Monday, January 9, 2012

Weekend Ashtanga Workshop

This weekend I was lucky enough to take a full workshop with Daylene Christensen at Miami Life Center in Miami Beach, FL. Daylene is one of my favorite teachers and also a student of Kino MacGregor. 
Day One:  Vinyasa Counts- For anyone who has ever taken an Ashtanga yoga class or even a yoga class for that matter knows how important breath is. This workshop focused on how the vinyasas are linked with a specific breath and Sanskrit count such as Ekam, Dve, Trini, etc.; while postures (asanas) are counted in English counts.  Daylene pointed out that this is the heart of Ashtanga. It is one of the most important things and one of the hardest. The purpose of mastering this is to stop thinking during practice and just let it be movements. Daylene pointed out that you should have these counts memorized so you do not have to question anything you’re doing and get confused and caught up on something during your practice. She also explained that this is a very difficult thing to master and she clearly stated it is “utopia yoga”, but it is very important for students to know these counts and how important they really are.
         This was a huge eye opener for me personally considering I, just like many others I am sure, went into yoga to clear my mind and focus on my breath. Of course once faced with my practice I realized how difficult this really is, and began to worry about a million other things during my practice. Are my feet lined up properly? Are my shoulders where they should be? Am I tucking my tailbone in? Am I sucking my lower belly in? Of course I would try to maintain my breath through all of this, but it is very difficult. That is why Daylene pointed out for people just beginning obviously they will be focusing on other things, but to have this in your mind as a goal one day if very important and something to strive towards.
Day Two: Jumping, Lifting, Floating, Flying- This was the workshop everyone really wanted to learn and perfect. This workshop was based around jumping through and jumping back. For me, I have taken numerous strength elements classes with Daylene and understand how difficult this really is. But this is Daylene’s signature move. Daylene is known for being extremely strong, but also being an extremely graceful practitioner. Therefore, everyone would like to jump through and back like Daylene. Let me add, she is also known for lifting you up mid-way through jump backs just so your feet don’t drop on your mat, because that is one thing that really drives her crazy! She would rather see you slide through then literally “jump” back.
         During this workshop Daylene focused a lot on opening your hips and legs. We did a lot of forward folds to help open us up. She pointed out that one of the main problems with people jumping back is that they cannot get their legs close enough to their chest to tuck themselves into a little ball. Therefore, all the hip and leg openers were done to help us tuck ourselves into a little ball. This of course was torture for almost everyone.
         Secondly, Daylene pointed out how important strength is.  Now for me personally, this is my most difficult problem. Daylene explained this is a problem with most people because in jumping back you go from straight arms, to bent arms. Along with this movement you must also “seesaw” your body. What she means by this is you must replace where your bottom half was with your top half, which requires lifting your bottom (a very heavy part in your body) off the ground and lifting it up, all with bent arms. Just trying to explain this alone, is difficult for me! Let alone the actual action of doing it! And while doing this seesawing action, one must also have a rounded back.
         As for jumping through it is much easier, but still requires a lot of strength. Most people can jump through with cross legs but never making it through with both legs straight. This is where I am having issues. And once again it is all due to strength. One must get one leg through and then the second leg through and hold themselves up with straight legs. This, Daylene explained, is difficult to most people due to strength and tight hips. Jumping back and through is something I have accepted will come with time and patience.
 Day Three: Backbends and Inversions- The last day of the workshop was my favorite and the one I was looking most forward to. Backbending is something that I find so crucial in avoiding any back problems in life. Daylene once again started us with hip openers. She explained how tight hips could be a large problem with getting into backbends and in order to do backbends you must be able to do the opposite, forward folds (which require your hips and hamstrings to be open).
         After another tedious afternoon of stretching, Daylene had us do upward dog to prove it is the first backbend you do during the Ashtanga practice. She showed us how people do this incorrectly and it can cause major injury and agony during your practice. She explained you do around 100 upward dogs during the Ashtanga Primary Series and after doing a few wrong you can be exhausted and in a lot of pain. By doing them properly will only help you move along easier and give you a deeper backbend. Along with upward dog she had us do Purvottanasana to show another time backbends come into play in the series. Once again this is something a lot of people do wrong and cause themselves a lot of pain and agony.
         This all leads to the major part of backbending (and the two asanas from before), keeping your legs and arms strong while keeping your back relaxed. Daylene compared it to your body being like a hammock. Your legs and arms should be the poles, while your back in the actual hammock. Once again, you see the arm strength. She explained how the whole goal of backbending is to detach your upper body from your lower (Obviously not literally, but creating that gap). Creating that gap requires you to tuck your tailbone in. For me, this is very difficult considering my tailbone is always out and I have a huge arch in my back.
         Daylene also had us relax on our backs and feel our stomachs to see where we were breathing from. She said it is very common she sees people breathing in backbends very heavily and into their stomachs. While moving onto half bridge and backbends, she showed us how gravity must suck our lower belly in and it is essential for us to breathe in and out of our chest.
         She had us use props such as blocks and straps to try to get into a proper backbend. She explained how many people cannot get their arms out straight, and when they think they are straight, their elbows are rotating outward, which is incorrect. She had us work with partners while one partner tried to do backbends properly and the other “kept them honest”. The partner backbending had to put two blocks up against the wall and do their backbends off of those, with their head in the middle of the two blocks. The point was to get into the backbend and then bend your arms and your partner would tell you if your elbows were facing outward. Almost everyone’s were. This is something very, very difficult to fix because you never even notice you are doing it. I am extremely thankful for Daylene pointing this out.
         Lastly, we went over inversions a little bit and how important it is to be on your shoulders during shoulder stands and closing asanas. Daylene explained how your shoulders will look 3 ways during your practice. 1. Relaxed 2. Rotating in with the upper back arched (preparing for headstand) 3. Shoulder blades touching each other and shoulders brought back. For shoulder stands you want your shoulders to be doing number 3. The importance of knowing how your shoulders must be is to prevent neck injury. This goes for every one of the closing postures. Daylene ended the workshop with a very important note. She explained, so many people are focused on trying to get into a more difficult asana that they forget to focus on “easier” asanas such as Trikonasana or Utthita Parshvakonasana. But each asana is just as important; the “easier” asanas are what will help you get into the harder ones. If you forget to focus on them and work just as hard on them, certain parts of your body may then become tight and prevent you from doing more difficult postures later on.
Here are some clips of Daylene demonstrating: