‘Siri, how do I get into lotus pose?’

I keep seeing these commercials for Siri, the groundbreaking personal assistant app on the new Apple iPhone 4S, and I can’t but wonder whether Siri can answer questions about yoga. Why wouldn’t she be able to, right?

I could see the following conversations:

iPhone user/yogi: “Why do I have knee pain in padmasana (lotus pose)?”
Siri: “It might be related to the hip joint. Learn more at Yoganatomy.”

iPhone user/yogi: “How much would it cost to travel to Mysore, India to study Ashtanga?”
Siri: “I have found this blog post from Claudia Yoga with a breakdown of costs.”

iPhone user/yogi: “How do I correctly do the prasarita padottanasana poses in Ashtanga?”
Siri: “I have found the following video posted on the Confluence Countdown blog showing how to perform these postures.”

What if you ask Siri to tell you some stories about Hanuman and other Hindu deities? I’m sure she could. But I’m also sure I’d rather hear them from Tim Miller, who I’m excited I get to see next weekend when he comes to the lovely yogaview studio in Chicago.

Though I’ll admit — if I had the new iPhone (I’ll update as soon as my contract allows me to, believe me), I’d definitely ask Siri how I can best avoid Friday evening rush hour traffic as I drive into the Windy City.

Do you have Siri? Have you tried out some yoga-related questions yet?

(Photo credit: Via apple.com)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

YogaRose.net Explainer: Should I buy my own yoga mat if I’m just getting started in yoga?

Especially because I teach an introductory Ashtanga yoga class and an introductory vinyasa-flow class, I am constantly thinking about how to make this practice accessible. How do you explain ujjayi breathing? Energy locks? The fine-tuning of proprioceptive awareness?

Sometimes, though, what students need to know is much simpler than that. For instance: Should I buy my own yoga mat if I am just getting started in yoga and don’t know how frequently I will get to classes?

I’m tempted to answer, “Absolutely, yes!” and then end this blog post. I usually like getting into nuances and gray areas, but in this case, it’s a pretty clear-cut answer to me. Buy your own yoga mat rather than use the free or rented ones provided by your studio or gym, OK?

But I guess I should say a little more before I put this topic to bed. Here are three reasons to buy your own mat, even if you are only starting to check out yoga classes and aren’t sure you’ll be all that serious about it:

You get to keep it personal
A yoga mat takes a lot of abuse and it is — if not by design then at least by function — deeply personal. Yoga mats take skids (when yogis don’t quite achieve lift-off during those jump-throughs), sweat (self explanatory) and tears (yoga can make us emotional, and tears happen). Practicing on your own mat is just more personal, no matter how many times you make it to the mat.

It’s more hygenic, period.
Even if a studio tries (emphasis on “tries”) to clean their mats well between students, you’re opening yourself up to less-than-hygenic practicing conditions. When you release your forehead into the mat for child’s pose, it’s nice to be able to fully melt into the mat and not worry about cleanliness. And if it’s flu season? Eek. (I was working at a hospital during the 2009 spread of the H1N1 flu, and it changed the way I see hygenic — or lack thereof — practices around me.)

You don’t have to invest a lot of money to get a starter mat
What I tell students who are starting yoga but only practice once or twice a week at the most is to check out their local T.J. Maxx, Marshalls or other similar discount shops. A couple weeks ago when I was at T.J. Maxx, I saw yoga mats for $9.99. Will they be the best mats, quality-wise? No — but neither will the ones you rent or borrow from a yoga studio or gym’s stash. Trust me, that starter mat you pick up will last you long enough to justify the $10 you spent.

If you have flexibility in your budget, then you have what can seem like a dizzying array of choices, including David Swenson’s Gecko mat, the Manduka line, Jade mats, the Saka premium black mat, products from Gaiam and so many more. Mats in this range of quality can cost up to $104. Figure out what’s important to you. Is it whether the mat is produced in an eco-friendly way? Is it how thick and supportive it is (some yogis I know have complained of too much support, for example)? Is it how the material feels? If you’re practicing around yogis with some mats that seem intriguing to you, ask them what drew them to that mat, and if you could feel the material. Step on it, try a down dog, try floating through. It’s a quick way of test driving some of the options without having to pull out your credit card. I’ve found that, much like smartphones, people love talking about their yoga mat and all the reasons they decided on that particular model.

I use a Mysore rug over a regular yoga mat. A high percentage of my yogi friends use thin towel-like options, such as the Yogitoes brand. More on that in another post — I’ve got work to do! In the meantime, happy mat-hunting, if you’re ready to take the plunge.

(Photo credit: Yoga Time by mosabuam via Flickr Creative Commons)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

To the (full) moon!

By 7 a.m. this morning, I was aboard a Cessna flying from Grand Ledge, Mich. to Houghton, a little town on the state’s Upper Peninsula, for a client meeting. I have an aversion to mornings that early, but starting the flight out while it was still dark had its benefits. Yesterday was a full moon, which meant we were treated to a gorgeously radiant sphere this morning. It seemed for a while that the four of us aboard this flight were channeling Peter Pan, poised in our little plane to fly straight into this lunar dream. When the sun started to rise — as we were cruising, I assume, about 7,000 feet up — we had the moon ahead of us to the left and the sun behind us to the right. An incredible and rare view.

In the yogic tradition and in Buddhist cultures, the moon’s phases dictate important milestones. In Ashtanga yoga, a full moon and a new moon are occasions to take rest.

Why? Tim Miller explains this on his website:

Like all things of a watery nature (human beings are about 70% water), we are affected by the phases of the moon. The phases of the moon are determined by the moon’s relative position to the sun. Full moons occur when they are in opposition and new moons when they are in conjunction. Both sun and moon exert a gravitational pull on the earth. Their relative positions create different energetic experiences that can be compared to the breath cycle. The full moon energy corresponds to the end of inhalation when the force of prana is greatest. This is an expansive, upward moving force that makes us feel energetic and emotional, but not well grounded. The Upanishads state that the main prana lives in the head. During the full moon we tend to be more headstrong.

The new moon energy corresponds to the end of exhalation when the force of apana is greatest. Apana is a contracting, downward moving force that makes us feel calm and grounded, but dense and disinclined towards physical exertion.

The Farmers Almanac recommends planting seeds at the new moon when the rooting force is strongest and transplanting at the full moon when the flowering force is strongest.

Practicing Ashtanga Yoga over time makes us more attuned to natural cycles. Observing moon days is one way to recognize and honor the rhythms of nature so we can live in greater harmony with it.

That’s in general. Read Tim’s latest blog post on our just-passed October full moon to see why this might be a great time for professional advancement and taking on new responsibilities.

In the Theravada Buddhism tradition, the October full moon marks the end of what is sometimes referred to the Buddhist lent — a three-month period that coincides with the rainy season in Asian countries:

During this time Buddhist monks remain in a single place, generally in their temples. In some monasteries, monks dedicate the Vassa to intensive meditation. During Vassa, many Buddhist lay people reinvigorate their spiritual training and adopt more ascetic practices, such as giving up meat, alcohol, or smoking.

You can read more about this (scroll down to “Vassa”). This Saturday at Wat Dhammasala, a Thai Theravada temple in a little town called Perry about half an hour from where I live, there will be a celebration of the End of Rains Retreat ceremony.

This is quite a bit of significance to hang on this month’s full moon, don’t you think? Have you been feeling the moon’s pull this week?

(Photo credit: “Full Moon” via Windsordi’s Flickr stream via Flickr Creative Commons)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Fallen arches, salsa dancing and yoga standing postures

Scott and I enjoyed a 38-hour stay in Toronto this past weekend to catch one day of the Canada Salsa Congress. We got a taste of Zouk, watched mesmerizing dance groups such as Yamulee perform, and danced till 3 a.m. (with me in a — I kid you not — pink-sequined dress).

But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about what I learned about feet — specifically, mine (though I hope maybe you’ll discover something about your feet as well).

One of the sponsors of the event was DanceFeet, a Toronto-based custom orthotics operation co-founded by a chiropractor who also happens to be a salsa dancer. I did the free assessment — stepped on the pressure pad they had out, reviewed a computerized map of my steps and did some balancing squat tests.

Prognosis? I have fallen arches. Aka flatfeet. Aka issues with the medial longitudinal arches of my feet.

This didn’t surprise me, since one of my sisters has arch issues. It was actually a relief, because it was the best explanation so far about why I have so much pain when I wear heels.

The one-legged squat test got me thinking beyond salsa on 2 and bachata (please note that we do not look like this when we try bachata — for one thing, we are both wearing shirts), and into the realm of yoga, breath and bandhas: Flatfeet + utthita hasta padangusthasana = Imbalance!

Yes, you need breath. And bandhas. And focus. But sometimes, there’s a straightforward structural issue that requires consideration as well. I just found this thread in which one ashtangi is asking for advice about this:

I have had some problems doing certain standing poses for a while now. I always figured that I wasn’t fully using my bandhas/core strength and that was why I was having trouble. The other day my instructor comes over to me in utthita hasta padangusthasana. She said to ground my big toe and use the arch of my foot to gain balance. The problem is I don’t have an arch.

Today during my practice, I took my Dansko shoes (with arch support) and tried to do the pose with one shoe on, AND IT WORKED. I was able to balance and bring my leg out to the side, look over my shoulder and not lose balance.

During the assessment I took over the weekend, I was told to stand on one of DanceFeet’s custom orthotics to do a one-legged squat — and, like the experience this person had, it felt much more stable to me. Yesterday during my practice, I did an experiment and tried folding over the edge of my rug and placing that under the inner arch (or lack thereof, I guess) of my foot in order to achieve a similar effect. The posture felt slightly more stable, but there have to be better solutions, right?

Bandha Yoga offers this breakdown of the foot, and discusses how you can use your toes and certain muscles to deepen and strengthen arches.

Thank you, salsa dancing, for leading me to this insight. I’m still in investigation mode with this information and want to know if anyone else has worked through fallen arch issues in standing poses. Do you have any advice you can share?

(P.S. — In the short time we were in Toronto, I managed to sneak out long enough to take a led class at Ashtanga Yoga Centre of Toronto. It was much needed. I picked up David Robson’s Learn to Float DVD while I was there, and I have a feeling I will be offering it up during a giveaway contest this holiday. 😉 )

(Photo credit: Top: “Dancing Feet” by Jonathan Chen via Flickr Creative Commons. Second image: Via BandhaYoga.com.)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Reimagining…everything

Via jmak.tumblr.com

News of the death of Steve Jobs broke while I was teaching Intro to Ashtanga Yoga, so I didn’t learn about his passing until after class, when I picked up my iPhone and saw tweet after tweet with the announcement. While not surprising given the health problems Jobs endured over the past few years, it was, of course, sad.

How could it not be? Though lots of people are described as “visionary,” how many embodied it the way Jobs did? He saw a radically different way to approach computers, music, phones, animation — which translates into envisioning a different approach to communication, self-expression and creativity. And that’s just the beginning.

Michael Moore, who has joined the Occupy Wall Street protestors, just tweeted:

As word passes thru the crowd of Steve Jobs’ passing, it is not lost on anyone that his inventions helped make movements like this possible.

Part of being a visionary means having faith that your intuition is right — that you’re on the right path. It’s not easy to keep that faith.

I can’t help but think about the loss when Pattabhi Jois died in 2009. Guruji, as his students called him, single-handedly changed the lives of thousands of people who have been transformed through the eight-limbed practice of Ashtanga yoga.

Ashtanga yoga has helped me reimagine what I’m capable of. I saw these poses that looked impossible and thought, “Well, these poses are for people with different body types than mine.” Over time, I learned that approaching the postures had far less to do with bones, muscles and strength and far more with breath, focus and perspective. Surprised by how I could approach being in my body in a radically different way, I started to look around at other areas of life. My professional life, for instance. The skills I thought I didn’t have — was it true? Or it was just that I wasn’t approaching it the right way? Yoga helped me reimagine my approach to my career and everything else.

Want to hear a yogic talk? Read this snippet from Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford University commencement:

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.’ It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor’s code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.

I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I’m fine now.

This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Read the entire transcript or watch the speech — at your desk on a MacBook, or while traveling on your iPad or iPhone.

(Photo credit: Jonathan Mak’s Tumblr)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Ashtanga vinyasa yoga, remixed

 Radiohead’s new album drops next week. It’s not actually a new Radiohead album per se. TKOL RMX 1234567 is a new album of Radiohead songs off The King of Limbs that have been remixed by artists like Caribou and Four Tet. I’ve always loved remixes because they’re a different way of imagining and experiencing the same lyrics and the same basic melodies.

I think going through your Ashtanga practice with a different teacher in the room can achieve a similar effect. Same postures and vinyasas — but perhaps a different glissando from pose to pose or a different vibrational quality in an adjustment.

That’s one of the many reasons why I’m looking forward to the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence taking place in San Diego next March. You’ll have five renowned teachers who clearly teach from the heart sharing their love of the practice. I’m looking forward to experiencing some live remixes of my Ashtanga practice.

Whose drumbeat do you move to?

Whose drumbeat do you move to? How do you keep a steady rhythm in your yoga practice and in your life?

Watching David Robson’s new, outstanding Learn to Float instructional video (review below) has me thinking about drumbeats, rhythm, cadence and steadiness — from salsa dancing and Ashtanga yoga to daily life and life trajectories.

The salsa beat

In kinetic and chaotic environments, it can be a challenge to achieve the focus needed to discern the right rhythm. When my boyfriend and I started salsa dancing lessons earlier this year, one of the hardest skills to pick up was how to hear the underlying beat pattern that was keeping pace of the song amidst the cacophony of all the other instruments. It’s easy to think you’re following the right beat — until it starts to speed up, or it drops altogether, signaling that you had your attention in the wrong place.

I see this a lot in new students who are on the mat but allow most of their focus to go toward flitting about the room on all the distractions around them — who is doing that challenging pose they can’t get into yet? Who’s come down into balasana (child’s pose)? Who just walked back into the room after a trip to the bathroom? I think of the jumping ball you get on a karaoke screen when I think about the level of attention we’re talking about in cases like these. A consistent practice helps eye-darters begin to settle in, and it helps them start to become more attune to the fluctuations of their own body and their own breath.

Now, after you discern the pattern, do you know which beat is primary? Once I started having an easier time recognizing the right rhythm in a salsa song, I learned that there was another factor to consider — which beat is emphasized. There are  two competing schools in modern salsa dancing — salsa on 1 (the kind we do) and salsa on 2, prevalent in New York. Changing which beat to emphasize can change your whole experience of the dance.

The Ashtanga breath

The salsa on 1 vs. salsa on 2 distinction reminds me a bit about the different schools of thought when it comes to vinyasa breaths. When do you inhale and when do you exhale in a sequence? In the Ashtanga system, when you’re in down dog and need to float forward to return to the top of the mat, it’s on an inhale. That just fundamentally makes sense to me, because you’re riding the wave of your breath to help you get from point A to point B as lightly and as effortlessly as possible. (As a side note, some ashtangis keep the bandhas engaged but “jump empty” to the top of the mat, taking the inhale to lift the head before coming into ashtau, folding forward. I’ve tried that out for some time and like that approach as well. Something about moving “empty” speaks to me. But this is probably a topic for another blog post.)

In the power yoga system I was taught, you exhale from down dog to return to the top of the mat (the verbal cue would be: “from down dog, inhale press, exhale step or float to the top of your mat”). I am less enamored of this way of floating, because I feel that it goes against the grain of how I contextualize the role of the breath. I think exhaling to the top encourages more of a strength-and-momentum-based, rather than a breath-and-bandha-based, approach to moving. (That said, I am a bilingual yogi — I can speak both Ashtanga and power :). When I teach a power yoga or vinyasa flow class, I teach with the verbal cue to exhale to the top of the mat.)

No matter where you fall on the inhale and exhale debate, perhaps the most important thing is that your breaths are consistent and are keeping a steady pace for the practice.

Moving at the speed of life

Ultimately, what does steadiness in our practice give us? It’s hard to be independent if we need someone else to keep time for us. I’ve always worked in deadline-driven jobs, so I know what it’s like to live, to some extent, on someone else’s clock. But even within that pressure cooker, you can find your own rhythm so that you don’t lose your own sense of grounding — or worse, so you don’t lose your sense of self altogether. Finding this space of being even-keel is one of my life struggles. I know I will be working on my level of reactivity till the day I die. But the more I find a steady beat on the mat, the more practice I’ll have in discerning the internal beat pattern that moves my spirit on some fundamental level — and the more likely I’ll be able to stay attuned to that pattern when I’m off the mat.

The Learn to Float instructional video

I wrote about the release of Learn to Float earlier this week, and was looking forward to having the time to finally stream it and practice along. (Watch a snippet if you haven’t already.) Ashtanga.com was right in calling this production “mesmerizing.”

I think beginning and advanced ashtangis alike should download the video, stat. For less than the cost of a typical drop-in yoga class — the streaming video is $9.99 CAD (about $9.52 USD currently) — you get a 45-minute video that’s beautifully produced and keenly focused.

David tells you he is going to break down how to find the graceful floating found in the surya namaskaras (sun salutations). To get there, David discusses the importance of the technique behind tristanum, which he describes as “the union of three places of attention” — asana (posture), dristri (gaze) and breath (even, sounded breathing).

He gives an excellent explanation of, and breakdown for, mula bandha and uddiyana bandha and suggests two rules that will help keep you focused, which helps with floating:

  • Movement always follows breath.
  • Your vinyasa should be a straight line.

He does a fantastic job of laying out steps of safety — including how to make sure you’re not overworking the tops of the shoulders and thus risking injury.

David begins to demonstrate surya namaskara A with this instruction:

Ekam, inhale, lift the arms, hands touch with the end of the breath, dvi, exhale, speed the movement up, hands on the floor, trini, inhale, slow down, lift the head, chaturi, step or hop back, chaturanga dandasana, pancha, inhale, slow down into upward dog…

Meanwhile, there’s a steady drumbeat provided by percussionist Mathew Stephens that marks one beat per second, with each inhale lasting four beats and each exhale lasting four breaths.

David makes a point to say that the drumbeat is just a prop — when you practice on your own, your breath may be a slower or faster. He says:

What matters is that you’re feeling what it’s like to breathe evenly, and to pace the movements evenly with the breath.

This is where this video truly excels, in my opinion — in distilling the essence of the practice and setting a steady pace that can deepen the meditative level of these movements that are strung together. Not only do the beats play the role of a metronome for the practice — they prevent you from cheating in poses you don’t like. I know my tendency is to take longer breaths in poses I like, such as tiriang mukhaikapada paschimottanasana (three-limbed forward bend), and shorter breaths in postures I have aversions to, such as utthita hasta padangusthasana (extended hand-to-big-toe).

I started my last two practices with the sun salutations included in the final “practice” segment of Learn to Float, and then continued with the rest of my series trying to keep that same rhythm. It was so grounding, and a bit primal at the same time — just me, my breath and the steadiness of this external drumbeat that reflected the steadiness my internal heartbeat.

(Photo credit: Flickr photostream photo of a Taiko drummer by Mayu ;p via Flickr Creative Commons. By the way, if you’ve never been to a Taiko show, go! It’s amazing stuff, and you have to see it live.)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.