Questions and Answers
1. What is yoga?
The word yoga, from the Sanskrit word yuj means to yoke or bind and is often
interpreted as "union" or a method of discipline. A male who practices yoga is called
a yogi, a female practitioner, a yogini.
The Indian sage Patanjali is believed to have collated the practice of yoga into the
Yoga Sutra an estimated 2,000 years ago. The Sutra is a collection of 195
statements that serves as a philosophical guidebook for most of the yoga that is
practiced today. It also outlines eight limbs of yoga: the yamas (restraints), niyamas
(observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawal of
senses), dharana (concentration), dhyani (meditation), and samadhi (absorption). As
we explore these eight limbs, we begin by refining our behavior in the outer world,
and then we focus inwardly until we reach samadhi (liberation, enlightenment).
Today most people practicing yoga are engaged in the third limb, asana, which is a
program of physical postures designed to purify the body and provide the physical
strength and stamina required for long periods of meditation.
2. What does Hatha mean?
The word hatha means willful or forceful. Hatha yoga refers to a set of physical
exercises (known as asanas or postures), and sequences of asanas, designed to
align your skin, muscles, and bones. The postures are also designed to open the
many channels of the body especially the main channel, the spine so that energy
can flow freely.
Hatha is also translated as ha meaning "sun" and tha meaning "moon." This refers to
the balance of masculine aspects active, hot, sun and feminine
aspects receptive, cool, moon within all of us. Hatha yoga is a path toward
creating balance and uniting opposites. In our physical bodies we develop a balance
of strength and flexibility. We also learn to balance our effort and surrender in each
Hatha yoga is a powerful tool for self-transformation. It asks us to bring our attention
to our breath, which helps us to still the fluctuations of the mind and be more present
in the unfolding of each moment.
3. What does Om mean?
Om is a mantra, or vibration, that is traditionally chanted at the beginning and end of
yoga sessions. It is said to be the sound of the universe. What does that mean?
Somehow the ancient yogis knew what scientists today are telling us that the entire
universe is moving. Nothing is ever solid or still. Everything that exists pulsates,
creating a rhythmic vibration that the ancient yogis acknowledged with the sound of
Om. We may not always be aware of this sound in our daily lives, but we can hear it
in the rustling of the autumn leaves, the waves on the shore, the inside of a seashell.
Chanting Om allows us to recognize our experience as a reflection of how the whole
universe moves the setting sun, the rising moon, the ebb and flow of the tides, the
beating of our hearts. As we chant Om, it takes us for a ride on this universal
movement, through our breath, our awareness, and our physical energy, and we
begin to sense a bigger connection that is both uplifting and soothing.
4. Do I have to be vegetarian to practice yoga?
The first principle of yoga philosophy is ahimsa, which means nonharming to self
and others. Some people interpret this to include not eating animal products. There
is debate about this in the yoga community I believe that it is a personal decision
that everyone has to make for themselves. If you are considering becoming a
vegetarian, be sure to take into account your personal health issues as well how
your choices will affect those with whom you live. Being a vegetarian should not be
something that you impose on others that kind of aggressive action in itself is not
an expression of ahimsa.
5. How many times per week should I practice?
Yoga is amazing even if you only practice for one hour a week, you will experience
the benefits of the practice. If you can do more than that, you will certainly
experience more benefits. I suggest starting with two or three times a week, for an
hour or an hour and a half each time. If you can only do 20 minutes per session,
that's fine too. Don't let time constraints or unrealistic goals be an obstacle do what
you can and don't worry about it. You will likely find that after awhile your desire to
practice expands naturally and you will find yourself doing more and more.
6. How is yoga different from stretching or other kinds of fitness?
Unlike stretching or fitness, yoga is more than just physical postures. Patanjali's
eight-fold path illustrates how the physical practice is just one aspect of yoga. Even
within the physical practice, yoga is unique because we connect the movement of
the body and the fluctuations of the mind to the rhythm of our breath. Connecting the
mind, body, and breath helps us to direct our attention inward. Through this process
of inward attention, we learn to recognize our habitual thought patterns without
labeling them, judging them, or trying to change them. We become more aware of
our experiences from moment to moment. The awareness that we cultivate is what
makes yoga a practice, rather than a task or a goal to be completed. Your body will
most likely become much more flexible by doing yoga, and so will your mind.
7. Is yoga a religion?
Yoga is not a religion. It is a philosophy that began in India an estimated 5,000 years
ago. The father of classical ashtanga yoga (the eight-limbed path, not to be
confused with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois' Ashtanga yoga) is said to be Patanjali, who wrote
the Yoga Sutra. These scriptures provide a framework for spiritual growth and
mastery over the physical and mental body. Yoga sometimes interweaves other
philosophies such as Hinduism or Buddhism, but it is not necessary to study those
paths in order to practice or study yoga.
It is also not necessary to surrender your own religious beliefs to practice yoga.
8. I'm not flexible, can I do yoga?
Yes! You are a perfect candidate for yoga. Many people think that they need to be
flexible to begin yoga, but that's a little bit like thinking that you need to be able to
play tennis in order to take tennis lessons. Come as you are and you will find that
yoga practice will help you become more flexible.
This newfound agility will be balanced by strength, coordination, and enhanced
cardiovascular health, as well as a sense of physical confidence and overall well-
9. What do I need to begin?
All you really need to begin practicing yoga is your body, your mind, and a bit of
curiosity. But it is also helpful to have a pair of sweat pants, leggings, or shorts, and
a t-shirt that's not too baggy. No special footgear is required because you will be
barefoot. It's nice to bring a towel to class with you. As your practice develops you
might want to buy your own yoga mat, but most studios will have mats and other
props available for you.
10. Why are you supposed to refrain from eating two to three hours before
In yoga practice we twist from side to side, turn upside down, and bend forward and
backward. If you have not fully digested your last meal, it will make itself known to
you in ways that are not comfortable. If you are a person with a fast-acting digestive
system and are afraid you might get hungry or feel weak during yoga class,
experiment with a light snack such as yogurt, a few nuts, or juice about 30 minutes
to an hour before class.
The Branches of Yoga
Whether you are devotional or intellectual in nature, yoga has a path for you.
By Mara Carrico
In ancient times yoga was often referred to as a tree, a living entity with roots, a
trunk, branches, blossoms, and fruit. Hatha yoga is one of six branches; the others
include raja, karma, bhakti, jnana, and tantra yoga. Each branch with its unique
characteristics and function represents a particular approach to life. Some people
may find one particular branch more inviting than another. However, it is important to
note that involvement in one of these paths does not preclude activity in any of the
others, and in fact you'll find many paths naturally overlapping.
Raja means "royal," and meditation is the focal point of this branch of yoga. This
approach involves strict adherence to the eight "limbs" of yoga as outlined by
Patanajli in the Yoga Sutras. Also found in many other branches of yoga, these
limbs, or stages, follow this order: ethical standards, yama; self-discipline, niyama;
posture, asana; breath extension or control, pranayama; sensory withdrawl,
pratyahara; concentration, dharana; meditation, dhyana; and ecstasy or final
liberation, samadhi. Raja yoga attracts individuals who are introspective and drawn
to meditation. Members of religious orders and spiritual communities devote
themselves to this branch of yoga. However, even though this path suggests a
monastic or contemplative lifestyle, entering an ashram or monastery is not a
prerequisite to practicing raja yoga.
The next branch is that of karma yoga or the path of service, and none of us can
escape this pathway. The principle of karma yoga is that what we experience today
is created by our actions in the past. Being aware of this, all of our present efforts
become a way to consciously create a future that frees us from being bound by
negativity and selfishness. Karma is the path of self-transcending action. We
practice karma yoga whenever we perform our work and live our lives in a selfless
fashion and as a way to serve others. Volunteering to serve meals in a soup kitchen
or signing up for a stint with the Peace Corps or Habitat for Humanity are prime
examples of selfless service associated with the karma yoga path.
Bhakti yoga describes the path of devotion. Seeing the divine in all of creation,
bhakti yoga is a positive way to channel the emotions. The path of bhakti provides
us with an opportunity to cultivate acceptance and tolerance for everyone we come
into contact with.
Bhakti yogis express the devotional nature of their path in their every thought, word,
and deed whether they are taking out the trash or calming the anger of a loved one.
Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., are prime examples of bhakti yogis.
The life and work of Mother Teresa epitomize the combination of the karma and
bhakti yoga paths with devotional aspects of bhakti and the selfless service of karma
If we consider bhakti to be the yoga of the heart, then jnana yoga is the yoga of the
mind, of wisdom, the path of the sage or scholar. This path requires development of
the intellect through the study of the scriptures and texts of the yogic tradition. The
jnana yoga approach is considered the most difficult and at the same time the most
direct. It involves serious study and will appeal to those who are more intellectually
inclined. Within the context of our Western religious traditions, Kabalistic scholars,
Jesuit priests, and Benedictine monks epitomize jnana yogis.
Probably the most misunderstood or misinterpreted of all the yogas, tantra, the sixth
branch, is the pathway of ritual, which includes consecrated sexuality. The key word
here is "consecrated," which means to make sacred, to set apart as something holy
or hallowed. In tantric practice we experience the Divine in everything we do. A
reverential attitude is therefore cultivated, encouraging a ritualistic approach to life. It
is amusing to note that, although tantra has become associated exclusively with
sexual ritual, most tantric schools actually recommend a celibate lifestyle. In
essence, tantra is the most esoteric of the six major branches. It will appeal to those
yogis who enjoy ceremony and relate to the feminine principle of the cosmos, which
yogis call shakti. If you see and are deeply moved by the significance behind
celebration and ritual (holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and other rites of passage),
tantra yoga may be for you. Many tantric yogis find magic in all types of ceremony,
whether it be a Japanese tea ceremony, the consecration of the Eucharist in a
Catholic mass, or the consummation of a relationship.
Combining the Paths
You may already be involved in one or more of these branches. For example, you
may already be a hatha yogi or yogini practicing the postures with a teacher or by
yourself. If you are a hospice volunteer for AIDS patients, or a participant in a Big
Brother/Big Sister program, you are actively practicing karma yoga. Perhaps reading
this book will spark an in-depth study of yoga philosophy, setting you on the path of
jnana yoga. Remember you need not be limited to one expression you may practice
hatha yoga, taking care of your physical body, while simultaneously cultivating the
lifestyle of a bhakti yogi, expressing your compassion for everyone you meet. Trust
that whichever avenue of yogic expression draws your interest, it will probably be the
right yoga path for you.
The Eight Limbs from Yoga Journal's Yoga Basics
Patanjali's eight-fold path offers guidelines for a meaningful and
By Mara Carrico
In Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, the eightfold path is called ashtanga, which literally means
"eight limbs" (ashta=eight, anga=limb). These eight steps basically act as guidelines
on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. They serve as a prescription for
moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline; they direct attention toward one's
health; and they help us to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of our nature.
The first limb, yama, deals with one's ethical standards and sense of integrity,
focusing on our behavior and how we conduct ourselves in life. Yamas are universal
practices that relate best to what we know as the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as
you would have them do unto you." The five yamas are:
Niyama, the second limb, has to do with self-discipline and spiritual observances.
Regularly attending temple or church services, saying grace before meals,
developing your own personal meditation practices, or making a habit of taking
contemplative walks alone are all examples of niyamas in practice.
The five niyamas are:
Tapas: heat; spiritual austerities
Svadhyaya: study of the sacred scriptures and of one's self
Isvara pranidhana: surrender to God
Asanas, the postures practiced in yoga, comprise the third limb. In the yogic view,
the body is a temple of spirit, the care of which is an important stage of our spiritual
growth. Through the practice of asanas, we develop the habit of discipline and the
ability to concentrate, both of which are necessary for meditation.
Generally translated as breath control, this fourth stage consists of techniques
designed to gain mastery over the respiratory process while recognizing the
connection between the breath, the mind, and the emotions. As implied by the literal
translation of pranayama, "life force extension," yogis believe that it not only
rejuvenates the body but actually extends life itself. You can practice pranayama as
an isolated technique (i.e., simply sitting and performing a number of breathing
exercises), or integrate it into your daily hatha yoga routine.
These first four stages of Patanjali's ashtanga yoga concentrate on refining our
personalities, gaining mastery over the body, and developing an energetic
awareness of ourselves, all of which prepares us for the second half of this journey,
which deals with the senses, the mind, and attaining a higher state of
Pratyahara, the fifth limb, means withdrawal or sensory transcendence. It is during
this stage that we make the conscious effort to draw our awareness away from the
external world and outside stimuli. Keenly aware of, yet cultivating a detachment
from, our senses, we direct our attention internally. The practice of pratyahara
provides us with an opportunity to step back and take a look at ourselves. This
withdrawal allows us to objectively observe our cravings: habits that are perhaps
detrimental to our health and which likely interfere with our inner growth.
As each stage prepares us for the next, the practice of pratyahara creates the
setting for dharana, or concentration. Having relieved ourselves of outside
distractions, we can now deal with the distractions of the mind itself. No easy task! In
the practice of concentration, which precedes meditation, we learn how to slow down
the thinking process by concentrating on a single mental object: a specific energetic
center in the body, an image of a deity, or the silent repetition of a sound. We, of
course, have already begun to develop our powers of concentration in the previous
three stages of posture, breath control, and withdrawal of the senses. In asana and
pranayama, although we pay attention to our actions, our attention travels. Our focus
constantly shifts as we fine-tune the many nuances of any particular posture or
breathing technique. In pratyahara we become self-observant; now, in dharana, we
focus our attention on a single point. Extended periods of concentration naturally
lead to meditation.
Meditation or contemplation, the seventh stage of ashtanga, is the uninterrupted flow
of concentration. Although concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana) may
appear to be one and the same, a fine line of distinction exists between these two
stages. Where dharana practices one-pointed attention, dhyana is ultimately a state
of being keenly aware without focus. At this stage, the mind has been quieted, and
in the stillness it produces few or no thoughts at all. The strength and stamina it
takes to reach this state of stillness is quite impressive. But don't give up. While this
may seem a difficult if not impossible task, remember that yoga is a process. Even
though we may not attain the "picture perfect" pose, or the ideal state of
consciousness, we benefit at every stage of our progress.
Patanjali describes this eighth and final stage of ashtanga as a state of ecstasy. At
this stage, the meditator merges with his or her point of focus and transcends the
Self altogether. The meditator comes to realize a profound connection to the Divine,
an interconnectedness with all living things. With this realization comes the "peace
that passeth all understanding"; the experience of bliss and being at one with the
Universe. On the surface, this may seem to be a rather lofty, "holier than thou" kind
of goal. However, if we pause to examine what we really want to get out of life,
would not joy, fulfillment, and freedom somehow find their way onto our list of hopes,
wishes, and desires? What Patanjali has described as the completion of the yogic
path is what, deep down, all human beings aspire to: peace. We also might give
some thought to the fact that this ultimate stage of yoga enlightenment can neither
be bought nor possessed. It can only be experienced, the price of which is the
continual devotion of the aspirant.
What are the Roots of Yoga?
A beginner's guide to the history of yoga. By Mara Carrico
Sanskrit, the Indo-European language of the Vedas, India's ancient religious texts,
gave birth to both the literature and the technique of yoga. One definition of the word
Sanskrit, "well-formed, refined, perfect or polished," connotes substance and clarity,
qualities exemplified in the practice of yoga.
The Sanskrit word yoga has several translations and can be interpreted in many
ways. It comes from the root yug and originally meant "to hitch up," as in attaching
horses to a vehicle. Another definition was "to put to active and purposeful use." Still
other translations are "yoke, join, or concentrate." Essentially, yoga has come to
describe a means of uniting, or a method of discipline. A male who practices this
discipline is called a yogi or yogin; a female practitioner, a yogini.
Yoga comes out of an oral tradition in which the teaching was transmitted directly
from teacher to student. The Indian sage Patanjali has been credited with the
collation of this oral tradition into his classical work, the Yoga Sutra, a 2,000-year-old
treatise on yogic philosophy. A collection of 195 statements, the Sutra provides a
kind of philosophical guidebook for dealing with the challenges of being human.
Giving guidance on how to gain mastery over the mind and emotions and advice on
spiritual growth, the Yoga Sutra provides the framework upon which all yoga
practiced today is based. Literally meaning "thread," sutra has also been translated
as "aphorism," which means a tersely phrased statement of truth. Another definition
of sutra is "the condensation of the greatest amount of knowledge into the most
concise description possible." Keeping these meanings in the mind, we might think
of the art and science of yoga as a kind of magnificent tapestry that is woven
together by the threads of universal truths.
Initially, the discipline of hatha yoga the physical aspect of yoga was developed as
a vehicle for meditation. The repertoire of hatha yoga prepared the body, and
particularly the nervous system, for stillness, creating the necessary physical
strength and stamina that allowed the mind to remain calm.
The word hatha also has several translations. With ha meaning "sun" and tha
meaning "moon," we have the common interpretation of hatha yoga as "a union of
the pairs of opposites." A more technical translation of hatha yoga is "force or
determined effort." Thus hatha yoga, the "yoga of activity," is the yoga that
addresses the body and mind and requires discipline and effort. It is the yoga that
we can feel, that we can experience, right here and right now. Hatha yoga is a
powerful method of self-transformation. It is the most practical of the yogas, and
sages have recommended its practice in some form for millennia as preparation for
all the other yogas.
How to Wash Your Yoga Mat
If you've lost the manufacturer's directions or aren't sure who made your yoga
mat, here's a primer from Sara Chambers, founder of Hugger-Mugger yoga
If your mat is lightly soiled, use a spray bottle, damp sponge, or terry cloth rag to
apply a solution of two cups of water and four drops of dish soap. Rub the soiled
areas. Wipe the mat with clean water; then rub with a dry terry cloth towel. Hang to
If your mat is heavily soiled, submerge it in a solution of warm water and mild
detergent; use very little soap as any residue may cause the mat to become slippery
during future use. Thoroughly hand wash the mat and rinse in clean water. After
squeezing out the excess water, lay the mat on a dry towel and roll the mat and
towel together. Stepping on the rolled up mat will squeeze more moisture out of the
mat and into the towel. Then unroll and hang to air dry.
How to Find a Yoga Teacher
Once you've familiarized yourself with all the different types of yoga, you'll have to
find a place to study and a teacher to study with. There are several ways to find the
right yoga teacher for you. Your local Yellow Pages will list teachers and schools in
your area. Call up the schools or individuals who are listed and ask them to mail you
a schedule of classes, and any other information they have that might be useful to a
Ask your friends or associates at work to recommend a teacher or school. You'd be
surprised at who practices yoga. You may want to start with a beginners class, even
if you consider yourself to be in "good shape." Don't let the stereotype of the skinny
little yogi sitting in Pretzel Pose fool you—some classes can be a real workout and
will have you begging for mercy. Most beginning classes are ongoing, which means
you will be joining a more experienced group of students. If this looks intimidating, or
if you have concerns about looking "foolish," try to remember that just about
everyone in the room, including the teacher, once stood in your shoes—or your bare
feet—and that they're all fixed on their own practice and (though there are
exceptions) not interested in judging yours.
Once you've gathered all of your information, talk to someone at each school or, if
possible, the teachers of the classes you're interested in. Be sure to first find out
something about the school's approach: some classes (like Ashtanga vinyasa) are
notoriously vigorous, while others (like Kripalu) are much milder. Be sure you have
some idea of what you're getting into before you go, to avoid any unpleasant
surprises. You'll also want to know: the average size of the class (more experienced
and popular teachers usually have large classes, and thus less time to work with
individuals, while novice teachers who might be a little rough around the edges
usually have small classes but more opportunities to give you personal attention);
the length of the class (most run between 60 to 90 minutes); the cost of the class;
what kind of dress is recommended; and whether the school provides you with an
exercise mat or blanket, or if you need to bring your own.
If you have any physical problems or limitations, briefly describe them and see if the
teacher feels comfortable working with you. You might ask about his or her training,
certifications, and teaching experience. Next, if you're able to sample a few different
teachers, try one or more classes with each one. Don't expect miracles. If nothing
seems to "happen" after the first class, don't be discouraged. Try again, or try
another teacher or another school, until you find the right situation for you. Give yoga
a fair chance.
Once you've settled on a teacher, it's best to study with that person as much as
possible, especially if you're working with a particular problem. This gives the
teacher time to get to know you so that she or he can tailor postures and instructions
to suit your special needs.
There are a few things to be on the lookout for. Never perform any position in class
that generates "bad" pain, especially in the knees, lower back, and neck. Naturally at
the outset you'll be feeling some pain—or what I like to call "heightened
awareness"—in places like the back of your legs, groin, or shoulders; and while it
may be necessary, even honorable, at certain times and in certain places to suffer in
silence, you're asking for trouble if you ignore or grit your teeth with "bad" pain in a
yoga class. Either tell the teacher what you're experiencing and ask for an
alternative position, or stop altogether and assume a rest position until the class is
ready to move on.
Also, while many teachers make manual adjustments in class—pressing on your
back to help you twist, for example—always be certain that you're comfortable with
the contact. And if the adjustment is too extreme or harsh, let your teacher know
What does "Namaste" mean? My yoga teacher says it every week
after our practice and I've always wanted to know.
Aadil Palkhivala's reply:
The gesture Namaste represents the belief that there is a Divine spark
within each of us that is located in the heart chakra. The gesture is an
acknowledgment of the soul in one by the soul in another. "Nama"
means bow, "as" means I, and "te" means you. Therefore, Namaste
literally means "bow me you" or "I bow to you."
To perform Namaste, we place the hands together at the heart charka, close the
eyes, and bow the head. It can also be done by placing the hands together in front of
the third eye, bowing the head, and then bringing the hands down to the heart. This
is an especially deep form of respect. Although in the West the word "Namaste" is
usually spoken in conjunction with the gesture, in India, it is understood that the
gesture itself signifies Namaste, and therefore, it is unnecessary to say the word
We bring the hands together at the heart chakra to increase the flow of Divine love.
Bowing the head and closing the eyes helps the mind surrender to the Divine in the
heart. One can do Namaste to oneself as a meditation technique to go deeper inside
the heart chakra; when done with someone else, it is also a beautiful, albeit quick,
For a teacher and student, Namaste allows two individuals to come together
energetically to a place of connection and timelessness, free from the bonds of ego-
connection. If it is done with deep feeling in the heart and with the mind surrendered,
a deep union of spirits can blossom.
Ideally, Namaste should be done both at the beginning and at the end of class.
Usually, it is done at the end of class because the mind is less active and the energy
in the room is more peaceful. The teacher initiates Namaste as a symbol of gratitude
and respect toward her students and her own teachers and in return invites the
students to connect with their lineage, thereby allowing the truth to flow the truth
that we are all one when we live from the heart.
Are there any particular asanas that I should practice
during any particular season or at a certain time of day?
Your personal rhythm within a 24-hour period, as well as your relationship to the sun
and moon, heat and cold, and the crispness or thickness of the changing seasons,
can indeed factor into which asanas you practice when. Some people are raring to
go first thing in the morning, while other people won t even speak for at least an
hour after the alarm goes off. Some love winter and outdoor activities such as skiing
and snowboarding. Others put on a few pounds and hibernate in the winter and
come alive with the fire energy of July and August. Since an important part of yoga
practice is getting to know yourself and how you change from moment to moment, it
makes sense to let your energy inform you about how to practice according to the
season or time of day.
To begin, it's helpful to know that some poses are energizing and some are calming.
For example, backbends are invigorating and not recommended before going to bed
at night. Forward bends are calming and helpful when you are feeling over
stimulated. Sun Salutations create heat and flowing movement connected to the
breath. Standing poses build strength, stamina, and a sense of grounding, since
your feet are rooted into the earth. Balancing poses cultivate concentration. Twists
detoxify the body and relieve tension in the head, neck, and back. Inversions, which
turn us upside down, literally change our view of the world and remind us of the
impermanent nature of everything, especially when we are stuck in a rut.
In general, yoga practice is recommended in the morning or the early evening. A
morning yoga session can be quite active and consist of a full practice. Always finish
with Savasana (Corpse Pose), no matter what time of day or season your practice.
You may choose to do a different type of practice in the afternoon. While it can still
be a complete practice, you may want to emphasize a series of seated forward
bends such as Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), Janu Sirsasana, Upavistha
Konasana (Seated Wide Angle Pose), or Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward
Bend). Follow that with a small backbend such as Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose),
simple twists to neutralize the spine Reclining Twist or Ardha Matseyandrasana
(Half Lord of the Fishes Pose) work well and an inversion.
Each season invites us to shape our practice differently. If you live in a place where
it gets very hot in the summer, it is best not to overexert yourself. If the temperature
is in the upper 80s, 90s, or even 100 degrees, be mindful of the speed with which
you move through your practice. You may even try using the weather to explore how
to come away from your edge and lessen your effort to help balance the heat of your
In the summer you can try combining practices. Start with a seated meditation,
followed by a cooling pranayama, and then a Sun Salutation series without jumping
through. Then try supported, restorative backbends such as lying on your back with
a rolled up blanket under your shoulder blades. Your inversion could be Viparita
Karani (Legs Up the Wall Pose) or Salamba Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand), both of
which are more cooling than Salamba Sirsasana (Headstand). As you finish your
practice, you can wash your face, hands, and feet with a cool washcloth soaked in
lavender water before resting in Savasana.
Autumn brings opportunities for sharing and heart-opening with Thanksgiving,
homecoming parties, back to school, and work with colleagues. The temperature is
mild and the air crisp, which encourages big, energizing movements such as Urdhva
Winter can be a time for quiet contemplation. You may choose to focus on forward
bends, which are calming and restorative, unless you find the winter to be
depressing. If that's the case then continue to work on backbends and other chest-
openers such as Dhanurasana, Ustrasana (Camel Pose), or Eka Pada Raja
Kapotasana (One Legged King Pigeon Pose). You can also try hand balances like
Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), Astavakrasana (Eight-Angle Pose) , and
Bakasana (Crane Pose) , all of which require a playful energy and an open mind.
Since the weather is cold, even if your yoga room is warm and I hope it is you will
need to spend plenty of time warming up your muscles. Try doing some half Sun
Salutations before going into full jumpbacks, and move into all asanas slowly and
mindfully. Cultivate an interest in what your body is feeling during this season.
Rather than thinking, Ugh, I feel so stiff and tight, explore how you can let go of
that thought and how doing so can create freedom in your joints.
Spring is a wonderful season to focus on Sun Salutations. As each day grows a little
bit longer, the practice of paying homage to the sun begins to feel like a beautiful call
and response between the two of you. It is also a time of new beginnings and can be
a great time to introduce new poses into your practice.
Finally, I suggest that you reflect on your own experience of the seasons and
whether you want to work with the energy that the season provides or counteract the
energy with an opposing focus for your practice.
Also, keep in mind that if you change your practice too frequently, you will not
cultivate a sense of grounding within external change. I find it valuable to maintain a
similar structure to my practice, no matter what time of day or year. The focus may
change, but sticking to the same general format is a powerful technique for going
deeper. It may also be helpful to create rituals within your daily practice that are
unchanging, like a daily sitting and/or walking meditation, beginning your practice by
chanting Om, or doing Sun Salutations.
Cyndi Lee is the founder of OM yoga center in New York City. She is a
longtime practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism and has been teaching yoga for
over 20 years. Cyndi is the author of OM Yoga: A Guide to Daily
Practice(Chronicle Books) and the upcoming Yoga Body, Buddha Mind
(Riverhead Books). For more information, visit www.omyoga.com.
What does "Ashtanga" mean?
Rena Grant, Seattle
Richard Rosen's reply:
The term "ashtanga" comes from the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, where it refers to
classical yoga's eight (ashta)-limb (anga) practice. (Some yoga scholars such as
Georg Feuerstein maintain that Patanjali's real contribution to yoga was kriya yoga,
the "yoga of ritual action," and that the eight-limb practice was borrowed from
another source.) The eight limbs are restraint, observance, posture, breath control,
sense withdrawal, concentration, meditative absorption, and "enstasy." This last
word, which means "standing inside of," is Mircea Eliade's translation of samadhi,
which literally means to "put together" or "bring into harmony." In samadhi, we "stand
inside of" our true Self in preparation for the ultimate state of classical yoga, the
eternal "aloneness" (kaivalya) of that Self in the purity and joy of its being.
While Patanjali's underlying dualism between Self and nature has long been out of
favor, his eight-limb method still influences many modern schools of yoga. One of
those schools is the currently popular Ashtanga Yoga developed by K. Pattabhi Jois
from the teachings of T. Krishnamacharya (father of T.K.V. Desikachar, brother-in-
law of B.K.S. Iyengar, and mentor to both).
Since I'm not an authority on this practice, I asked Ashtanga teacher Richard
Freeman to explain. He replied that the Krishnamacharya-Pattabhi Jois system is
indeed modeled on the eight limbs of Patanjali; the emphasis, however, is on the
correct performance of the third limb (posture) as a means of realizing all the limbs,
including, of course, samadhi. Since we in the West sometimes focus exclusively on
posture and overlook the other limbs, Richard believes that Pattabhi Jois calls his
system "Ashtanga" in part "to encourage his students to look into the whole practice
more deeply" and integrate all the limbs.
Richard Rosen, who teaches in Oakland and Berkeley, California, has been writing for
Yoga Journal since the 1970s.
What areas do I need to work on to be able to sit in
simple cross-legged position while maintaining an
Esther Myers' reply:
Sitting cross-legged is an important part of yoga practice and is commonly used for
breathing and meditation practices. It requires flexibility in the back thighs, back of
the pelvis, and inner thighs, as well as external rotation of the hip joints. These are
all very strong muscles that can take a long time to stretch. Whether you sit in a
simple cross-legged posture like Sukhasana or a more difficult pose like Padmasana
(Lotus Pose), developing the flexibility to sit easily is a gradual process.
And it s important to note that everyone has a different anatomical structure in their
hips, which may potentially inhibit this kind of movement. If this is the case for you,
then trying to work up to Padmasana (Lotus Pose) is an inappropriate goal. I
encourage you to try other poses that may be more comfortable, like Vajrasana
(Thunderbolt Pose), sitting on your heels, Virasana (Hero Pose), sitting between
your heels, or Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose). You can also meditate sitting on a
chair. The chair should be firm, your back straight, and your feet on the floor or
supported on a book or cushion.
If you choose to sit cross-legged, it is important to have your knees level with or
below your hips. If you are having difficulty maintaining an erect spine while sitting
cross-legged, begin by sitting on the edge of a cushion, bolster, or rolled blanket. For
additional support, place rolled blankets or bolsters under your knees. (You may find
that with the knees supported, the inner groins relax and that when you take the
supports away, your knees drop further easily.)
Tightness in the inner thighs and hips is often connected to tension in the deep
muscles of the abdomen (like the psoas). You can begin to release your pelvis by
practicing breathing deeply into your abdomen. Focus on the rise and fall of your
belly as you inhale and exhale. In all of the poses that follow, imagine the exhalation
releasing out of your pelvis and through your legs, helping the thighs to relax and let
Standing poses, especially Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II Pose), and
Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose), will help open the hips. Leg stretches lying on
your back, Supta Pandangustasana (Reclining Big Toe Pose), taking the lifted leg
both up and to the side will also stretch your legs.
Raja Kapotasana (King Pigeon Pose) forward bend is also an excellent hip opener.
Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclined Bound Angle Pose), lying on your back with your
feet together and knees apart is a good resting pose that will allow your hips to
gradually open. Put a folded blanket or a bolster under your feet, so that your back is
resting on the floor. In both of these poses, allow yourself to relax into the stretch,
letting gravity help you to sink into the floor as you exhale.
Sitting poses that will help are: Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Bend),
Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), and Upavistha Konasasana (Open Angle
Pose). Learning to stay longer in these poses will help the flexibility in your hips;
however, you need to be careful not to overstretch your lower back. Setu Bhanda
Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) and Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) are good counter-
Esther Myers' 10 years as a student of Vanda Scaravelli inspired her to find
her own unique, organic approach to yoga. Esther has taught classes across
Canada, Europe, and the United States, and has extensive experience training
teachers. She is coauthor of a practice manual for beginners and author of
Yoga & You. She has produced two videos, Vanda Scaravelli on Yoga and
Gentle Yoga for Breast Cancer Survivors, both of which are available through
Why are women not supposed to do inverted poses during
their menstrual cycle?
Barbara Benagh's reply:
First of all, there is no consensus on whether to avoid inversions during a woman's
menstrual cycle. The two opinions are basically divided between those who think
that no women should practice inversions during menstruation and those who feel
the choice varies from woman to woman.
Those who encourage a ban on inversions cite fears that certain physical problems
may arise. Until recently, increased risk of endometriosis was considered the most
common risk. But since more is known now about that disease, the idea has been
debunked. There is also a theory that inversions may cause "vascular congestion" in
the uterus resulting in excessive menstrual flow. (For more info, click here.) If true,
this risk is probably most relevant for women who hold inversions a long time. Some
teachers say that since a woman's energy is low during menstruation, high-energy
poses such as inversions should be avoided. This makes sense, yet not all women
experience low energy during menstruation; indeed, many feel quite energized.
Philosophically speaking, menstruation is considered to be apana, meaning that
energetically, its vitality is downward-flowing. The argument against inversions
during menstruation maintains that inversions will disturb this natural energetic flow.
However, inversions are recommended in some systems of yoga as therapy to
improve elimination of excess apana. In Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health, B.K.S.
Iyengar recommends practicing inversions to alleviate menstrual problems such as
heavy flow and irregular periods.
The contradictions don't stop there. Some teachers recommend avoidance of
inversions such as Sirsasana (Headstand) and Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) while
suggesting no such caution with other poses that invert the uterus, such as
Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) and Downward-Facing Dog.
Since I know of no studies or research that makes a compelling argument to avoid
inversions during menstruation, and since menstruation affects each woman
differently and can vary from cycle to cycle, I am of the opinion that each woman is
responsible for making her own decision. Pay attention to how you respond to
inversions (indeed, ALL asanas) during your period. A short Headstand may be fine
while a longer one isn't; maybe you will find that backbends or twists adversely affect
your period. If your energy is very low, restorative poses may be just the ticket,
though you may find a more active sequence of standing poses alleviates cramps
and the blues. You really won't know what works and what doesn't until you feel it in
your own body.
The bottom line is that hatha yoga is full of contradictions and varied opinions,
leaving each of us ultimately responsible for our own choices. Pay attention to your
body and discover what works and what doesn't not just during your period but
Barbara Benagh, YJ's 2001 Asana columnist, founded the Yoga Studio in Boston in
1981 and teaches seminars nationwide. Currently, Barbara is writing a yoga workbook
for asthmatics and can be reached at www.yogastudio.org.
The popping, cracking joints you hear while practicing yoga may be
problematic or not, depending on the cause.
Cracking and popping noises can be attributed to a few different phenomena. One
explanation is that when a joint is pushed into or out of its normal position (which
could be done during a yoga pose) gases, primarily nitrogen, are displaced and
escape from the synovial fluid inside the joint, causing a popping sound.
Another reason for the noise, according to frequent Yoga Journal contributor and
international yoga teacher Judith Lasater, comes from a tendon moving across a
joint or from arthritic changes that have already occurred in the joint. She believes
that if this popping occurs naturally during yoga practice, or in daily life, for that
matter, there is not a problem.
However, it is unadvisable to continually try to pop one's joints (i.e., cracking the
knuckles). This practice tends to create hypermobility and can lead to instability in
the joint. This instability can cause the surrounding musculature to tighten up a bit to
support the joint and thus the urge to pop will arise again, says Lasater.
If the popping is from a tendon moving across a joint or from arthritis, continue to
pay attention to the area, and if the symptoms change, or if there is pain associated
with a popping or cracking noise, seek the counsel of a qualified health professional.
When Emotions Well Up During Yoga
In times of stress I tend not to practice yoga at all because going to class
arouses more feelings than I can cope with. Should I tell my teacher about
John Friend's reply:
In general, it is healthy and natural to experience feelings while doing yoga,
especially during these challenging times. The physical body, mind, and emotional
body are all forms of a singular Supreme Consciousness that vibrates within us.
Thoughts and feelings are completely intertwined in the fabric of the body, so yoga
often initiates the release of emotions. With a focus on balanced breathing, even
muscular engagement and uniform stretching, mindfulness, and a positive mindset,
hatha yoga can be one of the healthiest ways to begin to clear unresolved feelings
such as sadness, anger, or fear.
Yes, please tell your teacher before class when you are feeling particularly
emotional on that day, so that he or she can better support you by modifying poses
and breathing instructions as necessary to help you stayed centered. Also, your
teacher can be better prepared to offer you comforting words or a tissue if needed.
During those emotional times you might also want to set yourself up in the back
corner of the classroom so that you won't have to worry about disturbing your
In order to help you keep your emotional state from becoming too overwhelming,
allow your breath to be balanced between your inhalation and exhalation while doing
the poses. To help you stay centered, you can also lengthen your inhalation if you
are feeling sad or depressed, or lengthen your exhalation if you are feeling anxious
or fearful. Strong emotions and tears might still arise while you breathe evenly, but
you will be more likely to stay centered if you focus on balancing your breathing.
If your emotions become overwhelming, you are experiencing uncontrollable
physical releases like sobbing or shaking, and you are having great difficultly staying
mindful and thinking clearly, then this is not an appropriate time to continue to do
active yoga poses. During these periods take private time for yourself to properly
and fully release your emotions. And remember that while you are going through any
emotional catharsis, it is beneficial to affirm positive ideas about yourself and others
instead of harboring destructive feelings of worthlessness or self-hatred.
This month's expert, John Friend, is the founder of Anusara Yoga, which combines
the celebration of the heart, the art of inner body awareness, and the science of
universal principles of alignment.
Office Yoga Tips
I am desk-bound for most of the day. Are there any
yoga poses I can do in a confined space?
Cyndi Lee's reply
Yes! In fact, depending on your desk setup, clothing, and the level of comfort with
your co-workers, you can practically do an entire yoga practice at your desk.
Begin by sitting on the edge of a chair with your feet placed squarely on the floor
about hip distance apart. Place your palms flat on your thighs, and feel length in your
spine--head balanced over heart, heart balanced over hips. Inhale and exhale
evenly for five counts each. Repeat as many times as you'd like.
Inhale and lift your arms overhead, taking hold of your left wrist with your right hand.
On an exhalation, bend to the right. Stay there for three breaths. As you inhale,
come back up to vertical and change wrists. Exhale, and bend to the left. Stay there
for three breaths. Inhale back up to a tall spine. Exhale, release your arms. Circle
your shoulders a few times, sensuously rolling them up, back and down. On the
fourth roll, interlace your fingers behind your back with your arms as straight as you
are able to make them. If you don t have room behind you, reach back and hold
onto the outside edges of the back of your chair. On an inhalation, lift your chest,
making a high backbend. Stay here and draw three full, rich breaths into your body.
As you exhale, release your hands, place them on your knees and round your spine.
Tuck your pelvis and pull your navel away from your knees, coming into a seated cat
pose. Breathe deeply and feel the broadness of the back body. Let your head dangle
to open the back of the neck.
From where you are, begin to fold forward, letting your upper body fall through your
thighs. You may be able to reach the floor with your palms flat. Otherwise, try to hold
onto your ankles or shins. The idea is to let your head drop lower than your hips--this
is an inversion.
Slowly roll up and find length in your spine. On an exhalation, twist to the right. You
can place your left hand on the outside of your right thigh and your right hand on the
back of your chair. Check to make sure that your right armpit-chest area is lifted.
Remember to include your head in the twist as well. As you look over your right
shoulder, move your eyes to the upper right corner of your eyes and then the lower
right corner. Repeat this eye exercise two times. Then close your eyes as you
untwist back to center. Repeat to the other side. This should take five minutes or
less and be quite refreshing. Good luck!
Cyndi Lee is the founder of OM yoga center in New York City. She is a
longtime practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism and has been teaching yoga for
over 20 years. Cyndi is the author of OM Yoga: A Guide to Daily
Practice(Chronicle Books) and the upcoming Yoga Body, Buddha Mind
(Riverhead Books). For more information, visit www.omyoga.com.
Other Yoga Questions – Transcript from Class
I teach Hatha Yoga and have only been doing it for 4 months, there are 2 students in
my class who like to try forward bends (although they have slipped discs), I do tell
them to pull there tummy in to support there lower back, and insist they do not force
any movement, I tell them the idea is to rather stretch out first before trying to get
down onto the floor - is this incorrect? Could you let me know
Yes, pulling the tummy in and going slowly is the proper way to do forward bends.
However, with slipped disks, it's best not to do them at all. If you only have been
doing yoga for 4 MONTHS? (did you mean years?), I suggest you refer medical
cases to a more experienced teacher.
You warn "only a teacher can give you feedback on your practice and help designing
a practice that suits you."
Now here's the problem: Yoga is popular. And there are many "experts" here in the
West, some of whom have severe limits as teachers. Even classes with "qualified"
teachers are often so large, that the teacher's ability to give the kind of individual
instruction you recommend is restricted. In a 3 day workshop I attended recently,
there were 60 students of all levels, hardly the venue for developing a practice that
"suits you." Despite classes I've had with several other possibly qualified teachers,
no one told me something quite basic: that I needed to stop my astanga practice at
Yet you warn not to practice on your own and also advise to find a teacher of yoga
who undertands the spiritual aspect of yoga practice. Just what kind of teacher-
student relationship are you recommending?
The way yoga is taught commercially in large western cities is not beneficial.
Classes are too large, and no matter how experienced and qualified the teacher is,
they cannot give personal feed back.
When I learn ashtanga from John Scott, we were never more than 12 in a class, and
his wife was generally assisting. That's the way it used to be in Mysore as well:
Patthabi and Sharath, 12 students. Now it's one "teacher", 60 students, what kind of
individual attention are you expecting in that sort of setting? You might as well buy a
video. I have been, once or twice, in that sort of situation when teaching large
workshops. As a teacher, you just have to lead a class for the average student,
hoping that the less advanced won't injure themselves or get discouraged, and that
the more advanced won't get bored and will still pickup bits of information here and
there. But you certainly don't get people to built their OWN practice that way. In truth,
this is not teaching, but performing.
Ashtanga is traditionally taught in self practice class. Talking to other ashtanga
teachers, the general consensus is that a comfortable students to teacher ratio is
around 1 to 6, anything more than 1 to 12 is ridiculous because it is impossible to
keep up with all your students.
Find a small self practice class, or come to one of our retreats (we limit numbers to
be able to give proper tuition, students to teacher ratio is normally 1 to 6, never more
that 1 to 10 in an ashtanga class).
If you can't find a small self practice class in your area, this is what you do: You get a
small self practice group together, around 6 like minded people who really want to
build their own ashtanga practice. You find a room and meet up there once or twice /
week to practice together (I presume you are practising in between at home,
otherwise, meet up 5 days week for your self practice group). Once or twice every
month, hire a good teacher for two hours to come to your self practice group, give
everyone individual feed back on their practice, and if need be, move people on. It
won't cost you much more than two weekly classes, and you'll get far better value for
Fair play to you for figuring out yourself that you should stop at Navasana., this is
indeed a standard cut off point, that takes months or even years to get past. Can you
bind in Marichyasana D? If not, you should stop earlier, Marichyasana B or C,
perhaps even Janusirsasana C. Again, any teacher worth their salt would point it out
to you right away, provided their class is small enough for them to have time to look
I'd just like to get one point straight, before I finish off. I certainly don't warn people
against practicing on their own. I warn them that practicing exclusively on their own
may lead, in the long run, to developing bad habits that at best will take a long time
to correct, and at worst will actually create serious problems. This is why you need
the feed back of a teacher. It might be once / week for an hour in a class setting or
twice a year for a week in a retreat setting, but is is indispensable. But of course,
while you need a teacher to move you on and check on your practice, you also need
to practice at home, on your own, because that is the only time that you are actually
going to do your OWN practice, everything else is someone else's and may indeed
not suit you.
Wishing you a happy, fruitfull practice
Are there some specific poses that one can do to promote the flow of cerebral spinal
Hatha yoga aims to increase the prana around the body, and some like to think it
ties in with awakening the kundalini energy and shunting it up the spine. In any case,
most yoga poses work the vertebral column which houses the CSF. The inverted
poses will probably be beneficial too, as the usual downward gravitational force will
I suggest that instead of 'increase' the circulation, you may actually mean you want
to regulate it, so that the CSF moves easily, and with its natural pulsatory rhythm
from the cranium and down the vertebral column. If this is the case, I recommend
seeing an osteopath who has been trained in craniosacral technique.
Go for a balanced yoga practice which includes a flowing mix of movement and
breath, (like Cat Pose). Then, to work the spine in each direction of its movement,
include one or more each of the following: forward bend, side bend, back bend,
twist, plus something inverted, then take a relaxation, concentrating on the natural
rhythm of your breath.
I'm trying to find out what the difference is between Hatha and Ashtanga Yoga? I
found a lot of information on Ashtanga, but hardly anything on Hatha. Can you
clarify the differences for me?
Ashtanga is one of the most dynamic, and one of the most popular, brand of Hatha
Yoga, the yoga of the body. Other styles of Hatha yoga includes Iyengar (still pretty
strong, but more static than it's ashtanga cousin), viniyoga (also a cousin of
ashtanga, but much milder), sivananda (classical hatha yoga, often refered to as
simply Hatha Yoga), Satyananda (a spin off Sivananda), Bikram (a yoga workout in
a very hot room), Kundalini (strictly speaking, part of hatha yoga as well, but with a
different emphasis), to name but the more popular.
See http://www.yogamovement.com/resources/styles.html For information on
various yoga styles
I normally suffer from terrible pms. I started yoga a few weeks ago and have only
been to 2 lessons, one of them a week before my period was due. The week that
followed was quite amazing! I was so calm, understanding almost serene! I handled
everything beautifully, and felt more confident than I have done for years. I went to a
lesson yesterday, the day my period started properly, and felt okay, though a bit stiff.
Then the next day, I felt like I got 3 months worth of pms all rolled into one day! How
can this be? In the first lessons we did the shoulderstand and plough, which I find
easy and comfortable, but we didn't do this yesterday. Could there be a connection?
You are on the right track with Shoulderstand and Plough as they are considered
hormonally balancing poses. As they are inverted postures, they promote blood flow
to the brain. This brings nutrients to promote optimum health of the hormone
controlling glands. Do continue with regular (daily) practice of these inverted
postures, (after warming up with the other yoga postures you are learning). Other
postures which are recommended for PMS are badhakonasana (cobler's seat,
sometimes called butterfly), suptabadhakonasana (reclining cobler's seat) and
Take care to avoid inversions when your period starts. During menstruation, many
women find the seated postures like forward bends calming and soothing. You may
also do some resting postures at that time, consult with an Iyengar teacher.
It might take some time to level out many years of hormonal imbalance. To get such
a fast reaction from a couple of classes certainly bodes well for you. There are some
great hormonal balancing herbs around too, if you are inclined to see a herbalist.
Good luck with your yoga practice!
I was diagnosed with a slipped disk (herniated disk at the left side L5-S1). There are
also degenerative changes of the L4-5 and L5-s` discs with decreased hydration
noted. No bony abnormalities (per MRI scan). I started a yoga program about a
month ago and developed severe discomfort, the typical sciatica pains. Any forward
bending sitting down is very very uncomfortable. Any suggestions what yoga
positions I can do in order to help aleviate the problem?
Yoga can work wonders with slipped discs, but it must be the right kind of yoga!
Forward bends will flare up a herniated disc and the lumbar spine around it must
initially be kept in a concave position. Forward bends done to your limit will naturally
round out the lumbar spine, placing pressure on the disc and aggravating the
Practicing a short sequence of yoga postures Gentle backbends and abdominal
strenthening exercises are the way to begin. Forward bends and twists can be
introduced only later, and the utmost of care must be taken. Keep a journal, work
softly and check for pain 24 hours later, as it might not flare immediately if you
overdo it. The best forward bends to begin with are with the back stabilised - lying
on your back with 1 leg in the air. Stretching and lengthening the hamstrings will
take pressure of your vulnerable lower back and help prevent a recurrence.
Ideally you would work with a yoga therapy expert, so seek one out if possible.
I am currently doing some research into the benefits of inversions to the body. I am
particularly interested in finding out how an inversion, where the feet are raised
45cm from the floor, would benefit the body if such a position was practised daily for
approx 30 minutes.
Has there been any medical research into the benefits of inversions?
Inversions are considered antiaging. Yogic lore speaks of a nectar in the brain which
drips away, sort of like sand in an hourglass, and to turn upside down slows the loss
of this precious nectar!
Certainly inversions bring an easy fresh blood supply to the upper body, usually
above the heart. In this way, they can help nourish the roots of the hair and the skin
on the face (your face may go red when you are upside down as there is more blood
in the skin.)
They are also considered to balance the hormones as they feed the endocrine
glands in the brain. Fresh blood brings oxygen and nutrients to promote good
functioning. Also included is the thryroid gland at the throat, which controls your
metabolic rate and is involved with general energy levels.
Thirty minutes is rather a long time to be upside down, though, especially for
beginners, but try it out and see for yourself!
I have been practicing yoga (mostly ashtanga, Iyengar and Sivananda) for a number
of years, but it was recommended that I stop six months ago after I was diagnosed
with hypermobility syndrome. Apparently, "extreme stretching" was increasing the
instability in my joints, particularly in my spine and shoulder girdle.
I am reluctant to give up yoga permanently. Is there a particular form of yoga that
would help with the hypermobility?
Many people with hypermobile joints can practice yoga.You need to be very focused
on determining when you are stretching the ligaments and shift the emphasis on the
muscles. Develop the ability to have the muscle groups around the joints 'hold' the
joint, rather than just going into an automatic way of doing things which causes the
joints to lock or overextend and thus worsen the problem.
Astanga is a very strengthening practice, but as it is so fast and flowing, I would
suggest it is easier to unknowingly go too far into a pose for your benefit and
overstretch. A focus on Iyengar could certainly help, as it is much slower, the poses
are held for longer and so this gives your brain a chance to catch up in its focus.
Sivananda, with only 12 postures, might need to be supplemented with other ones.
Work with a yoga teacher to choose poses which strengthen the muscles around the
joints you are concerned about. ie Plank pose for hyper mobile shoulders, activating
the thigh muscles for the knees in all the standing poses, and so on.
I am in relatively good shape and after doing hatha yoga classes started doing
power yoga and now ashtanga yoga. I already notice a big difference in muscle
tone and strength and feel quite high energy after the classes. However, almost
always several hours or more after a power yoga or ashtanga class I feel a pretty
deep fatigue where i feel very drained that lasts a couple hours. Is this something to
be concerned about? Is it an indication I am overdoing it, or a normal reaction?
No, you shouldn't feel drained after a yoga practice. Proper yoga practice lets you
energised and light. Your feeling that way might be due to overpractice, but might
other cause as well. For example, it could be that you are not closing your practice
properly. It is very important to do a proper closing sequence and to stay in
Savasana long enough. As a rough guide, one should stay in Savasana for at least
10 minutes for every hours of practice. The length of your closing sequence should
be proportionate to the amount of practice you have done, for someone who does
half the primary (to Navasana), a closing sequence would take 15-20 minutes.
I would suggest that you talk to your teacher(s?) about that, for only people who
have seen your practice can advise you on it.
Other than Patthabi Jois, who else teaches the ashtanga system in India?
Despite of claims that the ashtanga system is an ancient system described in an old
manuscript known as the yoga korunta, no one, apart from Jois and
Krishnamacharia has ever seen this manuscript, and Patthabi Jois says it's been
"eaten by ants", so it is a moot point whether the system was actually devised by
Jois and Krishnamacharia or whether it is truly a traditional system that had been
lost and that they rediscovered. Ultimately, this doesn't really matter. Because yoga
is a living thing, new systems and styles will come up, older ones will die or be
forgotten. Ashtanga viniyasa is a very powerful system, designed by people who
knew a lot about yoga.
In any case, all teachers of what's known in the west as ashtanga yoga are, directly
or indirectly, students of Krishnamacharya and of Patthabi Jois.
There are in Mysore two Indian teachers, BNS Iyengar and Chechadri, who teach
what they claim is the original Ashtanga Vinyasa system, which differs somewhat
from Patthabi Jois system (the first series is nearly the same, but second series is
quite different) . However, BNS Iyengar studied with Krishnamacharya and Patthabi
Jois (see www.ashtanga.org for more information) and Chechadri is one of his
student, so ultimately, it all comes from the same source.
What do you think about combining Iyengar with ashtanga.
Yoga is a living art, so anyone with a proper understanding of its basis is free to
adapt it to their own needs and call it whatever they want. It has been done before
(Iyengar, Power yoga, Jivamukti yoga, kripalu yoga...). In that particular case, both
styles complements each other well because ashtanga is often too fast and
therefore lacks depth, but Iyengar, by discarding the vinyasas system, is sometimes
too static and has lost the connection with the breathing. Also both styles come from
the same source (the teaching of Krishnamacharia), so it works well and has often
I have been a trained fitness instructor for the past 20 years. I use to practice Yoga
in my 20's and I now have a great interest in it again. I know all about safe body
alignment, I'm fairly strong, and I have great flexibility. I take Yoga from a trained
instructor and I read up on it a lot. I have no interest in the meditation, chanting etc..
or the dietary beliefs of the Indian practice. The fitness club I work for teaches
"Functional Yoga". I take my participants through Hatha type movements like
downward dog, upward dog, cat & dog, etc... What do you think of this type of
Unfortunately, because yoga is so much in fashion, they are many unqualified
instructors, with no interest in the spiritual side of yoga, teaching yoga postures.
Some of them, through a thorough knowledge of anatomy or of other western
systems of exercises, might have a very good understanding of the mechanics of
that they are teaching. However, what they are teaching is not yoga, more like
While I have no problem with any yoga student showing little or no interest in the
bigger picture and seeing yoga simply as a set of physical exercises to help them
stay in shape, I don't believe this is an acceptable attitude once someone starts
teaching. I believe that if it has no spiritual side, it shouldn't be called yoga, even if it
includes postures and exercises borrowed from it, because whatever we have done
with it in the western world in recent years, yoga is and will always be a spiritual
I am 28 years old. I want to go to India on my own to study yoga for a few months.
Do you think I should have any concerns being a woman.
A peculiarity of travel in India is that Indian men have been known to grope western
women but it seldom gets more dangerous than that. (Local women tell me their
indignant response would be to slap their face in return!) Indian women generally go
out in pairs or groups, so a single woman is a bit more of a target, and foreign
women are considered to be freer than local ones so do take care after dark, just as
you would while travelling in any Western country. Minimise bother and respect the
locals by dressing modestly. Cover your legs, avoid singlet tops and in general opt
for baggy rather than tight.
India is full of really nice, super friendly and very curious people, and if you behave
sensibly, you are unlikely to have more than the occasional bit of bother. I don't
know where you intend to study, but many yoga schools in India have plenty of
foreign students who you can make friends with, so in all likelihood you will find you
are not alone as much as you might expect to be. By the way, a great reference
book for yoga schools is 'From Here to Nirvana'.
Enjoy your trip,
Could you tell me what causes muscles, especially leg and foot muscles, to cramp
during the asanas? I have heard that a lack of water and a lack of trace elements
such as selenium, magnesium and potassium contribute to muscle cramps but
these reasons don't seem to provide a complete explain. What are some of the other
Muscles will certainly cramp when there is a lack of potassium, calcium and / or
magnesium, and they are more likely to do so when they are working hard (ie, in a
yoga class) and can't get supplies of the nutrients quickly enough. (If you believe you
are deficient in any of these, consult a natural health practitioner, or a reference
Many beginners experience cramps, even if they may not manifest obvious
symptoms of mineral deficiency. Blood and nutrient supply alters as the circulation
changes, and even the energy fields change and could possibly produce transient
symptoms like cramping.
If you get cramps in a pose, come out of the pose, massage the area, and, when it
has subsided, resume your practice.
I am very interested in taking up Ashtanga Yoga and wonder is it possible to learn
and do this type of yoga from a video, just like some people do a workout from
I wouldn't recommend learning ashtanga solely from a video.
All classical texts on yoga insist on the need for a teacher. Faulty practice can be
injurious on a variety of level, and a video or a book will never tell you if you are
doing something wrong, only a teacher can give you feed back on your practice and
help designing a practice that suits you. A teacher is also needed to introduce you to
the breathing techniques (ujayi) and to the subtleties of the bandhas (energy locks).
Ashtanga is not simply a 'workout'. It is a very powerful yoga practice which works
not only on the physical body, but on the emotional and spiritual levels as well.
If there are no ashtanga teacher in your area, then I recommend that in addition to
your practice and study of a video or book, you get to ashtanga workshops or
ashtanga retreats (you will find some on our Yoga Holiday website). Alternatively, try
to get to a drop in class, there are some in any big cities.
I have been practicing an hour of ashtanga yoga 4-5 times a week, for about a
month. I have lost 15 lbs in the last month since starting. I have been doing some
weights and cardio about 3 times a week, but would like to just do yoga. Could yoga
alone help me continue loose weight?
Congratulations! I keep telling overweight people who are asking about yoga for
weight loss to do ashtanga. Your success story illustrate clearly that it does work!
Yes, I am sure that an hour a day is enough to keep your weight under control, no
need to do weight or cardio on top of that, unless you enjoy that type of work.
However, you might be soon putting on a bit of weight around the shoulder as you
are getting stronger :)
Enjoy your practice...
I would like to start a yoga class but am obese and unfit. Although Ashtanga yoga
would be my first choice I know that at the moment I would not be able to do it so
could you advise me on what the best form of yoga would be at this stage for me to
Indeed, rather than astanga, you are probably better off starting with a gentler style
focusing on body awareness, relaxation and meditation, such as Satyananda or
Once you have made some progress and lost some weight, move onto more
demanding styles like ashtanga/power.
A reader suggested BIKRAM yoga to prepare for more demanding forms of yoga
such as Astanga to overweight people. You sweat alot in Bikram, which feels great
and is very important too. Watching Ashtanga classes helps alot to prepare mentally
to get into it, she says.
Also see our online store for some videos that might put you on the right track
I practice ashtanga yoga, I wanted to know what a woman should do when she gets
her period? A modified practice? Should she refrain from the first day?
Pathabi Jois says not to practice at all for the first three days of menstruation.
A number of senior teachers recommend a modified practice, more static and much
less strenuous than a normal ashtanga practice, based mostly on forward bending
and suspine postures.
Nearly everyone agrees that inverted postures (headstand and shoulder stand)
shouldn't be practiced while there's still bleeding, and I wouldn't recommend strong
backbends during this time either.
Like many people today I seem to regularly feel under stress.
To most people I am a confident and outgoing person, but behind the facade I am a
bundle of nerves. I have made up my mind to do something about it.. I appreciate
there is no quick fix out there and I am willing to work at making my life better and
Can Yoga help, if yes what type and how should I go about it?
Yes, yoga is one of the most efficient stress management technique, and from your
comments on being willing to work at it, rather than expecting a quick fix, you are
approaching it from the right perspective.
To get real benefits, you will need to practice at least 4 times a week. For a
beginner, 20 minutes of self practice 3 or 4 times a week and one or two classes will
be perfectly adequate and you should start reaping the benefit of such a regimen
within a few weeks.
Is it a good idea to start yoga when pregnant?
Pregnancy is a time in a woman's life where she particularly need to be relaxed,
calm and healthy, for this will greatly benefit the child she is bearing, so yoga is a
good idea then.
In addition, some yoga posture are well know to be excellent for preparing the body
for delivery, and some yogic breathing techniques are excellent during delivery!
A few word of caution, though.
First, always inform your teacher that you are pregnant, and check with them if they
are willing to have you in their class. Some won't have the knowledge or the time
needed to adjust their class to your special needs.
Do not practice asana (postures) between 10 and 14 weeks. Pranayama (breathing)
and meditation are recommended at that time. Before 10 weeks, all asanas can be
practiced. After 14 weeks, some twists, backbends and forward bends will gradually
have to be left out of your practice.
In all major cities, there are some special classes for pregnant women, and some
teachers specialise in this. This might be your best bet if you are starting. Check that
You might also want to check out our list of recommended books and videos for
more information on the subject.
A friend and I have recently begun taking Ashtanga Yoga and enjoy it a great deal,
however, my friend gets exceedingly nauseous during practice, especially when
doing downward dogs. She has a gallbladder condition which she is treating with a
naturopath - I'm not sure if this has any bearing on the situation. Is this normal, and
is there anything that she can do to remedy this problem?
Nausea during yoga practice is often linked with the gall bladder or liver, and as your
friend has a pre existing gall bladder complaint, it is probably that. In order for her to
continue practicing and benefiting from yoga, her practice needs to be altered so she
experiences less discomfort. If, due to discomfort, she doesn't enjoy it, then she
won't want to continue.
If she is getting nausea in downward facing dog, then I would examine her posture
with a teacher. Increased pressure is being put on the gall bladder in this inverted
position, which could account for the symptoms, in which case I would recommend a
shorter holding time. Start with one breath and over time, if all goes well two and so
on until one day she could reach five. (Remember that Astanga Vinyasa is a system
but your friend is not a system. She is an individual with special needs. She needs
to be respected more than the system, so it is the system that may need to be
changed to suit her, not the other way around.)
In addition to the inverted pose, if her shoulders and/or hamstrings are tight then she
will not have a straight line from wrist to hip, instead will have a rounded back. This
concaving will put additional pressure on the gall bladder causing the billious feeling.
In this case, she needs to include stretches which develop hamstring and/or
shoulder flexibility in her practice.
In all yoga poses, the core of the body which contains the organs needs to move in
accordance with the outer body - the skeleton, arms and legs. In fast moving
practices like astanga this is harder to attune with, and beginners can find
themselves forcing poses by using their arms and legs in a dictatorial way. The
direction of movement must come from the inside, out.
The organs must be invited into the movement. When people do not move with the
support of their organs, nausea can result. To experiment with this, practice your
astanga very slowly, taking several breaths to come into each pose with an internal
focus. Your friend might feel safer practicing a slower style of yoga which supports
inner exploration. For beginners, astanga moves so fast it is hard to access that at
Lastly, yoga postures have definite healing effects on the organs, and it is highly
possible her condition may improve from the practice.
I wish to learn yoga. I am not in a position to learn it formally in an institute. Do you
think that it is advisable and possible for a person to learn yoga by himself?
There's a saying that a good book is better than a bad teacher. Certainly better than
no teacher at all!
However, it is important when learning yoga to get feedback on one's practice, and
this, only a teacher can do. Only a teacher can see, hear and feel the way you work,
and advise you. Faulty practice of yoga can lead to a number of problems. For that
reason, I would strongly advise you to find to a competent yoga teacher as soon as
you can. It doesn't have to be in the framework of weekly classes, if your
circunstances do not allow for that. May be you can find a teacher in your area who
would be willing to give you private classes once in a while and thus check on your
practice and advise you on how to further it. May be you could occasionnaly attend
some seminars or courses, but in any case, even if you can't get to a regular class,
you must, to learn yoga properly, get some help and advice from a good teacher.
I am a beginner to yoga (2 months) and have been getting sore shoulder joints from
downward dog. Is there a common mistake that would cause this?
Pain in the shoulder joint during Adho Mukha Svanasana could be caused by a lack
of upper body strength or too much weight on the hands putting pressure on the
There are several ways to reduce the stain on the shoulders in Adho Mukha
Svanasana. The asana can be practised towards a wall, with the hands working on
blocks in order to place them higher than the feet. This will subtly shift the centre of
gravity back towards the feet, placing a lighter load on the arms. If this fails to reduce
the strain, use the seat of a low chair, raising the hands even higher. Alternatively,
work with a partner. Place a belt on the upper thigh (make sure it's high enough to
not place pressure on the knee). As you enter the pose, your partner will lean back
with the tie. This will reduce the weight on the arms, and increase the stretch on the
hamstrings and calves.
If the arms are strong enough to support the weight from a floor position, consider
how you are entering and working in the asana. Remember to stretch down through
the heels. Lengthen the spine, stretching from the tailbone to the crown of the head.
Roll the scapula (shoulder blades) away from one another to broaden the upper
back. Ensure that the inner elbows are facing.
Can I ask you what you think about travelling to India to study Yoga? Have you any
The first step is to decide is what style of yoga you intend to study. It would be wise
to start studying your choosen style at home to make sure this is the right choice
before heading to India to further your studies. Here are a few options:
You could go to India and study with the Iyengars at the Ramamani Iyengar Yoga
Institute in Pune. There are also in Rishikesh some very experienced teachers in
that style of yoga. There are also some good teachers in the UK.
Again, you could go to India and study with Patthabi Jois in Mysore. There are also a
number of very experienced ashtanga teachers in Europe, America and Australia.
Check out the list of teachers on the Ashtanga site. All certified teachers are very
advanced practitioners who have studied extensively with Pattahbi Jois.
The Indian option is to study with Desikachar at the Krishnamachariy yoga Madiram
in Chennai (Madras). A number of Desikachar senior students teach in the West.
Check out the Viniyoga Britain site.
The Bihar School of yoga and the Bihar Yoga Barathi run courses in India for
Western students. Check out their site http://www.yogavision.net
Run two ashrams in India. Check out their website.
You will find some useful addresses on our addresses page.
You might also get yourself a copy of the book "From here to Nirvana", a spiritual
guide to India packed with information and addresses.
I've been practicing Yoga for about 10 months. Before Yoga I lifted light weights and
used a treadmill or an elliptical for 45 minutes 3 x a week. I now exclusively practice
Ashtanga, 3 to 4 times a week for 90 minutes, and really only occasionally do
something aerobic like go for a walk. I sometimes injure myself, for example pull a
muscle or compress my wrists, and I always feel sore and slightly exhausted after
practice. My questions are: Will I eventually build up stamina and energy? Will I
ever stop feeling sore after practice?
90 minutes of practice sound like a lot for someone who has been practicing
ashtanga for less than six month. Practice has to be built slowly, for it's only by
working within our limitations that we eventually overcome them.
On the other hand, 3 to 4 times a week isn't a lot for a dedicated yogi, which you
obviously are. It would be better for you to do an hour 5 or 6 times a week. You
would also probably feel less tired after practice if you were practicing a little less.
Ashtanga practice is supposed to let you feel energized, not tired and sore. Also
make sure you always do an adequate closing sequence (if you are practicing 90
minutes, you should do a full closing sequence, including headstand) and lie in
Savasana at the end of your practice for at least 10 minutes. There is often a
tendency to rush through the end of the practice because time is running short. This
is not good and can indeed lead to tiredness.
A pleasant soreness in the bellies of some muscles can be a sign that you are
progressing, but pain in the joints is a sure indication of poor form and alignment. In
this case you should pull back and study the posture more closely. Granted,
accidents do happen sometimes, particularly if you are trying out new postures, but
they are always a sign that you are doing something wrong, and an invitation to
correct this wrong.
And as for building up stamina, I can only repeat Patthabi Jois advice: "Do your
practice, and all is coming."
I experience migraine headaches frequently, often severely enough to require
medical attention beyond the medication I am prescribed. How can I combat these
attacks using my yoga practice, and are there any positions I should avoid? In the
plow position, I often experience neck pain, is this an indication that I should cease
this pose? Also, and unrelated to my first question, my calves are terribly tight, and I
have difficulty getting my heels completely to the floor in the downward facing dog.
There are many causes for migraine headaches and I suggest seeing a natural
health practitioner who can go over your diet and lifestyle and emotional wellbeing to
determine the cause(s). Yoga can assist is the cause is muscle tension or mental
stress. A three pronged preventative approach might be daily practice of the
(1) Work the muscles (so that they can better release afterwards) with the arm
positions of Gomukhasana (Cow), Garudasana (Eagle) and Parsvottanasana
(Standing Sideways Extension). To releae the neck, perform isometric exercises.
Use one hand to resist as you stretch your neck forwards, diagonally forwards,
sideways and back. (ie, place your palm on your forehead, push into your palm and
resist with your palm for three to five breaths. Repeat three times.)
(2) Next let your head release forward, diagonally forwards and sideways and
increase the stretch with the pressure of one hand. To the same with the head
turning so you look over one shoulder.
(3) Supported restorative poses. Use folded blankets and bolsters to do long, restful
holdings poses like Viparita Karani (buttocks on bolster) or rest your forhead on a
bolster in Child Pose, Dog, and the forward bends.
These are outlined in BKS Iyengar's latest hardcover book. Some people find it
helpful to bandage the head relatively firmly so the eyes are covered, or just use an
eyebag. The neck should not be tight in shoulderstand or plough. If you are
experiencing neck pain then get an experienced teacher to observe you in the pose,
feel what is happening to the neck, and make suggestions, possibly using props, as
to how to change your alignment. (This is the same rule for pain in any yoga pose).
Generally it is a sign of a long-term yoga practitioner if the heels reach the ground in
dog pose. I often tell my students who can do this to walk their feet further back so
that the heels come up a little and they have more of a challenge. My suggestion for
this is simply practice, practice, practice.
I have recently experienced excruciating pain only in my left knee in Lotus. The left
knee is terribly stiff. What should I do?
Most knee problems in Padmasana actually originate from the hips. We westerners
tend to have very stiff hips from years of sitting on chairs. The first step is therefore
to loosen the hips. I would suggest you incorporate in your daily routine 5 or 10
minutes of hips openers such as simple cross-legged forward bend, Ardha
Hanumasana (like a split, but with the front leg bent, going forward), Gomukasana....
Bekasana, Virasana and Vamadevasana might help alleviate the pain in the knee.
However, If it is a medial ligament injury, these postures will be very difficult, and
might damage the knee more....
If the pain is in the back of the knee, which it often is, then the trick of a relatively thin
rolled up towel under the knee for bent knee asanas can considerably reduce the
If Padmasana is too painful, just don't do it. Sit in Siddhasana for long periods of
time (may be at your desk?), raising the buttock on a block or a cushion if necessary
to keep the back straight. Eventually the hips will open and you will be able to do
Padmasana with little or no pain.
B.K.S. Iyengar says that by perseverance and continued practice the pain will
gradually subside. I have found that to be true, but it took a while
I had a baby four months ago and I want to get my flexibility back as well as dealing
with the stress of a new baby. Is there a form of yoga more suited to this situation or
is it a case of seeing which one I prefer?
It really depends on how much physical work you want to do, for you are listing two
different goals there. For regaining your flexibility, you need to look at active styles of
yoga, such as Iyengar or ashtanga. As for dealing with the stress of a new born
baby, more gentle forms of yoga, such as Viniyoga or Sivananda may be more
appropriate, although any style will help on an emotional level as well. So yes, it is a
matter of seeing what you prefer, and possibly also of deciding which is more
important to you.
My hamstrings are sooo tight, and my progress loosening them is sooo slow, in fact
nearly non-existent. I ride a bike, walk on a treadmill and use an elliptical machine in
the gym between 2 and 5 times a week for 30 min, with light stretching after. Is my
cardio routine interfering with my yoga progress? I really feel more relaxed after a
Cardiovascular work is not inherently stiffening, but both running and riding a bike
tighten the hamstrings, so that could be an explanation for your slow progress. You
do not say what type of yoga you do, nor how much you practice, so I'll presume you
are doing one or two classes a week and not practising in between other than the
light stretching after you cardiovascular workout, which isn't really enough to make
Since you like cardiovascular workout I suggest you replace some of your riding with
the practice of Surya Namaskar A and B as described in David Swenson's book
Ashtanga Yoga. You can do as many of them as you like, this is a from of
cardiovascular exercise that will loosen you hamstrings rather than tighten them.
Adho Muka Svanasana (dog head down posture), working the heels toward the floor
with the legs straight, is a good pose to loosen the hamstrings (you might
incorporate in you stretching in any case). Standing leg raises like Utthita Hasta
Padangustasana will also help. Make sure to practice these asanas at least four
times a week. Sitting forward bends, on the other hand, might put too much pressure
on the back, until you get a bit looser.
According to some experts, the static, slow Hatha Yoga stretching exercises where
the body parts are used as a resistance can strengthen bones as well as muscles.
I've always heard that the bone-strengthening benefits of yoga were due only to the
weight-bearing poses. Do you have any information on this, or know anyone you
could refer me to?
It is true that weight-bearing exercises encourage the laying down of calcium and
silicon in the bones, which helps to strengthen them.
While we can choose from many weight-bearing activities for the lower body, Hatha
yoga has the advantage of offering many postures which allow the upper body to
bear weight. Handstand and other arm balancing postures strengthen the bones in
the arms and wrists. The headstands are invaluable as the cervical vertebrae bear
some (but not all!) of the body’s weight.
Hatha yoga promotes overall body health in general. Asana practice will encourage
nutrient supply to the bones in general.
Hatha yoga does have an added benefit compared to other weight bearing activities
as it can help to balance the hormones. Pranayama (yoga breathing) and deep
relaxation re-balance the body via the nervous system. Inverted postures increase
blood supply to relevant endocrine glands. Shoulderstand and Plough Pose in
particular encourage blood supply to the throat, the location of the parathyroid gland.
This gland produces a hormone which affects calcium levels in the bone, and helps
find an optimum balance between the breaking down of old bone, laying down of
new bone and bone remineralisation.
What is mantra yoga?
Mantra yoga is kind of yoga in which mantras (short prayers) are either chanted or
repeated inwardly. The repetition of mantras has a calming effect on the mind. Most
other yoga incorporate some mantra yoga in their practice, and you might even have
done some yourself if you did any chanting in a yoga class.
I was wondering if you can provide me with any advice on a back problem which I've
had before starting Ashtanga yoga. I've had severe sciatic nerve pain and sacro illiac
joint problems for about 2 years. While I've noticed a good deal of improvement in
areas such as hips since starting astanga, I've noticed very little in the way of
forward bending, in fact forward bending in general seems to aggravate the pain and
even if I induce no pain when practising primary series, I have increased pain for 2
days after practising. As the primary series is almost all forward bending, I don't
really know what variations I could use etc. I've also visited osteopaths and
chirporactors with limited success.
The first thing is to get a proper diagnosis of your problem. Pain aggravated by
bending forwards could be a sign of an HNP, (herniated nucleus polposis), otherwise
known as a slipped disc. There are various degrees of slipped discs. It could be a
disc lesion or tear, less drastic but still very painful and you need to exclude these
possibilities. Forward bends are contraindicated in disc problems so, until it heals,
Astanga Yoga is not right for you. Instead, try Viniyoga (Viniyogauk.co.uk) or see a
yoga therapist. (YogaTherapy.org). Slower yoga practice allows you time to develop
body awareness and there will come a time when you will be able to introduce safe
You can't escape the fact that Astanga Yoga is a severe practice. When such a
strong practice comes into contact with a pre-existing physical limitation, it can
certainly make sparks fly. Some people find it gives them a burst of energy to heal
and a long standing problem disappears. Others have a rougher ride.
Sometimes harsher types of manipulation can be less beneficial than gentle forms
which help release muscular holding. Try some deep tissue massage or
The benefit of Astanga yoga over other styles is the emphasis on the bandhas.
Problem areas can be strengthened and healed by working with these internal
energy locks. Learning to use these energies (in whichever style of yoga you
choose) is undoubtedly protective and might be a key to your healing.
Good luck on your path,
What are the benefits of doing pelvic tilt before going into cobra posture? I find it
'locks' my lumber spine, cobra surely is aimed at freeing it.
I presumme you talking about the Pilates pelvic tilt? Although it's not the first thing
I'd think of as a preparation for Bhujangasana (Cobra posture), I expect it was
recommended to you for a reason.......
The Pilates pelvic tilt is quite distinctly NOT what is often called the Bridge in some
yoga classes, but done correctly would definitely be a good preparation for the pelvic
region before any of the backbends in yoga, if done in conjunction with exercises for
the thoracic and cervical spine as well as the whole shoulder girdle.
If you find that your lumber spine is locking in the pelvic tilt, you are definitely not
using your bandas! Try it this way:
Lie on your back with your knees bent pointing twds the ceiling- feet hip width apart
and parallel i.e. not turning in or out and not too close to your buttocks [ you should
have a very small space between your waist and the mat, corresponding to the
natural curve of your spine when standing- hands are palms down by your sides.]
Make sure your feet are in line with your hips, which are in line with your shoulders,
which are RELAXED. Close your eyes and try to feel your alignment.
Open your eyes and inhale
Start exhaling and the first movement you make is to take your navel down towards
the floor, feeling your whole lower abdomen flatten and your lumbar region press
into the floor. So you are engaging Uddiyana bandha.
Still on the exhalation, use your pelvic floor muscles [mula bandha] to curl your
tailbone[coccyx] up and back inwards towards your nose. The waist is still on the
floor but the pelvis is tilting with the effect of elongating the lumbar spine, which is
supported by the abdominal muscles, [specifically the tranverse, the deepest layer of
muscle in the abdomen] or, in yogic terms, the uddiyana banda, which you keep
Now draw your sitting bones together, feeling the hips narrow, the buttocks and the
inner thigh muscles engage strongly and you lift the pelvis higher to acheive a
SLOPE, a straight line if possible from the shoulder to the knee. DO NOT PUSH
YOUR PELVIS UP ANY HIGHER - I suspect this is what is locking your lumbar and
causing you to make the same mistake in Cobra.
This whole sequence of movement is done on the exhalation - think of dividing the
breath into 3 parts.
NOW INHALE HOLDING THE SLOPE POSITION, KEEP THE BANDHAS 'ON' AND
KEEP DRAWING YOUR SITBONES TOGETHER
EXHALE AND START TO CURL THE SPINE BACK DOWN ONTO THE MAT,
VERY SLOWLY, IN THIS ORDER:
RIBS, WAIST, LUMBAR and finally TAILBONE [it is the mula bandha which controls
this downward movement enabling you to do it smoothly, so keep engaging that
pelvic floor as well as keeping the navel back towards the spine and the sitzbones
INHALE AND RELAX [and repeat a few times]
So your lumbar spine should feel elongated and the supporting muscles strongly
Back to the COBRA - IT IS A VERY DIFFICULT POSTURE and done wrongly can
definitely lock the lumbar, so approach with caution and make sure that you are
using your back muscles to lift your trunk, and not relying on the push of the hands.
If you do have a flexible spine it can still damage the lumbar if not done correctly,
with the support of the bandhas and the Latissimus Dorsi muscles which support the
spine and control the downward movement of the shoulder girdle.
Here is a good Pilates exercise which will help you strengthen those muscles: