Ashtanga yoga jumps

Reinvigorating my practice of Ashtanga Yoga I realise how I have lost the ability to fly. During the years of static posture work I have lost my mojo!

I started practising the style of Ashtanga Yoga about twenty years ago. Ashtanga is a dynamic style of yoga founded by K. Pattabhi Jois consisting of set sequences which are grouped into series. Ashtanga means ‘eight limbs’. All yoga styles follow the eight limbs set out by Patanjali¹, author of the Yoga Sutras, but Ashtanga Yoga is the name of this particular school of yoga. The whole style integrates vinyasa – which literally means movement between poses accompanied by regulated breathing (ujjayi breath).

All those years ago I managed to practice the Primary series relatively well but then I signed up for a yoga teacher training course and found that the style I was to teach was actually termed ‘Hatha yoga’ which meant a more static form of yoga than Ashtanga. My own practice then became a mixture of Hatha and the Iyengar style and I dropped the vinyasa style. (In fact all yoga styles that include physical postures come under the ‘hatha’ label which often confuses folk taking up ‘hatha’ yoga).

It is now some 15 years later that I am returning to the discipline of Ashtanga. I am somewhat older. Despite my continuous ‘hatha’ yoga practice I am not so fluid in practising the dynamic sequences of Ashtanga as I was. One thing I have particularly found on return to Ashtanga practice is that I have forgotten how to fly.

In Ashtanga at certain points in the vinyasa the practitioner transitions from one posture to another by jumping. This has come to be known as flying in Ashtanga yoga if you do it well.

David Swenson, in his book: ‘Ashtanga Yoga – The Practice Manual – An illustrated guide to Personal Practice’ has a section on ‘Applying the Physics of Flight’. So for example if a practitioner is transitioning from the yogic posture of down dog to the sitting stick pose the idea is to jump the legs up and then bring them smoothly down between your arms and buttocks on the floor. This seems to require jumping the feet off the floor so you are almost in a half hand stand. But actually it is more complicated than that.

David Swenson’s advice is to follow a set of four rules for applying the physics of flight as summarised below:

To jump from down dog and bring the legs through to dandasana.

  1. Engaging the lower bhandhasMulabhanda and Uddiyana Bhanda
  2. Lift the sit-bones, sacrum and pelvis (‘your landing gear’) up towards the ceiling
  3. Lead the jump with the hips not the feet
  4. Imagine the ceiling is high and aim for it with the hips.
  5. Drop the sit-bones, sacrum and pelvis (‘landing gear’) when landing.

So I am now to be seen in my yoga hut hands on the floor, buttocks in the air, hips jumping up and down towards the ceiling pulling in my perineum so my hips can get as high as possible. That is all very well but I am no longer light enough to float my legs through my arms so in an ungainly manner I readjust myself so that I am sitting on my buttocks with both my legs straight out in front of me! Oh how I long to be able to fly up with the legs and float through again as I used to do in my younger body. At the moment I can only imagine that happening. But the great thing about yoga is that if you give the mind a posture to mull over in all its intricacy it does somehow send a message to the body that this may be possible in the future. And of course endless practice helps too!

‘99% Practice ~ 1% Theory’!

K. Pattabhi Jois (quoted in Swenson 1999 p.249)
Flying © Sanandi-jacq

Bibliography

Prabhavananda, Swami and Christopher Isherwood. (1969) How to Know God, The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali. New York: New American Library (translation and commentary).

Swenson, David. (1999. Ninth Printing 2004) Ashtanga Yoga. the Practice Manual. An Illustrated Guide to Personal Practice. Ashtanga Yoga Productions. pp.60-65

Footnote

¹ Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras named the eight limbs of yoga as follows: Yama = ethical disciplines; Niyama = self observation; Asana = posture; Pranayama = breath control; Pratyahara = sense withdrawal; Dharana = concentration; Dhyana = meditation; Samadhi = a state of joy and peace

Integration of yoga postures

One of the main goals of yoga is to relax body and mind so that the individual can touch the still point within – the point of inner intuition.

At the end of the physical practice of yoga the posture of savasana (literally corpse pose) is fundamental to integrating the physical and mental changes that have occurred as the result of practice. This pose held for about 10 minutes minimum allows the body to rebalance and the mind and spirit to relax. Anyone who leaves a yoga class before the relaxation is missing a vitally important section of the class.

It is also true to say that any type of strenuous physical practice such as walking, swimming, running or cycling can also bring us to a point of great physical relaxation so that the mind and spirit have a chance to relax completely and enjoy ‘what is’. After seven days of walking 15 miles a day on the Camino Francés to Santiago there came a point where the body was so gloriously fatigued. I lay down in savasana on the allotted Albergue bunk bed and felt a deep sense of relaxation and lightness of being.

In yoga it is not only the corpse pose that aids integration of the physical postures but also the practice of meditation. Simply sitting quietly with the eyes closed and focussing on the breath after a hatha yoga session can over time draw the individual to the ‘still point’ within.

Photo and painting: Sanandi-jacq

Yoga yoking to the whole

Each person is unique yet we belong to the whole of humanity much like individual pebbles belong to the beach. Pebbles are shaped by the action of the sea as we are shaped by the action of life’s currents of conditioning.

No two pebbles are exactly the same. Each pebble has its unique history, shape, colour and provenance. Each pebble has a right to be on the beach. Each pebble contributes to the beach.

Yoga in Sanskrit means ‘to yoke’ or ‘union’. Practising yoga brings a sense of wholeness with oneself and connection with all that is.

Pebbles on a Dorset beach – each one unique Photo credit: © Sanandi-jacq

Yoga joint-freeing series

Yoga is for everyone whatever age group. The secret is in modifying the postures according to the needs of the body. In yoga there is a series of movements called the joint-freeing series or Pawanmuktasana Part 1. This series can be performed at any age.

The joint-freeing series starts with wiggling the toes and finishes with gentle neck movements. Performing simple movements of the joints regularly helps to keep the synovial fluid healthy. In this blog I will concentrate only on the feet to get you started.

The secret is to perform the movements with awareness and intention. By bringing your awareness to the body part you are moving and having the intention to keep the joint well you are training the body to respond to positive thought. Moving the joint in conjunction with the breath aids in focusing the mind on the joint. Regular practice, i.e. everyday particularly in the early morning before or after rising, is recommended to get the body into a habit of healing.

Stop what you are doing now. Take off your shoes and socks/stockings and look at your feet and toes. People often don’t like their feet but for today admire the miracle of your feet. Become aware of all the joints in the toes.

Now begin to curl the toes. Then straighten them noticing what is happening as you do so. If you want to go further add in the breath. As you curl the toes breath out. As you straighten the toes breath in. Repeat the exercise 6-10 times on each foot. If you are short of time you can wiggle both sets of toes at the same time. But it is better to be focussed on one foot at at time as our feet are often different. Pause and notice how your toes feel.

If you should perform this exercise everyday you may find that your toes become so flexible that if you took up a paint brush you could paint with your feet! Some people find that their toes may get a little stuck – there may be a toe that doesn’t move much and so on. The secret is not to judge your own body but to be patient with practice and see if anything changes over time.

Once you have started wiggling your toes you will want to move the other joints in your body. So staying with the feet and starting with your right foot point your toes towards the floor then flex your foot. Do this 6-10 times. Then do the same on the left. As you do so bring your awareness to what is happening in the lower leg – you may find that muscles are moving in the calves. Is anything else happening that you are aware of? Enquire of your body how it is responding to the movements.

Then for the final foot exercise circle the right ankle 6-10 times in a clockwise direction then 6-10 times in an anticlockwise direction. You can use the breath to slow down the movements. Half a circle breath in and half breath out. Then do the same on the left. Be aware of how each ankle feels as you circle it. Maybe the joint clicks as it releases. Don’t worry about these sounds. It usually means that the joint is releasing. Notice if there is a difference between one ankle and the other. Bring your awareness to what is happening in the lower legs. Does circling your ankles affect more than just the ankles?

The joint-freeing series covers all the joints of the body (except the spine) and if performed with awareness and a sense of enquiry into the workings of your own body can have a beneficial effect on the joints, the muscles and fascia around the joints and your sense of well-being. As with all exercise regular and consistent practice is necessary to really appreciate the benefits.

SELF-PRACTICE: When you wake up tomorrow morning before getting out of bed focus on your toes, feet and ankles. Notice how each part feels without judgement. Then begin the three exercises outlined above in the following order. It is more beneficial to focus on one foot at a time. However, if time is an issue exercising both feet at the same time is fine. Do this for the next 30 days and see if there is any change in how your toes, feet and ankles feel.

1) Toe-wiggling

2) Pointing and flexing the feet

3) Circling the ankles clockwise and anti-clockwise.

MORE EXERCISES FROM THE JOINT-FREEING SERIES TO FOLLOW.

Looking after the joints of the feet. Photo credit: © Sanandi-jacq

Reference:

Satyananda, Saraswati, Swami (1996, reprint 2005) Asana, Pranayama, Mudra and Bandha, Yoga Publications Trust, Mungar, Bihar, India pp.23-27 Section on Pawanmuktasana Part 1 series – toes, feet, ankles.

Our daily yogic breath

Daily sitting focussing on the breath brings the mind to a calmer place. Less swirling of random thoughts. Less room for the inner critic. More room for awareness. More spaciousness and peace.

Twenty minutes regular practice in two sessions – one in the morning and one in the evening – eases stress and anxiety in everyday life.

Meditation on the breath has the added benefit of making the mind more creative when off the mat. Well worth the time.

Dropping conditioned masks

Throughout life we gain masks of conditioning. Deep yoga practice enables us to slowly peel back the layers of that conditioning until we reveal the true self within. It is not so easy to drop the many masks that provide our sense of armour as we move through the world. As the masks drop an inner vulnerability reveals itself. Yet, this vulnerability is our strength. Once we begin to know who we really are, we see life differently.

Cryptic? Yes, it feels this way until we begin to practice the 8-fold path of yoga and start to shed what doesn’t belong to us and what we don’t need. Then there is a sense of liberation.

Yoga: a way of life

The practice of yoga is not just about physical postures though in the West many people see yoga as simply that. Unless of course you are a practising yogi or yogini and know that there is more to yoga than a series of postures.

Yoga is essentially a lifestyle choice though personally I dislike this term as it sounds so artificial. Let’s rephrase it. Yoga is essentially a way of life if you embrace it fully. It should permeate everything you do not just the time you spend on the mat.

Yoga means ‘union’ or ‘yoke’ in Sanskrit – the ancient Indian language of yoga’s origins. The union or yoking is between mind, body and spirit. The mind and body connection is easy enough to fathom but what about the spirit?

What does yoking to the spirit actually mean? We all have a deeper nature and a deeper connection to life than we know. Union with the spiritual side of our nature is simply connecting to our higher nature – understanding that there is something bigger than ourselves. We all have different conceptions of what our higher nature might be and what that something bigger than our little selves might be. The spiritual journey is what our lives are often about.

All of us are on a spiritual journey in one way or another. All of us have our own way of connecting to our spiritual nature. Yoga is simply a science or an art or a set of tools that help us to calm body and mind so that we can more easily perceive our higher nature. Yoga was never a religion but a way of connecting to a higher reality. Anybody can practice yoga – a way of relaxing body and mind and learning to tune in to the reality of life around us. Regular practice of yoga enables us to gain a sense of inner peace – much needed in the busyness of modern life.

Photo credit @ Sanandi-jacq May 2019

Restorative yoga

What do I have in my yoga repertoire to restore my energy? In the past I would probably have practised several rounds of sun salutations to give me a buzz. Nowadays I know that tends to be counterproductive when the body systems are weary. They don’t need more sympathetic nervous system stimulation which is what the sun salutation sequences are good at providing. Instead I head towards restorative yoga practice which works on the parasympathetic nervous system.

So what is restorative yoga? Is this some new-fangled yoga fad? Well, it might be more popular these days because of the rising tide of stress and anxiety sweeping through the population however the actual postures have been around for years. They are simply resting yoga postures held for longer and that can mean minutes at a time. The body is placed in a restful position conducive to relaxation allowing the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in.

Take this morning. I went into the yoga hut having not slept much over night. I could feel the weariness as I prepared to do my usual practice which usually includes a few sun salutations. Tuning into my body I knew that a restorative practice would be much more beneficial even if that meant falling asleep (very tempting when so comfortable in a pose though best to keep awake).

So, first of all I simply lay down in the corpse pose and tuned in to how the body felt. Just a few minutes. Enough to scan through each body part and sense what state it was in. Next I put my legs up the wall and stayed still. Must have stayed there for a good ten minutes. A gentle pulse became palpable in my lower back. The body urged me to move on.

For the next pose I lay back on a bolster with a meditation cushion under my head. Buttocks on the floor my legs were stretched out straight and my arms rested by my sides palms facing up. Yummy! Another ten minutes until I felt a slight discomfort in my lower back. Time to move on. Having practiced a chest opening pose it was time to close down in a forward bend. Using the bolster and meditation cushion again I knelt in front of the poster and lay my stomach across the bolster resting my head on one side on the meditation cushion (changing head to the other side to balance the body when the urge to do so arose). Another ten minutes passed. This pose I could have held longer but I decided to keep the practice balanced in terms of timings in backbend/forward bend counterpose stakes. Better for the body.

Finally I relaxed back into the corpse pose – legs outstretched, arms outstretched by my side with palms face up. Head in neutral and not using a pillow and I stayed there for as long as I felt I could. When I next looked at my watch it had been twenty minutes! Might have been shorter if the sun hadn’t been shining in and warming hut and body!

You can do the maths. The whole restorative yoga session took about 50 minutes and I only practised five poses – one of those twice! And wow did I feel good as a result.

What did I do afterwards? Well, that’s for another blogpost! Whatever I did, I floated around in a state of calm and rest. Carry on restorative yoga!