Reflections on David Swenson’s workshop

No amount of text can convey my gratitude to David and Shelley.  Without my teachers I would have nothing to teach.  And simply put, David Swenson is responsible for getting me hooked on Ashtanga.  When I was a young boy, about the age of 8, my father brought home a VHS cassette what would change my life forever.  Its title: Short Forms, an Ashtanga program staring David designed especially for people on the go.  Swenson’s peacefully grounded yet intense style left an indelible impression on me.  I wanted to learn more about this yoga, which lead me to take classes at Yoga Vermont.  I would find out that people of all ages and abilities were welcome here, children too.  The entire studio moved about to the sound of one breath, and with each, an especially visceral sensation was reached.  My practice today is a tribute to this breath, to find out where it leads, intuitively, I knew I must look to those who’ve walk the path before me.

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Three wonderful teachers, one goofy photo.

I would like to briefly share a few observations about the workshop, and offer comparison between David and Shelley’s method today compared to years past.  To know where the path leads, one must also know where one comes from.  Based on their shared 7 decades of experience, I truly trust their guidance.

  1. Ashtanga is no longer the marine corps of yoga.  David made this pun in the past to exemplify the effort and discipline that is required of participants.  But during this workshop he reversed his position.  His rationale: Ashtanga is for everyone, not just the few and the proud.  I personally think that his new view is more so correct.
  2. Five As and three Bs.  In this way, David is aligning his method with the “correct” Ashtanga method.  Previously, he taught five and five. It is still debatable what make one method more correct than another.  I tend to feel that the Surya Namaskara showcased today is springier, while five and five more grounded.  The sensations one feels throughout the practice change depending on how you start.
  3. Do not fold in baddha konasana.  In prior workshops, David said that he was disinterested in teaching old-school Ashtanga techniques with one exception.  This weekend, David lived up to his promise by teaching baddha konasana A in the upright position.  I appreciate David’s convictions here, even though I fold forward when practicing this posture at home.

On day two of the workshop, David made his entrance on the stage at Contois Auditorium showing off his ballet moves.  I remember thinking to myself, this man is entirely untethered by the limits of ego.  But perhaps the message he would have liked to present to everyone is that Ashtanga should not be thought of as just another exercise routine.  It is a classical yoga style, in the very same way that a great dance form adheres to tradition.  This tradition can be justified any number of ways.  In truth, the health benefits are apparent, and the well-being affects cannot be overstated either.  But ultimately, we move and breath in unison to honor the teachers who came before us.  The message of the opening chant is recapitulated throughout the vinyasa sequence in perfect Apollonian order.  In this way, we are invited thank our teachers with the character of our breath and movement.

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Pranayama in Siddhasana

The founders of the modern Ashtanga method have been quite vocal in their conviction that asana is a prerequisite to pranayama.  How many postures one can accomplish before pranayama is taught varies, depending on who you ask.  If you ask me, I see no reason why simple breath exercises cannot be introduced alongside primary series.  Although padmasana (i.e. full lotus) tends to be the favored among Asthangis, more than a few great yogis have explored the merits of simpler seated poses too.  The legendary Goraksha Natha preferred siddhasana based on its ability to stimulate Muladhara Chakra.  In essence, 11th century zealots and casual participants alike have found it to be beneficial for increasing life force energy.

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Me in siddhasana.

Today, I decided to take siddhasana for a spin to see if it would help me get more out of my pranayama practice.  Although I am not ecstatic about the benefits here, I do report a sense of calm unique to my foot position.  In siddhasana one presses their heal against their perineum.  The effect of this pressure helps to lower one’s heart rate and blood pressure, which could help one strengthen their breath focus.  I would recommend siddhasana to anyone who feels overly frantic when performing these techniques while seated in padmasana.  It also happens to be more accessible, and therefore a good starting point for those who are looking to add pranayama into their daily routine.

Can yoga combat chronic kidney disease?

The two major causes of chronic kidney disease (CKD) are diabetes and hypertension.  Speaking on the latter, the connection between physical yoga and reductions in blood pressure are well-established.  However, evidence to suggest that these practices change the course of active CKD has been lacking.  Researchers led by R. K. Pandey carried out a randomized controlled trial to see if yoga could benefit this patient population.  Their work was subsequently published in the first quarterly installment of the International Journal of Yoga for 2017.  Let me provide you with a brief summary of their methods and results.

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image cited: http://www.deaconess.com/DeaconessClinic/Services/Nephrology.aspx

Fifty-four end stage CKD patients were assigned to either the test (N = 28) or control (N = 26) group.  The test group was offered ‘strict’ instruction for 5 days per week on postures (15-20 min), breathing (10-15 min), and guided relaxation (20 min) plus conventional therapy.  The control group was offered conventional therapy.  After 6 months, serum chemistry, blood pressure and quality of life metrics were compared for statistical variations.

Among those who received yoga therapy, the investigators saw significant improvements in these three criteria.  Critical to the hypothesis at hand, the average participant experienced a 15-point (mg/dL) decrease in blood urea nitrogen as well as a 1.0-point decrease in serum creatinine.  Although CKD has a reputation for being incurable, it appears that a structured yoga routine can improve an array of kidney specific markers.  I would be curious to see whether these benefits persist over the course of a full year or more.

Study Citation:

Pandey RK, Arya TV, Kumar A, Yadav A. Effects of 6 months yoga program on renal functions and quality of life in patients suffering from chronic kidney disease. Int J Yoga, 2017 Jan-Apr; 10(1):3-8.

Yoga for landscapers

These days, it seems like ​everyone is getting on the bandwagon of branding their creative yoga-based fitness ideas.  Amy Weintraub’s Yoga for Depression is a best selling book, Rodney Yee’s Yoga for Abs was a popular workout video, and most recently, Yoga for Yankees has become viral internet spoof.  In light of my new job, I’ve decided to create my own little fad.  So far, I have discovered that a few postures have been saving my overall posture, let me share which ones.

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‘Goddess’ of the leaf rake?

Just as each posture has its array of benefits on the mat, I’ve found incredible transfer value on the job site.  Planting my feet sideways allows me to efficiently rake debris between my legs and onto a tarp (featured above).  Stability in prasarita virabhadrasana had helped me to become strong at this task.

For anyone whose ever worked at gardening, they will attest that weeding is a constant battle.  Being able to maintain a comfortable yet versatile position is key here.  I’ve found no better foundation than the low squat i.e. ardha malasana.  I am able to get low, dig, pitch and move, all while retaining the same strong energetic base.

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‘Warrior’ of the iron rake?

The landscapers job is not complete until the ground is soft and level.  Flattening a bed is easiest when the strength one’s arms and legs are applied evenly.  I find that the base of virabhadrasana b (featured above) is great for keeping my back and shoulders strong while my larger muscles are recruited to pull against the earth.

Landscaping can be tiring and tedious work.  Yet, when power positions are applied, tasks including debris removal, weeding, and leveling beds become more enjoyable.  Each day, I discover broad intersections between my life on the mat and my livelihood in the yard.  Renowned Ashtangi David Swenson was particularly fond of the famous Zen proverb below.  As I gear up for my third week on the job, I have also discovered exciting new ways to appreciate its core meaning.

“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water”

-Zen Proverb

Dance of the winds

There are four basic directions of movement in samastitihi.  One can fold backwards, downwards, or extend from one side to the other.  This reflects a confluence of two pivots.  By analogy, the interplay between our personal and professional development is similar.  Ensuring the non-entanglement of these two sets of responsibilities takes daily effort.  Today, I taught my last yoga class of the spring season at Yoga Vermont; I will not be formally instructing classes during the summer.

Although ‘this’ dance of winds has impacted my choices, I assure you that my career as a yoga instructor is by no means over.  I will remain a regular blogger, daily practitioner, as well as a guide to the travelers who walk the yoga path.  In the words of my music idol Zach Deputy, “Because when I leaving it’s never ever forever, forever I’ll be here with you my friend.”  I look forward to staying in touch and I wish all my students and readership a bright and accomplished summer.

The four expressions of Matthew Sweeney’s ‘Dance of Winds’

A weekend ‘Inipi’ sweat lodge retreat

All life is dynamic.  Just as a flowing wood grain seamlessly merges with a knotty spiral, likewise, even the densest aspects of our realities actually move when observed up close.  Transformation, this awareness that we are all ‘becoming,’ is really a lesson best learned outdoors.  Last weekend, I made an intention to commune with nature by partaking in a half-day sweat lodge ceremony.  And afterwards, I walked away with a sense of wonder and a new family of friends to share these joys with.  All the while, brother Laro was the expert guide, leading six of us in the traditions of the Lakota nation.  I would like to share my Inipi experience with you.

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Care to take a seat inside?

Thoughtful preparation

Inipi means ‘to live again’ and its first stage is actually the creation of the lodge itself.  We harvested six arching saplings, in order to create the essential dome structure, complete with cross-thatching and complex ‘fractal’ branch patterns.  Laro calls the saplings mitakuye oyasin meaning ‘all my relations’ or ‘sisters’ for short.  The Lakota people do not consider themselves greater than the flora and fauna of the land.  Truly, we all exist in nature as equals.  The stones of the earth are honored too.  When collected for the purpose of heating the lodge, they are adorned with names such as ‘grandmother’ and ‘grandfather.’  This custom signifies our deepest respects to the ancient peoples of Inyan Oyate.  Once the fire pit was created and the lodge covered with blankets, we heated the beloved stones in our campfire.  All of a sudden, Laro beckoned us to enter.

The ceremony

Once inside, the formal ceremony begins with a dedication to the spirits of the ‘sisters,’ ‘grandmothers,’ ‘grandfathers’ and our earth ‘mother’ herself.  Hot stones are added to the fire pit (courtesy of our fire tender “Chris”).  We humbly pray to the spirits for their guidance here and abroad.  Everyone is invited to participate or pass in silence as water, tobacco, and sage are sprinkled on top of the glowing stones.  Over the course of five rounds, the progressive heat combined with the pitch blackness of the interior of lodge, become conducive for allowing specific spirits to influence our experience.  In the words of Laro, “The spirits are always speaking, in lodge we listen.” After the dedication rounds draw to a close, heightened states of awareness may be realized.

Journeying

As we sleep, we dream in distinct cycles.  Similarly to dreaming, during each round is a cycle in which preconceived notions of time, space and even temperature progressively drop off.  Our experience becomes a playful metaphor in light of the totem animals which we honor.  During the third round we pay tribute to the spell dragonfly spirit Tusweca.  Arising from the waters of the southern direction, her essence is invoked by the tradition of storytelling.  She is symbolic of our Truth, that which does not lie to ourselves again and again.  Laro leads the service with the time-honored tale about the white buffalo calf woman who brought the first pipe to the people.  Vocal harmonies arise and fall spontaneously; collectively we become attuned Laro’s message.  Around the circle, each participant then offers a personalized story, which connects each of us to the ebb and flow of Tusweca’s flight.

As heat builds, our journey continues on the wings of the eagle spirit Wanbli to the west.  Hot stones are added then we each take a sip of spring water to initiate our sweating.  Water and herbs hiss and crackle when sprinkled on the top.  Spontaneity takes hold, and we are cast into a new round of intensely rhythmic chanting.  Each participant uses a rattle to keep a steady beat amid our vocalization.  After our song draws to a close, we thank the thunder beings by saying ‘pilyamayelo’ as we carefully pass the rattle to the left.  Our friend takes it using their sense of hearing, touch or both.  A new round of chanting begins as a new expression of the eagle’s flight draws our attention upward.  Our collective consciousness reaches its zenith.  We each delight and comfort one another as many experience a shift in perception.  Just as Wanbli who soars high above the trees sees a world of details down below, we too experience the expansiveness of the here-and-now.

The fifth and last round is dedicated to the spirit Tatanka meaning the buffalo.  It is the hottest of all rounds and also, probably the most contemplative too.  The activity we collectively practice is deep medication.  Our experiences probably become more individual at this stage.  For me, the wisdom of water and sky spirits is offset by a newfound appreciation of ‘mother’ earth.  With the Tatanka, I feel as if all three elemental forces are beginning to merge together.  The earth pushes back on me as I lay on my side in complete darkness.  Stampedes of heat radiated off of the glowing stones, now numbering thirty-four in total.  In the intense silence, I become acutely aware of time and space spanning in all directions.  Soon, these notions are replaced by a soft acceptance of the qualities which underlie the journey at hand.  Then, much the way it began, the Inipi ends with a special set of prayers and dedications.

Afterwards

Laro likes to say, “There is no time in here.”  When my sense of purposefulness was restored, I slowly crawled on my hands and knees, out of the lodge, and into the greater world.  I marveled, then I became dizzy, as I tried to stand, Laro said, “Stay low.”  I continued to crawl like a new born babe towards my water bottle.  Taking a sip, then I imbibed, but much too fast.  I felt the coolness dissipate around my stomach as steam raised off my arms in tendril formations.  I decided to sip more slowly now to avoid pain.  Gazing at my companions, they looked just like me, I felt this way then, as I still do now.  According to Laro, “Inipi is an opportunity to be receptive to nature’s own wisdom.”  Three days later, the great transformation is a renewed sense of ‘togetherness,’ which I continue embody wherever I go.

Pilyamayelo,

(Thank you for reading)

Bryan

Links to Laro’s books, films and teachings:

Enjoying Hanumanasana

It is one of the most iconic poses in the whole yoga canon and somehow still frightens more than a few ardent practitioners.  For me, I’ve been taking the slow and thorough approach to Hanumanasana; it has still been a decade in the making.  Being very new to the full expression, I would mostly like to properly document this exciting moment while my impressions are fresh.  According to legend, the monkey god Hanuman has the unique ability to jump great distances.  His power was tested when he practically flew thousands of miles from Sri Lanka to the Himalayas in order to retrieve Sita (a magic healing herb).  If it weren’t for Hanuman’s miraculous feat, the gods may have lost the great battle of the Ramayana.  In this way, the lunging split was named Hanumanasana to commemorate the epic leap.

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The pose itself feels like it is teetering between two separate continents.  On one side, I am balanced on my thigh and on the other my hamstring holds the weight.  This is a unique experience for me, and it taken a fair amount of concentration not to fall from one side to the other.  Once I develop adiquet stability here, the next step is to square-off through the hips.  This motion seems to stretch the groin muscles in a most fascinating and bizarre way.  According to Moola Bandha – The Master Key, Hanumanasana can be used to explore one’s own pelvic floor region.  I cannot validate that statement for my own body at this particular moment.  In short, I’m still waiting for my perineum to afford me a sturdier base here (see below).

Finding a way to be confident in what would otherwise be a wobbly pose has also proven to be its own adventure. Hanumanasana reminds me of that time when my brother took me out surfing near Santa Cruz years ago.  There’s a time when you just have to stand up and hang-ten.  In practice, that’s ‘that’ moment when I take me hands off the mat and simply let me legs slide further apart on their own.  It is through this purely kinetic shift that one finds extra stability while lengthening out.  To accentuate the feeling, I prefer to take my hands over my head similar to Virabhadrasana A.  This daring mudra gives me that quintessential flying sensation.  This way, I also feel a visceral connection to that classic story told in the Ramayana.