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"The body is the bow, asana is the arrow, the soul is the target" – B.K.S. Iyengar

In my first dance class, I clung to my mother’s knee, three years old and already deeply suspicious of group activities.

Then Miss Goddard announced “London Bridges” – the full back bend that Iyengar yogis call “upward bow.”

I looked around, saw what it was, lay down and pushed up away from the floor.

I don’t remember it being difficult. I do remember feeling very happy, and no longer afraid.

When I first started doing yoga, 35 years later, I couldn’t have pushed up off the floor to save my life. I don’t remember exactly when that changed, but I know it was at least 10 years into my practice.

Now it’s one of my favorite poses. It still makes me feel happy and brave. And as time goes by, I’m becoming convinced that it’s an essential pose for anyone who intends to walk upright and graceful into old age.

While passive chest openings are useful – they can reverse our forward-bending posture and help us recreate a broad, open ribcage – they  don’t build the muscular strength we need to keep us erect and open in our daily lives.

The good news is that you can ease into doing full back bends a bit at a time. And if you do it carefully, you can learn to push up evenly from your arms as well as your legs. That keeps strain out of your lower back, so you’ll be able to go on doing full back bends for as long as you want.

Ease yourself back until you feel the edge of the stool pressing the bottom edges of your shoulder blades.

This preparation, for example, can be done in a restful way, with head support, and if you like, a second plastic stool supporting your hips.

The stool, by the way, is not there to make things easier. (In fact, if you push up easily from the floor using your lower back, you may find that the stool makes it harder.)

What working with the stool teaches us is how to connect with our shoulder blades and to lift up evenly, instead of lifting only from our legs and lower backs.

Thumb and index finger press into the floor, the palm presses the wall.


Here’s how:

Bring the wide edge of a plastic stool about 18 inches (45 cm) from the wall on a non-slip surface.
I have a blanket under the stool to protect the mat. You could also use cut up pieces of old mat.

Place a wood brick between the stool and the wall.

Sit down in front of the stool with your back to the wall.
Slide back so the bottom edges of your shoulder blades rest on the front edge of the stool. Adjust the brick so it comfortably supports your head.

Pull your elbows towards each other and take your upper arm bones toward your shoulders.

Take your hands to the wall, thumb and index finger touching the floor.
If you can’t get your hands to the floor, place them higher. A tall baseboard can be ideal.

You will notice that your elbows fall out to the sides.
Draw them towards each other.
Then pull your upper arm bones toward your shoulders.
You will feel your shoulder blades pressing into the stool.

Lift your pelvis to increase the work in your shoulders.


Focus your awareness on your shoulder blades.
Experiment with lifting your buttocks higher while taking your tailbone toward the back of your knees.

Imagine lifting up away from the pressure of your shoulders moving into the stool.

Then release.

Yes, it could be better, but that's what my next few years of practice are for.

If you’re ready for more, remove the wooden brick, repeat all the steps, focus on lifting away from the pressure of your shoulders on the stool, and lift up evenly from your arms and your legs.

The first backbend is never as good as the second one. Rest and push up again.

What might go wrong:

You can be too far from the wall:

Then your arms will already be straight, and when you bring your upper arms toward your shoulders, you will not have any strength to press with. Move closer.

The stool slides away from the wall:

This means you are pushing from your hands, not lifting  from your shoulders.

Focus on pulling your upper arm bones toward your shoulders and lifting. If all else fails, put the stool on a less slippery surface – small squares made from old sticky mats are ideal.

For an even more relaxing version, put a second stool under your pelvis. Getting in and out is a bit more awkward, but being there takes less work in the legs.

I wouldn’t begin to suggest using this pose as a Five-Minute Yoga Challenge.

You need to warm your body up first, especially if you plan to push up in the pose.

Think standing poses, downward dog, handstand or elbow balance, and back bend in a chair. You might also add one or two of the introductory back bends, such as camel pose (Ustrasana), upward dog or bow pose.

Even if you just want to try working your shoulders against the stool, at least do a chest opening and a long downward dog pose before you get out the props and play.

Photo courtesy of midnightcomm, via Flickr. Studio photos by Mary Balomenos.

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You could try this solution for afternoon slump – or you could practice shoulder stand.

What’s the best time of day to do shoulder stand?

The pat answer is that disciplined yogis always do their practice first thing in the morning, so the best time is toward the end of morning practice.

The practical answer is: whenever you can.

Perhaps you have to leave for work too early to make morning practice anything but a pre-dawn penance. Or maybe you’re a night owl, and the idea of early practice is as appealing as a hearty breakfast of oatmeal porridge.

Lately I’ve been reminded of just how well shoulder stand fits into the end of the day.

Here on day 52 of my 90 days of shoulder stand, I’ve noticed a pattern: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays are early morning practice days. Sundays, Mondays and Fridays, I practice late in the afternoon.

By 4 p.m., I’m usually sliding into my lowest ebb of energy for the day, the fuzzy-headed, caffeine-craving  black hole of afternoon slump.

So I start my practice lying down on the floor, preferably cross-legged, with a wood brick on its flat side under my shoulders and my head.

Then depending on the time I have left, I practice, with shoulder stand close to the end.

Yes, I work hard in the pose, particularly through my legs, shoulders and upper arms.
But when I come down, I feel soothed, calm and energized – exactly the mood that goes best with cooking dinner.

It’s like getting an extra four hours of useful time in the day.

I know that late-afternoon shoulder stands aren’t accessible to everyone – especially if you have a family that needs to eat early.

But supposing you can work it in, here’s a half-hour routine to take you from the end of the day slump to renewed energy for the evening.

1. Start with your favorite chest opening. Spend five minutes relaxing your face and your eyes, and letting yourself become present in your body.

2. Stretch your side body in child’s pose, then take that length into dog pose. Hold dog pose, working your thighbones up and back, for between one and five minutes.

3. Sit in hero pose and stretch your shoulders in Gomukhasana  (or better yet the full pose, complete with Gomukhasana arms, if it’s suitable for you. See plates 80 and 81 in Light on Yoga)

4. Set up for your shoulder stand, and lie down on the blankets. Take your strap around your ankles, holding one end in each hand, stretch your tailbone toward your heels, then lift your buttocks to come up into Chattush Padasana (four-foot pose).

This is Chattush Padasana without support. For a more accessible version, do it from your shoulder stand setup with a strap around your ankles.

Come on to the outside edges of your shoulders, and lift your buttocks higher. Curl your tailbone toward your spine as you come down. Repeat.
You’ll find that having the shoulder stand setup under your shoulders helps you open your chest in this back bend.
(James Murphy, at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of New York has an excellent sequence of practices available as a free pdf,  That’s where I found this picture of Chattush Padasana without support.)

5. Swing your legs over into plow pose. Stay for a minute or longer, then go into shoulder stand. Stay for five minutes or longer, including the variations you’re working with.
Lower your legs back into plow pose, remove your strap and roll out. Keep your buttocks on your shoulder stand platform, and bring your shoulder blades onto the floor.

6. Do relaxation pose for five minutes. Then rise renewed – feeling much better than you would have if you’d eaten those little cakes.

Photo courtesy of Magnus D, via Flickr.

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Where do you find your inner teacher?



Funny how the neck looks so separate, when it's really continuing the line of the spine.

Almost every time Wende, my first teacher, looked at my downward dog, she would say: “Eve, let go of your head.”

Time after time, it came as a surprise. I was so used to gripping my neck that I no longer knew I was doing it.

Head-forward posture, the kind we adopt when we stare into computer screens, makes it almost inevitable that we will end up with strain and tightness in our necks.

Far from coming naturally, releasing it is something we have to learn.

Last weekend I attended a workshop with Bev Winsor, a senior Iyengar yoga teacher from Newfoundland.

From the beginning of the workshop, we hung our heads in downward dog, in child’s pose, in standing forward bend (Uttanasana).

On Saturday morning, about five hours into the workshop, we were preparing for headstand with a long holding in standing forward bend.

I felt a release that started from the middle of my upper back, a trickle that moved down my spine through my neck. Suddenly I could feel the full weight of my head, a weight that elongated my spine.

As a yoga moment, it was profound. My outer picture of my body as three separate units – head, neck and torso – shattered. It was replaced by the inner reality of my backbone, one line, alive and extending.

I’ve been hanging my head ever since. And along with the new feeling of lightness at the back of my neck from my new shoulder stand setup, it’s beginning to feel like a good new habit.

So join me. This week’s Five-Minute Yoga Challenge is: hang your head to free your neck.

Work to lengthen your thoracic spine in child's pose by pressing your hands down and extending from your pubic bone to your navel – then keep your collarbones wide as you hang your head.

Hang it in downward dog. Hang it in child’s pose. Hang it in standing forward bends. Hang it in arm balance or half arm balance. And if pranayama is part of your practice, hang it in Jalandara Bandha (the chin lock).

Before you go off to practice, here are three things to look out for:

• Check that it’s your head you’re hanging, and not your shoulder girdle.

Keep your collarbones wide, and lift your shoulder blades away from your ears.

As you do that, visualize the collarbones and the shoulder blades forming a firm, wide opening for your spine as it extends through towards the crown of your head.

• In dog pose, child’s pose and standing forward bends, create a concave upper back before you lower your head.

Make sure that your lumbar spine is long and it’s your upper back that is stretching.

Do this by lifting the two sides of your pubic bone toward your navel. Then lengthen your front body towards your collarbones and press  your inner shoulder blades down your back, and deeper into your ribcage.

In the workshop, Bev had us come in and out of standing forward bend (Uttanasana) several times before we went to our deepest pose. First we found the concave spine, then folded, then lifted and re-lengthened from the pubic bone to the navel, then folded again, and repeated, at our own rhythm.

• If you don’t feel any great sense of release right away, don’t despair.

You have more than just years of habitual bad posture to overcome.

Because of the strength of our senses, especially our eyes, we are prone to feeling that we live in our heads, and that our neck is a discrete unit that separates our humming, busy minds from the animal that lives downstairs.

It takes time to internalize anatomical reality: your neck is one segment of an unbroken line from your tailbone to the last two vertebrae, not visible as part of your neck.

And remember, you do have a choice about where you live in your body. The heart is as practical a home as the head, and more spacious.

When I think back to all those times that Wende told me to let go of my head, I know why it was so hard to do.

How can you let go of your head if that’s where you’re used to living?

Photo courtesy of Perfecto Insecto.

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Withdraw your eyes, quiet your mind









The delicacy of the shoulder girdle

See where the collarbones meet the sternum? That's it for the shoulder girdle's connection to the ribcage.

The thing about the shoulder exercises gathered on this page is that they all work, in the sense that a good cookbook works if you actually open it and cook.

But just as cooking has principles that extend through every recipe, yoga has certain principles of movement that work in almost most every pose. Correct shoulder action in one pose is correct shoulder action for almost all poses. (Lolasana and related poses are one exception that springs to mind.)

So you might consider these Five-Minute Yoga Challenges as recipes:

Use a Long Strap to Put Your Shoulders in Their Place

Clasp Your Hands to Open Your Shoulders

Ease Your Shoulders in Gomukhasana

Make Right Angles to Strengthen Your Shoulders

Stand Tall By Working Your Shoulder Blade Stabilizers

Extend, Don’t Grip in Headstand

Reverse the Curve: Chest Opening Over a Blanket

Supported Bridge Pose: Cross Over into Quiet

Viparita Dandasana: Back Bend Over a Chair

Find Your Inner Monkey

And these are the general guidelines to help you cook with your shoulders.

Look closely at a skeleton. Notice that the shoulders and arms make a delicate “girdle” that drapes over the upper rib cage – a girdle so expressly designed for mobility that it’s attached to the ribcage, bone-to-bone, in only one place: where the collarbones meet the sternum.

Incorporate that image into your mental body map, and remember, despite what it sometimes feels like, your shoulder blades are not nailed in place. It’s in their nature to glide.

Whenever you can, roll your upper arm bones out – your palms will rotate forward. Notice how doing that firms your shoulder blades and presses their outer edges gently toward your spine.
Then bend your elbows, pull the backs of your elbows gently down, and draw your inner shoulder blades down your back.

This outward rotation of the upper arms, and downward action of the inner shoulder blades is present in almost every yoga pose. Make it part of your body’s habit pattern, and it will be that much more accessible when you practice.

•  In shoulder stand, make sure that you can press down on your outer shoulders.

The gap between the top blankets will help you press down with your shoulders.

If you can’t, and instead you feel weight on your neck, try this shoulder stand setup from Donald Moyer.

Even if you’re just not sure, give it a try. If you suddenly find a new clarity and strength in your shoulders, you’ll be glad you did.

This setup, by the way, isn’t necessarily your new shoulder stand prop forever.
The goal is to work the outer shoulders so well, and become so strong and open, that you can work on a flat surface.

But you won’t move toward that goal if you can’t work your outer shoulders in the first place.

That would be like trying to bake without turning on the oven.

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It's not a straight path, but that's what makes it beautiful.

Back on September 6th, I committed to doing shoulder stand every day for 90 days.

Yesterday was day 30. Here’s the report:

I started with the assumption that the hard part would be showing up every day. In fact, it’s not so hard.
Maybe it’s the power of commitment: I feel like a switch has been flipped and I just do it, every day, without struggle.

Much to my surprise, the problem has been the pose, or more precisely, the way I’ve been doing the pose.

It turns out that shoulder stand every day is a different proposition from shoulder stand five days a week.

Imagine you had to see that slightly touchy co-worker seven days a week instead of five. There would be no rest, no recovery, no time to focus on what’s working and come back fresh. Eventually, small problems would blow up to monumental size.

And that’s what happened.

For the first three weeks, the pose kept getting better.

Every day I saw small improvements. I felt stronger. As days went by, I held the pose longer and added more variations.

Doing Parsva Sarvangasana drop overs was a joy, as was Nirlamba (unsupported) shoulder stand, the version in which you’re upright and your hands rest on your thighs. I even reached a new, more friendly accommodation with Parsva Halasana – we’ve never really been close.

Best of all, I began to register a difference between “doing” shoulder stand and aligning myself with the energy of the pose. Far from finding it tedious, I became increasingly fascinated.

Then, a little over a week ago, the distant foghorns of tinnitus sounded while I was in the pose. I could make them stop by taking my weight back and resting my buttocks on my hands, but they came back when I was more upright. And when I finished my practice, the back of my neck felt heavy and thick.

As an Iyengar yoga teacher, my first instinct was to add a blanket. More height almost always helps. It was better, but not enough.

I worked on rotating my upper arms out more strongly, on chest openings, on backbends. It all helped – a bit.

A few days ago I pulled Donald Moyer’s excellent book, Yoga: Awakening the Inner Body, off my book shelf.

In his chapter on shoulder stand, Donald notes that there are two types of shoulders: square, and sloping:

“If you have square-set shoulders, the weight of your body rests naturally on your outer shoulders and arms when you practice Salamba Sarvangasana, not on the base of your neck,” he writes.

“However, if you have shoulders that slope at a steep angle, your outer shoulders may not be in contact with the blanket causing all of your weight to fall on the trapezius muscle at the base of your neck.

“In this case, you may feel pressure on your seventh cervical vertebra (C7) or discomfort in your neck, and with prolonged practice of Salamba Sarvangasana, the trapezius muscles at the base of your neck may become thick and swollen.”

A look in the mirror confirmed it: my shoulders don’t slope steeply, but they do slope.

Donald’s solution is to take two blankets, fold them in half, and place them four to six inches apart, so that the firm edges face to the centre and the head side of your shoulder stand platform.

The raised blankets are there to support your outer shoulders. The space in the centre lets your trapezius and neck muscles relax and lengthen.

My new shoulder stand setup, with a bigger gap between the two top blankets

I had tried it before, without success.
But in the past, I had made the space between the blankets much narrower. With a four-inch space, my shoulder blades catch the edges of the folded blankets. My neck feels like it’s sinking, a contrast to the pressure of the blankets in the old setup. And I can push down with my  outer shoulders, and lift my shoulder blades up.

The first time I tried it, the tinnitus was gone. When I stood up after my practice, my shoulders flowed downwards of their own accord, and the back of my neck felt light.

Sixty more days of shoulder stand? I’m good to go.

Image courtesy of Andy Cardiff, via Flickr

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Can you do flow yoga while sitting still?

Water is often in a flow state, people, not so much.

On the face of it, this is a dumb question.

Flow yoga, as generally defined, covers a wide range of forms all of which link poses in close to continuous movement.

Some, like Ashtanga, follow a set sequence of poses, with a sun salutation between each pose. Others have no set sequence, and may or may not include sun salutations, but all of them emphasize moving with the breath from pose to pose.

If you look at the self-described “overly brief and incomplete history of yoga” flow chart by Alison Hinks, you’ll see a bifurcation on the right-hand side of the page: two great yoga branches, both coming from the legendary guru T. Krishnamacharya.

The one that flows from Pattabhi Jois includes most of the forms we would call flow yoga.

The other branch comes from B.K.S. Iyengar.

Iyengar work does include “mobility,” a practice of moving quickly from pose to pose – say five times quickly into half-moon pose on one side, then on the sixth time, holding the pose.

But in most Iyengar work, we take one pose at a time and hold it before coming back to neutral and then moving on to another pose.

That couldn’t possibly be flow yoga, could it?

One book from my summer reading makes me think otherwise.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi (pronounced Cheek-sent-me-high-ee) was a 1990 best seller which popularized the idea of a special state called flow, where, he believes, the best chance for human happiness resides.

In his chapter on accessing flow through the body, Csikzentmihalyi devotes four pages to yoga. He’s clearly not thinking of  “flow yoga” when he describes asana as:  “. . . the stage of Yoga that we all know in the West, exemplified by a fellow in what looks like diapers, standing on his head with his shanks behind his neck.”

So why does he call yoga “one of the oldest and most systematic methods of producing the flow experience”?

Here are Csikzentmihalyi’s criteria for achieving flow in any activity:

• A sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing.

• Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems.

• Self-consciousness disappears and the sense of time becomes distorted.

• An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous.

Aside from the part about danger, that sounds a lot like Iyengar yoga to me.

Let’s see: a graduated system that provides challenges when you’re ready for them? Check.

A goal directed, rule-bound system? Double check.

Intense concentration? Yes.

Loss of self-consciousness and a sense of time distortion? Absolutely.

And an activity so engaging we just want to do and refine the poses, long after we’ve forgotten the sore back or cranky shoulder that might have brought us to yoga in the first place?  Yes.

Perhaps the reason we don’t associate Iyengar yoga with flow is a confusion of flowing water and flowing movement with the other sense of flow: either the great flow of “going with the flow,” or the state of flow.

Whether or not flow yoga connects us to the state of flow depends, I suspect, on the practitioner. It might, or it might not.

But there’s no doubt in my mind that – again, depending on the practitioner –  we can achieve flow in yoga while sitting absolutely still.

Photo courtesy of Frumbert, via Flickr Creative Commons.

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•     •     •     •

At the right side of this page, up near the top, you’ll find something new: a Facebook scroll with a Like button that will connect you to the Five-Minute Yoga Facebook page.

I’m delighted to have it up and running, and welcome your comments and suggestions.

For me, the best part of it is having a place to put all of the fascinating yoga oddities that I run across that aren’t going to be blog posts, but need to be passed on.

Did you know, for example, that all zombies really need is a good yoga class? Or that practicing headstand position, even if you don’t take your feet off the floor, may relieve the symptoms of rotator cuff injuries?

Please Like the page, and check it out.


Want to transform your shoulders without help from a magic frog? Read on.

“It is no over-statement to say that if a person regularly practices Sarvangasana he will feel new vigour and strength and will be happy and confident. New life will flow into him, his mind will be at peace and he will feel the joy of life.”

BKS Iyengar in Light on Yoga

Ah, shoulder stand: the mother of asana, and not coincidentally, the creator of strong and flexible shoulders.

But here’s the conundrum: if you have tight shoulders,  it’s hard to do the pose.

It’s precisely the issue Allison posed after class on Tuesday:

“I’m interested in your shoulder stand commitment, but I don’t think I can do it,” she said. “My shoulders are tight, so I need to do preparations, and if I don’t have time to do them, the pose won’t feel good or be good.”

Today’s Five-Minute Yoga Challenge is a possible solution.

It’s simple enough: you clasp your hands behind your back, roll your upper arms out, and straighten your arms. Then you move your inner shoulder blades deeper into your back ribs and down.

It’s also surprisingly powerful.

All summer long I found myself doing this stretch, especially at times when other parts of my practice fell by the wayside.
Sometimes I’d incorporate a standing forward bend, sometimes I’d reach my chest up and my head back and see how far I could take it into a backbend.

Then one day in the midst of a longer practice, I did Gomukhasana, (cow-faced pose).

Imagine my surprise when my tight right shoulder, which seems to have been stuck in the same place for years, was suddenly not so tight.

I was used to having my fingers just touch when the left arm was up and the right arm down. Suddenly, I could hook my fingers into each other with room to spare.

More than that, this simple stretch has a direct relationship to the way we work our shoulders in shoulder stand.

Clasp your arms behind you with your elbows bent and you are taking exactly the same arm position as you do when you prepare for shoulder stand in Setu Bandha (bridge pose) or in the clasped hands version of Halasana (plow pose).

In both cases, rotating the upper arms out, clasping the hands and pressing them towards the floor creates active support for your neck and shoulders and prevents you from slumping in the pose.

So if you’re interested in making a daily yoga commitment, but not ready to commit to a daily shoulder stand, this stretch is a great place to start.

You’re welcome, of course, to add whatever other shoulder stretches you can work into your day – the more the merrier.

And if you’re not yet ready for a daily commitment, how about taking it on as a Five-Minute Yoga Challenge?

In a Five-Minute Yoga Challenge, you’ve won if you do it three times in a week, and you’ve triumphed if you do it five times.

Your shoulders will thank you.

Take a few slow steady breaths with your elbows bent, and roll your upper arms out.

Stand in Tadasana (mountain pose), feet hip distance apart. Lift your front thighs and press the top three inches toward the bone. Keep your weight in your heels.

Take your arms out wide at shoulder height. Roll your upper arms towards the ceiling.
Moving slowly, keeping as much of the outward rotation of your arms as you can, clasp your hands behind your back, fingers web to web, but with space between your palms.

With your elbows bent, roll your upper arms out again.

Notice the outer edges of your shoulder blades moving slightly closer to your spine.

Spend some time with your elbows bent, and focus on rolling your upper arms.

Widen your ribcage as you inhale.

Slowly straighten your arms and lift your hands away from your buttocks.

Notice the inner edges of your shoulder blades.
If your upper arms are well rotated, you should feel the inner edges of your shoulder blades pressing into the back of your ribcage.

Very gently move the inner edges of your shoulder blades down. Make it a small movement. If you feel strain in your neck, you’re overdoing it.

From the centre of your sternum, widen your collarbones toward your shoulders.
Roll your upper arms out.
Lift your chest.

Check that your thighs are lifting and pressing back, and your weight is in your heels.

Relax your face, your eyes and your throat.

Hold for a minute or longer.

Release your hands, and pause for a moment, feeling the release in your shoulders.

Now repeat with the second clasp – to me it feels like I move over one little finger; some teachers say “have the other thumb on top,” and repeat the stretch.

When you’re done, relax your arms at your sides. Then slowly begin to lift them, with as little effort as possible. If you’ve held the stretch long enough, once your arms are past horizontal, they will float up on their own. Reach your arms overhead and enjoy the stretch in your side body.

If you’ve taken on a yoga commitment, let me know how it’s going.

Photo courtesy of Tajai, Flickr Creative Commons

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Ease your shoulders in Gomukhasana

Use a long strap to put your shoulders in their place.

Supported Bridge Pose: Cross over into quiet


The mulling is over, the commitment is on.

Does one day's shoulder stand link to the next, making them stronger, day by day? I hope so.

On Tuesday, September 6, I did my first of 90 days of shoulder stand.

It was not an auspicious start.

On Monday I had the tail end of a few days of runny nose and one day of stomach cramps, a kind of flu-lite. I slept poorly on Monday night and woke up late and fuzzy-headed.

Then the man who came to install the new sliders in the filing drawers arrived 40 minutes early, at 8:50 a.m.

And in the end, because I didn’t try putting the divider panels in before he left, I still couldn’t transfer my files into the drawers. They wouldn’t fit unless the drawer was out, and as part of making it stronger, the drawer no longer came out.

It was yet another stumbling block for the apparently endless office re-organization project.

The whole day was like that. For all kinds of good reasons, I put off doing a practice. Finally, at 5 p.m. I brought out my mat.

Helpful ways we trick ourselves

My brain told me this: today you can just do a chair shoulder stand. You haven’t been well, you’ve had a frustrating day, and it would be okay to use the chair.

First I did a bit rolling around on the floor – a gentle chest opener, a few leg stretches.

A great preparation for any shoulder stand.

When I brought the chair out, it seemed a shame not to prepare, even just for chair shoulder stand, by doing Viparita Dandasana, supported back bend over the chair. (You can find the full instructions here, but you’ll have to scroll down.)

As I settled into the pose, some of the oppression of the day lifted, and when I sat up after five minutes, my mood had changed, and so had my shoulder stand expectations.

I ended up spending a happy 14 minutes in the full pose with variations.

Since then I’ve been faithfully doing the pose and recording the minutes.
I’ve made a chart so I can tick off shoulder stand, and my other, non-yoga September commitments when they’re done. It’s like getting a gold star, and it feels good.

You’re welcome to join with me on this or any other practice commitment you choose. There’s only one rule: you have to do it every day.

I’ll give you an update when there’s something interesting to say – and I’m always happy to hear how you’re doing.

Photo courtesy of Bitterjug, via Flickr.

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10 tips for building a home yoga practice




Some commitments seem inherently more worthwhile than others.

I once heard a story about a senior Iyengar teacher whose non-negotiable daily commitment to her practice was to do her headstand and shoulder stand at 5 p.m. local time.

I no longer remember who it was – if you can fill me in, please do.

But since she was an international teacher, who travelled often, she more than once did her practice in an airport lounge, in a time zone her body didn’t recognize.

I’ve been thinking of that story lately. For an Iyengar teacher, the core poses are headstand and shoulder stand, regarded as the mother and father of asana. So our travelling teacher’s choice was logical, if somewhat extreme.

Now that September, land of infinite possibilities, is drawing near, and I find myself asking what daily practice I’d be ready to commit to.

This is a different question from the one I’ve asked in the past, which was: “what are my goals for my practice?”

Sometimes it was a specific pose or series of poses that I wanted to focus on, sometimes a weakness or a closed area in my body. Last fall, my goal was to prepare for the Jr. I assessment.

But a daily commitment is something different. It makes me nervous.

I don’t even know if I like the idea of making a daily practice commitment. It changes my relationship to my practice, like any commitment changes any relationship. Do I really want to have one more thing in my life that I’m duty-bound to do? Isn’t it enough to just do my best to do a two-hour practice every day, and be content when it turns out to be four out of seven, with a class on the fifth day?

While searching the internet for the wisdom of the ages, I ran across this quotation from leadership consultant Anne Morriss, first published, as far as I can tell, on a Starbuck’s cup.

The irony of commitment is that it’s deeply liberating – in work, in play, in love. The act frees you from the tyranny of your internal critic, from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around as rational hesitation. To commit is to remove your head as the barrier to your life.

Oh well then, it’s worth a shot.

I know myself well enough to know that I will not get up early and practice every day at the same time. I also know that I’m not willing to commit to a headstand every day. Five days out of seven, yes, but not every day.

So what I would commit to do every day, not when I have the time, or feel like it, but without fail?

At the moment, I’m thinking about shoulder stand.

I love Salamba Sarvangasana, and barring a bug that keeps me in bed, I can always do it, even if it’s shoulder stand in a chair.

To make it easier, I’m thinking of my commitment to a daily shoulder stand as a time-limited offer: shoulder stand every day for the 12 weeks of my teaching session, from the middle of September to the beginning of December.

It looks small enough to be doable.

As of now, I’m still mulling it over. I plan to keep on mulling, in fact, for the next two weeks. I won’t be posting until then, and I’ll let you know what I decide.

In the meantime, is there a daily yoga commitment you’d like to make?

Think it over. Perhaps we could commit together.

Image courtesy of squeezomatic, via Flickr Creative Commons.

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Uttansana with head rest on a chair seat

This calming pose will cool an overheated mind anytime, summer or winter.

A few weeks ago I promised to fill in the blanks of the cooling yoga sequence I’d suggested – the poses that hadn’t already made it onto this blog in the form of a Five-Minute Yoga Challenge.

I meant to do it, really I did.

Then we lost our summer, temporarily.

At about the same time, I misplaced my brain.

One day it was there; the next day I opened the door to my writing mind and a moth flew out. My best guess is that it went on vacation without me.

Now the summer is back, at least for this week, and so am I.

(For the rest of August, there’s really no telling what will happen. I’ll keep you posted.)

While I have the chance, here are more detailed instructions for cooling off by resting your head on a chair seat in Uttanasana (standing forward bend), and then making your way into chair Savasana (relaxation pose, literally corpse pose).

(If you’d like to be talked through this sequence – and you have an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch – you can find it on my iphone app, My Five-Minute Yoga Practice.)

You don’t have to be feeling hot and bothered to benefit from this set of poses.

Overly busy in your mind? Feeling a familiar soreness in your lower back?

This restorative yoga session is a great way to settle both of them down in five to 15 minutes.

Part one: forward bend with head rest

Stand facing a chair with your feet hip distance apart and parallel.

Press your feet into the floor, firm your front thighs and, hinging from your hips, come into Uttanasana, standing forward bend.

Bring your head to rest on the seat of the chair, as in the photo above.

The most satisfying pose comes from finding the right height to put under your head.

If your head doesn’t easily reach the chair, then place yoga bricks (or thick books) on the chair seat until you find the right height. That’s where you’ll feel an intense and yet pleasant hamstring stretch, while allowing complete relaxation through your upper body.

If your back feels strained, if your leg muscles quiver and your hamstrings cry out in pain, you need more height under your head.

Remember that the prop comes to you – you don’t reach to bring yourself in contact with the prop.

Once you have the right height in place, notice how your forehead connects with the chair or the bricks.

Make sure the skin of your forehead moves toward your eyebrows.
If it moves toward your hairline, you’ll feel stimulated, not relaxed.

Rest your hands on the seat of the chair.

Now take your mind back to your feet. Press down into your big and little toe mounds and the centres of your heels.
Lift your inner ankles, inner knees and inner thighs. Roll your front upper inner thighs towards each other.

Lift the top three inches of your front thighs and press them back toward your thighbones.

Keep your legs firm and relax your upper body. Let your arms rest on the chair.
Relax your belly. Watch the ebb and flow of your breath.  You may notice your belly rising softly and without effort towards your spine.

Stay in the pose for at least one minute, or for as long as you’re comfortable. Then take your hands to your thighs, press in, and stand up slowly.

chair rest pose, with calves on the seat of the chair

One blanket on the chair, one under your head, and a strap: the Cadillac ride.

Part two: relaxation pose

Sit down in front of your chair.

If you’d like the full props version – the Cadillac ride – take one blanket for the seat of the chair and one for behind your head, and tie a strap around your thighs, a few inches from your knees.

Have the strap wide enough that you can keep your thighs parallel, and tight enough that when you relax your legs, they stay parallel.

Swing your calves up onto the chair seat.

Lie back on the floor and support your neck with the blanket.

Take your hands to the back of your head and gently lengthen your neck. Release your arms and turn your palms to face the ceiling.

Soften your face and eyes.

With your lips together, and your teeth slightly parted, exhale and completely let go your jaw. Let go of the root of your tongue and the base of your throat.

Imagine your breath as a guest in your body, and watch it come and go:  soft, natural inhalation, soft, natural exhalation.
With each exhalation, release the weight of your body toward the floor.

Now take your awareness into your lower back.

As you exhale, watch your breath leave your body through your lower back. Notice a pleasant warmth in your lower back, as it spreads both longer and wider with each exhalation.

When you’re ready to come out, draw your knees towards your chest and roll to the right-hand side. Stay on your side for a moment.
Look down at the floor as you slowly sit up.

Take a quiet breath or two, and notice how you feel.

You may, as I do, find yourself filled with gratitude for the extraordinary technology of yoga, and especially Iyengar yoga, so powerful, and so readily available once we slow ourselves down enough to use it.

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