[Retreat dispatch] Flames, tapas and bandhas

[I had the chance to unplug during an ashtanga retreat held March 2-9, 2013 at a magical, secluded little spot called Xinalani, located near Puerto Vallarta in Mexico’s Banderas Bay. While unplugging meant no social media and no online hanging out time, I did write on a few nights. (I didn’t want to actually post during the retreat, though, since it would have required selecting photos and spending the time to link, format and all that good stuff — and it was hard to justify taking that time while in the middle of a serious paradise.) I’ll be sharing those posts from the retreat over the next few days.]


Xinalani bonfire

WRITTEN BY IPAD LIGHT ON FRIDAY, MARCH 8, 2013 AROUND 11:35 P.M. WHILE SITTING UNDER A LOVELY MOSQUITO NET BED CANOPY. :-)

Mysore-style ashtanga retreats, with early practices, aren’t conducive to late nights. But it’s our last night at Xinalani, and for the first time all week, most of us made it past 10 p.m. After another spectacular dinner, we enjoyed a bonfire overlooking Xinalani beach. With the new moon just around the corner, the tide was particularly strong and high, lapping right up, it seemed, to the edge of our dining space.

It turns out Angela Jamison, our ashtanga teacher (and yoga camp leader!), is a pro at stoking fires. I found great symbolism in that, since one of the premises of the ashtanga yoga practice is that of stoking the sacred fire of tapas.

Bandas, our energy locks, help us build up that internal heat that burns and transforms, and I had an interesting study in bandhas — or lack thereof — in this morning’s practice. I should probably be taking ladies’ holiday today, but it’s the last full day of the retreat and happily, exceptions can be justified. I was instructed to practice without revving up the bandhas. So I stepped vinyasas rather than did jump-backs; kept my feet on the floor for navasana; practiced malasana instead of bhuja pidasana; and so on. I’ve never practiced primary series this way, and it felt like a sweet restorative primary series practice. But upping the ease in the practice by turning off my energy locks also took away the internal heat, and I was reminded that if I always practiced this way, it would be quite difficult to ever discover edges — physical, mental and otherwise.


Talking about bandhas is always a great opportunity to revisit the perennial ashtangi question of what the heck mula bandha is in the first place. Ask any teacher or pick up any book, and you’ll see vastly different answers. I loved Richard Freeman’s take, which I heard late last year, that mula bandha can be something you serve.

So, what is mula bandha? Angela was kind enough to spend time today answering some questions for this blog, and this is what she said in response to this question:

More from the Xinalani retreat:

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2013. 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.

[VIDEO] Three Questions with Richard Freeman

Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor

Richard Freeman and his wife, Mary Taylor, before the start of a workshop session. Mary, a total sweetheart and a beautiful teacher in her own right, assisted every workshop session.

The YogaRose.net Three Questions series has been on a long hiatus. It’s not because I haven’t been around fascinating teachers (because I have), and it’s not because I haven’t been taking video (because I have). But I try to go with the flow whenever I’m lucky enough to be in the presence of amazing teachers, and if it doesn’t feel right to ask them to answer three questions for the blog, then I don’t. (On a couple of occasions, video would have happened, but we ran out of time — you know how it goes during a short weekend with someone.)

In any case, Three Questions is back with a vengeance (a vertical vengeance, you’ll note). Thanks so much to Richard Freeman for being gracious enough to talk to me at the end of the three-day workshop he held in Columbus, Ohio this past weekend, and to Yoga on High for hosting him.

What is alignment?

You talked earlier about how mula bandha is not something you do, but rather something you serve. Could talk a little about that?

What is the importance of imagery?

As a follow-up question, could you talk about one image you particularly like?

I guess that was technically four questions. It’s hard to stop at three — or 300 — when you’re in his sphere. 

Related links:

>>Ashtanga Yoga Confluence: Thinking of Ashtanga as ‘pranayama for restless people’
>>Ashtanga Yoga Confluence: Backbending, and getting back together
>>End game? Untethering the act of practicing from the feeling I want from practice
>>Dig, or all dug out? Reading Richard Freeman’s ‘The Mirror of Yoga’

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. 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: What’s that pose the guy in the Sunday Times is doing? And how do you get into it?

With apologies to the outstanding Slate series called Slate Explainer — one of my absolute favorite things to read — I’m starting YogaRose.net Explainer to answer your questions about yoga postures seen in popular media.

This past Sunday, the venerable New York Times ran this photo of Silicon Valley success story B.J. Fogg:

(Photo credit: New York Times photo via nytimes.com)

It was a great eye-catching photo. Unless you practice Ashtanga yoga, you might have asked yourself, “What is the posture?”

Perhaps the more intriguing question is, “How does anyone get into that pose?”

What is the posture?

This posture is referred to as ut plutihi, uth pluthi, uth pluthi or utpluthi (oot-PLOOT-tee-he). It’s a Sanskrit term that means “up root” (“uprooting”). This posture appears at the very end of the Ashtanga yoga finishing postures — right before you come into savasana (corpse pose). That means this pose comes just before savasana, in which the effects of the challenging, sweaty practice gets absorbed and infused through the body, mind and spirit. (Not surprisingly, savasana is often cited as the reason why students keep coming back to their mat.)

By the way, this pose is different than the one you might have seen elsewhere. Back in 2011, for instance, supermodel Christy Turlington posed for the cover of Time:

Christy Turlington on the cover of Time (April 23, 2011)

It may seem similar at first, but in this posture, you go into lotus, slide your arms through your legs — and then lift up. This is called kukkutasana (rooster) pose.

How do you get into the posture?

Traditionally, you first head into padmasana (lotus pose). In Ashtanga, the right leg folds first. (In this photo, the left leg was brought in first, which could mean that side of the body feels better for Fogg. But some Ashtangis believe that you should switch legs — bringing one leg in first one time, then switching — to balance out the body.)

You engage your core and you engage your root energetic lock — I think of it as bringing buoyancy to the base of the spine — and, using your breath up, lift. The spine is in flexion, which essentially means the spine curls forward rather than stay straight and extended.

You keep breathing your ujjayi breath to maintain the posture for several breaths — perhaps 10 to 25.

Ashtanga Yoga: Practice & Philosophy by Gregor Maehle describes uth pluthi as: “one of the best postures for restoring energy,” saying that it “eliminates fatigue at the end of the practice.”

YogaRose.net counter-question: Are you thinking your arms aren’t long enough?

If you are, you are correct. Unless you have disproportionately long arms, your arms are not long enough. That’s why the core and the energetic lock are so important. You are getting your arms long enough, so to speak, by shortening the torso — by lifting up out of this posture.

If you think it looks difficult, I would be lying if I said it’s not. It can be very difficult — getting into lotus posture alone is such a challenge for many. On the other hand, I’d be withholding important information if I didn’t add that it’s probably not as difficult as you think.

You don’t need flexibility or strength to get into yoga — you need a mind that’s open to the idea that if you are patient enough, and have the right guidance, you will find some of these seemingly impossible postures to be accessible.

Thinking back to the name of this posture, you might say the thing that has to uproot the most to get into it is our perception that the posture is not accessible.

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!)

© 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.