Friday, August 20, 2010


A manna: active shoulder flex,
hamstring flex, pure abdominal strength.
Most people walk into a yoga class, do a forward bend, and have a religious experience. 

The pain in the backs of their legs is so immediate, and so overwhelming, that it demands complete and utter attention.

When, at age 23, I did my very first forward bend in my very first yoga class, any memories and any daydreams came to a crashing halt. There was only the grinding discomfort of the back of my legs, a nether region of whose existence I had never dreamt, let alone experienced with such excruciating immediacy.

So what to do when a practitioner folds forward and merely yawns? What if someone comes to a led first-series class and floats and contorts their way through the entire primary series?

Circus performers and competitive gymnasts demonstrate the most complete range of active, dynamic and passive flexibility I have ever seen.

They're both rare in that their annamaya koshas, or "food bodies," are highly trained and conditioned after years of daily, disciplined physical practices, and many if not all elements of first series pale in comparison to their usual training.

These people, and perhaps the odd martial artist or rock climber, during the practice or performance of their endeavors — whether hand-balancing on a set of canes, measuring breath during pommel horse swings, or gripping a large rock with their legs while looking for the next handhold — spend a lot of time in their bodies, integrating the annamaya and pranamaya koshas, the food- and breath-bodies, and absorbed in the latter limbs of pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi.

So for these people the first inherent challenge in ashtanga vinyasa is to simply show up to practice the primary series until they've learned it by heart. 

It can be quite a shock to a contortionist to be held back or simply ignored when they amply demonstrate physical mastery of the asanas. Let's face it, the primary series isn't a challenge to even an 11-year-old with 2 years of modern gymnastic training.

The second challenge and therefore opportunity for these athletes and performers is to learn the correct breathing and transitions. A concrete and direct participation in inhale-up, exhale-down helps them shift away from a performance or competition mind-set, in which practice is only and merely a means to a much-delayed end.

If contortionists and gymnasts develop a love for the practice, or for their teacher, and their discipline and mental strength flows into learning the first series, they will progress through the various series until they find a particularly interesting pebble in their shoe.

Hollowback planche:
active spinal and shoulder flex.
Pattabhi Jois was, as Richard Freeman has frequently observed, quite a trickster. During one trip to Mysore, when I was practicing the Sunday led intermediate classes, Guruji had us hop up to a half-handstand after vatayanasana and parighasana ... and then he would have us hover there as he walked around and said, "Why shaking?" and laughed.

(Rolf Naujokat later mentioned Jois was just "having fun," and that we shouldn't take those transitions so seriously.)

There are several ways to critically shift the primary series to make it compelling to a woman who can perform 10 L-sit press to handstands, or who can lower and hold herself in a hollow-back planche.

Mostly we talk about scaling down the practice for the 99-percent of us who require it. However, for the 1-percent who require scaling up, I use two fundamental principles.

The first is rooted in the physics of the annamaya kosha: to increase difficulty, and therefore engagement, we must decrease leverage by increasing lever length.

The second principle envelops the first, and is rooted in the pranamaya kosha: the inhale creates expansiveness and corresponds with prana, or upward-flowing sensation. The exhale corresponds with the apana, or the downward, rooting sensation. We use the technique of vinyasa to yoke the different sides of the breath to the corresponding movement.

This last bit is important because it runs counter to the human tendency to forcibly exhale when pressing or pulling strongly.

To use surya namaskar A as an example, if someone arrives in class and slaps their forehead to their shins on their first go, but still hops back, I'd suggest to them to begin a deep inhale, and then use that inhale to begin to press their feet off the floor, with legs as straight as possible. The straighter the legs, the heavier the load, and therefore the more prana-collecting and directing the vinyasa will be.

To follow the vinyasa concept, the transition to chaturanga dandasana should be complete before the inhale stops — this is generally what stops even the most Herculean person from pressing to handstand all over the place.

There are several levels of transition possible from chaturanga dandasana to urdvha mukkha svasana, and from there to adho mukkha svasana, but remember, we're only discussing scaling up.

With that in mind, chaturanga dandasana becomes increasingly more interesting when the triceps approach parallel and the wrists approach the waist.

One-arm split elbow lever.
The movement from upward-facing dog to downward-facing dog can be made more engaging by reversing the entrance; that is, by rolling back down to the bottom of chaturanga dandasana and then curling up into downward-facing dog.

In the Yoga Works videos from 1993, Chuck Miller demonstrates this; they're also know as dive-bomber push-ups.

It is vital to inhale-up, exhale-back — if the breath becomes strained or stops, the transition is therefore too much for the person and should be scaled so that the breath can flow.

As I've heard Pattabi Jois quoted (in turn quoting Patanjali's Yoga Sutras I.31): "Breath shaking, body shaking ... mind shaking!"

The move from downward-facing dog back to standing mirrors the entrance: one can inhale and hop, with straight legs, to lower the feet between the hands, and then, fingertips on the floor, continue the inhale and allow it to raise the head.

It's a simple matter to make suggestions that use these principles and therefore stay true to the letter and intent of the traditional primary series.

Uth pluthi becomes more interesting when one adopts an L-shape rather than a curled-C, a detail I came to understand when, during led class, Sharath would say, "Don't touch your legs!"; ardha sirsasana is more interesting with the legs extended even further away from the midline and a slight tuck to the tail-bone; during seated vinyasas, lolasana can be done with straight legs in an L-shape prior to exhaling back to chaturanga; et cetera, et cetera.

By employing these two principles, the transitions of even the primary series can become incredibly compelling to contortionists and gymnasts alike and yet remain grounded in the tristana, the ujjayi breathing, the vinyasas (movement into, the states of, and movement away from the asanas, which incorporate the bandhas), and the drishti. The practice becomes a vital, immediate, and sensual dance.

Then, when standing and seated sequences are finished, everyone, gymnast and stiff white guy alike, can sit, breathe deeply, take rest, and invite the profound and splendid stillness that is the inevitable byproduct of the ashtanga vinyasa practice.