Sunday, September 18, 2016

Yoga Therapy

People have asked me about the trajectory of my yoga practice these days and, I've got to say, it is like nothing I've done since I was in my early 20s (back in my hardcore Iyengar days when I was training to teach).

Brief side bar: For those of you who are unfamiliar with Iyengar teacher training, it is unlike any other. This is not gym-yoga teacher certification. I trained (seemingly endlessly) for 2 years before I took my "exam" and gained level 1 certification. Senior teachers have decades of training and certification behind them. Many of the Iyengar teachers I have known are infinitely more knowledgeable about functional anatomy than other rehab therapists - not that I'm dissing anyone. What I mean to say is that, for chronic structural and systemic issues, I'll start with Iyengar yoga pretty well every time because it requires specified, active and focused engagement on the part of the person receiving treatment. And a senior teacher is generally phenomenally capable (though not always). Plus, the nature of the relationship between the teacher, the student and the practice is highly refined. This is a questioner's modality.

Having said that, for years I moved away from technical extremism of the method in favour of others - the lively, adrenaline-filled, highly aerobic forms. I was young, and youth doesn't generally favour "deep technique" at the peril of all else. Don't misunderstand, I've always been more of an Iyengar practitioner than any other sort, but I went "fusion" for a while - and likely will again. After all, variety is the spice of life, etc.

Let me say this now, and loud, and clear: I am profoundly grateful for my Iyengar training and my decades of regular practice. They have saved me time and time again - through chronic pain, acute injury, exhaustion, illness, anxiety and plain-old daily living. Furthermore, I know, with every practice that I undertake: I am capable because asana, increasingly, is second-nature. The more taxed my body has become, the more reliant I've become on the confidence imparted by body-memory. Because getting into many of the poses indicated in the Iyengar therapeutic practice*, is not something that most infirm or inexperienced persons can accomplish alone. It can be scary to invert, to tie oneself up, to trust a prop (or 10). Moreover, until you know what you're doing, it can be dangerous.

I think it's important to note the regrettable fact that, even with impetus, most people do not have the space, the (sometimes) pricey props or the knowledge to benefit from this practice at home. And those who don't live in major urban centres may not have access to the requisite studios and teachers to learn. Not to mention, the best time to learn something complicated is when you are young and healthy. Sometimes people come to the therapeutic Iyengar practice only after chronic illness has set in. A good teacher and commitment are CRITICAL, under those circumstances, but also challenging - and this scenario doesn't lend itself to one being able to benefit from therapeutic home practice in the short run. This is in no way to dissuade anyone from Iyengar therapy. I just want to qualify that the benefits come with sincere application and effort. It's not passive in any way.

Below is a sample practice that I might do on any given day. Most mornings I do about 20 minutes of traction work but I wouldn't call that a practice so much as maintenance. My average time in a  therapeutic session is about 75 minutes but, given how batshit busy my life is right now, I'm only doing that 2x per week.

I don't know when I'll return to standard-issue, active practice on a regular basis but I've decided not to give it undue consideration. Right now this is where I'm at and I'm so grateful to be able to accomplish what I need to in order to heal. When I get to the next phase, I'm sure I'll know it...

Kristin Sample Iyengar Therapeutic Practice**
  • Savasana 2 over wooden blocks / Corpse pose back bend over wooden blocks to open the thoracic spine (@5 minutes)
  • Tractional Uttanasana (Standing forward bend) with wall ropes at groin and then at upper thigh. Head rests on blocks. (@5 minutes).
  • Tractional Adho Mukha Svanasana (Dog Pose) with wall ropes at groin and then at upper thigh. Head rests on block. (@10 minutes)  This is probably the single most useful thing I do for pain management. It allows the spine to lengthen while the hips are stabilized. Gives intensive traction at the hips too.
  • Tractional Adho Mukha Svanasana - Twist variation (Dog Pose Twist). Ropes hold hips in place to allow for arms and torso to twist while hands and torso move right or left of the mat. (@5 minutes). I often hear numerous pops throughout my spine and neck in this pose.
  • Tractional Rope Sirsasana (Headstand) with hips supported by a rope sling. (@5 minutes) Awesome for balancing endocrine and nervous systems. Plus, extreme spinal traction, esp. at hips. To get out of this I bring my hands to the floor, straighten out of the ropes into Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand) at the wall (@2 minutes). Then rest in Adho Mukha Virasana (Childs Pose) (@3 minutes).
  • Virasana (Hero Pose) followed by Adho Mukha Virasana (Reclined / Backbend Hero Pose) over bolster with upper legs supported by belt. This is weight-bearing on hip, knee and foot joints. It opens the psoas and moves deeply into the mid-thoracic, lumbar and sacral spine. (@5 minutes)
  • Tractional Sarvangasana, Setu Bandha Sarvangasana and Halasana sequence using a chair (Shoulderstand, Backbend and Plow Pose) (@10 minutes) This is a power-triumvirate allowing for long stay in a deep inversion, inverted backbend and inverted forward bend. Also stabilizing for the nervous and endocrine systems.
  • Upavistha Konasana (Wide Angled Forward Bend) with Twist Variations (@10 minutes). With adequate flexibility, this pose provides excellent spinal traction in a very sustainable fashion. The twists are terrific for moving into the hips, side body and lateral thoracic spine. Rest afterwards in Savasana for a couple of minutes to ensure that the hip joints are balanced. Sometimes my hip joint and sacrum click massively after this sequence.
  • Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall over Bolster) (@10 minutes) This provides cervical traction and is a supported inversion. It's very good for promoting cardiovascular and ciruculatory health.
  • Supine Upavistha Konasana, Legs supported by ropes. (@5 minutes). This provides an opportunity for my sacrum and the muscles around it to release. Very calming.

* The supported or therapeutic practice is only one form of the Iyengar methodology, but is central to the philosophy of structural and endocrine/nervous system health. When you do "regular" Iyengar practice, it looks much more like any other sort of yoga you'd find at any studio though it does make use of more props than other styles and it holds poses, statically, for LONG periods of time. 5-10 min in headstand is not unusual. Of course, you'll never be encouraged to undertake long holdings of complex poses until you have achieved a level of ability and awareness via less comple poses and modified versions of the complex pose.

** Note: For interest, I've provided the English pose names as well as Sanskrit but, really, if you are not familiar with the Sanskrit names, you probably don't know enough about the method be trying this outside of a classroom environment.


  1. I envy your (well earned) yoga ability.

    I always loved B.K.S Iyengar's book "Light on Yoga" where you can look up an ailment and see the corresponding posture that would help it. It even lists halitosis!
    :-) Chris

  2. You are very kind - but man, it has been earned :-) I love LOY as well - it's both fascinating and hilarious simultaneously. Thanks C.