Ouroboros

August is a good time to take a break from routine.  It is the traditional month for taking holidays in Europe.  So the Rogue in me will be taking a few weeks away from posting.  Look for new content starting in September.  Topics will include:

  • making yoga a sustainable business
  • why you are not working hard enough in your postures – no excuses, and…
  • how fighter pilots and Navy SEALS can teach yogis a thing or two.

In the meantime, if you want to read some of my more popular posts, check these out:

A cautionary tale on operating yoga studios”

“Questioning the Mysore Style”

“Apprenticing in Yoga”

“Why you will success with a minimal practice done daily”

Also, I will be leading two workshop on the Moon Sequence (Chandra Krama), designed by Matthew Sweeney, at the Washington Yoga Center.  You can sign up for September 24th or October 22nd.

Vale! (Stay Strong!)

 

 

 

A balanced Half-Primary Series

Surya Namaskara A, 3x

Surya Namaskara B, 3x

Standing Postures

Padangusthasana

Padahastasana

Trikonasana A, B

Parsvakonasana A, B

Prasarita Padottanasana A, B, C, D

Parsvottanasana

Utthita hasta padangusthasana

Ardha baddha padmottanasana

Utkatasana

Virabhadrasana A, B
Seated postures

Dandasana

Paschimottanasana A, B, C

Purvottanasana

Ardha baddha padma paschimottanasana

Trianga mukha eka pada paschimottanasana

Janu sirsasana A, B, C

Marichyasana A, B, C, D

Navasana 3x
Backbends

Salabhasana 2x

Dhanurasana 2x

Ustrasana 2x

Urdhva dhanurasana 4x

Paschimottanasana
Finishing Postures

Sarvangasana, 25 breath

Halasana, 10 breath

Karna pidasana, 10 breath

Urdhva padmasana, 10 breath

Pindasana, 10 breath

Matsyasana, 10 breath

Uttana padasana, 10 breath

Sirsasana, 25 breath

Baddha padmasana, 10 breath

Yoga mudra, 10 breath

Padmasana, 10 – 25 breath

Utplutihi, 10 to 100 breath
Final rest, 5 to 20 minutes

Firefly and Crow Poses

The following two poses, Titthibhasana (Firefly) and Bakasana (Crane/crow pose), are the dynamic duo you have to flow through when you are transitioning out of Supta Kurmasana (sleeping turtle), the Gordian knot of Primary Series.

Exhale, from Supta kurmasana, move your hands underneath your shoulders.  Inhale, press into your hands, lift your hips and feet away from the floor.  Keep your ankles crossed behind your neck. Once you are balancing on your hands, still inhaling, straighten out your legs, dropping your hips and lifting your feet. Look forward.  Hold for the duration of the inhalation (or longer if you want to build strength for Intermediate).


Exhale, pull your heels back to your bum.  Press your arms straight, drop your tailbone, suck your heels up to your bum, and press through your index knuckles.  Squeeze your knees into your arms.  Look forward.  Now you are in bakasana.  Hold for the duration of the exhalation (or longer if you want!  The first westerners to practice Ashtanga would hold this pose for up to 59 breaths!).  Then, inhale, followed by an exhalation, jump back into chaturanga.


Both poses are excellent at developing arm strength, endurance, and focus.  Make sure to straighten your arms as fully as possible.  Work on smoothing out the transition from one pose to the next.  If you practice Crow with bent arms, you will only get strong in that particular joint angle.

And don’t forget to soften your face and breathe!

Let me know if you have any questions.

Apprenticing in Yoga: the first steps

The following ideas have been gleaned from Robert Greene’s book, Mastery, which is serving as the basis for my new course on The Business of Yoga, starting this fall.  The first part of this course will be “How to Be a Student of Yoga.”  We will then cover, in subsequent courses, how to be: a yoga teacher, a studio manager, a studio director, and a brand.  The overarching goal of this series is to generate a dialogue for the student and for the community about what it means to practice yoga, in all of its forms and manifestations, and to encourage a more thoughtful, profitable, systematic approach to yoga teaching as a business.


Mastery is about the transformation of your mind and your inner attitude.  Mastery in any field of study begins with a period of apprenticeship, where you subjugate your own opinions and preferences to learn the rules and conventions of the field.  Contrary to current popular notions about skill acquisition and refinement, there is no shortcut to mastery.  It takes time and effort – the proverbial “blood, sweat, and tears.”  This view applies to the study of yoga as well.

In essence, you must learn the rules before you start to break them.  And it can take a significant amount of time to reach that stage, sometimes between 7 and 10 years (or more) of consistent, persistent, thoughtful study.  Our current cultural attitude does not support such endeavors, as we want instant gratification, instant success, and a feeling of having mastered some skill or practice in a short period of time.  “Accelerated learning,” “life hacking,” and other phrases indicating that you can master something in a quick, bloodless manner are boosts to the ego, but rarely result in any truly lasting mastery and proficiency.

Let’s take a look at the model of apprenticeship.

In the traditional model of apprenticeship, most commonly associated with the medieval period, there are 3 phases:apprentice

  1. Apprentice
  2. Journeyman
  3. Master

As an apprentice, a student would spend a minimum of 7 years with a master, imitating his work through countless repetitions and lots of hands-on work, often supervised and reviewed by the master. At the end of the 7 years, the apprentice had to pass a Master Test, at which point they were elevated to the rank of Journeyman.  As a journeyman, the student could then travel wherever he or she wanted, practicing skills and techniques in different settings.

But they were still not masters yet.  It may take many, many more years and many projects before the Journeyman could demonstrate mastery or his or her field. Success and, more commonly, failure were essential ingredients to the Journeyman’s progress to mastery.

How does this apply to the practice of yoga?

Most people are introduced to yoga through the following four practices:yoga mudra

  1. Asana (the practice of yoga postures)
  2. Meditation (the practice of calming and stilling the mind)
  3. Pranayama (the practice of experimenting with and refining breathing patterns and the underlying psychological patterns)
  4. Devotion (the practice of devoting your efforts and actions to some higher cause or being)

Regardless of which practice you take up, you will need to go through the following three phases that Robert Greene outlines as keys to an ideal apprenticeship:

  1. Deep observation (the passive mode)
  2. Skills acquisition (the practice mode)
  3. Experimentation (the active mode)

We will discuss Deep Observation in this post.  Skills acquisition and Experimentation (Stages 2 and 3, respectively) will be discussed in forthcoming posts.

In Deep Observation, you want to learn the rules and procedures that govern any system of practice.  You want to learn the fundamental styles and values in that system. This will make the acquisition of skills and the experimentation further on easier and more stable.

For instance, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga places a great deal of emphasis on:

  • daily practice of the Seriessurya A banner
  • adhering to the set sequence, with little to no variation
  • respecting the traditional lineage (parampara) as taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
  • studying with an authorized or certified Ashtanga teacher
  • humility
  • patience

The rules and procedures will be different for practices such as meditation, devotion, and pranayama, but the underlying principle remains the same.  Also, this way of looking at practices can give you a solid, reliable way of separating passing trends from more stable methods.  It will make you a more discriminating student of yoga.

Every day spent in practice is an opportunity for you to observe these rules in action.  By practicing daily, you memorize the sequence.  By adhering to the set sequence, you build up neuromuscular patterns to make the practice, over time, more efficient and smooth, than if you just practiced sporadically or without method.  By respecting the tradition (at first, more on this in later posts), you avoid the costly mistakes of causing emotional turmoil with a teacher or a community.  By cultivating humility and patience (acquired skills, no one is born with either), you open yourself to a positive learning environment.

In closing, I want to relate something about how students used to learn Ashtanga, when the first Westerners were visiting Pattabhi Jois in Mysore.  andre van lysebeth 2

Back then, there were no videos, books or primers on Ashtanga Yoga.  Outside of Mysore, India, Ashtanga Yoga was unknown.  If someone was interested in the series, the student was told to sit on the side of the room and to watch a regular Mysore session.  If the student liked it and wanted to learn the series, then Pattabhi Jois would tell them to come back the next day, and they would learn Surya Namaskar  A and B.

If the student could demonstrate enthusiasm, memorization and drive, then he or she would learn the series in the traditional manner: one posture at a time, one day at a time, progressing based upon skill and stamina.  Learn and earn, in essence.

This is in direct contrast to how most people learn yoga nowadays: from a video, from Youtube increasingly, from group conducted classes.  Although such an approach has some advantages (increased popularity of yoga practices, building a larger community, and exposure to the teachings), it tends, in my mind, to stifle individual progress in postures, sequences, and methods.

In exchange, you get students focused on exploiting strengths at the cost of addressing weaknesses; on “nailing” a posture at the cost of the well-rounded development of breathing, movement, and method; of investing in the superficial aspects of practice at the cost of understanding the deep principles.

In short, the student makes uneven progress across the spectrum of postures and practices and has an incomplete picture of the bigger picture of what yoga is about.

That being said, I hope that these series inspire you to re-evaluate your practice and to start asking high-quality questions about what you are doing, how you are doing, and most importantly, why you are doing it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why do you practice yoga?

I’ve been asking myself “Why?” a lot recently.

I suppose it may have something to do with the liminal state I find myself in, as I move away from teaching morning Mysore at Yoga District (now led by the awesome teacher Claudia Paredes), and into projects with a broader scope.

I’ve been asking myself why I practice yoga.  In fact, why do we practice yoga at all?  What is the purpose of a yoga practice?  What constitutes a yoga practice?  It cannot be posture practice in and of itself.  It cannot be limited to pranayama (breathing awareness and exercises) or meditation.  It certainly is not any sort of scholarly knowledge of the field of yoga or the history of yoga.

Why do I put my foot behind my head several times every week?  Why learn headstand, shoulderstand, or even padmasana?  There is nothing that really compels me to do these seemingly strange contortions of the body, except my own ambition and my own interest (and now after 20 years of practice, a certain level of investment in the series).  I’ve come to realize that, if I were really into playing the piano or painting or finance, I would apply the same level of interest and concentration to that as I do to mastering postures and techniques.  (At heart, I am a frustrated concert pianist.)

What it really boils down to is: mastery.  Yoga is a path of mastery of our minds, our emotions, our actions.  Mastery is a long-term process.  It is not something that can arise from haphazard strategy, mindless repetition, or inconsistent practice.  It requires discovering your purpose, absorbing information from a variety of sources, and, most importantly, practice.

Ashtangis know it by heart.  “Practice, practice, and all is coming.”  If you do the series, you will see the results.  But the results will differ based upon the person.

Over the years, I have heard the following question repeatedly: “Which postures can I do to work on (name of the physical, mental or emotional issue)?”

I may give a simple posture or two for the student to practice, but I always remind the student that it is consistency, practice, and intelligence that are the ingredients to resolving the issue.  If any of these elements is ignored, then the practices do not bear any fruit.

And ultimately, it is about the awareness you generate through attentive practice that bears the sweetest fruit.

 

 

Moon Day March 27th 2017

Good morning, Rogue Ashtangis!

I hope that you are enjoying a few more hours of sleep today. Today we observe the New Moon, and it just happens to fall on Monday (the Day of the Moon).  New Moons are ideal times to start new projects, plan for new ventures, and reflect upon how we can move forward more mindfully, more compassionately, and more courageously.

I love practicing Ashtanga in the Mysore method because it emphasizes the close observation of the phases of the moon, and encourages us to set our own internal clocks into a natural, cyclical rhythm with the rest of the world.  The digital pace of life continues to accelerate, propelling us into a relentless pursuit of greater speed, greater efficiency, and greater novelty.   Yet, nature goes through cycles of growth and decay, blossoming and dying, of frugality and excess.  Nature is wild.  So are we.

From now until April 11th when the moon turns full again (called the Pink Moon), the moon will steadily increase its orb from complete darkness to complete brilliance.  The next full moon also marks the commencement of the celebrations for Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, after whom the full splits are named.

Now is a good time to learn the Moon Sequence, to put more energy into making progress in difficult postures or in your meditation practice. Now is a good time to grow past your limits, to question your  limitations.  Now is a good time to be wild, to explore, to be courageous.

Stay wild, moon child =-)

starry night 2

 

Why you will succeed with a Minimial practice done daily

“I don’t even know where to begin.”

How often have you said that when confronted with something new?  Whether it is learning a new language, learning how to play a musical instrument, or learning how to use your new laptop, it is not uncommon to feel overwhelmed.  Many people feel the same way when they consider starting a self-practice in Ashtanga Yoga or some other form of yoga.

The prospect of doing the entire Primary Series is daunting.  First, you have to learn all of the postures. Then you have to be able to jump through and jump back, like a hundred times, and we all know that your arms are grossly shorter than your torso, and your legs are filled with lead.  And then there are those other students who are just flying through the sequence like they’ve been taking gymnastics since they were six, and don’t forget that the teacher is probably judging you for your utter lack of strength and for your petrified hamstrings. 👹

All joking aside, starting a self-practice routine can make you feel like Sisyphus.

You really don’t know where to start.  What can you do?

It is really quite simple. Start at the beginning.  Take it one step at a time.

Often we are loath to admit that it is this simple, because, deep down, it is not the complexity of the system that baffles us.  It is the resistance of our egos getting in the way of learning the system.

We don’t like to make mistakes.  We don’t like to look unskilled in front of a perceived authority figure.  We don’t like to fall on our face from a failed bakasana or on our bums from a failed bhujapidasana.

But we all have to start somewhere.  Often the teachers you admire the most are the teachers who had to earn every single posture.  Nothing came easy to them.  Even the more flexible teachers struggle with their own issues.  After all, it really hurts when your head smacks into your shins in every seated forward bend.  Those cursed with loose hamstrings have to learn to hold back.

And at the end of the day, we all have to struggle and to put in the grunt work to learn anything.  Every great pianist started with learning chords and keys.  Every great writer started with learning how to express their inner voice on the page.  Every yoga student started with some simple postures.  What differentiates these people from you is merely time invested in their activity and a relentless pressure to keep coming back to the practice.

So that being said, how can you succeed in starting a daily practice?

  1. Schedule your practice session. Commit to practicing something three times a week.  Either Monday, Wednesday, Friday.  Or Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Or some combination of those.
  2. Set your practice at the same time every day.  Schedule it for a time that you know will be yours and yours alone.  Don’t just say you might practice that day.  Set the exact time.
  3. Start with the Surya Namaskara A and B.  Do three to five rounds of each salutation.  I feel that sometimes we discount the sun salutations as being just the warm-up or less complex than the rest of the series.  But in fact, you learn a lot in the Salutations, including breath-movement synchronisation, abdominal and hip control, and shoulder strength, not to mention the basic method of stringing each posture on the breath in a flowing sequence.
  4. Give yourself permission to fail.  It is more important to do something imperfectly than it is to do it perfectly.  You can make adjustments as you go along.  Your patient grunt work will give you context for your teacher’s comments to make sense.
  5. Make it mundane.  Asana practice is no more spiritual than flossing your teeth.  You are making the body limber, stretching out tight muscles, and building strength.  There really isn’t anything spiritual about that, unless you accept that all things are spiritual.  Anyway, you brush your teeth and floss your teeth every day because you know your teeth would rot out and your breath would stink if you didn’t do it.  So approach asana practice with the same attitude.  It is something you do for your health and your well-being.  Stop making it something it isn’t.

So, if nothing else, commit to the following practice every day.  If you want more, seek me out at Rogue Ashtanga.

  • Surya Namaskara A, 3 to 5 times
  • Surya Namaskara B, 3 to 5 times
  • Padmasana (or some variation), 10 breaths
  • Savasana