Hands On Your Asana Alignment 

[Unpacking alignment cues that seem to go in and out of fashion]
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This month I felt the need to get a little bit more technical. Teaching and practicing in a fair bit of studios for the past ten years, I got to hear a lot of different cues and learn many variations for each Yoga posture. I love the variety! I love learning from different traditions and find out new ways to practice all the time. Some postures, however, seem to be often cued in different and even opposite ways. Here is my insight on four confusing alignment cues.
If you are:

– a beginner Yogi who is only starting to understand how alignment works

– an advanced practitioner who wants to start learning the body in fairer detail

– or a teacher that wants to keep growing and developing precision in cuing technic 

Then this post is for you!

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[Image 1: Utanasana Variations]

 

1. Standing Forward Fold (Utanasana) – [Knees straight (image 1, top) or bent (image 1 bottom)?]

Starting my Yoga journey with the Iyengar tradition, I learned to always work with straight legs in a forward fold. Once I finished my first teacher training and started travelling and exploring other Yoga styles, I found that many teachers particularly insist on the opposite cue: knees always bent in a forward fold. So which cue is ‘right’?

Option 1 – Straight Legs: It is important to notice that ‘straight legs’ in Yoga actually means ‘soaking’ the kneecaps towards the hips and not only ‘locking’ the knees in. When the knees are soaked in and up, the thighs are engaged, the backs of the legs are stretching and the back can relax on top of the legs. I often cue this variation in the following way: ‘the legs are working strong, they are like a solid rock from which the back can drop down like a waterfall’.

Option 2 – Bent Knees: When the knees are bent, the posture will feel more passive and relaxed. It is a great variation for a resting pose! Also, when the knees are bent, it is easier to lengthen the spine and create more space in the back. This variation is not wrong; it just redirects the focus of the posture from the legs to the upper body. You might have tight hamstrings which would mean that physically, you can’t yet straighten your legs; in this case, this is the only variation available at this stage of your practice.

My Insight: I can tell from my experience that working with straight legs consistently for the first five years of my practice, transformed and healed my knees. Having a background in competitive martial arts, I often suffered from continuous pain in my right knee. Soaking the knees helped me strengthen my thighs and knees and improved my posture. I still casually experience discomfort in my knees and coming back to traditional practice of Utanasana with straight legs always helps.

Flowing through a dynamic Vinyasa class, it might be challenging to straighten the knee properly; there is a concern that in the fast pace you will accidently lock the knees or wont be careful in your transition from the forward fold to other postures, in this case, injury is possible. My rule is to always offer bent knees as a modification, presenting straight legs as the full variation of the posture. When the posture is held statically for at least few breaths, I would encourage a student to prioritize straight legs and use the full potential of the posture (if, of course, he has the flexibility to soak his knees in a forward fold with reasonable ease).

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[Image 2: Bhujangasana Variations]

 

Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana) – [Hands on the mat (image 2, top) or floating (image 2, bottom)]

If you look at a Yoga asana text book or google images of the traditional pose, the palms will always be depicted as pressed to the mat, however, almost in every single Vinyasa class I’ve practiced, I was cued to float the palms of the mat. What would make a better pose?

The most common mistake when practicing a back bend is using the lumbar spine or the lower back more than the upper vertebrae. The middle/lower section of the spine is usually more flexible and thus more susceptible to straining and injury. It takes a lot of time though to teach the body to bend through the upper spine! particularly through the space in between the shoulder blades. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you still feel the lumbar in a back bend more than anything else; start from smaller bends and try to travel with your attention up the spine.  

Option 1 – Palms Pressed Firmly To The Mat: Grounding through the palms helps to recruit the shoulders and shoulder blades into the posture and redirect the focus from the lumbar spine. When the arms are pressed, the upper body is automatically engaged. This movement, however, requires some strength in the arms.

Option 2 – Palms Floating: I often hear the explanation that floating the palms helps the practitioner to use his back rather than his arms to perform the bend. It is important to notice which part of the back is used though! When the palms are floating, it is more challenging to engage the upper spine as there is no assistance from the arms. Usually, if we don’t lose the focus on the space in between the shoulder blades, the bend in this variation will be smaller. When the variation held properly the chest will be lengthening more forward than up (like in Locust pose, Shalobasana, image 3).

[Image 3: Shalobasana]


My Insight: Personally, I hate practicing Cobra with floating palms! Having an over-flexible lumbar, I just always prioritize focusing on the curve in my upper spine when holding a back bend. When I work with floating palms, I prefer to call the posture: a variation of Shalobasana, Locust. In Shalobasana we focus on lengthening forward with the chest, more than lifting it up (I often cue to imagine the body extending to two different directions, creating a canoe boat shape, rather than lifting the legs and arms up like a ‘Titanic’). In Cobra, we can lift the chest higher, engaging the upper spine and the shoulder blades, as well as using the strength of our arms.

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 [Image 4: Triangle Attempts]


Triangle Pose (Trikonasana) – [What do we do with our hips?]

Triangle pose is challenging for all levels of practitioners. The better you get to know your body, the more you will notice how imperfect your triangle is. On the left side of image 4, I am demonstrating my attempts at Trikonasana. It looks like my hips are getting there, being quite even but my waist is still shorter at the bottom.

Here I want to focus on the alignment of the hips in the pose. I hear a lot of cues such as: ‘bumping’ the hips to the side, shortening the stance to not over stretch the thighs, or even closing the back hip in rather than externally rotating. This is all due to several occasions of straining through the groins or hips while trying to ‘roll the front hip joint under’, as traditionally cued. I am not sure about the accuracy of that… I practice my Trikonasana traditionally for years, and never seen anyone injured by it. The posture is all about this external rotation in the hips, so I believe that if a student has a particular condition that doesn’t allow this rotation, he might prefer to avoid the pose entirely, rather than practicing it wrong.

The most common mistake I encounter in this pose, is still what I demonstrate (and exaggerate) on the right side of image 4, sticking the butt out and leaning too much forward in order to reach lower down. This can be avoided only by attempting to keep the hips even and externally rotated. It is a bit of a practice for the ego… The more I understand my Triangle in fair detail, the higher I stay in the pose; my posture becomes more contained, though not at all less deep or strong.

Good Tips For Your Triangle Would Be:

1. Ground the outer edge of your back foot to open your back hip.

2. To open your front hip: press your front shin against your palm and/or (if you don’t reach) squeeze your front glute in, to pill your groin forward.

3. Extend the waist as evenly as possible, pulling the arm pits away from the groins.

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[Image 5: Utkatasana Variations]​ 


Chair Pose (Utkatasana) –  [Lean forward (image 5, left) or hold the spine upright (image 5, right)]

Maintaining a tall spine may sound like a basic cue but it is actually very difficult. Lengthening the spine to its full potential requires: the tailbone to be tucked under, the shoulders to be drawn down and back, the shoulder blades to be pressed in and down, the core to be slightly engaged… And the list goes on as more sensitive and detailed your practice becomes.

Option 1 – Lean Forward: When we lean forward our lumbar spine tends to relax and lengthen automatically. This variation is less challenging for the back and allows a deeper squat, strengthening the thighs.

Option 2 – Upright: When the spine held upright, or as upright as possible, the back must work much harder. It is much harder to squat low and have the weight distributed evenly throughout the feet while attempting to maintain a tall seat. It is a challenging pose but a great exercise to teach the body to lengthen the spine.

My Insight: My priority is usually working on my back in this posture, so upright will be my choice. Building up correct alignment of the back in chair sets foundation to have similar form in goddess pose, lounge and other similar postures. The deeper the bend in the knees, the harder it is to keep the spine tall and upright. This is a matter of balancing two opposite movements in the body at the same time.

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You don’t have to agree with all of my insights; what you take from your practice will always depend more on you than on any teacher you will choose to follow. Teachers are only there to guide you through your own practice and help you find your own path.

​Most important is to remember that there is more than one way to practice a posture and as you get more involved with your Yoga practice, you also develop more interest in learning all the details of alignment. When you start to understand your body better, you develop higher sensitivity and intuition, then your experience of practice becomes more fulfilled.

​Eventually, when you are attentive and mindful enough in your practice, you can enjoy all different variations of a pose and you not at all need to stick to one tradition or style. There is really not much you can do wrong in Yoga! Injuries rarely happen because of wrong posture or technique in a basic class; from my experience, it is much more common to get injured when attempting something very complicated, practicing without a proper warm up or simply taking a clumsy step. But it always helps to have some order in things you are passionate about learning.

I hope my blog clarified few principles of alignment for you. If you learned something new, please apply those cues in your practice and share the love when teaching your students!

 Namaste🙏

 

 

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How to turn your passion into a career and actually keep loving it?

Ten tips from a Yoga teacher that loves her job and no longer struggles to pay rent.

Working for yourself, turning your passion into a career, being your own boss, all of those are probably the most common career goals of our generation. In the past, life used to be more about getting a good education in order to be quickly employed on a permanent or at least a long-term, position. Then we stepped it up a bit into wishing to be happy and enjoy everything we do, including our job. Now it seems to be the ultimate path to self-realisation: ‘do what you love and money will follow’. The truth is that you are not necessarily going to enjoy working in that thing you love doing for fun. It certainly can be so! But you need to do it right.

​For the past three years, I’ve been working as a full-time Yoga teacher. I am working for myself, setting my own schedule and terms, spreading my passion, inspiring and getting inspired by my students and colleagues. What an awesome way to make a living!

Yoga teaching is probably one of the most widely recognised jobs that are done out of pure passion, beside other fitness and leisure instructors, artists, performers and travel guides. Lately, I had the chance to talk about this with few of my colleagues. It is more often now that I hear Yoga teachers wanting to stop teaching, or at least stop doing it full time. Few years into business, they would say things like,

‘I just want to be a student again’

‘It just doesn’t worth it anymore’

‘I feel like coming back to my previous job for a while’

Even though being a Yoga teacher can be great fun, if you are not rewarded enough it is very easy to get drained; after all, while teaching, you give so much energy away and it just doesn’t work if you don’t receive enough back.

Recently, a student asked me a question at the end of a class, ‘do you ever wake up in the morning and say, “I just don’t feel like teaching Yoga today?”’ I don’t think my answer was what she expected to hear… Of course I do! Just because you do something you are passionate about for living, doesn’t mean your job is easy or that it is always a blast waking up for work. It is a job. Not a hobby anymore. And if you want to turn your hobby into a job you need to consider all the pros and cons and make sure it is the right choice for you. After all, you don’t want to end up hating it, right?

If you are still in your, ‘just finished my first teacher training and want to share my passion with the world every damn day’, bliss stage, enjoy! But if you are feeling like you might get tired soon from teaching so much Yoga, or doing another job that you were meant to love so much, here are some tips to how you can keep doing your perfect job for the long-term without feeling run down. 

1. Don’t be afraid to call it business

Too often I encounter the assumption that Yoga is not my ‘real job’, or not my only job, or at least not my long-term career. People tend to think that this is just something I do mainly for fun. Well if it was so, I would have stopped having fun with it long ago. Yoga teaching is my business, and it is not always an easy one. It takes a lot of planning, marketing and creativity to keep growing in this sort of an industry.

If you want your job to be taken seriously, you need to take it seriously yourself. Work with a business plan and a schedule, set goals, do some networking and keep questioning your business strategy to improve and grow.

 

2. Take breaks

It may seem as if a schedule where you teach only few classes per day, is almost a week off but it is not… If you are passionate about teaching, you will soon feel how exhausting it is to spread your passion non-stop for a full hour. It also can be draining to be happy and bubbly every day, as you are expected to be, because none of us is forever in a good mood.

Often once you gained your energy back after your morning class, it seems to be already time to go teach an evening session. No wonder that so many teachers end up sleeping the whole day in between their morning and night classes!

To stay fresh for the long-term, my thumb rule is to have at least one full day off a week and at least one full weekend off a month. I also go away somewhere for a weekend or even a full week holiday every two or three months. It can be something cheap and simple, it can incorporate some extra training or even a teaching gig but just breaking out of your regular environment is always refreshing. Ideally, I would suggest to do a non-yoga-related holiday but yeah, I know we are all addicted… 

3. Don’t expect it to be the same

Turning your passion into a career is a big step. You will have to be ready to let it go as your fun thing and work hard, unpacking it in terms of business, marketing and education.

Don’t be surprised if you find it hard to relax while practicing a class, because your brain keeps running around, memorising new transitions and cues. When you are practicing at home, maybe you’ll feel more often that you need to go for a gentle restorative practice, or you might end up spending a lot of time creating new sequences rather than improving your own posture.

Your body will probably stop progressing as quick as it did during your teacher training boot-camp. This is a big change but you don’t have to see it as a regression.

Your purpose now is to be a good teacher, a guide, not necessarily the best practitioner. From my experience, the best teachers I had, couldn’t do with their own bodies, most of the things they taught best; here is where the most important aspect of the practice comes in hand: you need to be a good observer.

I believe that to be a good teacher you need to spend more time looking at other people’s postures and thinking how to approach them, than improving your own body. Thus, the practice might start to seem more like something you do to improve as a teacher and develop in your career, rather than your treat for yourself.

A good way to balance this is to go and practice in a place where you don’t teach, where you need to pay full price and thus you feel like it is a little present you bought to yourself.

I remember how I rediscovered the practice for myself, it was at a very hard time in my life. When I really needed it to be there for me, the mat still accepted me as a student. I suddenly felt that I could come to class and do all of my chiturangas on the knees and bawl my eyes out at the end of shavasana.

Your personal practice can still be healing and recharging, you just need to find a way in which it still works for you as a student, not a teacher.

4. You don’t have to practice every day

Three years into business, I now restricted my practice for only four times a week. Frankly, I don’t always get to that either and that’s okay. You do have to have some personal practice to stay fit and healthy and avoid injuries that happen when you demonstrate without a warm up (it doesn’t has to be Yoga by the way…). But if you teach 15 classes a week and practice seven days a week, your body will be wrecked in no-time!

You can encourage your students to practice everyday though: it’s great for them! It is their hobby/lifestyle/little treat for themselves; it is probably none of those things for you anymore. Let go of the traditional view that if you teach something, you have to do it everyday yourself. I mean, I don’t think my math teacher done math everyday… 

5. Get a new hobby

Now that you accepted the fact that Yoga is no longer your hobby and you don’t have to do it everyday, you surely have some extra time for a new treat! Now… I am also one of those fanatics that has to go too far with every activity I take on and end up turning every new leisure into my reason for being… but last year I’ve done quite well taking on windsurfing for only few weeks, without getting addicted! Maybe it was because I was doing terrible…

​You have to have something else you like to do, something that you have zero ambition at making a living from, something that you purely enjoy.

6. Separate business and pleasure

Even if you love it, it surely not ALL you love. You can get bored of anything if you are doing it every day, all day. You have to have time for yourself doing things that are not Yoga, not Yoga AT ALL. For example, drinking beer on the couch with your never-heard-of-Yoga friends. You have to have friends like that! You also have to restrain the connections you have with people that want to talk to you in your free time about: ‘how you got into Yoga?’ and: ‘what is Yoga?’ and: ‘can you help me to stretch my thigh?’ I know it is a bit hard to stop being everyone’s ‘kale smoothie guru’ but you just need to learn how to say ‘no!’ It is your job now, and no one likes to talk work at their free time.

​You also have to have full days in your life where you don’t teach, practice or talk Yoga at all, to keep yourself balanced.

7. Demand your reward

If you are doing for work something you are passionate about, it doesn’t mean you are not also doing it for money; unfortunately, in the fun industries, the assumption that professionals are happy to do their fun job for free, or for minimal reward, is quite common.

Don’t teach for free unless it is for something YOU actually want to be part of; for example, charity classes for your local community may feel rewarding, even if you don’t get payed. Continuously offering free or cheap services to family and friends, however, will drain you in no-time.

Don’t agree doing trials for studios at no extra charge! This is so common that a studio manager will expect a free trial or even a mentorship period to ‘qualify’ you for their particular style. The truth is, even though some adjustments of style can be discussed, you are a contractor qualified for your job. Imagine if you ordered an electrician and asked that the first session will be for free!? You always should be getting payed for teaching a scheduled class… If the place doesn’t like you after the trial, it is allowed not to hire your services again.

It is up to you to set your own boundaries of minimal rate and amount of time you are willing to give away for free. Most important is that you feel you are rewarded enough, otherwise you are not going to be happy with your career choice.

8. Don’t teach too many classes

A comfortable timetable is something that takes time to build in the free-lance business. The pay is not that high so you end up agreeing to take on too many classes, or no days off, or travel too far, etc. You need to consider the pay and the time-frame each job takes and decide whether it worth it for you. I would say that 15 classes per week is a maximum amount for a full-time teacher but it is really depends on how much you need to travel and how many days you get to have off a week. Most important, make sure that you have time in your schedule to practice yourself and not to feel exhausted.

Also, if you are exhausted, don’t teach! I know that we all need to pay rent but for the long-term, it is not going to work. From my experience, students won’t always notice how drained you are; some of the best feedbacks I received from students were for classes where I was completely flat out. You must remember that the practice is mainly an internal experience and you are only a guide. But you must make it work for yourself, so you will want to keep going.

If you don’t find a way to reduce classes without getting broke, think about other business opportunities that are more profitable to add to your plan. Maybe you even take an extra job for a while to get you through; it is ok, as long as you have a plan how to come back on track. It is still better than giving up your passion, I think. 

9. Keep educating yourself

A music teacher once told me, ‘if you want to be a teacher, you always need to stay within the world of education.’ You can’t teach and stay passionate about what you deliver, if you don’t continue to refresh your knowledge. You have to keep getting new ideas, new cues, new ways of looking at each pose. Otherwise, you will get bored and then your classes will become monotonous and boring as well.

​For me, to keep feeling fresh, I have to attend a guided class no less than once a week. I also sign up for at least one teacher-training a year (I know it is expensive… but it can be just a short day/weekend session). I try and go to other teacher’s classes and workshops as much as I can; luckily, most of those are offered for free if you are part of the teaching team.

 10. It is all about balance

Don’t be too hard on yourself. If you don’t enjoy it, come back to be a student and maybe try something else for a while. 

You can also eat pizza, not practice for a month or mix up your rights and lefts five times during one session. Seriously… no one ever complained saying that the Yoga class was terrible…

 

To conclude, I don’t volunteer to be the expert, but from my experience those tips work like magic. I am now few years into business, kicking goals and my passion to do my work only grows.

Not everything you enjoy doing is meant to turn into a career and it is also okay to just keep something as your hobby, your little treat for yourself. But if you chose to take on this path for the long-term, it means you probably really do love it and it is a shame to lose such a great passion.

Always remember why you started teaching in the first place, don’t forget to take care of yourself and keep up with the good work. You are doing awesome!

 

Namaste!

 

 

Why I am no longer passionate about travelling the world?

Moving suburbs recently, following changes in my personal life, I got to talk to my students a lot about my future plans. I received a lot of questions of the sort: don’t you want just to travel the world and teach yoga in many different countries? Don’t you think it would be so exciting?

No, I don’t. Actually, I am not passionate about travelling anymore. I don’t think that travelling brings you to some amazing realization you can’t get in any other way. I don’t think it is the best experience you could have. I don’t even think it is that important for your growth as a person and that if you haven’t travelled, you missed out on something incredible. I know… How boring am I?

​To be honest, travelling the world sounds like a dull plan to me. But I guess I can only say this after I’ve travelled a lot. It used to be my dream, when I was a teenager; I guess it is everyone’s dream at some point of their lives. And like with any material dream, once it is accomplished, you are back to be unsatisfied.

 The thing is, and that is something you can only relate to after you travelled a lot, it’s a bit of a spoiler if you didn’t… Everything is the same everywhere! Sorry to disappoint. You can take a lot of pictures of all the different places you go to. They will all look different: different buildings, different landscapes, different people, different languages and habits. But they are all still buildings or huts or tents, they are all seas and deserts, they are all the same people who say and do what they think will make them happy.


​Now in this blog I am not talking about going on a well-deserved weekend holiday. I am talking about months of travelling where you really get to connect with nature, hang out with new people, try and see life from the inside in some primitive villages. I mean travelling alone and face who you really are, discover yourself. Or travelling with friends and miss out on half of the stuff you wanted to do because you needed to consider someone else’s opinion, or because you all got too drunk. Or travelling with a partner and have an experience up your sleeve which is meant to be forgotten once you have a new relationship. Or migrating or going to a hippie festival and getting stuck there for a month or get ting a low payed job in a middle-eastern market. These are all fun experiences but no, I don’t think you have to have those to be happy. And if you ask me, I’m ok with not having any of these anytime soon.     

I have a pile of awesome stories I could tell you about how I travelled the world and saw those places and met those people; but I think a better story is how I chose to stick around. So this is the one I want to tell you.

Few months ago, I really wanted to leave Melbourne: a lot have happened to me here; a lot always happens to me. I am one of those writers who always writes about herself because this is just enough drama and involving fictional characters will be overdoing it. I made a plan to move interstate and start over in a new place. It was a good plan but it was also a solution. A solution to a problem I thought I had. Because starting from scratch is a good way to solve problems, I thought. Because this is how I always solved my problems: I always moved, I always travelled until my mind would change or I would figure out something and everything will make sense again. Because this is what travelling does: it opens your mind. Right?

​I am sorry again but no, I think it is just a cliché … You are the one who opens your own mind. You can do it by meditating on your own couch; or by reading, writing and creating art; or by being there for people you know for years and not for random strangers.  Maybe it is more open minded to actually challenge yourself to stick around when it is hard to do so? Or open up to trusting life even if everything around you fails to prove right.

You can dream about travelling the world but don’t get too attached to the idea that travelling is going to save you, or make you a better person – this is something you will have to do on your own, no matter where you are set. 


It is not about the places you go to, it is about the people you meet on the way. Right? Well, I’m not so sure about that. This is what usually people say when they are passionate about travel, I used to be one of those…Those people would always have some kind of an anecdote about an incredibly interesting person they had a chat to while travelling. I have one like that: 

I used to be an officer in the Israeli Air-Force, serving as an air traffic controller. I took leave for few months just before finishing my four year contract in the army and I went travelling for few months in Russia and Europe. At a hostel In Nice, I met this incredible guy: he was a Syrian fighter jet pilot. I used to see Syrian jets all the time through the radars at the unit where I served, I would identify them as enemy aircrafts. I never thought I would have a beer at a pub with one of those pilots. I played safe and didn’t tell him about my job and we had a nice chat. He turned out to be one of those pilots who refused to bomb their own villages in 2013/2014, when the conflict in Syria started. Like many others at the time, he deserted while being on mission and flew his jet south, to Jordan. From there he succeeded to run away to Dubai and establish a worldwide franchise of humus restaurants. Now all of his family is wealthy and safe in Dubai. Crazy story, isn’t it?

But all of those stories about short connections with amazing strangers do not impress me anymore. I would rather   hear about someone who got locked in a room with one ordinary person for five years, that would be a much deeper experience. These shallow encounters are so typical for those who are passionate about travel.  Those type of strangers would ask you quickly where you are from and what you do for living. They won’t ask a lot of ‘why?’s and will move on quickly from question to question, from a person to person; I’ve been to many social gatherings of the sort. All of those brief meetups of travellers are meaningless like an Uber  drive or a tinder date. You see, I don’t actually know anything about that Syrian pilot I’ve met and even though it was an entertaining story I would have preferred to spend those few hours with a real, long-term friend.

One of the reasons I wanted to leave Melbourne was because I already realised by then that I am not passionate about travel; and Melbourne is a city of travellers. To me, it has no solid culture, it is full of people who are all coming from other places and all are passionate about travelling more. It is lonely and isolated; it is all about small talk and quick coffee dates. Uber drivers that think they can make friends with me in a ten-minute-drive, mates who are there only to party but not to support me in a crisis, communities on every corner that think they have something new to offer, strangers who smile to you on the street with no reason and then kiss another stranger when they are drunk at a club. All of those are populating this massive city and to me it all feels almost artificial.

I could say I don’t  like the people in Melbourne, but really, I never liked much the people anywhere. I was always a loner and only ever been attracted to particulars in the crowd.

So few months ago, I thought I would feel more belong in a smaller town, where I can have less connections and thus they should be more meaningful. But as I said before, everywhere is the same.  

I have written before that according to the philosophy of Yoga, as humans we are always unsatisfied. We always feel as if something is missing and we crave for more. Every time we achieve a goal, we have another one that comes to mind –we never stop. The reason for this is that we all have an authentic craving to connect to our inner self, to our true manifestation within. This is why once we indulge in spiritual practice we suddenly start wanting less and become more content; we stop looking for external happiness because we start to understand it lies within us. The same happens when we travel: we conquer one mountain after the other, we move from country to country, promising ourselves a better life or some overwhelming experience; and it never feels enough. The truth is, that all that we want can be found in anyplace, it is within us, it doesn’t matter at all where we are; and I think we can figure it out only if we stick around.

 I am not volunteering to be the expert, but I feel like I am starting to figure something out for myself. Travel meant to take you out of your comfort-zone. But to me, travelling is my comfort-zone. I keep claiming that I am not moving by choice but because of the challenges life throws at me… I think it is time to take responsibility for my choices. Everything is easier when it is only temporary. You are a different person when you can be whoever you want to be and not play the role you were born into. You don’t have to take much responsibility, you can switch friends when you are tired of them, you can go to a different place if you are bored. Everything you do is exciting and new, nothing is hard or painfully familiar. It is not a challenge, it is an escape.

So I choose to challenge myself for a while and stick around; I choose not to run away anymore. I am not where the universe brought me to, I am where I chose to go myself, one crazy day, making a radical move to the other side of the world. This is how I always done things. This is how I changed my mind about moving: just few weeks ago I turned down a great opportunity interstate. I might regret it one day but I am certain that it is a choice that helped me grow as a person, much more than all the travels I’ve done.

​A lot have happened to me in Melbourne, like anywhere else I’ve been. In all of those places where everything is the same. And I was always happy when I chose to be and going somewhere else never made me happier. There is nothing wrong with Melbourne or with any other place in the world and what is wrong with me is only up to me to fix.


 If you never travelled yet, don’t worry you might still get the chance to do it. You have something that us travellers don’t get to experience. You get to face life as it is, without constantly changing. You get to feel belong.

 

Sankalpa, Proactivity And Letting Life Happen

Sankalpa– Determined decision, intention or wish. Traditionally one must repeat the Sankalpa three times in one’s mind at the beginning and the end of the practice. The decision should come to mind naturally, this is our internal simple wish.
Starting the year we tend to set ourselves goals, take decisions and make plans. Our practice supports this process, it also can assist us in pursuing those goals and actually fulfil our decisions and plans.

Even though I tend to preach to my students that the process is much more meaningful and fulfilling than the actual result, we also all want to achieve our personal goals and advance our practice on both physical and mental levels. Letting go does not mean to be passive when pursuing our intentions, it is just another component that supports the hard path towards any kind of success; this path must be a proactive one.

I tend to see new students surprised when they discover that Yoga practice is actually a hard work. People say things such as, ‘I heard Yoga is very relaxing’. Relaxation or stress-relief might be chosen as our final goal in practice, but there is a long journey to reach there. A journey which is not necessarily relaxing; it is a physical and a mental workout.

During practice our mind should be always alert and we must maintain full awareness of the movements of our body and our mind. It might shock a few dedicated practitioners but I don’t believe in practicing Yoga postures with closed eyes (except perhaps Tadasana Samastiti and Shavasana – final relaxation). Closed eyes encourage a relaxed and sleepy state of mind and distract us from focusing on the details of the pose we are holding. Even Shavasana is intended to be an alert pose. As I mentioned in previous texts Shavasana is a conscious relaxation. We want to find the centre between stillness and complete letting go or falling asleep.

To make a bit of order in all of this, we might look at our practice as any other process of goal setting, progress or change in our life. Say we start from some kind of a less desirable state that we are interested in altering. We then make a conscious decision to change, we work hard and pass through obstacles on our way and then eventually we achieve some kind of improvement or a more desirable state. At the last stage in this process we want to be at peace with our final achievement. We should let go of any attachment to it and accept the place we have reached. This kind of acceptance will only come after hard, focused, proactive work.

Similarly, we all arrive to our mat with some kind of a back story. Perhaps we are seeking to distress or make a change in our life. Maybe it is only a change towards higher physical ability such as improving our flexibility, strength or fitness level. When we start our practice we take Sankalpa – set an intention, a determined decision that we want to work with in our practice. This is a decision that comes naturally to our mind; it will always be something that we already carried with us from the world beyond our mat. Taking Sankalpa, however, is only the first step. We then must work really hard and practice with an alert, aware mind. We must practice with devotion, we must trust our teacher and yes, sometimes we must practice letting go or acceptance. We must focus on the process − it is not time to relax! We must be aware of all the little details of our body. When we are focusing on the little details, we are establishing a more delicate, sensitive relationship with our body -ꟷ the tool of our practice -ꟷ and thus we learn to use and control it in a better way. We finish our practice with some sense of achievement. As more we practice as more sensitive we become to the changes in our body and thus we notice more and more progress in it. This improvements might not be as visible externally but when we become better observers we need less advancement in order to be satisfied. A sensitive mind is more susceptible to happiness. We find more beauty and joy in things that first seemed insignificant and thus we start finding it easier to surrender and accept our practice and our life as it is. The result becomes more satisfying even if it doesn’t change.


More specific example can be observed in one of the most mentally difficult postures in our practice:   Pashimotanasana – sited forward fold. We sit down and begin the pose with some kind of preconception about our ability to do it, then we set ourselves a goal. I guide my students to aspire to move their heart forward, towards their toes. This is ironically an unreachable goal that allows us to explore this act of moving forward with devotion to the process and not the result. I guide my students to put maximum effort, look forward at the direction where they are going and recruit the whole of their bodies in order to move their chests forward. Then I tell them to reach as far as they can and release the head down. At this point there is no more movement forward, it is time to let go and accept where we are. If we want to move forward we need to lift the head again and reach for our goals. Serenity is part of our process, it supports the process, specifically at the stage of reaching our final result, but it is not what gets us there.

Yoga is not some kind of a magical path where we surrender and suddenly reach enlightment. It is a hard work and a journey full of challenges. But when our practice matures we can see the joy and the fulfilment that is contained in this beautiful process of growth. When we arrive in this state we don’t need the result anymore. And then, where ever we arrive as our final destination, we more easily find our acceptance and fulfilment. This place of maturity, however, will never come to us the easy way.

Another way to explain those processes is through the theory of the three Gunas. Humans, nature and all that exists within and beyond those notions is traditionally believed to consist of three Gunas, essences or energies. Those are: Tamas, Rajas and Satva. Everything contains a portion of those energies and every object or subject will incline at different times to one of those broad directions. In short: Tamas is heavy, grounding energy; Rajas is active, dynamic, moving; and Satva is calm, clear or harmonious. Usually as practitioners we will aspire to change into a state of Satva, harmony. Perhaps attempting to overcome some kind of heavy experience, for example: loss. Some practitioners will walk an opposite path: arriving to the mat with a very light, fluid mind they will seek Tamas, grounding and focus. In both occasions, as one of my teachers used to say, the path from Tamas to Satva or the other way around can only be through Rajas, action. There is no change without action. There is no progress by only letting go, we must make a decision to change and then be proactive and not just let life happen.

If I look back at my life I find so many of those processes of self-discovery. I had many failures and successes. Looking back I can see where a wrong approach to the process derived an unsatisfying result. At other times, I was mature enough to accept the result and find the joy in it, and thus I arrived. One example is my journey to Australia.

I grew up in a family of Russian migrants in Israel. Moving countries at a young age and going through the usual hardships of fitting-in in a foreign culture, I always felt displaced. I never considered Israel to be my home and always aspired to come back to Russia, where I was born. Every time I travelled back to my home country, however, I felt that the locals saw me more as a tourist rather than as one of them. This process of fitting-in or rather coming back home always seemed to me unsatisfying, it always turned out to be a failure. It seems to me now that I wasn’t focused enough at the time, on either direction. Years later I took a determined decision to move away. I moved alone to Australia where I had no family, connections or heritage. I worked hard to settle down, to make friends, money and grow my own business; I started completely from scratch. It was a very hard process that required me to be entirely devoted, it left no time for serenity. I had to be proactive and not just let life happen. I don’t feel like I reached my final destination yet, however, I do feel I have arrived. I am much happier and more satisfied then I ever was. Even though I have much less, I am in a much more harmonious, Satvic place in my life.

The way from Tamas to Satva is only through Rajas. The path from struggle to acceptance must be proactive. One must act to reach acceptance and joy. Must work and not only relax. Fulfilment lies more in the devotional journey than in its final destination. It is a misconception that all Yogis are so happy because they are so relaxed and know how to let go. No, our practice is a hard journey of spiritual awakening; a journey that it takes time to find the joy in. A process that must start from a determined decision to change and take responsibility over our life.

It is not too late to start this wonderful journey and there is no better excuse than the start of a new year!

Namaste!

 

 

Bindu, Discontentment and Craving for more


Bindu– The source of creation, is beyond the realm of all conventional experience. The storehouse of all previous life karmas, memories and desires. It is the ultimate source out of which all things manifest and into which all things return.

 

We always want more. Being human means being forever unsatisfied.

The Yogi take on that comes to this: the energetic layer of our body contains a little seed or a drop, somewhere close to or within the crown of the head. This seed is called in Sanskrit, Bindu. Bindu is the cause of the creation of meaning; it is what makes us remember our source of existence, our connection to some supreme divinity we not necessarily can grasp. It is a little falling drop of the universe which is contained within us and craves to comeback and connect with the rest of the universe beyond us. We don’t need to understand it in order to crave this process of reunion.

Bindu always reminds us where we come from and makes us want to come back there. Our mind, however, fails to interpret this craving. Thus we are continuously have the desire to move forward and accomplish something without being certain what exactly is this thing we want. This craving is what keeps us unsatisfied. We want a new car, a new wife, a better house, a prettier pigeon pose… But the tragedy is that no matter what we have, it is never enough; as we accomplish one goal we straight away start craving another. Our mind fails to comprehend that what we really want is already within us, we just need to let the union happen, to connect back to the universe around us. Reaching this kind of satisfaction is a life long journey to spiritual awakening, and it starts with the acceptance of our inevitable discontentment.  

This discontentment can also be explained as the god within us that wants to unite with the god beyond, or maybe our natural human arrogance. Contemplating upon the latter of those explanations, I conclude that a little bit of arrogance is crucial for us to survive. It is paradoxically the source of our Yogic humility and trust in the universe. A trust that comes from the belief that we are very close to or even contain some kind of divinity or a god, and thus we are part of something greater. It gives us a reason and a since of meaning.

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Bindu is ironically located so close to the skull, almost reaching to break free away from the physical body and out to the filled with abundance sky; it is so close to its destination. In a similar way, a newborn baby lies head down in his mother’s womb, aiming to break through the cervix. His Bindu leads him on the way to unite with the universe that is out there. Most of us succeed in this very first challenge of life, only to discover it to be the beginning of a much longer journey. A teacher once told me that a breeched baby, lies in the womb with his head up because he aspires to reach closer to his mother, or perhaps he is not yet ready to come out to the world and start his journey.

Therefore from infancy we learn that to get what we want, we must dive for it head first, leading the way with our hidden point of desire. When we are ready to conquer fear, we dive to the ocean head first; when we are ready for love we rush in it “head first” rejecting all hesitations.

In our practice, we want to go head down to a forward fold (such as Pashimotanasana) and reach our legs. We mistake our Bindu’s craving for spiritual awakening with the desire to reach palms to toes or head to knees. Even when I encourage my students to lead their movement from the heart or the chest, they struggle as their mind craves satisfaction. I remind them that this is a “forward” fold and not a “down” fold, that it will never be satisfying because no journey forward ever is.

We should surrender to the fact that we will be forever discontented. We should stop searching for satisfaction but rather focus on experiencing the journey that is given to us, to the fullest. Discontentment is also part of it, it reminds us that we are moving forward and not down.

Namaste!


Source used: Kundalini Tantra by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Bihar School of Yoga, India, 1984.

Shavasana, Serenity and Trust

Shavasana- Corpse pose. Full relaxation. A posture most commonly practiced at the end of a Yoga asana sequence. 

B.K.S Iyengar ꟷone of the most influential Yoga teachers in the worldꟷ prescribed in his famous book, Light on Yoga to leave 15-20 minutes for shavasana at the end of each practice. In this posture, as Iyengar writes, the practitioner should imitate a corpse. He should maintain stillness of both body and mind. The practitioner must remain in complete consciousness in order to learn how to consciously let go.

This posture is one of the hardest in our practice. Therefore it is not surprising that contemporary practitioners are drawn away from Iyengar’s instructions to it. Light on Yoga was first published in 1966 and it is considered to be one of the best written sources in the field; it summarises a lot of principles that were not published as explicitly before and many that didn’t take the written form at all for centuries.

Thus it seems right to assume that practitioners used to practice long shavasana at a certain age and time. So what is happening now?

I would love to share with you two very different experiences I had while teaching this pose:

1. Once I was teaching a class and have finished all of my planed sequence about twelve minutes before the end. Consequently, the students got the treat of a longer shavasana. I probably missed something or just changed my mind in the middle about what posture to take next, like always. Anyway, the time planning did not turn out perfectly. The class was taught in a gym environment where I am expected to give a maximum of 5 minutes shavasana at the end. We were on minute number 3 and I was already sure that all of my students are a sleep or just waiting for it to be over. I woke them up and ended the class few minutes early.  

2. Another time I guided a 3-5 minutes shavasana, at another gym, to the tunes of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonnet’, my favourite shavasana music. A student I haven’t seen before came over after the class and thanked me. She said that she experienced unique sensations during the shavasana; she described a vision of blue and purple colours and a floating sensation. She said it was a shame that we couldn’t have a longer shavasana, as the class is only 60 minutes long.


Through my ten-years-experience in Yoga, I have never practiced or guided shavasana for longer than 10 minutes. In more traditional studios an average shavasana lasts 5-10 minutes. After arriving in Melbourne I had to adjust to most local studios’ requirements of a maximum 5 minutes length relaxation. In some studios I was asked to guide a 3 minutes relaxation and then leave the room after the class to the use of students who wish to stay longer in shavasana. I frequently see students use the time of shavaasana to practice other postures, to get dressed or gather their things; sometimes students will thank me and leave the room during shavasana.

At the same time I must say that the requests for ‘hard’ or ‘advanced’ or ‘challenging’ postures only rise. Students enjoy me demonstrating a very tricky arm balances. They love to sweat and try new things. Binds, inversions and balance postures are gaining more and more popularity in my classes. It seems to me that contemporary practitioners are embracing the physical challenges of the Yoga practice. I even sometimes feel like I need to keep advancing my own physical practice in order to keep up with my students expectations. I should thank my students for the significant progress in my asana practice the past few years; I indeed am grateful for that. Asana is a major part of our practice and I always encourage my students to keep challenging themselves to find those postures that they still can’t do, rather than staying attached to the postures they have mastered. I preach it to my students but I actually feel that I have learned it from them more than from any other source.

I think that my role as a teacher is mainly to assist in guiding the student in the path he chooses himself. Many of us choose this challenging path of conquering the Yoga asana. We are a competitive, success driven society, we are up for all that is challenging and hard. So why aren’t we as driven to challenge ourselves and conquer shavasana? It is obviously harder for us all, this day and age, to let go and relax than to hold a dancer’s pose. Maybe we are actually avoiding the harder task of lying down with closed eyes and convince ourselves we are challenged more by standing on one leg.  

I sincerely think that the fault for abandoning traditional shavasana is mainly on us, Yoga teachers. We are not very good at selling this pose! And it is probably because it is so hard for us to conquer to. It is hard to practice and it is hard to teach.

As teachers, if we want our students to enjoy shavasana, we need to market it in the same way we market other more ‘sexy’ asanas. In my classes I started to approach shavasana as a challenging posture. It is not enough to say that shavasana is the time to ‘heal’ and ‘recover’ and ‘relax’. These are not ‘sexy’ activities and they don’t imply any benefit to our contemporary student’s mind. I rather started to present shavasana as the hardest posture in our practice, as the time to challenge our mind and not the body. It is a posture that has a goal, it is done for the body and not by the body. It is the time for the body to absorb all the benefits of the practice and to gain self-learning; it is a process in which the mind must not interfere. Shavasana is not a time to ‘rest’ it is a time to ‘practice’ stillness, presence, non-attachment to the ego.   

Shavasana is all about surrendering and letting go. As a teacher I guide the students to let go of all thoughts and sensations, and commit to not making this posture all about themselves, what would be serving only the ego. At the same time it is me who has to step back and surrender to the pose. I need not to interfere and let the pose do its own service to my students. I need to stop talking and guiding and making it all about me. I need to let go of my students and give them their space. In the case I described earlier (number 2) I have created a space for my student’s spiritual experience. Her experience could have lasted longer perhaps, however, it is only because I let her go she had the space for this experience at all. I stopped talking and guiding and gave her time to tune inwards where she found space for her own spiritual practice. This is why I believe that it is a good technique to leave the room during the shavasana or maybe enter shavasana with the students, setting a timer for myself. 

Shavasana is also a lot about trust. Trusting the posture, trusting the teacher, trusting the space. We enter shavasana ꟷa state of nothingnessꟷ and we trust that we will come back from it and not disappear. Otherwise we can stay only on the threshold of the pose. As a teacher, I must trust my students when guiding them through the pose. I shouldn’t assume that they don’t have a full experience of relaxation. I don’t know what goes through their minds and I should trust them that they practice the pose in the best way possible for them, on that particular day on the mat. I sincerely think that it is me who made shavasana boring that time I described, in experience number 1. I did not trust my students enough. Maybe somewhere I still feel like I am doing something wrong if I stop talking; a moment of silence still might feel like forever. Maybe I am also falling into this popular judgment that if a class or a posture is not hard or active it is not good enough, not interesting enough. Or this common, ego-driven misconception that if a class is harder, it is better. I don’t know if that is something that we ever grow out of. My students are definitely those who inspire me to keep up and improving in this layer of my practice as well.

There is so much of a Yogi mental practice I discovered as a teacher, so much processes to observe on myself while teaching. I encourage my students to observe themselves while practicing, and I join them in this process. The realisation that I can still feel like I am a practitioner, a student, even while I am teaching a class, fills me with joy and gratitude.

Namaste!