140908 Yogi Time Lapse - This is how to lotus

Warrior poses and handstands and one-leg balancing postures and down dogs and planks, and cobras - yep, all great poses. Those poses only help, minimally, however, in developing the lotus seat - padmasana. If you only have a rigorous asana practice you are missing out on some of the biggest benefits of yoga derived from sitting and meditating. It is widely agreed that the lotus seat is one of the best postures for meditation. This is due to the natural torque that occurs in in the hips which in turns grounds the ischium. The reciprocal energy of the legs into one another and then into the ground and a similar transference between the ischium and ground allows energy to be drawn into the pelvic floor almost effortlessly. In turn, through controlled breathing, the abdominal diaphragm lifts the energy though the anterior and posterior planes of the trunk, into the chest and when the shoulders are relaxed the chest has room to fully expand. Thus, this particular seated posture allows for the greatest ease and expansiveness with breath. With an appropriate dristi or focal point, the neck continues this unbroken transference of energy all the way through the spine from tailbone through the crown of the head. 

Such economy of energy transference is hard to replicate in other poses. In my experience "easy pose" or sukkhasana requires more trunk stabilization as does bound angle (boddha konasana). Child's pose (balansana) or kneeling are good options but the compressive element of those poses puts the shins, ankles, calves, and feet to sleep when held for a long time. Savasana or "corpse pose" is great for economy of movement but the challenge in that posture is to keep your meditation from turning into sleep! 

So how do you get into lotus? Have you tried only to have too much pain in the knee or ankle to get all the way situated? For some the lotus seat is easy. The hips are naturally very open, their legs are long enough that the angle for the knee is less severe. For many, however, lotus is anything but comfortable and just about unattainable. I fell into the latter camp my entire yoga career until just this past month.

A year ago it was pointed out to me that my ankles were turning under or "sickling" when doing poses like pigeon, cow-face pose and in half lotus, fire long pose - really the list was very long. For me, unlocking lotus started with fixing my ankles. The ankle is intended to be either extended - nice and straight with the toes expressing that straightness by pointing OR the ankle can be in some degree of flexion as in when you are standing on it. Problems with the ankles start in the bottom of the foot more often than not, though mine actually was a combination of poor foot placement during walking and old soccer injuries. People over-weight the outside of the foot when walking and that translates to the seated position. The outside edge of the foot begins to turn under and there is an outward bowing of the ankle joint placing a LOT of stress on the lateral ankle ligaments. I started by making sure my ankles were either expressing full flexion or extension in each of the poses above.  Two things helped me get my foot into really good flexion -

1) When possible use your hand or another body part to give the foot feedback. If you walk wrong chances are the second you try to put your foot into flexion without the floor underneath it you will default to your bad walking pattern. Use your hand on the bottom of your foot to simulate a floor and root down the base of the big toe and pinky toe as well as the heel to get your foot flat and start to re-train appropriate flexion at the ankle.

2) Flare the pinky toe. Yogi toes look ridiculous at first but aside from the surface area they provide for balance, this simple flaring of the toes pulls the muscles of the plantar fascia and arch wider, stretching the bottom of the foot which in turn makes ankle flexion a LOT easier. 

So after the ankles, the next major crux is the knee, right? If your ankle is fully into extension or flexion you're going to have to work rather hard to get your knee out of alignment. Your knee is a hinge joint, just like the angle. The knee joint expresses range of motion between 0 degrees (knee totally compressed as in kneeling) and 180 degrees (knee open as in standing). In between the two is the mid-way, 90 degree angle, as in sitting in a chair with the feet flat on the ground. Those are the three safest positions for the knee. At any of those three angles, the foot angle can either be flexion or extension and the effect of the relationship between the ankle and knee is experienced in the hip. If your knees give you trouble my suggestions are as follows - 

1) Spend a LOT of time kneeling. Start small with a block underneath you for support and work eventually so that you do no need the block. Start with 5 minutes and work your way up to 20 or 30 minutes. Mind over matter, your legs will tingle but if you keep your pelvic floor and core engaged and your focus on your breath you will one day make it that long. Don't expect that to happen overnight or without some tears. When you have sat kneeling for a long time, make sure you give yourself a long time to unwind out of the posture and don't try to stand up right away. Just get in dandasana and let your body process what happened. 

2) Heros pose at least 3 days a week - once you can kneel for about 15 minutes without a block start working Virasana into your practice to help with internal rotation of the hip while the knee is compressed. This is the opposite movement of the hip than lotus pose but as is often the case one must go East to go West. The hip will not externally rotate if the internal rotation component is missing.

3) Start practice your half lotus - in tree pose, on the ground. Get the heel in contact with the abdomen about two inches below the navel and slightly to whatever side leg you are working. Get the very midline of the shin pointing to the ground and then lean forward to help your pelvis tilt anteriorly. Eventually your knee will drop down to the ground and you will have one half of your lotus legs.

Finally what does one do about the hips? If the ankle and knee are in a good relationship to one another, stretching that you do in pigeon, cow-face pose, janu sirsana, fire log pose etc will all work efficiently and effectively and most important EXCLUSIVELY at the hip. Unlike the other two joints, your hip is a ball and socket. The range of motion in the hip is huge comparatively and you need all of it for lotus. In my opinion the hip takes care of itself when the other two joints are in order. One of the most important poses to get your ready for padmasana is fire log aka double pigeon aka agnisthambasana. This pose is a doosey. It slowly torques the hip socket into submission. Often the hip does not rotate out or back all of the way in the socket but this pose will take care of both of those elements. The first time you try this pose however you might find that there is huge gap between your top leg and bottom leg. First, follow all of the aforementioned tips for the ankle, make sure they are both in flexion. You may need to hang the top ankle over the quad muscle of the bottom leg to be unimpinged in your top foot flexion. From there my tips are as follows - 

1) Lean forward and compress your torso onto your legs. This will guide your hip placement and  anteriorly tilt the pelvis so the head of the femur sits all the way back into the socket.

2) If it feels bad in the knee or ankle don't go there yet. That is my advice at every step of the way to lotus. You only have one knee and one ankle per leg. Treat them kindly. Go slow. Do not force things upon your body that it is not ready for.

I will likely do a tutorial or maybe even a lotus workshop here, soon. If you want a great video on how to get into lotus go here. To see all of the above advice in action check out my time lapse from yesterday below. Good luck and let me know if you have any questions in the comments.

Variety within a yoga practice and some Ayurveda basics

I've mentioned before that my yoga practice does not look the same every day. Once a week I take a rest day and the rest of the time I listen to what my body tells me I need. Friday I did a really vigorous flow with a lot of back bending and power moves. It was great. My abs were sore, my side body and back felt really flexible and I felt mentally clear and strong. The next morning I decided to go to the back-to-basics Bikram workshop at Hot Yoga Downtown. Flexibility with my practice style has kept me moving along - flowing up and over plateaus and always grateful and happy to practice yoga.

The kind of fluidity, however, is very much against my nature. Any way you cut it, any personality assessment you do of me, I am in theory and in practice, a person that tends toward structure and discipline. For the sake of simplicity, let's keep to Eastern concepts in discussing my decisions and personality-type. Ayurveda is an Eastern approach to broad-stroke personality type characterization. At its basis it asks the person to observe him or herself physically - the personality characterization follows from the body-type. There are three body-based personality-types known as "the doshas." 

Even very modern personality theories have been debunked when the scope moves from personal analysis to analyzing others. So, while I can find some basic common sense suggestions in dosha theory as well as The Myers-Briggs, they are only facets of my self-understanding. That being said, its helpful to have the observation of millions of similar humans to guide my understanding and in that way dosha theory is helpful. People have seen correlations as they have been outlined by the doshas for many thousands of years - that's just enough of a pattern to cause me to stop and examine how I am the same and how I am different. Therein the characterization becomes a powerful tool. 

I am a pitta's pitta according to dosha type. Where I have done best to use that understanding to great effect has been in my diet and in my yoga practice. My diet is a topic oft discussed, as I have been able to put on muscle and drop weight on a whim since I was about 23 years old. That kind of ease in shifting my appearance leaves a lot of people wondering what my secrets are so I will write about that in another post.

As far as my yoga practice goes, recognizing my tendency toward order, I can imagine it would be very easy to do the same yoga routine over and over day in and day out at the same time every day. I also recognized that I would become so regimented that if something occurred to throw off that routine I would be super angry or depressed. I have not found the perfect balance (I suspect I would still do best to practice at a consistent time daily) but I have found fluidity in the style of yoga I practice and that has been a strong start to a lifelong practice (a year and a half daily practice to-date). Switching styles from yin to Bikram to power vinyasa has kept my practice feeling fresh and new and has allowed me a variety of poses and mental approaches to leverage continual change out of my body. It is also recommended for pitta personalities to do as much. I made that decision independently but I rediscovered that recommendation this morning as I was checking dosha theory.

The reason I wanted to spend a little time on dosha theory is to discuss how my body reacts to different yoga styles. In particular I wanted to highlight my experience with hot yoga which came in two different phases of my life. When I moved back to Virginia from Austin, Tx I did Bikram Yoga for one whole month, everyday. When I went to my teacher training in Austin, Tx I did hot yoga every day for one week. I found the same thing happened both times and I think it is worth sharing. I started out strong, enjoying the heat but after every class it was a fight to get enough to drink and eat to compensate for the amount of energy that I burn. I run hot, I sweat a lot. That, too is very pitta, apparently so retrospectively it all makes sense. My metabolism is always on afterburners so when I put myself into a hot environment I burn out fast and entirely. After several days of hot yoga, I was unable to maintain my usual intensity in work and other physical endeavors. In that moment it was not a good thing but it can be good. I am intense in all activities and find it hard to take days off from work and mentally strenuous activities so Bikram/hot yoga is the perfect yoga for the morning or evening before a day-off wherein I want to do nothing but watch Netflix, listen to audiobooks, cuddle with the dogs, and eat food. For someone else hot yoga might be the perfect daily practice and instead of sapping them of energy it might energize him or her. That person is not me. 

When I do yin yoga, I get super contemplative and very in-tune with the micro-changes that happen in my body. I have the opportunity to notice mental patterns that are tied into physical barriers. I also feel like I make super huge gains in flexibility from staying longer in the poses. The only problem is I miss the movement and the strength of vinyasa after a day of yin. In the same way that Bikram can be used to great effect, so too, can yin. It keeps me wanting more yoga. Is yin the perfect style for someone else to use primarily? Yes, surely. For me, yin is a supplement.

At the end of the day you are more than a personality assessment and your needs will vary throughout your life. Listen to your body and honor what it is telling you. Seek out different styles of yoga - we have all of the aforementioned and more right here in Lynchburg, Va. The more you know about the variety of yoga and your own body the more educated decisions you can make. Have fun, practice daily.


Weekend yogic endeavors: arm balances, yin, splits

I do a lot of time lapses but I included a real-time clip of one of my yin sessions.  The hardest part of a yin session is being mentally strong enough to push past the pain incrementally until your body breaks.  Then the second hardest part is staying beyond your edge for a few breaths so that you move the edge back just a little bit at a time.  Check out how long it takes me to get into my fullest forward fold in the second video.