Workshop dispatch: Primary series (Yoga Chikitsa)

Jen René in supta kurmasana, which is the most extreme of the forward folds in the Ashtanga primary series practice.

Jen René in supta kurmasana, which is the most extreme of the forward folds in the Ashtanga primary series practice.

This is the next in a “Workshop dispatch” series based on the workshops I took with Tim Miller at Yoga on High in Columbus, Ohio from Friday, April 13, 2012 through Wednesday, April 18, 2012. Tim has taught annually in Columbus for 14 years. This year, he held his traditional weekend (Friday through Sunday) program, but debuted a new intensive program (Monday through Wednesday). Each day of the three-day intensive focused on a different series of the practice. In the mornings, we chatted a little bit and then did a practice that could run up to 2.5 hours (to allow time to do several research, or prep, poses, during the second and third series). In the afternoon, we could ask questions, go over problem spots and generally discuss the practice. (Full workshop description here.) What follows are notes and thoughts from Day 1 of the intensive, which examined the primary series.  

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“You guys are the guinea pigs,” Tim Miller told us on Day 1 of the One-Day Yoga Intensives portion of his annual Yoga on High program. Pretty cool place to be for the roughly 40 of us in the room. Some of us had traveled from out of state, others were Yoga on High teachers, and several in the room were enrolled in Yoga on High’s  teacher training program. (As a side note, I think it’s very cool that Ashtanga students enrolled in YOHI’s teacher training are required to take Tim Miller’s workshops.)

Gunas

Over the course of the three-day intensive, Tim talked about the qualities of each of the series as they relate to the gunas and the pancha kosas (five sheaths). In The Heart of YogaT.K.V. Desikachar describes gunas simply as “qualities of the mind; qualities of the universe). In a nutshell, there are three gunas:

  • Sattva, which possesses the quality of harmony
  • Rajas, which possesses the quality of activity
  • Tamas, which possesses the quality of inertia.

Tim was careful to note during the workshops that while we often think of the quality of being sattvic as being the most desirable of the gunas, we need all three for balance. “It’s easy to say tamas is bad, sattvic is good and rajas is mixed,” Tim said. “But you need all three. We are always trying to find balance between these qualities.”

Since we’re on the topic, here is what B.K.S. Iyengar says about the gunas in Light on Life:

As I said, the guna is made up for three complementary forces. They are: tamas (mass or inertia), rajas (vibrancy or dynamism), and sattva (luminosity or the quality of light).

Let us look at a practice example. In asana, we are trying to broach the mass of our gross body, to break up the molecules and divide them into atoms that will allow our vision to penetrate within. Our body resists us. It is muleish. It will not budge. Why? Because in body tamas predominates. It has to. Body needs mass, bones need density, and sinew and muscle need solidity and firmness….

With regard to asana practice, this means that initially we need to exert ourselve more as resistance is greater. Of the two aspects of asana, exertion of our body and penetration of our mind, the latter is eventually more important. Penetration of our mind is the goal, but in the beginning to set things in motion, there is no substitute for sweat.

But once there is movement and then momentum, penetration can start. When effort becomes effortless, asana is at its highest level. Inevitably this is a slow process, and if we break off our practice, inertia reasserts itself. What we are really doing is infusing dense matter with vibrant energy. That is why good practice brings a feeling of lightness and vitality. Though the mass of our body is heavy, we are meant to tread lightly on this earth. (pp. 45-46)

The overarching quality of the primary series, relative to the other series, would be tamasic. Second series: rajastic. Third series, sattvic.

Pancha koshas

In general, the sheaths go from the grossest (most physical) to more subtle manifestations.

  • Annamaya kosa: Physical body
  • Pranamaya kosa: Energy body. This is the body of chakras.
  • Manomaya kosa: Body of mental (and emotional) impressions. You find samskaras (habits, conditioning) here.
  • Vijnanamaya kosa: The body of the buddhi (intellect).
  • Anandamaya kosa: Blissful body. The place of the soul. The place of unconditioned awareness. (Iyengar refers to this sheath as the divine body.)

It was very helpful for me that Tim discussed the sheaths as one of those nesting Russian dolls.

Primary series

Whew. That’s a lot of necessary lead in. Let’s get to the primary series itself. Primary series — Yoga Chitiksa (“Yoga Therapy,”) works most on the outer doll. The physical sheath. Tim noted that if we work on one doll, it does affect the other dolls.

The first series has a slew of health benefits, as anyone who has practiced the series consistently understands. It is designed to:

  • Restore the body
  • Detox us
  • Restore natural range of motion to our joints
  • Restore sensitivity to our sense organs

The practice also helps to reduce excess adipose tissue (yep, that’s body fat).

Think of all the forward folds and twists in the first series (if you’re new to the series, you can see the poses here). Primary works quite a bit on:

  • The gastrointestinal system
  • Digestion
  • Assimilation
  • Elimination

If the concept of the pancha kosas – the five sheaths — is new to you, I recommend reading Light on Life. And, of course, try to find time to study with Tim Miller. I’m sure he’ll be doing more of these one-day intensives now that he’s had the chance to test it out on our group.

Tim said this about the Ashtanga method as we were discussing the primary series: “It’s very scientific. It’s very sophisticated. And best of all, it works.” Seeing these notes again remind me that Steve of The Confluence Countdown recently posted an interview with Eddie Stern about a new yoga study that includes what is essentially a distillation of part of the primary series. Interesting stuff.

My relationship with the practice

On a personal level, the primary series has been an incredibly positive influence for me — for years the metronomic quality of the practice was about the only calm consistency in my life that I could point to — but the process has been as slow as molasses. Some people fly through primary. Not me.

I spent years and years without an Ashtanga teacher, and cobbled together a practice based on a couple of weekend workshops with David Swenson and some practice cards. I was lucky enough to be in a led class taught by Pattabhi Jois when he paid a visit to Montreal during one of his North American tours, but I still didn’t understand the series well enough by that time to even get into the marichyasana twists without assistance.

During those lonely years without a teacher, I had enough internal drive to know this was good for me, but not enough tapas to practice daily and fully wring out the benefits of the practice. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had met Tim Miller or Angela Jamison all those years ago. Despite knowing that the past is what it is and there’s no point dwelling on it, I admit to still having twinges of regret now and then — less so for what my practice could be now that I am on the cusp of turning 36 (though I would be lying if I didn’t say that is part of it), and more so for what better choices I could have made in my life had I had a consistent daily practice in my 20s.

The silver lining for all this is that I have a deep well of patience for teaching primary series, and I invest as much as I can to trying to help students who seem to need someone to put them in closer touch with their practice. As I told one of my students once, every single one of your challenges with the practice becomes a gift you have for your students. And my god, have I had an abundance of challenges — from my unforgiving work schedules to the far-from-any-shala locations I have lived to the less-than-ideal body proportions that makes poses like supta kurmasana and pasasana a steep uphill journey.

Ah, pasasana — the gateway pose to second series. We’ll get to that in the next blog post.

(Photo: My friend Jen René in supta kurmasana, which is the most extreme of the forward folds in the Ashtanga primary series practice. Jen teaches Ashtanga and vinyasa yoga and Pilates in Washington, D.C. If you’re in D.C., check her out — she’s excellent.)

© 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.

Know thyself (bones, muscles, Golgi tendon organ and all)

Via BandhaYoga.com

I spent the weekend in a yoga anatomy workshop that was led by University of Michigan-trained orthopedic surgeon and hatha yoga practitioner Ray Long, MD, and assisted by 3D graphic designer/illustrator Chris Macivor.

It rocked.

In this blog post, I’m going to share a couple nuggets about how yoga students and teachers can approach learning and applying anatomy, and then I’m going to send you over to additional resources from this doctor-designer team.

The more I learn about anatomy, the more I think that one of the most sorely lacking aspects of the American educational system is what we don’t teach our kids about their own bodies. You can’t really fault a society that turns to quick-fixes — pills, surgeries and questionable products hocked on infomercials — if people aren’t taught how to assess the source of their pain and how to further investigate potential fixes.

I’m lucky I found yoga, because I’d probably be in that category of quick-fix seeker. I’ve never so much as taken an anatomy class, and I never did much in my teen and adult years that required truly connecting with my body — I exercised only grudgingly, didn’t do any type of dancing, didn’t play sports, didn’t ski. It wasn’t until I started my yoga teacher training in 2009 that I started to delve into the human form. I got a sweet taste of anatomy during my 200- and 500-hour yoga teacher training programs at Hilltop Yoga, and I deepened my understanding from studying with Tim Miller.

Proprio….neuro…what?

I first heard about the concept of proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), or facilitated stretching, in one of Tim’s “Asana Doctor” workshops. (Read about the history of PNF.) PNF, used by physical therapists and other clinicians, can be applied to yoga. Dr. Long’s website describes it this way:

Stretching applies tension to the muscle and its tendon. There is a nerve receptor (the Golgi tendon organ) that is located at the muscle-tendon junction. This receptor senses tension and relays a signal to the spinal cord. The spinal cord then signals the stretching muscle to relax. This reflex arc acts as a protective circuit breaker to prevent the tendon from tearing at its attachment to the bone. Because all skeletal muscles have Golgi tendon organs, this powerful technique can be applied to gain length and dissolve blockages throughout the body in yoga poses. Use it with caution and care.

So basically, PNF uses a primal response — protecting the health of the body — to essentially trick the spinal cord into sending out a “call off the guard dogs” order. Genius.

Here’s more from BandhaYoga.com:

Facilitated stretching involves contracting a muscle that you are lengthening. This increases the tension at the muscle-tendon junction and recruits more Golgi tendon organs than does stretching a muscle alone. Facilitated stretching causes the spinal cord to signal the muscle to relax, in essence, creating ‘slack’ in the muscle. You can then take up the slack to move deeper into the pose.

I’ve seen yoga students who had little mobility in a pose such as utthita hasta padangustasana deepen to an amazing degree using this technique, which essentially involves the student resisting (in this case of utthita hasta padangustasana, the student would have a little pressure applied to the lifted leg) against the instructor for a short amount of time, then release. This would be done a couple more times before the instructor asks the student to try going into the full expression of the posture. 

Over the weekend, Dr. Long used PNF on my supta kurmasana, and it helped me get farther into this pose than I have ever been able to get before — which is especially cool because I find this pose rather frustrating. Finding a way to better connect with the pose is helpful not just for my body, but my mind.

You can apply PNF yourself, by resisting against your own body — so the technique doesn’t depend on you being in a class or a workshop (though I can tell you from experience it is, of course, better with an experienced teacher).

Connecting with your inner anatomist

Both Ray Long and Tim Miller adhere to the principle that it’s more of a service to teach people how to sleuth rather than give them a long list of facts to memorize. Yoga students and teachers need to be able to look at a postural challenge and work backward, then forward again. What is causing this pain/tweak/limitation? How can this be relieved now? How can this be further refined going forward?

Ultimately, though, I think it’s useful for anyone to have a basic understanding of this stuff. After hundreds of hours of studying yoga over the past two years, I still think that sitting — plain old sitting — is one of the hardest poses to maintain. If we all knew just a little bit more about muscle groups and sources of strain and tension, we might be able to make minor adjustments in our daily lives to relieve pain and perhaps even avoid it in the first place.

Some of the nuggets I took away this weekend:

Know what affects mobility
Three factors affect mobility: the shape of the bones involved, the ligaments involved and the muscles involved. You can’t do anything about shape of bone once you’re an adult, and you don’t want to change ligaments. That’s why we focus on muscles.

You don’t have to enroll in med school to get a handle on anatomy
You only need to know about 20 muscle groups. They’re all interrelated and it’s not as complicated as it looks.

Wash, rinse, dry, repeat
When presented with a postural challenge, approach it logically. As an example:

  • Analyze the pose and isolate what’s involved. (What are the joints doing? What the agonist and antagonist muscles doing?)
  • Gain length where you need to gain length and engage the muscle stabilizers.
  • Assess the effects.

Learn more

My suggestion? Check out the “Scientific Keys” section on BandhaYoga.com, pick up Ray Long’s books (available at BandhaYoga.com and through the YogaRose.net Amazon affiliate store) and get to one of these yoga anatomy workshops if you can.

You can learn about anatomy from a book, but I don’t think it will really resonate if you don’t get the chance to devote time during a class or workshop to sleuthing real-live anatomy puzzles. Plus, Ray takes you through a lovely standing posture sequence to awaken the psoas and you get to enjoy a hypnotic savasana. (I can’t help but note that while I was doing the psoas series this weekend — see the sequence here — I thought it was yet another beautiful example of the benefits of the Ashtanga yoga sequence of standing postures.)

If you’re into social media, you can follow Bandha Yoga:

Whether you’re a yogi or not, happy sleuthing!

© 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.