nuts and bolts, props

Setting up your home yoga space

It’s not always possible to have a dedicated yoga space. If you can do it, though, great! It might be a hallway, or a corner of your bedroom. Even in a limited space, try to keep your mat visible as a reminder that you’re trying for daily practice.

Freddie has no respect for the yoga mat.

I usually practice in our family room where I can keep a mat unrolled with a little stack of blankets. When I see it, I remember what I am supposed to do. It’s just a bit tricky to keep the dogs from taking it over.

  • Here are some ideas for props you can find around the house.
  • Blankets – If you have a firm wool blanket, you can use that. It’s likely to be bigger than the normal yoga blankets, but you can fold it in numerous different ways to meet your needs. Modern (non-wool) blankets tend to be too squishy for yoga. Big towels work very nicely, because they can create a firm base for, say, shoulder stand.
  • Blocks – Well, bricks. Really. Do you have any bricks outside? Clean them off and wrap them in dishtowels to make them easier to handle. For poses where you need a block that you won’t be putting weight on, you can use tissue boxes, preferably full. Or take some books you know you’ll never read and wrap them in duct tape.
  • Straps – Bathrobe ties, dishtowels, single bed sheets folded lengthways, martial arts belts from when your kid took tae kwon do, and many other items will work nicely, depending on what you need them for. Generally, they should be 6-8 feet long. Don’t use men’s ties – they are cut on the bias and are too stretchy to use.
  • Bolsters – Got an old quilt? Roll it up into a bolster and tie it together. You can do the same with several bath towels. Sofa and chair cushions are good in some cases.
  • Chairs – Best case would be to get a folding chair that you don’t care about and beat the back of it out. But try using your dining room chairs, or a footstool.
  • Look around for big things or architectural features of your house. Can you use your countertops? Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (backbend over a chair) over the arm of your sofa? Uttanasana (standing forward bend) with your hands on the bottom step of the staircase? I have a half-wall that is a good place to do hip stretches. A hallway can be used for walking up the wall into a handstand.
general blather

Zoom and home yoga

I am on Zoom a LOT these days. I’m teaching two or three classes a week, and having breakfast and cocktails (not at the same time) with family and friends, and going to various meetings. It’s a huge boon for staying in touch with people. Sometimes, though, I just need to walk away and be in the 3D world.

Today I practiced with two of my three home yoga friends. We have been getting together on Friday mornings for years, and now we’re doing it on Zoom. It has been extremely satisfying to see each other. We are surprisingly much more focused than we are when we practice together in person.

It’s instructive to see yourself on screen, to see, “whoa, my back leg isn’t straight at all,” make the correction, and see the result. However, I realized that I was not exactly in my body. We were talking about the point of balance being in the front of the heel. When I brought my attention there, in my own actual foot, I experienced a jolt of switching from external attention to internal attention.

The practices I teach in my classes mostly involve closed eyes, so it’s not a problem, but worth mentioning to students.

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Knee ideas

I’ve been having knee trouble for a while. Sometimes it’s fine, sometimes it’s not. If I am good and do strengthening and stretching every day, it’s much better.

Leslie Howard is a yoga teacher in California who specializes in pelvic floor function. She said in a recent newsletter that if people have knee trouble, it’s often related to pelvic floor disfunction. This makes sense to me, because the muscles that go from the pelvis to the knee are connected to the pelvic floor.

So one of the things I’ve been doing is a pelvic floor balancing sequence I got out of Yoga Journal ages ago (“Build Supple Strength in the Pelvic Floor”, by Hillari Dowdle, Yoga Journal, May 2010). And who doesn’t want a balanced pelvic floor, anyway? The sequence consists of five exercises that are variations on classic yoga poses. I can’t recommend this highly enough!

Another thing that might seem a bit counterintuitive is to sit in Virasana (hero’s pose). Sure, it’s a bad idea if you sit it this too low with funky knees. Two variations can help. One is to sit on a high support, so high that it does not hurt your knees at all. I used to be able to sit on one folded blanket, and so it is galling to me to sit up on two fat blocks. I’m doing it, and it helps. The other variation is to put something behind your knees before you sit down into the pose to add some space into the joint. This could be a rolled-up sticky mat, a couple of rolled washcloths, or a doubled or tripled yoga belt.

The wonderful book Yoga for Arthritis by Loren Fishman and Ellen Saltonstall has a whole chapter on knees. You don’t have to have arthritis to benefit from this book.

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Go upside down!

I recently saw a graphic of a physical therapy technique called postural drainage that could be used on COVID-19 patients. It apparently used to be used often before ventilators became widely used. I don’t have enough information to recommend it or not. BUT! It’s all inversions!

Most people think of headstand and shoulderstand as the yoga inversions. And many people aren’t able or willing to do them at home without the help of a teacher. That’s OK. Here are a few that are more accessible.

Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward-facing dog)

Prasarita Padottanasana (wide angle standing forward bend)

Viparita Karani (legs up the wall)

These images are highly stylized, of course. Here are a few modifications. Think of these as restorative opening poses, not stretching active poses, if you are doing them for the benefit of your lungs.

  • In downward facing dog, you can put a support under your head and/or your hands. You could even put a pillow or bolster on a chair to support your hips (much as we do in the studio with ropes around our hips).
  • In wide angle forward bend, you can put a bolster, blanket, or blocks under your head.
  • In legs up the wall, you do not have to be smack up next to the wall. As long as your knees are straight, you can be away from the wall at an angle and still get the full benefit of the pose.
general blather

What’s the source of this?

At the end of my practice, and also at the end of my class, I like to close with something short, not a prayer, exactly, or a sermon, I hope. Just a thought.

Sometimes I say this.

I take refuge in the breath. Breath is all this, whatever there is, and all that ever will be. I take refuge in the breath.

Chandogya Upanishad

I don’t know where that is in the Chandogya Upanishad. I took it from one of Richard Rosen’s Pranayama books, either The Yoga of Breath or Beyond Pranayama. I can’t even find it in either book.

I’d like to know both the citations. Anyone? Anyone?

By the way, both books are beautiful, clearly written and inspiring. Because I don’t have access to a regular Pranayama teacher, I’m not sure I would have gotten anywhere in my practice without these.

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Seated Pranayama

Once you get comfortable doing Pranayama, you will be sitting most of the time. Whatever seated position you choose, have your knees level with or lower than your hips. Keep your pelvis upright, not tipping back so that you are struggling to stay up, and not tilting forward so that your abdomen is falling out of the pelvic bowl.

I am pretty tightly woven, so I tend to sit on a high support. Using a belt in this way gives you a very steady seat. The belt is just below your waist at the back, across the top of your pelvis. Position the buckle to be easy to adjust, with the strap end coming toward you. And oh, please, don’t let that hard buckle be right on your knee!
Virasana is a very stable pose.
Sit between your feet, and keep them pointing straight back.
Sitting against the wall is a good transition when you are learning. The wall gives you helpful feedback – where IS your back? When you first sit down at the wall, put your hands beside you, lift your buttocks and lean forward to push them back a bit close to the wall.
Cranky knees? Practice sitting on a chair. Keep your knees over your ankles and your pelvis upright.
I learned this way of sitting from my teacher Kim, who learned it from Geeta Iyengar. Heels on the outside of the chair and hands pulling outwards on the back help to keep your chest and hips open. Why do we want open chest and hips? Better breathing, of course.
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Reclining Pranayama setups

When you are starting a pranayama practice, it’s best to do it reclining. Then you can focus on your breath instead of your breath and your posture.

If you are not feeling well or you are tired, reclining is a good option.

The bottom folded edge of the tan blanket goes just above your waist. The pink blanket goes just above your shoulders so that your neck is fully supported. Notice that the pink blanket is folded so that the fringe is on the side to give you maximum head real estate.
This is my favorite reclining pose because of the way it stairsteps the lift of your torso. The bottom folded edge of the tan blanket goes just above your waist. The bottom edge of the pink blanket goes to the bottom of your shoulder blades so that they are fully supported. The green blanket goes to the tops of your shoulders. Notice that all three blankets are folded the same way with the fringe to the side. The block is there to keep the supports from falling backwards.
This setup gives you a bit more lift to your chest. To get into this, sit a fist width away from the end of the bolster and extend your back as you roll back on your forearms. The bolster should not be jammed into your low back.
general blather, teaching

Nine years later . . .

I got too busy to keep up the old Practice Notes blog, but now I’m reviving it. It’s not just about home practice this time, because I want to use it to post extra information to my Pranayama and Restorative students.

Or maybe I will just be a slug and do nothing more with it. We are in the middle of sheltering in place for the COVID-19 pandemic. Everything could change in a moment.

hard stuff

Esther Myers DVD for breast cancer

Today Jill and Dana and I watched and followed Yoga for Breast Cancer Survivors, from Esther Myers Yoga.  We don’t normally do this in our Friday yoga practice; in fact we have never done it.  But I have had two separate private restorative lessons with women dealing with breast cancer, one past the therapy and one in the throes of it, and I am thinking about some sort of class for breast cancer survivors.

One of the women I did a lesson with sent me the link to Esther Myers Yoga.  Esther had a background in Iyengar yoga, and then worked with Vanda Scaravelli, whose approach was slightly different.  Her mother and sister had breast cancer, and she was convinced she would not get it, but she did, and it ultimately led to her death. Read her story.

I loved this DVD and plan to buy a lending copy.  Esther leads the participants through a gentle sequence that starts and ends with relaxation.  Her style is kind and personal, and she says things I’d never thought of.  At one point she’s talking about grounding down through your feet, and she talks about receiving the diagnosis of cancer, how you feel as though the rug has been pulled out from under  you. I haven’t had this experience and would never have thought of it that way but it made perfect sense.

Although the DVD is aimed specifically at breast cancer survivors, I thought of a couple of friends dealing with other forms of cancer who could definitely benefit from it.

For the three of us today, it was a perfect gentle practice.

Addendum: I offered this DVD to a friend who has had breast cancer. I talked about how good the DVD was and how much I liked Esther. My friend said, “Is she still alive?”

“No,” I said.

“Did she die of breast cancer?”

“Yes,” I said.

“No, thank you. I can’t watch it,” she said. This made sense to me.