back in the U.S.A.

with statue of Patnajali, finally bought after 7 years of going to KYM

Back from India with a good case of reverse culture shock.  It’s not fun, I feel like hiding in a closet for about a month, besides which I have a horrible cold from breathing the recycled air of 500+ hacking, sneezing people for 18 hours flying over 2.5 continents and an ocean.   But I’m already planning my 7th trip so stay tuned for details — I have already booked March 11-15, 2013 at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram to bring people for private classes — 5 minimum, 8 maximum.  Let me know if you’re interested because after that week I am planning to teach a yoga retreat in Varkala, Kerala.  Throwing it out to the Universe and we’ll see what gets thrown back.

My yoga trainings were amazing.  I completed Modules 1 and 2 of Ganesh Mohan’s yoga therapy training and because he’s such an amazing teacher that combines the best of East and West modalities, I’ve decided to complete all his modules.  I will take Module 3 here then return to India next year for Module 4.

The course at KYM, “Discover Yoga Anatomy”, was equally amazing.  After going to KYM since 2005, the senior teachers know me and I can no longer hide in class — I get called on now!  The course drained my brain because it definitely was an “advanced” training.  For example, we had a course on “Yoga Anatomy in the Classical Texts”, a course where we discussed various aspects of Chapter 3 of the Sutra-s (among other texts).  We tore apart YS 3.26-27-28:  what was Patanjali really speaking to?  Do you take what he said literally or is the north star a metaphoric reference?  Where is the north star in our body, what does it represent?  Loved it — yoga more than skin deep.  I feel grateful and blessed to have been introduced to the Krishnamacharya lineage via Srivatsa Ramaswami when I first started teaching — it is both an honor and responsibility to be a representative of this tradition.  SRI GURUBHYO NAMAH.

Yoga more than skin deep, beyond asana… what a concept.  I realized in India that the more I study in this lineage, the more I am a yoga freak at home.  A stranger in a yoga strange land.  As hippies were called “freaks” back in the day, I feel even more so like a yoga freak now.   It contributes immensely to my reverse culture shock.  I was happy to be in India when the John Friend story broke and was amused by all the blahblahblah about it.  I spoke with a KYM teacher about what is called yoga in America and she just shook her head.

In Kerala I was offered a house and garden to convert into “Sama’s Yoga Garden” — “you could do whatever you wanted, let me get that house cleaned up for you, Shakti”, as a new friend called me and reminded me of my essence, daily.  Sigh.  I could have stayed for at least three more months.  A teaching in attachment and letting go.  I saw for the first time in 6 trips that I could very well split my time equally during the year between India and here.  Yes, it is possible because it feels so right in spite of Ma India’s warts — my trip started out a bit rough, but I eventually realized it was me, not India.  Another teaching on having no expectations and letting it all go.  I think once I learned that, that set up the scenario for the rest of my trip, things I experienced and who was brought into my life.  Serendipity is a wonderful thing.

I actually cut my trip short, changing my flight to return 9 days earlier.  I was supposed to end my trip in Varanasi but one day I had a major epiphany that I don’t need to go there because everything that is there in that holy city is already inside me.  Stop searching.  Just.  Stop.  “You know your dharma,” the Voice told me.  Shut up and do your practice.

That was one lesson Bharat Ma taught me on this trip….know your dharma.  “Do your best and let the rest go” was something Ganesh told us.  It became my new mantra.  And as it turned out, I received an email from someone who has offered to help me find a place to bring yoga to the underserved.  My dharma.  We’ll see what transpires.  Things happen when you let it all go.  As I said, we shall see what the Universe decides to throw back at me.

Ganesh’s delightful father, A.G. Mohan, came to talk to us twice and Kausthub Desikchar gave us two lectures.   I took lots of notes and will blog about their talks.

But for right now, this yoga freak is getting back into my closet.

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PRODUCT REVIEW

Hugger Mugger sent me the Earth Elements Mat to road-test in India.  I wanted a thin travel mat that could hold up to my sweaty hands and I am happy to report that it fit the bill.

I thought it would be problematic because when I first started to use it my hands were sliding.  But the longer I used it, the surface “roughed up” a bit after which I had no problems whatsoever (and I was in weather that was over 90 degrees every day and very humid….with daily power cuts so no AC, no fans.)  I have the 3mm mat and although it is thin, it still cushions my bones.  It is thin enough to fold up and put inside a backpack for traveling, which I did more than a few times.  It is so light you can hold it with one finger.

If you want a great travel mat without paying a huge amount, check out this mat.  It gets a ringing endorsement from Metta Yoga, as did their Sattva Jute Mat I used last year.

Srivatsa Ramaswami: on mantras

The latest from my teacher’s newsletter:

“In the olden days in India, especially in the South, women would not say the name of the husbands as it was considered disrespectful.  A census inspector will have a difficult time getting the name of the spouse from the wife.   One has to ask the other family members the name of one’s husband.   Likewise, many of the potent mantras are not directly mentioned but only through the name of the mantra.   If one wants to say the “OM” mantra one would more likely say the pranava mantra than just “OM” mantra, as Patanjali says in the Yoga Sutras.   The meditation or chanting of the mantra would be referred to as pranava dhyana or pranava japa.   Pranava itself is a beautiful word.   Scholars refer to it as a word derived from the root “Nam” or “nam” to bow (Nam prahvi bhave) as used in namah or namaste.   ‘Prakarshena nautithouti iti pranavah’, meaning pranava is the highest praise or obeisance to the highest principle,  here Iswara or Brahman.   Another interesting interpretation of this word comes from deriving the word from another root ‘nav’ (or nava) to begin or new like ‘novo’.   Since Brahman is said to be pure consciousness and never changes it is always new, always ‘nava’ and hence pranava.

There are other important mantras who have separate names.   The Gayatri mantra which is of the gayatri meter refers to the mantra starting with ‘tat savitur..’ and even though there are many other mantras in the Gayatri meter, only this particular mantra, the brain child of Viswamitra is referred to as gayatri.   Then we have another famous mantra “namassivaya”.   This namassivaya mantra is more often referred to as ‘panchakshari’ or five syllable mantra even as there are scores of other mantras which have five syllables.   ‘Om namo narayanaya’ my Guru’s favorite mantra is known as ashtakshari as it has eight syllables.   ‘Om namo bhagavate vasudevaya’ is a very popular Krishna mantra and is known as ‘dwadasakshari’ as there are 12 syllables in it.

The mantras especially pranava were chanted, meditated upon and referred to with considerable devotion and respect in the olden days.   Contemporary use of ‘OM’ on tea shirts, vests and other casual wares  is sometimes difficult to put up with.” *

*I have to say that seeing an OM tattoo on someone’s foot gives me pause.   Think twice before putting an OM tattoo below the waist — this shows respect.  Just call me old-school. – L-S

my vinyasa root guru

In Mahayana Buddhism there is the tradition of the “root guru”, someone from whom we receive the teachings directly.  My root guru in Mahayana Buddhism is Gelek Rimpoche.  I will always consider Srivatsa Ramaswami my root guru in vinyasa krama yoga.

I first met Ramaswamiji in 2003 or 2004 at the Chicago studio where I certified as a teacher.  I was a very newbie teacher and he was teaching a weekend workshop, his first time in Chicago.  The Friday night was the “Yoga of Sound” and it was advertised that over the weekend he would teach special vinyasa sequences that had not been taught in America.  I was intrigued because even that early in my teaching I had started to research places to study yoga in India.

Ramaswamiji is considered a chant master in India and the Friday night Yoga of Sound was all about chanting.  It was the first time I heard vedic chants sung in the traditional way and it cracked open my heart in a way that Krishna Das or Jai Uttal could never do, and still don’t.  I drove home weeping all the way.  I knew I had found my teacher and Ramaswamiji put me on the path to study at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Madiram.   When I saw my name in the Acknowledgement of his book The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga  I cried again because I did not even think he knew my name,

For me, Ramaswamiji is a true yogi, nothing more needs to be said.  In 2011 he is much more well known than he was when I first met him when barely anyone knew the name of the student who studied the longest with Krishnamacharya.  He now teaches a 200 hour teacher training at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles and the video below is about the training.  In the beginning you will hear his wonderful chanting and there is a short interview with him.  The rest of the video consists of students giving their impressions of Ramaswami and the training.

I thought it interesting towards the end of the video when a student said that she had been doing yoga for a few years but had never done yoga that had such a complete emphasis on the breath.  When a new student comes to me that is also usually the first thing they say to me after the first class, how emphasis on the breath totally changed their practice.  I have studied in this lineage for a long time so comments like that always make me go hmmmmmmm…….because what exactly is being taught in teacher trainings nowadays?  Is emphasis on the breath considered an “advanced” practice to be taught in a 300 hour training because if that is the case I have to wonder about that.  Breathing is basic, from Class #1, as soon as you step on the mat.  Every movement is initiated with an inhale or an exhale, mindfully, I don’t know any other way to teach.  Conscious breathing IS pranayama.  When I hear comments like that student’s it confirms my belief that yoga in American IS different compared to where I study in India.

Maybe I should try teaching my “Yoga of Krishnamacharya” workshop again.  Years ago when I taught at a studio I offered it for yoga teachers and well-seasoned practitioners only.  I was going to talk about the vinyasa krama method and offer a practice for shoulderstand.  I thought at least teachers would be interested in learning about the Source Scholar of Yoga, the teacher of Iyengar, Jois, and Desikachar.  No one signed up.

Just call me old-school.

“Asanas are yogic postures – stable and comfortable. Vinyasas are aesthetic breath oriented movements within those exquisite yoga poses.” — Srivatsa Ramaswami

“Asana will make the body light.
Pranayama strengthens prana.
Dharana purifies the intellect.
Meditation purifies the mind.” — Sri T. Krishnamacharya

“Nowadays, the practice of yoga stops with just asanas.  Very few even attempt dharana and dhyana [deeper meditation] with seriousness.  There is a need to search once more and reestablish the practice and value of yoga in modern times.” — Sri T. Krishnamacharya (excerpt from “Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings” by A. G. Mohan)

wisdom from my teacher: “Spinal Exercise”

Here is the latest newsletter from my teacher, Srivatsa Ramaswami, the yoga master I met in 2003 who inspired me to travel to the heart of yoga.  Here also are links to his newsletters from 2009 and 2010, a wealth of yoga information from the longest standing student of Sri Krishnamacharya:

Ramaswami’s Newsletters Vol. 1

Ramaswami’s Newsletters Vol. 2

Each volume has a search function, so you can search for “mudra”, for example, and find 15 references.  Thanks to Krisztian Krutzler for preparing these downloadable docs.

If you are in the Chicago area and want to study with a true  yoga master, come to the Chicago Yoga Center, September 9-18.  Ramaswamiji will offer a two hour program on mantras on the 9th and a 10 hour program on the last two chapters of the Yoga Sutras on 10th and 11th. There is also a 25 hour certificate program on Core Vinyasakrama asanas and a 10 hour program on asana, pranayama and meditation on the 17th and 18th.

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SPINAL EXERCISE, THE BOTTOM OF IT

I have not been writing about Asanas for quite sometime.  I have covered a lot of ground in my Vinyasakrama book and also in the earlier book, Yoga for Three Stages of Life.  I thought though I could write about asana again- of course, nothing entirely new but a
different angle.

It is said that one of the main aims of asana and pranayama practice (Hata Yoga) is to maintain the health of the backbone.  It is a common refrain that one is as old as the condition of the backbone.  And some of the most charming postures of yoga involve the many positions of the spine.  Parsva Bhangi, Matsyendrasana, Akunchanasana, Kapotasana.  Paschimatanasana and a host of other poses bring out the majesty and
the versatility of one of God’s marvelous engineering creations called the spine.

The spine has been the center of attention of several systems, like the chiropractics. Among Yogis, Kundalini Yoga and Hata Yoga can be considered to be spine centric.  The one bone assembly, the backbone is not straight but one that is curved back(kyphosis) and forward (lordosis) and the yogis try to make it straight at least during the time they sit and meditate so that the Kundalini is aroused and moved through the sushumna in the spinal column as per the Kundalini Yoga or the integrated prana moves through the sushumna as the Hatayogis explain hatayoga.

The spine can be divided into different sections for study and practice.  The bottom is the tailbone or coccyx which is curved and has three to five tiny vertebrae.  It stays beneath the pelvis.  There is some mobility in it but we do not pay much attention to it until one
falls on the butts.  A few years back, already an old man, I tried to carry a teapoy down the stairs in my house.  I was wearing hard slippers and as I overstepped a step I slipped (I had the slippers on, you see) and fell heavily on my butts.  The teapoy (tea table) broke and we had to discard it.  I was in great pain.  My wife took me to a hospital immediately for a precautionary X ray which did not reveal any damage (not broken like the furniture).  But the orthopedist warned me that I may have some recurring pain in the coccyx region when I sit for a long time.  For a period of time whenever I did long travel, like from NJ to Los Angeles, I used to feel a lot of pain sitting.  So I know where the tailbone is.

The backbone although it is one assembly has different sections each having its own idiosyncrasy, so when exercising the backbone one has to pay attention to each section. The tailbone/coccyx, sacrum, lumbar, thoracic and cervical sections have their distinct characteristics.  The muladhara chakra is associated with coccyx, the svadhishtana
chakra is linked to the sacral region, the manipuraka with the lumbar region, then we have anahata with the thoracic spine and the vishuddhi chakra is in the cervical region.  The spinal column descends from the occipital region and we have the aajna chakra in that region and the sahasrara is in the cranial region.  The tailbone is the baby of the
assembly at the bottom and tucked nicely but is surrounded by heavy muscles and tissues and protected well.  It has some mobility.  Since it is the root of the spine it is also known among Yogis as the Mula.  Since both Hata Yoga and Kundalini Yoga are predominantly connected with the spine the mula becomes an important aspect of yoga. When one wants to work with the spine, it, the coccyx, should be firmly anchored.

Let us consider the example of the fishing rod (old times).  It has a flexible pole, a string and the bait. (sorry I could not think of an ahimsa example).  One holds the pole at the far end and when the bait is taken, the pole bends. The fisherman will have to hold the pole firmly so that the pole can bend to the extent required, even though there will be some play or movement in the hand of the holder.  Further he has to hold at the farthest point, holding a bit inside the pole reduces the leverage and the pole will not bend sufficiently.

The coccyx and sacrum (sacro-coccygeal section) are at the bottom of the backbone. The coccyx is at the very end of the spine.  It represents a vestigial tail (hence the common term tailbone) and consists of three to five very small bones fused together. There is limited movement between these bones permitted by fibrous joints and ligaments. The sacrum is a large triangular bone at the base of the spine and at the upper and back part of the pelvic cavity and where it is ‘inserted’ like a bone wedged between the two hip bones. Its upper part  is connected to the last lumbar vertebra and the bottom part to
the coccyx.   In children it consists normally of five unfused vertebrae which begin fusing around 16 years and become completely fused around 26.  It is kyphotic (curved, concavity facing forward). Even so, it is now an established fact that the sacrum moves between the ilia by both ambulatory and respiratory motions.  It would therefore point to the
logic of the use of fuller breathing in vinyasa movements as in Vinyasa Krama.

So the mula or the tail bone will have to be held firmly during the spinal exercises.  And the yogis used the well known technique called mulabandha which is contracting a few groups of muscles surrounding the tailbone:  the perineum, rectum and the gluteal muscles.  All
spinal movements, the forward bend,the rounded back, the turn, the back bend, the side bend, all will be better if the mula is gripped firmly and engaged.

Now let us consider the different types of spinal movements.  The turning or twisting movement has to emanate from the mula and my Guru had a couple of asana vinyasas to provide for this movement.  The Jataraparivrittis efficiently engage the tailbone and the next
immediate section sacrum.  Please refer to my book The Complete book of Vinyasa Yoga (pages 105,106,119,121,122).  Tatakamudra (page 105) by anchoring the sacro-coccygial portion of the spine helps to stretch it. These are some of the very early exercises my Guru used to teach to almost all the students.

For the back bending exercises it is necessary to protect the lumbar spine. Towards that, the flexibility and the strength of the sacro-coccygeal region is to be necessarily cultivated. The pelvic push is efficiently facilitated by a simple but effective asana called dwipadapeetam (pages109-115) or desk pose.  This posture which is casually practiced with the feet apart and thighs spread out leaves out the the spine in the pelvic region. Hence it is necessary to keep the feet together, tighten the gluteal muscles, draw in the rectum and gently push the tailbone/sacrum up and feel a healthy stretch at the
bottom of the spine. Any back bending done without fully involving the sacro coccygial region is a less efficient back bend and tends to put more strain on the lumbar spine. Again my Guru used this posture to teach to almost anyone.  This upward pelvic push is to be done on inhalation generally but, it can be done while exhaling smoothly by the elderly, the obese, the pregnant, the highly strung etc.  Because the feet and back of the head are well anchored it becomes easy to control the back bend very well and one can improve the stretch step by step.  Other poses that are in this group would be catushpada peetam
or Table pose ( page79 ) and Purvatanasana or the anterior stretch pose (pages78,79). The other back-bends in the prone poses such as Bhujangasana, dhanurasana and salabhasana (pages 138-145) also may be done with the thighs and feet together to keep the sacrum and tailbone engaged and stretchered.  To ensure this condition, the teacher may ask the student to keep the feet and thighs together by placing a piece of paper between the feet  and not let the paper drop to the floor while raising the legs up in asana like Salabhasana.  In these prone exercises keeping the legs together enables to exercise all parts of the spine, especially the oft neglected sacro-coccygeal area.

The sacral/pelvic tilt also is an important movement in the context of forward bending.  This is achieved best in balasana or forward bend in Vajrasana (page 179,180) first and then in paschimatanasana (page 75-77) or the posterior stretch pose.  Those who are able to engage the muscles surrounding the sacrum and coccyx are able to achieve a good forward bend facilitated by the tilting or tipping of the pelvis. One procedure that will be helpful is for the teacher or a friend to support the sacrum with both the hands and push forward and down on exhalation and allow the subject to return to dandasana on inhalation while still maintaining the healthy pressure.  It may be good to maintain the pressure for a while in the posture pushing forward and down on each long exhalation and then holding it on inhalation.  Over a period the practitioner would be able to use the group of muscles at the base of the spine and stretch the muscles of the sacral region.

Then we have the important movement of lifting and holding the tailbone/sacrum up, by pulling up the waist and hips.  Here the muscles of the hip joints are brought into play.  This can be done in the beginning of tadansana sequence itself.  When the subject raises the
arms (page 4-5), he or she can get a partner to hold the pelvic girdle below the hip joints and push the pelvis up.  This helps to stretch the pelvic and hip muscles up and along with that the sacrum and tail bone also move up a little bit and it will be easy to stretch the
supporting musculature.  One can do the movements a few times with the helper holding the pelvis up a little while the arms are brought down on exhalation and pulling the pelvis up when one raises the arms on inhalation.  Over a period of time the practitioner, while raising the arms, will engage the hip muscles and gently pull the pelvis along with the sacro coccygeal portion of the spine. Sri Krishnamacharya would frequently exhort the student to pull up and hold the hips up in several seated postures like parvatanasana (page 196) and dandasana (page 39).  He would say in Tamil “iduppai thooki pidiyungo” or “Pull up the waist/hips and hold it up”.

I think it is good to use these simple asana and vinyasa procedures to prepare the bottom of the spine.  These simple procedures help to maintain a good flexibility and the tone of the supporting musculature at the bottom end of the spine. My Guru taught many of these simple and doable procedures almost to all levels of yoga abhyasis.  He would
appropriately alter the breathing to langhanakriya so that some of the overweight, older, tense and pregnant (except prone poses in pregnancy) abhyasis could do these procedures.  These are good preparatory exercises that will be helpful in getting a good control over the sacro-coccygeal spine that will help in doing some of the more difficult and charming spine-centric asanas like ushtrasana/kapotasana, triyangmukha uttanasana (backbends), paschimatanasana (forward bend), matsyendtasana (spinal twist), akunchanasana(rounding the spine), parsva bhangi(side bend) and other spine centric asanas and vinysasas.

The term Cakra is well known to Yogis.  Cakra means a wheel in normal usage.  The Samkhyas refer to the potter’s wheel as cakra while describing the post kaivalya time of the yogi. The seven cakras are usually represented as wheels.  Brahmananda, the commentator of the Hatayogapradeepika, refers to cakras as Nadicakra in the context of
nadis. He calls it a collection/group of nadis or nadi samooha.

Several contemporary yogis relate this concept of nadi samooha to ganglia or plexus.  A wheel also is an assembly of different parts, like the hub, spokes, rim and a tyre.  Since Nadis can also refer to blood vessels, the heart itself is referred to as hrdaya cakra.  The
Chaedogya Upanishad of Sama Veda mentions that there are 101 nadis that emanate from the heart.  It is possible then that cakra could mean an organ in this context.  The anahata cakra refers to a cakra that produces a sound without being struck by another agent.  The heart produces the sound by itself.  So anahata cakra could mean the heart cakra or the heart.  In the Suryanamaskara mantra of Yajurveda, there is a mantra which refers to the human body as “ashta cakra, nava dvaara.”  The nava or nine dvaaraas or openings are the two eyes, the two ears, the two nostrils and the mouth in the face plus the other two openings.  While explaining the meaning of the eight cakras, Sayana, the well known commentator of the vedas, refers to the cakras as different arrangements of cells or different tissues (humors) in the body as tvak (skin), carma (dermis), rakta (blood), mamsa (muscle), medhas (fat), asti (bone), majja (marrow), sukla (seman)/
sonita (uterine secretions).

Thus the term cakra could indicate a group, collection, village of some tissues or an assembly.  It is also suggested by some scholars that the cakra w.r.t the spinal column could refer to different parts of the backbone itself, each section having its own unique
arrangements of bones: the coccyx, sacrum, lumbar, thoracic, cervical and occipital.  And the entire spine with the cranium looks like a kundalini or a cobra with the beautiful wavy body curvatures.

babies teaching babies

John Friend and Anusara Yoga have never been my cup of chai but to each their own.  If you get high on the love and lite and kula, knock yourself out.  But I do have to say that I agree with what Friend says in this video.

In my area of far west suburban Chicago, yoga teachers are a dime a dozen.  When I was certified as a teacher almost ten years ago there were basically four studios in Chicago that had TT programs.   Now almost every yoga studio that I know of in the suburbs and Chicago have their own TT program.   The most searched for phrase here is “how much does a yoga teacher make” or something similar (the second most searched for term, which used to be #1, is “naked yoga” but that’s another post.)   My teacher training was not Yoga Alliance registered and neither was my teacher, but he eventually chose to grandfather into the YA because that’s what people looking for TT programs wanted, whether he was a “Yoga Alliance Registered” school.  However, he still thinks the YA is meaningless and so do I.  I let my membership lapse.

To make any money a studio must continually offer workshops or have TT programs.  A studio owner can’t make a living (i.e., support yourself) on only offering group classes (this is in my geographic area, your mileage may vary.)

If I had a dollar for every time someone over the years has told me I should do my own teacher training, I could buy a ticket to India.   I go back and forth on that question and I will admit that one of my reasons for considering it is money.  I made $250 in May teaching privately, not exactly what I call a living.  But ultimately using  money as the primary reason to conduct my own TT never feels right to me.

So with all the TT programs out there, I have to ask: what are the intentions?  Is offering a TT program a studio owner’s dharma?  Friend mentions the word “dharma” more than a few times in this interview and I think that needs to be considered by student, teacher, and teacher trainer.

Like John Friend, I also was a student for 7 years before I did my first teacher training.  Now people who’ve practiced for less than 6 months want to be a teacher.  Why?  Because it seems cool and hip and fun?  And what type of practice do you have?  Do you even meditate?  And yes, I believe every yoga teacher should have a sitting practice of some type.  In fact, if I had my own TT program every participant would be required to do a 3 day silent retreat with me before getting the piece of paper.  That would separate the wheat from the chaff real quick.

When I finished my first 200 hours of training, I felt like I knew nothing.  I felt like an ant at the bottom of the yoga hill.  Even after 15+ years of yoga, 5 trips to India to study with Desikachar and his senior teachers, and 1000+ hours of training (and next year with AG Mohan), I have crawled only slightly up that yoga hill.  I am student first, teacher second.  Yet, there are people half my age conducting yoga teacher trainings in my area whom I know for a fact do not have the training I have.   It confuses me.   The teacher with whom I trained has encouraged me to do my own teacher training, telling me “there are people doing it who don’t know half of what you know.  do it.”

Back in the day in the old school way, you went out to teach when your teacher said you were ready to teach.   That is how the teacher who certified me started teaching — he studied and lived with his guru for 8 years and then was told “go teach.”   I am not saying it has to be like that now, it would not be realistic here.   But now anyone who has had a weekend training or even just an online teacher training (believe it or not) can get hired as a “yoga teacher.”

Does this scare anyone else or is it just me?

I can understand someone wanting to do a teacher training to deepen their practice.  Not everyone who does a TT wants to teach.  Or should.   Friend says that not everyone is right to teach.  What is the person’s aptitude for teaching?  Is there a deeper calling to teach yoga, is it  your dharma?  Or is just something that sounds nice to do because you lost your job?  As for me, I was encouraged to teach by the teacher of my beginner’s yoga class that I took for a few years.  I also truly feel that teaching is my dharma — but that would require a lengthy discussion of my astrological natal chart so I won’t go there. ;)

A 200 hour training is merely the beginning and frankly, I have to ask what is being taught in all these trainings.  I ask this question because I was shocked at the quality of questions coming from people in my last training in India (all westerners.)   After the first days, I felt that the training was “dumbed down” because of these questions.  Many of the participants said they were teachers, but I know that my own students would not ask the types of questions that people were asking.   Their questions made me grateful (again) for my original trainings but then, that was almost 10 years ago and times have changed.

So are recent (i.e., within the last 10 years) yoga teacher trainings now merely diploma mills in the rush to get yoga teachers on the market?  Quantity over quality?

“The reason why yoga is presently skewed towards ekanga (or ardhanga without the breathing component) and not ashtanga is because by and large teachers do not teach the other angas.  When I was in school I heard a quotation which runs something like this: “If a pupil has not learnt, the teacher has not taught”.   Yoga is a rich subject.  Considering its popularity there is no reason why practitioners should not endeavor to go beyond asana practice while still having a very firm asana base. “  — Srivatsa Ramaswami, writing about what he has learned from teaching his 200 hour TT programs        

yoga miscellaneous: healing

A letter from Sri.K. Pattabhi Jois to Yoga Journal, Nov. 1995

“It is unfortunate that students who have not yet matured in their own practice have changed the method and have cut out teh [sic] essence of an ancient lineage to accommodate their own limitations.”

“Spiritual Madness and Compassionate Presence” — healing of mental suffering through the philosophy and practice of Yoga

“One of my patients had severe post-traumatic stress disorder. His experience of isolation and helplessness sent shockwaves through his day-to-day life. He had flashbacks and significant difficulty relating to others.

We began his treatment with daily pranayama. We added meditation on both the destructive and creative aspects of the mother goddess Kali. Finally, he began to meditate on his own eternal nature: “I am that I am” (Hum So). Slowly but surely, this healed his illness…”

I worked with a private student today and after 10 years of teaching I am still amazed at how transformative the breath is. She is a relative newbie to yoga and in her classes at various venues from health clubs to studios, teachers have told her to “focus on the breath” but apparently no one has ever TAUGHT her how.

I could see how tight her belly and shoulders were. We did conscious breathwork just like Mark Whitwell or Ramaswami or my teachers at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram teach.  A light bulb went off over her head. Her entire body visibly relaxed and she left my house looking lighter and brighter. In a word, transformed.

She’s returning for more instruction on the breath and wants to work with me in the vinyasa krama method:

“By integrating the functions of mind, body, and breath…a practitioner will experience the real joy of yoga practice. . .Vinyasa krama yoga strictly follows the most complete definition of classical yoga.” – Srivatsa Ramaswami, The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga

Breath + yoga = healing.

wisdom from my teacher: "Statics and Dynamics of Asana"

Another newsletter from Srivatsa Ramaswami….enjoy

When I was a student I had to study a course in Mathematics (or was it Physics or Engineering?) titled, “Statics and Dynamics.”  That was the time Mathematics left me but I liked the name of the course which I am using as the title of the article.

When I was young I used to be called “Soni Ramaswami” by many relatives, friends and many who were not very friendly.  “Soni” means puny.  I used to be very thin, even so I used to be very interested in outdoor sports activities. I managed to get onto the college/school teams in Tennis and Cricket.  In fact, I was coached for several years by the father of the National Tennis Champion in India at the time and the father had coached the champion.  I thought I did well in spite of a lack of the required physique and stamina.  I was the college champion in Tennis for three years and also won the district championship for college students.  My best moment was the match I played against the All India number 3 ranked player at that time.

Barely 18, I came close to beating him.  In the close match, in the final set I could not cope with the physical demands.  My coach told me later that I had a good ball sense and talent (please bear with me on this, old men like me need some bragging for sustenance), but with my kind of physique and lack of stamina I had little chance of making the grade.

Much earlier I had started learning Yoga from my guru, Sri Krishnamacharya.  Prior to that I had learned some Yoga asanas from my father, several people in my school and a few other teachers.  In my school the physical education teacher usually doubled as a yoga master as well and several students were familiar with yogasanas and many were able to do several poses like sarvangsana, padmasana, etc.  I used to do asanas randomly, no coordinated breathing, no pranayama, more interested in the form alone.

But when I started the studies with my guru the whole picture was different.  Slow synchronous breathing, the counter-poses, the sequencing, the adaptations, pranayama, chanting, text studies were all new and it was astounding studying with him.  Initially I was continuing to engage in outdoor sports which he was aware of, but did not ask me to choose between the two.  One day he said that the philosophy of Yoga and outdoor sports were very different.  He would say that while Yoga is considered as a sarvanga sadhana or practice for all parts of the body (and mind) modern sporting activities were anga bhanga sadhana as they affect different parts of the body differently producing disequilibrium and asymmetry.  I remembered at that time I came across a story in a sports magazine about the left wrist of Rod Laver an outstanding Australian Tennis player. It was said that the wrist size of his playing left hand was twice as large as the right one.

Sri Krishnamacharya also used to say very interesting things during the rest pauses between different asanas and sequences. Once he said that the Yogi should be thin or krisa. One should not be overweight….  Carelessly developed fat bellies and cultivated oversized biceps one should guard against.  It suited me as I refused to put on weight when I was a young adult.  After I became a senior citizen, of course I started putting on weight growing sidewards.

He also emphasized individual home practice. Merely studying with the teacher may not be sufficient. Regular comprehensive practice was emphasized. He would quote the following sloka:

anabhyase visa ham vidya
ajirne bhojanam visham
Visham sabha daridrasya
Vridhddhasys taruni visham

“Knowledge without practice (application) is toxic.  Food during indigestion is poison.  Partying is poison (ruinous) to the poor, while to the old a young spouse is disaster indeed.”

By then I had a copy of his Yoga Makaranda, the Tamil version.  Fortunately this book, a treasure of information and instructions for everyone who wants to know the Krishnamacharya system is now at everybody’s fingertips, literally…..

Modern day yoga asana practice follows two different streams.  There are old schools which teach different asanas and require the participants to stay in the pose for a long time, no appreciable movements or breathing but just stay in the pose for a long time.  They emphasis the steadiness definition of yoga even though many find long stay in the poses painful and boring.  There is no ‘sukha’ in it.  Then there is another stream, more modern, in which the asana practice is a continuous flow of movements like a train going at breakneck speed not stopping and looking at at any of the beautiful stations and places called asanas in between.  A set of regimented routines on a graded scale of difficulty is done at a hurried pace without coordination with slow breathing day in and day out.

In the Yoga Makaranda of Krishnamacharya and the way I learnt Yoga from my Guru, the asanas are described in two perspectives.  The book contains pictures of a number of asanas. Krishnamacharya also in most cases mentions that one should stay in these poses for a long time:

Chaturanga dandasana (10mts),
Adhomukhasvanasana (15mts),
Urdhwamukhaswanasana(15 mts)
Mahamudra/Janusirsasana (15 mts),
sarvangasana (niralamba)10mts, etc.

It is clear that many of the static poses require time to confer the intended benefits to the abhyasi.  He also details the benefits that accrue from the long stay in these classic poses.

One also finds that Krishnamacharya has described in the Makranda a number of Vinyasas leading to an asana and then the return sequence.  These are not illustrated though.  It it is gratifying to know that Yoga Makaranda’s English version published by Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram has sketches to illustrate most of the Vinyasas which along with the beautiful asana pictures of Krishnamacharya makes it a very useful companion to understand the Krishnamacharya system of asana practice.  Further the required breathing also is described in the Makaranda, whether a particular movement is to be done on inhalation or exhalation or occasionally holding the breath.  However, the book does not contain the several vinyasas done in the asanas or ‘in situ’ vinyasas mainly because the book is a small one.  He has though mentioned that several of the asanas like sarvangasana, sirsasana, padmasana, etc. have a number of vinyasas emanating from the basic
poses.  These vinyasas, as many and as varied as possible, should be done.  These vinyasas make the system of yoga a sarvanga sadhana as my Guru mentions in the Makaranda. In my book. Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga, I have attempted to include almost the complete range of vinyasas in all the major asanas as I had learnt frm my guru.  When one exercises the body with deep vinyasas one is able to squeeze as much of the venous blood as possible from the various tissues and thus enhance the muscle pump effect.  Then the deep associated breathing used in Krishnamacharya’s system helps to enhance the respiratory suction pump effect on the heart thereby increasing the rakta sanchara or blood circulation especially the venous blood return to the heart. More and more vinyasas help to stretch the blood vessels as well keeping them more elastic.

The practice of vinyasas itself is made very interesting by my Guru.  Each expansive vinyasa would be done on slow ujjayi inhalation and every contraction movement would be done on slow smooth exhalation.  What should be the length of the inhalation and exhalation as compared to our normal breathing of about 2 seconds of inhalation and 2 seconds of exhalation?  He would ask us to take a slow inhalation, say about 5 seconds and another 5 seconds for exhalation.  It is the minimum.  One could slowly increase the time for inhalation from 5 to 6 and even up to 10 or twelve seconds.  The vinyasas were never done at the breakneck speed with which they are done these days. The slower the movements the better and more beneficial it is. A rate of five to six breaths per minute in vinyasakrama is in order.  At this rate the suryanamaskara routine of 12 Vinyasas would take about 2 to 3 minutes.  By studying Yoga with him one could realize how different Yoga is from workouts, aerobics, outdoor sport activities and even fast paced Yoga where the slow, mindful breathing is compromised.

So Sri Krishnamacharya’s system of asana practice, as evident from the Makaranda and also from how I have studied with him, is a judicious combination of dynamic Vinyasas and classic asanas. Vinyasas also help to achieve perfection in poses.  A few years ago when I was conducting the teacher training program, we went through the entire gamut of vinyasas centered around Padmasana.  We continued the practice for several days gradually adding more and more vinyasas.  Then we did a number of movements staying in Padmasana. At the end of it all, a participant came to me and said that it was the first time he could do padmasana even though he was a yoga practitioner for morethan ten years. The quality of his padmasana improved day by day as he started practicing more and more vinyasas in padmasana which all helped to make the final posture more secure. And he could stay in the posture for a longer period of time, say 10 or 15 mts, as Sri Krishnamacharya would want the abhyasis to be able to do.

How can one stay in postures like paschimatanasana, sarvangasana, sirsasana, etc. for 10 to 15 mts or even 30 mts as some yogabhyasis do? Will it not be painful, won’t the limbs go to sleep and what about the mind, does it not get bored? It will be interesting to know the way Sri Krishnamacharya taught Sarvangasana to me.

First do the preliminary poses like desk pose, apanasana and urdwa prasarita pada hastasana, slowly with the appropriate breathing.  Then get into the more relaxed viparitakarani position.  Keep the legs relaxed -even limp- for a while watching the unhurried breathing.  Then come down.

Do it for a few days and then after getting into the viparitakarani position straighten the body, support the back behind the ribcage with the palms placed close to each other. Stay for a few minutes, come down, do an appropriate counterpose and do the routine a few more times for a total of about 10 minutes. From then on try to increase the duration of stay in the pose until you are able to stay for 10 mts in one try. After a few days of comfortable steady stay in sarvangasana, increase the stay to about 15 minutes the ideal duration in sarvangasana. Now start concentrating on the breath. Your inhalation can be short say 3 seconds or so in this pose as the inhalation is a bit more difficult because of the cramped nature of the chest. But one can have a very long exhalation. After a few days practice try to introduce the bandhas as you start your slow exhalation. Start drawing in the rectum and the abdomen in tandem as you exhale finishing the exhalation with mulabandha and uddiyana bandha in place. Hold the breath out and maintain the bandhas for about 5 seconds. Then release the bandhas and start the next slow inhalation.

After a few days practice count the number of breaths that you take for the entire duration of your stay in the posture. Then try to reduce the number of breaths you take for the same 15 minutes stay. The aim is to reduce this number until you reach a steady state that you can maintain consistently. There are people who are able to maintain a breath rate of about 4, 3, 2, or even one breath per minute staying in a static yoga posture as sarvangasana. It is better to learn these procedures from a teacher.

Many years back I used to teach in Houston for several weeks at a time. It was a time when asanas like sarvangasana and pranayama were taboo and padmasana was a dreaded asana. I tried to encourage the class to practice sarvangasana, learning it an orderly fashion through preparatory Vinyasas and finally the posture. It took a while and then the participants were encouraged to try to stay in the asana for a while doing slow smooth breathing. They were able to stay for longer and longer duration and towards the end of the program more than half of the class could stay for the full fifteen minutes maintaining at best a breath rate of 3 or 4 per minute. In my teacher training programs the participants are encouraged to develop endurance to stay in some of the important poses like the inversions, paschimatanasana, mahamudra, etc. even as they learn several hundred Vinyasas in the course.

Further, while asanas are a necessary routine for a yogabhyasi it is not sufficient. A well rounded yoga practice should contain other angas of yoga like pranayama because they between them help to reduce the systemic excess of rajas and tamas.  Day’s yoga practice should consist of a proper combination of dynamic vinyasas and static asanas. Add a stint of pranayama practice and some meditation or chanting, and you have a wholesome daily yoga practice.