Thursday, December 27, 2007

Power Yoga: Part 3

Beginning Practice

All I know is that the minute I saw this form, it reached out and grabbed my attention. And whether it came from an ancient manuscript as sacred as the Dead Sea Scrolls, from an ancient culture like Atlantis, from outer space, or from somebody's imagination, didn't matter in the least to me. I didn't know it at the time, but here was a 5,000-year-old tradition come to life in front of me in twentieth-century New York City. There was something very exciting about that day and that discovery. I had been wanting something stronger in my teaching. I had always taught a somewhat vigorous yoga class, especially when I had been working with skiers. But still, something had been missing. That missing "something" was here in front of me.

I began to study the astanga form with Norman Allen at 6:00 A.M. the day after I first saw the practice, and every day after that for nearly two years. I practiced in earnest with this man, and then one day he moved 6,000 miles away from New York and I never saw him again. I eventually tracked down his teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, and over the years I spent many months studying with Jois directly, and slowly learned of the origins of this unique yoga form.

More than anything physical, what I learned is that you start slowly, do what you can, go one day at a time, and appreciate the moment. You build strength and discipline the way you build a sand castle: a couple of grains at a time. I guess, now that I think back on it, what really captured my heart about astanga was the discipline, or more correctly, the way in which this system enabled me to learn focus and discipline. It forced me to be constantly vigilant in practice, and over the years this began to carry over into all aspects of my life.

The way most yoga was taught in the 1970s and early eighties, a posture would be performed, followed by rest. Then another posture and more rest. It always felt to me as if the class would start and stop. You are at it for a few minutes and then the mind has its own free time. This is changing in the nineties -- in part because of the influence of astanga and in part because of the needs of the times -- but much hatha yoga is still taught in a fragmented way. You do some work and then you discuss it. This method is okay, even necessary, for beginners. But you don't ever really have the yoga experience (which is the sustained quieting of the mind, the literal cessation of mind activity or chatter) through these forms of yoga practice. Or at least I never did.

In this practice, however, you don't concentrate for a minute or two, then rest or space out. In astanga you are training yourself in mental endurance. You are training the body to build physical endurance in order to flow through the form without stopping. But more important, you are training the mind through continuous practice to stay focused for the duration and not break concentration. This was extraordinary to me! And many years later, after many thousands of hours of practice and much study of the ancient yoga literature, especially the Yoga Sutras, I would come to my own understanding of the authentic and original nature of this form of hatha yoga.


In 1971 my friend Edward Ruscha, the famous American artist from Los Angeles, gave me a painting of his called Focus, which still hangs over my desk. At the time, although my life wasn't in total disarray, I hadn't a clue as to the meaning of the word. It would be ten years before I realized the significance of that word in my life. Here I was attempting to learn something that, when I first saw it, seemed overwhelming, awesome. I wanted to be "there." But I really didn't know how to find the discipline to get there.

So I just started. I didn't start with handstands and headstands and back walkovers. I started with the warm-ups, which is the way you will start in chapter 3. Then I went on to the standing postures, which are the beginning of the Primary Series and the foundation of the Power Yoga workout. They follow in chapter 4. Like me and everyone else who studies this form, you will find that there are some postures that are easier than others and some that are more difficult. In the beginning you may struggle, but after time, as you learn the sequence and correct alignment, you will start to notice greater strength and fluidity, and better concentration.

The Early Days

A year after I had begun to study the routine of astanga yoga, I began to teach the form as I was learning it. This was the "real stuff," as Norman Allen had called it, or the "correct yoga method," according to Pattabhi Jois, and practicing or teaching anything else for me would have been a waste of time and unthinkable. The first place I taught the Power Yoga workout, as I eventually came to call it, was the New York Road Runners Club (NYRRC). At first I was afraid to call it yoga, for fear the word was too loaded with preconceived notions of pretzel positions and foreign-sounding words, and no one, at least not any runners, would come to the class. So I continued to call it The Hard & The Soft.

The NYRRC had just bought a townhouse on East Eighty-Ninth Street, near Central Park, and the first couple of years we held classes in the front room on the second floor of the club. The room was big enough to handle about twelve to fifteen people maximum, which was fine because when we started, there was plenty of extra space in the room. But slowly, people started to tell their friends and other runners about the classes, and by 1983 we had begun to spill out into the hall. As the classes continued to grow and we began to see more and more runners, I began to realize how desperately runners, and everyone else for that matter, needed this program. They were so tight! They were constantly injured not only from their training, but from tension, imbalance, and life in general. Many were actually disabled by their tightness!

In the early eighties, practically no one came to class unless they were injured. So in those days the Power Yoga workout was basically a rehab class for injured runners. Over the years I watched as people with joint pain, back problems, muscle pulls, tendinitis, strains, and sprains would come to class and begin to practice. Slowly their pain and injuries would disappear. I watched them increase range of motion, agility, flexibility, strength, lung capacity, endurance, and general body awareness. If there was ever any secret or miracle to the practice, that was it! From a physical standpoint, the bottom line was this: People did this and got better -- better in terms of healing and rehabilitation, better in terms of practice, better in terms of strength and flexibility, and better in terms of the elimination of pain. I thought back to my experience with the U.S. Nordic Ski Team and realized how great this practice would have been for them!

Order, Flow, and Heat

As the NYRRC wellness director to 30,000 international members, I've seen literally hundreds of so-called stretching programs, exercise devices, gimmicks, and the like come across my desk for sampling or evaluation over the years. Many include slick promises to increase speed, range of motion, strength, flexibility, and solve a vast array of ailments and injuries for all sports. For a number of reasons, no workout, no machine, no device -- nothing -- has ever come close to being as complete, effective, thorough, or well rounded as the form of astanga yoga.

First of all, the sequence of postures in the system is brilliant and extremely well balanced. Successive postures within the series are uniquely complementary, developing strength and flexibility both concurrently and alternatively. Astanga is the most sophisticated form of physical therapy I have ever been exposed to. I have analyzed in detail every posture in the Primary Series, or first grouping of postures, and have looked at each of them not only as a single unit but as a piece of a synergistic system. After many years of practicing and teaching this form, I am still amazed at the contemporary relevance of the practice.

Second, the idea of connecting postures together with movement and a unique breathing technique to keep the whole practice flowing and alive is completely original. This concept of uninterrupted flow, or vinyasa in Sanskrit, tied to an empowering breath, sets the practice apart from every other form of yoga. This is what starts and maintains the heat, which is what enables the healing and therapy to take place. Vinyasa, along with the particular breathing technique explained in chapter 2, and other "mindfulness" techniques explained in later chapters, is what makes this authentically yoga.

As early as the sixth century B.C. the word yoga referred to the spiritual endeavor of controlling or harnessing the mind. By all accounts, this requires dedicated practice and presence. Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras says that yoga is the suspension of the mind's waves or vacillations (vrttis), and that to learn to control these waves requires constant practice (abhaysa) and nonattachment (vairagya). Yoga isn't about fluctuation; it is about constancy and focus and being present in the moment. As long as you are practicing the postures, for example, and the breathing, you pretty much have to be focused on the moment and cannot be attached to a thought about the past or future. Once you stop and start in your practice, though, you lose concentration and tend to think more, which invariably takes you into the past or the future. So because of the uninterrupted, flowing nature of this practice, it is possible to actually experience the state of yoga through the practice of yoga. Constancy and focus are standard equipment. They are built into the training, which is the thing that is so ideal about this form. The practice itself compels continuity and attention, as you will see.

Third, whoever figured out that without heat, any attempt to stretch or realign the body was a complete waste of time, had the jump on current thought in the sports medical community by 5,000 years. As recently as 1980, I was practically the only one saying, "You have to be hot to stretch" (Axiom No. 1 of the Power Yoga workout). At that time, most people still thought that you did stretching to "warm up" for sports, not vice versa. The next step, which I propose in this book, is that not only do you have to warm up to stretch, you have to be warm while stretching -- and not only warm, but hot and sweating. This is accomplished by doing strength work concurrently and continuously along with the stretch.

I often tell people in my classes that for an active sports or fitness-minded person, the traditional "stretching" routines are the biggest waste of time imaginable, and that they might as well stay home and eat paper towels expecting to become more flexible. What?! People don't expect me to say this. Wait a minute, they think. Isn't this about stretching?

No. This is not about stretching. There is no study in the body of sports medical literature (that I have ever seen) that shows "stretching" does any good whatsoever. Why not? Because all the studies have obviously been done on some funky type of passive stretching, often done cold or on muscles mildly warmed by some previous activity. It just doesn't work, especially for athletic-type people.

Many professional athletes, for example -- both men and women -- have tried various "stretching" programs of one sort or another, only to end up injured or with a feeling of wasting valuable training time. Additionally, since stretching by itself sort of represents the "soft" aspect of training, it is often regarded as too "feminine" by the male coaches or athletes themselves, and not something that should be practiced by "real" men. This is probably good, because it keeps more tight male athletes from getting injured by trying to push themselves into doing something that they think is "good" for them.

It's funny. Most of us are way too tight, and we do seem to think we need to be more flexible. Ask practically anyone you know who is athletically active, "Do you stretch?" A few people will look proud and say, "Yes, I stretch religiously," and look all proud. But most will look guilty and say something like, "I know I should, but..."

We are on the right track with this. We are too tight and our intuition that we need to be more flexible is correct. It will help us to prevent injury. It will improve performance. But the stretching programs that have been available up until now are for the most part a complete waste of time and totally ineffective. To undo all the negative effects of our fitness quest -- shortened muscles, limited range of motion, and imbalanced or misaligned musculature -- it takes something more intense than just leaning up against a tree after we run or bouncing a little before we strap on our Rollerblades.

The major question then is, How in the world do you stretch intensely without injuring yourself? You do Power Yoga! Power Yoga is about strength. Flexibility comes as a result of the strength work. Axiom No. 2 of Power Yoga states, "Strength, not gravity, develops flexibility." And without the strength work, the heat is not there and, consequently, the stretch work is not effective, safe, or even possible.

All Sports Injury Is Caused by Imbalance

Obviously, the idea of a yoga workout specifically designed to build and maintain complete strength, flexibility, fitness, and health is unique in the world of sports and fitness today. But it is catching on like wildfire and is filling a tremendous gap. The answer to fitness and balance certainly isn't found in sports. Yes, sports are fun. They give us exercise. Most get us out of doors. Some are even good for us. But if you are considering taking up a sport to get in shape or lose some weight, or if you are already fitness-minded and working out regularly, you should know that, according to Axiom No. 3 of Power Yoga, "Sports do not get us in shape. In fact, sports get us out of shape."

Sports develop tight muscles and create imbalance because of repetitive training and uneven use of muscle groups, or the uneven use of one side of the body. Running, for instance, is great for the cardiovascular system. But it dramatically tightens the muscles at the back of the legs and does virtually nothing for the rest of the body. This intense shortening or disproportionate strengthening results in mind-boggling muscular and structural imbalance.

The harder you train, the tighter your body will become, and this is true of nearly any sport. One aspect of this tightening will be positive, especially if you are new to fitness or exercise. You'll probably lose a few pounds, burn a little fat, get a little fitter, and feel terrific about yourself. Another aspect, however, will be disastrous, almost guaranteeing that if you continue training without Power Yoga work, you will become injured and have to stop exercising for a period of time, or until you take up a "new" sport.

Invariably, a lack of awareness about either an existing imbalance or the need for total fitness training and what that entails is what ultimately leads to injury in sports. Axiom No. 4 of the Power Yoga system says, "All injury in sports is caused by structural and muscular imbalance," with the obvious exceptions of falling off your bike or getting hit over the head with a hockey stick. If you come into a training program with a structural imbalance that may have developed over the years from poor posture, an old injury, genetic bad luck, or whatever, this imbalance will definitely make its presence known sooner or later through your training. The same thing is true of developing muscular and structural imbalance as a result of training.

Because the old-fashioned stretching isn't something most people like, have time for, or find effective, many athletes watch -- at first perhaps with pride and then with remorse -- as their bodies get tighter and tighter. They enviously recall their pretraining days when they could still touch their toes. In the mornings they crawl from bed to a hot shower to their training clothes, perhaps downing an aspirin or two on the way. They prowl the streets in search of chiropractors, physical therapists, and orthopedists. They will only stop training when threatened with paralysis, permanent disability, divorce, or murder. And sometimes not even then!

And although chronic injury in most cases (see the Appendix) comes on slowly as the body goes further and further out of alignment, the day eventually comes when the imbalance breaks through as debilitating pain. And this is the point where we absolutely have to do something about the imbalance or face stopping our training. If we were paying closer attention, we might have been able to notice the slow, incremental decrease in our range of motion and agility that has come about from training. But generally we aren't paying attention, or if we are, we're looking the other way. We're focused on our training. We like being fit. We want to stay fit. Being fit makes us feel good. It's worth the little inconveniences, like getting tight! But all of a sudden, there it is: a very noticeable pain and (gasp!) an injury! Ah yes. Injury is a very effective means used by the body to get your attention.

Copyright © 1995 by Beryl Bender Birch

Excerpted from

Power Yoga: The Total Strength and Flexibility Workout
by Beryl Bender Birch
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