Saturday, January 30, 2010

The downward dog and all its myriad subtleties

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Note: Now I am not a yoga guru... at-least not as yet (I mean it may be a decade or perhaps a life time in the making). So I will caution you that this isn’t a masterpiece on that yoga pose called the downward dog (adho mukho asana)!

Now to the meat of things. I just got out of my Iyengar Yoga class today. I am sort of a regular yoga practitioner now, with two 90-min weekly classes, one on Wednesday at 7.30 pm with Tori Milner (will likely be Tuesday evening when I start level two classes with her) and the other on saturday evenings with Adam Vitolo (see Yoga Classes at the Iyengar Studio in NYC.) And it so happened that Adam Vitolo was on leave today and the replacement teacher was Jean Marie (who has returned to the center after 10 glorious years of sunshine in the Carribbean, as she said. She is happy to be back, despite the 5 degree chill out today). There is no doubt about one thing, and this occasion, confirms it, that the teachers at Iyengar Yoga Center are excellent and awesome. And that they all have their own subtle differences in styles. Jean Marie included. Just like the poses have their own little subtleties that keeps one exploring them for a lifetime. Jean Marie who actually even started the practice with us seated in Vajra Asana and not the usual cross legged pose (by the way I don’t know what the most elementary and routine yoga pose is called, having practiced for two years.)

Jean Marie decided that today she would really make us focus on a few things of which one was the downward dog pose. Now that is one pose that I find to be difficult and something I haven’t really “got it” . Its not that one can ever really ”get a pose”. Downward dog is not difficult in the sense that its not doable, but the correctness of the pose has eluded me. And today the pose got a whole lot going on to it.

The thing with the downward dog is that, its really not just about pushing your legs back and pointing your butt out and up, all the time opening up your back of the thighs. That’s just the basics. The pose is about creating an intense stretch/straightening of the spine/back while ensuring that the front ribs “melt away” pushing deep down into the pelvis with the front ribs remaining in the same plane as the two bony protuberances of the pelvic bone in the front. And at the same time, ensuring that the shoulder bone melts away into the back ribs creating a complete flatness. And while all this is happening, your quadriceps “hug your” thighs and pull your knee caps up, pulling the inner heel arch up. And to stabilize it all the palms remain cemented on the floor, with all the fingers stretched out and the base of the thumb as deeply imprinted on the floor as the base of the pinky finger. And while all this is happening, your big tow and the small toe mounds, bore through the ground, as nails piercing the earth to hold a flapping tent (see image below).

The various axis of stretch in the Downward Dog
Image source"

Now as you can imagine, that is a lot of minor details and points to get right. And that’s why this pose is intense. And i dont mean “intense for the body” only. The intensity required is of the mind that it can focus its attention to every point of the pose till it corrects itself. And that is the difficult part. For instance, if you are focusing on the palms, you may lose the pull of your thighs. If you focus on the thighs, you may realize that the front ribs have shot themselves out of the plane from the pelvic front. If the ribs are keeping you occupied, you may notice that you really haven’t “externally" rotated your upper arm so that the shoulder blade curves into the back ribs. If you were too occupied with pushing your buttock bones (the ischial tuberosity of the pelvic bone) into a 45% plane into the back and beyond, then you may notice that your breath has become drawn and heavy and aggressive and the lips pursed.

And that to me is why yoga is not JUST exercise. Its not a workout. And why I have been working at it, slowly and steadily as the drop of water works on the hard rock, till it finally makes its way (hopefully).

Every time I do these poses they make you realize parts of your body a little differently, a bit more deeply. As my teacher said in the very first class, “its like peeling an onion, one layer at a time till you get to your core”. So hail downward dog!

Till Some more Yoga Talk!

p.s - looking to find yoga classes, just say Hey Kiki!

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