Himalaya Yoga Valley Centre

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Salute the Slow to see your Surya Namaskar Grow

Why do we rush our Sun Salutations? How can we flow without rushing? With so many parts of our lives on sped up, stressed out auto pilot shouldn’t we be doing the opposite when we hit our mats?

On an early morning Goa beach walk I came across a friend practising Surya Namaskar and marveled as I always do at the indigenous grace of yogis from India. His Surya Namaskar looked like prayer in motion and I could see by the ease of his movements that he was immersed in his practice entirely not just physically. The flow was so beautiful that I sat down to watch and I had no doubt the Sun felt suitably acknowledged with such a pure practise offered to it. I wondered…why don’t I look like that when I practice? Because I am not a man from North India I hear you say. No, I mean why don’t I look how he feels? Or why don’t I feel how he looks? 

As a gift to myself and the people who live with me I have been consistently committing to an early morning Surya Namaskar practice irrespective of how busy my day is- 14 hour Yoga Teacher Training days, running two yoga schools on opposite ends of the earth & having the huge responsibility of looking after people from all over the world when they come to India can sometimes have you reaching for the coffee pot instead of your cotton mat early morning.  As a way to make sure my practise is not lost in the sea of busyness I commit to at least 8 Surya Namaskar A & 2 Surya Namaskar B every morning and try my best for an afternoon practice too. Great right?

Well actually I had been getting a bit of an unusual twinge in my sacroiliac joint and my wrists were not feeling the best and to be quite frank sometimes with all the huffin and puffin on my first Sun Sal B I extended my Savasana and left out the second one…As you can see I’m also practising Satya which means being honest about the fact that I wasn’t loving Surya Namaskar B and sometimes the whole Surya Namaskar sequence felt a little stressful.

I mentioned it to my friend He of the Graceful Practice over coffee (I could have said herbal tea but there’s that Satya again). I commended him on his artful Sun Salutations. His reply has transformed my morning practise in less than a week. “People believe that Sun Salutations are a warm up- it is a complete practise in itself and even in 10 lifetimes you will never even begin to reach the depths of Surya Namaskar”. Oh. So no skipping that last B for this life then?

I got to thinking about the depth of Surya Namaskar…why do we treat it as a shallow practice?

We talk about this depth at Himalaya Yoga Valley Centre- we tell our trainee teachers that Surya Namaskar was developed by the great yogis & sages past to bring a 12 hour spiritual practice into a condensed version for us regular souls who don’t have 12 hours a day or a cosy cave where we can work on ourselves.

The practice of Surya Namaskar is a complete practice it was never a “warm up”but somehow especially out of India it has gotten this tag. Yes of course it warms up the muscles and the joints but it does so much more than that. It purifies every chakra in the body, improves the health of the spine through movement in different directions , it has a hearty inversion, it energizes and restore all systems of the body and most importantly when practised correctly it flows with such ease that we experience Pratyahara (sense withdrawal/moving inwards) and eventually stillness. So why was I rushing and missing out on so much?

I wondered how we can as teachers and students get the grace back into our Surya Namaskar?

Here are some ways to bring awareness to your Surya Namaskar. If you are a teacher I encourage you to bring these elements into your class especially for more advanced classes where these practitioners have often disconnected from the finer detail of this practice

For one round of your practice hold every individual posture within the Surya Namaskar series for 5 breaths. Try this once for a week and see how it affects your practice. It has really done wonders for mine.

Tadasana

How is your foundation posture? Ready to bring you towards a state of bliss? This posture needs to be solid enough to carry you through your entire series.

Check in:

  • Weight evenly distributed between 4 corners of the feet
  • Quads engaged
  • Bandhas engaged and Ujjayi breath activated (if part of your practice)
  • Shoulders back and down
  • Lifting through the spine
  • Body entirely engaged with prana and energy

Raising the Arms

Here we lengthen the body whilst staying rooted and stable in our foundation. We really open up the chest and this is a great opportunity to deeply oxygenate the lungs and thus support our practice to come.

Check in

  • Shoulders away from the ears
  • Lumbar region not overextended by opening (not over extending) the thoracic  area whilst engaging mula bandha
  • Bringing front ribs down to avoid rib flare
  • Feet and legs stable with energy rising upwards
  • Using our dristi and extending without compromising space at the back of the neck

Folding Forward

Our first flexion of the spine after opening and extending in the previous motion.

Check in

  • Weight evenly distributed between four corners of the feet without leaning into the heels or toes.
  • Neck in line with spine as we fold into the pose
  • Shoulders away from ears
  • Straight spine. Avoid bump in thoracic area in your forward fold- you may need to bend your knees to maintain a straight spine.

Half Lift

This extends the spine after your first forward fold flexion and is a great posture for the well-being  of our spine especially disc health.

Check in

  • Neck in line with the spine
  • Hands on shins and knees bent if necessary (to encourage straight spine)
  • Chest open
  • Step back to plank and lower to chaturanga if your landing makes a noise when you jump back (this means you need to develop more core strength to support your jump back instead of dumping weight on the lower back when you land. This strength will come with time and also by utilizing your bandhas)

Chaturanga dandasana

A great strength building posture that will carry you through to up dog with integrity when done correctly. If you need to then drop to your knees chest chin for some time then do so and enjoy!

Check in

  • Hips and lower back aren’t sagging towards floor (especially after jumping back) 
  • Elbows are in against the ribs when coming from plank to chaturanga not flared out
  • Shoulders are away from the ears and not dropping towards the ground.

Urdva Mukha Svanasana

Upward facing dog is a wonderfully uplifting pose that opens the heart fully whilst stretching the hip flexors and building core strength and rhomboid strength.

Check in

  • Using dristi to focus without compromising space at the back of the neck (imagine a tennis ball at the back of the neck when looking up- this protects the cervical spine)
  • Micro-bending the elbows to avoid hyper-extension
  • Shoulders away from the ears
  • Hips off the floor (unless modifying in Cobra)
  • Mula bandha engaged to protect the sacroiliac joint
  • Udyana bandha engaged to act as a brace for the lower back
  • Front of shoulders stacked over wrist joint

Adho Mukha Svanasana

As the head is lower than the heart down dog is an inversion that detoxifies and invigorates whilst using a range of mostly underutilized muscles to hold us in place. It is a great all over stretch and works wonders on tight hamstrings and opens up the back muscles whilst strengthening the arms and legs. Also excellent for the health of the Thyroid.

Check in

  • Shoulders away from the ears
  • Grounding into all areas of the palm, middle finger facing forward and middle toe in line with the center of the heel.
  • Micro-bend in the elbows to avoid hyper-extension but also to utilize our arm muscles to hold us in this posture instead of hanging out on our ligaments and joints. Absolutely everybody can micro-bend hyper-extension or not to build strength and integrity and avoid long-term wear and tear.
  • Back straight bend the knees if you need to. Don’t compromise a straight spine because your ego wants your heels on the floor. Any arch is the spine in this pose will really remove most of the benefits.
  • Gaze at the naval only with neck still in line with the spine

Warrior in Surya Namaskar B

Although we are only in this posture for a short time during  our Sun Salutations we can still benefit greatly from practising with integrity and mindfulness here.

Check in:

  • Hip Square! You may need to raise your back foot to square your hip. If you can keep your back foot down with the hip square then do so. However without square hips in this posture we can not fully stretch out the hip in of the extended back leg. If we can’t get the full stretch the hips aren’t opening to their full potential and we won’t be able to eventually square our hips with the back foot down. We also lose integrity in the spine if the hips are not square here. Again don’t let your ego throw your alignment off- it really doesn’t care about your progress! 
  • Knee over ankle. Stack the joints to protect them
  • Shoulders away from ears and front ribs down
  • Space at the back of the neck whilst extending
  • Tail-bone tucked under to protect the sacroiliac joint

Breath

Many practitioners hold their breath without even realizing it during the practice of Surya Namaskar. Our body is being challenged by an unusual range of movement and it is easy to either lose our breath or for our breath to follow the postures instead of the other way around.

A fundamental element of any dynamic yoga practice is that the asana follows the breath. If our breath follows the asanas we can not link the asanas through breath which makes a for a flowing practice. With every extension we begin with an inhale, with every flexion we begin with an exhale.

Here is where Ujjayi breathing can be really helpful. Not every tradition practices Ujjayi breath and bandhas but during your Sun Salutations where your body may need extra oxygen to support these more invigorating postures it may be helpful. Try it out.

Meditation

When you have spent some time on your alignment utilize the fact that you are fluent in this sequence to develop it into a moving meditation where you can deeply connect with yourself and drop away any tension you are holding. Be fully present. Try doing one round of your Sun Salutations with your eyes closed and your breath as your soundtrack.

For the last week I have given this practice the respect it deserves as a complete practice. I have committed to being concious & aware of every movement. I have let my breath lead instead of my mind and body, I have reconnected with a practise that I have been taking for granted and I am so grateful for this opportunity to grow through mindfulness.

Namaste Yogis!

We will leave you with this video of Lalit practising Surya Namaskar for a little inspiration 🙂

With love from all the crew at Himalaya Yoga Valley  xxx

Turning our most challenging asanas into our favourite teachers

Theres always one…that ever elusive bakasana, the head stand that can bring tears to your eyes even though you’ve only ever thought about doing it, the forward fold that just won’t unfold. Most everyone has an asana that seems to always be just out of reach and sometimes even smirking at you..

One of the most important things I have been taught in India as a yoga student is that even when that asana is finally in reach we still don’t get to “own” it. Have you ever “Conquered” an asana on Monday only to face plant while trying it on Tuesday? Ever suddenly lost the ability to practice Tree posture and found yourself shaking your hips like a belly dancer instead whilst depserately trying to maintain balance- even though your tree seriously rocks the forest normally? Yep that’s yoga! Teaching us impermanence, humility and non attachment every time we practice.

I met a wonderful teacher in Rishikesh who prescribed “no asana for you!” when I complained about not being able to “do” an asana. It was not the instruction I expected. I wanted to talk weight-bearing and the likes not sit on the yoga naughty step… I literally had to sit in the class while everyone else practiced around me and have a good old think about why I wasn’t allowed to join in. It didn’t take long to realize that if I couldn’t appreciate all of the amazing feats my body was performing without grasping for one asana that I couldn’t “get” maybe I did just need to sit for a while and contemplate my attitude. I saw the greed in my intention and looking back I can see how that greed was coming from a place of inadequacy and self-doubt rather than a more healthy approach of achieving without getting stuck on the outcome.

We have hundreds of students attend our school every year and I have found that the right kind of Scorpion can really teach a student one of the most important lessons of yoga. Not the lesson of inverting with our feet touching our heads but rather the lesson of Ahimsa- Non Violence.

Often we see students trying to practice many of the advanced asanas without the principle of Ahimsa. Many students arrive with injuries which occurred because they have pushed their bodies too far. Ahimsa certainly applies to the physical world but our inner world should also be considered when we want to take a non violent approach to our practice.

Many students also present with inner injuries from practicing asana without Ahimsa. We have had students come to our school feeling entirely defeated by their entire asana practice because they cant’ “get” a certain posture. This trend of “getting” an asana seems to on the increase since yoga boomed as a physical practice in the west. People have begun to move from a peaceful, connective internal practice to worrying about why they can’t do what the girl or guy on the mat next to them can.

Teachers that bring competition, pushy language and comparisons to their classrooms are doing their students a serious disservice and quiet often injuring them as well. I have a friend who tore her hamstring on her first yoga class when a teacher told her to “push past the point of flexibility”. Ouch. In so many ways.

Yoga should challenge us physically without ever being violent in nature. Anyone who has taken Lalit’s classes will be aware that it’s no walk in the park! He is a teacher who expects discipline and commitment from his students but you will also often hear him say “don’t push, don’t force”. Progression and achievement are both positive parts of practicing yoga. They also come naturally when we stop pushing our bodies and start respecting ourselves by challenging without forcing.

I really “got” that posture I was complaining about when my teacher taught me to sit still and realize that I didn’t need to “get” it in the first place. Yes I can now physically get into the posture I try not to do so without the awareness that if I don’t that’s ok too.
Yoga is a complete science. Not paying attention to the non physical aspects of this science can create major imbalances both within our practice and in our lives. As teachers it can be hard to deliver a class with all of the elements of yoga as it was originally designed to be practiced however there are some things we can do to promote Ahimsa for our students.

  • Be an example- we always encourage our teachers to modify some asanas during their class. At our drop in centre in Goa the wonderfully accomplished teachers we employ will often only go into the posture partially whilst using props. Our students who are new to yoga really appreciate the permission they receive to use modifications. It’s also important to show our limitations as teachers which removes competition and students putting you on a pedestal.
  • Honour the source- Lalit will always mention his masters during class, either by doing a certain mantra for teachers or just letting people know that he received what he is teaching from somewhere else. This practice is very common in India and this can really eliminate the greed and ownership that can sometimes crop up in yoga.
  • Encourage positivity- Yoga is meant to be enjoyable and make us happy. People are often surprised when they travel all the way to India and their teacher cracks a few jokes and has a giggle. You can encourage peace, stillness and connection to the self but warmth and laughter at the right time can bring all of the above into people’s lives. Enlightenment means to get lighter, not heavier.
  • Awareness- bring awareness to the fact that the practice of yoga asana is just that, a practice that expands to our entire life. Even if outwardly someone has achieved what looks like the most optimal yoga asana practice but on the inside they are beating themselves up then its just someone making shapes while being hard on themselves. One of our wonderful students summed it up when she shared with the class “It’s a yoga practice not a yoga perfect”.
  • Physiology- when our body is stressed it shuts down rather that opens up. If your students are shaking, straining are holding their breath or are in pain the body will not reward them by opening up the muscle for more exposure to danger. It will however shorten the muscles and close off in an attempt to protect itself.
  • Some light reading- encourage your students to read up on the 8 limbs of yoga. The most simple, effective and all encompassing guide every student and teacher has to refer to.

Enjoy your practice everyone!

Much love from all of us at Himalaya Yoga Valley Centre xxx

www.yogagoaindia.com

Namaste from our Thailand Teacher Training :)

Namaste to all of our students past and present and welcome to those of you who we are yet to meet! The team at Himalaya Yoga Valley Centre are excited to get posting about all things yoga and yoga teacher training related.

We finished up an incredible season in Goa and at the moment we are in Thailand with our April TTC (Teacher Training Course) group and what a fantastic group of trainees we have! Having graduated hundreds of trainees at our school it never ceases to amaze me how unique each group is and how much each individual trainee has to offer on their own path to becoming teachers.

We are nearing the end of week one and trainees have just began to work on adjusting each other and leading the morning meditation, chanting and pranayama classes in pairs. At the end of this week the trainees will start teaching the yoga sequence they have been practicing to each other in pairs.

It is a huge leap from student to teacher and one that the whole team get a serious buzz from being a part of. After a short time teaching in pairs the trainees move on to teaching smaller groups and finally the whole class! The entire training and progression of the student’s is deeply rewarding and humbling but all of the teachers agree that our greatest reward is on that last week; being at the back of the classroom and watching a trainee teach a class with confidence and integrity and then thinking back to day one…huge transformation in such a short time!

During week one of our training our students immerse themselves fully into a deep ashtanga practice under the guidance of yogacharya Lalit- Lalitji is our school director and lead yoga teacher. From day one there is a really strong focus on deepening the students practice of the modified primary series and an equally strong focus on precise alignment and integrity within each posture. A lot of old habits and misalignment get ironed out at this early stage with the aim to have our teachers as great examples of integrity for their own students when they go on to teach.

Lalit has studied with some of India’s finest yoga masters including those from the Iyengar tradition. He blends a dynamic Ashtanga practice with Iyengar alignment techniques and they serve as a wonderful compliment to each other. It’s amazing to see how the body opens up when postures are practiced in the correct alignment. We start to see a softening and deepening when the joints and limbs are stacked properly, hyperextensions are corrected, weight is distributed evenly and the body stops resisting because it begins to feel secure at an organic level.

No doubt this first week is really intense for our students. There is a lot of physical and mental sweating taking place! As trainees who are going on to be teachers they have a lot to learn and not just in the field of asana.  Yoga asana is a core component of our training but there is so much more to learn as well. Honouring our masters before us and the traditional practice of yoga as a unified system means we teach much more than just the physical aspects of yoga.

 Alongside the traditional practices such as meditation, kriyas, chanting, pranayama trainees are also learning about Yoga Philosophy, Ayurveda,  Anatomy, Ethics, Yoga business, Classroom management, sequencing and of course teaching yoga 🙂  We take peoples dream of becoming yoga teachers very seriously indeed and our curriculum is teaching outcome focused. Trainees spend a significant amount of time on teaching practicums. It can be a big leap for the students but this is where the magic always happens right outside our comfort zone! So yes it is an intense first week but a really rewarding one too for both the teachers and students.

Onwards and upwards yogis and yoginis!

Our next post will be on the art of adjusting keep an eye out for it

xxx Much love from Koh Samui xxx