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Thursday, July 18

Gapers Block

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It's been six years since I started practicing Iyengar yoga. Somewhere in there I realized that just going to class wasn't enough, that I had to practice on my own. "Had" and its implied discipline and resistance soon morphed into "wanted," and soon (in good times), I found myself practicing four or five days a week.

To warm up for practice I do some light stretching; contrary to common belief, yoga isn't stretching -- it does stretch the body, but it�s a lot of other things too. I'll get to those in time. The first thing I do is Viparita Karani, or legs-up-the-wall, the first asana (yoga pose) that I learned. Note: As I step through my daily practice in this piece, I mention positions by their Sanskrit names, because I feel it's important to know them and the heritage the language implies. Every pose I mention has a link, so they can be viewed as I discuss them.

I discovered yoga in the middle of a breakdown the summer after my sophomore year of college. My two first loves had both moved to California in the same week, and I wasn't coping with it very well. Yoga was kind of a "what the hell, anything is better than how I'm feeling now" decision, and I picked the class closest to my house, a two block walk. The teacher was Lois Steinberg, and lucky for me, she's one of the best teachers of the Iyengar method in the United States.

In that initial class, she showed us legs-up-the-wall and explained that doing it for five minutes a day decreased you chances of heart disease exponentially. She watched us, how we did the pose, and went around the room identifying people by their bodies: "you're a runner," "you're a swimmer," "you're a drummer," and to me, "you're a dancer." She was correct every time. It was my first lesson about bodies: that what we do shapes us. Over time I learned more, that it's a symbiotic relationship: that if the body is unhealthy, so is the mind, and if the mind is not well, it will manifest in the body. And most importantly, I learned to be comfortable with my body, that everyone's bodies are strange and do weird things, but we should just accept them and live fully in them, aware of how they affect us and we affect them.

I walked out of that first yoga class feeling aligned, light, and convinced that I'd found what I needed to do. Six years later, I'm still doing it.

Back to my practice. After some gentle warmup stretching I'm ready to start, which brings me to the most esoteric part: chanting. For years I practiced without beginning with three Aums and the Invocation to Patanjali (the sage who, several thousand years ago, wrote down yoga). In the last six months however, I've begun to recognize the need to quiet my mind. As a writer, I am always thinking, words are on a constant mental ticker. One of the things I find so wonderful about yoga is that when I'm in a pose, I concentrate on that pose and how various parts of my body are holding it, which doesn't leave room for worries about work deadlines or thoughts about my weekend plans. It's such a sweet relief to turn off the chatter and just be in my body. So I now begin my practice with a couple minutes of chanting, and being quiet.

Fig. 1. Manual. Because it ain't dark on yoga.

Then it's time to begin. My current teacher, Unsoo, has shown me the joys of doing multiple sets of Surya Namaskar: sun salutations. We begin her class with sixty of them; for my personal practice, I usually do 20 or 30. The sequence builds strength and endurance, and by the time I'm through with them I'm red-faced and sweaty.

Next come the standing poses. My first teacher, Lois, began all of her classes with half an hour of standing poses, and firmly emphasized that they should be practiced regularly. She got the tradition from B.K.S. Iyengar, with whom she has studied for 25 years; it's one of the aspects that differentiates Iyengar yoga from other forms. Another main distinction is the heavy use of props (blankets, bricks, belts, bolsters, etc.) to help people learn positions they might otherwise not be able to do. It makes yoga accessible to anyone, and I love that, being able to share it: I bought my mom a series of Iyengar classes, as well as several other friends of mine.

I go through the standing poses, always doing the same basic five:

Trikonasana (triangle pose), the first standing asana beginners are taught. In this pose, I learned to keep my body in the same plane. Look at the picture of the pose, see the three triangles? It's a geometric position.

Parsvakonasana (side angle pose),

Virabhadrasana I (warrior 1 pose),

Virabhadrasana II (warrior 2 pose), the most physically taxing (for me anyway) of the standing poses.

Prasarita Padottanasana, which reminds me to keep my shoulders away from my ears. I hold a lot of tension in my shoulders, and they tend to creep up towards my neck. Keeping them down (or up, in this pose) is good preparation for inversions, headstands and handstands.

Another thing I learned from Lois that I haven't seen any other teachers do is the practice of Uttanasana (standing forward bend) between each standing pose. It's like a deep breath, a reset button before moving on to the next asana. Doing Uttanasana is something I enjoy so much that I named my 1998 chapbook after it.

How many standing poses I do and the ones I choose depend on how I'm feeling. If I'm feeling sluggish I try to do more, because they are so invigorating. I love to balance, so some of my other favorites are Vrksasana (tree pose), Vasisthasana (side plank pose), and Ardha Chandrasana (half moon pose).

When I first started practicing regularly, I'd just do standing poses. After about a month I noticed my body developing strangely, I somehow, and realized I needed a rounded practice, incorporating forward bends, spinal twists, backbends, and inversions. So after standing poses I transition into Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward dog); if I'm warmed up enough, I work my heels to the floor. I have wonky hyperextended elbows (and even worse shoulders, proving that being too flexible can be a bad thing). Lois once told me that if I put a belt around my arms and did downward dog for five minutes every day that they would eventually be fixed. I don't have the patience or endurance to hold that pose for five minutes, but I do try and practice it regularly in hopes of someday having normal arms.

Fig. 2. Legs up the wall. As far as the eye can see...

Now that I'm off my legs and on the ground it's time for some seated poses. I start with Virasana (hero pose); the supine version, Supta Virasana, is one of my favorite poses to do, always has been. I do it before bed every night, it's very relaxing. But because it's so relaxing, the supine version is not right for this point in my practice, better suited for the end.

So I do some forward bends. Forward bends aren't something I look forward to; this is the place in my practice when the discipline kicks in. Sometimes I procrastinate doing them by working on Navasana (boat pose) and Supta Padangusthasana. I'm always tempted to skip forward bends altogether and move on to inversions -- unless I'm on my period, when women should not go upside down. In that case, I do the menstrual series, chock full of forward bends.

However, if the discipline works I begin with Dandasana (staff pose). Next is Janu Sirsasana, the pose where I realized years ago that in yoga, you don't just do a pose. There are always steps taken to get into a position to ensure you don't hurt yourself by getting into it too quickly. For example, to do Janu Sirsasana I first bend my knee out, pulling my foot into my groin, extending the other leg out straight, knee and other extended foot flexed. Then using my arms, I align my body forward to counter the natural twist that comes from bending my knee. Next, I inhale and reach my arms up; on the exhale, I lean forward with a straight back and hold my toes, shoulders broad, chest open. Then on my next exhalation I go all the way into the pose, bringing my chest to my straight knee, bending my elbows and then pushing forward with my lower back, shifting my torso forward so my chest is on my upper shin.

Sounds kind of complicated just for what seems to be a simple bend. But it's crucial to do things the right way, because it's so easy to get hurt doing yoga. That's why whenever I hear people who have never been to a class say they practice on their own with a book or a DVD, I cringe. The potential for injury without proper guidance is great. A good teacher makes such the difference; she can show you how to make a pose fit your body instead of making your body fit a pose. She can physically move you, push a hip into alignment, lift a sagging arm, so you know how the proper position should feel. She can make sure you don't hurt yourself, and she can show you what to do to heal an injury more quickly.

(I say "she" because every yoga teacher I've had has been a woman. Most of them have been stern disciplinarians -- ass-kickers if you will. Lois yelled in her class a lot, reminding me of a drill sergeant. However, I stuck with them because I could use more discipline in my life.)

After a few forward bends, ending with Paschimottanasana, if I'm feeling the need to detox I do a few twists: usually Bharadvajasana and one of the Marichyasanas. Twists are good for detoxifying. They squeeze the internal organs, forcing out blood and toxins; when you release, new, fresh stuff flows in, cleansing you. I go more fully into twists one breath at a time: on the inhalation I straighten up my spine, sit taller, and then on the exhalation I twist a little more fully. Do that for even just a minute and you've got some good twisting action.

It's important to note that in yoga, everything you do to one side must then be done on the other side. Right side first. Same with pranayama, but that's a whole nother article, one that I don't know enough about to write.

Fig. 3. Mat. Your back will thank you for it.

Yoga keeps me humble. Lois was great at tearing down the ego, which is essential. After outing me as a dancer in her first class she complained: "Oh, you're one of those flexible people. You are the worst to teach, you bend all the wrong ways. Instead of just teaching you how to bend, I have to make you unlearn everything you learned wrong first!" I had walked into that class thinking yeah, I'm flexible, I can ace this. But no, shot down! It was great though, very necessary. An inflated ego only gets in the way. I've been practicing for six years, but I still feel like a beginner. It's helped that I've learned never to compare myself to anyone else, in classes or otherwise; if I feel like measuring progress, I compare myself to how I was X amount of time ago.

One of the ways I keep my ego in check is through my work on Padmasana, lotus position. Somehow, I forgot to practice this most essential, most healing yoga pose for many years, and my body is struggling to catch up. Thing is, I can do lotus, I can push myself into it with stubborn will, but invariably I end up hurting my knees. So I've accepted that I'm not yet ready to sit in lotus for extended periods of time, and instead, work on Ardha Padmasana, half lotus: one foot on my thigh instead of both. I'll do this until my body is ready, retrained for the full position. So I usually conclude my seated poses with variations on half lotus at least three times a week.

After enough stuff on the floor, I'm ready to go upside down! I've been convinced for years that people benefit greatly from spending five minutes a day inverted, even if it's a mild inversion, like legs-up-the-wall. It's wonderful to give your body a break from gravity, get everything flowing backwards for a little bit.

If I'm feeling really strong I'll start by kicking up into an arm balance, sort of like a handstand with feet against the wall. But usually I just do Sirsasana (headstand) in the middle of the room for 1-3 minutes, or however long I can hold it. Then I do Sarvangasana (shoulder stand) for what I hope is 3-5 minutes. Let the eyes defocus staring at my belly. It's nice.

Finally, it's time for the last part of my practice: Savasana, corpse position. It's crucial to end a practice in this pose, so the body absorbs what has been learned. Though it's physically one of the most simple positions (you basically just lay there with your eyes closed, though there are small adjustments that make it a more comfortable pose), I have a very hard time with Savasana. It's the mind-chatter thing I mentioned earlier, though the more I practice, the better I get at broadening the spaces between thoughts.

During Savasana I like to have my window open. It used to be that noises from outside annoyed me when I practiced, I got distracted. Now I kind of like hearing sounds of the neighborhood: the band practicing across the street, an ice cream truck's song on repeat, cars thumping low bass as they pull up to the stop sign, conversation waxing and waning as pedestrians pass by. The sounds come and go, reminding me that everything passes, like breath. I listen to what's around me, while quieting what's inside me.

Eventually I take three deep breaths, bring my knees up to my chest, roll to my right, take another few breaths, push myself into a seated position, seal the practice, and open my eyes.


About the Author(s)

Jesica Davis stretches out at She currently takes classes at Yoga Circle.

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