what is your yoga truth?

Hanumanasana is Overrated

“From a standpoint where the purpose of Hatha yoga is to facilitate and maintain a healthy functioning body, there is no reason why a person would ever need to be able to do Hanumanasana. However unattached we may be in working towards it, the goal belies our better purpose.

Touting images of flashy classical asana demonstrations as examples of “mastery” has led to a gross exaggeration of physical practice, beyond the point of practicality, and has fueled a physical fitness industry that is more concerned with aesthetics than health. I realize that I may be taking a hard view of things but seeing past the cultural sensationalizing of just about everything can be a daunting task given the deeply ingrained mores stacked against it. Some amount of push back seems necessary.”

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, German philosopher — and as quoted by Paul Grilley about certain “truths” of modern-day yoga.

His philosophy controversial, Schopenhauer “claimed that the world is fundamentally what we recognize in ourselves as our will.  His analysis of will led him to the conclusion that emotional, physical, and sexual desires can never be fulfilled.  Consequently, he eloquently described a lifestyle of negating desires, similar to the ascetic teachings of Vedanta, Buddhism, Taoism and the Church Fathers of early Christianity.” (from Wikipedia.)

Why do we engage in certain practices at a certain time, why do we think they were important at the time? When do we begin to move beyond our conditioning and attachments? What is the impetus that throws us headlong into a different direction when we thought for so long that we were always headed in the right direction?

Has your yoga truth changed since you started your practice?

Rod Stryker: “YOGA IS A QUEST FOR THE TRUTH”

yin yoga Q & A

After reading this post, Anonymous asked:

“How can it be a good thing to stretch ligaments? Fascia, I understand; I learned a lot about it in anatomy courses & totally get why it needs to be flexible. But I’m not clear on ligaments: don’t they hold bones in place, as in joints? Don’t people have problems with hyperextending in, for example, knees & ankles, when the ligaments are too stretched out & the bones “wiggle” all over the place? If stretching can cause this, can’t yoga also? Thanks for any clarification you can bring to this issue.”

Good questions, Anonymous, I will try to answer.

Your first misconception is that somehow ligaments are different from fascia. No; for the purpose of yin yoga “connective tissue” refers to ligaments and fascia, i.e, the broad bands of connective tissue that even extends into the innermost parts of each cell. I direct your attention to the website of the First International Fascia Research Conference that took place in 2007. My teacher, Paul Grilley, was invited to speak at this conference but did not attend. He believes that once this fascia research gets into the “mainstream” medical community, it will revolutionize medicine. From the fascia research website:

“Fascia, or dense fibrous connective tissues, nevertheless potentially plays a major and still poorly understood role in joint stability, in general movement coordination, as well as in back pain and many other pathologies. One reason why fascia has not received adequate scientific attention in the past decades is that this tissue is so pervasive and interconnected that it easily frustrates the common ambition of researchers to divide it into a discrete number of subunits which can be classified and separately described. In anatomic displays the fascia is generally removed, so the viewer can see the organs nerves and vessels but fails to appreciate the fascia which connects, and separates, these structures.”

In other words, Anonymous, don’t believe everything in your anatomy courses. Medical books sometimes are not updated for 20 years. Why? Too expensive.

“Don’t people have problems with hyperextending?”

If Mark Spitz could not hyperextend his knees by about 30 degrees, he would not have won 7 Olympic gold medals for swimming. If Michael Phelps could not hyperextend his joints, he would not have beaten Spitz’s record. If contortionists could not hyperextend their joints, there would be no Cirque de Soleil. You are believing an anatomical cultural myth that somehow hyperextension of joints is always inherently dangerous, and that’s just not true.

“when the ligaments are too stretched out…”

Your second misconception is that somehow a ligament is “inert”, that once “stretched” it will not return to it’s usual length. Many anatomists, doctors, and medical researchers still believe that connective tissue is not “alive” in the same sense that a muscle is “alive.” This is simply not true. It IS true that injured ligaments take a longer time to heal but that is not because they are “too stretched out”; it’s because they have less blood supply than, for example, a muscle.

So I would ask you, if ligaments get “too stretched out”, then why do people get so stiff in their old age? Stiff hips, stiff backs, stiff knees? Would that not suggest that the connective tissue is NOT inert, that it actually does continually lengthen and shorten, and in old age it can literally shrink wrap the joints if not therapeutically stressed as one therapeutically stresses their heart doing aerobics or the way you therapeutically stress your muscles when you lift weights? But don’t believe me — go ask an 85 year old in a nursing home how flexible they feel.

Here is an excerpt from the chapter “Isn’t Stretching the Joints Bad?” from Paul Grilley’s book, Yin Yoga: A Quiet Practice:

“Moderately stretching the joints is not injuring them any more than lifting a barbell is injuring the muscles. Both forms of exercise can be done recklessly but neither one is innately wrong or dangerous. Of course, if someone bounces into their joints they will hurt themselves sooner or later, but that is Yang activity and Yin connective tissue shouldn’t be trained that way.

Yin forms of exercise seem new to our way of thinking. People accept the fact that muscle tissue shrinks or grows in rsponse to exercise, but imagine that the connective tissue of the body is insert and unchanging. This is not true. All the tissues of our body are changing and adapting to the stresses put upon them, even our bones.

If we didn’t exercise them, our muscles would atrophy and weaken and as a consequence so would our bones. Not as obvious to us but just as undesirable is the slow shortening and stiffening of connective tissue throughout our body due to injuries, neglect and aging. If we never bend our knees or stretch our spines, then the connective tissue is going to slowly shorten to the minimum length needed to accommodate our activities. If we want to maintain our joint flexibilities, we must exercise them, but we cannot exercise them like muscles, we must exercise them Yin fashion.”

“If stretching can cause this, can’t yoga also?”

Anonymous, you must first understand the difference between yin yoga and other forms of yoga which are considered yang.

The fundamental difference between yin yoga and astanga or vinyasa, for example, which are “yang” forms of yoga, is that the poses in yin yoga are done on the floor and held for 3 to 5 minutes minimum (poses like pigeon, child’s pose, cobbler’s pose, forward fold, among others.) Connective tissue does not respond to rhythmical stretches the way muscles do, in fact, you would injure your CT if you worked CT like muscles. Connective tissue is tough and fibrous and stretches best when pulled like taffy, slowly and gently.

A football player tears his ACL because his knee snaps — that’s a yang movement, that is a hard and fast movement that certainly injures connective tissue.

Holding yin yoga postures for a few minutes with moderate stress is not going to pull the connective tissue to the breaking point. The CT is only going to stretch minutely and if you are consistent with a yin yoga practice, the body responds by growing CT a little longer and thicker, which is what you want for the health of your joints.

Thanks for reading this blog and for asking your question.

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killing yoga’s sacred cows: Paul Grilley training, part 2

“HOW CAN THERE BE UNIVERSAL PRINCIPLES OF ALIGNMENT WHEN EVERYONE’S BONES ARE DIFFERENT?”

How indeed?

I have been a student of Paul Grilley’s for about five years now and I’ve been teaching yin yoga for three years. I first did a workshop with him at the Midwest Yoga Conference and as soon as he said “yoga is all in the bones” I was hooked. Paul is an anatomy genius and as I listened to him explain why there will always be poses that some of us will never be able to do a lightbulb went off over my head. I thought, “why isn’t every yoga teacher learning from this man?”

Five years ago Paul brought real bones to his workshops. not plastic bones, real bones, in a suitcase, so imagine him getting through airport security. he doesn’t do that anymore because they began to deteriorate, but you can see the pictures of those bones on his website.

every yoga teacher who reads this blog should click on each picture and learn how everyone’s bones are different. our bones are different on each side of our bodies. we are not symetrical. let that sink in and think about how your students look in asanas.

Why is shoulderstand exceedingly easy for one person and the next one hates it?

Why does one person’s foot come out farther in front in pigeon and the next person can’t get their foot very much past their pubic bone? and how many yoga teachers walk over and immediately pull that foot out in front because that’s the way it’s “supposed” to be? yeah, that must be written on a palm leaf in India somewhere.

Why can the person who’s never done yoga do lotus in their sleep and the next person will never be able to do lotus no matter how much they try even though they’ve been doing yoga for 20 years?

And how many students reading this post feel inadequate because you can’t get into that Yoga Journal cover version of pigeon or shoulderstand no matter how many daily hours of yoga you do?

Get over it because it’s all in the bones. it has nothing to do with flexibility. nothing. zilch. not one iota. so forget about it. and that attitude should be extremely liberating and open up your yoga practice to something that is much deeper.

Of course we become more flexible with yoga, but only to the extent to which we are genetically programmed to become. and flexibility has to do with the connective tissue, the fascia of the body, it has nothing to do with muscles. it has nothing to do with doing 50 chatarungas and jump-backs in a session. that’s muscular. that’s not yin, that’s yang movement.

The asanas in yin yoga are done on the floor and are held for a minimum of 3 to 5 minutes because that’s the way the fascia of the body must be worked. it is totally different from a yang, moving, vinyasa practice. that is strength building muscular movement — the power of your muscles does not translate to flexibility. yin movement is about the health of your joints. both are need for a healthy body. yoga is about balance, the yin AND the yang of all things.

For poses such as pigeon, double pigeon (square pose), and cowface pose, the ability to do them comfortably has to do with how your femur connects to your pelvis. are your femurs internally or externally rotated? look at the femur pictures on Paul’s site and see how each one is different. combine that with the location of our hip sockets in our pelvis. the sockets might be shallow or deep or more toward the front or back or toward the sides. or higher up on the pelvis or farther down below. combine that socket position with the length and angle of the neck of the femur. I think you get the idea. and now ask yourself: how can there be universal principles of alignment when everyone’s bones are different? knowing that, how is that going to change your attitude about adjusting your students?

I am an example of extreme internal rotation. Paul uses me in his workshops in Chicago as an example of uber-Gumbyness. every year he asks me to lie on my abdomen and I bend one knee so that my leg forms a 90 degree angle. he then takes my foot and slowly moves my lower leg down out sideways so that my foot almost touches the floor — my opposite hip does not or barely comes up off the floor. and every year the entire studio of yoga teachers takes a huge collective gasp as they watch him do that. and then he does the other leg. and then he does both legs at the same time. with sound effects. by that time I’m usually asleep if I’m not laughing so hard at everyone’s reactions.

After my hip demo at this last workshop someone yelled out, “wouldn’t you like to x-ray her hips?” he said yes so I told him that I’m going to will my pelvis and femurs to him so if I die before him he can still continue to use me in his workshops. I found out later that Paul calls me “Linda Crazy Hips.”

In my years of study with Paul, I can line people up, examine how their arms hang, and know who will have an easy or difficult time with chatarunga by looking at the rotation of the insides of their elbows. that rotation will determine hand placement. hand placement will determine whether someone can comfortably hover off the floor or whether they are going to rip a rotator cuff next time they come down. I can tell how comfortably someone will be able to do shoulderstand if I ask them to drop their chin to their chest or clasp their hands behind them and lift the arms. it’s all in the bones, baby.

What I love about Paul is how he kills yoga’s sacred cows. iconoclasts are close to my heart since I’m an iconoclast yoga facilitator who loves to tweak cultural myths. he challenges you to think outside the yoga box. he throws out questions to make you think beyond the standard yoga paradigms like: in old traditional yoga books, why is there no mention of the “correct” alignment? one photo above is Paul showing us slides of old yoga books where everyone is doing the same asana differently, usually in the “wrong” way. how many of us teach that the knee should never go past the toes in a lunge? look at old pictures of Krishnamacharya. I’ve studied at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram three times and I can tell you that I’ve never heard Sir (i.e., Sri Desikachar, Krishnamacharya’s son) use the word “alignment” once.

Paul acknowledges that his teaching is not everyone’s cup of chai. we become angry when anyone challenges our long-held beliefs that we thought were so solid. Paul told a story about how during one of his workshops a woman walked out and he could see her outside the room angrily pacing back and forth. he said when she came back at the end of the workshop she told him how much he challenged her beliefs about how yoga “should be.” let’s just say that Iyengar yoga purists and Paul usually don’t see eye to eye. killing sacred cows can be a hard thing to do but someone has to do it.

I’ll leave you with a question that Paul asked us. it has to do with the physicality of yoga, with the ability to “advance” in the asanas:

How would it affect your practice if you would never get “better” in yoga? how would that affect you emotionally? once you hit that wall of never getting “better”, would you shift your emphasis away from the physical to the energetics of yoga?

He used me as an example again. he said, “Linda has been doing yoga a long time. you’ve seen how flexible she is. do you really think she does yoga to become more flexible? there has to be something more.”

(p.s. if you’d like a yin or yin/yang workshop for your studio, leave a comment with your contact information — I’d be happy to present!)



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Paul Grilley: how to be a good yoga student

I spent 5 days with Paul Grilley in another wonderful yin yoga teacher training. this video was taken by Zach, who came from Michigan to the Chicago Yoga Center.

Paul is talking about being a courteous student if you are in a workshop or a class and you do not agree with what is being taught.

I have studied with Paul for 5 years now and what I love about him is that he kills the yoga sacred cow of “universal principles of alignment.” I will write soon about my experience in his training and post my own pictures.

http://video.google.com/googleplayer.swf?docid=8312665546802322974&hl=en&fs=true

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the retreat, part 2: Yoga Dawg goes legit!

I have finally found some time to write a a bit about my second 10 day retreat for my Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation training at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. You can read about the first retreat in October, 2007 here.

We had the same teachers from last year except for Stephen Cope from Kripalu. I missed him because I love his style. In his place was Chip Hartranft who wrote The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation with Commentary which is the version of the Sutras we are using for this training. In his book Chip skillfully shows how the buddha-dharma can not be separated from Patanjali’s yoga philosophy.

My interview with a yoga teacher was with Chip and I loved his style as much as I loved Stephen Cope’s. Chip is sweet and down-to-earth and the real deal in my opinion. We were both sorry that our 15 minute talk seemed to end so quickly. I look forward to seeing him next year as he will be one of the teachers leading asana practice, along with Jill Satterfield.

The guest yoga teachers for this retreat were my teacher, Sarah Powers, and Judith Lasater. It was good to see Sarah as she is my teacher for yin yoga together with Paul Grilley when they come to Chicago. We did a yin and yang practice with Sarah and restorative yoga with Judith Lasater. I will say that after spending two days with Judith and her style of yoga, I wanted to leave the retreat — more on Judith’s classes in my next post.

Anne Cushman, who wrote Enlightenment for Idiots (see my sidebar), is one of the coordinators of this training and she led us in classes and also gave a talk on yoga. Although it was a mostly silent retreat, I thanked her for sending me her book and she told me she was going to quote YogaDawg in her talk — so that’s how YogaDawg became legit, his book quoted at a yoga and meditation training. I was amused when I saw students furiously writing down his words about yoga students, and I wondered whether they realized it’s yoga satire….after all, Lindia is YogaDawg’s evil yogini sister, bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha (that was supposed to be an evil laugh.)

Anne opened her discussion by posing the question: how does asana practice help mindfulness practice? she said because everything — meditation, pranayama, Patanjali’s and the Buddha’s words — are used in the service of waking up. she said that yoga was never supposed to be for anything other than awakening and seeing the world clearly as it is. that is enlightenment.

in the retreat asana practice cultivates a deeper exploration of our emotions, mind states, and body and breath. we use our asana practice to explore our relief from suffering, to bring us ease, and to explore the Four Noble Truths in relationship to our practice and therefore our life. yoga is life — Krishnamacharya knew this when he said “breath is central to yoga because it is central to life and yoga is about life.” practice is life and our life is the practice. yoga has the toolbox to bring us blissful states but the problem comes when we think that’s the only thing yoga can do, i.e., when we use yoga as a quick fix. what do we do when there is no quick fix? what are the larger principles we can bring to our asana practice?

Anne named four things:

1. bring the quality of metta (loving-kindness) or self-compassion to your practice. she said that sometimes metta was more important than mindfulness because we are judgmental about our practice. we forget that we are already complete and as yogins we have too much internal criticism about our practice. when we practice self-compassion our mindfulness will flourish naturally.

2. remember to use asana practice AS IT IS; know the difference between goal and intention. be present and develop a new relationship with WHAT IS. be willing to be present in your practice and transformation will occur. use your asana practice as a counterpose to the culture at large where we are pressured to constantly and continually become “better” because it is never good enough to be just as we are.

3. don’t use your asana practice as a way to support your conditioning — use it to counterbalance and transform your conditioning. Anne gave the example of Type A personalities always doing the same type of practice which supports their conditioning instead of transforming them into a less agitated Type B. if you live your life in constant agitation, don’t do a practice that will agitate you even more. be flexible with your practice, not dogmatic. As Jack Kornfield writes in A Path With Heart, mental flexibility is one of the marks of spiritual maturity. embrace the yin along with the yang.

4. most importantly, use your asana practice as a means to get in touch with impermanence. our bodies are changing every day even though we act like they aren’t. all of us will die yet we live as if we won’t. use your asana practice to recognize the changes in your body while at the same time celebrating it and appreciating it.

Anne reminded us that our asana practice is a constant dance between form and formlessness. as yogins we devote ourselves to the study of form and to being healthy, but at the same time we must realize that the forms we turn our bodies into are impermanent, one asana flows into another, as do the seasons of our lives. embrace the two truths of form and formlessness at the same time and always remember that it’s just a pose.

This second retreat was a mixed bag for me, good, bad, and indifferent, yet I experienced some epiphanies. I used to tell my students that a wise-ass Buddhist once said, life sucks, but suffering is optional. I now realize that life is suffering, pain is optional — big difference, think about it.

During a meditation practice on forgiveness, I finally forgave the alcoholic yoga studio owner, I no longer feel the rage. actually, the forgiveness was ultimately for me, not her. I forgave her for myself, to relieve MY pain over being betrayed. self-compassion is a wonderful thing.

the entire trip was a lesson on impermanence. before the retreat I spent five days with a friend exploring the Big Sur area. as it turned out, we cheated death by a few days because when we left, Big Sur went up in flames. the restaurant and the store that we went to and the Tassjara area, all were engulfed in wildfires that are still being fought.

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thanks given

to….

Suddha Weixler. . .for showing me what it means to be a true yogi

Srivatsa Ramaswami. . .for showing me what pure yoga is and inspiring me to go to India

Paul Grilley. . .for showing me that yoga truly is “all in the bones”

Sarah Powers. . .for confirming for me what I have always intuited

My students. . .for their support along this Path

Buddha. . .for the Dharma and for showing me the way out of suffering

OM MANI PEDME HUM