In early 2014, I strained a left hamstring muscle near the origin. Or an external rotator in the left hip. Or something.  It snuck up on me. There was no acute injury.

bandhayoga-hamstringsI simply noticed less range of motion (ROM) in straight-legged, forward-bending poses, marked by a pulling sensation on the lateral side of the sitting bone. Initially I was sure that whatever I’d tweaked would resolve in a few weeks, as my injuries typically do.

By April, however, it was still bothering me. While not prohibitive (I continued to attend weekly classes, to teach m own classes, to “do everything”), my more-flexible left leg suddenly had less ROM than my right–and that grippy spot persisted.

A habitual self-diagoser, I looked up other possible conditions. Could it be piriformis syndrome? Could it be sciatica? (Since I had no nerve-related symptoms, I ruled out these conditions, which apparently are common among runners.)

Here’s a short list of remedies I tried:

  • Ice I’m a fan of ice/cold therapy. So, if the area was tender, I’d sit on an ice pack (not everyone’s cup of tea). Ideally I would have alternated cold and hot packs.
  • Rest I never took complete rest, I initially held back in my forward bends. Over time I found that rest was either unhelpful or neutral. I was reminded of senior-level Iyengar yoga teacher Chris Saudek‘s answer to a question about healing an injury. She said that she first tries rest but, if she sees no change, she does the opposite and intensifies her practice.
  • Massage I splurged on three massage therapists with high hopes of finding a miracle worker. The first, known for deep myofascial release, was knowledgeable but spent more time on diagnosis than on massage. The second therapist was a bit too New Agey for me, and the third was good but not great.
  • IMS My final experiment was Intramuscular Stimulation (dry needling) done by a physiotherapist. I have pretty high pain tolerance, thank goodness, because IMS is excruciating! But I found it curiously cathartic. Did my four treatments help? Possibly. I resumed kicking up to handstand with my left leg (after a couple of months’ kicking up only with my right).

In July I left for Indiastretch_highlight, hoping for the best. In Pune, I practiced more than I do back home. There were times when I had to modify: In Trikonasana, I used a block while the majority were prop-free, fingertips on floor. In Paschimottanasana, I did a 45-degree concave forward bend while others rested forehead to shins.

One day, while practicing Supta Padangusthasana I, II, and crossover (two-minute holds per variation per side), I repeated the first upright variation (my usual “test”) found that it felt different after the series. The target spot at my left outer hip felt more diffuse, and I had more ROM. The parsva (side) and crossover variations seem to release the grip on my hamstrings–perhaps by engaging my psoas or by resetting my femur head in its hip socket. (See Ray Long’s articles, linked below, on optimal stretching techniques.)

From that day, I did this Supta Padangusthasana series daily and, by the time I returned to Vancouver in early September, I had turned a corner. My left leg was almost back to normal, and I didn’t feel that pulling restriction anymore. Then–a big sign–I could “pop” my left hip joint again. During my injury, it had stopped popping; I missed that visceral release and was thrilled when it returned!

Today, my left leg is as flexible, or more so, than my right. It took seven or eight months to heal. Diagnosis? With nagging “minor” injuries, there’s rarely a clear-cut answer. By changing our mechanics, our routines, or our attitudes, we must find our own solution.

Further reading by Ray Long, Bandha Yoga:

Images: Paschimottanasana, Bandha Yoga on Facebook; Uttanasana, Bandha Yoga

ytcardp001Before a pranayama class at RIMYI in Pune last August, we students were sprawled on our mats. Some sitting, some chatting; others, like me, lying down leg stretches. When the teacher, Rajlaxmi, entered the room and settled herself on a bolster, I swung up, sit-up style. “Lie back down!” she yelled.

What? In a flash, we lowered ourselves to the floor.

“Now, roll to the right,” she directed. “Look down. Push yourself up. That’s how we sit up in yoga.”

Rajlaxmi is practical, focused primarily on alignment and technique. But that day she reminded me of yoga protocol–the rules and rituals we follow as yoga practitioners.

Function and tradition

To me, there are two types of protocols: First, there are functional protocols, which are relevant to methodology and safety. For example, Iyengar yogis always do Sirsasana before Sarvangasana, if doing both inversions. In prone backbends, we habitually start by inwardly rotating each leg (front thigh in, back thigh out), whether or not instructed to do so. In any straight-legged pose, the feet are actively spread, with heels and forefeet stretching away from the leg. (In Iyengar yoga teacher Carrie Owerko’s Marichyasana I/Bakasana video, study the woman in the background doing Upavistha Konasana. Here she’s just an onlooker doing her own thing, but she never loses the “yoga foot.”)

Functional protocols can also relate to simple studio/class control: remove shoes before entering studio, fold and stack blankets uniformly, watch quietly while teacher is demonstrating.

Second, there are traditional protocols, with less palpable reasons. For example, using Sanskrit names of poses, chanting the Patanjali invocation, ending the class with “Namaste,” avoiding stepping on blankets (a no-no at RIMYI), and rolling to the right when rising from the floor.

The traditional protocols are more likely abandoned as yoga spreads and diversifies. People seem either to embrace them or to reject them. Before I took my first yoga class, I asked the person instigating me to try it, “It’s not too New Age-y, is it?” I still prefer spiritual teachings to be straightforward, offered in plain language and as much by example as by words. But I’ve grown to like the yoga rules and rituals. They remind me that asana should go beyond physical exercise. Maybe behaving differently in yoga class is symbolic: we behave differently because we are trying to become different, better, somehow, someway.

ytcardp002Why roll only to the right?

One protocol that I follow most, but not all, of the time is rolling to the right, which I’ve touched on before in “Exiting Savasana.” Hypothetically, there are physiological (or functional) reasons to roll to the right:

  • Lying on the right puts less pressure on the heart, which sits on the left side.
  • According to beliefs in traditional Chinese medicine and in traditional yoga anatomy, the left nostril is the cooling, passive side (Yin/ida). Therefore, rolling to the right keeps the left nostril more open, balancing the body after a heating, active asana practice (Yang/pingala).
  • The sympathetic (action response) nervous system runs along the right side of the body, while the parasympathetic (relaxation response) nervous system runs along the left. Turning right activates the sympathetic side, which triggers wakefulness.

But I’m not 100% convinced, especially if the rolling and rising to sitting are done quickly. The asymmetry of rolling only to the right (millions of times in a lifetime of practice) produces imbalance, in my opinion. So, if my students rise from supine poses during a sequence, I sometimes instruct them to roll to the left to sit up.

That said, I stick to tradition and exit Savasana by rolling to the right. Namaste.

Images: YogaTeds by Beryl McCartney


sly-block-1For my first six months of yoga classes, I used no props–at least what I now know as props. At the Berkeley RSF in the late 1990s, all we had were towels and padded gym mats (which did come in handy for kneeling).  Eventually we got mats. But I didn’t try a block until I set foot in an actual yoga studio.

In a year or two I began acquiring my own props. My first foam blocks were the dense, textured ones sold by Yoga Props, a longtime Internet retailer based in San Francisco. (I’ve never seen them sold elsewhere.) In classic black and with an un-scratchable surface, they are more durable than the typical smooth variety. (One block does have a few teeth marks compliments of my late calico Ginger, plus a shiny patch from a too-close encounter with a space heater.) These foam blocks remind me of lava rock and I ended up transporting them to my parents’ home in Hawaii.

sly-block-2Those were my only blocks for many years. Finally I decided that I deserve a pair of classic solid wood blocks. Then I discovered that they’re rather hard to find. I ended up buying two alternate types from Halfmoon, a prop maker in Vancouver: cork, which have a secure, non-slip texture, and hollow cedar, which, while no substitute for solid wood, are lightweight and made in Chilliwack, BC.

Shortly thereafter, I stumbled upon a great pair of solid cedar blocks, made by my colleague Jason, a professional cabinetmaker. Wood is a natural material, so each block is unique.

On the topic of wood blocks, is it me, or are the ones at RIMYI extraordinarily heavy? I went to Pune last August, and I’m still wondering about those 10-pound blocks.

sly-block-3In Vancouver, I discovered flat chip-foam blocks. Did they originate in Canada?  I’d never seen them in the USA. Firm and tidy, they’re  excellent for sitting poses. While blankets can serve the same function, they become less effective if students fold them sloppily. Also, for Sarvangasana (shoulderstand), a set of four blocks, topped by folded blankets as needed, makes a nice base.

Chip-foam blocks are recycled from foam off-cuts, so they’re somewhat eco-friendly. Depending on when purchased, they might be green-multicolor or yellow-multicolor, and firmness can vary. So, if consistency is important, it’s best to buy all you need in one batch. One drawback is that they crumble with wear and tear. Halfmoon sells fabric covers for them, offering a discount for a block-cover combo.

A while back, Lululemon sold cork blocks shaped like chip-foam blocks. They are aesthetically pleasing, and they are solid and unmalleable. Neither is better or worse, just different. (Lululemon discontinued them a while back, as they do with all of their products.)

The next generation of blocks introduced curved surfaces, to fit the human body more organically. A few years ago, I noticed the Three-Minute Egg at a workshop taught by Aadil Palkhivala; at the time, there was a line of Eggs sponsored by famous teachers, including Aadil’s in teal blue. The Egg website looks corporate, but the company is small and run by a guy named Jason Scholder.

Bhoga blocksMore recently another indie company caught my attention: Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Randy Dean’s Bhoga has introduced wood blocks with an open core and elegantly curved planes. Unlike the Eggs, these have one flat end so they can be used “high” or “low.” I have not yet test these artistic-looking blocks, but click here to view sample uses. (The company also produces yoga benches likely to please even the architects and furniture designers among us.)

I sometimes hear people complain about the cost of props. High-quality props aren’t cheap, but they last forever! I still have my original mat circa 1998 (although I do have five others in my stable); I have yet to discard a mat! My everyday wool blankets also date back 15 years. My block collection is perhaps larger than necessary, but never will I need another, unless I decide to invest in a novel design. If props are essential to Iyengar yoga, and if home practice is likewise essential, why not invest in good props?

Schleich wolfBefore my January trip to California, I stopped at a toy store in Kitsilano. I wanted to buy a Schleich animal figurine or two for my little niece. Shopping for her is tricky. She has strong opinions. But, throughout her stages, from Disney princesses to American Girl to Playmobil and Lego, she’s always liked animals. Now, it’s wild animals.

So I scrutinized the white tigers, elephants, gorillas, foxes… I must have spent a good half hour browsing the collection. (I’m not a snap-decision shopper, I admit.) Finally, considering her penchant for the canine species, I decided on a couple of majestic wolves. Both were adult males: one with a noble, unblinking gaze; the other, silently, dramatically howling.

Howling wolfFor little kids, shopping decisions are quick and instinctive. Chocolate or vanilla, red or blue, cats or dogs? Kids tend not to waver. Their preferences are clear. This reminds me of the yogic concept of svadhyaya (self-study), one of the five niyamas, principles of personal discipline, which I introduced in Yamas, niyamas, and you.

Shopping is a triviality, I know, but one cannot be an efficient shopper without self awareness. Do you know what you want? What you like? What you need?

When I took the two wolves to the salesclerk, he told me, “If you spend just a bit more, you can choose a complimentary Schleich animal from this selection.” He pointed to a flyer with about 10 options. “The ones crossed out are all gone now.”

Rhino babyThe remaining selection comprised rather strange, underappreciated species. There were lots of warthogs. Then I spotted a baby rhino. My niece had just traveled to South Africa and gone on safaris. She might recognize this rhino.

So I returned to the Schleich display and found a pup to add to my pack of wolves. I couldn’t resist the “freebie.” The lure of a good deal is not to be underestimated.

(I rarely shop nowadays but, on Boxing Day, I headed to a South Granville boutique, in my constant pursuit of the perfect jacket that I’ll wear for the rest of my life. The one I’d targeted was too loose and I was about to leave, when a staffer showed me a piece by a French designer. It fit perfectly. I debated (the original price was so exorbitant that, despite a deep discount, it was still a major purchase). Ultimately I couldn’t resist, and it’s hanging in my closet.)

Wolf pupWhen faced with a sale or “buy two, get one free,” what is really going on? Here I thought about aparigraha (non-possessiveness, non-greed), one of the yamas, principles of social discipline. Do I really want/like/need what I buy? Am I too easily swayed by a seeming bargain?

In California, I first gave my niece only the wolf with impressive eye contact. (We named him “Luke.”) When I left, I gave her the pup. I hid the baby rhino in the guest room–for my sister to give her as a surprise, if she needed cheering up.

And I brought the howling wolf home with me. His silent howl spoke to me. I’ll enjoy his company until my next visit.

DAVEY supported shoulder standA friend pointed me to a blog post, “Please, NO Lifts in Shoulderstand,” by Sandra Sammartino, a yoga teacher based in White Rock, BC. My initial response? No way. In Salamba Sarvangasana the overwhelming majority of people need shoulder support, such as folded blankets.

Then I stopped and caught myself. In my prior post, “Learning on your own,” I wrote about the necessity to learn independently. This means being open-minded about teachings, techniques, rules, and majority opinions. Whether you ultimately agree or disagree with an established idea, your conclusion should be your own.

OcciputSo I read Sammartino’s piece more slowly. She studied with BKS Iyengar in 1977 when she traveled to India at age 36. And she initially practiced supported shoulderstands.

Scrutinizing the photo of Sammartino’s current, unsupported shoulderstand, I recognized that she does an upright pose, not the typical banana-shaped version, resting on the shoulder blades, as illustrated above by the cat (who is doing a remarkable job considering no strap and slippery fur). She did this rounded version, which she calls “half shoulderstand” only during her recovery from neck pain allegedly caused by supported shoulderstand.

If she is doing unsupported shoulderstand as pictured daily at age 73, I’m impressed! But I have questions about her rationale for not using support, which she calls a “lift”:

  • Does using support cause cervical compression? Sammartino assumes that using support tilts the head backward, thus compressing the spine. In my experience using support, the head is neutral, as in Savasana–unless range of motion is limited in the upper back, chest, shoulders, or neck. Therefore, the assumption of cervical compression seems to be an overgeneralization. (Perhaps there’s confusion about the head position when using support because the head is tilted backward in the prep stage (lying on the set-up before raising the pelvis into Halasana or Sarvangasana). But, once the pelvis is raised above the torso, the head releases into a neutral, horizontal position.)
  • Where should the occiput should be grounded? Sammartino likes the base of her occiput (posterior skull) to touch the mat. To me, that would flatten the cervical spine too much. The head should be neutral, resting on center of the occiput. (Stiffer individuals can end up resting too high on the skull, with the head thrown back. I agree with Sammartino that this is risky.)

I get the impression that Sammartino was a beginner (and less strong and flexible than she is today) when she tried supported shoulderstand decades ago. Over the years, she has probably trained her body by doing “half shoulderstand” and has progressed into upright shoulderstand. She is lucky that her neck can tolerate major cervical flexion. But would she develop neck pain if she used support today? I don’t think so.

Of course, I’m just hypothesizing. For a firsthand experiment, I’d need to try unsupported shoulderstand myself. Never say never, but for now I’m happy with my stack of blankets!

Below is a video by senior-level Iyengar yoga teacher John Schumacher demonstrating Salamba Sarvangasana using support:


Images: Cat in shoulderstand, Yoga Cats; Occiput, The Free Dictionary

bluegrass_backs.pngI bumped into an old friend during my holiday trip to California. “Dylan” has always been an athlete, so I wasn’t surprised that he’s still avidly into hockey, skiing, and other sports. But I didn’t expect him to say, “And here’s one for you. I’m learning to play bluegrass banjo.”

What? Is Dylan even musical? Anyway, he wanted a quality instrument, so he commissioned a Wildwood banjo. Now he’s learning a few bluegrass favorites, mostly on his own. “What about lessons?” I asked. “Right now, I need to get a feel for the instrument,” he said. “No one can really teach that. So every night, for a couple hours, I tool around on it.”

It made me think about how we learn.

Formal instruction

Most people take lessons or classes to learn something–to swim, to play the piano, to speak French, to do yoga. A teacher can guide students to learn the fundamentals. But if there’s no self-motivated practice and freestyle “tooling around,” there’s no real learning. Learning from a teacher counts for maybe 20 percent of ability, and the other 80 percent must come from independent practice (and, of course, natural talent).

exoticwood-back-closeup_web.pngDylan played competitive tennis into his 20s. As a kid, he took lessons but eventually, at age twelve or thirteen, perceived that the conventionally taught “mechanics” were wrong for him. So he experimented on his own.

“When I changed my grip, for example,” he says, “I could immediately tell that it was mechanically correct and efficient. The technique was different from the standard way kids were being taught to play, but I could feel the correctness in my body.”

Instead of automatically deferring to well-regarded “professional” coaches, he relied on his his own instincts. For him, learning is about “feel, execution, and repetition.”

“Detailed instruction sometimes complicates things,” he says. “A person tries to learn by analyzing and becomes stiff, like trying to match a template.”

My conversation with Dylan made me realize that I tend to rely too much on formal learning. Even now, I sometimes blame my lack of progress in something on the lack of available instruction.

28__320x240_nat-reso-close-up-1For example, I studied Japanese casually as a child (afterschool nihongo gakko), took two years of Japanese in college, and then revisited the language as a working adult through evening courses. Today in Vancouver there are few options for Japanese classes in town, and so I never crack open my Japanese books or arrange conversation practice with my native-Japanese friends. If I were more self-motivated about learning Japanese, I might be quite proficient by now, honto ni.

Same with pranayama, which also has few class options. While I practice pranayama more than I do Japanese, I could be more regular, more diligent–with or without a teacher. Actually, in my opinion, infrequent pranayama classes suit me. Between classes, there’s enough time to practice the techniques taught. I know, firsthand, that if I learn one technique in a class, I need to practice it 100 times on my own even to touch it.

65__420x_img-1008Independent learning

The trouble with lessons, classes, and formal instruction: they give the impression that you’re learning, when you’re actually only being introduced. In school, which I took seriously, I experienced real learning only when I actually cared about the subject. Good grades are misleading. (A person can attend a top-10 law school, get a JD, and pass the bar exam without deep knowledge, believe me.)

Thinking about Dylan and his gleaming bluegrass banjo makes me smile–and reminds me of the importance of teaching myself. Some of us might like the structure of formal instruction, especially with the right teacher. But there’s much that we can, should, and must do on our own.

Dagwood sandwich ingredientsTwice a week, I teach yoga in the evening. On Sundays, I can make it home by 8pm. On Tuesdays, I’m not back until 9pm. If I then eat dinner, it’s very late by the time I clean up, take a shower, and turn on my computer.

So I began eating a late afternoon snack and skipping dinner. This routine works well for me. Forgoing a late meal simplifies my life and frees my remaining evening time to do some work or correspondence. I also avoid a mad dash home, compelled to eat. And I prefer sleeping on an empty stomach.

Two recent articles in the New York Times corroborated my early dinner habit with health benefits. First, in “A 12-Hour Window for a Healthy Weight,” Gretchen Reynolds discusses a Salk Institute study that found that mice who ate within a 12-hour window averted obesity, while mice who ate at all hours got fat and metabolically ill.

Dagwood comicsSeveral years ago, I read about the possible benefits of such “intermittent fasting.” Proponents hypothesize that frequent meals (grazing, snacking) constantly flood your bloodstream with insulin, leading to weight gain and metabolic syndrome. Limited fasting, they say, can increase lifespan, reduce cancer risk, and increase muscle gain and fat loss.

A popular method of intermittent fasting is to skip breakfast and to eat between noon and 8pm. But, for me, skipping breakfast is not an option (I love breakfast!). So an early dinner is my way of experimenting with a narrow eating window. (I can’t afford to lose any weight, and I like three square meals a day. So I’m not reducing intake but, rather, eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner closer together.)

Of course, I break this routine when I’m traveling or visiting family and friends. But I’ve lost interest in nighttime snacks, the subject of the other Times article.

Dagwood midnight snackIn “The Dangers of Eating Late at Night,” Jamie Koufman, MD, a New York specialist in laryngology and acid reflux, attributes the prevalence of reflux among Americans today to poor diet and late dinnertime. She adds that it’s not only the timing of dinner, but the American propensity to eat enormous quantities. (Europeans eat dinner late, but are less likely to have reflux.) Her basic advice: eat dinner at least three hours before bedtime.

I’m not advocating the early bird special for everyone, but if an evening yoga class seems out of the question, try rethinking dinnertime. One fringe benefit: breakfast the next morning is extra satisfying!

Images: Dagwood sandwich ingredients, The Art of Manliness; Dagwood comics, Wikipedia on Dagwood sandwich; Dagwood midnight snack, Encyclopaedia Brittanica Kids