On Suffering | How Does it Relate to Depression?

In life, there are a few guarantees. Some of them being the days passing, change and evolution, but it never occurred to me that suffering is also guaranteed. We can define suffering as a state of undergoing pain, strife, distress or hardship and at one point or another in our lives, I can guarantee we’ve all experienced suffering. It can be caused by something as minor as a cut to the finger, or a larger catastrophic event leaving hundreds dead.

Let’s look at suffering a little more granularly.

Say that there is a person who is obese, and is told to lose weight for the sake of their health. From the beginning, they are already suffering. They suffer the scrutiny from society who loves to fat-shame, they suffer from health ailments and joint pain, and a myriad of other reasons. Suffering exists for this person in both low-level and high-level forms, for example (as theoretic):

  1. Instant gratification by way of convenience of unhealthy eating habits. Not taking the time to choose healthier eating options or satiating hunger with junk food contributes to more health problems and continues the state of obesity. This is low-level suffering.

  2. Understanding their current health state and choosing to take control of the situation by way of exercise and increased activity. It can feel grueling to walk on a treadmill for 15 minutes and maintain the discipline to stay committed. Maintaining a more active regimen will contribute to a better health outlook. This is high-level suffering.

When we apply this concept of low/high-levels of suffering and see how it shows up in our daily lives, we can recognize that we have choices that either enable our suffering to continue, or to suffer in a way that will alleviate the overarching cycle of suffering. But know that suffering will always be on of life’s constants, and we will have to understand how to better recognize how to address our suffering.

I’ve been waffling back and forth on whether depression is a constant state of suffering, or whether it is a period of time in which suffering is exacerbated. As I continue on living with depression, I believe that it’s different for everyone. For me personally, I feel that it’s a combination of both, in which it ebbs and flows. There will be moments of highs in which things seem to be excruciating, and there will be moments of lows, in which there is nothingness. The goal in managing depression is to keep things relatively level, almost to a plateau, keeping the rollercoaster lines at bay.

My suffering, while it cannot be controlled, can be managed through choices I make.

Photo by  Maurice Berbano

In high school, I drank bleach and landed myself in the hospital under supervision. I didn’t want to be told when to eat, what pills to swallow, when to get my blood drawn, and who to talk to. All I wanted was to get out and be in my own bed where I would wallow in my own mental anguish. I figured out quickly that I would need to do everything asked of me to be released; it worked. But that was a low-level form of suffering. All it did was continue the cycle of an illness that was never fully addressed nor identified — and swallowing too many pills happened a few years later.

The high-level realization came after the second hospitalization. I didn’t want to keep going to the extremes (aka supervised hospitalization). I wanted to continue my studies at school and lead a seemingly normal life, with the college experience everyone touts to be the best years of your life (they are). I took two semesters off to rehabilitate myself. I sought the professional help I needed, went to the therapy recommended, and consistently started medication. In time, I felt like I was gaining control of my life again, instead of being chained to a grip that kept me from experiencing my college years as I should have.

Now, having experienced that in my younger years, I know when things get bad before getting worse. I know I have choices to make, and how to address the issue at hand, although it might take time. It’s just a matter of deciding the suffering I want to endure, and for how long. If depression is currently rearing its head in your life, the suffering is real. It can last and last and last — but no one can help you better than you.

Teaching Yoga: What’s In It For You? | Yoga Teachers, Practitioners & Being Genuine

Yoga in most major metropolitan, upper-middle class areas these days have an abundance of yoga studios, offering different styles of yoga. With the popularization of yoga as a method for “wellness” (however you’d like to define this blanket term) and mindfulness, you’d be hard-pressed not to also walk into a teacher with a basic 200-hour yoga certification. Most studios also have their own in-house yoga teacher training programs that they market to their student base, turning students into teachers. All of these factors combined together have created an environment that is oversaturated with more teachers than class time slots to teach. What isn’t seen is the subtle undercurrent of competition between teachers, as well.

In order to make a sustainable living as a yoga teacher, you need to be part entrepreneur, part marketer, part customer service specialist, and part therapist, all on top of being a teacher. In short, it’s a daily hustle to wear so many hats, and it takes a while to get into a rhythm. All of this can gradually pull away from your initial love and dedication in your decision to become a yoga teacher in the first place, and sometimes it can be difficult to recognize when you’re too far deep.

Something that I’m sure everyone is aware of is the presence of the glamorization of yoga on the Internet, especially in the medium that is Instagram. Inspirational quotes, lines from the Yoga Sutras, thought-provoking captions…you know those posts. Some of them are sponsored ads or brand endorsements (in which the FTC requires full disclosure — hello #fyrefest), stylized photos from staged photoshoots, teachers and yogis in complex asanas than 99% of us will never be able to achieve — but at the core of it, Instagram is free marketing for people like yoga teachers. And why not take advantage of it if it’s at your disposal? I definitely do because $0.00 is definitely better than a fee to hire marketing help (plus, yoga teachers aren’t exactly raking it in).

by Alex Kacha

by Alex Kacha

What I think is dangerous and that students should be aware of are the teachers who let the marketing, the self-promotion, and especially the recognition consume much of their identity and day-to-day life is that it becomes clear that it is all a sham and none of it is authentic. Teaching yoga, in my mind, is meant to be an indefinite passion project with many acts of service to provide a space for people to zone out, move, breathe, learn, convene, and coalesce. Teaching yoga is meant to bring our collective humanity to a place better than we were before.

I take my role as a teacher very seriously, so it is important to be as real as I can both in and out of the classroom.

I look at my peers and colleagues who do this yoga thing with me and I stay current with what they’re up to, cheer them on, and wish them full classes because I know that each of us has something different to offer, which resonates with different student bases. I resonate and align with the teachers who have a similar style to me, whom I get along with personally, and share the same values as me — and this includes maintaining an authentic, human presence on social media channels. When I talk to them about their sequence, can they give an informed, reasonable explanation? When I talk to them about the Sanskrit they are chanting, do they know what they are singing and why? Or is it that they care about seeing their classes at capacity, filming the next video for XYZ platform, being booked for XYZ festival, or to get flown to XYZ studio to teach master classes?

It is said that friends hold up mirrors to you to analyze yourself. This happens when I see or read things that I am at odds with — I see what I do not want to embody and project on to my students. I take my role as a teacher very seriously, so it is important to be as real as I can both in and out of the classroom. I look at the mirror that is held in front of me and look at myself — am I staying true to myself? Am I someone I would want to learn from? Am I being honest both inwardly and outwardly? Answers to these might not be immediate, and they might not be answers I want to acknowledge, but taking time to think about the answers reaffirms or disproves authenticity.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with being an entrepreneur as a yoga teacher. Yoga teachers have bills to pay, meals to buy, and need to survive like the next person. Selling things is an exchange of currency for knowledge you’ve curated with your own time and effort, is reasonable and fair. But what I take issue with is constantly needing others to validate your position — and this can be done in many subtle ways from the speech someone has, to how they act behind closed doors to people who aren’t students. Take a look at your teacher’s or favorite Instagram yogi’s most recent posts and evaluate the entire thing — post and caption. What impact does it have on you?

We all have these tools of social media at our disposal. It is just our intention which needs to be checked. What is in it for you, as a teacher? Why do you teach? What is your teaching philosophy, and how did you come to form it? At the core of it, I think that some people feed into the power, the notoriety, and the attention that comes with more and more people knowing their name. It seems to be human nature to get caught up with authority.

To quote from a high school classmate:

A juggling coach, Bill Berry, once told me that it is ok to want to receive applause, but it is best used as a metric of how much you have given. The primary goal is to give, receiving applause is a secondary effect of the primary goal.

As humans, we all want to feel like we belong and that we matter. It’s well and good to receive compliments from students and peers alike. You’ll know you’re onto something when students start to become frequently seen faces within the classroom and bring their friends. That, I think, is the greatest unspoken validation.

All these words I’ve typed are meant to be a conversation starter, or something to mill over. By no means am I trying to say that I am better than the next yoga teacher or the one who does go the route of aggressive marketing. I strongly feel that it should not comprise the majority of one’s teaching identity, and takes away from being a well-rounded yoga practitioner, however this seems to the case with some Internet yoga personalities and teachers. People aren’t dumb — they’ll see right through it.

by Alex Kacha

by Alex Kacha

Disclosure: This piece is solely of my own opinion. I was inspired to write this from a post written by a high school classmate, Leo James.

What They Don't Tell You About Depression

Personally, going through several transitions has been tough, scary, hurtful, painful, and a trial and error process in adjusting. The few things that have helped me is talking with friends and getting their opinions, or having them around as a sounding board. The perspective they give is valuable, and has helped me see ways of moving on and accepting change. These personal transitions have definitely contributed to my anxiety, and I am slowly becoming aware of how I react to change, and understanding that this may be a contributing trigger.

This thing I live with, the D-word…I wouldn’t wish this upon anyone, despite how awful they may have been towards me or to others. It’s insidious, it’s consuming, and it’s relentless.

Most of all, it’s exhausting. My mind races, my heart feels physical pains, I am fatigued and have trouble staying asleep, I feel listless, and feel the things that I really loved have had their shine dulled. I force myself to go to yoga to distract my mind momentarily, but after, I return straight to bed. I’m slowly losing weight and I can’t be bothered to care. I have restarted medication and it takes about 6 weeks for any efficacy to appear, so I can’t really say if there has been a significant difference.

It’s exhausting outside of the effects that it has on my physical body and emotional body because the health care system here is fucking abysmal. I have communicated with two physicians since reaching out for more help; one of them has only prescribed pills, while the other one wants to consult with me prior to referring me out to a psychiatrist. I started this process on March 17th and as of writing this, it is now April 9th and I still haven’t advanced in any further care. This is three weeks of waiting to receive help on managing this depression and I cannot tell you how incredibly disheartening and frustrating it is (I was able to secure an appointment on April 10th, and from there it’s TBA on when I will get an appointment with the referred psychiatrist).

I want to be clear that I cannot just “be happy,” nor am I sad 24/7. I do have days where I definitely feel better than some, especially when I am in the classroom teaching. As I write this, I feel tears coming down my face because it is the one thing I truly care for. If that were taken away from me, I’m not sure what I would do. If you come to my classes, I hope you can see that. I hope you can hear it in my voice.

My ask to anyone reading this who knows someone going through depression is to ask them how they are. Instead of you offering if there is anything you can do for them, take the time to be there for your friend. Very kindly encourage them to go somewhere with you and leave it an open-ended invitation. Go over to them and just hold them while they cry — you don’t even have to say anything. Just be there.

By Maurice Berbano

By Maurice Berbano

I want to close this by saying that this isn’t a cry for help or a beacon for attention. It is talked about more and more, but not enough. This is what I am going through right now, and I know I’m not the only one.

Hello Depression, You're Back

From my online presence, most of you know that I’m not afraid to talk about mental illness and my trials with depression and anxiety. Last year around this time, I was able to safely wean myself off of Cymbalta, which I had been taking since age 17 (about 12 years) and was really happy over that. I felt like with a regular yoga practice, things would be manageable and the depression wouldn’t resurface.

But it did, triggered by not being happy with where I am financially, and a traumatic incident that shifted my sense of home. Below is something I wrote last night after returning from the doctor’s. It appears on Medium.com as well.

And I can’t say it’s good to see it you again.

It’s here, and I have to see it, acknowledge its existence, and I have to manage it.

I’ve been free (if I can call it that) from depression for about a year. I was optimistic of the liberation and feeling of freedom — that it would last. But I was never open to acknowledging what is inextricably connected to me for life. No —this just happens. Trauma happens. Anxiety happens. It occurs and it builds up until it looks you square in the eye and demands that you to pay attention.

I wanted so badly for this to not be true. Twelve years of swallowing pills to manage the high periods of anxiety, the times I didn’t want to talk about myself to a therapist and I have to face this reality that I am back in the throes of it again.

If I’m going to be honest with everyone, I have to start with myself. It’s hard to admit that this is happening again. I know the trends: the anxiety, the constant feeling on edge, the stories I tell myself to make things temporarily okay, and trying to go about things to maintain some kind of normalcy.

Depression shows up in this way: the anxiety builds (uncontrollable crying, sleeplessness, fixation on things outside of my control, irritability, carelessness, and it goes on) and it continues to build. Once it compiles high, there’s nowhere else to go but down, down, down.

My biggest resistance in all of this is taking antidepressants again. I took Cymbalta for 12 years and was up to 60mg in the thickest of it. For many years this drug helped me to function and lead a somewhat normal life. But it always had a grip on me with this feeling like my head was physically three feet behind where my head actually was in space. Body shocks were the worst — feeling a sense of mild vertigo, lightheadedness, and electric currents all at once.

The frustrating thing about antidepressants no one tells you is how it’s all a trial-and-error game. Each drug takes about 6 weeks for any efficacy, and if it doesn’t work, onto the next. I anticipate I’ll stay with what has worked for me in the past, but I can’t say I’m excited either.

This will always be a part of me. I can get upset at this all that I want, but I can’t change anything about my brain chemistry. It is what it is, and it’s time to manage it.

On Receiving Feedback

This is a follow up to a piece I wrote in September 2018. If you haven’t had a chance to read it, check out On Feedback and Feedback Culture.

I’m in the profession in which you are constantly taking risks, experimenting with this and that, then evaluating how it has worked out. If it weren’t for these subtle (sometimes major) tweaks, my teaching would be uninspired, unintelligent, and flat out boring. Even I wouldn’t want to come take my class, if that were the case.

My teaching process typically goes a little something like this:

  1. Wrap up a 4–6ish week series.

  2. Sit down and sequence a new series. It’s almost always very similar to the previous series, as I don’t find it logical to take a completely different route (ex. going from handstand to eka pada galavasana).

  3. Try it out. Think about how everything went after class. Take any feedback provided into consideration.

  4. Change something. Change more things. Move a certain part of class to appear earlier or later. Repeat.

  5. Take other classes and get ideas. Recall my studies. Become inspired and incorporate that into my classes.

  6. Repeat for the next few weeks before it’s time to revisit item 1 again.

I find so much value in making minor changes every single class. I get real-time feedback from my students about what works, what is too challenging, what is confusing and could use clarification, what could be approached differently, and so on.

Photo by  Alex Kacha

Photo by Alex Kacha

Now here is where the feedback comes in. I take feedback from my students (if they offer it, or if I solicit for it), hear it, and let it sit. More often than not, it will be something ego-feeding like, “That was great!” or “I really enjoy your style.” Sometimes the feedback comes in the form of leaving class as soon as it’s over, and that’s okay too.

If I am lucky, a peer will take my class. Their feedback is especially valuable to me because they’ve been on the other side — dictating movements, observing, holding space, and spinning all the plates that we as teachers do at any one point in time in class. I live for the constructive feedback and don’t take it as a jab or a shortcoming — I take it as a different perspective.

In receiving feedback, first and foremost, it should always be solicited feedback, never unsolicited feedback. No one likes the person who offers their opinions and feedback when it was never asked for because you’re less likely to be in the frame of mind to be receptive, and it’s just a rude thing to do that reeks of superiority or condescension. With solicited feedback, check in with yourself to see that you are willing and able to be receptive as someone offers their feedback to you.

The second component to this is to hear the feedback and then listen to it. When you take the time to listen to it, you can process it and digest it, instead of brushing it off or letting it go in one ear and out the other. This goes pretty hand-in-hand with my first point about being mentally ready to be receptive.

Give yourself time to let this feedback land. Does it make sense? If not, ask the person for clarification. Maybe it has to be said in a different way. If it does make sense, what about this feedback will you use? What about this feedback will you not use?

In order for feedback to be effective, you must understand that feedback never comes from a place of malice. Once you start to take it as a personal attack, feedback loses its efficacy and doesn’t make sense for you to have solicited for it in the first place. It prevents you from walking along a path of growth and quite frankly, it’s self-sabotage.

What if you get feedback that you don’t agree with? Think about what specifically about the provider’s feedback may not align with your beliefs. Is it simply ignorant, or is it ill-informed (e.g. anatomically incorrect)? In either of these cases, you should be able to justify why this feedback won’t work for you and why you will not be trying it out as opposed to writing it off for personal reasons or because you don’t understand what the provider meant.

Photo by  Alex Kacha

Photo by Alex Kacha

Let me know if any of this was helpful, and of course, I’d love your feedback.

Follow me on Medium.

On Feedback and Feedback Culture

What do you think of when you hear the word “feedback”? Do you think of that awful sound that reverberates when the audio isn’t right? Or the response you get from a speech you give? What about when someone tells you about what they honestly think about something you’ve done?

In just about any profession or trade, it’s constantly evolving. To evolve, you need to continually keep a line of self-inquiry open — but it helps your self-inquiry if you get an outsider’s perspective. This is where feedback comes in to play.

As a yoga teacher, I can’t grow if I don’t tweak a few things about my teaching every so often. In doing this, I rely on feedback from my peers and other teachers to help me see what works and what doesn’t work. I have to see feedback as such, because there’s nothing else to extrapolate from it. If it doesn’t work for me, then I don’t utilize the feedback. If it doesn’t, then I obviously do.


Physical assists need feedback. It can be pretty immediate like someone recoiling. Photo by  Che Holts .

Physical assists need feedback. It can be pretty immediate like someone recoiling. Photo by Che Holts.

The thing about feedback culture is that a lot of people still don’t grasp is that it’s not personal. Any well-intentioned feedback could be poorly worded or given in a way that may seem like an attack, but it’s not. The point of providing feedback is so that you aren’t constantly living in your own echo chamber. I feel like a lot of us in whichever professional capacity we are in, still do not understand this. If you choose to interpret feedback as a personal attack, how is that beneficial?

Another thing about feedback culture that isn’t fully understood is how to provide feedback and how to receive feedback. Let me recount something that transpired recently:

I took a class in which I couldn’t turn off my teacher brain. There was a lot of it that I felt wasn’t sequenced well, was focused a lot on showcasing the teacher’s prowess in inverting, and a whole laundry list of things I felt were problematic. I reached out to my manager about it, asking about what audits were in place to provide feedback. My manager encouraged me to provide the feedback to this teacher, so I approached said teacher and asked if they would be receptive to hearing my feedback. This teacher said yes, so I told them succinctly to simplify their sequence.

Of course, this teacher wanted elaboration which triggered so many different things I had issue with. Problem #1 was that I wanted to address each item. Wrong move, Jessica. It made this teacher defensive. I meant well — because I wanted to challenge this person to re-evaluate their sequencing — but I’m not a master teacher nor am I this teacher’s teacher so in hindsight, I should’ve stepped down. Problem #2 was that while this teacher was receptive, it was the kind of receptiveness that had a limit. Our conversation ended when this teacher got up and walked away from me mid-sentence.

Lessons learned from this:

  1. Provide feedback in a way that challenges the receiver in a supportive way. Ask them what they felt they did well, and for areas of improvement. This way it doesn’t feel like they are under scrutiny.

  2. As a receiver of feedback, listen and accept all feedback with grace. It might be hard to do at first, but it gets easier. It’s an over-used statement but it reads so true: Take what works and leave the rest. At the end of all of it, all you have to say is, “Thank you for the feedback.”

When all is said and done, we’re all wading through the same shit, just in different ways and at different times. Feedback helps us to navigate through it — and it’s our way of supporting each other, to show that we care.

January 2018 Recap: Handstand

Here we are in February, having worked on handstand, adho mukha vrksasana for a month now. Due to upper back and shoulder pain, I'm going to be moving on from this series starting in a few days. 

To prep for handstand, three primary areas need to be prepped: lower belly (think navel to pubic bone), shoulders, and the wrists. Secondary to that are the forearms. Taking several cues from my mentor Danni, I'll break it down. 

Core work

One of the best ways to activate the low belly (aka transverse and rectus abdominus) is to put a block in between your inner thighs, as close to your groin as you can get it while laying on your back. With the narrowest setting facing you, give the block a squeeze while exhaling with a "shhh" sound. This style of exhale breathing comes from Pilates, but works because it helps to contract and compress the entire abdominal wall. 

Block in between the inner thighs laying supine is a great way to activate the transverse and rectus abdominus.

Several exercise recommendations:
- Navasana (boat) to ardha paripurna navasana (low boat) with a block in between the thighs, x10 reps. Hands can stay at heart's center with chest lifted or hands right behind the hips to take pressure off the low back. 
- Legs up with wall with a block in between the thighs. Lift the chest so the shoulders are hovering, with hands to frame the ears (fingers not interlaced). Slowly lower your legs while keeping your toes flex, pointed, or fointed and continuously squeeze the block. Keep your chest lowered if you experience any low back pain, or take a slight bend in your knees.
- Core + shoulder activation: hold the block in between your palms, with the heel of your hand and knuckle pads in contact with the block (no fingertips). Bring the block up and over your head with your arms fully extended behind you. Bring one leg up the wall while the other leg is hovering just off the mat--this will mimic the L-shape you will get into with L-kicks. Keep your legs activated with a flex, point, or foint of the toes, and on your exhale (don't forget the "shhh" breath!), squeeze the block and lift up through your chest so the block comes towards your raised foot. Hold at the top for 5 counts, and repeat on the same side ending with a round of pulses. Switch sides.

Hands: Wrists (and forearms)

With the weight bearing going on in your hands, it's important to take care of the wrists and prime them to increase flexibility and stability. Like I went over in my Arm Balances post, I'll go through the same actions here. 

If you’re on all fours, stretch the front, the back and sides of your wrists, moving in a circular motion.

You can warm up your wrists in preparation either on all fours, seated, or standing. For this tip, we’ll be seated or standing. Make like Spiderman and shoot your imaginary web if you’re seated or standing, and grab your fingers with your opposite hand, gently bringing your fingertips back towards your forearm. Take a gentle bend in your elbow as well. Flip your palm as if someone were taking your hand for a dance, and do the same thing. 

Grip your mat like you were holding a basketball. Your fingers will act as your brakes.

Grip your mat like you were holding a basketball. Your fingers will act as your brakes.

When you bear weight on your hands, you'll wants to maximize the surface area of your hands. Widen your fingers as much as possible, and have a basketball grip. What I mean is that your fingers shouldn't be completely flat on the mat. It's minute, but a gentle gripping of the mat will ensure you can have a strong hold of your mat since your weight distribution will be up and over your shoulders--something you don't experience on a daily basis. 

To activate the forearms, hold your arms up over your head. Open your palms, then make a fist. Open them back again, make a fist. Repeat as fast as you can for at least 30 seconds or until you feel like your arms will fall off, and you'll be prepared to do L-kicks!

Adho mukha vrksasana, upward facing tree. See it?

Adho mukha vrksasana, upward facing tree. See it?

Let me know how these tips worked for you! Danni also has a great Youtube video up on his channel, and I encourage you to check it out here. Reach out with any questions, and enjoy your practice!


Baby backbend with an chest stretch and slight opening of the shoulders.

Baby backbend with an chest stretch and slight opening of the shoulders.

As I mentioned, the shoulders need to be open to support your pelvis coming up and over them. Block work is great--remember to hold the block at the sides with NO fingertips and squeeze it with the heel of your hand and knuckle pads only. Try this with bent elbows or your arms raised to shoulder height, and be aware if your shoulders start to hike up towards your ears. 

Continuously squeezing the block, start to lift the block up directly over your head. From here, pause. Take a moment to see if your ribs started to flare out the sides of your body, and if you started to take a slight backbend. Engage your core by bringing your navel up and in towards your spine--think of it as zipping up a jacket two sizes too small from the base of your pelvis up through your collarbones. After correcting this, continue to bring the block up and over behind your head until you start to backbend more or until your shoulders tell you to stop. You should feel like your arms wants to fall off now!

If a block is not available, you can open up the shoulders by doing this same thing with a strap, except there will be nothing to push into. Not to worry, the opening is very similar. 

L-Kicks, or Swing and Hops

First things first: The pelvis needs to be level. One things I see that my students love doing is to lift their leg up from downward dog so much that one of their hips is facing up towards the ceiling instead of towards the ground. Take note of where your pelvis is in space the next time you lift one of your legs up in preparation for a standing asana. 

- Dial your hip down in line with the other
- Flex your toes towards your face
- See that your kneecap is pointed towards the mat

L-kickin' it

L-kickin' it

Now, we're ready for our first L-kick. I like to start out in a forward fold (big toes touching), with my hands about 4-5 inches away from my toes. Other teachers cue to start in a shortened downward dog, which also works. Shift the shoulders a smidge past your wrists, and pick a leg to lift up towards the ceiling. Level out your hips, then take a deep bend in your opposite leg until you come to the ball mound of your foot. You can stay here and get more comfortable with bearing weight on your hands. Otherwise, using your lifted leg as a lever, launch off through your bent leg and maintain your L-shape, squeezing your inner thighs on the way up to keep your core engaged. After time, you will find hang time and can start to bring one knee in towards your chest. From knee in towards chest, your leg will eventually straighten to meet your lever leg and ta-da! Handstand.

On Arm Balances

When I first started practicing yoga, I would see other people in class doing crazy shit like balancing on their arms, supporting their weight on their hands. I never thought that would be something I would ever get into, but as I found my body get physically stronger, I ignored the fear factor and went for it. After slipping, falling, face-planting hundreds of times later, here I am making interesting shapes with my body and fascinated by my own physical strength. Below are some key ideas I wrote for Danni Pomplun's arm balancing workshops.

Balancing on your arms is a cool way to test your strength and push fear into the ground, literally. I’ve got some tips for you to remember during your practice.

When you want to balance on your arms, especially when you are using your hands, take care of your wrists. This is super important, especially if you’d like to balance for years to come. If you’re on all fours, stretch the front, the back and sides of your wrists, moving in a circular motion.

You can warm up your wrists in preparation either on all fours, seated, or standing. For this tip, we’ll be seated or standing. Make like Spiderman and shoot your imaginary web if you’re seated or standing, and grab your fingers with your opposite hand, gently bringing your fingertips back towards your forearm. Take a gentle bend in your elbow as well. Flip your palm as if someone were taking your hand for a dance, and do the same thing.

Related to Parsva bakasana: dwi pada koundinyasana

Core strength and engagement
Arm balances like bakasana (crow) or parsva bakasana (revolved crow) require you to lift one of the heaviest parts of your body off the ground, your pelvis. To achieve this, your low belly needs to be engaged.

When we talk about core in yoga, we are worried only about the area from your navel down to your pubic bone. Everything else on the abdominals is just nice to look at, but doesn’t provide the power you need to lift your pelvis. In your standing asanas, think about keeping your navel up and in towards your spine, as if you were wearing a corset cinching everything towards your midline. In supine core work, keep your low back cemented to the mat and add a block in between your inner thighs as close to your groin as possible. Whenever you lift your chest off your mat, lead from your heart and collarbones. Think about squeezing the block with everything you have to turn on the transverse and rectus abdominal muscles. While you have a S-curve in your spine, protect your low back by again, keeping your sacrum (flat area on the back of your pelvis, below the lumbar region) glued to the mat. Whenever your legs lift up and over your hips, be aware if your low back starts to lift off your mat. If you are able to slide your palm under and you feel space, take a bend in your knees instead of keeping your legs fully extended. This should help with any low back pain as well. 

Shift your weight mindfully and know where to look
It can be daunting to shift all of your weight over, knowing that you may fall flat on your face. The fear factor with arm balances is completely normal, even to a seasoned practitioner. Instead of shifting your weight in one direction all at once, try shifting your weight in stages. For instance, in bakasana, try to lift one foot off the mat, set it down, and lift the other. You’ll get a sense for how your weight shifts in your hands instead of lifting both feet at once and will have more control over falling your weight back.

When your weight is shifted, know that the distribution in your hands will change.

Flying pigeon/squirrel, eka pada galavasana

Flying pigeon/squirrel, eka pada galavasana

Your fingertips will act as your breaks (so imagine your fingers preemptively resting on the breaks of your bike--works similarly), and you will find that you will have a better time balancing gripping the mat as if your would like a basketball. Widen your fingers as much as you can, and pretend to claw your mat. You will set yourself up to allow your body to distribute your weight more evenly through your hands (instead of solely the palm of your hand), and your hand breaks are literally around to brace you. If you look at both pictures here in the arm balances that I'm in, you'll see how my hands are not completely flat. There's a subtle gripping action with my finger joints minutely lifted.

Knowing where to look is also important. If we’re using bakasana as the example posture, if you were to bring your gaze back towards your toes, where do you think your weight will move? You might find your weight shifted all the way over past your fingertips so that you have no choice but to tuck and roll. Instead of looking back, look forward about 6 inches in front of your fingertips. The body will move in the direction as the gaze goes, so keep that in mind.

Don’t be scared!
According to yogic philosophy, Abhinivesa or "fear," is one of the kleshas—obstacles that prevent us from realizing inner peace. Being wise and safe with your body doesn’t mean allowing fear to keep you from trying arm balances. It just means being mindful of your body as you test your limits. Of course, balancing postures on your arms are scary. This is part of the reason they are so exhilarating: by practicing them, you become fearless.

Have fun and let me know how it goes!

December 2017 Recap: Visvamitrasana

In December I was inspired to work towards Vishvamitrasana. This posture has a lot happening at once: it's an arm balance, a huge side body stretch, shoulder opener, torso twist, hamstring opener, and hip flexor stretch all-in-one. After all is said and done, I wasn't able to make it into full Visvamitrasana (named after the sage Visvamitra), but ardha Visvamitrasana which I'm still pretty happy with. 

Compass/Sundial, Parivritta surya yantrasana

Compass/sundial, Parivritta surya yantrasana. Holy hamstrings!

To start off over this month long series, I, alongside my students, worked towards Compass. Compass is a seated posture in which all of the above I previously mentioned are still at play. Being seated, you have a little more leverage to twist so you can broaden through your chest and get your shoulder under your arm, while still extending through your leg. 

In a seated posture, choose a side first. For the purposes of explaining this posture, I'll go with the right. Bend into your left knee, with your sole as close to your groin. With your right hand, place it in front of your inner right thigh. Firmly press into your mat, or the floor with your right hand as your take your left hand to grab for the baby toe edge of your right foot. If this is already challenging, you can use a strap as an extension of your left hand to loop around the ball mound of your right foot. From here, kick your right foot into your left hand as you bring your chest up and under your left tricep. You will be twisting from your torso as you feel a side body stretch along your left ribcage. Bring your gaze from under your left tricep towards the ceiling and press your right tricep into your right inner thigh. Voila!


Reclined flying warrior, supta visvamitrasana

After working on compass for a bit, I moved on to reclined flying warrior, supta visvamitrasana. This posture still demands a lot of your hamstrings and hips, but takes the standing balance component from visvamitrasana out of it. Think of it as compass pose, but flipped on its side with the bottom leg extended. 

I'll start off with the right side again. Lay down on your right side as if you were hanging out at the park or beach, with your right forearm flat on the ground. Extend your right leg straight under you and keep your leg engaged by flexing your toes towards your face. Your left arm will be laying on top of you, so place your left palm flat on the floor and firmly press all fingertips into the ground. As we did with compass, bend your left knee towards your chest so you can reach for the baby toe edge of your left foot. Kick into your right hand and stay there, or continue to extend through your left leg as you use that as leverage to bring your shoulder before your left thigh. Your left hand will act as a safety bumper so you don't fall over. 

Half flying warrior, ardha visvamitrasana

To progress further, visvamitrasana adds all components together (remember, arm balance, a huge side body stretch, shoulder opener, torso twist, hamstring opener, and hip flexor stretch...holy sh!t). 

Again, for the purposes of explaining, I'll do the right side. Start out in a low lunge (right foot forward) with your back knee lifted and back foot flat in about two to three inches closer than you normally would. Shimmy your right shoulder under your right thigh, and press your right hand into the floor outside of your right foot so much that your right heel starts to lift. Once you feel stable, reach up and over with your left hand to grab for the baby toe edge of your right foot (again, feel free to utilize a strap). Start to kick your right foot into your left hand as your extend through your right leg. Test your balance and hip/hamstring openness by staying with your left leg lifted, or lower down to your left knee as you see me doing. From here, see if you can keep your chest lifted with your heart up towards the sky and twist from your torso to bring your left tricep behind your head. If it's okay with your neck, bring your gaze up and continue to press your right tricep into your right inner thigh. 

Final thoughts

Visvamitrasana is not easy, nor are the prep postures, so don't feel like you aren't the best yogi if you cannot get into them. One of my goals for 2018 is to increase flexibility and openness in my hamstrings and hips, so I'm right there with you. Let me know how your practice goes and I'm here if you have any questions or need guidance on your practice!