Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Pose it forward

I was perusing Arturo's blog when I came across an interesting comment from Arturo, himself, regarding the timing of giving out poses. It's almost (but not quite) a dead horse here on my blog, but as I slowly (but not as slowly as it would be at some other shalas, including Shala X) make my way through Second Series, I find myself with new thoughts on the topic and a need to beat that poor horse further into submission.

I've practiced at a shala (Shala X) where poses are given out slowly, where the next pose is not given until the last one given is mastered to a point where assistance is not needed (although assistance might be enjoyable or beneficial for deepening the practice). I did a nearly 200 hour teacher training with Sir that covered the Primary Series, in which the discussion and the hands-on portion dovetailed perfectly to help me understand this methodology of pose-giving as a function of truly helping the students to progress as well as perserving the teacher's energies for the good of all.

The Primary Series is nearly impossible for some students to master without daily adustments in certain poses. Sure, some students come in and are able to bind all of the Marichyasanas on the first day. And those students will likely progress quickly through the Primary Series, perhaps as quickly (or as slowly) as it takes for them to remember the sequence and the vinyasas (lest the teacher have to go over it with them each and every time they practice). But from what I have seen, both as a student and as a teacher, most students will hit a "wall" sometime before Navasana. And by "wall", I mean a pose that they regularly cannot do without assistance.

If every one of those students were to practice all of Primary as soon as they could remember the sequence, then one of two things would have to happen. Either the teacher would be running around adusting every student in every pose in which assistance was needed, or more likely, students would not get daily assistance in the poses in which they need assistance.

In the first case, with students waiting for assistance in each pose that they cannot complete alone, practice would extend far too long, heat would be lost, the flow constantly interrupted, and the teacher would likely burn out quickly, even with assistance. In the second case, without regular assistance, students would make little or no progress. They would be simply approximating their difficult poses most of the time. With daily assistance in difficult poses like the Marichyasanas and the Kurmasanas, the impossible can become possible. Without daily assistance, in most cases nothing much happens at all, at least physically, in a student's difficult poses. And without actually making the bind or the connection of head to leg or whatever we're talking about, heat and energy is lost.

Now, If I were teaching a student individually, as opposed to in a group setting, I would certainly let them practice ALL of Primary because Primary has such therapeutic benefits, and doing all of Primary properly helps one do ALL of Primary unassisted. Later poses are helpful in the practice of earlier poses, and the calorie burning from doing all of Primary is huge, and yes, size might play a role for some people in being able to complete certain poses (people who are naturally flexible or have unusually long limbs might be able to carry more weight and still be able to bind, say Mari D, but people such as myself, who have are relatively stiff and relatively shorter limbs might need to be skinnier to make the bind; another dead horse here, yes).

On the other hand, all of this seems to change when it comes to Second Series. Pasasana is a strange little gatekeeper to the rest of Second Series, which seems more than anything else to be a nice heat-building combination of Mari A and C, which is great if you're coming straight from Parsvotanasana, or a good spine-neutralizer, if you've just come from the forward bends of Primary. Pasasana has a "partner" in preparation for the rest of Second: Krounchasana, with its minor stretch of the quads and final return to a long, neutral spine. Other than counterposing Primary Series or warming up after a shortened Standing Series, neither seems to add anything to what comes next - the back-bending sequence that ends in Kapotasana and Supta Vajrasana.

Bakasana is akin to child's pose, balanced on the hands, so I see it as a post-back-bending spine-neutralizer, like the easier-than-Mari-C-twists that seem to act as a buffer between the backbending sequence and the long leg-behind-head sequence that follows, which is not related in any way at all to whether one has mastered the back-bending sequence.

What do any of those poses have to do with being able to balance on forearms? Or to lotus the legs and lower the lotus legs onto the backs of the arms while balanced on forearms? Especially when most of the later poses are much easier and much more accessible to so many more people (check out any Jivamukti class and you might see a Mayurasana or even Nakrasana, but never a Karandavasana)? The rest of the sequence, like the tail-end of Primary, is kind of like a "hair-0f-the-dog" balm for what has just been done. It's the downhill side of the hike. Challenging in its own way, but nothing like the uphill climb, and for which the uphill climb does not prepare the student.

I see each sub-sequence of Second Series - Pasasana plus Krounchasana, the backbending sequence, the leg-behind-head sequence, the strength-balance sequence, the downhill hike - as whole in and of itself. That said, I am not clear on why Arturo's teacher won't give him Yoganidrasana until he masters Dwi Pada. It seems to me that most people can get into Yoganidrasana fully and without assistance whether or not they can Dwi Pada themselves. And Yoganidrasana is helpful in opening up those hips to make Dwi Pada and the Eka Padas (which, to me are HARDER than Dwi Pada) happen. So, then, why not give them together? This I don't know, and I don't know Arturo's practice at all. And clearly, obviously, there is a lot I don't know about Second Series, not having taken any training in it other than having practiced some of it with Val.

But I do see the wisdom, in a CLASS setting, of giving out the poses in such a way that more than one major adjustment per student is not needed (and by major adjustment, I mean an adjustment that GETS the student INTO the pose). In a private setting, or in a tiny Mysore style setting, like, for example, five students or less, I really can't see a reason for holding students back in Primary or in each individual sub-sequence within Second.

That's all.

YC

26 comments:

rick said...

According to Matthew Sweeney, the deep backbends followed by the deep forward bends (leg behind the head) create a resonance in the spine and nervous system. The strength building poses like pincha and karanda, in my experience, sort of stabilize all that nervous agitation. My last pose is nakrasana, so I'm not sure what the rest of intermediate does to you.

Learning intermediate can take much longer than learning primary because a lot poses before mayurasana are quite extreme. Being assisted into kapotasana and grabbing heels by yourself are two different animals (the latter one is much more intense psychologically).

My last teacher said that for nervous cleansing to occur properly and safely, the student should be able to do the poses sequentially and virtually without assistance. Otherwise, the student will not fully experience the benefits of nadi shodhana.

Just relaying what I've heard....

Interesting post about Indian spices BTW. I'm so ayurvedically challenged.

Yoga Chickie said...

When you say resonance, I say, huh? Do you mean resilience? As in the ability to easily move from backbends to forward bends? Otherwise, I am not sure what your statement means.

OK, now, onto the next: I totally can see how doing the SUBsequences sequentially (by now, I hope you know what I mean by subsequences), can make the nerve cleansing happen, whereas just doing the poses in random order could defeat that purpose. BUT, I have trouble understanding how doing them UNASSISTED can have any effect at all. I mean, if a person has lost a hand, which would mean they could never bind in Yoganidrasana, mean that they can never experience the benefits of Nadi Shodana, even though they can cross their legs behind their neck and tie a rope to their wrist to create a bind? And then what difference would it make if the teacher plunked the hands together, as opposed to the student wriggling them together as opposed to the student easily taking their own wrist?

Next, having only gone up to Dhanurasana, I am not sure what to make of the fact that I feel no nervous agitation whatsoever and that I feel calm afterwards, without benefit of Pincha. And I can't say how having one's teacher put one into Karanda would change the effects of it on the nervous system. And also, from what I can see and from what I have read on these blogs, Karanda is anything but stabilizing and calming. But this is all up for debate anyway...

Finally, what I was getting at in my post was how the poses assist or do not assist a student in doing the poses that come before or after, and my focus was on the physical. I definitely talk so much that the point could be lost, but the bottom line of what I was saying was that in Primary, other than for the sake of time, energy expenditure of the teacher and the necessity of fully getting into poses in order to LEARN them, there doesn't seem to be much utility in being held back from doing the whole series; if the teaching situation makes it possible, then I think it is better for the student to do all of Primary, receiving assistance as needed. Again, IF the teaching situation makes it possible. In a large Mysore setting, there is no way this is possible.

My bottom line does NOT apply to Second because I do not believe that grasping heels in Kapotasana will help one to get the legs behind the head or to balance in Mayurasana. But I do not see why a student who gets Salabasana should not also be given Kapotasana within a short time frame, or why a student who is given Dwi Pada should not also be given Yoga Nidrasana. AGAIN, my statements assume that either the student does not need more than one MAJOR assist in the SUBsequence in question, or that the student is practicing in a nearly one-on-one situation with a teacher such that multiple adjustments make sense in a purely economics sense: teacher is spending quality one-on-one time with student for which teacher is getting paid enough so that teacher need not be giving big muscular adjustments ALL day long.

Caroline said...

I realize that you're focusing mainly on Second in this post, but in regards to students learning Primary, there is another reason to take asanas sequentially that is often not discussed.

There might be students of various fitness levels, and plowing them all through the entire sequence will leave many fatigued. So going about their daily life will then be feeling tiring and overwhelming.

Ursula said...

We have perhaps 2 Ashtanga teachers here in Munich, who do the second series. One is in India, the other one has no studio and offers first series. There are no students for second series either.

I started Ashtanga yoga in a class till navasana. From time to time but not very often I got an adjustment. I looked what the others were doing and copied it, and later I learned from books. I gave myself all the new poses. I know it very well by myself when I need a new pose.

Good evening. Ursula

Yoga Chickie said...

Hey Caroline - yes, I agree. I didn't mention that because my discussion, based on a discussion on Arturo's blog dealing with frustration with not moving forward, presupposed a DESIRE to move forward more quickly than the teacher is offering. That itself presupposes that the student has the stamina to do so. On the other hand, not in the working world, I put a great deal of my daily energy into my practice, which I would not be able to do if I worked and was a mom (I'm just a mom!).

Ursula - wow, I did not know that you had to teach yourself so much of what you know! How lucky you are to be blessed with the physical ability and the mental discipline!

Jason said...

Lauren,
I thank you for your interest in this aspect of the practice in that it’s helped me articulate more of my own ideas.

I am curious to know in what sense is the primary series “nearly impossible” for some students to master without “daily adjustments”? On what are you basing this observation? Also, on what are you basing the supposition that “without regular assistance, students would make little or no progress”? I’m remarking on this because this isn’t borne out by my experience, both practicing and teaching ashtanga vinyasa. For what length of time have you observed a body of students, i.e. 1 year, 3 years, 5 years?

The primary series is a progressive sequence, as you’ve noted --- over time, the later poses make the poses that precede them easier. But it’s important not to forget that the earlier poses make the later poses possible.

In a larger sense, on the anna maya kosha or purely physical level, the intermediate series begins to seriously work with the plexus of nerves that runs through the sacrum; to use another, more yogic map, on the prana maya kosha level, and perhaps deeper, nadi shodhana begins to work on the kanda, the egg-shaped “knot” where the three main nadis join, and on the sushumna nadi, which extends from the muladhara to the crown of the head.

Do these channels feel familiar? They should, as intermediate goes to work on them hammers-and-tongs by building to a series of intense backbends, and then heading in the opposite direction with a series of intense forward bends. The advanced sequences of ashtanga then flip-flop between these extreme states with shall we say less compassionate sequencing.

To further elaborate on your ideas about intermediate, and to add some clarity, pasasana is the beginning of preparation for backbending. Its twisting aspect continues the alleviation of forward bending that began with setu bandasana, and it begins to strengthen and open the hip flexors and calves, as well as strengthen the soleus. These aspects are integral to kapotasana and urdvha dhanurasana.

Krouncasana will continue to lengthen the quadriceps, hip flexors and psoas, as well as the IT band on the extended leg; again, all of which are important for backbending. We are lengthening the connective tissue in the legs and in the front core of the body.

Supta vajrasana then becomes a counter-pose to kapotasana and helps reset the sacrum. Bakasana, with its rounded spine, continues the transition into backbending counterposes. Chief among its aims is to strengthen the abdominal area, which when contracted will help lengthen and elongate the spine.

Karandavasana, and to a certain extent tittibasana, are gentle counterposes to dwi pada sirsasana, as the spine is gradually brought out of the state of extreme flexion and the core is once again engaged and strengthened to help return the spine and the muscles of the back to a sense of neutrality. Karandavasana also involves an intense rounding of the spine in order to fit the shins into the armpits. (Mayurasana then becomes the counterpose for the wrists, forearms and spine, which bows upward from the base of the elbows.)

While it may be more challenging to do eka pada sirsasana than dwi pada sirsasana, the risk for injury in dwi pada is much, much greater, which is generally why it is given after some proficiency is demonstrated in eka pada sirsasana. Yogi nidrasana is aptly named, too --- it’s a relaxing, resting pose, and it’s also a transition away from leg-behind-head, which carries through into tittibasana.

I’ve found it helpful to expand my ideas of asana sequencing beyond the pose/counterpose dialectic to a triadic approach. We begin with the attack, or the ascension, the rising note, or the Brahma/creator aspect of the trimurti, which evolves into the sustain, the plateau, or the Vishnu/preserver aspect. This is followed by the decay, the decline, the Shiva-destroyer.

Ardha matsyendrasana begins the Brahma-creator aspect of the leg-behind head, culminating in dwi pada sirsasana, which may be considered the Vishnu-preserver of the sequence. Yogi nidrasana begins the Shiva-destroyer aspects of leg-behind-head.

These sequences are also nested as different pieces of the triadic series for backbending, twisting, and strengthening.

I’m not a regular follower of your blog, so I can’t comment on recurring themes in it, but I do get a sense that you’re focusing on a lot of the minutiae of the asanas --- hands must be bound, heels must be grabbed, et cetera, et cetera. This can be helpful, although to borrow a phrase from Matthew Sweeney, it’s a phase through which one ought to move.

I practice with a woman who once told me, “I used to be concerned about taking my heels. Now I just make the shapes.” This is after more than 10 years of daily, dedicated practice; I think it’s important to note that in order to move beyond a state of being concerned about “grabbing her heels,” she had to first experience that state.

Part of the “nadi shodhana,” regardless of being able to grab your heels or lick your coccyx, is to “make the shape,” even if the shape is a fairly intense back- or forward bend, and cultivate a dispassionate, easeful, skill-full state of observation and awareness. This state can be measured by a yogini’s fluid entry and exit from the pose, her stability and calm (Patanjali’s famous “sthira sukkham”), and of course, the quality of her breath, both the out AND in-breath. Which is ideally even, measured, and calm (Again, according to our friend Patanjali, “dirgha” and “sukshma”).

My speculation on the part of the reasoning behind the way poses are given in Mysore is that Sharath can see a student’s avoidance or delay of a pose, and for the most part he’s very practiced in reading a student’s body and listening for the student’s breath to determine their sthira and sukkham while they’re in a pose.

This cultivation of calm, dispassionate observation in a pose as stimulating as kapotasana, which ignites the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, this retraining of the nervous system, this development of an internal candle flame that is unwavering, is what I take “nadi shodhana” to mean.

It can take years to master an intricate physical and mental skill that requires strength and flexibility. I’ve read that it takes seven years on average to “master” a skill, that is, to be proficient and skillful in its use. In that context, one would expect at least three to five years developing journeyman status.

So as I mentioned before, it’s not important so much that, for example, one has to be lifted back up from karandavasana --- though most everyone, given time and practice, can learn to place their feet in lotus and lower to their arms --- it’s the ease, fluidity, and most importantly, sense of dispassionate observation that’s important. This is in itself a skill to be refined, learned and polished like a fine jewel.

I can think of many reasons why someone ought not to proceed through primary without at least “making the shape,” and chief among those is injury. There is also a tendency to gloss over and ignore those poses we do not like or those we find difficult. As the sequences are progressive, and if you skip something now, you’ll pay for it later.

To return to intermediate sequencing, bhekasana is very important to kapotasana, as is laguvajrasana, among others ... until these two are not only comfortable but done correctly, kapotasana is very, very difficult, This is part of the reason why these backbends should generally not be given as a chunk or “subsequence.”

Ultimately, how many of your ideas about the practice are related to your own desire to get the next pose? As Sweeney notes, and I can second through my own practice, this is a difficult phase of the practice, one that I believe many people, if not all, go through, one that is allayed through continuous, steady practice through all stages and phases of life --- including injury, illness, and massive life-shifts and upheaval.

I find a triadic view of the sequencing helpful, and I also find a general triadic view of my practice in general as helpful. One might, for example, go through a Shiva phase of practice when one has to be on-site at the construction yard at 7 a.m., which leaves an hour of practice time at 5 a.m. only three days a week. The desire to feed one’s needs abates significantly in the face of life’s ebb and flow.

Again, I thank you for the stimulation your post has provided. I hope you derive a nugget of value from this that may reflect on your own practice, as I have derived a jewel from your post through that I may refract my own practice.

Namaste,
jason

V said...

Jason, you have just become my absolute Ashtanga hero. Thanks so, so much for taking the time to write that comment that I'm going to read again and try to digest.

Yoga Chickie said...

Jason, wow, that is an incredible comment, and one which I need to reread a few times in order to get as much as I can out of it. I do want to say though that I am not anxious to get the new pose/the next pose. I have my hands very full right now, as I am very very challenged by backbends, and still can't properly stand up from a backbend, and Kapotasana is just a dream at the moment, even if I have moments where it seems like I can almost touch a hand to a foot when I am very very warm. I am quite able to do Bhekasana and Laghu Vajrasana - the problem is my armpits (I had the same surgery as Julie, five years ago, which is also when I began a daily practice).

Also - you asked where I got the idea that daily assistance is needed for progression through the difficult poses. I got it from my teaching experiences. As a practitioner, I do not consider myself typical. I was VERY contracted from surgery and breast cancer, and even Mari A was a challenge for me. Most of my students, and most of my non-ashtanga friends, have been able to clasp at least fingers in Mari A the first time they tried, whereas I could not when I started. Most of my students have been able to "master" (using the term loosely) posest hat they started out unable to do, with regular practice that includes getting adjusted INTO poses (not just by me but by the main Mysore teacher). Without being given the muscle memory, I think that might not have been possible.

I was not saying that NO student can bind Mari C without help. I was saying that a student who cannot bind Mari C when they first try will be unlikely to progress without being put into it on a regular basis. That's simply my observation. Now, remember, I have taught mainly VERY novice students. And in NYC, where the level of athletic-type fitness is probably lower than where you are - Souther California.

As for the minutiae of binding, it is the only way that any of my teachers have been able to gauge MY progress. As a teacher of led classes where i have the discretion to teach more or less poses, I look at how the students are breathing in the poses as a benchmark for "should I teach any more poses in this class". I do not look at the "shape" of a pose because to me, different bodies look different in the same poses, and the external picture of a pose is not instructive to me, at least, as to how it feels to a student and how their breath is. And as for MY shape, I have no idea what I look like in a pose and am always suprised when I take a photo or a video. I never look NEARLY as good as I FEEL. I am often HORRIFIED by my "shape".

I want to go back and read your comment again for a variety of reasons, but especially for your ideas about Second Series, which, as I noted, I am JUST beginning and which I do not teach. I might have more to say after rereading...

Thanks!!!

rick said...

Wow Jason. Amazing post.

Carl said...

Lauren, I still don't understand why you think your "armpits" are a problem for you in backbending. You describe rotating your arms opposite the direction they're supposed to go and you probably lock your shoulders. Just power up your legs and thrust onto your hands/arms. Leave your arms springy -- they can take the work.

Yoga Chickie said...

Carl - Actually, I am rotating externally with my arms. I just have been misidentifying it. It gets confusing when I am upside down. Maybe is is the backs of my shoulders - the muscly part that covers the back of the collarbone. I don't know. I refuse to admit it is an anatomical problem, a la Paul Grilley.

karen said...

"...it’s the ease, fluidity, and most importantly, sense of dispassionate observation that’s important. This is in itself a skill to be refined, learned and polished like a fine jewel."

Unbelievable. Awestruck.

laksmi said...

zzzzzz....huh? wha?

laksmi said...

nice work though jason--a really great comment.

Yoga Chickie said...

Laksmi, you're just stewing because Jason chose my blog on which to comment. In the Ashtanga blog world, it's like being granted an audience with the pope. Or at least Mike Bloomberg.

Thank you again, Jason. You have an incredible way with words.

Cody said...

I once got a comment from THE SwamiJ. That was one of the bestest blog days of my life!

Yoga Chickie said...

Seriously????!!!!

No, seriously, who is SwamiJ?

laksmi said...

yc, i was snoozing because of your incredibly long and tedious post, not because jason commented on your blog. i don't care if jason comments on your blog or anyone else's. I don't know who the *fuck* (that's for bebe) jason is because I am a clueless neanderthal.

Yoga Chickie said...

If I'm so boring, then why do so many people read my blog, Laksmi?

Carl said...

Because we love you.

Yoga Chickie said...

Boring, but loved. Worser fates could be imagined.

Erin said...

wow. yc and jason thanks for the food for thought. really nice posts everyone. made me fall in love with ashtanga all over again.

samasthiti said...

For me it's that bad car accident I can't help but look at....

laksmi said...

i think you mean 'more worserer'

train wreck, susan. Popular, well-loved train wreck.

eeyore said...

Wow!

Arturo said...

hi lauren
i didn't know you had written about this, wow. i just found out. it's interesting, thanks. actually, my teacher during the week has progressed me to nakrasana. my teacher on sundays does not let me past dwi pada until I master it on my own. the teacher on sundays sees my practice only on sundays. i don't mind his decision. i also have been working with him for about a year and a half, since a studio i went to on sundays closed. it's quite far for me to get to his shala. my other teacher i've worked with, first on sundays at the shala that closed, and then daily during the week for the past year and a half, since the opening of a new shala. i think she has progressed me more because she sees my practice with more frequency. i think that is mainly the reason. she's felt i was ready to be attempting karandavasana, because she's known my practice over 3 years.

i haven't read the other comments, but i'm sure they are full of good information.

cheers,
arturo

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Northern Westchester, New York, United States
I live by a duck pond. I used to live by the East River. I don't work. I used to work a lot. Now, not so much. I used to teach a lot of yoga. Now not so much. I still practice a lot of yoga though. A LOT. I love my kids, being outdoors, taking photos, reading magazines, writing and stirring the pot. Enjoy responsibly.

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