Stiff yoga guide: Utkatasana

First off, I have to effuse for a second.

Over at ashtangayoga.info, where I get most of my asana photos (including the one below), Utkatasana — chair pose, right? — is described as Wild Posture.

I. Love. That.

So much better than “chair pose.” It evokes so well the dynamism of this pose, which is so compacted on the one hand while at the same time being expansive and outstretching.

Nothing like a chair. But wild, yes, definitely.

I like this pose, as well as I like any asana.

It may also seem like a simple pose, at first glance. But then you begin to think about the entrance and exit and… it gets more complicated.

First, our usual reminder (in case there are people just dropping into this post who haven’t been following them all):

this is my way of modifying and adjusting the Ashtanga practice to emphasis both alignment and the stretch of the pose. The goal is more physical than perhaps normal: To get more flexibility.

The tweaks and changes are based on suggestions from several handful of Ashtanga and yoga teachers. Nothing is meant to be definitive, just suggestive.

So on to chair, er Wild Posture.

Keep in mind, it begins with a vinyasa. “Vinyasa to Utkatasana,” I can hear Tim Miller say. I don’t know about anyone else, but I certainly have the tendency to move too quickly through the sun salute, to not hold the down dog, to try to get to that asana as quickly as possible. So one modification: Slow down.

The jump from down dog to the start of Utkatasana is a moment in the practice I find extremely important. I find it sets the stage for all the jump throughs and backs that come during the seated poses of First Series. It’s a major bandha check. Can you land softly, with control? Can you put on the bandha breaks? Because you’ll need them in a few more poses.

I know a lot of folks sink deep down to begin this pose, probably sweeping the hands near or on the floor. I don’t. I’m thinking about creating a strong foundation, not too deeply bent at the knees (but always more deeply bent than I am when I start). And I’m blessed with enough shoulder inflexibility that trying to straighten the arms and then look at my thumbs is a stretch.

If I’m extra tight, or it is extra cold, or just extra early, I might keep the hands parallel to each other and not touching. But I do try to bring them together without having the arms bend into an “Egyptian yoga” position.

Here’s a moment for another strong bandha check. (As seems to be proving true, having broken these asanas down to their basics, I’m finding the bandhas there more than I realized.)

Five breaths, right? What? Maybe more? Sure, why not 10?

And now the exit. I’ve been sneaking two Bakasanas in here. (Based around the “up” exit from this pose.) The first one I get in as best as I can. And then hold for five breaths. The second I try to get the knees higher up into the arm pits and the arms straighter.

I sometimes shoot back from there, but if it is early morning and I’m trying to be quiet, I’ll just come out of the pose. I mention that because I find that holding plank pose after Bakasana can be tougher than shooting back into Chaturanga. Just saying — for those trying to get someone who is interested in strengthening themselves via yoga, that’s one little avenue to stressing the muscles.

Posted by Steve

 

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Friday asana aid: Finding your bandhas

I’ll step out on a limb (pun alert!) and say that if you queried Ashtanga practitioners, more would call the bandhas the most illusive aspect to the practice than anything else.

More than dristi. Or the proper breath. Perhaps some small subset would smartly say, “Quieting the mind,” but we can figure they are just being snarky.

And since I’m not sure a video could capture a lesson quieting the mind, we’ll just stick with the bandhas for this week’s aid package.

Up first, an excerpt from David Swenson’s video — which you should own, by the way:

Leslie Kaminoff:

Kino MacGregor:

David Garrigues:

Manju:

And a final note. A search for “bandhas” also pulls up a lot of “band has” so you can find some music on the Youtube if you want.

Posted by Steve

No more fear of flying

My back-to-basics Ashtanga practice the past six weeks, with its focus on alignment and the stretch of the poses instead of finding my way as deep into the full state of the pose as possible, has yielded a few immediate lessons.

One has been a renewed and, let’s be honest, improved engagement with the bandhas. (If you’re bored enough to look through the Stiff Yoga Guide posts, you’ll discover that I mention finding the bandhas pretty frequently.)

Thursday morning, to keep this story short, I moved from Down Dog to the upper state of Chaturanga, as I prepared to drop myself ever so lightly and gently (note: potential untruths in there somewhere) to the mat for the Second Series Dhanurasana.

But there, in what I guess flow classes call plank, I felt … light. Weightless. I barely could feel where my hands and feet were touching my mat.

It felt, briefly, like I was flying. Or, at least, could fly. Hover. Float. Levitate.

The bandhas were engaged. Especially Uddiyana. For that moment.

And because so often the experience of a yoga practice gets described through sudden moments of awareness, stillness, familiarity, comfort, peace, etc., I will take this moment as something positive.

Anyway, this should lead into a pretty obvious Friday asana aid: Bandhas.

Posted by Steve

Stiff yoga guide: Prasarita Padottanasana

Slowly and not so surely we are getting near the end of the fundamental or basic poses in this stiff yoga modification series.

This time, the four Prasaritas. And you can be assured there are plenty of adjustments made.

As always, the quick reminder: I’m on a month-long return to basics approach to Ashtanga, with a focus on trying to emphasize both the stretches in the pose and the correct alignment, rather than moving more fully into the poses. I’ll just focus on what I’m doing that isn’t 100% copacetic.

(I’ve written in the past about the four Prasaritas and getting adjusted in all four in a row. Fun times.)

Via ashtangayoga.info

Now, on with the show:

This is a pose where a straight back during all those forward folds is central to what I’m doing. As I learned on Sunday, the one day a week Bobbie and I practice together, I’m still likely “cheating” on poses by rounding the upper back, leaning the head forward and making myself think I’m only three feet away from my knees/things/toes instead of four.

I also try to be extra careful that my legs are straight and that my feet are turned just a little inward; pigeon-toed, I guess, would be another way to describe it. (You can see that in the photo.)

On the more positive side, this is a pose where I find both Uddiyana and Mula Bandha are pretty accessible, so it may be a good pose to use if you’re trying to help someone (stiff) explore the mysteries that are the bandhas.

In A, the main modification, since I don’t have my head on the floor like in the picture to the left, is to make certain my fingers are facing forward (as in the photo) to help encourage proper shoulder alignment. I know some teachers encourage use of a block (or blocks, and here I add a heavy sigh) to get the feeling of pressing through the head. It’s not one of my favorite modifications. The B modification is much the same; probably the “new” thing I’ve been doing during the past month is focusing more on the grabbing of the waist before/during the return movement up. I guess I cheat a little, inch those hands down toward the hips, which makes coming up easier. (And we know Ashtanga shouldn’t be easy.)

For C, you may be able to guess, the arms aren’t terribly near the floor. So it is just about trying to loosen the shoulders up, as I can. The key phrase here: Don’t cross the streams. In this case, though, I’m probably not going to risk total protonic reversal. But keeping my thumbs next to each other, uncrossed, as the rest of my fingers interlace, does seem to give just a smidge more space for the shoulders to move. Also, as I fold forward, I use my arms along my back as a reminder to keep that back straight. Once I’m as far forward as I’m likely to go, then I “release” the arms and let them try to reach farther ahead.

In D, forget about the toes. I’m reaching to my mid-shins (which seems to be the usual spot I’m getting to), and I’m trying to keep a loosen grip so I’m not tensing up and fighting myself. (There’s enough of that already.)

Mostly 10 breaths in all these, too.

Posted by Steve

Stiff yoga guide: Padangushthasana and Pada Hastasana

If you aren’t sure why we’re running through the first part of the Ashtanga practice, check here or here or here.

Now, on to the next pose(s) and the variations I’m trying: Padangushthasana and Pada Hastasana.

So not where I’m at; via ashtangayoga.info

This may be boring and obvious, but here goes:

  • As with all parts of both Suryas, I’m focused on keeping my legs straight to isolate my hamstrings as much as possible. Trying to push through the big toes to encourage internal rotation of my legs is key.
  • I am not reaching for my toes and not going anywhere near putting my padas under my hastas (TM — Tim Miller). I’ve got my hands about mid-calf.
  • I’m constantly fighting the feeling that I’m rocking back on my heels.
  • While I’m trying to keep things simple, this is a pose where the bandhas are important. As some commenters on this series of posts have noted, stretching the way I am — legs so rigidly straight — can be tough on the lower back. Ensuring there’s support in the core, I’m finding (no surprise), is key.
  • I’m staying folded forward for 10 breaths — but not moving from one “pose” to another.

I bet you can guess which pose comes next.

Posted by Steve