Monday, July 24, 2017

Is Your Down Dog Still a Puppy?

By Nathan Schechter, ERYT-200 hour, YACEOP, ACSM CPT, CST

"Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten." ~BF Skinner




When I was a child and took home my first puppy, he was so small we had to put him in a shoe box. The whol family stared at him for hours. Because he was new, we paid great attention to the details, giving him all the things that he needed to grow into a happy, healthy dog: chewing toys, the right food, even a flea collar. Over time, our dog lost that special "puppy" status, and we might have paid a little less attention to him than we used to, but he was still loved, and graduated from a helpless pup, to a full-fledged participant of the household.

When you first learned Downward Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana) do you remember how awkward it felt? Maybe your wrists hurt, or perhaps you couldn't figure out how to get your hips up and back. Maybe you could only stay in the pose for a few seconds. At this stage you may have relied on your teacher to guide you with cues-- those short, pithy instructions, like "draw the front of your thighs toward the wall behind you" -- to learn how to allow your body to take on this new shape. You may have had to spend a lot of time working on the posture until it felt comfortable. It is how we all got started. But for many students who are not new to yoga practice, the days of learning Downward Dog are long gone.

When something is new we often DO need to pay a lot of attention to the details. But later on, this same type of focus prevents us from moving to the next phase.

Are you paying a lot of attention to the letters and punctuation in this article? At one phase in your learning, you needed to spend a lot of time tracing letters, and learning how to use punctuation. Now, however, when you want to read something, you ignore those same details because you are intuitively using them to accomplish something larger: understand meaning.

This is part of what B.F. Skinner meant when he said: "Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten."

In fact, the poet E. E. Cummings used punctuation incorrectly. On purpose! Yet no one supposes that Cummings just didn’t understand punctuation. In fact, he understood it so well, that he started playing with it, and breaking the rules.

While focusing on the details of Downward Dog can be very rewarding – and particularly helpful if you are still struggling with the posture - it’s equally important to understand what the pose is about in a larger context.

Down Dog is like a period. It is a foundational pose that is often used for transitions to other movements. In flowing styles of yoga (called Vinyasa), Down Dog is one part of a larger series of movements called Sun Salutation. I won’t go into a full description here of what a Sun Salutation is, but think of it as a dynamic warm-up and strength building exercise that often occurs within a flowing yoga class.

Because Downward Dog is part of this larger whole (the Sun Salutation), at a certain point it becomes less important to focus solely on down dog, and more important to use it for what it is intended: 1) To rest, and 2) to prepare for moving somewhere else.

Many beginning students often focus on whether their feet should touch the floor, or if they are doing the pose “right” (In “Light on Yoga” by BKS Iyengar, a famous yoga teacher, his head and feet touch the floor). Students often internalize an image of a very flexible person who does the posture. Maybe like the photo below.


But if you understand the role Down Dog plays, you might see it could look quite different. You could: keep your heels off the floor, turn out your heels, bend your knees, lift an arm. This wouldn’t be “correct” alignment, but it might make sense depending on the larger context. In fact, you could even replace Down Dog with another pose altogether, like using a semi-colon instead of a comma.

This photo shows what is sometimes called a “Hindu Squat.” It too is a foundational pose, although it has different properties than Downward Dog. Try this exercise: Starting in Down Dog walk your hands back to your feet to wind up in Hindu Squat. Now do the reverse. Walk from Hindu Squat back to Down Dog.

Can you begin to see new possibilities for your practice? Both down dog and the squat offer you a stable base from which to move to another posture. The poses are different. Hindu Squat puts your head above your heart. Downward dog puts your head below your heart. The squat activates your hips differently than the dog. But like the semi-colon and the comma, both can act in similar ways.

Now you are focusing on the “function” of the posture, rather than simply the details. Your Down Dog has moved past the “puppy” phase and takes less of your attention; you understand not only the details, but the larger context.

As you begin to grasp the idea of the purpose of the pose, you become freed up to adapt it to your own particular body and use it in new ways. This gets you deeper into the whole purpose of yoga, which is to connect you to your unique body, and help you make observations about its uniqueness within the observational field of your own mind.

Again, I won’t go into great detail here, but if you want to look at another example of moving beyond the details, try taking a look at this article by yoga teacher, Donna Farhi, which talks about experimenting, with not only Down Dog, but the whole Sun Salutation. (“Variations on Sun Salutes: Moving Outside the Square. March 27, 2015)

As your practice grows, you may find that you can put less attention on individual cues (which may still be in one corner of your mind), and pay more attention to what you are seeking to accomplish overall in your mind and body. This is where you begin to knock on the door of what, to me, makes practices like yoga really interesting.

Yoga is one kind of mind body education, but done well it begins to show you larger possibilities. For your Dog to no longer be a puppy, it may mean that you stop giving it the same amount of detailed attention, but that doesn’t mean you stop loving it, or can never give it attention. It just means that now your Dog has taken its rightful place in a family of poses that are aimed, not at constant cue repetition, but more as one road of learning about the dance of mind and body in movement.

Nathan Schechter started practicing yoga in 1997 at Patricia Walden’s yoga studio in Somerville, MA. There he met the bass player of the Bare Naked Ladies who introduced him to Baptiste Power Yoga in 2000. He began teaching after being certified at Frog Lotus Yoga in 2005.
Nathan has learned a great deal from many yoga styles – Iyengar, Vinayasa, Anusara, Bikram, Ashtanga – and hundreds of yoga teachers, both well known nationally (Barbara Benagh, David Williams, Richard Freeman, Annie Pace, Sarah Powers) and local to New England. He has sought out other disciplines with a focus on how the brain-mind-body work together in subtle ways. He has traveled to work with gifted teachers, trainers and health professionals from the United States, Europe and China.
Drawing insights from Qigong, Tai Chi, Craniosacral Therapy (Upledger Institute, 2014), Alexander, Feldenkrais, and Personal Training methods (American College of Sports Medicine Certification, 2014), and observing the high caliber of learning and skill development of those who used diverse approaches, Nathan recently started a company to educate and train others working with the body and mind.
The group yoga class Nathan will teach is a heated power vinyasa template which includes techniques from Qigong and other disciplines. Sometimes small “break out” moments are used to capture some of the flavor, and benefits, of the more in-depth learning he shares in 12 week courses, and 1:1 work.

If you would like to learn more, you can reach Nathan at the newmindbodyliteracy@gmail.com


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Musings of a Yoga Teacher: On Control

By Janine L. Agoglia

Control. It means different things to different people. It has both positive and negative connotations and can be underused or abused.

When it comes to the practice of yoga, you are learning to control your body and mind, but there is a balance to be found. Too much control and you create rigidity; too little control and you lose stability. Finding the right amount of control is part of the practice.

At first you must take things slowly. When learning to control the body, in a 1 legged balance for example, you move slowly to tune into what the body is doing. If you move too fast, you will fall over because you lack control. If you start screaming at yourself in your mind, grasping for control, most likely you will fall over because your mind is causing your body to be tense and unyielding. When you take control of your body in a mindful way, you become very present. You can tune into the subtle shifts of weight on your foot and leg that allow you to balance without falling over. You can more easily adapt to the subtle shifts like the branches of a willow tree, bending but not breaking. Your mind is calm and quiet, but you are completely aware of what is happening in your foot, the muscles of your leg and any other body part that is involved. You are placing your body into a position intentionally. You are assuming control, rather than grasping desperately for it. Like anything in life, it takes practice, moving away from old habits and into new ones.

Control of the mind can be a similar endeavor, and they are most definitely connected. Anxiety often makes us grasp for control in our lives, making us emotionally rigid. Things have to be done a certain way or everything will fall apart (or maybe some other similar story). Assuming control over our minds takes practice. At first we observe. We notice what is happening, the stories we are telling ourselves, maybe even what is true and what is only a held belief. We come into the present moment. But then our mind wanders away to other things-- to our to do list, to the argument we had with our spouse, to that thing that happened that time with that person-- some distraction creeps up and takes our attention. So we come back to this moment, the only moment we truly have control over.

The past already happened, there is no changing that; the future may or may not ever happen, no matter how hard we plan. We can prepare for it, but we still have no real control over it. The present is the only place where we can create action and therefore do something to make a change. So we cultivate our ability to be in this moment. We lose it and come back. Over and over. The longer you spend in the present, the more control you can have over yourself.

By noticing our stories, our tendencies, our "stuff," we can choose to change or stay the same. But at that point we have choice which equals control.

None of this is easy, it takes time and dedication. But the best part is, there is no finish line, it is the journey that matters. Take your time, go slow and enjoy the adventure.

Janine L. Agoglia has been teaching Vinyasa yoga since 1998. Her yoga journey started in 1995 with Iyengar Yoga and she stumbled upon Vinyasa yoga in 1997. The combination of breath with proper body alignment is what fuels Janine's practice and the classes that she teaches. She believes that yoga should be safe as well as challenging, creative and fun. She always emphasizes proper alignment within the flow, as well as focus, breath and humor to help students find the balance between strength and ease. Deepening one’s physical awareness helps one strengthen his/her spiritual awareness and mind-body connection. Janine loves being able to help people deepen their own practices, finding yoga in everyday life, on and off the mat. Her DVD, “Vinyasa Yoga for Regular People” is available for purchase at the front desk at Lumina Mind Body Studios in Wayland, MA.

In addition to being the Co-Director of Yoga and teaching yoga classes at Lumina Mind Body Studios Janine is also a Licensed Acupuncturist and Chinese Herbalist who practices at Integrative Therapeutics in Natick, MA.

To contact Janine, please email acuyogamama@hotmail.com or visit her website, www.acuyogamama.com.