Saturday, November 10, 2012

BB (backbending) Q & A with Heather Morton

Lilu Trapecista asked:  

"Sometimes I experience waist pain after backbending practice. What am I doing wrong?" Lilu also mentioned having pain wihle preparing for advanced inversions.  

There are many factors that could be attributing to this. However, it is not always about doing it wrong.

First, let's look at what kind of pain it is. There are different kinds of pain and not all pain is bad. Pattabhi Jois used to say, “little pain today and gone tomorrow”. Pain is often an indicator that the muscles and joints have been stretched physically beyond their ‘known’ limit. This is normal and a part of the process. However, determining what is actually good and bad pain can be tricky. And by the way, by no means is pain a perquisite to practice either!

Assuming this not a pain of warning (usually sharp and takes you by surprise) but an achy kinda sore feeling it is often part of the process. The best thing to take a look at is what and how you are practicing. My teacher Yogacharya (a backbending expert in Mysore) used to say pain comes when you are not fully foucsed on your breath and your gazing points. We might think we are breathing during the practice but is it natural or a forced breath? Or, just something we are mechanically doing?

Suggestion#1: Practice to observe your breath both before and after a backbend. Practice to gradually even out your breaths so that it’s calmer and steady. In backbends the breath does tend to get rapid and harsh. If you focus on exhaling you can learn to slow it down.

Pain can also arise when the practice series is not correct or right for you! When specifically practicing how to do backbends and improving your practice it is really beneficial to counter the practice with other postures. These are twists, forward bends and neutral poses.  

Suggestion #2: Practice forward bends, sitting and spinal twists. These are held for twice as long as backbends. This is the system I learned under my teacher Yogacharya. If you are doing more than 3 backbends without a counter pose you may need to incorporate a few counter postures. The vinyasa of cobra pose to down-dog and jump or sit is excellent.

It is easy to forget that backbending is not just about your back! It is all about lengthening the front of your torso, opening the chest and shoulders as well as lifting upward from the pelvis girdle. When pain arises this is a sign that some muscles have overstretched while others have under-stretched. In backbends the pressure can go into a weaker area first. Being aware of this you can make adjustments that will give you more relief.   

Suggestion #3: Practice to bend from your hips and not your waist. In standing backbends use the practice sequence of placing your hands on your waist (re: thumbs facing toward your spine). This will protect your waist and allow you to understand how to lift upward. This same movement is repeated when we bend forward (re: pulling in the low belly and extending forward).

When learning to do more advanced postures like a backbend from a headstand, handstand or scorpion, the pressure tends to go directly into the lumbar and dorsal muscles. To counter this the shoulders need to draw back, the chest to expand and the legs are active.

Suggestion #4: Practice lengthening upward with your legs and toes. Keep this lengthing as you bend backbend. When we start to bend backward while upside down the counter direction is forgotten. Keeping this 'tension' will maintain the stretch from the hips and through the torso. It is also really helpful to give more pressure into your arms. Resist the pressure from the hips while being upside down. This creates a lot of strength too! 

Try these suggestions. The counter sequencing is especially important in developing a balanced and full practice. The more the body moves sideways and forward this will enhance the backbending sequence. 

And the pain may arise as a nice opening and fuller extension. 

* Not all movements are recommended foe everyone. Consult a trained teacher or medical doctor before beginning any exercise program. The content and information is for educational purposes from Heather Morton (The Yoga Way). Any use of the material, advice and instructions is at your own risk.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

HELLO YOGA - part 2 (Upper Back)

Learn how to open your upper back. This is a non-traditional sequence that builds flexibility in the upper back. It is a good prep for the traditional backbends such as makarasana (aka when the legs come up and off the ground) known as the crocodile.

Read it on HELLO YOGA ~ The Japan's Community of Yoga. Re: Backbending Techniques 

Monday, July 16, 2012

HELLO Backbending ~ Part 1 (Wheel)

Learn about the wheel: the key elements on what to do and what not to do. My wonderful student Alison is with me in this video and shows a great wheel. Keep in mind she only learned this pose a few short months ago and had NO prior experience. She worked through fear and tension and overcame these obstacles.

Read it on HELLO YOGA ~ The Japan's Community of Yoga. Re: Backbending Techniques 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Sexy Backbend

As a yoga teacher, I get asked all kinds of questions about the practices of yoga. Sometimes they are obvious ones ranging from ``How long will it take to master a posture? `` to ``Does it ever get easy?`` There are, however, a few less obvious questions like, `` I feel very sexual during the practice. Is that okay? ``

This question was regarding the practice of the backbends of yoga. Some students have found them to elicit intense feelings, which one of my students once expressed as being "pretty orgasmic". For the more disconcerting student, however, this might be something you don't necessarily want to get messed up with in your practice. I have been practicing backbending yoga for over 10 years now and teaching it for almost the same but this was the first student who had the guts to ask if it was okay. He wanted to know if it was: 1) normal, 2) should he continue, and 3) is he the only one?

Sexual Feelings

A few years ago my teacher who is a backbending champion and one of the only teachers in Mysore, South India, to teach the proper techniques of backbending told me to beware of the power of backbends. For those who are not yet familiar with Yogacharya Venkatesha he set out a unique system in how to learn and practice them. This system has helped thousands of students from all over the world to find their way through the backbending maze. He is not only gifted as a teacher but his abilities are no less then amazing. He became nick-named as Rubber Yogi including earning the title of Yoga Samrat (Emperor of Yoga).

Now the reason he said beware and even instructed me not to practice backbends for one month during one of my visits in Mysore is because of the intensity of the postures. Combined with increased prana (energy) many of the vital chakras become stimulated (in yoga there are 7 located along the spinal cord). One chakra is the genitals and procreation (svadhisthana). It is activated in backbends because the pelvis is constantly being pressed and pushed forward as well as backward. Depending on the capacity of the student the energy can get ``stuck`` there and produce strong sexual feelings.

So, sexual arousal happens, it is normal and you are not alone.

My teacher once spoke about a student who started obsessively practising backbends. Over time their energy field was aroused beyond a ´normal´ range. It was not just sexual activities that became excessive, but they overate, oversleep and overextended themselves in many areas of their life. This caused a lot of harm to their body, mind and nervous system. It also ruined their practice.

From my own personal experience I can say backbends are so energizing it can start to take over your practice rather than having a well-balanced one. There is also an addictive quality to the feelings they create and the energy produced. I once expressed to Yogacharya how after backbending I felt cleansed, alive and revitalized.


In backbending, the lungs get stretched and often stressed during the practice. Coupled with feelings of fear and anxiety, which many people have in the practice the breath (not just the mind) is the first thing to become unstable. Breath, body and mind are so intermingled it is difficult to sometimes understand this or stay aware of it when right in the middle of an intense backbend. The last thing that often comes to mind is working more closely with the breath as the physical tension and sensations surface.

However, the breath is key to the entire practice.

As I learned backbends more intensely under my teacher it was always by watching and staying with the breath. This might sound extremely obvious but again when entering a deep backbend it is easy to lose sight of this simple intention. Being able to keep it somewhere in the background is not only the saving grace to focusing the mind, but it  also deepens and expand the ability to exhale and inhale. In the beginning this may take several tries but learning to control the breath flow is almost more important than the position of the limbs.

I have observed in my personal practice when the breath became very heavy and the way this affected my thoughts. I have also watched how instinctively there is a tendency to want to force the breath out as if that might help deepen a backbend. Yet, it is the solid and steady practice of slow and deep breaths that allows the body to melt, the mind to slow down and unwanted thoughts to diminish. Many years ago when Ashtanga practitioners came to Yogacharya's shala it was obvious by the amount of 'forced' breaths or ujjayi breathings. Yogacharya was often running beside them saying, "no sound, no sound, no sound". It was a difficult habit to break and not the same approach as in Ashtanga-yoga.


Balance like flexibility and strength is also a question of degree. If the practice is not tempered with other postures and exercises, it can create physical, mental and emotional disturbances. This doesn't just apply to backbends but any practice. As I began studying Sivananda-yoga I had become too flexible while compromising my strengths. When I learned the primary series of Ashtanga yoga under Pattabhi Jois in Mysore my practice got leveled out with strength. In the first series there is only one backbend and a lot of forward bends in lotus.

Becoming more balanced also has a lot to do with the way you practice. Many teachers and in particular more traditional ones adhere to practicing the system of postures as there were laid out by the Master. In other words, you just don’t do whatever you feel like. There is a specific order to the postures. As well, most systems of yoga do not begin with backbends, but are near the end. Shri K. Pattabhi Jois states in the Yoga Mala that the incorrect method and sequence can weaken the body as well as the mind.

Channelling Sexual Energy

It certainly helps to not just accept being aroused sexually, but finding ways to channel it. In yoga, there are many ancient practices that deal with this since having an orgasm was considered a loss of vital fluids called ``ojas``. In the modern world it is about satisfying desire, which people misunderstand as, `´Do whatever the f*_k you want``. The teachings of yoga, however, say this is a clear way of repeating the karmic cycle of extreme highs and lows.

Feeling great, feeling shitting and doing it all over again. Or as my teacher said many times, "You only satisfy a physical need in asana and come back again to your practice to do the same thing again and again and again."

Many of the teachings have been misunderstood in terms of renouncing our physical desires, which leads to repression and denial. When the Buddha talked about letting go of attachment and desire he did not mean go home and throw everything out. An external gesture may not necessarily alter an internal state. The Buddha was talking about having the capacity and the will to take charge of directing the energy toward nobler planes. We cannot stop the mind from thinking or the feelings from feeling, but what we do in practice is become a witness or an observer to the process, the progress and the practice.

Personal Practice

The question and concern about feeling aroused by the postures sheds light on your practice: 
Is there a specific system being practiced? 
Are the breaths counted? 
Is the sequence irregular? 
Is it practiced without any continuity? 
Is it balanced with inversions, rest, twists, forward bends and proper relaxation?

Taking a look at some of these areas can help redirect one’s energies and re-balance the practice. Having sexual feelings during the practice is not wrong, but knowing what to do with them can be challenging.

Instead of being eaten up with desire or driven by our sexual fantasy we can practice to observe it. The yogic lifestyle is to learn to ride the waves and keep the energy moving.

Some of the postures that balance sexual energies are: 1) forward bends; 2) the headstand or half headstand; 3) the head to knee forward bend; 4) shoulderstand pose and, 5) meditation.

The best method can also be to consult a teacher and ask them! Everyone can learn from such an open and gutsy question including the teacher.

 Copyright The Yoga Way, Heather Morton  2012

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Push-Ups 101 of Yoga * revised version

“Even if you start doing push-ups it will not help," said Yogacharya Venkatesha to a student struggling with an arm posture.

In Mysore, India, we practice an unguided sequence, which is built from learning to practice the postures independently. As a student this is the best way to learn the physical postures. My teacher Yogacharya is well known for his ability to verbally lead students through their practice and without physical adjustments. When it comes to his instructions he hits the nail on the head and makes you feel he can read your mind. Yogacharya finishes by saying, “Strength cannot be built from the muscles alone.”

No Strength

This made me recall the time Shri K. Pattabhi Jois (Guruji) told me I had "no strength". I didn't like that. It bothered me so I started doing push-ups. I did them until I flopped on the floor. Like most people I wanted to become stronger but as a woman my feeling was intensified. I never stopped thinking about this until I found out he also said the same thing to men! Looking around the practice room in Mysore I wondered ‘how’ was I going to build strength?

Certainly many of the arm balance postures of yoga are difficult in terms of their physical tenacity. When I began studying regularly under Yogachaya he asked about my practice. When I told him I was doing push-ups he gave me a very painful (an almost dirty) look. Then he laughed. Speaking from experience push-ups do not work. I actually discovered they are good for developing stomach strength rather than arm muscle. What I also discovered is the balance, control and an unwavering ability to focus that arm postures require over physical strength. In Sanskrit this is called sthita-prajna (meaning the steadiness of thought).

Focus Your Practice

Remembering that the practices of yoga are about mind-training is one thing, but developing ways to steady the mind is another. I learned the best way to do this was by being true to one system at a time. For many years I never deviated from any of the systems I studied. There was little room for improvisations or skipping what I wanted. I started my training with Sivananda and practiced the series for years. When I learned Ashtanga yoga and later the system of AtmaVikasa it was with the same approach. However, to develop strength, as an example, I began to create a system that better served problem areas and challenges.

Troubleshooting the Practice

Taking a look at the peacock lotus pose called padma mayurasana, an intermediate pose, here is one way to break it down and work with where you are.

1. Start by opening the hips, the low back and waist as well as stretching and opening the ankles in konasana, the side angle pose, warrior and forward bends.

2. Begin with the tree pose if learning half or full lotus is unmanageable. Learn to practice the half and full lotus in all its forms (re: sitting, lying flat and upside-down).

3. Stay focused on the here and now and not how far you have to go. Forget about even lifting upward if you cannot do lotus. So maybe you cannot practice the full lotus so try it in half. That is tougher!

Make it Personal

The beauty of personalizing the practice lies not in the finished product but what gets developed along the way. An awakening for me was not when my legs folded neatly into lotus but when I understood where I was blocked internally. In a silent moment a gate was opened in being able to deepen my practice. Sharath, Guruji’s grandson, gave me an encouraging moment when he demonstrated how his knee moved out of its joint. He explained it had been 'restructured' from the practice.

As a teacher, I have consistently been big on taking this approach. That is, creating a personalized system that becomes the foundation to evolving physically, mentally and emotionally. I am not a fan of practising from start to finish as many teachers encourage. I do not see the merit in saying you can get through the primary series of Ashtanga in one hour if the entire practice has technical holes. I also know there are few artists who play a piece of music with this approach.

Taking the time to practice independently and troubleshoot areas of difficulty builds confidence, strength, independence and a greater appreciation for the practice.

So the next time my teacher asks about my practice I can safely say I dumped the push-ups.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

How Yoga Helps Us Exceed Our Limitations

Recently I received an honest query about backbending from a male practitioner and teacher of yoga. I love receiving this kind of note because it is an opportunity for more men to understand how yoga (and in particular backbending) might be good for them. It also opens a discussion on some important points to practice.

Reader Question:
I have come across your work and am very interested in backbending. I am a long time male yoga practitioner and more recently teacher. I have always been challenged by back bending and never seem to advance and fear causing myself long term injury. 
I have a very slight kyphosis which is the result of contracting Schuermanns disease in my teens. However that was only diagnosed 1 year ago. I have always had minor chronic pain in my low back but there is nothing other than bad posture. 
I have seen many advanced yoga practitioners who are accomplished with backbending but end up finding their spine has always been able to move in this way. Almost contortionistic you might say. When your spine is initially out of alignment it is difficult to know where you should be in space as you perform a backbend. You look like you never had any kind of spinal challenge. 
My presentation may look flawless but it has been years of a dedicated practice in working through all my problems. Yes, problems and wondering when things were going to get better. It may look like I possess a gift, but I have been faced with many challenges. My spine is on a slight angle; 17 degrees located in the middle of the upper back. Because of this a lower rib pops out often called a hip rib. As a kid it was always sore because it was in the way of normal activities. I had it checked by doctors who confirmed this is the way it developed in the womb. So here I am on an angle. 

Because of the above I had to learn to be more mindful of alignment and work harder at correcting it. I also had a car accident in which I fractured my scapula and broke my wrist. Due to this, my left shoulder was weaker and many problems arose as I learned inversions, arm balances and inverted backbends. What most people fail to remember is that facing limitations is not the time to give up. It is the time to make time and make the practice adjust to you. These are the little nuggets of wisdom that uncover hidden and structural problems that lie at the root of pain. Furthermore, when the spine is misaligned it is best to focus on building the supporting structure. In other words, the problem area is not addressed first but last. As an example, low back pain is not always removed by targeting the low back but in developing better upper body posture and stronger abdominal muscles. 

Many Yoga Masters say the same thing about working with limitations. They suffered through depression, disease, poverty and accidents. After learning this maybe our problems seem a bit more manageable! Yoga is to strengthen the mind. It can also and at the same time improve and correct anatomical issues. Maybe you will never learn to touch your feet to your head, but is that the point? Truly, the point is to learn to work with yourself and on all levels.... i.e., like, love, hate or dislike them.
I can’t seem to see from the information whether the practice of backbending can build a foundation for people who truly are challenged in these postures. Could you please provide some feedback for me on this? 
The practices as I learned it under my teacher offers a template for all to follow. This is the general structure:  

The sun salutations as a basic warm-up with the cobra and downward dog pose held longer. These are counter poses that support each other by stretching the spine outward and downward. Breathing is key and using the lower abdomen in order to support the low back when more intense back bends are introduced. 

The fundamental backbends include postures such as the low back wheel pose. This begins from standing and is generally practiced with the feet together. A key idea is to imagine the tail-bone tucking under and the pelvis (front) stretching. As well, the chest is widened with slow breaths. Counter postures are a grounding aspect of the practice. These are customized to suit the student, but forward bend, spinal twists and the side angle bend called konasana are the staple.

Finally the rest and relaxation stage is critical to the practice. Properly relaxation deepens the physical practice. The muscles can only be forced so far then rest is needed. 

The relaxation process is also a withdrawal from the sense organs called pratyahara. 

We can never start off perfectly or even end that way. Instead Yoga is the perfect way to help teach us to bring our limitations to the next level. And maybe many more men will develop a new interest in their backbends of yoga!  

 Copyright The Yoga Way…2012.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Flexible Journey

With the release of my dvd on yoga backbends (a practice dedicated to the system of Yoga backbeding), I have often been asked about my flexibility.

Is it natural?
Did I develop it only from yoga?
Is it genetic or anatomical?
Was I flexible as a kid?
Did I have any prior physical training?
Was I already flexible?
Do I think others can achieve this?

When I say, “no”, “no” and “nope” I get some pretty surprised looks. I still remember when I was far away from the splits as well as the advanced backbends. I stretched upward and saw the ceiling only. It felt like entering a black hole.

Fast forward 30 years and I am more flexible at 40 than as a kid, a teen-ager or my early 20’s. Most people assume you can’t develop flexibility beyond a certain age. I don’t necessarily agree. My husband (who is not into yoga at all) witnessed me developing much more flexibility in my early 40’s than in my mid 30’s. We also have pictures to prove it.

From a recent e-mail, I was asked whether or not flexibility is something developed, genetic and/or accessible for everyone?


Do you attribute your flexibility mainly to the asanas?

There is no question that I developed this because of yoga. And when I say yoga it is not just the practice of the postures, but the entire system which includes breathing, meditation, relaxation and studying the scriptures.

Overall, I would say ‘yes’, I do attribute my flexibility to the practice, because I trained and practiced for hours and hours, which have turned into years of literally hard work. I think it is 'nice' to consider the notion of hidden flexibility, but having worked through the various stages of releasing blockages in my spine, hips, legs and shoulders, it was from a dedicated practice that lead to the physical flexibility.

What techniques you have learned from your Guru?

What made the difference for me was looking at the practice from beyond the physical level. I began to look inwardly at what was blocking me mentally and emotionally. I could see my back was not bending so working on the physical level alone was not going to help me. I made this connection very early on.

When I met Yogacharya Venkatesha his teachings affirmed what I could not previously articulate. He focused on working from the level of prana (energy). I was taught from the beginning to be with the postures and not taught to consider them as the be-all-and-end-all. It was emphasized I was using my body to work on my mind. I was not always successful with the latter, which is a life-time exploration and more difficult than body training. And while I studied from different teachers and books, my personal practice informed me the most. But my main teacher Yogacharya taught me this.

Which ones are you teaching now?

I remind people to practice beyond the physical level. I say remind, because this is not something I can teach. It is inside of them (re: their own inner teacher waiting to be awakened). My role is to teach students how to breathe, to press at their edge and to go inside. Without these instructions you can force your body and get frustrated when it does not respond. It is a process, which needs to be emphasized.

The practice is an uphill battle, which is not a marketable truth. Many people don't really understand how much is required on ALL levels in order to achieve the flexible back (if that is what is truly desired).

Would you say that you were always a ‘bit' flexible?

There will always be arguments around the genetics of flexibility. Was I already pre-disposed, however, to being so flexible? Hard to say for sure and no one can answer that. Had I chosen a totally different career I never would have developed my backbends. That's a fact.

Early on I was taught to apply the theory to the practice. When people see the extreme flexibility they have the idea it is natural. What is not visible is the struggle – the years of practice and not getting it right. In India I practiced hard and my teacher witnessed it. From the outside it might look like something magical happening. But there are no tricks. What there is – is your practice.

I do see a lot of very stiff people, and I'm sure they would benefit from your teachings, but would they ever get as flexible as you?

If the goal is flexibility alone then this is not going to happen to these extremes. As I mentioned, Yoga works when the theory of the practice is applied. For the postures to emerge there is a shift internally and mentally. It is mental determination over the body and purity of heart. The practice does not give results easily. Getting frustrated and upset can be channelled into fuel for practice. It is easy to get down on yourself forgetting that the journey of moving through this is far more beautiful than reaching the top of the mountain.

I often ask the question what would change for yourself if your feet came to your head? Would you be happier? Calmer? More generous? Less bitchy? The fruit of the practice comes from abandoning reservations and practicing as consistently as the ancient texts speak about.

What’s the biggest lesson you learned?

The greatest lesson of Yoga is learning to accept your body and its limitations. What I have learned is to work with myself and my various assets as well as shortcomings, and bring it all together. When you start doing this you don't look at a short torso and longer legs, and sigh. You figure out how it all works because it is the only thing you have. I have personally learned to appreciate all pains of practice and set-backs as well as limitations (doing this all the time is the my lesson).

If you remember the martial artist Bruce Lee, he said he had a leg that was one inch shorter than the other! He used this to develop a better kick over his opponents. This is great inspiration.

Me in 2007, Jaisalmer, India,
practicing tripurasana (an
advanced version of the backbend
above). This was at a time when
my teacher said, "hm, not coming."

The photo at the top was
taken in 2010 (Mt. Abu, India).
And my teacher said, "hm, coming."

© The Yoga Way, Toronto, Canada 2012.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

10 Reasons Why You Should Start Meditating Now

Also posted on MindBodyGreen Check it out. . .

With so many studies confirming what the Yogis have already been saying for centuries (i.e., that meditation alters your brain) this gives tremendous hope in dealing with physical pain, mental turmoil and emotional disturbances. Read Men’s Health, Good-bye Medication and Hello Medication.

Here are some really good reasons to learn to meditate now:
1. Lowers blood pressure
2. Relaxes the mind
3. Elicits physical relaxation
4. Develops better concentration
5. Lessens emotional tenacity
6. Improves breathing
7. Reduces stress and tension
8. Lessens the feeling of pain
9. Develops the ability to reflect
10. _________________ (this one’s for you)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

7 Things You Need to Know About Backbends

When people hear about bending backward often visions of a contortionist with their head resting on their buttocks comes to mind. Bending back looks pretty tough; even a bit painful. A few years ago a student expressed feeling pain just by looking at the backbends postures on the wall at my yoga school in Toronto.

“Hm, I thought, they look good to me!”

But if the truth were told even for practitioners like me who have been practicing backbends for years know it is not so easy. For those interested in the practice here’s how to take backbends into your yoga stride.

The 8 things you should know:

1. Backbends shake you out of your comfort zone.

If we stop and think about it most (if not all) of our daily movements are limited to moving forward. Rarely do we spend time defying gravity by moving upside-down, backward or sideways. It just feels natural to bend forward. It’s also the obvious thing to do when picking something off the floor. However, backbends offer an exciting way to move the spine. This creates better balance between our normal activities and breaks-up the rigidity of the spine spent sitting for too long. It is a journey from our habits and into something not so familiar.

2. Keep your brain healthy and your heart active.

Medical studies have shown many people suffer from chronic back-pain. An interesting study conducted in an American university linked the effects of continuous low back pain to lowering the grey matter of the brain. Read ~ Losing Your Mind From Back Pain. Yoga Master B.K.S. Iyengar recommended backbending as a cure for depression. He also advised that backbends be used as a holistic alternative for heart patients. Because backbends stretch the heart they relieve tensions stored in the muscles and send off natural pain-killers. They may also cure depression and boost the immune system.

3. Backbends are a great teacher of life skills.
When we come face-to-face against our physical edge our minds our challenged. This presses us to develop patience or to drop-out. If we to stick to the task we will benefit from the practice in learning how to slow down as well as breathe. The practice also takes energy, devotion, will, discipline and care; all good things for life. And being true to life, backbending is no exception in that there are set-backs. Sometimes we stretch too much and need to learn our limits.

4. There isn't any traditional system of Hatha-yoga that omits backbends.
To name just a few of the traditional systems of yoga Sivananda-yoga contains the wheel (chakrasana), bridge (setu-bandha sarvangasana) and locust (shalabhasana) as its basic postures. In the primary series of Ashtanga-yoga the pickings are slimmer, but wheel still shows up. In AtmaVikasa Yoga developed by Yogacharya V. Venkatesha (check out ~, a full system of backbends is taught. These range from the crocodile posture (makarasana) to full locust (shalabhasana) to camel (ushtrasana), with a closing sequence offering both bridge and wheel.

5. A backbending class is a not just a class of non-stop backbends.
In the charming city called Mysore (perhaps more famous for being the home to the late Shri K. Pattabhi Jois), Yogacharya Venkatesh has been teaching for over 20 years special backbending classes to a handful of students at a time. His classes are not for the elite, but a wide range of older, stiffer bodies to younger and bendier ones. These classes are structured to suit individual need. As well, they are not just a class in non-stop backbends. Forward bends and other counter postures are given a lot of emphasize by holding them for double the time as the backbends. FYI: If you decide to go to Mysore you can only study under one teacher at a time (no cheating).

6. Backbends are uncomfortable but one way to work on the mind.
Frankly speaking, what can you honestly expect if you have never bent backward before? Notwithstanding medical issues or injuries backbends extend the entire spine and move the body laterally, forward and backward. They are challenging and no teacher should tell you differently. It's at that point the theory of the practice gets kick started. We practice to move beyond physical tension and use the 'breath' as the force. Is a misconception to think the practice is only about contortionism. There are some extreme and unusual positions, but that’s the means to a indirectly working on your mind. Remember: we use the body to work on the mind.

7. The practice never promised Cirque du Soleil.
In the end, the bud of yoga appears differently from one practitioner to the next. In other words, getting your feet to your head may or may not be your goal. And if it isn't does that make you less interested or insincere in your practice? No matter how the flower of the practice appears it is the promise of Patajalim's Yoga for growth. Of course, Patajalim never promised it would be easy. But we are guaranteed success with a consistent practice and a sincere effort.

If this sounds can see more on my youtube channel.

© The Yoga Way, Toronto, Canada 2012.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Being vs. Doing

How the practices of yoga are about the state of 'being' and 'doing' in which they both cohabitate.  

A well-known practitioner of Ashtanga-yoga jokingly said once, "Don't make an ass of yourself practicing yoga-ass-ana." This is paraphrased, but it brings to mind how yoga is not just for the sake of the postures. Paradoxically, it is a journey of doing in which we discover our state of being.

Inherent in the practice is a unique method of using the breath combined with moving the body. As we move from one posture to another with a focus on staying focused, there are often pockets or moments of feeling connected to our deeper self. As intangible as these moments might seem they gradually bridge the gap between the state of 'doing' to that of 'being'. One of the biggest complaints about yoga in the West is how it gets taken up for manic reasons without shedding the layers of pride, egotism and arrogance. Rather than letting go there is more pride, conceit and vanity created. Given how the West is generally known for being less evolved spiritually than the East there tends to be less awareness about practising for a higher purpose. I myself came to yoga with the work-out mind-set.

But I would argue none of this is worth getting hung-up over. How many blogs, posts and debates exist about why Ashtanga-yoga, as an example, is only physical and another yoga is better. Or as one student asked during a backbending workshop I was offering, "Why does everyone resonate so much with Ashtanga-yoga?' (Eh?)

Certainly, I have no answer which would be the same as answering for other people why they prefer the taste of a green apple versus an orange. This question, however, shows how our attention and awareness is diverted from what's really important. Not to mention it was a workshop in backbending and not of Ashtanga-yoga.

In the end, every practice of yoga including Ashtanga-yoga is a clear set-up to elicit stillness. These are through the breath, gazing points, the length of time a posture is held and the resting posture at the end of class. A typical class contains a clear beginning in which the mind is directed inwardly, a series of postures practiced to help the mind from going out and the resting pose completes it.

The whole practice is laid out in the Yoga Sutras. The first verse states, "Yoga is the cessation of thoughts (1:II). This simple statement contains a great deal of insight but also questions. That is, what does cessation mean since we know we cannot actually stop the mind? Do we first achieve this through struggle? How can this be mastered? Usually we think of mastery as a skill we acquire. It can mean, however, an on-going skill and process that lies beyond gripping one's jaw or losing one's breath. If yoga is about stillness then it is not mastery of the outer form alone.

Patanjalim's yoga makes this clear.

Another verse speaks about the efforts made in practice becoming effortless. Confusing indeed. This Sutra says the when efforts cease and the quality of the postures arises.
"Perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached." B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
The best way to understand this is to be reminded of the fact that postures are not static. Each pose contains an element of struggle and one of relaxation. That is, both the state of being and the one of doing, which are not the same in every pose. The point of relaxation is not the same in the wheel as it is in the bow. If we only fight to get into the postures there will be less of a chance to relax, reflect and expand. It is more like an elastic band stretching with great care and skill.

In many ways practice is like learning to ride a bicycle. In the beginning you have to really concentrate and put in a great deal of effort. I will never forget when I was learning I forgot how to use the brakes and hit a fence! As you one learn how to cycle a natural rhythm gets started. The practices of yoga are equally about good health and fitness as it is a continous path to touch our inner state of being. All the systems of yoga are the perfect place to practice 'doing' and 'being' and 'being' and 'doing'.

We learn to take both and become one with them.

That is how the postures lead to a state beyond just being an ass-ana. And perhaps more importantly, why spending your time over why one practice is not for you is a waste of your time and energy.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Really Yoga: Understanding Pain as a Teacher and Working with Injuries

It is true pain, discomfort and disturbances surface by practising yoga.

"Pain? But isn't yoga supposed to be a 'feel-good' activity?" 

Pain is not a Qualifier to a Good Practice 

While I am implying that it isn't and for those already familiar with the rigors of the practice, a nodding look might be surfacing. What I mean is just because you feel uncomfortable does not mean you are doing it wrong. Conversely, having pain is not a qualifier for a great practice either. The trouble lies in understanding that no spiritual practice (whether it be yoga, meditation or any other related practice) was never meant to be an unobstructed or easy ride.

In fact, it is the most challenging and demanding path an individual can pursue (Georg Feuerstein, The Lost Teachings of Yoga).

With the increasing number of people practicing yoga (estimated over 40 million since 2004 in the United States), which is absolutely incredible it is bound to stir hidden tensions and stresses in the body and mind. The practice is carefully designed to uncover what has been repressed and neglected. The unexpected takes place, it looked easier than it is and demands so much more than the 1,2,3, you’re done approach!

Push, Relax or Do Both? 

When I first started practicing yoga I had some flexibility but certainly not to the degree I later developed. I also lacked strength in many parts of my body as well as my mind. Studying under Indian Yoga Masters helped drill this latter point into my head. That is, the practice of the physical asanas is a direct route to training the mind.

Practice for everyone at no matter what level of expertise should not miss this point. That's why telling students to relax more and not push too much might not be serving them. Perhaps a habit has been made out of relaxing and chronically not challenging themselves and resting on their laurels. That said, I am also not in favour of throwing a student into the lion’s den, pushing people over and watching them fall and calling it “building up fear tolerance”. It's ignorant, counter-productive and gives teachers a bad rap for being 'bad' teachers, but more that Yoga HAS to hurt! It also leads people to think all pain is good. Yoga is pain and without it maybe I am not working hard enough.

Because yoga has been narrowed into the physical stream with pain as a trophy for many (i.e., I suffered this and achieved that) there is a slow landslide in understanding why, how and what it is all about. Paradoxically, we work with the physical postures to heal the mind, awaken the dormant energies and develop a better understanding of our strengths, weaknesses, habits and ultimately an inner purpose.
Pain as many great teachers say is the greatest teacher of all (Jon Kabit-Zinn, a meditation teacher in America). And yet learning or rather finding out how to use and work with pain is the biggest challenge for us all.
The Tools of Yoga 

Yoga provides us with these tools in a real and tangible way. If we want to walk on the path it will challenge us in all directions revealing what it is we need to know and where it is we need to go. It may also reveal what we do not want to face, which is equally difficult in working with personal mental resistance.

I used to have a lot of pain in my knees when I studied under Shri K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore. I brought that pain with me so I do not see it as the fault of yoga or the Guru. Early on in my practice there were many impurities and weaknesses to work with. As a former figure skater I used my right side more and my left side became quite tight. As I learned lotus and other postures it was during the time of a lot hands-on assistance; there were also very few students present and the popularity of Ashtanga-yoga was yet to come. The approach back then was to let me practice, strap my body into the asana (ready or not) and continue to practice. Each day I hobbled into class Pattabhi Jois was not baffled at my pain. Call it my ego, my impure body and mind or that I was not fit enough, I struggled like a worm trying to break free of its cocoon every day.

Guruji (the affectionate name for Pattabji Jois) used to say, "little pain today, gone tomorrow." I don't think I appreciated this until tomorrow became many, many tomorrow's and much later (even years later).

What I have discovered is the journey of yoga is built upon how to work with the breath, the gaze point and the bandhas. It was not until one day during my practice that something inside of me totally recognized my physical pain was connected to both mental and emotional barriers.

Intuitive Knowledge is Under-rated 

Working or rather practicing alone on the body only takes you so far. We have been conditioned in the West to look for the teacher to give us the solution or to make it right for us. However, it was on my own and from countless practices that inner guide slowly awaken. As teacher this is what we owe to our students. To show them how to do this. The external teacher can only reveal where we are stuck physically and mentally. And like it or not, it is up to us (you and me) to find our way home. That is why Guruji did not hold my hand or wipe any students' tears. I never saw him phased by all the people groaning and moaning either. I was actually happy he did not speak a lot of English. And the reason I say that is because I think many teachers talk too much! Of course, it is better than not talking at all. However, words are limited and talking can potentially over-intellectualize the practice and prematurely make assumptions and conclusions.

Silence as a teacher is stronger than verbal discourse and Guruji was not a man of many words. He let me practice and watched; supporting me with his energy and his gaze.

Sometimes students feel this is a cold and uncaring approach. However, it is the student who has to do 80 per cent of the work and the teacher 20 per cent. Having worked through numerous layers of the body, I slowly developed a system that allowed me to keep building posture after posture after posture. I encourage all students to start like this and how I taught yoga at my school ~ The Yoga Way. Start off with a basic element of a posture and practice it 3-4 times each time you practice. I never heard of a musician running through a piece from start to finish. So the same logic can be applied when working on the postures of yoga.

Goals and Pre-Goals 

Take for example the desired lotus pose. First, understand it will not come from shoving the knee into the pose. It will grow like the lotus from a deep place and with an intelligent approach that starts from working from the outside in. If the goal is lotus then the pre-goals need to be in opening the hips, the lower back, developing stomach control and loosening the legs. The umbrella to this is the connection of the mind and its habitual clinging to the disturbances of the body. This umbrella will also be the bridge between them: the breath.

The Breath

Breath directs thoughts, feelings and consciousness. Through the breath the body moves (not vice versa). Through the breath the mind moves (not vice versa). This is a fairly simple revelation but a critical aspect to practice.

When working through intense pain this is the approach. While working through layers of physical or mental resistance this is the approach. When having fun this remains the approach. That is, breathe.

Technique is Not Enough

Knowing the technical aspects is also not enough. In fact, the techniques can be learned pretty quickly in just about any posture. I sometimes think you really do not need a teacher for that. You can read it in a good book, watch youtubes or sit down with a dvd. What takes time (a life-time) is the understanding of the multiple layers of the mind, the nuances of the postures and bringing the scattered mind to a still place in a single posture. That is why my teacher Yogacharya Venkatesha had me practice less postures for more internal work.
And he would often say, "You have worked a lot on the physical level, how about your mind?"
Today, we either have people saying pain is necessary for practice and let’s bull-doze through it. Or feeling afraid of the pain and becoming paralyzed. The fact is as many Buddhists discuss life is pain, life is suffering and yet it is also beautiful (Chogyam Trungpa).

Patience - Where Can I Get Some 

One of the most wonderful things my teachers demonstrated consistently is patience. They did not scorn or ridicule but offered encouragement by saying, "it will come."  Having worked through many injuries with my knees, pain in my back and joints as well as a car accident (before yoga), it is because of pain that the practice keeps going.  I once even walked to class because of the pain to Yogacharya's class. It was my last class and I was very disappointed.
He only said, "It will go."
Pushing through pain only creates more of the same. Therefore, working carefully, gradually and consistently is the only way to understand pain as a teacher and not to remain in pain. Practice is not about getting rid of it, but slowly ironing it out and leveling it down.

Breathing, meditation, postures, chanting, reading scriptures and working with a qualified teacher creates a practice and space that teaches you how to work with your own body, your breath and your mind as it is, and in any given state.

Understanding yoga (really) is having yoga work for you as a life practice and partner; sharing in all that comes, goes, is, isn't and remains to be seen and yet to be experienced.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Birds of a Feather

one leg to eat cheese . . .

one leg to phone . . .

Recently one of my students sent me this; comparing how a bird can eat cheese with one leg and how I use the phone with one leg.

This little bird definitely has an advantage, I think, being able to eat with one leg. Birds are not missing much by not being able to make a phone call. They can deliver their messages first-hand.