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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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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