Thursday, May 27, 2010

Downward Dog, again

It may seem like a bit much to dedicate two posts in as many weeks to one pose, but every day I see people doing it wrong and feel the need to do my part to stop it!

In Downward Dog, most people "get" the legs. They stretch, you feel it, you know you're doing it right. The upper body is where problems occur in this pose. In any good yoga sequence, the back should be moved through its possible range of motion-bending laterally (side to side), backward, forward, twisted, and inverted (upside down). Downward Dog is the ideal yoga pose because it combines a forward bend with an inversion (you are upside down, after all), with, perhaps surprisingly, a back bend. Many, many people bend at the shoulders in this pose and thus are unable to appreciate that backbend until they let go and allow the shoulders to release.

When doing this pose, you want to feel as if the upper back is in a backbend, and to do this you must allow the chest to sink toward the floor. The shoulder blades then slide down the back (technically up, toward the hips, which are in the air). If your shoulder blades cannot easily move onto the back, something is wrong in your alignment. Probably, the hands are rotated inward so the elbows are rotated out. This causes the protrusion at the top of the arm bone known as the lesser tubercle to grind against the coracoid process, the hooked part of the shoulder blade. As you can imagine, this can damage the shoulder joint, leading to nerve damage or other injury. To avoid this, make sure that the hands are shoulder distance apart, fingers spread. You want the middle fingers to be pointing directly forward or slightly rotating outward toward the corners of the mat.

Another mistake I often see in Downward Dog is lifting the head. Do NOT do this! I read a horror story of a woman who kept her head lifted in Downward Dog and somehow nicked her carotid artery, causing a stroke. Seriously. Even if it doesn't cause a stroke, lifting the head in Downward Dog can easily cause friction between the cervical vertebrae or between the C7 and T1 vertebrae, which can lead to all sorts of health problems down the road. I usually tell my students to drop their head in Downward Dog, but many teachers would say that you shouldn't drop, rather hold the head up in line with the shoulders to maintain spinal integrity. Either is valid since the point is to not lift the head. In fact, you could even do the pose with a block or some stacked pillows under your (fore)head for support. This variation is said to relieve menstrual pain and migraines.

To learn the basics of the pose, check out my other blog post on the subject. I explain how to get into it and demonstrate in a short video with my student Marion. Now get out there and do some yoga!

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Props and Modifications

Alignment is very important in yoga. A few millimeters could be the only difference between a healthy muscle or joint and a major injury. The problem is that every body is different, and one person may need to adjust a centimeter to the left, and another to the right. Fortunately, most people can determine if they're off-balance enough to injure themselves and can adjust. Every asana has variations and modifications-one of those variations is the proper one for you.

One of the best ways to achieve proper alignment in yoga is through the use of props. Straps, blocks, blankets, bolsters, foam rollers, and even special yoga strap walls are used in many yoga classes to achieve perfect alignment and/or modify the poses. In the following video, I demonstrate how props can be used to achieve Eka Pada Rajkapotasana-aka One-Legged King Pigeon Pose, or just pigeon pose. Pigeon pose requires a lot of flexibility in the legs (it's a prep pose for Hanumanasana, the yoga split) and proper alignment in the upper body. Using a folded blanket, 2 blocks, and a strap, I demonstrate how to modify the pose to get the proper alignment. Unfortunately there is no substitute for flexibility though, so if you don't feel ready to do the pose, wait until you do. If you are almost there but not quite, adding extra blankets for height under the hip and knee should help you get deeper into the pose.

As always, only do this pose once you're properly warmed up. A few rounds of sun salutations after a basic warmup, followed by leg stretches should help. The best leg prep for pigeon pose in my opinion is "rocking the baby pose." To do this, sit with the legs straight out in front of you, then lift the right leg, holding onto the foot with the right hand and the knee with the left hand. Then rock it from side to side as if you were rocking a baby, then switch sides. This will stretch the piriformis muscle that gets worked in pigeon pose.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Anuloma Viloma

Anuloma Viloma. Sounds exotic, no? It is a pranayama, but if often taught with kriyas or cleansing exercises for its detoxifying properties. Its alternate name is Nadi Shodhana, or Nadi purification. If you've checked out my other videos or done research into yoga philosophy, you know nadis are channels that prana runs on. This breath technique cleanses them, enabling energy to flow freely.

Healthy breathing is done through the nose, not the mouth. This cleanses and warms the air that comes into the body. If you take a moment to notice your body and your breath, you might notice that air comes in more easily through one nostril than the other. I always joke with my classes that people who do cocaine know this principle well! According to yoga philosophy, your dominant nostril will switch off every hour and a half if you are healthy. If one nostril stays dominant too long, that's not healthy. Anuloma Viloma causes both nostrils to breathe evenly; no one nostril is dominant. In this video, we do 4 rounds. For the full effect, you should do more than 4 rounds, but this is a good place to start. Try to breathe slowly, even if you breathe more slowly than I do in the video. Afterward, take a few slow, deep breaths through both nostrils to feel how neither one is dominant; that the body is in equilibrium. Build up to 10-20 rounds and you will notice an amazing feeling of vitality that this pranayama imparts.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Pranayama just may be the most important component of the yoga practice. It is used to oxygenate the blood and bring prana, or energy/chi/life/breath into the body. Pranayama refers to breathing exercises, some of which are done on their own and some of which are used to complement the postures. Yoga is often called "meditation in motion," and in meditation there is usually one thing that the mind focuses on in order to still the thoughts. In yoga, that "one thing" is the breath. According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, an ancient text on yoga, "When the breath wanders, the mind is unsteady, but when the breath is still, so is the mind still."

I've begun here with yogic three-part breathing, or Dirgha Pranayama. This pranayama teaches you to get the most out of your breath. When people try to take in a lot of air, they tend to gulp it in and rapidly expand the ribcage. This doesn't actually take in much more air and can lead to injuries (and you really don't want to have to tell people you injured yourself breathing!). Dirgha Pranayama will teach you to take in the most air without compromising your body. In the interest of time, in the video I teach the breath as 1)chest breathing, 2)thoracic breathing, and 3)diaphragmatic breathing. When I do this with students I would then reverse it, and try to have them breathe first to the belly, then the ribs, then the chest before integrating them all. In the video we don't reverse it, just integrate, so if you feel it would be helpful you can reverse the order before the integration. I begin with very shallow chest breathing, and every time I do this pranayama in class someone mentions that this is how they breathe naturally. Doing the three-part breath will help you to avoid that. Once you realize how revitalizing it is to take deep healthy breaths, you won't want to breathe shallowly ever again.

The second pranayama in the video is Ujjayi Pranayama, or Victorious Breath. It is a bit more advanced than the three-part breath and may take some time to master. Be patient. Once you have the Ujjayi Pranayama down you can perform it while doing yoga poses. The main indication that you are doing it right is the "ocean sound." Your breath should be loud and sound almost exactly like the ocean waves. Doing this breath at the beach in time with the ocean is an amazing meditative experience that I recommend.

The Warmup

When working out, it is vitally important that you warm up properly in order to prevent injuries. When you begin yoga stretches, the body should be physically warm to get the most out of the stretch while preventing any tears in the muscles or fasciae. A proper warmup will get the blood flowing and produce that heat. In yoga, the center of the body is considered the body's furnace, equivalent to the metabolism, so it makes sense to warm up the center of the body. This is why Pilates classes begin with The Hundred, an exercise designed to warm the body by working the core. In yoga, the reason for this is that the center of the subtle body (the body's energy system of prana, chakras, and nadis) contains the agni, or fire of the belly, and the Third Chakra which is again related to heat and fire.

The following 5 minute video shows the basic warmup I do at the beginning of yoga class. It is designed to loosen the muscles, warm the core, and get you thinking about good alignment and moving with the breath. Do this or a similar warmup before getting into more difficult poses. Usually in my classes we warm up, then do Sun Salutations to get the heart rate up before moving on to strengthening poses and deep stretches.

Seventh Chakra

The final main chakra is Sahasrara Chakra, the Crown Chakra at the top of the head. It is envisaged as a thousand-petaled lotus, and its color is white, because white is comprised of all the colors of the rainbow. All of the effects and benefits of the other chakras are encompassed in Sahasrara, considered the most subtle of the chakras, symbolizing pure consciousness. This chakra is no longer concerned with the "earthly" things of the lower chakras. In Kundalini Yoga, when Kundalini energy finally reaches the Crown Chakra, Samadhi-Enlightenment-occurs. Samadhi is considered union with God, full absorption in the Divine. Yoga is the philosophy behind major Eastern religions Hinduism and Buddhism, but the idea of absorption in the Divine is central to the mystical traditions of all faiths. I am actually doing research now on a work I plan on the "Yoga" of St. Theresa of Avila.

As you can see, the chakra system moves from the "earthly" realm, beginning with the literal element of earth in the Root Chakra, all the way up to the "heavenly" realm of the Crown Chakra. This symbolizes the mystical journey one undertakes when attempting yoga. The yogi begins with the physical body, with the asanas, and from there moves forward on the spiritual journey toward enlightenment. Each chakra is a step on this journey. For example, we can stimulate the Third Eye Chakra with Tratak, steady gazing. Tratak leads eventually to true meditation, which stimulates the Crown Chakra. Meditation, prayer, devotion to God (bhakti), and works of mercy are the way to engage the Sahasrara Chakra.

As always, special thanks to Anodea Judith, the foremost expert in the chakra system.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Downward Facing Dog

If you've taken any kind of yoga class in the West, you've likely done Downward Facing Dog, or Adho Mukha Svanasana in Sanskrit, quite a few times. In fact, you probably do it several times each class. It is definitely a pose worth getting right, then, and also a pose a lot of people do wrong without even realizing it.

To get into Downward Dog, begin on the knees with the hands a few inches in front of the shoulders, fingers spread, middle fingers straight, perpendicular to the front of your mat. Feet should be about hip distance apart, or wider for very overweight yogis or pregnant yoginis (regardless of weight). Tuck the toes under and lift the hips toward the ceiling, keeping the knees bent at first. In the video I refer to this as "Half Downward Dog," and take the opportunity to stretch out the legs by bending and straightening the knees one at a time from this position. The upper body should be locked into a strong position-shoulder blades sliding down the back (upward toward the hips), elbows close to the body, chest dropped toward the floor. Make sure that the pressure is on the knuckles and fingertips and the shoulders are open and relaxed in order to alleviate any pressure on the wrists. If your wrists still hurt you can take this pose onto your fists instead. From the Half Downward Dog, gradually straighten the knees, moving the heels toward the floor and the sit bones closer to the ceiling. If you notice that you've made your pose a little too big, walk the feet in an inch or two to get the heels closer to the floor, but you're not going to want to bring them in too close. Draw energy up through the feet, firming the tops of the legs so that you feel like a triangle, with energy moving up toward the apex at your hips.

Here I have my lovely friend Marion Hodge demonstrating the pose for you. She has some slight tightness in the shoulders but does the pose perfectly despite this, whereas many people compensate for tightness in the shoulders by bending at the shoulders or waist. If this is your problem, begin with the Half Downward Dog and work toward getting the upper body aligned before attempting the straighten the legs. Thank you again for being my model, Marion!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Current Yoga Schedule

Mondays,Tuesdays, and Thursdays in locations in Monmouth County, NJ

Monday: 6:00 pm Mixed Level Hatha Yoga at Spa & Bodywork Market, 10 River St. Red Bank NJ

Tuesday: 9:00 am Beginner Hatha Yoga at Cedar Village Adult Living Community

12:45 pm to 1:30 Lunch Hour Hatha Yoga at In Spirit Living, 560 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ

Note that the time of my Tuesday class at In Spirit Living has changed! Now a convenient 45 minute lunch hour class!


Thursday: 7:00 am Beginner/Intermediate Hatha Yoga at In Spirit Living, 560 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ

5:15 pm Chakra Yoga (level intermediate and up) at In Spirit Living 560 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ




Classes at Chisel Personal Training in Middletown to resume when interest resumes. Anyone who wants to take yoga with me in Middletown should let me know what days work best for them.

Anyone in New York City (Manhattan, sorry Brooklyn!) who is interested in private, in-home classes, should contact me for rates.

Sixth Chakra

The sixth chakra is known as the Brow Chakra, Third Eye, or Ajna Chakra. It is located between and above the eyes. It doesn't have an associated element as do the lower chakras, but, as the Vishuddha Chakra is connected to sound, Ajna Chakra is connected to sight. Visual consciousness, intuition, dreams, and perception are governed by the Third Eye. The eyes as well as the pineal gland in the brain are the domain of Ajna Chakra. If something is "seen" in the mind's eye, it is the Third Eye that is seeing. In the subtle body, there are considered to be three main channels for energy (as well as countless smaller ones, known as meridians or nadis), known as Ida (left side, yin energy), Pingala (right side, yang energy), and Shushumna (central, main channel). At the Third Eye, these channels converge. For a basic intro to the subtle body, check out my post here. Trataka (steady gazing), meditation, and eye exercises are good ways to stimulate the Ajna Chakra.

Special thanks as always to the groundbreaking work of Anodea Judith for chakra information.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Adventures in Teaching

One of the basic challenges any teacher, yoga or otherwise, faces is what to do about mixed skill levels in students. I label some of my classes "beginner," or "intermediate," but mostly I just teach open level, offering modifications for poses that can be used for students who are at a different level. This approach has worked well and become something of a trademark for me. Even in advanced classes now I'll still mention modifications for beginners out of habit.

I was surprised, then, when after one of my classes I received a phone call from one of my students (we'll call her Terri) that I've been working with for a while. She seemed agitated but it took a while for her to make the point she had called me to make-that she felt that one of the newer students was holding her back. The student was not a so-called "beginner" to yoga, nor had I singled her out at all during the class. Terri clearly just had a personal problem with her, and to be honest, that pissed me off. I really didn't know what to say so I let her know that I would try to give more advanced options so she wouldn't feel she was being held back.

After we got off the phone, I started to think about what I should have told her. I should have told her that yoga is not about competition. You shouldn't be mentally competing with the student on the mat next to you. You should be too focused on your breath, on your body's signals, on your instructor's words. I would even venture to say that you shouldn't even compete with yourself. Yoga is about honoring your body where it is right now, in the moment. That's not to say it isn't a terrific workout. When students need a better workout they may choose to do extra vinyasas or hold a pose as I explain something to those who need the exposition. I have no problem with that. When I next see Terri, I'm going to recommend that she do this if she feels she's being held back. Bottom line is, no one can hold you back but yourself.