virasana: the unsensational hero

a dharma talk by Braeden Lentz

Our focus for the month of February at The Shala is Virasana. The two Sanskrit components are “vira,” often translated as hero, and “asana,” which yogis know well to mean seat, shape, pose, or the way we arrange our body building up from the ground. The names of poses evoke imagery to consider as we make our shape.

The first things that come to mind when I consider the term “hero” are superhuman qualities. I think of someone who engages in unusually daring but necessary actions. A hero might be a charismatic, especially self sacrificing, or visionary person. There might only be a few in my lifetime.

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New Basics Class in Fort Greene with Deidra Demens. Saturdays 3:15 to 4:15. Starting March 9th. Also check out fresh wisdom: an interview with deidra.

How would you describe Iyengar Yoga?

When I started the Iyengar teacher training, I felt like I needed a foundation as a teacher. I had that as a student, because that’s what I was practicing. So many schools of yoga say different things about the different poses. I expected to go into the Iyengar teacher training and they would tell me, this is how you do it. We asked them, In Urdhva Hastasana, should the fingers be spread wide or should they be together? They said, Both. There are times when you spread the fingers wide, there are times when you bring them together. They told us that you are going to have to do both again and again and again and again until you understand what’s happening when you do it this way versus when you do it that way. When you teach class, you’re going to know when to tell the students to spread the fingers wide and when to tell them to bring them together.

What I learned in the teacher training is that it was all about experience. That’s where the props come in. That’s where the different ways to do the poses come in. There’s no one way. When you practice asana, you’re finding yourself. You’re finding yourself in the classic shape, and then you change that up a little bit. It’s finding yourself in this pose but then there’s kind of looking back to, what does that tell you about who you are as a person, or where you are right now in your life, or where you want to be, what this whole thing is to you?

It is structured. It can be strict. I can see how Iyengar Yoga is whole. I don’t know enough about other styles of yoga to see how their method is working to help people that are brand new or open-level or experienced practitioners or teachers or recovering from injury or pregnancy. I really appreciate how Iyengar Yoga strives to make yoga available to everyone.

It’s so interesting how because of the structure, you can find yourself. I am interested in seeing people and finding how yoga can help them wherever they are. In Iyengar yoga, you are taught to see people.

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Going Yinward

by Alana Kessler

 

It was 2010. I was in Nicaragua with my friend, Janine, celebrating my 30th birthday. Being a yoga practitioner for over a decade, and relatively new Ashtangi of a little over a year, I was diligent about my early morning practice. The routine was this: We would get coffee delivered to the door, drink it leisurely on the balcony, watch the waves, and then practice.

I remember breaking my drishti and watching Janine with curiosity. While I was jumping back and jumping through, she was holding postures for minutes at a time in what appeared to be mini-naps. I judged it. It was a challenge to wrap my mind around this being a practice that supports the seriousness and attention that I identified my practice with.

Cut to five years later: I found myself in San Francisco eyeball deep in a 10-day Yin Yoga Intensive and Buddhist psychology training with Sarah Powers, and loving every second of it.  How did I end up here, you ask? You see, somewhere along the way the yang element of Ashtanga Yoga opened me up to a deeper layer of interest. I began to listen to meditation teachers’ talks while doing my Mysore practice at home. I got quieter. I took notice of when I was pushing too hard. I asked myself if my motivations and actions were aligned with my higher intention. Did I even know what that was?

What happened was magical. I refined my attention to attune to deep physical and emotional injuries and unmet needs that were asking for some tenderness. I knew I needed something complementary to my current practice. Something slower, a practice where I could explore, engage, and enliven both the nature of my physical body but also my heart.  

Years of “doing” had left me somewhat spiritually and physically exhausted, and Yin Yoga was the perfect medicine to restore and renew my resources. The long-held postures allowed a certain freedom to ask questions and wait for answers. They provided a composition through which I applied my breath and awareness in a new way and experienced the unfolding and uncovering of deeply held injuries of the body and the spirit. I began to heal them. I found a new world within the stillness that was so energizing it propelled me into new levels of creativity, courage, and compassion. My Ashtanga practice got stronger and softer at the same time, as did my approach to life in general.

So here I am now, eight years later, and I am so grateful for the circumstances that illuminated my path towards this practice. To share it with this community is a privilege, and I am honored by the opportunity.  

With love,

Alana

Padmasana

Padmasana. The word itself is beautiful, especially when you pronounce it as they do in India: with a softness around the ‘d’ so that it sounds like ‘padth’ rather than ‘pad’. Padma is the Sanskrit word for lotus, a flower that grows in the marshes and swamps of India. The Buddha spoke of the lotus as an allegory for enlightenment: “As a lotus flower is born in water, grows in water and rises out of water to stand above it unsoiled, so I, born in the world, raised in the world having overcome the world, live unsoiled by the world.”

The Buddha’s words are poignant not only because of the beauty of the flower itself, but also in the waters from which it rises. The lotus grows out of mud, marsh, and swamp, yet blooms in pristinely creamy pinks and whites. This natural miracle gives rise to teachings such as “no mud, no lotus,” carrying the wisdom that each of us may rise out of adversity with grace, purity, and resiliency. 

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The lotus is also a sacred symbol for the divine. The Indian god Vishnu was born out of a lotus. The Indian goddess Lakshmi is often shown standing on a lotus, holding a lotus. Padma is another name for the goddess. 

These layers of symbolism already existed when the yogis of ancient India were creating, naming, and sitting in padmasana. The Sanskrit word translates literally to lotus pose (Padma= lotus; asana= posture).

Asana, the postures of yoga, form the third limb of Patanjali’s eightfold path (Ashtanga yoga). Very few asana are described in the oldest texts of India, and you will see them carved into temples as the postures taken by the gods and dancers of ancient India. Padmasana is the classical posture, always conveying seated serenity.

The posture, Padmasana, though reminds me not of goddesses or even meditation, but of my father. Named for the Buddha, who is so often portrayed as sitting in lotus pose, my father had learned padmasana when he was young and living in India, and in turn taught me the posture when I was young and living in LA.

By young, I mean I was just learning to walk. I never really crawled as a child, just scampered around in Downward facing dog, not wanting to dirty my knees. I remember clearly the way my father took lotus pose, seated on the living room floor, calling my attention: Megna, can you do this? And it looked so simple, that I was truly surprised that I could not easily pull my ankles up onto the creases of my hips. 

Today, padmasana is a very comfortable way for me to sit. It is the classical posture for meditation, and comes up in various forms throughout the Ashtanga vinyasa sequences. Early on in the primary series, Ardhapadmasana (half-lotus pose) is introduced as a standing balance. Working through the seated postures, the yogi learns many ways to sit and fold and twist with the legs in ardhapadmasana (ardha= half). In Second Series Ashtanga, the yogi is asked to balance, inverted, on the forearms and take lotus while upside down.

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Padmasana is central to the closing sequences of Ashtanga vinyasa yoga, which are the poses with which every Ashtangi finishes her practice. In salamba sarvangasana (shoulder stand), the yogi takes lotus while looking up at the legs. This posture becomes a bit of a backbend right afterwards, as the yogi holds her toes and arches the spine back, all while in padmasana. And the final three postures of the Ashtanga yoga practice are all variations of padmasana: folding forward, then seated upright for meditation, then lifting upwards in a final position of strength and levity before laying down to rest.

Each and every time we come into padmasana, lotus pose, we channel not only the purity and serenity of the flower rising pristinely above the mud, but also the generations of yogis who sat in this posture to practice peace and meditation.

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Megna Paula teaches yoga at the Shala on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. Come for a class! And find her on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/megnapaula/) for more insight into the postures and teachings of yoga.