Need a yoga travel agent? Check out my itineraries. (Or take a yoga staycation right on your mat.)

I ran into two fellow yoga instructors the other evening when I was at the Michigan Athletic Club (MAC) to teach my weekly vinyasa yoga class, and both of the separate conversations somehow flowed toward fun discussions about visiting yoga studios while traveling and about traveling to yoga trainings.

This had me wondering — for a hot second — whether YogaRose.net could branch out into the yoga travel industry. It reminded me of a day last year — a day when I was already daydreaming about finding a less stressful career — when a colleague sent me a link to a New York Times “Practical Traveler” article. My buddy John had found the dream job for me — teaching yoga at resorts around the world. How glorious. I still haven’t figured out how to apply to any of these places, but I’ve got that yoga resume ready to go.

I’m of course mostly kidding. While I would love to start traveling year-round to “research” national and international yoga retreats and the like (Which resort truly has the warmer water? Which has the deepest hues of turquoise?  Which offers the widest ranges of massage options? Trying to resolve tough questions like that), I somehow doubt that starting the YogaRose.net travel agency will be my ticket out of working full-time and praying that this country still has some social safety net when (if) retirement comes. Plus, it wouldn’t even be the most advisable yogic path.

Fantasies aside, I always try to connect people to a dreamy yoga destination or a deeply fulfilling training. Let me know what you think of some of the itineraries I find myself frequently recommending:

The yoga ‘staycation’

For most of the days out of the years when yogis can’t afford the time off or the money to travel, I remind them to consider time on their mat as a “staycation” for the body, mind and spirit. A 90-minute yoga staycation may not feel quite the same as practicing on the beach in a Caribbean climate, but most of the time, it’s the most practical, and the overall best, option. Yoga is about quieting the mind and turning the senses inward — sun, sand and Swedish massages are not technically mentioned in the Yoga Sutras or the Bhagavad Gita when discussing the aim of yoga.

But even the most dedicated yogis need a spark of inspiration and practical, hands-on guidance to deepen their practice. The most affordable way to achieve this is with a weekend workshop that’s within driving distance.

One-gas-tank getaway

After visiting the fantastic Yoga on High studio in Columbus, Ohio for the first time last year to take a workshop with Ashtanga instructor extraordinaire Tim Miller, I returned to Lansing and spread the word about how much I enjoyed the programs and the people in this town that’s a relatively easy four-and-a-half-hour drive from mid-Michigan. A few friends returned with me later that year for a workshop with the incredible Maty Ezraty. A few ashtangis made the pilgrimage to Tim Miller when I returned this year, and a fairly sizable contingent of Hilltop Yoga students went to Columbus last month to study with Maty Ezraty this time around.

In short, I like instigating one-gas-tank yoga caravans. But sometimes, there are events so powerful that I have to recommend students make the sacrifices they can make in order to plan for a big trip — like the one taking place in San Diego next March.

Converging where powerful streams of influence come together

I’ve been sharing my excitement — over Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Tumblr and, of course, here on WordPress — over the prospect of the first annual Ashtanga Yoga Confluence. I think at least a few folks from the greater Lansing area are already intending to make the trek — how very cool. Whether you are attending or not, I highly recommend getting in the spirit of the drumbeat leading up to the gathering by checking out The Confluence Countdown blog.

Ask a fellow yogi

When I can’t sleep, I am usually up reading (or writing) about yoga (most of my blog posts are written between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. — no joke! It’s the only real time I have to blog). When I travel, I try to find a local yoga studio to visit as a way to get to better know that place. When I get mischievous, I start plotting how to get to my next yoga retreat or training (such as the one I embark on in just over a week — working on Ashtanga second series with Tim Miller set against the backdrop of sweeping Mt. Shasta).

If we know each other in daily life and you have thoughts on a yoga getaway but don’t know exactly where to go, try me. If we don’t know each other except through this blog, try me anyway! Throw down a comment — the blogging community will certainly have ideas where I don’t.

Can yoganidrasana (“yogi’s sleep posture”) make dreams come true? 

If nothing else, let me know what you consider your dream yoga getaway. If you know me well, you probably know that mine is to be able to take the required month off of work to make the pilgrimage — and it is a pilgrimage — to Mysore, India, to study Ashtanga yoga in the city that serves as home base for this challenging and brilliantly designed practice. (There are pretty strict rules governing the  Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute, including the rule that you study for a minimum of a month at a time — no drop-in sessions or weekend workshops here!)

If I ever do get the chance to make this trip, I am all set because fellow Ashtanga yoga blogger Claudia Yoga, who is based in New York, has already created this guide to traveling to Mysore. I love the Ashtanga yoga blogging community dispersed around the world — they are some of the best built-in yoga travel guides you could ask for.

(Photo credits: YogaRose.net/iStockphoto(andreart) (top); “Acro Floating Yoganidrasana” via Yogable (bottom))

© 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.

The human body as a metro-styled map (aka, one way to imagine the chakra system)

Check out this world map that’s been brilliantly reenvisioned by Spanish artist Michael Tompsett as a metro-style map. I first saw this image yesterday on Melaz Cosmo’s Tumblr, and fell in love immediately. You can purchase this print as a canvas, as shown above, or as a print. Subway maps are some of my favorite things to collect when I travel, and my boyfriend and I recently picked up this gorgeous book called Transit Maps of the World that gives us all these amazing maps in one place. We only half joke when we say we’re going to start choosing our next vacations based on how inspired a city’s metro map looks. (The single craziest metro map I’ve seen so far, by the way, is Tokyo’s. Wow.)

This reimagining of a world map sparked a thought about the process of reimagination in general — a thought that ultimately led to how the practice of yoga can help us reimagine our body, mind and spirit. In the same way that a typical world map gives us continent outlines and maybe some topography, we as human beings tend to view our body the way we see it in a photograph: made up of the outlines created by the architecture that is our skeleton, flesh, skin.

But a yoga practice is designed to send our awareness inward — inward even to the level of energy centers called chakras that we can’t see, touch or even really scientifically prove exist. The current Wikipedia entry on chakras offers a decent overview:

Chakra is a concept referring to wheel-like vortices which, according to traditional Indian medicine, are believed to exist in the surface of the etheric double of man. The Chakras are said to be “force centers” or whorls of energy permeating, from a point on the physical body, the layers of the subtle bodies in an ever-increasing fan-shaped formation. Rotating vortices of subtlematter, they are considered the focal points for the reception and transmission of energies.Different systems posit a varying number of chakras; the most well known system in the West is that of seven chakras.

Chakras aren’t something you will ever find during a cadaver dissection. If you find the whole concept of chakras to be foreign and undigestible, it’s not my intention in this blog to bring you around on chakras (although I feel compelled to say I know scientists who practice yoga who find the chakra system to be a very useful way of imagining and experiencing their own body and spirit).

What I wanted to share in this blog post is my feeling that putting the metro-style world map above next to a more traditional world map could be one way to try to understand — if you’re open to the idea — how chakras can be imagined next to the more traditional western view of the human body. Rather than look at the external outlines of a body, you can consider the energetic stops along a human being’s route of existence.

The rough idea is that the first chakra, the root chakra located at the base of the spine, is the energy center that grounds us and the seventh one, located at the crown, is our space of liberation through its connection to whatever you want to describe as divine intelligence. In between, you have chakras where emotion, will, love, communication and intuition are based.

I had to read Wheels of Life as part of the 200-hour yoga teacher training I took through Hilltop Yoga in mid-Michigan. There were aspects of this book that were, admittedly, too far into the New Age realm for me to be comfortable. But there were aspects of the book that I really enjoyed exploring — such as the idea that we can try to see which chakra is dominant in our own personality, and in the personality of our signifiant other or love interest. Using the imagery of how chakras interact as a way to map out the dynamics of a relationship is fascinating to me, and I think it can be a helpful way of viewing struggling relationships.

Dr. Ray Long, a University of Michigan-educated orthopedic surgeon whose books include one on my bookshelf that I love referring to — The Key Muscles of Yoga: Scientific Keys, Vol. 1 —  offers anatomic breakdowns that show which chakras is most relevant to a particular muscle action and posture. (In case you’re interested, Dr. Long is coming to Michigan twice in 2011 — for more see my one-tank-of-gas workshop page.)

Whether you find any value to thinking about the chakra system, I think it’s safe to say that those willing to commit to a solid yoga practice has a far better map to the body, mind and spirit than they would have ever had if they had never stepped aboard that yoga train.

(Image credits: Map via http://www.imagekind.comChakras via Joelstuff V3’s Flickr photostream, licensed through 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.

YogaRose.net Explainer takes on P90X Yoga X [Round 2]: What’s vinyasa, power yoga and Ashtanga all about? How do I tell the difference?

YogaRose.net Explainer Wordle

I’ve received so much feedback since writing my blog post on P90X Yoga X that I thought it might be helpful to do a part 2 blog post answering a few of the common questions people have.

What is a vinyasa?

In the P90X Yoga X DVD, Tony Horton refers to going through a vinyasa. It can be confusing, because “vinyasa” can refer to moving in between poses, it can refer to a style of yoga, and sometimes you see Ashtanga yoga referred to as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.

There are many ways to explain it, but Shiva Rea does a concise job in an article titled “Consciousness in Motion“:

‘Vinyasa’ is derived from the Sanskrit term nyasa, which means ‘to place,’ and the prefix vi, ‘in a special way’—as in the arrangement of notes in a raga, the steps along a path to the top of a mountain, or the linking of one asana to the next. In the yoga world the most common understanding of vinyasa is as a flowing sequence of specific asanas coordinated with the movements of the breath. The six series of Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga are by far the best known and most influential.

You might see “vinyasa” described as “flow,” which refers to the fact that in this style of yoga, you flow from one posture to the next using the breath as the link. If you go to a new yoga studio and it lists vinyasa classes, these classes will connect breath and movement, generally by starting off with sun salutations, going into a sequence that is perhaps repeated a few times (though not necessarily) and then ending with finishing postures to cool the body down in preparation for savasana, or corpose pose, which ends the practice. People also use “vinyasa” to simply refer to the transitions between postures.

What kind of yoga is done in the P90X Yoga X video? Is it Ashtanga yoga? 

No, it is not Ashtanga. The fitness guide that comes in the P90X package refers to the opening section as “Astanga Sun Salutations.” (By the way, “Astanga” is an alternate spelling of “Ashtanga.” Both are correct, but you see it spelled “Ashtanga” far more frequently.) The sun salutations, in my opinion, have the spirit of Ashtanga sun salutations A (surya namaskara A), but to be true Ashtanga sun salutes, you would have to come back to standing in between each one rather than go right into the next one. You would also have to hold each down dog for five breaths. In a traditional Ashtanga practice, you do five sun salutation As and five sun salutation Bs (which add a warrior posture and utkatasana, or chair pose, into the flow).

Is the rest of it Ashtanga yoga?

No. Not even close. Ashtanga yoga refers to a set sequence of postures. If you’re curious about which postures appear in Ashtanga, take a look at this PDF of the Ashtanga primary series (there are several series of Ashtanga, but most people practice primary and second series). Yoga Journal provides this quick overview, and this Ashtanga.com backgrounder provides a deeper level of info on the design of the practice and all that it encompasses.

Now that we’re on this subject, is power yoga, Ashtanga yoga and vinyasa yoga the same thing?

Nope. I’ve seen plenty of references that go something like this: “Ashtanga, or power, yoga…” or “Power yoga, also described as “Ashtanga yoga…” “Ashtanga” is a specific system and it is not interchangeable with “power” or “vinyasa.” You might think of vinyasa as the broadest term, the one that refers most generally to linking breath and movement in a sequence. Power yoga is a vinyasa-style yoga, and, based on what I know, it was coined around the same time but separately by two yogis: Bryan Kest and Beryl Bender Birch. Bryan Kest refers to power yoga this way:

Power Yoga is directed at creating the highest level of energy, vitality and freedom. The only way to do this is to work with yourself, not against yourself.

Hilaire Lockwood, who owns Hilltop Yoga where I practice and teach, describes it this way:

Power yoga is often misunderstood. The power in power yoga refers to the inner power that we all hold. That deep inner strength that not only keeps us focused, but allows us to be honest with ourselves and our limits. We carry so much love and compassion as well as depth and a desire for challenge. It is quite amazing when we tap into the life force we hold as individuals and consequently begin to see how we can impact the world in small or very large ways. While we do experience a ‘workout’ by practicing power yoga, you will also experience the yoke and the union that is true yoga – a body, mind, and spirit connection that allows us to achieve a deep ‘working in.’

If you go to an Ashtanga class, it will always feature the same sequence. Vinyasa and power classes do not feature the same sequence every time, so the instructor can put together a sequence that is most fitting to the students in the room.

I’m still not entirely clear about the names and styles

Especially if you’re new to yoga, it can be hard to get a handle on these distinctions. My suggestion is to let it go for now. Don’t worry about it and instead use your energy to find a yoga class in your community that you will enjoy and benefit from. Go practice and clear your mind. :-)

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>>Related posts in the YogaRose.net Explainer series: YogaRose.net Explainer takes on P90X Yoga X

>>Previously in the YogaRose.net Explainer series: What’s that pose the guy in the Sunday Times is doing? And how do you get into it? 

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Got a question for YogaRose.net? Send it my way! Drop an email to ashtangayogarose [at] gmail.com or send me a tweet @rose101. I can’t promise to answer all questions (I do, after all, have another gig besides teaching and writing about yoga), but I will try to at least steer you to interesting answers. (It goes without saying that this isn’t meant to be a step-by-step how-to on yoga. To learn yoga, find a good teacher and get yourself to a yoga class, stat!)

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© 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.

My Planet Telex moment in Ashtanga second series (or, how to find relief from the posture pictured below)

Tittibhasana B

I hate this posture.

Let me rephrase. I loathe this posture.

It’s called tittibhasana B (insect posture), and it appears in Ashtanga second series, a practice heavy on backbends and extreme hip openers as a way of liberating energy coiled at the base of the spine. On good days, second series feels like Pop Rocks candy on my spine — tingly, refreshing and a category unto itself. Most of the time, though, it is still a practice that I struggle to enjoy (unlike primary series, which is full of forward ends and is designed to bring the body into balance), and in no small part because of the extreme hip openers found in the middle of the series. My body and mind love hip opening postures as a category, but the ones that appear in second series are intense and make me confront seeping feelings of anxiety, frustration, impatience and irritation.

Needless to say, I have never found anything liberating about tittibhasana B, except the part when you’ve finished your five breaths in the posture and get to come out of it. (If this sounds familiar, I also like to come out of virabhadrasana A. Warrior A is a posture you often see in flow-based yoga practices. You don’t see insect posture much unless you do Ashtanga second series, so I don’t usually cite this as my nemesis posture. But it is quite possibly the single posture I hate the most — the posture I would edit out if I had an asana eraser.)

In tittibhasana, my arms don’t just drape around the back of the legs to find a clasp the way the yogi in this photo seems to effortlessly do. When I do this posture, my legs can’t straighten and my arms can, at most, reach my butt — I mean, I basically feel as if I’m trying to feeling up my own ass when I try to wiggle into this posture. When I’m in it, I often think, “Yoga teaches us humility, but really? Seriously? Is this necessary?

But something happened during the led Ashtanga second series class at Hilltop Yoga in Lansing’s Old Town this evening, and it prompted me, after finishing class to, check in to Foursquare and tweet this:

The opening line of Radiohead’s “Planet Telex“: “You can force it but it will not come.” Welcome to Ashtanga second series.

The reason? To explain, I have to talk about the posture that comes a few postures before this one. It’s called eka pada sirsasana (one-leg-behind-head posture), and it looks like this:

Eka pada sirsasana

I’ve been practicing led Ashtanga second series since last summer, and I usually can’t get either leg behind my head. On occasion, I can get my right leg behind, but I can’t leg go without the leg coming with me. (In his book on second series, Gregor Maehle describe his posture as “a peculiar mix of hamstring flexibility and hip rotation.)

I wondered during practice today whether all this time, I had been unable to approach this posture the right way because I was tense. There are times when I know I’m unnecessarily tensing a group of muscles — for example, the gluteus maximus or the shoulders. It’s hardest, though, when you don’t even know you’re holding on somewhere. So before going into eka pada sirsasana posture this evening, I tried to inhale relaxation into my right hip. I moved very slowly. I more or less had a conversation with my whole pelvis area, trying to coax it into relaxation.

Viola, both my right leg and my left cooperating with me.

Fast forward a few postures to tittibhasana B. Before I went into it, I once again tried to focus on breathing release into my hips. On not wanting this posture too much. For the first time ever, this posture did not sting in my lower body the way it normally does. I felt equanimity. I felt calm.

I saw a tweet the other day from @MeredithLeBlanc. I liked a lot:

If U notice Ur hips feeling tight while walking – stop, breath deep into the pelvis & feel the fluid flow in Ur body. Vam Vam Vam

When I was in New York a couple weeks for the Public Relations Society of America’s Digital Impact conference, I took Mysore classes at an excellent Midtown studio called the Yoga Sutra. One of the instructors kept coming over to tell me to relax my hip in standing postures.

So you might say I was primed for this moment tonight to finally, after all these years, relax my hip. In yoga, there’s the idea of sthira sukham — steady comfort.  You find strength, but you also find surrender. Being strong enough to let go is the moment that you free yourself. I’ve always loved that the first line of Radiohead’s “Planet Telex,” which is also the first line on the group’s 1995 album The Bends, is an indictment against trying to push through. What’s true for life is true for our yoga practice and vice versa, and it makes me wonder in what ways I might be holding on too tightly to something in my life off the mat.

(Photo credits: Both via www.ashtangayoga.info)

© 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.

Dancing with the Deities (A Not-So-Epic Overview)

How can stories of Hindu deities enrich a yoga practice? I wrote this blog post to accompany a two-hour workshop I gave to Hilltop Yoga teachers on May 15, 2011. But it’s meant to serve as a stand-alone post — so whether or not you were part of the workshop, I hope you enjoy the post and share your thoughts by commenting below or on the YogaRose.net Facebook page. I plan on doing future posts that take a look at the stories of individual deities, including Hanuman, the monkey king. I had thought about including Hanuman in this post, but decided, man, he needs a blog post all to himself!


Workshop description

Dancing with the Deities

In this workshop, we will explore some of the stories behind the postures that we have encountered so many times in our practice. We know natarajasana as dancer’s pose — but who was Nataraja, and what did his dance signify? Why do we honor Hanuman — the monkey king — by searching for a split? Through stories, we may find that we can spark a sacred energy deep within us. Through myths, perhaps we find a new way to connect our presence in practice to the boundlessness of ancient tradition.

Choreographing the dance

I knew long before I finished the classroom portion (so to speak) of Hilltop Yoga’s 500-hour teacher training program last fall that I wanted my workshop to be on the myths that can transform any yoga practice into a larger-than-life story. (Hilaire Lockwood, owner of Hilltop Yoga in Lansing, Mich., has made it a requirement for 500-hour teachers to give a two-hour workshop to fellow teachers and teacher trainees. I haven’t heard of other programs that require this, and I think it’s a great component of the program.) I’ve long been fascinated by stories and narratives — so much so that I chose to pursue a career as a daily newspaper reporter when I finished graduate school.

Some people become journalists because they have aspirations to write the next great American novel or become a published poet, and they choose a day job that will at least let them write for a living. I did not fall into that category. One of the few things I’ve known about myself since I was young was that what fascinated me most was not what could come out of my imagination, but the true stories all around — the kinds of stories that prompt you to say, “You can’t make this stuff up.” So I went into journalism to discover other people’s stories — whether inspirational, tragic or plain old strange —  and share those stories through the written word.

Over the years, I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the incredibly rich stories of Hindu deities. I would often find myself in a posture and wonder, “Why is this pose named after the sage Marichi? What did he do that was so cool?” The more I’ve read about these gods and demigods, these humans and animals, the more intrigued I’ve become. Like with any good myth, these ancient tales hold the power to teach us a lot about our own strengths and weaknesses, fantasies and foibles.

I’m writing this blog post — and giving my teachers’ workshop — not as an expert. Far from it. I am coming from this as a fellow explorer. I want to you tell you what I know (which, in the scheme of things, is not much at all) and who told me, so that if a curiosity is sparked in you, you can start that journey yourself and begin to explore.

Studying the dance

One of my favorite parts of the two-week Ashtanga primary series teacher training at the Ashtanga Yoga Center in Carlsbad, Calif. was story time. You take a Mysore Ashtanga class in the morning, perhaps assisting a second class, and then take lunch. After lunch, when everyone was still digesting and taking pulls from their coffee cups to try to stave off that desire for an afternoon nap, Tim Miller would tell stories from the Mahabharata, Bhagavad GitaRamayana and more modern sources as well. We’d lie down, get comfortable, and enjoy story time like we were in kindergarten again.

But these tales were not for the innocent or faint of heart. Gods and demos would be banished, killed, brought back in other form (or at least with a new head, as in the case with Daksha, who returns to life with a goat’s head. Read more about that story in the chapter on virabhadrasana in Myths of the Asana, described below.). If ever there were epic soap operas, these were it. The Mahabharata is said to be three times longer than the Bible. To make matters more confusing, where in soap operas you might find out someone has a twin, in these tales, gods all seem to have hundreds, if not more, incarnations. How can anyone possible keep up? (Maybe there’s an app for that now?)

Over the past few years, some excellent books and CDs have been published and produced that weave these tales. Here are some of the ones I recommend. (You can buy all of these using your Amazon.com account through the YogaRose.net Bookshop and Boutique.)

Stories about the deities

Myths of the Asanas: The Stories at the Heart of the Yoga Tradition
Alanna Kaivalya and Arjuna van der Kooij

This is an outstanding book that came out last year. It’s beautifuly told, beautifully put together, and is about as relevant as it gets, in terms of how the authors bring everything back to the modern Western lifestyle. I remember one day last year when I had just had a horrible, soul-sucking day. I went home, started crying and pulled this book off the shelf. I started reading these stories about gods and mortals in binds far worse than I could imagine, and yet had managed to find redemption and moved on. It was the most calming and reassuring book I could have opened that day. (In addition to the paperback copy, this book is also available as a Kindle ebook.)

The Little Book of Hindu Deities
Sanjay Patel

I picked up this little gem from Moksha Yoga in Chicago when I attended a workshop with Ashtanga master Lino Miele. The author describes himself as an “ABCD (American-born confused Desi (Indian),” even though he was born in the United Kingdom. He grew up in the United States disinterested in his parents’ culture, but was drawn to these stories after becoming an animator at Pixar. Searching for a way to tell these tales while being respectful, Patel made a connection with “Sanrio’s ultracute Hello Kitty designs and thought, ‘Well, there’s a style no one could be offended by.” The result is a handy guide to deities, with bonus sections that provide overviews of Hindu epics, the Hindu chronology of creation and the nine planets. It looks like a book for children, but looks can be deceiving. Publishers Weekly says the book is most popular with teens and 20-somethings.

Ashtanga Yoga The Intermediate Series: Mythology, Anatomy and Practice
Gregor Maehle

The best way I can describe Gregor Maehle’s excellent books on Ashtanga yoga is “heady.” He is thorough, intellectual and esoteric — but without being inaccessible. I picked up his first book on Ashtanga primary series and his newest book on second series for the anatomy details. But the true gift in Maehle’s intermediate series book, in my opinion, is the section on mythology. A table in this book, for example, lists four categories of postures (lifeless forms, animals, human forms, divine forms), along with the dominant guna of those sets of postures (whether tamas, rajas or sattva) and the asanas in the Ashtanga second series that fall into each category. You will get insights from this book you won’t find anywhere else — starting with pasasana, the first posture in second series, and one which we typically hear of as “noose posture.” Maehle picks up where everyone else would stop: “Noose refers here to the posture of the arms, which are thrown like a noose around the legs. Pasha is also one of the thousand names of the Lord Shiva, who is also called Pashaye, Lord with the noose.” The book is gorgeously annotated. And have I mentioned it’s thorough? (In addition to the paperback copy, this book is also available as a Kindle ebook.)

Elephant Power
MC Yogi

Elephant Power, centered around stories of Ganesh, is actually a really fun way to get to know the stories of some of the most famous deities. MC Yogi, whose father initially got him into Ashtanga yoga when he was 18, grew up in northern California listening to Beastie Boys and Run DMC. He has a unique hip-hop style, and he knows his mythical tales. I was pretty incredulous when I first heard about MC Yogi — I can be a total music snob, and I admit it — but he is the real deal. He’s also got some heavy hitters in the kirtan world featured on this album, including Bhagavan Das, Krishna Das, Sharon Gannon, and Jai UttalSee some lyrics and listen to samples.

Flow of Grace
Krishna Das

Flow of Grace, which came out in 2007, is a book and a set of two CDs. Flow of Grace would have to be a large part of a blog post on Hanuman, but the short version might be best described by Krishna Das’ website: “Krishna Das has been singing the Hanuman Chalisa for over thirty years, and on his newest CD, Flow of Grace, he takes us deep into the heart of this powerful prayer to Hanuman, the embodiment of devotion, service, strength, and compassion.” If you’ve never heard the Hanuman Chalisa, you can listen to the samples found online, but I can tell you from experience that you won’t feel the power of the chalisa until you are sitting in a room full of people chanting it — perhaps with someone playing a harmonium. Pick Flow of Grace up to start to understand why the great monkey king is so revered.

The epic tales

The Little Book of Hindu Deities offers this pithy overview of Hindu epics:

The two great Hindu epics are the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The Mahabharata is a sprawling history of India’s ancient dynasties’ struggle with one another for land and power. It also explains most of Hinduism’s major gods and goddesses. It has been said that everything worth knowing is found within its pages, including the stand-alone portion called the Bhagavad Gita. The Ramayana is more intimate in its scope, primarily following Rama and his small band of devotees in their quest to rescue his wife, Sita. These sacred texts are the cultural foundation of India and the Hindu mythology.

Bhagavad Gita
Various translations 

If you have the time and the interest, it would be amazing to dig into the juiciness of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. I would love to, but I think I’m being realistic in saying that I don’t see myself getting through these texts in this lifetime. (As it stands now, I already don’t have time to read what I want to read.)  I do, however, hope to find time this year to reread the Bhagavad Gita. I had to read the Bhagavad Gita as a freshman in college, and it’ll be a different book now that I’ll be looking at it from an Ashtanga yoga perspective.

Ramayana: Divine Loophole
Sanjay Patel

I literally just saw this book when finding links for the book of Patel’s that I do have, The Little Book of Hindu Deities (description in the section above). On the strength of that book, I’m going to recommend this book, sight unseen. Here’s the Amazon.com review: “Teeming with powerful deities, love-struck monsters, flying monkey gods, magic weapons, demon armies, and divine love, Ramayana tells the story of Rama, a god-turned-prince, and his quest to rescue his wife Sita after she is kidnapped by a demon king. This illustrated tale features over 100 colorful full-spread illustrations, a detailed pictorial glossary of the cast of characters who make up the epic tale, and sketches of the work in progress. From princesses in peril to gripping battles, scheming royals, and hordes of bloodthirsty demons, Ramayana is the ultimate adventure story presented with an unforgettably modern touch.” I’m going to pick this book up soon — can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

>>If you are so inclined, you can buy all of these using your own Amazon.com account through the YogaRose.net Bookshop and Boutique. 😉

A closer look at Nataraja

The photo at the top of this post is of Nataraja, Lord of the Dance. Nataraja is yet another incarnation of Shiva. Perhaps more than any other deity, Shiva is the one I am most enthralled by — his ashen face, matted hair, his proclivity to disappear to the mountains to meditate for hundreds of years, his stamina to make love for hundreds of years (remember, the gods have a different time reference than the rest of us do), his equanimity, his temper. Shiva creates through the act of destruction. He is a study in contrasts — and most of us can relate to dichotomies. It’s particularly the case for me — on so many levels, dualities and contrasts mark my life and my personality.

MC Yogi has an awesome song about Ganesh called “Son of Shiva.” To understand the son you have to understand the father, so this song is a fun way to learn more about Shiva too. My favorite part talks about Shiva returning from his deep meditation on Mount Kailash:

it was at that time when Shiva returned
not knowing that his wife recently gave birth
when Shiva saw the boy he told him to move
but not knowing who his father was the boy refused
now Shiva’s like this, truth consciousness and bliss
but he’s crazy when he’s angry so don’t get him pissed
feeling dissed and dismissed Shiva started a rumble
an epic struggle that shook the jungle
then out of nowhere Shiva’s trident went chop
and that’s when the boy’s head was cut off

Oops.

But all is not lost. Buy the album if you don’t already have it, and listen to the rest of the story.

There’s much more to know about Shiva (another blog post!) and so much more to know about his particular incarnation as Nataraja. Why is does Nataraja appear with four arms and one leg lifted? And what is that creature he appears to be standing on? See how two Ashtangis, Tim Miller and Michael Gannon, interpret this powerful symbol:

Tim Miller on Nataraja

I remember first reading Tim Miller’s “The Alchemy of Yoga” essay while staying at a hotel in Columbus, Ohio. (It’s always interesting to find a spark of inspiration while away from home, staying alone in a hotel.)  In this quick-read essay, Timji — as his students like to refer to him — talks about how he believes “Nataraja, the King of Dancers, beautifully symbolizes the alchemy of Ashtanga yoga.”

Michael Gannon on Nataraja

Michael Gannon, who uses social media heavily, just posted this link to his recent talk on Shiva about 16 hours ago. In “Shiva Comes to Town,” Gannon does a lovely job of sharing how he uses the symbolism of Nataraja as destroyer to make sense of, accept, and move on from personal and even global tragedies. It’s 26 minutes long. If you’re like me and have a crazy schedule and the attention span of a tweet, let me tell you that it’s worth taking the time to listen. Play it while you’re waiting for coffee to brew, or as your’e whittling down your work email inbox.

I titled this post “Dancing with the Deities (A Not-So-Epic Overview)” because — while it’s rather long (probably too long) for a blog post — it hardly skims the surface of these rich stories. Take advantage of some of the labors of love listed here — whether you’re more into the iconized depictions as in The Little Book of Hindu Deities or into the kind of thoughtful, historical perspective you’ll find in Gregor Maehle’s book. Keep searching and uncover sweet wells of tales not listed here. More than anything, I hope you continue to get on your mat and find inspiration for your practice, and through your practice, however you can.

Photos (from top)
Nataraja: Photo of Nataraja statue, taken at The Yoga Sutra (a New York City yoga studio), May 2011
Aum: Aum at Hilltop Yoga’s Old Town 2 studio in Lansing, Mich., May 2011

>>If you are so inclined, you can buy all the books referenced in this book using your own Amazon.com account through the YogaRose.net Bookshop and Boutique. 😉 


© 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.

An airplane’s flight and an ashtangi’s float

I was watching Man Vs. Wild the other night and a Delta Airlines commercial came up. I wasn’t even paying attention to what was on the screen, but one of the lines I heard from the commercial caught my attention: “If you run before the wind, you can’t take off.”

I teach up to four Ashtanga classes every week, which means I am verbally cueing a lot of float-throughs — going from adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) to a seated position — so I think about that float-through journey quite a bit. When I heard this random line from the commercial, I suddenly started paying attention because I thought that it might be a fitting analogy for Ashtanga vinyasa float-throughs. Although Ashtanga yoga can be made accessible for everyone, there’s no question that it’s extremely challenging. And within this practice, the float-through or jump-through can be one of the hardest aspects for new and veteran students alike.

So, inspired by this ad (?!), I decided to break down how I think it relates to floating through in Ashtanga. Here’s what the narrator says in this black-and-white commercial:

What does it take to fly? It takes knowing we have our work cut out for us. Flying brings more challenges every day. But if you ask any of the pilots who work here, they’ll say one of the first things they learned in flight school is that if you run before the wind, you can’t take off. You’ve got to turn into it — face it. The thing you push against is the thing that lifts you up.

How can this imagery be applied to the ashtanga float-through?

What does it take to fly? It takes knowing we have our work cut out for us.

The first step to floating is to understand that it takes a lot of practice. In many cases — my own practice included — years of trying. Not weeks, not months — years. It took me longer to learn how to float through than it did to get through my undergraduate and graduate studies. I think one of the most important lessons we get from Ashtanga yoga is that we need both short-term and long-term patience. It’s not a cliche to say that with this practice, it is about the journey, and not the destination.

Flying brings more challenges every day.

After we find our float-through, then what? It’s just more work, because when we do unlock our personal mystery of how to find this yogic flight pattern, the journey continues to challenges us. Then it becomes about refinement of bandhas (the energy locks employed in Ashtanga yoga) and refinement of form.

…if you run before the wind, you can’t take off.

Here we get to mechanics. As we learn the jump through, we really need to focus on what the hips and core are doing, and how the breath factors into that.

This is what has worked for me. In downward-facing dog, check in and make sure your energetic locks are engaged (mula bandha and uddiyana bandha) by lifting up on the pelvic floor and spiraling that energy through the low belly. (Bandha interlude: If you practice Ashtanga, you know that figuring out bandhas can take years — decades even. David Williams says in his interview in Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of His Students that it took him 10 years to understand mula bandha. My latest eight-word summary of these two energetic locks? Bringing buoyancy to  the base of the spine.) Inhale length into the spine. On the exhalation, bend the legs as if your lower body were a wind-up toy. Look far forward — very, very far forward — and on the inhale, ride the air current of your breath to float your body through.

British yoga instructor John Scott — who came to yoga by way of golf — offers a beautiful breakdown of the floating-through process in his book Ashtanga Yoga. I found an excerpt of this part of Scott’s book, but I truly hope that you buy the book or buy the video rather than rely on this excerpt. For one thing, there’s the whole yogic concept of asteya. For another, they are excellent resources.

You’ve got to turn into it — face it. The thing you push against is the thing that lifts you up.

The breath is what literally keeps us alive. And yet most of us go through the day without breathing to capacity — holding our breath, even, when challenge strikes, as if that will somehow help us get through adversity. For the Ashtanga float-through, become your breath — that wind will carry you farther than you thought possible.

© 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.

Mirror, mirror…

Twitter told me that it’s International Women’s Day and Fat Tuesday. What an appropriate day, then, for me to see this Tumblr post by Penguinslover:

I vaguely remember reading about a study in college (a long, long time ago :-) ) that verified what this animated photo shows — that a woman’s cognitive perception of her body can literally be this divorced from reality.

I teach yoga, and one of the themes that I constantly bring into class is that yoga is not about body image — to a point where I would rather not teach in a yoga studio that has mirrors.

I’ll take a step back here to say that in the yoga community, there are some who believe strongly that students should have mirrors, and others who believe that mirrors serve only to distract. At Hilltop Yoga, where I teach Ashtanga yoga a few times a week, mirrors would never be allowed. At the Michigan Athletic Club, where I teach power yoga once a week, the club’s dedicated yoga studio has two connected walls with mirrors and two connected walls without, to accommodate yoga teachers from both schools. Teachers who want their students to be able to see themselves have their students face one way, and the other set of teachers have their classes face the other way.

My sister, who recently started teaching yoga in San Jose, Calif., and I have had long conversations about this. I think that once a student gets to a point where they have a very keen sense of body awareness — where they turn inward first to feel what their body is doing in space and time — then selective use of a mirror can refine alignment of muscle and joint actions/relationships. Reliance on mirrors before that? I see students every week use the mirror to check themselves out in the same judgmental way they might do in the morning as they get dressed for work.

This brings me back to the animated graphic posted on Tumblr that I’ve inserted into this post. Despite all this, I don’t think I’ve changed enough from my middle school days, when I look at my profile in the bathroom mirror and feel hopelessly frustrated at the size of my belly. After teaching yoga for more than 18 months, I still do what the woman in this picture is doing. I mean, this evening, after taking a much-needed yoga class with Misty Flahie, I went to my local natural foods store and tweeted this without seeing the hypocrisy at the time.

Do I need to lose weight? I could stand to lose a few pounds. All my pants have been fitting a litter tighter since the winter started, and there is a very logical reason for that: since November, my schedule has either been so sporadic (some international travel, which can throw you off for a long time) or so work-intensive — and something has had to give. That something has been my yoga practice, which is all I do to stay fit. I don’t run. I don’t do cardio machines at the gym. If I don’t take a sweaty 90-minute yoga class or find an hour or so at home to practice, then I’m not getting a physical workout. In the last few weeks, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been to an actual yoga class that I took, rather than taught.

But do I need to lose weight in the way that I’m thinking about it in my head? The way I think when I look in the mirror. Probably not.

So, in honor of International Women’s Day, I’ll try (again) to do a better job of walking the yoga walk when it comes to body image. I can’t blame mirrors — it’s how I use them.

© 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.

‘Rarely do we clench just one thing.’

 

X-ray of a mouth

Clenched teeth, clenched mind?

Pattabhi Jois apparently used to say, “Clenched toes, clenched mind.” Especially in standing balancing postures such as utthita hasta padangustasana (extended hand-to-big-toe posture), the toes of our grounded foot may be clawing into our mats without us realizing it — as if digging in will help us balance. It’s quite the opposite, right? It takes strength to believe that letting go of a tightening action will be liberating. It takes strength to trust that if we let go of what we believe is anchoring us, another source of stability — a more genuine source of stability — will present itself.

In his beautiful book The Heart of Yoga, T.K.V. Desikachar tells us:

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra describes an asana as having two important qualities: sthira and sukha. Sthira is steadiness and alertness. Sukha refers to the ability to remain comfortable in a posture. Both qualities should be present to the same degree when practicing any posture. (p. 17)

Whether we’re dealing with a career or personal passions, family or friendships, there are times when nothing could be harder to achieve than this feeling of sthira sukha. What seems to happen far more frequently than the perfect balance between strength and surrender is tightening up or drilling down.

Hilltop Yoga owner Hilaire Lockwood has for years worked on helping me release the tension in my shoulders and trapezius, the muscle starting at the base of the occipital bone. Even after an adjustment, when I think I have let go, she points out how much more I have held on to, and coaxes my body and mind to let go of just a little more. (For the record, I also clench my butt in postures such as setu bandha (bridge posture).) During very stressful times, my muscles tighten so much I worry if they’ll ever loosen again. But even during less stressful times of my life, those muscles are so trained that they don’t seem to ever truly release. I’m pretty sure it will take still more years for me to relinquish the hold I have over my holds.

I was recently telling Sue Forbes, co-owner of Mindful Movement and Physical Therapy in East Lansing, about all my clenching habits. It’s not shoulders or the gluteus maximus we’re talking about here. I recounted how, at 31, I was told I had so eroded my gums through grinding my teeth that I had the gums of someone twice my age, which required surgery to graft tissue to my gums. (The surgery is about as fun as it sounds.) Sue smiled and nodded. “Rarely do we clench just one thing,” she said.

Yoga is premised on the concept that there is a natural and profound connection between the body, mind and spirit. The clenching that we habitualize — is it only physical? In yoga, we use the body to get beyond the body. We use the body as a way to still the fluctuations of the mind and to tap into what keeps our spirit going. I find it fascinating to start with the clenching I feel in my own body and work inward. Can I trace the tightening of this part of my body to a particular work project that I’m stressed about? Or maybe I can follow the tracing the other way — if I let go of a particular memory about a past relationship, what, if anything, might let go in my body?

And what about beliefs? Is that a type of clenching? The Ashtanga series present posture after posture that seem impossible when we first start to practice. But we learn, over time, that through the guidance of an experienced teacher and through consistent practice, we eventually melt into those postures when the time is right.

Maybe telling yourself, “I’ll never be able to do this posture” is just another form of clenching. If that’s the case, consistently practicing Ashtanga can be considered a counterpose of sorts — what we do to counterbalance a previous pose in order to bring the body, mind and spirit into balance.

(Photo credit: The Full Wiki)

How to lose a practice in 10 days (or, what Madonna can teach us all about maintaining a yoga practice during the most hectic travel time of year)

Madonna in high heels, with one leg behind her head--because why not?

Madonna--in a bit of a bind?

Between work, family, and just life, it’s hard enough for most of us to maintain a truly consistent yoga practice. But when you throw holidays and travel into the mix, it can seem damn near impossible not to lose the yoga practice that you rely on to keep you grounded.

Maybe Madonna — who is, from what little I’ve read about her practice, a pretty committed Ashtanga practitioner — can teach us a thing or two about doing what you need to do to do yoga. You might have read recently about the outrage that emerged when Madonna was allowed to leave a stranded plane well before the rest of the passengers on her flight bound for London.

What’s worse, some bloggers wondered? Was it that Madonna dared to do some yoga in the aisles before her VIP departure?

I’m writing this blog post 430 miles from home myself, and I’ve traveled quite a bit in the past month — all of which has led me to think about ways to maintain a yoga practice while on the road. Here are five tips for me.

5. Take a cue from Madonna and do some yoga in the aisle.

Granted, Madonna and her entourage surely fly first class, where the aisles are luxuriously wide when compared with coach. But if you’re facing a long layover at the airport or stranded on a plane, I vote for doing whatever yoga you can fit in.

Earlier this year, on the way to the Ashtanga Yoga Center in Carlsbad, Calif., for a teacher training program with Tim Miller, I posted a Facebook status update that read:

Rose Tantraphol highly recommends finding a quiet corner of the airport — esp if your flight’s been delayed for two hours and counting — and taking 25 breaths in a headstand. You’ll feel much better while providing fellow weary travelers with some free distractions.

Several of my friends liked the posts, and a few more gave left kudos as comments. I had found a quiet corner of a gate that wasn’t being used, and made a point to tell the nearest person there that I was about to stand on my head to release some tension. I thought she might be a little weirded out, but she shrugged and never looked up once.

Was the Material Girl being insensitive on that plane? My guess would be probably not. I absolutely understand if other passengers were frustrated that she was able to deplane hours before they were able to, but that’s a different issue than her doing some yoga in the aisle. It’s one thing to do bhastrika if everyone were trying to sleep on a red eye, but based on these accounts, I don’t see how this was inappropriately intrusive.

4. Use the opportunity to travel your yoga and drop in on classes in new studios.

I love checking out new studios whenever I travel. Some people learn more about the new city they’re in by running through local neighborhoods; I do the same thing by visiting local yoga studios. Drop-in classes are typically between $18 and $20 a class—not the cheapest way to go, but if you have the funds, it’s well worth it to spend the money and get to see how different studios have found their unique ways to share yoga with a community. It’s also a fantastic way to get outside your comfort zone and try new styles of yoga.

On this note, I just got a new iPhone, so let me know if you have a favorite app for finding local studios. I’m a planner, so I usually do research in advance of a trip and plan out all my studio options beforehand. But a studio-finder app would be great to have on hand.

3. Pack a travel mat (and maybe a heat source) when you’re prepared to practice on your own.

Especially with Ashtanga yoga, traveling provides a perfect chance to practice on your own. I find it challenging to motivate myself to consistently practice at home while I’m not traveling, because I live in a community with an amazing yoga studio. But it’s much easier to want to practice on my own when traveling.

I’ve practiced on my sister’s L.A. apartment balcony, a wooden dock in back of a beautiful Traverse City, Mich. bed-and-breakfast, a second-floor apartment in Montreal, Quebec, and the list goes on. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that every time I practice on my own, I learn something new. When I practiced on that narrow dock in northern Michigan, for instance, I was so surprised to realize that I’m far less connected to the earth — far less evenly grounded in the way my weight is distributed through my feet — than I had realized. Changing where you practice can change what you become aware of in your practice.

Hilltop Yoga, where I practice and teach yoga, is a heated studio where rooms are typically kept between 87 and 94 degrees. That means I am used to heat, and it really affects my practice when that external heat is missing and I feel cold (especially since you don’t have the benefit of other people’s body heat when you’re practicing alone). Whether heat is a crutch is fodder for another conversation, but lack of heat is, for me, probably the toughest part of practicing alone while traveling.

If you’re traveling by car and have room to spare, you might consider investing in a small space heater to take with you.

2. Remember that there are, classically speaking, eight limbs of yoga.

Postures, or an asana practice, represent just one limb of the eight-limb yoga path. If you’re pressed for time in between flights or family gatherings, see if you can at least find 15 minutes a day practicing another of the limbs of yoga outlined in the Yoga Sutras — pranayama (breathing exercises), pratyahara (sense withdrawal) or dhyana (meditation) seem to make the most sense.

1. If all else fails, and you really can’t practice, roll it with — after all, absence makes the heart grow fonder.

In an ideal world, we’re all practicing yoga six mornings a week. Most of us don’t live in this utopia where we can honor this schedule every week of the year. So do your traveling, do what you can to keep up your practice, and if all else fails, use that lack-of-practice frustration that builds — on the level of the body, mind and spirit — to recommit that much more when you return home.

Those are my thoughts on maintaining a practice. How do you maintain your practice while on the go?

(Photo credit: http://ninieahmad.com/category/yoga-101)

[VIDEO] Three Questions ~~ featuring Doug Swenson

Doug Swenson workshop at Hilltop Yoga

Doug Swenson adjusts my parivrtta trikonasana (revolved triangle)

Doug Swenson spent this past weekend at Hilltop Yoga, offering workshops that touched on everything from the importance of cross-training to kriyas (internal cleaning techniques such as nauli). Doug began his study of yoga in 1969 — the year the Beatles recorded Abbey Road —  and travels the world teaching a unique blend of yoga that draws heavily from Ashtanga but weaves together different styles and influences.

The Old Town studio was packed for each of the three-hour sessions, which began with a discussion and led into a two-hour practice. The Grand River-facing windows quickly steamed up for each session, which stayed light thanks to Doug’s humor and laid-back style.

After the last workshop on Sunday, I asked Doug if he would be willing to spend a few minutes to video Three Questions, a new occasional series with yoga teachers and practitioners. Doug generously said yes.

Why is cross-training in yoga important?

How can someone begin a cross-training regiment?

How does a larger community benefit when individuals practice yoga?

Doug is constantly in motion, traveling internationally to give workshops. Check out his schedule.