Friday, August 30, 2013

The (Sort of) Secrets to a Complete Asana Practice

It's been quite a week for teaching: three classes Tuesday, and one each Thursday and Friday!  If you didn't make it out to one, no worries!  There's lots more where those came from.  Follow me on facebook and twitter to get word as soon as I do when I'm subbing and where.

My Friday classes at Bella Vita are my Total Request Yoga classes: I have a facebook event page up that I encourage people to RSVP to, and use to tell me their requests, not just for yoga poses or body part focuses, but mudras, philosophies, mantras, and tracks for the playlist.  Of course, the truth is that all my vinyasa classes are open for requests, but getting the requests in advance gives me time to polish up on that area if I don't already have plenty of tricks up my sleeve to address it.

I can get away with taking requests two minutes before lass starts because A.) I don't come in with a sequence ready to rock; I'm generally as surprised by where the class ends up as my students are, and B.) Yoga is all about balance.  If I follow the general format of different types of poses you're supposed to squeeze into every class, it's basically impossible for me to not satisfy any request, at least in some small way.

I don't think anyone ever consciously chooses to keep this information sort of close to the vest, but doing so does sort of increase the yoga teacher mystique.  I think that since a big part of what yoga teachers are trying to do is make you comfortable enough with the classroom practice to start your own at-home, all-by-yourself practice, which, yes, is a really hard, and sometimes anxiety-provoking thing to do, it's information we should maybe be consciously sharing.  With that introduction, here it is: the master class sequence I build on, tweak, and sometimes chew up and spit out.  You have no idea how interesting it was for me to articulate it, since i built it over time and never consciously thought it out.  Hopefully I won't be like the centipede who, when asked how he walked with all those feet, suddenly couldn't figure it out either and was stuck!:

Opening class: We sit, we settle...I usually gab for a bit about some philosophical idea, then there is usually a chant: just one Om, or something much longer and more complex, just depends.  If you're opening your own home practice, keep it simple.  Just sit for a minute to disengage yourself from your daily routine and arrive on your mat.  Chant Om if you like to.

Spinal warmup: This rarely varies: cat/cow is such a staple, and it's also easy to do safely and effectively.  I like to do hip circles while seated, or seated side bends or twists sometimes, too.

Sun Salutations: For me this is mandatory because of the lineage I came through in my early teacher days.  For other teachers it's just a time suck.  It's a great way to move and warm up the whole body, and get you focused on those simple shapes we're going to repeat over and over: standing with stacked bones, lunges, and of course, the vinyasa itself.

Vinyasa breakdown: This happens for me over the course of a couple chaturangas, and it's not necessary if you're practicing yourself at home, because you should be able to do this safely alone before you try that.  I workshop the three basic vinyasa viarities: knees-chest-chin to baby cobra, lowering all the way to the floor for either baby cobra or upward dog, chaturanga to upward facing dog.  I tend to talk till I'm blue in the face about not letting your hips touch down before your chest does, but since the endgame is to find this shape where the hips are way higher than the shoulders, it's really hard to get that to sink in.

Warrior Sequences: Again, this is something I do because of my lineage.  It's not really required.  The lunging standing poses do fire up those big muscles in your body, and ask your joints to bear weight in a way that does encourage an increase in bone density.

From here on out, these things don't necessarily fit into a neat and tidy order.  I might mix them into Sun Salutations, in between Warrior Sequences, or do a few all together after Warriors.

Twisting: from those tough standing twists while in chair pose or while in a hgigh lunge, to that pre-Savasana staple, the reclining twist, you can squeeze these in anywhere, and you always always should, because giving your organs a squeeze, and encouraging your spine to find its full range of motion, is super-good for your body.

Balancing: One way that doctors measure how quickly you're aging is by looking at your ability to balance.  It's a big one that has to do with how quick you can think, how quick you can react, and how toned your standing and walking muscles are.  Tree Pose, Dancer's Pose, Warrior III, Half Moon...there are lots of choices ranging from appropriate for a newb to big time challenges.  Ever try Bird of Paradise?

Stretching: A lot of yoga poses stretch one part of the body while working another, but since flexibility is the single best indicator of longevity, I like to devote at least a little bit of time to opening up the big muscle groups in the body: hamstrings are a popular choice, but shoulders generally really need it, too.  And speaking of flexibility...

Hip openers: Some people have naturally open hips, but most of us don't.  Since it's common to store tension in the hips, getting in some good hip openers is a good way to find that deep, satisfying emotional release that a lot of people keep coming back to yoga for.  A pigeon pose to transition from active shapes to savasana is popular for a reason, but since it's good to stretch the hips in lots of different ways, don't let that be the only one you ever do.

Back Bending: You know what they say: You're only as old as your spine!  You can sneak a backbend into pigeon, offer one during each sun salutation (before diving forward), or take a couple camels.  There are lots of other options, too: bridge, wheel, bow pose...

Forward bending: Here's your chance to open your hamstrings, too.  I like to offer a few choices: star pose, bound angle pose, and a simple forward fold are all satisfying.

Core work: Everything comes from your center!  I try to emphasize working from the core throughout the whole class, but especially if your stomach isn't that strong, it's good to take a couple minutes for boat pose, or my signature (get a) hardcore eagle wrap crunches.

Inversion: Getting your hips over your head for a few minutes gives your body a break from business as usual, and can encourage your brain to run a system check, finding old injuries or infections that still need to be taken care of. Bridge pose is great for a gentle choice, and of course, shoulder stand and headstand are the classics.  Make sure you learn those two from an experienced instructor before trying them on your own!  Legs up the wall is perfect if you need to rest and restore.

You can start to see how different aspects of a yoga class lend themselves to the end, when we're winding down, and other lend themselves to the high energy time in the middle of class.  Once you've fit it all in, it's time to let it all go and take the mmost essential, non-skipable pose of them all:

Savasana!  Minimum five minutes, ten is much better, please!

Take your time coming back, sitting up, and closing your practice, maybe with another Om.  Namaste!

Think you can remember all that, keep mixing it up with different variations, and fit it all into an hour?  And make sure everyone has proper alignment and is working safely? Well guys, that's why they pay me do this stuff. ;-)

Live Omily,

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