Michael Romero ParsvakonasanaOne of my favorite yoga blogs is Michael Romero’s Home Yoga Practice, which features his writings on being an Iyengar yoga student and teacher in Honolulu. I first “met” Michael when he posted comments on my blog as “yogiromero” in November 2013. He has strong opinions tempered by thoughtfulness and humor. I could tell that he was a serious practitioner. I could relate to his point of view.

In December 2013, he launched his blog, which interested me primarily by his tell-it-like-it-is writer’s voice, but also by his connection to my Hawaiian homeland. Michael lives on O‘ahu and teaches at Iyengar Yoga Honolulu, which I’d once visited in the mid 2000s during a Lonely Planet gig reviewing Waikiki hotels. Small world. According to Michael, my Yoga Spy blog inspired him to start his own—so I claim some credit here! See below for a handful of compelling posts by Michael, who now comments as “yogibattle.”

Michael posts frequently to his blog, the way I did when I started Yoga Spy in August 2009. During my first three months of blogging, I published 16 or 17 posts per month! Back then, I didn’t know if anyone would read my blog or if the well would run dry.

Sunset Gravatar(Back then, I also was on the fence about revealing my identity. So I used (and still use) this Kona sunset pic as my Gravatar. Now I’m happily “out” as Yoga Spy, having concluded that, as in my formally published work, I stand by what I write.)

To be a blogger, one must be a writer at heart—and likewise a rather obsessive observer. That doesn’t change over time, so I eventually saw that the stream of ideas would keep flowing, but not necessarily the time to write them. At any given moment, I have a long list of embryonic ideas, like unfinished business or the mess in your miscellaneous drawer. But nowadays I manage only a couple of posts monthly.

This year I had a fantastic burst around my seven-week India trip. In total, I wrote 23 posts about my time in Mumbai and Pune, plus London. I wrote a heroic 14 posts in the month of August alone, while studying at RIMYI. Insanity!

But, in normal life, my output is drastically more modest. It’s not that I care less about my blog today than I did five years ago. But I’m busier now, and my blog has become more accompaniment than center stage.

How can one carve space and time to maintain a project? How can one hold onto freshness and enthusiasm?

In the early 2000s, when I dabbled in meditation at the Berkeley Zen Center, a couple of the regulars commented that I was lucky to be a beginner. “What do you mean?” I asked, surprised. I was only scratching the surface, after all. “That’s the best time,” one of them said. “When everything is new. Enjoy it.” Zen mind, beginner’s mind.

Maybe I have a “relationship” with my blog akin to those with other people, prone to ebbs and flows, ups and downs. Maybe it’s likewise with yoga and other priorities in our lives. Changes and phases might be inevitable.

In two weeks, a new year will swoop upon us, so, in the holiday spirit, I’ll resolve to blog more regularly in 2015. But, even if not, I can’t imagine not blogging. It is part of what I do and who I am. Same with yoga.

Recommended posts from Home Yoga Practice (it was hard to choose):

Who is better, your regular teacher or the visiting teacher?

Chasing rainbows… the never ending quest to attain perfection in asana

Battle within: the request to sub a recently deceased yoga teacher’s class

Subbing in the shadow of the popular teacher

Clearing up a few misconceptions about Iyengar yoga

BKS DhanurasanaSkimming through an issue of Common Ground, a Bay Area “consciousness” magazine, I spotted a photo of a slim young woman in Dhanurasana. Her pose was all wrong, painfully so, with a collapsed chest, convex thoracic spine, and widely splayed knees. The image accompanied a woman’s essay on surviving depression and addiction with the help of yoga. Incredibly, the image must have been considered presentable, perhaps illustrating a strong and inspiring pose. I was fixated on her egregious form.

If this woman were in one of my classes, I’d immediately tell her to exit the pose–and to do a modified or propped version. First, she is inviting injury. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but eventually she could wreck her knees and crunch her lumbar spine. Second, she is not “getting” the pose, a backbend and chest opener. She is only attempting the superficial form of the pose, by catching her ankles with her hands. She is missing the essence of the pose.

Yoga Anatomy DhanurasanaI’ve attended non-Iyengar yoga classes in which students are minimally, rarely, or never corrected. The woman’s misguided Dhanurasana would be perfectly acceptable. Maybe the teacher would even throw in a few “Beautiful!” cheers.

Sometimes students are taken aback when they are corrected and told to “do less” in an Iyengar yoga class. But most students, once they viscerally experience a truly aligned pose, are grateful.

What’s acceptable in Iyengar yoga has nothing to do with ability or level or beauty, but on understanding the essence of a pose.

Check out the assortment of Dhanurasana images from a Google search. While some bodies are obviously more limber and able to perform deeper backbends, students of any level can understand the appropriate actions–open chest, concave thoracic spine, elongated hip flexors and quadriceps, relaxed face and neck.

BKS Parsva DhanurasanaDuring a class earlier this fall, I taught Dhanurasana and Parsva Dhanurasana. These poses are included in lower-level syllabi (Intro II and Intermediate Junior I), but they’re challenging for many because they require lifting one’s body weight against gravity. When we came to Parsva Dhanurasana, one student asked, “What’s the purpose of doing this?”

Off the top of my head, I explained that rolling to the side requires a good understanding of the basic pose, Dhanurasana, since the backbend must be maintained throughout. Also, the dynamic movement teaches coordination, to shift one’s center of balance. Later, I grabbed my Light On Yoga for BKS Iyengar’s statement on the poses effects: Parsva Dhanurasana massages the abdominal organs.

Now, while the pose might develop kinesthetic awareness and coordination and maybe even benefit the organs, maybe we do some poses partly just because they’re possible. If we climb mountains just because they’re there, maybe we do some poses simply for the challenge, to feel alive.

Images: BKS Iyengar in Dhanurasana, Kat Saks; in Parsva Dhanurasana, Kat Saks; anatomical drawing of woman in Dhanurasana, YogaAnatomy.net

mo-deckThe next star in my Aging Well series would be a centenarian if she were human. In dog years, she’s 15. Meet, Momo, a Labrador Retriever with high energy, strong will, sleek physique, and unbridled enthusiasm. When we adopted her almost five years ago, she acted like a dog half her age. She’d roam Kits beach, chasing herons, swimming, ignoring commands, and sniffing everywhere. Food was, and always will be, her great passion.

Today, despite some creakiness in her joints and limbs, she still has daunting “get up and go.” She is never tardy for her morning walk, much less any meal (hers, mine, yours). Five years ago, she was going grey on her face and belly; now her front paws are also salt-and-pepper and her two-toned face is unmistakable (and just as beautiful!).

Vets comment on that alert face: her bright eyes and eager expression. When I see other senior dogs, plodding along, sometimes needing persuasion to continue, I consider Momo’s innate drive. What keeps her going?

 

Recently I viewed the TED talk How to live to be 100+ by Dan Buettner, in which he highlights  findings from a National Geographic study on the world’s longest-lived peoples, residing in Sardinia, Italy; in Okinawa, Japan; and among Seventh-Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California.

Among the factors correlated to longevity in these groups are the following:

  • diet (eat healthfully and moderately)
  • activity (establish an active lifestyle, not an exercise regime)
  • social connections (prioritize family, friends, and faith-based community)
  • attitude (cultivate sense of purpose or ikigai)

mo-beachI was especially intrigued by the last factor and the Japanese concept of ikigai, which means “a reason for being” or “a reason to get up in the morning.” It is believed that we all have our own ikigai, which might require deep, lengthy search of self. Once discovered, one’s ikigai brings satisfaction and meaning to life.

Among the Okinawan elders, ikigai ranged from lifetime careers (a karate master still teaching, a fisherman still fishing) to family roles (a grandmother devoting her attention to her baby granddaughter). I thought of Momo and the way she still has ikigai to do her particular doggy stuff in our household.

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Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose).

A knock on the door? That’s her cue to bark up a storm and charge the postal carrier–for a moment, before wagging her tail and making friends. Squirrels? Another reason to do her duty, chasing them out of sight. (Cats? She’s learned to respect them since she has her own kitty companion at home.) If another dog gives her the wrong look or vibe, watch out. Nevermind that she’s senior (and female); she’s an alpha and will win based on sheer will and force of personality. And regarding food, it’s her birthright, talent, and job to dine with every human eating anything delicious (or at least edible).

What she does, she does with pure, palpable joy. She’s not merely happy to receive her post-walk peanut-butter bone; she’s ecstatic, as if tasting it for the first time. Watching her, I’m convinced that longevity requires such enthusiasm. Forget about being cool, sophisticated, and blasé. Get excited!

Momo doesn’t complain about aches and pains, about greying fur, about slowing down. She has a reason to get up in the morning, and we in her midst have no choice but to follow suit!

mo-paw-black

Left paw, June 2010.

mo-paw-grey

Left paw, October 2014.

 

The “yoga foot” has been much studied, taught, debated, and photographed. But what about the “yoga hand”?

trikonasanaA few weeks ago, I was practicing yoga with my friend Sharmeen. She observed one of my standing poses and suddenly asked, “Why are your fingers spread apart like that?”

Surprised, I exited the pose. “You mean like this?” Imagine fingers spread as if for Downward Dog.

Since my formative years, yoga-wise, in late 1990s, I’ve typically spread my fingers in open-hand poses such as Urdhva Hastasana, Trikonasana, Ardha Chandrasana, and the Virabhadrasana family. The one pose for which I prefer closed fingers is Garudasana.

We all know that the “yoga hand” is straight, unlike the hands in ballet or flamenco. But what about the fingers? We first consulted Light on Yoga. BKS Iyengar’s hands are vigorously straight and firm, with fingers pressed together.

yoga-awakening-the-inner-bodyI wanted a contemporary example. “Let’s check Donald’s book,” I said, referring to Donald Moyer’s Yoga: Awakening the Inner BodyI want to see the hands of the book’s female model, Candace Satlak, whose quiet elegance I’ve always admired.

Her fingers, too, are quite close together. Curious, I later skimmed other yoga books, including the following:

Regarding feet, rarely, if ever, do we deliberately press the toes together. We cultivate a mobile, agile, activated foot with toes spread. I’d assumed that we likewise benefit from spread-open palms and fingers, which struck me as stronger and full of life.

But, for the next few weeks, I tried keeping my fingers closed. I even instructed my students to try “fingers together” to one side of a pose and “fingers open” to the other. Does it make a difference? Does it change the pose? Does either feel more appropriate for you and your body?

IMG_1384To my surprise, I found myself liking “fingers together.” I appreciate the neat precision of fingers side by side. If I’m feeling scattered, this hand position reins me in. The orderliness in my hands somehow aligns my mind.

(To non-Iyengar yogis, hand shape might seem trivial. But hands (including wrists and fingers) reveal a lot. If students are struggling and trying not to show it, their tense, misshapen hands often expose their stress.)

What do you think? Is there an optimal “yoga hand”?

Images: BKS Iyengar, Trikonasana, zagyoga.net; Yoga: Awakening the Inner BodyRodmell Press; Tadasana, The Woman’s Book of Yoga & Health

TheraBandIn early September, I chanced upon the New York Times article, “Train Like a German Soccer Star,” by Gretchen Reynolds. After seven weeks abroad, I’d just returned to Vancouver, still gloriously sunny. Rather than resuming my pre-trip routine, I decided to try something new.

Check out the eight warm-up exercises developed by Mark Verstegen, team trainer for the German national football team, which won the 2014 World Cup, and founder of EXOS, a Phoenix-based athletic training company. I substituted this routine for my yoga practice two mornings a week. I ramped it up to a workout by increasing the number of repetitions and sets–and lengthening the distance covered when skipping and running.

FmRW_Quads-2__201110DD_122147The exercises were spot-on for me. For example, the first two use a six-inch-diameter foam roller, which I acquired a decade ago, but which has mostly collected dust. Finally, a reason to haul it out! The “Mini Band Walking” resembles a physiotherapy exercise once prescribed to me. Some remind me of yoga poses, such as “Inverted Hamstring,” which is essentially dynamic, repeated Virabhadrasana III. Up and down, up and down, up and down. Such repeated entries and exits (like kicking up to handstand five times fast) complement the long holds typical in Iyengar yoga.

The “Lateral Lunge to Drop Lunge” is trickier than it looks. Rising from the side lunge is akin to doing a one-legged, rotating squat. But the learning curve is quick (there are only eight exercises, after all), and body and mind benefit from unfamiliarity. Even the skipping and sprinting were mini revelations. While I’m comfortable with aerobic exercise (moderate, steady pace), I had to adjust to anaerobic exercise (heart-racing bursts rarely done if not a professional athlete or under 10 years old).

In Pune, doing more yoga seemed to further my practice. “More” can be effective. But, since September, has doing less yoga set me back? Not a lot. Variety and novelty can be just as rewarding.

Iyengar yogis who dabble in other methods

While mixing it up (with diverse activities) is good, what about mixing yoga methods?

DSC_0317_2I know dedicated Iyengar yoga students who also buy passes at non-Iyengar mega studios. One reason is what I’ll call forced practice. “I can’t seem to practice at home,” one practitioner told me. “This way, I do yoga several times a week. My body needs it.”

A related reason is cost. “A typical Iyengar class costs as much as an unlimited weekly pass,” said another. “So, I go to [Iyengar studio] once a week and to [mega studio] whenever I can. I don’t expect to be adjusted or corrected, but it’s better than nothing.”

“Why not just practice on your own?” I asked. “That would be free!” Again, the obstacle was discipline. “I don’t know why, but I’m resistant to practicing at home,” she sighed.

DSC_0304Other methods might strike Iyengar yoga students almost as “not yoga” and thus not be confusing or contradictory. One of my regular students revealed that she began attending Kundalini classes at her neighborhood studio to round out her running, Iyengar yoga, and mindfulness meditation. “It’s not yoga the way I understand it in Iyengar yoga,” she said, describing the music, dim lighting, and large group. “We might do something repeatedly, like wave our arms in a circle while humming. I don’t know why, but I get something else from it.”

There’s a limit to “multidisciplinary”

I don’t begrudge any yoga practitioner for exploring beyond their primary method. In my first few years of yoga practice, I was committed to Iyengar yoga (perhaps subconsciously) but I sampled Ashtanga, Yin, Jivamukti, and even a Bikram class or two! Firsthand knowledge about other methods provides context. How can you critique other methods if you haven’t tried them? To me, that is not fair, scientific, or open minded.

I do take issue with too much fusion teaching. In one of my first blog posts, Naming Names, I highlighted the trend among yoga teachers to name dozens of famous “mentors” and the gamut of yoga methods taught. Seriously? To me, there’s a limit to multidisciplinary expertise in any field. If a lawyer says, “I do corporate and M&A, plus estates and trusts, also class action litigation, with some pro bono appellate work for death-row convicts,” he’d be considered a joke. While there’s more overlap among methods of yoga than among areas of law, it’s similarly unrealistic to be a master at everything.

Related links:

Images: resistance bands, TheraBand; Quadriceps release, TheraBand Academy; blocks and ropes at The Yoga Space

You Are What You Eat, Serge BlochFor three weeks, my yoga student “Cathy” did a detoxifying dietary cleanse. She followed the bestseller Clean, by Alejandro Junger, and eliminated caffeine, sugar, gluten grains, dairy, soy, eggs, red meat, nightshades, alcohol, and specific fruits, including oranges, strawberries, and bananas.

For breakfast and dinner, Cathy drank liquid meals: soups, smoothies, and Vitamix juices. Lunch could include vegetables, legumes, fish, poultry, and, if necessary (for active people), gluten-free whole grains. She is now re-introducing foodstuff one at a time, to see if any have negative effects.

www.flickrAnother student, “Susan,” has stuck to a high-protein, no-sugar, no-carb diet for six months now. She was vegetarian for seven years prior, but adopted this meat-based diet as prescribed by her naturopathic doctor. Fruits are prohibited, except for coconut and avocado.

In drastically changing to a semi Paleo diet, Susan noticed increased energy and mental clarity. She hypothesizes that carbohydrates overtax her digestive system. On eating meat after years of vegetarianism, she says that it wasn’t off-putting: “My body was craving it.”

Why are they (or any of us) experimenting with various diets? Vegetarian. Vegan. Gluten free. Wheat free. Sugar free. Paleo. Atkins. Ornish. Macrobiotic. Mediterranean. Okinawan. (Fat free and high carb are passé.)

My students are already very healthy, fit, and active. Cathy is a runner; Susan cycles everywhere. They probably started with decent eating habits. But they wanted to feel better, to be healthier, to resolve nagging ailments, to add more variety (and vegetables) to their meals, to test their discipline, to determine whether specific foods affect their well-being. (Neither is trying to lose weight, but that’s probably the most common reason for trying a new diet.) Essentially, both women are trying to figure out, as adults, what foods agree with their constitutions.

IMG_0463

Papaya and guava, served after dinner.

I immediately thought of my friend Phiroze’s housekeeper/cook, Abelin, in Bombay. She’d always serve fruit at the end of a meal. One evening, there was extra papaya, cut into succulent chunks, left in the serving bowl. Abelin asked me if I wanted to finish it. “Why don’t you have it,” I said, knowing that she’d eat her own dinner later. She laughed and said, “I don’t eat papaya. For me it is too heating.”

“Heating?” I was puzzled.

“It’s too strong. It makes my emotions rise.”

What? Most people choose foods based on flavor, nutrition, convenience, or cost. Abelin was choosing to eat only foods that agree with her. Never mind their scrumptiousness.

“What about cantaloupe?” I asked, recalling another recently served fruit.

“No,” she smiled. “Cantaloupe make me cold. It’s too cooling.”

IMG_1137

Fried bombil, black lentil dal, vegetables, and millet roti.

I discovered that her favorite fruits include apples, bananas, and pomegranates. She likes fish, including fried bombil, a Mumbai specialty, and Goa-style curry pomfret, along with the staple repertoire of dal dishes. For breakfast, she eats roti with ghee, but not eggs, which, like papaya, she finds overly heating.

She clearly “senses” how different foods affect her–and without consulting books, nutritionists, or the latest trendy diet. Unlike Cathy (and me and most of us), she didn’t need to “detox” to determine, one by one, the effects of each food in her normal diet. She does it automatically.

Abelin is one of my fondest memories of India. Through our lengthy chats, I could tell that she is a woman who knows and accepts herself. For fun, I asked, “Abelin, what’s your favorite color?”

Without hesitation, she said, “Peach.” (Peach!)

“What’s your second favorite color?” I was compelled to press further.

“White,” she answered, immediately.

Images: You Are What You Eat, Serge Bloch; strawberry, banana, honeydew, found on Flicker

Note: This post continues my “self interview” about RIMYI. Read Part I first.

IMG_0603Was the student population diverse?

Based on my unscientific observations during August 2014, the biggest contingent was from Italy. I met dozens of Italians and many British and French. I met a handful each from the US, Canada, and Japan, and others from Germany, Australia, Spain, Russia, Hungary, Hong Kong, Israel, Mexico, Singapore, Chile, Colombia, and South Africa. The Indian students were local, i.e., Indian citizens, mostly Pune residents.

In terms of race/ethnicity, the majority of foreigners were Caucasian. There were some Asians and Hispanics; I saw no blacks or people of African descent.

The gender ratio was relatively balanced, with about a 60/40 ratio between women/men. There were students of all ages, from 20s to 70s or 80s.

Are all classes taught in English?

Yes (with a dash of loud Marathi thrown at the locals).

After meeting some non-English-speaking Italians, I wondered, “What can you gain from RIMYI and Iyengar yoga without language compatibility?” The teachings are highly verbal.

In one class, Raya repeatedly voiced instructions to “pink shirt,” a woman adjacent to me. She didn’t comply until he walked up to her. “Does she speak English?” he asked, and a fellow Italian translated. “What’s the point of coming here if you can’t speak English?” Raya muttered, rhetorically.

(Prashant’s class, which hinges on his words, must be an ordeal for non-English speakers!)

IMG_0511

Week by week, do asana classes follow a progressive order?

No. Perhaps because the women’s classes were taught by three different teachers, each class was a separate entity. One day Rajlaxmi did repeated backbends (Urdhva Dhanurasana and Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana, pushing up from the floor). The next class focused on deep, seated forward bends. Overall (and to my disappointment) we did more forward bends than backbends–at least in the first two-and-a-half weeks of August.

Can I modify poses on my own? What if I can’t hold rope Sirsasana for 10 minutes?

In Prashant’s classes, there are always two or three poses going on simultaneously. You can always opt to repeat a pose. Prashant will bark out, “Now switch. Ladies, go to the ropes for Sirsasana.” But he ultimately doesn’t care which pose you do–if you are going deeper and deeper, further and further. Once, he commented that we could very well repeat the same pose, but he gives options because we’ve grown accustomed to the “workout” of a varied sequence.

In other classes, I wouldn’t modify poses with alternate props unless necessary. Of course, take care of yourself; you’re more or less on your own. (Note: don’t worry about super advanced poses or complicated set-ups: with 150 students, teachers stick to the basics.)

IMG_0930Did the teachings make sense? Did they confirm your existing understanding of Iyengar yoga?

Regarding “nuts and bolts” asana, the teachings closely paralleled my prior learning, from teachers in the US and Canada.

Contrasting Prashant’s teachings with the others’, I did ask myself: Are they contradictory? Prashant cares little about excellence in asana form; he instead prods us to cultivate breath sensitivity (and, ultimately, mind sensitivity). Once, he directed us into dynamic Urdhva Prasarita Padasana, “with the breath, by the breath, for the breath, through the breath, to the breath, from the breath…” How is the breath assisting the pose? How is it being assisted by the pose?

Then he commented, “Some of you are still striving for physical perfection. You are used to teachers who care about how you look. I don’t care. I’m not even looking.” Pause. “There’s not much to look at anyway.” (I really appreciated Prashant’s sense of humor.)

Going from his teachings to another class, in which people were corrected/adjusted/scolded for mediocre form, I wondered about the seeming contradiction. Here’s one way that I made sense of it:

For beginners, form is critical. Beginners must learn, step by step, the mechanics of the poses. Most beginners need a teacher. (Ultimately we are all beginners to some degree.)

For experienced students, the focus must eventually shift away from the body–at least with poses familiar and done proficiently. Here I agree with Prashant: this stage is inherently independent study and cannot be learned from a teacher (although it can be taught by a teacher).

Most of us need both types of teachings.

IMG_0609Did a month at RIMYI improve your yoga practice?

Before my trip, I’d heard people rave about Pune (even in recent years, well beyond the days of direct contact with BKS Iyengar): how intense it was, how hard they worked, how their poses opened in amazing ways.

I took such stories with a grain of salt. Regarding yoga, I’m pretty levelheaded. My practice is steady–in that I don’t do markedly “better” or “worse” based on setting or teacher. I didn’t go with expectations of breakthroughs and that type of thing.

To my surprise I did find my asana practice to be extra solid–due probably to the long practice sessions. Strangely, I found that I could consistently clasp in Marichyasana III; kick up into balancing Pincha Mayurasa; and, best of all, do Supta Padangusthasana with more ease (my hamstring injury was healing!).

If my practice improved simply from quantity, I could replicate that anywhere–in more inviting conditions. Wide open spaces! Ample wall space! Fresh air! No mosquitos! But, at home, I’m not a captive audience of my yoga practice.

While the women’s classes are more user-friendly than Prashant’s (partly because the teachers wear microphones), I found Prashant’s teachings a memorable departure from the norm. His teachings will stick with me. While he does repeat his message over and over, it’s a message I need to hear over and over. Am I exploring the breath? The mind? Am I stuck in the realm of the body? (While his message was constant, his clever imagery varied day by day. Stay tuned for more Prashant-isms!)