I´ve never had a guru in my yoga practice and I´m not even faithfully one teacher´s student. I´ve had a couple of remarkable teachers on my yoga journey but I´ve never felt that I could get all my learning from just one teacher. I have learned my practice as guruji , Pattabhi Jois taught it to his faithful students but unfortunately I didn´t have the pleasure of meeting guruji before he passed away. Nowadays as the leader of KPJAYI in Mysore is guruji´s daughter´s son Sharath Jois, whom I have met once. I don´t feel a strong pull towards Mysore but I´m sure the day will come when I travel there to practice.
Even though I´ve had a couple of important teachers along my yoga journey one of them has repeatedly made a deep impression on me. Eddie Stern, a teacher from New York whose course I took lately at Helsinki Ashtanga Yoga School. If I lived in New York there would be no question on who I would choose as my teacher. Eddie´s insight and knowledge on yoga, yoga philosophy, anatomy, quantum physics, the human brain and all of it´s connection to the practice is staggering. On top of this he is a living dictionary on Sanskrit. Eddie has been an important teacher for me in my asana practice and he was the one who helped me heal my severe back pain three years ago. His teachings go way beyond asana though. Especially his latest course that I attended left a mark on my heart that I don´t quite know how to describe. One of my dreams is to travel to New York for a while and practice at Eddie´s yoga school.
Every year Eddie´s course consists of four days of lecture which bring together yoga philosophy and scientific research. The vastness of information in his lecture series is so profound that if you´re able to internalise even ten percent of it you have gotten a lot. This time around I was able to take away an exceptional amount of “ahaa” from his teachings. Confirmation on things that I have learned from my teacher Magnus and to the things that I teach on to my students. I felt like I got a blessing to the things that I hold to be important in the practice. I am going to try and verbalize even a tiny bit of the information that I was given. I hope you find something for yourself here.
This time Eddie´s lectures were on the subject of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system and especially the vagus nerve. The parasympathetic nervous system is the one calming us and the sympathetic nervous system is activating. The two of these should be working in balance but in the hectic pace of our day to day life the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system is even more important. If the sympathetic nervous system has the upper hand we are in a state of stress. This can manifest as trouble falling asleep, poor sleep, over activity ( running around like headless chicken). The sympathetic system can take the upper hand in our practice as well resulting in our bodies not recovering from the practice and leaving us with a shaky feeling and even irritation. This is why it is so important that savasana last at least seven minutes. Even though after five minutes in savasana you might feel completely calm, it is a researched fact that the cooling down of the sympathetic nervous system takes seven minutes. The Vagus nerve is the most important part of the parasympathetic nervous system. It for instance calms the heart beat and breath and has a substantial effect on the digestive and immune systems.
The ashtanga yoga practice has a concrete effect on our nervous system. Inhalation and back bends activate the sympathetic system and exhalation and forward bends activate the parasympathetic system. For this reason it is important to pay attention to the breath, especially the exhale and the lengthening of it. In practice it´s important for both inhale and exhale to be of even length but often the exhale is left too short. It is important for the breath to lead into motion. You can bring attention to this by beginning the breath and following with motion a second after ( for instance with raising your hands in surya namaskar). Concentrating on the breath is also the only way to truly stay present in the practice and let yoga genuinely happen. It is a natural process of yoga that the mind begins to wander but you can always bring it back through the breath. Only then can the practice truly and deeply affect and liberate us.
For the breath to lead motion should the forward bends be done with the chest leading. And this takes me to my favorite subject, the alignment of the head. Very often, even with advanced yogis, the chin and neck are thrust forward ( this places an approximate 10kg weight burden on the neck and shoulders). With the inhale, lengthening the spine many tend to lift the chin up and in forward fold flatten the back, even arch it a bit leaving the head up. This first of all breaks the lengthening and alignment of the spine, weakens the abdominal support and is a very common reason for lower back pain. The parasympathetic nervous system resides around the neck and the sacrum and these are the exact locations we want to bring more space to. Holding the head up does not make more space for the neck, on the contrary, and it cuts the energy flow as well. If you look at Patthabi Jois´ guru´s Krishnamacharya´s pictures of forward folds or Sharath´s asana poster you see both holding their heads down and the back is even a bit rounded. The spine is free to lengthen through it`s whole length, the parasympathetic system has space and has a calming effect on us. The sympathetic nervous system is in our spine which explains why many beginning practicing the second series loose sleep for a while: the series has a lot of strong back bends. Some people with a super bendy back or extremely toned core muscles do not have to worry so much about head alignment: if the asana feels comfortable and easy with the head down and there is not too much lengthening to be done any more can the gaze and chin be turned forward.
If your body does not seem to recover easily from the practice and you feel jittery, tired or irritated through out the day it might be a good idea to take a closer look at your practice and the energy you are using in it. There are dozens of ways of making the practice lighter. Forcing your practice will only keep the actual practice of yoga at bay. The paradox here is though that sometimes you really have to push your boundaries in the practice. To find your own middle ground it is a good idea to talk with your teacher.
Here´s a couple more alignment cues that Eddie spoke about which I feel do not get addressed often enough. The first one is in regards of the sun salutations, surya namaskars. With the inhale, when the arms are brought up the hips stay in place. They should not be thrust forward nor should the low back arch. The lower ribs remain down and flat, not popping out. Pushing the hips forward and arching the low back are one of the most common reasons for low back pain, including my own that I suffered of years back. In the first vinyasa (where you bring your arms up) the arch is tucked away ( bring the pubic bone a bit up) actively lengthen the spine and automatically your lower abdominals will be engaged. By doing this uddiyana bandha will be properly activated. With the exhale the lower back naturally arches a bit but the forward fold should not be done with an arched back. Activating the mula bandha helps in keeping the hips aligned. When you are able to take these adjustments and use of the bandhas into your whole practice there should be no lower back pain.
Eddie had great advice for padmasana as well. Often this asana is done with an arching low back. Uddiyana bandha is activated with the inhale, lengthening and straightening the spine. Mula bandha is activated with the exhale by squeezing and lifting the rectum towards the belly button still keeping the spine long and straight. By doing this there is barely no arch in the low back.
So here, in a very, very small nut shell the things that I gathered from this year´s course. I cannot even find words for the most profound lessons I learned. All and all, what I can say is that this practice that we are doing is absolutely amazing in how it´s effects resonate even beyond my comprehension.
Have you had a chance to take Eddie´s courses? How do you find his teachings?
Photos Denis Vinokur
Translated by Mariko Pajalahti