types of 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?

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

I can’t believe that 2014 is over. I still have tons of unfinished business and loose ends to tie up. Plus I didn’t read enough books, clean out my closets, practice enough yoga, spend enough time with family or friends…

On the bright side, 2014 was a decent year. I wrote another Lonely Planet Big Island book. I got an iPhone, my first smartphone (why on earth was I such an extreme holdout?). I injured and recovered from a hamstring injury. I replaced a back-wrecking memory foam with a solid Marshall mattress.

Most memorable, I studied at RIMYI and traveled to India, both for the first time, from late July to early September. It was a rite of passage, so to speak, but was it transformative?

Major events, including a big trip, can carry a myriad of expectations. Not only should the event itself be fascinating or exciting but, once done, one might expect to emerge a different person. I’m reminded of a friend’s description of summer camp at Algonquin Park when he was eleven: “By the end of summer, so much had happened, kids were convinced that no one at home would recognize them.”

While my expectations weren’t quite that high, I perhaps did expect something. I’m talking not simply about asana skill, but about perspective, attitude, and real maturity.

In my experience, however, a major event typically has short-lived consequences. It’s a blip in my normal range. A few months after my trip, I feel (and act) more or less as the person I was before. For an improved 2015, I need to focus not on major events, but on minor, everyday habits and routines. So, here are a few thoughts and a to-do list for 2015:


I average a book a month–in the best of times. I skip dozens of books filed away to read “when I have time.” Do I really lack time? Incrementally, I probably waste hours reading random stuff on the Internet or otherwise zoning out. A book a week is daunting, but two books monthly is within the realm of possibility.

I finished a bunch of India-related books in record time before my trip; once back, however, I read nothing from September to December, when I devoured two Somerset Maugham novels back to back: Mrs Craddock and The Merry-go-round.

Spending more time reading might seem like a luxury, but I’m much happier when part of my mind is living in a book. Since being happy enhances everything else, I’ve decided to read Mr Maugham’s fiction oeuvre, more or less in order of publication, this year. Follow along on my What I’m Reading page.


I recently met a newish Iyengar yoga student (about 18 months in) who raved about it. Middle-aged, slightly overweight, and male, I was pleasantly surprised by his enthusiasm. He talked not only of the physical benefits but, pointing to his head, said that he does yoga “for the mind.”

Manifested in him was the steep learning curve of a novice. I miss that initial stage, when everything is a mini revelation. It got me thinking: Where did my practice go this year? Forward, backward? What am I avoiding in my practice? For 2015, I’m planning a monthly home practice “focus” to include asana (and pranayama) that fall to the wayside.

Email Inbox

If anyone has emailed me and not [yet] received a reply, here’s why: I’m drowning in messages. Among my five Gmail addresses (plus one virgin Mac address kept as backup), I harbor 50, 75, sometimes close to 100 “pending” messages in my Inbox before filing or trashing them. The more complex, lengthy, or personal the message, the longer they could sit. (If you send a vague inquiry about Hawaii, forget it. It’s a topic too big and close to my heart. If you want a prompt reply, ask very specific, answerable questions!)

I am sick of my prodigious Inbox. It weighs me down and clutters my mind each time I turn on my computer. Between now and the end of January, I resolve to clean out my email Inbox.


Blog posts might seem easy to write, but for me they take an inordinate amount of time and energy. While they are more time-consuming that they seem, I also yield to the “work expands” theory, also known as Parkinson’s law: work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

I’m more productive under pressure, so I need deadlines. Ages ago, I skimmed a book by a professional organizer/clutter clearer who claimed that any project can be done in two weeks. I can’t recall either author or title, but the two-week time frame stuck in my head. Hmm, a post every two weeks?

Small WorldFamily and friends

The main thing that concerns me at the end of the year: How much time did I spend with the most important people in my life? The answer is usually the same: not enough. (On Thanksgiving, I did make a family trip to Disneyland for my little niece. So glad I did. There’s no substitute for such shared memories.)

In TKV Desikachar’s book The Heart of Yoga, he addresses how to determine one’s progress in yoga: Look at your relationship with people. He writes, “The success of [y]oga does not lie in the ability to perform postures but in how it positively changes the way we live our life and our relationships.”

When faced with the age-old dilemma between what’s urgent and what’s important, I must not let the urgent win all the time.

Assessments beyond assessments

To Iyengar yogis, assessment means one thing: being assessed for a particular level as a teacher. Nothing wrong with that. But I can’t help thinking about one of Prashant’s statements: “There is certification for yoga teachers. Why is there no certification for yoga students? You go to a two-hour ‘yoga’ class. Do you think you’ve done two hours of ‘yog’?”

It made me think: What if I were being assessed for all the “roles” in my life? Would I pass them all?

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

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

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