be,” he said.

I’m as likely as anyone to adore a new pose, or a new bird. But show me new facets to an old familiar pose, and I’ll follow you anywhere.

As I’ve worked with my transformed Tadasana over the past week I’ve learned something. If you make your arms completely straight and strong in Tadasana, when you take them out sideways to move to another standing pose, you’ll feel enormous power in your arms.

I’ve also learned that the House Finches of South Carolina aren’t native birds. They’re descended from a small number of House Finches imported from the West. They were turned loose in 1940, on Long Island, New York, after failed attempts to sell them as cage birds, under the name “Hollywood finches.”

Seems there’s never an end to learning about familiar birds, or familiar poses.

Seen any good birds? Rediscovered any poses you thought you already knew? I’d love to hear about it.

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How is a yoga pose like a Russian Matrushka doll?

janu sirsasana abdominals 2

Press strongly down into the brick on the outside of your straight leg to help lift your body, from your pubic bone to the top of your sternum.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say, “Wow, I’m really going to feel my abs tomorrow,” after taking a yoga class that concentrated on seated forward bends. And that’s a shame, because they can be great abdominal poses.

When I first started to take classes, I loved seated forward bends and practiced them at home whenever I had time. My hamstrings lengthened fairly rapidly, and eventually I could rest my head on my shin, or close to it, especially if I wasn’t too picky about not rounding my back. It was quiet and cozy inside my forward bends, and when I came back up I felt relaxed and clear.

Then my yoga life became more complex. I stopped doing seated forward bends except occasionally. After all, I “had” them, didn’t I? It seemed like a better use of my practice time to work on poses that were difficult for me: standing balances, headstands, big backbends and abdominal poses, especially the boat poses, both half and full.

A few weeks ago, while looking for clues to help understand the boat poses, I stumbled across what for me was an entirely new idea. In the section on abdominal poses in Yoga: A Gem for Women, Geeta Iyengar cautions that these poses are too intense to be attempted if the abdominal muscles and the muscles of the lumbar spine are weak. Instead, “the muscles should first be toned and strengthened,” by the practice she recommends:

• the standing poses,
• shoulder stand and several of its variations, and,
• the asanas in Section II, Plates 26 through 30.

I’ll confess that I don’t know Gem well enough to instantly match the poses to the plate numbers. I eagerly flipped to the photos only to find, to my surprise, five seated forward bends: Janu Sirsasana, Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana, Triang Mukhaikapada Paschimottanasana, Maricyasana I and Paschimottanasana.

That’s when I performed my own quintessential yogic gesture – not Namaste, but “duh!” the classic hand-to-the-forehead, Homer Simpson moment, when the light bulb turns on.

Of course, what could be more obvious? It’s much easier to strengthen your abdominals in the right way, to learn their inward, broadening and lifting action, when all you’re doing is attempting to elongate your spine while seated on the floor.

Why even try to hold the weight of your legs in full boat pose if you don’t know how to work your abdominals when they aren’t holding your legs up?

Why waste your time bailing out a leaky boat when you could back up a bit and build one that’s watertight?

Since then I’ve been working with getting and maintaining the lift of my belly in seated forward bends. It works with all of the poses Geeta recommends, of course. But I find the most clarity in Janu Sirsasana, (head-to-knee pose).

If you’d like to strengthen your abdominals in Janu Sirsasana as a Five-Minute Yoga Challenge, here are some pointers:

Let go of any idea that this is about hamstrings. Don’t even think about bringing your forehead to your shin. For the moment, think up, not forward.

janu sirsasana abdominals 1

Get the lift of your pubic bone as soon as you set your legs.

• As soon as you bring your legs into place, compact your hips. Stretch the bent-leg thigh out and down. Then focus lifting your pubic bone. You’ll know that your pubic bone is perpendicular to the floor when you feel your belly easily drawing back toward your spine, lifting and spreading, without any clenching on your part.

• As you slowly turn your spine toward your straight leg – in this case the left leg – keep the lift of your pubic bone. You’re looking for a clean feeling of lift and twisting, your belly constantly moving in and up.

• Reach your right hand to your left foot. If you can’t hold your left foot without collapsing your chest, use a strap. Then try this useful bit of propping Gabriella Giubilaro taught at a workshop some years ago: take a wood brick to the outside of your left thigh, and press your left hand into the brick. Use the leverage the brick gives you to lift your ribcage up away from your pelvis. And then stay there, breathing and lifting.

Hold for two minutes, then change sides.

For tight hamstrings, have as much height under your buttocks as you need to allow your straight leg to truly straighten, and you spine to lift.

If your bent leg knee doesn’t release toward the floor, first add more height under your pelvis, and then support your knee.

Work hard enough and long enough, and you might feel your abs tomorrow. You won’t have the sensation of having done 100 crunches — instead you’ll get something you might like even better: a new firmness, lightness and lift through your belly.

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blockbaddhakonasana skeleton

Notice the thick, heavy rim at the top of the shoulder blade. It can take your weight.

Lately I’ve come to have a whole new appreciation for my shoulder blades, and in particular, for the thick part at the very top rim.
In the past, I always imagined my shoulder blades to be light and fragile, part of a gossamer shoulder girdle meant to float on top of my ribcage.

Now I feel the tops of my shoulder blades as bones with substance, strong supports for my upper back. As long as I stay connected to them, they can help me erase the effects of sitting at a desk, and of every other front-chest collapsing activity, from cooking to driving.

Even more magically, my new shoulder blade understanding has deepened my twists, enlivened my shoulder stand, and given me a new lift of my front chest in seated pranayama.

I have Mary Lou Weprin to thank for this. Mary Lou normally teaches in Berkeley, at The Yoga Room. But early in March, she travelled north to Nanaimo, B.C., for a weekend workshop.

On Friday evening, she taught a version of Baddha Konasana (bound angle pose) that involves leaning into a dense foam brick at the wall. She told us that she teaches this pose in every class, and true to her word, we worked on it every day for the three days of the workshop.

The demonstration looked disarmingly simple and relaxing. We were, after all, sitting down. But you’ll soon what makes this a worthy Five-Minute Yoga Challenge: it takes work to press the top shoulder blades into the brick and broaden them away from your spine, while simultaneously growing wider across your collar bones.

Touch your fingers to your shoulder and lift your elbow to the ceiling to make your shoulder blade move down.

Touch your fingers to your shoulder and lift your elbow to the ceiling to make your shoulder blade move down.

Try it once, and you’ll feel a new openness in your upper body. Make it a daily part of your practice, and you may be surprised by where it leads you.


Press your hands into the floor to help lift your chest.

Sit slightly away from the wall in your own version of Baddha Konasana, (bound angle pose). (Sit so that your knees are lower than your navel when your feet are pressed together. That might mean one blanket under your buttocks, or, if your hips and inner thighs are tight, a bolster propped up on two layers of chip foams.)

Place a dense foam brick at the wall, and lean back, so the top edges of your shoulder blades come to rest on the brick.

Make sure that your shoulder blades are moving away from your ears. One way to do this is to set your shoulders as you would in Savasana: bring one hand at a time to its own shoulder, with your elbow no wider than your shoulder. Then reach your elbow up to the ceiling. You should feel your shoulder blade move down and come into a cleaner contact with the brick. If you have trouble feeling the work when you try this pose, your shoulder blades are probably rounded forward, away from the brick.

Once your shoulder blades are set, lean back into the brick. It helps to press your hands into the floor to start, both to lift your side ribcage and to press back into the brick.

Broaden the tops of your shoulder blades out to the tips of your shoulders.
Then take your awareness to your front body and broaden your collarbones out to the tips of your shoulders. You should feel your front chest lifting. Check that your top buttock rolls to your mid buttock, so your lower back stays long.


Let your chin move to your chest to release any tension in your neck.

You may notice that your neck feels some strain in this pose, especially after a few moments of serious effort. Try dropping your chin toward your chest. You might be surprised how close you come to the chin lock (Jalandhara Bandha) you need for seated pranayama.

You can work your legs in the pose – your inner thighs stretch toward your inner knees and your outer knees pull back toward your outer hips – but don’t lose the focus on your broadening, lifting chest.

Stay in the pose until you have a firm imprint of the brick in your upper back.
Five minutes would be a good goal. Then use your hands to bring your knees back together, and come out of the pose.

You can take this imprint with you into many other poses. All you have to do is inhabit the tops of your shoulder blades, and suddenly, as though you had a new invisible friend, there’s extra freedom in your twists, and more sensitivity and broadness in your shoulder stand – in fact in all poses in which the shoulders connect with the floor.

So lean into your shoulder blades. They can take it.

To my Nanaimo friends who were at Mary Lou’s workshop: I’d love to know what part of the work you’ve found most useful. Please comment.

If this was your kind of post, you might also like:
Crank Your Thighs in Bound Angle Pose to Protect Your Knees
Five-Minute Yoga Challenge: Stretch Your Shoulders With an Imaginary Sticky Mat
10 Yoga Poses for Shoulders, and Three Tips to Make Them Even More Powerful

taking off and landing

Taking flight? Here's to an unhurried takeoff and a safe landing.

I spent two years of my 20s working as a flight attendant. Time long ago erased any memory of where to find the first aid kit on a Boeing 737 and which planes need the girt bar stowed so the emergency slide won’t deploy when the doors open. But every time I travel, I remember this piece of wisdom: if anything is going to go wrong, it almost always happens on taking off and landing.

Yoga poses are a bit like air travel.

Our practice asks us to live in the present and to pay attention to each moment as it unfolds. In contrast, day-to-day life urges us to identify a perfected state and move toward it as quickly as we can. No wonder beginners watch the demonstration, remember only the final shape of the pose, and return to their mats with their minds already halfway down the runway.

But if you rush, you will almost certainly push your body past its ability to hold the alignment of the pose. In a forward bend, your back will round. In a standing pose, your weight will most likely tip forward. Standing or sitting, you will probably drop your pubic bone forward, and lose your connection to your core body.

One yoga lesson that has stayed with me for 20 years came from Israeli teacher Orit Sen-Gupta. Her practice was always a delight to watch, because she moved with such intense yet relaxed concentration.

Orit taught that each pose was a continuum, that every moment, from forming the intent to do the pose, to its fullest expression, to the moment when you returned to your beginning, was an essential part of the pose. No moment was more privileged than any other; no point along the journey was any more “the pose” than any other point.

Especially as beginners, we are much more able to perform actions in the first few points along the continuum of a pose than we are when we reach the limits of our hips and hamstrings and begin to struggle with balance. And the actions we carry forward determine what we achieve in the pose.

Slow down. Resist the temptation for immediate takeoff. First become quiet; in Tadasana (mountain pose) if you’re standing, in Dandasana (stick pose) if you’re sitting. These poses are the equivalent of filling the gas tank and doing the cockpit check.

taking off and landing.warrior 3

This 'airplane pose' might be flying better if the actions of both legs had been set on takeoff.

Are your legs active? Is your pelvis aligned so the pubic bone is perpendicular to the floor? Is your chest open and lifted? Are your collarbones wide? Are your shoulder blades released away from your ears?

Keep those actions as you taxi into the pose.

In a standing pose, as soon as you step your legs wide apart, check that your pubic bone is still perpendicular to the floor, that your legs are active. Each movement offers you a choice: a smooth, mindful trip down the runway, or a bumpy ride, with your mind on what happens next.

If the danger of rushing the beginning is that you never find the full pose, collapsing out of the pose at the end is at best a break in concentration, at worst, an injury.

When you come up quickly from a deep forward bend, you are more at risk of tearing a hamstring. When you drop your shoulders as you leave headstand or elbow balance, you are more at risk of a neck or shoulder injury. When you let go of the actions before you leave a pose, you place yourself in a vulnerable position.

But there’s something more that’s sacrificed by rushed entrances and exits. Yoga asanas are containers for awareness as much as they are expressions of the body. Ideally, your connection with your Self grows inside the pose. If you rush in you may never be able to connect. If you collapse out, you lose your chance to bring a more integrated awareness out of the pose with you.

Eric the yoga teacher was blond and beautiful. He had a ponytail, a body sculpted by a strong yoga practice, and he wore half-inch plugs in his ears. I took his classes during the year I commuted to Seattle every week, and have about as many memories of his teaching as I do of technical details of airplanes.
But this piece of yoga wisdom remains: “Going into the pose is the guru; being in the pose is the guru; coming out of the pose is the guru.”
Eric would have made a good pilot.

If this was your kind of post, you might also like:
It’s not all bliss: how to work with poses you don’t like
Rooting: a yoga lesson from the garden
Withdraw your eyes, quiet your mind: Five Minute Yoga Challenge

utkatasana: daruma doll

Ever felt like a bottom-heavy Daruma doll when you were squatting? Utkatasana can help.

I disliked Utkatasana the first time I tried it.

Wende’s demonstration made it look simple enough: raise your arms, bend your knees and sit back. Simple yes. Easy, no. I was shocked by how hard it was, and how at sea I felt. I didn’t know how to make it better. And that’s were I stayed. I never understood the actions; I just made the movements and suffered through it.

What’s worse, I didn’t really care.

In my mind, Utkatasana (pronounced OOT-kah-TAHS-anna), was a first-syllabus pose, meant for beginners. It had no glamor. What’s exotic about sitting in mid-air? It had no sweetness; none of the surrender of forward bends, the unwinding of twists or the exhilaration of backbends.

Utkatasana was just work and weakness; my own weakness brought home with exquisite clarity, with a little knee pain tossed in for good measure. Yes, I could move from standing, through Utkatasana and into a squat, but the deeper my knees bent, the heavier I felt. And once I was fully squatting, I had no idea how to stand back up again. I felt like one of those bottom-heavy Japanese Daruma dolls, except without the traditional optimism and strong determination.

Lately, though, a light has been dawning.

Malasana from the Yoga Journal

Malasana from the Yoga Journal

My learning arc started with another introductory asana, Malasana, the garland pose, out of which so many other poses grow. Turn it upside down and it’s Apanasana; place your shins on the floor and you’re in child’s pose; slide your hands under your arms and straighten your legs and you’re in Kurmasana. Whenever a pose asks you to take your front groins deep into your body, and simultaneously lengthen your spine, Malasana is there.

And what is Utkatasana except the logical route from standing to squatting, from Tadasana to Malasana and back to standing again? What was it except Malasana, all over again, only with raised arms and straighter legs?

Yes, Utkatasana has plentiful benefits. It improves flat feet. It strengthens your ankles, thighs, calves, and spine and stretches your chest and shoulders. It also stimulates your abdominal organs, diaphragm and heart.

But here’s why I’d urge you to take it on as a Five -Minute Yoga Challenge: if you focus on the actions as you practice, and work with Utkatasana consistently, it will open doors to other poses. This is, after all, part of the genius of the Iyengar method: we learn actions in simple poses, then, once we can perform them, we carry them with us to more complex poses.

Don’t imagine a grim five minutes in the pose, reenacting time spent, back to the wall, knees bent, suffering through high school gym classes. Instead, start with supine Pavana Muktasana to wake up your groins. Then stretch into child’s pose, watching your hip creases recede deeper into your body. Come to standing, then Tadasana, and then bend your knees and take Utkatasana.

If you’re just starting to work with the pose, come up and down several times. Once you feel stronger, as long as your knees are healthy, take your Utkatasana all the way into a squat, and come back up without touching your hands to the floor.

utkatasana to chair seat

Really? Still no chair seat?

Or try sitting back to a real chair. Be sure to start by standing close enough to the chair that you know it will be there for you when you sit down. Now matter how strong you are, I’ll wager that the first time you try it you’ll be asking: “where is that chair, anyway?”

Then play with it. Try, for example, shifting from Utkatasana into Warrior III. All you have to do is keep the actions, raise one leg and lower your torso – magic.

You can find excellent resources for Utkatasana on the web. Check out the asana piece at the The Yoga Journal, and Shiva Rea’s excellent YJ piece called For Beginners: Utkatasana.
For a look at how to protect your knees in the pose – essentially by keeping your weight toward your heels as much as possible, check out Dr.Eden Goldman on How Yogis Made Chair Pose Dangerous.

Here are three essential actions to establish in Tadasana:

• Roll your top back thighs away from each other.
• From the sides, plug your top thigh bones deep into your hip sockets.
• Roll your top buttock toward the floor enough to bring your pubic bone parallel to the wall in front of you. You’ll know that’s happened when you feel your abdomen lift and firm.

And four helpful actions in Utkatasana:

• Bend your knees only slightly to begin with, then sit strongly back. Focus on stretching your inner thighs toward your inner groins.

• Keep your buttocks rolling down and your pubic bone lifted.

• Keep your weight toward your heels.

• As your top thighs sink toward the floor, lift your buttock bones up.

Of all the instructions I’ve read, that last action, which I found in Shiva Rea’s article, has been the most fruitful.

First experiment with sitting back, pressing your hands down on your top thighs and lifting your sitting bones up, and repeat a few times to get the hang of it. In full Utkatasana, activate your sitting bones partway down; don’t wait until you’re at your deepest point.
If you can keep a sense of your sitting bones lifting, no matter how deeply you bend your legs, you’ll be a Daruma doll no more.

Do you have any helpful tips for Utkatasana? Please share.

If this was your kind of post, you might also like:
Use a strap around your hip crease to free your groins: Five Minute Yoga Challenge
Pain or Golden Glow: It matters what you call it
Why is yoga so hard to do?


new question for new year

No, it's usually not this bad, but sometimes it is.

For as long as I can remember I’ve been a sucker for New Year’s resolutions. I always want to improve myself, to trade this very imperfect human being for a new and improved model.
This year, not so much.

I’m happy with my good habits of workday mornings: early rising, breath practice, 500 words on my book project (only 3,000 to go before I have a very rough, very drafty, first draft).

I plan to keep on improving the decisions I make when the choice is: water or something with caffeine in it; going to bed at 10 or staying up late; setting my timer for a pomodoro and standing up when it rings, or letting myself sit at my computer for a hazy, undetermined length of time.

I wasn’t planning any big changes. But then my resolution for 2014 found me.

I looked at my yoga space and wondered: What would happen if I put my props away after every practice?

I already know what will happen if I don’t put my props away, although the picture above, while true and unmodified as of last Friday morning, suffers from seasonal exaggeration.

The table, on its back like a disabled beetle, has a broken leg, discovered on Christmas Day, just as we were preparing for the family’s arrival. Truthfully, there is no other space in the house that’s tucked out of sight of guests, so it went into my yoga space.

new years resollution elvis radio

A closer look at Elvis, now glued back on his base.

The white box to the right of the table holds the Elvis clock radio, one of those joke family Christmas presents passed around with ritual hilarity every year. The Elvis doll had separated from his base. While we were waiting to buy the right glue for the table, it made sense to put Elvis on it. And while the wood glue was out, why not glue the tip of Ganesh’s trunk back on? The space heater, back there behind the stack of wood bricks, was there because the last time I practiced it was very cold. The jumble of straps and blankets is, sadly, pretty much a constant.

Asking what would happen if I put my props away after every practice felt startlingly new.

Here I was, at the turn of the year, not ordering myself around, but instead trying to awaken my own curiosity. It seemed like a promising approach, since the only way to answer the question would be to keep on putting the props away.

“What would happen if?” is a particularly Iyengar yoga question. We are always checking: what would happen if I extended my inner heel in this pose? What would happen if I took my upper arm bones deeper into the sockets? Would it be good? Would it be useful?

When I looked carefully, I noticed that part of my story about what would happen was one of those grand scenarios that so often accompany New Year’s resolutions.

Perhaps that one act of putting my props away would be the key to making me the flawlessly organized person I so long to be. Perhaps putting my props away is the thread I can pull, and keep pulling – not to unravel my world, but to turn it from a ball of frazzle into a neatly wound skein.

But if I became that flawlessly organized person, would I like her? And would she like me? Does she already think I’m lame?

I’m beginning to believe that not carefully asking “what would happen if?” is one reason why 90 per cent of New Year’s resolutions go down in flames every year, usually well before the end of January.
Yes, we want to change, but underneath, we’re afraid of changing too much, too soon.
It’s unlikely that putting my props away will unleash a tsunami of neatness powerful enough to turn me into someone so different that I wouldn’t know myself. Realistically, what will happen is that I’ll vacuum the floor more often, because it will be easier to do.
I suspect I will become, incrementally, just a little neater. It will be, incrementally, just a little easier to settle into practice when it’s time to start.
So I guess I’ll do it and find out.

• • • • • • • • • •

Back in November – really? it was that long ago? – I offered a copy of Sparks of Divinity in exchange for your favorite quote. It was hard to pick a winner, so hard, in fact, that I resorted to writing names on slips of paper, jumbling them up, and picking one at random. The Finger of Fate rested on Susie, who wrote: “A saying that inspires me as I go about my ordinary day:’Do small things with great love.'”
Thank you to everyone who commented.

• • • • • • • • • •

If this was your kind of post, you might also like:

Resolve to be Content: Five-Minute Yoga Practice
Pain or Golden Glow: It Matters What You Call It
How to Turn on Your Willpower and Stick to Your Yoga Practice

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