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.

Vinyasa Krama, by Matthew Sweeney

Vinyasa Krama Playful, Versatile, Creative

Mindful, Focused, Consistent

with Matthew Sweeney

1. Vinyasa Krama is Yoga tailored for individuals – sequences that are scaled and modified for students with any physical condition. Students learn sequencing as a model for exploration rather than a goal to be reached. This enables all Vinyasa Krama teachers to help a huge variety of students with different rates of learning. One claim we make on VK teaching is that we are able to teach more students than most if not all other Vinyasa or Ashtanga teachers – as neither age nor ability is a barrier. Potentially any sequence or tradition can be used under the VK umbrella.

2. Self Practice
– rather than focusing on Led classes where the teacher will often teach what he or she is best at, we focus on self practice so the emphasis is on student maturity and learning / experiencing at your own pace. Self practice is the key to all other aspects of Yoga – Pranayama, meditation, and self inquiry. A key point we make is the importance of not relying on only one technique, sequence or tradition – the technique or tradition is the map, not the territory. A Self Practice teacher guides and encourages; he or she has to be objective and able to provide time, space and feedback. Self Practice class sizes are also generally limited in order to give individual attention.

3. Pranayama
– Vinyasa Krama breathing techniques are comprehensive, taught over a period of time, in a step by step manner, via self practice. Students learn based on commitment and ability, and are assessed as to whether each technique is appropriate. As most Pranayama classes are taught in a group format, this comes with some significant problems. That is, a lack of individual guidance, plus the tendency to teach more advanced techniques (Kumbhaka for example) before a student knows how to breathe properly and without effort.

4. Self Inquiry and Relational Development
– we explore self awareness in the context of our relationships to others. This key aspect of integrating Yoga, Self and relationships is usually overlooked or even abused by many teachers, Yoga or otherwise. A teacher / student relationship must be ethical first, and technical second. It is personal and therefore requires a clear mind and open heart.

 5. Meditation and Advaita Vedanta – we also focus on the big picture, continually returning to the spaciousness of the natural, effortless, non-dual self. The techniques are simply pointing at the same universal truth every time – I am that.

For more on Matthew Sweeney, his books and DVDs, and his courses, visit http://www.yogatemple.com

Derek Ireland, a teacher’s teacher

I’d like to share a link to a long post by Anthony Grim Hall, on Derek Ireland, one of the pioneering Western students of Ashtanga Yoga.

http://grimmly2007.blogspot.com/p/httpwww.html
Derek Ireland is something of a legend in the Ashtanga world.  He was the teacher to several prominent Western teachers: John Scott, Gingi Lee, Alexander Medin, Lis Lark, Brian Cooper, Mathew Vollmer, Michaela Clarke, Annie Pace, Jocelyn Stern, Petri Raisanen, Joseph Dunham, Ginny Dean, Hemish Hendry, among others.

Grim Hall’s post has a lot of great articles on Derek, and some amazing videos that I had never seen before.  Definitely worth a read.

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.

 

 

New Moon, New Paths

Today Thursday is a New Moon.  In the Ashtanga tradition, you take rest from vigorous asana practice.  So enjoy your day of quiet, restoration and rest. =-)

New Moons are associated with new beginnings.  It is a time to plant seeds, to start new projects, to take on new challenges.  So it is unusual, yet also fitting, that I announce that, as of Friday June 9th, I will be stepping back from teaching the morning Mysore program at Yoga District, for the foreseeable future.  Claudia Paredes will be stepping in to start teaching the Mysore program on Monday June 12th.  I would like to thank Jasmine, the owner of Yoga District, for giving me this opportunity to teach the morning Mysore program for the past year.

I will continue to teach some led classes at various studios and corporations, and I will be conducting workshops and intensives once I am able to get some time to recuperate from my exhaustion.  I will also be available for private instruction.  So please stay tuned and share my information if you are interested in learning Ashtanga, Vinyasa Krama, meditation and pranayama.

In short, Rogue Ashtanga is becoming more of an individual project, more like consulting than a regular program tied to a studio.

This has been a hard, but necessary, decision to make, because I am, frankly speaking, burned out and I need to make this more sustainable.  I’ve been teaching yoga for over 17 years, practicing yoga for nearly 20 years.  I’ve given a lot to the yoga community.  I’ve seen it all.  I’ve been a yoga teacher, a studio manager, a teacher training director.  I’ve taught regular weekly classes, special workshops, teacher training modules, donation-based fundraisers, Mysore programs (twice now), and international yoga retreats. My studio was a part of the yoga landscape in DC for 6 years, before rent obligations and flagging sales caused us to close last year.

And most recently, I have taken to blogging about the “whys” and “hows” of yoga practice, specifically Ashtanga Yoga and Vinyasa Krama as taught by Matthew Sweeney.

I’ve advised yoga teachers on their classes and their career paths.  I’ve advised yoga studio owners on their business strategy and their vision.  I’ve aspired to be what Keith Ferrazzi calls a super-connector in the yoga community.  I have lived, breathed, eaten, slept yoga for a long time.

And it seems that I am reaching a midlife crisis (3 years early! Early bloomer!).  I am questioning everything about what I am doing, about why I am practicing yoga, about why I am a full-time yoga teacher, about how the yoga community is organized, about how yoga as a business is conducted.  I’ve been asking myself, “What are we doing when we say we practice yoga?  What are we teaching when we teach yoga?”

In fact, why is the image of yoga presented to the public, mostly through Instagram and Facebook these days, about being tanned and flexible, posing elegantly in a difficult yoga posture (or handstand, more and more on one hand) in an exotic location, hash-tagged with the following bizarre litany: “#yoga #yogapants #yogachallenge #yogaeverydamnday #yogainspiration #yogapose #yogalover #yogagram #yogafam #yogateacher #yogamat #yogaforlife” ad infinitum.

Dig deeper.  A casual search of the instagram hashtag #yoga delivers 34,647,365 posts (that’s over 34 million, just to write it out for full effect), the top posts showing one yogi in an oversplit (see image),Oversplit-400x269 another yogi in a jumping split (like a cheerleader?), a protein vegan bar, a model in a white dress (doing pout-asana? upward-facing duck-face asana?), a video of a student “nailing the straddle press” into handstand (while on Keramas Beach, in the yoga hotspot Bali, Indonesia), a student taking a selfie near her mat, a video instructional on bakasana, a  quote from the Dalai Lama, and a post on the law of positivism (whatever that is).

And that’s just for #yoga.  The second most searched #hashtag is #yogapants (and of the 9 top posts for that term only 5 appear to be wearing yoga pants), followed by #yogachallenge .

I don’t know.  Am I being too jaded, too cynical?  Is this the burnout speaking?  Maybe.  And I know that there are a lot of genuine, authentic teachers and inspired students out there.  These are the people that I look up to, that I love to work with, that I constantly refer to my friends.  So, it’s not all doom and gloom (or spandex and fairy dust?), and yoga, as a decentralized system of individual self-development, will persist, regardless of the plastic pantomime of the media monkeys and their junket junkies.

I am just trying to make sense of it all.

You know, my father passed away three years ago.  He was a computer programmer by trade, a genealogist by hobby, an archivist and memorialist by preference. He kept every paperback book he ever read, noting max alain yoga in red ink on the front cover his name, followed by the dates he read the book.  After he passed, I found a book called Yoga for Perfect Health by Alain (nom de plume of Max Alain Schwendimann, about whom I could find nothing else on great Google), written in 1961.  Alain seems to have been a student of Swami Sivananda. My father read it in February 1965.  I’ve been reading it for the past few weeks, and I’ve been imagining what he was thinking when he read it.  He even underlined certain phrases, such as “Much of the success in Yoga training depends upon this condition of affective (emotional) indifference to results.”

The front cover states that yoga is “a system of health and hygiene of body and mind that can help give you a vigorous and happy life.”

But is that what we are teaching?  Is that how we are representing yoga in our social media crazed society nowadays?

Is doing a one-armed handstand going to “give you a vigorous and happy life?”

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So why are we doing yoga?  If you are teaching yoga, why are you teaching?  If you are a studio owner, why are you running a yoga studio?  And is teaching yoga as a profession really that sustainable in our current marketplace?