Read an Excerpt
A Complete Visual and Inspirational Guide to Yoga Asana Assists with Excerpts from The Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life: Master Shantideva's Techniques for Exchanging Self and Other
By Sharon Gannon, David Life
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 Sharon Gannon and David Life
All rights reserved.
Principles of Assists
The yoga assist photos in this book illustrate the result of people working together in conscious synergy. The perfect relationship is mutually beneficial. These forms are graceful and purposeful. They arise out of intention toward creating a perfect relationship. After you understand and practice these general principles keep in mind that each person is unique, so each assist must be unique. Beginning as pure energy channeled through various individuals, that energy becomes the infinity of individual expression. With perfection in mind, represented by the solid blue lines in the photographs, the master is able to perceive individual differences in relation to that line and approach the student according to the assist needed to move closer to the ideal. Exceptions are the rule, and slight modifications to suit the individual student are the sign of a master. This book together with years of practice and a deep knowledge of alignment, breath, props, and more than anything else good intention leading to compassion, will give excellent results. Compassion is the ability to see yourself in others, to see so deeply that otherness disappears, leaving only oneness—unconditional love—as the reality.
Before we get deeper into specific principles of hands-on assists— the focus of this book—we will explore some more general ways that teachers can assist students seeking enlightenment.
Set The Intention, Focus
The yoga practice place should feel safe, stimulating, challenging, and multidimensional. The ambiance of the room, the type of music played, the mood of the people present, and the words uttered by the teacher all contribute to an experience of yoga. It is the teacher's job to establish the ambiance and sow the seeds for the class by their intention. By focusing on the intention we come to understand why we are here and what is our goal.
Everyone should be fully engaged and attentive – not distracted by other things going on in their heads or in the room. Intention guides and focuses what we do and determines our future experience. The most elevated intention is to work for the happiness of others. It is work that never goes out of style; it is work undertaken with the most zeal, but the least hardship; and it is the work of both the jivanmukta and the bodhisattva. Both yoga teachers and students need to guard against intentions that do not have a higher spiritual aim, and instead serve some other purpose. Here are some examples of lapses in elevated intention:
Yoga teacher: "Wow, look at that body, I want a date with that one."
Yoga student: "Please, please, please, please pay attention to me today."
Yoga student: "My yoga practice is something that I do for myself."
Yoga teacher: "I'm a terrible yoga teacher."
When we assist a moving body of energy we are also a moving body of energy. We cannot distractedly do something with our hands to someone while thinking about other things, without dire results. Our distraction, felt through our touch, is confusing and creates less understanding. Through compassion (literally: feeling-with) we can embody an energy form complementary to the energy form of the asana we are assisting. When these complementary energies merge there is an increase in understanding.
A Moving Body
It is easy to see asanas as static, or stopped, movement—a moment frozen in time and space. In this frozen state the asanas become something that we "do" or something that is "forced" onto reality. One of Patanjali's requirements for perfect asana is stillness. However, the stillness that Patanjali is referring to is the still center that the universe joyfully whirls around. Every living body is a moving body. Looking at photos and reading lists of steps can put our mind in a segmented state where we see a compartmentalized world lacking in relationship. We could begin to look at a sequence of movements as a disengaged set of steps. Learning sequences of movement from a set of instructions is essential, but it is also essential to move to an understanding of what one step has to do with the next and the full integration of each phase into a unified whole. If we see the asanas as frozen poses our assists will reinforce this feeling. Conversely, if we experience asana as an unfolding continuum of interconnection the assist will lead us seamlessly into and out of each asana.
Cultivate Trust and Patience
You may have met someone whom you felt you could trust almost immediately, but more often trust develops over time, sometimes over many years. Yoga assists require trust. As trust grows the level of participation deepens. Don't rush yourself or others by expecting immediate results. Be patient. Use well-established and experienced assists—do not experiment on students. First practice with your peers and your teachers to develop your assisting skill.
Often people cannot discriminate between intense feeling and pain leading to injury. People may be afraid of intense feelings because of confusion about injury, or lack of trust. Someone may say "ouch" because they feel pain, or because they anticipate pain. Either way, when a person communicates their pain to you, honor that—ease up. Never assume that you know more about someone's pain than they do. It is very difficult to know the difference between the benefit of intense feelings and the threat of pain leading to injury, but patience and trust play a big role in reaching that understanding.
Your voice quality, your language skills, your economy of words, and the precision of your instruction are all important when assisting verbally. These are also skills that can be improved through practice and by recording your own voice and taking your own class with the recording.
The quality of your voice can be calm, exciting, or surprising. Your words can bring clarity and inspire or confuse and discourage. Speech is democratic, and no one within hearing range will feel excluded from your clarity, your affirmation, or your ridicule. Hearing is multidimensional—independent from sight, which is more linear. Listening people are receptive people. A well-spoken assist does not interrupt the flow of the asanas. You should give your instructions first for the breath, then for the parts of the body furthest from the center (usually hands and feet). Your instruction can then move toward the torso, spine, and finally the chest. Directions like up or down make little sense when you are upside down, but directions to move toward the floor or Earth, or the ceiling or sky are always clear. Directions referring to other body parts can be helpful like "move the chin to the chest."
Do not feel that you must fill up all space with words. Silence is golden too! Let your hands-on assists speak for themselves.
For some people verbal instruction will not suffice; they may need to see an asana demonstrated in order to understand how to move their body. For a demonstration to work it needs to be visible and audible to everyone in the room. It is important that everyone is close to the demonstrator and that you have their attention. The best demonstrator is someone who has taken the class and is warmed up properly. This also leaves the teacher free to give detailed instruction, including breathing instruction, while the demonstrator follows those instructions. At the end of a demonstration everyone should practice the important points that were illustrated.
A yoga teacher should not take the class while they are teaching. Yoga class is a time for the teacher to serve and the students to receive.
Blocks, Belts, Blankets, Ropes, Bolsters, Wall, Beam, Etc.
There are infinite options available for propping a body into asanas. We have included a few in the photos but not many because our focus is hands-on assists. We leave the exploration of prop usage for another book, but we hope that you continue your investigation into their use.
Now we will explore some principles of hands-on assists.
The Magic Touch
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois said, "Without touch, progress is very slow." There is a magic to touch that is the very thing that draws many people to a yoga class in the first place. Through hands-on assists we have the potential to convey information clearly, directly, without words.
Touch can accelerate progress. Touch can provide directional cues, help identify and release unconscious resistance or tightness, increase awareness and help diminish pain. Gentle, medium and strong touches all have their unique applications.
Gentle touch moves the skin and provides clear and precise directional cues that indirectly guide the underlying tissue and muscles. The quality of touch must be direct, purposeful and clear, not distracting, confusing, annoying, or susceptible of misinterpretation as an uninvited caress. Gentle assists can give information, focus awareness, release skin tightness and impart confidence without intimidation.
Medium touch moves not only skin, but also directly moves underlying muscle and tissues. Medium assists can provide a sense of support and thereby relax psychological and physical resistance.
Strong touch moves skin, fascia, muscle, bone, organs and perceived limitations. Strong assists can guide skeletal alignment, inspire, create space and open up new physical and psychological range.
Imagine astronauts in microgravity. Without gravity there is no asana, no connection to the Earth. Yogis view gravity as a partner, not as an opponent. We look for ways to harvest energy from gravity rather than expend energy to fight against it.
All asanas share a common pattern of energy flow: up the front of the body and down the back of the body. This energy is in the form of sensation, awareness and subtle movement of bones, muscle tissue, fascia and skin. It is also the result of prana shakti, the force of levitation. It is the result of the grounding movement of prana spiraling in both sun and moon channels simultaneously toward the seat of the asana and then returning and moving up through the central channel from the Earth. Energy has many forms. It can manifest as electrical current, light, heat, movement, acceleration or as conscious awareness. In asana practice your body conducts energy into and out of the Earth. In this way asana practice helps us experience directly our deep interconnection—our oneness—with the Earth. This is similar to the way the metal prongs of an electrical cord conduct energy from the power station through the circuit of a lamp, unifying them so electrons can flow in an unbroken pathway and cause the lamp to glow. If we unplug, break the circuit, the light goes out. In asana too, if we break the connection to the Earth the asana fades, becomes unsteady, and we sink back into the illusion of separateness and isolation. As the teacher giving assists, it is critical not to break the student's connection to the Earth in an attempt to assist another part of the student's body. So let's get down, plug in, and investigate our connection to the Earth.
Stop, Look, and Listen
Before you assist anyone, observe carefully, not just with the physical eyes but also with your feeling self—increasing compassion. Your subtle sight will reveal resonance or dissonance with the energetic form of the asana. You will be able to spot some things very easily, like dissymmetry or unequal weight distribution. But some things are difficult to perceive, especially physical, emotional or psychological trauma suffered in the past. Using the chakra system as a model can help you to understand deeper causes for misalignment that are apparent in the physical body. For example, alignment problems in standing asanas, especially in how the feet and legs connect to the Earth, may speak of misalignment with nature and/or unresolved issues with money, home or parents. Moving upward from the feet into the various body parts and the associated chakras can provide valuable insight into causes for the physical misalignment and energetic blockages that the teacher can see.
Establish the Seat
The Sanskrit word asana means "seat" or connection to the Earth. The good experience of asana is built upon the integrity of the seat. The seat might be the feet, or only one foot, the hands, or the back of the legs, but the seat should always be well connected to the Earth. That quality of connectedness needs to be enhanced and acknowledged first in every asana and every assist. If the seat is not well established, the rest of the body will be in a guarded condition anticipating the inevitable toppling over. Part of the skill of establishing a good seat is to be aware of variances from the proper basic form, like unequal weight distribution, lack of full contact with the Earth, collapsed joints and lack of alignment or full articulation.
Find Space - Move In
A well-connected seat allows the upward-moving energy, or force of levitation, to rise through the rest of the body. When delightful space appears we are enticed to move into it, to expand inside of it and experience our greater potential.
There is nothing as discouraging in a spiritual practice than to feel that we are held in a stalemate with no hope for redemption. Feeling that you lack options and that the world is closing in around you is an all too common experience. The skin can feel like a tight-fitting suit that disallows movement. The first step in relieving this feeling is to create space in the body. Sometimes space appears through static alignment or with the help of a prop, but it most often appears by searching for movement or dialogue in an asana rather than by confrontation. The inhale breath is associated with the increase in internal space and the exhale breath is associated with the movement into that space. As Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati would often say: "Those with space in their mind are called wise, those with no space are called otherwise."
Assist Energy Flow
We have overlaid several energetic models in our examples and illustrations in this book. The most prominent is the notion of energy that moves from the toes up the front of the body to the legs, pelvis, torso, and head and then its reverse flowing from the head down the back of the body to the sacrum, backs of the legs and heels. Sometimes we refer to these movements as "up" or "down" but when we stand on our heads, "up" becomes down and "down" becomes up! We have tried to avoid confusion in our instructions by referring to body parts rather than to "up" or "down," but the cycle of energy always moves from the toes up the front to the head, and from the head down the back to the heels, no matter what asana you are in.
Another energy model that we refer to is based on the notion of the energy channels (nadis) that spiral through the body with a central channel through which a unified energy flows (sushumna nadi). The plexus of these energetic pathways are called the chakras.
The things that we observe at the superficial level of bodily function are actually pointing inward toward a deeper cause. That deeper level of harmony or disharmony is found in the proper or improper flow of prana, which is the term for the energy flowing in the body. What prevents the pranic flow is avidya or mis-knowing. What avidya does is to divert prana from its precise direction. We can facilitate energy flowing in a precise direction in a student primarily by feeling that flow in ourselves and communicating that awareness through our assists. As avidya is removed through yoga practices the prana can flow more freely.
Isotonic and Isometric Strenghening
Yoga asanas strengthen and align the energetic and physical bodies with both isotonic and isometric effects. The isotonic strengthening is apparent in movements like lowering to Chaturanga Dandasana, or lifting up to Pincha Mayurasana where we carry weight through a range of movement. The isometric strengthening effect is found when an asana is held in a state of stillness with mutually opposing spiraling forces in balance. If only one direction of spiral energy is emphasized, the obvious direction of the asana will overwhelm the opposite flow and the asana will lose the isometric effect. A good assist addresses both opposing spirals. For example, in Ardha Matsyendrasana, first the seat is established with the pelvis aligned to the front and the seat stable. Then the twist is initiated in both the torso and the pelvis in opposite directions simultaneously. At a certain point the spinal twist will reach its apex and the reverse twist down into the seat will balance the twist in the other direction with the asana held in static balance while energy moves up from the seat, through the core of the body, and through the top of the head. If the spiral in the torso continues past the point of equilibrium, the seat becomes unstable. The student may feel that they have twisted further, when actually they have lost the isometric half of the benefit of the asana by moving past the stasis point and creating an imbalance. This principle applies to all parts of the body—the spine, the arms, legs, hands, feet, fingers and toes. In each case you must recognize energetic flows and provide balance through your assist.
Excerpted from Yoga Assists by Sharon Gannon, David Life. Copyright © 2013 Sharon Gannon and David Life. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.