Pose Break-Down: Chaturanga

If you've ever taken a yoga class labeled "power" or "vinyasa," you've probably done your fair share of chaturangas. You've probably also heard teachers talk about how important good form is, and how chaturanga is the basis for many arm balances and inversions. 

But if I had a nickel for every poorly-performed chaturanga I've seen over the years, I'd be rich. Why? Because it's really stinking hard!

Before we talk about how to do it properly, let's first talk about what it should look like. Proper chaturanga arms form a right angle from the floor - forearms perpendicular and upper arms parallel. It's easier to see in a static pose like a headstand or an arm balance:

Okay, so now that we know how our arms are supposed to look and the angle we are trying to achieve, let's put it into its more common context, within a sun salute. 

We typically move into chaturanga from plank, and if you take my level one classes where I give extra instruction, you always hear me say, "shift forward on your toes." Why is that important? Because if you don't, then your chaturanga looks like this:

Chatu-wrong-a

Chatu-wrong-a

Now, I'm no geometry whiz, but that ain't no right angle. I'm pretty sure this was my dumpy chaturanga for many years before I learned good form. You see how my shoulders are dipping down toward the floor? That puts way too much strain on the joints, which can lead to biceps tendonitis. (Yeah, I had to go to physical therapy for that.)

I also realized when performing this version as an illustration for this blog post that I felt absolutely no muscular engagement in my arms, chest or upper back. It felt really easy. As my students often say, "If it feels too easy, I know I'm probably doing it wrong!"

So from plank, when you first shift forward on your toes, and then lower about halfway down, taking care not to let the elbows splay out, you get here:

Yeah, sometimes I like to show off with a one-legged  chaturanga.

Yeah, sometimes I like to show off with a one-legged chaturanga.

Check out the angle of my arms and also how I've shifted forward on my left toes. Oodles of muscular engagement.

As I said before, it's a really stinking hard pose! If you are new to it, or just new to this type of muscular engagement, I encourage you to try some modifications to help you get the hang of it without hurting yourself. The obvious choice is to drop your knees before lowering. This takes a good deal off the weight-bearing part of the pose and will help you keep your back safe as you build core strength. Keep your belly drawn in and lengthen your tailbone.

Another awesome tool to help with chaturanga form is to use blocks to help you know how far to lower down to the floor. I use this method in workshops and private sessions, and it is always very enlightening. Measure the block against the length of your forearm to make sure you use the right block height. Typically the high setting is best unless you've got really short bones. 

Here's how that looks, with and without dropping to knees:

And then once you build strength, try it without blocks:

Once you've mastered chaturanga, it really does open up your practice to all sorts of cool tricks, like this!

But remember to respect that this is a practice, and honor where you are in the process. Try my suggestions and let me know how it goes in the comments below. Namaste and happy chaturanga-ing!

Little Miss Perfect

Those who are close to me know that I am one of those type-A, perfectionist people. In high school, in fact, people used to call me “Little Miss Perfect.” (Yeah, I know they didn’t mean it as a compliment.) I had to make straight A’s, be first chair in band, get the lead in the school play...you get the idea.

While I think being driven to achieve is a good quality to have, obviously, it has its drawbacks. For me, it has at times made me afraid to try something new for fear of failing. Can’t fail if you don’t try it in the first place, right?

And my other job as a musician only adds fuel to the fire. I mean, you pretty much have to play near-perfect to win an orchestral audition, and you can’t just be messing up all the time and expect to keep your job.

Thankfully, I’ve gotten somewhat better about this over the years, in large part due to my yoga practice. (And also because being over 40 makes you delightfully less caring about what other people think!)

Key word being "practice."

There is no yoga “performance” or “competition,” no “winner” or “loser.” (Yes, I know there are people out there who put on such things, but that is not the true nature of yoga, sorry. I call shenanigans.)

Everyday, I get on my mat and practice. Not because I have to perform a sun salute from memory in front of an audience. Not because in three months I have to nail a handstand away from the wall. Not because I ate ice cream last night and need to perform fifty chaturangas for penance.

Okay, maybe that last one sometimes, but really I just get on my mat and practice for the sake of practice. How freaking novel an idea is that?!

That’s not to say you can’t have goals to work on in your practice. What better motivator? This year some of my goals are to improve my “weak-side” arm balances and to do more yin.

But when we become too attached to outcome, we miss the whole point. It sounds cliché, but it really is about the journey, not the destination. There is no end point. It’s all practice.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I just went into my first yoga class years ago and came out magically cured of my perfectionist ways. This too has been a practice.

I used to try to be Little Miss Perfect on the mat as well. I had to do every single chaturanga, never took an unannounced child’s pose, and felt like a failure if I couldn’t hold my headstand straight up for at least a minute.

Shoo, that crap is exhausting. It is simply not possible for anyone to be “perfect” at every yoga pose at all times. Usually the bendiest people in class are not the strongest and vice versa. We all have our strengths and weaknesses.

And let me tell you, it is SO LIBERATING to get to the point where you just don’t give a flip if you do that headstand or not. In my opinion, the most “advanced” yogis are the ones who are able to skip chaturanga in favor of child’s pose when it’s best for their body.

I wish I could offer some advice on how to get to this point, but for me, it just took lots and lots of practice.

Forget “practice makes perfect.” There’s no such thing as perfect anyway. Practice for sure makes progress. That’s the cool thing - even when you don’t have a specific goal in mind for your practice, results still come.

So get on your mat and try practicing just to practice. Let me know how it goes.



Auto-Pilot

Do you ever leave the house to run an errand, and then about halfway down the road, you realize you turned the wrong way out of your neighborhood, as if you were going to work instead?

Darned auto-pilot!

We all have our routines and ways of doing things. Usually, that is a very good thing. Practiced skills that show up automatically can save the day.

But sometimes auto-pilot gets in the way of growth and change. Sometimes we shuffle through life like a sleepwalking robot, unaware of what we’re doing until something or someone comes along to snap us into thought.

Perhaps that’s a yoga teacher asking, “Are you present?”

I see it all the time in class. So-and-so always takes that optional chaturanga. Mr. Man refuses to bend his knees in forward folds. Miss Bendy never misses an opportunity for a deeper backbend. Front-row dude insists on his front shin being parallel in pigeon, hips askew and all. Back-row lady simply cannot even attempt crow pose. Ever.

But what would happen if we paused to acknowledge the present moment and ask ourselves why, exactly, are we making that particular choice? If the answer is, “because that’s the way I’ve always done it,” well, sorry, but I think that’s a terrible reason.

Why? Because you're giving away all the good that can come from free will just for the comfort of habit.

I remember learning about samskaras during yoga teacher training - ingrained patterns that we repeat over and over until we become conditioned. We exhibit them off the mat as well, of course. Raise your hand if you share my samskara of being unable to resist rearranging the dishwasher!

So what would happen if we consciously chose to do things differently? Would there be a giant explosion? Would the world end? Nope.

WHAT IF?

We might see that our triceps remain toned with a few less chaturangas. We might find that our low back feels much better when we bend our knees. We may discover that when we engage instead of flop or go easy instead of forcing, our bodies finally figure out what the pose is actually supposed to do. We might just learn that we are capable of so much more than we ever thought possible.

And I’m here to tell you that if you can get out of a rut in your practice, there’s hope off the mat as well. It’s all yoga, y’all!

As for me, I’m still working on that dishwasher thing. I'll let you know how that goes.

So next time you're on your mat, see if you can identify when you start to go on auto-pilot. What are your patterns? How can you break them? Share below!


Not Too Hot, Not Too Cold

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Goldilocks principle, or at the very least, you’ve read the children’s story and can figure out what it means. Goldilocks chose the porridge that was just right - not too hot, not too cold.

Applications of this principle are seen in a wide variety of disciplines, like biology and economics, but how do we apply it to a yoga practice?

Well, if you’re anything like me, a type-A perfectionist, it can be tricky. I’ve learned the hard way by injuring myself, always tending on the “too hot” side, so that’s why I urge my students to try to find the right balance.

So how can you tell?

When I walk around during my classes while students are holding a particular stretch or pose, “too hot” looks like this: breath is too fast or being held, jaw is clenched, brow is furrowed, shoulders are scrunched up by the ears. “Too cold” could be described as “wet noodle” limbs (arms or legs not fully extended or engaged), flopping from one pose to another, over-shortening stance, un-focused gaze, chewing gum during practice. (What?!)

If you’re always “too cold,” you probably won’t injure yourself, but you probably won’t get a whole lot out of your practice, either. If you’re not feeling like you’re doing anything during a pose, well, then you’re not! Engage those legs, extend the arms, focus your gaze, and work!

If you’re always “too hot,” you’ve probably experienced more progression in your practice, but you may end up hurting yourself, if you haven’t already. Our goal in each pose is to find steadiness and ease (sthira and sukha), not pain, strain, or forcing. Back off a little, slow your breath down, soften the muscles in your face, and allow your body to relax into the pose. That might even mean modifying or using a prop. (Gasp!)

So now I’ll show you three different versions of a pose, too hot, too cold, and just right. But remember that your “just right” may not look the same as mine, because all bodies are different.

Here's my "too hot" version of boat post, navasana. I simply must straighten my legs all the way no matter if I'm leaning too far back, and my arms must extend out of my shoulder joints, and I must purse my lips because I'm concentrating really hard!

 

In my "too cold" version, I'm just sitting there, nothing engaged. Meh.

 

And now for "just right." I'm sitting tall and engaged while keeping my shoulders back. I'm working, but also feeling calm.

 

So next time you're holding a pose in class, remember the Goldilocks principle to find your "just right" amount of effort and ease.

My New Year's Wishes for You

Happy New Year, yogis! One of my resolutions for 2016 is to write blog posts on a regular basis. I was terribly sporadic with them last year. Since Thursday is usually my day off, I’m resolving to do them once a week on that day, starting today. Here I go! Y’all hold me to it.

You’re probably thinking this might be one of those “new year, new you,” “try yoga in 2016,” or “resolve to get fit and healthy” posts, but no. I’m not into bullying people. You can make your own decisions.

This post is more for those of you I already see in class all the time, those of you who have already taken the leap and started on the journey that is a yoga practice.

I have a wish-list of sorts for you, my beloved students, little nuggets I wish I could impart to you telepathically while I walk around in class. Because I can see the doubt, the fear, the frustration in your eyes sometimes, and I want to make it better.

Here’s hoping these wishes may offer you a little inspiration in the new year to dig deeper in your practice, and to find more peace on and off your mat:

  1. I wish you could see how amazing you look in that pose. Seriously. I know you pick the spot farthest away from the mirror, and maybe you think you’re the most awkward person in the room. But in that moment when you let go and breathe and trust your body, it is a beautiful thing to witness. Go home a take a yoga selfie right now!

  2. I wish you knew how much I admire you just for showing up.

  3. I wish you could see where you will be in your practice a year from now if you keep showing up. You won’t believe the difference. And I’m not just talking hamstrings.

  4. I wish you would believe in yourself enough to try that crazy pose you think you can’t do. I believe you can do it. Maybe not today, but you have to start somewhere.

  5. I wish you allowed for more space in your practice to go easy sometimes. Skip a chaturanga here and there. Rest in child’s pose. Use a block in half-moon. Drop a knee in side plank. It can be so liberating to NOT go ALL OUT ALL THE TIME.

Here’s to You! And to many wonderful practices together in 2016! Cheers!


It's All About that Breath

If you read my previous blog post, you know that I encourage slow movement in my classes. It's a lot easier to rush through movements and poses, but it takes a great deal of focused concentration to slow things down and move mindfully through your practice. 

Oh yeah, and are you remembering to breathe and link your movements with your breath? Are you able to breathe slowly?

I think getting a handle on your breathing can be one of the most difficult parts of a yoga practice, especially for newbies who are not used to thinking about their breath at all. 

During a private session with a new student this morning, I noticed that while she was breathing well while holding a pose, all bets were off when she started moving. So I decided to break out a tool I use with my flute students - the metronome! 

I set it on 60 beats per minute, and first we practiced the breath on its own, just to equalize the inhales and exhales. We started with two clicks of the metronome (seconds) per inhale and exhale, but then decided to stretch it out to three when we added movement because it seemed too fast.

This proved to be a very enlightening exercise because it showed where she tended to shorten the breath and henceforth rush through the movement. 

I discovered similar discrepancies when I tried it for myself. As a musician, I'm used to drawing out my exhales for days, but my inhales, not so much. Some movements seemed too fast, others too slow. Just like when practicing tricky flute passages, the metronome will keep you honest! 

Now I'm not suggesting you do your yoga practice to a metronome on a regular basis, but give it a try once to see just how steady your breath and movement are. (P. S. There are online metronomes and apps, or if you have an old-fashioned clock with a ticking second hand, that works, too.)

Here's my attempt at a four-second breath during my vinyasa:

 

Try it! And, if that experience creates any "a-ha!" moments for you, I'd love to hear about it in the comments.

Slow and Steady

A lot of people ask me if I do anything for exercise besides yoga, and if you read my recent blog post Find Your Fitness Jam, you'd know the answer is a big, fat "nope".

I pretty much hate to work out, at least anything that involves running, jumping, and reps, which is why I'm so glad I discovered yoga.

But most people are skeptical that yoga is a sufficient workout. Instead of just flashing you my guns, I'll attempt to explain why I think yoga has worked for me.

1) The type of yoga I teach and practice involves a lot of supporting your own body weight. Even for light folks, that's a lot of pounds! How many times per class do I say, "Step back into plank"? A lot.

2) We also hold poses for a while. Ain't no quad burn quite like chair pose.

3) We breathe. Deeply. The simple act of deep breathing can work your core.

4) Every yoga practice works your entire body. Every day is leg day. And abs. And upper body.

5) Lastly, and I think most importantly, we move slowly. I like to say in class, "Slow and steady wins the non-existent race," because of course there is no race in a yoga practice. But it's HARD to move slowly, y'all! I have had many people tell me my level 1 classes are harder than my level 2 classes because they are slower. (And we might just hold poses a bit longer while I give the extra instruction. Oopsie.)

When you combine all these things, a yoga practice can be very physical, very powerful, and very effective. I've included a snippet here of my typical practice/class. Imagine doing this kind of movement for a solid hour, and feel the burn!


Come as You Are

A sweet student came up to me after class yesterday and said, “I just love your classes, Jill - you don’t make me feel inadequate!”

I giggled at the time and thanked her, but her words stuck with me after I left the studio. On the one hand, I thought, “Well, that’s an underwhelming feeling to leave class with, just that you didn’t feel inadequate.” But the more I thought about it, I started to realize how profound that statement really was.

Haven’t we all felt inadequate in a yoga class before, or maybe at the gym, or in any number of similar situations?

I remember when I first started going to “advanced” classes during my yoga teacher training. Even before class would start, I would look around at all the younger, bendier bodies with envy. When a crazy arm balance was called out, I would stare in disbelief, thinking, “How is that even possible?”

In short, I felt...well, inadequate!

Or maybe for you, the feelings of inadequacy are what’s keeping you from even trying a yoga class. I’m not flexible enough. I’m not strong enough. I just need to get some of these pounds off first.

Well, I’m here to tell you that you are enough. Right here, right now, you are enough, just as you are. You are worthy.

I am so thankful that my yoga practice has taught me this lesson, although it took a while. The work we do on our mats is also an inside job. Yoga, at its core, is about finding peace within yourself. As we move through our postures, we learn to observe our breath and our inner dialogue, and hopefully, eventually, to create harmony in our bodies, minds, and hearts.

As a teacher, this is my foremost job, to create a space where you feel welcome, where you feel adequate to put down your mat and practice finding peace within yourself.

Come to my class. Come as you are. You are worthy. You are enough.

Labor Day Contest

Happy Labor Day weekend, folks!

To celebrate all our hard work, I'm having a contest to give away two 60-minute private sessions, and I'll explain how to enter the contest shortly. 

Those of you who take my classes know that I usually like to get as creative with my playlists as I do with my sequences, and the one I'm debuting this weekend is no exception. I find particular delight in finding fun connections between songs, like following "Bootylicious" with "Shake Your Booty." 

And therein lies the fun of this contest! Here's how to play:

1) Come to one of my classes this weekend at Real Hot Yoga (Friday 4:30 pm, Saturday 1 pm) or Breezeway Yoga Studio (Saturday 9 am, Sunday 4 pm).

2) I have TWO fun song connections worked into my Labor Day playlist. One of them is pretty easy. The other is for my fellow music-loving geeks, but I have faith in your musical sleuthing abilities! (Here's a hint: it's movie related.) Figure them out and send me your guesses either by the contact page here on my website or via Facebook message through my Flutist Yogini page.

3) The deadline to submit your guesses is Monday, September 7, midnight EST. On Tuesday, I will announce the two randomly-selected winners from all the correct responses. 

4) Winners must redeem their prize here in Knoxville within one year.

Remember, part of the contest is actually coming to class, not just listening to the playlist.

Have fun, and let's play!