Saturday, November 23, 2013

Book Review: A Chair for Yoga, by Eyal Shifroni

I heard about A Chair for Yoga  from my friend @Cathy Wright, in Fort Collins, and immediately contacted the Denver Iyengar Yoga Center to get a copy. They were completely out, so I had to contact the author, +Eyal Shifroni, directly. Shifroni is a senior Iyengar teacher in Israel who published this book with Guruji's blessing. I bought 30 copies and now have 4 left. This is an extremely useful book with lots of clear pictures so that any student of Iyengar Yoga can figure out how to practice with a chair at home. This book is not for those new to the Iyengar method, and the author states that up front.

The book is divided into chapters based on the different classifications of postures: Standing, Sitting, Forward extensions, Twists, Inversions, Backward Extensions, Abdominal, and Restorative Asanas. Additionally, the Appendix shows a "gentle practice' that can be done by anyone, anywhere.

My initial draw to this book came from the way my friend described how the chair is used in this book for Parsvottanasana. The chair is used folded up, with the hollow of the seat of the chair facing upward. Standing near a wall, the practitioner puts the legs of the chair at the corner of floor and wall, while the top of the backrest of the chair goes into the top thigh and groin area. The chair is now wedged into the corner of wall and floor, at a diagonal, and at the practitioners hips. When the practitioner positions the legs, one forward and one back, and equalizes the pressure on both groins, voila! The pelvis is level; the old riddle of Parsvottanasana is solved.

The author states four main reasons for use of a chair in asana practice:
  1. To be able to perform asanas which are difficult to perform independently
  2. To achieve and maintain correct alignment during the practice
  3. To stay longer and relax in challenging asanas, in order to attain their full benefit
  4. to Study and investigate the asanas in greater depth.

In the example above, the chair was used mainly for alignment. But there is more. Start in the concave position with hands directly under the shoulders and after a minute or so, slide the hands down to get the full posture. The edge of the backrest in the groins maintains the integrity of the pelvis, and provides a base for traction of the spine as the arms slide down the legs of the chair, toward wall and floor. Having the ability to push forward, against the wall, with the legs of the chairs, the back heel grounds more easily and the calf stretches. The mind calms. Now reasons 3 and 4 come into play.

Brilliant. I never had seen this before. Most of the uses of the chair were familiar to me, but the ones that were new to me in this book opened up a creative wellspring for many hours of insightful practice.

From that work in Parsvottansana, I thought: if the chair can be used to level the pelvis in Parsvottanasna, how might it be used in another posture that challenges the balance of the pelvis--like, say Virabhadrasana III?

You have to play with the height of the chair backrest, that is to say, add a folded blanket or or two if you are tall; or use a tall chair. But it is entirely possible to have the chair in its open position, between yourself and the wall at such a distance that both frontal groins rest on the backrest, while the hands extend toward a wall and one leg extends backward. Cheating by lifting the hip of the backward leg just isn't tantalizing. Alignment comes easily; as does a beautiful and soothing experience of Virbhadrasana III. . So another benefit of working with chairs is that their use can make a heating posture cooling so that it can be maintained longer and studied more deeply  (reasons 1, 2, 3, and 4). I was able to work on my weaker leg by standing with it longer and really focusing on pulling up from the outer knee to the outer thigh without raising the hip of that backward leg.

All of the chapters are rich with pictures and concise with instructions. In the backbend chapter, you'll find some interesting ways of doing Ustrasana that offer support to the back of the neck, the shoulder blades, the upper back, or the pubic bone, depending on how you use the chair. So you can target your area of darkness and the chair will bring in the light. I especially appreciated the demonstrations of Urdhva Dhanurasana with two chairs and 2-3 bolsters. I offered this setup in an Level 2-3 class at Alcove Yoga to two persons who had tight shoulders. They really got the full length of the front body, and armpits, without jamming the shoulders. There was equipoise and joy in their faces as they came out of the pose.

You cannot get this book in the U.S. or from IYNAUS. A Chair for Yoga, by @Eyal Shifroni, can be purchased directly from the author by going to his website. It is an outstanding resource that will give the experienced Iyengar Yoga student many hours of playful practice.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Mark Your Calendars: December 14th is the 95th Birthday of B.K.S. Iyengar, and Houston is Celebrating!

Alcove Yoga will host a full day of events in honor of B.K.S. Iyengar's 95th birthday. There will be special classes taught by Daryl Fowkes, Jimena Lieb, and Pauline Schloesser. In the evening, there will be a vegetarian feast sponsored by London Sweets.  This day of celebration ends with a viewing of the inspirational documentary "Leap of Faith," about the obstacles overcome by B.K. S. Iyengar on his yogic path. The Alcove Yoga Boutique, featuring props, clothing, books, and Ayurvedic products from Banyan Botanicals will be open between classes, with special sales for attendees. 

All events require advance registration with ticket purchases. Proceeds of all ticket purchases will go to the Bellur Trust. The Bellur Krishnamachar and Seshamma Smaraka Niddhi Trust is a non-profit organization that B.K.S. Iyengar instituted to provide for the inhabitants of his birth village. Through the Trust, the villagers of Bellur now have a clean water system; free public schools, a free hospital, and the children of the village are fed a hot meal every day. Additionally, the Trust built India's first Patanjali Temple.

Guruji has stated in a letter to IYNAUS that the need for surrounding villages is great, and asks that all birthday contributions go to the Bellur Trust.  Registration for this Iyengar Yoga celebration is online.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Simply Shoulders: Special Class at Yoga Heart Studio, Saturday, November 9th

Selise Stewart is offering a special class on correct shoulder actions in asana. Workshop is beginner-friendly; walk-ins welcome. Yoga Heart Studio, 8:30 to 10:00 am, $20. Please check the website for details. Yoga Heart Studio.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Ramanand Patel is in Houston

Ramanand Patel is teaching a series of classes at Houston Iyengar Yoga Studio. The class runs on specified Thursdays from 1:30 to 3:30 pm, for continuing students Levels 2-5. There have been 2 out of 8 classes taught. You can still sign up for individual classes. Please contact HIYS for more details. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Are Iyengar Yoga Teachers "Purists"?

Yesterday I was talking with a friend about my studio, Alcove Yoga, and she asked if I would consider adding other sorts of yoga. I paused for a moment before saying "No." She then asked if I was a "Purist." She clarified what she meant--"like either you're Baptist or Catholic, but not both."

Yes, I guess so. And I explained the reason. I don't offer other kinds of yoga at my studio because students will get confused. Let's suppose I teach them the fundamentals of a basic posture, like Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Posture) to a student. I want her to remember the fundamentals (placements and actions of each major body part) for the next time I see her, if not forever.

Then she goes to a "Hatha" class or a Hot Yoga class or some Vinyasa class or something else. She carries with her the instructions I gave her, but the teacher there wants something different that comes from his or her own practice. So the student, if she is respectful, complies with the second teacher, and now has a new Samskara (body/mind imprint) that I will have to deal with if this student ever comes back to my class. And the student will be confused about which way to practice. Or the student will just pick and choose different techniques for different postures based on comfort, pleasure, or convenience of memory. None of this constitutes yoga. Yoga is a practice that requires transcendence of the pursuit of pleasures or comforts. It requires discipline and commitment.

The Bhakti philosopher Edwin Bryant once said in class: "You should pick one method and stick with it. If you sample this religion and that, you'll find out a lot about different kinds of religions, but you'll never find the Atman [soul]." You have to commit yourself to one spiritual path. Otherwise, when things get tough (and they will if you are a seeker), you'll be too tempted to drop out and try something else that's easier. Or get a new teacher who might like you better. Provided there's nothing illegal or immoral going on, sticking to your method, religion, or teacher when things get uncomfortable, will help you go deeper. And it's absolutely necessary for a genuine yoga practice.

The second reason I may be called a "Purist" has to do with accountability and the relationship between Guru  and Sishya (Pupil). The word Guru means quite literally "heavy". Our Guru is B.K.S. Iyengar. We are accountable to him and his family of teachers, Geeta Iyengar, Prashant Iyengar, Sunita Iyengar, Abijata Iyengar. How can B.K.S. Iyengar sign our teaching certificates if we are mixing methods? How can there be accountability? We are trained to look at each and every individual in a group and make sure, first of all, that the practices are safe. If we are teaching something added from the latest popular trend and over time there are injuries, how can we know what is the cause of that injury? We don't mix methods in Iyengar Yoga because we are accountable for the practices we teach. They come to us from a master who has experimented on his own body for 8 decades of practice, and then passed on his knowledge to thousands of students with whom he has had relationships for decades. We don't make up new things to be entertaining or to compete with what someone else is doing.

Iyengar certified teachers can all trace our teachers to the founder of modern Yoga: T. Krishnamacharya. My lineage is the following: My teachers are Patricia Walden and Chris Saudek; their teachers are B.K.S. Iyengar; his Guru was T. Krishnamacharya. To be faithful to that heritage and lineage, we don't covet what others are doing, and we don't seek out the latest tips, tricks, or trends from other methods for our own practice or teaching.

I'm not knocking studios where different kinds of yoga are offered under the same roof. This is a practical necessity in most cases. That's just sharing brick and mortar and bringing seekers together. It's an opportunity to practice maitri, friendliness, with fellow seekers. I also think of all the churches that lend their spaces to yoga teachers; and how grateful I am to the Benedictine monks in St. Joseph's parish who let us have retreats in their Christian Life Center, as we explore a completely different spiritual path than Christianity.

I am suggesting that if you really want a transformational yoga practice, you have to make a choice. And you have be loyal and committed to your teacher.  I do not speak for all Iyengar Teachers. I am just giving you my view. Thanks!