types of yoga

In my first class for teens, I taught an active, but basic, sequence, with lots of jumpings and standing poses. Most were absolute beginners; even the basics were demanding.

After class, however, the teens’ teacher, an Iyengar yoga student herself, made a request. “Next week show them some of the fancy poses,” she said. “Fire them up. They don’t know anything about yoga and need to see where it can go.”

In my typical adult classes, I demonstrate a pose only if relevant to the day’s sequence. Rarely, almost never, would I demo a pose if I’m not teaching it. Here, she was asking me to do just that.

So, the next week, I gathered the group together. After a brief discussion on the eight limbs of yoga, I did a mini demo for them. I linked the poses that we’d tried the prior week with related, but more involved, poses.

“Remember Trikonasana, the triangle,” I said, “it can lead to this,” doing Utthita Parsva Hasta Padangusthasana.

I proceeded to show the links between the following:

  • Sukhasana and Padmasana
  • Dandasana and Paripurna Navasana
  • Chatushpadasana and Urdhva Dhanurasana
  • Gomukhasana and Salamba Sirsasana

That day I taught them sun salutations and backbends, culminating in Urdhva Dhanurasana. I helped a bunch of kids up and, indeed, they were fired up.

The yoga “demonstration”

To introduce yoga to Westerners, BKS Iyengar did numerous yoga “demonstrations,” asana performances before an audience. He knew that asana would catch people’s attention.

Are such demonstrations done by Iyengar yoga teachers today? No. Why? Well, I can answer only for myself, but I suspect that most Iyengar yoga practitioners consider public performances of asana rather showy.

But such performances have their place. Take Patricia Walden’s backbend videos from a 1990 yoga conference and from her 60th birthday performance. First, we can learn a lot from watching her demonstrate advanced backbends. Visual learning is invaluable. Second, it is fascinating to see a practitioner’s development over time; to me, her practice at 60 is superior to her star performance at 36.

On the blog Yoga Bound, I found a video of a demonstration by three Canadian Iyengar yogis at the University of Toronto. A great way to introduce university students to Iyengar yoga!

Nowadays the venue for yoga demonstrations is not the stage, but the Internet, where countless yoga videos can be viewed. Some are instructional “how to” videos, but many are simply performances, from snippets of home practice (“what I did today” or “look at me!”) to choreographed sequences set to music. Part of me wonders a bit about motives. What compels yoga practitioners to film themselves and upload it for the world to see? Show and tell? Attract students? Attract attention?

That said, I enjoy some bloggers’ home practice videos. First, as an Iyengar yoga practitioner, I never tire of observing different bodies. Second, if a blogger is funny or revealing, I might feel a sense of camaraderie. Third, as mentioned regarding the Patricia Walden videos, I might learn a new method of approaching a pose, just by watching a person perform it.

I steer clear of Facebook and other “social media” (I have a private life), so I can’t imagine posting random videos of myself doing yoga poses. But from my experience teaching teens, I see how “seeing is believing” when it comes to anything new and strange.

Light on LifeBKS Iyengar on spiritual maturity and demonstrations

The trouble with demonstrations is the inevitable ego element, as stated here by BKS Iyengar in Light on Life, “Living in Freedom” chapter:

“…Spiritual maturity exists when there is no difference between thought itself and the action that accompanies it. If there is a discrepancy between the two, then one is practicing self-deception and projecting a false image of oneself. If I am asked to give a demonstration before an audience, there is bound to be an element of artistic pride in my presentation. But alone, I practice with humbleness and devotion. If one can prevent the inevitable egotism from entering the core of one’s life and activities, it means one is a spiritual man…”

Related posts:

For four weeks last spring, I taught Iyengar yoga to 40 teenagers. All were academically gifted students enrolled in an early-admission university program. While a couple had done yoga in elementary school or with Wii Fit, most had never attended a single yoga class.

Thank goodness they were split into two groups of 20. Teens, no matter how advanced academically, behave nothing like adults in class! While I taught a particular subset of teenagers, here are my observation on teaching teens versus adults:

  • Teens can’t stop talking I mistakenly assumed that because these kids were stellar students, they would immediately shut their traps and listen silently (as do adult students). No way! They are chatterboxes before, during, and after class. They exclaim when doing a balance pose and they fall out. They giggle with their friends. They make fun of one another. I had to balance being strict and letting them have release tension in their teenage way.
  • Teens might know nothing about yoga When adults attend yoga classes, they have chosen, for one reason or another, to be there. For whatever reason (physical, mental, spiritual), they are interested in yoga. Here, my yoga series was a mandatory course (as were courses on soccer and hip-hop dancing), whether they were enthusiastic or apathetic about yoga. I had to start from scratch with them: What is yoga? Who is Iyengar? How can yoga affect their bodies and minds?
  • Asana ability is extremely wide ranging In my two groups, asana ability ran the gamut. Some couldn’t bend forward 45º with straight legs and concave upper back. Raising the arms into Urdhva Hastasana was a major event! At the other extreme was a wisp of a girl whom I could’ve led into full Natarajasana right then and there. Adults are also physically diverse, of course, but I found the level of ability more wide ranging in teens.
  • Teens can be very disconnected with their bodies If I tell an adult, “Press the inner edges of your shoulder blades into your back,” most understand what to do. Especially in outdoorsy, sporty Vancouver, adults generally have learned basic anatomy from their activities, injuries, or a few decades of life. Teens might not know anatomical terms and, if not physically active, might have little kinesthetic awareness.
  • Strength and flexibility might mean nothing to teens Most adults, regardless of fitness level, want to improve their strength, flexibility, and overall health. Teens? Those who play sports or who are active might care. But some might not care at all. So the teacher must find other ways to generate motivation.
  • Teens want to try everything Even if a teen has no interest in yoga (or limited range of motion), if I introduced tricky, fun-looking poses (like Padmasana and Urdhva Dhanurasana), they wanted to try it. Immediately. More than once I had to yell at them to simmer down and pay attention or they could injure themselves. (Fortunately their bodies, whether agile or not, are resilient.)
  • Savasana is conducive to stillness While some could barely contain themselves during the active asana practice, most were absolutely quiet in Savasana. A couple of students couldn’t keep their eyes closed or jostled each other during Savasana, which is clearly an indicator of maturity in teens and in adults. But most readily, willingly, settled down.

Two weeks ago, I traveled to Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba, for the first time. I knew little about Canada’s “Gateway to the West.” I’ve met a few people who grew up here. I remember a movie, My Winnipeg, that screened at the Vancouver Film Festival several years ago. That’s about it. Well, my first impression was very positive. (Winnipeg in December might have been a different story.) My Winnipeg top 10:

GREEN, LEAFY NEIGHBORHOODS Coming from the summer gardens of Kitsilano in Vancouver, I was pleasantly surprised to find Winnipeg just as gloriously verdant, with soaring trees and plush meadows.

GREEN, LEAFY NEIGHBORHOODS Coming from the glorious summer gardens of Kitsilano, Vancouver, I was pleasantly surprised to find Winnipeg’s Armstrong’s Point just as verdant, with a canopy of soaring trees and lawns as plush as carpets.


B&B BREAKFASTS At Beechmount Bed & Breakfast, I woke to fresh fruit, homemade muffins, yogurt, and a perfectly formed omelet (here, filled with tender asparagus spears).

WALKABILITY From my B&B a leisurely walk to The Forks took 40 minutes. Along the way, I could have turned to head downtown or to the commercial Osborne and Corydon Streets.

WALKABILITY From my B&B I could walk to Yoga North, the Iyengar yoga studio in town, in less than 20 minutes–and to the Forks, along the Assiniboine River, in 40 minutes. I noticed a decent number of joggers and cyclists. While I found Winnipeg quite walkable, however, it’s definitely car-oriented. Buses run infrequently.

LOCAL ART Here you can find unique pottery and other artwork, including that made by First Nations peoples.

LOCAL ART Here you can find unique pottery and other artwork, including pieces made by First Nations people, who constitute 10 percent of Winnipeg’s population.

PUBLIC ART I don't know if they're permanent or not, but near the Legislature building I saw a bunch of bear sculptures, which I liked.

PUBLIC ART I don’t know if they’re permanent or not, but near the Legislature building I saw a bunch of bear sculptures that resonated with me and my Berkeley background. Go Bears!

BOON BURGERS In Wolseley, the vibe is west coast / left coast. Here, a Boon burger is vegan!

BOON BURGERS In Wolseley, the vibe is west coast / left coast. At Boon, the neighborhood’s burger spot, everything is vegan. This is a “grilled buddha patty” (chickpeas and brown rice) on a kale, arugula, and beet salad.


STELLA’S This Winnipeg institution reminded me of Vancouver’s Aphrodite’s or Berkeley’s Rick & Ann’s. Here’s the arugula salad with vegetable barley soup.

WINNIPEG ART GALLERY Of course it's not London's National Gallery or New York's MoMA, but I sometimes enjoy a small-scale museum. For example, I could spend hours, maybe a whole year, studying this one photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

WINNIPEG ART GALLERY Sure, it’s not London’s National Gallery or New York’s MoMA, but a small-scale museum has its benefits. It’s less overwhelming and allows more focus. After all, I could spend hours, maybe a whole year, studying a single photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

SECONDHAND BOOKSHOPS Winnipeg has almost 20 secondhand bookshops. I found this vintage copy (perfect condition) at Zed Books.

SECONDHAND BOOKSHOPS Winnipeg has almost 20 secondhand bookshops. I’m always hunting for Somerset Maugham’s more-obscure works that libraries don’t carry. I found this vintage hardcover first edition (Doubleday, 1946) for $7 at Zed Books.

YOGA NORTH The preceding Winnipeg moments were fringe benefits. My main objective in Winnipeg? To pass my Intermediate Junior I assessment. I, along with five fellow candidates, passed. Here's my souvenir tee shirt from Yoga North, which was an excellent venue. I held off buying it until I knew that Winnipeg and Yoga North would be a happy memory.

YOGA NORTH The preceding Winnipeg moments were fringe benefits. My main objective in Winnipeg? A successful result at my Intermediate Junior I assessment. On June 19-21, I passed, as did my five terrific fellow candidates from across Canada: Terri Damiani, Jane Kruse, Vic Mehta, Roberta Vommaro, and Martina Walsh. Here’s my souvenir tee shirt from Yoga North, which did an impeccable job hosting the assessment. I had my eye on it from day one, but postponed buying it until I knew for sure that Winnipeg would be a happy memory.

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?

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