Sunday, February 24, 2008

Yoga Music

Lately I've been practicing more and more on my own. I love going to classes, but there are benefits to practicing alone. Also, work has made it difficult to make it to the classes I like best.

Usually practicing on my own means doing so in silence - just listening to my breath as it guides me. But lately I've come across some great yoga music, so I thought I'd share.

1. The Cello Suites by Bach, performed by Yo-Yo Ma.

Whether you're a fan of classical music or not, Bach's cello suites are fantastic for your focus as you practice. Listening to them adds a certain seriousness to your yoga, which is great if you're in the mood for it. For me listening to them also reinforces the fact that yoga is - among other things - an art form, and a beautiful, elegant practice.

2. Anything by Barbara Morgenstern, but especially the album "Nichts Muss"

She's German, and the album title means, roughly, "Anything Goes." If you haven't heard of her - and chances are you haven't - it's because not much German music makes it to the US. Her music is a bit difficult to describe, and I always get confused when I try to categorize electronic music. Suffice it to say that it's a bit trancey, calming but complicated, but not too distracting for yoga. Also, if you don't speak German, the meaning of the words won't distract you. I sometimes like to listen to Bach for the first half of a session (standing poses) and Barbara Morgenstern for the second half (seated poses and meditation).

Saturday, February 23, 2008

On the Benefits of Yoga... Beyond Exercise?

I think the answer to the question in the title is an undeniable “yes.” There is no doubt in my mind that the benefits of practicing yoga regularly go far beyond the benefits of mere exercise. To be sure, the yoga that I practice – Vinyasa – is fantastic exercise. After practicing regularly for about three months, I was noticeably stronger and more flexible. In a general sense, my body simply felt better. And, while the workout yoga gives you isn’t particularly cardio, Vinyasa and Ashtanga yoga do significantly raise your heart rate and quicken your breathing. The age of the word’s preeminent Ashtanga yogi – Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, recently turned 91 – speaks to the fact that certain types of yoga, when practiced regularly, can indeed be enough to keep you fit and healthy.

And yet there’s quite a bit more to yoga than mere exercise. In a word: yoga is moving meditation, and all of the benefits that go along with meditating are accessible to the yogi, whether experienced or not.

One of San Francisco’s yoga celebrities, Larry Schultz (see previous posting), put it quite succinctly: “yoga strengthens and purifies the nervous system so it can reflect a greater degree of consciousness.” In my experience, this is very accurate. Our daily lives have evolved to the point where we spend 99% of our waking existence completely oblivious to our own bodies – that is, until something goes wrong. Consider a typical white-collar working day: wake up, drive to work, work at computer / attend meetings / etc., drive home, watch TV / read / socialize, go to sleep. There is virtually nothing in this cycle that would draw your attention to your own body (and here I don’t mean judgments about your own body, which most of us make all the time, but rather a consciousness of the body, an awareness of how it feels as it receives stimuli from the world). Exercise is, of course, an exception, but most forms of exercise focus on only a few parts of the body, or a few specific movements, and although we feel better afterwards, we are not left feeling significantly closer to our bodies as we are after yoga.

It is an inherent truth about emotions that although they exist in the mind, they manifest themselves in the body. If you doubt this, consider how your chest feels after a significant break-up, or how your shoulders feel before, during and after a stressful event. Our emotions show themselves to us in our bodies even when we aren’t aware of them in our minds. The yogi’s body is particularly awake – and thus the yogi is aware of emotions, as they show themselves through the body, in a way that those who don’t practice will have difficulty imagining.

It has been claimed that yoga can be beneficial in treating the following psychological ailments:

-panic attacks
-attention deficit

Whether this is the case or not depends largely upon the individual and type of practice. There have been virtually no medical studies conducted on the mental health benefits of yoga. And yet so many of these benefits are so common across the experience of all yogis, from beginners to experts, from those who practice yoga to relax to those who practice yoga to stay fit.

If what I’ve written so far seems a bit vague, let me explain how these benefits show themselves in my own life and my own practice. Keep in mind that I am a beginner, and have only begun to unlock the secrets of asanas, prana, and the practice of yoga.

First off, there are certain poses that demand the utmost of our concentration. These include balancing poses such as tree pose, crow pose, and all varieties of head-, arm-, shoulder- and handstands. In order to achieve these poses, so much of our concentration is required that we are forced to empty our minds entirely of all thoughts and distractions. In effect, these poses bring moments of Zen into our lives without requiring us to sit still in a quiet room for hours on end. If this doesn’t yet make sense to you, try standing in tree pose for a moment and notice how the concentration it requires brings peace into your consciousness, even of only for the duration of the pose itself.

My second point is best illustrated by a quote from Pete Guinosso, a yoga teacher here in San Francisco of whom I am particularly fond. “Without breathing,” Pete says at the beginning of his classes, “yoga is nothing more than calisthenics.” Whether this is true or not is debatable, but Pete’s point is that to reap the psychological benefits of yoga, we must incorporate breathing into our practice. Focusing on breathing is the most fundamental technique in almost all forms of meditation. This is because our breathing is always with us, and it is such a part of the background of our lives that focusing on it allows us to exit what Henepola Gunaratana calls “monkey mind” – the incessant flow of thoughts and judgments through our minds. By coordinating our movements with our breath, yoga allows us to reconnect with it, engraining it into the new consciousness we develop of our bodies. This awareness of breathing carries us through our practice, but it also persists off the mat, affording many psychological and physical benefits. As Larry Schultz put it during one of my Rocket classes: “surprise, surprise: when the human body breathes, it feels good.”

Lastly, there is something significant about the repeated experience of holding postures and releasing them (this may apply to certain types of yoga, such as Vinyasa and Ashtanga, but not others). A hold draws our consciousness into whichever part of the body we are using to maintain it. When the hold is over, we feel immense relief, and then we proceed into a new hold, straining a new part of the body, and re-directing our attention to a new locus of tension. This repeated pattern of tension and release is a sort of metaphor for life itself, which is also a series of stresses and tensions, followed by releases and then new tensions and stresses. If you are like me – under a constant amount of stress, no matter what environment you are in – yoga can train you to be aware not just of the stress you feel, but also of its release when it occurs. In other words, it trains you to expect moments of relief during moments of stress, and to prepare for moments of stress during moments of relief. Thus yoga prepares us for the challenges we face in life by engraining a new consciousness of life into our experience of our bodies.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

It's Yoga! - Larry Schultz and the Rocket Practice

This posting is intended for two subsets of yogis in particular: 1) San Franciscans, and 2) beginners, like me. For a more in-depth look at Larry Schultz's Rocket Ashtanga, see: Patrick, author of above article, appears to be a more savvy practitioner, and has been through Schultz's teacher traning here in SF.

I, on the other hand, have been practicing at Schultz's studio, It's Yoga, for a mere matter of months. The studio holds a special place in my heart, however, because it was the scene of my first yoga class. I had no idea what I was in for - which turned out to be a lot of soreness and my first taste of the giddiness that comes with awakening the body after years of ignoring it. This giddiness is a quite literal feeling - I was in an ebullient mood for hours after my first class, even though I could hardly walk down the street I was so sore.

It turns out that my first yoga experience was not a typical one. Donovan, a teacher at It's Yoga and a student of Schultz's, did his best to ease me into the practice (the class was just me and one other student, who was also probably also a beginner). When, despite my tired muscles, I told Donovan that I was surprised at how relaxing the class had been, he warned me that the Rocket is quite a workout when you really get to know it.

And this is why:

Ashtanga yoga is often referred to as "power yoga." It involves a great deal of movement, and when you're not moving you're often holding very difficult postures. It requires the perfect combination of strength, flexibility and balance - and, as a result, discipline and focus - and can take decades to master.

Schultz, a direct student of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the movement's preeminent guru, developed his routine as a mixture of the various series of traditional Ashtanga yoga. He calls it "The Rocket" because, "It gets you there faster."

After a number of sessions at his studio, I've come to understand this statement in two ways. First, a Rocket class at Schultz's studio takes 75 minutes. This is a far cry from the 2-3 hours it can take to get through the primary series in Ashtanga. And yet yogis leave Schultz's classes feeling a blissful combination of exhaustion and rejuvenation, in the same way they would after a full Ashtanga series. Thus the Rocket "gets you there faster."

Second, the Rocket series was developed in part because Schultz was frustrated by the necessarily slow progression that the traditional Ashtanga series entail. For years he found himself able to do Bakasana ("Crow Pose," from the intermediate series) without much trouble, even though he remained hung up on the half-lotus bound twist (a pose from the primary series). Not being able to complete the primary series precluded reaping some of the benefits of the more advanced series - benefits that students at the primary level were capable of seeing, even at their level. Thus Schultz picked some of the more energizing poses from the more advanced Ashtanga series (handstands, arm balances, and the like) and threw them into his own version of the Ashtanga primary series. The result was a version of Ashtanga that "advances you faster."

The It's Yoga studio is located in the heart of SoMA, here in SF. Besides the type of yoga practiced there, the studio is different from many others in that a) it has carpet instead of wood flooring, which makes sense because the Rocket entails so much balancing and inverting, but can also be a bit gross if you find yourself in a particularly hot and sweaty class, and b) it is swarming with very serious, relatively advanced practitioners. Indeed, if Schultz himself is teaching, be prepared to encounter a crowd of his admirers, who will leave you little space in class and very little opportunity to talk to the master himself.

I do want to point out, however, that after having experienced several of the other yoga studios here in SF, It's Yoga and the Rocket method appear truly unique, and can be of true benefit to even beginner yogis, who will reap many rewards from learning the sequence. The Rocket energizes you in ways that few beginner classes can. And any of the teachers will assure you - it doesn't take long to build up an enthusiasm for standing on your head, arms, forearms or shoulders, and before long you'll want these postures to have a permanent presence in your practice.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Yogis unite!

I attended my first yoga class two months ago here in San Francisco, and have been hooked ever since. I hope that this blog provides a forum for yogis to share in my excitement for the practice, and to share techniques, experiences, opinions and advice on the centuries-old practice. As a beginner I understand how daunting, and at times perplexing, yoga can be - and so I though I would create a forum for yogis from all over the world to learn from and guide each other.

If yoga is about any one thing, it is breathing. But as we learn to breath in increasingly complex postures and movements, yoga comes to center around the process of teaching and being taught. Let this be a forum, therefore, for students and teachers of yoga to reach each other, wherever they may be.