Barb has practiced with me since summer 2007, when we first moved to Portland. Her handstand has come a long way since then!
She’s a mother of two and I can only confidently say she is over 40. She teaches at PSU and travels overseas frequently to teach classes on conflict resolution. However, when she’s in town she’s in class every damn day! In fact, she often shows up before 5:30, which is when I get to the studio.
I had Barb perform this handstand at the end of her practice, so she wasn’t as sharp as normal. But she’s learned to kick to the wall and use her midsection to pull her feet from the wall. Finally, she’s also now able to use her hands and wrists to balance in this position.
Barb practices her handstands in between navasana. For her, they’re fun and challenging. At this time we are not focused on moving off the wall --- in my opinion, at this time for Barb the risk/downside/exposure to injury is currently not worth the reward/upside/benefits.
(More on the appropriateness, utility, and inclusion of handstands and splits later.)An obvious takeaway is that the the “perfect” performance of an asana, or asana sequence, is not a predictor or sign of yoga, as I consider Barb a beyond accomplished Ashtanga yogini.
Often my job is to merely remind people: you are already doing it!
What is the opposite of "throwback"? I don't know. I posted an old photo (2006) the other day, but you can't live in the past.
So this one is from the other week. Ren assists me in upavishta konasana. The most difficult aspect is that he tends to jump, leap and otherwise stomp around on my back.
He plays with the balls and cart, the plank in the foreground is for the handstand practice.
Nothing stays the same is the only constant. Yet the essence of what drove my interest in marichyasana D (and the other poses) hasn't changed --- that is, my interest in yoga --- but its expression certainly has!
The delightfully flexible and strong Rebecca Z. demonstrates a sequence she used to learn and practice taking her ankles in backbends.
As a lazy Ashtanga Mysore teacher, I hope to subtract my physical involvement from students’ practices. This is one progression of postures that I have used to help students work on the strength, flexibility, and awareness to grab their own ankles. That way I no longer have to hold them aloft while pulling in their arms, and then stand there, holding them, forever.
Rebecca expressed a terrific range of motion and awareness when she started at Portland Ashtanga Yoga, and at this point she has practiced daily for many years. She spent some months on shalabasana as well as pulling herself up into viparita shalabasana in order to develop active spinal flexibility, strength, awareness, and connective tissue strength.
At that point, she could drop back and pause the motion at almost any angle from the floor.
A general note on the “stages” below: they are obviously an organic continuum and the boundaries between are not discrete. Essentially Rebecca practiced moving to each stage and holding it for at least 5 breaths, and she would repeat specific stages for weeks or months before moving to the next.
Stage one: walk fingertips to touch feet.
Stage two: curl hips forward to pull herself onto her fingertips. She would hold on her fingertips for 5 breaths.
Stage 3 (she doesn’t really show this one): one hand --- fingertip. Other hand: one fingertip only (pointer finger). This stage is how she learned to free up one hand to reach in to take her ankle.
Stage 4: Holding one ankle, she pulls back to the fingertips of the hand on the floor. She spent a long time at this stage, because she would focus so much on grabbing one ankle she would drift away from her legs and end up glued to the floor.
Stage 5: Holding one ankle, other hand only pointer finger on the floor.
Stage 6: Take both ankles.
I’m not sure if she’s interested or not, but she could possibly start walking her hands up her shins, or even work on grabbing her shins without touching the floor. We have tried that before, and Rebecca reported it didn’t feel great.
We watched this after I filmed it, and told Rebecca it looks way smoother than it ever had --- she displays a smoothness between stages due to pure repetition and comfort.
The Primary Series Saturation starts this weekend! On the real, there is a very strong chance we will not work on grabbing our ankles in backbends. However, we will bring this patient, progressive, step-wise approach to any and all other postures! You’ll also get into the myths and philosophy that surround this practice.
Finally, you can enroll in single sessions! $199 for the whole thing (11 hours), $40 per session (2 hours/ea), or $99 for the seminar (5 hours plus break).
Though I could always "cheat" a straddle press from a high straddle, as out of tittibasana or supta kurmasana, I have always sucked at the full Stalder Press. Rather than starting from a (high) straddle, a good test of press strength is to start from a handstand, lower down, press back up. Boy, am I deficient (translate: weak).
Here Nikki is showing 3 Navasana variations that might be useful if your Navasana looks less like a “v” and more like a “u.” Perhaps your hamstrings lack the requisite length, and pull your pelvis posteriorly (say that 5x fast).
One expedient approach is to reduce the load on the quads by shortening the levers. As Nikki shows, a good first stage is more of a “w”: just hover the feet off the floor, legs together.
The next option is to bring the shins parallel to the floor.
Finally: full “boat.”
There are a few more options only used in an improv class (i.e. not daily), such as straddle and split-boat (i.e. one leg up/one leg down), both of which are interesting variations.
Also an obligatory caveat is that Nikki has practiced very consistently for several years and brings to the practice her own unique background, traits, and gifts; in other words your mileage may vary.
Navasana is a real pivot point in Primary Series, as it is one of just three positions repeated more than once, and the only posture in Primary Series repeated more than once (surya namaskar and urdvha dhanurasana are the other two, and technically they are not in Primary Series).
Prior to this point all the postures have been static; there’s one isometric hold in utthita hasta padangustasana (standing with one leg extended and held) — not coincidentally that standing pose is hugely impactful on navasana. Ashtanga is rare and unique among posture-based yoga, at least to my knowledge, in that after navasana it incorporates a host of dynamic movements (rolling), perhaps more on this point later.
What is the takeaway? Find the navasana that you can sustain — and then sustain it, in sequence, with the other postures!
The Primary Series Saturation starts next weekend! You can bring your navasana and test its seaworthiness, as well as ask a million other questions. You’ll also get into the myths and philosophy that surround this practice. More info here: http://www.portlandashtangayoga.com/events.html
There a a ton of ways to move into Surya Namaskar A, and if you’ve practiced for a little while you’ve probably messed with many of them. Age, interest, energy, injury, and time all have great shaping pressures on the appropriate sun salutation.
The union of breath, movement, and gaze can really be refined and expressed through surya namaskar A, and I can think of few other postures + movements with greater immediate practice of mula and uddiyana bandha. There is also the fact that tail up, head down also begins the practice of sense withdrawal/pratyahara.
One of my recent perspectives has been to emphasize more the idea of limbering and mobilizing, rather than stretching and therefore striving, and in my own practice I try to allow myself to move as a marionette, drawn by the strings of the breath, rather than immediately trying to smack my forehead to my shins.
It’s also often a phenomenal practice in watching the comparative mind burble up. I think maybe I’ve logged a couple thousand sun salutations since 1998? My mind produces lots of helpful comparisons for each part of the sun salutation: how it felt last week, last year, when I was “young,” etc etc.
I thought here I would show a few more ways to get into chaturanga dandasana. The half-pike press is a little fancy and does require a considerable inhale to maintain breath count.
Personally, I never learned the dynamic explosion back to the bottom of chaturanga, but have since come around to appreciate the dynamism, especially as a heating prelude to other movement.
Finally, I love the step-back through lunge, if only because after 9 million hours per week of carpool, it’s great to get into the front of the legs.
Also, I’ll confess that as I’ve pursued other, much more demanding physical pursuits, often I simply don’t have the gas, or I’ve been injured, and simply don’t want to leap, jump, or press up into anything!
Come get into your own sun salutation (and more) at the Primary Series 6-class series at Yoga Pearl. Enroll here: http://www.yogapearl.com/ashtanga-primary-series/
Also, come press/pike/lunge your way through sun salutations in Primary and Intermediate Series Saturations (Feb and April)!
Here are a couple variations of Surya Namaskar. These 2 move from half-kneeling and kneeling.
I learned the second from Tim, who I believe received it from Desikachar some years back (could be wrong? Maybe Desikachar got it from Tim).
They’re both great if your hamstring/back/calf/shoulders/wrists (any or all) are fucked, which may be the case if, say, you're an athletic human being in North America!
I did the second variation for some months after exploding my heel bone in 2012; the child’s position (balasana) was essentially my downward dog because I couldn’t put any weight on one foot.
The emphasis as always is on mobilizing, not stretching, and of course on entwining the breath with gaze, movement, and internal “sticking places” of awareness (tristana — ujjayi, vinyasa, drishti).
Get into this kind of detail at a few upcoming events: a 6-class series on the Primary Series at Yoga Pearl, a great way to learn the appropriate Primary Series for you.
I’m also doing both a Primary and Intermediate Series Saturations (Feb and April).
Finally, if you’re new to Ashtanga, or simply want a refresher, you can join the February 2-week Intro to Ashtanga course! (February 13-24.) You’ll get specific 1-on-1 modifications, either easier --- OR harder!
Here’s Justin, demonstrating a potentially useful series of progressions for teaching people how to pull themselves off the floor from a backbend. Justin has some unique gifts and a specific practice background, both of which play a role in the appropriateness of these postures for him.
The first step is a sustained urdvha dhanurasana, with steady, slow “free breathing,” as Guruji used to say. Justin’s got a great backbend! No discrete angles anywhere, perhaps a bit in his knees. His wrists are under his elbows, elbows under his shoulders, shoulders over his wrists, and he maintains a steady gaze.
The second variation is to introduce dynamic movement to his urdvha dhanurasana via rocking. As a diagnostic, this is a great place to see if people are connected or disconnected through mula and uddiyana bandha. If their torso sways independently between legs and arms, the rocking might not be the right variation for them, and they may not be ready to work on standing up; or at least, they may be at greater risk for injury when learning to stand up. Here Justin’s hips move forward towards his feet, and consequently bring his arms with them.
The next step is to begin to chase down that transition phase just off the floor. Here Justin will drift forward and allow his hips to pull his hands onto his fingertips. I like a nice steady static 5 breaths here to encourage the person to really own this range of motion.
Justin also went above and beyond, and spent time developing a one-finger hold variation. From here it is a simple matter for him to pull forward onto his fingertips, and then half-way up, and then all the way up.
Justin is working on articulating and controlling every degree of the arc of movement. He spent some time pulling halfway up to the heaviest point of the movement, which is half-way, pausing there, and then lowering back to the floor.
He has been practicing 6x/week for several years, I believe, and for sure at least a year here at Portland Ashtanga Yoga, and he is very dedicated. He also has a phenomenal backbend he has developed over several years!
It’s useful to examine the extreme in order to reflect back to the middle. I would consider Justin’s backbending on the more extreme end of the Bell curve, which is a perspective that can be lost in a long-established Mysore room, which presents an exaggerated view of the “average” yoga student’s ability, expectations, and norms.
In this case Justin, although not hypermobile at any point in his back, is still pretty damn flexible! Also, I don't really see a ton of value in asking him to walk his hands closer to his feet.
So in the case of a student without his range of motion, the four stages outlined above would only differ by degree, intensity, and duration — but not in kind.
Meaning, someone can practice these progressions off the wall, or with feet elevated (more of this in a case study in a later post), or even with hands elevated.
imilarly to the overall Ashtanga sequences, you can introduce and practice the variations progressively and carefully, and after proficiency in early progressions is predictably repeatable.
This is the kind of nuance you can explore in a few upcoming events: a series of 6 classes on the Primary Series, held at Yoga Pearl. It will be a great way to learn the appropriate Primary Series — including backbend variations — for you.
Another great place to go deep with both Primary and Intermediate are the upcoming Saturations, held in Feb and April. We’ll also get into the myths and philosophy that enrich this practice.
Rebecca shows a few useful varieties of backbend. Generally in Ashtanga urdvha dhanurasana (upward bow) is practiced at the end of the particular series you practice. Just as you can cultivate a few varieties of downward dog, you can cultivate different varieties of backbend. Here are three archetypes I like to use at the studio. There are many more!
The first is like a sideways tear-drop. To rise up, she squeezes her rear and braces her belly (mula and uddiyana bandha). A squeezed rear drives hip extension, which Rebecca expresses with straight legs. Her braced belly prevents her low back from hyper-extending.
All this generally shunts the stretch into her thoracic spine and shoulders. This breed of bridge is useful to work on shoulder and upper back flexibility (more on Rebecca’s particular expression in a moment). In this case generally the head is neural, shoulders by ears.
In Rebecca’s case, this first backbend is more an expression of her shoulder, back, hip and quad flexibility (which is tremendous!) --- it’s not so much a useful developmental posture.
The second bridge is a more “classical” urdvha dhanurasana (upward bow). She uses her rear to move to hip extension, but she might relax it to allow more complete curve through the low back. Rebecca is here striving to curl her spine deeper and elevate her hips and ribs into the ceiling, which she might deepen by walking her hands closer to her feet. Her gaze falls between her hands as even her neck is curling. Generally this is the most common backbend I see in Ashtanga practices.
Finally, and just for fun, Rebecca tries to maximize her total spinal flexibility by actively curling her neck toward her low back. In this case, similar to utkatasana, she lifts her heels and pikes her hips to actively curls her low back toward her head. Ultimately she may bring her butt to her head.
This last one is pretty extreme, and is hugely reliant on genetic spinal disposition, especially lumbar hypermobility. It is not one I generally teach, or very rarely — may be appropriate for 3-4 people out of 500?
This leads to the other interesting observation, that I have helped people with this last extreme variation, and the people who can do it — they can do it within 2 weeks or less! It’s pretty incredible.
That said, it can be a useful approach for one end of the spectrum of people looking to explore their spinal range of motion.
I asked Rebecca to demonstrate for several reasons: her spinal flexibility far outstrips mine. She practices assiduously and diligently, and has for maybe 5 or 6 years. She is very gifted with flexibility in her back, shoulders, and hip flexors.
I have worked with Rebecca for several years now, mostly on shoulder, scapular, and spinal control and stability, rather than flexibility. So for her, the first chunk of postures in the Intermediate Series has been very helpful.
There are two lenses through which you can apply to the Ashtanga series — one is to focus on increasing usable range of motion. The other is to help teach body control and intentional articulation. The Ashtanga series are a great means of establishing a continuum, with strength on one side and flexibility on the other. A decent rule of thumb generally is stiff people move on the continuum to greater mobility and flexibility, while bendy people slide a bit more toward control and stability.
You can really dive into these details and more at a few upcoming events: a Primary Series 6-class series at Yoga Pearl, a great way to learn the appropriate Primary Series for you. You can enroll here: http://www.yogapearl.com/ashtanga-primary-series/
I’m also doing both a Primary and Intermediate Series Saturations (Feb and April), both great places to dive into this detail, as well as the myths and philosophy that surround this practice. More info here: http://www.portlandashtangayoga.com/events.html
Jason owns and directs Portland Ashtanga Yoga.