Virtual Satsang

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Posts Tagged ‘yoga_class

Headstand isn’t for Everybody

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A NY Times article about safety and Yoga asanas briefly quotes, Timothy McCall (medical editor of the Yoga Journal), on the dangers posed by Sirsasana. It reminded me of an article he wrote on Sirsasana way back in 2003 (yep, 2003 was 8 years ago).

Headstand is one of those poses that many teachers introduce and include, without thinking twice. Most teachers are aware that it’s a pose not to be taken lightly, and safety precautions tend to be emphasized. Nevertheless, as McCall’s article below warns, even students who are comfortable executing the pose need to be aware that there are medical risks that come with Sirsasana. Unfortunately many teachers aren’t aware of those medical dangers!

From the Sep/Oct 2003 issue of the Yoga Journal, page 34:

Upside Downside?
by Timothy McCall

Last year, after developing a nerve blockage in the chest called thoracic outlet syndrome, I stopped doing Sirsasana (headstand). In the months prior, I’d worked up to holding the pose for 10 minutes, and I’m now convinced that the resulting compression of my chest led to the nerve problem. Shortly after stopping Headstand, the intermittent tingling in my arm went away.

Looking at the faces of people doing Headstand, I often see little of the ease, sukha, that Patanjali stresses should be part of every asana. Some people appear to be straining or breathing erratically; and many students look like they can’t wait for the teacher to tell them to come down and rest.

Even though the pose was never comfortable for me either, I had stayed with it because ofthe purported benefits. T. Krishnamacharya, the guru of K. Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar, and T.K.V. Desikachar, called Headstand the king of the asanas, and practicing regularly is stressed in Iyengar Yoga, the main style I’ve studied. Headstand is believed to calm the nervous system and promote a yogic mind (that is, foster equanimity), and has numerous physiological effects, including reducing the breathing and heart rates, slowing brainwaves, and enhancing the drainage of lymph from areas below the heart. It also induces reductions in norepinephrine, aldosterone, and antidiuretic hormone levels, and so tends to lower blood pressure.

Interestingly, the pose is rarely taught by Desikachar and his followers, due to safety concerns, including neck problems such as herniated disks and arthritis in the cervical vertebrae (bones ofthe neck). Of greater significance is the potentially heightened risk of stroke in people with inadequately controlled high blood pressure and of retinal bleeding or detachment in those with some types of eye disease. For people with glaucoma, Headstand may further increase pressure in the eyes, contributing to loss of vision.

Should you dare to go up? I tend to view the question in light of my own medical training. Doctors are used to the risks and benefits of any intervention before deciding what to do, and I suggest you do the same when contemplating potentially risky poses. For a certain group of yoga students, I have little doubt that headstand can be safe and of great value. These students have enough openness and strength to be able to lift out of the shoulders and thoracic spine and skillfully use their legs to bring further elevation. They are also able to maintain good alignment of the arms, head, and neck and to keep their feet directly over their heads. When the feet drift, it can generate an unhealthy torque on the cervical vertebrae.

Given how tiny and fragile these vertebrae are, I wonder if it is advisable to teach this pose in open classes, in which students of varying levels may be participating. In a class setting, some people may end up doing what isn’t safe for them or what does not feel good. The desire to persevere with a pose that your body is indicating is not right (or not yet right) for you ought to elicit some serious self-study or svadhyaya. You might ask yourself why you are doing yoga and what you hope to gain from it. In this light, putting off or forgoing a pose you’d like to do can be an opportunity for growth and greater self-knowledge.

If you have no strong contraindications but alignment is a problem, using a mirror, wall, or comer to give proper support can help. If they are available, wall ropes and props, such as two chairs, can provide excellent alternatives for those with neck or thoracic spine problems (see ‘Everybody Upside Down’ in our September/ October 2000 issue). If maintaining alignment is an issue, come down as soon as you lose sukha, then slowly build up gradually. More time on preparatory poses is also advisable. For those with poorly controlled high blood pressure, glaucoma, or retinal problems, however, Headstand may simply be too risky in any form.

Luckily, there are many altenatives that can give you a wonderful yogic experience even if the pose isn’t right for you. Ask your teacher for recommendations.

Related posts:

  • How many variations of headstand are there?
  • Yoga Reading List: My always updated list of favorite Yoga related books.
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    Written by virtualsatsang

    January 6, 2012 at 10:47 pm

    Posted in Yoga

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    Making the Familiar seem Strange and the Strange seem Familiar

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    The title of this post is a quote from an essay written by Jonathan Z. Smith1, which I found in David Gordon White’s note to instructors, who plan to use the essays found in Yoga in Practice.

    I thought the sentiment expressed also applies to modern-day hatha yoga teachers. I think many times yoga teachers relish being “exotic” (Sanskrit anyone?), when often the best pedagogical technique is to use familiar concepts.

    In many cases authenticity is tied to Hindu concepts and formulations. Whenever you find yourself looking down on a particular style/lineage/school of yoga, consider that there have been so many systems of yoga, your favored system is just one of them. So embrace the yoga system that works for you, but realize that “authenticity” and “lineage” can be slippery slopes.

    From Yoga in Practice pages 24-27:

    Given the fact that the people who “do” yoga number in the tens of millions in the West alone, many students will come to a course on yoga with a number of preconceptions received from their teachers and trainers. Primary among these is the received notion that all yoga are one, and that one Yoga tradition has remained unchanged since its origins in the mists on antiquity. An alternative assumption is that yoga has evolved in a straight line and following some sort of historical determinism from the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutra down through the classical works of hatha yoga and into modern-day Vinyasa, Astanga, Kriya Yoga and so forth. What a chronological reading of the outstanding translations and introductions in this volume makes abundantly clear is that there are as many discontinuities as there are continuities in the history of yoga, and that there are nearly as many yoga systems as there are texts on yoga.

    … There are continuities — historical, philosophical, ritual, and so forth — between and among various yoga traditions … This being said, once cannot help but notice that even when they are seeking to refute one another, the authors of these words were clearly engaged in some sort of conversation. So, while there are distinctively Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Tantric, non-sectarian, and even Islamic yoga traditions, there are a number of pervasive themes that recur across texts and time. … As the six contributions on yoga in South and Inner Asian Tantric traditions make clear, sectarian differences among Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains paled in comparison to the commonalities of their shared Tantric worldview, metaphysics, goals, and techniques.

    … What distinguishes the principal types of yogic practice from one another are the components of the self that are the objects of one’s discipline. So it is is that in meditative traditions, the principal focus will be on immobilizing thought, usually in conjunction with breath control, the inner repetition of mantras, and so on. In most forms of Tantric yoga, thought, semen, and the body are highlighted to varying degrees. In hatha yoga, the focus can be on all four components as immortalized in a medieval vernacular poem attributed to the Nath Yogi Gopicand: “Steady goes the breath, and the mind is steady, steady goes the mind, the semen. Steady the semen, and the body is steady, that’s what Gopicand is sayin.”

    … culture warriors from worlds apart are making the nearly identical claim that yoga is fundamentally Hindu. In the United States, a number of Christian evangelists are taking this position for the expressed purpose of controlling the bodies of Christian women, while in India, Hindu fundamentalists are doing the same in the service of their ongoing campaign of identity politics.

    … As for their shared claim that Yoga is fundamentally Hindu, this can only stand if one allows that there has only ever been one “yoga” , and that yoga has remain unaltered since incepetion, i.e., the yoga being taught today in yoga studios across the globe is identical to the yoga of the Upanishads or that taught to Krsna in the Bhagavad Gita, the two earliest treatments of “yoga” in the Hindu cannon. However, upon inspection these two original Hindu teachings on yoga are found to diverge on several points, an so one must conclude that from the very outset there have been at least two Hindu systems of yoga. And, as the contributions to this volume make plain, the past 2,500 years have seen the emergence of many, many systems of yoga — the earliest of which may not have been Hindu at all, and many of which arose outside of India — whose theories and practices have often been diametrically opposed to one another.

    … Now, it is the case that many modern-day yoga gurus have collapsed the rich and varied histories of the many yogas of India, greater Asia, and now the West, into a simplistic vision of yoga as an unchanging tradition grounded in the religion of the Vedas. However, the simple fact that some contemporary teachers and practitioners of yoga hold to such an untenable hypothesis does not make yoga Hindu, any more than the presence of a plastic Jesus on some dashboards would make all automobile drivers Christian.


    (1) “… the task of the religious studies scholar is not only to make the strange seem familiar, but also to make the familiar seem strange.”

    Written by virtualsatsang

    January 3, 2012 at 12:06 am

    Posted in History, Yoga

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    Find teachers who are attuned to the Deeper Aspect of Yoga

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    David Williams was one of the first Westerners to study with Pattabhi Jois. The quote below is from a 2004 letter to yoga students in Oahu1. The sentiment he expresses is consistent with previous posts I’ve written on the subject of finding teachers and classes.

    I am occasionally asked if someone is “good at yoga.” I quickly respond that the best Yogi is not the one who is most flexible, but the one who is most focused on what he or she is doing, the one most intensely doing the mulabandha and deep breathing … My goal is to convey the idea that the greatest Yogi is the one who enjoys his or her Yoga practice the most, not the one who can achieve the ultimate pretzel position. It is my belief … that in your practice of this moving meditation, what is really important, is what is invisible to the observer, what is within each of you.



    Unfortunately the hyperlink to that letter is broken. I came across the above quote in this essay written by an Australian academic.

    Written by virtualsatsang

    May 20, 2011 at 7:22 am

    Posted in Quotes, Yoga

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    Checklist to help you find the right Yoga classes and teachers

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    Towards the end of Kenneth Liberman’s essay on The Reflexivity of the Authenticity of Hatha Yoga1, he provides guidelines that can be used to distinguish what can be “… authentic in yoga today”. I’m listing them below because I thought the items he lists would also be useful for finding teachers and classes.

    I personally prefer smaller, more intimate classes, taught by teachers who are attentive to the needs and safety of their students. I find classes taught by “celebrity” teachers, in trendy studios, to be disappointing. With the right teacher, larger classes can work. But I find popular teachers to be more “performance-oriented”, and thus their classes tend to be distracting, if not outright competitive. I prefer teachers who are service-oriented, humble, and familiar with the psychological & spiritual benefits of asana practice. Thus, I love the following guidelines I culled from Kenneth Liberman’s essay.

    Fortunately, I’ve found teachers that have guided my practice. These days my asana practice is primarily a home practice. But through regular private sessions and workshops with my teacher, my practice remains vibrant as ever.

  • First among them is the resolve of yoga to overcome egoism. This especially conflicts with contemporary Western culture and its individualism and its idolatry of celebrity; but anything that results in inflating ego cannot be considered a yoga practice. It is the considered opinion of two millennia of yoga practice that egocentrism leads to ruin, so techniques for reducing obsessiveness with which a student pursues his or her self-image and interests need to be preserved.
  • The system of yoga of Patanjali and all yogis since have included yamas and niyamas or something similar, that refers to basic moral practices such as honesty, good will, selflessness, and the like, without which a daily practice cannot be considered “authentic” yoga. Accordingly, these need to be made part of the regular and daily instruction in yoga classes worldwide.
  • The point of teaching asana is to lead students to a pacification of nervous energy so that spiritual rewards of simpler ways of being can be experienced for oneself. … Can there be an authentic yoga that is not oriented toward cultivating spiritual motives? Doing yoga is not like doing chin ups, and the thoughtful cultivation of one’s nerves and energies has a spiritual purpose. This does not mean it has to be worded or clothed in Hinduism, but it is to be felt along with “the exercise” and within part of the exercise. And in this regard, asana and pranayama must provide skillful guidance, for only confusion will result without it.
  • Karma yoga involves social service, which itself can contribute in a powerful way to the reduction of egoism. In the modern fitness marketplace, where the disciples are motivated primarily by the desire for an attractive body, social service can be employed as a radical method to redirect consciousness.
  • Finally, there is the large region of yoga that involves tapas or self-control that may involve “forceful repression” (i.e., hatha yoga). … Simplicity should be taught and practiced for it is the very heart of yoga. … somehow its practice must be introduced into the modern yoga studio instead of lines of yoga wardrobe. … A fundamental yoga practice that is given short shrift even in the classic texts and commentaries is pratyahara — the withdrawal of one’s natural circumspective inquiry from the pursuit of external sources for happiness and the simultaneous cultivation of internal resources for enduring satisfaction.


  • (1) Liberman questions “… the belief of many modern practitioners that there was once an original and pure yoga that now serves as the basis for the contemporary practice of yoga.”

    Written by virtualsatsang

    May 2, 2011 at 7:52 am

    Posted in Sadhana, Seva, Yoga

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    Finding the right Yoga teacher

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    Following up a recent post on the same topic, more advice from Max Strom (A Life Worth Breathing, page 134):

    Try practicing with virtually every teacher in your area. You will find someone you resonate with — someone who will be just the right person to help you on your journey. A yoga teacher should be knowledgeable, kind, considerate, a great communicator, and show interest in your practice. Avoid yoga teachers who are vain and self-centered. If the teacher isn’t kind, move on. If they are not moral, move on. If they miss these two precepts, they are misunderstanding the purpose of yoga.

    Also, you should avoid teachers who tend to literally push students deeper into poses with aggressive hands-on adjustments. Hands-on adjustments are very useful, but only when done gently and mindfully. More injuries are caused by the ego of the student, pushing themselves too far, and the ego of the teacher, pushing the students beyond their limits.

    Written by virtualsatsang

    January 19, 2011 at 8:02 am

    Posted in Sadhana, Yoga

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    Finding the right Yoga class

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    From Max Strom (A Life Worth Breathing, page 69):

    Healing your own anger issues:

    … If you feel that you tend to be competitive or aggressive by nature, I recommend that you avoid yoga classes that approach “attaining” postures as the main focus. Instead, seek out classes that are noncompetitive and more oriented toward healing. Release your addiction to “power” and seek out breath and alignment. You will discover a new kind of power that will astonish you. …

    Written by virtualsatsang

    January 12, 2011 at 7:45 am

    Posted in Quotes, Yoga

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