Transitions in Yoga!

Transitions make flows fun and dynamic. They help to create continuous movement that smoothly connects one pose to another. They allow for the body to experience fluidity that we may not in our busy everyday lives. I personally enjoy transitions a lot in Vinyasa Flows because it gives a creative touch and differentiates one flow from another.

However, many a times, we fail to appreciate the transitions themselves, often rushing through them or taking no notice of them. Well, it is no surprise since it may not feel as rewarding as the final pose itself or as relaxing as the next pose. Going from Chaturanga to Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog), we find ourselves rushing through to Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (upward facing dog) and then carelessly pushing back to downward facing dog so we can quickly rest, paddle our legs out and take a few more resting breaths. In another example, half-lifts are often neglected – we often just look upwards instead of straightening and lengthening our spine as we should – before jumping back to Chaturanga.

It takes effort, consciousness and awareness to accept and integrate all transitions properly in our practice, such that we can ultimately derive more satisfaction from our practice. With all this being said, I would like to highlight 2 different transitions that require attention and focus in order to facilitate proper execution and prevent injury.


Chaturanga -> Upward Facing Dog -> Downward Facing Dog

  • If done correctly, upward facing dog helps to open up your chest while engaging your legs. This helps you maintain an open chest during downward facing dog and prevent the pinching of shoulder.
  • How to do: on inhale, slowly press through arms and roll over the toes / flip them back. Arms should straighten without locking and biceps should roll forward to feel expansion across the chest. Collarbones should spread and shoulders should depress and retract. Actively press tops of fit and lift kneecaps, engage quads to prevent putting too much pressure/weight on the wrists.
  • If we rush through the pose and throw ourselves from Chaturanga to upward facing dog carelessly, it can lead to injury in shoulders, elbows, neck and lower back. We will also not be able to get the most out of the movement.
  • Alternative: Ashtanga Namaskar -> Cobra (Bhujangansana) -> Downward Facing Dog

 
One legged Closed hip posture -> One legged Open hip posture (vice versa)

  • Examples: Warrior 3 -> Half Moon, Half Moon -> Standing Splits
  • Common transitions in asanas that seem natural
  • Caution: One legged transitions from neutral to external (vice versa) results in combined compression (of cartilage – in moderation it is good) and shear (gliding force) that could create too much friction on the cartilage. The cartilage of the hip joint could diminish in volume and completely wear through and expose the bone. If it is missing, it can no longer interact with synovial fluid (a slipper lubrication) and the bone to bone friction increases. In long term, this could result in Labral tear, arthritis, and other degenerative joint problems.
  • How to counter:
    – Balance down the hip by putting down both legs then transition to the next pose.
    – Alternative B: Utthita Trikonasana -> Half Moon (Ardha Chandrasana). This is a natural transition because the hip is already open and the weight is initially on both legs.
    – Alternative C (not as protective): Bend the standing leg and slowly straighten when opening the hip.

Would yin yoga enable me to become flexible more quickly?

Ever since moving to Singapore from the UK in 2012, I have been increasingly intrigued and impressed by the flexibility of the locals. Although my hips are not very flexible, I have been attending intermediate classes for a number of years.

Quite often I will find that there are a number of poses that I cannot even attempt due to me inflexiblity. This extends to binds as well. During the YTT at Tirisula yoga and looking more closely at muscles actions and movements, I’m interested to discover if I can ever come to a full lotus pose. After following the advice from Master Sree to frog pose and a half lotus for extended periods, I have been able to form some variation of a full lotus.

The fact that holding conditioning poses for extended periods has improved my flexibility leads me to think that regular yin yoga sequences would be a good idea for me and many other westerners who like to practice intermediate of even advanced yoga but have tight hips.

What are some yon yoga hip stretched that I could consider using in my practise?

Winged Dragon (five-minute hold on each side)

 

Shoelace (five-minute hold on each side)

Square Pose

The Challenges of Pronouncing and Recalling Asana Names in Sanskrit​

At the very beginning of YTT, learning Sankrit asana names seemed a huge obstacle to me. Sanskrit names are integral to my progress and languages are not my strong point. I tried hard to hear the sounds when Master Sree spoke in Sanskrit and vigorously searched the manual during theory lessons. However, I knew that I needed to self-study and find methods that suited my learning style.

Which methods have I tried?

1. I made a 1-page resource for each sun salutation (large images and names) so that I could practise poses while speaking. I felt a positive shift in confidence. This was the initial breakthrough.

2. I downloaded the “Yoga 108” app recommended by Master Sree. This was useful because I was able to study the Sanskrit and English names for poses at my own pace and play the audio, which helped me to learn pronunciation.

3. I recorded myself saying the Sanskrit names for the sun salutations and played it back to myself while completing the poses. It helped me to be less embarrassed about my pronunciation during studio practise.

4. I asked my partner to follow my instructions in English and then in Sanskrit. He seemed impressed, which gave me some confidence. We practised for an hour at night and 30 minutes in the morning before class. I noticed an improvement in my memory.

4. Finally, a friend offered to make me some flashcards with English/Sanskrit names for ashtanga Series 1 poses. She also broke down some of the words for me, such as Ardha means half, Baddha means bound, Padma means lotus and so on. I’m still working on remembering so many names but knowing some common words is really useful.

Although I have a long way to go, I can now see that it is possible to learn to Sanskrit names and most of all overcome self-doubt by practising regularly.

Keep Calm and Savasana

Often, we hear teachers say that “Savasana is the most important part of yoga practice”. For many of us, savasana is just a chance for us to finally relax (and sleep) at the end of our yoga class. Sometimes, we might even skip it as we rush off to our next appointment. So why is it the most important pose? 

Physical benefit: It creates balance in our body

After an energetic practice, savasana helps to bring our body back to our balanced state, as our temperature and heart rate return to normal. Exercise creates stress on our body and this may put us in a fight-or-flight state. By taking the time to relax after practice, it allows our body to release the tension and stress that we have held in, be it during the class or during the day. This also helps us to reap in the benefits of our practice, as our body takes the time to feel and absorb the physical, mental and spiritual effects of the different poses. 

Mental benefit: It calms our mind

As we lay in stillness, it gives us the chance to clear our mind and focus on our breathing. In today’s busy world, how often do we really take the time to switch off and have some quiet time to ourselves? Sometimes, even as I flow through the yoga sequence, I find my mind wandering to random things like what shall I eat after class. Savasana allows us to quiet these thoughts, which in turn helps our central nervous system to calm down. This leads to better memory and less overall stress.    

Spiritual benefit: It promotes spiritual awakening and awareness of higher consciousness 

Also known as the “corpse pose”, some say that savasana brings the practitioner to a contemplation of death. “Although it might seem grim at first, meditating on death is actually one of the most uplifting and motivating spiritual practices, because it reminds us of what’s important in life – and of just how precious this human life is.”

In my opinion, savasana teaches us how to surrender and let go (perhaps, just like in death). We surrender our thoughts, our bodies, and our ego. For those few moments, we surrender fully and completely to the moment. To me, that is the first step to spiritual awakening. 

To end off, here’s a quote by B.K.S. Iyengar from the Light on Yoga — “The stresses of modern day civilisation are a strain on the nerves for which Śavāsana is the best antidote”. With so much going on around us right now, maybe we should all take some time to keep calm and savasana~

Kakasana: Principles on the mat and beyond.

While Kakasana (Crow Pose) comes easily to some people, it has always felt like an impossible pose for me.  I have lost count of the number of times I came crashing down onto the mat trying to get into this pose over the past few years. 

To my surprise, I finally managed to do it (for the first time!) during the first week of YTT, albeit for just a few seconds.  Here are some tips which helped me get into it – equally applicable on the mat and in life.  Hopefully, this will be helpful to those still struggling with this asana.

First, build a firm foundation.   Starting in Malasana, bend forward and press your hands flat onto the ground.  When I started out, I used to place too much weight on my wrists, overstraining them as a result.  To avoid this problem, we will need to spread our fingers wide and press our fingertips and the palms firmly into the mat.   This will spread the weight evenly through the hand, and remove pressure from the wrists.  Next, we will need to engage our core and squeeze our elbows closer together.  I used to think this arm balance pose was all about arm strength, but it is in fact mostly our core muscles that will be holding us up.  Without this firm foundation, we will never be able to rise.

Second, stop finding excuses.   To justify my constant failures to myself, I used to think to myself: I will never get this pose because my butt is just too fat.  Besides, my wrist is too weak to support the massive weight of my hips.  To be fair, I injured my left wrist when I fell from a pole and landed on my left hand 3 years ago – but I had long since recovered from this injury so this wasn’t exactly a good excuse.  According to Patanjali, one of the nine obstacles to sadhana (disciplined and dedicated practice) is Samshaya or doubt.  This can happen when our minds start clouding over with doubt about our own capabilities. Unless we push this doubt out of minds, we will never be able to progress.  But of course, if we have existing injuries or ailments, particularly hip or wrist injuries, it would be better to leave this pose out of our practice.

Third, focus your eyes straight ahead, and never look down (or that’s where you’ll end up).  This last tip was the most pivotal in helping me take flight into Crow.  As I was struggling to get into the pose, Master Sree placed a block in front of me, and told me to look straight ahead and focus on the block.  I looked up from the ground and focused ahead – and for the first time in my life, I lifted into Kakasana.   

Hand Stand Tips

Sitting in an advanced class, while the energy raises to its peak, everyone can flip themselves up to hand stand but you can’t. I am sure many of us share the similar experience along our yoga journey. The frustration of kicking and falling back was still fresh few weeks ago for me.

I was never able to do hand stand before YTT training. After few weeks intensive training, i occasionally can flip myself up. Since the first time I kicked up, I started to be more aware of my body and the feeling of being inverted. I tried different ways of coming to hand stand and I realize there are techniques that we can apply.

The most important thing for me is to round the shoulders and fully engage it during the whole practice. By doing this, it gives me much stronger base on my palms and fingers when I flip up. Whenever I loose the shoulder engagement, I tend to bend the elbow or arch the lower back and the whole body will lose balance.

Second thing is to suck in the belly, squeeze the butt and thighs tight. By doing this, I found myself can flip up more gracefully instead of throwing myself against the wall. I usually squeeze the legs and point the toes once I am inverted as self adjustment. Tuck the tailbone and suck in the belly can help keeping the balance and avoid arching back and losing balance.

Third trick that I found it myself is to gaze at a fix point and start counting numbers when I am inverted. I am not sure if it is the gazing makes me more concentrated or the counting makes me calmer. I found myself stay a little longer if I do so.

Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. Being aware of your own body and keep trying!

 

The Balancing Act

Going back to the “Why do I want to do YTT”, one of the main reasons was because I wanted to learn the technique of how to do all the various inversions that could possibly be done and, effortlessly.

Just like how an elephant balances on the circus ball? I wanna be just like that.

 

But saying is one thing and doing is another. When we first started YTT, we were told that different poses will be tested during the examination, i.e Crow pose – 1min, Headstand – 3mins etc etc. And I thought, Oh my goodness, I can’t even hold the crow pose for 10s, how to do it for 1min? Surely a miracle must happen on the examination day for me to pass.

Week by week, as we attended YTT, teacher took effort to train us, and painful as it was, we definitely needed it. The 1001 chaturangas we kept doing, transitioning from one pose from one to another, there was no mercy. But overtime, bit by bit, we became stronger; chaturanga holds extended from 30s to 45s, headstand practice went up to ‘let’s-do-for-3-full-minutes’ and if we can’t, it’s fine, we have the wall behind us and thus could cheat a little. Slowly but surely, doing inversion became easier. My crow practice started from 5-10s, to 15-25s, in which I saw improvements but it was simply not good enough. Headstands, on the other hand, had me playing this balancing act as I tried to beat gravity, keeping my feet up high and trying not to tilt. All of these however, was just not the ‘right technique’. I’m not saying that there is the one method we must all conform to, but surely I always felt that there is a better & easier way to take, for a longer and more convincing stay in each desired pose.

The technique is none other than ’rounding your back, squeezing your core super hard and creating a firm base’ before each balancing pose. Example – when you do crow, you place your palms down on the floor, round your back, squeeze the core before proceeding to bring your knees outside your arms and eventually getting your feet off the ground.

As you stay in your posture (sounds easy but hard to master), just continue to contract and contract those core muscles, keep that rounded back, and sometimes I see it as staying super compacted with a bigger area of base to lower your center of gravity, hence making you more stable. Moving on to headstand, it is slightly different because the body is fully extended and lengthened, but using the same concept, create that firm base and that is fundamental. Place your forearms and head down the mat in a triangular shape, keep your elbows tucked for a narrow and firmer base, slowly start to walk your feet closer to your elbows and eventually contract/engage your core as you lift both feet off the mat and come to a perfect invert.

I won’t say that I am an expert in balancing poses and all now, I’m pretty sure I’m still unable to do the lotus feet headstand (i.e a cross-legged sitting where each foot is placed on the opposite thigh): in lotus position, place forearms and head down in triangular just as how you would do a normal headstand, but only relying on your core, lift your lotus feet up [probably my ultimate challenge to myself] – this pose is really a “pure-core” work of art. But having said that, practicing this newfound technique has really enabled me to hold in those poses for an unexpected extended period of time. And I am excited, because word is that once you’ve got that strong base formed like a house built upon a rock, the rain can pour, the flood can come, but your house won’t shake.

 

 

 

 

Returning to a natural state

My 2-year old toddler is a natural yogi. Seriously. She stretches in supta padagustasana when she drinks milk, flips her tiny body into ardha kapotasana when she’s done drinking & gets up, drops into malasana when she plays with her toys, rests in supta baddha konasana, sees the world upside down in adho mukha swanasana when she’s horse-playing with me and my husband. Effortless and natural movements.

Watching my toddler move, to me, embodies the spirit of yoga asana practice. To return the body to a natural state, the way we moved before our bodies manifested bad postures, habits and our samskaras.

Beyond the mat, my toddler has also taught me other yoga lessons. At dinner last night, she used a Chinese soup spoon, western spoon AND fork to eat her dinner. Switching between the different utensils every few mouthfuls, grinning from ear and ear when she succeeded in eating rice with her fork.

Food for thought. How much of what we do is conscious or unconscious? Do we accept what we are told, or do we take action ourselves? When was the last time we learnt something new? In our natural state, we are a blank piece of paper, no ego, openness to everything around us, fearless in our actions. As I continue in my yoga journey, I take inspiration from my toddler to return to basics and keep things simple.

When was the last time you used different utensils to eat your dinner? Or walked backwards simply because it’s fun? Perhaps it’s time to give it a try.

Benefits (and overcoming the fear) of Inversions

A few weeks ago, I finally had to face the moment I feared, head on (literally) –  having to do a head stand. Maybe it was a good thing that I was the first one in the class to try it, because that gave me no time to feel scared and chicken out. But another major factor was that I know that with Master Sree, we were in good hands.

There is definitely still alot of practice and room for improvement before I can nail my first supported head stand (against the wall). I realise that fear has alot to play in the pace of improvement. When I am upside down, the fear of losing balance tends to flood my consciousness, such that my brain is unable to effectively tell my elbows to push inwards, my neck to stay strong and my belly muscles to suck it in.

Perhaps for now, to encourage myself (and anyone else out there who is overcoming the fear of inversions) to do more inversions, I would like to share some of the benefits of yoga inversions.

An inversion is when the heart is placed higher than the head. Adho Mukha Svanasana and Prasarita Padottanasana can be considered as semi-inverted poses, where the feets are not off the ground. The main inverted poses consist of – just to name a few – Sarvangasana (shoulder stand), halasana (plough pose), sirsasana (headstand) and handstand.  

Physical benefits

Inversions stimulate the immunity system. In an inverted position, lymph moves to the key areas of the body eg. lungs more efficiently, thereby improving the elimination of toxins from the body.

Further, inversions can strengthen the abdominal and core muscles, which are key to maintaining a good posture. As Master Paalu said, in a headstand, you are also working the muscles in the upper body such as the deltoids, neck muscles and trapezius.

Inversions can also help to relieve spinal pain, as it counteracts the pressure on the spine in an upright position.

As being in an inversion defies gravity, it supposedly helps to slow down ageing (eg. less sagging of facial features).

Psychological benefits

Inversions allow an increased flow of oxygenated blood to the brain, which invigorates the brain and improves mental clarity and focus. Inversions also help to calm your mind and nervous system, and is a good way of relieving anxiety.

In addition, inversions can help us to look at things from a different angle –  literally and figuratively! Perhaps the next time you get stuck with a difficult problem at work, try doing a headstand in an empty meeting room!

Another benefit of inversion, which I really hope to achieve, is the increase in confidence and patience, which can be applied to our daily life. To accomplish a challenging pose such as an inversion, loads of practice (and failing) are involved. By not giving in, we are training our minds to be more resilient. When we finally get into a pose, we feel confident of trusting our hard work and the process.

Spiritual benefits

Inversions guide the energy of the pelvis towards the heart, enabling inner growth and self-exploration.

To close out this post, here are some important points to note in practising inversions:

  • Besides being physically ready (in terms of strength), it is key to learn the correct alignment for each pose, to avoid injuries especially to the neck.
  • It may be beneficial to practise how to “fall out” of an inversion, in order to be less fearful and also reduce the chances of injuries.
  • As Master Sree advised, an inversion should always be succeeded by balasana (child pose), to allow the blood flow and therefore, heart rate and breath, to return to normal.
  • To all ladies, it is recommended to avoid inversions during a menstrual period, as the reversed blood flow opposes the body’s urge to release stale blood and endometrial lining.
  • Last but not least, always listen to your body. Be kind and be patient with your body!

With that, lets work hard towards nailing our headstands! Feel the fear, and do it anyway!

 

References:

https://www.juruyoga.com/popular-yoga-inversions-and-their-benefits/

https://www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/strike-a-royal-pose

https://www.yogapedia.com/10-benefits-of-inversions/2/9632

The Love of Arm Balances

Yoga intrigues me because of its all encompassing nature. In order to successfully practice it, harmony is required between body and mind.

Embracing it means the desire to embrace increased flexibility, balance and strength, in not just the physical, but also mental state.

 

To me, the term arm balances is a misnomer. It’s not only a test of balance, but also strength and often flexibility as well.

 

Across all arm balances, some useful tips include:

  1. Warm up your wrists
  2. Keep working on building strength – arm and core.
    Aim to be able to do several decent Chaturanga push ups.
    Feel the squeeze in your core as you hold the pose.
  3. Try to break down each pose into smaller steps.
  4. Always focus you gaze upwards and forwards, not down onto your mat.

 

The variations in arm balances are endless! Here’s to a never ending journey of discovery.