Asana Saturday (okay, Sunday): Gate Pose

Sanskrit Name: Pahrighasana (par-ee-GOSS-anna)

Yes, I’m a day behind here, but it has been a busy week.  All of life’s most stressful events seem to have culminated during this week, and it doesn’t help that the holidays (which can be incredibly stressful in and of themselves) are right around the corner as well.  For this week’s asana, I wanted to choose a pose that is fairly simple, is something of an “opener” (as in, it opens the heart, the hips, and so on), and can be done as a little “getaway” from the busyness of the real world.  I also wanted something a little different, something a bit off the beaten path.  Enter Gate Pose.

Gate Pose is interesting in that it can be seen as an intense side bend, a hip opener (to a certain degree), and, in my opinion, a heart opener and a safe place for emotional release.  In Sanskrit, “parigha” refers to “an iron bar used for locking a gate,” and the pose itself is sometimes called Gate-Latch Pose.  To me, a latch can either be seen as a way to keep people out, or an invitation to invite them in.  Naturally, I prefer to emphasize the latter.  When we take Parighasana, we can create an invitation for positive energy and openness.  Give Gate Pose a try, keeping your mind focused on drawing positivity into your heart.

Getting into Pahrighasana

Start by kneeling on your knees on the floor, perhaps coming from Virasana (Hero Pose).  Extend your right leg out, striving to push your right foot to the floor.  Keep your right foot and your left knee aligned as you turn your pelvis slightly to the right.

Inhale, bringing your arms up overhead.  As you exhale, bend to the right, allowing your right hand to lower to your right leg.  You may place your hand on your thigh, your shin, or on the floor beside your right ankle, whichever is comfortable to you.  Keep bending right from the hip, reaching the left arm up and over into a side bend.  Be careful to keep your right kneecap pointing up, as it tends to roll towards the floor in Gate Pose.  Also, work on keeping your torso open, as it too tends to fall towards the floor.

Stay in Parighasana anywhere from 30 second to one minute.  COme out of it by drawing the torso upright and bringing your right leg back underneath your body.  Repeat on the left side.

As a bonus, Gate Pose is a great asana for hitting the obliques and the ever elusive psoas.  Try it out between prepping side dishes.

Image from yogajournal.com

Resources:
Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff
www.yogajournal.com

Simple Sequence: Dolphin to Dolphin-Plank

As a long time coach and even longer time athlete, I feel I have a pretty good understanding about the importance of a strong core.  Literally, everything is built around your core, which includes not only your abdominals, but also the muscles of your back, and (according to some sources) your hip flexors as well.  Most, if not all, athletic movements rely on core strength and flexibility, and having a strong and healthy core can pave the way for a spectacular performance.

Now think about yoga.  Can you think of a single asana that doesn’t involve the core in some way?  Even Savasana requires small pelvic tilts and alignments before settling into a focus on the breath.  If you consider the language that yoga teachers use, most instruction begins with a focus on the core, whether it’s to engage the abdominals, bend from the hips, or release tension in the spine.  Clearly, core matters.

Therefore, today’s Simple Sequence will focus on just two asanas that I have found to be ideal for cultivating a strong core.  Core work of some kind should be incorporated in most practice sessions.  I say “most” because some sessions (think Yin or restorative practices) have intentions that don’t require focused core work (although the core will undoubtedly be used in some manner).  This short sequence can be incorporated into any sequence anytime after your body has been awakened with Sun Salutations (or any similar “warming” vinyasa).

Simple Sequence: Dolphin to Dolphin-Plank (and back again)

  • Starting on all fours, place your forearms on the floor, pressing the palms together.  It may look as if you’re creating a triangle or pyramid with your forearms.  Once your arms are established, push your hips up into the air, as if you’re doing Downward Facing Dog.  Push the sitting bones up, work on drawing your heels towards the floor, and press actively with your forearms.  Remain in Dolphin Pose for three to five breaths.
  • Keeping your arms in the same position, move into Dolphin-Plank.  Lower your hips down until your torso is parallel to the floor and your body is supported only by your toes and your forearms.  Lengthen towards your heels, keep your head neutral, and feel the strength of your core.  Stay here for three to five breaths.
  • You can repeat the sequence three to five times, lengthening the time you stay in each pose as your core strengthens.  Remember, these two poses are just a taste of core-cenrtic poses, and every pose will require some sort of attention to your torso.  Every action you take in life will benefit from a strong core, so don’t shy away from poses that seem too focused on abdominals.

Dolphin Pose from yogajournal.com

Asana Saturday: Standing Forward Bend

Sanskrit Name: Uttanasana (OOT-tan-AHA-ahna)

One of the problems (or blessings, I suppose, if you want to go all “glass half full”) with featuring only one asana a week is that there are literally hundreds of choices.  Which pose to pick?  I could choose to focus on interesting and impressive inversions and balances, but to me, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to run before you can crawl.  After starting with a foundational pose like Tadasana, it was only natural to follow it up with Uttanasana.

Much like Mountain Pose, Standing Forward Bend is a seemingly simple pose that can function as part of sequence (it is featured in most Sun Salutations, and is part of my first Simple Sequence), or can serve as bridge linking any number of standing poses.  It’s also a great place to return to after a challenging sequence, a place to release and let go, to let gravity take over and just hang out.  I especially enjoy Uttanasana after standing twists for a good spinal release, or after any intense leg work to help loosen up my hamstrings.  I love feeling the rush to my head and to let my facial muscle relax completely.  In this way, it’s kind of like a very simple inversion and a chance to see the world from a different perspective.

Getting into Uttanasana

Starting in Tadasana, exhale and bend foward from the hips.  Make sure you’re moving your entire torso forward and down as opposed to simply bending at the waist or rounding your back.

Your hamstrings may feel tight as you fold forward.  Resist the urge to pull down with your arms to increase the stretch before you’re ready.  It’s okay to have some bend in your knees; work with where you’re at now and let gravity do most of the work.

Let your hands rest on the ground, palms facing down, either in front of or right beside your feet.  Allow your head to hang between your arms, again letting gravity take over.  Keep your eyes soft and your facial muscles relaxed.

On each exhale, try to release a bit further, allowing your knees to straighten and hips to fold more deeply.  But again, don’t push further than you’re ready to go.  This is a pose of release; no need to hurt yourself here.

When you’re ready to come out of Uttanasana, avoid rolling your spine up.  Instead, work from the strength and length of your torso, pressing your tailbone down as you inhale upwards.  You’re now ready for whatever pose is next in your line up.

Resources:
Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff
www.yogajournal.com

Yoga and the Gita

When I first became interested in yoga nigh on 15 years ago, I did it purely for the asanas.  I wanted to be lithe and bendy, and I wanted to be able to stick some impressively twisty poses.  As a teenager who was raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, there was no way I was ready for the mind blowing and alien concepts of yogic philosophy.  But in college, I was exposed to the Tao Te Ching, which led (eventually, after a difficult decade of complete faithlessness) to Buddhist philosophies, which has in turn piqued my interest in the metaphysical realm of yoga and Hinduism.  While I’m not gung ho about one particular philosophy or theology or another, I have more or less bought into the idea that I’m part of something greater, even if that “greater” thing is simply derived from notion that matter is neither created nor destroyed.  If the energy from my body is eventually used to fertilize a tree, then I’m down with that.  I’d like to think that there’s something more, a Way, the Force, or the like (I’m not as keen on anthropomorphic gods at the moment, but I respect the concept), but if all I get is tree fertilizer, that’s still infinitely better than the vast nothingness I feared during my Catholic upbringing.

For a variety of reasons, the most important being that I’m ready for a little mind expansion, I’ve spent a good chunk of the summer reading Hindu texts.  I just finished reading the Bhagavad Gita for the first time, and I think I understand why it is a pivotal text for the study of yoga, and why it is also revered as an accessible handbook for life in general.

Just as a bit of background, the Bhagavad Gita is small section of a massive Indian epic, the Mahabharata.  In this section, the hero Arjuna must face his kinsmen in battle in order to gain control of the kingdom, and he’s naturally feeling uneasy about this.  How can he kill his kin and remain free from sin?  Luckily, the god Krishna is his charioteer, and the Gita is both Krishna’s argument to Arjuna to join the battle, and also an explanation of the nature of man and the Supreme Spirit.  In the end, Arjuna does indeed fight, and emerges victorious.

I’ve read the Rig Veda and the classic Upanishads, but to me, only the Gita translates well to modern (and Western) readers.  Not only does it provide a manual for living in harmony, but it also presents a concept of the Divine that allows for the worship of deities and for those (like me) who’d rather contemplate the oneness of all things.  The Bhagavad Gita may feature an anthropomorphic god, but Krishna himself states that he is “the beginning and the middle and the end of all things,” that he is “what is and what is not” (9:18-19).  To me, this doctrine of oneness sounds an awful lot like Buddhist or Taoist concepts of equality and interdependence.  The Gita transcends religion, and is an ideal vehicle for contemplation.

The yoga described in the Gita really has little to nothing to do with the asanas, but I think the philosophy of the Gita could be applied to asana practice.  Krishna explains to Arjuna that the work of yoga can lead to the Supreme if it is done selflessly, without attachment, and without expectation for a reward.  Similarly, while it might be great to be bendy, and it might be a worthwhile goal to achieve difficult and striking poses, my asana practice is the most fulfilling when I can surrender to the physical work without needing to meet the exacting demands of my ego.  Krishna declares that freedom from the cycle of rebirth and death is the natural consequence of  faithfulness and the work of yoga; it need not be sought after, and practitioners can continue free from attachment to outcomes.  On a similar (although not so grand or consequential) note, physical well-being is a natural outcome of practicing the asanas, whether intended or not.  It too can be achieved without attachment.

So there you go: ancient yogic philosophy and the Western focus on the asanas can coexist peacefully, and can even work to advance one another.  Is the Gita necessary for fulfilling asana practice?  Probably not, but if you’re looking to delve into yogic philosophy, it’s a great place to start.  Happy reading.