Tuesday, 26 October 2010

30 minute headstand inc. variations, pranayama and mantra japa

This too was interesting. Following on from yesterdays Primary with mantra I thought I'd explore chanting through the whole of this mornings Vinyasa Krama practice, again quite resonating, you'd think the mantra would overpower the breath somewhat but curiously it seems to make the breath more focused.

Come headstand I decided to try something a little different. I'd only done a twenty minute headstand before but this time I wanted to try thirty minute, the first ten doing some headstand variations before moving into ten minutes of pranyama with the pranayama mantra, inhaling to the first part holding for ten seconds through the middle section then exhaling to the final part, again for ten seconds, followed by five seconds bandhas. The final ten minutes I slipped into urdhva padmasana and did mantra japa just as if I was doing my usual meditation but the right way up.

Thirty minutes was fine, legs went to sleep through the final five minutes of urdhva padmasana which was a bit weird coming back down as I couldn't feel my toes touching the mat.

I don't seem to have a problem with long headstands. I think it comes from practicing near the wall, although I don't need it anymore it gives a degree of confidence that seems to allow you go straighter and thus even out the weight. On the TT course in LA I had to do my headstand away from the wall for the first time and ended up with more weight on my arms which made it hard work, struggled to hold it for five minutes let alone do variations.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Primary Mantra Japa : drishti for the mind

That was interesting, throughout Primary series tonight I (mentally) chanted my mantra, dividing it between the inhalation and exhalation. So, chanting the first part through the duration of the inhalation then chanting the second part in time with the exhalation.

Don't know what made me think to do it but it really focuses the mind, attaches it like a barnacle to the breath. Nice practice, how many times would I have chanted it I wonder 4-500 times (Just worked it out, close to 600 breathes in Primary)? Practice ended up taking around 90 minutes.

mantras that work well for this would include

Om namo narayanaya
(Inhalation) (exhalation)
Om hrim namassivaya

Looking forward to trying it on 2nd series

One amusing moment, actually not so amusing at the time. It's getting colder and I couldn't get a good sweat up, just that clammy sweat that's almost sticky. Only managed to get my arms half way through in garbha pindasana, managed to roll but when I came up for Kukkutasana I could only hold it for a breath before I toppled forward, arms were so stuck solid that I ended head first into the mat, just managed to get my forehead down, ouch. Now that's why you need a manduka.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Core Vinyasa Krama asana : 5 minute Shoulderstand

Ramaswami stresses the importance of including three postures daily in our Vinyasa Krama practice, all held for an extended period, Paschimattanasana (posterior forward bend), Sirsasana (headstand) and Sarvangasana (shoulderstand).

On the Vinyasa Krama TT course he would recommend spending five to ten minutes in Sarvangasana, the first three minutes or so with the legs relaxed. In the video you can see I use a timer to keep me honest. VK employs sarvangasana as both a preparatory pose for Sirsasana as well as it's counter. On Ramaswami's advice I save the shoulderstand variations for the one after the headstand.

Ramaswami recommends

  • Some Shoulderstand preparation
  • A five minute shoulderstand, the first three minutes of which are done with the legs relaxed.
  • A backbend counter posture, I tend to do Urdhava Danurasana
  • A ten minute headstand. I do the first five minutes focusing on breath and bandhas and then do five minutes of variations.
  • Another shoulderstand for five minutes and a counter posture. I tend to go into the ashtanga finishing postures after the second shoulderstand, plough etc. so my backbend counter is Uttana Padasana
I do this sequence every morning as part of my VK practice.

Nice post here from certified Ashtanga teacher David Garrigues recommending the use of a pad under the shoulders and Ramaswami's article on the benefits of inversions here.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Core vinyasa krama asana : Five minute Paschimatanasana

' Yoga texts recommend vaseth, which means one should stay in this posture for for a long time. Even a stay of five minutes has a tonic effect on the posterior muscles, the abdominal muscles and the pelvic organs, because of the rectal and abdominal locks'.
Srivatsa Ramaswami Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga p 75

I've struggled with Paschimatanasana, it's only in the last few months that I've begun to feel comfortable in the posture. Whether that's because of the five to ten minute stays in the pose that Ramaswami recommends or the the lifting out of the pelvis in the Tadasana sequence I'm not sure, but something has certainly changed for the better. I searched my files for any old pictures of early or even recent attempts at the posture but couldn't find anything. I eventually found an early video of a jump back, taken on my phone, which included the posture, this is from Oct 08 about 18 months into my Ashtanga practice.

And here's a full five minute Paschimatanasana from last week. This really is the yogic equivalent of watching paint dry, if you thought the ten minute headstand posted a couple of days ago was dull then prepare yourself. And yet there is stuff going on, this from Ramaswami's Complete book of Vinyasa Yoga

' You may stay in the vinyasa of paschimatanasana for a long time with short inhalations {three to five seconds), but very long exhalations (five to ten seconds). After you complete every exhalation you may do both the abdominal and rectal locks. During every inhalation relax your grip, but on every exhalation stretch forward and lower your trunk down slightly.' p75

I came across a nice tip from Dharma Mittra (I think it's on one of his videos) once your settled in Paschimmatanasana rather than trying to force your legs ever flatter, shuffle your sit bones back instead (:30 seconds in on the video above), I still tend to do this. Oh and CK mentioned recently in a comment, that engaging mula bandha helps protect the hamstrings, I'd never noticed but I think she's right.

In Vinyasa krama, we have of course several vinyasas of Paschimatanasana.

'According to my guru (Krishnamacharya)', writes Ramaswami, 'the main pose in this sequence, which is the posterior stretching pose (paschimatanasana) will not provide the intended benefits if it is attempted merely from a seated position without the movements facilitated by vinyasa krama'. p 71

The full Seated sequence, chapter three in Ramaswami's book, can be found here, many of the postures in this sequence also come up in Ashtnga Primary series, Paschimatanasana , of course, but also Kurmasana, Purvottanasana, Upavishta konasana, Navasana, Badha konasana and padmasana

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Core Vinyasa Krama asana :10 minute headstand

Relating to the earlier post on Inversions, this is the ten minute headstand subroutine I tend to do most mornings.

Entering from lotus, I tend to avoid doing any variations for the first five minutes, just focus on the breath and bandhas. This is akin to watching paint dry so you might want to FFW. For second half, I tend to do half and full lotus Vinyasa Krama variations in preparation for the long sit for pranayama and meditation

Monday, 11 October 2010

Looking at my morning Vinyasa Krama practice in more detail ( with bullet points )

As mentioned in yesterdays post, I seem to have settled down into a Vinyasa Krama in the morning and Ashtanga in the evening routine.

Ashtanga we know righ,t but perhaps a closer look at what I mean by a 'simple' and 'core' VK practice is called for.

There seem to be recommendations and suggestions (I'm taking recommendations as stronger here).

Following his teacher Krishnamacharya, Ramaswami recommends practicing daily

  • A long, five to ten minute Paschimotansana
  • A five minute Shoulderstand, the first three minutes of which are done with the legs relaxed.
  • A five to ten minute Headstand.
  • Another shoulderstand for five minutes and a counter posture.
  • Maha Mudra ( like janu sirsasna A without the forward bend )

also in a suitable posture for meditation
  • Kapalabhati 108
  • Pranayama
  • Meditation

He also suggests

  • A short Tadasana sequence
  • Some preparation postures preceding the first shoulderstand
  • Backbend counter poses following the shoulderstands
  • Baddha Konasana

I tend to throw in a chanted Sury namaskara as well as a short Asymmetric subroutine

Put both the recommendations and suggestions and my additions together and you have my Simple core Vinyasa krama practice

  • A short Tadasana sequence
  • A short Asymmetric routine
  • A long Paschimottanasana
  • Some preparation postures preceding the first shoulderstand
  • A five minute shoulderstand, the first three minutes of which are with the legs relaxed
  • Backbend counter posture
  • 10 Minute headstand
  • Another Shoulderstand
  • followed by another backbend counter pose
  • Maha Mudra
  • Baddha Konasana
In Padmasana
  • Kapalabhati 108
  • Pranayama ( nadi shodana )
  • Japa ( mantra) meditation

Vinyasa Krama is a naturally flexible approach

I tend to do a basic ten minute tadasana routine but there are several other options within the full On your feet 'tadasana' sequence. You may wish, as I did earlier in the week, to substitute in a few more twisting movements or squats.

I tend to rotate daily the Asymmetric subroutine, one day maha mudra, another, the marichi or half lotus subroutine. Find them all the options here.

I tend to stay in straight paschimottanasana and work on my breath and bandhas but there are some options while in the pose.

Backbend counterpose options are here

Following Ramaswami's advice I keep the first shoulderstand simple, relaxed legs for the first three minutes, just working on breath and bandhas but for the second Shoulderstand there are all kinds of options (the link includes the shoulderstand prep). I tend to do standard ashtanga finishing, halasana etc out of habit.

Headstands too have many options ( the headstand comes up at 3:45 )

I manage to keep the practice down to an hour, nothing feels rushed, overall it has a highly meditative feel to it. For me, my morning asana practice is preparation for extended pranayama and meditation but, of course, if that's not your bag, you can add in another half hour of Subroutines, some Triangle or On one leg subroutines perhaps to bring it up to a 90 minute practice in line with a standard Ashtanga practice.

Friday, 8 October 2010


Nice post from David Garrigues (Certified Ashtanga teacher) this week advocating the use of a 'pad' under the shoulders for shoulderstand. I found it interesting because I've noticed the difference between my shoulderstands in the morning and in the evenings over the last couple of days ( I'm practicing VK in the mornings, Ashtanga in the evening). I tried a blanket under my shoulder the other morning and my shoulderstand felt as comfortable as when I do it in the evening. David goes on to stress the importance of Shoulderstand and being able to remain in the posture for a considerable period.

This is something Ramaswami also stresses and he wrote an article in one of his newsletters that I've attached below, but first some videos.

In Vinyasa Krama we have many variations to explore while inverted, I remember Ramaswami telling a story about his teacher, Krishnamacharya. I think Krishnamacharya was in his 70's or 80's at the time, he mentioned to Ramaswami that there were 32 variations of headstand. Ramaswami, it seems looked skeptical enough for Krishnamacharya to get up and demonstrate them all (I'll try and hunt down the story. UPDATE: Madhu just added the actual story to the comments section, it was from Mohan not Ramaswami, my apologies to both).

Ramaswami recommends

  • Some Shoulderstand preparation
  • A five minute shoulderstand, the first three minutes of which are done with the legs relaxed.
  • A backbend counter posture, I tend to do Urdhava Danurasana
  • A ten minute headstand. I do the first five minutes focusing on breath and bandhas and then do five minutes of variations.
  • Another shoulderstand for five minutes and a counter posture. I tend to go into the ashtanga finishing postures after the second shoulderstand, plough etc. so my backbend counter is Uttana Padasana
I do this sequence every morning as part of my VK practice.

This video gives an idea of the shoulderstand prep, which you can simplify a little, and some of the Shoulderstand and Headstand variations available in Vinyasa Krama. Useful too perhaps if you have an injury and can't do your full Ashtanga practice for a while.

And here, as promised ramaswami's article on the benefits and importance of inversions from his Aug 2009 newsletter.

The two important inversion poses, Sirasasana and its better half
Sarvangasana, called the King and Queen of yogasanas are a unique
contribution of Yoga towards physical culture and physical therapy.
Several contemporary yogis have disputed the place of these poses and
have claimed that they perhaps are later day inventions. But in
Hatayoga they are considered as viparita karani mudras.
Hatayogapradipika refers to inversions as follows
“ There is a wonderful karana or procedure which helps to starve the
sun,( here the gastric fire). One may learn it only from a Guru, and
not from the books. If the position of the sun(stomach) is above and
the moon(the head) below (i.e., upside down) it is called
viparitakarani(inversion). Learn it from a Guru “
The pelvic area—kandasthana-, according to some yogis is a breeding
ground for many ailments. It is also the area from where 72.000 nadis
are said to emanate and also Kundalini. This area should be kept
clean. The dross should be burnt and blown away, figuratively
speaking. How does the Yogi do it?
We have an air principle in that area which is Apana Vayu. We have
also the fire principle in us in the abdominal area in the form of
gastric fire or Jataraagni. This flame is flowing upwards and in the
normal upright position the gastric fire is above the pelvic area,
flowing upward, sometimes when overactive, produces a burning
sensation in the esophagus producing the typical ‘heart burn”. The
Yogi by resorting to the inversions, as Headstand and Sarvangasana, is
able to place the pelvic area above the gastric area. Now the gastric
fire or jataragni,-- figuratively speaking—flows towards the pelvic
area and heats and purifies the Nadias and the Kandasthan, arouses the
Kundalini with the heat. The fire is further supposed to be fanned and
intensified by directing the air tatwa or apana by Mula bandh; it
draws the apana closer to the fire principle and thereby the apana air
also becomes hotter and in turn melts away the dross of the
kandasthana and arouses the sleeping kundalini. So headstand and
shoulderstand, the mulabandha and the intense gastric fire help to
cleanse the nadis and the rogasthana or the disease prone area is
cleaned and spruced up.
There is another interesting concept associated with the inversions of
which I may have referred to in one of the earlier letters/articles.
It is said that our head contains a liquid called amrita which may be
translated as nectar. This nectar gives us life and drips drop by drop
through the uvula into the stomach where it is consumed by the gastric
fire to provide the life energy to live. This reservoir of nectar is
slowly used up and with its total depletion comes the end of one’s
life. The Yogi tries to ration the flow of the nectar, by remaining in
inverted position for a length of time every day—say between half an
hour to an hour or so. During the period of time the yogi is in head
stand and shoulder stand, the amrita remains stored in the head
without dripping down.
The Hatayogapradika has this to say
The Hatayogapradipika explains the inversion mudra as follows. “The
cool nectar that flows from the moon (here the head) is swallowed by
the hot sun (the gastric fire). Hence one’s body becomes aged. There
is a wonderful karana or procedure which helps to starve the sun,
(here the gastric fire). One may learn it only from a Guru, and not
from the books. If the position of the sun is above and the moon below
(i.e., upside down) it is called viparitakarani(inversion). Learn it
from a Guru. Do abhyaa of this inverted pose and increase the duration
every day. One who practices this for a yaama (3 hrs) daily will
conquer death”. When I was young I came across a Yogi who was said to
be practising sirsasana for three hours every day. His face had a
unique bluish tinge. He also practised Mouna or silence.
So by this daily practice, the Yogi is able to increase, so to say,
his/her lifespan by 5%, or say between 3 to 5 years. Normally after
Headstand the yogi is supposed to spend equal time in shoulder stand
as well. In shoulder stand, amrita while still confined to the skull/
brain portion, now is allowed to flow to the entire head portion above
the neck and nourish all the sensitive sense organs, the two eyes, the
two ears, the mouth and the nose (shanmukha). This is also considered
necessary to maintain the acuity of the sense organs
as they are way up in the body and may not get the full nourishment .
Sarvangasana therefore is considered good for the sense organs whereas
the headstand is good for the brain.
The normal upright position and the chin up position in which we keep
our head, both result in a wasteful free flow of the limited amrita in
the head down the uvula to the gastric fire, like a free flowing tap.
The Yogis found it necessary to constantly control the flow of this
nectar and even temporarily stop it. They developed a simple technique
called Jalandhara bandha to temporarily stop and control the flow. The
term Jalandhara-bandha itself indicates the effect it is said to
produce. Jala means water and here it refers to the amrita or nectar
which is said to be in the liquid form. Dhara is to hold, here holding
the amrita in the head itself and bandha is the lock, the procedure
which helps to achieve the holding operation. So Jalandharabandha
means the lock that enables holding the nectar in the head. Of course
while we do asanas and pranayama we adjust the bandha in such a way
that we allow only a small and necessary amount of amrita to flow and
also maintain a good ujjayi control over the breath. That is why the
default position of the head in asana practice whether it is tadasana
or the seated Padmasana or Vajrasana is the head down position. One
could see the pictures of my Guru doing asanas and one could see his
head down position in most of them—even in asanas like urdhvamukha
svanasana or the well known upward facing dog pose. In the entire
vinyasakrama one would find the relaxed default head down position is
resorted to control the flow of amrita and the ujjayi breath.
Some contemporary yogis may read these metaphorical narrations with a
wry smile. However these inversions should be considered as unique
contributions of Yoga, for health. Within the first few minutes of
Sirsasana practice, the leg and thigh muscles, the gluteal muscles,
relax. The chest, back, shoulders and neck muscles also relax as all
these are not required to maintain the postural tone as in the upright
position. It has been found that due to the relaxation of the leg
muscles, the blood pressure in the legs drop to about 30mm.There is no
great rush of blood to the head among the adept yogis due to auto
regulation; yet the gravity helps to open up many capillaries in the
brain, head and face which may otherwise remain partially closed.
People with high blood pressure and retinal problems will have to be
careful. However persons with mild hypertension and under control with
diet, life style change and even medication could benefit from this
posture if they had learnt it from early life. It appears to increase
pressure on the shoulders which would result in the brain trying to
reduce the blood pressure. Therefore if one would practice Sirshasana
regularly for a sufficient duration, one’s pulse rate tends to reduce,
thereby reducing the strain on the heart. Gradually there is a
reduction in the blood pressure.
What is equally important is that Sirsasana helps improve circulation
of the cerebro spinal fluid, which is helpful to the brain and also
for the spinal nerve bundles—the chakras. Because of the increased
pressure in the brain due to this fluid, the pituitary secretions
increase helping the better functioning of the sympathetic nervous
system which will help in many ways including the dilatation of the
bronchial tubes giving great relief to asthmatics. There is draining
of the bronchial tubes, giving some welcome relief for those with
chronic chest congestion. Many feel increased memory power and
general better brain capacity. There are cases of even some correction
of the eyesight. The vinyasas like the twists, Akunchanasana, the
backbends like Viparitadandasana in Sirsasana and Uttanamayurasana in
Sarvangasana help the spine considerably, by not only maintaining the
flexibility of this structure but also nourish the nadis and chakras
or nerve fibers and nerve bundles in the spinal chord.
In the inversions, as mentioned in earlier articles, the internal
organs get positional correction. Pregnant yoginis may find the
inversions help relieve pelvic congestion, oedema of the legs,
conditions that are prevalent during pregnancy. Practising the
inverted poses with the variety of vinyasas gives a complete massage
to all the muscles, organs and considerably increases the blood
circulation. Perhaps equally important is the effect of the twin poses
on the major joints-- the ankles, the knees, the hips and the spine.
The intra-articular space within the joints improves and hence the
joint movements when one does the various vinyasas also will improve.
Dorsal and plantar flexions performed in the ankle joints while in
these asanas help the ankles significantly. Asanas like Akunchanasana
in inversions give good relief to the knees, while inversions help
to open the hips by dragging the big pelvic girdle down a bit and
giving more space for the femur to move and rotate nicely within the
hip socket(pl refer to Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga for headstand and
shoulder stand vinyasas). Perhaps the most benefit accrues to the
entire spine. The inter-vertebral space is enhanced and person who
practises these inversions and the vinyasas like akunchanasana and
backbends will find the spine stretching nicely and becoming more
flexible. The narrowing of the inter-vertebral space can be tackled
positively and the low back pain reduces significantly. I would say
that the inversions are the best yoga postures to alleviate low back
pain. Overall these inversions and the vinyasas in them help to keep
the spine supple and strong. It is said one is as old as the condition
of the spine. Further, because of the relaxation of the lower
extremities Sarvangasana is a good pose to help overcome insomnia.
These twin poses are very good for health.
Contemporary Yogis find the other important inversion, viz., the
Handstand or Vipritvrukshasna very popular. This is a great pose, with
a number of variations possible. However since the head is not fixed
in this group of poses, some of the finer aspects of the other two
head- fixed inversions (sarvangasana and sirshasana) may be missing.
One finds it more difficult to maintain balance and also stay for a
sufficiently long time in viparitavrikshasana or inverted tree pose
(Hand Stand) and other similar poses like scorpion pose etc. These two
regal poses stand ‘head and shoulders’ above the rest in conferring
health benefits to the yogabhyasis.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Developing a home Practice Pt 27 Sept 09- Sept 10

It's my day off and I'm putting off practice in the hope that the DVD I ordered a fortnight ago might turn up today. It's the one of Jois leading Primary and 2nd series Ashtanga, filmed in 1993.

Something else I've been putting off is updating my 'Developing a home practice' series. I had a look today as somebody had sent me an email asking how I went about teaching myself Ashtanga at home. I noticed that the last post in the series took things up to September 09, so a year out of date already. I've just spent the last twenty minutes looking through last years posts and am amused to find that I'm pretty much in the same place I was a year ago. Take this post that I titled What happened to Vinyasa Krama? from 6th Oct 2009, it begins

I actually do think I'm still practicing Vinyasa Krama. It's just that the asanas and sub-routines that I've chosen to practice every day are the same as in Ashtanga's Primary and Intermediate series. The daily VK practice routine I was honing was becoming more and more like Ashtanga anyway so why not go the whole nut roast.

See what I mean? I could have written that last week.

Actually I was going to post today on my latest practice approach, switching my Evening VK practice with my morning Ashtanga practice. The idea is to free up more time in the morning for pranyama and meditation. So, an hour in the morning of mostly core vinyasa krama asana (plus a couple of short rotating subroutines) followed by an hour of pranayama and meditation. Then in evening (as soon as I get in from work) Straight forward Ashtanga, Primary on Monday and Friday, Intermediate the rest of the week. So as you can see, still trying to balance the two practices, if I'm being kind to myself, or have my cake and eat it if I'm not.

But back to developing my home practice.

Part 26 ended with me in a Yurt having four days Vinyasa Krama Tuition, basically learning the sequences as they are in Ramaswami's book. I came away from that with a better idea of how the sequences went together, some suggestions of how to go about practicing them and the beginning's of a pranayama practice as well as less resistance to the very notion of chanting.

That was August 09, September I predictably became seduced, once again, by Ashtanga and Lino's full Vinyasa. It somehow opened up Ashtanga's 2nd series to me. I'd never really liked it ( I adored Primary series) but with full vinyasa I began to love the practice, everything seemed to make much more sense. By the time I dropped the full Vinyasa on account of time constraints, I was comfortable with Intermediate, my backbends and dropbacks had improved and I'd even started to look at 3rd series (Nov 09). My argument re Vinyasa Krama was that my ashtanga was a Vinyasa Krama approached Ashtanga with some variations, practiced slowly and with long exhalations.

3rd or Advanced A was a wake up call. As a guy, the beginning of 3rd series didn't appear so challenging. I was strong, arm balances weren't a problem for me and they just caused me to bulk up around the shoulders, something I'd been trying to avoid. It felt showy too and just seemed to feed that side of me that enjoyed the sense of play. I could see myself getting wrapped up in that potentiality of the practice rather than bringing out the more meditative side that I'd aimed at through introducing Vinyasa Krama. Recently, as it happens, I've been bringing a lot of the second half of 3rd into my VK practice and even been using the advanced arm balances for my short 'vigorous' pre pranayama/meditation practice, I've started to see too, that those arm balances can be very meditative taking a lot of focus and attention to do them well, but at the time it was a bit of a turn off.

In February I dropped 3rd and began to practice Vinyasa Krama again in the evenings (Ashtanga Primary and 2nd in the mornings). I began practicing pranayama more seriously and even found myself chanting mantras while cycling in to work. I started to think about attending Ramaswami's summer month long Vinyasa Krama TT course. I applied for it in March and spent the three months before it started preparing, working through all the sequences, learning the pranayama chant and worrying which mat to take. At the same time my ashtanga was improving, practicing both styles together seemed to compliment each other, leg behind head work was coming on, I grabbed my heels from the air in Kapo and was dropping back and coming up much more smoothly.

I chose my mat, managed to get through customs in LA and arrived late on the Sunday for course induction. Monday morning I got up at 5am practiced Primary in a stairwell and at at around 8am walked into my first ever led yoga class. Until that morning my 'public' practice had included two Sunday trips to Ashtanga Yoga London for mysore class and four private Vinyasa krama lessons in a Yurt. I was, I admit, a little apprehensive.

Still no post and DVD, time to practice.

Next: PT 28 Ramaswami's Five week Summer Vinyasa Krama Teacher training course in LA