being “bendy” …… or not

most of us, yogis, have our favorite asanas, and we also have those that are difficult, challenging and uncomfortable. let’s just call them “second favorite” poses. for me, those were backbends, any and all kinds.

early on, I tried to avoid them at all cost, which was not too difficult since my personal practice was Ashtanga, and there are not too many backbends in the primary series. but then came second series with all kinds of goodies, and I had to make peace and befriend all those great postures. it has taken me a while, and I am still working on it, but now I absolutely love backbends, any and all kinds. I still can’t say I feel comfortable a moment before kapotasana, but I look forward to practicing them.

I have had students over the years who have been able to do many advanced backbending postures at ease and don’t understand what the hoopla is about, because they are naturally bendy. it’s no big deal for them to get to their ankles in kapotasana or walk their hands up on the calves from urdhva dhanurasana…oh, the lucky ones! we, as normal not bendy people, still like them. but I, along with many others, appreciate those poses so much more, because I had to work hard to get to where I am today.

I will be teaching a backbending workshop on 4/18 at DMY (for details, please see; ). this workshop will be suitable for those who are in the process of learning to love backbends, and also for those who are naturally bendy as I will be offering more advanced variations as well. my goal is to help deepen the experience and take out the fear of practicing backbends. if you have any questions, please send me a note!


Happier Shoulderstands

Shoulderstand (salamba sarvangasana) is a wonderful pose: it can be light and energetic — as if you’re reaching for the ceiling; it strengthens your back and core; and since it’s an inversion, it’s good for your circulatory and lymphatic systems. But, if you already have neck pain, or if your neck and shoulders are tight, practicing shoulderstand can be unpleasant or worse, aggravating your issues and causing serious injury to your neck.

Enter the shoulderstand platform.

The shoulderstand platform is a dense foam “block”, covered with corduroy, that lifts your shoulders and arms up away from the floor by about 2 inches. The extra height reduces the angle on your neck: in a full shoulderstand without the platform, your neck needs to bend at a 90 degree angle, with the platform your neck and body make something more like a 120 degree angle. When your shoulders and arms are on the platform and your head is on the floor, your neck is completely free. C7, the vertebra that sticks out at the base of your neck, and the rest of your vertebrae are not pressing into the floor potentially causing strain to your neck.

In some forms of yoga, two or more blankets (and a sticky mat) are used underneath a student’s shoulders and arms to support shoulderstand. Superficially, practicing this way provides the same benefits as the platform — your neck is free and at a greater angle from your body than when the pose is unsupported. However, the blankets tend to give underneath your weight so that you don’t have the ability to press strongly into your shoulders and arms to lift up into the pose. The firm, dense foam of the shoulderstand platform provides a stable base that allows you to press down and lift into the pose as if you were practicing without props, while still providing the extra space for your neck.

In my own practice, I’ve been using the shoulderstand platform for a few months now, particularly when I want to hold the pose for more than a few breaths. The platform is appropriate for all students and is recommended for anyone who cannot stack their shoulders, hips and ankles while creating space between your shoulder blades in the pose.

Recently, several of my students tried out my shoulderstand platform. Every student that tried it was pleased with how much easier the shoulderstand was with the platform and how much better it felt. One student even went so far as to say that it made the pose “1,000 times better”!

If you want your very own platform, you can purchase them locally at Health Advantage Yoga Center in Herndon, or you can order them online from Yogaware (listed simply as “platforms”).

I like to set mine up by wrapping a sticky mat around it to hold my arms/elbows together (the thin ones work better than the thick Manduka mats) and then placing a single blanket folded in half lengthwise at one end so that it makes a T with the platform. My hips go on the folded blanket (“the launching pad”) and my shoulders come about an inch from the opposite edge of platform.

No matter how you set up for the pose, once you come into shoulderstand, no part of your neck should be on the platform (or the floor). If you feel the platform, come down and move closer to the edge, so that your neck can be free.

If you have serious structural issues with your neck (e.g., bulging or degenerated discs), if you have high blood pressure, glaucoma, or your doctor or your regular yoga teacher has advised against inversions generally or shoulderstand specifically, please do not practice shoulderstand with or without a platform.


what and when to eat; practice and food

i have been practicing for over a decade now, and I notice more and more the effect of foods on my body. the quantity and quality of food ingested influences my practice as well as the amount of liquid i had, ideally mostly decaffeinated and non-alcoholic.

so I can understand that so many of my students are struggling to find the type of food they eat prior and after the practice as well as the timing. i am not a nutritionist and food is such a personal issue, it’s difficult to comment on what’s helpful for someone else, but I am happy to share what has worked for me.

we are all unique with different body types and nutritional needs. for many yoga practitioners, following a vegetarian diet is a moral choice they make; practicing “ahimsa”, non-violence as a basic precept of the ashtanga system. others find a vegetarian diet with as much variety as possible beneficial to their asana practice.

if you practice in the evening, try to have a snack at least two hours before practice and make sure to hydrate throughout the day. most of us lose our appetite right after practice, so eating a light dinner post practice would feel natural.
if you have a morning practice, some schools advise a completely empty stomach which does not work for some practitioners; they get light-headed and weak, especially those with low blood pressure. follow your body’s clues! a consistent yoga practice fosters sensitivity, we become very aware of the subtle and not so subtle messages that our bodies are sending to our brains. we just need to listen. try to have as much fruits, veggies, whole grains as you can, and limit your processed food intake. for me finding the right carbs was key; I grew up on crusty european breads and very much enjoyed the delicious german pastries in recent past. but I did not enjoy the heavy feelings I used to get when I stepped on my mat the following day.

for ashtangis, the issue of food is paramount as most of us practice a demanding sequence very early in the morning. having coffee before practice is enticing for several reasons; it helps us wake up at 4 am and get out of bed when it’s dark and cold outside, also having an empty stomach is essential in some asanas. this is a very personal choice, and whatever decision a practicioner makes it’s important to be non-judgemential towards others. it’s a good idea to practice moderation in everything we do, on-and-off the mat.

in mysore, most of us have a very light dinner early, anu’s famous smoothie comes to mind. I have found that eating early, slowly and consciously help me feel light, energetic the next morning.

again, these are just my observations I have had over the years. I do crave bad carbs during the winter months from time to time, but I learn quickly; the mat is like a mirror, good and bad. try and experiment with different healthy food choices and you will find your perfect pre and post meals.


Spiral Sutra Class Reference

Several students in my Wednesday evening class requested that I post the references for the class and the “spiral sutra”. (For the rest of my students, do not worry, I’m planning similar classes for Saturday, Monday and Tuesday. :-))

The source material came primarily from Doug Keller’s Yoga Therapy book. The book is pretty intense though, so I don’t recommend it for casual readers.

If you’re interested, but not quite ready to tackle the therapy book, similar material on the feet/arches, knees and hips can be found in Doug’s Yoga+ therapy articles, which he also posts on his website.


Yoga and Your Core

Over the last 10 years or so I’ve noticed a shift in yoga classes towards emphasizing the “core”. I’ve seen this both in the inclusion of specific abdominal exercises as well as more frequent mention of how the core works in more traditional yoga poses.

However, often in faster-paced vinyasa classes like Ursula and I teach, there is not time to discuss the core in detail, possibly leaving students with misconceptions and confusion. So, today I’d like to take a bit of time to remedy that.

First, it is important to know that your core is composed of the abdominal muscles and the muscles of the lower back, hips and buttocks. Together these muscles support your spine and keep you stable and balanced.

A strong core can make it easier to stand or sit and can allow you to perform more dynamic activity such as running, jumping or perhaps balancing on a slippery surface.

Weak core muscles lead to poor posture, particularly over-arching in your low back. In most people the postural imbalances are small, so that when you are young you don’t usually notice the strain placed on your spine. However, as you age (starting as early as your late 20s or early 30s), the strain caused by weak core muscles becomes more noticeable and can lead to low back pain, loss of mobility and decreased ability to maintain balance. Many problems of old age can be traced to weak core muscles.

Beyond allowing you to maintain a natural curve in your spine in all yoga poses, a strong core allows you to properly practice chaturanga (low plank/low push-up), inversions, arm balances and backbends. Many of the intermediate and advanced poses are simply not accessible with a weak core.

So, how do you strengthen your core? I have two favorite exercises that I will describe below and then a simple sequence that can be practiced in less than 15 minutes.

Half Plank

This pose is most effective if done in front of a mirror. Especially if you are new to the practice, it is difficult to know if your body is properly aligned without being able to visually check. If your body is not in the right position, you will not work your core muscles properly.

  1. Begin on your hands and knees and then come down to rest on your forearms, making sure that your elbows are directly underneath your shoulders. Sink your spine down between your shoulder blades so that you are not pushing your upper back away from the floor.
  2. Extend your legs out behind you a comfortable distance, curling your toes under. Extend your tailbone down towards your heels, lengthening your spine. Lift the weight of your torso with your thighs and abdomen so that your entire body from your shoulders to your heels is one straight line — like a plank.
  3. Hold this pose without lifting your buttocks, bending at your hips, or sinking your belly to the floor. Begin by holding for a count of 10-15 and work up to a minute or more.


Throughout the exercise it is important that your neck and shoulders as well as your thighs and hip flexors (the muscles at the crease of your hips and thighs) remain relaxed and as disengaged as possible. Hardening these muscles will cause you to perform the movements incorrectly.

Beginners or students who have trouble relaxing their thighs and hip-flexors should practice curl-ups with the soles of their feet at a wall such that their shins and thighs make a 90 degree angle (shins parallel to the floor). This contracts the hip-flexors making it more difficult to use these muscles to perform the movement.

  1. Place the soles of your feet on the floor, bending your knees comfortably. Try to relax your hips and thighs.
  2. Bring your hands, face-in, to either side of your hips/thighs.
  3. Extend your arms as you roll your head, shoulders and shoulder blades up off the floor, leaving your mid-back, lower back and hips on the floor. Relax your neck and shoulders! If you have a mirror, check to make sure that your back is rounded.
  4. Hold the pose for a 5 to 8 breaths. Then roll down coming back to the floor.

In class I typically have students do two curl-ups to the center, two to each side (with both arms to the outside of the legs), one back in the center and then add variations extending the legs. If you extend your legs in this pose it is important to make sure that your heels are 1-2″ off the ground so that your hip flexors are not engaged.

A Simple Core Sequence

Here’s a short sequence of exercises that you can perform a few times a week to strengthen your core.

  1. Cat/Dog Tilts – From your hands and knees round your back up towards the ceiling and drop your spine to the floor a few times. This will warm up your spine and core muscles.
  2. Half Plank – Come into half plank as described above and hold until you are tired, but can still maintain the proper position. Rest for a few moments on your belly and then repeat.
  3. [optional] Salabhasana (Locust) – Come into locust pose and hold anywhere from 10 seconds to 30 seconds. Although I did not discuss this pose in today’s post, this pose helps to strengthen the core muscles in the back.
  4. Balasana (Child’s Pose) – Rest in child’s pose for a moment.
  5. Curl-ups – Perform a few curl-ups according to your ability. Remember that it is important to tire your abdominal muscles but only to the point that you can still perform the exercise correctly. Be honest with yourself and stop when you begin “cheating”.
  6. Stretching – Bring your arms over your head and extend your legs (as long as it is comfortable to do so). Lengthen your entire body. Lengthen through your right side. Lengthen through your left side. Lengthen your entire body again.
  7. Lunges – Roll to your side and come up and perform one or more lunges on each side to stretch your lower front body.