Yoga Lost in Translation

Like many arts and sciences that are compelling, beautiful, and deep, yoga has suffered from the spiritual starvation of the modern world. Over the years Yoga has been translated, modernised, westernised and watered down. In many countries the profound and eternal essence of yoga has been mainly misrepresented as a fitness culture or even promoting Hinduism. Unfortunately such a cloud of confusion has masked the true concept of yoga.

Yoga is a way of life, the uniting of the body, mind and spirit. Its real purpose is not just to become physically fit or mentally relaxed but also to deepen our own spiritual journey, enabling and guiding us to be more aware of ourselves, ultimately leading to self-realization. It is about making a connection with our world and having a clear mind that is free from delusion.

Patanjali, known as “the father of yoga”, said in a very simple way what he thought yoga is for him; “Yoga is the practice of quieting the mind”. To give meaning to those simple words, continuous practice and discipline are required to attain Yoga. Yoga means “union”, to unite mind, body and spirit. There are many descriptions long and short among books and websites on explaining the concept of yoga. However theorizing and describing yoga, would be just the same as trying to define love. During my first week in Tirisula’s YTTC Master Paalu asked the class “how do you know when you are in love?” and many of us were stummped in describing the full essence of love. Like Yoga the dictionary and books can define the term, but in order to truly understand we have to experience yoga by living the practice.

For me yoga provides me a safe space and an opportunity to connect with the inner silence and peace within. During asana practices it stretches and bend me in more ways than one, both physically and mentally. Yoga has taught me awareness, awareness of my body, mental state and my breath. It is about returning to my breath and realizing that I am blessed with everything that I have at this very moment. As Master Paalu said “ We are living in Heaven, what more do we want?”

Yoga – something for men?

If you go to any Yoga studio in Singapore, you will soon realize that most of the students are female. All the classes I ever took were overwhelmingly dominated by women and in the Yoga studio I frequent there are maybe – beside me – two or three other men, who use to come regularly (more than two times a week). Also while I was doing my YTT here at Tirisula Yoga I was the only participant out of a total of 13. If you look at the gender of the teachers – at least at my Yoga studio – a quite different picture shows itself. It is actually quite evenly distributed (with even a slight advantage for male teachers). So the reason why not more men are practicing Yoga is definitely not that they are physically not able to. Actually – historically speaking – Yoga used to be men-only until not so long ago.

 

When my family was moving to Singapore in early 2017 my mother was the only member of the family practicing Yoga. My father was joining her soon afterwards and a little later both of them were trying to persuade me to also join them. Their effort was not bearing fruits for nearly half a year. I didn’t want to do Yoga because I thought like a lot of other men that Yoga is something for women. My (naïve) idea of a typical Yoga class consisted at this time of a lot of meditation, simple stretches while chanting Om the whole time and then going back home. I think that this perception of Yoga is quite common among men. When I was finally convinced to try a Yoga class all of these ideas were disproved massively. My clothes were dripping wet and I felt muscles I didn’t even know existed days afterward. I soon realized that Yoga requires not only a great amount of flexibility but also to the same extent strength, discipline and stamina.

 

So the main reasons why the great majority of men are not practicing Yoga is that they have a totally screwed idea of what Yoga is. And the awesome pictures of super-flexible girls on Instagram don’t really help to change that. Yoga is generally linked by men to meditation, chanting and flexibility, but in reality it is so much more! Yes, there are classes which require a lot of flexibility, there are meditation classes, but there are also classes which are more strength based and there are definitely classes which you will finish wet from head to toes. Apart from that Yoga reduces stress, leads to a happier life and improves your posture. Also it cures back pain and an abnormal blood pressure, from which a lot of men are suffering from.

So in a nutshell Yoga is something for everyone regardless of gender!

 

Amon

Discussing “Pain” in the Singapore context [part 1]

DISCLAIMER:
This will be a pretty long anecdote/opinion piece so I have divided it into two parts for your benefit.

With longer working hours, the consequences of a sedentary lifestyle have been observed in the growing epidemic of chronic pain. Observe the working adults around you; you might see them involuntarily cracking their neck or unconsciously rubbing their shoulders in the hopes of temporarily relieving pain. Cases of chronic low back pain have also dramatically increased.

So why have we passively accepted and even accommodated this unwelcome presence of pain in our lives? From my own observations, pain (especially chronic pain) in Singapore has been perceived in the two extremes, however contradictory.

  1. Pain is a sign of hard work
  2. Pain is a sign of weakness

Let me explain myself. In Singapore, where most people are caught up in a rat race to be the best, the concept of “no pain, no gain” has become entrenched. It started off as an exercise motto that promises greater value rewards for the price of hard and even painful work but now it has been applied in all kinds of scenarios, including at our workplace and at school. In a way, that saying validates our competitiveness and justifies our long working hours. However, we have gone too far by glamorising that thinking. We have even begun to use pain to justify our hard work; for example, if you have muscle aches after a punishing workout, that is a good sign that you pushed yourself to the limit. If you have knots in your shoulders from working long hours on the computer, you are an excellent employee.

This is because we have been given the message that in order to succeed, we need punishing workouts, we need to work until we are completely exhausted, we need to work doubly hard to the next person. After all, pain is weakness leaving the body, right? No. In the short term, that might work, but it is damaging in the long run. It is not sustainable and the consequences have begun to show.

Speaking from personal experience, I have injured myself a few times because I subscribed to that belief. I was immersed in yoga for a few months and I feared that I would lose my hard-earned fitness if I took a day or two off. At the same time, I was balancing a time consuming part-time job and my first year of University. I was not getting enough sleep, not eating well enough and as a result, I was constantly exhausted. And in a flow class one day, I lost my focus for a moment and I hurt my wrist. For the next few months, I could not get myself into a proper chaturanga, plank poses and variations hurt greatly and I was forced to stop.

-> read part 2 for my revelations.

Are we really healthy?

As we grow older, our immune system weakens and sickness is inevitable.

 

A few days ago, someone very dear to me sat me down.

“I have diabetes.”

His words rendered me speechless. We had always jokingly worried about me getting diabetes as I grew up on a diet that comprised of disgustingly large amounts of sugar. I would order 200% sugar level for my bubble milk teas, pour packets of white sugar straight into my mouth, there was a month i spent eating 7 big bars of chocolate every single day.

 

A few months ago, he still asked me “hey, maybe you don’t have depression. Maybe you’re just diabetic. Depression is a symptom of diabetes.”

 

Did you know, that Singapore has the second highest rates of diabetes in Asia.

 

Did you know, that 1 in 3 Singaporean youths are diabetic?

 

Unfortunately, yoga is not a definite cure of diabetes but it will definitely help diabetic patients manage it better. Also for those that do not have diabetes, practicing yoga will help keep you in the low risk range of onset late adult diabetes because out of the other profound benefits it possesses, yoga mitigates stress. I’m not going to delve deeply into stress.

 

Breathing and moving the body with focus and concentration takes the mind out of its habitual preoccupation with worrisome thoughts. It brings the mind into a continuum, and in that moment when the mind is completely absorbed, it forgets where it is, who it is, and what disease it has”

 

Studies have shown that slow and steady breaths and deep concentration I practiced with each pose as well as silent meditation that follows keep heart rate and glucose levels steady.

 

In all asanas, there is a perfect balance point that tips out of equality and we fall out of the pose. Despite the ups and downs of daily practice, I am reminding myself to be grateful for the opportunity to find that balance.

 

Benefits of yoga (especially for diabetics) :

– weight loss

slow the process of fat accumulation

– maintenance and reduced blood pressure and cholesterol levels

– mitigate stress

– improve blood sugar control, cholesterol profile

– enhance lung function, mood, sleep, and quality of life

 

Asanas that will help (especially for diabetics) :

  • sethu bandhasana (avoid when having neck or back injury)
  • balasana (avoid when pregnant, have knee injury or diarrhoea)
  • vajrasana (
  • sarvangasana (perform un
  • halasana
  • dhanurasanas
  • paschimottanasana
  • ardha mastyendra

SLEEPING DURING YOGA, PRESSURE POINTS AND YOGA NIDRA

Is it normal to sleep during yoga?

Being someone who has the tendency to fall asleep when not doing something of a certain engagement level can create a fair few problems. Dozing off during class comes across as disrespectful and uninterested although this is not the case for me! I’ve faced this issue from as early on in my life as I can remember. Maybe it’s a combination of growing up in an era where media is causing attention span to decrease, maybe it’s a genetic disorder, I don’t know.

It is close to the end of the 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training course and I have fallen asleep during Shavasana almost after the end of each practical class. I have also fallen asleep while holding various sitting and supine poses. So I research about whether it is normal to sleep during yoga and it is completely normal! (Phew.) It also shows that you are in a state of relaxation, a goal of yoga practice.

However, if like me, you would like to not fall asleep during yoga, here are some recommended poses.

5 POSES TO PREVENT FALLING ASLEEP:
Breath of Joy (Pranayama)
Upward-Facing Salute – Urdhva Hastasana
Downward Facing Dog – Adho Mukha Svanasana
Reverse/Exalted Warrior Pose – Viparita Virabhadrasana
Dancer Pose – Natarajasana

Besides these poses, I feel like inversions also help me to feel more awake. Although I still sleep in class, I don’t think that this is an issue that can be resolved overnight and other measures need to be taken as well. First and foremost, ample sleep. Secondly, a classmate of mine who practices qigong shared with me her knowledge regarding pressure points, saying that pressing firmly onto certain pressure points on my body would aid with my blood circulation and hopefully help me stay awake during class. This is similar to the concept of chakras that we are taught in yoga. Apologies to my non-Mandarin reading friends but I’m sure a quick Google check can provide you with information!

Image result for 人体经络网 足阳明胃经

Any points showed on the red and blue lines pressed during 7 to 9 in the morning would be the most effective.

Image result for 后头骨 凤池

There are three indentations at the back of our head, those are also pressure points that are easily accessible to be pressed by ourselves to help relieve fatigue.

Yoga is about going with the flow and not fighting our body’s desires and signals.

Do note that sleep and yogic sleep (aka yoga nidra) is different. Yoga evaluates the overall state of the mind and body by the relative proportion of three inherent qualities: Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas. Sattva is associated with calm awareness. Rajas is the principle of movement and activity. When out of balance, it can lead us off on mental tangents and manifest in the body as twitches and jerks. Tamas is the force of gravity and gives a sense of groundedness. In excess, it can be felt as a restrictive heaviness, dragging the conscious mind into sleep. Falling asleep during relaxation practices is usually a sign that the quality of tamas is excessive or the quality of rajas is deficient. The practice of systematic relaxation requires a balance between rajas and tamas so that we are grounded and comfortably present in the body, but at the same time alert and mentally attentive. When both conditions are present, our consciousness can rest in sattvic self-awareness.

This Sattvic self-awareness can be achieved through yoga nidra, a state of consciousness between waking and sleeping that occurs during the stage where we enter deep sleep. The yogic goal of both paths, deep relaxation (yoga nidra) and meditation are the same, a state of meditative consciousness called samadhi.

I hope my post has been reassuring and informative to those who face the same problem as I do!

Musings of a Muslim yogi

Prior to commencing my YTT I had only experienced yoga practice in a gym environment, where it was treated like another workout program. A typical class comprised asanas, a brief relaxation session and occasionally some breathing exercises. Mantras and chants are never in the picture. During the YTT I was exposed to the philosophical and spiritual aspect of yoga and, for the first time, I felt some inner conflict while chanting mantras, as I wasn’t sure whether that brought a religious dimension to my practice which would contradict my Muslim beliefs. And so I started researching the topic to better understand the role of mantras and chanting in yoga practice.

 

My first finding is that a desktop search on Muslims practicing yoga renders a pretty wide range of views. At one end of the spectrum are those who argue that Muslims should refrain from any contact with a practice that originated in a different religion. At the other end lies the Sufi approach, which proposes that man’s effort to give himself to God naturally manifests itself through actions that resemble yoga practice, i.e. striving to detach oneself from worldly desires through meditation and even asceticism. The middle ground seems to boil down to the view that yoga as physical exercise is perfectly suitable for Muslims, while the spiritual element is best avoided. The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, for instance, states on its official website that “[…] Muslims are not allowed to practice yoga in a form that clearly contains elements of the rituals (such as recitations) and beliefs of other faiths, as such practices are indeed non-Islamic rituals and are no longer a physical exercise per se.”(https://www.muis.gov.sg/officeofthemufti/Irsyad/Advisory-on-Yoga-Practice).

 

So we’ve established that yoga as physical exercise is no cause for concern. But as I’ve learnt during my YTT, asana practice is only one of the many aspects of yoga. If I reduce it to pure physical exercise, can I still claim to practice yoga and if my only aim is to stretch and build strength using body weight, why not practice Pilates, calisthenics or barre instead? Well, the ethical values upheld in yoga (i.e. yama and niyama) are aligned with the Islamic tenets, so I do not see a contradiction there. Pranayama (breathing techniques) are extremely practical exercises aimed to either energise or calm the body, and they carry no religious connotation. Dhyana (meditative state) is a very useful practice, very especially in this day and age where stress reigns supreme.

 

So what about asana sequences like Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation)? Some argue that this sequence was designed specifically to express gratitude to the sun, which amounts to worship and is therefore undesirable for Muslims. In my view, that’s where the notion of niyyah (intention) comes into play. Niyyah is defined as the intention behind an action and it plays a crucial role in a Muslim’s life, as it is believed that Allah SWT will weigh one’s deeds according to one’s intention when performing the respective deeds. In this spirit, when performing the Surya Namaskar, the practitioner’s intention alone is what determines whether the action carries any shirk (deification of worship of anyone or anything other than Allah SWT) elements, since the sequence itself is just a series of movements and does not carry any inherent element of worship, nor is it accompanied by any religious recitations.

 

What about chanting OM at the start and end of a yoga practice session? Katha Upanishad I, ii, 15-17 explains: “The goal which all the Vedas declare, which all austerities aim at, and which men desire when they lead the life of continence, I will tell you briefly: it is OM. This syllable OM is indeed Brahman. This syllable is the Highest. Whosoever knows this syllable obtains all that he desires. This is the best support; this is the highest support. Whosoever knows this support is adored in the world of Brahma.” (http://singaporehindutemples.com/om.html). Brahman is understood as the Cosmic Principle in Hinduism, or “the primordial reality that creates, maintains and withdraws within it the universe”, according to German Indologist Paul Jakob Deussen. The Aitareya Upanishad defines Brahman as Consciousness and Consciousness as the First Cause of creation (https://www.esamskriti.com/e/Spirituality/Upanishads-Commentary/Aitareya-Upanishad~-Origin-of-the-Universe-ad-Man-(Part~1)-1.aspx). While Brahman is not equated with God in the Islamic sense, the act of primordial creation and the quality of supreme consciousness are attributed to Allah SWT. If, as stated in the Katha Upanishad, “OM is indeed Brahman”, there is a clear correlation between OM and the notion of divine consciousness in the Hindu tradition. Since my understanding of the Hindu sacred texts is sketchy at best and I lack the expertise required to assess the exact extent to which OM may conflict with the Islamic precept of worshipping no god other than Allah SWT, I would rather err on the side of caution and omit it from my practice.

 

Having said that, if you remove the fish from the biryani, you’re just left with boiled rice that no longer qualifies as biryani. Similarly, simply removing aspects of the practice you’re uncomfortable with without filling the void is not the ideal approach. So what would I replace the OM chant with? What religious scholars typically do when interpreting scriptures is engage in the science of hermeneutics, i.e. understand the intended message of the text and establish how that message can be carried forward into the present era without either corrupting the original intent or falling into a literal application which doesn’t necessarily make sense in the present circumstances. I am no religious scholar, nor am I trained in hermeneutics, but for the purpose of this personal decision making process, I will try to apply a similar concept, i.e. establish the intended purpose of the OM chant at the start and end of of the practice and replace that with a more desirable equivalent in a Muslim context.

 

Based on my research, OM chanting serves a number of objectives, of which I will only list one due to space constraints: it is intended to separate the yoga practice from the rest of our day and create a meditative space in which we are able to create a deeper connection with ourselves beyond simple physical exercise. I believe we all have our individual ways of getting into a contemplative mood and practicing mindfulness. As a yoga teacher, which I aspire to become someday, I would create the space for this contemplative mood at the start of the practice. Each one of my students can fill the space with whatever mental and spiritual visualisations they’re comfortable with. I would then end the practice by encouraging my students to carry with them the inner peace and balance achieved during the practice into the rest of their day and week.

 

Will this approach please everyone? Highly unlikely. There will be those coming to class in search of cultural immersion and mystical Hindu experiences. Those will find my class lacking in authenticity and will not return. Those interested only in getting a good will sit impatiently through any meditation or relaxation exercise. However, I am confident that there will also be some who will enjoy my approach to yoga and those will return. After all, as Master Paalu says, even Dracula has followers.

 

To end this piece, I would like to say that I realise how sensitive a topic religion is. I am perfectly aware that some of readers out there might see the views described in this article as deviant, while for others the very fact that I agonise over this topic might seem strange at best. In response, I will quote Aristotle: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Each one of us is on his/her individual spiritual journey and we each manage every step of that journey as best we can. And, since this article is about the musings of a Muslim yogi, I will end with a quote from the Qur’an: “And every soul earns not [blame] except against itself, and no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another.” (Holy Qur’an Surah Al-An’am 6:164).

Mudras – from dance to yoga

A few days ago, as part of my YTT course, I learnt about the significance of mudras (“seal” or “closure” in Sanskrit) in yoga practice. Mudras are grouped into 5 categories based on the body part involved, i.e.: hasta (hand mudras), mana (head mudras), kaya (postural mudras), bandha (lock mudras), and adhara (perineal mudras). Hastas are formed by specific positioning of the fingers and thumb, which creates neuronal connections designed to impact energy flow and create balance through the activation of nerve receptors in the fingertips. Hastas should be practiced for 5-20 minutes at a time and are often accompanied by pranayama (breathing) exercises for maximum results. While this information was new to me, the mudra concept wasn’t.

 

My first encounter with mudras occurred back in my university days, when I had the privilege to attend a superb Bharatanatyam performance by a respected Indian classical dancer in my home-country. I was absolutely enthralled by the artistic performance and set out to actively seek opportunities to learn this exquisite dance form. Unfortunately, it was only when I moved to Kuala Lumpur 10 years later that my dream finally came true and I managed to take classes for a total of 3 years with breaks in between to manage my knee pain (I have tilted patellas and Bharatanatyam is notoriously demanding on the knees, particularly the rhythmic foot stamping in the classical position known as aramandi, a half sitting posture where the knees are bent outwards). Eventually I stopped completely at my doctor’s advice, however, my fascination with Indian classical dance is still very much alive and I attend public performances whenever I have the opportunity. This interest in dance has prompted me to research similarities and differences between mudras in a yoga vs a dance context.

 

First, for those who are not familiar with Bharatanatyam, it is a form of devotional dance originally performed in temples by devadasis (temple dancers) on special religious occasions, which later evolved into a classical art form, although the themes continue to be primarily devotional. The dancer moves to the beat of Carnatic music, one of the two subgenres of the Indian classical music (the other being Hindustani music, popular in the north and often paired with Kathak dance). The oldest written records about Bharatanatyam are found in the Natya Shastra, a Sanskrit text attributed to Sage Bharata Muni and dated roughly 200 BCE- 200 CE. This dance form comprises complex techniques divided into three main categories: nritta (pure rhythmic dance), natya (dance with a dramatic aspect) and nritya (interpretive dance).

 

Which brings us back to mudras. Hand mudras (hastas) are an essential component of a Bharatanatyam dancer’s “vocabulary” and are used to visually convey inner feelings as well as external events. They act as a codified language which requires knowledge by both the performer and the audience. In other words, they are used to communicate externally, unlike in yoga, where they serve to communicate internally. The repertoire comprises 28 asamyuta (single hand) and 24 samyuta (double hand) mudras. Based on the position of the fingers, they are divided into 12 categories:

  1. Prakarana Hastha – fingers stretched
  2. Kunchita Hastha – fingers folded
  3. Rechita Hastha – fingers are given movement
  4. Punchita Hastha – fingers folded or moved or stretched
  5. Apaveshtita Hastha – fingers bent down
  6. Prerita Hastha – fingers bent back or moved or stretched
  7. Udveshtita Hastha – hands are held up
  8. Vyavrutta Hastha – hands held up laterally
  9. Parivrutta Hastha – hands are brought together from sides
  10. Sanketa Hastha – hands are used to convey implied meanings
  11. Chinha Hastha – hands are used to convey a physical appearance, weapons, parts of the body, mannerisms etc.
  12. Padarthateeke – hands are used to confirm the meanings of certain words

 

Some of the dance and yoga mudras are fairly similar in appearance. Examples include the hamsasya hasta (swan) in dance vs the gyan mudra in yoga (increases memory power); the trishula hasta (trident) in dance vs the Varun mudra in yoga (balances water content in the body); the mayura hasta (peacock) in dance vs the prithvi mudra in yoga (improves skin complexion and stimulates weight gain); the simhamukha hasta (lion head) in dance vs the apana mudra in yoga (regulates diabetes); and the kartarimukha hasta (scissors) in dance vs the prana mudra in yoga (balances vitamin deficiency and increases immunity).

 

This process of learning and connecting yoga concepts with prior knowledge has been a very enriching experience and I’m definitely glad I signed up for the YTT.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Niyama experience

Niyama: When learning about niyama I wanted to put actions into them because I saw them as guidelines to help improve yourself and grow. Upon taking action and follow the five steps in Niyama, I really loved it.

Saucha: Clean Thinking,
To work on clean thinking I practiced meditation to help keep the mind calm and clear. I feel that the effects of meditation, especially directly afterwards. After meditation my mind always feels calm and peaceful, it makes my mind feel like it has been cleansed, almost like I pressed the reboot button.

Santosha:
Santosha for me is easy at times but I can also really struggle with it at other times. I sometimes can change from happy to sad very quickly and yes it can be very tiring. My body is so energized in one moment and the next thing I know, I feel sleepy and tired. I am still trying to find my balance and I try to help improve this again with meditation practices. Meditation helps when I feel stressed, sad and when there’s energy built up inside me. I now am working on the habit of sitting still for 5 mins and meditating when I feel these things and this helps me a lot to keep balanced.

Tapas:
I love tapas, I love the feeling after putting your full efforts into something. I’ve even put this into my asanas, I used to get lazy with holding poses, but now I struggle through and it feels so much more worth it in the end. Putting your full effort into something isn’t a physical challenge, it’s a mental challenge. It’s like doing sirsasana, if you are confident, and you tell yourself you are balanced then you will be balanced, but if you believe you will fall, you will fall. When you put full effort into one action, you need to tell yourself, you can do it!

Swahyaya:
Self-study is such a special time for yourself. I sometimes struggle with spending some time to myself these days, I’ll be busy, I’ll spend too much time with my family or boyfriend. But lately, I’ve been trying to give more time to myself. It can be from twenty mins to an hour that I give myself to do my solo time, read, draw, just anything that I enjoy doing alone. It feels good just to be with yourself.

Ishwara- Pranidha:
My purpose, as asked, “what do you have that people can take and take where you don’t feel depleted?” When I ask myself this question, now I think of sharing my knowledge of something that will help others. like yoga, I feel that the next big step in my life will be yoga. I want to grow and teach people what I know and make them happy.

Body proportions in asana practice

If you struggle with a particular asana, your yoga teacher will typically encourage you to keep practicing the pose itself as well as a number of complementary exercises that build strength, flexibility, and stamina. In my experience, the general belief seems to be that, with enough effort, anybody can perform any asana. Consequently, depending on your level of self-discipline, you either practice with a vengeance or avoid the respective pose until you’re put in a situation where you absolutely have to get it right, like the 200 Hr yoga teacher training (smile). In my case, one pose I’ve always struggled with is Salamba Sirsasana I (headstand supported on the forearms).

 

Sirsasana is a pose where the serratus anterior, rotator cuffs and deltoids contract concentrically to rotate the scapula upwardly and stabilize the shoulder joint, while the triceps brachii contract eccentrically to resists elbow flexion. To relieve pressure in the neck and elongate the spine, one should also activate the spinal erector and multifidus muscles close to the spine. In layman terms, you should push your forearms into the ground until you feel your head slightly lifting off the mat.

 

I am able to get into Salamba Sirsasana II (Tripod Headstand) with relative ease and feel fairly comfortable in the pose (despite its complexity, Sirsasana is considered a resting pose, so it’s important that your body is able to relax in this position), but Sirsasana I has always been a losing battle for me. No matter how forcefully I press my shoulders away from the ears and the forearms into the mat, my neck is still compressed and the pose feels extremely uncomfortable. I’ve been putting that down to lack of shoulder and triceps strength and while yes, those areas could definitely benefit from strengthening, they serve me quite well when it comes to Sirsasana II, so something just doesn’t quite add up. At the same time, during the YTT I noticed that, while many of my peers could comfortably place the heel of their palms on the ground in Dandasana, my palms couldn’t touch the floor without my compromising the length in my spine. And so, one day I suddenly thought of examining my body proportions and I noticed two things. Firstly, my shoulders are very narrow, so even with the best effort to broaden the shoulders in Sirsanana, there’s just not a lot to work with. Secondly, I have relatively short arms, a long neck and an oblong head, so if I bend my arm and bring my triceps next to my ear, my elbow is below the crown of my head. By a simple logical deduction, it’d be pretty hard for me to avoid compressing the neck in Sirsasana.

 

Then I wondered whether I’m a freak of nature or there might be other yogis out there facing the same issue, so started browsing the net for related posts. Alas, I came across quite a few interesting articles on the impact of body proportions on proper (and comfortable) asana execution (after all, according to the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali verse 2.46, comfort is an important aspect of asana practice).

 

In a nutshell, my research rendered two main points:

 

  1. If your arms are relatively short in relation to your waist, you will benefit from the use of blocks, straps, or boosters to help “extend” the arms in asanas that require reaching for the floor. So, in the case of Sirsasana, for example, you could place your head on the mat but your forearms on folded blankets to artificially “create” length in the arms or you could place a block behind your head to the same effect. When it comes to Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose), your short arms may not only present a challenge in achieving the desired spinal arch but may also cause considerable pressure in the lower back, since your spine and arms are farther from the floor. To resolve this, you could rest your palms on yoga blocks instead of the floor.
  2. If, on the contrary, your arms are relatively long compared to your waist, you may need to bend your elbows slightly in asanas that originally require straight arms in order to maintain proper alignment.

 

Back to my Sirsasana nightmare: I tried using a folded mat under my forearms and, while I am still struggling with the pose, at least it doesn’t feel like my head is being pushed into my trunk and my neck is about to snap, so the solution is effective in my case.

 

This incident has prompted me to reflect on how props are generally perceived in yoga classes.  In my observation, they’re often equated with a temporary crutch to be used while working on improving strength and flexibility and there’s a certain stigma attached to them, which causes some students to force themselves into misaligned asanas and risk injury rather than use a prop. Perhaps our thinking should shift to viewing props as a permanent fixture for those of us who need to compensate for less than ideal anatomical proportions. Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that one should stop striving for improvement. I believe that hard work and discipline are essential to mastering asana practice, but your skeletal structure is something you can’t really change. As a yoga student, I hope to see more teachers guide struggling students through working with props to make up for less than ideal skeletal structure in addition to encouraging them to keep practicing in order to build strength, flexibility, and stamina. As an aspiring yoga teacher, I intend to undertake further research on how proportions impact certain asanas so that I’m able to advise my future students accordingly.

 

 

Sources:

Chrissy Carter, Headstand: A Practice, https://chrissycarter.com/headstand-a-practice/

Illonka Michelle O’Neil,For All My Yogis With Short Arms, https://www.yogiapproved.com/yoga/why-i-use-yoga-props/

Nicole DeAvilla,Helping Students Master the AsanasPart 2 of 3: Proportion (or, How to Teach Your Students Not to Look Like the Picture in the Book),  https://www.expandinglight.org/free/yoga-teacher/articles/general/helping-students-master-the-asanas2.php

Peg Mulqueen, Size Matters, https://loveyogaanatomy.com/size-matters/

Stephanie E-R.Y.T. 500,Dirgha Kala: A Study of Light on Yoga, Proportion Matters,http://dirghakala.blogspot.com/2014/08/proportion-matters.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

The king of asanas

The Headstand often called the ‘king of asanas’. What has earned it that title is because to master it requires focus to your balance and alignment that heightens your sensitivity and stability and the strength and the willingness to literally turn yourself upside down. It’s a pose that requires courage and it’s only once you muster that courage, can you reap in the numerous benefits.

Here are some of them:

It’s the elixir of youth
Going Into a headstand and letting your skin hang in the opposite direction can provide an instant ‘facelift’. The inversion also flushes fresh nutrients and oxygen to the face, creating a glowing effect on the skin.

It resets and improve blood flow
When you’re doing an inversion, oxygenated blood flows the other way. It can flow straight to the brain improving focus and mental clarity or to the eyes, improving eyesight. It also increases blood flow to the scalp, which in turn improves nutrient delivery to your hair.

It relieves stress
Combined with slow, long breaths, it’s great for when you’re having anxiety, stress or fear. It also works on your adrenal glands which are responsible for the release cortisol or adrenaline- stress hormones.

It’s great for hormone balance
Aside from relieving stress, the headstand stimulates and provides oxygenated blood to the pituitary and hypothalamus glands which are considered the master glands that regulate all other glands in the body (thyroid, pineal, and adrenals).

It’s great for strengthening shoulders, arms and abs
The headstand uses a lot of muscles to firstly get you up then keep you up. Strengthening these muscles are also great for improving upper body strength and muscular endurance.

It improves digestion
When the effects of gravity are reversed, it helps relieve trapped gases, improve bloodflow and remove waste from the digestive system.

 

“The best way to overcome fear is to face with equanimity the situation of which one is afraid,”

B.K.S. Iyengar says in his section on Sirsasana in Light on Yoga