Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Which poses do you find hardest to engage the bandhas?

Source: Yoga Journal
I had no idea my uddiyana bandha was totally not engaged until the teacher came and put his hand on my belly in revolved triangle pose and revolved side angle pose. I normally pay pretty good attention during my sun salutations and non-twists to suck in the belly, but in these poses the twists make it feel like the belly must be sucked in already, since it's squished against the leg (sort of) right? Wrong. I felt like my gut was pushing directly into the teacher's hand and absolutely nothing happened when I tried to order my abdominal muscles to draw the belly back in. Can you imagine how pathetic I felt at that moment? I don't think the belly actually looks that big in twists, but it sure felt like I was 5 months pregnant at that instant. For the rest of the class I was totally self-conscious about my belly in all the twists, and I discovered that I could engage the bandha a little bit in Mari C and D. I don't know if it was because the twists in these poses are kind of lop-sided, providing slightly more space for the ab muscles to maneuver, or did some neural pathway from the brain become established to the abs sometime between the standing series and the seated poses.

So, cybershala, which poses do you feel the easiest to engage the bandhas and which poses are the hardest? For me the easiest pose to feel my bandhas is the 2nd last pose (not counting savasana) -- padmasana. I have heard that bandha engagement should be easy in urdhva padmasana because the organs get out of the way when upside down, but I find it the other way around.. they get in the way of my bandhas (interfering with the diaphram??)  Or maybe I'm just not used to being up side down still.

Don't even ask me about mula bandha. When I worry about it I squeeze everything down there, including unnecessary butt muscles, leg muscles, hip flexor stuff, and a whole bunch of other stuff that I don't know controls what but pretty sure have nothing to do with the perineum.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Drop backs practice report

So I've started doing drop-backs. It's amazing how quickly I've progressed in them. Not saying they're now really nice or anything, but my urdhva dhanurasanas never felt great, so I wasn't expecting to to drop backs so soon. My low back always feels funky in the pose, and I hate it when the teacher says to straighten my legs and shift my chest towards my arms. If I don't do it he'll come and help me and I always feel like I'm about to faint or drown. My neck can never relax in the wheel pose; the neck muscles feel strained whether I try to look up or look down. They refuse to relax no matter how I move my head. Stuff along the spine feels loose, as if the spine will fall apart if I try too hard (but I try hard anyways). Nobel reassured me a little when he told me deep backbends have a spinal alignment effect to them. Not sure if it was Tim Miller or Matthew Sweeney who started the saying, "Backbends are like pancakes. The first two are rubbish." That re-assured me further.

That being said, assisted drop-backs feel a million times safer and easier (psychologically) than attempting drop backs on my own, so kudos to Grimmly and all the people who work on this on their own. I think I sort of tried once at home, and I ended up bending my knees so much I ended up just going into a table top pose instead of a real drop back. Coming back up was like a swim up where I flailed my arms wildly and sort of front crawled my way back to standing, again with super bent knees... I always imagined myself looking like the reverse of Neil doing backbend dodging bullets in the Matrix, except I'm sure it looks a lot dorkier and messier.

Apparently my back is pretty open, so I "don't need to" do hang backs. Actually I just plain can't do them. With the teacher's hands around my waist, for awhile it felt like he was the soul reason I wasn't crashing straight to the floor headfirst since I felt I had zero control over my upper body weight. Coming back up is so much fun with the help of a teacher. A little pull (or pressure into the spine at the low back junction) and I pop right up. But without the teacher I guess I didn't want to look like an idiot doing my front crawl thing in class. I also was really scared of falling back down and landing on my head because my arms wouldn't be ready to catch me or something silly like that.

There are two keys to coming up smoothly: 1. walk the hands as close towards the feet as possible, "past the point where you feel comfortable with placing your hands". 2. Rock back and forth and come up on an inhale while rocking forward towards the feet. So they actually both work, and I've been surprised that some days I can come up on my own. The trick is I have to catch the momentum. If I try to come up at the wrong time during the rock, then I fall back down. My hands did catch me and save me the fate of a head concussion, so my fear was unfounded. If my back feels funny, then I'm not able to walk my hands that close to my feet, and a wide wheel makes coming up impossible.

So now I'm at this inconsistent stage where sometimes I can come up magically on my own no problem, and other times I get stuck in my wheel and can't come up without assistance. Neither the forward bend squish nor the fold itself after the drop backs ever feels long enough, and I can feel my spine screaming "I'm here! Feel my presence!!" at me for the rest of the day. It's not pain.. it's just.. very energized, but not necessarily in a happy or unhappy way. Seriously, who needs a chiropractor if you can just do wheel pose and drop backs? I wonder what chiros think about setu bandhasana and headstands. Setu b. feels super intense right now, probably not from physical strain but from shock. I'm trusting the practice and hoping it'll strengthen my neck and make my neck strain go away. Also hoping matsyasana and uttana padasana will strengthen my mid and low back, because I do not feel peace and calm in these two poses.

Anyways, just a boring recording my practice report. I hope the poses I mention will get easier and my spine will thank me later on. Right now it's questioning what the heck I'm doing to it and the rational brain isn't really sure if what I'm practicing is exactly healthy for my body. I kind of have to have faith, keep at it for a few months and then see what happens.

Friday, August 12, 2011

More about the yoga industry and good yoga teaching from a more qualified speaker :)

I do have more to say about this topic, but first, let's hear from a senior yoga teacher's view of yoga :)

Part 2: What is a popular yoga teacher vs. a good yoga teacher?


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A biased view of the yoga industry from someone who's glad her writings don't count for marks any more :)

I have been wanting to write about this topic for a long time but everyone else seems to be able to address exactly what I wanted to talk about, with much better understanding and much more eloquence. Nobel talked about yoga teacher training and the yoga version of the American dream. Grimmly also wrote a post about yoga teacher training. "It's all Yoga, baby" wrote about New York Time's interpretation of Ana Forrest vs. John Friend vs. Tara Stiles. As far as I know, these three styles are pretty accurately and succinct described in this post. Her previous post of NYT's overall portrayal of yoga points out how mainstream media's skepticism about yoga can negatively influence people who are thinking about trying out yoga, or are currently confused by yoga.

I've been pondering about yoga and capitalism. In the early days, students who really wanted to learn yoga had to go beg the teacher to teach them. The guru would make these bright-eyed hopeful students go through crazy difficult tests to confirm their determination for this practice. I guess when the (western) students have experienced the benefits of the practice, they want to share it with people back home. They knew such a disciplined practice wouldn't appeal to the masses, so they've modified and marketed yoga in a way that people would want to try it out. There is nothing wrong with that. I think anyone who has tried yoga has received benefits of relaxation, improved breathing, more limber body, and more. The thing is, when yoga turns into a business, rent and electricity costs money, and studio owners end up having to recruit more and more customers by whatever means they can to pay the bills as opposed to teaching it in the strict traditional form. People would only pay so much money for practice, so all these other things are born - clothing lines, jewelries, expensive mats and mat cleaners, and - teacher training! Initially meant to uphold the quality of yoga teachers, in a capitalist society this screams "career opportunity", and everyone jumps at it, because seriously, being a yoga teacher and make other people feel good feels 1000 times more meaningful than, say, a bank job where you count other people's cash all day, or a secretarial job where you do the most boring administrative paperwork stuff for the rest of your life. Most friends I know with traditional jobs often talk like they work in a prison, or just avoid talking about their work at all.

So then we get into this situation where the market is filled with well-intentioned yoga teachers who have practiced yoga themselves for barely a few months. The market demand for yoga classes are so high that sometimes these teachers end up teaching full time and have no time for personal practice. We get students who take classes with these teachers for awhile, who want to dig deeper into yoga, but the only option to go deeper seems to be to sign up for $3000+ teacher training, because a lot of these teachers are too inexperienced to offer adjustments or teach headstands (for safety/liability reasons I'm glad they don't). What a brilliantly crafted money-making business plan (that I think happened somewhat accidentally)!

Yoga nowadays is kind of like Christianity. It is spread broadly by people who have felt the benefits of the practice but don't fully understand the history and the deepness of the tradition. You get a lot of teachers who take bits of what they like about yoga (or what students might prefer) and sell them to students, while ignoring bits that they don't quite understand/believe in themselves, as well as parts that might clash with conventional beliefs and personal comfort zones. Don't like talking about spirituality? OK, we'll take that out of this yoga class. Jump backs and jump throughs frustrate students? No problem. Just don't introduce them in class and students will never know they existed. Feet together in Samasthiti feels unbalanced? Let's teach people to stand feet hip distance apart instead. The teachers who first started teaching this way understood the intentions behind the modifications, but new yoga practitioners subsequently taking teacher training programs don't seem to realize these are modifications (partly because they can't do the full form themselves, which takes years to achieve) and teach them as strict rules instead.

What ends up happening is a lot of confused yoga practitioners. I attended a yoga conference last year when barely started practicing yoga, so some of the classes and variations were kind of confusing to me. What was really daunting for me, was that about half the attendees claimed to have gone through some sort of yoga teacher training program, yet they seemed more confused than I was. It made me really appreciate having encountered a great teacher at the beginning of my yoga journey. My yoga teacher is a total stickler for teaching the original Ashtanga form (e.g. hands together in warrior I even if one has tight shoulders, grab the toe in trikonasana even if one has super tight hips, etc). I wondered for the longest time why he doesn't teach the modified forms like all other teachers seem to do.  Some students (and even yoga teachers) stay away from his classes because of this reason. It took me awhile to realize but now when I encounter variations, it's obvious to me (without anyone informing me the reasons) that they are modified forms to make beginners' lives easier. I've heard some teachers complain that Ashtanga doesn't seem to teach a lot of alignments. I've been to classes with a ton of verbal alignment cues, but half the cues didn't jive with my body. Even when the cues felt helpful, I saw a lot of people in class still had crap alignments, and the teacher didn't do anything to physically assist anyone (which Ashtanga teachers tend to do). Since the results are about the same, the preference is up to the students then. It's good to have a choice between the preferred method of being taught.

In the beginning I totally disagreed with reformulating yoga into marketable products (anti-gravity yoga, yoga for runners, yoga for weight loss, yoga with live music, etc). Now I no longer think it's wrong, because just like it always has been, the mass public doesn't want to be put through a disciplined spiritual practice. They want to entertained and to feel good -- instant gratifications. Maybe I'm a bit of a weirdo but it's happened so many times that when I went out friends for a drinking gathering, I would join them for a few drinks, but as I noticed people started behaving funny as a result of intoxication, instead of "catching up" I wold stop myself because I didn't really feel like becoming the same way (plus I get a headache right away from too much alcohol anyway). When I attend a yoga class with good music and lots of feel good messages but no challenge, I feel entertained but at the same time I would sense that something is missing. When the sequencing of a yoga class doesn't feel quite right or if a class is all about getting a work out I also become very disappointed. However other students seem to enjoy the class no less. Perhaps I'm just too hard to please?

I guess I like things I do to have meaning, and Ashtanga seem to be so well crafted that every pose as well as the details of the sequencing have reasons to back up this practice. Not everyone needs every activity they do to have meaning. Not everyone wants to read into the history of yoga. Not everyone wants to have the basic alignment for each pose memorized. Hence the yoga industry shapes itself to fit mainstream crowd's desires. I am just glad that I came across a yoga style that suits my personality and that the system is rich enough for me to explore for many years to come. I've heard people complain that yoga should be cheaper and be available to more people, yada yada. I wonder if they really mean that everyone should be taught basic breathing techniques and basic stretches, because not all yoga styles are the same. I think at the rate that current teacher training program churns out yoga teachers, we would soon have enough yoga teachers qualified to teach exactly such at every school, hospital and community center. This would indeed benefit the public at large. However, for a deeper yoga practice, it is up to me to put in the effort to go find the right teacher for proper guidance. To be able to study with a good yoga teacher is a privilege rather than one of the basic human rights. I must remember that.

Also, there's nothing wrong with doing yoga for social and entertainment purposes. Ashtanga will always be my grounding practice, but I am still allowed to attend other styles of yoga for fun!