Asana Saturday: Prasarita Padottanasana

Today is Saturday.  Today we rest.

I’ve only been at it for a whopping five days, but it felt strange to not wake up at the crack of dawn this morning and head off to mysore practice.  In fact, I slept in.  Like, really slept in.  Like, my husband had already been up for two hours by the time I bothered to start stirring.  Okay, it was only 8:00, but for me, that’s huge.  When you live with very young children, anything past 6:30 is a miracle.

Anyway, not having any new postures to learn this morning, I tool some time to reflect on what I’ve learned thus far.  I’ve shortened my stride and taken a toe hold in Trikonasana; I’ve changed the placement of my bottom hand in Parsvakonasana; and (this one threw me off for a couple of days and still feels kinda weird) I’ve stopped grabbing my ankles during the forward folds in the Sun Salutations.  Thus far, no asana has been an enormous, oh-my-god-I-can’t-do-it kind of challenge, but as I’ve mentioned before, following the exact sequence, everyday, in order, and according to the guidance of my teachers has required a paradigm shift for this very independent gal with an ever so slight I-know-what’s-best-for-me kind of attitude.

For example, yesterday, I learned Prasarita Padottanasana, or wide-legged forward fold.  My teacher gave me all four variations, although she warned that most people get mixed up on when you bring the arms up, when to look up, when you place your hands on your hips, and so on.  It doesn’t look at that confusing, but when you’re in the flow of the postures, it can be very easy to forget what comes next, especially when it’s brand new.

The punk in me wants to question why we have to do it this way.  What does it matter whether the arms come up or not?  Or whether you look up before folding forward?  And because I couldn’t help it, I did ask my teacher what the purpose was behind this very specific and mystifying practice.  She agreed that yes, some of these minute details seem arbitrary, but she reminded me that the theory behind the Ashtanga sequence is that every movement helps prepare the body for a more challenging pose (she actually pointed out Supta Kurmasana as the apex of the Primary Series, with everything leading up to and then cooling down from that moment, although I’m sure there’s room for debate there).  When the arms come up, it’s to rotate the shoulders in a certain way.  When we look up, we’re elongating the spine to deepen the forward fold.  So while it may seem tedious to have to memorize these details, there’s a reason to the rhyme.  This isn’t something I have to “deal with,” though; it’s something that will help me move forward in my practice.

See, I don’t always know what’s good for me.  Another paradigm shift.

Here’s a good video for learning the ins and outs of Prasarita Padottanasana:

I think it’s smart to note that modifications can be made to suit your ability level.  As for me, I take a block at its lowest height under my head so I can make contact (can’t quite reach the ground yet).  Do what you gotta do.

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Asana Saturday: Working Towards Lotus

Remember how a couple of months ago I confessed the potentially embarrassing fact that despite more than a decade of yoga practice, I am most decidedly not the world’s most flexible yogi?  Well, today’s asana discussion whole heartedly supports that truth.  I love the beauty and simplicity of Padmasana, or Lotus Pose.  I think it is graceful in its stillness and I do believe it is an ideal vehicle for mediation.  This is perhaps why I often find myself frustrated that I cannot for the life of me achieve full Lotus.

There are several reasons for my Lotus-less-ness.  First and foremost, I am an endurance athlete, focusing mostly on running and biking, neither of which is good for hip flexor mobility.  Additionally, running can reduce knee and foot flexibility, both of which are crucial for full Lotus.  Secondly, while I have absolutely no evidence to back this up, I think I am at a disadvantage due to my height.  At nearly six feet tall, I have a lot of legs to toss around.  Finally, and most importantly, I have been stuck at half Lotus for so long that I’ve become somewhat complacent and have not given achieving full Lotus the devotion it needs.  Well, enough of that.  I’ve recently made great strides in my meditation practice, and I’d love a full Lotus to go along with it.

However, all this thinking about Padmasana led me to wonder: why Lotus pose anyway?  Why is Lotus so quintessentially yogic, and why is it the ideal asana for meditation?  I did a bit of research, and while most websites simply spouted the same blanket information about meditative practice and benefits during pranayama, a couple of sites had some truly interesting information.

According to yogameditation.com, Padmasana is key for meditation because it ideally aligns the body for effortless sitting.  In order to avoid restlessness and muscular tension, the nervous system must flow through the body unimpeded.  The “undisturbed position of the spine in Padmasana is important in order for the nerve impulses [and the associated cerebrospinal fluid] to flow freely during meditation” (yogameditation.com).  This open, flowing position of the spine also allows for psychic energy to run through the body unchecked, adding to the harmonious mental and spiritual effects of meditation.

The website syvum.com states that Padmasana can reduce excess body fat in the abdominal region.  This claim is backed by yogameditation.com, which states that the cross-legged position of Lotus redirects blood flow to the abdominals, which is beneficial for the digestive organs.  Syvum.com also states that practicing Lotus can help people suffering from insomnia and asthma.

As awesome as the physical benefits of Padmasana may be, Erich Shiffman, the author of Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness (a great yoga primer), reminds us that “sitting in Lotus is not the important point. What’s important is the knowledge you gain in terms of how to open your body and keep it opened. The yoga lies in how sensitively you nudge your edges and tight areas toward greater openness. The postures are the tool you use for this.”  So as I work towards full Lotus, it will be important to remember to be kind to myself, to use Padmasana as a tool for openness and acceptance, and to discover that more often than not, the path and the practice are more important than the achievement or destination.

For the next couple of weeks I will be working on (and blogging about) preparatory poses for Padmasana.  Please feel free to follow along and share your progress too!  Maybe we’ll all reach full Lotus together.

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

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

Asana Saturday: Mountain Pose

Sanskrit Name: Tadasana (tah-DAHS-anna)

I am an educator by training and trade, and as such, I am an advocate of gaining solid and simple background and grounding before moving on to more complex subjects.  You can’t fully understand the Romans without a background in the Greeks; you won’t truly grasp the motives of Henry VIII without knowledge of the Protestant Reformation; and you can’t study Postmodernism without hitting Modernism (can you guess which subject I teach?).  In my opinion, the same kind of grounding is necessary in yoga.  Some poses are prerequisites to others and require a solid grounding in simple movements and alignments.  And when it comes to grounding, what better pose is there than Mountain Pose?

Some people may retreat to Downward Facing Dog or Child’s Pose after a challenging sequence, but for me, nothing beats Mountain.  Mountain Pose offers an opportunity to recenter, to check in with my body, and to notice the subtle changes the previous sequence may have caused.  In Mountain, I can feel the strength of my feet and legs, notice the movement of my breath, and slow down enough to feel my blood pumping through my limbs.  It’s more than “just standing there,” are some of my more impatient students like to say (they’re young; they’ll learn); it’s a chance to practice grounding and to notice subtlety.  And for young or beginning practitioners, Mountain is a place to find comfort and reliability, to feel as if you’re doing a pose “just right.”

Getting Into Mountain:

Stand at the top of your mat with your feet parallel, touching slightly (although some variations call for the feet to be hip distance apart).  Spread your toes, lay them back on the mat, and make sure your weight is distributed evenly across your feet.

Engage your quadriceps.  While your knee joints should be firm and extended, make sure your knees are not locked (passing out is bad).  Take the time to make sure your hips are balanced over your knees, and your knees over your ankles.  In essence, you want to imagine a line of energy moving in a straight line from your feet straight up through the crown of your head.

Your arms can hang gently by your sides, palms facing either out front, or in towards your legs.  You could also take the Samasthiti variation, in which you place your hands in prayer pose at your heart (this is my favorite variation, almost a standing meditation).  Your head should balance gently on your spine, keeping that straight line of energy in mind.  Think about rooting this energy down to create a stable base for the rest of your practice.  Find your center and breathe.

Once you’ve established Mountain Pose, you can move into any pose that strikes your fancy.  Personally, I enjoy starting with a simple sequence that moves between Tadasana and Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) to wake up my legs.  Of course, the choice is yours.  Just take the time to get grounded before you get going.

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