Friday, July 8, 2011

Hip Opening, Part II: Seated Postures

1.2 Seated Postures

This post continues my previous post on hip opening. It's been a bit difficult getting myself to buckle down to write this post. First, my July 4th weekend travels threw my blogging rhythm off a little. On top of that, the ever-illustrious Kino MacGregor has also recently started a Youtube channel with videos of how to get into various asanas, including Mari D. How can I, a semi-hermetic Chinese Ashtangi living and practicing alone here in the upper Midwest, possibly say anything useful on this topic after all she's done?:-)

But since I said I was going to write this post, it would be inappropriate for me not to do it. So here goes. As I mentioned earlier, in this series of posts on hip opening, I will be discussing three areas: (1) Specific postures within the practice, (2) Things you can do outside the practice, and (3) Things to be aware of while you are practicing. In the previous post, I covered part of (1), focusing on standing postures. In this post, I will conclude (1) by focusing on a few seated postures in the primary series, and discuss how they can help open the hips.

Before I start, I would like to make a few general points. First, it is admittedly a bit strange and unnatural to focus on a few postures in the primary series for their hip-opening properties, because in truth, all the postures in primary, if done properly and patiently in the prescribed order, will open the hips and hamstrings. But at the same time, I also notice that many people who are interested in starting an Ashtanga practice are hesitant to do so, because they see people doing postures in the so-called primary series (which doesn't look very primary to them at all), and they shake their heads and decide that their hips and hamstrings will never be open enough to do these postures ("Look, I can't even touch my toes standing up!"). So we have a chicken-and-egg quandary: People can't do these postures (or at least they think they can't) because their hips are not open enough, but because they don't try to do these postures, their hips don't open up. What to do? Well, this is where this post might be of some use. In my opinion, there are a few postures in the primary series which I believe are worth focusing on; in my opinion, these postures are a little more accessible, and offer the beginning Ashtangi great opportunities for really getting into the hips and opening them if she will give them a little more time and attention.

Which brings me to my next point. Although this is not traditional, I think that it might be a good idea to try staying in these postures for longer than five breaths: It has been my experience that if one stays in these postures for 8 breaths while maintaining the evenness of the breath and keeping the bandhas engaged, one can "cook" the relevant muscles longer, allowing them to warm and open up more. Actually, this applies to the standing postures as well: In particular, I recommend holding Utthita Parsvakonasana for 8 breaths instead of the traditional 5, to maximize the hip-opening effect. I understand that this is not a traditional way to practice, but I actually have been doing it in my daily practice (I just did it this morning), and it works for me. Moreover, whenever I practice at a shala, nobody has ever called me out for holding some postures longer than the traditional 5 breaths (or maybe they just assume that I have super-long breaths, but that's another story...). So it must be kosher (or whatever the Sanskrit term for "kosher" is :-)).

I would also like to say something about getting into half-lotus in the primary series postures. This is a topic that cannot be avoided, since so many primary series postures have some variation of half-lotus or other in them. I strongly advocate getting into half-lotus using what I call the Mari A entry: Suppose you are getting into half-lotus on the right side. Start by sliding your right foot along the mat until the right heel comes into contact with the bottom of the right thigh (just like you are getting into Mari A). Then, keeping the right heel in contact with the bottom of the right thigh, slowly move the right foot as far into the left hip crease as possible without pain. I highly recommend using this way of getting into half-lotus in all primary series postures. I know that this way of getting into half-lotus doesn't look fancy; if you look around a little the next time you are in a mysore class (don't look around too much though; otherwise you will become a serial drishti-violator, and nobody likes these individuals :-)), you will see all these advanced practitioners getting into padmasana and its variations in all kinds of fancy ways. Some of this fanciness is necessary: There are only so many ways you can get your feet into lotus when you are upside down, for example. But by and large, when you are seated, it is totally possible and desirable to get into padmasana using the Mari A entry, even if it makes you look less "advanced". There are a couple of advantages with the Mari A entry:

(1) If you are relatively new to Ashtanga, the slow deliberate entry into half-lotus that the Mari A entry involves allows you to closely monitor the various sensations that arise in your body as you enter the posture, so you can stop yourself and maybe exit the posture in time if something feels wrong, before any serious damage occurs (remember, we are dealing with your knee here).

(2) On a related note, the Mari A entry is also very useful for Ashtangis who are working with a knee injury. Very often, if you have a knee injury and you go to a chiropractor or some such health professional/body worker, he or she will probably tell you to totally refrain from attempting padmasana or any of its variations. Which is good advice: If you are unable to even turn your knee in a certain direction without great pain, it would be very harmful to try anything in that direction. But if you have recovered to the point where you can do, say, Janu Sirsasana A without pain, then the question arises: How can one open one's hips further without re-injuring the knee? This is where the Mari A entry comes in handy. The Mari A entry allows you to go into half-lotus as far as your knee allows without pain. The idea is that if you constantly bring yourself to the deepest version of half-lotus that you can manage without pain (even if your knee is very far away from the mat in this version), your hip will progressively open up, and your knee will also heal. The key here is honesty: You have to be honest enough with yourself to bring yourself to the point where your knee will allow you to go without pain, and not push any further (and possibly re-injure yourself).      

So, on to the postures:

1.2.1 Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana

[Image taken from here]

You can think of this pose as the seated version of Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana. This being the case, many of the directions that apply to Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana (including the Mari A entry) also apply to Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana. The nice thing about this posture is that, having done Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana, your hips are quite likely to be more open at this point in your practice than they were during the standing postures. Moreover, since you are now seated instead of standing, you have more "wriggle room" to kind of play around with the position of your shoulders relative to your hips to help you find the position which best enables you to get that bind. But be careful: There is also a temptation to try to yank your half-lotus foot to get it into position for the bind, which may lead to injury.

1.2.2 Triang Mukhaikapada Paschimottanasana

[Image taken from here]

In addition to lengthening the hamstrings, this posture also works those muscles in the front of the thighs which support the knee. In this way, it provides a valuable counter-pose to the many padmasana variations in the primary series. In many beginners, there is a tendency for the sit-bone of the bent leg to lift off the ground, and for the body to lean too far to the side of the extended leg. Be conscious of this, and try your best to shift your weight to the opposite side, and to keep both sit-bones grounded as much as possible.

1.2.3. Janu Sirsasana A

  Hmm... Who should I adjust next?
[Image taken from here]

This posture offers a good opportunity to open the hips without doing padmasana or any of its variations. In addition, it is also my opinion that if you place the thigh of the bent leg at a right angle (more or less) to the extended leg, you can create more space in the lower back and hips, so that the sacrum can float comfortably in the lower back. This prevents the sacrum from being compressed, and also creates the hip- and back-opening needed to do leg-behind-head postures (such as Supta Kurmasana) safely and effectively.

1.2.4 Marichyasana A
 [Image taken from here]

Being a deep forward bend, Mari A promotes hamstring flexibility. In addition, it also strengthens the lower back: As one cannot use the hands to bring oneself into the forward bend in this posture, the only way to get into the full expression of this posture is by employing hamstring openness and whatever strength one has in the lower back to shift the upper body over the lower body, and bring the chin as close to the knee of the extended leg as possible. In this way, the posture progressively strengthens the lower back.

The exit from Mari A also offers a unique opportunity to build up the strength and confidence needed to do a jump back, without actually doing a jump back. This especially applies to you if you are able to bind in this posture. Here's how: Suppose you are exiting the posture on the first side. As you are exiting the posture, release your hands from the bind, but keep your right arm wrapped around the right shin. Bend your left leg. At the same time, lean your upper body forward more, so that most of your body weight is now leaning into the right arm, which is still wrapped around the right shin. If you lean forward far enough, your entire upper body will actually come off the ground momentarily! (Pretty cool, eh?) As soon as this happens, immediately extend both your legs and shoot them backwards... and voila! Before you can even say "Mari A!", you are in chaturanga! (How did this happen?) You really should give this a try, if you haven't already done so; this is a really cool way to acquire the strength and confidence to eventually do a full jump-back.

1.2.5 Marichyasana B
   [Image taken from here]

There are two main components of this posture: 

(i) The half-lotus: As with all the other postures in primary, I highly recommend using the Mari A entry into this posture.

(ii) The bent leg: Keeping the other leg in half-lotus, bend the leg that is not in half-lotus, bringing the heel into contact with the bottom of the thigh of the same leg. 

Now observe: Is the leg that is in half-lotus close to or touching the mat? If it is, you can then try to bind the hands behind the back. If it isn't, I suggest that you can just try wrapping one arm around the bent leg as far as possible, and keep the other hand on the mat by the side of the half-lotus leg as you bend forward to the best of your ability and hold the posture for five breaths.
1.2.5. Marichyasana D

Right now, I can't even think about Marichyasana D without thinking about Kino's video, which pretty much says more than anything I can possibly say. So I'm basically going to cop out here, and just get you to watch her video :-) There is one important point which she brings up in her video, which I'll emphasize here as well. Getting the half-lotus to the mat (or at least very close to the mat) is a basic building block of the pose; if you are as yet unable to accomplish this, it might be a good idea to just work on deepening the half-lotus for the time being (Kino says this at around 0:41-0:44), and leave the rest of the posture for the future.
You will also notice that the model in the video does not do the Mari A entry into the posture. Since she is a model in Kino's video, and also seems to have very open hips, I shall not say anything here :-) But for the purpose of your own practice, you might want to think about sticking to the Mari A entry anyway. I have actually tried doing the Mari A entry into Mari D while practicing to Sharath's led primary count (which, for those of you who aren't aware, is high-speed-rail-train fast ;-)). And even with Sharath's super-fast count, I only missed by one count (which meant that when I got into the posture, he had already counted "1"). So you should be able to meet anybody else's count using the Mari A entry. 

1.2.6 Baddha Konasana 
[Image taken from here]

This is a very useful posture for opening the external hip rotators, which play a very central role in getting one into padmasana and all its variations safely. Work progressively on getting the knees flat on the ground (do not use the elbows to push the knees down; use the internally-generated external rotation of the hip muscles to accomplish this). 

Alright, I'm kind of blogged out right now. So I'm going to call this a day. Parts (2) and (3) will be covered in a future post. I hope all this is helpful to you in some way. I have not said anything about some of the more notorious postures in Primary (Kurmasana, Supta Kurmasana, Garbha Pindasana). For one, I don't have any tricks for getting into these postures (I'm generally not a "tricks" person :-)). But I really believe that patient and consistent work on the postures above will open one's body to the point where doing the more difficult postures will become like a "walk in the park." :-) So, not to worry. All is well. How can it not be? 


  1. Nobel, I must disagree with your statement that "staying in these postures for longer than five breaths" [is not traditional]. I would say that 5 breaths is "standard"--though a while back, 8 breaths was the standard. However, I wouldn't say that it's "not traditional". Sharath is apparently telling people (according to a some blog I read about a conference this past winter...) up to 8 breaths in a posture if you have trouble with it, though not too much or you'll be in the shala all day (he's definitely into crowd control, as we know with some of the more stringent rules he's put in place with regards to moving past particular asanas). Yoga Mala said up to 25 breaths. So, while you might not be able to stay longer in a led class, that doesn't mean it's not traditional. Perhaps this could be a good question for Kino?

  2. Interesting Frank. Yes, come to think of it, I do remember now reading somewhere that 8 breaths was standard at some point in the past. Yes, this might be a good question to ask Kino, and see what she has to say :-)

  3. thanks Nobel so much - that is a very well written post and it helps me to break the pose down and to try slowly in conquering that lotus. i shall certainly print it out to have it next to my mat ;-) thanks again. ivana

  4. Hello Ivana, I am very humbled and honored that you think so highly of my work. Try not to get too distracted by the print-out, if you do decide to print it out :-)